defeats racial slur
Middle Class, the Poor, & Socialist Joy
Conversation with Miriam, Jerry, Kam,
Wilson, Louis, Herbert, Ben
defeats racial slur
NAACP Announcement – NAACP
wins on "nigger" in dictionary A Small Victory...A
Giant Step (Thanks NAACP) There has been a change in Webster's
Dictionary. Kweisi Mfume, former President and CEO of the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP), recently gave a speech at Virginia Tech.
Everyone was informed that a landmark decision was made last
week with the people at Merriam-Webster Dictionary. They
have recognized the error of their ways.
So, beginning wit h the next edition, the word nigger
will no longer be synonymous with African-Americans. It shall be
duly noted that it's a racial slur and not what
African-Americans themselves are. Along with this, all racial
and religious slurs will finally be indicated for what they
really are - cruel and evil slurs too often used to degrade
Please share this information with others. This change should
serve notice to people, corporations, etc., that when
individuals stick together to right a wrong, a change is gonna
come. This wasn't just a victory for African-Americans, but for
Now if we can only get some of our young black men to stop using
it so freely...then we will truly win. Pass it along so we make
sure that we all know t he deal....
NOTES FROM THE BATTLEFIELD
Jerry: Dear Miriam, Thanks for sharing
this bit of news with me. It certainly makes me think
about the power of dictionaries in managing social thought.
The dictionary is so taken for granted that we rarely reflect on
its use as an instrument in the practice of everyday life.
It is not only the young men who freely use
the word "nigger" and unwittingly tighten the shackles
and promote low self-esteem. Some young women exercise equal
opportunity and let the word pepper their conversations.
We will have to continue chipping away at the problem even after
the change is made in future dictionaries.
Jerry is always so insightful.
Rudy: I was going to let this one
slide by because I do not like the corporatism of the NAACP. And
I don't care for Mfume. And, of course, I will not be voting for
him or the other blacks running for the position of Senator from
Maryland. But I agree with Jerry that it is a victory,
however small. I suppose Jerry does not countenance the defense
of the term by celebrity artists.
I was listening to a talk program on Morgan's
WEAA radio station, sometime ago, and a local popular black
journalist defended the public use of the term, arguing
partially that the word "nigger" had more than just
one meaning. That it was also a term of affection (sometimes
written as “nigguh” or "nigga"), its meanings determined on the
sounding of the word. This is indeed true in practice.
Thus, Webster's agreement for a singular definition of
"racial slur" will not mirror the complex uses of the
word in practice by blacks themselves.
The Negro use of the “N” word is usually
associated with the poor and the ignorant, and in many of our
books, they don’t count. Interestingly, in Negro use the "N"
word is neither neuter nor feminine, but masculine. One should also note the poem by Mona
Lisa Saloy. She explores these various uses in a gloriously
humorous manner. Webster’s capitulation to the NAACP would not
help us understand this poem.
I am astonished by the growing and popular
use of the word, "bitch." There's this program called Girl
Friends, about four young black professional women and a
young black Republican man. None of them is able to sustain an
intimate relationship. I have never heard the word
"bitch" used so often on TV. Here the girl friends refer
to each other as "bitches," and often. I assume
the word refers to a certain kind of contrary attitude.
But I don't know. I just went to the store
for a pack of cigarettes and as I was about to reach the
mom-and-pop Korean store, two brothers pulled up in a white car
(I'm certain they were drug dealers), and the one getting
out of the car, referred to his buddy (the driver) as a
"bitch." This is a recent novel use of the term. That
is, it is no longer gender specific as it had been. I wonder
what Webster will do in this case.
In any case, I do not think I will be sending
the NAACP a thank you letter.
Miriam: There are a lot of derogatory
racial and gender slurs that make me cringe, such as
"bitches" and "hos," which are used by male
& female rappers and in music videos. Such terms, as
well as "nigger" are examples of internalized racism
& sexism, low self esteem, and a lack of self respect.
We have some real teaching to do with our young people.
Like you, I'm disappointed in some of the
recent actions of the NAACP as well as recent leadership (Ben
Chavis, for example, and even Ben Hooks, a Memphian and
long-time friend), but I'm a life member of the NAACP who
applauds the historic role of the organization in helping to
eradicate lynching, fueling the desegregation movement,
spearheading voter registration campaigns in the South, etc.
