Tag Archives: new york

Dottings on a presidential reelection: Hate me if you dare

11 Nov

I’m re-posting an entry I originally published in February of 2011, which seems like ages ago. Last Tuesday, We The People overcame voter suppression campaigns, lies, bungled debates and obscene amounts of campaign spending to reelect President Barack Obama and to put down efforts to make him a one-term president. Now that the Florida vote has been counted, I thought I would add this year’s final electoral map.

The New New Deal, 2008, Photo illustration by Arthur Hochstein and Lon Tweeten. ( F.D.R. photo by Associated Press. Obama photo by John Gress, Reuters.)

“Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said of Republicans during his reelection campaign in 1936.
Sound familiar? I wish.
Perhaps President Obama will take a page from FDR as he gears up for the 2012 campaign.
After all, these fightin’ words turned out to be winning words for FDR.
In honor of Presidents’ Day, I offer a column published by my father, Ebenezer Ray, on Nov. 14, 1936, shortly after the shellacking Roosevelt doled out to his opponent, Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas,  in 1936. Prior to the election, my father had written columns endorsing Roosevelt. But his support was not a given.  His employer, The New York Age, was a traditional supporter of the Republican Party.  The paper opposed the Democratic Party nationally because of its tolerance  of southern segregation.

FDR’s 1936 landslide.    Credit: 270toWin

Referring to himself in typical self-deprecating fashion, Ebenezer wrote: “This newcomer and political dunce failed to be convinced (1) that President Roosevelt was not the fit and proper person to guide the destiny of this country for the next four years and (2) that the Republican candidate was the better man.
. . . With his avalanche of votes in favor of the New Deal went the Negro vote, local and national, despite the fact that President Roosevelt represents the Party which disenfranchises the Negro in the South. Wherefore the Negro vote?
According to the man in the street, in the barbershop, in the restaurant and other proletariat among whom this writer moves, prosperity is the paramount issue. Up to 1929, they contend there was discrimination in the South, but we also had prosperity. Since 1929, and especially during the last Republican regime, there was still discrimination in the South but NO prosperity. In President Roosevelt is seen the capability of bringing prosperity from around  that elusive corner, made popular by Mr. Hoover.”
To illustrate his community’s support of the New Deal, Ebenezer described the changing atmosphere in the bank at the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Ave.
“In these premises, until president Roosevelt’s bank holiday, was situated the unlamented Chelsea Bank.  During its declining months one could easily race a bull about the premises without harming a depositor.  Nowadays, occupied by the Dunbar National Bank, during business hours the premises resemble a market rather than a bank. Of great concern to the poor man is the knowledge that whatever part of his earnings he is privileged to save is SAFE.
The great majority has reelected Roosevelt. ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God,'” Ebenezer concluded.
Robert Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton Administration, who is now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote a column before the midterm election last fall, titled “Why Obama should learn the lesson of 1936, not 1996,” In it, Reich said: “The relevant political lesson isn’t Bill Clinton in 1996, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.”

Library of Congress

Reich continued:”By the election of 1936 the Great Depression was entering its eighth year. Roosevelt had already been president for four of them. Yet he won the biggest electoral victory since the start of the two-party system in the 1850s.” Reich wrote that while the key to Clinton’s victory was a booming economy, the key to Roosevelt’s was setting himself apart from the greed of the Republicans and their financiers and standing up for and with everyday people.

Back to Ebenezer’s column: At the end he offers a brief review of the theater adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here, about a Hitler type character who attempts to dominate the United States:
“The capacity crowd which attended the Adelphi Theatre on West 54th Street Thursday evening last . . . is better testimony to the entertainment value of It Can’t Happen Here than any reviewer can write. For, after all, ‘It is the guest who is the judge of the meat,'” Ebenezer wrote.

