Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Garden of Shame: Are We Ready Yet for James Baldwin?

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

         The film has no narrator. At times actor Samuel L. Jackson speaks words that American writer James Baldwin wrote. Sometimes Baldwin is seen on screen speaking on talk shows, at a Cambridge, England debate, or in brief clips from interviews given decades ago.
            The film "I Am Not Your Negro" by Raoul Peck is not 'about' the life or work of James Baldwin, his life, his autobiography, his literary oeuvre.
             It's not a biopic.
            It's about what he said. What he said about America.
            Baldwin's words are more relevant, and revelatory, than ever. Reviewer Nicolas Rapold offers the best definition I've seen of this film: a "masterfully eloquent living essay on race and America."
            The title "I Am Not Your Negro"is something Baldwin said. Meaning, I take it, that neither he, nor any other person of color, of African ancestry, is to be seen from "your" perspective. Which is to say that white people invented the 'negro': that there is no such thing as a 'negro' without a white person to see a black one as the "other."
            Baldwin -- who was born in Harlem in 1924 and died in 1987 -- sees himself, as the film unquestionably demonstrates, as an "American."
            The movie asks us -- through the accumulation of images rather than bald statement -- where does all this hate from other Americans, the white ones, for people like Baldwin, come from?
            Since seeing this film I've been reminding myself of the dirty secret that has come to light so frequently in recent years: That American police shoot, kill, and otherwise mistreat African Americans as they would not dream of treating anyone else. And that America's public officials, its governing establishment, its courts, its mayors, its police chiefs, back them up -- no matter what they do. (With some exceptions, I suppose. But after the cavalcade of visually documented horrors that flash by in "I Am Not Your Negro" it's hard to remember them.)
            That could be us, could be me, white people think when some pathetic creature in a uniform explains why he had to kill an unarmed black man. A dirty little thing in our conscience offers us the answer: we don't really think these people are human, do we?
            We are afraid, we think. And we think we are right to be afraid.
            As another of the film's recent reviewers (Kenneth Turan in the "LA Times") pointed out, the film's message, insofar as it can be reduced, is encapsulated in its first few minutes.
            No narrative is offered. No titles tell you what you are seeing, or when, or the names of the images on the screen.
            If you are old enough to recognize the faces, you know that we're seeing footage from the "Dick Cavett Show." A liberal's show. The year (a review tells me) is 1968.
            The wave of the "Civil Rights Era," the famous demonstrations, the landmark federal laws, has crested by 1968 and is on the way down, though that may not be obvious at the time. But that's the background, the legal gains of the Civil Rights era, for Cavett's question:
“Why aren’t Negroes more optimistic — it’s getting so much better.”
            As a look of almost horror-movie 'weariness' overtakes his features  -- and Baldwin's facial expressions can be as eloquent as his words -- he replies, “It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro. The real question is what is going to happen to this country.”
            What appears to be happening, we learn from a brief excerpt Baldwin's appearance at another public forum is that white Americans are allowing themselves to become “moral monsters” through unexamined bigotry.
            We see expressions of hatred, and hateful acts, more intense than we were allowed to see on TV or in film footage back in the sixties. The prospect of a female African American teenager integrating a high school turns white protestors into a mass of seething devils. They look, and behave, like something out of Bosch's medieval depictions of hell.
            These images are intercut with words from others, from Baldwin, from newscasters, white racists, politicians, exclamations of grief from the loved ones of victims. The film moves very fast, without regard to obvious chronology, narrative line, plot, or expository framework. It offers footage from the Civil Rights era; footage from the Ferguson demonstrations. No one is telling you how, but you know, you feel, how it all fits together. It's the densest hour and a half I can recall experiencing, on film or anywhere else.
            When you try to use words afterwards to explain its effect, you come up with something like this:
            Black Americans are not a faction, a racial group, or a census demographic, and they're certainly not a monolithic 'community.' They are Americans. You can't separate them out; they don't exist anywhere but here.
            And America is not America apart from them. And yet, white Americans can't seem to accept who we are as Americans. And that failure is killing us.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

