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.

Time to Go Beyond Petitioning Pharaoh

[My good friend and comrade, Adam Gottlieb, asked me to be part of a unique celebration at the end of Passover this year. He called it, in a scriptural reference, “Love the Stranger.” The celebration, on April 13, 2015, was an artistic performance that reflected on slavery and its modern consequences, and he asked me to reflect on capitalism and slavery. I began by asking people to help me sing the lyrics of “Let My People Go,” a song that I identify with the rich bass voice of Paul Robeson. This was more or less what I said.]

When Israel was in Egypt’s land: Let my people go,
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand, Let my People go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

In 1861, three slaves escaped from a work detail building defense batteries for the confederate army, and presented themselves at Fort Monroe in Virginia. When Confederate Major John Cary demanded their return, General Ben Butler refused, on the basis that since Virginia, after secession, was now a foreign territory, the Fugitive Slave Law no longer applied. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy, in September of 1861, referred to the slaves as “persons of color, commonly known as contrabands,” and directed that they be paid for their work for the Navy; three weeks later the Army followed suit. In August of 1861, the U.S. government passed the confiscation act, which forbade returning all contraband, including slaves, to the Confederacy. The numbers of escaped slaves increased as this policy became known, and the earliest recorded use of the song was as a rallying cry among the contrabands somewhere before July 1862. It appears to have been sung by Virginia slaves as early as 1853.
I want to take you back to a period a couple of thousand years before 1853, though, to the area from what became fort Monroe to the area that became St. Louis and Chicago and ask you to consider what that area looked like, what was the dominant form

The wall around the Great Circle at Newark, Ohio, was built by digging a trench on both sides of the wall and massing the dirt thus excavated.

The wall around the Great Circle at Newark, Ohio, was built by digging a trench on both sides of the wall and massing the dirt thus excavated.

of getting your means of survival? What were means of production and survival in those days? I want to challenge you to think of a time before private property, when for the most part people lived in small groups, relied little on cultivation, and “owned” everything in common. When survival was at the mercy of the seasons and nature, where cooperation was essential for survival, where in good years/seasons the means of survival was abundant, where in times of scarcity, survival hung on a slender thread. This is the vast majority of human “prehistory,” in the sense that we have no written records of this, what we commonly call history.
Fast forward to about 500 in what we call the “Common Era.” The largest group of people living together in North America (that we know about) lived in Southern Illinois, in a center we call Cahokia; about 20,000 to 30,000 people we think lived there. And in another 1,000 years, by the time the first European settlers came along the Mississippi in that area, no people lived there. What happened to them? There is no evidence of plague or disease wiping them out. There is no evidence of them having been conquered. What happened?
There are many forms of private property in history. Still, we’ve lived most of our history, tens of thousands of years, in a cooperative or communist form of social organization. Because in North America early communist society persisted so long, some of what happened in Europe, for example, never happened here. Private property began in North America somewhere between 2,000 and 1,000 years ago. Private property begins with the accumulation of means of survival and means of production in some form of agriculture (including the domestication of animals). Slavery is a system of the ownership of private property. It becomes the dominant form of the ownership of private property as agriculture is able to produce enough to (barely) feed the slaves and a surplus product for (the lavish benefit of) the slave owner and his family and household. If you have a choice between being a member of a society that gives you what you need without being owned by someone, under what circumstances would you become a slave? Coercion? What would make such a society attractive?

