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Malcolm X vs. Bayard Rustin: Black on Black

I left Community Church some months ago with mixed feelings. The occasion was a so-called debate between Malcolm X. and Bayard Rustin, and the topic was “Separation and Integration.” Being a pacifist, a Negro, and one who has been involved in the racial struggle lately, I expected to be with Mr. Rustin all the way and against Mr. X. completely. My mixed feelings were the result of the discovery that I was applauding more for Malcolm X. than I was for Bayard Rustin.

During the debate — actually it was more a statement of position on both their parts — it seemed to me as though Bayard Rustin were taking the position of the “radical middle.” I know, of course, that this is not the case with Mr. Rustin, but it seemed so as I listened. There is no question in my mind but that he presented the saner attitude, yet the amazing thing was how eloquently Malcolm X. stated the problems which Negroes have confronted for so many years. The biggest difficulty about listening to him — especially for a Negro — is that he wraps the problem up so neatly that one is almost carried on into his faulty conclusions by the wealth of emotions he evokes.

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World of Good

I must confess that it did my heart a world of good to sit back and listen to Mr. X. list the sins of the white man toward the black man in America. He does it well. I daresay that if I were not already convinced of the efficacy of looking on humans as humans rather than as black, white, or any of the shades in between, I might have joined the Black Muslims forthwith.

For too many years, black Americans have not been able to look at white Americans as the same kind of humans, for the most part, and have been placed in a situation where they must make the white man feel comfortable. If they don’t — especially in the South — it can be a matter of life and death.

In his short story “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” James Baldwin explains this conundrum. He has the narrator of the story, a Negro who “has it made” In Europe, re­turning to Alabama for a while. The narrator admits that he didn’t ”despise them (the white people) any more than everyone else did, only the others never let it show. They knew how to keep white folks happy, and it was easy — you just had to keep them feeling like they were God’s favor to the universe.”

The point at which I depart from Malcolm X. and the Black Muslims is the very point at which I wish they were strongest. They seem to want to set up a black superiority to replace a white superiority. Both are equally bad. Bayard Rustin stated the case as I see it very well when he said that the question which faces the black man is not what he can do to add to their (the whites’) doom, but what can be done to help in their redemption. He went on to substantiate my own thoughts further by saying that “whether white men like it or not, we need to force them into being their best.”

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Faces it Squarely

One of the many good things I can say about Mr. Rustin’s pro­cess of thinking is that he re­fuses to equivocate about the problem; he faces it squarely. Few of us are either able or willing to do this. I only wish that more Negroes in the van­guard of the movement for ra­cial equality could do it as well as he does.

I might mention my surprise in discovering — according to Mr. Rustin, and with his opponent’s “amen” — that no other Negro leader was even willing to talk with Mr. X. on the same plat­form. When I asked someone about this, I got the shoddy re­ply that “no one should dignify the Black Muslims by appearing together with them in public.”

Dignify them indeed! I am only glad that I heard this from a white liberal rather than from a Negro — though I strongly sus­pect that many Negroes feel the same way. Well, we had better begin realizing that we surely can’t “un-dignify” the Muslims. Like it or not, their audience is growing larger and their voices are becoming stronger.

One of Malcolm X.’s most salient points against Mr. Rus­tin’s arguments was that he, Malcolm X., is not trying reach the middle-class Negro; the Muslims have already recog­nized that the middle-class Ne­gro, for the most part, is not about to risk too much in the cause of raising the level of the masses of black people who seldom have either a decent place to live or a decent way of earning a living. “We talk on the streets,” Malcolm X. said, “and on the corners because the man in the street is the one who is catching hell.” And perhaps that is who needs to be reached.

After reaching him, though, what do you tell him? This is where I earnestly wish that Mr. Rustin and Mr. X. could see eye to eye.

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Let Him Simmer

The Black Muslim position is that since the white man has had so long to do right if he really planned to do so, we might as well accept the fact that he is either unwilling or in­capable of doing so. Therefore, they say, let’s just get away from this devil; let him simmer in his own stew. Messenger Eli­jah Muhammad has said: “Do thank Allah for revealing this evil, deceitful, open enemy, ‘the devil!'” He says that “they, the white race, cannot treat you and me with justice … ” Knowing what I do about how evil some people can be, I am almost will­ing to agree with the Messen­ger. But since some of my best friends are white — and my ton­gue is not in m cheek — I can­not make a blanket statement about the devilishness of white men with all honesty.

If only the black movement which is “recognized” by the white liberals in America could have the verve and sense of dedication of Messenger Muhammad: if only the Black Muslims could have the sense of “un­-apartheid” which most black liberals hare. But perhaps that’s asking too much.

I ought to make it manifest here that I am certainly not going to be placed among those who deride the Black Muslims. While I cannot, on good consci­ence, agree with their accept­ance of separateness, or their “meet violence with violence” doctrine for ameliorating racial problems in America, I do feel they are playing an important role as a catalyst for both black and white who move too slowly. It’s a cinch that if there were enough black liberals who be­lieved strongly enough in their own position — as do the Muslims — we wouldn’t have such a hard row to hoe now.

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Biggest Problem

The biggest problem, I guess, is getting enough people to do what they say they believe. It was interesting to hear again Bayard Rustin’s theory of “so­cial dislocation,” and I have heard him explain it many times. But somehow, in the set­ting ot the Community Church, and with Malcom X. in the background, the theory seemed to make more sense to me. Rus­tin’s idea, to put it in his own words, is that “social dislocation (the use of mass action — really mass action — in order to realize social, political, and economic equality) can be accomplished by using the bodies of masses of Negroes in order to uproot the system of segregation … to make segregated institutions impossible to exist.”

Of course, this is not the first time the same sort of idea has been set forth, but my feeling is that Mr. Rustin means precisely what he says. There are few instances in my own mem­ory where “recognized” Negro leaders have said this and have put it into practice (Farmer, Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, and some of the Negro students are exceptions). I don’t mean to dis­parage others — many of them are doing an excellent job in other areas — but “social dislocation” the way Rustin talks about it just hasn’t been tried as much as it should have been.

It is understandable why it hasn’t been tried. My own short sojourn in a Southern jail makes me wonder it I am equal to the task. But if “social dislocation” is what is called for, then I cer­tainly am willing. It will be after I have tried it again for me to discover my capabilities for withstanding the pressures, but I am, nonetheless, willing. As I dream of the day when masses of Negroes will rise to the call, I keep humming to myself an old spiritual we used to sing: “Here am I send me.”

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As I think over that night at Community Church, James Baldwin’s “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” again comes to mind. The narrator, speaking of his sister, says that “all the white people she has ever met needed, in one way or another, to be reassured, consoled, to have their consciences pricked but not blasted” (italics mine).

Much to the surprise of many white liberals that night at Community Church, both Malcom X. and Bayard Rustin not only pricked but blasted their consci­ences. As a matter of fact, many black liberals were surprised to find a certain unpredicted rap­port between Malcom X. and Bayard Rustin. I am glad this “myth of the rift” was exposed.

Somehow the press has had a journalistic orgasm over the dif­ferences of opinion which occur between various factions of the movement for equality among Negoes today. I hope white lib­erals aren’t fooled by this. Sure­ly, there are differences of ap­proach, program, attitudes, and even methods of resolution of the many problems black people in America are facing. But be ye not deceived. The movement will press forward despite dif­ferences.

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Needs Allies 

As Bayard Rustin pointed out, “the movement needs white allies.” I agree. However, the movement will not rely on these allies fully — though it will welcome their assistance with open arms — but will have a broad base among Negroes of many philosophical and social disciplines.

The white man, inimical or otherwise, had better cultivate an understanding of this because, willy or nilly, there is going to be change. ❖

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Mississippi: A March Resurrects a Movement

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI — Overcoming disunity, out-of-fashionableness, poverty, and aching feet, the civil rights movement was reborn Sunday on the grounds of the Mississippi state capitol, before the executioners’ eyes of 700 Mississippi troopers and police, armed with M-1s, live ammunition, and tear gas.

The ragged band that had begun as one mystical prophet in Memphis, that became 100 in Hernando, that became 1000 after the baptism of spit in Philadelphia and tear gas in Canton, had become 15,000 Sunday afternoon. And they were 15,000 Mississippi Negroes, their biographies etched in their bent spines and gnarled hands. There were a few clergymen, 100 New Left types, a small group of 1930s liberals like Paul O’Dwyer, and a handful of dreamy Dylanesque kids, but mostly they were the porters, maids, and high school students of Jackson, giving a great movement the rare gift of a second chance to redeem its country’s greatest sinner.

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The anemia of the civil rights movement, inflicted by ghetto riots, integration next door, and the rhetoric of LeRoi Jones, has been cured — at least for a moment — by a cathartic wave of blackness and bitterness. One senses that the obscenely banal comments of the President and the Attorney General after the tear-gassing in Canton were too much for even the generous, ecumenical soul of Martin King. They helped the paralyzed move­ment turn a difficult corner; ex­cept for the student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, this is still a reformist rather than revolutionary movement, but its opposition is now total and its energy renewed. Next week the Southern Christian Leadership Conference will have 35 organizers in the 15 rural counties the march passed through, and SNCC will have a dozen. Mississippi II is about to begin.

The mood of the march redirected the too many dreams deferred since the hike from Selma 14 months ago. The unseating of Julian Bond, the failure of the war on poverty, the triumph in Alabama of Mrs. Wallace, the gerrymandering of the Mississippi congressional districts, and the tear-gassing in Canton, they have all driven the ambrosia of liber­als — love — out of the Movement. The spirit of Gandhian agape that hung like a halo over Selma, with its nuns and angelic-faced students, was gone, replaced by a clenched militancy fueled by a despair expressed by Martin King’s admission that his dream of Washington 1963 has turned into a “nightmare.”

The march created its share ot small, memorable moments. Singing, Sunday-dressed kids on unpainted porches waving Amer­ican flags. Marlon Brando limp­ing along anonymously between a 66-year-old cotton picker and a 16-year-old student from a segregated Jackson high school. The shame in the eyes of the old Negroes when they turned away from pleas that they join the pilgrimage. Bob Parris, who started this particular arc of his­tory in 1961, hovering unnoticed and sad on the edges of the crowd. (He is now quietly organizing in Bolivar County.)

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But more enduring than such vignettes is the hard political significance of the 21-day journey down sunbaked U.S. 51. The confirmation of Martin King as the soul and pivot of this movement; now even the kamikazes of SNCC admit “King’s got balls,” after the trials of Philadephia and Canton. The barring of the NAACP from the climactic rally program at the capitol because “they are part of the Administration, not the Movement,” as a militant minister put it. The new path SNCC has charted for itself, as it begins to march to the sound of a different drummer. Every SNCC worker explains the slogan Black Power differently, and so does every journalist. (In Canton, when Stokely Carmich­ael screamed, “This will separate the men from the mice,” the AP wire quoted him as saying, “This will separate the men from the whites.”)

Cleansed of its tumescence of hate, Black Power is an obviously effective strategy for about 40 rural counties in the Black Belt. Explained intelligently, it is perfect psychotherapy for Negroes ashamed of their blackness. As a stance, it is certain to capture the loyalty of many young ghetto Negroes who have felt themselves orphans since the assassination of Malcolm X. But as a program for a movement, it is the fantasy of victims.

Saturday night, about 2000 marchers, plus about another 9000 Jackson teenagers, filled the grassy athletic field of all-Negro Tougaloo College for what Car­michael called “a party.” Sammy Davis sang show tunes and then flew out on a private jet to Las Vegas after march leaders tried to shame him into staying for the procession to the capitol the next day James Brown, who makes Elvis Presley look like a paraplegic, re-created the am­bience of the Apollo with his blues. Marlon Brando told them, “You are the heroes of America … I should be out there and you should be up here.” Carmi­chael, addressing their buried pride, said, “I know you’re out there. Smile so I can see you.” Dick Gregory said he “wished LBJ was the Pope, so that way folks would only have to kiss his ring.” Then the rally ended about 10 p.m., and the leaders retired to continue their public debate that has gone on since Memphis, when Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young went home, and Bayard Rustin rejected  King’s plea that he come to Mississippi to handle the logistics of the 220-mile procession. To the fury of much of the Movement, Rustin claimed he had to finish an ar­ticle for Commentary. SNCC was dissuaded from the civil disobedience, the NAACP barred from the platform because of Wilkins’ antagonistic remarks, King’s most gifted aide, Andrew Young, chosen to emcee the capitol rally, and the divinely inspired Meredith granted the longest speaking time along with King.

