September 11, 2016
Heather Ann Thompson’s much anticipated book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, has finally been released by Pantheon. What makes this particular account of the much-chronicled riot unique is the discovery of a treasure trove of transcripts and other court documents that were never meant to see the light of day. As Thompson writes in her Introduction,
One might well wonder why it has taken forty-five years for a comprehensive history of the Attica prison uprising of 1971 to be written. The answer is simple: the most important details of this story have been deliberately kept from the public. Literally thousands of boxes of documents relating to these events are sealed or next to impossible to access.
Given the compulsive, almost paranoid, control over information that the New York DOCCS continues to exert today, this is hardly surprising. Thanks to years of research and reporting, though, Thompson was rewarded with a couple of phone calls alerting her to thousands of documents and artifacts that were deposited at the Erie County courthouse and the New York State Museum. Most people who have done a lot of research can well imagine Thompson’s feelings on first encountering musty documents and blood-soaked artifacts, stacked up in darkened rooms. It must have been like Howard Carter entering King Tut’s tomb.
Nearly all of the items have since sunk back into the earth, somehow, and vanished from the public eye. “I can only hope,” Thompson writes in an end note, “that these vital materials that were in Buffalo and Albany have not been destroyed…”
First, the title. The use of “Uprising” is clearly deliberate, and, I think, a good choice. Not that “riot” would be wrong; according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word comes from the Medieval Latin riota, meaning “quarrel, dispute, uproar.” But the connotation of mindless, directionless violence is unavoidable, and it does not accurately reflect the deliberate nature of most of the uprising. Chapter 11 of Blood, for example, is called, “Order Out of Chaos.” The hook part of the title—”Blood in the Water”—is unfortunate. It’s certainly catchy, but feels unoriginal, and unnecessarily lurid. In fact, there is already a series of historical novels called Blood in the Water, based on ocean combat.
This overwrought quality sometimes creeps over into the prose, as well. For example, Part 1 opens with a profile of one of the principles in the story:
Frank “Big Black” Smith wondered if he would ever get used to being locked up. His cell felt like a casket with the lid left off just far enough for noise, bugs, and weather to get in, and conditions outside of that cage were also grim.
This is not a direct quote from Smith, nor is it cited. Thompson probably didn’t know exactly what Smith was wondering, and there’s no way to tell if the casket metaphor was his, or hers. The Attica uprising is sufficiently compelling in its own right; this particular lily does not need to be gilded.
But such concerns are pedantic. They are also insignificant in the face of the sheer magnitude of Thompson’s undertaking. Almost anyone who has composed a paper knows how hard it is to structure the thing, even if it’s only five pages long. Thompson created an extensive narrative from a mass of flotsam and jetsam—brief notes, personal letters, interviews, artifacts, court reports, unpublished dissertations, previous articles, and newspaper accounts—most of it piled in jumbles on shelves, or packed indiscriminately into boxes. Her citation is at once immense and extraordinarily detailed. Some of it appears to be necessarily ad hoc, due to the unique nature of her sources. Here’s one specimen:
Russell G. Oswald, Commissioner, Department of Correctional Services, Memorandum to Nelson A. Rockefeller, Governor, Subject: “Activities Report—February 8, 1973–March 7, 1973,” March 7, 1973, Nelson A. Rockefeller gubernatorial records, Departmental Reports, Series 28, New York (State), Governor (1959–1973: Rockefeller), Record Group 15, Box 2, Folder 32, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York.
This is definitely one to share with my students when they’re having trouble citing a web page.
Next Up: The Causes.
August 30, 2016
Here’s Giuliani, according to Politico:
I saved more black lives than any of those people you saw on stage by reducing crime and particularly homicide by 75 percent…Of which, of which maybe 4,000 or 5,000 were African-American young people who are alive today because of the policies I put in effect that weren’t in effect for 35 years…I didn’t fail Harlem. I turned Harlem around. I didn’t fail Bedford-Stuyvesant, I turned it around. Go there now. Go walk in Harlem. Then flash back to 25 years ago and go to Harlem before I was mayor, and one was a place where crime was rampant and no national stores and now there’s a thriving community in Harlem.
Sorry, Bwana, but you are not the first to express such outrage. Here are some comments by Lyndon Johnson, from a 1976 New York Times article, written by Doris Kearns (!):
How is it possible that all these people should be so ungrateful to me after I have given them so much? Take the Negroes. I fought for them from the first day I came into office. I tried to make to possible for every child of every color to grow up in a nice house, to eat a solid breakfast, to attend a decent school, and to get a good and lasting job. I just asked a little in return. Just a little thanks. Just a little appreciation. That’s all.
