Thursday, September 17, 2015

Black and White – The way I see it

By Richard Williams, with Bart Davis, 2014

Atria Books

A review

The story of Venus and Serena Williams has been one of the most compelling sports stores that I know of.  In an international sport, where there have been few Black champions, these two Black women, raised on the mean streets of Compton, California, have dominated the sport for 16 years.

I have always been intrigued by the question: Why are these sisters so good?  In the many press clippings I’ve read, the Williams sisters’ father has been mentioned often.  Those articles reported that Richard Williams had a unique strategy for preparing his daughters to become tennis champions.

This curiosity prompted me to Google “Richard Williams,” and I discovered that he actually wrote an autobiography with Bart Davis.  Reading his life history, I discovered that the answer to the question: Why are these sisters so good? has a profound and inspiring answer.

Richard Williams dedicates his autobiography to his mother Julia Metcalf Williams.  The following is a summary of what happened on the day Richard Williams was born.

The birth of Richard Williams

Julia was 19 and she was taking the dried laundry off the clothesline when her labor pains hit.  She felt the need to finish taking down the laundry and place it in a dry place in the house before she went to the hospital.  A storm was on the way, and Julia didn’t want the dried laundry to get wet.

Then, she climbed onto a wagon pulled by her mule Midnight to take her to the hospital.  She needed to go to the Charity Hospital because this was the only hospital that would treat Black patients.  The rain and lightning poured down from the sky.  Julia was soaking wet and having labor pains. 

Then, Midnight stepped in a deep hole and broke his leg.  He wouldn’t be able to continue pulling the wagon.  Julia attempted to wave down car after car.  Those cars were driven by people who were white.  They all passed her by, including the employer she worked for. 

Then Mr. Leroy, a Black man Julia knew from Church, stopped his old pickup to give Julia a ride.  The pickup didn’t have a seat, and Mr. Leroy needed to place some blankets over the hole in the floor so Julia could sit down.  She made it to the hospital and gave birth to Richard Williams.

This is how Richard Williams summarized the day of his birth: “The truth is, but for her strength, the kindness of a stranger, my mother would have died that night and I would have died with her, left on the side of the road by depraved indifference, racism, and cruelty.”

Growing up as a Black child in Shreveport, Louisiana

Black women carried their babies into the fields where they picked cotton for hundreds of years.  Julia Williams also took her son Richard into the fields where he saw her pick, perhaps a hundred of pounds of cotton, under the hot sun day in and day out.

From a young age he learned that this arduous work was rewarded with a home that was nothing more than a shack where the roof leaked.  Finding adequate food to eat was a continuous problem.  Electricity and running water were things reserved for people who had a different skin color.

In this atmosphere Richard Williams did everything in his power to aid his mother and his five sisters.  This was not easy.  Richard also trained himself to run fast so he could escape the racist mobs that beat him because of the color of his skin.

Once, as a child, Richard paid for an item in the local store.  Accidentally he touched the hand of the storeowner.  For this act, Richard was beaten over the head.

We might consider that if we look at the laws in the United States, this storeowner was clearly guilty of the attempted murder of a child.  If prosecuted in a different atmosphere, this storeowner might have been sentenced to a lengthy prison term.

However, when Jim Crow was the law of the land in this country, Black people had virtually no rights.  This was in spite of the fact that the Constitution was amended to give full rights to all citizens of this country.  Yet, as far as the authorities were concerned in Louisiana, even the murder of Black children was legal.

In fact, Richard Williams had three close friends who were lynched.  One of his friends was found dead and bound in a swimming pool that was reserved for whites.  There wasn’t even an investigation by the authorities to find the murderers of Richard’s friends.  In fact, of the thousands of individuals, both Black and white who died as a result of lynching, in almost all cases, there was no investigation into these murders.          

In order to understand Richard Williams’ attitude towards this environment, we can look at the statement by the writer, James Baldwin, who argued that, to be Black and conscious in America is to live in a state of rage.  Eventually Richard Williams moved to Chicago to escape the Jim Crow atmosphere in Shreveport.

Edward E. Baptist wrote a book titled: Half Has Never Been Told – Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  In this book, Baptist argued that the beginnings of the world industrial revolution started with the processing of cotton that was worked by Black slave labor.  Richard Williams was conscious that Black people had never been paid for the highly lucrative work they have done.

