People who treat other people as less than human must not be surprised when the bread they have cast on the waters comes floating back to them, poisoned — James Baldwin
Last year, during the heat of the Ferguson Missouri debacle, I became aware that my teen-aged son was lacking in any historical context for the civil rights movement and racial conflict that was filling the news cycle to overflowing. A lack I sought to begin repairing by watching with him, a PBS documentary on the murder of Emmett Till. Till, a black Chicago teenager, was brutally murdered in 1955, while spending the summer with relatives in Mississippi— a crime that went unpunished (the perpetrators were acquitted and though later confessing their guilt, they could not be tried again because of double jeopardy) and became a cause celebre for a nascent civil rights movement.
Among efforts to acknowledge this tragedy was a well wrought novel by Lewis Nordan, Wolf Whistle. And now, reportedly millionaires Jay-Z and Will Smith are proposing a six part mini series for HBO, based on the Till murder. Also as reported, there are two other groups looking to resurrect this story. What these efforts will add to the unglamorized body of work already existing is anyone’s guess…
As witnessed in my lifetime, I believe that there are three intractable problems that regularly make headlines— USA’s race problem (or as one commentator opines it the “U.S. war on its domestic black population”),USA’s drug problem, otherwise known as the War on Drugs and the Israeli-Palestine discord (or, if you wish,the Greek Turkey enmity, the Serb Bosnian vendetta, the India-Pakistan feud etc…)In the recent term, the US race problem has boiled over with a series of horrendous police killings of black folk, sparking both outrage and the usual mumbo jumbo punditry, notably by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Though greeted with choral approval, there is at least one nay-sayer(not including the ever smarmy convolutions of David Brooks):
What everyone says about the literary merit of “Between the World and Me” is correct. But if you refuse to simply stare at the book in wonder, you will realize that it is profoundly silly at times, and morally blinkered throughout. It is a masterly little memoir wrapped in a toxic little philippic.
Forgive my reluctance to take seriously Mr Coates’s sincere effort* to expiate on race but I as a witness to the endless race problem and a serious reader of James Baldwin (whose comments and insights have not been improved upon)I am exhausted by the flood of verbiage that reduces to the Shakespearean trope of ‘sound and fury’. If you are bent upon reading about USA’s ‘race’ problem you need to look beyond the approved commentary of Coates commentators or the internecine hissy fits of Cornel West and Michael Edward Dyson and have a look at:
Former Black Panther and radio journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, a veteran of death row has just published Writing on the Wall, a comprehensive anthology of Mumia’s short prison commentaries from 1982 to the present, which among other things tracks the ignominious history of police sponsored terror from Haitian immigrant Amadou Diallo (whose body NYPD riddled with of 40 bullets) to 92 year old elderly Kathryn Johnston, shot to death in her Atlanta home by narcotics officers to 12 year old Tammir Rice to Eric Garner to Freddie Gray and and on and on…
Editor of Writing on the Wall,History professor Johanna Fernández,introduces the collection:
…today, in this moment of renewed upsurge against racist state violence, [Mumia’s] voice is more dangerous than ever.” The danger he poses is not merely local. In exposing the structures of violence that underpin the globe, he covers topics ranging from corporate plunder to the neoliberal assault on workers’ rights to Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians to the enduring lessons of the slave revolt that brought independence to Haiti in 1804: “Masses make and sustain revolutions—often against ‘leaders’ whose every instinct is to betray them…
This collection brings together four previously published interviews with Baldwin. An in-depth interview conducted by Studs Terkel, shortly after the publication of Nobody Knows My Name, “Go the Way Your Blood Beats,” in Baldwin’s 1984 interview with then editor-in-chief of the Village Voice, Richard Goldstein and “The Last Interview,” which has been published abridged elsewhere but is now presented in full, is with the writer and poet Quincy Troupe’s who sat with Baldwin just days before he died at his home in St. Paul-de-Vence in the south of France in 1987.
A lengthening skein of films from Malcolm X, The Help, The Butler, 12 Years a Slave,Django Unchained to Selmapresume to elucidate for their presumptive audiences various aspects and nuances and yes horrors attached to the history of Africans dragged to the shores of the New World. Have their collective insights moved the needle from the festering, roiling infection that is race in the USA to toward some semblance of accommodation?
I fear that I have no comfortable answer…
One more item —through out my life one Leroi Jones later known as Amiri Baraka was a burning glowing presence. Thus
Black Dada Nihilismus https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wa8T2V8_-kg
* Coates makes have some profoundly incisive and eloquent observations
I had heard such predictions all my life from Malcolm and all his posthumous followers who hollered that the Dreamers must reap what they sow. I saw the same prediction in the words of Marcus Garvey who promised to return in a whirlwind of vengeful ancestors, an army of Middle Passage undead. No. I left The Mecca knowing that this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.
Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky. Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.