How to Do a Book Reading Like a Jazz Musician

The book, “Mama Fannie,” evolved into a musical instrument as her daughter simultaneously read from the text and addressed the live audience. Jacqueline Hamer Flakes was a guest at the City of Asylum community center in Pittsburgh on January 14. Her presentation was a reading where she shared her new book about her mom, Fannie Lou Hamer. Her reading from the biography was one of the most unforgettable and affectionate I’ve witnessed because Jacqueline Hamer, also known as Cookie, rendered the book a musical instrument – she read a series of short sections, and following each, inspired by memories of her mom, she related her own stories that each narrative in the book motivated her to tell. The result was a splendid and engaging series of riffs on who Fannie Lou Hamer was and how she championed social justice throughout her lifetime. Here is some of what Jacqueline, the daughter, shared:

The chords: Fannie Lou Hamer

The riffs: Born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer was a Civil Rights activist and community organizer who resisted white supremacy by working with both the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). During her early forties, she visited a doctor to have a cyst removed, and unbeknownst to her, she was given a complete hysterectomy. Unable to bear children, she eventually adopted four girls, and Jacqueline Hamer Flakes, the author of the biography, was one of them.

The chords: Not just 40 acres

The riffs: Black Folk in the U.S. (and globally) have yet to receive reparations for enslavement, but where there is a will, there is a way. Fannie Lou encountered barriers simply trying to buy a home, and when she did finally acquire one, it was firebombed. Along with Maya Angelou and others, she went on to raise money in 1969 to purchase 40 acres in the Mississippi Delta. That land was central to the founding of Fannie’s Freedom Farm Cooperative which she expanded by an additional 640 acres in 1970.

The chords: Africa

The riffs: Fannie Lou was part of a SNCC delegation sent to Conakry, Guinea by Harry Belafonte. The trip in 1964 proved both life changing and inspirational. A child of the segregated US South, her travels in West Africa opened a window to a view of Black people capable of running their own societies.

The chords: Advice

The riffs: “What would Fannie Lou Hamer tell us today?” Jacqueline Hamer responded by saying her mom, the activist and organizer, would tell Black people to get an education. (Fannie had to labor in the cotton fields starting at age six, consequently she only attended school three months out of the year.) She would advise us to go into communities and help others get an education and to pay it forward and pay it back.

The chords: A pot of peas

The riffs: Jacqueline Hamer criticized how authors have written about her mother and built their own books and reputations without really knowing the real Fannie. She said was wonderful that, in the past, writers interviewed Fannie Lou before they wrote about her. But she reminded us that those who didn’t sit with her mom and shell peas, didn’t really know the real Fannie Lou Hamer.

Harriet Tubman, Twitter, and Freedom

San Francisco’s City Lights Books invited Dr. Clarence Lusane to speak about his new book, Twenty Dollars and Change: Harriet Tubman and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice, with moderator, Justin Desmangles. As I watched the livestream on November 21 of this year, the symbolism of Tubman awakened my memory. The cover of Dr. Lusane’s book reminded me that an image of Harriet Tubman had once been my profile picture on twitter.

Although I might have forgotten my selection of images for social media, the reasoning and emotions behind the choice were very present. In July 2018, I craved an image that symbolized freedom for my twitter profile pic. Nia Wilson had just been murdered and her sister, Lahtifa, stabbed while they, along with a third sister, Tayisha, waited for a train at an Oakland subway station. The stabbing murder forced me to consider how Black people in the U.S. still were not free. Eighteen-year-old Nia Wilson, a Black woman, was killed by John Lee Cowell, a twenty-seven-year-old White man. Cowell had been on the same train as the sisters prior to the stabbings. And despite his expressing in court his anger about being punched by a Black woman a week prior to the stabbings, and despite his having called another Black woman the N word on a city bus as he fled the crime scene, the murder of Nia Wilson was never ruled a hate crime. For me, the physical and emotional injuries inflicted on the Wilson family, along with the seemingly countless murders of Black people that filled social media from the deaths of Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland to George Floyd highlighted the colonial nature of Black life in the U.S. The same political and economic forces that had labelled us less than human as they drug us through the Middle Passage, that had forced us to work in bondage with, to date, no compensation, and that had deemed us second-class citizens under fascist Jim Crow were still operational.

Before choosing the Tubman pic for my profile, I’d had so many profile names and pictures during my fourteen years on the social media site that I can’t remember them. After the murder of Nia Wilson, I’d chosen Tubman because as both a runaway and an abolitionist, she symbolized freedom. Freedom from the white supremacy ingrained in capitalism, freedom to be Black and a woman, freedom to make choices about how the Black community in the U.S. chose to live, freedom to find liberatory spaces.

During my years of Twitter usage, I witnessed how the site had been instrumental in several political movements during the early part of this century – the Arab Spring, the Indignados in Spain, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and EndSars in Nigeria. I’d later seen counter-revolution stifle the Arab Spring when authorities began policing social media and jailing activists. In Nigeria government officials froze the bank accounts of protestors or chased them into exile. And in the overdeveloped West, authorities silenced some activists while global capitalism proved itself capable of incorporating liberals from the Indignados, Occupy, and BLM movements into the status quo of electoral politics or career activism. These were activists who had failed to base their protest on the most radical of political demands.

Prior to the Musk takeover of twitter, I’d thought of the social media site as a space where leftists could not only keep up with political developments, but also engage in conscientization and grow in leftist theory. I’d seen the joking statements made by twitter users who said they came to the site as a liberal and ended up an anarchist. Given the political space in which we found ourselves, it’s not surprising that twitter attracted Black activists. It has been a space in which Black nationalists, Pan Africanists, feminists, leftists, and radicals could converge to share ideas and battle in ideology. If Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X advocated the termination of colonialism and human degradation by any means necessary, then twitter appeared one means of doing so.

While I was aware of the contradiction of using a capitalist site like twitter as a leftist political space under the helm of Jack Dorsey, I, like countless others, am even more aware of this insurmountable irony under twitter’s new ownership. Musk’s reactivation of rightwing accounts has resulted in some liberals and radicals abandoning the site. If people haven’t quit the site altogether, many are using it less as they drift towards other social media alternatives. More importantly, other activists are more determined to do up-close organizing on the ground with marginalized and oppressed communities.

Harriet Tubman was the last profile picture I used that wasn’t my own. I didn’t remove the Tubman image because I felt that the circumstances that led up to the killing of Nia Wilson no longer existed. The needs of Black people in the U.S. and those of the global Black community are more urgent than ever. Nor did I do so because of my demoralization with leftist politics. While respecting people who choose not to use their own names and likenesses, I simply reached a point in which I wanted to acknowledge and embrace the legacy of Harriet Tubman while representing myself. I remain committed to radical liberation in the West and the termination of a political economy that underdevelops Africa as it extracts the continent’s natural resources and labor on the cheap.

Vanishing Bookstores and Black Spaces in Los Angeles

I imagined myself buying several books at Eso Won Bookstore in Leimert Park during their final sale. Rumor was the Black-owned bookstore would be closing after thirty-six years in business. A landmark for Black Los Angeles, it was awarded 2021 Bookstore of the Year by Publishers Weekly. Despite its compact size of 1800 square feet, it had also been recognized as one of the largest Black-owned bookstores in the U.S. It was where I’d spied, surrounded by other books, the cover of the 869-page, Library of America edition of James Baldwin’s Baldwin Collected Essays and knew then that I had to buy it. My Baldwin purchase completed a couple of years ago, now the store’s founders, James Fulgate and Tom Hamilton, had reached retirement age. They started Eso Won initially inside a home and later as a book-on-wheels concept in the late 1980’s. Eventually the store would find a home at various storefronts in South Los Angeles before the owners settled on Leimert Park in 2006. I’d heard they would be closing sometime at the end of the year. So, I went to the bookstore at the beginning of November 2022 planning to make final discount purchases and say my last goodbyes.

In the years following the 2014 police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Eso Won, along with the California African American Museum, was the location to hear Black writers and activists engaged with political and social life talk books and politics. It was at Eso Won that I heard Kali Akuno, co-founder of Cooperation Jackson, a Mississippi cooperative, speak about his book, Jackson Rising. That was an evening in 2017 when I headed to the bookstore after work. As they normally did on evenings of book talks, Fulgate and Hamilton converted the small walking space inside the bookstore into an auditorium by bringing folding chairs from the backroom and arranging them on the salesfloor. Using a small desk as his podium, Akuno faced the audience as we sat on the metal chairs anxious to hear his reasons for leaving California and starting a cooperative in the South.

