Grounded Freedom

My parents loved the soil, the earth, the outside, and in their garden I saw the freedom they felt with it. The garden announced to them and the world that they were absolutely free to be themselves.

Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination. Yale: 2010. p.2

Everyone needs a champion


Wonderful article on the relationship between Langston Hughes and the up-and-coming Gwendolyn Brooks. His professional friendship allowed her to flourish, and both of them, to speak more eloquently about the black lives in Bronzeville, in Chicago.

The Love Between Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks

HT: Randall Jelks

Going Native

Anthony Bradley posted a thought provoking comment from Thomas Sowell

“Do people who advocate special government programs for blacks realize that the federal government has had special programs for American Indians, including affirmative action, since the early 19th century — and that American Indians remain one of the few groups worse off than blacks?” ~ T. Sowell //ok, yeah that is true. Didn’t work out too well for them either.

The comparison of American Indians and African Americans has a history among conservatives, not least because both are seen as wards of the State. And so the thinking goes, following Hayek, it must be this relationship to the State that has effected their diminished status.

It’s a bit of apples and oranges, really.

The status of Native Americans is quite distinct from that of other ethnic groups, or from that of African Americans and the horrors of slavery and Southern oppression. Native Americans were only formally granted citizenship in 1924 (prior, Indians could gain citizenship through intermarriage, military service, or renouncing tribal identity); in seven states they lacked right to vote until after WW II.

Prior to the Indian Reorganization Act (1938) the federal government had policies that were not only economically disadvantaging Native Americans, but explicitly seeking the destruction of their culture through forced English-only assimilation in the schools. The previous pattern of privatization of Indian lands under the Dawes Act wrecked further havoc and the loss of more than 90 million acres of Native land; e.g.  the Menominee lands basically disappeared under this program. However well intentioned (and it was, from the eyes of Washington) this was most definitely not a welfare state failure, but something worse.

(One can also add the horrific mismanagement of the trust fund set up by the Dawes Act. The mismanagement by the Department of Interior resulted in the loss of over $100 billion to Native coffers. One hundred billion — and not in today’s money, either: this is a catastrophic loss. This is not the welfare state robbing initiative, but the State robbing its wards — a different matter.)

Finally, in contrast to Thomas Sowell’s focus on the individual, the tribal organizations took a far more communal approach in the wake of the IRA. The last half of the 20C has seen an increasing assertion of self-determination (Sovereignty) by tribes large and small, initially in areas like natural resource management (hunting fishing), but increasingly in areas of education and economic development (casinos, being the best-known).

What does link the status of African Americans and Indians is how both suffer from the legacy of real injustice. It is this continuing grief borne across generations that creates the head wind and holds people back.

A Faulty Foundation

This week Michigan Senator Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton) introduced a set of bills to in part,  prevent “censorship of our founding documents” (SB 120). While that can be dismissed as the usual hot air of  political posturing, the other bills are more substantive, one (SB 423)

establishes requirements for schools to incorporate teaching provisions of the U.S. Constitution, the Michigan state constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and would require the Michigan Department of Education to incorporate those subjects into standardized testing of students.

The fundamental problem here is the elevation of the Declaration of Independence as a core document of this nation. While one can appreciate the desire of those social conservatives to elevate the Declaration (particularly the bit about inalienable rights being endowed by the Creator…. not that conservatives have an especially good grasp on the concept of “inalienable”), for the purposes of understanding our actual government, it is the Constitution that rules.  And if one is to have a mandated test, then that Constitution ought to be front and center.

Yet even a cursory review reveals what’s missing: the total absence of any of the great national documents regarding African-Americans. Well, yes, in politeness, they did leave off the bit about slaves being worth only 3/5 a vote in the original Constitution, but where is the insistence that children of this state learn about the Emancipation Proclamation? Or the Lincoln’s great Second Inaugural. Or for that matter, the Gettysburg Address? For a party that once championed, bled and died for these great truths, this is a peculiar omission.

An omission less surprising, given the origin of this measure in the southern social conservative community.


Starting Over

As the S.S. Malone steamed past Sandy Hook, a young Langston Hughes did something radical, he tossed his books overboard. The books he meant to read, the books he read at Columbia. All of them. The last to go was H. L. Mencken. As he put it in his autobiography

It wasn’t only the books that I wanted to throw away, but everything unpleasant and miserable out of my past: the memory of my father, the poverty and uncertainties of my mother’s life, the stupidities of color-prejudice, black in a white world, the fear of not finding a job, the bewilderment of no one to talk to about things that trouble you, the feelings of always being controlled by others—by parents, by employers, by some outer necessity not your own. All those things I wanted to throw away. To be free of. To escape from I wanted to be a man on my own, control my own life, and go my own way. I was twenty-one. So I threw the book in the sea.

Quoted by Kevin Young, The Grey Album, 175



James Weldon Johnson


James Weldon Johnson asked in 1921, why if Europe could have its Pushkin, its Dumas, or a composer like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor — all with African heritage — how is it the American Negro did not? His answer turned to the race struggles of the South, and surprisingly, the burdens the Southerners themselves bore:

“The Negro in the United States is consuming all of his intellectual energy in this grueling race-struggle. And the same statement may be made in a general way about the white South. Why does not the white South produce literature and art? The white South, too, is consuming all of its intellectual energy in this lamentable conflict. Nearly all of the mental efforts of the white South run through one narrow channel. The life of every Southern white man and all of his activities are impassably limited by the ever present Negro problem. And that is why, as Mr. H.L.Mencken puts it, in all that vast region, with its thirty or forty million people and its territory as large as a half a dozen Frances and Germanys, there is not a single poet, not a serious historian, not a creditable composer, not a critic good or bad, not a dramatist dead or alive.”

Preface The Book of American Negro Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922)

Review: Colored Pictures

Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation

Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation by Michael D. Harris

Earlier this summer, I did the library equivalent of impulse buying. There at the counter, being checked in as I was checking out, was Colored Pictures. One look at the images and how could I resist? The book has made a suitable companion to Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, particularly the chapter on Dunbar’s use of high and low dialect and Young’s refusal to use a hierarchy. High and low belong together as one voice.

Harris’ broad concern is the manner in which the representation of race comes to shape our political/social discourse; as he notes, it is dialectic, both arising from existing understandings and then reinforcing the same. In the second part of the book he explores how some black artists have worked directly or indirectly to establish their own claim on race. The weakness in this second discussion arises from keeping the focus so tightly on specific artists that we do not see the broader cultural contexts. Even as the artist explores the African American experience, they also do so in the context of other movements and moments in in art and culture.

As Harris said, it’s a dialectic. Some points would certainly be stronger for this broader discussion.

What is left under-discussed in this broader framework would be the impact of the 20th Century on the theme. Three areas suggest themselves (this is going to get long). Continue reading “Review: Colored Pictures”