Who We Are, Who We Want to Be

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In the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, amid the outrage and grief and disbelief, I had to re-learn a painful lesson for a white American.

Most of the people I follow on Twitter are African-American journalists, politicians and activitists: Charles Blow, Bree Newsome, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Vann R. Newkirk II, Jamelle Bouie.

Ms. Newsome, the woman who climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse and took down the flag, put what the others were saying in one form or another most succinctly.

As white Americans cried, “This is not who we are!”, in fact, this is exactly who you are and have been and all black people know it, she said.

I know it too; I’ve been writing about it for some time now, but it hasn’t stayed at the forefront of my attention. White America is a racist society and has been since the first white European stepped foot on this continent and had the arrogance to claim it as a white man’s (and I do mean man’s, not human’s) paradise.

To make that paradise, however, meant neutralizing one way or another the indigenous peoples. Usually by slaughter, often by treaties that were never meant to be kept and to this day are not honored.

Then came the importation of Africans to actually do the work of building an economy. Next came the battles to seize land from the indigenous Mexicans, Polynesians and Inuits and Aleuts.

In every era, white “Americans” have taken something away from someone else, right up to the present time. Now, it’s not only enough to take something away, but white American society wants to bar others from coming in, based solely on religion. And even the liberal arguments in favor of immigrants more often than not points out their economic worth rather than their worth as human beings.

What happened in Charlottesville is not new to its black citizenry; Mr. Newkirk’s most recent article in The Atlantic spells it out briefly and powerfully.

We cannot say, “This is not who we are!” We can, and must, say, “This is not who we want to be,” but only if we’re willing to follow up words with action. Mr. Newkirk quotes Charlottesville-Albemarle NAACP President Emeritus M. Rick Turner: “People want to have a conversation . . . But see we’ve had conservations, ever since the Civil War, every time something happens. That’s why nothing ever gets done beyond that, because the courage stops right there.”

I could say that the counter-protestors in Boston and other cities this weekend prove this thesis wrong. But we have not heard the last from the white supremacists. Do we, who consider ourselves non-racist, have the courage to go beyond the conversations?

Heather Heyer did.

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Innocent/Guilty “Until”

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Having just heard the verdict about the policeman who murdered Philando Castile, seeing Nick Cave’s exhibit “Until” at Mass MOCA was not only timely but even more devastating.

Cave’s installation was mounted in September 2016 and remains until September 2017. “Until” refers to “innocent until proven guilty.” Or does it? Guilty until proven innocent is what is really implied, because Cave’s art is built on, and haunted by, the ghosts of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Yvette Smith and more.

The program says that the installation began with Cave asking himself, “Is there racism in heaven?” His answer is an experience rather than just a matter of looking at one art piece. One is confronted by masses of glittery mobiles twisting and turning. They are mostly beautiful and mesmerizing; then one sees that many of the mobiles depict guns, bullets, and targets.

One walks through this maze of glitter to a crystal cloud atop which is a huge garden of ceramic birds, gramophone horns, and, startlingly, black-face lawn jockeys. One has to climb a very tall ladder to see this site of mainly found objects.

After passing through and around a wall of plastic beads that look like netting, from far away, you enter a dark room with a giant lifeguard chair in the center and a frenetic video that plays on the walls. While my sister and I were there, we were the only museum-goers who stayed to watch the whole video, which is unsettling and somewhat sinister at times. It ends with a chorus of black-face tap dancers; all the while, a video of swirling shallow water is cast on the floor, so you feel off-balance anyway.

IMG_20170621_123518488The last part of the installation is a metaphorical wall of water meant to seem cleansing. It is only the last part, though, physically. I promise that if you go, or have a chance to see it elsewhere, you will carry the installation in your mind and heart for a while.

To see a slo-mo video of the mobiles, go to Nick Cave installation.

 

Pauli Murray: Activist, Lawyer, Priest, Prophet

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Like many people who commented on the Pauli Murray Project page, I wonder how I got to this age without knowing about her.

And I only know about her because I came upon Patricia Bell-Scott’s book The Firebrand and the First Lady, at Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home.

