Tag Archives: women

Essential Writings from Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke…damn. This collection is so due to be updated (hold on a second, it has been! A new collection, The Winona LaDuke Chronicles, came out this year). Published in 2002 this reader already represents decades of struggle and wisdom, imagine what that must look like now? She is still fighting at Standing Rock, still going strong to defend lands and peoples, still writing and speaking. It is humbling to read these words.

From ‘Building with Reservations’, speaking to architects and educators she described this:

If I were to describe the architecture of my community, I would describe it both as an architecture of poverty and an architecture of what is sacred. … But there is this sorrow–I have to say sorrow–that exists when you are stripped of the cultural integrity of your house, of your architecture, and given something that does not resonate. Sure, it provides a shelter, but as you all know, a house is more than a shelter: it is a home, it is something that reflects you. So that is the architecture of poverty in my community.

And then you have the architecture that is sacred. Next to some of these houses, you’ll see a sweat lodge, or you’ll see a miichwaap, which is like a tepee, but it is used for smoking meat. The most beautiful thing to me is when I consider the fact that a lodge that is used for one of our ceremonies is based on the mirror of a star constellation; it reflects where the poles are located. That, in its essence, is sacred architecture. I think that that is the most beautiful thing in our community. (46-47)

I’m pretty obsessed with with ideas of home, of architecture, I love this redefinition of poverty in architecture which we are in fact seeing in gleaming steel and concrete across all of our cities in the form of luxury apartments built for the global market. So different than pieces of shit HUD homes on the reservation, I don’t mean to compare them in any other sense beyond their bankruptcy of creativity or human feeling.

She talks later on about the importance of culture, the way that in universities it is treated as anthropology and folklore rather than literature and something vibrant and lived. She writes

In my life and in the life of my family, many of us in our community find that those teachings are not about the process of going back, but that’s kind of the mythology that surrounds the view of native people… It’s not about that at all. It’s about recovering that which the Creator gave us as instructions, and then walking that path… (173)

It provides an alternative — not to be appropriated but to be learned from — of systems that value balance and ‘a good life’ over profit. Like this:

There should be beauty in “process,” whether it is harvesting with intelligence, whether it is the use of recycled materials, or whether it is observing energy efficiency. (53)

It is particularly explicit in the essay on ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Environmental Futures’, a term I know has been problematised, but which lays out a different basis and a better source of expertise for our thinking about how we relate to the world around us:

Traditional Ecological knowledge is the culturally and spiritually based way in which indigenous peoples relate to their ecosystems. This knowledge is founded on spiritual-cultural instructions from “time immemorial” and on generations of observation within an ecosystem of continuous residence. I believe that this knowledge also represents the clearest empirically based system for resource management and ecosystem protection in North America, and I will argue that native societies’ knowledge surpasses the scientific and social knowledge of the dominant society in its ability to provide information and a management style for environmental planning.  (78)

It is based around a very different idea of success, of life’s meaning.

“Minobimaatisiiwin,” or the “good life,” is the basic objective of the Anishinaabeg and Cree people who have historically, and to this day, occupied a great portion of the north-central region of the North American continent. An alternative interpretation of the word is “continuous rebirth.” This is how we traditionally understand the world and how indigenous societies have come to live within natural law. Two tenets are essential to this paradigm: cyclical thinking and reciprocal relations and responsibilities to the Earth and creation. Cyclical thinking, common to most indigenous or land-based cultures and value systems, is an understanding that the world (time, and all parts of the natural order-including the moon, the tides, women, lives, seasons, or age) flows in cycles. Within this understanding is a clear sense of birth and rebirth and a knowledge that what one does today will affect one in the future, on the return. A second concept, reciprocal relations, defines responsibilities and ways of relating between humans and the ecosystem. (79)

I don’t know how different, in fact, Minobimaatisiiwin actually is from what most people outside of these traditions would term a fulfilling life, but we have still bowed before money and power as measures of success and as enough justification for any number of terrible things. She describes a very different understanding of development, light years removed from that which now prevails but without question one way, perhaps the only way, to step back from the precipice of ecological disaster:

By its very nature, “development”–or, concomitantly, an “economic system” based on these ascribed Indigenous values-must be decentralized, self-reliant, and very closely based on the carrying capacity of that ecosystem. (80)

And this is, indeed, a very good question:

I believe there is a more substantial question meriting discussion: Can North American society craft the social fabric to secure a traditional management practice, based on consensual understanding and a collective process? (82)

I am taking these out of order here, thinking about how this all connects to our relationship to the earth, that perhaps many of our problems emerge because we have been so divorced from place:

Implicit in the concept of Minobimaatisiiwin is a continuous inhabitation of place, an intimate understanding of the relationship between humans and the ecosystem, and the need to maintain that balance. These values and basic tenets of culture made it possible for the Cree, Ojibway, and many other indigenous peoples to maintain economic, political, religious, and other institutions for generations in a manner that would today be characterized as sustainable.4 (80)

She returns later to this topic:

Native environmental groups have a commitment and tenacity that springs from place. “This is where my grandmother’s and children’s umbilical cords are buried … That is where the great giant lay down to sleep … That is the last place our people stopped in our migration here to this village.” Our relationships to land and water is continuously reaffirmed through prayer, deed, and our way of life. Our identity as human beings is founded on creation stories tying us to the earth, and to a way of being, minobimaatisiiwin, “the good life.” (57-58)

It is not just positionality and the structural oppression faced by indigenous communities, but this connection to place that drives experience, meaning and struggle.

All this to say that Native communities are not in a position to compromise, because who we are is our land, our trees, and our lakes. This is central to our local and collective work. (62)

There is a lot about land in here, and what has destroyed traditional connections to it:

The governance of this land by traditional ecological knowledge has been adversely affected by genocide, colonialism, and subsequent circumstances that need to be considered in the current dialogue on North American resource management, the role of the environmental movement, and indigenous peoples. (82)

She describes the two worldviews at play:

The conflict between two paradigms-industrial thinking and indigenous thinking-becomes central to the North American and, indeed to the worldwide, environmental and economic crisis. … For many indigenous peoples, the reality is as sociologist Ivan Illich has suggested: development practices are in fact a war on subsistence. (86-87)

Capitalism, industrialism…can the two be separated? But it is definitely a war and this seems to be exactly the idea that we might belong to the earth that is being decimated. The clearances and enclosures in Europe were to the same end.

Akiing is the word for land in our language, and in the indigenous concept of land ownership or the Anishinaabeg concept of land ownership, it is much more a concept that we belong to that land than the land belongs to us. … land tenure itself and concepts of land ownership are of course a concept of culture–they are a concept of your teachings, a construct of how you are raised and how you live in your community. (138)

Important to always remember that these things are not natural or self-evident but constructed. And the creation of the US is definitely one of predator…I am pondering how this might help us think about the political economy of land.

Indigenous people traditionally have been the people who have lived on the land, but the predator/prey relationship that exists between America and the land is one that has caused the constant erosion and taking of the indigenous land base in the Americas. And it has caused the constant erosion and the taking of other people’s land outside of that context as well. (143)

Again mobility, predation, frontiers, all those things that capital needs, as opposed to connection, balance, care…

One of the challenges that we have in America is that America is built on conquest, not on survival. It is a society, by and large, based on the concept that there is always a West, always a frontier. There will always be someplace to go. We don’t necessarily have to give thanks for where we are because we’re moving.

That is the challenge..This conceptual framework between one worldview and another worldview, indigenous and industrial, or land-based and predator….the predator world-view. It is, in fact, manifest in how we live here. And every ecological crisis we have today is a direct consequence of that… (180)

From the land to rights as Native women, I loved her speech ‘I fight like a woman’ from the UN Conference on Women in China, 1995.

Positionality:

As one woman, Corrine Kumar from the Asian Women’s Human Rights Association explained simply, “From the periphery of power human rights looks different.” (205)

A challenge to mobile, global power to look those it is destroying in the eye:

Vicki Corpuz is an Igarok woman from the Philippines, head of the Cordinera Women’s Association. … “We found that a lot of our problems were related to trans-national corporations and institutions. And we thought it was time to get more accountability from them. We can do basic empowerment work here – but all the decisions are actually made elsewhere. They should have to look at us in the face when they make those decisions.” (208)

The need for indigenous peoples (as true of other struggles) to operate at a global level…

It was several years ago Mililani Trask, Kia Aina or Head of State of the Native Hawaiian Nation changed her mind about work. “The real reason why all Indigenous people have to be apprised of, or involved in the international arena is because their individual land-based struggles will be impacted by these nation states and international interests.” (209)

More on militarism — I love this quote, hate what the US and others are doing on other people’s lands…

Militarism is a form of colonization which takes away from our lives. That future is without hope for us. But, we will fight for our rights. I believe in nonviolence and civil disobedience. I am ready to go to jail, to take blows or die for our cause, because I believe in the struggle for the freedom of my people. I don’t want your sympathy, I want your support, your strong and collective support against the oppression of your government. What are need is your resistance.” Penote Ben Michel made this plea at a 31 January 1987 conference in Montreal on militarism in Labrador/Nitassinan. (230)

I am furious with Geroge Dubya all over again. I volunteered to do precinct walking for Kerry in Vegas I was so furious with that man. Might have campaigned for her, though, if I’d been a little more woke, though I still might have bowed to the dual party system.

This is from her acceptance speech for the nomination for Vice Presidential candidate, running with Nader.

I am not inclined toward electoral politics. Yet I am impacted by public policy. I am interested in reframing the debate on the issues of this society — the distribution of power and wealth, the abuse of power and the rights of the natural world, the environment and the need to consider an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in which all decisions made today will be considered in light of their impact on the seventh generation from now. That is, I believe, what sustainability is all about. These are vital subjects which are all too often neglected by the rhetoric of “major party” candidates and the media.

I believe that decision making should not be the exclusive right of the privileged. (267)

All of that. We need all of that.

This is only a sampling of some of what I loved most/have been thinking about most recently. There is so much more here, and of course so much more written since this was published.

[LaDuke, Winona (2002) The Winona LaDuke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press.]

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Frank’s Bar Always Did Need a Woman’s Touch

Joe Arpaio’s been in the news so much, finally getting a little bit of what is coming to him I thought I’d share this and got permission. I wrote it for Southwest Noir, edited and with art by Vince Larue, which you should totally buy. When Steven Seagal is in the news I’ll share it again. Not that this is about them. It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever written to be honest, though I still don’t like the ending. I should probably let everyone write their own.

Clock said over an hour ‘til dawn. She could feel the light coming, knew that warmth followed. She could feel things waking in the stillness. Sad to break it with footsteps crunching across the gravel, keys jingling in her hand, the roaring of the truck. Excitement walked with her, streaked through her sleepiness. Sat tingling between her ribs. She always forgot just how fine, how very fine the earth felt this early.

The coffee smelled so damn good.

Lena didn’t care for mornings most days, but damn she loved these early starts. Heading out far out into the desert. These mornings that came with extra adrenaline, heightened awareness because water runs weren’t no simple hikes. Never knew what you were going to find, who you were going to see. Made you nervous all this bat-shit crazy militarization of the border. Made you feel righteous too, doing something about it. She smiled at Rosita beside her. Pulled out of the drive. They headed south and west through nearly empty streets towards the border.

She hugged the highway’s curves. Saguaros took form and the world brightened and glowed all along its edge. The sky looked like the inside of their abalone shell, some wisps of cloud like sage smoke. Dolly Parton sang let it shine. They turned off on the dirt track and Lena wrestled with the gears. Rosa opened one gate, and then another. Both now sat closed behind them. Nervousness sang in the air and in their shoulders, but they saw no one. First drop off point, and they loaded up their backpacks with jugs of water. It pulled heavy against their shoulders.

Lista?” she asked.

Rosa nodded, grumbling. “I wish water weren’t so damn heavy. I wish they’d get the tanks up here already.”

“Shit,” Lena said. “Me too. Bill keeps saying soon.”

“Couldn’t be soon enough.”

