Immigration nation (reposted from 2012)

4 Jul

“Immigrants signed their names to our Declaration and helped win our independence.  Immigrants helped lay the railroads and build our cities, calloused hand by calloused hand.  Immigrants took up arms to preserve our union, to defeat fascism, and to win a Cold War.  Immigrants and their descendants helped pioneer new industries and fuel our Information Age, from Google to the iPhone.  So the story of immigrants in America isn’t a story of ‘them,’ it’s a story of ‘us.’  It’s who we are.  And now, all of you get to write the next chapter,” President Barack Obama told a group of active-duty service members as he presided over their naturalization ceremony earlier Wednesday.

The ceremony set the perfect tone on Independence Day 2012. As a poisonous strain of anti-immigrant fever runs high in some quarters, the President’s remarks are a powerful reminder that America’s story is at its core the story of immigration.

But it is a complex story; one that the country has been struggling with for decades.

In 1934, one of my father’s fellow New York Age columnists Vere Johns, wrote albeit a bit less delicately:

“Shortly after the Great War, the United States decided that her gates should be closed but for a little crevice where she would allow a few people to slip in each year. In other words, she would keep as many aliens out as possible. But after fourteen years of that policy they are fearing that it was a big mistake and in some way responsible for the depression we are now trying to emerge from . . . .

Speaking of Americans, it is hard to find them. The first ones we claimed to be the Indians and they probably came from somewhere else; then came the Spaniards, followed by the Mayflower boatload of adventurers with no more blue blood in their veins than a cat has. Later came, or rather were dragged here, the Africans, and since then, every country has contributed its quota from Malay to Ireland. The country is one cosmopolitan racial hash, and just try to pick out a pure strain. If everyone were to go back to the land of their origin, all that would be left here is the fleas and the skunks.

But every single one of these groups has made great contributions to the building up of America into one of the world’s greatest and richest nations. America would have been a poor and desolate country with a small population, vast areas of uninhabited land and in a third-rate position,” the Jamaican-born Johns wrote.

My father chronicled his own path to citizenship. In one column published on March 3, 1934, he wrote about the hurdles immigrants scaled to become citizens  — the fees, the educational requirements and some seemingly arbitrary hoops:

“Why all the red tape in a time of peace? We learn that in a time of war ‘citizenship’ is distributed for the asking — the reasons being obvious,” Ebenezer wrote, noting that within just a few years the fees for the process had increased from $5 to $20.

“The educational requirements matter but little to English-speaking Negroes, able to read and write. The questions usually asked are, “’What do you know about Abraham Lincoln?’ ‘Who makes the state laws?’ And this writer was asked in addition ‘How many stars are in the American flag? The careful perusal and retention of the contents of a 25 cents book on ‘How to Become a Citizen’ generally solve the educational requirements of becoming a citizen. But there are greater encumbrances and if the theory that that which is easily got is little valued,  citizenship should be valued.”

He goes on to chronicle his path: When he initially tries to begin the process, it’s during a presidential election year. He’s told to come back after the election. On the appointed day, he returns and declares his intention to denounce King George V. He waits three more years, fulfilling the five-year U.S. residency requirement. When it’s finally time for him to make his application, he brings with him two witnesses who can vouch for his character. But one has only known him for three and a half years – the requirement was five. His application rejected, he had to start the process again.  My father arrived at Ellis Island in the autumn of 1923. He became a citizen in the spring of 1930.

Luckily my father was continuously employed, even during the worst periods of the Great Depression. There was talk back then of denying pubic assistance to non-citizens and there were threats to deport them.

So nothing that he went through comes close to what some immigrants face today and the “encumbrances” he described don’t even come close to the sacrifices made by the 25 individuals who were sworn in at the White House Wednesday.

“All of you did something profound,” Obama said. “You chose to serve.  You put on the uniform of a country that was not yet fully your own. In a time of war, some of you deployed into harm’s way.  You displayed the values that we celebrate every Fourth of July — duty, responsibility and patriotism.”

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No holiday for the fight against injustice

26 Dec

The fire is at hand. Let us organize.

Those were the words of Ulric McDonald Grant, a Barbadian union organizer, who in 1937 was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sedition.

