I was very surprised to read this story about a monument that is planned for Charleston, SC:
In an event sure to rekindle the racially polarized debate over Denmark Vesey’s place in history, a site in Hampton Park was dedicated Monday for a monument to the man hanged for plotting a slave rebellion in Charleston.
A model of the new Denmark Vesey Memorial that will be erected in Hampton Park, designed by Ed Dwight.
To the local politicians, religious leaders and historians at the event, Vesey was a civil rights leader acting on a universal desire for justice that unites all people. Monument designer Ed Dwight favorably compared Vesey to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But this is Charleston, where the hanging of a portrait of Vesey in the municipal auditorium in 1976 — more than 150 years after Vesey was himself publicly hanged — prompted much criticism, and the theft of the painting. “It was very controversial,” College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers Jr. said. “People were writing to The (Charleston, SC) News and Courier expressing outrage that the portrait of a criminal could be hung in a public place.”
An article about the memorial, including a model of the memorial statue, is here.
There is no doubt that the story of Denmark Vesey is compelling. Wikipedia provides a summary:
In 1781, Vesey was purchased by Captain Joseph Vesey from the then-Danish Caribbean island of St. Thomas. He labored briefly in French Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), and then was settled in Charleston, South Carolina as a youth, where Joseph Vesey kept him as a domestic slave. On November 9, 1799, Denmark Vesey won $1500 in a city lottery. He bought his own freedom and began working as a carpenter. Although briefly a Presbyterian, Vesey co-founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. The church was temporarily shut down by white authorities in 1818 and again in 1820.
Inspired by the revolutionary spirit and actions of slaves during the 1791 Haitian Revolution, and furious at the closing of the African Church, Vesey began to plan a slave rebellion. His insurrection, which was to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, became known to thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and along the Carolina coast. The plot called for Vesey and his group of slaves and free blacks to slay their owners and temporarily seize the city of Charleston. Vesey and his followers planned to sail to Haiti to escape retaliation.
Two slaves opposed to Vesey’s scheme leaked the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey.
It’s important to note that no actual slave revolt took place. Vesey and his people were basically tried on the basis of conspiracy charges.
I admit to being surprised that something as controversial as this – a monument to a person who was accused of planning a slave revolt – is being built in South Carolina, of all places. The state has been embroiled in controversies over the presentation of history, such as the display of the Confederate flag on the state capital grounds.
But perhaps I’m overreacting. It could just be that things have progressed to the point that it’s possible to place these issues in public sites and public memory, even in South Carolina. It’s heartening to see, in any event.
One issue that Dr. Austin has addressed on numerous occasions is the mistaken beliefs held by some black intellectuals concerning black progress, or the lack thereof.
For example, consider these comments from Austin’s blog, regarding a review by Stanford University law professor Richard Thompson Ford of the book More Than Just Race by William Julius Wilson.
The second sentence of your New York Times book review of William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race states: “The poverty, violence and hopelessness in America’s inner cities have become increasingly dire in the four decades since the height of the civil rights movement.” This statement is not correct.
The Census Bureau reports that in 1966 the black poverty rate was 41.8 percent. In 2007, it was 24.5 percent, 17.3 percentage points lower than in 1966. The Center for Disease Control’s Health, United States, 2008 reports that in 1970 the age-adjusted homicide rate for black men was 78.2 for every 100,000 men. In 2005, it was 37.3 per 100,000. For black females, the 1970 homicide rate was 14.7 and 6.1 in 2005.
Many of the leading black public intellectuals are nostalgic for the past, but this is only because they do not accurately remember how rough the 1960s and 1970s were.
Just about every leading black public intellectual who discusses the black poor recently gets these and other basic facts wrong. The consensus among these black elites is that there is an epidemic of bad behavior among lower-income blacks that has led to a big increase in black poverty. Juan Williams states, “too many poor and low-income black people are not taking advantage of opportunities to get themselves out of poverty.” Cynthia Tucker claims, “drug use, poor classroom performance and the embrace of outlaw culture have done nothing but cement the black underclass at the bottom of American society.” Henry Louis Gates argues that America now has “the largest [black] underclass in our history” and “it’s time to concede that, yes, there is a culture of poverty.” You see that your second sentence fits with this theme.
