Tag Archives: race

The Amazing Oreo By Fran Ross


Fran Ross’s Oreo is amazing and hilarious and wondrous, I cannot believe I had never heard of it before, never read it. It is funny, so few books are actually successfully funny. Brilliant inventive language and a dance through culture and knowledge that makes absurd any distinction between high and low. All about race, hybridity, fierce female strength and sass that is comfortable in its own skin. It contains some awesome whipping of some pimp ass. Philly v New York. My my, but you could not ask for more.

Writing so much about segregation, this made me laugh out loud but it is not the best bit by any stretch. That might be the bit about riding the bus, but might not. There are so many.

The family favorite that night was the story she told about playing at a house party in the all-black suburb of Whitehall, so much in the news when low-income whites were making their first pitiful attempts to get in. The upper-middle-class blacks of Whitehall objected to the palefaces, not because they were poor (“The poor we have with us always,” said town spokesman, the Reverend Cotton Smith-Jones, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church), but because they were white (“We just do not want whitey, with his honky ways, around us,” said Reverend Smith-Jones to a chorus of genteel Episcopalian “Amens”). As Chuck Smith-Jones pointed out, whitey was beyond help. Chuck did not groove on crime in the streets, the way black people did; he did not dig getting his head whipped, his house robbed, his wife raped, the way black people did; he was not really in getting his jollies over his youngsters’ popping pills, tripping out, or shooting up, the way black people did. Such uptight, constipated people should not he allowed to mingle with decent, pleasure-loving black folk. That was the true story, but officially Whitehall had to be against the would-be intruders on the basis of poverty.

The town adopted a strict housing code, which was automatically rescinded for blacks and reinstated whenever whites appeared. (The code was shredded, its particles sprinkled into confiscated timed-release capsules, and is now part of the consciousness of millions of cold sufferers.) “Keep Whitehall black,” the townspeople chanted in their characteristically rich baritones and basses. “If you’re black, you’re all right, jack; if you’re white, get out of my sight,” said others in aberrant Butterfly McQueen falsettos. These and other racist slogans were heani, as the social, moral, economic, and political life of the town was threatened.

The white blue-collar workers who labored so faithfully at the Smith-Jones Afro Wig and Dashiki Co., Inc., were welcome to earn their daily bread in the town, but they were not welcome to bring their low-cholesterol foods, their derivative folk-rock music, and their sentimental craxploitation films to Whitehall. The poor, the white, and the disadvantaged could go jump.

The people of Whitehall set up floodlights to play over the outskirts of the neighboring, honky-loving black town, whose lawns (formerly reasonably manicured but now nervously bitten to the quick) bore sad witness to the instant herbaphobia that whites brought with them. Black Whitehall posted sentries and devised elaborate alarm/gotcha systems (the showpiece was a giant microwave oven with the door ajar). The Whitehall PO-lice raised attack dogs on a special “preview” diet of saltines and the white meat of turkeys. Helen quoted Reverend Smith-Jones as saying, in his down-home way, “If any chalks should be rash enough to come in here, those dogs will jump on them like white on rice.” (73-75)

Ross, Fran ([1974] 2015) Oreo. New York: New Directions.

The Lusiads of Camões — Verse on the Conquering of Worlds

Luís Vaz de Camões was born in 1524 or 25, son of a ship’s captain who drowned off of Goa. He lived in Lisbon on the fringes of court writing poetry and plays, legend has it he fell in love with Catarine de Ataide (who married Vasco da Gama, the subject of the Lusiad just as she was the subject of Camões’s sonnets).

Pedro Americo, D. Catrine de Ataide, 1878

Portrait of navigator Vasco da Gama, viceroy of Portuguese parts captured in India, from the c.1565 compendium, Livro de Lisuarte de Abreu (Pierpont Morgan Library, M.525)

Exiled from the court, he joined the garrison in Ceuta (Morrocco) as a common solider, and it was there he lost his eye. He is always shown thus.

Between 1553-56 he sailed to India, took part in expeditions along the Malabar coast of India, in the Red Sea, along the African and Arabian coasts, visits Malacca and the Moluccas. In 1559 he was recalled to Goa, wrecked in the Mekong river where he lost everything but, legend tells us, the cantos of the Lusiads. He spent time in jail related to his post in Macau. Jailed again for debt. He kicks around until friends offer him passage back to Lisbon in 1570, and it is in 1572 the Lusiads are published. It is only then that ‘Camões [was] granted tiny royal pension for “the adequacy of the book he wrote on Indian matters (xxvi).”‘ It is not, I don’t think, what you might call a happy life.

Canto 1

Arms are my theme, and those matchless heroes
Who from Portugal’s far western shores
By oceans where none had ventured
Voyaged in Taprobana and beyond,
Enduring hazards and assaults
Such as drew on more than human prowess
Among far distant peoples, to proclaim
A New Age and win undying fame

Kings likewise of glorious memory
Who magnified Christ and Empire,
Bringing rain on the degenerate
Lands of Africa and Asia (1-2: 3);

As armas e os Barões assinalados
Que da Ocidental praia Lusitana
Por mares nunca de antes navegados
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram.

E também as memórias gloriosas
Daqueles Reis que foram dilatando
A Fé, o Império, e as terras viciosas
De África e de Ásia andaram devastando,

The whole of Os Lusiadas in Portuguese can be found here. It is written in a style heroic, celebrating the bravery and brutality of Vasco da Gama and his sailors. There is a strange invocation of Roman Gods and nymphs, an evocation of Empire that sits easier with the Portuguese project than Christianity — it seems obvious perhaps, yet I found it strange and fascinating both that the whole of it is couched in terms of Jupiter’s support of the Portuguese cause, Bacchus’s dissent and constant meddling.

Now you can watch them, risking all
In frail timbers on treacherous seas,
By routes never charted, and only
Emboldened by opposing winds;
Having explored so much of the earth
From the equator to the midnight sun.
They recharge their purpose and are drawn
To touch the very portals of the dawn

They were promised by eternal Fate
Whose high laws cannot be brokem
They should long hold sway in the seas…. (27-28:8)

«Agora vedes bem que, cometendo
O duvidoso mar num lenho leve,
Por vias nunca usadas, não temendo
de Áfrico e Noto a força, a mais s’atreve:
Que, havendo tanto já que as partes vendo
Onde o dia é comprido e onde breve,
Inclinam seu propósito e perfia
A ver os berços onde nasce o dia.

«Prometido lhe está do Fado eterno,
Cuja alta lei não pode ser quebrada,
Que tenham longos tempos o governo
Do mar que vê do Sol a roxa entrada.

Fate absolves them of everything and I love that they expect the hand of friendship wherever they go, despite their plan of conquest. This is at once a constant complaint of the lack of trust among strangers and a victorious poem of war against all unbelievers.

It is an eternal conundrum,
Unfathomable by human thought,
That those closest to God will never be
Lacking in some perfidious enemy! (71:17)
Ó segredos daquela Eternidade
A quem juízo algum não alcançou:
Que nunca falte um pérfido inimigo
Àqueles de quem foste tanto amigo!

Hilarious. Reminded me of Hugh Makesela singing ‘Vasco da Gama, he was no friend of mine‘ in Colonial Man. The other side to this whole poem, and the side to be on. But we continue.

Canto 2

In which they send prisoners out to reconnoiter — I’m not entirely sure of the wisdom of this, but I suppose they weren’t just going to run away? There seems to have been a choice among prisoners as well. Ah, the jolly life of the sea.

Even so, from among those prisoners
On board, sentenced for gross crimes
So their lives could be hazarded
In predicaments such as these,
He sent two of the cleverest, trained
To spy on the city and defences
Of the resourceful Muslims, and to greet
The famous Christian he so longed to meet. (7:26)
E de alguns que trazia, condenados
Por culpas e por feitos vergonhosos,
Por que pudessem ser aventurados
Em casos desta sorte duvidosos,
Manda dous mais sagazes, ensaiados,
Por que notem dos Mouros enganosos
A cidade e poder, e por que vejam
Os Cristãos, que só tanto ver desejam.

Venus worries for them, she intercedes with Jove, he lists the many victories they will have (there are many such stomach-turning lists).

Even the tough, formidable Turks
You will see consistently routed;
The independent kings of India
Will be subject to Portugal,
Bringing, when all falls under his command,
A better dispensation to that land (46:34)

‘You will see the famous Red Sea
Turning yellow from sheer fright; (49:34)

Os Turcos belacíssimos e duros
Deles sempre vereis desbaratados;
Os Reis da Índia, livres e seguros,
Vereis ao Rei potente sojugados,
E por eles, de tudo enfim senhores,
Serão dadas na terra leis milhores.

«E vereis o Mar Roxo, tão famoso,
Tornar-se-lhe amarelo, de enfiado;

They will take Ormuz, Diu

‘Goa, you will see, seized from the Muslims
And come in the fullness of time to be
Queen of the Orient, raised up
By the triumphs of her conquerors.
From that proud, noble eminence,
They will rule with an iron fist
Idol-worshiping Hindus, and everyone
Throughout that land with thoughts of rebellion (51:35)
«Goa vereis aos Mouros ser tomada,
A qual virá despois a ser senhora
De todo o Oriente, e sublimada
Cos triunfos da gente vencedora.
Ali, soberba, altiva e exalçada,
Ao Gentio que os Ídolos adora
Duro freio porá, e a toda a terra
Que cuidar de fazer aos vossos guerra.

They will take the fortress of Cannanore, Calicut, Cochin

‘As the very ocean boils with the fires
Ignited by your people, Battling
Taking both Hindu and Muslim captive,
Subduing the different nations

Until every sea-way is subservient (54:35)
«Como vereis o mar fervendo aceso
Cos incêndios dos vossos, pelejando,
Levando o Idololatra e o Mouro preso,
De nações diferentes triunfando;

Ser-lhe-á todo o Oceano obediente.

Canto 3

In which da Gama gives a brief history of Portugal, ‘noble Iberia, The head, as it were, of all Europe’ (17: 51) to a Muslim Sultan. That doesn’t stop him from insulting the moors often and deeply of course, though he mentions that among them were Amazons (44:56). That’s cool.

Canto 4

In which Manuel the king of Portugal has a dream…

‘I am the famous Ganges whose waters
Have their source in the earthly paradise;
This other is the Indus, which springs
In this mountain which you behold.
We shall cost you unremitting war,
But perservering, you will become
Peerless in victory, knowing no defeat,
Conquering as many peoples as you meet.’ (74:91)

The king summoned the lords to council
To tell of the figures of his dream;
The words spoken by the venerable saint
Were a great wonder to them all.
They resolved at once to equip
A fleet and an intrepid crew,
Commissioned to plough the remotest seas
To explore new regions, make discoveries. (76:92)

«Eu sou o ilustre Ganges, que na terra
Celeste tenho o berço verdadeiro;
Estoutro é o Indo, Rei que, nesta serra
Que vês, seu nascimento tem primeiro.
Custar-t’ -emos contudo dura guerra;
Mas, insistindo tu, por derradeiro,
Com não vistas vitórias, sem receio
A quantas gentes vês porás o freio.»

«Chama o Rei os senhores a conselho
E propõe-lhe as figuras da visão;
As palavras lhe diz do santo velho,
Que a todos foram grande admiração.
Determinam o náutico aparelho,
Pera que, com sublime coração,
Vá a gente que mandar cortando os mares
A buscar novos climas, novos ares.

They asked for it you see.

But then there is an odd counterpoint, an old man calling out to them as they depart from Belem

–‘O pride of power! O futile lust
For that vanity known as fame!
That hollow conceit which puffs itself up
And which popular cant calls honour!
What punishment, what poetic justice,
You exact on sou;s that pursue you!
To what deaths, what miseries you condemn
Your heroes! What pains you inflict on them!

‘You wreck all peace of soul and body,
You promote separation and adultery;
Subtley, manifestly, you consume
The wealth of kingdoms and empires!
They call distinction, they call honour
What deserves ridicule and contempt;
They talk of glory and eternal fame,
And men are driven frantic by a name!

‘To what new catastrophes do you plan
To drag this kingdom and tehse people?
What perils, what deaths have you in store
Under what magniloquent title?
What visions of kingdoms and gold-mines
Will you guide them to infallibly?
What fame do you promise them? What stories?
What conquests and processions? What glories? (95-97:96)
‘Already in this vainglorious business
Delusions are possessing you,
Already ferocity and brute force
Are labelled strength and valour,
The heresy “Long live Death!” is already
Current among you, when life should always
be cherished, As Christ in times gone by
Who gave us life was yet afraid to die. (99:96)
‘The devil take the man who first put
Dry wood on the waves with a sail! (102: 97)

– «Ó glória de mandar, ó vã cobiça
Desta vaidade a quem chamamos Fama!
Ó fraudulento gosto, que se atiça
Cũa aura popular, que honra se chama!
Que castigo tamanho e que justiça
Fazes no peito vão que muito te ama!
Que mortes, que perigos, que tormentas,
Que crueldades neles experimentas!

«Dura inquietação d’alma e da vida
Fonte de desemparos e adultérios,
Sagaz consumidora conhecida
De fazendas, de reinos e de impérios!
Chamam-te ilustre, chamam-te subida,
Sendo dina de infames vitupérios;
Chamam-te Fama e Glória soberana,
Nomes com quem se o povo néscio engana!

