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Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence? July 4, 2016

Posted by rogerhollander in Afro-American, Genocide, History, Racism, slavery, Uncategorized.
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Roger’s note: we hardly need the article I have posted below to remind us that in 1776 genocidal racism directed toward African slaves and First Nations peoples was alive and well.  What I do think we need to be reminded of is how today’s orgiastic, exceptionalist, triumphalist (a la Joseph Goebbels) “celebrations,” along with the Trump phenomenon, are clear signs that things have not changed that much in 240 years.

 

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Robert G. Parkinson, New York Times, July 4, 2016

Binghamton, N.Y. — FOR more than two centuries, we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong. Or rather, we’ve been celebrating the Declaration as people in the 19th and 20th centuries have told us we should, but not the Declaration as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote it. To them, separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.

The Declaration’s beautiful preamble distracts us from the heart of the document, the 27 accusations against King George III over which its authors wrangled and debated, trying to get the wording just right. The very last one — the ultimate deal-breaker — was the most important for them, and it is for us: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” In the context of the 18th century, “domestic insurrections” refers to rebellious slaves. “Merciless Indian savages” doesn’t need much explanation.

In fact, Jefferson had originally included an extended attack on the king for forcing slavery upon unwitting colonists. Had it stood, it would have been the patriots’ most powerful critique of slavery. The Continental Congress cut out all references to slavery as “piratical warfare” and an “assemblage of horrors,” and left only the sentiment that King George was “now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us.” The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. What became the official version was one marked by division.

Upon hearing the news that the Congress had just declared American independence, a group of people gathered in the tiny village of Huntington, N.Y., to observe the occasion by creating an effigy of King George. But before torching the tyrant, the Long Islanders did something odd, at least to us. According to a report in a New York City newspaper, first they blackened his face, and then, alongside his wooden crown, they stuck his head “full of feathers” like “savages,” wrapped his body in the Union Jack, lined it with gunpowder and then set it ablaze.

The 27th and final grievance was at the Declaration’s heart (and on Long Islanders’ minds) because in the 15 months between the Battles of Lexington and Concord and independence, reports about the role African-Americans and Indians would play in the coming conflict was the most widely discussed news. And British officials all over North America did seek the aid of slaves and Indians to quell the rebellion.

A few months before Jefferson wrote the Declaration, the Continental Congress received a letter from an army commander that contained a shocking revelation: Two British officials, Guy Carleton and Guy Johnson, had gathered a number of Indians and begged them to “feast on a Bostonian and drink his blood.” Seizing this as proof that the British were utterly despicable, Congress ordered this letter printed in newspapers from Massachusetts to Virginia.

At the same time, patriot leaders had publicized so many notices attacking the November 1775 emancipation proclamation by the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, that, by year’s end, a Philadelphia newspaper reported a striking encounter on that city’s streets. A white woman was appalled when an African-American man refused to make way for her on the sidewalk, to which he responded, “Stay, you damned white bitch, till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.”

His expectation, that redemption day was imminent, shows how much those sponsored newspaper articles had soaked into everyday conversation. Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were essential in broadcasting these accounts as loudly as they could. They highlighted any efforts of British agents like Dunmore, Carleton and Johnson to involve African-Americans and Indians in defeating the Revolution.

Even though the black Philadelphian saw this as wonderful news, the founders intended those stories to stoke American outrage. It was a very rare week in 1775 and 1776 in which Americans would open their local paper without reading at least one article about British officials “whispering” to Indians or “tampering” with slave plantations.

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So when the crowd in Huntington blackened the effigy’s face and stuffed its head with feathers before setting it on fire, they were indeed celebrating an independent America, but one defined by racial fear and exclusion. Their burning of the king and his enslaved and native supporters together signified the opposite of what we think of as America. The effigy represented a collection of enemies who were all excluded from the republic born on July 4, 1776.

This idea — that some people belong as proper Americans and others do not — has marked American history ever since. We like to excuse the founders from this, to give them a pass. After all, there is that bit about everyone being “created equal” in this, the most important text of American history and identity. And George Washington’s army was the most racially integrated army the United States would field until Vietnam, much to Washington’s chagrin.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading the newspapers. All the African-Americans and Indians who supported the revolution — and lots did — were no match against the idea that they were all “merciless savages” and “domestic insurrectionists.” Like the people of Huntington, Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic. This notion comes from the very founders we revere this weekend. It haunts us still.

Robert G. Parkinson, an assistant professor of history at Binghamton University, is the author of “The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution.”

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Taking a Stand for Political Prisoners in the U.S. May 2, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Afro-American, Criminal Justice, History, Race, Revolution.
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AlterNet / By asha bandele
 

A former Black Panther’s new book explores American politics and the fight for justice.

