First Carnival of White Noise (Black History Month)

white noise presents: the first carnival of our very own!
As previously trailed, this is a retrospective on Black History Month, February 2008.

What is Black History Month?

In 1926 Carter G Woodson and his organisation (then known as the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, later known as the Association for the Study of
African American Life and History, or ASALH) established Negro History Week. According to ASALH:

Woodson selected the week of February that encompassed the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two giants in the history of African Americans. Lincoln, of course, had issued the Emancipation Proclamation that moved the nation away from slavery, and Frederick Douglass had been the greatest leader of African Americans. Symbolically, the selection of Lincoln’s and Douglass’ birthdays as the week to study Black history reflected Woodson’s belief that the history of African Americans was American history.

In 1976, on the 50th anniversary of the first celebration, the event became a month-long celebration and Black History Month was born.

But isn’t Black History Month problematic?

Yes. Some dislike Black History Month. Powerful criticisms include accusations of shallowness, and of brevity (one month, the shortest one at that!) as well as just the very concept that Black History should be studied as a separate topic for a special time instead of as something that is always relevant, throughout the year.

In “Ghetto Month“, Lola of Whatever Lola Wants writes about how much she hates Black History Month. She argues that looking at “black history” in isolation fails to connect the history of black people with the whole history of America/the world – in short that it has broken away from Woodson’s intention which was that:

We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.

In a complex, personal history called “I Hate Black History Month“, The Bear Maiden explains why she too hates Black History Month. This is a wonderful post.

And, as we see on What About Our Daughters, it is quite possible to get the whole thing completely wrong. There has to be a pretty clear line drawn between respectful participation and missing the point completely – but white people don’t always see it. Nor, as Seattle Slim points out at Happy Nappy Head, do some magazine editors.

So why we doing this, exactly?

Because if we didn’t we might end up believing that history is what we are taught in schools, that history is what can be found in the books at the library or the local bookshop – which is White history, and white men’s history at that. Not long ago I went into my local bookshop (a largish Waterstones) to see if they had anything worth browsing in the way of Black British History. There was one book. And all the rest are about Tudors and Victorians and Wars and stuff. One book. That’s why we need to use opportunities like Black History Month to pay some attention to “the Negro in history.”

Darkdaughta publishes in “Dear kkkanadians, before you drape me up over my spellings, please address this“, a note about Afrocentrism in schools. If all schools were less Eurocentric and paid more attention to the contribution that Africans (continental and diasporic) have made to the history of the world, the history of the human race, then we wouldn’t need Black History Month. But they don’t. So we do.

In “Why I love Black History Month“, Afrobella urges us to use the time we have to soak up as much knowledge as we can. She says:

But I sincerely believe it is still needed, and it serves a wonderful purpose. History has been whitewashed, and school curriculums have been sanitized of many significant bloodstains. From my semester-long experience of teaching an African-American history course disguised as an college intro English class, I’d venture to say that college-age kids today know the bare bones of black history. However, it isn’t fleshed out in a way so it touches their lives. The experiences of our ancestors remain dusty, sepia-toned, and ancient to them. It seems uninteresting and irrelevant to their realities. The students I taught had heard about a time when lynchings were commonplace, but they’d never heard Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit”* and empathized with the dread that reverberates through that song. They knew Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream before he was assassinated, but that’s pretty much all they knew. They’ve heard that Malcolm X spoke of freedom by any means necessary, but that was the sum of their knowledge… yeah. I’d say Black History Month is still very necessary.

(*That’s the video, right at the top of this post.)

Bring on the history!

First a quick plug for the Black History Month posts here on white noise, in case you missed them – especially my personal favourites featuring Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary Seacole and the Grunwick Strike.

Next, what could be a gentler start than some picture posts?

WOC PhD has put up a portraits of a selection of Black Women Leaders.

Meanwhile, over at The Lesbian Said What?, are some portraits of notable African American lesbians, gays and transfolk.

Life accounts, biographies, always bring powerful insight, a way into the perspective of those whose experiences we do not share. So here we are, a choice selection:

Whatever Lola Wants is here again with a hymn to RuPaul “Your Country breakfast is Ready!

Rev Irene Monroe of The Bilerico Project blogs about racism and homophibia in Nazi Germany, in this account – Valaida Snow: Black and queer in Nazi Germany?!