This is how he explained it.  In his later life Williams was asked how it felt to be a millionaire.  Williams answered that he was a millionaire when he was sixteen.  He said, “Hell, I made more than a million.  I know this because I worked for white people who kept buying big plantation homes, big fields, big cars.  Matter of fact, they bought the whole damn city.  Sure, I made millions.  They just kept my share.”    

Richard Williams moves to Chicago and Los Angeles

In Chicago Williams learned that Black people had more opportunities than in Louisiana.  However, he would also learn to appreciate the words of Malcolm X when he said:  “Stop talking about the south.  If you’re south of Canada you’re in the south.”

His frustration in Chicago provoked Williams to have a confrontation with a racist police officer.  Williams told the police officer that if he didn’t leave him alone, one of them would die.  Fortunately, William’s threat didn’t come to fruition.

For a while Williams volunteered to support the civil rights movement in Mississippi.  The organizers didn’t want the support of Williams because he wouldn’t support the non-violent approach advocated by Martin Luther King.

Then, Richard Williams moved to Los Angeles, California and managed to start a few businesses.  He eventually ran a security business in Compton, California and married Oracene Price who already had three daughters.

Then, one day Williams was watching television and he saw a professional woman tennis player being awarded $40,000 for winning a tournament in four days.  Williams immediately saw the potential for raising daughters who might be able to compete in that environment.

Richard Williams’ plan to raise tennis champions

Although Williams didn’t know anything about tennis at the time, he made a determined effort to learn everything he could about the game.  Eventually he wrote a seventy-eight page proposal that argued how he would have two daughters who would learn to dominate women’s tennis.  Williams wrote this proposal before Venus and Serena were born.  

Richard Williams’ father had abandoned his children and Richard was determined that his daughters would not experience a similar abandonment.  While he established a nurturing environment for his children, he also taught them to have responsibility for their actions.  He learned how to raise his daughters from his mother who established a nurturing environment in the midst of racist hostility.

Unlike many people who work to move out of the inner city, Richard Williams moved his family from a decent home in Long Beach, into a home in the midst of the mean streets of Compton.  He did this so his children would be “toughened up” to make them better competitors. 

Richard needed to battle gangs every day for two years just so his daughters would be able to play on the Compton tennis courts.  He and Oracene spent their days training their daughters and Richard managed his business during the evenings.

Richard understood that his daughters needed to have a childhood and he limited the number of tournaments they played.  In one instance, while they were practicing, Venus said that she wanted to go shopping instead of practice.  Richard then took his daughters to go shopping.  He also showed them all the professions his daughters might choose.  Venus and Serena were the ones who chose to pursue a career in tennis.

We might contrast the way Richard Williams raised his children, to the way other parents raised professional tennis players.  Andre Agassi was one of the best tennis champions of all time.  He wrote a book titled: Open - An Autobiography.  Agassi stated that he hated the pressure-cooker atmosphere of competitive tennis and resented all the pressure his father placed on him to succeed.  Agassi acknowledges that he used methamphetamine to ease the pressure he felt.

Richard Williams’ ideas for raising his children

In the following passage Richard Williams wrote about his thinking with respect to raising his children:

“I remembered my family in Shreveport, unable to envision a world filled with possibilities or promise.  I didn’t understand it then, but understood it now.  When you condition people to inequality instead of equality, injustice instead of justice, failure instead of success, and hate instead of love, it is almost impossible for them to escape deep feelings of self-doubt and mistrust.”

This statement by Richard Williams is similar to the theories of the psychologist Erik Erikson.  Erikson studied the Lakota and Yurok Indians in this country and learned how they raised their children.  We might consider that the indigenous people of this country needed to live their lives with a total dependence on the natural environment.  This wasn’t easy, so the methods used in raising children were extremely important.  

Erikson used his knowledge of the indigenous peoples to develop his theories for raising children.  He argued that if children do not establish feelings of trust, they will be mistrustful.  If children do not develop a feeling of autonomy, they will feel shame.  If children aren’t given the opportunity to take initiatives, they will develop a sense of guilt.  If children aren’t allowed to be industrious, they will develop feelings of inferiority.  If children are raised in a way where they are trustful and industrious, Erikson believed that they would become competent.

Erikson also believed that parents need to set an example their children can admire.  This is how he explained it:

“Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.”