Map of Fort Ancient

Map of Fort Ancient

I like to think (or fantasize) that in Cahokia, as the town grew larger and possibilities for accumulation grew, the people of Cahokia rejected the direction toward private property and dispersed. Probably they still had oral traditions of their past, even in some cases actual memories. We know that when Europeans did arrive in the Ohio and Illinois River valleys, they found evidence of the past in large effigy and burial mounds throughout the area we now call the Midwest and Southeast. As settling agriculturalists from Europe took and plowed the land, they probably destroyed most of the evidence of the existence of a diverse people we call “Mound Builders” now. However there are still extensive formations, such as the ones at Newark, at Fort Ancient, and at the Great Snake Mound, all in Ohio. And alongside these areas cultures developed that knew warfare, cultivated maize, and were in some transitional phase perhaps toward what we are describing as slavery.
But the Europeans, and particularly the English, brought to these areas a new form of private property, one that was just emerging. The development of trade was fundamental to this new form. Certainly some form of exchange has existed ever since private property existed. But trading societies were rare in antiquity. They were also subject to the dominance of slavery (e.g. Rome and Greece as prime examples) where warfare reduced conquered peoples to the status of slaves on agricultural plantations; or colonies required to purchase the goods produced in the trading society. In Europe that changed as first the dominant form of property ownership changed from people to land, that demanded that the person who worked the land have some stake in producing the product. And then, as the land produced increasing wealth, beyond what would be consumed in Europe; and as means for calculating the wealth changed; and as the means for exchanging the wealth improved with the extraction of precious metals from, and genocide of the peoples of, the Americas; so capitalism began to emerge.
Sometimes we tend to look around us and dismiss capitalism as super-consumption; empire; selling a product for more than you pay for it. Some of all of that is true, of course. But fundamentally, what capitalism does is it reduces everything to the level of a commodity, something made for sale, made for exchange rather than for the use of the maker.
In the case of slavery, where control of the human being is the form of private property that dominates, there is no exchange. The slave owner dispenses the product that the owner owns as he sees fit. There is no exchange between members of the slave owners’ family or between master and slave. Capitalism, however, grafted something new on the body of classical slavery. The French with sugar (Haiti for example) and the British with cotton (in the South of the U.S.) used the old form of slavery to build a world economic system of commodity production. This was capitalist slavery.
In the case of commodity production, the producer is ostensibly free to sell the only commodity he or she owns: the ability to work. Yes it is true that there are other commodities out in the world that the worker purchases. But once that commodity is purchased, it suffices as a substance of use for the buyer. It’s easiest to see this in terms of food, clothing, shelter for example. Capitalism is an economic system in which the worker is personally free; without work, he or she is also free to starve. Capitalists have no obligation to an unemployed worker as the Lord might have had toward the peasant on his land, or for that matter the classical slave owner. It is in this sense that we call capitalism, for the working class, wage-slavery. The worker has no place to turn except to the capitalist for obtaining the means of subsistence which the working class has produced. The capitalist then purchases the commodity that worker has to offer, but finds in that worker’s commodity something that no other commodity has: the ability to produce more means of subsistence than he or she needs to survive.
Slavery is a contract that says: you are mine, you owe me everything you produce. In return for producing for me, I the owner will keep you alive. I own whatever surplus product you make. Only force could compel this kind of contract.
Feudalism is a contract that says: the land is mine. I will let you have a parcel of land to work for yourself on a given number of days during the year. I will protect you from marauders. The rest of the time you must work for me on a different plot of land. I own everything you produce on that plot. Clearly the peasant has more incentive here: it is a system where it is clear what is mine and what is yours, without artifice. But as the peasant plots were reduced in size, the time allotted to cultivating them was decreased, and the forced servitude in the Lord’s armies increased, even this incentive vanished and force became primary.
In capitalism the contract says: I buy your commodity and set it to work in my means of production (factory, school, office, etc). Because I now own your commodity, I can work it as long as the contract says I can (to the limit of 24 hours per day – and that has been the case). Whatever you produce in that time is mine. With the wage that I pay you, you get to buy back from me and my class what you need to survive (food, clothing, shelter). But I get to accumulate the surplus product as mine, and to transform it into money. Not only that; I get to improve your productivity – that is your ability to produce more in the same amount of time for less cost. Thereby I get to make even more money.
A new quality has entered the realm of capitalism. Up until the last 30 years or so, the inevitable demise of capitalism, predicted 150 years ago because of increases of productivity, has been delayed. The main reason for this has been as the intensity of production (and productivity) exceeded the boundaries of each national market, capitalism had somewhere else to expand (meaning make war on, conquer, make part of an empire and export capital to in order to exploit). The intensity of exploitation was matched by extensivity. As capitalism has exported its commodity production from Boston to Bangladesh, from Iowa to India, from California to Chile, it has also streamlined production to eliminate or reduce its purchase of the commodity of the