On other occasions, we might be ten people in the audience, and sometimes we were twenty with standing room only. The common thread connecting us was curiosity and a craving for answers from Black people who had analyzed our common oppression. Amongst the speakers and the audience, some were comfortable with reform while others sought revolt. Sitting in the small space on Eso Won’s sales floor, I also heard Ibrahim X. Kendi speak on How to Be an Anti-Racist, Kelly Lytle Hernandez on City of Inmates, and Daina Ramey Berry on The Price for their Pound of Flesh. As the nation confronted its violent legacy of racism and witnessed protests against police brutality, the Eso Won website and calendar became a lifeline connecting me to the next scheduled appearance of a writer, activist, or scholar.

Because I had heard the store would be closing at the end of 2022, I arrived at the beginning of November. Turning on to Degnan Avenue, I noticed a store with brown paper covering its windows. There was no sign above the storefront. My first thought: Is that where it was? I stopped my car momentarily. The commercial space that had sheltered the grandest dreams and creations of so many Black writers seemed now so tiny. I drove towards the park at the end of the block, turned around and drove back to the storefront. Yes, that is where Eso Won was. And it was now gone. I was too late. Silently, I cursed myself, and I cursed the city.

After parking, I got out and walked towards the former bookstore. Although I couldn’t enter, I figured I could at least allow my body the fiction that I was going to. A letter-sized paper taped on the closed glass door assured me that, yes, the store, with brown paper covering the windows was the former Eso Won. Beyond the storefront, I was drawn in by the Saturday morning environment of Leimert Park. It was a cross between movie set and maroon village. With cars parked at an angle on both sides, the middle of the street, which functions as a plaza, served as a marketplace for merchants selling t-shirts, jackets, and African clothing made of bold and colorful Ankara prints. On the northern end of the block, a man opened his black iron cast barbecue pit. He waved his arms at the billows of smoke causing apparitions of Tubman and Garvey to rise. At least two different sets of speakers on opposite sides of the street blared different reggae songs. Near the vacant Eso Won building, a Black homeless man huddled near a closed door while a young woman with a large Afro sat near the curb in a high metal chair and typed on her laptop that she’d placed on the metal table. Two Black men in expensive sports attire brisked past. Continuing down the block, I noticed at least two other stores had closed. I believe one had been a store that sold clothes and wooden sculptures from Africa. In front of an empty storefront, three or four musicians had started a session of African drumming. The drummers pounded resonant and rhythmic beats into the animal skin as a small group of mostly men stood by chatting and listening. At the southern corner of the block, men hurried in and out of a barbershop.

While it’s not the only Black bookstore in Los Angeles, the closing of Eso Won is a double loss. It is symbolic of the decline in the Black population of Los Angeles that has fallen from a high of thirteen percent in the 1990’s to its current eight percent. For various reasons, many Black LA residents are moving to the nearby suburbs or as far as the neighboring counties of San Bernadino and Riverside, while others have moved out of state. The outward migration means Black spaces like Eso Won disappear.

Eso Won is also symbolic of the disappearance of independent bookstores in the Los Angeles area. During my high school years, my teacher sent ten or twelve of us students who were in her AP Spanish Lit class to the long gone Librairie de France/Librería Hispánica on Olive Street, near Seventh, in Downtown Los Angeles. There used to be separate Spanish and French bookstores on Book Sellers’ Row on Westwood Boulevard.  Book Sellers’ Row started at Pico and ran all the way up to UCLA. Other bookstores on Westwood included a medical bookstore, Sisterhood feminist bookstore, and the pride of the region, Westwood Bookstore itself. Near West Hollywood there was the Bodhi Tree which specialized in religion, philosophy, and spirituality. And in Santa Monica, on the now gentrified Third Street Promenade, the leftist bookstore, Midnight Special held court for twenty-three years and hosted writers, thinkers, and activists such as Maya Angelou, bell hooks, Elaine Brown, and Edward Said. I didn’t have the fortune of seeing those luminaries in Santa Monica, but I was in the audience to hear the reading by Chicano poet, Jimmy Santiago Baca. After his reading, he signed my copy of Martín & Meditations on the South Valley.

While the moneyed classes might argue that the growth of a conglomerate like Amazon — which has precipitated the closure of independent bookstores — has led to lower prices and the convenience of warehouse-to-door shipping, for the Black population, the loss of a space like Eso Won offers no rainbow on the horizon. As members of a community that has languished for centuries without reparations, the owners of small Black businesses almost never have the economic foundation and investment to grow into large capitalist enterprises. And while the forces of capitalism allow privileged classes of White residents to build stronger and newer communities, those same forces tend to split up established Black neighborhoods. I’ve seen evidence of this along Crenshaw Boulevard, just two blocks away from Leimert Park, where numerous Black businesses have closed due to the economic hardships caused by gentrification as well as the pandemic and subway construction.

So, on a November day in Lemeirt Park, the notification taped on the closed glass door was proof Eso Won was gone. Like Central Avenue, Santa Barbara Avenue, Rodeo Road, the old Eastside. Now a memory amidst the rolling rhythms of music, the greetings of smiling street merchants, and cars driving away into the distance.

Our Sleepwalking Towards Death with Gabriel García Márquez

At eighteen, with my first year of community college completed, I flew alone from Los Angeles to Mexico City. After several days of scouring bookstores, I brought back a suitcase full of novels, poetry, and history books.

I had begun my college studies as a talented Spanish major whose first published poetry — both bilingual and all-Spanish — had been accepted in Americas Review (University of Houston). As a young African-American writer whose first language was English, I shunned away from English-language literary journals because I lacked confidence they would publish my writing. Even then, decades back, I was aware that the publishing industry was a majority-White profession, and I perceived it as a barrier through which I would not be able cross. Social change, my dedication to craft, and persistence have allowed me to move beyond that barrier and get my work published in numerous English-language journals.

Given my skills in the Spanish language, I didn’t hesitate recently to read the short story, “Amargura Para Tres Sonámbulos” (“Bitterness for Three Sleepwalkers”), by Gabriel García Márquez in Spanish. Reading English translations of Spanish-speaking writers creates a thin linguistic veil between myself and the writer that I try to avoid. In the story, Márquez’s first-person-plural narration allows his two sleepwalking narrators to tell a story about a third who is a woman. The two narrators reveal to us, “Estábamos haciendo lo que habíamos hecho todos los días de nuestras vidas” (“We were doing what we had been doing every day of our lives.”) Their emphasis on the humanity of the woman sleepwalker – who lives in the underground — underscores how sleepwalking is an analogy for the process of life. On one occasion during her walk, she falls to the ground and starts eating dirt; yet, she still isn’t dead. The two narrators inform us that the more she walks around the house at night, the more she begins to look like death.

By using the sleepwalking metaphor for the process of a life approaching death, García Márquez makes the finite quality of material life abundantly clear. His magical realism presents three characters who move through the narration like phantasms of our imagination, so thinly clad that they need no names nor any physical description.

Using García Márquez’s number of three, I offer three pressing topics in the world today that we, as humanity, engage with as if sleepwalking. I will refrain from naming them, allowing the reader to use speculation (of which magical realism is a part) to discern the topics of discussion. I have likewise personified my sleepwalkers as women.

She sits at the outdoor table as clouds form in the dry atmosphere. One raindrop falls to the dark brown table as the wind blows the clouds away, assuring no rainfall. She remembers how months, years have passed with barely a sprinkle. She half gazes towards the parched earth, one eye open and the other closed, confident in the technology of dams and irrigation. Faraway, in the Southern hemisphere, no rain means starvation and death. While further off in the tropical regions, torrential rains flood the land, washing away homes and livelihoods, and later leaving stagnant waters that breed disease. Lucky, she puts on her dark sunglasses and feels the warmth of the sun lulling her to sleep.

Six hundred years of extraction on the Atlantic side. Six hundred years! She enters the house, unties the Ankara fabric from her head, rushing to complete her studies while there is electricity. Recalling the words of the professor in class today, she ponders the extraction first of people and then minerals, natural resources, and land from the continent. She must find that chapter her professor was referring to. She sits in the chair, resisting sleepiness, and begins flipping through pages. There it is. She reads how the West and others have ensured that full industrialization of products cannot happen on the land, that the profits are drained away to far-off corners of the world and not given to them — the rightful owners of the wealth. She then sits back, the hanging light flickering off and on, and starts to doze.