When Richard Williams battled the gangs of Compton, he taught his children what the word courage means.  Richard also taught his children about the history of Black people in this country.  This was a story of how a people managed to survive under the most horrendous atmosphere imaginable.

Malcolm X understood the importance of exposing people to their history.  He was asked if he was teaching people about their oppression.  Malcolm responded that he was about talking to people about their humanity, their heritage, and their worth as human beings.  He argued that if you do these things, then you will get action.

Richard Williams taught his children to think for themselves.  He learned that this was important from his mother Julia Williams.  In the racist environment of Shreveport, Black people needed to have an ability to think for themselves just to survive.

Richard Williams raised his daughters with the idea that they could do anything.  He developed their curiosity by having long conversations.  The results of these efforts weren’t just seen on the tennis courts.

Venus became an avid reader.  When she didn’t like the fact that she could not understand the German language, she learned German.  Serena became fluent in the French language.

Before reading this book I had a misconception as to why the Williams sisters were so good.  My idea was that they had a certain natural ability. 

After reading Richard Williams autobiography, I’m of the opinion that the primary reason for Venus and Serena’s overwhelming success has been the way they were raised by Richard and Oracine Williams.

With all the publicity Venus and Serena have received, the press has chosen to ignore this part of their story.  My opinion is that there is a clear connection between the hundreds of years of African-American history, and the success of the Williams sisters.

The one drawback to this autobiography is that it was written, in part, as a how-to book for raising children.  Clearly, there is much insight into this question in Richard Williams’ autobiography.

However, if humanity is to be liberated from the reality we face today, we will need a collective struggle.  This will mean that we will need leaders as well as people who can work together to put in place a government where human needs are more important than profits.  This kind of world will make it the top priority to insure there will be human dignity for all.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

Directed by F. Gary Grey

A review of the film

This past weekend Judi and I saw the film Straight Outta Compton.  I had just finished an eight-hour shift at work, and seeing a film after work usually begins to put me to sleep.  This film is two and one-half hours long, but I stayed wide-awake and was even energized at the end.

What is so compelling about this film?  First we can look at the story.

The plot

Straight Outta Compton is the story of the rap group NWA (N-word With an Attitude).  We see how the members of this group, raised in Compton, California, saw how their was little chance of escaping the violence surrounding them where they lived.  Between the gangs and the police, just attempting to live one’s life was a constant struggle.

Dr. Dre had a talent for imagining the rhythms and teamed with Ice Cube who wrote the lyrics to their music.  Easy-E had been a drug dealer and supplied the early financing for the group.  Dr. Dre taught Easy-E how to use his voice on their songs and he became a leading vocalist.

Then, we see how a club owner, as well as record company executives found the music of NWA to be repulsive.  They all saw how this music was immensely popular with young people, but apparently were intimidated by the raw anger and rage expressed in the songs.  They were especially intimidated by the NWA song, F____ the Police.

Eventually the NWA became immensely popular and the group members are suddenly wealthy.  However, their wealth in compromised by various promoters who care more about money than the welfare of the performers.

Those who survive these obstacles, learn how to forge their own identities and gain vast quantities of wealth in the process.

James Baldwin

In order to gain a better perspective to this film, I looked at some of the speeches and writings of James Baldwin who was one of the most profound writers in the history of this country.  When we see how the members of NWA experienced brutality from police officers we might think about the following passage by James Baldwin.

“One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long.  The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?”  When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.  Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die.  Others fled to other states and cities––that is, to other ghettos.  Some went on wine or whisky or the needle, and are still on it.  And others, like me fled into the church.”

Why do the police brutalize Black people?  Baldwin explains this in the following passages.

“A mob cannot afford to doubt: that the Jews killed Christ or that niggers want to rape their sisters or that anyone who fails to make it in the land of the free and the home of the brave deserves to be wretched.  But these ideas do not come from the mob.  They come from the state, which creates and manipulates the mob.  The idea of black persons as property, for example, does not come from the mob.  It is not a spontaneous idea.  It does not come from the people, who knew better, who thought nothing of intermarriage until they were penalized for it: this idea comes from the architects of the American States.  These architects decided that the concept of Property was more important––more real––than the possibilities of the human being.”

