Archive for May, 2014

W. E. B. Du Bois Breaking the Color Line

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

” The Souls of Black Folks :Revisited” by John Obafemi Jones 2013 Mix Media on Paper

I am posting portions of an essay written about W.E. B. Du Bois seminal book The Souls of Black Folk. Part ethnographic study, personal account, anti-racist polemic and advocacy of education of the former slaves and their descendents in the Jim Crow south of the turn of the Twentieth Century, the book is a convincing polemic.

Violence against Blacks led to their disenfranchisement as soon as federal troops left the former Confederacy.
Credit: Cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly, 24 October 1874 from

The Du Bois book is of literary interest due to his style and innovative use of music and personal experience interwoven with history, political polemic, anthropological notes and advocacy for the interests of Black Americans. It also picks up essentially where Douglass leaves off historically. The subject of the collection of essays that makes up the corpus of the work deals directly with considerations of class, race and racism in the United States. As Du Bois states at the very beginning of his text, “How does it feel to be a problem? (Du Bois 1). With this the issues of race, identity, class and how to best deal with racism are treated within the seminal work on American race relations.

Southern jails made money leasing convicts for forced labor in the Jim Crow South. Circa. 1903. Credit: Everett Collection / SuperStock

Published in 1903, Mr. Du Bois, book describes the struggles of Black people struggling to achieve the same rights as the rest of Americans in the post-Civil War USA. Written at a time when Jim Crow laws had recently passed judicial scrutiny after Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision, had in 1896 held that “we cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances is unreasonable, or obnoxious to the Fourteenth Amendment” (Plessy). Du Bois introduces the concept of double consciousness that is part of the life of black men “One ever feels his twoness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (Du Bois 2).

W.E.B. Du Bois and other members of the NAACP in 1929. CREDIT: “20th Annual session of the N.A.A.C.P., 6-26-29, Cleveland, Ohio.” June 6, 1929. Visual Materials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

The text is an introduction to the civil rights struggles of the last century by framing it in a wider context than just the experiences of Blacks in the USA. Du Bios puts it this way “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line, - the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia, and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea” (9).

Art in the service of Colonialism. “East African Transport ~ Old Style” (1931) and part of “East African Transport ~ New Style” (1931) by Adrian Allinson, in Graphic Design: A New History (2007) by Stephen J. Eskilson

Du Bois, who ended his days as a citizen of Ghana when he died in 1963, lived the majority of his life when the Jim Crow laws ruled supreme. He battled his entire life for the rights of all minorities. His activities were instrumental in the beginning of the collapse of Jim Crow as seen in court cases such as Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. He was a major participant in the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement to bring an end to racism in the USA (Ward iii).

The Pan-African Congress in session, Paris, February 1919; seated in the middle front row is W. E. B. Du Bois, secretary Credit:

The connection to the beginnings of the Pan African Movement is evinced by his closing speech at the first Pan African Convention in 1900 where his speech “To the Nations of the World” Du Bois introduced his famous line “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line…” (1900). Later he was a founding member of the NAACP in 1908. His 1947 petition to the United Nations, “An Appeal to the World: A Statement of Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of citizens of Negro Descent in the United States of America and an Appeal to the United Nations for Redress” (1947), presented by the Soviet Union, was an important element in pressuring the Truman administration to “enlarge and strengthen the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department” (Horne 80).

Du Bois with Mao in 1959. This image is from the Univ. of Massachusetts Amherst Du Bois collection

Ever active even in his eighties, Du Bois celebrated the founding of the Non Aligned Movement with the Bandung conference of 1955 (Mullen and Watson, xxiv). A conference he was unable to attend due to travel restrictions placed upon him by a State Department black listing charging him with “alien sedition” in 1952 (xi). Nations newly emerged from European colonial domination, had organized around “core principles of the Bandung Conference were political self-determination, mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, and equality” (Bandung). Not long after, Du Bois relocated to an exile in Ghana where his good friend Kwame Nkrumah was President (Mullen and Watson, ix).

W.E.B Du Bois and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana.

Du Bois considered the color line to be such an essential part of the problems of the Twentieth Century that he based the majority of his professional career upon it. Starting with his speech at age 22 in Paris at the Pan-African Conference, and consistently there after he fought to smash the color line. As he put it in 1906:

The Russo-Japanese War has marked an epoch. The “magic” of the word white is already broken, and the Color Line in civilization has been crossed in modern times as in the great past. The awakening of the yellow race is certain. That the awakening of the brown and black races will follow in time, no unprejudiced student of history can doubt. (qtd. in Mullen and Watson, vii).

Tying this back to the text, The Souls of Black Folk, in which Du Bois leads the charge against Booker T. Washington’s approach “Mr. Washington represents the Negro through the old attitude of adjustment and submission” (Du Bois, 30). He accuses Washington of doing nothing to fight the disenfranchisement of Blacks in the South of his day and argues for a militant move to enfranchisement, gaining civil equality and education for black youths (32). He describes the history of the Freedman’s Bureau, calling it “a full-fledged government of men” (17).

Du Bois was critical of Booker T. Washington’s willingness to go along with Jim Crow disenfranchisement of Blacks to get Whites to support his program to educate Blacks in the Vocational Arts.

Du Bois advocated the reform of education as he says “They made their mistakes, those who planted Fisk and Howard and Atlanta before the smoke of battle had lifted; … [Du Bois, writing of post-Civil War Atlanta and the founding of Negro colleges], The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization” (52-53). This theory, in which he advocated for a Black elite “of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig; that some had the talent and capacity of university men, and some the talent and capacity of blacksmiths (52), led to a focus on the proper role for black leaders which some such as Nella Larson in books like Quicksand critiqued (Larson, 1732).