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Toward Capitol

At 11.30 Sunday, the procession, 3000 strong, began to file out of Tougaloo toward the capitol, nine miles away. An FBI agent rode in the first car and an integrated SNCC couple in the second, a Black Panther bumper sticker was flapping on the rear. They were singing, “We’ve got the light of freedom …”

The conflict between SCLC and SNCC was played out all along the march. When SCLC arganizers distributed American flags, SNCC’s Willie Ricks took them away, and the Reverend John Morris gave them out again. The SNCC kids chanted “Black Power” and the SCLC staffers chanted, “Freedom,” and usually carried the marchers with them.

What two weeks ago had seemed a meaningless contrivance for the media was slowly transformed into a moving spectacle as the column inched through the unpaved Negro slums of Jackson. Wave after after of Jackson Negroes poured into the column, dressed for Sunday church, badly concealing their pride, and many clutching American flags, that were waved like magic wands every time whites on the sidelines showed their Confederate flags.

It was hot, about 95 degrees, and on almost every block a Negro family was waiting to offer ice water to the marchers. They threw kisses, smiled, prayed, and many joined the swelling, uneven line.

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At a shopping center there was the surrealistic scene of 30 whites, their faces looking like they were recruited from central casting, shouting epithets and taking pic­tures of the marchers. They were guarded by a cluster of 10 Negro highway patrolmen. A little kid with the words “Give me free­dom or give me death” crudely painted on his CORE tee shirt tried to give one of the whites a Black Panther bumper sticker and a Negro patrolman pushed him back into the march.

When the column passed the next large clump of whites, the pilgrims broke into a rendition of “Dixie” and the whites looked like they were watching Robert E. Lee’s tomb being vandalized.

By the time the exhausted, sweat-drenched marcher’s reached the capitol it was almost 4 p.m. Sullen whites, about 1500, ringed the appointed rally area. Shoulder to shoulder, encircling  the stained-glass capitol, stood 700 state troopers, city police, and guardsmen, defending the government of Mississippi from its own unarmed citizens. On the platform sat the unique leadership of the Freedom Movement, and one could not help but measure men like Martin King, Reverend Ed King and Larry Guyot of the MFDP, CORE’s Floyd McKissick, and even emotional, visionary Carmichael, against the leadership of white America. Martin King or LBJ, Reverend Andy Young or Cardinal Spellman, Guyot or Ronald Reagan: who are better qualified to lead this nation?

Inscrutable James Meredith spoke first and was honored by a standing ovation from the platform as well as the multitude.

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They Larry Guyot, the panda-like chairman of the MFDP, rose to talk, unspeakable memories of white violence charging his voice and sending tremors through his body. He said, “Black people must learn three phrases starting at birth: white supremacy, neo-colonialism, and black power.” With that, Carmichael, perched on the edge of the platform, leaped up screaming like a teeny bopper at a Rolling Stones concert. Guyot closed with the prophetic words: “This is not the end; this is the beginning.”

Then is was Carmichael’s turn in the subtle contest for the heart of the resurrected Mississippi Movement. Lean, lithe, with bulging eyes like James Baldwin, he took off his shades as he began his talk with the words, “I want to talk to black people across the this country …”

In private, Carmichael’s description of the ideas behind his slogan of black power is persuasive. But excited by 15,000 black faces, network cameras, and a five-minute deadline, the 25-year-old leader of SNCC was reduced to slogans to explain a slogan. He transposed his words, spoke in a false Southern accent, and at the end the rehearsed chant of black power organized by the SNCC staff failed to engulf the rally.

Then it was time for King, the 37-year-old preacher who holds the unity of this amoeba-like movement in his healing hands. The speech he offered was merely a variation of his inspirational sermon delivered in the shadow of the Lincoln Monument in 1963. He told of his growing nightmares and his enduring dreams in the rolling, hypnotic cadences of the rural preacher. But it was the humane, incorruptible mystique of the man that won the crowd, his crescendo phrases winning affirmations of “amen” and “Say it, brother” again and again.

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Then it was 6 p.m. and it was ending. Meredith still had the shotgun pellets lodged in his body, a beaten marcher was still in a Canton hospital with a collapsed lung, 5000 newly registered voters were in the rolls in 15 counties. The crowd reached out to grab strong but unfamiliar black hands and sing the holy song of the movement:

“God is on our side. We are not afraid …”

SNCC’s Willie Ricks, who has the look of a Times Square evangelist, began to scream, “Black power, black power, black power …”

But he was drowned out by the rising voices of 15,000 Negroes singing, “We shall brothers be — black and white together — we shall overcome — someday.” ❖

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On the Progress of Feminism

The light of liberation can be blinding

The women’s movement has been under fire from the moment it drew its first breath. It’s enemies and detractors are many, though often they pose, in their own minds, as supporters — “Yes, yes, there is much justification in what you are saying, but good God! those awful women you put on tv!” … “Well, I’m willing to support you people, but you’re just gonna have to do a lot better in the way of propaganda. That mimeographed Marxism. Jesus.” … “Look, I’ve always believed in women’s liberation. I take my wife out to eat all the time, but my God, what’s going now is just incredible. These strident, man-hating bitches you people have for spokesmen.” … “You people.” If I hear “you people” just once more …

Those who have responded with open fear and anger to the movement — no doubt out of the illness of middle-class libertarianism — are too numerous to articulate properly on the sociological scale that will ac­curately place the many combinations of anxious self-interest they represent. (And, indeed, it is not now my intention either to castigate or to proselytize.) But there many who declared themselves partisans from the start, many who claimed to see in the women’s movement a hope of salvation denied elsewhere in the cultural politics that domi­nates our social passions, many who responded to the cause of justice for women with quick support and ready alliance, who are now beginning to separate themselves from the movement. For many of those partisans­ — both men and women, but most especially the men — are striking out now, in boredom and irritation, at the many apparently unwholesome aspects of the movement — and in that quick partisanship and early souring lies an instructive tale, one that is crucial to both an increased understanding of and a renewed faith in the movement that seeks to alter radically the psychic lives of men and women.

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I have a story to tell, a story that contains all the dramatic el­ements involved in this signifi­cant play of life:

Recently, I was visiting old friends in Berkeley, a couple who are both radicals of many years’ conviction, people who literally feel that the oppression of other people limits and corrodes their own lives. This conviction happens to be the best part of these people. Unlike many radicals whose radicalism is the worst part of them — that is, their radicalism is often rendered in mean-spirited and righteous be­havior, an arrogant excuse for emotional deficiency — in these people the disgust with capitalism and the social inequities that follow from the system is neither shallow nor fanatical: it has produced an extension of spiritual generosity, a genuine disavowal of worldly accumulation without an absurdly false asceticism, and, more often than not, an emotionally developed desire to understand what the other person is all about. It was, in fact, this man and this woman who introduced me, two years ago, to women’s liberation, and it was, at that time, the man’s understanding and persuasive elo­quence that I found most af­fecting. “I am just now beginning to understand,” he had said softly, “that my wife’s oppression has forced me into certain molds of behavior and all of a sudden I see a whole world of be­havior that has been denied me …” (It was after that conversation that I began, very fast, to feel a great number of connec­tions being made inside me.) Things went quickly for them. The woman became an active member of a women’s collective (that is, a group of women who meet regularly to talk, and also to plan women’s liberation ac­tions.) The man helped organize demonstrations and started a couple’s group.

Now it was two years later. I had seen them only once in the intervening time, and we were naturally anxious to see one another again. When I arrived at the house in Berkeley I found some changes. My friends, together with their two children, now occupied the lower half of the house they lived in; the upper half was occupied by three mari­tally estranged feminists and their collective five children; together, all five adults and seven children were attempting some variant of cooperative liv­ing.

Richard was out when I got there at 8 p.m. but Eva wel­comed me heartily and pulled me inside to the kitchen for coffee and kisses and laughter and words that tumbled one after another in some vague sem­blance of sentences meant to communicate meaning. After a while, one of the feminists from the top floor came down and joined us at the table. She was the estranged wife of a promi­nent New Left radical, life with whom she acidly described: “He was the intellectual and I was the earth mother.” It became quickly clear that she was now, heart and soul, given over to the women’s movement. Within minutes we were all embroiled in serious, fastmoving movement talk — and within the hour I was being told I was a revisionist … It seemed I had too loose an idea of what constituted properly revolutionary behavior.

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When Richard came home he walked into the kitchen; I was very glad to see him and leaped out of my chair to hug him hello. He responded, was friendly for a few minutes, and then left the room. I expected him to return and so I simply sat down again, resumed the conversation, and it was 1 a.m. before I realized Richard had gone to his room with no intention of returning to the kitchen.

We, the three women, con­tinued to talk movement talk until 3 a.m. Movement talk, of necessity, is composed of a constant intertwining of personal experience, tactical speculations (regarding acti­vity in and out of the move­ment), and theoretical projec­tions, all being fed continually through the mill of observation and analysis. Naturally, the men in our lives are part of the mate­rial we supply for model cases and situations. Naturally.

I wasn’t able to speak to Rich­ard, who seemed abnormally preoccupied, until late the next day, and then I asked him why he hadn’t come back into the kitchen the night before. He looked at me for a long minute, and then he burst out; “I’ve gotten to hate women. I can’t stand them gath­ering in cliques, the way they do now. I just can’t stand the con­stant cliqueishness. It reminds me of my mother, for God’s sake. When I was a kid, my mother and her friends would gather in the kitchen like that, pushing the men — me and my brother and my father — out with their eyes and their sudden silences … Jesus. Now it’s the same thing all over again. When I walk into my own kitchen I feel the invisible curtain suddenly coming down between me and the women. Suddenly, I am the enemy incarnate, I am the fucking oppressor, I’m the one to be watched and to be shut out …” He gestured in disgust. “It’s useless now. I really don’t know what to make of the movement any more, and certainly I don’t feel part of it at all.”

I was stunned by his outburst. A great blot of sympathy began spreading in me. But very quickly my sympathy began to be outlined in anger, and the outline thickened until it covered half the blot … and then I realized that both my sympathy and my anger were for Richard and for the women. For him and for me, for the cause and for the movement, for the depth of meaning sealed into this incident and for the insight it holds into the nature of the struggle that lies still so far ahead of all of us.

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  ***

What is happening to Richard is happening to men (from liberals to revolutionaries) all over this country who have considered themselves spiritual partisans of the women’s movement and feel, bewilderedly and angrily, that the movement itself is now beating them over the head daily with an indiscriminately wielded club marked “male chauvinist pig.” (A really unhappy example of this: John Leonard’s recent, startling battle in the Times with some of my sisters.) The entire action is amazingly reminiscent of the time only 10 years ago when thousands of white middle-­class liberals who had fought with patience and sincerity in the black civil rights movement were suddenly being called “ofay motherfuckers” by LeRoi Jones and Stokely Carmichael and told to get the hell out of their move­ment. It was as difficult then to sort out the right and the wrong of the matter as it is now, because the right and the wrong were then, and are now, all mixed up with the ugliness of emotional need so swollen and so distorted as a result of having been told so long it does not exist that blacks then, and women now, could not take in all at once both the full impetus of their previous condition and their roaring need to see it change­ and still retain their full capacity for humanist behavior. It is al­most as though the very act of declaring oneself ready to do battle for one’s humanity trans­forms one into something other: like the good and innocent men who go to war to fight for the sweetness of civilization and re­turn killers.

But of course that is the whole sickening trickery in life — the idea that one cannot fight for one’s humanity without, ironically, losing it — and it is a piece of trickery that the blacks some­times seem helpless against and the women now sometimes seem helpless against, and, in the final analysis, that trickery is the real enemy, and the very essence of the thing we must continually be on our guard against. For what shall it profit a woman if she gain an end to slavery in mar­riage and in the process lose her soul?

