Riot or Rebellion?

Riot Language

The sun dawns after the third night of rioting in American cities, centered in  Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by a policeman.  The incident was a mirror of a story arc in the hit TV Series: Orange is the New Black.  Poussey Washington is killed by a Prison Guard kneeling on her neck, and Litchfield penitentiary explodes into a riot and an inmate takeover.

It is doubly poignant that today is the birthday of Countee Cullen, a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance which wrenched a black cultural identity from the grasping hands of the white American establishment.  A movement created by the grandchildren of the freed slaves who were shown a glimpse of freedom before being re-enslaved in poverty, landlessness, segregation and a raft of penal laws known now as Jim Crow.

It is triply poignant that this is the anniversary of the memorial day massacre.  “On Memorial Day, May 30, 1937, police opened fire on a parade of striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company, in South Chicago. Fifty people were shot, of whom 10 later died; 100 others were beaten with clubs.” (Dorothy Day)

As cities across the USA burn the frightened middle class want the violence to stop.  They are saying that this is not the way to get the message through.  But lets face it – velvet revolutions are few and far between.  Rebellion generally ends up with blood on the streets.  The elite do not give up power easily.

Since 2016 Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand during the National Anthem at American Football Games.  For 6 years you white Americans have turned your backs and closed your ears to this Canary in the Coalmine.  Kaepernick was the gentle force for change.    “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  The reaction of the white middle class was to criticize Kaepernick as being un-American.

There is a loaded term if ever you had one.  Remember the McCarthy Era and the Committee on un-American activities?

The problem of course is not the black people.  They just want justice and a fair society.

The problem is not the President, the Mayor or the Governor.  They are the grasping establishment who want to keep what they control.  Donald Trump defiles the presidency, tweeting the words of a famous racist from 1967, Miami police Chief Walter Headley who originated the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”.  Trump joins the ranks of the Emperor Nero who fiddled while Rome burned, and Marie Antoinette with “let them eat cake”.  But while he is a joke, he is not the problem.

The problem is the police.  In the USA as in no other nation the police are the henchmen of capitalism.  They are the oppressive agents of the establishment.  In other countries the Police Force is there to maintain civil wellbeing.  If the establishment acts against the people then the police eventually protect the people because the police are the people.

When the police in the USA wake up they will see they are standing on the wrong side of the riot.  That is the moment when the riot stops…. and the rebellion begins.

The Wise; by Countee Cullen

Dead men are wisest, for they know
how far the roots of flowers go,
how long a seed must rot to grow.

Dead men alone bear frost and rain
on throbless heart and heatless brain,
and feel no stir of joy or pain.

Dead men alone are satiate;
they sleep and dream and have no weight,
to curb their rest, of love or hate.

Strange, men should flee their company,
or think me strange who long to be
wrapped in their cool immunity.

Courage to face despair.

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Tim Severin’s reconstruction of The Odyssey Ship

Jessie Redmon Fauset was born this day, April 27th in 1882 and was one of the contributing poets to the Harlem Renaissance.   More importantly her work portrayed images of African-Americans as working professionals, challenging embedded racial stereotypes.  As literary editor of the NAACP magazine “The Crisis” she promoted the work of writers including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Claude McKay.

She taught a generation of African-Americans to honestly represent their racial qualities and to celebrate them; to be black, and be proud.  She challenged the inbuilt racism of African-Americans themselves where lighter toned people looked down upon the darker and few drops of mongrel white blood were valued over pure black ichor.

She tried but was arguably less successful at teaching women to represent their gender qualities and to celebrate them.  She is now recognised for her work as a feminist and her promotion of feminist writers.

The poem below derives from Homers Odyssey and the tale of the Lotus Eaters.  But it appears Fauset has taken her cue from Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote of Ulysses as opposed to Odysseus and used the ‘Lotos’ spelling in his poem “The Lotos-Eaters”.

Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
in the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
on the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.

 

‘Courage!’ He Said; by Jessie Redmon Fauset

ULYSSES, debarking in the Lotos Land,
struck the one note that the hapless Ithacans
travel-sick, mazed, bemused, could understand,
and understanding, follow.

‘Courage,’ he said, ‘remember, is not Hope!’
He left the worn, safe ship, spume-stained and hollow.
‘To be courageous is to face despair.’
And through the groves and ‘thwart the ambient air
resounded reedy echoes:
‘Face despair!’
But this they understood.
And plunging on prepared for best, and most prepared
for worst, found only in their stride
a deep umbrageous wood,
and grassy plains where they disported; eased
and bathed lame’ feet within a purling stream
and murmured: ‘Here, Odysseus, would we fain abide!’
But neither the stream’s sweet ease
nor the shade of the vast beech-trees,
nor the blessed sense
of the sweet, sweet soil
beneath feet salt-cracked and worn
brought to them even then,
(still fainting and frayed and forlorn),
such complete recompense
as the knowledge that once again
facing the new and untried,
they had kept the courage of men!

Hectic Blood

Dancer

Around rolls the year and Countee Cullen lights another candle on his birthday cake before releasing a primal yawp and leaping about with hectic blood.

Fruit of the Flower; by Countee Cullen

My father is a quiet man
with sober, steady ways;
for simile, a folded fan;
his nights are like his days.
My mother’s life is puritan,
no hint of cavalier,
a pool so calm you’re sure it can
have little depth to fear.

And yet my father’s eyes can boast
how full his life has been;
there haunts them yet the languid ghost
of some still sacred sin.

And though my mother chants of God,
and of the mystic river,
I’ve seen a bit of checkered sod
set all her flesh aquiver.

Why should he deem it pure mischance
a son of his is fain
to do a naked tribal dance
each time he hears the rain?

Why should she think it devil’s art
that all my songs should be
of love and lovers, broken heart,
and wild sweet agony?

Who plants a seed begets a bud,
extract of that same root;
why marvel at the hectic blood
that flushes this wild fruit?

Happy Birthday Countee Cullen

countee-cullens-quotes-2

African Americans had a brief flowering of liberty and creativity in the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War in the USA.  This was brought to a sharp end by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the passing of the Jim Crow laws.

In the 1920’s there was a cultural, social and literary flowering of creativity by the grandchildren of the reconstruction era negroes.  Known at the time as the New Negro Movement it is now called the Harlem Renaissance.  Countee Cullen was one of the leading lights of this movement.

This poem is interesing to me because it is so evocative of the WB Yeats “He Wishes for the cloths of heaven”.  While Yeats wrote of the lovers angst Cullen’s poem speaks of discrimination and racism.  Here we are today 100 years on from the Harlem Renaissance and it seems that the struggle for equality for African Americans has seen little advance.  Despite the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X the USA still appears to be dangerous ground on which to be a black person.

For a Poet; by Countee Cullen

I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold;
Where long will cling the lips of the moth,
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth;
I hide no hate; I am not even wroth
Who found the earth’s breath so keen and cold;
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold.