Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Ideas of "Brotherhood" on a Global Scale

By Julia Johnson

For as long as I can remember there has been a dusty ragged copy of John Griffins Black Like Me (1961) floating around my house. I knew it belonged to my father and that both he and my mother had read it. Its presence always seemed appropriate in our home, as my mother is an avid reader and the book seemed personally relevant to my father, a black male born in 1950. Although I always noticed the books presence and brought it to school with me as a piece of my father, I never actually got around to reading it. In my own arrogance, the book looks nice on my shelf next to a slue of other provocative gender studies and race studies titles. However, in reading the chapters of Malcolm's autobiography I found myself pondering the connection between the texts. The interest was first a result of Malcolm's reference to both Baldwin and Griffin's work and their circulation in the "Holy Land" as texts that exemplify the American negro experience. 

After looking more into Black Like Me, something I found particularly intriguing was its relationship to Langston Hughes, which seemed to bring our course work full circle. The title of Griffins book is from the last line of Hughes poem "Dream Variations".

Dream Variations
by Langston Hughes

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
    Dark like me—
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance!  Whirl!  Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . . 
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
    Black like me.

 After reading the poem I felt struck by the connections between Malcolm's experience, Black Like Me, and Hughes' work. All present an idea of an experience that transcends that of the individual. To me this idea is "Brotherhood" and more specifically a "Black Brotherhood". Black Brotherhood references the shared and unique experience of being non- white in social structures that privilege whiteness. This experience in America is documented by Griffin's book, as it tells how Griffin, a white man, darkened his skin and traveled around the American South for two months passing as black. It gave a direct line into the persisting problems of race relations in the U.S. After reading Chapter 18 of Malcolm's autobiography, the idea of what "brothers" can mean became much more expansive to me. Brothers are not just young black males fighting and living together in America, brothers span across the globe all under the same sky that Langston Hughes references in his poem.

Hughes does not wait for "cool evening" to merely escape the "white day", he longs to join the night and be one with it as his equal. In the night, he sees a likeness to himself that brings him peace. Night comes in the poem "tenderly" and "gently" giving way to a feeling of comfort that is welcomed by the speaker. While it can be assumed the voice of the poem is Hughes, the metaphor of night and day invites a sense of inclusivity as everyone experiences the passage time. Thus, all who are dark can identify with the night and share in Hughes' proposed dream. By opening up the poems meaning in this way, darkness can be used as the unifying feature of a specific type of brotherhood.

Blackness in the U.S, in reference to a holistic American experience, quickly becomes a trope of "otherness". But on a global scale this "otherness" is not prevalent in the same ways. Blackness as otherness in America is in reference to the white hegemonic structures that the U.S as an institution is built upon. In other parts of the world, this power structure is not the same. It takes form in other ways, such as imperialism and colonization, but still does not totally account for the inherently individual experience of the black American. However, even in the differences of the American experience, black people are still connected to the global community both in history and in complexion. The experience of the American negro should not be that of the individual, but rather a collective. While that collective is inherently American, if looked at globally, negroes have the capability to also unite under the collective of shared "non-whiteness".

For Malcolm, an expanded notion of otherness that can be shared by non-whites universally, is extremely empowering and enlightening. It provides a door to a global brotherhood that can be grown to a level that allows for black Americans to transcend white power structures in the U.S, while being supported by an international community. Malcolm's pilgrimage presented him with a space in which he was part of a brotherhood that had been lost to him. 