“The point of all this is that black men were brought here as a source of cheap labor.  They were indispensable to the economy.  In order to justify the fact that men were treated as though they were animals, the white republic had to brainwash itself into believing that they were indeed animals and deserved to be treated like animals.  Therefore it is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history.  The reason is that this “animal,” once he suspects his own worth, once he starts believing that he is a man, has begun to attack the entire power structure.  This is why America has spent such a long time keeping the Negro in his place.  What I am trying to suggest to you is that it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand.  It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh.  And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.”

The year is 2015.  Seeing the film Straight Outta Compton shows how Baldwin’s words continue to ring true 52 years after they were written.

The difference between then and now

My first year of high school was in 1967.  This was the year of the rebellion in Newark as well as hundreds of other cities in this country.  The anger that had built up over the years from the near constant humiliation of the Black community crossed over to rage. 

In 1968 this rage was further fueled by the assassination of Martin Luther King.  King had been an advocate of non-violence and the government sent him to prison several times for his efforts in support of the civil rights movement. 

In 1968 King went to Memphis, Tennessee to support Black sanitation workers who were on strike.  Their principal slogan was “I Am a Man.”  King, who went to jail in non-violent disobedience was shot down in cold blood.  The Black community responded with rebellions throughout the country.  Clearly the anger had continued to turn into rage.

Back in those days it was difficult to make a living.  However, the 1970’s were the highpoint in the standard of living in this country.  This was the result of the fact that the unions and the civil rights movement forced employers and the government to give workers a larger share of the wealth in this country.

College tuition in those days was a tiny fraction of what it is today.  While the jobs of those days were difficult, they weren’t very hard to come by.  Working people had a chance to own a home, purchase a car, and send their children to college.  These weren’t the “good old days,” but it was easier to make a living.

Today every aspect of life is more expensive.  This is a reflection of the fact that real wages have gone down in the past forty years.  This deteriorating standard of living has hit the Black and Latino communities the hardest. 

Yes, the music of today is different from the music I grew up with.  The Temptations, The Four Tops, and Aretha Franklin have completely different musical styles from NWA.  My opinion is that the music of NWA is an expression of rage felt by young people in the Black community.  This expression of rage comes in part from the deteriorating living conditions people experience today.

In 1967 & 1968 many people were critical of the rebellions.  However, the feeling of anger and rage were only human responses to the conditions people experienced. 

The popularity of NWA also is an affirmation that the rage people feel is real and not imaginary.  NWA received considerable support when they refused to be intimidated and performed their song F___ the Police.

Today a change has taken place that is different from the past.  Today there is a political movement called Black Lives Matter.  This means that the rage people feel can be channeled into real and meaningful political action.

One dramatic moment in Straight Outta Compton was about the televised beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers.  We saw how the members of NWA reacted to the “not guilty” verdict for the officers who beat Rodney King. 

Given the context of this film we this verdict from a different perspective.  This wasn’t just a gross miscarriage of justice.  This verdict demonstrated how the government in this country had no intention of doing anything about the routine brutality conducted by the police in the Black community.  In spite of the fact that the members of NWA had become millionaires, they felt the injustice of this decision personally.          

There are those who argue that nothing will change in this country.  I will end this review with another quotation from James Baldwin that summarizes my thinking on this issue.

“Power, then, which can have no morality itself, is yet dependent on human energy, on the wills and desires of human beings.  When power translates itself into tyranny, it means that the principles on which that power depended, and which were its justification, are bankrupt.  When this happens, and it is happening now, power can only be defended by thugs and mediocrities––and seas of blood.  The representatives of the status quo are sickened and divided, and dread looking into the eyes of their young; while the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they can endure everything.  They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them.  They realize this––paradoxically––by the failure of the moral energy of their oppressors and begin, almost instinctively, to forge a new morality, to create the principals on which a new world will be built.”

The quotations of James Baldwin for this review were taken from his book The Price of the Ticket.



Thursday, August 20, 2015

The eighty-hour workweek at Amazon

Every year corporations in the United States spend hundreds of billions of dollars on advertising.  Understanding this fact, we might also consider that one out of every six people in this country doesn’t have enough food to eat.  This atmosphere has intimidated the editors of the capitalist media from launching criticisms of large corporations.

This past Sunday (8-16-2015) the New York Times published an article that was an exception to this apparent rule.  In a front-page article titled, Amazon’s Bruising, Thrilling, Workplace by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, readers viewed some of the horror stories of what it means to work for Amazon.  We might keep in mind that Jeffrey Bezos, the C.E.O. of Amazon, also owns the Washington Post that is a competitor to the New York Times.

