Friday, November 6, 2009

A Full Review of "Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918" by Jeffrey B. Perry

Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 by Jeffrey B. Perry.New York: Columbia, 2009.

Jeffrey B. Perry has established himself as perhaps the single most scholarly authority on the life of autodidact Hubert Henry Harrison, having written his 1986 Ph.D. Columbia University dissertation on him and edited A Hubert Harrison Reader, published in 2001 by Wesleyan University Press. He has confirmed such a role with the publication of the first comprehensive biography of Hubert Harrison, subtitled The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. It is the first of a two volume biography and covers Harrison’s life up to the beginning of his leadership of the growing New Negro movement, not to be confused with the popular New Negro artistic movement that Alain Locke is given credit for. According to Perry, his biography “offers a missing vision that fills major gaps in the historical record” and “enables us to significantly reshape our understanding and interpretation of the first three decades of the twentieth century.” To underscore the lack of previous scholarly attention to Harrison, Perry includes a 1990 photo of Harrison’s unmarked grave in Woodlawn Cemetery, evidencing how “Harrison’s activism, brilliance, and intellectually potential has not been given sufficient recognition.” Perry in this biography significantly reshapes our understanding of this early twentieth century figure by showing a man who in words most articulately challenged American capitalist white supremacy. He shows Harrison’s battles as a proverbial David versus Goliath duel, where throughout Harrison’s life, this Goliath morphs and grows more formidable, manifesting itself first in the press (in battles against the New York Times), second in a political party (the Socialist Party), and later within Harlem in the “Negro” press (New York Age and the Amsterdam News). Harrison was born on April 27, 1883 in Concordia Estate on the Caribbean island of Saint Croix which was later sold from Denmark to the United States in 1917. Before we read his birth, Perry in his first chapter entitled “Crucian Roots,” provides a comprehensive history of Saint Croix, with particular attention to those who united with others to fight their economically exploited status, such as “Queen Mary” Thomas. In 1878 she helped organize a massive sabotage of fifty three sugar plantations fifteen stock estates to oppose the oppressive labor contracts, low wages, wage inequalities, unequal employment opportunities, vagrancy laws, lack of upward mobility, and reduced medical services. He includes a sketch of her and fellow Saint Croatian “Buddhoe” who thirty years earlier staged a nonviolent demonstration demanding their freedom.[1] Perry’s attention on these figures places Harrison in his proper historical context of organized resistance against oppressive colonial and neocolonial policy. It anticipates Harrison’s demand to challenge not only Dutch colonial policy but United States neocolonial policy in the Caribbean: “it behooves all those who vote to use it to bring effective pressure to bear against the horrifying brutalities which black people are now compelled to endure from the cracker in the Caribbean.”[2] It also anticipates his writings that laud his fellow Saint Croatians in their twentieth century battles against colonial policy:

“by organizing the workers the union was soon able to pull up wages to fifty cents, seventy-five and finally a dollar a day…These black Danish workers began to give evidence of a social vision far in advance of that which was being exhibited by white workers in the United States. They organized a bank of their own, secured a printing- press, published a newspaper and bought up seven of the estates on which they had formerly been employed. It became evident that they meant to try conclusions with the capitalists of the islands on their own grounds. Against such organized economic co- operation the planters could not hope to compete successfully. They realized that transfer to the United States, in which racial subordination was most effectively organized and intrenched in the politico-economic structure of the actual government, would redress the balance and restore their effective control over wages and working conditions.”[3]

The United States eventually restored the “control” that Harrison refers to, despite the institutions that Saint Croatians built to challenge exploitative capitalism. The “printing press” referred to here included the Herald edited in 1915 by David Hamilton Jackson, leader of the Saint Croix Labor Union and one of Harrison’s lifelong friends. These battles like the ones that Queen Mary, Buddhoe and David Hamilton Jackson fought are not intractable from the current battles against Caribbean and Latin American leaders like Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti and Manuel Zelaya in Honduras who, in trying to raise the minimum wage of their country’s masses, are forced to fight military coups either supported or allowed by neocolonial powers. Perry in providing this “rich history” shows how Harrison is predated by a strong legacy of colonial resistance that he continues in his writing. This first chapter includes a careful analysis of Harrison’s genealogy guided by a close reading of primary sources including Saint Croatian church registers and records from the Saint Croix African Roots Project (SCARP). While the arrival of Queen Mary set the stage for his birth on Saint Croix, the departure of his mother set the stage for his migration from there to the United States. Perry writes that on January 30, 1899, at age fifteen, Hubert lost his mother, and immediately his sister who then lived in Manhattan sent for him. In the summer of 1904, he moved further uptown and according to Perry who was given exclusive access to his diary by Harrison’s family, Harrison: “was a true autodidact—self-motivated and purposefully self-directed in his study, inspired by other autodidacts, and free to roam.”[4] According to his diary entries and Amsterdam News articles, Perry writes that Harrison’s participation in lyceums, as a listener, lecturer, and debater “provided a true scholarly training for his developing intellect.”[5] It is this participation that seems to train him to fight his first battle against Goliath; by the end of 1910, Perry writes that Harrison had twelve letters to the editors published in the New York Times, an extraordinary feat for an immigrant, especially an immigrant of color. One of these letters was a 1904 response to comments from Mississippi’s newly installed white supremacist governor James K. Vardaman who wrote in the Times that Negroes are “more criminal as freeman than as slaves” and those that “can read and write are more criminal than illiterate.”[6] Harrison challenged the assumption in Vardaman’s argument that crimes by Negroes were necessarily manifestations of Negroes vying “for social equality.”

Based on letters like these and diary entries of Harrison, Perry writes: “Harrison was consumed by his community based intellectual work and not the lack of money.” At the post office, he convened a study circle known as the Press Committee that intended “to reply to aspersions and misrepresentations of our people in the newspapers of New York City.”[7] This is what Harrison largely did in his several letters to the New York Times. Perry writes that this circle discussed race matters, books, and readings including those related to a history project on the “Negro in America.” Another of his projects included a textbook on Reconstruction and the more ambitious work on “Reconstruction and the Negro,” which was apparently not completed. His study included exhaustive study of books, two of which were written and sent by W.E.B. Du Bois. Up to 1910, he developed a race history class and a literary club at the White Rose Home for Colored Working Girls, the only exclusively colored settlement in New York. During this time he writes:

“my haunting of the YWCA, YMCA, the White Rose Home, disreputable clubs, streets of evil and sordid associations; my social work with the rest among the children of 62nd Street, my attendance at revival meetings and prayer meetings which but for the psychological interest would disgust me—all this by putting me in full-touch with the life of my people will aid me in understanding them better than many another and fit me to write their history.”[8]