Schools set up after the War by New England Women Teachers were gradually underfunded as the North turned away from the Freed Slaves. Du Boils was an advocate of education improvements for Southern Blacks.

Du Bois has autobiographical sections of his own early days teaching in a backwoods Tennessee community with intimate descriptions of the local inhabitants (Du Bois, 37-45). His own revulsion is documented of the wasted lives of black people, waxing poetic and expressing pathos:

How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard a thing is life to the lowly, and yet how human and real! And all this life and love and strife and failure,—is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush of some faint-dawning day?
Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crow car (45).

An intellectual and moving writer, Du Bois who makes in this book a declaration of his intentions as an advocate for the minority races of the world oppressed by White led imperialism, racism and colonialism. Du Bois deserves more than passing reference in some academic environment. The Souls of Black Folk is a classic read.

There was a major campaign in the 1930’s to end Lynching by Federal Decree. President Roosevelt was afraid to alienate Whites in the Democratic Jim Crow South and upset his reelection bid.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Ed. Candace Ward. New York: Dover Pub. Inc. 1994. Print.
Horne, Gerald. Black and Red: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944-1963. New York: SUNY Press. 1986. Google Books. Web. 18 May 2014.
Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 7th ed. Vol. D. Ed. Mary Loefflhol. New York: Norton & Co. 2007. 1721-1802. Print (photocopy).
Mullen, Bill V. and Cathryn Watson. “Introduction: Crossing the World Color Line.” Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. W.E.B. Du Bois on Asia: Crossing the World Color Line. Eds. Bill V. Mullen and Cathryn Watson. Oxford, MS: U. of Mississippi P. 2005. vii- xxvii. Web. 18 May 2014.
Plessy v. Ferguson. 163 U.S. 537. Supreme Court of the United States. 1896. Ethical Issues in the Courts. Ed. Van Camp, Julie C. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.2006. Print.
United States. U. S. Department of State. Office of the Historian. “Bandung Conference (Asian- African Conference), 1955.” Milestones: 1953–1960. Washington: Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State. n.d. Web. 18 May 2014.
Ward, Candace. “Note.” The Souls of Black Folk. By W. E. B. Du Bois. 1903. Ed. Ward. New York: Dover Pub. Inc. 1994. iii. Print.
“(1900) W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘To the Nations of the World,’.” n.d. Web. 18 May. 2014.

“Injun Time” - Stereotypes Meet Reality

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

Geronimo and Warriors 1886. My conception of Native Americans in my youth, Hell Geronimo is still a hero of mine.

Approaching Indian Time: A memory laden semi-review of the absolutely true diary of a part-time indian


Growing up watching Injuns, as a little kid, Noble Savages, as a preteen and Native Americans as I entered my mid-teen radical period, I encountered the gamut of stereotypes of Native Americans. I also have had some friends over the years who are Native Americans, but no real long term relationships, so even though I am familiar, I am not totally free from some stereotypical attitudes that would be disabused with an on going relationship. With that said, this is my experience over the years as described in a short paper based on personal experience as related to the Alexie story.

the new native stereotype, the “magical nature native” that replaced the more dated stereotype of the “unintelligent savage.” Photo via feministdisney

Driving across South Dakota, while returning to Los Angeles after briefly attending the protests at the Republican Convention in 2008, I tuned into the Native American Radio broadcasting from the Lakota reservation. Here was being broadcast an early season football game between the Pine Ridge Reservation high school and one of the local white high schools. This was brought to mind while reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. A book for teens, that I read for a class, American Ethnic Writers. The broadcast, the only thing on the FM dial of the airwaves in that vast expanse of seemingly empty prairie, captured my attention, having attended the 1979 Black Hills Alliance Survival Fair with a Lakota professor from Denver University and his two young female protégés from the Dine reservation in Arizona, I had a context in which this broadcast was of interest, since I don’t generally like listening to sports on the radio. As I read the book, I flashed back to the different trips. I could relate to the depreciating, death bed humor of Arnold the protagonist in Alexie’s book about life on a modern day reservation and one youth’s attempt to escape the despair of life on a reservation with no jobs and few resources.

My Understanding of Navajo’s as I went to visit the Reservation in 1973.

In my more adventurous youth I had hitchhiked to the Dine reservation in search of an authentic Navajo Blanket for my high school sweetheart’s sister’s wedding present. I had just dropped out of community college in Colorado, enamored with my Humanities teacher who had instilled in me a desire to take the grand tour in Europe, but meantime I had hitched up to Maine to see my old high school girlfriend, she told me about her sister’s wedding and I wanted to do something special, something impressively different. So in the late spring of 1973 I caught a ride with an AWOL sailor, who took me from Winter Harbor, Maine and the blueberry bog I had been fitfully roto-tilling. Once back in Connecticut, where I grew up and my mom still lived, my AWOL friend and I parted ways. I stuck my thumb out on the Merritt Parkway outside of Bridgeport and trekked to Colorado Springs where I had a bank account and a little money saved from my job at the Air Force Academy, where I had been one of three Anglos among the forty or so Chicano waiters, at the Cadet Dining Hall.

Site of my first real job.

From Colorado I hitched down the I-25 to Albuquerque to the I-40 where I was deposited in Gallup, New Mexico there I thought I would find the perfect blanket. I was my own personal version of the white man seeking his piece of Native American authenticity, satirized by Alexie, as a poor man’s “Ted” (Alexie 161-163), decked out not in Native American regalia, as Ted was a rich collector of Native American memorabilia, but my hippie American jeans, work shirt and sneakers. Like Ted I was seeking some authentic experience of the Native American world. Unlike Ted I was not coming from a position of extreme privilege. I was just a young idealistic kid following out my own fantasy of version of meeting the Indians. I had seen the movie Little Big Man. My Mom loved Indians, and I could relate, I thought.

