The Civil Rights Act is 50 years old. These two pictures were taken 50 years apart. Behold our progress.
Civil Rights: Then and Today August 14, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, Police, Race.
Tags: Civil Rights, civil rights movement, history, police, police brutality, Race, racism, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: A thousand words.
Tags: civil liberties, cmu, communications management unit, Criminal Justice, first amendment, molly crabapple, muslim, racism, roger hollander, terrorist inmates, war on terror
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Most of those held in Communications Management Units, which imprison people linked to terrorist activity, are Muslims.
July 24, 2014, Molly Crabapple, http://www.alternet.org
Andy Stepanianis one of the kindest humans I have ever met.
An activist publicist, Andy draws attention to Americans imprisoned for their beliefs. He is straitlaced and gentle, and the only time he ever declined to buy me dinner was when I offended his veganism by eating chicken fingers. But Andy is also a felon. As one of the SHAC7, he spent three years locked in a cage for urging people to employ militant protest techniques against the animal-testing corporation Huntingdon Life Sciences. He spent his last six months in prison in a Communications Management Unit (CMU).
CMUs exist to cut off prisoners from the outside world. The prisoners’ every word is recorded. They are strip-searched before and after each visit from loved ones (in case they write messages on their body). Letters are severely restricted; phone calls are limited to two 15-minute calls a week. CMU prisoners may spend decades without hugging their wives or children.
Like Guantanamo Bay, the CMU is a child of the war on terror. In 2006 and 2008, respectively, the Bureau of Prisons, under the directorship of Harley Lappin, created two secret units: one in Terre Haute, IN, and the other in Marion, IL. The bureau’s stated purpose was “Limited Communication for Terrorist Inmates.” But as at Guantanamo, Muslims were the real targets. Muslims make up roughly 70 percent of the prisoners in CMUs but only 6 percent of the federal prison population. The CMUs are part of a philosophy that makes Muslim synonymous with terrorist, that views “terrorists” as both contagious and superhuman—so dangerous that they must be subject to ultimate control.
Andy was the rare white CMU prisoner. Guards told him he was there as a “balancer.” CMUs are another reflection of the double standard to which the United States holds Muslims. Acts of speech, travel or association that would be A-OK for a Christian are enough to get a Muslim branded a terrorist.
CMU prisoner Shifa Sadequee was kidnapped by U.S. forces in Bangladesh at the age of 19, allegedly tortured and rendered to the United States. He spent three years in solitary awaiting his trial for terrorism. His crimes? He played paintball and took video footage of U.S. monuments. The former activity was labeled “paramilitary training”; the latter, “casing videos” for an attack. The judge sentenced him to 17 years.
Pharmacist Tarek Mehanna should be called a dissident—but that’s not a label America allows Muslims. A scathing critic of U.S. foreign policy, Mehanna believed Muslims under attack in their own countries had the right to armed self-defense. He translated and subtitled some jihadi materials and briefly traveled to Yemen. Nothing he did would have been looked at askance if he were a Tea Party member speaking about fellow gun enthusiasts. But as a Muslim Mehanna was convicted of material support for terrorism. His sentence? Seventeen years.
At his sentencing, Mehanna delivered a chilling, eloquent statement about resisting oppression: “In your eyes, I’m a terrorist, I’m the only one standing here in an orange jumpsuit and it’s perfectly reasonable that I be standing here in an orange jumpsuit. But one day, America will change and people will recognize this day for what it is. They will look at how hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed and maimed by the U.S. military in foreign countries, yet somehow I’m the one going to prison for ‘conspiring to kill and maim’ in those countries…
“The government says that I was obsessed with violence, obsessed with ‘killing Americans.’ But, as a Muslim living in these times, I can think of a lie no more ironic.”
Mehanna is in a CMU for speech. Few American free speech defenders noticed.
While most Americans were rightly nauseated by the NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden, they gave less thought to the brutal surveillance that Muslim communities have suffered since 9/11. Mosques, student associations and even restaurants were monitored throughout the country. Informants tried to rope the naive or the mentally ill into expressing support for jihad. If an agent was able to pressure an unstable young man into driving a car or buying some backpacks, he could arrest him for assisting terrorism. The agent would receive professional accolades for making the arrest; the young man, decades in jail. For the untold cash it poured into spying on Muslims, the FBI seldom discovered a plot that it did not concoct itself.
CMU prisoner Shahawar Matin Siraj had no explosives or concrete plan of attack, but that did not prevent a judge from sentencing him to 30 years for plotting to bomb New York’s Herald Square. The informant who befriended him, and then goaded him into the plan, was paid $100,000 by the NYPD.
Imprisonment is erasure. The state locks a person in a cage—without context, without community, without love. He becomes not human but a widget passing through a system of absolute control. The CMU enacts a double erasure: it represents the ultimate scission of the prisoner from his non-prison self. You are in a box. You are no one. You belong to us.
Andy is working on a documentary about CMUs. He asked me to draw pictures of some prisoners. Drawing is slow, deliberate. It is an antidote to forgetting men the state wants the world to forget.
One night I worked on a portrait of Ghassan Elashi. A former vice president of an internet company, Elashi was sentenced to 65 years in prison for running the Holy Land Foundation, which was the largest Muslim charity in the United States until the Bush administration shut it down in December 2001. Through charitable organizations in Gaza, Holy Land allegedly funneled money to Hamas, which the United States classifies as a terrorist organization.
Andy invited Elashi’s daughter, Noor, to my studio. She brought a photograph of her father. I was unable to draw him from life, as the USP Marion is not easy to visit. The three of us stayed up late into the night, me rendering Noor’s father’s eyes in careful watercolor, Andy filming us as she watched me draw.
Noor is a stylishly dressed young writer who sidelines as a baker of gluten-free cupcakes. But when she talks about her father, her voice grows cold with pain. She remembers how FBI agents threw him to the floor when they raided their home. She remembers prison guards screaming at her young brother, who has Down syndrome, when he tried to hug his dad (she and her brother were subsequently denied visits for months). She remembers how her father was barred from making phone calls for writing his name on a yoga mat.
She does not believe for a moment that her father deliberately funneled funds to Hamas.
Noor’s situation shows how CMUs rip apart not only prisoners’ lives but also the lives of their families and community. Noor is still fighting for her dad.
In “Counterpunch,” Noor wrote, “My father is my pillar, whose high spirits transcend all barbed-wire-topped fences, whose time in prison did not stifle his passion for human rights.”
