Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Racist New Deal Policies


From the Washington Post, "New Deal, Raw Deal: How Aid Became Affirmative Action for Whites," by Ira Katznelson, 27 September 2005 -- Hurricane Katrina's violent winds and waters tore away the shrouds that ordinarily mask the country's racial pattern of poverty and neglect. Understandably, most commentators have focused on the woeful federal response. Others, taking a longer view, yearn for a burst of activism patterned on the New Deal. But that nostalgia requires a heavy dose of historical amnesia. It also misses the chance to come to terms with how the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s contributed to the persistence of two Americas.

It was during the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman that such great progressive policies as Social Security, protective labor laws and the GI Bill were adopted. But with them came something else that was quite destructive for the nation: what I have called "affirmative action for whites." During Jim Crow's last hurrah in the 1930s and 1940s, when southern members of Congress controlled the gateways to legislation, policy decisions dealing with welfare, work and war either excluded the vast majority of African Americans or treated them differently from others.


Between 1945 and 1955, the federal government transferred more than $100 billion to support retirement programs and fashion opportunities for job skills, education, homeownership and small-business formation. Together, these domestic programs dramatically reshaped the country's social structure by creating a modern, well-schooled, homeowning middle class. At no other time in American history had so much money and so many resources been targeted at the generation completing its education, entering the workforce and forming families.

But most blacks were left out of all this. Southern members of Congress used occupational exclusions and took advantage of American federalism to ensure that national policies would not disturb their region's racial order. Farmworkers and maids, the jobs held by most blacks in the South, were denied Social Security pensions and access to labor unions. Benefits for veterans were administered locally. The GI Bill adapted to "the southern way of life" by accommodating itself to segregation in higher education, to the job ceilings that local officials imposed on returning black soldiers and to a general unwillingness to offer loans to blacks even when such loans were insured by the federal government. Of the 3,229 GI Bill-guaranteed loans for homes, businesses and farms made in 1947 in Mississippi, for example, only two were offered to black veterans.


This is unsettling history, especially for those of us who keenly admire the New Deal and the Fair Deal. At the very moment a wide array of public policies were providing most white Americans with valuable tools to gain protection in their old age, good jobs, economic security, assets and middle-class status, black Americans were mainly left to fend for themselves. Ever since, American society has been confronted with the results of this twisted and unstated form of affirmative action.


A full generation of federal policy, lasting until the civil rights legislation and affirmative action of the 1960s, boosted whites into homes, suburbs, universities and skilled employment while denying the same or comparable benefits to black citizens. Despite the prosperity of postwar capitalism's golden age, an already immense gap between white and black Americans widened. Even today, after the great achievements of civil rights and affirmative action, wealth for the typical white family, mainly in homeownership, is 10 times the average net worth for blacks, and a majority of African American children in our cities subsist below the federal poverty line.


President Lyndon Johnson faced up to racial inequality in "To Fulfill These Rights," a far-reaching graduation speech he delivered at Howard University in June 1965. He noted that "freedom is not enough" because "you do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and they say, 'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair." What is needed, he argued, is a set of new policies, a dramatic new type of affirmative action for "the poor, the unemployed, the uprooted, and the dispossessed." He had in mind the kind of comprehensive effort the GI Bill had provided to most returning soldiers, but without its exclusionary pattern of implementation.

This form of assertive, mass-oriented affirmative action never happened. By sustaining and advancing a growing African American middle class, the affirmative action we did get has done more to advance fair treatment across racial lines than any other recent public policy, and thus demands our respect and support. But as the scenes from New Orleans vividly displayed, so many who were left out before have been left out yet again.


Rather than yearn for New Deal policies that were tainted by racism, or even recall the civil rights and affirmative action successes of the 1960s and beyond, we would do better in present circumstances to return to the ambitious plans Johnson announced but never realized to close massive gaps between blacks and whites, and between more and less prosperous blacks.

Without an unsentimental historical understanding of the policy roots of black isolation and dispossession, and without an unremitting effort to cut the Gordian knot joining race and class, our national response to the disaster in the Gulf Coast states will remain no more than a gesture.  (source: The Washington Post © 2005 The Washington Post Company)

Ira Katznelson, a professor of political science and history at Columbia University, is the author of "When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in America."


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Toni Morrison: "Home"


From the New York Times Sunday Book Review, "Point of Return: ‘Home,’ a Novel by Toni Morrison," by Leah Hager Cohen, on 17 May 2012 -- The first four words of Toni Morrison’s new book greet — or assail — us before the story even begins. They’re from the epigraph, which quotes a song cycle written by the author some 20 years ago and therefore, it seems safe to say, not originally intended for this book, but an indication, perhaps, of how long its themes have been haunting her. And “haunting” is a fitting word for the lyric itself, in which a speaker professes to lack both recognition of and accountability for the strange, shadowy, dissembling domicile in which he finds himself. The atmosphere of alienation makes the song’s final line even more uncanny: “Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?”

