After 40 Years, Kwanzaa Spreads Its Roots

December 26, 2008, 1:56 pm
Kwanzaa stampThis Kwanzaa stamp, first issued in 2004, was re-issued last month with the new 42-cent postage rate. (Photo: United States Postal Service)

Kwanzaa, the annual weeklong harvest-themed celebration of African-American heritage that starts today, was born in the political and social ferment of the mid-1960s and the rise in social consciousness that accompanied the political agitation of that era.

But with Barack Obama set to take the oath of office as the nation’s first black president, and with the economy in a tailspin that has put a damper on all manner of holiday celebrations, is Kwanzaa as relevant and meaningful as it once was?

Bill Perkins, a state senator who represents Central Harlem and parts of the Upper West Side, was among the first to embrace Kwanzaa as an annual tradition. He began observing the holiday as a college student at Brown University, where he graduated in 1972.

“Especially as an activist at that time, in college and afterwards, it was very important to remember those traditions and values that were important to community-building and to identifying ourselves with our culture and our past,” said Mr. Perkins, 59. He added: “It was considered a little radical at the time. Now, it’s not something that necessarily divides us. I don’t think people generally see it as a separatist action.”

Mr. Perkins, a Democrat, is sponsoring a Kwanzaa celebration at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, at 9 West 124th Street, between Fifth and Lenox Avenues.

“It’s not unusual for non-African-American people to be there,” he said. “Nobody feels threatened or left out. It’s a family-oriented, spiritually oriented holiday. It’s not a protest. It’s more of an affirmation. I don’t think it’s an act of militancy, as one might have assumed it was.”

Even so, Kwanzaa has often been the subject of debate within the black community.

Five years ago, in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times titled “A Case of the Kwanzaa Blues,” the author and lawyer Debra J. Dickerson raised a stir by questioning the purpose of Kwanzaa.

“With all due respect to those who celebrate it, Kwanzaa feels like a cop-out,” she wrote. “Just as drugs are for those who can’t handle reality, isn’t Kwanzaa for those who can’t handle knowing that our ancestors fueled themselves with Western ideals, Christianity uppermost among them?”

Citing the Afrocentric intentions of Kwanzaa’s founder, the black-studies professor and political activist Maulana (Ron) Karenga, Ms. Dickerson asserted that “Kwanzaa feels as if it is more about thumbing black noses at white America than at embracing the lost cause of resuming our Africanness.”

Given the enormous diversity of African cultures and traditions, celebrating a monolithic African heritage makes little sense, she wrote, adding that “insofar as Kwanzaa negates the quintessential Americanness of the slave-descended, it is an affront to the heroism and enunciated goals of our oppressed ancestors. They demanded to be considered, and treated, as Americans, not as Africans.”

Ms. Dickerson’s essay prompted a spirited response. In a letter to The Times, Regina Austin retorted that there was “nothing anti-American about Kwanzaa” and added: “African-Americans, whether born here in America, in Africa or elsewhere, have the right to claim Africa as our ancestral home.”

While the debate continues, what is clear is that Kwanzaa has entered the mainstream.

Many African-Americans celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas.

The Postal Service introduced its first Kwanzaa stamp in 1997, and issued a new design in 2004. (The stamp was reissued last month with the new 42-cent postal rate.)

By the early 1990s, retailers had begun Kwanzaa-focused marketing efforts, prompting worries that over-commercialization might spoil Kwanzaa.

As a child growing up in Queens, I remember attending Kwanzaa celebrations at the American Museum of Natural History with relatives and friends who, like me, were Chinese-American. The holiday seemed fun and inclusive (and, I admit, a bit exotic), and I eagerly committed to memory the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, of Kwanzaa: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith).

The museum’s Kwanzaa Fest, as the celebration is now called, will be held from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday on the first floor of the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life (famous for the giant whale). And from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, children will be able to make and share Kwanzaa unity cups at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, 212 West 83rd Street.

Akilah Bolden-Monifa, a television director, said she and her family celebrate Kwanzaa as an African-themed event that can be appreciated by an ethnically diverse community.

“I’ve been to many Kwanzaa celebrations where the majority of people were not of African descent, and that certainly has been a good thing,” said Ms. Bolden-Monifa, 51, who is director of communications at KPIX, a CBS station in San Francisco.

Last year, she recalled, she organized a Kwanzaa celebration. “I did have a couple of white people call me up and ask, ‘Am I welcome to come?’” she remembered. Some had African-American spouses or children, and they were encouraged to attend.

“I’ve been celebrating Kwanzaa for many, many years,” said Ms. Bolden-Monifa, who lives in Oakland, Calif., and has written essays about the holiday. “It’s nice to have that connection. You acknowledge that you are an American of African descent, with some connection to the motherland, even if you don’t know where that is.”

Her wife, Ruthie Bolden-Monifa, 47, is both African-American and Jewish. The couple, along with their daughter, Ashley, 7, and son Benjamin, 5, celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa.

“In many ways, we’re more into Hanukkah and Kwanzaa for the cultural richness than Christmas, which, despite its Christian roots, has become about getting presents,” Ms. Bolden-Monifa said.

Mr. Perkins, the state senator, said that if he had any concerns about Kwanzaa, it was that the holiday would be taken over by retailers.

“We always have to watch out for the commercialization of our faith, our holidays, our worship and our reflection,” he said. “There’s no question that in a society like this, a market can be created that diminishes the value of the holiday. Once it becomes acceptable, then it becomes commercial.”

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The Grinning Skull: The Homicides You Didn't Hear About in Hurricane Katrina

Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch.com: "What do you do when you notice that there seems to have been a killing spree? While the national and international media were working themselves and much of the public into a frenzy about imaginary hordes of murderers, rapists, snipers, marauders, and general rampagers among the stranded crowds of mostly poor, mostly black people in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, a group of white men went on a shooting spree across the river. Their criminal acts were no secret but they never became part of the official story."

A.C. Thompson, a reporter for The Nation and ProPublica, interviews the gunmen responsible for a slew of post-Katrina vigilante shootings.

