Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Tribute to Zora Neale Hurston in City Journal

The City Journal has a good article on one of my favorite people, Zora Neale Hurston, written by John H. McWhorter. I hope you get a chance to read it and better yet, are inspired to read her books.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


To all African Americans my most heartfelt congratulations on the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. This was a historic moment. America is your home.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Glorious Sermon Heard by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston, her spirit shining through, poses with her suitcase, symbolic of her extensive travels throughout Florida collecting African American stories, songs, dances, music, and sermons.

This beautiful sermon, given by Reverend C. C. Lovelace on May 3, 1929, in Eau Gallie, Florida, was heard and transcribed by Zora Neale Hurston. It is an extraordinary sermon that shows the grandeur and poetry of the African American church tradition. It is published in the book American Sermons. The sermon is also a testament to Hurston's prodigious work in bringing forth the rich African American cultural tradition for all the world to see. Here is the full sermon, as given by Rev. Lovelace:

Introduction (spoken)

“Our theme this morning is the wounds of Jesus. When the Fawther shall ast, ‘What are these wounds in thine hand?’ He shall answer, ‘Those are they with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.’ (Zack xiii. 6)

“We read in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah where He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities; and the apostle Peter affirms that His blood was spilt from before the foundation of the world.

“I have seen gamblers wounded. I have seen desperadoes wounded; thieves and robbers and every other kind of characters, law breakers, and each one had a reason for this wounds. Some of them were unthoughtful, and some for being overbearing, some by the doctor’s knife. But all wounds disfigures a person.

“Jesus was not unthoughtful. He was not overbearing. He was never a bully. He was never sick. He was never a criminal before the law and yet He was wounded. Now a man usually gets wounded in the midst of his enemies; but this man was wounded, says the text, in the house of His friends. It is not your enemies that harm you all the time. Watch that close friend. Every believer in Christ is considered His friend, and every sin we commit is a wound to Jesus. The blues we play in our homes is a club to beat up Jesus; and these social card parties….”

The Sermon

Jesus have loved us from the foundation of the world.
When God
Stood out on the apex of His power
Before the hammers of creation
Fell upon the anvils of Time and hammered out the ribs of th earth
Before He made ropes
By the breath of fire
And set the boundaries of the ocean by gravity of His power
When God said, ha!
Let us make man
And the elders upon the altar cried, ha!
If you make man, ha!
He will sin.
God my master, ha!
Christ, yo’ friend said
Father! Ha-aa!
I am the teeth of Time
That comprehended de dust of de earth
And weighed de hills in scales
Painted de rainbow dat marks de end of de departing storm
Measured de seas in de holler of my hand
Held de elements in a unbroken chain of controllment,
Make man, ha!
If he sin, I will redeem him
I’ll break de chasm of hell
Where de fire’s never quenched
I’ll go into de grave
Where de worm never dies, Ah!
So God A’mighty, ha!
Got His stuff together
He dipped some water out of de mighty deep
He got Him a handful of dirt, ha!
From de foundation sills of the earth
He seized a thimble full of breath, ha!
From de drums of de wind, ha!
God my master!
Now I’m ready to make man
Who shall I make him after? Ha!
World within worlds begin to wheel and roll
De Sun, Ah!
Gethered up de fiery skirts of her garments
And wheeled around de throne, Ah!
Saying, Ah, make man after me, Ah!
God gazed upon the sun
And sent her back to her blood-red socket
And shook His head, ha!
De Moon, Ha!
Grabbed up de reins of de tides
And dragged a thousand seas behind her
As she walked around de throne—
Ah-h, please make man after me
But God said, No.
De stars bust out from their diamond sockets
And circled de glitterin throne cryin
A-aah! Make man after me
God said, No!
I’ll make man in my own image, ha!
I’ll put him in de garden
And Jesus said, ha!
And if he sin,
I’ll go his bond before you mighty throne
Ah, he was yo friend
He make us all, ha!
Delegates to de judgement convention
Faith hasn’t got no eyes, but she’s long-legged
But take de spy-glass of Faith
And look into dat upper room
When you are alone to yourself
When yo’ heart is burnt with fire, ha!
When de blood is lopen thru yo veins
Like de iron monasters (monsters) on de rail
Look into dat upper chamber, ha!
We notice at de supper table
As He gazed upon His friends, ha!
His eyes flowing wid tears, ha!
“My soul is exceedingly sorrowful unto death, ha!
For this night, ha!
One of you shall betray me, ha!
It were not a Roman officer, ha!
It were not a centurion soldier
But one of you
Who I have choosen my bosom friend
That sops in the dish with me shall betray me.”
I want to draw a parable.
I see Jesus
Leaving heben with all of His grandeur
Disrobin Hisself of His matchless honor
Yieldin up de scepter of revolving worlds
Clothing Hisself in de garment of humanity
Coming into de world to rescue His friends.
Two thousand years have went by on their rusty ankles
But with the eye of faith I can see Him
Look down from His high towers of elevation
I can hear Him when He walks about the golden streets
I can hear ‘em ring under his footsteps
Sol me-e-e-e, Sol do
Sol me-e-e-e, Sol do
I can see Him step out up on the rim bones of nothing.
Crying I am de way
De truth and de light
God A’mighty!
I see Him grab de throttle
Of de well ordered train of mercy
I see kingdoms crush and crumble
Whilst de arc angels held de winds in de corner chambers
I see Him arrive on dis earth
And walk de streets thirty and three years
I see Him walking beside de sea of Galilee wid His disciples
This declaration gendered on His lips
“Let us go on the other side”
God A’mighty!
Dey entered de boat
Wid their oarus (oars) stuck in de back
Sails unfurled to de evening breeze
And de ship was now sailin
As she reached de center of de lake
Jesus was ‘sleep on a pillion in de rear of de boat
And de dynamic powers of nature become disturbed
And de made winds broke de heads of de western drums
And fell down on de Lake of Galilee
And buried themselves behind de gallopin waves
And walked out like soldiers goin to battle
And de zig-zag lightning
Licked out her fiery tongue
And de flying clouds
Threw their wings in the channels of the deep
And bedded de waters like a road-plow
And faced de current of de charging billows
And de terrific bolts of thunder—they bust in de clouds
God A’mighty!
And one of de disciples called Jesus
“Master! Carest thou not that we perish?”
And He arose
And de storm was in its pitch
And de lightnin played on His raiments as He stood on the prow of the boat
And placed His foot upon the neck of the storm
And spoke to the howlin winds
And de sea fell at His feet like a marble floor
And de thunders went back in their vault
Then He set down on de rim of de ship
And took de hooks of his power
And lifted de billows in His lap
And rocked de winds to sleep in His arm
And said, “Peace be still.”
And de Bible says there was a calm.
I can see Him wid de eye of faith
When He went from Pilate’s house
Wid the crown of 72 wounds upon His head
I can see Him as He mounted Calvary and hung upon de cross for our sins.
I can see-eee-ee
De mountains fall to their rocky knees when He cried,
“My God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?”
The mountains fell to their rocky knees and trembled like a beast
From the stroke of the master’s axe
One angel took the flinches of God’s eternal power
And bled the veins of the earth
One angel that stood at the gate with a flaming sword
Was so well pleased with his power
Until he pierced the moon with his sword
And she ran down in blood
And de sun
Batted her fiery eyes and put on her judgement robe
And laid down in de cradle of eternity
And rocked herself into sleep and slumber
He died until the great belt in the wheel of time
And de geological strata fell aloose
And a thousand angels rushed to de canopy of heben
With flaming swords in their hands
And placed their feet upon blue ether’s bosom and looked back at de dazzling throne
And de arc angels had veiled their faces
And de throne was draped in mournin
And de orchestra had struck silent for the space of half an hour
Angels had lifted their harps to de weepin willows
And God had looked off to-wards immensity
And blazin worlds fell off His teeth
And about that time Jesus groaned on de cross and said, “It is finished”
And then de chambers of hell explode
And de damnable spirits
Come up from de Sodomistic world and rushed into de smoky camps of eternal night
And cried “Woe! Woe! Woe!”
And then de Centurion cried out
“Surely this is the Son of God.”
And about dat time
De angel of Justice unsheathed his flaming sword and ripped de veil of de temple
And he High Priest vacated his office
And then de sacrificial energy penetrated de mighty strata
And quickened de bones of de prophets
And they arose from their graves and walked about in de streets of Jersualem
I heard de whistle of de damnation train
Dat pulled out from Garden of Eden loaded wid cargo goin to hell
Ran at break-neck speed all de way thru de law
All de way thru de prophetic age
All de way thru de reign of kinds and judges—
Plowed her way thru de Jordan
And on her way to Calvary when she blew for de switch
Jesus stood out on her track like a rough-backed mountain
And she threw her cow-catcher in His side and His blood ditched de train,
He died for our sins.
Wounds in the house of His friends.
That’s where I got off this damnation train
And dats where you must get off, ha!
For in dat mor-ornin’, ha!
When we shall all be delegates, ha!
To dat judgement convention, ha!
When de two trains of Time shall meet on de trestle
And wreck de burning axles of de unformed ether
And de mountains shall skip like lambs
When Jesus shall place one foot on de neck of de sea, ha!
One foot on dry land
When his chariot wheels shall be running hub-deep in fire
He shall take his friends thru the open bosom of a unclouded sky
And place in their hands de hosanna fan
And they shall stand round and round His beatific throne
And praise His name forever.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama Went Backward Says Civil Rights Activist

This column by Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and former assistance executive director of the NAACP, makes a lot of sense to me. It appeared in the Los Angeles Times today.