«A que novos desastres determinas
De levar estes Reinos e esta gente?
Que perigos, que mortes lhe destinas,
Debaixo dalgum nome preminente?
Que promessas de reinos e de minas
D’ ouro, que lhe farás tão facilmente?
Que famas lhe prometerás? Que histórias?
Que triunfos? Que palmas? Que vitórias?


«Já que nesta gostosa vaïdade
Tanto enlevas a leve fantasia,
Já que à bruta crueza e feridade
Puseste nome, esforço e valentia,
Já que prezas em tanta quantidade
O desprezo da vida, que devia
De ser sempre estimada, pois que já
Temeu tanto perdê-la Quem a dá:


«Oh, maldito o primeiro que, no mundo,
Nas ondas vela pôs em seco lenho!

And they just sail away as he speaks. But I wondered if that were not perhaps exactly what Camões himself thought, maybe that is the heart of this epic poem, this old man railing against violence and pride. Against the colonial project. There are echoes of this throughout.

Canto 5

He describes Madeira — known for its great forests. Soon to be cut down and forgotten. The Numidian desert of the Berber people, a land where ostriches digest iron in their stomachs! The Senegal river, Asinarus that they have rechristened Cape Verde. The Canary Islands, once called the Fortunate Isles. It is a map, this poem. They pass Jalof province, Mandingo…

Off the River Niger, we distinctly heard
Breakers pounding on beaches that are ours

There the mighty kingdom of the Congo
Has been brought by us to faith in Christ,
Where the Zaire flows, immense and brimming,
A river never seen by the ancients.
From this open sea I looked my last
At the constellations of the north.
For we had now crossed the burning line
Which marks division in the earth’s design (12-13:100)
O grande rio, onde batendo soa
O mar nas praias notas, que ali temos,

«Ali o mui grande reino está de Congo,
Por nós já convertido à fé de Cristo,
Por onde o Zaire passa, claro e longo,
Rio pelo antigos nunca visto.
Por este largo mar, enfim, me alongo
Do conhecido Pólo de Calisto,
Tendo o término ardente já passado
Onde o meio do Mundo é limitado.

This…oh man, there is so much in here isn’t there. The view of the other, the incomparable arrogance, the initimitable violence, the begginings of this trade in beads and baubles founded on a lack of respect for a culture that cares not for forks or gold.

I saw a stranger with a black skin
They had captured, making his sweet harvest
Of honey from the wild bees in the forest.

He looked thunderstruck, like a man
Never placed in such an extreme;
He could not understand us, nor we him
Who seemed wilder than Polyphemus.
I began by showing him pure gold
The supreme metal of civilisation,
Then fine silverware and hot condiment:
Nothing stirred in the brute the least excitement.

I arranged to show him simpler things:
Tiny beads of transparent crystal,
Some little jingling bells and rattles,
A red bonnet of a pleasing colour;
I saw at once from nods and gestures
That these had made him very happy.
I freed him and let him take his pillage,
Small as it was, to his nearby village.

The next day his fellows, all of them
Naked, and blacker than seemed possible,
Trooped down the rugged hillside paths
Hoping for what their friend had obtained.
They were so gentle and well-disposed (27-30:103)

Vejo um estranho vir, de pele preta,
Que tomaram per força, enquanto apanha
De mel os doces favos na montanha.

«Torvado vem na vista, como aquele
Que não se vira nunca em tal extremo;
Nem ele entende a nós, nem nós a ele,
Selvagem mais que o bruto Polifemo.
Começo-lhe a mostrar da rica pele
De Colcos o gentil metal supremo,
A prata fina, a quente especiaria:
A nada disto o bruto se movia.

«Mando mostrar-lhe peças mais somenos:
Contas de cristalino transparente,
Alguns soantes cascavéis pequenos,
Um barrete vermelho, cor contente;
Vi logo, por sinais e por acenos,
Que com isto se alegra grandemente.
Mando-o soltar com tudo e assi caminha
Pera a povoação, que perto tinha.

«Mas, logo ao outro dia, seus parceiros,
Todos nus e da cor da escura treva,
Decendo pelos ásperos outeiros,
As peças vêm buscar que estoutro leva.
Domésticos já tanto e companheiros

They continue on, still on. And then the Cape of Storms rises up embodied before them, grotesque, and again all the contradictions in this colonial project come rising to the surface with him.

‘Because you have descrated nature’s
Secrets and the mysteries of the deep
Where no human, however noble
Or immortal his worth, should trespass
Hear from me now what retribution
Fate presrcibes for your insolence,
Whether ocean-borne, or along the shores
You will subjegaute with your dreadful wars

‘No matter how many vessels attempt
The audacious passage you are plotting
My cape will be implacably hostile
With gales beyond any you have encountered (42-3:106)

«Pois vens ver os segredos escondidos
Da natureza e do húmido elemento,
A nenhum grande humano concedidos
De nobre ou de imortal merecimento,
Ouve os danos de mi que apercebidos
Estão a teu sobejo atrevimento,
Por todo o largo mar e pola terra
Que inda hás-de sojugar com dura guerra.

«Sabe que quantas naus esta viagem
Que tu fazes, fizerem, de atrevidas,
Inimiga terão esta paragem,
Com ventos e tormentas desmedidas;

The spirit describes the Portuguese need to atone for ‘his bloody crimes, the massacre | Of Kilwa, the leveling of Mombasa (45:107).

Unexpected. These are celebrated later on but only after this first mention, the cost of what they are doing, its criminal aspect. The more I look at the poem the more I am intrigued by this very slender thread of self-knowledge of crimes inflicted against man and earth.

Canto 6

Sail on and sail on. Past a succession of sultans who lie and cheat the Portuguese until they come to Mozambique, where finally the Sultan fulfills his promise to give them guides. There is a meeting of the gods under the sea, summoned by Triton. And I love this passage

The hairs of his beard and the hair
Falling from his head to his shoulders
Were all one mass of mud, and visibly
Had never been touched by a comb;
Each dangling dreadlock was a cluster
Of gleaming, blue-black mussels.
On his head by way of coronet, he wore
The biggest lonbster-shell you ever saw.

His body was naked, even his genitals
So as not to impede his swimming,
But tiny creatures of the sea
Crawled over him by the hundreds;

Os cabelos da barba e os que decem
Da cabeça nos ombros, todos eram
Uns limos prenhes d’ água, e bem parecem
Que nunca brando pêntem conheceram.
Nas pontas pendurados não falecem
Os negros mexilhões, que ali se geram.
Na cabeça, por gorra, tinha posta
Ũa mui grande casca de lagosta.

O corpo nu, e os membros genitais,
Por não ter ao nadar impedimento,
Mas porém de pequenos animais
Do mar todos cobertos, cento e cento:

They are becalmed, and the strangest tale told of Magrico, in which John of Gaunt who has been allied with King Joao summons twelve Portuguese knights to represent the ladies in a joust for their honour and the knights win of course…I suppose it is just to tie Portugal closer to their English allies, but so curious.

Canto 7 — A last listing of Portuguese possessions after an excoriation of the infighting between Christians — the Reformation I imagination, he is particularly upset at the Germans. Canto 8, the treachery of the Muslims. Chapter 9 finally they head home, with reflections on all they had won — lands mapped, men and spices pillaged and plundered.

He sailed by the south coast, reflecting
He had laboured in vain for a treaty
Of friendship with the Hindu king,
To guarantee peace and commerce;
But at least those lands stretching
To the dawn were now known to the world,
And at long last his men were homeward bound
With proofs on board of the India he had found.

For he had some Malabaris siezed
From those dispatched by the Samorin
When he returned the imprisoned factors;
He had hot peppers he had purchased;
There was mace from the Banda Islands;
Then nutmeg and black cloves, pride
Of the new-found Moluccas, and cinammon,
the wealth, the fame, the beauty of Ceylon. (13-14:179)

Parte-se costa abaxo, porque entende
Que em vão co Rei gentio trabalhava
Em querer dele paz, a qual pretende
Por firmar o comércio que tratava;
Mas como aquela terra, que se estende
Pela Aurora, sabida já deixava,
Com estas novas torna à pátria cara,
Certos sinais levando do que achara.

Leva alguns Malabares, que tomou
Per força, dos que o Samorim mandara
Quando os presos feitores lhe tornou;
Leva pimenta ardente, que comprara;
A seca flor de Banda não ficou;
A noz e o negro cravo, que faz clara
A nova ilha Maluco, co a canela
Com que Ceilão é rica, ilustre e bela.

And then Venus, who owns many of these islands, prepares one for these heroes. She fills it with nymphs who are theirs for the taking.

There she intended the sea nymphs
Should wait upon the mighty heroes
–All of them lovely beyond compare,
So with redoubled zeal, each would endeavour
To please her beloved mariner, whoever…(22: 181)

But make way, you steep, cerulean waves
For look, Venus brings the remedy,
In those white, billowing sails
Scudding swiftly over Neptune’s waters;
Now ardent loving can assuage
Female passion… (49: 186)

Ali quer que as aquáticas donzelas
Esperem os fortíssimos barões
(Todas as que têm título de belas,
Pera com mais vontade trabalharem
De contentar a quem se afeiçoarem.

Dai lugar, altas e cerúleas ondas,
Que, vedes, Vénus traz a medicina,
Mostrando as brancas velas e redondas,
Que vêm por cima da água Neptunina.
Pera que tu recíproco respondas,
Ardente Amor, à flama feminina,

the sailors land and go chasing their nymphs through the forest — Tethys takes da Gama to the mountain to show him ‘the still-unmapped continents’ and ‘seas unsailed’ and ‘There they passed the long day | In sweet games and continuous pleasure.’ It seems to me all one elaborate metaphor of rape that he explains thus:

For the ocean nymphs in all their beauty,
Tethys, and the magic painted island,
Are nothing more than those delghtful
Honours, which make our lives sublime.
Those glorious moments of pre-eminence (89:194)
Que as Ninfas do Oceano, tão fermosas,
Tétis e a Ilha angélica pintada,
Outra cousa não é que as deleitosas
Honras que a vida fazem sublimada.
Aquelas preminências gloriosas,

It makes me feel sick really, this treating as parable what these European sailors in reality took as divine right and with violence wherever they landed.

Canto 10

This canto contains the great summation of death and destruction the Portuguese will wreck upon the world from the lips of Venus. I’ve just pulled some of the highlights out, more feeling sick:

The goddess sang that from the Tagus,
Over the seas da Gama had opened,
Would come fleets to conquer all the coast
Where the Indian Ocean sighs;
Those Hindu Kings who did not bow
Their necks to the yoke would incite
The wrath of an implacable enemy,
Their choice to yield or, on an instant, die (10:199)

Pacheco will not only hold the fords,
But burn towns, houses, and temples;
Inflamed with anger, watching his cities
One by one laid low, that dog
Will force his men, reckless of life,
To attack both passages at once, (16:200)

Together, by the power of arms,
They will castigate fertile Kilwa,
Driving out its perfidious princeling
To impose a loyal and humane King

‘Mombasa too, furnished with such
Palaces and sumptuous houses,
Will be laid waste with iron and fire,
In payment for its former treachery

But it is Emir Hussein’s grappled fleet
Bears the brunt of the avenger’s anger,
As arms and legs swim in the bay
Without the bodies they belonged to;
Bolts of fire will make manifest
The passionate victors’ blind fury (36:204)

But what great light’“ do I see breaking,’
Sang the nymph and in a higher strain,
‘Where the seas of Malindi flow crimson
With the blood of Lamu, Oja, and Brava? (39:205)

‘That light, too, is from Persian Ormuz
From the fires and the gleaming arms
Of Albuquerque as he rebukes them
For scorning his light, honourable yoke. (40:205)

‘Not all that land’s mountains of salt
Can preserve from corruption the corpses
Littering the beaches, choking the seas
Of Gerum, Muscat, and Al Quraiyat,
Till, by the strength of his arm, they learn
To bow the neck as he compels
That grim realm to yield, without dispute,
Pearls from Bahrain as their annual tribute. (41:205)

Renowned, opulent Malacca!
For all your arrows tipped with poison,
The curved daggers you bear as arms,
Amorous Malays and valiant Javanese
All will be subject to the Portuguese (44:205)

Having cleared India of enemies
He will take up the viceroy’s sceptre

For all fear him and none complain,
Except Bhatkal, which brings on itself
The pains Beadala already suffered;
Corpses will strew the streets, and shells burst
As fire and thundering cannon do their worst.(66:210)

Cantava a bela Deusa que viriam
Do Tejo, pelo mar que o Gama abrira,
Armadas que as ribeiras venceriam
Por onde o Oceano Índico suspira;
E que os Gentios Reis que não dariam
A cerviz sua ao jugo, o ferro e ira
Provariam do braço duro e forte,
Até render-se a ele ou logo à morte.

Já não defenderá sòmente os passos,
Mas queimar-lhe-á lugares, templos, casas;
Aceso de ira, o Cão, não vendo lassos
Aqueles que as cidades fazem rasas,
Fará que os seus, de vida pouco escassos,
Cometam o Pacheco, que tem asas,

A Quíloa fértil, áspero castigo,
Fazendo nela Rei leal e humano,
Deitado fora o pérfido tirano.

«Também farão Mombaça, que se arreia
De casas sumptuosas e edifícios,
Co ferro e fogo seu queimada e feia,
Em pago dos passados malefícios.

«Mas a de Mir Hocém, que, abalroando,
A fúria esperará dos vingadores,
Verá braços e pernas ir nadando
Sem corpos, pelo mar, de seus senhores.
Raios de fogo irão representando,
No cego ardor, os bravos domadores.

