Black Is Back and Overdue

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Over the weekend of January 23rd and 24th in St. Petersburg, Florida, a new coalition of progressive Black organizations and activists convened for an agenda setting and organization structuring conference, the Black Is Back Coalition for Social Justice, Peace and Reparations National Conference.  The Black Is Back Coalition describes itself as an organization of organizations, “comprised of otherwise independent groups and institutions that fit within the generally anti-imperialist, self-determinist tendency of the African community.”[i] 

This is a welcome development in the political life of the African national community in the United States.  For thirty years now, U.S. Africans have been hamstrung by our overwhelming allegiance to the national Democratic Party and its state and local branches.  Yet too often, those bemoaning rock-solid Black support for Democratic candidates have offered either a turn to the Republican Party, a solution rightly resisted and ignored, or a support of alternate parties like the Green Party, that are still perceived as primarily white institutions, rightly or wrongly, despite the recent presidential ticket of Cynthia McKinney and Rosa Clemente, both African women and the latter also Latina.  An organized, leftist, nationalist, internationalist, grassroots political presence has been relegated to the hard and obscure struggle of genuine community organizing, often around local and very specific issues rather than some sort of national program of action.  The Black Is Back Coalition can fill the empty space in Black politics created by the cooptation of Civil Rights Movement politics into the Democratic Party and the military defeat of the revolutionary struggle of the late 60s and the 70s.

At what point does optimism become fatal?  Recent Pew poll[i] results report a significant increase in the percentage U.S. Africans who feel like they are better off now than they were 5 and 9 years ago despite the hard facts on the ground of higher unemployment and a wider wealth gap than in either 2004/2005 and 2000/2001.  Black folks in the U.S. remain over-represented in every negative indicator of living standards in the United States.  But still too many Black folks are living off the heady fumes of having voted for President Obama and feeling that they have representation at the pinnacle of power in the United States.  The actual exercise of power either ignores the Black condition or acts hostilely toward Black people, especially the majority Black working poor.  That includes the way President Obama has been wielding power, like a corporatist, a militarist, and an imperialist.  Black Democratic Party activists have been effectively silenced by the White House and the Democratic Congressional leadership.  The Black is Back Coalition provides a principled opposition to the anti-democratic, class-war-from-above politics practiced by the bipartisan elites in the United States without the restraints embedment in the Democratic Party requires.

One full year into President Obama’s administration, several liberal and left-progressive organizations and activists have harshly assessed the President’s performance. On progressive issues like health care and opposition to the war, the president and Democratic leadership performed woefully, exploiting none of the social energy created by the 2008 election, and thus ceding the ground to right wing forces that were able to construct the health care discourse around an intrusive, bullying government, casting health insurance reform as a mythical socialist takeover.  So I find it interesting that there has been a relative media silence around the Black Is Back Coalition, including and perhaps especially some of the left and alternative media. 

The Black Is Back Coalition held an anti-war rally and a march in Washington, D.C., November 7, 2009.  I could find very little to no announcements about the event in local progressive media, including the local Pacifica network affiliate, KPFK.  C-Span didn’t cover the rally, or the march, its weekend being taken up with the Senate health insurance debate and vote.  The Coalition website posts reports from relatively few examples of the coverage, including two from a participant in the rally and coalition, Alex Morley from Blackfood.org out of the Bahamas.  Besides, Blackfood.org, Agence France-Presse, D.C. Indymedia, NY Indymedia, Free Speech Radio, One People Project, the Los Angeles Sentinel and the Afro American published or broadcast reports on the rally.  In the great mediascape of late modernity, that is precious little coverage.  There is certainly more, especially if one is familiar with African revolutionary cyberspace, but that is still not a thoroughly generalized audience. 

The Los Angeles Sentinel’s coverage is at least somewhat reassuring.  Speakers at the rally roundly criticized Obama for his policies and their execution.  He was taken to task for expanding the war in Afghanistan, maintaining troops in Iraq while calling it a pull out, keeping the Guantanamo Bay prison open, continuing the extraordinary rendition and torture practices instituted by the Bush administration, and his complete snub of any specific African issues, both domestically and internationally.  The refusal alone to attend the World Anti-Racism Conference in Geneva, the follow up to the Durban Conference of 2001 snubbed by the Bush administration, merits deep reproach.  Nonetheless, Black press like the L.A. Sentinel have been nearly exclusively approving in its coverage of the president, going so far as to characterize the severely compromised, insurance industry friendly Senate health reform bill as a victory.  Uncritical reportage of the administration under serves the readership of these papers, and Africans cannot afford to be further underserved or mislead by anyone. 

Since the November march and rally, the Black Is Back Coalition participated in a peace demonstration in Washington on December 18, again with little notice.  The silence around an independent, progressive Black coalition of organizations may arise from the discomfort many on the white left feel with Black Power movement politics, with a politics of Black independence that can accept solidarity but not “allies” who dictate terms.  The members of the Coalition come from the tradition of struggle represented by Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and Dr. King in the years after his Nobel Peace Prize.  These are Fannie Lou Hamer’s politics.  The member organizations come from a wide range of progressive Black politics including the African Socialist Internationalists of the Uhuru Movement, the Malcolm X Center for Self Determination, members of the Green Party, a North Carolina NAACP chapter president, Cynthia McKinney and Dignity, Glen Ford of blackagendareport.com, and at least one elected official, New York’s city councilman Charles Barron, among many other groups and individuals.  Such a self determined, anti-imperialist, grassroots U.S. African liberation movement should be supported by left forces in the United States rather than treated with suspicion or as irrelevant. 

The conference held over the weekend of the 23rd and 24th began the process of constructing programmatic actions to create solutions to the modes of attack on the national and international African community, fundamental to creating justice and peace in the world.  The Coalition resolved to oppose U.S. imperialist actions abroad, challenging Obama to end the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.  The Coalition opposes AfriCom, the U.S. military’s African Command, now headquartered in Germany but looking for a host in Africa, a prospect so unpopular in Africa that even those friendly governments like Liberia’s have not been able to reach an agreement without a political price to pay at home.  The Coalition has resolved to move on the issue of mass incarceration of U.S. Africans, a most stark contradiction of U.S. so-called democratic society.  The Black Is Back Coalition also recognizes the dynamic relationships of state power at work in the interplay of this mass incarceration, increasing at the fastest rate among U.S. African women, the death penalty, and the virtual disappearing of U.S. African political prisoners and prisoners of war.  The Coalition has further resolved to strengthen operational ties regionally with Western Hemisphere African communities outside of the Unites States, evidenced by participation from Canadian activists and Bahamian activists at the November march and rally, and the presence and participation of Alex Morley of the Bahamas also at the January 23rd and 24th conference.  The Coalition resolved to support the Global South in the fight for climate justice, and in its name, makes reparations a critical component of the struggle for justice and liberation.   