Notes on Barack Obama's March 18 Speech on Race

I thought Obama's March 18 speech on race was masterful, because he offered his justification his continued association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and then heard his listener say, "Yeah, but what about..." and then Obama went on to say, "Yes, but what you are also saying, is, 'yeah, but"' and then proceed to defend that point also. So it was an attempt to be thorough and serious in answering questions raised.

I also felt emotionally moved because the civil rights movement was one of the most important, if not the most important shaping political experience of my young life, and I always feel like there is a terrible gaping wound in my heart because of the racism I know about in our history and now. So Obama's appeal to attempt to heal this is very appealing to someone like myself who has always wanted African Americans to be completely home in this country..

Obama also clearly hearkens back to the "dream" speech of Martin Luther King, which is an obvious thing, but tries to emotionally resonate it, which politicians such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson cannot possibly do.

I also appreciate how Obama attempted to explain the consciousness in the African American community and its anger. I think that is very useful, and I wish more people from that community would do so--not in the Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton way of just exhibiting it--but actually try to articulate what is going on--in part--in the psychology of African Americans, because I know that white people have no idea of what is going on.

Therefore, I came away from this speech really wishing that I could vote for Barak Obama and that somehow a healing, by openly discussing these issues, could begin to take place.

I cannot vote for him, however.

The first problem that hit me is when he talks about education in the cities. Now as the candidate what is he going to do? He is going to get rid of the No Child Left Behind Act and hand everything back to the National Education Association. That means more de-schooling. No more standard tests, which the NEA opposes. Back to outcome-based education, where attitude, not achievement, is measured. So his mouth and feet are not going together on this issue. De-schooling has destroyed the public school system for all races except in certain local communities, small enough in scale, where citizens made a decision to have very good schools, in which case, everyone performs and the drugs get cleaned up (Falls Church City in Virginia is one such example. So what Obama is saying about education--which is absolutely crucial for tackling the problems he says he wants to tackle--is a total zero.

Ditto all the rest of his programs--which perpetuate the same philosophy and practice that have left African Americans lagging so far behind and helped create the conditions that have so many black men behind bars, which is a terrible problem for black families, especially children.

Obama then says he does not want to repudiate Rev. Wright, because that would be like repudiating the African American community. This is not true. If he cared about the African American community, then he would probably not be involved with Rev. Wright in the first place. The only reason Wright is at all relevant to white people is because his parishoner is doing pretty well in running for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Otherwise, the rest of the population does not care what Wright tells African Americans in his big church in the Chicago ghetto. But if you are a leader in the African American community you should care. Wright tells blacks that the white man is systematically out to commit genocide against them, with HIV and presents the so-called white world as the avowed hateful enemy of all African Americans. All this does--wonderful soup kitchens aside--is to amplify and justify hostility, racism, and paranoia in the black community. It feeds the culture of defeat and self-defeat. Is there one tiny shred of evidence that HIV is a white plot to kill black people? No. So Wright is not a truthful leader--he is a demagogue who kowtows to the worst fears and paranoia among his flock to build himself up. He does African Americans a far greater disservice than he does any whites.

From this standpoint, Obama clearly identifies himself as a member of the same (ultimately) white-controlled African American Democratic Party community leadership that takes its big cut from whatever is going down--as is indicated by Obama's "boneheaded" decision re Rezko and real estate. This is the leadership that talks a lot but has done very little and takes its cut right from the top before any money gets to the people it is supposedly for.

And just so everyone can really beat on me, I want to say that I am angry at Obama's attack on his grandmother and saying that she is a racist for saying that she is scared of black men on the street. Well, of course it depends upon what street and how many people are on it. But my personal experience is that you better watch yourself if you are in lonely areas and African American young punkish-looking men, or any other kind of punkish looking young men, are lurking around and you are in a vulnerable position. Everyone knows this, and when I was alone a street with a man and was nervous on numbers of occasions that man has reassured me in a tiny way that he meant me no harm, and I deeply appreciated that.

Conversely, I recently was reading about the murder of Bill Cosby's son on an LA freeway by some white (Ukrainian immigrant) who confessed to it and made clear that he did it for racist reasons. The night before young Cosby’s murder, his mother had talked to him on the phone and told him to be very careful driving on the freeways because there had been recent violence on the roads there. Do I think Camille Cosby is a black racist because she is afraid that her black son driving in that area in a fancy car could get into trouble? Absolutely not. I think she was within her rights, given realities. Her son found himself in a vulnerable position and got hit. It is a crime that makes me sick.

However, I don't hear Bill Cosby, who has reason enough, screaming and yelling about how whites are out to get blacks. Instead, I have seen him give real leadership to African Americans by calling upon them to do what in truth they have to do—to ensure that their children are educated and brought up. Cosby has also put his money where his mouth is, donating millions to keep African American colleges alive to enable young blacks to get a college education.

Obama also attacks his grandmother for making remarks that are stereotyping. Well, all stereotyping is based on certain kernels of truth. I am mostly Irish--isn't it the case that Irish people do talk a lot and do tend to hit the bottle? That’s what my mother told me about our relatives. The problem is not the stereotype. The problem is treating people in a stereotypical fashion and rejecting people because of the stereotype or branding a whole group because of the stereotype--so you discard the human being.

So what healing can come out of Obama’s campaign? I feel that none can come out, unless more people are at least encouraged to speak openly about race and it causes real and honest dialogue. Then his campaign will have served some purpose. But one wonders why is this man running for President, when he has no actual ideas of what he wants to do as President? Where are the new ideas for programs that might even work? What is his plan for training and education that he talks about? What are his plans for homeownership in the black community, so there is some accumulation of money to pass down? Where is his national program to end prison recividism. Where is his new approach?

The joke is that it is the GOP--specifically that odious George Bush--who has seriously tried to tackle some of this, to enable homeownership, to stop the lemming-like drive for de-schooling, to try new ideas in using faith-based local charities as conduits of federal funds through those who know the people they are serving, as opposed to bureaucrats. Does that program add up to a solution? No. But at least it shows a serious attempt to try something new, to address the situation with the goal of empowerment rather than eternal dependency.

So I think that Obama's speech was extremely well done. But in the end, he is selling snake oil to all of us, and it makes me very sad.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Zora Neale Hurston's Voice and Singing

The Florida Memory Project link on Zora Neale Hurston offers for download songs that she collected from Florida. The BONUS is that Hurston sings the songs herself and that many of the songs include short interviews with her on how she found the song, the origin of the song, and how she learns the songs so that she can sing them the way that she does. She also explains in some cases the context in which she found the song--what the people were doing when she heard them singing it. The list for download has all the songs Zora Neale Hurston recorded for the Works Progress Administration.

"I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions."
- Letter from Zora Neale Hurston to Countee Cullen

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Wonderful Zora Neale Hurston--A Great Lady

Zora Neale Hurston, writer of the Harlem Renaissance and folklorist, was a unique individual. Born in 1891, she was raised in Eatonville, a free black town in north-central Florida. She is best known for her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which she wrote in the space of weeks inspired by the love of her life. From the time that her mother died when she was 13, Hurston was virtually on her own. What makes her so unique is her zest for life and her love of all things African American. She wrote in 1928 in "How It Feels To Be Colored Me": "I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it.... No, I do not weep at the world, I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."

Hurston in the car she used for her touring in central areas of Florida

Her mission was to bring African Americans into the mainstream of American culture, but not by trying to blend but by discovering the stories and music with which African Americans entertained themselves and buoyed themselves up in the face of poverty, harsh work, and white hostility. "We have things to bring to the table" was her idea. She arrived in New York during a period in the 1920s when there was interest in African American culture and money to promote it. Unfortunately, the funding spigot was turned off during the depression of the 1930s and from what I can discern was never to be turned on again. Under the tutleage of anthropologist Franz Boas at Columbia University, Hurston (who never had a dime from her family for her education but depended upon grants, benefactors, and her wits) drove down to the Florida turpentine camps to dig out the music and stories of African Americans among the black workers and families there. She writes of her motivation: "Roll your eyes in ecstasy and ape his every move, but until we have placed something upon his street corner that is our own, we are right back where we were when they filed our iron collar off."
It took extraordinary bravery for a young woman on her own, without a man companion, to drive through the backwaters of Florida seeking stories and songs in the turpentine camps. But she did.
Hurston in Eatonville, Florida, gathering songs

I have recently come across the website of the Florida Memory Project, which has for free download, a collection of the songs that Hurston recorded for the WPA as part of her project of retrieving African American culture and bringing into wider view.

Hurston sponsored tours of African American dance troupes on a shoestring budget.

