Ghosts of Tom Paine: Decadal Review of Bush v. Gore (2000) [Post of Dec. 12, 2010]
INITIAL POSTS (June 2010):
Immoral Maxims of An Unjust Judge: Rhetorical Repartees and Constitutional Arguments Discrediting and Refuting Both the Quips and Substance of Antonin Scalia's Legal Opinions. Several Components: Maxims & Repartees; Appendices; References
Spiritual Intersections: Nietzsche's Aphorisms and Jesus Words (August 2010)
Henry Clay (Oct 2010)
Essays on Distinctions and Tensions between literal, parablefull, metaphorical and mythological religious language

Book Reviews (Supreme Court; Friedrich Nietzsche…)

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Closed Ebony Circle: Refections upon Toni Morrison's Work

"Two lost souls on the highway of life.
Now ain't it just great,
 and ain't it just grand,
we got each other."

Morrison's Literary Work

Somewhere I read, almost certainly in a passage written by James Baldwin, an account of a young Afroamerican couple, deeply in love with each other, who were stopped while driving by the police in either South Carolina or North Carolina. After the young man showed his driving license, he was briefly searched. Then at least one of the policemen 'searched' the young woman — and during the 'search' slowly put his hands under her brassiere and felt her breasts and then placed his hand or hands under her panties and felt her private parts. Finding no contraband, the officers then released the couple and returned to their duties of protecting the public. After this very painful episode, the two young people were unable to discuss the event in any meaningful way. The erstwhile lovers gradually drifted apart and did not get married as might otherwise have been expected. It goes without saying among those familiar with the mores of U.S. Southern segregation that the young man would have reasonably expected that if he had done anything to protect the honor of his lover that he would have been beaten, most likely have been arrested, and might — indeed — even been murdered. And, the young woman would most likely had very similar expectations. Still, this particular twosome were decisively separated by their experience. 

Different people, of course, respond to such situations in different ways. The very strong ethos among 'black Muslims' to protect their women with force (as needed) is one obvious response. And one occasionally hears stories of various Afroamerican women who have said — whether they acted upon their words or not — that a real man, even a real 'white' man would be preferable to a man who would not be a 'man' when his wife, his lover, his children, or his mother were dishonored by a white man (or anyone else for that matter). Below, I will consider how Toni Morrison has addressed aspects of this issue.

In Toni Morrison's work, one sees instances of couples choosing (both during the epochs of slavery and segregation, with excursions into the present epoch) to cleave to each other even when one or both of them have been 'branded' by willing and/or unwilling deeds of sexual behavior that have occurred under enormous duress and these deeds have left their physical and psychological marks (memories, dreams, violence…). These stories are told with great detail and elaborate craft. Two examples of this approach are found in the novels, Jazz (1992)  and Beloved (1987). For a Morrison novel (!), the story in Jazz is relatively straightforward. We discuss it first.

As in other Morrison novels, there are flashbacks, ruminations, different 'voices' (perspectives) and dreams so that it takes some time for the main story to emerge. The story itself, however, is rather straightforward. A married woman, Violet, defaces and desecrates the corpse of a young woman (Dorcas) who had an affair with her husband, Joe. Joe is in fact the murder of the young woman. [The author's artifice (special circumstances) prevents legal punishments, but allow the local Afroamerican community to know the main details of the events.] After various twists and turns the novel finally culminates with this now older couple 'keeping on' at 'keeping on.' And as the disparate strands of the story finally come together the ending of Jazz is - to me - quite beautiful. She renders — as it were — a final triumphant verbal paean to the people of Harlem that reads like the final trills of a trumpeter.  As I read the last few pages I was reminded of my first trip to New York City in 1958 when my guides were taking me through a few streets of Harlem where I saw more people living and crowded together than I had ever seen and I was struck by the pulsing energy that came up and our of these brick apartment buildings, concrete sidewalks and asphalt streets. [I had grown up in a very small Eastern Kentucky town with only a few visits to smaller cities.] Also, on a personal note, the very difficult reconciliation of Joe and Violet Trace  — amplified, of course, by the hyperbolic plot that is Morrison's sui generis trademark — struck a chord within me. I haven't had such dramatic incidents in my own life — but having recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of my wife's and my own marriage I am conscious that any marriage is to some extent a closed circle that has its own ups and downs. And, apparently for the great majority of couples, some of those strains are quiet severe even in the 50% of those marriages that do not end up in divorce.

Morrison's renown Beloved  is a much more complex novel which highlites the after effects of a runaway slave (Sethe) who murdered her own child to prevent the child from being enslaved. The starting point in Morrison's mind for the book was the actual murder of a child by a runaway slave mother, Margaret Garner, who did not want her child to grow up in slavery. This book, too, has its flashbacks, different voices, historical underpinnings along with it haunting dreams and ghosts — and one might even say — some 'black magic'. Extended commentary about the book in various literature venues suggest that this was the primary work in her literature portfolio leading to her 1993 Nobel Prize in literature. Morrison later commented that she left 'Beloved' — the chimera, ghost, and presence of Sethe's murdered baby  — to be the one that might  judge Sethe. Morrison's comment strikes me as an extraordinary raw and honest comment by an author about her own work. Following our own theme, however, the subplot involving the sometimes tortured relationship between Sethe and Paul D. exemplifies another example of Morrison's working thru the closed circle of the enslaved. (Paul D. is another runaway from the original Kentucky plantation where Sethe had been married and borne her children.) Morrison's novel ends with Sethe, Paul D. and Sethe's daughter Denver proceeding forward as a small family, again, as it were, under the injunction "to keep on keeping on." She portrays in exquisite detail the haunting ghosts of slavery. And her stated intention has been to describe those the forgotten black women and black communities who have lived through slavery, segregation, and have endured up until the present. Her unique rendering of blackworld, blacktalk, and blacksong serves those ends quite well.

