Welcome to Politics for the People blog and Book Club for independents.
In 2002, I created a free educational series for independents in New York City. I'm delighted to be able to expand with a bi-monthly Book Club that will allow Politics for the People to reach independents all over the country.
Politics for the People is designed to take you behind the scenes for a look at politics and history from an independent’s point of view.
Our Book Club will read and discuss books of interest to independents. We're now 40% of Americans.
I've been an activist in independent politics since 1984. And I'm an avid reader. In addition, I'm a photographer and will be sharing some of my work here as well.
I first saw images of Latoya Ruby Frazier’s riveting book of photographs, The Notion Of Family, in an NPR article about six months ago entitled “A Rust Belt Story Retold…” I wasn’t sure what to make of the images, as they felt a little distant at the time, despite my being familiar–as a historian of black labor and politics–with some of the history of those communities living “in the shadow” of Carnegie steel mills.
I’m not sure which impacted me more–the book or the commentaries. This is not to detract from Latoya’s truly extraordinary book (few artists capture, which such honest detail, poor people’s lives by poor and working people themselves–making their stories their own). But reading through the snippets of Michelle and Jessie’s lives as part of their reflections made the images in the book feel closer.
You see, I know Michelle and Jessie. They are two of my long-time political colleagues–extraordinary women–who have spent many years building an independent political movement in the United States to empower ordinary people, poor people, the outsiders, the forgotten, the survivors. I don’t know Latoya. But Michelle and Jessie are helping me to better understand her work.
While each of their experiences are different from the other’s, there are similarities in their experiences and the roles that women played in each of their lives–their mom’s, grandmothers, aunts, or great aunts–in helping each of them thrive.
Michelle writes, “I had come to realize that the feelings of pain and shame that I and millions of people experienced were manufactured and NOT in our heads nor were our fault. Those manufactured feelings were designed to keep us in our place.”
I then see one of Latoya’s photographs …
The Notion Of Family by LaToya Ruby Frazier Pg 131, Aunt Midgie and Grandma Ruby, 2007
And I hear (read) Jessie’s words “Ordinary people, though poor and abused are leading and fighting.” Part of that leading is giving expression to the plight of the voiceless, nameless, and unseen–here voiced, named, and seen through new performances.
Thank you, LaToya, for your book of photographs; thank you Michelle and Jessie, for your beautiful, painful, and moving words; thank you, Cathy, for giving us P4P and a space to reflect and support those who “stand in the rubble and fight,” as Jessie poetically writes, as Michelle explains, and as Latoya photographs.
With the excitement of embarking on a new book that I would explore as part of the Politics for the People Book Club I the opened the biography, Margaret Fuller, A New American Life by Megan Marshall. Thus began a journey of learning about and from a woman who lived for forty years in the first part of the nineteenth century and was a pioneer as a writer, journalist, intellectual and activist.
Dr. Jessie Fields (holding the Open Our Democracy Sign) with independent leaders and activists at the West Indian Day Parade. Photo by Allen Cox
Margaret Fuller lived from 1810 to 1850. She lived mainly in Boston and Cambridge, New England, then in New York City and later she traveled through Europe and Italy. She was a prolific writer and wrote for and edited the Transcendentalist Journal the Dial. She wrote the proto feminist Woman of the Nineteenth Century, calling for equality for women.
She wrote editorials arguing in favor of voting rights for black New Yorkers in “What Fits a Man to Be a Voter?” and against capital punishment in “Darkness Visible”. She expressed her protean interests in writings on literary texts and works of art such as in her essay “Papers on Literature and Art”. Fuller’s writing is resonant with insight and vision for the future.
For 18 months she wrote a front page column for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, followed by a European tour as foreign correspondent, supporter and witness to the revolutions across Europe in 1848 and the 1848-1849 Roman revolution, which she served as a military nurse on the streets of Rome.
Megan Marshall sets out as she states in the prologue to write of Margaret Fuller’s life “the full story—operatic in its emotional pitch, global in its dimensions.” Marshall succeeds and with power and intimacy conveys the history of a leader who broke through the barriers of her time.
The current book selection of the Cathy L. Stewart Politics for the People Book Club is Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom, The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. The book is a fascinating look at the antislavery movement in New York City from the colonial era to the eve of the Civil War.
Sunday night as I made calls to let people know about the book and our April 19th conference call with the author I was really inspired that almost everyone I spoke to from Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio and Pennsylvania proudly told me of a stop on the Underground Railroad in their state or nearby town. To quote Foner “At a time of renewed national attention to the history of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, subjects that remain in many ways contentious, the underground railroad represents a moment in our history when black and white Americans worked together in a just cause.” (Page 15)
Dr. Jessie Fields at “Partnerships for Independent Power” March 2015
The book includes information from a newly discovered historical document: the detailed records of the abolitionist editor Sydney Howard Gay who helped fugitive slaves reach freedom in New England and Canada. Gay’s Record of Fugitives, which he kept in 1855 and 1856, was discovered by an undergraduate history major, Madeline Lewis, as she was looking through Gay’s papers held at Columbia University. The discovery of Gay’s notebook has opened up the previously unknown history of the work of the Underground Railroad in New York City.
