Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 3, 2020

A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 3:52 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 4, 2020

In the aftermath of the New York Times’s Project 1619 that appeared in the August 2019 Sunday Magazine section, there have been howls of protest over Nikole Hannah-Jones’s claim that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Those howls have come from both the right and the left, with Donald J. Trump and Sean Wilentz being prime examples.

Anybody with an open mind who reads Sharon Rudahl’s superlative A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American will conclude that Hannah-Jones’s statement is truthful. The degree to which racists both in and outside of government tried to “cancel” this African-American icon is shocking. Like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson was an assassination victim. In his case, the murder weapon wasn’t a bullet but decades of harassment and even a possible drug attempt to make him lose his mind. It was an example of a death by a thousand cuts.

Although it is “merely” a comic book, the term that Harvey Pekar preferred to describe his own and similar works, it draws from a wealth of other books, including Martin Duberman’s highly regarded 1988 biography. However, the relationship between his life’s details and the popular form the book assumes is seamless. It is stunning to see how the minutiae of a man’s life can capture your attention. Of course, with someone like Paul Robeson, the inherent drama can overcome even the most pedestrian rendering. Suffice it to say that Rudahl has written one of the best radical comic books I have ever read.

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August 28, 2020

Class-reductionism’s blind-spot: environmental racism

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,Ecology,racism — louisproyect @ 2:06 pm

Screen Shot 2020-08-28 at 10.08.17 AM

Image by Wake Forest University with caption “The fight for environmental justice is a fight for your life.”

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 28, 2020

On August 14th, the N.Y. Times reported on the clash between Adolph Reed Jr. and the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus in DSA over an event scheduled back in May by the LES and Philadelphia branches. The caucus advocates stepped up support for BLM protests while Reed views them as tools of corporate America. Naturally, when the event organizers scheduled a Zoom lecture for Reed, the caucus demanded a debate, surely expecting to be ignored. When Reed grew wary over the possibility that the upstarts might crash his talk, he canceled himself.

The Times article summarized the Reed position as shared by a class of historians, political scientists and intellectuals who argue against overstating race as a construct. Even if they accept the existence of racism in the U.S., they reject the need for an anti-racist movement. Instead, the goal is to create class unity around programs like Medicare for All since poor whites would benefit as well. When you “fixate” on race, you risk dividing a potentially powerful coalition and play into conservatives’ hands.

Of course, this vulgar Marxism seems even more outlandish than ever in the face of the massive resistance to the status quo now underway. After the George Floyd murder, anti-racist protests became the largest in American history. Without skipping a beat, the NBA has gone on strike to protest the cops who left Jacob Blake permanently paralyzed. To counterpose Medicare for All to these struggles is foolish, if not outright reactionary.

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July 17, 2020

Thoughts on Bayard Rustin nostalgia

Filed under: african-american,class-reductionism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm

Bayard Rustin

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 17, 2020

A Dustin Guastella article on Nonsite dated July 9th generated controversy because it opposed defunding the cops. Like Bernie Sanders, another opponent of defunding, Guastella proposed reforms that would satisfy everybody since they would lead to less crime. If there were massive increases in federal social spending, there would be more jobs and hence less desperation leading to crime. Such “class-based” measures might have made it possible for George Floyd to avoid being killed as Cedric Johnson argued in Jacobin: “His alleged use of counterfeit money reflects the criminally inadequate provision of income support.”

What caught my eye in Guastella’s article was his reference to Bayard Rustin, who warned about activists’ “psychic inability to fend off leftwing slogans which result in right-wing policy.” One of those slogans is defunding the cops. Since polls indicate that defunding is unpopular with Blacks and whites alike, we are cutting off support. Of course, black lives matter wasn’t very popular a few years ago as well. For Guastella, the need is to rebuild the alliance between the Black movement and labor of the early to mid-1960s when Rustin was a key organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. This march concluded in a rally where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. Just as importantly, Rustin helped pull together the conference that met in the fall to adopt a Freedom Budget. In many ways, the Freedom Budget was the Green New Deal of its day. Just as the Green New Deal would abolish climate change, so would the Freedom Budget abolish poverty—both Black and white. To move forward with such ambitious projects, it was necessary to elect politicians who understood their needs.

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July 3, 2020

Following the money is not a useful guide for understanding mass movements

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,class-reductionism,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 2:09 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 3, 2020

Over the past fifty-three years as a socialist, I have seen repeated calls for purifying the left of capitalist influences, both governmental and corporate. The latest flare-up was a Jacobin article titled “Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class” by Cedric Johnson, a black African American studies professor. Just as Deep Throat advised Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” Johnson followed the money:

While antiracist protesters were tough on long-dead oppressors, these same protests have delivered a public relations windfall for the living investor class. Within weeks, corporations pledged upward of $2 billion dollars to various antiracist initiatives and organizations. The leadership of Warner, Sony Music, and Walmart each committed $100 million. Google pledged $175 million, mainly to incubate black entrepreneurship. YouTube announced a $100 million initiative to amplify black media voices. Apple also pledged $100 million for the creation of its racial equity and justice initiative.

These payoffs were supposed to dull the edge of the protests and keep the capitalist system safe from pitchfork-wielding mobs. Oddly enough, they didn’t seem to be making much headway in light of the continuing worries about capitalist instability. Most of the young people organizing the protests hardly seemed to be cooptation-bait as indicated by a New York Magazine interview with the female, teenage organizers of a Louisville protest that drew 10,000:

New York Magazine: Have you faced any backlash since the protest? And what does it mean to you three to be doing this work in the South?

Kennedy: I was actually surprised that we had a lot of support, because we do live in the South, and I’ve encountered various types of racism from people in the South. We did get backlash from a lot of people saying we’re brainwashed or that we’re being paid to do this or that we’re secret people the Democrats are using to win.

Emma Rose: We’re not even Democrats.

Kennedy: I’m not even a Democrat. I’m a radical.

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June 15, 2020

The Killing Floor

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,Film,trade unions — louisproyect @ 6:42 pm

Now showing as part of Film Forum’s pandemic-induced virtual cinema program, “The Killing Floor” is a striking illustration of the need to synthesize class and race. Based on the experience of trying to build a trade union in Chicago’s stockyards during WWI, it is an object lesson on the need to abandon “white privilege”.

“The Killing Floor” was a 1984 TV movie directed by Bill Duke that I had heard about over the years but never seen. Not without its limitations, it belongs alongside “Salt of the Earth” and “Matewan” as truly engaged, working-class cinema. The teleplay was written by Leslie Lee, an African-American playwright who worked with the Negro Ensemble Company, and is based on a story by Elsa Rassbach. Rassbach lives and works in Berlin, where she heads the “GIs & US Bases” project for the German affiliate of the War Resisters International. She is also active in Code Pink, No to NATO, and the anti-drone campaign in Germany.

Duke, an African-American, is probably best known to most people as a hulking, action film actor who was part of the team Arnold Schwarzenegger led in “Predator”. He has also directed blaxploitation films like “A Rage in Harlem” and, unfortunately, directed his black cast members in “The Killing Floor” to use the exaggerated rhetorical style of such films. That directorial misstep and the inability of the film to represent the large-scale violence that took place in 1919 between whites and blacks due to budget constraints are its only drawbacks. However, if you are looking for an accurate and thought-provoking dramatization of the class/race contradictions that must be overcome in order to make a revolution in the USA, no other film comes close.

Nearly all of the characters in “The Killing Floor” are drawn from history, including the lead Frank Custer (Damien Leake), a black man from Mississippi who “freighthops” a boxcar to Chicago with his best friend Thomas Joshua (Ernest Rayford) in search of work.

Jobs were plentiful in the stockyards since so many able-bodied men had enlisted in the army. Like other blacks fleeing the misery of sharecropping, Frank and Thomas head directly to the YMCA on Chicago’s south side, the home of recently transplanted blacks. There they are told that they should go directly to the stockyards the next morning and expect to be hired on the spot. The YMCA’s role in funneling black men into the stockyards is just one of the many historically accurate details of the film.