However, a liberal who was out­raged 10 years ago at the sheer “unreasonableness” of the blacks and is outraged now at the sheer “unfairness” of the women is a fool, and possessed of the kind of impatience that calls all of his early allegiance into ques­tion. For how is it possible that a man in one breath should proclaim his genuine under­standing of woman’s deeply subordinate position in our society, and in the very next exclaim savagely against the forceful and sometimes “unreasonable” ex­pression of rage now rising in women, an expression which inevitably accompanies the up­rising of those who suddenly real­ize they have been cheated of their birthright, and which dies down only slowly and with the healing passage of time that brings real change and increased understanding? Does a woman suddenly understand the need to reverse the behavior of over 2000 years, and presto! That  understanding  makes her saintly? Or is it exactly the opposite? “Ye shall know truth and it shall turn you into a monster. And only after a long siege of fever shall you become human again.” After all, why did it take Moses 40 years to cross the goddamn desert? Because God instructed him that he was not to return slaves to Canaan.

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Many women are acting ugly now because they feel ugly. For a long, long time these women acted sweet when they didn’t necessarily feel sweet. They did so because deep in their being, in a place beyond conscious thought, they believed their lives depended upon their being sweet. Now, when they think of that time, of all that life spent on their knees, they feel green bile spreading through them. and they feel that their lives now depend upon calling men “male chauvinist pig.” That sweetness, then, was infantile, and this viru­lent aggression, now, is infantile. But a people are not kept for generations as children and sud­denly, simply upon coming to re­alize that they have lived as chil­dren, become fully humanist adults, capable of measured proportion. That measured proportion is the kind of behavior that is learned, and it is learned only in a specific way: through the reinforcement of a repeated personal experience which per­ceives humanism, finally, as the only true and necessary and satisfying expression of the sell. A people who have only just begun to emerge from a state of sub­jugation are in no position to be even-handed in this manner, and it takes much patience and un­derstanding and good will on the part of the strong ones both in the subjugated group and in the group holding the power to provide an atmosphere of stabili­ty in which the frightened bravado on both sides of the fence can dissipate itself without increasing the chaos that is al­ready intrinsic in the situation.

John Leonard was appalled by the out-of-focus fury of the sis­terhood over his review of a number of feminist books, a fury that ended up saying a man shouldn’t be reviewing feminist books. Leonard, a long-time supporter of women’s liberation, flew into a rage and in reply said that in that case “Moby Dick” should be reviewed by whales, and ended, in his turn, with an attack on the stupidities of the women’s movement. It was so obvious to him that the feminists’ response was an outrageous at­tack upon every civilized notion that allows a reviewer of in­telligence and decency to call the shots as he sees them.

Leonard was right and he was wrong; the women were right and they were wrong. If I were in Leonard’s place, I would have done precisely what he did — and regretted it five years later. On the other hand, I am in the feminists’ place: I would not have done what they did, but I can see exactly why they did what they did.

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***

Women’s liberation is being called by many names today. It is called “the movement,” it is called “the cause,” it is called “the revolution.” Often, the lan­guage — as language does­ — begins to take on a life of its own, and then the idea of women’s liberation and the terms of description by which it is known begin to grow dangerously distant from each other. Even more important, those terms of description sometimes harden into dogma, and dogma in time becomes a kind of shorthand —  first for explanation and then for response. When that happens, experience is on its way to becoming institutionalized and the life at the center of that expe­rience is slowly sucked away.

The liberation of women is, in my view, at one and the same time, all of the things it is called, and none of those things. For me, feminism is, more than any other single thing, not a movement, not a cause, not a revolution, but rather a profoundly new way of interpreting human experience. It is a vital piece of information at the center of a new point of reference from which one both re-interprets the past and predicts the future. In that sense, it is parallel to the great cultural movements that have so altered the shape of the 20th century — Freudianism and existentialism. Feminism is a piece of emotional and intellectual insight that allows us to see that women’s lives represent the effects of a piece of culture that has come to be known as “sexism”: a determination — based on fear and the existential struggle for power­ — that women shall be declared natural inferiors, and taught that they are natural inferiors. The consequences of this insight, if it is perceived instantly, are as far-­reaching as Freud’s discovery of sexual repression and the exis­tentialists’ discovery of noth­ingness. For each woman and each man contains within herself and within himself a microcosm of the universe in feminist terms — just as each person also contains within himself and within herself a microcosm of sexual neurosis and existential angst — and thus feminism also is nothing less than a new form into which one pours old knowledge, thereby re-vitalizing and setting into motion anew the sources of psychic energy responsible for growth and change and altered behavior.

The conversion to feminism is also very much like the conver­sion to Freudianism and existen­tialism: for a long time one sees nothing, and suddenly one sees it all — whereupon absolute hell breaks loose. A woman suddenly sees herself in feminist terms (just as a prospect for psycho­analysis suddenly sees that his behavior is the response to repression); she grasps the fun­damental idea in a flash (and that, by the way, is the last thing she is going to grasp in a flash); immediately she is surrounded by the “panic and emptiness” of a world in shambles, on the one hand, and the drunken exhilara­tion of a world overflowing with new possibility on the other. Ut­terly dislocated, a newly con­verted feminist is then like the man in Plato’s parable who, coming out of the cave of igno­rance, is blinded by the light and must grope slowly and painfully toward some coherent re-assembly of the world — a groping, I might add, that is further re­tarded by the fact that the man is eager to accept each new ob­ject he stumbles on as the ultimate object, the one that really defines this giddy and fearful new atmosphere he now finds himself in.

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But more significantly and more directly, the newly converted feminist bears a striking resemblance to the novitiate into psychoanalysis who — for an amazingly long time — is over­whelmed by the fact that his fa­ther never made him feel loved and that his desire for his mother deeply affected his ability to love other women, as well as by this amazing discovery of a world within himself of emotional scars, complicated repressions, unbelievable defenses — all busily going into operation every time a stranger says hello all explained by an erudite world theory, all passionately seen as part of an enormous puzzle, there simply to be worked out — and shazam! on the very day the last piece of the puzzle is in place, those compul­sions formed by that unanalyzed self begin to wither and die, one sheds the worn-out skin of defen­sive behavior, and a whole, new creature is born inside the famil­iar but now psychoanalyzed body.

All that is romantic fancy, as the unhappy analysand is quick to learn; should he actually piece the entire puzzle together, he has just begun his trip, and it is one of the cruelest journeys in the world — that journey that must be taken from the stunning point of initial conversion, quick understanding, and unquestioned belief in the miraculous powers of the language of faith, to the disenchanting point of realization that insight must be reinforced by and ultimately (through the formerly impotent tools of intelligence and will) replaced by an act of hard, drudging work in which the emotional habits of a lifetime are slowly and continually chipped away — inch by inch, moment by moment, day by painful day — in order that the analysand’s life may perhaps ­begin to resemble that glorious possibility of existence glimpsed in the rarefied atmosphere of the analyst’s office, hour after cathartic hour.

For the feminist, it is exactly the same. The woman who suddenly sees that she has been forced by cultural decision to remain a half-formed creature, never to have known actual au­tonomy or direct power, is as overcome by her revelation as is the new analysand by his. So violent is the nature of her insight that she is able in a shot to gather into her previously resistant understanding a new explanation for almost every identifiable piece of behavior that characterizes her life. She is able quickly to see her life — down to its smallest detail — as a microcosmic example of the larger and more theoretical idea: sexism. She sees the cultural and political system under which she has grown, suddenly, not as the familiar capitalist West but as a patriarchy in which men have direct power and women do not; in which women have been kept, essentially, as children, and men have assumed the responsibilities and the rewards of adulthood. When the feminist comes to see her life in this light, it is inevita­ble that she should see men — all men, the men in remote places of power as well as the men in her immediate life — as agencies of her victimization. It is also inevi­table that she be overwhelmed by an uncontrollable and very unhappy fury — just as the analysand is overtaken by a furious anger against his parents when he first realizes what they did to him.” It is only with enor­mous difficulty that the fe­minist — like the analysand — can get past the point of initial understanding and primary response­ — for indeed, if she does not, she, like the psychiatric patient who cannot stop explaining his behav­ior in terms of how his mother or father affected him in early childhood, is lost to genuine change. Man-hating, for the feminist, then becomes a waste of energy and a force for retar­dation rather than progress. It is exactly like taking a trip down an unknown country road in the middle of the night. One goes a short distance and falls into a ditch. One steps on the gas pedal, again and again, but to no avail. The force of acceleration makes it feel as though the car is moving, but in fact the wheels are only spinning. One must get out of the car, lift it from the ditch, and proceed down the road — to the end of the trip.

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For in the final analysis, feminism, for me, is the journey deep into the self at the same time that it is an ever increasing understanding of cultural sexism … and, more than anything, the slow, painful reconstruction of that self in the light of the feminist’s enormously multiplied understanding.

Let me explain what I mean. Recently I was walking through midtown Manhattan with another woman. We had just had lunch and we were speaking warmly with one another. This woman is over 50. She is very beautiful, she has two broken marriages behind her, a grown son, an amazingly gentle nature, and a terrifying history of alcoholism. She does not call herself a feminist, and yet she is certainly deeply af­fected by the women’s move­ment; she is, in my view, a per­fect candidate for feminist con­version. As we were walking, she said to me: “You know, I’ve been reading Ti-Grace Atkinson, and I’m beginning to think perhaps she’s right, perhaps separatism is the answer for us. I realized, as I was reading her, that love, being in love, had always been to me exactly what alcohol had been. I mean, when I was in love, it was just like being high; I would experience exhila­ration, a sense of strength, and a marvelous conviction of freedom … do you know what I mean? And then, after a while, love­ — like alcohol — would begin to wear off, and the high would end in depression … Perhaps, then, I should abstain from love as I have abstained from alcohol.”

I felt a terrible rush of confu­sion and unhappiness as she spoke. “No,” I said hotly, “no.” It seemed to me that the lesson to be learned from that experi­ence is not that we must stop loving men, but that we have all been taught a corrupting version of romantic love and we must learn better how to love. That high of love is like something on the cover of the Saturday Eve­ning Post. It is falling in love with the ritual of love, not with a human being, and experiencing the emptiness that follows when ritual is perceived to be without substance; and women do it a thousand times more often and more easily than men because “falling in love” is what women wait to do. Imagine a bride as she is prepared for the ordinary American marriage: there she is draped in masses of queenly white, surrounded by adoring subjects, (family, friends, neighbors), ready to worship at her prize-winning feel, intent on absorbing every detail of this high-mass ceremony: the gather­ing of gifts, silver, wedding rings, honeymoon plans, dressmaker details, wedding-hall plans … the actual man who is actually being married slowly recedes into the unreal background … delicious! Suddenly it’s over. They are married and it is all over. Nothing remains but to prepare for the next high: having a baby. In one sense or another — ­given higher or lesser degrees of spiritual and intellectual pre­tension — thousands of people marry in precisely this manner, mistaking circumstance for per­sonality. Although we alone are not the victims, we, the women, are the ultimate victims of these marriages — because marriage is so damnably central to a woman’s life — and precisely because we are the more genuine victims, it is incumbent on us to understand that we participate in these marriages because we have no strong sense of self with which to demand and to give sub­stantial love, it is incumbent in us to make marriages which will not curtail the free, full func­tioning of that self. If giving up “romantic” love, then, is the price that must be paid for a new kind of marriage, let it be a price we pay gladly, and once and for all have done with the hellish lies attached to the whole damned business so that we can look for­ward with pleasure to a new, free, full-hearted, eminently proportionate way of loving. That, for me, is the feminist lesson to be learned from the re­alization that love is an institu­tion of oppression, as Ti-Grace so accurately puts it.

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***

breaks my heart to hear a woman speak of “ripping off” a man, or another calling a man she lives with — and has every intention of continuing to live with — a “male chauvinist pig” 29 times a day, or another reveling in the open hostility she displays toward every man she sleeps with. It breaks my heart because I know equally well the confusion and the despair and the frustra­tion behind such a woman’s words. I know that her emotional wheels are spinning, and that she can’t see her way past her present position. And I know also that somewhere inside her, perhaps well below the conscious level, she apprehensively feels that displaying the same emotional vic­iousness toward men that they have displayed toward her may be suspicious proof of the females crippled ability to assume respon­sibility for the making of her own life.

And I want to say: have faith, my sister. The place in which we now find ourselves is unavoid­able, but soon it will prove insup­portable; soon it will prove emotionally unsatisfying, and with that emotional dissatisfaction comes another leap toward un­derstanding, and with that, the automatic courage to press fur­ther and be off down that road once again. It is insufficient to the cause to concentrate on man-­hating; it exhausts your energy and makes you lose sight of the real aim of the struggle. It is not the action that will return your life to you; it is not the way to the end of that road, and the end of that road is all that counts.