Apparently, none of these commentators took much time to examine the black poverty trends. Over the 1990s, when lower-income blacks were supposedly mired in a culture of poverty, they experienced the largest reduction in black poverty since the 1960s. In 1992, the black poverty rate was 33.4 percent. By 2000, it had reached its lowest level on record, 22.5 percent. The culture-of-poverty idea or the “tangle of pathology” as William Julius Wilson has called it does not help us understand this historic decline in black poverty.
Just to be clear: Austin would be the first to say that the African American community faces a number of challenges, including internal ones, in dealing with problems such as poverty, crime and violence.
But even so, the idea that black people are stuck in a hopeless and helpless pathological spiral is unwarranted by the facts. The fact is, the black community has made significant social progress over the past 50 years.
It seems that we place an inordinate of effort in articulating what’s wrong with the black community, as opposed to detailing our successes, and pinpointing what works.
We need to talk more about how black people can win.
Here are links to some recommended reads.
Ellen Holly (1931- ) is an American actress, the first black actress ever to appear regularly on a soap opera. She played Carla Hall on “One Life to Live” from 1968 to 1985. She also played the president’s wife in “School Daze” (1988).
Holly grew up in New York, the daughter of a chemical engineer and a librarian. She studied acting at Hunter College and went on from there to act on stage. By 1956 she was on Broadway. She got in to the Actors Studio, the first black woman ever to do so. She later got parts in film and television too.
In 1968 Holly wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times about what it was like to be a light-skinned black woman. Agnes Dixon, who was then starting a new soap called “One Life to Live”, read that letter. It led her to create the character of Carla Gray (later Hall). She offered the part to Holly herself. Holly took it and became the first regular black female character on a soap. Other soaps soon followed their lead and had black characters of their own too.
I remember watching Holly on One Life to Live as a teenager. At the time, I didn’t appreciate that she was breaking new ground for black actors in the soaps.
I can see why so many people thought she was white: it wasn’t until the late 1960s that color TVs started selling in large numbers. On black and white TV, her light skin did make her look white.
She started out on the show doing a story line where she is a black person passing for white. A white male character on the show actually proposed to her, but she had to reject the proposal because she was not white. I later found out that the theme of the “tragic mulatto who passes for white” was a not an uncommon one for Hollywood (see Imitation of Life). But at the time, I was shocked that this kind of race-sensitive stuff was being shown on daytime television.
Monroe, Louisiana is a city of about 50,000 in north central Louisiana. It’s about a half hour drive from Grambling University. The following is from a recent story in the Monroe Free Press, which is one of the city’s African American newspapers:
Monroe: The city where it’s safe to say Nigga
City won’t fire or reprimand foul mouthed department heads
It started a few years back when we started reporting about the tendency of our police chief to curse and use extremely foul and graphic language publicly. In one instance he even told the police chief of Sterlington to get under the table and suck his…
There were no reprimands, lost days of pay, or other slaps on the wrist. The subliminal message is that such language is acceptable for department heads…
The most recent problems occurred this year when Sean Benton the Superintendent of Monroe’s Water Distribution plant was accused of referring to black employees of his department as Niggas and routinely using foul language and expletives in his references to others. Police had to be called once when Benton took off his shirt to fight a subordinate…
What raises eyebrows is that Benton is black. Most of his “Nigga” comments were made to blacks. The issue that this raises is whether or not “Nigga” is an generally offensive by whites but acceptable when used by blacks.
Because Benton has not been fired or reprimanded by the city’s black mayor it appears to be an endorsement of “Nigga” as acceptable language for a black professional in a department head status to use toward subordinates.
There’s been a slew of articles written in the past year or so about Tyler Perry. A recent piece about him in Entertainment Weekly, titled Tyler Perry: The Controversy Over His Hit Movies, claims to go “inside black America’s secret culture war”:
Today, Aptil 9th, is the 111th birthday of Paul Robeson. He is a giant of our culture whose contributions should be celebrated by all, black, white, or other.