There’s plenty more to that quote, of course, as the White Savior butthurt runs long and deep. But let’s go back even more, to 1899, and Rudyard Kipling:
Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.
It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.
July 29, 2016
A few years ago, one of my students said, “I use to love movies, but then I made the mistake of taking a film class. Now I can’t watch them any more.” And, just last week, a similar incident occurred.
We were coming off a module on rhetorical analysis. As usual, I had used movies as a language that could be read and analyzed. We went over the Rule of Thirds, and discussed film scores, especially the move away from the brassy fanfares of John Williams, to the dramatic strings, Carmina Burana choirs, and big, tribal drumming of, e.g., Hans Zimmer and Steve Jablonsky:
Then, out of perversity, I suppose, I introduced them to the Wilhelm Scream, and then to the practice of counting shot lengths, which I first learned from an article called “Quicker, Faster, Darker: Changes in Hollywood Film Over 75 Years,” by Cutting et al., from the Department of Psychology at Cornell. According to the study,
short shots likely increase viewer response to films and film segments, forcing observer eye movements to quickly reevaluate each new visual depiction and increasing heart rate and other bodily responses…Adding more motion to these short shots is likely to increase viewer response all the more. We suggest that this increasing correlation may help to couple attention to broader physiological responses.
Here’s the example I used in class, one of my favs: the central battle scene from the first Avengers movie, with the incredible 30-second tracking shot (!!!) that Joss Whedon manages to squeeze into the middle of an explosion of choppy chaos. (I love the arrow, in particular.)
Anyway, when the module was over, a few students admitted that they had started compulsively counting shot lengths when watching movies, and listening for the Wilhelm Scream, which should have been an epic win for me, right? But one student seemed more annoyed than anything else, almost disconsolate. I tried to make it better by saying, “But now that you’re aware of these things you should be able to ENJOY THE MOVIE EVEN MORE! And, anyway, there’s no going back now.”
The force of what I’d said struck me immediately, and it kept barging into my mind as I tried to move the class forward.
There’s no going back. You can’t go home again. “The place where you came from ain’t there any more, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out.” (Oates.) A necessary threshold to cross, certainly, and I had assumed that everything would be better once I’d led the students over it with a slight sense of gleeful superiority. Plus, as I made sure to tell them, it’s best to know when, and how, one is being manipulated by rhetoric. But still…
Am I overthinking this? Perhaps. But when class was over for the day, and the students were filing out, I couldn’t help but recall the end of Paradise Lost:
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
With apologies to Milton. And, of course, to the students.
July 1, 2016
Katherine Krueger, at Talking Points Memo, writes,
If Republican Donald Trump wins the White House in November, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said he expects unprecedented “levels of violence” from upset liberals.
Of course he does. That kind of rhetoric is pretty much boilerplate in some quarters. For example, Brian Tashman, at Right Wing Watch, has a blog post called, “Five Right-Wing Predictions About Marriage Equality That Still Haven’t Come True,” in which he presents a whole list of horrors that were supposed to have brought the country down by now. Here’s one:
Radio host Rick Wiles predicted that “God will cut off America’s food supply and this nation will be hit with disease, pestilence, drought, natural calamities and a great shaking” and urged people to flee the country.
Where does this apocalyptic mindset come from? Possibly, it has something to do with our religious heritage: terrified Puritans clinging to the edge of a “howling wilderness,” listening to Jonathan Edwards, or fiery leaders of the Second Great Awakening. One such was James McGready, a Presbyterian minister who, according to George McKenna, in his book, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism,
depicted the “furnace of hell with its red-hot coals of God’s wrath as large as mountains”…People fell in trances and some even went into seizures known as “the jerks”…Strange as “the jerks” were, there were reactions even stranger. There were, for example, “the barks.” One contemporary observer described them this way: “Both men and women would be forced to…move about on all fours, growl, snap the teeth, and bark in so personating a manner as to set eyes and ears of the spectator at variance.”
On the other hand, a historian I know believes apocalyptic rhetoric reflects the “slave-owning mentality.” When I think about how much of this hysteria is reserved for even the slightest expression of Black agency, his label makes sense. Here, for example, are a handful of quotes. The first is from Bill O’Reilly, as quoted by Caitlin Cruz, at TPM; the others were made by antebellum slavers, as quoted by James McPherson, in Battle Cry of Freedom:
“Here are two extremely famous individuals,” O’Reilly said [of Beyoncé and Jay Z], to briefly explain the couple’s accomplishments. “Do you think they know they’re giving money to an anarchistic group like [Black Lives Matter] that wants to tear down the country and talking about genocide, really extreme things?”
