Tag Archives: Black History month

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.

462. The N Word

Another version of this post, with the same poem, appeared as 86. N —-

The N—– word. Everybody in America is afraid of it. Including me.

I could write it out plainly. In fact, I feel a little foolish writing a letter followed by dashes, especially since I used it in a post just a week ago, and will again in the poem below. But if I spelled it out, I would feel like a little kid cussing in front of his parents, then pretending he didn’t know they were there.

I grew up white in a community which had no blacks. So how do you learn to hate or fear someone you never see? Easy. You listen to your parents and their friends, and absorb their attitudes.

I didn’t come to hate, in part because my parents didn’t hate. But they did fear. If you study black-white relations in America, it is amazing how much fear there is on both sides. I certainly had my share, and I hated having it. But I couldn’t shake it, until I wrote and published this poem. It didn’t cure me, but it helped.

          Mother Tongue

               I saw a calf born.
His mother, in her need to clean him,
Knocked him over on his first rising,
And on his second rising.

In her need to make him safe,
she drove him to his knees.

               Words are like that –
A mother tongue that overwhelms us,
That makes us what we are,
and sometimes, what we should not be.

*****

When I see a black man, I hear “nigger”
Spoken sharply in my father’s voice.
I step back, my eyes grow tight,
Suspicion fires my blood,
And for one moment he is my enemy.

Then reason returns,
And I am shamed.

It is my father’s fear.
I would leave it in my father’s grave,
If I could . . .,  but I cannot!

I can only drive it down;
And bury it deep in shameful, hollow places.

461. Undesirables

Emigrants statue, Helmsdale, Scotland, commemorating the eviction of Highlanders from their land. A father and child and, hard to see in this photo, the mother looking back at her home which she will never see again.

Black History Month is human history month. I’ll have plenty to say about the position of blacks in America, but today they are not the most threatened group. As I write this, Congress is fighting over DACA.

Two Christmases ago I wrote a fictional story about a little girl who was going underground with her parents because Donald Trump had become president. One of my readers replied with a short fictional addition in which one of my characters said, “If only our parents had followed the law, we would be all right.” That reader had a right to his opinion, and I published his reply. I’m not here to disrespect him. I am here to disagree with him. Strongly.

Deportation is a kind of eviction. Eviction is the act saying, “You can’t stay in this place any more, because the rights to this place belong to someone else.” That someone is usually a person or a corporation. Deportation makes the same statement, except that the someone else is you and me.

Eviction is old. It has been around since Og the caveman kicked his mate’s brother out of the hut. It wasn’t long after that before force of boot was traded for force of law.

Between 1710 and 1850 in northern Scotland, Scots who had lived on their lands for hundreds of years were forced off, their houses burned, and their livelihoods destroyed. It was all quite legal. Scotland had become an adjunct nation to England, de facto. Ancient laws had been misrepresented and changed to match an English model. Clan chiefs, whose existence was traditionally enmeshed in reciprocal obligations with their clan, were now seen as landowners.

It equivalent to Donald Trump shifting his legal position from President of the United States to owner of the United States, but on a smaller scale.

These “landowners” forced their clansmen off the land, sometimes with great violence. In early clearances, they were moved to undesirable lands within Scotland. When this failed, later clearances moved them off to the Americas.

In Ireland, during the Famine, undesirable Irishmen were moved out by eviction or allowed to starve in place. Most of them went to the Americas.

It was a pretty practical solution. If you don’t want undesirables around, send them to America. Ironic, isn’t it, that those undesirables’ descendants are now about to evict a new set of undesirables from America.

Meanwhile in America, the American Indians . . . but you know that story. If you don’t, check out 247. The People’s President.

You may not realize that in 1941, all those undesirable Japanese with their rich farms in California were moved into relocation camps. It was supposed to be for our protection, because they might attack from within. Maybe; but if so, why did they never get their farms back. (266. The Other War)

So let’s get back to DACA. This is an act protecting persons brought to the United States illegally as children. They are American in every way but a technicality. They may well not speak any language other than English. They may never have stepped foot outside the United States.

Now we are going to send them home. Home? They are home.

Let’s consider a pair of hypothetical children. Jose was born in Mexico, an hour before his parents crossed the border illegally into the United States. Ramon’s parents were on the same trip north, looking for work. Ramon’s mother gave birth just an hour after they crossed the border, illegally, into the United States.

We’ll let Ramon stay. He is a citizen. We’ll deport Jose. That’s fair, isn’t it.

Maybe, but . . .

What about (hypothetical) Barta Kovacs? He was brought over in 1956 by his parents, who were refugees from the Hungarian Revolution. Today he is 64 years old. He never married, but he spent thirty years as a school teacher, rising to be principal of a local high school before running for office. He has been a State Senator in one of those northern states for eleven years, and now he’s ready to retire.

However, as he applied for Social Security it was discovered that there had been an irregularity in his application for citizenship years before. Technically, he has never been a citizen, even though he has spent 62 of his 64 years here, and has no memory of Hungary.

Will the present administration deport him back to Hungary? I don’t think so.

Good thing our hypothetical Barta Kovacs wasn’t Mexican.