Thus the stage is set for “Home”: on the basis of its publisher’s description a novel, on the basis of its length a novella, and on the basis of its stripped-down, symbol-laden plot something of an allegory. It tells the story of Frank Money, a 24-year-old Korean War veteran, as he embarks on a reluctant journey home. But where — and what — is home? Frank is already back from the fighting when we meet him, a year after being discharged from an integrated Army into a segregated homeland. Since then, he has wandered the streets of Seattle, “not totally homeless, but close.” He has gambled his Army pay and lost it, worked odd jobs and lost them, lived with a girlfriend and lost her, and all the while struggled, none too successfully, against the prospect of losing his mind.


The action begins with Frank literally out of action: wearing restraints in a hospital bed, faking sleep in order to avoid yet another deadening shot of morphine. Confined to the “nuthouse” by the police for an infraction he can’t remember, he plans and quickly executes his escape: first through the fire exit, thence to Zion — the A.M.E. Zion church, that is, whose sign he spotted earlier from the squad car. There he’s given shelter by Reverend Locke (the first in a succession of “locks” that, one way or another, fit Frank’s key), who helps him on his way. His destination is Lotus, Ga., which he’s been avoiding because it harbors hated childhood memories — and because he dreads facing the families of the two hometown friends whose deaths in Korea plague his dreams. What draws him back now is a letter informing him that his younger sister, Cee, is in trouble. “Come fast. She be dead if you tarry.”

But the very notion of home is bedeviled for Frank, as is the bitter running joke of his family name. Home has never offered much solace, and the Moneys have never had much dough. At age 4, Frank was forced on foot out of his first home in Bandera County, Tex., an exodus made with 14 other families under threat by men “both hooded and not” to leave within 24 hours or die. The Moneys wound up in Lotus, “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield,” according to Frank, to whom it appears, like its Greek counterpart, devoid of aspiration, cramped by suffocating indifference. There his parents worked 16-hour days picking cotton and planting crops, leaving Frank to protect Cee as best he could while subsisting on a daily brew of their grandparents’ cruelty and neglect. There his parents died young, one of lung disease, the other of a stroke. And there, it emerges, is where Frank must return, must deliver his ailing sister, “his original caring-for,” in hopes not only of saving her, but of saving himself: “Down deep inside her lived my secret picture of myself — a strong good me.”

What kind of selfhood is it possible to possess when we come from a spiritually impoverished home, one that fails to concede, let alone nourish, each inhabitant’s worth? This is the question Morrison asks, and while exploring it through the specific circumstances of Frank Money, she raises it in a broader sense. Threaded through the story are reminders of our country’s vicious inhospitality toward some of its own. On his way south, Frank makes use of a “Green Book,” part of the essential series of travelers’ guides for African-Americans during a more overtly racist era. On a train, he encounters fellow passengers who’ve been beaten and bloodied simply for trying to buy coffee from a white establishment. He meets a boy who, out playing with a cap gun, was shot by a policeman and lost the use of one arm. Frank is himself subjected to a random stop-and-frisk outside a shoe store. Even his lapses in sanity — what today we’d call symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — are presented within the metaphor of race. He has frightening episodes of color­blindness, in which “the world became a black-and-white movie screen.”

Questions about Frank’s mental stability emerge at every level of the narrative. His ex-girlfriend thinks of him as a “tilted man.” We hear his own voice in short italicized chapters occasionally advising, correcting and rebuking the omniscient ­narrator. Are these signs that he’s regaining ­psychic integrity, a sense of self-­authorship, or are they evidence of his further disintegration? Even as he begins to shed his ­hallucinations and shoulder responsibility, he worries that he may yet be rendered ­helpless, “imprisoned in his own strivings.” When self-preservation demands renouncing dreams, acting on behalf of one’s desire is inherently dangerous.

And then there’s that guy in the zoot suit. Small in stature, clad in pale blue balloon trousers, wide-brimmed hat, pointy shoes — the whole shebang — this silent fellow first turns up, to Frank’s amusement, sitting next to him on the train. Later, less amusingly, he appears at Frank’s bedside, then vanishes before his eyes. We assume he’s a manifestation of Frank’s precarious mental state, a symbol of his shaky grip on his own sense of manhood, as though Frank is compensating for his feelings of degradation by inventing a model of exaggerated visibility. We operate on this belief until the final pages, when the blue-clad man reappears with a twist I won’t give away, except to say that it recasts our assumptions and deftly underscores the book’s most powerful proposition: that there is no such thing as individual ­pathology.


At times, “Home” displays its meanings with all the subtlety of a zoot-suiter. We are told that Frank and Cee’s grandmother “was the wicked witch” to their “Hansel and Gretel.” Frank witnessed much carnage in Korea and, we learn, “It changed him.” The women who nurse Cee with root medicine, common sense and blackberry jam “took responsibility for their lives, and for whatever, whoever else needed them.” After Cee gains a measure of self-respect, her relationship with her brother changes: “She didn’t need him as she had before.” Such revelations read like in-text SparkNotes.

