A few years ago, I attended a matinee of the play Having Our Say, the true-life story of the Delany Sisters, the celebrated black siblings who lived to be over 100 years old each and whose lives read like a road map of African American civil rights activism. From a hard-working, politically and socially conscious family whose collective love of black folk and deep determination to improve the lives of all black Americans was part of how their clan defined themselves, the sisters were fiery and outspoken, completely and utterly captivating. The play, as I recall, was largely just them recounting their personal and political lives – organizing and participating in protest marches, earning medical degrees against the barriers of racism and misogyny, sharing their views on men and marriage, tendering recollections of friendships and collaborations with a who’s-who of black America. It was both humbling and inspiring to hear their assorted struggles and triumphs (it was hard not to feel straight bitch-made when juxtaposing their everyday struggles with shit from the here and now), and it threw into cold relief both how far we’ve come as a nation and how very, very far we still have to go. (During the “present” time in which the play is set, George Bush Sr. is president and Dan Quayle is his veep; the sisters verbally eviscerated them both.)
Sitting in the theater, in which the average age was about 700 and in which the average skin hue was Decidedly Pink (I was one of less than a half dozen colored faces in the sold-out crowd), I was struck by how the sisters youthful escapades and really radical politics were so enthusiastically applauded by the audience. And I couldn’t help but wonder: If it were the Delaney sisters in their youthful incarnations appearing onstage, would they be as rapturously received? Would their defiance of myriad so-called “norms,” their fierce race consciousness and biting critiques of the American caste system – would it all be met with whoops of approval and thunderous applause by the blue-hairs in the crowd?
Undiluted nigger vigor, the flossing of backbone and race consciousness, is easily (though not always) celebrated when it’s filtered through bodies rendered safe through old age and illness. It can safely be lionized when the body has been so damaged as to have been basically neutered. (See: Muhammad Ali, whose incendiary political stands once made him a controversial pop figure but who is now a cuddly icon whose “fighting spirit” -- the hows and whys of why he once resonated so deeply, especially with black folk -- has been carefully circumscribed in the telling.) When firmly located in the past, when reduced to metaphor (especially for other people’s struggles) and stripped of flesh and blood potency, the unyielding Negro spine is a much beloved thing.
I was reminded of my response to the play, Having Our Say, during a recent exchange of emails with LA-based writer and activist Ronnie Brown, whose hugely researched and informed, no-bullshit responses to contemporary issues affecting black folk have made him a welcome (in my eyes, anyway) presence on many a blog/website. After my May 6th blog on immigration effectively reconfigured a few relationships in my personal life, it was a balm to strike up a correspondence with Ronnie – and even more of a pleasure to watch him in action on other sites.
The heat around the immigration issue is going to be around a very, very long time. It’s a contrived controversy, of course, designed by Karl Rove and carried out by his media flunkies to distract us from a host of issues and realities (including the fact that colored folk, especially poor colored folk around the globe, are all getting hosed and then pitted against one another). But the contrivance also exposes very real fears and fissures that already exist and which will plague us for years. And I don’t just mean the much noted “black & brown” tensions. What strikes me especially powerfully following the conversations, emails and blog editorials (and the comments they generate) that I’ve been immersed in for the past several weeks, is just how deeply ingrained anti-black sentiment is in this culture, how reflexively even so-called progressives and “color-blind” folk of many races and backgrounds dismiss and chastise black folk, with a blatant lack of interest in the larger historical / cultural / political contexts and conditions at work. With that in mind, my favorite email from Ronnie is one of the very first that he sent me. Here’s an excerpt (with his permission):
- I was moved to comment about the “illegal immigration” issue [on writer Jeff Chang’s blog] because I felt that the focus on the bigger historical picture was being neglected. [America’s] economic history is quite clear: If we can't get it made for free (slavery) then we’ll get it done for as cheap as possible... with human labor being the necessary “collateral damage.” As I said on Jeff Chang's blog, this immigration issue is a global phenomenon. This is the worker exploitation that made the New Deal necessary decades ago. But what really burns my butt is how Latino leadership conveniently appropriates the moral high ground of the civil rights movement while winking at the fact that the white power structure used [Latino] labor to kick unionized black labor to the curb. Now, I will never blame a hungry man who’s tryin’ to feed his family... Latino immigrants are pawns in a bigger game. But I do blame Latino and black leadership (acting in the rawest forms of self- interest) who refuse to confront the institutional system of economic exploitation that puts dispossessed communities in the gladiator ring to rend each other to pieces for the crumbs that fall from the robber baron's table.