Occasionally, Ebenezer devoted his holiday columns to sentimental musings. But quite often, he used them to remind people that the Scottsboro Boys were still in prison or that white Harlem merchants still failed to hire blacks to work in their stores. He devoted his Christmas Day column in 1937 to inveigh against the injustice visited upon Ulric Grant.

Noting that the case constituted the first time he’d felt ashamed of the “isle of my birth,”  Ebenezer asserted that Grant’s “crime” was that he gave a few speeches in which he vowed to continue to fight against the white planter class.

“What must have made Grant’s remarks all the more ‘seditious’ in the eyes of the law was that they were made following an island-wide disturbance arising out of labor conditions and capitalistic oppression under which the masses, Negroes almost in toto, have groaned for many years,” my father wrote.

He had harsh criticism for a number of players in this case, but curiously, he let the British off the hook.

Much of what is charged up to ‘the British’ is the work of a few West Indian-born and bred ninnies usurping their power in the only manner they know and usurping it badly, occasionally harmfully.

“The entire judicial setup in Barbados which had to do with the case of Grant is of local birth,” my father continued.  “Judge, attorney general, solicitor general and police constabulary. And we find Grant arrested, prosecuted, sentenced to 10 years in prison for an offense which amounted in the most to an attempt to disturb the peace —  an offense  to which a small fine generally meets the end of justice.”


My father expressed disappointment toward Grant supporters for failing to rally to Grant’s aid, but he speculated that many of them were probably swept up in wholesale arrests that were taking place or  “hiding from the accusing finger of this same judicial setup.”

He took aim at local attorneys who did not offer their expertise. to Grant, who faced a jury without legal counsel. “It was regrettable that the Negro lawyers of Barbados did not see ‘a cause’ in a fight for Grant’s exoneration.”

As to the judge in the case, whom he described as being “born of a small-town aristocracy and elevated to his present position by curry-favoring small-town cronies, he sees the right of the populace in a small-town way. The right of free speech was not included in his legal studies.”

On a more hopeful note, Ebenezer said that a West Indian Defense Committee had been formed in Harlem to provide financial assistance to the defense.

“The West Indian Defense Committee has quite a task before it,Ebenezer wrote.

The progress of the world and the right of free speech must be carried home to shortsighted colonials.

I found a brief legal note that indicated that Grant was released early, in February 1942 after the remission of his sentence.  But aside from a few letters to the editor in response to my father’s 1937 Christmas column, I haven’t found much on Grant.  I did find an article in the Barbados Advocate in  2016, in which a contemporary union leader lamented the fact that Grant and several other activists had never gotten due credit for their contributions to Barbados’ decolonization.

So as I celebrate Unity — the first principle of Kwanzaa — I will light a candle for Ulric Grant and all of those whose voices that have filled our diasporic chorus against injustice.













Celebrating longevity

29 Jul

Eva V. Williams, one of my mother’s first cousins, turns 90 this weekend. Two weeks ago, about 200 friends and family members gathered to celebrate this milestone. While as one of her nephews, Russell Irvine, noted in a tribute to Cousin Eva, fewer and fewer elders from that generation remain, an added blessing is that five of Cousin Eva’s siblings were there to celebrate with her. Six of the original 10 are still with us.

Cousin Eva, who worked as a school librarian, did not have children of her own, but she has been a mother to many. Her “radiant, captivating” smile and open heart,  are  her signature.  Thank you, dear cousin, and Happy Birthday.

Happy 120th birthday

24 May


May 24 would have been my father’s 120th birthday.

I don’t know what would resonate with him today, but back in the 1930s, when he was in his mid-to-late 30s, he was given to quoting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on his birthday.

For three consecutive years, in columns that ran near May 24, Ebenezer would quote the same lines from Longfellow’s “The Spanish Student,” a play in three acts.


“Approaching one of those inevitable milestones imposed by Father Time, this paragrapher pauses in reflection and does a little audible thinking. Methinks Longfellow was correct when he wrote of persons born on May 24. ‘The strength of thine own arm is thy salvation.’ But I think he stretched his optimism a bit far when he said, ‘Behind those riftless [sic] clouds there is a silver lining [sic]; be patient,’” my father wrote in the New York Age, May 28, 1934.

Longfellow actually wrote “rifted clouds,” and in at least one edition, that one line was not about a silver lining. It was, “there shines a glorious star!” Also, I could not find any verification that the 19th-century poet and essayist was specifically referring to those who were born on May 24.

