Saturday, November 5, 2011

Malcolm X Review of a Biography

Malcolm X: A life of Reinvention
by Manning Marable

Published by Viking Penguin
Reviewed by Steve Halpern

Manning Marable has spent his entire life studying African American history. He was the founding director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University. According to his biography, this institute became one of the most respected African American Studies programs in the country.

Marable has collected a significant amount of biographical information about Malcolm X that has become available since his assassination. While much of this information is useful in gaining a further appreciation for Malcolm’s life, there is a striking flaw to this book. We can see this flaw in the epilogue where Marable argues that, “At the end of his life he (Malcolm X) realized that blacks could receive representation and even power under the American constitutional system.” This review will attempt to show how a careful study of the life of Malcolm X makes it perfectly clear that Malcolm was adamantly opposed to this view.

Capitalism and discrimination

Before we look at the arguments of Manning Marable, I believe it is useful to look at a few facts that are rarely mentioned in the educational system in this country. Malcolm X had this to say about the limits of the educational system in an interview with the Young Socialist Magazine a few weeks before his assassination. “The colleges and universities in the American educational system are skillfully used to miseducate.”

John Locke, who lived most of his life in the 17th century, made a statement that is usually ignored on the university campuses. Locke argued that, “All wealth is the product of labor.” This means that human beings transform materials taken from the environment into goods and services that we all need and want.

If we believe that John Locke was right, then the following controversial conclusion reflects the reality we live with. The political economic system of capitalism takes the lion’s share of the wealth working people create, and gives it to a tiny percentage of the population that, for the most part, have no intention of doing productive work. Black people have always done some of the least desirable work during slavery, Jim Crow segregation, as well as in the present reality. This work has been rewarded with systematic discrimination with respect to housing, employment, education, as well as the so-called enforcement of the law.

In other words, the so-called American constitutional system has, almost always, operated in opposition to the interests of all working people. Malcolm X was well aware of this reality throughout his life.

Malcolm's family background

Malcolm’s parents, Earl and Louise Little, were members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The central leader of the U.N.I.A. was Marcus Garvey. Earl and Louise were assigned to move from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Omaha, Nebraska in order to build a base for the U.N.I.A. in Omaha.

During Malcolm’s life and the lives of his parents African Americans did not have full citizenship rights in the United States. Thousands of Black people were lynched and the government rarely attempted to prosecute those responsible for these murders. Discrimination was the law in the Jim Crow states, while the government pretended to support the ideals of, “liberty and justice for all.”

Marcus Garvey argued that Black people have the capacity to run their own communities in this country and around the world. Given the racism of his age, Garvey didn’t see the possibility of a movement of Black and Caucasian workers engaged in a struggle that would liberate humanity from the routine brutality of the capitalist system.

Malcolm X’s father was one of the thousands of Black people who were lynched by racists in this country. The government compromised the entire legal system by refusing to make any serious attempt to apprehend those responsible for these lynchings. In fact, politicians were known to give campaign speeches where Black people were lynched.

While the government refused to find those responsible for the murder of Malcolm’s father, this same government worked to separate Malcolm, as well as his brothers and sisters, from their mother. They argued that this was for the good of the children.

When Malcolm attended school, one of his teachers, Mr. Ostrowski, questioned Malcolm about his career plans. When Malcolm responded that he was thinking about becoming a lawyer, Ostrowski responded:
“Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, and you know that. A lawyerthat’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be. . . You’re good with your hands--making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry?”

If we view the essential feature of the capitalist system as the theft of wealth from workers to a tiny minority who own capital, then we can draw a few conclusions. That would be to explain how corporate lawyers aid in the theft of wealth from working people. Malcolm, because he was denied many employment opportunities because of his skin color, became something like a corporate lawyer. He became a thief.

While some forms of theft are apparently legal in the capitalist system, the police apprehended Malcolm for an act of theft that is not seen as legal. Malcolm received a longer prison term for this offence because his companion at that time was a Caucasian woman.

All of this information gives us part of the story as to why Malcolm believed that the government in this country could not be reformed. The idea that the same government that had committed these acts would change and somehow liberate Black people, to Malcolm, was absurd.

The house slave and the field slave

There is another aspect of Malcolm’s character that, I believe, needs to be understood.