«Mas oh, que luz tamanha que abrir sinto
(Dizia a Ninfa, e a voz alevantava)
Lá no mar de Melinde, em sangue tinto
Das cidades de Lamo, de Oja e Brava,

«Esta luz é do fogo e das luzentes
Armas com que Albuquerque irá amansando
De Ormuz os Párseos, por seu mal valentes,
Que refusam o jugo honroso e brando.

«Ali do sal os montes não defendem
De corrupção os corpos no combate,
Que mortos pela praia e mar se estendem
De Gerum, de Mazcate e Calaiate;
Até que à força só de braço aprendem
A abaxar a cerviz, onde se lhe ate
Obrigação de dar o reino inico
Das perlas de Barém tributo rico.

Opulenta Malaca nomeada.
As setas venenosas que fizeste,
Os crises com que já te vejo armada,
Malaios namorados, Jaus valentes,
Todos farás ao Luso obedientes.»

«Tendo assi limpa a Índia dos imigos,
Virá despois com ceptro a governá-la
Sem que ache resistência nem perigos,
Que todos tremem dele e nenhum fala.
Só quis provar os ásperos castigos
Baticalá, que vira já Beadala.
De sangue e corpos mortos ficou cheia
E de fogo e trovões desfeita e feia.

A reminder that in it all, it is the women who are always promised as plunder.

This was not the crime of incest
Nor the violent abuse of a virgin,
Still less of hidden adultery
For this was a slave, anyone’s woman. (47:206)

All these heroes, and others worthy
In different ways of fame and esteem,
Performing great feats in war
Will taste this island’s pleasures,
Their sharp keels cutting the waves
Under triumphant banners, to find
These lovely nymphs (73:211)

Não será a culpa abominoso incesto
Nem violento estupro em virgem pura,
Nem menos adultério desonesto,
Mas cũa escrava vil, lasciva e escura,

«Estes e outros Barões, por várias partes,
Dinos todos de fama e maravilha,
Fazendo-se na terra bravos Martes,
Virão lograr os gostos desta Ilha,
Varrendo triunfantes estandartes
Pelas ondas que corta a aguda quilha;
E acharão estas Ninfas …

And then she bids Portugal look West, not just East. Don’t, you say. Don’t. But of course they did. This is the monument in Belem that marks where all of these conquerors set out with their swords. Hardly surprising it was built under the dictator Salazar, and rises above a great cartographic rose given them by the apartheid state of South Africa.


Gary Okihiro on subject, struggle, liberation in decolonial politics

Part two of writing up notes and thoughts on Gary Okihiro’s Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation. The juicy bit for me I think. (Part 1 is here).

So we have thinking about world systems: imperialism, colonialism and settler colonies… all of it driven by the desire to dominate and underpinned by white supremacy. But Okihiro makes the point that ideology is always fragmentary and contradictory, this is what allows for contestation and change. He gives a useful short list of the theorists that can handle this — Marx, Freud, Saussure, Lacan (oof, I haven’t read Lacan because I don’t like what I know and wish we could all just read Fromm instead, but this is making me realise I maybe need to to challenge myself), Foucault, Gramsci, Althusser — these are the theorists of power and change. He writes:

There are no sovereign subjects with agency over their consciousness. Subjects are produced through discourse. As we will see, subjectification and not identity formation is the analytical category for Third World studies. (110)

So what is the world that white supremacy embedded within the violence of colonialism and imperialism has created?

Self-hatred is a consequence of the colonial condition, and loving oneself can constitute an anticolonial affirmation of human dignity and self-determination. (110)

But of course, this isn’t just about race, it is about the biological model underpinning the many intersections of difference, and the ways that difference itself is constructed as constitutive of social ills rather than the subject of oppression which is itself the cause.

In these biological models of human development, deviations from the norm constitute unnatural and even pathological conditions. Central to that assumption is the normative, white, heterosexual, middle-class, citizen man, and degenerations from that standard invite racism, sexism, homophobia, exclusion, laws, poverty, and personality disorders. (112)

This requires a certain kind of liberatory praxis to shift

Still, per Freire and Mills, we must position the subject-self within the social formations to be “truly human.” Our liberation depends upon that apprehension. (113)

I truly love, here, the problematisation of experience. I have been struggling with this so much recently. He draws on Raymond Williams theorising how experience ‘involves the whole consciousness or being — the personal, subjective, and emotional’ (113). This is the power of it, but just ‘experience’ is not enough. Okihiro writes

Difference and experience are social constructions and require deconstruction… Experience adduced as uncontested evidence reproduces rather than refutes discourses of oppression and hegemonic systems involving sexuality, gender, and race. (114)

This. I am so all about this. I am in meeting after meeting with ‘experts by experience’ but it is this level of experience. There is no critical reflection, no collective thought. Freire offers a way through this. I’ve also been thinking about the role of scholars and love this, love Alcoff though I have not read enough:

Scholars, Alcoff argues, must speak for and about others to nurture a critical consciousness and promote social change. A retreat into silence is not liberating and, in fact, advances disempowerment. Further, to speak only for oneself falls back to the old liberal humanism and individualism that isolate the self from society as if one is not constituted by or related to others. (115)

Okihiro makes a clear distinction between this third world conscious and liberatory praxis, and identity politics.

Identity politics, as charged by critics of post-1968 ethnic studies, is not the breeding ground for Third World Studies. Subjectification understands the subject not as humanism’s “I am” but as complex subjects in formation and in constant engagement with society. That recognition emerges not from a trivial, youthful search for identities but from profound acts of power or agency. Self-determination by the oppressed against the forces of colonial, hegemonic discourses and material conditions is the objective of subjectification; the agency of the subject-self drives the movement for Third World liberation. (119)

As so we turn to racial formation, and the ways that ‘as coined by Omi and Winant, has deservedly captured the field of post-1968 ethnic studies‘ (122). He quotes Omi and Winant in defining it as:

the process by which social, economic and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings. (123)

It is ceaselessly contested and in motion, subject to change. Race is neither epiphenomenon or superstructure, not false consciousness. It is instead a fundamental organizing principle of social relations at both the individual and societal level. He draws on Mills again here, the work on whiteness by Ian Haney-Lopez (which I have only dipped into). Okihiro continues:

The white subject position, hence, is normativity, privilege, and domination. Correspondingly the nonwhite subject position is marginality (deviance), disadvantage, and subordination. (129)

This binary is of course disrupted by the various kinds of racial hierarchy always at play. Just one example, of course, is

the crazy conniptions of the census, in which white has remained constant but other racial classifications constantly shifting (130) … The US census produces race (and citizenship) and confirms what the courts have historically ruled: white and nonwhite are not scientific concepts but categories of privilege and rights as determined by whites. (133)

In the census, however, ‘white’ remains unproblematised, and Okihiro highlights the need to racialize whites. Du Bois of course did the same thing, he wrote The Souls of White Folk (much harder to find) as well as writing The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois was just so fucking awesome, right? The more I read the more in awe of him I am, despite those talented tenth missteps. Anyway, Du Bois decades ago showed that ‘whiteness has a history… whiteness is a discourse, subjectivity, and social practice‘. By doing so, Okihiro writes ‘Du Bois marked what had been left unnmarked: he rendered the transparent visible‘ (134). And of course, since 1968 there has been a white ethnic revival and a new rise of white identity politics, both of which have employed the ideology of self-determination as voiced by Third World Peoples. All part of a wider backlash decrying racialism, and putting forward an ideology of color-blindness (135).

So where are the tools that we need to better talk about these complex dynamics, to locate and fight oppression. Okihiro writes

Masters tools can only partially dismantle the master’s house, we need to supply alternative languages and ideologies (136)

There is much in teh third world movement to draw upon–and of course Vijay Prashad documents so beautifully the power of that movement. Feminism, of course, has developed a powerful set of analytical tools. This is necessary given that Okihiro argues that while racial formation and critical race theory have been a huge step forward, they still are not really able to manage multiple intersecting oppressions.

Thus we have the movement towards theorising ‘social formation’. The tools emerge out of activism — from SNCC to the Black Women’s Liberation Caucus (which then changed its name to Black Women’s Alliance (BWA)) to the Combahee River Collective (I am so looking forward to reading How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor). So for Okihiro

Power becomes the organizing principle, its locations and articulations the objects of analysis. This is expressed along lines of color and gender, but also sexuality, class, nation, discourses not just identities (141)

Social formation allows, like articulation, an understanding of how these evolve over time (and space)

Social formation, then, marks the forms of society in their entirety and their passage and changes over space/time. Power and its articulations around the discourses and material manifestations of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation conceive and cultivate the social structure. (143)

This concept of social formation is not just a sum of oppressions, but it maps points of intersection as well as resistance, and how mutually constitutive and shifting relations between discourse and material conditions works. It

supplies a rubric for affiliations among discourses of racial formation, feminist, queer, Marxist, and critical theories and for solidarities in political insurgencies emanating from people of color and across imposed divides of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation. (144)

I need to think about this more. I keep coming back to Hall’s ideas of articulation, Patricia Hill Collins’ domains of power, these different ways of trying to grapple with immense complexity in ways that can feed effectively into victorious struggle.

Okihiro, Gary (2016) Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Gary Okihiro on Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation

I loved Gary Okihiro’s book Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation, I wish I had read it as a student — but it’s not been out too long, so I can’t be too sad about that. I wanted to give it to everyone I know though, just because of the brilliant ways it pulled together so much of what I’ve been struggling with while also recalibrating my perspective on world history and important events the same way that Vijay Prahad‘s work helps me do. I would love to teach it, perhaps one day I will have the chance. A very different kind of view of a global world and struggle from Wallerstein‘s, though it finds his work useful and builds on it in interesting ways.

As always my disclaimer that there is much more detail/history/context in the book that I am not exploring here, this first post is just pulling out some of the main concepts in the first half of the book. The second post focuses more on social formation, subjectification and struggle. But just to give it context, I found this brilliant short description (and a brilliant short lecture) of what the book is trying to do:

In 1968 the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State College demanded the creation of a Third World studies program to counter the existing curricula that ignored issues of power—notably, imperialism and oppression. The administration responded by institutionalizing an ethnic studies program; Third World studies was over before it began. Detailing the field’s genesis and premature death, Gary Y. Okihiro presents an intellectual history of ethnic studies and Third World studies and shows where they converged and departed by identifying some of their core ideas, concepts, methods, and theories. In so doing, he establishes the contours of a unified field of study—Third World studies—that pursues a decolonial politics by examining the human condition broadly, especially in regard to oppression, and critically analyzing the locations and articulations of power as manifested in the social formation. Okihiro’s framing of Third World studies moves away from ethnic studies’ liberalism and its U.S.-centrism to emphasize the need for complex thinking and political action in the drive for self-determination.

Instead of racial formation Okihiro uses the term social formation, drawing on the work of Omi and Winant as well as Charles Mills to analyse the ways in which:

the formations of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation as discrepant and intersecting constructions and practices conceive and cultivate the social formation. Attending to the multiplicity of these forces ceaselessly at work in the locations and exercises of power, the social formation demands a complexity in our thinking and action to engage and resist the forces that oppress us all. (2)

This is a world in which European settlers have worked to implant and to sustain white supremacy, but of course this was recognised long ago.

W.E.B. Du Bois delineated that global color line as the problem of the twentieth century, which was colonialism (material relations) and racism (discourse), the ideology that upheld white supremacy and nonwhite subservience. (5)

He stood in sharp contrast to what was being undertaken by the University of Chicago, and of course suffered for that to the great loss of Sociology. Du Bois did his amazing  academic work in Philadelphia and Atlanta even as  Chicago’s Sociology department worked to develop the discipline, constructing the fields of race relations which ‘sought to understand and control the challenges posed by nonwhites to white rule‘ and ethnic studies, which ‘conceived of ethnicities or cultures as the way to preserve white supremacy by assimilating problem minorities into the dominant group‘. (6)

Okihiro writes that

Black (or brown, red, and yellow) power is a potent antidote to the poison of white supremacy, but it follows and is in reaction to white power and is accordingly limited by its model and prior conditions. (3)

But there was a different current of rebellion and of thought that grappled with the full complexities of social formation, and looked to move beyond the racial binary.

The Third World Liberation Front’s course of study was directed at liberation, called self-determination. The Third World curriculum was designed to create “a new humanity, a new humanism, a New World Consciousness,”… (5)

Okihiro writes further

A third world consciousness sustains the theory and that intersectionalism draws form the lived experience of the subjects of Third World studies–the oppressed, the masses. Social formation theory purports to explain the structures of society in their totality and their changes over space/time. The theory understands power or agency as the means by which societies are organized and changed, and social structures involve primarily race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation. (12)

The state, then, is also central within these structures.

The sovereign nation-state is both spatial and social. It is marked by borders within which rulers rule over people. In the narrative of nation the people were related biologically and were thus referred to as races. They shared a common descent and were of one blood. In addition, under patriarchy men occupied the public sphere or the state because of their alleged virtues, while women were confined to the domestic sphere because of their presumed deficiencies. Families constituted the nation, and sexuality and marriage were thus state prerogatives. Under capitalism inviolate was the bedrock of possession of property, including land, goods and dependents–women, children, slaves. The nation-state accordingly was designed to install and interpellate hierarchies of race, gender, sexuality, class, and (national) citizenship. Those relations of power privilege the few and oppress the many (7)

This book explores these categories and how we understand them, explores the struggle both to conceptualize them and to ensure that such work contributes to liberation within a wider, repressive academic arena even as it connects it to liberation movements emerging from the two key historical moments for world struggle: the Pan-African Conference in 1900, and Bandung in 1955. See, recalibrate that.