Man Is a Cruel Animal
Chris Hedges, Truthdig: "It was Joseph Conrad I thought of when I read an article in The Nation magazine this month about white vigilante groups that rose up out of the chaos of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to terrorize and murder blacks. It was Conrad I thought of when I saw the ominous statements by authorities, such as International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, warning of potential civil unrest in the United States as we funnel staggering sums of public funds upward to our bankrupt elites and leave our poor and working class destitute, hungry, without health care and locked out of their foreclosed homes. We fool ourselves into believing we are immune to the savagery and chaos of failed states. Take away the rigid social structure, let society continue to break down, and we become, like anyone else, brutes."

The Disciples of Hatred, in Their Own Words and Images

Mississippi Klansmen arrested by federal authorities
in 1871 for the attempted murder of an entire family.

By BRENT STAPLES Editorial Observer, NY Times

A lynching exhibition puts the civil rights movement in the context of the reign of terror that gripped black Southerners.
Nazi hunters have made an art of exposing war criminals through photographs taken in the death camp era. This strategy would have worked well against Southern lynch-mob killers who posed for the camera while murdering African-Americans in a campaign of terror that persisted into the mid-20th century.

Black American lives were viewed as expendable in the pre-civil rights South. The murderers who hanged, dismembered or burned black victims alive — before crowds of cheering onlookers — knew well that the law would not act against them. These savage rituals were meant to keep the black community on its knees.

The white men and women who flocked to these carnivals of death sometimes brought along young children, who were photographed no more than an arm’s length away from a mutilated corpse. These photos were often turned into grisly postcards that continued to circulate even after Congress made it illegal to mail them.

A particularly vivid lynching postcard depicts the charred and partially dismembered corpse of Jesse Washington, who was burned before a crowd of thousands in Waco, Tex., in 1916.

The card, which appears to have been written by a white spectator to his parents, is signed “your son Joe.” He refers to the horrific murder — in which the victim’s ears, fingers and sexual organs were severed — as the “barbecue we had last night.” He identifies himself in the crowd by placing a mark in ink about his head.

By permitting images like this one to move through the mail at all, the government tacitly endorsed lynching, along with the presumption that African-Americans were less than human. The mailings also aided a propaganda campaign that was intended to terrorize the black population in the nation as a whole, not just in the South.

Joe from Waco is no doubt long dead. But many of the people who attended lynchings as children in the 1930’s and 40’s must be still alive and walking the streets of the principal states of the lynching belt. They include Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, all of which voted against the first black president.

The nearness of the past was fully evident not long ago in Atlanta, when the collectors James Allen and John Littlefield were trying to mount an exhibition of lynching images that had drawn a huge audience and international attention when shown at the New-York Historical Society’s “Without Sanctuary” exhibition of 2000.

Influential Atlantans equivocated. As a person familiar with the issue told me recently: “There were concerns that people in crowds were still alive. And of course, family members and relatives of those people might come in and have to say, ‘That’s my dad’ or ‘That’s my mom.’ ”

“Without Sanctuary” was shown in Atlanta in 2002 at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and drew more than 175,000 people, three times as many as viewed it in New York. But the tension surrounding the exhibition made it seem unlikely that the images and the accompanying documents would find a permanent home in Georgia or any other lynching belt state.

So it came as a surprise earlier this year when the collection was acquired by Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, an ambitious cultural and historical institution that has yet to break ground for its building and plans to open in 2011. The center aspires to emulate the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in method, linking the civil rights movement to national and international issues of the day.

The notion of housing the lynching material in the same institution as, say, Martin Luther King’s sermons and speeches strikes some as jarring. But this is just as it should be. The civil rights movement can only be properly understood in the context of the reign of terror that gripped black Southerners.

The victims of those public hangings and burnings were sometimes accused of crimes. But they were often guilty of nothing more than seeking the right to vote, speaking truth to white power. Black business owners who challenged white supremacy in the marketplace were favorite targets.

The victims were sometimes killed after they had been marched through the black section of town — with a stop at the school for the colored — and fully exploited as a testament to black powerlessness. Lynching, in other words, was a method of social control.

When visitors to the Center for Civil and Human Rights confront these realities, they will know what the civil rights pioneers faced — and what they feared — when they took those first, perilous steps along the path to freedom.

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American Lynching photos


A World Enslaved

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Marchers protest kidnappings in Port-au-Prince. (Photo: Ariana Cubillos / AP)

March/April 2008

There are now more slaves on the planet than at any time in human history. True abolition will elude us until we admit the massive scope of the problem, attack it in all its forms, and empower slaves to help free themselves.

Standing in New York City, you are five hours away from being able to negotiate the sale, in broad daylight, of a healthy boy or girl. He or she can be used for anything, though sex and domestic labor are most common. Before you go, let's be clear on what you are buying. A slave is a human being forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. Agreed? Good.

Most people imagine that slavery died in the 19th century. Since 1817, more than a dozen international conventions have been signed banning the slave trade. Yet, today there are more slaves than at any time in human history.

And if you're going to buy one in five hours, you'd better get a move on. First, hail a taxi to JFK International Airport, and hop on a direct flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The flight takes three hours. After landing at Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport, you will need 50 cents for the most common form of transport in Port-au-Prince, the tap-tap, a flatbed pickup retrofitted with benches and a canopy. Three quarters of the way up Route de Delmas, the capital's main street, tap the roof and hop out. There, on a side street, you will find a group of men standing in front of Le Réseau (The Network) barbershop. As you approach, a man steps forward: "Are you looking to get a person?"

Meet Benavil Lebhom. He smiles easily. He has a trim mustache and wears a multicolored, striped golf shirt, a gold chain, and Doc Martens knockoffs. Benavil is a courtier, or broker. He holds an official real estate license and calls himself an employment agent. Two thirds of the employees he places are child slaves. The total number of Haitian children in bondage in their own country stands at 300,000. They are the restavèks, the "stay-withs," as they are euphemistically known in Creole. Forced, unpaid, they work in captivity from before dawn until night. Benavil and thousands of other formal and informal traffickers lure these children from desperately impoverished rural parents, with promises of free schooling and a better life.