In short, the Black Is Back Coalition is attempting to put the African condition back into the political consciousness of the African people, the nation and the world.  Barack Obama, Condoleeza Rice, and Colin Powell must not remain the faces of U.S. Africans in the world.  We have been associated with the struggle for justice in the world.  We cannot allow the U.S. African to become the pretty face of empire.  We must not allow the secret race war against U.S. Africans to go unnoted and unanswered.  When the first real Black U.S. president can’t or won’t mention the conditions of Black people in this country accept to chide us to get our behaviors together, then we must be in a much more vulnerable position than we have been since the end of Reconstruction.  Project Censored listed the shooting of Blacks by Whites in New Orleans in the wake of the levies breaking after Hurricane Katrina on its list of most censored, unreported or underreported stories of 2009.  Of course, the events they describe go back to 2005.  And they only list one story on the war.  We need an African social movement now in the United States. The Black Is Back Coalition is poised to jumpstart that movement.  We need to support them.  If you’re reading this, and who knows if anyone reads these posts, then check out the Black Is Back website, www.blackisbackcoalition.org. Check for yourself and see if you agree with the Coalition’s Principles of Unity.  Then maybe you can be a part of the people’s movement.  Peace and Uhuru (means Freedom).                                


[i] From Uhurunews.com, posted January 23, 2010.


[i] “Living a Black Fantasy: The Obama Delirium Effect,” by Glen Ford. Posted January 20, 2010, blackagendareport.com

Soldier’s Return

Soldier’s Return

the young man in desert fatigues

quietly accepts thanks from

the mouths of grateful citizens

arrayed in defensive positions

against exploding spit

and phantom missiles from

reporters missing in action.

the young man in desert fatigues

quietly walks through the airport.

he looks at no one applauding him

in spurts of ovation, clean hands

clapping, that bear none of the red

terror he rubs off in his dreams

of heat and smoke and limbs burning

small arms like big arms

quivering in the street

at midday prayer.

These trophies few citizens

imagine in their grateful

awe and chest warming pride.

the young man in desert fatigues

quietly embraces his comrades

waiting at the gate in desert fatigues

less tired now to be in the company

of others like him who know

that despite the devotions of patriot believers,

what the monument will not say

rises from the blood sopped dust :

somebody killed those babies.

I Made Two Wishes at Alladeen.com

(The following essay was recently published in Lavanderia literary anthology)

When I was a child, growing up in Los Angeles in the sixties and seventies, I had a Children’s Classics copy of The Arabian Nights.  “Alladin” was one of the last stories in the collection, and one of the longest that wasn’t divided into chapters.  It was also the only familiar story, besides “Sinbad.”  Before I read “Alladin,” I had seen several animated versions and film versions on television.  Alladin had been represented alternately as an Arab youth and as a Chinese youth.  The Alladin of my Children’s Classic(s) is Chinese, so the Alladin of my imagination was Chinese.  I remember thinking it odd that a story about a Chinese boy would be in a collection called The Arabian Nights, but since the Chinese Alladin was familiar, and because Chinese people and other Asians were real people to me, people who lived in the neighborhood, part of my every day experience, it became very easy to hold this picture of Alladin in my mind.   That is also what made that particular collection my favorite of the several titles in the series my working class parents provided: Arthur and his knights, Alice in her Wonderland, Robin and his merry men, Hans Christian Andersen’s tales.  The world of the Nights is the one I preferred for dreaming.  They told the stories of a world I thought I could inhabit and not feel foreign at home.

James Clifford[1], in his discussion of Diasporas in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, claims that Diasporic peoples experience “…a lived tension, the experiences of separation and entanglement, of living here and remembering/desiring another place.”  Clifford’s claim speaks to those who have a living memory of places and spaces they have actually inhabited.  Their children live in an in-between space, without direct experience of the longed for homeland.  They become strangers to their parents, strangers at home should they get the opportunity to visit the fields and streets of their fathers’ and mothers’ births, yet they are treated with the suspicion their parents met as new immigrants, foreigners, perpetual aliens in the host countries and new homes.  They are the children of immigrants, outcasts, refugees, and sometimes exiles, sometimes exiles times 10 million. 

When I use the term Diaspora, I attempt to describe the displacement/re-placement of Africans into the western hemisphere, Western Asia, and Europe, and the subsequent movements of black bodies, settling in of black peoples, around the world, people perpetually subject to ethnic or political or cultural cleansing to better fit in or disappear.  Still, the word has never felt quite right to describe this experience that I felt, that I feel, I share with people whom I’ll never meet.  But I still feel connected to them and wonder how connected to me they may feel.  I worry that they will see me as only an American, just another American.  But that’s not what I wished for on the Alladeen site.

The Alladeen.com website takes an unusual look at the movements of black and brown bodies, and the movements of cyber citizens through cyber space.  The designers call us “travelers.”   A web project of the Builder Society (thebuildersassociation.org) and Moti Roti, the site plays with the story of Alladin, that archetype of wish fulfillment and its dangers, and is the web version of a multimedia stage performance and a meditation on late modern human subjects in motion, literal motion across borders, rivers, deserts, seas, and garbage stained landscapes.  It includes a chronology of Alladin sightings in oral tradition, literature and film, from the earliest versions of The Arabian Nights from the Tenth Century in which “Alladin” is conspicuously absent, to the kitschy catalogue of Western Orientalist fantasies frozen in Twentieth Century movie posters.  They remind me that The Arabian Nights that has come down to us in English comes not from their Arab, Persian and Indian sources but more likely than not from Sir Richard Burton, that historical embodiment of British imperialism best known for his quest to find the source of the Nile, and his taste for the black bodies of young East African women and pretty South Asian young men.  His translation of the tales assumed the position as the authoritative version in the English speaking and reading world.  In a sense, we have an English imaginary of an Arab imaginary. 

The site also features a lamp visitors can rub.  At the thematic heart of the website are the call center workers who play the role of the genie of the lamp, hundreds of genies granting the tech wishes of callers from the Global North. Now, black and brown bodies in India move from throughout the Sub-continent to Bangalore, exchanging the life ways of thousands of years, or hundreds, for a chance at some of the new money being generated by India’s emergence as a major player in the global tech industries.  As I watched and listened to the Bangalore call center workers whose stories are featured on the Alladeen site, I thought of a peculiar feature we share.  Maybe it isn’t so peculiar.  I have another name, and they have other names.  I chose my name to set me apart from American, from Western.  Which is my “real” name?  These workers create these American personas, their American names juxtaposed to their given names.  They create these names- the companies create these names- to create the illusion of American call center workers for North American and British callers who know that the call center is in India because the story is told and retold and under-told and again retold in the news cycle, depending on the front page, top story currency of economic news and specifically the cleaning out of jobs from the Global North to the Global South. 

Sometimes the call center is embedded in the news about globalization, which becomes a story about outsourcing.  Sometimes it is embedded in a story about telecom, sometimes a story about the robust economic growth in India and China.  Still, besides this news, this representation of the facts of the call center, we the callers and they the call center employees of Bangalore, India, persist in our imaginary game that there are Americans on both ends of the line.  And our wishes come true, those limited, technological wishes that provoked us to call. 

I say above that I liked the Arabian Nights book because of what made it different, and what made it different was that it tells stories that were not that same story that was being told over and over and over again, in school, at church, on television, in the movies, in most of my other books, what Stuart Hall[1] calls the “Presence Europeanne,” ever present, ever represented, always gazing, always the object of a gaze.  So stories about Arabs and Persians, about Asia and the Indian Ocean and the Swahili Coast fired my young imagination, and I felt a kinship with these people.  Whether or not actual Arabs and actual Persians and actual Africans were like these people in the book didn’t matter at the time.  They were closer to me racially.  They were not- white, and that felt like breathing room.  It never occurred to me that I might ever meet Arabs or Persians, and especially here in Los Angeles.  At that time, they were like Jews, people who lived only in books in religion class and history class.  Ironically, these stories taught me that Jewish communities continued to thrive after the fall of Rome, alongside Christian and Muslim neighbors.  They were all there together in the stories, all subject to the same magic from the same evil wizards and curses.