More General Thematics by the Commentator (LCHj)

However, one need not — indeed one must not — subscribe to everything that an author says about her work in order to appreciate it. Authors' words about their works can be illuminating — but in generally they are quite incomplete about both the strengths and weaknesses of such work. Morrison is no exception. And, in that spirit, I want to look at a several comments she has made and place them in a wider context.

In the dedication to Beloved Morrison mentions the "Sixty Million and more" who perished during the African Slave trade. The dedication, of course, evokes the words "Many Thousands gone" in the old Spiritual, "No more auction block for Me." Now, in actual fact, I would think that she is, indeed, historically correct in suggesting that the number '60,000,000' is a probable understatement of the damage done by the slave trade and its implementation. Now, being explicit about my own commentator's presupposition as a fair-colored human being who has lived ~93% of my life within the continental United States, I believe that the Holocaust (1933-1945) and the Institution of Chattel slavery within the United States from ~1700—1865 constitute the two of the most egregious acts — if not the two most egregious acts of communal evil within modern Western (Euroamerican) civilization. Others, of course, may have different views. The post-1492 appropriation of American lands accompanied by malice and murders of the native people could be viewed as a 'single' communal act. However, I wish to single out the period from 1700-1865 in the United States for special attention.

From the beginning of the 18th Century until the end of the U.S. Civil War, the novel legal and religious fiction was developed and empowered which held that, in particular, the children of a union between a father of European ancestry and a mother of African ancestry was of the 'same race' as the mother. This novel fiction had arisen, especially in the Southern British Colonies, to meet two particular challenge for slaveholders. First, the native Americans did not 'cotton' to slavery and, furthermore, were able to escape more easily than the imported African slaves. Secondly, the tenuous boundaries between indentured servants from Europe and slaves from Africa (indentured servants were sometimes kept in bondage for 2-3 decades, a significant number of slaves either bought their freedom or were freed by their masters) created additional practical difficulties. Fair skinned runaway indentured servants could often disappear into the general mix of fair-skinned European colonists. It was much easier for the slave master and his hired minions to find a 'runaway' with African physical features than to find and identify one with European or native American features. The most immediate practical consequence of this new doctrine was that a slave-owning father could sell his own son or daughter.

I have used the term 'fiction' to describe this new doctrine — whether expressed in enforced laws or in theological doctrine — but this 'doctrine' was, in fact, both a historical lie and a deep dive into collective moral depravity. On the other hand, once this doctrine became the 'norm' within the slaveholding states, individuals growing up within these environments had to face these norms in one way or another. And, over time, new developments occurred. Soon a child of the union between parents of European and African ancestry was termed a 'mulatto' — whether the union was one of love, mutual desire, or violent rape. Then, a child of a European parent and a 'mulatto' was termed a 'quadroon.' In Louisiana, especially, this terminology became quite developed as 'white' men would have 'quadroon' mistresses with 'octaroon' children who could be sold or freed as the white father decided. In most of the slaveholding South, however, a 'simpler' perspective held sway — any trace of African ancestry tainted the offspring as members of a race that were or could be legally treated as chattel. This fundamentally dishonest classification system has always had its practical as well as moral difficulties, but its effects — a century and a half after the 15th Amendment abolished slavery — have been and continue to be readily seen. Our language has been buffeted about as well — 'African','colored', 'negro', 'black' and 'Afroamerican' — are 4 of the more prominent terms that have been used at different times and by different groups to refer to those people living within the United States who have visible features (skin tint, hair textures, lips, hip structure) that provide immediate evidence of probable or definite African ancestry within the past century or so. The fundamental problem, of course, is that it is a lie — as a general rule peoples who live near the equator are quite dark and people who live far from the equator are lighter. And, peoples who live in or around the Arctic Circle are quite fair in complexion. Of course, all human beings who live today outside of Africa are descendants of people who left Africa sometime between 300,000 years ago and yesterday.

I spend some time on this issue because such facts matter. From my own perspective, the combination of the 'dark passage' of the transatlantic slave ships with their terrible death-&-murder rates and the subsequent legal empowerment of fathers to sell their own children and of any slaveowner to separate spouses and children constitute a very, very dark episode in the history of human kind…

However, it is necessary to put even the most terrible deeds into their human context. The Holocaust was not simply a collective crime against humankind by the German nation under the leadership of Hitler and his fellow Nazis. The Holocaust was the product of centuries of occasional pogroms, creation of Jewish ghettos, and other forms of festering anti-semitism within Christianity that have roots reaching back to the resentments of early Christians against persecutions by Jewish authorities in the first century (CE).

Likewise, chattel slavery is but one of the forms of slavery that have plagued the human species. Most slaves brought to the Americas were bought from Africans. Slaves are mentioned as a fact of life in Jewish, Christians, and Muslim scriptures. In many instances, slaves were able to eventually earn their own freedom. Separation of families has sometimes been restricted by law — in recent centuries Roman Catholic venues prohibited some of the horrific excursions legally permitted in U.S. protestant venues. But, I am not adding all these excesses up or making strict comparisons.  I once read of an old African man who stated that one should not 'count' one's children. In a similar manner I hazard that counting the dead with only half an eye can sometimes be even worse than looking away. There are some very unhealthy ways of remembering real facts. I am certain that the Turks committed terrible atrocities in Serbia 500 years ago, but there are some very unhealthy ways of remembering real facts. These atrocities against the Serbs and the Turks more recent atrocities against the Serbs, Kurds and Armenians do not excuse the siege of Sarajevo or the mass graves of Srebrenica. Likewise, the murders of the Holocaust do not excuse the current Israeli practice of killing 10 Palestinians for every Israeli citizen killed. There have been, are, and — presumably — will continue to be far too many society sanctioned misdeeds and murders. An extraordinarily large proportion of them are inspired and committed by nations, ethnic groups, and religious institutions who are only able to count their own dead.

