Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 7, 2016

All the Way

Filed under: african-american,liberalism,racism — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

Currently being featured on HBO, “All the Way” derives its title from LBJ’s 1964 campaign slogan “All the Way with LBJ”. That year SDS urged a vote for Johnson but under the slogan “Part of the Way with LBJ”. For some former SDS’ers like Carl Davidson, you can expect the slogan to be dusted off and used once again for Hillary Clinton with Donald Trump being the scariest Republican candidate since Barry Goldwater—or was it Ronald Reagan, I can’t remember.

The movie is an adaptation of a three-hour play by Robert Schenkkan starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ that ran on Broadway in 2013. The NY Times faulted it for including too many characters to receive full development in such a short time so you can imagine how much worse the problem is when the play is reduced to a 132-minute teleplay.

“All the Way” received a Tony award for best play in 2014 but that’s setting the bar fairly low given the competition on Broaday. Probably most people went to see it because it starred Bryan Cranston. Nowadays big-name TV and Hollywood movie stars are often recruited for such roles to boost ticket sales. The HBO film was directed by Jay Roach, who directed the very fine film “Trumbo” that also starred Bryan Cranston. Since I loved “Trumbo”, I approached “All the Way” with an open mind even though I couldn’t help but feel that it would be an effort to salvage LBJ’s reputation, especially since it covers the period prior to the major escalation of the war in Vietnam and the ghetto uprisings that left LBJ’s legacy a pile of smoldering rubble.

Like “Selma”, a central part of the drama consists of LBJ and MLK Jr. butting heads over civil rights legislation, especially the need for one protecting voting rights. Unlike “Selma”, however, there is much more focus on the white racist opposition to this and any other reforms from southern Democrats like Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who is played by veteran actor Frank Langella. Russell was very close to Johnson who had him over for dinner many times in their 20-year friendship that came to an end over the 1964 Civil Rights bill that banned Jim Crow practices but fell short of guaranteeing voting rights.

As you might expect, a film could be more expansive in some ways even if it had to be curtailed in length from the play. All the action in the play took place in the oval office but the film shows debates taking place in the Senate over the proposed legislation. It is entirely possible that the words that came out of one racist politician’s mouth were written by Schenkkan, but you can’t exclude them actually being heard on the Senate floor. In arguing against the bill, he says that it would not allow a podiatrist to exclude someone who had smelly feet. It is the same kind of argument being used by bakers who refuse to serve gay wedding ceremonies and from essentially the same voting bloc except now they are Republicans rather than Democrats like Richard Russell.

My only exposure to Schenkkan’s work in the past was the screenplay he wrote for Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” back in 2002 that I found lacking:

Robert Schenkkan, one of the screenwriters, told the Boston Globe in February that he wanted to make Pyle [the eponymous character–a CIA agent] more believable and more sympathetic. Since he is also involved with terror bombings that are blamed on the communists, this requires a certain amount of literary license. Brendan Fraser [playing Pyle] added, “He couldn’t be capable of doing the awful things he does do. We had to show him some respect, to make him credible as someone who could take care of himself and have language skills.” Ultimately this doctoring of Greene’s prose yields an OSS agent who might be mistaken for a character on “Friends”. With his dog and baseball cap, this Pyle seems more like a frat boy than a killer.

As it turns out, “All the Way” flunks the Indochina acid test just as badly as this misuse of Greene’s novel set in Vietnam during the 1950s. Although most of it is concerned with civil rights, there is one scene that deals with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and rather badly at that. LBJ is depicted as being preoccupied by the murder of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney since it might cast a pall over the Democratic Party convention. When Robert McNamara comes into the oval office to apprise him of an unverified attack on an American destroyer by Vietnamese patrol boats, LBJ’s initial reaction is to let it slide. When McNamara tells him that his rival Barry Goldwater has been leaking news of the bogus attack to the press and warning that the administration was soft on Communism, LBJ caves in and authorizes air strikes.

Is it credible to believe that Barry Goldwater’s campaign speeches was what led to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the horrors that would last for nearly another decade? Not if you have read the Pentagon Papers. The USA had intended to destroy the revolution taking place in South Vietnam long before Goldwater was a candidate. A war with the North was essential in order to cut off the NLF’s supply lines. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was manufactured in order to give the White House cover for launching a genocidal war that it has never fully atoned for or honored the need for reparations to the Vietnamese. It probably would have been better for Schenkkan to stick to the civil rights struggle rather than introducing a false account of American history, especially since the play was supposed to be historically accurate.