Early in his life Malcolm moved to Boston, Massachusetts to live with his sister-in-law Ella. They lived in the Hill section of Boston where Black people who had a bit of money lived. Ella wanted Malcolm to become a part of this Hill section of town. This is what Malcolm said about that experience in his autobiography:

“I didn’t want to disappoint or upset Ella, but despite her advice, I began going down to the ghetto section of town. That world of grocery stores, walk up flats, cheap restaurants, poolrooms, bars, storefront churches, and pawnshops seemed to hold a natural lure for me.

“Not only was that part of Roxbury much more exciting, but I felt more relaxed among Negroes who were being their natural selves and not putting on airs. Even though I did live on the Hill, my instincts were never--and still aren’t--to feel myself better than any other Negro.”

When Malcolm Little became Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam he recruited thousands of Black people. Most of his recruits did not have much money and might have been unemployed, or had served in the military, or spent time in jail. These recruits understood Malcolm when he argued that the government in this country could not be reformed and that Black people needed to take control of their communities.

In Malcolm’s speech, Message to the Grass Roots, he talked about the difference in attitudes during slavery between the house Negro and the field Negro. Malcolm said that,

“If the master got sick, the house Negro would say, ‘What’s the matter, boss, we sick? We sick!’ He identified himself with the master, more than his master identified with himself.”
This is what Malcolm had to say about the “field Negro.”

“The field Negro was beaten from morning to night; he lived in a shack, in a hut; he wore old, cast off clothes. He hated the master. I say he hated the master. He was intelligent. That house Negro loved his master, but that field Negro¾ remember, they were the majority, and they hated the master. When the house caught on fire he didn’t try to put it out; that field Negro prayed for a wind, for a breeze. When the master got sick, the field Negro prayed that he’d die.”

Malcolm concluded that, “You’ve got field Negroes in America today. I’m a field Negro. The masses are field Negroes. When they see this man’s house on fire, you don’t hear the little Negroes talking about ‘our government is in trouble.’ They say, The government is in trouble.’ Imagine a Negro: ‘Our government’! I even heard one say ‘our astronauts.’ They won’t even let him near the plant--and ‘our astronauts’! Our Navy--that’s a Negro that is out of his mind, a negro that is out of his mind.”

President Obama

In Manning Marable’s biography of Malcolm he argues that,
“Given the election of Barack Obama, it now raises the question of whether blacks have a separate political destiny from their white fellow citizens. If legal segregation was permanently in America’s past, Malcolm’s vision today would have to radically redefine self-determination and the meaning of black power in a political environment that appeared to be ‘post-racial.’”

In my opinion there are several problems with this statement. First, this statement lacks any class understanding of society. There are Caucasian and Black individuals who actively manage capitalist interests. Corporations profit off of discrimination by paying some people less than others. Caucasian and Black workers and farmers do not have the same “political destiny” as the people who profit off of discrimination.

A core weakness of Marable’s book is that he fails to show how institutionalized discrimination against Black people continues in the United States. Only by ignoring these facts can he make the argument that we are living in an environment that is “post racial.”
Today anyone living in the United States has a better chance to go to prison than citizens of any other nation in the world. Yet, Black people have a much better chance of serving time in prison than Caucasians.

According to a recent study by the Urban League, the financial assets of Black people are twenty times less than the assets of Caucasians.

In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as in many urban areas, the percentage of students who are Black and Latino is about 90%. City Line Avenue separates Philadelphia from the Lower Merion School District, where the student population is about 90% white. Per student funding in Lower Merion is double of what it is in Philadelphia. Currently, the Philadelphia School District has plans to cut $629 million from its budget, making the disparity in funding even greater.

On another topic, recently President Barack Obama interrupted his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to meet the Chief Executive Officer of Comcast, Brian Roberts, at his multi-million dollar mansion on the island.

Comcast’s headquarters are located in Philadelphia in a recently completed billion dollar office building. Philadelphia has a tax abatement program that allows the owners of newly constructed buildings to avoid paying taxes for ten years. This means that Comcast avoids paying real estate taxes to the city for ten years while the Philadelphia School District is cutting $629 million from its budget.

Understanding these facts I couldn’t help thinking of Malcolm X’s statement about the “house Negro.” No, Malcolm would not need to “radically redefine” his message as Manning Marable might argue. Malcolm’s words ring just as true today as they did in the 1960’s.

Malcolm and Che

There is a sentence in Marable’s book that I do agree with. Marable argued that Malcolm and Ernesto Che Guevara “were kindred spirits politically, a bond revealed not only by the similarity of their worldviews but by Guevara’s subsequent travels” in Africa during the 1960’s.

