Tag Archives: Black History month

673. Constitution

As I write this, the Senate is about to begin questioning both sides in the impeachment of Donald Trump. Presumably by the time you read this, the issue will have been decided.

Both sides have sworn their allegiance to the Constitution, claim to be dedicated to preserving it, and claim that the other side will destroy it.

It’s actually kind of hard to destroy our Constitution, but it is changeable. Soon after it was passed — and its passage was based on the assumption that this would happen — ten amendments were added which changed the Constitution immensely.

Today, when people avow their loyalty to the Constitution, they are usually referring to those ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, which were not part of the original constitution at all. They also say:

. . . one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

That is from the flag salute, not the Constitution, and during the first decades of the Republic several groups from several different parts of the country, north as well as south, attempted to prove that it was divisible. reversible, or could be ignored.

Eventually the South did secede, and was brought back by armed force, making our country in fact indivisible, whether or not that had been the intent of the founders. It also resulted in the removal of a sizable chunk of the constitution.

What chunk? This one:

Article One Section Three — Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Article One Section Nine — The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

Article Four Section Three — No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service of Labour, but shall be delivered up

Translating those into ordinary language:

Article One Section Three — There are free people, indentured servants, Indians, and slaves. Free people and indentured servants count as one whole person, Indians don’t count, and slaves count as three-fifths of a person, when determining taxes and representation.

Article One Section Nine — The importation of slaves cannot be stopped until 1808.

Article Four Section Three — Slaves escaping to free states have to be sent back.

It is hard to imagine anyone, even the most rabid white nationalist, wanting those pieces of the Constitution back. However,  it is very easy to forget that they were there in the first place.

Freedom of speech and religion, freedom of the press, freedom for all Americans to vote, even women, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, the right to a trial by jury — none of these were provided by the original Constitution.

The point? There are two, actually, both of which deserve reiteration.

Our Constitution has changed tremendously since it’s ratification. No one alive today would even consider living under the Constitution in its original form. Even the people who ratified it felt that way. They demanded, as the price of ratification, that a Bill of Rights be immediately added.

When people say, “I support the Constitution,” and we think they are lying, they may not be. We carry in their minds many different interpretations of what “Constitution” means. And we will probably keep on arguing about those interpretations for another two hundred years.

670. A House Still Divided

A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
                          Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858

In 1858, the house (America) was certainly divided. Three years later it was split asunder. That wound was not healed. The South was dragged back by bitter force, and for another hundred years black people bore the brunt of Southern hostility — and Northern hostility as well.

Ending an armed rebellion does not quell a rebellious spirit.

During WWII America moved with concerted effort to end Fascism. Twenty years later, our house was divided once again, with vast numbers supporting war in Viet Nam and vast numbers opposing it. Very few minds were changed, and the bitterness did not die. Only bitter people died, and not all of them. I should says, not all of us. Fifty years later and I’m still pissed at what we did in Southeast Asia.

We are frequently divided by the wars we have fought, and we are always divided by race — never mind the fact that the whole concept of race is an illusion. For four hundred years, whites and blacks have mixed their DNA, frequently by white force on black women. Light colored “blacks” have passed and become “white”.

Personally, I like the result (though not the means). If you lined up every American by skin tone there would be an unbroken continuum from dark to light, but the end points would still be very different. Would you prefer having everybody a dull beige? How boring would that be?

The “black race” has whitened and the “white race” has darkened. If that second statement seems wrong, it is only because when there is a question of whether an individual is white or black, if he/she isn’t completely white, he/she is “demoted” to black. Witness a certain duchess in Britain who is only slightly south of pale.

If you have any sense of mathematics you can see that this process will eventually make “whites” cease to exist. The “one drop of blood” gang will have won — and disappeared.

There is only one race, but there are still a thousand variations of that race, whatever we call them. There are also a thousand ethnicities, by which I mean groups with a common history and culture. There are ten thousand sects and religions.

Jesus said, “Wherever there are two or three gathered together, there will be a fight and the next day we will have two denominations where yesterday there was one.” Or something like that. Matthew 18:20, snarky translation.

