Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 26, 2014

Outside agitators in Ferguson, Missouri

Filed under: african-american,revolutionary organizing,Trotskyism,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

A week ago the popular news and gossip website Gawker published an article titled “Who Are the ‘Revolutionary Communists’ Allegedly Agitating in Ferguson?” by Michelle Deane, the author of illuminating pieces such as “Your End-of-August Cocktail Is A Lemon Rosemary Vodka Fizz”.

Since I confess to not being a regular Gawker reader, I thought I’d take a quick look at its provenance through the generally reliable Wikipedia. A Brit named Nick Denton, whose politics are rather hard to pin down, launched it in 2003. His main ambition seems to be making money. For some odd reason, he decided to launch a website inspired by the sorry career of Tina Brown, the former editor of “Vanity Fair”, the obvious inspiration for Gawker.

I was intrigued to see that Choire Sicha spent a couple of years as editor there. Sicha launched The Awl, a website covering pretty much the same terrain as Gawker. I have it bookmarked and spend about 15 seconds there each day in a futile attempt to find something worth reading.

N+1, a Marxist literary and political print magazine I read from cover to cover, published an article on Gawker that sums it up fairly well:

Gawker had always sold itself as mean but it now became, actually, very mean. Sicha, who liked to pretend to be a news organization, had sent “correspondents” and “interns” to official media events. Coen found more of them, and she sent them not only to launches and readings but also to private parties, where they took embarrassing party photos. This was the important development: the decision to treat every subject, known or unknown, in public or private situations, with the fascinated ill will that tabloid magazines have for their subjects.

It makes some sense that if you are following in the footsteps of Tina Brown, you are likely to cross paths. Brown founded The Daily Beast in 2008 and was largely responsible for the vast financial losses that Newsweek suffered after an ill-advised merger with her dubious project. Although the Beast no longer has no connections to Brown, her spirit lingers on.

At the Daily Beast you can find the same sort of article on Ferguson that Michelle Deane wrote. Titled “The Communist Agitators Trying to Ignite Ferguson”, it is the sort of thing that was once popular in the 1950s when communism was a force to be reckoned with. The article has a glaring typo in the second paragraph, a dead giveaway as to the Beast’s editorial standards:

The Revolution Club of Chicago took to the streets Monday, busy “working with people.” After darkness fell and while the crowd of protesters grew larger and more boisterous, Carl Dix walked along West Florissant Avenue with Joey Johnson and Lou Downey, members of the Chicago club. It was clear that Nix—a leader in the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)—was the point man in this small operation, with Johnson, Downey and several others following him as committed political disciples.

Is it Dix or is it Nix? (It is Dix.)

Gawker’s coverage at least had the merit of being written with the obligatory “sassy” style that pervades the magazine:

According to a website called the Missouri Torch, the man French is referring to is one Greg “Joey” Johnson, of Chicago. They have a variety of other images and videos of Johnson and assorted “commie” — their word — friends being shown around Ferguson. It’s pretty plain they’ve identified him correctly.

Johnson has been kicking around the paranoid end of American politics for some time. (To be utterly clear to any conservatives getting excited just reading this, that paranoid end is a 360 degree circle, really, comprising members of all stripes of political thought.) But he hasn’t been wholly ineffective, as an activist. For one example: those of you who went to law school, might recognize him as the same Gregory Johnson who was the defendant in Texas v. Johnson, the case which held that flag-burning is a protected activity under the First Amendment.

The group with which Johnson is affiliated, the Revolutionary Communist Party, is nowadays largely regarded as crank-ish even by many self-identified Communists. It is routinely referred to as a “cult of personality” for its leader Bob Avakian. Avakian, who lives in self-imposed exile… somewhere, still believes that Communist revolution is possible and writes long tracts to that end, identifying the end of racial oppression as key to the eventual overthrow of capitalism. He is also the sort of fellow who writes like this:

One important aspect of boldly spreading revolution and communism everywhere is the work of building what we have characterized as a culture of appreciation, promotion, and popularization around the leadership, the body of work and the method and approach of Bob Avakian. Now, I recognize that some people (especially among the middle strata, frankly) may find it “immodest” (and perhaps, to some, strangely disturbing) for me to speak about this (and, for god’s sake, to refer to myself in the third person!). But, first of all and fundamentally, “modesty” (or “immodesty”) is not the essential issue, not the heart of the matter.

Unfortunately Deane relied heavily on the video coverage of Ferguson that appeared in the Missouri Torch, a far-right website that is published by the Missouri Alliance for Freedom, a group that seeks to:

  • Reduce taxes and decrease the size of government.
  • Protect parental and children’s rights while encouraging the traditional family unit.

Apparently Sarah Kenzidor, a contributor to al-Jazeera and other nominally progressive outlets, has been tapping the Missouri Torch as well to “expose” outside agitators.

Jacobin Magazine, which has been linked with N+! as the voice of the Marxist Young Turks, published an article by Richard Seymour that took issue with the “outside agitator” narrative without naming any of the culprits. In addition to Gawker and The Daily Beast, the same sort of article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, CNN and the Wall Street Journal. Richard wrote:

The metaphor of exteriority, of being outside, has two important connotations. First, one is transgressing the spatial ordering of the state. States constitute social spaces like districts, wards, and counties — a process that is historically far from racially innocent in the US.

Second, is that one’s political being is “outside,” and thus traitorous and disloyal. It is not just that one traveled from one city to another — that’s fine, provided the political agenda one brings is benign for the system — but that one brought ideas that are not only not native to the destination, but actually foreign to the nation, the free world, civilization itself.

While I am in total agreement with Richard’s analysis, I do want to take a few moments to look at the RCP intervention that some on the left view somewhat more benignly than I do. Blogger Stanley W. Rogouski wrote in conclusion to an article on Ferguson and outside agitators:

The RCP got it right with World Can’t Wait. Radicals had to take over liberal outrage against the Republicans or watch the “Bush Regime” become the new normal. That they proposed, and with a very straight face, that the alternative to George W. Bush could be Bob Avakian was hilariously delusional. But they were onto something. Perhaps that’s why, now, they’ve become the face of the “outside agitator” in Ferguson.

Sarah Kendzior knows her competition when she sees it.

With so much attention riveted on Avakian’s group, I thought I’d go pay their website a visit. The last time I had any contact with them was back in the 1980s and early 90s when I used to visit their well-stocked bookstore in Chelsea.

The home page of Revolution, their newspaper, made clear who was their main man:

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As I trawled through their coverage of Ferguson, I found plenty of militant rhetoric:

We stand with the defiant ones. We stand with the angry ones, the rebellious ones, the ones who will not take it, the ones who tell the truth—and the ones they lie about. Without defiance, without rage, without righteous rebellion, without people insisting on their rights and defending those rights in the street—very few people would even know about Michael Brown and how he was shot over and over with his hands up, murdered by pigs and then left to lie there in the streets, as if he were an animal. Very few people would have shared the grief of his parents for the terrible loss of this young man, at the very beginning of his life. Without the rebellion, this terrible state-done murder would just be another rerun of the same old all-too-familiar story, the same murderous stuff that happens to Black and Latino youth over and over again.

But because of the defiance and rebellion, the whole world knows the story. Now everybody has to deal with this. And people all over the country and all over the world support this fight. You, the defiant ones, are changing the thinking of millions and millions of people… you are calling out to everyone NOT TO TAKE IT… you are making history—in the way it badly needs to be made.

