We close out this year's Black History Month with two prayers from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Collected in “Thou, Dear God”: Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits, the first and only compilation of its kind, we hear in Dr. King's prayers what editor Lewis V. Baldwin describes as “the soul of a man who realized that the whole of life is lived in a God-centered universe, and that God is able to work wonders and even miracles in nature and in history.”
In the first prayer, “In the Moment of Difficult Decision,” most likely delivered in 1949, we hear Dr. King's early concern for issues of race and equality. In the next, Dr. King, uses Jesus's prayer from the cross as his “sermonic text and point of departure” to draw parallells between forgivness and salvation, suffering and love.
The cumulative effect of the volume is humbling and inspiring at once, as these two prayers reveal. “Undoubtedly,” writes Baldwin, “they show that powerful words can outlive powerful individuals.”
In 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tackled the difficult work of building multiracial community directly in his conception of the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King saw in the Freedom Riders and his increasingly multiracial band of civil rights soldiers an early example of the beloved community he envisioned for the whole of America. One expression of his love for community was seeing the mutuality in all types of human suffering. As Dr. King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In the end, he did not turn away from the hardest part of community building. In The Trumpet of Conscience, he wrote, “Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation.”
That idea of transcendence was critical to my thinking when writing my new book, Place, Not Race. In it, I attempt to apply the lessons from Dr. King’s theory of mutuality to the debate about affirmative action. I conclude that race-based affirmative action buys some diversity for a relative few, but not serious inclusion. It doesn’t help to build a movement to attack underlying systems of inequality that are eating away at the soul of our nation.
In this year of anniversaries—fifty years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the fifty-year war on poverty—I think it is particularly appropriate to focus on the anti-poverty aspect of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s agenda. Recently President Obama, a black man who has been elected not once but twice, talked during the State of the Union speech about inequality as a signature issue of our time. In this context, I want to reflect on and honor a lesser known March on Washington that Dr. King planned and what it suggests about his mission for how we might build one nation that brings all people along.
In 1967, Dr. King was keenly aware of the importance of broadening the focus of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregated public accommodation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 attempted to reintegrate politics. After those important watershed victories, Dr. King saw poverty as the next key issue for the movement, and he knew that arousing the nation’s conscience about poverty required a new approach encompassing all of America’s poor. A young African-American attorney named Marian Wright (later Edelman) was director of the Mississippi office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF). She urged Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to focus on employment and job training as a means of alleviating poverty. She recommended that SCLC stage a series of demonstrations in Washington, DC, to bring national attention to this new direction of the movement.
The Rev. Ralph Abernathy often told a story of going to Marks, Mississippi—the poorest hamlet of the poorest county in the nation—with Dr. King as they planned what became known as the Poor People’s Campaign. They visited a daycare center at lunchtime. “There was one apple,” Dr. Abernathy said. “And they took this apple and cut it into four pieces for four hungry waiting students. And when Dr. King realized that that was all they had for lunch, he began to cry. The tears came streaming down his cheek. And he had to leave the room.”
Black History Month is more important than ever. To understand how this nation traveled from colonialism to independence, slavery to freedom, and segregation to civil rights, we must place the lives, aspirations, and thoughts of African Americans at the center of US history. The first martyr of the American Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a sailor of African and Native American heritage who fell in the Boston Massacre. John Hancock honored Attuck’s memory by observing, “Who taught the British soldier that he might be defeated? Who dared look into his eyes? I place, therefore, this Crispus Attucks in the foremost rank of the men that dared.” By the end of the Revolution black troops composed approximately one out of every five soldiers in George Washington’s Continental Army.
Abraham Lincoln credited African American labor power as well as courage on the battlefield with turning the tide of the Civil War. In an interview with John T. Mills, President Lincoln asserted “Abandon all the posts now garrisoned by black men, take one hundred and fifty thousand men from our side and put them in the battle-field or corn-field against us, and we would be compelled to abandon the war in three weeks.”
Beyond these powerful narratives, John Brown Childs has argued in his essay, “Crossroads: Towards a Transcommunal Black History Month in the Multicultural United States of the 21st Century,” that we need to broaden the scope and scale of Black History Month beyond the borders of the United States and to think of the ways that Latinos, Native Americans, and others have played critical roles in African American history. Historically speaking, African Americans have often connected questions of self-determination and equality at home with the fates of oppressed people in Latin America, Africa, and the Global South generally. In 1825, free African Americans in Baltimore gathered to celebrate the 21st anniversary of Haitian Independence and offered a public tribute to “Washington, Toussaint, and Bolívar—Unequalled in fame—the friends of mankind—the glorious advocates of Liberty.” By this gesture, African Americans joined their own aspirations for freedom with the emancipation of their brothers and sisters in Latin America and the Caribbean. The commemoration promoted an understanding of the intimate connections between movements for liberty throughout the Americas.
When I was eighteen, I stood in the quad at my university listening to another student emphatically protesting my atheism. I rolled my eyes dismissively as he, almost comically, pointed at a tree and explained how such a thing would not be possible without Allah. I listened, and watched, half interested for the next fifteen minutes as he repeated this exercise with everything in sight.
Much to my own surprise, less than five years later, I found myself in a masjid, reciting the Shahadah in front of an Imam.
Taking inspiration from the 30 Days of Love campaign that we wrote about earlier this week, we're redefining love this year to mean something larger, more humanitarian, something that can encompass fellowship, art, justice, and beauty.
