…the only surviving text or stories are the ones that I feel are better than silence. It’s a difficult competition against silence because silence is the perfect language; the only language that says with no words.
Recently, in outlining to the President of the United States the position of the Negro in America, I saw fit to put it this way: “The great masses of Negro are depressed and unprotected in the lowest levels of agriculture and domestic service while black workers in industry are generally barred from unions and grossly discriminated against. The housing and living conditions of the Negro masses are sordid and unhealthy; they live in a constant terror of the mob, generally shorn of their constitutionally guaranteed right of suffrage, and humiliated by the denial of civil liberties. The great masses of Negro youth are offered only one fifteenth the educational opportunity of the average American child.
Review: Search For The New Land: History As Subjective Experience
“The people are the true poets. The rest of us, with our advances and royalty checks, are just journeyman making a dishonest living.” ~ Julius Lester
History is not merely an amalgamation of previous events, first relevant then discarded, but the 12 hours encircling the watch dial ushering in the future while we deposit each action within the folded memory of the past. History is a subjective experience rather than a game we played as children until we gained the bearings required to escape into maturity. History is happening all about us at this very moment. As quickly as we enshroud it in the veil of nostalgia, we return and revise it for consumption by new generations as a vaccination of insight against those ailments which hindered our own success. We are rewriting history in order to shape the conclusion drawn by others from their reflection upon it. We don’t want you to remember history as we knew it then, but wish you to perceive history as we feel it now. In “Search For The New Land”, Julius Lester probes the philosophical framework underlying history, memory and experience in order to construct a memoir which obscures the lines between all three concepts weaving a simplified approach to history as people and their reaction to each changing circumstance.
“Our first-born was coming home. We brought her home, placed her in the crib and put a net over it. That was to keep the roaches off her. I sat up at night, all night for the first week, beside her so that the rats wouldn’t come. But she got sick the first day she was home and stayed sick for nine months. The doctor said she was allergic to her mother’s milk, which is like fish being allergic to water. What do doctors know? How can you tell what is wrong with somebody if you don’t know where they live? The doctor said my ulcer came from tension and he told me I should relax.” ~ Julius Lester
The text opens with a remembrance of the frenzied and explosive decade of 1960 juxtaposed against a notion of Hiroshima as a climactic destabilization in our theory of modern warfare. In this space, Lester lays the groundwork for his historical memoir by going beyond posing unwritten questions about his own life and answering them in the autobiographical style. Lester does not even appear as the main character in this casting which sees that role assigned to the collision of events and people which gave meaning to this era of social change. The 50’s, the 60’s, Freedom Riders, radicals, nationalists, HUAC, Cointelpro and all other manner of devil or deity are given space between these pages while Lester arrives haphazardly to navigate a roach infested slum on the westside of Chicago with his wife and newborn child. He is mostly divorced from telling us much in the way of his own story while using a surrealist technique of found poetry to subtly inject his commentary into each line of the larger narrative unfolding.
“Revolutionaries are not born. They are made by living on West 21st Street. The United States has made more revolutionaries than Che Guevara ever did…In a society where life had meaning beyond the beating of the heart, the ability to transplant organs would be an occasion for celebration. In a society where man had within his grasp the ability to be Man, a trip to the moon would be awesome. In the West, all of it is obscene.” ~ Julius Lester
Found poetry involves appropriating a news article then adding, removing or reordering its words to uncover the poem beneath the layers of journalistic diplomacy. The technique forms a literary collage revealing a story within the story which is not at first apparent by reading the article alone. This reshaping of meaning hearkens back to traditional Black interpretive plays of code switching within blues and work songs lending rich metaphoric insight to seemingly thoughtless lyrics. “Search For The New Land” exhibits a similar folksy quality as Lester writes through the lens of an everyman activist who is not always enthralled by the work, but perseveres against personal apathy to engage in organizational building. Lester utilizes the timeline in the first few pages of each section in order to recount the major events in motion. The unique formulation of the memoir is further nuanced by dating some sections in the form of a journal while others are left for the reader to calculate. This combination of techniques creates a certain murkiness throughout the text which gives his pages the feeling of memory lapsing forward and backward unpredictably. Memories lacking full clarity and being consistently manipulated by our shifting beliefs about our identity, legacy and the world.
