Reflections on Reflections on The Notion Of Family

 

By Omar H. Ali, Ph.D.

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.

And then, this week, after receiving and reading through Latoya’s book, I read the reviews and commentaries by Michelle McCleary and Dr. Jessie Fields, among others, on P4P.

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

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.

Omar H. Ali, Ph.D., selected as the 2016 Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year in North Carolina, is a historian and community organizer who teaches black labor and political history at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. E-mail: ohali@uncg.edu 
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Politics for the People Conference Call

With LaToya Ruby Frazier

Sunday, December 6th at 7 pm EST

 C ALL IN NUMBER

641 715-3605

Code 767775#

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Readers’ Forum-Where the Lines Blur

Dr. Jessie Fields

    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.

Jessie Fields is a physician in Harlem and a founder of the NYC Independence Party. She serves on boards of Open Primaries and the All Stars Project.

 

Reminder

P4P Conference Call

With Jerome Charyn

 Sunday, February 15th, 7 pm EST

Call In Number: 805 399-1200 

Access Code 767775#

Let America Be America Again

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."

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,
America!

O, yes,
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.”

Roque Dalton

Jessie has chosen a poem by Roque Dalton for today’s selection.

Roque Dalton

Like You

By Roque Dalton (Translated by Jack Hirschman)

 

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

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.

 

From the article: GRINGO IRACUNDO Roque Dalton and His Father  

by Roger Atwood

“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.”

Here is an epigram poem on his life—

“Poetic Art” (1974) by Roque Dalton

Poetry

Forgive me for helping you understand

That you’re not made of words alone.

 

 

 

Deborah and Jennie, In History and Fiction

Dr. Jessie Fields wrote the following note to us this morning about Deborah and Jennie.  I know we will want to talk with Alex about the issues Jessie raises on our call this Sunday.  The call is at 7 pm. The call in number for the conference call is 805 399-1200 and the access code is 767775#.  

Here is Jessie’s note—-

“I watched the video of Alex Myers speaking about Revolutionary at the Harvard Bookstore and noted his mention that it was actually a black slave “Jennie” who provided Deborah with “young Master Leonard’s” clothes. I was intrigued to find out more about Jennie the slave and the relationship between her as a slave and Deborah, an indentured servant. I would have asked him about this if I had been in the audience at the bookstore and I look forward to talking with Alex about this on the call this Sunday.

By the time of the American Revolution the legal and social division between Blacks as slaves and poor whites as indentured servants was under way. When I read Revolutionary I hoped for but did not find any representation of the presence of African Americans during the Revolutionary War period.

Below are a few historical facts I found online, and an article,  The Revolution’s Black Soldiers by Robert A. Selig, Ph.D that the Politics for the People readers may be interested in.

I also wrote Dr. Omar Ali if he could shed some light on the “real” Jennie and the relationship between white and black indentured servants and slaves.  His lovely note back to me is also included below.

“In 1781 the state of New York offered slaveholders a financial incentive to assign their slaves to the military, with the promise of freedom at war’s end for the slaves. In 1783, black men made up one-quarter of the rebel militia in White Plains, who were to march to Yorktown, Virginia for the last engagements.”

“African Americans fought on both sides in the American Revolution. Many slaves chose to fight for the British, as they were promised freedom by General Carleton in exchange for their service. After the British occupied New York City in 1776, slaves escaped to their lines for freedom. The black population in New York grew to 10,000 by 1780, and the city became a center of free blacks in North America. The fugitives included Deborah Squash and her husband Harvey, slaves of George Washington, who escaped from his plantation in Virginia and reached freedom in New York.”

 

FROM DR. OMAR ALI

Dear Jessie,

Thanks for your question.  Alfred Young mentions Jennie in his book Masqueradewhich I refer to in my review. Jennie was the daughter of one of Judge Oliver’s two black slaves named Phillip. She later became a servant in the home of Captain Benjamin Leonard and his wife, where Deborah Sampson did weaving. If you want to see the specific sources, go to page 76 of Young’s book and also see his footnotes on that page. Basically, the little we know about Jennie comes through a combination of church records, family oral history, and a mid-nineteenth century editor named Pratt–largely in connection with Sampson, who Jennie had apparently both worked and shared quarters with, as well as abetted in her scheme … They must have been close.

The social, political, and emotional relationship between “Black Jennie” and Sampson is something that would have been so interesting, in my mind, for Myers to explore … Maybe, to my heart’s desire, it’ll appear in one of your poems or maybe a play we write? You could envision, play out, and help us all see and feel who they might have been and meant to each other as working women and revolutionaries …

If this is something you’d like to pursue, I would suggest Young’s book as well as an article by Judith Hiltner which appears in the Spring edition of the journal American Studies, pages 93-113.

Another helpful book to begin looking at the relationship between black and white indentured servants is Paula Giddings’ Where and When I Enter and the work of the historian Eleanor Flexner, who notes instance of  how black and white women shared much of the same labor in a society that made little distinction between the duties of indentured servants, an artisan’s wife, and the “gently born” mistress. Although situations varied, black and white women in colonial America and the (very) Early Republic were often in very close proximity, working and living their lives together … It’s not just the narrative of the distant white mistress and enslaved black woman on the plantation, as you know. In fact, during the early stages of colonial American society black servants actually had a higher legal status than white indentured servants, as the former were protected under international law. The racial codification of slavery would transform this.

—Omar

National Poetry Month

Today kick’s off National Poetry Month.

Dr. Jessie Fields and Harry Kresky will curate a selection of their favorite political poems for us starting on April 15th.  I hope that you will all join in and share your favorite political poems as well.

Independence Party activists at Harlem Week. Allen Cox (l), Howard Edelbaum, Dr. Jessie Fields and Tom Williams

Independence Party activists at Harlem Week.
Allen Cox (l), Howard Edelbaum, Dr. Jessie Fields and Tom Williams

 

To kick off the month, Jessie Fields,  a poet, physician and independent leader shares a poem that she revisited while reading Revolutionary.

 

 

 

Emily Dickinson    (1830 – 1886)

 I’m ceded — I’ve stopped being Their’s —

The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I’ve finished threading — too —

Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace —
Unto supremest name —
Called to my Full — The Crescent dropped —
Existence’s whole Arc, filled up,
With one small Diadem.

My second Rank — too small the first —
Crowned — Crowing — on my Father’s breast —
A half unconscious Queen —
But this time — Adequate — Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown —

 

Here is what Jessie has to say about this poem:

Soon after reading the novel Revolutionary, I came across this poem by Emily Dickinson and thought it relevant to the difficult choices available to women such as Deborah Samson.  Though Emily Dickinson lived a secluded life in her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was a poet of great power and she maintained an active, diverse and intimate correspondence with many friends and relatives.  She sometimes included poems in her letters and the first line of one of her poems reads, “This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me”.

As a student at Bryn Mawr College in 1975 I heard the poet Adrienne Rich (1929 -2012) give a lecture on Emily Dickinson. Included near the end of the lecture which I have lately re-read is the statement, “It is as though the poet’s existence can be put to some use beyond her own survival.” Emily Dickinson’s 1,775 poems were found in a locked trunk in her room shortly after her death. Speaking to her niece Martha in this room in which she wrote and read Dickinson said, “Matty: here’s freedom.”

Here is a short quote from a poem    “For Memory”, from the book A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far by Adrienne Rich

“Freedom. It isn’t once, to walk out under the Milky Way, feeling the rivers of light, the fields of dark—freedom is daily, prose-bound, routine remembering. Putting together, inch by inch the starry worlds. From all the lost collections.”

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