Tag Archives: women

Emily Dickinson’s The Gorgeous Nothings

emily dickinson the gorgeous nothingsThis huge hardback book The Gorgeous Nothings is rather breathtaking — despite the fact that really it consists of scribbles from Emily Dickinson. I had earlier flipped through it a bit confused — my mum had got it from the library so I had no fore-warning of just what it contained.

This is what a flip-through will show you, envelop poems on the one side, a careful and spatially exact transcription on the other:

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Poems written on envelopes carefully undone and opened out, poems that spill out to fit the space allotted, even when it is tiny.

emily dickinson the gorgeous nothingsScraps of paper covered with words.

They are profoundly moving.

This was one of my favourites, and is also subject to a lovely essay at the end by Marta Werner:

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wheels of birds, afternoon and the west the gorgeous nothings

Werner writes

If I had not held it lightly in my hands, I would never have suspected the manner in which it was assembled. Although its brevity and immediacy place it outside the reach of conventional classifications, it bears a striking affinity to the genre David Porter names “small, rickety infinitudes.”

Look at it here, flying on the page, vying with light. (199)

The pinpricks are from where Dickinson pinned her scraps of paper together. I think of her now overflowing with scraps of paper.

circa 1850: American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886). (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)
circa 1850: American poet Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886). (Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images)

 

A view of the book with Pluto the guinea pig who poses with books (and there are reviews sometimes), one of my new favourite tumblr blogs.

http://plutosbooks.tumblr.com/post/133289260584/the-complete-sherlock-holmes-and-pluto
http://plutosbooks.tumblr.com/post/133289260584/the-complete-sherlock-holmes-and-pluto

There is little that can describe the cumulative effect of these scraps of paper, these scratches of writing that you become better at puzzling through, though too often relying on the typed transcriptions. They range from pointed, sarcastic responses to daily life to collections of words that seem to mean little to deeply moving fragments so evocative of beauty.

Not until reading this did I realise just how much the rhythm of Dickinson’s poems had been shifted, regularised upon the page by her editors. These fragments show space and irregular rhythms, the process of playing with words.

And oh, did I say they are impossibly moving?

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Ella Baker — a biography from J. Todd Moye

17846757It was good to carve out the time to read two books on Ella Baker, I don’t think I do this enough really. Moye focused much on her role as an organizer than Barbara Ransby did, and quoted her directly a little more often, which I really liked.

[Y]ou didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put pieces together out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders. (2)

It’s nice to see the whole of that quote, not just the last line. I loved this one as well:

The problem in the South is not radical thought. The problem is not even conservative thought. The problem in the South is not enough thought. (5)

Ella Baker was born in 1903, the year that W.E.B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk. I like how Moye connects those two things. There are more stories of her family here, her grandmother conceived out of rape, the politics of the plantation and her battle to marry the man she wanted. Baker told these stories as:

a certain kind of commitment or resentment. It is not the kind of thing we would advocate at this point, but it shows that the drive for full dignity as human beings goes very deep in the struggle. (12)

Moye in many ways emphasises what Ransby also emphasised — Baker’s closeness to women’s organising as she grew up, being able to see just how well women could run meetings, set policy, manage finances. (20)

There is more on Harlem, too, from Baker herself once more:

the hotbed of–let’s call it radical thinking. You had every spectrum of radical thinking. . . . the ignorant ones, like me, we had lots of opportunity to hear and to evaluate whether or not this was the kind of thing you wanted to get into. Boy, it was good, stimulating! (31)

Moye emphasises she was reading Marx, discussing it in these radical circles, but that she could separate these ideas on social and economic organisation from the party itself, to which she never was committed. She worked very closely, of course, with George Schuyler on cooperatives (the YNCL goal – ‘to gain economic power through consumer cooperation’ (34)), and this book made me want to map out all of these connections because I keep finding new ones the more I read. I didn’t know that Schuyler had spent 1920s working for The Messenger, socialist magazine run by A. Philip Randolph, moved on to Pittsburgh Courier and the Negro National News.

Baker also formed the 135th St Library’s first Negro History Club with librarian Ernestine Rose. In 1933 she joined the branch’s Adult Education Committee, where she sponsored speakers and programs. In 1934 she was hired part time to coordinate community outreach programs. I hadn’t realised how connected she was to the library, quite how pivotal they were.

She was friends with Lester Granger, and he is the one who helped her get on the WPA’s Worker Education Project. She was always looking for work. That was brought home harder here I think, or perhaps I just noticed more the very precarious position she seemed to live through most of her life, looking for ways to work in the movement. On the WPA, Baker describes their connections they made:

We’d go around to settlement houses and conduct classes. For instance, those who were very knowledgeable about the history of working class organizations all the way back to the guild… (40)

They did union halls as well.

Moving to the NAACP years — there is more here on the many conflicts with director Walter White, his clashes with former director of branches William Pickens — the only other NAACP person from national office who had visited branches in South. Baker had a bruising schedule:

In 1942, between February and early July addressed 178 different groups, visited 38 branches in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia (51)

She encouraged branches to organise around problems they had identified, helped them develop campaigns as bottom up not top down. Saw her role when forced into accepting the position as Director of Branches:

To increase the extent to which the present membership participates in national and local activities…. To extend the membership base so as to have local branches include a larger proportion fo people in any given community….To transform the local branches from being centers of sporadic activity to becoming centers of sustained and dynamic community leadership. (59-60)

She held a leadership conference in NY December of 1944, then others in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Atlanta in first half of 1945. Look at this amazing picture:

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The 1946 conference in Atlanta called ‘Give Light and the People Will find a Way’, was attended by representatives for Montgomery branch (a branch which Ella had ‘nurtured’ as field secretary), E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks (62). More connections.

In 1946 she worked with CORE and FOR to plan the Journey of Reconciliation — the integrated ride through the South that she and Pauli Murray were prevented from going on as they were women. This became the blueprint for the later Freedom Rides. (67) More connections.

At the same time (how she had time, I do not know) Baker was also doing a lot of work with the NY branch of NAACP, particularly with the branch’s education committee, and serving as an advisor to youth council.

There is a little more information on ‘In Friendship’, the organisation she helped found and run to support the movement in the South, which in addition to fundraising:

also provided technical assistance to southern civil rights campaigns, organized conferences that brought together activists from throughout the region, and embarked on public relations campaigns that publicized conditions in the South to the rest of the country. (80)

Moye explores a little further the relationships between Ella Baker and both Septima Clark and Myles Horton, notes that she had participated in dozens of workshops at Highlander — I thought it must be so. She also worked with the Bradens from SCEF from early on:

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In Friendship raised $2,000 for the Montgomery Improvement Association, and another $4,000 to send ML King to Africa and India to study Ghana’s independence movement and Gandhi’s philosophy. I find this quite extraordinary, partly in that I hadn’t heard it before, partly in the importance placed on education and building international solidarity.

The In Friendship trio (Baker, Rustin, Levinson) were continuing to look for what came next after the Montgomery movement — this is Baker on the SCLC:

We began to talk about the need for developing in the South a mass force that would . . . become a counterbalance, let’s call it, to the NAACP. (89)

There is more on how frustrated she was at the lack of momentum after Montgomery. Looking back it doesn’t feel that way until you take more note of the time between the boycott and those first sit-ins. There was a tentative step, though, towards the voter registration campaigns that would follow in the Crusade for Citizenship — only meant to be a one day action (!). SCLC had done none of the planning when they brought Baker on, yet she still pulled off some success. She continued to organise in support of mass movement and building a strong grassroots base, with a focus on MIA and the United Christian Movement (UCM) in Shreveport.

Moye writes that Baker pushed SCLC to partner with Highlander, stating that:

Bringing Clark from Highlander to SCLC may have been Baker’s greatest contribution to the organization. (102)

While I don’t know if this is true, amazing as Clark was, this becomes an even more curious omission for me in Ransby’s work.

There are more connections made here between Baker and some of the key figures and events — things that give me hope. The 4 students who lead the Greensboro sit in were part of NAACP youth group started by Randolph Bakewell — at the suggestion of field secretary Ella Baker. Bob Moses? His family had been members of one of the Harlem cooperatives that Baker organized in the 1930s, he and his brothers had delivered their milk (119). These are such wonderful examples of the effects that ripple outwards from positive action and that only come to fruition over a long period of time.

