Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Frederick Douglass – Profit of Freedom

By David W. Blight
Simon & Shuster – 2018

Reviewed by: Steve Halpern

The first time I read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, (Douglass wrote three autobiographies) I understood that this had to be one of the most important works of literature available to the public. Although this book is over 100 years old, the language and the story give us an intimate portrait of Douglass’ turbulent and inspiring life. The book also, in my opinion, gives us the best explanation of why the extremely bloody Civil War erupted.

Because I found Frederick Douglass so inspiring, I wrote a biographical poem about his life that can be seen at this link. Frederick Douglass poem  

David Blight, in his biography made an incisive attempt to examine what Douglass was thinking throughout his life. While I believe there are limitations to this book, I also believe that Blight has achieved his objective of giving us a more informed view of who Frederick Douglass was.

Anyone who has read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography will recall that while he was a child, he witnessed a slave by the name of Esther being tied up and whipped by a slave owner Mr. Anthony. David Blight asked a useful question: How did seeing this horrendous torture effect the young child who was then known as Frederick Washington Bailey?

We can then ask more questions. What was Douglass thinking when he violated the slave laws as a child and learned how to read? What was he thinking when he risked his life, and fought back against a so-called “slave breaker” by the name of Covey? What was he thinking when he risked his life, and the life of his future wife, by escaping from slavery?

What was he thinking when he was exposed to racial discrimination in the North, and severely beaten while giving and abolitionist speech in Indiana? What was he thinking when abolitionists, who he usually agreed with, slandered him when he developed his own independent ideas? What was he thinking when he needed to leave this country after he wrote his autobiography, because he could then be more easily be apprehended and returned to slavery?

These are the kinds of questions David Blight has attempted to answer. In answering these questions we can see why Douglass felt that the Fugitive Slave Act needed to be resisted with the force of arms. He armed himself, and encouraged everyone to arm themselves, and resist any attempt to send Black people into slavery by legal or illegal means. He felt that murdering a so-called “slave catcher” was merely an act of self-defense against someone who was attempting to rob someone of their rights as a human being.

David Blight gave this summary of how Douglass viewed his support of the Union Army in the Civil War in his newspaper The North Star. “Douglass wanted slaveholders humiliated, then eliminated, and in their wake he might find his place in a dominion of human equality. To get to that distant shore, to a new America, he probed the darkest ranges of human wrath.”

In order to gain a perspective to the life of Douglass, I believe it is useful to summarize his ideas with respect to individuals as well as issues.

Frederick Douglass & William Lloyd Garrison

After Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, he initially met the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison and found him to be a breadth of fresh air. Garrison also viewed Douglass as a uniquely important asset to the abolitionist movement. Because of this relationship, Garrison aided Douglass in his transition from being a common laborer, into an ardent advocate and orator for the abolitionist movement.

Because Douglass was such a powerful, articulate, and eloquent speaker, many argued that he never could have been a slave. For this reason, Douglass wrote his first of three autobiographies.

However, this book gave the authorities clear evidence that Douglass had illegally escaped from slavery. This meant that Douglass needed to escape this country to maintain his freedom. Garrison aided Douglass in his escape, and helped him organize a speaking tour of Ireland, Scotland, and Britain.

For the first time in Douglass’ life he felt a sense of equality. During this time, audiences were thrilled by his speeches and the story of his triumphant escape from slavery. British supporters were so inspired by his story, they organized to purchase Douglass’ freedom from a slave-owner in Maryland.

During this time, Douglass felt that the leaders of the abolitionist movement were making unreasonable demands. Because he had been a slave, Douglass was especially sensitive to those who attempted to control his life. However, because of Douglass’ support of abolition, he went along with this relationship for a time.

Upon returning to the United States, Douglass also returned to the nation that viewed him as a second-class citizen because he was Black. He felt that the best way to advance the abolitionist movement was to support the minority political parties that opposed slavery. Garrison and his supporters opposed this point of view. A vicious debate on this question ensued, and Douglass found himself slandered by people he admired in the past.

These were some of the reasons why Douglass moved his family to Rochester, New York and began to publish his newspaper The North Star.

Frederick Douglass & President Abraham Lincoln

Today, we continue to see the institutionalized discrimination against African Americans in education, housing, employment, as well as enforcement of the law. However, I believe that most people today feel gratified that the institutions of chattel slavery, as well as Jim Crow segregation no longer exist. This was not the case in the years when Frederick Douglass lived.

For me, there is one aspect of Douglass’ life that is genuinely heroic. He lived in a profoundly racist era, yet he gave thousands of speeches arguing that the United States would not be able to make any significant advancement, without doing away with racial discrimination.