Noor’s words point to one of the war on terror’s most insidious legacies. The war on terror flattened Muslims into bogeymen. They could no longer be troubled young men. Nor could they be political dissidents, heads of charities or defenders of human rights. Dissent was equated with terrorism.
In making a fetish of the word “freedom,” America revoked the freedom of so many within her borders. Civil liberties defenders must remember that Muslims are not a separate class of people. Attacks on Muslims’ rights are attacks on human rights.
Paris liberation made ‘whites only’ May 19, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Europe, France, History, Nazi / Fascist, Racism.
Tags: de gaulle, europe, history, liberation of paris, Mike Thompson, paris, paris liberation, Race, racism, roger hollander, second world war, whites only, world war II
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Roger’s note: Just as the Civil War had the “side effect” of ending slavery in the United States but was really fought in order to preserve the Union, World War II is often characterized as a war to promote freedom and defeat racism, but that too was mostly propaganda, the real dynamic was a power struggle between the Allied nations and the nations of the Axis. Just as government sponsored racism is alive and well today in the U.S. (cf. the recent Supreme Court decision against affirmative action), racism was universally upheld by the leadership and governments the the victorious Allied nations of the second world war, the so-called free world.
By Mike Thomson
Presenter, Document, BBC Radio 4
Many of the “French” division which led the liberation of Paris were Spanish
Papers unearthed by the BBC reveal that British and American commanders ensured that the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944 was seen as a “whites only” victory.
Many who fought Nazi Germany during World War II did so to defeat the vicious racism that left millions of Jews dead.
Yet the BBC’s Document programme has seen evidence that black colonial soldiers – who made up around two-thirds of Free French forces – were deliberately removed from the unit that led the Al lied advance into the French capital.
By the time France fell in June 1940, 17,000 of its black, mainly West African colonial troops, known as the Tirailleurs Senegalais, lay dead.
Many of them were simply shot where they stood soon after surrendering to German troops who often regarded them as sub-human savages.
Their chance for revenge came in August 1944 as Allied troops prepared to retake Paris. But despite their overwhelming numbers, they were not to get it.
The leader of the Free French forces, Charles de Gaulle, made it clear that he wanted his Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris.
I have told Colonel de Chevene that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division
General Frederick Morgan
Allied High Command agreed, but only on one condition: De Gaulle’s division must not contain any black soldiers.
In January 1944 Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, was to write in a memo stamped, “confidential”: “It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.
“This would indicate the Second Armoured Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white.”
At the time America segregated its own troops along racial lines and did not allow black GIs to figh t alongside their white comrades until the late stages of the war.
Given the fact that Britain did not segregate its forces and had a large and valued Indian army, one might have expected London to object to such a racist policy.
Yet this does not appear to have been the case.
A document written by the British General, Frederick Morgan, to Allied Supreme Command stated: “It is unfortunate that the only French formation that is 100% white is an armoured division in Morocco.
“Every other French division is only about 40% white. I have told Colonel de Chevene that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division.”
Finding an all-white division that was available proved to be impossible due to the enormous contribution made to the French Army by West African conscripts.
So, Allied Command insisted that all black soldiers be taken out and replaced by white ones from other units.
When it became clear that there were not enough white soldiers to fill the gaps, soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East were used instead.
In the end, nearly everyone was happy. De Gaulle got his wish to have a French division lead the liberation of Paris, even though the shortage of white troops meant that many of his men were actually Spanish.
We were colonised by the French. We were forced to go to war… France has not been grateful. Not at all.
Former French colonial soldier
The British and Americans got their “Whites Only” Liberation even though many of the troops involved were North Af rican or Syrian.
For France’s West African Tirailleurs Senegalais, however, there was little to celebrate.
Despite forming 65% of Free French Forces and dying in large numbers for France, they were to have no heroes’ welcome in Paris.
After the liberation of the French capital many were simply stripped of their uniforms and sent home. To make matters even worse, in 1959 their pensions were frozen.
Former French colonial soldier, Issa Cisse from Senegal, who is now 87 years-old, looks back on it all with sadness and evident resentment.
“We, the Senegalese, were commanded by the white French chiefs,” he said.
“We were colonised by the French. We were forced to go to war. Forced to follow the orders that sai d, do this, do that, and we did. France has not been grateful. Not at all.”
Mike Thomson presents Radio 4’s Document at 2000BST on Monday 6 April
Tags: anti-muslim, Bharatiya Janata, bjp, hindu nationalism, India, india election, jon queally, narendra modi, neoliberal, privatization, racism, right wing, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: I had no sooner posted an article about neo-Nazism in Europe, where I commented that the phenomenon is world wide, than I came across this analysis of the results of the Indian election. Apart from virulent and racist Hinduism represented by the BJP, there is the lesson of what elections really stand for in capitalist democracy. Indian voters had the choice between the endemically corrupt Nehru/Ghandi Congress Party dynasty versus the racist BJP, both parties sold out to the corporate elite. Makes one think about Democrats and Republicans, doesn’t it?
Critics say victory of Hindu nationalist party and asendancy of Narendra Modi put nation on perilous course
In national elections in India, the rightwing Hindu nationalist party, called the Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP), has won a landslide victory for the country’s parliament and their leader, businessman Narendra Modi from Gujurat, is now set to become the nation’s next Prime Minister.
According to Reuters:
With more than six times the seats of its closest rival, Modi’s is the most decisive mandate for any leader since the 1984 assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi propelled her son to office. Since 1989, India has been governed by coalitions.
The BJP was winning in 278 seats of the 543-seat parliament, counting trends showed. An alliance led by the party was ahead in 337 seats, TV channel NDTV said.
Though many are framing the BJP’s victory as the result of widespread disgust with the current government, led by the Congress Party, and a win for those calling for an end to systematic corruption in the world’s most populous democratic state—critics of the neoliberal BJP say its ascendency puts India on a perilous path.
For progressive-minded Indians, says Vijay Prashad, a historian and professor at American University of Beirut, the BJP victory “is the worst of all worlds.”
In statements ahead of the elections, activist and author Arundhati Roy said that India’s election were not about serving the interests of the nation’s poor and disenfranchised, but about “which corporation would come to power.”
Referring directly to the now victorious Modi, Roy stated, “This time, [the elections were] corporate war and he is a corporate candidate.” She indicated that all the major parties continue to ignore the pervasive poverty, including mass malnutrition which plague vast sections of the country. Despite India having the third-fastest growing economy in the world, Roy said, its democracy is being steadily destroyed by “unequally distributed wealth” and a political elite that pays only lip service to the nation’s farmers, marginalized youth, and underclass.
