Tag Archives: organising

Israel Zangwill’s Big Bow Street Mystery

big_bow_mysteryMrs. Drabdump, of 11 Glover Street, Bow, was one of the few persons in London whom fog did not depress. She went about her work quite as cheerlessly as usual.

She is quite a brilliant, gloomy character of a landlady, and the whole of this novel was immensely enjoyable. The actual locked-room mystery was perhaps a little heavy handed, but for a serial written in four weeks — that had the felicity of responding to some of its reader’s guesses within its pages — it is quite awesome. I loved the nod to Dickens in the names and the form of it, but it is far funnier and stripped of most of the Dickensian sentimentality.

There are a number of funny digs at hack writing in here, in the introduction as well as the story.

So much written about the East End was written to to uncover and to educate on poverty and working class misery on the one hand, or to titillate with crime and tales of the underworld. It occurred to me halfway through this how wonderful it was to read something without any of those aims. To read something set in the East End because the East End is what the author knew, to involve the whole panoply of East End characters, from landladies to Oxford and Toynbee House gentlemen to labour organisers with political pretensions to hack journalists scrounging their way and their ongoing debates with their friends the cobblers and the ex-detectives. Some theosophy thrown in along with the socialism. It is therefore mocking and irreverent, but compassionate too. Written from the inside as one of this great diverse throng, too often reduced to caricature.

That said, there is no doubt where his sympathies lie, which of course I also loved. This is a time of organising to change the world. Near the end he allows himself an aside:

A sudden consciousness of the futility of his existence pierced the little cobbler like an icy wind. He saw his own life, and a hundred million lives like his, swelling and breaking like bubbles on a dark ocean, unheeded, uncared for.

“The Cause of the People,” he murmured, brokenly, “I believe in the Cause of the People. There is nothing else.”

Israel_ZangwillIsrael Zangwill (1864-1926) born in London to immigrant parents, was long a champion of the oppressed. In reading about the suffragettes and East End struggles, his name appears time and time again. He had a complicated relationship to Zionism, wrote numerous books and plays, including a play about America as the ‘melting pot’ which earned him a letter from Roosevelt. Reading this, I thought to myself he is someone I would have really loved to know, so I shall investigate further at some point — or read more of his fiction.

 

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Re:Imagining Change – storytelling & movement building

Re:Imagining ChangeRe:Imagining Change is a very useful little book — both for activists looking to reframe the issues they are fighting and energize people around their cause, but also I think for critical theorists thinking about praxis. Authors Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning write:

Re:Imagining Change is an introduction to the ideas and methods of the smartMeme Strategy and Training Project. We founded smartMeme to innovate social change strategies in response to the movement-building and messaging demands of the globalized information age. We are motivated by the social and ecological crises facing our planet and by a belief that fundamental change is not only possibly, but necessary. (11)

On the one hand it is written simply and is full of charts and questions to really help people on the ground work to create and tell a powerful story about their struggle (and I like that for the authors this is clearly just one component of movement building, and they ask that a politics and ethics of justice and accountability  be intrinsic to this approach). They write ‘smartMeme uses storytelling to integrate traditional organizing methods with messaging, framing, and cultural interventions’. (12)

On the other, it is also contains some big thinking about discourse, narrative and hegemony. Thinking and theory that has been boiled down into the bare essentials through multiple workshops with a range of organisations around a range of issues. This is what activists working on the ground have found most useful in this theory — a good way to direct theoretical forces but also ask some questions about where those in practice may be missing something important.

It is in five sections:

Section I – overview of story-based strategy campaign model

Section II – theoretical framework of narrative power analysis

Section III – battle of the story method

Section IV – points of intervention

Section V – case studies

For me, and probably this is because of all I have been grappling with and my fascination with Gramsci, there was a long section that I found summarised much of what I have been thinking in a rather satisfying way (and while I have read a lot of Gramsci, I have not read much at all about narrative power analyses or story based strategies, though I have sat through a few press and spin trainings):

Many of our current social and ecological problems have their roots in the silent consensus of assumptions that shape the dominant culture…

To make real and lasting change…these stories must change.