A few more quotes on Ella Baker’s leadership style, the kind of leadership that created so many leaders. This is from an (unnamed)  SNCC member:

Usually she preferred to answer [a question] with another question and then another, forcing us to refine our thinking and to struggle toward  an answer for ourselves. (123)

From Mary King:

At a very important period in my life, Miss Baker tempered my natural tenacity and determination with flexibility and made me suspicious of dogmatism… She taught me one of the most important lessons I have learned in life: There are many legitimate and effective avenues for social change and there is no single right way. She helped me see that the profound changes we were seeking in the social order could not be won without multiple strategies. She encouraged me to avoid being doctrinaire. “Ask questions, Mary,” she would say. (124)

Baker’s philosophy and SNCC’s slogan? Now so widely used I never knew where it came from: ‘Let the People Decide’ (126)

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Always she worked to support the capacity of groups to make their own strategic decisions. When CORE called off the freedom rides and SNCC decided to continue them under the leadership of Diane Nash, Baker wrote them a three-page analysis of what she believed had been done wrong so far and needed to be improved on — media strategy for example (128).

A final aside on the importance of women to this movement despite the ways they were often sidelined as Baker’s biography and Danielle McGuire’s work make clear among others. Womanpower Unlimited — a group formed by local women in Jackson to collect money, clothing etc for the freedom riders, then further developed into conducting voter registration, education and peace activism (133). More ripples, more connections.

Baker became openly socialist at the end of her life, I’ll end on this 1969 address to Spelman College, which I love.

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system. That is easier said than done. But one of the things that has to be faced is in the process of wanting to change that system, how much have we got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. (166)

[Moye, J. Todd (2013) Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.]

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Danielle McGuire — Black Women, Rape and Resistance

Danielle McGuire - At the Dark End of the StreetI love how Danielle McGuire has put women’s struggle against sexual violence and rape front and center of the freedom struggle. Where it always was, though never enough acknowledged. She says it more eloquently than I could:

The real story–that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women’s long  struggle against sexual violence–has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African American lives during the modern civil rights movement. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African Americans’ daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement. At the End of the Street does both. (xx)

I have been reading and reading and reading…so much reading. And yet Danielle McGuire has brought together so much I didn’t know. Through Septima Clark and Ella Baker I’ve come to know Rosa Parks a little better, but I never knew that as part of her work for the NAACP she was sent to investigate reports of rape. On a trip to Abbeville, her hometown, she helped document and fight with Recy Taylor — kidnapped at gunpoint as she walked home with her family, and raped by all four men before being left in the woods.

My heart, oh my heart broke to read so many stories of white men openly kidnapping black women to rape them, and even on the rare occasions it came to trial, no one was ever sentenced. Still. Rosa Parks helped set up the Committee for Equal Justice, a network of groups started up in support of Recy Taylor’s case. It built on some of the frameworks established to help the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. The National Negro Congress held a mass meeting in Harlem to discuss the case — and my own well-studied and well-loved California Eagle was there among multiple other black-owned papers. I’m sure it was Charlotta Bass herself, I need to look through her autobiography to see if she mentions it.

Of course, despite (actually, probably because) it was white men raping black women with impunity, it was the reverse scenario that invoked terror:

Unsubstantiated rumors of black men attacking innocent white women sparked almost 50 percent of all race riots in the United States between Reconstruction and World War II. In 1943 alone there were 242 violent interracial clashes in forty-seven cities. (26)

Then back we come to the importance of this in understanding the civil rights movement:

Only by understanding the long and relatively hidden history of sexualized violence in Montgomery, Alabama, and African Americans’ efforts to protect black womanhood, can we see that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was more than a movement for civil rights. It was also a women’s movement for dignity, respect and bodily integrity. (51)

Just as the more background to this, there’s the case of Willie McGee in Laurel, Mississippi, his white employer sleeping with him telling him if he didn’t — and if her ever broke it off — she would cry rape. There’s his wife’s resignation to the situation, because what power did they have in such a situation? He was executed by the state after his employer did in fact call rape — sentenced in 1945, all appeals lost by 1951.  There’s Maceo Snipes killed for being the only black man to vote in Georgia, on 17th July 1946. In Montgomery itself, in 1949 there was Gertrude Perkins picked up by two police officers at the bus stop, driven out of town, raped, returned to the bus stop.

But Montgomery was well organised. McGuire describes Rufus A. Lewis — WWII vet and football coach at Alabama State University, member of church and multiple association, owner of largest Black funeral home:

he was financially independent and not easily intimidated by white economic reprisals. Lewis parlayed his social and economic wealth into a spacious brick clubhouse, named the Citizens Club. It functioned as the headquarters for many of the city’s community organizations. Here Lewis taught veterans and others the ins and outs of voter registration and created a safe space where African Americans could “come and socialize” and, in the process, get politicized. (70)

In every book about movement, spaces like this seem to be so important.

Then there was the Women’s Political Council, founded by Mary Fair Burks, working with Rufus Lewis’s veterans group as well as E.D. Nixon’s Progressive Democrats, who registered voters and ran classes. Jo Ann Robinson became its head, began to focus on the buses.

They were connected to the group ‘Sojourners for Truth and Justice’, a short-lived but important organization formed by Louise Thomspon Patterson and Beulah Richardson issuing a call to women  to convene in D.C. in support of Du Bois in 1951. They highlighted Rosa Lee Ingram’s case, a single mother and sharecropper in Georgia. In 1947, a white man attempted to rape her while her two sons were present, and in the struggle the attacker was killed. All three were sentenced to death. They were paroled in 1959.

Because of the work the Women’s Political Council had already done on the buses, they were all ready to go when Rosa Parks made her stand. After hearing about her arrest they immediately called for a bus boycott for the following Monday, over the weekend they bundled, mimeographed and cut 52,500 flyers (holy jesus!) and distributed them. These women were awesome. The day-long boycott was a huge success, taking place the same day as Rosa appeared in court.

I love this phrase, called out during the court hearing and taken up as a chant: ‘they’ve messed with the wrong one now’. Almost immediately, however, the women were pushed out of leadership. Neither Rosa nor Jo Ann Robinson was allowed to be present at the meeting to form the Montgomery Improvement Association nor invited to be part of the leadership. At the 1st mass meeting Rosa Parks was seen but not heard, turned into a quiet respectable lady for the press, and removed from her activist past. McGuire writes:

As long as WPC members handled the day-to-day business of the boycott, Jo Ann Robinson did not challenge the MIA’s male leadership. “We felt it would be better,” Robinson said, “if the ministers held the most visible leadership positions.” (108)

But look at this picture

African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956. (p 109)
African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956. (p 109)

A large bulk of the funds were raised by Mrs. Georgia Gilmore, who formed a club called the Club from Nowhere to make food, sell it and donate the proceeds to the boycott, in Gilmore’s words:

When we’d raise as much as three hundred dollars for a Monday night rally, then we knowed we was on our way for five hundred on Thursday night. (118)

Whites directed violence at the walkers, most of the women — pelting them from their cars with water balloons, containers of urine, rotten eggs, potatoes, apples. Jo Ann Robinson had a brick thrown through her window, acid poured all over her car. Police did mass ticketing of anyone black driving over the period — Robinson alone received over 30 tickets. On January 30 whites bombed King’s house, two days later E.D. Nixon’s, everyone was provided with armed guards.

Arrests were used in a political attempt to stop the bus boycott. The Grand Jury indicted eight-nine people as being behind an illegal boycott — all of them came to court to turn themselves in. An amazing series of mug shots resulted — a hall of fame really. Look at these amazing women:

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They all knew this boycott had changed things.

Watching the crowd mock the police, Jo Ann Robinson realized the world she had always known had somehow changed. The fear that had held black people down had began to evaporate. “If there was any nervousness or uneasiness,” she argued, “it was on the part of the whites.” (126)

Still, official tellings fell so very short. Danielle McGuire notes how FOR’s retelling of the story in their comic book showed Rosa Parks as just a tired woman. It shows ministers coming to her rescue and themselves calling for the boycott, describes an anguished Martin Luther King muttering ‘something ought to be done’, and then himself mimeographing 500 leaflets (131). It beggars belief really. And then there’s the fact that the court cases actually ending segregation on public transportation were Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, Mrs. Aurelia Browder, and Mrs Susie McDonald. (132) Why streamline a movement and a heroism that belongs to so many people? This post is a little too listy because all these things happened that I had either not read about or simply not registered — though I am not listing everything either.

There’s a mention of Daisy Bates, who with husband L.C. Bates owned the Arkansas State Press — another African-American press woman and newspaper owner! I thought Charlotta Bass the only one in these years. I hope to read more of her, but part of what drove her forward — her own mother was raped and murdered by three white men when Daisy Bates was seven.

1959 — Betty Jean Owens is kidnapped at gunpoint by four men, driven off and raped in Florida.

Fanny Lou Hamer went to hospital for removal of small cyst, and they removed her whole uterus without her consent. This was a common occurrence. This was before she ever started protesting.

