CAMRA at 50: will it combat Big Beer?
Sunday, 09 May 2021 17:16

CAMRA at 50: will it combat Big Beer?

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett mulls over CAMRA's history and its options for future campaigning activity

CAMRA is 50 years old in March. That is quite an achievement for a voluntary campaign, implying at least renewal through several generations of activists, something which is often hard to achieve. It now has 170,000 members and most will be active at least in the sense of promoting CAMRA’s raison d’etre, the production and drinking of good beer.

It is not a party political organisation or, in the main, a campaign that takes capital ‘P’ political decisions. After all drinkers of decent beer come with all kinds of opinions and none. All that said of course there are politics. That can’t be avoided for any campaign that operates in a capitalist market economy.

CAMRA is neither pro or anti-capitalist as such but strongly in favour of a ‘moral economy’ of beer. That is, a society where brewers and publicans can make a fair profit but the quality, price and supply of beer are influenced by ordinary drinkers.

When CAMRA started the outlook for beer and pubs was poor indeed. There had been a long process, accelerating from the 1950s, of brewery consolidation. That meant takeovers and closures. By the early 1970s beer in Britain was very largely controlled by what was known as the Big Six – giant brewing concerns such as Courage, Watneys and Whitbread. Since the breweries also owned most of the pubs, that meant a significant restriction of choice for the drinker at the bar. To put it in perspective, in 2021 London has well over 100 independent breweries. 50 years ago there were just two – Fullers and Youngs.

There was also the question of the beer the Big Six were producing. With the consolidation big brewing operations brought , cost reduction was looked for. That meant a move away from traditional cask beer to pasteurised keg beer, which was much easier to transport and keep in the pub without cellaring skills. One problem was that for many beer drinkers this cold, fizzy beer, served under gas pressure, was either tasteless or had a distinctly unpleasant taste. A related problem was often that as breweries owned the pubs, there was little escape from keg.

The beer writer Richard Boston wrote in his 1970s Guardian column of areas of East Anglia where if you didn’t want the Watneys Red Barrel served in one pub you could always try another. The problem was that also sold Watneys. There was a lot for CAMRA to oppose and that meant it had no choice but to confront the Big Six, aka Big Beer. That meant a range of campaigning tactics. The Big Six were lampooned – Watneys became Grotnys and Whitbread Twitbread. Pubs were boycotted and those that sold traditional cask ale promoted. The first Good Beer Guide to CAMRA-approved pubs appeared in 1974. At the same time campaigning pressure was exerted on the Big Six to draw back from keg and start selling cask beer again. Over time this campaigning pressure worked. Allied breweries were first producing a cask Burton Ale from 1976. Even Watneys finally gave in and brewed Fined Bitter real ale.

CAMRA pressure on large companies had its impact. They had to change their strategies and plans. Capital constantly revolutionises itself, or tries to, however and no battle against it within its framework is ever definitively won. The Big Six had to return to cask beer and more pubs now sold it. But the choice remained very limited. In early Good Beer Guides, symbols were used to show the range of beer available. To stretch beyond a mild, an ordinary and best or special bitter was unusual. Beer from the remaining independent breweries – around 100 of them – was very hard to come by, outside of their own local area.

CAMRA’s focus shifted to an extent to lobbying for changes in the law, under a Tory Government. No easy matter clearly, but it was achieved. The Beer Orders restricted the number of a pubs a brewery could own. That meant pubs were sold and saw the rise of pub companies. At the same time there was legal provision for a guest beer to be sold in pubs which were tied to particular breweries. Again it was a pursuit of the moral economy strategy of CAMRA – not ending the control of capital but tempering it in the interests of drinkers.

That was 30 years ago and capital has not stood still since. If the first wave of Big Beer had been successfully grappled with by CAMRA, a new wave appeared that posed significant new challenges. If you want a pint of Courage Best or Whitbread Bitter you won’t find one in 2021. The Big Six companies that once dominated British brewing are long gone. Even the classic and benchmark pale ale, Bass, is hard to come by. Its recent history summaries well where Big Beer has now gone.

The Bass brewery in Burton is owned by Molson Coors, a US/Canadian brewing giant. The actual beer however is owned by another huge brewing operation, ABInBev. It is based in Belgium but has significant interests across the world – in Latin America and South Africa, for example. However, it has contracted out the brewing of the beer to Marstons, one of the larger UK-based brewers and pub companies. Or it was – in 2020 it sold a majority stake in its brewing operations to Danish brewer Carlsberg.

Grappling with UK brewers as CAMRA did successfully in the 1970s and 1980s is one thing. Trying to take on global brands is a rather different matter. The focus has shifted to some extent to supporting those larger brewers that remained UK owned – albeit often supporters of the Tory Party. However Big Beer has marched on here as well. As well as Marstons, Fullers’ brewing operations were brought by Japanese brewer Asahi and Greene King is now owned by a Hong Kong businessman. Nor has it stopped there. Some of the larger craft brewers whose backgrounds had rested on the idea of independence from Big Beer have ended up being swallowed by it. Heineken has a 49% stake in Beavertown while ABInBev owns Camden.

This is not a counsel of despair. CAMRA remains a large organisation with the capacity to campaign and influence. It’s fairly clear though that on its 50th birthday the original model – even with later tweaks – of promoting a moral economy of beer, not anti-capitalist but for a constraining influence on it, needs to be re-thought.

Firstly, CAMRA could do more to combat Big Beer on a global basis. Consumer organisations around beer, like CAMRA, exist in a number of European countries and the US. There are long-standing links which could be developed and mobilised further. That is easier now using global communications apps like Zoom. The trade union and anti-war movements have been co-ordinating activity across the world for a while.

Secondly, CAMRA could look to build on its original campaigning focus. It’s very good at lobbying MPs and Government for legislative changes, but the protests of the 1970s about brewery closures or takeovers are now rare. To some extent this relates to an ageing membership, but with the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, it’s clear that the mood to protest which was there in the early days of CAMRA is back again.

In practice both of these could be done, but a lot does depend on managing to engage and mobilise younger drinkers in a way CAMRA did so successfully 50 years ago.

Eleven
Sunday, 09 May 2021 17:16

Eleven

Published in Poetry

Eleven
(i.m. Eric Garner 17th July 2014)

by Annie Wright, with image by John Minchillo

Incident

Eric Garner, neighbourhood peacemaker, has just stopped
a fight on Bay Street, Staten Island, New York NYPD
when he’s accused of selling loosies* without a licence by five cops.

Pantaleo tries to cuff him, slams him to his knees,
then pushes Eric’s face into the sidewalk.
Garner’s saying I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.

The black female sergeant, Adonis, doesn’t intervene,
later saying it didn’t seem serious. I can’t breathe –
I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe

She didn’t think he was distressed. I can’t breathe
Pantaleo has still got him in a chokehold, illegal
in New York State. I can’t breathe I can’t breathe

A cop calls an ambulance. Mr Garner’s having trouble
breathing. Eric’s friend, Ramsey Orta, films it on his phone;
he can’t breathe bro – he can’t breathe. He redoubles

his efforts, but it’s going to be too late. I can’t breathe
I can’t breathe. He’s gone.
They turn him on his side to ease breathing and for seven minutes leave

him. Sirens screaming, four medics arrive, don’t give Eric any medical
aid or oxygen, or even get him quickly on a stretcher.
Eric Garner has a heart attack on the way to hospital.

One hour later he’s pronounced dead at the Medical Center
in New York State, where he couldn’t breathe,
he couldn’t breathe.

*loosies – individual cigarettes

History

Between 1980 and his death, Eric was arrested
30 times, for assault, resisting arrest and grand
larceny for selling unlicensed cigarettes.

In 2007 he filed a complaint in federal court
against a police officer for conducting a cavity search,
digging his fingers in my rectum in the street.

In 2013 Pantaleo was the subject of two civil rights
lawsuits, accused of abuse, false arrests and ordering
two black men to strip naked on the street to be searched.

Aftermath

20th July 2014, Pantaleo and D’Amico
are on desk duty with Pantaleo stripped
of his badge and gun. Four paramedics
are suspended. Two return to work,

the others are kept on non-medical
duties, pending an inquiry. On 1st August
the medical examiner rules Eric’s death
as homicide resulting from neck and chest

compression, and prone positioning
during physical restraint by police.
When the New York Times wrongly claims
the medical examiner found no damage

to windpipe or neckbones, Eric’s family pay
for a second autopsy. It agrees with the first,
citing clear evidence of haemorrhaging
around the neck indicative of chokehold.

The NYPD call the word chokehold political,
opt for legal takedown move instead.
They defend not using CPR as the suspect was
still breathing on his own, hold him responsible –

If he hadn’t had asthma, a heart condition
and been so obese, he wouldn’t have died.

Al Sharpton speaks at Eric’s funeral in Bethel
Baptist Church, Brooklyn, condemning chokeholds.
He organises a protest in Staten Island and
a march of over 2,500 down Bay Street.

On 19th August the District Attorney decides
Pantaleo must appear before a Grand Jury.
Under New York law proceedings are secret
and even the family are not allowed access.

