Politics for the People Book Club Recordings — A Conversation with Lois Leveen

MaryBowser_StewartLeveen

On Sunday, June 3rd the book club had the pleasure of spending an hour in conversation with Lois Leveen, the author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser. You can listen to our full conversation at the end of this post.

Lois says that she “dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet.” She has degrees in history and literature from Harvard, USC and UCLA and has taught at UCLA and Reed College.

In addition to being a novelist, Lois is a frequent essayist and contributor to the New York Times, LA Review of Books, Huffington Post and many other publications, literary and scholarly journals.

In the opening section of the call, you can hear Lois and I discuss how she first met Mary Bowser and decided to write the book.  We talk about the relationship between Mary and Bet Van Lew, the woman who freed her and was her collaborator in spying on the Confederacy.

Give a listen here or below:

 

Caroline Donnola, who orginally recommended The Secrets of Mary Bowser to be a Politics for the People selection, asked Lois how she created and built out the characters of the book, especially Mary Bowser.  How did she decide what she should sound like, how she should think, how she would respond to her many life challenges?  You can hear their conversation here or below:

 

Helen Abel from CA shared that one of the most astonishing parts of the book for her was how Mary Bowser extended the Civil War by withholding particular information so that slavery would become a main issue for Lincoln and not just preservation of the Union. She asked Lois whether she this part of the book was something she uncovered in her research and whether there were other spies who impacted the civil war in this or in similar ways?  Listen to Lois’ answer:

 

Alice Rydel was eager to ask Lois if she considered herself a social activist? Give a listen to her answer:

 

Dr. Jessie Fields shared with us how much she appreciated The Secrets of Mary Bowser, and how much it “…conveys a great deal of African American history in a very intimate fashion, that history also being integral to American history. ” She asked Lois how her study of African American literature influenced the writing of the novel. Lois talked about how much she learned from authors like Richard Wright, James Baldwin and many African American women authors about “how difficult it is to negotiate protecting your family in a place where you legally really have very few or no protection of them.”  She talks about the creation of Mary Bowser’s voice, and the private school education she received.  You can hear the full response here and below:

 

Jenn Bullock, the coordinator of Independent Pennslyvanians commented on how “powerfully and unapologetically” Lois portrayed the racism in Philadelphia, particularly among white progressives.  You can listen to Lois’ response.  She talks about how “not everybody who was antislavery would have described themselves as an abolitionist.”

 

Harry Kresky and Lois talked about Clarence Thomas, Thurgood Marshall, the movie Black Panther and, as Harry put it, the complicated and controversial “issue of what African Americans and others do with opportunity, giving back so called…”  A fascinating conversation to listen to:

 

Julie Leak shared how much she loved the book and some of her reminisces of growing up in the South.  Lois talked about a visit to Richmond during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and emancipation and a visit to Lumpkin’s Alley with an African American woman whose family lived in Richmond for generations.  Give a listen:

 

You can listen to our entire conversation below:

 

And if you would like to learn more about Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew, take a look at this wonderful CSPAN video, “A Spy in the Confederate White House” from 2013. The video features Edward Ayers, President of the University of Richmond; Lois Leveen; and Elizabeth Varon, Professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. 

Lois’ second book is Juliet’s Nurse, which tells the story of Romeo and Juliet through the eyes of Juliet’s nurse.  I have added this to my summer reading list.

***

STAY TUNED
We will announce our next selection soon.

***

 

 

Advertisements

Reader’s Forum–Dr. Jessie Fields

Thoughts on the novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser and the Civil War from Dr. Jessie Fields

20150924_awards_037

    

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a sensitive historical novel that highlights the participation of African Americans enslaved and free, in the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy. Mary Bowser was an enslaved young woman who was freed, lived in Philadelphia where she went to school, studied, read widely and was courted by but ultimately rejected the wealthy scion of a free black Philadelphia family. Mary returned to Richmond to care for her ill father and to work for emancipation. She posed as a slave in the Confederate White House and passed valuable information to the Union.

The novel is divided into three sections called books, Book One and Book Three take place in Richmond, Book Two in Philadelphia.

Mary’s mother, is the enslaved Minerva, a name that refers to the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, and to the Greek goddess Athena. During the years before slavery was ended by gradual emancipation in New York she was separated from her family and brought by the Van Lews to Virginia. Minerva teaches Mary to make riddles which includes lessons in being quick witted and observant. The ultimate riddle that Mary lives is her work as a spy communicating information in code straight from the desk of Jefferson Davis to General U. S. Grant and the Union Army. But Mary is not simply a spy for the preservation of the Union, she conveys or holds back information to ensure that the war is not ended without ending slavery.

One of the many features of the novel that deeply moved me was the portrayal of Mary’s family and how though enslaved they manage to make a home in Richmond, their relationship to each other is one of enduring closeness and deep love.  Her parents sacrificed greatly to allow their daughter to be free and she was determined to do all she could to end slavery.