They walked, came to the place they had been shown months ago and had been returning to regularly since. Dropped off their water for those who were thirsty, sick, lost, dying here in the desert driven by desperation to leave homes and families and everything familiar, driven by walls and drones and agents to avoid safer trails, traditional wells. Driven to carry their dreams in life and death struggle among desert stones.

Lena wondered if this water might have saved Rosa’s brother. She always did as they stood there hand in hand. Her grandmother’s peoples had been massacred for these lands. Her father’s people drowned in sea water or suffocated in containers trying to get to them. Rosa’s dehydrated and mummified in deserts. Now they stood and thought about Hector, the heat already beginning to rise, the cicadas about to begin their chorus. Every time they did this, Lena wished she could believe in God. She knew it would make it easier, most of the people who left water like this did. Her and Rosa though, they just couldn’t manage belief no more. It was like a hole inside them. They turned and walked back to the truck, more drops to make.

But someone waited for them.

Crouched down the other side of their truck. Stepping out as the two women approached, and Lena could see that one of the two had a rifle in his hands. White men. Not border patrol. Standing there between them and the truck. Bandanas over the lower half of their faces because they’d probably seen one too many Westerns.
“Shit,” she said under her breath. Rosita’s hand squeezed hers tight. But they approached with heads held proud, as though masked vigilantes were as smart as dogs in leaving the fearless alone.

“You fellows think we’re the stagecoach carrying payroll to Yuma?” Lena asked them. She stared at the big one, knew she knew him. Didn’t know from where. Those little piggy eyes; that long mullet tied back in a ponytail. Damn. She knew him.

“A fucking comedian,” the man said, rolling his eyes. “Now what’s a fucking pair of comedians doing way out here?”

Lena bit back another wisecrack. “Hiking,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place.”

The silence dragged out a moment or two. The men looked them up and down.

“You wouldn’t have been dropping off water for no illegals now, would you?” the other asked. A gravelly voice, unpleasant, old. Wrinkled around the mean blue eyes. Retired law enforcement she guessed.

“Because why would a nice pair of ladies be doing something like that?” Pig-eye asked. “Why would they betray their country like that? Except maybe it’s not their country. No, maybe it’s not. Maybe they got some kind of allegiances to a foreign power. What do you think, Abe?”

“They might, George, they just might. Though I hate to call any woman a bare-faced liar.”

“I know Abe, but look at ‘em. And this water in the back of the truck here is definitely for some illegals. I bet we’ll find a pile more of it just over this ridge.”

“I wouldn’t take that bet.”

“You never been much of a gambler, Abe.”

Law Enforcement smiled, they could tell from the light in his eyes.
“Only ever bet on a sure thing, George. But I hate to think of what will happen to them if we’re right.”

“I know,” said Pig-eye. He pulled a large knife from some kind of buckskin sheath complete with fringe and beads, tried to nonchalantly pick at his nails. Fucker was playing both cowboy and Indian.

“Are there some hidden cameras round here, or what?” Lena snorted. “If you’re done teaching us a lesson, we’re just going to head on home now.”

Rosa squeezed her hand so hard it hurt as they took a step forward.

“Don’t you bitches move,” said Law Enforcement. His voice cut the morning like barbed wire.

They stopped.

Pig-eye had become even squintier, face like tomato above the bandana.

“Funny, you talking shit like you’re the ones armed.” He pulled a bottle of water out of the back of their truck, ripped his knife up on through it like he was gutting a fish. It looked a hard way to eviscerate a harmless bottle of water. Still, that was a sharp knife.
He pulled out another bottle. Having learned something maybe, he stabbed this one near the top. Water spurted out and he pointed it at them. The thin stream hit Lena before dying away, spent. She worked hard not to flinch. The asshole had aimed at her breasts, and now he smiled.

“Not bad for an old lady,” he said.

Her free hand clenched into a fist. The light in his eyes slimed over and fell as he leaned into their truck, methodically stabbed each bottle of water one by one. Watched their faces. Water sprayed over the edges and dripped from the bed along the tailgate, released the scent of desert rain. Lena’s heart beat uncertain between uplift and rank fear.

Pig-eye straightened

“If you’re done there, George, we got some more wetback supplies to spoil,” said Law Enforcement.

“I’m done here,” said Pig-eye. “But what are we going to do with these two?”

Law Enforcement spat. “Don’t rightly know,” he said. “Maybe they’re illegals too. Can’t take no chances now, can we? We’ll just tie ’em up and leave ’em here while we think on it. Maybe send back the patrol.”
Lena saw now that plastic handcuffs dangled from his belt.

Pig-eye took a deep breath. Leered as his hands moved down past his gut to hook into his belt. He rocked back, looked from handcuffs to women to handcuffs. His aim seemed to be suggestion; Lena’s lip curled as his eyes glinted dark at her over his puffed cheeks. Something about him said money smug, not like the other one who just looked mean and old and boiled down into leather with skin as dark as hers but burned that way by the sun. Unnatural colour. She figured he’d be meeting the cancer soon, if he hadn’t already.

“Move it. Over there.” Law Enforcement snapped. The two women walked to stand beside the truck. Rosa’s hand trembled in hers now.

“Take off your shoes and socks and throw ’em over there.” The women stared at him, and his hands tightened on the rifle. They bent down and did as he said.

“Pat ’em down, George.”

Pig-eye grinned wider, moved over to paw them. Lena drew a breath and tried to hold it until he was done, shoulders squared and head proud and rage boiling in her heart. She had to take a few breaths. He groped and pawed and she bottled down the boiling. Play it smart, girl, play it smart. Her keys now jingled from his finger and he launched them out into the desert. They flashed towards the morning sun, fell out of sight with a jagged sound of metal on metal.

“You’re sure quiet,” Pig-eye said as he came to Rosa. “Bet you don’t speaka-de-English so good”. His hands fumbled at her breasts, and her knee came up square into his balls. Bent over double, he stumbled back to lean against the truck, a thin whine emerging from beneath the handkerchief. Lena smiled even as Law Enforcement cursed them for bitches. Stepped forward and brought the butt-end of the rifle to connect squarely with the side of Rosa’s head. She collapsed in place. Lena stood frozen a moment, smile stuck in rictus to her face. Half turned, fists raised, only to meet Law Enforcement’s rifle butt driven into her stomach, driving breath from her. She fell to her knees beside Rosa, stones cutting deep.

Rosa groaned as consciousness returned, came to hands and knees. Raised a hand to her head.

“On your feet,” rasped Law Enforcement.

Supporting each other, the women stood. Pig-eye had almost recovered, but he waddled not walked. He walked up to Rosa and slapped her hard, deliberate. First across one cheek and then the other. She half fell into Lena as Pig-eye finished his search, slipping her lighter into his pocket.

He cuffed them, then. Standing too close with his smell of sweat and expensive cologne. His fat fingers caressed even as he closed the cuffs meaning to hurt. He cuffed them one to the other, then forced them back to their knees and used the second pair to cuff Rosa’s other hand to the truck. The thick plastic dug into their wrists.

“I wouldn’t struggle too much, ladies,” grated Law Enforcement. “You don’t want those cuffs tightening any more or they could get dangerous.”

Lena stared at the horizon with the fury inside of her, pain radiating from her stomach as she struggled with every breath.

“Now think about what you owe this country, and the sanctity of its borders.” Law Enforcement’s voice had razor edges. “Because it don’t owe you or those wetbacks nothing, and good Americans like us just won’t tolerate your aidin’ and abettin’ those filthy criminals bringing their drugs and their diseases over here.”

Pig-eye traced the line of blood his ring had left across Rosa’s cheek before moving to stand over their shoes. “We won’t take these too far,” he said. The women watched silently as the two men walked away from them, up over the ridge. They clearly knew where the water was stored.

“Fuckers,” spat Lena. She rearranged herself more comfortably, came to a cross-legged position, her free hand holding her stomach. She could hear herself breathe.

Rosa settled down beside her, bloodied lips worked to fluently curse gavachos in a low tone. Both sides of her face was swelling and blood rolled down her right cheek. Blood collected at her hairline. She spat more blood onto the ground.

Lena’s heart broke looking at her, and she held Rosa’s hand tight tight.

“My head is ringing,” Rosa said.

“They hit you hard, those mother fuckers.”

Lena studied the cuffs. Law Enforcement had been right, struggle risked tightening them.

“Why’d they take our goddamn shoes?” Rosa suddenly whispered.

“Fuck if I know,” Lena whispered back. “Pa’ chingar mas.”

“You think those fools are really gone? Where’d they even come from? I didn’t hear no truck.”

“Me neither.” Lena frowned. “They’re smart, looking to catch people up here. It must be back down the road a ways, which means they’ll be back, or maybe they’re walking up to the next drop off. Maybe they’re just getting off watching us from behind some rocks, sadistic mother fuckers. We gotta get out of here.”

“There’s a release mechanism on these chingaderas,” said Rosa. “But we need a pin or something. We don’t got a pin, do we.”

“Nope. You got an extra lighter they didn’t find?”

“Nope. You?”

“Nope. We’re fucked.”

Jodidas.”

Fregadas.”

“Shit.”

“We shouldn’t have left the rifle in the truck, huh.”

“Nope.”

“Still, you don’t expect two crazy vigilante crackers to jump you in the middle of the desert, do you. Even out here.”

“Shit, we got careless. But you recognize that big dude?”

“I think so. If he’s who I think he is, I been wanting to punch that pendejo in the gut for years now. Getting him in the balls was pretty good too.”

“He’s gotten a lot fatter, no? I’m still not sure, you’d think he’d have better things to do.”

“My wrists hurt.”

“I know, mine too.” Lena sighed. Twisted to look up at the sky. “We’re going to be fucked when the sun reaches us.” Her eyes returned to study the plastic bracelets cutting into their skin.

“Won’t be long,” Rosa whispered. Lena laid her head on Rosa’s shoulder, still staring at their hands.

“I know this is all Hollywood and shit, but I bet my glasses would work a little like a magnifying glass.” Lena looked up. “They might melt that way, no? How much shit have we melted in the truck over the years leaving it in the sun?”

“Maybe.” Rosa said. She was crying now, trying hard not to but crying all the same.

Rosa smoothed back her hair with her free hand, tried to smile. “Don’t hurt to try.”

The sun hit them sudden and hard, harsh, unrelenting. Heat rose in waves from the ground, cooked them like an oven, sucked moisture out of skin and breath. Lena chose two little pebbles from the ground.

“Here, suck on this. It will help you feel less thirsty.”

“Oldest trick in the book.”

“Girl, who needs new ones?”

Lena held her glasses over the plastic ring fixing them to the bumper as steady as she could. Heat radiated from the metal, it hurt to be so close. To stay so close.

The sun hurt.

Lena could feel her skin burning.

“I hate the desert,” whispered Rosa. The blood had dried dark and scabby, and her skin was burning around it. “This is what my brother must have felt before he died.”

“I know, baby, I know. But ain’t the desert’s fault. Humans are what’s fucked us.”

“Shit, it’s the vultures will be fucking with us soon. They’re circling already.”

“But not over us.” Lena squinted into the sky. “Hopefully just some road kill. Bet those vigilante motherfuckers swerve to hit ground squirrels might’ve crossed the border by mistake.”

Rosa sighed. “Assholes.”

The sun hurt.

“It smells like death,” Rosa whispered into the silence, and Lena realized it did. Strong. The vultures circled.

“Tell me a story, Lena.”

“Oh man, a story?”

“Anything,” said Rosa. “Any nice happy story.”

“I don’t think I can tell a nice happy story right now.”

“Please?” asked Rosa. “I just got the shit beat out of me by two white dudes. I need a happy story.”

“Shit,” said Lena, eyes shifting. Stayed silent a little while, thinking. Her gaze suddenly landed on her feet, white and smooth and soft, tucked under the truck so they didn’t burn as much as the rest of her.

“All right, I got a happy story.” She took a deep breath, smiled when Rosa smiled back at her and shut her swollen eyes the way a little kid would.