One Hundred Years Ago: Flowers Planted in the Garden of Hate

            At a time when Presidential orders seek to close doors on refugees and ban travelers from Muslim-majority countries, the infamous Sacco-Vanzetti case of a century ago illustrates the extremes anti-immigrant hysteria can reach in American politics. 
            I'll be speaking on my novel drawn from the Sacco-
Vanzetti case, "Suosso's Lane," and reading from the book,
at the Dedham Historical Society, 612 High St., on Thursday, Feb. 23, 7:30 p.m. I'll bring paperback copies for sale and signing.
           "Suosso's Lane," dramatizes immigrant life in the early 20th century and traces the role the 1920 political panic over 'dangerous, radical' foreigners -- known as the Red Scare -- played in condemning two Italian immigrants to death. 
             I believe there are lessons for our own time from the notorious Sacco-Vanzetti case. Especially now, a few weeks into a new administration, when the reins of power are in the hands of a president whose stated goals appear to signal a decline of democratic and egalitarian values, much like the period in which Sacco and Vanzetti were executed because of their beliefs and their ethnicity.      
            American democracy has seen dangerous times before -- anti-democratic and surely anti-egalitarian national moods -- and it has recovered. But judging from the past, the potential for abuse is strongly present at such times.
             On top of a growing nativist resentment of new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe -- and a particular prejudice against Italians -- two major events transformed the nation's political climate in 1917: The United States entered World War I; and the Russian Revolution created a Communist regime hostile to America's capitalist economic system. Communist parties elsewhere predicted that Russia's radical transformation was the forerunner of a world-wide revolution, making other governments, including our own, nervous.
          America's entry into World War I led to a military draft. Reacting -- and over-reacting -- to anti-war opposition from the country's radical left-wing, Congress passed laws that criminalized political dissent, making criticism of the draft and the decision to fight the war illegal. (Compare this to the Vietnam period!)
           These stress points compounded growing fractures in American society because opposition to these wartime policies was strongest among the radical worker movements led by Socialists and Anarchists, many of whom were foreign nationals. Declaring that 'opposition' meant 'subversion,' the federal government created the first true national police (or spy) service, the FBI, to harass and prosecute war opponents such as the prominent Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani, founder of the Italian language newspaper Cronaca Sovversiva. Its subscribers included Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
            With more prejudice and ideology than cause, an exaggerated fear of violent revolution led U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to obtain thousands of warrants to arrest radicals, search their premises, confiscate literature, and destroy presses. Influenced by the nation's jingoistic war mood and the dire prophecies of his own new security apparatus, Palmer and others demonized socialist and anarchist opposition to the war. Palmer stated: "The Red Movement" -- a extremist term du jour -- "is not a righteous or honest protest against alleged defects in our present political and economic organization of society… It is a distinctly criminal and dishonest movement in the desire to obtain possession of other people’s property by violence and robbery.” This was complete nonsense, but scare talk from high officials has its impact. Each 'Red' radical (according to Palmer) was therefore “a potential thief.”(25) If you believed that, and you found yourself on a jury, it was easy to believe that anarchists were likely to rob factory payrolls.
            In fact they were not. Some anarchists at this time chose violence. But when anarchists go to war against a government, they do not rob payrolls, or steal; what they do is plant bombs or otherwise attempt to assassinate leaders of the status quo. (Some acts of political violence are, of course, the work of lone nuts.)
            Denied legitimate means of protest, their press shut down, their subscription list confiscated, their freedom of speech, press and assembly criminalized, some hard-line supporters of Luigi Galleani -- who was tried and deported for opposing the draft -- turned to the only means they believed available to them: bombs. Bombs were mailed to government and big business targets in April of 1919; and hand-delivered to the homes and offices in June. One of the latter explosives destroyed half of Palmer's house, though no one there was hurt.
            These events were the immediate backdrop for the increased repressions of the "Red Scare." Palmer launched two series of raids, in November of 1919 and January of 1920. His agents arrested thousands of 'aliens' without warrants, holding many for deportation often in horrendous conditions and without due process of law. Ultimately, only 446 were actually deported (by administrative hearing), before the courts intervened and a reaction against abuses of executive power took place. But fourteen raids on leftists took place in Massachusetts, and in Boston five hundred aliens were marched through the streets in chains and taken to the Deer Island House of Correction, where they were isolated "in brutally chaotic conditions,” according to later government reports.
            It was against this backdrop that Sacco and Vanzetti -- two names federal agents knew from the subscription list to Galleani's anarchist newspaper "Cronaca Sovversiva" -- were charged with the robbery of a Braintree shoe factory payroll and the killing of two payroll officers despite any direct evidence, and convicted by a native-born Massachusetts jury that believed all foreign anarchists should be 'strung up,' according to the jury foreman.
            A time of "us" and "them."
            The Sacco-Vanzetti case appears to shine a light on the darker side of American society's historical treatment of immigrants of 'unfamiliar' ethnicities. Periodically -- especially in those periods when a 'new' group of foreign nationals arrives in large numbers -- the so-called 'nation of immigrants' has exhibited a desire to close doors and build walls. Forgetful of their own non-native origins, many Americans are quick to close the borders on the next group of newcomers, whose language or manners, or religion, or skin tone, or potential for economic competition, or imagined demand for public services, appears to threaten the well-being of those already comfortably settled in the United States. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, it was the turn of Italians to be the most numerous and visible of these presumed-to-be-problematic newcomers. The executions of Sacco and Vanzetti were a direct consequence -- and an international symbol -- of that fear of "the others." 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Garden of Verse: A Quiet But Unforgettable Poem About 'Winter Sundays'