Sonia Sanchez has done just that in her collection Morning Haiku, a collection pulsing with life and music and raw humanity. And it is full of the simple wonderment of poetry, as she describes in the book's preface, meditating on the power of the haiku, “It's something to find yourself in a poem—to discover the beauty that i knew resided somewhere....” It might be tempting to focus on the aural similarity of “morning” to “mourning” in the title, and indeed several of the poems are tributes to departed friends, artists, and musicians. But Sanchez knows that real beauty is complex, deep enough to contain both loss and renewal, and that duality is where life, hence love, resides.
At Beacon Press, we make it our daily mission to publish books that explore deeply the complex issues of social justice, civil rights, equality, and other humanitarian causes. To that purpose we have published over the years a number of landmark titles by writers, thinkers, poets, activists, and historians who have collectively worked to reshape, to broaden and enrich what we consider to be Black History in America. For us as for them, Black History is more than an annual blip on the news cycle. But we do think of it as an opportunity to take stock of the tremendous achievements that have been made over time, as well as a reminder to contemplate the serious work still left to be done.
On November 26th, two trailblazing Beacon authors, Cornel West and Bill Ayers, stopped by our offices. Ayers' new book, Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident, had recently been published and, although he was concluding a whirlwind 22 city tour, he was astonishingly energized.
On November 30, Melissa Harris-Perry honored my biography of Rosa Parks, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by including it amongst a group of ground-breaking Black feminist texts and histories on her “Black Feminism Syllabus.” This recognition came on the 58th anniversary of Rosa Parks' bus arrest and the public marking of the day, including the RNC's unfortunate tweet celebrating “Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” The RNC’s tweet spoke to what has been a theme at the heart of much Parks memorialization across the political spectrum—the honoring of her is regularly accompanied by a element of national self congratulation. Her stand is often now commemorated as a way to mark how far we’ve come in the successful movement to end Jim Crow segregation and racism.
What my book sought to do was rescue Rosa Parks from the narrow pedestal she exists upon. This national sainthood has paradoxically diminished the scope and importance of her political work and functions, across the political spectrum, to make us feel good about ourselves as a nation. It misses the lifelong activist who worked against injustice in both the North and South and paid a heavy price for her political work but kept struggling to address contemporary racial and social inequalities until her death in 2005. It misses her global vision and how she was treated as un-American for great stretches of her life by many Americans for these political activities. And finally, it misses that a real honoring of her legacy requires us to do the same hard, tedious, scary work of pressing against the injustices of our time, both nationally and internationally, because she firmly believed the movement was not over.
Rosa Parks greets Nelson and Winnie Mandela after his release from prison in 1990
“He spoke quietly, he didn't give big sermons like Martin Luther King. He didn't seek out dramatic confrontations like the Freedom Riders and the sit-ins, but he did inspire a broad range of grass-roots leadership... To this day he is a startling paradox. I think his influence is almost on par with Martin Luther King, and yet he's almost totally unknown.” Civil rights historian Taylor Branch on Robert Moses.
NPR's excellent profile of Robert Moses provides a much-deserved spotlight on the work of a man who has devoted his life to civil rights and universal access to quality education. As a young adult, Moses was an organizer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was director of SNCC’s Mississippi Project. A MacArthur Foundation Fellow from 1982-87, Dr. Moses used his fellowship to develop the concept for the Algebra Project, an organization whose work is dedicated to transforming math education in disadvantaged schools.
“Education is still basically Jim Crow as far as the kids who are in the bottom economic strata of the country,” Moses says. “No one knows about them, no one cares about them.”
It's exactly this inequality in the education system — based more on class than race — that makes thiswork as important as the work he did 50 years ago, he says. [Listen to the story here.]
The concept of “one person one vote” provided Mississippi
sharecroppers and their allies with a minimum
of common conceptual cohesion. That is, “one person one vote” was a shared
goal. It was an organizing slogan; but more than that, it reflected an ideal that
tapped deep traditions in American democracy and that allowed at the time a
consensus to develop around it. The daily grind of living in Mississippi in
1961 (“if they don’t get you in the wash, they get you in the rinse”) gave rise
to grassroots demands for political access that in turn gave rise to demands
for unity that could use “one person one vote” as an organizing tool.
Organizing, in turn, required space to develop. The “crawl
space,” as I call it, in which we actually carried out such organizing was the
1957 civil rights bill creating the Civil Rights Division of the Department of
Justice. The existence of that new department meant, among other things, that John
Doar and his federal lawyers could investigate beatings of potential voters
walking up to the courthouse in vicious towns like Liberty, Mississippi, and return
an opinion at odds with that of the FBI and local police authorities: that is,
that people other than the “usual suspects” anxious to protect local custom
were watching; Mississippi could not simply lock up voter registration workers
and throw away the keys. This federal involvement—tiny though it was—was
important because it was what provided the little crawl space that enabled us
to begin working.
Both things were important: the consensus around a minimum
of common conceptual cohesion and the crawl space that allowed it to become
The concept that provides minimum common conceptual cohesion
for the work of the Algebra Project takes the form of an “if, then” sentence:
If we can do it, then we should.
