Tag Archives: social injustice

“March: Book Three” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This third volume concludes the trilogy, and it does so in a powerful and moving way. The story climaxes with the escalating tension in the civil rights struggle, which includes the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, where John Lewis was nearly beaten to death by Alabama State Troopers.

There is so much relevant and important commentary in this text, that I struggled with what to cover in my post (hence a lapse between when I finished reading and when I wrote this post). Rather than try to cover all the socio-political issues addressed in the book, I figured I would focus on a couple of sections that really stood out for me personally.

The first thing that really resonated with me personally was a section about the press and their focus on the white volunteers who were involved in the civil rights movement at the time.

There had been several complaints about the white volunteers trying to take over. It also left a number of people sore that the press had focused much of their attention on the white workers, often identified by name, shown working alongside nameless blacks.

(p. 53)

I had experienced something like this personally when I lived in South Florida and I went to protest the repatriation of Haitian refugees at the INS offices. I was interviewed by the news and featured prominently on television because they wanted to know why a white American was out there protesting with a large group of black Haitians. For me, it was a basic human rights issue, and I have to say I felt pained that the media chose to focus on me and not on the Haitians who were literally fleeing for their lives from the Duvalier regime.

The next thing that really struck me deeply was a conversation between Lewis and Malcolm X. Malcolm stressed that the real issue of the civil rights problem is economic, that it is the disparity between the rich and the poor, a rift that continues through this day and is the cause of much of the suffering around the world.

Malcolm talked about the need to shift our focus from race to class, both among one another and between ourselves and the white community. He believed that was the root of our problems, not just in America, but all over the world. Malcolm was saying, in effect, that it is a struggle for the poor–for those who have been left out and left behind–and that it transcends race.

(p. 136)

I also learned from the book that Malcolm was assassinated on John Lewis’ birthday, which was February 21, 1965 (Lewis was born on February 21, 1940).

Toward the end of the book is a touching section that depicts Lyndon Johnson’s speech announcing the federal government’s enforcement of voting rights. The speech is included in its entirety and is worth reading closely, but I just want to focus on one key phrase.

The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.

(p. 242)

In the recent election here in the U.S., and in past elections, I have been sadly astounded at voter apathy and the sense that many people have that their vote does not mean anything, or that it is better to cast a protest vote to send a message to the “establishment” instead of voting for the better of the two primary candidates. While I certainly empathize with the sentiment of these people, considering the vote as something frivolous or useless will ultimately lead to the loss of its power as a vehicle for social change. We must never forget that gains are slow coming, but that progress can be torn down very quickly.

Anyway, I highly recommend this graphic trilogy to all readers, young and old. The books are inspiring, infuriating, and important.

Here are links to my posts on the first two books:

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“March: Book Two” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This book opens with an image of two hands shaking: one black and one white. For me, that sums up what this book is about: reaching across the race divide.

This volume focuses on the increased violence that blacks faced as the civil rights movement gained momentum. It can be difficult to read at times, but the message is so powerful and important, that the story must be told. One part really pained me. It was depicting an attack on civil rights activists in Montgomery, AL on May 20, 1961. A mom had brought her young boy to the demonstration and was encouraging him to partake in the violence.

“C’mon… harder, Danny! That’s my boy… git him! Them eyes… git them eyes!”

(p. 75)

It’s an image I could not shake, and it reinforced what I already believed—that racism is taught. It is something that is passed down from generation to generation. I don’t believe that hatred is a natural state, but it is something that is learned.

Another thing that was not surprising yet resonated with me is how religion is twisted and used to justify hatred. This is evident in a quote from Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett.

“The Good Lord was the original segregationist. He put the negro in Africa, separated from all other races.”

(p. 114)

Without question, though, the most powerful part of this volume is John Lewis’ speech from the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The book contains two versions of the speech. The edited version, which was the one he delivered, is presented with images in the graphic novel format. The original version, which was deemed a little too radical by some in the movement, is included as an appendix and is a great historical document.

The speech itself is too long to include here, but I encourage you to read it in its entirely. I will close the post with the closing words of John Lewis’ historic speech.

We will march through the streets of the south; through the streets of Jackson, through the streets of Danville, through the streets of Cambridge, through the streets of Birmingham. But we will march with the spirit of love and with the spirit of dignity that we have shown here today. By the force of our demands, our determination, and our numbers, we shall splinter the segregated south into a thousand pieces, and put them together in the image of God and Democracy. We must say: “Wake up, America! Wake up!!” for we cannot stop, and we will not and cannot be patient.

(p. 171)

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“March: Book One” by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

This is the first book in a three-volume graphic novel about civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis. I had heard this discussed on a couple podcasts that I listen to and it piqued my interest, so when I heard that Andrew Aydin, one of the writers, was doing a talk at a local indie bookstore, I went and listened to what he had to say. I was so moved and inspired that I purchased the first volume and had him sign it.