Pauli Murray had a hard row to hoe, but the scrappy, chronically underweight woman beat the odds and achieved her dreams of becoming a lawyer and then one of the very first women priests in the Episcopal Church of America, all the while fighting tenaciously for civil rights.

She was organizing sit-ins at Washington, DC, lunch counters years before SNCC existed. She wrote letters to just about everyone of authority in the white-dominated world about indignities visited upon African-Americans beginning in the 1930s.

Her first sight of Eleanor Roosevelt, called “ER” throughout the book, was at a Depression-era work camp for homeless women where Murray was resident. At the time, she refused to acknowledge ER, but wrote to her a few years later and thus a deep friendship began.

Murray fought her way into the “club” that included Thurgood Marshall, Howard Thurman, and Bayard Rustin. Thurman in particular she considered a mentor. She and Marshall often disagreed on ways and means of fighting for civil rights, but they respected and admired each other.

So why is Pauli Murray so little known? Well, she was black, she was a woman, and she was a lesbian. Hmmm, three strikes against her and still she persevered, all the while dealing with ill health and being the mainstay of her extended family.

So I invite you, if you do not know her, to get to know Pauli Murray better now. She herself published several books. The wonderful thing about Bell-Scott’s book is that diehard Eleanor Roosevelt admirers like me get to see another side of her all the while learning something new.

You can see Pauli Murray’s bibliography, extended biography and more at www.paulimurrayproject.org.

 

 

Everything New is Old Again

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I was not aware of Claude McKay, a founder of the Harlem Renaissance, until The New York Times announced recently that an unpublished manuscript of his had been found in 2009 and was about to be published.

I thought that Amiable with Big Lips sounded like a satirical romp and immediately read it. While satire is among McKay’s writing tools, it was anything but a romp. It was a deadly serious look at 1930s Harlem, which McKay described basically as a colony in a nation even back then (I was listening to Chris Hayes’ book at the same time).

The plot involves an Africamerican (McKay’s term) organization created to raise money for Ethiopia after Mussolini’s invasion. A Communist-led group of white people also create an organization, ostensibly to help Ethiopia, but also with the aim of luring Africamericans into the Popular Front because it is believed that they will be easy to manipulate.

There were so many points in the book at which I was amazed by how the story mirrored our world today, especially in light of the Trump regime, that I lost track of counting them.

I am now flinging myself into McKay’s oeuvre; Banana Bottom is the second novel I have read. It takes place in his homeland, Jamaica, at the turn of the century. A young peasant girl, Bita Plant, is taken in by English missionaries. It is Mrs. Craig’s experiment to show that she can take the “wild” out of the peasant by raising her as a young Englishwoman.

When Bita returns to Jamaica after seven years being “finished” in England, she exerts her own mind and upsets all of Mrs. Craig’s plans. Mrs. Craig thinks she’s reverting to type, when in fact, Bita decides that she is her own person and will choose how she will live.

There is a lot more beside, including the racism with which slavery and colonialism infect non-white populations. McKay’s description of every character includes skin tone. Peasants are dark; the emerging middle class is light-skinned. Enough said.

An in-depth look at the politics of Amiable with Big Teeth and more scholarly discussion can be found in The Atlantic magazine’s article by Jennifer Wilson: Forgotten Harlem The article also includes a bibliography of McKay’s work.

 

Lynching By Another Name

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Donald Trump can say all he wants about chasing ISIS off the earth because of the attack in Manchester yesterday, but he’d do better to eradicate domestic terrorism in the US, beginning with his white supremacist staffers.

richard collins IIIThe latest victim: Richard Collins III, stabbed to death on his college campus in Maryland Saturday night by a fellow white supremacist student.

No, Trump and his racist cabinet can’t be held responsible for the existence of domestic terrorism, but they can be held responsible for not only not trying to do anything about it, but helping it to fester by their own racist agenda.

Selling weapons to Saudi Arabia isn’t going to do a damn thing to eradicate the ISIS/Al Qaeda threat. It just means more people dying in Yemen. And those billions? Will they benefit average Americans? Will they keep black men alive? Will they prosecute police officers who point-blank murder black men? They will not.

