Tag Archives: racism

“The Dawn Watch – Joseph Conrad in a Global World” by Maya Jasanoff, published 2017

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This book surprised me. I expected it to be “heavy”. The scholarly notes run to 43 pages.

It was totally the opposite – brisk and entertaining. I had no problem at all reading 320 pages, even allowing for the fact that (woe is me) I haven’t actually read much of Conrad. When I dipped into Heart of Darkness and saw a movie version of Lord Jim years ago, I responded more to “atmosphere” than to plot. Jasansoff discusses only a few of Conrad’s many works, and she provides enough comprehensive information that my scanty exposure didn’t matter. I’m now planning to read Nostromo, Conrad’s only novel set in the western hemisphere.

To digest Conrad’s books and short stories, written roughly from 1886 to 1924, you have to ponder various “-isms”, like

  • racism,
  • imperialism,
  • colonialism and
  • militarism

Charges of racism have led some scholars to agitate against using Conrad in the classroom. I lean towards the argument that Conrad helps drag racism out into the open, for conversation and analysis, to everyone’s benefit. It’s good to know the history of the attitudes you want to change.

Conrad’s life was adventurous. Raised in landlocked, Russian-occupied Poland, he decided on a career in the merchant marine and left home at age 16 to pursue that goal. He sailed to Australia, many Asian ports and eventually to Africa, when Congo was first being explored and exploited by Europeans. Some critics consider Heart of Darkness, about Congo, to be his greatest work. He eventually settled in England and wrote in English.

Conrad was a “global thinker” well before that concept emerged. The college where I work has established “global awareness” as one of its four guiding principles. So… I will suggest The Dawn Watch as a common reading. One book is selected each year with the intention that

  • incoming students will read it before arriving on campus and
  • faculty will be encouraged (but not required) to incorporate it into a class in some fashion, especially in courses oriented towards Freshmen.

The author must be accessible for a guest lecture (in other words, not dead). Anyone can nominate a book. I’ve pitched several, with no luck so far. The Dawn Watch is probably too long and (cringe) “too academic”. But I would love to have Maya Jasanoff on campus for a visit!

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In Honor of MLK Day (2) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA

In my January 16 post, I mentioned the danger of employment in the factories that I inspected. What were the hazards?

  • Dust. Most of the dirt was non-toxic, but I gained an appreciation for the concept of “while collar” work. Once in a while, I came home grimy.
  • Gases, vapors. Once I had to wear a mask. I was exhausted after a few hours. Once I exited a plant that made sticky labels with a definite buzz. What if I had worked there daily?
  • Hot metals. Foundries made me nervous. No two ways about it. I got a few burns in my clothing from sparks.
  • Equipment, including forklifts. OSHA style safety lines were in place, but I learned to stay close to my escorts.
  • Falls, overhead cables, ladders, tripping hazards. I wore a hard hat and developed a keen eye.
  • Noise and heat.

I learned that almost everyone likes to talk about his/her work, and most were willing to answer my questions, even outside the narrow focus of air pollution. I heard discussions about accidents. There were one or two fatalities in York during my time there. The first response always seemed to be to suggest that the victim had been drinking alcohol.

Once I was at an asphalt factory when there was an explosion. I went out with the manager, and watched an injured employee carefully evacuated by ambulance. He was in pain, but his life was not in danger.

Oddly, I had no contact with any OSHA inspectors, and didn’t know how to report the workplace hazards I observed. My estimate was that York County needed maybe three times as many OSHA inspectors as air pollution inspectors. Maybe 10 OSHA inspectors would have been enough to do the job right. Where were they?

I was also unable to report employees who looked too young for employment. I think the legal working age was 16. And I didn’t know how to report water pollution. It’s ALWAYS about communication.

How many people remember than Martin Luther King was in Memphis because of an occupational safety “incident” which led to a strike by sanitation workers? On February 1, 1968 two Memphis city employees collecting garbage had been crushed to death by malfunctioning equipment on the truck they drove. Safety features had been bypassed, the trucks improperly maintained. The workers died horribly, crushed and mangled. Even on a good day, a garbage collector’s working conditions and pay were abysmal. Rioting and confrontation in Memphis were inevitable.