Recalling my own Alladin sightings as a child also reminds me of the “travel” I did in my living room in front of our little black and white television, a quite wide spread “traveling” culture as it is.  Arjun Appadurai[1] challenges the Frankfurt School’s[2] pessimism about mass culture, citing electronic broadcast as more likely to encourage agency rather than mere complacency and simple conformity.  I think he is right.  The electronic media primed me for world citizenship.  In the seventies, Saturday morning cartoons were followed by The International Children’s Film Festival.  This was regular programming.  It was here that I learned there were black people in Britain, and Australia, received confirmation that the Jewish people were neither relegated to Bible stories nor exterminated in Germany, that there were poor white people in Europe that lived in smaller houses than ours, and that English school boys abandoned on an island would viciously turn on each other.  The world was larger than the United States, and if the United States meant rich and free and, ultimately, white, I didn’t feel any of those things, and my parents didn’t feel them either.  I felt closer to those people- those strangers, characters – coming through the screen, including the poor Europeans.  The entire world was becoming my homeland, taking the place of the homeland of my birth to which I have never felt a strong, positive, emotional connection.

Those longings for an exotic space that I thought would be more familiar were a child’s longings, but they were real.  They belonged to a time when I belonged to a time that still looked with naïve hope to the possibilities of the United Nations, and a time when the United States society felt more open to internationalism, and my uncles and their friends, Black, Chicano and Filipino, acted out in my eyes those possibilities.  What did I know?  During the recent presidential campaign, an African American man, older than me, wiry, white-haired and riding a bike, had a brief conversation with me about the political contest, a conversation he initiated while we waited in line at the Chevron on the corner of Jefferson and Crenshaw.  He was quite cynical about the process and the candidates.  He was convinced that the fix was in for the Republicans, and even more importantly for corporations.  The last thing he said to me before I had to give the cashier my attention was that whoever won the election from which ever party, the jobs no doubt would still go to India.  He said America was ready to clean up its mess and call it the success of integration.  Specifically, he said the Black poor were being ethnically cleansed, but in order to do that, the Black middle class was continuing to be culturally cleansed, made acceptable, palatable, made honorary whites. 

Cleansing signs of difference, of regionalism, of ethnicity is fundamental to the victory of the illusion of the very contemporary wish fulfillment that makes middle class Midwestern Americans of us all.  So I watched the college educated Indian woman featured in the cultural specifications section of the Alladeen.com site, dressed sharply in an expensive sari and clearly from a higher socio-economic class than the call center workers, with great interest as she explains the importance of mastering the American accent, of cleaning up and cleaning out the various Indian accents the Bangalore call center workers carry from their homes and farms and cramped city neighborhoods.  But which American accent suffices?  It was funny and exhilarating to watch her and listen to her talk about Americans from an outside point of view.  It made me think of how many Americas there are in the United States.  The workers must learn Standard American English (SAE).  An American English other than SAE muddies the illusion.  That is unacceptable.  These commercial interests require the erasure, the cleansing, and the cleaning out
of American particularities.  That requirement actually erases most Americans to privilege the way of speaking of a relatively small group of Americans.  Can one imagine a United States without its Texan accents, its Californian accents, its Wisconsin and Minnesota accents, its Brooklyn accents, its New Orleans brogues?  These and more are collapsed into a safe, a “clean” American accent suitable for business, news reading and instruction.  Nevertheless, I found it strangely gratifying that the interview mentions the African American accent specifically, even as unacceptable.  It was ironic since so many Americans and others appropriate African American speech styles and sounds.  It is funny the things people wish for. 

My other name is Yusef.  I write and perform poetry by this name.  And it is the name I use at home.  I am a split person, a traveler everyday crossing borders.  I am a call center worker.  My African American accent, the one I grew up with, a mixture of New Orleans and Texarkana Ebonics, has been “cleansed” since junior year in a predominately white high school.  I never noticed it.  My mother and aunt did.  They were tickled by it.  I was devastated.  I rubbed the lamp at Alladeen.com.  When I made my two wishes, I made them as Yusef from Los Angeles.  The first thing I wished for was time.  There never seems to be enough of it.  I made that wish before visiting the call center workers’ section on the website.  First I read the first one hundred wishes, and then I made my wish.  I wondered what number my first wish was. 

When I finished watching the cultural specifications woman talk about helping the Bangalore workers sound “American,” I was overcome with the desire to make another wish.  I thought about the men I listened to as they explained how they needed to change their body clocks to be able to live with the hours the call center demanded of them, the opposite hours of those lives they left at home.  I thought they needed what I needed, more time.  We all need to liberate time, overthrow the tyranny of clocks and schedules, decommission the time clocks in factories and malls and call centers.  I made my second wish.  The memories that flooded back into me, that world out there that I have felt connected to since I was a boy, a boy who grew up in black communities that always abutted and overlapped other non-white communities, and also always had working class white families living in them, filled me with great compassion.  That’s what it felt like.  That’s what I will call it, great, intoxicating compassion.  For my second wish, I wished love, all the love in the world to everybody.  That is the journey I took at Alladeen.com.  That’s what happened when I rubbed the lamp.  It felt true, and it felt clean.


[1] James Clifford is Professor in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  He co-edits Writing Culture: The Politics and Poetics of Ethnography and author of The Predicament of Culture

[2] Stuart Hall. “Cultural identity and cinematic representation”, Framework 36, 68-81. Hall has been a leading cultural and critical theorist central to the development of Cultural Studies, particularly the work emerging from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England .  

[3] Appadurai  is professor of anthropology and of South Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago.  

[4] The Frankfurt School, especially the cultural criticism associated with Walter Benjamin and Thomas Adorno, emerged in the 1920s and 30s in Frankfurt, Germany, but was actually centered in New York and Los Angeles (in the person of Adorno) as these intellectuals fled the German Fascist Regime.  Although a great simplification, let it suffice to say that these theorists bemoaned the mechanical reproduction of cultural commodities as in effect devaluing art insofar as it destroys the aura of uniqueness in the original.