The book doesn’t need them. Part of Morrison’s longstanding greatness resides in her ability to animate specific stories about the black experience and simultaneously speak to all experience. It’s precisely by committing unreservedly to the first that she’s able to transcend the circumscribed audience it might imply. This work’s accomplishment lies in its considerable capacity to make us feel that we are each not only resident but co-owner of, and collectively accountable for, this land we call home. (source: New York Times)

Toni Morrison: "Home"

Friday, April 26, 2013

Zelda Wynn Valdes: Playboy Bunny Suit Designer


From Ebony Magazine, "Fashionable Game-Changer: Zelda Wynn Valdes: She Was The Designer Behind The Original Playboy Bunny Costume, and So Much More," by Nichelle Gainer, on 26 March 2012 -- Before she created the original, legendary Playboy Bunny outfit and stage costumes for the Dance Theater of Harlem, Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes reinvented us. Her unapologetically sexy, hip-hugging gowns were worn by celebrities and celebrity wives like Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Joyce Bryant, Maria (Mrs. Nat “King”) Cole, Edna (Mrs. Sugar Ray) Robinson and later superstars like Gladys Knight and opera diva Jessye Norman. She also designed dresses for legendary figures like Marlene Dietrich and Mae West.

In 1948, Ms. Wynn would open her own boutique in Manhattan in what is now Washington Heights on Broadway and West 158th Street. She would later move ‘Chez Zelda’ midtown to 57th street and her sister, Mary Barbour, assisted her and supervised the staff of the store that attracted celebrities and stylish women from all walks of life.


In 1949, the Pennsylvania-born designer who would later be known simply as Zelda Wynn, was president of the New York chapter of NAFAD, the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, an organization of Black designers that was founded by none other than educator Mary McLeod Bethune. In the early 1950s, singer Joyce Bryant, was a huge star in the Black community who also had enough mainstream success to do a photo spread in LIFE magazine and be dubbed “the Black Marilyn Monroe” with constant mentions in Walter Winchell’s gossip column. Despite her undeniable soprano and four octave range, she was best known for her sexy image, which was jumpstarted by Ms. Wynn. In 1953, Our World, a premiere magazine for African-Americans at the time, noted that “Zelda’s gowns changed torch singer, Joyce Bryant’s career. When Zelda met Joyce, she was wearing bouffant, ‘sweet’ dresses and was singing ‘sweet’ songs which, as the designer noted she preferred because she was religious. However, Ms. Wynn convinced the singer that she was hiding her curves wasn’t doing her any favors. Once Ms. Bryant adapted the skin-tight, low-cut gowns by Zelda Wynn Valdes, her career took off.


In 1970, Arthur Mitchell asked Ms. Wynn to design costumes for his year-old dance company, and she stayed for thirty years and became the company’s matriarch until her death in 2001 at the age of 96.

"I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful," she said in a 1994 interview and, she was being modest. Consider the story that she always told about Ella Fitzgerald: "Edna Robinson (Sugar Ray Robinson’s wife) recommended me to Ms. Fitzgerald when she was going to sing at the Apollo Theater in New York,” said Ms. Wynn. “I was able to measure her once, but thereafter she was so busy that she didn't have the time. She would order - always in a rush - and I would study photos of her and guess her increasing size. She always said they fit and she'd order more, always three at a time. I never had more than three to four days to finish the gowns. I am pleased to say that I never missed a delivery.”  [source: Ebony Magazine: Nichelle Gainer is a beauty, fashion and lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in magazines and websites including GQ, InStyle, Glamour, Newsweek.com and Essence.com.]

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Egalite for All: Toussaint L'ouverture and the Haitian Revolution


From PBS; Douglas A. Egerton, Professor of History, Le Moyne College  --  All of the American newspapers covered events in Saint Domingue, in a great deal of detail. All Americans understood what was happening there. It wasn't that the revolution in Saint Domingue taught mainland slaves to be rebellious or to resist their bondage. They had always done so, typically as individuals who stole themselves and ran away sometimes in small groups who tried to get to the frontier and build maroon colonies and rebuild African societies.

But the revolutionaries in Saint Domingue, led by Toussaint L'Ouverture, were not trying to pull down the power of their absentee masters, but join those masters on an equal footing in the Atlantic world. And the revolt in Haiti reminded American slaves, who were still enthusiastic about the promise of 1776, that not only could liberty be theirs if they were brave enough to try for it, but that equality with the master class might be theirs if they were brave enough to try. For black Americans, this was a terribly exciting moment, a moment of great inspiration. And for the southern planter class, it was a moment of enormous terror.


The planter class was scared of [L'Ouverture], but had no doubts that he knew exactly how to get what he wanted. His name, L'Ouverture, is a name that his soldiers applied to him. It meant this was a man who always found his opening. In the southern white mind, Toussaint L'Ouverture was a terrifying but very competent figure. He was often depicted in southern newspapers as sort of a black Napoleon, somebody who could always find his opening, somebody who would always be successful in battle. There was no doubt in the white mind that they were dealing with a very fierce and very dangerous foe.

Although it's quite clear that Toussaint was deeply inspired by events both in France and the United States, and some of his chief lieutenants had in fact been on the American mainland with the French army during the American Revolution, Jefferson was always the first to deny any sort of revolutionary heritage to people other than whites of European descent.


Jefferson was terrified of what was happening in Saint Domingue. He referred to Toussaint's army as cannibals. His fear was that black Americans, like Gabriel, would be inspired by what they saw taking place just off the shore of America. And he spent virtually his entire career trying to shut down any contact, and therefore any movement of information, between the American mainland and the Caribbean island.