To de-mystify Modi’s victory and put his party in context, Prashad explains:
“BJP never ran against the roots of inequality or deprivation, but only what it deemed to be its symptom – corruption. This was a clever strategy. It both rode the anti-Congress wave, which had been produced by anger at the inequalities in the country, and it mollified the corporate community, which would not have been interested in any criticism of the policies of neoliberalism.”The BJP’s record in governance is not any different from that of the Congress – with inequality and corruption being the order of the day in its bastion of Gujarat, for instance. To take one indicator as illustrative, in Gujarat the mal-nutrition rate is so low that it is worse than the average level of malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa (where the rates of mal-nutrition remain very disturbing). Gujarat’s ‘development model’ also favored the privileged businessmen of the ruling party, the BJP, and its chief minister, Narendra Modi. Family firms such as the Adani group earned substantial gifts from the BJP government, which enhanced their profits, and helped Gujarat increase its own profile as “open for business.”
Modi was able to dodge questions of the “Gujarat Model.” He was quickly anointed by the BJP as its Prime Ministerial candidate and hastily favored by the media with far more coverage than any other politician. Modi ran as the development candidate with a carefully calibrated argument – he suggested that it was not neo-liberalism that created inequality, but its symptom, namely corruption, which the BJP tied to the mast of the Congress. In other words, the BJP never ran against the roots of inequality or deprivation, but only what it deemed to be its symptom – corruption. This was a clever strategy. It both rode the anti-Congress wave, which had been produced by anger at the inequalities in the country, and it mollified the corporate community, which would not have been interested in any criticism of the policies of neoliberalism.
Writing in the Guardian on Friday, Indian author and writer Pankaj Mishra argues that with Modi at the helm, India is facing “its most sinister period since independence.” Providing context for both Modi’s rise within the BJP and the rightwing fanaticism of the party now set to control India, Mishra writes:
Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founder’s belief that Nazi Germany had manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging the Jews is by no means unexceptional among the votaries of Hindutva, or “Hinduness”. In 1948, a former member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims. The outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant woman and extracted her foetus. Modi himself described the relief camps housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslims as “child-breeding centres”.
“Modi is never less convincing than when he presents himself as a humble tea-vendor, the son-of-the-soil challenger to the Congress’s haughty dynasts. His record as chief minister is predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or outright gifts – of national resources to the country’s biggest corporations. His closest allies – India’s biggest businessmen – have accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced.”.
Such rhetoric has helped Modi sweep one election after another in Gujarat. A senior American diplomat described him, in cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, as an “insular, distrustful person” who “reigns by fear and intimidation”; his neo-Hindu devotees on Facebook and Twitter continue to render the air mephitic with hate and malice, populating the paranoid world of both have-nots and haves with fresh enemies – “terrorists”, “jihadis”, “Pakistani agents”, “pseudo-secularists”, “sickulars”, “socialists” and “commies”. Modi’s own electoral strategy as prime ministerial candidate, however, has been more polished, despite his appeals, both dog-whistled and overt, to Hindu solidarity against menacing aliens and outsiders, such as the Italian-born leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, Bangladeshi “infiltrators” and those who eat the holy cow.
Modi exhorts his largely young supporters – more than two-thirds of India’s population is under the age of 35 – to join a revolution that will destroy the corrupt old political order and uproot its moral and ideological foundations while buttressing the essential framework, the market economy, of a glorious New India. In an apparently ungovernable country, where many revere the author of Mein Kampf for his tremendous will to power and organisation, he has shrewdly deployed the idioms of management, national security and civilisational glory.
Boasting of his 56-inch chest, Modi has replaced Mahatma Gandhi, the icon of non-violence, with Vivekananda, the 19th-century Hindu revivalist who was obsessed with making Indians a “manly” nation. Vivekananda’s garlanded statue or portrait is as ubiquitous in Modi’s public appearances as his dandyish pastel waistcoats. But Modi is never less convincing than when he presents himself as a humble tea-vendor, the son-of-the-soil challenger to the Congress’s haughty dynasts. His record as chief minister is predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or outright gifts – of national resources to the country’s biggest corporations. His closest allies – India’s biggest businessmen – have accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced.
James Baldwin, Born 90 Years Ago, Is Fading in Classrooms April 24, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Education, Race, Racism, Revolution.
Tags: afro-american, black history, education, felicia r. lee, james baldwin, Race, racism, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: As with MLK’s more radical anti-war, anti-American speeches vanish (whitewashed, pun intended) from official history, so do genuine revolutionary radicals like James Baldwin, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) and Amiri Baraka (born Leroi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, my birthplace). It is no coincidence, rather a conscious amnesia. In the same week celebrating the 90th anniversary of Baldwin’s birth, the US Supreme Court upholds racist anti affirmative action state law. This week also saw the passing away of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the prize fighter who spent 19 years in prison based on racist prosecutions and verdicts in Patterson, New Jersey (my beloved home state).
By FELICIA R. LEE
APRIL 24, 2014, New York Times
James Baldwin’s 1953 novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” about a Harlem teenager’s search for meaning, quickly became a classic, along with his searing essays about race published a decade later in the book “The Fire Next Time.” But in recent years Baldwin’s presence has diminished in many high school classrooms.
In a year that marks the 90th anniversary of his birth, educators offer different reasons for Baldwin’s faded presence there, from the concern that he is too controversial and complex to the perception that he has been eclipsed by other African-American voices. Collectively the explanations illustrate how attitudes about race have changed, along with the way the high school literary experience has evolved according to currents in the field.
“Baldwin is still there, but he’s not there in the way he was,” said Jocelyn A. Chadwick, chairwoman of the secondary level of the National Council of Teachers of English, pointing out that while in the 1960s and ’70s students would study Baldwin’s essays, short stories and novels in their entirety, today they often encounter his work only in anthologies.
Isaac Asante participates in a discussion of “Sonny’s Blues” in Ms. Brantley’s class.
Now teachers, scholars and other Baldwin fans are seizing on the anniversary of his birth in Harlem to inspire what they hope will be a revival of a younger generation’s interest in the work of one of the country’s most gifted writers and major voices on race and morality.
The New York Live Arts festival “James Baldwin, This Time,” which began on Wednesday and continues through Sunday with performances and events across disciplines, is an extensive commemoration of the writer, who was black and gay and died in 1987. The festival kicks off a yearlong, citywide consideration of Baldwin at several places, including Harlem Stage, the Columbia University School of the Arts and the New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics.