The “we refers to a complex configuration of individuals;
educational institutions of various kinds; local, regional, and national
associations and organizations (both governmental and nongovernmental); actual
state governments as well as the
national political parties; and the executive, legislative, and judicial
branches of the national government. The “it”—the goal of educating all our
children well—rests on a complex conceptual consensus that is woven into the
cultural fabric of this country: the idea that young people who grow up in the
United States are entitled to free public education, from kindergarten through
twelfth grade. But there is emerging in U.S. culture something more specific
and powerful than that. In recent years a real national consensus, on the
political left and on the political right, has begun emerging that all children
can learn, and that all children deserve the best education they can get. And
that such an education is absolutely necessary. This is actually a new
consensus; it did not exist fifty years ago, when, schools were segregated
North and South and not finishing high school was much more widely accepted
because lacking a high school diploma was not the handicap to putting food on
the table that it is today. Of course, this expressed belief in the capacity of
all children to learn, and commitment to making the effort to provide them the
opportunity, is an ideal that’s often given lip service more than real action.
And it drives wrongheaded as well as constructive “school reform” efforts. But
it is a widespread public viewpoint. Compare the national consensus in favor of
educating all children well with the absence of such a consensus on health
care. It is clearly not true that Americans as a whole believe (yet) that
"if we can provide universal access to quality health care, we should.”
They do believe it about education.
Obviously, the work of the Algebra Project has to do with
math in particular. The consensus on education—like the “one person one vote”
consensus forty years ago—provides the necessary foundation for a more specific
agenda, in this case the concept that every student will complete a college
preparatory mathematics curriculum in high school. (It is clearly not
sufficient since only 11 percent of students in the United States do so now.)
The work of the Algebra Project is to help close the gap between universal free
public education and universal completion of a college preparatory math
sequence in high school. Specifically, our work is to build a consensus—and organize
a movement—around another hypothetical that gives the required minimum
If we can teach students algebra in the
middle school years, then we should
Like the effort to bridge the gap between the ideal of “one
person, one vote” and the reality of registering every Black voter in
Mississippi, this work of the Algebra Project is ambitious and can be realized.
Like our work in the 1960s, it requires organizing, and organizing requires
some crawl space.
What, then, is our
crawl space? Like the crawl space created by the 1957 Civil Rights Act, it is a
space created in the larger political and social world that we can use to our
advantage. The space for algebra as a civil rights issue is created by nations
and institutions now making a global transition from reliance upon technology
that primarily organizes physical labor to technologies that directly organize
mental labor. I see history’s broom sweeping us all along a common corridor as
a crawl space toward liberation.
It's not a surprise that our favorite this year is from Eboo Patel, speaking at Elizabethtown College. What's not to love? Eboo is a visionary and a engaging writer (see Acts of Faith and Sacred Ground for confirmation), and here he's praising the intro to James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, another book that we are tremendously proud to have published.
But our appreciation of the speech goes beyond the mere pride that a Beacon author was moved to write about a classic Beacon book. Eboo illuminates the revelations and anxieties in Baldwin's text—the feeling of being driven to write, the conflicts inherent in being present in a dominant culture that attempts to exclude you and your experiences, feeling both pride and discomfort in identity—and he shares how that piece of writing helped shape his own growth as a young activist and author. In short, it made us pause and think about all the reasons we love bringing books to readers. Enjoy!
In every phase of my life, there have been texts
that have lit the path. When I was a kid, and sports were king in the
schoolyard, the Great Brain books taught me that being smart had its
uses. In high school, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, Ken Kessey’s One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the Grateful Dead’s From the Mars Hotel
showed me that the American tradition had a rebel streak. In college, my world
was rocked by Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, essays by bell hooks,
Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and ani difranco’s Not a
Pretty Girl – works that taught me a thing or two about power and identity.
graduation, when I was asking myself who I wanted to be and what impact I hoped
to have, the work I found myself returning to over and over again, the piece
that served as both my prod and my guide, was the opening six pages of James
Baldwin’s 1955 essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. Those six pages,
titled Autobiographical Notes, are an account of how James Baldwin
carved out his commitments and understood their consequences.
the piece for its fury, for its stark take on the world as it is, for its
ability to confront contradiction without resolving it. It reminded me of the
first two Led Zeppelin albums: the energy of the music so powerful you can feel
it literally burst through the skin of the studio production.
lines: “I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at
about the time I learned how to read … In those days my mother was given to the
exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. I took them over with one
hand and held a book with the other …”
closely to those sentences. Baldwin is articulating how he first heard the call
of his vocation, how he first felt within himself the beating heart of a
writer. It did not happen on a fancy trip to Europe. It did not happen in the
middle of an advanced course in graduate school. It happened in the living room
of an overfull Harlem apartment, surrounded by squalling babies.
ability to listen to yourself, to tease out the signal from the noise in a
world that is a crashing, clanging cacophony, that’s a treasure that is worth
more than any amount of silver or gold.
Notes was written
in response to a request by Baldwin’s fiction publisher to fill out a
standardized form for their records - date of birth, city of residence, etc.
The very idea of the form pissed Baldwin off, so he turned it around and
started writing on the back. It became the essay that I’m quoting from today.
Makes me look at every boring form I’m handed and wonder how to turn it into a
lasting work of art. Also, it confirms my suspicion that an awful lot of
creativity is at least partially a result of the chip certain people carry on
their shoulder. I know that chip well. So did Baldwin.
“Any writer … feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than
a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent - which attitude certainly
has a good deal of evidence to support it. On the other hand, it is only
because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that
the artist is compelled to make his talent important … the things which hurt
(you) and the things which help (you) cannot be divorced from each other.”