Anxious Black Woman of Diary of an Anxious Black Woman has pretty much done a carnival all by herself. Wonderful. Here is her round-up post. I particularly recommend “Saartjie Baartman: The “Hottentot Venus”“, “Ar’n’t We Women? Reflections on Sojourner Truth“, and “Who Speaks for Sally Hemings?

Thinking of Sojourner Truth – here Tatiana Molinar of WAHT!? brings us the text of her famous Aint I A Woman speech, and a video of Alice Walker reading that speech.

And that brings us neatly to the subject of women of colour in American politics – with particular reference here to presidential races past and present.

Here are two posts on the wonderful Shirley Chisholm: Mamalicious has The People’s Politician: Shirley Chisholm, and Knock the Hustle has Shirley Chisholm: The first Woman to Run for President.

And this is an important piece that you may already have seen, from WhatTamiSaid on the position of black women in politics – this post has particular relevance to the current “dilemma” that white feminists like to pose black women in the race for US president – to support their black brother or white sister (ahem). Tami also reminds us that Carol Moseley Braun – the second woman of colour to run for president – also beat Hillary Clinton to the “first woman to run for president” spot.

Thinking of that “dilemma” again, it’s worth looking at a much older choice that WOC feminists had to make. Should they support a constitutional amendment granting black men (but not women) the vote, or should they hold out for universal suffrage? In these posts on Frances Ellen Watkins (Part 1 and Part 2), Mes Deux Cents points out that anti-slavery and women’s rights campaigner Frances Ellen Watkins supported votes for black men even at the risk of delaying votes for women. Why? “Recognizing the ever-present danger of lynching, she reasoned that the African-American community needed an immediate political voice. With that would come the possibility of securing further legal and civil rights.

Finally, something to remember for the 2008 race: yes, Cynthia McKinney, who is currently running for president of the USA. To find out more, take a look at Secondwaver’s post, this video linked by La Chola (brownfemipower), McKinney’s election site Run Cynthia Run, and the support blog All Things Cynthia McKinney.

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That’s all folks: Thank you for coming to the carnival.
If you like what we are doing, then spread the word: link us on your own blog!

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Malcolm X: “Whites who are sincere … “

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“Whites who are sincere don’t accomplish anything by joining Negro organizations and making them integrated. Whites who are sincere should organize among themselves and figure out some strategy to break down the prejudice that exists in white communities. This is where they can function more intelligently and more effectively, in the white community itself, and this has never been done.”

From an interview printed in Malcolm X Talks to Young People. The interview was given to Jack Barnes and Barry Sheppard, leaders of the Young Socialist Alliance, on Jan. 18, 1965. Malcolm X read and approved the final text, which appeared in the March-April 1965 issue of the Young Socialist. Copyright 1965 by Betty Shabazz and Pathfinder Press.

Fannie Lou Hamer

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Fannie Lou Hamer was born in Mississippi in 1917, one of twenty children of a sharecropper family. She began to pick cotton at the age of six and worked in the fields as a plantation timekeeper until 1962, when she lost her job after registering to vote. Hamer, who was the mother of two children, was jailed in 1963 and severely beaten for attempting to integrate a restaurant. She was under constant attack for her civil rights leadership and narrowly escaped being shot. Her home was bombed in 1971.

Hamer worked to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and was one of three Black candidates running for Congress from her state and garnered 33,009 votes.

She also lectured extensively, and was known for a signature line she often used: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She was a powerful speaker, and her singing voice lent another power to civil rights meetings.

Hamer helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, speaking for inclusion of racial issues in the feminist agenda.

Fannie Lou Hamer died in Mississippi in 1977. She had published To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography in 1967. June Jordan published a biography, Fannie Lou Hamer, in 1972, and Kay Mills published This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer in 1993.

The special plight and the role of black women is not something that just happened three years ago. We’ve had a special plight for 350 years. My grandmother had it. My grandmother was a slave. She died in 1960. She was 136 years old. She died in Mount Bayou, Mississippi.

