Category: History

HistoryPoliticsTravel

Remembering Madiba in Cuba

Nelson Madela — affectionately known as Madiba — would have been 101 today. His impact on the world will be felt for generations to come and we can only guess how his life will ultimately guide our concept of leadership, the struggle for decency and humanity in the centuries to come. South Africa’s gift to humanity is that it is now a blueprint for what a multi-racial democracy should be. That it’s people was able to isolate and remove an anti-democracy president in the years since Madiba is a testament to how firmly it has taken root — the Economist ranks South Africa 40th in the world in terms of the health of democracy (another southern African country Mauritius scores significantly above the U.S.)

A year ago, we visited the Africa House in Havana, where there was an exhibit that explored Madiba’s connection to Cuba. I thought I would share some photos from our time there.

Today the United States is becoming again one of those countries spawns people like Madiba — people who are it’s soul, it’s children, it’s essence, for whom there is no alternative but to speak out, to act, to agitate, to transgress, to take back their humanity. Not because they hate it, because their life is the embodiment of the prayer and dream for what that place could be.

If you are a U.S. citizen and are Black, from Indian subcontinent, from the Caribbean, have ancestors who speak Spanish, are from the peoples who settled here 20,000 years ago, or one of the 100 million “marginalized” people of the country who are being told to “go back”, remember Madiba, remember Harriet Tubman, remember the Sudanese who are fearlessly standing up to bring freedom to their country. Remember that people like you were the reason that a semblance real democracy came to the United States in the first place. Remember that you birthed it in Wounded Knee and Selma. Be the beacon, be the light.

Lastly, there is something significant in Madiba’s structuring of the freedom struggle in South Africa as a collective movement of and for the people as opposed to a cult of personality centering the movement leader. It was hard not to think that through looking at the photo of Madiba and Fidel Castro. But it also is a lesson that freedom should not and cannot be delegated to a political party or it’s leaders, and that conversely tyranny is systemic (look beyond the MAGA hats). I end with a quote from Angela Davis

Even as Nelson Mandela always insisted that his accomplishments were collective—also achieved by the men and women who were his comrades—the media attempted to sanctify him as a heroic individual. A similar process has attempted to dissociate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from the vast numbers of women and men who constituted the very heart of the mid-twentieth-century US freedom movement. It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as a part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.

From an interview published at The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/article/qa-angela-davis-black-power-feminism-and-prison-industrial-complex/
History

This Fourth of July is yours, not mine

I quote from Frederick Douglass‘s speech of July 5, 1852. In that day, freed Africans in America feared being out on July 4 as lynchings usually spiked then. Those Black folk that cared to celebrated on the 5th.

The featured image is of a map of the indigenous peoples of the U.S. made by Aaron Carapella over at Tribal Nations Maps. I’ll gladly send you a $25 map if you submit a comment on this post or make a contribution to Aaron’s Go Fund Me. Offer is to the first poster 🙂

The original keepers of this land are still fighting to protect their identity, land, and existence. In the last few years, we have witnessed the removal of the basic voting protections accorded by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It has been argued that this move has resulted in voter suppression and other actions to disenfranchise (again) African Americans and other marginalized groups. Most recently with the Supreme Court ruling that gerrymandering, even when it plainly dilutes the vote of marginalized communities, is ok and is in fact beyond the purview of the court. We are now witnessing a human rights crisis at the U.S. southern border in which internment camps for asylum seekers subject indigenous and LatinX men, women, and children to unlivable conditions — 24 persons having died in these facilities since the current administration took office.

All of these abuses and more call into question the vision of the U.S. that we are celebrating. There has always it feels been a tension between two visions. One is that of a republic that welcomes all and enables all to live the life they wish to their potential — in that vision, the language, religion, color, gender identity, physical ability of an individual are all strengths and part of the fabric that enables a unique society to flourish. The other vision is that of melting pot, a country for and by white Christian men. These are extreme caricatures, but you need only contrast Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” vision with tweets of the current administration.

It is hard to make sense of these polarities, but thinking it through, wrestling with this through reading, discussion, reflection, is essential to the existence of the country. As a start, I would challenge readers to take on the book Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi.

I sometimes wonder what staying in the British orbit would have meant for the people of color now living in the U.S. Would it just have meant another Canada? Canada, aside from being cold, isn’t so bad a place — a functional democracy. Britain ended slavery in 1833 with the Slavery Abolition Act. The U.K. has for several decades provided subsidized health care and education for all its citizens. On the other (bloody) hand, both Canada and Great Britain continue to grapple with the genocides of indigenous peoples. India, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa — the list of nations still dealing with the scars and trauma of racialized British imperialism spans the globe. Africa is still shedding the anti-LGBTQ legacy of British rule.

I think it’s a better mental effort to think through what living in government and societies created in concert with the protectors could have looked like, and what it could still be. Here’s a zoom in on the area of what would have been the United States as of 1783 (the year the U.S. actually came into existence).

