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Freedom from Bondage and FEAR
Below is a piece written by writer and editor Hamden Rice HamdenRice – Daily Kos. Because I aspire to write with such passion and presence I do not want to let Rice’s post get too far away from me. He depicts, with pinpoint accuracy, my beliefs after my first year of college (and my cursory reading of Hailey’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X) when I too came home believing I had it all figured out; what it meant to be black in 1970 and just what we had to do to achieve the personal manifest destiny of which we were so brutally robbed. I reprint Rice’s post as it appeared in the Daily Kos (as many have done before me) in its entirety for my WordPress followers. – gdf
Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did
– Hamden Rice
This will be a very short diary. It will not contain any links or any scholarly references. It is about a very narrow topic, from a very personal, subjective perspective.
The topic at hand is what Martin Luther King actually did, what it was that he actually accomplished.
What most people who reference Dr. King seem not to know is how Dr. King actually changed the subjective experience of life in the United States for African Americans. And yeah, I said for African Americans, not for Americans, because his main impact was his effect on the lives of African Americans, not on Americans in general. His main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer. That’s why some of us who are African Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, despite what our civil religion tells us, is not color blind.
Head below the fold to read about what Martin Luther King, Jr. actually did.
I remember that many years ago, when I was a smartass home from first year of college, I was standing in the kitchen arguing with my father. My head was full of newly discovered political ideologies and Black Nationalism, and I had just read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, probably for the second time.
A bit of context. My father was from a background, which if we were talking about Europe or Latin America, we would call, “peasant” origin, although he had risen solidly into the working-middle class. He was from rural Virginia and his parents had been tobacco farmers. I spent two weeks or so every summer on the farm of my grandmother and step-grandfather. They had no running water, no gas, a wood burning stove, no bathtubs or toilets but an outhouse, potbelly stoves for heat in the winter, a giant wood pile, a smoke house where hams and bacon hung, chickens, pigs, semi wild housecats that lived outdoors, no tractor or car, but an old plow horse and plows and other horse drawn implements, and electricity only after I was about 8 years old. The area did not have high schools for blacks and my father went as far as the seventh grade in a one-room schoolhouse. All four of his grandparents, whom he had known as a child, had been born slaves. It was mainly because of World War II and urbanization that my father left that life. They lived in a valley or hollow or “holler” in which all the landowners and tenants were black. In the morning if you wanted to talk to cousin Taft, you would walk down to behind the outhouse and yell across the valley, “Heeeyyyy Taaaaft,” and you could see him far, far in the distance, come out of his cabin and yell back.
On the one hand, this was a pleasant situation because they lived in isolation from white people. On the other hand, they did have to leave the valley to go to town where all the rigid rules of Jim Crow applied. By the time I was little, my people had been in this country for six generations (going back, according to oral rendering of our genealogy, to Africa Jones and Mama Suki), much more under slavery than under freedom, and all of it under some form of racial terrorism, which had inculcated many humiliating behavior patterns.
Anyway, that’s background. I think we were kind of typical as African Americans in the pre-civil rights era went.
So anyway, I was having this argument with my father about Martin Luther King and how his message was too conservative compared to Malcolm X’s message. My father got really angry at me. It wasn’t that he disliked Malcolm X, but his point was that Malcolm X hadn’t accomplished anything as Dr. King had.
I was kind of sarcastic and asked something like, so what did Martin Luther King accomplish other than giving his “I have a dream speech.”
Before I tell you what my father told me, I want to digress. Because at this point in our amnesiac national existence, my question pretty much reflects the national civic religion view of what Dr. King accomplished. He gave this great speech. Or some people say, “he marched.” I was so angry at Mrs. Clinton during the primaries when she said that Dr. King marched, but it was LBJ who delivered the Civil Rights Act.
At this point, I would like to remind everyone exactly what Martin Luther King did, and it wasn’t that he “marched” or gave a great speech.
My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”
Please let this sink in and take my word and the word of my late father on this. If you are a white person who has always lived in the U.S. and never under a brutal dictatorship, you probably don’t know what my father was talking about.
But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.
He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.
I’m guessing that most of you, especially those having come fresh from seeing The Help, may not understand what this was all about. But living in the south (and in parts of the Midwest and in many ghettos of the north) was living under terrorism.
It wasn’t that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.
You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth’s.
It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.
This constant low-level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.