The most interesting and dramatically effective segment involves the failed attempt by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated at the 1964 convention. Led by Fannie Lou Hamer (played effectively by Aisha Hines), it pits LBJ against the civil rights activists who thought the delegation was the true voice of the DP rather than the bigots who were now seated. In effect, they were the Bernie Sanders of their day.

The MFDP was backed initially by Hubert Humphrey but since LBJ feared a walkout of all the Southern racist delegations if the MFDP was seated, he pressured Humphrey to withdraw his support. As was generally the case with LBJ, he offered material incentives to those he was pressuring–in this case the VP nomination. In order to close the deal with Humphrey and the liberal wing of the DP that backed the MFDP, LBJ gets Walter Reuther on the phone and orders him to lean on Humphrey, which he does. To give some credit to Schenkkan where credit is due, he makes Reuther look like a rat.

In one of the more dramatic scenes, we see MLK Jr. outside the convention cajoling the younger and more militant Black activists to settle for a token two-delegate observer status so as to preserve “party unity”. You don’t want the evil Goldwater to be president, do you? In essence, this is how the DP operated back then and operates today as Bernie Sanders and his supporters will learn this summer.

“All the Way” should be seen as an introduction to some important historical events even if it has to be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt. Bryan Cranston, as always, turns in an impressive performance. If it motivates you to read some serious historical accounts of the period like Robert Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” or Taylor Branch’s “Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63”, then it will have served a useful purpose.

The biggest problem, however, is that it might leave you with the impression that LBJ is now undervalued by the left, especially since he was the architect of the Great Society and two major pieces of civil rights legislation. Nostalgia for LBJ can be seen in certain quarters, especially Salon Magazine that wrote about “Lessons from All the Way: 3 big takeaways from LBJ’s victories that progressives can’t afford to ignore”:

Yet even though millions of liberals tuned in on Friday night to see Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of LBJ, polls continue to show that our era’s Johnson is in danger of losing to our era’s Goldwater because many progressives — who largely backed Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, for the Democratic nomination — are unwilling to support her in the general election. This is where “All the Way” specifically, and Johnson’s story in general, offers three instructive lessons.

“This ain’t about principles, it’s about votes. That’s the problem with you liberals — you don’t know how to fight! You wanna get something done in the real world, Hubert, you’re gonna have to get your hands wet.”

To really gauge LBJ’s role in American history, you have to have a more inclusive time-span than the one presented in “All the Way” that is bounded by JFK’s assassination and a victory party at LBJ’s ranch after the votes have finally been tallied making him the new president.

As a sign of how “we can overcome”, the voting rights bill of 1965 that is a cornerstone of both “Selma” and “All the Way” was enacted just five days before the Watts riots, the largest in American history. It was one thing for the Blacks to press for voting rights and another for them to throw Molotov Cocktails. LBJ’s reaction to earlier urban uprisings had been from a law and order perspective and now he would confront them as he confronted the Vietnamese peasants: with iron and blood.

The liberals he assigned to report on native restlessness were hardly distinguishable from the Southern racists. Harry McPherson, who was the White House counsel under LBJ, toured Bedford Stuyvesant and reported back to his boss:

[And] Bedford-Stuyvesant . . . is the home of what Marx called the lumpen-proletariat,'” an “incredibly depressing” cityscape with “every tenth car—as in Harlem—a Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Riviera, or Chrysler, double-parked before a busted decaying house.” He offered a few po-litical impressions (“I am coming to believe that 95% of the Negro leaders in this country are West Indian”), but mostly stories of the sort that the Kennedys had ridiculed Johnson for telling. “A statue, in the park of a public housing project, of Lincoln—seated, with his hand around the shoulder of a Negro boy,” he wrote. “There is a lot of modern playground equipment in the park, but when we were there, the kids weren’t playing on the equipment; they were climbing all over the statue. It almost seemed as if they were trying to lift Lincoln’s other hand and put it on their shoulders. The statue’s bronze is worn to a light brown by thousands of children’s hands. It is the statue of a father—a powerful figure for kids without one at home.”

(From Kenneth O’Reilly’s indispensable “Nixon’s Piano”)

When the Kerner Commission prepared a report that blamed social and economic conditions for the riots, LBJ would have none of it and even refused to invite the authors to meet with him at the White House. What was wrong with these ingrates was his reaction. After all, the Great White Father had bestowed the Great Society upon them.