A narrative power analysis recognizes that humans understand the world and our role in it through stories, and thus all power relations have a narrative dimension. Likewise, many stories are imbued with power. This could be the power to explain and justify the status quo or the power to make change imaginable and urgent.

A narrative analysis of power encourages us to ask: which stories define cultural norms? Where did these stories come from? Whose stories were ignored or erased to create these norms? What new stories can we tell to more accurately describe the world we see? And, perhaps more urgently, what are the stories that can help create the world we desire?

Narrative power analysis starts with the recognition that the currency of story is not necessarily truth, but rather meaning. In other words, we often believe in a story not necessarily because it is factually true; we accept a story as true because it connects with our values, or is relevant to our experiences in a way that is compelling.

The role of narrative in rendering meaning in our minds is what makes story a powerful force. These power dynamics operate both in terms of our individual identities — whether or not you get to determine your own story — and on the larger cultural level: Which stories are used to make meaning and shape our world? (20-21)

Who is heroic? Who is the villain? The answers show ‘the narrative dimensions of the physical relationships of power and privilege…’  (21)

A nice, simple view of Gramsci:

Hegemony operate in cultural stories that over time gain widespread acceptances and reinforce a dominant perspective or worldview. These webs of narratives are control mythologies, which shape a shared sense of political reality, normalize the status quo, and obscure alternative options or visions (22-24)

Referring to these stories as “mythologies” is not about whether they are true or false — again, it is about how much meaning they carry in the culture. (24)

And what this book is all about — changing people’s minds

A narrative power analysis suggests that the problem is not necessarily what people don’t know (the facts). Rather, the problem may be what they did know (underlying assumptions).

In other words, people have existing stories about their world that may act as narrative filters to prevent them from hearing social change messages. (28)

I think this is very true, and I also think it shows one potential limitation of this approach — it is in many ways about asking important questions while crafting stories, but those stories are still mostly for consumption. And I worry that there is not enough on how we know we are overcoming our own filters and our own stories.

Growing up poor, working alongside communities of colour and communities who don’t speak English, I have encountered (and continue to encounter) a large number of well-meaning individuals somehow unable to see any member of these groups as equal to them in experience or intelligence, who have believed they had all the answers if only people would listen. They liked to tell stories, to try and educate, to try and convince us that our narrative filters were wrong — when actually there was nothing wrong with our narrative filters. They just didn’t understand our realities.

This kind of approach used without a very deep integrity and commitment to critical dialogue and self-reflection could potentially lend itself to the same patronising mythmaking it is trying to fight. It needs to use both the process of creating stories, and the stories we create, to challenge and educate people to interrogate all such myths and memes for themselves and in themselves. So for example, when they write:

Audiences naturally look for characters we can identify with. Which characters do we sympathize with or relate to? (53)

They don’t interrogate the reality that in the US it is fairly well-known that many white people only relate to white people — and of their (self-identified) class or above. Hollywood holds this as axiomatic, immigrants know it, poor people know it, and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and the ongoing violence with impunity against Black bodies has shown again and again how true it is — how then do you frame your stories? How do you choose your audiences? How do you ensure sympathy? Who do they mean when they say ‘we’?

This small sentence alone raises immense issues and complexities in an American context, because the character that may evoke the most sympathy from the broadest swathe of American society — and that’s a group needing some targeting — may not at all be the character that should be used, and may in fact prop up the oppressive and all-pervasive racism that exists even though it might be trying to do the opposite in some well-meaning way.

Of course, this analysis would have made this a much longer book.

I think ultimately the point has to be to enable people to resist and deconstruct the power of myths and memes, and to collectively and as broadly as possible build up new and empowering stories. I think this book starts asking many of the right questions, starts thinking about some of the tools to do this. I also think these narrative tools are tools that can be used to move our causes forward and to build movement, and we ignore them at our peril. But I worry about using them too easily.

I kind of like this definition for example:

At smartMeme we think of a meme as a capsule for a story to spread. (34)

I like how they outline the craft of telling stories, and their elements: Conflict; Characters; Imagery (Show Don’t Tell); Foreshadowing; Assumptions.

