The Moral Universe – Little-Known History

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It was the bright color red that drew my attention to the picture on the cover of The New York Times a few weeks ago.

A little boy clad only in red underpants stood in a doorway, fearfully watching a man pointing a rifle into the room at another man, also in just underwear, hand-cuffed.

The man with the weapon was said to be a law enforcement officer. The handcuffed man was a perceived criminal. Who was the boy? Why was he a witness to this scene? Was he the criminal’s son? Was he only wearing underpants because he’d been woken up in the middle of the night? Or were the bright red underpants the only clothing he owned?

The accompanying story concerned the exodus of children from Latin America to the US border, sent off by their parents in a desperate bid to keep them safe from the lawlessness of their countries.

Were those children welcomed with open arms? Did people rush forth to pick them up and embrace them and whisper into their ears, “It’s all right. You’re safe now. We’ll take care of you.”?

We know the sad answer to that.

It was also just about this time that I was made aware, through a friend of my sister’s, of the little-known history of the lynching of Latinos in the heyday of the Jim Crow era (1846-1925) that saw so many blacks in the United States lynched. As described by law professor and historian Richard Delgado in his article, “Law of the Noose: A History of Latino Lynching,” the murderous formulas were the same, the lynchings approved of by the community and often with official sanction; extralegal judge, jury, and sentencing pronounced by citizens in the US Southwest and held in an often celebratory, carnival atmosphere.

The “crimes”? Cheating at cards. Making alleged advances toward white women. Being “too Mexican,” ie speaking Spanish and following traditions. The irony is, these “crimes” for which many paid with their lives were taking place in a part of the world that had been Mexico until in the mid-1840s, the US decided it should be under the Stars and Stripes.

You can’t do much research into the Civil War without also being made aware of the infamous Mexican-American War. Almost every famous Civil War general fought in the earlier war in the 1840s. Indeed, many generals who waged bitter battle against each other in the 1860s had been close comrades in the 1840s and classmates at West Point.

The Mexican-American War was an outgrowth of the doctrine of manifest destiny, the idea that God had given an entire continent to white people and it was their glorious fate to inhabit and rule over every part of that continent. The westward expansion of the early 1800s pushed into the Southwest, and settlers claimed sovereignty over land they settled in what was still the country of Mexico. When the locals disagreed, the settlers cried foul to the US government, which gave an excuse to march in and seize the territories, including what are now Texas, Arizona, and part of California.

Urged into war by the Democratic President James K. Polk, Generals Winfield Scott (a Presidential wannabe) and Zachary Taylor (a Presidential would-be as soon as the war was over) made a thorough job of it and in a year a half the US Army took away half of the entire country of Mexico. The Whig party, which would become the anti-slavery Republican Party opposed this war. The dying U.S. Grant, who was himself a young lieutenant in the Mexican-American War, wrote that it “was one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger nation over a weaker nation.” It was purely a war of aggression and almost seems to have been fought in order to give Katharine Lee Bates her tagline, “from sea to shining sea.”

What tarnishes those shining seas is not only how the land in between was acquired, but also how the indigenous peoples were treated afterward.

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Richard Delgado

Delgado is a law professor at the University of Alabama who has written more than 100 articles and 20 books on the subject of race in the United States. Other articles have appeared in the Nation, the New York Times, and The Washington Post, and his books have won national prizes and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. His most recent book, Race and Races: Cases and Resources for a Diverse America  (West/Thomson), will appear in 2015.

Delgado has  his work cut out for him, as the history of organized violence against Latinos has not been plumbed until fairly recently in the middle of the last decade. In a summary and analysis of Delgado’s article, activist Maximo Anguiano says, “Delgado challenges scholars and institutions by trying to unveil the truth on this shameful past, while exploring the history of these lynchings and explaining that ‘English-only’ movements are a present-day form of lynchings.

“Through reviewing of anthropological research, storytelling, and other internal & external interactions, there is believed to have been roughly 600 lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans beginning with the aftermath of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo,” which ended the war. The lynchings took place in what are now Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada, among other states.

