Thursday, April 30, 2015

James Baldwin: A 1966 Report From The Fire THIS Time So Timely for TODAY

A Report from Occupied Territory

This article originally appeared in July 11, 1966, issue of The Nation.

On April 17, 1964, in Harlem, New York City, a young salesman, father of two, left a customer’s apartment and went into the streets. There was a great commotion in the streets, which, especially since it was a spring day, involved many people, including running, frightened, little boys. They were running from the police. Other people, in windows, left their windows, in terror of the police because the police had their guns out, and were aiming the guns at the roofs. Then the salesman noticed that two of the policemen were beating up a kid: “So I spoke up and asked them, ‘why are you beating him like that?’ Police jump up and start swinging on me. He put the gun on me and said, ‘get over there.’ I said, ‘what for?’ ”

An unwise question. Three of the policemen beat up the salesman in the streets. Then they took the young salesman, whose hands had been handcuffed behind his back, along with four others, much younger than the salesman, who were handcuffed in the same way, to the police station. There: “About thirty-five I’d say came into the room, and started beating, punching us in the jaw, in the stomach, in the chest, beating us with a padded club—spit on us, call us niggers, dogs, animals—they call us dogs and animals when I don’t see why we are the dogs and animals the way they are beating us. Like they beat me they beat the other kids and the elderly fellow. They throw him almost through one of the radiators. I thought he was dead over there.”

“The elderly fellow” was Fecundo Acion, a 47-year-old Puerto Rican seaman, who had also made the mistake of wanting to know why the police were beating up children. An adult eyewitness reports, “Now here come an old man walking out a stoop and asked one cop, ‘say, listen, sir, what’s going on out here?’ The cop turn around and smash him a couple of times in the head.” And one of the youngsters said, “He get that just for a question. No reason at all, just for a question.”

No one had, as yet, been charged with any crime. But the nightmare had not yet really begun. The salesman had been so badly beaten around one eye that it was found necessary to hospitalize him. Perhaps some sense of what it means to live in occupied territory can be suggested by the fact that the police took him to Harlem Hospital themselves—nearly nineteen hours after the beating. For fourteen days, the doctors at Harlem Hospital told him that they could do nothing for his eye, and he was removed to Bellevue Hospital, where for fourteen days, the doctors tried to save the eye. At the end of fourteen days it was clear that the bad eye could not be saved and was endangering the good eye. All that could be done, then, was to take the bad eye out.

As of my last information, the salesman is on the streets again, with his attaché case, trying to feed his family. He is more visible now because he wears an eye patch; and because he questioned the right of two policemen to beat up one child, he is known as a “cop hater.” Therefore, “I have quite a few police look at me now pretty hard. My lawyer he axe (asked) me to keep somebody with me at all times ’cause the police may try to mess with me again.”

You will note that there is not a suggestion of any kind of appeal to justice, and no suggestion of any recompense for the grave and gratuitous damage which this man has endured. His tone is simply the tone of one who has miraculously survived—he might have died; as it is, he is merely half blind. You will also note that the patch over his eye has had the effect of making him, more than ever, the target of the police. It is a dishonorable wound, not earned in a foreign jungle but in the domestic one—not that this would make any difference at all to the nevertheless insuperably patriotic policeman—and it proves that he is a “bad nigger.” (“Bad niggers,” in America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed.)

The police, who have certainly done their best to kill him, have also provided themselves with a pretext derisoire by filing three criminal charges against him. He is charged with beating up a schoolteacher, upsetting a fruit stand, and assaulting the (armed) police. Furthermore, he did all of these things in the space of a single city block, and simultaneously.

* * *
 The salesman’s name is Frank Stafford. At the time all this happened, he was 31 years old. And all of this happened, all of this and a great deal more, just before the “long, hot summer” of 1964 which, to the astonishment of nearly all New Yorkers and nearly all Americans, to the extremely verbal anguish of The New York Times, and to the bewilderment of the rest of the world, eventually erupted into a race riot. It was the killing of a 15-year-old Negro boy by a white policeman which overflowed the unimaginably bitter cup. 

As a result of the events of April 17, and of the police performance that day, and because Harlem is policed like occupied territory, six young Negro men, the oldest of whom is 20, are now in prison, facing life sentences for murder. Their names are Wallace Baker, Daniel Hamm, Walter Thomas, Willie Craig, Ronald Felder and Robert Rice. Perhaps their names don’t matter. They might be my brothers, they might also be yours. 
My report is based, in part, on Truman Nelson’s The Torture of Mothers (The Garrison Press, 15 Olive Street, Newburyport, Mass., with an introduction by Maxwell Gelsmar). The Torture of Mothers is a detailed account of the case which is now known as the case of The Harlem Six. Mr. Nelson is not, as I have earlier misled certain people into believing, a white Southern novelist, but a white Northern one. It is a rather melancholy comment, I think, on the Northern intellectual community, and it reveals, rather to my despair, how little I have come to expect of it that I should have been led so irresistibly into this error. In a way, though, I certainly have no wish to blame Mr. Nelson for my errors, he is, nevertheless, somewhat himself to blame. His tone makes it clear that he means what he says and he knows what he means. 
The tone is rare. I have come to expect it only of Southerners—or mainly from Southerners—since Southerners must pay so high a price for their private and their public liberation. But Mr. Nelson actually comes from New England, and is what another age would have called an abolitionist.
No Northern liberal would have been capable of it because the Northern liberal considers himself as already saved, whereas the white Southerner has to pay the price for his soul’s salvation out of his own anguish and in his own flesh and in the only time he has. Mr. Nelson wrote the book in an attempt to create publicity and public indignation; whatever money the book makes goes into the effort to free The Harlem Six.

I think the book is an extraordinary moral achievement, in the great American tradition of Tom Paine and Frederick Douglass, but I will not be so dishonest as to pretend that I am writing a book review. No, I am writing a report, which is also a plea for the recognition of our common humanity. Without this recognition, our common humanity will be proved in unutterable ways. My report is also based on what I myself know, for I was born in Harlem and raised there. Neither I, nor my family, can be said ever really to have left; we are—perhaps—no longer as totally at the mercy of the cops and the landlords as once we were. In any case, our roots, our friends, our deepest associations are there, and “there” is only about fifteen blocks away.

This means that I also know, in my own flesh, and know, which is worse, in the scars borne by many of those dearest to me, the thunder and fire of the billy club, the paralyzing shock of spittle in the face, and I know what it is to find oneself blinded, on one’s hands and knees, at the bottom of the flight of steps down which one has just been hurled. I know something else: these young men have been in jail for two years now. Even if the attempts being put forth to free them should succeed, what has happened to them in these two years? People are destroyed very easily. Where is the civilization and where, indeed, is the morality which can afford to destroy so many?

There was a game played for some time between certain highly placed people in Washington and myself before the administration changed and the Great Society reached the planning stage. The game went something like this around April or May, that is as the weather began to be warmer, my phone would ring. I would pick it up and find that Washington was on the line.

Washington: What are you doing for lunch—oh, say, tomorrow, Jim?
Jim: Oh—why—I guess I’m free
Washington: Why don’t you take the shuttle down? We’ll send a car to the airport. One o’clock all right?
Jim: Sure. I’ll be there.
Washington: Good. Be glad to see you.

So there I would be the next day, like a good little soldier, seated (along with other good little soldiers) around a luncheon table in Washington. The first move was not mine to make, but I knew very well why I had been asked to be there.

Finally, someone would say—we would probably have arrived at the salad—“say, Jim, what’s going to happen this summer?”

