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Black History

COMMENTARY: Embracing the Courageous Four; Radically Reconceiving and Reconstructing America

LOS ANGELES SENTINEL — In spite of the forked-tongue talk, doublespeak and patently racist ranting of the pretending President Trump and the White supremacist mob-like cheerleaders chanting hatred at his rallies, we must not miss the fresh, air-clearing and uplifting wind that is steadily rising and blowing our way. It is the transforming force of the voice, views and defiant struggles of the courageous four “freshmen” congresswomen: Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA); Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY); and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). They come to their position anxious and impressively able to serve the people, their constituency, the vulnerable, and the larger interests of the country with rightful concern for the well-being of the world. And they will not be bullied or silenced by Trump and company, nor accept a party discipline that calls for a compromise of their principles or taking a position that diminishes and undermines their capacity to serve the people as best they can and see it.

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By Dr. Maulana Karenga

In spite of the forked-tongue talk, doublespeak and patently racist ranting of the pretending President Trump and the White supremacist mob-like cheerleaders chanting hatred at his rallies, we must not miss the fresh, air-clearing and uplifting wind that is steadily rising and blowing our way. It is the transforming force of the voice, views and defiant struggles of the courageous four “freshmen” congresswomen: Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA); Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY); and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). They come to their position anxious and impressively able to serve the people, their constituency, the vulnerable, and the larger interests of the country with rightful concern for the well-being of the world. And they will not be bullied or silenced by Trump and company, nor accept a party discipline that calls for a compromise of their principles or taking a position that diminishes and undermines their capacity to serve the people as best they can and see it.

Trump’s attacks on these four courageous, committed, knowledgeable and defiant congresswomen of color, not only reflect his commitment to views, policies and practices that are racist, anti-people of color; xenophobic, anti-immigrant and those different; sexist, anti-women; and opportunistic, ever self-promoting and peacocking. These attacks also reflect his reactionary politics and conception of America. It is a politics of White supremacy; predatory capitalism at home and abroad; warmongering; privatization of public wealth and space; and peddling a personalized patriotism based on his astonishing ignorance, multiple insecurities and vulgar interests.

We must constantly expose, criticize and condemn the monster side of America we call Trump and his supporters and enablers, but we must not over focus on him and under focus on the rising movement to actively resist him in Congress, as represented by the initiatives of the courageous four and also in our various communities across the country. To make this mistake would be like over focusing on a devasting fire and the havoc it is wreaking and under focusing on the response and responders needed to control and extinguish it.

Audacious and defiant, these four progressive congresswomen resist and reject Trump’s attempt to impose his deformed and dishonest reactionary conception of patriotism and politics. Indeed, they cannot morally and will not politically accept Trump’s packaged and constantly peddled racist patriotic politics of vicious and varied forms of oppression: apartheid walls here and abroad; corruption and coercion; the savaging of immigrants and the abuse and separation of children from their families; anti-labor and anti-union policies; preference for the rich at the expense and injury of the poor; racial and religious restrictions and preferences; denial of climate change; and his obsessive and infantile attempt to rival and erase everything considered an Obama achievement.

Trump and his allied haters, enviers and detractors can call them names and attribute to them all kinds of social sins, but these courageous, competent and committed women of color congresswomen stand on solid moral and political ground. They are right to criticize and condemn the inhumane detention, conditions and treatment of the refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants at the border as a concentration camp, a site of mass detention, oppression, labor and sexual abuse and exploitation, degradation and death. And such camps were put in place first, not by the Nazis, but by Euro-Americans against Native Americans, whether in missions or so-called “reservations.”

Regardless of the Barnum and Bailey big top circus of smoke and mirrors, dog whistles, and lying as public policy and a way of life from the Trump camp of circled covered wagons, the real issue is what kind of America we want and are willing to struggle, strive and sacrifice for to bring into being at this critical juncture in the history of our people and this country. The struggle is over two concepts of America: whether it is a finished White product or an ongoing multicultural project. In the first version, we are to accept White dominance, defer to policies and practices negative to human life, dignity and development and be grateful to live in the house Jack, the enslaver, segregationist, capitalist and colonizer claims he built, but without rightful acknowledgement that it was built with the enslaved and exploited labor and social and political exclusion of oppressed people. The second concept of America sees it as an unfinished ongoing multicultural project in which each people and person has both the right and responsibility to speak their own special cultural truth and make their own unique contribution to how this society is radically reconceived and reconstructed in the most just and human way.

This conversation that these courageous four are compelling the country to have is a necessary one, and one that builds on and moves forward a tradition of struggle defined by our foremother, Fannie Lou Hamer, as rooted in the a moral imperative to righteously and continuously question America in thought and practice. It is a moral imperative deeply embedded in the Black Liberation tradition and other radical and progressive traditions of this country. It calls for us to question the quality, content and course of American thought and practice, and to measure it by its highest ideals and engage in corrective action where America finds itself in contradiction to these ideals. And it calls on us to even go beyond its best ideals when they are found to be in contradiction with the best of our moral sensitivities, moral reasoning, lived experience, and knowledge-producing practice.

