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22 January 2014

A Little African Noël for Your Post-Holidays Pity Party...

I had the great pleasure in mid December to play a gig with the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington. They performed a wonderful African version of Noel as part of their "Sparkle, Jingle, Joy" annual holiday concert at DC's Lisner Auditorium.  I accompanied the chorus on djembe, along with fellow percussionists Doug Maiwurm (djembe), Robby Dean (gourd shaker), and my dear friend Michael Gottlieb (cowbell).  I'm grateful to Michael, a member of chorus, for getting me involved. 

This was my first time playing with such a large singing group and it was pretty intimidating....but fun! It was such a thrill to be onstage at Lisner, where I've seen so many outstanding musical performances (Suzanne Vega, The Waterboys, Warren Zevon, and Poi Dog Pondering come immediately to mind). I felt a little like a member of "the club."

So, sparkle, jingle....enjoy!



20 January 2014

The American Holocaust

Recently, Jennifer and I accompanied our daughter on a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC as part of her Jewish education. After the visit, Jen asked: "Could it happen here?"  She meant the question for our daughter, I think. But I just blurted out "It already has.... with slavery." And then, more recently, I had occasion to see the film "12 Years a Slave."  So, I'd like to explore this idea.



If the film did anything for me (and it did many things), it reinforced my opinion that slavery in the United States was the American Holocaust.  Just as Germany struggles with its Nazi past 70 years on, the United States continues to struggle with its slaver past 150 years on.  Of course, it's not really true that it's been 150 years.  Indeed, what if I posit that it has only been about 50 years since we Americans finally, ended slavery with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?  That's not very long ago, and I have concluded that, in fact, 1964 is the year that marks the end of the American Holocaust.

If we think about it this way, it can help our current understanding of contemporary American racism and how socially all-consuming and evil it remains. Slavery dehumanized millions of Africans and, therefore, it "superhumanized" EuroAmericans in an evil way. Not just the EuroAmericans who lived in the United States during the period of slavery, but all of us who've come since too. I suppose this "superhumanization" is what is referred to as "white privelege." Like Bruce Hornsby sings in his tune about American racism and white privilege, "The Way it Is":

Well they passed a law in '64
To give those who ain't got a little more
But it only goes so far
Because the law don't change another's mind
When all it sees at the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar

It's worth mentioning that the dominant culture in our society hates -- because we fear -- poor people.  But there is a special, dark place in this society's soul for poor, African American people.  In other words, the dominant culture -- the EuroAmerican culture -- hates African American people and it hates poor people. But what it really hates (and fears) is poor African American people. And it loves to feel superior; to feel "chosen" or "superhuman."

And while we might want to try to make our chosen, superhuman selves feel better by protesting "but we've elected an African American president!" I say to that: "Look at the man's suffering! He cannot even be president to African American people in the way they need him to be because he's too frightened of the accusation from EuroAmericans that, by doing so, he's not being everyone else's president!" President Obama has freely admitted this.  It's worth thinking about the reasoning that underpins that accusation and the impact that it has had on President Obama's psyche (and everyone else's too).  It certainly tells us something about these United States. 

Many of the Jews who survived the European Holocaust have received reparations because contemporary Germany, France, and much of Europe have acknowledged (somewhat grudgingly) that amends needed to be made materially. I agree, while acknowledging (and I'm sure most people would as well) that no amount of money, ever, can restore what was taken from the victims. So, with that understanding, I want to ask: Where are the reparations for the families of American slaves? As Henry Louis Gates has amply illustrated through his work in tracing the ancestry of contemporary African Americans (see http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aalives/), we can use the property records kept during the period of slavery to determine who was "owned" by whom and, roughly, what in compensation the slavers owe the victims and their issue. If the descendants of the slaver families can be found, they will need to contribute something to that compensation, but the point would be neither to bankrupt them or, in any way, to take vengeance on them. Rather, it would be to have them acknowledge the truth: that they benefited financially from their families' "ownership" and exploitation of human beings. The EuroAmerican public can make up the difference because, as a whole, we have benefited from slavery. 

Reparations are not the most we can do; they are the least. There are other actions that could be taken in addition to paying cash money to the descendants of American slaves.  One of the strongest predictors -- indeed the strongest predictor -- of social mobility in the United States is having parents who are college educated.  So, why not provide free undergraduate education and graduate or professional education to all African American high school graduates who otherwise qualify for admission for, say, the next 25 years? I'm sorry, but racial preferences given during the college admissions process are not enough. Is all of this "reverse discrimination"?  Of course it is, but unlike all human beings, all discrimination is not equal. There's bad discrimination (the kind meant to exclude), and there is good discrimination (the kind intended to include). You might ask: By including some aren't we excluding others? My answer: Yes. But neither EuroAmericans nor any American minority other than African Americans were slaves here. So my advice to EuroAmericans and others is simply to think about how they've benefited from slavery -- even indirectly -- and what they ought to pay for those benefits beyond mere racial preferences. Today's preferences are, as Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter has written, "racial justice on the cheap."  Real racial justice is expensive and it's past time to pay up.

Think about the back breaking African American labor that went into building such wonderful universities as the University of Virginia (founded by the slaver Thomas Jefferson), the University of South Carolina, and, most likely, just about every other institution of higher learning located south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Seems to me that those places, especially, should eliminate tuition, room, and board for African American students from the states in which they're located. But I don't think it should only be southern universities. It should be all public universities and any private college or university that, in some way, benefited from the American Holocaust that ended in 1964.

The American Holocaust reduced human beings to chattel (a legal term derived from "cattle"); to property. It took their names and identities from them and gave them the names of their slavers. It tore their families apart.  It featured systematic, daily brutality -- torture, rape, murder -- against a People who were brought to the United States for the sole purpose of making EuroAmericans wealthy. And African American people today, every day and no matter what their social station, live with its legacy. I suppose we all do, but no one who is not African American can ever claim to know exactly what that is like.  Even those of us who are members of other American minority groups who have experienced discrimination and racism (and their are many of us) really cannot claim to know the unique pain experienced by African American people as a result of their ancestors' unique and awful victimization.

So, I ask this day, the one on which we celebrate the birth of the American prophet Martin Luther King, Jr., what are we going to do?