On My Mother’s 120th Birthday: The Ideas of a New Generation

 

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Anna Rosenbaum with Meyer Lederman, 1922

LEW ROSENBAUM· SATURDAY, JUNE 25, 2016

My mother, Anna Hodos, was born June 24, 1896. The place was Oshmyany, a town at that time in Lithuania. I write “at that time” because it was close to the border with Russia, and, from time to time, was either in the Russian empire. . . or not. Borders are often political constructs imposed by imperial states, after all.

My grandfather brought his family to the United States ahead of the Russian (czarist) army attempting to conscript him (we believe that he assumed the name Hodos to escape conscription; when we talked about it, my sister Greta and I could never be sure what their real surname might be). They came to the U.S. after the failure of the first Russian revolution of 1905, traveling across Europe and shipping to the U.S. from Liverpool, England. Arriving in Ellis Island in 1906, my grandmother was turned away because she had an eye infection, trachoma. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, trachoma was the leading reason for immigrants to be deported from Ellis island. She returned to Europe with her youngest child, to return some time later through Canada. I can only imagine her fear at leaving her family behind to go back to Liverpool, knowing no English; her strength returning to Liverpool, only to fight her way back to her family in the U.S.

The family must have had some kind of network to rely on. It was a time of great Eastern European immigration to the U.S. The garment factories and the tenements where the garment workers lived in New York were filled with Jewish refugees from the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Upton Sinclair wrote about Lithuanian immigrants to Chicago in his epic novel of the same period, The Jungle. Several Lithuanian language newspapers served that large community and periodicals in nearly every other European language brought the news to those working in the stockyards and the steel industry. Branches of my family would settle in New York and Chicago, but my grandparents settled in the small industrial and farming community of Ansonia in Southern Connecticut. The town was situated on the Housatonic River valley, the home of metal industries and textile mills. My family must have brought some resources with them, because they established a feed and grain store serving the agricultural community.

I believe that my mother finished high school. She was slated to work in the store while her younger brother went to college. Regardless of her educational level, she was caught up in the intellectual ferment of the period. She would have none of being bound to the small town store. Greta told me that she ran away to New York to try to make her way there, but her father came after her and brought her back to Ansonia. She remained rebellious, however, and joined the radical movement of the time, the YPSLs or Young People’s Socialist League, and was influenced by the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1919, John Reed (at that time perhaps the best known journalist in the U.S.) published his pathbreaking Ten Days That Shook The World, describing his observations while in Russia during the revolution. Anna got a letter from Reed along with a copy of the book. Reed wrote that “the Capitalist press is endeavoring to suppress the sale of the book,” refusing to review it and give it any distribution outside of the big cities in the Northeast. He appealed to the Comrades to help distribute the book and to make money for their collectives at the same time.

New ideas permeated the immigrant working class movement in this period. The big garment workers unions, headquartered in Chicago and New York, led organizing drives in New York and New England. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911 killed over 100 workers and sparked the fight for labor law reform for the next two decades. The Bread and Roses strike engulfed the textile mills of Lawrence, MA in 1912, with 23,000 workers taking to the streets, defying ethnic differences that the employers had used to keep them apart.. Workers and intellectuals around the world rallied in defense of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, accused of murder in 1920 and executed in 1927 in Boston.

In this turmoil Anna met Meyer Lederman, pictured above in 1922 with her. He styled himself something of a “socialist Zionist,” though I never knew what he meant by that. There was, among the socialist leaning Jewish workers of the period and going back to the late 1800s, a trend who argued that wherever there was a Jew, the Jewish nation existed. This group refused to integrate themselves into the revolutionary organizations of the nations in which they lived, demanding a separate organization for themselves. This strand of socialism sparked debates in the garment workers movement. Perhaps this was a fundamental disagreement between Anna and Meyer; that I do not know. After the Communist Party was formed, she became part of that movement, but she and Meyer remained friends to the end of his life.

