ANOTHER ISSUE ON RACE IN AMERICA
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In This Issue:

 

  • David’s Notes: 
  • Opening the Colonial Eye: A Talk Given in Celebration of John Brown’s Birthday, by Lois Eby 
  • A Tribute to Paul Laurence Dunbar, by David Budbill
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    DAVID’S NOTES:

     

    This issue of The Judevine Mountain Emailite continues JME’s interest in how Black and white Americans relate, or don’t relate. For more essays on race in America see back issues of JME numbers 1918171363and 2.

    On May 5th, painter, essayist and commentator for Vermont Public Radio, Lois Eby, traveled to the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid, New York–a State Historic Site, where John Brown and others who died in the raid on Harper’s Ferry are buried–to celebrate John Brown’s Birthday which is May 9th. The lead essay in this issue of The JME is the talk Lois Eby delivered at that celebration.

    Following Lois Eby’s essay is The Editor’s short tribute to Paul Laurence Dunbar.

    The Editor cannot finish these notes however without mentioning again, since it seems so many people have already forgotten, that this last Presidential election was not an election but a theft, pulled off by a handful of powerful people, lead by Thief Justice William Rehnquist in an effort to maintain the Good Old Boy White Male Hegemony. Yet within this depressing and nearly hopeless situation has appeared a glimmer of light.

    When a nascent oligarchy can usurp the will of the people by conspiring to steal an election and then, after it is in office, have the audacity to behave like a junta and operate as if it were a dictatorship, it takes someone with real moral courage to confront such a raw usurpation of power, to stand up, step forward and fire the first shot in the revolution.

    On May 24, Jim Jeffords, our shy and retiring Senator from right here in Vermont, did just such a thing. Let us hope this is only the opening salvo in a firefight that will continue now and intensify until George Bush, William Rehnquist, Dick Cheney and their cronies understand that the United States of America is more than an investment opportunity for their capitalistic, free enterprise, supply side pals bent on amassing even more personal wealth and power than they already have.

    (for more on William Rehnquist see: “Just Our Bill: A Bit of the Rehnquist Past” by Dennis Roddy, in JME #21)

     

     

     

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    Opening the Colonial Eye
    A Talk given in Celebration of John Brown’s Birthday
    by
    Lois Eby

    A few weeks ago I heard a young African American woman speak about a project she had been involved in with girls who are streetchildren in Haiti. In order to explain the large numbers of street children and the desperate situation in which they live, she provided a bit of the history of Haiti. After a 13 year revolt, in 1804 the enslaved Africans in Haiti won their freedom from the French colonialists. They won their freedom, but the devastating war, the ongoing struggle among Haitians for power and control, and an ongoing variety of self-interested actions by the colonial powers, including the United States, reduced the country to dire poverty where it still is today, exploited or ignored by some of its own but certainly by the international community.

    Frelime Bell-Hempstead, the young African American I heard speak, used the term “the colonial eye” to speak of the way European and American whites view those of African descent and of how this view affects the life of the streetgirls, who are subject to hunger, rape and prostitution. This “colonial eye” as you well know, projects its own sexual and violent fantasies and realities onto people of African descent. In order to justify exploitation, it sees them as inferior and therefore as deserving of less. This colonial eye convinces itself by what it sees and what it doesn’t see that these less-than-equal beings deserved to be enslaved and now deserve the poverty and exploitation in which they live.

    Being a painter, any mention of how the eye sees catches my attention. I am very aware that what people bring to a painting affects what they see there. In art that is okay with me; I accept the creative dialogue between the work and its viewers; but Frelime’s story of the Haitian children and their country’s history is a story of seeing that is not okay. It’s a heartbreaking story, one that once again, as so much of the history of the “colonial eye” does, casts me into a feeling of dismay and hopelessness.

    I come to this talk, having listened to Frelime Bell-Hempstead, asking myself, and you, how people move from the “colonial eye” to a larger vision? Jean-Bertrand Aristide has a small book called “Eyes of the Heart.” It is with these eyes, the eyes of the heart, that we must see and with which we must open the “colonial eye.” While thinking of how to open this eye, I looked up John Brown on the Internet and came across a powerful speech about him that Frederick Douglas delivered in May of 1881. In this address, Douglas asks the question, how did John Brown become so committed to the abolition of slavery? in other words, what opened John Brown’s eyes?

    Suggesting an answer to this question might be found in the following story about John Brown, Douglas wrote:

    “An incident of his boyhood may explain, in some measure, the intense abhorrence he felt to slavery. He had for some reason been sent into the State of Kentucky, where he made the acquaintance of a slave boy, about his own age, of whom he became very fond. For some petty offense this boy was one day subjected to a brutal beating. The blows were dealt with an iron shovel and fell fast and furiously upon his slender body. Born in a free state and unaccustomed to such, Brown revolted at the shocking spectacle and at that early age he swore eternal hatred to slavery. After years never obliterated the impression, and he found in this early experience an argument against contempt for small things.”