So, yes we stand with the defiant ones—and we will defend them and stand with them in deed as well as word.

But it was not exactly clear what this meant in terms of strategy and tactics. This is not surprising since the RCP is what might be called a “maximalist” organization. Their preoccupation is with REVOLUTION, not any mealy-mouthed intermediate steps that can move the struggle forward. Although I have very little use for James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, I live by his observation that the art of politics is knowing what to do next.

In 1938 Trotsky wrote the Transitional Program in an effort to address the task of knowing what to do next. He described it as an alternative to the minimum/maximum divide that existed in the social democracy:

Classical Social Democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed.

Although Trotsky does not delve into this, the two programs effectively became the banner of the Second International and Third Period Stalinism before the two movements began to overlap through the Popular Front period. In the late 20s and the early 30s, the CP would organize foolish adventures along “maximalist” lines that backfired against the workers movement. In Germany, they united with the Nazis to unseat a socialist party politician embodying their belief: “After Hitler, Us”.

If you want to understand the RCP politically, their primary influence was Third Period Stalinism, which in the USA was expressed through the period in which William Z. Foster led the CP.

Trotsky proposed the Transitional Program as a way of circumnavigating the treacherous waters dominated by the CP and the social democracy in the late 1930s, two massive movements that had little to fear from the Fourth International that was based on a sectarian model even if its emphasis on “transition” was perfectly lin line with Marxist theory.

When I first came across the Transitional Program in 1967, I was struck by Trotsky’s very first sentence: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” That is just as true today as it was when I read it 47 years ago. Just look at the Middle East and North Africa.

It is also true of Black America that many analysts have begun to compare to oppressed people in MENA, particularly the residents of Gaza who carried signs hailing the struggle in Ferguson.

I was struck by the anger and distrust directed against the official Black leadership in Ferguson, even expressed by some Black elected officials. Back in 1967 the SWP was propagandizing for an independent Black political party, one that could begin to organize and generalize struggles such as those occurring around cop killings now. It had hopes that the Panthers could become that party but they succumbed to Maoist maximalism unfortunately.

As the Black membership of the SWP grew in the 1970s, it became capable of helping to move toward such a party. There were national conferences to launch such a party that withered on the vine, partly out of the participation of Black CP’ers who wanted to squelch any potential challenges to the Democratic Party. The same thing happened with efforts to build a Labor Party, with officials lacking the guts to organize election campaigns that would antagonize their allies in the labor movement.

In the 1970s and 80s, efforts to build such parties was undermined by both the generally more sanguine state of the economy and by the sectarian madness of the organized left, including the SWP. Now that the economy has turned to shit and the sectarians—including the SWP and the RCP—have been reduced to cults around a believe leader, the time is ripe for moving once again to build class struggle alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans in the electoral arena.

August 22, 2014

Another murder of a Black man in St. Louis–how Abraham Lincoln responded

Filed under: african-american,Obama,racism — louisproyect @ 9:29 pm

Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 4.52.04 PM

In St. Louis, Missouri on April 28th, 1836, a lynch mob burned Francis McIntosh alive. He was a mixed-race freeman who worked on a riverboat. His crime was refusing to assist two cops who were chasing after another sailor who had been in a fight. When under police custody, he learned that he would have to spend five years in prison. In an attempt to flee from an obviously unjust punishment, he stabbed one of the cops to death and wounded the other.

Wikipedia reports on what happened next:

After a brief chase, McIntosh was captured and placed in jail; however, a white mob soon broke into the jail and removed McIntosh. The mob then took him to the outskirts of town (near the present-day intersection of Seventh and Chestnut streets in Downtown St. Louis), chained him to a locust tree, and piled wood around and up to his knees. When the mob lit the wood with a hot brand, McIntosh asked the crowd to shoot him, then began to sing hymns. When one in the crowd said that he had died, McIntosh reportedly replied, “No, no — I feel as much as any of you. Shoot me! Shoot me!” After at most twenty minutes, McIntosh died. Estimates for the number present at the lynching range in the hundreds, and include an alderman who threatened to shoot anyone who attempted to stop the lynching.

During the night, an elderly African-American man was paid to keep the fire lit, and the mob dispersed. The next day, on April 29, a group of boys threw rocks at the corpse in an attempt to break the skull. When a grand jury was convened to investigate the lynching on May 16, most local newspapers and the presiding judge encouraged no indictment for the crime, and no one was ever charged or convicted. During the grand jury trial, Judge Luke E. Lawless remarked in court that McIntosh’s actions were an example of the “atrocities committed in this and other states by individuals of negro blood against their white brethren,” and that with the rise of abolitionism, “the free negro has been converted into a deadly enemy.”

On January 27, 1838 Abraham Lincoln gave the first important speech in his life to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. A Lyceum was a place where politicians or other celebrities could give talks to the up and coming professional, sort of like the 92nd Street YMHA. Titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”, it was a plea to resist mob rule and adhere to the rule of law. He referred to the lynching of Francis McIntosh as a threat the American republic:

Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.

Such are the effects of mob law; and such as the scenes, becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order; and the stories of which, have even now grown too familiar, to attract any thing more, than an idle remark.

At first blush, this sounds like the Lincoln we know from Stephen Spielberg’s biopic—a man committed to emancipation. But not so fast. Lincoln goes on to say:

He had forfeited his life, by the perpetuation of an outrageous murder, upon one of the most worthy and respectable citizens of the city; and had not he died as he did, he must have died by the sentence of the law, in a very short time afterwards. As to him alone, it was as well the way it was, as it could otherwise have been.–But the example in either case, was fearful.–When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake.

As someone who is not that fond of Lincoln’s ornate circumlocutions, let me paraphrase it in Proyectesque terms. Lincoln said that McIntosh deserved to die but only after being found guilty in a court of law. One can only imagine what a jury made up of his “peers” would have decided in a state that passed a law in 1825 stating that Blacks were not competent to testify in cases that involved Whites.

Even more worrisome was Lincoln’s remarks on abolitionism. In the South, there were laws that banned the promotion of abolitionist ideas. Lincoln warned against “mob rule” that would attempt to circumvent the rule of law. Once again, you have to put up with the circumlocutions: “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.”

When I first got wind of Barack Obama in 2007, I noticed that he was a big fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”, a study of Lincoln’s presidency that found great merit in his appointment of men who were hostile to abolitionism. Obama, of course, was inspired to appoint a bunch of shithooks every chance he got, to show how determined he was to be like Lincoln.

Upon taking office, Obama told a reporter: “”I will tell you, though, that my goal is to have the best possible government, and that means me winning. And so, I am very practical minded. I’m a practical-minded guy. And, you know, one of my heroes is Abraham Lincoln.” He referred the reporter to “a wonderful book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin called ‘Team of Rivals,’ in which [she] talked about [how] Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because whatever, you know, personal feelings there were, the issue was, ‘How can we get this country through this time of crisis?’”

Well, we know how that turned out. Badly.

We have had six years now of an administration that is to the right of Richard Nixon’s. It harasses reporters, favors the rich, sends drones to blow up wedding parties, creates health care “reform” more beneficial to the insurer than the insured, and caves in to the Republicans every chance it gets.

And, now returning to the crime against a Black man in St. Louis once again, we have Obama following in Lincoln’s footsteps. Which means trying to straddle the fence and be acceptable to Black voters and to the white racists who would as soon see them get the short end of the stick just like the Palestinians. No wonder the people of Ferguson carry signs in solidarity with Gaza.