Some Morrison Comments

Toni Morrison has sometimes said that her work is explicitly 'political'. And, indeed it is — just as Hemingway and Faulkner were  'political.' Human beings are indeed political, sexual, societal, and physical beings. And, I would certainly agree with her that non-political literature, non-political law, or non-political press do not exist. There are, however, important distinctions that must be made. Both fairness and honesty is always needed in politics. They are usually incompletely present, but an explicit interest in their pursuit is often needed. Morrison has stated words to the effect that her intent is to give voice to forgotten black persons and forgotten black women. Now, as a matter of fact, she also includes others in her work. For example in Mercy (1992), set during the early days of colonial slavery she includes chapters on a white couple, Jacob and Rebekka Vaark, in addition to the several slave women who are the main focus of the novel. And she references with appreciation various authors who have been useful to her. However, her appreciation for white women in segregated societies is surprisingly sparse in the literature that I have seen. The Grimké sisters of South Carolina during slavery, Lillian Smith's opposition to lynching during the early 1900's, and fellow Noble Laureate (2007), Doris Lessing, seem to have been given short shrift in her analyses. These women have known that the pedestal of 'white womanhood' in racialized caste systems was simply a flattering form of enslavement. Their work provides insight for any woman or man concerned about the links between sexual roles and societal injustice.

In commenting about the killing and murders of young African-American youth Morrison is reported to have said:

"People keep saying: 'We need to have a conversation about race.' This is the conversation. I want to see a cop shoot a white unarmed teenager in the back. And I want to see a white man convicted for raping a black woman. Then when you ask me, 'Is it over?', I will say yes."

Morrison is off the mark. Policemen shoot and have been shooting unarmed teenagers and older men in the back from the time they began to holster weapons. For several generations an obscenely large proportion of those killing and murders involve Afroamericans and have frequently remained unpunished. If the general society does not respect 'black lives' when manslaughter or murder is committed by a person wearing a badge, then — in actuality — none of us is safe. Some people respond to such selective killings with their own 'selective' killings. In killing some policemen in Dallas, a young African American ex-soldier is reported to have said, "I want to kill white people — especially white policemen". Several other 'random' killings of police have not been solved. But, returning to our topic. Killings by policemen — all too often unpunished — are hardly restricted to Afroamericans or to members of other minority groups. On a more positive and, I believe, a more important note, there are large differences in the latitude with which different cities and communities permit their members to use deadly force. Committed people can bring about positive changes in their communities.

At another point Morrison made the comment "I teach my children that there is a part of yourself that you keep from white people — always." Of course, if you think of your 'white' audience simply as necessary 'help' for your career, the 'help' may hear some things that you did not intend them to hear.

Final Comments

From the mix of her own experience, her readings, her conversations, and her considerable talents, Toni Morrison has created stories of the enduring problems for the descendants of slaves in the American Republic. Her work has helped to considerably broaden the scope of U.S. and Western literature which is, of course, the why and how she has earned the Nobel Prize in literature and other awards. Some of her wider generalizations about her characters and her work are not untypical and share assumptions about the 'practical truth' of racial distinctions and injustice that are held in one way or another by a great number of U.S. citizens, particularly those who are politically active and/or are older. When she speaks in more general and ideological terms about her work, her remarks are often technically quite interesting and always politically relevant. In my opinion, however, her moral vision does not reach the level of her high artistic skill and her intense personal energy.

Selected Bibliography

Carolyn Forché, Editor (1993) Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. W.W. Norton & Company: New York/London. 812 pages.
 Sarah Moore Grimké (1838; 1970) Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women. Lenox Hill (Burt Franklin): New York. 128 pages.
Harriet A. Jacobs (1861: 2000) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by herself. Jean Fagan Yellin, Editor. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England. 336 pages.
Thomas D. Morris (1987) Southern Slavery and the Law: 1619-1860.  The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill/London. 575 pages.
Toni Morrison (1987) Beloved.   Alfred Knopf. New York.
Toni Morrison (1992) Jazz. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 229 pages.
Toni Morrison (2008) A Mercy. Alfred A. Knopf: New York. 274 pages.
Danille Taylor-Guthrie (1994) Conversations with Toni Morrison. University Press of Mississippi: Jackson, Mississippi.  293 pages.

Digital Bibliography

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

When I Hear Odetta Sing
Reflections on Song from the Deepest Regions of the 'American' (USA) Soul

"Wade in the water; wade in the water, children;
God's gonna trouble the water."


Reflections on the power, promise, and problematics of song from the victims of slavery and segregation in Southern portions of the United States. We end with brief intimations of related issues associated with jazz, Appalachian folk music, and white southern spirituals.

I. All the pretty little horses.
II. I've been in the storm a long, long time.
III. Many thousands gone.
IV. They say that Freedom is a constant struggle.

All the Pretty Little Horses

A children's lullaby sung by the black american folksinger Odetta includes the following words:

"Blacks and bays, browns and grays,
all the pretty little horses.

Down in the meadow lies my pretty little baby.
Fleas and butterflies picking on his eyes.
Oh! My pretty little baby.