She knows that nothing can resuscitate a life that is gone. There is no incubator for a dead body. She saw the bullet hit, pierce skin, spew blood across the linoleum floor, stop a vital organ. The life was lost. She is not sure whether it was a shopping mall, a church, or a schoolroom. Stretched out on the carpeted floor, she covers her head with the blanket to hide from the reality of twenty to forty percent of the world’s guns in her one country. Something about a law written on paper 240 years ago. End of question. End of discussion. End of life.

The Civil Rights Movement & the Haitian Revolution Never Ended

The Civil Rights Movement, like the Haitian Revolution, never ended. This idea crossed my mind as I read the essay, “On the Marvelous Real in America” by Cuban writer, Alejo Carpentier. In his discussion on magical realism in Latin American writing, Carpentier refers to synchronism and how events recur in Latin American creative writing; they continue to happen. In other words, magical realism defies the notion that historical and life events begin and end at a specific time as the Western mind would have us believe.

Carpentier distinguishes magical realism from European Surrealism. Comparing the two artistic movements, he views European writers and artists subtly trying to force magic, whereas in Latin America everyday people and creatives have faith that surreal events actually happen.

While reading his essay, I incorrectly assumed that Carpentier was trying to flaunt his knowledge of Western Civilization, since there are myriad references to Kafka, Voltaire, and other European writers. I was unaware of how much of his life was spent in Europe. Carpentier was born in Switzerland in 1904 to Cuban parents. During his adulthood as a novelist, essayist, and musicologist, he traveled back and forth between Europe and Cuba. At seventeen, he began his higher education in Cuba, but left in 1928 because of his opposition to the dictatorship. He returned to the island after 1959 as a supporter of the Cuban revolution, and eventually he became Cuban Ambassador to France. After his death in France in 1980, he was buried in Cuba.

In his essay, he describes how his travels took him to the People’s Republic of China, Iran, and the USSR. In each location he contemplated art, architecture, the environment, and the people. But it was in Haiti where he first encountered magical realism. His example is that of Dutty Boukman, an early leader of the Haitian Revolution. Born in Senegambia in 1767, Boukman was enslaved, sent to Jamaica, and then to Haiti where he became a leader amongst an escaped community of Maroons. In 1791 he was presiding over a religious ceremony which then became the catalyst for a slave revolt that ignited the revolution. Threatened by the revolt, the French colonizers killed him and then felt pressured to display his head to the Haitian enslaved to banish the atmosphere of invincibility he had cultivated. In other words, despite the French killing Boukman, the Haitian people continued to perceive of him as amongst the living.

I contemplated how Western colonizers, in an effort to impose Western time on those they seek to control, will kill those who rebel against their oppressive social order. The goal is to designate both a specific beginning and ending that can be measured logically. But as Carpentier tells us in reference to magical realism, the reality for the oppressed and marginalized isn’t so neatly packaged. Synchronism allows for events, despite their appearing to die down, to continue to happen by bursting forth again. In this sense the Haitian Revolution never ended because the cause for the revolt continues to spark unrest and has not been resolved. Likewise, the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movement for liberation which it birthed have not ended. If they had, the Black Lives Matter Movement, for all its successes and shortcomings, would not have sprung forth. Western power conspired to assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, to kill them in the logical expanse of time, but the movements that they became symbols of live on.

Carpentier says that the oppressed rely on faith that the surreal happens, and he states that this faith allows for various realities to occur simultaneously. I like to think that magical realism exists at the point of not knowing. There is so much that we don’t know about Native genocide, the Middle Passage, and Black enslavement. For me, that is where the speculation comes in and where the writer calls on magical realism to fill in the gaps. And, yes, those gaps demonstrate how historical and personal events continue to occur.

Carpentier leaves us with the belief that “improbable juxtapositions and marvelous mixtures exist by virtue of Latin America’s varied history, geography, demography, and politics.”

Alejo Carpentier

Haiti and the US-Mexico Border

(Published by Pure Slush, Vol 21: “25 Miles From Here,” September 2021)

I wanted to leave Los Angeles and go to the US-Mexico border.  Not 25 miles away, more like 120.  I’d read about the Haitian migrants who’d made their way to the border after walking from Brazil.  Walking through South America, Central America, and Mexico to reach the border with the United States.  There must be something I could do, I figured.  I felt hopeless.

How did the Haitians end up in Brazil?  They migrated in 2010 following the Haitian earthquake when Brazil offered work contracts on projects related to World Cup 2014 and the 2016 Olympics.  After both the huge construction projects and the economic boom related to them ended, work opportunities disappeared. An estimated 40,000 Haitians began their trek to a US-Mexico border which then President Trump was intent on sealing.

My connection to the US-Mexico border has been continuous.  I crossed it as a youth when my mom drove from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico for daytrips that included sightseeing along the expanse of the Pacific Ocean and reaching a final destination at a Mexican restaurant that had chicken tacos and sweet soda.  During my youth, a US citizen driving across the border simply showed their California Driver’s License to enter Mexico and again, to return to the United States.  It wasn’t the current situation of having to show a passport to cross over.

For me, the US-Mexico border always seemed accessible.  Prior to the suburbs between Los Angeles and San Diego becoming developed cities of their own with their own traffic jams, San Diego, on the US side, was a quick two hours away by car.  My mom would exit the urban sprawl of Los Angeles taking the San Diego Freeway which offered five or six lanes for the cars headed south.  The apartment complexes and strip malls and car dealerships of L.A. would give way to homes on green hills and orange groves.  Nearing San Diego, I saw glimpses of the Pacific Ocean with the sun beating down on rolling waves, seagulls in the sky.

And upon arrival at the border, it was my mother showing her California Driver’s License to the Mexican authorities waiting at the gate that had ten or fifteen entryways for cars entering Mexico.  It was the change from smooth US pavement to the bumpier Mexican side.  The chaos of cars driving in downtown Tijuana where no one seemed to keep their car within the car lanes, or where painted car lanes were not even visible.

As a teenager, I made a conscious decision to cross the border at 17 when I flew to Durango, Mexico to study Spanish in summer school and to live, during my stay, with a Mexican family.  The family took in three females for that summer stay.  I was the only African American, and there were two blondes — from San Diego, and Canada, respectively.

The following year, at 18, I crossed the border again, this time flying to Mexico City all alone to take in the sights, visit museums, and buy as many books as I could fit into my suitcase.  The selections included books by Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, and Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Cardenal.

And even after the teen trips by plane in which I crossed the border, there was adult, schoolteacher me driving from L.A. to TJ to buy comic books in Spanish that I could use for my silent reading program.  It was that odd year in which my middle school administration decided I, a bilingual English teacher, should teach a class in Spanish to newly-arrived, immigrant children from Mexico and Central America.  And there was childless me crossing the border with my then husband to buy clomiphene at a Tijuana pharmacy to help us conceive a child.  The Mexican pharmacies offered a much cheaper price than anything that could be found in the States.

But there was no me I could configure in 2016 to cross the border to assist the Haitians.  None of the roles I had taken on were up to the task – the child on day trips, the foreign student, the literature and art enthusiast, the middle school teacher, the childless mom.  None of those roles would adequately buffer social activist me.  My passport was expired.  I was now a single mom, and I felt I needed to be accompanied by a man because, despite modernization, patriarchy is a thing in Mexico.  It’s the country with the second-highest rate of feminicide in Latin America after Brazil.  There was getting my car across.  Would I buy the additional car insurance in San Diego as US citizens do prior to driving their car into Mexico?  Or would I rent a car on the U.S. side with the intent of driving that insured vehicle into Mexico as some are known to do as well?

I felt the helplessness both the US and Mexican governments had imposed on their citizens and non-citizens.  I felt solidarity with the 40,000 Haitians who had walked from Brazil to Mexico in 2016.  Their bravery and determination are unparalleled.  Haitians have borne the emblem of Black resistance to empire for centuries — since their long fight against enslavement and for independence from France, 1791-1804, and during their long and ceaseless resistance against US-backed, feckless political regimes imposed on their own country.

While many Haitians have decided to try to live in Mexico as undocumented persons in that country, it is estimated that in Spring 2021 there are still 4000 Haitians at the US-Mexico border in Tijuana.  They languish amongst the growing surge of immigrants from Central America who are fleeing a host of ills, including gang warfare, climate change, and post-covid economic devastation.  The Haitians have cited incidences of racism from Mexican police and from other immigrants as well.