 In Philadelphia Mary boards with an illiterate mother and daughter who refuse her offer to help them learn to read, she observes the poverty of many of the free black population, as well as the racism of the north where blacks were segregated, denied access to any except the most menial jobs, evicted from public vehicles, and were not accorded equal citizenship rights. Mary observes all this from her perspective of having lived in slavery and having family still enslaved. Eventually she becomes a key member of the Philadelphia underground anti-slavery network centered around the establishment of Alexander Jones, the undertaker and father of her closest friend Hattie. Mr. Jones funeral business is a stop on the Underground Railroad, with escaped slaves transported in coffins.

Wilson Bowser who Mary marries was a driver on the Underground Railroad from Richmond to Philadelphia, and he enlisted, as many African American men did, in the United States Colored Troops. The enlistment of free blacks and slaves was key to the Union victory in the Civil War. Also enslaved men, women and children contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy by leaving the plantations as soon as Union troops arrived.

Mary overhears many conversations in the Confederate White House (nicknamed the Gray House). Including conversations between Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina Davis who Mary and others name Queen Varina and the Confederate secretary of war, Judah Benjamin, who is from Louisiana and to whom Varina mangles the French Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverexpression tant pis. Mary names Benjamin “Aunt pis”. In one conversation between Varina Davis and Judah Benjamin on the likelihood that Queen Victoria will side with the Confederacy in the Civil War Varina says , “Britain needs us as much as we need her. Why, without Confederate cotton, what use are English mills?” Benjamin responds, “You might say the same for the New England mills, yet the Yankees make war with us.

They go on to discuss Lincoln’s offer to the border states of financial compensation for each slave in exchange for gradual emancipation. This proposal never ended up passing into law. Varina Davis defends the argument of the Confederacy that they were fighting not for slavery but for states’ rights to govern themselves. Benjamin responds, “You are correct. We do not fight for slavery. Neither does Lincoln (fight to end it). We fight to win, and so does he. But he is willing to sacrifice slavery in the process, while we are not.”

Mary took this conversation as substantiation of her mission to make the preservation of the Union contingent on emancipation from slavery. Slavery was the fatal flaw of the nation that cut violently into the soul of the country. Four score and seven years after the American Revolution it took a Civil War to end it.

Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

 

***

Our Politics for the People

Conference Call 

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Will Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

With Author Lois Leveen

 ***

Dr. Jessie Fields brings us Tracy K. Smith

Dr. Fields shares a trio of poems by Tracy K. Smith, the Poet Laureate of the United States.

Jessie writes:
I found the poetry of Tracy K. Smith to be deeply powerful, giving voice to those who also speak through our next book selection, The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen.

tracy-k-smith-hires-cropped

Her latest collection is, Wade in the Water which is immersed in American history and that of African Americans in the Civil War.

She was recently featured in a New York Times Magazine article by Ruth Franklin, who says of the poet, “She also channels the past in “erasure poems,” a technique in which a poet chooses a text and strategically deletes most of it, leaving behind words that may be framed into a new work. For one, titled “Declaration,” Smith chose the Declaration of independence as her primary source.

Declaration

By Tracy K. Smith

He has

              sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people.
He has plundered our—
                                             ravaged our—
destroyed the lives of our—
taking away our—
                                   abolishing our most valuable—
 

and altering fundamentally the Forms of our—
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for

Redress in the most humble terms:

                                                                           Our repeated

Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

 

We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration

and settlement here.
                 —taken Captive

on the high Seas

to bear—

 ***

A central poem of Wade in the Water, is “I WILL TEll YOU THE TRUTH ABOUT THIS, I WILL TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT” of which Smith said,

”All I really did was listen to the letters that were out there, this Civil War correspondence between black soldiers and their families, or letters by black veterans or descendants of deceased veterans. Those voices felt so current, as though they were almost whispering from yesterday. I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything other than saying, let’s just get these voices together, and maybe somebody else will want to hear them in the same way. There’s one moment where the father of a soldier says, “I’m willing to sacrifice my son in the cause of Freedom and Humanity” – he capitalizes those nouns. I’m reading it and thinking, do we really understand: If you were enslaved, freedom and humanity are not these abstractions.”  

Here is Tracy reading an excerpt from “I WILL TELL YOU THE TRUTH ABOUT THIS, I WILL TELL YOU ALL ABOUT IT”:

 

[If you cannot play the video, you can listen to it here.]
In an interview conducted by the Washington Square Review’s Interview Co-Editor Eleanor Wright, Smith discusses her poem “The United States Welcomes You” saying

Sometimes, as in the case of “The United States Welcomes You”, a persona is a last resort. In early drafts of that poem, I was struggling with the feeling that I had too much cherishing for the poem’s initial speaker, which I had imagined as a black man with his hands in the air, “arms raised, eyes wide.” So I inverted the poem, and wrote from the perspective of someone apprehending him. I think the title, which came after I’d finished the poem, enlarged the initial scope of the poem.”