None of which is to say that the fight against sexism is not very real, or that it must not be fought daily by the  woman’s mo­vement — in the courts, in the streets, in the offices, in the bedrooms — or that those in power are anywhere near ready to relinquish that power. It is only to say that I believe that the thrust of feminism should not be the reforming of old institutions so much as the creation of new ones:

— I do not wish to batter down the doors of male institutions, crying “Let me in!”, so much as I simply wish to walk away from those institutions, thereby causing them to fall, as women make of themselves human beings who simply will not participate in the male scheme of civilization.

— I wish to see every feminist take a solemn vow: “Let there never be another generation of women for whom marriage is the pivotal experience of psychic development.”

— I wish to see every feminist say to herself: “Yes, the pa­triarchy has taken my life from me, but also I have given it. I am not going to waste the rest of it in an avalanche of reproach. I am going to fight the patriarchy, but my real energy goes to the hard drudging work of making myself human — as well as humane. Men may have taken my life from me — but they cannot give it back to me. Only I can do that, fighting inch by inch to reverse the emotional habits of a life­time.”

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All much, much easier said than done — especially for us, the women between 30 and 40, the truly brave and sacrificial transitional generation. But it is, I believe, the only true direction that we — as women, as human beings, as intimate possessors of the final understanding of “liber­ation” — can travel. Yes, men are also in chains. Yes, “powerful oppressor” is, for most men, a painful farce. Yes, it is the sexual liberation of everyone that is required. But history has now passed the ball to us, the women, and it is our liberation that is demanded, our liberation that must be of paramount con­cern, our liberation that will, by default, insure the liberation of all. And it will come, all of it, not so much through the develop­ment of a political dogma or a revolutionary apparatus or a sweeping commitment to fem­inist ideology, as through the slow, irreversible conversion to a new psychology of the self on the part of thousands of women today, and millions more tomor­row. Against that force, the operating principles of the old male civilization will be utterly helpless. Against that force, the denial of female autonomy will be as a leaf in the wind.

It is for these reasons that I believe that the heart and soul of the feminist movement is the small, anonymous consciousness­-raising group. It is here that the real work is being done, here that feminism struggles to life, here that it takes hold with rooted strength, transforming the soul of a woman, biting deeply and slowly — like acid on metal — ­into the ready heart beneath the encrusted surface, so that it becomes forever impossible for that woman to turn back on what she now knows or to make whole again that old, false self.

The existence of the women’s movement as a source of support and strength for thousands of women who will come slowly to feminism is invaluable. On the other hand, the movement is also a source of apprehension in that it nurtures the irresistible ten­dency toward doctrinaire indict­ments, the easy out of man-hating, the often false solidarity of ideological “sisterhood.” In the short time since it first came into existence, the movement has already spawned hundreds of party hacks, women who are now “movement women,” women whose line of defense grows more rigid with each passing day, women who have often ex­changed one crudely held ideology for another.

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To travel down that ideological road is not fatal — nothing can be fatal to the feminist movement, for it is alive in all its parts and its desire for more life is omnivo­rous, feeding itself on anything and everything — and often, it seems the only real road to be on. But, it seems to me, in the end it is regressive and danger­ous to a movement that prides it­self on having as its ultimate goal the humane treatment of all human beings.

For myself, I can only say: I fight the polemicist in me daily. I fight not to destroy it, but merely to hold it in balance. To hold it in balance. And I must fight, because it is such a temptation for me to simply surrender to it. The excitement, the energy, the sheer voluptuous sweep of feminist ideology is almost erotic in its power to sway me. My mind grows vividly sharp, my responses come quickly, my illu­minations and connections are ir­resistible, as one piece of the puzzle after another begins to fall swiftly into place no sooner do I allow a single sentence to domi­nate my being: “Everything in man’s experience makes him an oppressor, everything in woman’s experience makes her a victim.” That’s all. Just a single sentence. No more than that. And yet …

Something in me holds back, some part of my soul struggles up in painful confusion to say softly: no, that’s not entirely true. That is certainly not en­tirely true. I cannot say to a man who has loved me: “You god­damn sexist” (as I have said) without feeling a terrible, numbing pain as I look upon his dismayed face and the whole of our deeply woven experience together flashes before me. No, I cannot say I am a total victim as I feel the energy of life rushing through me and I exult in my growing independence. I cannot say these things — and I think it is the best part of my feminism that will not allow me to say them.

Feminism has within it the seeds of a genuine world view. Like every real system of thought it is able to refer itself to everything in our lives, thereby rescuing the old, forgotten knowl­edge that is locked deep inside each of us. But if, in the end, in our ideological lunge toward retribution, we use it as a means of abdicating our responsibility to be true to every part of our expe­rience — we are lost. ❖

Categories
CITY HALL ARCHIVES EQUALITY ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Women on the March: “We’re a Movement Now!”

“Why not?”

“‘Cause I go to sleep in the school. But I don’t like to lie down.”

“What do you like to do?”

“I like to draw.”

“What does your mother do?”

“She works.”

“What does she do at work?”

“I don’t know, but she works.”

“And your father, what does he do?”

“He goes for interview.”

Mrs. Dorothy Pitman, the chairman of the Committee for Community Controlled Day Care, was busy telling reporters how centers like the one on West 80th Street could free welfare mothers to go back to work.

Lucy Komisar, the famous and constant gadfly in the haunts of men, would later petulantly accuse Deputy Mayor Richard Aurelio of paying attention to the day care needs of poor women alone. And Betty Friedan was to drop a couple of comments about the rich women who’d joined the demonstrators because “they know that all women are poor.” But the day began with West 80th Street hold­ing its own on behalf of poor mothers.

Soon the not-so-poor mothers began wandering into the park. They were young women like Mrs. Carolyn Marshall McKee, mothers educated enough to feel frustrated in domesticity but also poor enough to have to drag their young progeny along on their own adventures.

Mrs. McKee wore her son, age one-and-three-quarters (“by last count”) strapped to her back. In her blue workshirt and bell bottom pants, she looked ready for action on the front, wherever that was. And she kept repeating the phrase, “I’m ready.”

A pretty young woman, she explained that she had had her ambitions “shot down” twice in her short life, once at Mount Holyoke College, where she had been studying pre-med, and the second time when she had learned she was pregnant.

“Like, I got married and I went to the doctor and he said, ‘You’re pregnant,’ and I said, ‘Shit!’ And the doctor said, ‘Nobody ever said that before.’ I worked up until the week I had the baby.”

Doug, her young son, was meanwhile going into ecstasies over a string of lollipops that hung from a branch just above his head.

Mrs. McKee went on to explain that she’d been doing some “consciousness raising” with the Radical Feminists. She had learned that there were “two fronts you have to fight on,” one within yourself and the other with the outside world.

“It’s as sort of a sense of the future,” she said, looking thoughtful. “Now it’s really coming back.” Breaking into a smile, she looked around at the beginnings of the Women’s Strike.

“I really really feel good,” she said with a nod, “I feel good today.”

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Which is what every demonstrator who was asked about her feelings would repeat throughout the day. There was no great unity of styles or goals in the Women’s National Strike for Equality. There were the three basic demands: free abortion on demand, 24-hour daycare for all mothers, and employment, pay, and promotion opportunities for women equal to those for men. But no one seems to harp much on these demands. The common bond was the demonstration itself, their presence in the streets together, sharing defiant sisterhood.

Mrs. Friedan would speak about her “rich women, who know all women are poor,” while Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city’s Human Rights Commissioner, would emphasize the plights of black women forced to leave their children untended as they went off to clean the homes of the rich. But for that day, at least, neither of these feminists seems disturbed by their disparate constituencies.

Mrs. Friedan looked almost tearful as she accepted Mayor Lindsay’s proclamation declaring August 26, 1970, Equality for Women Day in New York City. And though Richard Aurelio, the Deputy Mayor who presented it to her, disappeared abruptly thereafter, walking out on a promised dialogue with the feminists, Mrs. Friedan seemed overjoyed. Only Lucy Komisar shouted at his disappearing posterior from the other end of the car that served as a platform. She later trapped him up against a fence in City Hall Park to tell him that the Mayor had said nothing about daycare centers for non-poor mothers. Aurelio looked pained and quickly backed off again.

(No one seemed aware of the fact that the Mayor’s Assistant for “Women’s Affairs” is a man. His name is Marvin Schick, and he was assigned to deal with women’s problems several months ago, a task which fit in with his general liaison work with the Human Rights Commission. A member of Women in City Government United told me her group was pleased with Schick’s work on behalf of women but unhappy that a man had been selected to do it. Schick is an orthodox Jew who every morning recites the Hebrew prayer, “Blessed art though, king of the world, that thou has not made me a woman.” He chuckles good-naturedly when asked about the prayer and explains that it is merely a way of expressing thanks for being able to perform the religious duties of a man. According to Schick, most women’s liberationists do not understand that prayer.)

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The counter-revolutionaries were reading off the names of people they’d chosen for “Adam’s Rib” awards. Calling themselves “Men Our Masters,” they held up pink signs which said “MOM.”

One of their group strayed into enemy ranks. They quickly started challenging her. Trembling all the while, she tried to stand up to them.

“What are you fighting against?” A feminist asked her.

“The idea of putting sex down … One man today lit my cigarette for me. I thought it was wonderful,” the MOM girl replied without much spirit. Her heavy make-up was beginning to streak in the heat, and she looked forlorn.

“Why can’t you light your own fucking cigarettes?” the feminist asked impatiently.

“Why are you cursing” asked the MOM girl. “That’s very, uh — ”

“Unladylike,” the feminist suggested with a knowing nod.

“Don’t you think there’s room for both?” an interested male bystander asked the MOM girl.

“She’s putting us down,” said the girl, her sign hand shaking. “Why do you feel unliberated?” she addressed her tormentor.

“I don’t feel unliberated,” came the answer. “Why are you against us?”

“Because we don’t like your ideals.”

“What do you do? Do you work?” another feminist asked.

The MOM girl saw her enemies closing in on her. She started to look for an opening in the throng behind her.

“I’m a bookkeeper,” she said, “and I make a good salary, just as good as a man does.”

“Have you ever come up against job discrimination?”

“No,” said MOM girl, beginning to look really uncom­fortable.

“Would you like to become an accountant?” asked the male bystander

“I could if I wanted to,” said the miserable girl, “but I don’t want that responsibility.”

With that she turned around and shoved back toward her friends, consciousness still unraised.

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There were more encounters to come and some already ac­complished before the eager press could get there to record them. Some Media Women had invaded the New York Times early that morning, going to the offices of Abe Rosenthal and John Oakes. Lindsay van Gelder of the Post, four and a half months pregnant, but defiant as ever had gone to Rosenthal’s office. She later said that he treated her group with respect, “was not paternal,” and frequently admitted the Times’ failings.

Mrs. van Gelder said her group had complained about the paper’s hiring and promotion of women, about its women’s page (“as if everything else in there is for men”), and about its extensive columns of engagement announcements.

“We told him that if they were all going to leave those in, they ought to at least show us the men, so we can have something to drool over,” said Mrs. van Gelder.

She was chattering happily about her triumph to the women who are about to invade the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School on the fourth floor of the Pan American building. Barred from the main elevators, this group circumvented the guards and appeared, some 50 strong, at the Katharine Gibbs reception desk. Reporters, sensing a good fight in the offing, had flocked to the school.

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The determined women had their encounter with Alan Baker, the director of the school, and the dialogue went like this:

Baker: Actually, in 1911, women couldn’t get responsible jobs at all … Women were actually called typewriters. (Katharine Gibbs’s) idea was, lets get women good jobs.

NOW Woman: On the average, secretaries with college degrees earn 60 percent less than men with college degrees.

Baker: We agree with you entirely … I think what you’re all overlooking is that you’re talking with people who are working for women …

Young Women’s Lib Member: Why did Katharine Gibbs start this school? Because she couldn’t get a job?

NOW Woman: At what age does a girl become a woman?

Baker: I think you’re more qualified to answer that than I am … We don’t expect our girls to wear white gloves or hats anymore. I think we stopped that in about 1964 or ’65.

NOW Woman: I’m talking about an air of subservience … Do you train people to be office wives?