It’s been a special plight for the black woman. I remember my uncles and some of my aunts–and that’s why it really tickled me when you talked about integration. Because I’m very black, but I remember some of my uncles and some of my aunts was as white as anybody in here, and blue-eyed, and some kind of green-eyed–and my grandfather didn’t do it, you know. So what the folks is fighting at this point is what they started. They started unloading the slave ships of Africa, that’s when they started. And right now, sometimes, you know I work for the liberation of all people, because when I liberate myself, I’m liberating other people. But you know, sometimes I really feel more sorrier for the white woman than I feel for ourselves because she been caught up in this thing, caught up feeling very special, and folks, I’m going to put it on the line, because my job is not to make people feel comfortable–(drowned out by applause). You’ve been caught up in this thing because, you know, you worked my grandmother, and after that you worked my mother, and then finally you got hold of me. And you really thought, people–you might try and cool it now, but I been watching you, baby. You thought that you was more because you was a woman, and especially a white woman, you had this kind of angel feeling that you were untouchable. You know what? There’s nothing under the sun that made you believe that you was just like me, that under this white pigment of skin is red blood, just like under this black skin of mine. So we was used as black women over and over and over. You know I remember a time when I was working around white people’s house, and one thing that would make me mad as hell, after I would be done slaved all day long, this white woman would get on the phone, calling some of her friends, and said, “You know, I’m tired, because we have been working,” and I said, “That’s a damn lie.” You’re not used to that kind of language, honey, but I’m gone tell you where it’s at. So all of these things was happening because you had more. You had been put on a pedestal, and then got only put on a pedestal, but you had been put in something like a ivory castle. So what happened to you, we have busted the castle open and whacking like hell for the pedestal. And when you hit the ground, you’re gone have to fight like hell, like we’ve been fighting all this time.

Excerpted from “The Special Plight and the Role of Black Woman,” Speech given by Fannie Lou Hamer at NAACP Legal Defense Fund Institute, New York City, May 7, 1971.

Source: Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, ed. by Gerda Lerner, pp. 609-610. Random House: 1972.

Fannie Lou Hamer, by Jane Johnson Lewis.

I am a man

Here, James Baldwin talks about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the future of the nation: what must white people do?

The future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people… whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger on whom they relied so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I am not a nigger. I am a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. So the question you’ve got to ask yourself, that the white population of this country’s got to ask itself… if I’m not the nigger here, and you invented it, you the white people invented it, then you have to find out why. Because the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question… simply to face that question.

[Via Charcoal Ink, but any transcription errors entirely my own.]

Kenneth Clark’s interview with James Baldwin is accessible in its entirety at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/mlk/sfeature/sf_video.html both in streaming video, and in written transcript form.

The interview was conducted on May 24, 1963, immediately following a historic meeting between Baldwin, Black writer Lorraine Hansberry (and possibly others) with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The interview was broadcast less than a week later.

In addition to this interview there are also interviews with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, in video and transcript forms, on that same page. The interviews were broadcast on Boston public television at the height of racial strife as the civil rights struggle in the usa started to gain momentum.

The Grunwick strike

in the 1970s, Grunwick photo processing factory in Willesden, London employed mainly Asian women – their workforce was 80-90% Asian and mainly female. This was a deliberate policy on the part of owner George Ward and his management. They preferred female Asian workers because they were cheap, docile, and easily bullied.

In Finding a Voice (see reference below), Amrit Wilson quotes Jayaben Desai’s description of working conditions at Grunwick in 1976:

On two sides there are glass cabins for the management so that they can watch you as well. He is English. He moves around and keeps an eye. You have to put up your hand and ask even to go to the toilet. If someone is sick, say a woman has a period or something, they wouldn’t allow her home without a doctor’s certificate, and if someone’s child was sick and they had to take it to the clinic or hospital they would say “Why are you going, ask someone else from your family to go”…

Even pregnant women who wanted to go to the clinic were told “you must arrange to go at the weekend.” On the rare occasions when a woman did go during working hours she would be warned that that was the last time. Everyone would be paid a different wage so no one knew what anyone else was getting. And to force people to work they would make them fill in a job sheet saying how many films they had booked in. If someone did a large number they would bring the job sheet around and show the others and say “She has done so many, you also must.” Not that they were paid more!