The United States Welcomes You

By Tracy K. Smith

Why and by whose power were you sent?
What do you see that you may wish to steal?
Why all this dancing? Why do your dark bodies
Drink up the light? What are you demanding
That we feel? Have you stolen something? Then
What is that leaping in your chest? What is
The nature of your mission? Do you seek
To offer a confession? Have you anything to do
With others brought by us to harm? Then
Why are you afraid? And why do you invade
Our night, hands raised, eyes wide, and mute
As ghosts? Is there something you wish to confess?
Is this some enigmatic type of test? What if we
Fail? How and to whom do we address our appeal?

***

We will conclude our celebration of National Poetry Month on Monday.  Next up, the historical novel, 

The Secrets of Mary Bowser.

Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

Hope you will pick up your copy of the book today. 

We will be talking with author Lois Leveen 

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

 

Reader’s Forum–Dr. Jessie Fields

Jessie Fields

The book, A Declaration of Independents, How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream by Greg Orman is a thoughtful analysis of the political crisis that faces our country and the role that independent candidates such as Greg Orman can play in breaking the two-party stranglehold. The author is a Kansas businessman and political independent who ran for U.S. Senate in 2014 and is now running for Governor of Kansas. I enjoyed reading the book and learned a lot from it, however I discuss in the second half of this article areas in which I differ with the author.

In the chapter An Independent Run, Orman recounts one of many important conversations with voters: early in his 2014 campaign for U.S. Senator during a meeting with a group of local leaders that included a retired schoolteacher, a Democrat who initially “was skeptical why any Democrat should consider supporting an Independent. When the conversation turned to education policy…,” Orman spoke about “the New American Paradox” his belief “that it’s harder than ever for the average American to get ahead and, yet, paradoxically easier to do nothing with your life.” He went on to discuss the summer slide for low income kids, “High income kids simply have access to more enriching opportunities during the summer, while lower income kids tend to regress, leading educators to conduct remedial lessons during the first weeks of each new school year…”  The opportunity to participate in the American Dream has never been fully available to all Americans.

The conversations between people of different parties and different points of view are examples of the vital role that independent campaigns can play in bringing people together. One of the barriers in the way our politics is set up is that people from different parties seldom have the opportunity to dialogue in a nonpartisan environment in which it is possible for people to listen to each other.

This example was of great interest to me because of my involvement in supporting new approaches to education and youth development for poor youth and communities through the All Stars Project (www.allstars.org) and also because I believe that dialogue between ordinary people from different backgrounds and across the political spectrum is vital for a truly representative democracy. Public policies can only be helpful and effective for people if they are not mediated by political parties. Matters from education and housing to health care and public safety become political footballs in the hands of the parties.

I think the following statement by Greg Orman is very important.

I believe that in framing possible policy solutions as “either/or” choices, both parties leads us to believe that there are only two answers to any problem. Generally, these answers have been hyper-distilled to such an extent that they’re troublingly simplistic. At that point, they become litmus tests. Even worse, they are made into labels that harden a false choice into a single word: “pro-choice” or “pro-life”, for example. Even on that ideologically and morally charged subject, the great majority of Americans have nuanced views that wouldn’t pass muster with party gate-keepers.

I very much appreciate the author’s careful analysis of how both of the parties distort matters of consequence to our country including fiscal policy, Medicare, social security, and immigration reform.

A major theme of the book and of Greg Orman’s independent political advocacy is “Problem Solving, Not Partisanship”, a mantra on his bus tour through Kansas. “There’s no requirement for an Independent to engage in empty games to support a particular political party. Independents can focus exclusively on solving problems.”

He speaks about how he and his wife though both have lived in Kansas many years, (his wife having spent her entire life there and he having lived there for over two decades) “were constantly acquiring new information about the people I wanted to represent in Washington and gaining new and deeper understanding of their needs.”

Though I agree with much of the book I cannot subscribe to the author’s equation of the Constitutional Convention compromise that allowed slavery as similar to or the other side of the position of advocating for states’ rights in the following passage from the book:

Some might agree with DeMint and insist that sometimes it is better not to compromise – and point to the Constitutional Convention to make this point. Papering over the differences on slavery only forestalled resolution of this great moral dilemma, ensuring that untold millions lived in bondage and forcing the question to be resolved on the battlefields of the Civil War at great loss of life. It’s a fair point, and not a new one. Nineteenth century abolitionist firebrand William Lloyd Garrison celebrated Independence Day in 1854 by burning a copy of the Constitution, which he labeled “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell!” “Similarly, certain conservatives would claim that when the Constitution failed to recognize an explicit right to state nullification of federal laws a great wrong was committed.”