But somewhere in the early 1920s she met George Rosenbaum, whose last name she would assume without ever getting married. George never became a citizen.. Anna considered him an anarchist if he had any definitive political philosophy. He made friends with people on Book Row in Manhattan, worked in the Dauber and Pine used book shop, and then opened up his own store as the depression deepened. The store went out of business in a few years, and from the store he took what he thought were some of the valuable titles — and about 25 volumes of Russian and Soviet politics and history. The fear of deportation hung over his head throughout his life. His and Anna’s memory of the Palmer raids to arrest and deport radicals (1919-1920) revived in the post WWII McCarthy witch hunt.

From this union came my sister in 1928, and me in 1942.

I’m thinking of Anna today, June 24, of course, since she would have been 120 years old on this day. But there’s more. We are immigrants, the objects of the kind of hatred that the presidential race in the U.S. today is stoking. My people would have been those Trump would ban from immigration: after all, we bore the infection of Bolshevism. We were the wave upon wave of immigrants who took jobs from Americans in the steel plants and stockyards, driving the wages down. We were the scum feared by the voters in the British election to exit the European Union. I’m thinking of Anna today, because the Lithuanian/Russian border is today even more a figment of the political imagination, as is the U.S./ Mexican border.

In the era of globalization information flows freely ignoring borders. Capitalist relations have flown freely to the far reaches of the earth, leaving no nation untouched. Attempts to limit labor migration fail very much for the reason that labor follows the trail of capital and information. You can no more build a wall against labor than you can against electrons. But just as in 1919, when John Reed wrote to my mother, the new ideas and experiences of the immigrants in our society add to our understanding of the world. A social revolution is brewing today, even more than in 1919, because of the globalization and the electronic/technological revolution that has taken place.

Anna died in 1983, the same year that the bookstore I worked in got a computer. She would not recognize the world of today, almost 100 years after the third Russian Revolution of 1917. She would see instantly that the expectations of her working class life no longer beckon to the class created by the computer. And I suspect she’d quickly understand, that broad equality of poverty represents something fundamentally different in the new class structure of America and the world. Her generation could expect to participate in the expanding economic benefits accruing to workers. Reforms would take care of that. This generation can only reform society by taking it over, by wresting power from those who control the means of producing what we need to survive. By wresting power from those who are accelerating their calls to ban immigrants and build walls.

Our ideas and hopes, which come from the lived experience of our expectations, pose the real danger to the rich and powerful. I think Anna would be eager to distribute these ideas, just as she was called on to distribute the ideas of her generation.

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Lilac Time a poem by Lew Rosenbaum

[In November, 2008, my sister Greta died.  She was a graduate of the Yale Music School, and talking about music was one of the irreversible bonds that joined us.  Whenever I would hear something new, the first thought that pierced my mind was, what would Greta say? That is still the case.  Her birthday, May 10, comes at the time when lilacs prepare to bloom, and so lilacs and music always drive me to think of Greta even more than at other times.  This poem was written on May 10, 2016.  The photos were taken in the courtyard where Diana and I live, May 30 2016. — LR]

Lilac Time

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The lavender time of year: Lilac, salvia and phlox in bloom, May 30, 2016

by Lew Rosenbaum

In the mist and rain, the heavy air

Bears the dense fragrance of the lilacs

It’s May, and at the lavender time of year,

The cavorting violets just past the riot of scilla,

When soon the purple salvia will flourish,

I think most intensely of you, dear Greta, and

Wish that we could celebrate another birthday,

That we could walk together even the short walk

From your home to the stand of white lilacs

And bury our heads in the blossoms and perfumes

And stop, think for the moment, our laughs reverberating

In the morning sunlight, bees drinking the nectar,

Think of our childhood, of you and me

Standing beneath the boughs of that purple-robed tree

In our back yard where I first learned the names

Lilac and Greta.

 

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The lavender time of year: Salvia, phlox and lilacs in bloom, May 30, 2016

The mist and rain cloak the heavy air

A Prince-like purple rain, perhaps because

His death has not quite settled in, and I want to

Talk to you, whose death will never settle,

We can never compare notes about “Motherless Child”

I will never get to ask you about

His strident, angry guitar chords

Tearing the air between us

We would have had to talk about Paul Robeson

The simple piano arrangement of the despairing art song

I want to ask you how you feel when you hear

Prince’s scream, when you see the flair of the dance

And we would whisper about our own mother

And motherlessness.