In addition to Mexican men, the article says, there is reason to believe that women were also lynched for resisting sexual advances of Anglo men. As with slaves and then freed slaves, the Mexicans had no recourse against such persecution. The literal lynchings took the same form as those of African-Americans, including hanging, torture, mutilation of the bodies, and burning. After all, the Southwest settlers were mostly from the South, their aim to bring and keep slavery alive in new territories.

Delgado charges Latino lynchingsthat this unknown history of persecution is intentional and that accounts have been edited and minimized or outright ignored. However, “many Latinos knew of these lynchings; their accounts were maintained, shared, and solidified as Mexican lore through ritualistically songs (corridos, actos, and cantares),” writes Anguiano.

He continues, “Delgado questions whether such remnants of Latino lynchings may still be present in society today. This can best be exemplified through movements to make English the official language of the U.S., forcing immigrants to assimilate to the dominant Anglo culture. Such actions can be illustrated in movements to end bilingual school opportunities and enforce English-only speaking at jobs, businesses, etc. Postcolonial scholars argue that such movements facilitate children to reject their own culture, acquire English, and forget their native language. These actions have far dire [documentable] consequence, like social distress, depression, and crime. As such, Delgado ventures to say that these actions are an implicit form of lynching.”

While I am appreciative of the opportunity to learn more about this shameful history, for me, the image of the little boy in the bright red underpants remains. He could be one of the children at the border. He could be one of those young ones whose lives are in limbo because apparently Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty is now only lip-service and/or only applies to white immigrants. There are US communities that dearly want to take in these children and show them the compassion that Lady Liberty exemplified, if only they will be allowed to. Let us pray, and do whatever else we can to save the children.

More of Mr. Anguiano’s work can be found at www.independentcreativeservices.tumblr.com.

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The Moral Universe – Bleedin’ Missouri

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Missouri has figured often in the history of civil rights in this country, from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the Dred Scott decision in the 1850s to lynchings in the Jim Crow era (has that era even ended) to the tragic events still unfolding in Ferguson.

As the westward expansion of the United States progressed in the early 19th century, the issue of whether territories would be accepted as free or slavery states became a tipping point with a direct line to the Civil War.

The Missouri Compromise was completely political and had nothing to do with anyone’s rights. The point was to keep a balance of power in Congressional representation between slave and free states. Passed in 1820, the act admitted Maine as a free state in exchange for admitting Missouri as a slave state. The law also prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line.

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Missouri Compromise Map

The political upheaval engendered by this portioning out of territory created a major new political party and redefined another. The Whigs party evolved into the Republican Party, with its major plank being no new states with slavery. Democrats, though the name did not change, did have a lot of divisions based on geographical lines.
In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the man who lost the Presidency to Abraham Lincoln, pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery north of the 36° 30´ latitude. The bill also stipulated that it would be up to each territory’s residents to decide whether to be slave or free.

In 1857, the Supreme Court under Roger Taney (pronounced, oddly enough, “tawny”) declared, as a sidebar to the Dred Scott decision, that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional because the federal government did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories.

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Dred Scott

Kansas lies directly to the west of Missouri. New England abolitionists sent settlers there in order to populate it such that any vote on slavery would be a “no” vote. This caused proslavery settlers to go there as well and gave the future state the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas.” Much of the bleeding, however, was caused by neighboring Missourians who were proslavery and wanted a proslavery neighbor. They became known as border ruffians and made incursions into Kansas to harass, vandalize, and even kill free-staters.
Meanwhile, Dred and Harriet Scott were slaves who belonged to an Army officer. They moved with the officer from Missouri (slave state) to Illinois (free state) and Wisconsin (free state). Therefore, the couple lived for many years on free soil. The officer was ordered back to Missouri, where he died. An abolitionist lawyer helped Scott sue for his freedom in 1846 on the basis of the amount of time he had lived on free soil.