President Abraham Lincoln was a product of his times. His aided his family in working as a dirt farmer. He managed to escape that reality, became a lawyer, and then a government official. However, Lincoln had never been a slave.

Lincoln always hated slavery. However, for about ten years, Lincoln believed that the answer to the problem of slavery was to ask African Americans to leave this country. He, and many others, had the idea that Black people would then move to colonies in Africa or Central America.

Even after Lincoln became President, he enlisted several African American leaders to aid in his efforts to set up a colony of Black people outside the United States. Lincoln attempted to defend his ridiculous argument, with an even more ridiculous statement. He argued that the primary cause of the Civil War was the fact that Black people lived in this country. 

Because Douglass had a completely different life experience than Lincoln, he chastised the President as if Lincoln were an erring child who didn’t know any better. He argued that the real cause of the war was the “cruel and brutal cupidity of those who wish to possess horses, money, and Negroes by means of theft, robbery, and rebellion.” He continued to argue that the idea that Black people should return to Africa, had just as much value as the idea that everyone of European descent, should return to Europe. Black people created enormous amounts of wealth in this country and deserve the right to live here.

Douglass had this opinion of Lincoln at the time: “a genuine representative of American prejudice and Negro hatred.” He summarized Lincoln’s colonization scheme: “It expresses merely the desire to get rid of them (blacks) and reminds one of the politeness with which a man might try to bow out of his house some troublesome creditor or the witness of some old guilt.”

Thinking about these words we might ask the question: Why did Douglass also feel that Abraham Lincoln was one the most important people he met in his life? We can begin to answer this question with what Lincoln referred to as his, “fiery trial” in organizing the Union Army to defeat the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The abolitionists weren’t the only ones who opposed the politics of the slave owners in this country. The slave owners demanded complete control of the federal government in order to maintain their system of human bondage. This meant that the new territories in the West, like Kansas, needed to become slave states. This meant that the Northern states needed to dedicate themselves to apprehending escaped slaves who became neighbors of workers and farmers in the North. This meant that the United States needed to go to war against Mexico, so slave owners would have more land.

Growing numbers of people from all classes began to challenge these measures. These stark differences led to the election of President Abraham Lincoln. Initially, Lincoln and his supporters felt that the differences between the North and the South could be resolved without the abolition of slavery.

However, Lincoln was different from previous Presidents in that he wasn’t going to go along with all the dictates of slave owners. This disobedience of Lincoln was the spark that caused the slave states to break from the Union and to establish another nation where slave owners continued to rule.

Initially most politicians in the North and South felt that the Civil War would be a brief affair and an accommodation suitable to both sides could be reached. Frederick Douglass had a better understanding of what slavery was. He knew, from the beginning, that the Civil War would be a protracted battle that could only have a meaningful conclusion if the entire slaveocracy was completely destroyed.              

Lincoln learned through experience that the government of slave owners had no intention of compromise. Yet, while the Union Army had much better resources, in the early stages of the war, the Confederacy was actually winning. This was the “fiery trial” that changed Lincoln’s attitude towards the war.

Lincoln relieved General George B. McClellan of his command as the top Union military officer. He replaced McClellan with General Ulysses S. Grant. General Grant as well as Generals Sherman and Sheridan used the advantages of the Union army to carry out an unrelenting war against the Confederacy. The Confederate resistance to this unrelenting war caused the deaths of perhaps 400,000 Union soldiers.

Most historians agree that the Civil War was the bloodiest war in the history of the United States. I do not agree with that point of view. The facts are that the Confederacy formed another nation with another monetary currency. Understanding this, I believe that only the deaths of Union soldiers should be counted as deaths during the Civil War in this country. In World War II more U.S. soldiers lost their lives than deaths of Union soldiers in the Civil War.

Because of the enormous losses to the Union Army through death, injury, and desertion, the recruitment of Black soldiers became a necessity for a union victory. President Lincoln began to understand this, and argued that he drafted his Emancipation Proclamation because this was necessary to win the war.      

For Frederick Douglass, making the Emancipation Proclamation the law of this country was one of the most important events of his life. In all, hundreds of thousands of slaves would simply leave the plantations to gain protection with the Union Army. As a result, the Confederacy experienced food shortages because many slaves no longer worked to produce food.

This extreme change in the political thinking of Lincoln caused Frederick Douglass to view the President as one of the most important people he met in his life.

In this context, there is one more issue that I feel is relevant. Frederick Douglass had two sons who served in combat during the Civil War. However, Douglass never was a soldier in the war and many criticized him for this.