“I’ll tell you about when I was little, well. Tell you about how the rains came once upon a time, the monsoons. Those were different days, magical days, you know? Those days when we were little in the desert. And the biggest storms always started with a tiny little black cloud, like a smudge of charcoal. That cloud had to be sitting over Cat Mountain, or the rain wouldn’t be for us. But when it was our turn that black cloud would sit there in the middle of a great blue sky, so small I could block it out with my little thumb. The sun would be shining like this, hotter and hotter. You feel the sun, Rosa?”

“Mm,” said Rosa. “It’s burning me, this pinche sun.”

“Well, imagine the other clouds, they would come along, from East and North, South and West the other clouds would come. Dark and black they’d come. We’d all be humming like the energy in the air, storm energy. Like the spirits coming up from the earth, coming down from heaven to make our whole sky dark, hide our hills in mist and then all of a sudden the rain came. We’d watch it move across the desert like a curtain. We’d watch it coming like a wall of water. And then it would come. Imagine it Rosita, dark and misty and the air full of rain.”

Rosa licked her cracked lips, her smile grew.

“This rain pounded on the roof until we couldn’t hear talking. It pounded against the sliding glass windows so we couldn’t see outside. Then the sound of it changed, cuz the hail had come, and the winds, so strong they knocked down powerlines. The lights would go out, all at once, and we got to light candles and sit around in the rain dark. The lightening would flash, and we’d count the seconds until the thunder sounded so we’d know where the center was. We counted that storm center moving towards us, moving and moving until the lightening and the thunder came together. Crack!”
Rosa jumped. Laughed and caught her breath with pain at the same time.

“Crack! So loud our ears would ring. We’d sit there in the dark like we’re doing right now, sit there warm and dry listening to that storm blowing outside. To the hail beating against the windows, little balls bouncing across the ground.

“Then we counted the seconds as the storm moved away, counted the seconds until the hail stopped and the rain came less and less, counted the minutes until we were allowed outside. Finally dad would say we could all go out. Then there’d be no time for shoes or coats. We’d run outside barefoot.”

“Shit,” said Rosa. “No shoes? Really? You?”

“Shut up, yes me. All of us. We’d burst out of the sliding glass door, dance out of the sliding glass door and run on bare feet to try and look out and see the wash beneath our house, see how high the water was. Always that wash flooded with that little cloud over Cat Mountain. We’d run down our little path without our shoes, so excited we didn’t care about those sharp desert rocks, walking right over all those spines and thorns the rain’d made all soft. We ran and ran, and the rain made the desert smell like life. Like the creosote was breathing. Breathe deep Rosa, deep. Can you smell it?”

Rosa smiled. “You know I can smell it. All our damn water leaked out under the damn truck.”

Lena squeezed her hand. “We’d run breathing this air in in gulps, and we only stopped when we got to this little grassy bank and we could watch the crashing water. It was taller than we were, that flood. It drowned the acacias that grew on the little island in the middle, it covered the rocks we always used as spaceships. It roared down the wash full of mud and crests of white water that swirled along the banks. It left thick dirty foam behind it. The sound of it filled the whole world. Imagine that much water, Rosita. Can you hear it roaring in your ears?”

Rosa nodded.

“We couldn’t play in it until the next day when there’d be just a trickle left, full of water bugs. There’d be little blue butterflies all along the ground where it was still damp. Like the butterflies here, these ones.”

Rosa opened her eyes again, really saw the butterflies. “They’re beautiful, Lena.”

“I know. We’d walk up the wash to the old dam; the water made pools up there big enough for swimming, us being little and all. Cattails grew there. The desert would fill up with red-spotted and spade-foot toads, climbing out of the earth when the rains came. Had their babies. We’d catch them and hold them squirming in our hands, dry and just cool to the touch, the perfect size to nestle into our palms so we could feel the beating of their hearts against our skin. We once went up to the damn at just at the right time to find hundreds of baby ones, the size of my thumbnail, leaping across the ground to escape our shadows, so that we couldn’t walk all scared we’d crush them.”

“Shit, I’d like to see that.”

“Me too, even just one more time. We’d walk up and down that trickle of water in the wash. Until we were all tuckered out.”

“Poor you.”

“Naw, those were my favourite times. But look at my feet now, dude.

I used to run around barefoot all the time and now they’re all soft and useless like some old city girl. So the moral of the story is, that you’re the one who’s going to have to go look for our shoes.”

“Shit,” said Rosa, laughing. “That was nice, right up to the end. But I didn’t ask for no moral.”

“You get what you get.” Lena smiled.

The sun hurt. Climbed the sky. They curled up small as they could, hid their faces.

Lena still held her glasses steady as she could, arm aching, watched that small point of light from beneath her lids.

“Maybe this is some wishful thinking, but seems like maybe this plastic melting shit is going to work.”

“Oh man, I think you’re right,” said Rosa. They stared anxiously at the spot of light on the white plastic.

“Not for a while though.”

They sat still, quiet. Waiting. Burning.

“It smells like death,” Rosa whispered into the silence.

“I know.”

“You think those two mother fuckers are coming back?”

Lena frowned. “If they do, it better be after we get out of these cuffs.”

The minutes dragged on and on.

The sun rose. It hurt.

Cicada song filled the world. Lena could feel the heat rising from her own skin, radiating out an angry red colour. She could feel her lips cracking and her eyes locking into a squint. Flesh shrivelled as the water was sucked out of it, the sweat drying even as it beaded along her skin. Muscles ached from holding position, and red welts burned along her forearms from touching the metal bumper. She struggled to hold the glasses in place, her arm like lead and her muscles knotted and screaming.

The sun peaked directly above them. Began to fall. She worked at the plastic circle now, almost melted through. It came away and she closed her eyes and breathed and said a prayer in thanks. Opened her eyes to find Rosa still praying.

Slowly they helped each other rise, joints creaking, skin feeling like it would tear as it stretched into new position.

Rosa stumbled, and Lena half caught her. They almost fell. The world dipped around them and Lena saw lights, heard static.

“I don’t feel so good,” Rosa whispered.

“We just need to get to that water in the truck, beautiful. We’ll be all right.”

They hobbled in joyless hurtful dance up the slight trail of burning cutting rocks. Stood at the top and saw a wreckage of water bottles amid blue butterflies. Their shoes and socks thrown up into a mesquite.

“Bastards,” said Rosa viciously.

They awkwardly half-climbed half-waded into the shrubby tree, still connected by the other set of handcuffs. Emerged with footwear and deep bleeding scratches across their forearms and their legs. Pulled socks on over bleeding feet with a gasp, and then shoes. Laced them with difficulty. Made their way back to the truck silent but for their angry breath, cracked and swollen lips in straight lines.

“Right,” said Lena. “Keys.” It hurt to walk. They followed the memorized trajectory, found them glinting beneath a cactus.

Back at the truck Rosa pulled her bag up from under the seat. “You know how we were going to see if there was time to drop by Nana’s this afternoon because she’s been bugging me about those roses?”
Lena suddenly grinned back. “You brought the pruners!”

“I did!”

Cabron, the first bit of luck we’ve had all day! I just hope they work.”

With effort and more pain they did. Lena rubbed the angry ridged line the plastic had left in her skin. They drank silently and with great concentration the two gallons of emergency water stashed behind the seat. Sighed. Leaned against the truck. Smiled. Top of the world for a minute, two. They’d left a little water to wash the blood off of Rosa’s face. It stained the ground but the butterflies didn’t mind.
Rosa grabbed the rifle from behind the seat. Loaded up the clip from the glove box. Smelled the air with an ugly twisting of her face.

“Let’s find whatever’s dead. Dios permite, it’s just a cow.”

They drove slowly a short distance back along the road, hopped out and walked painfully the short distance to where the zopilotes circled.

Found a man. Vultures with wingspans his length watching the women with bright eyes as they hopped deliberately away. Red beaks, red like ocotillo blossoms. He no longer had eyes.

Lena stood, one hand over mouth and nose and the other clutching Rosa’s. Rosa suddenly sagged into her, a great animal cry of rage and grief emerged from her. Grief and rage. It rolled from Rosa in a terrible echoing and fell from Lena’s eyes in great drops of salt. They doubled over around it and let it shake their shoulders, rob them of air. Lena buried her face into Rosa’s mane of graying hair, held her tight. The birds watched them, curious, unable to understand. Hungry.

Y la revolucion?” whispered Rosa.

“I am ready, but I don’t think it is ready for us.”

“I don’t want to die before the border comes down.”

Lena chuckled in spite of herself. Still sad. “Some things you don’t choose, mi reyna.”

They stood, one at his head and one at his feet.

Abuelito,” said Lena. “Forgive us that we will not be moving you with much respect.” Tears dripped from her chin, splashed on what was left of his face.

The nightmare journey back to the truck was not at all respectful. Rosa threw up, and then they drove away, his body in the truck bed staring up at the forbidden sky. His smell covered their hands, their clothes. Ignacio Gutierrez. 65. Born in Jalisco. Pictures of children and grandchildren. A few clothes in a backpack. No water left.
They turned a corner and Lena had to hit the brakes, face to face with a massive truck souped up on big wheels. She thought she recognized it from its excessive headlights and small-dick-compensation. Caught proof in fragmentary bandit faces staring down at them before Rosa threw open the door and lifted the rifle to her shoulder. The windshield exploded as the truck swerved and came to a halt beside them.

Rosa ordered them out of the cab and they came. Pig-eye shook, but Law Enforcement looked like a coiled rattlesnake.

“Take off your bandanas, cobardes. Might as well be hoods, no? But I guess those would get too hot during the daytime.”

They removed their bandanas.

“Assume the position,” Rosa said. Her laughter grated. The men turned and put their hands on their truck.

“Not there, go over to our truck pendejos. March.”

She watched them march down the barrel of her rifle. Watched their faces fill with disgust.

“What the fuck is that,” said Pig-Eye, choking on the smell.

“Not what,” corrected Rosa. “Who. The question you should be asking is who did we kill with our borders and our free trade agreements and our targeting of wells and destruction of water and our nasty vigilante ways.”

Lena got Law Enforcement’s rifle from the gun rack, a pistol from the glove compartment, the knife from Pig-eye’s belt. Placed them on the ground at their feet and Law Enforcement cursed bitches under his breath. Patted them down and removed three lighters, two wallets and a Swiss Army knife. She checked the wallets had ID, smiled, and threw them on the front seat of her truck.

“We were coming back for you, we wouldn’t have left you there in the desert,” said Pig Eye, his voice greased. His teeth flashed too white and straight in his face.

Rosa ignored him. “The answer to your question is Ignacio Gutierrez. 65. Born in Jalisco. Father of three children, grandfather to five children. A working-man’s hands. You say a prayer for his soul.”

“What shall we do with these vigilantes then, when their prayers are done?” asked Lena.

“Kill ‘em?’ Rosa responded, always the hopeful one. “Break their faces?” Her hand rose to feel the welt across the side of her head.

“Shit,” grinned Lena, “I feel that little bit of Apache in me rising.”

De veras?”

“Yes. But then we’d probably end up in jail and that’d kill me too.”

“Might end up there anyway,” Rosa said. They came closer, thoughtful in the silence. Lena explored the contours of her rage.

“I just want to kill them.” Rosa’s eyes had never left the two men, and her fingers twitched on the rifle.

“Me too,” Lena said.

A shot rang out, splitting the heavy air in two.

“Fuck Rosa, what the…”

“Just scared ‘em a little.” Rosa grinned. Levered in another round. Raised her voice. “That blow to the head’s making me see all double,” she called, firing again. “This is fun, Lena. You’re missing out.”

“At least shoot at their goddamn truck, not ours.”

Rosa ordered them back to their own truck. Lena looked down at the shiny semi-automatic she’d taken from Law Enforcement. Picked it up and sent a dozen bullets into the tail gate. The men fell to their knees, arms protectively over their heads now. Pig-eye had pissed himself.

“Shit, this thing’s a fucking disgrace,” she said with disgust. “No skill required at all.” She laid it back down on the ground. Turned back to Rosa.