This helps think about how to shift the frame, how we start to have the conversations we need to be having about issues of environmental collapse, and social and racial justice. I think perhaps I just wanted a little stronger dose of caution, of Paolo Freire and some of the brilliant work coming out around race and class, of critique and questioning incorporated into story telling and the complexities of that in the world we face today.

Full Society, Healthy Lives: Thoughts on the Marmot Review

fair-society-healthy-lives-full-report-1In my mind there are two quotes that really encapsulate what the Marmot Review is. The first is the epigraph, and for me it was breathtaking to find it here:

Rise up with me against the organisation of misery.
–Pablo Neruda

The second? A clear outline of where exactly the researchers began:

The starting point for this Review is that health inequalities that are preventable by reasonable means are unfair. Putting them right is a matter of social justice. A debate about how to close the health gap has to be a debate about what sort of society people want.

Surely it is time we started there and moved forward. It does note (and I chuckled at this, I’m not sure why):

It is sometimes difficult for many people to accept that serious and persistent health inequalities exist in England.

By ‘many people’ I assume they mean the happy middle and upper classes with reasonable health. But on the other side of the class (and race and nationality and gender and sexuality) lines, it is no real surprise that the WHO (World Health Organisation) Commission on Social Determinants of Health should have ‘surveyed the world scene and concluded that “social injustice is killing on a grand scale.”‘ Is that the kind of world we support?

Most would answer no. I also think most would agree with this:

Economic growth is not the most important measure of our country’s success. The fair distribution of health, well-being and
sustainability are important social goals. Tackling social inequalities in health and tackling climate change must go together.

I like too this call to the health profession to begin to engage with the fact that our socioeceonomic position is more determinative of our health than any prescription or therapy that they can give  — as well as to policymakers and politicians to lower our NHS bills by increasing equality and opportunity in our society:

People with higher socioeconomic position in society have a greater array of life chances and more opportunities to lead a flourishing life. They also have better health. The two are linked: the more favoured people are, socially and economically, the better their health. This link between social conditions and health is not a footnote to the ‘real’ concerns with health – health care and unhealthy behaviours – it should become the main focus.

The two main policy goals they propose are these:

  • To create an enabling society that maximises individual and community potential

  • To ensure social justice, health and sustainability are at the heart of all policies.

Wouldn’t that be great? These break down into 6 more concrete policy suggestions (and these are made more and more concrete for implementation at the end of the report):

  • Give every child the best start in life

  • Enable all children young people and adults to maximise their capabilities and have control over their lives

  • Create fair employment and good work for all

  • Ensure healthy standard of living for all

  • Create and develop healthy and sustainable places and communities

  • Strengthen the role and impact of ill health prevention

The evidence they marshal in support of these positions is so impressive, beginning with the weight of these first two graphs as shown below. The first represents over ten years difference between the wealthiest and the poorest in how long they may statistically expect to live. Over ten years. More sobering, perhaps, is the number of years available to us to live  in fullness of life and health, without disability. For the very poorest, they can expect age and ill-health related disabilities in their early fifties — it breaks my heart.

For the heartless, imagine the fucking economic cost of that.

Direct NHS healthcare costs in England associated with treating the consequences of inequality amount to £5.5 billion per year for treating acute illness and mental illness and prescriptions.228 These activities represent approximately one third of the NHS budget. In consequence, it is likely that the full impact of health inequalities on direct healthcare costs is considerably greater than this.

The review also notes:

As further illustration, we have drawn on Figure1 a line at 68 years – the pensionable age to which England is moving. With the levels of disability shown, more than three-quarters of the population do not have disability-free life expectancy as far as the age of 68. If society wishes to have a healthy population, working until 68 years, it is essential to take action to both raise the general level of health and flatten the social gradient.

Ah, to be 68 and working for the bosses while disabled, I can’t wait.

fair-society-healthy-lives-full-report-18

The power of the second graph is the difference in mortality between regions. This also breaks my heart. Surely the point of a nation and a national government is to aim for some level of parity in opportunity and life.