Getting Back on Track: Service Robots 2010

Transforming what we know as productivity: Service Robots 2010

ability to work. Automation, in the era of electronics, has fundamentally transformed what we know as productivity. So the workers of India are competing against fully automated factories elsewhere (and the workers in the U.S. cannot find jobs at all).
What do we call it then, when workers are totally ejected from the relationship between employer and employed, when wage-slavery is not even an option? What do we call it when a totally surplus population is no longer needed by the owning class? When public housing is torn down, schools are closed, mental health facilities destroyed, water is privatized, school districts get military grade weapons to patrol the corridors, and police departments are equipped with military armored vehicles?
We are faced with a situation similar to many other transformations in society – yet totally new. It is a transformation in which the old form of ownership is attempting to protect its control of private property. But the impulse to transform society is not to another form of private property but to abolish private property entirely, to return it to common ownership. And the impulse is two fold. First and foremost, the impulse is the survival of the species. Secondly, within that, the survival of those cast out by capitalism can only be reached by the transformation to a society that provides for all.
Capitalism globally is moving to find ways to protect private property, which lead to increased use of force and violence. More and more the state merges with corporations and nationalization takes place in the interest of the corporations. We’re talking about fascism.
The people are increasingly and globally finding it necessary to challenge a system which can only destroy them. And that is the challenge of our time, the meaning of “Go Down Moses” today.
We are living in a time of abundance AND slavery, when the choices open to us are narrowing by the minute. Here is the bleak landscape capitalism offers us .Either we exist in a vortex of ever more impoverishing wage-slavery, or we are reduced to actual chattel-slavery or death. .
BUT we have an opening we have NEVER had before. We can choose abundance for all. We really have no option but to develop the revolutionary networks that go beyond petitioning pharaoh to “let our people go.” That is the task that the League of Revolutionaries for a New America has set itself. Please talk to me if you want to know more about the LRNA.

Eduardo Galeano: Because of You, We Will Remember

galeanodouble-webEduardo Galeano sat at my dining room table in my Chicago apartment on Lill Street one block away from Guild Books, pen poised and a stack of books to be signed at his side. Breakfast consumed, he had reluctantly agreed to sign some books in advance of his appearance at the bookstore later that Saturday, 1988.   He was anxious, it seemed, and we had been warned that his health was mending after some heart issues. We didn’t press him to sign books, but were delighted when he agreed with our suggestion that some folks might just want to purchase a signed copy without talking with him. After a walk in the neighborhood he arrived at the bookstore. He began to read.

The crowd hung on his words, as he read in English but also in Spanish, and then answered questions, altogether about an hour and a half, and then began signing books, as the line snaked throughout the store. He talked with each person as much as the person wanted; he took pictures with the customers and their children. I stood at his side doing the task that all booksellers do in this situation: open the books to the pages preferred for the signature. And about 45 minutes into the signing ritual Eduardo turned to me with a broad but incredulous smile: “They like me. They really like me!”

Before he left, Eduardo toured the 3,000 square feet of the book store and spent some time looking at the political and labor posters we had for sale, on display in a rack. He fingered the display, took some notes, and left. The next morning friends of ours recorded an interview with him on video and took him in search of Haymarket Square, a search that proved unsuccessful.

Some years later he returned for a reading of the Book of Embraces. In a section entitled “Forgetting,” about Haymarket and about Guild, he wrote:

Bk of EmbracesAfter my fruitless exploration of the Haymarket, my friends take me to the largest bookstore in the city. And there, poking around, just by accident, I discover an old poster that seems to be waiting for me, stuck among many movie and rock posters. The poster displays an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

 

In 1995 Guild Books had been closed for two years, but the Guild Complex hosted Eduardo for his newest book, Walking Words. Diana and I drove him to the reading location, a settlement house in the Wicker Park area, and on the way crossed the Chicago River. Walking Words is a book of myths, some modern, some older, many of water spirits and animals, in a collaborative with Jose Francisco Borges, whose woodcuts illustrate the stories. Diana told Eduardo stories about the Chicago River, whose history included years of being set on fire from the materials polluting the waters, years of being unsafe to drink for the animals that populated the river, years of being attacked by the manufacturers who degraded the water supply and the people who lived on its banks. Eduardo listened, intent, with evident pain in his face. “But wait,” Diana said, “the river had its revenge. Last year the river refused to be contained by the man made barricades, burst through into the tunnel through which the subways run and up into the streets of the city, causing millions and millions of dollars of damage.”