We owe a lot to people like Medgar Evers,
Daisy Bates, Gloster Current, Constance Motley, and the branch
leader in Florida (can't remember his name but there was a PBS
special on him) who worked for years for little money and who
was eventually assassinated in the 1950s. You wrote in one
of your messages that the Civil Rights Movement was a
middle-class movement. Not so.
In Memphis at least it was supported by
carpenters, students, housewives, & church folk, who
marched, demonstrated, sat in, and went to jail. Some of
the leaders of the CRM came from the middle class, and this had
to be because the barbershop owners, ministers, lawyers,
insurance salesmen, small business owners, dentists,
undertakers, and doctors were the only ones who were
"free" (i.e. who made their living from Blacks). And I
can tell you that in Memphis we gave our money and laid our
lives on the line, big time.
My first husband, who was a civil rights
attorney (as was my second), worked pro bono to handle civil
rights cases; in fact, we sacrificed so much that, when I
was jailed we didn't have money for bail, so I took a pauper's
oath. I have never been so embarrassed in my entire life!
Many of the so-called middle class sacrificed their marriages,
their children, and their livelihoods. People who were beholden
to Whites, from domestics to public school teachers and
principals decided, for the most part, to tow the line and were
afraid to participate. So, I say thank god for all the
people who worked in the Movement, whatever their class, race or
The Middle Class & The
Miriam, middle-class leadership was crucial to the civil rights
struggle (movement). I have never questioned and will never
question the sacrifices that members of the black middle class
made to the winning of those great victories. We all owe a great
and eternal debt to individuals like you and your family.
I am not casting
any aspersions on your commitment, or others, to black
liberation. But, of course, as in all struggles, only a minority
of whatever class (upper middle-class, working middle-class, the
poor) participated directly in those struggles. Many of the
middle class and other folks were against MLK and MLK tactics,
like the National Black Baptists. That was the reason SCLC was
So I have no
blanket condemnation of the black middle class. But we have all
been affected by Edward Franklin Frazier's Black
Bourgeoise: "The book met with mixed reviews and harsh
criticism from the black middle and professional class." We
know how it operates and how it happens. My critcism does not
stray off, however, into any ideology or personal
For you personally
I have only praise and admiration. But you and your family
are exceptions. If a mere 30 per cent of the black
middle-class had your courage, stamina, insight, and wisdom, we
would not be in the intellectual morass that we now find
ourselves. I do not think I exaggerate here.
My view is where
MLK left off in 1968. We can not become one America unless we
deal with the plight of America's poor and that has to be done
on a non-racial basis. For poverty and powerlessness are a
condition that not only affects black but whites, Hispanics, and
Native Americans. After King's premature death the Poor People's
Campaign became bogged down in the mud of Washington, DC and we
never fully recovered, except for that which was done in the
black union movement.
The middle class,
most of which despised MLK, made use of the advances and
sacrifices made by all sectors of the black community to
argue for issues that primarily promoted the interests of the
middle class. My view of the present situation can be inferred
from Tom Dent's Southern
Journey. That is, that the poor and the working
classes, especially of the South, were abandoned at the end of
the civil rights movement.
There were other
problems also, especially the ideological struggles among blacks
themselves (revolutionary nationalist socialist and cultural
nationalism) and the repositioning of American conservatism and
racism first under Nixon and later under Reagan. What whites
do I have never really worried about that. For white folks
are gonna do what they gotta do, regardless. My concern and
interests have always been what is going on inside of our
community (however fragmented). That is, the modification and
abandonment of our commitment to the poor and working classes of
our community--for they are most of us.
Here, we have
the real sleeping in the bed of the enemy, and the invitation
was accepted without hesitation.
Maybe the gender
wars of the 80s and 90s contributed further to the confusion.
They probably were necessary, these conflicts among black males
and females, but they were not
sufficient. I am suspicious of those who are overly concerned
about genital mutilation 4,000 miles away but that same person
has little concern for her sister who has to work three jobs to
feed her children. Or no concern that the same opportunities
that existed for their fathers no longer exist for her brothers
to make a living and raise a family and be the man that his
woman wants him to be. And live a life of dignity and integrity.
centered ideologies were also necessary during this same period.