On 29th September the grand jury begins
hearing evidence. On 21st November
Pantaleo is called, testifies for two hours.
The family file a wrongful death lawsuit.

After two months of deliberation, the verdict,
on 3rd December is not to indite Pantaleo.
13th July 2015, Eric’s family accept an out-
of-court settlement of 5.9 million dollars.

Repercussions

In New York City and San Francisco
protesters demonstrate with several ‘die-ins’.
Thousands protest in Boston, Chicago

Washington DC, Baltimore, Minneapolis,
Berkeley and Atlanta. Counter-protesters
carry signs saying Bluelivesmatter.

New York’s mayor call Eric’s death
a terrible tragedy, but doesn’t fire
the officers responsible. Cuomo, New York’s

governor, speaking of police brutality,
confirms on TV – We have a problem.
Let’s acknowledge it. Obama states

that Garner’s death and the legal outcome
is an American problem. George W. Bush
finds the grand jury verdict hard to understand.

Coda

Erica Garner, Eric’s daughter, leads
fortnightly protests in Bay Street

until she dies in December 2017
from a heart attack aged 27.

Five years after the killing, Pantaleo
and D’Amico face a disciplinary hearing.

D’Amico admits falsifying evidence, claiming
Garner had been selling 10,000 cigarettes

when less than a hundred had been found.
After the hearing the judge recommends

Pantaleo be fired after overwhelming evidence
he had used a chokehold, gross deviation from

conduct established for an NYC police officer.
19th August 2019 his employment was terminated.

On 8th June 2020, the New York state assembly passes
the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act. Any police officer

who injures or kills using a chokehold can be charged
with felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Afterword

Before he became too ill, Eric worked
for New York City parks as a horticulturist.
I like to think of him harvesting seeds,
nurturing young plants, cultivating trees.

There’s a photo of him smiling, holding
a bottle for his youngest daughter,
so tiny she fits into his palm; just
three months old when he died.

I think of Esaw, his wife of 26 years,
six years on playing herself in the film
American Trial: The Eric Garner Story,
positing events if the case had been tried;

of Erica’s two boys, the youngest named
for his grandfather, a four-month-old
and his brother left motherless,
no grandad to play Santa Claus;

of Emerald, his daughter, fighting
for police to be held accountable by law,
using the anger of having to watch
her father die repeatedly on national TV;

of Gwen Carr, his mother, who retired
to devote her life to Civil Rights, sharing
platforms with Al Sharpton, campaigning
for police reform and Black Lives Matter.

This Stops Today said Gwen in 2018.
Only it didn’t and to our shame it hasn’t.

Sunday, 09 May 2021 17:16

Whose Son Next? 

Published in Poetry

Whose Son Next? 
(i.m. Trayvon Martin 26th February 2012)

by 

The Incident

A boy’s walking back to his dad’s
girlfriend’s place in Sanford, Florida
with a pack of Skittles, can of Arizona
iced tea from the 7-Eleven for his bro,

in time for the NBA All-Stars game.
Earphones in, he’s chatting to his girl,
oblivious; it’s early, no-one’s around,
no reason for vigilance.

A man cruises by in a truck, self-appointed
neighbourhood watch vigilante,
George Zimmerman, looking for trouble;
thinks his luck is in, he’s found it.

He calls 911, reports a real suspicious guy…
up to no good, on drugs or something.
It’s raining and he’s just walking around
looking about. This is Zimmerman’s

46th 911 call since the New Year.
And he’s a black male… something’s wrong
with him… got something in his hands…
These assholes, they always get away.

Shit, he’s running! The operator thinks
he’s left his vehicle to run after the male.
Are you following him? Yep.
OK, we don’t need you to do that.

Trayvon tells his girlfriend a stranger’s
following him. She tells him to run, hears
him say, What are you following me for?
The reply, What are you doing round here?

She hears shoving and the line goes dead.
It is 7.16pm. Police arrive on the scene
at 7.17. Trayvon’s lying on the ground
fatally wounded, a bullet in his chest.

Freeze-frame the scene right here. Imagine
you’re a cop who’s just jumped out.
A black boy is on the ground, barely alive,
a man’s brandishing a gun, admits

he shot the youth but claims self-defence.
You’ve seen crime dramas, know the score;
paramedics try everything, police cuff
the gunman, get statements off neighbours

who called 911. Wrong. This is Florida: the law
allows anyone to ‘stand their ground’, fire
a gun if they think they’re under threat.
The man’s not breathalysed, arrested or charged.

Nicknamed Crazy-Legs because he never sat still,
the boy will be taken to the morgue in a body bag,
his corpse tested for alcohol and drugs – negative.
Despite slurring his speech, Zimmerman goes home.

Aftermath

March 2012 and still no arrest: hundreds
of students at Trayvon’s High School hold
a walkout in support. A white supremacist ‘s

hacked Trayvon’s email and twitter, making
selective posts on The Daily Caller and Gawker
to suggest violations, violent tendencies.

The day before the funeral in Miami,
more than a thousand queue to view
Trayvon’s remains, pay their respects.

2.2 million sign an online petition, seeking full
investigation and Zimmerman’s prosecution;
police still claiming no grounds for arrest.

Trayvon’s parents, Tracy and Sybrina,
contact Benjamin Crump, civil rights
attorney, who takes on the case, pro bono.

The Million Hoodie March is held
in Manhattan, against racial profiling
of non-white youths in hoodies.

Media coverage of Trayvon Martin
overtakes reporting on the presidential
race. Obama goes on record – If I had

a son he would look like Trayvon.
Romney calls for an inquiry so justice
can be carried out… with integrity.
Whose Son Next? Page 3

44 days on, Zimmerman’s arrested
and charged. In June the Martins deliver
a petition with 340,000 signatures asking

for changes to the stand-your-ground law.
The task force eventually reports back,
recommending against repealing the statute.

July 10th 2013, the case goes to court.
Zimmerman pleads innocent to murder
and manslaughter. On July 13th

the jury – 6 women, 5 white, 1 black –
agree and acquit him. Obama says Trayvon
Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.

A girl posts online – black lives
matter – the message goes viral
and a movement is born.

3 years after the shooting, the US Justice
Department closes its investigation,
will not bring a civil rights charge

as the killing was not race-based,
not motivated by hatred. Trayvon’s
parents’ hearts are broken again.

Repercussions

Is this where the story ends?
Well, no. Tracy and Sybrina set up
a foundation in Trayvon’s name

to support other parents who’ve lost
their children to violence.
Rest in Power takes 5 years

to write. We don’t portray
Trayvon as being an angel…
but he was our angel.

Zimmerman sells the gun
he used to kill, online,
for 138,900 dollars,

claims some of the proceeds
will be used to fight
Black Lives Matter violence
Whose Son Next? Page 4

against law enforcement
officers. He’s currently suing
Trayvon’s parents for 100 million

dollars for defamation, conspiracy
and malicious prosecution
in the Trayvon hoax.

Coda

In the picture I have of you
the pale grey hood of a sweatshirt
haloes your adolescent face.

You could be any age between thirteen
and seventeen, faint line of hair
on your lip, ghost of a future moustache;
that vulnerable, frightened stage boys
go through. I should know – my son
was nine months younger than you
when you were killed.

The wary look, retreating into
the hoodie’s safe space.
Over and over your eyes
challenge –
How could you let this happen?

I didn’t have to teach my son
to be frightened of all white men,
especially on streets after dark;
the drill for being stopped by cops –
hands in the air, call them sir, ma’am,
keep your voice low, respectful
and never, ever answer back.

What I can do now is honour you, Trayvon,
and all the other Americans who lost
their black lives and for whom justice
was found wanting. Your lives mattered,
they matter and I can no longer stare at
your photo and say I did nothing.

Magical bodies, memory and writing: a review of The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehsi Coates
Sunday, 09 May 2021 17:16

Magical bodies, memory and writing: a review of The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehsi Coates

Published in Fiction

 Razia Parveen reviews Ta-Nehsi Coates' debut work of fiction

The Water Dancer is stunningly lyrical as well as heartbreakingly sorrowful. We are given the narrative of a young man living in the American South during the slavery era and seeking freedom with other former slaves including the legendary Harriet Tubman. We are given a slave narrative, in the tradition of Frederick Douglass, as a memory never to be forgotten. Coates, however, innovatively weaves magical realism into this story and creates a spellbinding and powerful tale of emancipation that resonates with the Black Lives Matter protests of our times.

The story envelops strands of the literary genre known as magical realism, which can be found in much Latin American literature of the 60s and 70s. It is a style which can elevate an ordinary situation or human into the extraordinary. Coates has integrated this technique into the narrative of Hiram, the protagonist, and thus entwined two writing genres to create one very powerful narrative of the slave experience.

