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Friday, June 2, 2017

Generations of Struggle

GENERATIONS OF STRUGGLE:  Notes on an endless process, Part One

"The legacy of slavery continues to resound in our national conversations on race, economics, and the criminal justice system.  ….'Generations of Struggle [Perspectives on Race and Justice from Reconstruction to the Present]'  presents three critically acclaimed works, one film and two books, that provide a continuum from the aftermath of slavery to contemporary society, posing questions about our institutions, the changes in race relations, and the enduring challenge to equality for all citizens."  With these words, Jakilah Mason, the African American Resource Collection librarian at the New Orleans Public Library, welcomes us to a four-week long process ( May 25, June 1, June 8, June 15) of resisting the implicit anti-intellectualism of life in the United States of America.  We are asked to first define for ourselves what "institutionalized racism" might be in 2017, to ponder how it has tremendous impact on the criminal justice system and the educational system.  Ms. Mason invites us to have an intergenerational  conversation that is moderated by Dr. Robin Vader (Xavier University of New Orleans).

The conversation focuses on

  • Slavery by Another Name --
  • Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
  • Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

The conversation focuses also on the Constitution of the United States, Article XIII, Sections 1 and 2:

Section 1.  Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist with the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

We shall have a conversation regarding an experiment in democracy and the rule of law.  The shape of the conversation is determined very much by the knowledge of American and African American histories (narratives) we bring to it or don't bring.  As we engage in civil and civic discourse with passionate attention, our literacy as American citizens is utilized and enlarged.  We test ourselves.  We renew our commitments and obligations as political animals. "Generations of Struggle" is a remarkable instance of education in a public sphere.

It is appropriate that we are having this conversation in the opening months of the Age of Trump and in the divisive, energy-draining climate of post-truth, fake news, political circus, and ideologically-motivated disruption of morality and ethics.  If Americans refuse to examine both the liberal and conservative dimensions of daily life in our nation, they are complicit in benign genocide.  "Generations of Struggle" may help us to understand why the contemporary drift in our nation from democratic struggle into a deadly struggle with fascism is the human equivalent of climate change in Nature. Nature is amoral, and some people opt to be amoral.  Is our imitating the  motions of Nature  the mark of the will to be nihilistic and stupid?  Is the  conversation,  as a shared narration inscribed by elders and youngsters,  an existential struggle not to totally abandon hope and faith in our American humanity?


Session 1, May 25: Introduction

Understanding of "institutionalized racism" vary widely according to one's economic status, education, and direct experience of history as process and narration.

The old can't forgive and forget as easily as the thoroughly Americanized young believe it is possible and right to do.  The generational tension can be discussed and clarified, but it cannot be eradicated.

We are connected by bonds of distrust,  suffering , misery and doubt.

Yes, we can empathize with people from different periods in our history.  Empathy is relative and quite temporary.  We empathize for an hour, a day, or a week and then rapidly return to a state of caring primarily for ourselves. 

Read Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985) by Robert N. Bellah et al. for some, but not conclusive, evidence that in matters of race relations, American citizens are severely limited in making moral sense of their lives.

 Read The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (1978) by Christopher Lasch for its critique of American capitalism and why it may be the case that "the moral discipline formerly associated with the work ethic still retains a value independent of the role it once played in the defense of property rights" (236).

It is as easy to abolish "Institutionalized racism" as it is to abolish once and forever the phenomenon of terrorism. Reading and interpretation of A Lesson Before Dying and Between the World and Me can teach us much about human limits and uncertainty.