The book describes Lewis’ early days of activism, when he participated in the lunch counter sit-ins which were aimed at ending segregation. The stories of his past are presented as recollections from the Congressman on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, showing just how far civil rights have advanced in less than 50 years.

Before I talk about the text, I want to say something about Nate Powell’s artwork. It is excellent and visually captures the pain and emotion of that turbulent time. In addition, the choice to do all the artwork in black and white symbolically represents the contrast and division regarding race at that time in American history.

While in college, Lewis became inspired by the Social Gospel, which essentially asserted that one must apply the spiritual values from the Gospel to address social issues.

I loved the new ideas college was introducing me to, in religion and philosophy–but I couldn’t stop thinking about the Social Gospel. Here I was reading about justice, when there were people out there working to make it happen. I started to feel guilty for not doing more. I became restless.

(p. 65)

Later on, Lewis recounts his first meeting with Martin Luther King, who agreed to help Lewis try to get into Troy State University. King makes Lewis aware of the risks involved in challenging the State of Alabama and the Board of Education.

King: To attend Troy State, we’ll have to sue the State of Alabama and the Board of Education. You’re not old enough to file a suit–you’ll have to get your parents’ okay. They’re going to have to sign. But if you want to go, we’ll help–we’ll raise the money to file those suits, and we’ll support you all the way. But you must keep in mind–your parents could lose their jobs. Your family home could be bombed or burned. You may get hurt–or your family may get hurt. I don’t know what will happen.

(p. 71)

While reading this graphic novel, I learned that during the civil rights movement, an organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (F.O.R.) published a comic about MLK that was intended to teach young people about non-violent resistance.

F.O.R. had also published a popular comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which explained the basics of passive resistance and non-violent action as tools for desegregation.

(p. 76)

In his talk at the bookstore, Andrew Aydin told the attendees how he convinced John Lewis that the graphic novel format was the best way to tell his story. I am in full agreement. While the story itself is compelling and moving, it’s the images that make this such a visceral read. I encourage everyone to pick up this book and read it, especially in a time when intolerance seems to be rearing its ugly head once again.

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“Sonnet 11: As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou growest” by William Shakespeare – A Promotion of Ethnic Cleansing?

Shakespeare

As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou growest
In one of thine, from that which thou departest;
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestowest
Thou mayst call thine when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty and increase:
Without this, folly, age and cold decay:
If all were minded so, the times should cease
And threescore year would make the world away.
Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh featureless and rude, barrenly perish:
Look, whom she best endow’d she gave thee more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:
She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.

I had mixed feelings about this poem when I read it this morning over my first cup of coffee. But before I delve into why this poem troubled me, I figured I’d talk about the basic theme and metaphors.

This is another of the “fair youth” sonnets, where Shakespeare is entreating an unnamed young man to procreate. The opening lines describe how a child will grow at the same rate as a parent ages. The child’s physical and mental development progresses at the same pace as the parent’s abilities decreases. I suspect this was very important at a time that lacked elder care and care for the elderly was generally the responsibility of the children.

Lines 5 and 6 address heredity:

Herein lives wisdom, beauty and increase:
Without this, folly, age and cold decay:

I like this image. For me, the idea of wisdom, beauty, and increase describes the parents’ ability to pass on to their children what they have learned in life, an appreciation for art and beauty in life, and an increase in wealth, both material and spiritual. Without a family to share these things with, all we have will atrophy and decay along with us in our later years.

So now we get to the point that I find troubling.

Let those whom Nature hath not made for store,
Harsh featureless and rude, barrenly perish:
Look, whom she best endow’d she gave thee more;
Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish:

So I understand what Shakespeare is getting at here. He is saying that if the beautiful and artistically creative and intelligent people of the world failed to procreate, then the world would become dominated by those who would not be in as much of a position to advance culture and society. But looking at this from a 21st-century perspective, we can see how this type of ideology has led to abuse and human rights violations throughout history. Racist and ethnocentric propaganda consistently depicts “others” as breeding like vermin and threatening to overrun the purer population, while at the same time encouraging those of the desired race to procreate and ensure their continued existence and dominance. So when I read a line claiming that those who are “harsh featureless and rude” should “barrenly perish,” I cannot help but feeling horrified at the idea that the value of one class of people is elevated and preferred above another.

While I concede that Shakespeare probably did not have ethnic cleansing in mind when he penned this sonnet, it’s hard to read this today and not have those images conjured. Let’s just hope that the “wisdom, beauty and increase” of tolerance and acceptance will occur in our lives, and that hatred and intolerance will “barrenly perish.”

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“London” by William Blake

LondonBlake

I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

This poem is a strong criticism against government and corporations. In the first two lines, Blake describes the London streets and the Thames as both being “charter’d.” It’s not clear whether this is a political or a business charter. What is clear is that he feels all of London is owned and controlled, and that humans are suffering as a result. My personal feeling is that Blake was referring to both the government and the corporations, both of which held an oppressive hold on the citizens during that period.