I continue to advocate for justice in as many ways as I possibly can on this side of the border – my existence inextricably bound with that of oppressed people everywhere.

Foreign Whips and Detroit’s Decline

In the early 1940’s, Detroit was at its industrial zenith, leading the nation in an economic escape from the Great Depression.  Between 1940 and 1947 manufacturing employment in Detroit increased by 40 percent, a rate surpassed only by Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago.” [i]  

Inherent in Detroit’s zenith were forewarnings of its decline.  Positioned as one of several U.S. magnets, Detroit drew in hundreds of thousands of desperate workers from disparate regions of the country.  It was a terminus for black migrants fleeing the Jim Crow South, as well as European immigrants new to America.  The catalyst: the American Dream.  People were in march with the expectation the country would fulfill the promise engrained in its founding documents.  No doubt, it would come about.  Yet, challenges to Detroit’s zenith were already in ascension.  And two of its competing cities—Los Angeles and San Francisco—were located in the state which would become the nation’s most populous, attracting millions of migrants and immigrants in its own right.

“In the U.S., there are at least two dominant musical manifestations of hip-hop culture: one (tributary-like) characterized by staying independent, sticking to old-school hip-hop ideals, ‘keeping it real’, the other (river-like) characterized by ‘ghetto fabulous’ aesthetics and a bling-bling attitude.”[ii]

Gucci Mane opens the 2016 BET Hip Hop Awards in fur coat and jeans.  Shirtless, multiple diamond chains serve as his mantle.  Recently released from jail, he is ready to perform capitalism.  “In bling-bling (culture) one can find a way to perform capitalism…(a) trope of reappropriation.”[iii]   His rap lyrics swerve around the themes of drug sales and his own vulnerability as an object of violent pursuit on the streets.  Gucci removes his coat as rapper Travis Scott joins him on stage.  Now Gucci is in boxing mode.  He moves his arms and head as if in a boxing ring, battling.  Contrasting with Gucci’s opulence, Travis shields himself in padded bomber jacket and jeans, as he raps about sexual prowess and drug use.  Himself creative director of this performance, Scott alternates between pointing at the audience and curling his free hand towards his waist, usually not quite touching it.  As the song segues into the lyrics of “Pick Up the Phone,” Gucci exits the stage and Young Thug, aka TG, aka Thugger, aka Jefferey, surges forth from a phone booth on stage holding his microphone in one hand and using the other to seemingly push back the encroachment of his own idiolect.  Thugger’s lyrics then race ahead of him so much so that he appears to be pursuing them on stage as he rhythmically paces forward while alternately retreating, still, of course, clutching his mic. He’s amped.  Finally, using humming as a signal of intrusion, Quavo, possessor of one of the most discernible voices in contemporary male rap, enters through an aisle amongst the audience, accompanied by a convoy of females.  Minutes after his joining the artists on stage, the three men close the song.

“Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors had their headquarters in the Detroit area.”[iv]

The Big Three corporations, after enlisting American workers, engaged to satisfy the desire of the American populous.  As a society, we crave more.  We yearn to be more mobile.  We covet the newest model.  Yet linked with the growth of the automobile industry was the war economy of 1939-1945.  World War II commanded that auto plants convert to the production of military planes, tanks, and vehicles.  As huge numbers of soldiers went off to war, there were more jobs for additional workers, black migrants, even women.  The corporations profited from the war, as did we.  The war economy was lucrative for the country.  Yet it doesn’t end here.  Corporations aren’t easily satiated and will seek more profit.  Advances for CEO’s, increases for executives, dividends for shareholders.  As such, big business will be antithetical to unions that try to organize workers for a dignified wage and working conditions befitting the workers’ true worth.  As agents of capitalism, corporations will utilize the tools of racism, sexism, and xenophobia to atomize workers who are both means and menace.  Dialectics.  Inherent in the growth, is the portent of the decline.

“For large numbers of African-Americans, the promise of steady, secure, and relatively well-paid employment in the North proved illusory.”[v]

Escaping from the Jim Crow South, the expectation is for an improved life liberated from the social limitations of segregation and the historical legacy of slavery.  Yet black migration is often a catalyst for white flight.  White flight to the suburbs.  White flight into whiteness as European ethnics hasten to discard their ethnic markers and join the “white race” of the United States.  White flight in Detroit’s employment agencies that were classified in the yellow pages as “Colored” and “White.”[vi]   White flight in the advertisements for employment that until 1955 “regularly specified racial preferences in job listings.” [vii]  White flight into the better auto factory jobs leaving blacks male employees in the most subordinate and the most hazardous positions which would eventually shorten a worker’s life, such as that of paint room operator. [viii]  White flight as some of the penny-pinching auto plants abandon Detroit and relocate to the off-limits, Jim-Crow South seeking cheaper labor. [ix]  White flight in some unions purporting to represent all members of the working class, but at times complying with management’s deployment of the tool of discrimination. [x]  White flight into separate neighborhoods that have “rates of segregation barely changed between the 1940’s and the present.”[xi]  White flight that would result in 1980’s Detroit having “eighty-six municipalities, forty-five townships, and eighty-nine school districts.” [xii]

“I KNOW ALL MY WHIPS ARE FOREIGN…” (Young Thug, “Pull Up on a Kid,” rec. 2015)

Little wonder the lack of brand loyalty.  For some, the desire for a whip, or car, shifts from the American ideal to the foreign.  The Big Three did not envisage our growing inclination, as consumers, for less grandiose and more efficient cars. That preference would be fulfilled by economical Japanese imports.  And for the upper class, the European import became a public badge of one’s ranking.

“I KNOW ALL YOUR BITCHES BORIN’” (Young Thug, “Pull Up on a Kid”)

The use of the profane term “bitch” can undoubtedly cause wincing in a room.  Sweaty hands will clutch.  In academia.  At the corporate news headquarters often owned by the same companies that sell rap music with profane lyrics.  Parents who span a wide cultural array and are members of varied social classes.  Parents who are determined to do the best for their kids, shudder.  The profane word “bitch” and how it divulges the speaker’s perception of women and affects the female’s perception of herself within the speaker’s gaze.

In my workaday environment, the public secondary school, being the recipient of this profanity is not unfamiliar territory.  A few elementary teachers may have also been branded with the term.  It isn’t the student with which one has a good rapport but who suddenly has a bad day that decides to call the teacher “bitch.”  If the teacher is fair, professional, and consistently delivering instruction, the profane epithet will most likely be delivered by a student who did not like the teacher from day one.  The friction and defiance were already present and remained a constant.  Perhaps because the student, given his or her own background, had trouble with authority.  And in a moment of being disciplined, the teen will mutter or exclaim outright, “bitch.”  The goal being to chip away at the teacher’s power, relegate her to a lowly position as a woman, and heap on humiliation.  Contrastingly, in heated moments of confrontation, are my male colleagues down the hall branded “bastard”?  Seared with an f-bomb?  Probably neither.  “Bitch-ass” is more than sufficient since it achieves the aforementioned humiliation while also emasculating the male working in a predominately-female field.

“A masculinist discursive strand is clearly identifiable in both rap music and its parent culture, Hip Hop…Both women and men have participated in Hip Hop culture and rap music in ways that have been both oppressive and liberatory for women.”[xiii]

In his song, “Pull Up on a Kid,” Young Thug raps about a particular type of “bitch.”  “Ooh she bad, damn she bad, yeah, she bad, yeah.” A bad bitch who is able to fulfill the sexual appetite of the man who, in this song, will probably not be faithful given his desire to “wet” not just one female, but also “yours.”  Although almost virginal and/or impeccably dressed (“Fresh as a peppermint”), she is not adverse to a sexual threesome.  This woman knows how to hang with a man with major money.  She is travelled, having formerly lived in Miami.  She is able to easily cross class and cultural lines having hung out with Haitian zoes, or street gangs.

“Hip hop, including rap music, is a complex and contradictory arena in which regressive and oppressive elements sometimes complicate and at times even undermine what fundamentally remains an oppositional and potentially liberatory project.” [xiv]

Potentially.  Yet late capitalism is sloppy.  Sloppy indeed.

And African-Americans are a complex people.