A rival commission investigating the riots was headed by Arkansas Senator John McClellan, a typical racist who sought answers in law enforcement rather than redressing social conditions. His target was the OEO, a key part of the War on Poverty that many on the right viewed as instigating the riots even though only 16 of its employees were ever arrested during an uprising. For the most part, the OEO representatives in the Black community served as the eyes and ears of the government and could hardly be mistaken for H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael.

I will conclude with O’Reilly’s summation of the relationship between LBJ and McClellan’s McCarthyite investigation of poverty workers:

The riots also hardened Johnson’s soul. He embraced McClellan’s notion that subversives and criminals had instigated the riots, and “having earned recognition as the country’s preeminent civil libertarian” now seemed oddly determined “to become its chief of police” (McPherson’s words). Desperately trying to hold the Democratic party’s voting bloc together, the president dismissed the ghetto riots as the product of Marxist-Leninists, Trotskyites, Maoists. And he did so while trying to contain the growing conservative critique of his administration’s policies. Edwin Willis, the Louisiana Democrat who chaired HUAC, reminded him of how effective old Republican party tactics might be in the present. “Just like some years ago the Republicans made a dent in the Democratic column on the false issue that Democrats were ‘soft’ on Communism, so I regret to say that in my opinion they will try to portray Democrats in general, and you in particular, as being ‘soft’ on law enforcement and respect for law and order.”

 

May 5, 2016

Kwame Somburu, ¡Presente!

Filed under: african-american,obituary,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

Yesterday I learned that Kwame Somburu had succumbed to cancer at the age of 81. Although he was a Facebook friend for a few years, I really had no personal connections to him previously. As was the case with any number of other people I knew from a previous lifetime in the Trotskyist movement, we had reconnected in cyberspace. After spending a few hours doing some Internet research on him, I regret that I had never spent time chatting with him back in the late sixties when we were both members of the NY branch of the SWP. About a month or two after joining the party, there was an incident involving Paul Boutelle, as Kwame was known at the time, that made it into my memoir:

UnrepMarx 1_Page_055 UnrepMarx 1_Page_056

It was that incident and Paul’s appearance on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” that year that had always been stamped indelibly in my memory. After watching Kwame Somburu: A Conversation with a “Rabble Rouser”?, the superb interview with Paul made two years ago in Albany, NY by Kush Nuba and linked to below, I have a much better idea who he was and why I stayed in the Trotskyist movement as long as I did. It was smart and charismatic people like Paul Boutelle, his running mate Fred Halstead, and Peter Camejo that will always define the party for me—not the bizarre workerist cult I left in 1978.

Although I encourage everybody to watch the entire interview, I’d like to extract a few essential biographical points to put Kwame into context. His father was a small businessman doing radio repairs in Harlem where the family lived. From an early age, he was sensitive to racism starting with being forced to read Little Black Sambo in grade school. He has vivid memories of the people of Harlem spontaneously pouring into the streets after Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling in 1938.

In 1951 he quit high school because he was bored. He used to sit in the back row of the classroom reading a book and ignoring the teacher. Despite being a high school dropout, he had a tremendous intellectual curiosity reading everything that came his way from Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets to Karl Marx and Irish history, which interested him as an example of how other people can be colonized and exploited. Anything that was off the beaten track intrigued him.

As an autodidact, he was ideally suited to selling the World Book encyclopedia in the 1950s. Before there was an Internet, that’s the way that many families could do simple research without going to the library. My parents bought a copy of the Book of Knowledge, a children’s encyclopedia that I read ravenously.

When Kwame wasn’t selling encyclopedias, he was driving a cab—a job he had in 1968 when I first ran into him at party headquarters. He had joined the movement three years earlier but had first run into the Trotskyists in 1960. He was walking down the street in Harlem when he spotted a couple of white guys collecting signatures to put SWP candidates on the ballot. Since he was always curious to see what out of the ordinary people were up to, he struck up a conversation with the party members. Because he had already been reading Marx, it was almost inevitable that he would end up at party headquarters even if McCarthyism lingered on. That year he joined the Young Socialist Alliance and kept loose ties to the party until he became a member 5 years later.