In the second stanza, we have the image of “mind-forg’d manacles.” For me, this is the most powerful metaphor in the poem. On one hand, it symbolizes the mental oppression inflicted upon individuals by a repressive society, where a person’s creativity and intellectual freedom are restricted. But I also see this as self-inflicted bondage, too. We are all slaves to our own thoughts, fears, and obsessions. It is most often our own thoughts that keep us trapped in our misery. If we could just free our minds from fear and resentment, we would find the freedom and courage to become fully enlightened individuals.

The final stanza was the most challenging for me. After reading it several times and thinking about it, I believe that Blake is describing poor, young women who are forced into a life of prostitution, likely because they had sex out of wedlock and got pregnant, which would be the “youthful Harlots curse.” I suspect that these women were often visited by married men, who would then contract venereal infections, such as syphilis, which they passed on to their unsuspecting wives. As a result, the marriage bed becomes a coffin; sex ultimately leads to death.

This is an extremely dark and viscerally wrenching poem. There is no glimmer of hope in here. In fact, even God appears weary and sick. At the top of the illustration, God is being led through the London streets by a boy. God appears hunched, ailing, about to die. Essentially, government and industrial society is not only killing humanity, but is also destroying the Divine spirit.

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“Love America and March for Peace” by Umberto Eco

UmbertoEco

Image Source: The Guardian

 

This essay is included in Turning Back the Clock and for me highlights the issue of people’s tendency to see complex issues as clear and simple. There is a new paradigm where individuals are expected to support one side or the other, regardless of any grey area that may exist. Examples: If you do not support the US war on terror, then you are an ISIS sympathizer. If you support Israel, then you are a fascist that supports the oppression of Palestine. If you do not condemn the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, then you are obviously a racist. This is all a manifestation of what I personally like to call the “football team” mentality. People pick a team or side and support their “team” regardless of what they or the opposing side does. Nowhere is this clearer than in politics nowadays. Support for political parties is more polarized than it’s ever been.

As Eco points out, this mentality leads to deeper social divides.

At the heart of these painful but not yet bloody rifts, you hear statements every day that lead inevitably to racism, of the type “All those against the war are allies of Saddam,” but also “All those who think the use of force is justified are Nazis.” Shall we try to think about this?

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 32)

It seems that individuals love to label other groups as “Nazis” to emphasize that these opposing groups are crossing some moral boundary. The problem that I see in doing this is that it diminishes the memory of the atrocities that were actually perpetrated by the Nazis. For example, after a recent Supreme Court decision overturning a ban on gay marriage, the City Council here in Asheville displayed a rainbow flag to show support. Opponents of marriage equality immediately condemned the members of City Council and called them Nazis because they acted without their approval. Personally, I see no correlation between City Council’s hanging of a banner and the crimes committed in Nazi Germany.

This is all connected to the “with us or against us” mentality, where any opposition or questioning is immediately condemned.

These few observations are sufficient, I hope, to suggest that the situation in which we find ourselves, precisely because of the gravity, does not admit of clear-cut divisions or condemnations of the kind “If that’s what you think, then you are the enemy.” This too is fundamentalism. You can love the United States, as a tradition, as a people, as a culture, and with deep respect due to those who won on the field the rank of the world’s most powerful country. You can be deeply touched by the injury America suffered in 2001, but without denying the need to warn Americans that their government is making a mistake and that they should see our position not as a betrayal but as frank dissent. Not warning them means trampling on the right to dissent—the exact opposite of what we learned, after years of dictatorship, from our liberators of 1945.

(ibid: pp. 35 – 36)

I hope that this trend of vilifying those whose opinions differ changes soon. It’s very destructive and prevents human progress, and progress is essential. If we are not moving forward as a society, then we are most likely moving backwards.

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“The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake (from Songs of Experience)

ChimneySweeper_2

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying weep, weep, in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy & dance & sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

This poem corresponds with “The Chimney Sweeper” from the Songs of Innocence. I have to say that although this one is shorter than its corresponding poem, it is much more powerful and visceral in my opinion.

While I find the exploitation of children to be sickening, it is almost beyond comprehension that parents could exploit their children. And what this poem does is it points out the way that people justify their abuse and cruelty. Because the child seems happy, they are able to convince themselves that they are not really doing the child harm. But as we all know, true psychological damage happens below the surface.

The image of “the clothes of death” is really disturbing. I picture blackened rags, covered with soot and dirt, seeping sickness and disease into the pores of the young child. This contrasts starkly with the white snow, but the irony here is that winter is also symbolic of death. I get the sense that the child will die soon and that this will be his last winter.

The last two lines of the poem show yet another level of justification, that of the church. In Blake’s time, church doctrine would have asserted that a child is the property of the parent, and hence the parents could do with the child as they wish. I keep thinking about how, throughout history, religious doctrine has been used to justify social injustice. It continues today. All one needs to do is listen to the arguments against marriage reform.

This is a pretty bleak poem and it’s hard to find any hope in it. The only hope I can find is in the fact that enlightened people like Blake recognize social injustice and have the courage to point it out. It inspires me to point out injustice when I see it around me.

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