This is from Robeson’s entry in wikipedia:
Paul LeRoy Bustill Robeson (April 9, 1898–January 23, 1976) was an Afro-American actor of film and stage, All-American and professional athlete, writer, multi-lingual orator, lawyer, and basso profondo concert singer who was also noted for his wide-ranging social justice activism.
A forerunner of the civil rights movement, Robeson was a trades union activist, peace activist, Phi Beta Kappa Society laureate, and a recipient of the Spingarn Medal and Stalin Peace Prize. Robeson achieved worldwide fame and recognition during his life for his artistic accomplishments, and his outspoken, radical beliefs which largely clashed with the colonial powers of Western Europe and the Jim Crow climate of pre-civil rights America.
Paul Robeson was the first major concert star to popularize the performance of Negro spirituals and was the first black actor of the 20th century to portray William Shakespeare’s Othello. His 1943-44 Broadway run of Othello still holds the record for the longest running Shakespeare play. Despite Robeson’s vocal dissatisfaction with movie stereotypes, his roles in both the American and British film industry were some of the first parts ever created that displayed dignity and respect for the African American film actor, paving the way for Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.
At the height of his fame, Paul Robeson decided to become a primarily political artist, speaking out against fascism and racism in the US and abroad as white America failed post-World War II to stand up for the rights of people of color. Robeson thus became a prime target of the Red Scare during the late 1940s through to the late 1950s.
His passport was revoked from 1950 to 1958 under the McCarran Act and he was under surveillance by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency and by British MI5 for well over three decades until his death in 1976. The reasoning behind his persecution centered not only on his beliefs in socialism and friendship with the peoples of the Soviet Union but also his tireless work towards the liberation of the colonial peoples of Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, his support of the International Brigades, his ardent efforts to push for anti-lynching legislation and the integration of major league baseball among many other causes that challenged worldwide white supremacy.
Condemnation of Robeson and his beliefs came swiftly, from both the white establishment of the US, including the United States Congress, and many mainstream black organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This mass vilification by the American establishment blacklisted and isolated Robeson for the latter part of his career.
Despite the fact that Paul Robeson was one of the most internationally famous cultural figures of his era, the persecution virtually erased him from mainstream culture and subsequent interpretations of 20th century history, including civil rights and black history.
Paul Robeson sings Ol’ Man River in the 2nd version (1936) of Showboat: “Colored folks work on de Mississippi / Colored folks work while de white folks play / Pullin’ dose boats from de dawn to sunset / Gittin’ no rest till de judgement day.”
The most notable aspect of Paul Robeson is that he always fought for the dignity and progress of the race, no matter what the personal cost. And as said above, that cost was very, very high.
To those who don’t know about Paul Robeson: please, find out and learn. This is a man who lost fortune, fame… everything… in the furtherance of the cause of African American progress.
His name deserves to be invoked among the pantheon of American and African American giants. Don’t let those who sought to destroy him and his legacy be successful.
Celebrate his life.
Black Leaders in the Colorado Legislature Make History
The Colorado legislature has only two black members. But now they are the two most powerful members of the 100-person body.
Colorado Democrats made legislative history by electing Rep. Terrance Carroll as speaker of the House and re-electing Peter Groff as Senate president.
It will be the first time in American history that the presiding officers of both chambers of a legislature will be African-Americans.
Two Omaha-area Black Women Elected to the Nebraska Legislature
For most of the past 30 years, Nebraska has had only one African-American serving in its single-house legislature. After the November election, it will have two, both female.
Incoming Nebraska State Senators Tanya Cook and Brenda Council
I want to give my readers a Buy recommendation for the October 2008 issue of American Prospect magazine. It contains a Special Report insert titled The Color of Opportunity – Narrowing Racial Divides and Expanding Prosperity for All that is required reading.
The American Prospect is a progressive magazine that covers political, economic, social, and cultutral issues. Thanks to the support of several foundations, the Prospect has prepared a detailed review of the economic state of Americans in general and African Americans in particular. Thankfully, they’ve made the Special Report available on-line.
This graphic shows several of the articles in American Prospect’s Special Report on race and economics.