Frank learned that a job in the stockyards paid well ($1.50 a day!) but in the most miserable conditions possible. With his experience slaughtering hogs on the farm back home, he was a natural for butchering cattle on the killing floor. However, he could not start right away since he didn’t have the knife necessary for the job. It took him days to put the money together. Unlike Frank, Thomas had neither the stomach for slaughtering cattle nor the willingness to put up with white worker racism. The Irish and eastern European immigrants who preceded them were spat upon in the old country. Now, in the U.S.A., they took every opportunity to spit upon those in a lower caste. Thomas, a “new Negro” who would not put up with such indignities, joins the army to leave all that behind.

Not all of the whites are racist. Some, like trade union organizer John Fitzpatrick (James O’Reilly), believe in black-white unity and bend every effort toward getting someone like Frank Custer to join the union. Like most of the newly arrived blacks, Frank is skeptical but eventually sees the wisdom of working-class unity and strength. My friend and fellow CounterPunch contributor Paul Street wrote about the role of people like Frank Custer in his 1996 Journal of Social History article “The Logic and Limits of ‘Plant Loyalty’: Black Workers, White Labor, and Corporate Racial Paternalism in Chicago’s Stockyards, 1916-1940” (the SYLC referred to below was the Stockyard Labor Council):

“Northern” Black workers joined unions in roughly the same proportion as white workers. Ninety percent signed up by early 1918. Barrett notes that they “created the type of institutions commonly associated with stable working-class communities-unions, cooperatives, fraternal groups, and an independent political organization [the Colored Club of the Cook County Labor Party].” They provided a “nucleus of Black union activity, serving on [SYLC] floor committees and recruiting for the SYLC.” Within that nucleus were such individuals as Robert Bedford and Frank Custer, both long-service packinghouse workers and elective SYLC floor committeemen on the Wilson plant’s cattle-killing floor. While they possessed a strong consciousness of race, Bedford, Custer, and other Black SYLC militants braved the scorn of anti-union Blacks (one of whom called them “a lot of white folks’ niggers”) to advocate labor unity “irrespective of race, creed, color, nationality or sex.” Their struggle reminds us that there were individuals within the Black working class striving for industrial unionism prior to the 1930s. It also suggests that Black workers’ race consciousness was not completely or inherently opposed to working-class solidarity.

Inside the plant, Moses Gunn plays Heavy Williams, a black worker deeply hostile to the union. When Thomas returns from Europe, he is forced to work in the stockyards and just as resentful of white racists as he was when he left. He takes Williams’s side against the union. No matter how often Frank tries to sell Thomas on the need for class unity, he sees few differences between white workers and their white boss.

Paul Street attributes this distrust to real factors that had to be overcome before a strong and lasting union could be built.

Black workers’ “loyalty” to the packers, then, was no simple, undiluted expression of docile Black paternalization. It was mediated by a proud “race consciousness” and by a realistic calculation of Black self-interest. It reflected both t core, self-active Black impulses behind the Great Migration and the influence a race-conscious Black middle-class leadership. It was offered because the packers (for all their racism) were especially favorable to Black workers, because labor movement and the working-class community in and around the stockyard were tinged by racism, because stockyards employment was a ticket to the relative racial freedoms of the North and (though this is the most difficult to gauge because of the dream of an independent Black metropolis built on wages earned in white-owned industries. It was contingent, and therefore reversible when if—as occurred during the 1930s—employers came to be seen as working against “the race,” northern opportunities waned, and a new unionism could emerge meet “the race’s” needs.

Once WWI came to an end, the veterans entered the job market once again and crowded out the blacks in a pattern aptly described as “last to be hired, first to be fired.” There had always been tensions between whites and blacks but as long as everybody had a job, they could be contained. With the post-WWI slump, class peace came to an end.

In the summer of 1919, the so-called Red Summer (named after blood, rather than communism) came to Chicago. That year and for a few years later, blacks were set upon by racist whites across the country, with the most devastating results in Tulsa, Oklahoma where Trump will visit soon in an obvious salute to white riots (good, rather than the bad black riots.) What makes Chicago exceptional was the willingness of returned black veterans like Thomas Joshua to use weapons in self-defense.

While the willingness of Chicago’s black community to defend itself against white pogroms was encouraging, it had the result of destroying any possibility of building a strong union. In the 1992 International Review of Social History, Rick Halpern deals with this sad failure to integrate race and class in an article titled  Race, Ethnicity, and Union in the Chicago Stockyards, 1917–1922”. He writes:

The most important force working to preserve order was the Stockyards Labor Council. Union leaders recognized how much was at stake. In a plea entitled “For White Men to Read”, the New Majority implored union members to use their influence in the community to shield blacks from the frenzy of race prejudice. Portraying the riot as their movement’s “acid test”, the article explained that a critical juncture had been reached: “Right now it is going to be decided whether the colored workers are to continue to come into the labor movement or whether they are going to feel that they have been abandoned by it and lose confidence in it.” This crucial question remained unresolved during the troubled days of early August. Anxious to preserve their strained ties with the black workforce, the SLC took the bold step of holding mass interracial meetings. Later, when it became impossible for blacks to reach the Yards safely, the Council organized relief for them and other victimized families.

These efforts proved insufficient. A week after the start of the riot, a new crisis arose which widened the gulf between black and white packinghouse workers. On 2 August, arsonists torched forty-nine homes in a Lithuanian’ enclave in Back-of-the-Yards. Although blame later was fixed upon the Irish gangs, rumors that revenge-seeking blacks committed the deed gained quick currency. While some spokesmen pointed out the absurd improbability of blacks sneaking undetected into the area, the moderation that prevailed in the neighborhood evaporated and was replaced with hatred and malice.

As it happens, the Irish gangs behind the raids were known as Rogan’s Colts, an “athletic club” sponsored by Democratic alderman Frank Rogan. Like the Irish race riots against the draft during the Civil War, the Democrats often show their true color: white.

Never that keen on white support during the best of times, black stockyard workers crossed the picket line and stayed on the job during these confrontations. The film ends with Frank Custer joining them in the plant with his union button concealed. In the locker room, he begins recruiting to the union once again—thus ending on a positive if not exactly convincing note.

In an interview with Time Out last year, Elsa Rassbach tells why she got interested in writing about a trade union struggle that took place a century ago but one that seems like it was torn off today’s front pages:

Though my family was neither left-wing nor union, I’ve been drawn to the struggle for social justice ever since high school, when we engaged in sit-ins at Woolworth’s in my hometown, Denver, in protest against the firm’s segregationist policies in the South. Following college in the U.S., I studied at the film academy in West Berlin, where people scoffed at the saying that “messages are for Western Union” and honored the work of politically committed artists like Berthold Brecht. My first short films were on feminist themes, but I soon developed a passionate interest in untold stories of history. I returned to the U.S. in 1972 and began reading more and more about the fascinating history of working people, who have played such an important role in our history, for which they have never been recognized. I found it astounding that I had never learned about these stories in school or college. Meanwhile I had been hired at the public television station in Boston, WGBH, to work on the first seasons of the NOVA series, and I received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a public television series on the history of the American labor movement. In William Tuttle’s book about the Chicago Race Riot I happened upon a footnote in which I discovered the two main characters in The Killing Floor: Frank Custer and Heavy Williams. These two black men, who both worked on the killing floor of a Chicago slaughterhouse, were testifying before a white federal judge, and the two were entirely at odds with each other in how they viewed the causes of the mounting racism from which they were both suffering. I was drawn to the complexity—the race riot was of course not just about black people vs. white people. So I ordered from the National Archives the entire transcript of the hearing in which the two testified. All of the characters who work on “the killing floor” in our film, both black and white, leapt out of the thousands of pages of testimony by a group of workers at the Wilson Meatpacking Company in June of 1919. I knew immediately that a film about them had to be made. I felt that the film needed not only to be dramatically compelling but also to be as accurate as possible—people should know this really happened. In the film the names of the main characters have remained the same as in the original testimony. And I founded a nonprofit production company to tell this story.