White people also occasionally tried black people, especially black men, for crimes for which they could not conceivably be guilty. With the willing participation of white women, they often accused black men of “assault,” which could be anything from rape to not taking off one’s hat, to “reckless eyeballing.”
This is going to sound awful and perhaps a stain on my late father’s memory, but when I was little, before the civil rights movement, my father taught me many, many humiliating practices in order to prevent the random, terroristic, berserk behavior of white people. The one I remember most is that when walking down the street in New York City side by side, hand in hand with my hero-father, if a white woman approached on the same sidewalk, I was to take off my hat and walk behind my father, because he had been taught in the south that black males for some reason were supposed to walk single file in the presence of any white lady.
This was just one of many humiliating practices we were taught to prevent white people from going berserk.
I remember a huge family reunion one August with my aunts and uncles and cousins gathered around my grandparents’ vast breakfast table laden with food from the farm, and the state troopers drove up to the house with a car full of rifles and shotguns, and everyone went kind of weirdly blank. They put on the masks that black people used back then to not provoke white berserkness. My strong, valiant, self-educated, articulate uncles, whom I adored, became shuffling, Step-N-Fetchits to avoid provoking the white men. Fortunately the troopers were only looking for an escaped convict. Afterward, the women, my aunts, were furious at the humiliating performance of the men, and said so, something that even a child could understand.
This is the climate of fear that Dr. King ended.
If you didn’t get taught such things, let alone experience them, I caution you against invoking the memory of Dr. King as though he belongs exclusively to you and not primarily to African Americans.
The question is, how did Dr. King do this—and of course, he didn’t do it alone.
(Of all the other civil rights leaders who helped Dr. King end this reign of terror, I think the most under appreciated is James Farmer, who founded the Congress of Racial Equality and was a leader of nonviolent resistance, and taught the practices of nonviolent resistance.)
So what did they do?
They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.
Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.
If we do it all together, we’ll be okay.
They made black people experience the worst of the worst, collectively, that white people could dish out, and discover that it wasn’t that bad. They taught black people how to take a beating—from the southern cops, from police dogs, from fire department hoses. They actually coached young people how to crouch, cover their heads with their arms and take the beating. They taught people how to go to jail, which terrified most decent people.
And you know what? The worst of the worst, wasn’t that bad.
Once people had been beaten, had dogs sicced on them, had fire hoses sprayed on them, and been thrown in jail, you know what happened?
These magnificent young black people began singing freedom songs in jail.
That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep-throated freedom song. The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another. This is what the writer, James Baldwin, captured like no other writer of the era.
Please let this sink in. It wasn’t marches or speeches. It was taking a severe beating, surviving and realizing that our fears were mostly illusory and that we were free.
So yes, Dr. King had many other goals, many other more transcendent, non-racial, policy goals, goals that apply to white people too, like ending poverty, reducing the war-like aspects of our foreign policy, promoting the New Deal goal of universal employment, and so on. But his main accomplishment was ending 200 years of racial terrorism, by getting black people to confront their fears. So please don’t tell me that Martin Luther King’s dream has not been achieved, unless you knew what racial terrorism was like back then and can make a convincing case you still feel it today. If you did not go through that transition, you’re not qualified to say that the dream was not accomplished.
That is what Dr. King did—not march, not give good speeches. He crisscrossed the south organizing people, helping them not be afraid, and encouraging them, like Gandhi did in India, to take the beating that they had been trying to avoid all their lives.
Once the beating was over, we were free.
It wasn’t the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act that freed us. It was taking the beating and thereafter not being afraid. So, sorry Mrs. Clinton, as much as I admire you, you were wrong on this one. Our people freed ourselves and those Acts, as important as they were, were only white people officially recognizing what we had done.
ORIGINALLY POSTED TO HAMDENRICE ON MON AUG 29, 2011 AT 08:24 AM PDT.
This Much I Know is True: My Last Day of 2013
On this last day of 2013 I am weary of new year’s resolutions – you know those promises we make to ourselves that have a shelf-life of twenty minutes – sixty if I’m lucky. I awoke this morning considering the flexibility of certainty – the same type of certainty that has always been ascribed to death and taxes.
What follows are the few things that have proven true – for me in 2013.