The case wound its way through various courts until it reached the Supreme Court. In 1857, SCOTUS ruled in a 7-2 decision that since no slave or descendant of a slave could ever be a US citizen, therefore Dred Scott had no right to sue for his freedom.

In her wonderful book about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson says that St. Louis ranked #10 (most severe) out of the worst10 US cities in integration issues after the 1980 census. The term “hypersegregation,” she says, was applied to such cities by sociologists to describe areas where segregation “was so total and complete that blacks and whites rarely intersected outside of work.”

During the Civil War, the Missouri border ruffians spawned organized groups of renegades who were early role models for the Ku Klux Klan. One such group was led by William Quantrill, and “Quantrill’s Raiders” became a terrifying name to people in Kansas and beyond. The raiders were so brutal that Quantrill became wanted not only by the Union, but by the Confederacy as well. Jesse James started his career as an outlaw under Quantrill.

So what about now? What about what is happening in Ferguson, Missouri? The posts on Facebook are overwhelming. Some of the worst racist ideology I’ve ever seen is in some of them, and some of the most plain, common-sense ideas are in others. There’s a lot of foolish talk and there’s a lot of heart-wrenching talk. I’m not there, I’m not black, so do I even have a right to comment?
Well, I do have a right to my opinions, and here are a few of them:

1. Slavery – wrong, always, everywhere.
2. Police using deadly force against unarmed people – wrong, always, everywhere.
3. Anyone assuming they know the facts before the facts are collected – wrong, always, everywhere.
4. Thinking anyone on the face of this planet is “less than” because of color, religion, language, accent, shape of eyes, shape of nose, shape of skin – wrong, always, everywhere.

The most affecting piece I’ve read about Ferguson were written by Michael Twitty on his blog. I urge you to read it, which you can do by clicking on this link: http://afroculinaria.com/2014/08/18/ferguson-my-thoughts-on-an-american-flashpoint/

Thomas Wiggins, Musical Prodigy

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Jeffrey Renard Allen’s book Song of the Shank is an imagined life of a real person, the 19th-century musical prodigy Thomas Wiggins. It’s a slow-going book, not to be read at a gallop; much of it is stream of conscious, and there are times when it is not clear whose consciousness is streaming.

What makes the book important are the underlying metaphors Mr. Allen engages that depict the different kinds of slavery and imprisonment in which people can be held, mentally, physically, spiritually.
Why should we care about a long-ago musical prodigy? Well, Thomas was African-American, and that alone might make him stand out. In addition, he was born to a slave couple. If that’s not enough to whet the appetite, Thomas was blind and severely autistic.

Blind Tom Wiggins The unvarnished facts of his life, written about by Deirdre O’Connell in The Ballad of Blind Tom as well as on her website devoted to him, are these:

Thomas’s parents, Charity and Domingo, were slaves belonging to a Georgia man named Wiley Jones. Tom was born in 1848, blind and with severe developmental disabilities. According to Ms. O’Connell, Jones did not want to support a useless body and planned to sell the family off one by one. The chances of Tom’s being bought were slim to none, and there was a great likelihood that he would die of neglect.

Tom’s mother asked a neighboring slave owner, General James Bethune, to buy the whole family; on the day of the auction, he did this and life changed for the Wiggins family as well as for the Bethunes.

Without sight, Tom’s senses focused on sound. He had an ability to imitate any sound he heard. He would sneak into the Bethunes’ house and bang on the piano, fascinated by the different notes. He spent a lot of time in the woods, learning nature’s music. General Bethune eventually saw the musical potential of this odd child and brought him into his home to learn to play the piano as well as to learn manners and deportment.

Under the General’s management, Blind Tom, as he became known, performed throughout the state from the age of about 6. When he was eight, traveling showman Perry Oliver became his manager. By advertising his charge as little better than a beast, Oliver was able to boost audiences’ reactions to Tom’s mastery at the piano.