Young Liberationist: How many of your secretaries have gone on to other jobs?

Baker: I think what you should all recognize is that you’re putting me in the position of defending the system.

NOW Woman: You’re fortifying it with your ads! (Those things that say: Now that you’ve got a college degree, come to Katharine Gibbs and learn how to type.)

Young Liberationist: What are your plans for accepting men?

Baker: We have some which we can’t announce at this point … I think we’re all victims of the system.

Liberationist: Were you ever a secretary?

Baker: Well, I was a secretary, but they called it administrative assistant. (Many groans here.) … We have had many complaints and many criticisms about our advertising.

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Liberationist: Who were the complaints from?

Baker: Girls.

Several Liberationists in Unison: Women!

Baker: (Looking sheepish) Women … I remember one girl in particular. She said, “I saw your ad, and it was like an answer from heaven.” (Very loud groans here.)

Liberationist: What is her salary?

Baker: $135 a week.

Liberationist: Is she a college graduate?

Baker: Yes.

Liberationist: Is that a good salary for a college graduate?

Baker: Yes … But I’m not defending the system …

NOW Woman: These women who come to you could go into a management trainee job at Chase Manhattan Bank …

Baker: Most women don’t want to work more than three years or four years. (The loudest groans yet.)

Liberationist: You’re not supposed to want to work more than three years or four years!

Eventually, the group grew weary of challenging Baker. Sev­eral NOW women thanked him for his time and told him they would be back. He promised to re-examine the school’s curriculum to find out whether his students were really being en­couraged to adopt “an altitude of subservience” toward men.

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Similar encounters occurred at companies and banks during the afternoon. First National City got a “Thanks for Nothing Award” for its hiring and promotion practices. The inventors of Silva Thins were told that Women’s Liberation did not appreciate their ads.

On another front marriage came under attack.  A group car­rying placards which said things like “Oppressed Women: Don’t Cook Dinner! Starve a Rat Today!” invaded the office of the First Deputy and Acting City Clerk. They presented him with a sample pamphlet entitled “You and Your Marriage,” something they said all prospective husbands and wives ought to read. The pamphlet listed the legal rights and responsibilities of each partner — although the page entitled “Wife’s Responsibilities” contained nothing but a question mark.

The First Deputy and Acting City Clerk said he didn’t know whether his office should give out legal advice, but he would con­sider the pamphlet.

A female reporter asked the distraught-looking clerk what he thought of women’s liberation.

“Well, I’m not against it,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think women should be every place that a man is at all times, like clubs and bars.”

“The women might call you a male chauvinist,” said the reporter.

“Yes, they might,” said the clerk.

Late in the afternoon, a small cadre of women plus one pony-­tailed man from the East Village ­Other went off to liberate the men’s bar in the Biltmore Hotel. They were served immediately by a smiling bartender. Male boozers glared at them for a few minutes and then went back to staring at their drinks.

Claudia Dreifus, an EVO writ­er and member of the cadre, soon decided she ought to liber­ate the Men’s Room just off the bar. A gamy young feminist went along with her for moral support.

Two minutes later they were back at their table looking a little put out.

“There was a man using one of the urinals in there,” said Miss Dreifus.

“I don’t like urinals, anyway,” said another member of the group.

“Pissing is a private thing,” said Miss Dreifus gravely. The Men’s Room in the Biltmore would have to be liberated another day.

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Off to the “Powder Room” they all went, pony-tailed male included. He sat in the mirror-lined outer chamber as the females used the facilities, complaining all the while about the 10-cent charge. When the women emerged, he told them he’d never seen a men’s room quite so splendid.

Soon someone decided the gilded Powder Room mirrors were offensive. Up went the stickers: “Smash Sexism!”, “Women’s Strike for Equality, August 25, 1970,” and, over a fine, clear mirror: “This Insults Women.”

The Biltmore Powder Room stick-up seemed the right finishing touch somehow, the last final guerrilla comedy action of the day. It was not a day for anger. The women who had made it their special day were too cheerful, too proud of them­selves and their predecessors.

And up at the Plaza fountain where the march was assembling all was happy chaos. You couldn’t tell the spectators from the reporters or from the demon­strators. It seemed that every two-bit magazine, tv station, city desk, and news service had sent a female reporter. These women were dressed in the motley liber­ation styles and could not be dis­tinguished from their subjects unless their press cards were vis­ible. There were in addition scores of male reporters and photographers, milling and shoving around in aggressive ef­forts to be on the spot when the march began. Spectators, reporters, and women stood like figures on a life-sized wedding cake along each tier of the fountain. They quite obscured the little placard ceremony for Sojourner Truth, the black female un­derground railroad worker, for whom the liberationists wanted to erect a monument in place of that Plaza statue.

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The vague beginnings of the line-up for the march were over at the 60th Street exit from Park Drive. There the lower half of Gloria Steinem’s face was visi­ble under a poster of the My Lai massacre which bore the words “Masculine Mystique.” There Ed Koch’s face was a full foot above the crowd, beaming out with its characteristic liberal good cheer. There a serious-looking young woman with a bull horn was commanding reporters to step back in between her calls for Ruth Ann Miller and other women’s lib celebrities who had been swallowed up by the crowd.

Kate Millett came drifting by, frowning over a movie camera. A serpent-like line of women wove through the crowd with the huge “Women of the World Unite!” banner that had been displayed at the Statue of Liberty.

It seemed that everyone was waiting for a signal. One young liberationist with a sense of organization got a small group chanting “Out of the houses! Out of the jails! Up from under! Women unite!” for a brief period. But even she didn’t seem to know where the sign to start the march would be coming from.

Through the crush of it all a man and woman were bumping and shoving themselves down the Fifth Avenue sidewalk toward the fountain. They apparently lived nearby, for he was carrying a poodle. And as they walked past the women, he could be heard telling her:

“My dear, they’re always disorganized.”

Somehow, it got under way. And then, only then, did the women realize how large their demonstration was. As they moved down Fifth Avenue, they kept jumping above the crowd to get quick views of the numbers still behind them. “Did you see how far back it goes?” they kept asking each other in excited tones. They were amazed, those young women who had been meeting in small groups or taking part in small actions for months. And with each block of their route as the line stretched out longer and longer behind them, their jubilation grew. No one of them would have dared to say before that evening that the women’s liberation movement had 20,000 members in New York City alone.

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The march was liberally sprinkled with men. And in the end the newspaper crowd estimates were widely disparate. One march organizer said a po­liceman told her “there must be 50,000 people here.” The New York Post said there were 7000. But Pete Hamill estimated that 35,000 had taken part in the march. Bryant Park, where they staged their final rally, holds 20,000 and every we blade of grass in there was occupied.

The women were white, young, and college-educated. Their movement was, no getting around it, made up of the women least in need of a special politics to get their fair share of power and wealth. But for one brief eve­ning they felt themselves to be standing up for all women every­where. Tomorrow they could think of their old factions and divisions, tomorrow Betty Friedan and Eleanor Holmes Norton might discover that it would take more than woman-hood to unite them. But that night, as the darkness fell on Bryant Park, they were simply amazed at their numbers.

Kate Millett uttered what they were all thinking as she looked out over the park. “Wow!” she said, “we’re a movement now!” They cheered and cheered at this, for they all seemed to know that women’s liberation had not really emerged until then. It had gotten by on humor and anger and shock effect. It had received publicity far out of proportion to its size. The demonstration’s organizers themselves were later to admit they had expected a much smaller turnout. They did not know until the end of August 26 that the women’s liberation movement had finally earned its title. ❖

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EQUALITY ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives Health Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES

When an Abortionist Dies

Dr. Spencer, 1889–1969: Last Trip to Ashland

One month, to the date, before his death last Tuesday, I was privileged to meet the legendary Dr. Robert Douglas Spencer. The trip to Ashland, which was more in the nature of a pilgrimage than a quest for an interview, had come about through the good graces of Dr. Nathan H. Rappaport. A chance to meet Spencer, and through the entree of another abortionist, was an unusual opportunity. Arrangements were made and carried out on a day’s notice. Rappaport drove us to the Pennsylvania coal country in his Citroen. The other passengers were Carol Kahn, a reporter for Medical World News, and her husband, Ira.

We were a high-spirited group, Carol, Ira, and I, and we must have sorely taxed the ego of our friend during the four-hour drive to the little town near Pottsville, pumping him as we did for details of Spencer’s life. It was a journey to Ashland that, I expect, was quite different from the more than 30,000 other journeys that travelers had made to this village, travelers with a secret, urgent mission.

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Spencer, I knew, was back in business again, at the age of 79. The justifiedly famous doctor had reopened his clinic on Centre Street and was now charging the incredible sum of $200, a concession, as he later told us, to the higher cost of drugs and supplies. At $200, Spencer’s price was still hard to believe, well under the going rate for such things. He was still unique in American history.

I tried to recall during our journey just when it was that Dr. Spencer of Ashland had first come into my consciousness. It was, I determined, about 12 years ago. A friend, a painter, had called one day to report that she was pregnant and desperate and did I know of anyone. The only abortionist I had heard of was one another friend, a model, had told me about. She had been taken to him blindfolded and he had charged her $1000. The model had not seen her doctor’s face without his mask and she did not know his real name. The painter, however, was able to make better arrangements. She called back to say that she had gotten wind of a Spencer in Ashland, Pennsylvania, who was supposed to be great, kind, and medically responsible, and who did abortions for practically nothing because he believed in them. A week later my painter friend came over to see me. Spencer in Ashland was a reality. He was, she reported with wonder, a kindly old man. His clinic was spotless. He had a nurse and an attendant. She had slept over at the clinic and had met some other girls who were in a similar plight. The next day, when she departed, he had given her an assortment of pills to ward off infection and build up her strength. He seemed concerned about her, downright fatherly. He didn’t make her think she had done something wrong. The operation hadn’t caused her much pain, and, the biggest wonder of all, it was only $50.

And so it was that Spencer went into my telephone book, under “A” for abortionist. I am poor at remembering telephone numbers, but Spencer’s old number is still in my memory. It was Ashland 404. I was an aspiring actress in those days, and much taken with Tennessee Williams. I remember once passing along the Spencer number to another friend and saying in my best “Summer and Smoke” voice, “Really, I think of it as the telephone number of God.” Young acting students are all over-dramatic, but there was good cause for such intense language when talking about Spencer. Spencer meant deliverance, it was as simple as that. Going to Spencer meant taking an alternative that the culture was doing its damnedest to hide or distort. The public image of an abortionist, through books, plays, movies, articles, or whatever, was of an evil, leering, drunken, perverted butcher at worst, and a cold, mysterious, money-hungry Park Avenue price-gouger at best. And then there was Spencer with his clinic on the main street of a small American town, who charged $50, who believed in abortions, and who was kind. Knowing about Spencer in Ashland was one irrefutable piece in the logic which led one to the conclusion that the culture was capable of the big lie.

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As the years passed, Spencer’s name would come up from time to time. The price had gone from $50 to $100. Some people remembered when it had been $25, or even $10. There were long stretches when the doctor in Ashland would go into retirement, and there were stories of treks to Ashland only to find the clinic boarded up and silent. There was, we heard, a death on his operating table from a reaction to the anesthesia. There was a trial and there was, miraculously, an acquittal. We heard misinformation, too. Spencer had become an abortionist, the rumor went, because his own daughter had died on the operating table of an abortionist-butcher. This story was untrue, unfortunately popularized in a bad novel based loosely on the life of Spencer by a lady novelist with one of those awkward three-name combinations. Maybe the lady meant it symbolically. Spencer’s real-life daughter, better information had it, was alive and well, and so was his son. Other information I absorbed about Spencer, I was later to learn, was quite accurate. He was a committed atheist and free-thinker who often pressed his literature into the hands of the girls along with the antibiotics and vitamin pills. He had gotten into abortion work during the ’20s through the supplication of the miners’ wives in the Pennsylvania coal country, and his work for the miners — he was a pioneer in the technique of bronchoscopy — won him a heavy workmen’s compensation caseload, and, some said, the protection of the United Mine Workers during the years when the protection of the mine workers was something that counted.