 

Maybe I’d steer our sentences toward Merle Haggard,

And I can hear you now telling me what you admire,

That my enjoyment spans the genres,

While your ears limit your appreciation, and then

I make my case, for aren’t we all outlaws,

Through music you introduced me to as blues and folk?

Aren’t these words, these notes

Our song of rebellion too?

We would hold hands and embrace,

The responsibility of any

Serious human being today,

Our rebellion our song.

 

 

Memorial Day Massacre by Christian Sullivan

[At this year’s commemoration of the Memorial Day Massacre, an annual event sponsored by steelworkers who help us remember the history of our working class, high school student Christian53851b99d6e88.preview-620 Sullivan read his award-winning, very perceptive essay. What I found particularly useful was the author’s consideration of what is different today. Things are indeed different, fundamentally different, and it is exciting to see young people grappling with what this change means.  — Lew Rosenbaum]  

Memorial Day Massacre  by Christian Sullivan

“On Memorial Day, May 30, 1937, police opened fire on a parade of striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company, in South Chicago. Fifty people were shot, of whom 10 later died; 100 others were beaten with clubs,” a quote by Dorothy Day from her book Selected Writings summarizing the events of the Memorial Day Massacre. There is no doubting that date was one of the worst tragedies in Chicago history, and nothing can justify the actions of the police officers, press, and steel companies involved during, and after, this horrific incident occurred. There were a number of causes and aftermaths of this event, and these valiant steelworkers should be an example to workers of the modern day of how important and powerful labor unions truly are.

To understand the causes of the Memorial Day Massacre, one must understand the way businesses think. When it comes to the production of a product, the profit of the company is based on how much money and resources are put into making said product versus the amount of money they bring back selling said product; the smaller the production fee, the larger the profits. One large production fee is the salary of every worker and employee who help in the making of the product. In the business world, the smaller their employees’ salaries are, the better the company’s profits. At the same time, as executives at higher pay, they don’t want to lower their own, regardless of how gross or unfair it may be. The only other way for them to increase profits would be to raise the prices of their goods and risk upsetting the consumer, which could potentially lead to lesser profits and loss of business to lower priced competition. With that being said, we can now better understand the cause of this massacre that took place outside of the Republic Steel Company.

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), previously known as the Committee of Industrial Organization, was an organization that heavily encouraged and aided the unionization of workers in industrial jobs such as the steel industry. CIO was quickly succeeding in the creation of a steel workers union, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), even being recognized by one of the largest companies in the steel industry, U.S. Steel, which was notoriously anti-union beforehand. They signed a contract with SWOC, promoting the act of “collective bargaining,” the negotiation of terms and treatment between companies and employees. Many other large and small steel companies signed this same contract, recognizing the union and agreeing to negotiation; yet, six companies, known as “Little Steel” still refused to accept the unionization of steelworkers, one of these companies being Republic Steel.

In the business world, unionization equals less profit. If companies are to maximize profit, they must be in full control of wages and treatment of their workers, otherwise, they must sacrifice profit for the health, well-being, and fairness of their employees; therefore, collective bargaining was out of the question for any company looking to make the most money they possibly can. Allowing collective bargaining and unionization forces a company to recognize the power and say its workers have in its business, disallowing them to continue taking advantage of them.

As such, Republic Steel continued to refuse any dealings with SWOC, resulting in mass protest in order to hurt production to the point of forcing Republic Steels hand into union acceptance, as done with many other opposing steel companies before it. SWOC planned a march to the Republic Steel company and a peaceful picket; however, Republic Steel, already knowing about the picket, set up a police blockade outside of its company gates. When the march reached its destination, they were immediately confronted by the police. With the peaceful picketers refusing to give in, several officers drew their guns and began firing into the crowd, killing 10 innocent civilians and injuring 30 others whilst they were fleeing. Other police officers drew their clubs and brutally beat several other protesters, permanently disabling nine of them, and severely injuring another 28. That was the Memorial Day Massacre.

Press and media tended to be completely bias, supporting the police side. Any footage of

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The New York Times called the demonstrators a “mob.”

the massacre was held from the public in order to prevent “mass hysteria.” Not a single police officer was convicted of a crime and any evidence that could have shown the use of excess force was hidden from the public eye. The story was even morphed by police and media, claiming that the protesters carried weapons and were under the influence of drugs.