Additionally, some of Baldwin’s books are being reissued this year, and there are new appraisals of his work as well as new work inspired by him. “Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems” (Beacon Press), with an introduction by the poet Nikky Finney, came out this month. Vintage reissued “Giovanni’s Room” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain” last year. Already the attention has prompted a broader conversation about Baldwin’s legacy.
“I think he’s not taught as much anymore on the high school level because he’s incendiary and, for some, inflammatory,” said Rich Blint, a Baldwin scholar and associate director in the Office of Community Outreach and Education at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Paradoxically, the belief that the county is somehow postracial, Mr. Blint said, has shut down some discussions about race. “Think about how impoverished our racial conversations are now,” he said.
Educators also cite poor reading habits, censorship and Baldwin’s absence from the list of works suggested for Common Core standards as reasons his works are not studied regularly. And since the late ’70s and early ’80s, as school districts have scrambled for more diverse subject matter in the classroom, Baldwin has had to share space with a new crop of black writers, especially women: Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Over the years, some parents and schools have also challenged what they saw as the sexual material, violence and profanity in Baldwin’s work. Sex — interracial and intraracial, gay and straight — is prominent in his fiction. His raw dissections of race also raised concerns.
Long before it was fashionable to argue that race was a social construct, Baldwin famously said, “Insofar as you think you’re white, you’re irrelevant,” during a 1979 speech in Berkeley, Calif., a sentiment he repeated in his writing and public appearances. Racism was not a stain on American exceptionalism, Baldwin argued, but a deliberate feature of a country that he said routinely terrorized black people. He moved to France in the late 1940s to evade racism, but he returned home often, and he helped to articulate the pains of the civil rights movement.
“He was one of the fiercest critics of the American race problem who ever put pen to paper,” said Khalil G. Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. A historian, Mr. Muhammad has taught Baldwin to students as young as eighth grader to help them understand history and to articulate and communicate the conditions of their lives, he said. In his travels around the country, though, he does not find nearly enough young Baldwin readers, he said.
In the words of Walter Dean Myers, an award-winning children’s author, in an interview, “It begins with the fact that the students are not reading that well at all, the teachers shy away from complex issues, and the parents are not making demands.” While it can be difficult to generalize about a vast universe of schools, high school students who do read Baldwin are more apt to attend elite or high-performing schools, said Mr. Myers, who in 2012 and 2013 traveled to dozens of libraries, schools and community centers around the country as a national ambassador for young people and literature.
Nevertheless, in some quarters Baldwin remains a vivid part of adolescent lives. In a classroom decorated with Baldwin quotations at the Frederick Douglass Academy 1 in Harlem, students in freshman English one recent morning recited poems inspired by “Sonny’s Blues,” Baldwin’s short story about a jazz musician whose demons include heroin.
“In a dark place is where my soul lays/one parent dead and the other missing,” went two lines of “Stanley’s Blues,” by Stanley Anisca.
Shawnakay Shaw recited, “Living in the hood ain’t no joke/especially when you’re broke selling dope.”
To include young people in the new considerations of Baldwin, students from the James Baldwin School, a Manhattan high school, will join such prominent artists as Ms. Finney, Suzan-Lori Parks, Marcus Gardley, Vijay Iyer and others in reading and discussing Baldwin’s writing at a Live Arts noon program, “Jimmy at High Noon,” at the New York Live Arts Studio every day during the festival.
For some Baldwin fans, those events are a bright spot on a generally dull landscape. “On one hand, he’s on a U.S. postage stamp; on the other hand, he’s not in the Common Core,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. “A lot of public high school students will not have heard of him, and that’s a tragedy. The burden of protecting James Baldwin’s hugely important legacy is on teachers of English.”
Baldwin’s name and books are not listed in the appendix of the Common Core State Standards, a set of learning goals adopted by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. (Richard Wright, for instance, is included.) Its proponents argue that the core’s “exemplar” list of books and writers is just a guidepost, not definitive and not reflective of a canon or a curriculum. Many canonical titles are not on the list, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain being one example.
Susan Pimentel, a leading writer on the standards for English language arts and literacy, said in an email message that it would be heartbreaking to think that a great story like “Sonny’s Blues” would be overlooked just because it was not on the list. However, she said, “It simply was not the aim of Appendix B to create a list of important authors to read and wade into the canonical arguments of the 1980s.”
At Frederick Douglass, there was no doubt that Baldwin would be in the canon and the classroom. Joseph D. Gates, the principal, said his school has the latitude to create the curriculum with the staff and to include work that will be relevant to students. The school has a reputation for sending all its seniors to college, including some to Ivy League schools.
“I think Baldwin presents a perspective that is uniquely Harlem,” Mr. Gates said. “Many of the struggles the students face are the same: self-identity, racism, drugs and alcohol, even though the times have changed.”
Lynch Law: The Root of US imperialism April 3, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Civil Liberties, History, Human Rights, Imperialism, Race, Racism, Torture, War.
Tags: danny haiphong, history, ho chi minh, imperialism, jim crow, kill list, KKK, lynch law, lynching, ndaa, Race, racism, roger hollander, slavery, solitary confinement, torture, white power
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Roger’s note: there are strong words. Back in the late 1960s those of us protesting the US aggression in Vietnam were criticized for using the word “fascist” to characterize the U.S. government. It seemed to many then, as it may seem to many now, that the use of such language was going overboard. I disagreed then, and I disagree now. And believe me, friends, in terms of the kinds of governmental actions that can be described as fascist, we have come a long way since then.
Domestic U.S. lynch has morphed into imperialist terrorism. “Washington uses a nexus of intelligence and military institutions to lynch the world’s people of their lives and resources.”
by Danny Haiphong; http://www.blackagendareport.com, April 1, 2014
“The prospect of being lynched by Obama’s ‘kill list’ or detained under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is just a ‘terrorist’ label away from any American the US government finds a threat to its ‘national security.’”
The political and economic foundation of the United States is built on the corpses of legal lynching, or “lynch law.” Without the genocide and enslavement of Black and indigenous peoples, the US capitalist class could not have amassed its profits, wealth, or power. Following the passage of the 13th Amendment that supposedly ended Black chattel slavery at the close of the Civil War, the US capitalist class moved quickly to reorganize the capitalist economy so newly “freed” Blacks would remain enslaved. Convict-leasing, sharecropping, and legalized segregation ensured Black exploitation and white power. These brutal forms of exploitation were kept intact by white terrorism in the form of lynching.