The novel is split into three sections each marked by Roman numerals, reflecting the journey of the slave. Hiram, is at the heart of the novel and like a tornado sweeping through the landscape he relates other lives in the swirl of those caught up in the horrors of slavery:

My other cellmate was an old man. His face was lined by the ages, and upon the ocean of his back I saw the many voyages of Rayland’s whip. …At any moment in the day, whenever the mood struck, these men would pull the old man out and compel him to sing, dance, crawl, bark, cluck, or perform some other indignity. And should his performance dissatisfy any of them, they would wail on him with fists and boots, beat him with horse reins or carriage whip, hurl paperweights and chairs at him, or each for whatever else was at hand.

Here we have the brutality and indignity of slavery laid bare for the reader. This book is not an easy read, and it makes the reader work. The novel begins with the ominous epigraph:

My part has been to tell the story of the slave. The story of the master never wanted for narrators - Frederick Douglass

 Coates does not waste any time in his crisp narrative and structures the opening of the novel to reflect the immediacy of telling this story:

And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because there was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south. (p.3)

This opening not only introduces us to Hiram and the horrors of slavery but also the intense relationship of mother and child, and the themes of water and memory which will become central to this narrative. One other aspect central to this novel is the land itself – the beauty and horrors of the Southern plantations themselves. Hiram attempts to flee the brutality of his life with a girl called Sophia, who makes it clear to Hiram that she wants total freedom from all men regardless of their colour:

But I will like you a heap less if your plan is for us to get to this Underground and for you to make yourself up as another Nathaniel. That ain’t freedom to me, do you understand? I noticed then that her hand was on my arm. And that she was squeezing it firmly.

“If that is what you want, if that is what you are thinking, then you must tell me now. If that is your plan to shackle me there, to have me bring yearlings to you, then tell me now and allow me the decency of making by own choice here. You are not like them. You must do me the service of giving me that choice. So tell me. Tell me now your intending.” (p.111-112)

Sophia makes a reference to the famous Underground Railway, a nod to the dangerous work of the slave resistance network and the bravery of the great Harriet Tubman. Her legendary tales of rescuing slaves from the Deep South and bringing them to the North is given a magical twist. Hiram joins her revolutionary Underground Railway, moving the enslaved to freedom and taking them out of bondage to the liberated air of the North.

Sophia also takes a stand for not only enslaved women but gender equality here. Her character is very reminiscent of the anti-slavery campaigner Sojourner Truth and her celebrated speech ‘Ain’t I a Woman’:

I have as much muscle as any man and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and chopped and husked, and can any man do more than do. I have heard much about the sexes being equal; I can carry as much any man and eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that I now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if woman have a pint, awt and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full. You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much – for we can’t take more than out pint’ll hold.m - (Truth’s original speech at the Women’s Rights Convention held on June 21, 1851, taken from The Anti-Slavery Bugle, vol. 6)

Sophia’s monologue to Hiram is reflective of Truth’s speech here, allowing comparisons to be made regarding their situations. So was Sophia’s character based upon Truth? As like Truth, Sophia became an emancipated slave. Truth became one of the many friends of Tubman and the Underground Railway is weaved into Hiram’s narrative adding to its educational power. After failing to flee from his captors, Hiram is rescued by agents of the Underground Railway:

“But freedom, true freedom, is a master too, you see – one more dogged, more constant, than any ragged slave-driver,” she said. “What you must now accept is that all of us are bound to something. Some will bind themselves to property in man and all that comes forthwith. And others shall bind themselves too justice. All must name a master to serve. All must choose. We have chosen this, Hawkins and I. We have accepted the gospel that says our freedom is a call to war against unfreedom. Because this is who we are, Hiram. The Underground.” (p.155)

Hiram becomes an agent for the Underground Railway working alongside other agents as well as Harriet Tubman. She also builds friendships with other famed abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, Thomas Garner and Martha Coffin White:

So, I was trained to be an agent, trained in the mountains at Bryceton, Corrine’s family stead, along with other new agents recruited for the Underground. You will forgive me for not saying much about my fellow agents. Those who are mentioned in this volume are either alive and have tendered their permission, or have gone off to that final journey to meet with the Grand Discerner of Souls. We are not yet past a time when scores are settled and vengeances sought, so many of us must, even in this time, remain underground. (p.163)

The tradition of singing songs is much praised and held in great esteem by Hiram and the older members of the enslaved family:

Going away to the great house farm

Going up, but won’t be long

Be back, Gina, with my heart and my song.

(p.88)

 Songs were sung as a tool to remember family members who had perished before them. These were melancholy, yet full of the hope of freedom to come. The songs that are being sung are in the same tradition as those ancestors on the plantations and the slave ships coming from Africa:

“It’s a story,” she said. “was a big king who came over from Africa on the slave ship with his people. But when they got close to shore, him and his folk took over, killed all the white folks, threw ’em overboard, and tried to sail back home. But the ship run aground, and when the king look out, he see that the white folks’ army is coming for him with their guns and all. So the chef told his people to walk out into the water, to sing and dance as they walked, that the water-goddess would take ’em back home." (p.379)

Coates employs the technique of telling a story within a story; nestled within the story of Hiram are snippets from the life journey of many people that he meets along the way. For instance, when Hiram is captured he is imprisoned along with an old man who narrates his life in enslavement:

Tonight, the old man, for some reason, felt the need to speaks…That was a time when a good man could make himself a family, and could witness his children, and children’s children, the same. My grand-daddy saw it all., yes, he did. Brought here from Africa…I could tell you stories boy….. (pps.128 &129)

Within these stories Hiram continues to educate the modern reader into the grotesque inhumanity of slavery. The style of magical realism employed by Coates is in stark contrast to the brutal realism of the descriptions of the horrors of slavery. When you construct magical bodies alongside the brutal reality, only then can the reader experience and understand the world created by Coates. For the connection between the two styles, as tangible as it is, allows the world of the Hiram to come surging into our present. Just prior to Hiram meeting the old man he is captured as he walks along the street:

 When I awoke I was, once again, chained, blinded, and gagged. I was in the back of a drawn cart and could feel ground moving beneath me. I cleared my head and knew exactly what had befallen me, for I heard all the stories. It was the man-catchers – known to simply grab coloured people off the street and ship them south for a price, with no regard to their status as free or in flight from the Task. (p.214)

 As the novel closes, we see Hiram return to his former life and through the process of ‘conduction’, take back Sophia and the woman who had become his mother, Thena. ‘Conduction’ is recalling of a memory which then allows the person to ‘jump’ long distances in an almost supernatural manner. Hiram is one of the few agents of the Underground Railway that can perform this feat besides Harriet:

The thing works on memory, and the deeper the memory, the farther away it can carry you. My memory of that Holiday night is tied to Georgie, and it’s tied to this horse that was my gift to him and his baby. But to conduct y’all that far, I need a deeper memory, and need another object tied to that memory to be my guide. (p.380)

 Memory becomes the most important commodity between the enslaved for it is memory which both enslaves and liberates them.

Corrine Quinn was among the most fanatical agents I ever encountered on the Underground. All of these fanatics were white. They took slavery as a personal insult or affront, a stain upon their name. They had seen women carried off to fancy, or watched as a father was stripped and beaten in front of his child, or seen whole families pinned like hogs into rail-cars, steam-boats, and jails. Slavery humiliated them, because it offended a basic sense of goodness that they believed themselves to possess. And when their cousins perpetrated the base practice, it served to remind them how easily they might do the same. They scorned their barbaric brethren, but they were brethren all the same….(p.370)

 Coates’ style is very reminiscent of James Baldwin – the American orator, writer and civil rights campaigner of the civil rights era.  Both write with compassion and in doing so understand convey the effects of slavery upon the individual body and soul. Baldwin wrote about racial segration and humanity in compelling and very similar terms:

Yes, he had heard it all his life, but it was only now that his ears were opened to this sound that came from darkness, that could only come from darkness, that yet bore such sure witness to the glory of the light. And now in his moaning, and so far from any help, he heard it in himself – it rose from his bleeding, his cracked-open heart. It was a sound of rage and weeping which filled the grave, rage and weeping from time set free, but bound now in eternity; rage that had no language, weeping with no voice – which yet spoke now, to John's startled soul, of boundless melancholy, of the bitterest patience, and the longest night; of the deepest water, the strongest chains, the most cruel lash; of humility most wretched, the dungeon most absolute, of love's bed defiled, and birth dishonored, and most bloody, unspeakable, sudden death. Yes, the darkness hummed with murder: the body in the water, the body in the fire, the body on the tree. John looked down the line of these armies of darkness, army upon army, and his soul whispered: Who are these? Who are they? And wondered: Where Shall I go? - from Go Tell It On The Mountain, by James Baldwin

Both these writers, decades apart, possess an uplifting style which makes their characters’ internal monologues sound like a fiery sermon delivered in a church. This is highlighted as the enslaved people turned to the church for a sense of relief. This is present in The Water Dancer when songs are sung:

Oh Lord, trouble so hard

Oh Lord, trouble so hard

Nobody knows my troubles but my God

Nobody know my trouble but my God

 It went on for verse after verse, taking the song from trouble to labor to trouble to hope to trouble to freedom. When I sang the song the call, I changed many voice to the sound of the lead man in the field, bold and exaggerated. When I sang the response I took o the voices of the people around me mimicking them one by one. They were delighted these elders, and their delight grew as the song extended verse after verse….(p.20)

 It was hope found in something to believe, which Hiram’s narrative is trying to tell us. By interweaving historical life experiences of iconic figures of African-American history, Coates has constructed a novel which is both a harrowing slave narrative and a tale of magical transcendence. He has shown the power of storytelling through the variety of characters which walk on the land of the Deep South:

The summoning of a story, the water, and the object that made memory real as brick: that was Conduction. (p.358)

Coates has kept alive the memory of an earlier generation of anti-racist resistance in a narrative which delivers powerful lessons for the same struggle in the 21st century. The Water Dancer is written poetically, mingling fiction with non-fiction. Coates is the Toni Morrison or James Baldwin for the Black Lives Matter generation of today.

