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Black History Month, day 16 (sigh . . . I am not cut out for daily blogging)

I have no interest in seeing yet another movie whose chief interest in racism is how it affects white people. That’s okay now and then–racism does, after all, affect white people–but it is so, so overdone. So I’ll skip Green Book, which last night joined Driving Miss Daisy and (so I’m told–haven’t seen it) Crash on the list of Oscar-bait movies that successfully hooked the big fish by using the most irresistible bait of all: making white people feel as if racism can be resolved without any real sacrifice on our part.

Instead, I’m going to watch the documentary The Green Book: Guide to Freedom, released today. I know a bit about the Green Book, thanks to an exhibit in San Francisco several years ago (I wrote very briefly about it here) and a passage in The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s fascinating book about the Great Migration, in which one of the Southern African-Americans whose stories she tells was driving across the country to California and couldn’t find places to stop. Unable to rent a room, and at risk of being arrested, not to mention attacked, if they pull over and sleep in the car: it’s a system designed to tell black people that they have no worth or dignity.

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Black History Month, day 16

At the time of its rediscovery in 1981, Our Nig was the earliest known novel written and published by a black woman in the United States. I learned about it at a lecture by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., that I attended with my parents not long after that–I think it took place at my high school auditorium. Gates was a young scholar at Yale at that time, and told the audience about how he had come across it in an antiquarian bookstore and, based upon the title, put it on his “Racist Literature” shelf. It wasn’t until later that he opened it and began reading, and realized that the narrator was a black woman whose agenda was fervently opposed to slavery. So was the author, research revealed: Harriet E. Adams Wilson.

At the time that Gates did his research, he wondered why the book didn’t receive more attention at the time of its publication. It was published by a Boston firm in 1859; Boston was the center of a great deal of abolitionist activity; it was known to be by a free black woman (though she remained anonymous at that time). Yet judging from its reception, it was barely known to her contemporaries. How could that be?

Eric Gardner, doing further research ten years after Gates republished the book, proposed an answer that I’m afraid is probably correct: the abolitionists did know all about Wilson’s novel, and did very little to publicize it because it indicted Northern abolitionists.

Many abolitionists may not even have recognized Our Nig as having an anti-slavery message simply because the story takes place in the North, where most abolitionists were not prepared to recognize “slavery’s shadows.”

Furthermore, he writes, it is “far from flattering to Northerners or abolitionists.” He makes the case that Our Nig is the opposite of most slave narratives, and other sympathetic works, of the time, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in that the North is not “portrayed as a magical land where the protagonist will eventually realize the promise of freedom.”

My parents owned the book (they must have bought it after the lecture) and I am pretty sure I read it at that time, but I don’t remember the plot at all. It sounds extremely relevant to our own troubled times, when many white liberals will go so far for racial justice and no farther. Another one for the reading list!

 

Black History Month, day 14

If people get anything from these posts, I hope it’s something like this: a list of things to read / learn / experience that is so extensive that they have to (and want to!) make black history and the cultural creations of black people a staple of their lives year-round.

It’s absurd and insulting to suggest that black history can fit into one month a year, or that it can or should be separated from the rest of history. I appreciate the focus, and join in it, because it helps direct me into a gorgeous garden that I might otherwise have missed, but I cannot possibly appreciate that garden properly in this brief amount of time. For example, I have read mostly work by African-American writers this month–Yaa Gyatsi, Jacqueline Woodson, Morgan Jerkins, Edward Jones, N. K. Jemisin–but I can only read a handful of books in four weeks. The pile of African-American works still to read takes me into the rest of the year, and that’s the point.

So I would love to know, as February motors toward its conclusion, what you are going to read next month that you haven’t read before, or what artist you will seek out, or what piece of history you will learn, because of a tidbit you have seen here or in one of the many lists of “little-known black history facts” that circulates each February. The comments page is open!

Black History Month, day 4

When I was a wee little thing, entranced by tall tales and morbidly drawn to sad endings, I loved the story of John Henry. Then as I grew up, more and more meanings accreted to it. First, “humanity versus machine,” and then, various racial meanings. John Henry was a black hero. What did the story mean as a metaphor for African American experiences? It held so many possibilities: pride in blackness, exploitation of black labor, the triumph of the spirit even when the body doesn’t stand a chance against the machine of racism . . .