Hero Worship

On a recent return trip from Atlanta, as I took my window seat on the plane, the middle-aged white man sitting next to me looked across the aisle and said, “Thank you. We really appreciate all that you’re doing for us,” to a soldier in desert camouflage uniform on our row and shook his hand.  The man’s words and manner were awkward, a little embarrassed, but certainly sincere.  The moment provoked discomfort in me.  The soldier quietly acknowledged the gratitude, and we settled in for the cross country flight.  Upon our arrival in Los Angeles, as the plane taxied to the gate, the pilot addressed us passengers over the PA with the usual landing script, and then at the end of his comments, he acknowledged the presence of several active duty military personnel on the flight and again thanked them specifically for “protecting our freedoms because we know freedom isn’t free.”  After a momentary awkward silence, the passengers clapped- politely? sincerely? -yes, both.  I didn’t clap.  I continued to look out the window.  I don’t know if anyone noticed.  My neighbor was again shaking the soldier’s hand.  I didn’t clap because the United States military has not protected the freedoms of U.S. citizens since Little Rock.  U.S. military might is used to project U.S. power and U.S. capitalism, and the Defense Department is an insidiously deceptive moniker for the U.S. military institution. 

war_protest_102809

It is difficult for U.S. Americans to see their military as anything other than a supreme defensive force.  We’ve been trained to see them that way.  Decades of Hollywood war heroes: colonial war heroes, Independence War heroes, Civil War heroes, Indian War heroes, range war heroes, WWI heroes, and especially WWII heroes, the “last good war,” decorate our imaginations.  The plot has been laid out and repeated ad infinitum in movies and television series, drama and comedy, the U.S. military to the rescue.  Mistakes may be made, but the intent is always noble.  Even the Vietnam War’s heroes are being rehabilitated, after having been subjected to a critical film eye for a brief moment in Hollywood with films like The Boys in Company C and Apocalypse Now.  That defeat suffered in Vietnam was a serious blow to U.S. American confidence, and the Empire’s citizens have been too comfortable with asserting the country’s “interests” through military force to compensate for the Vietnamese victory ever since Ronald Reagan gave them permission to feel justified in their belligerence.  For most U.S. Americans, the United States Military is always the cavalry coming to the rescue, and its force is used for good. 

 

The recent invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq may be the most open uses of U.S. American force, but they are in keeping with a well established if under reported and under analyzed pattern of use of force.  What Dr. King said in 1967 remains true: the United States is still the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.  By no means is the U.S. alone in the wholesale use of violence. But the mistaken characterization of that violence by the majority of U.S. citizens is unusual in the world, but familiarly dangerous.  The U.S. American military establishment operates from what was once the War Department, which after World War II was redefined as the Defense Department, funded through defense spending, redefined with the emergent National Security State in the Cold War context.  The framing of U.S. military activities as defense assumes the moral high ground in any conflict and obscures the assertive, belligerent and bullying practices of the U.S. military. 

native-americans-fighting-terrorism-warriors-braves-fighters

 

 

 

What was the U.S. military defending throughout the 19th Century as the country expanded its territory across the continent? The settlement of the Louisiana Territory, purchased from the French imperial state, land they had no right to sell, was accomplished through violence of both citizen-settlers and the state. 

 

 

 

Mexico was invaded, the Hawaiian island de-stabilized, the Caribbean invaded, the Philippines invaded and occupied.  The transition from the 19th to the 20th Century was bloody indeed, and in keeping with the tradition of militarism established early in the nation’s expansionist history.  During this expansion, the figure of the U.S. American soldier and sailor has been unassailable in the mainstream, the anomaly of Vietnam notwithstanding.  Indeed, the movement against the war in Vietnam has necessitated the vigorous reconstruction of the U.S. American soldier as the preeminent defender of democratic freedoms and human rights in the world, rather than as the heavily armed guarantor of capitalist economic structures in their neo-liberal, transnational corporatist stage.

Somalia
Somalia

 

 

 

U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, and marines are not heroes, unless we want to characterize them in Voltaire’s manner as “heroic butchers.”  So we must know that when we say that we support the troops, not the war, that we are still supporting the massive use of violence against civilian populations because it is the soldier on the ground (and the flier in the air) who perpetrates the violence. 

 

 

None know this better than the soldiers themselves, and I think it is rare to find veterans glorying in their war experiences.  They are suffering greatly for an ultimately ungrateful empire, languishing in unemployment, homelessness, depression, substance abuse, damaged relationships, and too often resorting to suicide.  So no, I don’t support the troops. To do so is to endorse empire.  To do so is to endorse white supremacy domination.  To do so is to endorse business in the world as usual.  No, I don’t support the troops.  I don’t exactly blame them either. 

homeless3

 

 

 

That the troops are simply following orders is no defense.  But it is hard to refuse an order when the culture of the military demands obedience, discipline and loyalty.  That loyalty to each other, if not to the mission, gets many of the soldiers through their tours of duty.  For many, it’s why they fight.  How much more difficult it must be to refuse an order under the circumstances of occupation and counterinsurgency.  How much more impossible it must be to refuse an unjust or criminal order when the government that sent one to war has perpetrated the first war crime by committing a crime against the peace. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wars are illegal.  The government conducts them in an unethical manner, placing the U.S. American soldier in an untenable position in which the abuse of the civilian populations is inevitable, and the torture of prisoners becomes routine.  No, I don’t blame the troops.  The governments that send them to war and keep them at war bear the responsibility, the culpability, Republican and Democrat. USPresidents

Soldiers are heroes when they resist inhumanity.  They are heroes when they protect human rights at the cost of liberty or life.  They are heroes when they refuse criminal orders and illegal deployments.  The air cavalry that put themselves between Vietnamese civilians and Lieutenant William Calley’s unit at My Lai, they are heroes.  The Winter Soldiers of the Vietnam War, they are heroes.  Camilo Mejia, who refused to deploy to Iraq, he is a hero. Lieutenant Ken Watata, he’s a hero.  They are the troops who require our support. Resist empire by resisting the cultural pressure to worship military personnel as above reproach, one of the most pernicious reactions to the warranted critique of the Vietnam War and U.S. imperialism in Southeast Asia.  The protectiveness toward the U.S. soldier has effectively silenced criticism of assertive military power, only deepening the political-cultural economy of militarism that Eisenhower warned against and that Dr. King identified as one of the three great evils that would continue to plague the nation. 

usarmypullst_mn

 

 The military should not be a jobs program, but it is.  The military should not be a college funding program, but it is.  Working class men and women, finding no employment prospects and suffering from a dearth of college recruiters and a surplus of military recruiters in their high schools turn to the military to create futures for themselves.  They are praised for their patriotism and sacrifice, both of which may be sincere, because military service in the United States is voluntary.  That volunteerism masks an economic draft, men and women with few choices and few resources opting for stability, sometimes grudgingly.  And certainly, many service men and women leave the military with a new political understanding and first person knowledge of U.S. American power in the world.  It is the citizens who praise them and worship them who suffer the delusion of American Exceptionalism, a particularly insidious imperial disease that blinds its victims to the severity and even to the facts of the crimes of the imperial state. 

smedley

 

     

We would all do well to remember that great American hero no one knows nor any corporation or lobby promotes, General Smedley Butler, a man who should be revered for exposing a proposed fascist coup against President Roosevelt during the Depression but is instead mired in obscurity.  In retirement, he wrote a book about his military service titled War is a Racket.  In short, Butler explains how he thought he became a Marine to protect the United States, but he soon found out that his real job was to protect United Fruit and Standard Oil.

Opposing Obama

Paranoia on the Right
Paranoia on the Right

Opposing Obama

 

 

 

Five months into his presidency, Barack Obama has been the object of two unwarranted responses. The right wing, very vocal and with great media access, accuse him of showing his socialist colors and leading the country they love down the path to dictatorship and ruin. Media personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, media outlet Fox News, and Republican politicos like Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney have produced a constant chatter, constructing a conservative counter narrative for Obama’s every move, openly hoping for his failure and skirting treason.  The militant far right, that is, the extra-legal militant right such as neo-Nazi and Klan formations, and including the open white nationalist militia formations, see Obama’s election as the fulfillment of their greatest fears and starkest warnings of the end of white America and the unmasking of the so-called ZOG, the Zionist Occupied Government.  For these groups, the long prophesied, by them, race war has begun in the United States, and in an era when hate crimes had already increased against Muslims, attacks targeting people of color generally, African descent people specifically, Jewish people, and our institutions have still increased more significantly[1], despite the oft cited polls that say the both African Americans and European Americans feel that “race relations” have improved significantly.  Can both those things be true?