Blacks and bays, browns and grays,
all the pretty little horses…"

When I hear this song, it is pretty clear to me that the nurse attending the little white baby in the rocker or in her arms loves and cares for both the white child and her own, probably, much darker child. And — at least when she is singing — hopes for both of them even as she knows that they are both entangled in a web which contains deeper sorrows than most of us can ever say.

Iv'e Been in the Storm a Long, Long Time

One nite in 1963 or thereabouts, I attended an all nite vigil on behalf of a white minister who had been crushed by a bulldozer while protesting the construction of segregated housing in the northern city of Cleveland, Ohio. Memorable to me were some words by a cleric from Chicago, David Matthews, who stated that "Men died when white men won their freedom; Men will die as black men win their freedom."  However, more deeply anchored in my mind and soul was the singing of Bernice Reagon. Except for the introductory phrase of the song I don't remember any other words. It was a large, mildly lit auditorium (perhaps a church?) and a young woman was singing and as she sang I felt that the full weight of three centuries of slavery and segregational peonage were held upon her shoulders while simultaneously weighing upon all of us in that room and, sometimes unbeknownst, upon the entire nation.

Many Thousands Gone

"No more auction block for me. No more, no more…
No more driver's lash for me. No more, no more…

Many thousands gone. [Chorus]

"Many Thousands Gone" is ostensibly about the end of chattel slavery in the United States of America — it has been sung by Odetta, Bernice Reagon, and many others. It is the title of an essay by James Baldwin. In Baldwin's heart and in the minds of most of those who sing and hear the song, the song is not only about U.S.A. slavery, it is also about the strong shadows of slavery which have persisted in this country up until the present moment. I would like to add two brief commentaries. One paragraph concerns the roots of slavery (including its continuation into the British Colonies during the 17th Century). The second paragraph describes the particular evils associated with the empowered version of chattel slavery within the United States and its accompanying ideological/theological enshrinement within many ostensibly "Christian" congregations.

Slavery itself has been a part of human history which appears to have been present whenever and wherever humans began to record events in written or engraved words and characters on wood, stone, leather, parchment or paper. The instances are quite diverse — our words slavery, servant, servitude, and serf are all linguistically rooted in the Latin word 'servus.' The Pharaohs had slaves and so, apparently, did Abraham and other Jewish patriarchs. The English derive their name from very fair-skinned German slaves ["Angles"] brought to Rome. The 'angel-like' colored Angles/Anglas were much stranger looking than the tan, brown, and black slaves which had been brought from Arabia or Africa. It is quite difficult to tease out many important details of these diverse embodiments of slavery (for example, a historian certainly cannot, as a matter of course, always differentiate between promulgated laws and norms and actual practice). However, it is still quite clear that in early colonial America of the 17th Century some slaves could 'earn' their freedom. This practice of 'manumission' also appears to have been much more common in some Roman epochs than it was in the subsequent pre-independence American colonies and the pre-Civil War United States. And, it must be quite clearly understood — and, if possible, be neither overemphasized or underemphasized — that many slaves who came to the Americas had been sold by Africans to other Africans one or more times before they were herded into slave ships whose "Middle Passage" [collectively considered] constitute one of the greatest crimes of the past 5 centuries of western European, ostensibly 'Christian' 'civilization.'

Further anticipating the argument I wish to make below, I think it is important to fold another matter of interest into our understanding of slavery during the early post-reformation era. Within the Roman Catholic world — those portions of the world whose 'faith' was supposedly promulgated and protected by the bishop of Rome — it was frequently demanded by law that even slaves had some rights. In particular, spouses were not to be sold separately and very young children were not to be separated from their mothers. How consistently such requirements were practices is not a matter that this author is competent to judge. However, it is still important that even in the post-Civil War United States, the issue of slavery was separated from the issue of race in Roman Catholic New Orleans to the extent that two different slaveholders of African origin individually owned more than 60 slaves.

As the European settlers established their footholds and enclaves into the "New World", they brought their customs as well. Our U.S. history books usually tell us that there were 'indentured' servants who came to the new colonies and — within a few years  — redeemed their financial freedom and become part of the general 'free' populations. Beginning in 1619, slaves were introduced as property and — in spite of a few exceptions due to generous masters or successful escapes  — remained so along with their progeny for the next two and a half centuries. This reconstruction, however, is filled with a number of half truths. To begin with, in the European Colonies of the 16th and early 17th Century, the Lord of the Manor or Plantation Owner was normally both the chief executive and the judge of the manor or plantation — and he meted out punishments, fines, whipping, and brandings from which there were normally no legal or effective redress. He also had sexual 'privileges '  — the Lord of some French manors had the first opportunity for intercourse for young serf women ('Droit du seigneur"). Hangings and executions, perhaps, might not be administered so freely. But whether they were termed servants or slaves, those on plantations and, to a lesser extent, those bound to other forms of 'service' were bound to their masters and mistresses. Furthermore, there were also a goodly number of interactions between the slaves and servants including marriages as well as the usually medley of friendships, affairs, and betrayals which always occur among all classes and castes of any human society. Finally, it seems abundantly clear that a significant fraction of slaves were able to 'earn' their freedom in ways that eventually became almost impossible once southern U.S. slavery rigidified into the ante-bellum South of the 1800's. The history books are also strangely silent about the various small communities of former slaves, servants, owners and other vagabonds that formed and sometimes still exist in hamlets in mountainous western Virginia/West Virginia.

"Long summer days make a white man crazy; Long summer days;
Long summer days make a slave run away, Sir; Long summer days."