In June 1963 Hamer and other SNCC volunteers were arrested in Winona, Mississippi for sitting at the lunch counter in the bus terminal. Women one by one were stripped, beaten, sexually humiliated. Prisoners regularly ‘herded into exam room with cattle prods’, stripped and searched, women underwent “rough, painful vaginal searches’, in Parchman penitentiary, all of this with gloves dipped in lysol. (196)

Such physical assaults connect, of course, to a huge amount of white anxiety about sex, about miscegenation (that they do not initiate and control), and the use of rumours and lies to stir up fear and hate. Freedom summer itself was portrayed as an attempt to miscegenate, with young students described as sex-crazed ‘beatniks’ and black rapists brought in to attack white women (206). McGuire quotes Karl Flemming of Newsweek:

That is what it was all about, all the time, everywhere. It was the great underpinning of the whole damn thing–just pure sexual fear. (207)

Sally Belfrage, in her book Freedom Summer, writes that they

knew that whites overblown orations about interracial sex masked an all-out effort to defend their position atop the political, economic, and social hierarchy. (208)

She also described the hypocrisy of what they called ‘nighttime integration’ as white men raped black women, but refused ever to acknowledge the consequences in the form of their light-skinned children.

On March 25, 1965, as marchers arrived in Montgomery from Selma, downtown was empty. Governor George Wallace had declared a “danger holiday for female state employees.” (212) An Alabama congressman stated that all the volunteers who had poured into Selma for the march had been hired, given free room and board and promised free sex (219). He hired Albert C. Persons to investigate, and he came up with Sex and Civil Rights: The True Selma Story, full of doctored photographs. Much of this was recycled in Jim Clark’s book I Saw Selma Raped: The Jim Clark Story.

Such vileness.

McGuire quotes Virginia Durr from her autobiography Outside the Magic Circle (1987, p 175)

All of the cesspool of sickness connected with sex guilt comes from the fact that white men of the South had had so many sexual affairs with black women. And they just turned it around. It’s the only thing I can figure out that made them so crazy on the subject. (222)

There’s the murder of Viola Liuzzo, white Detroit housewife, driving people home after the Montgomery march, shot dead by a car full of the KKK and an FBI agent along for the ride. Hoover immediately went into action to smear her character as race traitor, prostitute and bad mother and deflect attention onto anything but  the FBI’s role. (225)

Not until 1967’s Loving v Virginia were laws against interracial marriage finally struck down.

McGuire ends with the 1974 Joan Little case, “Power to the Ice Pick”, who used his own weapon against the white prison guard attempting to rape her before fleeing prison. The campaign to defend her from execution was an historic one, but not in the ways it is traditionally argued. The NAACP continued to make their distinctions between cases worth taking to push equality forward, as it

‘maintained its historic reluctance to embrace “sex cases” and did not get involved; however, local chapters helped raise money. (261)

And here McGuire challenges the other assumptions about this case:

The Free Joan Little campaign is often portrayed as the product of second-wave feminism, which finally enable women to break the code of silence surrounding sexual violence and “speak out” against rape. While this may be true for white, middle-class feminists who became active in the antirape movement in the early 1970s, African-American women had been speaking out and organizing politically against sexual violence and rape for more than a century. (277)

[McGuire, Danielle L. (2010) At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books.]

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Ransby on Ella Baker — SCLC, SNCC, SCEF

200217Part 2 on Ella Baker’s biography by Barbara Ransby (part 1 is here) — and the more exciting part really, because in the SCLC and SNCC and SCEF Baker was able to do more of what she wanted to do. I’m reading J. Todd Moye’s biography of Ella Baker as well just now, and it cleared up one point of my confusion — the way that everyone respectfully called her Miss Baker even though she was married. That is what felt right to me earlier because I must have read it elsewhere, but I questioned myself and wrote something different. so I’m going to have to go back and take out the references to Mrs Baker.

Anyway,  in 1957, Ella Baker traveled south with Bayard Rustin as a representative of In Friendship to become part of the founding of the SCLC. There she saw the Women’s Political Council in action, who had helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott, and she applauded the formation of MIA, Montgomery Improvement Association to lead the struggle outside the structures of NAACP.

While Rustin and Levinson both became part of King’s inner circle, Miss Baker was left out. She later said:

After all, who was I? I was female, I was old. I didn’t have any PhD.” (173)

And she questioned everything, especially King.

She describes the boycott, and the hope and excitement it raised among movement folks, as:

unpredicted, where thousands of individuals, just black ordinary people, subjected themselves to inconveniences that were certainly beyond the thinking of most folk. . . . This meant you had a momentum that had not been seen, even in the work of the NAACP. And it was something that suggested the potential for widespread action throughout the South. (162)

SCLC was founded to provide an institutional framework to connect and strengthen struggle beyond Montgomery. It also made a strategic decision to stay away from a too-left politics — interesting that ‘Christian’ was at least partially included in the name to help distance it from any association with communism. It emphasized in these stages that it was only demanding the same rights as everyone else.

Once it was decided that the new coalition would be an extension of the church, a patriarchal ethos took over. (175) Women like Rosa Parks and Joanne Gibson Robinson were pushed out of leadership positions, Daisy Bates remained the only woman with a nominal seat on the board, but no power.  In 1958, Miss Baker was drafted as full time staff into SCLC — as with the NAACP she was not properly asked, more put into a position where her refusal would hurt the cause. Still, she accepted, and moved down to Atlanta. She knew what she was in for, though:

Baker was well aware that the SCLC ministers were not ready to welcome her into the organization on an equal footing. That would be to go too far afield from the gender relations they were used to in the church. Baker observed that “the role of women in the southern the church. . . was that of doing the things that the minister said he wanted to have done. It was not one in which they were credited with having creativity and initiative and capacity to carry out things.”

Ministers ‘most comfortable talking to women about “how well they cooked, and how beautiful they looked.”‘ (184)

She remained active in Parents in Action, NAACP, SCLC, In Friendship — for her it was always about building movement rather than organization. In this she was very similar to a number of local NAACP officers who were willing to work with anyone on the ground towards change. All of her work was concretely connected to people’s lives and needs. For example, Baker’s reconnaissance trip in Mississippi for In Friendship after the SCLC’s founding:

Baker soon realized that In Friendship would be hard pressed to make a real distinction between families who were victims of political reprisals and those who were victims of economic violence, pure and simple, since such violence saturated the social and political landscape of the rural South.  (176)

I wanted to hear more about her views on economic violence. She often disagreed with those she worked closely with, able to hold to her own beliefs while continuing to work with others. For example here is Miss Baker on nonviolence, contrasting herself with Rustin:

He had a history of dedication to the concept of nonviolence. I have no such history; I have no such commitment. Not historically or even now can I claim that because that’s not my way of functioning. (193)

This was clear in her rather famous 1959 speech in Pilgrim Chruch, Monroe calling for self-defense. Further in the biography, Ransby writes:

Ella Baker’s ability to sustain long-term friendships with other activists when particular circumstances put them in adversarial positions was one of her most important gifts. (284)

She also disagreed with many in the NAACP — for example, the kinds of attitudes expressed by Roy Wilkins:

“We must clean up and educate and organize our own people, not because they must be perfect in order to be accorded their rights, but they cannot be first-class citizens in truth until they appreciate the responsibilities of that station.” Baker’s view was quite different. Poor people would not have to be made deserving of their citizenship or their economic claims; such rights were fundamental. (226)

She could be quite critical of class judgments:

There’s always a problem in the minority group that’s escalating up the ladder in this culture . . . it’s a problem of their not understanding the possibility of being divorced from those who are not in their social classification.

Thus

I believe firmly in the right of the people who were under the heel to be the ones to decide what action they were going to take to get [out] from under their oppression. (195)

More from Miss Baker on exactly why the middle classes could not be depended upon to bring about real change:

those who are well-heeled don’t want to get un-well-heeled….If they are acceptable to the Establishment and they’re wielding power which serves their interest, they can assume too readily that that also serves the interest of everybody. (305-306)

Along these same lines, she was also fierce proponent of decentralization, local control over campaigns and power and responsibility in people’s own hands. Ransby writes:

Her main contribution to the civil rights movement during her years with SCLC was not the building of a solid regional coalition, which was what King had hired her to do, but rather the strengthening of several semi-independent local struggles, which were more connected to one another and to itinerant organizers like Baker than they were to the official SCLC leadership in Atlanta. (209)

On leadership, here is Ransby quoting Baker:

Instead of the leader as a person who was supposed to be a magic man, you could develop individuals who were bound together by a concept that benefited the larger number of individuals and provided an opportunity for them to grow into being responsible for carrying out a program.

to follow on from that, one of her most famous lines I think:

Strong people don’t need strong leaders. (188)

This, of course, put her into conflict with King and the men who dominated the movement at this time.