Slavery was a violation of the first sentence of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

 Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and others argued that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were anti-slavery documents. I agree with them. The Southern Democratic Party states’ rights position against civil rights and voting rights for African Americans was not an ideological counter point to liberal views it was a violation of the principles of human equality that are fundamental to our nation.

One of those principles that independents are advocating is that every voter should have an equal right to participate in all stages of elections and that no American should be required to join a political organization as a condition for voting. The function of the independent movement is not to help the parties work better together but to lead in the movement to revitalize our democracy so it works for all of the American people.

Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

***

POLITICS for the PEOPLE 

CONFERENCE CALL

With Author GREG ORMAN

Book Image

A Declaration of Independents

How We Can Break the Two-Party Stranglehold and Restore the American Dream

SUNDAY, APRIL 15th @ 7 PM EST

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

***

Reader’s Forum–Dr. Jessie Fields

 

20171104_151329_1509824198579 (1).jpg

Dr. Jessie Fields (center) with Carrie Sackett, Alvaader Frazier, David Belmont and Nardo Reyes–  New York City Independence Club Activists in Harlem doing street outreach.

Comments from reading $2:00 A Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer

The book $2.00 A Day, Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer shines a spotlight on the consequences of government policies on the lives of individuals and families caught in deepening poverty in the years since the welfare reform legislation of 1996 and after the 2008 financial crisis. Living on two dollars a day is ”one of the World Bank’s metrics of global poverty in the developing world” but Edin and Shaefer document this level of extreme poverty in America. $2:00 A Day details the lives of people who want to work but cannot find decent jobs and families with children in desperate circumstances.

Chapter 1, “Welfare is Dead” documents how welfare reform policies were formed, highlighting partisan compromises during the Clinton presidency. “Just 27 percent of poor families with children” get aid from the current cash welfare program. 

The main welfare program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was a New Deal program which grew exponentially in the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1996 under President Bill Clinton’s signature welfare reform eliminated this 60 year old program and replaced it with state block grants through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) which has lifetime limits on aid and mandatory work requirements. In contrast to relying on work requirements and lifetime limits on aid, the work of scholars such as David Elwood, who served in the Clinton administration, called for efforts to integrate the poor into the overall society with high quality education and training. Welfare reform ignored the causes of poverty and narrowed Elwood’s recommendations to cut aid to the poor.

Poverty in America is not new but it is worsening and a greater percentage of the American people are now living in poverty. The overall unemployment rate including those who are unable to find full time work and those who are no longer actively looking for work is over 10 %. The domestic American economy has never given equal opportunity to all segments of the country with the highest unemployment rates among people of color. 

In the concluding chapter of the book, in the sections on work and “All Deserve the Opportunity to Work” the importance of work and ensuring income is discussed. “Everything we’ve learned about the $2.00 a day poor suggests that it is the opportunity to work that is lacking, not the will, and that ensuring work opportunity would do no end of good.”

Dr. King spoke about the need to integrate the poor into the economic mainstream of America, and he understood the barriers and challenges to the poor making that transition. Speaking at a convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967 he said “We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other.” There are so many ways in which poor people are excluded, shut out and humiliated. “Without cash, they can’t meaningfully participate in society”,  ” ..research shows that the intrusive treatment people typically receive at the welfare office can undermine their confidence in government and erode political participation.

For America to grow all of its people must grow. Helping the poor is not a moral imperative alone, it is not separate from the hard day to day economic and social consequences of underdevelopment and rising inequality.  

Dr. Lenora Fulani writing about the All Stars Project in her paper The Development Line, Helping the Poor to Grow: A Special Report on Solving the Poverty Crisis in America addresses this question, “The vision of the All Stars Project programs instead operates with the politic and on the assumption that in order to mount an actual and successful “War on Poverty,” the poor Black and Latino communities must be supported to connect with the mainstream of American life and be exposed to the very best approaches to education and human development.” Solving the poverty crisis requires social transformation and a fundamental broadening of our democracy that includes leadership from the poor. The All Stars approach involves everyone from poor to affluent in the transformations necessary to bring forward such innovative and developmental approaches.

Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

Please Join the Politics for the People Conference Call

With Kathyrn Edin

Sunday, December 3rd at 7 pm EST

Call In and Join the Conversation

641-715-3605 and passcode 767775#

 

An Independent Reviews RATF**KED

The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy

By Dr. Jessie Fields 

Jessie Fields

Dr. Jessie Fields at the 2107 National Conference of Independents

 

David Daley does a fine job of exploring the politics of redistricting and the current escalation of gerrymandering, a very old corrupt standard practice of elected officials determining the electoral districts from which they are elected, drawing the lines of state legislative and congressional districts. The author examines in detail the resulting high level of voter disenfranchisement at the state and national level, the effective takeover of our political process by party operatives who determine the outcome of elections by packing Democratic leaning minority voters into dense urban districts and spreading so called Republican leaning voters over more districts which Republican legislators can be assured to win though by smaller margins. Throughout the book Daley touches on the racial and economic divisions this practice perpetuates.