Lovecraft Country: Liberating 1950s Apartheid America One Monster At A Time
Sunday, 09 May 2021 17:16

Lovecraft Country: Liberating 1950s Apartheid America One Monster At A Time

Dennis Broe continues his review of new TV series. Image above: Battling Housing Segregation in '50s Chicago, from Lovecraft Country

It’s now a done deal with the series already out in its entirety, but the best pilot and one of the best shows of the year is HBO’s Lovecraft Country. The series is a second stunner by showrunner Misha Green after the too-quickly aborted success of Underground, about the underground railroad. Lovecraft Country refashions and redefines ’50s America, not as consumer paradise, but as apartheid state, just as Underground revisions the pre-Civil War battle against slavery as a revolutionary struggle.

The pilot of Lovecraft Country is a combination of Green Book and Night of the Living Dead, one a masterpiece and the other a hunk of unmitigated garbage. Lovecraft Country cleans up the trash that was the Academy-Award-winning Green Book and resets its smug righteous Driving Mr. Daisy reaffirmation of white, liberal America by refocusing its road trip by three African-Americans through a perilous Northern landscape that is fraught with the still-present danger of white cops constantly threatening their lives. The pilot also revives George Romero’s still shocking masterwork, a zombie apocalypse where the horror of the ’70s America racist police state in the end outdoes the horror of the flesh-eaters, as the sole black survivor is gunned down in a finale that merges the Black Panther Fred Hampton’s killing with the zombie film.

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Lovecraft’s Monsters

Here, after the terror the three African-Americans suffer at the hands of white America on their trip from Chicago to the supposedly progressive haven of Massachusetts, the appearance of several of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s signature monsters, The Shoggoth – blobs devouring everything in their path with thousands of snapping teeth – comes as a relief. These monsters at least are finite and not part of a perpetual system that categorically excludes black people. Or, as the show would have it in quoting James Baldwin, part of a country where the American Dream is achieved at the expense of the American Negro. The contemporary series nods at Romero’s classic – with police and the three black crewmembers trapped in the same house, this time the monsters attack and eat the police, revenging the death of the lone Black survivor in Night of the Living Dead.

Admittedly, the show is uneven and is more a series of spectacular parts than a stunning whole. However, its project of revisioning African-American representation and extending it both to genres and to areas of intellectual activity which Blacks had previously been locked out of is a mind-bending corrective to the representational apartheid practiced in white Hollywood and academia.

1611a

'50s Haunted Diners

Episodes one and three emphasize the socially critical aspect of New Black Horror, so prominent in Get Out, the masterwork in this subgenre. Tik, Letti and the reliably stabilizing Courtney B. Vance as Tik’s Uncle George, take that most American of adventures the road trip, in search of George’s lost brother. They encounter not the oddball-but-endearing characters of a Route 66 but rather a murderous police state aligned against them. In a diner, they view the ’50s kitsch figures not as nostalgic but as menacing, and are forced to flee with the arrival of armed attackers. A lingering and unnerving shot of a white man with a gun in the back of a truck suggests the chase and murder of Georgia jogger Armaud Arbery, pursued by a gun-toting ex-cop and his sons. Finally, they are pursued to the border of a county which has a sundown clause, meaning, the sheriff explains to them, that they can be shot if they are found in the county after sundown.

Episode three, with Tik, Letti and Tik’s father back in Chicago, takes up the thorny ’50s question of housing segregation, as Letti buys a home in North Chicago across the line of demarcation. Letti faces a brigade of white men parking their cars in front with the horns perpetually blaring to drive her out of her home. The trick, Tik reveals, is one that U.S. soldiers used in Korea where he was a part of their efforts to drive prisoners insane. That revelation of American mind games rewrites the myth of Korean ‘brainwashing’ solidified in the film The Manchurian Candidate.

Social distancing via racial segregation

The house is haunted with the spirits of African-Americans massacred in the abode. Inside and outside Letti and Tik are tortured by that other kind of social distancing, the racial segregation that with its attendant defunded schools and perpetuation of poverty is still a primary way today of maintaining inequality. Letti revenges herself on the cars with a baseball bat and stakes her right to cross the colour line.

Episodes two and four are about bringing African-Americans to the forefront of genres they have been locked out of. Black audiences, lacking an identification figure in what was the squeaky-clean genre of horror, often rooted for the monster who ravaged the privileged victims of a supposedly all-white America. Episode two restores Black agency to the genre as Tik, Letti and George stand in the center of the standard horror trope of the haunted house, here a Massachusetts mansion with a devil cult that not all the characters escape from alive.

Episode four places Black characters at the center of an Indiana Jones-type adventure saga, but with an African-American historical perspective. When Letti has second thoughts about crossing a frail rope bridge in a typical adventure sequence, Tik’s father spurs her to conquer her fear by telling her the rope reminds him of the whip his mother described to him, used by masters on Black slaves.

Throughout, the African-American characters also counter myths about Black prowess exclusively in the fields of sports and entertainment. George and his wife Hippolyta are cartographers, drawing up maps in the Green Book that provide safe journeys through the dangerous morass of apartheid America. Hippolyta proves herself adept at astronomy, and in a later episode acquires a lived historical knowledge by inserting herself into various epochs. Their daughter Diana writes and illustrates her own comics, in a way that presages today’s Black comic resurgence. The family reads and reveres sci-fi adventure author Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft mentor and Dracula creator Bram Stoker. The series highlights Black curiosity and intellectual acuity as the show itself crosses cultural colour lines in showing that it is not for lack of persistence and interest that African-Americans have not thrived in these areas.

The show also of course rewrites Lovecraft himself, using a contemporary novel by Matt Ruff that highlights the horror writer’s glaring limitations. Lovecraft wrote in the 1920s, with the Klan firmly established and often, as in The Call of Cthulhu, set the stories a decade earlier, at the moment when the progressive period of Reconstruction was still being turned back, just after statues commemorating the Confederacy had sprung up everywhere, and when a new category of ‘whiteness’ was being constructed by pitting all the European US arrivals against their non-European ‘other(s).’

In Cthulhu Lovecraft recounts the danger posed in the North by a Negro sailor “from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside” and in the South in the bayous surrounding New Orleans by a Voodoo gathering containing “singular and hideous” rites. Lovecraft Country refashions and reverses this fear, as in one episode the Shoggoths appear again, this time to destroy a squad of Chicago police who have come to wipe Letti out of her home.

In the most stunning reversal of a horror staple, Letti’s sister Ruby undergoes the wolfman transformation from human to beast, a prosthetic tour-de-fore pioneered by Rick Baker in An American Werewolf in London. The trick here is that Ruby transforms from an African-American to a Caucasian woman. This monster is instead granted full access to white society. Ruby had previously been rejected from a sales clerk position at the department store Marshall Field’s but ‘white’ Ruby is not only hired but made supervisor at the store. The episode spotlights the horror of white privilege as it is lived by Black America.

A critique of capitalism

One problem with the series is that it stays at the superficial level, viewing Lovecraft as simply a creator of monsters, including in a later episode, an Alien-type Korean female that we sympathize with as she revenges herself on both the Japanese and on US servicemen in Korea, both of whom oppressed the country. Beneath the surface prejudice, Lovecraft’s creatures from the netherworlds actually constituted a critique of the rational, scientific, calculated world of a capitalism that was hell-bent on erasing all traces of the ancient myths and modes of thinking that his monsters represent. The series misses this aspect which in the second season might be a way of more thoroughly linking Lovecraft’s subconscious love of the irrational with the battle of the series characters for recognition of their own modes of thinking and making sense of the world, which both embraces and contradicts the rationalized “normality” of the consumer world around them.

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The Macon Seven on the run in Underground

Lovecraft Country also signals the arrival in town of a new show-running sheriff, Misha Green, an African-American female writer whose work, both here and in Underground is peppered with images of revolt and resistance. The “Macon 7” plantation runaway slaves in the first series who make an impossible journey from the openly oppressive South to the more sophisticated prejudice of the North and the genre and gender smashing intrusion of Tik, Letti, and Hippolyta in her second series carve out a far more openly rebellious path for Black television representation, making Shonda Rhimes’ professional and middle-class world (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder) seem tame by comparison.