I was so excited when I learned that Colson Whitehead had devoted an entire novel to it, since as I wrote yesterday, I’m a fan of his writing. And next month, a man at the congregation I serve, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, will be presenting an Adult Religious Education program called John Henryism and the Health of African Americans.  His name is Dr. Sherman James; he’s a member of the UU church in Little Rock, and he’s among us all year while he is a Fellow at Stanford pursuing his research in social epidemiology. Dr. James proposed the “John Henryism Hypothesis” to describe how “a strong behavioral predisposition to cope actively with psychosocial environmental stressors” is part of the cause of the high rate of hypertension and other stress-related illnesses among African Americans.

Of various moments of racial-awareness awakening, one that has long remained in my memory was reading an article seeking to explain why high blood pressure is so common among African Americans. It earnestly proposed cultural explanations such as the soul food diet, a genetic tendency toward sensitivity to salt, etc., and I read in disbelief as the reporter danced around the elephant in the room. You know how you yell helpful/angry suggestions at the screen sometimes? You can do that with a newspaper too, with the added benefit of being able to shake the pages for emphasis as you shout, “Um, poverty? Racism? Hello?”

So other than the pleasures of having Dr. James as a member (however transitory) of our church just because he’s an interesting and pleasant person, I’m excited about his professional work, and I’m so glad he’s bringing it to an audience here.

Today’s political misconception is the one about enslaved African-Americans being counted as three-fifths of a person in the United States constitution. It’s true; it was spelled out in Article 1 until repealed by the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. But the assertion that an African-American amounts to only 60% of a white person is only part of this law.

The complete meaning is worse than that. Much worse.

The question the delegates were wrestling with was: Since states are represented in the House of Representatives based on their population, how do enslaved people count toward that representation? The abolitionists’ answer was “They don’t,” which was logical, since slaves were not treated as human beings under the law and certainly weren’t permitted to vote, themselves. Why should their owners get more representation based on that enslavement? The southern answer, illogically but expediently, was “The same as free people.” A family of ten that owned 90 slaves would therefore have the representation in Congress due 100 people. (Of course, it was not the individual or family, but the state as a whole that got the representation.)

Slave states wouldn’t ratify the Constitution without getting to count slaves toward their Congressional representation, and two slave states were needed to reach the nine out of 13 needed for ratification. After much wrangling, the delegates reached the Three-Fifths Compromise.

It would be bad enough if the article meant what it is often misunderstood to mean: that each free person is 100% of a citizen and each enslaved person is 60% of a citizen. But in fact, enslaved people didn’t count at all, except in order to benefit those who enslaved them. (Important aside: Indians were explicitly placed outside the count entirely; I don’t know to what extent that was a recognition that they were citizens of their own nations living among the citizens of the U.S., and to what extent it was an assertion that they were personae non gratae, though I can hazard a guess. Free blacks were counted the same as whites, but their numbers in the slave states were negligible at the time.) Slaveowners among the delegates had the chutzpah to argue that “blacks ought to stand on an equality with whites” (Charles Pinckney, SC), although they certainly weren’t arguing for racial equality in any other context. Not to put too fine a point on it, they wanted to count pieces of their property towards their representation, exploiting the fact that that property resembled a human being, though in their view “it” was not.

The Three-Fifths Compromised enshrined one of the most despicable facts of the U.S. slavery system: enslaved people were regarded as people when it benefited the enslavers, livestock when it didn’t. Thus, on the one hand, an enslaved woman had no rights her owner was bound to respect, as if she were a cow or sheep. On the other hand, the owner could have sex with her, something that would have been both taboo and illegal for him to do with non-human property, and their offspring would be considered human children (and, of course, the owner’s property). Likewise, bounty hunters and hunters of runaway slaves delighted in the opportunity to have prey that were so intelligent. Human escapees offered them a challenge that deer, bears, and wild pigs did not. But like the animals, they could be caught, tortured and killed with impunity.

The three-fifths rule was another means by which white supremacist governments had things both ways. People who were enslaved could not vote, nor had any rights that distinguished them from livestock, but whereas having more sheep did not entitle a state to more representation, having human livestock did. Every person brought from abroad to the auction block in New Orleans or Richmond gave Louisiana or Virginia that much more power to maintain that enslavement. Each enslaved woman who, raped by an owner, gave birth to a child, was by compulsion strengthening the chains holding them all.

That’s what’s meant by “three-fifths of a person.”

