The Importance Of Collectively Defining Ourselves
By Larry Pinkney
There is an African parable about a young child who perceptively asks his or her parents, "If the lions are the king of jungle, why are they so often captured and killed by humans?" The parents smile and wisely respond, "When the lions learn to speak for themselves, think for themselves, and define themselves, then shall they truly be king." Indeed, those who define, ultimately control.
To paraphrase the philosopher Albert Camus, "What better way to control a people than to give them [the right of] the vote and then to tell them they're free." In other words, as long as those other than ourselves, define to us Black people what is meant by freedom, justice, fairness and the like, we are, in fact, not truly free, for we continue to be controlled by the definitions of those other than we ourselves.(MG) Coming from an entirely different context, Thomas Szasz, a clinical psychiatrist voices the same argument."The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself. In the typical Western two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground: whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives; his adversary is shot and dies. In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words; whoever first defines the situation is the victor; his adversary, the victim. For example, in the family, husband and wife, mother and child do not get along; who defines whom as troublesome or mentally sick?...[the one] who first seizes the word imposes reality on the other; [the one] who defines thus dominates and lives; and [the one] who is defined is subjugated and may be killed."
The institutions of racist white America were and definitely continue to be threatened by Black people who actively and consciously understand what it really means "To Be Black" [BC:To Be Black In America: An Unflinching Necessity - April 19, 2007 - Issue 226 ]. This is why so much of the histories of persons such as Denmark Vessy, Harriet Tubman, W E B DuBois, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Haimer, Paul Robeson, Huey P. Newton, and so many other actively conscious Black people continues to be hidden or distorted even to the present day. This is why the intense struggle to define ourselves and our histories as people of color continues today in the persons of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Assata Shakur, H Rap Brown (Jamil Al-Amin), the Rev. Edward Pinkney, Cynthia McKinney, and a host of others including, no doubt, many of you who are reading this piece.
(MG) In his masterful Vietnam and Other American Fantasies, H. Bruce Franklin has a chapter entitled: The Vietnam War and the Culture Wars; or, the Perils of Western Civilization. Franklin documents the history of the banishing and vanishing of other cultural voices from the American educational scene as follows:Our contemporary American culture wars are neither new nor peculiar to the United States. The entire social history of the United States (not to mention its prehistory as North American British colonies) can be charted through its culture wars fought over contradictions among race, gender, and class. In education, these issues have always centered on what is to be studied, who should be allowed to study it, who should be selected to teach it, and how it should be taught.
In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic states, there were ... "horrified outcries over the revolutionary, poisonous idea of teaching all children to read and write, even the children of parents who had no money to pay tuition fees." In the ensuing decades, religious opponents of public schools kept making dire predictions that would not seem out of place in today's debates. For example, in 1845 the Presbyterian Synod of New Jersey warned that "irreligious and infidel youth, such as may be expected to issue from public schools, deteriorating more and more with revolving years will not be fit to sustain our free institutions." In an 1830 article titled "Argument against Public Schools," a Philadelphia newspaper explained why education should be reserved for the wealthy:
Literature cannot be acquired without leisure, and wealth gives leisure. ... The "peasant" must labor during those hours of the day which his wealthy neighbor can give to the abstract culture of his mind; otherwise, the earth would not yield enough for the subsistence of all: the mechanic cannot abandon the operations of his trade for general studies; if he could, most of the conveniences of life and objects of exchange would be wanting; languor, decay, poverty, discontent would soon be visible among all classes. No government ... can furnish what is incompatible with the very organization and being of civil society.
In the 1830s, as the industrial revolution was transforming plantation agriculture, most of the slave states outlawed literacy for Afro-Americans. A Virginia law of 1831, for instance, decreed "that all meetings of free negroes or mulattoes, at any school-house, church, meeting-house or other place for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an unlawful assembly."
The Morrill Act which established the land-grant colleges to provide higher education for working-class young men -- and, later, women -- could come about in 1862 only because of the wartime absence of congressmen from the slaveholding states. In 1857 President James Buchanan had vetoed the bill, declaring that it violated states' rights and set a dangerous precedent of federal aid to education.
