Author Archives: erasingborders

Thich Nhat Hanh and “Mindful” Peacemaking

Thich Nhat Hanh leading a group of westerners in a peace march before his death in January this year.

In the last six months we’ve lost three leaders whose contributions to peace and reconciliation will last beyond our lifetimes.  Desmond Tutu’s work on behalf of interpreting and organizing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa is best known today.  Among activists and advocates for peace, Thich Nhat Hanh’s role as the leading Vietnamese Buddhist peacemaker is well known in the U.S. and Europe.  Less widely known at present is the African-American feminist and Buddhist writer bell hooks.  Her meeting with “Thay” or “teacher” as Nhat Hanh was called by his followers bolstered hooks’ growth in Buddhist thought. 

The former Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) Emma Jordan-Simpson described bell hooks’ account of meeting Thay in the late 1960’s with these words:

“When she (hooks) was introduced to Thay, she blurted it out: “I’m so angry!”  Immediately she felt ashamed.  In the presence of a loving teacher, she was only able to bring up the ugliness she was feeling inside!”  Simpson continues with Thay’s response.  “Thay’s words to bell hooks are the words that all of us who are exhausted and depleted by what it means to live in a world perpetually at war, but who are still able to feel anger, need to hear and to hold.”

Thay said to hooks, “Hold on to your anger and use it as compost in your garden.”  The FOR Director commented on hooks’ encounter, “We are angry that we live in a perpetual state of war and we are angry about what these times are revealing to us.  But we reveal who we are when we can find ways to use that anger as compost in gardens growing peace”.

Martin Luther King acknowledged Thich Nhat Hanh as having helped lead him to oppose publicly the U.S. War in Vietnam.  After his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in April, 1967 King nominated the Buddhist leader for the Nobel Peace Prize. His conversation with Thay was arranged by the FOR, which sponsored Nhat Hanh’s tour of the U.S. after the escalation in Vietnam. Thay’s gentle, forceful presence accompanied by words of profound compassion for perpetrators and victims of the War on his country led many other people in the U.S. to question if not strongly oppose their nation’s mission in Vietnam.  His stories and views had a profound impact on people’s stance on the War.  But it was also his interpretations and descriptions of Buddhist practices that made a lasting impression on the lives of many. 

In a 1974 article for Fellowship magazine, the journal of FOR, Thay wrote about one encounter with a U.S. Christian.  “One day I was asked by a Christian in a bus: ‘Why do you monks burn yourselves to death?  It is an awful thing.’ I tried to explain to him what Thich Quang Duc wanted when he set himself on fire.  But the gentleman did not want to listen.  He said ‘I can’t understand a religion that allows its members to burn themselves.’”

Thay then reflected in the article on the encounter, “I could have told him that I did not believe that Christianity could allow its followers to go and burn other people either.  Thousands of women and children have been burned by napalm that was dropped from the sky.  But what is the purpose of such a discussion?”  Nhat Hanh concludes, “The only thing that counts is the ability to understand the pain of a brother.  And this brother is neither a number nor a concept.  This brother is made of real flesh and skin and feeling.”  He then comments with the insight, “We cannot recognize our brother through an ideology or a political label.  People have been shooting at labels and by doing so they have shot many of their brothers and sisters.”

Thich Nhat Hanh concludes the opening chapter of his best known book in English, The Miracle of Mindfulness with the question, “If you spend all day practicing mindfulness, how will there ever be enough time to change and build an alternative society”.  His answer follows with his calligraphy on the next page:

His practice of “breathing mindfully” is clearly and powefully elaborated for readers unfamiliar with Buddhist thought and many in the West have integrated his instructions in their own meditation.  When one is able to live mindfully one is in control of our constantly distracted mind and be fully present in the moment.  The essential component of “mindfulness” is attention to our breath.  Thay explains, “You should know how to breathe to maintain mindfulness, as breathing is a natural and extremely effective tool which can prevent dispersion.  Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.  Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of our mind again.”

                          ********************************

Order a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness from your local indie bookshop.  It comes in all formats including audiobook.

Read about the friendship of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh in a book available in the Fellowship of Reconciliation bookstore.  Also available at the website below is a copy of the Spring 2020 issue of Fellowship magazine devoted to Thich Nhat Hanh’s articles and poems for the magazine as well as peacmakers’ tributes.

https://forusa.org/product-category/books-pamphlets/

On Being host Krista Tippett paid tribute to Thay in a podcast this winter and replayed her earlier interview with him at:

Is Socialism No Longer a “Dirty Word” in the U.S.?

Indiana born Eugene V. Debs founded the Socialist Party of America in Indianpolis in 1901. Staunchly anti-WWI, Debs received over 900,000 votes for U.S. President in the 1912 election. Debs also led the organizing of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), aiming to unite U.S. workers.