“Such a double life, with double thoughts, double duties, and double social classes, must give rise to double words and double ideals, and tempt the mind to pretence or to revolt, to hypocrisy or to radicalism.”[xv]

Black women gained the least…”[xvi]

The Black women of Detroit’s manufacturing zenith had no crystal stair.  A meagre 20% of them were able to acquire factory jobs in the auto plants by 1950 [xvii]  where all females had to labor to climb a seniority list separate from that of males.  Many worked for white families as domestics – an occupation they would soon weary of.  It was their own bodies’ ability at reproduction that would open up more avenues for work in the black schools of Detroit where black female teachers would serve as a rung for the rest of the family to climb the ladder towards the coveted middle class.  As the barriers of discrimination came down, more job opportunities would open up for black females in city work. [xviii]

“BALMAIN JEANS, EXTENDED TEE, THAT MY SWAG, YEAH” (Young Thug, “Pull Up on a Kid”)

The love of the foreign, whether it be the car, the woman, or French, Balmain jeans.  What should we expect in a global economy?  Germany and Japan now rival the U.S. in auto manufacturing.  When we casually shop at the local store, we not only select from American-made goods.  We are consumers in a global market in which “American” companies have moved across the border and overseas for bargain-priced labor.  The corporations pay a pittance to workers as the profits of execs and shareholders balloon.  At the expense of American workers hoping for secure lives for their children.  To the detriment of middle class America budgeting like the working class.  To the deprivation of impoverished blacks, people of color, immigrants who have not yet disappeared into the vast anonymity of whiteness and its social advantages.  Glance at the tags, the label, the VIN number.  More than likely, made somewhere other than America.  Swag is foreign.

“Rap lyrics may or may not contain an overt critique of capitalism, but they are generally supported by a communal value system where linkages between people are held together by loyalty and blood.” [xix]

So much so that Young Thug warns, “Playing with my slimes, you won’t make it out the exit.”  In Thugger’s idioglossia his slimes are his confidants, his homies.

“In expressing the collective dream of becoming something else – of taking flight – the statement becomes inseparable from the collectivity and the community.” [xx]

Capitalism will link us together just as potently as it rips us apart.  If we survive the inherent violence of the plunder, we may be forcibly marched off land that our ancestors down the ages and through folklore vowed was ours.  We may be overpowered, shipped off to new lands, and auctioned off as chattel.  We ourselves may relinquish family ties in a particular region to migrate into a distance where there is the promise of work, higher pay, improved living conditions, a new life.  We leave our country and cross borders in search of a material dream.  We abandon the familiar, the bloodlines of generations.  We relinquish the customary and are forced to become accustomed to new regions.  We learn new countries, cities, languages, rules on the job.  In an effort to combat the ravages of capitalism and to resist its ripping us apart, we form alliances in social movements, unions, politics.  Inherent in the new fusion is capitalism’s desire to tear us apart.  By social class, by gender, by race.  The psychological, social, and cultural tolls on us can be terrifying, and for some, insurmountable.

“In the case of Hip Hop, ‘the street’ is a site where the sensibilities of black lower class people prevail.” [xxi]

Class stratification within the black community is a reality.  In the geographic regions of the urban North, Midwest, and West where blacks migrated in search of nebulous dreams, not all, in many cases few, made it up the rungs to a coveted, continuous middle class life that promised to be easier with employment steadier.  The deterrents to black progress were not only economic because racial barriers had also been set up.  Blacks carried the double burden of having started far behind whites in the country and whites new to the country who capitalized on their whiteness.  As the U.S. deindustrialized, automated, and outsourced “a seemingly, permanent class of underemployed and jobless blacks had emerged” [xxii] who were often told they were to blame for their society’s shortcomings. [xxiii]

“The process of deindustrialization – the closing, downsizing, and relocation of plants and sometimes whole industries – accelerated throughout the twentieth century.”[xxiv]

“Employers left industrial centers with high labor costs for regions where they could exploit cheap, nonunion labor.”[xxv]

“ALL MY WHIPS ARE FOREIGN…” (Young Thug, “Pull Up on a Kid”)

The dialectics of rap music: “the marginalized celebrating that which marginalizes.”[xxvi]

As some of Detroit’s automakers relocated to the South in search of cut-rate labor, others eventually spread production to myriad regions of the globe where workers would manufacture parts of the automobile and then ship those parts back to the U.S. for assembly and the sticker “Made in America.”  The automation of U.S. plants meant many workers lost their jobs and were being displaced further and further away from the American Dream of an irrevocably secure life.  For frugal middle and working class U.S. consumers, the Japanese car became an economical alternative to the large gas-guzzling American models.  For the wealthy elite, German engineering supplied luxurious, high-end autos.

How do members of the black working class survive?  Education.  Hard work.  Follow the rules.  Some will defeat the barriers of sky-rocketing tuition, racism, family conflict, and personal predicaments and make it into the coveted middle class.  Those who don’t will find that minimum wage, low-skilled service jobs are no entry into a gratifying and secure livelihood.  A fraction may be tempted to “pull up on the mail truck” (“Pull Up on a Kid”) and possibly risk the consequences of a federal heist, not unlike the federal heist of multinational corporations currently not paying U.S. taxes.  Or, for those with lyrical skills, there is the music industry, specifically hip hop and rap, where one can engage in the dialectics of being able to “perform capitalism,” voice its dreams, shortcomings, and how it functions, all the while “retaining specific cultural markers.”[xxvii]   In other words, performing capitalism while staying black.

[i] Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 19

[ii] Alf Rehn & David Skold, “All About the Benjamins—Hardcore Rap, Conscious Consumption and the Place of Bragging in Economic Language,” “Culture and Organization, April 2005, http: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/228623915

[iii] Rehn & Skold, “All About the Benjamins”

[iv] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 16

[v] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 8

[vi] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 95

[vii] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 94

[viii] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 99

[ix] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 262

[x] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 11

[xi] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 8

[xii] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 266

[xiii] Layli Phillips, Kerri Reddick-Morgan, and Dionne Patricia Stephens, “Oppositional Consciousness Within an Oppositional Realm: The Case of Feminism and Womanism in Rap and Hip Hop, 1976-2004,” The Journal of African American History, Vol. 90, No. 3, The History of Hip Hop (Summer, 2005, pp. 253-277, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20064000

[xiv] Layli Phillips, Kerri Reddick-Morgan, and Dionne Patricia Stephen, “Oppositional Consciousness Within an Oppositional Realm,” 254

[xv] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 146

[xvi] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 28

[xvii] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 28

[xviii] Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 111

[xix] Layli Phillips, Kerri Reddick-Morgan, and Dionne Patricia Stephen, “Oppositional Consciousness Within an Oppositional Realm, 260

[xx] Rehn & Skold, “All About the Benjamins”

[xxi] Layli Phillips, Kerri Reddick-Morgan, and Dionne Patricia Stephen, “Oppositional Consciousness Within and Oppositional Realm, 259

[xxii] Sugrue, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 144

[xxiii] Sugrue, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 156

[xxiv] Sugrue, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis, 127

[xxv] Sugrue, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis,” 138

[xxvi] Rehn & Skold, “All About the Benjamins”

[xxvii] Rehn & Skold, “All About the Benjamins”

Cool Black Friend

“Nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’

You gotta have somethin’ if you wanna be with me”

(“Nothing from Nothing,” Billy Preston)

“You ain’t got to be rich to talk to Gucci, but you got to be part of something

 Ain’t nobody play no pro ball or nothing? Ain’t nobody got nothing?”

(“At Least a M,” Gucci Mane, Mike Will Made It, Zaytoven)

At nine-percent of the city’s population and falling, living in multifarious communities throughout the City and County, Black people in L.A. have numerous opportunities to be the “Cool Black Friend.”  Opportunities abound on city streets, on school and college campuses, in the workplace, on Hollywood screens, in the music industry, and at the club.  Possibilities are plentiful amongst a myriad of ethnic groups but especially amongst the power majority – White/Euro-Americans, whom as Michael Eric Dyson correctly notes, Blacks have been “reading” for centuries for our own survival–and amongst Latino communities of Mexican and Central American heritage who are the majority culture in once overwhelmingly-African-American South L.A.  Having created the philosophy of cool on U.S. terrain, and having created that framework despite the nothingness of their former condition as chattel property, there is little wonder that Blacks are selected as the Cool Black Friend.  An anomaly, perhaps, given that the deculturalization process for the enslaved involved the “uprooting from land” and targeted the elimination of language, cultural practices, and family ties.  Yet Black history in America is a history of resistance and the creating of something out of nothing.  Railroads invisible to the eye.  Churches in a land that denied them literacy and the bible.  Schools and universities before their freedom was even granted.  Resistance to empire — an acumen for the precise where and when in political movements — that white Liberals cling to today.