So we come briefly to power and agency — this is explored more in the 2nd post.

Power in the physical world is expressed as energy: power in the social realm is realized as agency. As Foucault points out in his critique of the sovereign model of power that reduces complex relations to a single dialectic, power is dispersed throughout the social order. that fragmentation, however, does not preclude the possibility, indeed the necessity of locating power, apprehending its workings, and contesting its consequences. Third World studies subscribes to that species of positivism for the imperative of pointing to privilege and poverty, exploitation and oppression, revolution and liberation. (15)

Oh hell yes. He draws on Franz Fanon’s work to explore the ways in which the

divide and hierarchy of race and class placed white, capitalist expansionists from the first World over colored, native workers of the Third World. The former were humans and individuals; the latter, nonhuman and faceless masses (17).

Du Bois and Fanon could have been foundational, but instead it is this other psychology that underpins so much western academic work, it is hard to see what is worth rescuing sometimes.

This understanding brought to bear on the city and the impacts of immigration resulted in the incredibly famous and terribly flawed models of the Chicago school that I see repeated as almost a matter of faith in urban study after urban study. Okihiro writes:

Within that flattened world of the modernizing, homogenizing city Chicago sociology abandoned race for ethnicity, and European ethnic immigrant groups constituted the model for the progressive ethnic cycle of immigration, contact and interaction, competition and conflict, and accommodation and assimilation (23).

This allowed race to be removed from the discussion, for the horror of racism and redlining and slum housing to become naturalised, part of a cycle that just represented the way things were:

This, in the language of ecological succession, the “invading race,” as posed by Park, whether black, brown, or yellow, was the problem, not white supremacy or the ideology and material environments and conditions that sustained white rule. (25)

Urban studies for the most part continue citing Parks, failing to grapple with white supremacy instead. Not that this has gone uncontested. There is always a return to the counter arguments, the grassroots battles, the search for a more productive and liberatory way of thinking here.

I had no idea of the student struggles, the pressure on University administrations to allow in a broader spectrum of students which in the end led to Merritt College in Oakland offering black studies classes in its experimental programme. Who was in that? Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Ernest Allen, Richard Thorne, Marvin Jackman. God damn. And for all that went wrong, for the ways in which ‘patriarchal nationalism‘ came to ‘eclipse Third World consciousness and solidarity‘, this was still a beautiful moment (31).

This book is full of such beautiful moments.

Global constructions

As early as 1906 Du Bois was writing of the colour line as a world wide issue — ‘The Color Line belts the world‘ he said. He was also the first to explore the ways in which this line was a construction.

It is important to consider that the essentializing color line of white and nonwhite emerged in the late nineteenth century at the height of imperialism. (41)

I know I haven’t thought enough about colonialism and imperialism. Okihiro looks at the ways in which imperialism is both ideological and material, how it is involved in discursive conquest, and hierarchies of merit and worth. It is also a historical phenomenon, a phase of capitalism beginning in the fifteenth century — first through mercantilism, then industrial capitalism. Okihiro draws on Wallerstein’s world-systems theory here.  Colonialism is defined as

the discursive and material subjugation of extraterritorial spaces and their life forms, including life forms, including lands and waters and all of their properties. (84)

I love this definition, it helps broaden how we think abut these logics and how they are applied. He also brings in Fanon’s point on the ways in which colonialism worked to deny people their past. Okihiro writes:

While one in general features and functions, extraterritorial colonies were of two main varieties: extractive colonies and settler colonies. (85)

The world system is anchored by these colonies with their boundaries,  but migrant labor remains as a product and vital element of the world system. (87) He describes how Polynesians were taken to Peru, the Chinese and Indians to plantations. He writes of the attempt first to kill the Indian in the Americas, and then to kill the Indian in him.

So what does struggle against oppression at the world-system level need to draw on? Okihiro moves on to think about what theory is useful for liberation and starts with Freire. Hurrah. Because of course central to Freire is engaging with social and material constructions, entering the struggle and only becoming truly human through that struggle. When thinking about how white supremacy works and the damage that must be undone, could there be any other choice I wonder? It rests on a certain view of power:

Power is thus relational: it circulates and is never localized; it is not a commodity; it is deployed, not possessed. Individuals are mere vehicles of power/ Power’s strategy of segregation is mirrored in taxonomy and the structuring of knowledge into discrete disciplines (discourses) to attain finality as closed, self-contained systems. (108)

I love this acknowledgment of how power is used to segregate, and the ways it it is wielded to accomplish this in the world are the same ways it is wielded to divide up knowledge into academic disciplines. This is also discussed by Wallerstein of course.

Anyway, more on theory, subject, power, struggle next.

Okihiro, Gary (2016) Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis

I’ve been trying to move towards better understanding how things fit together at a global scale, and Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis has been coming up often. I seem to have so much less time these days for just blogging to better understand something, but trying to be better at working it in when I can. The scale at which Wallerstein is working is the level that I find hardest to understand while also connecting to the multiple variegations of particular histories and geographies as they are shaped locally. I just finished Beck’s Empire of Cotton which is tremendous and does this in a rather incredible way, but I like too this brief more theoretical laying-out of what is happening  at this scale. It is undoubtedly very introductory, an entry into a much more detailed body of work. I missed the details though. More to read I suppose, but anyway.

The proponents of world-systems analysis, which this book is about, have been talking about globalization since long before the word was invented not, however,  as something new but as something that has been basic to the modern world-system ever since it began in the sixteenth century. We have been arguing that the separate boxes of analysis-what in the universities are called the disciplines-are an obstacle, not an aid, to understanding the world. We have been arguing that the social reality within which we live and which determines what our options are has not been the multiple national states of which we are citizens but something larger, which we call a world-system. We have been saying that this world-system has had many institutions-states and the interstate system, productive firms, households, classes, identity groups of all sorts-and that these institutions form a matrix which permits the system to operate but at the same time stimulates both the conflicts and the contradictions which permeate the system. We have been arguing that this system is a social creation, with a history, whose origins need to be explained, whose ongoing mechanisms need to be delineated, and whose inevitable terminal crisis needs to be discerned.

In arguing this way, we have not only gone against much of the official wisdom of those in power, but also against much of the conventional knowledge put forth by social scientists for two centuries now. (x)

In a nutshell.

On science, knowledge and epistemologies

This work started in the early 1970s ‘as a new perspective on social reality’ (1). It was geared to bring back together philosophy and science, which it argues were broken apart and institutionalised by those promoting empirical methods as the only way to truth. Wallerstein thus outlines and problematises the ways that Western institutions and universities have constructed and constrained knowledge. The two sides of knowledge production became drawn:

The emphasis of the sciences was on empirical (even experimental) research and hypothesis testing. The emphasis of the humanities was on empathetic insight, what later was called hermeneutic understanding. (3)

History was restricted to studying the past, and insulated from economics, political science and sociology — matching the three social spheres of market, state and civil society belonging to liberal ideology — which studied the present. These became drawn into understanding how

these spheres of life-the market, the state, and the civil society-were governed by laws that could be discerned by empirical analysis and inductive generalization. This was exactly the same view as that which the pure scientists had about their objects of study. So we call these three disciplines nomothetic disciplines (that is, disciplines in search of scientific laws) as opposed to the idiographic discipline which history aspired to be-that is, a discipline that is predicated on the uniqueness of social phenomena (6).

Of course, these studies of the present only related to the ‘Western’ world, not the vast areas being brought under colonial control — thus we have anthropology and orientalism

The early anthropologists studied peoples who were under actual or virtual colonial rule. They worked on the premise that the groups they were studying did not enjoy modern technology, did not have writing systems of their own, and did not have religions that extended beyond their own group. They were generically called “tribes”: relatively small groups (in terms of population and the area they inhabited) , with a common set of customs, a common language, and in some cases a common political structure. In nineteenth-century language, they were considered “primitive” peoples.

Their methodology was

ethnography, based on “fieldwork”… It was assumed that the peoples had no “history:’ (7)

Some world yet remained, the  ‘large regions outside the
pan-European zone which had what was called in the nineteenth century a “high civilization”–for example, China, India, Persia, the Arab world… (8)’

This drove the rise of Oriental studies in all their problematic force.

1945 saw massive changes, WWI and II had shifted everything. The US became the hegemonic power, with its university systems also thus becoming hegemonic. The ‘Third World’ was rising up and demanding independence. And more and more people were becoming part of a new world academia as a growing economy and democratic structures opened up these institutions. Havoc was wreaked on neat bounded structures. The US solution was found in ‘area studies’, which worked to ‘train historians, economists, sociologists, and political scientists to study what was going on in these other parts of the world (10). These continued to hold, however, to a theory of development, in which societies and civilizations moved through a series of stages, all of which culminated more or less at the same place as US and European societies (not that this was new).

It meant that the “most developed” state could offer itself as a model for the “less developed” states, urging the latter to engage in a sort of mimicry, and promising a higher standard of living and a more liberal governmental structure (“political development”) at the end of the rainbow. (10)

There is an ongoing struggle over these many different boundaries, theories and ways of knowing.

Background and nature of world-systems theory:

Wallerstein names four debates between 1945-70 that ‘set the scene for the emergence of world-systems analysis:

  1. the concept of core-periphery developed by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA) and the subsequent elaboration of “dependency theory”;
  2. the utility of Marx’s concept of the “Asiatic mode of production;’ a debate that took place among communist scholars;
  3. the discussion among historians of western Europe about the “transition from feudalism to capitalism”;
  4. the debate about “total history” and the triumph of the Annales school of historiography in France  (11)

The standard at this time was the national state, so above all this new way of thinking forced a move to the scale of world-systems.

Instead of national states as the object of study, they substituted “historical systems” which, it was argued, had existed up to now in only three variants: mini-systems; and “world -systems” of two kinds– world-economies and world-empires. Note the hyphen in world-system and its two subcategories, world-economies and world-empires. Putting in the hyphen was intended to underline that we are talking not about systems, economies, empires of the (whole) world, but about systems, economies, empires that are a world (but quite possibly, and indeed usually, not encompassing the entire globe). This is a key initial concept to grasp. It says that in “world-systems” we are dealing with a spatial/temporal zone which cuts across many political and cultural units, one that represents an integrated zone of activity and institutions which obey certain systemic rules (16-17).

This shifted the unit of analysis from the state, insisted on the importance of a historic view, and insisted on multidisplinary study. You can imagine it was not popular with the institutions of learning and all those who had invested their careers in them. It is an unceasing effort to grapple with complexity.

World-systems analysts insist that rather than reduce complex situations to simpler variables, the effort should be to complexify and contextualize all so-called simpler variables in order to understand real social situations (19).

This means that both time and space are also understood as socially constructed, and part of the social reality we are trying to analyse. Some key concepts (there is so much packed into this little volume):

World economy:

What we mean by a world-economy (Braudel’s economie -monde) is a large geographic zone within which there is a division of labor and hence significant internal exchange of basic or essential goods as well as flows of capital and labor. A defining feature of a world-economy is that it is not bounded by a unitary political structure. Rather, there are many political units inside the world-economy, loosely tied together in our modern world-system in an interstate system (23).


And a world-economy contains many cultures and groups-practicing many religions, speaking many languages, differing in their everyday patterns. This does not mean that they do not evolve some common cultural patterns, what we shall be calling a geoculture. It does mean that neither political nor cultural homogeneity is to be expected or found in a world-economy. What unifies the structure most is the division of labor which is constituted within it. (23)

Capitalist system:

Wage-labor has also been known for thousands of years. We are in a capitalist system only when the system gives priority to the endless accumulation of capital. Using such a definition, only the modern world-system has been a capitalist system. (24)

Conversely, a capitalist system cannot exist within any framework except that of a world-economy. We shall see that a capitalist system requires a very special relationship between economic producers and the holders of political power. If the latter are too strong, as in a world-empire, their interests will override those of the economic producers, and the endless accumulation of capital will cease to be a priority. Capitalists need a large market (hence mini-systems are too narrow for them) but they also need a multiplicity of states, so that they can gain the advantages of working with states but also can circumvent states hostile to their interests in favor of states friendly to their interests. Only the existence of a multiplicity of states within the overall division of labor assures this possibility. (24)

Core, periphery and semi-periphery states:

The axial division of labor of a capitalist world-economy divides production into core-like products and peripheral products. Core-periphery is a relational concept. What we mean by core-periphery is the degree of profitability of the production processes. Since profitability is directly related to the degree of monopolization, what we essentially mean by core-like production processes is those that are controlled by quasi-monopolies. Peripheral processes are then those that are truly competitive. When exchange occurs, competitive products are in a weak position and quasi-monopolized products are in a strong position. As a result, there is a constant flow of surplus-value from the producers of peripheral products to the producers of core-like products. This has been called unequal exchange.