    One could say that John Brown’s eyes opened; he began to see with heart. In my own experience it was a white woman from Glens Falls, New York, who began the process of opening my eyes. I was a student and she was the Director of Religious Activities at Duke University in the early 60’s when the sit ins began. I had been raised in Oklahoma and I had never questioned the racial divisions of our society. Barbara Benedict Bunker raised the issue with me and encouraged me to join the picket line at a movie theater in Durham. I was afraid. But Barbara kept after me, I could not find any just reason not to become involved, and eventually I joined the picket lines.

    Joining the picket lines meant not only going to protest demonstrations; it also meant going to organizing meetings and trainings in nonviolence where I had the opportunity to know black people as equals, an opportunity I had not had as a child. I remember clearly to this day going to a meeting in Durham in an African American home and meeting there the Editor and Publisher of the African American newspaper in the city where I grew up. He and I looked at each other, I with great confusion and shame, for I knew that back home I would never have had the opportunity to meet this man as I did that night. Eventually a couple of us Duke students wanted to bring some of our new friends from an all Black college in Durham to a lunch meeting at Duke, only to learn that we were not allowed to bring Black guests to lunch at our great university.

    Having gotten to know African Americans, much as John Brown did, my own understanding, anger, and heartbreak at their treatment deepened. In addition, I began to understand what it means to say that when another group’s rights are diminished, your own rights are diminished also. I was not free to go where I pleased or eat with whom I pleased, as long as African Americans were not free as well.

    Thus I became committed to the civil rights movement, not as a great hero like John Brown, I hasten to add. As Frederick Douglas points out in praising Brown, few of us, Black or white, have the makings of such a hero, one who is willing to give his life for others. But in my own small and quiet way I changed. Then in a few years I had another opportunity which further opened my eyes. My husband and I were hired in the fall of 1967 to teach at Lincoln University, an almost all Black university in southeastern Pennsylvania. I was hired to teach in a pilot project to replace Freshman English with a Humanities course. Unbelievable as it may seem today, in this Black college Freshman English had consisted entirely of the literature of the white Western heritage. It was the task of the new Humanities course to create a curriculum which would include literature and art of the entire world, including African and African American literature and art.

    There was only one problem. The three of us hired to create this course were white. We ourselves had never read these books or been taught this art and literature. While I now understand the injustice and irony of our being the ones to make this change, this was the most exciting learning of my life. I entered a new world of life experience and the literature and art created to express it. It was as if I had been living in a small, dark room only to have the doors and windows thrown open and fresh air and light allowed to rush in. I couldn’t believe that this literature and art had not been a part of my education, let alone of the education of the Black students in my classes. The great artists and writers of the African and African American tradition expressed love of humanity and love of freedom in ways that sang in my white heart.

    While progress has been made in many areas of our national life, and in our national attitudes, from Freshman English to World Humanities for example, in many essential ways we are still very much living in the past and viewing the world with our colonial eye. Thus the two races can see events in quite different ways. Frederick Douglas speaks about the way whites saw John Brown’s raid on a sleeping hamlet as an inexplicable act of terrorism against innocent people. John Brown on the other hand saw that a white community which imprisoned Africans as slaves, holding them as captives against their will, was engaged in an act of war whether they called it so or not, and should expect acts of war against themselves. They were not entirely innocent sleeping people. This different perception is still with us. We have only to look at white fear of Black drug use for one example. Recent U.S. government-sponsored studies, quoted in Vermont’s Times-Argus, show that white high school seniors use cocaine, crack and heroin at much higher rates than their black peers and that white teen-agers are about a third more likely to have sold drugs. Yet, it is the Black youth who are in prison in unprecedented numbers. This question of how to open the colonial eye is as urgent as it ever was.

    So I come back to my question, how can we change from the colonial eye to the eye with vision? This new vision can only come about through the efforts of those both white and Black who find some way to use their talents to work for justice AND to work to enlarge the white community’s knowledge of the riches of the African American heritage. We still need the courage and dedication of a John Brown, the persistence of a Barbara Benedict Bunker. John Brown was a white person who took the task of a different white vision seriously, gave his life for it, and helped to rouse a nation to fight the civil war which abolished slavery. My mentor is another example. She was committed and she hung in there until she got me to be committed. On one level it is not the problem of Black people whether white people shed their colonial eye. We whites are certainly most responsible to work with our own. On the other hand, the colonial eye has done immeasurable damage to Africans and African Americans and continues to do so. So it must matter to all of us to think about how to educate that eye, change it, enlarge its vision.

    Ever since the two years I spent at Lincoln University, my engagement in civil rights issues has been immeasurably enriched by my encounter with African American art and literature. Black intellectual Alair Leroy Locke, author of The New Negro, which was published in 1925, is called by some the Father of the Harlem Renaissance. Locke wrote, “Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid.” Here we find a black intellectual addressing this very problem of the colonial eye and suggesting that Black artists can play a role in correcting and enlarging the image of their people, mostly I’m sure for the sake of Black people themselves, but I would hope also to address what white people fail to see. At the same time Locke was encouraging the arts, W. E. B. DuBois had begun publication of Crisis, a journal of the NAACP. I see these two men, promoting two important directions in the 1920’s, as setting directions that still are critical to us today.