The book pivots through the years of the Obama presidency and examines the 2010 Republican Party escalation of partisan gerrymandering that targeted districts in key states to successfully control the state redistricting process which resulted in unprecedented victories for the Republican Party and their domination of a majority of state legislatures and of Congress.  The author also points out the complacency of the Democratic Party, its focus on presidential elections and the Democratic Party’s reliance on demographics to win elections.

A solution to gerrymandering is unlikely to come from either of the two parties. The Republicans may have perfected it in 2010, but both sides have had a long, successful history of manipulating redistricting for their own advantage. A political party is built to win elections, after all – as well as to raise money and employ consultants and operatives. Their leaders always believe they can win the next one, and that reformers will stop howling once their side regains power. Too often, sadly, that’s true.”

Independent voters have been and remain committed to nonpartisan political reform including redistricting reform. The source for reform has come primarily from voter ballot initiatives and the book highlights the fights to maintain such initiatives in states like Arizona, where the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme court and the voter initiative was upheld by a 5-4 vote of the court.

Other examples of the passage of redistricting reforms by popular vote are Florida’s “nonpartisan Fair Districts Now coalition” which in 2010 passed two reform initiatives with 62 percent support. In 2015 Ohio voters by 71% passed a ballot initiative that, though limited, established a less partisan plan for drawing state legislative districts.

However California, in my estimate the state that has led the country in electoral reform victories with its redistricting commission and nonpartisan top two elections initiatives, passed by the voters in 2010, is not mentioned except in a quote in the chapter, “Democrats” from Martin Frost, a former Texas Congressman who was gerrymandered out of office.  

“When Democrats controlled the House for the four decades before the 1994 Gingrich revolution, redistricting worked with a wink, he said; it was an incumbent protection racket on both sides. .. “That’s why prior to the referendum in California – prior to the commission – everyone got reelected.” “The numbers back that up.”

The overarching theme of the book is in the subtitle, “The True Story Behind The Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy”.  It expresses the stealth aspect of the reality of what is happening to American democracy. A centerpiece of the theft and destruction of democracy is partisan gerrymandering in conjunction with closed partisan primaries. If the primaries locally and nationally were open and every voter, no matter party affiliation or non-affiliation, including independent voters could vote the threat of being “primaried” by a far right wing Republican would not exist.

The relationship of opening the primaries to all voters along with redistricting reform is underestimated, both are needed. Partisan gerrymandering hinges on the district being dominated by identification with one political party, so that whoever wins that party primary wins the general election. If the primary is open to all voters the candidates who are successful are more likely those that appeal to a cross section of voters. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in states with nonpartisan open primaries. A massive continuous infusion of systemic democracy reforms and initiatives that take power from the parties and put it in the hands of the voters are needed to save our democracy. I could not agree more with Daley that “.., it will require creative state and local solutions, inventive uses of the referendum and initiative process, and new alliances of frustrated citizens which defy party boundaries, rooted in the belief that fair elections which reflect an honest majority are as important as which side wins. It will take people to stand up and say that our democratic values matter too deeply to ratfuck.”

The book was completed before the end of the 2016 presidential election, and in it Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, postulates alternative scenarios if the election was won by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or “a Republican” given that gerrymandering has given the Republican Party a congressional majority for the rest of this decade. Donald Trump is now president. He was elected because large segments of the American people are in revolt against the establishment and are looking for ways to change politics. This popular revolt was also expressed in the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders.

The gerrymander is yet another example of a political barrier that must be overcome. Voters are becoming more independent and less easily sorted by party identification. Independents say strongly “do not put me in that box”, 43% of Americans now identify as independents, they are the hoped for bridge to a new and more inclusive American democracy.

~Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

***

Conference Call with David Daley

Author of RATF**KED

Sunday, June 4th at 7 pm EST

Call: 641-715-3605
Pass code: 767775#

A Poem by Dr. Fields

Today’s poem was written by Dr. Jessie Fields:

This is a poem I wrote in 2013 and was inspired to dedicate to a friend, Mary Fridley, who had just led a workshop on Love and Creativity.”

20170409_140710

Mary Fridley and Dr. Jessie Fields

Love and Friendship

Top notes sing, lift high and upright the fallen star

Of love and friendship wide, no meek prelude to hot embrace.

Romance praise of rhyme over rhyme far

Forever unceasing has not and never slackened the pace

Of violence, war and hate everywhere unwound.

Begin again, give what human life requires

To thrive in soul, health and beauty together bound

Workers, a community of people re-creating, a new becoming inspires.

Take down the old books, here is a muse to make

A new world. High history and love in the mad descending hours

Search and create all the ways a hard hand to shake

A cold eye to shine. Teach this love, it is ours.

Jump we humans quick to hate and no peace find

We forget our real preference is kind.