"My hands now readily plucked up food from a common dish shared with brother muslims; I was drinking without hesitation from the same glass as others; I was washing from the same
little pitcher of water; and sleeping with eight or ten others on a mat in the open. I remember one night at Muzdalifa with nothing but the sky overhead I lay awake amid sleeping Muslim brothers and I learned that pilgrims from every land-- every color, and class and rank; high officials and the beggar alike-- all snored in the same language" (pg. 350)

In reading his reflection, it is my belief that this experience was extremely profound for Malcolm, not only because of its roots to his spirituality as a Muslim, but also because it is an experience of brotherhood that the United States failed to provide him in his life. Blacks in the U.S must constantly battle a tradition that is embedded with their oppression. As an institution, the U.S. has not been able to successfully acknowledge what it means to be black in America. Therefore, a space in which the same type of unapologetic and shared unity that Malcolm experienced abroad, has not been able to be replicated for non-whites in the U.S. This space would include the same lack of "hesitation" and the same feeling of togetherness that Malcolm felt in coexisting with his Muslim brothers.

The question then becomes, if blacks unite under their identity as the "other" to whiteness, are they actually transcending the power structure they are aiming to separate themselves from or are they only perpetuating those same ideas of white hegemony? In Malcolm's eyes, I think such a transcendence would only be possible through a global unification of "brothers"; it would empower American negroes by linking them to a history they have been stripped of and giving new found agency and voice to their specific experience under the umbrella of an international alliance.

Malcolm notes that the thinking and strategies of black leaders in America are limited to what is accepted and advised by a status quo that already exists. The problem then lies that the status quo is a power structure that is WHITE and dismissive of "otherness". There will always be inherent limitations in trying to operate within a construct that is innately limiting and oppressive to you. In an identification as both the American Negro at home and abroad, Malcolm X becomes the symbol and leader of an international expansion of brotherhood. It is this identification that ties together the missing links of a potential negro community and the limited world view of domestic black leaders.

Blacks continuously look to the state to right the wrongs it has done to them, but these wrongs are indoctrinated into the foundation of the state itself. How can a community liberate itself within the confines of the same institution it seeks refuge from?  With that question in mind, it doesn't seem as radical or far fetched to want to develop a new and stronger understanding of what the black community actually is and who it consists of. Putting the plight of the African American on the global stage speaks to the legitimacy of the problem of race relations in the U.S and calls for a  specific type of unification that has the potential to be extremely empowering for black Americans. A requirement of brotherhood is community, and the realization of an expansion of the negro community creates a palette in which Griffin's book, Hughes' poem, and Malcolm X's experiences all speak to the same collective of brothers.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Blood Days

        I had not read Malcolm X's autobiography before this class, so when I did finally start it was surprising how familiar the story felt to me. Not because I was well acquainted with his personal narrative; my school, like many in Texas, never mentioned Malcolm X in the few classes where we covered civil rights at all. Rather, his story is one that has been used by other writers, because it doesn't just encompass Malcolm X as an individual, but the time period he lived in. It was familiar to me because I had been exposed to stories of black right's, to stories of unbearable racism and need. I do not mean by these words to be reductive; Malcolm's story is not one of the “definitive black experience”, or even of the majority's experience during his lifetime. Rather, I'd make the claim that his life experiences were not wholly unique (before, perhaps, his pilgrimage and his travels to Africa which stand out as being beyond what many have and will experience) and after his death his autobiography helped shape African American literature.

What specifically struck me in the passages assigned, what felt so very familiar, were these “Blood Brothers” whose actions had been pinned on Malcolm. The autobiography is very detached about them, which makes sense given that Malcolm is made aware of them while he is abroad.

“In Lagos, I was greeted by Professor Essein-Udom . . . at his home, that evening, a dinner was held in my honor . . . a young doctor asked me if I knew that New York City's Press was highly upset about a recent killing in Harlem of a white woman – for which, according to the press, many were blaming me at least indirectly. An elderly white couple who owned a Harlem clothing store had been attacked by several young Negroes, and the wife was stabbed to death. Some of these young Negroes, apprehended by the police, had described themselves as belonging to an organization the called 'Blood Brothers' . . . I told the dinner guests that it was my first word of any of it, but that I was not surprised when violence happened in any of America's ghettoes, where black men had been living packed like animals and treated like lepers.”