The facts are that Douglass dedicated himself, throughout his life, to the struggle against slavery and then against Jim Crow segregation. He was the central leader in those struggles. He was injured, while in slavery, and as an abolitionist, advancing that struggle.

The assassination of Abraham Lincoln demonstrated clearly that the goals of the Civil War were compromised, in part, because of his death. While we don’t know how Lincoln would have governed in the post Civil War years, we know that the Presidency of Andrew Johnson was a disaster.

Likewise, we need to understand that Frederick Douglass was a central leader for Black rights in this country. In my opinion his contribution to the struggle was just as important as Lincoln’s. Had he lost his life in the Civil War, this would have been a blow to Black rights in this country. After the Civil War, Douglass went on to provide a bridge from the abolitionist movement, to the civil rights movement that would eventually force the government to abolish Jim Crow segregation.

Frederick Douglass, Karl Marx, & Vladimir Illyich Lenin

Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx lived during the same years. They probably never communicated to one another. They had completely different backgrounds, as well as differing philosophical outlooks. These might be the reasons why David Blight didn’t mention the name Karl Marx in his biography of Douglass. Yet, on many of the most important questions Douglass and Marx had similar viewpoints. Why?

Frederick Douglass was born a slave and broke the slave laws just so he could learn how to read. One of the two books that most influenced him was the Bible. Throughout his life he used quotations from the Bible to defend the struggle for Black rights in this country. He ridiculed slave owners use of the Bible to defend the human bondage he considered diabolical.

Douglass’ politics were based on what he felt was rational at the time. In 1952 he ridiculed the celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the Forth of July. (This speech can be seen on YouTube) In this speech, he asked: What does the slave have to celebrate about a document that denies his or her rights as a human being?

Then, at the beginning of the Civil War, Douglass worked to recruit Black soldiers to risk their lives to support the Union cause.

Then, with the defeat of radical reconstruction, Douglass argued that the government refused to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Instead, the same government that outlawed slavery, in effect, refused to give citizenship rights to African Americans.

Karl Marx was born into a middle class family in Germany. His father needed to give up the Jewish religion and convert to Christianity in order to get one of the better professional jobs. This enabled Marx to attend a university where he became an ardent student of philosophy.

Marx developed a philosophy that he called dialectical materialism. This philosophy is different from the philosophy of formal logic or pragmatism that we learn in school. In formal logic and pragmatism social problems are resolved by using strategies that have succeeded in the past.

Marx argued that the reality we experience is the result of a history of battles between classes for supremacy. So, in 1929, working people had been toiling at jobs for their entire lives, but discovered that the banks closed their doors and their savings were gone. This isn’t supposed to happen according to formal logic or pragmatism. This reality is one example of why Marx argued that the job of the philosopher isn’t merely to study the world, but to change it.   

Marx argued that a central flaw of the capitalist system was what he called the crisis of overproduction. In other words, capitalists are routinely driven to increase the production of commodities. Eventually there are more commodities on the market than workers are buying and capitalists simply close down their factories. Because banks rely on corporate investments, when they stop receiving payments on loans from corporations, banks simply go out of business.

Marx understood how working people have the potential break from this reality. They can push capitalist governments aside, and establish workers governments that make human needs and not profits their central priority.

With this perspective, Marx viewed revolutions as the progressive driving force of history. In his day, he viewed the transition from feudal societies, where royal families ruled, to capitalism where the owners of large corporations ruled and profited from a mass production economy.

Marx wrote about the reality of the United States before the war in an article published in 1861.

“Armed propaganda of slavery abroad was the avowed aim of the national policy; the Union had in fact become the slave of the three hundred thousand slave-holders who held sway over the South. A series of compromises, which the South owed to its alliance with the Northern Democrats, had led to this result.” It was these actions that led Frederick Douglass to argue that Black people had no reason to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1852.

During these same years, Marx also had this to say: “In my opinion, the biggest things that are happening in the world today are on the one hand the movement of the slaves in America started by the death of John Brown, and on the other the movement of the serfs in Russia.” This was one of the reasons why Douglass dedicated himself to recruiting Black soldiers for the Union Army.

Understanding why the thinking of Marx and Douglass began to come together, we can see why both leaders understood that the Civil War would be a bloody and protracted battle for supremacy. Both followed the war carefully and both had confidence that the Union had a real chance for victory. They both understood that the way to defeat the Confederacy was to obliterate the institution of slavery in the United States.

While Frederick Douglass became an admirer of Lincoln, Marx’s organization the International Workingmen’s Association sent a letter to Lincoln congratulating him on his election victory in 1864.