As aftermath, protest was completely changed for the future. As mass gatherings and pickets often lead to violence, injury, and sometimes death, it became a lesser focus of organized unions. Instead, unions began focusing a lot more on legal action and communication with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in order to make safer, more concrete change. After just five more persistent years, those who had given their lives that fateful day in front of the Republic Steel company no longer did so in vain. Legal actions with NLRB caught the attention of the Supreme Court, and all remaining steel companies included in Little Steel were forced by national law to unionize, showing that unions can succeed and can do so through the system. It showed that unions had the power to change things for the better, whether it be through protest in a field or plea in the courtroom.

As years went on, that feeling of power was reduced. The decline in labor unions in the past 50 years is in no way a natural one. Companies, as well as the government, have been purposely trying to decrease the popularity of labor unions. Companies have armies of lawyers looking for loopholes in contractual obligations, and government, mostly those of the Republican Party, have been doing what they can through congress to legally decrease the amount of power labor unions withhold. On top of all of this, companies who do not want to deal with the fair pay and treatment of union workers are simply outsourcing their jobs to other countries where unions have no power and displacing American citizens from jobs in the process. All of this is adding to a mental effect on American citizens that unions are no longer powerful enough to change anything. People no longer believe in unions’ abilities to protect them from the unfairness of large companies, some even blaming them solely for the loss of jobs in America. Even though our problems remain the same, the unions protecting us from those problems have grown weaker and less numerous.

Today, people are still facing the exact same problems the steel workers were back in 1937: unfair wages, unsafe working conditions, and unfair pensions; however, unlike back then, companies and government know what to do to get around labor unions. Labor unions game has not changed, but the companies’ has. At the same time, union support as fell so greatly, that even old tactics are not being implemented for change. No one believes they can make a difference, so they often do not try. Places where simple picketing and court actions would work are not even making the attempt. Taking a lesson from the steelworkers of the 1930s may not fix some of the more complex issues in bigger businesses nowadays, but it still has untapped power in some work places. People are just simply too disheartened to use them.

None of this means organized labor is beaten, defeated, dead, or gone; simply outdated.

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Roman Villarreal’s sculpture, a tribute to Chicago steelworkers, dedicated in 2015 in Steelworkers Park

Union power needs a revamp. They need to come up with new ways to picket, new ways to negotiate, and new ways to combat unfairness. As companies update their ways of avoiding union power, unions need to update their ways of checking companies. All of this is made even harder by the fact that sometimes even our own government is suppressing the unions and the public is losing faith in organized labor. Unions need to update their ways, show people they have the power to equalize employer/employee relations again, and show them that becoming an active union member can make a difference. All of this could be made much easier by having a government that will also support union power and push bills in their favor rather than against. None of this is possible overnight. This is a process that will take years to happen and, as with all things, will not happen at all without people taking action to make happen.

In all, the fact that unions have power at all is a thing to be thankful for, and we owe a great debt the CIO, SWOC, NLRB, and every group, union, and national association that keeps workers from unfair treatment and pay as best they can today. Sure, we may not ever be as successful as our predecessors who worked toward work force equality and fought and even died for us, not only in the Memorial Day Massacre, but in every protest, movement, or event. The Memorial Day Massacre was a tragic incident, and from it came one of the most important strength our generation need to make it in this country, a stronger, more active labor union. Now it is time to rejuvenate it and strengthen it just as they did. How? We will not know until we make the effort to figure it out as a whole, together, as a union.

 

 

On Reading the “Anthology of a Thousand Poets” Ho Chi Minh

ho-chi-minhOn Reading the “Anthology of a Thousand Poets”

Ho Chi Minh

They used to sing of nature’s charms –
hills, streams, mists, flowers, snow, moon, and wind.
Today, a poem must have steel.
A poet must learn to wage war.