Into this late medieval medley of masters and mistresses, freemen, maids, servants and slaves, several events occurred which transformed the fabric of the Southern United States. One, as servants and slaves disappeared and escaped into neighboring colonies and Indian lands, southern plantation owners their economic allies realized that it was much easier to find an absent 'slave' of African origin than an absent 'bound servant' of European origin. They then began to reinterpret the physical features of the enslaved or runaway Africans as features of inferior 'beings' of a natural inferior order. Greed and guilt compounded natural interest as children from natural attraction, affairs of various sorts, and ubiquitous rape produced new American-born Afro-European progeny who were sold by fathers, vengeful wives, and relatives. This morally impossible state of affairs was eventually legally justified and theologically rationalized by what this author believes to be the beginning of a true original sin into the history of what was eventually to become the United State. It was written and preached that sexual congress between the 'black race' and 'white race' was immoral. A simple lie — the colors of humans vary into a near continuum that varies from fair Scandinavian and Northern European tints thru mild and modern tints of tan and browns of Southern Europe, Arabia and North Africa to the dark ("Black") Nubians and Ethiopians, and reverts back again to the brown hues of the Kalahari Bushmen of South Africa and its neighborhoods. I forgo here the additional tinctual variations of the Chinese, Indian Subcontinent, Pacific Islanders, Australian, native Americans etc. This lie — not really very different from those who today deny climate change —  was compounded by a protestant 'innovation'. In clear contradiction to Anglo-Saxon common law which identified children by their paternity, these legal and theological apologists of slavery introduced one of the purist instances of moral manure produced by humankind into the notion that any identifiable African Ancestry marked one as 'colored' — effectively 'black' — with the inherent dignity of a cow or a stallion (i.e., chattel).  [In actual fact, various states introduced various notions of what constituted legal 'negritude' (1/16; 1/32 or less of African 'blood' as the notion is — like any lie — unworkable at its root).]

This intolerable doctrine of legitimate human chattel — enforced by law and custom — eventually led to a great Civil War because it is in conflict with the best of both our religious and political traditions (The Hebrew prophet Amos queried, "Are you ['Israelites'] not like the Ethiopians to me, The Lord?"). And also, because we humans are never able — as far as I can see — to actually exterminate most genuine ills and evils of our epochs — its shadows are still found today in such problems as the incredibly difficult problem of convincing a unanimous jury of U.S. citizens that a human being who wears a badge can be guilty of murder of an unarmed Afroamerican who is absolutely innocent of any criminal behavior. So, I conclude by saying that the words "Many thousands gone" remind most of us that institutions such as slavery — especially U.S. chattel slavery — have not only claimed millions of lives, but their residues still claim 'thousands' today.

Of course, each of us who study and think about these events must process it as the person we are. In the United States, others may think of the Holocaust or of the European wrenching of the land from the Native American people. And, I also note that the history of history sometimes turns very quickly and sometimes very slowly. I would imagine that all of us have slave ancestors. There are pockets of slavery even as I write and even as you read. These three songs invite and even compel us to see slavery as part of our history. As long as a single person is a slave, none of us is truly free. There is and, apparently, has never been in any nearly complete sense a free people, a free culture, a free nation, or a free world. To be sure, we do see instances of movements for and toward freedom. We also see individuals and groups (usually small) who are more clearly headed towards freedom than the great majority of us. And, finally, it is true that groups, cultures, nations, and movements embody important constituents of freedom or aspirational elements of freedom‚ even if imperfectly. But freedom is not and never has been a possession of any individual, group, culture, or nation. It does not belong to you, brothers and/or sisters.  It does not belong to you — any more than it belongs or ever belonged to me or anyone that I have ever known and loved.

They Say that Freedom is a Constant Struggle.

"They say that Freedom is a constant struggle; (Repeated 3 times)
Oh Lord, we must be free, we must be free, we must be free. (Chorus)

They say that Freedom is a constant jailing; (Repeated 3 times; Followed by Chorus)

They say that Freedom is a constant moaning; (Repeated 3 times; Followed by Chorus)

They say that Freedom is a constant singing; (Repeated 3 times; Followed by Chorus)

Final Verse:
"They say that Freedom is a constant struggle; (Repeated 3 times)
Oh Lord, we must be free, we must be free, we must be free…"

I first heard this song in early August or so, 1964 in a small Negro church in Gulfport, Mississippi at a gathering that was part of the Mississippi Summer of 1964. During those weeks I was mostly working with some young black children in nearby Biloxi. This was the year that a young black man from Mississippi (James Chaney) and two young white men from New York (Michael Schwerner, Andy Goodman) had been — just before midnite — had been turned over to a white mob just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi and murdered shortly thereafter. The murder of these three young men — punctuated as it were by the murder of the two young white men — brought more national attention to the entrenched segregation of the white South than many, many other previous murders including the murders of Emmet Till (1955), Medgar Evers (1963), and 5 politically active black men in SW Mississippi in early 1964 alone. Later, probably in 1965, I talked with a young white woman who had been another 'outsider' working with the news outreach component of the Mississippi Summer Project. She had — during the summer — had conversations and made inquiries related to a total of 10 corpses that had appeared during those times (several unidentified and most — if not all — negro ("black') males.

Speaking for myself alone:
For most of the next 7 years, I worked mostly in what were then known as "Negro" communities in New Orleans, Washington, Albany (GA), and Atlanta — at first as part of educational efforts allied with political efforts of what we called simply "The Movement" and, then, as the political movements within the Afroamerican movement became more consciously "black" I gradually gravitated to more explicitly educational activities as a teacher of very young children. I think that education — like religion — always has a political component at some level. Even if we accept — as I tend to do — that Jesus's kingdom was 'not of this world', I think it is clear because his message had political implications which caused the Roman occupiers and their religious allies to feel sufficiently threatened to execute Jesus of Nazareth.