He called upon Congress to abolish trade between the United States and what after 1804 was the independent country of Haiti. He argued that France believed it still owned the island. In short, he denied that Haitian revolutionaries had the same right to independence and autonomy that he claimed for American patriots. And consequently, in 1805 and finally in 1806, trade was formally shut down between the United States and Haiti, which decimated the already very weak Haitian economy. And of course, Jefferson then argued this was an example of what happens when Africans are allowed to govern themselves: economic devastation, caused in large part by his own economic policies.  [source: PBS; Douglas A. Egerton, Professor of History, Le Moyne College]

Egalite for All. Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution (PBS)

West Virginia's Antebellum Slave Economy


As reported in the West Virginia Gazette, "W.Va. historian to talk on pre-Civil War slave economy," by Douglas Imbrogno, on 9 April 2013 -- CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Ending slavery was a moral question that haunted early American history, but it was one inextricably tangled up in economics.

While West Virginia was a state born in 1863 out of the tumult over slavery and the political disputes that erupted in the Civil War, slavery long had a toehold in the Kanawha Valley. Consider the salt mining industry in this area, a slave-powered enterprise from the 1820s onward, said Greg Carroll.

"Here in the Kanawha Valley, we had upwards of 2,000 slaves working in the salt industry," said Carroll, a retired historian with the state's Archives and History Section.

Yet slaves were not just a subjugated labor force, but a commodity often even more valuable to their owners as property chips to be sold into other slave economies.

"Here in West Virginia, for instance, before the Civil War, you can see in the state archives newspapers advertising slaves to be sold down the river. These slaves were being sold into the cotton and sugar-producing areas of mainly Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas," Carroll said.


Before he retired last October, Carroll was a Culture and History staff historian for 23 years, mostly focusing on American Indians, black Americans and Civil War history. He'll combine a couple of those specialties in the free talk "Slavery in Virginia: 1619-1860," at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Archives and History Library in the Culture Center.

He'll describe the different slave economies across North and South America and the missed opportunities for ending slavery in the lead-up to the Civil War.

Consider, for instance, the slaves who worked Caribbean sugar plantations or in the rice fields of the Carolinas. Yellow fever, malaria and other hazards kept slave owners away from their plantations, Carroll said.


Yet in the tobacco plantations and farms of Virginia and farther south, slave owners lived closely with their slaves -- sometimes very closely.

"That also led to a paternalism that we see in the way Virginia slave owners referred to their slaves as 'their people.' Slaves became very valuable as the tobacco crop became valuable," he said.

The result was a stronger slave and family culture, one that was not as Afrocentric as Caribbean and South American slave societies with their constant infusions of new slaves, Carroll said. Yet the proximity of owner to slave had other implications.


"White slave owners took sexual advantage of their female slaves," Carroll said. "That produced a very mixed-race people that we see in the Virginia and North Carolina and Maryland slave cultures -- a lot of mixed-race people."

For a country whose founding documents included a Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, the conundrum of slavery constantly intruded into American politics. The problem was that the South had staked all its political and economic bets on slaves, Carroll said.

"Think about how contradictory it is to have people talking about how all men are created equal and yet the southern colonies based their whole economic survival on slavery."


Yet the rise of a worldwide market for American cotton ensured that slavery was to become ever more a crutch upon which Southern power and wealth rested. It might have been different had the American South followed the lead of the rest of the world toward free labor, Carroll said.

"By 1860, almost the entire world was using free labor and the Southern states found themselves to be the only remaining slave societies, except for Brazil."

Objections to slavery took overt and covert forms. The most covert was the Underground Railroad, a blanket term for the secret trails and human networks for ferreting slaves to freedom out of slave states. The effort took place over a broad region, including the area that would become West Virginia.


"Unfortunately, the history of the Underground Railroad is very difficult to define because the secret operations of the Underground Railroad were kept secret then, before the war and after the war. Because people did not wish to have their history known for fear of continued reprisals from the white culture."

Carroll said he hopes his talk will attract white and black audiences both, as he strives to serve a more complete picture of America's slave era than normally taught in schoolbooks.

"I hope that African-American people can get a chance to come and hear this speech. Black citizens of our state need to harness their own history more. They need to realize that at the state archives and in various state agencies there's a lot of family history and a lot of African-American cultural history there at their fingertips." (source:  the West Virginia Gazette)




Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Haiti and The White Curse by Eduardo Galeano


The Progressive magazine, June 2004, "The White Curse [Haiti]" by Eduardo Galeano  --  On the first day of his year, freedom in this world turned 200. But no one noticed, or almost no one. A few days later, the country where this birth occurred, Haiti, found itself in the media spotlight, not for the anniversary of universal freedom but for the ouster of President Aristide.

Haiti was the first country to abolish slavery. However, the most widely read encyclopedias and almost all educational textbooks attribute this honorable deed to England. It is true that one fine day the empire that had been the champion in the slave trade changed its mind about it. But abolition in Britain took place in 1807, three years after the Haitian revolution, and it was so unconvincing that in 1832 Britain had to ban slavery again.