Kwame was one of the old-timers who left the SWP in 1983 as Jack Barnes finalized the purge of all those who resisted his bureaucratic assault on party norms and Trotskyist politics. What is striking about the interview with Kush Nuba is the sharpness of his mind and his ability to recall events from fifty years earlier in great detail. Is it possible that a lifetime of revolutionary politics can keep the mind in fighting trim? Cancer might have wreaked havoc with his body but his mind shined like a star until his last breath.

February 17, 2016

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

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For at least a month before its premiere, I was repeatedly invited to press screenings of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” over the summer of 2015 that I turned down because the title of the film suggested that it would be a kind of fan’s tribute to a highly problematic Black nationalist group that imploded just a few years after its formation through a combination of its own ineptitude and police repression.

Among the batch of DVD’s I received in November in conjunction with NYFCO’s 2015 awards meeting was this documentary that remained gathering dust on my bookshelf for the reasons mentioned above. When it aired last night on PBS (and that can be seen here as well), I decided to finally have a look especially since it was bashed by former member Elaine Brown in the Daily Beast:

Like new-right ideologue David Horowitz, Nelson paints Huey as a thug, a “maniac,” according to an interview he highlights with one former Panther—a man harboring a lifelong, apolitical grudge against Huey, whom he never knew or even met. Nelson’s Huey is then reduced to a thug and drug addict killed by his own “demonic” behavior. Although Huey was killed 10 years after the Party’s demise, Nelson ties Huey’s tragic murder to the death of the Party. This opens the way to his wholesale condemnation of the Party as a fascinating cult-like group that died out on account of the leadership of a drug-addicted maniac. In this, he exonerates the government’s vicious COINTELPRO activities, and discredits and destroys the very history and memory of the Party.

The Nelson referred to above is African-American director Stanley Nelson who could not be more unlike David Horowitz based at least on his 2003 documentary on the murder of Emmett Till not to speak of his simply allowing former Panther members to tell of their own experiences with Huey Newton in the last year of his life when they saw him as a paranoid megalomaniac who had evolved into a gangster leading a crew that specialized in robbing drug dealers and pimps.

My biggest worry before seeing the film was based on the occurrence of the word “vanguard” in the title. Not only do I find it routinely misunderstood by “Leninist” groups but in the case of the Panthers all the more so since in their case it was a purely “substitutionist” project. As one former Panther in the film put it, they carried guns and adopted revolutionary rhetoric in order to spur the Black community into following their example. As it turned out, their roots in the Black community were fairly shallow so when the repression deepened they proved highly vulnerable.

I was keenly aware of all the events depicted in Nelson’s film, having seen them unfold in the late 60s and early 70s but they were only a blur now in my mind until revisiting them in this nearly two hour highly powerful documentary.

Long before I became a Trotskyist, I was attracted to Black nationalism. I was moved by LeRoi Jones’s reading of “The System of Dante’s Inferno” as a Bard College freshman and in my senior year went to a debate on Black nationalism at the Village Gate in March, 1965 that pitted Jones (who would become Amiri Baraka a year or so later) against the awful Nat Hentoff. I loved how Jones took Hentoff apart but the biggest thrill occurred three months earlier when I heard Malcolm X speak at a Militant Labor Forum in New York, sponsored by the Trotskyist group I would join two years later.

In 1967 I ended up working in Harlem for the welfare department and began radicalizing under the impact of the war in Vietnam and seeing poverty for the first time in my life. When Newark erupted in July, I was convinced that world revolution was on the agenda and applied for membership in the Young Socialist Alliance two months later.

In late 1967 the Panthers had attracted the attention of both the bourgeois media and the radical movement. For the SWP, the Panthers were seen as a major development because they were popularizing the idea of Black control of the Black community, a slogan we raised in our election campaigns.

Whatever enthusiasm I felt would be dampened to some extent by the appearance of Fred Hampton at the YSA convention in November 1968. We had invited the chairman of the Illinois Panthers to give greetings to the convention with a fifteen-minute time limit. Instead he harangued us for over an hour, essentially coming across as if he was speaking to the Young Democrats. Derrick Morrison, an African-American YSA member who had frequent meetings with Malcolm X, kept coming up to the podium passing him notes that his time was up. When Hampton finally got tired of these reminders, he concluded his “talk” with a four-letter tirade and stalked off.