It is Malcolm's response specifically that reminds me of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, specifically the group that co-opts Guitar, the “Seven Days”. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, “The Seven Days” is a violent activist group consisting of seven anonymous members. These members use the days of the week, rather than their names, and each commits a crime on their namesake day.  Their job is to take revenge for senseless white crimes against the black community, specifically murder. For instance, if a black man is killed by a white man, or a group of white people, than the “Seven Days” would find a white man to kill in retaliation.
Should a black couple be killed, the “Seven Days” would find a white couple.

        The idea of a life for a life, of finding ways to reclaim agency when the court system has failed, are what these situations have in common. Whereas the normative voice in Song of Solomon seems to reject the path taken by “Seven Days” it does not vilify the participants, but portrays them as victims of a violent life. This same view rings out in the last line of the quote above. Violence in the ghettos is a result of oppressing and “caging” a portion of the population when they feel they cannot escape or change their circumstances through “legitimate” (e.g. legal) means.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Haley and Lee

And one more link that I mistakenly left out of the last post. A conversation between Alex Haley and Spike Lee. The quality isn't great, FYI.

What might be of particular interest to you is the political economy of financing and producing a black film. As well as Lee's recognition of the incredible pressure he bears undertaking this film because so many people have so much invested in getting the story of Malcolm X "right."

Reading, Listening, and Watching Suggestions

Here are a few suggestions for further reading:

The "Left of Black" Series is a video cast hosted by the scholar Mark Anthony Neal who is a professor at Duke University. I found Neal's interview with historian Martha Biondi to be particularly useful and relevant historical background to contextualize Dayna's two posts and the role of students in bringing about Black Studies departments and radical changes at universities in the U.S.

Also, if you don't already know his excellent blog, New Black Man (in Exile), you should definitely check it out. Neal specializes in the history of black American music and cultural studies, but the blog hosts guests posts on a variety of Black Studies subjects. One post I want to draw your attention to is the column, "Ella Baker and the Limits of Charismatic Masculinity" by Pascal Robert. Robert's column is as much praise for Barbara Ransby's remarkable biography, _Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision_ as it is of Baker. (Ransby's biography was published in 2003 by The UNC Chapel Hill Press. I heartily recommend it.) Robert asserts,

"Baker believed that people did not need fancy leaders with degrees and pedigree to tell them what was best for them. She believed in giving people the power to choose their direction and make demands, and put pressure on institutions without depending on big shots with fancy suits."

I do not offer you Robert's article as uncritically as I do as Ransby's book, but I think it is an interesting contribution to our discussions of what we need/expect from public intellectuals and political leaders.

Another interesting blog post that I discovered this week is by the poet Tara Betts. She contributed to a very prominent (and exciting!) sound studies blog, Sounding Out! (Our very own Professor Gayle Wald is on the advisory board).  Betts's essay, "They Do Not All Sound Alike: Sampling Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur," critiques the tendency in popular culture to homogenize, conflate, and confuse the voices, really, and radicalism of three major leaders of the Black Freedom Struggle. I found her work particularly insightful in light of our continued discussions about how black radicalism and African American history are remembered or forgotten.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sister Rosetta Tharpe Documentary

Hi All:

I hope it is not too late to let you know about an exciting documentary that will air on PBS tonight. As part of their "American Masters" series, PBS will air "Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Godmother of Rock n' Roll" tonight at 10 pm on the local WETA channel. Much of the material for the documentary is drawn from Professor Gayle Wald's 2007 biography, Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Dr. Wald is a professor in the English department here at GWU.

I meant to inform you about this on Thursday, but as usual, there is just too much material to cover during the class period. This documentary would be a good opportunity for extra credit or a blog post, particularly as we move into the section on the relationship among music, popular culture, and social transformation, radical politics.

There is also a Facebook campaign to have Rosetta Tharpe admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has not happened yet.

You can watch the trailer online and look through other materials as well.

