Monday, February 24, 2014

An Outstanding Tribute to Black History Month

Billy Holiday

HOLLA – If you hear me – The Voices of the “Black Experience”

A review of the performance

Recently I had the opportunity of attending a tribute to Black History Month at the Princeton Theological Seminary.  This was the best tribute to Black history that I’ve attended.  The event was a fund-raiser for The Generations Center that aids mostly women who have mental health issues.  Dr. Melinda Contreras-Byrd works for the center and helped to organize the event.  Melinda was my classmate in the 1970’s at Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey and she invited me to the event.  Her daughter Alexa Esperanza Byrd was the featured vocalist.  Alexa was assisted by Joshua Foster on drums and Alec Gross on guitar.

Mental Health

We can begin by saying that mental health might be the most used of the health care specialties in this country.  We might also say that Dr. Gabor Maté has documented the connection between emotional stress and physical disease in his book, When the Body Says No.

We might also mention that the United States spends more money, per person, for health care than any other nation in the world.  Yet, this country ranks about 34th in the world with respect to access to health care.  While mental health is one of the most needed specialties, this is the area that has received the most cutbacks in funding.  These are the underlying reasons why this fundraiser was necessary.

Black History

When we look at the topic of Black history there is one area that is rarely mentioned.  This is the fact that much of the enormous wealth that exists in this country was, and continues to be created because of the work of Black people.  Slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the continued discrimination we have today, has helped to create conditions that allow for a tiny percentage of the population to live in opulence.

These are some of the reasons why James Baldwin made his statement that, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”  Baldwin was one of the best writers that I know of and he knew the definition of words.  We might notice that he used the word rage and not the word anger. 

The rage and the joy

The immensely talented Christian A Cheairs gave deeply moving performances of his poetry at this event.  The audience listened to his justifiable rage in his tributes to Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin.  Cheairs spoke about why Jordan Davis might have wanted to play his music loud.  Apparently this was all it took for a modern day lynching.

The title of Cheairs’ tribute to Trayvon Martin is Skittles and Ice Tea.  Apparently these were the so-called weapons that led to the lynching of Trayvon Martin.

Melinda Contreras-Byrd performed a wonderful poem titled, Revolution.  Clearly the idea of a political revolution doesn’t come from the fact that people are merely angry at a government.  No, feelings of rage against the existing environment provokes masses of people to demand a completely different kind of government.  We listened to this justifiable rage in Melinda’s poem.

However, it would be a serious mistake to argue that all of Black history consisted of rage.  There were also expressions of profound joy.  We listened to the background of two songs, and then Alexa Esperanza Byrd gave breathtaking performances of each.  One of these songs was Duke Ellington and Irving Mills’ 1931 song, It Don’t Mean a Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing.  The other song was Bricusse & Newley’s 1964 hit, Feeling Good.

Clearly Duke Ellington was one of the most important contributors to music as well as the style of music known as Jazz.  Saying this, we can also say that most of Ellington’s compositions were collaborative efforts.  His primary collaborator was Billy Strayhorn.  Strayhorn didn’t receive much of the credit he deserved because he didn’t fit the stereotype of a star at that time.  He was Black, short, and gay.  My opinion is that Strayhorn is just one more name that needs to be remembered when we talk about Black History.

Black Latino History

This was the first Black History tribute I have attended where part of the program was dedicated to Black people who speak Spanish.  Alexa Byrd performed the song Angelitos Negros.  This song was taken from a Mexican play.  The play portrayed a white racist mother who gave birth to a Black baby.  She then learned that part of her family was indeed Black.

We might also consider that the language spoken by most Black people in the Western Hemisphere is not English or Spanish, but Portuguese.  There might be as many as one-hundred-million Black people who speak Portuguese and live in Brazil.  A new estimate that I have read argues that today Brazil is a majority Black nation.

What’s Goin’ On

Then, we listened to Alexa Byrd’s rendition of Marvin Gaye and Al Cleveland’s monumental 1971 hit, What’s Goin’ On?  This song argues that, “We’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”

This program ended in a similar way as Billy Holiday’s performances ended many years ago.  This was with dimmed lights and the singing of Abel Meeropol’s and Billy Holliday’s 1939 song Strange Fruit.  Meeropol wrote this song after he learned of a lynching in Indiana.  This song is a painful reminder that the United States is not the land of “liberty and justice for all” or the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”  No, the song Strange Fruit is a reminder of the savage repression that has also been a part of the history of this country.

Malcolm X

I will end this review with a quotation from Malcolm X who gave, in my opinion, the best reason for why we study Black history.

In an interview with a reporter from the Village Voice Malcolm argued:

“The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals.  You have to wake the people up first, then you’ll get action.”

“Wake them up to their oppression?” the interviewer asked.

“No, to their humanity, to their own worth, and to their heritage.” Malcolm replied.

Yes, by educating people about Black History, we can learn that humanity has had the capacity to confront the most stubborn obstacles.  Understanding these facts, we will see that people living today also have the capacity to transform the world.            