One of my
biggest surprises when I graduated from college was just how indifferent the
world was to me. I suspect I was like many of you here: front row in all my
classes, eager beaver in every possible extra-curricular. College is an
environment that nurtures those qualities, and rewards them. The rest of the
world, not so much. I literally remember thinking to myself a few months after
I graduated, ‘Where are all the people telling me how great my new idea is,
congratulating me for committing to read this classic novel, encouraging me as
I begin a new writing project.’
when I was truly grateful for the faculty and staff who nurtured me through my
liberal arts education. The gift they gave me was helping develop those
capacities and values in the first place, supporting me as I flexed those
muscles. My gift to them would be to continue growing those muscles without
them by my side.
essay helped me realize that I had entered a new stage, a stage defined not so
much by encouragement but by struggle. Nobody was sitting in their office
waiting for me to walk in so they could give me money for my new organization
or extra credit for my new intellectual endeavor. The world was not going to
convince me that I had something worthwhile to offer. I was going to have to
convince it. This meant I first had to convince myself. And that is not
just a question of capacity, it is also a question of identity.
is at the heart of Baldwin’s work. He once told his friend and editor Sol Stein
that he was born with three strikes against him: he was black, he was gay and
he was ugly. The third could be disputed, but the first two were definitely
is blunt about “the tremendous demands and very real dangers of (his) social
situation”. He writes of how being black in America made him “hate and fear the
world”, putting him in a “self-destroying limbo.” So how does he navigate
forward? By adopting a different lens looking back.
the most powerful lines in the essay are when Baldwin cites the great masters
and creations of Western civilization – Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach, the
Empire State Building. He points out that these masters are not really part of
his heritage. Some of the people would have happily enslaved him, yet he is
drawn to their ideas and creations nonetheless. So what is he to do?
writes: “I would have to appropriate these white centuries. I would have to
make them mine – I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place
in this scheme – or else I would have no place in any scheme.”
first day as a graduate student at Oxford, some fancy-pants university official
found out I was an American and said, “Oh, how wonderful. Do you know Bill
Clinton? Such a charming man.” I thought to myself, ‘Sorry, you got the wrong
guy. My parents own Subway Sandwich Shops in the Western Suburbs of Chicago.
Biggest thing I’ve ever done is shake Michael Jordan’s hand in the parking lot
of the golf course near my house.’
about that situation screamed to me, ‘You don’t belong here.’ I must say, the
exit sign looked pretty alluring sometimes.
of walking, I took out my Baldwin and re-read that essay. I realized the
tradition would take no note of me slinking away, nor was it about to magically
throw open its doors and let me in. It was my responsibility to shape a special
attitude to it, to knock on its doors, to make my contributions, to not simply
cry foul but to effect change.
dimension of a liberal arts education is a long look back, a listening in on
the great conversations that have threaded through past centuries. But simply
being conversant in what others have said is not the same as being educated,
not at least in the Elizabethtown way.
the question: what is my special attitude to those things that have gone in the
past? Even those dimensions that might have turned their back on people like
me? How might I learn from them, love them, embrace the parts that are
humanizing, change the parts that hurt and marginalize, make them my own? How
can you stand at the crossroads of inheritance and discovery and look both ways
I love Autobiographical
Notes for how it spoke to me at 22, I love it for its jazz and war. As I
stand here this morning, I am fifteen years past the days when I re-read Autobiographical
Notes night after night, seeking new insights into my personal drama. Going
back to it now helps me remember the intensity of that time in my life. Make no
mistake, I envy you the stage you are about to enter.
lines of the essay are different. For all the passion of the previous pages,
the searing talk of racism and America and special attitudes, Baldwin doesn’t
end the essay by making huge demands or issuing earth-shattering proclamations.
He ends with lines that are both simple and modest, lines that sound almost
like a prayer, lines that I believe honor a graduating class of a school
devoted to service and to others.
He wants to
be an honest man and a good writer. He wants to last, and get his work done.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) was a novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, and one of America's foremost writers. His essays, such as "Notes of a Native Son" (1955), explore palpable yet unspoken intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western societies, most notably in mid-twentieth-century America. A Harlem, New York, native, he primarily made his home in the south of France.
His novels include Giovanni's Room (1956), about a white American expatriate who must come to terms with his homosexuality, and Another Country (1962), about racial and gay sexual tensions among New York intellectuals. His inclusion of gay themes resulted in much savage criticism from the black community. Going to Meet the Man (1965) and Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968) provided powerful descriptions of American racism. As an openly gay man, he became increasingly outspoken in condemning discrimination against lesbian and gay people.
The following essay opens Notes of a Native Son, a collection considered by many his most influential work. We publish it here today in conjunction with an essay by Eboo Patel about the impact this essay had on his life and work.
I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting
novels at about the time I learned to read. The story of my
childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it
with the restrained observation that I certainly would not
consider living it again. In those days my mother was given
to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. As
they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a
book with the other. The children probably suffered, though
they have since been kind enough to deny it, and in this way
I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Tale of Two Cities over and
over and over again; in this way, in fact, I read just about
everything I could get my hands on—except the Bible, probably because it was the only book I was encouraged to read.