As for the proper study of literature in America, we need to keep reminding ourselves that the holy canon of great literature presented to us by today's conservative cultural warriors as a timeless gift of God, somewhat akin to the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai, is in fact quite recent and has been continually changing throughout our history. Until the Civil War, the only literature considered worthy of serious study was the Greek and Roman classics. Defenders of the canon then were as alarmist as those today. ... The Modern Language Association--the organization of college and university teachers of post-classical literature and languages--was formed in 1883 as part of the struggle against the monopoly of Greek and Roman literature. English literature, American literature, modern literature--each new transformation of the canon was greeted with howls of outrage and alarm.
In the first two decades after World War I. the wost fears of the cultural conservatives seemed to be materializing. Not only were aesthetic standards being challenged and inferior modern writers displacing the classics, but also the very definition of literature was being brazenly widened to include the most vulgar forms, some not even written at all.
Bu the early 1930s, anthologies of American literature often included generous selections of Native American poetry, African American spirituals and blues, ballads and work songs, folk tales, and other forms of popular and oral literature. The most widely used anthology of poetry, for example was Louis Untermeyer's two-volume opus, American Poetry from the Beginning to Whitman and Modern American Poetry. The first volume included examples and analyses of the earliest African American poetry, plus sections titled "American Indian Poetry"; "Spanish-Colonial Verse": "Early American Ballads"; "Negro Spirituals"; "Negro Social, 'Blues' and Work-Songs": " 'Negroid' Melodies"; "Cowboy Songs and Hobo Harmonies"; "Backwoods Ballads"; and "City Gutturals." The various editions of Modern American Poetry track the rise of African American literature. The first editions, of 1919 and 1921, contained poems by Paul Laurence Bunbar. By the fifth edition, in 1936, there was major representation of other black poets, including James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. These same black poets were also well represented in such other widely used anthologies as Alfred Kreymborg's Lyric America: An Anthology of American Poetry, 1630-1930 ... and The New Poetry: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Verse in English, edited by Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson ... To meet the growing demand, anthologies of African American literature poured from major publishers. Yet from at least the mid-1950s until the late 1960s, African American literature was entirely eliminated from the standard American literature anthologies, bibliographies, histories, criticism, and college and university courses (except for some of the "Negro" colleges).
How did all the multicultural and popular literature manage to escape from its ghettos and get accepted into the prestigious neighborhood of literary studies? And how did it get forced back into its ghetto in the 1940s and 1950s--and even wiped from the pages of literary history? And what does all of this have to do with the Vietnam War and the postwar culture wars? To answer these questions in a way that will offer the deepest insights into the subject matter of this book, it is necessary to place them in the context of the most important historical event of the past five hundred years: the rise and fall of a global imperialist system dependent on racial domination and colonialism. In this light it is also possible to see the fullest significance of the Vietnam War, which plays a unique and crucial role in this history.
By 1800, as the industrial revolution was beginning to transmute the political economy of the planet, Europeans and their descendants--that is, "white" people--owned or controlled 35 percent of the earth's land surface. By 1875 this figure had approximately doubled with white people ruling 67 percent of the earth's surface. Imperialism's rapid expansion had entered a period of ferocious struggle over the last remaining lands available for colonization. As part of this process, continental powers such as the United States and Russia wiped out most of the indigenous populations blocking their expansion, whether westward across North America or eastward across Siberia. As another part of the process, the United States invaded and annexed the northern half of Mexico in 1848-49 and became a self-proclaimed global imperialist power in the 1890s with the seizure of Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. As still another part of the same process, France between 1858 and 1883 completed its conquest of the nation of Vietnam. By 1914 white people owned or controlled 85 percent of the earth's land.
To make all this seem rational, moral, and just, European culture had to be fundamentally racist, deeply imperial, and, at the same time, intensely nationalistic. Axiomatic within the dominant culture of each nation-state was a belief in the superiority not simply of the white race but of that nation's particular culture.
Such was the background of "the Great War," later aptly renamed the First World War. It was not caused by the assassination of some Austrian archduke by a Serbian nationalist. This was a war about redividing the planet. On one side the main combatants were the three largest colonial empires of the world--England, France, and Russia--while on the other side were the would-be great colonial empires landlocked in Europe (the Central Powers), allied with the Ottoman Empire, which was being dismembered by the European empires, When the United States plunged in on the side of the global empires, it began its role as the preeminent power of the twentieth century.