Between Trump’s budget proposal, which will decimate programs that actually help Americans, and the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells in Congress, one might say they are domestic terrorists too.

In Harriet’s Footsteps

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Well, sort of.

We know that Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery in Dorchester County, MD in 1849 at the age of 27; she later returned to lead many more enslaved people out of bondage.

What we often don’t know is exactly where things happened because these were enslaved people we’re talking about. Even Frederick Douglass’s exact birthplace near Easton, MD is unknown.

This is good to know before you follow the Harriet Tubman Byway on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Whether the Eastern Shore counties are truly trying to atone for the sin of slavery in their parts, or whether the name of Harriet Tubman is a tourist draw, it is sobering to be in the area where the fearless little woman was such a thorn in the white enslavers’ sides.

The Harriet Tubman National Park area is not a sop to tourism. It has been in the works for many years and was supposed to have been finished by now. The latest projected opening date is spring 2017.

My sister and I did most of the 125-mile Byway, which makes a huge circle unless you go to the end near the Delaware border. I had downloaded and put onto CD the free audio guide, which much enhanced the experience. The narrator and actors set the mood wonderfully, even though many of the stops on the Byway were guesstimates of where something might have happened or were “something like” something to do with Harriet Tubman.

We stayed in Cambridge, where the Byway begins, and went first to the Harriet Tubman Museum. The museum is a grass-roots project that is in need of money to help expand the exhibits and its hours (12 to 3 pm). Even so, the tiny storefront has a very good video about Harriet Tubman, murals of her painted by a descendant,, a large collection of children’s books about her, and memorabilia (yes, I got the T-shirt).

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During the drive, we saw a one-room schoolhouse, the Stanley Institute, that had been built by black parents after the Civil War for their children and that was used until as late as the 1960s, when Maryland’s schools were desegregated.

We saw Parsons Creek, originally a canal built by enslaved people for Joseph Stewart to float lumber out to the bay to ships. Lumbering was a major business here. Harriet Tubman’s father, Ben Ross, worked for Stewart and so did Harriet. It is said that she learned her outdoor and navigational skills during this time. It is also possibly how she became so strong, as she had been a frail child.

We saw the Tuckahoe Neck Quaker meetinghouse, a center of Underground Railroad activity in Caroline County.

We saw the site of another of Harriet’s enslavers, Edward Brodess, in the town of Bucktown. Though she had several enslavers through the years, it was from Brodess’s farm that she escaped.

We saw the restored Bucktown Village Store, at which Harriet got caught in the crossfire and was hit in the head by a two-pound weight that a white man was throwing at his slave. It has been recorded that after this time, Harriet began having visions. This hearkens back to the experience of Julian of Norwich, who began having visions and messages from God after a serious illness.

We saw a restored cabin built by a free black man, James Webb. His enslaved wife and four children were allowed to live here with him. Basically one room with a sleeping loft, it must have seemed like a castle at the time to Mrs. Webb.

wmstillWe were very disappointed not to be able to see the William Still Family Interpretive Center, supposedly located at a 4H Park in Denton, MD. We drove and walked around the 4H Park but couldn’t even find a sign referring to William Still. His name comes up often in the Underground Railroad literature. A free black man, he lived in Philadelphia and was a major conductor on the railroad. His meticulous records helped him publish The Underground Railroad in 1871. That detailed work of the more than 1,000 escapees who passed through his station includes firsthand narratives and is still helping scholars’ research today.

A most poignant note about Mr. Still is that in 1850 his own lost brother, Peter, was one of the men he was assisting. Peter had been sold into slavery in Alabama years before.

Despite the disappointments, though, I’m so glad to have been able to follow Harriet Tubman’s footsteps and will certainly be returning when the National Park in her honor opens. I can’t even express how much I admire this woman, who went on to spy for the Union Army, be involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and opened her home to elderly blacks in Auburn, NY. It seems fitting to end with her own words:

“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”