 

 

January 26, 2020

When the N.Y. Times referred to elected black officials as members of a “mongrel party”

Filed under: african-american,racism — louisproyect @ 10:49 pm

Since this post will be commentary on a Sunday NY Times book review that is behind a paywall, I am including the entire review at the bottom. In “When White Supremacists Overthrew an Elected Government,” Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the head of Princeton’s African-American Studies department and a frequent commentator on cable news, looks at David Zucchino’s “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy”. Zucchino, a contributing writer to the NY Times, has written a history of a white racist attack in Wilmington, North Carolina that left 30 African-Americans dead and their mass exodus from the city.

Wilmington had the largest percentage of blacks in any American city in the south. Still loyal to the Republican Party, they elected blacks to many offices in a manner that was reminiscent of Reconstruction. Whites, who voted Democrat, felt like they were being “replaced” and carried out a pogrom. You get a feel for Zucchino’s chronicle through this quote from the review, which I encourage you to read in its totality below:

The leaders of the violence went on to celebrated political careers. Josephus Daniels was appointed secretary of the Navy by Woodrow Wilson and later named ambassador to Mexico by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Furnifold Simmons served 30 years as a United States senator. No one was ever held responsible for the brutal murders in Wilmington.

After reading this review, I made a bet with myself that the NY Times coverage of these events in 1898 would be from a perspective consistent with the racist policies of the Wilmington terrorists and the liberal icons Woodrow Wilson (revered much less so today than when I was young) and FDR.

Taking advantage of my subscription to the Times, I did some investigation in the paper’s archives. My intuition was correct. The Gray Lady wore a white hood and its editors, for all I know, were invited to Woodrow Wilson’s White House screening of “Birth of a Nation”.

The first sign that Wilmington was on the NY Times radar was on November 4th when it reported on “Race Troubles in the South: The First Red Shirt Parade held at Wilmington, N.C.”

WILMINGTON, N. C., Nov. 3.—The first red shirt parade on horseback witnessed in Wilmington was held today. It created enthusiasm among the whites and consternation among the negroes. The whole town turned out to see it, and hundreds of ladies waved flags and hand-kerchiefs as the long column of horsemen rode by. While the riders frequently cheered, the parade was otherwise quiet and orderly. Not an insulting word was uttered to a negro.

How about that? Not an insulting word was uttered. You’d think that the Times might have mentioned that the Red Shirts had a history of doing much worse than insulting black people. Wikipedia states that they and other such groups were the “the military arm of the Democratic Party” and were even more effective than the KKK in intimidating and assassination black Republican elected officials. On the same day, the racist Raleigh News & Observer had an article that sounded exactly like the NY Times:

The first Red Shirt parade on horseback ever witnessed in Wilmington electrified the people today. It created enthusiasm among the whites and consternation among the Negroes. The whole town turned out to see it. It was an enthusiastic body of men. Otherwise it was quiet and orderly.

The next sign that the NYT had lined up behind the growing white power movement was a November 5th article written just before local elections. It was titled “North Carolina: The Combination of White Voters to Resist the Possibility of Negro Domination.” No byline is attached to the article. It is openly racist in its analysis and as was customary back then uses lower case for the word “negro”. It even speaks of a political revolution:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4.—Statements received here in reference to the race conflict which it was feared was imminent in North Carolina indicate that there will be no trouble at the polls on election day at Wilmington or elsewhere. The opinion prevails among those familiar with the situation that the white people will not resort to intimidation and. that the negroes will be allowed to vote without molestation, but that a large number of the latter have become disgusted with the Republican Party managers` failure to nominate candidates for county officers and will stay away from the polls.

The movement for a combination of the white inhabitants of the State to overcome the possibility of negro domination is reported to be gaining ground, and a political revolution is foreshadowed by observers of the situation. A Democratic victory is predicted, the members of that party expecting, with the aid of white Republicans and Populists, to elect the State judicial ticket, five of the nine Congressmen, and a majority in the State Legislature, although the Senate, they say, will possibly be close.

The former adversaries of Democracy who are now flocking to that party’s standard. say that they have not changed their political opinions, but that the combination of the white forces is necessary at this election, if for no longer, in view of the exigencies of the situation.

You’ll note that the Populists are forming a bloc with the racist Democratic Party in keeping with its retreat from a multiracial, class-based fight against the capitalists, while white Republicans are just as willing to sell out black voters as they were in 1877. With so many prestigious civil war historians rankled by Project 1619’s claim that blacks mostly fought on their own, you have to wonder whether they have an idea about what happened in Wilmington in 1898.

A day later, the NY Times published an article titled innocently enough “North Carolina’s Negroes: Offices Which They Hold in Several Counties of the State”. It was almost entirely a routine listing of those offices with likely the implication that they had to be put in their place, based on the final paragraph:

The number of negro office holders in some of these counties is small, and they are nearly all east of the centre line, but they give a pretty strong indication of what we may expect if the mongrel party which has put these negroes in office wins. If they make such a showing in a few years, what may we not look for if their party triumphs and they get on top again?

Mongrel party? If this is what the newspaper of record was writing, you can only imagine the sort of thing that was being published in the local white-owned newspapers in Wilmington that were whipping up the racist frenzy that would produce the pogrom.

To get an idea of how black activists reacted to Wilmington that year, you need to read a December 11th article titled “President Blamed By Negroes”. It is a reminder that black militancy and the need for black self-defense was not invented by the Black Panther Party:

WASHINGTON, Dec. 20.—Washington is pretty generally condemning a speech made ire last night at a meeting of the National Racial Protective Association by T. Tomas Fortune of New York.

There were devotional exercises and resolutions of complaint against the President not insisting upon protection to the colored people in North and South Carolina, and then came Fortune’s speech. He referred to the prayer that had included a request for the divine blessing upon the President as being specially pertinent to a present need, sneered at the choice of Gen.

Wheeler as “a side partner” to the President, and declared that if Confederate graves are to be cared for by the Government, Confederate widows and orphans must be pensioned and a monument erected to Benedict Arnold. A specimen utterance was this:

“If all the black and yellow people stood on the same ground as myself, there would have been no thirty colored men killed in Wilmington unless there were also thirty white men killed. If the colored people did not have Winchester rifles, they had pitch and pine, and while the whites were killing, the blacks should have been burning. The negroes will never get their rights until they stand up for them. The worst organization which ever existed was the organized chivalry of the South, and as a result w have 250,000 mulattos in this country. Why, the very men killed at Wilmington were the sons and grandsons of the men who killed them.”

The speaker went on railing at the President and Gov. Tanner, and said that he was in favor of mixed schools, mixed marriages. mixed churches, and “a fair deal in everything.”

I had never heard of T. Thomas Fortune before reading this. He was a remarkable figure and way ahead of his time. Once again citing Wikipedia:

With Fortune at the helm as co-owner with Emanuel Fortune, Jr., and Jerome B. Peterson, the New York Age became the most widely read of all Black newspapers. It stood at the forefront as a voice agitating against the evils of discrimination, lynching, mob violence, and disenfranchisement. Its popularity was due in part to Fortune’s editorials, which condemned all forms of discrimination and demanded full justice for all African Americans. Ida B. Wells’s newspaper Memphis Free Speech and Headlight had its printing press destroyed and building burned as the result of an article published in it on May 25, 1892. Fortune then gave her a job and a new platform from which to detail and condemn lynching.

Toward the end of his writing career, he became the editor of Marcus Garvey’s newspaper. For those on the left so worried about “black identity politics”, especially the crew around Sean Wilentz and the bat-shit WSWS, it’s high time they woke up and got off their white horse. As for the NY Times, I am glad they are pushing Project 1619, but they still have a lot to atone for.