James Hammond, of South Carolina, commenting on the Wilmot Proviso in the 1840’s: Enactment would “proclaim freedom or something equivalent to it to our slaves and reduce us to the condition of Hayti…Our only safety is the equality of POWER. If we do not act now, we deliberately consign our children, not our posterity, but our children to the flames.”
“Do you love your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter?” a Georgia secessionist asked non-slaveholders. If Georgia remained in the Union “ruled by Lincoln and his crew…in TEN years or less our CHILDREN will be the slaves of negroes.”
“If you are tame enough to submit,” declaimed South Carolina’s Baptist clergyman James Furman, “Abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands…Submit to have our wives and daughters choose between death and gratifying the hellish lust of the negro!!”
Another example of this fear of a Black planet is the freak-out over Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, which Saturday Night Live perfectly skewered in “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.” Still another, even more recent, is the controversy that rocked the heretofore impervious bastion of West Point, over a photo of 16 Black women cadets raising their fists. The Army Times quotes Sue Fulton, a former Army captain and “long-time diversity advocate” for the military:
I would not have re-tweeted the raised-fist photo because I am well aware that our culture views a black fist very differently from a white fist…I knew it was their expression of pride and unity, but I am old enough to know that it would be interpreted negatively by many white observers. Unfortunately, in their youth and exuberance, it appears they didn’t stop to think that it might have any political context, or any meaning other than their own feeling of triumph.
In other words, they weren’t intelligent enough to know what they were doing, and they didn’t defer enough to White fears. Apparently, they should have known that, when many White Americans look at a picture like this:
Must have been their “youth and exuberance.”
My favorite response to all these apocalyptic visions comes from Sojourner Truth who, in an 1851 speech, said:
The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble….But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.
And now BLM and the LGBTQ community are “coming on him,” too. That would be enough to give anyone with the slave-owning mentality a case of the barks.
June 9, 2016
On March 1, Real Clear Politics reported on an exchange between Van Jones and Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord. According to the article,
Lord argued the Ku Klux Klan was a “military, terrorist arm of the Democratic party.”
“For God’s sake, read your history,” Lord said to Jones.
Ah, yes—history. We’ve been here before. For some reason, when Republicans demand that Democrats “read their history,” they like to leap back 100 years. But a funny thing happened on the way to these forums. Starting around 1960, White America collectively lost its shit over the rise of the Civil Rights Movement—as White America still tends to do whenever Black America so much as raises its voice, or its fists—and the Republicans saw an opportunity.
Let’s touch down on June 25, 1963, when the Washington Post and Times Herald printed a story by famed journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, titled, “The White Man’s Party.” Here are some excerpts:
There was a self-conscious lack of support, either private or public, for Negro rights at the meeting of the Republican National Committee [in Denver] last week. And for good reason.
Far from desiring to out-do Democrats as crusaders for racial equality, substantial numbers of Party leaders from both North and South see rich political dividends flowing from the Negrophobia of many white Americans. These Republicans want to unmistakably establish the Party of Lincoln as the white man’s party.
According to Evans and Novak, a “new political strategy for the Party was obliquely suggested in private chats,” based on a few widely-held assumptions:
Assumption No. 1: The Negro is inextricably linked to the Democratic Party…
Assumption No. 2: Because of his support for the Negro movement, President Kennedy is in serious trouble in the South.
Assumption No. 3: The spread of Negro demonstrations to the North has stirred concern—even fear—among Northern whites, including many Democrats. The white construction worker sees lowering the color bar in his Jim Crow union as a threat to his job. The lower middle class suburbanite, who has invested much of his savings in his home, sees the Negro who wants to live next door to him as a financial threat.
What to do?
Based on these assumptions, the Party policy on Negro rights should be ambiguous and cautious in an effort to woo the white vote. Outright avowal of segregation is not under consideration.
It never is, somehow.
But Republicans can legitimately base opposition to Negro demonstrations and to tough new legislation on established Republican principles of law-and-order, states’ rights and limited government.
It’s dog whistles all the way down. Evans and Novak end with this:
Not only is segregation doomed, but it also is inevitable that Negroes will eventually break through the bonds of poverty. They then might be naturally attracted to the Republican Party along with millions of other middle-income Americans—but not if the Republicans had by then become labeled as the white man’s party.
Too late. Over half a century later, neither segregation nor the “bonds of poverty” has been broken, and the Republican Party is now the party of Donald Trump.
Here’s a picture I took in a parking lot in upstate New York:
Whom do you think this guy is voting for? “Party of Lincoln,” indeed. As Jeet Heer recently wrote in The New Republic, “Conservative elites can denounce Trump all they want as a ‘cancer’ or an impostor. In truth, he is their true heir, the beneficiary of the policies the party has pursued for more than half a century.”