This question, translated, meant: Do you think that any of those unemployed, unemployable Negroes who are going to be on the streets all summer will cause us any trouble? What do you think we should do about it? But, later on, I concluded that I had got the second part of the question wrong, they really meant, what was I going to do about it?

Then I would find myself trying patiently to explain that the Negro in America can scarcely yet be considered—for example—as a part of the labor unions—and he is certainly not so considered by the majority of these unions—and that, therefore, he lacks that protection and that incentive. The jobs that Negroes have always held, the lowest jobs, the most menial jobs, are now being destroyed by automation. No remote provision has yet been made to absorb this labor surplus. Furthermore, the Negro’s education, North and South, remains, almost totally, a segregated education, which is but another way of saying that he is taught the habits of inferiority every hour of every day that he lives. He will find it very difficult to overcome these habits.

Furthermore, every attempt he makes to overcome them will be painfully complicated by the fact that the ways of being, the ways of life of the despised and rejected, nevertheless, contain an incontestable vitality and authority. This is far more than can be said of the middle class which, in any case, and whether it be black or white, does not dare to cease despising him. He may prefer to remain where he is, given such unattractive choices, which means that he either remains in limbo, or finds a way to use the system in order to beat the system.

Thus, even when opportunities—my use of this word is here limited to the industrialized, competitive, contemporary North American sense—hitherto closed to Negroes begin, very grudgingly, to open up, few can be found to qualify for them for the reasons sketched above, and also because it demands a very rare person of any color to risk madness and heartbreak in an attempt to achieve the impossible. (I know Negroes who have gone literally mad because they wished to become commercial air-line pilots.) Nor is this the worst.

The children, having seen the spectacular defeat of their fathers—having seen what happens to any bad nigger and, still more, what happens to the good ones—cannot listen to their fathers and certainly will not listen to the society which is responsible for their orphaned condition.

What to do in the face of this deep and dangerous estrangement? It seemed to me—I would say, sipping coffee and trying to be calm—that the principle of what had to be done was extremely simple; but before anything could be done, the principle had to be grasped. The principle on which one had to operate was that the government which can force me to pay my taxes and force me to fight in its defense anywhere in the world does not have the authority to say that it cannot protect my right to vote or my right to earn a living or my right to live anywhere I choose.

Furthermore, no nation, wishing to call itself free, can possibly survive so massive a defection. What to do? Well, there is a real estate lobby in Albany, for example, and this lobby, which was able to rebuild all of New York, downtown, and for money, in less than twenty years, is also responsible for Harlem and the condition of the people there, and the condition of the schools there, and the future of the children there. What to do?

Why is it not possible to attack the power of this lobby? Are their profits more important than the health of our children? What to do? Are textbooks printed in order to teach children, or are the contents of these textbooks to be controlled by the Southern oligarchy and the commercial health of publishing houses?

What to do?

Why are Negroes and Puerto Ricans virtually the only people pushing trucks in the garment center, and what union has the right to trap and victimize Negroes and Puerto Ricans in this way? None of these things (I would say) could possibly be done without the consent, in fact, of the government, and we in Harlem know this even if some of you profess not to know how such a hideous state of affairs came about. If some of these things are not begun—I would say—then, of course, we will be sitting on a powder keg all summer. Of course, the powder keg may blow up; it will be a miracle if it doesn’t.

They thanked me. They didn’t believe me, as I conclude, since nothing was ever done.

The summer was always violent. And, in the spring, the phone began to ring again.

Now, what I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco—is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population.

They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.

This is why those pious calls to “respect the law,” always to be heard from prominent citizens each time the ghetto explodes, are so obscene. The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.

* * *
On April 17, some school children overturned a fruit stand in Harlem. This would have been a mere childish prank if the children had been white—had been, that is, the children of that portion of the citizenry for whom the police work and who have the power to control the police. But these children were black, and the police chased them and beat them and took out their guns; and Frank Stafford lost his eye in exactly the same way The Harlem Six lost their liberty—by trying to protect the younger children. Daniel Hamm, for example, tells us that “…we heard children scream. We turned around and walked back to see what happened. I saw this policeman with his gun out and with his billy in his hand I like put myself in the way to keep him from shooting the kids. Because first of all he was shaking like a leaf and jumping all over the place. And I thought he might shoot one of them.”

He was arrested, along with Wallace Baker, carried to the police station, beaten—“six and twelve at a time would beat us. They got so tired beating us they just came in and started spitting on us—they even bring phlegm up and spit on me.” This went on all day in the evening. Wallace Baker and Daniel Hamm were taken to Harlem Hospital for X rays and then carried back to the police station, where the beating continued all night.

They were eventually released, with the fruit-stand charges pending, in spite of the testimony of the fruit-stand owner. This fruit-stand owner had already told the police that neither Wallace Baker nor Daniel Hamm had ever been at his store and that they certainly had had nothing to do with the fruit-stand incident. But this had no effect on the conduct of the police.

The boys had already attracted the attention of the police, long before the fruit-stand riot, and in a perfectly innocent way. They are pigeon fanciers and they keep—kept—pigeons on the roof. But the police are afraid of everything in Harlem and they are especially afraid of the roofs, which they consider to be guerrilla outposts.

This means that the citizens of Harlem who, as we have seen, can come to grief at any hour in the streets, and who are not safe at their windows, are forbidden the very air. They are safe only in their houses—or were, until the city passed the No Knock, Stop and Frisk laws, which permit a policeman to enter one’s home without knocking and to stop anyone on the streets, at will, at any hour, and search him. Harlem believes, and I certainly agree, that these laws are directed against Negroes. They are certainly not directed against anybody else.

One day, “two carloads of detectives come and went up on the roof. They pulled their guns on the kids and searched them and made them all come down and they were going to take them down to the precinct.” But the boys put up a verbal fight and refused to go and attracted quite a crowd. “To get these boys to the precinct we would have to shoot them,” a policeman said, and “the police seemed like they was embarrassed. Because I don’t think they expected the kids to have as much sense as they had in speaking up for themselves.”

They refused to go to the precinct, “and they didn’t,’’ and their exhibition of the spirit of ’76 marked them as dangerous. Occupied territory is occupied territory, even though it be found in that New World which the Europeans conquered, and it is axiomatic, in occupied territory, that any act of resistance, even though it be executed by a child, be answered at once, and with the full weight of the occupying forces. Furthermore, since the police, not at all surprisingly, are abysmally incompetent—for neither, in fact, do they have any respect for the law, which is not surprising, either—Harlem and all of New York City is full of unsolved crimes. A crime, as we know, is solved when someone is arrested and convicted. It is not indispensable, but it is useful, to have a confession.

If one is carried back and forth from the precinct to the hospital long enough, one is likely to confess to anything.

Therefore, ten days later, following the slaying of Mrs. Margit Sugar in Mr. and Mrs. Sugar’s used-clothing store in Harlem, the police returned and took Daniel Hamm away again. This is how his mother tells it. “I think it was three (detectives) come up and they asked are you Danny Hamm? And he says yes and right away—gun right to the head and slapping him up, one gun here and one here—just all the way down the hall—beating him and knocking him around with the gun to his head.”

The other boys were arrested in the same way, and, again of course, they were beaten, but this arrest was a far greater torture than the first one had been because some of the mothers did not know where the boys were, and the police, who were holding them, refused for many hours to say that they were holding them The mothers did not know of what it was their children were accused until they learned, via television, that the charge was murder. At that time in the state of New York, this charge meant death in the electric chair.