I must also confess that I wrote—a great deal—and my first
professional triumph, in any case, the first effort of mine to
be seen in print, occurred at the age of twelve or thereabouts,
when a short story I had written about the Spanish revolution
won some sort of prize in an extremely short-lived church
newspaper. I remember the story was censored by the lady
editor, though I don’t remember why, and I was outraged.
Also wrote plays, and songs, for one of which I received a
letter of congratulations from Mayor La Guardia, and poetry,
about which the less said, the better. My mother was delighted
by all these goings-on, but my father wasn’t; he wanted me to
be a preacher. When I was fourteen I became a preacher,
and when I was seventeen I stopped. Very shortly thereafter I left home. For God knows how long I struggled with
the world of commerce and industry—I guess they would say
they struggled with me—and when I was about twenty-one I
had enough done of a novel to get a Saxton Fellowship. When
I was twenty-two the fellowship was over, the novel turned
out to be unsalable, and I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviews—mostly, as it turned
out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of
my skin made me automatically an expert. Did another book,
in company with photographer Theodore Pelatowski, about
the store-front churches in Harlem. This book met exactly
the same fate as my first—fellowship, but no sale. (It was a
Rosenwald Fellowship.) By the time I was twenty-four I had
decided to stop reviewing books about the Negro problem—
which, by this time, was only slightly less horrible in print
than it was in life—and I packed my bags and went to France,
where I finished, God knows how, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he
was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent—which attitude certainly has a great deal
to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world
looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that
the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that
any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as
I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced
from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only
because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to
be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next—one is
tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next.
When one begins looking for influences one finds them by
the score. I haven’t thought much about my own, not enough
anyway; I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of
the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech—and something of
Dickens’ love for bravura—have something to do with me today; but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable
people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose,
the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has
been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by
the way, is the best one can hope for.)
One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer (and
this is not special pleading, since I don’t mean to suggest
that he has it worse than anybody else) is that the Negro
problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan
under the weight of information, and everyone therefore
considers himself informed. And this information, furthermore, operates usually (generally, popularly) to reinforce
traditional attitudes. Of traditional attitudes there are only
two—For or Against—and I, personally, find it difficult to
say which attitude has caused me the most pain. I am speaking as a writer; from a social point of view I am perfectly
aware that the change from ill-will to good-will, however
motivated, however imperfect, however expressed, is better
than no change at all.
But it is part of the business of the writer—as I see it—
to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the
source. From this point of view the Negro problem is nearly
inaccessible. It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly. It is quite possible to say that the price
a Negro pays for becoming articulate is to find himself, at
length, with nothing to be articulate about. (“You taught
me language,” says Caliban to Prospero, “and my profit on’t
is I know how to curse.”) Consider: the tremendous social
activity that this problem generates imposes on whites and
Negroes alike the necessity of looking forward, of working
to bring about a better day. This is fine, it keeps the waters
troubled; it is all, indeed, that has made possible the Negro’s
progress. Nevertheless, social affairs are not generally speaking the writer’s prime concern, whether they ought to be or
not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for
clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful
sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In
the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks,
for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to
look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible
for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.
I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own
development came when I was forced to recognize that I was
a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my
past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this
meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I
brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of
Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them
in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper;
this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other
heritage which I could possibly hope to use—I had certainly
been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them
mine—I would have to accept my special attitude, my special
place in this scheme—otherwise I would have no place in any
scheme. What was the most difficult was the fact that I was
forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself,
which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as
the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white
people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the
contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to
produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world.
And this meant, not only that I thus gave the world an altogether murderous power over me, but also that in such a self-
destroying limbo I could never hope to write.
One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience.
Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this
experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.
This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out
of the disorder of life that order which is art. The difficulty
then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was,
in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too
closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.
I don’t think the dilemma outlined above is uncommon. I
do think, since writers work in the disastrously explicit medium of language, that it goes a little way towards explaining why, out of the enormous resources of Negro speech and life,
and despite the example of Negro music, prose written by
Negroes has been generally speaking so pallid and so harsh.
I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but only because
it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write
about anything else. I don’t think that the Negro problem in
America can be even discussed coherently without bearing
in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions,
customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the
country; in short, the general social fabric. Appearances to
the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it. I believe this
the more firmly because it is the overwhelming tendency to
speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart. But in
the work of Faulkner, in the general attitude and certain specific passages in Robert Penn Warren, and, most significantly,
in the advent of Ralph Ellison, one sees the beginnings—at
least—of a more genuinely penetrating search. Mr. Ellison,
by the way, is the first Negro novelist I have ever read to
utilize in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and
irony of Negro life.
About my interests: I don’t know if I have any, unless the
morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make
experimental movies can be so classified. Otherwise, I love
to eat and drink—it’s my melancholy conviction that I’ve
scarcely ever had enough to eat (this is because it’s impossible
to eat enough if you’re worried about the next meal)—and I
love to argue with people who do not disagree with me too
profoundly, and I love to laugh. I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything. I
don’t like people who like me because I’m a Negro; neither
do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for
contempt. I love America more than any other country in
the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right
to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect,
that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may
even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must
find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through
the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than
this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
If you take the time to watch one TED Talk this week, make it this one. Geoffrey Canada is an educational innovator, and in this video (part of which appeared on PBS) he makes a powerful argument for changing the way we think about public education.