World War produced two unforeseen events with profound implications for the rest of the twentieth century, including the cultural wars of our historical epoch. The first was the Russian Revolution, which sparked communist revolutions and revolutionary movements from Mongolia to Germany and then around the world. The second was the national liberation movements of the colored peoples in the colonies and neo-colonies of the great empires.
The embattled French and British empires had taken two very dangerous steps during the war: they had brought troops from their colonies in Africa and Asia into the European battlefield, and they had ordered many of their African and Asian subjects to violate the most fundamental taboo underlying white colonial rule, the prohibition against people of color ever committing violence against white people. What happened to the consciousness of the African troops from the French and British colonies, for example, when they were ordered to kill white Germans? Even more dangerous was the light shed on the fundamental rationale of white colonialism--what the British called "the white man's burden" and what the French called "la mission civilisatrice"--that the "West" was bringing "civilization" to the backward, benighted colored peoples of the world. The colonized peoples were of course already aware of the misery and oppression brought to their homelands by these civilizers, and so were some people from the colonizing nations. For example, back in the middle of the nineteenth century, a young American author and ex-sailor named Herman Melville, whose global voyages had allowed him to witness some of the ravages of European colonialism, became convinced that "the white civilized man," as he put it in 1845, is "the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth." During World War I, what Africans and Asians, as well as American "Negroes," say in the great cradle of "Western civilization" was an insane orgy of mass murder and devastation on an unprecedented scale, as the hallmark of this civilization, its miraculous technology and vast production, was used to turn portions of Europe into poisonous wastelands.
In the global cultural and political wars emerging from World War I, the hegemony of European culture, as well as its alleged aesthetic and moral superiority, was directly challenged by people of color everywhere. This was the period, for example, of the May Fourth Movement in China, the Harlem Renaissance with its roots in the British Caribbean colonies, and the movement among francophone peoples in Africa and the Caribbean. Among the political and intellectual leaders who were to emerge from this awakening were Jomo Kenyatta, first president of Kenya; Sukarno, first president of Indonesia; Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana; Mao Tse-tung of China; Carlos Bulosan of the Philippines; Agostinho Neto, first president of Angola; Leopold Senghor, first president of Senegal; and Ho Chi Minh. Many of these leaders were also distinguished literary figures, including such fine poets as Neto, Mao, Ho, and Senghor, who, together with Aime Cesaire, co-founded the negritude movement and translated many worked from the Harlem Renaissance into French. Culture, especially literary culture, in the lives of these anti-imperial revolutionaries was never divorced from political issues and action.
The explosion and recognition of multicultural and popular literature in America during the 1920s and 1930s must be seen in this global context of the anti colonial movement among people of color, the revulsion against the carnage of war, and the Russian Revolution, which was soon offering a theoretical basis for proletarian and ethnic literatures. It is no mere coincidence that the 1920s was the decade of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age, a term borrowed from African American popular culture. Then, when the Great Depression struck the United States in 1928, it also blasted holes in dams that had long separated "high" and "low" culture, releasing a flood of multi-ethnic, working-class, and sometimes even revolutionary literature that threatened to overwhelm the dominant British tradition.
The conservative reaction against the radicalization of 1930s culture was swift and increasingly powerful. In literary studies it took three interrelated forms. First was the cult of the "great books," originally codified by overtly racist propagandists and soon institutionalized at Columbia and the University of Chicago, two universities in urban centers most threatened by the rising flood of radicalism. Second was a rigidly tightened definition of the canon of "major" or "great" literature to be included in anthologies and course, one that eliminated all writers of color. but most important in shaping the study of literature in the 1940s, 1950, and 1960s before the impact of the Vietnam War was New Criticism.
Although New Criticism came to be regarded as an apolitical methodology designed to study literature for "its own sake," without any corruption influence from ideology or social context, that was neither its founding purpose nor its enduring effect. The original New Critics, first coalescing at Vanderbilt University, explicitly presented themselves as "reactionary" saviors of the culture of Western civilization from the encroachments of the subcultural influences of colored and other working-class people. Their announced purpose ... was to combat "vulgar" culture, promulgating in its place the "finest" values of "the Old South" and literature congenial to their ideology. For example, the leading New Critic Allen Tate declared that "the Negro" had "had much the same thinning influence upon the class above him as the anonymous city proletariat has had upon the culture of industrial capitalism," and then went on to explain that "the Negro" "got everything from the white man," but "we could graft no new life upon the Negro; he was too different, too alien." The hallmark of New Critical methodology--intricately detailed and nuanced readings of texts--was actually a corollary of these texts deemed worthy of study, texts filled with elaborate ambiguities and ironies, texts therefore not easily accessible to common readers. In the two decades after World War II, New Criticism triumphed not only in American higher education but in the teaching of literature throughout elementary and high schools as well.
