Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 17, 2021

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts

Filed under: african-american,art,Film — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Yesterday, “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” opened at the Film Forum in New York, the Laemmle in Los Angeles, and through Kino-Lorber’s Virtual Cinema network across the country. Traylor was a self-taught Black artist born on a small-scale slave plantation in Alabama in 1853 who did not make his first drawing until 1939, when at the age of 86, he produced over a thousand in just over three years. He died in 1948. Unlike a young artist professionally trained who comes to New York or Los Angeles in their early 20s to “make it”, Traylor only created such works out of some deep longing in his soul and arguably to make sense out of a life that was that of the prototypical southern slave and then sharecropper. Like William Blake or Vincent Van Gogh, the drawings he created were tantamount to being dictated to him by some divine presence.

In telling Traylor’s story, director Jeffrey Wolf and writer Fred Barron also tell the story of the Deep South. If not for his art, Traylor would have died in obscurity. By bringing his story to life, Wolf and Barron bring to life the pains and joy of Alabamans who suffered through slavery, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow. Despite it all, they found ways to express themselves through religion, art and political solidarity. Although obliquely, Traylor’s drawings chronicle that dark history, with many insights into how Black people managed to make the most out of meager circumstances.

The film amounts to a visit to a gallery with Traylor’s art and expert commentary by a deeply informed board of experts, both Black and white. In keeping with the burgeoning cultural renaissance that maps closely to the resistance mounted by Black Lives Matter, Traylor is lauded as a symbol of the refusal to be defined by white society. For the three years he sat on a chair on Monroe Street, the heart of Montgomery, Alabama’s Black neighborhood, where he drew pictures of farm animals, cats, dogs, people dancing, people drinking—never with the intention of making money from them. Homeless at the time, he was taken in by the Monroe Street community and slept on a mattress on the floor of a funeral parlor alongside other homeless men. His daily meals were supplied from a kosher grocery store owned by the Katz family

His work only became known outside of this small world when a white artist named Charles Shannon discovered Traylor on his customary seat outside a fish market. Stunned by the beauty and soul of his work, Shannon not only supplied Traylor with the tools he needed to create his drawings but went on a one-man mission to make the art world in New York recognize Traylor as a unique talent. While grateful to Shannon for his support, Traylor preferred to draw on cardboard that he picked up around the neighborhood. If there was a semi-circular slit in the cardboard, he might have turned that into a smile on the face of one of his subjects.

At the time, a Traylor drawing might have gone for a dollar or two. Now recognized as one of America’s top Black artists, his work is collected by the very wealthy, including William Louis-Dreyfus, Julia’ father. Dreyfus’s foundation has sold Traylor’s work at auctions. In January 2019, “Woman Pointing at Man With Cane” went for a surprising $396,500 at Christie’s. According to her, he “likened Traylor to the greats — the Giacomettis, the Kandinskys.” As for me, I see a similarity to Matisse. Ironically, the image below comes from the cover of a Matisse book called “Jazz”, which of course is just one of Black America’s gift to our nation.

Since so much of the art world is commodified, it is hard to take this sort of business seriously. Perhaps the greatest value that comes out of his recognition was a scene at the conclusion of the film when all of his ancestors come to the erection of a headstone at his unmarked grave in Montgomery. The NY Times’s Roberta Smith paid tribute to him at the ceremony. Smith, who once called Traylor one of America’s greatest artists, told his gathered relatives: “It is not an overstatement to state that Bill Traylor was an American original and that his body of artwork that he left behind will remain an American treasure.”

February 17, 2021

Judas and the Black Messiah

Filed under: african-american,Film,repression — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the story of Fred Hampton’s assassination by the Chicago police in 1969. Co-written by Will Berson, a Jew, and Shaka King, an African-American, it unites a team that worked together in the past on featherweight TV comedies. In addition to co-authorship of the screenplay, King served as director.

They have made a well-researched, by-the-numbers biopic that will help many young people understand the depravity of the FBI, just as Aaron Sorkin’s “Trial of the Chicago 7” helped expose the city’s cops and judicial system. Unlike Sorkin, Berson and King did not twist the story to suit their own political agenda. However, by relying on the unfortunate mythology that has arisen around the Black Panther Party in the past half-century, some further analysis will be necessary for a deeper understanding of the period and how the ruling class was able to murder a promising young leader.