By the end of 1909, Perry writes that he married Irene Louise Horton and began living up to severe limitations: “the conflict between family responsibilities and intellectual pursuits would affect his remaining years.”[9] His most influential letter was not in the New York Times, but the New York Age, a paper that would later contribute to his own paper’s demise. On December 8, 1910, he publicly critiqued Booker T. Washington by stating that Washington had lied in stating that whites were fair and honest in dealing with Negroes and that essentially “the right of Negroes to buy what they can pay for must be restricted in the interests of white people.”[10] This critique of Washington is related to Harrison’s larger and more relevant critique of the Republican Party being “the most corrupt influence among Negro Americans…Republicans subsidized these Black leaders [like Washington] who often posed as independent radicals and [who] were, in Harrison’s words were ‘intellectual pimps’ selling out the influence of any movement, church, or newspaper, with which they were connected.”[11] Perry writes that New York City’s leading Black Republican politician, Charles W. Anderson, a close personal and political friend of Booker T. Washington’s met with him and based on his letter, removed him from his position at the Post Office. Perry writes “on July 1 [1910] he was ‘failed of promotion,’ and on September 1 he was charged with leaving the floor of the work room before his tour of duty ended. Perry calls the action of Washington’s Tuskegee Machine dastardly: “on a personal level, its impact on Harrison and his family was extremely difficult.”[12]
Perry exposes the hierarchical tiers of white supremacy that function to silence people who challenge or sanction it, as Washington did. Charles W. Anderson is on one tier; above him is Booker T. Washington who seeks to ignore atrocities of lynching and race discrimination; above Washington are his white philanthropists who fund Washington to essentially restrict Negroes within their own capitalist interests. Harrison’s journey here is very much like that of the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man who is confronted with this multi-tiered white supremacy: first in the college president, Dr. Bledsoe, who expels the narrator from his livelihood as a working student in order to vindicate a white supremacist on a higher tier, Norton, the college philanthropist. Charles W. Anderson functions very much like Dr. Bledsoe in appeasing Booker T. Washington when Harrison critiques him. Both Bledsoe and Anderson ultimately appease white philanthropists and the functions their money are intended to maintain: keeping Negroes “restricted” to either conceding the pure benevolence of all whites like Harrison or to vocational trades and not to a greater liberal arts education like Ellison’s narrator. This is a kind of social order that allies of Washington believed was part of God’s natural “order.” In fact, Perry quotes Anderson saying of Harrison: “God is not good to those who do not behave themselves.”[13]
Very much like Ellison’s narrator, Harrison’s next foray is into politics, within the Socialist Party, where he battles white supremacy in a similar manner that Ellison’s narrator battles inside the “Brotherhood.” While it plunged him into poverty, Perry writes that “it was Harrison’s removal from the Post Office in September 1911 that freed his time for socialist activity.”[14] He used his experience in the Post Office to demonstrate in his writings the effectiveness of nationalization. In a world without television and internet, Harrison relied on “the tremendous power of special addresses” to convince listeners of the utility of socialist principles. Perry writes that Harrison’s work was so effective that the Socialist Party vote increased by six thousand, and they designated him “permanent organizer to be appointed for work among Negroes.”[15]
Ellison’s narrator was told by Brother Jack: “Get as many to join as possible. You’ll be given guidance by some of the older members, but for the time being you are to see what you can do. You will have freedom of action—and you will be under strict discipline to the committee.” As part of the Socialist Party, Harrison was also under “strict discipline” to the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party. Along with following their commands, he made in own independent voice known in a five part theoretical series called “The Negro and Socialism.” In it he responded to Socialist Party members who claimed that African Americans were a hindrance to social change. Like his 1910 analysis of Washington’s claim and like Du Bois’ recent sociological data suggests, he pointed in the other direction for the real problem. His second and perhaps most searing article as a Socialist Party organizer was entitled “Race Prejudice” where he argued that racism had economic causes; that capitalists consciously fostered race prejudice; and that capitalists benefited and workers lost from racial discrimination.[16]
As a Socialist Party speaker he pinpoints two essential issues. First was the central weakness of American unions which is relevant up to today, particularly the “protected group” among unionists that demanded for itself a larger share of its product than other unionists.[17] The large gap between rich and poor encourages this demand. Even without appealing to racist beliefs, Harrison exposes the problem of union organization. The second essential issue that Harrison focused on was how the work of Socialism should be carried among Negroes. His third part of the series called “The Duty of the Socialist Party,” made clear that “the Socialist Party was not a white man’s party or a black man’s party, but the party of the working class” and its historic mission was to unite the workers of the world. Harrison suggested that the Socialist Party reach across race lines by simply treating fellow Blacks as human beings. George Frazier Miller and W.E.B. Du Bois suggested they do this by avoiding altogether racially segregated locals of the Socialist Party. In response to these comments, Harrison defended the Socialist Party and insisted that no segregation was intended within it, although it recruited members through what they called a Colored Socialist Club. On some level, Miller and Du Bois could argue that Harrison was defending an organization whose direction was dictated by whites, under their discipline, as Ellison’s narrator was, just like Ellison’s Bledsoe was. The primary difference with Harrison however is the kind of work they were aiding: Harrison believed that through this work the fundamentally oppressively racist mores of society could be challenged if not broken, whereas Ellison’s Bledsoe, modeled on some level after Washington, were trying to accommodate such mores.
In the sixth chapter entitled, “Socialist Writer and Speaker,” Perry details Harrison’s battles with a Goliath in the form of a Socialist Party that, after funding a “Colored Socialist Party” would retreat closer to the political right that separated itself from the pro-sabotage wing of the International Workers of the World (IWW). They catered to the “protected group” that Harrison previously identified as the culprit of weakening American unionism. In addition, the Socialist Party refused to route their own candidate, Eugene Debs, to the South during the 1912 presidential campaigns because, according to Harrison, they were willing to betray “by silence the principle of inter-racial solidarity which they espoused on paper.”[18] This is yet another blow by Goliath to Harrison whose efforts were stopped by the intractable racial segregation of the American South. Harrison in a 1911 Call article asks: “I am wondering what the Socialist philosophy would be if Marx had been a Mississippian;”194 this is a veiled critique of the potential racism within Marx that white American Socialists do not interrogate, then and today.[19] According to Perry, Harrison reasons that if race and racism are sociohistorically derived, then racial oppression and racism can also be subjected to eliminative social action and strategies for change that challenges white supremacy. This is how Harrison lived his life; unlike Ellison’s narrator (and Ellison himself according to Rampersad’s biography of him), Harrison sought to develop the eliminative social action, as a Biblical David-like figure to challenge the Goliath-like white supremacy.
By the end of 1912, he began his separation from the Socialist Party with his support of Frederick Sumner Boyd, who was arrested for advocating sabotage, violating New Jersey state law. On principle, Harrison supported Boyd declaring that every blow struck by labor against capital is a blow for labor. Perry points out the hypocrisy of the Socialist Party in its hiring people to violently beat up scabs in strikes yet punishing Boyd and his supporters. Perry presents Harrison’s support of Boyd as part of a long line of vehement Crucian protest against private industry by any means necessary. This kind of protest is like Queen Mary Thomas’ protest where she supported the sabotage of sugar plantations when owners refused decent wages. Perry writes that Harrison’s personal leanings were more toward the IWW (International Workers of the World) because of their more advanced stand on the race question. The Executive Committee soon brought charges against Harrison for disobeying orders not to debate antisocialist Frank Urbansky. Around this time Harrison wrote a letter intended for the New York Call where he provided his rationale for leaving the Socialist party. Harrison was brought to trial and suspended for three months.
The Socialists, like the “Tuskegee Machine” and the Post Office would tolerate only so much outspoken independence. For the second time in three years Harrison lost his principal means of livelihood for expressing his views. Harrison’s experience with the Socialist Party is similar to Ellison’s narrator’s experience with the Brotherhood in that their experiences were based on ideas but on their speech. Brother Jack, leader of the Brotherhood tells the narrator: “You were not hired to think.”[20] This is essentially what the Executive Committee (EC) of the Socialist Party tells Harrison in his support of Boyd: that they, the EC, thought for the Party and not Harrison. Like the narrator, Harrison is confronted with the reality that the Socialist Party, like Ellison’s Brotherhood was more interested in cosmetic changes, in name, that included a “Colored Socialist Club,” rather than substantive changes that would require ending exploitative capitalism and truly challenging racism within the party and the greater society. In trying to reach the black worker, Harrison is determined to be “in full-touch with the life” of his people. While his withdrawal from the Socialist Party meant another victory for Goliath, it also freed him up to gain experience as a lecturer in New York City. Perry quotes Theodore Vincent stating: “the man most responsible for building the tradition of [Black street oratory] was Hubert H. Harrison.”[21]
Harrison started his own Radical Forum which would include lectures on Sunday afternoon on popular science, sociology, economics, history, religion, literature and drama. He delivered lectures for the Radical Forum six days a week at the New Harlem Casino to a largely white audience. A overarching point in his talks among a largely white audience was the fact that twelve hundred of the seventeen hundred million people of the world were “colored—black, brown and yellow” and were at peace only until the white minority determined otherwise:

“No capitalist employs a worker for two dollars a day unless that worker creates more than two dollars’ worth of wealth for him…therefore, every nation whose industrial system is organized on a capitalist basis must produce a mass surplus of products over and above, not the need, but the purchasing power of the nation’s producers. Before these products can return to their owners as profits they must be sold somewhere. Hence the need for foreign markets, for fields of exploitations and ‘spheres of influences’ in ‘undeveloped’ countries whose virgin resources are exploited in their turn after the capitalist fashion. But, since every industrial nation is seeking this same outlet for its products [such as oil in Iraq and Africa], clashes are inevitable and in these clashes beaks and claws—armies and navies—must come into play. Hence the exploitation of white men in Europe [such as the Cold War and its attendant battles] and America becomes the reason for the exploitation of black and brown and yellow men in Africa and Asia. And, therefore, it is hypocritical and absurd to pretend that the capitalist nations ever intend to abolish wars.”[22]

Along with his speaking stints, Harrison worked at the Ferrer Modern School as an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion. Up to 1915, his work at the Modern School seemed a welcome refuge from the white supremacist Tuskegee Machine and the Socialist Party. After his Harlem Casino lecture series ended, Gertrude Cohen, a librarian at the 135th Street Public Library suggested that he concentrate his efforts in the Harlem community. By the end of 1915, he seemed to synthesize his experiences with the Machine and the Socialist Party to develop in his lectures the need for race consciousness, which was basically a call for African Americans to recognize the racial oppression they faced and to use that awareness to unite, organize, and respond as a group. As long as the United States remained a white supremacist society, a needed and necessary corrective interest, was for African Americans to develop race consciousness. Harrison’s “race consciousness,” which well preceded Garveyism, encouraged a philosophy of self reliance that was marked contrast form that of New York’s two leading civil rights organizations, the NAACP, and the National League on Urban Conditions, whose work was premised on the idea of interracial cooperation. Harrison suggested that “white” support, allegedly necessary in financial and organizational efforts was in fact more a fetter than an aid. It was a fetter to Harrison’s resentment of rich and powerful white philanthropists who with their money expected a certain designation of Negro inferiority. However it was not a fetter to editors of Negro presses who were intent on remaining editors by any means necessary.
Harrison’s race consciousness message included developing a healthy skepticism of these kind of editors, some of whom would brag about controlling the Negro vote. By March of 1916, Harrison began his literary criticism by looking at drama in a searing piece he sold to the New York Times entitled “Leaves Torn From the Diary of a Critic.” In it he criticized the Lincoln Theater plays written by Billie Burke as “beneath contempt in structure, plot and dialogue.” Due to his criticism, the proprietors of the Lincoln Theatre, instead of seeing it as an opportunity for productive growth to expand their audience, the Lincoln Theater advertisers withdrew all their advertising from the Amsterdam News.[23] The Amsterdam News did not publish another review or article by Harrison for seven years according to Perry. This slight still plunged him into providing examples of peoples who utilized the race consciousness he described: “the Negro people of America would never amount to anything much politically until they should see fit to imitate the Irish of Britain and to organize themselves into a political party of their own whose leaders, on the basis of this large collective vote, could hold up Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, or another political group of American whites.”[24]
This “political group of American whites” included the proprietors of the Lincoln Theater who withdrew their funds by taking offense at ideas that challenged normal, white supremacist depictions of the Negro on stage. In response to editors that were powerless to these white supremacist actions, Harrison founded his own press. On June 18, 1917, he presented the first issue of The Voice, a newspaper that “agitated for intellectual and political independence…race first priorities, internationalism…mass appeal, and good editing.” This organ was founded after a well attended rally of over two thousand people at Harlem’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on 52-60 West 132nd Street, six days earlier on June 12, 1917. The attendance indicated Harrison’s apparent appeal in the Harlem community at this time. It is at this rally that Marcus Garvey gets his first public introduction, according to both Perry and Tony Martin, author of Race First. At this meeting, Harrison founds the Liberty League, whose mission included demanding that the federal government enforce the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments.[25] The Liberty League also called for federal antilynching legislation. Harrison during 1917 clarified not only a race consciousness but the “new Negro,” who will not tolerate the injustices of the past:

“the new Negro is demanding elective representation in Baltimore, Chicago, and other places…He is demanding as a right that which he is in a position to enforce…the old idea of Negro leadership by virtue of the white man’s selection has collapsed. The new Negro leader must be chosen by his fellows—by whose strivings he is supposed to represent.”[26]