These efforts to create a false consciousness were further
baffling. They were/are not sufficient. In both instances there
were/are great elements of fantasy and wishful thinking. All of
these various movements and fads within the community have not
addressed the peculiarities of black existence in making one
America. Our major task, it seems to me, is to clear the board
of a lot of nonsense from numerous quarters. We must do this now
for our young people. It is they who must carry on this
I am not an
ideologue. I have no faith in 19th century ideologies derived
from either Marx or nationalism. Africa may be necessary but it
is not sufficient. History maybe necessary but it is not
sufficient. An appreciation of Marx may be necessary but it
is not sufficient to get us where we need to go, namely, full
citizens of America (all of us) with all the dignity and
integrity that your grandfather and my grandfather hungered for
and dreamed. That is, none of these is a political program
There are no
African models that will save us. Socialism imported from
wherever is not a viable ideology that's gonna be useful—no
matter what Fidel has achieved or whatever Chavez achieves with
his socialism and cooperatives. As far as I can see the
usefulness of the NAACP died in 1965. Its reason for existence
came to an end. It had worked itself out of a job and they had
worked the head of black institutions, like state colleges, out
of jobs. To sustain itself it (they) became more
nationalistic than it (they) had ever been.
The NAACP is
no longer an organization of and for the people, but rather an
organization that the corporations find useful in sustaining the
continuity, security, and legitimacy of the Establishment. That
is also true for most negro organizations and enterprises that
receive money from the government or corporations. That include
black churches and black businesses. These organizations and
their leaders have little or no interests in now tackling the
larger problems of structured poverty and powerlessnes in this
new globalism of the neo-conservatives.
These new political
leaders are extremely dangerous and an alliance with them
threatens the very existence of black people and the poor
everywhere. They are clear what they are about. We are not. We
think that it is still a game. As the guy in Fog
Facts argued these cats are not about "raising
consciousness," that is, building on what we all understand
from experience; but rather they are about "creating
consciousness," that is, convincing you/us to believe that
which in no way corresponds to our own understanding and
experience. This is an extreme danger. Worst than 1984.
The destruction of
New Orleans woke us up from a bad dream. We have now before us a
living nightmare. My fear is that it will get worse before it
will get better. That is, there will be a class shift, and it
will be backward. The right wing politicos, who have used the
insidious and cynical ideology of race to gain and sustain their
power, is attempting to turn back time to the nineteenth
century, to get rid of the socialist programs established by FDR
and LBJ. The industrial age is over. Their intent is to
deal with all, except those of the technical, administrative,
and entertainment classes, as if they were slaves--no power, no
entitlements. Of course, it's gonna take some time for whites to
catch up, that Negroes, Hispanics, and the poor are not their
But internally it
is urgent that we clear the board of a lot of nonsense and
baggage that we have accumulated in the last three decades and
produce thinking that is important for now. Just as emigration,
the Black Academy, BUY BLACK, and such programs and notions were
abandoned, likewise those structures and ideas we placed our hope in
since the mid-70s must be abandoned in our 21st century world. I
do not care what negroes call themselves, we are all Americans.
And our vision and
hope must be to create and struggle for one
America. An America that we can all truly be proud. An America
that exports doctors, educators, technicians, etc. to the four
winds to create a new world so that we don't need massive
military budgets, that we don't have millions dying of
starvation and disease. Our vision must be much broader and
peaceful than anything I now find in our thoughts and hearts.
If anything this is
what I'm about. It involves a lot of unlearning, reevaluation,
questioning. I do not see this kind of intellectual ruggedness
occurring anywhere now. For those of us who have the
wherewithal, it is our responsibility to lay the ground work for
a new kind of progressive thinking within our communities. Much of
this kind of work will occur in cyberspace. We have to learn how
to use these new technologies to counter the present reactionary
cultural, political, and economic programs. We're now at infant
But I believe our
innocence will serve us well. My hope too is that a
significant portion of the middle classes (whatever their
color or profession) will again serve our people and all of
us well. I am about this kind of criticism.
Miriam: Rudy, you're wrong.