“The earth has memory,” Eduardo said. “That is important. Memory is important. I want to know more about memory.”

A decade had passed between the time I first tried to get Eduardo Galeano to come to my bookstore and the publication party for Walking Words. By the time Book of Embraces was published, Susan Bergholz (Eduardo’s agent) had negotiated a contract with a different publisher, W.W. Norton, whose list more adequately represented the independent ideas expressed by Galeano. How could Eduardo possibly remain with Random House, the publisher who had fired Pantheon’s manager, Andres Schiffrin? Which had been taken over by European conglomerate Bertelsmann? Whose corporate leadership reveled in the literary (meaning sales) qualities of Danielle Steele?

Not knowing at all. Forgetting. And recovering memory.

We know now where the Haymarket was, where the rally was for which the Haymarket martyrs were arrested and imprisoned and executed. In 2006 Henry Holt published Eduardo’s Voices of Time, continuing the epigrammatic form he has worked with, this time “stories that I lived or heard.”   At the Guild Complex we convinced Susan Bergholz to take Eduardo’s strenuous tour through Chicago once more. He read for us at the Museum of Contemporary Art to a packed audience. For many, this was the culmination of what Guild Books had been about. For us, it was an opportunity of bringing memory, forgetting, and not knowing at all together, these themes that strike at the heart of Galeano’s work and of the revolutionary process.

May Day, 2006, just weeks earlier, I walked among almost a million Chicagoans along a route from Union Park to Randolph into the Loop and Grant Park. The steel, concrete and glass canyons resounded with the chants of marchers, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” reverberated from the walls of those buildings, the marchers swelling into the streets in a mass farther than anyone could see.

But before coming to the loop, just a few blocks out of Union Park, we came to Randolph and Des Plaines. I stepped to the sidewalk, stood in the shadow of the corner building and looked north as the throng walked by me. The contingent from one union, also looking north, paused briefly and saluted the sculpture across the way – a recreation of the platform from which the speakers addressed their audience that May, 1886.

To bring this reality of American consciousness to the reading that Eduardo was going to do, we made sure that some of those union leaders representing the marchers introduce Eduardo. And so they did, and we had the chance to talk about the sculpture, the march, and that although many marchers did not know where Haymarket square was, and we noted the fact that their march reclaimed not only the memory of the martyrs but the reality of the struggle which continues.

My life after Guild Books led me to become an assistant manager in Barnes & Noble. This essay closes with a morning meeting, the kind of meeting that corporations think is necessary to get everyone on board for the day’s sales. This day was May Day. So I took the opportunity to dig out The Book Of Embraces to read to the opening staff the words about this historic day. Most listened in respectful silence, Open Veinsone or two said they knew about this, I noticed a sneer and some uncomfortable whispering. But when the meeting was over, one of the receivers (the department responsible for unpacking books and getting them ready for shelving) came over to me. He was a Scottish immigrant going to school while working. His expression was intent, excited. “You mean the workers holiday,” he said, “international workers day started here, in Chicago? I did na’ know that. That’s amazing!”

I want to be clear about this: while this piece is about Eduardo Galeano; and while it is about what kind of bookstore Guild Books was; and of course about my relationship to both; fundamentally it is about literature and revolution. It is about history and lions and how, by recovering memory, of making known what is unknown, the lions begin to write their own history.

On this day, April 13, 2015 we learned that Don Eduardo Galeano has died. Eduardo, we will remember. Because of you, we will remember.