“Violence was defined as a bullet in the brain and unrecognized was the fact that this kind of violence was only a manifestation of the violence done to the soul which made the young talk incessantly of Love and carry flowers. The report of a rifle is all too obviously violent, while the violence done to the soul has no sound, but if one looks closely into the faces passing on the street, its effects are unmistakeable.” ~ Julius Lester
“Search For The New Land” is not only a brilliantly written piece of prose, but an informative personal and social history. It is nothing short of a psychological primer on the artist and activist framing how he approaches the changes in life and uses language fiercely in order to attack and understand those changes. The activist artist has no way to halt change immediately, but he can sculpt a tool which aids others in engaging that change in a constructive manner while driving the collective reaction to such change over time. The text manages to be a serious reflection on a time of heightened social tension while understanding that human beings are an interesting sort who deserve to have their foolish doings played up for laughs at every opportunity. Julius Lester is a studious intellectual who knows how to throw a punchline that not even Lyndon Johnson could duck.
Review: The Mis-Education of the Negro
“The Negro, whether in Africa or America, must be directed toward a serious examination of the fundamentals of education, religion, literature, and philosophy as they have been expounded to him. He must be sufficiently enlightened to determine for himself whether these forces have come into his life to bless him or bless his oppressor. After learning the facts in the case the Negro must develop the power of execution to deal with these matters as do people of vision.” ~ Carter G. Woodson
Carter G. Woodson proposed this notion in the context of outlining a plan for advancing racial education through the development of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). In this sentiment, we can discern a challenge from Woodson to begin interpreting historical phenomena in a manner that establishes its measurable utility for influencing black people to claim full agency in altering their own condition. While making a comparative reading between this text and “The Souls of Black Folks”, conversations I encountered with others led me to the conclusion that many have not afforded the most popular single thesis by Woodson the thorough examination required. While the language is often less florid than DuBois, the analysis offered here is no less comprehensive and lends itself to neither imitation nor repetition of the facts elucidated previously in “The Souls of Black Folks”. Through his work as a historian, Woodson uses an incisive reading of the history of Negro education from the Reconstruction period forward to bolster the argument that it has been improperly administered by others to the detriment of black people. This injustice would only be resolved when we took ownership of creating the input and defining the outcome.
While the text opens by focusing its attention upon the process of miseducation, Woodson expands the diameter of the discussion markedly with each new chapter to display how this process takes root in each aspect of Negro life impacting the church, political ambitions, business sector, vision, and leadership. The argument he constructs finds him squarely balanced between Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. While he endorses the fierce work ethic Washington sought to make the hallmark of black people, he rejects a servile acceptance of the permanent social underclass. His devotion to an educational system which nourishes black identity and intellect at every level builds upon the work of DuBois, but he admonishes educated Negroes to pair their higher learning with the grassroots service still being performed by those lesser educated. In practice, this pairing of ideas and implementation would form the framework for an independent community enterprise. Throughout the text he exudes the fierce nationalism exemplified in the Garveyite philosophy, but differs upon the subject of repatriation.
Amongst the most astute observations offered here comes in a discourse on Marxism where he states “History shows that it does not matter who is in power or what revolutionary forces take over the government, those who have not learned to do for themselves and have to depend solely on others never obtain any more rights or privileges in the end than they had in the beginning.” The insight Woodson offers on this matter would later prove prescient when we saw our leftist alliances of the Renaissance crumble upon the realization that they held no serious desire to address racism within their ranks. This other facet of miseducation arising in the black community then being the dynamic adoption of new philosophies with no strategic or tactical analysis of merit or usefulness. In summation, Woodson offers us one of the many early attempts at developing a black social theory which draws upon the most valuable assets our community while exhorting us to take serious measures in addressing its liabilities.
His legacy of Negro History Week which later evolves into Black History Month is not born of a desire to give either ourselves or America a concession that equality has been achieved nor are we to be cavalier in our observance of this milestone. Negro History Week was to be a first stage towards the objective of building black institutions that could both educate children in their history being overlooked and afford them opportunities and avenues to expand upon that legacy. Cases in Arizona and Tennessee have given us a clear lens into the peculiar quality of American forgetfulness which occurs when a synthesized and complete historical record is not the way an educated mind is measured. As this forgetfulness becomes more pervasive, we must return to the work of Carter G. Woodson, Lorenzo Johnston Greene and the pioneers of varying strains of Black Studies whom arose post-Civil Rights for a template that will guide us back to the goal of establishing independent systems of education where the curriculum is not dictated to us, but decided by our own best assessment of the needs of our communities.
Bobby Wright offered us possibly the most sage insight on our renewed ethnic education debate in stating “Education is a political dynamic and for a people who have no social theory, reading, writing and arithmetic should be much less important than what is written and read.” “The Miseducation of the Negro” is an opening gambit in helping us to shift that political dynamic in another direction, but only if we read it again with a far more critical eye than we have applied in the past for miseducation has implications which extend far beyond the classroom.