There is also plunder, often used extensively during the early days of incorporating new regions into the world-economy (consider, for example, the conquistadores and gold in the Americas) …. Still, since the consequences are middle-term and the advantages short-term, there still exists much plunder
in the modern world-system…

Thus, for shorthand purposes we can talk of core states and peripheral states, so long as we remember that we are really talking of a relationship between production processes. Some states have a near even mix of core-like and peripheral products. We may call them semi peripheral states. (28)

Class, family, identity:

Classes however are not the only groups within which households locate themselves. They are also members of status-groups or identities. (If one calls them status-groups, one is emphasizing how they are perceived by others, a sort of objective criterion. If one calls them identities, one is emphasizing how they perceive themselves, a sort of subjective criterion. But, under one name or the other, they are an institutional reality of the modern world- system. Status-groups or identities are ascribed labels, since we are born into them, or at least we usually think we are born into them. It is on the whole rather difficult to join such groups voluntarily, although not impossible. (36)

Of course, the powers that be in a social system always hope that socialization results in the acceptance of the very real hierarchies that are the product of the system. They also hope that socialization results in the internalization of the myths, the rhetoric, and the theorizing of the system. This does happen in part but never in full. Households also socialize members into rebellion, withdrawal, and deviance. To be sure, up to a point even such antisystemic socialization can be useful to the system by offering an outlet for restless spirits, provided that the overall system is in relative equilibrium. In that case, one can anticipate that the negative socializations may have at most a limited impact on the functioning of the system. But when the historical system comes into structural crisis, suddenly such antisystemic socializations can play a profoundly unsettling role for the system. (37)

Universalism | Racism & Sexism

Universalism is a theme prominently associated with the modern world-system. It is in many ways one of its boasts. Universalism means in general the priority to general rules applying equally to all persons, and therefore the rejection of particularistic preferences in most spheres. The only rules that are considered permissible within the framework of universalism are those which can be shown to apply directly to the narrowly defined proper functioning of the world-system. (38)

(but universalism has always been racialised! I have to think more about this, it seems too abstracted from the concrete realities of colonial and imperial expansion)

Let us look at what we mean by racism and sexism. Actually these are terms that came into widespread use only in the second half of the twentieth century. Racism and sexism are instances of a far wider phenomenon that has no convenient name, but that might be thought of as antiuniversalism, or the active institutional discrimination against all the persons in a given status-group or identity. For each kind of identity, there is a social ranking. It can be a crude ranking, with two categories, or elaborate, with a whole ladder. But there is always a group on top in the ranking, and one or several groups at the bottom. These rankings are both worldwide and more local, and both kinds of ranking have enormous consequences in the lives of people and in the operation of the capitalist world-economy (39)

The bottom line is that the modern world-system has made as a central, basic feature of its structure the simultaneous existence, propagation, and practice of both universalism and anti- universalism. This antinomic duo is as fundamental to the system as is the core-peripheral axial division of labor. (41)

The Rise of the States-System

The modern state is a sovereign state. Sovereignty is a concept that was: invented in the modern world-system. Its prima facie meaning is totally autonomous state power (42).

But of course, modern states, most of them, don’t actually wield totally autonomous state power given that they are part of a world system.Despite the many arguments in geography to the contrary, the state hasn’t quite withered away. Wallerstein writes:

The relationship of states to firms is a key to understanding the functioning of the capitalist world-economy. The official ideology of most capitalists is laissez-faire, the doctrine that governments should not interfere with the working of entrepreneurs in the market. It is important to understand that as a general rule, entrepreneurs assert this ideology loudly but do not really want it to be implemented, or at least not fully, and certainly do not usually act as though they believed it was sound doctrine. (46)

There are a number of roles the state plays in supporting the market, one of the key ones is control over labour and the boundaries that contain labour:

The trans-boundary movement of persons has always been the most closely controlled, and of course concerns firms in that it concerns workers.(46)

Wallerstein cares for liberals as much as I do…particularly their slow enfranchisement of various groups of people after they had proved they were worthy — many would probably object to this understanding of liberalism but not I:

They argued that all others should slowly be admitted to full
citizens’ rights when their education had become sufficient to enable them to make balanced choices. By embracing progress, the liberals sought to frame its definition in such a way that the “dangerous classes” would become less dangerous and those with “merit” would play the key roles in political, economic, and social institutions. There was of course a third group, the radicals, who would associate themselves with the anti systemic movements, indeed lead them for the most part. (52)

They also often leave unchallenged the ways that nations are invented, and the role of the state in that social creation. These states with their carefully constructed histories and key characteristics, form part of the world-system, and do not exist independent of each other. There have also been attempts to construct world-empires, defined by Wallerstein as:

a structure in which there is a single political authority for the whole world-system.

He gives Charles V in the 16th century, Napoleon and Hitler as examples of failed attempts at such a structure. There are three examples of powers that

achieved hegemony, albeit for only relatively brief periods. The first was the United Provinces (today called the Netherlands) in the mid-seventeenth century. The second was the United Kingdom in the mid-nineteenth century. And the third was the United States in the mid -twentieth century. What allows us to call them hegemonic (57) is that for a certain period they were able to establish the rules of the game in the interstate system, to dominate the world-economy (in production, commerce, and finance), to get their way politically with a minimal use of military force (which however they had in goodly strength), and to formulate the cultural language with which one discussed the world. (58)

The Creation of a Geoculture

This section might be a bit too Western for me, a bit too focused on European understandings as hegemonic, but given colonialism there is perhaps a level of justice in such a claim. He sees the French Revolution as the turning point and basis for:

the geoculture of the modern world-system: the normality of political change and the refashioning of the concept of sovereignty, now vested in the people who were “citizens.” And this concept, as we have said, although meant to include, in practice excluded very many.

This is a rather interesting definition of ideology as well, I am still thinking it through:

An ideology is more than a set of ideas or theories. It is more than a moral commitment or a worldview. It is a coherent strategy in the social arena from which one can draw quite specific political conclusions. In this sense, one did not need ideologies in previous world-systems, or indeed even in the modern world-system before the concept of the normality of change, and that of the citizen who was ultimately responsible for such change, were adopted as basic structural principles of political institutions. (60)

He sees such ideology at play in liberalism, and the concept of the liberal state developed between 1848 and WWI.

states based on the concept of citizenship, a range of guarantees against arbitrary authority, and a certain openness in public life. The program that the liberals developed had three main elements: gradual extension of the suffrage and, concomitant with this and essential to it, the expansion of access to education; expanding the role of the state in protecting citizens against harm in the workplace, expanding health facilities and access to them, and ironing out fluctuations in income in the life cycle; forging citizens of a state into a “nation.” If one looks closely, these three elements turn out to be a way of translating the slogan of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” into public policy.

Interestingly, he sees liberals backpedaling after the failed uprisings and repression of 1848 and it actually being conservatives who saw it as a sensible compromise to stem revolutionary tendencies, Disraeli among them. The radical struggle became centered on the state and the use of formal rights of citizens to take state power and thus implement change under the slogan of  liberty, equality, and fraternity. As he writes it, they succeeded in full integration and achievement of the vote, yet failed to use this power to transform society. Wallerstein describes the growing proletariat as remaining essentially outside of this dynamic however.

The Modern World-System in Crisis

First to define a crisis — that word is used a lot. This narrows it down a bit:

But whenever the difficulty can be resolved in some way, then there is not a true crisis but simply a difficulty built into the system. True crises are those difficulties that cannot be resolved within the framework of the system, but instead can be overcome only by going outside of and beyond the historical system of which the difficulties are a part. (76)

We are in such a crisis, but it is a long-term kind of crisis (I am not so sure of this use of crisis, which can go on for ‘another twenty-five to fifty years’ (77). He continues:

Since one central feature of such a transitional period is that we face wild oscillations of all those structures and processes we have come to know as an inherent part of the existing world-system, we find that our short-term expectations are necessarily quite unstable. This instability can lead to considerable anxiety and therefore violence as people try to preserve acquired privileges and hierarchical rank in a very unstable situation. In general, this process can lead to social conflicts that take a quite unpleasant form. (77)

There is a reference to the Kondratieff B-phase — I really need to get my head around that, but not today. It describes the rise of neoliberalism and this is essentially where it ends. Our current conjuncture is indeed unpleasant — such a funny polite word. This is quite a polite, measured, abstract book quite different from Walter Rodney or Eric Williams, but  useful in starting to see how things connect and fit together at the global scale. I am itching to leave the abstraction though, and examine the detail of racialisation, imperialism, struggle.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (2005) World-systems analysis: an introduction. Durham: Duke University Press.


Frederick Douglass: My Bondage and My Freedom

I read the short version of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography many years ago and it impressed me so deeply, I had always meant to read the longer version — one of them at least. Too many years separate them for me even to be sure of the differences, apart from the recounting of the scene where Douglass stands up to Covey — much expanded here, but I am not sure more powerful for that. Still. The moment where enough is enough, where resistance is embraced fully, where everything changes. An incredible moment. But this is a book of powerful moments. So much of what is theorised over the next 150 years is here already, though always in a way that pathologises slavery not those bound and tortured by it. If only we had kept to that tradition.

Geneological trees do not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence here in the north, sometimes designated father, is literally abolished in slave law and slave practice. It is only once in a while that an exception is found to this statement. (34-35)

Of course, Douglass’s father was white. Master or overseer, he is not explicit — does not know, does not wish to know, does not wish to say.

The practice of separating children from their mothers, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with a brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and the heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution. (37-38)

Frederick Douglass belonged to the Lloyds, a plantation along the Wye river named after the river in Wales whence they came. Knowing the Wye river — it brings these connections home. From rural wales to owning slaves in Maryland.

Frederick Douglass grows up. Always cold. Always hungry. Always questioning.

The old doctrine that submission is the best cure for outrage and wrong, does not hold good on the slave plantation. He is whipped oftenest, who is whipped easiest; and that slave who has the courage to stand up for himself against the overseer, although he may have many hard stripes at the first, becomes, in the end, a freeman, even though he sustain the formal relation of a slave. (95)

There is, of course, a line to be walked here because too much and they will just shoot you — this is clear in the text despite the numerous forceful statements like the one above.

I’ve just finished re-reading Du Bois on The Souls of Black Folk, and found it powerful that Douglass too spends time on the songs sung by slaves and their meaning and importance. It was often demanded of them that they sing, you cannot plot while singing, you cannot run away. But song transformed into something else. Douglass relates that it is not until after escaping slavery and looking back that the real meaning of the songs struck him.

They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of these wild notes always depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness… Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery… (99)

But then, still a child, he is sent to Baltimore, and it is strange to think, that without this arbitrary decision the future course of his life might not have been possible. For here he has opportunity to learn to read, to play with poor white children, to ask questions, to obtain knowledge, to see a world beyond the plantation. And, in the beginning, to have a taste of something different.

At first, Mrs Auld evidently regarded me simply as a child, like any other child; she had not come to regard me as property. This latter thought was a thing of conventional growth…it took several years to change the natural sweetness of her temper into fretful bitterness. (144-145)

Douglass illustrates time and time again how the structures of slavery constrain the humanity of both slave and slave-owner. The nature of slavery is such that there can be no good owner, no kind mistress because to own a slave is to deny the humanity of another human being. Mrs Auld begins kindly — begins to teach him to read, and is stopped in her tracks by her husband. It becomes fully brought home to her that reading and slavery are incompatible. In bowing to this, she loses her own self as she must.

As Douglass comes to understand this, the bewildering changes from kindness to bitterness, the reminders of his place in the household, he is also working out the nature of his own morality under slavery. That within a structure that has robbed him of both liberty and all reward of his labour, his right to steal for self preservation cannot be questioned. With no freedom of choice, no slave can be held morally responsible or accountable, rather all responsibility lies with those who created an enforce slavery.

There are insights too, into slavery’s impact on the class distinctions made in the South:

Slaves, too, readily distinguish between the birthright bearing of the original slaveholder and the assumed attitudes of the accidental slaveholder; and while they cannot respect either, they certainly despise the latter more than the former. (192)

Refusing to call him Master only one of many subtle ways of showing this. But it is so clear that status is entirely bound up in ownership of other human beings at this time, even though a certain level of privilege is granted to all those with white skin. Douglass is thinking all of these things, but can do little. At the age of 16 he is sent to work for a man named Covey for year, to be broken. And after 6 months of being broken, he stands up, refuses to be whipped, fights back.

…this battle with Mr Covey–undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is–was the turning point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I was A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. (246)

He was never whipped again. He does wonder why he wasn’t just killed — the punishment decreed by law for such defiance. The loss of face that Covey would have incurred is most likely the reason, but he himself has seen someone murdered for less. He describes the price of being a man — being willing to die. He also notes the many other things that work to keep human beings enslaved. Ties to family and friends, to place and familiarity. The granting of holidays, and other things that keep ‘minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they are deprived. A certain degree of attainable good must be kept before them’ (253).

One of teh most powerful sentences I think:

The thought of only being a creature of the present and the past, troubled me, and I longed to have a future–a future with hope in it. (273)

I think this is perhaps the terror of poverty as well, though it cannot be compared to slavery. But it appears again in one of the speeches at the end. A future could only lie in freedom. He plans an attempt at escape with a group of dear friends and is betrayed, but without quite the proof needed to convince his owner that the freedom break was actually going to be attempted. So while threatened with sale to the South, he is not in the end taken there. He is sent back to Baltimore, and apprenticed in the shipyards.

