July 29, 2010

Things I Didn't Know About Black America: Shirley Sherrod

So, I'm not going to get into the guts of this whole Shirley Sherrod/Andrew Breitbart fiasco.

But what I will say is, I think the sister has a serious point when she said she'd like to talk to the President about what he doesn't know about the history of Southern Black America.

One of my very good friends invited me to come along with him this summer to tour civil rights era sites throughout the south.  And, in my smugness, I said "dude, I'm Black from Maryland - my family LIVED the civil rights movement.  I don't need to be a tourist."

That said, Maryland is very much the line state.  There was terrible racism and race terrorism there, of course.  But it wasn't really the epicenter of Jim Crow like, say, Alabama, Mississippi, or Georgia during the 50's & '60's.

I don't really know.  And just because I'm Black doesn't mean I know by default.

And neither does President Obama, who, as far as I can tell, has yet to visit any of those Southern states since the election.

My Jewish friends have quite skillfully laid claim to the term "never again" in the face of the Holocaust, and I have yet to meet a young Jewish person who doesn't have some vivid living memory handed down to them by parents & grandparents & great grandparents about why they need to be both eternally vigilant and eternally better than the examples of their oppressors.

How did our history get lost, Black America?  Why aren't we talking to the Shirley Sherrods and Bill Cosbys and Dick Gregorys and Harry Belefontes and Ruby Dees and, yes, Clarence Thomases and Condolezza Rices, about how we always remember, always honor, and always excel despite the horrors?
Eyes on The Prize: America's Civil Rights Years 1954-1965Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy

Things I Didn't Know About Black America: Clarence Thomas

Thanks to my fellow netizen Brokenbeatnik, I came across the Washington Post article about the opinion Clarence Thomas wrote supporting the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Chicago's anti-handgun law as an unreasonable restriction of the 2nd Amendment.

Now, ordinarily, I'm not big on gun rights (after all, as my brother always says, nobody in the hood manufactures Uzis), and I'm really not crazy about Clarence Thomas, but I've gotta say, he really caught my eye with this opinion.  If you look at the nearly 20 page paper he wrote, you see that his vigorous defense of 2nd amendment rights is founded in his own first hand experience, I'm sure, of growing up in the Jim Crow South.

Cue Wikipedia again.

I didn't realize that Thomas' home town was founded by freed slaves, or that Gullah (or Geechee) was the spoken language in his home.  I didn't realize the man didn't live in a house with in-door plumbing until he was 7 years old.  I didn't know that he dropped out of seminary after hearing his classmates celebrating Martin Luther King's assassination.

If I did, I shouldn't have been surprised that, in his mind, the Federally protected right to own a gun, unabridged by a local or state authority, was the only think protecting him & his family (heck, even his whole home town) from organized, often local government sanctioned, white racist terrorism from the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and God knows what else.  Justice Thomas practically echoes Rob Brown's book "Negroes With Guns", a tome of self defense that became the cornerstone of Huey Newton's thinking in founding the Black Panther Party.  I have huge problems with many of Brother Clarence's votes, and I'll disagree with him with a lot of things, but I doubt I'll ever question the sincerity of his intentions again.

It reminds me of how I used to think of Condolezza Rice:  she grew up with the same four Black little girls who were murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 that Spike Lee featured in his documentary "Four Little Girls".  I used to think, "How can she not be more super-pro-Black nationalist after having lived through the horrors of that era?"

But Thomas reminds me that, while many Black folks were radicalized by the internal terrorism of the late 50's and '60's, just as many were raised in households more aligned with Booker T. Washington's thinking than, say, my man W.E.B. DuBois.  That the best revenge was success & dignity in the face of the terror, and those children like Clarence Thomas or Condolezza Rice or Colin Powell owed it to the people who died to reach and strive as far as they could.  So many radicals who didn't have access to the opportunities they had ended up dead, incarcerated, or ostracized.

Huey Newton?  H. Rap Brown?  These are not stories with happy endings.

But are those the only choices?