Thousands of Black people were lynched by white supremacists from the end of the Civil War until 1968. Ho Chi Minh, the first revolutionary president of socialist Vietnam, worked in the US in the mid-1920s and examined the horrors of lynching. He described the gruesome details of white vigilantes torturing and killing Black people with impunity. Local law enforcement officials protected white lynch mobs like the KKK and Black Legion and often participated in lynching alongside their white counterparts. ‘Uncle Ho’ states in his work Lyching (1924) that “the principal culprits [of lynching] were never troubled, for the simple reason that they were always incited . . . then protected by the politicians, financiers, and authorities . . . “ It wasn’t until Black people organized themselves to defend and arm their communities that white mobs were forced to curtail their racist murder sprees.
“80,000 mostly Black prisoners are caged in solitary confinement, which by definition is torture and illegal under international law.”
The so-called end of “Jim Crow” racism only changed the form in which Black people would be lynched by the US racist order. The US capitalist class responded to the force of the Black liberation movement by institutionalizing “lynch law” into its criminal injustice system. Today, some form of law enforcement murders a Black person in this country every 28 hours. Nearly half of the estimated 3 million US prisoners are Black and nearly all are “people of color.” 80,000 mostly Black prisoners are caged in solitary confinement, which by definition is torture and illegal under international law. Numerous states in the US have “Stand your ground” laws that allow white supremacists to murder Black people with impunity. Sound familiar? And President Obama, the Commander-in-Chief of US imperialism, is too concerned with pathologizing Black America than forwarding substantive policies that address “lynch law” on behalf of his most loyal constituency.
In this period of heightened exploitation for the oppressed in general and Black America in particular, the propertied classes are becoming increasingly paranoid about the potential for popular unrest. “Lynch law” is becoming the law of the land for the entire populace. A homeless man in Albuquerque, New Mexico was shot dead by local police for being homeless on March 16th. More US citizens have been murdered by US law enforcement in the last decade than have died in the US invasion of Iraq over the same period. The surveillance US imperialism had to conduct in secret on radical dissent in the past has expanded to the entire population through a massive surveillance state of federal intelligence agencies, private contractors, and US multinational corporations. The prospect of being lynched by Obama’s “kill list” or detained under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is just a “terrorist” label away from any American the US government finds a threat to its “national security.”
“More US citizens have been murdered by US law enforcement in the last decade than have died in the US invasion of Iraq over the same period.”
“Lynch law” is also a global tactic for US imperialism to maintain its global domination. Washington uses a nexus of intelligence and military institutions to lynch the world’s people of their lives and resources. This can be examined in specific instances like the thousands of people in the Middle East and Africa murdered by Obama Administration drone strikes or the NATO bombing of Libya that killed tens of thousands and nearly exterminated the Black Libyan population. The CIA has overthrown over 50 foreign governments since the end of World War II. These are just a few important examples of how Washington and its masters, the capitalist class, must lynch the majority of the world’s people to obtain their wealth and power.
The increasing violence, suffering, and social death imposed on oppressed people by US imperialist “lynch law” exposes the bankruptcy of the liberal wing of the capitalist class. Propped up by the corporate media like MSNBC, this self-proclaimed “left” actively participates in bi-partisan lynching in all of its forms to further their careers with the liberal imperialist Democratic Party and the untouchable fascist Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama. Any movement that depends on this corporate brand of leftism to bring about the end of US lynch law is destined to fail. A people’s movement for complete justice will have to be led by the struggle of Black America’s oppressed majority and all communities suffering from US fascist rule. We must spend each day building a movement that empowers oppressed people to demand the power to collectively determine their own destiny. This movement is far from victory’s reach, but each day we fail to act, another exploited human being is lynched by the US imperialist system.
Danny Haiphong is an activist and case manager. You can contact Danny at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Venezuelan opposition shows its right-wing, racist and anti-working class character in the streets of Washington, D.C. February 17, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in Imperialism, Latin America, Venezuela.
Tags: bolivarian revolution, cia, cia coup, georgetown university, imperialism, nicolas maduro, racism, roger hollander, U.S. imperialism, Venezuela, venezuela opposition
Roger’s note: it’s all about regime change, folks. We are now seeing the mass media reports of the Venezuelan “opposition” and its “peaceful democratic” demonstrations against the “repressive” Venezuelan regime of Nicolas Maduro. What the mass media will forget to mention is the CIA backing and support for this attack on a democratically elected progressive regime that is not in the pocket, a la Colombia, of the American government. This is the 1973 Chile operation all over again. The question is whether it will work again and bring a Venezuelan Pinochet to power.
A tale of two demonstrations: Eyewitness report
Yesterday (Sat., Feb. 15) at a demonstration in Washington, D.C., the racist, privileged and pampered character of the ultra-right-wing opponents of Venezuela’s revolutionary government revealed itself in a grotesque display.
Vividly unmasking the true class nature of the opposition to Venezuela’s progressive government, the enraged children of Venezuela’s upper classes, who live a coddled existence in Washington, D.C., yelled insults and racist slurs against a multi-racial group of demonstrators who rallied for six hours to condemn the U.S. government and the CIA for trying to carry out another coup against the progressive government led by Nicolas Maduro.
Standing in front of Venezuela’s Embassy in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., the demonstration was one of many taking place all over the United States in opposition to the CIA’s effort to carry out another sabotage and destabilization in Latin America.
“We, the people of the United States, are mobilizing around the country with a simple message: the government of the United States is trying to use the tactics of economic disruption and sabotage to overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution. The U.S. government speaks in our name but we, the people, oppose this policy,” explained one of the demonstrators over a bullhorn.
The empowered children of Venezuela’s elite went nuts.
“You are Cuban mother****ers” they chanted. Pointing at Black demonstrators, they yelled: “Go back to your homeless shelter.” Stylish, well dressed and chic, Venezuela’s elite arrived for several hours in expensive cars to conduct a counterdemonstration. They brought a team of four impeccably groomed, small, purebred dogs adorned in costumes, and proceeded to pose for pictures with them.
They reflected the typical arrogance of those who have lived with servants throughout life. They spent their entire time pouring out abuse and hatred toward the rally of working-class people who had come out because they oppose the U.S. government using its vast power in an attempt to derail a revolution that is so clearly benefiting Venezuela’s poor.
