Monthly Archives: March 2010

Dan in Munich In The Spring

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The Amistad Heads for Cuba

(AP) WASHINGTON — Days from now, a stately black schooner will sail through a narrow channel into Havana’s protected harbor, its two masts bearing the rarest of sights — the U.S. Stars and Stripes, with the Cuban flag fluttering nearby.

The ship is the Amistad, a U.S.-flagged vessel headed for largely forbidden Cuban waters as a symbol of both a dark 19th century past and modern public diplomacy.

The Amistad is the 10-year-old official tall ship of the state of Connecticut and a replica of the Cuban coastal trader that sailed from Havana in 1839 with a cargo of African captives, only to become an emblem of the abolitionist movement.

Its 10-day, two-city tour of Cuba provides a counterpoint to new and lingering tensions between Washington and Havana and stands out as a high-profile exception to the 47-year-old U.S. embargo of the Caribbean island.

For the Amistad, it also represents a final link as it retraces the old Atlantic slave trade triangle, making port calls that are not only reminders of the stain of slavery but also celebrations of the shared cultural legacies of an otherwise sorry past.

When it drops anchor in Havana’s harbor on March 25, the Amistad will not only observe its 10th anniversary, it will commemorate the day in 1807 when the British Parliament first outlawed the slave trade.

The powerful image of a vessel displaying home and host flags docking in Cuba is not lost on Gregory Belanger, the CEO and president of Amistad America Inc., the nonprofit organization that owns and operates the ship.

“We’re completely aware of all of the issues currently surrounding the U.S. and Cuba,” he said. “But we approach this from the point of view that we have this unique history that both societies are connected by. It gives us an opportunity to transcend contemporary issues.”

It’s not lost on Rep. William Delahunt, either. The Massachusetts Democrat has long worked to ease U.S.-Cuba relations and he reached out to the State Department to make officials aware of the Amistad’s proposal.

U.S.-flagged ships have docked in Havana before, but none as prominently as the Amistad. The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has periodically approved Cuba stops for semester-at-sea educational programs for American students, and the Commerce Department has authorized U.S. shiploads of exports under agriculture and medical exemptions provided in the Trade Sanctions Reform Act of 2000.

“Obviously we have serious differences, disagreements,” Delahunt said. “But in this particular case the two governments, while not working together, clearly were aware of the profound significance of this particular commemoration.”

The original Amistad’s story, the subject of a 1997 Steven Spielberg movie, began after it set sail from Havana in 1839. Its African captives rebelled, taking over the ship and sending it on a zigzag course up the U.S. coast until it was finally seized off the coast of Long Island. The captured Africans became an international cause for abolitionists; their fate was finally decided in 1841 when John Quincy Adams argued their case before the Supreme Court, which granted them their freedom.

Miguel Barnet, a leading Cuban ethnographer and writer who has studied the African diaspora, said it is only appropriate that the new Amistad would call on the place of the original ship’s birth. Indeed, he said in an interview from Cuba on Wednesday, it is the horror of the slave trade that left behind a rich common bond — not just between the United States and Cuba, but with the rest of the Caribbean — that is rooted in Africa.

“That’s why this is an homage to these men and women who left something precious for our culture,” he said.

The new Amistad has crossed the Atlantic and wended its way through the Caribbean since 2007. It has worked with the United Nations and UNESCO’s Slave Route Project. Using high technology hidden in its wooden frame and rigging, the ship’s crew of sailors and students has simulcasted to schools and even to the U.N. General Assembly.

It will do so again — with Cuban students — from Havana.

Nathaniel Jocelyn’s ca. 1840 portrait of Joseph Cinque, a leader of the 1839 Amistad revolt.

Race in America 2010

The New Jim Crow

by MICHELLE ALEXANDER

March 9, 2010

Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its forty-fourth president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.

Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.

Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.

Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:

• There are more African-Americans under correctional control today–in prison or jail, on probation or parole–than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

• As of 2004, more African-American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

• A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African-American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

• If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African-American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80 percent.) These men are part of a growing undercaste–not class, caste–permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

Excuses for the Lockdown

There is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.

The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African-Americans during the past thirty years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades–they are currently at historical lows–but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs. Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population.

The drug war has been brutal–complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers and sweeps of entire neighborhoods–but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth. Any notion that drug use among African-Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data. White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African-American counterparts.

That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, African-Americans comprise 80 percent-90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.

This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of color and not middle-class suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime.

Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House chief of staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

A few years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were to be responsible for publicizing inner-city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores and drug-related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack abuse and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support for the drug war which, it was hoped, would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it.

The plan worked like a charm. For more than a decade, black drug dealers and users would be regulars in newspaper stories and would saturate the evening TV news. Congress and state legislatures nationwide would devote billions of dollars to the drug war and pass harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes–sentences longer than murderers receive in many countries.

Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The facts bear him out. Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon.

Facing Facts

But what about all those violent criminals and drug kingpins? Isn’t the drug war waged in ghetto communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found? The answer is yes… in made-for-TV movies. In real life, the answer is no.