Zora Neale Hurston must have seen herself as an ambassador for African Americans into the white world. However, there was no bending, scraping, and shuffling. Her view was that African Americans had something unique to offer to American society; but if American society was so dumb as to reject it or ignore it, then that was their problem, and African Americans should be happy in their own company. Politically this put her in her later years in a strange position, since while African American intellectual leaders such as Richard Wright had all moved toward the left (Wright attacked her novels because they were not protest novels), she wound up in her later year as a conservative Republican even to the point of helping segregationist candidates.
Nevertheless she understood the obstacles facing African Americans, writing: "There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the feted air of underground caves. The soul lives in a sickly air. People can be slave-ships in shoes."
But her own soul did not live in a sickly air.

In her later years, she moved back to Florida and settled in Fort Pierce on the Atlantic coast. There she taught at the Lincoln Academy and wrote for the local newspaper. She lived in a small house, kept a garden, used orange crates to hold her books, and in her last years was researching and writing a book on Herod.

Zora Neale Hurston's home at 1734 Avenue L in Fort Pierce, Florida

When she died at the age of 59 she was buried in the county cemetery in an unmarked grave. We owe a debt of gratitude to Alice Walker, who found Hurston's grave and placed a headstone on it and pioneered the revival of this wonderful woman's work. Fort Pierce now has markers for the places that were important for Hurston there, including her grave and home.

Zora Neale Hurston's gravesite, discovered by Alice Walker who also contributed the gravestone. The gravesite is at the Garden of Heavenly Rest Cemetery, Avenue S and 17th Street, Fort Pierce. The gravestone reads: ""A Genius of the South, 1901---1960 Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist"

Hurston's most famous work was her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Alice Walker and others have praised it for what they consider its proto-feminist views--that is, the heroine of the novel is constantly unshackling herself from the bounds that society--in the first instance, her grandmother--have placed on her through one man or another. She falls in love with Teacake, a man younger than herself. Although Teacake dies, the heroine feels fully alive because of her total love for Teacake; the book is a celebration of this total love, which in its joy defies the poverty, difficulties, and racial barriers that the heroine faces. I took this as the message of the book--that the heroine finds her true self in totally loving another--rather than in fighting for herself strictly as a woman. To me, Hurston is flying in the face of the power of the matriarchy in African American society. In this, she stands in opposition to Toni Morrison as well as to Alice Walker. (Interestingly, Dorothy West, whose own mother exemplified this matriarchy as West describes it in her book Living Is Easy, was a close friend of Hurston's in Harlem.) That Hurston is celebrating the joys of loving the other is the interpretation that is in keeping with the work of Hurston's entire life. She did not apologize for being black, for being a woman, for being a human being, but sought to discover the rich lode of African Americans' iron grip on life and humanity and present it as a gift to America and to the world.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Thoroughfare, Virginia, a "Free Colored Community"

Today we passed through Thoroughfare, Virginia, a small town near upper-class The Plains, Virginia, and saw the marker with the heading, " Free People of Color at Thoroughfare." It turns out that families of African-Americans, Indian Americans, and mixed ancestry migrated to Thoroughfare from Fauquier, Culpeper, Rappahannock, and Warren counties in Virginia after the Civil War. The Allen, Berry, Fletcher, Nickens, and Peyton families, along with former slaves from the area, acquired parts of former plantations, built homes, and established the farming community of Thoroughfare, which prospered through the 1940s. Many of the free people of color who settled in Thoroughfare were illiterate but were of course denied entrance inot the schools and churches of their white neighbors.
As reported in an article in the Fauquier Times Community Newspaper on October 17, 2004, by Tara Slate Donaldson, Victoria Price, whose ancestors helped found the community, says that, "My grandfather told me that Thoroughfare was an auction block, and that, after Emancipation, hundreds of feed slaves converged on Thoroughfare, to find long-lost loved ones who had been sold away from them. The auction block is actually believed to have been at Thoroughfare Gap in Fauquier County not in the community within the boundaries of Prince William County. Victoria Price's mother was of American-Indian ancestry. Her mother's father's ancestors, the Harris Family, wre listed as free blacks and free mulattoes (American Indians were generally listed as mulattoes in Virginia). Her maternal great-grandfather, John Edward Peyton, was an American Indian and a founder of Thoroughfare. She tells the story of how her grandfather left the Tuscorora Inidan nation in North Carolina and walked north to the Catawbas before moving to Buckingham County, were he lived with the Buffalo Ridge Cherokee. From there, he walked to The Plains, where he married Mrs. Price's mother and moved to Thorughfare.
Since the mixed-race children of Thoroughfare were not allowed into the schools of white children, they build their own school in 1885. "People in Thoroughfare had big families," says Mrs. Price who was born in 1906. The school became so overcrowded that soon younger children could not attend classes. The school board refused to allocate funds for the black school, so Thoroughfare residents, who earned only 75 cents to $1 a day, saved their pennies to fund th extra room, which was built in 1899. The land for the school was donated by the Primas family, but the site was so small that that there was no play area for the children.
A cousin of Mrs. Price's is is Pat Fletcher, whose ancestor Frank Scrabble, was an American Indian who left Scrabble, a town in Rappahannock County and walked 45 miles to The Plains. There he met Kate Vass, a black American Indian who was a slave. The two later moved to Thoroughfare, and Frank Fletcher, a master carpenter, built most of the town's houses.
Thoroughfare was predominately self-sufficient. "Most communities were standalone communities where they could survive," says Mrs. Price. "Now they might go up to Beverly Mill, where they could have things ground like sugar, but they had whatever they needed for the community to survive. They had midwives and blacksmiths."
This is only the beginning of the story of Thoroughfare, Virginia, where former slaves and American Indians came together to found a town at the site of a former auction block. For the most part, the history remains hidden.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Emancipation, Revelation, Revolution

I was privileged to see tonight the premiere showing of the documentary film Emancipation, Revelation, and Revolution, which was produced by the mother of one of my daughter's classmates, Nina May. You can obtain a DVD of this film from www.ERRvideo.com. I highly recommend that you acquire it and show it to friends, family, and church.
The film documents historically how the Republican Party has been the party of civil rights for African Americans in this country and also how the Great Divide in the United States today on moral issues--abortion, same-sex marriage, and religion--would generally act to bring the African-American constituency into the Republican Party. However, as the film documents, when African-Americans bolt from the Democratic Party "plantation," they find themselves under a heap of insults from the Democratic Party slavedrivers, including death threats. They are very politically incorrect. The best part of the film is that through all the interviews of anti-plantation African Americans that it captures on film, it shows the true aspirations of so many African-Americans who are striving to act as citizens of the United States, who are morally disciplined and tough people, who are Christians working hard for the future of their children, and who more than anyone believe in hard work and achievement, rather than handouts. This is the moral backbone of the African-Americans in the United States, and the moral conscience of America. These people find no home in the Democratic Party, which has historically been the party of slavery in the United States and remains today the plantation party. As Mayor Daley said, "I don't want to buy the black vote. I just want to rent it for a day."
It an important film for both African-Americans and white Americans. First, for African-Americans, it will prompt them to re-think their undying fealty to the Democratic Party, which has never done anything for them. Second, for white Americans, it enables them to see the difficult fight that African Americans face who really want to take responsibility for their lives as opposed to blaming everything on whitey.

Nina May who has produced this film out of a sense of Christian calling is truly to be commended for creating a documentary that will set everyone who views it to thinking and to questioning themselves. It is a challenge, mostly through the voices of the many African-Americans interviewed, to African-Americans to take responsibility for their real individual lives--their only lives. It is also, although more subtly, a challenge to white Americans, particularly to all Republicans, and also to those whites in the Democratic Party who have always considered a belief in racial equality a hallmark of their identity. Democrats who have a strong belief in racial equality and who deplore the plight of many African-Americans have to face the fact that the Federal Government--big Government handouts--as Sen. Daniel Moynihan prophesized, have brought ruin to African Americans and only served to destroy their families and leave their children fatherless. If you are in the Democratic Party and you abhor racism, then you have to seriously rethink the role of BIG GOVERNMENT bureaucracy in encouraging the culture of despair and rage that is so rife in the black ghettoes of our cities. If you are a Republican, you must also face the challenge that African Americans are knocking at the party's doors, but they have special needs and issues that the Republican Party, frankly, would prefer not to address. By Republican Party, I do not include in this category George W. Bush, who understands that for African Americans to rise above the abject conditions in which many find themselves in, they require not handouts but empowerment: education, jobs, and help with home ownership. They need hope--a commodity that is not to be found in the Democratic Party.
I personally believe that a large influx of African Americans into the Republican Party would be a major step in resolving the racial conflict in this country--BUT ONLY IF the Republican Party rises to the challenge and embraces African Americans as their own, listens and responds to the needs of African Americans in a way that empowers them to take responsibility for their lives and the future of their children. (Please see my post on Stanley Elkins and the question of slavery and the soul.)
The film is also very good, because it has many anti-Democratic Party-plantation African Americans talking and giving white Americans an opportunity to see the aspirations of African Americans. It gives white Americans the chance to see African Americans who reject the idea that Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or the latest angry rapper speaks for them. This is particularly important in the North, where there is generally no interaction between whites and blacks.
The event tonight also had as a participant Mark Mitchell, who is creating a museum of African American history that hopefully will soon be created in collaboration with the federal government. See his collection site www.blackhistorymatters.com. On this endeavor he has been working with Republican J.C. Watts, who comes from a family with a heritage of struggle in the civil rights movement. Mitchell has collected many artifacts from African American history and also many works by African American artists. He held up tonight a first edition of Phyllis Wheatley poems published originally in Britain.
Also on hand at the event was Tony Williams, son of NPR and Fox News commentator Juan Williams. Tony Williams ran for Washington DC city council as a Republican and garnered 12 percent of the vote. He is an enterprising young man and also noted that he pummeled GOP chairman Ken Melman, on Where is the GOP program for the urban areas, etc. In short, is the GOP going to welcome African Americans and begin to address their concerns?
If a sizeable chunk of the African American constituency can find a home in the Republican Party it will represent a major breakthrough for African Americans in this country, because it will show that African Americans can find a political role in the United States that goes beyond being passive participants as malcontents in a party that amalgamates discontent for a living; it will thereby signify that they have a home and a role in the mainstream of American life--that they have finally after 300 years been assimilated just as every other group that has ever come to our shores (see article on continuing disparity below); and it will give them as a constituency greater leverage by splitting their vote. The politics are secondary. The main issue is that African Americans need to feel that they have a true home in the United States of America, and that all Americans want them here a major asset to our country--which they are (for more on home in America, see Hats Off to Henry Louis Gates below).
Also see http://washingtontimes.com/culture/20070214-103208-2387r.htm for a review of this documentary in the Washington Times.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Christianity Abolishes Slavery