When White Supremacists Overthrew an Elected Government
By Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
Jan. 7, 2020

WILMINGTON’S LIE
The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy
By David Zucchino

Today we Americans find ourselves struggling with the ghosts of our past. Some among us reach for histories that affirm the established view of who we are as a nation. Many believe the United States is, and must always be, a white nation. But moments of storm and stress also occasion the telling of different stories. We have seen this with The New York Times’s 1619 Project. Now we have David Zucchino’s brilliant new book.

“Wilmington’s Lie” is a tragic story about the brutal overthrow of the multiracial government of Wilmington, N.C., in 1898. The book is divided into three parts. The first details how white supremacists rejected the goals of Reconstruction and chafed under what they called “Negro domination.” We are introduced to characters like “Colonel” Alfred Moore Waddell, who would play a central role in the coup, and to the overall sense of moral panic that engulfed the white community as it confronted black self-assertion — like that of Abraham Galloway, the first black man in North Carolina to campaign in a statewide race — in the aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat.

The second section charts the campaign to reassert white rule in Wilmington. Zucchino shows how Josephus Daniels, the editor and publisher of The News and Observer, the state’s most important daily, and Furnifold Simmons, the state chairman of the Democratic Party, exploited the prejudices and fears of white North Carolinians. As Zucchino writes, “More than a century before sophisticated fake news attacks targeted social media websites, Daniels’s manipulation of white readers through phony or misleading newspaper stories was perhaps the most daring and effective disinformation campaign of the era.” This was most clearly seen in the exploitation of a column about race, sex and lynching in the black newspaper The Daily Record to justify the coup. The article, written by one of the paper’s publishers, Alexander Manly, became Exhibit A in the case that black men had forgotten their place and represented a clear and present danger to the sanctity of white womanhood.

The first two parts of the book move in a deliberate fashion. Zucchino, a contributing writer for The New York Times, does not overwrite the scenes. His moral judgment stands at a distance. He simply describes what happened and the lies told to justify it all. A generalized terror comes into view as the white citizens of Wilmington mobilized to seize power through violence and outright fraud.

The details contained in the last part of the book are heart-wrenching. With economy and a cinematic touch, Zucchino recounts the brutal assault on black Wilmington. A town that once boasted the largest percentage of black residents of any large Southern city found itself in the midst of a systematic purge. Successful black men were targeted for banishment from the city, while black workers left all their possessions behind as they rushed to the swamps for safety. Over 60 people died. No one seemed to care. The governor of North Carolina cowered in the face of the violent rebellion, worried about his own life. President William McKinley turned a blind eye to the bloodshed. And Waddell was selected as mayor as the white supremacists forced the duly elected officials to resign.

In the aftermath of it all, the white community of Wilmington told itself a lie to justify the carnage, a lie that would be repeated so often that it stood in for the truth of what actually happened on Nov. 10. The editors of one newspaper wrote, “We must hope that by far the greater part of Negroes in this city are anxious for the restoration of order and quiet and ‘the old order’ — the rule of the white people.” The leaders of the violence went on to celebrated political careers. Josephus Daniels was appointed secretary of the Navy by Woodrow Wilson and later named ambassador to Mexico by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Furnifold Simmons served 30 years as a United States senator. No one was ever held responsible for the brutal murders in Wilmington.

In the end, Zucchino pulls the story into our present moment. He interviews descendants of those who perpetrated the violence and those who bore the brunt of it. What becomes clear, at least to me, is that memory and trauma look different depending on which side of the tracks you stand. The last sentence of “Wilmington’s Lie,” which quotes the grandson of Alex Manly, makes that point without a hint of hyperbole. “If there’s a hell, I hope they’re burning in it, all of them.”

Eddie S. Glaude Jr. is the chair of the department of African-American studies and the James S. McDonnell distinguished university professor of African-American studies at Princeton.

 

October 30, 2019

Taking stock of Elijah Cummings and John Conyers

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

Elijah Cummings

John Conyers

This month two long-time African-American members of the House of Representatives died, Elijah Cummings on the 10th and John Conyers a week later. In a typical liberal encomium, John Nichols of The Nation described Cummings as a supporter of trade union struggles and a celebrated civil rights activist. Conyers, 22 years older than Cummings, had lost most of his prestige after being forced to resign two years ago from his office after a number of women had charged him with sexual harassment. That did not stop his successor Rashida Tlaib from Tweeting “Our Congressman forever, John Conyers, Jr. He never once wavered in fighting for jobs, justice and peace. We always knew where he stood on issues of equality and civil rights in the fight for the people. Thank you Congressman Conyers for fighting for us for over 50 years.” One imagines that if Conyers had not been caught with his pants down in 2017, he would have been put on the same pedestal as Cummings.

To my knowledge, neither of these long-time members of the Congressional Black Caucus has received the scrutiny they deserve. Given the subservience of the Black Caucus to the Obama administration, which was largely responsible for the backlash that allowed Trump to become President, it is worth taking a close look at their record.

Just after his death, one of the highest praises offered up to Elijah Cummings came from the solidly pro-Netanyahu Jerusalem Post that hailed The Elijah Cummings Youth Program in Israel (ECYP). It celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2019, proud of its record of sending more than 200 African-American, non-Jewish high school students to Israel. In 2010, Cummings signed the Hoyer-Cantor letter to Secretary of State Clinton that was your typical endorsement of any depravity Israel could come up with. The letter cited VP Biden: “Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to security, none. No space.”

Lauded for his wise leadership in keeping Baltimore calm after the cops murdered Freddie Gray in 2016, Cummings refused to call for a federal investigation of the department in 2016 and practically told Democracy Now that all lives mattered:

And so, now, what we have to do is be about the business of what this night is about—that is, not going into separate corners, the community and the police. We have to work together. We have to acknowledge the fact that we love our police officers.

According to the November 2018 Harpers, a unit of this police department has been found guilty of the following acts of robbery and racketeering:

  • Dragging a man from his car and robbing him while he was shopping for blinds with his wife.
  • Pretending drugs found in one man’s trash can belonged to another man and then raiding his home.
  • Seizing drugs off the street and reselling them through a bail bondsman who was photographed in the police station wearing police gear and holding an officer’s gun.
  • Reporting that a gunshot wound was related to police work when it was in fact related to drug trafficking.
  • Looting pharmacies during the riots that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a black teenager who was killed by officers while in police custody.

As for Conyers, there is ample evidence that he had declining cognitive powers in office but nonetheless it is disconcerting to take note of the following.

In 2001, succumbing to the “war on terror” hysteria of the time, Conyers co-sponsoring the Patriot Act of 2001 Jim Sensenbrenner. Sensenbrenner, a Republican, was a real piece of work, calling attention publicly to Michelle Obama’s “big butt”. He was also a nativist and advocated amending the Espionage Act of 1917 to allow journalists to be prosecuted for publishing leaks.

In 2003, Conyers dragged his feet on a Freddie Gray type killing in his home state Michigan. Called the “Benton Harbor, Michigan Intifada of 2003”, the Black community rose up for two nights after the cops murdered an unarmed black motorcyclist. There were other grievances. An African-American pastor named Edward Pinkney was a leader of a struggle against the local recreation site Harbor Shores by outside investors. (The city is 96% Black.) was in jail at the time for trumped-up charges including writing an article calling a local judge racist. When his wife appealed to Conyers to come to the aid of the people, he refused.

In 2008, Dennis Kucinich, who was a Congressman at the time, launched an impeachment inquiry against George W. Bush for his illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like up until recently, Nancy Pelosi sputtered that “impeachment was off the table” back then. When Kucinich proceeded nonetheless, Ralph Nader sent a letter to Conyers asking why he wasn’t being called as a witness, reminding him that they had “several conversations and two meetings” focusing on impeachment. Clearly, Nader was being punished for challenging the two-party system.