The negotiation to buy a child slave might sound a bit like this:

"How quickly do you think it would be possible to bring a child in? Somebody who could clean and cook?" you ask. "I don't have a very big place; I have a small apartment. But I'm wondering how much that would cost? And how quickly?"

"Three days," Benavil responds.

"And you could bring the child here?" you inquire. "Or are there children here already?"

"I don't have any here in Port-au-Prince right now," says Benavil, his eyes widening at the thought of a foreign client. "I would go out to the countryside."

You ask about additional expenses. "Would I have to pay for transportation?"

"Bon," says Benavil. "A hundred U.S."

Smelling a rip-off, you press him, "And that's just for transportation?"

"Transportation would be about 100 Haitian," says Benavil, or around $13, "because you'd have to get out there. Plus [hotel and] food on the trip. Five hundred gourdes."

"Okay, 500 Haitian," you say.

Now you ask the big question: "And what would your fee be?" This is the moment of truth, and Benavil's eyes narrow as he determines how much he can take you for.

"A hundred. American."

"That seems like a lot," you say, with a smile so as not to kill the deal. "How much would you charge a Haitian?"

Benavil's voice rises with feigned indignation. "A hundred dollars. This is a major effort."

You hold firm. "Could you bring down your fee to 50 U.S.?"

Benavil pauses. But only for effect. He knows he's still got you for much more than a Haitian would pay. "Oui," he says with a smile.

But the deal isn't done. Benavil leans in close. "This is a rather delicate question. Is this someone you want as just a worker? Or also someone who will be a 'partner'? You understand what I mean?"

You don't blink at being asked if you want the child for sex. "I mean, is it possible to have someone that could be both?"

"Oui!" Benavil responds enthusiastically.

If you're interested in taking your purchase back to the United States, Benavil tells you that he can "arrange" the proper papers to make it look as though you've adopted the child.

He offers you a 13-year-old girl.

"That's a little bit old," you say.

"I know of another girl who's 12. Then ones that are 10, 11," he responds.

The negotiation is finished, and you tell Benavil not to make any moves without further word from you. Here, 600 miles from the United States, and five hours from Manhattan, you have successfully arranged to buy a human being for 50 bucks.

The Cruel Truth

It would be nice if that conversation, like the description of the journey, were fictional. It is not. I recorded it on Oct. 6, 2005, as part of four years of research into slavery on five continents. In the popular consciousness, "slavery" has come to be little more than just a metaphor for undue hardship. Investment bankers routinely refer to themselves as "high-paid wage slaves." Human rights activists may call $1-an-hour sweatshop laborers slaves, regardless of the fact that they are paid and can often walk away from the job. But the reality of slavery is far different. Slavery exists today on an unprecedented scale. In Africa, tens of thousands are chattel slaves, seized in war or tucked away for generations. Across Europe, Asia, and the Americas, traffickers have forced as many as 2 million into prostitution or labor. In South Asia, which has the highest concentration of slaves on the planet, nearly 10 million languish in bondage, unable to leave their captors until they pay off "debts," legal fictions that in many cases are generations old.

Few in the developed world have a grasp of the enormity of modern-day slavery. Fewer still are doing anything to combat it. Beginning in 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush was urged by several of his key advisors to vigorously enforce the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, a U.S. law enacted a month earlier that sought to prosecute domestic human traffickers and cajole foreign governments into doing the same. The Bush administration trumpeted the effort - at home via the Christian evangelical media and more broadly via speeches and pronouncements, including in addresses to the U.N. General Assembly in 2003 and 2004. But even the quiet and diligent work of some within the U.S. State Department, which credibly claims to have secured more than 100 antitrafficking laws and more than 10,000 trafficking convictions worldwide, has resulted in no measurable decline in the number of slaves worldwide. Between 2000 and 2006, the U.S. Justice Department increased human trafficking prosecutions from 3 to 32, and convictions from 10 to 98. By 2006, 27 states had passed antitrafficking laws. Yet, during the same period, the United States liberated less than 2 percent of its own modern-day slaves. As many as 17,500 new slaves continue to enter bondage in the United States every year.

The West's efforts have been, from the outset, hamstrung by a warped understanding of slavery. In the United States, a hard-driving coalition of feminist and evangelical activists has forced the Bush administration to focus almost exclusively on the sex trade. The official State Department line is that voluntary prostitution does not exist, and that commercial sex is the main driver of slavery today. In Europe, though Germany and the Netherlands have decriminalized most prostitution, other nations such as Bulgaria have moved in the opposite direction, bowing to U.S. pressure and cracking down on the flesh trade. But, across the Americas, Europe, and Asia, unregulated escort services are exploding with the help of the Internet. Even when enlightened governments have offered clearheaded solutions to deal with this problem, such as granting victims temporary residence, they have had little impact.

Many feel that sex slavery is particularly revolting - and it is. I saw it firsthand. In a Bucharest brothel, for instance, I was offered a mentally handicapped, suicidal girl in exchange for a used car. But for every one woman or child enslaved in commercial sex, there are at least 15 men, women, and children enslaved in other fields, such as domestic work or agricultural labor. Recent studies have shown that locking up pimps and traffickers has had a negligible effect on the aggregate rates of bondage. And though eradicating prostitution may be a just cause, Western policies based on the idea that all prostitutes are slaves and all slaves are prostitutes belittles the suffering of all victims. It's an approach that threatens to put most governments on the wrong side of history.

Indebted for Life

Save for the fact that he is male, Gonoo Lal Kol typifies the average slave of our modern age. (At his request, I have changed his first name.) Like a vast majority of the world's slaves, Gonoo is in debt bondage in South Asia. In his case, in an Indian quarry. Like most slaves, Gonoo is illiterate and unaware of the Indian laws that ban his bondage and provide for sanctions against his master. His story, told to me in more than a dozen conversations inside his 4-foot-high stone and grass hutch, represents the other side of the "Indian Miracle."