 

July 15, 2014

The Long, Low Black Schooner

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 10:11 pm

 

 

The Long, Low Black Schooner (pages 114-118 from above)

On September 2, 1839, three days after the Amistad Africans arrived at the New Haven jail and thousands of people had already filed through to see them, the Bowery Theatre of New York began its performance of The Black Schooner, or, The Pirate Slaver Armistead; or The Long, Low Black Schooner, as it was more commonly called. An advertisement announced “an entire new and deeply interesting Nautical Melo-Drama, in 2 acts, written expressly for this Theatre, by a popular author,” almost certainly Jonas B. Phillips, the Bowery Theatre’s “house playwright” during the 183os.36 Based on “the late extraordinary Piracy! Mutiny! & Murder!” aboard the Amistad and the sensa-tional newspaper reports of “black pirates” that had appeared in the press before their capture, the play demonstrated how quickly the news of the rebellion spread, and with what cultural resonance. The title of the play came from the title of the New York Sun article about the Amistad rebellion published on August 31, 1839, which in turn had drawn on the recent descriptions of a pirate ship captained by a man named Mitchell, who had been marauding in the Gulf of Mexico.37

In 1839 the Bowery Theatre was notorious for its rowdy, raucous working-class audiences: youthful Bowery b’hoys and g’hals (slang for young working-class men and women of Lower Manhattan) and dandies, as well as sailors, soldiers, journeymen, laborers, apprentices, street urchins, and gang members. Prostitutes plied their trade in the theater’s third tier. The audience cheered, hissed, drank, fought, cracked peanuts, threw eggs, and squirted tobacco juice everywhere. During an especially popular performance, the overflow crowd might sit on the stage amid the actors and props, or they might simply invade it and become part of the performance. The owner and manager of the theatre, Thomas Hamblin, employed a pack of constables to prevent riots, which on several occasions exploded anyway. That the Bowery Theatre was associated with a big, violent anti-abolitionist riot in 1834 makes its staging of The Long, Low Black Schooner all the more remarkable.38

Paired with Giafar al Barmeki, or, The Fire Worshippers, an orientalist fantasy set in Baghdad, the play attracted “multitudes” to the nation’s largest theater. If performed every other day for two weeks (it may have run longer) at only two-thirds capacity of the theater’s thirty-five hundred seats (it may have been greater), the play would have been seen by roughly fifteen thousand people, about one in twenty of the city’s population. Another way of estimating the number in attendance is to divide the production’s gross earnings of $5,250 by prevailing ticket prices (most were twenty-five cents, some were fifty and seventy-five cents), which also suggests roughly fifteen thousand viewers. The play therefore played a major role not only in interpreting the Amistad rebellion, but in spreading the news of it soon after it happened. It was not uncommon for playwrights to work with timely and controversial events in order to draw larger audiences to their theaters.39

No script survives, but a detailed playbill provides a “Synopsis of Scenery, Incidents, &c.” Set on the main deck of the Amistad, the play featured the actual people who were involved in the uprising. The leading character was “Zemba Cinques, an African, Chief of the Mutineers,” based on Cinque and played by Joseph Proctor, a “young American tragedian,” perhaps in burnt-cork blackface, as was common at the Bowery.40 The “Captain of the Schooner, and owner of the Slaves” was Pedro Montes, the actual owner of four of the enslaved who sailed the vessel after the rebellion. The supercargo was Juan Ruez, based on Jose Ruiz, owner of forty-nine slaves on board. Cudjo, “a deformed Dumb Negro,” who resembles the “savage and deformed slave” Caliban in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, was apparently based on the “savage” Konoma, who was ridiculed for his tusk-like teeth and decried as a cannibal. Lazarillo, the “overseer of the slaves,” probably drew on the slave-sailor Celestino. Other characters included Cabrero the mate, sailors, and the wholly invented damsel soon to be in distress, Inez, the daughter of Montes and the wife of Ruez.41

Act 1 begins as the vessel sets sail from Havana, passing Moro Cas-tle and heading out to sea. The history of Zemba Cingues, the hero of the story, is recounted as a prelude to entry into the “hold of the schooner,” where lay the “wretched slaves!” The bondsmen plot and soon take an “Oath of vengeance.” In a rising storm, also noted in the accounts of the rebellion, “The Slaves, led by Zemba Cingues” force open the hatchway, which results in “MUTINY and MURDER!” The rebels seize the vessel and reset its course, heading eastward across the Atlantic to their native Sierra Leone. “Prospects of liberation” are at hand.42 Act 2 shifts to the captain’s cabin, now occupied, after the rebellion, by Zemba Cingues, as Montes and Rues sit, as prisoners, in the dark hold of the vessel (as their counterparts actually did). The world has been turned upside down: those who were below are now above, and vice versa. The reversal poses great danger to Inez, who has apparently fallen into the clutches of Cudjo and now faces “terrible doom.” Someone, probably Zemba Cinques, rescues her, forcing Cudjo to “surrender his intended victim.” Did the audience see a black hero rescue a white woman from the hands of a black villain? This is a theme of no small significance, given prevailing popular fears of racial “amalgamation,” which had ignited anti-abolition riots.

Zemba Cingues then sees a vessel (the U.S. brig Washington) sailing toward them, and holds a council among his fellow mutineers to decide what to do. They choose death over slavery—a sentiment repeatedly ascribed to Cinque in the popular press—and decide to “Blow up the Schooner!” (The Amistad rebels made no such decision, as many of them were off the vessel at Long Island when the sailors of the Washington captured their vessel.) Alas, it is too late as the “Gallant Tars” of the Washington drop into the cabin from its skylight and take control of the Amistad.

The end of the play is left uncertain, much like the fate of the Amis-tad captives, who were sitting in the New Haven jail not far away, awaiting trial on charges of piracy and murder. The playbill states: “Denoument—Fate of Cingues!” What indeed will be his fate? Did the play enact his execution, an ending that many, including Cinque him-self, expected? Or did it dramatize his liberation along with all of his comrades?43 The Long, Low Black Schooner was not an unusual play for its time. Slave revolt and piracy were common themes in early American theater. Rebellious slaves appeared in Obi, or, Three-Finger’d Jack, a play about a Jamaican runaway slave turned bandit, which was a staple after its American premiere in 1801; and in The Slave, an opera by Thomas Morton about a revolt in Surinam, first acted in 1817 and many times thereafter, into the 1840s. The Gladiator dramatized the famous slave revolt led by Spartacus in ancient Greece. It premiered in 1831, starred working-class hero Edwin Forrest, and may have been the most popular play of the decade. Pirates headlined popular nautical melodramas of the 183os, such as Captain Kyd, or, The Wizard of the Sea, performed first in 183o and numerous times thereafter, then published as a novel by J. H. Ingraham in 1839. John Glover Drew adapted Byron’s The Corsair for performance at Brook Farm in the early 184os. The great African American actor Ira Aldridge would soon act the lead in The Bold Buccaneer. Slave rebels and pirates sometimes appeared in the same plays, as they did in The Long, Low Black Schooner: “Three-Finger’d Jack” was something of a pirate on land, and indeed had been called “that daring freebooter.” Pirates also played a significant role in The Gladiator.44