Ashland, Pennsylvania. Principal products: coal, homemade wine, and abortions. The sort of Americana that always evaded the Saturday Evening Post. The town of Ashland is in some parts as narrow as the width of two streets. One of those streets is Centre Street, which is also a state highway. For some romantic reason I’d pictured Spencer’s clinic as a rambling, gabled mansion with a front porch. It was, instead, a very ordinary three-story, brick-face structure, flat, characterless, and attached on both side to similar-looking units. Diagonally across from it was the local movie theatre, which bore the legend, “We Burn Coal.” Most of the private homes and business in Ashland resist installing oil burners, and show their defiance with a printed placard.

Spencer’s home was on South 9th Street, just a few blocks from the clinic. It was a little house with a storm door and no lawn. There was a Christmas wreath in the window. The hour was late when we rang the bell. Spencer’s wife, a tall, big-boned woman, greeted us and led us past the formal parlor to a back room: Spencer’s study.

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And there he was, a tiny wisp of a man, frail, dry as dust, with sharp, thin features and bright eyes. He was wearing a suit of some dark material and it hung on him loosely. Rappaport had told us that Spencer had more or less stopped eating this last year, convinced that his health was irrevocably failing. There were signs of his eating habits about: two opened packages of pistachio nuts. He sat in a rocker, with what looked like a bear rug slung over his knees. He hardly looked capable of the energy required to attend to three or four abortions a day, which was his current schedule. (In his heyday, he had handled 10 to 11 patients.)

We were introduced, and we gravely paid our respects to his reputation, which I think pleased him. The interests of the man were evident in his study. Books of every description, some still in their mail-order wrappings, lined the walls and were stacked on tables, fighting for space with the mementoes of his travels: large chunks of mineral rock, strange and beautiful Indian masks, a blow gun, and a fine collection of rifles. “Douglas likes to go boar hunting. Show them your boar-hunting pictures,” Rappaport said, and Spencer got up and obliged. The snapshots showed the tiny figure with a big, red hunter’s cap on his head, standing in a group with four or five other hunters, towering men, each with his rifle proudly stuck in the ground. Behind the hunting party, 11 large black boars were strung up in a neat row, quite dead. Dr. R. D. Spencer was, he informed us, firmly against gun registration.

Carol or Ira called attention to the microscopes. Several of them were about the room, some with camera attachments and light boxes, and one which Spencer himself had designed. Spencer’s training had been in pathology. Happy to show us the microscopes, he went to one of his cabinets and pulled out some slides. As we took turns at the microscope, intently viewing the various specimens of single-celled life that Spencer had prepared, the man grew increasingly more animated. He was entertaining his guests, and thoroughly enjoying it, and we in turn were thoroughly charmed and engaged, so much so that our friend Rappaport withdrew somewhat testily to the front parlor to converse with Mrs. Spencer.

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Warming to his audience, Spencer brought out further treasures. “This,” he announced of one exhibit, “is the life history of a fly.” And it was, from an insignificant speck to the insect as we know it. “Do you know what this is?” he queried, showing us a small, clear plastic block with something red and curled imprisoned in the center. It was, he told us, the embryo of a pig. We passed it from had to hand, marveling at its tiny perfection, examining it more closely under one of the microscopes. Spencer showed us another red, curled specimen in plastic. “A human embryo,” he announced. “Less than four weeks old.” Unbelievable, but there it was, tiny, more intricate than the pig, with a spot for the eye and the definite tracing of a spinal column. In all, he showed us three tiny human embryos, none more than a thumbnail long, but the third larger and more developed than the first. The only human embryos I had ever seen were those in a big picture layout in Life Magazine. These were in my hand, three-dimensional and real. I took the largest human one and compared it with the pig. A sentence from biology class popped into my head. “Well, ontogeny certainly does recapitulate phylogeny, doesn’t it?”

We were gripped by the human embryos and would have liked to see more, if there were any, but Spencer was digging in his cabinet for other exhibits. He showed us something pitch-black ad vaguely cloth-like in a glass slide. “I’ll give you a hint about this one,” he said, playing a game. “It’s animal and mineral and indigenous to the region.” We were stumped. “Carbon?” I ventured. “That’s the mineral part of it,” he admitted. “Well, a fossilized animal in coal?” I tried again. “This is a piece of a miner’s lung,” he stated simply. “The miner died, obviously.”

We didn’t leave Spencer’s house until close to 1 a.m., and we returned the next day. “He’s been expecting you all morning,” his wife said as she brought us to the rear study. We had thought, Carol and I, that we had better make a stab at a proper interview this time, particularly since Carol’s magazine was paying for her part of the trip. She set up her tape recorder and I reluctantly brought out my notebook. It seemed unfair to ruin a social visit. Spencer apparently though so, too. It was hard to keep him to the subject and several exasperated looks were exchanged among us as our host got involved in anecdote after anecdote, complex stories involving his diagnostic skills, but not at all about abortion.

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Trying our best to pin him down to his very first abortion, we discovered that there really was no such thing as a first abortion, a conscious decision to break the law, with trumpets. He had gotten requests from some local women, and he had obliged. “But why,” I persisted, “did you oblige? Most other doctors don’t. Why were you different? Why did you do abortions for women?” He rocked back and forth in his chair. “Because,” he said slowly, “I could see their point of view.”

For Carol, he attempted to describe his medical procedure. After using the packing method for a couple of years, one day he got a circular in the mail for Leunbach paste, manufactured in Germany. “By golly, it worked,” he told us. Later, when the Leunbach was taken off the market, he began manufacturing his own product in his laboratory, a mild soft-soap solution, which he used to dilate the cervix and loosen the conceptus in the first stage of his procedure. The following day he would complete the curettage. Spencer refined his own technique and he stuck with it for 40 years. The newer methods didn’t interest him.

Spencer told us that he was following with keen interest the recent attempts to liberalize abortion laws in several states. He himself had written Governor Shafer of Pennsylvania. “I told him that most of our laws are from the English,” he said spiritedly, “so why don’t we go to work and copy the one they just passed?” He talked about his letter-writing with the righteousness of an American Legionnaire or a Rotarian, which was not surprising, since he later told us that he was a founder of the Pennsylvania Legion and had been an active Rotarian all his life. His father had been the district attorney of the neighboring country. Did that explain his remarkable record of longevity in a career which is usually marked by the law crashing down on the practitioner’s head? “No,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ve been here since 1919. I daresay I’ve helped out half the town. Even on the abortion end, there is probably one of my patients related to a family in half of the town. I think most of the town would stand up for me.”

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It was 4 p.m. and beginning to snow, and Rappaport was urging us to get going. We said our goodbyes reluctantly. “Please come back and visit again soon,” Spencer urged. I had noticed that among his vast collection of books was a Writer’s Market ’69. Had he been thinking of publishing something, I inquired. Spencer smiled wistfully. Did he want an article about him in a major magazine, with a picture, I pushed. He allowed as how once the New York Times had been interested, but his lawyer had thought that the time wasn’t right. He still had an indictment hanging over his head. References to Spencer had appeared in print, but usually he was “the legendary Dr. S.” Time Magazine, as far as I knew, was the only mass circulation magazine to print his name in full. I told him I thought the time couldn’t be more right for publicity. The idea seemed to appeal to him. Punctiliously he gave me the address and telephone number of his lawyer in Pottsville, and then, special privilege, his own private unlisted number at the house. “We’ll do it for your 80th birthday,” I promised. He had told us that his birth date was March 16, and he was going to celebrate by shutting the clinic for a month and taking his wife on a trip around the world.

Last week I got a call from Dr. Rappaport. Spencer had died that morning at 5 a.m. ❖

Categories
EQUALITY ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Black Boomers Wax Nostalgic for the Days of Jim Crow

Dangerous Dreams

Of course the Nazis’ genocidal regime was terrible, and it’s really good that it was defeated. Bad as it was, though, it certainly brought the Jews together. They were a united, mutually supportive community in the camps in a way that they haven’t been since; they experienced a commonality that transcended class, gender, and other differences. It’s ironic and a bit sad that Hitler’s defeat came at the price of sacrificing the basis for that sense of community. So we should pause to celebrate and perhaps mourn the passage of that world of Jewish to­getherness, lost with the liberation of the death camps.

Sounds outrageous, doesn’t it? Of course, no one in their right mind would propose such a view seriously. Yet it isn’t so different from what has lately become a conventional narrative about black Americans and the regime of racial segregation that prevailed in much of this country for most of this century. The Third Reich was a sui generis horror: a state resting on systematic mass murder as a central goal and organizational principle is a nightmare of almost unimaginable proportion. But as Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman detail in The Racial State 1933-1945, the conceptual foundation of that all-too-real nightmare is a commitment to racial ideology as the lens through which to make sense of and to order social life.

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From that perspective the difference between Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South is one of degree rather than kind, a matter of having the impetus and capacity to follow the ideology to its logical conclusion. Noting that the Holocaust is a species within a larger genus in no way diminishes it as an un­paralleled event. My point, rather, is to highlight why current nostalgia for the organic community black Americans supposedly lost with the success of the civil rights movement is so frighteningly shortsighted and dangerous.

That nostalgia is everywhere — in every major newspaper and excuse for a news magazine at the supermarket checkout line, in the classroom, in the bar, across the dinner table, in cultural criticism, in foundation boardrooms and policy papers, on the talk show circuit. Political left, right, and center embrace it equally, and it’s the staple hope of a burgeoning black memoir industry. Henry Louis Gates’s Colored People is a reflection on the idyllic world of his Jim Crow youth in West Virginia, a yearning for a prelapsarian black communal order. Harold Cruse’s Plural but Equal, dresses this nostalgia up as social theory; arguing that it was mistaken for blacks to have fought to overturn the Jim Crow system precisely because its defeat unraveled community life. William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged also trades on the Decline From Segregation narrative, though he ducks its implications by discussing only northern cities. Wilson conjures up images of a 1940s Harlem where people could pass hot summer nights sleeping safely on fire escapes, in contrast to the chaotic heart of darkness created when desegregation allowed the black middl class to escape inner-city ghettos, leaving the poor without stable institutions and  role models for upward mobility.

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This sort of nostalgic theory is dangerous on two counts: it falsifies the black past, and it serves reactionary and frankly racist interests in the present. Clifton Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored (originally published by a small press but reissued by Penguin), and television actor-director Tim Reid’s current feature-film adaptation of it, provide a good template tor examining both problems. The inspirational memoir is this Once Upon a Time When We Were Segregated and Happy tale’s natural home, where the cheery tone of personal triumph wash brightly over the backdrop of codified racial subordination. Once Upon a Time recalls Taulbert’s first 17 years, spent in the Mississippi Delta town of Glen Allan.

Taulbert’s story is particularly resonant for me. He and I are about the same age, we graduated from high school
the same month. I don’t know his hometown, and I doubt that I know the Delta region as intimately as he. I do know it, though, and my experiences of it roughly coincide in time with his. My father’s family comes partly from that area, but on the other side of the river and therefore across the state line. Not that state lines mean much down there, in that zone of transhumance that laps across the northeast corner of Louisiana, southeast corner of Arkansas, and northwest Mississippi. Eudora, Arkansas, the town from which that branch of our family emanatcs, is eight miles from the Louisiana line and 30 miles from Greenville, Mississippi. As it was for Taulbert’s Glen Allan, Greenville is Eudora’s re­gional city where air travelers and mall shoppers go, and it seems to be about equidistant from the two towns.

Taulbert’s book and Reid’s film differ sig­nificantly and interestingly, but in ways that to­gether flesh out the components of a shared ide­ology. Reid mutes black Glen Allan’s status hierarchy, while Taulbert notes it matter-of-factly, exulting in his family’s elevated position. Reid’s vision so stresses fastidious morality that he goes our of his way to link the mildest devia­tion with mortification, even inventing a vignette in which the beloved great-aunt Ma Ponk makes a onetime visit to a hooch show only to pay by being absent from her mother’s deathbed. In Reid’s telling, elders counsel picnicking children not to drag an American flag on the ground because colored boys are dy­ing in Korea to defend that flag. Taulbert recalls a quite different admo­nition: “Boy, don’t you know if white folks see you messing with this here flag like this, they subject to kill you?” Poppa, the great-grandfather patriarch, is much more prominent in the movie than the book, as Reid responds to the yearning for patriarchal order that suffuses this new Up From Slavery narrative. Simi­larly, Reid reinvents Ma Ponk as a culinary won­der, while Taulbert says she was so little a cook that she relied on “plain store-bougbt
cake and chicken fried by my mother” for her contribution to the big church function. Here, also, art imposes ideological order on a messy world.