Black people are being made to feel like ungrateful sluggards because we see the obvious effects of being low-balled in the marketplace. We are being penalized for our history as fighters. We are labeled as "undesirable" employees, hard to work with, because we won't accept sub-par working conditions and being talked to any kind of way. It's like the rebellious slave having his foot cut off as an example to the rest. Latinos, in my estimation, have kissed the ring and “pledged allegiance” to the powers-that-be to be a docile, cooperative, non-threatening workforce in exchange for “amnesty”... a deal with the devil if you ask me.
–Ronnie Brown (Italics, mine – EH.)
Shortly after sending me this email, Brown and a self-professed politically and culturally informed poster on writer Oliver Wang’s site went back and forth for a minute over Brown’s assertion that undocumented Latino immigrants had been used in the early ‘80s to break the janitorial unions that were once overwhelmingly black (though whites were employed as well); after that workforce became pretty much all-Latino, the unions were brought back into existence. By that point, though, Negroes = Ass out. The other poster came kinda huffy until Brown provided this link and shut the convo down. A Latino reporter I know recently waved away this bit of history as old news that everybody knows, and deemed it irrelevant to current day attitudes and realities.
But here’s the thing: This is not old news that everybody knows. Not by far. And even people who should know this stuff don’t, or they just happen to leave it out of the conversation. And it’s an incredibly important bit of context. Without it, Negroes are (conveniently) cast as whiners without cause. The fears of being cast to the bottom of the economic heap are waved away as paranoia or unjustified hysteria instead of being located in not-too-distant precedent. Imagine if the current crews of Latino workers that clean up hotels, corporate offices and assorted other businesses were displaced by a cheaper and more amenable group that was brought in to bust their union. The loss of cumulative income would be a huge blow to Latino communities; the collective memories of those communities affected would not soon forget how they were played, even if their anger and frustration stopped short of reaching the proper target. Mofos would not be happy. And they’d be even more pissed if the material shift were shrugged off as insignificant not only by the true power brokers involved, but also by the newly hired workers and their advocates as well.
I don’t want to dwell too hard or long on this one episode and its fallout (though I still think many others don’t give it enough consideration, as both reality and metaphor), but I think this one example from the past illuminates how little regard there is for Negro reality and (on-going) struggle in the dynamics of this (and other) current struggle(s): It’s just niggers that were and are affected.
We are a country of amnesiacs. (Thank you, Mr. Vidal.) History can go back no further than two weeks, or we have no recall or use for it. And so dots are not connected. But Negroes are connecting dots between past and present, and in doing so they’re pointing out the ever precarious state of those black folk who are working shitty jobs and struggling to survive on them. Quiet as it’s kept, all they want to do is work and feed their families too.
The Washington Post just (July 1st) ran a piece detailing the turmoil within the security guard industry in Los Angeles. It’s an industry that is largely African American. It’s not unionized. According to the article, written by Sonya Geis:
“The average pay for security guards in Los Angeles is $8.50 per hour with no benefits or paid leave, according to the SEIU. Once benefits are factored in, that's $6 an hour less than the average unionized janitor. Turnover is high. Many guards receive little training and often work more than one job to make ends meet.”
There is a movement afoot to unionize the workers, but the guards have one great fear: That once they’re unionized, undocumented Latino workers will be brought in to replace them and break the union. History supports that fear. This leaves black workers stranded between the options of 1) staying in shitty jobs with no worker protections and with pathetic pay and 2) demanding better working conditions and risking being kicked to the curb. Click here to read the entire Post piece.
It’s a fear-driven conundrum that works to pit brown against black, all for the dubious status of most-favored in a fucked up and intrinsically racist system.
That said, Negroes have got to find a way to channel our inner Delany sisters, unafraid to be unpopular, demonized and misunderstood in the here & now by white, brown and anybody else, knowing that we have history and rightness on our side. (Hell, we’re going to be demonized and misrepresented anyway.) Negroes are repeatedly being cast foul, sans context and robbed of basic psychology, even as recent history has the very real possibility of repeating itself at our expense.
And this isn’t about dogging undocumented Latino workers. Like Ronnie said above, there is (or should be) no beef with any man or woman simply trying to honestly take care of self and family. And we desperately need to form coalitions across racial and ethnic divides. More importantly, we all need to come up with a template other than what a black colleague of mine terms “power-over” politics. That’s the age old, hand-me-down notion that in order to be powerful, in order to be visible, you must have power over someone else. That notion is going to be the hardest brick to dislodge from our collective mindset. And I have no idea how that dislodging might happen. You're talking about re-wiring worldviews, values and perspectives. But our Negro past is our example – that we can resist and protest and agitate for a progressive vision that is rooted in black love, black self respect and a vision expansive enough to embrace many others. But we also have to hold fast to the knowledge that no matter how many multi-racial, multi-cultural coalitions we join or create, we have to do for self.