Next post: Donald Trump, Jr.’s meeting about “adoption”

Fear is so subjective. Three men, laughing loudly and jostling each other, walk towards you on a nighttime street–does it make you smile, make you nervous, make you cross to the other side? A kid brings an electronics project to school–do you applaud his initiative and skill or call the police? An armed group gathers in a department-store parking lot–do they make you feel safe or threatened?

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

–from Citizen, Claudia Rankine

When the people with the power and weapons are deeply afraid of you, your life is in danger. That’s why so many civilians are dying at the hands of police, isn’t it–because the police find them frightening? Isn’t fear the reason police perceive that there’s a “war on police” even though officer deaths are, thank goodness, steeply down this year?

If we can acknowledge that our perceptions are not always accurate, and start acting on reality rather than on our fears, then we can get closer to our ideal of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Men armed with semiautomatic weapons in a Target parking lot, Irving, Texas, 2014. Irving is the Dallas suburb in which Ahmed Muhammad was detained yesterday after a teacher was afraid his electronics project was a bomb. Screen shot from KDAF-TV.

Men armed with semiautomatic weapons in a Target parking lot, Irving, Texas, 2014. Irving is the Dallas suburb in which Ahmed Muhammad was detained yesterday after a teacher was afraid his electronics project was a bomb. Screen shot from KDAF-TV.

Almost every time someone asserts “Black Lives Matter,” someone responds “ALL lives matter,” “That’s racist,”  or “Don’t you care about [Syrian refugees, victims of civilian crime, etc.]?”

I have been involved in many justice issues, and none of them has attracted this level of “What about…?” backlash. None has made people jump in with accusations that I am being exclusionary. When I talk about modern slavery, people sometimes say “What about sweatshop labor?” but they understand that I’m not tacitly approving of paid, exploitative labor just because I’m focused on literal slavery. When I talk about our area housing crisis, people may say “We need higher wages,” but they never accuse me of not caring about wages. When I talk about gay rights, people don’t chime in with “But what about the rights of girls in Afghanistan?” or anything of that kind; they are content to engage with the issue of justice for gay people.

I said none of them inspires accusations of exclusion, but actually there is one issue that does. Almost every discussion of animal rights and welfare I have ever been part of has garnered at least one comment along the lines of “Why don’t you worry about the rights of human beings?” People get really upset about the simple assertion that other animals may also deserve freedom from cruelty, and calm responses about caring deeply about both have no effect. Evidence that one works for human rights as well as animal rights has no effect. You have done something offensive, threatening, by even mentioning other animals, by giving a concern for them them any part of your care and time.

I don’t want to leap to conclusions, here, or oversimplify a complex situation. I just want to note how chilling it is to realize that only two issues, in my experience, elicit the passionate conviction that concern for X necessarily excludes concern for Y: a focus on the worth of non-human animals’ lives, and a focus on the worth of black humans’ lives.

White supremacy is maintained this way: An African-American family saves for years. They move into a nice apartment in a better part of town. Some white people are outraged. They threaten the family, they destroy their possessions, they torch the building, they riot in the streets. The message goes out far and wide: Don’t challenge white supremacy, black people. If you do, it will strike back with double force and worse.

Or it is maintained this way: Millions of black people leave Southern states for better opportunities than a sharecropper’s life permits. Some years later, one of the children of these families comes back to visit the ones who stayed behind. A white person makes a deadly accusation against him: he has addressed a white woman inappropriately. The mob doesn’t allow an inquiry, or ask the boy what he did, or heaven forbid consider that whistling at a woman is not actually a punishable offense, because the people in the mob are not concerned with the truth but with keeping black people in their place, and they know how to do that. They kill him, first torturing him to the point that his corpse is barely recognizable as a human body, to send the message: We say when you leave. We say when you come back. We say how you act. Dare to do otherwise, and we will punish you with every brutality the human mind can invent.

Or it is maintained this way: A bus full of Freedom Riders is attacked, and the police let it be known that not only will they not pursue the perpetrators, they’re on the side of the perpetrators. The white supremacists are the community’s police, firefighters, sheriffs, and judges. In seeking justice, African-Americans have no recourse but to appeal to the very people who committed the crimes. With the criminals as prosecution and defense, judge and jury, the reign of terror is complete.