My family and I were not the exception. When Maxine Smith,
Exec. Sec. of the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, and I, Chair of
the NAACP Education Committee, called for a boycott of the
Memphis City Schools in 1969, 95% of the Black population went
along. Everybody I knew in Memphis from students at
LeMoyne-Owen College to the president of Universal Life
Insurance Co. was involved in the movement. When the
sanitation workers went on strike--a strike that led to the
assassination of MLK--all Black Memphians supported them.
Class was definitely not a factor.
One final thing--you know how we women like
to get in the last word. (Speaking of women, I wish some
of them would jump in to these discussions because women DO hold
up the sky. "Well, damn, ladies, the sky is falling, the
sky is falling!") Final thing: It's funny and
ironic to me that, although we have thoroughly denigrated the
Black middle class, all of us belong to that class; we
have degrees and have worked as writers, teachers, artists,
librarians, college professors, and social workers. Yet,
we've couched these discussions in a we/them frame . . . but we
Rudy: Miriam, we are not saying, nor
was Frazier, that we are against persons being writers, poets,
doctors, lawyers, preachers, social workers, counselors, or
business women, or holding any technical or administrative
knowledge. We are not against the type of work people do to make
a decent and honest living.
We are talking about attitudes, moral or ethical or
intellectual orientation in relation to privileges granted and
allowed to capital and corporations and the agents who represent
their interests and are willing to make war to either defend or
expand capital. We are also talking about the attitudes
(including racial attitudes) that people have toward the
poor. We are not talking about how much money one has. What
neighborhood one lives in. What car one drives.
I am broke and no car, not a property owner and I will
allow that I am in the middle class as a result of education and
training. But that is not all of my identity. I'm the son of a
sharecropper (a peasant), the grandson of the son of a slave. My
identity is not restricted by sociological classes. I have all
these sympathies. One might even say I am déclassé.
I do not find it odd at all that members of a class
should criticize itself. I recommend it highly. I think that a
race, a people, should criticize itself. My recommendation
further is that every individual should be more critical of
himself than any might be. My interest and intent is not to make
people feel guilty about who and what they are. Often they have
little to do with it, by intent. My interest is finding a way
out of the hell we in. In essence my criticism of the middle
class is an appeal.
I do not suspect that the class in itself will cease
being itself, sociologically. But a significant percentage (a
critical mass of a) class through criticism can become
aware of the worst sociological aspects of its class, overcome
them, and use their talents, skills, insights, wisdom to
overcome the inertia of that class and change society. The first
order of business is to deal with the question of poverty.
Miriam: Rudy, et al, a part of the
problem is that all of us, me included, make so many
generalizations based on our own individual experiences.
For example, we've all had very varied experiences at HBCUs, and
we base our opinions of them on anecdotal evidence. When
we make statements like "Black college administrators are
reactionary." "Black professors would go to
predominantly White universities if they could," and
"Our college kids aren't engaged in sociopolitical
activism" we are making broad generalizations that don't
apply to everyone. I was one of the first to criticize Hampton's
administration, then I said, "Yes, but . . . "
because I remembered all of the positive things that HBCUs have
done. I think we have to be balanced in our thinking and
writing; otherwise, our enemies will kill us with our own
Open Public Criticism, A
Rudy: I have little fear of open and
honest public criticism. One can always find exceptions to the
rule. Still I trust my experience and perceptions of what is
happening in the black community. I will stand by my
generalizations until the opposite is proved true.
I will not argue with you about what happened
in Memphis in 1969, about either the school boycott or the
strike. I will accept your word. I do recall that it was the
criticism of the black middle that caused King to move into the
Negro motel, which compromised his security and thus led to an
easy assassination and get-away. So the things were not as cozy
as you suggest.
So I find it quite difficult to believe that class
plays no factor in Memphis racial politics. Even here in
Baltimore I have heard criticisms of the Fords. . . . Even if
those class criticisms are groundless in Memphis, I am certain
that they are not groundless elsewhere.
As far as generalizations, I am uncertain
whether conversation is possible without them. For instance, in
the generalization, "Class was definitely not a
factor." I understand what you are saying. But I know
sociologically that that statement is not true. In
any event, I know the truth of things is somewhere among all our
generalizations and facts. And I trust that we will sort it out
and toss away the dross.
