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James Baldwin, Born 90 Years Ago, Is Fading in Classrooms April 24, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Education, Race, Racism, Revolution.
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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).


APRIL 24, 2014, New York Times

Dinobi Agwu reading a poem inspired by James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” in Erika Brantley’s, background, 9th-grade English class at the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem.

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.”


The New Jim Crow December 10, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Race, Racism.
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We’ve all heard the statistics, and most of us have simply become numb to hearing them. For many people, the over-incarceration of Black people is simply a fact of life. It shouldn’t be.

Thanks to legal scholar and professor Michelle Alexander1 we now have a new book that explains how we ended up with a criminal justice system that targets and endangers Black communities, as well as ideas on what we can do to free ourselves from that system’s clutches.

When we put the book — The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness — in the hands of 20 ColorOfChange members to review, the response was unanimous. In addition to giving the book glowing reviews, they all wanted the entire ColorOfChange community to know about it.

It’s why we’re now inviting you to get your own copy (and for your friends or family as well, in time for the holiday season), as well as participate in a conference call with Professor Alexander in the new year to discuss it.

You can get your copy here:


Professor Alexander’s book outlines the evolution of drug laws and how their ongoing effects on Black America parallel the role that segregation played in the period following the Civil War and preceding the Civil Rights Movement.2 And it raises questions about what it will take to build a movement that can reform the broken drug laws that fuel high incarceration rates.

Criminal justice reform is key to our community — a third of Black men will spend part of their lives in prison,3 and Black children are more than six times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than White children.4 ColorOfChange members have demonstrated time and again that they want to change the status quo. More than 59,000 ColorOfChange members called on Congress to remove the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and nearly 25,000 sent a statement to Senator James Webb of Virginia, thanking him for his attempts to overhaul our approach to incarceration.

We believe — and the ColorOfChange members who read and reviewed the book agreed — that the book will help us, as everyday people, stand with even more power to advocate for change. Ms. Alexander is herself a longtime member of ColorOfChange.org, and she’s agreed to speak with those of you who read the book, and answer any questions you have. We’ll contact you again early in the new year with more information about how to participate in that conference call, which is sure to be informative and powerful.

Here’s what ColorOfChange.org members are saying about The New Jim Crow:

“This book explains how this new Jim Crow came to be and how deeply ingrained it is now in the American psyche. Unless we really understand how this happened, we’ll never break this vicious cycle of African-American overincarceration… How many family members of prisoners lie about their relatives in the penal system in an effort to mitigate the stigma of criminality? This system penalizes entire families. [The book] was such an eye opener.”
— Irma, Washington, DC

“This book will give you a good understanding of the system, its historical roots, its origins in the War on Drugs, the complicity of the police and legal system leading to mass incarceration of people of color, and the tragic result of creating a permanent caste system based on color. It opened my eyes and stirred my soul.“
— Larry, Freeland, WA

“This isn’t a fight for the lawyers. This is a fight for regular people, the non-experts, the advocates, the sympathizers, the human beings who care and want to care more. Fertile ground for change is wherever we are, however we are, and accessible to those of us with less than sizable monetary wealth or a law degree.”
— Thuha, Fountain Valley, CA


For more on The New Jim Crow and to get your copy, click here:


Thanks and Peace,

— James, Gabriel, William, Dani, Natasha and the rest of the ColorOfChange.org team
   December 9th, 2010

Help support our work. ColorOfChange.org is powered by YOU — your energy and dollars. We take no money from lobbyists or large corporations that don’t share our values, and our tiny staff ensures your contributions go a long way. You can contribute here:



1. “The New Jim Crow,” article by Michelle Alexander in Mother Jones, 03-08-2010

2. “Legal Scholar Michelle Alexander on ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’,” Democracy Now, 03-11-2010

3. “Too Long Ignored,” The New York Times, 8-20-2010

4. “Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility,” Pew Charitable Trusts, 9-2010

Additional resources:

“More than 1 in 100 U.S. adults are in prison,” New York Times, 2-29-2008

Black Women Struggle in Criminal Justice System December 16, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Race.
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jailThe fastest-growing group being incarcerated in the US is adult women. (Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)


13 December 2008

by: James Wright, The Afro-American Newspapers

New America Media’s D.C. Ethnic Media Awards.

 Washington – If one were to see Shawn Mallory or Jennifer Gaskins in public, they could easily be indistinguishable. Not because they are invisible, for they are attractive, self-assured women, but because their demeanors would not draw attention to themselves. Mallory, a light-skinned woman with a full-figured face, could be a co-worker, a singer in the church choir or a frequent customer at clubs such as Love’s or The Chateau.

    Gaskins could be your neighborhood association president, your child’s teacher or the saleswoman at a department store.

    These women are neither. Despite their non-threatening personas, it would be a shock to some to find that Mallory, 39 and Gaskins, 55, are veterans of the criminal justice system.

    Mallory was sent to prison in the early 1990s for aiding and abetting a sale of crack cocaine to a minor and Gaskins was sentenced in 2001 to prison for attempted distribution of crack along with a violation of probation. Both women served time in the D.C. jail and the women’s federal prison in Alderson, W.Va.

    They are in various states of probation, where they must submit a urine sample for drug testing and report to an officer on a weekly basis for verification. Mallory and Gaskins have admitted that they have used illegal drugs and, in the former’s case, resorted to prostitution as a means of making a living.

    Adult women are the fastest growing group in regards to incarceration. The number of female prisoners rose at a faster rate (4.8 percent) than the number of male prisoners (2.7 percent), according to a study, “Prison and Jail Inmates” conducted by the Department of Justice, Bureau of Statistics (BJS) in 2006. In that report, the BJS said that there were 111,400 female prisoners in federal and state prisons.