 

 

Earth Day to May Day! Presented by Workers United April 26

Global Climate Convergence:  Earth Day to May Day Celebration at Workers United Union Hall

MAYDAYbob13

 

MAYDAYbob14-spanish

May Day Celebration and March for Immigrants’ Rights: Stop Deportations!

125 years ago, the international workers’ movement declared our own holiday — May 1st. Workers the world over have been marching as one on this day, continuing the struggle for justice, the right to organize, the right to jobs for all at a living wage. The power of the May Day tradition is ever more important in this age of corporate globalization.

This year’s commemorative plaque will be placed on the Haymarket Memorial by the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT). After our ceremony, we’ll join the annual march for Immigration Justice.

The annual May Day immigrants’ rights march steps off from Haymarket Square May 1 at 3 PM.

May Day

Working Class Perspectives on Pete Seeger by Kathy Newman

http://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/sing-out-lessons-from-the-extraordinary-life-of-pete-seeger/

Sing Out! Lessons from the Extraordinary Life of Pete Seeger

(reprinted from the Working Class Studies Blog)

th-4Like thousands of fellow Americans, I have spent the last week listening to Pete Seeger’s recordings, poring over his many obits, and inhaling Alec Wilkinson’s wonderful short biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. With this work behind me, I offer seven lessons that those of us committed to working-class justice and working-class studies can glean from Seeger’s extraordinary life.

Scholars of working-class culture have a lot to offer working-class movements. Some of Seeger’s first paid work was for the legendary folk music authority, John Lomax. As Wilkinson notes in his bio of Seeger, each week Seeger listened to hundreds of records at the Library of Congress—“English and Scotch Irish ballads kept alive in the thSouth, rural blues, farmer songs, widow’s laments, millworker songs, soldier songs, sea shanties, slave songs, tramp songs, and coal miner songs.” By the end of Seeger’s time in the archive, he had flagged a collection of protest songs that he wanted to make into a book, but “his father thought it too controversial.”But soon enough Seeger found someone like himself, Lee Hays, who had “compiled a book of union songs.” Hays and his roommate, Mill Lampell, along with Woody Guthrie, became the nucleus of Seeger’s first band: The Almanacs.  Click here to read more

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May Day And The Immigrant Worker: Chris Mahin in Tribuno del Pueblo

From Pilsen to Pilsen:
May Day and the immigrant worker

BY CHRIS MAHIN

May Day began in the United States, and immigrants played a decisive role in creating it.

On May 1, 2006, more than 750,000 workers – most of them immigrants – took part in a demonstration for immigrant rights in Chicago. They marched past Haymarket Square, the very spot where immigrant workers had rallied in 1886. Many of the workers in the 2006 demonstration lived in Pilsen, a Chicago neighborhood named after a city in Central Europe where many of yesterday’s immigrants came from. The immigrant workers of Chicago had revived the celebration of May Day in the city where it had been created — by an earlier generation of immigrant workers.

On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States struck to demand the eight-hour day. Chicago was the strike’s center. At that time, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. Its factories were being filled by workers from England, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Bohemia, Sweden and many other countries.

Three days later, a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police attack on a group of strikers. Speeches were given in several languages. As this protest was winding to a close, cops moved in. They ordered the last speaker – an English immigrant, Samuel Fielden – to stop. Then someone threw a bomb. It killed one police officer and wounded many. The police opened fire, killing many participants in the rally.

The police responded by breaking into homes, wrecking the printing presses of foreign-language newspapers, and beating and arresting union leaders. Immigrant workers were accused of being terrorists.

Eight union leaders were put on trial, charged with being accessories to murder at Haymarket Square. One – Samuel Fielden – was from Lancashire, England. Six had been raised in Germany: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, and August Spies.

Despite worldwide protests, four of the defendants were hanged. (A fifth, Louis Lingg, died in his cell under suspicious circumstances.) Three were given long sentences.

In 1889, at the International Labor Congress in Paris, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor proposed that the Congress adopt May 1 as International Labor Day.

# # #

This article was originally published in the May 2013 issue of the Tribuno del Pueblo newspaper. For more information, go to www.tribunodelpueblo.org.

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