Burying Caesar On The Ides of March, 2016

I wrote this poem in March, 2015, at the time of a hotly contested mayoral race in the city of Chicago.  The incumbent, Rahm Emanuel, faced off against Jesus (Chuy) Garcia, who came closer than anyone might have imagined he would.  I wrote this in the hope that he could stop the Caesarian, imperial juggernaut of Emanuel.  Garcia lost,  Emanuel won a second term, and now, in the election season 2016, Emanuel is facing a crisis precipitated by a coverup of police killings and now on the eve of a teachers strike that could dwarf the 2012 strike in significance.  So I think, on this Ides of March, which also happens to be a primary election day, the poem is even more appropriate, when racist vitriol is being used to divide further an already historically divided working class; and when a vote for an incumbent state’s attorney is a vote rewarding outright fascism; and when one candidate has introduced into the election vernacular two phrases which I hope will outlive this campaign: billionaire class and political revolution.  (This poem is part of a collection, Seed of Revolution, published last July.  The chapbook is available for $10).

 

Burying Caesar

by Lew Rosenbaum

 

“I have come to bury Caesar

Not to praise him.”

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Julius Caesar

So spoke Mark Antony

At the great man’s funeral,

And then proceeded to extol

Caesar’s virtues for the remainder of his monologue,

Until he roused the Roman masses

To avenge Caesar’s murder.

Antony ignored the rebellion

Brewing near Galilee.

He could not speak yet of the crucifixion,

Still a half century to come,

Of a poor carpenter, a fisher of men.

 

Now it’s the day after the Ides of March

I HAVE come to bury Caesar.

Really.

 

Caesar, upon his death,

Bequeathed to each Roman citizen

The sum of seventy-five drachmas.

Our Caesar, fearing the anger of

Chicago workers, dangled a carrot,

A minimum wage raise to thirteen dollarsth-4

Per hour in four years.

In FOUR YEARS!

Oh yes. I have come to BURY Caesar.th-3

 

Our gentle Caesar,

In his penetrating recognition

Of our anxieties,

Pledged to improve our mental health services. . .

By closing half the Chicago clinics.

At the disarray in the public schools,

He wept tears of pure gold

That ran rivulets into the pockets of

His honorable charter school cronies.

Then he crossed the Rubicon,

Embarked on a forced march to

Shutter more than fifty schools.

I tell you

I have come to bury our honorable Caesar.

 

Had Brutus and Cassius, both honorable men,

Stabbed their Caesar on the South Side of Chicago,

His murder might have been averted,

Or so some Romans say, lamenting his fate.

I say not so, for Chicago’s Caesar

Stood fast opposing a trauma center

Which might have staunched the flow

From those unkindest cuts of all.

 

I come to bury Caesar,

Not to praise him.

Nor will I lend my ears

To those who sycophate at his feet,

Paint pictures that can never

Obliterate the blood he has let.

 

I come to bury Caesar.

I come to elect Jésus.

It’s Not the Same River — Lew Rosenbaum

It’s Not The Same River   by Lew Rosenbaum

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Heraclitus, 535-475 BCE

“We are all related” – Lakota prayer

Ninety-six percent of water on earth is saline.

The water swimming in my cells,

The water that bathes my cells,

The water coursing in my bloodstream,

All of it is saline.

We cannot drink salt water.

 

Aquifers make up thirty percent of the four percent that is fresh water.

Lying deep beneath the arid desert,

Beneath the flat Midwestern plains,

Beneath the big-sky buttes of Montana,

Beneath the putrid oil wells of the Texas panhandle.

California almonds drink this water when people cannot.

Nestlé bottles what the people may not drink.

 

The amount of water used to supply the world’s golf courses

Is the same as the amount that could supply all the world’s people.

Japan had 23 golf courses before World War II.

They found their error

And built three thousand courses.

An anti-haiku.

 

Lake Huron is the third largest fresh water lake on earth.300px-Saginawrivermap

Flint, Michigan, lying near the shores of Lake Huron,

Started using Flint River water instead.

(It takes its name from the Ojibwe language, when the river ran pure).

But river water flowed past the industrial factories

That built Flint, and discharged chemical waste

Turning clear water a muddy brown,

Infected with retch-inducing odors,

Cancer-causing chemicals and corrosive salts

That leached lead from the pipes in lethal doses.

When people showered,

Water brought rashes and pain to their bleeding skin.

 

Sixty percent of the human body is water.