Harrison in this year identifies the same problem he faulted Washington for: allowing white men to select Negro leadership. His founding of the Liberty League and defining of the New Negro, could not have been more timely. In the month following his launching of the Liberty League, East Saint Louis, Missouri, endured violent race riots, precipitated by the return of black soldiers from World War I, who were thought to give white workers “unfair” job competition. Perry writes that officials of organized labor served as prominent apologists for ‘white’ labor’s role in the rioting. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, placed principal blame for the riots on ‘the excessive and abnormal number of negroes’ in East St. Louis, while W.S. Carter, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, maintained that ‘the purpose of the railroads in importing Negro labor is to destroy the influence of white men’s labor organizations.’”[27]
White men in this case are too often what Harrison identified as the “protected group” that apparently depended on their protection so much they resorted to violence. In response, Harrison called for armed self-defense and related to the definitions of being a New Negro, and did it within a press that is not beholden to people without the race consciousness he has described. According to Robert A. Hill, The Voice was the radical forerunner of the periodicals that would express the developing political and intellectual ferment in the era of World War I. It was followed in November 1917 by The Messenger edited by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen and in August 1918 by the Negro World edited by Marcus Garvey and The Crusader by Cyril Briggs. These four publications, led by The Voice, Perry shows us, manifested “the principal articulation of the Negro mood.” The Voice sold out 3,000 copies after its first issue and sold 5,000 copies on its second issue. Perry writes that Fred R. Moore, editor of The Age, a staunch Republican and a former associate of Booker T. Washington declared that “the representative Negro does not approve of radical socialistic outbursts, such as calling upon the Negroes to defend themselves against the whites.” Harrison responded in The Voice by stating that the real difference between The Age and The Voice was whether Black people have a right to defend themselves against whites. The Voice’s answer was yes and The Age’s answer was no. Perry writes that because of the paper’s firm position of political independence, it lacked consistent support from the established political parties and political machines. The Voice explained that its policy was to take virtually any political advertisements, while simultaneously maintaining the right to openly criticize any advertiser. The main source of income came from the low-paid Black masses, whose resources were limited. However, Harrison moved in a way thought impractical by prominent supporters of The Voice when he tried to have the paper come out more frequently in the face of competing pressure from The Age and Amsterdam News. He faced even more frustration with the Socialist Party when they pitted A. Philip Randolph and Owen against two “electable” Black candidates. He withdrew permanently from the Party as a result of this. Perry writes that by June 26, 1918, major steps were taken to undermine his organization: “According to the Bureau of Investigation agent Joseph G.C. Corcoran, [his] surveillance is one of the earliest instances of the Bureau of Investigation’s monitoring of a Black radical.”[28] By next month, W.E.B. Du Bois had published probably the most controversial editorial of his life, known as the “Close Ranks” piece where he calls on African Americans to forget their special grievances and close ranks while fighting alongside white American soldiers. After being prompted by Walter Howard Loving in the Department of War, Harrison took Du Bois to task over this idea, and exposed Du Bois’ reasons for calling on African Americans to close ranks: “to secure a position as a semi-civilian captain under Major [Joel] Spingarn to carry on in that spirit.”[29] Harrison’s organs of Liberty League and The Voice served a huge proverbial blow against Goliath, mainly because these organs inspired extraordinarily influential radical thinkers such as Marcus Garvey, one of whose followers was Earl Little, father of Malcolm X, a symbolic figure of the Black Power movement. Harrison also inspired A. Philip Randolph who charted his own publishing path in The Messenger, winning a war of attrition against Jim Crow employment. Randolph’s work with E.D. Nixon lay groundwork for both the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington movement, both of which popularized Martin Luther King, Jr, symbolic leader of the Civil Rights movement. This influence presented by Perry underscores his point in the introduction that “Harrison is the key link in the ideological unity of the two great trends of the Black liberation movement—the labor and civil rights trend, associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. via A. Philip Randolph who was influenced by Hubert Harrison and the race and nationalist trend associated with Malcolm X via Marcus Garvey who was influenced by Hubert Harrison. Perry ultimately accomplishes his unprecedented task of filling in major gaps that reshape our understanding of the first three decades of the twentieth century. These gaps need to be accounted for in the authoritative texts of African American Studies, such as Introduction to Black Studies by Maulana Karenga. The biography concludes with a Perry noting the legacy that his Liberty League intended to carry: a legacy against white supremacy. This legacy sought to teach people how to use their education, formal or not, to improve their living conditions. This is what the Crucians born before Harrison’s birth and after did: Queen Mary Thomas practiced this legacy on the sugar plantation, Arturo Schomburg practiced this legacy by his founding of the Schomburg Center in Harlem. And Canada Lee continued on the dramatic stage helping to humanize the Negro character while breaking the back of Jim Crow.
Perry in Hubert Harrison shows us the bare machinations of white power, more than any other thinker in his time. He had an ability to command the attention of not only pedestrians on Harlem street corners, but also those who were the most willing administrators of white power: Booker T. Washington in the Tuskegee Machine, W.E.B. Du Bois in the United States War Department, or the Lincoln Theater proprietors. Each of these administrators is jarred if not shattered by Harrison’s forceful critique, ultimately railing against capitalist white supremacy, more than white supremacist capitalism. Harrison showed in his writings that it was the idea of racism that preceded the economic system, not the other way around. If the egg did come before the chicken, then the egg must be white supremacy, according to Harrison. His writings challenging white publishers refusal to sell black books prove this as well as his biting sarcasm of A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, critiquing their complicity in the Socialist Party’s plan to use them to run against two “electable” Black Republicans. This was a move that would weaken Harrison’s own race consciousness and ultimately advance white supremacy. His writings teach us to challenge the racist subconscious assumptions of not only print media as was in his time, but now the more pervasive television and internet media; they teach us that it is only by organization that oppressive forces in society can change. Instead of Ellison’s protagonist’s retreat into the underground, Harrison’s life encourages the kind of work that protagonists in Caribbean novels have done like Angel in Merle Collins’ Angel or Manuel in Jacques Roumain’ Masters of the Dew: organizing among the masses, seeking people with similar concerns and commitment against injustice and then acting as a group to correct the exploitative nature of capitalism.
Rhone Fraser

[1] Perry, Jeffrey B. Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918. New York: Columbia, 2009, p. 25-27. Henceforth referred to as “Perry.”
[2] Perry, Jeffrey B, ed. A Hubert Harrison Reader. Middletown (CT): Wesleyan, 2001, 157.
[3] Perry, Jeffrey B, ed. A Hubert Harrison Reader. Middletown (CT): Wesleyan, 2001, 245.
[4] Perry, page 57.
[5] Perry, page 72.
[6] Perry, page 67
[7] Perry, page 48
[8] Perry, page 99.
[9] Perry, page 110.
[10] Perry, page 128.
[11] Perry, page 102.
[12] Perry, page 133.
[13] Perry page 133.
[14] Perry, page 151.
[15] Perry, page 155.
[16] The legal foundations that encouraged upper classes within the private industry to divide lower classes by race is brilliantly laid out in A. Leon Higginbotham’s legal history called In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process, The Colonial Period (New York, Oxford, 1978).
[17] At the writing of this review, New York Post reported on September 1, 2009 that members of SEIU Local 1199 say their union leadership has already spent too much money on a dispute that includes a trustee of United Health Care West, a private insurance company. This trustee is part of the protected group that Harrison mentions being a roadblock to union solidarity. In Solidarity Divided, written by Fernando Gapasin and Bill Fletcher (Berkeley: University of California, 2008). The point is made that: “most of today’s unions have been shaped by the Gompers’ legacy and anticommunism. The early movement under Gompers generally combined decentralized authoritarianism with racism and sexism. The purge of Left-Led unions strengthened by a corporate culture within the official union movement that discouraged creativity, democracy, and any broad sense of class struggle” The trustee of a private insurance company like United Health Care is part of a corporate culture that benefits from using union dues on this publicized dispute that members are concerned about.
[18] Perry, page 194.
[19] Perry, Jeffrey B, ed. A Hubert Harrison Reader. Middletown (CT): Wesleyan, 2001, 194. American Socialists today still apply principles of Marxism without fundamentally critiquing his fundamentally racist notions of “progress” towards an ultimately Western nation-state that cooperates with the European exploitation of natural resource footnote to predates many critiques of Marxism, articulated by Cedric Robinson in The Anthropology of Marxism and Ama Mazama in The Afrocentric Paradigm.
[20] Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1953, 1995, p.469.
[21] Perry, page 230.
[22] Perry, page 232.
[23] Donna Walker-Kuhne in Invitation to the Party: Building Bridges to the Arts, Culture and Community (New York, TCI, 2005) has written effective strategies for theater production groups to increase and diversify their audiences; however many productions choose not to follow them and continue with inadequate, incomplete plot lines mainly because their white supremacist ideas that would limit a more developed play take precedence over their economic interests. Harrison has written a similar critique of white publishers, choosing to prioritize white supremacist ideas over profit, such as the idea that books by black authors or about black people simply will not sell.
[24] Perry, page 266.
[25] Perry, page 288. Perry called The Liberty League’s demand that the Fourteenth Amendment be enforced “instructive” because the amendment was previously used as a principal weapon in the service of big business and white supremacy. Misuses of this amendment is described in Charles Ogletree’s brilliant legal and personal history called All Deliberate Speed (New York, W.W. Norton, 2004). In it, he describes an originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. According to the originalist constitution applications, the Fourteenth Amendment is still not being applied according to its original intention in the recent U.S. Supreme Court case of Ricci v. DeStefano, where Justice Kennedy who writes the main opinion claims that the city violated the Fourteenth Amendment rights of a white citizen being denied, not employment, but promotion, on a job. Fourteenth Amendment cases generally applied to African Americans seeking protection for more basic living rights which included employment and not promotion the way the Ricci used the amendment for. The Liberty League’s work is instructive here and suggests a whole new demand for judicial branches applying their originalist interpretation to Fourteenth Amendment cases.
[26] Perry, Jeffrey B, ed. A Hubert Harrison Reader. Middletown (CT): Wesleyan, 2001, 139.
[27] Perry, page 297.
[28] Perry, page 384.
[29] Perry, Jeffrey B, ed. A Hubert Harrison Reader. Middletown (CT): Wesleyan, 2001,172.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Why I Was Arrested and Jailed Yesterday