He has the shit beaten out of him by white apprentices there,  partially at the instigation of the white carpenters who stand and watch it all. He notes that one of the elements in slavery is this:

the conflict of slavery with the interests of the white mechanics and laborers of the south. … The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black man himself… The slave is robbed, by his master, of all his earnings, above what is required for his bare physical necessities; and the white man is robbed by the slave system, of the just results of his labor, because he is flung into competition with a class of laborers who work without wages. (309-310)

Douglass writes this will set the white laborers in the vanguard against slavery — it’s curious that he is right and wrong, for in much of the north and in California they surely are against slavery, but equally against Black labour. Still, we see here the intersections of race, economic systems, labour, struggle…

He escapes. Wanders lost in NY afraid for his life and recapture, no money, no friends. He doesn’t wonder that some return South. But he reaches safety with the abolitionists and they recommend he move to New Bedford. Which sounds bad ass. He tells a story in which a newcomer threatens one of the community with informing on him to his old master. A meeting is called of the whole Black community, and at the end of it

…at the close of his prayer, the old man (one of the numerous family of Johnsons) rose from his knees, deliberately surveyed his audience, and then said, in a tone of solemn resolution, “Well, friends, we have got him here, and I would now recommend that you young men should just take him outside the door and kill him. (348)

He escapes, sadly. But Douglass writes

A slave could not be taken from that town seventeen years ago, any more than he could be so taken away now. the reason is, that the colored people in that city are educated up to the point of fighting for their freedom, as well as speaking for it. (348)

That brings a tear.

So Douglass comes to the attention of the abolitionists as a speaker, begins to travel and lecture. He reads more, speaks more, thinks. He is fucking brilliant, far more so than those around him and they don’t like it, tell him to speak more like a slave, to just give his story and let them denounce the wrongs and provide the solutions. Whites in the audiences start murmuring at his eloquence, refuse to believe that he is a slave as he doesn’t speak like one or act like one. Makes you want to throw things.

And so Douglass writes the first version of his autobiography to free himself from these insinuations…which is, of course, a huge risk and means his almost certain recapture. And so he goes to England. where like many others before and after, he is treated as an equal (though all this would change for other generations of Black people coming to England). Money is raised to buy his freedom so he can return to the US without the threat of recapture hanging over him. (He is criticised for allowing this, by those who don’t know what it is like to be owned or to have the fear of being taken back hanging over them.) More money is raised to provide him with a printing press, so he can begin his own paper. And the white abolitionists really fucking hate that, as you can imagine — they argue it’s not needed, that it will interfere with the lecturing they have planned for him, that he is a better speaker than writer, and that it can’t succeed. William Lloyd Garrison has his own paper after all. So Douglass moves to Rochdale to avoid competition with them. They hate it even more when, upon deep thought, Douglass decides that they are wrong in their analysis of the issue and in their tactics of refusals to vote and demands that the slave-states be cut free from the union.

He notes near the end, the many instances of racism in the north. The prejudice that existed even among abolitionists and the awkwardness of their denials underlining how deeply it ran. Like their insistence they were ‘not afraid to walk with him’. He resists the existence of ‘Jim Crow’ cars in trains and trams, refusing to move and fighting any attempts to so remove him. Jim Crow this early, in name and in segregated carriages. I had forgotten. He is such a well-connected figure by this time, his battles are successful.

At the end are a collection of speeches and damn. They are incredible, what a thing to have heard him speak. Above all the speech for the 4th of July, which I have read before. But some excerpts, first from his reception speech at Finsbury Chapel.

I am here to say that I think the term slavery is sometimes abused by identifying it with that which it is not. Slavery in the United States is the granting of that power by which one man exercises and enforces a right of poetry in the body and soul of another. The condition of a slave is simply that of the brute beast. He is a piece of property–a marketable commodity…to be bought or sold at will and caprice of the master who claims him to be his property; he is spoken of, thought of, and treated as property. His own good, his conscience, his intellect, his affections, are all set aside by the master. The will and the wishes of the master are the law of the slave. He is as much a piece of property as a horse. If he is fed, he is fed because he is property. If he is clothed, it is with a view to the increase of his value as property. Whatever of comfort is necessary to him for his body or soul that is inconsistent with his being property, is carefully wrested from him, not only by public opinion, but by the law of the country. He is carefully deprived of everything that tends in the slightest degree to detract from his value as property. He is deprived of education. God has given him an intellect; the slaveholder declares it shall not be cultivated. If his moral perception leads him in a course contrary to his value as property, the slaveholder declares he shall not exercise it. The marriage institution cannot exist among slaves, and one-sixth of the population of democratic America is denied its privileges by the law of the land. What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage? (408)

And then this rousing finale

The slaveholders want total darkness on the subject. They want the hatchway shut down, that the monster may crawl in his den of darkness, crushing human hopes and happiness, destroying the bondman at will, and having no one to reprove or rebuke him. Slavery shrinks from the light; it hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest its deeds should be reproved. To tear off the mask from this abominable system, to expose it to the light of heaven, aye, to the heat of the sun, that it may burn and wither it out of existence, is my object in coming to this country. I want the slaveholder surrounded, as by a wall of anti-slavery fire, so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light. (418)

There is the letter to his old master, written on the anniversary of his escape. It is excoriating, and also moving…

The fact is, there are few here who would not return to the South in the event of emancipation. We want to live in the land of our birth, and to lay our bones by the side of our fathers’; and nothing short of an intense love of personal freedom keeps us from the South. For the sake of this, most of us would live on a crust of bread and a cup of cold water.(424)

At this moment, you are probably the guilty holder of at least three of my own dear sisters, and my only brother in bondage. These you regard as your property. They are recorded on your ledger, or perhaps have been sold to human flesh mongers, with a view to filling your own ever-hungry purse. Sir, I desire to know how and where these dear sisters are. Have you sold them? or are they still in your possession? What has become of them? are they living or dead? And my dear old grandmother, whom you turned out like an old horse, to die in the woods—is she still alive? Write and let me know all about them. (426-427)

Speech on The Nature of Slavery:

First of all, I will state, as well as I can, the legal and social relation of master and slave. A master is one—to speak in the vocabulary of the southern states—who claims and exercises a right of property in the person of a fellow-man. This he does with the force of the law and the sanction of southern religion. The law gives the master absolute power over the slave. He may work him, flog him, hire him out, sell him, and, in certain contingencies, kill him, with perfect impunity. The slave is a human being, divested of all rights—reduced to the level of a brute—a mere “chattel” in the eye of the law—placed beyond the circle of human brotherhood—cut off from his kind—his name, which the “recording angel” may have enrolled in heaven, among the blest, is impiously inserted in a master’s ledger, with horses, sheep, and swine. In law, the slave has no wife, no children, no country, and no home. He can own nothing, possess nothing, acquire nothing, but what must belong to another. To eat the fruit of his own toil, to clothe his person with the work of his own hands, is considered stealing. He toils that another may reap the fruit; he is industrious that another may live in idleness; he eats unbolted meal that another may eat the bread of fine flour; he labors in chains at home, under a burning sun and biting lash, that another may ride in ease and splendor abroad; he lives in ignorance that another may be educated; he is abused that another may be exalted; he rests his toil-worn limbs on the cold, damp ground that another may repose on the softest pillow; he is clad in coarse and tattered raiment that another may be arrayed in purple and fine linen; he is sheltered only by the wretched hovel that a master may dwell in a magnificent mansion; and to this condition he is bound down as by an arm of iron.

From this monstrous relation there springs an unceasing stream of most revolting cruelties. The very accompaniments of the slave system stamp it as the offspring of hell itself. To ensure good behavior, the slaveholder relies on the whip; to induce proper humility, he relies on the whip; to rebuke what he is pleased to term insolence, he relies on the whip; to supply the place of wages as an incentive to toil, he relies on the whip; to bind down the spirit of the slave, to imbrute and destroy his manhood, he relies on the whip, the chain, the gag, the thumb-screw, the pillory, the bowie knife the pistol, and the blood-hound. These are the necessary and unvarying accompaniments of the system. Wherever slavery is found, these horrid instruments are also found. (429-430)

It is only when we contemplate the slave as a moral and intellectual being, that we can adequately comprehend the unparalleled enormity of slavery, and the intense criminality of the slaveholder. I have said that the slave was a man. … The first work of slavery is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims which distinguish men from things, and persons from property. Its first aim is to destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility. It reduces man to a mere machine. It cuts him off from his Maker, it hides from him the laws of God, and leaves him to grope his way from time to eternity in the dark, under the arbitrary and despotic control of a frail, depraved, and sinful fellow-man. (431)

What to the slave is the 4th of July? (listen to James Earl Jones read it here)

Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us? (441)

Those words are still pretty true.

America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery-the great sin and shame of America! (442)

What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their masters? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? (444)

Words cannot express my admiration or respect. Yet I am still full of questions, about the wife who came from Maryland also, about her life, about the day to day…more to read, always more to read.

Frederick Douglass, Syracuse, New York, July–August 1843; whole-plate daguerreotype by an unknown photographer, from Picturing Frederick Douglass

Douglass, Frederick (1969 [1855]) My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

The Cry Was Unity: African Americans and the Communist Party

Mark Solomon’s The Cry Was Unity: African Americans and the Communist Party is a deep and detailed look at this relationship in the US over a very short period of time, but a rather vital one I think. This time when the CP did some pretty amazing organizing, and some pretty flawed organizing, before their top-down structure dictated they drop it entirely.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how theory works with practice, about ideology and pragmatism, about the need to confront racism and white supremacy and how we might better go about that and I keep thinking about this book, so I dusted off the notes. I read a good while ago, I confess. Never got around to processing it really. This doesn’t succeed or do it justice, just pulls out some key quotes because it’s dense, something to return to with questions about specific people, specific dates.

So to start with Otto Huiswood. Originally from Surinam (Surinam!), he helped found the CP in Harlem in 1919 — making him the 1st African American to join. Cyril Briggs from the island of Nevis was another key figure…I had so little knowledge before reading this of just how important the Caribbean diaspora was in NY, and to radical politics. But Briggs did so much before the CP… he was inspired by the Irish Easter rising

which had fired the imagination of the “New Negro” radicals…exemplified an revolutionary nationalism that found its way into the rhetoric voiced on street corners and in the emerging press of rapidly urbanizing African American life. (5)

It makes me happy to see the connections between his radical philosophies and the Irish struggle (we all know Irish and Black folks didn’t often get along in NY, I just finished Ignatiev on the whole Irish becoming White thing, and damn is it ugly…) But anyway, a bit of happy news — and Connelly stood against slavery, for a while anyway.  But the Easter Rising, and other independence movements, inspired Briggs to advocate for a separate black state within the US. He founded the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) for African Liberation and Redemption, the announcement of its founding continued ‘Those only need apply who are willing to go the limit.’ (9) They were modeled on the Sinn Fein, founded the newspaper The Crusader in 1918.

1919 — Red Summer, a wave of lynchings swept the country. Briggs Was moving in the same circles as Huiswood, Claude McKay, Grace Campbell, W.A. Domingo, Hubert Harrison and other radicals in Harlem. Terrible times, amazing times, no? This was also the time of Marcus Garvey — and he and Briggs never got along.  Solomon writes

Marcus Garvey’s UNIA resonated for African American working people as Briggs’ ABB could not, because the former vibrantly express outrage at the dominant white society without directly and dangerously confronting the bourgeois order. (28)

And that is something Briggs did. He would join the CP in 1921, after the 2nd Internation congress in 1920. That’s the one where Lenin presented his ‘Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’, a radical document that would begin to transform the work of the CP in the US as it urged the party to support revolutionary movements, and named both Ireland and African Americans. I lose track a little of the twists and turns and the politics of these congresses, but Claude McKay and Otto Huiswood were both present at the 4th congress in 1922, where the Congress established a Negro Commission.

The American Negro Labor Congress of 1925 opened in Chicago, race was always an issue as seen by the mostly white delegates, though they were addressed by Richard B Moore and Claude McKay. Solomon writes:

The sense of a “nation within a nation,” born in slavery and nurtured in segregation, is rooted in African American thought. It emerged from the lash, from political subjugation, from the trampling of the cultural heritage of an entire people, from assaults on their psychological makeup and identity. The Negro question was indeed more than a class or racial problem. the forced rupture of community between blacks and whites, and the onslaught on the blacks’ historical continuity, culture, and identity had produced a longing for political unity and psychic autonomy–for the realization of black national yearning. the Communists were onto something. National oppression constituted a proper description of what had happened to black Americans. (88)

There is this amazing insistence for a time that racial divisions and white supremacy be overcome:

southern whites [and non-southern whites, but more amazing for southern whites] must enter the CP cleansed of chauvinism…At the end of the decade [1920s] the Party had finally admitted the need to win the trust of  blacks and to strongly resist any backsliding on social equality. The Communists had come to believe that racial segregation and the savaging of black identity represented both an institutional foundation for American capitalism and its weak point. To compromise with racism in any way strengthened capitalism and wounded its most potent foes…concessions to segregation and inequality would validate racism and sacrifice blacks’ trust in white radicals. ‘ (128)

I still find it hard to imagine how hard it must have been to place this front and centre, but they did, and they were right to insist that it was this racism that prevented any united sense of class, right that freedom could not be obtained while these divisions existed. As Solomon continues:

“A real Bolshevik Leninist understanding” of racism, Harry Haywood intoned, held that liberation from the bonds of such oppression was inextricably “part of the question of the proletarian revolution” — a precondition for achieving Lenin’s historic alliance of the workers and subject peoples in common struggle against capitalism and imperialism. …. By locating the source of white chauvinism in the ideology and interest of the ruling class, the Party held an ominous sword over its members. What was more serious than the accusation that a Communist was doing the work of the class enemy? (130)

And so some of this work was amazing. The 20s drew to an end, the Great Depression hit. We see the brilliant movement of the Unemployed Councils, working to return possessions back into the homes of those who had been evicted and organizing rent strikes. In Chicago, 1931, Unemployed  Councils organized on South Side of Chicago. Solomon notes that one day in July they restored 4 families to their homes in one day. Yet the police were cracking down. While the UCs continued fighting through 1933, there is no doubt that 1931 saw them at their height. The CP admitted they were unable to maintain the enthusiasm and engagement, and noted the ‘internal tedium’ of party politics as a factor. Reading some of the descriptions of party life, it is easy to see why. Meetings and meetings, circles of judgement and criticism, show trials. I mean, they had show trials. I had no idea, but you can see how the structures emerging from a calcifying Russian revolution (a whole tragedy in itself about to unfold there of course) were already beginning to crush the spirit.