Some things can be compromised. Some can’t. Some things are so basic to personal world views that all we can do is let the majority decide, and let the minority continue to try to change the law.

When Martin Luther King and thousands of others were fighting for civil rights, the house (America) was divided. At first, all we could do was pass legislation. A strong minority, not just in the south, hated the Civil Rights act. It was put in place by force, not agreement.

Things got better. It is sometimes hard to remember that, but they did. Yet we remain a house divided to a greater degree than in any recent decade. Democrats and Republicans alike are forted up, with cannons protruding from the parapets. That isn’t healthy for either side, since nobody is ever completely right.

I have a solution.

(I can hear you saying, “Yeah, right, sure you do!”) Okay, I have a suggestion.

I grew up Republican and rebellious, but when it came time to register to vote, I didn’t register as a Democrat out of spite. I registered Independent.

Or tried to. In California, they make you register “No Preference”, and I hate that. Independent sounds like a true American who makes up his own mind on issues. No Preference sounds like a wimp who doesn’t care.

I care. I look at every issue with both eyes open, and I usually find sense on both sides. I also usually find stupidity on both sides. A little compromise would make both liberal and conservative proposals more sensible, but it happens all too seldom.

Moderates in Washington are disappearing from both parties. That leaves a vacuum.  Perhaps it is time for people to say “a plague o’ both your houses” and register as independents.

I’m not referring to an Independent Party. If the movement became a party, it’s members would no longer be independent.

We could also use more people running as independents. We all know that no independent is ever going to become President. But a member of a local school board already could be. A mayor could be. State legislators could be, at least in some states. The time is right. Social media makes running without party backing a real possibility, especially in local races

Such a movement away from monolithic parties would be healthy for America. At the very least, if might scare both parties back from the brinks of extremism. Think what ten independent Senators would mean in Washington today. They would wield immense power toward moderation.

Ten years ago there were moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans. They are becoming increasingly rare, and moderate voters have no one to represent their interests.

No one is listening to me, of course, and that’s all right. A movement toward independent candidates doesn’t need someone to tell everybody to go out and be independent. That is a decision to be made one citizen at a time.

I won’t be running for office myself. Every time I get in an argument with someone, they end up mad at me and I don’t change their mind at all. Compromise and conciliation are wonderful things, but they are not in my skill set. That’s why I write.

But you . . .? Maybe you could change the world.

662. Slavery

I am not a professional historian, but as a student of history, with an MA in that field, I consider myself bound by some of the same rules of accuracy. What follows is based on long study, but it is also very much an overview. Any expert could shoot a few holes into this, but they would be very small and local holes in a basically correct summary.

Slavery has been around forever and everywhere. The Romans had it. Native American’s had it. The long centuries when Eastern Europe went back and forth between the Christian world and the Muslim world produced slaves in vast numbers. We Americans can’t really understand the institution unless we see more than just the Southern plantation.

The America which gave us today’s race relations was British America. In Spanish America and French America the story took different turns. To understand slavery in what was to become the U.S.A., we need to look first at a couple of examples of what was happening before blacks arrived.

The British Navy was mostly a slave institution, though never called that. The officers chose to be there; the men, especially in wartime, did not. A few volunteered, and mostly regretted it, but the bulk of naval crews were impressed. That means picked up by armed bands and forced into service. Kidnapped, in other words, but legally since the government was doing the kidnapping.

(Not unlike Selective Service, come to think of it.)

Once on board, they were subject to punishment without trial, given inadequate food, and brutally flogged at the whim of their officers. They were taken away from their families for long periods and frequently killed or maimed in combat. If they lived long enough they would be released back into civilian life, so it was not true slavery.

At first this system lacked a racial component, but as time went on British merchant ships came to be manned primarily by sailors from India. If you read Sherlock Holmes you will find Lascars (Indian sailors in the British fleet) everywhere in Victorian England. This allowed conditions on board to remain so vile that only the destitute would sail. The same thing happened in America, where American officers and crews gave way to American officers with foreign sailors, for the same economic reasons.