Like other melodramas of the times, The Long, Low Black Schooner featured virtuous common people, usually laborers, battling villain-ous aristocrats—in this case, enslaved Africans striking back against the Spanish slaveholders Montes and Ruez. “Low” characters like Zemba Cingues spoke poetic lines in honorable resistance. They were routinely celebrated for their heroism, encouraging some degree of popular identification with the outlaw who dared to strike for free-dom. As Peter Reed has noted, audiences “could both applaud and fear low revolts, both mourn and celebrate their defeats.”45

The theater shaped the news of the Amistad rebellion as it spread it. A sympathetic, even romantic view softened the violence of the original event. Cinque’s poised and dramatic personal bearing during the legal proceedings earned him comparison to Shakespeare’s Othello.46 He was also likened to “a colored dandy in Broadway.” He clearly had the “outlaw charisma” so common to the “rogue performances” of the era. Having captured the attention of the theater world and the public at large, it was fitting that The Long, Low Black Schooner should be followed, in December 1839, by a production of Jack Sheppard, or, The Life of a Robber!, also written by Jonas B. Phillips. Like Sheppard, whose jailbreaks became “the common discourse of the whole nation” in Britain in the 1720s, and to whom the public flocked, paying admis-sion to see him in his cell, the “black pirates” of the Amistad were winning in their own bid to take the good ship Popular Imagination. A “Nautical Melo-Drama,” based on real people and dramatic current events, was playing out in American society as a whole.47

June 3, 2014

Long Live the Jewel Box Revue

Filed under: african-american,Gay,obituary,popular culture — louisproyect @ 3:43 pm

On Thursday the NY Times reported on the death of a legendary African-American lesbian and gay activist:

Storme DeLarverie, a singer, cross-dresser and bouncer who may or may not have thrown the first punch at the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, but who was indisputably one of the first and most assertive members of the modern gay rights movement, died on Saturday in Brooklyn. She was 93.

I encourage you to read the entire obituary but want to hone in on one paragraph:

There was a long period in Chicago, where, she told friends, she was a bodyguard for mobsters. From the mid-1950s through the 1960s Ms. DeLarverie was the M.C. of the Jewel Box Revue, billed as “an unusual variety show.” She dressed as a man; the rest of the cast members, all men, dressed as women. One of the show’s stars was Lynne Carter, a female impersonator who later performed at Carnegie Hall.

As it turns out, I had an encounter with one of the male cast members when I was about 10 years old. This is from the abortive memoir I did with Harvey Pekar (relax, Joyce, this is considered “fair use”):

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The Kentucky Club was a hot spot in my little village that drew vacationers from all through the Borscht Belt. Buses used to drop off women from the local bungalow colonies and small hotels to take in what amounted to the original La Cage Aux Folles. They loved the Jewel Box Revue, especially the surprise ending when it was revealed that the male MC was actually a woman—Storme DeLarverie.

I refer to the dancer as Miss Vicky but in reality that was just a name I gave the man who was sitting next to my mother. In all likelihood it was probably Don Marshall, one of the few Black men performing in drag at the time (I couldn’t find his stage name).

Since I was only 10 years old when I met Don Marshall, I had no idea what being gay meant although I was quite puzzled to see a man wearing a dress. I barely could conceive of a man and woman having intercourse, let alone people of the same sex. A couple of years later I’d find a copy of “Marital Hygiene” in my parent’s dresser and things would become much clearer.

The best introduction to gay performers can be found at http://queermusicheritage.com/, with news, for example, on the bearded cross-dresser Conchita Wurst who won the Eurovision Song contest. For information on the Jewel Box Revue, go to http://queermusicheritage.com/fem-jewl.html.

On December 4, 2012, Wayne Anderson, a LGBT rights activist and gay veteran of the U.S. Army, wrote about the revue in the Huffington Post. The opening paragraphs:

In 1939, during a time when gay people were viewed as abhorrent subversives and a threat to society, two gay lovers, Danny Brown and Doc Benner, created and produced America’s first racially inclusive traveling revue of female impersonators. It was staffed almost entirely by gay men and one gay woman and was known as the Jewel Box Revue. In many ways it was America’s first gay community.

A recent and insightful paper (http://www.lvc.edu/vhr/2012/Articles/dauphin.pdf) by Mara Dauphin argues that the early drag/female impersonation revues of the 1940s and 1950s were “highly instrumental in creating queer communities and carving out queer niches of urban landscape in post-war America that would flourish into the sexual revolution of the sixties.” And though there were other popular female impersonation clubs, such the famous Finnochio’s in San Francisco and the infamous mafia-owned Club 82 of New York City, with the exception of the Jewel Box Revue, all the revues were operated and controlled by straight people, who were not always very gay-friendly (a notable exception being the Garden of Allah cabaret in Seattle, which featured the Jewel Box Revue as their opening-night act in 1946). Robin Raye, who performed in several early establishments, including Finocchio’s and the Jewel Box Revue, once said of Mrs. Finocchio, “I don’t think she liked gay people, but she certainly knew how to use them.”

In 1955 there were very few out of the closet gays and lesbians. However, there were very many ways in which homosexual identity was conveyed under the radar. I would strongly recommend Vito Russo’s “The Celluloid Closet” for more on this, which can be seen on a Netflix DVD or Amazon streaming.

But for me the closest anything came to an open portrayal to a mass audience at the time was professional wrestler Ricky Starr who wore ballet slippers and minced around the mat before, during and after bouts. He used to toss miniature ballet slippers to the audience as a ritual before each bout. Years later, after Stonewall, gay men would tend to eschew the queen identity but in 1955 it was safer since it was seen more as being a “sissy” then being a “pervert”.

Here’s Ricky versus Karl Von Hess, who some regarded as a Nazi-identified wrestler but who had much more to do with traditional Prussian values.

I recommend a look at Sharon Glazer’s “Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle” on Google/Books. This is a scholarly analysis of the sport that in my view was a lot more entertaining in the 1950s than it is today. Here she is on the classic Starr/Von Hess contest:

Starr’s performance especially his taunting of von Hess, is explicitly (homo)sexual. He wiggles his buttocks under the other wrestler’s nose while pretending to straighten his shoe, performs a series of pelvic thrusts, and hops on and off von Hess’s back, controlling his opponent with apparent ease and leading the commentator at one point to worry half-seriously about the network censors: “Mr. Starr is just loosening up. Nothing wrong with that. With he would loosen up out of camera, though. This is a family network, you know.” As Starr continues, the commentator informs us that Starr was taught his moves by an old (male) burlesque star who went by the name of “Toots” and that: “This program [is] sponsored by bumps and grinds incorporated.” Von Hess snarls and plays it as straight as a villain can under the circumstances. Clearly the loser in the fan sweepstakes as well as the match, he is finally defeated by Ricky Starr’s rapid and proficient series of drop kicks. In a coda to the match, von Hess gets into a slugfest with the referee, which ends when Starr intervenes on the ref’s behalf, taking a hit himself in the process.