Scene from Little Big Man, Dustin Hoffman’s Encounter with US Calvary on the big screen.

Gallup had little to offer, other than overpriced freeway side tourist attractions. I had perhaps $100.00 to spend and nothing was that cheap, nothing but machine made imitations from Belgium or Mexico. I had been reading up on rugs, playing with the idea of going off to Istanbul and becoming a rug merchant. I decided to seek the authentic Indian blanket weaver. I envisioned some old Navajo woman sitting in her Hogan surrounded by sheep busy at her loom, a semi-tragic Penelope, who would be grateful for my willingness to take the burden of dreams she was weaving for a few pennies. This was my first foray into foreign country, off America into the Rez’. But I needed a guide. I stuck my thumb out and found Charlie Deer Hunter who was driving his pickup along the main drag.

Gallup street scene.

Now at this point I need to discuss something of my hippie version of Anglo American times and destinations. Even as a hippie youth, without a job, I was driven by time tables. I had places to go, things to do. I had left Maine just as the weather had turned probably first week of June and had to be back later that month for the wedding in Connecticut. I planned to hitch hike out to Colorado, three days, spend a day there taking care of business, spend another day getting to Indian Country, spend a day locating and buying the blanket and then head to California, another day’s trip, to visit my dad, spend a couple days and then spend a five days hitching back, a total of fourteen days, with four days leeway for getting stuck in places or side trips. By the time I got to Gallup it had been a week. I had spent an extra day in Colorado due to my arriving on the weekend and having to wait a day for the bank to open. So when I went off American time, I was entering into an entirely different conceptual framework of time that of Indian time.

Anonymous saying attributed to wise old Native American

I was sanding on the main drag in Gallup and an Indian guy told me to hop in back of his pickup. Charlie had black hair showing from under a plaid hunting cap, gun rack in the back, a rather old western shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. He was going up to Shiprock, the headquarters of the Navajo Reservation, a straight three hour drive. After six stops at different bars, corner stores and long conversations with his buddies, pointing to the hippie in the back of his pickup, he, now drunk, with a couple buddies decided it was time to head to the reservation. We drove a weaving path in the gathering darkness. About an hour or so out of town on some desolate spot in State Highway 666, they decided to go rabbit hunting. There I was in the middle of nowhere alone, standing by an empty pickup truck while the three took a rifle and a couple six packs off into the desert hills. After an hour, I realized they were not coming back. I stuck my thumb out, got a lift in the middle of the night to town as the guy said. Town was a an all night store and gas station, a couple of shacks and not much else, enclosed in red sandstone buttes that occasionally could be seen by headlights of pickups. There was no liquor, it was dry. Young Indian guys drove around and around the store for hours. They saw me, but I was an anomalous character, just another stranded hippie in the middle of nowhere. I thought it was strange, nobody was curious, or would talk to me. There were no friendly or unfriendly overtures. I was reminded of that desert outpost while reading the description of Wellpinit, Washington, the reservation town Arnold describes in Absolutely True Diary….

Scene from Wellpinit, WA. Spokane Indian Reservation.

Finally, the next morning, I managed to get a lift to a trading post from an old white guy draped in Ted like splendor, who says that he had been trading with the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni for years, and told me to forget finding an ignorant Indian woman, wasn’t going to happen. Only building a relationship, he married a Dine woman, and that took time, “Indian time” as he put it. White people don’t have the patience, they want to do business. So they figure out other ways to get Indian wealth. “Why do you think there are so many bars and pawn shops in that tiny place” he said speaking of Gallup. Catching someone on a drunk was cheating, pointing at the huge turquoise and silver bracelets and rings on his deep tanned wrinkled skin, “I had to earn these.”

“Navajo jewelry - Nizhoni!! They say the older you get the bigger your jewelry gets”

He took me to a trading post where I found my rug for $60.00, not a big beautiful piece, just a small runner, but it was real, and all I could afford. The old guy had driven off and stuck my thumb out again. I was picked up by a twenty something native guy. He said he was going to Barstow, California, and I had decided to visit my dad in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. Barstow was on the way. This guy, Roger, had long hair like a hippie, but it was braided and he had turquoise and silver jewelry, wore a clean white western shirt and pressed jeans, even his Tony Lamas were polished. We listened to the pop radio in his Chevi van. He seemed pretty regular, until he began to tell me his plight. He was in love with a college educated Indian woman, a knock out but he was a reservation guy, a Rowdy type, he didn’t know how to talk to her. Rowdy is a character in Alexi’s book, the best friend of Arnold, with minimal social skills. He wanted to pick her up from work and give her a ride while I talked with her. We stopped at the Reservation school where she taught, a rather newish single story concrete building where this stunning black haired beautiful woman came out. She became the model on my mind of Zitkala-Ša. Who in her story “An Indian Teacher Among Indians,” describes her experiences at the Indian school (Ša 104-105). This woman was decidedly different from the sad teacher Mr. P, in Alexie’s book (28-29). This Pocahontas, Indian princess and I were introduced and I was happy to play my part talking to her in the back of Roger’s van.
Teacher from Absolutely True Diary… by Ellen Forney

Thing were going great, back then I was a gregarious sort and her fantastic flowing black hair, inspired my interest. She spoke of the events up in Pine Ridge, where there had been an occupation by AIM the American Indian Movement. Pine Ridge which had been the scene of the deaths of two of the occupiers, including one an ex-marine Buddy Lamont, shot in the heart during a heavy firefight with US Marshals and the FBI on April 27th, They had declared the themselves to be an independent nation and the Feds had shot them (Crow Dog 142-143). I told her about my days with another AIM in Connecticut and the trials of the Black Panthers in New Haven that I had organized caravans of protesters to support the Panthers. She talked of her efforts as part of a group organizing to get Native American teachers and directors at the Reservation school. The BIA take over in Washington the previous year had been part of the process leading to the Indian Education Act of 1972 that gave funding for her now being able to become part of the policy making group for the reorganized schools. This was a part of the general Indigenous effort to increase autonomy and part of the Red Power movement.