What I know:
I know that I expect decency in ostensibly educated people and am sorely disappointed when decency becomes a foreign country these individuals are afraid to visit. And one would think that after a few years of this forehead-slapping frustration I would know better but…
I know that truth is an illusive landscape that when strung together with imaginative prose can provide cascades of honesty regarding the human condition. I’m sure it’s called good fiction and until I am told differently I’ll go with that.
I know that memory can be resistant to logic. A sweltering heat can rise from this terrain erasing any tragedy in the offing. Reality is the thief; the mugger in the dark, “hand over your memories and no one gets hurt.”
I know that as tragedy strikes good friends, I am left in awe of the strength that can reside in the human heart. A heart so rent with grief that one fears for the possessor of this roughed-up organ. But no, it is as if internal forces dedicated to battle appear overnight to slay grief in its cradle.
I know I will never sing as well as I’d like to. I have a lovely, talented friend from high school who possesses a beautiful, forceful voice. She has sung her way around the world and now for reasons (she believes) stronger than her voice she says she will not sing again. This makes me sad. I am one who has had many dreams of opening my mouth and having some beautiful, if not tuneful, music exit. I used to like the idea of karaoke but I’m afraid of being seen as part of the legion of the sad, unfulfilled and lonely lip-synchers moaning about lost loves, chances, and continence.
I know that youth is what sticks even when we go unrecognized at our reunions.
I know that a good memory can be a serious design flaw
I know now that some song lyrics mean different things depending on the amount wine ingested.
I know that some songs only make sense after three glasses of wine which is too bad when two glasses is all one can tolerate.
I know there are drinks (famous writers/drinkers of hard liquor have told me) one can order by fingers – like ordering two fingers of desire to open one’s emotional house, a brief and tragic three dimensional cut-a-way: here I am at my desk, that’s me tossing and turning in my stone sleep, there I am turned away from prying eyes – my face unrecognizable – even by those who love me. Wine is my vehicle of choice as I search under the weight of desire?
I know that living in the past can be an addiction; the monkey on one’s back that pushes us beyond mirrors and reality; that cruel beast that wraps his hand around the slender stem of that third glass of moscato – too sweet to do any good.
And lastly –
I know too that, even as it seems our souls are sewn from the same cloth, they are held together with a mere thread of memories; a heartbreaking slight-of-hand that can bind us to decency or doom.
Have a wonderfully truthful 2014
THE VOODOO OF OLD PHONEBOOKS
FaceBook: Rules That (should) Apply
I would like to give those people who send me friend requests on FB a disclaimer of sorts. Seriously, whenever I click that friend icon I find myself wondering just how long before I post something that this person will find offensive or I wonder how long before this new ‘friend’ posts something I will find shameful or most unfriendly. So, I am providing a list that describes the kind of person that I am – thereby giving potential friends the option to friend me or not to friend me (that is the question). – No, it isn’t. Remember – choice is good.
What describes me:
1. I am a liberal: By liberal I mean that if I were to find myself in a lifeboat (I would like to think) I would attempt to get as many people safe in the boat with me rather than follow the “sink-or-swim” ideology. And, if in my democrat/socialist zeal, I post items you find offensive – feel free to block or unfriend me. I’m okay with that.
2. I am an African-American: Just know that I will see you for the potential bigot you are when you tell me some of your “best friends” are, black, Negro, or colored (I know, sounds crazy in 2013 but…). The ethnicity of your friends does not matter to me. You are either a decent person or you are not and, in my mind, the ethnic make-up or your friends bears no relationship to your decency. Also, please don’t use me as the token African -American friend to show others just how diverse your friendship pool is. Oh, before I forget, I am a light-skinned African-American so don’t tell me I am different. I am human – no different from you or any other human being.
3. I am a teacher: Right now I teach at the local community college after retiring from 22 years at the high school level. So, if you happen to come across my picture or a post of mine that brings back fond memories of me as your teacher – just know that I tried my best to see the potential for goodness in all my students – that includes you. My approach to teaching was always that I wanted to be the kind of teacher that I would want for my own son. I am kind. I am generous and compassionate. If you, for whatever reason, feel compelled to post mean-spirited posts making fun of: poor people or people on public assistance, Planned Parenthood, Hispanics, Native Americans, and/or blacks, just know that, as your former teacher, I will feel a sense shame and embarrassment just before I unfriend you in a most unceremonious fashion. Please understand there are those who were not born with luck or providence on their side. And if you can’t help someone then, please, don’t hurt them or their image in a post that may appear on my page. I will not stand silently by and let more crap be heaped upon those less fortunate.