Gonoo lives in Lohagara Dhal, a forgotten corner of Uttar Pradesh, a north Indian state that contains 8 percent of the world's poor. I met him one evening in December 2005 as he walked with two dozen other laborers in tattered and filthy clothes. Behind them was the quarry. In that pit, Gonoo, a member of the historically outcast Kol tribe, worked with his family 14 hours a day. His tools were simple, a rough-hewn hammer and an iron pike. His hands were covered in calluses, his fingertips worn away.

Gonoo's master is a tall, stout, surly contractor named Ramesh Garg. Garg is one of the wealthiest men in Shankargarh, the nearest sizable town, founded under the British Raj but now run by nearly 600 quarry contractors. He makes his money by enslaving entire families forced to work for no pay beyond alcohol, grain, and bare subsistence expenses. Their only use for Garg is to turn rock into silica sand, for colored glass, or gravel, for roads or ballast. Slavery scholar Kevin Bales estimates that a slave in the 19th-century American South had to work 20 years to recoup his or her purchase price. Gonoo and the other slaves earn a profit for Garg in two years.

Every single man, woman, and child in Lohagara Dhal is a slave. But, in theory at least, Garg neither bought nor owns them. They are working off debts, which, for many, started at less than $10. But interest accrues at over 100 percent annually here. Most of the debts span at least two generations, though they have no legal standing under modern Indian law. They are a fiction that Garg constructs through fraud and maintains through violence. The seed of Gonoo's slavery, for instance, was a loan of 62 cents. In 1958, his grandfather borrowed that amount from the owner of a farm where he worked. Three generations and three slavemasters later, Gonoo's family remains in bondage.

Bringing Freedom to Millions

Recently, many bold, underfunded groups have taken up the challenge of tearing out the roots of slavery. Some gained fame through dramatic slave rescues. Most learned that freeing slaves is impossible unless the slaves themselves choose to be free. Among the Kol of Uttar Pradesh, for instance, an organization called Pragati Gramodyog Sansthan (Progressive Institute for Village Enterprises, or PGS) has helped hundreds of families break the grip of the quarry contractors. Working methodically since 1985, PGS organizers slowly built up confidence among slaves. With PGS's help, the Kol formed microcredit unions and won leases to quarries so that they could keep the proceeds of their labor. Some bought property for the first time in their lives, a cow or a goat, and their incomes, which had been nil, multiplied quickly. PGS set up primary schools and dug wells. Villages that for generations had known nothing but slavery began to become free. PGS's success demonstrates that emancipation is merely the first step in abolition. Within the developed world, some national law enforcement agencies such as those in the Czech Republic and Sweden have finally begun to pursue the most culpable of human trafficking - slave-trading pimps and unscrupulous labor contractors. But more must be done to educate local police, even in the richest of nations. Too often, these street-level law enforcement personnel do not understand that it's just as likely for a prostitute to be a trafficking victim as it is for a nanny working without proper papers to be a slave. And, after they have been discovered by law enforcement, few rich nations provide slaves with the kind of rehabilitation, retraining, and protection needed to prevent their re-trafficking. The asylum now granted to former slaves in the United States and the Netherlands is a start. But more must be done.

The United Nations, whose founding principles call for it to fight bondage in all its forms, has done almost nothing to combat modern slavery. In January, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, called for the international body to provide better quantification of human trafficking. Such number crunching would be valuable in combating that one particular manifestation of slavery. But there is little to suggest the United Nations, which consistently fails to hold its own member states accountable for widespread slavery, will be an effective tool in defeating the broader phenomenon.

Any lasting solutions to human trafficking must involve prevention programs in at-risk source countries. Absent an effective international body like the United Nations, such an effort will require pressure from the United States. So far, the United States has been willing to criticize some nations' records, but it has resisted doing so where it matters most, particularly in India. India abolished debt bondage in 1976, but with poor enforcement of the law locally, millions remain in bondage. In 2006 and 2007, the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons pressed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to repudiate India's intransigence personally. And, in each instance, she did not.

The psychological, social, and economic bonds of slavery run deep, and for governments to be truly effective in eradicating slavery, they must partner with groups that can offer slaves a way to pull themselves up from bondage. One way to do that is to replicate the work of grassroots organizations such as Varanasi, India-based MSEMVS (Society for Human Development and Women's Empowerment). In 1996, the Indian group launched free transitional schools, where children who had been enslaved learned skills and acquired enough literacy to move on to formal schooling. The group also targeted mothers, providing them with training and start-up materials for microenterprises. In Thailand, a nation infamous for sex slavery, a similar group, the Labour Rights Promotion Network, works to keep desperately poor Burmese immigrants from the clutches of traffickers by, among other things, setting up schools and health programs. Even in the remote highlands of southern Haiti, activists with Limyè Lavi ("Light of Life") reach otherwise wholly isolated rural communities to warn them of the dangers of traffickers such as Benavil Lebhom and to help them organize informal schools to keep children near home. In recent years, the United States has shown an increasing willingness to help fund these kinds of organizations, one encouraging sign that the message may be getting through.

For four years, I saw dozens of people enslaved, several of whom traffickers like Benavil actually offered to sell to me. I did not pay for a human life anywhere. And, with one exception, I always withheld action to save any one person, in the hope that my research would later help to save many more. At times, that still feels like an excuse for cowardice. But the hard work of real emancipation can't be the burden of a select few. For thousands of slaves, grassroots groups like PGS and MSEMVS can help bring freedom. But, until governments define slavery in appropriately concise terms, prosecute the crime aggressively in all its forms, and encourage groups that empower slaves to free themselves, millions more will remain in bondage. And our collective promise of abolition will continue to mean nothing at all.


E. Benjamin Skinner is the author of A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery (New York: Free Press, 2008).