Then there is the missing response from very many African Americans who have been dangerously uncritical of the Obama administration for his policies, domestic and international, that remain firmly in line with the general direction and goals of the United States ruling elite for the past thirty years.  African Americans have opposed these policies consistently and correctly, and the fact of an African American POTUS[1] should not silence that opposition or a genuinely alternative vision for the country.  Yet silencing has been one of the most troubling effects thus far of the Obama presidency.  Take opposition to war as an example. 

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The anti-war movement has fallen silent, unable to maintain a vocal and visible presence neither in the streets nor the news media, as the illegal occupation of Iraq begins to morph into another structurally integrated outpost for U.S. American troops and American “interests” as the government installed under the conditions of occupation becomes the only authorized government in the country.  The troops have pulled out of the Iraqi cities and taken root in strategically placed bases that are slotted to become permanent features on the landscape.  The Obama policy has escalated the war in Afghanistan and has expanded drone attacks into Pakistan. Approaching eight years of troops on the ground, the conflict there promises to become even more drawn out, twelve to fifteen years according to some projections.  The anti-war Democrats have faded into the background, including most of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, choosing to follow the party leader rather than an ethically and morally founded politics of opposition to war-as-usual.  On the issue of the war, Representatives Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, Keith Ellison and John Lewis stand nearly alone.

People act as if the mere presence of an African American president magically sanctions the administration’s policies and their execution as progressive and democratic.  President Obama has done nothing that in any way challenges ordinary U.S. foreign policy.  Instead, Obama puts a prettier face on U.S. policy, easing the exercise of policies that continue to favor uneven economic and political relationships between the Western powers and the rest of the world, as predicted by some of his conservative supporters like Andrew Sullivan, and often marginalizing local principled opposition to these neo-liberal policies.  This free market orthodoxy highlights the ridiculous claims of the U.S. right. President Obama has changed tactics and strategy, not goals.  Their opposition is based not on genuine analysis of the Obama administration’s policies, but on the ideological grounds that anything a Democratic administration may do must be opposed as the unnecessary and profligate intrusion of the State into the private sphere.  The vociferous and frequent outrage against Obama is also in keeping with the white privilege to challenge the right and the ability of people of color in authority to lead.  Obama got very little honeymoon as the new president.

Many groups that are ordinarily identified with the liberal politics, what in the U.S. mainstream serves as the left, have begun to demand delivery from Obama on promises made during the campaign.  Gay and lesbian activists have started to demand action on the issue of marriage equality.  Immigrant rights activists call for comprehensive reform founded on compassionate responses that take into account families and the responsibility of employers.  Single-payer healthcare activists ask why the single- payer option has been rejected before it has been seriously discussed.  African American reporters attending presidential press conferences for African American newspapers ask the president what specific policies and programs the Obama administration  has planned to address the specific needs and conditions of the African American people as they face the worst of the current economic crisis, and President Obama is unable to give a specific answer beyond the “my-policies-will-lift-all-boats” answer because his administration has no specific policies regarding the needs and conditions of African American people. 

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 And why should he?  What demands did African American activists make during the campaign?  Who demanded to know what his position was or is concerning the over-policing of African Americans and the mass incarceration resulting from the practice?  Who asked him what he thought about the Black farmers suing the Department of Agriculture?  Who asked him about unemployment rates for African Americans?  Who wanted to know whether or not most African Americans agreed or disagreed with his public and de rigueur repudiation of the Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, or how the Reverend Wright played among the African American electorate?  The fact is, African Americans demanded little more than having an African face in the Oval Office, a woefully insufficient claim to make upon power in the United States.

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The vicious and relentless pace of the right wing criticism of President Obama kick starts our urge to barricade the president against the attacks.  We recognize the irrationality, the inconsistencies and the danger of the barely veiled racism.  We ignore how mainstream Democratic politics more subtly maintain the racial regime that the 2008 election was supposed to have overthrown, or at least seriously wounded.  Candidate Obama-cum-President Obama could not take any position perceived to be specifically pro-Black. No serious Democratic candidate has been able to do so since Lee Atwater unleashed Willie Horton on an American public predisposed to the brute criminality of African American men.  Bill Clinton publicly chastised Sista Souljah and executed a developmentally disabled African American man to prove his commitment to tough love for America’s ex-slaves. Gore and Kerry ignored African American issues.  Identification with African American issues beyond the grossest examples of racist victimization, easily denounced, has been treated as electoral toxin for Democratic candidates, including among the new generation of African American politicians, those characterized as the inheritors of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, those like Barack Obama.  How many Democratic politicians join the Republicans in thinking that what African Americans need most during campaigns is lecturing on the importance of fathering and hard work?  In polite company, this isn’t called racism.  No one’s wearing sheets.  Still, these practices boil down to the comfort of white Americans, Republican and Democratic, and the now decades long “fatigue” the mainstream expresses about African American dissent.  If white presidential candidates face such demands for programmatic purity concerning African Americans, how much more constrained is an African American candidate to an appeal to the great white American middle class?  Winning the job does not change the rules. 

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Club Member

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But after all, the job of the POTUS is to protect and extend U.S. American interests, and U.S. American interests continue to serve structural white hegemony.  This is difficult for many to see because of the apparent victory over racism that Obama’s election represents. And it certainly is a victory, but a very limited victory.  The question of Obama’s fitness for the job, his intelligence, his political savvy, his leadership, the ability of a Black man to lead this country is not at issue. Those are cynical right wing talking points.  A racial analysis, a “Black firsts” analysis, makes everybody feel good about achieving the inconceivable in the racist United States.  What President Obama’s election should finally make clear is that African Americans at the pinnacle of power in what are essentially white institutions, the actual diversity of the population notwithstanding, can’t help but serve white interests, which are not necessarily and automatically the best interests of African Americans, other African descent peoples, and other people of color.  The class based and race based structural problems in the society are too deeply rooted in the culture, and in the global exercise of U.S. American military and economic power.  We have seen it before in the persons of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. 

But a black face on U.S. imperialism is still imperialism.  And a black face on benign neglect in the domestic context is still benign neglect.  So let us move beyond self-congratulatory myopia over the arrival of the Black Bourgeoisie to an apparent full partnership in the U.S. ruling class.  Where President Obama’s policies deepen the despair of the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq, he should be opposed.  Where President Obama’s policies continue to favor the bankers and the insurance companies over people, Main Street as he puts it, he should be opposed.  Where President Obama continues to favor state secrets and detentions without trials over open government and due process, he needs to be opposed on principled grounds.  African Americans especially need to spit out the kool-aid and hold Obama to the high standards of freedom and justice that have been our political tradition.

