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Why I Remain a Negro

Poppy Cannon and Walter White on the cover of Ebony magazine, December, 1949.

“Why I Remain a Negro” (1947) is an essay by Walter White, then the head the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He could pass for white but chose not to.

As a boy, growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a postman, he was considered black because his family was black. But that fact did not sink in till one night whites with burning torches came to his house. The son of the neighbourhood grocer cried out:

“Let’s burn the house of the nigger mail carrier! It’s too nice a house for a nigger to live in!”

He had seen the same whites kill blacks the day before.

His father gave him a gun and told him to shoot to kill if any one of them steps foot on their property. White:

“In that instant there opened up within me a great awareness; I knew then who I was. I was colored, a human being with an invisible pigmentation which marked me a person to be hunted, hanged, abused, discriminated against, kept in poverty and ignorance, in order that those whose skin was white would have readily at hand a proof of their superiority, a proof patent and inclusive, accessible to the moron and the idiot as well as to the wise man and the genius. No matter how low a white man fell, he could always be certain that he was superior to two-thirds of the world’s population, for those two-thirds were not white.

“It made no difference how intelligent or talented I and my millions of brothers were, or how virtuously we lived. A curse like that of Judas was upon us, a mark of degradation fashioned with heavenly authority. There were white men who said Negroes had no souls, and who proved it by the Bible. Some of these now were approaching us, intent upon burning our house. My father had told us to kill them.

Then he heard shots fired. Friends of his father’s were firing warning shots. After a few more warning shots the whites left.

Afterwards:

“I was gripped by the knowledge of my identity, and in the depths of my soul I was vaguely aware that I was glad of it. I was sick with loathing for the hatred which had flared before me that night and come so close to making me a killer; but I was glad I was not one of those who hated; I was glad I was not one of those made sick and murderous by pride.”

So when people ask if he is sure he is not white, he is sure.

White:

“White is the rejection of all color; black is the absorption of every shade.”

He sees himself as:

“a black man occupying a white body, the presentation in fact of a theory to which millions give lip service, never really believing it is so – that all men are brothers under the skin.”

– Abagond, 2017.

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Remarks:

This was the top song in Black America 68 years ago today, back in 1949. I know it mainly as a Billie Holiday song, also from the same year.

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Lyrics:

Lord, Lord, Lord
Lord, Lord, Lord
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

Some of these days I’m going crazy
Buy me a shotgun and shoot my baby
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

If I should take a notion
I’d go right down and jump in the ocean
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

One day I have chicken and dumpling
Yet the next day I don’t have nothing
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

If I attend church all day Sunday
Yet cabaret all day Monday
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

If I stay out all night
Spend my money that’s all right
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

One day we got ham and bacon
Next day ain’t nothing shaking
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

If me and my baby fuss and fight
And the next minute we all right
Ain’t nobody’s business if we do

Lord, Lord, Lord
Lord, Lord, Lord
Ain’t nobody’s business if I do

I’m three times seven
And that makes twenty-one
Ain’t nobody’s business what I do

Too Late for Tears

“Too Late for Tears” (1949) is a Hollywood film starring Lizabeth Scott, who plays Jane Palmer. Jane and her husband Alan are driving down the road one night (pictured above) when someone throws a suitcase full of money into the back seat of their automobile. It is apparently a huge pay-off for blackmail meant for someone else. She wants to keep the money, her husband wants to turn it over to the police.

The film came out on August 13th, 1949.

Film noir: It is done in a film noir style, common in Hollywood in the forties and early fifties. Film noir means “black film” in French. France was cut off from Hollywood by war during the early forties. When the French started seeing new Hollywood films again, they noticed they were much darker – not just in the look of them, but even in their view of the world. Thus the name.

Common features:

  • darkness – filmed in black and white with plenty of shadows. The view of the world is also dark and cynical. In the battle between good and evil, evil wins most of the time. Most men seek their own interests with little regard for right or wrong. Despite that, good wins (at least a small victory) over evil by the end of the film in true Hollywood fashion.
  • dames – there is often a femme fatale, a good-looking woman who brings men to their ruin.
  • detectives – the hero is often a detective, or someone like that, who seeks the truth and thereby wins the day.

There was noir without the film, like the stories of Raymond Chandler. In American fiction it goes back to at least 1933 with Paul Cain’s short story “Murder in Blue”.

In “Too Late for Tears”, Jane Palmer is the femme fatale – all the way! She uses her beauty and charm to get her way with men. Deep down she is nothing but a snake.

Her husband does not understand that he lives in a film noir universe and trusts her too much! But the blackmailer, who finds Jane and wants his money back, does understand. So when Jane says she will trust him after having double crossed him, he says:

“Don’t ever change, Tiger. I don’t think I’d like you with a heart.”

A perfect description.

Despite that insight, she manages to fool him. And her husband and even the police.