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Both Reid and Taulbert mistake the apparent simplicity of childhood for the simplicity of a social order, an elision that feeds aging black boomers’ wistfulness about lost-youth and innocence. It’s propelled by a naive trope of modernization that presume our world to be constantly increasing in complexity and divisiveness, contrasting it to a comfortingly static past. This vision authenticates itself by dipping into a common reservoir of experience. The scene in which the neighborhood gathers to view the Joe Louis-Rocky Marciano fight stimulated a Pavlovian recollection of my own experience of the fight in a different part of the country. We were at my uncle’s house, my younger cousin and I were playing on the floor in front of the sofa, and I recall my father’s lament that this would be our only memory of seeing Joe fight.

Some stimuli are generic: the first day of school, the doting (female) relative who dresses you like a geek for your own good, the excite­ment of little outings with an adored grandpar­ent, the pleasures of running around with schoolyard pals. Some are more racially specific: first encounters with Jim Crow etiquette, truck-loads of black people headed to the cotton fields, witnessing adults assert their contingent dignity in small encounters with whites. Instructively, though, it is only Reid who suggests these as­sertions. Taulbert recounts no such incidents; it was the Mississippi Delta, after all, and his folks weren’t the sort to make waves.

Memory is a great liar. Sure, you’re con­vinced that the strawberry floats tasted better then, but remember how much smaller your old room seemed the first time you returned in adulthood? The house didn’t shrink, did it? Of course life was simpler then; we were kids, and its complexities were lost on us. Of course the world seems in retrospect to have been nurturing; as kids, being nurtured was our job de­scription. Or rather, it was for some of us.

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Although it has attained a nearly universal status in black public discourse, this nostalgic narrative is in crucial ways a class vision. My father used to say that the story of the lion hunt would be a different tale if the lion had a typewriter. And that prompts an insight in­to the pervasive romanticism about segregated black schools: those who recall the Jim Crow schools so fondly are those who most likely were nurtured and catered to in them. Think about it. Who goes on to publish well-marketed memoirs or otherwise speak into the public microphone besides those marked early for success, those who have been encouraged and attended to? And who, by and large, are they but the children of community notable and elites? Are we certain that the recollections of universally nurturing black schools don’t generalize synecdochically from personal experience, which comes, after all, via the limited perspective of a child?

At any age, privilege tends to be recollected in the tranquil­ity of oblivion, with no recogni­tion that others weren’t comparably entitled. Think of the class reunion in which former in-group members are genuinely shocked to learn what a radically different place the school had been for the outsiders. An exam­ple from a context not too unlike Taulbert’s is suggestive. My mother taught for a time at a small Baton Rouge school run by an order of black nuns who came from the same social network and many of the same families as the students. As an outsider, she saw clearly how family standing influenced judgments about students. Expressions of good will and encouragement, assessment of talents, and allocation of awards and special opportunities — the concrete stuff of nurturance — were as likely as not shaped by personal attachments or vendettas and per­ceptions of family status. This pattern of invidi­ous treatment was part of normal life,  requiring neither justification nor explanation even when it extended to extraordinary interventions: “Let’s just change a couple of these numbers so that the Patin girl can be valedictorian. She’s such a love­ly girl and comes from such a nice family.”

Of course, this kind of behavior is hardly re­stricted to the world of Jim Crow. It’s really an intraracial manifestation of the sort of class-based quotidian injustice that assumes racialized forms in integrated environments. Black people are neither more nor less capable of pettiness and class prejudice than anyone else. Race is just not an active category in the calculus of judgment in an all-black context, and black students, therefore, don’t get the short end of the stick simply be­cause they’re black. However, the harsh facts of segregation mitigate that benefit. Skin tone, family connections, and even more arbitrary considerations all created fissures in the phan­tom unity of the pre-civil rights black commu­nity, just as they do today. And a situation de­fined by woefully inadequate resources breeds unfairness; there’s not enough of anything to go around, so arbitrary criteria become necessary.

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The white supremacist system made teach­ing one of the few avenues available tor middle-­class employment, increasing the likelihood that individual teachers were there by default and suffering with frustrated ambitions. The demoral­izing effect of those limitations combined with the reality of “second-class citizenship” to sup­port a communitarian excuse for an internal pecking order: we can wink at abstract principles of fairness in the community because it’s just us, and those elevated notions don’t really apply to dealings among the folk; we all know how it is. In these circumstances what can we expect to be the lot of the unattractive, timid, slightly slow, or sullen child of poody regarded sharecroppers? What would her memories be of the Golden Age of segregation? We can find dues by sitting in classrooms or listening to teachers in today’s underfunded inner-city schools.

Class ideology, in fact, permeates and drives the current nostalgia. While it reflects a generic sentimentality about lost innocence, it is also black boomers’ racially distinctive variant of a historically specific class yearning, one that ap­pears among their white counterparts as wistful attachment to a mythical Victorian or Edwar­dian era, the collective dream on which PBS and the specialized home-improvement industry thrive. In both cases, it’s about the wish for a world that is simpler and more settled to be sure, but simpler and settled in ways that clarify and consolidate the status of the upper middle class as the social orders presumptive center. The vision — equally false as history in both col­or codings — is of an organic, face-to-face community in which everyone has a role, status markers arc clear, and convivial, automatic deference and noblesse oblige are the social or­ganism’s lifeblood, the substance of its mutual regard.

Among whites this typically trans­lates into images of a close-knit world of little shops where one is known and served cheer­fully by contented proprietors and their energetic employees, where one is recognized naturally as the center of the community, the embodiment of its best values and aspirations, its pivotal consumer. The black vision is more folkish in its mythology, but no less aestheticized. Where white Fairfield County yuppies imagine themselves in a sleek Merchant-Ivory fantasy of a fin de siecle drawing room, their black neighbors shoehorn themselves into a colorful down-home juke joint sprung to life from the canvases of Varnette Honeywood or Ernie Barnes. The black vision includes as well being respected as a role model and natural leader of the race. Nostalgia for the Jim Crow black world, particularly when it masquerades as social science, keys its imagery of the Fall to the putative loss of petite bourgeois authority in the bantustan — for instance, in William Julius Wilson’s prat­tle about the middle class as a force for moral or­der and propriety among the poor. In a concocted scene in Reid’s film, Poppa confronts the impov­erished tenant farmer whose son has sired a child out of wedlock. When the father refuses any obligation to the young mother and baby, citing his inability to add two hungry mouths to his household, Poppa tells him sternly, “Having nothing don’t mean you don’t know what’s right.”

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Taulbert is serenely candid about the class stratification of his cherished “place where people nurtured and protected and enjoyed each other.” He establishes at the very beginning of his book that he is descended from black planters and recounts with loving pride how his elderly aunt showed him the records that verified their once-exalted status. His mother’s family lost the plantation but retained elevated status in black Glen Allan. Poppa was “a well-known and respected Baptist preacher who was looked to for his wisdom and in many instances served as a go-between for the coloreds when problems arose involving the whites,” and Taulbert points out that they owned “a large rambling house with separate bedrooms, a formal dining and living room with two screened-in sun rooms.” He notes that Ma Ponk “always made it a point to talk with Miss Lottie because she was among the upper-class coloreds” and insisted on riding the train because she felt that “only the poor coloreds rode the bus”

None of this is unusual. Memoirists who pine for the lost community of Jim Crow tend to have middle-class parents, who typically strove to insulate their offspring from the regime’s demeaning and dangerous realities, es­pecially from contact with whites. Except in New Orleans, I can’t recall having more than a couple of interactions with whites of any age in the South (not counting priests and nuns) until I was in high school. It is less commonly recalled that petite bourgeois  parents worked equally hard to shield their kids from black social inferi­ors. The leveling effects of discrimination made the latter more difficult, but this dedicated to class insularity found ways to adapt. The Jack and Jill clubs (from which, thankfully, my parents’ politics saved me) existed to provide an ­explicitly class-conscious local and national social network for the black bourgeoisie’s children in the same way that fraternities and sororities, the Links, the Girl Friends, the Boulé, and other such organizations did for adults. And only mid­dle-class children who were protected from its social and institutional realities — or those who didn’t live it at all — could remember the segre­gated world so fondly, as a naive, communitarian metaphor. When it came time for Taulbert to negotiate the regime as an adult, he left, telling us only that “Glen Allan could not make my dreams come true.” He never confronts the fact that what he knew and recalls as a warm, nurturing world was compensatory, an artifact of a hideously unjust social order that brutalized lives and crushed aspirations.

Although its wrongheadedness may seem merely misguided, this class-inflected nostalgia plays a decidedly sinister role in contemporary politics. Not only does it rest on sentimental notions of family that sanitize gender inequality, it naturalizes current class privilege by projecting it fantastically backward in time. PBS subscribers imagine their earlier lives in genteel domestic settings, not sweatshops or stockyards, and Afro-centrics don’t envision themselves as less than, say, the pharaoh’s majordomo or attaché. The black memoir strain goes one better: it draws the dots connecting present and past privilege and lauds the continuity as race pride. The ubiqui­tous grandmother in these narratives may have been a strong-proud-black-woman-race-leader-­and-closeted-lesbian, but she was first of all a member in good standing of the Talented Tenth. The message is clear: our very bloodline is elite. We’re just as authentically bourgeois — in our distinctively black way — as our white counter­parts, and we’re the race’s natural aristocracy. Gates tells us of his maternal family’s place in the local social order: “The Colemans were the first colored to own guns and hunt on white land, the first to become Eagle Scouts, the first to go to college, the first to own property.”

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This bias comes through in another of Reid’s inventions. He has the good folk of Glen Allan decide to stand up to the white supremacist order, not for their citizenship rights or to chal­lenge discrimination, lynching, or their ex­ploitation in the cotton economy. In his vision, they assert themselves in defense of Taulbert’s Uncle Cleve, the ice man supposedly being dri­ven our of business unfairly by a big white firm from Greenville. Reid’s townsfolk refuse to work the cotton fields in protest, noting Cleve’s — and thus black entrepreneurialism’s — paramount symbolic importance to the entire black popula­tion; they cared more about his welfare than their own. (Taulbert says of his uncle, by the way, “Surely if my Uncle Cleve were alive today, he’d find a reason to be a black Republican.” And the author himself is no leftist; he chortles at enforcement of child labor laws and expresses re­lief that his parents, despite tough times, were able to avoid becoming part of the welfare “sys­tem.”) This is an absurdly self-serving image of petite bourgeois grandeur. I’ve filed it in my collection of Perverse Appropriations of Popular In­surgency, right next to that of a student who told me a few years ago that the ultimate goal of the civil rights movement was to make sure she could attend Yale and then go on to work at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs. Sadly, this perversion capturcs the moment of bourgeois triumphalism in black political life.

An insidious slippage between I and We drives black communitarian rhetoric and makes possible the bizarre claim that intraracial stratifi­cation is benign because it’s organic. This view has no room for class tension or contradictions, because it disconnects class from position and role in the reproduction of the social system. Pop­pa “mediated” with the whites; he didn’t occupy a managerial niche in the Jim Crow order. A family friend was a labor contractor for the white planters and acquired rental property originally built to house interned Japanese Americans dur­ing World War II. Taulbert never imagines that these business endeavors might have put him at odds with some of Glen Allan’s black residents, or muses about the irony of a black man profit­ing from internment. Such ruminations aren’t consonant with this narrative’s objectives.

The point of the nostalgia narrative is that that are no internal tensions; there is no significant differentiation. Perhaps this yearning for a seamless black world partly reflects status anxiety within the current black middle class, an anxiety that can take several overlapping and even contradictory forms. It could express the famous guilt that middle-class blacks supposedly experience about the growing black poverty that con­trasts with their success — though I’ve never seen a case of it in anyone over undergraduate age that wasn’t a backhanded form of self-congratu­lation. It could also reflect just the opposite. Lev­eling the black experience also levels racial oppression and thereby equates the middle-class experience of racism (“I couldn’t get a cab,” “I got stopped by the cops on Metro-North,” “My col­leagues don’t respect me,” “I can’t get a promo­tion”) with me borderline genocidal regime tightening around the inner-city poor. One of­ten hears the lament: we suffer too. And the communitarian idyll can be emotional solace for those middle-class blacks who work and live in racially integrated environments, a dreamworld respite from racialized tension — the necessary, constant anticipation of affront that permeates their daily reality. An analogue is 1960s black cultural nationalism, which was largely the product of black students on white college campuses.