Mexico 1968
Mexico 1968

Which Black Community, What Black Community? Part Three

We have now settled in Leimert Park.  We live at the heart of what remains of the only majority African American neighborhood in the city, and it too contains a rich ethnic, cultural and class diversity.  Leimert Park is an attractive neighborhood with architectural variety, lovely, well maintained yards, ethnic restaurants and coffee houses and a cultural and artistic core centered on Degnan Boulevard in the heart of the Village.  Just this past October 2008 in this neighborhood, the Taste of Soul Festival saw 75,000 African Americans and others gather nearby on Crenshaw Boulevard.  The October 18th Los Angeles Sentinel reports that this festival may have been the largest gathering of primarily Black people in Los Angeles history.

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I am certain that some folks traveled from the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, the Inland Empire -my uncle and his family for example- and from Orange and Ventura Counties, and maybe Kern County.  However, that so many Black folks from Los Angeles proper, my notion of proper, and the immediately adjacent communities-  Inglewood, Carson, Compton, Long Beach- gathered here for the festival demonstrates the great and significant number of African Americans that still live and work and struggle in Los Angeles.  We are not a monolith, but no people or nation is a monolith and without its internal contradictions.  But we are not a vanishing community, which is to say we are not a vanishing and thus insignificant social, cultural and political force in Los Angeles or the state of California even as we are transforming community.  Why then have we been subjected to repeated reports of our disappearance and subsequent diminishing of especially political clout?  That’s probably an unfair question because there are several answers.  I, here, offer one.

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Regular assertions of Black disappearance and irrelevancy have the cumulative effect of rendering the community, or the communities, invisible in the public imagination despite the observable presence of Black folks in the city, in every part of the city, and thus ease Black political marginalization.  The assertions of our invisibility make us invisible.  Invisible people need no advocacy.  Invisible people form no constituency.  Thus their mainstream political representatives become marginalized, their issues ignored, their legislative sway minimized.  Invisible people do not exist, nor do their issues.  They can then be reduced to interlopers into the political process, dinosaurs of old style civil rights activism, victimization pimps and hustlers, irrelevant cultural nationalists, and free agent individuals who just “happen to be black.”  Highly visible “invisible” people become objects of resentment and scorn.  They deserve what they get.  If the police beat them or shoot them, even if these are caught on video or the Black persons treated so are minors, it doesn’t matter.  The police are seen as justified, over and over again.  If these people are understood to be invisible, then efforts to disappear them are both explicitly and tacitly supported. And that brings me to perhaps the most invisible African American community in the city that isn’t behind bars, the Downtown Los Angeles community.

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According to L.A.CAN (Los Angeles Community Action Network), one particular migration of African Americans has not been to the outlying areas of the county or to adjacent counties, but has occurred within the city, from South Los Angeles to the Downtown area.  African Americans are grossly overrepresented among the homeless throughout the region.  This is acutely the case in central Los Angeles.  This is not a community composed only of veterans, former prisoners, dumped mentally ill patients, runaways and men and women with substance abuse problems.  Increasingly, families swell the number of homeless.  Yet, this too is misleading because many of the African Americans now living downtown are not homeless.  Individuals, couples and families have been living in the old hotels that still line Los Angeles Street and Seventh Street and Skid Row.  They have been there since the nineties.  Their presence downtown amplifies the problem of affordable housing in the city as these working class and underemployed Black folks have been priced out of the rental properties in South Los Angeles and Southwest Los Angeles, as these neighborhoods like many neighborhoods that had been ignored and neglected have now become sites of gentrification.  And now gentrification has moved Downtown.

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As city planners and private developers continue to reform and recast Downtown as an upscale, hipster friendly, artsy, urban center, working class folks, African Americans and others, are again being priced out of the neighborhood.  Furthermore, LAPD have been more aggressively policing the area.  The tactic is consistent with Chief Bratton’s Broken Windows policy, the official effort to “clean up the streets” by aggressively enforcing laws against “quality of life” crimes like vandalism, acts that can easily characterized as public nuisances as much as crimes.  We have gone from stops, tickets and arrests for Driving-while-Black to stops, tickets and arrests for Walking-while-Black.  L.A.CAN reports that African Americans in the neighborhood are being cited for dumping the ashes from their cigarettes, fined accordingly, and when unable to pay the fines, jailed.  The effect is an ethnic cleansing of Downtown.  And because these people are invisible Black people, the violations go unnoticed and unchallenged except by those community activists who refuse marginalization, like L.A.CAN.  But where is their Councilperson?  Where is Mayor Villaraigosa whose electoral victory was cemented by the Black vote in the last mayoral election?  Doesn’t he know a new election is just weeks away? As of now, they are on the side of the developers.

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We need a new Black politics in the city, a new understanding of what sort of Black city Los Angeles is.  We must continue to recognize each other and reach across our cultural differences and struggle for a better city, a more humane city for all its residents.  Our children attend the public schools.  Our adults compete for jobs.  Our families struggle to negotiate crime and police.  Our families enjoy the parks.  We share these neighborhoods.  We cannot accept a vision of Los Angeles that erases us.  The story of the founders can teach us much.  The overwhelming majority of the original families who founded the Pueblo in 1781 were African descent Mexicans, indeed 26 of the 46 (Goode 11).

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The monument at Olvera Street records this fact. Yet, their African reality has been subsumed into their Mexican-ness.  They have been rendered invisible, a process intensified by the ideology of mestizaje framing most discourse on ethnicity concerning Latin America generally and Mexico specifically (Cuevas).

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Let’s explicitly restore them to our historical consciousness. Let us restore ourselves, whatever our first language or country and region of origin, to political relevancy.  We are not invisible, and we will not be made invisible.  There has never been a Los Angeles without Black people.  Black Los Angeles has always been fundamental to Los Angeles, whatever the movements of its people, those coming and those going.

La Reina de Los Angeles
La Reina de Los Angeles

Works Cited

Clifford, James. Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century.

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Cuevas, Marco Polo Hernandez. African Mexicans and the Discourse of Modern Nation.

Boulder: University Press of America, 2004.

Goode, Kenneth G.  California’s Black Pioneers: A Brief Historical Survey.

Santa Barbara: McNally & Loftin, Publishers, 1973.

L. A. Community Action Network. <http://www.cangress.org&gt;.

Wilson, Amos N. The Falsification of Afrikan Consciousness: Eurocentric History,

Psychiatry and the Politics of White Supremacy. New York: Afrikan World InfoSystems, 1993.

What Black Community, Which Black Community? Part Two

By 1980, the year I graduated from Daniel Murphy High School and moved to the Bay Area for college, South Los Angeles and Central Los Angeles were poised for a major demographic shift.  My senior year, my youngest sister’s best friend was the little boy next door whose family was from what was then still being called British Honduras, but very shortly after Belize.  More Caribbean families moved into the neighborhoods, and especially Belizean families.  Large waves of African American families began migrating to the Inland Empire in search of the suburban refuge and cheaper housing.   Central Americans displaced by wars moved into the neighborhoods.  More Mexican and Chicano families and Belizean families moved into the neighborhoods.

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Older African American retirees began selling their homes to young Latino families instead of passing the property to their own children.  And why shouldn’t they?  Their children didn’t always want the houses, preferring Westside flats and condos, suburban satellites or Atlanta to the central city.  These children of middle class and working class parents who owned their own homes grew up in a milieu that valued escape, escaping the ghetto, the inner city, crime, decay, and other Black people.  Success became measured by the ability to “make it out,” to move away from a predominantly Black neighborhood, by no means a simple process, complicated by the epistemic violence of white supremacy ideology.