As should not come as a big surprise, this unheralded, debut film had major players bootstrapping it. Ryan Coogler, the black director of “Black Panther”, was one benefactor. His Panthers were not activists but African demigods originating in Marvel Comic books that unaccountably was hailed by Jamelle Bouie as “the most political movie ever produced by Marvel Studios”. As producer, he raised millions as did Charles D. King, a black former super-agent who founded MACRO Media so that such films could be made (he is no relation to the director.)

Apparently, Shaka King was thinking big when he decided to make his first feature film. He hoped to make our era’s version of “Battle of Algiers”. As I will try to explain in my political analysis that follows, it is doubtful that he has the kind of Marxist politics that served Pontecorvo so well. Nor did he have Pontecorvo’s cinematic genius. The 1950s and 60s were years in which Marxism exercised a major influence over European filmmaking. Those days are long gone.

Berson and King made a major mistake in analogizing an FBI undercover asset with Judas Iscariot, who was not only a disciple of Jesus Christ but one of the twelve original Apostles.

By contrast, Bill O’Neal was a shadowy and nondescript snitch who like most FBI plants did it for the money and to avoid being sent to prison for a previous offense. Like most of the agent-provocateurs that the FBI and red squads implanted in mosques, O’Neal was a grubby opportunist. But unlike the cases in which feckless, observant Muslims were talked into terrorist stings by the FBI, Fred Hampton was supposedly no babe in the woods. Why would he ever have allowed someone with a dicey past like O’Neal ensure his safety, especially since he was not as politically committed as the average Panther? When Hampton becomes suspicious of O’Neal’s claim of being a car thief, he forces him at gunpoint to hotwire his stolen car to prove his bona fides. When he passes the test, Hampton is assuaged. If this was the kind of acid test new members had to pass rather than understanding Panther politics, Berson and King unwittingly revealed how inexperienced this group really was. And perhaps their own inexperience with the period.

In every scene, O’Neal comes across as a man with no particular qualms about being a Judas. He only seeks to cut his ties to the FBI when it becomes clear that he might be picked off by a cop in the gun battles that were bound to ensue in a period of rising violence between an angry Black community and the class enemy. In a scene close to the conclusion, O’Neal barely dodges a bullet during a shootout that ends with Panther HQ being torched.

By contrast, the Jesse James films were more dramatic because Robert Ford, the “dirty coward who killed Mr. Howard (James’s assumed name)” of folk-song fame, was continuously wracked by feelings of guilt for betraying his fellow outlaw. Playing Ford in the 1949 “I Shot Jesse James”, John Ireland was nonpareil. The filmmakers failure to invest more in this character, even if fictionally, robbed it of its possible power. Why not have O’Neal become swept up in the revolutionary fervor surrounding him, like Patty Hearst and the  Symbionese Liberation Army while still being coerced to be a snitch? By the standards of anti-heroes going back to the New Testament, O’Neal was not nearly Judas enough. Jejune was more like it.

Given the intense drama that surrounded Hampton’s assassination, it is unfortunate that Belson and King sought to embellish it with staged confrontations that had more in common with cheap action movies than real life. Hampton had the political acumen to create a de facto united front with various outsider groups in Chicago that, like the Panthers, had collided with the cops. In an amalgam of youth gangs won to the side of left politics, they create a group called the Crowns that has a summit meeting with the Panthers in a capacious auditorium that looks like nothing you’d expect to see in a Chicago slum. Dozens of Crowns are armed with automatic rifles and shotguns that we’d expect to be used against the Panthers if Hampton missteps. Fortunately for him, he makes the case for revolutionary action and is rewarded with an automatic rifle by the Crown’s leader. None of this seems plausible. It would have worked far better if the melodrama had been abandoned and the politics amplified.

Ditto for a showdown between Hampton and the Young Patriots, a group of poor white men and women who flocked to Chicago from the South to escape poverty, just like blacks. The scene opens with the Patriots sitting at a table beneath a huge Confederate flag, giving an audience unfamiliar with such meetings the impression that Hampton was risking his life by meeting with KKK types. In reality, the Patriot leaders had a background as community organizers  with Jobs or Income Now (JOIN). This group grew out of Students for a Democratic Society efforts to organize the neighborhood where poor southerners lived. As co-founders of the Young Patriots, Jack “Junebug” Boykin and Doug Youngblood had been involved with JOIN. If I had a hand in writing “Judas and the Black Messiah”, I would have dropped the Judas part and expanded such characters and even created a buddy relationship between Hampton and Boykin. That would have been far more politically relevant than themes of betrayal and subterfuge.