“Well, we got two problems,” she said, her voice low. “We got two bad guys need picking up and some retribution, and one good guy needs burying. Third problem is that really, we don’t want anyone in authority to know anything about us. Right?”

“Right.”

“Right.”

Lena whispered her thoughts to Rosa.

Rosa pondered them, fired off another bullet with a chuckle, nodded.

She ordered the two men to remove their shoes and throw them into the desert. Ordered them to move Don Ignacio into the back of their own truck. It was real awkward and took some time. Once Don Ignacio was settled, Lena ordered Pig-eye to lie face down in the back of the truck. She could tell the metal burned his skin. Grabbed his ponytail with distaste but with a joyful light in her eyes. He twitched angrily.

“You got that rifle pointed at his balls?” she called out to Rosa.

“Gift to the world to shoot those off,” Rosa replied.

Pig-eye lay very still as Lena hacked at his hair with the knife. It came away like a greased worm in her hand. Her eyes met Rosa’s and they both looked at it.

Rosa’s lips twisted.

Cabron, now you can say you’ve actually scalped someone,” she said. “All these white European immigrants, done invaded our lands, and you finally get to scalp one.”

Lena threw it onto the floor of their own truck, wiped her hands over and over again on the front of her jeans. Ordered the vigilantes to sit on either side of Don Ignacio, ankle to ankle, hands on their heads. Lena cuffed each of them to the dead man, cuffed their ankles and wrists tight tight. Cuffed Pig Eye’s free wrist to the gun rack, pretending she could smell his nasty urine over the smell of death. Swung down, grabbed the keys from the ignition then returned to Lena’s side. The keys jingled and flashed silver in her hand. She didn’t throw them into the desert.

The women stared at the vigilantes sitting there in the back of the truck with Ignacio Gutierrez between them, his head fallen forward onto his thin chest hiding the wreckage of his face.

“I hope he will be ok,” Rosa said, crossing herself. “I hope he is enjoying just a little this payback. You think he’ll be ok?”

Lena bit her lip. “Maybe we should cuff Law Enforcement to the truck too. I don’t trust him not to disrespect the dead while trying to free himself. You?”

“Hell no. But we need them to keep the vultures away from Don Ignacio.”

She’d never forget the panic on Pig-eye’s face.

“They got their free legs, no?”

Lena nodded, cuffed his other hand, jumped down from the truck bed and put an arm around Rosa’s shoulders. They turned to go.

“You’re just going to leave us here like this?” Pig-eye’s fear made Law Enforcement wince.

“We could kill you instead.” Rosa smiled.

Lena’s lip curled at Pig-eye’s whine. She took a few pictures with her phone. “We’ll let the police know where you are. You say anything and I’m sure our friends at Channel 5 will enjoy this little story, you being who you are, and they’ll have your ID’s as proof of course. We’ll leave it there unless you want to start something. It’d be real embarrassing for you, I’m sure, to drag it on further than that. We can do old and frail real well.”

“Fuck you,” said Law Enforcement.

“No,” said Rosa with a huge smile. “Fuck you.”

Back in the truck, back on the highway, Rosa used her foot to nudge the ponytail on the floor with disgust.

“What the hell are we going to do with that?”

Lena smiled a great golden smile.

It looked real nice, their trophy. Mounted on a piece of painted plywood, hung in legendary ceremony over the back of Frank’s bar.

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What Ella Baker really thought about Baptist Ministers

Ella BakerThis is from an interview Ella Baker did with Eugene Walker in 1974 (the transcript is here, audio is here), who was most interested in the formation of SCLC and the key influences on it, so there isn’t follow up on many of Baker’s responses — but that’s always the way it is with other people’s interviews. Even so, it is a great complement to the various biographies. She was 71 years old, and very focused on the two widely different approaches to the work at play here — the bottom up current which she fought for, and the very very top down…

Well, the thinking about the nature of the organization would vary with the people who were doing the thinking. Those of us who preferred an organization that was democratic and where the decision making was left with the people would think in one vein and the organizing of active, let’s call it, chapters or units of people. But when you reckon with the fact that a majority of the people who were called together were ministers and the decision as to who was called together emanated no doubt both from the background out of which (let’s call it) Martin came and maybe lack of understanding (I’m willing to say) of the virtue of utilizing the mass surge that had developed there in Montgomery. Just look at Montgomery. What has happened since Montgomery? (12-13)

When Baker started work for the SCLC she was already an old hand at organising and movement building, but the ministers certainly weren’t — I can’t really imagine what it was like for her.

When you haven’t been accustomed to mass action, and they weren’t… You see basically your ministers are not people who go in for decisions on the part of people. I don’t know whether you realize it or not. And they had been looked upon as saviors. So what happened is, here they are faced with a suggestion that goes against the grain and with which they are not prepared to deal. So they come together. (14)

She knew it would be hard, didn’t really choose her role — so for her initially (once she had been bludgeoned into it) she planned to set up citizen committees, and then get out of the SCLC:

I had anticipated being there for about six weeks. Gave myself four weeks to get the thing going and two weeks to clean it up. But they had no one. How did they get Rev. Tilly? They wanted a minister. I knew that. They couldn’t have tolerated a woman.

The personality that had to be played up was Dr. King. The other organizations (if you know this), the executive director was the spokesman. But they couldn’t tolerate having an old lady, even a lady, and an old lady at that. It was too much for the masculine and ministerial ego to have permitted that. [Laughter] There you are. (19)

Asked about her early strategic input on SCLC to bring in more women and youth, Baker replies

I guess my own experience but basically in terms of the church. All of the churches depended in terms of things taking place on women, not men. Men didn’t do the things that had to be done and you had a large number of women who were involved in the bus boycott. They were the people who kept the spirit going and the young people. I knew that the young people were the hope of any movement. It was just a normal thing to me. The average Baptist minister didn’t really know organization.

She is able to talk a little more about the distrust between the NAACP, the Urban League and CORE, and to a lesser extent SCLC — primarily around strategy.:

You see, they couldn’t trust C.O.R.E. [Laughter] in their minds. What you have there is the division between those who have some respect for mass action and pressure and those who believe that your best results came from negotiations from the knowledgeable people. The negotiations from the knowledgeable and the legal action were the N.A.A.C.P. and the Urban League. (29)

Baker underlines the autocratic way she was ordered into the SCLC by Levinson and Rustin, as part of the In Friendship group they had formed to support the formation of a group after Montgomery.

They came back and told me that I had been drafted to go to Atlanta to set up the program for the Crusade for Citizenship for these twenty-odd meetings. Prior to that it had been assumed that Bayard would go down, but he was not available, let’s say. I was very provoked because I had never in my life.

EUGENE WALKER: Well, let me ask you this. This is the first major civil rights undertaking in the history of this country whereby a woman has been granted a seemingly, ostensibly significant policy-making kind of position. Now, were you taken by that? Was that gratifying to you?

ELLA BAKER: [Laughter] Oh no, no, no, no. Because I knew I didn’t have any significant role in the minds of those who constituted the organization. I’m sure that basically the assumption is, or was, and perhaps the assumption still prevails in the minds of those who remember my being there, that I was just there to carry out the orders of Dr. King and somebody else, but incidental since there was no designation of authority. I wasn’t a person of authority.

More about the significant obstacles Baker had to climb over as a woman:

The average attitude toward the southern Baptist ministers at that stage, and maybe still, was as far as their own women were concerned were that they were nice to talk to about such things as how well they cooked, how beautiful they looked, and how well they carried out a program that the minister had delegated them to carry out but not a person with independence and creative ideas of his own, but on whom they had to rely. They could not tolerate, and I can understand that they couldn’t, and especially from a person like me because I was not the kind of person that made special effort to be ingratiating. I didn’t try to insult but I did not hesitate to be positive about the things with which I agreed or disagreed. I might be quiet but if there was discussion and I was suppose to be able to participate, I participated at the level of my thinking. (53)

You like her more and more…The point of the SCLC for Baker:

The whole concept was we needed in the South a mass based organization that might further the involvement of masses of people similar to what had taken place in Montgomery. It didn’t have to be a bus boycott, but whatever. I think this is it. (63)

But she also emphasis the lack of deeper thought behind the movement —  because of their inexperience, because of the speed with which things happened. And of course, unstated, because of their inability to listen to those who did have experience, primarily Baker herself.:

the personnel who provided the leadership for S.C.L.C. had never come to grips with a philosophical concept other than the general concept of nonviolent mass action. I don’t think there was much—I’ll be gracious and say—either time or other bases for in-depth thinking about how far non-violent mass action can go and to what extent can you really involve people. You see, you may talk about it but when you respond—as the organization did—to situations—their major efforts were in response to situations—and when you exhaust yourself in situations (65)

The problem of always responding — who amongst us who has worked in movement-building organisation doesn’t know all about that? Baker’s real strength was in being able to create space to think bigger — and the SCLC did little to appreciate or utilise that skill.

She used that to the hilt in SNCC’s formation, however, and emphasises how important it was that SNCC be free of the others to escape their very real constraints and limits of their political thought — and how this is precisely what was most resisted by other groups:

I think the basic reason for the reactions of N.A.A.C.P. and S.C.L.C. to S.N.C.C. is the fact that they elected to be independent and they exercised the independence that only young people or unattached people, those who are not caught in a framework of thought, can exercise.

They were open to ideas that would not have been certainly cherished, or in some instances certainly, tolerated by either the N.A.A.C.P. or S.C.L.C. As a chief example, the moving into Mississippi. When they decided, they called it “Move On Mississippi” and they called it “MOM”. I think a delegation went to talk to Thurgood Marshall, who was then the chief counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. regarding this and to seek legal help. And Thurgood was not responsive. In the first place because the young people had expressed the opinion and the determination that they were going to accept help from wherever they could get it. Which meant that people like Crocket in Troy and other members of what is called the National Lawyers [unclear] —many white lawyers—which is leftist oriented, would be objectionable to the N.A.A.C.P. because they didn’t want to introduce this conflict of ideologies, of pro-communist ideology, and leave themselves open to the charge on the part of the authorities that the communists were taking over. (71-72)

There are some nice small commentaries on Black historians — so I love the moment when she says ‘Yes, I love Vincent (Harding).’ Then there’s an aside on Harold Cruse (who has been transcribed as Cruz)

I can look back probably at a book by Harold Cruse —I don’t remember seeing his name mentioned in Cruse’s book.
ELLA BAKER: Cruse is an embittered soul too, isn’t he?
EUGENE WALKER: It’s so evident when you look into his book. Oh, he’s embittered; he’s exceptionally candid in saying whatever he wants to say about anybody. He attacks everybody…
ELLA BAKER: …but himself.

She is very critical of the Baptist ministerial tradition — this was so good for me to read because these comments brought it home to me in a way nothing else has done. She’s critical of King in how fearful he remained of open dialogue — though I know he was better than others of that tradition.

ELLA BAKER: No. I don’t care how much reading you do, if you haven’t had the interchange of dialogue and confrontation with others you can be frightened by someone who comes and is in a position to confront you.
EUGENE WALKER: Especially if they confront you with an air of security and independence.
ELLA BAKER: Yes, and if they come with their own credentials. There was an insecurity, I think. I don’t know whether he was ever aware of it. It was a natural insecurity coming out of that Baptist tradition. Baptist ministers have never been strong on dialogue; it was dictum. (77)

I just  I love how she is well aware of how insecurity is not driven away by degrees, position or book-learning. Just as she is aware that being open to others is real strength. That so much was accomplished despite the weaknesses highlighted here… there is so much we owe the women of the South, and especially Ella Baker.

 

Interview with Ella Baker, September 4, 1974.
Interview G-0007. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Baker, Ella, interviewee
http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/G-0007/G-0007.html

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Ken Loach: Up The Junction

Up the Junction is one of my favourite Ken Loach films I think. It opens with all the jubilation of youth, of girls out on the town, meeting some boys, music and booze and happy chatter and dancing and that moment when you meet someone you really fancy for the first time. Those glorious moments. Sylvie (Carol White), Rube (Geraldine Sherman) and Eileen (Vickery Turner). From pub to pool to late-night drive — one of those nights you remember. These three friends for life.