Let us assume that all six boys are guilty as (eventually) charged. Can anyone pretend that the manner of their arrest, or their treatment, bears any resemblance to equal justice under the law? The Police Department has loftily refused to “dignify the charges.” But can anyone pretend that they would dare to take this tone if the case involved, say, the sons of Wall Street brokers? I have witnessed and endured the brutality of the police many more times than once—but, of course, I cannot prove it. I cannot prove it because the Police Department investigates itself, quite as though it were answerable only to itself. But it cannot be allowed to be answerable only to itself.

It must be made to answer to the community which pays it, and which it is legally sworn to protect, and if American Negroes are not a part of the American community, then all of the American professions are a fraud.

This arrogant autonomy, which is guaranteed the police, not only in New York, by the most powerful forces in American life—otherwise, they would not dare to claim it would indeed be unable to claim it—creates a situation which is as close to anarchy as it already, visibly, is close to martial law.

Here is Wallace Baker’s mother speaking, describing the night that a police officer came to her house to collect the evidence which he hoped would prove that her son was guilty of murder. The late Mrs. Sugar had run a used clothing store and the policeman was looking for old coats. “Nasty as he was that night in my house. He didn’t ring the bell. So I said, have you got a search warrant? He say, no, I don’t have no search warrant and I’m going to search anyway. Well, he did. So I said, will you please step out of this room till I get dressed? He wouldn’t leave.”

This collector of evidence against the boys was later arrested on charges of possessing and passing counterfeit money (he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, “conspiring” to pass counterfeit money). The officer’s home in Hartsdale, N. Y., is valued at $35,000, he owns two cars, one a Cadillac, and when he was arrested, had $1,300 in his pockets. But the families of The Harlem Six do not have enough money for counsel. The court appointed counsel, and refused to allow the boys counsel of their own choice, even though the boys made it clear that they had no confidence in their court-appointed counsel, and even though four leading civil rights lawyers had asked to be allowed to handle the case. The boys were convicted of first-degree murder, and are now ending their childhood and may end their lives in jail.

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom. Here is the boy, Daniel Hamm, speaking—speaking of his country, which has sworn to bung peace and freedom to so many millions. “They don’t want us here. They don’t want us—period! All they want us to do is work on these penny-ante jobs for them—and that’s it. And beat our heads in whenever they feel like it. They don’t want us on the street ’cause the World’s Fair is coming. And they figure that all black people are hoodlums anyway, or bums, with no character of our own. So they put us off the streets, so their friends from Europe, Paris or Vietnam—wherever they come from—can come and see this supposed-to-be great city.”

There is a very bitter prescience in what this boy—this “bad nigger”—is saying, and he was not born knowing it. We taught it to him in seventeen years. He is draft age now, and if he were not in jail, would very probably be on his way to Southeast Asia. Many of his contemporaries are there, and the American Government and the American press are extremely proud of them. They are dying there like flies; they are dying in the streets of all our Harlems far more hideously than flies. A member of my family said to me when we learned of the bombing of the four little girls in the Birmingham Sunday school, “Well, they don’t need us for work no more. Where are they building the gas ovens?” Many Negroes feel this; there is no way not to feel it. Alas, we know our countrymen, municipalities, judges, politicians, policemen and draft boards very well.
There is more than one way to skin a cat, and more than one way to get bad niggers off the streets. No one in Harlem will ever believe that The Harlem Six are guilty—God knows their guilt has certainly not been proved. Harlem knows, though, that they have been abused and possibly destroyed, and Harlem knows why—we have lived with it since our eyes opened on the world. One is in the impossible position of being unable to believe a word one’s countrymen say. “I can’t believe what you say,” the song goes, “because I see what you do”—and one is also under the necessity of escaping the jungle of one’s situation into any other jungle whatever.

It is the bitterest possible comment on our situation now that the suspicion is alive in so many breasts that America has at last found a way of dealing with the Negro problem. “They don’t want us—period!" The meek shall inherit the earth, it is said. This presents a very bleak image to those who live in occupied territory. The meek Southeast Asians, those who remain, shall have their free elections, and the meek American Negroes—those who survive—shall enter the Great Society.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How to Raise a Black Son in America

Growing Up A Black Boy In 21st Century America

As kids, we all get advice from parents and teachers that seems strange, even confusing. This was crystallized one night for a young Clint Smith, who was playing with water guns in a dark parking lot with his white friends. In a heartfelt piece, the poet paints the scene of his father's furious and fearful response. 

For Clint Smith, inspiration comes from his students. The writer and educator draws on his and his students’ lives to create poetry that blends art and activism. A PhD candidate at Harvard University and a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion, Smith gives performances with humor, humanity and humility, touching on themes like poverty, social justice and the pains of being a kid.

Serial Murder and Police/Media Silence in South L.A.

Where Black Lives Don’t Matter: Serial Murder and Silence in South L.A.

  Lonnie Franklin Jr., shown in this movie still from, is accused of being the Grim Sleeper serial killer.
By Meleiza Figueroa and Alan Minsky
Apr 26, 2015
In “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” Nick Broomfield‘s harrowing new documentary, we learn a sad and startling fact: that Los Angeles police officers once regularly used the term “NHI”—for “no human involved”—to describe the murders of prostitutes and drug addicts in poor black communities.

The film, which chronicles the long and tragic saga of the Grim Sleeper serial killer’s 25-year reign of terror in a South Los Angeles neighborhood, is a damning testament to the widespread, almost casual eradication of black lives by law enforcement—in its word and deeds.

Right now, the United States is grappling with the issue of police violence against black people, as protesters around the country declare that “black lives matter.” Broomfield’s film focuses on a parallel pathology: that “black-on-black” crime is not only tolerated but is implicitly sanctioned by the state, as illustrated by events shown in the documentary.
To fully grasp the sense of alienation and hostility that black communities have toward the police, this aspect has to be understood. Millions of black people intimately understand that police departments in the U.S. are not there to protect them or their communities. That their lived experiences are continually denounced and ignored by law enforcement, government officials, the media and many of their fellow citizens speaks to how deep this pathological denial runs through American society.

Perhaps this is no mere oversight. At the core of the modern liberal state, the bedrock of American “democracy,” is the assumed equality of the nation’s citizens: “All men are created equal.” While the civil rights movement has struggled, and in several ways prevailed, against inequality for black Americans in the political sphere, it has been a much more monumental challenge to show how these inequalities operate on the level of everyday life in black communities.

For all the media coverage of police violence in Ferguson, North Charleston, New York City, and elsewhere, most people who reside outside of impoverished black communities have no sense of what it’s like to live in a place where the law disregards, and is even hostile to, the needs of its residents. As such, “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is an essential film for this historical moment, as it shows powerfully how the facts on the ground resolutely expose the lie of “liberty and justice for all.” It does this by showing a driver’s side view of the “other America” that black people experience.

The film begins with the 2010 arrest of Lonnie Franklin, a South Los Angeles resident whose DNA was linked to multiple Grim Sleeper murders going back to 1985. He is currently awaiting trial for 10 counts of murder and one count of attempted murder, and at least 10 additional murder cases are pending against him. While the actual count of his alleged victims is unknown, police found photos of at least 180 women in his home, and some fear that the final number could reach well over 100.

Most of the victims were black women who were criminalized as addicts and walked the streets as prostitutes, victims also of the crack epidemic that swept through black communities in L.A. beginning in the 1980s.