The book by the eminent scholar of the Middle Ages, Regine Pernoud, Women In the Days of the Cathedrals, has this to say on the abolition of slavery as a byproduct of the rise of Christianity:
Is it not surprising that this change represented by the disappearance of slavery has not been more strongly emphasized? Schoolbooks do not mention this social fact whose paramount importance seems to have escaped historians. The return to slavery at the time of the Renaissance should nevertheless have attracted their attention to the revier process that had started as early as the fourth century. The institution of slavery, where the slave-thing was totally deprived of any right, as in the Roman world, could not long surive the spread of the gospel. Already, in the fourth century, the freedom of slaves had been made much easier, and from the time of Constantine, of the reforms stipulated that the members of a slave's family could no longer be separated from him. This implied that the slave had a right to marriage and family, a right that until then had been refused him. Finally, the role played by the Church in actual emancipations was enshrined in the Code of Justinian, which declared that a stay in a monsastery made with a view to entering it annulled every type of slavery. Justinian had abolished the Roman law of the later Emperor that forbade the emancipation of more than one hundred slaves at a time. Church councils never ceased to enact measures to make the fate of slaves more human and gradually to have them recognized as human beings. Thus we can measure progress between the Council of Elvira in 305, which imposed seven years' penance on anyone who had killed his slave, until the Council of Orleans (311), where the right of asylum in churches was proclaimed for fleeing slaves, and the Council of Eauze (551), which automatically emancipated a slave whose master forced him to work on Sundays. But in order to understand the evolution that had taken place, we much remember the Council of Elvia took place in the midst of a fully pagan society, where the murder of a slave was in no way considered a crime since it was legally permitted.
We can also mention the Councils of Orange (441) and Arles (452), in which it was declared that masters whose slaves had sought asylum in a church could not seize the priets' slaves in compensation. A whole study should be made, which up to now has only been started within the strict limits of the judicial code, tracing the influence of the Christian mentality as little by little it impregnated morals and eventually influenced civil legislation as such. In the fifth century St. Caesarius exclaimed, in answer to those who blamed him for having paid for the emancipation of slaves, "I would like to know what those who criticize me would say if they were in the place of the captives I am redeeming. God, who gave himself as the price of man's redemption, will not reproach me for redeeming captives with the money from the altar." Furthermore, the books that studied the various acts applied to the tribunals all contained by the sixth and seventh centuries various formulae for emancipation granted for religious reasons.
Therefore, we have to conclude that during this reputedly brutal period perhaps the greatest change in social history occurred: the slave, who had been a thing, became a person, and he who was thereafter called a serf could enjoy the essential rights of a person. Delivered from that power of life or death that his master once had over him, he could also now have a family and a home and lead his life as he wished, with the sole restriction that he remain on the land according to forms that can more easily be studied when concentrating on the feudal age as such.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Census Bureau: Racial Disparities Continue

U.S. report: Racial disparities continueDifferences in income, education, home ownership continue, data finds
The Associated PressUpdated: 12:01 a.m. ET Nov 14, 2006
WASHINGTON - Decades after the civil rights movement, racial disparities inincome, education and home ownership persist and, by some measurements, aregrowing.White households had incomes that were two-thirds higher than blacks and 40percent higher than Hispanics last year, according to data released Tuesdayby the Census Bureau.White adults were also more likely than black and Hispanic adults to havecollege degrees and to own their own homes. They were less likely to live inpoverty.“Race is so associated with class in the United States that it may not bedirect discrimination, but it still matters indirectly,” said Dalton Conley,a sociology professor at New York University and the author of “Being Black,Living in the Red.”“It doesn’t mean it’s any less powerful just because it’s indirect,” hesaid.Home ownership grew among white middle-class families after World War IIwhen access to credit and government programs made buying houses affordable.Black families were largely left out because of discrimination, and theeffects are still being felt today, said Lance Freeman, assistant professorof urban planning at Columbia University and author of “There Goes the’Hood.”Home ownership is keyHome ownership creates wealth, which enables families to live in goodneighborhoods with good schools. It also helps families finance college,which leads to better-paying jobs, perpetuating the cycle, Freeman said.“If your parents own their own home they can leave it to you when they passon or they can use the equity to help you with a down payment on yours,”Freeman said.Three-fourths of white households owned their homes in 2005, compared with
ownership is near an all-time high in the United States, but racial gapshave increased in the past 25 years.Black families have also been hurt by the decline of manufacturing jobs —the same jobs that helped propel many white families into the middle classafter World War II, said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washingtonoffice.Among Hispanics, education, income and home ownership gaps are exacerbatedby recent Latin American immigrants. Hispanic immigrants have, on average,lower incomes and education levels than people born in the United States.About 40 percent of U.S. Hispanics are immigrants.Asian Americans, on average, have higher incomes and education levels thanwhites. However, they have higher poverty rates and lower home ownershiprates.
The Census Bureau released 2005 racial data on incomes, education levels,home ownership rates and poverty rates Tuesday. The data are from theAmerican Community Survey, the bureau’s new annual survey of 3 millionhouseholds nationwide.
The Associated Press compared the figures with censusdata from 1980, 1990 and 2000.Among the findings:
# Black adults have narrowed the gap with white adults in earning highschool diplomas, but the gap has widened for college degrees. Thirty percentof white adults had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2005, while 17 percentof black adults and 12 percent of Hispanic adults had degrees.
# Forty-nine percent of Asian Americans had at least a bachelor’s degree in2005
.# The median income for white households was $50,622 last year. It was$30,939 for black households, $36,278 for Hispanic households and $60,367for Asian households.
# Median income for black households has stayed about 60 percent of theincome for white households since 1980. In dollar terms, the gap has grown",1]
46 percent of black households and 48 percent of Latino households. Homeownership is near an all-time high in the United States, but racial gaps have increased in the past 25 years.Black families have also been hurt by the decline of manufacturing jobs —the same jobs that helped propel many white families into the middle classafter World War II, said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washingtonoffice.Among Hispanics, education, income and home ownership gaps are exacerbatedby recent Latin American immigrants. Hispanic immigrants have, on average,lower incomes and education levels than people born in the United States.About 40 percent of U.S. Hispanics are immigrants.Asian Americans, on average, have higher incomes and education levels thanwhites. However, they have higher poverty rates and lower home ownershiprates.The Census Bureau released 2005 racial data on incomes, education levels,home ownership rates and poverty rates Tuesday. The data are from theAmerican Community Survey, the bureau’s new annual survey of 3 millionhouseholds nationwide. The Associated Press compared the figures with censusdata from 1980, 1990 and 2000.Among the findings:
# Black adults have narrowed the gap with white adults in earning highschool diplomas, but the gap has widened for college degrees. Thirty percentof white adults had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2005, while 17 percentof black adults and 12 percent of Hispanic adults had degrees.
# Forty-nine percent of Asian Americans had at least a bachelor’s degree in2005.
# The median income for white households was $50,622 last year. It was$30,939 for black households, $36,278 for Hispanic households and $60,367for Asian households.
# Median income for black households has stayed about 60 percent of theincome for white households since 1980. In dollar terms, the gap has grown
# Hispanic households made about 76 percent as much as white households in1980. In 2005, it was 72 percent.
# The gap in poverty rates has narrowed since 1980, but it remainssubstantial. The poverty rate for white residents was 8.3 percent on 2005.It was 24.9 percent for black residents, 21.8 percent for Hispanic residentsand 11.1 percent for Asian residents.Thomas Shapiro, professor of law and social policy at Brandeis University,said the “easiest answer” to narrowing racial gaps is to promote homeownership, which would help minority families accumulate wealth.“The wealth gap is not just a story of merit and achievement, it’s also astory of the historical legacy of race in the United Sates,” said Shapiro,author of “The Hidden Cost of Being African American.”Shelton, of the NAACP, called for more funding for preschool programs suchas Head Start, improving public schools and making college more affordable.“Income should not be a significant determining factor whether someoneshould have an opportunity to go to college,” Shelton said