Dave (Tony Selby once again, who was killed in the last Wednesday Play, Three Clear Sundays) takes Eileen  up to the ruins where his old house used to be, cleared out with the rest of the slums and his family moved down south to Roehampton. Dave takes Eileen by the hand and climbs the pile of rubble. (But what strange magic prevents you from taking screen shots of movies these days? These glimpses are most unsatisfactory, I can’t believe no one else on the internet has obsessed about these scenes.)

Their kisses are framed against an empty window, and the crane behind them is for the demolition of the old ‘slums’ to build new council housing, not one of today’s huge cranes for massive developments. I suppose those must also sometimes be caught in a  frame with working class teenage shenanigans, if there are any working class teens left in Battersea. It strikes me, though, quite forcibly, the contrast of these experiences of demolition and building between our generation and theirs.

I don’t know why but this was one of the most evocative series of scenes of the whole movie for me…

Forget it, I do know why. Houses lost and torn down and lives uprooted, and in the midst of this life and tragedy engendered anew? The symbolism is not lost on me. They kiss in the ruins, and it is followed by scenes of the final demolition: fireplaces and walls still covered with flowered paper stark against brick. A kid watching, face smeared with dirt.

Look at this haunting picture of a last remaining wall. Flowers lingering on the wallpaper, the outlines of rooms that once held families pried open to harsh gazes.

There is a narrative thread, but it is almost submerged within the brilliant samplings of conversations and the camera panning across faces. You are the perfect eavesdropper on multiple lives, from the kids dancing in the club at the opening, to the ladies chatting as they wash up the dishes. Again there is diversity (though these women of colour rarely get to speak). Amongst the women there exists a very different conviviality from what you see amongst the men. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes talking over manual work, from dishes to factories. Laughing. This is based on a novel by Nell Dunn — she and Ken Loach helped turn it into a screen play. She was not from Battersea herself, but lived here a while, worked in a factory a while. Perhaps that is why it still has a taste of nostalgia to it I think, a taste of idealisation, but perhaps it was just the amount that had to be sanitised for television.

It does have a great cover:

But to get back to the girls. Their conversations in amongst the snippets of conversations of multiple others all detailing the intimate details of their lives as they work making foil-wrapped chocolate santas and pistols, disjointed views of the process and the huge blocks of chocolate, the various (fascinating) machines with their whirring and clatter, the cups of tea, the chatter and the siles and always in the background the music of the 60s.

I love how these girls are embedded in this place, chatting to everyone, the laughter and bawdy talk between generations, jokes about baths. Joyce about to be married when she turns 16.

A packet of fags dropped in the chocolate. Dancing the twist  to the latest. This is life at its best, no? At least until the boss comes. At least until you get the chatty money-collector who’s tired of ‘the coloureds’. He is talking and talking, god he won’t shut up.

I’ve been out with plenty of floozies in my time, but I’ll never mention my wife to ’em…

But I love the scenes as he drives through Clapham, the brick rows of houses and women in the doorways. The glasses and kerchiefs and passersby.

It is hard to imagine this long-ago London, when Battersea power station was a power station and not an obscenely expensive setting for luxury flats surrounded by glass and steel.

Hard to imagine some of these stories. Story after story of loves and relationships and babies and abortions and death.  Heartbreak. new beginnings. Violent endings. Jokes.

Hard to imagine an abortion from a smiling sinister middle-aged women in the parlour, at a cost of four pounds. Hard to sit through a doctor talking about deaths and botched attempts and reeling off statistics. Rube walking through the woods in strange disjunction. Horrible clinical talk interspersed with testimony. I find this montage of voice and experience so powerful. The way that these moments rise up before us like icebergs and we crash into them.

And then, if we survive, they are behind us.

Back to the raucous and loud everyday, snogging and laughing and dancing down the pub. Though it’s not really all the same. But this is not a style of film that can really dig down into the ways we are broken and what we have to do to hold ourselves together.

Still I loved the women portrayed here. I love this form, with stories, so many stories, glimpses of more stories all set in surroundings that shape and are shaped by them. Surroundings now mostly lost. The three women at its centre just three among hundreds, thousands. Jokes and laughing and snippets of faces seen once and never again. Some of the lovely factory women who get a few more of their own stories, even a new love. Everyday life, poring over used clothes in a basket.

Everyday death, everyday commentary on the meaning of death. More jokes. Battersea Power station smoking as background for discussions of cremation.

It ends with Sugar and Spice and for me the song brought nostalgia for a time I never lived through, despite the fact that it is a kind of life I never wanted, that I fled from. But I loved watching them happy and walking down the London road. I wished them all the best.

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Women in Grassroots Movements: Temma Kaplan

Temma Kaplan Crazy for DemocracyI loved the stories in Temma Kaplan’s Crazy for Democracy, the prominence it gives some incredible women and their struggles, with extensive quotes presenting their hard-won experience and knowledge in their own words. I love that. Not enough is written about the role of women in grassroots movements, much less about women in the larger discourses around democracy.

We need more of that, especially now.

At the same time, I often felt unsure of the framing, drawing as it does on Weber. I need to think more about what Weber has to contribute to current struggles of working class women and women of colour in the US and Africa, and I confess Kaplan’s arguments weren’t quite enough to swing me onside.

Though widely used, the term grassroots does not have a commonly recognized meaning. Grassroots generally implies being widespread and common, in the sense of being universal. The term also suggests being outside the control of any state, church, union, or political party. To the women claiming its provenance, being from the grassroots generally means being free from any constraining political affiliations and being responsible to no authority except their own group. (2)

I like the women’s use of grassroots. I am still puzzling through the many varied webs of accountability we sit within, as women, as workers, as caretakers of the earth, and each and every additional layer. Especially given the fluidity of things like gender. I am wondering how our ‘grassroots’ label overlaps or potentially constrains such understandings. I would have loved more discussion of this.

Kaplan instead draws on Weber’s theorisations of charisma to look at what about certain individuals supported their leadership roles in movement. I know there is a lot written about this framing, Aldon Morris talks a little about this, but I too see it as a not-necessarily central factor to movement, and the more central it is, often the more problematic the idea of movement becomes. So all of Weber’s language bothers me a little, and at the same time I am curious to read this again.

Though three of the six women focused on here are deeply religious, their charisma lies not in their religion but in their commitment to promoting new ethical principles as the basis for democracy… In Weberian terms, these women are prophets…Such women, with their strong personalities, abilities to pitch in, and high morale, gather together people with different backgrounds, areas of expertise, and status, helping create egalitarian movements. (4)

See, the term ‘prophet’? It doesn’t really work for me.

Kaplan also presents an idea of ‘female consciousness’ — something else that I remain conflicted about. But undoubtedly we are socialised into gender roles and those roles help define our experience, our passions, our causes. Women have been made responsible for our survival — too often left as the conscience, the single mother, the caretaker of the home.

certain women, emphasising roles they accept as wives and mothers, also demand the freedom to act as they think their obligations entail. Women in many societies and historical periods learn from youth that they will be responsible as mothers for providing food, clothing, housing, and health care for their families. When toxic pollution or expulsion from their homes threatens their communities, certain women will take action according to their female consciousness, confronting authorities to preserve life. Far from being a biological trait, female consciousness develops from cultural experiences of helping families and communities survive. (6-7)

There is something here, just as there is in valuing the theory implicit in people’s actions…

Such activists draw on an implicit theory of human rights, seeking to make human health a corollary of justice, deriving it s power from commonsense notions of human need rather than codified laws. (7)

But of course, as a good Freirean, I do think our reality, our strategy and our action needs to be collectively named, put into words, owned.

On to the campaigns themselves, and the awesome women who helped give them direction:

Love Canal

Americans like to believe in the good intentions of their government, and they frequently consider the absence of politics to constitute an ideal state of being. Hardly a person from Love Canal doesn’t wish she could turn back the clock and forget what she knows about the government. (16)

I think as an organizer I am automatically critical of anyone uncritical of such words. Not that I haven’t felt them, or that they are not common or that we should deny such feelings. But again as a popular educator or critical thinker… to stay in this place looking backwards? It speaks to a process of conscientisation unhealthily blocked. The same is true for seeing distinctions rather than solidarity in this kind of way:

In fact, what differentiated the women of the Love Canal Homeowners Association from other protesters was their self-presentation as traditional mothers trying to do their job. “Radicals and students carry signs, but not average housewives. Housewives have to care for their children and their homes,” Lois Gibbs recalled later.  (23)

Comedy and appearing in the role of victim allowed the homeowners to challenge authority and gain media support… Had the women been feminists, they could have undercut their demands to be treated as full citizens by such actions. But the homeowners were desperate to save their community from disaster; they were willing to compromise their own dignity to survive. (30)

There is an awful lot implied about just who ‘feminists’ are here, a total rejection of the idea and the term, rather than a redefinition along the lines of what women like Angela Davis, bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins envision. This is not to demand that women themselves self-define in this way. My discomfort lies with the fact that this is stated and then left, when it could be opened up in a different way, could acknowledge debate, could think about how these constructions might constrain us just as much as certain understandings of feminism do.

The way women themselves do this:

Women engaged in struggles for environmental justice are often viewed as oddities. they are told that they are just hysterical housewives or crazy feminists. Or that they just aren’t ladies. “Ladies don’t take on an issue,” Cora Tucker, a community activist from Virginia explains. “I don’t know if ‘lady’ is a compliment or not. I don’t really like to be called a lady because my momma used to tell me that a lady was a woman who didn’t know which way was up….” (44)

Fighting Toxic Soil Dumping

Going on to fighting toxic soil dumping in Afton, North Carolina this statement… I’m glad it’s in here, I like this reflexivity, but it is also the kind of reaction that really gets to me:

Thirty years ago, more naive and purist, I’d been shocked by the presence of television sets in the shacks of even the most abject sharecroppers in Mississippi. (48)

Still. There are so many stories here of resistance. On Dollie Burwell’s mother:

Required to enter by the rear door, Dollie’s mother went into the back with her coat on, took the broom from the closet, backed out the door, walked around to the front, swept, and entered through the main door every day before taking off her coat and starting to work in earnest. (50)

One of my favourite stories.

On fear, and the folks who never were part of the mass movement that rocked the South:

“Most of the folks had not even been involved in the integration,” remembers Dollie. “Too afraid.” (54)

Still, I am wondering about these definitions of ‘activists’, which seem as unchallenged as ‘feminists’:

At the time of the public meeting in January 1979, neither Ken nor Deborah had ever engaged in any political activities…They were most definitely not political activists looking for a cause. (56)

Because for all Dollie Burwell was a local, ‘homegrown’ leader, she was still connected to the United Church of Christ and the SCLC, helped bring in Floyd McKissick, once head of CORE and enormously influential and very well known. The power of movement, seems to me, lies in connecting people and organisation around issues that matter to people.

Another great quote that seems to make this point from Cora Tucker again, as a speaker at the (so very famous) Women and Toxic Organizing Conference of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, November 1987:

People don’t get all the connections. They say the environment is over here, the civil rights groups is over there, the women’s group is over there, and the other groups are here. Actually all of them are one group, and the issues we fight become null and void if we have no clean water to drink, no clean air to breathe and nothing to eat. (69)

Again we return to themes of connection, conversation, collective naming and working towards change — done as well by ‘homemaker citizens’ as anyone else:

Conversation creates and enhances citizenship as people learn to stand up for their rights by comparing notes about what is going on, confronting authorities, and working toward a solution, gaining confidence about perceptions they might otherwise think are awry. Dollie Burwell does not separate efforts to get people to vote from attempts to get them to stand up for their right to a clean and safe environment. For her, as for political scientist Mary Dietz, democracy is “the form of politics that brings people together as citizens.” (74)

The redefinitions of what we are fighting for that emerges from this:

As far as these particular activists are concerned, justice is not limited to rights under the law, but to what they think the law was designed to protect: the well-being of citizens and their access to the social resources necessary to sustain their lives. According to Lois Gibbs, “Justice is about choice; it is the goal and democracy is the process.” (75)

The fact that you don’t have to call it by a specialised term to actually be doing it. Organising is a great deal of common sense working to change things — not to say that there aren’t things to be learned, experiences to build on.