They called the multi-racial, progressive demonstrators “stupid” and “lazy” and, of course, “communists.” Americans fighting for civil rights or an end to the Vietnam War recognize these echoes from our own homegrown right-wing bigots. But the arrogance of Venezuela’s affluent community in Washington, D.C., seemed boundless.
These empowered rich kids from Venezuela – who go to Georgetown University, which costs over $58,000 a year to attend – screamed out at the demonstration that was attended mostly by working-people in Washington, D.C., “why don’t you get a job” and “who are you” and “go home.”
It was a bad showing for Venezuela’s upper classes. Even though they were in Washington, D.C., they acted like they owned the place. They are an owning class and they cannot conceal their arrogance. They are convinced that they should always own Venezuela’s vast wealth while the majority of the population lives in dire poverty. Why not own the streets of Georgetown too while yelling at working-class people in Washington, D.C., that they should “go home!”
They were dripping with class privilege. These coddled teenagers and twenty-somethings whipped themselves into a frenzy. They gave people the middle finger, and yelled and screamed things such as “Who’s paying you?” and “Come over to our side and we’ll pay you twice the minimum wage.”
They came in shifts so they wouldn’t have to stay out in the cold too long. But it was clear that the progressive demonstration was determined to stay. The temperatures were below freezing. There was a stiff wind, making it feel even colder, and snow for part of the time. The numbers of the right wing dwindled and dwindled. At 4:30 p.m., the last of them retreated and the progressive demonstrators raised their signs and banners, and chanted: “The people united will never be defeated.”
We encourage everyone to join these upcoming events:
Washington, D.C.: Counter the lies of the right wing at the OAS
Wed., Feb. 19, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Outside the OAS
Washington, D.C.-area organizations are calling a rally on Wednesday, Feb. 19 outside the Organization of American States (OAS) – where the right wing will be having a protest at the same time.
We urge you to join us to defend the Bolivarian Revolution, to denounce the right-wing attacks on the people, and to demand that the United States government stop funding the opposition groups, which are responsible for the violence
The One (Dreadful) Thing They Don’t Call Themselves February 3, 2014Posted by rogerhollander in First Nations, Racism, Sports.
Tags: abby zimet, american indians, First Nations, football, indians, mascots, racism, redskins, roger hollander, sports, washington redskins
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by Abby Zimet
Just in time for the Super Bowl, the National Congress of American Indians has releasedProud To Be, a powerful new ad that seeks to explain why the Washington Redskins name – which never gets mentioned – is a racist horror that needs to be changed. With a fascinating history of the word, from its reportedly “benign” origins to its use in 1860s bounty notices – “$200 for every red-skin sent to purgatory” – to the decades-long fight to change a name that ignorant rich people like owner Dan Snyder, all of whom should know better but somehow don’t, continue to insist is “a badge of honor.” Tell them it’s not. It’s time they join this century.
Trayvon Martin Nativity Display At Claremont United Methodist Church Urges Us Not To Forget Gun Violence Victims December 28, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Gun Control/Violence, Racism, Religion.
Tags: christmas, christmas 2013, Claremont United Methodist Church, gun control, guns, Nativity, nra, racism, Religion News, roger hollander, trayvon martin, Trayvon Martin Case, Trayvon Martin Nativity, Umc, United Methodist Church, violence, zimmerman
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Roger’s note: I am not that big on organized Christianity or the nativity myth, but there are some few who call themselves Christian who actually do reflect the ethic of love and peace. And I am big on remembering Trayvon Martin and the institutionalized racism and gun industry that were responsible for his murder as much as the fool Zimmerman.
Trayvon Martin hasn’t been forgotten at Claremont United Methodist Church in Claremont, Cali.– in fact, he appears front and center in their Nativity display. He serves as a bloody and tragic reminder of the dangers of gun violence and racial privilege in today’s America, reports David Allen of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
Amongst the traditional holy family, Martin sits hunched over in his iconic black hoodie, blood pouring from his chest and pooling at his feet, reports Patch.com. The title of the scene, “A Child is Born, a Son is Given,” is outlined within the blood and evokes themes of both Christmas and Easter, according to artist John Zachary, who has been creating thought-provoking displays since 2007.
Zachary told Allen in an interview that the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot the unarmed teenager in 2012, “struck him as a worthy subject for Christmas comment.”
“There is no better time to reflect on gun violence than advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus,” says a sign at the church.. “Jesus was born into a state of total vulnerability as an innocent, unarmed child during a time of great violence much like Trayvon Martin.”
As families gather together at Christmas to celebrate, Zachary hopes to get them to think long and hard about their own blessings and privileges. He told Allen that many Christmas traditions of gifts reflect “privilege, and there’s a lot of people who don’t have that privilege. Maybe I should do something that’s provocative, that’s more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus.”
Artist John Zachary
This isn’t the first time that the church has used the Nativity as an opportunity to remind people about issues of social justice and inequality, which probably would have been of great concern to Jesus himself. Past displays have included Jesus and Mary as a homeless couple struggling to feed their newborn child, as Iraqi refugees next to U.S. soldiers, as immigrants from Mexico stopped by the wall at the border, among others. In 2011, Zachary’s Nativity display was of the outlines of three couples, two of them same-sex, gathering under the banner “Christ Is Born.”
Sharon Rhodes-Wickett, lead pastor at the church, told Allen that she finds this year’s scene difficult to look at, due to its violence. “It’s hard to look at a young man who’s shot and bleeding to death,” she said. “But even though I’m uncomfortable, that’s the point. We have to take a look at the violence.”
Response to the display has been surprisingly muted. “I thought this would be more controversial, but I come to find out people don’t really like people getting shot,” Zachary told Allen. “They may not agree what to do about it, but they agree it’s a bad thing.”
Rhodes-Wickett said that her congregation is progressive, and that “Most people like something that makes us think and makes us search our hearts.”
Also on HuffPost:
The Play’s the Thing December 16, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Criminal Justice, Education, Poverty, Race, Racism, Torture.
Tags: august wilson, chris hedges, education, incarceration, poverty, prison, prisoners, Race, racism, roger hollander, solitary confinement, theatre, torture
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Posted on Dec 15, 2013, http://www.truthdig.com
|AP/Ted S. Warren|
|Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson in his Seattle neighborhood in 2003.|
By Chris Hedges
I began teaching a class of 28 prisoners at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey during the first week of September. My last class meeting was Friday. The course revolved around plays by August Wilson, James Baldwin, John Herbert, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Miguel Piñero, Amiri Baraka and other playwrights who examine and give expression to the realities of America’s black underclass as well as the prison culture. We also read Michelle Alexander’s important book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Each week the students were required to write dramatic scenes based on their experiences in and out of prison.