What about the York riots? Were they similarly inevitable?

I refer you to the newspaper York Daily Record (www.ydr.com) which, on April 19, 2016, ran an article titled “Silent no more: The murder of Lillie Belle Allen”. See link with my earlier blog post. Ms. Allen is the African-American woman who died in the York Race Riots of 1969. She was 27 years old, just a little older than I was when I moved to York.

The cast of characters in this tragedy is extensive, and if you really want to follow it, you may need to sketch out a time line.

  • Lillie Belle Allen was visiting her sister when she drove into York.
  • Tom Kelley was a prosecutor who worked for the York County District Attorney, 30+ years later. He brought eleven men to trial.
  • Donnie Altman was part of the crowd that fired at Ms. Allen’s car. No one knows whose bullet killed her. Altman took his own life in 2000, when the murder case was reopened.

Why did York erupt in riots in 1968 and 1969? One trigger was a decision (several years previous) to adopt a very aggressive (punitive? military?) policing style. Beginning in 1962, barking police dogs patrolled York’s African-American neighborhoods night after night after night. Black leaders appealed for relief. It was denied. An officer fired on (or above) a group of Black teens who threw rocks at a police car. The officer faced no disciplinary action for his irresponsibility.

One thing that strikes me about these riots is that they were a form of “proxy” war. Not everyone was involved. Mostly, young men carried out the fighting, teenaged Black male youth against the White male police department. I’ve read the theory that war, in general, is a way that old men with power get rid of the young men who (inevitably) challenge their leadership over time. The subtlety is that two groups of old men oversee the destruction of EACH OTHER’S young challengers.

I can’t recount the whole history here. The York Daily Record article by Kim Strong provides a good summary and profiles a number of individuals, but I suspect there’s more to know. Wikipedia has an entry under “1969 York race riot”.

After the shooting of 22 year old Officer Henry Schaad (he died 2 weeks later), white police officers incited vigilantism on the part of white youths, telling them to “protect their neighborhoods” and raising the specter of Black militants (the Black Panthers) trying to “take over” York. Over time, a mob of armed white youths coalesced around the home of a white gang leader.

Lillie Bell Allen and her family unwittingly drove into this “ambush”. Many shots were fired in a short time.

York, a shocked and devastated city, somehow retreated into uneasy peace. There were no riots the next summer. No one was charged in either of the two riot deaths. Some people saw the outcome as a draw, one Black person and one white person dead. I don’t know if a comprehensive list of seriously injured people exists. Property damage, almost exclusively in African American neighborhoods, was extensive.

This was the city I moved to four years later.

What did I observe? I lived and worked in the City of York proper, not in a suburb. I saw de facto segregation in housing. (It seems to have been a feature of every place I lived until I reached Pomona, NJ.) I took an exercise class at the York YWCA. There was one black woman in a class of 30 or so women. There was noticeable poverty and considerable deteriorated housing. My church was located on the border of a dense urban neighborhood. All the attenders were white. Street crime seemed minimal. I heard ONE racial slur, from a blue collar, factory worker neighbor, but I also picked up less explicit white hostility. If there were gangs, they kept a low profile.

So whatever the racial situation was in York, I pretty much missed it. Two years is a short time to live in a community. I moved in a small orbit. It never occurred to me to go looking around outside of it.

Many years later, in 1999, the murder of Lillie Bell Allen attracted the attention of a young York County prosecutor. With very little information, the case was reopened (there is no statute of limitation on murder) and the murder was investigated. Many of the people involved were still living in York and the vicinity. Eleven men were charged, some with murder, others with lesser crimes There was one suicide. At least two men were sentenced to prison for second degree murder.

Additionally, two men were convicted of second degree murder in the death of Henry Schaad.

What did I learn by looking back on this? Hard to say. That the appearance of a community can be deceiving. That it takes a long time to understand what we now label as “white supremacy” and racism. That I still have a lot to learn.

“Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson

This is another “I didn’t read the book” report, and, again, it’s based on the fact that I heard the author speak. The University where I am employed regularly celebrates Constitution Day. Now THERE’S a “holiday” I can get behind! A distinguished guest is invited to campus. (These are generally the caliber of speaker that requires payment.) The speaker visits classes, lunches with a select few and offers an address open to the entire community, campus and neighborhood.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Bryan Stevenson. His topic was “Racial Justice and the Constitution”. But he began by talking about himself, his education and how he became involved with advocating on behalf of death row inmates. He described being sent with a message to a condemned man, informing him that he was not going to be executed for at least six months. He kept apologizing – “I’m not a real lawyer, I’m just a student” to a man so desperate that this was GOOD news.

Stevenson’s other anecdotes were of human contact, with prisoners and others including prison guards.

Stevenson held the large audience spellbound. I can’t imagine a better speaker for students to hear. Mass incarceration is one of the crucial issues of our era.

When asked what an individual can do, Stevenson’s main point was that you can’t solve social problems from a distance. You need to get close – visit or correspond with a prisoner, support a prisoner’s family, etc.

“Son of the Rough South – an Uncivil Memoir” by Karl Fleming

This book was a Christmas gift from my son, who knows what I like. He knows about my desire to understand the history I have lived through, especially the Sixties and the Civil Rights movement, and he knows I like biography and autobiography. He found this paperback in a used bookstore. (Publication date 2005, 418 pages + index, published by Perseus Books Group.)

That said… I had some trouble getting myself to READ this book. I was under the weather after Christmas (the classic Christmas cold) and didn’t feel strong enough to confront in detail the ugly truth about the American battle for desegregation. So I read slowly, taking chapters out of order.

I’m PROFOUNDLY glad I persisted! Son of the Rough South is an amazing piece of first person writing. Karl Fleming worked for Newsweek magazine, hired by their Atlanta bureau in 1961. He was a aggressive reporter, a skilled interviewer and an expert at “setting the scene” in order to catch the reader’s interest.

I’ve long recognized that people like me should be grateful for the adrenaline freaks among us. Who else is going to drive ambulances and work in the ER? I didn’t realize that a journalist may be part of the adrenaline crowd. Fleming covered some of the most appallingly dangerous, violent events of the southern Civil Rights struggle. His sympathies were entirely with the Black communities, but he reported as evenhandedly as he knew how. (Most) southern white police officers and political leaders hated his guts.

When Fleming moved to Los Angeles in 1966, he thought he was leaving the civil rights battle behind. But he wandered into Watts, the Black section of the city that exploded in May of that year, encountered a hostile crowd and was beaten almost to death. His skull was fractured, brain injured, jaws broken, life altered.

In the aftermath, Fleming was surprised to realize he did not feel anger towards the young Black men who assaulted him. To Fleming, IT WAS NOT ABOUT RACE. It was about power. He was always going to side with the underdog.

The account of Fleming’s adventures in the desegregating South would be enough to make this a good book, but he framed it with accounts of his childhood and later adulthood.

Fleming’s childhood was shaped by the awful poverty of the Great Depression. His widowed, ailing mother placed him and his half-sister in the Methodist Orphanage at Raleigh, North Carolina when Fleming was eight. Fleming’s account dissects his experience there, both negative and positive. In some ways, it was a model institution, in other ways a traumatic Dickensian nightmare. Anyone interested in the evolution child welfare policies should read this.

Many public figures of the Civil Rights movement show up in this book. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael were of particular interest to me, and I was pleased that Fleming mentioned Fannie Lou Hamer and the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, NJ.

All of this leaves me with the question, how did we end up where we are NOW, in 2016? What’s better, what’s worse, and what has been totally unexpected?

One thing that has changed is language. I’ve followed Fleming in using the term “Black”. Perhaps I should have used African American. Fleming quotes his sources saying everything from “colored” and “Negro” to “coon” and worse.

Son of the Rough South is well written, fast paced and highly informative. I recommend it unreservedly.

“Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee

I won’t review this book. That has already been done by practically everyone. Amazon lists 8,318 customer reviews!

The publication history of Watchman is interesting. Harper Lee (now almost 90 years old) had said she never intended to publish another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. For the record, I agree that Mockingbird is one of the best American novels ever written.

Watchman is described as a first draft for To Kill a Mockingbird, and it does have a slightly choppy, anecdotal quality. But I was hooked from the first pages. The characters are so vivid and distinctive! Lee is a wonderful narrator. Some people advised Harper Lee not to publish Watchman because it would somehow detract from the stature of To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t feel that it did.

Watchman has become a favorite of book clubs and discussion groups, at this time when national dialog on race is very intense. What happens when 2015 consciousness is applied to a novel written in the 1950s? If you have participated, please share!

Check my blog entry dated March 12, 2015 for a reminiscence about my first look at To Kill a Mockingbird.

“Hellhound On His Trail: the electrifying account of the largest manhunt in American history” by Hampton Sides

I read this because there is presently a fugitive at large in Pennsylvania, in the Pocono Mountains where I spent a happy weekend last summer. On September 12, not a month after my idyllic vacation, two Pennsylvania state police officers were shot in the town of Blooming Grove. Bryon Dickson died. Police tentatively identified Eric Frein as the shooter, and they have been seeking him since then. As many as 1000 officers have participated in the chase, but Frein has not been caught. (Update – according to Wikipedia, Frein was captured on the night of October 30, 2014 at an abandoned airport.)

Are there similarities between this situation and the hunt for James Earl Ray, who murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968? Hampton Sides delved into the Ray manhunt for highly personal reasons – he grew up in Memphis, where King died when Sides was six years old. His respect for King and his sorrow over the assassination resonate throughout the book.

First, the differences. Ray shot King in a city, then followed a relatively sophisticated plan that got him to Canada in about a week. It would appear that Frein expected to “hole up” in the relative wilderness of Pennsylvania, and he seems to have the skills to do so. Ray had minimal education and a serious criminal record. Ray shot a man of international reputation who had repeatedly been offered police protection, but Frein’s targets were unknown police officers who weren’t expecting trouble.

Similarities? Each was supported or encouraged by a social movement. Racism and segregationism fueled Ray’s hatred of King. Frein is identified as a “survivalist” and a hater of police authority. Sides raises questions about presidential candidate George Wallace’s hateful, ranting rhetoric. Was Wallace responsible for inciting Ray to violence? I wonder if there is an individual behind Frein’s hostility to police. Or is it based on personal experience?

Further comparisons aren’t worthwhile, since so little is known about Frein.

Even after studying of mountains of documentation, Sides is at a loss to “explain” James Earl Ray. A prison doctor labeled him mentally ill. (The system offered no treatment. His reliance on amphetamines may have been “self medication”.) He was uneducated but canny, generally “streetwise” and able to make and follow a plan. He was a fugitive at the time he shot King, having escaped from a high security prison which had few jailbreaks. (He was not the object of an interstate pursuit.)

Ironically, at the time of this death, King was shifting his emphasis from racial issues to what we would now refer to as “economic justice”. His planned “Poor People’s March” on Washington was intended to include ALL the suffering poor. James Earl Ray was one of these – uneducated, unhealthy, and unlikely ever to scramble into the middle class.

The other irony is that the hunt for Ray was the responsibility of J Edgar Hoover, long term director of the FBI. He detested King and engaged in “dirty tricks” designed to sabotage him as a leader and in his personal life. But when King died on his watch, he poured on the full resources of the FBI, including many sophisticated technologies he had introduced into police work. He also received extensive support from police in Canada and Great Britain. Ray came very, very close to eluding the intense manhunt and escaping to Rhodesia or South Africa, where he hoped to join a mercenary army and be protected from extradition back to the US.

Sides writes very well and I recommend this book. The racial problems that erupted in the sixties have not (so many decades later) been resolved, and it is worthwhile to look back over the assassination that marked a major turning point in the Civil Rights movement.