Franklin was a well-known and relatively respected fixture in his neighborhood, and Broomfield sets out to understand not only Franklin’s life, circumstances and possible motives, but also the grave errors and inconsistencies in the LAPD’s investigation of the Grim Sleeper murders that allowed a prolific serial killer to go free for over two decades. Even when the LAPD had recognized that a serial killer was targeting women in Franklin’s neighborhood (by the time the third victim was found), the community was not informed of the potential danger lurking in their midst. Crucial pieces of information—such as eyewitness reports, police sketches, a recording of a 911 call presumed to have been made by the killer and a description of Franklin’s vehicle (a very distinctive orange Pinto)—were withheld from the public for more than 20 years.
Several of the film’s interviewees—including members of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, an organization that formed to demand accountability from law enforcement and city officials and to inform the community about the Grim Sleeper when residents realized that a killer was in their midst—questioned how and why the LAPD could have exhibited such shocking negligence in the face of the mounting deaths. As the film progresses, it becomes distressingly clear that the victims’ social status as poor black women was a key factor in how they, and their community, were treated by the LAPD. As Nana Gyamfi, an attorney and coalition member featured in the film, pointed out: “Imagine if they had treated Victim No. 3 as if she were a student at UCLA, with blonde hair and blue eyes. How many other people might still be living? That is for me the real tragedy … the lack of concern allowed so many more people to be murdered.”

The social circumstances under which these black women’s lives, and the safety of their community, were so utterly disregarded by law enforcement speaks powerfully to the “perfect storm” of race, gender and class that lies at the heart of this story. Even though police did not have a direct hand in their murders, the silent deaths of these black women must be included in the national conversation about police brutality and racism in this post-Ferguson moment. It is especially important given that the deaths that gave rise to the “Black Lives Matter” movement were largely the result of police killings of young black men like Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Far less attention has been paid to the black women and girls who have also been victims of police violence, including Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Jones, Sheneque Proctor (portrayed in the media as “the female Eric Garner”) and far too many others.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

More Black & Latino Teachers Needed to Help Improve and Save Lives

Harvesting Teachers of Color to Improve - And Save - Lives
  Founder, President of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education

Common sense suggests students may learn best from dedicated teachers who can relate to them.

Hard science may support that proposition, too. Some researchers believe material in certain brain cells makes it easier for human beings to empathize with one another. For more than 20 years, Italian neuroscientists have studied these so-called "mirror neurons" to see if people with less of this material are more likely to have social communication and processing disorders, while those with an abundance are better able to identify and embrace the emotions they detect in others -- from echoing a passing smile to wincing when a person stubs a toe.

To be sure, some researchers believe human empathy has little or nothing to do with "mirror neurons." Yet this line of brain research may lead us to more deeply understand social engagements in our diverse global community.

In the classroom, these social explorations may tell us a great deal about how students learn and why, and what builds effectiveness in a teacher. As Gloria Ladson-Billings of the University of Wisconsin at Madison poignantly writes:

" I do know the experience of walking into schools (especially elementary and middle schools) where Black students ask me with eagerness, 'Are you a teacher here?' And, I recognize the disappointment that falls over those same faces when I shake my head, 'no.' Their longing for a teacher that 'looks like them' is palpable. The current statistics indicate that class after class of children -- Black, Native American, Latino, and Asian -- go through entire school careers without ever having a teacher of their same race or ethnicity.
"But, I want to suggest that there is something that may be even more important than Black students having Black teachers and that is White students having Black teachers! It is important for White students to encounter Black people who are knowledgeable and hold some level of authority over them. Black students ALREADY know that Black people have a wide range of capabilities. They see them in their homes, their neighborhoods, and their churches. They are the Sunday school teachers, their Scout Leaders, their coaches, and family members. But what opportunities do White students have to see and experience Black competence?

"In my many years as a university professor I have had many White students who revealed that I was the first African-American teacher they had ever had at any level. My hope is that their experience with me makes them walk into classrooms filled with Black children and say, 'there could be doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, inventors, and teachers in here,' rather than assume that their black skins limited their intellectual possibilities."
We've known for years that students need to be exposed to teachers of color. We know students learn best in diverse educational circumstances. And we also know that the more diverse the student and teacher population, the higher student academic achievement is likely to be.

Yet the challenge we face is that, in a majority of urban schools, the student population is more segregated than it was 60 years after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Brown v Board of Education desegregation case (1954.) At the same time, the teaching force has become more "white," with a margin of as many as four White teachers for every one teacher of color. Black teachers make up less than 7 percent of America's approximately 3.2 million teaching force.

Clearly, there is a need to train and retain effective teachers of color, as well as White teachers, for urban school systems, though this is not a priority for every urban district. However, when committed partners come together - as my organization, the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, did from 2005 to 2009, when it joined the University of Alabama at Birmingham to support Birmingham (AL) City Schools - positive change does happen.

Together, we implemented the federally funded Training, Retaining Urban Student Teachers (TRUST) project -- and retained an impressive 87 percent of TRUST graduates for Birmingham and other urban school systems.

The late Michael J. Froning, dean of UAB's School of Education, compared the TRUST process to "nurturing a garden," one that begins by "preparing the soil" with an enhanced educational environment and targeted strategies, and then "assembles the seeds" by recruiting teacher candidates at the University, as well as paraprofessionals already in the school system.

Courses specifically designed for urban settings were co-taught by University faculty and teacher leaders in the school system. This collaborative, continuous professional development environment enabled the "crop" to "grow." A commitment to support recruits during their crucial first years of teaching allowed them to "thrive," yielding a bounty of teachers for the school system ("Recruiting, Preparing, and Retaining Urban Teachers: One Person's View From Many Angles in Recruiting, Preparing, and Retaining Teachers for Urban Schools, AACTE Publication, 2006.)

Dr. Froning and his colleagues dreamed the TRUST project one day would be replicated across the country. Given the deaths of African-American youth in urban cities across our great nation, I would argue that the need never has been greater.

If we are to show children that Black, White, Asian, Latino and Native American lives do matter, then we must bring people leading those very lives into our classrooms every day. If we want a lush garden of educators to flourish in America on behalf of schoolchildren and youth, then we must recruit, cultivate and retain teachers of color.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at He tweets as @ECooper4556.

Teachers More Likely to Label Black Students as Troublemakers

This is a photo of a black student sitting at a desk.
Teachers are likely to interpret students’ misbehavior differently depending on the student’s race, according to new research findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Racial differences in school discipline are widely known, and black students across the United States are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled, according to Stanford researchers.

Yet the psychological processes that contribute to those differences have not been clear — until now.

“The fact that black children are disproportionately disciplined in school is beyond dispute,” said Stanford psychology Professor Jennifer Eberhardt in an interview. “What is less clear is why.”

Eberhardt and Stanford psychology graduate student Jason Okonofua examined the psychological processes involved when teachers discipline black students more harshly than white students.
In the studies, real-world primary and secondary school teachers were presented with school records describing two instances of misbehavior by a student. In one study, after reading about each infraction, the teachers were asked about their perception of its severity, about how irritated they would feel by the student’s misbehavior, about how severely the student should be punished, and about whether they viewed the student as a troublemaker.

A second study followed the same protocol and asked teachers whether they thought the misbehavior was part of a pattern and whether they could imagine themselves suspending the student in the future.

The researchers randomly assigned names to the files, suggesting in some cases that the student was black (with a name such as DeShawn or Darnell) and in other cases that the student was white (with a name such as Greg or Jake).

Across both studies, the researchers found that racial stereotypes shaped teachers’ responses not after the first infraction but rather after the second. Teachers felt more troubled by a second infraction they believed was committed by a black student rather than by a white student.