In 1971 I went to Arizona and in 1974 I undertook a 4 year journey to Polynesia (2 years each in Hawaii and American Samoa). For me it seemed best to become a science teacher and, especially, during my Polynesian years, it seemed that it was healthier for me to get out of the concentrated interest in 'black-and-white' issues which had been such a big part of my young adulthood. Even if I was on the 'right side' of such ethnic-political struggles, it was better for me to interact with less polarizing communities and/or with less polarizing components of my political responsibilities. Still, with a front seat in South Florida of the Republican raw political grab of the White House in 2000, the trivializing of liberty in the plutocratic US Supreme Court's McConnell v. FEC (2010) decision, and the growing intensity of largely Republican efforts to shrink the electorate after the rise of the brass-knuckled and self-described "Tea Party" in 2012 I found myself involved in increasing political activity by underrepresented portions of the U.S. electorate. And, in December 2012 at the local Democratic party's monthly meeting after the reelection of Barack Obama, I felt moved to sing a verse of "They say that Freedom is a constant struggle."

As 2018 begins, a fierce [multi-faceted] worldwide struggle has begun in earnest over whether recent marvelous genetic discoveries and undreamed of informational-distributing technologies shall become the playthings of the entrenched rich-and-powerful or the common heritage of all humankind. In a much earlier epoch, Jesus of Nazareth is reported to have said that "I bring not peace, but a sword!" — and, it seems quite clear, he was not talking about holy wars carried out with metal swords and fire-containing catapults. And, while I am myself now entering the last shadows of my days on this planet and, with great difficulty tending mostly to local and personal affairs of the heart-and-family, it still strikes me as needful that the proper response for me to the first three songs is to publicly affirm that Freedom is indeed a constant struggle and that, indeed we shall someday — thank God, Almighty — be free at last!  Or, if it pleases you, Thank Allah or Truth or … or whatever Face of God or Truth or Meaning strikes you as true in your deepest core.

Other Titles: Amazing Grace, Goldmine in the Sky, Gospel Ship…
The songs which give inspiration to each of us are as varied as our own individual and communal lives… The strengths of these songs resides in their power to evoke currents within our conscious and unconscious which are not always accessible to words alone.

Other Topics: Responsibilities of the Powerful-&-Rich v. Responsibilities of the poor, the imprisoned, and the downtrodden…
This rather short communication does not directly address a number of very thorny problems related especially to race, justice, and power. I recently posted a few thoughts about James Baldwin ["James Baldwin was not just a Negro writer."]. Baldwin was very helpful to me during my years as a young man in the black community. And, as I work through some problematics of such issues, I hope to address them as well — including other issues raised by more recent authors.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Black-&-Black,Black-&-White,White-&-White and the Colors Beyond the Rainbow

Long Title: Black on Black, Black on White, White on White; Pink&Yellow&Tan&Red&Brown; Various True Colors Beyond the Rainbow.

During our lives, each of us may and must at some time must be significantly involved with various other individual persons who are of (1) a different sex, (2) of a different age, (3) of a different land, (4) of a different culture, (5) of a different station who normally have somewhat different physical attributes. It is both our common and individual task while we are on this planet to find ways to make the sometimes difficult task of living with these differences into a positive witness on behalf of humankind. At bottom, when one of us enslaved — none of us is free; when one of us impoverished — none of us is wealthy; when one of us imprisoned — none of us is a complete citizen. Our own contributions to our common weal are, apparently, quite mixed. However, beyond those obvious horizons I can see much more clearly than the mind can know that each of us can turn towards making our homes, homelands, and homeworld into a promise of heaven beyond our wildest dreams.

During my own life it has seemed to me that the two most important public distractions that have served to cheapen and poison our real promises and real problems as American human have been the categories of wealth and race. In future posts  I hope to address such issues more directly. Other human beings are and will be drawn to different problems, goals, and dreams. This, however, is my outline of the most salient political/cultural/moral problematics, ghosts, ills, and shadows that beset my world.

A longer version, more precise in my own mind, but perhaps not quite as hard to the point.

During our lives, each of us — on both an individual and common journey — may and (almost always) at some time must be or become significantly involved with various other individual persons who are of (1) a different sex and/or (2) of a different age and/or (3) of a different land and/or (4) of a different culture and/or (1) of a different station and/or (1) with both obvious and notable different physical attributes. It is both our common and individual task while we are on this planet and when our descendants will be on this planet and any other planet to find ways to make the sometimes difficult task of living with these differences into a positive component — into a witness — of the life and history of humankind. At bottom, when one of us enslaved — none of us is free; when one of us impoverished — none of us is wealthy; when one of us imprisoned — none of us is a complete citizen. As far as I can see, none of us has made a completely positive or completely negative imprint upon our imperfectly shared destinies. However, beyond those obvious horizons I can see much more clearly than the mind can know that each of us can turn towards making our homes and our homelands and our homeworlds into a promise of heaven beyond our wildest dreams.

During my own life as a boy in Eastern Kentucky, a young man in the Southern United States, and a teacher mostly within the United States (with short stints in other lands and climes) it has seemed to me that the two most important distractions that have served to cheapen and poison our real promises and real problems as Americans and as citizens of this God-shapened world have been the categories of wealth and race. In whatever time I have left on this planet I hope to address these and other issues further when I have strength, time, and focus. I am quite aware that all other human beings are and will be drawn to different problems, goals, and dreams. This, however, is my outline of the salient political/cultural/moral problematics, ghosts, and shadows that beset my people, my country, and my world.