Karl Marx felt that the Union victory in the war strengthened the entire working class. This victory placed the working class in a better position to engage in an international struggle to advance the rights of workers. Along these lines, Marx wrote a three-volume analysis of capitalism where he showed that this system would ultimately collapse, and that the only way for working people to have a future, is to put in place a government that supports our interests.

After the Civil War, the politics of Douglass and Marx diverged a bit. Initially Douglass took jobs with the government, but continued to be critical of the federal government’s refusal to defend the citizenship rights of African Americans.

On this question, Vladimir Illyich Lenin made a crucial contribution to the Marxist movement. Lenin understood that there were many nationalities in Czarist Russia that experienced routine and vicious discrimination. Lenin argued that the working class would never be able to liberate itself unless there was a movement to dismantle every form of discrimination experienced by these oppressed nationalities.

These ideas of Lenin on the national question were relevant in the times of Frederick Douglass and continue to be relevant today. 

 Frederick Douglass & Martin Robinson Delany

We have seen why Frederick Douglass opposed the colonization ideas of Abraham Lincoln. However, Martin Robinson Delany was an abolitionist who also favored colonization. The reasons Delany gave for his ideas were similar to the ideas of Lenin. Delany believed that, “a people to be free must necessarily be their own rulers.” Delany didn’t feel that this was possible for Black people in the United States.

While Douglass ardently opposed this point of view, he also made plans to visit Haiti, to explore the viability of Black people emigrating to that nation. This was a nation ruled by former slaves. At that time, thousands of African Americans moved to Haiti in an effort to escape the vicious racism of this country.

Clearly, only a minority of African Americans left this country. However, years after the Civil War, Marcus Garvey advanced a similar perspective as Delany. Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association became the largest Black mass organization in the history of this country.

Garvey’s ideas were similar to the ideas of Elijah Mohammed who in turn influenced Malcolm X. While Malcolm argued that Black people need to control their own communities, he wasn’t an advocate of emigrating to Africa. Malcolm X eventually was won to the idea that Black people needed to become a part of an international movement to liberate humanity. Using similar words as Frederick Douglass, Malcolm argued that Black people need to defend their interests, “by any means necessary.”

I believe that Frederick Douglass made a mistake when argued that Black people needed to remain in the Southern states and force the Jim Crow governments to respect their rights. Millions of Black people disagreed with this perspective and became apart of what has been known as The Great Migration. One of the strengths of the Civil Rights movement was the fact that this was an alliance made up of Blacks and whites from both the North and the South.

Frederick Douglass on women’s rights

As we have seen, Frederick Douglass had a unique perspective towards the world because of his years in slavery. During his lifetime, women didn’t have the right to vote or to own property. Growing up in slavery, Douglass viewed women who were self sufficient and worked just as hard as men. Yet, the savagery slave women experienced was just as horrific, or even worse, than the treatment of slaves who were men.  

We see an expression of the difference between slave and free women in the words of Sojourner Truth. Sojourner Truth listened to the complaints of women who were free and understood that her experience as a slave was completely different. She asked the question: “Aren’t I a woman?” (This speech can be seen on YouTube - Truth)

Frederick Douglass opposed all forms of oppression. I believe that his experience in slavery gave him even more reasons to support women’s rights. He was proud of the fact that he attended and supported the first meeting demanding women’s rights in this country.

The 15th Amendment to the Constitution was supposed to give all men who were citizens of this country voting rights. This meant that millions of Black men who had been slaves could vote for the first time.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were both pioneer leaders of the movement for women’s rights in this country. They both opposed the 15th Amendment because it failed to give women the right to vote.

Frederick Douglass favored the idea of voting rights for women, but supported the 15th Amendment. He felt the Amendment would be an important advance for Black people who lacked any political power at that time.

Both Anthony and Stanton argued against that perspective. However, in their arguments for women’s suffrage they made outrageous, racist, and demeaning comments about Black men.

Susan B. Anthony argued that by giving Black men and not women the vote, women would become slaves to Black men. These were her words: “Their emancipation is but another form of slavery. It is better to be the slave of an educated white man, than a degraded, ignorant black one.”

This racism within the women’s movement continued. Ida Wells was an African American who became a leader of Black people in the struggle against lynching as well as the woman’s right to vote. She was excluded from a demonstration demanding women’s right to vote, but marched in that demonstration anyway.

I believe that the racist attitudes of some women who demand equal rights continue today in a different form. Today, affluent women as well as working women demand equal rights. However, many affluent women consider their demands as more important than the demands of working women. This is an international problem that can only be resolved through struggle.