In fact, the stereotype of black students as “troublemakers” led teachers to want to discipline black students more harshly than white students after two infractions, Eberhardt and Okonofua said. They were more likely to see the misbehavior as part of a pattern, and to imagine themselves suspending that student in the future.

 “We see that stereotypes not only can be used to allow people to interpret a specific behavior in isolation, but also stereotypes can heighten our sensitivity to behavioral patterns across time. This pattern sensitivity is especially relevant in the schooling context,” Eberhardt said.

These results have implications beyond the school setting as well.

As Okonofua said, “Most social relationships entail repeated encounters. Interactions between police officers and civilians, between employers and employees, between prison guards and prisoners all may be subject to the sort of stereotype escalation effect we have identified in our research.”

Both Okonofua and Eberhardt suggested that useful interventions with teachers would help them to view student behavior as malleable rather than as a reflection of a fixed disposition, such as that of troublemaker.

While racial disparities can be lessened by psychological interventions that help improve black students’ behaviors in class, it is also important to understand how that behavior is interpreted by teachers and school authorities, Okonofua said.

Friday, April 17, 2015

US Tries To Push Cuba Into the Capitalist Muck

Whither Cuba?

  By Cliff DuRand, Truthout | Op-Ed
Cuban President Raul Castro with President Barack Obama in Panama City, Saturday, April 11, 2015. Obama and Castro met in the first face-to-face discussion between leaders of the two countries in a half century. (Photo: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)Cuban President Raul Castro with President Barack Obama in Panama City, Saturday, April 11, 2015. Obama and Castro met in the first face-to-face discussion between leaders of the two countries in a half century. (Photo: Stephen Crowley / The New York Times)

Tuesday, 14 April 2015
The US strategy for undoing the Cuban Revolution was laid down in the Eisenhower years in this April 1960 State Department guideline:
"[E]very possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba.... a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of the government." [Office of the Historian, Bureau Of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State; John P. Glennon, et al., eds., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Volume VI, Cuba -Washington D.C.: GPO, 1991, 885.]
Now 55 years later, the Obama administration has accepted that this hard line has not worked in Cuba. In any case, regime change would not produce a stable society - witness Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya etc.

Reforms involve moving away from the state socialist model toward one with a far more active civil society.

Nevertheless, the basic objective of US policy remains the same, namely to bring Cuba back into the capitalist orbit. What is new in President Obama's strategy is to change Cuba, not through regime change, but by promoting capitalism within the country through support of a petty bourgeoisie. What is new in Obama's approach is an emphasis on economic rather than political subversion. What is new in Obama's policy is a turn away from regime change to systemic change. Recognizing the Cuban government does not mean accepting its socialist economic system. Our political elite still thinks it is entitled to remake Cuban society to its desires.
This strategy takes advantage of an opening to small private enterprise provided by the reforms now underway in Cuba. While not abandoning a central role for the state, basically, the reforms involve moving away from the state socialist model toward one with a far more active civil society. The opening section of the Guidelines on the Economic Management Model brings into focus the changed relation between the state and society that is envisioned.
The management model recognises and promotes, as well as the socialist state enterprise which is the principal form of the national economy, the legally sanctioned modalities of foreign investment (mixed enterprises, international contractual arrangements, among others), cooperatives, peasant farmers, lessors of state-owned farmland, lessors of state-owned premises, self-employed workers and other forms all of which, together, must contribute to boosting efficiency. [Guidelines #2]
Cuba is looking toward a far more mixed economy. Eighty-four percent of the Cuban workforce had worked for the state. This led to overstaffing and low worker motivation. The Cuban state has been the employer of last resort. One might even say, of first resort. As a result, at least 1 million state workers are redundant and the state can no longer afford that. So large numbers are being laid off and are shifting into the non-state sector of the economy. This growing sector encompasses the self-employed or cuentapropistas and the cooperatives. The small private businesses that had been expropriated in 1968 are now being recreated to absorb redundant state workers. There is a recognition that there is a place for a petty bourgeoisie in socialism. The state does not need to, nor is it able to do everything. Many economic activities can be left to individual entrepreneurs so long as they are regulated and taxed so the petty bourgeoisie does not become a big bourgeoisie. As the Guidelines state, "In the forms of non-state management the concentration of property [ownership] by juridical or natural persons shall not be permitted."

The renovation of socialism now under way in Cuba is an effort to reinvigorate civil society, opening up spaces for initiative outside of the state. In the next few years, the non-state sector of the economy, consisting of private businesses and cooperatives, is projected to provide 35 percent of employment and, along with foreign and joint enterprises, 45 percent of the gross domestic product. Addressing the problem of the lack of worker incentives under state socialism, these reforms are unleashing new productive energies that will lift the economy. But beyond that, they stand to replace the passive participation of state socialism with the proactive participation better suited to a democratic socialism. This implies a new relation between the state and civil society.

Obama's relaxation of relations with Cuba presents a new challenge for the revolution.

While the belated decision to recognize that Cuba has its own government is to be commended, there is another, little noted aspect to the new US policy toward Cuba. This lies in numerous measures to assist in the development of a nascent capitalist class from the private business sector. A careful reading of the new US regulations reveals a concerted effort to direct resources to entrepreneurs within Cuba by means of remittances, material aid, training and trade.

For example, the level of remittances allowed is being increased so as to provide increased funding for private businesses. The December 17, 2014, White House press release says: "Remittance levels will be raised from $500 to $2,000 per quarter for general donative remittances to Cuban nationals (except to certain officials of the government or the Communist party.)" Similarly, the US Commerce Department announced in March that exports of equipment and supplies to Cuba are allowed as well as imports from Cuba - as long as the Cuban entity is independent of the government. The United States seeks to expand "opportunities for self-employment and private property ownership ... strengthening independent civil society." The White House explicitly states, "Our efforts aim at promoting the independence of the Cuban people, so they do not need to rely on the Cuban state."

As of July 2014, 498 urban co-ops had been authorized.

Many observers expect a flood of US businesses into Cuba. But they forget that the embargo is still in place. Obama has relaxed aspects of it, but ending it would require congressional action - not a likely prospect in the near future. In any case, Cuba has been very open to foreign investment for 20 years. Cuba recently enacted a new law on foreign investment designed to make it more attractive to investors from abroad. US corporations are eager to get a piece of the action that the embargo has long denied them. But when they are able to get in, Cuba will no doubt apply the same kind of limits as it does on other foreign investment. That means the corporations will be in partnership with the Cuban state and for a specified number of years. Cuba is not about to give up its sovereignty.

What is more likely to transform Cuban society is the increased flow of money to individual private entrepreneurs in hopes of building the germ of a new capitalist class.
This method takes advantage of Cuba's opening of a non-state sector of its economy.