Gibbs recalls that when she began at Love Canal she “didn’t know that what I was doing was called ‘organizing.’ We didn’t use that term. We called it talking to people, getting them together, reaching a decision and taking action–for the survival of our children and ourselves.” (77)

Again, in the words of Lois Gibbs:

“A trained, professional organizer will let people fail, if by failing they learn. A professional organizer places a higher value on building long-term, deep-seated community power, and sometimes losing a fight (but learning from it) is a way to build this power . . . The organizer would rather build the group than win the issue.” (83)

I like that ideal. I think there is a big tension here between winning and inspiring people in that way, and letting people learn and fail. It’s not a tension whose resolution always goes this direction, and it is not always the organiser who can choose. I wanted more of these tensions, organisational tensions, movement tensions…

A final reminder of just how much work is actually happening that folks never hear about, as Kaplan notes that smaller victories led locally

seldom get reported. This makes traditional black organizations such as the Southern California Christian Leadership Conference, CORE, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Commission on Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ seem less active than they are. (98)

Crossroads

From US environmental justice movements, Kaplan moves into the descriptions of the Crossroads movement, the struggles of Regina Ntongana. Somehow this really felt as though it were where the book came into its own, but perhaps it is because I am so unfamiliar with these struggles, whereas Love Canal and Afton are well studied (there are mentions of them in many an Environmental Justice reader, for example, as foundational movements).

The growth of the ‘informal’ Crossroads settlement was amazing — from 20 shacks in February 1975 to about 4,000 in April 1978. Kaplan writes:

twenty thousand inhabitants in three thousand handmade dwellings consumed an area of approximately two square miles in which only one street, the Street of Mice (Mpuku), had a name. (133)

Again we see women organising themselves, but getting help from established organisations who had done similar things and were thus able to connect them up to knowledge, support and solidarity. Kaplan doesn’t use this language or investigate more deeply into this because clearly her focus is on emerging organisation, but to me it underlines the importance of what Aldon Morris called movement halfway houses.  In this case, Crossroads found  help from the Black Sash, which originated as the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League in 1955. In seeking help they also radicalised Black Sash — up to that  point the organisation had only defended people legally occupying land, to help get their rights. In supporting Crossroads, the women there succeeded in moving the organisation into a whole new area supporting squatters win rights to land, and thus challenging the system more broadly. Definitely a very good example of the power of women, of informal organisation, but also the importance of support.

They built three schools, demolished and rebuilt in turn. Damn.

The women of Crossroads continued to build relationships and seek institutional support on their own terms — and again, the ways in which they did this and managed these power relationships are so interesting to me but this is much more focused on the simple facts of doing it — they brought in Quakers to teach, contacted the Institute of Race Relations, the Urban Problems Research Unit, the Provincial Ecumenical Council, the Anglican Church.

They used plays and role playing much along the lines of Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed — though Kaplan never uses that term. I was just curious if some of this was inspired by outside, though again it is one of those radical traditions that seems organic to many cultures.

The point is well made that in South Africa, the women of the Crossroads settlement were considered ‘Surplus People’. There is a world to be unpacked there.

I am fascinated, too, by Regina Ntongana’s description of leadership:

the grassroots are like a bundle of clothing, all in different colors. What gives them shape is the wire over which they dry. The clothesline is the leader. (157)

There is more on the naming of things, the comparison of social justice as the term of struggle in the US, whereas social citizenship was the term in South Africa is quite interesting. I am not sure all of the comparisons quite worked.

But this made me laugh out loud:

When I asked Ma if she was a feminist, since she works primarily with women and has suffered some of the worst indignities male leaders can inflict, she stopped for a moment. Then she looked up at me and said, deliberately: “I am a Christian, and therefore I believe God has a reason for everything.” Then she hesitated, waited a few beats, and added: “He must have had some reason for creating men.” (177)

Conclusions

All of this framing was interesting, and provoked a number of further questions in me… she identifies a ‘collective action’ school — and includes Aldon Morris, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly (I still haven’t read Tilly, shocking) in that… That surprised me a little I suppose, I see them as being quite different from each other. I also wish this framing of ‘social movement studies’ could open up more along the lines of what Peet and Watts lay out in Liberation Ecologies. But in this comaprison, Kaplan writes of the three figures named that they study:

what has historically galvanized people to take action in pursuit of collective interests. Primarily concerned with the growing sophistication of the processes by which ordinary people confront those in power, shape their own goals, and–most important–form complex organizations to express their wishes…’ (181)

her critique:

collective action theorists frequently view loose associations merely as tendencies guiding potential insurgents toward one organization rather than another. Networks then become means to certain organizational ends rather than strong webs connecting politically vital local groups…leaders and key events directed by highly visible organizations assume greater significance than do processes by which large numbers of people resist oppression and develop programs for transforming society. (181-182)

She instead argues these are more based around informality, remaining networks and that as such are as key to social change:

What is new is that instead of disappearing after initial grievances have been aired, or instead of being absorbed into larger, more complicated, hierarchical organizations, the new democratic organizations of women have been able to sustain themselves as networks over long periods of time and over great geographical distances. (183)

I can’t help but feel after reading it, that both are true. That networks always exist, but in her own account, organisations did support these beginning networks in rather vital ways at key points. It’s tricky because people also join and drop out of organisations, move around. Someone like Ella Baker shows how muddy this ground might be. She was part of a vast network of contacts, — institutional, familial, informal — that she was able to draw on in different ways over a span of decades. That’s who she was. Her effectiveness and brilliance as an organiser who remained almost always out of the limelight came in being part of both personal networks and a member of the SCLC, SCEF and others.  Was she this figure found here of ‘feminist’ or ‘professional activist looking for a cause’?

Anyway, lots to think about, and undoubtedly true that networks — particularly women’s networks — have rarely been looked at or given anything near the serious study they deserve in movement. And then there is always the fact that is a rare book full of amazing women.

[Kaplan, Temma (1997) Crazy for Democracy: women in grassroots movements. New York: Routledge.]

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Caravaggio in Rome: Violence, Art, Dirty Feet

caravaggio-life-sacred-and-profaneAndrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.

It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.

A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:

Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.

Ottavia Leoni, 'Drawing of the Portrait of Caravaggio' Florence, Biblioteca Marucelliana © Photo Scala, Florence
Ottavia Leoni, ‘Drawing of the Portrait of Caravaggio’ Florence, Biblioteca Marucelliana
© Photo Scala, Florence

He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:

Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.

This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.

As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.

Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that  ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:

Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…

Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.

After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts,  apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.

One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)

Caravaggio - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
Caravaggio – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches —  like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.

More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:

We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.

Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.

600px-medusa_by_caravaggio_2

A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:

Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.

Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes

The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.

Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.

michelangelo_caravaggio_51_martha_and_mary_magdaleneHere she is again as St Catharine  of Alexandria (c. 1598)– I wish I had seen this earlier, when I worked at the Foundation. More shadows.

michelangelo_caravaggio_060There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.

Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.

This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):

1280px-caravaggio_-_la_vocazione_di_san_matteoAnother one — The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601)

8064-the-crucifixion-of-saint-peter-caravaggioGraham-Dixon writes that:

The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.

The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:

In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.

Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.

When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.

It was very different from the rising countercurrent of

a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.

Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).

Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:

They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.

It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.

Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.

600px-caravaggio_matthewandtheangel_bymikeyangelsWWII bombs destroyed it in Berlin.

The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:

san-matteo-e-langelo-1

His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).

incredulity-of-saint-thomas-1602And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.

It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate

That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):

By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.

Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.

On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.

The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of  series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:

The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.

That, actually, was just funny.

More on the particularities of the papal state.

Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.

Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:

There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can  be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …

Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:

Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.

They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.

It becomes the dirty behaviour of a pimp. An abuser. Who still paints…look, just look at what he paints. Caravaggio madonna of loretto

This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.

Graham-Dixon writes:

No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.

Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:

…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.

Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.

And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:

I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.

He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.

It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.

Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.

Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.

He didn’t.

This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:

…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.

A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.

sword-dagger-caravaggio

And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.

Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:

300px-caravaggio_-_la_flagellazione_di_cristoPictures such as the Seven Acts and The Flagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.

But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.

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Lyn Lofland: Aesthetics & Cosmopolitanism of the Public Realm

lyn-lofland-public-realmI end these series of posts on Lyn Lofland’s The Public Realm on a positive note (also see posts one, two and three). She bases her book based on the ‘root assumption … that the public realm has social value.’ (229) I will wrap up with her look at the aesthetics of city spaces, as well as the positive aspects they bring to our lives and to our societies as a whole.

First, aesthetic pleasures:

By aesthetic pleasure, I am referring to the experience of enjoyment occasioned by certain (mostly) visual qualities of the built environment. (78)

It is interesting that Lofland’s own analysis of the city’s cuilt environment and spaces doesn’t really intersect with those of Alexander, Cullen, or Sitte with whom they share much in common, but it is a good list.

Perceptual Innuendo:

…the pleasure that arises from glimpsing a small piece of the built environment, a glimpse that suggests that an interesting, exotic, weird, enticing, possibly enchanting social world exists just outside one’s range of vision. (80)

Unexpectedness:

There is research suggesting a fairly strong preference for urban places that are “familiar”…for some individuals at least, the opposite of the quality of familiarity — unexpectedness– seems also to appeal… the issue becomes not one or the other, but how much of one, how much of the other… (81)

Also note the fact that a very fat cat named Tidly used to live in London Paddington’s lady’s loo!

Whimsy: Fanciful, frivolous, eccentric street furniture or sculpture — she uses Prince Albert Memorial as an example, I confess I am slightly unsure of its suitedness.

Historical Layering/ Physical Juxtaposition: Again London is a prime example, ancient buildings alongside modern.

Crowding/ Stimulus Diversity/Spectacle: Self-explanatory

These are the aesthetic pleasures of the city, but Lofland also argues there are interactional pleasures in the ways that  people populate the built environment. I like this list too…

Public Solitude: often described negatively, but if so many people seek it out, surely might be because it is enjoyable, being surrounded by the hum of conversation, being part of a crowd

People-Watching: catching glimpses or snatches of conversations about other people’s lives the ways perceptual innuendo aloows glimpses of anticipated elsewheres

Public Sociability: found in secondary interactions, regular pubs or cafes etc

Playfulness/Frivolity/Fantasy: humour, flirting etc

In many ways this list is a bit similar to the list of things campaigns have directly attacked about public space. Which is interesting.