Have either of you heard about this book by Prof
Ron Kuykendall. He supplies the answer: a Talented Tenth led
Kam, your remarks seem to ring true: “American race relations
are closely tied up with social status. Race relations . . .
reflect the economic and social forces that are responsible for
their development. What appears as distorted, pathological
behaviors and thoughts among African-Americans is actually due
to the fact that African-Americans are marginalized within
American society and generally suppressed by racial
discrimination at the bottom of the social status gradient.”
Wilson: Rudy, Miriam does a better job
than I do of making you firm up your rhetoric. Your statement .
. . demonstrates how the definitions of class have eroded since
they were standardized in sociology books of the 1950s.
By the way, did you notice that Gwen Ifill on Washington Week
last nite was doing her part to help fuel "consumer
confidence? Never mind that after five years of Bush
the Dow has still failed to reach 11,000, General Motors
announced 30,000 lay offs, pension funds continue to be raided
(at taxpayers' expense), and gold hit $530.
Rudy: I missed Washington Week.
But, yes, I have noted that Bush's approval ratings have risen
five to ten points. The author of Fog
Facts pointed out in an interview that under Clinton the
Dow Jones increased by 320 per cent and that under Bush it may
have increased one or two per cent. That the Smithian view of
economics, that is, increasing the capital of the wealthy has
not had the expected impact, that that money has not not been
invested in creating new businesses to create new jobs but
rather has been invested in real estate and like investments.
He further commented out how media is
different in America than in Europe, where there are papers
from the right, papers that represent the views of socialists, communists, social
democrats, so on. Media in America represent the Establishment,
assuring the continuity, security, and legitimacy of the
Establishment. It goes along with government as long as
continuity, security, and legitimacy of the Establishment are
threatened. He pointed out the NYTimes, as example, and
its support for going to War but now, at least editorially,
the NYTimes is anti-Bush. Of course, FOX might
be operating by a different model, altogether, like AM radio.
Their intent is all and all ideological Clearly, according
to Beinhart, its illusionary to speak of a liberal media.
Socialist Joy: Du Bois
Jonathan: rudy and miriam, i read your
reflections in the "notes from the battlefield"
exchange. thank you for sharing all that knowledge.
my book on langston hughes is called "socialist joy,"
and i just wanted to mention that one of my arguments is that
langston's greatness as an intellectual was in how he understood
white racial oppression as something that destroys all american
workers. as far as the middle class, they hated a lot of
langston's blues poetry. the amsterdam news called his second
pages of trash." lansgton was a marxist, but like rudy
suggests he never "imported" his marxism from europe.
instead he studied dubois and applied dubois to america. many
middle-class critics hated langston's poetry because he used
slang expressions and wrote in the voice of poor folks.
i agree with rudy that the only solution left is to return to
dubois and langston—to
a poor people's politics. my view is that they were prophets.
today we've lost a lot of what i call "the prophetic vision
of the past." a lot of this has to do with
and other european theories of culture and society that have
nothing to do with america but that are taught all the time in
the university. instead we should be reading dubois again and
again, and langston too. the reason for the resistance, i think,
is because dubois and langston were socialists . . . people says
they love dubois and langston but often it's a selective love—to
really appreciate dubois and langston you have to appreciate
assume you're in touch with Arnold Rampersad. He's written
extensively about Langston. He used to teach here in Princeton
and I know him through our sons, who are the same age. They were
best friends till Arnold took a position at Stanford.
Jonathan, I look forward also to reading your book. In
your first paragraph, you define Hughes as a "marxist,"
and in the second paragraph you define him as a
"socialist." In what context are you using these
terms? Was Hughes's position before the McCarthy hearings
a true reflection of his political ideology? By the way, I very
much admire the poetry of Hughes.
Jonathan: herbert, hughes was
relentlessly attacked by the anticommunists, as you know. in the
end, this made sense because there was not a more popular
socialist in the world than hughes.
you'll have to read my book for the full argument. a few things
are certain: (1) langston came out of the militant antislavery
tradition (his lineage); (2) he was shaped as a teenager by the
bolshevik revolution; (3) his poetry of the 1920s and 30s was
openly marxist; and (4) after mccarthy went after him, he went
on to produce a great variety of literature, including works for
young people and journalism in which he continued to make the
argument for a socialist society.
if people define socialism according to stalinism and maoism,
then hughes was not a socialist. but of course stalin was not a
socialist. my definition of socialism is simple: it's a society
in which the majority is in political power, through
working-class social and political organizations that are run
democratically. i believe that we are all socialists, those of
us that work for a living.