The graphic below is  crazy too, it shows the effect of wealth and environment on intelligence (or at least, the ability to show intelligence through testing). This is about class and education, which of course intersects with health but also with our ability to become the person we want to be, live the lives we are capable of living. The review explains:

As Figure 6 shows, children who have low cognitive scores at 22 months of age but who grow up in families of high socioeconomic position improve their relative scores as they approach the age of 10. The relative position of children with high scores at 22 months, but who grow up in families of low socioeconomic position, worsens as they approach age 10.

fair-society-healthy-lives-full-report-24Are you ready to change the world yet?

From education you move into work — and poor people’s work is killing them. Worse, though, is that the lack of work is also killing them.

Getting people into work is therefore of critical importance for reducing health inequalities. However, jobs need to be sustainable and offer a minimum level of quality, to include not only a decent living wage, but also opportunities for in-work development, the flexibility to enable people to balance work and family life, and protection from adverse working conditions that can damage health.

Another graphic to blow your mind — the direct link between employment and mortality:

The dramatic increase in unemployment in the United Kingdom during the early 1980s stimulated research on the link between unemployment and health. Figure 8 shows the social gradient in the subsequent mortality of those that experienced unemployment in the early 1980s. For each occupational class, the unemployed have higher mortality than the employed.

fair-society-healthy-lives-full-report-28

It’s community that I’m most interested in, perhaps because I think it is a way to mitigate all of these things while we fight to make the world more fair, and because everything goes to show that the closer and more supportive a community is, the healthier its members are. Building that kind of community where I live and work feels like something I can actually do to make a difference (that and join a union). But thinking geographically, the physical neighbourhood we live in also has a huge impact on our lives, both in terms of quality and length:

In the poorest neighbourhoods of England, life expectancy is 67, similar to the national average in Egypt or Thailand, and lower than the average in Ecuador, China and Belize, all countries that have a lower Gross Domestic Product and do not have a national health service.

Now ain’t that something? Here’s another set of bullet points on environment and health:

  • The conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, and age are responsible for health inequalities.

  • Early childhood, in particular, impacts on health and disadvantage throughout life.

  • The cumulative effects of hazards and disadvantage through life produce a finely graded social patterning of disease and ill health.

  • Negative health outcomes are linked to the stress people experience and the levels of control people have over their lives and this stress and control is socially graded.

  • Mental well-being has a profound role in shaping physical health and contributing to life chances, as well as being important to individuals and as a societal measure.

This evokes the complexities shaping these things a little better:

the distribution of health and well-being needs to be understood in relation to a range of factors that interact in complex ways. These factors include: material circumstances, for example whether you live in a decent house with enough money to live healthily; social cohesion, for example whether you live in a safe neighbourhood without fear of crime; psychosocial factors, for example whether you have good support from family and friends; behaviours, for example whether you smoke, eat healthily or take exercise; and biological factors, for example whether you have a history of particular illnesses in your family. In turn, these factors are influenced by social position, itself shaped by education, occupation, income, gender, ethnicity and race. All these influences are affected by the socio-political and cultural and social context in which they sit.

These are many of the things that determine where we live, and the kinds of support we can expect. Once our place of residence is decided, the other health issues kick in. So much of this is really about the physical hazards that exist in poorer neighbourhoods (and there is more work on this than is shown here), but also the mental hazards of poverty, and the lack of power and control that comes with it. The lack therefore, of even the possibility of true wellness.

There is substantial evidence of a social gradient in the quality of neighbourhoods. Poorer people are more likely to live in more deprived neighbourhoods. The more deprived the neighbourhood, the more likely it is to have social and environmental characteristics presenting risks to health. These include poor housing, higher rates of crime, poorer air quality, a lack of green spaces and places for children to play and more risks to safety from traffic. In the 30 years between 1970 and 2000 Britain saw a substantial increase in the geographical concentration and segregation of poverty and wealth. Since 2000 there seems to have been little progress in reducing this. Urban clustering of poverty has increased…wealthy households have become concentrated on the outskirts and areas surrounding major cities. During the same period, major restructuring of the British economy has led to the loss of manufacturing and traditional industries, with high levels of economic inactivity becoming concentrated in particular localities and neighbourhoods.

It is this segregation of poverty and wealth that is also the problem, a writing off of estate and neighbourhoods and what looks like the whole Northeast of the country.