Session 2, June 1: Slavery By Another Name and the Criminal Justice System

Refer to Black's Law Dictionary, Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness  (especially pages 30-35 --summary discussion of Douglas Blackmon's Slavery by Another Name), Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, John Barry's Rising Tide (comments on conscription of black labor), African American Mosaic: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to the Twenty-first Century by John H. Bracey, Jr. and Manisha Sinha  (especially letters by Warren S. Reese and S. D. Redmond on forced labor in the New South, pages 121-125)

Keys:   slavery, criminal justice, Jim Crow, domestic terrorism from Reconstruction to the present , illegal definitions of criminal offenses, fear of revenge, peonage, pensio, labor, crime and punishment, criminalization of the young, "neoslavery" as a distributive property in the lives of Americans, Christianity and morality as cognitive quicksand; consideration that not all African Americans between 1865 and 1945 were trapped.

Criminal justice system = network of courts and tribunals which deal with criminal law and enforcement. The word "justice" is a theoretical construct that does not exist in actuality and its application is always a matter of relativity and situation.

Jim Crow  ----minstrelsy;  negative stereotypes of African Americans and  reinforcement of stereotypes by way of entertainment from the 19th century to the present ---Who has persuasively accounted for the psychological damage that governs contemporary behaviors?  Who has accounted adequately for the continuing resonance of Birth of a Nation (1915) in the American mindscape?

Peonage  =  servitude compelling persons to perform labor in order to pay off a debt.  Thus, "neoslavery" was made possible by use of the loophole in the 13th Amendment to extend antebellum right of the slave owners to the post-Civil War owners of the means of production North and South; sharecropping and tenant farming particularly in the Mississippi Delta---See Margaret Walker's journal entry on the Delta, January 28, 1941.  Historical studies of the Mississippi Delta yield epiphanies about the still unbroken cycles of peonage.

Dr. Vander draws attention to capitalism as economic matrix

The Latin word pensio = payment (rent) for the use of a thing directs notice to the rented prisoner who was reduced to being a thing rather than person.  Even in 2017, convicted felons are dehumanized, demonized  "things."

Criminalization of the very young, racial profiling ---utter denial of innocence among black children.  The young are no longer criminalized for the purposes of labor; they are criminalized for the purposes of ethnic cleansing.

Domestic terrorism ---the KKK and other hate groups documented   by the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Explore for information about these groups and about the work SPLC does to fight hate, teach tolerance, and seek justice.

Prisons in Louisiana [Angola] and Mississippi [ Parchman ]; prisons and labor in prisons; the school to prison pipeline.

Fear of revenge ---Oddly, the justifiable resentment of freed women and men was rarely transformed into acts of violence against the Other, against so-called whites, many of whom were their unacknowledged kinfolk.  More frequently, the self-hatred birthed within the peculiar institution of enslavement was violently turned inward not outward.  There is a reason.  People of African descent are less likely than people of other ancestry to fully embrace  COSMIC EVIL.  This tendency among people of African ancestry is a devastating handicap.

Definition of criminal offenses ---note how Slavery by Another Name deals with the fact that in the antebellum South criminality was often not a matter of substantive criminal law as codified in penal codes; it was a matter of reconstituting whiteness at the expense of black lives.

Special note to one of the young participants in "Generations of Struggle" ----The fear of revenge was actually the fear of black political power, fear that if African Americans had the political power to manage the sacred rule of law, there would be a loss of hegemony, the myth of white supremacy, and certainly the privileges of the "white" skin (which is really bleached pink and tan in color).   During Reconstruction, black politicians were advocates for public education, universal literacy, health services, and enterprises unfettered by segregation North and South. Please remember that the film Slavery by Another Name only accounts for conditions up to 1945, as if WWII resolved something.  It did not.  Ask very old black males who served in World War II.

Special note from one of the young participants to the group ---even in the very best charter schools in New Orleans students are not fully exposed to the specifics of American and African American histories.

What positive changes have occurred in our nation since 1945?  Revisions of law to maximize the small gains of a very long struggle in American for human and civil rights.  It is unfortunate that in the Age of Trump there is a dedicated effort to erase the importance of such struggles at the level of tweets. budgets, and profit-motivated policy (maximum greed).

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            June 2, 2017

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