What a contrast to Malcolm X who told the Militant Labor Forum that he was grateful for the opportunity to speak to the meeting and praised the newspaper for telling the truth. Now I don’t know if he was simply being diplomatic but the kind of macho bluster heard from Hampton was pretty much par for the course in this period.

Nelson’s film is very useful as an introduction to the factors that led to the Panther’s collapse but you never get the sense that he has 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. One interviewee characterized the breakfasts as a major achievement, reaching 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. Ironically, the SWP would adopt this organizing method later on without having the slightest clue that if it failed for the Maoists, it would also fail for them.

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:

panther pig

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 and engaging in free breakfast meliorism.

One of the faintly remembered events that the film brought alive to me 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.

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.

July 1, 2015

Loren Miller: Civil Rights Attorney and Journalist

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 8:26 pm

July 1, 2015

Dear Mr. Proyect,

 As a former Pacifica producer, I write to inform you that my biography Loren Miller: Civil Rights Attorney and Journalist will be published by the University of Oklahoma Press, on September 29. Miller argued Shelley v. Kraemer (which overturned racial restrictive housing covenants), along with Thurgood Marshall and Charles H. Houston.  In addition, Judge Miller, a member of  the California judiciary, published the California Eagle, the oldest black newspaper in the west.  Annually, since 1977, the State Bar of California awards the Loren Miller Legal Services Award for lifetime achievement.

It is my hope that you will share news of this biography on your blog. The attachments and the link below provides more detail including endorsement by Kenneth  Mack, Harvard law professor.

http://www.oupress.com/ECommerce/Book/Detail/2028/loren%20miller

The story told here in full for the first time is of a true American original who defied societal limitations to reshape the racial and political landscape of twentieth-century America. Miller, one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights attorneys from the 1940s through the early 1960s, wrote the majority of the Brown v. Board of Education briefs. This biography recovers this remarkable figure from the margins of history and for the first time reveals how he changed American law and history forever.

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June 17, 2015

The White Negro

Filed under: african-american — louisproyect @ 2:32 pm

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions; that was why I’d abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes.

―Jack Kerouac, On the Road

So no wonder that in certain cities of America, in New York of course, and New Orleans, in Chicago and San Francisco and Los Angeles, in such American cities as Paris and Mexico, D.F., this particular part of a generation was attracted to what the Negro had to offer. In such places as Greenwich Village. a menage-a-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk. The cameos of security for the average white: mother and the home, lob and the family, are not even a mockery to millions of Negroes; they are impossible. The Negro has the simplest of alternatives: live a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger. In such a pass where paranoia is as vital to survival as blood, the Negro had stayed alive and begun to grow by following the need of his body where he could. Knowing in the cells of his existence that life was war, nothing but war, the Negro (all exceptions admitted) could rarely afford the sophisticated inhibitions of civilization, and so he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present, he subsisted for his Saturday night kicks, relinquishing the pleasures of the mind for the more obligatory pleasures of the body, and in his music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream and despair of his orgasm. For jazz is orgasm, it is the music of orgasm, good orgasm and bad, and so it spoke across a nation, it had the communication of art even where it was watered, perverted, corrupted, and almost killed, it spoke in no matter what laundered popular way of instantaneous existential states to which some whites could respond, it was indeed a communication by art because it said, “I feel this, and now you do too.”

So there was a new breed of adventurers, urban adventurers who drifted out at night looking for action with a black man’s code to fit their facts. The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.

-Norman Mailer, The White Negro

January 2, 2015

Why Selma Matters Now More Than Ever

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:09 pm

A Collective Response to Cop Terror

Why Selma Matters Now More Than Ever

by LOUIS PROYECT

“Selma”, the stunning new film based on Paul Webb’s screenplay and directed by the previously unheralded African-American Ava DuVernay, makes for an interesting side-by-side comparison with Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. Both films revolve around the circumstances attending the passage of key legislation affecting Black America: in the first instance, the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery and in the second the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that sealed the doom of Jim Crow, a legacy of white America’s abandonment of Reconstruction.

“Selma”, however, has exactly what “Lincoln” lacked, namely the agency of Black self-emancipation dramatized by the Selma to Montgomery march. If Lincoln was seen as a wise benefactor of a sidelined Black population whose leaders like Frederick Douglass failed to materialize on screen, the prime mover in “Selma” is Martin Luther King Jr. who is played to perfection by David Oyelowo, the actor last seen as a cartoon version of a Black Panther member in Lee Daniels’s “The Butler”. He is far better served in this new film.