      A monthly column written by poet David Graham for Verse-Virtual, the online poetry journal to which I contribute each month, continues to contribute to my education. The column is called "Poetic License." This month David writes about one of his favorite poets, Robert Hayden, and shares some great poems including, to quote from the column, this "rather understated, rueful lyric about [his father], 'Those Winter Sundays,' which if not my favorite poem of all time, is certainly in my top five":

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

To read the rest of David Graham's column, see Verse-Virtual at:

        I have four new poems in the February issue, including one based on a photo of a Great Blue Heron by fellow poet Jim Lewis. Jim posted his photo on Facebook and challenged other poets who write for to write a poem inspired by looking this bird in the eye. My response to the challenge begins…

Courage of the Wind
(based on Jim Lewis’s photo of the Great Blue Heron)

You see me, as always, before I see you
You turn on a corner of the wind
where the air meets sky and the scent
of salt marsh bathes the hours
I know you by the killer eye in your bone arrow,
your linear head-piece head-on to the future
that houses both sense and brain, and the rapier jaw,
the needle of thought sewn through sky and brine,
the silvery flesh of life in the quick
and the ocular penetration,
right-angled from your dagger stab

… to read the rest of this poem and all the others in the February 2017 issue of, see

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Nation of Shame: Shutting Down Speech on the Senate Floor

There once was a piece of Old Diggery

Who handed out lessons in piggery
He stood up on a box his oaf song to sing
Quashing a letter from Coretta Scott King
And birthed a whole nation of triggery

             What's next? A caning on the Senate floor?

In the years before the Civil War the attack on Massachusetts Senator Charlies Sumner by a racist Congressman from South Carolina drove an irreparable wedge between two parts of the country, as the North learned that the slave owners on the other side lacked all decent respect for human life.
         (For the whole story see Massachusetts author Stephen Puleo's book, "The Caning: The Assault That Drove America to Civil War," for the details. Here's the link for that  book:
          These reflections are prompted by the Senate majority's attack on the freedom of speech of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who opposes the nomination of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. Jeff Sessions is a racist. His history is on the record; it's no secret. When he sought to prosecute Civil Rights activists, back in Alabama where the government did that sort of thing routinely, he attacked a white lawyer defending the activists by calling him "a traitor to your race."
           I don't know about anybody else, but I don't want to be part of any "race" that Jeff Sessions is a member of. 
           Race is a fiction, a lie. There is no scientific basis for dividing human beings into races. There is only one human race. We are all in it. Unfortunately, some of our members are throwback degenerates, like Jeff Sessions.   
             Sessions, and every Republican senator who supports him, plus the despicable administration that proposed him (which appears to be government by White Supremacist Loose Cannon Bannon), are trying to drive America back to the pre-Civil Rights era when it's OK to slander members of "other" non-white groups whenever the need arises -- Muslims are terrorists; African-Americans are cop killers -- but illegal to point out that craven politicians appeal to white Americans' baser instincts by using racial slurs. That is, it's OK to be a racist, but it's not OK to call a white American a racist.
             What Warren was doing when the Senate gagged her last night was reading a letter from Coretta Scott King, generally regarded as reliable source on civil rights, opposing Sessions's nomination for a federal judgeship back in 1986 on the grounds of his blatant, repeated opposition to Civil Rights after desegregation became the law of the land. Back then, the Senate defeated his nomination.
             King's letter is straight-forward, but the language is civil. Her letter states: "Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge.” 
             This is a factual claim.
              Somehow Senate Republicans alleged it was an attack on one of their members -- Alabama voters having chosen to vote the racist Jeff Sessions to the US Senate -- that violated some kind of rule about saying not-nice things about one of their members. 
               Brain-dead Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell ruled she could no longer speak on the nomination and was supported by his ignorant clones. 
               Folks, we are increasingly two countries. I don't wish to be part of any country that allows Jeff Sessions, or McConnell, or the p.o.s. in the White House  to govern us. (I expect the antipathy is returned.)  