FamilyHistory

Questions I never asked my father about London

The last week of May through the first week of June is an emotional Everest for our family. My wife lost her father, our beloved Nanu, six years ago June 5. My father passed away on the 31st of May thirty four years ago. June 5 is also my brother’s birthday, May 26th is my youngest son’s, and May 29th is mine. The day my father died feels like one continuous day encompassing my college graduation, my birthday and his passing.

We try to keep our fathers in memory my wife and I. It is difficult, but to lose those essential connections is unthinkable.

My father would sometimes recount to my siblings and I — in bits and pieces and partial stories — his memories of the second world war. Any given thing could bring out Daddy’s stories — a question we would ask, a documentary, a book one of us was reading, music on the radio, a rainy day at home.

The media obsession with the “D-Day” event and the particular narrative promoted, which persists in being white Anglo middle/upper class, brings his stories back to mind. The photo in this post is from a page from one of his journals, sometime in 1942/43.

My father was 18 when the event now known as “D-Day” occurred. He was a sailor aboard LST-400, a ship that transported soldiers and tanks and other material to some Normandy beach on the morning of June 6, 1944.

He was a Black man-child from Atlanta, one of nine children. He had enlisted in the Navy as a 15 year old. I always liked to think that it was partially just as a way out of the extreme racism and poverty that he found himself situated in. The Great Depression had barely subsided — or at least that is the history book mythology that I have accepted — I really doubt that he or my uncles and aunts experienced any dramatic improvement in their standard of living in the 1930s an 40s. Their father, also a veteran, had died in 1938 from the deep psychic wounds of the First World War.

My mother recounts that my father and a friend had hopped a freight train to Detroit and enlisted there. The Navy had sent my grandmother papers to verify that Daddy was a few years older than he really was (15). It seems that the U.S. had no problem taking child soldiers. I remember him talking about having to jump 100 feet into a tank of water. How was the basic training, what obstacles did he face? Who were his friends? How were Black sailors treated? Was it any better or worse than every day life in 1940s Atlanta?

What did he think as the ship sailed from Virginia across the Atlantic? He would talk about a battle off of the North African coast. How they had to pull badly burned sailors off of a sinking ship. I think that this was a landing in Tunisia called Operation Torch.

I know now from the ship muster rolls that there were Filipino sailors on LST-400 as well. What were there names? How did they spend the hours from one engagement to the next. How did they keep their mind away from the madness. Were they equally as young, conflicted in having to fight for one imperial power against another? Did they will themselves to see hope? Did they come with a dream of U.S. citizenship for their service, or was it simply enough for them to envision a Philippines free of Japanese or U.S. control?

He loved Billie Holiday. Did they allow him to play Billie and Duke aboard the ship? In his journal was an entry listing London clubs to visit — a place called the West Indian Club in London caught my eye. Was jazz played there? Did he spend evenings listening to local musicians playing a melange of jazz and Caribbean rhythms? What was Black London like in 1943?

He would talk about a landing, an invasion I suppose, that they made in Sicily. I looked at the ships logs from that operation recently. It was a small town named Gela, Sicily. According to the logs, other ships in their group had been badly damaged. They were strafed by Luftwaffe Messerschmitt aircraft and by the Italian air force. Their home port was Bizerte, Tunisia. Many of the Tunisians would I meet since his passing had the same toffee brown skin. Did he ever consider just slipping into the crowds headed to Tunis?

After the invasion, did they go ashore to Gela? Who did he meet in Italy, what did they say? He mentioned being involved in providing food and other basics to the people of that town. Were there conversations, encounters that made an impression, made him think differently, informed the compassionate person I knew?

He would tell us about how thick the sky was on June 6, 1944 with aircraft. About soldiers falling in the surf. I remember his stories of attending to starved German soldiers, most younger than him. Were those among his thoughts when he would look off into the distance at something I could not see?

He passed away 34 years ago. I lament that the images that we see as D-Day is “celebrated” (it is a strange word for a period in which 27,000 people were being murdered each day) do not capture what he experienced. Celebration is a strange word for a tragedy that was enabled and abetted by the inability of all countries involved to confront injustice head on. Like the Billie Holiday song, it was bitter fruit.

There are so many questions that remain with me:

What was it like to be a Black teenager thrust into adulthood on a ship, thousands of miles from home?

What did you do after those days after the landing? What did you fear, what did you hope for?

What were the things that gave you hope? What were the soul wounds that you had still to heal from?

My wife, children and I were in Paris during the “Victory in Europe” anniversary this year. I believe that is the day that when most of the savagery came to an end — but how does one ever leave the images and pain. I remember hearing bells ringing. I wonder if it occurred to him to stay, to just find a quiet, humble town in France to just be free.

What difficulties did you face getting the benefits to which you were entitled? The book “When Affirmative Action was White” details the discrimination that Black veterans faced in getting the home and business loans, healthcare, and other benefits provided to white sailors. Was the G.I. Bill just one of the many half-truths you faced? Who heard your frustrations, how did you reconcile them?

You never had a peaceful sleep all the days that I had with you. What were the visions that would not leave? Did anyone delve deeply into them and unlock and free you from the demons of having seen what you did? How does it feel to be free now?