Just some words in conclusion. All of the information above was gleaned from the CounterPunch archives. By this point, everybody knows that I regard it as a great asset of the left just for the articles. But I would add that the searchable archives amount to a Lexis-Nexis for the radical movement and reason enough to contribute to the fund-drive.

In looking for something on the Congressional Black Caucus’s decline there, I came across just the perfect article to wrap things up, written no less by managing editor and good cyber-friend Joshua Frank. Written in 2007, “The Demise of the Congressional Black Caucus” will give you an idea not only of the failings of the two recently deceased Congressman but the malaise that affects all the rest of its members:

On September 26 the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the fundraising arm of the legislative conclave, will be hosting a four day Annual Legislative Conference (ALC), which, in the their own words, “provides a platform or the 42 African American Members of Congress to share the progress of their work on legislative items and also allows for the exchange of ideas correlated to policy issues that are of critical concern to their constituents.”

Indeed, the conference provides a platform for Congress’s black politicians, but that stage is not propped up by citizen action, it is instead supported by some of the country’s most influential corporations including; Coca-Cola, Citigroup, Bank of America, General Motors, Pfizer, Lockheed Martin, Exxon Mobil, Shell Oil, Anheuser Busch and many more.

It hasn’t been the best year for the CBC Foundation. Last summer the Black Caucus was compelled to cancel a Democratic Presidential Forum it had planned to do with the Fox News network. Fortunately activists exposed the foundation for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from various branches of the Fox Broadcasting Company. While CBC did not seem to mind the criticism it received from constituents for the group’s association with Fox, Democratic presidential candidates were sensitive to the disapproval and withdrew from the forum, forcing its cancellation.

It isn’t likely that the black community will call for the termination of this month’s Annual Legislative Conference because Shell Oil has a card in the CBC Foundation’s donor Rolodex, despite the company’s blood-spattered history with the Ogoni people of Nigeria. Nor will the members of the CBC abandon support for the event because the Foundation accepts cash from the nation’s largest defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which was recently awarded a multi-billion dollar contract to defend the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.

Evidently the CBC isn’t shy about who its precepts. In fact a look at the ALC’s itinerary of the week’s events is telling enough. Despite that the majority of black Americans opposed the invasion of Iraq, while even more oppose a military foray with Iran, there is not one single session scheduled to discuss these important issues. Lockheed Martin seems to pull more weight than CBC constituents.

Continue reading Josh’s article

 

 

September 6, 2019

Crimes of the Criminal Justice System

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,crime,Film,prison — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 6, 2019

Your first reaction to the concurrence of three online films about the racist abuses of the American criminal justice system might be to attribute this to pure happenstance. However, given the objective reality of the increasing legal, moral and political rot of the police, the courts and the prison system, it was inevitable that filmmakers of conscience would feel impelled to respond to the crisis. In other words, we should not speak of happenstance but ineluctability.

Made for Netflix, Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” is a docudrama about the Central Park Five, a group of African-American teens who spent up to twelve years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Running on HBO, “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” is a documentary about a Jamaican soccer coach accused of the murder of the 12-year old son of his ex-girlfriend in Potsdam, New York. Like the cops in DuVernay’s film, their investigation is filled with irregularities intended to help convict a Black man. Finally, there is “Free Meek” on Amazon Prime, another documentary, this time about a successful rapper from Philadelphia who is hounded by an African-American female judge determined to keep him on probation for the rest of his life for a crime he supposedly committed when he was 19-years old. Like the Central Park Five, his main crime in the eyes of the cops was being Black. As is so often the case with such victims, having Black cops, judges or prison guards does not make much difference to people of color being cast down into the system of hell they maintain.

Continue reading

December 26, 2018

Race, class and the DSA

Filed under: african-american,DSA,racism — louisproyect @ 11:49 pm

Miguel Salazar, hired gun for the New Republic

On December 20th, Miguel Salazar wrote an article for New Republic titled “Do America’s Socialists Have a Race Problem?” that was clearly intended to scandalize the DSA. While the magazine is by no means as disgusting as it was under Martin Peretz’s neoconservative editorial control, it certainly reflects the dominant position of the Clinton/Biden/Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party. If you want to get a handle on Salazar’s politics, you should read the Nation interview he did with Jon Lee Anderson, the author of a hostile biography of Che Guevara. Check out this question: “Recently, in the US, there has been a push for a more revisionist approach in looking back at historical figures such as Robert E. Lee or Andrew Jackson. In an interview with BBC Mundo, you say that we can’t compare figures from the past using the morals of today. Where do we draw the line on figures like Che?” Imagine that. Making an amalgam between the slavocracy and a physician who gave up a promising career to risk his life fighting for the liberation of Cuba’s campesinos.

It appears that an African-American politician named Cat Brooks was urged to come to a Bay Area DSA by some of her supporters who were at a meeting in progress. They summoned her because there was sentiment against endorsing her candidacy for mayor of Oakland. A DSAer named Jeremy Gong was likely leading the opposition to her based on an article he wrote in September titled “East Bay DSA Should Not Endorse Cat Brooks”. To start with, Gong argues that her support for charter schools should preclude an endorsement. But additionally Gong hearkens back to a hoary debate on the left going on for a century at least. He writes: “in her statements to and about DSA, Brooks has revealed that she holds a political perspective which understands race to be the fundamental dividing line in society instead of class — and this undermines our project of building a multiracial working-class movement.”

For Salazar, the emphasis on class betrays the DSA’s supposedly old-school Marxism:

But unlike other progressive groups, DSA has to contend with internal factions that are very seriously wedded to a certain strain of socialist ideology—one that emphasizes, as Karl Marx did, a churning class war that governs the history of humankind. For these socialists, an anti-capitalist movement must be anti-racist, since capitalism has been instrumental in the subjugation of minorities. But they are also weary of liberal politicians who, they say, exploit race to pander to minority groups, all while skirting the deeper class conflict at work. In the past year, these hard-liners have clashed on numerous occasions with other socialists, often minorities themselves, who contend that righting America’s unique wrongs requires an approach distinct from the universal precepts of historical materialism—one that emphasizes racism’s special impact on inequality, supra-class.

It would be useful if Salazar identified who “these hard-liners” were but I wouldn’t expect an article designed to scandalize the DSA to name names. My first inclination would have been to check what such a “hard-liner” had written to judge for myself, if only Salazar had bothered to provide a source. But then again I am used to reading Marxist polemics where clarity is all-important. When you write for the New Republic and The Nation, clarity gets short shrift.

Further evidence of racism might have been uncovered in Philadelphia as well. There was a proposal in DSA to set up a reading group based on Asad Haider’s new book “Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump”. After the political education committee declared that it was not starting any new reading groups, the DSA members went ahead with it anyway. When the Philly DSA leaders found out, they told them to either cease and desist or resign. Considering the loose-knit nature of the DSA, this struck me as an organizational solution to a political problem, namely how to resolve the class/race contradiction or decide whether one even exists. The two camps went back and forth for a couple of weeks with temperatures rising, I supposed.

Finally, the fight boiled over into the pages of Jacobin when Melissa Naschek, a co-chair of the Philly chapter, wrote an attack on Haider’s book because it viewed the Black Power movement of the 1960s positively. For her, Black civil rights figures such as A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin are much more in line with DSA perspectives because they “insisted that the way forward was through an interracial working-class coalition.” By creating separate Black organizations such as SNCC, the Panthers, and dozens of other less well-known groups in the sixties, the Black Power movement was “was still based on a liberal belief that economic inequality could be dealt with by segregating the working class into racially distinguished units”, even if the rhetoric of an H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael was “militant”.

Since Naschek and Haider only know the sixties by reading secondary material, I am not surprised that they find inspiration in either A. Philip Randolph or H. Rap Brown. Unfortunately, the Black struggle in the 1960s was held back by reformism on one side and ultraleftism on the other. As should be understood, they function as two sides of the same coin. As Peter Camejo once put it, the failure to win reforms, especially through electoral politics, can make impatient youth take part in adventurist actions that are designed to persuade politicians to change—an act tantamount to a tot having a tantrum.