Accepting democracy in theory, while nullifying it in practice

3 Sep

 

“Democracy is predicated upon the principle of majority rule. In applying this principle to our political life, we find that our politico-economic masters have done an excellent job by accepting Democracy in theory, while they nullify it in practice. Through numerous subterfuges, such as race, poll tax, the domination of the two political parties by our economic rulers, literacy tests and other ways, democracy has been trampled under foot by a brazen but powerful minority. This minority has succeeded in dividing the majority on the bases of race, religion, sex, and what not, with the result that on election day they go to the polls, not as propertyless, exploited people seeking socioeconomic and political justice, but as white vs. blacks, good vs. bad, and so forth,” Frank Crosswaith, letter to the editor, the New York Age, Oct. 8, 1938.

One of the added delights of this research into my father’s writings is stumbling upon the voices of his colleagues and contemporaries.  For weeks, I have been looking for something that might have some historical resonance to the voter suppression activities that are taking place in 2012. I also was looking for something that might be appropriate for Labor Day.

I found a twofer, not among my father’s columns, but in a letter to the editor that ran in his paper written by Frank Crosswaith (1892-1965), a New York labor leader.  Born in what is now the U. S. Virgin Islands, Crosswaith came to New York at the age of 13 and devoted his life to improving labor conditions for workers, particularly those in Harlem.  A biography on the New York Public Library’s website describes him as “one of the most effective organizers of black workers in New York City,” during the 20s and 30s.

Though Crosswaith was based in Harlem and worked closely with unions that had significant numbers of blacks among their ranks, he also embraced and championed the cause of the white working class. He ran as the Socialist candidate for several statewide offices and although his election bids were unsuccessful, he drew strong multiracial support.

Periodically, Crosswaith and my father gave one another a nod in print. Crosswaith wrote a letter praising one of my father’s columns, which Ebenezer then printed in his Dottings space on Jan. 1, 1938. My father once singled out Crosswaith as one of the few orators who took spoke on the streets of Harlem who were worth listening to and would not massacre “the King’s English.”

In that Oct. 8 letter to the editor in the New York Age, Crosswaith singled out Sen. Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith (D-South Carolina). According to Wikipedia, Smith earned his nickname while serving in the House of Representatives when he said: “Cotton is king and white is supreme.”  Smith opposed women’s suffrage, arguing that it would apply the same rights as the 15th Amendment had granted to “the other half of the Negro race.”

During the 1938 Democratic Convention, Smith walked out when he saw that a black man was going to offer the invocation.

“Some day,” Crosswaith wrote,  “we are confident the people both black and white — the poor people who work in the mills and mine, in factory, on railroads in the school houses and on the farms will get wise to the Smiths and others who have kept them consigned to a life of long hard labor, who have robbed them of their labor power, who have prevented them from getting a full view of life, who have narrowed their vision to a glimpse of life only from behind the squalid walls of the slums. Some day these people will rise up; the scales of ignorance will fall from their eyes, they will learn at last to appreciate the power which is theirs through their numbers and their vital importance to industry and agriculture. And when that day comes, the bogey of race superiority, so attractive today, will be exposed for what it is: namely a device to weaken the ranks of the Negro and the white working class and thus continue the exploitation by a clever, scheming minority. “

To Cotton Ed Smith and “others of his ilk” Crosswaith had this message:

“Have your fun while you may . . .  Today is your day. In the very nature of things yours can be but a temporary victory which the united and enlightened action of all workers irrespective of race, creed, color, sex or nationality will inevitably destroy.“

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. marries an actress

15 Mar

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is sworn in to the New York City Council by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. From left, Joe Ford; Powell's mother, Mattie; Powell; Powell's wife, Isabel; Powell's father, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., and La Guardia, January 1942. Copyright All rights reserved by La Guardia and Wagner Archives

On  this day in 1933, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the assistant minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church (The church where my ex and I married, by the way) wedded  a “showgirl” named Isabel Washington.
According to my former Boston Globe colleague and Powell biographer Wil Haygood, the relationship caused a stir. “The older deacons recoiled, as did his father. Showgirls stayed out late, danced with gangsters, drank gin. Adam Junior knew better. There were veiled threats that his father would not give him money.”
In  my dad’s  “Xcuse Me” column published three days after the wedding, you have to get to the penultimate paragraph before he even mentions the names “Adam” and “Is,” but it is clear before then who the column is about.
By the way, in Roman mythology, Jupiter Pluvius was the rain-giver who ended droughts.
I didn’t have any luck finding a photograph of the wedding, but I did find this photo from Powell’s swearing in to the New York City Council in 1942.  That was in nine years after the wedding.  From the look on his mother’s face, she still had not gotten over it. :)