Having said all this, I still recommend the film since it will be of obvious benefit to young people trying to understand the tumultuous sixties. As someone deeply immersed in activism fifty years ago when news of Hampton being killed and other assaults on the Panthers were part of my daily intake, I have a different analysis of their legacy.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” errs much too far in the direction of hagiography. You never get the sense that the young filmmakers have a deeper understanding of their failure or even more importantly a critical approach to their major success: the free breakfast program and other elements of their “survival” turn such as medical clinics. Surely it was a major breakthrough in serving breakfasts to 20,000 children per day at its height. Supposedly the program was something that kept J. Edgar Hoover up at night and thus led to Cointelpro and the death squads that would lead to Hampton’s murder in December 1969.

The free breakfasts were inspired by the Maoist “serve the people” ideas that flourished on the left in the 60s and 70s. For the mostly white groups led by Bob Avakian and Mike Klonsky, it was interpreted mainly as a paternalistic approach to organizing with their cadre going into working class areas like missionaries for socialism.

At least with Avakian et al, the “serve the people” notion was an element of a strategy meant to challenge the capitalist state. So, for example, the Maoists went into coal-mining regions with the goal of strengthening the leftwing of the UMW. But for the Panthers, there was nothing like this at work in the breakfast program. To some extent, it was simply a turn away from the gun-toting adventures that had begun to decimate their ranks. How could you send the cops against a group making breakfasts for poor Black children? That was the idea anyhow.

Unfortunately for the Panthers, they never dropped the stupid rhetoric about offing the pig that continued as the breakfasts were being served. If you were reading their paper, as I was in this period, you could not help but be appalled by pictures such as this:

This ultraleft image of a gun being trained on a pig was very much a product of the times just as the Weathermen’s tone-deaf “kill the rich” rhetoric that ultimately evolved into outright terrorism. In either case, bold imagery and words were meant to distinguish the “revolutionaries” from ordinary society that lagged behind their advanced consciousness.

The obsession with guns and bombs obviously was connected to the Vietnam war and the Cuban guerrilla initiatives that gave many—including me—the sense that American imperialism was surrounded by revolutionary forces closing in. To some extent this led to the feeling that emulating the NLF or Che Guevara’s fighters meant breaking with bourgeois society and showing solidarity with foreign fighters by breaking the law. It was ironic that for the Panthers this meant simultaneously carrying out an armed struggle at some point and engaging in free breakfast meliorism.

One of the faintly remembered events that had the same kind of cinematic intensity was the shootout between Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Hutton and other Panthers on one side and the Oakland cops that took place on April 6, 1968. Cleaver had become a leader of a faction in the Panthers that was dubious about the breakfast program and sought to “bring it on” as urban guerrillas. In any armed confrontation between a tiny group with thin support in the Black community and the cops, the revolutionaries were likely to end up on the losing side. Apparently, Cleaver embarked on this adventure as a response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two days earlier.

In essence, this convergence of events symbolized the inability of the Panthers to understand what King was about and their failure to develop a program that might be modeled on what King was doing in Memphis—a working class mass action that threatened racist and capitalist power to such an extent that it cost him his life.

Unlike King, who went to Memphis to build solidarity for striking garbage men, neither Cleaver nor Huey Newton saw their role as building a working class movement. They oriented to lumpen elements in the Black community, something that always struck me as perhaps being inspired by “The Battle of Algiers” with its main character Ali Le Pointe abandoning a life of petty crime to join the FLN. In essence, Berson and King made a film about men and women who lacked the mass base of the FLN. Pontecorvo’s Marxism enabled him to build a foundation based on the class struggle rather than analogies with Judas Iscariot.

What an opportunity was lost for a Black revolutionary movement to focus on organizing Black workers. Keep in mind that this was before the phenomenon of runaway plants and when Detroit et al were still thriving industrial centers. Auto, steel, rubber, oil, etc. were still profitable industries with very large—if not majority—African-American workforces. These were workers who were open to radical ideas as the Black caucuses in the UAW would indicate.

If the Panthers had built a movement in the ranks of the Black working class, it might have become a powerful deterrent to the runaway shops that have devastated black America.