Color of Change: Open season on African Americans after Katrina

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A new report in The Nation1 documents what many have claimed for years -- for some Black New Orleanians the threat of being killed by White vigilantes in Katrina's aftermath became a bigger threat than the storm itself.

After the storm, White vigilantes roamed Algiers Point shooting and, according to their own accounts, killing Black men at will-- with no threat of a police response. For the last three years, the shootings and the police force's role in them have been an open secret to many New Orleanians. To date, no one has been charged with a crime and law enforcement officials have refused to investigate.

The facts are finally seeing the light of day. Now we must demand action. Given Louisiana's horrible record when it comes to criminal justice and Black folks, it's the only path to justice.

You can help. Join us in calling on Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Louisiana's Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, and the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a full investigation of these crimes and any police cover-up. It takes only a moment to add your voice and to invite your friends and family to do the same:


In the two weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the media created a climate of fear with trumped-up stories of Black lawlessness. Meanwhile, an armed group of White vigilantes took over the Algiers Point neighborhood in New Orleans and mercilessly hunted down Black people. "It was great!" said one vigilante. "It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it."

The Nation's article tells the story of Donnell Herrington, Marcel Alexander, and Chris Collins -- a group of friends who were attacked by shotgun-wielding White men as they entered Algiers Point on September 1, 2005. As they tried to escape, Herrington recalls, their attackers shouted, "Get him! Get that nigger!" He managed to get away. Alexander and Collins were told that they would be allowed to live on the condition that they told other Black folks not to come to Algiers Point. Herrington, shot in the neck, barely survived.

And there's the story of Henry Glover, who didn't survive after being shot by an unknown assailant. 2 Glover's brother flagged down a stranger for help, and the two men brought Glover to a police station. But instead of receiving aid, they were beaten by officers while Henry Glover bled to death in the back seat of the stranger's car. A police officer drove off in the car soon afterward. Both Glover's body and the car were found burnt to cinders a week later. It took DNA analysis to identify the body.

Then there's the story of White militiamen who tried to drive their Black neighbors from their homes. Reggie Bell, who lived just two blocks down the street from the vigilantes' ringleader, was told at gunpoint, "We don't want you around here. You loot, we shoot." Later, another group of armed White men confronted him at his home, asking, "Whatcha still doing around here? We don't want you around here. You gotta go."

These are only a few of the stories of Black folks who were accosted in Algiers Point, and you can read more in The Nation. But unless you speak out, we may never learn the full extent of the violence. Journalists have encountered a wall of silence on the part of the authorities. The coroner had to be sued to turn over autopsy records. When he finally complied, the records were incomplete, with files on several suspicious deaths suddenly empty. The New Orleans police and the District Attorney repeatedly refused to talk to journalists about Algiers Point. And according to journalist A.C. Thompson, "the city has in nearly every case refused to investigate or prosecute people for assaults and murders committed in the wake of the storm."

The Nation's article is important, but it's just a start. For more than three years now, these racist criminals have by their own admission gotten away with murder, while officials in New Orleans have systematically evaded any kind of accountability. We have to demand it.

Please join us in calling on state and federal officials to investigate these brutal attacks and the conduct of Orleans Parish law enforcement agencies, and please ask your friends and family to do the same.


Thanks and Peace,

-- James, Gabriel, Clarissa, William, Dani, and the rest of the ColorOfChange.org team
December 19th, 2008


1. "Katrina's Hidden Race War," The Nation, 12-18-2008

2. "Body of Evidence," The Nation, 12-18-2008


Martha Putney, Historian of Blacks, Is Dead at 92

By William Grimes

Martha S. Putney, who became one of the first black women to serve in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and who went on to write pioneering works of history on black Americans in the military, died Dec. 11 in Washington. She was 92 and lived in Washington.

The death was confirmed by her son, William M. Putney Jr.

Mrs. Putney, whose life was featured prominently in “The Greatest Generation,” Tom Brokaw’s popular history of the war and the unsung Americans who took part in it, entered the armed services in 1943 to better her prospects in life. She left the service determined to tell the story someday of how black Americans had contributed to the war. This she did in “When the Nation Was in Need: Blacks in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II” (1992) and “Blacks in the United States Army: Portraits Through History” (2003), which she edited.

Martha Settle was born in Norristown, Pa., where her father supported his eight children as a laborer. After winning a scholarship to Howard University in Washington, she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1939 and a master’s degree in history in 1940.

Failing to find a job as a teacher in Washington’s public school system, she toiled, unhappily, as a statistical clerk with the government’s War Manpower Commission. The future looked bleak.

“My hometown offered nothing; only nonblacks were allowed to teach or work in the public schools,” Mrs. Putney told the reference work Contemporary Authors in the 1990s. “The corps, which was then less than a year old, promised an opportunity to become a commissioned officer. Though I had a master’s degree in history, I refused to go any further south for a job, so the promise of a commission was the best option available.”

The Army assigned her to its basic training center in Des Moines, where she drilled female recruits. She later commanded a unit of black medical technicians at Gardiner General Hospital in Chicago. As told in Mr. Brokaw’s book, she encountered racial barriers along the way and, with low-key persistence, pushed back against them. When the arrival of a white military band forced out the base’s black band, for example, her agitation to have it reinstated reverberated upward to the White House, where Eleanor Roosevelt intervened.

After leaving the WAC in 1946 with the rank of first lieutenant, she returned to her old government job. In 1948, she married William M. Putney, who died in 1965. She is survived by their son, of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Attending the University of Pennsylvania on the G.I. Bill, Mrs. Putney earned a doctorate in European history in 1955 and went on to a long teaching career at Bowie State College (now Bowie State University) in Maryland, where she was chairwoman of the history and geography department until 1974, and at Howard University in Washington, where she taught for nine years before retiring.

Her first book, “Black Sailors,” a study of black merchant seamen and whalers before the Civil War, was published in 1987. At her death, she was working on a history of black Americans in combat from the Revolutionary War to the Persian Gulf war.

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Interview with Robin D. G. Kelley

edited transcript

When this interview was conducted, Robin D.G. Kelley was chair of the history department at New York University. He is also author of Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class.