What I love most are the moments you get to see Ella Baker relaxing with the other women who formed the backbone of this movement, like on this visit to Azalea Johnson in Monroe (and always the reminder just how brave they all were):

The three women sat at Azalea Johnson’s kitchen table, Dorothy remembered, drinking Jim Beam bourbon, discussing the political situation in the South and remembering Raymond. Even more memorable than the conversation was the image of black men sitting in the front room and on the front porch with loaded pistols at their sides… (215)

Baker kept her maiden name after her marriage, kept her rpivate life private, and did all she did while also helping raise her niece, as well as taking over the guardianship of Brenda Travis, who had lied about her age to join SNCC sit-in. She was detained, sent to Colored Girls Industrial School after another protest, did not have support of strong family. Baker managed all of these roles in ways that I find rather jaw-dropping, but it was accomplished through the strong community that she created around herself.

SNCC

Ella Baker’s legacy can perhaps best be seen through SNCC —  I appreciated this insight from Ransby:

Since Baker never wrote an organizing manual or an ideological treatise, her theory was literally inscribed in her daily work–her practice. Some of the most powerful political lessons that she taught were through example, which represented an articulation of her unwritten theory in a conscious set of actions and practices. (271)

Also as an organiser, it is clear that almost a lifetime of experience and huge amounts of work and thought lay behind that first conference at Shaw to support the founding of SNCC, the orchestration of talks and workshops, and the creation of plenty of time and space for private brainstorms, the meeting of small groups and etc. I feel like no one really gets how much creative work and hard grind lies in that until they part of something similar. Creating such spaces is hard, but she was instrumental to SNCC in other ways, ensuring that problems of justice were never narrowed to a simple issue of race and that the leading roles of women, and youth and the poor in the struggle be respected:

She was instrumental in SNCC’s rejection of bourgeois respectability as a defensive political strategy, a rejection that opened the organization up to historically marginalized sectors of the black community. When SNCC broke with the largely middle-class, male-centered leadership of existing  civil rights organizations, it stripped away the class-based and gender-biased notions of who should and could give leadership to the movement and the black community. (259)

She also insisted on movement as being about relationships, connections, not mobilisation and dues and top-down battles on the lines of the NAACP.

The shift from transitory, high-profile events like the sit-ins and freedom rides to protracted day-to-day grassroots organizing in local communities was a significant turning point. Baker insisted that a movement was a web of social relationships…In order to be effective organizers in a particular community, Baker argued, activists had to form relationships, build trust, and engage in a democratic process of decision making together with community members. The goal was to politicize the community and empower ordinary people. this was Baker’s model, and in 1961 it became SNCC’s model.

This is the community organising model in a nutshell. Bottom up. Respectful. I like the acknowledgement that such respect isn’t always easy to embody either, and how she pushed SNCC through dialogue:

She urged SNCC organizers to suppress their own egos and personal and organizational ambitions as much as possible and to approach local communities with deference and humility. She stressed the need to resist organizational chauvinism or any attempts to make proprietary claims on political campaigns that might emerge from their efforts. Finally, she rejected the notion that the black middle class had special claims on leadership of the black community. …. she urged SNCC organizers to look first to the bottom of the class hierarchy in the black community, not to the top, for their inspiration, insights, and constituency…. people who would demonstrate to the first-hand the willingness, ability, and determination of oppressed people to resist and overcome their oppression while speaking for themselves… (274)

Thus SNCC attempted to organise the whole community, not just the middle classes. When they first went into a community, they started by talking to clergy and any others who had claims on being  representatives of community, but they knocked on everyone’s doors.

Bob Moses said “We did for the people of Mississippi what Ella Baker did for us.” … he meant … absorb the wisdom of indigenous leaders, to build respectfully on the preexisting strength within the communities where they organized, and to provide whatever was lacking–funds, time, youthful energy, and certain skills. (303)

Ransby gives a wonderful quote from SNCC organiser Jane Stembridge:

The field staff saw itself as playing a very crucial but temporary role in this whole thing. Go into a community. As soon as local leadership begins to emerge, get out of the community, so that the leadership will take hold and people will not continue to turn to you for guidance. You work yourself out of a job rather than trying to maintain yourself in a position or your organization. It doesn’t matter if you go in and call yourself a SNCC worker or a CORE worker or just a person who is there. (280)

And of course Baker’s own motto:

I was never working for an organization. I always tried to work for a cause. And that cause was bigger than any organization. (281)

She remained pragmatic though, supporting the influx of white privileged students in order to highlight what was happening in the South, to expose the relentless violence, to get some coverage and maybe help the broader community to care. Ransby quotes her as saying:

If we can simply let the concept that the rest of the nation bears responsibility for what happens in Mississippi sink in, then we will have accomplished something. (322)

Ransby talks a little about the development of the Freedom Schools, education was always one of the methods closest to Baker’s heart. SNCC established over 50 alternative classrooms for political organizing and popular education, run by Charlie Cobb, Robert Moses, and Staughton Lynd among others.

This highlighted for me one of the strange absences here, as Ransby tries to differentiate them from SCLC’s Citizenship schools by highlighting that Freedom Schools went way beyond teaching literacy for voting tests. In Septima Clark’s vision coming out of Highlander, this was never to have been the only role of Citizenship schools,  but maybe it’s an indication of how routinized these had become under the SCLC?

Myles Horton and Highlander are interesting absences here — not that they don’t appear at all. As an aside, Ransby notes Baker as attending a conference there on one occasion, and later that she worked to defend Highlander from closure. In another brief mention Ransby connects SNCC to Horton,  and notes Baker starting up a new fundraising group called Operation Freedom in 1961 with Horton, the Bradens and others to again funnel money to activists for emergencies. I was disappointed, though, not to learn more about Baker’s friendship with Rosa Parks, Myles Horton or Septima Clark. So I found it interesting that Baker’s theories are compared to Paolo Freire’s, a worthy comparison but interesting in the absence of Myles Horton and others from Highlander.

There is a brief note on education and the connection to Tanzania — but that remained undeveloped as well. Rightly so as it was a bit of a tangent perhaps

Moses also shared Baker’s confidence and faith in young people. After leaving SNCC in the mid-1960s and living for several years in Tanzania, he became a radical teacher, in Ella Baker’s style and tradition, focused on creative methods of teaching and learning as a strategy for empowerment and social change. (252)

But I would like to know more about connections to Africa and Nyerere’s Ujamaa movement.

A last absence was more about the concerted attack on the NAACP in the south after Brown v Board, the number of people who lost their jobs by refusing to renounce NAACP membership — and the number of people who did renounce it. The number of branches that shut down all together, and all of them people that Ella knew, had visited, had encouraged to form branches and become members in the first place. That must have had a huge impact on her. Huge. But it isn’t really visible.

I wanted a little more on the Southern Conference Education Fund run by Anne and Carl Braden, and founded by Jim Dombrowski who had helped found Highlander with Myles Horton way back in 1932. In 1963 Baker began working for SCEF, doing much the same as she had always done — whatever she thought was most needed to support local organising. The difference seemed to be that SCEF supported that. But I tracked down what seems to be the solitary book written on SCEF, which I am looking forward to reading and finding more.

To end here (though I will write more on Moye’s take on Baker), a final quote from Ella Baker that emphasises the longevity of the freedom struggle, the ways that things just haven’t changed fast enough, and the work that all those she has inspired should be continuing in, particularly in support of Black Lives Matter:

Until the killing of black mothers’ sons is as important as the killing of white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest. (335)

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Hilton Als — White Girls

13239419Hilton Als… damn, White Girls was splendid and queer and pummeled me with pain and experience I can never know because of who I am. Though I am hell of well read, our daily-lived references of poets and words moved past each other almost never touching. Just like our preoccupations. Our ways of being in the world, especially the ways we are with others in the world…I have never ever been a we in the way he describes. I hated Scarlet in Gone With the Wind, and he loved her. I finally understood a little better how I feel about Michael Jackson. Things like that…well, they cracked me open a little more, the kind of gift you don’t even know to ask for, could never demand if you did know because you can feel the cost to its author. The kind of gift you are always grateful for. Even though it hurt just a little to read. At the same time, somehow, I can see why these words, many of them at least, would appeal to the readers of The New Yorker. They were the ones that pushed me further outside maybe, made me feel a bit of voyeur staring in at that cocktail party I never had the credentials to enter. Though maybe too they give me a little more appreciation for that literary streamlining of all that is ‘worthy’, swimming against the tide of my south west/west-coast poor white girl bias against anything held up to me as the place to find Culture with a capital C.