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Garden of Verse: The Greatest Political Poem, Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy"

     On August 16, 1819, a public meeting of England's vast new industrial working class, then seeking more representation in Parliament -- and, perhaps, the vote for a few members of their own class -- that drew about 60,000 men, women and children to a site near Manchester was violently broken up by an attack of armed soldiers on horseback.
            A sword-blow and trampling massacre of participants took a disputed number of lives -- the official total 11, the unofficial five times higher -- including a little girl trampled to death.
            Living in Italy, driven from England for his radical views -- chief among them being his atheism, a punishable crime under English law -- the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley received the news by mail, "and the torrent of my indignation has not yet done boiling in my veins," he wrote to his publisher in London. 
            (My source for quotes and background information is "Shelley: The Pursuit" by Richard Holmes.)
            There was nothing liberal, democratic, civil libertarian or progressive about the government of England 200 years ago. Thirty years into its current Constitutional government and still adhering (as least as of the moment in 2017) to the protections of its hallowed First Amendment freedoms, the United States did not prosecute aetheists or make a habit of breaking up public meetings by government critics. American democracy was far from complete: only property-owning white males could vote, and half the country premitted slavery. But this country lacked a monarch or a social class system that enshrined certain people on the basis of birth alone with important rights and powers not shared by others.
            I can't really make a case for a connection between the situation faced by powerless working people in the early decades of the industrial revolution and the current political crisis in the United States brought on by the election of a "so-called president" who manages to meld everything that is wrong with our society, and much that always has been (such as racism), into one bloated, arrogant, narcissistic, ignorant personage...
            .... except to express my admiration over a great poet's ability to turn his "torrent of indignation" in great art.
            Nevertheless see this excerpt from Chris Hedges' recent discussion of the "moral monsters" of our own day:
            "Bannon and his followers on the 'alt-right,' self-declared intellectuals, ferret out facts and formulas that buttress their peculiar worldview and discard truths that contradict their messianic delusions. They mouth a few clich├ęs and quote a few philosophers to justify bigotry, chauvinism and governmental repression. It is propaganda masquerading as ideology. These pseudo-intellectuals are singularly incurious. They are linguistically, culturally and historically illiterate about the Muslim world, and about most other foreign cultures, yet blithely write off one-fifth of the world’s population—Muslims—as irredeemable. ...The inability of white supremacists like Trump and Bannon to recognize the humanity of others springs from their spiritual impoverishment. They mistake bigotry for honesty and ignorance for innocence. They cannot separate fantasy from reality. Such people are, as author James Baldwin said, 'moral monsters.'"
            Shelley knew about moral monsters too. 
            The poet's response to the massacre, which took place at a site called St. Peter's Field (shortened by the vernacular to Peterloo), was the poem his impeccably informed biographer Richard Holmes calls "the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English."
            It's centered, Holmes writes, on "the most important single image Shelley took from the newspapers... that of the unarmed mother, whose child was trampled to death as the Yeomanry first charged."
            Many of Shelley's long poems, in a short life, are ambitious works based on classical mythological themes, such as "Prometheus Unbound," that presuppose the classical education of someone from his own upper-class background, or at least enough familiarity with 'great books' to recognize the names in their titles.  
            In "Anarchy" nothing of the sort. Again, from Holmes: "He found himself writing immediately in the colloquial ballad stanzas he had not used since 1812.... The lines were terse, flexible, rapid, based on the simple four-stress verse of the broadsheets, sometimes end-stopping, sometimes running on unchecked for a whole stanza, using a bewildering variety of full rhymes, half rhymes, assonance, the curous minor-key of half-assonance, and sudden bursts of burtal, merciless alliteration. ... the reader has the sense of a mass of unconsciously prepared material leaping forward into a unity at a single demand."
            An armed minion of the state trampling a child in a heartless, indifferent assault on a mass protest for social justice symbolized for Shelley the evil of a system that financed the idle life of the rich by an oppressed class who lacked rights and power -- and sometimes enough to eat.
            He turns the facts on the ground into a poem that mimics the style and apparatus of a medieval allegory. The "Mask" -- a word also rendered as 'masque' and 'masquerade' -- was a theatrical entertainment in which costumes and facial masks suggested mythical characters, moral states, or other generalities of the human condition. At the Elizabeth and Stuart courts, for instance, the "masques" were the presentations of a court officer known as "master of the revels." Shelley's heavily moralistic figures (in the stanzas below), such as Murder and Fraud, suggest characters in Medieval Morality Plays, in which Vice and Virtue and Everyman, among others, frequently appeared. The proper names in the poem's opening stanzas (Castlereagh, Eldon) are chief ministers in the English "government" who approved the militia's behavior and arrested various protest leaders on charges of sedition. 
            Also, for the record, the word "anarchy" here means a brutal chaos of unleashed passions. Shelley's classically based use of the term has nothing to do with the political philosophy called "anarchism," a product of the latter 19th century which argued for the dissolution of government as the answer to the injustices of power. In Shelley's poem "anarchy" is unleashed by power on the the powerless.
            The poem begins with an imagined poetic journey:
I met Murder on the way--
He had a mask like Castlereagh--
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,                                                       
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,                                  
Had their brains knocked out by them.