To move on to the value of the public realm itself beyond the aesthetic. Lofland looks at the wealth of literature (cites Fischer 1982, Wellman and Wortley 1990, Berger 1977) on the value of the parochial realm, of ‘community’, neighbourhood, kin and friend networks, organisations, which all testify to

our certainty that the parochial realm gives us a degree of physical and emotional safety; enlarges, while still containing, the world of our growing young; provides us with affirmation of our personal worth; and “mediates” our linkages to the powerful nation-state. (229)

She notes in addition the feminist critique of the dangers of the city for women, but cites Elizabeth Wilson (1991: 7,10) on what the city provides in addition:

The city offers women freedom . . . Surely it is possible to be both pro-cities and pro-women, to hold in balance an awareness of both the pleasures and the dangers that the city offers women, and to judge that in the end, urban life, however fraught with difficulty, has emancipated women more than rural life or suburban domesticity. (230)

Lofland also argues that city generates cosmopolitanism, that it

produces — by its very nature — a populace that is far more open to and accepting of human variability, far more inclined to civility … (231)

The idea of cosmopolitanism, has, of course, been much studied since 1998 and the best of it getting at this kind of dynamic rather than simply the mobilities and diversity of privilege. Lofland loves lists almost as much as I do I think, and makes what she calls an ‘Inventory of Utility’ (231) or 6 uses or functions of the public realm — another very useful list:

  1. An environment for learning
  2. Respites and refreshments — places to sit and rest, drink, enjoy
  3. A Communications Center — places to meet, talk
  4. The “Practice” of Politics — builds on Sennet’s arguments around public space and how they build citizenship
  5. The Enactment of Social Arrangements and Social Conflict — public dramas and spectacles
  6. The Creation of Cosmopolitans: ‘claim that city living — by itself — generated tolerance and civility, that city living — by itself — created cosmopolitans … one of the linchpins in the argument that cities are good places to live.’ (237)

She then digs deeper into this idea of cosmopolitanism and what facilitates it, looking at both the negative and positive tolerances that are generated in city life. To start with what studies seem to show are the negative tolerances and the ways that they are generated:

  1. People share a larger bounded space but not the smaller pieces of it (238) — Robert Park’s descriptions of urban mosaic where people remain almost invisible to each other
  2. People physically share smaller spaces within the larger space but segregate themselves from one another symbolically.  (238) Visible in preindustrial city, where classes for example shared space but did not interact

I need to think more about those. This is not just indifference, but self-segregation, even if at a small scale …. I don’t think this has to be part of how people react to the public realm, but rather reflects the divisions in the larger society, particularly the US. On to what generates positive tolerances:

  1. Diverse people are not segregated into homogeneous enclaves and are forced to settle whatever conflicts arise among them without recourse to centrally imposed instruments of order. (239)
  2. People have mastered the complexity of the urban environment sufficiently to move through it with a high degree of psychic safety. (239) … the mastery of shorthand methods for accurately interpreting who people are and what they are up to allows urbanites to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner … and thus allows them to confront the heterogeneity of the city with a minimum of distrust and fear.
  3. The levels of community closest to the actor (the home, the immediate neighborhood) are secure and nonthreatening. (240) People have to be able to withdraw to safety.
  4.   People are able to control the character and quality of their contact with diverse others. This can’t be forced.
  5. People possess certain demographic characteristics. those characteristics themselves generating a capacity for tolerance. (240) The literature talks about these demographics being highly educated, high status, single, childless… this seems wrong to me, very wrong, I mean look at the conviviality of working class neighborhoods. But researchers tend not to come from those neighborhoods, and they aren’t all convivial I suppose. Dearborn in the 50s for example. Anyway.

An interesting list. More interesting is the way that cosmpolitanism as a positive force emerges not from those relationships more privileged by most social scientists, but from fleeting public ones:

The learning of tolerance, the creation of cosmopolitanism may require the existence of and repeated experience with “nonintimate,” “noncommunal,” relationships. Limited, segmental, episodic, distanced links between self and other may constitute the social situations that both allow and teach civility and urbanity in the face of significant differences. And this assertion brings us to the matter of the public realm. (242)

Also interesting is the list of potential ideal conditions for the creation of cosmopolitanism, what Lofland calls a ‘highly regulated urban anarchism’

  1. City should be small and compactly settled, pedestrian or mass-transit oriented, people share public realm in pursuit of everyday activity
  2. Degree of segregation of people and activities minimized
  3. Differences between people must be seen by them as ‘meaningful’ — they must be encountering people with whom they disagree, disapprove, or fear mild fear .. the city must have a hard edge as opposed to DIsneyland city
  4. This hard edge cannot be felt to make public space feel so dangerous, people do not venture into it (243)

I like the emphasis that it cannot be a fully safe space, that it has to be full of strangers and challenging to people’s prejudices, that it has to minimize segregation and homogeneity…

All in all, I found this an immensely useful and thought-provoking work that I hope to think through further…

[Lofland, Lyn H. (1998) The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory. New York: Aldine de Gruyter)

More on The Public Realm

and even more…

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Emily Dickinson’s The Gorgeous Nothings

emily dickinson the gorgeous nothingsThis huge hardback book The Gorgeous Nothings is rather breathtaking — despite the fact that really it consists of scribbles from Emily Dickinson. I had earlier flipped through it a bit confused — my mum had got it from the library so I had no fore-warning of just what it contained.

This is what a flip-through will show you, envelop poems on the one side, a careful and spatially exact transcription on the other:

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Poems written on envelopes carefully undone and opened out, poems that spill out to fit the space allotted, even when it is tiny.

emily dickinson the gorgeous nothingsScraps of paper covered with words.

They are profoundly moving.

This was one of my favourites, and is also subject to a lovely essay at the end by Marta Werner:

benfey-dickinson-envelope a-821-trans

wheels of birds, afternoon and the west the gorgeous nothings

Werner writes

If I had not held it lightly in my hands, I would never have suspected the manner in which it was assembled. Although its brevity and immediacy place it outside the reach of conventional classifications, it bears a striking affinity to the genre David Porter names “small, rickety infinitudes.”

Look at it here, flying on the page, vying with light. (199)

The pinpricks are from where Dickinson pinned her scraps of paper together. I think of her now overflowing with scraps of paper.

circa 1850: American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886). (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
circa 1850: American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886). (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

 

A view of the book with Pluto the guinea pig who poses with books (and there are reviews sometimes), one of my new favourite tumblr blogs.

http://plutosbooks.tumblr.com/post/133289260584/the-complete-sherlock-holmes-and-pluto
http://plutosbooks.tumblr.com/post/133289260584/the-complete-sherlock-holmes-and-pluto

There is little that can describe the cumulative effect of these scraps of paper, these scratches of writing that you become better at puzzling through, though too often relying on the typed transcriptions. They range from pointed, sarcastic responses to daily life to collections of words that seem to mean little to deeply moving fragments so evocative of beauty.

Not until reading this did I realise just how much the rhythm of Dickinson’s poems had been shifted, regularised upon the page by her editors. These fragments show space and irregular rhythms, the process of playing with words.

And oh, did I say they are impossibly moving?

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Ella Baker — a biography from J. Todd Moye

17846757It was good to carve out the time to read two books on Ella Baker, I don’t think I do this enough really. Moye focused much on her role as an organizer than Barbara Ransby did, and quoted her directly a little more often, which I really liked.

[Y]ou didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put pieces together out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders. (2)

It’s nice to see the whole of that quote, not just the last line. I loved this one as well:

The problem in the South is not radical thought. The problem is not even conservative thought. The problem in the South is not enough thought. (5)

Ella Baker was born in 1903, the year that W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk. I like how Moye connects those two things. There are more stories of her family here, her grandmother conceived out of rape, the politics of the plantation and her battle to marry the man she wanted. Baker told these stories as:

a certain kind of commitment or resentment. It is not the kind of thing we would advocate at this point, but it shows that the drive for full dignity as human beings goes very deep in the struggle. (12)

Moye in many ways emphasises what Ransby also emphasised — Baker’s closeness to women’s organising as she grew up, being able to see just how well women could run meetings, set policy, manage finances. (20)

There is more on Harlem, too, from Baker herself once more:

the hotbed of–let’s call it radical thinking. You had every spectrum of radical thinking. . . . the ignorant ones, like me, we had lots of opportunity to hear and to evaluate whether or not this was the kind of thing you wanted to get into. Boy, it was good, stimulating! (31)

Moye emphasises she was reading Marx, discussing it in these radical circles, but that she could separate these ideas on social and economic organisation from the party itself, to which she never was committed. She worked very closely, of course, with George Schuyler on cooperatives (the YNCL goal – ‘to gain economic power through consumer cooperation’ (34)), and this book made me want to map out all of these connections because I keep finding new ones the more I read. I didn’t know that Schuyler had spent 1920s working for The Messenger, socialist magazine run by A. Philip Randolph, moved on to Pittsburgh Courier and the Negro National News.

Baker also formed the 135th St Library’s first Negro History Club with librarian Ernestine Rose. In 1933 she joined the branch’s Adult Education Committee, where she sponsored speakers and programs. In 1934 she was hired part time to coordinate community outreach programs. I hadn’t realised how connected she was to the library, quite how pivotal they were.

She was friends with Lester Granger, and he is the one who helped her get on the WPA’s Worker Education Project. She was always looking for work. That was brought home harder here I think, or perhaps I just noticed more the very precarious position she seemed to live through most of her life, looking for ways to work in the movement. On the WPA, Baker describes their connections they made:

We’d go around to settlement houses and conduct classes. For instance, those who were very knowledgeable about the history of working class organizations all the way back to the guild… (40)

They did union halls as well.

Moving to the NAACP years — there is more here on the many conflicts with director Walter White, his clashes with former director of branches William Pickens — the only other NAACP person from national office who had visited branches in South. Baker had a bruising schedule:

In 1942, between February and early July addressed 178 different groups, visited 38 branches in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia (51)

She encouraged branches to organise around problems they had identified, helped them develop campaigns as bottom up not top down. Saw her role when forced into accepting the position as Director of Branches:

To increase the extent to which the present membership participates in national and local activities…. To extend the membership base so as to have local branches include a larger proportion fo people in any given community….To transform the local branches from being centers of sporadic activity to becoming centers of sustained and dynamic community leadership. (59-60)

She held a leadership conference in NY December of 1944, then others in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Atlanta in first half of 1945. Look at this amazing picture:

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The 1946 conference in Atlanta called ‘Give Light and the People Will find a Way’, was attended by representatives for Montgomery branch (a branch which Ella had ‘nurtured’ as field secretary), E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks (62). More connections.

In 1946 she worked with CORE and FOR to plan the Journey of Reconciliation — the integrated ride through the South that she and Pauli Murray were prevented from going on as they were women. This became the blueprint for the later Freedom Rides. (67) More connections.

At the same time (how she had time, I do not know) Baker was also doing a lot of work with the NY branch of NAACP, particularly with the branch’s education committee, and serving as an advisor to youth council.

There is a little more information on ‘In Friendship’, the organisation she helped found and run to support the movement in the South, which in addition to fundraising:

also provided technical assistance to southern civil rights campaigns, organized conferences that brought together activists from throughout the region, and embarked on public relations campaigns that publicized conditions in the South to the rest of the country. (80)

Moye explores a little further the relationships between Ella Baker and both Septima Clark and Myles Horton, notes that she had participated in dozens of workshops at Highlander — I thought it must be so. She also worked with the Bradens from SCEF from early on:

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In Friendship raised $2,000 for the Montgomery Improvement Association, and another $4,000 to send ML King to Africa and India to study Ghana’s independence movement and Gandhi’s philosophy. I find this quite extraordinary, partly in that I hadn’t heard it before, partly in the importance placed on education and building international solidarity.

The In Friendship trio (Baker, Rustin, Levinson) were continuing to look for what came next after the Montgomery movement — this is Baker on the SCLC:

We began to talk about the need for developing in the South a mass force that would . . . become a counterbalance, let’s call it, to the NAACP. (89)

There is more on how frustrated she was at the lack of momentum after Montgomery. Looking back it doesn’t feel that way until you take more note of the time between the boycott and those first sit-ins. There was a tentative step, though, towards the voter registration campaigns that would follow in the Crusade for Citizenship — only meant to be a one day action (!). SCLC had done none of the planning when they brought Baker on, yet she still pulled off some success. She continued to organise in support of mass movement and building a strong grassroots base, with a focus on MIA and the United Christian Movement (UCM) in Shreveport.

Moye writes that Baker pushed SCLC to partner with Highlander, stating that:

Bringing Clark from Highlander to SCLC may have been Baker’s greatest contribution to the organization. (102)

While I don’t know if this is true, amazing as Clark was, this becomes an even more curious omission for me in Ransby’s work.

There are more connections made here between Baker and some of the key figures and events — things that give me hope. The 4 students who lead the Greensboro sit in were part of NAACP youth group started by Randolph Bakewell — at the suggestion of field secretary Ella Baker. Bob Moses? His family had been members of one of the Harlem cooperatives that Baker organized in the 1930s, he and his brothers had delivered their milk (119). These are such wonderful examples of the effects that ripple outwards from positive action and that only come to fruition over a long period of time.