Since reading Appleyard’s Liveable Streets, I’ve also been thinking a lot about how community is destroyed by streets and cars and traffic, and it is the poorest that suffer most — this graph really brings it home:

fair-society-healthy-lives-full-report-82

I do like the fact that they point out that these are not just issues for the poor, however, although they clearly suffer most and resources should be targeted accordingly. They write

…everyone beneath the very best-off experiences some effect of
health inequalities. If the focus were only on those most in need and social action were successful in improving their plight, what about those just above the bottom or at the median, who have worse health than those above them? All must be included in actions to create a fairer society.

This also means health providers and community workers actually working together closely in taking on some of these problems.

Community engagement on a systematic basis is an essential element in partnership working for addressing health inequalities. Without this, reducing health inequalities will not be possible.

This approach requires mapping community assets, identifying barriers to participation and influencing and building community capacity through systematic and sustained community development.

They look at different ways this could happen. One is through focusing on building stronger social support networks to fight the high levels of stress, isolation and depression found in communities facing high level of deprivation, which can lead to ‘increased risk of premature death’. They note the effectiveness both of social networks and participation in improving mental health generally, but also the importance of including communities and individuals in the design of interventions.

They give some recommendations on how to go about things, which in the end lead to local individuals and communities being able to have power over their health, their lives, and the neighbourhoods they live in.

    1. First, identifying population needs better quality information from communities. In theory this can lead to health improvements and reduced health inequalities through an increased uptake of more effective services, particularly preventative services, and/or more effective interventions.

    2. Second, improving governance and guardianship and promoting and supporting communities to participate in directing and controlling local services and/or interventions. This will help to improve the appropriateness and accessibility of services and interventions, increase uptake and effectiveness and influence health outcomes.

    3. A third way to reduce social isolation is to develop social capital by enhancing community empowerment. This helps to develop relationships of trust, reciprocity and exchange within communities, strengthening social capital.

    4. Lastly, increasing control and community empowerment may result in communities acting to change their social, material and political environments.

       

Somethings about what not to do (but what gets done all the damn time), because the point is empowering people which in itself creates better health:

To achieve this goal community engagement practices need to move beyond what are often routine, brief consultations, to involving individuals in partnerships to define problems and develop local solutions to address those problems.

Which involves

Building active and sustainable communities based on principles of social justice. This is about changing power structures to remove barriers that prevent people from participating in the issues that affect their lives.

Promoting this approach sets a new task for political, civic and public service leadership in creating the conditions which enable individuals and communities to take control of their own lives, and in developing and sustaining a wider range of capabilities across the life course.

I like this idea of the life course, it is not one of the ways in which community organisers or planners tend to think, but makes perfect sense when looking at how negative impacts — in health and everything else — accumulate over our lifetimes and those of our children. I’ve also run into a few people, women for the most part, really trying to think about this in architecture and planning, how people age through housing and community, how their needs and desires change.

I also like how this review ties health in to climate change. They never say out right that all of this is academic in the face of massive environmental catastrophe, but it was in my mind at least. They do relate community and social health to increased green spaces, more walking, healthier work, more use of public transport  and etc which all contribute to making everything more sustainable.

I had a few quibbles of course. Any review of this kind, looking at the big picture, will have the problem I think of speaking in big categories, lumping categories of people in together as though they are all one thing. Sometimes I was a bit troubled as it threw around generalisations — such as the study of kids receiving free meals at schools and how terrible their outcomes were by whether they were irish, black, gypsy/ traveller/ roma children. That shit bothers me. I was one of those kids. Every now and then the language starts to shut our potential off, to overcome, to think bigger, to improve our lives and others like us. To set poor kids apart as if they can’t have a hand in changing this.

That might just be me on my high horse, some of this came a little close to home. It’s always a fine balance though, between recognising the power of structural injustices and constraints, and respecting the abilities of those who most suffer under them.

Even as it did make some of the distinctions above, and never forgot to mention the complexities of race and class in this picture, it also failed to look at them in any real way. Gender too is absent. It does, however, provide a good foundation for exploring these equity and justice issues further.