- Elizabeth

Reflection: Effects of Silence

By Denise Francis

           Half way through the semester I realize that the setting of this class, discussions and concepts are emotionally draining for me. Here’s why...

            Being one of the few black people-females- in the class, it is difficult for me to have discussions with individuals about the black experience in America without feeling like I need defend the history, correct ignorant views or speak for the entire race. Having conversations about race in America is very touchy but also necessary for the advancement of our nation. 
            During our last discussion of Malcolm X and the various events that occurred in his life, one particular incident resonated with me. One of his favorite teachers told him that he could not be a lawyer because people of color are not lawyers. After expressing interest for the field to someone he admired and trusted, his dream was shattered. The implication of this could have had devastating effects on his life. It’s very possible that he could have decided to drop out of school and live a life that denied his potential as a person. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but for many people that’s not the case. I have heard many stories of people who were told that they weren’t going to be anything, in particular black males. At a tender age it alters how someone views themselves and what they can achieve. 
            I connected this situation to my own circumstance. My senior I decided to apply early decision to GWU after falling in love with the university. It was a small charter public high school and everyone knew how ecstatic I was after I was accepting. After having a meeting with my guidance counselor she tried to encourage me to breach my early decision contract with GW. I saw there confused and lost that she would even suggest that I walked away from a life changing decision that I worked so hard for. Needless to say, I’m currently a senior at GW and thank God I didn’t let her persuasion change my decision. If I wasn’t the person I am I don’t know what would have happened after graduation.
            While discussing Malcolm’s experience in class a student made a comment that she didn’t understand why Malcolm was still harboring feelings after such a long time. His ending remark that he would have made a great lawyer was a moment of reflection and triumph that in that instance he wasn’t broken. Instead, he kept his drive and ambition which will have a lasting affect on our nation. So why hold onto what seemed to you as a “no big deal moment”?...

The constant fear of being robbed of a fair opportunity, that’s why. 

Malcolm X's View on Women

Malcolm would rarely visit his mother, and seldom spoke of her: he was deeply ashamed of her illness. The experience etched into him the conviction that all women were, by nature, weak and unreliable. He may have also believed that his mother’s love affair and subsequent out-of-wedlock pregnancy were, in some way, a betrayal of his father (36).
-from Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life Reinvented

…immediately my attention was struck by the mannerisms and attire of Lebanese women. In the Holy Land, there had been the very modest, very feminine Arabian women –and there was this sudden contrast of the half-French, half-Arab Lebanese women who projected in their dress and street manners more liberty, more boldness…Wherever the spiritual values have been submerged, if not destroyed, by an emphasis upon the material things, invariably, the women reflect it (355)
-from Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X

If asked about black female leaders in the fight to attain rights, many of us in America can quickly proclaim Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, but it usually stops there. This void of female voice and presence is also evident in Malcolm X’s attitude from Haley’s book, but also in his life, as reflected in the except from Marable’s book. It represents, to me, an overall phenomenon in the African-American struggle for rights and recognition in America during and before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. It reflects an underlying perception gender roles present in the black community during this time period as exemplified in Malcolm’s relationship with his mother, whom he regards as weak and unreliable. As shown from Haley’s excerpt, Malcolm carries this view of women later in his life and further more, uses women to exemplify good versus evil, Islam versus other religions, and Westernization versus other cultures.

Even though both his parents did not make sturdy wages and were both active members in Marcus Garvey’s organization, Malcolm revered his father more, partially because he saw a role model for his future and partially because his mother was much more stern and willing to punish him. After his father’s death, Malcolm felt a void in his life, neither one that could not be filled by his mother nor any other black male figure. I think, as a result, he scapegoated his mother as a defense mechanism.