I'm also interested in seeing more about Socialist Joy...
I look forward to seeing what the take is on Langston and the
upwardly mobile "race men" of the day and hope that
Jonathan took into further account that aside from the aura of
elitism that was used by the likes of Cullen & Co crowd to
measure Langston's poems, the fact that what Langston was doing
was "giving voice to the voice" of the culture, its
underpinnings and natural root.
That whole black/white dichotomous elitism
has been used too much even today as yardstick for dismissing
Rap & Hip Hop & spoken word poetry, and back then it
ended up besmirching the beauty of the voice that was rising on
its own... Certainly, many purists of the 40s didn't dig bebop
either (calling it cacophonous, like Ishmael Reid's mumbo
jumbo), thereby missing its intricate possibilities...
I'm sure, Rudy and Jonathan, that you are
both aware how folks like Du Bois, Woodson, Cullen, et al,
did have a way of snubbing and snobbing Arturo Schomburg, etc.,
primarily because they were college trained (Harvard educated)
and he was, like Doctors Ben & Clarke, mostly
self-educated (i.e., educated by the underclass and through engaging self-initiated
research sans a white collared professor).
Yet, as with John Henrik Clarke & Yosef
Ben Jochanan, both Du Bois and Woodson were quick to give
Schomburg a phone call in order to factually verify their
hypotheses. Schomburg, on the phone, would listen intently to
the position and the question, and then just as quickly
riff off the sources to consult (like a saxophonic riff, right
off the top).
Rudy: Louis, with all due respect, I
do not think that it was a class issue. Du Bois may have been
snooty. I don't know. Maybe on a personal level. But when it
comes to knowledge or how to organize knowledge or interpret
facts, Du Bois, I think, approached history in a manner
different from Schomburg, Clarke, or Ben Joachanin.
It was not the degree that he possessed that
made the difference but the historical method and approaches were
different. Moreover, I do not believe that Schomburg would have
made your argument. He did not ever see himself as a historian
of the caliber of either Du Bois or Woodson. Schomburg was a
collector of books, a bibliophile.
I'm in possession of historical documents
from research, but I do not consider myself a professional
historian. Though I might have specifics or a different or
better or a more flattering perspective, I probably will not be
able to do the kind of academic writing that is acceptable as
such. I'm willing to make inferences that they will not allow
themselves to make. Schomburg probably indeed possessed a
knowledge of certain books that Du Bois and Woodson were not
thoroughly familiar, as is true of any bibliophile or librarian.
Such was the case with Marcus Christian and
Sterling Brown. Christian struggled to write a
history of blacks in Louisiana. Why? he wanted to make a mark
but he just did not have the discipline. He did not have the formal
That is not a small matter. It can lead to
fundamental errors, for instance, in making wild inferences from
available facts. We cannot have such expressions as, "It stands to
reason." That won't cut it. One such case was exposed recently.
Schomburg had collected a book he believed was by a black
person, based on physical features. Well, a lot of that was
going on then. One looked like a Negro, thus one was a Negro.
White folks trying to conceal the truths of history. Aint that one of the
things we were saying back when?
Skip Gates accepted the Schomburg view
without question, long after
the death of Schomburg. He finds a book in Schomburg's
collection and Gates put forth an argument of black female
writing and included a book that he assumed was written by a
black woman, because she "looked" like a mulatto. A
graduate student explored that thesis and discovered that this
female author, may have had seemingly Negro features, but there
was no evidence to prove that she was a Negro or a mulatto. The
graduate student traced the female author's genealogy by a
couple of generations, including looking at birth certificates
Though we appreciate Schomburg, Clarke, Ben
Joachanin, we must not enshrine them because they did not go to
Harvard or University of Berlin, because they are closer to the
people. They did good work countering white racism in Negro
history, Egyptian history, and African history. But we must
acknowledge instances that Schomburg, Clarke, and Ben
Joachanin went too far in their historical conclusions. In
essence, they are not beyond criticism and they should be
criticized for their shortcomings and placed in a proper
perspective. Some mythologies are no no longer useful.
thank you for your comments. i was trained by baraka and he made
me aware all the time of the class struggle in african american
literature and culture. (amiri was my mentor at stony brook.)
you and i used to take the train back to manhattan some
times—you might remember me. we also just bumped into each
other the other day by ground zero, i was on my way to teach—i'm
a professor at bmcc.
tony medina is a close friend. . . . we know each other that way
too. anyway, i'll send you an advanced copy of socialist joy...
it should be ready by the spring. send me your address one of
my second chapter is all about langston's battles with the
"intelligentsia." i look forward to your comments.