There’s also some technical language that highlights the bureaucratisation of the field. I quote you as an example ‘middle-level Super Output Areas (MSOAs)’ which I suppose are required for policy discussions to change public health practices as they are existing realities, yet they make you want to hit the person who coined them.

And for those in the non-profit world (and increasingly other areas) always in search of how to stay funded, there are a couple of nice passages on some things I wish all funders and policy makers could understand. Principally that things take time, projects need to grow organically and be tailored to different people and institutions in different areas, relationships and trust only come after years, not days or weeks.

Reviews often look for new interventions, particular policies that may help turn the corner or make significant impact in improving service quality. However, a stream of new initiatives may not achieve as much as consistent and concerted action across a range of policy areas. A social determinants approach to health inequalities highlights how it is the intersection between different domains that is critical – health and work, health and housing and planning, health and early years education. Success is more likely to come from the cumulative impact from a range of complementary programmes than from any one individual programme and through more effective, coherent delivery systems and accountability mechanisms….. achieving reductions in health inequalities requires coherent, concerted, long-term, cross-cutting policies, backed by sufficient investment.

There are also some practical points on how funding is killing smaller organisations, despite the fact that they are highly committed, flexible and most integrated into the communities they serve, making them most likely to be the most effective.

There is increasing concern that the current commissioning environment disadvantages the third sector generally and may even threaten the survival of smaller voluntary organisations. The range of factors includes:

  • The inability of smaller organisations to marshal the resources, including the time, skills and knowledge, to effectively compete for tenders

  • Commissioning practices favouring larger organisations and the statutory sector, for example, clustering services to be put out to tender in a single contract can lead to smaller and niche providers being squeezed out

  • Short-term contracts with insufficient time for development and consequences for staff recruitment and retention

  • The growing requirement for contracts to be delivered on tighter funding, leaving little scope for developmental work and innovation.

Recipe for disaster really, and the unhelpful bureaucratization of exactly the kind of community work that bureaucratization strangles dead and can never on its own get right.

Anyway, this report is mostly wonderful. You can download it here.

Stone Butch Blues

139569Leslie Feinberg ([1993] 2003)

This was beautiful and brave and I so loved it. It wasn’t easy to read though, if only because we live in a society that reacts with horrifying fear and violence to difference — something that thankfully is changing, and all because of women like Leslie Feinberg. I moved this to the top of my to-read list after seeing the outpouring of love and grief after her recent death from among so many of my friends, and now I too can mourn her properly. I wish I had read it long ago.

It opened up a whole new world to me, one that must have taken such immense courage to share with strangers. I know it’s fiction, but it contains the same searing honesty that the best autobiography offers up. In that sense Feinberg embodies what I most value about writing, activism and intellectual thought and she writes it here, sharing what I too most love about writing:

I discovered Norton’s anthology of poetry in the patients’ library–it changed my life. I read the poems over and over again before I could grasp their meanings. It wasn’t just that the words were musical notes my eyes could sing. It was the discovery that women and men, long dead, had left me messages about their feelings, emotions I could compare to my own. I had finally found others who were as lonely and I was. In an odd way, that knowledge comforted me (22).

This is what is universal, what will touch all of us who have struggled with difference and exclusion and found comfort in the words of others fighting through this in our respective ways. But really it is in its courageous particularity that this book shines brightest. This set of experiences transformed my understanding of this struggle, even though I thought I had well-developed empathy and a fairly good grasp on such things. Instead this ripped my heart wide open in ways I was not expecting, especially as it had none of the cushioning layers of privilege that have always stood between me and other narratives of non-hetero experience. It’s all union all the way, but working-class Buffalo, damn. I hadn’t fully owned the fact that there were others with even more reason than myself to fear public toilets growing up, and for whom those spaces never ever became safe. For whom public spaces themselves were (are) never safe, and the cops always the greatest predators.

Stone Butch Blues lays out all the pain of difference, the limited places and communities of safety and the intensity of loneliness separating them in time and space. How so many others are forced for their physical and mental safety to navigate workplaces, cities, domestic spaces. How they have been forced always to fight, change, flee, or give up and die. There is none of the simple being in the world that I take too much for granted.