When he visits Beirut for the first time, he pays close attention to the women’s attire not on the men’s attire, which I’m sure was similar at the time as well. His word choice and adjectives strikes me the most in his description. He describes Arab women as modest and very feminine, while Lebanese women are described as half-Arab, who project more boldness and liberty. Boldness and liberty are two poignant words, and ones that I would actually attribute to Malcolm himself. Many, especially in the black community, love Malcolm for his boldness and his fight for liberty for blacks to retain their rights and form a Pan-African movement. To describe the Lebanese women as bold and projecting liberty, he in turn views them as masculine, which I find ironic. The contrast of the 

Analyzing Malcolm's relationship and views on women makes me wonder if his attitude was unique to black leaders during this time period. Both Fanon and Martin Luther King Jr. rarely address women in their works. It certainly leaves me with questions and vexations. 

Terrance Hayes' "What I Am" and Pop Culture Identification

Terrance Hayes, May 2012 — via Pittsburgh Magazine

I’ve mentioned Terrance Hayes a few times already this semester, and I would love to share a poem of his with you, so you all can understand why he is one of my favorite living writers.  Hayes’ “What I Am,” from his 1999 book Muscular Music, is a poem with an incredible sense of youthful energy and verve (I highly encourage you to read it and listen to the recording of Hayes reading the poem, because I think the way he pitches his voice adds something beautiful and humorous – and even a little sad – to the text of the poem).

Much of Hayes’ work focuses on the junction between identity and identification – that is, what you perceive as yourself and the ways in which others perceive you.  “What I Am” is grounded in this tension, approaching it from the consciousness of a young, African-American man in the late-1980s.  Littered with pop culture references – we see everything from Head & Shoulders to McDonald’s to Michael Jackson to Nike high tops – “What I Am” is primarily concerned with the adolescent desire to fit in, while at the same time acknowledging the constant “Otherness” being imposed upon the speaker from various communities.

Hayes employs these cultural touchstones to function both as identifiers and anti-identifiers, in the sense that they signify some key aspect of the cultural representation of Black America, but fail to fully capture what it means to be a Black American.  Some of these references, like Michael Jordan’s basketball skills and Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, obviously carry weight in popular culture and youth culture, though the nod to Toni Morrison, a massive literary icon, lands within the poem in a state of uncertainty.  This has always struck me as both funny and sad.  I think Hayes does this to highlight the ways in which certain Black artists or athletes are appropriated by popular culture, while others inhabit a more complex cultural space; though Morrison is revered in both critical and academic circles, and her works have affected millions of readers – she also unabashedly confronts the worst of America’s history in a way that makes her less palatable on a “popular” level.

Also of note are Hayes’ line breaks and use of interrogatives within the poem, which magnify this tension on a formal level.

What do you think about how Hayes confronts race and identity in America?  Did you enjoy this poem?  Why or why not?

Uncle Tom's Children

We've read some of James Baldwin's work in this class, so I thought I would draw attention to one of his biggest inspirations: Richard Wright. Wright was a black author who directly preceded Baldwin. He is best known for Native Son (1940), a novel that tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living in the ghetto of Chicago, who is driven to crime by his extreme poverty. Baldwin once remarked that "No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living inside his skull," in addition to publishing an essay collection titled Notes from a Native Son (1955).

I'd like to discuss on of Wright's lesser known works, a short story collection titled Uncle Tom's Children. The book's five stories are all set in the Jim Crow-era Deep South, and each explores the consequences of racial tension in that setting. While the title posits the book as a sort of spiritual successor to Uncle Tom's Cabin, unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe's preachy, often melodramatic novel, Wright's stories are brutal and ambiguous. 

Much of his work falls under the umbrella of literary naturalism, a movement that began in the early 20th century which focused on characters and their actions being shaped by their environment rather than their free will. Indeed, Wright's stark narratives often present situations in which events, even extremities like murder, seem to just happen rather than being plotted out by the characters.