David Blight in Philadelphia

 I had the opportunity of listening to David Blight talk about his biography of Frederick Douglass at the free library in Philadelphia. Blight is a professor at Yale University and I expected a rigid talk by an Ivy League professor who claimed to be an expert on the life of Douglass. This clearly was not the kind of talk by Blight that I had the pleasure of listening to.

I found Blight to be as engaging as any college professor I’ve ever listened to. He didn’t come across as an expert. Instead, he spent over an hour explaining why he found studying the life of Frederick Douglass to be both fascinating and inspiring. By taking this approach, he took about 200 people in the audience on a journey into the life of one of the most important people who has ever lived in this country.

Blight dedicated his book to Walter O. Evans and Linda J. Evans. Walter Evans was a medical doctor who collected African art as well as manuscripts of famous Black people. Walter and Linda Evans’ collection of the writings of Frederick Douglass became the core of the research Blight used to write his biography.

I believe there is another name that we should credit with introducing us to Frederick Douglass’ life. This is Philip S. Foner. Foner was a college professor at City College in New York City when he was fired for being associated with the Communist Party.

During the time when Foner was blacklisted, he published many books on labor and African American history. One of Foner’s projects was a multi-volume summary of the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass. Before the publication of this work, few people in the academic community knew who Frederick Douglass was. Today, we can read a single volume of Douglass’s speeches and writings edited by Philip Foner, abridged by Yuval Taylor, and published by Lawrence Hill Books.

While I enjoyed listening to Blight’s talk, there was one point where we are in disagreement. Blight spoke about President Obama’s speech at the opening of the African American Museum in Washington. Blight was impressed with the fact that Obama mentioned only one person in history, and that was Frederick Douglass.

This is how David Blight described Douglass’ attitude toward the Democratic Party that Barrack Obama represents: “Douglass portrayed the Democrats as the enemies of mankind, and of history itself. They were the ‘fiendish.  .  .hellhounds’ ready to pounce on black people and their allies at their first grasp of power.”

Why did Douglass have this opinion of the Democratic Party? It was the Democrats who enforced the laws of both slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Clearly Blight would, no doubt, argue that the Democratic Party of today is different from that party in the past. What are the facts?

While the Democrats ran the systems of slavery and Jim Crow, it was the Democratic President William Clinton who drafted a Crime Bill that set the stage for the mass incarceration that we have today.

We might recall how Frederick Douglass advised people to defend themselves against the notorious slave catchers. We might then recall that President Obama deported more immigrants than any other President in history. According to my calculations, Obama deported on the average over 800 immigrants every day during his presidency.

These immigrants might be deported to nations where the prevailing wage is $2 per day. We might speculate as to the cost for a slave owner of sustaining a slave for one day. This might be a similar cost as the wages of many workers in the world today.

In my opinion, there is a direct link from the slaves who escaped human bondage, to the Black people who escaped Jim Crow segregation, to the immigrants who come to this country in search of a living wage.

In any case, I believe that we have a lot to learn from the life of Frederick Douglass. He lived at a time when vicious racist attitudes were the norm. Yet, he engaged in a struggle where he found the words that began to convince people that there would never be any significant advances in this country, until all forms of racial discrimination are eliminated.   

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Looking for Lorraine – The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry


By Imani Perry
Published by Beacon Press 2018

A review by Steve Halpern

Oftentimes we listen to appeals of celebrities for support. Oftentimes we see how the causes they promote, fall short of working to liberate humanity from the dog-eat-dog world we live in today.

Lorraine Hansberry was the first Black woman playwright who wrote a commercially successful play. Imani Perry has written a wonderful biography of Hansberry, introducing us to the fact that she was much more than a playwright. We can begin to look at the life of Hansberry by looking at her groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun. This play paralleled several events in Lorraine Hansberry’s early life.

Before looking at this play, I think it is useful to look at the poem by Hansberry’s friend Langston Hughes that gave her the idea for the title.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

A Raisin in the Sun and the Hansberry family

A Raisin in the Sun portrays an African American family that received an inheritance of $10,000. The family decided to use this money to move into a predominantly “white” neighborhood in Chicago. The son of this family didn’t want to accept the fact that he would live his life as a second-class citizen because of the color of his skin. So, he invested this inheritance and was swindled out of the money. The family then deals with the aftermath of this situation.

Lorraine Hansberry grew up in Chicago. Her mother, Nannie, was born in Tennessee and her father, Carl, was raised in Mississippi. They were both college educated and joined what has been called The Great Migration to Chicago.