And if you never saw any of the above personality traits as part of my personality in the years that you’ve known me, then I’ve done something wrong. Yet another reason NOT to send a friend request.
AN OUNCE OF KINDNESS – PLEASE?
Today is October 2, 2013. This country is in its second day of a government shutdown because a group of grown individuals, elected to represent the people and uphold the laws of this country, are unable to get beyond the “kindergarten sandbox” politics that adheres to the time-honored tradition of, if I don’t get my way, I’m going to hold my breath. Well, these people are actually holding the financial breath of us all – they are still getting paid as opposed to the more than a million citizens who are not.
But I am writing to make another point – even as the above has acted as the catalyst for this point. I have been astounded at the vitriol and mean-spirited attacks by young adults on others less fortunate. A former student set off a FaceBook barrage of meanness when she called individuals on welfare cheats and lazy. There were other choice adjectives thrown in this tirade but one gets the point – even without the expletives. First I have to say this former student is a long-standing hero of mine. She was and remains (for me) the only high school girl to try out for the football team. She fought hard, very hard at the heavily padded sports wall set up between genders. I was privy to some of her thoughts on afternoons when she would stop by my classroom before practice flushed with excitement even as she showed me her bruises up and down her back and rib cage. Initially, like most competitive individuals, she was proud of the black and blue proof of her rugged spirit; this was a test and she was, if not succeeding magnificently, going the distance. My heart burst with pride for her. She was the daughter I wanted – standing toe-to-toe with the sport-dominant gender and holding her own. Then one day she came to my room saddened, believing her desire to quit the unnatural abuse that was heaped upon her (I am sure to teach her that her place was on the sidelines and not on the field) meant she had, somehow, betrayed her gender. My heart broke even as we sat and discussed where she might best put her future energies. Girls’ lacrosse became her next goal as she put together a winning team of young women as beautiful and rugged as she. Needless to say, I was surprised to read a post of such insensitivity from her. I made my comments and also responded to another poster who happily spouted astoundingly ugly comments about people forced to live in poverty. I guess my mistake was suggesting this person not call herself a Christian. I was bombarded with her anger and her telling me, “You don’t know me.” She was right; I didn’t know her life – any more than she knew the lives of the majority of people on public assistance – the ones she so blithely castigated. I sat back and wondered how such meanness could have taken space in the hearts of my s/hero and her friend. Surely it was not learned in any of the literature I selected for students – literature that pointed to the beauty of diversity by showing no one group is ALL anything. Stereotyping is discrimination plain and simple.
Later, I came to realize that what is going on in our nation’s capitol has spread like jelly from a sloppily made sandwich. These young people have bought into the idea that all of their problems begin and end with those whom they accuse of ‘gaming ’ the system. Oh their qualm is not with those who game the system on the high-end; they are, in fact, the perpetrators of the myth. More money is lobbied and directed into programs that benefit only a few. The one per-cent of this country has never, ever in the history of the republic been richer. Money makes a formidable opponent. I see evidence of this every day in the front page of the Times. On the other hand, weakness is easier to denigrate and exploit and believing one’s problems lie with those who live in poverty is easier than fighting congress. Poverty makes a sweet target, like hungry children and education.
It seems I have been on a quest the last few years to find the root-source of hatred. No, we are not born hateful, warring, abusive people. These lessons – most under the guise of human Intel – happen by passing on messages that should inform future generations. From my Brief History of Mankind course I’ve learned that it was man’s ability to hold independent ideas or symbols in his head and discuss things or concepts that could not be touched or seen that moved us to the upper ranks of the food chain. Before this we were running down our food as we needed, feeding, housing, and caring for our clan – ensuring posterity. We had no heft, claws, teeth or venom to protect ourselves. Initially I assumed opposable thumbs were the reason for human success but today’s caged apes tell a different story. And the story is the key. The idea of gossip – yes, according to professor Hahrari, it is gossip that saved our bacon. The ability to discuss and create stories of potential allies or enemies along with early man’s propensity for caring for the group, the community – each other – is what helped us mount the ladder of dominance. Without the kindness of caring – we would not be having this discussion. I came away from that lesson believing the person who governs the ‘story’ is the one who can, for good or ill, dominate the culture.