Glazer’s scholarly treatment of professional wrestling is matched by Amber Clifford’s dissertation “Queering the Inferno: Space, Identity, and Kansas City’s Jazz Scene” that will be published soon as a book. You can look at it on Google/Books as well. Here is Amber on Storme DeLarverie:

A clear example of how this silence about sexuality is prevalent in the history of male impersonators lies in the story of Storme DeLerverie. DeLarverie worked as a female singer in night clubs before joining the Jewel Box Revue in 1955. The Jewel Box Revue was a female impersonation floor show and touring act. Founded originally in Miami in 1939, the Jewel Box relocated to New York in 1955, where the Jewel Box had its base ofoperations until it closed in 1973. DeLarverie was the only female in the show, and the only African-American member of the Jewel Box Revue. [I have contacted Ms. Clifford on my contact with Don Marshall.] She joined the show as a male impersonator and emcee and gave birth to the Revue’s tagline “25 men and a girl.” Photographs of DeLarverie from the Jewel Box Revue program show a slender African American who looks liken a young man in a slim cut suit and tie, cl close-cropped hair and an inscrutable look, holding a cigarette on a pinky-ringed left hand. The caption reads “Miss Storme Larverie The Lady Who Appears Be a Gentleman”. Throughout the program, photographs of female impersonators show them in both costume and masculine street-clothhig. No such juxtapositional photographs of Storm DeLarverie appear.

Research about Storme DeLarverie and her work with the Jewel Box illuminates several aspects of Jacobs’s biography. First, according to scholar Elizabeth Drorbaugh, DeLarverie avoided any gendered or sexualized labels. DeLarverie’s cross-dressing helped spatialize her as ‘family” in the world of gender impersonation, a position she did not wish to endanger by discussing her own desires shares commonalities with Jacobs, who entered her work as an impersonator after a stint as a singer. Jacobs, perhaps, felt included in the community at Dante’s [a Kansas City drag club], the world she “learned a lot from,” and did not want to endanger that world by revealing her own sexual desires, whatever they were. Another aspect of this question of identity is pivotal to understanding the subjectification of gender impersonators, we cannot forget that they were performers. According to Drorbaugh, performers of gender impersonation resisted being read as one gender or another, preferring ambiguity to identification.

One can certainly understand the need for ambiguity in 1955. The homophobia was so intense you could have cut it with a knife. Let me conclude with another snapshot from my youth:

Screen shot 2014-06-03 at 11.31.17 AMScreen shot 2014-06-03 at 11.31.30 AM

 

March 22, 2014

Grace Lee Boggs; The Hypnotic Brothers

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 5:58 pm

Two documentaries arriving in New York this week are stirring testaments to the political and cultural heritage of the Black community. Ironically, the first—“American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”—that opened yesterday at the AMC Loew’s on 19th Street is about a 98 year old Chinese-American woman whose entire political life was so enmeshed with the Detroit Black struggle that everybody regarded her as an African-American. The other film is “Brothers Hypnotic”, a film about the young sons of an alumnus of the Son Ra Orchestra who formed a brass ensemble that simultaneously reflects their father’s Black consciousness while stubbornly sticking to its own musical agenda. It opens on Monday at the Maysles Theater in Harlem, the go-to place for outstanding documentaries engaged with the Black experience.

For those who follow my film reviews, you are probably aware that I avoid the kind of hyperbolic praise that gets attached to those full-page ads in the NY Times. So when I tell you that “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs” is the greatest documentary about an American leftist I have ever seen, I mean it. Granted that they are far and few between, this is still a movie that had me spellbound from beginning to end. It reminded me—and would remind anybody who ever passed out a leaflet—what it means to challenge the system and why such a life is so much worth living, no matter how many times your nose gets bloodied in the process.

Grace Lee Boggs, the daughter of a man who owned a successful Chinese restaurant, began studying at Barnard College just as the Great Depression was at its deepest point. Like so many other children of privilege, she decided that her lot was with the unemployed and the working class. But unlike most of her peers, she gravitated toward the Trotskyist movement rather than the CP. Obtaining a PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940, she found herself deeply influenced by Hegel and particularly the role of the dialectic that she thought useful in understanding capitalist society. This Hegelian predisposition naturally led her to the Workers Party shortly after hearing CLR James speak in Chicago. James had been a co-leader of the “Johnson-Forrest” tendency in the SWP (he was Johnson and Raya Dunayevskaya was Forrest) and a leading theorist of the Black struggle.

The film does not really delve too deeply in the Byzantine twists and turns of the Trotskyist movement (broadly defined) but James and Dunayevskaya broke with the Workers Party because of what they considered its foot-dragging in the Black struggle and rejoined the SWP in 1947. In 1950 the Johnson-Forrest tendency abandoned the SWP and set up shop as the Correspondence group, named after their magazine.

One of the more important members of the Correspondence group was James Boggs, a working-class African-American from the Deep South who after meeting Grace Lee wasted no time in proposing marriage. The Boggs’s closest collaborator was Marty Glaberman who was the editor of the magazine.

Chinese-American director Grace Lee’s first film was “The Grace Lee Project”, an attempt to find namesakes who defied the stereotype of an Asian woman who was as Rotten Tomatoes described it: “a quiet, studious over-achiever who was cheerful, Christian, and never got into trouble.” Nobody could be more unalike from that than Grace Lee Boggs who not only didn’t think of herself as Chinese but also was just one step ahead of being thrown in jail as a subversive. The new film includes footage of the 2005 documentary with a spry 84-year-old Grace Lee Boggs walking so fast that the director could barely keep up with her.

“American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs” includes a generous helping of James Boggs footage, a man I regret never having read. When the couple moved to Detroit, James took a job at Chrysler in order to understand the changes in the working class as well as changes in the industry. This was not a “colonization” effort but much more of an attempt to make a living while conducting research on the class struggle. Boggs wrote a book titled “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook” that includes some of the earliest insights into the role that automation would play in the capitalist system. It is interesting that both he and Harry Braverman, another defector from Trotskyist dogmatism, would explore such a major transformation of American capitalism during its infancy.

Grace Lee Boggs is nowhere near as spry today as she was in 2005 but her mind is as sharp as it ever was. The film shows her interacting with young activists for whom she is a legendary figure. Although Detroit has pretty much become “Destroit” as SWP comrades from that city used to refer to it in the 1970s, she remains optimistic about its future. Her most recent projects include community gardening and safe street initiatives seemingly different from her more militant activism of 50 years ago but that still incorporate her deepest humanistic impulses.

Toward the end of the film, there is a fascinating exchange between the director and her subject over her unceasing optimism. Doesn’t she have any regrets about what she did with her life, including her decision not to have children? And how could she feel fulfilled when so many of her projects withered on the vine?

In 1999 Paul Buhle wrote a review of her memoir “Living for Change” that addressed the question of the disjunction between goals and the achievements that is worth quoting:

Lee herself moved to Detroit in 1953, married black auto worker James Boggs, and commenced a life of unceasing local activism. Much of the rest of Living For Change settles into a detailed description of personal life that defies summarization, but offers a rewarding, intimate study of ideas and activities in the cauldron of race and class contradictions during the 1950s-1990s. I remember once calling Detroit information without Grace’s home address and the telephone operator exclaiming, “You mean Grace Boggs!” It is no exaggeration to say that tens of thousands of Detroiters regarded the couple as perennially scrappy but beloved members of an extended family.

In some ways the story is heartbreaking. The group around C.L.R James disintegrated and one by one, the Boggses broke with their erstwhile comrades over personal and political differences. The early promise of the civil rights movement, which so roused black Detroit and the Boggs’ supporters, was stifled by the waves of massively destructive “urban renewal,” suburbanization and plant closings, bringing increased poverty and despair. New organizations, like the groupings around the Manifesto for a Black Political Party and their own National Organization for an American Revolution, failed after making a contribution to educating young (especially black) radicals through pamphlets, study groups and endless personal appearances by the two at conferences. In the end, as once-radical mayor Coleman Young bowed to the corporations to keep Detroit afloat, and the black middle class followed whites in abandoning the inner city, the Boggses with the rest of the Left were outgunned, bypassed by the postindustrial recklessness of capitalism.