But this non-state sector also includes cooperatives, which are a socialist form of property. While Cuba has had cooperatives since the early years of the revolution, they were limited to agriculture. As part of the reforms, in December 2012, the National Assembly passed an urban co-op law that establishes the legal basis for new urban co-ops. Here are some of its main provisions:
  • A co-op must have at least three members, but can have as many as 60 or more. One vote per socio. As self-governing enterprises, co-ops are to set up their own internal democratic decision-making structures.
  • Co-ops are independent of the state. They are to respond to the market. This is to overcome the limits that hampered some agricultural co-ops in the past.
  • Co-ops can do business with state and private enterprises. They will set their own prices in most cases, except where there are prices established by the state.
  • Some co-ops will be conversions of state enterprises, e.g. restaurants. They can have 10-year renewable leases for use of the premises, paying no rent in the first year if improvements are made.
  • Others will be start-up co-ops.
  • There will be second-degree co-ops, which are associations of other co-ops.
  • Capitalization will come from bank loans, a new Finance Ministry fund for co-ops and member contributions. Member contributions are treated as loans (not equity) and do not give additional votes. Loans are to be repaid from profits.
  • Co-ops are to pay taxes on profits and social security for socios.
  • Distribution of profits is to be decided by socios after setting aside a reserve fund.
  • Co-ops may hire wage labor on a temporary basis (up to 90 days). After 90 days a temporary worker must be offered membership or let go. Total temporary worker time cannot exceed 10 percent of the total workdays for the year. This gives co-ops flexibility to hire extra workers seasonally or in response to increased market demands, but prevents significant collective exploitation of wage labor.
As of July 2014, 498 urban co-ops had been authorized. There are additional co-ops that are functioning but not yet recognized as legal entities. This is a big step forward for Cuba. Cooperative members have an incentive to make the business a success. The co-op is on its own to either prosper or go under. Each member's income and security depends on the collective. And each has the same voting right in the General Assembly where co-op policy is made. Co-ops combine material and moral incentives, linking individual interest with a collective interest. Each member prospers only if all prosper.

In a study of 29 new cooperatives, Camila Pineiro Harnecker [Camila Pineiro Harnecker, "Un acercamiento a las cooperativas en Cuba" (in publication).] found that incomes have increased an average of threefold and as much as sevenfold.

One of the new cooperatives I visited in June 2014 was a small bar and restaurant in a poor section of central Havana. A former state enterprise, the Okinawa bar cooperative has five members. It had been a cooperative for only eight months and the president told me that being able to make their own decisions is one of the greatest benefits they find. He was elected by his fellow workers. Interestingly, the former state manager, who is also a member, was not selected to lead the new cooperative.

Co-op members are motivated by the fact that for the first time, they control their work. They make the decisions.

The motivation engendered by this empowerment was dramatically demonstrated by a self-organized construction cooperative we met at the Institute of Philosophy. They were repairing the Institute building that had been badly damaged two years ago when the ceiling of the main first floor room collapsed, rendering most of the building unusable. A state construction company had made little progress on the repairs for the previous two years. But now the Institute has been able to engage this newly formed cooperative and in a short time, they have made major progress. Our group was scheduled to have a meeting at the Institute on a Monday morning. And between the previous Thursday and that morning, the ceiling had been rewired and plastered. And by the following week, the Institute staff was moving back into their offices on the second floor. The 20 co-op members are motivated by the fact that for the first time, they control their work. They make the decisions. This is a powerful demonstration of the strength of cooperatives.

What we are seeing with the promotion of new cooperatives in Cuba is the constituted power of the state nurturing constituent power in civil society. Cooperatives are a socialist form of property under democratic management. As such, cooperatives have the virtue of nurturing socialist values, responsibility, democratic decision-making, cooperation and social solidarity. They are little schools of socialism. They embed socialism into the daily life of working people, engendering a socialist civil society.

In this respect, they contrast with the new petty bourgeois, small- and medium-sized private businesses now also being opened by the self-employed. A petty bourgeoisie is seen as compatible with socialism - compatible as long as it is regulated and taxed so it doesn't become a big bourgeoisie. Great inequalities of income and accumulation of wealth are to be avoided - a cautionary note made in the Guidelines. But it is clear a petty bourgeoisie is not socialist; it does not nurture a socialist consciousness, but the narrow mentality of the petty shopkeeper. It does not nurture socialist social relations, but individualism. A petty bourgeoisie is compatible with socialism when kept within limits. But it is not socialist.

There is a race for the soul of Cuba between the cooperative movement and expanding private businesses.

But cooperatives are socialist. They represent associated producers coming together on a small scale to govern their work life in a democratic way. It is this relation that the socialist transition needs to point toward. With the current opening to cooperatives, Cuba's state socialism is finding a new road forward. Socialism cannot be built top-down by state power alone. It has to be rooted at the base of society among ordinary people. Its values, its practices and its social relations have to be built into daily life where people live and work. This is the virtue of cooperatives. Cooperatives thus can help make socialism irreversible.

If a social order is to be sustainable over the long run, it needs to be rooted in the character of the people. Their values, their sensibilities, their taken-for-granted understandings, their very subjectivity needs to be consonant with its institutions. The socialist transition is a process that needs a people with a socialist character if it is to continue. The social relations of cooperatives help build such a character among the people.
Cuban farmers, researchers, and government officials have over the years developed what is arguably the most comprehensive, time-tested system of agroecology in the world.
That's why it is of the utmost importance that cooperatives be widely promoted. The benefits of cooperatives need to be publicized and training in cooperative practices needs to be available. There needs to be a network of promotoras who go out into society like the literacy workers in the early 1960s and teach the co-op way. The Cuban Institute of Philosophy is doing just that in central Havana. And our Center for Global Justice, which has been offering cooperative workshops for several years, here in Mexico, is collaborating with the Institute.

To state the current juncture in Cuba's efforts to construct socialism in bold terms, there is a race for the soul of Cuba between the cooperative movement and expanding private businesses. Which will make up the larger part of that one-third of non-state employment? Will it be socialist enterprises or proto-capitalist ones? The Cuban government is favoring the development of cooperatives. Obama is promoting private businesses. This is a smarter policy on his part. But, as a Cuban friend pointed out to me, "Ours is a smart revolution, too. We are a smart people."

Clearly, there are new challenges for the Cuban Revolution. How can the petty bourgeoisie be limited while still taking advantage of its dynamism? Here are some measures presently available:
  • Promotion of an ideology of social responsibility for private businesses, perhaps enforced by the local community.
  • A steeply graduated tax on private business profits.
  • Steep import duties on imported supplies for private businesses.
  • Requirement of a generous minimum salary.
  • Unionization of employees and vigorous enforcement of workers' rights.
  • A limit on the number of wage employees allowed in private businesses.
  • Requirement that when a private business grows to a certain size, it be converted to a cooperative so all employees can share in the profits and decision-making.
A regulatory regime needs to be developed for the private sector. The state seems to be slow in developing this and some complain it is a wide-open free-for-all. Others see that as a virtue, pointing to small- and medium-sized private businesses as well as foreign investment as the key to needed economic growth. There are conflicting tendencies stirring in Cuba today among policy makers and their advisers. [Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, "Visiones sobre el socialismo que guían los cambios actuales en Cuba" TEMAS 2012]

But there are also strong advocates for cooperatives as the key to Cuba's future. Camila Piñeiro of the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy at the University of Havana is prominent among them. She argues that "these socioeconomic organizations are better prepared than private enterprises for economic management that satisfies social needs and promotes socialist social relations.... they facilitate the fulfillment of their members' material and spiritual needs, their full human development, ... they allow for socialist social relations based in equality, solidarity, democracy and justice." It is for such reasons that the state gives preferential treatment to cooperatives over other non-state businesses. [Camila Piñeiro Harnecker "Cuba's Cooperatives: Their Contribution to Cuba's New Socialism" in Moving Beyond Capitalism, Cliff DuRand, ed. (forthcoming).]

Obama's aim is to help private businesses occupy as much of the non-state economic space as possible.

And that is also why Obama's aim is to help private businesses occupy as much of the non-state economic space as possible. Nevertheless, his new regulations apply to any Cuban entity that is "independent of the government." That includes cooperatives. So it is now legal for organizations in the United States to send donations to Cuban cooperatives, to send material assistance, to provide training and education, and even import goods from Cuban cooperatives, providing a wider market for their products.