Hollywood Utopian
Hollywood Utopian

Uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge, the de-valuing of Black people has been thoroughly assumed by Black people, a process Amos Wilson has called the process of social amnesia exacerbated by the ideology of individualism.  Wilson writes that “…the reinforced social amnesia of the subordinated Afrikan permits him to absentmindedly, obsessively seek to assimilate; to eat with, sleep with, live among, “be just like”; to identify with captors, torturers, enslavers, lynchers and race-baiting sadistic exploiters of his eschatological finality of his being.”  Wilson makes a very strong indictment, and certainly it is problematic to generalize about the myriad reasons African Americans have chosen to move away from primarily African American neighborhoods.  Nonetheless, we disserve ourselves if we do not address the depth of pathology that we still live as result of assuming the dominant narratives and dominant representations of Black people and Black communities.  By 2000, only the neighborhoods bounded by Washington Blvd. north, Western Blvd. east, Florence Blvd. south and La Cienega west remained a majority African American area.  This area still contains a significant number of Latino and Caribbean members.

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Afromexicana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So what is the Black community, and where is it?  I think the answer to both those questions is that there are several Black communities overlapping and intertwining each other.  There is the traditional Black community of African Americans.  There is the still growing Caribbean community.  There is the significant number of Central Americans and Mexicans of African descent, like Maria who sells tamales in Jefferson Park on weekends.  There are the Continental African immigrant communities and their U.S. born children and grandchildren, including the very visible Nigerian and Ethiopian and Eritrean and Ghanaian communities.  There are the pockets of Afro-Brazilian families on the Westside.  These communities live together, work together, send their children to school together, marry together and do indeed participate in community life together.  The migration of African Americans in large numbers to the Inland Empire, a move my mother and nearly every member of that side of my family made, did not exactly make Los Angeles a less black city. It just made it a differently black city in a Los Angeles County with a large county-wide Black population.

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Hail, hail Nigeria

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We lived in the Jefferson Park neighborhood for 5 1/2 years.  On our block, 29th Place, our neighbors were Salvadoran, Belizean, Mexican and Chicano, Jamaican, Nigerian and African American.  Our first week in the neighborhood, a middle-aged Black man walking up the street stopped in front of our yard where I was raking.  He greeted me, speaking with a Caribbean accent and asked me if we had just moved in, mentioning that for the most part it was a nice neighborhood.  Then he said, “Look, my name is Diaz. But I want you to know that I am a Black man.  If a Black man has a Spanish name, he is still a Black man.  I am from Belize. You’re African American. It don’t matter, ’cause we need unity.” I agreed with him, but I was slightly surprised.  I’m not quite sure why he chose to declare himself as he did.  I think it may be because of the ethnic shorthand of the terms Hispanic and Latino which don’t speak to the immense diversity within Latin American countries and cultures, nor the degree to which Latin America is a thoroughly Africanized region.  Perhaps he was responding to what seems to be a California tendency, a suspicion between African Americans and Latino Americans that Black and Brown folks from the Midwest and the East Coast don’t suffer and which often catches them off-guard when they move to or visit the West Coast.  Whatever the case may be, Brother Diaz thought it necessary to declare his Spanish name no barrier between us.  He was not less Black than me, just differently Black, and both at home together in our part of Los Angeles.

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From Jefferson Park, we moved to a neighborhood in Hyde Park.  Our street, Arlington Avenue, was a more African American street but still quite diverse, very much like 29th Place.  We only lived on this block for a year before we moved to the western edge of the West Adams neighborhood, on Alsace Avenue.  This neighborhood is more solidly Latino, but still quite diverse, with the similar mix of cultures living together.  This was another block and neighborhood where I had extensive history and experience.  My great-grandparents lived on Alsace the first 20 years of my life, members of the St. Agatha Catholic parish.  Despite the clear change in the majority culture living in this neighborhood, I never felt like I wasn’t living in a Black community, even if most of the Black people living in the neighborhood speak less and less with a Texan or Louisianan accent, and more and more with a Mexican, Central American, Caribbean or Continental African accent.

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More to come…

What Black Community? Which Black Community? Part One

For a decade, since the mid 1990s, commentators on Los Angeles have often reported the disappearance of the city’s Black community.  That being said, Black people are visible all over Los Angeles.  These people speak several languages.  They are native Angelenos, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of migrants from the Southern United States, particularly Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.  They also come from South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and the African Continent. They come from Asia and the Pacific.  Some work as domestics and day workers.  Others work as mechanics and bus drivers.  Still others work as receptionists, mail carriers, security guards, police and firefighters, dental assistants, merchants, and shopkeepers.  Some work as teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, athletes, sports and entertainment agents, financial advisors, realtors and management executives.  Some work in the underground economy.  These folks make up a very diverse group, and this diversity of background and station makes commentary on a unitary Black community difficult if not ill advised.

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This diversity of language, national background, occupation and class prompts the opinion that a Black community may no longer exist in this most diverse, most multi-ethnic of cities. So we should be clear what the phrase “Black community” signifies, and whether it is really disappearing.  I don’t really believe that the Black Community has disappeared; nor is it disappearing.  It has changed dramatically, has splintered even.  But it is here and is identifiable nonetheless.  It exists because its members say it exists.  It exists because its members recognize each other, even if others do not recognize them.  And its members participate in the cultural events that seek to reinforce these connections.  Perhaps the annual African Marketplace and Cultural Fair every August best exemplifies this institutionalizing of the relations among the various Black ethnicities of Southern California.

My children, their mother and I have lived and worked in Los Angeles continuously for eleven years now, their first residency in Los Angeles, my second.  I am one of the native Angelenos.  I grew up in this city in the 1960s and the 1970s.  When my family, my children and their mother from the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area, joined me in Los Angeles, we lived in the Jefferson Park neighborhood.  Thirty years ago, Jefferson Park was still largely African American.  Sixty years ago, my oldest friend’s mother went to school and church at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Jefferson Park.  Fifty years ago, it was a neighborhood that my father lived in as a teenager (During the same years, the mid-1950s, my mother’s family moved from the Eastside, east of Central Avenue, to the Temple-Echo Park neighborhood).  My father’s younger brother died in the neighborhood, hit by a truck on Cimarron on his way to the community market.  Family oral history says that he was angry, not paying close enough attention.  He was thirteen.  The building still stands, and it still houses a community market.  My children and I regularly patronized the market.  We have a living history there.

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My  father’s aunts lived in the neighborhood.  They lived as part of a community of immigrants from New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA), who settled in the area of South Los Angeles now bounded by four freeways: the 110 freeway to the east, the 105 freeway to the south and parallel to Imperial Highway although at the time the freeway didn’t exist, the 405 freeway to the west, and the 10 freeway to the north.

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Southwest and South L.A.

These NOLA immigrants effectively tried to reproduce New Orleans in Los Angeles.  My Aunt Loretta McRoyal  and my Uncle Willie, who moved to Los Angeles in 1959, explained that California, and especially Los Angeles offered opportunities for work in several industries.  They could not envision the future they wanted for themselves and their children if they stayed in New Orleans.  But they missed home horribly.  Nearly fifties years later, they still embody “not-here to stay” as New Orleans is still “home” in their conversations. They and other NOLA immigrants lived close to each other around the twelve Roman Catholic parishes within the boundaries of the four freeways.