For the first time in my life on Friday, October 30, 2009 I was arrested because the “public option” has been mangled, compromised by President Obama on September 9th of this year and most recently on Thursday, October 29th of this year by Nancy Pelosi. The definition of the public option has changed drastically during the course of this year. At first it was closer to its actual name, being “public,” meaning available to everybody. Since Obama’s September 9th speech so many specific conditions apply to this “public option” that its availability is severely restricted. It is not public anymore. Neither is it an option. According to their income, people are either penalized for or restricted from switching from their employment-based healthcare to it. However the final nail in the coffin for “healthcare reform” is Nancy Pelosi’s fateful decision Thursday to remove what would have been a very important condition of this celebrated healthcare bill: the Kucinich amendment. This amendment would have allowed states such as Pennsylvania to enact their own single payer healthcare system instead of relying on private insurance, which is trying to profit from healthcare by denying claims. Psalm eighty two verse three says Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. In order to do this, it is essential to try and stop the continued exploitation by private insurance.
It is absolutely unconscionable that in this country there are billions to be spent on war yet private insurance profiteers insist on making money from a person’s health. Over forty seven million people in this country are now without health insurance. Obama and Pelosi more than anything are truly vested in keeping private insurance pleased; making sure they continue to make profits at the expense of others’ healthcare. The largest private insurer in Pennsylvania is Independence Blue Cross (IBC) who regularly denies life-saving doctor requested care based on “pre-existing conditions.” IBC continually wastes money on excessive CEO salaries and advertising that could go towards care. Their CEO Joseph Frick was paid $2.7 million in 2007. They’ve spent over $5 million on advertising. In 2004, they charged 3,100 low-income families $45 a month even though they were eligible for free government health insurance. Last year they’ve spent over $16 million in lobbying to keep this broken system alive, instead of using it to actually provide people meaningful healthcare. So yesterday with a group organized by Student Healthcare Action Network, Healthcare NOW!, Healthcare for All Philadelphia, I sat in front of the headquarters of Independence Blue Cross Blue Shield near the corner of 19th & Market Streets and demanded to meet with the CEO Joseph Frick who said in an Inquirer op-ed that “we support health reform that builds on the current employment based-system.” Why is that the case when we’re in the worst job recession since the great depression? When an IBC representative said he could not allow that, we sat down right in front of their headquarters’ doors. And stayed. Because I was tired of Obama compromising healthcare to private insurance, while more children go uninsured. Because I was disgusted by Pelosi’s ultimate compromise to remove the Kucinich amendment, certainly at the behest of private insurance. Because so many more people will be forced to have money in order to have healthcare. Because two people with incredible potential to do the right thing, capitulated to corporate interest yet again.
I will not cooperate with two people who have on an individual level allowed capitalist materialism to remove their conscious regarding healthcare for people without jobs. For children. Two people who probably have families of their own and on an individual level are absolutely covered, but have been swayed by powerful industry to ignore the masses of people who make drastic, fateful decisions for their healthcare. I often convince myself that if I was in their position, regardless of my income, I would not care how much money was being thrown my way, I could not allow, first of all, a public option, to be eliminated from being an option. And second, I could not allow an amendment to allow states’ rights, in a culture created and dominated by people who championed such rights, to remove the ability for states to enact their own single payer system. So I sat. And thought that if Obama and Pelosi, allowed private insurance to have its way and do absolutely anything to us as a nation, then I wouldn’t. So I sat with the knowledge of the historical function of insurance in the United States of America.
That word was the reason that so many enslaved were thrown overboard slave ships, because traders deliberately overestimated the number of Africans they had. And those landed buyers, also known as insurers, refused to pay these traders any more than what they paid according to their documented insurance policy. So traders would very deliberately capture hundreds more enslaved Africans than these documented policies agreed to. Some decided that if they had hundreds more Africans than what their landed buyers were willing to pay, you might as well throw the enslaved Africans you don’t need overboard. They’re expendable. They’re more like pieces on a checkerboard than actual human beings. They are property to profit off of, and nothing else. Markus Rediker in The Slave Ship writes:

“Captain Luke Collingwood sailed with his crew of seventeen and a ‘cargo’ of 470 tight-packed slaves from West Africa to Jamaica. The ship soon grew sickly: sixty Africans and seven members of the crew perished. Fearful of ‘a broken voyage,’ Collingwood called the crew together and told them that ‘if the slaves died a natural death, it would be the loss of the owners of the ship; but if they were thrown alive into the sea, it would be the loss of the underwriters’ who had insured the voyage. Some members of the crew, including mate James Kelsal, objected but Collingwood prevailed, and that evening the crew threw 54 slaves, hands bound, overboard. They threw another 42 over the side two days later, and 26 more soon after. Ten of the enslaved watched the hideous spectacle and jumped overboard of their own volition, committing suicide and bringing the number of deaths to 132. Collingwood later pretended a lack of water was the cause of his action, but neither crew nor captives had been put to short allowance, and indeed the ship still had 420 gallons when it docked. The case was tried in court when the insurer refused to pay the claim and the owners sued in response” (Rediker, 240, 241; italics in original, underlines are inserted).

The owners believed they could profit from what the insurers promised to pay them. If they were paid by the insurer amount X for Y number of enslaved Africans, yet the owner took more enslaved Africans than Y, then the owner figures he is liable to more than X for the enslaved he brings. Rediker’s case here shows how Collingwood saw these enslaved Africans as simply means to make profit from the insurer and nothing else. The insurer thought likewise and went to court based on his capitalist decision to make money. This case was not over the atrocity of throwing human beings overboard. It was over two capitalist pigs at one trough trying to barrel each other over for more food, in this case more money. The owner sued the insurer because the owner wanted his money. It is doubtful that the owner and the insurer here were suing for anything else besides money. Certainly not the humanity of those thrown overboard. Decisions like these are the basis of U.S. society. In a very real way, this is exactly what private insurance companies today are fighting each other for, pouring billions of it into Washington to secure the favor and protection of Obama and now Pelosi. And they have succeeded in seizing such protection. People are insured in order to profit from them, says the insurer. Like the insurers who sued Collingwood, private insurance today figures that if they pay an entity something like Washington, they should get something in return. Obama and Pelosi have made sure that, like Collingwood’s insurers, they got back what they put in. This is the American way. However, at what expense? At the cost of millions more being uninsured and people making unfair, inhumane decisions all in order to pay money for their own or loved ones healthcare? Like Collingwood, private insurance sees people as just pieces on a checkerboard to be moved around. Private insurance, Obama and Pelosi have proven the triumph of capitalism, and shown us citizens of the world that there’s definitely a piece of Luke Collingwood in Obama and Pelosi. It just needs some priming, some pruning, facilitated by money. This is why I sat. Because insurance has been, is, and continues to play with people’s lives, treat their lives as expendable, all for capitalist profit. For private insurance CEOs to get rich.
I was arrested and taken to what is called the Roundhouse where I was fingerprinted, photographed and jailed for about fourteen hours. In most of those fourteen hours when I was not fingerprinted or interrogated, I had a lot of time to think about why I am on this earth, about how my ancestors endured so much so that I could be here, in this cell, aghast at how private insurance is protected by the state. Looking at those bars I understood and felt the cold power of private insurance to make money. Their ability to confine me if I do not tow their line, follow their order by continuing to ignore the millions that are uninsured was made crystal clear. I have been encouraged to ignore Psalm eighty two verse three and essentially the Gospel that Jesus came to bring. Their ability to confine me and encourage me to be happy was cynical then. Especially since, as a black man, I should be psychologically more at ease, since after all, Obama is president, and is black and, like Dr. King, he won the Nobel Peace Prize; these conservative Republicans just want to see him fail and as a Democrat, we as Americans just have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and support him against the Republican attacks one hundred percent. My reply to that argument is a resounding no. Not when insurance continually puts profits before actual healthcare. Not when millions continue to go uninsured. Not when people try and profit off of others’ bodies in the name of insurance, the way that slave ship insurers tried. I thought about Rosa Parks who was arrested. Martin Luther King. But more close to me right now, I thought about A. Philip Randolph who with Chandler Owen was arrested in Cleveland in 1918 for violating the Espionage Act by encouraging blacks in downtown Cleveland to resist World War I conscription and fight at home to “make America unsafe for hypocrisy.” Their bail was set at $1,000 and they were held in jail two days. For refusing to fight a war on principle that, like the “public option” debate, is concerned with forcing this country to have the moral, political will to do the right thing. Despite the money. This is a test of moral courage that both Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi have failed in their unthinking approval to the financial principle of infinite profit at the expense of American lives. It is time that Americans begin believe that the profit of a few should not come at the expense of millions. And act on it. To end this destructive legacy of private insurance.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Lesson of Corbin Teal: A Full Review of "Things of Dry Hours"

August 1, 2009
A full review of Naomi Wallace's Things of Dry Hours by Rhone Fraser

In a three hour, two act play, all of which takes place within the home of an Alabama Communist Sunday school teacher named Tice Hogan, playwright Naomi Wallace manages to invert traditional Western power structure in the United States. She presents a setting that is reversed from the world we have come to allow and accept, where whiteness means weakness instead of power; where lust is subdued instead of overindulged; and most important, where the question of whether human nature can change is engaged instead of ignored. Tice (Delroy Lindo) is a recently laid off steel mill worker who actively attempts to change human nature through his Communist teachings, as a dues paying member “and unit leader of the Communist party of Alabama.” To be Black and Communist in Alabama was a dangerous thing to be, especially during the Great Depression. Tice is both at this time and seeks to expand Communist membership. He opens this play detailing how industry and the state can unite to crush labor organization:

“It is 1932. In Birmingham, Alabama. And the world is a furnace. For a while the fat of fire drips down the monstrous chains of a few small pale gods, iron ore workers, steel workers, coal miners, black and white, are out of work, out of world. National Guard shoots diamonds into the backs of strikers in the park. The Red Cross waves cold pistols over angels on relief as the Share Cropper Union smokes in gun battles with police. Bollweevils grow so fat they use them for tires and judases bloom. And all the while, T.C.I., Tennessee Coal and Iron, cathedral of steel and smoke, leans down over the city’s crib from all directions and smothers her in her sleep… I, Tice Hogan, have two books. And I am alive to all things that bind us.”