Maybe. It’s just another world, isn’t it, one among so many all scrambled up within us and outside of us. We tend to give ones like this a little more power though, I think. I resent that. But it’s nice to find something like this there though.

Just a few quotes — though the power of this book lies in nothing that can be quoted, just to warn you. That goes way beyond some insights into writers or society…

O’Connor delighted in portraying the forms of domestic terrorism. It is a Catholic tenet that Hod judges by actions, but virtually all her white woman characters judge by appearances. O’Conner greatly adired Faulkner. “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down,” she remarked of Southern writers’ relationship to the Master…What she describes is far more evil: the nice lady on the bus who calls you “nigger” by offering your child a penny; or the old woman who loves to regale her grandchildren with stories about the “pickaninnies” of her antebellum youth. These are the women who wouldn’t know grace if it slapped them in the face–which it often does. And why would any black person want to belong to the world that these women and their men have created? (121)

I don’t know what I love more, the vision of evil or O’Connor’s quote about Faulkner.  More on evil in the eyes of white people

Of course, one big difference between the people documented in these pictures and me is that I am not dead, have not been lynched or scalded or burned or whipped or stones. But I have been looked at, watched, and seen the harm in people’s eyes–fear that can lead to becoming a dead nigger, like those seen here. And it’s those photographs that have made me understand, finally, what the word nigger means, and why people have used it, and the way I use it here, now: as a metaphorical lynching before the real one. Nigger is a slow death. And that’s the slow death I feel all the time now, as a coloured man.

And according to these pictures, I shouldn’t be here talking to you right now at all: I’m a little on the nigger side, meant to be seen and not heard, my tongue hanged and, with it, my mind. (135)

Damn.

I loved too the piece on Malcolm X’s mother Louise Little.

The Autobiography plays out the violence of their feelings toward the coloured immigrant. Once Malcolm has identified his mother as an immigrant in his book, it is impossible not to see her at a remove. That is the true nature of difference: something stupidly defined so as to be controlled. (156)

But is it?

More on difference in thinking about Eminem, and his mother…

That Mathers should be open to a musical culture not his own is interesting. For some artists–white as well as black–there is the sense that delving into “otherness” allows them to articulate their own feelings of difference more readily. (173)

The other within the other within the other…so much difference we shall never come to the bottom of it, never control it. Should not want to. Yet seems like this desire to contain and control, and the violence that arises from it,  is one of the dynamics that is best at breaking us. Too often it kills us dead.

One last note, a smile and a surprise that Baudelaire should have succeeded in liberating someone…André Leon Talley, editor-at-large for Vogue.

Talley’s immersion in French gave him a model to identity with: Baudelaire, on who work he wrote his master’s thesis, at Brown University in the early seventies. And it was while he was at Brown, liberated by the Baudelairean image of the flâneur, that Talley began to exercise fully his penchant for extravagant personal dress. (197)

I really don’t like Baudelaire, and kind of hate this canon of white men flâneuring about the city because they can, but I am trying to be less judgmental because all of us need different things, and this is helping.

It ends with a sprawling, heartbreaking exploration of the world of Richard Pryor that kept me from sleeping. I have another small note, to find and read Henry Duman’s ‘Ark of Bones’, poet murdered in Harlem’s train station.

This of course, does not even touch what this book meant to me as I read it, but I don’t really know how to do that. Except that it highlights to me again that some cannot choose whether or not people stare with hate and fear at their difference. But us straight white girls? We can often choose. How important, then, that we join our own differences with those of others and face down the hatred together, come what may.

[Als, Hilton (2013) White Girls. San Francisco: McSweeney’s.]

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June Jordan — Who See Me

June JordanA few excerpts from ‘Who See Me’, an early poem of June Jordan’s, written for a book of portraits in 1969. Heartbreaking in its capture of confronting hate in the eyes others when you momentarily cease to be invisible — or only partially invisible. Confronting the violence of this seeing/not-seeing, this hate that comes from nothing you’ve said or done.

A white stare splits the air
by blindness on the subway
in department stores
The Elevator
(that unswerving ride
where man the brother
by his side)

A white stare splits obliterates
the nerve-wrung wrist from work
the breaking ankle or
the turning glory
of a spine

Is that how we looks to you
a partial nothing clearly real?

 

No doubt
the jail is white where I am born
but black will bail me out

**

We have lived as careful
as a church and prayer
in public

 

that white terrain
impossible for black America to thrive
that hostile soil to mazelike toil
backbreaking people into pain

we grew by work by waiting
to be seen
black face black body and black mind
beyond obliterating
homicide of daily insult daily death
the pistol slur the throbbing redneck war
with breath

Barbara Ransby — Ella Baker, the YNCL and NAACP

200217Ella Baker didn’t write her memoirs, and there is as yet no collection of her writings — I am hoping that there will be one at some point. I always prefer to start with people’s own words, though I love biographies like this one too. My only possible critique is perhaps that there weren’t enough of Baker’s own words in here since they are so hard to find elsewhere.

This is a good quote though.

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to you needs and devising means by which you change that system.
— Ella Baker, 1969 (1)

I like her use of the word radical. I like too her vision of how change to that system happened:

Ella Baker spent her entire adult life trying to “change that system.” Somewhere along the way she recognized that her goal was not a single “end” but rather an ongoing “means,” that is, a process. Radical change for Ella Baker was about a persistent and protracted process of discourse, debate, consensus, reflection, and struggle.  (1)

Not everyone agreed with her on this, and just like Septima Clark she faced down a lot of sexism in the movement, as well as having to overcome some of her own class prejudices. This post is a bit listy because Ella Baker did so much. Still, it’s a start for thinking about the meaning of her practice and all she achieved.

Ransby tells a story about Ella Baker, that she would ask those she met, ‘Who were your people?’ What I like most about Ell Baker is that she ended up choosing her people, but it’s still a good question.

A little younger than Clark, she was also raised on stories of slavery but from her grandmother — stories of struggle and triumphs, not degradation. Her maternal grandparents had bought land, and Ransby highlights the meaning of land in the close  community Baker was raised in, with its collective parenting and values of ‘Cooperation, the sharing of resources, and a strong community spirit…’ (37):

[They] never regarded the land they purchased in 1888 as private property in the strict sense of the term. They viewed it not only as a resource for the economic well-being of their immediate family but also as a source of stability for the entire community. Land could serve as a weapon in the struggle against the white planters’ attempts to dominate and control the African American population. (37)

They donated some of this land for a school.

A few facts on Norfolk, VA where she was raised, this kind of thing still never fails to shock me, this creep of Jim Crow (C. Vann Woodward describes all this, and yet I still sometimes forget how recent all this ‘old-time’ Jim Crow was):

1901 — 1,826 African Americans voted
1903 — Ella Baker was born
1904 — only 44 African Americans paid the tax required for them to vote
1910 — race riot in which whites randomly attacked blacks after Jack Johnson beat white boxer

Despite all of this, she was raised in one of the few districts left with a majority black electorate where almost all of the others had been gerrymandered out of power after reconstruction. Thus Blacks in her area wielded more political power and were safer than those in many counties. She was protected from most virulent racism. As Baker remembers, this was a close knit community:

We did not come in contact with whites too much….I was shielded from having contact with them at an early age …. This was a complete black community to a large extent. Even the store on the corner, it was Mr. Foreman’s store, he was black. Even the ice cream store was owned by Mr Evans….So, this is the kind of insulation that was provided by the black people themselves…you didn’t have to run afoul of a lot of insults. (39-40)

Seems like a lot of people were striving to achieve just that, and it resonates with lots of things were still talking about it terms of keeping money in the community and supporting local business. Ransby writes:

Most black children in the early twentieth century had to work for wages as field hands or domestics…. Ella Baker’s grandfather had insisted that that his children and grandchildren not work for white people. (40)

A lot of these threads go way back.

From Norfolk, Ransby describes the educational efforts that went into the forging of middle class-ness through Shaw College:

Shaw students were forbidden from socializing with the black community in Raleigh, except in the formal capacity of charity workers under the supervision of school authorities. (53)

This is all wrapped up in the philosophies of  the Southern Baptist and coloured Women’s clubs “lift as we climb” approach to community service.

‘As some members of the race excelled and progressed, it was their duty to help others along and to contribute to the welfare of those less able and fortunate than themselves. This responsibility to serve the community was derived as much from a sense of class distinction as from a sense of moral duty. Yet for African American women the relationship between class status and moral obligation was a reciprocal one; indeed, staunch  religious faith and selfless service to others was one way in which a woman and her family could attain a respectable, even elevated position within the community. (18)

Lucky all that Baker moved far away from much of that, in struggle as much as geography. Moved as far as Harlem, in fact, in 1927.