The mail order room at the factory, where orders were processed and prepared for dispatch, was particularly bad: this is where Desai worked. There were no windows there or air conditioning, and Desai described the place as a zoo. The workers earned from as little as £28 a week, for 40 hours work, at a time when the average national wage was £72 and the average full time wage for a female manual worker in London was £44 a week. Although wages varied, so as to keep the workforce divided, white people were consistently paid more than nonwhites. Overtime was compulsory, even at a moment’s notice and regardless of whether the worker had children to collect. Sackings were commonplace, and indeed staff turnover was 100% (i.e. on average, employees stayed for a year at most).

In 1976, a busy time for the photo processing factory with everyone (else) enjoying the long hot summer, things reached breaking point. One man was summarily sacked for failing to complete his allotted work. He and three others walked out. Mrs Desai was told to stay and work overtime. She refused and walked out with her son.

Those six had no idea about how to start a trade union or conduct an employment dispute, but they knew that this is what they wanted to do, realising that it was the only way to change conditions. They organised a petition which many other workers signed, saying that they wanted to join a trade union. Between them, they found out what to do and who to contact and what began was a two year strike that hit the headlines time and again. There were mass pickets, violence in which both policemen and picketers were injured, sympathetic action elsewhere (including at the post office where workers refused to carry Grunwick mail, and at Kodak where workers blacked photo supplies delivered to Grunwick). Ministers joined the picket line; other ministers decried the strike action; labour prime minister James Callaghan wanted to warn off Arthur Scargill from supporting the strikers.

Although much of the violence that got reported was violence by the picketers, about 3 times as many picketers were injured as police officers. A local doctor was reported as saying “Two types of injury are particularly common: the first is a result of testicles being grabbed by the police. The second is a result of women having their breasts grabbed.” Equally there were many false arrests. Desai herself was arrested for assault: which was particularly incredible since she (a tiny woman) was accused of assaulting two men who were standing on the opposite side of a high fence. The charges were dropped for, ahem, lack of evidence.

Eventually, the strikers gave in.

They had only ambiguous support from conflicted union bosses, despite much popular support from members of other unions. For example, when legal action was threatened against the UPW (Union of Postal Workers) in respect of the post office strike, they ordered their members back to work immediately, and then failed to take further action when a promised ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) resolution did not materialise. Desai and her colleagues even resorted to hunger strike in protest at the TUC’s (Trades Union Congress) lack of helps, which only resulted in their being disciplined by APEX, their own union. At the same time, NAFF (National Association for Freedom, now The Freedom Association) was providing a high level of support to the completely intransigent George Wood, even to the extent of helping him to circumvent the postal workers’ action, and the letter of the law was used against the strikers and their supporters.

Nevertheless, this long and militant action which was led by an Asian woman on behalf of a workforce of primarily Asian women remains an important part of trade union history, and the history of British race relations.

It was the first major strike action in which unions gave any real support to Asian workers, never mind female Asian workers. And it made the exploiting employers wake up to the fact that not all Asian women can be relied upon to provide docile, submissive labour regardless of working conditions.

I’d like to finish with another quotation (again, via Wilson) of Jayaben Desai. This one is about her encounters with George Ward.

He would come to the picket line and try to mock us and insult us. One day he said “Mrs Desai, you can’t win in a sari, I want to see you in a mini.” I said “Mrs Gandhi, she wears a sari and she is ruling a vast country.”… On my second encounter with Ward he said “Mrs Desai, I’ll tell the whole Patel community that you are a loose woman.” I said “I am here with this placard! Look! I am showing all England that you are a bad man. You are going to tell only the Patel community but I am going to tell all of England.”

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Sources / further reading:

Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole was born in 1805, in Jamaica, the daughter of a white Scottish man, and army officer, and a black African woman, a freed slave.

The family were by no means poor, although they had few civil rights as black people in a slave society. Mary’s mother was a healer, and made her living running a boarding house for invalid soldiers – using her traditional knowledge of healing and medicinal plants and passing it on to her daughter. Mary also learned to care for and about soldiers. She worked with her mother and later travelled and worked within and around the Caribbean, most notably in Panama and Cuba where she was widely recognised for her skill in treating, among other illnesses and injuries, cholera. She had advanced ideas about cleanliness, nourishment and contagion that made many of the European-trained doctors she encountered uncomfortable.

Mary also travelled to Britain twice, spending three years here in total.