April 30, 2010  |  
 
Photo Credit: safiyabukhari.com
 

It is 1990 and I am the newly elected student government president at Hunter College of the City University of New York. My political worldview, largely shaped heretofore by my active opposition to apartheid, Ronald Reagan and nuclear proliferation, is about to make a mighty leap forward. I know, then, that racism is a vise still choking Black people, even those of us born post the Civil Rights movement. I know the philosophy of Martin Luther King. I love Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and have even traveled Zimbabwe in the wake of its liberation struggle. I know some feminist theory, some feminist history. But for all the knowledge I have gathered at this point, I do not know enough to predict the learning curve I am about to embark upon, in large part because it is in this period that I meet Safiya Bukhari.

Under her mentorship I will come to have not only an intimate understanding of which political prisoners are in the U.S., but I will learn how to organize and run a defense campaign for them. Under her mentorship and because she led by example, I will learn never to downplay my leadership as a nod to the patriarchy that shapes, both silently and loud, the role of women in too many of our movements and organizations. Under her leadership, I will learn the power of human touch, the holding of hand of a man or woman who is about to enter their second generation locked down. I will learn patience; the first political prisoner case I worked on was for the New York 3 and it was 1991 and we were fighting to get them an evidentiary hearing; we did. But to get there, Safiya and I worked for months, including one long night where we stood for hours in a downtown New York law school and copied non-feedable onion skin page of transcript after another until all the thousands of them were done and we could get them to the attorneys who were volunteering their time. We lost that hearing but because we came within a hair’s breadth of winning, and because we were just off the victories of Mandela on one side of the planet and Dhoruba on another, and mostly because I had come to deeply love Herman Bell, Jalil Muntaquim and Albert Nuh Washington, the loss shook me in all my naivité to the core. But at the moment when I could have given up, perhaps would have given up, I learned from Safiya Bukhari that we do indeed soldier on, that we come from a long-line of women and men who were kicked down, beaten down, shut down, shut up but got up and got up and got up again. She got up again and made me get up and went on to forge the New York Chapter of Mumia abu Jamal’s support committee and organize the Jericho Movement, a call for the liberation of all U.S. political prisoners and prisoners of war.

The organization exists still today and is known nationally and internationally despite her death in 2003, a loss that put many of us, both behind the wall and not, on our collective knees. I was a pallbearer that mean August day we buried her and I remember feeling so profoundly as we carried her coffin up the stairs of the House of the Lord Church, what many of us feel when someone important to us dies: please God, can have just one more day, one more hour, one more hug or touch or kiss or moment in silence or laugh or cry or anything. Anything.

My call out to the Universe didn’t come to pass that day, but on this day it has because I have my Safiya back with me when every time I pick up this important, this urgent new collection, The War Before: The True Life Story of Becoming a Black Panther, Keeping the Faith in Prison, & Fighting for Those Left Behind (The Feminist Press, 2010).

Edited by former political prisoner and former Weatherman Laura Whitehorn, this book which includes a forward by Angela Y. Davis, and an afterword by Mumia abu Jamal, has pulled together the political writings of woman who lived the sprit of transformation and with the unshakeable belief that a new world was possible. After her untimely death, Laura and Safiya’s daughter, Wonda Jones, undertook the work of collecting and collating the organizer’s writings and interviews into a comprehensive volume that is now this book, The WarBefore. Here I sit down with Laura to discuss who Safiya was and what we can learn from the vision of a woman, a wise and committed, loving and giving worker woman.

asha: What was your relationship to Safiya Bukhari?

I first met Safiya in the late 1990s, when I was in prison in California and she came to visit. She came in to see all the women political prisoners who were there at the time — the Puerto Rican Independentistas Carmen Valentin, Alicia and Lucy Rodriguez, and Dylcia Pagan; my sister anti-imperialists (and my co-defendants) Marilyn Buck and Linda Evans; and me. It was one of many visits she made to prisoners during the organizing for a 1998 Jericho rally at the White House demanding recognition and amnesty for U.S. political prisoners. After my release in 1999, Safiya and I talked together at conferences and events, but I was not permitted to see her much because I was on parole. She died in 2003 while I was still on parole.

What was one of the most important things Safiya taught you?

From Safiya I drew a model of how to be serious about the work of supporting political prisoners. She knew from her own years behind bars the danger of promising prisoners you’ll do things you can’t deliver. She knew the critical importance of outside support. In her writings she says that while she was serving her eight-plus years in Goochland, Virginia, her biggest challenge was maintaining her sense of her own identity as a political person–as someone committed to fighting for justice. That is so opposite to what prisons are, it sometimes can feel like you are in a dream world. Her hard work in support of political prisoners, and the energy and joy–the sense of optimism–she brought to all of us was something I felt in my bones to be critical.

Again and again as I do this work, I remember what she said at a party when I got out of prison: When you leave prison, and you leave those others behind, it’s like you leave part of you inside the institution. So you have to continue to do the work, because as long as there’s a political prisoner — any prisoner — inside this country, that means that you’re not truly free.

Given that this book was published posthumously, would you please talk a little bit about the process of gathering her papers and putting them into one collection?