Damn, Harlem. What a time that was. Baker says

“I cam up out of the subway at 135th and Lenox into the beginnings of the Negro Renaissance. I headed for the Harlem YMCA down the block, where so many new, young dark…arrivals in Harlem have spent their early days. The next place I headed to that afternoon was the Harlem Branch Library just up the street.” (69)

She must have said more…but Baker would be active in Harlem for the rest of her life, always connected through her apartment even when she was based down in the South. I like that the YMCA and the library were ‘the dual pillars of Harlem’s intellectual and political life for over two decades.’ (69) Reflecting on her arrival there, Baker says:

I, perhaps at that stage, had the kind of ambition that others may have . . . the world was out there waiting for you to provide a certain kind of leadership and give you the opportunity. But with the Depression, I began to see that there were certain social forces over which the individual had very little control. It wasn’t an easy lesson. It was out of that context that I began to explore more in the areas of ideology and theory regarding social change. (104)

Love.

Going back to the idea of movement halfway houses, Baker spent a semester at Brookwood Labour College, ‘to learn about theories and models of social change, as well as the history of working people.’

Founded by socialists in 1921, Brookwood’s 1st chairman of the faculty was A.J. Muste — leader in the labour movement, then member (later head) of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) which shows up again and again (and then again) in radical histories of the century. There Baker met Pauli Murray, a longtime friend and comrade, someone else to read more about.

She became friends with the (famous/ later somewhat infamous) George Schuyler and his wife Josephine, became part of his circle. They helped found the Young Negroes’ Cooperative League, with Schuyler as president and Baker as national director. Some of its principles — and principles that Baker would carry with her through the whole of her life:

  • full inclusion and equal participation of women
  • full participation of its rank and file in decision making and leadership
  • young people should be in the forefront of the struggle for social change (83)

In 1930  they came up with a 5 year plan (inspired by Lenin), their goals were to train 5,000 co-op leaders by 1932, establish a wholesale cooperative outlet by 1993, finance an independent college by 1937. (86)

As a former organiser I confess, I like hearing other people’s goals– and these are damn impressive. They didn’t reach them, but it was still something: The YNCL grew from 30 members (they made these goals with 30 members?) in December to 400  in two years, local councils in 22 cities stretching between both coasts. 22 cities? I wish there was more on this. Again like Septima Clark’s work, and the cooperative grocery they formed in the front room of the first citizenship school, these stories and efforts to build more cooperative ways of working intertwine with so much of the struggle. Shit, we’re still trying to build cooperatives. Ransby writes:

Buying cooperatives would, they hoped, demonstrate on a small scale the efficiency of collective economic planning and simultaneously promote the values of interdependency, group decision making, and the sharing of resources. (86)

In 1936 she began working as a consumer education teacher for the Workers Education project (WEP) of the WPA — who didn’t work for the WPA? I would give almost anything to have been hanging around there…she did what she did and looked for jobs that would support her in that.

Then 1940, WWII, the double V movement for victory abroad and victory at home, and Baker joined staff of NAACP as assistant field secretary. Ransby notes that Baker was:

convinced that how one fought was as important as what one was fighting for; the key to change lay in the process of movement building. (106)

This meant the NAACP was somewhat frustrating, particularly as women were ‘indispensable but underappreciated’ in the NAACP. No woman had been elected as executive secretary and they were usually excluded from inner decision making circles despite being the backbone of many active branches and national staff. The NAACP provided an opportunity, though a flawed one. (106)

Already Ella Baker was fighting the class biases of black professionals, who:

had attitudes that were not particularly helpful in terms of change. For instance,…they would  be against the idea of going to battle for the town drunk who happened to have been brutalized when being arrested, because who was he? (120)

I love that Baker would fight for the town drunk. Through 1942 and 43 she increasingly became involved in the labour movement and CIO organizing efforts as part of her NAACP work, though not quite in the ways she hoped — she wrote to Lucille Baker after going to support CIO organizing shipyard workers in Newport News, VA:

The CIO is moving in, organizing everything . . . . I wish I could stay here several months. It is just the time to do a real piece of organizing for the NAACP, but as usual, I can only linger long enough to stir up sufficient interest to increase the membership by a few hundred and collect a few dollars. . . .  (133)

I love this quote too. Love how Baker wants to stay put, spend more time developing relationships, really organise rather than just get some members and raise some money. NAACP didn’t have much idea what was possible through that. Still, in 1943, her friends unexpectedly catapulted her into the position of the NAACP’s director of branches — White didn’t even ask her before putting out press release. She was pretty pissed, but she ended up saying yes. How could you say no? She traveled the country, still getting members, still raising money.

In the early 1950s (now over 20 years since she first started this kind of work mind, some long hard years and she’s still going) she became part of the struggle to improve public education. After Brown v Board she worked with Kenneth and Mamie Phipps Clark to fight for ‘community-based’ models of learning. They founded Parents in Action, trying to bring together African American and Puerto Rican parents in the same struggle for education. The group was able to act with autonomy from the more constricting NAACP  — feels like Baker had a very conflicted relationship with the NAACP.  She had an ambiguous relationship to the NAACP’s communist purging as well, part of the committee, but she worked with socialists before and after all of this. You’re doing good work in the community, she would work with you.

In 1955 she also joined Stanley Levison and Bayard Rustin to form In Friendship to funnel resources to Montgomery Bus Boycott … this would later be essentially taken over by E. Phillip Randolph, to be run by a committee handpicked by George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO.

The conflict between In Friendship and the union leaders also illustrates the reluctance of established leaders to relinquish any of their power to, or even make room for, upstart organizations. Baker encountered this problem repeatedly over the years. (166)

Still, it is through In Friendship that Ella Baker would be on hand to help form the SCLC. Then there’s SNCC, and the heart of her most exciting popular education and organising work, as well as lessons learned. To be saved for part 2, but first? A side note — I absolutely love that one of Ella Baker’s few indulgences were her fabulous hats.

ELLA BAKER (1903-1986). American civil rights activist. Photograph, c1970 Granger.
ELLA BAKER (1903-1986). American civil rights activist. Photograph, c1970 Granger.

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Septima Clark: Ready From Within

Ready From Within - Septima ClarkSeptima Poinsette Clark… words cannot express how happy and humbling this tour of freedom fighters and popular educators has been making me. I only hope I have within me an ounce of their courage, and that my life could have a fraction of their meaning. I believed I could make a difference by writing, I am trying to continue a tiny piece of their legacy and remember their example when I face this academic article (and book) writing with fear and trembling, because I do not feel it is an audience of my people though I know some of my people are out there.

Anyway. This is short, wonderful, and everyone should read it. Cynthia Stokes Brown helped Septima Clark bring it together, and the introduction is her narration of how they met, how this book came about. In it she quotes part of a speech given by Rosa Parks at a dinner given by the East Bay Friends of Highlander where Mrs Clark was also present:

However, I was willing to face whatever came, not because I felt that I was going to be benefited or helped personally, because I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago. But I had the hope that the young people would be benefited by equal education…

I actually did not think in terms of non-violence and Christian love in connection with the Movement (we didn’t call it the Movement–we just called it survival) until Dr Martin Luther king came to Montgomery… (17)

These words shook me, regrounded me. Reminded me of the reality that all of this work was grounded in — survival.

I felt that I had been destroyed too long ago.

This is still where change has to start, where people are at. Septima Clark might have fought hard to do things the way she thought would be best, but it didn’t mean she closed herself down to change. Rather it meant opening up to a collective way of changing:

But I changed, too, as I traveled through the eleven deep south states. Working through those states, I found I could say nothing to those people, and no teacher as a rule could speak with them. We had to let them talk to us and say to us whatever they wanted to say. When we got through listening to them, we would let them know that we felt that they were right according to the kind of thing that they had in their mind, but according to living in this world there were other things they needed to know. We wanted to know if they were willing then to listen to us, and they decided that they wanted to listen to us.

…I found out that I needed to change my way of thinking, and in changing my way of thinking I had to let people understand that their way of thinking was not the only way. We had to work together to get the changes. (53-54)

She talks a lot about how she had to change her thinking about middle-class people, poor people, white people… but I’m getting ahead, because Mrs Clark fully came into her own with some help from Highlander, and this was a process the way getting rid of our prejudices is always a process.

Highlander Years

She was a teacher, and a colleague recommended Highlander to her. They offered free room and board for those attending the workshops (it’s clear this was important, it’s not at all clear how they funded it). Clark writes:

Myles used to open the workshops by asking the people what they wanted to know, and he would close it with, “What you going to do back home?” (30)

Clark, Thurgood Marshall, and others at the Highlander Folk School.
Clark, Thurgood Marshall, and others at the Highlander Folk School.