If a health care system which serves all residents and citizens

If free quality education for all children from pre school through university

If the public ownership of all natural resources essential for human life – water, power, and natural gas

If foremost priority in public expenditure is given to improved systems serving citizens and residents and not to securing the control of resources in other nations

If an economy driven by production for human consumption and use and not the production of weaponry

If international collaboration rather than competition in meeting global crises: climate change, nuclear weapons proliferation, and pandemics

If progress toward making one or more of these aims our reality requires adopting our own form of socialist rule in the U.S., then I am all for it.

The increasing U.S. rule by a corporate and financial elite supported by the knee-jerk charge that a policy is “socialism” serves to defend a flagrantly unjust and unsustainable status quo. Does making some dramatic changes in this country’s economic and political systems necessitate serious consideration of socialist solutions?  Yes, it does and yes it will. Evidence mounts that in European nations with some mix of socialist and capitalist economic policies the people are healthier and happier and increasingly more financially secure than here.  

Those nations also prove that adopting a form of socialism does not require authoritarian rule and loss of individual freedoms as most people in this nation seem to think.  The youth in this country are more aware than most adults that making socialism a “bugaboo”, as one commentator recently called it, serves only the small minority who gorge on profiting from the status quo.  It now appears more likely that the charge of “socialism” assigned universal health care and similar programs by conservatives and some liberals is now approaching its expiration date.  As  a hold over from the Cold War propaganda of the 50’s, increased allocations for an already bloated budget for defense (and the corporations subsidized by the defense budget) at the expense of increased budgeting for health care, education and public utilities has begun to lose force in shaping public opinion.  At the same time, we in this country remain under the sway of an extreme form of capitalist economics that subverts the aims of the majority who work more and die earlier year by year.

As we consider the consequences of ignoring and now in some states banning discussions of race and the history of white supremacy in classrooms, it would be helpful to look at how discussion of contemporary examples of socialist and capitalist economic strategies have also been largely ignored in our schools. That someone is now and has been able for many years to graduate from a U.S. secondary education with the conviction that only socialism leads to authoritarian rule is not by chance.  To ignore completely the history of capitalist Germany’s descent into barbarous, genocidal rule in the last century is to avoid by intention serious critique of our form of capitalism which now threatens the country’s survival as a democracy. That many of Germany’s leading corporations and members of the economic elite supported the Nazi regime is still kept secret from most of our students throughout their education. 

But I would be renouncing my call as a Christian to neglect mention of some personal and social developments of our time that many U.S. Christians and others ignore.  First, on the personal level there is an even more precipitous decline in church attendance and membership in leading Western democracies, such as Germany, than in this nation.  At the same time, the China Christian Council of what we identify as “godless” Communist China has experienced growth that would be the envy of “mega-churches” in the U.S.  When restrictions were lifted in the early 1980’s by the Communist Party and Chinese state, the China Christian Council as the unified Protestant Church and the heir of the work of pre-1949 missionaries has been hard pressed to build enough churches and seminaries to keep up with the rising number of Christians in China.

On the social plane, is it not time for Christians who oppose universal health care in the world’s richest nation to reconsider their position in the light of Jesus’ example?  How can followers of the healer and advocate for the poor favor an economic system driven by one’s own interest over an economic and political system based on “from each according to his/her abilities to each according to their needs”.  It is now time to ensure that the mischaracterization of socialism as inherently or practically against faith in a higher power be ruled out of our public policy discussions.  To continue to equate socialism with either authoritarian or godless rule is to make an argument founded on lies and fear.  How many of the NATO members which have implemented social welfare policies many persons here characterize as socialist have banned religion or severely restricted public religious activity?

Bernie Sanders, now U.S. Senator, joined the Socialist Party while in college. His first elected position was Mayor of Burlington, Vermont which he won in 1981.

How do so many U.S. Christians justify the ethical principles of many members of our corporate/financial ruling elite?  Let me single out the example of our former Chair of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan whose ethics were shaped by the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. The system of thought condemns altruistic behavior and elevates self interest as the fundamental principle of a free society. Through his forties, Greenspan contributed articles to the Objectivist movement’s newsletter in the 60’s and remained close to Rand until her death.  As an upper class refugee from the deprivations of the early years of the Soviet Union, Rand developed a philosophy of life that extolled the extreme individualistic ethics of capitalism. Greenspan’s background as a devoted Rank acolyte did not hinder his rise to prominence in service of the U.S. economy, deregulation of the financial industries and free market trade policies.

That the influence of a declared socialist Senator from Vermont has risen significantly and that so many of our country’s youth now condemn the unfettered capitalist economy in the U.S. can be attributed to the crises that overwhelm our country today. Not having experienced the fear mongering of the Cold War they perceive lame anti-socialist policy arguments rooted in corporate domination of our political discourse as impeding the nation’s progress in eliminating fossil fuel production, the priority of spending for defense, criminal justice practices which divide white workers from workers of color, and fierce opposition to union and other organizing to make change.  Will we in the U.S. progress toward the implementation of a mixture of socialist and capitalist policies in our political economy?  Yes, we will, provided our rule by and for the people survives and defeats the current onslaught making voting for many persons harder in defense of a grotesquely unequal and unjust status quo.    