Hier stehe ich — between the earth and sky, between the no longer and the not yet.

Lon Clay Hill, Jr. [20 Dec 2017]

(The German is from Luther, the two prepositional phrases are my own and from Friedrich Nietzsche, respectivelt)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

James Baldwin was not simply a 'black' writer.

James Baldwin was not simply a 'black' writer.


As a human being now well into the 8th decade of my life, I find myself increasingly engaged at various times and at various levels trying to piece together some of the various experiences and memories of my life — including events that  occurred 40, 50, 60 or even 70 years ago. I still dream and even fantasize of synthesizing such past realities into a consistent whole of self-understanding. The reality is that (1) life is not existentially a sequence of non-contradictory processes and (2) most human beings — such as myself — are not always honest with themselves, let alone with others. Nevertheless, it may be that I can express a few shards of understanding out of the difficulties, struggles, and — especially — pain of my of my own life and the pains of others which might be helpful others on their journals. This very short message (which I may be able to augment later) is such an attempt.

James Baldwin was not simply a 'black' writer.

I recently watched portions of "I Am Not Your Negro" — a film directed by Raul Peck which supplies visual and verbal context to Baldwin's unpublished essay of the same name. The original Baldwin text consists mostly of Baldwin's recollections and memories of Medgar Evers, Malcolm Shabazz ('Malcolm X'), and Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of what I have seen and read in the film, on TV, and on the WEB has been presented by various black authors and commentators and occasional secular commentators of different persuasions and background [usually much younger than I]. The more interesting and more energetic commentators have usually been either 'black' or 'angry' or both. I am myself not 'black' in any of the usually more significant uses of the word in this context. To be sure, however, I have at times since ~1959 or so been properly described as (politically) angry in some of my views and actions. It was at this time that I discovered that my USA government had systematically lied  to me about  pre-Castro Cuba. However, and much more to the point, James Baldwin was very, very helpful to me in the years between 1962 and 1971. During the last 7 of those years I lived and worked mostly as a young 'white' man in what was then called the 'Negro Community' — but is now, usually, referred to as the 'Afroamerican' or 'black' community.

The two primary and interrelated reasons that Baldwin was so helpful to me is that:  One, he understood that there is a deep connection between our public lives, our social and political face-and-commitments in the world and our most intimate, private (and sexual) selves. Secondly, he never forgot that while he was indeed a 'black' man who had grown up in Harlem, the love of his life had been a young caucasian Frenchman (Lucien Happersberger).

In 1962 I began to become aware of Baldwin as a rising 'star' while I lived briefly in New York City and heard him speak on the Lower West Side. Baldwin had written a few essays about Richard Wright and was seen by some as a more up-to-date writer who could enlighten interested ('whites' and others…) people about events as seen in the black community. Baldwin, of course, was always in so many ways such an individual character that he was not really a 'spokesman' per se for any movement. Still, in the early sixties he did lend public support for the Congress of Racial Equality and participated in a few public non-violent demonstrations (March on Washington, Selma). During the 70's and 80's he spent a good deal of time in both France and Turkey and, in his literary work, concentrated on seemingly and sometimes, actually, more particularly 'black' issues. As partial or 'racialized', however, as these particular efforts may have been, he was almost always acutely aware of the deep connections between his own particular ethnic-racial identity and those of other human being including those white people who knowingly or unknowingly had or were participating in the degradation of black Americans (or Amerindians or Africans…). There was nothing 'glib' about his anger because he knew at both an unconscious and conscious level that there were always tensions between the particularities of our individual existences and the more universal flow of all human existence.

This, at least, is my take on Baldwin's understanding of himself as a Black American Human Being.

It was, however, Baldwin's attempts to understanding his own sexuality which was personally most helpful to me. Baldwins's 1956 novel, Giovanni's Room, dealt most directly with such issues, and is recognized today as an important contribution to the genre of gay literature. Let me also stipulate here that virtually all important sexual adventures, joys, temptations and mistakes during my own life have involved persons of the other 'sex'. I do not deny that I have a feminine side, I simply say that during my life women have been paramount in all of my 'mating' efforts. It is the importance of Baldwin's struggles with and sometime successful portrayals of intimacy that have been most helpful to me. I will not say much. And this short piece is not a confessional piece and it is not a record of personal triumphs or disaster.  I simply wish to outline why Baldwin's work was helpful to me with one or two incompletely described instances.

One evening in 1962 as I walking along the street in New York's Lower East Side I saw a young black man walking arm in arm with a young white girl. I immediately felt a flash of jealousy. I was actually taken aback because I very quickly caught myself thinking — I am not supposed to react that way. Now, to be sure, I had been doing some thinking on the subject. And, I had previously thought that I could be a more 'effective' agent of social change by not 'marrying a Negro' [the phrase of the day].  Not that I had had any significant interactions with young dark, nubile females. Furthermore, it was the common unwisdom of the day that children of 'mixed marriages' suffered opprobrium in both the white and black communities. It took time for me to work my way thru some of these issues. Suffice it for me to say that I did figure out that those people who could not be friends with mixed couples would not actually be true friends whatever the eventual ethnicity of my spouse. And, furthermore, I realized in time that the soft wooly hair of the Queen of Sheba was just as attractive as the long blond hair of Lady Godiva or the dark brown hair of Princess Moana…

But I digress. For that matter, I don't really think that Baldwin always got it right. In Another Country Vivaldo(a young white man) is reconciled with Ida (a young black woman) after Ida has had an affair with an older advertising executive. In their reconciliation, Ida strokes Vivaldo gently to remove the blot of Vivaldo's complicit blindness about her affair. Infidelity, marital or otherwise, often involves emotional distance or blindness on the part of the 'aggrieved' party. Without trying to be definitive, extenuating circumstances — such as a spouse or lover's blindness — are indeed almost always components in spousal or lover's betrayals. In this situation, however, Ida's extenuation does not actually equal Ida's total absolution from responsibility.

