The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Troy Davis, Langston Hughes, and Justice in America

Today it was announced that Georgia Death Row inmate Troy Anthony Davis will be given the chance to prove his innocence. It is, beyond a doubt, a massive achievement for the thousands of activists who have been involved with his case and struggled for his release. Still, this does not remove the need for constant and unrelenting pressure on the powers that be, on the mockery of justice that our courts pretend to uphold, in order to save his life.

Since the election of Obama we have witnessed the chorus of those advocating a "post-racial America." The reality, however, is far from that. Due to the economic downturn, unemployment is skyrocketing nationally across color lines. However, in many cities such as Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago, black unemployment is at or near 50 percent. Already claiming the highest rates of poverty in the industrial world, U.S. poverty statistics have risen drastically since the onset of the world banking crash, placing both Blacks and Latinos at or above 20 percent; youth minority statistics are often much higher. The loss of jobs, combined with the collapse of the housing market and sub-prime predatory lending, has pushed an immense amount of working-class residents out of their homes and left nearly fifty million people without healthcare. Schools, after a brief glimmer of hope with post-civil rights integration, have become more segregated now than they were thirty years ago with public school systems in Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and many other urban areas 80-95 percent Black and Hispanic. And, perhaps, as everyone is aware, blacks are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites, much more likely to face more severe punishments, and much less likely to access the resources, especially jobs, needed for rehabilitation. The evidence is overwhelming that the courts target poor minorities, and that the publicly subsidized private prisons make a killing off what is essentially slave labor. For a "post-racial society" there sure is a lot of institutional racism.

It is fascinating then, to read the poems of Langston Hughes, written decades ago, as he describes what remain prominent themes in American society. Racism was obvious and blunt when he wrote, today it remains veiled behind multicultural rhetoric, free market orthodoxy, and "tough-on-crime" politicians.

There is a tendency for the establishment to, at least in some token way, incorporate the icons, images, and revolutionaries of the past generations into the dominant ideology of today. By doing so, these heroes are reduced to caricatures of their former self and their content diluted to the point of nonrecognition. This treatment works in a variety of manners. A prominent example is the whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr. to the point where everyone knows who he was but very little of what he actually stood for. Other times they become harmless icons, commodities, as we see with the cheaply manufactured and overpriced Che Guevara T-shirts sold on the market in a manner with which we can assume he would have been disgusted. And in yet another way we witness the absence of the ideology, filled with often riveting but vacuous imagery, such as the Black Panther Party who are more often associated with guns but not social programs or socialist theory.

Often the idea is tossed around as well that socialism, especially of the revolutionary type, is something foreign to the black community. Something brought to them from without, imposed upon them by white intellectuals who hope to use them for whatever purpose they need at the time. It is my hope that this wrong can be fixed, that the inherent and often spontaneous turn to socialism as an alternative method of organizing society by black writers, intellectuals, and working-class people can be examined more thoroughly.

We should not forget that prior to their untimely deaths, both giants in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, explicitly began seriously talking about redistributing wealth and socialism. Neither fully developed their political ideology, but both of their lives were cut drastically short and neither were given the chance. It should not be forgotten that the black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois openly spoke of socialism and analyzed history from what was openly a Marxist conception. The famous novelist Richard Wright, author of Uncle Tom's Children and Native Son, was the Harlem editor of the Communist Party's Daily Worker. New and exciting work has been released on Hubert Harrison, whom historian Jeffery Perry has labeled the "most race conscious of the class radicals and most class conscious of the race radicals." Similarly, we must not forget that the Black Panther Party leadership rejected black nationalism as "black racism" and articulated, albeit in a Maoist interpretation, socialism as the liberator of humanity. Furthermore, socialists have always been involved in fighting racism, ever since the Communist Party's involvement with the Scottsboro Boys and the Socialist Workers' Party's defense of James Hickman.

It should be no surprise then that Langston Hughes was involved with the CP and, of course, his poetry reflects that. It is absolutely essential that we reclaim the figures who have been stolen from our movement and diluted into passive icons.

I will warn that I am not a poet or poetry critic, instead, I am simply a fan of Langston Hughes poetry. His poems are powerful and deserve to be studied by anyone who considers themselves interested in social justice.


Justice and the Past: A Critique of American Society

Both “Let America Be America Again” and “Justice,” poems written by Langston Hughes, present a piercing indictment of American history and culture. Although they differ drastically in length, both poems use similar poetic devices to postulate their overriding theme of injustice and inequality. Hughes’ unique brilliance is on display with the extended metaphors, symbols, dialogue, and allusions intricately woven into the construction of these riveting and insightful poems. Although the specific purposes of each poem may differ, Hughes utilizes both poems for a more general function; he aims to expose the reader to poetically exceptional, yet lurid and unambiguous critiques of American society and it’s past.