 

For Mary Fridley

July 13, 2013

 

~Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

 

***

National Poetry Month 

At Politics for the People

Continues

Do you have a favorite political poem that you would like to share? Is there an original poem you’ve written?  Please email me at cathy.stewart5@gmail.com with your suggestions for consideration.

Reader’s Forum–Jessie Fields

image-2

Dr. Jessie Fields testifying at City Council Hearing on public housing. Dr. Lenora Fulani is sitting next to Dr. Fields.

Margaret Sanger: A Rebel

Margaret Sanger was a bold activist who took extraordinary risks fighting for women to have access to birth control and sex education. She was a complex woman whose very public life and work spanned over half a century and whose legacy lives on.

The novel “Terrible Virtue” by Ellen Feldman richly captures the personal struggles and conflicts of Margaret Sanger’s life as well as her activism and commitment to improving women’s lives.

Margaret Sanger cared for her own mother who was ill with tuberculosis, and who died at age 48 after giving birth to 11 children (Margaret was the sixth child) and enduring seven miscarriages.

As a woman from a poor family she was locked out of becoming a doctor. She became a nurse.

In the novel Margaret agonizes with grief and regret over the death of her own daughter, Peggy who developed advanced pneumonia while living at a boarding school.

Weaved throughout the novel are letters from people who were close to her: her children, lovers, husbands, and one of her sisters, Ethel who worked beside her in the clinic, was jailed and went on a hunger strike.

The book dives deeply into pivotal moments in her life such as the first time she speaks to a group of working women who were “bleary-eyed from a long day spent sewing piecework and making artificial flowers, bone-tired from cleaning other women’s houses,..”

She was filling in for a suffragette who was to give a talk on votes for women but Margaret instead gives a talk on what she knows about women’s health, “the facts of life”, menstruation, pregnancy, sex and reproduction. Her talks became very popular, attracting hundreds of women. She then write a series of articles “What Every Girl Should Know” for a New York socialist daily newspaper, The New York Call.

As a nurse she worked on New York’s Lower East Side.

In the tenements I was a savior.”

She decides to devote her life to freeing women from the physical bondage of unwanted pregnancies.

I would give up nursing and devote myself to contraception. I would free women from their biological shackles. I would liberate love from its consequences. And I would make sure that every child entered the world desired and cherished.”

She had to first go on a journey which included travel to Europe to learn about options for birth control for women. Her work in the clinics helping women to obtain autonomy and freedom in sexual practices is portrayed in the novel.

Sanger published a magazine called “The Woman Rebel” with the masthead “No Gods No Masters” and she moved in the socialist circles that included Emma Goldman, Bill Haywood, Floyd Dell and many others.

She remains controversial today and has been an easy target for those who aim to discredit Planned Parenthood, an organization she founded and which for 100 years has served women from all walks of life.

In 1916 she opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn which immigrant women and “women of every race and creed flocked to”. In 1930 with the support of Black leaders such as W.E.B. Dubois and the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses she opened a birth control clinic in Harlem.

Margaret Sanger dared to speak publically not only about birth control but also about sexual gratification for women. Her publications were considered obscene and she was jailed for violating the federal Comstock laws that made it illegal to distribute birth control information.

The novel includes her many affairs with men and it also celebrates her relationship to women, especially immigrant and poor and working women. During the month she spent in the Queens Women’s Penitentiary she sometimes would read aloud to the other inmates and she taught them about sex and birth control. In one scene in the novel when she is released from prison, “A crowd of women standing in front of the jail came into focus. There must have been a couple of hundred of them, friends of the movement, women we’d treated at the clinic, society matrons from the Committee of One Hundred, and Ethel”.

The women sang “La Marseillaise”.

As I stood listening to them, fighting back tears, I heard other voices behind me joining in. I turned my head and looked up. In the second- floor windows, the women who moments ago had been my fellow prisoners were gathered shoulder to shoulder, looking down at me, and humming along.

I look forward to the Conference Call with Ellen Feldman, the author of this intimate and powerful novel.

Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Ellen Feldman

Sunday, January 22nd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Readers’ Forum–Tiani Coleman and Dr. Jessie Fields

Tiani Coleman

tiani coleman ACA

Dr. Lenora Fulan with Tiani Coleman, recipient of a 2015 Anti-Corruption Award by the New York City Independence Clubs

How I Relate to Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

As I read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, the portrayal of the friction-filled lives and terrible living conditions experienced by eight tenant families in Milwaukee as telling “an American story” that can be found in average cities across the country, and isn’t reserved to places like Detroit, Los Angeles, or Chicago, I thought about two opposing experiences I’ve had living in two different cities:  New York City and Salt Lake City.