Wallace’s poetic language shows how people who lived in this time relied on nature and used it to understand the world they lived in. Tice’s description of T.C.I. as one that “smothers” a city exposes the ways that business interests persistently tried to undermine or destroy organized labor. The “two books” that Tice relies on to be “alive” are the Bible and the Communist Manifesto. He uses knowledge from both to fight the “things that bind us.” From Tice we learn not only the power of private industry, but the need to choose specific causes to fight for. One of the fights Tice wages is the fight to be paid actual wages rather than in scrip, which was a document that could easily be manipulated by industry to deprive workers of their earnings. We are introduced to his daughter Cali (Roslyn Ruff) who works as a washerwoman for the Alabama elite. She seeks female companionship for a father who busies himself in book learning, telling him: “that’s what reading a book so long does to a man: thins the muscle. A bird could land on your arm just like a wire.” Tice urges his daughter to socialize and seek a husband. Yet like her father, Cali also dodges a romantic relationship: “I just want to be left alone.” She however secretly longs for the kind of relationship her father had. While he’s sleeping in scene three, she asks how it feels to be loved up “’til you couldn’t stand it anymore.” Both father and daughter have lost their spouses and have resigned to focusing on their work: Tice to his teaching and Cali to supporting the two of them. In order to provide the money required for Tice’s teaching, Cali endures the predatory behavior of her white male bosses. Wallace portrays her dealing with this in a very sensitive way. She role plays her bosses molesting her by using shoes as puppets, imitating the voice of her sexual predator boss: “Touch my seams, they’re so hot they’re burnin’…Kiss it, you whore.” Wallace credits several academics for providing the historical information “crucial” to the making of this play, one of them being Tera Hunter, author of To Joy My Freedom, who in it writes that “Black women were the victims of sexual abuse in their workplaces, yet accused of being their aggressors” (106). Cali deals with such abuse by role playing, to Tice’s disapproval. We see here the helplessness of Black men at this time in being unable to protect their daughters because of their unemployment; Cali depends on her income to help support her and her father’s teachings, despite her bosses’ sexual abuse.
Wallace provides the catalyst of this plot through the actions of a white runaway foundry worker, Corbin Teal, who arrives one night, claiming he’s running from the police for striking a foreman and needs a place to stay. From the moment Tice meets him, he is extraordinarily suspicious, questioning everything about him, refusing to divulge even the smallest bit of information, and demanding he leave immediately for his own daughter’s safety. Corbin (Garret Dillahunt) is convinced that Tice is a ‘dirty Red,’ and threatens to leak his Communist work to the police if he does not let him stay. Tice lets him stay, but only on the condition that he leaves by the end of the week. Tice takes the opportunity in these days to teach Corbin, despite his illiteracy, Biblical and Communist principles. He teaches Corbin that “Jesus Christ says the poor…are brothers;” that our minds are broken, and the Communist Manifesto puts it together. More importantly however, Tice teaches Corbin the need to resist labor exploitation by uniting across race: “We’re a party of black and white. And black and white must unite.” This is a similar lesson that Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Melvin Tolson in The Great Debaters was trying to teach, and unlike the film, Wallace’s play ultimately shows how fidelity to the white race destroys potential for labor organization and can ultimately kill working class whites like Corbin. Tice uses the metaphor from nature of the apple to illustrate the importance of uniting across race:

“TCI and work relief want us to shrink up so small we forget we’re apples and think we’re just the…shriveled sum of our seeds…”We’re the apple, branch and the whole damn tree as well. We will not be divided in to our parts. We will be whole or nothing…Therefore, we jobless…apples got to demand a minimum work relief of ten dollars a week, paid in cash, not scrip, and free car fare, free coal. So we’re going down to city hall at dusk and we’re going down together, as a…bushel to get what we need.”

Corbin defiantly says to Tice: “You want to make us believe that we’re equal, me and you.” Tice replies: “I’m not here to teach you to see me as an equal, to behold my humanity. You’re here to learn why you’re so small..all squashed up in the back of your nex, your eyes, your big blue eyes, like two assholes holding their breath.” He tells Corbin of the “smothering” of T.C.I. when he tells the fate of Clyde Johnson who had his fingers broken, J.W. Davis who was lynched, and Ralph Grey who was shot to death, all due to T.C.I’s intimidation of labor organizers. Tice says to Corbin: “That’s where the bosses want us to be, face to face, rather than…” Corbin interrupts: “side by side.” By this time, Cali has noticed Corbin by himself, rehearsing a plan to cut Tice’s throat, saying “Think you’re smart?” Here we see how Corbin as a white man is threatened not only by Tice’s intelligence as a Black man, but his fidelity to Communist principles. In the first scene that Corbin appears, he begins spouting ignorant slogans, about Communists being anarchist, that Tice grammatically corrects in a belittling way. Earlier Corbin asks Cali to call him “sir” twice for the simple fact that he liked it. Wallace shows how Corbin depends on his privilege of whiteness as basically one of the few shreds of dignity left in the refuge of Tice’s household. He tells Tice: “you will teach me to read. And that way I’ll know everything you know.” When Corbin is alone with Cali and tries to convince her of his decency, she tests whether Corbin is the good citizen he claims to be by taking her role playing to a whole new level. She wraps one of her bed sheets around him, rubs soot on his face in order to make him play her, while she rubs porridge on her face in order to play her sexual predator. She then taunts him, saying: “You want it all. I see the lust in your eyes, bitch. I smell the sex on your breath. You’re just waiting for me to take it, aren’t you? You ought to be ashamed. Wet as you are. I could turn you inside out.” Wallace’s stage directions read after this point: “Corbin violently frees himself from the sheet, he pins Cali to the floor and kneels over her. He unbuckles his belt. It seems he is ready to force her. Cali strikes him in the face. He freezes.” Cali says, vindicated: “I see you clear: a decent man.” Cali’s slap represents the serious inversion of power within Tice’s household: a place where Corbin is forced to subdue his own lust in order to prove his decency; a place where a white man can earnestly apologize for his sexual assault of a Black woman; a place Black women are able to have agency over their own body. Cali tells Corbin: “you will not dream on my body” and mean it. This act frees Cali and for the first time she seems able to perceive sex with a white man as one that is not oppressive but potentially loving. Cali’s slap also frees Corbin because it teaches him other meaningful modes of communication besides aggression. Corbin’s later dialogue with Tice proves this when he says that all Tice knows how to do is talk: “I think a man’s natural state is to bleed not to talk.” Before this line, he takes out a razor and cuts his own arm. Tice replies “you’ve got it backwards. We talk so we don’t have to bleed.” Tice sees the importance of diplomatic negotiation whereas Corbin questions its use by cutting himself, expressing his comfort in his language of aggression. Tice proceeds to make extra clear Corbin’s privilege of whiteness, a concept popularized by academic David Roediger in his work The Wages of Whiteness. Whiteness becomes a barrier that prevents many workers like Corbin from uniting across racial lines. When Tice teaches Corbin that whiteness is a matter of “seeing,” a mere social construction, Corbin goes to extraordinary lengths to renounce this privilege by planning to take off all his clothes in front of Tice and Cali. Tice calls this “a test to see what lengths” Corbin will go through “to make himself a new man.” Corbin undresses entirely in an attempt to reconcile, but in a symbolic and not substantive way. He tells Cali: “I’ll stop being what I am. Your father says its possible.” Later, Corbin’s persistence pays off and he develops an obvious physical attraction for Cali who lets him kiss only the hand that she holds up to her lips. When Cali tells Tice that Corbin wants her, Tice tells her “there’s no meanin’ to it.” He is convinced however that what does have meaning is his effect on Corbin: “he’s going out of this house a changed man.” When Tice says he thinks him and Corbin could work together, Corbin resorts to the same level of racism he had before entering Tice’s household: “I don’t want to work with you. I don’t want anything to do with you. I just want to walk out of this house and forget it all.” Tice tells him that he is “no longer the same man,” because he is aware of the way the race struggle is used to perpetuate the class struggle of rich over poor. Corbin in frustration, resorting to his comfortable racism, grabs Tice by the neck and pulls a razor on Tice in what is the climax of this play. Corbin demands that Tice leak the names of the core of the party. Tice gives him three names. Cali suddenly arrives and threatens to kill him with her axe unless he releases her father. He retreats when she gives him three pages that she says are the “inner workings of the Party.” When Corbin leaves, Tice tells Cali that the names he gave were those of T.C.I. board members, and Cali reveals that T.C.I. has in fact killed Corbin. Cali tells Tice that the pages she gave him were pages of his Bible, knowing Corbin could not read.
Corbin serves as a catalyst for both Tice and Cali to get in touch with their emotional sides. After Corbin arrives and leaves his household, Tice renounces his book knowledge and decides not to return the party. After Corbin has lit a flame in Cali, she finally takes her father up on his plea to socialize and she joins the Joy Boy Club. She also starts seeing the world more like her father, when she sees the crack in their ceiling as a map, which was how Tice saw the Manifesto. Wallace reverts the racist theory spouted by France’s prized colonist, former Senegalese president Leopold Senghor who said “to feel is African, to reason is Greek.” Corbin is a white man who admittedly is more carnal than Tice and Cali and who in their company starts to reason in a way he’s never done before. Conversely, Corbin and motivates Tice and Cali to become more carnal in their own way. Tice changed Corbin while Corbin changed both Tice and Cali. However Tice, by changing Corbin made him as a working class whiteman unable to maximize the privileges of his whiteness, for the simple reason that he thwarted Corbin’s function as a scab or Communist spy. Corbin was too vested in and blinded by his own contempt of Tice, his own racism, to notice how T.C.I. was using him to further his own exploitation. He leaves his house arming himself with the racism he needs to wear and claim in order to report the names to T.C.I., except he reported fake names resulting in his death at the hands of T.C.I. Private industry has successfully used the issue of race to divide labor organization, and plays on Corbin’s allegiance to the cause of demoralizing labor instead of strengthening labor. Tice concludes through Corbin’s ultimate betrayal that human nature cannot be changed, and is ultimately limited by its own defection. In Corbin’s case, his own whiteness. Ultimately the kind of human nature that Wallace is suggesting we challenge is the human nature specifically of exploitative business leaders that will do anything at all costs for maximum profit. Corbin has proven that his fidelity to those business interests are more important than his fidelity to the friend in Tice he’s gained over the past few days. This, according to Eric Williams, was the engine of the European slave trade.
The issues presented in this play are relevant to issues today, particularly two: issues regarding the current debate in the Congress over the American Clean Energy and Security Bill and the Employee Free Choice Act. Forces derived from those such as T.C.I. represent the coal industry in Alabama which diligently lobbied to heavily weaken the American Clean Energy and Security Bill earlier this year. In his talk with Amy Goodman, Tyson Slocum from Public Citizen reported that there were several closed door meetings between House Representatives and coal industry lobbyists to make the bill more favorable to coal industry emissions that add to our global warming crisis. Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of global warming pollution in the U.S. The closed door meetings that were not visible to the public are similar to the closed door meetings, away from the audience’s view, that went on between Wallace’s Corbin and other spies like him whom T.C.I. used to weaken labor. T.C.I. succeeded in using Corbin the way that the coal industry uses some elected officials in the U.S. House to insert incredibly weak targets in this “Clean Energy” bill. According to Carroll Muffett of Greenpeace, “These weak targets are made even worse by 2 billion tons per year of allowable offsets. Offsets allow polluters to put off for more than a decade of real cuts in their emissions. The offsets are so high that they will exceed the actual pollution reductions required until at least 2026. That’s time we don’t have!” U.S. Representative Artur Davis in a June 26, 2009, C-SPAN interview that the bill would “wreak havoc” on the coal industry because of the cap and trade provisions that he claims would cost jobs in the short term. This short term “loss” would hurt maximum short term profit for the coal industry, which Davis as a congressman is fighting for. He is not considering long term advantages of cutting carbon emissions that could ultimately restore jobs. It allows a domestic manufacturing market for more green jobs, besides the decades-old coal burning-energy. Davis’ stated reasons for opposing this bill favors pollution over economic and environmental progress. The loyalty to big business, despite its destructive effects, that Corbin represents is still present in the twenty first century. Very much like the “Clean Energy” bill, the Employee Free Choice Act was weakened behind closed doors for the benefit of industry. Perhaps the most important provision of this bill was the “card check” that would have required employers to recognize unions if a majority of workers signed cards saying they wanted a union. Steven Greenhouse reported in The New York Times that “moderate” Democratic Senators such as Blanche Lincoln said were swayed by business’s vigorous campaign. How exactly were they swayed? By only money? Do we know exactly how Corbin was swayed to serve the interests of T.C.I.? By money? His whiteness? Both? Was it by the belief that people of color cannot be allowed to “cheat the system” at all costs? What we learn from Wallace’s play is that despite these sways or campaigns, industry has the power to crush and silence oppressed people by playing on their most illogical fears, fears rooted in a fundamental racism or irrational concern for “cheating the system.” American government’s laissez-faire, hands-off regulation free policy towards private industry has been the biggest cheater. Such open influence of industry on lawmakers will only further industry’s ability to keep organized labor under their thumb. This same issue is seen in the current healthcare debate. Private insurance uses money, lies and racist fears to stoke some of America’s suburban or rural residents to deny healthcare and voice opposition at the Health care town hall meetings that have been going on in the country over the past month. Most importantly, Wallace's character of Corbin Teal suggests that white Americans will be killed by the business interests they serve unless they resist identification as a pre-sixties privileged white person (as Corbin couldn't in his wanting Cali to call him sir, and in his calling Tice arrogant) or a post-sixties taxpaying citizen. The latter identification is merely a mutation of the former. Americans engage in the same racist politics as Corbin Teal, that benefit the coal industry and the private insurance industry in their protest against cap and trade and the public healthcare option. Like Corbin, they will be prematurely killed because they will be unable to think of themselves other than the taxpaying citizens whose issues of concern must be chosen by the mainstream media. Private insurance has learned how to restrict health coverage along racial lines, as Earl Ofari Hutchinson’s July 21st entry shows, and today’s vocal opponents of the public option are basically present day manifestations of Corbin Teal that work to deny healthcare against other racial groups( These vocal opponents are used in a cynical way by private insurance the way that Corbin Teal was used by TCI. Even if the public option were made available, there would be less people who could afford to pay for it due to the deepening recession. But private insurance uses money which they could actually use to do what they claim do, provide coverage, to instead pay people to disrupt town hall meetings and advance racism. This play suggests we think outside the box. Corbin Teal represents this inability to do so. However up until he leaves the Hogan household, he is at least offered an alternative way of thinking and being, where people suppress their feelings and work together to accomplish serious gains against oppressive business interests. Robin D.G. Kelley in Hammer and Hoe writes that “like their enslaved ancestors of the antebellum South, black Alabama Communists understood the terrain of struggle and relied primarily on evasive, cunning forms of resistance” (101). Wallace shows how both Cali and Tice resorted to cunning forms of resistance. Cali plays on Corbin’s illiteracy to save her father and Party members; Tice resists divulging the names of Party members and decides to leave the Party in an effort to ultimately save it and help maintain its force for serious change in Depression Alabama. Kelley writes that by the 1940s, the Alabama Communist Party had become a kind of loosely organized think tank whose individual members exercised considerable influence in local labor, liberal, and civil rights organizations such as the SNYC (Southern Negro Youth Congress), Alabama Committee for Human Welfare, the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), the AFU (Alabama Farmers’ Union). The kind of work that Tice and Cali did laid the ground for influential events and organizations in Alabama that led to even more influential events such as the Montgomery bus boycott. In about three hours, we learn from Naomi Wallace how the work, the cunning resistance of Tice and Cali Hogan has helped us get closer to these organizations, trying to achieve “a nonracist, democratic South.” Wallace shows change can most reliably come by categorically reversing the status quo of power structure in the United States to the point where whiteness and sexual abuse is renounced, where feelings are subdued for the purpose of fighting for a greater, more important cause. Wallace suggests that one must not only engage the oppressive ways of human nature, but do as much as within you to unite with those who are as concerned.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Message to President Obama on July 3rd

