ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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I am smiling thinking that little old me, survivor of the East Baltimore ghettos in

the shadow of one of the greatest medical facilities in the world, The Johns Hopkins

University Medical School, could cause such angst trying to rescue the history

of our people.  Oh Lord.  The tortoise shell!  Save me from the tortoise shell.



Like a Tortoise Shell

Commentary by Rudolph Lewis & Peggy Brooks-Bertram


The working class black folk tend to be oriented towards local interests of friends and family.   The black underclass are cut-throat individualists.Wilson


I appreciate greatly this sketch of Eugene Robinson's multiple facets of "black society" or its numerous black communities (Drive Time for the 'Jena 6). We indeed may be like the back of a tortoise shell. There's an interesting tale about how the tortoise's shell came about.

The tortoise is known for his cunning but he's also greedy. He tricked a group of birds to allow him to join their feast in the sky. Each gave him a feather so he could join them. After which he convinced them each should change his name and he chose "all of you." And when the food was presented in the sky it was presented to "all of you." And the tortoise ate all of the food. The group of birds he was with realized they had been tricked and each took back his feather. It was a long ways down and he asked one of the birds to tell his wife he will be home shortly and that she should put all the soft things out in the yard. But she was told to put out all the hard things. And when he fell from the sky he landed on all these hard objects and his shell cracked into pieces. But he found a magician or a mechanic to put his shell back together. But it no longer had its former uniformity and smoothness. But rather had these numerous facets.

Of course, there is a multigenerational black bourgeoisie. On the whole their influence on those classes below tends usually to be rather insignificant. Their concerns tend to be rather local and upward and we usually find them trying to catch up with that which cannot be ignored from below. That is, they claim more worth and value than truly deserving as leaders of their imaginary "we."  They see a life membership in the NAACP as their racial card.

I've seen such black bourgeoisie families in which there were street walkers and crackheads and "cut-throat individualists."  More typically is the interweaving of the "working class black folk" and the "cut-throat individualists," often in the same family. Our “cut-throat individualists” mirror more openly and accurately the underpinnings of the nation’s economic system, for good or ill. In one instance, I recall a wife as working class and the husband as dealer in stolen goods and drugs and then at other times as wage slave.

Both these "classes" tend to be non-literary-readers, as is the case among whites as well, except for maybe how-to or religious literature or on gender relationships or other faddish writings. If in prison the "cut-throat individualists" may have a keen interest in law books, and maybe then racial, political, or Islamic literature, or in the South, books about the successful, like Tavis Smiley. But all these readings go to the practical realities of survival.

As TV watchers or theater goers, as it has always been, it is low comedy, of a highly successful commercial nature. That is, these two "classes" are not that far apart in their cultural tastes. They may even join that segment of the lower bourgeoisie that has a taste for the more superficial aspects of African culture, like clothing or other ritual paraphernalia. But on the whole a rough approximation of the cultural style of the rich and famous is that which is admired and considered for reflection.

To be truthful as long as there are bogey men like Republican racialists who court the milder aspects of contemporary "white supremacists" (crude guardians of white privilege), as Bob Herbert points out in his recent "The Ugly Side of the G.O.P. " (NYTtimes), there shall indeed always be a "we." But it is a "we" like that of the tortoise shell.

We have still a modest need for each other; our usefulness for each other often is not the most noble, or sentimental, or romantic, as is the case of Herbert and many black columnists, Eugene Robinson as well as Stanley Crouch, come to mind. Many of these “black” mouthpieces find the black working classes useful for their disparaging comments in their columns as well as their support of the Democratic Party, which as a whole is no more supportive of black (or white) working class aspirations than the Republicans.

In that the working classes and cut-throat individualists merely want to eat, drink and be merry and are little concerned if at all about the larger politics of the nation and the world, they treat the ballot with the same regard as buying a lottery ticket. They are always being castigated from above by the “black mouthpieces.” On the whole the brothers and the sisters below, however,  possess the commonsense of their working class ancestors: This is a white man's country and he will do for his own first and foremost. Some headway might be made momentarily but it is difficult to impossible to sustain.

Yes, I am rather sentimental and romantic. It is not that difficult for certain old black-and-white films, with their fine noble sentiments, to bring me to tears. I do want my folks to be as Camara Laye’s rural kin:

They were together!—united by the same task, the same song. It was as if the same soul bound them (Dark Child).