The New York Age, March 18, 1933

Rethinking my parents’ marriage

11 Feb Mom_rockefeller_ctr

My parents’ wedding certificate

Finding my father’s columns has got me thinking a lot about my parents’ marriage. To be honest, I always thought my mother had been robbed. She was an independent woman, had a career as a social worker. She’d worked her way through junior college, then through Morgan State – the first in her nuclear family to graduate from college. She also was the only one of her siblings who moved beyond Newark/New York area to Pittsburgh. Marriage and babies were the farthest thing from her mind, she one said.
Then she fell in love. And in my mind, that is where it all started to go bad. My mother gave up her career when they started a family. The way she told it, my father told her when she was pregnant with my sister Ellen-Marie, that if she did not quit her job he would go to the YWCA and “quit it for her.” He took his responsibility as a breadwinner seriously.
The only thing was, once Parkinson’s Disease rendered him unable to work, she had to figure out how to make a living. She was mother to my sisters and me; a substitute teacher in some of the most unruly classrooms in the city; and private duty nurse to my father. 24/7. She didn’t complain much, but it looked hard.
I often wondered what she saw in my father who by then seemed an old, sick unhappy man.

Now I know. The man she met and fell in love with was gentleman with an agile mind, a worldly perspective, a love of language, politics and culture and maybe some New York property. A man who had traveled from Barbados, which must have seemed an exotic land, to a New York soon to be in the throes of the Harlem Renaissance. I imagine he wooed her with his stories. He must have been smitten by her spunk and beauty.
I haven’t found many photos of them together. As my mother wrote on the back of this photo he took of her in Rockefeller Center, he was a “camera bug.”

“I was vexed with him. We’d been walking all over New York it seemed. I had on high heels and dressed in my best seersucker suit. Note the gloves and hat. Persons were properly dressed then (smile.) Believe it or not, I was about 26 or 27, well before Ellen was born.”

What a gift to have this memory.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Celebrating Black History

30 Jan

One of the added treats of finding these columns of my father has been taking note of  the other writers and scholars with whom he shared space in the New York Age:  Black conservative George Schuyler and his wife Josephine Schuyler; Arthur Schomburg, after whom the Schomburg Library for Research in Black Culture is named (Back then Schomburg, who was of Puerto Rican origin, went by “Arturo”); and historian, author and educator Carter G. Woodson.  Woodson founded Black History Week, which was  scheduled for the  second week of February, bracketed by the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. (According to Woodson, Douglass, who was born into slavery, did not know his actual birthday, but chose Valentine’s Day. Black History Week is, of course, the precursor of  Black History Month, which we begin celebrating Tuesday.  According to Wikipedia, “The expansion of Black History Week to Black History Month was first proposed by the leaders of the Black United Students at Kent State University [my graduate school alma mater] in February 1969. The first celebration of the Black History Month took place at Kent State one year later, in February 1970.”
Woodson also founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization that was founded in 1915 and still exists today. He wrote more than a dozen books, including The Mis-Education of the Negro.
Woodson argued that black people, particularly black youth, need to have a full picture of their history and historical contributions in order to develop the self worth it takes to pursue economic, political and social equality.
“If you teach the Negro that he has achieved as much good as others he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race. Such an effort would upset the program of the Nordic in Africa and America. The present control of Negroes could not thereafter be maintained. The oppressor, then, must keep the Negro’s mind enslaved by inculcating a distorted conception of history,” Woodson wrote in a New York Age column published August 17, 1935.

‘Emperor Jones,’ ‘Huck Finn’ and that ‘n’ word

23 Jan

Last week, I weighed in on the debate about the novel Huckleberry Finn in my colleague Cynthia Haven’s blog The Book Haven. There’s a current debate over a new edition of the novel in which the word “nigger” is replaced by the word “slave.” While the intention is noble, I think it misses the point.