On the day before Independence Day 2009, Obama's first Independence Day as U.S. President, I sent him the following e-mail asking that he allow the safe delivery of the supplies that the FREE GAZA MOVEMENT including former U.S. Representative Cynthia McKinney sent for Gaza. What better way to celebrate Independence Day than to fight for the Independence of Palestinian people (and us who are also killed by violence of guns made in the U.S., this country's apparent precoccupation with locking people up, and what King called the "deadening complacency" of the MSM and all the trinkets (Blackberries, iPods, video games) we have now)?! An increasing number of Americans and world citizens have been repeatedly disappointed with Obama's lack of action on the belligerence of the Israeli military in seizing and detaining the FREE GAZA MOVEMENT shipment. I sent this e-mail and will continue to do what I can to support the FREE GAZA MOVEMENT and fight against Israeli aggression. As a descendant of people who survived the Middle Passage, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow discrimination, it is my obligation to fight for the true Independence of the people of Gaza. I feel like reading Frederick Douglass' "What To The Slave Is The Fourth of July?" now. What does the celebration of this day as an American mean when so many people across the globe are oppressed by the hand of this country, including Palestine? I must look to my ancestors for counsel, guidance, wisdom, protection. I hope Obama gets this. I just e-mailed it today.

July 3, 2009

Dear President Obama: Peace. I am e-mailing to ask that FOR THE SAKE OF THE OPPRESSED PEOPLE OF GAZA that you please mean what you say when you're "easing" the humanitarian aid into Gaza. Please allow the aid that the SPIRIT OF HUMANITY has brought for the people of Gaza actually get to Gaza. This is yet another statement that when it comes to Israel, you are all TALK and no action. Israel can wantonly murder Palestinians using U.S.-funded and manufactured weapons while the United States turns its back. PRESIDENT OBAMA, PLEASE INTRODUCE THE CHANGE THAT YOU SO HEAVILY CAMPAIGNED FOR, AND ALLOW U.S. EFFORTS TO HELP THE PEOPLE OF GAZA TO BE COMPLETED. PLEASE DELIVER THEIR AID AND CONDEMN WHAT ISRAEL IS DOING: REPEATING THE HOLOCAUST AND THE LEGACY OF NAZI GERMANY ON PALESTINE. YOU HAVE THE POWER TO STOP THIS OPPRESSION AND TRAUMA: PLEASE USE IT WISELY. Sincerely, Rhone Fraser.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A review of Tracy Letts' play "August: Osage County"

Review of August: Osage County by Rhone Fraser

This review is meant to be read by those who have already seen this play. –RF.