Violence is a major theme in Wright's work. Take, for example, "Big Boy Leaves Home," the text of which can be found here:

[SPOILERS] In the story, four young black boys are playing by the river. A white woman spots them rolling around naked and, alarmed, calls for help. A white man named Jim emerges and shoots two of the boys, killing them. The eldest of the remaining two, Big Boy, wrestles the gun from his control and kills Jim. He flees to his family, who arrange for him to leave home the next day in a pickup truck. That night, Big Boy becomes scared that mob is searching for him, and finds himself hiding from a group of white men and their hounds. He hides in a dirt mound, where one of the dogs finds him. Big Boy strangles the dog to death in an act of primal fear and self-defense. The next day, on his way to safety in the pickup truck, he learns that Bobo, the other remaining boy, was captured and burned at the stake by the white men. The story ends with Big Boy reflecting on his state of affairs.

Wright's story depicts in brutal detail the extreme violence to which racial tensions could escalate in the postslavery era. Uncle Tom's Children is a powerful, emotionally gripping read.

Black National Anthem

In the midst of all the "celebrating" of Black History Month on GW's campus, I've taken some time to actually listen to attitudes toward the month and learn opinions of what people outside the race understand as being Black.  Needless to say, I was not impressed.  But I was intrigued however, at the extent to which race is avoided and unacknowledged in order to create the illusion of progress.  It is my understanding that students at the university are from all backgrounds and walks of life, and without blaming the individual, I am shocked at the mass of ignorant American students. And by ignorant, I mean unaware individuals who are products of an environment promoting a post-racial society.  I've concluded from class discussions, Black History reaches White Americans mainly because it is sought after, having to either take a African American focused course or research.  I am often hesitant to respond during class discussions because a singular Black voice about Black anything seems to resonate as THE Black answer, and I am no spokeswoman for Black people.  However, I do firmly believe that Black History and American History are indivisible and thus should be equally accessible especially in facilities of primary education.  One of foremost memories I have from being in Elementary school is reciting the Black National Anthem.  I wonder how many non-Black people have heard it? Have recited it? Or are against it entirely?  And so my post is dedicated to just that: opening discussion about the Black National Anthem and Black History Month.    

Lift every voice and sing,
till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the
dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
bitter the chastening rod,
felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat,
have not our weary feet
come to the place
for which our fathers died?
We have come over a way that with tears have been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past,
till now we stand at last
where the white gleam
of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God,where we met thee;
lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world,we forget thee,
shadowed beneath thy hand,
may we forever stand,
true to our God,
true to our native land.

The Sad Legacy of the 'Great Society' and the Failure of Meaningful Equality in America