Then, in 1854, when she heard of the Crimean war and the many soldiers who were dying of cholera, she went back to London asked to be sent to Crimea as an army nurse, offering her credentials and expertise: she was very experienced, as well qualified as anyone, and more so than most. She was turned down – at least four times. Of her rejection, she later wrote:

In my country, where people know our use, it would have been different; but here (England) it was natural enough that they should laugh, good-naturedly enough, at my offer… Once again I tried, and had an interview this time with one of Miss Nightingale’s companions. She gave me the same reply, and I read in her face the fact, that had there been a vacancy, I should not have been chosen to fill it… Was it possible that American* prejudices against colour had some root here? Did these ladies shrink from accepting my aid because my blood flowed beneath a somewhat duskier skin than theirs? (*She was much dismayed by American racism which she had encountered in Panama.)

Mary Seacole was not the only black nurse applying to serve in the Crimea as army nurse. No other black nurses were accepted either.

Well, she went anyway, paying her own way and arriving in 1855 when she was 50 years old. There, she set up the British Hotel, a canteen hut and store, planning to finance her nursing effort through selling essentials like food, soap and boots to the soldiers. Florence Nightingale’s hospitals were a good safe distance from the battlefield, while Mary Seacole stationed herself just 2 miles from the action, took her medical supplies onto the battlefield and worked even in the midst of fighting. She fed, nursed and mothered injured soldiers, and concentrated her efforts on working with the enlisted men, the ordinary soldiers who feared the hospital (rightly, given the state of hygiene there!), and she earned a reputation as a skilled and effective medical professional, as well as a kind and indefatigable woman.

On her return, she was celebrated and given medals. She was at least as well known as Florence Nightingale, if less well-recognised in official terms. She was received cordially at Court and even tended the Prince of Wales in his illness, the eldest son of Queen Victoria. She was praised by soldiers, newspapers and the general public for her bravery and her medical skill. Since her war effort had bankrupted her (the war ended earlier than expected so that much of the money she had spent on supplies for her British Hotel shop were left unused and unsold), a Diana-style four-day benefit festival was held in her honour, attended by 40,000 people – unfortunately popularity did not translate into profit and she only benefited to the tune of £233. She wrote a book about her experiences which was very successful, which may at least in part be a result of her efforts to stress her “good Scottish blood” and to play down the part that slavery and racism played in her own life – not to mention, her mother’s.

William Russell wrote in The Times:

In the hour of their illness, these men have found a kind and successful physician, a Mrs Seacole. She is from Kingston (Jamaica) and she doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battlefield to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessing.

… and he wrote in the preface to her book:

I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.

And then, of course she laped into obscurity. She wanted to nurse in India but could not raise the funds. In 1881, aged 76, she died and was forgotten almost altogether: she did not fit the image of respectable heroine, and even her considerable achievements were not enough to secure her any enduring popular affection, not in the face of “the competition”, dear white Florence Nightingale. It was only a hundred years later, in the late twentieth century – thanks to efforts made by African and West Indian nurses – that our memory of her even began to be adequately revived.

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    Some sources / further reading:

    maryseacole.com
    BBC – Historic figures
    Spartacus
    100 Great Black Britons
    Victorianweb

    I also recommend Tell me about Mary Seacole, by John Malam for children, which is also a great way to introduce the history of slavery and racism to young people (my girl is three and has just about enough understanding, with discussion/explanation, for this book although I think it is really aimed at somewhat older children).

    Reparations for slavery

    Since we are honoring Black History Month(s) here at white noise, I want to bring up the idea of governments paying reparations for slavery. I first became convinced of the necessity of doing this in the usa about 5 years ago, when I read this op-ed by Dalton Conley in the New York Times. I just came across a reference to this film, an award-winning documentary by Katrina Browne, a descendent of one of the biggest slave-trading families in u.s. history. The website doesn’t list a price, but I’ll write to find out. Perhaps some of us could share a dvd by mailing it to each other, if there’s interest. Many Britons profitted from the slave trade, and, in fact, black slaves were owned in Britain for a time. The economy wasn’t build on slave labor, as it was in the u.s., and I don’t know very much of that history. What I do know is that slavery reparations need to be paid in the usa. Working for reparations is definitely something that white antiracist allies can work for. In fact, it will never happen unless we whites become active and activist about it.