So much of why I try to remember, to keep the questions in mind is simply that he not be erased.

I have over the last thirty years spoken to people who survived this period in forced labor camps, who were child soldiers in the German army, people whose parents lived in India, China, Russia. For many “war” was not a place you went, but a condition that knocked upon the door daily. None of their stories of this time seem to fit into the neat script. They all testify to loss and living with both hope, brokenness, kindness and acknowledgement that some wounds do not heal.

I just hope that the stories live and guide us so that the pain will not be repeated.

HistorySocial Justice

Do we need prisons?

Should we end prisons? I have been thinking through this question since reading a recent New York Times article on Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s efforts to dismantle, if not slow the role of, the prison industrial complex. Her focus has been the California prison system and has a book you should check out called The Golden Gulag.

Whatever your views on the criminal justice system, you owe it to yourself and your community to read the article. Angela Davis has been talking about this for decades.

My current thinking is that the prison abolition movement is really about getting a dialog going to question our assumptions about prison. Even getting the prison population down to 1980 levels would be a positive step.

For example, the definition of what constitutes a crime itself is constantly in flux. A good deal of Nobel Prize winners were imprisoned, from Martin Luther King to Andrei Sakharov. People in Georgia serve prison sentences for selling marijuana, in Colorado and California marijuana sellers get venture capital. Missouri wants to imprison doctors for performing safe abortions. So even in the “nation of laws”, the laws are arbitrary, are not equally applied across race, gender, and class, and can change in an election. But the sentences are still extreme and rip apart families and communities.

I struggle with the issue of violent crime. I don’t think the people who stole my bike or car radio need to have their voting rights suspended or their families jacked up. I don’t feel that serial murderers need to be on the street. But most of the countries with low murder rates don’t lock up murderers indefinitely. Those countries seem to take rehabilitation seriously.

Let’s put it this way. Somehow, Germany, Rwanda, Cambodia, South Africa, and Liberia found a way to reintegrate people who’d committed unspeakable crimes. Surely if broken child soldiers can be put back together in poor countries, then there has to be a way to put back together the people that we now lock up and put away indefinitely in the “nation of laws”.

A dialog needs to happen.

As usual I’m on the hunt for data, particularly in Georgia.

What do you think?

HistoryPoliticsTravel

Austria as harbinger of change

Last night the, right-wing Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned. He was allegedly videotaped asking a Russian citizen for donations in exchange for government contracts. It is a trope all too common in the democracy of my citizenship, tragically banal as mass shootings.

The impact in Austria was the apparent collapse of the current governing coalition of centrist+right parties. There were protests in Vienna, and the president has called for September elections. The people might need them sooner.

I hope that the elections bring about a political change that invokes the kind of open and forward thinking Austria, the kind of Europe even, that the world is desperately in need of.

Austria has no dearth of vision. The cover photo is of Ute Bock — a Vienna educator who worked on behalf of asylum seekers, especially with respect to educational opportunities, access to housing, and fairness in policing.

Bock’s legacy lives. When I arrived in Vienna, I encountered a poster featuring Katerina Anastasiou, top candidate of a coalition of the Green, Communist, and other leftist parties called KPÖ PLUS.

The agenda described on their website, emphasizes equal housing, job opportunities, and the dismantling of fascism. I’m too far removed for a subtle understanding of Austrian politics — I don’t even pretend to speak German — but the basic outline seems more in the line of public service than fascist money for favors.

To quote from one of Anastasiou’s recent speeches:

The Europe we want does not exist yet, but it lives in us!

So reminiscent of the last lines of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address

that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth

That the left is sounding a call for support of immigrants and access to housing is not surprising, I learned that they’ve been effective at it in Austria — Vienna at least since the early 20th century.

These are photos I took outside of the Karl Marx-Hof public housing complex, erected in the late 1920’s. To equate it with the oppressive housing complexes of the US is a sacrilege.

The day I visited, the grounds were vibrant. 20-somethings debated in the courtyard. In the steps leading to the entrance, the diversity of Vienna was on display, as Somalian, Bangladeshi, Middle Eastern, Turkish, Eastern- and Austrian-Europeans went about their way basking in the sun. Kebab vendors sold savories and outlined the veggie prospects to me.

As I entered the courtyard I encountered the following plaque

A testament to the 60 families, residents of the Marx-Hof, that had been executed by the Nazis in 1938 and 1939.

Austria’s gift to humanity is its ability to build from the memory of unspeakable horror. To help bring about that vision of the world to which we all aspire. I am with them as the continue the long march forward.

HistoryTravel

Stalinists in Georgia (the state)

We dined at the restaurant Lingenhel Käserei in Vienna on Wednesday night. It had an installation by the Georgian (as in Tbilisi) Helmut Spudich.

The title of the installation was “Georgia on my mind”!

This Op Ed by Stacey Abrams makes clear the case that the current government of the US State Georgia has been spinning into a one party, patriarchal, oppressive, racialist, and anti-democracy state for some time.

It is time to remove the would be Stalinists.