The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Reading Sonia Sanchez’s ‘A Letter to Dr Martin Luther King’ got me thinking about the failure to bring about meaningful socio-economic changes in the United States. Sanchez gives voice to the frustration and disappointment that many felt in the decades following the 1960’s. Understanding the circumstances that stalled the progress of the Civil Rights Movements and created the frustration voiced by Sanchez provides important insight into contemporary debates over spending and social welfare.
Looking back, we see that the de jure progress that was achieved in 1960’s was not sufficient to bring about de facto improvement in people’s lives. In truth, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were never meant to stand alone. President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ legislation was meant to be a concerted effort by the federal government to fight poverty and improve the standard of living of all Americans. The ‘Great Society’ was meant to pick up where the ‘New Deal’ left off and fulfill the incomplete goals of President Roosevelt. The legislation passed as part of the ‘Great Society’ was, in my opinion, the most significant effort our country has ever made to live up to the ideology of freedom and equality established by our founding documents. It was an ambitious program that sought to ensure civil rights, end poverty, ensure healthcare and education for all, protect consumers, empower labor, preserve the environment, and much more.  
President Clinton signing the Welfare Reform Act which
replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children with the
more restrictive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
The weakness of the ‘Great Society’, however, was that it was a program inherently dependent on Johnson’s massive 1964 coalition, which began to splinter as opposition to the Vietnam War grew throughout the 1960’s. By 1968, Johnson’s progressivism was tarnished by the war and conservatives were able to take political advantage of the fracturing Democratic party to usher in an era of conservatism in the United States that slowly dismantled many of the most meaningful ‘Great Society’ programs meant to combat poverty. Things such as major investment in urban mass transit, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) were significant and effective anti-poverty efforts in the ‘Great Society’ that have been either ignored or completely dismantled in the decades since the 1960’s.
Much of what remains of the ‘Great Society’ today were originally included in the program in order to make it more palatable to middle-class Americans and not part of the major anti-poverty efforts. The fact that things such as the the National Endowment for the Art and PBS (programs that I think are valuable in their own rights) have managed to survive due to vocal support from liberals, while programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children were dismantled (under President Clinton), exemplifies the sad legacy of the ‘Great Society’. A truly ambitious effort to combat poverty was allowed to be dismantled in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s in exchange for the preservation of many of the least ambitious aspects of this program.
Some of the important anti-poverty programs of the ‘Great Society’ do remain. Social Security and Medicare remain some of the most successful anti-poverty programs in history. They have kept millions of seniors out of poverty and provided basic medical care to some of the country's poorest. Even these programs, however, are the target of conservatives who continue to seek to dismantle the legacy of the ‘Great Society’. As we debate our country's fiscal future and the role of government today, Social Security and Medicare are constantly under fire. For the first time since President Johnson, however, we have a president who promotes a truly progressive view of the role of government in fighting poverty. President Obama not only seeks to preserve the integrity Social Security and Medicare, he promotes a view of government in which fighting poverty is an active priority. This historical implications of this are not insignificant. Not even under Presidents Carter and Clinton were progressive views of government promoted in the mainstream, as each played a role in dismantling the Great Society.
President Obama his 2013 State of the Union address,
calls for an increase in the federal minimum wage,
expansion of access to pre-k education for children,
and for preserving Medicare and Social Security
The challenge of today’s debate over spending and the role of government is to not get wrapped up in debates over the size of government. Even though the ‘Great Society’ was largely dismantled in the conservative era from the 1970’s to the 2000’s, government spending on ‘social’ programs did not decrease. The size of government continued to grow significantly from President Nixon to President Reagan to President Bush Jr. What occurred though, was ‘social’ spending gradually shifted away from fighting poverty to programs that largely benefited the American upper and upper-middle classes. Despite the talk about the small size of social spending in the United States relative places such to Europe and Japan, America ranks 5th in the world in terms of total resources devoted to ‘welfare’. The problem is that our ‘welfare’ programs often come in the form of homeowner tax credits and other programs that do little to actually fight poverty. As we debate the role of government today we should keep in mind the legacy of the ‘Great Society’ and how it was never truly given the chance to combat poverty as intended. If we are to bring about true equality in our country, we will have to reevaluate how we spend our ‘welfare’ resources and how we prioritize what programs are most valuable to our society.

Note: If you are interested in US spending on ‘social welfare’ I would highly recommend Professor Kimberly Morgan’s article in Foreign Affairs, America’s Misguided Approach to Social Welfare’. Professor Morgan teaches International Politics here at GW. Her article provides the most insightful analysis I have seen of the problems with social spending in the United States. She goes beyond the debate about the size of government, and looks at the inefficient ways we direct our social spending. It is a very good article, I cannot recommend it enough  

The White Man's Burden

Behind the Disney tale of Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo, is the greatly criticized imperialistic undertone of Rudyard Kipling’s original story. The subtle innuendo within The Jungle Book was much more clearly stated in his poem “The White Man’s Burden.” In Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, this poem is used as a forward to the chapter “Down at the Cross.”

Take up the White Man's burden --

Ye dare not stoop to less --

Nor call too loud on freedom

To cloak your weariness;

By all ye cry or whisper,

By all ye leave or do,

The silent, sullen peoples

Shall weigh your Gods and you.   

