NMAAHC Week 11: Populism, Progressivism and WW1

If We Must Die By Claude McKay

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Claude McKay’s often anthologized, perfectly pitched Elizabethan sonnet reflects the sentiments of its time in more ways than one. First, its form and structure make it very much at home and acceptable to the arbiters of good taste and fine art in the waning days of the British Empire and we will return to that later so hold that thought. Further, it reflects the racial events of its time as soldiers were returning home from war in the European theatre with hopes of ‘cashing in” on their military service, only to run headlong into a vicious counterattack from whites and new immigrant groups fomenting race riots in America’s largest cities, and all this at the height of the Great Migration of rural Southern blacks seeking opportunity in the urban North.

Of far greater significance to me is the pessimistic tone that lives just beneath the surface of the poem. “If we must die” allows no other option and no redemption but death. Death is certain, as death always eventually is, and facing that eventual death is the foundation of Stoic faith, not Christian faith, mind you, but Roman Stoic faith. In that regard, I’ve always viewed this poem as a suicide note, “penned (loads of double-entendre) in an inglorious spot.”

“If we must die” would survive the Harlem Renaissance, resurrected in Great Britain during the WW2 blitz and read aloud by PM Churchill in London to the combined House of Commons and the House of Lords when it seemed all but certain that England would be overrun by Hitler’s Germany.

Personally, McKay’s celebrated sonnet sent an implied message to J. Edgar Hoover’s G-Men, who kept McKay under constant surveillance (of which he was keenly aware) both for his Communist connections and to attempt to blackmail him due to his homosexual alliances. He warned them, as he similarly called on fellow blacks, that he would always fight back and that they should as well.

Nevertheless, my father had me memorize this poem in elementary school and I have always held it close to my heart.

NMAAHC Week 10 discussion: Reconstruction and the Nadir

Posted to my Facebook page.

One of our assignments in a museum docent program I am doing online is to look at the museum’s collection of photographs and postcards of lynchings. There are 81 unique items. There are lynchings of black men, black women, black children, and whole black families. They are situated in forests, in swamps, hanging from trees, hanging from telegraph wires, hanging from makeshift pole and teepee structures, hanging from rafters in sawmills, displayed in residential settings, publicly in town squares, etc. Oh, and the observers/participants: white men (some, by the blood stains on their shirts, actually involved in the deed), women, young boys and young girls, whole families. It’s like a picnic. And the hanging bodies are fully clothed, fully naked, chained, shackled, butchered, castrated, some burned to a crisp. Dejected, humiliated, made to look as if they, and not what they represent, is the source of shame. Finally, for the spectators and observers, there is a sense of business-as-usual exhibitionism on their faces, young and old. What must those children be thinking? Today, George Floyd’s funeral is on every local TV channel, including C-SPAN. It’s a very modern day exhibitionism, a traveling museum show.

Lynching was definitely a terroristic activity, is so far as the actual event, and it’s aftermath the next day, or the following few days as long as the evidence remained for public view, was intended to instill terror, terror in the minds of black people, terror in the minds of white people, and especially terror in the minds of children. That also has a modern day analog. The terror being instilled is terror in the mind, at a conscious level and at a subconscious level, beyond fear, beyond pain, beyond grief, even beyond sadistic voyeurism and spectator excitement.

I am playing catch-up and I haven’t yet read the submissions of my classmates but I expect to see similar remarks from them.

Michele: I am grateful to read your remarks about how we incorporate these images into our tours. That is the point, isn’t it? Not to add or subtract from what you have most excellently stated, I offer this quote from a speech Dr. King gave at Stanford University, The Other America, in 1967 to a very erudite crowd of intellectuals, mostly white. He said:

“To use a philosophical analogy here, racism is not based on some empirical generalization; it is based rather on an ontological affirmation. It is not the assertion that certain people are behind culturally or otherwise because of environmental conditions. It is the affirmation that the very being of a people is inferior. And this is the great tragedy of it.”

Barbara: There is enough here to be angry about, or depressed about, for the rest of our lives. And the fact that the country STILL doesn’t not have an anti-lynching bill is meaningful and significant for the most casual observer (no pun intended). I just posted my submission to Facebook and my page is exploding!