Exec-producing on Lovecraft Country are J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele. Abrams seems to contribute little to the mix, except occasional melodic horror strains on the soundtrack, borrowed from Lost, which often attempt to create the feeling of terror but seem divorced from the actual action. Peele, on the other hand, continues to invest the horror genre with contemporary social significance. This series is the true follow-up to his Get Out, where the horror is the psychic manifestation of the racist system which terrorizes the characters.

Lovecraft Country, with its array of cops more frightening than the actual monsters, and its ordinary African-American characters deeply embedded in the street life of a community with its stickball and block parties also casts a suspicious and critical eye on that other HBO series Watchmen and its Kamela-Harris-type Black female superhero vigilante cop, whose opposition to white racism could equally be an opposition to Black rebellion. The high point of Watchmen is the first 10 minutes of the series, which figures the Tulsa massacre as jealous Okies revenge themselves on the economic prosperity of Black Wall Street. Misha Green though, as everywhere else in this extraordinary show, goes one better than that heavily-awarded series in sending her characters into the past, in an entire episode based on the Oklahoma bloodletting.

This may be a series of parts, rather than a coherent whole – but the parts are some of the most memorable moments of television in this year of Black Lives Matter.

She Died Alone
Sunday, 09 May 2021 17:16

She Died Alone

Published in Poetry

She Died Alone

by Mike Jenkins

She died there in hospital,
no husband, Sissy, daughter Ingrid
no church kin around her
and at her funeral of regulation 10
her own Lusamba saw the coffin
and could not imagine her within.

She was a mother to everyone
who was blown into Victoria station
lost for food or direction,
took them home like injured creatures
fed them till they were strong
watched them fly, never to return.

The concourse deserted like Christmas Eve
only without the straggling drunkards
or last-minuters wandering homewards,
when a man cursed and spat hatred
announcing that he had Covid
(though he later tested negative).

She'd worked all hours overtime
to send money home to her mother;
they made her work without PPE
sickness made her vulnerable to disease.
She died alone, the banners remember
outside her station chants of – 'Justice for Belly Mujinga!'

Belly Mujinga was a ticket controller who worked at Victoria station, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She died on April 5th of Covid-19. She was spat on by a man who claimed he had Covid, though later tested negative. She had been working without PPE. ‘Justice for Belly Mujinga’ was a vital part of recent BLM protests.

“Radio Station: Harlem”: Listening to Langston Hughes
Sunday, 09 May 2021 17:16

“Radio Station: Harlem”: Listening to Langston Hughes

Published in Music

As increasingly militarised police forces and emboldened white supremacists provoke and attack people of colour and their allies, Ciarán O'Rourke shows the relevance of Langston Hughes' political poetry

“I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street,” recalled Langston Hughes of his first literary forays: songs that “had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.” The remark indicates in microform the emphasis and direction of Hughes's poetry in general: its blues-inflected verve and musicality; its demotic modernism and open-eyed, streets-up democracy; its refusal to ignore or reify the pain of poverty in American life, and the devastation of what W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the century had called “the color line”; its urge by contrast to pay tribute to the perseverance and creativity of 'his' people as a collective. “I am the darker brother”, Hughes wrote in one poem, partly addressed to Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, whose rollicksome, quasi-proletarian verses he credited as formative influences on his own work: “I, too, sing America.”

For Hughes, such a cultural mission could delight and inspire, revealing new depths and dimesnions to the national dream as it was lived by the masses, by communities of colour, by vast swathes of the population ordinarily rendered invisible by the literary and political mores of the time. In one early piece, he claimed fellowship with the “Dream-singers, / Story-tellers, / Dancers” of Harlem – a poetic comaraderie he likewise extended to “Elevator-boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers”. Against the harshness and desperation of contemporary experience in the nation's urban centres, the Missouri-born Hughes had an almost preternatural ability to tune in to the vibrant, rough-and-tumble clamour of local lives on their own frequency.

Colloquial sass and effortless cool

His portrait of “Lenox Avenue: Midnight” thus begins with colloquial sass and effortless cool: “The rhythm of life / Is a jazz rhythm, / Honey. / The gods are laughing at us.” For Hughes, this “jazz rhythm” was a sign of the times: of a new modernity shaped and sounded by black, largely working-class communities. But it was also a portal into American history. In one late poem, Hughes re-imagined the songs of enslaved Africans during the nineteenth century in its light, their voices sublimated – bursting finally free – in the form of the “Jazz!” concocted by “Jelly Roll's piano, / Buddy Bolden's trumpet, / Kid Ory's trombone”.

In his later years, Hughes was in fact criticised (including by a precocious James Baldwin) for his tendency to aestheticise black art and experience, speech and music, in the process creating stereotypes, his critics objected, that lesser (or outright hostile) writers could easily parody or dismiss. Hughes countered such critiques deftly, by highlighting the validity as well as the luminously many-storied tradition of writing from life in America, and farther afield. “The local, the regional can – and does – become universal”, Hughes responded, expressing sentiments shared (almost word for word) by contemporary modernists such as William Carlos Williams and Lola Ridge, before adding his own flavour to the tale: “Sean O’Casey’s Irishmen are an example. So I would say to young Negro writers, do not be afraid of yourself. You are the world.”

Just as Martin Luther King Jnr (whom Hughes came to know tangentially through the Civil Rights Movement) would later perceive in the African-American movement against “racism, militarism, and extreme materialism” in the United States the “arc of the moral universe” at large (bending slowly, King said, towards justice), so Hughes's supposedly local concerns were framed in an internationalist and “universal” perspective. “In the Johannesburg mines”, one piece read, in 1925,

There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Would you
Make out of that?

Hughes quietly draws a line of association between questions of race and labour in America and similiar patterns of erasure and exploitation abroad, while signalling the arrival of a poetry concerned less with mannered gentility or academic allusion than with mass, black experience per se. “I herd with the many”, Hughes had declared the previous year, “Caged in the circus of civilization.”

As the last image implies, to capture and distil down to its essentials the (African-)American experience could also be fraught with political and personal anguish. “All the way from Africa to Georgia”, Hughes wrote, “I carried my sorrow songs”, placing the blood-spattered record of American racism within a centuries-long context of European colonial policy and thought: “The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. / They lynch me still in Mississippi.”

Communist sympathies

In the period in which Hughes lived and wrote, indeed, such lynchings were recurrent events, along with the systematised destruction of black property, from Mississippi to Oklahoma. De facto apartheid in the American South co-existed with more subtle forms of racial and social ostracism that remained in force across the Northern states. For all its ease of address and rhythmic exuberance, Hughes's poetry offered a chillingly close-focused catalogue of the agonising effects and insidious nature of such exclusions and abuses pervading American life. His work is populated by loner figures, suffering what Hughes once called “queer pain” (interpreted by some critics as a guarded reference to his own repressed Queerness, in a violently homophobic society). “Strange Hurt” recollects a woman whose behaviour seems mysterious and yet achingly familiar to the speaker:

In months of snowy winter
When cozy houses hold,
She'd break down doors
To wander naked
In the cold. 

As here, one of Hughes's great talents as a political writer was his ability to acknowledge the psychological complexity of the people and characters he described, without softening the often multi-pronged critiques of power his poems simultaneously sought to articulate.

As we've seen, Hughes's anti-racism and social sympathies were coupled with a profound recognition of the forms of economic exploitation and hierarchy that shaped the political landscape of the unfolding century, both at home and abroad. “I live on a park bench. / You, Park Avenue”, begins one piece, “Hell of a distance / Between us two.” Another goes so far as to imagine a time “When the land belongs to the famers / And the factories to the working men”, asserting triumphantly that “The U.S.A. when we take control / Will be the U.S.S.A. then” – a concise expression of Hughes's Soviet sympathies throughout the 1930s, beliefs for which (to his distress) he would later appear before Joseph McCarthy's House of Un-American Activities Committee on the accusation of Communist Party membership.

The episode was telling. For although Hughes is rightly recognised today as a chronicler of America's grassroots life and democratic culture, containing multitudes, by the early 1950s he had long been known (gaining the attention of FBI) as a leading critic of US exceptionalism in his work. “Strangely undemocratic doings take place in the shadow of 'the world's greatest democracy'”, Hughes observed, as governmental and military leaders approved the deployment of segregated American regiments in the fight against global fascism during the second world war. “We want the right to ride without Jim Crow in any conveyance carrying the traveling public”, he likewise wrote in 1944, replying to an editor seeking clarification as to the aims of the black struggle for equality and meaningful citizenship: “We want the right when traveling to dine in any restaurant or seek lodgings in any hotel or auto camp open to the public which our purse affords. (Any Nazi may do so.)”

To read Hughes's work in an early 21st century context is to be reminded of the vast discrepancies between aspiration and fact, and in particular the extended history of white supremacy (its protean endurance) in American society. In the mid-1980s, Gwendolyn Brooks purported to speak for all “those of us who knew Langston” when she described his presence on the literary scene as one that had “made us all better people” – yet this geniality and warmth on Hughes's part belied a deeply registered sense of the crimes on which the USA's prosperity and political life were built. “The wreckage of Democracy is likely to pile up behind that Jim Crow Car”, he summarised in the 1940s, a premonition based on the cruelty and immense burden of racist violence he saw lurking at the heart of freedom's new, self-proclaimed protector on the global stage.