With a website like ChickenBones, how could I be mistaken as anything other than a racial sentimentalist and racial romantic? In a society organized politically and economically as ours is, I do not think that black society will ever be more than the design of the tortoise shell. To think otherwise is indeed a delightful illusion. As Killens argued so long ago, an emphasis on property at the expense of human dignity national unity or of the races is impossible.—Rudy

First published Ghana Dot Com


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 Books by Peggy Brooks-Bertram

Uncrowned Queens:  African American Community Builders  /  Wonderful Ethiopians of the Cushite Empire (Book II)

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"Uncrowned Kings" & "Queens/Kings in the Wings"

I do not think that black society will ever be more than the design of the tortoise shell.—Rudy

In fact, the whole shell is "not cracked up to what it ought to be."  I have been working in an organization that I started with a friend of mine  almost ten years ago.  We celebrate the lives of African American men and women who would otherwise be forgotten forever.  We gather their bios and their photos, get their permission if they are alive and tell their stories to the world through our website at Uncrowned Queens

Now we have introduced "Uncrowned Kings" and also "Queens/Kings in the Wings" to celebrate the accomplishments of young black women and men.  I never worked so hard for no salary  in my life and I do not anticipate a salary.  It is a labor of love. We saw the cracks in the shell early when one prominent "community" woman told others that after the first few hundred women were identified and celebrated in a book that it was all down hill from there because the whole project wasn't "elite enough, " too many ordinary "unknowns" were being recognized.  This comment was from a woman who prospered on the backs of the "non-elite" for her entire life. 

Then certain women took offense because we worked so hard at the discovery, reclamation, and preservation of the histories of Black women who  had stories to tell but none would hear them.  Some could be heard if they were the mother of Ruben Santiago who told the story of his mother in Lackawana Blues.  And, when Lackawana Blues was debuted in Buffalo at the Albright Knox Art Gallery, the whole Black "community" turned out but you can't find this community when you need $1.00 to help preserve the history of women and men on whose shoulders we stand. 

But our cracks go even deeper, they get personal.  Someone even commented  that perhaps it was time to "help" us because they noticed that the "white" community recognized our work and that was a good sign for them to come on boardbut not before.  Sheer madness!  

Then there are those who wonder why we work so hard.  They imagine that we are secretly making a fortune and not telling anyone.  Imagine, a fortune telling the stories of Black women that no one knows about!!  So jealously and envy started to peep through the already gaping cracks in the tortoise shell.  Some speak about us with "acid tongues" as if disparaging comments will stop two sisters on a mission. 

My colleague and I have fallen back on the thing that has saved us from worse:  humor and laughter.  Even while I write this I am smiling thinking that little old me, survivor of the East Baltimore ghettos in the shadow of one of the greatest medical facilities in the world, The Johns Hopkins University Medical School, could cause such angst trying to rescue the history of our people.  Oh Lord.  The tortoise shell!  Save me from the tortoise shell.—Peggy 

posted 27 September 2007

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Laying Down the Sword

Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses

By Philip Jenkins

Commands to kill, to commit ethnic cleansing, to institutionalize segregation, to hate and fear other races and religions—all are in the Bible, and all occur with a far greater frequency than in the Qur’an. But fanaticism is no more hard-wired in Christianity than it is in Islam. In Laying Down the Sword, “one of America’s best scholars of religion” (The Economist) explores how religions grow past their bloody origins, and delivers a fearless examination of the most violent verses of the Bible and an urgent call to read them anew in pursuit of a richer, more genuine faith. Christians cannot engage with neighbors and critics of other traditions—nor enjoy the deepest, most mature embodiment of their own faith—until they confront the texts of terror in their heritage. Philip Jenkins identifies the “holy amnesia” that, while allowing scriptural religions to grow and adapt, has demanded a nearly wholesale suppression of the Bible’s most aggressive passages, leaving them dangerously dormant for extremists to revive in times of conflict.

Jenkins lays bare the whole Bible, without compromise or apology, and equips us with tools for reading even the most unsettling texts, from the slaughter of the Canaanites to the alarming rhetoric of the book of Revelation. Teaching Genocide

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

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The White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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  update 13 June 2012




Home   Editor's Page  Criminalizing a Race: Blacks and Prisons Table 

Related files: Nappy Headed Women   Generosity of Asa Hilliard  Wonderful Ethiopians of the Cushite Empire, Book II  Minstrelsy and White Expectations

 Peggy Brooks-Bertram  Barbara Ann Seals Nevergold    Uncrowned Queens: African American Women