My class, although I did not know this when I began teaching, had the most literate and accomplished writers in the prison. And when I read the first batch of scenes it was immediately apparent that among these students was exceptional talent.
The class members had a keen eye for detail, had lived through the moral and physical struggles of prison life and had the ability to capture the patois of the urban poor and the prison underclass. They were able to portray in dramatic scenes and dialogue the horror of being locked in cages for years. And although the play they collectively wrote is fundamentally about sacrifice—the sacrifice of mothers for children, brothers for brothers, prisoners for prisoners—the title they chose was “Caged.” They made it clear that the traps that hold them are as present in impoverished urban communities as in prison.
The mass incarceration of primarily poor people of color, people who seldom have access to adequate legal defense and who are often kept behind bars for years for nonviolent crimes or for crimes they did not commit, is one of the most shameful mass injustices committed in the United States. The 28 men in my class have cumulatively spent 515 years in prison. Some of their sentences are utterly disproportionate to the crimes of which they are accused. Most are not even close to finishing their sentences or coming before a parole board, which rarely grants first-time applicants their liberty. Many of them are in for life. One of my students was arrested at the age of 14 for a crime that strong evidence suggests he did not commit. He will not be eligible for parole until he is 70. He never had a chance in court and because he cannot afford a private attorney he has no chance now of challenging the grotesque sentence handed to him as a child.
My stacks of 28 scenes written by the students each week, the paper bearing the musty, sour smell of the prison, rose into an ungainly pile. I laboriously shaped and edited the material. It grew, line by line, scene by scene, into a powerful and deeply moving dramatic vehicle. The voices and reality of those at the very bottom rung of our society—some of the 2.2 million people in prisons and jails across the country, those we as a society are permitted to demonize and hate, just as African-Americans were once demonized and hated during slavery and Jim Crow—began to flash across the pages like lightning strikes. There was more brilliance, literacy, passion, wisdom and integrity in that classroom than in any other classroom I have taught in, and I have taught at some of the most elite universities in the country. The mass incarceration of men and women like my students impoverishes not just them, their families and their communities, but the rest of us as well.
“The most valuable blacks are those in prison,” August Wilson once said, “those who have the warrior spirit, who had a sense of being African. They got for their women and children what they needed when all other avenues were closed to them.” He added: “The greatest spirit of resistance among blacks [is] found among those in prison.”
I increased the class meetings by one night a week. I read the scenes to my wife, Eunice Wong, who is a professional actor, and friends such as the cartoonist Joe Sacco and the theologian James Cone. Something unique, almost magical, was happening in the prison classroom—a place I could reach only after passing through two metal doors and a metal detector, subjecting myself to a pat-down by a guard, an X-ray inspection of my canvas bag of books and papers, getting my hand stamped and then checked under an ultraviolet light, and then passing through another metal door into a barred circular enclosure. In every visit I was made to stand in the enclosure for several minutes before being permitted by the guards to pass through a barred gate and then walk up blue metal stairs, through a gantlet of blue-uniformed prison guards, to my classroom.
The class, through the creation of the play, became an intense place of reflection, debate and self-discovery. Offhand comments, such as the one made by a student who has spent 22 years behind bars, that “just because your family doesn’t visit you doesn’t mean they don’t love you,” reflected the pain, loneliness and abandonment embedded in the lives of my students. There were moments that left the class unable to speak.
A student with 19 years behind bars read his half of a phone dialogue between himself and his mother. He was the product of rape and tells his mother that he sacrificed himself to keep his half brother—the only son his mother loves—out of prison. He read this passage in the presentation of the play in the prison chapel last Thursday to visitors who included Cornel West and James Cone.
Terrance: You don’t understand[,] Ma.
Terrance: You’re right. Never mind.
PauseTerrance: What you want me to say Ma?
Terrance: Ma, they were going to lock up Bruce. The chrome [the gun] was in the car. Everyone in the car would be charged with murder if no one copped to it …
Terrance: I didn’t kill anyone Ma… Oh yeah, I forgot, whenever someone says I did, I did it.
Terrance: I told ’em what they wanted to hear. That’s what niggas supposed to do in Newark. I told them what they wanted to hear to keep Bruce out of it. Did they tell you who got killed? Did they say it was my father?
Terrance: Then you should know I didn’t do it. If I ever went to jail for anything it would be killing him … and he ain’t dead yet. Rape done brought me into the world. Prison gonna take me out. An’ that’s the way it is Ma.
Terrance: Come on Ma, if Bruce went to jail you would’uv never forgiven me. Me, on the other hand, I wasn’t ever supposed to be here.
Terrance: I’m sorry Ma … I’m sorry. Don’t be cryin’. You got Bruce. You got him home. He’s your baby. Bye Ma. I call you later.
After our final reading of the play I discovered the student who wrote this passage sobbing in the bathroom, convulsed with grief.
In the play when a young prisoner contemplates killing another prisoner he is given advice on how to survive prolonged isolation in the management control unit (solitary confinement, known as MCU) by an older prisoner who has spent 30 years in prison under a sentence of double life. There are 80,000 U.S. prisoners held in solitary confinement, which human rights organizations such as Amnesty International define as a form of torture. In this scene the older man tells the young inmate what to expect from the COs, or correction officers.
Ojore (speaking slowly and softly): When they come and get you, ’cause they are gonna get you, have your hands out in front of you with your palms showing. You want them to see you have no weapons. Don’t make no sudden moves. Put your hands behind your head. Drop to your knees as soon as they begin barking out commands.
Omar: My knees?
Ojore: This ain’t a debate. I’m telling you how to survive the hell you ’bout to endure. When you get to the hole you ain’t gonna be allowed to have nothing but what they give you. If you really piss them off you get a ‘dry cell’ where the sink and the toilet are turned on and off from outside. You gonna be isolated. No contact. No communication.
Ojore: ’Cause they don’t want you sendin’ messages to nobody before dey question some of da brothers on the wing. IA [internal affairs officers] gonna come and see you. They gonna want a statement. If you don’t talk they gonna try and break you. They gonna open the windows and let the cold in. They gonna take ya sheets and blankets away. They gonna mess with ya food so you can’t eat it. An’ don’t eat no food that come in trays from the Vroom Building. Nuts in Vroom be spittin’, pissin’ and shittin’ in the trays. Now, the COs gonna wake you up every hour on the hour so you can’t sleep. They gonna put a bright-ass spotlight in front of ya cell and keep it on day and night. They gonna harass you wit’ all kinds of threats to get you to cooperate. They will send in the turtles in their shin guards, gloves, shank-proof vests, forearm guards and helmets with plexiglass shields on every shift to give you beat-downs.