In the nation at large, and following the era in which African Americans were forced to take up European musical instruments and play for their enslavers, the Cool Black Friend has existed in music since the era when Whites visited segregated Black clubs in locations such as Harlem or Chicago’s South Side.  For the visitor, these excursions were undoubtedly a positive if one had a Black connection who could facilitate entrance to a musical venue.  And today, if a non-Black musician or singer performs a type of music with African rhythm or African-American intonations, it is advantageous to be chums with a Black performer who can give you credence.

Sports abound with Cool Black Friends.  We see this especially on university campuses with huge endowments and top tier sports programs where the student body may be comprised of few African Americans, but the sports team has a large number of Cool Black Friends leading the university to NCAA victory and its resultant monetary gains for coaches, administrators, and the like while excluding the players themselves.  High five to the Cool Black Friend when he or she scores.  Professional athletics are more of a mixed bag, depending on the sport.  Cool Black Friends generate billions of dollars in stadium expansions, advertising, broadcasting, and ticket sales, especially during finals when corporations and the wealthy might buy out front row seats at market price for five thousand dollars (or resale $50K) to watch Black athletes take the spectators’ team to a win.  High five on that.  Yet some sports, such as football with its 70% black players, 25% black quarterbacks, or tennis which has consistently and sporadically (to use an oxymoron) had a lump in its throat regarding the assertive, pro-Black, female athleticism of Venus and Serena Williams, or golf which tried to play the token card with Tiger Woods but had to do so only half-heartedly given that athlete’s ambivalence about his own political power, show no interest in white liberal chumminess.

In some cases, having sex with a Cool Black Friend can result in the creation of the longest-running reality show to date in the U.S.  And even though the relationship that spurred that sex tape may sputter and fizzle, the Cool Black Friendship may be seen as a winning formula if the celebrity and her insecure entourage have no marketable talents of their own.  Thus, the formula must be repeated and replicated because, of course, Black Americans have a history of creating something out of nothing.  Aren’t these the people who following Nixon’s questioning their ability to survive another 500 years in the U.S., who after that same President’s statement in the 1970’s that they would only survive if the best ones were inbred, and amidst allegations in the 1980’s of CIA support for Central American counter-revolutionaries that led to dumping cocaine into the hood to fund the Contras and further destroy the Black family while fueling the street-to-prison pipeline, turned the dregs of that historical experience into a musical genre?  Trap Music aside, some Black friends are simply an insinuation.  By getting butt implants or pumping up one’s lips, it’s possible to allude to a Cool Black Friend 24/7, even when he/she may not be in one’s presence.

In the United States, which has raced with Russia in building approximately 15,000 nuclear weapons, the detonation of 100 of which would block the earth’s sunlight.  The U.S. with the world’s largest number of incarcerated people, 40% of whom are Black, although Blacks are only 13% of the population.  The U.S. which is 5% of the world’s population, yet uses 24% of its energy and is ranked the second largest carbon dioxide producer. A country comfortable with the notion that white wealth is 13 times that of Blacks and Latinos. Yet, living in the Empire, and aware of the disproportionate distortions of day to day life, when Blacks shout, “Black Lives Matter,” “All Lives Matter” is, at times, the rejoinder of Euro-Americans.  With the latter, in this instance, showing scant knowledge of how call and response functions, the question to be pondered is where in the makeup of the Empire is the message “All Lives Matter” being communicated.  Whites live in the Nation.  Blacks, overwhelmingly, live in the Empire.  Even though news networks, public relations firms, and advertisers have recently put their own spin on the word “matter,” so that mileage, insurance, and happiness “matter,” the original proclamation endures.

In these circumstances and during his two terms in office, perhaps President Obama was the ultimate Cool Black Friend.  His presence allowed the United States to look progressive, as if it had overcome its racial differences, as if tolerance were the norm.  He brought Black cool to the nation and the imperial Oval Office. In a geographical world region founded on settler colonialism, Obama inherited the continental — North, Central, and South American — desire of political leaders to have it both ways – to pillage while appearing benign.  In the U.S., the liberal establishment clung to its belief in a palatable nation in which we could maintain our wasteful, consumerist lifestyle, hopefully come together as one, bridge the inherent conflict in maintaining a huge military budget, while supposedly being a beacon to the world of harmonious progress.  In his role as President, Obama had to set the course for both the nation and the empire, but like many imperial leaders, he overlooked the plight of some of his colonial subjects – amongst others, Blacks themselves, who, as inhabitants of the Empire, were seeking a liberator and have scant need for Cool Black Friends because we are our own Cool Black Friends.

The Charleston Nine, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Art of Jacob Lawrence

One soul, hundreds, thousands may hear the whistle of the early-1900’s train in Jacob Lawrence Number #5.  These are W.E.B. Du Bois’ “black refugees” who decades prior were also escaping the injustices of the vestiges of Southern slavery.  Amongst these souls, the excitement may be there, the expectation, and idealization of life in the U.S. North, especially given that Northern industry, in many cases, is paying the fare, making it quite worth the while to pick up and leave the unequal, segregated living conditions of the South.  Will Northern industry’s promise to pay transportation lead to the same indentured servitude experienced by blacks in the Reconstruction South?  Will the North be the antidote for the circumstances in the South where “the black man has simply to choose between pauperism and crime” (Du Bois)?  The experience of my grandmother was that of leaving Tennessee in the 1930’s, barely 20, the youngest of eleven children all living except the one black male disappeared into the night to never return home again.  She was the only one to take the train north to Chicago.  Or perhaps there were others in her family who went north, but they didn’t stay.  They would eventually return south.  Not she.  Her mother and father had come from Mississippi to Tennessee and as family lore would have it, her mother had Indian blood.  This was more than likely a truth, but also a bit of a digression given our black folk propensity to reach into a nebulous past and pull out our Native American blood to explain why we are not quite so black African, where the yellow, honeyed brown, and, chestnut skin colors come from.  These skin tones being a phantasmal legacy of the white rape of black females by slave owners.  This acerbic inheritance was quite apparent in my maternal grandmother’s family line, even more so in my father’s whose family, unlike my grandmother’s, took a loathsome pride in their light skin color, so much so, that my own mother was not readily accepted into their clan.  All this, yet the most important factor being it was the African blackness which held everything together and made us who we were and who we are and which is the beginning and end of our universe until eternity always loyal linking me, us to Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas, and beyond. Thus, therefore, and so forth, into the North on Lawrence’s black train, belching black smoke as the headlamp leads the way.  Iron tracks shackle southern, agricultural land “once marvelously rich but already partially devitalized by (the) careless and exhaustive culture” (Du Bois) of the slave system. Iron wheels navigate plots deceitfully promised “for eventual lease and sale to ex-slaves in forty-acre parcels” (Du Bois).  Northern industrial lords, in their bidding, analogous to the contemporary “coyotes” of the U.S. Southwest and Mexico who round up desperate immigrants and move them north with the expectation that the human smuggler will eventually be paid for his effort.

Jacob Lawrence 42 exposes a South disgruntled with the undertaking and enterprise of migration.  A white man, gun and holster on his hips, stands as an “X” at the train station door ready to arrest the two departing black passengers.  Police officer?  Sherriff?  Perhaps.  Yet this is the land in which “every white man was ipso facto a member of (the) police” (Du Bois).  And blacks were a people whose first crime in this country, and particularly in the South, was their “blackness or other physical peculiarities” (Du Bois).  Surely, there must have been more than a few residents in white neighborhoods who murmured under their breath, “Let the niggers leave.”  Before their self-ordainment as African-American.  Ante-dating their self-proclamation as Afro-American.  Prior to salvos accompanied by raised fists of black power, these Colored people and Negroes (as branded by the Spanish and Portuguese) were leaving a land that for several centuries had deemed “life amid free Negroes (as) simply unthinkable, the maddest of experiments” (Du Bois).  Still there was this despotic effort to impede blacks’ departure, blocking their train passage because, of course, the South was losing former free labor, current cheap labor, the people who made both the white landowners and the white poor feel racially superior to all other beings on earth, the women who had cleaned their houses, raised their kids.  The men and women who while working in their hot, insect-infested fields, some dropping dead to the ground and then being kicked aside, because the plough never stopped (Du Bois), still had the audaciousness to light a white, desolate world with spiritual song.  The people who should have been crushed by centuries of abuse after losing their African spiritual world but who bowed their heads down and embraced a god on a cross whose word they had to fight to read, often in secret, and to whom they had to worship in the wooden churches that would be kept separate Black Churches because they could not enter the white.  Wooden churches that could light up in burning flames of hatred at the flick of a match and still do, historically black churches, because we are a historically black people carrying history historically on our backs, historically black in Charleston when praying to that same God and subject to being shot by a white man who is not alone in thinking in his solitary mind that his whiteness is under threat and siege, shot for being historically black – Reverend Clementa Pinckney.  Say his name. Cynthia Hurd.  Say her name.  Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.  Say her name.  Tywanza Sanders.  Say his name.  Ethel Lance.  Say her name.  Susie Jackson.  Say her name.  Depayne Middleton Doctor.  Say her name.  Reverend Daniel Simmons. #Sayhisname.  Myra Thompson.  #Sayhername.  Amen.  Nine people killed.  Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  June 17, 2015.  Charleston, South Carolina.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: First Vintage Books, 1990).

Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, and Controlling Black Bodies in the Americas

“Detroit’s black day laborers gathered at an informal outdoor labor market on the city’s periphery, known to local whites as the ‘slave market.’  The large ‘open air mart’ thrived between the 1940’s and 1960’s on Eight Mile Road…” (Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis)

Eric Garner (part I)

In 1770 the Municipal government of the Louisiana Territory then under Spanish rule stated it was permissible in the Territory for the Europeans to trade tobacco for African slaves.  On July 17, 2014, in the formerly-liberal now neoliberal bastion of New York City, money capital of the overdeveloped world, and once the prime destination for Blacks leaving the Reconstruction South, there was no law permitting a black man to sell individual tobacco cigarettes on the street, indeed, based on city legislation, it was strategically inconceivable and legally impermissible for a black man to do so, and it was an activity for which Eric Garner would be killed given that the police department since the mid-1990’s was fixated on what it called quality of life in the city so when a group of African-American and Latino men had the idea of selling cigarettes that they would buy from nearby states or the Indian reservation at prices cheaper than those of New York City in order to sell on the streets, especially to people similar to themselves, who, in this case, would be people going to the welfare office nearby, and for whom, the one cigarette those customers purchased might ironically indeed have been a momentary improvement in their quality of life, both alleviating stress and bought at a cheaper price, well, the New York City police did not see it that way and after the call they received from the apartment manager who, adding his complaint to the hundreds that had been made regarding this particular area because he felt pushed to his limit with the group outside his Staten Island apartment building whom he described to police as selling cigarettes and drugs on the streets, surely the mention of the word drugs would arouse the attention of the police who were familiar with this particular group and specifically with one 43-year-old man named Eric Garner, impossible to miss at 6’2”, 395 pounds, a husband and father of six who had already been arrested twice the same year because his selling of cigarette loosies was not in accordance with state tax law.

The fact that Mr. Garner was known for buying ice cream for children in the area was  inconsequential as was his history for being a type of referee amongst the group of men with whom he hung around who would at times get into their own brawls, and the reality of Mr. Garner, a husband and father of six, working in a trade that he had made part of his livelihood was likewise irrelevant, but the fact that Eric Garner was himself breaking up a fight between his buds that day proved fatal because the plain clothes cops focused on him and this time it was Garner they wanted to arrest for selling cigarettes, and despite the big man asking that they not touch him, they proceeded in any case, with one particular cop grabbing the huge Garner, who suffered from various health conditions, by the neck and tackling him down to the ground in a chokehold, pressing his face to the cement, handcuffing him, and leaving him on the ground where Garner made his now famous pleas stating, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” eleven times, all of which were recorded on the phone camera of one of Eric Garner’s friends, but the cops ignored his pleas because somewhere in their training or due to the dozens of arrests they had made at this same spot or most likely because quality of life mandates did not include the life of someone who looked like Mr. Garner and who worked in the informal economy, they concluded that his pleas for help were fake which might be the reason that instead of Eric Garner receiving a professional group of medical personnel to attend him, he was sent what appeared to be five fake medics one of whom walked around carrying the oxygen that was never administered to the patient who suffered from acute asthma and who died after the cops succeeded in being the catalyst for Eric Garner’s cardiac arrest.

The Americas (part II)

The tragedy of Alton Sterling was to have been born in a state that historically more than one European country had fought to the death for – not only death amongst Europeans – the deaths of the original Native American inhabitants of the land and the African slaves imported as property.  Louisiana, as the former center of colonial slave trading in the United States, was contested ground not unlike my birthplace of California.  They are both states in which the presence of more than one colonial European power resulted in a fight for geographical dominance and economic and military control.  One of the most pernicious and exploitive forms of domination was European ownership of black persons transported from Africa as slaves.  Although the Portuguese initially had exclusive access to the coast of Africa and thus the exportation of our ancestors according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494[i], the French, Spanish, and English would feud amongst themselves and with the Portuguese in order to gather the labor they needed to found and exploit the new lands they sought to conquer in the Americas.  European enslavers attempted to gain dominion over enslaved Africans by branding them according to their place of origin, this being important since enslavers placed a preference on peoples imported directly from Africa.  The Europeans sought to curb the Africans’ exposure to revolutionary ideas which they deemed more prevalent in the Caribbean holding islands than amongst Africans imported directly from the continent.[ii]  While the Europeans placed a premium on the skin brandings they put on Africans as property, they, for the most part, ignored the scarification the enslaved had put on themselves to indicate their particular African cultural identity.

The English-speaking slave traders kept rather meticulous records of sales of the enslaved, the Spanish are noted for having kept some; yet, the French kept very little data regarding sales of African slaves.[iii]  Their memorandums may have been scant, but the French administered the largest slave population of any colony in the territory of Saint Domingue which we now call Haiti.  The French domination of Saint Domingue lasted from 1659 until the years of the slave revolt ending in 1804.  Saint Domingue had a population of 800,000 slaves toiling in the cultivation and production of tobacco, cotton, and coffee as well as the monumental sugar trade that supplied 40% of that product to Europe.  With more than a thousand shipping vessels, over 20,000 French sailors, and more than 500 ships in its port at any one time, the Europeans considered Saint Domingue the “Pearl of the Antilles.”  Always wary of a coup d’état, the French would avoid importing slaves to Louisiana during the years 1729 to 1731 because the enslaved were rebelling in the Territory during those years.  And later Charles IV would block importation of slaves from the French Antilles to Saint Domingue as the Haitian revolution got under way in 1791.[iv]

The presence of the huge population of French sailors in Saint Domingue could not have been more horrific for women. “Colonized women were frequently positioned in the colonies and under slavery as concubines, mistresses, or sexual servants.”[v]  The scholar Kempadoo describes in her writings how militarized masculinity demands heterosexual sex on a regular basis.  When the French sailors of Saint Domingue did not resort to having sex presumably amongst themselves, they would rape the females from the Native or African populations.  How else to explain the emergence of Creole slaves — a new category of enslaved that was “specifically barred from…commerce” for importation to Louisiana as early as 1777[vi], again due to the preference for slaves imported directly from Africa whom the Europeans hoped to manipulate.  Black women were not only dehumanized by the Europeans placing them in the role of having to fulfill the sexual desires of the sailors.  Throughout the Americas, they were considered breeders whose “wombs were incorporated into plantation economies to increase the size of the slave population.”[vii]

The English had a monopoly on the barbarity of the slave trade by the 18th century, having surpassed both the French and the Spanish in the trafficking of human lives.  After the slave revolt in Saint Domingue during the years of 1791-1803, the Europeans moved some sugar production to Mississippi.  The Louisiana Purchase, in which this territory was transferred from French to Spanish, back to French, and finally to U.S. hands, was a manifestation of how the United States, a former colony itself, had now gained the ability to recolonize.  The incorporation of the territory which contained the largest slave market caused political anxiety amongst the political power brokers in the North. Their concerns were appeased by designating black slaves as 3/5 of a person in the U.S. Constitution, thus avoiding having the South gain excessive electoral representation.