This is also precisely why trojan horse US Presidential candidate, Barack Obama, went so far as to smugly and most inaccurately state that "there is no Black America." [Reference NPR: Can Barack Obama Win the Black Vote?] Obama's "there is no Black America" assertion is an abomination, and is exactly the kind of dangerously ridiculous and demeaning rhetoric that Black America has endured from white racist political candidates. Perhaps, he wishes that there were "no Black America" and no Black American collective consciousness of Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Haimer, Medgar Evers, or even Martin Luther King, Jr. Perhaps, he wishes simply to define Black America out of existence. Black America will never allow itself or its ongoing collective struggle to be defined out of existence by Mr."There is no Black America"- Barack Obama or anyone else, regardless of their biological color. This is an example of how utterly horrendous the act of allowing others, who in actuality do not represent our social, economic, or cultural experience, to define who Black Americans are and can be. To Barack Obama, we Black Americans will surely say, as did our African ancestors, "Beware of the naked man who offers you clothes." Black America does exist and we shall continue this struggle to collectively define ourselves.
In our daily lives we must reject the subtle and overt racist assertions of white America. Simply replacing some white faces with a few biologically Black faces in television commercials for some white owned product or company is not progress or freedom. It is opportunistic exploitation, combined with cynical tokenism on the part of white racist, corporate, capitalist America. We must not let ourselves or our young people be defined by this most insidious form of cultural and financial exploitation. As Gil Scott-Heron and others so aptly said back in the day, truly "the revolution will not be televised." An important part of this ongoing political and cultural revolution or struggle in America (and it is ongoing) is all about definitions and defining. We must continue to collectively define ourselves as Black people in the 21st century.
Another potent weapon regularly used by others to negatively and inaccurately define us Black people and other people of color in America is the so-called "news" and information media. Just as when the so-called news and information media actively sought to demonize and discredit Marcus Garvey, his organization, and those who were a part of it, including the parents of Malcolm X, so it is today that it does precisely the same thing, albeit now sometimes utilizing a few well-placed token biological "people of color" to be white America's defining spokespersons of disinformation.
So it is today that far too few of our young Black, Brown, and Red youth know the repression against, and the actual detailed histories of, struggle by organizations in the 60s and 70s such as the Brown Berets, the American Indian Movement, and even the Black Panther Party etc. Indeed, today, the American "news" media continues to play a pivotal role in defining and misinforming people nationally and globally about the deplorable and worsening social and economic conditions endured by the vast majority of people of color in America. Moreover, even presently, a favorite bogey man / disinformation target of the US news media continues to be the Black Panther Party, which the US Government viciously wiped out, just as it had done to Marcus Garvey's organization in years prior. [Reference Biased Reporting on the BPP - Assata Speaks - Hands Off Assata - Let's Get Free].
We must not, for example, buy into the well perpetuated myth that all rap, hip-hop, or spoken word is disrespectful and monstrous for it is not, as the hip-hop / spoken word artist Black Man Preach demonstrates on the cd / album Bumpy Tymes. It shook me to my core and reminded me of the awesome responsibility we have to pass on active consciousness to our younger sisters and brothers. If we seriously do this, they will, more often than not, respond by defining positively themselves and their Black people. As back in the day, the incomparable Pharaoh Sanders wailed, "The creator has a master plan...." Ah, yes.
All of us have the sacred responsibility to take an active part in this ongoing process of defining and articulating what and who we people in Black America are. ALL of us must be the lions and lionesses that collectively define and articulate for ourselves, our youth, and the rest of the world, our past, our present, and most importantly, our future - as we keep on keeping it real.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
(MG) In the May 28, 2007 edition of the Black Commentator, Larry Pinkney addresses the importance of self-identification for the black community. His comments apply equally to the Hispanic communities, Muslim communities, the LGBT communities and all other marginalized communities in America.