In 1998, when I first graduated from law school, having accepted a job offer in NYC, I took a day off from studying for the NY Bar Exam to go on a housing hunt.  Not being from the City, safety was a concern.  I scanned the newspaper for good places to rent.  The cheapest place I could find that still met our basic requirements was on the West Side.  As I got closer and closer to the address, I noticed that the surroundings were getting dumpier and dumpier.  I pushed the buzzer on the walk-up, and a man buzzed me in, but when I opened the door and saw the dark, dirty, banged-up, ever-so-steep flight of stairs, I got the heebie-jeebies, turned around, and walked away.  I soon found out that that had been in Hell’s Kitchen.

So I have a confession to make (a big, bad one):  I gave up on trying to find the perfect, relatively cheap place full of character, and was lured into signing a promotional contract with a new development  — yes, Donald Trump was my “landlord” — I was the very first tenant to move into the first Trump Place on the upper West side by the Lincoln Center, along the Hudson.  Apart from riding the subway, I didn’t see too much of the stereotypical inner-city life, spent long hours at the office, and went to church with lots of other DINKS.  But within a year, I had a baby, and my husband and I moved to downtown Salt Lake City.

When we first went to church in downtown SLC, we quickly discovered that it looked nothing like the congregation in NYC.  For one thing, the pews were relatively empty (ironically surprising).  For another, the people were not well educated, and with the exception of a wealthier retired community and a few others, the congregants were primarily residents of a retired and/or disabled public-housing high-rise, or part of a permanent low-income class, living in ghetto-like neighborhoods, including three homeless shelters.

Shortly after getting sworn in to the Utah Bar (still nursing my baby), I discovered that I would be called upon regularly (along with a couple of others) to be the pro bono legal services for my congregation.  My first case was an eviction case.

A family with young children was being asked to vacate immediately or incur triple damages and attorneys fees, with back rent owed regardless.  After helping my clients put up bond, and counterclaiming with, among other things: partial payment, with prior notice of a broken furnace and sewage problems; and stolen tools (the landlord had taken my handy-man client’s specialty tools, affecting his ability to work), I got chewed out by opposing counsel.  He said, “What are you doing?  You must be new around here; this isn’t the way it’s done.  You’re unnecessarily complicating things.”  When I went to court, I saw that the docket was set up for these cases to be rubber stamped quickly; the judge and opposing counsel were chummy from having seen so much of each other, with nobody there with representation to defend themselves against their slumlord.  The case dragged on (for discovery) while the living conditions got worse and my clients looked for other options.  The landlord, nervous about some of the allegations against him, did return the tools, and we got the case dismissed, without damages or attorneys fees; but ultimately, my clients moved back with the in-laws out of state, and the landlord was never really held accountable as a bad actor.

I spent four years living in SLC’s inner city before moving to the suburbs.  I saw situations similar to  Desmond’s documented vignettes of how the poor are exploited, and how people’s housing situation affects every other aspect of their lives:  from the devastating effects of high interest pay-day loans to try to keep afloat, to the heart-wrenching stories of DCFS being so quick to take children away from poverty-stricken families and putting them into juvenile homes or foster care, to people living in constant fear, if not of gang violence or deportation, then of eviction.

Desmond eloquently explains that when we discuss the housing issue, “[t]here are two freedoms at odds with each other:  the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.”  While he paints a picture that makes it clear that we can’t blame tenants for their plight (they have no options to get ahead), he doesn’t cast all of the blame at the feet of landlords, either:  “[i]f given the same opportunity, would any of us price an apartment at half of what it could fetch or simply forgive and forget losing thousands of dollars when the rent checks didn’t arrive?”  But we’re deceiving ourselves if we say the housing market should just be left as is to regulate itself; after all, the government is actively supporting the exploitation, with a system that “legitimizes and defends landlords’ right to charge as much as they want; that subsidizes the construction of high-end apartments, bidding up rents and leaving the poor with even fewer options; that pays landlords when a family cannot, through onetime or ongoing housing assistance; that forcibly removes a family at landlords’ request by dispatching armed law enforcement officers,” and on and on.

I completely agree with Desmond that we need to “uncover the ironies and inefficiencies that arise when policymakers try to help poor families without addressing the root causes of poverty.”  After all, simply increasing wages, without any other action, just leads to higher rents, and the poor still have the same impossible burdens to meet.   Desmond believes there’s a way to re-balance the two competing freedoms: by significantly expanding our housing voucher program (and ensuring regulation).  I’m not sure this will solve what’s a very difficult problem, but we certainly need to have a real, serious conversation about it.

It starts with awareness.  Just as I failed to witness the day-to-day struggles of many living in NYC, many residents of SLC are oblivious to the dire situations of people just blocks southwest of their high-end downtown living.  Now when I drive along the West Side Highway in NYC, I feel sick as I see that the entire West Side has been turned into a long string of character-lacking, high-end housing, bearing the name of Trump.  I contributed to there being fewer and fewer places for low-income people to live within the City because I couldn’t see the big picture.  Why haven’t we been having these conversations during this election season?  In the last several months, we’ve scarcely heard about the ever-increasing income gap or what the two major-party candidates plan to do about the multi-faceted problem of poverty in our country.  Both parties seem to benefit from not finding answers.  We need to create a less polarized, less special-interest driven electoral system that allows us to see each other, talk to each other, understand each other’s concerns, needs and interests, and start making real progress for the good of our country.  For me, the inner city is a crazy memory, but for millions of Americans, it’s a devastating daily reality.