Progressives need to think seriously about how we can support the growth of cooperatives - genuine democratic worker-run cooperatives. Cuba is now open to that and Obama has cleared the way for us to accept this unique opportunity.

Obama's strategy is to change Cuba, not through regime change, but by promoting capitalism within the country through support of a petty bourgeoisie. After all, the fundamental objective of US policy has always been to bring Cuba back into the capitalist orbit. We have a unique situation in Cuba today. A socialist state is actively promoting cooperatives, thereby devolving economic power to people at the grassroots level. There is a rejuvenation of civil society underway - a socialist civil society. Solidarity calls on us to help it move forward along the road to a socialism for the 21st century.

One of the many urban farm coops that can be found in Havana and other Cuban cities.
Short Bibliography - Changes in Cuba

Beatriz Diaz, "Cooperatives Within Cuba's Current Economic Model"

Cliff DuRand, "Cuban National Identity and Socialism"
____ "Humanitarianism and Solidarity Cuban-Style"
____ "Cuba Today: A Nation Becoming a University"
____ "The Uniqueness of Cuba"
____ "Cooperative Cuba"

____ "US Cuba policy: from Regime Change to Systemic Change"

Marta Harnecker, A World to Build: New Paths Toward 21st Century Socialism (Monthly Review Press, 2015)

Michael A. Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (Monthly Review Press, 2010)

Miguel Limia David, "The Training of Activists in Local Development" [2005]

Steve Martinot, "The Nation-state and Cuba's Alternative State"

Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, "Visions of Socialism Guiding the Current Changes in Cuba"
____ ed. Cooperatives and Socialism: A View from Cuba (Palgrave Macmillan 2013)
Henry Veltmeyer, Human Development: Lessons from the Cuban Revolution (Fernwood 2014)
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Cliff DuRand

Cliff DuRand is a research associate at the Center for Global Justice and editor/author of Recreating Democracy in a Globalized State. He has been organizing educational trips to Cuba for 25 years. The next one is June 16 to 28. Contact him at

Thursday, April 02, 2015

BOOKREVIEW- The Other Blacklist of the McCarthy Era: African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s

Kate Baldwin on... 

The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s

Black Left, Black List

March 25th, 2015
TOWARD THE END of Gwendolyn Brooks’s novel Maud Martha, the title character Maud fights with a chicken. With the battles of World War II not far in the background, Maud contemplates the parallel violence she exerts upon the chicken’s limp corpse. People could do this to other people, she thinks: “feel that insinuating slipping bone, survey that soft, that headless death.” But could they? In Maud’s supple hands, the chicken becomes a “sort of person, with its own kind of dignity.” Limning the boundaries between human and animal, Maud states: “The difference was in the knowing. What was unreal to you, you could deal with violently.”

I thought about this passage as I read Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist. It may seem like a surprising comparison. After all, Washington’s book deals with largely overlooked African American cultural producers of the 1950s (including Brooks), not cooking the evening meal. And yet the issue of domesticated violence hovers at the surface of her book’s chapters. Taking up the marginalization of major African American artists in the 1950s not only by government agencies and white media but also by most African Americans, Washington’s book explores the injustices that came from within the black community.
Paul Robeson leading shipyard workers in singing the Star-Spangled Banner, September 1942. Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, leading Moore Shipyard [Oakland, CA] workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner, here at their lunch hour recently, after he told them: "This is a serious job---winning this war against fascists. We have to be together." Robeson himself was a shipyard worker in World War I.
The Other Blacklist, which takes its name from the famous list of names besmirched by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during its investigation of the entertainment industry beginning in 1947, opens with Washington’s compelling memories of her girlhood in Ohio, where political leftists were treated as social outcasts: decent folks snubbed communists and Catholic nuns prayed for the salvation of the godless. Pausing here to frame its narrative, The Other Blacklist doesn’t so much seek to correct past mistakes than to remember them afresh.

Washington’s book asks how black liberalism came to shun the cultural production of leftist dissent at precisely the moment when civil rights energies could have benefited most from it. Washington seeks to “highlight the ways that a deep animosity to black civil rights struggles ran like a vein throughout US Cold War culture, preparing even those of us who benefited the most from civil rights militancy to be stand-up little anticommunists.” Seeing herself as the product of an “antiblack, self-abnegating form of racial identity based on white tolerance and black invisibility,” Washington situates her youthful subject position as representative of a larger problem. It was easy to hurt what was unreal to you, she implies, and her “stand up little anticommunism” contributed to that violence of cultural silencing, which was also a form of self-loathing. In repressing the Left, she argues, the dominant Cold War mindset, held by the black community as well as white, also sought to recalibrate racial subjectivity to a white tune.
The book queries these recalibrations, and in so doing seeks to reclaim energies that were marginalized not only by the dominant white cultural radar, but also by folks like her. Extending the temporal limits of the Black Cultural Front into the 1950s, Washington argues that from Camp Unity in Wingdale, New York, to the George Washington Carver school in Chicago, the spaces and institutions of this front were enabling for black cultural producers. For it was within “the leftist spaces of the Black Popular Front that African American literary culture was debated, critiqued, encouraged, performed, published, produced and preserved.” These people shared an intimate public; they were known to each other. The Other Blacklist is her “attempt to finally overhear those long-forgotten, repressed conversations.”

In this sense, The Other Blacklist is not simply trying to assert the humanity of black lives, but rather to imply that attempts to prove the humanity of people repeats the same identitarian problem that has stymied movements of dissent over and over again. So instead, displays and structures of power, and their subtle and not so subtle shifts, motivate this book. The political thread here is not one that resorts to a politics of identity, but one that seeks to unpack the material infrastructure of black radicalism in the 1950s.

Drawing on archival materials, interviews, biographies, cultural histories, FOIA documents, and close readings of literary texts, The Other Blacklist reconstructs conversations that may have whispered the names of Lloyd Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frank London Brown, Alice Childress, and Charles White. Each of these artists serves as the backbone for a chapter. Washington weaves together the missing remnants of the Left in her subjects, thus “mak[ing] connections that reestablish their relationships with the Black Popular Front,” that have been lost “because these subjects deliberately distanced themselves from their leftist pasts or because of the practices of contemporary literary and cultural histories.” Her aim is to delegitimize the common demonization of communism and the Left, and her hope is that this project will open up the subject for future students and scholars.

So, let’s take up the gambit Washington offers here, and imagine, if you will, a generation of children growing up amidst rich historical narratives in which the aspirations and dreams of social justice as etched in the public works of black artists were framed as positive endeavors. A history in which words like “leftist,” “radical,” and “communist” did not summon instant skepticism if not scorn; a world in which these terms could sustain real dialogue about possibility instead of foreclosure, futurity instead of certain doom. Imagine pejorative assumptions banished while positive connections unfurl in their place. Imagine marginal, fractured lives brought forth and celebrated for their stalwart brilliance and unwillingness to cave to social pressure and the pretty persuasion of dollar signs and covert government support. Just imagine.

As literary and cultural history, Washington’s book offers a vast resource for fulfilling that promise. Readers who are eager to place the postwar period in the context of 1930s and ’40s historiography of the left as well as the period of black nationalism that followed in the 1960s will rejoice in these pages. Washington’s prodigious research leaves virtually no stone unturned, and readers will enjoy rich discussions of heretofore woefully under-researched figures. For example, Alice Childress hardly holds the name recognition of Lorraine Hansberry, and yet they worked together and their pieces appeared side by side in Paul Robeson’s Freedom between 1951 and 1953. Alice Childress’s column “Conversations from Life” offered the witticisms and bold critiques of the black domestic Mildred, a character whose inflections can be heard throughout Hansberry’s best-known play, A Raisin in the Sun. Washington’s appraisals of Childress help to move her from the margins of black literary history of the 1950s to a more certain artistic center.