The tone of the Special Report is set by the lead piece “The Economic Crisis in Black and White,” which states:
Today, the U.S. economy is facing one of its greatest challenges in decades. The recent seven-year economic expansion netted a record for producing the fewest jobs since Herbert Hoover was president. The median income for American households has not kept up with inflation. So as the economy slows, households are in a weaker position than they were when the expansion began in 2001.
Yet, while the economy has failed American workers — generating more inequality than growth, more debt than income — discussing solutions to America’s economic woes rekindles America’s racial cleavage. White voters are asked to weigh issues such as trade and its effects on wages and jobs, or the complications of providing health care and its effects on take-home pay and retirement benefits, or the rising costs of college tuitions on their children’s futures.
But black voters are too often given a lecture on presumed black pathologies — a lack of interest in education and the skills needed to compete, a weak sense of family, and high criminal proclivities.
One could easily assume that white America was doing fine, and if black America would only get its act together, black Americans would be doing just as well. You might almost believe that the hundreds of thousands of jobs America has lost in manufacturing in the last seven years were only lost by lazy, poorly educated African Americans too busy having babies to get the skills to keep their jobs. You might almost believe that gas and food prices were rising only for black Americans, preventing only their wages from keeping up with the rising costs of living.
This bifurcation in the discussion of America’s economic woes blocks identification of the true similarities and differences among workers of different races. The usual frame leads African Americans to experience white views as insensitive to their plight — while for whites it dangerously masks the broader rise in economic inequality.
Whites too easily see the black economic condition as the result of failing lifestyles, not a failing economy. Blacks too easily put the blame on either their own shortcomings or on discrimination.
Properly understood, what has befallen the black community should be viewed as water coming into the steerage section of an ocean liner — special problems for those getting wet but a clear sign the entire ship is in trouble. The current debate on black pathologies is delaying a call for getting out the lifeboats and ensuring a fair distribution of those lifeboats — and building a more sea-worthy ship for the next voyage. So far, the result has been, as with the Titanic, lifeboats for the rich in first class.
The articles in the Special Report are well written, informative, and enlightening. This is must reading, especially given the increasingly held view among experts that the American economy is going to get worse before it gets better.
Why can’t we get ahead? According to most black folks, it’s all our fault.
That’s one of the findings in a report by the Pew Research Center titled Blacks See Growing Values Gap Between Poor and Middle Class – Optimism about Black Progress Declines. The report is based on a survey on racial attitudes was conducted by the Center in the fall of 2007. The Center is a nonpartisan think tank.
According to the report:
Why Some Blacks Lag Behind: Personal Factors or Discrimination?
Fully two-thirds of all Americans believe personal factors, rather than racial discrimination, explain why many African Americans have difficulty getting ahead in life; just 19% mostly blame discrimination.
While clear differences exist between white and black views on this question, these racial disparities are significantly less pronounced than those observed in other areas covered by this survey, including questions that measured perceptions of the overall levels of discrimination faced by blacks.
Overall, most whites (71%), Hispanics (59%) and a narrow majority of blacks (53%) believe that blacks who have not gotten ahead in life are mainly responsible for their own situation. At the same time, three-in-ten blacks (30%) blame racism for failures to advance, a view shared by 24% of all Hispanics and 15% of whites.
The survey also suggests that attitudes about what is more to blame for the failure of many blacks to advance appear to be strongly related to perceptions of discrimination against blacks.
For example, about four-in-ten blacks (37%) who believe African Americans are often discriminated against when applying for jobs also say discrimination is the main reason why some blacks don’t get ahead. But among blacks who say employment discrimination is relatively infrequent, only 15% believe bias is the major obstacle for black advancement.
A similar pattern is apparent among whites. About a third (34%) of whites who believe job discrimination against blacks is common say discrimination is mainly to blame for the fact that many blacks fail to advance. This view is held by just 11% of whites who say this form of racial bias is uncommon. Similarly, four-in-ten Hispanics who say blacks frequently are discriminated against when seeking work say discrimination is to blame for lack of black advancement, roughly double the proportion of Hispanics (19%) who say anti-black bias in employment is rare.
The report has of food for thought. Highly recommended reading. I’ll make another post based on the report in a day or so.