What Hawaii Had to Teach Us in Our Visit

The Yellow Billed Cardinal, so unlike the Northern Cardinal we are accustomed to, is comparable to the Java Sparrow, the Zebra Dove and the Saffron Finch in their colorful variations of familiar “mainland” birds.

During my second visit on the “Big Island” of Hawai’i, in the checkout line at the Malama Market in Honoka’a the cashier addressed me as “Uncle”.  It was not the first time a young person had honored me with this traditional Hawaiian sign of respect.  But as a reminder that wearing a face mask was still required in the grocery store, it made a deeper impression.  I retrieved a mask from my back pocket and put it on before removing the items from my basket. After I thanked the young woman for this gentle nudge, my gratitude grew. Like the colorful bird species, the abundant growth of mango, papaya and other tropical fruits and trees, this custom of calling an elder “auntie” or “uncle” had captured and filled me.

My delight had nothing to do with removing my identity as a “foreigner”.  I would always remain a “haole” in the land and culture of the native Hawaiian. It was like the customary welcoming to Hawaii  another kind of lei showing that the native traditions include the embrace of persons wherever they come from.  You cannot spend a day on the Island of Hawai’i without the recognition that you are not on the North American continent. And that you are and will forever be a “haole”.

Having returned to Kansas City, I am even more grateful for our friends who are natives of the “Big Island” and whose hospitality falls on us like the soft rain of the rainforest surrounding their birthplaces near Honoka’a.  I understand better the pride displayed by the son of our closest Hawaiian friend who as a three or four year old, though born in California, protested to my wife Kate, “I am not an American, am I Mom?  I’m Hawaiian.”   

The Hawaiian dictionary gives the synonyms of “foster” and “adopted” in its definition of the Hawaiian tradition of “hanai“.

I also now appreciate more our role as “hanai” or “adopted” grandparents of this child now preparing for college on the “mainland”.  When my wife introduced ourselves at a Sunday worship service in Honoka’a as Gabriel’s “hanai” grandparents, expressions of approval were quietly uttered by the congregation.  From now on, all our efforts to encourage and support the young man’s growth will be not just out of love for him but will also stem from the desire to honor the Hawaiian tradition and our identity as his “hanai” grandparents.

How sad and unfortunate that so many of our would be “leaders” in the mainland U.S. portray the nation’s increasing population of foreign born persons as a loss for the heirs of white settlers.  How could someone be persuaded to view immigrants as posing a threat when their contributions are so many and so obvious?  Against all the white supremacist theories and arguments we can all learn from and enjoy the embrace of other cultures in the history, language and customs of native Hawaiians. 

As an example, there is much more to the meaning of “aloha” than our “hello” and “good bye”.  After my recent visit, I now associate the Hawaiian language’s “aloha” with the Indian custom of greeting and leave taking with “namaste”.  My favored interpretation of that Hindu greeting and leave taking is “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you”.

What Too Many in the U.S. Fear

The “Central Park Five” were charged as teen agers for the brutal rape of a white female jogger. They were finally released from prison more than a decade later and awarded $41 million by the City of New York in a civil rights lawsuit brought in 2014 (Photo by Michael Nagle NYT)

The foreign-born population of the United States has grown from 9.6 million in 1965 to 45 million persons in 2015.  Immigration accounts for the majority of population growth in  the nation since the 1960’s and is likely to continue to do so for decades to come.  In 2065, the U.S. population is projected to number 441 million with the increase largely due to immigration of the foreign born to its shores. 

In its embrace of refugees and the self image cherished by most U.S. citizens as the world’s leading refuge for all people fleeing oppression and claiming their rights as human beings, there are strong undercurrents opposing a multi-racial identity.  Foremost among them is the current of fear of “the other” centered historically on the African slaves imported as a critical contributor to the nation’s economic growth.  Since the worldwide outrage in response to the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, the country has explored more deeply than at any time the dimensions and effect of the legacy of white supremacy in our history and culture.  Most of the immigrants to our shores since 1965 are non-white.

Even among U.S. adherents of the Christian religious traditions, very few persons claim as ancestor the middle Eastern Semite identified in this familiar biblical passage: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous”. (Deuteronomy 26:5 in NRSV translation).  White citizens’ resistance to acceptance of our common ancestry with Jewish or Semitic Muslim immigrants, much less the entire human species, is fed by many sources in U.S. history.  While complicated and diverse these diverse sources can be summarized in the phrase “fear of the other”. 

As a people settling on non-white persons’ land who then forced black Africans to work in their fields and factories, we have relied on guns and an ideology of legitimate white rule to defend and develop as our own a land of great abundance.  And that “we” has historically been identified as the land’s white Christian inhabitants.