Carl Hansberry understood that Chicago was a segregated city and there was a housing shortage for Black people on the south side. He dealt with this problem by buying apartment houses and cutting them up into smaller residences. He became known as the “kitchenette king.”

However, Carl Hansberry eventually became frustrated with segregation and purchased a home in a “white” section of the city. The Hansberry family was then harassed and attacked by racists who wanted them out of the neighborhood.

Carl Hansberry took his case to the Supreme Court and won. However, this did not change the segregated character of Chicago. As a result, Carl Hansberry grew so frustrated with the racism in this country, and planned to move to Mexico. He died suddenly in Mexico, in an attempt to escape from the nation that claims to represent “liberty and justice for all.”

Lorraine Hansberry went to college in Madison, Wisconsin. She wasn’t an outstanding student, but was an avid reader as well as an artist. She spent one summer at an artist colony at Ajijic, Mexico. She eventually dropped out of college and moved to New York City.

The political life of Lorraine Hansberry

In New York she became an ardent student of W.E.B. DuBois and worked for a newspaper of the Communist Party in Harlem. Dubois became a beacon of the anti-racist struggle in this country. While he was the editor of the NAACP newspaper, Crisis, this paper was popular with African Americans all over the country.

Lorraine Hansberry has this to say about DuBois at his memorial meeting:

“I do not remember when I first heard the name DuBois. For some Negros it comes into consciousness so early, so persistently that it is like the spirituals or blues or discussions of oppression, he was a fact of our culture. People spoke of him as they did the church or the nation.”  

During this time she was developing her vision of the world and became a communist. This meant that she wasn’t just opposed to segregation in this country, but also supported the liberation movements in Africa and around the world.

She eventually married Robert (Bobby) Nemiroff who was a Jewish songwriter. While she maintained a friendship with Nemiroff, Hansberry became a lesbian and wrote for a magazine that celebrated the lesbian lifestyle. We should recall that this was in the 1950’s, well before the mass demonstrations of gay pride in this country.

After A Raisin in the Sun was a hit on Broadway, Lorraine Hansberry became a celebrity. She developed close friendships with James Baldwin and Nina Simone. Imani Perry dedicated a chapter in her book to these friendships. The title of this chapter is The Trinity. These three friends shared abilities for artistic excellence, as well as an unwavering dedication to the struggle for human dignity.

James Baldwin, for me, wrote some of the most incisive critiques of the United States. He was critical of people who adapted to racism arguing that they were, in effect, “impaled” in a mindless way of thinking. He argued that the only way to become a mature human being and experience some level of freedom is to challenge the oppressive trend of history, as well as the status quo of racial discrimination.

Many of Baldwin’s ideas were in line with Lorraine Hansberry. He viewed their relationship as similar to brother and sister. However, Baldwin was not a communist and Hansberry was. While they deeply appreciated each other, and drank together, they also had animated fights where they shouted at one another. After one of these fights Lorraine said: “Really, Jimmy. You ain’t right, child.” She then handed Baldwin another drink.

This is what Lorraine Hansberry had to say about the writings of James Baldwin: “in his essays .  .  .(he) has taken the politeness out of discussions of the brutalizing experience of the black man in this country and put it down as it is. I think Mr. Baldwin has left the apologists, black and white, nowhere to go but toward the truth.”

This is what Nina Simone had to say about her discussions with Hansberry:

“We never talked about men or clothes or other such inconsequential things when we got together. It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk.”

In a memorial to Lorraine Hansberry, Nina Simone wrote her song: To be Young, Gifted and Black. The idea for the title of this song came from a speech of Hansberry to a group of young writers. She said:

“The Nation Needs Your Gifts.”

“though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so to be young, gifted and black.” “You are .  .  .the product of a presently insurgent and historically vivacious and heroic culture, a culture of an indomitable will for freedom and aspiration to dignity.”

On May 24, 1963 Lorraine Hansberry was among a group of activists who met with the then Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy wanted to diffuse the struggle against Jim Crow segregation that had erupted in Birmingham, Alabama. He thought that he might use this group, that also included James Baldwin and Harry Belafonte, to diffuse this struggle.

Kennedy clearly didn’t appreciate the growing sentiment of Black pride that was emerging in this country. Earlier that year while Baldwin toured the South, he had this to say:

“There is, I should think, no Negro living in America who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, simple, naked, unanswerable hatred; who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter.  .  .to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as that dusk in which he himself has been and is being trampled.”

The Congress of Racial Equality leader Jerome Smith was in New York at that time, recovering from a head wound he received while protesting for civil rights. He also attended this meeting and argued that Kennedy was insincere when he spoke about protecting the rights of African Americans.