There is nothing new about this slight of Haiti. For two centuries it has suffered scorn and punishment. Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner and champion of liberty at the same time, warned that Haiti had created a bad example and argued it was necessary to "confine the plague to the island." His country heeded him. It was sixty years before the U.S. granted diplomatic recognition to this freest of nations. Meanwhile in Brazil disorder and violence came to be called "Haitianism." Slave owners there were saved from this fury until 1888 when Brazil abolished slavery-the last country in the world to do so.

And Haiti went back to being an invisible nation-until the next bloodbath. During its brief sojourn on TV screens and front pages earlier this year, the media showed confusion and violence and confirmed that Haitians were born to do evil well and do good badly. Since its revolution, Haiti has been capable only of mounting tragedies. Once a happy and prosperous colony, it is now the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.


Revolutions, certain specialists have concluded, lead straight to the abyss; others have suggested, if not stated outright, that the Haitian tendency to fratricide derives from its savage African heredity. The rule of the ancestors. The black curse that engenders crime and chaos.

Of the white curse, nothing was said.

The French revolution had abolished slavery, but Napoleon revived it.

"Which regime was most prosperous for the colonies?"

"The previous one."

"Then reinstate it."

To reinstate slavery in Haiti, France sent more than fifty shiploads of soldiers. The country's blacks rose up and defeated France and won national independence and freedom for the slaves. In 1804, they inherited a land that had been razed to grow sugarcane and a land consumed by the conflagrations of a fierce civil war. And they inherited "the French debt." France made Haiti pay dearly for the humiliation it inflicted on Napoleon Bonaparte. The newly born nation had to commit to pay a gigantic indemnification for the damage it had caused in winning its freedom. This expiation of the sin of freedom would cost Haiti 150 million gold francs.

The new country was born with a rope wrapped tightly around its neck: the equivalent of $21.7 billion in today's dollars, or forty-four times Haiti's current yearly budget.


In exchange for this fortune, France officially recognized the new nation. No other countries did so. Haiti was born condemned to solitude.

Not even Simon Bolivar recognized Haiti, though he owed it everything. In 1816, it was Haiti that furnished Bolivar with boats, arms, and soldiers when he showed up on the island defeated and asking for shelter and help.

Haiti gave him everything with only one condition: that he free the slaves-an idea that had not occurred to him until then. The great man triumphed in his war of independence and showed his gratitude by sending a sword as a gift to Port-au-Prince. Of recognition he made no mention.


In 1915, the Marines landed in Haiti. They stayed nineteen years. The first thing they did was occupy the customs house and . duty collection facilities. The occupying army suspended the salary of the Haitian president until he agreed to sign off on the liquidation of the Bank of the Nation, which became a branch of City Bank of New York. The president and other blacks were barred entry into the private hotels, restaurants, and clubs of the foreign occupying power. The occupiers didn't dare reestablish slavery, but they did impose forced labor for the building of public works. And they killed a lot of people. It wasn't easy to quell the fires of resistance.

The guerrilla chief, Charlemagne Peralte, was exhibited in the public square, crucified on a door to teach the people a lesson.


This civilizing mission ended in 1934. The occupiers withdrew, leaving a National Guard, which they had created, in their place to exterminate any possible trace of democracy. They did the same in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. A short time afterwards, Duvalier became the Haitian equivalent of Trujillo and Somoza.

And so, from dictator to dictator, from promise to betrayal, one misfortune followed another.

Aristide, the rebel priest, became president in 1991. He lasted a few months before the U.S. government helped to oust him, brought him to the United States, subjected him to Washington's treatment, and then sent him back a few years later, in the arms of Marines, to resume his post. Then once again, in 2004, the U.S. helped to remove him from power, and yet again there was killing. And yet again the Marines came back, as they always seem to, like the flu.


But the international experts are far more destructive than invading troops. Placed under strict orders from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Haiti obeyed every instruction, without cheating. The government paid what it was told to even if it meant there would be neither bread nor salt. Its credit was frozen despite the fact that the state had been dismantled and the subsidies and tariffs that had protected national production had been eliminated. Rice farmers, once the majority, soon became beggars or boat people. Many have ended in the depths of the Caribbean, and more are following them to the bottom, only these shipwreck victims aren't Cuban so their plight never makes the papers.

Today Haiti imports its rice from the United States, where international experts, who are rather distracted people, forgot to prohibit tariffs and subsidies to protect national production.

On the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, there is a large sign that reads: Road to Ruin.


Down that road, everyone is a sculptor. Haitians have the habit of collecting tin cans and scrap metal that they cut and shape and hammer with old-world mastery, creating marvels that are sold in the street markets.

Haiti is a country that has been thrown away, as an eternal punishment of its dignity. There it lies, like scrap metal. It awaits the hands of its people. [source: The Third World Traveler; Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan journalist, is the author of "The Open Veins of Latin America," "Memory of Fire," and "Soccer in Sun and Shadow. " This article is published with permission of IPS Columnist Service.]

Bolivar: American Liberator


As reviewed in the Washington Post Book review: "‘Bolivar: American Liberator’ by Marie Arana," By Joseph J. Ellis, on 5 April 2013 -- In the elegiac correspondence of their twilight years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson liked to debate the legacy of the American Revolution they had fought and wrought. Jefferson, anticipating Alexis de Tocqueville, claimed that the core legacy was democracy, which he regarded as a universal principle destined to spread throughout the world.