Both films pay close attention to period detail and use the speeches that are part of the backbone of American progressive politics, including Lincoln’s and LBJ’s. It is of some significance that the speeches given by King in “Selma” are only approximations of what he said in Selma since the King estate refused to allow the speeches to be used by DuVernay. So she wrote the words herself after steeping herself in the original for months.

read full article

December 7, 2014

Richard Greener talks about James Brown

Filed under: african-american,music — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm

My old friend Richard Greener was a business associate of James Brown for many years. In this interview we compare notes on the great rhythm and blues musician prompted by my review of Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mr. Dynamite” and the feature film “Get on Up” in CounterPunch.

October 28, 2014

Madison Washington and the Creole Rebellion

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:30 pm

From Marcus Rediker’s “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom“:

During the fall of 1841, Madison Washington, a self-emancipated former slave from Virginia, knocked on the door of Robert Purvis in Philadelphia as he was on his way back south to assist his wife’s escape from bondage. Washington had certainly come to the right place. Purvis had been active for several years in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. He remembered, years later, “I was at that time in charge of the work of assisting fugitive slaves to escape.” Purvis already knew Washington because he had helped him gain his freedom by getting to Canada two years earlier. Washington had since “opened correspondence with a young white man in the South,” who had promised to ferry his wife away from her plantation and to bring her to an appointed place so that the two of them could then escape northward. Purvis did not like the plan. He had witnessed others undertake such dangerous labors of love and fail. He was sure that his visitor would be captured and reenslaved. Washington, however, was determined to carry on.

By coincidence Washington arrived at the abolitionist’s home on the very same day a painting was delivered: Nathaniel Jocelyn’s portrait, “Sinque, the Hero of the Amistad,” as Purvis called it. It so happened that Cinque and twenty-one other Amistad Africans had also been in Purvis’s large, majestic home on the northwest corner of Sixteenth and Mount Vernon streets, when they visited Philadelphia on their fund-raising tour of May 1841. (Cinque later sent a message, “Tell Mr. Purvis to send me my hat.”) Purvis had long been inspired by the Amistad struggle and in late 184o–early 1841, as the Supreme Court prepared to rule on the case, he commissioned Jocelyn to paint the portrait.

Washington took a keen interest in the painting and the story behind it. When Purvis told him about Cinque and his comrades, Washington “drank in every word and greatly admired the hero’s courage and intelligence.” Washington soon departed, headed south-ward in search of his wife, but he never returned, as he had hoped to do in retracing his steps toward Canada. Someone betrayed him, as Purvis had predicted (and only learned some years later). Washington was “captured while escaping with his wife.” He was clapped into chains again and placed on board a domestic slave ship called the Creole, bound from Virginia to New Orleans in November 1841.

As the Creole set sail, Washington remembered Cinque’s story—the courage and the intelligence, the plan and the victory. Working as a cook aboard the vessel, which allowed him easy communication with his shipmates, Washington began to organize. With eighteen others he rose up, killed a slave-trading agent, wounded the captain severely, seized control of the ship, and liberated a hundred and thirty fellow Africans and African Americans. Wary of trickery, Washington forced the mate to navigate the vessel to Nassau in the Bahama Islands, where the British had abolished slavery three years earlier. In Nassau harbor they met black boatmen and soldiers, who sympathized with the emancipation from below and took charge of the Creole, supporting the rebels and insuring their victory.

Representatives of the federal government literally screamed bloody murder, just as those of Spain had done two years earlier, following the rebellion aboard the Amistad. They demanded the return of the slaves, who must, they insisted, be tried in the United States for rising up to kill their oppressors. U.S. officials self-righteously defended the institution of slavery and called for all property to be restored to its rightful owners. The British government, however, refused to comply with the order. Madison Washington and many of his comrades gained their freedom, boarded vessels bound hither and yon around the Atlantic, and left no further traces in the historical records.

The reverberations of the Amistad rebellion were beginning to be felt in the wider world of Atlantic slavery, as predicted by abolitionist Henry C. Wright, an associate of William Lloyd Garrison. He foresaw that Purvis’s painting, properly displayed, would confront slaveholders and their apologists with a powerful message about successful rebellion against bondage. To have it in a gallery would lead to discussions about slavery and the “inalienable” rights of man, and convert every set of visitors into an antislavery meeting.