We humans need water more than we need food.

Why do capitalist private profiteers get to drain our aquifers?

Flint is a lesson and a call to wake up.

No one can make the babies come back,

But we can have clean, free water for all

By ending the rule of private property

That protects golf courses and

Preys upon the lives of our people.

We are all related.

 

Nelson Peery: Why Is African American History The Heart of American History?

Portrait of David

Illustration from The Future Is Up To Us, Portrait of David, painting  by Diana Berek

This is the beginning of Black History Month, February 1, 2016, and I think it’s appropriate to quote from Nelson Peery’s The Future Is Up To Us:

WHY IS AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY THE HEART OF AMERICAN HISTORY?

To suggest such an analysis is bound to make the majority of eyebrows arch upward. African Americans have always been looked upon and treated as if they were at best on the periphery of our coun- try’s history. Their being marginalized in the social and economic sense reinforces this outlook. Nevertheless any serious inquiry into history will show that the control, manipulation and exploitation of the African American was at the heart of every major and most of the minor decisions of state prior to the Civil War, and a good many of them afterwards.

Let’s start at the beginning. For a number of ideological and political reasons, the American colonies resisted African slavery, pre- ferring to populate the New World with European indentured ser- vants. In the Caribbean, the plantation and slave system was being fine-tuned. There, unheard-of fortunes were accumulated on the basis of the most reckless expenditure of human life known to history. A goodly portion of the colonies’ economic intercourse was servicing the slave system of the Caribbean. The colonies were never discon- nected from African slavery. It was not some inopportune landing of a Spanish ship carrying twenty African captives that inaugurated

African slavery in the colonies. As the capitalist system evolved from the slave trade and the Caribbean plantations, capitalism became firmly planted in the colonies and slavery was its inevitable result. Every colony had slavery, and none of the colonies, north or south, could have accumulated and economically moved forward without the brutal working to death of the slave.

Rudimentary capitalist agriculture—that is agriculture for the market, rather than consumption—never reckoned with ecology or preservation of the land. This is especially true of cotton culture. The solution was the constant westward motion for virgin land. I often laugh at these falsifiers of history who wave the flag and talk about the westward move of liberty. In fact, it was the westward move of slavery. Two examples that come to mind are the removal of the five

“civilized” (i.e., slave-holding) Indian tribes from their native lands to the Oklahoma Territory. The “Trail of Tears” is an indelible moral condemnation of U.S. state policy for the expansion of slavery. The Indians suffered terribly on that journey. Can you imagine the con- dition of their African slaves?

The other instance was the annexation of Texas and later the war against Mexico and the ripping-off of half her national territory. There was no other reason for this expansionism but the promulga- tion of slavery. The westward march of liberty is a joke.

Most people understand that the Civil War was fought over the African Americans’ condition as slaves. Few realize that Wilson probably would not have been elected if Blacks were able to vote. Certainly, Roosevelt would not have won his third term without a solid African American vote. This goes for Truman and a number of presidents who changed the political direction of the country.

Take a look at the body of law developed around the control of labor. Every single one of these oppressive laws had their foun- dation in the control of the African American. If we go beyond the written law it is easily seen that the control of a disjointed working class was achieved through uniting the white worker and capitalist to exclude the African American.

In the realm of culture, if it weren’t for the African Americans we would still be dancing the minuet. At the heart of American cul- ture beats the culture of the African American people. They would not have created this culture if not for the isolation, brutality and segregation that lies at the heart of the African Americans as a people. Eleanor Roosevelt put it quite well when she said that apart from the culture of the Indian, the culture of the African American is the only American culture. Clearly everything else was an ethnic culture brought over from the old world. The other aspect is, it is becom- ing a world culture. Every time I’ve gone abroad, I’ve been shocked by the breadth of the assimilation of this culture into French, British, Egyptian—what have you—popular culture.

So when we say that the African Americans are at the heart of American history, we don’t mean to imply that they were in control of that history. The sad fact is that up until the integration period, con- trolling and manipulating the Black ten percent was the way to con- trol the white majority. This is the only way we can make sense of a history that gives the world the most exalted visions along with the most brutal and callous exploitation and destruction of human life.

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