Adams preferred to call the legacy republicanism, and he did not believe that it was easily transportable. As an example, he cited Latin America, which was burdened with three centuries of Spanish oppression that left no residue of representative government; a toxic mixture of races — European, Creole, African, Indian; and the entrenched hierarchical values of the Catholic Church.


The career of Simon Bolivar suggests that Jefferson and Adams were at least partly correct. With a combination of Jeffersonian felicity and Napoleonic audacity, Bolivar was almost single-handedly responsible for ending the Spanish Empire in South America. Six new nations — Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Bolivia and Peru — owe their existence to Bolivar the Liberator, who also did more to end slavery than any North American founder.

But his vision for what he called New Columbia was hijacked by an endless parade of dictators, warlords and petty tyrants, all products of the hostile conditions that Adams had so accurately described. The arc of Bolivar’s life, then, is truly Shakespearean, from its glorious ascent to its tragic end, when he was reviled and slandered in every republic he had liberated. Unlike Adams and Jefferson, who could look back on their achievement with patriarchal serenity, Bolivar warned his followers that “eventually you’ll find that life is impossible here, with so many sons of bitches.”


The Library of Congress houses more than 2,500 books and manuscripts about Bolivar, but almost all of them, for obvious reasons, are in Spanish. Although the legend of Bolivar has been appropriated by Latin American leaders of every political persuasion, the latest having been Hugo Chavez, and a nation has been named after him, in the United States his reputation is vague, almost invisible.

Most North American historians, including me, have mentioned him only in passing, usually making “the George Washington of Latin America” reference, as though his life merits attention only when viewed through a North American prism. The hemispheric condescension inherent in that conception obviously needed correction in the form of a comprehensive biography that makes Bolivar’s life accessible to a large readership in the United States. “Bolivar” is unquestionably that book.

At least in retrospect, Marie Arana was providentially prepared to write “Bolivar.” Of Peruvian ancestry, Arana has written a critically acclaimed memoir and two well-reviewed novels. She is also a former editor of The Washington Post’s Book World. As befits its subject, “Bolivar” is magisterial in scope, written with flair and an almost cinematic sense of history happening. Here are three samples of her narrative style:
“For all his physical slightness — five foot six inches and a scant 130 pounds — there was an undeniable intensity to the man. His eyes were a piercing black, his gaze unrelenting. His forehead was deeply lined, his cheekbones high, his teeth even and white, his smile surprising and radiant. Official portraits relay a less than imposing man: the meager chest, the impossibly thin legs, the hands as small and beautiful as a woman’s. But when Bolivar entered a room, his power was palpable.”
Second, her account of his periodic brutality: “Bolivar could not afford to lose . . . the capital; worse he had no troops to spare. He responded swiftly and decisively. . . . His words were simple and to the point. ‘Without delay and without exception, you will put to the sword every Spaniard in dungeon or hospital. . . .’ With no questions asked and no due process of law, [the commandant] and his minions marched more than one thousand Spanish prisoners out into the sunlight and, over the course of four days, beheaded them all.”

“Bolivar: American Liberator” by Marie Arana.

Third, on the recovery of his reputation in the century after his death: “Leaders who followed seemed wanting in comparison, dwarfed by the shadow of a colossus. . . . In marble or bronze, Bolivar’s flesh took on a serenity it never had in life. The restless, fevered Liberator was now the benevolent father, devoted teacher, good shepherd striving to build a better flock. Astride a horse, galloping into an eternal void, the enduring image was complete: Here was a vigorous life, lived in a single trajectory, aiming to form a people, a continent.”

We might call Arana’s style Bolivarian — colorful, passionate, daring, verging on novelistic. This latter quality sometimes gives me pause, as this is Arana’s first venture into biography, and it seemed as though she was sometimes straddling the divide between fiction and nonfiction in a worrisome way. How can she know the color of the sky the morning Bolivar crossed the crest of the Andes, or the way he curled his lip during a particular argument? Well, there are nearly 100 pages of endnotes for anyone who wants to check her documentation. Latin American specialists with a vested interest in fixing Bolivar’s place in the region’s history will surely do the fact checking. As for me, I’m prepared to give Arana the benefit of the doubt, mostly because doing so allows me to levitate above the inevitable scholarly squabbles and relish the ride provided by a truly masterful storyteller.


The traditional comparison between Bolivar and Washington strikes me as misguided, and as a biographer of Washington, I can claim competence in a way I can’t on the Latin American sources. They were totally different personalities facing fundamentally different challenges. But as a military leader, Bolivar wins the competition hands down.

He remained on horseback in combat against the Spanish army three times longer than Washington against the British. (His troops called Bolivar “Iron Ass.”) His theater of operations was seven times the size of Washington’s and infinitely more lethal, filled with malaria-infested jungles, rivers loaded with snakes and crocodiles, and the highest mountain range in the hemisphere. If Washington can justifiably be remembered for staying the course against the British leviathan, Bolivar’s perseverance defies rational calculation. And his battlefield decisions often displayed the kind of intuitive genius more associated with Napoleon than with Washington.