Tracy Letts says that he hopes his play August: Osage County “speaks to people about their families, about navigating the rocky water of family life.” Letts has definitely provided a blueprint for doing so through thirteen characters in this play. In this play, he challenges the virtues of the American nuclear family, something that other writers have done in their popular works: novelist Toni Morrison in her first novel The Bluest Eye and screenwriter Alan Ball in his first feature film American Beauty. He frames this play in ways that provide important clues about how to navigate the rocky water of family life. It takes place in a large country home outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma in August of 2007. It opens with the patriarch of the family, Beverly Weston (John Cullum), telling his hired help, Johnna Monevata, her responsibilities for running the house. Here the audience is introduced to Violet Weston (Phylicia Rashad), a prescription drug-addicted wife who according to Beverly has “struck a bargain” with him. Beverly tells Johnna the effect of his resigning to alcohol and his wife to pills: “these facts have over time made burdensome the maintenance of traditional American routine: paying of bills, purchase of goods, cleaning of clothes or carpets or crappers” (11). Letts present Violet and Beverly as a married couple who would rather anaesthetize themselves in prescription drugs and alcohol than deal with the reality of their marriage, which includes the monotony of these traditional routines and some damaging family secrets revealed later. Beverly depends on Johnna to take care of the house while he plans to leave. For good. This first scene is the first and last time we see Beverly in this play. Letts brings into question the cost at which the supposed comfort a marriage can bring to an already dysfunctional situation that was produced as a result of the genocide of a particular group. His character Johnna, is Native American, and when Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times (of London in their December 14, 2008 article “Tracy Letts on August: Osage County”) asks what she is doing in this play, Letts replies: “She is watching, waiting. I believe in collective guilt, and Oklahoma is a more focused example of what country is founded on—manifest destiny and all that...But we still have Indian reservations and, growing up in Oklahoma, I grew up with Indians…Anybody who lives in that state can look around and say, this is the result of genocide committed long ago; and if you can see that in one states, you can see it in the whole country. There’s not only oil in that land, there’s blood. I think there’s a kind of karmic price to pay for that.” Letts placement of Johnna in the beginning and ending scenes of this play shows his understanding of how Europeans applied a uniquely possessive ownership of land that, to Native Americans, belonged to everyone. Letts shows ultimately, in the relinquishing of control from a European (Beverly) to a Native American (Johnna) and the finalization of such control in the last scene of the play where Johnna tells an anaesthetized Violet who seeks refuge in her lap: “this is the way the world ends.” The world Johnna is referring to here is obviously that of American control. Letts tells Appleyard that the actress playing Johnna, Kimberly Guerrero, told him a story that Native Americans were there before the white people, and that they were going to be polite and help them and nurse them and do what they had to do. But they would still be here when the white people had gone. Letts’ plays shows us exactly this: the transient yet dynamic glimpse of white people on land they named Oklahoma. In August: Osage County, we get this glimpse of European control, framed by Johnna, made very dramatic by family issues and individual addictions. No character’s line exemplifies this transience more than Barbara’s, one of Beverly and Violet’s three daughters who tells Johnna: “This country, this experiment, America, this hubris: what a lament, if no one saw it go. Here today, gone tomorrow. (Beat) Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm” (124). Letts shows in this play the dissipation of an American family due to its strong need for the concept of blame and the even stronger need to assign it to a single person. He frames this family as a sort of quintessential midwestern American family, suffocated by their own maintenance of patriotism and family. They are supposedly patriotic because they followed without question Dick Cheney’s supposedly fool proof method for guarding against terrorist attack: duct tape. Charlie asks Ivy when they started taping the shades. The taped shades of the Weston home are a representation of secrets within the family that, like the tape, keeps the family in the dark, ignorant of the nurturing sunlight that exposure and honesty can provide.
Each member of the immediate Weston family verbally abuses another because of the need to cast blame away from themselves, to cope with their own shame, or to defend against others who do the former two. The family comes together in the Weston home after the disappearance of Beverly, the family patriarch. We are first introduced to the eldest Weston daughter Barbara as she is blaming her husband Bill (Frank Wood) for their daughter Jean’s (Anne Berkowitz) smoking habit. Barbara is dealing with a husband who has left her for a younger woman and the guilt for leaving her mother and father that her mother and sister remind her of. She deflects these feelings with a very strong exterior and a profane vocabulary. The sympathetic portrayal of Barbara by Amy Morton is in my mind the most memorable of all performances, because she of all the characters is trying hardest to hold this family together: Barbara is the moral compass of the family. She is the only one to ask perhaps the most difficult questions that break other characters out of the mold of the “narcissistic generation” her husband says we’re part of. She challenges Violet’s material preoccupations with the safety deposit box; she questions Jean’s respect for her grandfather; she is the only one willing to identify her father’s drowned body; she is the first to challenge the authority of Violet; she challenges Ivy’s morbid proclamations that their father may have never liked any of his children; she is the only daughter willing to take responsibility after all other family leaves. Finally, she is also most sensitive to “the karmic price” that Letts suggests that Midwest America is paying for. As they enter the household, Barbara asks her husband: “Who was the a—hole who saw this flat hot nothing and planted his flag? I mean, we f---ed the Indians for this? (20). While Barbara handles blame, the thrust behind her doing so is intended usually for some greater moral purpose, best seen in her line lamenting her father’s apparent suicide: “I believe he had a responsibility to something greater than himself; we all do”(105). This moral compass was not true for the younger two Weston daughters. In the first scene of Act Three, Ivy tells the youngest daughter Karen and Barbara about her decision to leave her ailing mother: “nobody gets to point a finger at me. Nobody” (105). Ivy responds to charges about her lack of concern for her parents by vehemently deflecting blame. She is so concerned about expressing her love for Little Charles that she sees Violet’s revelation of Bev’s paternity of her lover, Little Charles, only as a plan to “change her story”(134). The youngest sister Karen also acts to shift blame away from herself when her fiancĂ© Steve (Brian Kerwin), like a military contractor just out for a good time, is accused of making a pass at Jean. Karen tells Barbara: “You better find out from Jean just exactly what went in there before you start pointing fingers, that’s all I’m saying. ‘Cause I doubt Jean’s exactly blameless in all this. And I’m not blaming her. Just because I said she’s not blameless, that that doesn’t mean I’ve blamed her. I’m saying she might share in the responsibility.” Where Ivy and Karen seem preoccupied with blame and telling their side of the story, Barbara as the oldest seems more interested in correcting a problem than assigning blame. She thinks this way, apparently to a fault according to Karen who says that things are not cut and dried, black white, good and bad; that things are more often than not “somewhere in the middle. Where everything lives, where all the rest of us live, everyone but you” (121). Here Karen recognizes Barbara’s higher moral standard that does not compromise in trying to correct an issue. Barbara’s own possibility of romance is redeemed through her relationship with sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Troy West) who helps her remember her own attractiveness. Of all individual characters, it is through the character of Barbara that Letts shows best how to navigate the rocky water of family life.
Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Susanne Marley) does not seem to depend on pills as much as Violet, however she copes with the pain of a long-kept secret through the verbal abuse of her husband and particularly her son, Little Charles (Michael Milligan). She and her husband Charlie (Guy Boyd) follow the opening scene, which takes place five days after Beverly’s permanent departure. Mattie Fae warns Charlie that if he leaves without apparent notice the way Beverly did, his books would be burned, if he had any. Mattie Fae inflicts special abuse on Little Charles whose physical likeness plausibly reminds her of the shame she may feel for her affair with Beverly, whose fatherhood of Little Charles is the deep dark secret of this play. She tells Little Charles: “I suppose you wouldn’t like TV then, not if watching it constituted getting a job” (111). Charlie verbally threatens to kick her out of the car on the way back if she continues berating Little Charles. She reveals to Barbara: “I don’t know why Little Charles is such a disappointment to me” (114). Mattie Fae is Violet’s support, and between the two of them is the family’s deepest secret whose concealment maintains the appearance of a stable American family. The direction of the play is largely dictated by the decisions of the matriarch Violet Weston. She waits five days before alerting influential family members like Barbara of Beverly’s absence. She was more concerned about getting money from the safety deposit box than she was about trying to prevent her husband’s death. She curses Beverly even after his death: “You want to show who’s stronger, Bev? Nobody is stronger than me, goddamn it. When nothing is left, when everything is gone and disappeared, I’ll be here. Who’s stronger now, you son-of-a-b—ch?!” (137). It is this line that makes her crawling on all fours, seeking Johnna, so dramatic at the end of this play. In this play, through the Weston family, Tracy Letts has provided a survey of American history on Native American land, beginning with the patriarch, brought down by his burden of paternity, ending by the matriarch who is brought down by the pain of her own codependency which she refuses to acknowledge. At the beginning at the end of this play, like in Guerrero’s story is the Native American waiting to reclaim the land they intended for everyone and not one person. In this play, the concept of blame or personal responsibility is forsaken or unwanted the current way that the land on which the Weston household rests is. Its something most people (not Barbara) are trying to get rid of, instead of handle responsibly. Learning how to handle it responsibly is one way to navigate the rocky water of family life. One can read this play as a critique against the pharmaceutical industry, however on a deeper level it is a play about how individual choices can either help or hinder one’s navigation of family life. What makes one decide to douse their concerns in pill-popping seems to be a more important question that Letts is asking.
This is the play from a literary perspective. From a performance perspective, the most emotionally moving moments happened during the dinner scene when Violet berates her daughters for not making the most of the things that her generation never had. This is yet another example of Violet shifting blame from herself for the problems her daughters face. Rashad’s Violet is definitely a detached matriarch, one that is preoccupied with not having to think deeply as long as there’s a pill to pop somewhere. The fight scene where Barbara is trying to take Violet’s pills away from her needs much more work. There is definitely commotion by the cast at this part, but no real physical confrontation between Barbara and Violet that would drive such a commotion. Overall, the staging of this play that will soon tour will hopefully cause more people like Barbara not only to say, “that madhouse is my family,” but this play should hopefully cause people to ask: how can I make this madhouse less mad? Letts seems to suggest that an answer may be to either confront whatever shame affects our behavior, or to accept responsibility without fear or shame. –RF.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Three Powerful Plays Part Two

TOP: my friend Bianca (right) with Diana, grand-niece of Broadway pioneer Diana Sands.
BOTTOM: Me and Diana (photos courtesy of Diana).

This past week I had the opportunity to watch two amazing plays by two amazing playwrights: Leslie Lee and P.J. Gibson. The first play I saw was by Leslie Lee on Saturday, May 16th was Sundown Names and Night-Gone Things written by Leslie Lee and performed at the Castillo Theater on 42nd street between ninth and tenth avenues. I was truly able to empathize with the main character of this play, Cairo (Stephen Tyrone Williams), who works at an insurance agency in Chicago. I talked with Mr. Lee who said that this main character is loosely based on the experiences of Richard Wright, soon after he moved to Chicago from Mississippi. What strikes me about this play, as a writer myself are the historic nuances of the time period that Lee expressed in this play. Two of which specifically struck me were the numbers lines that Cairo’s co workers talked about and the different numbers books that they played from. I have to make sure that if I am writing in a historic period, that I capture everything, including the popular pastimes of people those days. I read a review of this play in Backstage by Mark Peikert and in some ways, Peikert definitely explicates this play in terms of its contributions to humanity, according to Addison Gayle’s stated role of the critic. Peikert writes that this play deals more with issues of class and misogyny than with race. I wholly saw that in this play. In fact the way that Cairo deals with these issues of misogyny and race is what made his character absolutely so appealing, so sympathetic to me. Lee begins the play showing a passionate intimacy with Cairo and Ruby (Deanna Wise) his girlfriend, and Ruby shows her very sensual side. However their very first interaction is fraught with mistrust when Cairo discovers that Ruby is wearing a dress another man gave her. He immediately challenges the “good time girl” or tramp stereotype that Ruby is falling into. As a playwright, Lee shows the difference between the individual and the stereotype. We get brief glimpses of Ruby’s resistance against this stereotype, when she asks Cairo to read to her, but we also get that fact that Cairo’s working obligations disallow him from spending time that is sufficient to separate Ruby from this tramp stereotype. Ruby understands this and ultimately shatters this tramp stereotype by deciding to move away from Chicago altogether. Lee is raising important questions about the employment possibilities of black women in the urban areas towards the latter end of the 1930s. Where Peikert writes that Ruby is simply a good time girl, a closer examination of Ruby will reveal that she wanted to be more than this stereotype, hence her fateful decision to move away from Chicago, when she discovers that she is pregnant, but unsure about who the her baby’s father is. The play’s action changes between two scenes: those between Cairo and Ruby and those at Cairo’s workplace. It is here that Lee challenges misogyny through the character of Cairo in the criticism of his co-workers’ behavior. His co-workers R.J. (Nathan Purdee), Travis (Marcus Naylor), and Boyd (Ralph McCain) are life insurance agents who arbitrarily charge their female clients hefty premiums depending on their clients’ willingness to sleep with them. Cairo rightly chastises co-workers for capitalizing on their female clients’ weaknesses. It is here I believe that Lee makes his most profound his contribution to humanity, through Cairo’s verbalizing of the ethical problems behind taking sexual advantages of their clients. But also, Lee makes an even stronger statement through the character of Mae Ann (Crystal Anne Dickinson), a client of Travis’s who pulls a gun on Travis after she realizes his game. Lee writes a searing monologue of Mae Ann who says she could not even look her children or husband in the eye after sleeping with Travis. She threatens to shoot Travis and serves as a cautionary tale to men about the dangers of taking unnecessary advantage of clients that one works with. This scene is a very exciting, suspenseful scene that precipitates Cairo’s decision to leave. Lee also shows the imbecility of colorism within the African American community through the exchanges between R.J. who wants to swap clients with Boyd in order to get more lighter-skinned clients since, according to R.J., lighter skinned ladies are “nicer.” Lee said that he was encouraged to end the play with Cairo leaving however he changed it to allow Cairo’s ethic to influence R.J. when R.J. describes his deceased father-figure from the South who slapped him across the face for not respecting a woman. As Cairo is preparing to leave their office for good, R.J. is on a phone call trying to arrange another rendezvous with a client when all of a sudden he feels a slap across his face; R.J. takes this as yet another warning against mistreatment of women, and Lee makes yet another attack on misogyny, he also brings the redeeming qualities of the American South to our attention. The South is a place where Ruby goes to flee the dangerous stereotypes leading her into prostitution and drug abuse; it is also a place where R.J. thinks about to stave himself from the vices of urban life.