It is right, good and necessary to raise questions about and reject a racial, religious or political protocol that demands agreement with immoral, irrational and unjust policies and practices. We are right to question corporate and big money negative influence on domestic and foreign policy and on democratic governance. It is not our obligation to demonstrate allegiance to or support of a foreign state as part of participating in American government. Nor is it wrong to question and reject any pressure to do so.

It is right to reject the claim of any country, people or person of a right to immunity from criticism and it is right to raise questions concerning the violation of human rights and international law by any country, people or person. And that includes, not only Israeli occupation of Palestine and the oppression of Palestinians; but also American, Canadian and French occupation of Haiti and oppression of the Haitian people; the Chinese oppression of the Uighurs; the Burmese oppression of the Rohingya; and the Saudi and Emirates’ criminal and indiscriminate bombing of the Yemeni people.

Other questions heretofore pushed to the side, buried in conservative, reactionary and even liberal graves of indifference, dismissal and amnesia, must be resurrected, revived and put at the center of national discourse policy and action. And we are not to be grateful or express gratitude for being conceded human rights we had at birth and just by being human. Nor are we to be grateful to self-seeking others for civil rights, freedom and justice which we won in the fire and furnace of righteous and relentless struggle.

This article originally appeared in The Los Angeles Sentinel.

Black History

Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie: First Black Grammy’ Winners

Two Black performers left the event that night with Grammys in hand: Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917–1996) for Best Vocal Performance, Female, and Best Jazz Performance, Individual; and William James “Count” Basie (1904–1984), for Best Performance by a Dance Band and Best Jazz Performance, Group. Recognition for the pair was well overdue as their roads to the Grammy were storied.

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Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, the first two African Americans to win Grammy awards, 1958. Photo courtesy of 9gag.com/gag/aQREN3K

It was the late spring of 1959. The music industry’s elite converged inside the Grand Ballroom of Los Angeles’ Beverly Hilton. Others were gathering at a function held simultaneously in New York City.

That night, the Grammy Award’s first show took place, and no one knew then that it would become a historic event for African-American performers.

Two Black performers left the event that night with Grammys in hand: Ella Jane Fitzgerald (1917–1996) for Best Vocal Performance, Female, and Best Jazz Performance, Individual; and William James “Count” Basie (1904–1984), for Best Performance by a Dance Band and Best Jazz Performance, Group. Recognition for the pair was well overdue as their roads to the Grammy were storied.

Fitzgerald was a teen when her mother died. Her aunt then took young Ella from her home in Yonkers, N.Y., back to Newport News, Va. Shortly after, Ella’s stepfather died. These events brought on depression. Ella began failing school and frequently skipped classes. After getting into trouble with the police, she was sent to a reform school. There she endured beatings by the caretakers. The brutality forced her to escape.

At age 15, she was alone and struggling to make a life for herself. But things would change when she was in New York City about five years later.

In 1934, young Ella performed at the Apollo’s Amateur Night. The crowd booed her; shouted “What’s she going to do?” A frightened Ella decided to sing. She asked the band to play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy,” one of her mother’s favorites. Her voice silenced the audience, and by the song’s end they begged for an encore.

Two years later, Ella made her first recording, “Love and Kisses,” under the Decca label. The rest was music history.
Later dubbed “The First Lady of Song,” Ella was the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. On June 15, 1996, she died in her Beverly Hills home. She’d taken home 14 Grammys throughout her career.

Basie, born in Red Bank, N.J., was one of the all-time great jazz band leaders. Dubbed the “King of Swing,” his career started in clubs and speakeasies in Asbury Park and Long Branch, N.J., then New York City (1924) and later Kansas City (1927).

His music served as inspiration for artists including John Lewis, Thelonious Monk, and Oscar Peterson. Along the way, he faced discrimination but overcame barriers to become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.

“Every day, we used to say, ‘Not one drop of my self-worth depends on your acceptance of me,’” musician and producer Quincy Jones said of the racism that he and Basie experienced back then. “It was horrible. It ain’t much better now.”

Basie wrote in a letter: “I can’t remember when I did not experience discrimination … And I didn’t let it bug me.”
The Count won nine Grammy awards over the course of his career. He died on April 26, 1984, in Hollywood, Fla.

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Bay Area

New Assemblymember Mia Bonta to Caucus With 3 Legislative Groups

The 18th Assembly District includes a large portion of the city of Oakland and the cities of Alameda and San Leandro. Bonta was elected in a special election on August 31, defeating fellow Democrat Janani Ramachandra.

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Assemblymember Mia Bonta, (third from left), with (left to right) Senator Steve Bradford, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurman, U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, assemblymembers Isaac Bryan Reggie Jones-Sawyer, and Kevin McCarty.