A few more quotes on Ella Baker’s leadership style, the kind of leadership that created so many leaders. This is from an (unnamed)  SNCC member:

Usually she preferred to answer [a question] with another question and then another, forcing us to refine our thinking and to struggle toward  an answer for ourselves. (123)

From Mary King:

At a very important period in my life, Miss Baker tempered my natural tenacity and determination with flexibility and made me suspicious of dogmatism… She taught me one of the most important lessons I have learned in life: There are many legitimate and effective avenues for social change and there is no single right way. She helped me see that the profound changes we were seeking in the social order could not be won without multiple strategies. She encouraged me to avoid being doctrinaire. “Ask questions, Mary,” she would say. (124)

Baker’s philosophy and SNCC’s slogan? Now so widely used I never knew where it came from: ‘Let the People Decide’ (126)

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Always she worked to support the capacity of groups to make their own strategic decisions. When CORE called off the freedom rides and SNCC decided to continue them under the leadership of Diane Nash, Baker wrote them a three-page analysis of what she believed had been done wrong so far and needed to be improved on — media strategy for example (128).

A final aside on the importance of women to this movement despite the ways they were often sidelined as Baker’s biography and Danielle McGuire’s work make clear among others. Womanpower Unlimited — a group formed by local women in Jackson to collect money, clothing etc for the freedom riders, then further developed into conducting voter registration, education and peace activism (133). More ripples, more connections.

Baker became openly socialist at the end of her life, I’ll end on this 1969 address to Spelman College, which I love.

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system. That is easier said than done. But one of the things that has to be faced is in the process of wanting to change that system, how much have we got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. (166)

[Moye, J. Todd (2013) Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.]

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Danielle McGuire — Black Women, Rape and Resistance

Danielle McGuire - At the Dark End of the StreetI love how Danielle McGuire has put women’s struggle against sexual violence and rape front and center of the freedom struggle. Where it always was, though never enough acknowledged. She says it more eloquently than I could:

The real story–that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women’s long  struggle against sexual violence–has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African American lives during the modern civil rights movement. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African Americans’ daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement. At the End of the Street does both. (xx)

I have been reading and reading and reading…so much reading. And yet Danielle McGuire has brought together so much I didn’t know. Through Septima Clark and Ella Baker I’ve come to know Rosa Parks a little better, but I never knew that as part of her work for the NAACP she was sent to investigate reports of rape. On a trip to Abbeville, her hometown, she helped document and fight with Recy Taylor — kidnapped at gunpoint as she walked home with her family, and raped by all four men before being left in the woods.

My heart, oh my heart broke to read so many stories of white men openly kidnapping black women to rape them, and even on the rare occasions it came to trial, no one was ever sentenced. Still. Rosa Parks helped set up the Committee for Equal Justice, a network of groups started up in support of Recy Taylor’s case. It built on some of the frameworks established to help the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. The National Negro Congress held a mass meeting in Harlem to discuss the case — and my own well-studied and well-loved California Eagle was there among multiple other black-owned papers. I’m sure it was Charlotta Bass herself, I need to look through her autobiography to see if she mentions it.

Of course, despite (actually, probably because) it was white men raping black women with impunity, it was the reverse scenario that invoked terror:

Unsubstantiated rumors of black men attacking innocent white women sparked almost 50 percent of all race riots in the United States between Reconstruction and World War II. In 1943 alone there were 242 violent interracial clashes in forty-seven cities. (26)

Then back we come to the importance of this in understanding the civil rights movement:

Only by understanding the long and relatively hidden history of sexualized violence in Montgomery, Alabama, and African Americans’ efforts to protect black womanhood, can we see that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was more than a movement for civil rights. It was also a women’s movement for dignity, respect and bodily integrity. (51)

Just as the more background to this, there’s the case of Willie McGee in Laurel, Mississippi, his white employer sleeping with him telling him if he didn’t — and if her ever broke it off — she would cry rape. There’s his wife’s resignation to the situation, because what power did they have in such a situation? He was executed by the state after his employer did in fact call rape — sentenced in 1945, all appeals lost by 1951.  There’s Maceo Snipes killed for being the only black man to vote in Georgia, on 17th July 1946. In Montgomery itself, in 1949 there was Gertrude Perkins picked up by two police officers at the bus stop, driven out of town, raped, returned to the bus stop.

But Montgomery was well organised. McGuire describes Rufus A. Lewis — WWII vet and football coach at Alabama State University, member of church and multiple association, owner of largest Black funeral home:

he was financially independent and not easily intimidated by white economic reprisals. Lewis parlayed his social and economic wealth into a spacious brick clubhouse, named the Citizens Club. It functioned as the headquarters for many of the city’s community organizations. Here Lewis taught veterans and others the ins and outs of voter registration and created a safe space where African Americans could “come and socialize” and, in the process, get politicized. (70)

In every book about movement, spaces like this seem to be so important.

Then there was the Women’s Political Council, founded by Mary Fair Burks, working with Rufus Lewis’s veterans group as well as E.D. Nixon’s Progressive Democrats, who registered voters and ran classes. Jo Ann Robinson became its head, began to focus on the buses.

They were connected to the group ‘Sojourners for Truth and Justice’, a short-lived but important organization formed by Louise Thomspon Patterson and Beulah Richardson issuing a call to women  to convene in D.C. in support of Du Bois in 1951. They highlighted Rosa Lee Ingram’s case, a single mother and sharecropper in Georgia. In 1947, a white man attempted to rape her while her two sons were present, and in the struggle the attacker was killed. All three were sentenced to death. They were paroled in 1959.

Because of the work the Women’s Political Council had already done on the buses, they were all ready to go when Rosa Parks made her stand. After hearing about her arrest they immediately called for a bus boycott for the following Monday, over the weekend they bundled, mimeographed and cut 52,500 flyers (holy jesus!) and distributed them. These women were awesome. The day-long boycott was a huge success, taking place the same day as Rosa appeared in court.

I love this phrase, called out during the court hearing and taken up as a chant: ‘they’ve messed with the wrong one now’. Almost immediately, however, the women were pushed out of leadership. Neither Rosa nor Jo Ann Robinson was allowed to be present at the meeting to form the Montgomery Improvement Association nor invited to be part of the leadership. At the 1st mass meeting Rosa Parks was seen but not heard, turned into a quiet respectable lady for the press, and removed from her activist past. McGuire writes:

As long as WPC members handled the day-to-day business of the boycott, Jo Ann Robinson did not challenge the MIA’s male leadership. “We felt it would be better,” Robinson said, “if the ministers held the most visible leadership positions.” (108)

But look at this picture

African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956. (p 109)
African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956. (p 109)

A large bulk of the funds were raised by Mrs. Georgia Gilmore, who formed a club called the Club from Nowhere to make food, sell it and donate the proceeds to the boycott, in Gilmore’s words:

When we’d raise as much as three hundred dollars for a Monday night rally, then we knowed we was on our way for five hundred on Thursday night. (118)

Whites directed violence at the walkers, most of the women — pelting them from their cars with water balloons, containers of urine, rotten eggs, potatoes, apples. Jo Ann Robinson had a brick thrown through her window, acid poured all over her car. Police did mass ticketing of anyone black driving over the period — Robinson alone received over 30 tickets. On January 30 whites bombed King’s house, two days later E.D. Nixon’s, everyone was provided with armed guards.

Arrests were used in a political attempt to stop the bus boycott. The Grand Jury indicted eight-nine people as being behind an illegal boycott — all of them came to court to turn themselves in. An amazing series of mug shots resulted — a hall of fame really. Look at these amazing women:

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They all knew this boycott had changed things.

Watching the crowd mock the police, Jo Ann Robinson realized the world she had always known had somehow changed. The fear that had held black people down had began to evaporate. “If there was any nervousness or uneasiness,” she argued, “it was on the part of the whites.” (126)

Still, official tellings fell so very short. Danielle McGuire notes how FOR’s retelling of the story in their comic book showed Rosa Parks as just a tired woman. It shows ministers coming to her rescue and themselves calling for the boycott, describes an anguished Martin Luther King muttering ‘something ought to be done’, and then himself mimeographing 500 leaflets (131). It beggars belief really. And then there’s the fact that the court cases actually ending segregation on public transportation were Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, Mrs. Aurelia Browder, and Mrs Susie McDonald. (132) Why streamline a movement and a heroism that belongs to so many people? This post is a little too listy because all these things happened that I had either not read about or simply not registered — though I am not listing everything either.

There’s a mention of Daisy Bates, who with husband L.C. Bates owned the Arkansas State Press — another African-American press woman and newspaper owner! I thought Charlotta Bass the only one in these years. I hope to read more of her, but part of what drove her forward — her own mother was raped and murdered by three white men when Daisy Bates was seven.

1959 — Betty Jean Owens is kidnapped at gunpoint by four men, driven off and raped in Florida.

Fanny Lou Hamer went to hospital for removal of small cyst, and they removed her whole uterus without her consent. This was a common occurrence. This was before she ever started protesting.

In June 1963 Hamer and other SNCC volunteers were arrested in Winona, Mississippi for sitting at the lunch counter in the bus terminal. Women one by one were stripped, beaten, sexually humiliated. Prisoners regularly ‘herded into exam room with cattle prods’, stripped and searched, women underwent “rough, painful vaginal searches’, in Parchman penitentiary, all of this with gloves dipped in lysol. (196)

Such physical assaults connect, of course, to a huge amount of white anxiety about sex, about miscegenation (that they do not initiate and control), and the use of rumours and lies to stir up fear and hate. Freedom summer itself was portrayed as an attempt to miscegenate, with young students described as sex-crazed ‘beatniks’ and black rapists brought in to attack white women (206). McGuire quotes Karl Flemming of Newsweek:

That is what it was all about, all the time, everywhere. It was the great underpinning of the whole damn thing–just pure sexual fear. (207)

Sally Belfrage, in her book Freedom Summer, writes that they

knew that whites overblown orations about interracial sex masked an all-out effort to defend their position atop the political, economic, and social hierarchy. (208)

She also described the hypocrisy of what they called ‘nighttime integration’ as white men raped black women, but refused ever to acknowledge the consequences in the form of their light-skinned children.

On March 25, 1965, as marchers arrived in Montgomery from Selma, downtown was empty. Governor George Wallace had declared a “danger holiday for female state employees.” (212) An Alabama congressman stated that all the volunteers who had poured into Selma for the march had been hired, given free room and board and promised free sex (219). He hired Albert C. Persons to investigate, and he came up with Sex and Civil Rights: The True Selma Story, full of doctored photographs. Much of this was recycled in Jim Clark’s book I Saw Selma Raped: The Jim Clark Story.

Such vileness.

McGuire quotes Virginia Durr from her autobiography Outside the Magic Circle (1987, p 175)

All of the cesspool of sickness connected with sex guilt comes from the fact that white men of the South had had so many sexual affairs with black women. And they just turned it around. It’s the only thing I can figure out that made them so crazy on the subject. (222)

There’s the murder of Viola Liuzzo, white Detroit housewife, driving people home after the Montgomery march, shot dead by a car full of the KKK and an FBI agent along for the ride. Hoover immediately went into action to smear her character as race traitor, prostitute and bad mother and deflect attention onto anything but  the FBI’s role. (225)

Not until 1967’s Loving v Virginia were laws against interracial marriage finally struck down.

McGuire ends with the 1974 Joan Little case, “Power to the Ice Pick”, who used his own weapon against the white prison guard attempting to rape her before fleeing prison. The campaign to defend her from execution was an historic one, but not in the ways it is traditionally argued. The NAACP continued to make their distinctions between cases worth taking to push equality forward, as it

‘maintained its historic reluctance to embrace “sex cases” and did not get involved; however, local chapters helped raise money. (261)

And here McGuire challenges the other assumptions about this case:

The Free Joan Little campaign is often portrayed as the product of second-wave feminism, which finally enable women to break the code of silence surrounding sexual violence and “speak out” against rape. While this may be true for white, middle-class feminists who became active in the antirape movement in the early 1970s, African-American women had been speaking out and organizing politically against sexual violence and rape for more than a century. (277)

[McGuire, Danielle L. (2010) At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books.]

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