Sometimes a liberal becomes frustrated not getting the ear of the ruling class, and he concludes that he has been using the wrong tactics. So he adopts a lot of radical rhetoric. He says this ruling class is apparently so thickheaded that what we’ve got to do is really let loose a temper tantrum to get its attention. The politicians won’t listen to peaceful things, but if we go out and break windows then Kennedy will say, “Oh, I guess there is a problem in this society. I didn’t realize it when they were just demonstrating peacefully. I thought everything was OK because they were in the system, but now they’re going outside the system, they’re breaking windows, so we’ve got to hold back.”

These liberal-ultraleftists think that’s what moves the ruling class. Actually they come close to a correct theory when they say that if people start leaving the system the ruling class will respond. But they don’t believe that the masses can be won. They think it is enough for them to leave the system themselves, small groups of people carrying out direct confrontations.

Does Melissa Naschek have any idea that A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin refused to speak out against the Vietnam War for fear that it would undermine Democratic Party programs to help Black people? You’d think that to help her make her case against Black Power she would have at least held up Martin Luther King Jr. who did tie race and class together in the course of pointing out why Blacks should oppose the war. Maybe she decided to sweep him under the rug because too many people, especially old farts like me, knew that he was beginning to adopt some of the themes that the Black Power movement had articulated. This includes his 1967 statement that “The majority of [Black] political leaders do not ascend to prominence on the shoulders of mass support … most are still selected by white leadership, elevated to position, supplied with resources and inevitably subjected to white control. The mass of [Blacks] nurtures a healthy suspicion toward this manufactured leader.” H. Rap Brown might have used coarser language but it amounted to the same thing.

Haider wrote a lengthy reply to Naschek on the Verso website that I cannot begin to summarize because of its length but suffice it to say that he finds Randolph and Rustin lacking. Somewhat surprisingly, he does not mention their silence on the Vietnam War.

My biggest problem with his response is his tendency to express himself through abstractions. For example, he writes: “To argue for improvements in the living conditions of Americans alone is not universal. But any struggle can become universal if it challenges the whole structure of domination and brings about a collective subject with the possibility of self-governance.” I guess this is the occupational hazard of being a dissertation student. You read stuff like this all the time and it seeps into your own writing. That being said, I am probably much more in sympathy with his ideas since I was passionate about Black nationalism from the time I heard Malcolm X speak at a Militant Labor Forum in 1965.

Turning back to Salazar, he blames the Momentum caucus in DSA for the old-school Marxism that led to the rejection of Cat Brooks:

These ideological clashes, usually pitting DSA leadership against rank-and-file membership, have been largely limited to East Bay and Philadelphia, the only two major chapters in the country run by the Momentum caucus, a subgroup described in a 2017 Nation profile as the “most explicitly Marxist” within the organization, with a heavy focus on the campaign for Medicare-for-All.

You’d think that “the most explicitly Marxist” faction in DSA would be all about raising transitional demands and breaking with the Democratic Party. But in this strange skewed perspective of the New Republic and The Nation, a heavy focus on Medicare-for-All is virtually equivalent to Che and Fidel going into the Sierra Maestra mountains to start a guerrilla war. If you go to the Momentum website, you’ll discover that despite their dim view of the Democratic Party, they also view attempts to build a new left party as futile. Momentum leader Jeremy Gong co-wrote an article with Eric Blanc on Jacobin making the case that the Ocasio-Cortez campaign and Medicare-for-All illustrate “How Class Should Be Central”, as the title puts it. If that’s what “most explicitly Marxist” represents in such circles, I guess I am no Marxist.

Finally, a few words about Adolph Reed who intervened in this debate in a Common Dreams article titled “Which Side Are You On?”. Reed, who was a Trotskyist in the sixties just like me, has evolved into a class fundamentalist of the sort that the Debs SP and the CPUSA of the 1930s typified. Apparently, it is also the orientation that Miguel Salazar and Melissa Naschek favor.

Debs, bless his soul, just didn’t understand what his contemporary W.E.B. DuBois was trying to say:

I have said and say again that, properly speaking, there is no Negro question outside of the labor question—the working class struggle. Our position as Socialists and as a party is perfectly plain. We have simply to say: “The class struggle is colorless.” The capitalists, white, black and other shades, are on one side and the workers, white, black and all other colors, on the other side.

Reed sounds like he has plagiarized Mark Lilla, the Columbia professor who blamed Trump’s victory in 2016 on Hillary Clinton’s identity politics:

This politics is open to the worst forms of opportunism, and it promises to be a major front on which neoliberal Democrats will attack the left, directly and indirectly, and these lines of attack stand out in combining red-baiting and race-baiting into a new, ostensibly progressive form of invective. Hillary Clinton’s infamous 2016 campaign swipe at Sanders that his call for breaking up big banks wouldn’t end racism was only one harbinger of things to come. Indeed, we should recall that it was followed hard upon by even more blunt attacks from prominent members of the black political class.

It has been and will be all too easy for the occasion to elect “the first” black/Native American/woman/lesbian to substitute for the need to advance an agenda that can appeal broadly to working people of all races, genders and sexual orientations. Our side’s failure to struggle for that sort of agenda is one reason Trump is in the White House. We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes that helped bring about that result.

It’s worth mentioning that Reed’s hostility to Black people organizing on behalf of their own demands has led to some truly reactionary positions. In an article on Nonsite.org, he takes up the question of Black Lives Matter focusing on killer cops. He writes:

This line of argument and complaint, as well as the demand for ritual declarations that “black lives matter,” rest on insistence that “racism”—structural, systemic, institutional, post-racial or however modified—must be understood as the cause and name of the injustice manifest in that disparity, which is thus by implication the singular or paramount injustice of the pattern of police killings.

But, when we step away from focus on racial disproportions, the glaring fact is that whites are roughly half or nearly half of all those killed annually by police. [emphasis added]

As for this “glaring fact”, it skirts the real issue, namely whether a white cop would have shot a 12-year old boy like Tamir Rice running around with a toy pistol in a playground if he had been white. When someone in a position to speak for the Black left ends up spouting the kind of garbage you can hear on Tucker Carlson, you really have to wonder what went wrong.

December 6, 2018

Black America seen through the prism of seven films released this year

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 2:16 am

Likely a combination of pressure applied on the Hollywood film industry to be more racially inclusive and the street protests led by Black Lives Matter, 2018 was marked by a bumper crop of films about Black America. Perhaps the most significant evidence of a shift was the long and flattering article in the May 22, 2018 Sunday NY Times Magazine section titled “How Boots Riley Infiltrated Hollywood” that was unlike any article I had seen in the magazine in a long time, maybe ever:

“Sorry to Bother You” comes out in wide release in July. The film is visually ingenious and funny, yet grounded by pointed arguments about the obstacles to black success in America, the power of strikes and the soul-draining predations of capitalism. A self-described communist since his teens, Riley has said he aims “to help build a mass movement that can use withholding of labor as a strategy for social change.”

Another such film that opened to universal acclaim was Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”, which some critics viewed as his best work ever. I avoided seeing the two films when they first came out partly as a reaction to the hype surrounding them. In general, I stay away from Hollywood films for most of the year since they hardly seem worth the money I would spend to see them. As I expected, I received screeners for both films and can say at this point that my skepticism was warranted. This has also been the case with just about every other film I have seen in this capacity except for the surprisingly great “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

As it happens, the best in this group of seven under consideration was a low-budget neorealist indie film titled “Life and Nothing More” directed by a Spaniard who used nonprofessionals exclusively. Except for this film, the others were flawed in one way or another. Despite that, I have no problem recommending them all since they at least engage with the realities of racism that have deepened horrifically under the white supremacist administration of Donald Trump.