Although I could be wrong, it strikes me that Black nationalism will never undergo a revival. Black youth today who oppose police brutality are inspired much more by Martin Luther King Jr. than the Panthers. That being said, I still hold out hope that some day there will be a real engagement with Malcolm X’s ideas that while being Black nationalist were evolving toward working class internationalism. That, of course, is what probably got him killed just as it got Martin Luther King Jr. killed.

January 1, 2021

MLK/FBI; One Night in Miami

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,Film,Malcolm X — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 1, 2021

Two new films directed by African-Americans are essential guides to the Black struggle in the USA during the 1960s. Sam Pollard’s documentary “MLK/FBI” covers J. Edgar Hoover’s racist attempt to “neutralize” Martin Luther King Jr. while Regina King’s narrative film “One Night in Miami” imagines the conversations that took place between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, NFL legend Jim Brown and soul singer Sam Cooke at the Hampton Hotel in Miami on the evening of February 25, 1964. That was the night that Cassius Clay knocked out Sonny Liston and became world heavyweight champion and who announced to the world the next day that he was now to be called Muhammad Ali.

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December 5, 2020

John Brown and the American Indian

Filed under: african-american,American civil war,slavery — louisproyect @ 6:51 pm

It is a terrible disgrace that some on the left have praised the Showtime series on John Brown, including Eileen Jones on Jacobin, Ben Travers on IndieWire and Melanie McFarland on Salon. I say that without having seen a single episode but am sure that if it is even 1/100th faithful to James McBride’s novel, it is a hatchet job on John Brown.

As I work my way through David S. Reynolds’s superlative biography, I can imagine a great biopic about John Brown that would finally put the stake in the heart of all the trashy films that preceded it, including “Santa Fe Trail” and “The Good Lord Bird”. The following excerpt from Reynolds’s book details the relationship between Brown and the American Indians in Kansas. Yes, Brown was a Calvinist—with all its faults—but he was also a deeply ethical human being. A biopic about Brown would salvage him from all the mud that has been thrown by Hollywood and premium cable. He might have been a fanatic but that’s what it took to stand up to racism. Thank goodness the white participation in BLM protests shows that his soul goes marching on.


In Kansas there was a close link between the incursions of slavery and the maltreatment of Native Americans. As late as 1854, Kansas was still so sparsely settled that no settlement there could be identified as a white town or village. Native Americans, many of whom had been forced out of the East, were the main inhabitants of the Territory. Although white towns formed as proslavery and antislavery forces competed for supremacy after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Indians were by far the largest ethnic group during the time John Brown was there.

In warring against proslavery forces, John Brown was defending the rights of not only African Americans but also of Native Americans. Indian tribes occupied the finest lands in Kansas. From 1854 onward, proslavery settlers took control of most of these lands through unfair bargains, out-right confiscation, or deadly force. A contemporary journalist noted, “Nearly all of the Indian agents [i.e., white officials who dealt with the natives] were slavery propagandists, and many of them owned slaves.” The first to introduce slavery into Kansas was the Reverend Tom Johnson, an illiterate, coarse, slaveholding minister who appropriated some of the Shawnee tribe’s finest land and converted it into Shawnee Mission, a pro-slavery center.

Thereafter, proslavery settlers attempted to spread the so-called bless-ings of the South’s culture, including its incongruous mixture of Christianity and slavery. Nearly 1 oo,000 Cherokees, Creeks, and Choctaws established Christian communities in the territory south of Kansas, in what is now Oklahoma. These Indian communities had newspapers, churches, and, shockingly, slavery. Many Cherokee farmers owned black slaves.

Most of the natives who remained in Kansas, however, adopted few white customs other than excessive consumption of firewater. For the most part, the natives in Kansas were cheated or displaced by the invading whites.

Both proslavery and antislavery whites were prejudiced against the natives. The Free State settlers loathed the prospect of Indians remaining in Kansas as strongly as they desired the exclusion of blacks. John Brown and his family were as unusual on the Native American issue as they were in their opinion of blacks. John Brown’s respect for Native American culture dated from his Ohio childhood and ran through his adulthood. A story dating from his period in western Pennsylvania during the 1820s, when he was starting his family near Meadville, showed his deep sympathy for Indians. Every winter, natives from western New York would flock to the Meadville area to hunt. Many times the Browns welcomed groups of natives, supplying them with food and provisions. Some local white families, incensed over the annual arrival of the Indians, went with guns to John Brown’s house, asking him to join them in driving off the natives. John Brown replied firmly, “I will have nothing to do with so mean an act. I would sooner take my gun and help drive you out of the country.”