And yet, persuasive as this move is, methodologically the book’s strategies might be termed daring. Seeking “clues” to “establish relationships” and examining “intimate lives and networks” in detail, to prompt “further investigation,” The Other Blacklist feels at times as if it is inadvertently borrowing tactics from the entity from which it most wants to distinguish itself: the FBI. Part of the difficulty of piecing together a past that doesn’t necessarily want to be known, let alone exist, is that it presents an epistemological dilemma. For example, although she hung out with popular fronters and was active in the milieu of the Chicago left, Gwendolyn Brooks adamantly disassociated her work with the leftism of her peers. To press Brooks’s history in this direction pushes the reader to confront one of the book’s dilemmas as historical scholarship: to call Brooks a leftist because she associated with leftists evokes McCarthyite tactics. Because the ends are more altruistic in The Other Blacklist, are the means justified?

Part of the obstacle here may be inherent in Washington’s creation of what she calls “portraits.” Seen in this light, each of the chapters has a predisposition toward the left, a named perspective that is offered as a “way of illustrating the unique relationship between each of the artists […] and the Left.” The goal is to remove the scare quotes of communism and the Left (which, by the way, are often used in this book interchangeably). Could this be the only way forward into a future of dissent, a future so pressing that we can feel its breath on our cheeks?

I troubled over this question for some time. In the end, I decided that we might need to bracket Audre Lorde’s declaration that the master’s tools can never be used to dismantle the master’s house. Doing so — using the master’s tools, as in effect Washington does — might invite criticism. And, to be sure, The Other Blacklist does name names. It calls people out. It creates a blacklist. But it does so in the name of black futurity, not black death. If that future generation is going to grow up amidst positive associations with the left, it may as well start right here, with Washington’s book.

James Baldwin
To that end, Washington’s finest moments come in a late chapter, “1959: Spycraft and the Black Literary Left,” the one chapter that uses a year in place of a grounding, central figure. In 1959, the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) hosted the First Conference on Negro Writers in New York City. Modeled on the Présence Africaine conferences in Paris in 1958, the conference sought to negotiate slippery terms of black cultural production in the late 1950s — race, agency, the publishing industry, and aesthetics. With the prominent exceptions of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Robert Hayden, and Paule Marshall, the conference gathered some of the best-known black American writers of the era — including Langston Hughes, Saunders Redding, Julian Mayfield, Lorraine Hansberry, Frank London Brown, Sarah E. Wright, Harold Cruse, and Alice Childress — all figures addressed in The Other Blacklist.

In her revisionary history of the conference, Washington argues that the volume of proceedings edited by AMSAC President John A. Davis, and titled “The American Negro Writer and His Roots,” obscures the work of the more radical speakers of the conference, setting limits on black subjectivity through conservative ideas of integration. In his introduction, Davis touts dominant Cold War ideology, implying that racial troubles are on the wane. The work of the participants, however, tells a different story. Julian Mayfield remains suspicious of integration, seeing in it the demise of black life.

And Langston Hughes exhorted his audience: “until you get white — write,” warning them against the crass racism of the publishing industry. For Washington, 1959 is a crossroads wherein the black left vied with conservative integrationists, many of whom wrote for publications that were government subsidized. In Washington’s hands, Davis’s volume thus becomes a microcosm of public memory of black cultural production of the 1950s, full of edits, omissions, rewritings, and government-sponsored corruption. And Lorraine Hansberry, who gave the conference’s keynote, which is absent from the text, sits in the middle of these contested spaces.

I have been immersed in these spaces as I work on my own project about 1959. Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun debuted that year, a few months after the AMSAC conference. As Raisin makes clear, the crossroads of 1959 were also indelibly global. In this close-post era of Sputnik, Fidel Castro became president of Cuba, and Hawaii joined the US as its 50th state. It was also the year that the USSR opened its doors to the US for the first time since World War II, welcoming the American National Exhibition in Sokol’niki Park. ANEM became the site of the famous “kitchen” debate between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon, a debate that turned heads toward the smooth surfaces of consumerism, the arts of blenders and blending in. With State Department authorized and funded ways of representing black subjectivity, ANEM became a mouthpiece for the multiple wonders of market capitalism.[1]

This was a period when US officials deployed race as part of a national narrative of inclusiveness in order to counteract Soviet propaganda that alleged US hypocrisy along racial lines. From Brown v. Board to the four African American guides on the ground at ANEM, narratives of progress in race relations and interracial cohesion began to feature African Americans. Rather than showcasing capitalism as an evil in concert with white supremacy, this kind of racial progressivism proclaimed the future as bright with cross-racial solidarity.

The proximity of Raisin’s debut and Hansberry’s contributions to AMSAC necessitate rethinking this moment as a shaping one for the confrontation of black radicalism not only with integrationists at home, but also with the global staging of a cultural front as a site for Western triumphalism. Nixon’s rhetoric in Moscow presented a one-sided view of the mechanics of the American kitchen. The push-button features of this kitchen were far removed from the manual labors of Maud Martha’s kitchenette. Forgotten in Moscow were the day laborers who toiled in the kitchens of middle-class whites, and the structural links between these lives.

Similarly, as Washington points out, the account of AMSAC recorded in the proceedings was distorted. As with the suppressed meanings of Raisin’s more potent critiques of racial inequality, the sexual division of labor, and coloniality, in the published AMSAC proceedings, conversations are lost; addresses, photos, and papers are hidden, manipulated, and entirely missing. Held at this critical juncture in global history, the AMSAC gathering put forth what was to be erased later that year in Moscow and elsewhere as African Americans circled the globe, some in search of better options, some representing the US. It’s important to remember that dissenting voices of the left were erased not only in the State Department–authorized publication of the conference’s proceedings, but also in government-sponsored cultural tours that promoted inter-racialism as a defining conceit of US democracy.

Lorraine Hansberry
What interests me beyond the historical proximity of AMSAC and ANEM, however, is the warping of the relationships between Moscow and New York, and between the intellectual vibrancies at work in both places in the received accounts of these events. We need to reactivate the conscious and unconscious longings — the deferred dreams, as Langston Hughes wrote in the poem that became the inspiration for A Raisin in the Sun’s title — displaced by progressivist accounts of history for which A Raisin in the Sun has served as a pivotal marker.[2]

How can you grasp a legacy of dissent from erasure? Washington’s best lesson is that we can’t move forward unless we work through our complicity in the violences of the past. If things are going to change we need to live amongst those we have not been willing to consider fully human: to live amongst chickens, as it were. Until then we are all just wrestling with ignorance, and indulging in our own selfish appetites — licking our lips at the thought of our next succulent meal.

[1] I explore these ideas more fully in The Racial Imaginary of the Cold War Kitchen: From Sokol’niki Park to Chicago’s South Side (Dartmouth UP).
[2] The late critic Richard Iton describes the popular reception of Raisin as marking a shift in the movement from Popular Front politics to those of liberalism’s integration: this reception’s “downplaying, and in some instances suppression, of themes related to anticolonialism, diasporic consciousness, and intraracial class distinctions, along with the implicit engagement of gender relations, mark her creation as a significant turning point in both black politics and popular culture.” See In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Oxford, 2008).
Kate Baldwin is the author of Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters between Black and Red (Duke UP).