Yet Marable also argues that Malcolm was a Pan-Africanist. No one would argue that Che Guevara was a Pan-Africanist.

Clearly Malcolm felt that Black people needed to understand that they came from Africa and have common interests with the people of that continent. Malcolm reiterated this in many of his speeches. However, Malcolm was also moving in a direction where he supported the interests of working people from around the world. Malcolm’s support of Che Guevara was a clear example of this thinking.

Malcolm invents the idea of Black power

Manning Marable also wrote about debates that Malcolm had with Bayard Rustin and James Farmer while he was a leader of the Nation of Islam. At that time, Rustin and Farmer both were allied with the politics of Martin Luther King and had a specific program. That program relied on the U.S. government to advance the cause of Black people in this country. Since Malcolm did not have a specific political program at that time, Manning argued that Rustin and Farmer won those debates.

Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the civil rights as well as the black power movements viewed Bayard Rustin at the time of one of these debates as his “mentor.” Carmichael expected Rustin to dominate the debate in 1961. Carmichael apparently was transformed by this debate and argued that,

“What Malcolm demonstrated that night . . .was the raw power, the visceral potency, of the grip of our unarticulated collective blackness held over us. I’ll never forget it.”
I believe that Marable elaborated on what Carmichael was saying in the following passage:

He (Malcolm X) keenly felt, and expressed, the varied emotions and frustrations of the black poor and working class. His constant message was black pride, self-respect, and awareness of one’s heritage. At a time when American society stigmatized or excluded people of African descent, Malcolm’s militant advocacy was stunning. He gave millions of younger African Americans newfound confidence. These expressions were at the foundation of what in 1966 became Black Power, and Malcolm was its fountainhead.”

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King

Marable also compared the contributions of Malcolm to those of Martin Luther King. Clearly King felt that liberation for Black people could come within the framework of the constitutional system of the United States. However, when we look at the last year of King’s life it also become clear that he was beginning to question that point of view. In King’s speech against the war in Vietnam he talked about conversations he had with people who questioned his non-violent approach in the face of the U.S. government’s atrocities in Vietnam. This is how King answered that question:

“Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government.”

Since the U.S. government, in point of fact, continues to be the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world” this statement by King can also be taken as a criticism of the administration of President Barack Obama.

In his speech “Where do we go from here?” King had this to say:
“Why are there forty million poor people in America? And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”

In his interview with the Young Socialist Malcolm X gave a stronger critique of the capitalist system. When asked about his opinion about the worldwide struggle against capitalism and socialism, this is how Malcolm responded:

“It is impossible for capitalism to survive, primarily because the system of capitalism needs some blood to suck. Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it’s more like a vulture. It used to be strong enough to go and suck anybody’s blood whether they were strong or not. But now it has become cowardly, like the vulture, and it can only suck the blood of the helpless. As the nations of the world free themselves, then capitalism has less victims, less to suck, it becomes weaker and weaker. It is only a matter of time in my opinion before it will collapse completely.”

This statement completely contradicts Manning Marable’s opinion that Malcolm X felt that Black people “could receive representation and even power under the American constitutional system.”

The transformation of Malcolm

With all of it’s weaknesses, there was a considerable amount of information about Malcolm’s life that I learned from Marable’s book. Malcolm clearly felt that the political economic system of the United States needs to be replaced and he attempted to organize a movement that had this as its goal. For anyone who has this point of view there needs to be a personal transformation. Few of us are raised with this point of view and we must transform ourselves in order to advance it.

Yet Malcolm transformed himself twice. Once when he joined the Nation of Islam and then when he broke from the NOI to form his own organization advancing his own political agenda.

Malcolm’s point of view was so compelling that thousands of people from all over the world came to hear him speak. Heads of state, who had participated in anti-imperialist struggles, also appreciated his ideas and treated him as a dignitary.

For a better view of Malcolm’s political legacy, I recommend the book Malcolm X, Black liberation, and the road to workers power by Jack Barnes. This book looks at the history of Black people in the United States and shows how they have been in the forefront of all struggles for human dignity. The book also shows how Malcolm was a product of this history and how he was the most important leader this country has seen.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troy Davis

The Legal Lynching of Troy Anthony Davis

Today, September 22, 2011, is a day of mourning throughout the world. Last evening the government of the United States of America murdered Troy Anthony Davis. The newspapers argue that this was an act of the Georgia state government, but the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the administration of President Barack Obama also had a hand in this legalized lynching. In my opinion, in order to begin to understand why this horrendous act happened, we need to take a look at the history of the United States.