What's the big deal about classifying people into different racial categories?

Race was never just a matter of categories. It was a matter of creating hierarchies. Race was about a racist system of supremacy in which one group dominated the other. And I think that when we look at the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries the key moment where race becomes congealed as a system is where we can see the creation of a color line.

Race, or the creation of racism, was really about the invention of a dominant group. In this case the dominant group were the slave owners - the dominant group were those who conquered the world - the Spanish, Portuguese and English. And here you get the emergence of this idea of a white race, you know a kind of pan-European white race. On the other side of that color line are all these different groups: indigenous peoples, Native Americans, Africans, Asians, who then get marked as something different and combined.

So in India for example, in the 19th century, or 18th century, the Indians would be considered black in some ways by the British. They are not exactly the same as the Africans, they wouldn't be conceived the same way, but they ultimately would be placed on the other side of the color line. And so that is where the binary begins.

Native Americans in North America for example, were the enemy. They were the Other - the ones who had to be conquered in order for Manifest Destiny to expand across North America. And they end up being lumped together with Africans, with Asians. So I guess what I am saying is that even within the categories of non-whiteness, you may have all these multiplicities, all these specific groups. But they still get lumped together as one, that is "nonwhite."

What was unique about the situation in North America that led to race as we know it today?

Well it is an interesting question because you can go back to Ancient Greece and you can see the development of categories and hierarchies where the ancient Greeks may think of the Persians as barbarians.

But something changed in the 17th and 18th centuries. And in some ways the creation of these new racial hierarchies were tied directly to the emergence of a New World economy. It's tied directly to the creation of a world system of slavery, the enslavement of Indian populations in Mexico, and the enslavement of Africans in Brazil and North America. You have a moment historically when Europe is expanding across the rest of the world.

Yet that expansion of Europe is also tied to a moment when all of Europe is inspired by democratic revolution, inspired by the Enlightenment. The potential for a world where, at last theoretically, everyone is equal and free - where liberty is the catch word of the day.

The problem that they had to figure out is, how can we promote liberty, freedom, democracy on the one hand, and a system of slavery and exploitation of people who are non-white on the other? How can we do this?

Remember, initially in the early stages of colonial America a lot of those poor whites and indentured servants who worked alongside Africans on early plantations and farms in North America, they rebelled together. Sometimes they took to arms such as in Bacon's Rebellion, sometimes they formed Maroon societies in which Native Americans and Africans and renegade whites ran away together and formed colonies to defend themselves against slave masters.

But ultimately the way for the planter elite to undermine that potential unity among the renegade whites and the Africans and Native Americans was to begin to pass laws which created a very strict racial hierarchy.

The first set of laws were laws that made African slavery permanent. In other words you were property until death. They distinguished that kind of permanent slavery from indentured servitude, which was a limited amount of years and after that you are free.

Other laws were passed against interracial marriage. Interracial marriage and interracial relationships had been fairly common in the early part of the 16th and 17th centuries. By the late 17th and early 18th century a lot of that stuff was outlawed. There were laws passed which promoted harsher punishment for Africans for crimes versus white Christians.

And that in some ways helped destroy any potential for unity across those color lines and made the line sharper between black and, white, or white and other.

And here you get the formation of a really foundational system of racism which was necessary in order for America to become both a democracy on one hand and a slave state on the other.

Of course, another problem is that the way liberty really gets translated in real life is the right to own property. And if you have liberty rooted in the right to own property, that includes the right to own slaves.

How did early American peoples see themselves?

The first thing to keep in mind in this early period of 17th century America is that blackness and whiteness weren't clear categories of identity. When Africans came here they came to the New World not as black people, not as Negroes. They didn't see themselves that way. They saw themselves according to their own sort of ethnic identities. The same with the Europeans. They were Portuguese, they were English, and Irish.

So you have a situation in which alliances are formed on these new plantation economies and in the new town of the New World in which sometimes being Irish was close to being Ibo. Sometimes people met together in taverns and bars who were considered sort of riff-raff, the lower classes, and they were a mix of different people across racial lines.

Over time those alliances were broken up, and as the alliances were broken up, it became clear that many of the European-descended poor whites began to identify themselves with, if not directly with the rich whites, certainly with being white. As a way to distinguish themselves from those dark-skinned people who they associate with perpetual slavery.

To what extent do we make our own racial self-identities?

There is a difference between racial identity imposed upon people like a marker, like a brand, versus a self-formed identity. And of course these things are connected but there is a distinction.

In the case of black people you could see the evolution in how they saw themselves from their own ethnic identities to a pan-African identity, to maybe seeing themselves as part of a larger solidarity with other people from the African continent.

For example, if you look at the history of black naming of the 19th century you have names like African, Afro-Saxon, Anglo-African, colored, free people of color, Negro, and each one of these self-named identities are saying something about the relationship to the larger world.

And when black people early in the 19th century stopped calling themselves African and began calling themselves Negro or colored American, it was to make claims upon citizenship. It was to say look, you want to send us back to Africa, and even though we may feel ourselves of African descent, we want to claim American-ness, claim "colored American," claim "Negro," in order to support our claims to being in this country.

The same thing with Asian identities. In the 19th century you don't see people self-identifying as Asian because they were tied to very specific nationalities. A pan-Asian identity is a modern thing. It is a modern 20th-century notion which is intended to build solidarity against racism and for a broader pan-Asian culture - a new kind of culture in some ways.

And that is why we can never talk about identities as fixed, they are always dynamic and changing.

To what extent is racial self-identity a negotiation?

My whole life is a personal experience about understanding racism. Every day as a black person in this country I am reminded that I am black. But interestingly, this is a world where even the definition of blackness is multiple and complex, so I get these questions: "Are you Puerto Rican?" "Are you Dominican?" "You must not be from the United States." "Why?" "Because you don't talk like those southern Negroes." There is a whole range of ways in which blackness gets marked. The same with whiteness.