Another colonial power that formerly controlled black lives in Louisiana was Spain. And how did the Spanish maneuver to restrain their African populations?  The Spanish designated Cartagena in present-day Colombia, as the former slave trading center of Spanish America; thus, it was the sister city of Anglo-American New Orleans.  While Anglo-American slavery was noted for being brutal and French slavery in Saint Domingue was so deadly the enslaved lived just a few years, the Spanish in their largest slave market of Cartagena are noted for having “difficulties with transportation, (an) unimaginative government, (and) powerful and myopic vested interests”[viii] all of which affected the degrees of mercilessness the Catholic Jesuits, landowners, and mine owners could impose on their African slaves. France and Spain were both Catholic countries, and the Catholic church took the position that slavery was a contract and that the slave was a human being with family rights.[ix]  While this may have been one of many laws on the books dating back as far as 1348 in Castilian legislation, it would be difficult to enforce in Colombia because of the shortage of priests to implement it.  And its application was uneven in other geographical locations of the huge Spanish American empire.  Despite their Catholicism, the French were barbaric slave owners in Saint Domingue known for working slaves to death in just a few years.  If preservation of the family unit is used as an indication of respecting the humanity of African slaves, we know that in Anglo-American slavery separation of family members was the norm.  Colombia’s rate of nuclear family units amongst slaves was anywhere from 37-60% depending on the region.  Peru and Brazil, both Catholic countries, discouraged family units amongst slaves where only 10% lived in nuclear families.  The Bahamas and Jamaica, on the other hand, are noted for having 54 and 70% of slaves respectively living in nuclear family units.[x]

Other characteristics regarding the lives of the Africans enslaved in the region now called Colombia was a life expectancy of 30 years, a mortality rate of 50%, with women giving birth to an average of 5 kids, and having, statistically, more than half die at an early age.  The ratio of men to women in the late 1700’s in the Colombia region was 109:100, which contrasts markedly with South Carolina at 180-250:100.  A particularity of Colombian slavery is the notion that the enslaved did not have to toil for the enslavers on Sundays and Catholic holidays.[xi]  This fact is important because it would allow for increased rates of manumission given that African slaves toiling in the gold mines in areas like Choco, or laboring on farms could work on Sundays and keep the profits from their work for themselves.  Retaining the profits of their labor should have allowed for increased rates of manumission given that the enslaved would be able to then purchase themselves or other family members.  Yet records indicate that the Spanish rarely disclosed the laws regarding manumission and even when the enslaved were aware of the laws, some masters refused to grant freedom.  Thus, records for the late 1700’s show that the region of Cali granted only 87 manumissions and Buenaventura, 7.  The goldmining region of Choco is distinct in having a 75% manumission rate, but this is also connected to the depletion of the gold mines in that area.[xii]  By 1785 the colonial powers in Colombia, by way of their dominion over and regulation of the lives of African slaves, had depleted the gold mines of Choco, although slavery would not officially end across the country until 1851.

Alton Sterling (part III)

“In a setting black women referred to as a slave market at Roosevelt Road and Halsted Street (Chicago), they (black female domestic workers) haggled daily for work, just as their counterparts did in New York’s ‘Bronx Slave Market.’” (Christopher Robert Reed, The Depression Comes to the South Side)

Six years, take it or leave it, six years of being an acquaintance to the owner of the Triple S Food Mart who said that Alton Sterling never got into any fights and was popular amongst the store’s shoppers who referred to him as the CD Man, with his table of cd’s and dvd’s in a cardboard box on his table propped up outside the store while playing music for his customers to both sample and lighten the load of their workday, known for extending credit to his customers who might pay him a portion of the price of the cd and return later to pay him the rest.  Alton Sterling with his cd business still extant after Tower Records filed for bankruptcy in 2006 and the Virgin Megastores’ closure in Europe and America in 2009; yet, Sterling, still the CD Man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 5, 2016, despite the digital age of downloads and apps, a black man once again caught up in the whirlwind of 21st -century global capital – a tempest which at its worst functions like the bighead carp eating algae and detritus at the bottom of the Mississippi River, looking for consumables in an era when capital had deemed the music cd dead and America had opined the black working class of no regard and the black underclass, irrelevant. Here was this one African American male, father of five, selling cds in the open air in a country that had considered it more acceptable that he sell himself for labor, a country where blacks have ironically functioned as both profit and profit makers, and where independent black enterprise has always been suspect and has not been given support causing blacks to be on a tempestuous tour of the country for several decades now looking for living arrangements starting from the South after Emancipation and fleeing to the North, Midwest, and out West, currently regions subject to gentrification, especially in the major cities, where wealthy international elites buy condos and lofts in formerly abandoned downtowns presently undergoing transformation and forcing blacks, browns, working people, and the elderly to compete in their old neighborhoods with those same absentee-owner/renter elites and with middle class American whites trying desperately not to feel the crunch.

The CD Man, 37 years old, a registered sex offender, which no mom, family, or community can condone, had previously been arrested for carrying a gun and being in possession of marijuana in Louisiana which is not Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington State, nor D.C. where marijuana is now legal, and sentenced to five years; thus, he had done time, and now engaged in his business, sole proprietor, his presence contradicting the myth that blacks are more tolerable solo than in a group – a group that can incite anxiety amongst fearful whites like the hundreds of Haitians languishing today in Tijuana having fled Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, worked in Brazil, and due to that country’s economic downturn, migrated, some on foot to the U.S.-Mexico border, where they now sit, wait, and dream the dream of entering a country which centuries ago deemed black migration en masse to the U.S. useless and which now perceives the individual black person, especially male, as a threat.  And that fateful call of the homeless man, perhaps upset that Sterling would not give him money, so he calls the police to tell them that Sterling is carrying a gun in open-carry Baton Rouge, and the two cops respond to that call ready to snuff the life out of this black man as they straddle and tackle him to the ground, during which shots are fired, and the cops emerge alive.  Alton Sterling dies to his kids, dies to their moms, dies to his customers, dies to the homeless man who used his phone to call the police, dies to the bystanders who used their phones to record the killing, dies to open-carry Baton Rouge, dies to America’s former largest slave market of Louisiana, dies to the open arms of the jails and prisons which like the rest of America is confounded about what to teach, which services to provide, job opportunities to avail, housing to rent and sell, what the future looks like for working and underclass black America, a thorn in its side since the days of freedom.

[i] Thomas N. Ingersoll, “The Slave Trade and the Ethnic Diversity of Louisiana’s Slave Community,” Louisiana Historical Association, Spring 1996, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4233285

[ii] Thomas N. Ingersoll, “The Slave Trade and the Ethnic Diversity of Louisiana’s Slave Community”

[iii] Thomas N. Ingersoll, “The Slave Trade and the Ethnic Diversity of Louisiana’s Slave Community”

[iv] Thomas N. Ingersoll, “The Slave Trade and the Ethnic Diversity of Louisiana’s Slave Community”

[v] Kamala Kempadoo, “Women of Color and the Global Sex Trade: Transnational Feminist Perspectives,” Indiana University Press, Spring 2001, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40338451

[vi] Thomas N. Ingersoll, “The Slave Trade and the Ethnic Diversity of Louisiana’s Slave Community”

[vii] Kamala Kempadoo, “Women of Color and the Global Sex Trade: Transnational Feminist Perspectives”

[viii] David L. Chandler, “Family Bonds and the Bondsman: The Slave Family in Colonial Colombia,” The Latin American Studies Association, 1981, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2503127

[ix] David L. Chandler, “Family Bonds and the Bondsman: The Slave Family in Colonial Colombia”

[x] David L. Chandler, “Family Bonds and the Bondsman: The Slave Family in Colonial Colombia”

[xi] David L. Chandler, “Family Bonds and the Bondsman: The Slave Family in Colonial Colombia”

[xii] David L. Chandler, “Family Bonds and the Bondsman: The Slave Family in Colonial Colombia”

Works Consulted

Baker, Al, David Goodman, and Benjamin Mueller. “Beyond the Chokehold: The Path to Eric Garner’s Death.” New York Times 13 June 2015.

Berlinger, Joshua, Nick Valencia, and Steve Almasy. “Alton Sterling Shooting: Homeless Man Made 911 Call, Source Says.” CNN 8 July 2016.

Chandler, David. “Family Bonds and the Bondsman: The Slave Family in Colonial Colombia.” Latin American Research Review 2 (1981): 107-131. JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/2503127.

Ingersoll, Thomas. “The Slave Trade and the Ethnic Diversity of Louisiana’s Slave Community.” Louisiana Historical Association 37 (Spring 1996): 133-161. JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/4233285.

Kempadoo, Kamala. “Women of Color and the Global Sex Trade: Transnational Feminist Perspectives.” Indiana University Press 2 (Spring 2001): 28-51. JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/40338451.