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Jim Crow Up North--Early

C. Vann Woodward's book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, offers further evidence that the North's problem with racism, generally not focused on as a problem, goes hand in hand with the problem of slavery in the south.
Woodward writes: "One of the strangest things about the career of Jim Crow was that the system was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in force. Without forgetting evils peculiar to the South, one might consider Northern conditions with profit.
"By 1830 slavery was virtually abolished by one means or another throughout the North, with only about 3,500 Negroes remaining in bondage in the nominally free states." Although the Northern free Negro was not a slave, "his freedom was circumscribed in many ways." [17-18]
... "The Northern Negro was made painfully and constantly aware that he lived in a society dedicated to the doctrine of white supremacy and Negro inferiority. The major political parties, whatever their position on slavery, vied with each other in their devotion to this doctrine, and few politicians of importance questioned them. Their constituencies firmly believed that the Negroes were incapable of being assimilated politically, socially, or physically into white society [see notes from article below on this issue]. They made sure in numerous ways that the Negro understood his 'place' and that he was severely confined to it. One of these ways was segregation, and with the backing of legal and extra-legal codes, the system permeated all aspects of Negro life in the free states by 1860.
"Leon F. Litwack, in his authoritative account, North of Slavery, describes the system in full development. 'In virtually every phase of existence,' he writes, 'Negroes found themsleves systematically separated from whites. They were either excluded from railway cars, omnibuses, stagecoaches, and steamboats or assigned to special 'Jim Crow' sections: they sat, when permitted, in secluded and remote corners of theaters and lecture halls; they could not enter most hotels, restaurants, and resorts, except as servants; they prayed in 'Negro pews' in the white churches, and if partaking of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, they waited until the whites had been served bread and wine. Moreover, they were often educated in segregated schools, punished in segregated prisons, nursed in segregated hospitals, and buried in segregated cemeteries.'
"In very few instances were Negroes and other opponents of segregation able to make any progress against the system. Railroads in Massachusetts and schools in Boston eliminated Jim Crow before the Civil War. But there and elsewhere Negroes were often segregated in public accommodations and severely segregated in housing. Whites of South Boston boasted in 1847 that 'not a single colored family' lived among them. Boston had her 'Nigger Hill' and her "New Guinea," Cincinnati her 'Little Africa,' and New York and Philadelphia their comparable ghettoes--for which Richmond, Charleston, New Orleans, and St. Louis had no counterparts. A Negro leader in Boston observed in 1860 that 'it is five times as hard to get a house in a good location in Boston as in Philadelphia, and it is ten times as difficult for a colored mechanic to get work here as in Charleston."
"Generally speaking, the farther west the Negro went in the free states the harsher he found the proscription and segregation. Indiana, Illinois, and Oregon incoprated in their constitutions provisions restricting the admission of Negroes to their borders, and most states carved from the Northwest Territory either barred Negroes in some degree or required that they post bond guaranteeing good behavior. Alexis de Tocqueville was amazed at the depth of racial bias he encountered in the North. 'The prejudice of race,' he wrote, 'appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known."
... "The advance of universal white manhood suffrage in the Jacksonian period had been accompanied by Negro disenfranchisement.... The Negro's rights were curtailed in the courts as well as at the polls. By custom or by law Negroes were excluded from jury service throughout the North. Only in Massachusetts, and there not until 1855, were they admitted as jurors. Five Western states prohibited Negro testimony in cases where a white man was a party. The ban against Negro jurors, witnesses, and judges, as well as the economic degradation of the race, help to explain the disproportionate numbers of Negroes in Northern prisons and the heavy limitations on the protection of Negro life, liberty, and property."[emphasis added][18-20]
In contrast, "A Northern reporter remarked with puzzlement in 1880 upon the 'proximity and confusion, so to speak, of white and negro houses' in both the countryside and cities of South Carolina. This pattern of proximity and confusion continued for decades in the older parts of the South.' [32]
This trend continued through the war. "There was as yet no sign of a revival of Northern resistance to Southern race [Jim Crow] policy. If anything, thought Thomas P. Bailey, Northern opposition was still on the decline. In his Race Orthodoxy in the South, published in 1914, Bailey asked: 'Is not the South being encouraged to treat the negroes as aliens by the growing discrimination against the negro in the North, a discrimination that is social as well as economic? Does not the South perceive that all the fire has gone out of the Northern philanthropic fight for the rights of man? The North has surrendered!... Even now the solid Far West is joining with the South in racial matters; and the end is not yet in the growing solidarity of the white people in this country." [113]
In the immediate aftermath of World War I, "the war-bred hopes of the Negro for first-class citizenship were quickly smashed in a reaction of violence that was probably unprecedented. Some twenty-five race riots were touched off in American cities during the last six months of 1919, months that John Hope Franklin called 'the greatest period of interracial strife the nation had ever witnessed.' Mobs took over cities for days at a time, flogging, burning, shooting, and torturing at will. When the Negroes showed a new disposition to fight and defend themselves, violence increased. Some of these atrocities occurred in the South--at Longview, Texas, for example, or at Tulsa, Oklahoma, at Elaine, Arkansas, or Knoxville, Tennessee. But they were limited to no one section of the country. Many of them occurred in the North and the worst of all in Chicago. During the first year following the war more tha seventy Negroes were lynched, several of them veterans still in uniform."

An article by John Boskin in the Spring 1966 Journal of Negro Education offers corroborating evidence that the view of the Negro in America as unassimilable began in the United States, in the North, very early. Boskin tries to find evidence of whether slavery was a product of racism in the United States (Carl Degler) or racism was a product of slavery (Elkins) or a combination of both. The chronology of laws assigned slave status to the Negro were Massachusetts in 1641, Connecticut in 1650, Virginia in 1661, Maryland in 1663, New York and New Jersey in 1664, and South Carolina in 1682. He places this in the context in which the colonies had already given up on educating and assimilating the Indians by the mid-sixteenth century. Nowhere in the colonies, Boskin finds, unlike the Indian before, were there any statutes calling for education of the Negro. "From the scanty evidence that exists, however, it would appear that the Negro did not receive formal education in the 17th century in the colonies. Although a small proportion of Negroes was exposed to religious and secular training, mainly in a haphazard fashion, apparently few, if any at all, legislative provisions for their education were enacted. The terms Negro and slave are conspicuously missing from the education statutes of the century. This omission is highly significant inasmuch as these terms are to be found in tax, defense, sex, and religious ordinances of the same period, and ' slave' was frequently used in conjunction with the term 'servant.' Virginia did not provide for compulsory education and mulatto children until 1765, categorized with orphans, poor, and illegitimate children.
"Thus, until further evidence becomes available, it may well be assumed that the Negro was regarded as uneducable. Certainly, once the process of denial of the African was begun, the unaltered direction was toward total rejection. The psychology of the situation worked against him. The African could not remain within society without first becoming similar to the English, and he could not become acculturated until actual steps were taken to educate him. If this hypothesis is valid, it would support the historians who contend that the African was subject to prejudice and discrmination decades prior to the crushing legislation of the 1660s."

Monday, August 07, 2006

We See It All the Time

Outside they are digging with bulldozing equipment to lay a new water pipe. I go out to see their progress. There is a group of white working men, all in their mid-30s to mid-40s, tanned, lean or heavy, in t-shirts and work clothes, all talking loudly and aggressively to themselves and to another younger white man further away. They are conferring on whether it is time to shut off the water main, and one of the men is talking on a cell phone, it seems to headquarters, to confirm or to give the order. They are all standing around the large hole they have dug in the lawn. Below them, in the hole, is an African-American man in his forties, looking up at them, waiting for their decision or word, he, apparently, prepared to do whatever. He is silent, just waiting. Why is it always the black man who is in the hole and who is most likely to do all much of the physical labor involved? I think to myself. Is it circumstance, racism? or both? Of course he is one of the few African American men that I have seen on the entire construction project that the hole-digging is part of. I can only recall one or possibly two others. As I write, now I am actually hearing this black man talking--telling these men what he sees. He seems to have come from the South. He is talking as aggressively as they do. I am glad to hear him.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Stanley Elkins' Slavery: The Americas Thesis and the Denial of the Soul

Right off, we can tell from the title that Elkins believes that slavery and its aftermath pose a problem for all Americans that, if it had already been solved, would not necessitate his writing the book. This is important, because to my mind Elkins begins to get at the problem that Ralph Ellison points to, that slavery, Jim Crow, and the continuing crisis in race relations have fostered a "culture that is opposed to the deep thought and feeling necessary to profound art; hence its avoidance of emotion, its fear of ideas, its obsession with mere physical violence and pain, its overemphasis of understatement, its precise and complex verbal contructions for converting goatsong into carefully undulated squeaks." [See "Assumptions to be Tested" in January Archives]