Tiani Xochitl Coleman is a mother of five, a graduate of Cornell Law School, and president of NH Independent Voters.

Dr. Jessie Fields

20150924_awards_037

Dr. Jessie Fields and Kerry Malloy (r) at the 2105 Anti-Corruption Awards

The book, EVICTED Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond teaches us so much about how eviction impacts the lives of poor people in America and about how profitable poverty is in our cities.

I find the book to be a powerful combination of personal tragedies, grit in the face of exploitation and hardship, and important revelations about causes of poverty. It is a stirring, compelling must read. We come to live with the families as the author did and many moments in the book provoke deep sadness and tears at their suffering.

When Vanetta and Crystal, two young black women who had been evicted and were staying in a shelter were denied housing because of their race, the author explains that housing segregation was not an accident of urban industrialization.

The ghetto had always been a main feature of landed capital, a prime moneymaker for those who saw ripe opportunity in land scarcity, housing dilapidation, and racial segregation.”

Property in poor communities plagued by long standing housing segregation cost landlords less, they are still able to charge relatively high rents without the expense of having to maintain the property.

One of the many stories in the book is the disproportionate impact of eviction on Black women, their children and families.

The everyday stories of our cities: too bleak to wrap in stanzas

Such fury jumps the meter, misery will burst the rhyme

Like a forced move down below

With no heat in winter

Clogged sinks and empty shelves

To worse on the streets.

Arleen, Jori, Jafaris

Vanetta and her little boy

Crystal spinning out of control.

Lamar and the boys

The Hinkstons: Doreen, Patrice, Natasha

Lorraine, Pam and Ned

However poor whites

And blacks kept divided.

Matthew Desmond, a Harvard professor moved into Tobin’s trailer park in May 2008 and lived there for several months, followed by living in a rooming house in the black community on the North Side of Milwaukee until June 2009. Desmond immersed himself in the lives of poor families black and white and he worked to understand the landlords as well. In the last chapter of the book, “About This Project” he writes about the personal impact the work had on him.

The honest answer is that the work was heartbreaking and left me depressed for years.”

“You do learn how to cope from those who are coping.”

There is also in the book many examples of the decency and humanity that poor and working people steadfastly uphold even in the midst of it all.

Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

 

***

Politics for the People Conference Call

With Matthew Desmond

Sunday, October 23rd at 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 641 715-3605

Access code 767775#

The Discovery of the Sao Jose Paquete Africa

IMG_7464

Dr. Jessie Fields sends us a poem she wrote last year, inspired by the discovery of the sunken Portugese slave ship, the Sao Jose Paquete Africa in 2015 off the coast of South Africa. The ship sunk in 1794 with over 400 slaves aboard.

Jessie shares with us:

In 1794, Mozambique Island was the capital of Portuguese East Africa.

Carved onto the wall of the former French Consulate on Mozambique Island an inscription in Portuguese reads:

“Remembering the thousands of slaves that were torn from the Mozambique Island and from our continent so we can battle poverty, sickness, H.I.V., AIDS, malaria, famine and corruption.”

A poem dedicated to the millions and millions of enslaved people whose toil, blood and tears build America and Europe and to those who carry the mantle of leadership forward.”

 

The Discovery of the Sao Jose Paquete Africa

 

Below a mountain top, off the Cape of Good Hope dive.

To the ocean’s multitudinous bottom sink.

In the dark in a slave ship hold there lie.

 

The ship too close along the rocky brink

a storm splits. Two hundred and twelve people drowned

And two hundred survived still to be sold into slavery.

The inquest records in his own words found

The Portuguese captain survived to testify.

 

Retrieve the sea preserved shackles of trade in African people.

The old blocks and cooper buckles, the iron ballasts weighed against

human bodies, now to a different use double, every people

Of a world revive. Ascend to the air with manifest of centuries past.

Lift the discovery a searing beam from far, in hands black and white

These artifacts hold, remains for all who remain to fight.

  Jessie Fields, December 2015

sanjose_slavewreck_dive

Underwater archaeology researchers on the site of the Sao Jose slave ship wreck near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.  Photo courtesy Iziko Museums.

 

To learn more, you can watch a video about the discovery of the Sao Jose Paquete Africa.

From the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

****

Our celebration of National Poetry month continues with poems chosen or written by P4P members.  

  • Independent Lens

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 349 other followers

  • Featured Links

  • Categories

  • Facebook

  • Links