And so I think that one of the things that young people need to always realize is race is this dynamic process of identity formation and reformation where the identities that you cling to are made within the context of other people making identities and imposing them on you.

And so sometimes just the resistance to someone else's identity imposed on you itself becomes a new identity. And that is why so much of anti-racism in America is about overthrowing stereotypes but also finding ways to celebrate what is distinct and unique about us as a community. No matter what that community is.

Sometimes it is about building communities that didn't exist before. You know, there is no necessary reason why people from North Africa and Morocco, or the Gnawa people of Morocco or the people of the Congo should necessarily be united as one community. Yet it is precisely racism that produced the circumstances for that basis of unity. But there is also more than that. It is also the recognition that there are certain cultural elements that we share as a community, certain values that we share as a community, which lay the foundation for new identities.

And that is what is so tricky about it. When you see those new racial identities you have young people who say that that itself is a racism. And I think that is a mistake. It is a mistake to argue that in the context in which we live that we can't form new identities because I think the dream that everyone has is a moment in which we not only recognize the dynamism of identities but we can all see ourselves not as one group, but as multiple groups that can share and exchange ideas from one another so that we can always be changing, and always become something different and yet never lose the sense of difference and community and individuality.

Why does the one-drop rule develop in North America?

North America is unique because it had this one-drop rule. That is, is if you have any African ancestors that makes you black. And of course it is not the same in every state. And it is unlike the Caribbean or Brazil or other places.

Now why is this the case in North America? That is the question. In part, it's because every slave society had to have a buffer class. In the Caribbean, which had a 90 -95% African-descended population, that buffer class was the mulatto group.

In North America you had a buffer class of poor whites. And as long as you had that continual immigration of poor whites, white working-class people in North America with limited privileges, that class that would always oppose these Africans.

And so therefore every single person of African descent in a multiracial culture like North America would be considered not only black, but would be considered potential slaves. In a system where slavery is generational, the offspring of interracial relationships could then be enslaved and so the slavemaster wouldn't lose his property.

And even if they were free they would have limited access to citizenship and democracy. So laws were passed that limited their movement or access to rights and privileges.

How did Enlightenment science affirm ideas of race?

Another reason why the context of the Enlightenment is so important to race is because this is when the idea of science is being invented. And what ends up happening is that science becomes a challenge to Christianity.

Biblical ideas basically suggest that everyone evolved from Adam and Eve. And if that is the case, the only way to explain 'racial' difference is the climate - that old idea that a temperate climates produce superior people and that hot climates produce dim-witted people but for different reasons.

What is interesting is that the Enlightenment produced a challenge to Christianity. And what ends up happening is scientists begin to talk about the races as separate human species emerging over time.

And when you can talk about different species, it solves the problem of saying that we are all part of the Christian world. It allows you to begin to designate some people as just one step out of the animal kingdom, in the case of Africans. It even allows you in some ways to talk about the noble savage in the case of Native Americans, who are celebrated in some ways initially as having a certain kind of superior primitive knowledge that could be liberating for the West.

Now what is also interesting is that science in the 18th and 19th century requires a rewriting of the histories that they already knew in order to justify these claims. Perhaps the best example is that in the 19th century, ancient history gets rewritten so that the connection of Egypt and North Africa to ancient Greece gets erased. Almost all historians who write histories of the formation of Europe and Greek lineage begin to literally, systematically remove the present of Egyptian philosophers.

And of course we think of this as a small deal. But it is a huge deal in terms of the way that these new regimes could justify the idea that Africans are perpetually, intrinsically and inherently inferior to this new group we call Europeans.

Why didn't we do away with racism after slavery?

Post-Civil War Reconstruction represents one of those moments when I think racism might have been overthrown - one of those roads not quite taken.

After Emancipation, all these freed African Americans began to build institutions and homes and communities. At the end of the Civil War, the first task was to reconstruct the South, to reconstruct democracy. The Republican Party consisted of some poor southern whites, African Americans, and northern radicals who were committed to a new democracy. And together they passed laws and produced a vision of society in which everyone would have a right to land, everyone would have the right to free universal public education, everyone - at least all males - would have the right to vote. And as a result of Reconstruction, many poor whites who couldn't vote before were able to vote. As a result of Reconstruction and the leadership of these ex-slaves, many poor whites who never had access to public schools suddenly got to go to school.

That was a moment when the frame of racism could have been broken and it didn't happen. It didn't happen precisely because many of those same poor whites, who were enjoying the fruits of democracy for the first time, ended up choosing their skin color over their class - and that was one of the biggest tragedies in American history.

In some ways there is a parallel between the period of Reconstruction and what we think of as the modern Civil Rights Movement. And in both of those periods there were whites who were inspired by the black freedom struggle, who saw the potential for a new society rooted in the destruction of racism - a society that would benefit themselves and benefit all of humanity.

In the Civil Rights Movement there were many poor people who in fact were inspired by the demands of the Student Nonviolent Coordinated Committee, who were inspired by the demands for economic justice.

In fact, it is not an accident that the tail end of that Civil Rights Movement put economic justice at the forefront, much like during Reconstruction when economic justice became a critical issue. But once again, in both of those moments, many of the whites who could benefit from the struggle for economic justice decided that it didn't make sense to make an alliance with black people and again they chose race over class. Which was again, a big tragedy for America.

Isn't racism just a form of ignorance and fear?

When I teach about racism the first thing I say to my students is that racism is not ignorance. Racism is knowledge. Racism in some ways is a very complicated system of knowledge, where science, religion, philosophy, are used to justify inequality and hierarchy. That is foundational. Racism is not simply a kind of visceral feeling you have when you see someone who is different from you.

Because in fact if you look at the history of the world there are many people who look different who are seen as both attractive and unattractive. It is not about how you look, it is about how people assign meaning to how you look. And that is learned behavior, you see.

And that is why you can't think of racism as simply 'not knowing.' That is not the case at all - on the contrary.