NMAAHC Week #9 – Discussion of “Slavery By Another Name”

Old Joe Turner got my man and gone

by Raymond Maxwell – Wednesday, 8 April 2020, 11:42 PM

At least three of the plays in the August Wilson American Century Cycle are based on this concept of failed emancipation, peonage, forced servitude and mass incarceration. I am thinking, as popular as these plays are these days, that it might be an excellent way to discuss these issues in a tour.

In Gem of the Ocean, the plot revolves around a man who commits suicide rather than confess to a crime he did not commit, choosing that option rather than getting swept up by a system of convict labor and forced servitude. The subplot deals with the spiritual struggle of the person who actually committed the crime and got away with it.

In Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a father and husband gets caught up in the net of Joe Turner, the brother of the Governor of Tennessee, who routinely captures black men on roads and streets, charges then with vagrancy, then condemns them to seven years of hard labor. The play takes a wholesale look, through a single example, at what happens to the family of a man who is captured and re-enslaved, with no notification to the family, especially in the midst of the Great Migration north, and what that man must endure to reunite his family at the end of the seven year period, notwithstanding his own personal traumatization from the enslavement and stigmatization as an ex-convict.

And in the fourth play of the cycle, The Piano Lesson, four middle-aged men in a nuclear family find an opportunity to reflect on the time they all served at Parchman Farm for charges of petty burglary and vagrancy, casting forced servitude, convict labor and peonage as a sort of a Black Male initiation or a rite of passage.

These dramatic presentations and representations all indicate the extent to which emancipation and freedom never lived up to their advanced billing, so to speak, and the degree to which forced servitude, convict labor, and in the current day, mass incarceration all weave their way into the institutions of the black family and the black community and result in a kind of psychic disequilibrium in the souls of normal, everyday African American people.

Despite my awareness of this history, the movie had tremendous shock value. I was not aware of the failures of the Theodore Roosevelt administration to correct the existence of peonage because of the political ramifications. It made me feel quite depressed because for many there was just no way out. The only way out seemed to be to collect your family, what was left of it, and take the trek North. Most black families remained in the south, as mine did, and over the years things got better while certain conditions deteriorated for the black poor in the Northern ghettoes.

462 words

NMAAHC Week #8

Whether or not it was foregone depends on the time in question

by Raymond Maxwell – Friday, 3 April 2020, 9:48 PM Number of replies: 1 (Lockdown in full effect)

OK. So the subject line gives it away.

The Emancipation Proclamation was certainly not a foregone conclusion in 1861. When Congress passed the Confiscation Acts in 1861 and 1862, President Lincoln “discouraged” declarations of freedom and “restrained” military officers who, without his authorization, emancipated slaves as contraband. There is the argument that the President was merely behaving tactically and that he knew he’d have to issue a sweeping freedom edict. Others would argue that he was hoping he could avoid an act that would certainly result in secession and war.

In mid 1862, when President Lincoln promoted compensated emancipation in DC and considered a gradual emancipation in all other states, issuing an emancipation proclamation was still not a foregone conclusion, though a simple math calculation of the cost of compensated emancipation across all slavery states might have been an eye-opening proposition. In fact, at that point, some green shade-wearing guy must have compared the cost of compensated emancipation to the cost of total war and concluded that the latter would be lower to finance and shorter in duration, though in retrospect that may seem foolhardy at best.

By the end of the election season in late 1862, with Democrats gaining substantially in both House and Senate, I think the idea of some sort of executive power play became increasingly a foregone conclusion. Yes, I’m calling it a separation of powers issue, and, perhaps, even, in light of recent impeachment language, Democrats of that time might have considered it an abuse of power. 

According to Franklin and Higginbotham, the Emancipation Proclamation “freed” enslaved populations in rebel states (where, under the circumstances, it did not carry with it the force of law) and slaves in Washington DC had already been emancipated a year earlier. It did not free slaves in the border states that never seceded, in areas of the southern states that remained loyal to the Union, in New Orleans and thirteen Louisiana parishes, in the 48 counties that eventually became West Virginia, and in seven counties in eastern Virginia that included Norfolk, Portsmouth, and areas bordering Washington that earlier had been retroceded from the District of Columbia (Arlington and Alexandria).

NMAAHC Week #5

cognitive dissonance and the opposable mind

by Raymond Maxwell – Saturday, 14 March 2020, 10:17 PM Number of replies: 6 (Before the lockdown!)

There is the idea that the ability to hold opposing thoughts within one mind is the mark of superior intellect. Management gurus say that the capacity to constructively face the tension resulting from opposing ideas, as opposed to choosing one at the expense of the other, results in integrative thinking which generates a creative resolution to the tension in the form of a new idea that may contain elements of both ideas but is also superior to each idea. “Freedom for us” is directly informed by the slavery we see and perpetrate among the “other” right here among us. “It can happen to us” unless we fight, while we at the same time preserve it among the “them.” And in words of Donny Hathaway, “someday we’ll all be free.”

Conversely, psychology, and in fact, religion tell us that humans do strive for consistency of thought, that inconsistency makes us feel uncomfortable, and experiencing that discomfort, also called cognitive dissonance, motivates us to reduce those feelings and even to avoid those situations.

There were Northerners and Southerners among our Founders who had classical educations and knew in their minds and hearts chattel slavery was wrong. I would argue they were never able to reconcile their beliefs with the practice of slavery. A former president, for example, says his adulterous relationship with an intern was his way of “managing his anxieties.” Same thing. They find a way to justify behavior but they never quite reconcile it because it defies reconciliation. It is wrong.

The paradox, with layer upon layer of both justifications and postponements, drives some of them mad. Some find themselves making more bad decisions, bad judgement calls as both the hypocrisy and inconsistency take over their thought processes. Ultimately the nation is driven inexorably to civil war and destruction, and if there is good leadership, the hope for a new beginning, a clean slate, a new birth of freedom. That’s why some call the Civil War the second American Revolution. But they still don’t get it right and we continue to exist in a state of cognitive dissonance.

A friend from overseas writes me, “Ray, what is it like to live in a country that is constantly at war?” I need to write her back but I don’t know what to say.

NMAAHC week #3

Information architecture and Gesamkunstwerk

by Raymond Maxwell – Thursday, 27 February 2020, 8:51 PM

The subject line gives it all away.  This is what excites me about this museum and makes me anxious to try to share it with people who may visit.

Information architecture, as taught to students of information and library science, is focused primarily on designing websites. But a part of information architecture acknowledges the emerging GLAM convergence, GLAM being galleries, libraries, archives, and museums and their aim to present information in logical and learning conducive way. Of course, like websites, one is concerned with layout, with navigation, and with structure of information based on the building of it, layer by layer and step by step, to make the learning process itself a process of learning “constructivism.”

GLAM takes information architecture a step further, though. There is the ever present need to acknowledge degrees of intermediation in achieving the learning outcome. For example, in a library, the learner is free to browse the shelves and “stumble upon” whatever may appear interesting or relevant. In an archive, the level of intermediation is much higher, i.e., you search the finding aids and tell the archivist exactly which box and which folder you need and there is no random or serendipitous discovery. The museum sits somewhere in the middle: the curator has already done all the heavy lifting, the selection of artifacts is done for you, the navigation is predetermined. You follow the path and interact with what you see.

The curators of NMAAHC have done a superb job of thinking through and presenting throughlines and design features that present history and culture and guide and steer the learning process. This brings us to gesamkunstwerk, a German word that means, loosely, total work of art. As one goes through the floor plans and the curatorial walk throughs, one detects the presence of “intelligent design,” if you will, a thought process that someone came up with to make the museum visit the most meaningful for the largest number. Things fit together, the walk ways, the artifacts, the quotes on the wall, the layout of the place. Even the cafeterias in the lower level. Even from the outside, the external structure of the building suggests something that is at the same time translucent and inpenetrable, sacred and holy, yet accessible to the common person, historic and at the same time, contemporary. A total work of art. The details of this intelligent design, this gesamkunstwerk, are accessible to us because the museum is so new, and the curators who put it all together are still around to share with us the meaning of things.

Look up “gesamkunstwerk” if you get a chance. Just Google it. Or corner me – but be warned, I will go on forever!

NMAAHC Week 2 discussion

What stands out for me most from Chapter 1 reading is the degree and the level of sophistication of intra-Africa trade prior to European exploration as well as the existence of intra-Africa slavery and, in fact, a slave trade that existed before and almost as a predecessor if not a prerequisite to trans-Atlantic slave trading. By the time of the arrival of the Europeans, human trafficking was already an established thing. Of course that doesn’t make it better, and it certainly doesn’t make the involvement of the European powers in the slave trade any less severe, not any less wrong (as if a moral measure could be applied), but as they say, it is what it is.

There is only a glancing mention of the trans-Sahara slave trade in Chapter 1, which lasted longer and was perhaps more voluminous in terms of sheer numbers of bodies transported.

I also found interesting the mention of East European roots of human slavery, as related to feudal practices of serfdom. But again, only a passing mention.

Finally I took note of the mention that slave trafficking in East Africa continued into the 19th century because policing was weaker on the east coast than on the west where British and American anti-slavery efforts were in effect. 

In Chapter 2 I learned of the existence of African explorers collaborating with Europeans in seeking new worlds. It is fairly obvious that demand for slaves was economics-driven, but I hadn’t made the connection that opportunities for countries to exploit the slave trade was a function of wars, conflicts and internal developments inside and between European powers. I also wasn’t aware that slaves were not forbidden literacy skills by law in Brazil as they were in the U.S.

Due to a former association of several years living in Guinea-Bissau and Angola, I expected more information about the Portuguese development of their particular slavery model honed by decades of experience moving enslaved workers to coffee and sugar plantations in Sao Tome from Cape Verde and Angola. I would recommend this addition in future editions.

Finally, there is a lot to learn about slave revolts and aspirations for independent diasporan communities in Latin American and Caribbean countries. Traditional history remains muted on the frequency and success rate of such movements.

response to Barbara

Barbara: after reading your submission, I want to go back and make some stylistic changes to mine! I love the way you use bold to highlight and the dashes to separate ideas. Definitely gonna try it next time.

I think it is important to note that Europeans used the inland rivers and trade routes already established by the indigenous people for their trade. It’s an agency issue, for better or for worse. You also allude to the idea that groups of Africans also profitted from human trafficking, a concept that is relevant for our eventual explanations to museum-goers. Finally, the generations of seasoning in the Caribbean and especially in Brazil will click when people think about ancestors and relatives with ancestors names passed down who have traces of Spanish and Portuguese names.

What you highlighted about Franz Boas and his influence on WEB DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston reminds me of correspondence between Boas and William Montague Cobb, whose papers I am processing at work. Amazing the connections that exist!

response to Laurice

Charing and sobering. I agree. But at least it means we were not entirely victims in the process. I think escaping from victimhood mentality, by learning and by study, is its own very special liberation.

African families profited financially from enslaving fellow Africans, and used the proceeds to send their children away for European educations, where they continued to build generational wealth. It continues to today. I met some very interesting people in the African countries I was assigned to. Many of them had grandparents and great grandparents who were colonial administrators, the petite bourgeoisie of their countries continuing past colonial liberation. Complicit? Indeed. The fortunate few.

It helps to see these things with a clear head.
The slave trade was still a big deal, especially for all the reasons you have enumerated. We have a complex heritage.

response to Linda

I started a 15 poem series on Nat Turner a couple years ago, a heroic sonnet crown. But I ran out of gas after #9! Remind me to share it with you.

There is much to learn from Brazil, so close to us and yet so foreign and strange. Slavery continued there until the 1880’s, after ending officially in the US in the 1860’s, and in the UK in, I think, the 1820’s. There is a sort of continuum that is worthy of serious study. Each had recolonization programs, UK to Sierra Leone, US to Liberia, and Brazil to Nigeria. Another interesting continuum. Only in the US, among the three, was eventual segregation enshrined and written into federal law. Of course, South Africa learned from us in building its apartheid system.

So much to know and so little time.

Look forward to future interactions.

NMAAHC Week 1 discussion

Hello all. Approaching three years of docenting at the Library of Congress, I decided I could possibly add something new. As I was always looking for the African or the African-American or the diasporan angle in my storytelling at LoC, this was the natural next thing.

Greensboro, where I grew up, had long been a hotbed of interesting activity. Everybody who was anybody in the civil rights movement stopped at our church. And men came through the neighborhood weekly selling Muhammad Speaks and The Black Panther and a local publication, African World. At 14, they sent me away from my loving and nurturing African village in Greensboro to integrate a Virginia prep school. That was fun in a train-derailing type of way!