I liked that particular practice of questions, as much as the importance of music to the experience, and the singing that always went on there. When Clark lost her job as a teacher through the Southern push to destroy the NAACP and the mass firing of teachers who wouldn’t abjure their membership, she was hired on to Highlander’s staff.

An aside — Mrs Clark remembers Rosa Parks attending her first workshop while all the time fearing that someone would report her presence there back to the community and she would lose her job, even be in danger. No idle fear. Three months after that, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.

While at Highlander, Clark was instrumental in helping set up the citizenship schools. She herself had been a teacher on Johns Island in South Carolina, so she knew a great deal about the situation there when Esau Jenkins came to talk to her and Myles Horton at Highlander about setting up a school to teach adults literacy there. He was a bus driver among other things, and had begun educating people about the constitution so they could qualify to vote while driving his route. But he couldn’t teach literacy while driving the bus.

Highlander provided the funds to buy a building. They set up a cooperative grocery in the front rooms to disguise what they were doing from the white people of the island — this also allowed them to make enough money to pay Highlander back for the cost of the building and created a loan-fund. They used this to rebuild a woman’s house after it ‘got burned out’ (no mention of how, why), to help people through sickness and etc.

This is floating around the internet with no credits I can find...
This is floating around the internet with no credits I can find…

Cooperative efforts and mutual aid within communities are a running thread throughout all of these stories of social change and struggle. So is respect. You’d think that would be easy, but everyone knows it can be pretty hard for some. Like Horton, she emphasises the importance of finding someone who could teach with respect for their students:

‘We wanted to find a person who was not a licensed teacher, one who would not be considered high falutin’, who would not act condescending to adults. (48)

They settled on the amazing Bernice Robinson, and the schools grew and grew with wildly success. A few more thoughts on her work at Highlander and the white supremacist actions to shut down it’s challenge to the establishment through charges of interracial gatherings, the illegal selling of alcohol, and communism. This hodgepodge contains the real reason, the fabricated reason, and the fear-mongering reason for Tennessee’s hate, highlighting the particularly long-standing tradition of red-baiting to shut down all attempts at social change. This deep-rooted hatred of socialism has been, and continues to be, an effective demonising label for anything that troubles privilege and promises change. Clark writes:

But anyone who was against segregation was considered a Communist. White southerners couldn’t believe that a southerner could have the idea of racial equality; they thought it had to come from somewhere else. (55)

Shit, imagine being so limited of vision and spirit. You’d think anyone could look around them and think shit, we must be able to do better than this. So how do we do it?

There are some light moments in here. For all her radical politics, she’s that fierce church/mother figure in her disapproval of alcohol (and by extension all that goes with it), though you love her just the same. I love it too, so much, every time she mentions Stokely Carmichael’s ‘black power boys’. That phrase will never leave me. You can love her for it, because she always stayed in conversation with those black power boys. Saw them sharing a struggle, even if she disagreed with everything they said.

Then there’s that memory of Harry Belafonte (swoon) coming to Highlander and teaching them ‘Michael Row Your Boat Ashore’, and a return to harsh reality when she talks about singing it to keep her spirits up after being arrested as part of that effort to destroy Highlander. One thing Myles Horton never quite got into was the racism Septima Clark faced every time she set foot in Sewanee, the nearest town to Highlander. She had to do without so much while she worked and lived there — like shopping at the store, or being welcome in church. Such ugliness. You realise this, and then it is followed by her arrest while Horton is away. She’s fierce all right, but I can’t imagine her not terrified when the cops took her the long way round to jail.

That must have made it easier when she, Horton and King decided to spin-off the citizenship schools to the SCLC to ensure they weren’t affected (and a few more reasons, they were already getting bigger than Highlander wanted to manage). Clark moved with them, though remained tightly connected to Highlander.

SCLC years

So she moved house (though never fully left the street she grew up on in Charleston — but more about that in the next post) and started a centre called the Dorchester Cooperative Community Center in McIntosh, Georgia. There they held five day trainings for people from local communities who wanted to go back and open up citizenship schools. They also increased recruitment of teachers. They had only three qualifications: teachers had to be respected in the community, had to be able to read aloud, and they had to be able to write their names in cursive writing.

Back then in the South, whites made sure your signature didn’t count unless it was your name in cursive. I don’t know why that detail alone makes me so angry.

Clark describes a back and forth and a flexibility, people wanting literacy teaching for various reasons beyond voting. They tailored programs to local needs — like teaching people to write checks. They got a grant so were able to compensate poor tenant farmers for their time studying and allow them to come.

Even then we didn’t have too many to come. There was so much pressure from the whites in the community that too many of them were afraid. Those who came had to feel that we could get away with it or that we didn’t mind if we had to die. (65)

More grounding.This was about power, and whites never did yield power easily.

‘But before we could send anyone to Congress, the white people tried some of everything.’ (71)

White supremacists killed thirty people engaged in the civil rights work of registering people for the vote from northern Virginia to Eastern Texas. You want more grounding? Clark remembers arguing with white volunteers, who would sneak out after work to see the town and run back home scared after threats or worse. She would tell them:

“Well, I tried to tell you not to go out at night. it’s bad enough to try to go out in the day, you know.” (72)

I don’t know how well I’d do myself in that kind of claustrophobic environment and under that kind of pressure. I guess you never know until you’re in it. Septima Clark understood as well as anyone that the people she worked with in these towns were facing this for life, not just the little while they were stepping outside their own reality to volunteer for a cause. But she didn’t much care for the high-falutin’ folk who refused risk, not when she saw so many others stepping forward… She talks a lot about class, about middle-class preachers and teachers too afraid to risk their standing, and in preacher’s cases their traditions of accepting gifts from white businesses in return for their mediations with Black community. It was mostly the other members of the community who pushed through, some giving their lives to do so. But together they managed to form 897 citizenship schools between 1957 and 1970. In 1964 alone there were 195, and Fannie Lou Hamer and Hosea Williams both entered the movement through their participation in them.

Even more than class, Clark talks about the sexism:

I was on the executive staff of SCLC, but the men on it didn’t listen to me too well. They liked to send me into many places, because I could always make a path in to get people to listen to what I have to say. But those men didn’t have any faith in women, none whatsoever. they just though that women were sex symbols…That’s why Rev. Abernathy would say continuously, “Why is Mrs. Clark on this staff?” (77)

I feel that tickle of rage here. Imagine anyone not respecting this woman. Imagine it. She went right ahead and spoke her mind anyway, and she didn’t hold back any punches.

I think there is something among the Kings that makes them feel that they are the kings, and so you don’t have a right to speak. You can work behind the scenes all you want. That’s all right. But don’t come forth and try to lead. That’s not the kind of thing they want. (78)

Of course, she didn’t see herself as a feminist at the time, but looking back she saw the intertwining of the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement, one did not come out of the other.

This is a slim volume, too slim for such a life! And curiously split in two parts, the second dealing more with her growing up and her family. So I’ll talk about that in a second post.

For more on education and struggle…

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Linda Hogan: Dwellings

3592266A beautiful meditation through a series of essays on the world and our place in it from Linda Hogan…our place as part of it, and our place sharing it with a host of other things full of wonder. A world that is greater than our comprehension, though dominant ideology attempts to constrain it within words and models of profit and loss.

Even wilderness is seen as having value only as it enhances and serves our human lives, our human world. While most of us agree that wilderness is necessary to our spiritual and psychological well-being, it is a container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours. It is not only where we go to escape who we have become and what we have done, but it is also part of the natural laws, the workings of a world of beauty and depth we do not yet understand. it is something beyond us something that does not need our hand in it. As one of our Indian elders has said, there are laws beyond our human laws, and ways above ours. We have no words for this in our language, or even for our experience of being there. Ours is a language of commerce and trade, of laws that can be bent in order that treaties might be broken, land wounded beyond healing. It is a language that is limited, emotionally and spiritually, as if it can’t accommodate such magical strength and power. (45-46)

The world continues to be greater than our small understandings.

There is so much here that resonates with the very theoretical work emerging around the crisis we face, the working through in academic ways of the meaning of the anthropocene. Dwellings emerges from the bottom up, from earth and people and out of a tradition whose attempted destruction demanded the rationalisations emerging from immense intellectual work. The theorising that justified genocide, that continues to justify the world’s destruction, shares much the same abstracted kind of language as that of academics now working in their own ways to understand this moment of crisis we are in. This is not entirely a critique, people speak in the language that they know. I love some of this work. It is just a dissonance I always feel, an alienation that is always there. Because in many ways, academic language cannot really cope with what matters, and what it learns it hides away behind an impenetrable wall of words in books as heavy as bricks.