Back on land, during the early days of the British American colonies, the rich took passage, but the poor had to bind themselves to pay for transportation. They became semi-slaves for a set period of years, but a bound person could look forward to eventual release. The system had a class component, but not a racial one, and was not permanent, so it wasn’t true slavery.

A system existed in south-western India which is worth looking for because of what it lacks. I will be a little vague here since this is from a treatise I read while getting my first MA in the mid-seventies. I’m presenting it from memory. In that area of India, low caste people were bound into a complex relationship with upper castes. The upper caste owned the land; the lower castes worked it. Sometimes when a family fell into debt and was on the verge of starvation, the father would sell himself into slavery to save his family. This was called lifetime indenture, because the man became a slave, but his family did not.

That is a huge difference, and is the reason I offer it in contrast to what happened in America.

When the first Africans arrived as slaves in 1684, forced labor had already existed for a long time in Britain and British America. With the arrival of blacks from Africa, we finally reached the full-fledged American system. It consisted of involuntary servitude for life, followed by the same for a slave’s children, all defined by race, with few (none, in a practical sense) rights to reasonable treatment. A corollary of the system was the treatment of slave women as brooders, and their children as a crop to be sold.

Ugly. All the forms of near slavery were ugly, but this was particularly foul. The full system had all the ills of previous systems with none of the restraint, and it lasted until the Civil War.

And then all the problems were over — we wish.

Lifetime indenture was ended but the ones who had built the country with the sweat of their unpaid faces were not compensated. Racial disdain became worse. The KKK was invented. Jim Crow laws were passed.

One aspect of this which has only recently come to the attention of the general public is re-enslavement through the judicial system.

Immediately after the Civil War, white southerners found a way to get back some of their power and some of their slaves. They simply arrested and imprisoned newly freed blacks, then rented them out. They invented the chain gang. If you are trying to find historical reasons why blacks fill our prisons and why our police are so often corrupt, chances are pretty good your research will lead you to those events.

That is a quote from the post 88. John Henry which examines the claim that the folk-hero was really such a prisoner.

Eventually came the Civil Rights movement which finally brought a legal end to discrimination. That’s why this post is coming on Martin Luther King Day. But the Civil Rights Act, like emancipation, was a start, not a completion.

Are things better than they were? Of course. Are they good enough? Not on your soul, or the nation’s soul. There is still much work to do.

657. 366 Days

Welcome to 2020. It’s leap year again. That makes it a little more than four years since I started this blog.

Leap year is that calendrical oddity brought about by the fact that the rotation of the Earth on its axis does not neatly coincide with the revolution of the Earth around the Sun, leaving us with a year which is 365 and a fourth (approximately) days long. We compensate for it by adding one day every four years to the shortest month, making it still the shortest, but a little longer. Then we call it Black History Month because we can’t find a shorter month to do the job.

Snarky? Yeah, get used to it.

The last time we had a February 29th — which would be 2016 — I was mentally and morally tired. I had just completed more than a month of writing posts on the morality (actually, the lack thereof) of racism in America, in the world, and in two created worlds. It meant a lot to me, and I was proud of the results, but it wasn’t easy to write and it wasn’t fun.

For a break,  I wrote a comedy piece on February 29th about a kid who was born on leap day and ended up running, against his will, for president. I’ll remind you about the details next Wednesday

I began the Black History Month series on Martin Luther King Day of 2016 with a post called Whiter Than White that stated my position, and continued on to February 25. I was writing four posts a week in A Writing Life at that time, as well as another four in Serial. Don’t ask me how I managed.

The result was twenty-three A Writing Life posts in six weeks, all devoted to Black History. For most of that time, Serial was running in a novel-in-progress called Voices in the Wall, which was about the underground railway. That eventually ran thirty-four posts.

I have spent a lot of time since on issues of race, often Latino and sometimes Japanese, Chinese, or Native American, but those have been mostly connected with the latest stupidities out of Washington, or anniversaries of stupidities past. My position on race — black, white, or purple — was already pretty well laid out by the end of February, four years ago, so I don’t think I’ll have much new to add this year.