    The report noted that the percent increase in female prisoners was almost twice that of male prisoners.

    Black women make up a larger share of their gender incarcerated than in any other group.

    According to research conducted by Pew Public Safety Performance Project “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008”, 1 in every 279 Black women is incarcerated compared with 1 in every 1,064 white women and one in every 658 Latinos. For ages 35 to 39, 1 in every 100 black women are in jail or prison-the highest proportionally of any female group.

    Mallory said that being in the criminal justice system was very traumatic.

    “I helped some young boys sell drugs on the streets and that is how I got caught,” she said. “I was sent to D.C. Jail and it was really, really tough there. I remember one time I was put in a cell with a bunch of dykes and they raped me.

    “I’ll never forget the time I was being transported to Superior Court for a hearing and a U.S. Marshal raped me behind the judge’s chambers. The people who did those things to me were punished, but it still has an effect on me.”

    Mallory’s experiences in the D.C. Jail are not uncommon. In a survey released by the BJS on Feb. 28, 2007, more than 50 percent of women in jail said they have been physically or sexually abused in the past, compared to more than 10 percent of the men.

    This behavior can have dire consequences for women inmates. A BJS study, “HIV in Prisons” conducted in 2004, reported that 2.6 percent of all female state prison inmates were HIV positive, compared to 1.8 of males.

    Mallory decided to use the system to her advantage. While in D.C. Jail, she got her GED and took classes in street law, women’s law, and parenting and had sessions with a psychiatrist. She continued to educate herself while at Alderson because she saw it as a means of self-improvement.

    Gaskins said that doing time was “hard” but was determined to be an exception to the rule.

    “When I got out, I made sure that I had clean urine and if I had an appointment with my probation officer, I went to it,” she said. “I had a goal to get back into society and be a good citizen.”

    Black women offenders face a number of hurdles when they want to leave a life of crime. Brenda Smith, professor at the American University Washington College of Law and a consultant with the National Women’s Center Women in Prison project, said that Black women offenders face systemic challenges that their White counterparts don’t deal with.

    “Black women in prison generally have a lack of family and community support,” Smith, who authored a pamphlet, “An End to Silence: A Prisoner’s Handbook on Identifying and Addressing Sexual Misconduct”, for women offenders, said. “There are issues of poverty because they are less able to afford mental health and substance abuse treatment to divert them from jail or prison. They then end up committing crimes to support a habit.”

    Nkechi Taifa, a senior policy associate at the Open Society Institute, said that crack cocaine laws have increased the number of Black women in prison-unfairly.

    “Black women are caught in the net,” Taifa said. “Black women disproportionately are caught up in the criminal justice system because of these bad crack cocaine laws. They are caught up with what I call the ‘girlfriend problem’.” Many of these women date or have relationships with these men and they get charged along with them to harsh sentences. Basically, they are the wrong person at the wrong time.”

    Both Mallory and Gaskins said that supporting men with criminal tendencies brings women into a life of crime. Smith said that women would like to break free from these men but don’t find it so easy to do.

    “The man may be the actor but the woman is prosecuted as well,” Smith said. “Often women have little information to bargain for a better plea and end up serving long sentences. Also, women are afraid the men will hurt them, their children or their families if they ‘snitch’ on them.”

    Taifa and Smith said that women have additional problems if they have a family.

    “When women are incarcerated, they have very little contact with the family and especially the children,” Smith said. “They are often single parents and when they go to prison, they may lose custody of their children to family members who are angry with them and therefore may face a legal termination of parental rights.”

    Taifa said that when a woman gets through serving a prison term, she will have problems finding a job or getting basic social services because of her record. “It no secret that a woman, especially a Black woman, will have a harder time getting a job and established than a White woman,” she said.

    The main hurdle that women offenders face in and out of prison is psychological. Dr. Wilma Butler acknowledges that and has formed a group in D.C., WINCA (Women in Control Again) that focuses on female offenders and putting them on the right track.

    “Women who are in the criminal justice system have to deal with issues of low self-esteem, anger and, in some cases, mental illness,” Butler said. “We try to deal with it in a holistic way, trying to keep the body and the mind sound. If the body is out of sync, the mind also can be out of sync, too.”

    Smith said that many women offenders take on the role of victim.

    “The history of sexual and physical victimization puts them at risk for criminal involvement and poor decision-making,” she said.

    In an April 1999 BJS report, “Prior Abuse Reported by Inmates and Probationers”, nearly 6 in 10 women in state prisons had experienced physical or sexual abuse in the past. The report said that 69 percent of the affected group said an assault occurred before the age of 18.

    In contrast, only 16 percent of the male inmates surveyed confirmed physical or sexual abuse before incarceration.

    Mallory and Gaskins admitted candidly that they had been sexually abused by family members and lovers.

    “You know it happens but you don’t talk about it to anyone,” she said. “It affects you because it took away your power as a woman, but you tell yourself that it is not a big thing. But it is.”

    Gaskins is close to finishing her probation because she is clean and met her responsibilities. Still, there are temptations.

    “When I go to the store I see the crack addicts that I used to hang with,” she said,” and I admit that a side of me wants to go over there and do what they are doing. But I fight that because I want a better life.

    “You don’t know how I feel when I get home from the store after walking by them.”

    Mallory is in a living environment where she is verbally abused by her housemates for staying away from drugs.

    “Oh, I get called all kinds of names and it is tempting but I have better goals for myself,” she said. Mallory works with an organization, HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive), which helps prostitutes get off the street and provides them with counseling and social services. “After you get out of prison, it is not easy, but it can be done with the help of the Lord and determination.”


    New American Media Editor’s Note: James Wright’s profile of black women in and out of prison won best investigative/in-depth article in