By the year 2055, non-Hispanic “whites” in the U.S. will be in the minority. No racial or ethnic group will be in the majority but the fact that the white population will lose its dominant presence is testing the nation’s institutions and its coveted status as the world’s leading democracy as never before.  The challenge of the last presidential election results is but one of the threats posed by the historic increase in diversity of the nation’s population base.

Once he entered politics, the former President was careful to avoid blatant appeals to people’s racial prejudice, lack of understanding of other cultures, and fear of “the other”.  Looking back at his pre-campaign public stances, it is preposterous to claim he eschewed racist attitudes or positions.  In 1989 the former President paid $85,000 for front page ads in all the New York City newspapers, including The New York Times in response to his hometown’s hysteria over the charging of five black teenagers for a rape they did not commit.  His stoking of the fear of black youth among the City’s white population is but one evidence of the man’s racism now denied by most of the future President’s supporters.

Not to be ignored however in our focus on race as a cause for the country’s division is the lack of understanding and acceptance of other religions.  While Muslims in the U.S. still account for fewer than 2 % of residents, the number of mosques has more than doubled since 2000.  A reminder of conservative Christian support for beginning the war in Iraq as a modern Crusade has come with the efforts to resettle Afghans following the Taliban take over last summer.

Here in Kansas City, a new “Ambassadors” program for resettling refugees has been started.  In its description of purpose the organizers state, Ambassador Teams come alongside our new-American neighbors so that they might flourish in their new country and follow Jesus into His Kingdom.   U.S. conservative Christian vision of triumphal nationalism has been fed by our wars in the Middle East since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  The former President encouraged and benefited from the vision’s anti-Muslim distortions as he did from the nation’s original sin of white racism.  Whether the nation’s politics and self image as a nation of immigrants will overcome the division and damage caused by our history of ignorance and fear of the other will be determined by the nation’s young civic minded activists of the present and future.

The Global Reach of Martin Luther King’s “Beyond Vietnam” Speech

The views of Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were transformed in the 1960’s by their heightened awareness of the global context of the African American struggle in the U.S.  The Autobiography of Malcolm X describes the dramatic impact on the American Muslim leader’s 1964 sacred pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia and also visiting Egypt on the trip.  His travels taught him that the revolution for black freedom and equality in his country was bound up with the movement of oppressed peoples around the world.  This enlargement of his historic role also took shape in the vision and leadership of Dr. King.

In celebrating King’s legacy on the now federal holiday, the Baptist preacher’s emphasis on global solidarity of the poor from 1965 until his death in ’68 is often ignored.  His call for a “revolution of values” is a call for the nation to move from a “thing oriented” system to a “people oriented” system in its international policies.  This would mean, he made clear, that the shift would demand giving priority concern to the effect on the poor worldwide of our policies and not only on those of our nation.  “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.”

The speech, delivered in Riverside Church, New York City, one year to the day before his assassination proclaims that the injustice done to anyone in the country is linked to the injustice perpetrated beyond our borders.  The title of the speech “Beyond Vietnam”, we need to remember, is a warning that should the nation fail to recognize the humanity of the Vietnamese people and withdraw our armed forces, we will be fighting next in Venezuela, Peru or El Salvador.  The 37 million people displaced by the U.S. led “War on Terror” since 2001 testify to our nation’s failure to learn the lessons of the Vietnam debacle and take King’s prophetic message to heart.

Although the criticism of the nation’s leading media sources, i.e. the New York Times and Washington Post, focused on King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam, the critique of U.S. policies and presence in the world went much deeper and farther.  It is a speech not just about the U.S. war on Vietnam.  It is a speech about the U.S. defense of an unjust global system.  It is a speech with a global reach.  It is  not just a speech for the Vietnam era.  It is a speech for us today and for the future of humankind.  Here below is the conclusion of the speech:

“Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism. With this powerful commitment, we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means, in the final analysis, that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft-misunderstood, this oft-misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man.

When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response, I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I’m speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the First Epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

April 4, 1967 Rev. King at Riverside Church New York City Speaking at the Event Sponsored by Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says, ‘Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word,’.

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam writes, “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

*********** ***********************

For an audio recording and the text of the speech go to:

https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm

The Rivers of Soul Music

Mavis Staples joins Mahalia Jackson on “Precious Lord Take My Hand” at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured in the 2021 documentary film release “Summer of Soul”

“I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” – Langston Hughes “Rivers”

As we in the U.S. grope to imagine becoming a nation respecting, honoring and celebrating its multi-ethnic heritage, music can help us find some encouragement and direction. An argument can be made that the most powerful arm of U.S. culture exported worldwide has grown from its body of music.   

This year’s release of the music documentary Summer  of Soul bolsters our hope that the day of multi-ethnic reconciliation and embrace may still come. It’s hard to imagine a sane human being claiming the U.S. as a white nation after viewing this masterful survey of 1960’s black popular music. Stunning footage of performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival inspired the film and will continue to inspire a new vision of ethnic harmony for the country’s future.