But Grace Lee Boggs was never one to be kept down by mere defeats. As memorable volumes by James Boggs for MR Press pushed beyond received truths to creative adaptation-sometimes right, sometimes wrong, but always creative-race found new ways to make herself useful. ln identifying with the black community for decades, she emerged during the 1970s-1980s as a public speaker and intimate advisor for (and to) Asian-American Studies. Meanwhile, she joined with other community activists in new coalitions against drugs, violence, and casino-gambling in Detroit, among many other causes. Ossie Davis catches the spirit when he says about her story, ” Here is a book for the hungering heart, or even a picnic.” With Grace Lee Boggs, it could not be otherwise.

My very highest recommendation for “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”.

In one of the more memorable comments from Grace Lee Boggs in the aforementioned film that dates from the early 60s, she says that Blacks are not trying to become equal to whites but equal to the image they have in their mind of a fulfilled and free Black American.

That would describe Phil Cohran to a tee. Born in 1927, he was a successful jazz musician who turned his back on moneymaking gigs and founded the Affro-Arts Theater and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago during the 1960s, projects associated with cultural and political challenges to the status quo.

The Affro-Arts Theater was a regular venue for Black militants, so much so that it became the obsession of the local Red Squad. After Stokely Carmichael spoke there, the cops convinced a judge to shut it down.

His personal life was just as radical as his artistic life. In addition to the eight children he fathered with one wife, he initiated relationships with two other women who moved into his Chicago home. At one point twenty-four of their offspring were living with Phil and his three wives in a sort of benign version of Philadelphia’s MOVE. The house was a vegetarian and Black consciousness haven dedicated most of all to the religion of Black music, particularly jazz. As luck would have it, all three women were trained musicians.

8 of the Cohran boys would study brass instruments from an early age. Like any other young men, they rebelled against their father without any likely nod to Freud’s Oedipal Complex. Instead the rebellion was based on their own ideas about what kind of music they would play.

The band they formed, Brothers Hypnotic, was an eclectic blend of jazz, gospel, hip-hop and what sounds to my ears a lot like Gabrieli—with a complex polyphonic texture. They started off as a street band but later evolved into a more conventional concert venue act that toured Europe and performed with stars like Prince and Mos Def.

Directed by first-timer Reuben Atlas, the film adheres pretty much to concert tour documentaries that have been made about groups like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. Most of it consists of performances or the musicians talking about music and their lives.

What they seem to share with their father after all is said and done is a fierce independence of mind that makes them wary of becoming just another band signed with a commercial label. Unlike so many hip-hop artists with a crass devotion to filthy lucre, the Hypnotic Brothers are committed above all to their artistic vision. As such, this documentary has inspirational value in a period of history lacking much in the way of inspiration.

January 20, 2014

The Wayland Rudd Collection: the Red and the Black

Filed under: african-american,art,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Wayland Rudd

For a number of years now, Russian émigré artist Yevgeniy Fiks has been examining the cultural legacy of the USSR, both within its borders and in the U.S. Although politically to the left, Fiks is no simple dispenser of Soviet nostalgia as is prominently on display in the Back to USSR restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. (But if you ever find yourself there, don’t miss the Red Snapper. It is to die for.)

No, Fiks’s interest is in revealing the contradictions of being a Communist, if I might be indulged in using a bit of Marxist/Hegelian jargon. In his last show at the Winkleman Gallery on far West 27th Street, an area that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, he focused in on the Red/Gay hysteria of the 1950s when being a Commie and a “fag” was deemed inimical to American values. As anybody familiar with the Soviet Union can attest, gays had it just as bad. Despite the early Soviet Union’s openness to different forms of sexual identity, Stalin’s counter-revolution included a law enacted in 1933 that made homosexuality punishable by a 5-year prison term.

In November 2012, I conducted an interview with Fiks that my readers would find most interesting, I’m sure. He covers his various projects, including portraits of CP’ers in the USA as well as his rather witty experiment in donating copies of Lenin’s essay on imperialism to major American corporation’s libraries.

I also invite you to check out Fiks’s website where he describes his esthetic in these terms:

My work is inspired by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which led me to the realization of the necessity to reexamine the Soviet experience in the context of the history of the Left, including that of the international Communist movement. My work is a reaction to the collective amnesia within the post-Soviet space over the last decade, on the one hand, and the repression of the histories of the American Left in the US, on the other.

I’ve been interested in discovering and reflecting on repressed micro-historical narratives that highlight the complex relationships between social histories of the West and Russia in the 20th century. Having grown up and having been educated in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, my work is about coming to terms with the Soviet experience by carving out a space for critique both without and within the Soviet experience. Having lived in New York since 1994, I’m particularly interested in the history of the American Communist movement and the way it manifests itself in the present-day United States.

My work has been influenced by the writings of Susan Buck-Morss about discovering sites of the “post-Soviet condition” in today’s US and the effects of the Cold War on present-day American society and culture, and I am interested in the activist use of that legacy.

His latest installment in this ongoing project that I had the good fortune to attend on Friday evening–once again at the Winkleman Gallery–is devoted to the experience of African-Americans in the former Soviet Union. The key figure that unites the visual art on display is émigré Black actor Wayland Rudd, who moved to Russia in 1932 to escape American racism. He became an icon in the USSR, with a fame that rivaled Paul Robeson’s. On display in the gallery are a number of works that might not have an obvious relationship to Rudd but that invite meditation on the underlying tensions between Black identity and official Communism.

The exhibition is crowned by Fiks’s 200 plus collection of Soviet posters, etc. that deal in one way or another with the image of Black people. They range from the heroic to at least one piece of advertising that evokes the Aunt Jemima picture of old.

To be sure, whatever racial stereotyping existed during the worst days of Stalinism, there was nothing to match the naked bigotry on display in a post-Soviet world:

Financial Times (London,England)
June 14, 2003 Saturday

Black in the USSR Xenophobia is on the increase in Russia, propelled by groups of violent extremists. Their victims, says Hugh Barnes, range from embassy elite to a few hundred black students, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support

Vladimir Putin raises a glass to a packed hall of distinguished guests and foreign academics, mostly from developing countries, nearly all black. They are graduates of Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University, now renamed Friendship University. Founded in 1970 at the height of the cold war to educate students from Africa and Asia, the university was named in honour of the Congolese leader assassinated by the CIA, and it was designed to inculcate its graduates with the values of Soviet socialism. The Russian President makes a toast to higher education – “a great tradition always open to talented young people, independent of class, wealth, religion or ethnic origin”. There is applause. “I want to repeat: in Russia, dear friends, you are always the most welcome guests.” More, rapturous, applause.

Outside the hall, in the main plaza of the university, a gang of 20 skinheads attempts to mount the latest in a series of racist attacks. Similar attacks have, in the past, resulted in murders. On this occasion, only the presence of a reinforced security cordon to protect the visiting dignitaries (rather than the university’s remaining black students) foils the attempt to wreak havoc. Inside the Friendship University all is official friendship. The incidents outside are not commented on, now or afterwards.