There are, in my mind, a number of additional themes in Baldwin's work that have and continue to warrant discussion. For me, his work helped me in a journey of nearly seven years in places that seemed to me to be farther way than Paris, France. In 2007 and 2009 I finally had an opportunity to visit Paris — and, for me, it still seems that Baldwin's work was a guide to regions of the heart that remain quite difficult for any person to navigate. Regions in Jackson, New Orleans, Albany, Atlanta, and Washington that were indeed — and may yet remain — "farther away than Paris, France."

One More Thing

After my nearly 7 years in the Afro-american community (by which time most of friends were the children I worked with and a few mothers), it was time for me to move on. For me 4 years in multi-color, multi-color Polynesia helped me to move away from seeing cultural-political in oversimplified 'black' and 'white' terms either literally or metamorphically.

But, of course, Baldwin  — even if in partial eclipse  — was busy at his craft. Recently, I read If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) which I see as a highly 'aspirational' view of love between two people. [The plot is constrained, of course, by exterior and interior realities and the all-too-human frailties of the two Afroamerican protagonists]. First, for me Beale Street moved at a fluid-and-believable pace. But more importantly it seemed to me that Baldwin created a very believable female persona in the narrator, Tish. Baldwin's gay side coupled to his interacting artistic drive  — as it were — enabled him to create a believable-if-aspirational character.


James Baldwin (1955): Notes of a Native Son. Beacon Press: Place. 165 pages.
James Baldwin (1956): Giovanni's Room. Dial Press: New York. 159 pages.
James Baldwin (1962): Another Country. Dial Press: New York. 436 pages.
James Baldwin (1974) If Beale Street Could Talk. Michael Joseph: London (?). 197 pages.
James Baldwin (1979; 2017): I Am Not Your Negro. [From Texts by James Baldwin]. Editor, Raoul Peck: Vintage International, Vintage Books. New York. 118 pages.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Blind Loyalty: A Message to Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, other Conflicted Republicans & more…

Blind loyalty, especially in politics and religion, is not loyalty — it is a form of betrayal. And when blind loyalty religion and politics are combined it becomes a cardinal sin, hypocrisy. Hatred of democrats (or republicans), of Muslims (or Christians) is not political glue — it is poison whether the Press covers the story or not.

Of course, there are many outside the Republican Party who face the same temptation, but they are not currently leading the charge against the realities of climate change, reasonable gun control, and the rights of citizens to vote. When the democrats or socialists or libertarians become as entrenched as the current group of Republican plutocrats and unloving hypocrites who lie about the religion of the President and their own unknown privileges while throwing insults around like candy for babies, even more resistance will grow out of the ground to oppose those evils as well. Probably the most dangerous lie engaged in by this current unholy Republican alliance led by millionaires, pretenders, and preachers is the belief that the Supreme Court of the United States should belong to the Republican party and its 'conservative' allies. Justice belong to no party — Republican, Democrat, Socialist, Communist, or Libertarian. Furthermore, whatever party, religion, or group you belong to — no state, church, nation, or world cannot remain half rich and half poor.

He or she who has ears to hear, let 'hem hear!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Gifts and Flaws of Antonin Scalia

The Gifts and Flaws of Antonin Scalia

RE: Justice Antonin Gregory Scalia (Born, 11 March 1936)
How a gift can become a curse.

There was a man who was given many gifts. I will mention only three. He could turn his thoughts into words which were as sharp as swords, his wit could make even fools and enemies laugh, and he could -sometimes - see the hypocrisy and contradictions of his opponents. But he had one terrible flaw. He believed that his gifts belonged only to himself and his ilk — himself, his family, his party, his church, and his nation. And, as a judge, he articulated the principle that the spirit which animated his nation's birth could be definitively codified in a few thousand words written down by some brilliant and ambitious wealthy men who hammered out a compromise over two centuries ago.

To be continued…

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Nature's God, American Exceptionalism, and the Failures of Florida's Junior Senator

Senator Rubio,

When I was a boy people laughed at me because I knew someday humans would walk on the moon.  :

During the 17 years I taught Solar System Astronomy at (then) Broward  Community College, I talked about the Greenhouse Gases that caused Venus to lose its Oceans and the the human-generated Greenhouse Gases that could cause the Earth to lose its icecaps. [The 2nd event is not quite as catastrophic, but is -humanly speaking - still a catastrophe]. I did not know that I would see the accelerated loss of Arctic ice, Greenland ice, and Antarctic ice that now is in progress.

On TV just a couple of weeks ago I saw you speak glowingly about your beliefs about liberty, patriotism and capitalism to a sympathetic NH audience.  However, I really don't see how you can talk so positively about liberty when you don't have the courage to challenge the climate change deniers and the half-truths and lies subsidized by Oil & Coal companies and their ideological sycophants.

When Kipling's soldiers rode into the jaws of death, they knew they might die. When Marines charged into the islands of Guadacanal and Iowa Jima they knew they might die. Some of your cohorts have raised the mantra of American 'Exceptionalism.' Do you really think Americans are so exceptional that we can ignore the laws that Nature's God has created — and suffer no consequences??

Sincerely yours,

Lon Clay Hill
[May 21, 2014 -- on the eve of my 74th birthday]
[virtual copy, 2 spelling errors were corrected]