Oliver introduced Tom to many experiences and might seem like the perfect manager if we forget who Tom was and where he came from. Oliver brought Tom to Washington, DC, during the time when the country was in its first spasms of break-up after Abraham Lincoln’s nomination to the Presidency. Hearing the voices in Congress debating abolition and secession, Tom’s mimic abilities allowed him to repeat on stage what he had heard, to audiences’ great delight. After hearing Stephen Douglas at a rally, Tom not only brought his speech to life on stage, but also the cheers and heckling of the audience. Oliver scheduled Tom to perform at benefit concerts for the Confederate cause, and Tom became the first African-American to perform in the White House when President Buchanan invited him there.

After the Civil War began, Tom started composing; at the age of 15 he produced “The Battle of Manassas” (Bull Run), reproducing perfectly the sounds of marching feet, drum and fife, and muskets’ and cannons’ roar. It became famous, and the South believed it was an anthem in the rebel cause.

Tom eventually became a world-renowned phenomenon; Mark Twain and Willa Cather were fans. As might be expected, though, he was still a slave. When not performing, he was locked in hotel rooms. The vast amounts of money his concerts took in were never seen by him or his family, from whom he was entirely estranged. General Bethune’s son had taken over as guardian, and he lived sumptuously on Tom’s earnings. When he died, neither his wife Eliza nor Tom were left anything. Eliza found Charity and brought her to New York to engage in a legal battle for Bethune Jr.’s money; they won the suit, but Eliza dismissed Charity back to the South and she never saw Tom again.

Tom died at the age of 60 from a stroke and was buried in Brooklyn in an unmarked grave. Reportedly a Bethune daughter had his body disinterred and reburied in Georgia, but this has been disputed. There are two plaques for Thomas Wiggins, one in Brooklyn at Evergreen Cemetery and one in Columbus, Georgia.tom poster

Song of the Shank goes underneath all of these facts to present a different way to look at Tom’s life, as well as Charity’s and even Eliza’s. Tom as a toddler was accident prone, and Mr. Allen’s book suggests that these were not really accidents. How did Tom become dunked upside down in a barrel of water, nearly drowning? Were the bruises on his arms and legs a natural result of childhood tumbling or willfully inflicted? Was Tom really born blind, or in his autistic obsessive behavior scratch his own eyeballs to a point where severe infection set in? (I have worked with an autistic man who would bite his own hand to the point of having permanent teeth marks on it; when told “no,” he would beat his face and head.) This self-mutilation suggests that Tom did not want to see the reality of his life, his slavery, and deliberately took away the sense of sight so that he could put all his hope into the sounds of music.

Mr. Allen’s book also suggests that, because Tom did not know what being born black meant, and because he lived with the Bethunes, he became imprisoned in the evil of racism himself. He could tell “niggers” by touch and smell, and disdained them. When reunited with his mother, who despite now being free is in her own prison of guilt about letting Tom be taken away from her, his first instinct is to reject her. He hasn’t the concept of “mother” or “family” any more than he has of right and wrong. As he ages, he becomes overweight, selfish, and demanding, pampered yet locked into rooms.
The novel also introduces free blacks and now-free slaves. One Dr. Wire, the pastor and head of a Home for African Orphans on an island off New York, feels guilt that he has never suffered the way the freed slaves on the island have. How does he pastor to them when he has not experienced what they have been through? How does he pastor to the black soldiers who, after the Civil War, have encamped on Central Park because their service has now been forgotten and unrewarded?

And what about those freed slaves? How does someone who for most of their lives has done and said and often thought only what they were told to become their own person, a free person? What do you do with this freedom when you are looked down upon even by Northern Negroes? How do you begin to understand the wider world – American issues relating to Russia and China and England and France – when you never knew these places existed? How to comprehend it all?

Song of the Shank asks many, many difficult questions. Do we need to ask ourselves, let alone answer, such questions in the 21st century? Yes, says a reviewer in The New York Times. It is our history, and we have still not come to terms with it. We now living, white and black, are imprisoned by our history, and we won’t leave that prison until we look the ramifications of slavery squarely in the face. Books such as Song of the Shank can help us do that.