Sorry to Bother You

The main character in this surrealist satire is a young African-American man named Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) who has just started a job as a telemarketer in Oakland. When he fails to sell much of anything, an older co-worker played by Danny Glover advises him to use a “white voice”. This leads to success, so much so that he gets promoted to a highly paid “power caller” position on a higher floor. When his co-workers on the ground floor form a union to strike for higher wages, Green crosses their picket line.

The combination of losing friendships made on the ground floor, estrangement from his girlfriend–a radical artist, and the dark secrets he discovers on the top floor is enough to make him quit his power caller job and join the resistance.

Both the ground-floor and top-floor operations are owned by a man named Steve Lift who might be described as a combination of Jeff Bezos and some villain out of a Marvel comic book—not that there’s much difference. Lift has begun building a slave labor work force based on Centaur-like creatures called “equisapiens” that are produced by a gene-modifying, cocaine-like drug that Green himself is persuaded to take in Lift’s office.

As a genre, surrealist satire generally leaves me cold. Although I have seen no references to this, it strikes me that the work of directors and screenwriters such as Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Terry Gilliam helped shape “Sorry to Bother You”. Such works strive for shock value rather than dramatic intensity based on realism. In Riley’s film, there is almost no attempt to develop one of the equisapiens into a sympathetic and identifiable character such as the slaves in Pontecorvo’s “Burn” but there is no doubt that the sight of a man’s body with a horse’s head must have been enough to impress most film critics.

BlacKkKlansman

This film was “inspired” by the real life experience of a Black cop in Colorado Springs named Ron Stallworth who teamed up with a white cop in the 1970s to infiltrate the KKK. Since he was working undercover at the time to gain information on “extremist” groups like the local Black Student Union that had invited Kwame Ture (née Stokely Carmichael), he decided to branch out and investigate the Klan. So the film sets up an equivalence between Kwame Ture and David Duke, a cast character playing a major supporting role in the film. Doesn’t this remind you a bit of how Trump and his “there were bad people on both sides in Charlottesville”?

Ironically, despite Boots Riley’s devastating critique of Lee’s film, they both rely on the same device—a Black man using a “white voice” to deceive someone on the other side of the line. In Stallworth’s case, it was to communicate with the KKK about future meetings, etc. Once a hook-up was arranged, a white (and Jewish) cop named Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) would show up representing himself as Stallworth.

Stallworth’s initiative in penetrating the KKK elevated him in the eyes of the local police force who at first regarded him either paternalistically or in an openly racist manner. In the film’s conclusion, he uses a wire to record a racist cop who is dragged off to the delight of Stallworth and his white cop supporters. It is not exactly clear why he is being arrested since racism is completely legal, especially in Colorado.

Essentially, Lee’s film is a throwback to Stanley Kramer’s liberal, integrationist films of the 1960s like “The Defiant Ones” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Racism is depicted as a function of prejudice rather than institutions functioning to create a reserve army of labor. Lee is a skilled filmmaker but not much different than Michael Moore politically. In 2008, he hailed Obama’s victory as a sign that Washington would soon become a “Chocolate City”. Four years later when it was obvious that it remained vanilla under Obama, he expressed disappointment but still raised a million dollars in a fundraising party at his home for his re-election.

In his takedown of Lee’s film, Riley was a lot sharper than any dialog he wrote in “Sorry to Bother You”:

Look—we deal with racism not just from physical terror or attitudes of racist people, but in pay scale, housing, health care, and other material quality of life issues. But to the extent that people of color deal with actual physical attacks and terrorizing due to racism and racist doctrines—we deal with it mostly from the police on a day to day basis. And not just from White cops. From Black cops too. So for Spike to come out with a movie where a story points are fabricated in order to make Black cop and his counterparts look like allies in the fight against racism is really disappointing, to put it very mildly.

Green Book

Like “BlacKkKlansman”, “Green Book” is based on the experiences of real-life characters but probably taking fewer liberties. In 1962, Jamaican-born pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) needed a driver for a tour that began in the north and that ended in the Deep South. He hired a bouncer from the Copacabana named “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who was out of work for two months while the Copa did some remodeling.

The film is reminiscent of old-fashioned TV comedy, especially “The Odd Couple” that paired a slovenly sportswriter and a prissy photographer in the same Manhattan apartment after both men had divorced their wives. Felix, the photographer, is always lecturing Oscar about his untidy habits while Oscar is working to wean Felix from his neurotic obsessions over this and that. In “Green Room”, the fastidious and well-educated Black artist is always remonstrating Tony Lip for his lapses. He wants to improve his diction—a Bronx Italian accent done well by Mortensen—as if he were Henry Higgins working on Liza Dolittle. Irritated at first, Tony Lip begins to warm up to his boss after seeing him wow audiences and having the courage to tour the Deep South. In a number of scenes, he confronts racists who have disrespected the world-class pianist even though the film starts with Tony Lip throwing out a couple of glasses that Black repairmen have drunk from while working to fix his refrigerator. If he can overcome his prejudice, why can’t the rest of Italians in the Bronx “get along” with Negros.

The film was directed by Peter Farrelly, a white filmmaker who has teamed up with his brother Bobby for comedies like “There’s Something About Mary”. This is essentially a road movie with a message of racial tolerance as likeable and old-fashioned as bowl of steel-cut oatmeal on a winter morning. It is the kind of film that a white audience in Birmingham, Alabama, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, can watch with pleasure even if on the next day they treat Black people with contempt. That’s what films like this are about, anyhow. An escape from a mean and violent world.

If Beale Street Could Talk

Based on James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, this is a film directed by Barry Jenkins, the African-American who made the excellent “Moonlight” in 2016. Set in the early 1970s, it is love story about a 22-year old aspiring sculptor named Fonny and his 19-year old lover named Tish who grew up in Harlem, the children of working-class parents.

Like many kids in Harlem, especially those who took advantage of an inexpensive CUNY education, the two were anxious to live as Manhattanites and put the provincialism of Harlem behind them, especially that of their parents. Tish’s mother is a devout Baptist who practically disowns the two when the unmarried Tish becomes pregnant.

Fonny has a day job that allows him to enjoy a reasonably decent life (this was long before Manhattan turned into Rio de Janeiro) while Tish works behind the counter selling cologne at a place that looks like Bloomingdales. Their prospects brighten when an orthodox Jew named David decides to rent an empty loft to Fonny on Bank Street in the West Village that he can use for both shelter and artwork. Keep in mind that in the early 70s, this is how Soho and Tribeca got started. When Fonny is shocked to discover that a Jew was about to rent something far below market prices (was this an inadvertent stereotype?) to a Black man, he can’t help but ask why he was being treated so well. The reply: I was touched by the love you two shared.

Despite being poised on the brink of a new and free life, Fonny can’t escape the consequences of being Black, even in progressive New York. When a white cop, who has a grudge against Fonny for an earlier confrontation, arrests him on the flimsy charge of raping a woman on the Lower East Side, their dreams are dashed. He goes off to prison despite the best efforts of his mother to track down the woman in Puerto Rico in order to convince her testimony in court.

What makes the film notable is not so much the struggle for racial justice but the romance of the two young people that director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins conveys well, no doubt a function of his deep devotion to James Baldwin and this novel in particular. In an Esquire Magazine article, Jenkins expresses the challenges of making a film that combines the hopefulness of young love and the crushing social forces arrayed against it:

And yet so rarely has a protest novel contained within it as soaring a love as that between Tish and Fonny. To put it simply, the romance at the center of this novel is pure to the point of saccharine. It’s no wonder that, amongst the more scholarly of his readers, the book is held in lesser esteem. And yet even this is a testament to the magic trick Baldwin pulls here, and a key reason for the tone of our adaptation. We don’t expect to treat the lives and souls of black folks in the aesthetic of the ecstatic. It’s assumed that the struggle to live, to simply breathe and exist, weighs so heavily on black folks that our very beings need be shrouded in the pathos of pain and suffering.