“Bolivar” is a monumental achievement destined to win some major literary prizes. Like most recent books on the North American founders, it assumes that all icons are also flawed creatures. All of Bolivar’s flaws are on display here — his inveterate womanizing, periodic bouts of arrogance, flirtation with Napoleonic versions of omnipotence. But if Jefferson is eventually proved right, and democracy does come to Latin America in full form, the man so brilliantly recovered in these pages will be shouting hosannas from the heavens.  (source: Washington Post Book review: Joseph J. Ellis is a lecturer in history at the Commonwealth Honors College, University of Massachusetts at Amherst. His new book, “Revolutionary Summer,” is due out in June.)



Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Convicts Sent to Work on Plantations

Convicts Sent to Work on Plantations

In December of 1900, the Board of Control of the Louisiana State Penitentiary held a meeting in which they decided to set aside two immense plantations in West Feliciana and Iberia Parish for convicts to work. Cotton would be grown on the West Feliciana plantation, while sugar would be grown on the one in Iberia Parish. Approximately five hundred workers were expected to work on these plantations, which is roughly half of the amount of convicts in the state. All of the crops produced from these plantations would end up going to the state, helping to pay for road construction and the like. The program was expected to enact extensive prison reforms after the convict lease system had been abolished.
Convicts working on plantations in Louisiana were characteristic of a productive penalty system that had been taking place in the South for the past 40 years. After the emancipation of slaves in the thirteenth amendment in 1863, farmers, businessmen, and anybody who had used slave labor in their homes needed to find other people to take their place and keep their lives in order. At the same time, many state penitentiaries realized that they could use their prisoners, who were generally black males, to their benefit - having them work for the state. The Convict Lease System, which was put into place throughout the South quickly after slavery had been abolished, was a method of aiding previous slave owners in maintaining their pre-abolition lifestyle and helping the state pay off the cost of prison administration. Farmers and businessmen needed to find replacements for their lacking labor force and convicts were the perfect solution. People using convict labor would then pay the state for their work. This example of convict leasing is especially unique because the state set aside plantations of its own for the prisoners to work, as opposed to leasing them out to private owners. The convict leasing system proved to be very profitable for the government and any business owners who utilized it. Revenues from the program contributed to over 300% of the costs of prison administration. Not only would convicts work on plantations, they would also repair roads, maintain farms, and do other work similar to that of a slave's. However, states slowly phased out of this method of penalty. The system was frequently abused because the convicts, who were mostly African American and male, were readily available and treated inhumanely, similar to the way slaves had been treated before emancipation. Southern states slowly phased out of using this system and it was finally dismantled in 1928.
 [http://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/3634]


Britain's Massive Debt to Slavery


As reported in the UK Guardian, "Britain's massive debt to slavery: Today the records that detail just how much the trade in humans benefited the UK will be made public, by Catherine Hall, on 26 February 2013 -- Forgetting the violence, pain and shame that is an inevitable part of any country's historical record is a critical aspect of a nation's history. This disavowal of the past is an active process: forgetting Mau Mau, for example, and the brutality of the British response to it was done deliberately by occluding the archival record; it was only revealed by the patient work of determined survivors and dedicated historians.

Forgetting Britain's role in the slave trade began as soon as the trade was abolished in 1807. The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson's celebrated history of the campaign to end slavery focused on the work of white humanitarian men and their role in building a successful movement. He neglected not only the activism of black and female abolitionists but also the horrors of the trade itself, which he knew intimately.

A similar process took place in relation to emancipation in 1833. As soon as chattel slavery was abolished in the British West Indies, Mauritius and the Cape, the British began to congratulate themselves on their generosity. Abolition was redefined as a demonstration of Britain's commitment to liberty and freedom, and its claim to be the most progressive and civilised nation in the world.

In the language of the day, abolition was to wash away the sins of the nation. Yet the freedom that was granted by the imperial parliament to enslaved men and women was a relative one. They were to be "apprenticed" for four to six years – to work unpaid on the plantations for their former masters – while they "learned to labour". It took five more years of resistance in the Caribbean and campaigning "at home" to achieve "full freedom" in 1838.


What is more, £20m (equivalent to 40% of state expenditure in 1834) was paid in compensation by the British government to the slave owners to secure their agreement to the loss of "their" property – despite the fact that the moral basis of the campaign against slavery was that it was wrong to hold property in people. The "value" of the enslaved was judged according to the levels of their skill and the productivity of the colonies where they lived. An enslaved man in British Guiana was thus worth more than one in Jamaica, where productivity had declined; and men were worth more than women. This was yet another moment in the commodification of human beings – not now sold in the slave market but their price determined by colonial officials and settled in government offices.

Detailed records were kept of all those who claimed for compensation and those archives, never systematically studied before, throw new light on how the slavery business contributed in significant ways to Britain becoming the first industrial nation. Today, the encyclopedia that we have created using these archives goes online with free public access. It records the 46,000 individual claims which were made for compensation together with the information we have collected on the 3,000 or so Britons who lived in Britain but had property in people. These men and women (and there were a considerable number of women who lived off slave-ownership) were anxious that their identities as slave owners be forgotten. And until now they had been very successful.