If you want to browse those posts, go to any page of A Writing Life, go to the right column and slide down to Archives, January 2016 and then February 2016.

Here is a navigational hint. On days when A Writing Life and Serial both appear, Serial is posted ten minutes earlier. That is part of an organizational scheme that didn’t work, but ended up grandfathered into everything. The result is that the two blogs of this website alternate when you work your way up a month’s archive. Pick AWL or Serial and skip the other, then come back later. Otherwise you’ll get whiplash.

566. The Negro Speaks of Rivers

The Negro Speaks of Rivers
by Langston Hughes

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
     went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
     bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

I am a great fan of Langston Hughes. I keep his complete works in my library, and I had hoped to dip into it to publish one of his less well known poems here during Black History Month. I couldn’t.

I try to stay on the sunny side of copyright law out of respect for authors and to keep out of jail. However, I am no lawyer, and copyright law in America is an incredible snarl, so I depend on others for my information. I went to Project Gutenberg, an organization dedicated to placing old literature in ebook format. They are well organized and quite careful about only using material in public domain. They have almost nothing by Hughes, so I googled, which only muddied the picture further.

I like to place pictures as teasers above each post. Other than the ones I have created myself, I get most of them from Wikipedia since they specify (if you click a couple of times on the picture) their copyright standing. I went there following this copyright question and found in Wikisource that:

This work (The Negro Speaks of Rivers) is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

Most of Hughes work was published after that date.

It may seem odd to worry about the copyright status works by a man who died 52 years ago, but theft is theft, even if you are stealing from a dead man. I try not to steal, although sometimes I goof. I posted Hughes’s poem I, Too last Independence Day, not realizing that it was not in public domain. Of course, you can get a view of many copyrighted works on the Internet. I, Too appears in dozens of places.

I have a solution to this conundrum. Go out and buy a book of poems by Langston Hughes. Buy it for Black History Month if you care. Buy it for the beautiful poetry if you don’t care.

You can even go to a used book store to buy it. Resale of books never puts a penny in any author’s pocket, but it keeps their works alive.

467. Steel Drivin’ Man

So we come to the end of another Black History Month. I have said some new things, and repeated some posts that could not be said better. This is one of those repeats; it originally appeared as 88. John Henry, January 28, 2016.

The battle goes on, not just for “blacks” (who aren’t fully black) and “whites” (who aren’t fully white), gays, Latinos . . . the list goes on. If life permits, I’ll be back next year, beating the same drum. I won’t be here forever, but when I’m gone, you will still be here. It will be up to you then.

I have always wondered why John Henry is a folk hero.

Maybe it’s just a folk song. Maybe it isn’t supposed to make sense. I never worry about the fact that Stewball “never drank water, he only drank wine”; I do have a tendency to overthink things.

But let’s look at the facts. John Henry is big, strong, uneducated and very black. Symbolically black, even. As a ”little bitty baby” he picks up a hammer and accepts his fate. He works himself to death for white folks, while they stand around and bet against him. Then his wife takes over when he’s dead, and the story goes on unchanged.

Sounds pretty damned Jim Crow to me.

A technical point here, so it all makes sense. As a “steel drivin’ man”, John Henry is not spiking down rails to ties. He is digging tunnels. He is swinging a doublejack, a two handed medium weight sledge hammer. He is hitting a star drill, which is a steel rod about a yard long ending in a hardened cross bit. Every time John Henry hits the drill, another inch of rock is pulverized in the bottom of a hole. Between each stroke, his assistant turns the drill an eighth of a turn.

Men with John Henry’s job spent their days drilling holes in the face of a tunnel. Those holes were then filled with black powder or dynamite, depending on the era, and blasted. Then the drill men moved back in to do it all over again.

Imagine working in near darkness, covered with sweat and stone dust, breathing in the fumes from the last blast, damp and cold in winter, damp and hot in summer. Tough for John Henry; terrifying for his assistant, holding the drill steady, turning it only in that moment when the hammer is drawn back, and knowing that if John Henry ever misses, he’s dog meat.