The crucial point is made in the second essay, in the comparison of the slave systems of the United States and of South America. Brazil's slave system was closer to that of the United States, but in his rejoinder to critics on this score, Elkins documents that the differences that still remained were crucial in the Brazilian case also. Elkins makes this a polemic about institutions or the lack thereof in the United States. There were no institutions in the United States, he says, to put a brake on the rapaciousness of the Southern planters, whereas in South America there were. Elkins in part wants to shift the historiographic debate from a moral debate on slavery--pro and con--to an examination of the wider cultural and legal context for the chattel system of slavery that existed here, which he says, is unprecedented in history. Inadvertently perhaps, however, he begins to get to the crux of the problem in the United States that continues to plague us today.
Elkins does not compare the conditions of slaves here and in South America per se but compares the legal structures that held the slave systems in place. For the United States, he presents an overview of the transition in colonial America, from a situation in which there were many indentured servants, both white and black, to the elevation of the white indentured servants and the full-scale enchattelment of the black indentured servants and new slaves, and its corollary, the de-elevation of free blacks to the status of second-class citizen. By 1710 the flow of white servants to America had virtually come to a halt [49]. "For the plantation to operate efficiently and profitably, and with a force of laborers all of whom may have been fully broken to plantation discipline, the necessity of training them to work long hours and to give unquestioning obedience to their masters and overseers superseded every other consideration. The master must have absolute power over the slave's body, and the law was developing in such a way as to give it to him at every crucial point. Physical discipline was made virtually unlimited and the slave's chattel status unalterably fixed."
This was the slave's fixed legal status. This legal status had been established by the latter half of the seventeenth century. Elkins then examines three other aspects of the slaves' legal status:
marriage and family; police and disciplinary powers over the slave; and property and other civil rights.
For the slave in the United States, "That most ancient and intimate of institutional arrangements, marriage and the family, had long since been destroyed by the law, and the law never showed any inclination to rehabilitate it." Although informally masters may have permitted marriage, and although the slavetrader who separated familes was viewed with contempt in white society, nevertheless, "yet the very nature of the plantation economy and the way in which the basic arrangements of Southern life radiated from it, made it inconceivable that the law should tolerate any ambiguity, should the painful clash between humanity and property interest ever occur." Elkins also notes that children derived their condition from their mother, since if it were conferred by the father's condition, the question would be what to do with all the mulatto children born of slave mothers and white masters? "That 'the father of a slave is unknown to our law' was the universal understanding of Southern jurists. It was thus that a father, among slaves, was legally 'unknown,' a husband without the rights of his bed, the state of marriage defined as 'only that concubinage...with which alone, perhaps their condition is compatible.'"
In matters of discipline, the slave had no repeal and no recourse, no standing before the law. There was never any law upholding the slave's rights against assault, and therefore no law was violated if a master did what he would with a slave, even up to the point of murder. (Of course this lawlessness outlasted slavery, as can be seen from the post-Civil War lynchings and disappearances of African American men, and even in boys, as shown by the murder of Emmett Till.)
The rights of property, and all other civil and legal rights were "everywhere denied the slave with a clarity that left no doubt of his utter dependency upon his master. 'A slave is in absolute bondage; he has no civil right; and can hold no property, except at the will and pleasure of his master." He could make no gifts, write no will, inherit nothing. He did not own himself, as he could not hire himself out or make contracts for any purpose. "Neither his word nor his bond had any standing in law." In delineating this, Elkins quotes from Alabama court opinions.
The slave had no civic privileges of religion or education. With the exception of Maryland and Kentucky, he reports, stringent laws were in place prohibiting anyone from teaching a slave to read or write. In North Carolina it was against the law to give a slave any book, including the Bible. Slaves were only allowed to worship within the carefully constructed constraints set by white preachers and the master. They were forbidden to worship outside of those bounds--if at all, and hence the spiritual, Steal Away. Although the Presbyterian Church had deplored this condition, the churches were unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
This created the "most unplacable race-consciousness yet observed in virtually any society." The syllogism went like this: "All slaves are black; slaves are degraded and contemptible; therefore all blacks are degraded and contemptible." This racial hysteria of the South precluded the concept a free black; "such a class was unnatural, logically awry, a blemish on the body politc, an anomaly for which there was no intellectual category."
Elkins contrasts this North American institution of chattel slavery with slavery in the Ibero-dominated South America, noting first that slavery had existed in Spain for centuries, before the arrival in the 15th century of slaves from Africa. Thus a slave system existed that had two contradictory assumptions: slavery existed, but slavery was a violation of man's divine and natural equality and "against reason and nature." Thus the slave system was a bundle of laws that treated the slaves as persons who had gotten into a bad strait and had lost rights, but with avenues available to re-acquire those natural rights, as opposed to persons who had no inherent personhood or rights. Elkins says that this difference exists, because the Ibero slavery was far closer to the slave systems of antiquity, and also because the semi-medieval character of Spain placed institutional constraints on the capitalist planters: the crown and the church.
For the crown, "the introduction of slaves into the colonies brought much discomfort to the royal conscience." Charles V, who had first granted license to transport large numbers of blacks from Africa to the colonies, ordered the freeing of all slaves in South America, but when he retired to the monastery this was overturned. Same with Queen Isabella earlier. King in 1679 was looking for theologians who had written on the subject of slavery. From this it followed, that legally the slavemaster never had the total control over the slave's body that characterized slavery in North America. A master could legally beat a slave, but not to the point of drawing blood or inflicting contusions. If a slave was accused of crimes, he was tried in the same court that any free man would be tried in. Slaves had legal holidays and legally mandated time off. Slaves could buy their freedom, by contracting their labor out to another person. The master was legally forced to set a sales price. These laws were generally enforced, except in Brazil where enforcement was weak.
As for the church, while it did acknowledge slavery and accommodate to it, it nonetheless also consistently warned that the slaveholder was in danger of mortal sin. Hence, the church was active in encouraging slave manumission, which was permitted throughout the system. The church never denied the injustice of slavery, and the 18th-century prelate Cardinal Gerdil stated categorically: "Slavery is not to be understood as conferring on one man the same power over another that men have over cattle...For slavery does not abolish the natural equality of man."
Thus, the church acted to encourage manumission to save the mortal soul of the slaveower and also acted to better the conditions of those in slavery. The church ministered to slaves. This means that slaves had to be baptized and to take the sacraments, including the sacrament of marriage. Slaves owned by different owners who wanted to marry were to be allowed to do so; families could not be separated. The church ministered to slaves and also priests functioned as inspectors of the system, reporting cases of abuse, etc. " As Elkins reports:
"A Caribbean synod of 1622, whose santiones had the force of law, made lengthy provisions for the chastisement of masters on feast days. Here the power of the Faith was such that master and slave stood equally humble before it. 'Every one who has slaves,' according to the first item in the Spanish code, 'is obliged to instruct them in the principles of the Roman Catholic religion and the necessary truths in order that the slaves may be baptized within the first year of their residence in the Spanish dominions.' Certain assumptions were implied therein which made it impossible that the slave in this culture should ever quite be considered as mere property, either in law or in society's customary habits of mind. These assumptions, prepetuated and fostered by the church, made all the difference in his treatment by society and its institutions, not only while a slave, but also if and when he should cease to be one. They were, in effect, that he was a man, that he had a soul as precious as any other man's, that he had a moral nature, that he was not only as susceptible to sin, but also as eligible for grace as his master--that master and slave were brothers in Christ." [emphasis added]
It was precisely this status as a man under God that was denied to the slave of the South and also to the freed Negro. The heart of the chattel slavery and Jim Crow society in the United States is the denial of the soul of the African American. Witness the syllogism Elkins states above. This denial of a soul is at the root of the sickness in America in race relations. For how can anyone deny the soul of another human being, without also incurring grave damage to their own? Is this the source of what Ellison calls "the culture that is opposed to the deep thought and feeling necessary to profound art"? This is the avenue for exploration. Nor should it be thought that this existed only in the South, witness the virulent and violent reactions when blacks attempt to move into white Northern neighborhoods.
Even worse, the slave and black person was not only denied a soul but positively demonized, in order to perpetuate a rationale for the existence of slavery and Jim Crow itself. Hence, the struggle for civil rights and racial justice in the United States has always take the form of an assertion of soul: its emergence from the African American churches; the eloquent expression of this soul through at first religious music; the Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois, and then later: soul food, soul music, soul brother. Talk of soul food, soul music, soul brother would never be necessary in a society in which the soul of an African American were taken for granted.
In South America, because the slave and the black was never denied a soul, they could be freely assimilated into the society. The society's racism was in the form of a caste system, so that a wealthy black person was fully assimilated and considered "white." Writes Elkins: "Free Negroes had the same rights before the law as whites, and it was possible for the most energetic of their numbers to take immediate part in public and professional life."
Elkins concludes: "All such rights and opportunities existed before the abolition of slavery; and thus we may note it as no paradox that emancipation, when it finally did take place, was brought about in all these Latin American countries 'without violence, without bloodshed, and without civil war.'" [Elkins quoting Tannenbaum, Slave and Citizen]
The continuing lack of assimilation of African Americans into American society, it therefore follows, represents the continuation of the denial of the soul to the African American, now in the context of a society in which many deny the existence of the soul at all.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Hats Off to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