Omar: How long this gonna go on?
Ojore: Til they break you. Or til they don’t. Three days. Three weeks. You don’t break, it go on like this for a long time. An’ if you don’t think you can take it, then don’t start puttin’ yerself through this hell. Just tell ’em what they wanna know from the door. You gonna be in MCU for the next two or three years. You’ll get indicted for murder. You lookin’ at a life bid. An’ remember MCU ain’t jus’ ’bout isolation. It’s ’bout keeping you off balance. The COs, dressed up in riot gear, wake you up at 1 a.m., force you to strip and make you grab all your things and move you to another cell just to harass you. They bring in dogs trained to go for your balls. You spend 24 hours alone one day in your cell and 22 the next. They put you in the MCU and wait for you to self-destruct. An’ it works. Men self-mutilate. Men get paranoid. Men have panic attacks. They start hearing voices. They talk crazy to themselves. I seen one prisoner swallow a pack of AA batteries. I seen a man shove a pencil up his dick. I seen men toss human shit around like it was a ball game. I seen men eat their own shit and rub it all over themselves like it was some kinda body lotion. Then, when you really get out of control, when you go really crazy, they got all their torture instruments ready—four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, tethers, and waist and leg chains. But the physical stuff ain’t the worst. The worst is the psychological, the humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, extreme light or dark, extreme cold or heat and the long weeks and months of solitary. If you don’t have a strong sense of purpose you don’t survive. They want to defeat you mentally. An’ I seen a lot of men defeated.
The various drafts of the play, made up of scenes and dialogue contributed by everyone in the class, brought to the surface the suppressed emotions and pain that the students bear with profound dignity. A prisoner who has been incarcerated for 22 years related a conversation with his wife during her final visit in 1997. Earlier his 6-year-old son had innocently revealed that the woman was seeing another man. “I am aware of what kind of time I got,” he tells his wife. “I told you when I got found guilty to move on with your life, because I knew what kind of time I was facing, but you chose to stick around. The reason I told you to move on with your life was because I didn’t want to be selfish. So look, man, do what the fuck you are going to do, just don’t keep my son from me. That’s all I ask.” He never saw his child again. When he handed me the account he said he was emotionally unable to read it out loud.
Those with life sentences wrote about dying in prison. The prisoners are painfully aware that some of them will end their lives in the medical wing without family, friends or even former cellmates. One prisoner, who wrote about how men in prolonged isolation adopt prison mice as pets, naming them, carefully bathing them, talking to them and keeping them on string leashes, worked in the prison infirmary. He said that as some prisoners were dying they would ask him to hold their hand. Often no one comes to collect the bodies. Often, family members and relatives are dead or long estranged. The corpses are taken by the guards and dumped in unmarked graves.
A discussion of Wilson’s play “Fences” became an exploration of damaged manhood and how patterns of abuse are passed down from father to son. “I spent my whole life trying not to be my father,” a prisoner who has been locked up for 23 years said. “And when I got to Trenton I was put in his old cell.”
The night we spoke about the brilliant play “Dutchman,” by LeRoi Jones, now known as Amira Baraka, the class grappled with whites’ deeply embedded stereotypes and latent fear of black men. I had also passed out copies of Robert Crumb’s savage cartoon strip “When the Niggers Take Over America!,” which portrays whites’ fear of black males—as well as the legitimate black rage that is rarely understood by white society.
The students wanted to be true to the violence and brutality of the streets and prison—places where one does not usually have the luxury of being nonviolent—yet affirm themselves as dignified and sensitive human beings. They did not want to paint everyone in the prison as innocents. But they know that transformation and redemption are real.
There are many Muslims in the prison. They have a cohesive community, sense of discipline and knowledge of their own history, which is the history of the long repression and subjugation of African-Americans. Most Muslims are very careful about their language in prison and do not curse, meaning I had to be careful when I assigned parts to the class.
There is a deep reverence in the prison for Malcolm X. When the class spoke of him one could almost feel Malcolm’s presence. Malcolm articulated, in a way Martin Luther King Jr. did not, the harsh reality of poor African-Americans trapped in the internal colonies of the urban North.
The class wanted the central oracle of the play to be an observant Muslim. Faith, when you live in the totalitarian world of the prison, is important. The conclusion of the play was the result of an intense and heated discussion about the efficacy and nature of violence and forgiveness. But by the end of a nearly hourlong discussion the class had unanimously signed off on the final scene, which I do not want to reveal here because I hope that one day it will be available to be seen or read. It was the core message the prisoners wanted most to leave with outsiders, who often view them as less than human.
The play has a visceral, raw anger and undeniable truth that only the lost and the damned can articulate. The students wrote a dedication that read: “We have been buried alive behind these walls for years, often decades. Most of the outside world has abandoned us. But a few friends and family have never forgotten that we are human beings and worthy of life. It is to them, our saints, that we dedicate this play.” And they said that if the play was ever produced, and if anyone ever bought tickets, they wanted all the money that might be earned to go to funding the educational program at the prison. This was a decision by men who make, at most, a dollar a day at prison jobs.
We read the Wilson play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The character Bynum Walker, a conjurer, tells shattered African-Americans emerging from the nightmare of slavery that they each have a song but they must seek it out. Once they find their song they will find their unity as a people, their inner freedom and their identity. The search for one’s song in Wilson’s play functions like prayer. It gives each person a purpose, strength and hope. It allows a person, even one who has been bitterly oppressed, to speak his or her truth defiantly to the world. Our song affirms us, even if we are dejected and despised, as human beings.
Prisoners are given very little time by the guards to line up in the corridor outside the classroom when the prison bell signals the end of class. If they lag behind they can get a “charge” from the guards that can restrict their already very limited privileges and freedom of movement. For this reason, my classroom emptied quickly Friday night. I was left alone in the empty space, my eyes damp, my hands trembling as I clutched their manuscript. They had all signed it for me. I made the long and lonely walk down the prison corridors, through the four metal security doors, past the security desk to the dark, frozen parking lot. I looked back, past the coils of razor wire that topped the chain-link fencing, at the shadowy bulk of the prison. I have their song. I will make it heard. I do not know what it takes to fund and mount a theater production. I intend to learn.