It gets worse.

It is useful to those in power to have a large population of the powerless and hungry. Slaves fit that bill very well; so do new immigrants. Today we have the working poor, who are kept humble by the myth that if you can’t make it in America, it’s your own fault. You aren’t working hard enough (see post 5.Labor Day).

Immediately after the Civil War, white southerners found a way to get back some of their power and some of their slaves. They simply arrested and imprisoned newly freed blacks, then rented them out. They invented the chain gang. If you are trying to find historical reasons why blacks fill our prisons and why our police are so often corrupt, chances are pretty good your research will lead you to those events.

What does this have to do with John Henry? In searching for the man behind the legend, writer Scott Reynolds Nelson’s* discoveries suggest that John Henry was one of these convict-slaves.

John Henry was a man who could not break his chains, but was still a man for all that. His status as a black hero makes sense.

Still . . ., if I were borrowing all this to make a story, I would rewrite it so that John Henry used his hammer to brain the overseer. But, of course, the real John Henry could never do that, and today’s black community would not accept such a cheap answer, or such an easy road to freedom. It would not match up with their own experiences.

History is usually uglier than anything we novelists can invent.

——————–

*Scott Reynolds Nelson. Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend.

464. Miscegenation at Work

This post is a rewrite and mashup of 90. N Word, M Word and 89. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

A cousin of mine told me recently that interracial marriage is still a big no-no in Oklahoma. Bear in mind she is my age, so she may not speak for the present generation. Here in California where I live now you see black-white couples everywhere, and that pleases me, but then I never did fit in back home.

Abhorrence of mixed-race marriage has two parts. It is a fear that a (perceived) bad thing has been made legal, and it is a refusal to admit that the (perceived) bad thing has been going on for a very long time.

Did you ever hear of a nigger in the woodpile? (Yes, there’s that damned word again. In looking at race honestly, there are some things that can’t be avoided) The phrase has been a Southern staple forever. You can Google it, but it won’t tell you much. You will find it was used in an anti-Lincoln cartoon during his election bid, and you will find various definitions to the effect that it refers to something not being what it seems.

Fine, but why this particular phrase? Why is that legendary black man hiding in that woodpile near the back door of the big house? What are his intentions?

The answer lies in when the phrase is used. It is rarely used to cover general sneakiness, but it is always used when a child doesn’t look like his father. Hmmm. So that’s why that black guy was sneaking around the back door.

The great fear is that black men will do to white women what white men have been doing to black women for four hundred years.

That black feller in the woodpile helps whites laugh at the hidden realization that white purity is not just endangered; it hasn’t existed for a really long time.

You can see it in the classic movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but you have to look sharp. If you don’t remember the story, in 1967, a very handsome, very black man (Sidney Poitier) wants to marry a very pretty, very blonde white girl (Katherine Houghton). They spring this on her liberal parents and complications ensue.

I like the movie despite its obvious problems. I even forgive that it ends with a fifteen minute monolog by the grumpy, old white guy (Spencer Tracy), as he puts everybody else in their places.

The movie is dated and excessively sweet. It is unrealistic that the black guy in question is such a moral superman and so terminally handsome. Never mind; the movie’s heart was in the right place and it probably did some good. And it was 1967, after all.

However, if you look closely there’s something else to be learned from this movie beyond what the producer intended. The next time you see it, take a look at Dorothy (no last name, played by Barbara Randolph), a minor character, assistant housekeeper and a drop-dead gorgeous black girl.

Or is she black? Stand her up in your imagination half way between Poitier and Houghton. She is half as black as he is, and half as white as she is. How could this happen in America! And why do we accept her as black? Why not white? She’s exactly half-and-half, compared Houghton and Poitier.

The whole movie is based on the shock that everyone feels when Poitier and Houghton decide to marry, but no one even takes notice of the obvious product of four hundred years of interracial sex, married or otherwise, strutting her stuff in the background.

Imagine that, people not noticing what is right under their noses.