One of the most important movements that helped to undermine slavery, of which many powerful examples are given in the book, was that of slaves who were determined to be free and ran away. The renditions (recapture) of fugitive slaves in the North (which many violently opposed) raised serious questions about the extent to which the laws of slave states “extended” into the North and the relationship of the Constitution and the Federal Government to slavery.
“But the actions of fugitive slaves exemplified the political importance of slave resistance as a whole and raised questions central to antebellum politics, understood not simply as electoral campaigns but as the contest over slavery in the broad public sphere.” (Page 22)
The existence of the Underground Railroad and the escape of more and more slaves, which was more possible from the southern states immediately bordering the North, exacerbated growing sectional tensions that increased with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 and eventually led to the Civil War.
“…Gay’s record makes clear that by the 1850s New York had become a key site in a well-organized system whereby escaping slaves who reached Philadelphia from Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia were forwarded to Gay’s office and then dispatched to underground railroad operatives in Albany, Boston, and Canada.” (Page 10)
The long battle against slavery and the participation of ordinary people is fundamental to how our democracy was build. The struggle for full voting rights in America is steeped in the history of the fight for freedom in America. Gateway to Freedom is a wonderful immersion into this history.
The novel I Am Abraham by Jerome Charyn adds to the literature and historical record of Lincoln’s life, layers of compassion, intimate detail, beauty and depth.
I was particularly moved by Charyn’s exploration of Lincoln’s relationship wwith his wife Mary Todd, with the soldiers who fought in the war and with African Americans.
The novel carries us into the deep sorrow of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln at the death of their son Willie and the enormous suffering, pain and death that occurred during the Civil War. Lincoln, shortly after Willie’s death, walks out of the White House for relief and gets a carriage ride to the Patent Office by a group of intoxicated Union soldiers who almost run him over. The Patent Office, like so many buildings in Washington at the time, had been transformed into a military hospital. Walt Whitman worked as a nurse during the Civil War and served in the wards at the Patent Office, he wrote of the “curious scene” there. Here is Lincoln describing it in I Am Abraham.
So we went out upon these curious wards, which consisted of a narrow passage between two mountainous glass cases packed with miniature models of inventions patented at the Patent Office. (Page 269)
Then a murmur broke through the silence of the ward-not the tick of a telegraph, or the flutter of wings, but that peculiar honey of the human voice when it didn’t rise up in anger. And I realized where all the lady nurses had gone; they hadn’t abandoned the hospital clinic. They stood at the end of the ward in their gray and green garb, with hymn books in their hands; accompanying them was another nurse with an accordion, and a little choral of convalescent soldiers who’d climbed out of their sick beds to sing with the nurses.” (page 271)
Tears already filled my eyes as I glanced below at the hymn:
“It came upon the midnight clear
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold…
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!”
In the novel we learn about Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave who had worked for the wife of Jefferson Davis before Keckly came to the Lincoln White House and became the “confident and couturiere” of Mary Lincoln. Elizabeth Keckly is very close to the Lincoln family and especially to Mary and their son Tad who had a speech impediment and called her “Yip”. In a telling interaction with the President about the death of her son in the war Keckly says, “It wasn’t a sacrifice, Mr. President. If I had been younger I would have disguised myself as a man and joined his regiment. I wouldn’t have fallen in his place. That would have rubbed out the dignity of his death. He had the honor of fighting for his country, Mr. Lincoln, even if that country couldn’t recognize the worth of who he was…”. (page 214)
That steadfast determination to be full and equal participants in our nation’s democracy continues with us today.
“I Am Abraham”, are the first written words (he wrote them in the sand) of Abraham Lincoln, who would go on to write some of the most historically resonant speeches and documents of American democracy up to and during the Civil War. For Lincoln, as the son of a poor farmer who had very little formal education, the very act of learning to read and write signified aspiration beyond the circumstances into which he was born.
Dr. Jessie Fields Harlem on Primary Day 2014
I have always been intrigued by the role that learning to read and write has played historically. Slaves were forbidden to learn to read or write.
Frederick Douglass, born a slave, as a child did manage to learn to read and write by giving pieces of bread to poor white children in exchange for their teaching him words. He like Lincoln would go on to become a brilliant writer.