Occupation of BIA in 1972.

Before long Roger began to get agitated. We were driving along and suddenly Roger pulls over to the side of the road, and tells me to get out. It was mid-day, I hadn’t had anything to drink or eat and it was boiling hot in the mid-day sun. He zoomed off with his educated love. She seemed a bit disturbed, but not surprised at my departure. I was stuck on the side of the road, I-17 it turned out. But it was hot and I was dehydrated. I decided to crawl under an abandoned roadside booth where I had seen Indians selling trinkets before. Making lots of noise to chaise away any rattle snakes, I then ventured to sleep the afternoon away, since the night before I had little sleep standing around in the cold at that lonely gas station. These Indian guys had a strange way of treating outsiders I thought using my Navajo blanket as a pillow while waiting for things to cool down.

Models for the “Women of the Navajo” 2013 calender pose for pictures at the 66th Annual Navajo Nation Fair. Source: Flickr / dshortey

A few years later in 1979, while involved in my Rock Against Racism organizing in Boulder, Colorado, I went to hear Wallace Black Elk talk about the Black Hills Alliance. Two Buffaloes, a Lakota, sometimes college student with a pockmarked face, and two long braids told me about it when bugging me one day to get some LSD for him to use at some kind of ceremony since he couldn’t get any peyote. Two Buffaloes had a white dad and Lakota mom, and had pretty pale skin, but he dressed in a variation of the indigenous pride outfits, those bone neck collars worn by warriors in the old days and feathers in his hair. Stuff most regular Indians didn’t wear, except for Pow Wows and tourist events.

The drum contest highlights groups of 10 to 12 members each, and they sing traditional family songs that are passed down orally from one generation to the next. National Museum of the American Indian Photo #46 by Walter Larrimore

When I was five my mom worked at a fake cowboy town in the Catskill Mountains called Cimarron City. There was a group of Native Americans, Injuns we called them, down the hill in a fake Indian village where they would perform ‘genuine Indian rituals’ and participate in the fake battles between the cowboys and Indians put on every afternoon for the tourists. I used to hang out with the Indian boy my age, we would go hide behind the archery range stealing stray arrows. One time during an evening gathering where the adults sat around drinking beer and eating corn on the cob out of a big pot, my friend’s dad challenged us to a traditional ritual, picking up a tooth pick out of a peace pipe placed on the ground with our mouths, from a standing position without touching the ground with our hands. I remember how hard it was, he did it. It was his part of the routine done for tourists, but it must have meant something in their reality as well. I fell on my face.

Dramatic portrayal of Native American man stabbing “Custer,” with dead Native Americans lying on ground, in scene by Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show performers. MEDIUM: 1 photographic print. CREATED/PUBLISHED: c1905

So I went to this meeting, Wallace Black Elk was speaking to a group of highly educated University of Colorado students and professors, he was speaker after an AIM representative who talked about the politics of indigenous land rights, the tradition of land theft from the tribes going back to the 1868 treaty with Red Cloud, how the Black Hills were sacred territory and should remain inviolate. There had been gold mining in the past, the immediate cause for the conflict that had led to Custer’s famous last stand at the battle of Greasy Grass as it is known among the Natives. Now the Bureau of Indian affairs with the Bureau of Land Management wanted to mine uranium and contaminate the region calling this area a National Sacrifice Zone as part of the cold war efforts to stockpile fissionable uranium. After a sober and politicized presentation, Wallace Black Elk, medicine man, descendent of the Black Elk who had participated as a thirteen year old in the battle Lakota’s who could trace their family relationship to Crazy Horse (Argonito 211-213), got up, we were all excited to hear his words of wisdom, Boulder was famous for its New Age spiritualism and NAROPA Institute, the Buddhist school.

Assistant U.S. attorney general Kent Frizzell, right, listens to AIM Indian as other AIM leaders sit by in tepee prior to signing of peace settlement, April 5, 1973 in Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Kneeling is Wallace Black Elk and to his left are AIM leaders Russell Means, Dennis Banks and Carter Camp, in that order. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Wallace spoke of going up on a flying saucer and speaking with the spirit people and how radiation could not harm his people because it was part of nature and they were natural people protected by the Great Spirit. This struck me, as being hardly reason to rally concerned white people to the cause of Native land rights. Wallace was speaking of spirits and space people. It seemed reminiscent of the tales of the Messiah Wovoka, originator of Ghost Dances, who told his followers that they were protected from the white man’s bullets (Brown 434). In many ways Wallace Black Elk seemed to be living in that other world, of the rabbit hunters, living on a time and in a place that did not translate well to western concerns in my mind. Wallace was one of the spiritual advisers to the Pine Ridge occupation in 1973 and along with Leonard Crow Dog was responsible for bringing the Ghost Dance back to Pine Ridge according to Mary Crow Dog in her memoir of that period Lakota Woman (Crow Dog 144-145). So here was this leader spiritual leader of the Lakota, speaking what seemed to me to be crazy talk about space people. Yet this was a man commanding respect and a standing room only crowd in that early spring day. I decided to make the trek to the Black Hills and find out what these crazy Indians were all about.