The facts of the article

·      Last month Amazon became the most valuable retailer in the country eclipsing Walmart with a market valuation of $250 billion.

·      The C.E.O. Jeffrey Bezos is the fifth most affluent person in the world.

·      The median employee tenure at Amazon is one year.

·      Amazon stated that only 15% of employees work at the company for more than five years. 

·      A woman who was an employee at Amazon suffered from breast cancer.  She was placed on a “performance improvement plan.”  These are code words for, “you’re in danger of being fired.”

·      Unlike other corporations Amazon currently has no women on its leadership team.

·      Molly Jay was a member of the Kindle team and needed to care for her father who suffered from cancer.  The company blocked her from transferring to a less pressure-filled job and a manager told her she was a problem.  She said that, “When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness.”

·      In an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse, workers toiled under 100-degree heat.  Electronic systems monitored the workers to ensure they were packing enough boxes every hour.  Ambulances waited outside to take workers away after they fell out.  Only after a local newspaper reported on this story did Amazon install air-conditioning at the warehouse.       

·      An Amazon worker thought that she was on vacation only to spend her days at Starbucks using the wireless connection to get work done.

·      Jason Merkoski, who was an Amazon engineer, had this to say about working at the company.  “It’s as if you’ve got the C.E.O. of the company in bed with you at 3 a.m. breathing down your neck.”

·      Bo Olson a former book marketer said that, “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

The myth and reality of Amazon

Why is Amazon pushing workers to these inhuman levels of productivity?  They argue that their focus is on a relentless striving to please customers.  Their jargon for this is called “customer obsession.”

Personally, I have never known one of the wealthiest people in the world.  I have associated with people who work for a living during my entire life.  These are the same kinds of people Amazon views as customers.  My experience is that working people have completely different priorities from those of Jeffrey Bezos.

We would like to have a lifetime right to both healthcare and education.  We would like to have an adequate amount of time to enjoy our lives.  Because of the advances in technology, the actual production costs of commodities have gone down.  Therefore, it isn’t unreasonable to expect that prices should also go down.

As one of the most affluent people in the world, Jeffrey Bezos is completely indifferent to these facts.  He can buy whatever he wants whenever he wants.  His family can have the very best health care and education that money can buy. 

I used to enjoy spending time in area bookstores.  Electronic readers have made many of those bookstores unprofitable and many have closed.  Although E-readers allow customers to look at a wide variety of books, they aren’t a substitute for the bookstores that have closed.  This is another fact that Amazon is indifferent to.

Why is this happening?

Before and after the Second World War there were continuous strike waves in this country.  These strike waves were the reasons why the standard of living was vastly improved.

However, as we have seen with Amazon, corporations are not in business to improve the standard of living of working people.  In order to satisfy their obsession to cut costs, corporation after corporation moved their factories to nations where wages might be two dollars per day. 

The labor movement needed to counter this exodus by organizing a labor party.  This party could have worked to stop the manufacturing exodus from this country.  This kind of party would have supported both immigrant workers as well as the rights of workers all over the world.  Instead, the labor movement went on a self-destructive campaign to “Buy American.”

How would a workers government utilize advances in technology?

This story begs a basic question that the Amazon Corporation and the New York Times refuse to consider.  Can advances in technology be utilized differently if a workers government had political power?

We can see the possibilities of a workers government by how it might handle the invention of the E-reader.  Clearly everyone doesn’t like these mini-computers and would rather read books made of paper.  However, I’m not the only person who prefers reading with an E-reader.

The increased usage of E-readers means that there is less of a need for printers, transportation workers, or cashiers in bookstores.  Since the number of workers required to produce this commodity has been reduced, a worker’s government could reduce the number of hours of a workweek with no cut in pay.

Amazon has done the complete opposite.  They have responded to reduced production costs by increasing the workweek to eighty hours.  This is in a company where only 15% of the workers last for more than five years.

What are the lessons of this story?

Amazon is not the only company that is making life increasingly difficult for workers.  This story points to the direction all corporations are going in.  Capitalism is a political economic system that needs to collapse.  Sooner or later there is no force on this earth that can prevent this collapse.

This story points to just one more reason why we need a workers government.  Sooner or later masses of workers from all over the world will draw this same conclusion.