Canada knows how to help kids achieve great things: as the president of Harlem Children's Zone, he has changed countless lives and transformed a community. While the Harlem Children’s Zone started out focusing on a single block -- West 119th Street -- it has since expanded exponentially. It now encompasses more than 100 square blocks and serves an estimated 10,000 children, providing pre-kindergarten care, after-school programs, health care, college planning and classes for soon-to-be-parents.
Long before the avalanche of praise for his work—from Oprah Winfrey, from President Bill Clinton, from President Barack Obama—long before he became known for his talk show appearances, Members Project spots, and documentaries like Waiting for Superman, Geoffrey Canada was a small boy growing up scared on the mean streets of the South Bronx. His childhood world was one where "sidewalk boys" learned the codes of the block and were ranked through the rituals of fist, stick, and knife. Then the streets changed, and the stakes got even higher. In his candid and riveting memoir, Canada relives a childhood in which violence stalked every street corner.
"I wish every city had a Geoffrey Canada." —President Bill Clinton
"Geoffrey Canada's realistic yet hopeful voice finds fresh expression through the comic style of Jamar Nicholas. Canada's account of his childhood and the role that violence played in shaping his experiences provides hard-won and crucial lessons." —Pedro A. Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University
"Jamar Nicholas is a master of his craft—his drawings are full of life and truly stunning." —Bryan Lee O'Malley, creator of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
"Geoffrey Canada is one of this country's genuine heroes. His personal meditation on America's culture of violence is a beacon of hope for our humanity." —Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage
"Canada has never lost touch with the child within himself or with the fears of the children around him struggling to reach adulthood in the violent streets of America." —Marian Wright Edelman, author of The Measure of Our Success
"Canada takes us on a powerful journey. . . . He is a man of hope and a wonderful storyteller." —Henry Hampton, executive producer, Eyes on the Prize
Claire Conner’s father was a national spokesperson for the John Birch Society for more than thirty years; her mother was also a staunch follower. Conner holds a degree in English from the University of Dallas and a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin. Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right(coming in July from Beacon Press) gives an inside look at one of the most radical right-wing movements in American history and shows how it impacts our politics today.
Every year, during
Holocaust Remembrance Week, the people of the United States promise to “never
forget” the six million who perished in Hitler’s death camps. I make the same
promise. Then I add my own personal vow—to never forget Dr. Revilo P. Oliver, a
classics professor from the University of Illinois and a founding member of the
John Birch Society. Using an energized, anti-Communist right wing network,
Oliver peddled his revised history of World War II; one in which the Jews
invented the Holocaust and foisted the story of their imaginary persecution on
an unsuspecting world. I heard Oliver spin his vile “Holohoax” ideas right in
my parents’ living room.
In late 1958, my
parents became the first two members of the John Birch Society in Chicago. They
were welcomed into the brand new organization by founder, Robert Welch, who
introduced them to Oliver. Welch and Oliver were personal and professional
friends. Over the years, Welch often described Oliver as one of the “ablest
speakers on the Americanist side.”
Any friend of Welch
got a warm welcome from my parents. The first time I met the man, however, he
gave me the creeps. His long face was exaggerated by black hair slicked back
with greasy pomade, bushy eyebrows and beady eyes and wide handlebar mustache.
I never saw Oliver smile. But his lips often curled in a nasty snarl,
especially when he was berating someone who dared to disagree.
Oliver was a frequent
contributor to National Review,
William F. Buckley’s magazine, and to the John Birch Society’s magazine, American Opinion. In the pages of these
journals, he expressed some of his most controversial positions including a
1965 slam against the United States for “an insane, but terribly effective,
effort to destroy the American people and Western civilization by subsidizing .
. . the breeding of the intellectually, physically, and morally unfit.”
Oliver peppered his
speeches and his articles with racial slurs and discredited historical
assumption. In his role as a member of the John Birch Society speakers’ bureau,
he railed against Communist subversion inside our government while insisting that
President Roosevelt tricked the United States into World War II in order to
help his friend, Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator.
Along with this
interpretation of World War II, Oliver peddled his version of the Holocaust,
one in stark contrast to everything I’d learned from our Jewish neighbors and
my own father. Gone were the yellow stars and the death camps. Gone were the
gas chambers and crematoria. Even the witness of American soldiers who
liberated Buchenwald and Dachau was repudiated. Instead, Oliver said that there
were no gas chambers and no exterminations.
My parents parroted
Oliver. The Holocaust stopped being so terrible, the death camps turned into
detention camps. Jews were imprisoned because they were traitors, not because
of their faith. The “Final Solution” became fiction, and the Nazis were loyal
military men following orders.
I’d met Jews with
tattoos on their arms. I’d seen photographs from Buchenwald. I knew that
millions of men, women and children were gassed and their ashes coated everything
when the fires roared. I knew all of this as well as I knew my name. I was not
even 14 and I thought my parents had lost their minds. Dr. Oliver had helped
No matter what Revilo
Oliver said, he continued to serve (with my father) on the John Birch Society
National Council, the inner circle of the organization. My parents drank in
everything he said and repeated most of it, almost verbatim. Robert Welch heaped
praise on Oliver for his outstanding contributions to the Birch cause.
All of this Oliver
devotion stopped abruptly in July of 1966, when Oliver headlined the New
England Rally for God, Family, and Country, an annual Birch-sponsored festival
held in Boston and billed as a reunion for conservative Americans. In his
speech, “Conspiracy or Degeneracy, Oliver talked about “vaporizing” Jews as
part of the “beatific vision.”
generated an avalanche of negative press, followed by internal Birch turmoil on
how to respond. Oliver had said all of this and more for years and every single
member of the Birch leadership had heard him. But time this was different. Oliver’s
public and blatant racism sounded like it echoed John Birch Society policies.