Above all it points to the broader social changes that Stonewall began to make possible, as well as a map of how social relationships and loving relationships could and should be. For all of its pain it has something of wish-fulfillment to it. But I appreciated that it never allowed itself to fall into despair and violent oblivion in spite of the fact that it keeps you always terrified — one wrong step, one unlucky chance could send Jess  to the abyss, taking you with her. It is written with purpose, its words of fire calling to a better way of being, of doing, of living. One that can only be created collectively. The last lines:

I heard the beating of wings nearby. I opened my eyes. A young man on a nearby rooftop released his pigeons, like dreams, into the dawn (301).

As a writer and activist, the afterword (written 10 years after) contained individual words to cherish,  just as I do the whole of the story and struggle of Jess’s life that the novel offers like a gift. I loved the following passages about the relationship between fiction and life, the relationship of the author to both:

Now, a decade later, I am surprised. Astonished to be reintroduced to characters I birthed, who like anyone’s grown children developed fictional lives of their own, independant from mine. I discover a journey not identical to my life’s path and yet blazed with the intimate familiarity of my own life experience. I locate theory–the way it is lived in motion and in interconnection. Not hard to understand; hard to live (303).

This is amazing:

“Is it fiction?” I am frequently asked. Is it true? Is it real? Oh, it’s real all right. So real it bleeds. And yet it is a remembrance: Never underestimate the power of fiction to tell the truth (304)

And this, rescuing authorship from the vaguely megalomanic ‘high art’ definitions so often pinned upon, and embraced by, writers:

But with this novel I planted a flag: Here I am–does anyone else want to discuss these important issues? I wrote it not as an expression of individual “high” art but as a working-class organizer mimeographs a leaflet–a call to action. When, at my first public bookstore reading, someone asked me to sign a copy of the book for a friend who was too shy to speak to a published author, it broke my heart. My life’s work is about elevating collective organizing, not elevating individuals (305-306)

And this about how words and struggle relate:

Recovering collective memory is itself an act of struggle. It allows the generational currents of the white-capped river of our movement to flow together–the awesome roar of our many waters. And the course of our movement is not fixed in its banks like the Hudson River–it is ours to determine. From Selma to Stonewall to Seattle, we who believe in freedom will not rest until every battle is won (307).

Like songs and marches and struggle in the face of overwhelming odds, this made me cry. It explored the intersections of our oppressions in ways so many fail to do, it worked to build a broader movement of all us to create a world we can live in. I am so glad I share the world and the struggle with such women:

I can say this with certainty: If your life is being ground up in economic machinery and the burden of oppression is heavy on your back, you hunger for liberation, and so do those around you. Look for our brightly colored banners coming up over the hill of the past and into your present. Listen for our voices–our protest chants drawing nearer. join us in the front ranks. We are marching toward liberation.

That’s what the characters in Stone Butch Blues fought for. The last chapter of this saga of struggle has not yet been written (308).

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Why We Can’t Wait — Martin Luther King

9831183Martin Luther King, Jr (1964) Signet

I can’t believe I hadn’t read this before, but how amazing to readjust what I think I know, my ideas of someone I think I know, writing in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, describing 1963 as the great year of revolution when:

The Negro also had to recognize that one hundred years after emancipation he lived on a lonely island of economic insecurity in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Negroes are still at the bottom of the economic ladder. They live within two concentric circles of segregation. One imprisons them on the bases of color, while the other confines them within a separate culture of poverty (23).

‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ remains so so powerful. What surprised me most–though it shouldn’t have, because what school will teach this about King?–is just how much time he spends not on white supremacy in its violent forms, but on white liberals and their hindrance of the cause. I feel in many ways this book was written for them, but it is much more scathing than I expected, and doesn’t fail to get to the meat of the matter. I have the impression of King as more conciliatory and more liberal at this point, but that isn’t what you take from the book.

There were two and one-half times as many jobless Negroes as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man. Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice, but tolerated or ignored economic injustice. But the Negro knows that these two evils have a malignant kinship (24).