Leaving two or three bodies behind her, she drives across the desert to Mexico with all of the money. When she crosses into Mexico she has a smile on her face. She clearly does not understand she is in a Hollywood film! In that moral universe, at least in 1949, there is no way that a murderer and a thief like her will come to anything but a bad end.

While she is enjoying the high life in Mexico, living happily ever – there is a knock at the door. She opens it and finds there is someone she has not fooled!

– Abagond, 2017.

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Margaret Mitchell

Margaret Mitchell (1900-49), an American writer, is the author of “Gone With the Wind” (1936), which was a huge hit as a book and an even huger hit as a 1939 film of the same name. Mitchell died on August 16th, 1949, five days after being struck down by an automobile. She was 48.

In 1900 she was born a white daughter of the South. She grew up in Atlanta, Georgia hearing stories about the Civil War (1861-65) and Reconstruction (1865-77) by people who had lived through it, both black and white. She heard about Atlanta burning and General Sherman’s march to the sea. She did not know the Confederates lost till she was ten.

She went to Smith College in New England but dropped out after a year when her mother died. She went to work for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, writing as Peggy Mitchell, but quit after four years because she injured her ankle. Stuck at home and with all the stories of civil war times swimming in her head, she began to write “Gone With the Wind”.

In 1935, after nine years of writing her book, a man from Macmillan Company asked her if she knew of any new writers. She did not tell him about her book, but her friend did. It needed work – and a suitcase to hold it! – but Macmillan loved it and it came out the following year. Somehow they got it down to “just” 1,037 pages.

She was hoping to sell 5,000 copies. But in just one day that first summer it sold 50,000! It quickly sold 500,000 copies, then a million, then a million and a half. By her death it had sold 8 million copies. It made her rich but her life as a private person was over. She was so instantly famous that she never got a chance to write another book.

In 1939, on the opening night of the film, Mitchell said it had:

“been a great thing for Georgia and the South to see the Confederates come back”

It was one of the first films in colour. By 1947 it had been shown in theatres four different times. As of 2013 more people had paid to see it than any other film in the world.

Vivian Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind” (1939).

I saw it in the eighties. For more than three hours I was expected to put myself in the shoes of a spoiled rich white woman, a slave-owner, played by Vivian Leigh (pictured above). When she was ruined by the war half-way through I was glad. It saw black people in a good light from a white point of view: as loyal servants. Hattie McDaniel, who played such a servant, received the highest White American honour for acting: an Oscar.

Stereotypes: “Gone With  the Wind” pushes the Southern Belle and the Mammy stereotypes, myths cooked up by the South to put a good face on slavery (Mammy) and hanging black men from trees (Southern belle). The film also paints a war to defend slavery as a noble cause.

– Abagond, 2017.

Sources: mainly the New York Times (1949) and my post “at least a 100 million”.

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paris_wwii_a

Stage 2: Symbolization.

Now that we are in the Trump Era this post bears repeating, especially in the wake of the Charlottesville riot. The original has been edited to make it fit an F-pattern in an H.G. Wells style. I added a message from Superman in 1949 at the end.

The eight stages of genocide (1996) are the steps that every society goes through when it destroys a people not for military reasons but because of their race, religion, culture or national origins. Gregory Stanton, who had studied the genocide in Cambodia for the American State Department, noticed the very same steps unfolding in Rwanda in 1994 in the middle of Africa. The genocide in Darfur at the edge of the Sahara has since followed the same steps in the same order:

  1. Classification: the division into us and them. This is extremely common in human societies. While it is not a sign that genocide is on the way, genocide would be impossible without it.
  2. Symbolization: words or symbols are applied to the them: the yellow star that Jews had to wear before the Holocaust, skin colour, classifications put on identification cards. Again, this is common and is not a sign of genocide, but genocide cannot proceed unless there is some sure way to tell people apart.
  3. Dehumanization: the them become pariahs: they are seen as less than human, as animals or a kind of disease. The Tutsis in Rwanda were called cockroaches before they were killed by the thousands. Killing them was no longer murder – it was just ridding the country of something bad. Dehumanizing words, like “gook” and “nigger”, belong to this step. Unlike the first two steps, dehumanization is not common! It is the first sick step on the road to genocide.
  4. Organization: To kill people in large numbers you need organization: leaders, followers, a chain of command, duties, meetings, guns, training, hate speeches. Sometimes it is the government that does this, but often it is an armed group that seems to be acting on its own (but which the government is either secretly helping or at least turning a blind eye towards). The killing might start at this stage, but not on a huge scale. Examples: the SS in Germany, the Klan in America, the Janjaweed in Darfur.
  5. Polarization: The first people killed in any genocide are not the pariahs themselves but those who speak up for them. The voices in the middle are silenced through threats, arrests or even killings. Now the message of hate goes unchallenged.
  6. Preparation: the pariahs are often separated from the rest of the country – into camps, reservations, ghettos (parts of cities) or some undesirable part of the country. Their property is taken from them (they are not coming back!). This step leaves them defenceless.
  7. Extermination: the mass killings, the genocide proper.
  8. Denial: The leaders of the genocide downplay it or tell complete lies and say there never was a genocide. As long as they are in denial the killings can go on.