Wright did not imagine a meeting of only two people, one of them a rebellious fugitive, nor could he have known that the painting would inspire radical action on another slave ship, which would result in both a collective self-emancipation and an international diplomatic row between the United States and Great Britain. The combination of the Amistad and Creole rebellions had a major impact on the antislavery struggle, pushing activists toward more militant rhetoric and practices. As Purvis concluded many years later, “And all this grew out of the inspiration caused by Madison Washington’s sight of this little picture.”

October 8, 2014

How Alexander Cockburn’s ancestor torched Washington and freed 6,000 slaves

Filed under: african-american,slavery — louisproyect @ 11:37 pm

Harpers Magazine, September 2014
Washington is Burning
Two centuries of racial tribulation in the nation’s capital

By Andrew Cockburn

On a sunny Saturday in June, thousands gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” This year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Francis Scott Key’s composition, officially adopted as the national anthem in 1931 following news that leftist members of the Erie, Pennsylvania, city council were opening meetings with a rousing chorus of “The Internationale.” As the melody rang out over the grass and along Constitution Ave- nue, it echoed off neighboring memorials and galleries, including the partly built National Museum of African American History and Culture a block and a half down the street.

Although preceded by a lengthy program of musical performances, the anthem it- self got short shrift. As usual, only the familiar opening verse was sung, because of various ideological stumbling blocks in subsequent verses—most especially the third, with its fervent hope that

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.

For myself, the words always evoke a glow of family pride, because Key’s malign desire that fleeing slaves should find no refuge was directly inspired by the actions of my distinguished relative Admiral Sir George Cockburn of the Royal Navy. Two hundred years ago this August, he fought his way to the White House at the head of an army partly composed of slaves he had freed, armed, and trained and torched the place, along with the Capitol and much of official Washington. In the course of a two-year campaign, he rescued as many as 6,000 slaves, and despite Key’s hopeful verse, not to mention angry demands from the U.S. government, he sailed them away to freedom.

Obviously, the admiral qualifies as one of the great emancipators, and I am proud to claim a connection. In a recent conversation with Dr. lonnie Bunch, who is over- seeing the creation of the African-American museum as its director, I suggested that he include George Cockburn in a Hall of the Righteous, cheek by jowl with Abraham Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison. He was nice enough to hear me out, although he made it clear that his intention is not to produce a black version of the nearby Holocaust Memorial Museum, with its Wall of Rescuers, but something far broader in scope. The real challenge, Bunch told me, is to avoid a “rosy view of the past. Romanticized memory is not history.”

(Read full article in the print edition of Harpers. I have been subscribing since 1981 or so and have looked forward to each copy.)

September 28, 2014

When the Nation Magazine grew weary of Reconstruction

Filed under: african-american,liberalism,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:53 pm

A few days ago I had been consulting Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name”, a very fine history of post-Civil War forced labor, as part of a long-term research project to rebut Charles Post’s thesis on slavery as “precapitalist” when I came across a revealing reference to the Nation Magazine. As I have pointed out in the past, the magazine was a primary source of arguments on behalf of winding down Reconstruction. I had completely forgotten about the passage but was reminded of it today when a Facebook thread on Eric Alterman’s opposition to BDS prompted the query why the magazine puts up with him. In my view, the Nation has been problematic from its inception, lurching from abolitionism to articles attacking moves to make the KKK illegal. For a fuller discussion, I’d refer you to a piece I wrote in 2003: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left/tainted_nation.htm

Douglas Blackmon:

A new national white consensus began to coalesce against African Americans with shocking force and speed. The general white public, the national leadership of the Republican Party, and the federal government on every level were arriving at the conclusion that African-Americans did not merit citizenship and that their freedom was not able enough to justify the conflicts they engendered among whites. A growing body of whites across the nation concluded that blacks were not worth the cost of imposing a racial morality that few in any region genuinely shared. As early as 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union army of liberation, conceded to members of his cabinet that the Fifteenth Amendment, giving freed slaves the right to vote, had been a mistake: “It had done the Negro no good, and had been a hindrance to the South, and by no means a political advantage to the North.” “The long controversy over the black man seems to have reached a finality,” wrote the Chicago Tribune, approvingly. Added The Nation: “The Negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth, the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.” That the parent had once sacrificed enormously to rescue the less favored child only made its abandonment deeply more bitter.

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