There is also less on nonviolence than I expected, but it is good:

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and enobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both a practical and a moral answer to the Negro’s cry for justice, nonviolent direct action proved that it could win victories without losing wars, and so became the triumphant tactic of the Negro Revolution of 1963.

Yes he does call it a revolution. When he discusses violence as opposed to nonviolence, it is in such a way that you feel if he didn’t believe violence doomed to fail, he’d consider it much more carefully. He knows that struggle is itself a good in the face of so much oppression: ‘The Revolution of the Negro not only attacked the external cause of his misery, but revealed him to himself. He was somebody. He had a sense of somebodiness. He was impatient to be free’ (30). This was not an understanding that could be won through legal battles in the courts. Instead direct nonviolent action was more suited to the times and to what was possible (though carried out to supplement legal strategies, not to replace them). What I also loved is the insight that this transformation ‘had the marvelous effect of changing the face of the enemy. The enemy the Negro faced became not the individual who had oppressed him but the evil system which permitted that individual to do so’ (38). This is how people move and change and in doing so, change the world.

I loved the many details of the Birmingham campaign, I wish I had read this long ago. While recruiting people for trainings in tactics and nonviolence, Wyatt Walker was mapping out all of downtown Birmingham — each store and its eating facilities, its entrances and exits, number of tables and stools and chairs to determine the number of demonstrators per shop, primary and secondary targets so if one meeting place or route was blocked by the police they had a backup plan. That kind of planning, along with the long preparation of demonstrators to stay strong yet remain nonviolent in the face of violence through trainings and role-playing is what made these campaigns work. My admiration is immense, and it has grown for King who knew so well the nuts and bolts of the campaigns for which I have heard argued he was a figurehead. They started their campaign small–and late for reasons to do with the elections–and ramped it up with 65 nightly meetings. I have to write that again, 65 evening meetings. That’s a hell of a hard pace. Even when you do so much singing.

I also know the prominence of the church should not surprise me, but still, it did. All volunteers had to sign a Commitment Card as part of their training, and all respect to these precepts even as someone not entirely behind nonviolence:

I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF–MY PERSON AND BODY–TO THE NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING 10 COMMANDMENTS:
1. MEDITATE daily on the tecahings and life of Jesus
2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation–not victory,
3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

I love that King noted what a mistake it had been — and not entirely their fault given the circumstance — not to have brought on board the many different local organizations before they started, and his hard work to do so a little belatedly. King’s role as the principal fundraiser for the movement–always a huge concern in social justice worker–is also made clear. I am glad he chose prison over fundraising for bail money, glad that Harry Belafonte is so damn awesome. And glad that he saw that youth and the students were the key to victory.

I was a little confused at the care King takes to defend their actions in defying for the first time an injunction against protest–it would not occur to me to critique anyone for ignoring such a racist and unconstitutional order in Alabama, but clearly, there was much critique from white ‘allies’, prompting a public letter that King responded to in the extraordinary ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ included here. I imagine him sitting in prison finally allowing some of the rage to escape in his description of the suffering a father feels when his children come face to face with prejudice, his descriptions of the daily struggle must have brought the relgious figures censuring him to their knees. Other highlights:

I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth (79).

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light…but groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed (80).

We have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independance, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter (81).

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councils or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will (84-85)

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people (86).

Amazing. I was also not expecting–and loved–this:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society…. It was upon this massive base of racism that the prejudice toward the nonwhite was readily built, and found rapid growth. This long-standing racist ideology has corrupted and diminished our democratic ideals. It is this tangled web of prejudice from which many Americans now seek to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness….Our history teaches us that wielding the sword against racial superiority is not effective…On the other hand, history also tecahes that submission produces no acceptable result. Nonresistance merely reinforces the myth that one race is inherently inferior to another (120).

A final note, though there is so much more here. It’s almost a throw-away line, but King notes that the African-American movement has become strong enough that it can now have allies, it can make its own commitments that it can deliver and have equality in that it will still be powerful if its allies walk away. This is core to some of the later theorizing, by Stokely and Carmichael and Julius Lester for example, of how to built movement. I like that King said it too. For all their differences, they had so much more in common in terms of hope and vision and audacity than most of them have with leading figures in these sad days.

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