Throughout the 60’s Harlem could be described as a community divided by the turmoil of radical change demanded by its leaders.  Malcolm X and not Rev. Dr. King carried more credibility and weight among Harlem’s change makers when the Cultural Feastival was organized.  Not far from the Harlem Park where the concerts took place, a demented black woman had stabbed Dr. King in the chest.  “If I had sneezed”, Dr. King proclaimed in later speeches, “I would not be with you here today”.  A doctor measured the wound as a few millimeters from the heart.  In 1969, eleven years after the attempted assassination, Harlem’s cultural and political activists were even more divided.

Featuring a staggering assembly of musical  styles and talent, Summer of Soul represented the largest gathering of “Negroes” many in the audience had ever experienced. Most viewers, myself included, will be introduced by the film to the gospel choir “The Edwin Hawkins Singers” led by a young woman who looks like  she could have just left a southern field after a hard work day.  Their rendition of “Oh Happy Day” had me feel like the heavens were opening up.  That segment was followed by thirty year old Mavis Staples singing the first verse of “Precious Lord” at the request of Dr. King’s favorite singer Mahalia Jackson.

An instructive footnote added by the film’s debut director Questlove tells us Roebuck Staples, “Pops” to the Staple sisters, was picking cotton in Mississippi when he taught himself the guitar.  With daughter Mavis Staples’ insightful commentary on what the concert event meant to her and to the Harlem community interspersed with the incomparable depth of her singing, Mavis Staples was the headliner of the documentary for this viewer.

Still singing powerfully at age 82, her influence on the current and future history of U.S. music is unfathomable.  Bob Dylan in a recent magazine interview reminisced about listening to Mavis on his 45 rpm. turntable as a high schooler.  It is noteworthy that in Hibbing, Minnesota where he grew up very few “Negroes” lived or were even seen.  Dylan told the interviewer he had his first crush on Mavis Staples.

As for U.S. black music’s impact on whites in the south, B.B. King’s singing of “Why I Sing the Blues” takes us back to the Alabama-born Big Mama Thornton.  Her recording of “Hound Dog” when covered by Elvis Presley at Memphis’ Sun Studio sent his career to the stars and became his signature number in the superstar’s pure rock ‘n roll years.

Within a year of the “Hound Dog” release I saw Elvis perform in Fort Wayne, IN. Gaining access to his dressing room with the friend whose father wrote up the event for the Indianapolis News, it was my first encounter with fame and talent.  That is until I experienced the incandescent explosion of energy and joy in a performance of Jackie Wilson at the Apollo Theater in 1965. 

A black high school senior in Paterson NJ invited me to accompany him that night, the first of a few concerts at the legendary Harlem auditorium where I attended a few concerts in the mid-1960’s.  After visiting Stanley’s relatives in a spacious ground floor Harlem apartment, undoubtedly the first white person not a landlord or government agent to enter there, my friend bought our tickets for the middle of the first balcony.  When Jackie Wilson brought out the cape, red on one side and black on the other, and performed “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher” for over a half hour women swarmed to the stage below us.  No genre of musical performance in my lifetime has ever topped it.  Van Morrison’s hit “What Jackie Wilson Said” testifies to Wilson’s enduring influence on U.S. pop music.     

As does the film’s segment of Sly and the Family Stone on “I Want to Take You Higher”.  One of the “talking heads” taped for the documentary speaks of Sly Stone breaking black music’s color barrier by including a white drummer and singers in his band.  Sly wanted to help build the groundwork for a new society with his hit “Everyday People”, another performance highlight of Summer of Soul.  The potential merger of blacks’ hunger for social change with the boomer generation’s search for alternatives to the degraded values of capitalist America reached a kind of apotheosis with the black group Fifth Dimension.  Their leader recounts finally getting in to see “Hair” at a Broadway theater and being blown away by the cast’s singing of “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”.  The Fifth Dimension’s melding of the two songs remained number one on the hit parade for weeks and became the top hit of 1969.

Although Dr. King’s disciple and the founder of the Operation Breadbasket movement Rev. Jesse Jackson took over the stage to introduce Mavis and Mahalia, it was the prophetic voice of Nina Simone who interpreted

The Netflix produced 2015 documentary on the career of Nina Simone gained many awards and an Oscar nomination.

most forcefully the political context of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Trained as a classical pianist of great promise, Simone took the stage with the ziggaraut-like hair styling and large gold hoop earrings of an African princess and began singing a fierce “Backlash Blues”.  It reminded her audience that white America was preparing for its suppression of the Festival’s vision and hope with California’s 1967 election of Governor Ronald Reagan. 

“Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam”

Nina Simone sang and the tenor of her song’s hope struck a new and different note:

“But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown”

The song concludes with the promise that it would be Mr. Backlash who some day would be the one singing the blues.

It is not surprising that the two lead movie reviewers of the New York Times placed Summer of Soul at the top of their consensus choices of the ten best movies of 2021. They wrote, “the film is more than a time capsule: It’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters — and what it can do — in times of conflict and anxiety.”  You can watch the film on the streaming service of Hulu which offers a thirty day free trial without ads.

Mexican Women Defend Human Rights of U.S. Women

Women hang up a banner declaring “Abortion in Coahuila is no longer a crime” following the Mexican Supreme Court ruling that the Mexican State’s anti-abortion legislation is unconstitutional. (Daniel Becerril/REUTERS)

For years Mexican women crossed the border for an abortion in the U.S.  Until medication was developed which can terminate a pregnancy the options in Mexico were limited in the second most Roman Catholic country in the world. Following the unanimous Mexican Supreme Court September decision ruling the border State of Coahuila’s anti-abortion law unconstitutional, Mexican activists have been offering assistance to Texas women seeking an abortion. 

Co-founder of the Coahuila women’s rights organization Accompañtes Laguna, Laura Hernández, told The New Yorker they had already helped 3 U.S. women and are establishing the protocol to aid more.  “It’s painful to know that not everyone can access the same rights,” Hernández said. “We feel a great responsibility toward women there.” 

Two drugs enable a woman to terminate a pregnancy.  While they both require a prescription in the U.S., in Mexico they are prescribed for treatment of gastric ulcers and other disorders and sold over the counter.  As the Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gerson explains however, a new Texas law criminalizes delivering those medications to women in the seventh week of pregnancy and beyond, potentially placing at risk anyone making them available.

Protestors at Texas’ State capital defend the right to choose. ( Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times)

Another Mexican Right to Choose organization, Las Libres (“The Free Ones”) is now busy building a “confidential network to give women instructions on use of the drugs and accompanying them throughout the procedure.” They offer close oversight on the day the medication is administered and daily check-ins thereafter.   A Las Libres organizer was asked if she is worried about being sued in the U.S. for aiding the women.  “No, not really.”  When asked if Las Libres has found a way around the TX law she responded, “We are doing it.”

In the U.S. today, the right to abortion is threatened  as never before since the historic 1972 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.   Laws restricting access to abortion and calling for harsh penalties if violated are being considered and passed in many States with Republican majority legislatures.  In Texas with the 2021 SB 8 TX law, the New York Times wrote that  “effectively, nearly all abortions in the state have been banned since the law went into effect.”

Appointment during the Trump administration of a sixth conservative justice to the 9 member U.S. Supreme Court has placed on alert activists and the public majority in the country which favors a woman’s right to choose.  With the Court decision to hear arguments in December against a harsh new Mississippi anti-abortion law, Mexican women’s assistance of women in Texas and other States takes on added significance.

Although a minority, the strategies of packing U.S. courts with ideological conservatives, taking control of State legislatures and further restricting access to voting have paid off for Republicans.  Some of the super wealthy intent on expanding their fortunes are bank rolling right wing thinkers in universities, foundations and politics.  At a time when U.S. young adults openly denounce capitalism, some conservative voices have been heard espousing authoritarian rule and the pitfalls of democracy.  Utah Senator Mike Lee wrote a pair of tweets last fall arguing that “democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace and prosperity are.”

Throughout the “American century”, as the publisher Henry Luce named the last century, U.S. relations with other nations sought to promote capitalist economic policies as essential to a democracy.  It now seems likely that this doctrine will be increasingly disputed by partisans of the right and the left.  In such a time of confusion and uncertainty, with little consensus on what is truth and its most reliable source, some of us find cause for hope in the actions and voices of world citizens outside the U.S.

The solidarity of Mexican women with U.S. women choosing to have an abortion is another example of the role of international support and solidarity in the defense and progress of human rights in the world today.  Christians celebrated Sunday November 28 as the first Sunday of Advent, the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.  Traditionally, the theme for that Sunday is hope.  As we contemplate sources of hope in our lives, on the social plane the work of the Mexican activists on behalf of us all stands out.  

Feeding the Wolf

Since the end of WW II the U.S. has been the world’s leading arms dealer

In a blog dedicated to “erasing borders” I want to address what force or forces serve to defend and strengthen national borders and border enforcement in the world.  Now is the time because increased migration of threatened people across borders, “free trade” agreements, new technologies, and more travel (among other factors) all call for easing traffic across borders. 

It is a confounding paradox for citizens of the U.S., especially for those born in the country with a single cultural identity, to delight in being surrounded by persons of other cultures while the politics and political economy of the country fosters suspicion and enmity of other nations and cultures.  How could it be that a nation whose ideal self image, the ideal we grew accustomed to celebrating in our lives and in the life of the nation, has been that of a country leading in welcoming immigrants, how could it be that the same nation remains deadlocked on immigration reform for 35 years and focuses on combatting one enemy overseas after another?

Any attempt at a satisfactory answer to this question must consider some indisputable facts too long ignored.  For anyone following the news casually, regardless of the news source in this country, we are aware of the U.S. emphasis on national defense and security.  From the Defense Department budget, to television ads selling insurance for veterans, to conversations with those whose loved one is serving in the military, to statistics on the U.S. military’s footprint in over 80 other countries, we know this country is exceptional in equating military might with power and security.

