Tag Archives: Civil rights

‘One Night in Miami’ maps a historical crossroads

“Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown, and Cassius Clay walk into a hotel room” sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it’s the premise of One Night in Miami, a fictional speculation. Thanks to her four charismatic performers, actress Regina King, making her directorial debut, generates heat addressing ideas about assimilation and conflict with which the Black Americans still struggle. Kemp Powers, who wrote a script based on his 2013 play, makes his men aware that they stand at a moment in history from which in their own ways they won’t shrink.

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‘Our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional’

Indulge me: the Martin Luther King, Jr. who emerges in Taylor Branch’s magisterial multivolume biography would have balked at a federal holiday created in his name. Americans love holidays because what they commemorate also to them represents a triumph: over the British, Big Business, wars, 365 days of an old year. Well, only the British have gone. We like to think we have triumphed over racism; we flash our tokens like VIP cards. It Happened A Long Time Ago. We commemorate Christopher Columbus in the form of children reciting variations on “Columbus sailed the ocean blue/In 1492” but get livid when reminded of the explorer’s race war. We commemorate King but get hysterical when we’re told the killing of George Floyd is the merely the most public and repulsive example of dozens of aggressions, often slight, daily endured by Black men and women. Yet, even so, I still see eye rolls from the same people who insist racism is a rare, dangerous thing. If MLK Day exists to irritate the casual racists who snicker on cue when you remind them why the kids are off from school, it serves a purpose.

To be a person of color in America is to be damned for reminding people about it and damned, implicitly, for trying to assimilate. The late Toni Morrison also had to deal with the prism through which friends and strangers viewed — judged — her as a Black woman. Continue reading

Songs peaking at #11, UK edition: 1990-1992

I can’t find the piece in which Robert Christgau defends “From a Distance” as an atheist’s lament. I didn’t hear it this way at the time; in 1990, it sounded like another blowzy Bette Midler paint shredder like “Wind Beneath My Wings.” The tinselly production hid the barb. At best it’s a deist’s confession — “God is watching us from a distance” is not what Gulf War troops wanted to hear, but there it was. Cliff Richard misses these subtleties, as usual. Continue reading

John Lewis, RIP

Freedom Rider. Leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Along with Bayard Rustin one of the organizers of the 1962 March on Washington. The victim of a skull fracture at Bloody Selma three years later. Pioneer in the practice of “redemptive suffering.” Thirty-four years representing parts of Atlanta in the House. Continue reading

‘No kingdom can maintain itself by force alone’

Just thinking aloud, but maybe James Baldwin — black, queer — understood the nature of power relations:

But for power truly to feel itself menaced, it must somehow sense itself in the presence of another power—or, more accurately, an energy—which it has not known how to define and therefore does not really know how to control. For a very long time, for example, America prospered—or seemed to prosper: this prosperity cost millions of people their lives. Now, not even the people who are the most spectacular recipients of the benefits of this prosperity are able to endure these benefits: they can neither understand them nor do without them, nor can they go beyond them. Above all, they cannot, or dare not, assess or imagine the price paid by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life, and so they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting. They are forced, then, to the conclusion that the victims—the barbarians—are revolting against all established civilized values—which is both true and not true—and, in order to preserve these values, however stifling and joyless these values have caused their lives to be, the bulk of the people desperately seek out representatives who are prepared to make up in cruelty what both they and the people lack in conviction. This is a formula for a nation’s or a kingdom’s decline, for no kingdom can maintain itself by force alone.

The White House and the cops feel themselves menaced by a power outside itself it cannot control. Tucker Carlson, as clear-eyed an observer for the ways in which white male power senses itself besieged, understands.–No Name in the Street

A word on Minneapolis

To be an endangered pedestrian in the bullshit planned community called “Westchester” requires little more than playing chicken with the wife pushing a baby carriage, the jogger with headphones, the husband and wife huffing and puffing. For the sake of my health — for the sake of courtesy — I’ll step out of the way, often into the street. This courtesy, in twelve weeks of this nonsense, they’ve not extended to me.

This is minor shit. Petty shit. I have not been stopped for walking next to the house razed for the sake of re-construction on Sixteenth Street and Eighty-Ninth Avenue, although three days a week it is unoccupied. I have not been stopped for miming to Moses Sumney, for drumming to Echo & the Bunnymen. But I have been whisked out of a karaoke bar in the same area for daring to sing Boy George’s version of “The Crying Game” (“We gotta get outta here,” a friend said in 2000, car pulled up to the front door, like Michael J. Pollard in Bonnie and Clyde). Even in the Miami of the late Clinton era it could be dangerous to hook up with a trick in a car.

What I mean to say is that the COVID menace has reminded millions of Americans of what many other millions already knew: a plague will destroy us if we don’t follow the simplest of precautions; the right to work quashes the right to ensure the health of our clients; our most vulnerable don’t feel the fury of our self-righteousness about wearing the mask that quashes our liberties; George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery remind us of the consequences of treating the Fourteenth Amendment as a meaningless buzzword during a time when the most privileged will hashtag #liberty from the freshly painted homes they’ve lived in since they were twelve.

In other words, cops are more dangerous than COVID-19. At least we — many of us — can take precautions against the latter.

I think of the Lou Reed quote, paraphrased, about poor doomed Delmore Schwartz: what a pity to be this attractive and gay, which is to say, what a pity to meet the standards of a sodden, doomed, repulsive society yet not meet its standards anyway.