Today, we are living in a culture dominated by meanness. We vicariously root for the anti-hero in our stories because he is given something to hate, avenge and destroy. Meanness is good as long as it’s directed at _____________ (fill in the blank). Today’s politicians have masterfully promoted the story of meanness – a story even they would have to admit, on their kindest day, (in church maybe?) has no validity. And while the heads of those young adults who buy into the ‘story’ are turned away in a manufactured self-righteousness, they are being robbed of something so very dear and yet so simple as to be overlooked. They are being robbed of opportunity to witness caring for others and their future. Our future.
My young friend messaged me this morning (this second day of this government shutdown) apologizing for the storm caused by her post. I had to remind her that I too was once young and rigid. I told my friend of the time I was complaining about poor people on the streets of Los Angeles and how they “smell.” My gentle, southern-born grandmother held up a preemptive hand – cutting me off with an unusual sternness, saying, “There but for the Grace of God go I.”
A DRINK FROM THE WELL OF SORROWS
I’ve just walked a half mile down the lake, to the landing in front of the local restaurant and pub. A place that, on warm summer Saturdays, runs loud with music and laughter. But not today. Today the landing boasts a County Sheriff’s command center in what began three days ago as a search and rescue for a 22 year old Cornell senior who, sadly it appears, will miss his graduation tomorrow. I talked with the sheriff for a long time and we ended our conversation by trading parenting stories; examples of how the Grace of God can spread wide and diverse even as this current situation changes from rescue to recovery. I retrace my steps home, slower, searching, and hoping young Christopher will be found snagged unseen under some lone dock, hugging the shore – alive.
I think of Christopher’s parents and just how two people bear up under such sorrow; the greatest parental nightmare. It must feel as if one has fallen into a nightmare well – slowly descending clawing at the slick and slippery sides of hope. How can hope be so strong in the hearts of loved ones and still end in loss? I have no answers just questions and abstract visions of grace hiding in the shadows of an absent mercy.
Maybe we are here, a collective, alone expected to reach in the bottomless well of sorrows – all of us to take a pinch – just enough to be absorbed by our own personal grace – sorrow’s counterpart. If we all share in this well of sorrows then no one has to bear life’s blows to the empire alone. Oh that this could happen. But we are a singularly proud and vain lot ever-willing to sink our faith in the material realm and be aghast when it fails us. And when the material world fails we are unappreciative of the fact that “all” we are left with is – hope. It floats, has feathers, wings, and wells of its own. Hope abides in the hearts of Christopher’s friends who will miss their own graduations in hopes of finding him. Hope abides in the hearts of the rescue boats crisscrossing the lake as I stand on the shore crossing my fingers. Hope abides in the hearts all the local volunteers who have reached into that dark well and pinched a bit of sorrow – pulling nature’s scripture from the dry caves of preservation and hoping against hope.
Formerly my Fridays
With “the girls”
Driving home still
Wine-happy two glasses on
The edge a lonesome reality
Truck cab filled with
Some inane tune
Not Aretha, Stones, or Hendrix
Not even Motown’s
Grooved soul strong invoking
Memories of sweaty
Dancing on perdition’s
Edge – no
Tune made me glad
For winter & windows
Up sparing others
The sound of my voice
Emboldened with spirits
Singing from a seat on the
Fringe of bedraggled dreams
Before I engage
Reality’s reluctant usher
THE SECRETIVE MS. PEESKINS
Ms. Peeskins on her favorite perch
I tell her one day I’ll refuse
To put wood on the fire
See what happens then
She keeps her head to the window
Looking for a bird in the snow
Ideas of catching it melt to fancy
She’s looking at me now,
Really, I am just caught in her
Tractor-beam, cat scan,
Surveillance of the room;
Goddess of things as they are
She is not the longest lived pet
On this busy country road
Where for many years
Michelin and Goodyear have exacted their
Bloody brand of animal control
Unless a piece of firewood
Falls off the wood carrier
Hitting her, she’s safe
She knows this
She won’t tell me
She has put on weight this winter
As if her body swells
With secrets of the house
But not my secret
My apologies for this poem
She hates it when I tell her
Even she is material
Ms. Peeskins cares
Not a whit for poets
The difference between
Firewood and those uncut trees
The trees that shade the summer graves
Where the bodies are buried