During intermission, I had the opportunity to talk to Lee about the play; I shared how stuck Ruby seemed to be in the tramp (or jezebel) stereotype and Lee agreed. In this play, I was struck by the romance between Cairo and Ruby; how much he wanted to love her, and how unable and incapable Ruby was of loving Cairo. I definitely empathized with his feeling of isolation due to his voracious reading, which immediately set him apart from not only Ruby but from his co-workers, who tried to use alcohol to challenge his ethical claims. Essentially R.J. was trying to suggest that the alcohol was a cure for Cairo’s problems, however Cairo knew this was not the case and resisted. Cairo’s understanding of his manhood in this play is concerned with the need to be a father. He hated his father’s abandonment and tries not to repeat such abandonment when he discovers that Ruby is pregnant: he tells Ruby that he wants to raise her child. However when even Ruby does not know who the father of her baby is, Cairo is still insistent on being a father, a more attentive and better father than Cairo’s father was to him. Here Lee also extends the alienation of the educated black man in the late 1930s, an issue that was written about in Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. He is not only alienated by his woman but by his co-workers. We get that in Cairo. We get him resisting the stereotype of the whore and of the womanizer, the same way the narrator in Invisible Man resisted the stereotype of the black nationalist demagogue, corporate pawn of the HBCU, and the black token-trophy of the white Left. Lee is challenging these stereotypes in this play. Through R.J., Cairo presents the importance of remembering one’s heritage in treating a woman correctly, and not following the stereotypes that urban life can encourage. We get this in Cairo.

The second play I saw last week that absolutely changed my life was presented at a staged reading at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, last Wednesday, May 21, 2009. The play is tentatively titled The Diana Sands Project and is written by P.J. Gibson. I am grateful for the efforts of Diana Sands’ niece, Kathryn Leary in organizing this staged reading. It was searing. I truly hope this can be produced. Like my first play, this play is a biographical play about the pioneering Broadway actress Diana Sands, who lived a short yet full life. She stands out in my mind as the actress to originate the role of Beneatha in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Her career blossomed after this role, and I think P.J. Gibson shows all the important marks and the interesting back stories in this play. I liked hearing the back story of how Diana braced herself for the indomitable slap that Claudia McNeil, who played her mother in A Raisin in the Sun gave her each and every night. McNeil seemed to take a bit too much pleasure in doing that. What brought Diana to life for me was the woman reading the role of Diana herself: Kim Brockington. I remember seeing Kim Brockington in her portrayal of Zora Neale Hurston in Kristy Andersen’s 2008 film Jump At The Sun. She portrays one of the back stories of Diana Sands’ story in such a powerful way, particularly the back story of the pain Diana felt when her then husband Lucien Happersburger leaves her for writer James Baldwin. Gibson writes a very painful part for Diana in going through this. In my mind, this part is one of the main reasons that this play should be produced because that kind of pain of adultery, particularly men leaving wives for other men is so relevant today. It was a pain suggested in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and it is a pain made more relevant after the popularity of J.L. King’s book. And it is a pain that Gibson writes so clearly in this play. Brockington is actually crying “Jimmy!” She is in sheer unbelief that her husband would leave her for another man, yet Gibson has her state very clearly that it is not because Lucien left her for another man why she’s so angry, but the fact that she found out from other people talking about it, rather than Lucien telling her directly. We get this so clearly from Gibson’s play. I like how Ms. Gibson frames this play. It begins with Sands in a dressing room, seeming to have a casual conversation with an audience about her life. According to the stage directions I heard at this reading, there is a screen on which important images are shown. Some of these images are the different people and plays and productions that Sands was involved in. I am sure it will be fun for the production to collect and project all those productions. There were many and they were influential. The most influential production Diana Sands was involved in I think was the Broadway production of The Owl and the Pussycat where Sands starred with Alan Alda. I am appreciative for Gibson including in this play the New York Times review of The Owl and the Pussycat where Alda tried to temper the then old-fashioned, racist attitudes that were uncomfortable seeing a stable black woman-white male couple on stage. In this script, Gibson quotes Alda saying that kissing her was no big deal, she’s just a human. To me, this revealed a high level of discomfort on Alan Alda’s part. Sitting behind me at this reading was the actual friend of Diana Sands, Dee! I was so humbled to meet her and hear more about Sands’s life from her at the reception following this meeting. Sitting in front of me at this reading was none other than the actress who originated the role of Ruth Younger in the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun: Ruby Dee. In her important memoir she co-wrote with Ossie Davis, edited by Sydne Mahone called With Ossie and Ruby: In this Life Together, she writes of Sands: “there are some spirits that stride boldly over the horizon and claim life with gusto. Diana Sands was one of these people. She came sure and laughing, taking hold of what she came for with both hands. She played Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, giving us the essence of Lorraine Hansberry, the author, in her portrayal.” Dee says also in this memoir that when she was in Hansberry’s presence, she felt she was in the presence of “a superior intellect.” I am so excited to see this play read, and see it have the opportunity to be produced. I was invited to this reading by my dear friend Bianca Lavern Jones, an actress who read the role of Dee, Diana Sands’ best friend who was sitting behind me at the reading. Bianca is sitting to the left of Kim in this reading. In the following video clip #1, you see a pink hat, which is the hat of one Ms. Ruby Dee.

In the second video clip, you see the reception that Ms. Leary held in the Reading Room of the Schomburg Center with Diana Sands’ best friend, Dee, talking about her friend Diana. In the third video clip, you see Ms. Leary leading Ms. Dee to read about Diana Sands from her memoir My One Good Nerve:

In the third video clip, is accomplished stage actress Mary Alice discussing Diana, followed by Diana’s best friend in London:

In the fourth video clip is accomplished stage actress and writer Micki Grant discussing Diana:

In the fifth video is what Ms. Leary described as the “village” of Diana Sands:

In the sixth video clip is Kim Brockington discussing how she received this role of Diana:

What I thought was remarkable in this sixth video clip of Brockington is the fact that every role she truly wanted to play, she played. I am fascinated at how some things, roles, seemed to be destined for certain people. Brockington said in this clip that the first role she got when she was at Morgan State was the lead in The Owl and the Pussycat which was also a breakout role for Diana Sands. Brockington in my mind is the closest facial resemblance to Diana Sands among any accomplished actor out there. I was so pleased to see this production come to fruition. In this seventh video clip is director of this reading, Regge Life.

In this eighth video clip is the first part of the playwright of the Diana Sands project, P.J. Gibson, Professor of Creative Writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. What is fascinating about what Ms. Gibson says is the fact that she had a photo of Diana Sands with her in college, brought it to graduate school, then to Brown University, then to New York. I am fascinated with how people seem to be predestined to do powerful things. The photo of Diana Sands that she kept was a symbol or a testament to the long relationship that Gibson had with Diana Sands. However no relationship seemed more important to Gibson than that between Diana Sands and her friend Dee, whose interviews with Gibson she said were instrumental to writing this play, and interviews with her niece Kathryn Leary.

In this ninth video clip, P.J. Gibson talks about how the piece she wrote on Diana Sands was completed and how different people met each other. Gibson said: “things come when they come.” I truly appreciated hearing this, because, for me, for me, it shows the power of God and how he will line people up with the right resources in the right places for things to happen. In this clip Gibson talks about internalizing and getting as close to the actual Diana Sands as possible, which meant learning that she had a taste for pineapple from Dee (and Brandy Alexander, Diana’s favorite drink which was served at this reception) and also learning a lot from Kathryn Leary.

In this tenth video clip, P.J. Gibson says about Diana: “this is a woman who has been walking with me for a long time.” This speaks to the spiritual perceptiveness of writers, and how spirits such as Diana’s might not have been literally walking with Gibson, Diana’s aura, presence, and essence remained and remains with Gibson. Brockington also spoke to this when she explicitly said she asked Diana to come and she did. I think that was evident in the reading in Brockington’s very vivid portrayal and in Ruby Dee’s reading where all Ruby Dee described about Diana was being portrayed by Ruby Dee herself. I am also fascinated with the connections between Diana and her best friend Dee. I thought the fact that they came from different worlds yet had a strong abiding love was powerful. My friend Bianca played this extraordinarily well. I remember Bianca and Kim giving each other a very very warm hug at the end of the reading. I appreciated hearing Gibson’s writing process. She says she writes everything up in her head. This is how novelist Edward P. Jones writes, according to my interview with him that aired on WBAI two years ago. Gibson is asked how long it took her to write this by my dear friend Bianca Lavern Jones. In the reading, the men in Diana’s life were masked.

Later in this eleventh video clip I asked Gibson where she got the idea about the masks from. After I asked this, an actor in this reading thanked P.J. Gibson

Finally in the twelfth video clip, my dear friend Bianca Lavern Jones shares how she learned about Diana Sands and playing Dee. If it were not for her, I would not have attended this important reading. Thank you, Bianca.

The last play I saw this past week was a searing play by Naomi Wallace entitled Things of Dry Hours. I was most humbled by this play. I thought more than anything it is a role-reversal of the white supremacist world within the home of one Sunday School Communist teacher, Tice Hogan. Tice is played by the legendary Delroy Lindo who sticks out in my mind as the indomitable West Indian Archie in Spike Lee’s film on Malcolm X. His daughter Cali Hogan, played by Roslyn Ruff, is a laundress and cobbler who works to support herself and her father. When Corbin, played by Garret Dillahunt, seeks refuge in Tice’s home in order to avoid the Klan for being a Communist sympathizer (I think), the tables are turned in terms of his power relative to the outside world. Corbin demands that Tice gives him the names of Communist members. Tice demands that Corbin learn how to read the Bible and the Communist manifesto by Marx. Cali resists the demands of both, veering from Tice’s communist teachings and from Corbin’s sexual advances. I think Wallace turns the tables in quite a convincing way. More than Lee and Gibson in their plays, Wallace takes more poetic licenses, with Tice in particular who makes comparisons of mankind to appleseeds. I had the opportunity to ask Wallace why the apple of all metaphors for Tice and she replied that it is something he likely sees a lot. I appreciate the poetic lines that Tice has, particularly being a student of the Bible which uses very vivid metaphors to teach its lessons. Perhaps the most powerful character in this play is Cali. I like the way Wallace writes her coping mechanisms for dealing with male sexual abuse. When Tice is away, Cali forces Corbin to play a game where he puts black cream on his face while Cali puts white cream on her face in order to mimic her sexually abusive white masters. After Corbin plays with her, Cali develops an attraction to Corbin, perhaps because this is the only man whose circumstances even as a white man in 1930s Alabama has forced him to actually not see her as an object of sexual conquest (not until the second act, that is). This play is a must see. –RF.