And the press covered it.
In early August,
Welch told council members that Oliver had resigned. In a split-second, he
vanished from my parents’ conversation. They pretended that Oliver had never
been a Birch leader or a personal friend.
Revilo Oliver lived
the rest of his life as a hero to neo-Nazis, skin heads and white supremacists.
His views never moderated. In 1982, twelve years before his death by suicide,
Oliver wrote that democracy would only be possible by “deporting, vaporizing,
or otherwise disposing of swarms of Jews, Congoids (Africans), Mongoloids and
mongrels (mixed-race) that now infest our territory.”
Oliver put an
indelible mark on the John Birch Society, built a network of Holocaust deniers and
recruited countless followers to spread his message of hate. This year, the theme of the Holocaust
Remembrance is “heeding the warning signs.” There is no warning sign of more
significance than the continuing presence of Holocaust denial in our public
life. We can’t begin to understand today’s deniers if we don’t take a hard look
at the man who fueled the denial movement.
Richly informative, calmly passionate and much needed, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” completes the portrait of a working-class activist who looked poverty and discrimination squarely in the face and never stopped rebelling against them, in the segregated South and in the segregated North.
Author Jeanne Theoharis appeared this morning on Democracy Now! with Claudette Colvin, a civil-rights pioneer who was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat in Montgomery in March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks. Jeanne discusses Claudette’s story in the context of her research into the local civil-rights movement at the time, and suggests Colvin’s case help set the stage for Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. It’s a really special 35-minute interview.
MakeitMissoula.com review: "Several times while reading the book, I had to just stop, sit back and admire a chunk of imagery crafted by a man who can just flat-out write. "
Mountain West News review: "Montana needs a book like this. We need to remember the past. We need to be mindful of the present. We need to say thanks to all those who strife to do the right thing. We need more journalists like Brad Tyer to keep us humble."
Michael Bronski, the author of A Queer History of the United States and a Harvard professor, notes that sentimental arguments have become increasingly prevalent, and successful, in social movements over the last century. "Uncle Tom's Cabin was far more effective than quoting biblical texts or making a constitutional argument and abolitionist writings are filled with the tragedy of children being torn away from their mothers," Bronski said in an interview. "Suffragists mostly only used legal arguments but later, second wave feminism did better portraying a talented 12-year-old girl who wanted to play field hockey (or become a doctor) than in arguing for equal wages for female factory workers."
While the Court mulls, however, we'd like to clear up some misunderstanding. Take the "recent" institution of gay marriage, as Justice Samuel Alito seems bent on calling it. Alito is trying to dissuade any major ruling on the grounds that evidence on the effects of same-sex marriage is too little, too soon: "You want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution which is newer than cell phones and the internet?" he asked. "We do not have the ability to see the future."
Fortunately, we don't have to. We mere humans may not wear the robes of soothsayers (or Justices, for that matter), Mr. Alito, but we do have access to local libraries and the benefit of hindsight. While, yes, the formal institution of gay marriage is recent, author Rodger Streitmatter reminds us that gay folks have been resourcefully affirming their own versions of marriage for centuries. In fact, they've found ways of making it work with or without our questionably-gay-Uncle Sam's nodding approval.
My Mother's Wars is the memoir that Mary, a Latvian Jew and New York immigrant, “was never able to write.” Faderman shares her spirited mother’s story from life-altering experiences (the Nazi's brutal annihilation of Preil, the shetl where Mary was born) to mundane city moments. Each are rendered with poetry and frankness. Beginning in 1914, Faderman chronicles Mary’s futile love affair with commitment-phobic Moishe, the wrenching isolation of immigration and the insidious backdrop of antisemitism. Mary may not have been able to tell her story, but it’s testament to her incredible life that her daughter did it for her.
On Wednesday, President Obama and a bipartisan collection of Congressional leaders paid tribute to the legacy of Rosa Parks by unveiling a statue of her at the Capitol. The 9-foot bronze figure of Parks desegregated Statuary Hall; hers is the first statue of a black woman to be installed at the Capitol and currently the only statue of a black person (a statue of Frederick Douglass is set to be moved there shortly).
Yet, the statue of Rosa Parks—seated and clutching her purse—turned her into a meek and redemptive figure. To the end of her life, Parks believed the United States had a long way to go in the struggle for social and racial justice. Yesterday’s ceremony, however, was largely an exercise in national self-congratulation and a demonstration of American pride and pageantry. It invoked the history of racial injustice to put that history in the past.
“The statue speaks for itself,” House Speaker John Boehner began, noting how its placement in the hall embodied “the vision of a more perfect union.” “What a story, what a legacy, what a country,” Senator Mitch McConnell extolled at the close of his remarks.
As these words were spoken, across the Washington Mall, the Supreme Court heard arguments challenging provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v Holder. Only one speaker at the dedication, Representative James Clyburn, made specific reference to the case, which threatens to undermine the gains that Parks helped bring about.