Safiya had left a small manuscript of essays, including her own autobiographical narrative and a paper on sexism in the Black Panther Party, among other articles. Once those were all put into the computer and edited, though, it became clear that a huge part of Safiya’s work was missing — years of speeches, articles, and interviews reviewing the history of the Panthers and arguing that the people still doing time from those years should be supported and freed. We found some little-known pieces, such as a debate over whether the U.S. should grant amnesty to political prisoners — the opposing team included some high-power government attorneys. We also found an article Safiya wrote describing post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the government attack on the Panthers.

The first round of challenges was to choose amongst all these materials. At first I tended to want to include everything, because finding the items was sort of a process of discovery, and so many of them are historic. But it was clear that what was needed was not a recapitulation of every word Safiya had written or spoken, but rather a selection, to reflect the development of her thinking and, more importantly, the history of the movements she was part of. For example, Safiya considered at various points the nature of divisions within Left organizations, and how those allowed the government to use provocateurs and informants to divide groups and ultimately destroy them. She returned several times to that theme, and to the question of how individual weaknesses played a role. She tied those themes, again and again, to the overriding theme of how Black people and other oppressed people can struggle for justice in this country. No small task.

At each point, Wonda and I tried to be objective and yet faithful to what Safiya might have wanted. She did not set out to write a book; she was an organizer. We hope that the book will not only be educational but also agitational–that, as Angela Davis writes in the foreword, “readers of The War Before will commit themselves to the campaign to bring Assata Shakur home, and to freeing Mumia, Leonard Peltier, and every one of the human beings for whom Safiya Bukhari so passionately gave her life.”

What makes this book different than other books written by Black Panthers?

This book is unique precisely because Safiya did not try to write a book. The War Before consists of primary source material–Safiya’s accounts of life in the Black Panther Party as it was happening; her thoughts and reflections at several points during her history — rather than a retrospective summing up of the history and her conclusions about it. Safiya’s writings about the Panthers have an in-the-moment quality that I think is similar only to Mumia Abu-Jamal’s book, We Want Freedom. Safiya allows the reader to participate in the conclusions she is suggesting, rather than presenting a summary of those conclusions.

The War Before is also not a polemic. Safiya considers various points of view about the history of the liberation movements. She is above all self-aware, self-critical, honest. She is not protecting her own decisions and role, she is questioning those, looking for answers rather than asserting them. Unlike many books about the 60s and 70s, Safiya’s writings assert again and again that the history of that era is not frozen in the past. She talks intimately about the members of the Black Panther Party who remain in prison, and how that reality belies any sense that the battles the Panthers fought are over and done, relics of the past. One of the most moving sections of the book involves a discussion between Safiya and a former Panther who was then dying in prison, Albert Nuh Washington. In the discussion, only a few months before his death, Nuh talks about their shared history and its significance. He, too, is re-evaluating, considering the past as living history that continues to exert influence on what we do now and how we see the world.

What do we learn as women about the Panthers and the Black Power movement from this book?

In addition to a thoughtful essay on sexism and the Black Panther Party, Safiya writes and speaks frequently about the role of women. From those specific writings, we glean a sense of how women influenced the Party toward programs dealing with the basic needs of the Black community. But her writings elucidate a much deeper importance of the role of women in the Black Power movement: She shows that militancy is much more than standing up to U.S. state power in demonstrations, or with guns. By the end of “The War Before” I think readers will understand that true militancy does not exist in how we act, but in what we struggle for–and in how consistently we struggle. Safiya’s power lay very much in her willingness to keep fighting. She kept fighting for political prisoners when many others had given up. As Cleo Silvers, another former Black Panther, put it, Safiya showed not only how to be a revolutionary woman during a revolutionary period but, more important, how to be a revolutionary woman during a very non-revolutionary time. The other thing I think Safiya teaches us about the role of women concerns the nature of solidarity. The way Safiya writes about political ideals is not abstract. What we are fighting for, she shows us, is an extension of the best in human beings who rise out of oppression and construct liberation. She shows us her feelings, too, and reflects a depth of collectivity very different from what we see in other histories of the second half of the twentieth century.

What do you think Safiya would say the most urgent issue for people to be working on today is?

For Safiya, the continued incarceration of people like Herman Bell and Jalil Muntaqim, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Russell Maroon Shoatz and Eddie Conway — former Black Panthers who remain behind bars for up to 40 years and more–demanded urgent attention and action. I think she would say that many struggles are critical, but that if we do not fight to release our comrades then our movements will suffer. But from Safiya’s writings you get a sense of an ongoing struggle. And I think you get a picture of a struggle that has not been won, but has not been lost. That is a very different sense of the history of the Black Panther Party than you get from many other sources. So I think that really Safiya would say, if you are fighting for justice, you are doing the most urgent work there is to be done.

asha bandele is an award-winning author and journalist whose most recent book is Something Like Beautiful: One Single Mother’s Journey (HarperCollins, 2009)

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