Reading has played a big role in my own life. As a child my mother, who grew up very poor and was not able to finish high school, instructed me never to read fiction. I had to read only what was “true”. As a result in grade school I read biographies of great American presidents such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, which were in the school library. I did also joyfully find a book about Harriet Tubman. So I grew up with a tendency to read nonfiction almost exclusively. Even today I rarely read novels.
At first reading the novel I Am Abraham by Jerome Charyn, our current selection for the Cathy L. Stewart Politics for the People Book Club, was difficult for me. I am a big fan of Abraham Lincoln, having long admired his writing and his commitment to stand firm on the Emancipation Proclamation. In the novel Jerome Charyn touches this American icon. Following the urging of Cathy Stewart who advised me to relax and “let go” in reading the novel, I am actually enjoying the book. It is in fact very much about the love affair of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln. I also appreciate the effort to convey personal and intimate details of some very momentous events in our shared American story. Enjoy your reading of Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham.
Compromise vs. Principle: Can the Declaration Develop?
Some thoughts by Dr. Jessie Fields
Studying the development and formation of the early documents of our country as Dr. Danielle Allen does in her exceptionally revealing and accessible book, Our Declaration, for me exposes the roots of what is a very deep and long term historical flaw in our democracy: factional compromise by political leaders that leaves no room for ordinary people to come together and develop new approaches.
We know that both the founding documents of America: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution compromised on the question of slavery. The compromise of “the pursuit of happiness” rather than “property” in the Declaration was a victory for the anti-slavery faction. The removal of Thomas Jefferson’s strongly worded condemnation of slavery from the final version of the Declaration was a victory for the pro-slavery forces in the country.
Dr. Jessie Fields
During the abolitionist movement African American leaders such as Frederick Douglass argued that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were anti-slavery documents, others such as William Lloyd Garrison argued that these documents were pro-slavery. A very heated and consequential debate took place over this question and led to many abolitionists participating in the formation of independent anti-slavery parties such as the Liberty Party. Diverse independent parties of small farmers, abolitionists, free soilers, “Know Nothing Party” members, and free Blacks eventually became wholly subsumed under the Republican Party and the Democratic Party dominated the slave holding states.
The tug of war of divided factions pulling for their respective interests has become calcified in the structure of the two major parties. Partisan interests and winning at all costs have become the dominant features of American politics in a stagnant top down system that cannot address the social and economic crisis we face.
The independent political movement is growing to take on the task of transforming our political process so that we the people can develop our democracy and create new ways of coming together.
We might discuss with Dr. Allen what she thinks about the question of whether those compromises on slavery weakened the integrity of the Declaration as a document that is fundamentally based on linking equality and freedom.
Last week, at the invitation of Dr. Jessie Fields, I paid a visit to her medical practise, the St. Luke’s Medical Group on Frederick Douglas Boulevard and 147th Street in Harlem. I came to take some photos and meet several of her patients who participated in the Great Migration.
se Wilmont McFadden, Fletcher Baldwin, Dr. Jessie Fields, Wilhemina Middleton, and Annette Middleton
Jessie has been having conversations with several of her patients who came north during the Great Migration. I was honored to meet this group of Americans who left the devastating racism of the deep south, and took the risk to move to Harlem. Wilmont McFadden (far L) came to Harlem when he was 20. He came by bus from Florence, SC. His family were sharecroppers. Fletcher Baldwin was born in 1936. His mother was a housekeeper and he grew up picking cotton, which he hated. He came to Harlem when he was fifteen after stops in DC and PA. He has never been back. Wilhemina Middleton can to NYC on a Greyhound bus when she was 16. She also grew up in rural South Carolina and learned to pick cotton, which she enjoyed. She has deep ties to SC, her mother remained there until her death five years ago. We celebrated Wilhemina Middleton’s 71st birthday with a little cake. Wilhemina and Fletcher talked some about growing up in SC, picking cotton, the slowness of life and the move North. Wilhemina’s daughter, Annette talked about how she did not think she would have been able to survive what her mother and Mr. Bladwin went through. Wilhemina said in her quiet voice, “oh, you would have been alright.”
Fletcher Baldwin, Dr. Jessie Fields, Wilhemina Middleton, and Annette Middleton
It was a pleasure to spend some time with Dr. Fields, Mr. Baldwin, Ms. Middleton, Mr. McFadden and Annette Middleton. We talked a bit about the book, Dr. Fields gave everyone a copy. It was also wonderful to see how much they appreciate and care for their doctor, Jessie Fields. Dr. Fields now keeps copies of The Warmth of Other Suns in her office to share with her patients, who have been delighted to learn about the book. The book opens many new conversations about their experiences. I hope they will be able to join our conversation with Isabel Wilkerson just one week from today. Our conference call with Isabel Wilkerson is on Sunday, July 13th at 7 pm. The call in number is (805) 399-1200 and the passcode is 767775#.