His notion of fighting racist whites while aiding Indians was fully real-ized in Kansas, where he befriended the natives as he battled the proslavery types who were trying to displace them. From the start, the Browns established friendly relationships with local tribes such as the Sacs, the Foxes, and the Ottawas. Bands of thirty to forty natives would frequently pass back and forth near Brown’s Station. Often four or five would break off from the pack and ride over to talk with the Browns. “While we were in Kansas,” recalled Jason Brown, “I did not know, or hear of a single act of unkindness by any of these Indians to the white settlers.”

In the summer of 1855, John Jr. visited a nearby Indian chief, who was so pleased with their meeting that later he sent members of his tribe to the Browns bearing gifts of melon and corn. The chief made it clear to John that he would have nothing to do with the efforts of whites to “civilize” Native Americans. Civilization, the chief indicated, was corrupting. “We want no houses and barns,” he said. “We want no schools and churches. We want no preachers and teachers.” He added with a laugh, “We bad enough now.” His tribe met in council and chose the Browns as the surveyors of its land, sensing it would thereby be protected against proslavery settlement.

On the eve of the Pottawatomie killings the Browns found that racism tainted even their close followers. John Jr., after seeing his father off with an anxious warning not to do anything “rash,” liberated two enslaved blacks (a teenaged boy and girl) from a farm a dozen miles outside of Lawrence. His subordinates in the Pottawatomie Rifles denounced this bold action, calling it “a great mistake and a terrible outrage upon humanity.”

His brother Jason reported later that the freeing of the slaves “raised a good deal of commotion and division among us” on the issue of race. He explained: “It was objected to by the ‘Free White State’ men, as they called themselves, who wanted Kansas only for whites, when it should be admitted to the Union as a State, leaving out the broken and disheartened remnants of eleven or twelve tribes of ‘red man’ around us, for another removal and the black man to be sent into a still more hopeless bondage.” The volunteers, who “did not want to mix up with ‘niggers’ or abolitionists,” voted to return the blacks to their owner. They also voted to relieve John Jr. of his command of the company.

The incident showed that the problems of blacks and Indians were intermingled. In the eyes of the Browns, the “hopeless bondage” of the slaves and the removals of “broken and disheartened” native tribes were equally despicable. For ” ‘Free White State’ men,” in contrast, both blacks and Indians were loathsome creatures to be banished from the presence of whites. Most Free State whites in Kansas were just as racist as their proslavery opponents, whom they were more inclined to compromise with than to murder.

John Brown’s actions around the time of his Pottawatomie raid show how distanced he was from such racism. Not only did he respect Native Americans, but his closest ally, other than family members, was the half-breed John Tecumseh “Ottawa” Jones. He finalized his plan on the reserve where Jones lived, and after the killings he spent much of his time there. He later credited his Indian friend with saving him and his family from starvation in the desperate months just after the raid.

Ottawa Jones was a prosperous and well-educated farmer who lived on the ten-mile-square Ottawa reserve along with more than three hundred other Indians. He had attended Hamilton College and in 1845 was married to a Maine woman who had come to Kansas as a missionary to the Indians. He owned over a hundred cattle and fourteen horses, and his three-hundred-acre farm produced 4,000 bushels of grain annually. Jones was familiar with the cruelty and treachery of whites. He had established a large hotel that was burned to the ground by forty proslavery men, who also stole money from his wife. His total loss was between $6,000 and $10,000. He had also witnessed the apostasy of Dutch Henry Sherman. For years Sherman had worked on Jones’s farm, until he earned enough to venture out on his own. While working for Jones, Sherman had been equivocal on slavery, but when he left to run the store on Mosquito Creek he became a rabid proslavery activist. On the Joneses’ reserve, near Middle Ottawa Creek, was a way station where Brown and his party camped the night of May 22. Brown’s group used a large grindstone there to sharpen the two-edged broadswords that had been brought from Ohio. The swords, inscribed with eagles, were reportedly left over from a failed filibustering scheme to take over Canada. Now they were going to be put to the service of a new kind of filibuster: one against slavery and racism, one that coupled the gratuitous violence of Southern lynchings with the bloodiness of revolts by enslaved blacks and massacres by Native Americans.

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.

 

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