I first came across the name of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in reference to Africa, because he stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy over his charge that African chiefs were responsible for slavery because they had sold captive Africans to the slave traders. This is obviously a bowdlerization of what he said, but what he did say created a bitter conflict among leading Africans and African Americans engaged in African-African-American studies. I disagreed with Gates at the time. However, on the same trip that he made this "discovery," he also salvaged manuscripts from Timbuktoo, and just this kind of digging is so sorely needed for the effort to discover the truth about African and African American history and also made it clear that Gates loved Africa.
Now, with his PBS special for Black History month, African American Lives, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has made a tremendous contribution to all Americans: he has discovered a way to trace African American roots backwards in time in the United States and all the way back to Africa. Gates took a number of stellar personalities among African Americans, including Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Ben Carson, Quincy Jones, himself, and others and through painstaking digging in archives ferreted out the family tree of these well-known African Americans and then, on camera, presented these celebrities with the results. Most people had no idea of who their ancestors were or what they had done. Gates himself tried to find out how his great-grandmother had a house all her own in West Virginia after the Civil War, and did a DNA test on various relatives and a prominent local white family to determine if his grandmother's descendants had the same DNA as the man she worked for (which the family had for years assumed), only to find out that they did not! So the white man behind his ancestor's house and mulatto children remains a mystery man.
In each case in which Gates showed these stellar figures about their ancestors, they were deeply moved. They were filled; something that was heretofore hollow in them was filled. In some cases, they learned about white ancestors, slave owners. Or they learned how their family had hosted the black school in their district after the official black school was arsoned. Or they learned about how hard their ancestors had worked to get property and keep it. Or they learned how an ancestor who was a minister had refused to go north so that he could continue to lead his flock in the south.
In Part II of this series, Gates went even further. He recruited DNA experts to trace the DNA of these celebrities to their African roots. This is a contribution both of modern technology and Gates' heart. A white American may have lost sight of any ancestors who were not born in this country, but this is not really a problem for that white American, because he or she thinks of themselves totally as being an American. There is nothing in them held back to that commitment. But what if you are denied that identity as an American, as African Americans are? Then it becomes very important to know who you are. This knowledge is denied African Americans, who need that knowledge the most. As one African American friend of mine replied to an African who asked him, Where are you from?: "I don't really know." They both laughed, but it was a sad laugh for the African American.
With a DNA printout of peoples from all over the world, Gates and his DNA experts were able to isolate that part of the DNA that is passed on and on through generations and to match that with DNA types from various areas of Africa and to show the celebrities exactly from which area they had come from in Africa. In the case of Chris the comedian (I don't remember his full name), they then flew him to Angola to meet his tribe, who had been defeated in a war with the Portuguese and sold into slavery, and there was much rejoicing within this community in welcoming Chris back home.
After discovering where she came from, Whoopi Goldberg said, "This is my country. My country tis of thee." Maybe she meant Africa, but maybe she also meant the United States, because now she felt that she could hold her head high and belong.
Because they now knew where they came from, these African Americans could feel more truly American, because they no longer had to feel ashamed that they did not know where they came from. This is a tremendous contribution to the African American community in the United States and therefore to all Americans. If I were a Bill Gates, I would put up the money to enable every African American to know where they came from.
And what else might we find? In Gates' own family, he expected his mother's line at to least trace back directly back to Africa, but it traced to places like Dublin! Of course there was a lot of intermarriage between Irish and African Americans in the 19th century in the north. The DNA experts did manage to isolate Gates' African strain, I think tracing it back to areas of Nigeria. How many whites, we might ask, may be shown to have African blood?
Henry Louis Gates is a historian impassioned with the love of his people--and that love has borne nourishing fruit.

Monday, March 06, 2006

On Stanley Elkins' Slavery: The Sambo Thesis

The full title of Stanley M. Elkins' book, published first in 1959, is Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Elkins is right: Slavery was and continues to be a problem in American institutional and intellectual life. This is the great contribution of the book. The book comprises four essays: 1. an overview of the American historiography of slavery; 2. a comparison of the U.S. and South American slave systems; 3. a comparison of the African American stereotype with the personalities that emerged among survivors in German concentration camps; and 4. a critique of the Abolitionists and Transcendalists, such as William Lloyd Garrison and Ralph Waldo Emerson et al., whom he calls intellectuals without responsibility.

The book caused an uproar because of the third essay primarily and also because it was known that Elkins had been influential on Daniel P. Moynihan; castigation of Elkins for the third essay and the rejection of the Moynihan report by black civil rights leaders went hand in hand.
Elkins' comparison of the black stereotype, which he calls Sambo, with the emergent infantilism among survivors in German concentration camps comes from some kind of musings, that if Elkins had followed through with more rigor might have led to insights. However, in its raw form as presented in the book, it is just wrong, and Elkins admits this in the later essays he wrote (which appear in the edition I read). There is no reason to compare a stereotype with the documented personalities that emerged among survivors in concentration camps. The first is a stereotype and therefore reified according to the interests and prejudices of the formulators of the stereotype. There were available to Elkins at the time the writings of Ralph Ellison (named after Ralph Waldo Emerson in fact) and also of Zora Neale Hurston, among others, from which he could have attained a far more accurate view of the personalities of those Americans who emerged from slavery. The actual African American both during slavery and after slavery is far more complicated than the simple image of "Sambo" and far richer. It is unfortunate that Elkins included this half-serious comparison in his book, because the contribution of the book is his analysis not of African Americans but of white Americans and American institutions. Perhaps whites therefore were also at the time just as happy to see Elkins under fire.
In the book, The Over Slavery: Stanley Elkins' and His Critics, the most moving answer to Elkins comes from Sterling Stuckey in his "Through the Prism of Folklore: The Black Ethos in Slavery." An African American professor, now retired, Stuckey writes: "What is at issue is at issue is not whether American slavery was harmful to slaves, but whether, in their struggle to control self-lacerating tendencies, the scales were tipped toward a despair so consuming that most slaves, in time, became reduced to the level of Sambos.
"My thesis, which rests on an examination of folk songs and tales, is that slaves were able to fashion a life style and set of values--an ethos--which prevented them from being imprisoned altogether by the definitions which the larger society sought to impose." This ethos, "an amalgam of Africanisms and New World elements" helped the slaves to endure. "The process of dehumanization was not nearly as pervasive as Stanley Elkins would have us believe; that a ver large number of slaves, guided by this ethos, were able to maintain their essential humanity." After giving many examples of spirituals, Stuckey notes: "For if they did not regard themselves as the equals of whites in many ways, their folklore indicates that the generality of the slaves must have at least felt superior to whites morally. .... There is some evidence that slaves were aware of the special talent which they brought to music. Higginson has described how reluctantly they sang from hymnals--'even on Sunday'--and how 'gladly' they yielded 'to the more potent excitement of their own spirituals.'... What is of pivotal import, however, is that the esthetic realm was the one area in which slaves knew they were not inferior to whites. Small wonder that they borrowed many songs from the larger community, then quickly invested them with their own economy of statement and power of imagery rather than yield to the temptation of merely repeating what they had heard. Since they were essentially group rather than solo performances, the values inherent in and given affirmation by the music served to strengthen bondsmen in a way that solo music could not have done."
The work that remains to be done, says Stuckey, is discovering the contributions of slaves to American culture. This is what Zora Neale Hurston had tried to do. See
http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/ for a wonderful history (with many audio clips) of the spiritual. The media clips confirms Stuckey's discussion.

Other Books Read

I have read the following books since the last post on Martin Luther King:

Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries, by Orlando Patterson
The Debate Over Slavery: Stanley Elkins and His Critics, Ann J. Lane, ed.
The Moynihan Report: National Call to Action
Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley
Walkin' the Dog by Walter Mosley
Freedom's Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830 to 1970 by Lynne Olson
Ella Baker: Freedom Bound by Joanna Grant
Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, by Barbara Ransby(very well researched; not yet finished)
Slavery by Stanley Elkins
Lay My Burden Down:Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans by Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D., and Amy Alexander