Later that summer, 1979 I went with my ride the professor to the Black Hills Survival gathering. Again I was in the back of a pickup, rotating to the front of the prof’s Toyota, with the girls as we drove from our meeting place in Denver to the Black Hills. On the way to this serious political gathering they wanted to stop along the way. We went to Mount Rushmore and spent hours there. I was somewhat aghast that they would want to stop at this symbol of American Anglo dominance in their sacred territory. But the professor said the college girls had never been to the Black Hills and wanted to tourist as well as attend a political gathering. Eventually we arrived, a day late. The professor mingled with his Lakota buddies, I went to find a ‘serious’ political group of anglo-leftists and anarchists. The young women went off elsewhere… to visit other Native American students. The young women didn’t need to be educated about the realities of reservation life, they lived it. The fact that white ranchers had joined in an alliance with the Native Americans to defend their land against the needs of the military industrial complex was heartening. “BHA [Black Hills Alliance] co-founder Mark Tilsen remembers that before the group was founded, the Lakota and white ranchers had only two points of social contact: rodeo and basketball” (Grossman).

“Members of the Dakota Rural Action Black Hills Chapter and the Clean Water Alliance rallied against proposed uranium mining and milling on May 27, 2013 outside Custer City Hall, while inside Powertech (USA), Inc. used the government offices to promote the private project 50 miles west of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Photo: Dakota Rural Action” - Ongoing struggle.

As I read the scenes of the basketball game in Alexie’s book I thought of that drive past the Pine Ridge Reservation, years later, listening to the high drama of local football on the endless sea of the greasy grass prairie. I thought of Wallace Black Elk and realized that he was not crazy, he was not saying radiation is not dangerous, but in nature, left where it would naturally be, it is no more dangerous than any other part of the natural world. Only man’s intervention, without taking into account the long term consequences could make such a foolish choice as to want to create bombs out of the naturally occurrence of radioactive material. I thought that we too need to learn to think at least seven generations ahead when planning changes as the old Native American saying about time indicates. Indian time is not something foolish, it is seeing the big picture, the broad lay of time and space and taking into account more than just the immediate desires of a few. Indian time, at least in this highly allegorical sense is a warning to us moderns, as we face the consequences of our actions upon the Earth.
“You should pay attention. That way, you honor them.” - Wallace Black Elk

Works Cited
Alexie, Sherman, and Ellen Forney, illustrations. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Co. 2009. Print.
Agonito, Joseph. Lakota Portraits Lives of the Legendary Plains People. Guilford, CT. Globe Pequot Press. 2011.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Henry Holt and Co. 2000. Print.
Crow Dog, Mary and Erodoes, Richard. Lakota Woman. New York: Grove Press. 1990. Print.
Grossman, Zoltan. “The Black Hills Alliance.” Unlikely Alliances: Treaty conflicts and environmental cooperation between Native American and rural White communities. Madison: U. of Wisconsin. 2002. Web. 20 April. 2004.
Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Bonnin), American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.


Phillis Wheatley and Black Struggle for Recognition under Slavery

Monday, May 12th, 2014

A slave sale advertisement from 1769

Phillis Wheatley: Navigating the Shoals of Slavery in Eighteenth Century Colonial America

Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston, at the young age of seven or eight, on a ship of “refugee” slaves, too old or sick for the West Indian Plantations (O’ Neale, Wheatley). She was bought by the Wheatley family hence her Anglo imposed identity, replacing that of her childhood. She was a slave when she wrote “On Being Brought from Africa to America” a teenager, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years of age. Using the symbolism of the religion of her time, this slave, educated by her master’s family, wrote lines that reflect the double consciousness in which a slave had to live, no matter how benign the master was in her case. Wheatley writes in the poem, ‘That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:/Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.” (Wheatley, 3-4) Brought to America, not of her own will, as she says a “redemption neither sought nor knew” in benighted ignorance, she gives credit to her Christian masters for her being brought to awareness of her ignorant state in a statement that is loaded with the irony of not having sought salvation, it is brought upon her, as she is a bought thing, a chattel, and yet she seems to have a genuine feeling of being a participant in this Christian community as will be indicated. It provided Wheatley with the intellectual tools to navigate her way in the world of Colonial America and to make her own arguments for justice.

The New England colonies practiced slavery beginning in the mid-17th century.

This coming to the light of Christian Salvation is not an unmitigated blessing as in the next line with some reserve she mildly complains “Some view our sable race with scornful eye,” (5) in which she chooses carefully the term “sable,” for black, this denotes a valuable animal, a fur highly sought after, indicating both being valuable in her own right, and at the same time as being a commodity, a precious one, but a commodity still. Perhaps this is indicative of the use of her talent as an exhibition. Wheatley ends the line with a synecdoche, “scornful eye.” This could be a commentary on the racism of the Christians, and their treatment of something of such value as sable, indifferently. O’ Neale notes that during that period, the late Eighteenth century, Northern slave owners would read the work of Wheatley and others, to their slaves, perhaps as evidence that their lot was not so bad under the enlightened rule of their white civilizing masters (O’ Neale, A Slave’s Subtle War, 145). The revolutionary impetus for freedom from the British rulers must have caused some consternation among thinking whites about the irony of the status of their slaves.

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley by Scipio Moorhead (S.M.) Portrait reportedly painted by Scipio Moorhead (S. M.).