The United States became a nation as a result of a political revolution against British rule. While the revolutionary government outlawed chattel slavery in several states, slavery continued in the nation that claims to represent “liberty and justice for all.”

During the years when slavery was the law, the Democratic Party was the political party of the slave owners. Although the murder of slaves was illegal, this crime was rarely, if ever, prosecuted. The Fugitive Slave Act required state governments that had outlawed slavery to apprehend escaped slaves and transport them back to individuals who claimed they owned human beings. This is why an escaped slave by the name of Frederick Douglass needed to leave the United States when he published his autobiography.

For several years after the Civil War the Reconstruction Governments were the legal authorities in the former slave states. These governments were the most democratic in the history of the United States and gave legal rights to former slaves as well as women and Native Americans. However, these Reconstruction Governments were overthrown by terrorist organizations that united to become the Ku Klux Klan. The federal government did nothing to stop the seizure of power by the Klan and developed a cozy relationship with these terrorists.

What does all of this have to do with the legal lynching of Troy Anthony Davis? During the years when the Ku Klux Klan and the Democratic Party ruled the states where Jim Crow was the law, thousands of Black people were lynched. The people who carried out these lynchings didn’t pretend that they had any legal authority. In other words, all of these lynchings were criminal acts of murder, but the federal government rarely, if ever, prosecuted these mass murderers.

Ida Wells is credited for inventing investigative journalism in this country. Wells investigated 728 lynchings and found that most Blacks were usually lynched for so-called crimes like “incendiarism,” “race prejudice,” “quarreling with Whites,” and “making threats.” Wells also documented the lynching of thirteen-year-old Mildrey Brown, who was lynched in Columbia, South Carolina.

The abolition of chattel slavery as well as the outlawing of Jim Crow segregation were two of the most important achievements of working people and farmers in this country. However, the execution of Troy Anthony Davis spotlights the fact that these advances were incomplete.

Today, anyone who lives in the United States has a better chance of going to prison than citizens of any other nation in the world. Black people, as well as Latinos are grossly over-represented in the approximately seven million human beings who are either in prison, on probation, or in parole, as well as those who are on death row. Approximately 90 to 95 percent of the prison population is serving time because of plea bargains and have never been convicted of a crime.

When we understand this reality, the role of District Attorneys is more often than not to make a deal rather than prosecute alleged criminals. This is one reason why several of the witnesses who testified against Troy Davis came forward to state that they were pressured by the prosecution to make their original testimonies. We have seen this tactic used by District Attorneys in numerous other cases. Two witnesses came forward to argue that they had been pressured by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office to testify against Mumia Abu Jamal.

We have also seen prosecutors withhold evidence from defense attorneys that might exonerate their defendants. These are clear examples of how District Attorneys have used their powers to advance a similar agenda as those members of the Ku Klux Klan who used to murder Blacks and others who they found to be objectionable.

President Barack Obama became the first Black person to be elected to that office. Certainly this election registered the fact that racist attitudes, while they clearly continue to exist, have been mollified to a certain extent. However, Obama was held up as the great hope for the future and thousands of Black people attended his inauguration.

In the over two years that Obama has been President there wasn’t a day that went by where he could have made a statement in opposition to the execution of Troy Anthony Davis. Eric Holder, the first Black Attorney General of the United States could have indicted the District Attorney who prosecuted Davis for pressuring witnesses, but he chose to not interfere with this lynching.

We might also consider that President Obama is setting records for most deportations by a President in this country. I believe that last year there were more than 400,000 deportations. Most people are deported to Mexico where wages might be two dollars per day.

These deportations are similar to the apprehension of former slaves under the old Fugitive Slave Act. We might ask the question of how much it cost a slave owner in today’s dollars to maintain a slave. In the old days slaves were sent back to chattel slavery. Today, President Obama sends workers back to a condition of wage slavery in nations where they might starve to death.

Ida Wells gave the following reason for why Black people were lynched:

“lynching was merely an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘keep the nigger down.’”

Today the capitalist system is literally falling apart. After the government has invested literally trillions of dollars to stimulate the economy, unemployment continues to hover around ten percent.

The reason why the United States government has such a treacherous criminal justice system is to keep working people from acquiring the vast wealth that exists in this country. Capitalists view workers as nothing more than appendages to machines, whose so-called rights can be routinely compromised. Anyone who feels that this statement is an exaggeration might consider the lack of evidence against Troy Anthony Davis. This means that any of us can be accused and convicted of a crime we didn’t commit.