It took a while though.

This early period also saw a branching out to work in wider collaborations. A number of middle-class Black leaders also endorsed the party given their stance on the race question, like Countee Cullen. The CP was running dozens of black candidates for political offices, not to win but as mass actions to educate and politicize around unemployment and racial equality. They had some incredible victories beyond the Unemployment Councils. Like the strike in St Louis where on May 15, 100 women  working in the nut industry (!) walked out demanding a pay rise, 3 weeks later 1000 black women struck, the next day white women walked out in solidarity. My favourite line in the book:

‘The women armed themselves with ‘brick-sandwiches’ to confront strikebreakers’ (251)

In Chicago 800 women, black and white, won a partial victory on strike against B. Sopkins Dress Company. Solomon gives us names I had not heard of the, the women who led this movement in Harlem — Maude White, Louise Thompson, Augusta Savage, Williana Burroughs of Hunter College (keep seeing this college referenced here though I had not heard of it before, seems to be an amazing radical place to look into). Increasingly the movement is being driven by those who are American born. There is a real sense of movement though, of hope. And then the CP stepped in once again. Good in some ways, that 1935 opening up, ‘accelerating the popular front’. CP members were able to work in growing coalitions — they even included Father Divine in Harlem. But this signaled the beginning of a move away from organizing, the liberation of Blacks, the anti-racist strategies. They dropped tenants wholesale. 1936 was a bit early for this so that’s not really covered here (like Iton’s work), there is a little more about it in Manning Marable, Robert Fisher and others. There is just a sense of impending tragedy, the story of the black Share Croppers Union — trying to ally with others with the help of Highlander (Don West, the cofounder of Highlander with Horton is mentioned a number of times in the book) — they fail,  and face a horrible wave of repression after they strike, they face murder and assassination.

This history is swallowed up. Rarely retold. Needing to be kept alive.

[Solomon, Mark (1998) The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-36. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi}

Rinku Sen’s Stir It Up #2 — Organizing in Practice

Second post on Stir It Up by Rinku Sen of CTWO (first post here) — this one on the nitty gritty of it all. Which being an academic now I find less exciting than when I was an organizer, though as much or more important than the other stuff I know. Anyway. In Sen’s opinion there has been a real shift in community organizing, and it’s during this shift and in this realm that I came of age really, so this rings true though I am discovering that there is more continuity than I had thought. She describes what she calls the ‘New Community Organizing Practices’, which certainly reflected some of SAJE’s work while I was there I think. Though we maybe took on more ‘winnable’ issues apart from gentrification itself, but no one has beat that yet have they… just held it at bay. Folks like LA CAN and Union de Vecinos have been doing that with might and brilliance for decades now.

In a significant shift in practice, community organizations are increasingly taking up the issues and constituencies mainstream groups refuse to touch. There has been significant innovation in three particular areas. First, groups have begun to organize the most marginalized people rather than those occupying the middle. The organizing of undocumented immigrants, victims of police brutality, and single mothers is indicative of this trend. Second, groups choose issues that enable the organizing of the worst-off, sometimes privileging those concerns over blander issues that might be more winnable. Third, political education has been added to organizing practice. (lxiii)


So a chapter here on the political and economic realities:

This chapter is about what I consider the central political and economic trends we need to take into account while we do our work. In the United States today, three trends in particular are relevant to every progressive group: the resurgence of conservative movements and the power gained by such movements in the United States since the early 1970s; the character and organization of the new economy, which is distinguished by the rising use of neoliberal policies and contingent workers; and the continued, unyielding role of racism and sexism in the organization of society. (1)

These are the underlying trends that organizing works needs to be tackling. So what needs doing? Another list:

  • Increasing Progressive Organizing, (18)

  • Addressing Core Ideas and Values: The base building, the development of sustained campaigns, and the research and media work are essentially techniques with no specific moral, economic, or political values attached to them; they are meaningless unless we also address the core ideas that shape society. (20)

  • Supporting Large Social Movements: We need to develop a movement orientation to our organizing. (21)

That’s a big one, but at the same time movement isn’t really something you can create — Piven and Cloward talk about this, and I think we all agree. So what is the role of the organizer in the meantime? Aldon Morris talks about Halfway Houses, Myles Horton thought about this in relation to Highlander. I like the below as well:

While we can’t control all the factors that enable a movement to develop, we can build our organizations in such a way as to be ready for movement work when the time is right. Most experienced activists believe that movements emerge from a specific set of conditions—rising expectations among the disenfranchised, a backlash against the status quo, or demographic shifts—in addition to explicit organizing. Being ready requires, in the first place, shifts in our work patterns and attitudes. For example, rather than figuring out how to do everything in one organization, we need to think more about how to create and support complementary organizations that work together to get the job done. Such a division of labor requires a deep understanding of and mutual respect for all the functions necessary to organize people, ideas, and money. (22)


Organizing can mean a lot of things to different people, I like her simple list of what it is (and why).

By organizing, I mean an effort to build organizations that include at least these five elements:

  • A clear mission and goals
  • A membership and leadership structure, with a way for people to join and take roles
  • Outreach systems that concentrate on those most affected
  • Issue campaigns featuring multiple tactics, including direct action
  • Pursuit of changing institutions rather than individuals

These elements combine to produce power and a shift in how people are treated as a result. (24-25)

I also like this breakdown of the underlying principles, and the impacts these have on the work you do, how you do it, and who can work with you:

Four major principles form the basis of our organizing efforts. First, our organizing strategy, our plan to build or expand a particular constituency, holds implications for the way we structure our organizations. Second, every organization has its own culture, which has to be shaped and refined to make room for the participation of particular groups. Third, we need to match our recruitment methods to the people we want to reach. Fourth, if we use services to attract members, we have to be extra vigilant that service provision doesn’t take over the organizing. (26)

That last one? Hard. We used services around evictions to ensure we still had some members but still. Hard. This, though? It’s all about this:

Organizing is essentially the process of creating politically active constituencies out of people with problems by focusing on their strengths and the solutions embedded in their experience. It is the basic work of progressive social change. (47)


Choosing campaigns…breaking down the difference between issues and problems. All organizing manuals talk about this.

Webster’s dictionary defines issue as a conflict between two parties. Organizers distinguish issues from problems. Problems refer to large-scale systems that are too large and vague to help us focus on real changes worth fighting for. Identifying specific issues within large-scale problems helps us define clear conflicts to which our group can propose a resolution. Issues always have at least three elements: a constituency with a grievance, a set of demands that address that grievance, and an institutional target at whom the grievance is directed. If a group cannot identify these three elements with specificity, then it is probably still dealing at the level of problems rather than carving out issues. (48)

I loved the principles, but loved also this acknowledgement about the realities of people’s lives and how they don’t quite fit into easy traditional models to deal with it, and the benefit of wisdom gained over years looking back:

Students of color, women, and lesbian/gay/bi/trans (LGBT) students, arguably the most explicitly marginalized constituencies on their campuses, frequently resisted our characterization of “good” issues. They asserted, quite correctly, that they rarely had the luxury to choose issues. Issues were thrust on them by oppressive institutional policies and practices that forced them into a survival mode. Furthermore, they said, choosing issues creates a hierarchy among oppressions: groups have to make implicit, if not explicit, judgments about which issues are important enough to work on and which are not, who deserves liberation and who does not.

Today, I would suggest that those students create their own criteria for prioritizing issues. While it is true that some attacks must be answered, having clear criteria can help you respond effectively, as well as move beyond defense posture to victories that improve the quality of life. (50)

Some great lists for choosing issues — first from Midwest Organizing Academy and then CTWOs own. Go look at them.


There isn’t much new here that isn’t in in Miller’s or Hunter’s books. I do love the reminder though, 5 reasons why direct action is so important:

While the idea of direct action is often scary, using it can provide important benefits. First, direct action can clarify the stakes, presenting our take on an issue in sharp contrast to other proposals or the status quo. This kind of clarification makes it less likely that the interests of our constituency will be negotiated away by people who are not affected—a distinct possibility when liberal policy, research and lobbying groups are deeply involved in a controversial issue, whether it be welfare or immigration. (79-80)

Second, nothing is better than a well-timed confrontation to help targets feel the pressure, which leads to victories that weren’t forthcoming without the action.

Third, direct action demystifies the halls of power for a constituency, and the people occupying those halls start to realize it and treat us with more respect.

Fourth, face-to-face conflict can sometimes help protect the members of a group when they are under attack. The mere process of taking risks together, which direct action requires, helps to build the group’s sense of itself as a group. Actions can also help protect individuals who are having problems with the system by making it clear that they are surrounded by a whole group.

Fifth, direct action offers fun, creative, and effective ways to get your message out. (80)

It is definitely the campaign that makes the action meaningful, and the political education and critical consciousness that needs to be built with it that creates real change.

Still, no matter how successful any individual direct action is, it is meaningless outside of a campaign. Campaigns indicate sustained intervention on a specific issue; they have clear short- and long-term goals, a timeline, creative incremental demands, targets who can meet those demands, and an organizing plan to build a constituency and build internal capacity. Within campaigns, different tactics accomplish different goals. There are tactics for building a base, recruiting allies, educating the larger public, and proving a point, in addition to those that pressure targets. Campaigns require planning and discipline, the ability to think about life in six-month, one-year, or multiyear terms. Many organizations do great actions but cannot sustain a defined campaign that pursues a specific set of demands that fit into their larger vision. (81)

I do like these too, having now participated in numerous protests in this country where not a single damn one of these ever happens, despite my own protests:

There are three important principles in using direct action effectively. First, each action has to have a clear purpose grounded in an irrefutable need and expressed in the action’s specific target and demand. Second, the best actions are heavily choreographed. Third, direct actions are always part of a larger campaign.

This grows long, I just want to capture key points to think about later, to compare to others. So what follows are just the chapter headings and the principles that encapsulate CTWO’s best practices:


There are four key principles of leadership development. First, successful organizations distinguish between leadership identification and deeper development. Second, they formalize their leadership development programs, using popular education methods and grounding development in the daily work of the organization. Third, they pay attention to the race, class, gender, and cultural issues embedded in leadership development. Finally, they actively plan for the renewal and regeneration of leadership, from supporting an individual in avoiding burnout to managing leadership transitions well. (98-99)


There are three basic principles for conducting research for organizing purposes. First, consider the ways in which you can combine your research with outreach and issues development. Second, use human sources rather than paper as much as possible. Third, figure out whether you are better off doing your research internally or creating a partnership with another organization. (118)

Research is close to my heart, and I’ve a stack of things to get through on action research and PAR but I will add a second paragraph:

To use research to work on issues, we have to know where we are in the issue-development process before starting the research. Are we choosing an issue, reframing it, or developing a campaign plan? Choosing an issue requires a research process that determines what the constituency cares about, whether a solution is available, and whether we can craft an issue that meets our criteria. Reframing an issue requires detailed data, sometimes stories but often hard numbers, that dispute or discredit information put out by the other side. Developing a campaign plan requires tactical research—gathering specific information about targets and potential pitfalls embedded in our demands. (121)


There are four key principles to remember here. First, a group has to distinguish between different forms of collaboration and choose the one that matches its goals and capacities. Second, each partner in a collaboration has to have substantial self-interest and similar politics, although the need for political negotiation is ongoing. Third, organizations need to bring resources into an alliance or network, and those contributions have to be structured to equalize power and credit among the partners. Fourth, these formations work best when one party is responsible for staffing them; long-term alliances and networks require their own staffing and infrastructure. (136)

There is so much more here, I think, about alliance building. Particularly for me, how this is done to scale while still being grassroots led and in a world of scarce resources/lack of time/inability to travel because of immigration status or family commitments or poverty. I think anyone working at a national scale struggles a lot with this, even more so at an international scale.

CHAPTER EIGHT: Speaking Truth to Power

There are five key considerations in expanding organizational media capacity: crafting a strategy that adjusts messages and materials according to the audience; developing sharp, polarizing messages based on shared values; recognizing the importance of designing our own print, radio, and electronic media; understanding the media and building relationships with reporters, including challenging outlets when necessary; and, finally, using people within our own organization as sources. (150)


If we are going to engage in political education, we need to keep four principles in mind. First, clarity about the purpose of our political education will help define the approach we take and the questions we ask. Second, we need to avoid dogmatic rhetoric by grounding our political-education work in fact and inquiry. Third, we need to balance education with our primary goal, political organizing. Fourth, varying the medium of education will keep people engaged. Fifth, exploring solutions will help prevent our members from becoming depressed after political-education sessions. (167)

CONCLUSION: Community Organizing—Tomorrow

This is just me being lazy, recapping it all with two copied paragraphs. But I myself need to remember things like this, and it’s hard, so a nice way to end.