Kam: Another brilliant, but forgotten,
black socialist from the 20s & 30s was Hubert Henry
Rudy: "Socialism as an ideology
(or any other ideology) does not appeal to me." (Miriam)
I am not sure exactly what Miriam means by
" socialism as an ideology." I suspect this view,
however, represents that of most Americans. Their attitudes
would not change even if we explained that much of the work that
the government does in the name of the people is socialism—social
security, unemployment insurance, housing assistance, free
education, etc. Some might even suggest that keeping a standing
army and military is a socialist program, though probably
national socialism. And even with we say most
European states are openly "socialist" that would not
make any difference. There is so much historical baggage to
Of course, the failures of the soviet states
(down through Stalin and Gorbachev) always come to mind. Then
there's China and Cuba and Cambodia, two decades ago. That is,
socialism is associated with totalitarianism. I'm afraid that
the word "socialism" like the word "nigger"
will always have a negative connotation. Socialism, in most
minds, means an anti-democratic state in which there is no
illusion whatsoever of government for, by, and of the people.
There's that governing council, that central committee, one
might have to face, and explain. That's threatening.
This is a great mountain to climb for social
progressives of whatever type. This situation has also made the
Democratic Party (mostly liberal in defense of our socialist
programs) vulnerable always to be pulled to the right, out of
fear of being labeled "liberal" or "left
wing" (which may be interpreted in some quarters as being
"socialist" or "pink." We find the same
phenomenon (fear of being labeled left) among black
politicians and black journalists and probably black educators.
Bluntly, to say you are for the poor almost makes one an enemy
of the state, of democracy, because the implication is that only
Catholic priests and socialists have rhetoric that
"romanticize the poor." And that they do that for
Most Americans believe that this rhetoric is
merely a cover for heinous acts to come and not a truly
critical view. That socialism is not about the finding solutions
for the elimination of poverty. These socialists are not about
resolving many of the social and political ills we all suffer
from but rather they are about enshrining a group as a
means of establishing a dictatorship of a clique. Americans
imagine such events as in Vietnam in which intellectuals were
sent to the countryside to work like peasants. Writers would not
be able to freely write, etc. Curtailment of religion. All
kinds of restraints on free expression. A reconditioning. A
Socialism thus imply not only may unsavory
things with regard to economics and politics, but even how one
must think, or a way of thinking, as in dialectical
materialism or historical evolution. So the notion of socialism
as a personal or state ideology becomes a real democratic
threat to personal freedom. You see how the mountain of
socialism, communism, words from the 19th century—must
be discarded as useless in trying to organize the majority of
Americans in creating the kind of country that would liberate
the poor. I suspect that social progressives, if they are to
make any significant headway must create a more nuanced
language. They must argue for something different from that of
Marx, of Lenin, Stalin, Mao; or even Nyerere or Nkrumah: or
even African or Arab Socialism. All of this is too haevy a
baggage to overcome quickly, now.
As a start, I'd be happy to expand the
present programs on the books already. I'd be satisfied with a
mixed economy that would require a greater taxing of the
wealthy, a curtailing of other corporate excesses, nationally
and internationally; the elimination of the kind of
discrimination that the right wing seem intent on establishing
In any event calling for socialism one has a
hole to get out of in order to move forward, even if you
attach the name of Du Bois or Hughes. You know how it rolls:
people usually take a piece and make that the whole.
Jonathan: i like your response to
miriam's rejection of socialism. you put it so well. in my book
on langston, i stress that for langston anti-black racism and
anticommunism are basically the same thing—at
least ideologically. in effects there are major differences, but
the rhetoric of whiteness and u.s. capitalism are identical.
Wilson: Rudy, your broad operational definition of
socialism, which you offered, was good, and fair. I wish
the public schools taught a definition of socialism as
sophisticated as the one you presented. In America the
public (socialistic) schools teach anti-socialistic dogma, which
I find ironic. We should remember that and ask what
ironies are concealed in that fact.