But, ok, Dad.

More often than not, my father used his weekly column for a little of this and a little of that. In one paragraph, he would rail against racially discriminatory hiring practices in Harlem and in the next, he would chide an acquaintance for falling under the spell of Father Devine. Then he’d wax about a social event or musical performance that moved him. Often, he used his column to express his outrage about lynchings and the trumped-up charges against the Scottsboro Boys. During the years when my father was quoting Longfellow in his birthday columns, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression; Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party had begun their reign. You couldn’t fault him for seeing no rift in the clouds.

These days, the press is literally being punched and kicked simply for the “crime” of asking questions.

A Republican Congress is poised to denude health care, the environment, public education and women’s agency over our bodies.

Our president and his family are raiding our treasury.

Law enforcement officers who kill unarmed black and brown civilians, including children, do so with impunity.

Immigrants are being harassed, deported and maligned.

White supremacists in this country have been given license to spew hate and kill.

Has anyone seen a glorious star lately?

Actually, yes.

When a Supreme Court majority (that includes Justice Clarence Thomas!) rejects North Carolina’s voter suppression efforts.

When reporters fight back with fierce investigative journalism.

When constituents yell “you lie” at those to try to sell us alternative facts.

When we forge authentic alliances strong enough to demolish and deconstruct silly walls.

When we vote like our lives depend on it, because apparently, they do.

So, in honor of Ebenezer’s 120th birthday, I will take a few liberties of my own with Longfellow:

Only the strength of [OUR] own [COLLECTIVE] arm[S] will be [OUR] salvation.

Let’s get to work.


Beyond Vietnam

8 Apr


I returned home last Sunday, inspired, and stirred after a trip to North Vietnam. During the time I was there, enjoying the lush landscape, the rich history, the value of lasting friendships and the resilience of the Vietnamese people, the question that kept coming back to me was “What was the point of the Vietnam War?” (By the way, the Vietnamese refer to it as the “American War.”)

My return to the U.S. coincided with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s courageous speech “Beyond Vietnam,” which he delivered at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly 365 days before he was assassinated. It was courageous because in speaking out against the war, many – from the White House to the black civil rights establishment – denounced King for veering off script. But King’s point was that injustice at home and military aggression in Southeast Asia were morally intertwined.

Here’s an excerpt:

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides. Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans.

Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything on a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Journalist and author Tavis Smiley visited the campus of Stanford University on April 4 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s speech. The program included a screening of his 2010 PBS documentary “A Call to Conscience,” which provided a political context for King’s anti-Vietnam speech in 1967. Scholars and activists who lent their voices to that documentary included Marian Wright Edelman, Harry Belafonte, Cornell West, Clayborne Carson, Clarence B. Jones, Susannah Heschel and the late Vincent Harding. Smiley threw a bit of shade on former President Barack Obama, who acknowledged in a clip of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech that he owed his political ascendence to King’s nonviolent movement, but that as commander-in-chief, he could not rule out the use of force. “Make no mistake, evil does exist in the world,” Obama said.

We were reminded of such evil this week after Syria launched another brutal chemical attack against its own people and President Donald Trump responded with a bombing raid.

These are unsettling times, but my trip to Vietnam reminded me that human beings have a capacity for unspeakable cruelty but also, yes, the audacity to hope.

But King warned us from the pulpit at Riverside Church 50 years ago of the “fierce urgency of now.”

I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin, we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

Elaine Ray wins 2016 Gival Press Short Story Award

15 Dec

Blown away and humbled. The first piece of fiction I’ve ever gotten published wins an award. The story is published here.


‘Greenleaf’ brings family and journalism to the small screen

22 Jun

I was going to watch the OWN Network’s Greenleaf, no matter what, since my nephew Lamman Rucker is a principal character. The fact that Keith David and Lynn Whitfield star in it too and Oprah Winfrey is an executive producer and has a recurring role were attractions.

That writer and producer Craig Wright, whose credits include Lost and Six Feet Under gave the show some cred for me.