My argument is that those who teach the novel need to be fully aware of what they are teaching, the feelings the novel and the word “nigger” evoke and the specific classroom context they find themselves teaching in.

The debate over the use of the word is not new. My father wrote about it in the column below in 1933. He did not mention Huckleberry Finn, but he referred to the repeated use of the word in Eugene O’Neill‘s  Emperor Jones, the 1933 film version of which featured Paul Robeson in the lead.

“Brutus, or Emperor Jones, an obviously uncultured Negro, rises from obscurity in his nation’s South to the dizzy heights of self-appointed Emperor. He makes his way [as] a Pullman Porter, a gambler, a member of a chain gang, a coal passer on a steamer, a bartered slave – and even leaves a few murders in his wake. In his ascent he encounters no institutions of learning – his vocabulary is broken and ungrammatical from the onset – yet Negroes expect the word ‘Negro’ in his uncultured diction. . . . Harlemites don’t have to go to see Emperor Jones to hear the profuse use of the objectionable word, just pass by any group of street-corner loafers, or listen carefully from your apartment window.”

He noted that in Barbados, it was the speaker  – not the spoken to  – who was looked upon as uncultured when the word was used. He took issue with  one of his fellow New York Age columnists, who was Jamaican, who generalized that in the West Indies the word was used to refer to the black laborer.

“He has made the same mistake so many of us make – that of characterizing a West Indian by his knowledge of his own native brethren. There are scores of tropical islands and a few colonies, and there are also a few noticeably different though minor traits in each island’s group. In Barbados – and we have them – a Negro laborer is known as a “laborer,” and not as a nigger.
Thousands of Negroes must have lived and died in the island of Barbados without the regretful realization that he was a Negro. Without a doubt we have our racial handicaps, but the fact is not repeatedly thrust down our throats. Our financial status – or lack of it – seems our greatest handicap. A printer is a printer not because he is a Negro, but generally because he as not financially able to be what he might consider better . . . ” (I wonder if he was referring to himself.)

One of the comments on the Book Haven discussion, accused those of us who were concerned about teaching and reading Huckleberry Finn of hypocrisy.

The reader said,  “many who defend the unlimited freedom of artists to create graphically sexual and blasphemous photos at public expense in the name of freedom of speech and against the bugabear of censorship (even though these images hurt and offend many) now seem willing to bend the same principles, for what? Because some people will be hurt and offended by the N word? And the people who will be hurt and offended are who? The same people who listen to music whose lyrics use the N word constantly?Anybody besides me see this as a huge contradiction?”

Talk about generalizations! Is this person suggesting that all of the people who are offended by the use of “nigger’ in Huckleberry Finn are not offended by the use of the word in rap lyrics? Black people have been conflicted about the use of the word in the public sphere for decades. Remember when Richard Pryor came back from Africa and vowed never to use the word again?

Robeson himself stopped singing the word in renditions of  Showboat‘s “Ol’ Man River” that he performed in recitals. (He did not change the lyrics when he appeared in Showboat productions.)  In those recitals, he replaced he word “nigger” with “darkies.”   “Colored folks,” has been used in revivals of Showboat since the mid 40s.

Ebenezer was of the mind that if black folks stopped using the word, perhaps others would stop using it too.

“When Negroes cease to include the word ‘nigger’ in their vocabulary, white playwrights may rally to the cause and exclude it from their scripts,” my father writes. “How soon will that be? How soon? We prefer not to think.”

How about 77 years and counting?

The New York Age, October 7, 1933

The ‘racial ills’ of the Episcopal Church

28 Nov

“The Episcopal Church might find an antidote for its racial ills by first cleaning house, and then by directing its evangelistic and missionary activities toward those barbarians in the South who ruthlessly violate the constitutional rights of Negroes, denying them fair and impartial trials when accused of offences they seldom commit. Toward this appalling condition, the Episcopal Church has been noticeably apathetic,” Ebenezer writes.

Here is a link to information on Rev. Alexander McGuire, who founded the African Orthodox Church in response to racism in the Episcopal Church.

The New York Age, February 16, 1935

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