This poem in its entirety can be found at http://www.online-literature.com/keats/922/.

Published in 1899, “The White Man’s Burden” urged the US to take up the “burden” of colonization, following in the footsteps of Britain and other European nations. Its publication coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and was sent to Roosevelt who believed it was “poor poetry, but that it made good sense from the expansion standpoint” (Brantlinger). Understanding the meaning of this poem and Kipling’s implications forces the reader to question Baldwin’s use of it in The Fire Next Time. 
            The notion of the white man’s “burden” of the unindustrialized world was clearly associated with race. Kipling’s poem describes imperialism as the need to spread the “better” way of life. In the forth stanza he instructs the US to follow the ways of Britain by starting war in order to gain territory: “The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread / Go mark them with your living, Go mark them with your dead.” The poem stresses a very Eurocentric view of the world in which those non-European nations are seen as feeble and barbaric and in need of westernization. The main point of “The White Man’s Burden” is that the rich nations have an obligation to help the poor ones, and whether they want it or not it is for the betterment of the world.
            In the stanza that Baldwin chooses to use as a forward to “Down at the Cross” Kipling warns “the white man” to be strong in the fight for imperialism and “Ye dare not stoop to less.” He warns “The silent, sullen peoples,” non-whites, “Shall weigh your gods and you,” will try to resist and judge the attempts to imperialize. In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin stresses the notion that no matter what race or religion all people should be treated equally. He expresses his belief that racism stems from the insecurities of white men, who turned to imperialism and segregation as an outlet for their own feelings of powerlessness.
            In juxtaposing Kipling’s strong assertions within “The White Man’s Burden” to Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, one must question how one aids in understanding the other. To me, this poem was a poignant opening for a powerful chapter- what affect did this poem have on your reading of “Down at the Cross?”  

The Man Behind the Camera: Gordon Parks

Last class we looked at photographs which championed the Civil Rights Movement.  I became intrigued by the man behind the camera: Gordon Parks.  Who was he, what is he relation to Malcolm X, and where does he fit in the Civil Rights Movement?

A video of Gordon Parks talking about his first encounter with documenting racism in Washington DC and about the power of photography:

Who was he?

Gordon Parks’ story begins in Kansas in the year 1912.  He grew up with parents who emphasized hard work but who warned him of the difficulties of being a black man in the United States. By the age of 25, Parks became interested in photography and bought his first camera.  His break in the world of photography began when the people developing his first set of film noted his talent and sent him to photograph fashion in Minnesota.  He later moved to Chicago and continued to photograph women and women’s fashion.  While bouncing from job to job, Gordon Parks took up documenting Chicago’s South Side Ghetto. His photographs were featured in a 1941 exhibit and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement was born.

Where does Malcolm X come in?

In the 1960s Gordon Parks worked for LIFE Magazine where he was able to have considerable influence on the civil rights movement.  Although he originally worked on fashion, LIFE was able to recognize Parks’ unique position and connection to the African American community.  When Malcolm first met him, he was suspicious because his success within the white community.  However, Malcolm X quickly began to trust him and allowed him to take photographs of him and to document problems occurring between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.  His work was so provocative that LIFE put Parks under protection for a period of time.  Malcolm X and Gordon Parks formed such a close bond that X eventually made Parks his daughter’s godfather.  In his autobiography Malcolm writes affectionately of his friend, “Success among whites never made Parks lose touch with black reality.”

Impact on the Civil Rights Movement?

As we saw in class, Gordon first caused a buzz when he featured a photograph, American Gothic, Washington DC, which imitated the original. Instead of an elderly couple, however, Parks featured a black woman named Ella Watson holding a broom and a mop.  Later, he became the first African American to work for LIFE, and to write, direct, and score a Hollywood film. Parks was deeply affected the racist attitudes of his time and said that freedom was the theme of all of his work. Over his lifetime he photographed important subjects such as segregation, the civil rights movement, poverty, and black leaders.