The Black Prophetic tradition

“Way down south in Dixie,” Hughes had written amidst the wave of racial lynchings that swept across the South throughout the 1920s, “(Bruised body high in air) / I asked the white Lord Jesus / What was the use of prayer.” Two decades later, he was equally clear in his perception and condemnation of police brutality as a method of racial terror. “Hit me! Jab me! / Make me say I did it”, opens one poem, entitled “Third Degree”. “I looked and I saw / That man they call the Law”, reads another: “I had visions in my head / Of being laid out cold and dead.” The piece finishes on an admonitory note, anticipating Hughes's explosive understanding of the likely consequence of Harlem's “dream deferred” in 1951:

Now I do not understand
Why God don't protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I've no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?
We'll see.

Significantly, in both pieces Hughes deploys the religious language of what Cornel West has termed the Black Prophetic tradition, specifically as a means of highlighting the mutual bonds and necessity for self-organisation (and even self-defence) among communities of colour – in the face of systematic racial violence. As here, however, Hughes's most perennial and valuable insistence is on the capacity of ostensibly marginalized and subjugated peoples to voice their own experiences and shape their own stories – primarily by acknowledging themselves in one another, as Hughes himself attempted to do in verse. “Radio Station: Harlem”, opens one poem addressed to the people of the West Indies, “Wave Length: The Human Heart.”

Against the vista of entrenched social hostility and exclusion alluded to in the pieces above, then, Hughes was unafraid to offer elegy and denunciation: a politics of feeling and poetics of response that would shake loose the social blindfolds preventing his fellow citizens (as he always perceived them) from recognising the terrifying reality of racism in America. But his poetry also gleams with the dance and flow of life on the move: hums and sings with living voices. “Folks, I'm telling you, / birthing is hard / and dying is mean”, reads one fragment of poetic plainsong, “so get yourself / a little loving / in between.”

The result is that Hughes's work stands less as a static archive of gone time, catering to a merely historical interest, than as a stereoscopic unreeling of riffs and scenes that seem, somehow, to involve us still, beckoning us into a world both theirs and ours. “I play it cool / And dig all jive. / That's the reason / I stay alive”, runs Hughes's “Motto” – a precursor to Gwedolyn Brooks's iconic snapshot and street-corner rap, “We Real Cool”. Today, Hughes's vim remains infectious, his observational intimacy both enveloping and fresh.

Politically, too, Hughes speaks to us in our time. As monuments to Confederate generals of the American South and the merchants and genocidal monarchs of European imperialism are toppled, as increasingly militarised police forces and emboldened white supremacists deploy strategies of violence and provocation against communities of colour and their allies, his poetry offers both consolation and guidance. Hughes consoles: in his perennial capacity to side with and celebrate the self-activity of communities who exist in defiance of those lines of colour and class that power would draw across the map of our collective life. And he is a guide for our age, in the combination of clarity and dream, political fire and poetic soul, he carries to the fray of action: the not-yet-written pages of a future in which he heard, as we might do, the street-songs forming anew, the music of people who keep on going, going strong.

Singing new forms of escape: Paul Robeson's afterlife in a U.S. prison
Sunday, 09 May 2021 17:16

Singing new forms of escape: Paul Robeson's afterlife in a U.S. prison

Published in Music

Shana L. Redmond writes about Paul Robeson’s afterlife in a U.S. Prison

“I have begun to undertake the task of trying to establish a Paul Robeson month here at Marion Federal Penitentiary,” wrote Bil Brown-El. An incarcerated person in the medium security prison in rural Illinois, USA, Brown-El addressed his June 1977 letter to Tony Gittens, director of the Electric Playhouse in Washington D.C. Brown-El was aware of the film festivals held by Gittens in his hometown and hoped that, with the proper setting of his conditions, his humble request would be met favorably. He continued,

 From the very outset I would like to say that this have never been accomplished before here at the institution. There are very limited programs dealing with our people here at Marion, as well as very few films dealing with our people, black people, very few—education[al] or other. It would be [a] joy to see this project; a Paul Robeson month get off to a good start.

Beyond the need for more cultural opportunities at the prison for Black people, Brown-El argues that the answer to the question of why pursue this course is “very simple”: “Paul Robeson is one of America’s greatest men.” His use of the present verb tense, alongside his earlier frustration with those who “are ignorant to just who Paul Robeson is/was,” highlights that Paul had not left the world nor these precarious men, even a year and a half after his death.

SR CultureMatters Marion

Marion penitentiary, Illinois

Prison may seem a surprising location in which to find the great singer, actor, and radical Paul Robeson (1898-1976) but he knew something of those people and conditions. Though never incarcerated himself, Robeson was the son of a formerly enslaved man who secured his freedom through escape from a North Carolina plantation. He also lived through eight years (1950-58) of detention in the United States when his passport was revoked due to his political labors and global solidarities. He spoke in support of the incarcerated Scottsboro Boys in 1935 and the Trenton Six in 1949, as well as his comrade Ben Davis, whose membership and activism in the Communist Party, USA was used to convict and imprison him under the Smith Act in that same year.

Economic dispossession and political repression

Robeson was passionately and vocally opposed to the conditions of economic dispossession and political repression that produce imprisonment within Black communities, all the while forwarding alternatives to that violence. And though it would be inaccurate to label Robeson an anti-prison activist, his commitments are aligned with the urgent calls from contemporary Black U.S. communities and organizers for prison abolition, which abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as change that is “deliberately everything-ist” in its design and impact. It is then not a surprise that imprisoned people would seek Robeson out as Brown-El did, especially in the 1970s when incarceration in the U.S. was rapidly becoming the way to contain and disappear poverty and Black insurgency.

Though the proposed program at Marion Penitentiary was less spectacular and significantly less resourced than that which occurred in universities and museums all over the world, it was no less researched. Brown-El began his time with Robeson well before his communication with Gittens. While in solitary confinement at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, he read “Paul Robeson: Farewell to a Fighter,” by Carlyle Douglas, a writer for Ebony magazine who covered Robeson’s 1976 memorial at Mother A.M.E. Church where his older brother Ben had pastored for more than twenty years. In it, Douglas describes the “knots of sombre people” who braved a rainy Harlem day to honour Robeson. Amongst the strangers and members of multiple former vanguards (“the old Harlem Writers Guild, the Old Left…”) were

ideologues whose visions he had shared and supported, there were people whose personal resolve had been strengthened by the example of his steel-hard integrity, and people who loved him because he sang of them and to them with a voice unmatched in its combination of technical mastery and natural beauty.

The Negro spirituals and world folk songs that define Robeson’s career were inspiration to hundreds of thousands of people or more, and include his famed “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” which declares in verse two that “freedom shall be mine.” His unwavering belief in ultimate justice undoubtedly encouraged many to brave the weather and crowds in order to pay their last respects. Descriptions of the memorial were bookends to Robeson’s life, which Douglas covered in broad, yet thoughtful, strokes.

Like any good story, the highs and lows are dramatic and the lessons profound. Brown-El wrote to Douglas that since its reading he had “become conscious of self.” He went on to read Robeson’s Here I Stand (1958), which he later described as a book that fundamentally changed him: “after reading it, re-reading, and still reading it I realized that I have become addicted to Robeson-ism.” From this conversion developed a month-long program in honor of Robeson and an opportunity for Brown-El and his fellow men to continue responding to the world beyond their walls. 

The “five[-]part affair” that Brown-El describes to Gittens, which was sponsored by The Black Culture Society (BCS) at Marion, included panels as well as guest speakers from Southern Illinois University, and culminated in a screening of Robeson’s 1933 breakout film, The Emperor Jones. Originally a play by Eugene O’Neill in which Robeson also starred, the film adapts the story of Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter convicted of murder who escapes imprisonment and ultimately finds himself on a fictitious Caribbean island where, through coercion and quick-wittedness, he becomes the leader of the local people.

Like the other examples of Depression-era Black performance studied by Stephanie Batiste, The Emperor Jones “shows that black culture also contained an aggressive current of desire for power.” The real-life evidence of this desire for power is precisely what drew scholar Michele Stephens’s attention to Pan-African icon Marcus Garvey, who she juxtaposes with the original O’Neill play.

SR marcusgarvey2

Proclaiming himself the provisional President of Africa in 1920, Garvey, like Jones, used decorative opulence and pomp and circumstance to stabilize the legitimacy of his reign as leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and, by extension, the wider Black world. Both men would, however, fall victim to the “true tragedy” of the Negro emperor, which included a failure to use his power to sustain meaningful collectivity beyond the nation and, according to Stephens,

[e]ven more dangerously, his transnationalism spoke most powerfully to a specific segment of the black American population, the group least likely to find social acceptance and the rights of full citizenship in American and, therefore, the group least interested in their cultural Americanization, the black working poor.