Rudy: I suspect that with many
socialism has been reduced to an anti-capitalist cliché. To
avoid the baggage of the word “socialism,” Martin Kilson has
suggested the term "communitarianism." But that
doesn't make any more sense than "socialism."
Going beyond a discussion of the excesses of capital and
capitalist governments the word “socialism” is an
Wilson: Detroit where I grew up is a
city in which black politics is very non-southern. Mayoral
politics in Detroit is officially non-partisan. Black
politics was structured around the labor unions, which where
Marxist influenced. Religion was a political force in
Detroit, but the labor movement was more powerful.
That is why when Detroit finally got a black mayor he came from
the left, not the Christian community - Coleman Young, a black
Communism is a sub-category of the more general concept of
socialism. The Communists were only one among several
socialist parties in Detroit during my childhood.
Some of these were to the left of the CP and some were to the
right. The Socialist Labor Party (De Leonist) was to the
right of the Communist Party. Socialist Workers Party (Trotskyist) was
to the left. There were also many Marxists among New
Deal Democrats, and a few communists in the UAW/CIO.
Many of the young black and Jewish
intellectuals, including myself were Marxist influenced and
sympathized with the Socialist Workers. Progressive
Labor Party was Maoist. But I was never a member of any of
these parties. Black nationalists and socialists
were often, but not always, mutually repugnant. The Dodge
Revolutionary Union Movement attempted to merge Marxism with
black nationalism. So too the Black Panthers.
Detroit had a strong black nationalist tradition, associated
with the Nation of Islam and the Shrine of the Black Madonna and
the Republic of New Africa.
Kilson's terminology is not historically important, because it
hasn't influenced anybody. When I discuss a term, I
do not attempt to create my own definition. I try to
understand how social communities are using the term and then
adapt my definition, so that I can communicate with members of
those communities. Therefore, I understand socialism in its
broadest sense to refer to economic systems in which monies are
diverted from the private to the public sector and utilized for
the maintenance of institutions that are structurally under
public control and designated for the public benefit.
By this broad and inclusive definition, I
would consider social security, medicare, the Chicago Police,
the United States Army and the Detroit public schools to be
expressions of socialistic economic practice. I
don't expect everyone to accept this definition, but I think
most people including the leadership of the Democratic and
Republican parties can at least understand it.
Rudy: I accept your definition. But I do not think that
the majority of Americans are aware of the socialist aspects of
our society and our economic adaptations since the late 30s.
People do not recall that the WPA was patently socialistic,
acknowledged only by its opponents. It worked for the Democrats
and made Roosevelt a god, and if he had had good health, he
could have become king or emperor, as long as he continued to
serve the practical interests of the masses.
This curbing of the excesses of capital, some
think, allowed for the continued life of and sustained
capitalist enterprises. What has happened today with the
excesses of capital and corporations far exceeds what occurred
pre-Roosevelt. With the anti-communist sentiments (in Florida
and other red states) generated by the subsequent anti-red
propaganda after Roosevelt’s death, Americans are quite
frightened by any talk or entertainment of either
word—"socialism" or "communism."
Young college students are always fascinated,
however, by the romance of Marx and other petty bourgeois
socialists, even fascists. But they soon empty themselves of
such thought when they have to make a living. Many of them often
As I have hinted I have never been able to
make very much sense of socialism or socialist parties. I am
sure that I hold "socialist" (or Marxist) sentiments
because it is just unavoidable. Marxism is so much a part of the
fabric of our intellectual history that it is difficult to have
escaped influence. But I suspect I have no idea what people are
talking about when they do speak of socialism in practical
terms, that is, what is it that they want that doesn't already
exist. For that reason I find the socialist ideologies of black
nationalists like Amiri Baraka and the Panthers so much nonsense
and a waste of political energy.
Taking people's property ain't gone go down
well with an America people (including blacks) who worship
property as if it were their very blood.
Ben: Why are you surprised at the place of
"property" in our social fabric when slavery was
considered within the scope of "property." Feudalism
is a system of property dispensation, and believe it or not we
are still in a feudalistic society including communist social
systems based on control of property which is to say control of
food, water, and shelter.
posted 16 November 2005
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