To bring our celebration of National Poetry Month to a close, we have a special treat from Jessie Fields. She recorded her final selection.
Jessie says, “Let America Be America Again” is one of my favorite poems. I had the great pleasure of reading this poem aloud for a community organizing event on independent politics in Chicago many years ago. The first poem I ever read was a Langston Hughes poem and I remember the immediate connection and joy I felt at discovering this art form.
So, click on this gorgeous recording of Jessie reading “Let America Be America Again”. The music is Blue in Green (Miles Davis, Bill Evans) from the album Kind of Blue. A special thanks to David Belmont and Michael Walsh for producing this recording for us.
Langston Hughes on the front steps of his home in Harlem, 1958. Photograph by Robert W. Kelley
Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that's almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine—the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Here is a brief note on the life of the great American poet, Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967)
Langston Hughes grew up in Lawrence, Kansas with a grandmother, Mary Langston, whose first husband, Sheridan Leary, had died in 1859 in the raid led by John Brown that attempted to overtake the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and start a slave insurrection. As a young man Hughes read a great deal including Walt Whitman, W.E.B. Dubois, and Carl Sandburg. From 1921 when his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was printed in Dubois Crisis magazine to the time of his death in 1967 LangstonHughes wrote poetry, short stories, novels, plays, essays, autobiographies and more. He traveled widely including to the Soviet Union and in America in the 1930’s he was hounded because of his radical political views. In the postwar years he settled in Harlem and lived there for the rest of his life.
His voice still reverberates across America calling attention to the ongoing chasm between American democratic ideals and American reality.
The poem “Let America Be America Again” was published in the magazine Esquire and in the International Worker Order Pamphlet, A New Song, in 1938.
In a 1943 speech, during World War ll,Hughes said, “…America is a land of transition. And we know it is within our power to help in its further change toward a finer and better democracy than any citizen has known before. The American Negro believes in democracy. We want it real, complete, workable, not only for ourselves – the fifteen million dark ones –but for all Americans all over the land.”
Like you I love love, life, the sweet smell of things, the sky- blue landscape of January days.
And my blood boils up and I laugh through eyes that have known the buds of tears. I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don’t end in me but in the unanimous blood of those who struggle for life, love, little things, landscape and bread, the poetry of everyone.
blue sky 2012, photo by Cathy Stewart
Roque Dalton (1935-1975)– poet and revolutionary– was the major writer and an important political organizer of the revolutionary movement in El Salvador. He is considered one of Latin America’s greatest poets.
His father was a Mexican American who lived in Tuscan, Arizona and emigrated to El Salvador where Roque Dalton was born. His mother was a registered nurse whose salary supported the family.
Roque Dalton and Otto Rene Castillo met while Castillo was in exile in El Salvador and together in 1955 they founded Círculo Literario Universitario, which published some of Central America’s most influential writers.
Last year the government of El Salvador declared May 14, 2013, “National Poetry Day” in honor of Roque Dalton. In Latin America Dalton has long been recognized as one of the finest poets of the 20th century.
“The poet Roque Dalton was a key figure in the cultural avant-garde
that developed in El Salvador in the late 1950s around a loose circle of
writers and artists that become known as the generación comprometida. The group’s political leanings ranged from center-left to Marxist, but its members shared a critical view of El Salvador’s established order and a desire to modernize its modes of cultural and social expression and to break with its repressive traditions. …Although trained as a lawyer in Chile and El Salvador, Dalton worked as a news reporter and editor in San Salvador until the early 1960s. He was arrested no fewer than four times for left-wing political activity.Waves of antileftist political repression forced him into exile in Mexico and Cuba from 1961 to 1964, in Czechoslovakia from 1965 to 1968, and finally in Cuba from 1968 until 1973. He began publishing poetry in his late teens. Early poems showed the influence of Pablo Neruda, but later work achieved an extraordinary clarity and originality of language that incorporated common speech and urban slang and left a deep mark on Salvadoran literature (Vásquez Olivera 2005). A continual innovator, he was never content to pen poetry alone and wrote one of the seminal texts of the Latin American testimonial, Miguel Marmol, and two popular histories of El Salvador in a “collage” style that was influenced by his friend Eduardo Galeano. Although a dedicated communist, he grew deeply disenchanted with the bureaucratic inertia and cynicism that he had seen in Soviet-bloc countries while, like many Salvadoran intellectuals of his generation, giving up on the possibility of peaceful change in his own country (Alas 1999; Arias Gómez 1999). He returned to El Salvador to join its nascent guerrilla struggle in December 1973 and died eighteen months later at the hands of his own comrades in a vicious power struggle inside an urban guerrilla group.”