Kennedy was dismissive of those remarks, and this angered Hansberry. She let out her rage saying to Kennedy:

“You have a great many accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General, but the only man you should be listening to is that man (Jerome Smith) over there. That is the voice of twenty-two million people.”

Smith continued and spoke about how Black families were trying to defend themselves against racist mobs. Hansberry then responded by saying:

“That’s all true, but I am not worried about black men—who have done splendidly, it seems to me, all things considered.” “But I am very worried .  .  . about the state of civilization which produced that photograph of the white cop standing on that Negro woman’s neck in Birmingham.”

At this point Hansberry walked out of the meeting and most of those in the group followed her.

Clearly it was the mass movement for civil rights that forced the government to abolish Jim Crow segregation. However, looking at the life of Lorraine Hansberry, we can see how she played an important part of that movement.

Today the system of Jim Crow has been replaced with a system of mass incarceration that targets Black men and women. However, when we think of the enormous struggle we need to carry out, we can also think about the name of Lorraine Hansberry. In her short life, she was a clear example how a truly gifted artist can make a profound contribution to the universal struggle for human dignity.     

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh, Entitlements, and the Presumption of Innocence


By Steven Halpern

The hearings to examine Brett Kavanaugh’s qualifications to become a Supreme Court Justice have received international coverage. The charge by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were in high school has also become an international issue.

These hearings have opened up a discussion on several issues that effect working people. They include: violence against women, the presumption of innocence, the so-called entitlements of the affluent, as well as how the law is interpreted. In this blog I will attempt to examine each of these issues.

Violence against women

In Dr. Ford’s testimony, we viewed a compelling story of how she was sexually assaulted. One reason why this testimony was so compelling is because we know that sexual assault is pervasive in this country. We are talking about rape, beatings, verbal abuse, as well as indifference by authorities to these charges.

Understanding how pervasive this horrendous problem is, we can begin to understand why Dr. Ford took 35 years to come forward before making these charges.

Anita Hill made charges of repeated sexual harassment on her job while she worked for Clarence Thomas. This was in his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. The result was that Thomas is now a Supreme Court Justice.

However, the violence against women isn’t just about assault. In what has been called The Second Wave of Feminism women have made advances on several fronts. It is useful to think about the reality of about fifty years ago. Only a tiny percentage of women were doctors. Women didn’t have the right to own homes in many states. Women who chose not to have a child needed to risk mutilation and even death with back alley abortionists.

While women have made many advances in recent years, on the average, women continue to receive a lower rate of pay than men. It is on the job that women often experience sexual harassment, or abusive treatment by male supervisors. After work, women are usually the ones who care for the children as well as to do most household chores.  

Every year corporations spend about $200 billion on advertising. Much of this money goes towards making women insecure about their appearance. The image these advertisers promote is the Victoria Secret runway model. Their goal is to convince women to purchase billions of dollars worth of clothes, jewelry, cosmetics, and even plastic surgery in order to conform to this image they promote.

By making women, in effect, second-class citizens, corporations gouge out profits. They do this by paying women less, and refusing to pay for the day care of children.

We should keep in mind a reality that the so-called educational system in this country isn’t interested in. In her book Woman’s Evolution, Evelyn Reed documented how for most of human history women experienced full equality.

Reed looked at various so-called primitive people from all over the world. She gave the evidence showing how women did some of the most important work in these societies. She also showed how this work was respected.

In the area of New York state lived and continue to live the people known as the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee. The women of the Iroquois organized themselves as the Clan Mothers. These Clan Mothers had the power to depose leaders known as Sachems. Making political decisions without the approval of the Clan Mothers was unthinkable to the Iroquois.    

Working people need to rediscover this history and promote the full liberation of women, on the job, as well as in all social environments. Without working for every aspect of liberation for women, working people can never hope to free ourselves from the exploitative system of wage labor.

The presumption of innocence

Clearly when a woman accuses someone of assault, these charges need to be taken seriously. However, we might also consider a new museum in Montgomery, Alabama of about 4,000 victims of lynchings by racist mobs. Many of those lynchings took place because of false accusations of sexual assault.

Three of those lynchings took place in Memphis, Tennessee and Ida Wells wrote about them in her newspaper. As a result, racists threatened her life and she needed to leave the city. However, Wells continued to report on over 700 lynchings and found that they were nothing more than acts of racist terror.

We can also say that today the United States has more prisoners in it’s dungeons than any other nation in the world. Over 90% of those in prison were not convicted of anything. These prisoners serve time because of plea bargains. Someone accused of a crime is given the choice of admitting guilt or facing a trial where they might receive a much longer sentence.