Some of the direct descendants of slave owners are well-known: George Orwell, Graham Greene and Quintin Hogg – not to speak of the banks and legal firms built on slavery's profits. In focusing on slave owners, our purpose is not to name and shame. We seek to undo the forgetting: to re-remember, as Toni Morrison put it; to recognise the ways in which the fruits of slavery are part of our collective history – embedded in our country and town houses, the philanthropic institutions, the art collections, the merchant banks and legal firms, the railways, and the ways we continue to think about race. Slave owners were actively involved in reconfiguring race after slavery, popularising new legitimations for inequality that remain part of the legacy of Britain's colonial past. Captain Marryat, the son of a leading slave owner, and one of the most popular writers of naval fiction and children's stories, systematically racialised "others", creating hierarchies in which white Anglo Saxons were always at the top.

Across the Caribbean a movement is building for forms of restitution for the gross inequalities and underdevelopment that have persisted since the days of slavery. Their focus is on the state and governmental responsibility. In demonstrating Britain's debt to slavery, one of the ways in which modern Britain has benefited from and been disfigured by its colonial past, we hope we are contributing to a richer, more honest understanding of the connected histories of empire than is to be found in the parochialism and obsfuscations of Michael Gove's "island story".  (source: UK Guardian)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Medieval Manors vs. Colonial Plantations

Medieval Manors vs. Colonial Plantations

When we think of the Middle Ages, images of knights and lords and ladies (who did not wear pointy hats!) come to mind. Theirs was a feudal social system, meaning that a sort of contractual arrangement existed between the lords and the peasants. The peasants toiled and farmed the land and did all the artisanal crafts. In return for a percentage of their product (or, later, cash payments), the lords promised protection to the peasants in times of strife. In addition, the peasants owed a fixed amount of days per month and per year to the lord to plant, tend, and harvest his crops, repair his fences, and generally keep his estate in order. Finally, the peasants at least nominally owed military duty if the lord should call them to arms to defend their homes or, less popularly, to go invade someone else’s lands. Completing this social system was the Church, which also demanded a tithe (or “tenth” of the peasant’s crops or profit) for spiritual protection. This system endured for a millennium, from the fall of the Roman Empire into the early modern period.

So what happened when the colonists arrived in America? First, and foremost, there were no kings or earls or lords nearby, even if they technically could still demand a percentage of the colonists’ profits. Even in places like the Middle Atlantic colonies of Maryland and Virginia, which were set up as giant feudal estates, the living was at first so marginal and the landowners typically absentee, enforcing feudal-style rents was largely either impossible or moot. But more importantly, many of the early colonial ventures, like the Jamestown settlement and the Plymouth Bay colony, were not extensions of lordly control, but rather joint stock companies or "adventurers" already outside feudal control. In addition, although the colonists brought their religion with them as a cornerstone of their voyage (whether Puritans escaping religious prosecution or devout Anglicans merely settling the land), they did not bring with them the whole Church hierarchy of bishops, archbishops, or, in the case of Catholics in New France, the Pope. Consequently, in the Americas where colonists spoke English, French, German, or Dutch, the institutions of the feudal system never took root.


And yet the medieval manor and colonial plantation shared a great deal in common. Some of America's most beloved sites, such as Monticello and Mount Vernon, functioned essentially as had their medieval manorial antecedents for hundred of years. In fact, the American plantations were actually more medieval than their contemporary farms back in Europe because of their isolation. One of the reasons for the rise of the manorial system in medieval Europe was wealthy landowners and merchants leaving the decaying cities of post-Roman Europe for the relative safety of their latifundia (the Latin term for "spacious estate"). Thus, one of the key features of medieval manors was their relative self-sufficiency. By the seventeenth century in Europe, however, most manors were tightly interwoven in a web of commerce and trade. But, the colonial plantation did not have this network and in a sense reverted to its medieval predecessor's style of self-sufficiency (although there was certainly plenty of trade and commerce going on).


What, then, became of the lords of the manor? They did not go away – the landowners and industrialists became the lords. Many agricultural landowners had hundreds if not thousands of acres and worked them with a combination of hired hands, indentured servants, and slaves. Even industrial iron plantations smelting iron replicated the medieval manor. For example, in the late 1750s, the Pennsylvania iron industry was booming, and (along with the colony’s policy of religious toleration) it attracted a wide range of investors and ironmasters, especially and not surprisingly, from Germany. William Henry Seigel formed a partnership with other Philadelphia and Lancaster Co. businessmen, bought numerous furnaces and expanded them into a county-wide iron empire. Seigel himself lived like a baron in a sumptuously furnished mansion in Manheim, PA. The only real difference is that by this time everything was operating on a cash economy, rather than the labor or in-kind payments typical of feudalism. Jefferson and Washington, too, were in fact very much like medieval lords. They owned the land. They owned the laborers (medieval serfdom, a sort of virtual slavery, was of course replaced by outright slavery in the New World). They were the men in control of most commerce and primary production. They were the men in charge of government. And they were the ones who wrote the laws.



So when we think of Thomas Jefferson penning the Declaration of Independence, he was indeed charting out the course of a new nation, but he was also fulfilling the role his forbears had filled for centuries before him. It is no mistake that there is a strong parallel between the Magna Carta, the basic charter of liberties for England forced upon King John in 1215, and the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights "forced" upon King George III in 1776-83.  (source: http://www.engr.psu.edu/mtah/essays/mannors_plantations.htm)

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