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No matter what emotional needs it addresses, though, this communitarian nostalgia propounds a political message that what an in­creasingly fractured black “community” needs is to entrust itself to the loving care of its “natural” leadership. Some middle-class blacks opposed the Jim Crow order because it limited their op­tions, constrained their career and social opportunities, and didn’t make appropriate class dis­tinctions among blacks. This criticism isn’t necessarily hinged to a broader egalitarian social vision. Therefore as the rightward thrust of na­tional politics and the realities of the glass ceiling imperil possibilities for absorption — on black and proud terms to he sure — into the mainstream elite, a latter-day accommodationism can seem consistent and attractive. Like Milton’s Lucifer, many middle-class blacks are finding it more desirable to reign in the bantustan than to be dissed outside, especially now that the basic accomplishments of the 1964 and 1965 civil rights legislation — guaranteeing the rudiments of equal citizenship — seem solidly established. This impulse supports an accommodationism that trades on the rhetoric of racial difference to assign the petite bourgeoisie a tutorial, agenda-­setting position vis-a-vis the rest of the race. The Nurturing Black Community, therefore, re­hearses an elitist communitarianism of lengthy pedigree (shared, for example by Booker T. Washington and the young Du Bois), and it secures a functional role for a separate-but-equal black middle class: official management and administration of inequality. This includes, besides role modeling and running the institutions of public authority, directing public policy — in the form of “community revitalization” — to clear away suitable enclaves for the occupancy and consumption needs of the new uplifters.

A friend of mine remarked years ago, as we observed the rise of the first stratum of black public officials, that they generally presume that all that stuff about due process, participation, citizenship rights, equality, justice, and the rest stops at the entrance to the: bantustan. We didn’t realize at the time that formalist democracy goes against the grain of the communitarian ideology on which black leadership grounds itself. Nor did we recognize that this antidemocratic impulse rests on a solid pragmatic foundation. After all, you don’t want a lot of discussion among people if your job is to herd them into camps, do you? ❖

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes

1996 Village Voice article about Jim Crow attitudes

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They’re Every Woman

In the space of a few days we visited two sprawling shows opening in town. Although both were call-the-fire-marshal crowded, the exuberant aesthetics and street-level ambitions of the Every Woman Biennial, formerly known as the Whitney Houston Biennial, beat out the grim conceptual gyrations colonizing the Whitney Museum.

The Every Woman Biennial (created in 2014 by artist C. Finley in reaction to poor representation of women at the Whitney’s exhibition) promised an “all woman and women-identified art biennial,” and has followed through with a cornucopia of media, styles, content, and concepts on walls, floors, and video screens. Hundreds of artists are on view in two venues — the augustly transgressive La MaMa at 47 Great Jones Street and 222 Bowery, home at various times to Mark Rothko’s and Fernand Léger’s studios, William S. Burroughs’s apartment, and other bohemian iterations.

In lieu of a comprehensive survey, we offer this baker’s dozen of one-sentence hot takes to convey the many flavors of this engaging salon exhibit, which features names already known — including Annie Sprinkle, Jayne County, Betty Tompkins, and Mickalene Thomas — and others you’ll be hearing about sooner rather than later.

Still from Antonia Stoyanovich’s “Forward Horses”

 

  1. The square album-cover format can barely contain Alex Nuñez’s Swarovski crystal interventions on Whitney Houston’s portraits (I wish you love; With Love Whitney), adding elegiac dazzle to beauty that was already luminous.
  1. Annie Sprinkle, always sex positive, and wife/collaborator Beth Stephens offer 25 Ways to Make Love to the Earth, a text poster that runs the gamut from “Massage the Earth with your feet” to “Love her unconditionally even when she’s angry or cruel.”
  1. In The Agony of It All (Ambulatory Unit No. 5), the artist duo Inner Course (Rya Kleinpeter and Tora López) have stocked a rolling bookshelf like one of those cut-rate racks outside the Strand, using the titles to create a novel-esque narrative that conjures chapters and characters, such as when they wedge Men in Feminism between So You Want to Be a Lesbian? and Feminism Without Women.
  1. Charlotte Woolf’s silver-print triptych Untitled (IUD Choices) captures the bright, hard-edged birth control devices floating in a gray realm of inner space, aliens in that cosmos of desire, pleasure, and pain that is the body.
  1. In collaboration with dozens of members of the Lower Eastside Girls Club, artist-in-residence Maria de Los Angeles led a hands-on project, adorning a towering female figure in a Technicolor dream-dress of cascading colors, textures, words, and images.
  1. Regal as an Egyptian wall painting, Jayne County’s Shine in Moe Beat portrays figures in gowns pulsating with vibrant dots and bright platform shoes, their intent eyes and full lips by turns ravenous or rapturous.
  1. Bare feet smush loamy soil, one horse’s hoof kicks another’s chin, a helicopter careers around a funnel cloud, hands caress coarse fur, wind turbines turn stately as parade formations: Antonia Stoyanovich’s video Forward Horses maps both desert vistas and carnal collisions.
Charlotte Woolf’s “Untitled (IUD Choices)”
  1. In Miriam Parker and Christina Smiros’s installation Healing, a projector atop a stack of cinderblocks casts videos of what look to be refugees trapped in legal and physical limbo, the images framed in biomorphic blobs and projected through a diaphanous cloth into a corner, conjuring a sense of human vulnerability abutting harsh boundaries.
  1. In the painting We the People/J20, doves of peace spit streams of flame at a stretch limo while protestors flash the bird at cops, spray-paint Deutsche Bank windows, and unfurl “People Over Profit” banners amid a riot of color and dynamic forms — because artist Haley Hughes, like much of the rest of the 99 percent, is just friggin’ over it.
  1. Cross-stitched and seemingly discolored with age (the fabric has been tea-dyed), Julie K. Gray’s The General Foods Kitchens Cookbook juts from the wall as thick as the real thing, its tiny representations of a lobster, a watermelon slice, a pineapple, and other teasing tidbits collapsing however many years it takes to transport you back to your grandmother’s kitchen.
  1. A human-high panel of slashing chromatic effulgence topped by a sky-blue half-tondo, Jane Lafarge Hamill’s lushly painted Coming in Hot mixes abstract gravitas with conceptual bliss.
Detail of Miriam Parker & Christina Smiros’s installation “Healing”
  1. We’ve all been the wallflower at a party at one time or another, and in Klaus Hastenreiter and Hilda Pontes’s short film Felicia’s Smile, we encounter a young woman who can’t connect with revelers so self-absorbed that some wear diapers and suck on pacifiers, others cast dagger eyes at romantic rivals, and the popular ones have teeth painted on their lips — a surreal vision of carnivorous glee that will leave you thankful this dream is onscreen and not awakening you at the witching hour.
  1. We don’t often LOL in a gallery, but Tara L. Cavanaugh had us doing just that, before we reflected on how perfectly her giveaway “bad design is homophobic.com” stickers nail the irrational ugliness of prejudice in general and the hatred pervading our own benighted moment in particular.
Tara L. Cavanaugh’s sticker on the back of a Village Voice computer

The exhibition is open through May 29 (1–7 pm, including Memorial Day) and info about screening times and various live events can be found on the Every Woman Biennial website.

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Voting Rites

Washington, D.C.—Last week, when Unity ’04 convened at the National Press Club in D.C., you could have carved the tension in the room into bricks. Unity ’04 is a coalition of activists, academics, and organizations concerned with voter registration for blacks. But these are restless times for advocates of black ballot power. Despite a record voting turnout among African Americans in 2000, there is a sense that the significance of this newly flexed African American voting muscle—especially after Florida 2000—is in peril. Reverend Joseph Lowery, grand duke of civil rights movement activists, was piped in via speaker phone from Atlanta to set the tone. “We ain’t gonna let nobody undercount, miscount—no Supreme Court, no states’ rights turn us round,” the reverend said bluntly.

Picking up on the theme (and turning the tension into testiness verging on anger), activist-journalist George Curry pointed to the trumpeting of the Latino population explosion as evidence that shadowy forces were working to keep the black vote down. “You know as well as I do that there has been an attempt to minimize the importance of the black vote, by Democrats and Republicans, by pitting us against our Latino brothers,” said Curry. Hectoring an imaginary political strategist, he served up the mantra for the day: “Don’t try to play that game, like you won’t have to deal with us. Oh, you will have to deal with us.”

The problem is that politicians have been dealing with record numbers of black voters since 2000, and still the Democrats—to whom blacks have tied their fate, for good or ill—do not control any branch of federal government. Then there are the complications caused by the boom in the Latino electorate. Finally, there’s the Florida debacle in 2000, which left African Americans with flashbacks of Selma.

Concerned that this confluence of events will depress the future turnout of black voters, activists have diversified their appeal, enlisting everyone from the UniverSoul Circus to national morning radio show hosts like Doug Banks and Tom Joyner. It’s not that African Americans, in particular, are less civic-minded. But with a president in office whom many African Americans view as not only polarizing but also illegitimate, traditional activists have gone to untraditional places in search of allies.

Banks, who has joined with Russell Simmons’s Hip-Hop Summit Action Network to launch “One Mind. One Vote,” says that throughout the Florida presidential election scandal, he heard from listeners who felt their votes were being discounted. “With us being a national show, of course we heard from people in several cities in Florida,” says Banks. “People were outraged. It was outright thievery. You had people who were outraged, and some who weren’t surprised.”

In the past, voter registration was often left to good-government types, civil rights activists, and community gadflies. But the pop approach that black activists are using mirrors a larger effort to get young voters out that was popularized by MTV’s “Rock the Vote.” The League of Women Voters, for instance, is collaborating with World Wrestling Entertainment in hopes of getting the hip-hop set to the polls. Entertainment is “part of the future of voter outreach,” says Diallo Brooks, co-chair of D.C.-based Black Youth Vote! “Another part of it is that entertainers themselves need to be educated about the issues. The more that they’re educated, the better able they are to get the message out. The young people will definitely listen.”

At Tuesday’s Unity ’04 press conference, while most of his elders nodded in approval and politely smiled, the youthful Brooks played a public service announcement that featured a rapper exhorting the power of the ballot: “Man, woman, and child, make a difference right now!” Jay-Z, he was not. But he spoke in a language that activists are hoping resonates with black voters, particularly those under 35.

Beyond a simple appeal to youth, Unity ’04 hopes to garner the attention of African Americans in all age groups. That would explain the presence of the UniverSoul Circus—a black circus troupe based in Atlanta whose primary audiences tend to be families. UniverSoul Circus has a history of wedding clowns and high-wire acts to vaguely family-friendly messages (stay in school, stay off drugs, etc.). But in an election year, it wanted a more trenchant message. “I think that one of the good things about Unity ’04 is that it’s nonparty and it brings together all facets of community across the country to do something good,” says Jackie Davis, the troupe’s vice president.

In recent years, African Americans have not wanted for voting clout in some contests. If there was one positive for African Americans that came out of the Republican sweep of Congress in 2002, it was that Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu was able to fend off a stiff challenge, largely because of the black vote. In 2000, African Americans actually cast more votes for Al Gore than they had for Bill Clinton. Overall, 56.8 percent of all eligible African Americans cast votes (61.8 percent of eligible whites voted). In local races, black turnout was even more impressive. Blacks in Florida—even with all the allegations of vote suppression—accounted for 15 percent of the turnout, despite only accounting for 13 percent of eligible voters.

Indeed, the heavy attention to the black vote may be missing a larger point: the Democrats’ feeble numbers among Southern whites. According to “The Black Vote in 2000,” a report issued out of Washington by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, half of Gore’s voting total in Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia came from African Americans. But Gore lost all three states. Ditto for his home state of Tennessee, where 35 percent of his votes came from African Americans.

Clearly, it wasn’t voter apathy among blacks that killed Gore in the 2000 presidential election. But activists are worried that the Democrats’ loss—despite a record turnout of African Americans—might hinder their current efforts. “If you’re not a Republican, you were robbed in 2000,” says Banks. “Even though there was a large turnout, many people feel like it didn’t matter, because the person they voted for didn’t get elected. My goal was not to have people slack off and think it’s a waste of time to go out and vote. If you are breathing and you are living, you need to vote.”