Now you know why “nigger” is a bad word. America has gone through all eight steps with Indians, up to step 6 with Japanese Americans and at least as far as step 4 with blacks.

Stanton says that genocide is preventable by stopping it at one of the early stages.

A message from Superman in 1949.

– Abagond, 2009, 2017.

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Charlottesville riot

Note: For August 2017 I am on a 1949 media diet, so everything in this post is by word of mouth. Next month I will fact check it, add pictures and quotes, and repost it. In the meantime:

The Charlottesville riot (August 12th 2017) is my name for what killed one person and injured dozens as violence broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia between those protesting for and against bringing down a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general. Lee fought against the United States in the American Civil War to uphold black slavery.

Heather Heyer, who was killed, was protesting against the statue. She was run over by James Alex Fields, Jr, who was for keeping the statue up. He drove his automobile into anti-Lee protesters, injuring over a dozen people. Both Heyer and Fields were white. Fields lives in Ohio and is from Kentucky. He fled the scene but police caught him and arrested him.

Pro-Lee protesters were white. Among them were David Duke, the Klan (anti-black terrorists), neo-Nazis (anti-Semites) and the alt-right (white nationalists). The Klan did not feel the need to hide their faces under their white hoods. Duke, who used to head the Klan, said they were there to take back America, as President Trump wants.

(insert David Duke quote here, 20 to 40 words)

Anti-Lee protesters were both black and white, maybe other races too. Among them was Black Lives Matter. The anti-Lee protest was in reaction to the pro-Lee protest, not the other way round.

President Trump was slow to condemn Fields or Duke. It took him two days, even though the press had asked him about it several times the next day. And then he largely undid his belated condemnation! As if in his heart of hearts he sides with Duke and company. In 2016, when running for president, Trump was slow to condemn Duke then too.

(insert President Trump quote here, 20 to 40 words)

The police were not heavy-handed like they are when blacks or Indians protest (Ferguson, #NoDAPL, etc) – even though the pro-Lee protesters were armed.

The governor, who had made no decision on whether to take down the statue, did so once the protests turned violent: he decided the statue of Lee will come down. The pro-Lee protests had backfired.

Terrorism: Neither Trump nor the police accused Fields of terrorism – even though Trump is quick to condemn Moslems who drive automobiles into crowds as terrorists.

None of this surprises me. Not the protests for and against, not the violence, not a white man acting just like a Moslem terrorist and yet not being called a terrorist, not the Klan-friendly reaction of the police and the president. None of it. Given who is president, it was just a matter of time.

– Abagond, 2017.

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The Souls of Black Folk

“The Souls of Black Folk” (1903) by W.E.B. Du Bois was, in effect, his guide to black people in the United States written for white people.

The famous quote:

“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”

The other famous quote, the one about double-consciousness:

“this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

In chapter two there is an account of Reconstruction (1865-77) that avoids the white propaganda that most Americans learn at school.

In chapter three there is a great take-down of Booker T. Washington. I did a post on that. See below for the link.

In chapters seven and eight there is an interesting study of Dougherty County, Georgia as it was in 1901, with its “scarred and wretched land; the ruined mansions, the worn-out soil and mortgaged acres.” And the debt peonage of the mass of black people.

Otherwise George Schuyler’s Dr Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard, his parody of Du Bois in “Black No More” (1931), is not far off. Even the name. His Dr Beard was always:

“denouncing the Caucasians whom he secretly admired and lauding the greatness of the Negroes whom he alternately pitied and despised. In limpid prose he told of the sufferings and privations of the downtrodden black workers with whose lives he was totally and thankfully unfamiliar.”

Du Bois underscores this by ending his book with a chapter on Negro “sorrow songs”.

Du Bois says stuff like this (end of chapter nine):

“Deeply religious and intensely democratic as are the mass of the whites, they feel acutely the false position in which the Negro problems place them. Such an essentially honest-hearted and generous people cannot cite the caste-levelling precepts of Christianity, or believe in equality of opportunity for all men, without coming to feel more and more with each generation that the present drawing of the color-line is a flat contradiction to their beliefs and professions.”

and then agrees with whites that black people are sunk in “ignorance, shiftlessness, poverty, and crime.” Sure, whites need to drop their colour-prejudice that sees all black people as the same, the high and the low, but blacks need to uplift themselves too. Both sides are to blame.

Thus his cringing moral appeals to the hypothetical conscience of white people.

Ugh!

Far more satisfying is the clean moral outrage of the sixties: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, even John Carlos.

I had heard nothing but good things about this book since high school and was always ashamed I had not read it. Now that I have read it, I am glad I did not read it in high school or at any time before the age of 30!

– Abagond, 2017.

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