             The clear implication is the English government has no regard for the little children, or any other human beings of the lower classes, who have their "brains knocked out" by a tyrannical government's callous acts and systematic repressions.

            The "Mask of Anarchy" has 91 stanzas. In its last third, Shelley outlines, still in ballad-style metrical and rhymed verse, the path of massive nonviolent resistance to immoral authority that would in a later century be practiced by Gandhi in India and by the civil rights movement in the United States.
            Just face your armed oppressors bravely, the poet appears to say, and do not fight back. The movement created by this brave stance will grow and eventually succeed because a regime -- of any sort -- that uses force on nonviolent resistors eventually loses the support of its people. I would point out here the likelihood that some nonviolent resistors will lose their lives.
            Shelley's poem anticipated a violent response as well:
 With folded arms and steady eyes,

And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.

            What will happen as a result, he says, is those who participate in killing unarmed protestors will be shunned by the rest of society.
Every woman in the land
Will point at them as they stand--
They will hardly dare to greet
Their acquaintance in the street.

            And ultimately the resistance of the oppressed to injustice will succeed. So Shelley in a final, brilliantly triumphant stanza concludes:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number--
Shake your chains to earth like dew               370
Which in sleep had fallen on you--
Ye are many -- they are few.

            You win because the numbers are on your side. This was surely the case in India. It was the case in Iran, a country Americans tend to ignore given that its current government is no bargain, when demonstrators by the millions overthrew the Shah because his army would not fire on its own people.
            In India, of course, protestors were massacred at the Amritsar memorial in 1919. Yet Gandhi's movement (which, as I have just read, acknowledged the inspiration of this poem) ultimately succeeded in liberating his country from British rule.
            Civil Rights protestors were also beaten by white racists during the Civil Rights demonstrations (and some killed), not only in the South, but in places like Chicago, and also in Boston when black people faced racist taunts during the Boston school desegregation crisis. But the Civil Rights movement succeeded in changing the country, even if racism has clearly not disappeared from American society.
            What feels important about the example of "The Mask of Anarchy" to me -- in the present moment -- is that instances of extreme social injustice drive great poets (at least the best of them) mad with outrage. They are conductors of suffering.
            Outrageous abuses of authority such as the Peterloo massacre are lost to history after a century or two. Shelley's masterpiece of poetic response was lost to history for decades because nobody would publish it in 1819. No one had the courage to publish it then because the English government repressed dissent by prosecuting and jailing publishers, editors and authors responsible for printing criticisms of its policies, laws, and institutional injustices. In fairness, Shelley did not return to England to publish it under his own name and, probably, go to jail. He had left England, in part, to avoid that fate.
            While textbooks and university courses will routinely state that Shelley is regarded as one of England's "great" romantic poets, nobody much knows what he wrote beyond a few widely collected poems: "Ozymandias," with its useful moral that "fame is fleeting: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair." Or the Skylark, a short elegant lyric. Or, maybe, if they took college course that included it, "Ode to the West Wind," a middle-length poem which reads and feels like that breath of fresh air the poem promises will arrive. Most of us have heard its famous line: "If winter is here, can spring be far behind?"
            But most of his greater, more ambitious works were written to challenge the fundamental injustices of his own society.
            The genius of poetic response to injustice is a powerful weapon for resisting tyranny and oppression. We can find inspiration in the act of opening our souls and imaginations to the great prophetic works of the past.