Yet Russia is suffering from a rise in xenophobia. The Russian leader has warned of “inflammatory slogans and fascist and nationalist symbols, which threaten human rights and lead to pogroms and people being beaten up and killed”. Most of those who are being beaten up and killed are the students at Friendship University and elsewhere, marooned when the collapse of the Soviet system cut off their financial support. But others are the kind of people who applauded the president in the hall: visiting dignitaries and diplomats.

By targeting the embassy elite, the swastika-emblazoned thugs have spread concern through the ranks of foreign envoys living in Moscow. A Madagascan, a Kenyan and a Malian diplomat were set upon by racists last year, and skinheads attacked the wife of South Africa’s ambassador as she was shopping in an upscale neighbourhood, burning her with cigarettes.

Wayland Rudd’s decision to move to the USSR was completely understandable given the terrible oppression Black people faced in Jim Crow days. You can read Black autoworker Robert Robinson’s “Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union” to get another glimpse into the émigré experience. The Wikipedia article on Robinson refers to others who made the journey:

He described acquaintances in the Soviet Union: Henry Smith, a journalist; Wayland Rudd, an actor; Robert Ross, a Soviet propagandist from Montana; Henry Scott, a dancer from New York City; Coretta Arle-Titz, actress and music professor; John Sutton, an agronomist; George Tynes, also an agronomist; and Lovett Whiteman, an English teacher. He noted meeting in the 1930s the American writers Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, who had traveled to the Soviet Union.

One of the works on display in the gallery was a book by artist Suzanne Broughel that collected the statements of participating artists in the show, including Yevgeniy Fiks who commented on his own experience as an émigré. In Russia, he was a Jew but in the U.S. he was a Russian.

In a brief chat with Yevgeniy at the show, I mentioned to him that I saw all sorts of contradictions involving Jews, Communists and Blacks growing up in Woodridge, New York—a village that the leftist newspaper PM described as a working-class Utopia in 1947. In the late 1950s there was a thriving group of leftists that included both Communists and American Labor Party activists that was spearheading an organizing drive of mostly Black workers in Woodridge’s plantation-like commercial steam laundry that served local hotels. So popular was the left in my village that even my father held a brief membership in the American Labor Party. But whatever messages the party was propagating on Black-white equality were lost on my father who was always sure to unload spotted fruit to the “schvartzes”, as he put it.

I am not sure of the status of this documentary-in-progress but it will surely add to the body of knowledge about the Red-Black connection once it is completed:

November 11, 2013

UCLA racism

Filed under: Academia,african-american — louisproyect @ 2:01 pm

November 8, 2013

Kanye West — what a schmuck

Filed under: african-american,capitalist pig — louisproyect @ 3:26 pm

Kanye West leaves Barneys wearing a jacket with a rebel flag. Here is the explanation.

August 23, 2013

Hollywood and Black America

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 12:27 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition August 23-25, 2013

The Weinstein Treatment
Hollywood and Black America
by LOUIS PROYECT

Recently The Butler and Fruitvale Station, both Harvey Weinstein productions, arrived at my local “better” movie theater and settled down next to Woody Allen’s latest navel-gazing exercise. At the same time HBO was running The Help, a 2011 film that garnered BET’s Best Movie award. Harvey Weinstein was fresh on my mind from an article I had written on “How Commerce Trumped Art at Miramax” for the launch of the new journal Class, Race, and Corporate Power.

Over the last decade or so Weinstein has turned into an old-time studio boss. That made me curious to see what influence he had on two very different films about the Black experience in racist America. Meanwhile, the Disney Corporation, the parent company of Miramax for 17 years, distributed The Help, a film that I suspected would have much in common with Lee Daniels’ The Butler. According to Peter Biskind, the author of Down and Dirty Pictures, a history of independent filmmaking in the 1990s, Miramax had become “Disneyfied” while Disney was being “Miramaxized”. As arbiters of mainstream politics and culture, it is hard to imagine anything that could surpass Disney and Weinstein. Of course, the wild card was Fruitvale Station, a film by a young Black director that dramatized the cop killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland on the night of December 31, 2008, hardly the sort of fare expected to run cheek-by-jowl to Woody Allen’s privileged, white, narcissistic, fantasy.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/08/23/hollywood-and-black-america/

June 24, 2013

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: african-american,comedy,Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

As a wistful look at funeral homes in the Black community, the documentary “Homegoings” that opens today at Maysles Cinema in the heart of Harlem is the perfect companion piece to Spike Lee’s first movie “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads”. Although Lee’s movie is a fairly conventional crime melodrama with the owners of the barbershop having stolen money from racketeers, it is best when it is about the small talk that goes on in one of the Black community’s longest standing institutions. As two barbers are playing checkers, the subject turns to straightening hair. “Processes ruin the hair and the brain too. That’s why we’ve got so many dumb brothers,” says one barber to the other.

“Homegoings”, a euphemism for death that speaks volumes, features Harlem funeral director Isaiah Owens, a sixtyish man who really brings this ostensibly morbid subject matter to life. An obvious geek when he was young, Owens was obsessed with burying dead animals—frogs, cats, dogs, you name it. He also loved to simulate funerals with miniature objects in the same way that I used to play with toy soldiers, something he reenacts in the course of the film.

Last Thursday I almost ventured down to a “Death Café” in downtown Manhattan, a group that meets monthly to discuss death—obviously. At the age of 68, this is a subject that has more currency than it had when I was 28. Four decades ago I understood intellectually that I was not going to live forever (I can hear many of my readers shouting “Hurray!”) but it was nothing to brood about. Nowadays that’s mostly what I have on my mind, when I am not brooding about the Brenner thesis or the sorry state of Hollywood movies. The NY Times reported on the death café:

Socrates did not fear death; he calmly drank the hemlock. Kierkegaard was obsessed with death, which made him a bit gloomy. As for Lorraine Tosiello, a 58-year-old internist in Bradley Beach, N.J., it is the process of dying that seems endlessly puzzling.

“I’m more interested, philosophically, in what is death? What is that transition?” Dr. Tosiello said at a recent meeting in a Manhattan coffee shop, where eight people had shown up on a Wednesday night to discuss questions that philosophers have grappled with for ages.

The group, which meets monthly, is called a Death Cafe, one of many such gatherings that have sprung up in nearly 40 cities around the country in the last year. Offshoots of the “café mortel” movement that emerged in Switzerland and France about 10 years ago, these are not grief support groups or end-of-life planning sessions, but rather casual forums for people who want to bat around philosophical thoughts. What is death like? Why do we fear it? How do our views of death inform the way we live?

I was not surprised to learn from my friend Jeffrey, who is even older than me believe it or not, that his mind is wrapped around the same questions. I think to some extent this is a function of both of us having parents who went through a fairly lengthy experience being ground down by lengthy illnesses—in his father’s case Parkinson’s and in my mother’s case heart disease. It tends to focus the mind.

In “Homegoings” you get a totally different take on dying. As the title of the movie implies, there is a joy that awaits the average devout Harlemite serviced by Owens’s specialized trade, which involves among other things applying a kind of botox treatment to make a 92 year old dead person look years younger so that the funeral service will be more upbeat. One supposes that this is essentially what religion is about, making you believe that there is everlasting life in heaven. Of course, for those unlucky enough to be raised in a Jewish household, where such beliefs are understated, and beyond that to have matured as atheists, there’s little to console us except the knowledge that we don’t have to worry about going to hell—a real bonus for someone like me.