What we don’t know and seldom talk about in our public forums is the effects on our loftiest ideals of our emphasis on preparation for war and conflict.  What we also don’t think or talk about much in our civil dialog is the interaction between production of weaponry and the health of our economy.

Histories of California’s economy all point to the manufacture of aircraft as leading the way in the State’s growth.  Its long Pacific sea shore has seen the rise of some of the largest and most important military bases during and following WW II.  When a few bases were closed in the 90’s, and major aircraft production sites shut down, there was deep concern about what would replace them in the  economies of the local communities and  the State as a whole. Today the strength of California’s economy should assure us that a transition from an economy relying on defense expenditures can benefit a state’s population             

Following the “Great War”, as many in the U.S. now term WW II, the late Prof. Seymour Melman devoted his research and writing to bringing to light the potential boost of the national economy with a conversion from defense production to production of “things that make for peace”.  Despite his sterling credentials as a Columbia PhD in economics and his teaching at the same university until 2003,  there has been little support for Melman’s views except among left wing intellectuals and peace organizations.  He continues to be a “voice crying in the wilderness” in the political and economic discussion in this country.

Missiles manufactured by Lockheed Martin are displayed during the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, DC, October 13, 2014. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet Melman’s case for such a conversion of the U.S. economy is more relevant today than ever.  In a 1990 interview with journalist Bill Moyers, Melman noted “there’s no mystery in the shabby railroads, the broken bridges, the unpaved streets, the wrecked buildings, the absence of adequate housing, the aging character of the industrial equipment.”  There is today more decline in U.S. manufacture of goods used by or benefiting individual consumers.  With 46 per cent of U.S. production equipment devoted to manufacture of weaponry in the mid-1980’s, Melman urged us to consider the impact on employment in manufacturing, on industrial research and development, on worker productivity and on wages among other measures of a healthy economy.

In highlighting the economic effects of this country’s production of goods individuals do not consume, Melman’s views also raise questions about the effect of arms production and sales on U.S. policies as a superpower.  How do arms sales abroad, we accounted for 37 % of the world total sales in 2020, affect our foreign policy? What about the influence of the arms industries (the Lockheeds, Raytheons, General Dynamics, etc.) on the military establishment strategies and our perpetual wars? What are the costs to the nation’s ideals and self image of selling vastly more weaponry than any other nation in the world? Finally and most urgently in our time, how does our focus on defense and arms production handicap our capacity to lead in renewable energy production and innovation?

While controversy rages in our politics over what to do about the climate crisis worldwide, the response to a global pandemic, and how to move toward a healthy multi-racial society there is little conflict in our politics on defense and security issues.  Consensus of the two parties on expanding our military and waging war for international conflict resolution seems guaranteed.

A few years ago a Cherokee Indian fable was widely shared.  A wise grandfather advises his grandson that there are two wolves inside all of us. One of the wolves is characterized by anger and fear and the other wolf is accepting and loving.   The two wolves fight within each of us.  So the grandson asks which wolf finally wins and the grandfather replies, “The one you feed will win”.  Despite its lofty ideals and grand achievement in the past, does anyone doubt which wolf the U.S. continues to feed today? What will be the consequences for the nation if the wrong wolf wins the battle within us?  What will be the consequences for the world?

, ,

Division Street in Every U.S. Town

At the end of 2017, federal and state prisons in the United States held about 475,900 inmates who were black and 436,500 who were white 

Division Street remains the principal east-west residential artery in Atchison, Kansas.  The town is named after a leading defender of slavery who himself “owned” many slaves: David Atchison.  A powerful Senator in the pre-Civil War era, Atchison advocated founding the town on the west side of the Missouri River to bridge the Kansas territory with the pro slavery forces of the State of Missouri to the east..

There are signs of a Division Street in all U.S. towns and cities, in the South and the North.  The multiple deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement and the ensuing mass protests before and during the pandemic have called our attention to these signs of racial separation and conflict.  Let me take you to Indianapolis, Indiana my hometown, the capital of a “free state” prior to the Civil War.

When my family moved there in the mid-1950’s African Americans were virtually banned from purchasing homes north of 42nd Street.  Real estate agents would not show homes in my white neighborhood to potential black buyers; banks denied their mortgage applications.  I grew up with no African American neighbors and no black children attending my elementary school.  In the early 1960’s when support for racial integration and opposition to the City’s discriminatory practices and legislation grew, the neighborhood and City changed.   As black families moved into houses in the area, some realtors contributed to the view that they would bring a decline in neighborhood appearance and property values. This widespread expectation did create a white flight to northern Indianapolis suburbs along with increased profits for realtors. 

By the time I entered high school in 1960, many of my neighbors were African American.  Once the inevitable was accepted, integration took place suddenly and quickly.  I learned that one of the black families on my paper route hosted Rev. Martin Luther King on his visits to the city.   My graduating class at the City’s premier public high school was half African American and included the school’s first black junior prom queen.