We are looking for a tongue that speaks with reverence for life, searching for an ecology of mind. Without it, we have no home, have no place of our own within the creation. (60)

I’m not sure English can cope at all, the way we have stripped it. Funny how words that try to grapple with meaning and emotion too often just sound cheesy, like Hallmark cards packaging things for slick consumption. This should not damage the quality of those meanings, but our language seems to try.

We have no home, have no place.

Hogan quotes Lynda Sexson from the article ‘What do Stars Eat?’ in Left Bank, which expresses so much of the barrenness I find in the imagination, that works like Andrea Hairston’s Mindscape highlight through their rich textures and hopes, no coincidence that language should also be a focal point of her work.

We are so accustomed to myths (sacred stories) of extinction, that we are not as practical at imagining that greater gap–continuation. . . .  Would the earth or our existence be in such peril if we did not harbor a profound desire for extinction? “They lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick,” resonates Isaiah. The crisis of Western culture is ecological. The source of that crisis is in Western culture’s own version of reality; the myth of the urge to eradicate: earth and images of earth, body and song. (94)

Everywhere we see the smoking charred proofs of this urge to eradicate.

It manifests partially, I think, in simple arrogance, so deeply ingrained people don’t even know its there. I guess centuries of Colonialism, Imperialism, Slave-owning and genocide haven’t been too good even for those at the top of the chain. Academics especially always need to be discovering, inventing. Need to be owning, taking credit. The establishment demands it, we are caught up in a system just as Marx described manufacturers, and so too many of them (us) bluster through the world not listening, but extracting and abstracting and generating money and status from what other people already know, when they are not busy working on things that probably don’t much matter.  A poem by Jimmie Durham, Cherokee writer: The Teachings of my Grandmother

In a magazine too expensive to buy I read about
How, with scientific devices of great complexity,
U.S. scientists have discovered that if a rat
Is placed in cage in which it has previously
Been given an electrical shock, it starts crying.

I told my grandmother about that and she said,
“We probably knew that would be true.” (55)

all these things that are ‘discovered’, and  — we probably knew that would be true. There are meditations here on Cortez, conquistadores, and I think that’s a big part of where all of this started. That attempt to completely destroy other ways of knowing, other ways of being. In an article on Ishi (last of his tribe), Linda Hogan writes:

A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, the solution to the mystery of what we are. There are already so many holes in the universe that will never again be filled, and each of them forces us to question why we permitted such loss, such tearing away at the fabric of life, and how we will live with our planet in the future. (115)

On the opposite side of a culture that creates holes in the universe is one that celebrates people, strangers, potential, and welcomes them inside:

The lands around my dwelling
Are more beautiful
From the day
When it is given me to see
Faces I have never seen before.
All is more beautiful.
All is more beautiful.
And life is thankfulness.
These guests of mine
Make my house grand.
–Eskimo song

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Andrea Hairston and Bernice Reagon: Song and Struggle

Andrea Hairston - MindscapeMindscape by Andrea Hairston is quite an incredible book, I can’t believe it’s her first. Maybe I do, because I confess it just might have taken me a little while and some work to get into it, but damn. I loved this story of hope and struggle and culture and ideals and love and death and some freaky alien future earth. It’s complex and complete with Ghost Dancers and ‘ethnic throwbacks’ in a supposedly postracial world that still hasn’t quite got there (because whiteness still seems like it’s getting in the way), technology and healers and spoken combinations of German and Yoruba. It’s also full of heat and action, symbiogenesis (taking me back to Butler) and plenty of deep thoughts on language, race and struggle. From my favourite character, Lawanda, who sticks to her talk despite being looked down upon for it:

Survival be havin’ words to call home, havin’ idioms and syntax to heal the Diaspora. In your cultural rhythm and rhyme, that’s where the soul keep time. (51)

Her lover, the Major, responds in his intellectual way:

Consider that language, despite science fantasy projections, is essentially conservative, hence our ability to communicate across generations. Even the hippest multi-channeling gearhead uses two-thousand-year-old metaphors, slang (such as “hip”) from 1900 that’s now standard, as well as jazzy, take-no-prisoners inspeak that leaves the rest of us down a corridor as the portal collapses. The battle over language, over naming and experiencing the universe, over what constitutes reality is always fierce. Ethnic throwbacks are ideal warriors in these gory cultural skirmishes. (78)

It’s still one hell of a battle, in SF as much as anywhere.

This novel is all about change through struggle, about launching yourself into the unknown and risking everything to change a world of deep pain and horror. It’s about the people who ground you while that change is happening, and the words and culture and songs you hold on to.

997330I love when things in life coincide, disparate things coming together at the right time — like reading this at the same time I reached the excerpt from a 1986 interview with Bernice Reagon–member of NAACP and SNCC and the Freedom Singers and Sweet Honey in the Rock, she’s amazing–in Eyes on the Prize: The Civil Rights Reader.

Funny because look here, in the epigraph for Book IV, Hairston quotes Reagon: ‘Standing in a rainstorm, I believe.’

Reagon’s interview has been one of my favourite parts so far in wading through this massive collection a day at a time. She brings together music and tradition to show the ways that these two things only truly become your own through struggle. They root you in the strength of your past, and uplift you in the movement for the future. Mindscape was full of the power of music and harmony to sculpt human and alien reality both.  There is Mahalia Selasie (see what Hairston did there?) and her gospel choir working along with everyone else to create a better future, helping one lost soul after another. To heal, to open, to change. Bernice Reagon on music:

Growing up in Albany, I learned that if you bring black people together, you bring them together with a song…. Now the singing tradition in Albany was congregational. There were not soloists, there were song leaders.

Like the struggle in which you find your true self:

I know a lot of people talk about it being a movement and when they do a movement they’re talking about buses and jobs and the ICC ruling, and the Trailways bus station. Those things were just incidents that gave us an excuse to be something of ourselves. (143)

She was in Union Baptist Church after the first march, when asked to sing, she added the word “freedom” to a traditional song. She tells us:

I’d always been a singer but I had always, more or less, been singing what other people taught me to sing. That was the first time I had the awareness that these songs were mine and I could use them for what I needed them to.

At that meeting, they did what they usually do. They said, “Bernice, would you lead us in a song?” And I did the same first song, “Over My Head I See Freedom in the Air,” but I’d never heard that voice before. I had never been that me before. And once I became that me, I have never let that me go.

Reading this is pure joy, no? This is the moment that change happens.

I like people to know when they deal with the movement that there are these specific things, but there is a transformation that took place inside of the people that needs to also be quantified in the picture. (144)

This is what Paulo Freire and Myles Horton and Ella Baker and Septima Clark (and I’m getting to the ladies soon, I promise) were all about, and the process that we are enveloped in through Hairston’s novel. Only there’s sex and violence and you never quite know what is going on and it’s all a bit complicated and there are a lot more ants.

I confess, I fucking hate ants. I could have done without the ants, but I honour their place in Mindscape’s mythologies. She does one hell of a job worldbuilding. Just two more quotes — and I confess I singled out the more political bits because that’s how I roll, but it is not especially how the novel rolls so don’t worry. These points are just in there because it’s people working through why things are the way they are, and this shit explains it. Why don’t I have quotes about music? I don’t know, maybe because it’s woven throughout. But I liked this:

Look, ethnic throwbacks do culture not identity politics. We don’t put stock in color. Race is how the world see you, ethnicity is how you see yourself. (121)

I smiled at the next one, I ask this question all the time:

The Last Days… People be past masters at imaginin’ the end of the world–Armageddon, Ragnarök, Götterdämmerung, Apocalypse Now, the Big Crunch–doom and gloom in the twilight of the Gods–but folk’re hard put to imagine a new day where we get on with each other, where we tear it up but keep it real. Why is that? It’s an ole question, but I gotta keep askin’.
— Geraldine Kitt, Junk Bonds of the Mind

I appreciated that in this novel nothing comes easy, least of all love (whether that be for one person or all of them). No one is perfect, but somehow people manage to pull it together and the point of it all is to imagine a new day. It’s inspiring, so maybe I’ll just end with a quote from Septima Clark, who fought all her life for justice and equality and who also knew that your humanity is found in struggle and in change.

But I really do feel that this is the best part of life. It’s not that you have just grown old, but it is how you have grown old. I feel that I have grown old with dreams that I want to come true, and that I have grown old believing there is always a beautiful lining to that cloud that overshadows things. I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift, and this has come during my old age. (Ready from Within, 125)

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