The drug war has never been focused on rooting out drug kingpins or violent offenders. Federal funding flows to those agencies that increase dramatically the volume of drug arrests, not the agencies most successful in bringing down the bosses. What gets rewarded in this war is sheer numbers of drug arrests. To make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use 80 percent of the cash, cars and homes seized from drug suspects, thus granting law enforcement a direct monetary interest in the profitability of the drug market.

The results have been predictable: people of color rounded up en masse for relatively minor, nonviolent drug offenses. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison have no history of violence or even of significant selling activity. In fact, during the 1990s–the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war–nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug generally considered less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities as in the inner city.

In this way, a new racial undercaste has been created in an astonishingly short period of time–a new Jim Crow system. Millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.

Affirmative action, though, has put a happy face on this racial reality. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers–not to mention president of the United States–causes us all to marvel at what a long way we’ve come.

Recent data shows, though, that much of black progress is a myth. In many respects, African-Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. Nearly a quarter of African-Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same percentage as in 1968. The black child poverty rate is actually higher now than it was then. Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that’s with affirmative action!

When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure–the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.

This is not Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. This is not the promised land. The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.

Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). The former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU in Northern California, she also served as a law clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court. more…

Copyright © 2009 The Nation

Clifford A. Truesdell IV d. 9 March 2010, Age 66

Ballade des dames de temps jadis

Dictes moy ou, n’en quel pays,

Est Flora la belle Rommaine,

Archipiades ne Thaïs,

Qui fut sa cousine germaine,

Echo parlant quant bruyt on maine

Dessus riviere ou sus estan,

Qui beaulté ot trop plus q’humaine.

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

Ou est la tres sage Helloïs,

Pour qui chastré fut et puis moyne

Pierre Esbaillart a Saint Denis?

Pour son amour ot ceste essoyne.

Semblablement, ou est la royne

Qui commanda que Buridan

Fust geté en ung sac en Saine?

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

La royne Blanche comme lis

Qui chantoit a voix de seraine,

Berte au grand pié, Beatris, Alis,

Haremburgis qui tint le Maine,

Et Jehanne la bonne Lorraine

Qu’Englois brulerent a Rouan;

Ou sont ilz, ou, Vierge souvraine?

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine

Ou elles sont, ne de cest an,

Qu’a ce reffrain ne vous remaine:

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

François Villon  c.1461

Clifford, Marilyn and Quint, Ipswich, MA

Photo: John McClellan

To a Young Poet

Time cannot break the bird’s wing from the bird.

Bird and wing together

Go down, one feather.

No thing that ever flew,

Not the lark, not you,

Can die, as others do

Edna St.Vincent Millay

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“I thank my son, Cliff Truesdell, for posting my translation of the Wanderer on the Web.

This translation, the work of many years, is I believe the best translation yet made of this wonderful poem.  Other translations have merits, and I have sometimes borrowed from them, perhaps on occasion stolen. (“Bad poets borrow, good poets steal” –T.S.Eliot.)  I have two criticisms of earlier efforts.  Those which seek to stick as closely as possible to the original work (though they do not always succeed) tend to be utterly unpoetic.  As well translate the poem into flat prose!  (As some do.) Those which seek to be poetic, tend to diverge widely from the original meaning.  Some translations do both.

So I have sought to hew closely to the original meanings, yet to produce a poetic translation.  One choice I made was to try, wherever possible, to use simple, short words of Anglo-Saxon origin, rather than Latin words.  Occasionally, I could not do this; for example, I could find no better word for þeaw (line 12) than “custom.”  At the same time, I have always sought to avoid silly and pedantic archaisms.

I made no attempt to keep the alliterative scheme of the Anglo-Saxon text, but where possible, have used other alliterations to reproduce its poetic style.  For example, in translating line 7b, for winemæga hryre, my original translation was “murder of kin.”  Borrowing from another translation, I changed that to the alliterative “killing of kin,” in any event a more accurate rendering, as deaths in feud or battle were not “murder” as the Anglo-Saxons understood the term.

Some of my readings will be controversial, a matter I often address in the footnotes below.

While I differ from, and sometimes criticize, previous translations and interpretations, I owe them much.  I am the first to acknowledge that this translation is built upon a foundation of eald enta geweorc.  Nor do I consider this translation, and my interpretations, the final word.  I will probably work on and tinker with them for the rest of my life.  Criticisms and corrections are welcome, though the greatest compliment would be an entirely new translation, incorporating, using, stealing from, what I have done right, correcting me and replacing me when I am wrong, but above doing better than I have done in what I have sought to do:  Producing a poetic, yet accurate, translation of the original.

A final note.  I acknowledge all the work of predecessors, and found the recent translations of Jonathan E. Glenn and Ezequiel Viñao particulary enlightening (though I think mine poetically superior, and certainly closer to the original).  However, my greatest debt, and our greatest debt, is to the man, his name long forgotten, who, eleven hundred years or more ago, wrote the Wanderer.

Clifford A. Truesdell, IV   (2007)

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The Last Notes of Leontyne Price’s Final AIDA at the Met, 1985

Read her face during the three minutes of wild applause.

A Little Glitter On A Cold, Cloudy Day . . .

International Women’s History Month