Playing upon the various meanings of the word black she says in the next line “Their colour is a diabolic die.” (Wheatley 6). Here is she quoting from a sermon or the man in the street? She places this line in quotations, just as Savior is italicized to bring this to the reader’s attention, in this case it could be the reader who casts a negative light upon the beauty of this sable race. Reflecting ambiguity, the precariousness of her position, an object, both valued and despised. Possibly devil’s spawn, “diabolic,” as if blackness were conjured up in some satanic workshop, where the die is placed over the beautiful sable race; Wheatley is not yet saying the word, as if it is something too powerful, to say in so many words. But in the next line she finally says “black” and there the object is named there she is pined to the label that is indicative of the place of her race in the colonial world.

Abolitionists use symbol of freedom the Phrygian cap.

It is tempting to say that Ms. Wheatley was simply suppressing her true feelings of resentment, as she was a slave who the Wheatley’s had procured as a servant for Mrs. Susannah Wheatley, wife of John Wheatley a successful tailor. Mr. Wheatley decided that Phillis should be taught by his daughter Mary when the young slave girl was seen writing with chalk on a wall (Library of Congress). Phillis, whose name is the same as the slave ship upon which she arrived in the port of Boston, was discovered to be talented and encouraged by the Wheatley’s to develop her abilities. Taught “grammar, geography both ancient and modern, astronomy, history and enough Latin to read the ancient Roman poet Horace, with ease” (Williams 216). This was something that was uncommon for women of any race in that time. “Wheatley… found the biblical myth, language and symbol to be the most conducive vehicles for making subtle yet effective statements against slavery” (O’ Neale, A Slaves’ Subtle War, 145).

George Whitefield (1714-1770) Founding father of Methodism

An indication of the intelligent usage of her relationship to the importance of religion in her time, she chose the death of a famous evangelist to write one of her first known poems, “On The Death Of Rev. Mr. George Whitefield.” This poem which catapulted her to some fame in England and the colonies, even garnering the attention of Voltaire in France was her vehicle to transform her lot. Wheatley has Whitefield, founder of Methodism, saying to the congregants:

“Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you,
“Impartial Saviour is his title due:
“Wash’d in the fountain of redeeming blood,
“You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God.” (Wheatley 34-37)

An interesting point about this is that although written in 1770 when the famous British Evangelist died touring America, she probably had not seen him speak (Rogal 86). This indicates her ability to transform a public event to her own advantage, her path to salvation. “Wheatley had forwarded the Whitefield poem to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, to whom Whitefield had been chaplain. A wealthy supporter of evangelical and abolitionist causes, the countess instructed bookseller Archibald Bell to begin correspondence with Wheatley in preparation for the book” of poems that could not be published in the colonies because of racism (O”Neale, Wheatley). Thomas Jefferson infamously said of her “Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism” (Jefferson 267).

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14, 1781-1782 (excerpt) “In Virginia and Maryland slavery became what nurtured these states to wealth”

Despite the odds, Wheatley is able to navigate the political winds of pre-revolutionary Boston and become a celebrity in her own time, noteworthy enough for the dismissing racism of Jefferson and a presence in the literary world of London, even if as something of a novelty and a pawn for those engaged in political struggle in England. As “Betsy Erkkila argues for Wheatley’s powerful ‘challenge’ to the ‘constituted authority’ of her time, as she points to the transformative frankly political impact Wheatley’s poetry:…Wheatley transformed the revolutionary discourse on liberty, natural rights, and human nature into a subtle critique of the color code and the oppressive racial structures of republican America” (qtd. in Nott 22). This courageous spirit of poor health, a reject for the slave plantations, being foisted on the Americans as damaged goods, exemplified the spirit of resilience that is inherent in all of humanity. As Du Bois stated “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 3). Phillis Wheatley made her mark upon the world using the tools she had access to, transcending, as best she could, her lot in life.

Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon commended Wheatley to William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, appointed Secretary of State for the British North American colonies in 1772.

Works Cited
Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt, The Soul of Black Folk. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. New York: Library of America. 1984. Print.
Library of Congress.“Phillis Wheatley, the First African American Published Book of Poetry September 1, 1773.” Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Nott, Walt. “’Uncultivated Barbarian’ to ‘Poetical Genius’: The Public Presence of Phillis Wheatley.” MELUS, 18, 3, (1993), 21-32. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
O’Neale, Sondra. “A Slave’s Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley’s Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol.” Early American Literature. 21, 2 (1986), 144-165. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
- “Phillis Wheatley.” Chicago: Poetry Foundation.2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Rogal, Samuel J. “Phillis Wheatley’s Methodist Connection.” Black American Literature Forum. 21, 1/2 (1987), 85-95. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Wheatley, Phillis. “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Chicago: Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Wheatley, Phillis. “On The Death Of Rev. Mr. George Whitefield.” “Phillis Wheatley.” Web. 27 Apr. 2014.
Williams, Selma R. Demeter’s Daughters: The Women Who Founded America 1587-1787. New York. Atheneum.1976. Print.

Critical Race Theory And Progress To Social Justice

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

“Bearden Morning of Red Bird” Painting

“Rodrigo’s Indictment of Western Democracy: Some Thoughts on Critical Race Theory” by Gary Crethers

Review of Richard Delgado’s “Rodrigo’s Seventh Chronicle: Race, Democracy, and the State.”

Rodrigo’s case against American Racism hinges on his analysis of the American Democracy or more accurately Republic and its dependence on Enlightenment values that are steeped in individualism, perfectionism, hierarchy, capitalism and a legal system that perpetuates the status quo, thus preserving institutional racism. Rodrigo claims that “Western Democracies – are practically alone in our systemic mistreatment of our own minorities” (Delgado 4). This is a glaring problem in the Democratic form of government that has developed in the USA, a problem that is “systemic not incidental” or “episodic” thus making racism something the law cannot address as it is woven in the fabric of the status quo, (6, 15). Racism is normative to democracy as practiced in the USA.