The Hate U Give

Directed by the African-American George Tillman Jr., this is a Black Lives Matter-themed film based on a young adult novel written by another African-American, Angie Thomas (the screenplay was an adaptation written by a white woman named Audrey Wells, who died shortly before the film’s release.)

The main character is Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who lives in a crime-ridden and poverty-stricken neighborhood reminiscent of Ferguson, Missouri called Garden Heights but who goes to a predominantly white and wealthy school “on the other side of the tracks”. Her identity is split between the two places. She has a white boyfriend and hangs out with white girls, making little attempt to fill them in on how she lives in Garden Heights.

One night she goes to a party where she runs into an old friend from the neighborhood named Khalil who offers her a ride home. On the way there, they are stopped by a cop in a typical racial profiling manner who orders Khalil out of the car and to put his hands on the roof. With Starr sitting in the front seat and the cop examining Khalil’s license and registration, he turns around, sticks his head through the window to see how she is holding up. After she says okay, he grabs a hair brush from the front seat and begins resuming the stance the cop ordered him to take. When the cop spots the brush in darkness of the night, he mistakes it for a pistol and in “self-defense” fires three bullets into the youth who dies on the spot.

As the sole eyewitness to the killing, Starr has to choose between two identities. If she comes out as the only person who has a chance of bringing the cop to justice, she risks antagonizing her white friends in high school. One of them even repeats the “all lives matter” excuse for the cops.

Finally deciding that she had to do the right thing, she does a TV interview that charges the cop for being a lawless executioner as well as well as fingering a brutal gang in Garden Heights that is almost as much of a impediment to Black security as the out-of-control police department. As a Ferguson-type protest takes shape in her neighborhood, she reluctantly assumes leadership even as she has to contend with the gang members who want to punish her for the TV interview.

Whether it is a function of the young adult material it is based on or just the author’s inexperience, the main problem of the film is its predictability. Characters are defined and then act according to the role that they are assigned to. Nothing comes as much of a surprise.

That being said, it is of supreme importance that such a film can make its way into Cineplexes where a documentary on Ferguson would never appear. It is even more significant that the novel it is based on has sold 1.5 million copies, presumably to young Black people who have a voice speaking for their frustrations and anger that are heard nowhere else.

The author’s story is very much like that of young people in Ferguson or any other place where a cop killing triggered BLM protests. Born in 1988, Angie Thomas grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, the city in which a progressive Democratic Party city government has encouraged the growth of cooperatives serving the Black community.

Having dreamt of becoming a writer from an early age and graduating from a Christian college in Mississippi with a BFA, she resolved to write such a novel after Oscar Grant was killed in Oakland on New Years Eve in 2009. In an interview with Ebony, Grant described what amounted to as a mission, something probably remote to the average University of Iowa Writers Workshop student:

As a Black woman, I feel like I have a unique experience that we don’t often see in media portrayals of the South. When you say, “Southern” or you speak about a Southern accent, there’s always that drawl and usually from White people. That’s what people associate with the South.

But we’re all different. The Black Southern accent is different. It’s small things like that, and then big things like being from Mississippi, specifically, and hearing the stories about Emmett Till, and being familiar with that from a very young age. Or knowing that I lived maybe three minutes away from Medgar Evers’ home, and that my mom heard the gunshot that killed him. Knowing that I live in a state where whenever somebody would fight for my rights or speak up for me, they were automatically deemed the enemy by the majority.

Whatever qualms I had about the film, I feel enriched by the experience of discovering that such writers exist.

Monsters and Men

Directed and written by the African-American Reinaldo Marcus Green, this film is also inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Based on the killing of loose-cigarette peddler Eric Garner in Staten Island in 2014 by a cop’s chokehold that inspired the protest call “I can’t breathe”, Green tells the story of three men who were impacted in one way or another by the fictionalized account of Garner’s death (in the film, it is a cop’s gun rather than a chokehold that costs the cigarette peddler his life.)

We first meet Manny Ortega, who like Starr is an eyewitness to the killing. He is hesitant to speak out not because it would diminish his status but because as a poor and underemployed Latino, he cannot afford to piss off the cops. Like Starr, he does the right thing.

Next we meet Dennis Williams, a Black cop who is struggling to stay behind the blue wall of silence that would free him from the burden of testifying against a colleague. Having been stopped by cops six times that year in racial profiling incidents, he has been pushed to the limit. (Williams is played by Denzel Washington’s son John David Washington, who also played the cop Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s film.)

Finally, there is Zyrick, a young Black man who is stopped on his way home from baseball practice in another racial profiling incident. For his father, an MTA worker, and Zyrick, baseball opens up the possibility of a lucrative career. When his own experience being stopped by the cops resonates with the killing of the cigarette peddler, Zyrick decides to take part in a BLM protest the night before he is supposed to take part in a game with baseball scouts eyeing prospects for the big leagues. When his father learns that he is going to take part in the protest, he lashes out him for losing his focus. It is nothing but baseball that is important. Black people have been killed by the cops for no good reason since the Civil War. The only answer is to mind your own business and stay out of their way.

The next day, Zyrick shows up at the baseball game with a shirt demanding justice for the slain peddler and takes a knee with other aspiring baseball pros.

In an interview with Remezcla, a website devoted to Latino culture and politics, Green—who is half Puerto-Rican—spoke for many young filmmakers of color anxious to use film to raise political awareness in the Black and Latino community:

This film is my form of activism, however small. I think that’s really what it’s about. It’s about baby steps. It’s about talking about it, continuing the dialogue, and trying to open people’s minds to an issue that really needs to be talked about. It’s happening all around us, we can’t turn a blind eye to the things that are happening to our people and our community. It’s important for us to just stay engaged as a community, the Latino community, the Black community, it’s important for us to come together. As a collective, we’re much stronger, and we need to support one another.

Life and Nothing More

Despite its minimal funding and its brief stay in the Film Forum, this film stands out for me as a major contribution to the body of work about Black Americans going back to classics like “Nothing but a Man”. It should show up eventually as VOD and when it does, don’t waste any time. It is truly powerful.

Using neorealist conventions heightened by a very gifted non-professional cast, the story is defined by the constraints imposed by capitalist society on a single mother named Regina working as a waitress, her troubled 14-year old son, and three year old daughter. Director Antonio Méndez Esparaza spent two years in Tallahassee interviewing single Black mothers to help him write the script for a film steeped in neorealist traditions.

When we first meet Regina, she is working as a waitress at the Red Onion restaurant somewhere in Florida when an African-American man named Robert tries to strike up a friendly conversation with her. Since her husband is doing time for aggravated assault, she is wary of all men. In a subsequent conversation with Robert, she puts him off by saying “fuck all men”. Not willing to take no for an answer, he approaches her again during her break on another day and breaks down her resistance. Since there are so few pleasures in her life, being taken out for dinner and shooting pool with him later is something that she looks forward to. That is the first step in cementing a relationship that finally ends up with him moving in with her and treating the three-year-old with tenderness.

The stumbling block is her son Andrew who is as hostile to adult men as his mother is initially but with less of an incentive to open up to a man he suspects of taking advantage of his mother’s yearning for company. An argument between his mother and Robert in the middle of the night leads to a confrontation in which Andrew pulls out a gravity knife with a warning to Robert to stand down. Fed up with lover and son alike, Regina throws both men out—at least for the evening.

All of these people are living on the knife’s edge. A loss of a job, an unplanned pregnancy or an arrest can push them into a bottomless pit. The authenticity of “Life and Nothing More” is astonishing. It has a documentary-like matter of factness that serves the narrative arc. Given the flammable nature of the social relations in the world occupied by the characters, a spark can set off a conflagration at any minute. It is reminder that if the anger and frustration of Black America ever gets turned at its real enemies, the class struggle of the future will make the sixties look like child’s play.

 

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