Monday, February 10, 2014

One Reason Why Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa

A review

Visions of Freedom – Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa 1976-1991

By Piero Gleijeses

A basic question that we might ask is, why do we study history?  One reason why I study history to learn what were the strategies used in the past that either benefitted or harmed the interests of working people.  Looking at history from that perspective, Piero Gleijeses has written a book that documents one of the most important wars of the 20th century.

When Nelson Mandela walked out of a South African prison to become the President of that nation, the entire world took notice.  Anyone who has studied this inspiring chapter of history will come across the following narrative.  The people of South Africa became intolerant of the apartheid system and made that nation virtually unmanageable.  Nations from around the world also protested and instituted economic sanctions against South Africa.  While all of this is true, there is another narrative that is rarely mentioned in the mainstream press.

In the early 1970’s, the relatively small nation of Portugal was the colonial power for vast areas of Africa.  For years the African people struggled against this colonial rule.  The only way Portugal was able to maintain an army to put down this resistance was because of massive aid it received from the United States government.  Then, in the mid-1970’s the Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown and Portuguese colonial rule of Africa was over.

Angola and the MPLA

In Angola the MPLA was the most respected of the liberation groups and took over the government in Luanda.  The other so-called liberation group was UNITA.  It’s leader was Jonas Savimbi.  Savimbi was an opportunist who worked with the Portuguese colonialists, as well as the apartheid government of South Africa.

At this time the apartheid government of South Africa based itself on the minority Caucasian rule of that country.  Since Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress supported the interests of all South Africans, this organization was a target of those who favored the continuation of apartheid.  The MPLA in Angola allowed the ANC to organize in their country.

Then, there was the nation of South West Africa.  Today that nation is called Namibia.  This nation was also run by a Caucasian minority regime.  Namibia is located between South Africa and Angola.  The liberation group of Namibia was called SWAPO and it’s leader was Sam Nujoma.  SWAPO’s headquartered its forces in Angola with the support of the MPLA.  The United Nations eventually voted to demand elections in South West Africa that would place SWAPO in power.

The apartheid government of South Africa resented these changes and mobilized their armed forces to impose a solution.  In the mid 1970’s South Africa invaded Angola and marched all the way to the outskirts of Luanda.  They were confident that they could replace the MPLA with their own client government headed by Savimbi.

The Cubans intervene

Then, something unexpected happened.  The Cuban government saw these developments and mobilized over 30,000 soldiers to stop the South Africans.  The South African offensive was pushed back and the MPLA remained in power.

However, South Africa didn’t give up their goal of overthrowing the MPLA.  For years the South African armed forces stationed themselves in Southern Angola.  The Cuban Armed forces established a military line preventing the South Africans from launching another offensive.

For over ten years the Cuban troops remained in Angola.  They lived under difficult conditions knowing they could be attacked at any time by the South Africans.  This was all made possible because of the enormous material support the Cubans and Angolans received from the Soviet Union.   

However, government and military officials of the Soviet Union had other priorities and repeatedly gave bad advice to the Angola.  In 1985 and 1987 Soviet military officials promoted the idea of an Angolan offensive against UNITA in the Southeast of the country. 

The Cubans opposed this strategy arguing that South Africa would intervene and the Angolans would not be able to defeat that army.  Both these offensives ended in Angolan defeats because of South African intervention.  At this time, both the governments of the United States and South Africa demanded that the Cubans leave Angola.

Understanding that this was a crisis situation, the Cubans again acted on their own and increased their military presence in Angola.  Most of the Cuban air-force went to the Southeastern part of Angola to do battle against the South Africans.  Because of this strategy, the Cubans were able to launch an offensive with MPLA and SWAPO forces that ran South Africa out of Angola.

The defeat of South Africa brings about change

Because of these defeats and the uprisings of the South African people, the apartheid government began to understand that its days were numbered.  Elections finally took place in Namibia and SWAPO took political power.  Then, the apartheid government released Nelson Mandela from prison and he became the President of a new South Africa.

Piero Gleijeses has shown how Nelson Mandela and the new South African government thanked the Cuban government for the immense contributions they have made.  The Cuban defense of Angola literally helped to change the face of Southern Africa.

Gleijeses also gives a useful comparison between the Cuban support of Angola and the United States war against Vietnam.  In Angola Cuba supported a popular government against a thoroughly discredited and ruthless apartheid regime.  In Vietnam the United States supported the forces of repression against the NLF that won independence from both France and Japan.

In today’s world, when we read the pro-capitalist press it is easy to through up our hands and wonder what the future will bring.  Gleijeses quoted the commercial newspapers in the United States.  They made the absurd claim that the so-called negotiating skills of U.S. government representatives were the only reason why change came to Southern Africa. 

However, in reading Gleijeses’ book we find that there are clearly forces of good and evil in this world.  Those forces are the exact opposite of the U.S. government’s point of view. 

The Cuban government has proven that it will do virtually everything it can to advance the living standards of people throughout the world.  On the other hand, the U.S. government has shown over and over again that it will use its immense resources to block any genuinely progressive change in the world.