‘You either let liars and frauds affect you or you don’t’

I’ve been keeping an eye on the degree to which the GOP-controlled Florida legislature has eviscerated Amendment 4, passed by 65 percent of voters in 2018. Regarded by its authors as a way to re-enfranchise felons who’ve completed their sentences, Amendment 4 has become an excuse to collect the bureaucratic, anodyne twenty-first century version of poll taxes. If the authors had wanted their amendment to require court costs from applicants seeking voting rights restoration, they would’ve said so. Besides, the state lacks an agency that keeps track of restitution to families. “What we have now is an administrative nightmare,” said U.S. district judge Robert Hinkle last month.
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On impeachment, moderation, and whiteness

Inspired by Brenda Wineapple’s fine recent study of President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, Alex Pareene intertwines the similarities between Johnson and Trump’s voting bases, the political establishment’s fetish for moderation, and having the moral clarity to recognize what is at stake by leaving Trump in office for the sake of keeping his attention long enough to sign legislation.

I’ve written often about the snow job that teachers did on us high schoolers when we got to Reconstruction. Presented as a well-intentioned mangling that ushered in the so-called Gilded Age, Reconstruction was taught as if textbook writers had toiled at the bottom of the ocean to avoid dealing with the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts passed a century after the Civil War ended; if they endorsed those attempts to redress a hundred years of spilled blood, then a good faith argument required them to credit the Radical Republicans of 1866 and 1867 for wrenching leadership away from the racist demagogue in the White House whom Abraham Lincoln, in an attempt to woo War Democrats, had placed on the ticket a few years earlier.


The Radicals were right about nearly everything, and the moderates—who made a big show of caution and deference to the Constitution and generous accommodation to the office of the president—were plainly wrong. The ones who didn’t even have skin in the game but who wanted representation for those who did were correct to be fanatical in their pursuit of a more perfect country—and, more important, they were right about the baleful and regressive consequences of moderation in the face of extremist and reactionary unreason.

And any actually reasonable observer of American politics over the last several decades would have to conclude that it isn’t the diversity of one party that has led to gridlock. Rather, it’s been the brittle, homogeneous outlook of a conservative party that increasingly counts on a base that is overwhelmingly white and male—but, of course, anyone posing as a moderate interlocutor of good faith can blame their extremism on the diversity of the other side. “Radical liberals made me more racist” is, alas, not a remotely novel claim in American politics. Wineapple writes how, after Johnson angrily declared that “this is a country for white men, and, by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men,” The Chicago Times—a reasonable Republican paper of the time—wrote: “If he used the language attributed to him, it was undoubtedly in reply to fanaticism and impudence.” In other words: The Radical Republicans made him do it.

We’ve heard variations on the last sentence from our Trump-loving relatives: if liberals didn’t push bathroom bills, paper straws, panic over rising seas, and an equitable health care system, I wouldn’t have voted for the racist!

In the last week we’ve heard testimony from career diplomats that in another era would have flipped a couple of querulous Republicans and instead will remind Americans which party cares about the Constitution. I waffled too on the political merits of impeachment; I’m no legislator. If Pareene is chiding Democratic leadership for abjuring its constitutional duties until early October, he’s not wrong, which makes the timing of this essay unusual.

John Paul Stevens: applying ‘reason tempered by experience and humility’

One Republican whom the Reagan White House didn’t hornswoggle was the late John Paul Stevens. In Linda Greenhouse’s obituary, I learned that Stevens understood with his usual alacrity how the Justice Department smothered the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment. Ed Meese he regarded with disdain. Continue reading

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ offers confused, necessary myth making

Written during a period of personal tumult, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk dared to present a young American black couple in love — unusual in 1974 when colleagues Saul Bellow and John Updike avoided love stories, radical for a novelist watching the collapse of the bipartisan consensus over civil rights legislation and nothing with which to replace it. The black family in the Nixon era was on its own. Continue reading

No taxes and white supremacy — the GOP way

My daily reminder that Republicans are the party of white supremacy:

Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), a gubernatorial nominee who recently was accused of using racially tinged language, spoke four times at conferences organized by a conservative activist who has said that African Americans owe their freedom to white people and that the country’s “only serious race war” is against whites.

DeSantis, elected to represent north-central Florida in 2012, appeared at the David Horowitz Freedom Center conferences in Palm Beach, Fla., and Charleston, S.C., in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, said Michael Finch, president of the organization. At the group’s annual Restoration Weekend conferences, hundreds of people gather to hear right-wing provocateurs such as Stephen K. Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and Sebastian Gorka sound off on multiculturalism, radical Islam, free speech on college campuses and other issues.

“I just want to say what an honor it’s been to be here to speak,” DeSantis said in a ­27-minute speech at the 2015 event in Charleston, a video shows. “David has done such great work and I’ve been an admirer. I’ve been to these conferences in the past but I’ve been a big admirer of an organization that shoots straight, tells the American people the truth and is standing up for the right thing.”

To quote Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, DeSantis picked some nice playmates:

Guest speakers at its conferences over the past five years have included Republican members of Congress, former governors Rick Perry of Texas and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, young conservative activists James O’Keefe and Ben Shapiro, and right-wing European politicians Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders.

Although Andrew Gillum leads in the polls, it’s an insignificant lead statistically. Ron DeSantis needs to lose to show the world that Florida comprises more than white racists and their Hispanic quislings.