Fifty years after my high school graduation, I was dismayed to learn that not all of my class’ white students took pride in the School’s progress in adapting to a more racially diverse student body.  At the reunion in 2014, no reference was made in the program that we had been participants in historic change at the City’s oldest high school.  For some attendees, it was evidently no cause for celebration.

In my wife’s Atchison, Kansas hometown, Division Street is a constant reminder of the conflict that continues to divide this country today. The Street’s name also describes the seated U.S. Congress. Republicans want to preserve the filibuster, a measure originated by southern congressmen to defend segregation and subjugation of the black population in the South.  In response to Republican legislation in a majority of states to limit voting by persons of color, Democrats have now submitted a bill to protect and expand the right to vote .  Without ending the Senate’s filibuster procedure, however, the “For the People Act” has little chance of being approved.

Thanks to the intransigent solidarity of the Republic opposition, expansion of voting rights, substantive measures to reduce income inequality, reform of immigration policies and even urgently needed repair of the nation’s infrastructure will continue to be stalled or voted down.   Inoffensive Republican gestures affirming citizens of color continue as the party’s political strategy for the next elections.  There was near unanimous Republican approval of a national Juneteenth holiday this year in the Congress.  African Americans have for years celebrated the June 19, 1865 freeing of slaves in Texas when a Union general arrived at a State seaport and made the announcement, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  But how many white U.S. citizens now celebrate the Juneteenth holiday?

The spring Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, TN I had a college job in the national headquarters of a leading shoe retailer. There were dozens of low wage “key punch operators”, most of them black and Puerto Rican women and I knew most saw King as a martyred leader.  The day before the King funeral, I protested the company’s refusal to give anyone paid time off to watch and was promptly fired.  How many U.S. citizens still resent the national holiday in January celebrating his birth?  It became a national holiday in 1983 but did not become an official state holiday in all 50 states until the year 2000.

 

Migrant Farmworker Success Stories

The Migrant Farmworker Assistance Fund of Kansas City honored seven graduates from area high schools and community colleges at a July celebration. MFAF Director Suzanne Gladney was present for the birth of six of the graduates.

You’ve been picking onions this summer.  Now someone is taking you to pick peaches and apples somewhere.  You only know it will be as hot as where you picked the onions.  As soon as it begins to cool off, the apples will be picked and your visa will expire.  Then they take you back to the border crossing. 

For three or four years the recruiter returns to take you to the same fields.  The orchard owner notices and likes your work.  He asks if you’d like to work year round and become a “crew boss”.  The pay he mentions exceeds what you ever imagined making. 

You are one of the lucky ones.  In 2020, there were 213,000 H2A temporary agricultural worker visas issued by the U.S.  In 2007 there were 51,000.  Ninety three per cent of the 2020 visas were awarded to Mexican farmworkers.  Estimates of the total U.S. agriculture work force vary widely but most range from 2 to 3 million workers, both seasonal and year round.

Even as a H2A visa holder you are not eligible for most government services.  Your housing is in a field camp, but you are responsible for your health care, sick pay and food when natural disasters or pandemics prevent you from working.  Whether you receive any help with these is up to the owner of the fields.  That is unless there is an organization like the Migrant Farmworker Assistance Fund (MFAF) of Kansas City.

Since its founding in 1984, the MFWAF has been the catalyst for creating a health clinic and a Head Start early childhood education center. MFAF staff and interns have offered farmworker children after school and summer camp programs, assisted with scholarships and counseled families on  opportunities for a college education.  Just retired from 39 years as a Legal Aid attorney, the organization’s founder and leader is Suzanne Gladney.

For workers in the orchards and packing sheds an hour drive east of Kansas City, Suzanne’s legal support has been vital. Adults and family members rely on her to negotiate the byzantine and dysfunctional U.S. immigration system. The MFAF legal and other services help ease some of the farmworkers’ transition to year round employment and residency in the U.S.. 

Many of the workers are from rural Mexico and have never seen a doctor before going to the clinic organized by MFAF.  “They say,” Suzanne recently told me, “why go to a doctor?  You don’t think I’m dying do you?”  Health services and educational opportunities available to workers and family members compensate for the hard labor, long hours, low pay and often poor housing afforded the men and women.

Thanks to MFAF guidance and encouragement, many farmworker children have graduated from nearby high schools and community colleges.  A few have continued their studies and one young man is now studying for a PhD at Catholic University in D.C.  He completed his Masters’ degree in Memphis where he met his wife-to-be, the principle dancer with the Memphis Ballet.  George is one of many success stories of MFAF’s contributions to the lives of Kansas City farmworkers.

In our meeting, I asked Suzanne what keeps her going in her work to maintain funding, guide staff and volunteers, improve living conditions for farmworkers and their families and struggle with U.S. immigration policies.  “It’s the stories that help keep me going” she quickly replied.