Sunday, March 05, 2006

One-Third of All Abortions in the U.S. Are of African American Babies

Abortion and African-Americans Interview With Alveda King, of Priests for Life NEW YORK, MARCH 3, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Every aborted baby is like a slave in the womb, in that the mother decides the little one's fate, says the director of African-American outreach for Priests for Life. Alveda King, niece of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., advocates righteous living as the only way to solve the problem of abortion. ZENIT interviewed Alveda King about the effects of abortion particularly on the black population in the United States. Q: Statistics seem to show that abortion is aimed at specific groups such as African-Americans, immigrants and the poor. How do you see the situation? King: Abortion is a deadly genocide for all populations. Yet, evidence shows that groups such as Planned Parenthood have targeted African-American communities with a campaign to encourage young black parents to abort babies. Q: What is the stance of groups such as Planned Parenthood toward minorities? Do these groups do anything besides providing abortion? King: In the African-American communities, abortion is the primary agenda. They also offer birth control and some health services, but the emphasis is on abortion for black parents. Q: There is a high abortion rate among African-Americans and it reflects a problem with unwed mothers that needs to be solved. Abortion seems to deal with the "symptom" of children as if this were the solution. What is the proper solution? King: The proper solution is righteousness and holy living, including abstinence and marriage. This is the case for all people, regardless of nationality and socioeconomic status. Q: How has abortion affected the African-American family in the United States since 1973, the year abortion was legalized across the board? King: Of the estimated 45 million abortions performed in the U.S. since 1973, approximately 15 million are reported to have been in African-American families. Q: You said recently, "How can the dream survive if we murder the children?" Could you elaborate? King: In the ongoing travesty of the debate over whether abortion and infanticide should be condoned, a voice in the wilderness continues to cry out, "What about the children?" We have been fueled by the fire of "women's rights" [for] so long that we have become deaf to the outcry of the real victims whose rights are being trampled upon: the babies and the mothers. Of course a woman has a legal right to decide what to do with her own body. Yet, she also has a right to know the serious consequences and repercussions of making a decision to abort her child. Then too, what about the rights of each baby who is artificially breached before coming to term in his or her mother's womb, only to have her skull punctured, and feel -- yes, agonizingly feel -- the life run out of her before she takes her first breath of freedom. What about of the rights of these women who have been called to pioneer the new frontiers of the new millennium only to have their lives snuffed out before the calendar even turns? What terribly mixed signals we are sending to our society today? We allow and even encourage them to engage in promiscuous sex. Then when their sin conceives, we pretty much tell them, "Don't kill your babies, let our abortion facilities do it for you." My grandfather, Dr. Martin Luther King Sr., once said, "No one is going to kill a child of mine." Tragically, two of his grandchildren had already been aborted, when he saved the life of his next great-grandson with this statement. How can the "dream" survive if we murder the children? Every aborted baby is like a slave in the womb of his or her mother. The mother decides his or her fate. Q: What did you learn in your family about the dignity of human life? King: My uncle, Dr. King, said, "The Negro cannot win if he is willing to sacrifice the lives of his family for personal comfort and safety." My parents raised me as a Christian, and I believe the Bible. My grandfather, Daddy King, was very firm about the life of the unborn, and rejected the idea of abortion.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Walkin' the Dog by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley's Walkin' the Dog is a continuation of the story of the 60-year-old Socrates Fortlow, the ec-convict who spent 27 years in jail for killing a friend and his friend's girlfriend, and has now been out of jail for 9 years, taking up his abode in a two-room shack in an alley in Watts. I listened to the book on CD, and the reading was highly differentiated and excellent. The first Fortlow story is Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, which begins the exploration of Fortlow's attempts to find redemption for his crime through efforts that aid his community. This second Fortlow story is far more ambiguous in its plot, with the fight that Fortlow makes against his own rage and impulse to violence never an open and closed case, but a relentless fight. Provocations are plentiful.
Mosley names Fortlow Socrates because he often asks his friends to help him examine pertinent questions, and he also is part of a discussion group that meets each week. Because Fortlow is himself such an engaging character and also because he is in a search for the truth, about himself and his place in the world, this book in particular offers a glimpse into the inner thoughts of a man such as he.
He is a man, for sure, but it is not easy for him to take responsibility--not for his crime, which he did and does--but responsibility in relationships. For example, he gets a job at the Bounty supermarket quite a ways a way, and he is very responsible in this job, starting at the bottom rung, and the manager finds him to be the most reliable worker he has and offers Fortlow the post of Produce Manager, which would mean a big increase in pay and responsibililty to oversee a department. Fortlow is extremely reluctant to take this position, constantly offering arguments why he should not--including the argument of "What about the white guys that I will be supervising? They won't like it." [paraphrase] The manager says he doesn't care about that. Fortlow does take the job and does well, which would be expected.
He is also reluctant to take up the offer from Iula, who owns his favorite diner, that he combine with her and be her right-hand man in the diner. She wants to marry him, but he will not do this. She then goes back, briefly, with her former husband, and after they part, Fortlow takes her as his girlfriend, and they see each other on the weekends. Although Fortlow undoubtedly cares in some way and she certainly cares for him, it does not seem that he in any way emotionally gives up his fundamental independence or opens himself up to her in this relationship.
He takes moral responsibility for Darryl, the young boy he rescued in the first novel, although not physical responsibility for him. He teaches Darryl and also trusts Darryl completely. They confess to each other. It is through his relationship to Darryl that his aspirations for himself, both outwardly and inwardly, are mirrored for him.
Fortlow's major goals seem to be to defend his independence as a man against all forms of assault, from a mugger, from the police (who harass him constantly since he is an ex-con), from different kinds of women. He necessarily stands against hand-outs; he is reluctant to furnish his new apartment--"... his house was bare and pristine. He walked around the rooms smiling. He had a home that he loved but still he could disappear leaving nothing behind."
Socrates is trying to deal with his own anger, his own compulsion to violence. This is a physical feeling in him, like coming up his back and his neck into his hands, when it arises. At one point in his relations with the harassing cops, one of them is waiting for him at his gate when he gets home. The cop asks him where he has been, and Socrates answers,

"Nowhere, I ain't been nowhere. And I sure am tired so if you wanna arrest me please do it or let me pass." "Why would I want to arrest you, Socrates? Have you done something wrong?" Thats when Socrates realized that some time in the last week the violence had drained out of his hands. He didn't want to hurt anybody. He didn't care that Biggers [the cop] stood there in that silly suit trying to act like he was going to trick Socrates into a confession. A confession to anything. "Let me pass, man," was all Socrates had to say.

Later in the book, in his discussion group, Socrates poses this question: "What I wanna know is if you think that black people have a right to be mad at white folks or are we all just fulla shit an' don't have no excuse for the misery down here an' everywhere else?"
He then tells a story his aunt Bellandra had told him about a slave uprising in which the slaves kill the master and burn down the plantation and then head into the cane, from which they maraude other plantations but they can never leave the cane. The story is the answer to the question, the group says. "I'm not sure," Socrates said. "I mean I been thinkin' about bein' mad at white folks lately. I mean I'm always mad. But bein' mad don't help. Even if I say somethin' or get into a fight, I'm still mad when it's all over. One day I realized that I couldn't stop bein' mad. Bein' mad was like havin' an extra finger. I don't like it, everybody always make fun of it, but I cain't get rid of it. It's mine just like my blood." ... "Why did you ask the question?" Chip Lowe asked. "Because I'm tired of bein' mad, man. Tired. I see all these white people walkin' 'round and I'm pissed off just that they're there. And they don't care. They ain't worried. They thinkin' 'bout what they saw on TV last night. They thinkin' about some joke they heard. An' here I am 'bout to bust a gut."
Then, after everyone leaves, and he looks around the room and at his folding chairs and thinks of his friends who had been in in them [the group met at his house this night]. "He thought about being angry himself. Somewhere in the night he realized that it wasn't just white people that made him mad. He would be upset even if there weren't any white people."

Then in the last episode of the book, Fortlow decides to take matters into his own hands concerning a policeman who was known to mercilessly harass blacks and who had gunned down a teenage black boy for no reason at all. He bought guns and ammunition and prepared to kill the white cop, and stalked him for that purpose. "The murder in the air came in through his lungs and from there to his blood. Socrates, who knew that he had been prepared for centuries, was finally ready to answer a destiny older than the oldest man in the world. Cardwell [the cop] obliged and walked toward the dark alley. He was smoking a cigarette, moving at an unhurried pace. He was thinking about something. Socrates breathed deeply and tasted the air. It filled him with a sweetness of anticipation that he had not felt since the first time a woman, Netalie Brian, had helped him find his manhood.
'It was the air, no, no, no, the breath of air,' Socrates told Darryl the next morning on the phone. 'It was so good. I mean good, man. You know I almost called out loud. I saw Cardwell walkin' my way an' my hands was tight on them guns. You know he was a dead man an' didn't know it. .... But I was gonna murder that man. I was gonna kill him. But I was thinkin' that I had never felt nuthin' like that deep breath I just took. An' eve though I was gettin' ready to kill I had to take just one second to think about how I felt. You know?' ' I guess I do,' Darryl said. ' But how did you feel?' 'I felt free, ' Socrates said in a soft voice. 'All my life I ain't never felt like that. I was ready to die along with that man. My life for his--you cain't get more free than that." 'Did you kill him?' Darryl whispered the question... 'I meant to. The guns was out and he passed not three feet from me. But I just stood there--smiling, thinkin' 'bout how good it felt to be in my own skin.'"

Now this is a different kind of outcome than that prescribed by Frantz Fanon. According to Fanon, Fortlow could only have become free and found his own sense of identity by killing the cop. Instead, something about the air--or the air as encapsulating his talks with his friends and his relationship to Darryl and to Iulia and to others that he had been steadily building over the course of the two books--something in the air about his own reconciliation with others and with himself, made him choose life.

But he did not stop fighting. He then got a poster made listing Cardwell's crimes and picketed the police headquarters. This caused provocations on their side and then people gathered round to defend Fortlow from arrest and then there was violence by others, etc., teargas, etc., and Socrates in the news and famous with his billboard. He was jailed for 3 days and lost his job. He had no illusions that his act had fundamentally changed anything, but he felt good afterward and stayed in LA, it is implied, to continue his acts of self-redemption, to build his life with them.