    So in closing I’d like to talk about the African American artist, John Biggers. I did not learn about John Biggers until about four years ago when a white student from Houston, TX, where he lived, told me about him. Then I went to see a show of his work at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This was a third eye-opening experience of realizing how much I had been deprived because of the separation of the races and the lack of valuing of Black artists in our mainstream culture. How could I not have known about this great artist?

    John Biggers died this winter, on January 28, 2001, at age 76. His death is an important event in the world of art, and one that should be widely publicized. He is an artist who combines the history of his people in Africa with their history in the American South, their experience of nature, family and spirituality, in ways that are both grounded and transcendent. He speaks to us all about human communities and their relationship to nature and to each other. The Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Peter C. Marzio, says of Biggers in his Foreword to the book The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room:

    “John Biggers . . . leads us with his powerful imagery, his impassioned discourse, his intense energy, and his all-consuming belief in the human community and its mystical interaction with the natural world . . . Our current vocabulary does not help us to understand fully John Biggers’s profound significance to the world today. Words in our everyday idiom such as “multicultural” and “ecology” touch the edges of his vision, but they do not tell us much about the man himself. He is a stout defender of human equality and the preservation of nature, as his art so clearly demonstrates, and his paintings teem with images that reflect his beliefs . . . . They almost demand a fourth dimension to let us experience everything that is in the artist’s heart and mind.”

    When we have been raised to see with the “colonial eye” we never lose it completely. It lurks there in the recesses of the mind. One can only hope to become ever more aware of it, to nurture friendships, work for civil rights, search out the truth in our social issues, and increase knowledge of the arts across the races that will create a larger, more visionary Ôeye of the heart’ that slowly drowns out that small and strangling inheritance. Recently I ended a talk on art to a group of both white and Black students with some slides of John Biggers’ work. I thought as I did so that while many white people expect Black people to appreciate white Western culture with its white subjects, its white men and women, in art and literature, these same white people might have a hard time seeing themselves in Black art and literature and tend to view it as Black, and for African Americans, but not for them. It is this kind of seeing that makes us small. Yet I also thought to myself that John Biggers’ vision is large indeed: it is a vision of humanity in harmony with nature and spiritual values that our society desperately needs.

    I join you today in honoring John Brown and ask you to join me in honoring John Biggers, both men of vision who offer a way into the future. It is only 136 years since the Civil War ended. The work to build a society for all the immigrants to the new world from all the continents is still much ahead of us. In the meantime, while we are asking how to open the colonial eye, so destructive and so much still with us, the courage and vision of John Brown show us the commitment we need to equality and justice for all, and the paintings of John Biggers offer us a vision, an eye of the heart, and that’s as good a place to start, and end, as any I know.

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    LOIS EBY can be reached at: leby@sover.net. The John Brown birthday celebration was sponsored by JOHN BROWN LIVES! A Grassroots Freedom Education and Human Rights Project: more at:http://www.iath.virginia.edu/jbrown/master.html

     

     

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    A Tribute to Paul Laurence Dunbar
    by
    David Budbill

     

     

    [Note: This essay first appeared as a commentary on NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered on June 23, 2001. If you would rather listen to this essay, the soundfile is available at:http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/watc/20010623.watc.06.rmm]

     

    It seems like almost everybody in the world knows that Maya Angelou wrote a book called I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS, and it’s a wonderful book. What’s not so wonderful is almost everybody in the world also thinks Maya Angelou wrote the title. She did not, she knows she didn’t, but almost everybody else thinks she did.

     

    Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote that line. It’s a line from his poem called “Sympathy” and it’s time to give credit where credit is due.

    Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872. He died of tuberculosis back in Dayton in 1906 at the age of 33. In his short life he became internationally famous for his poems.

    However, and here’s the rub, Dunbar wrote two distinctly different kinds of poems. He wrote poems in what was then considered the Negro dialect, poems in which Dunbar reproduced the pronunciations and rhythms of the everyday speech of ordinary black Americans. He also wrote elegant poems in standard Victorian English the equal of any white Victorian poet. But it was the dialect poems for which Dunbar became famous, because white America did not want to acknowledge that a black man could write poetry in what white people considered standard English.

    Dunbar was frustrated by this, for he considered his poems in standard English far superior to his dialect poems. As his fame increased because of the dialect poems he turned more and more to fiction to speak bluntly and forcefully about the injustices heaped upon blacks in America, but white America was not listening.

    Toward the end of his life he grew increasingly bitter about the cage white America had put him in. It is in this context that one should read his poem “Sympathy,” for surely the bird in this cage is Paul Laurence Dunbar himself.

     

    SYMPATHY 

    I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
    When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass
    And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
    And the faint perfume from its chalice steals–
    I know what the caged bird feels!

    I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
    For he must fly back to his perch and cling
    When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
    And they pulse again with a keener sting–
    I know why he beats his wing!

    I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
    When he beats his bars and would be free;
    It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core
    But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings–
    I know why the caged bird sings!

     

     

     

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    COMING SOON: in JME #23: CROSSING THE BORDER: A Sunday Drive in the Country to See the View from the Heights of White Privilege

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