Monday, October 1, 2012

On the interplay of violence and nonviolence

This past weekend, I attended ASALH – the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History - in Pittsburgh again this year with its striking emphasis on the experience, art and politics of black women (see here on Richmond). Many participants in ASALH come out of the civil rights movement as well as the struggle for black studies or are the children of those who do. And so participants reveal, through direct experience, information which has been long suppressed in American history and political science, echoing in the recent past something similar to what I unearthed about the fight for emancipation during the American Revolution in Black Patriots and Loyalists. It is alive in a way that the standard professional meetings in political science, philosophy and history are (usually) not. I mean this in regard to the movement, to the truth about America, and to the hope of a decent – common good-sustaining – democracy some day being realized here.

A regime that cannot lift up the bottom – I met a fellow from Chicago working in an area where 80% of the teenagers are caught up in the prison system – will never achieve equal freedom. As Hegel suggests in his dialectic of master and slave in the Phenomenology of Spirit, she who creates bondspersons through force will find herself unable to be recognized as a free person, be simply one who degrades others with all the cruelty and stupidity that entails, truth and justice moving to the side of the oppressed.

Just arriving at the conference, I spoke with G. who teaches at the University of Georgia. During desegregation, this University sought to preserve its "white" student composition, with the exception recently of great football players like Herschel Walker, by paying eligible black applicants to go North. So her mother went to NYU instead. And another teacher’s mother went to Michigan.

By taking the deal, the two moms got a better education. But this was a sickening practice by the University to preserve segregation against the law as well as the core decency of a democratic regime, analogous today to voter suppression (one wonders what Jimmy Carter did about this as Governor, but as a politician, perhaps there were things he did not fight).*

Another woman told me of a big state university with a major football program which has given her three raises in 13 years. One was when she got tenure.


At an afternoon gathering of several hundred, Sonya Sanchez and Bernice Johnson Reagan, both artists and professors, spoke and sang (listening to Bernice may be the most beautiful and fun thing I have experienced at a panel…).

The panel was named “all our hurricane voices” from a line in a song from Sweet Honey and the Rock that Sonya had written. She told about how she had written that poem on the invitation of Bernice. She had meditated and meditated, delayed and delayed. The poem was due, but still had not come.

But with permission from Bernice to continue three days after the final deadline, she wrote the poem – and Bernice sang it.

Sonya told of getting books as a student from Jean Hutson of the Schomburg Center (the library centering on black history, culture and the arts in Harlem), and then at two little bookstores nearby where she was sent. One was run by a rather gruff fellow who stopped being so gruff when he realized: “you’re the one Jean sent.” Her bags of books, read avidly, informed her teaching of black literature.

But her list, including Paul Robeson and others, was, as she had not realized, dangerous. So the FBI came to her apartment. And she tried to say to them, I am teaching black lit.

The agent frothed at her and told the landlord to throw her out.

She had a big dog, of whom she had not been too fond until then. He came and sat by her feet. He lunged at the agent.

She pulled the dog back. But the dog’s presence calmed (intimidated) the agent and he left.

She is a vegetarian, she told us. But that night, she bought the dog a big steak…

She urged the audience to act, once again, nonviolently for the needed democratic transformation here (she had been a friend and admirer of Malcolm X). She commented on the special gift of black people and their allies in America, that those oppressed by unspeakable violence have stood up, nonviolently, to change the world.


Bernice spoke of Joan (pronounced Jo Ann) Little, a small black woman 5 feet tall, imprisoned, whom a big white guard tried to rape, threatening with an ice pick. As he reached orgasm, she got hold of the ice-pick, stabbed him to death, and escaped. So she was hunted as a murderer.

The “murder” (stlll stupidly referred to in that way, not as self-defense, on Wikipedia here) occurred at Beaufort County Jail in Washington, North Carolina.

Sweet Honey and the Rock sang "Give your hands to struggle" here about Joan Little in 1976.

Joan Little had an intense and difficult life, and was good, from her early teenage years, at running away from those who assaulted her.

Bernice had long participated in the nonviolent movement, for instance in Albany, Georgia which she talks about in the fourth segment of "Eyes on the Prize" – the one on Albany and Birmingham. She named a thought that floated into her mind. They (rapists) are human. They can die.

Some had told her – better to put up with rape. For it could be worse: the rapist might kill you.

Bad advice. You might stand up.

The rapist might die.

It is good for rapists (and all oppressors) to learn about their own mortality.

She was, subtly, emphasizing the inconsistency of the thought that floated there.

But it is not inconsistent. As Gandhi said, nonviolence is for the strong. In a situation where you are personally attacked, self-defense is the right thing to do. And if one can’t defend oneself – his son asked Gandhi what he should do if his father was attacked - Gandhi said: stop him.

Sometimes, this is even necessary in political movements. After James Meredith was shot by a slinking Klansman during a protest walk by himself to Jackson, Mississippi, Martin Luther King organized to finish the march. He brought with him the Deacons for Self-Defense who were armed. He did this because there were no police in rural Mississippi (only KKK/”sheriffs”). So in that situation, it was open season to hunt the marchers, unless there was protection. In effect, the Deacons were the democratic police.

Bernice told of being in the campaign – a campaign jointly of feminists, civil rights and anti-capital punishment activists and all decent people - for Joan Little here which forced the racist government, jailers and police to acknowledge the truth of what happened. That campaign was non-violent.


*As President, Jimmy Carter appointed Andrew Young to be UN ambassador, for instance - Young was the former Mayor of Atlanta - and was and is no racist

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