Students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance circa 1941 while offering a Bellamy salute prior to changes in the Flag Code which initiated the modern salute of holding the right hand over one’s heart and predating the 1954 change which injected the words “under God”.
The form of the pledge that the children would have been reciting might have looked something like the following:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”
This version stands apart from the original form in which it was conceived in 1892 when the Christian socialist, Francis Bellamy, whom believed that Jesus championed the rights of working people and the equal distribution of economic resources, decided that immigrants and slightly less patriotic members of the nation needed an inoculation against the vitriol of nativism.
The pledge originally read:
“I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”
In looking through the lens of history, the perspective of the viewer is everything.
Don’t stop, get it, get it
Dr. Pearl Primus performs “Rock Daniel”, 1944. Photo courtesy of the University of Massachusetts Dance Program.
When I think of the things in life that mean the most to me, the force of my movement is inextricably intertwined with all manner of emotion within me.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg: “We have been instructed to look at the Negro as idle, worthless, indolent and disloyal, but a careful examination of the West Indies and South America does not show this to be true…. There is not a single field of industrial activity in which the descendants of the African have not contributed their mite….” Arturo Alfonso Schomburg at the annual meeting of the American Negro Academy, December 1915
Respect to the freethinkers!
Review: Ancient Future
Ancient Future has been the flagship moral tome in my personal library for just over a decade, but as I review it again this time, I now discover that I no longer find many of the principles personally applicable to my present worldview. When I initially encountered the text, I was a seeker and novice critical thinker milling through each church, mosque, temple and movement of the organizational multitude in search of an answer to an obscure internal question. Ancient Future was filled with precisely the sort of supernatural ambiguity which could fill that void. Furthermore, it was written in the tradition of my namesake, Djehuti, which added to my idyllic attraction.
There was a time when I loved nothing more than to contemplate these forms of artificial complexity while ascribing to all things a meaning whose truth of knowing may have made me none the wiser for my worry. Things have changed greatly since that time. I love my humanity and want nothing more than to embrace that notion more fully. “Divinity” and “Eternal Life” are still as cryptic as they were in a previous era, but I have disengaged from grappling to comprehend such mysteries for what I posit are more worthwhile pursuits where concrete and finite answers are to be found.
The feelings noted above are applicable mostly to the first 5 principles where a great deal of energy is expended establishing ground for concepts like mental metaphysics, karma and “the All”. In order to accomplish this aim, subjects such as physics and geometry are tackled with the goal of displaying how all things cooperate in cosmic order. I am such the lover of mathematics and science that I am both fascinated and appreciative of the glorious beauty that lives within the symmetry of nature. Still I am not so bemused as to think that should I write an exegetical text on the diameter of the spots decorating the back of the monarch butterfly that the gates of great wisdom will open to me either.
My life at present is more practical and driven by the desire to ascertain a greater workable understanding of the human condition. Perhaps this is why I found the greatest insight in the closing chapters of the text which were also the most densely packed containing “The Principle of Rhythm” and “The Principle of Causation”. The former was filled with histories of ethnic and social migration and conflict throughout West Asia (Europe), East Asia, Africa and the Pacific. The latter contained a simple admonition to remember that the actions humans pursue on this planet hold serious consequences which we must prepare ourselves to face in the future with changing weather, water wars and famine encroaching ever nearer on the horizon. I would arguably state that “The Principle of Rhythm” is the greatest concise history of human migration patterns ever written. Chandler also veers off on the direction of discussions of the descent of matriarchy which accompanied the rise of patriarchy, sexual exploitation, subjugation by gender and other social ills.
From a wide view, this volume will remain an important addition to my library and I am likely to reference it in future writings, but it has certainly lost some of its luster since that first awesome encounter in the Underground Bookstore on 71st Street. This is understandable for we are always growing from the place where we stood previously and we must be prepared to recognize that growth when it makes itself apparent.
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Review: Malcolm X on Afro-American History
I consider this work to be a most excellent primer and introduction to the transformative and transforming philosophy of Malcolm X prior to the Nation of Islam split. There is an inclination to read this Malcolm as less radical and more peaceful, but I see him as more strategically grounded and solution oriented. This book presents a single lecture given to members of the newly formed OAAU towards the objective of orienting them to the history of the struggle of black people. The excerpts also serve excellently to flesh out parts of his expanding philosophy. The full text of which are to be found by exploring other works in tandem with this one.
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