I ended up in the Navy, and after completing that stint, and graduate school, I “transferred” to the Foreign Service, spending most of my overseas time in West Africa and the Middle East. Halfway through my time at State, I decided that I really wanted to be a librarian, so at 57 I retired and enrolled in the MSLIS program at Catholic. Since graduating, I have had a series of librarian and archivist jobs.

I am active in A Splendid Wake, a gathering of poetry aficionados who celebrate DC poets and each Spring I lead a discussion group of August Wilson’s plays, one per week for ten weeks, in the OLLI program at American University (OLLI-dc.org).

Because of Moodle, I suspect, this training program looks more onerous than the one at the Library of Congress. Maybe not. I am looking forward to it and to getting to know you all.

response to Barbara

Seems like a trend. I was one of six black students integrating an all-boys school in Virginia. We celebrated 50 years of integration last year and I learned more about the process (and myself) than I’d ever dreamed I’d know. I think there was a strategy – pick a handful of black kids, immerse them in the dominant culture, and turn them loose and see what happens. Some of us complied, kicking and screaming, but some silently rebelled. And here we are, in perfect timing.

Perhaps a part of African-American history in itself? We must all get together and chat.

My favorite sub-tour: The Hall of the Book

My favorite subsection of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is this vestibule between the Great Hall and the Main Reading Room, known as the Hall of the Book, named for the series of six John White Alexander murals it contains, called the Evolution of the Book.

The first mural, shown below, depicts pre-historic man stacking stones as a landmark or a memorial. Also called cairns, it was a way of conveying information that predated any comprehendible spoken language or oral tradition.

Screen Shot 2019-06-10 at 3.50.28 PM

The first monument dedicated to George Washington (below, far left) was a somewhat sophisticated stack of stones, but definitely showing the impulse of non-literate prehistoric man to stack stones as a landmark and a memorial. It stands at Washington Memorial State Park in western Maryland. Next to it (center, below) stands the Washington Monument in Baltimore, a much more sophisticated stack of stones with the same intent, and next to it (below, right), the national Washington Monument on the Mall in this city named for Washington, Washington, DC.

The next stage in the Evolution of the Book was the emergence of the oral tradition, spoken language as a means of transferring knowledge and information. The second stage is depicted below in Alexander’s second mural:

Oral Tradition

The Oral Tradition stage was dominated memorization of spoken traditions, usually by a tribe leader or griot. The oral tradition makes its way into religion and philosophy as a pre-literate way to transfer information.

Below left is the Olin Warner first bronze door panel outside the Jefferson Building at the entrance, Oral Tradition, depicting a woman in the center with a small child leaning against her knee, speaking to an American Indian, a Norseman, a prehistoric man, and a shepherd, all representative of groups without a written language. It is also a variant of the Sacred Conversation in European classical art. In the center is the famous School of Athens, depicting learning. Below right is a group of African women sharing stories. Again, the oral tradition at work.

There were inherent flaws and critical limitations in the oral tradition when it came to storage and transmission of knowledge. There was a limit to the quantity of information that could be stored in a human brain via rote memory. Moreover, memories of things may morph and change over time. Finally, human beings die, and their stored memories die with them.

The solution which evolved over time was the development of writing and written records.

Egyptian Hieroglyphics

While the first written records were likely maintained on clay tablets in what is present-day Iraq (Sumeria), the series of murals depicts Egyptian hieroglyphics as the birth of written records. I want to call the inclusion of the couple in this mural an example of Renaissance Humanism, showing a human family unit performing a human task of inscription, but my wife says the wife/girlfriend is there for quality control, to make sure the husband gets it right.

Picture Writing

While the development of writing and written records was a quantum leap beyond the limitations of the oral tradition, still the records existed on the walls of temples and tombs, requiring a lengthy trip to actually see them. The development of picture writing on animal skins depicted above represented a major evolutionary development: animal skins could be rolled up and transported to distant locations. Moreover, records and writing so preserved could be easily replicated to other animal skins and distributed. Eventually, animal skins evolved into vellum, an animal skin product with the texture of paper.

The Manuscript Book