Soon after Assemblymember Mia Bonta (D-Oakland) was sworn in last week to represent California’s 18th Assembly District — which covers parts of East Bay — she signed on as a member of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus (CLWC), the California Latino Legislative Caucus (CLLC), and the California Black Legislative Caucus (CLBC).

Bonta is the 11th member of the Black Caucus and the only lawmaker representing a district in the Bay Area. In the Latino Caucus, she is the 30th member, and out of 120 lawmakers in both houses of the state Legislature, she is the 39th woman.

“Special congratulations to our newest member @MiaBonta, who was sworn into the Assembly this morning! #AD18 has chosen a fantastically fearless representative, and I look forward to working with you Assemblymember Bonta! #CALeg,” wrote Assemblymember Akilah Weber (D- San Diego).

Mialisa “Mia” Tania Bonta, who is Puerto Rican of African descent, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University in 1993 and a Master of Education (Ed.M.) from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1996. Bonta also received a J.D. from Yale University Law School in 1999.

Her work experience includes over 20 years working with nonprofits, including serving as CEO of Oakland Promise, a college and career prep program for Alameda County high school students.  She was also president of the Alameda Unified School District Board from 2018 to 2021.

“Congratulations to @MiaBonta on her election to the Assembly, which not only made her the first Afro Latina in the Legislature, but also raised the number of women in the Legislature to an all-time high,” California Lt. Gov., Eleni Kounalakis stated on Twitter.

The 18th Assembly District includes a large portion of the city of Oakland and the cities of Alameda and San Leandro. Bonta was elected in a special election on August 31, defeating fellow Democrat Janani Ramachandra.

“I am deeply honored to represent the 18th Assembly District. Our district has a long history of bold, progressive, leadership and I plan to continue this work in our diverse district,” Bonta tweeted September 7. “I’m ready to fight for bold solutions to issues like homelessness, housing affordability, climate change, and criminal justice reform for AD-18 and all Californians. I am ready to get to work.”

Bonta steps in to replace her husband, Rob Bonta, who vacated the AD 18th seat in April after Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him California Attorney General, replacing Xavier Becerra, who is now United States Secretary of Health and Human Services.

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Art

David Drake: A Potter Who Inscribed His Work With Poetry

It was August 16, 1857. David Drake (c. 1800– c. 1870s), an enslaved African American, had just completed a 19-inch greenware pot. On it he inscribed: “I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all and every nation.”

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A pot created by David Drake. Wikipedia photo.

It was August 16, 1857. David Drake (c. 1800– c. 1870s), an enslaved African American, had just completed a 19-inch greenware pot. On it he inscribed: “I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all and every nation.”
According to some collectors and scholars, this message demonstrates “Drake questioning his heritage and personal history … signifies [his] positivity despite facing the many brutalities of slavery, including the loss of personal identity.” Further, by etching what is clearly a personal expression, Drake defied a South Carolina law forbidding Blacks to read and write.
South Carolina’s Negro Act of 1740, prohibited educating enslaved Africans, punishable by a fine of 100 pounds and six months in prison. Most Southern states in the early 1800s restricted Black literacy.
Drake’s date of birth is unclear. It is said that it was during the first half of 1800. The first legal record of him (June 13, 1818) describes “a boy about 17 years old country born … mortgaged to Eldrid Simkins by Harvey Drake.”
The (Harvey) Drake family owned a plantation in Edgefield, S.C. The term “country born” refers to enslaved Blacks born in the United States rather than Africa. David Drake lived and worked in Edgefield’s pottery factories for almost all his life.
David Drake was first enslaved by Harvey Drake, who alongside Abner Landrum, owned a large pottery business. Known to be a religious man, Landrum was the publisher of a local newspaper, The Edgefield Hive. Scholars speculate that he taught Drake to read the Bible, even if doing so was a punishable offense.
After Harvey Drake’s death, David Drake was enslaved by Landrum. In 1846, Landrum passed away. Drake was then purchased and enslaved by Landrum’s son Franklin, who was abusive. While owned by Franklin, Drake never inscribed his works. But Drake’s life, his works, blossomed in 1849, when he was sold to Lewis Miles.
Miles owned the pottery factory, Stony Bluff. There Drake created his best works once again inscribed with poetry. The number of pieces produced increased from one every few years to seven in 1859. Having produced alkaline-glazed stoneware jugs between the 1820s and the 1870s, Drake is recognized as the first enslaved potter to inscribe his work. He became a free man when the Civil War closed (1865).
According to Drake scholar Jill Beute Koverman, Drake created “more than 40,000 pieces over his lifetime.”
When Drake was alive, his pots sold for around 50 cents. Today they fetch as much as $50,000 and have auctioned for as much as $369,000. A butter churn with the inscription “This is a noble churn / fill it up it will never turn,” sold for $130,000.
Various collections including his work can be viewed at museums including the Smithsonian collection of the National Museum of American History in Wash., D.C.
It is thought that Drake died in the 1870s because according to scholars, “he is not found in the 1880 census.”

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