Understanding this reality, workers need to support the demand that all defendants have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Without this basic right anyone could be taken into custody and sentenced to a jail term with the flimsiest of evidence.

Understanding this we might consider that Brett Kavanaugh is not facing a jail term for alleged sexual assault. The testimony of Dr. Ford was in the context of his nomination for a Supreme Court Justice. Kavanaugh invited this scrutiny when he accepted the nomination.

The so-called entitlements of the affluent

Dr. Ford testified that the most difficult part of the assault against her was when the assailants laughed at what they were doing. Clearly, these assailants felt that they had some kind of entitlement to assault a young woman. Kavanaugh attended the so-called elite private high school Georgetown Prep.

Working people are raised in an environment where we are trained to do as we are told. However, parents don’t pay the exorbitant tuition costs of Georgetown Prep so their children will work in a factory. No, students attending these schools are trained to become the most highly paid managers of corporations or the government. In other words, they are taught how to become arrogant in their slavish pursuit of gouging out profits for corporations.

As a worker, I’ve been one of millions of workers who are witnesses to this disparity. While we toil at one or more jobs every day, managers sit in corporate boardrooms. They discuss how to get us to do more so the corporation can gouge out a maximum profit. These managers have the same sense of entitlement that students learn about at the so-called elite private schools.

We know something about Brett Kavanaugh that is common to all politicians who support the capitalist system. These politicians believe in the fantasy that there is a significant difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties.

I’m 65 years old and have experienced both Democratic and Republican dominated governments. Throughout all those years all I’ve seen was a deterioration in the standard of living of working people. While this deterioration has unfolded, the number of people who are locked up in dungeons has skyrocketed.

The law and the working class

When I attended high school, every day my teachers asked me to stand up, place my hand on my heart, and to pledge allegiance to a flag that the government claims represents “liberty and justice for all.” As working people learn the reality of this country, we also learn the absurdity of this argument.

The history of the Supreme Court is that they consistently supported both slavery and Jim Crow segregation. The Court’s consistent support of Jim Crow was in complete violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. However, it wasn’t until the year 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to have an inter-racial marriage.

According to the Constitution citizens are supposed to have freedom of speech. However, most workers understand that if we attempt to organize a union where we work, employers can and will find ways to terminate union organizers.

When we think about the reality of the capitalist system, we see that it is a system that extracts wealth from the labor of workers. Another word for this is theft. This kind of theft is perfectly legal. When we think of the fact that police officers are rarely put on trial for murders they commit, we have to question whether murder is in fact against the law.

We can also point to the millions of people who have been murdered in so-called wars that the United States government never declared. So, in reality, only certain murders are illegal, while the government has no problem with absolving itself of other murders.

Anyone can Google the words Invisible War. This is a film that documents how there have been over 20,000 rapes in the military every year. In most of these rapes the perpetrators were not placed on trial. In some cases, commanding officers covered up for rapists, while continuing to give orders to the victims. Understanding the reality of this film, we can ask the question: Is rape illegal in the United States of America?

When we look at these and many other facts, there is one inescapable conclusion. The legal system in this country in not interested in defending the basic rights of working people.

This brings me back to that Pledge of Allegiance that my teachers asked me to recite many years ago. The Pledge of Allegiance was written by Francis Bellamy. Francis Bellamy was the first cousin and co-thinker of Edward Bellamy who wrote the novel Looking Backward.

Edward Bellamy imagined a future world that was devoid of poverty and based on human solidarity. Francis Bellamy’s original Pledge contained the words: “I pledge allegiance to my flag.” For Francis Bellamy his flag represented the future world his cousin Edward imagined in his book Looking Backward. He imagined that in that world there would be liberty, justice, and equality for all.

Francis Bellamy refrained from using the word equality because in the late 1800s most people in this country didn’t have the right to vote. However, Edward Bellamy titled his sequel to his book Looking Backward, Equality.

The hearings around the issue of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination underscore for me why working people need a completely different political economic system. In that system women will be totally liberated because an injury to one will be an injury to all. In that system, workers will no longer be alienated from work and the worst crimes will be seen as the drive to maximize profits from the labor of workers.

In that system workers won’t think about entitlements, but of basic rights that are guaranteed to all. These will include a lifetime right to: food, clothing, a place to live, education, health care, transportation, communication, as well as exposure to cultural activities.

So, when workers living in that kind of future world look back at the hearings around Kavanaugh’s nomination, they will ask a basic question: Why did humanity ever engage in this kind of seemingly perverse insanity?