One could argue that Clarence, Condolezza, & Colin and many others like them earned their success by turning their backs on the broader Black community.  Yes, they're all involved in charity and philanthropy, but when decisions were made in their midsts regarding economic policy, war policy, social policy, and the like that had a direct impact on African Americans at large, did they really do all that they could to protect their voiceless brothers and sisters?

I don't know.

Just like I don't know what sort of sacrifices they had to make in order to reach their positions.  Does their mere presence in those positions carry more weight than their actions while in those positions?

My generation came of age in the post-"Black is Beautiful" era.  We take our ethnic pride and abilities as a given.  But that has not always been the case.  Folks like Clarence and Ward Connerly and others carry the scars of de-legitimacy to this day.  And the memories of the horror probably never go away.

I find myself thinking a lot about "The Spook Who Sat By The Door" as I read about Clarence Thomas this week.

Just getting to the door has been so hard for so many.  But does simply sitting there make it easier for others to join you and/or walk through?  Or are you responsible for wedging it open, no matter the personal cost?

Spook Who Sat By the DoorNegroes With Guns (African American Life Series)UP FROM SLAVERY: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

Things I Didn't Know About Black America: Supermax

I grew up in a house with three sets of encyclopedias, which, of course, means, today, I am a compulsive researcher.

Or, as one of my friends from the all-girl's private school around the corner from my all-boy's private school once said, "You're such a little bibliophile."

Whenever I learn about something new that I can't really talk about in some detail and great length, the first thing I do is look it up on Wikipedia.

But through an odd confluence of inputs over the last few days, I find myself knee deep in the recent history of African Americans here in these United States.  So, here's the first in a series of web research diversions into my own cultural & ethnic history...
I was watching Zombieland, and was wondering what else Woody Harrelson was up to as a part of his recent career resurgence.  Cue wikipedia - turns out Woody's dad was a contract killer who died in supermax prison on conviction for taking out a Federal judge and occasionally bragged that he was one of the dudes on the grassy knoll who helped take out JFK.

Crazy, right?

Realizing that I didn't really know what constituted a supermax prison (in short, solitary confinement for everybody 23 hours out of the day and no interaction with any other prisoners), I followed the links to to ADX Florence, the only supermax federal penitentiary.  And the current inmate list reads like a who's who of enemies of the state: FBI double agent Robert Hansen; the shoe bomber; the unabomber; the 1996 Olympic park bomber; Oklahoma City accomplice Terry Nichols; the guy who masterminded the first World Trade Center bombing; H. Rap Brown.

H. Rap Brown?!?

Wasn't he supposed to be one of the heroes of the civil rights movement?  Shows how little I know, right?

Cue wikipedia again.

Turns out the brother, one of the founding fathers of the original Black Panther Party for Self Defense (yes, let's get the full name right, folks), had converted to Islam and attempted to become an arbiter of peace of sorts.... until two cops got shot up trying to serve him an arrest warrant (one died) and he fled the scene in a bullet-ridden Mercedes.

In reading this, I realized I'd confused him with Eldridge Cleaver.  Probably because they'd both written books about being Black and radical in America in the 1960's (Brown's "Die, Nigger, Die" and Cleaver's "Soul On Ice").  Honestly, I only really knew about them from Mario Van Peebles' movie "Panther".  Oddly enough, Cleaver had become a born-again Christian and a right wing Republican in his old age before he died.  Brown, for his part, had originally been involved with SNCC - the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee - who helped organize the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, and the March on Washington, before interference from law enforcement and increasing threats of violence led to a schism in the group.  They had to change their name because, as one leader said at the time "I don't know how much longer we can stay nonviolent.

But, still: a supermax prison?  That guy is still considered an enemy of the state on the level of a traitorous enemy agent and Al Qaeda operatives?  Really?

More to come on these.  In the meantime, if you're not familiar with the history of SNCC, The Panthers, and the crazy political climate of the late 60's & early '70's, you may want to check some of these out:

Panther [VHS]Soul on IceDie Nigger Die!: A Political Autobiography of Jamil Abdullah al-Amin