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Obama Inauguration Is a Culmination for Black Airmen

December 10, 2008

When the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black force of elite pilots, emerged from combat in World War II, they faced as much discrimination as they had before the war. It was not until six decades later that their valor was recognized and they received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can give.

Now, the roughly 330 pilots and members of the ground crew who are left from about 16,000 who served are receiving another honor that has surpassed their dreams: They are being invited to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama as the country’s first black president.

“I didn’t believe I’d live long enough to see something like this,” said Lt. Col. Charles A. Lane Jr., 83, of Omaha, a retired Tuskegee fighter pilot who flew missions over Italy.

“I would love to be there, I would love to be able to see it with my own eyes,” he said, chuckling on the phone as he heard about the invitation. But, he said, he had a “physical limitation” and was not sure he would be able to attend.

Thousands of people who participated in the fight for civil rights over several decades helped pave the way for Mr. Obama’s triumph. But the Tuskegee Airmen have a special place in history. Their bravery during the war — on behalf of a country that actively discriminated against them — helped persuade President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military in 1948.

“The election of Barack Obama was like a culmination of a struggle that we were going through, wanting to be pilots,” said William M. Wheeler, 85, a retired Tuskegee combat fighter pilot who lives in Hempstead, N.Y. He tried to become a commercial pilot after the war but was offered a job cleaning planes instead.

Mr. Obama has acknowledged his debt to the airmen, issuing a statement in 2007, when they received the Congressional Gold Medal. It said in part: “My career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trail-blazed.”

The invitation to his swearing-in was extended Tuesday by Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

Howard Gantman, staff director for the committee, said of the decision to invite them: “They served honorably on behalf of our country, helped fight the battle to overcome racial barriers and because of the historic nature of this election, we thought they deserved to be there.”

Tickets to the Jan. 20 inauguration are the most sought-after commodity, with more than 1.5 million people expected in Washington. Of the 240,000 tickets, the airmen would have seats among the 30,000 on the terrace below the podium, along with former members of Congress and others.

For logistical reasons, the actual invitation ended up with Robert D. Rose, a retired Air Force captain in Bellevue, Neb., who was not a Tuskegee airman but is the first vice president of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc., an association of the original airmen and their supporters.

The onus is on the association to extend the invitation to the airmen, who must respond by Dec. 19. Each can bring one guest. The tickets are not transferable, so if an airman cannot make it, he cannot give his ticket away.

“We’ll have a lot of happy fellows and ladies,” said Mr. Rose, who predicted that many would try to attend.

He said that before the invitation was made Tuesday, he had already been trying to get word to higher ups that the airmen would like to be invited. “I thought if the name ‘Tuskegee’ surfaced at a high enough level, someone would recognize it and it would make sense to invite them,” he said.

There is no firm handle on how many are still alive. More than 300 came forward in March 2007 to collect their bronze replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal at a ceremony at the Capitol. The actual Gold Medal itself was given to the Smithsonian Institution.

In all, 994 pilots and about 15,000 ground personnel collectively known as the Tuskegee Airmen were trained at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama from 1942 to 1946.

About 119 pilots and 211 ground personnel are still alive, according to Tuskegee Airmen Inc. They are in their 80s and 90s, many are frail, and it is unclear how many will be able to make the trip to Washington. And those who make it will face various challenges: they will most likely have to walk some distance, the weather could be harsh, the crowds will be huge and accommodations are scarce.

Still, these are some of the airmen who flew more than 150,000 sorties over Europe and North Africa during World War II, escorting Allied bombers and destroying hundreds of enemy aircraft. Some were taken prisoner. And most faced fierce discrimination during and after the war.

“Even the Nazis asked why they would fight for a country that treated them unfairly,” President Bush said in awarding the medals.

Mr. Rose, of the airmen’s association, said he saw a direct connection between the Tuskegee experience and Mr. Obama’s election.

“The Tuskegee Airmen preceded Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and if they hadn’t helped generate a climate of tolerance by integration of the military, we might not have progressed through the civil rights era,” he said. ”We would have seen a different civil rights movement, if we would have seen one at all.”

Go to original NY Times article


Will Smith on Obama

The part where he recites the preamble to the US Constitution is breathtaking.


US folk icon Odetta dies aged 77

Odetta in 2004
Odetta became a folk star in the 1950s

US folk singer Odetta, a civil rights campaigner and a major influence on Bob Dylan, has died at the age of 77.

Born Odetta Holmes in Birmingham, Alabama, the classically-trained singer gave life to slave songs and folk tunes through her powerful voice.

Becoming a folk star in the 1950s, Odetta influenced Bob Dylan as well as Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez.

Despite being recently confined to a wheelchair, Odetta performed some 60 concerts in the last two years.

She died of heart disease on Tuesday at the Lennox Hill Hospital in New York. She had been admitted to the hospital some three weeks before suffering from kidney failure, said her manager Doug Yeager.

She made her name performing songs sung by ordinary people - housewives and working men, as well as prison songs and slave plantation "spirituals".

The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta
Bob Dylan in 1978

"What distinguished her from the start was the meticulous care with which she tried to re-create the feeling of her folk songs," Time magazine wrote in 1960. "To understand the emotions of a convict in a convict ditty, she once tried breaking up rocks with a sledge hammer."

Recording several albums, Odetta was best-known in the US for taking part in the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, where she sang O Freedom.

Odetta in the 1960s
Odetta took part in the 1963 March on Washington

In a 1978 interview, Bob Dylan said: "The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta."

He added he found "just something vital and personal" when he first heard her, and that her music convinced him to sell his electric guitar and play an acoustic one instead.

First nominated for a Grammy in 1963, Odetta received two more nominations in the latter part of her career - one in 1999 and third in 2005.

In 1999, she was awarded a National Medal of the Arts. President Bill Clinton said her career showed "us all that songs have the power to change the heart and change the world".

Go to original BBC News article

NY Times Interview - The Last Word
Odetta became a force of the folk music revival in the 1950s. In the 1960s her renditions of spirituals and blues became part of the soundtrack of the civil rights movement.