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They created the institutions and practices that attempted to  recreate what finally could not be recreated, founding business to supply “authentic New Orleans products.”

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Through a network of social organizations, Les Bon Temps Clubs and church related organizations like the Knights of St. Peter Claver, the community was able to provide social support for families facing difficulties in Los Angeles and New Orleans.  These fundraisers would take the form of masquerade balls, church carnivals, Mardi Gras balls, fish fries and baking contests. Besides their function as mechanisms to maintain and support social relations within this community, these fundraisers also served an important role in allowing poor and working class families to save face.  Government assistance was looked down on; thus, these routine fundraising events allowed families to save face.

 

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Sometimes the fundraising took place in less formalized setting, but was no less ritualized.  Let me offer an example.  When my father died in 1980, each of the four evenings leading to his Friday morning funeral consisted of my family and friends bringing food and drinks and company to out house.  These were not somber events.  The evenings were loud, raucous and joyous.  People cried over their beers and whiskeys and crab legs and chicken and rice.  And they told stories about my father, his youth in New Orleans and adventures in Los Angeles.  At the end of each evening, including after the rosary and the funeral, my grandmother presented my mother with a large pickle jar, the kind that used to be in butcher shops and local markets, filled with bills of various denominations.

In the sixty years since the death of the uncle I never had a chance to meet but whose baseball trophy from Denker Park I still cherish, the neighborhood remained largely African American, though many families, including parts of my own, began moving further south past Slauson, Florence, Manchester and Century, and west into the Crenshaw area and the Exposition area.  Other families, with rising incomes, moved a little north and/or west into the Pico and San Vicente and Mid City and West Adams and Palms neighborhoods.  Inglewood began to change complexion.  By the mid 1970s, families began to trickle into the Inland Empire and the Palmdale-Lancaster area.  These families were the forerunners of the allegedly disappearing Black community.  And that is instructive.

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The IE

I call this instructive because it speaks to the limits of the language of race in the general discourse on Los Angeles’s ethnic communities.   Black community is used interchangeably with African American community.  It is true that African Americans occupy fewer neighborhoods as a majority community, but that has only made Los Angeles differently black.  The African American population did decrease by nearly 15 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to U. S. census data.  Those numbers reflect the second wave of out migration.

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To be continued…

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Hiatus

I have been on hiatus for a long time.  And during all that time, the world has continued to crumble.   I have to admit, sometimes I think that we would indeed be better off to let it go.  It might be the only way to save ourselves, to save the planet.  Capitalism is in crisis, and world governments are scrambling to save it.  Unemployment rises exponentially.  People are losing their homes.  A new wave of foreclosures heads down the pike.  No one can afford healthcare.  No one has any money.  All this makes one want to go away, get away from it all, but there’s nowhere to go because the crumble crumbles everywhere. 

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What are we trying to save?  People are desperate not to be thrown on the street.  We fear for our children, what they may be reduced to if we can not continue to provide the middle class standard of living held up as the only standard of living worthy of struggle, of work.  We worry over being unable to maintain our car notes, insurance payments, credit card bills.  We worry that we won’t keep our good credit ratings.  We worry about losing our creature comforts, and the gadgets that entertain us and make life convenient.  We worry about the state of our industrialized infrastructures.  Will our cities and states be able to maintain the water treatment and delivery systems that have been so key the development of every historical state and certainly to the sanitary conditions necessary for public health?  Will the electrical grid continue to lengthen the day endlessly?  We worry that all these marks of modern development will soon be lost to all but a super rich minority.  Of course, it has always been a minority who has enjoyed the benefits of modernity.  The suffering majority struggle in obscurity, scratching a living out of their bodies, and their children’s bodies, as best they can, in too many places picking at the rot on garbage dumps for some salvageable excess the rich have discarded.  

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We are right to worry.  If the auto industry fails, millions of people will be destitute.  Already the U.S. economy is hemorrhaging jobs.  We can expect petty crimes to rise as more and more people take desperate measures to keep babies fed.  The world will become more dangerous than it already is on any given day.  The world will become a little sadder than it is on any given day. 

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 It’s already happening, a few more women and men on the track, on boulevards and avenues that don’t ordinarily see women and men selling favors. 

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More people are buying guns. 

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What are we trying to save?  In the best of times under capitalism, millions of people are impoverished.  Impoverish is an active verb.  It is something one does to another. The world’s governments, the G8, or 20 or G whatever, scramble to save a system that impoverishes populations, degrades the environment, compromises democratic processes, reduces persons to units of labor and consumption, poisons the air, and chokes the planet with trash by design.  They struggle to save a system that confuses itself with freedom as it creates inequality.  None of them show imagination. 

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Maybe it’s time to reconsider exactly what we are trying to save and at what costs.  Maybe we should reconsider the attachment to personal wealth and the value of the clamor to reach the top of a dung heap and begin to think about what it means to participate in a common wealth.  Perhaps we can consider the possibilities of worker owned and run industries, factories that build trains instead of cars, farms that serve local areas and grow seasonal crops, energy plants that use sun and wind.  Perhaps we can take the promise of green economics seriously. 

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Perhaps we can catch up with the recreational practices of people and go ahead and decriminalize marijuana for recreational use, make it a taxable crop and an industrial crop that can help transform Global South economies.  Perhaps political leadership can act like leadership and overcome its obeisance to the insurance industry’s interests and implement single payer coverage.  Perhaps we can reconsider the lifestyle that we have been sold for something that encourages us to spend more time with each other rather than with our electronics, even those electronics that allow us to communicate. 

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Maybe we all need to take a hiatus from consumerism and war.  The planet could stand a break.  At any rate, I’m happy to be back in cyberspace.

Workshop

Class last week was very helpful.  Kelly went right to the crux of my project, the construction of Aafrican Americans as middle class citizens.  Since the Civil Rights Movement, but especially since the Reagan administration, the U.S. has undergone a second Reconstruction, a cultural Reconstruction aimed at constructing people of color, especially the traditional ethnic groups of color, as normal Americans, citizens like everyone else, every white one else.  Advertising has been central to this process both as a reimagining of African Americans visually as integrated culturally and economically, rather than the Other represented in pre Civil Rights advertising.black-americana-fishing-clark-thread-trade-card-advertising2

These images would no longer do if African Americans were to be successfully integrated into the public culture of the U.S.

Creating the new normal
Creating the new normal
Control of image becomes critical.  The control of the imagery becomes control of the imaginary.  Only middle class, normalcy is acceptable, only politics within a bourgeois democratic discourse will be tolerated, a discourse of equality and freedom, not one of power, independence or revolution.  On the heels of a Black Liberation Movement, the redomestication of African American politics required the implimentation of the imaginary of normalcy.  This required no conference or conspiracy.  The ideology was already extant.  Black folks and other people of color simply required an invitation.  Advertising works because it invites us to imagine our lives as fulfilled while providing the script for the fantasy, and the tickets for entrance embodied in the commodities through which we purchase membership.  Sometimes advertising acts like missionary work.
With Calvin, we overcome our neighborhood, our past (and present) as Other, refusing the temptations of our friends, those idle, young Black men waiting at the stoop, and taking our place as model worker/consumer citizens of the corporate state.  Aren’t we special.charliead1
Keep smiling!