The choice of The Emperor Jones as a capstone event for the BCS Paul Robeson Month comes into sharper focus within this context. Seeing a Black man successfully flee, capture and seize his freedom, must have been compelling for those at Marion, yet it is precisely the group that Stephens mentions here who Brown-El envisioned as he planned the screening. They were not simply caged men; they were the Black and working poor, the most shunned and despised of society, the least likely to access their full citizenship rights, and, therefore, those critically attuned to the contradictory national logics exposed by Black performance, which, Batiste argues, “shows African Americans coming to terms with a nation that had both betrayed them and from its foundational creed continually held out the glimmer of a promise of inclusion.” Brutus Jones modeled this condition, perhaps most especially in the fit of madness into which he descends at the film’s end that is catalyzed both by his lifetime of dispossession and his struggle to achieve what he was told could be his.

Disappearing Black citizens into prisons

Though ending with a cautionary note for Black men to not aspire too far above their given social station, the narrative of The Emperor Jones was, like so much of Robeson’s early film portrayals, offset by the life lived by its star. By the time of the film’s viewing at Marion the story of Paul’s life had been told with a clarity that undoubtedly brought nuance to this portrayal and invited further consideration of his unique role in a nation that was, at this very moment, escalating the disappearance of its Black citizens into carceral dungeons. Over the last few months of 1977, Brown-El used his personal interest in and research of Robeson to launch efforts to advance the musician’s name as well as other struggles for social justice.

The Emperor Jones, starring Paul Robeson

As a part of Paul Robeson Month, the BCS developed a “Black Awareness Quiz.” Composed of eight questions in multiple-choice style, it asked the reader to answer, for example, “Which noted American became a target of McCarthyism?” and “Which man was honored with the Spingarn Medal, awarded annually for the highest achievement of an American Negro?” The answer to each question was, of course, Paul Robeson, making for a game that was, by question three or four, very predictable but successful nonetheless in its effort to increase knowledge of the month’s namesake. This quick snapshot of both his persecution and his victories began to develop a shared investment in Robeson’s preservation and protection amongst the BCS and their audiences.

Brown-El took advantage of the critical mass that he created through his programming and curatorial work by using it to join in the outrage over the Philip Dean Hayes play Paul Robeson, which premiered in September 1977. Organizing against the play was widespread yet its reach into a federal prison opens up an underdeveloped and undisclosed avenue for solidarity. In the December “petition in support of the actions of the Washington, D.C. Committee to End the Crimes Against Paul Robeson (from Marion),” more than twenty signatories announced their alliance with the celebrities and intellectuals, including Paul Robeson Jr. and writer James Baldwin, who organized the national boycott of the play. The Marion signatories wrote,

This petition is addressed to all people who are concerned with the deplorable assault, “the pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson” by the farcical play entitled “Paul Robeson” which pretends to depict the life of this heroic giant as it really was. In essence, this unwholesome manure of a play, actually reduces Mount Kilmanjaro [sic] (Paul Robeson) to an insignificant molehill. We, the petitioners, protest.

This is a fantastic document that is not simply additive to the international campaign against the play but revelatory in its own right. Beyond this opening, it goes on to paraphrase Lenin and expose the play as “bourgeois propaganda”, used in service of the long historical practice of making Black revolutionaries small. From these insights and reading practices, we know that these men are dynamically and proactively engaged with events beyond the penitentiary—not simply large-scale national or international events but those that intimately impact the communities in which they continue to love and labour. We know that even though they’ve not seen the play, they’ve read and heard enough about it to have an opinion on its failures and to know that they are joining a collective with the power to adjust current conditions. We know that these men, “the petitioners,” are self-possessed enough to protest and they do it from the prison in the name of Paul Robeson.

In his letter of appreciation to Paul Robeson, Jr., Brown-El outlines his labours for the elder Robeson, including the petition, the film screening, and an additional event on December 1, which he planned to repeat in February 1978. Paul was quickly becoming a recurring presence at Marion—a member of their community and one that they would vigorously defend. Brown-El commits to Paul, Jr. that, “I shall propagate the Great Paul Robeson whenever, however, and wherever I can as there was none greater, there is none greater and there shall be none greater than he…”

The persistence of Robeson’s attendance and influence was made possible not only by the gravity and significance of his labours during his lifetime but also due to the impressions that they would make, even if temporary, at places like Marion Penitentiary. He remained with those vulnerable men and remains with us still, singing and charting new forms of possibility and escape.

Shana L. Redmond is the author of Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson (Duke UP, January 2020) and Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (NYU Press, 2014).

They Stream Movies Don’t They? City of Tiny Lights and Hamilton
Sunday, 09 May 2021 17:16

They Stream Movies Don’t They? City of Tiny Lights and Hamilton

Dennis Broe continues his review of series TV with an analysis of City of Tiny Lights and Hamilton. Image: Tommy Akbar amidst the neon in City of Tiny Lights 

Although the highlight and main attraction of most streaming services is always new series and seasons of serial TV, they also attract viewers – and more importantly to them subscribers – by posting high profile films, often with a holiday slant. Netflix premiered Scorsese’s The Irishman at Thanksgiving 2019 in an attempt to have families stay at home and gather around the TV or computer, rather than go out to cinemas at the opening of the Christmas blockbuster season.

For 4th of July weekend, Disney+ served up an exquisitely well-filmed but troubling version of the mega New York theatre hit Hamilton about the country’s founding fathers. For all its gloss, the Disney+ entry took second fiddle to a relatively unknown BBC film, the extraordinary detective thriller about the exploitation of urban minority neighborhoods City of Tiny Lights (available on Amazon Prime in the UK).

In the latter, Tommy Akbar (Riz Ahmed) is a two-bit Pakistani private detective who knows his mixed Anglo-Middle Eastern London neighborhood like the back of his hand. He is hired by a sex worker to find her co-worker and this begins a trail of death and destruction. The trail leads him to the local mullah and a Muslim group patrolling the streets, a real estate developer who he grew up with, an ex-lover also from his childhood, an intimidating American agent supposedly searching for “terrorists,” and the area’s local drug dealers, all against the background of an attempt to “modernize” this turf that Tommy loves and has inhabited all his life.

The script is by Patrick Neate from his Edgar-nominated novel, which he translates to the screen in a way that is pitch perfect. The direction stresses visually the ways the neon of the contemporary London scene is broken down and refracted rather than centralized, casting its eerie transmuted glow on all the inhabitants, continually washing them in a false light they must live under.

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Real estate developers remaking neighborhoods in City of Tiny Lights 

The master text for this genre of political and economic truth-telling via the detective thriller or film noir is of course Chinatown. City of Tiny Lights has absorbed the lessons of that model, but the sign of that absorption is that it plays them back in non-clichéd ways and tells us something new about the methods employed to “clean” urban neighborhoods of their inhabitants. As with Chinatown there is also a crossing of the political with the personal, with each interacting to reinforce the villainy of the other.

One way to emphasise the extraordinary accomplishment of this film to compare it to another film on the same theme which remains at the level of a preachy thesis film, though its heart is in the right place. Motherless Brooklyn attempts valiantly to recount the way Robert Moses negatively transformed the city of New York in the 1950s, leaving many urban areas blighted.

However, it is an utterly clichéd, pale imitation of Chinatown, complete with a Moses stand-in as Chinatown villain Noah Cross and a personal “passing” plot which never really registers. Ed Norton’s performance as the Tourette’s-afflicted detective is all actorly ticks rather than the lived-in inhabiting of a role, which we find with Riz Ahmed. The end result is a film that seems to be more a Hollywood projection of and imposition on a neighbourhood and a city, than an actual description of a place.

City of Tiny Lights, on the other hand, delights in the sheer breadth of places and people that Tommy encounters, as well as his familiarity with the bodegas, the mosques, the kids on the corner selling what they can, and the memories of his own past in a mixed neighborhood.

All this comes at a time when there is still so much misunderstanding and fear of poorer neighbourhoods, which often are tarred with the “terrorist” label, or dismissed as unsuitable for habitation, in order to be replaced by luxury high rises. In the end the film sides mightily with the community, people like Tommy in his dogged pursuit of an inconvenient truth, and in the best noir tradition helps to transform that community into a collective, redeeming what mainstream media would simply term “denizens of darkness” into a kind of extended family

Hamilton and Settler Colonialism

First, the good news. The 2016 stage version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is exquisitely transformed into a filmed version of the musical. It alternates between close-up views of the individual actors at key moments in their decision-making process of committing to the rebellion against the British, medium-shot views of the ensemble that catch the frenetic energy of the song and dance numbers as the young country struggles to be born and to exist, and long shots of the entire stage which suggest an overview of the moment of the American Revolution and the establishing of the federal institutions.

The hip-hop music tends at times to be a bit too flattened out, as it accommodates to the Broadway musical idiom. On the other hand, the lyrical mastery of the perpetual rapping expands the limited Broadway vocabulary, and opens up the possibilities of not only what but also how much can be said, providing a dense layer of non-stop rhyming and energy that reinvigorates a rather staid musical form.

