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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



:NAACP defeats racial slur  

The Middle Class, the Poor, & Socialist Joy


Conversation with Miriam, Jerry, Kam, Wilson, Louis, Herbert, Ben


NAACP 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 people
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 everyone.

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....


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.

Miriam:  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 gender. 

The Middle Class & The Exceptional

Rudy: 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 created.

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 indictments.

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.

Maybe African 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 struggle.

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 for now.

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 enemies.

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 state.

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 are THEM. 

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 words.

Open Public Criticism, A Necessity

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.

Kam: Have either of you heard about this book by Prof Ron Kuykendall. He supplies the answer: a Talented Tenth led revolution.

Rudy: 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 & Hughes 

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 volumeprobably langston's best"100 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 langstonto 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 "theory"french 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 loveto really appreciate dubois and langston you have to appreciate their socialism.

Kam: Jonathan, I 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.

Herbert: 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.

Louis: 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 training. 

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 and all.

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.

Jonathan: louis, 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 these days.

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 Harrison.

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 socialismsocial 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 overcome.

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 spurious reasons.

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 brainwashing.

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 opposition rises?

These wordsmarxism, socialism, communism, words from the 19th centurymust 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 or re-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 thingat 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 intellectual nightmare.

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 Marxist. 

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 become landlords.

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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