After watching the premier last night, though, what is most intriguing in my mind is that the story about a Tennessee megachurch, and an uber wealthy black family, centers around Grace Greenleaf, a disillusioned preacher prodigy, prodigal daughter, and (yay!) a truth-seeking journalist. She seems to be the only one, aside from her Auntie Mavis, played by Winfrey, who is interested in getting to the bottom of her sister Faith’s death. She and Mavis are the only ones willing to confront the open secret that a family member is a sexual predator.

Until Spotlight, the Academy Award-winning  film based on the true story of my former Boston Globe colleagues who uncovered a massive international scandal about child sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the complicity of the Catholic Church, I hadn’t seen a movie or television show that portrayed journalism in a way that rang true.

I’m counting on Oprah, a journalist at her core and a victim of sexual abuse herself to get it right. And in the meantime, I’ll be watching it as a proud auntie too.

Memorial Day reflections

28 May

In his New York Age column in 1934, my father wrote, “President Roosevelt in an address to more than 50,000 persons on Memorial Day, denounced three groups as those capable of retarding the country’s progress.”

He then quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech delivered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on May 30, 1934, titled “The Selfishness of Sectionalism Has No Place in Our National Life.”

 “These groups are those who seek to stir up political animosity or to build political advantage by the distortion of facts; those who, by declining to follow the rules of the game, seek to gain an unfair advantage over those who are willing to live up to the rules of the game; and those few who, because they have never been willing to take an interest in their fellow Americans, dwell inside of their own narrow spheres and still represent the selfishness of sectionalism which has no place in our national life.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt

My father continued: “These groups, optimistically observes the President, ‘grow less in importance with the growth of a clearer understanding of our purpose on the part of an overwhelming majority.’

“Obviously, Negroes might wish they could subscribe to the Chief Executive’s optimism, but existing conditions are hardly conducive to such. With unyielding prejudice of the South not content with its morbid environment but rearing its head in the allegedly democratic North, Negroes fail to observe to an appreciable extent the decline of those whites who represent the ‘selfishness of sectionalism.’” Ebenezer Ray

Ebenezer used FDR’s words as a jumping off point to talk about just why black Americans might be less optimistic than their president. He cited as examples the barring of blacks from the House Restaurant in Washington, DC. and the refusal of Blumstein’s, the largest department store in Harlem in his day, to hire “Negro” clerks, despite the fact that 75 percent of their patronage was from blacks.

This column came up while I was searching my father’s writings for some Memorial Day wisdom.

Things have changed. Many of those who have witnessed an African American family residing in the White House for the past eight years might find it hard to imagine that black folks were once barred from eating in the House of Representatives dining room.

Harlem now has Magic Johnson movie theaters, Starbucks and a Whole Foods, who hire plenty of black folks and other people of color, even as many of those workers are being priced out.  Earlier this week, Michael Henry Adams, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, titled, “The End of Black Harlem,” in which he examines the gentrification that has rendered this cultural Mecca increasingly unaffordable to those who have made it their home for decades.

Barack Obama, Shinzo Abe

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands fter laying wreaths at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, western, Japan, Friday, May 27, 2016. Obama on Friday became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the site of the world’s first atomic bomb attack, bringing global attention both to survivors and to his unfulfilled vision of a world without nuclear weapons. (Kimimasa Mayama/Pool Photo via AP)

But some themes in Roosevelt’s Memorial Day speech, are frighteningly resonant. Far from Americans gaining a “clearer understanding of our purpose,” as the president put it, those who represent “the selfishness of sectionalism” appear to be gaining ground. The presumptive Republican candidate for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump, epitomizes those who “seek to stir up political animosity or to build advantage by the distortion of facts,” while his supporters “dwell inside of their own narrow spheres.”

Ebenezer likely thought FDR’s speech did not, in today’s parlance, “go hard enough.”  But perhaps the president was trying to appeal to his country’s better nature.

That’s what presidents do.

On Friday, President Barack Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and delivered a speech reflecting on the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War II.

“We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell,” Obama said.  “We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.”

Obama went on to say: “My own nation’s story began with simple words: All men are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Realizing that ideal has never been easy, even within our own borders, even among our own citizens. But staying true to that story is worth the effort. It is an ideal to be strived for, an ideal that extends across continents and across oceans. The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious, the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family –  that is the story that we all must tell.” Barack Obama

We must not surrender our ideals to those who distort facts to gain unfair political advantage or  dwell inside their own spheres.









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