“The Emancipation of the Negroes, January, 1863—The Past and the Future,” Harper’s Weekly, Jan. 24, 1863

Rodrigo blames democracy itself, which he claims is steeped in institutional racism based in Enlightenment philosophy. He names some of the defenders of slavery such as Locke, Hobbs, Mill, Rousseau and the framers of the US Constitution. Rodrigo notes the use of color imagery, in the Founders writing, many who owned slaves and even those who didn’t own slaves believed in a natural hierarchy in which blacks are unable to live with Whites (7). Jefferson comes to mind most notoriously in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “The first difference which strikes us is that of colour” (Jefferson 264). Rodrigo sees this product of the enlightenment with its emphasis on perfectionism, a mechanistic worldview in which powers are perfectly balanced, as in the U.S. constitution. The balance of powers creates an institutional tendency to freeze the status quo in place with the legal systems focus on precedent – “stare decisis and the rule of law mean that judges are bound to continue the previous regime” (14). Such a perfect system created by an elite of educated whites of the upper classes, in which hierarchy is inherent and with darker peoples less enlightened than those of light skin (Delgado 7-8).

Illustration of George Washington with his wife, Martha, and her grandchildren George Washington Parke Custis and Nelly Custis, whom the couple raised. At right, a slave is shown entering the room. Courtesy Library of Congress

Rodrigo states “democracies pioneered the slave trade, plantation system, coolie labor, Native American relocation, and Bracero programs” (8). This domination is considered to be systematic, implicit in the idea of democracy (of western nations), and is based on the exclusion of minorities since all cannot govern. This exclusion is based on three criteria, “color, followed by sex, and property, in that order” (8). He goes on to state “Liberal democracy and racial subordination go hand in hand” (9). He also indicts free market economics in which he claims it and the Enlightenment to be based in the same mechanistic model (9). The market, he claims “accentuates” racism (11) and market forces drive out altruistic tendencies, as the narrator notes in his own law classes where idealistic reformers by the end of law school seek the safe haven of corporate law (12). The narrator goes on to state “Enlightenment-based, Western style democracy poses … the near certainty of domination and rough treatment of minorities … natural and deserved [with] legal self-seeking … defined as what white people do” (12).

Rodrigo goes on to state that it is in Protestantism, the Calvinist individualism, in which social groups have been de-emphasized in favor of the individual. Where ones economic status is tied to individual effort and failure is seen as a personal problem, a sign of “moral sin or sloth” (17). Interestingly he does not include Luther in this critique, who was after all seeking to reform Catholicism, not do away with it. He sums up saying “Law, perfectionism, free market economics,” (22) as well as the hierarchical structural belief system imbedded in Enlightenment theory. The notion of the word enlightenment is itself a source of oppression with its focus on “sight-based metaphors” (20) and the “purveyors of color imagery,” such as television, even the Constitution “color-conscious in its inception” (22), all add up to an institutional racism that cannot be done away incrementally by precedent due to “the interlocking web of cultural understandings, meanings, and presuppositions … local officials will gut the landmark decision (16). Using the example of Brown v. Board of Education, Rodrigo claims the old status quo is “quietly stolen back by narrow construction, foot dragging and administrative delay” (15). Change has to come at once not piecemeal (16). Rodrigo then goes on to posit a tactile based approach to replace the enlightenment, a society of huggers (20), and thinks that approaching whites with the notion that multiculturalism is in their self-interest (21), as Matsuda says “pragmatic businessmen … open to the idea that equality might be good for business” (Matsuda 4).

Race Distribution NBA, Market Logic Drove Them to Condemn Donald Sterling

This radical impatience in Rodrigo, something that is needed for change to come about, reminds me of my own youthful memories of the Maoist Chinese attempt to develop an alternative to the legal system during the Cultural Revolution in which “Mao Tse-tung called for the ‘smashing of Kung-chien-fa (public security, procuratorate and judicial organs)” and he was also quoted as saying ‘Depend on the rule of man, not the rule of law’” (Leng 356). During the period of the Cultural Revolution, which in my youth was seen as a positive and revolutionary sweeping away of old dead forms; utilizing forms of self-criticism, and peer group justice, under the guidance of Mao Tse-tung thought, was seen as the way forward. Guidance consisted of a book of aphorisms by Mao, Quotations from Mao Tse Tung, which my associates called the Little Red Book. This is a typical excerpt:

To understand these two different types of contradictions correctly, we must first be clear on what is meant by ‘the people’ and what is meant by ‘the enemy’ . . . At the present stage, the period of building socialism, the classes, strata and social groups which favour, support and work for the cause of socialist construction all come within the category of the people, while the social forces and groups which resist the socialist revolution and are hostile to or sabotage socialist construction are all enemies of the people

(Mao Tse Tung).

Mao’s Revolution

I have seen examples, among the Black Panthers in particular, of Revolutionary or people’s justice which, some of the controversial fall out of which led, for example, to David Horowitz’s leaving the editorship of leftist Ramparts Magazine and migrating into neo-liberal anti-communism (Gottlieb). What I would consider attempts at immediatism, which others may categorize as mob rule (something still popular among anarchists and left communists), depending on the will of the people directly, could easily be seen as a threat to Rodrigo, when we see examples of the American mob engaged in lynching of persons of color and not overthrowing the Bastille as perhaps a leftist might romantically desire. Despairing, over the ability of the judicial system of the US, to make things right for minorities, as it is hopelessly compromised, could lead Rodrigo to something more revolutionary in nature, but this argument against the white majority is leading to what? A Platonic rule by philosopher kings? Realistically it seems he is advocating for a more humanistic, sensitivity to minorities in the American legal system although the Huggy Bear approach seems to be more a joke than a plan of attack (20-21). Anarchists would say that as the people become more aware, educated and self-organized they will naturally desire to remove the constraints of a system that maintains an elite that sucks up much of the product of collective labor for its own interests. Libertarians would say this requires a free market, something that Rodrigo sees as anti-ethical and deleterious to human solidarity (11). I tend to agree with Rodrigo on that point. Rule of law works when it reflects the highest aspirations of a society in my view. When it doesn’t or when the general will is so far disconnected from the law, then rule of law tends to become subverted and disrespected. Often legal systems, out of reach of the common man, became tools of the elites to fleece the masses, something that the Maoists reacted to by attempting to take that layer of elite control out of the judicial process and place it in the hands of the popular masses and under the guidance of the party. That party naturally becomes a new elite and the cycle is unbroken, something Anarchist theorists want to bypass by eliminating the need for a party. Then mass activity and spontaneous leadership becomes the model. Flash mob rule…

Toward a Revolutionary Transformation of Society

I don’t see postmodernism to be the solution that perhaps it might have appeared to be a couple of decades ago. Over the years I have attempted to grapple with French Theory and understand the narrator’s reluctance to go to deeply down that rabbit hole, some of it is so dense that it is very off putting (21). Delgado has an interesting ironic commentary going, with two academics chatting away in what seems to be a gourmet bistro while a member of the subject class, a working waiter is a virtual non entity. He may be simply postulating a revolutionary model stripped of Marxist rhetoric, but it is still part of the modernist project as far as I can tell that emerged out of the Enlightenment. After all the enlightenment may have produced a more efficient slavery system, but it also produced abolitionists. I think the critique, although interesting, is not fully emergent from the bed of Hegelian progressive influence. Identifying racial minorities and women as specific political constituencies simply slices the pie into finer and more specific pieces which are probably good, although it can lead quite easily back to the logic of an interest group of one, the individual. Rodrigo’s looking to the Catholic Church as a model, an intermediary (17), is like advocating for the Communist Party rule, or any other elite cadre, such as academia and we are back to the philosopher kings, wisely determining the fate of man. Laws may simply be an encoding of the law of man, but at least they give us time to reflect upon the wisdom of our decision making, the very slowness and defense of the status quo Rodrigo rails against.

Leaving the Status Quo Behind

Although I have a tendency to agree with the left critics of Matsuda, I do see the ideal of bringing about a post-racial society as requiring a mass consciousness raising that may involve some coercion, via legislation, direct action on the streets, media campaigns and the like. The Supreme Court may currently be an impediment, but another Liberal, following in F.D. R’s footsteps could change that, Delgado’s friend in the court (23). Some of Delgado’s problem with the reaction of the right and racism persistent among whites is a result of the failure of the government to sustain policies developed in the sixties by Democrats facing rebellion in the streets and attempting to prosecute an unpopular war in Vietnam at the same time. Incremental changes have happened, albeit much too slowly. It will take the mobilization of constituencies. This mobilization shall require convincing the public of its necessity. Demographics will eventually accomplish much of the goal, but if we desire to see social justice take a progressive form with some due speed, it will require conscious and consistent coalition building since the left is no longer a monolithic movement as some of us nostalgically might imagine we remember.

” The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world,” said Charles Malik, former president of the United Nations General Assembly in a recent speech” (

I don’t want to come off as being too skeptical, as this paper may indicate. It is more a reflection of my impatience with the slowness of progress in not only racial equality, sexual equality, but also economic justice. There is also a bit of a warning that in the process of change there are often some blood spilled and overall progress to justice may not seem all that just on the ground to some, usually the haves who are being asked to redistribute. The best advice I have is to embrace social justice and not material wealth, although everyone deserves the basics from which native excellence may arise. The problem is to keep the game fail so that all the marbles don’t end up in a few hands, the natural tendency of capitalism. It is after all system designed to aid the the accumulation of wealth in the hands of capable industrial and market innovators. Originally a concept backed by the American and French Revolutions to redistribute wealth from the Kings, landed aristocracy and the Church. It was revolutionary in it’s day. Now it is time for the next step in social justice. How can we do this in an equitable manner and not destroy the goose that lays the golden egg, that is a primary question of our time along with the environment and eliminating race, sex and class background as issues. The NBA decision to take radical action against a racist team owner is unprecedented and a real sign of progress, even if it is based mostly in economic self interest to preserve the league brand.

Works Cited
Delgado, Richard. “Rodrigo’s Seventh Chronicle: Race, Democracy, and the State.” 1 UCLA L. Rev 721 (1994) (Westlaw). (Pagination from printout of article as a word document) 1-35. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
Gottlieb, Akiva. “David Horowitz is Homeless.” Tablet Magazine. May 2, 2012. Nexbook Inc. Web. 26 Apr. 2014
Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1984. Print.
Leng, Shao-Chuan. “The Role of Law in the People’s Republic of China as Reflecting Mao Tse-Tung’s Influence.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-). 68. 3 (1977). 356-373. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.
Matsuda, Mari J. “Who is Excellent?” 1 Seattle J. for Soc. Just. 29 (2002) (Westlaw). (Pagination from printout of article as a word document) 1-18. Web. 25 Apr. 2014.
Tse Tung, Mao. Quotations from Mao Tse Tung. Trans. David Quentin and Brian Baggins. Beijing: Peking Foreign Languages Press. 1966. Mao Tse Tung Internet Archive. Web. 26 Apr. 2014.

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