There’s a lot to pay attention to: changes in the economy, implications of identity, the connection between local communities and global trends, the tactics of the opposition, as well as how our organizations are shaping themselves. Paying attention is about being self-conscious in the best sense—having a heightened awareness of what’s going on with us and around us. It does not mean knowing everything about everything, but it does mean expanding our notion of what is relevant to our work.

But being aware without a commitment to action divorces us from real life and keeps us from distinguishing what requires our attention from what doesn’t. In this age of rapid information diffusion, that is a dangerous thing. Much of the information coming our way catalogues the horrors of being a regular person, the terrible consequences of the policies that control our lives. Without a commitment to taking action that will improve conditions, we don’t demand the kind of information we need to make changes, and we become paralyzed by what we know. (183)

Action is required.

[Sen, Rinku (2003) Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizin and Advocacy. San Francisco: Chardon Press.






Rinku Sen’s Stir It Up #1: Community Organizing — History and Organisation

Rinku Sen’s guide to community organizing is brilliant — nothing could ever replace the collective energy and knowledge generated through CTWO’s (or any group’s) training programs because community organizing is all about collective liberation, but if you can’t get there then this is great. If like me you’ve been lucky enough to learn from folks there, than this is a good reminder of some of what they taught. But of course, this has also made me think a lot more about things in the way that only sitting with a book can, especially now that I am removed from the pressures of organizing and being all intellectual about shit.

You should buy it, support such work, but you can get the PDF here. The presence of a PDF available for copying means I quote at EVEN GREATER LENGTH, which is always a failing of mine. Apologies.

The book in a nutshell:

The book is organized to provide an overview of organizing and then to explore specific aspects of current practice. The tools presented here can help communities transform the institutions and ideas that shape our lives. I make two essential arguments. First, I argue that today’s social, political, and economic context, characterized by global capitalism, a resurgent conservative movement, and the continued role of racism and sexism in world society, requires a deeper strategic capacity than most organizations have today. Second, I argue that although organizing among the people suffering from these systems is more important than ever, the range of political skills required of us goes far beyond recruiting members and planning creative actions. Minimally, effective peoples’ organizations need to have not just the people but also a system for internal leadership development and consciousness raising, strong factual research, and the ability to generate media attention. Simply put, today’s movements for social and economic justice need people who are clear about the problems with the current systems, who rely on solid evidence for their critique, and who are able to reach large numbers of other people with both analysis and proposals. (xvii-iii)

Right on.

So this first post is on her overview of community organizing, anti-racist and feminist critiques of it, and how it can be combined with  learning from the many vibrant struggles around identity. It is nice and broad and captures much of the amazing work happening in the US, and which I miss so much now that I’m in the UK:

The term community organizing refers to a distinct form of organization building and social activism that grew in the United States mostly after World War II.  …. There are at least six major organizing networks in the United States, each with its own methods and theories. Since World War II, community organizing has grown into a profession, with its own body of literature, standards, and training institutes. (xliv)

The oldest network is the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), founded by Saul Alinsky:

the first to devise and write down a model of organizing that could be replicated. He created dozens of community organizations, all designed to test out a new portion of the theory, in addition to the IAF. Alinsky’s pragmatic, nonideological approach to social change has been both emulated and challenged by organizers and groups, many of which arose to fill perceived gaps in Alinsky’s work. (xliv)

They are funded primarily through institutional membership and foundation grants. Most have become faith based over time. A branch from this model came when Fred Ross Sr., the IAF’s West Coast director, developed the Community Service Organization (CSO). This worked out of LA (woo!) to register people to vote and help elect the first Latino city council member in 1949 (Ed Roybal!). He helped develop a model of individual membership, and worked with  Cesar Chavez start the United Farm Workers. I am fascinated that both started with a process of mutual aid through the pooling community funds, need to learn more about this.

Been thinking a lot and in conversations about Alinksy lately, and agree that the summaries here and in Fisher are not doing him enough justice — and it seems to me that this is often because they focus more on a calcified form of practice that he would himself have been quick to disavow. But more on that later, here just to recap what other’s feel — interesting in itself in thinking about representation and different understandings.

The People’s Institute for Community Organizing (PICO) was founded by two priests, John Baumann and Dick Helfridge in the 1970s-80s along similar lines and still going strong, faith-based organizing bringing congregations together for change. Knew some young organizers in these older organizations, liked them a lot.

And of course there is also ACORN — she’s right I didn’t know this history:

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is the undoubted leader among traditional community organizations based on the model of bringing individuals together into new formations that did not rely on existing institutions. Few contemporary activists, however, know that ACORN has its roots in the civil rights and welfare rights movements. In 1968, a chemistry professor and civil rights leader named George Wiley, active in the Congress of Racial Equality, implemented the idea of combining community organizing, which he saw winning significant victories, with the racial justice commitments of the civil rights movement in a new formation called the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). Although it survived only six years, among its lasting legacies was the creation of ACORN, which was started by Wade Rathke, who had been sent to Little Rock, Arkansas, to build an NWRO chapter in 1970.

ACORN was the first to design a replicable model for the individual-membership organization. Today, ACORN has organizations in twenty-six states and counts among its successes winning many local living wage campaigns, resisting redlining by banks and insurance companies, and reforming local public schools. ACORN’s outreach to individuals and its continued commitment to organizing the very poor makes it an important supplement to the IAF and PICO, institutional models that address only marginally the question of the unorganized (Delgado, 1986). (xlviii)

Since then a n umber of other models and networks have developed, such as the National Organizers Alliance (NOA). Relationships between everyone often remain a bit fractious, at least they were in LA. Personalities are of course part of it, but the various critiques raise some of the biggest issues in the country really, primarily those of how we understand our relationship with capitalism, inseparable from the ways race, gender, sexuality intersect with class and struggle. That, and who gets to say ‘I am the community’. That’s a tough one when you’re just fighting for a seat at the table.

Anti-racist critique of traditional community organizing

So… the  anti-racist critique of traditional models. Sen writes

The antiracist critique centers on three concerns: the domination of community organizations by white staff and white “formal” leaders such as priests and union officials; the refusal of most community organizations to incorporate issues focused on racism; and the lack of flexibility in the rules of leadership and tactical planning. (xlix)

So as already noted, it was a blow to him that Alinsky’s first community organizing victories happened were won by the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, yet it became an active racist force for segregation in the late 1960s. Sen’s own analysis of this:

So, Alinsky knew enough about race to be embarrassed by explicit racism but not enough to embrace organizational practices that could centralize antiracist work and that could develop a sophisticated antiracist analysis that kept up with the efforts of the right wing. As years passed, the larger community organizing networks tended to follow that lead… (liii)

Related to that, is that the tactics and the formula for success given by traditional models — choosing limited campaigns that are winnable — are not enough to shift the balance of power nor do they ‘match the political cultures and priorities of communities of color and antiracist activists’ (she cites Delgado, 1986; Fellner, 1998; Blake, 1999 — I haven’t read any of these folks).

As the conservative backlash and active racism of the right grow, campaigns need to shift and begin to tackle some of the harder issues at the core of what communities of colour face.

One last critique:

Finally, people of color argue that many of the rules of community organizing run counter to the political traditions, cultures, and realities of communities of color. They point to three community organizing trends in particular: the separation of leader and organizer roles, the refusal to advance a fundamental critique of capitalism and U.S. democracy, and an over-reliance on confrontational tactics as the only sign that institutional challenge is taking place. In many communities of color, organizers are a part of the community’s leadership, publicly acknowledged and included in decision making. Sometimes these leaders are paid to do their organizing, and often they aren’t. Examples abound, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Anna Mae Aquash. While many organizers of color see the importance of leadership that generates new leaders, they resist drawing a false line between leader and organizer.

Many people of color have little faith that simply raising their voices will have a dramatic effect. Tactically, communities of color are accustomed to finding other ways to challenge institutions, including building alternatives.(li)

This brings us to the community organizing networks formed explicitly attending to race, the first of which in 1980 was the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) ‘by Gary Delgado, a former welfare rights and ACORN organizer, and Hulbert James, a former SNCC and HumanServ organizer’.

CTWO advanced a strategy based on two notions: that people of color occupied a colonized position within the United States and could find common cause across the lines separating black, Asian, Latino, and Native American communities, and that community organizing offered potentially strong forums for such politics if it could be conducted with clear antiracist analysis and priorities.(liii)

A second network from the early 1980s, Grassroots Leadership, was founded by Si Kahn (I remember his book How People Get Power as being as awesome as the title) ‘to be an explicitly biracial network of community organizations in the South that continued the tradition of combining art and culture with organizing practice’. (liii)

Feminist critique of traditional community organizing

Sen describes four targets of feminist critique

community organizing overemphasizes intervention in the public sphere, does not allow organizers to balance work and family, focuses on narrow self-interest as the primary motivator, and relies on conflict and militaristic tactics.

Things we thought a lot about at SAJE, things that ultimately limit movement when left unaddressed — but they are hard, particularly the work and family balance. We never got that right, don’t know that anyone did. Sen argues that both the critiques emerging from anti-racist work and communities of colour and the critiques raised by feminism all point to the issue with the pragmatism Alinksy emphasized in his trainings and in his writings.  She writes:

In many ways, the lack of sophistication that traditional community organizing applies to large-scale economic, racial, and gender questions resulted in the lack of explicit ideological discussion in most traditional organizing networks. Over time, the pragmatism that Alinsky espoused came to characterize community organizations; it determined the path of internal conflicts about class, race, and gender, and eventually of those about immigration and sexuality. If a particular issue was bound to divide a community or was difficult to address entirely in the public sphere, most community organizations did not deal with it. Domestic violence and police brutality provide excellent examples of issues that could divide a community and that local institutions resisted dealing with. … Over time, additional forces and new movements have changed community organizing by creating an imperative for different methods and politics. (lvi)

This tendency to shy away from difficult issues is a natural one, particularly in the emergency-driven environment of organizing desperately trying to weld people into organized struggle. It is hard, requires time and space and thought and tools. Luckily people have been working on theory and on tools for decades, it is for us to carve out the time and space and that requires will.

On Identity and Struggle

The final section here deals with the impact of other kinds of movement struggles — first the new organizing strategies of SEIU (Justice for Janitors) and HERE (Hotel and Restaurant Workers) and their rejuvenation of the labor movement through the organization of immigrants in precarious sub-contracts. Second the rise of identity-based movements. There is much to learn here, many of these campaigns have been fierce, beautiful, victorious.

Sen writes:

In part, identity politics started as an analytic movement, a movement of ideas, that upheld the importance of the political experiences of marginalized constituencies and expected progressives to unify around the imperatives of attacking racism, sexism, and sexual oppression as they had around class. Identity politics—a political vision that recognizes the problems of societies in which rewards and punishments are distributed by massive systems according to physical attributes—led to some of the most important theoretical and political movements of the last thirty years of the twentieth century; these movements ranged from black feminism to the anti-AIDS campaigns to the community-based worker organizing described above, and they have, in turn, profoundly affected community organizers and their ideas.

Such identity politics rejected the idea that everything could be reduced to class, that certain fights could wait until the class war was won, that all of these differences were just distractions from the war against the bosses. I rather love how Sen breaks down why this is terribly wrong:

First, activists exploring identity politics developed the idea that identities that had been considered biological are socially constructed.

Second, activists developed the idea that these social constructions create vastly different experiences among people as they relate to the institutions of private and public life. In acknowledging this difference in life experience, activists were forced to grapple with the reality that black autoworkers require voting reform as well as union membership or that women might rebel against the nuclear family because that structure burdens them a great deal more than it does men or that black women’s priority gender issue might be welfare while white women’s might be abortion.

Third, identity politics raised the idea that one solution might not fit all: controlling capital might not prevent institutional racism; third world liberation might not address women’s oppression. Activists observed that movements for one kind of liberation might not embrace the issues that would lead to other kinds of liberation (lx)

Those who could not find their place in traditional Left movements  left to found their own groups around these different dimensions of struggle, and they were vilified for it. Sen describes a

… growing resentment among white leftists (including many community organizers) toward the attention afforded identity-based movements, as well as a troubling nostalgia for universal labor and populist movements that regularly excluded people of color, encouraged nativist violence, and kept women out of the paid labor force. As Kelley (1997) writes, “They either don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge that class is lived through race and gender. There is no universal class identity, just as there is no universal racial or gender or sexual identity. The idea that race, gender and sexuality are particular whereas class is universal not only presumes that class struggle is some sort of race and gender-neutral terrain but takes for granted that movements focused on race, gender and sexuality necessarily undermine class unity and, by definition, cannot be emancipatory for the whole.” Researcher of conservative movements Jean Hardisty puts it more bluntly when she writes, “To the heterosexual, white, male leaders of the Old Left, class oppression (and hence the demands of the labor movement) was the movement’s principal concern. The neglect of ‘other’ oppressions stems from their lack of relevance to that leadership” (1999, p. 197). (lxii)

This break has not been closed in Sen’s view, she writes:

Identity movements and community organizing have both been growing but largely along parallel tracks; they speak little to each other and share few issues and resources. The question is how to achieve the goal of scale without leaving important non-majority issues and constituencies by the wayside. (lxiii)

CTWO’s work, and the rest of this book, is beginning a conversation about how this might be possible.

[Sen, Rinku (2003) <em>Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizin and Advocacy</em>. San Francisco: Chardon Press.]


Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel

I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.

Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.

I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:

Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.

But why save an old hotel?

Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…

This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or  left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.

Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?

By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated  by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)

We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.

I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)

The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)

[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]