Now available from Showtime on-demand, “Richard Pryor—Omit the Logic” is a fascinating account of the Dorian Gray-like rise and fall of arguably the USA’s greatest stand-up comedian next to Lenny Bruce. As was the case with Bruce, Pryor’s decline can be attributed to the abuse he took from industry heavies as well as the self-abuse of a major heavy drug habit.

But digging a bit deeper into the Pryor story, I am convinced that the comparison is better made with Miles Davis, another Black artist whose improvisational skills rivaled Pryor’s. What one did with a horn, the other did through stories and jokes.

The documentary is graced by interviews with both the people who knew him as friends or lovers, as well as knowledgeable students of African-American society—most notably Walter Moseley and Ishmael Reed.

The film of course includes footage from nightclub, television and film appearances but it does not try to compete with the 1979 Richard Pryor: Live in Concert or the 1982 Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, a film made two years after he set himself on fire—supposedly a free-basing accident. The film reveals, however, that this was a suicide attempt inspired by Pryor’s watching a newsreel of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest the American-backed dictatorship in Vietnam in the mid-60s.

The film also goes into detail about Pryor’s decline and eventual death from multiple sclerosis, a disease that for the first time in his life made him dependent on others and very likely for the first time in his life to learn to trust them as a result.

Another documentary available as on-request from a premium cable station (and on Youtube above until the intellectual propery cops find out), HBO’s “Pussy Riot—a Punk Prayer” is both notable as a news story and as human drama. It is also a fundamental challenge to those on the left who would treat Vladimir Putin as some kind of anti-imperialist icon because he is the target of Nicholas Kristof or Thomas Friedman’s abuse. If after watching this documentary, you can still agree with the get-tough recommendations of “leftist” blogger Moon over Alabama, then maybe you should reconsider what it means to be on the left:

Abusing places of worship for a “free speech act”, especially when that act is subjectively blasphemous to the religion, is an infringement of the right of freedom of religion. In my view such an infringement, as in this case, can not be justified by the right of free speech. There are many other places where the free speech can be made. I therefore find the sentence against Pussy Riot quite obviously justified.

This of course is utter nonsense. In 2003 a couple had sex in the pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in N.Y. as a shock radio prank. While awaiting trial, the man died of a heart attack—not likely a result of overexertion—but the woman got 40 hours of community service, a proverbial slap on the wrist.

The hostility toward Pussy Riot from some sectors of the left makes you wonder if they were around when Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman were up to stunts like throwing dollar bills on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. These people so anxious to see “law and order” prevail in Russia are nothing less than the purple Kryptonite reversal of the right-wingers who belonged to the Moral Majority.

In actuality, the Pussy Riot performance had little to do with shock radio. Instead, as the documentary makes clear, it was a political act that was cut from the same cloth as the Gezi Park protests in Taksim Square, but even far more engaged with anti-capitalist consciousness.

The background of the three women in Pussy Riot makes this completely clear. Maria Alyokhina, a 25-year-old single mother, was a member of Greenpeace who was active in the protests against the clearing of Khimki Forest that is part of the “green belt” around Moscow, obviously in the same spirit of the Taksim Square rebellion. The forest was to be leveled for an 8 billion dollar superhighway to connect Moscow with St. Petersburg.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is the 24-year-old daughter of an artist who was raised by her ardently communist grandmother after her parents divorced. Combing her father’s esthetics and her grandmother’s firebrand politics, she hooked up with the Voina street-art group that embodies autonomist values, including a “refusal to work” and commitment to provocative actions—thankfully excluding black block type adventurism. The film shows her and a man having sex along with other couples in the Biology Museum in Moscow, an obvious commentary on reproduction.

The thirty-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich was the third member of the group. She took part in Operation Kiss Garbage that involved “ambush kissing” of female police officers in subway stations from January through March 2011. All told, the activities of the three women were assaults on Russian notions of propriety utterly in keeping with bohemian radicalism going back for more than a century. It was the sort of activism that was a core part of the 1960s but one that is now disavowed by many of the elderly survivors of that period who now equate radicalism with following the foreign policy initiatives of the Putin state machinery.

The film climaxes with the trial of the three women at which the prosecution expects them to grovel before the court in 1930s Moscow Trial fashion. The more they flagellate themselves, the more lenient the punishment. Defiant of the sexist, class-oppressive, environmentally destructive state apparatus, the women do not budge an inch from their principles, as their closing statement to the court makes clear:

Katya, Masha and I are in jail but I don’t consider that we’ve been defeated. Just as the dissidents weren’t defeated. When they disappeared into psychiatric hospitals and prisons, they passed judgement on the country. The era’s art of creating an image knew no winners or losers. The Oberiu poets remained artists to the very end, something impossible to explain or understand since they were purged in 1937. Vvedensky wrote: “We like what can’t be understood, What can’t be explained is our friend.” According to the official report, Aleksandr Vvedensky died on 20 December 1941. We don’t know the cause, whether it was dysentery in the train after his arrest or a bullet from a guard. It was somewhere on the railway line between Voronezh and Kazan. Pussy Riot are Vvedensky’s disciples and his heirs. His principle of ‘bad rhythm’ is our own. He wrote: “It happens that two rhythms will come into your head, a good one and a bad one and I choose the bad one. It will be the right one.” What can’t be explained is our friend. The elitist, sophisticated occupations of the Oberiu poets, their search for meaning on the edge of sense was ultimately realized at the cost of their lives, swept away in the senseless Great Terror that’s impossible to explain. At the cost of their own lives, the Oberiu poets unintentionally demonstrated that the feeling of meaninglessness and analogy, like a pain in the backside, was correct, but at the same time led art into the realm of history. The cost of taking part in creating history is always staggeringly high for people. But that taking part is the very spice of human life. Being poor while bestowing riches on many, having nothing but possessing everything. It is believed that the OBERIU dissidents are dead, but they live on. They are persecuted but they do not die.

Do you remember why the young Dostoyevsky was given the death sentence? All he had done was to spend all his time with Socialists—and at the Friday meetings of a friendly circle of free thinkers at Petrushevsky’s, he became acquainted with Charles Fourier and George Sand. At one of the last meetings, he read out Gogol’s letter to Belinsky, which was packed, according to the court, and I note, with childish expressions against the Orthodox Church and the supreme authorities. After all his preparations for the death penalty and ten dreadful, impossibly frightening minutes waiting to die, as Dostoyevsky himself put it, the announcement came that his sentence had been commuted to four years hard labour followed by military service.

Socrates was accused of corrupting youth through his philosophical discourses and of not recognizing the gods of Athens. Socrates had a connection to a divine inner voice and was by no means a theomachist, something he often said himself. What did that matter, however, when he had angered the city with his critical, dialectical and unprejudiced thinking? Socrates was sentenced to death and, refusing to run away, although he was given that option, he drank down a cup of poison in cold blood, hemlock.

Have you forgotten the circumstances under which Stephen, follower of the Apostles, ended his earthly life? “Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’ And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away, and brought him before the Council. And they put forward false witnesses who said, ‘This man incessantly speaks against this holy place, and the Law.’” He was found guilty and stoned to death.

And I hope everyone remembers what the Jews said to Jesus: “We’re stoning you not for any good work, but for blasphemy.” And finally it would be well worth remembering this description of Christ: “He is possessed of a demon and out of his mind.”

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