[Read the rest here]
Sarah Garland is a staff writer at the Hechinger Report. She has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, American Prospect, New York Sun, Newsweek, Washington Monthly, Newsday, New York, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She was a 2009 recipient of the Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Garland grew up in a middle-class suburb and was bused to an inner-city elementary school in Louisville, Kentucky. In 2007, a case brought by African American parents in Louisville brought to a close the era of school desegregation, and Garland examines the circumstances around this case in her new book, Divided We Fail. We asked her three questions about the book for our blog.
In honor of Black History Month, you can purchase Divided We Fail along with many other Black History titles for 20% off and free shipping at Beacon.org. Use Promo Code FEB2013 at checkout. Buy two or more titles and get a free King Legacy tote bag.
The traditional narrative of desegregation paints a picture of heroic children like Ruby Bridges marching past angry whites opposed to integrated schools. We don't hear much beyond those first, contentious post-Brown v. Board of Education days. How does this simplification gloss over the achievements and problems of desegregation?
Desegregation of the schools was a major achievement—and one that was long fought. But in celebrating that history, the story of black civil rights heroes and their white antagonists often obscures what some in the black community saw as very unfortunate side effects: the closure of traditionally black schools, the firing of black teachers, and a loss of power for black communities in overseeing their schools. No one wanted to go back to the era of Jim Crow, but people were frustrated that in the process of desegregating schools, whites maintained the upper hand and black students still faced many inequities. That’s not to undermine what was achieved with Brown v. Board of Education, but to suggest that desegregation didn’t live up to the hopes many people had for it.
Are contemporary school reform movements—charter schools, Race to the Top, focusing on "accountability"—achieving better results than desegregation in closing the racial gap in education?
In a word, no. There is still not a lot of research on how new reform ideas like Race to the Top are impacting schools, and what research there is on charter suggests that while some charters are succeeding in closing the achievement gap, most are not. Desegregation, by contrast, corresponded with the most rapid shrinking of the achievement gap for black children yet. It was not the only factor contributing to those gains, but research suggests it had a hand, and also that diverse environments can be very positive for minority student achievement. That said, the gap didn’t fully close during desegregation (possibly because of the continued inequities perpetuated in the new systems).
I think reformers today can look back at what worked and what didn’t and learn something. Already some are. Recently, there’s been something of a resurgence of support for integration: Some charter operators are trying to create diverse student bodies and a handful of school superintendents are rethinking the role of racial and economic diversity in schools.
How did your experiences as a student bused to an integrated school inform your research and writing?
Busing was a formative experience for me. Probably for all of us who went through it. I loved my school, which was near downtown Louisville amid some of the poorest housing projects in the city. I had good teachers and great memories of frequent field trips—we would walk in a line through those inner city streets to get to the museums downtown. I think the experience made the persistence of poverty and inequality in our society vividly real to me. But even though my school was diverse and in this neighborhood very different from my own suburban enclave, my days were spent with classmates who looked just like me. We were divided inside the school into advanced, honors and regular classes, and all but a couple of students in the advanced classes were white and middle class. That disparity also stayed with me, and was one of the main reasons I decided to write the book.
Long before "women in rock" became a media catchphrase, African American guitar virtuoso Rosetta Tharpe proved in spectacular fashion that women could rock. Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in 1915, Tharpe was gospel's first superstar and the preeminent crossover figure of its golden age.
Sister Rosetta is at long last getting the attention she deserves with "The Godmother of Rock & Roll," a documentary that aired last weekend on PBS, and a related campaign to get her inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
This month is also a great time to buy a copy of Shout, Sister, Shout! During our Black History Month Sale, buy any African American Studies title using promo code FEB2013 by February 28th and receive 20% off and free shipping. Buy two titles and receive a free King Legacy tote bag. Plus, Beacon Press will donate 15% of all sales using promo code FEB2013 to the Young People's Project. More info here.
The global Martin Luther King, Jr. has occupied my thinking for some two decades. I have often wondered how the man who, in his book The Trumpet of Conscience(1968), described himself as “a citizen of the world,” could be so ignored in terms of his international significance. Even King scholars have largely neglected King’s vision of what he variously termed “the world house,” “the new world order,” and “a new humanity.” Knowing that King’s birthday is recognized and/or celebrated in some one hundred countries, I set out to produce a volume of his writings and speeches on racism as a world problem, European colonialism, global poverty, war, the Middle East crisis, and religious bigotry and intolerance.
In a Single Garment of Destiny reclaims the global Martin Luther King, Jr. through the prism of his own words and activities on behalf of world peace and community. I have come to see that we cannot understand King if we limit him to a southern black preacher or an “American Gandhi.” We must view him as a leader who moved beyond the particularities of the African American and the American experiences to speak and act on behalf of a world fragmented by bigotry, injustice, intolerance, and war.
“The dreamer” is the title by which Martin Luther King, Jr. is known around the world. While he spoke optimistically of the coming realization of the “American dream,” we must never forget his larger vision of “a world made new.” This is why King, in his last two books, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?(1967) and The Trumpet of Conscience, focused so much on world problems, on racism, poverty, and war, and on the need for humans across the globe to move beyond a mere intellectual analysis of nonviolence to an experimentation with that method in every sphere of human conflict.
As a world figure, King transcends the past in terms of his meaning, authority, and inspiration. He still has meaning for the contemporary world, especially as we deal with environmental protection concerns, post-Cold War ethnic cleansings, global terrorism, genocide, religiously-based violence, political assassinations, and the mounting cycles of violence, repression, and reprisal in the Middle East. We need a new appreciation of King’s thought and legacy in the contemporary world.