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Snowpiercer’s Daveed Diggs as Jefferson in Hamilton

Miranda as Hamilton, the Caribbean Creole and perpetual insider-outsider, lends a quiet dignity to the role in the last act of the musical, making the character’s redemption and demise both touching and affecting. Elsewhere, Daveed Diggs brings an astounding, pulse-pounding charisma to the role of Thomas Jefferson, which enlivens the second half of the work. The first half is propelled by the seditious struggle of the colonists, but the second half takes on the task of dramatizing Hamilton’s nationalization of the financial system through the Federal Reserve and the battle over state’s rights, more complex and difficult subjects to make work on the stage. Diggs, who is so good in a similar vein as the revolutionary energizer of the class struggle aboard the train in Netflix’ current Snowpiercer, is a showstopper who keeps the second half humming.

Now to the problem. In the light of the Black Lives Matter contemporary protests, the show seems trapped in 2016 – a relic of Obama-era representation where the best African-American’s could hope for was, as the black actor playing Aaron Burr sings, simply to be present in “The Room Where It Happens.” But that somewhat empty phrase does not imply having any power, just simply being present in the room.

It’s unfortunately a phrase that points to the vacuousness of Obama era “change” which in the end has resulted just four years later in African-Americans having to take to the streets en masse to demand that they not be killed by the police.

This is not the main problem though. The show employs “whiteface,” that is African-American actors taking the part of what largely at the time were their white masters, particularly in the forms of Washington, Jefferson and Madison, key characters in the show. The prolific and erudite African-American historian Gerald Horne in The Counter-Revolution of 1776 claims that one of the major reasons for the “revolution” that Hamilton is so keen to lionize is for white slaveholders in the colonies to maintain their slaves. He also illustrates how the British, the Crown, effectively mocked in the musical as cowardly and patronizing, had, four years before the rebellion and as a way of controlling the colonies, acted to free the slaves in the Americas.

Horne’s contention that this attempt by Northern transporters of slaves and Southern owners of slaves to preserve the institution was perhaps the root cause of the American Revolution can be debated. What the book proves though beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the uprising and victory by the settler colonialists, as viewed from the perspective of both African slaves and the indigenous Native or First Americans both of whom when possible fought on the side of the British, perpetuated over 350 years of oppression and inequality for both groups that is still with us today.

Hamilton is full of nasty asides about Jefferson being a slave-holder and immigrants being the ones who really know how to get the job done, but the main line of the musical is a constant validation of an American project which has always systematically disenfranchised the very African-Americans who so cheerfully and energetically lend their voices to revalidating these founding fathers. Thus Washington’s melancholy lament in “One Last Time” as he prepares to retire to Mount Vernon leaves out the fact that his luxurious retirement on the plantation is financed by the work of his slaves.

The falsehood of the colonial settler rationale whereby, as Jefferson – who held over 300 slaves – maintained that all men are created equal, was, as Horne asserts, never sufficiently challenged, and consequently repeated itself in American history. The US has thwarted indigenous movements toward independence and autonomy, which admittedly sometimes appear messy, in Korea, Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, in Indonesia and Vietnam in the 1960s, in Chile and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s, and today in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Venezuela, while fostering death and destruction in Libya and Syria.

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Aaron Burr trying to gain access to “The Room Where It Happens” in Hamilton 

Hamilton’s attempt to put one more patch over the myth of American exceptionalism, which sees the country only as a pillar and shining light of freedom, is now, because of the Black Lives Matter movement in the street, fraying at the edges. Hamilton already appears locked in a time capsule, emblematic of an era where simple representation without real change was all that was on offer.

It’s not enough to just be present in “The Room Where It Happens.” To be simply a witness to, as the Black playwright August Wilson said about African-American representation, a “white culture” whose thrust is “to deny us our own humanity, our own history and our own need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as Black Americans.”   

Disgraced Monuments
Sunday, 09 May 2021 17:16

Disgraced Monuments

Published in Visual Arts

Adam Stoneman discusses how public monuments and statues mask the arbitrariness of power. Above: the Edward Colston Statue (photo: Bristol City Council)

“Great monuments are erected like dams, opposing the logic and majesty of authority to all disturbing element; it is in the form of cathedral or palace that Church or State speaks to the multitudes and imposes silence upon them.” George Bataille

Over 55 statues have been toppled, removed or slated for removal in the United States and 12 in the UK since the protests over the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis began in May. Pedestals are still littered with protest signs and covered in graffiti: Portland stone, cooling from the heat of battle.

Upon these empty plinths there are proposals to erect new monuments to figures worthy of commemoration such as Charles Hamilton Houston, Paul Stephenson,or even Missy Elliott. But before the bronze is cast, it is worth reflecting not only on what we want to memorialise as a society, but how.

There is reason to be wary of repeating the anachronistic aesthetics of the ‘heroic figurative statuary’, as David Olusoga terms it, with a new cast of historical characters. Monuments signify majesty and authority, casting subjects into the canon of History, beyond contestation or reproach. They disavow history, and bestow a sense of permanence — carved into the rock to appear as a natural feature, Mount Rushmore, Trump recently declared, ‘will stand forever as an eternal tribute’. As Henri Lefebvre wrote, monuments ‘mask the will to power and the arbitrariness of power beneath signs and surfaces which claim to express collective will and collective thought.’

Upon its plinth, the statue of Edward Colston claimed its place immemorial in British History. Residing now in Bristol Museum, after a brief spell at the bottom of Bristol docks, it can be properly understood as a historical object — with a relatively recent and controversial history, erected as it was a century and a half after Colston’s death.

Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis’s film Disgraced Monuments, made for Channel 4 Television in 1994, examines the fall of the USSR through the toppling of Soviet monuments. The aesthetic of monumentalism deployed by the Tsar was reappropriated by Stalin as a ready-made language that could promote loyalty for the Soviet state, with statues and busts in every town square and public building. ‘The cult of the Tsar returns’, notes Mulvey, with Stalin’s cult of personality embodied in monuments; ‘He was a Gorgon Medusa, everything in sight immortalised in stone’. But by leaving the aesthetic regime of monumentality intact, the statues, which represented the authority of the state, eventually fell victim to the forces of popular revolt. In a park above the Kremlin, a statue of Lenin is replaced by a monument to Alexander II, returning to the very spot from which it had been displaced 70 years before.

There is a memorable interview in the film with a sculptor who works in a small Moscow factory, which until recently had made busts of Stalin, Lenin and Marx. Since perestroika the public contracts have dried up and now he produces kitsch figurines of classical sculptures — “whatever people will buy”. Resnais and Marker’s film Statues Also Die also explores this move to commodified production of tourist statuettes in an African context.

To find an alternative vocabulary of commemoration, one that is adequate for dealing with Britain’s legacy of empire, slavery and racism, we must look instead at the practice of memorialisation in the global south and formerly colonised nations, to reconsider memorials to empire from those who suffered under it.

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Cradock Four Memorial, Eastern Cape, South Africa

In a remembrance garden in the town of Cradock in South Africa, four vertical slabs of concrete bear witness to four anti-apartheid activists murdered by secret police in 1985. Conventions of Western monumentalism are shunned in the use of plain and everyday material; these were four ordinary people, two school teachers, a railway worker and a childhood friend who was with the group by chance, shot down in cold blood. The monument is stark and insistent, it does not demand reverence or veneration but stands upright in indignant rage at a brutal injustice.

At the foot of Croagh Patrick, in Mayo, Ireland, lies The ‘National Famine Memorial. A bronze ‘coffin ship’ rigged with skeletal figures, it commemorates the Great Famine of the 1840s, ‘and the victims of all famines’. In representing the horror of the famine through symbolic and expressionistic elements, the sculpture does not make a simple indictment but opens up a space for a more complex process of collective mourning and loss.

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The National Famine Memorial, County Mayo, Ireland

On 22nd May in Martinique, Emancipation Day, two statues of the French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher were pulled down and smashed in the capital of Fort-de-France. “Schoelcher is not our saviour’’ sang the crowds. Though Schoelcher negotiated the bill that abolished slavery in the Caribbean in the 19th Century, he also decreed that slave owners be financially compensated to the sum of over one and a half million francs for the loss of their human captives.

Away from the fray, in a quiet field on the south west coast of Martinique a triangular arrangement of fifteen hunched figures look out onto the sea, at the spot where in 1830 a slave ship sank with 40 slaves shackled on board. The very site of Anse Cafard Slave Memorial encourages contemplation — this is not the municipal site of power of the town square; visitors are encouraged to walk among the eight foot statues. The sculpture focusses on the dignity of the lives who were enslaved by traders like Colston and ‘freed’ by men like Schoelcher.

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Anse Cafard Slave Memorial, Le Diamant, Martinique

The examples above provide an alternative vocabulary to memorialise the incommensurable violence and suffering caused by colonialism and empire. They emphasise the collective over the individual, contemplation over veneration, human loss over heroic triumph.

Occupying the symbolic realm, statues help us frame and interpret the material world we live in. Over time they tell us which stories and which lives matter. The appropriate aesthetics for this historic moment are not those of triumphalism and heroism, based on historic delusion, but memorials which encourage reflection and confrontation with Britain’s imperial past.

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