It’s called the Southern Strategy. For God’s sake, Lord, read more history.
May 22, 2016
“And there it is again—
beauty the brave, the exemplary,
-Mary Oliver, “Peonies”
I’m in Boston recharging my batteries after a long semester. I spent several hours at the Boston Common and the Public Garden. Students from various local high schools were promenading around the Duck Pond, before heading to prom. The boys were in tuxedos, of course, acting as the ground for the figure of the girls, resplendent in gowns of teal, crimson, and cream. They reminded me of the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Elsewhere, wedding parties were getting their pictures taken at the verge of the pond, and allowing large groups of sighing tourists to look on, gratis, that their hearts might break a little bit. Two swans were nesting. There was also music—”sudden music,” I call it: a flamenco guitarist on the bridge, someone else playing “Moon River” on a saxophone.
And then, inexplicably, the bells in the Arlington Street Church rang out the “Ode to Joy,” and the miracle was complete.
“Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows—only hard with luminous edges—and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.” -Edward Abbey, Flatland (1884)
In July of 2013, Dustin Cable, from the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, gave the world an invaluable document: The Racial Dot Map.
The map displays 308,745,538 dots, one for each person residing in the United States at the location they were counted during the 2010 Census. Each dot is color-coded by the individual’s race and ethnicity…Whites are coded as blue; African-Americans, green; Asians, red; Hispanics, orange; and all other racial categories are coded as brown.
One could spend all day reading Cable’s map. I zoomed straight in on Rochester, NY, where I live. The map reveals the racial topography; natural and man made boundaries carve up the surface like an X-Acto knife:1
The purplish semicircle to the southwest, pushing out into the Genesee River, is the University of Rochester. Across the river to the west is the 19th Ward, almost solid green. The green and orange dots continue in a clockwise arc toward the northeast, in an area known as The Crescent. In a 2003 article in the New York Times, Michelle York reported that “[t]he crescent is home to 27 percent of the city’s residents and 80 percent of the city’s homicides.” According to the article,
The reasons behind the burst of violence…include the lagging upstate economy, a steady migration of residents to the suburbs and a growing number of abandoned houses prone to become centers of drug sales and use. Rochester also has a school system that performs poorly. Only a quarter of high school freshmen last four years and graduate. Some 93 percent of school-age children live in poverty…
Just south of The Crescent, past the sharp boundary of East Main St., is a wedge of deep blue—the upscale East End. According to its web site, “The East End…is Upstate NY’s premier destination for fine dining, nightlife, entertainment and the arts, doing business and living an urban lifestyle.” Blue dots scatter to the east, south, and west, dissolving into seemingly thin air.
I zoomed out from the Rochester map and started scrolling to the left, to visit Buffalo, when a tiny, dark blip caught my attention. At first, I thought it was another scratch on my antediluvian MacBook, but it was moving. So I zoomed in:
The blue sprinkles at the top represent the village of Attica. The rectangle at the bottom center is Attica Correctional Facility; the smaller one to its right is Wyoming.
At this point, it became like a game, as I zoomed out and scrolled around the map. Whenever I encountered a dark spot, I zoomed back in for a closer look. It was always a densely populated polygon, situated near, or in, a field of scattered blue dots. Here’s Gowanda:
And so on. Try it with your own state. For best results, click on “Remove Map Labels” first, to let these color-coded shapes speak their own hard truths.
For example: Things have not improved in The Crescent since Hill wrote her article. If anything, they’re worse. Paul Jargowsky, in a 2015 report for the Century Foundation, titled “Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy,” found that Rochester has the 4th highest Black concentration of poverty in the United States, jumping from 34.2% in 2000, to 51.5% in 2009-2013. Buffalo came in at #6. Syracuse was #1.
What this means for the cycle of incarceration is clear. In the words of Tony Gaskew, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the University of Pittsburgh,
The road to redemption for an incarcerated Black male returning to his community is paved with temptations, disappointments, and failures. When he goes home, unemployment will still be high. Our educational system will still be broken. He will still have the greatest opportunity to be victimized by a person within his own community of similar race or ethnic background. There will still be more liquor stores than schools in his neighborhood.2
James Baldwin captured this process in his short story, “Sonny’s Blues“—which is itself almost 60 years old—during a cab ride shared between the narrator and his brother, who had just been released from prison: “So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed…”
And we wonder why recidivism rates are so high.
“These neighborhoods,” says Jargowsky, “are not the value-free outcome of the impartial workings of the housing market. Rather, in large measure, they are the inevitable and predictable consequences of deliberate policy choices.” The Racial Dot Map reveals the consequences of those choices. The problem is clear, hard with luminous edges. Can the same be said of our national resolve to fix it?