We also might consider that leaders of the labor movement such as Mother Jones, Eugene Debs, and Bill Haywood served time in prison. The four Haymarket martyrs were executed in Illinois for protesting for an eight-hour workday.

Yes, Ida Wells words continue to ring true. The execution of Troy Anthony Davis had absolutely nothing to do with justice. This execution was about keeping all working people down. However, history has also shown that these executions will fail to intimidate working people. We will continue to struggle until we have a government that truly works to achieve human dignity for all.

Monday, July 4, 2011

1971 Arts High Reunion

The 40th Reunion of Arts High’s class of 1971

Recently I attended my 40th Reunion of Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey. Before attending the reunion I spoke to several people about the idea of high school reunions. Most of those conversations reflected an indifference about these affairs. People, in general, weren’t too enthusiastic about their high school experiences and weren’t anxious to get in touch with old acquaintances.

Therefore, it may come as a surprise that my high school reunion was wildly successful. This column will attempt to answer the question of why former high school students had such a good time after forty years. When we consider the events that transpired while we attended high school, this question will be even more compelling.

First, Arts High was located at a mid-way point between the low income housing projects and the commercial center of Newark. Today, I noticed that most of the housing projects appear to have been torn down.

It only takes about thirty minutes to drive out of Newark to several public high schools that have a completely different environment. These high schools are located in Livingston, Maplewood, Milburn, and Summit. In those schools, per student funding for education is much higher, which means that these schools have all the amenities for education, that might include swimming pools and tennis courts.

We might consider that in 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in its decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate education is illegal. Apparently this ruling did not apply to these suburban communities. The gross disparity in funding for education is clear for anyone who chooses to look at this reality.

This gross disparity in funding for education is what initially caused me to think differently about politics. This funding disparity did not happen because of a mistake or because of a lack of sensitivity. No, the disparity in funding for education reflects the fact that there is something profoundly wrong with the political system in the United States.

Newark and the world in 1967

While Newark has changed a bit over the years, when we went to high school the city was, for the most part, polarized. Italians lived in the north. There continues to be a Portuguese community in the east. The central, west, and southern areas of the city were predominantly African American.

I lived in a section of the South Ward called Weequahic. Philip Roth is about twenty years older than I and he wrote about the Weequahic section of the city when it was a predominantly Jewish community. One of his first books, which takes place in Weequahic, is titled Portnoy’s Complaint.

The reason why this neighborhood changed was explained in a song by the Temptations, titled Ball of Confusion:

“People movin out

People movin in


Because of the color of their skin.

Run, run, run, but you sure can’t hide.”

Fortunately my parents did not join in the exodus from Newark.

Our first year at Arts High was in 1967. That summer the newspapers argued that “riots” took place where the National Guard came to Newark and 26 people died as a result. Hundreds of people were injured and arrested. There was a massive amount of property damage.

In reality, the so-called “riots” were rebellions against the repressive and racist atmosphere in the city. Most of my classmates might have had parents, grand-parents, or great grand-parents who experienced chattel slavery, and Jim Crow discrimination. Many of my classmates parents or grand parents came to Newark to escape the inhuman atmosphere of the Jim Crow states where the Ku Klux Klan had political power.

While there were more opportunities in Newark, African Americans experienced discrimination in housing, employment, and education. The issue that sparked the Newark rebellion was police brutality.
All legal means were employed to rectify these problems to no avail. In fact, the rebellions took place after the federal government passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

At this point we might refer to a passage from the Declaration of Independence. The signing of this declaration is a national holiday in the United States celebrated every year on the forth of July.

“Governments long established should not be changed for light or transient causes.” “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for their future security.”

It is a profound irony of history that some of the signers of this declaration were slave owners. This passage illustrates that the founders of the United States were revolutionaries who did what was necessary “to provide new guards for their future security.” Clearly, this was a similar sentiment as those people who rebelled in Newark in 1967.

The government in Newark did not change as a result of the rebellions of 1967. However, the mayor of Newark at that time, Hugh J. Addonizio, did serve time in prison because of a conviction on corruption charges. Addonizio joined the list of politicians from New Jersey who also served time in prison.

We might also consider that while the National Guard had been sent to Newark, the U.S. government also ordered hundreds of thousands of soldiers to go to war against the people of Vietnam. In that war, millions of people died as a result of the U.S. armed assault on that country.

Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense of the United States and was also one of the architects of the war against Vietnam. Late in his life, McNamara acknowledged that he felt the war against Vietnam was a “mistake.”

Just as in Newark, the federal government has made no attempt to compensate anyone for the destruction the U.S. armed forces were clearly responsible for.

Our formal education

The school day began with the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Apparently the school board required teachers to lead classrooms of students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. As we know, in this Pledge we were asked pledge out allegiance to the flag of the United States which was supposed to represent, “liberty and justice for all.” Given the events that were happening in the world in 1967, these words appear to be absurd.

At Arts High students can major in art or music and I was a music major. The 1960’s and 70’s were a musical watershed with respect to Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, Jazz, and Latin Music. However, at Arts High we were not allowed to perform in these musical styles.

In fact, several well-known musical performers attended Arts High. These include: Connie Francis, Melba Moore, Wayne Shorter, Sarah Vaughan, and Woody Shaw. We were not allowed to perform the music of these artists.

My first introduction to music at Arts High was in the marching band sounds of John Phillip Sousa. We also performed the classical music of the 1800’s as well as some of the popular show tunes.

Our instruction in English literature had a similar problem. James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Maya Angelou were all prominent authors at that time. Phillip Roth and Amiri Baraka were both prominent authors who were raised in Newark. We were never assigned to read these authors. Instead we read the authors of Dickens Dostoyevsky, and Shakespeare. While I learned to appreciate these writers in later years, in high school I found them to be incomprehensible. In fact, the first book I read from cover to cover was The Godfather by Mario Puzo in my senior year.

The value of our history courses were summarized in the book by James W. Loewen titled Lies My Teacher Told Me. Loewen studied the history textbooks read by the vast majority of students in the United States. He found that these books are filled with distortions and outright falsifications.

Christopher Columbus did not discover the Western Hemisphere. Native Americans lived here for perhaps 20,000 years before Columbus. In fact, Native American knowledge of agriculture and medicine was more sophisticated than the knowledge of Europeans at the time of Columbus.

With all these limitations, we all were exposed to music, art, literature, history, science, and physical education. We attempted to make the best out of that exposure. This is one reason why I support funding for education for everyone throughout our lifetimes.

Our informal education

My informal high school education began with the buss ride to Arts High School. It took many years before the buildings that had been destroyed in the rebellions were torn down. So, every day on my ride to school I viewed block after block of burned out buildings. As a fourteen year old, I merely thought that this was normal and only years later did I begin to understand the significance of this devastation.

The rebellions in Newark, as well as the civil rights movement, and the movement against the war in Vietnam were beginning to change the consciousness of people in the city.

During our high school years, Newark experienced the longest teachers strike in the history of the United States. While the teachers were on strike, students organized to make it clear that we also had demands that needed to be addressed.

These experiences taught us an invaluable lesson. We were not just students, but human beings who had a voice. Our actions had the potential to make real changes.

In my senior year I was one of the students who walked out of our music class. We demanded to be taught about the history of Jazz. Our walk-out lead to a change in the curriculum.

One of my most valuable lessons had to do with my association with our African American classmates. Their families had experienced the horrors of chattel slavery and Jim Crow discrimination. Yet these families found a way to survive.

One of their strategies for survival is that life is about living. With all the tumultuous events that were transpiring in Newark during those years, we managed to have a good time.

This lesson made me think of a song by Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was one of the pioneering Jazz musicians. He experienced poverty and discrimination in New Orleans where he was raised. The song I’m thinking of is What a Wonderful World. Some of the words to this song are:

“And I think to myself…what a wonderful world.”


In my humble opinion, the reason why we had such a good time at our 40th reunion was because during our high school years we looked at a reality the Board of Education didn’t want us to see. We saw that reality, engaged it, and managed to have a good time.

Clearly we all were glad to graduate from Arts High and move on with our lives. I don’t think any of us would want to go back to those days. However, today we can reflect on those days and appreciate their significance.

During our reunion I learned that Arts High was built in 1931. This meant that it was built during the depression when millions of people did not have enough food to eat.

In the past few years Newark, like many cities, has experienced a construction boom and there are many new skyscrapers in the downtown area. However, currently we are in another depression and about 40 million people do not have enough food to eat in this country.

In my opinion, this situation illustrates why the words I quoted from the Declaration of Independence continue to be relevant. People will struggle as they never have struggled before to make this a world where everyone is treated with human dignity. The lesson of our reunion is that we can have good times and appreciate what life is about in the course of that struggle.