Or this way: A white supremacist murders nine people in a historically black, historically resisting church, reportedly attempting to start a race war. Things have progressed to the point that the police arrest the perpetrator and charge him with murder. The story is told all over the country, and far from a race war, the overwhelming response from white people is sympathy for the victims and solidarity with their black neighbors. The president of the United States delivers the eulogy for the minister. The outrage against the symbol beloved by the killer, the Confederate flag, is so intense that the states of South Carolina and Alabama stop flying theirs, at least to some extent. The white supremacists cannot let this kind of resistance stand. Once again, they exert their power of intimidation and terror, this time burning black churches, one after another. In the span of ten days, it appears from initial investigation, at least half a dozen are torched.

The arsons we have been grieving are not a coincidence nor an isolated tragedy, and wringing our hands is not enough. They are the latest chapter of a long history of white supremacy wielding power through murder, rape, bombings, and burnings, and it will not change until white people change. If black people did not have to stand alone–if the wider community, especially the wider white community, stood with them against the powers of white supremacy, then the supremacists would eventually lose. But often, the wider white community has been complicit and cowardly.

In my congregation, we don’t hold special collections except on Christmas Eve. When an extraordinary disaster comes along, I simply send an e-mail encouraging the people to give to a relief fund such as is frequently set up by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. But these arsons demand a different response. It is past time for all of us, and especially a mostly-white church in a mostly-white denomination, to stand with historically black churches and the communities they serve. I asked our Finance Committee for a green light for an offering this Sunday devoted entirely to the rebuilding of these churches, and got an enthusiastic “Yes, please, thank you!” the very next time I checked my e-mail. I love these people.

If you won’t be at the service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, you can give directly to the Rebuilding Churches Fund. (At the time of this writing, UUCPA isn’t yet listed among the congregations holding special collections, no doubt because the web manager is overwhelmed with requests.) We’ll be taking other action as well–more on that later today.

We can change the sad story of white supremacy in our country–end it at last–by us non-black people responding as too few of us have done so far: linking arms with black communities and saying, fearlessly, unceasingly, if you want to beat them into submission, you’re going to have to fight us too.

(Two notes: Blogging every day is hard! Losing an almost-finished entry to a technical glitch is a huge gumption killer–save your draft often, kids! Okay, done whining now. On to three posts on women in the civil rights movement, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the marches on Selma.)

EllaBakerElla Baker was one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), having already spent many decades as a leader of the NAACP and of black consumers’ cooperatives, which she regarded as a training ground in democracy and self-determination. Accounts vary as to whether Martin Luther King anointed her Executive Director of the SCLC or she anointed him leader. What’s clear is that her leadership was central to turning this small faith-based organization into a major force for civil rights.

She was mostly a behind-the-scenes organizer and a mentor to emerging leaders who got more face time, but that doesn’t mean she was meek. When students in Greensville and Nashville began holding sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, she saw a need to help them organize more broadly, and called a meeting at her alma mater, Shaw University. The meeting was attended by hundreds and ended with the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Other SCLC leaders wanted SNCC to be an auxiliary of their own organization, arguing that SCLC had helped it get rolling, but Baker stood up for the autonomy of the student organization. Later, she helped start the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which pressed for anti-segregationists to represent Mississippi’s Democrats at the 1964 Democratic Convention and became the focus of tremendous media attention during the convention because of the split in the Democratic Party that it illuminated and the persistence with which it made its case. Meek? No.

To me she stands as a reminder of a certain kind of power: not fast and flashy like lightning, nor loud like a rocket, but tireless and immovable, like an oak tree. That kind of power is as necessary and mighty as any other. “We shall not be moved . . . ”

When the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner drew the nation’s eye to Mississippi, it was Ella Baker who pointed out the many black bodies in the swamps of Mississippi that neither the FBI nor the nation’s conscience had deemed important, and said, “Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son–we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” Bernice Johnson Reagon of the group Sweet Honey in the Rock turned these and other words of Baker’s into a song (“Ella’s Song”), and they have been sung, murmured, memed, screenprinted, and cried out many times in these past couple of years in which they have been self-evidently, painfully, all too current.

Black History Month, day 27

I love this. Tip of the hat to Esther Bradley-DeTally, on whose blog I saw it, and thanks also for putting me on to Colorlines. com and arc.org (Applied Research Center: Racial Justice through Media, Research and Activism.

from Colorlines.com

Can you feel the power?

I’m printing it out as a poster for my office window.

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