“Justice,” spanning only four lines, presents a short but intense indictment of America’s approach to justice and equality. Hughes provides readers with unnamed black person as the speaker who critiques the so called “justice system” in the United States. This speaker is a manifestation of a universal voice for blacks, articulating broadly the shared sense of disdain towards the indictment, persecution, imprisonment, and unequal treatment onerously placed upon the already economically oppressed group. The speaker exclaims, “That Justice is a blind goddess / Is a thing to which we blacks are wise.” Hughes’ audience is indistinct; the speaker could be addressing either the “justice system” itself (judicial branch, courts, prisons, police, etc.) or someone attempting to defend the system. The more likely option is that Hughes is presenting a warning to a system set up by white oppression; he is announcing that blacks are aware of the crimes of the past and will not forget them. His expressive purpose is obvious; justice in America does not mean and has never meant justice for blacks.

Upon analyzing the allusions Hughes employs, “Justice” shines as a superb example of how the employment of poetic devices can alter both the meaning and impact of a poem. Hughes first alludes to the culturally recognized notion of justice. The abstract idea becomes the common personification of Lady Justice, a representation which “is blind,” endowed without the human characteristic of sight. Normally, this image is representative of the myth that the system treats all people fairly, regardless of race, color, religion, economic status, etc. Hughes utilizes the figure sardonically; by stating “Justice is a blind goddess” he alludes to the commonly accepted personification of the trait. However, when he claims, “Her bandage hides two festering sores / That once perhaps were eyes” he dismantles the familiar concept of justice with a symbolic claim. Hughes brilliantly transforms the idea, as he manipulates it against those who desire to defend the system; he claims that this system, which prides itself on justice, has instead turned a blind eye to the injustice committed against blacks. More importantly, by acting blindly it has actually helped perpetuate that injustice. One wonders whether rapper Tupac Shakur studied Hughes as he would later mimic this technique: “Excuse me but Lady Liberty needs glasses / and so does Mrs. Justice by her side / Both the broads are blind as bats.” Hughes implies that blacks have become wise to this injustice and forces the reader to contemplate issues such as injustice and inequality while scrutinizing the conception of justice as blind in America. “Justice” is a succinct poem that delivers a percussive blow to the mythical dogmatism of justice and equality laced into American ideology.

Hughes provides a detailed critique in the lengthier “Let America be America Again.” Here he utilizes dialogue as a poetic technique; however, it appears as if the speakers are not necessarily people, but vague abstractions or ideas, representative of different ideological approaches that dialectically conflict until the one transcends the other in the ending resolution. The first speaker represents those who wish for the past to be relived, a reactionary longing for the symbolic conception of bourgeois American freedom. For instance, the first speaker opens by saying “Let America be America again. / Let it be the dream it used to be.” This speaker, longing for the past, views the “old” America as some benevolent place which has degenerated into the present; a sort of glorified creation myth emanates from the first speaker. Hughes presents the second speaker in contrast to the first; it proclaims, “America never was America to me” and, “(There’s never been equality for me, / Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)” The second speaker continues to expand upon this idea for the majority of the poem, as the first speaker slips back into the shadows, adopts the role of the second speaker’s audience, and listens silently to the ruminations of this fresh perspective. The entire poem occurs around this dialogue; it is the occasion. The purpose of this poem, however, is twofold. First, it intends to separate the symbolic America (freedom for all, equality, justice, etc.) from the reality of America (slavery, genocide, racism, poverty, exploitation). Although denunciation of the ruling orders crimes against humanity remains the prominent theme throughout the poem, another seemingly ancillary but vitally important purpose is revealed near the end. The poem’s conclusion is meant, more than anything, to instill a sense of hope in the oppressed.

The contrast between the two speakers becomes apparent when the first questions the second: “Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? / And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?” Hughes applies this metaphor in order to fully incorporate the second character’s voice, which, until this point, is suppressed by its confinement within parentheses. The veil represents the influence of the second speaker’s statements. The action of pulling it “across the stars,” a figurative way of expressing the assertions made by the second speaker who desires to reveal the reality of America, tarnishes the symbolic ideal of American society. The second speaker continues to dominate the poem in its main body stanzas, and replies to the interrogation by the reactionary first voice:
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek –
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
This effectively shows how Hughes uses the speaker not as a singular entity, or even as the representative identity of a certain group, but rather of oppressed people in general, uniting their common oppression under the heel of American expansion, slavery, and ultimately capitalism itself. The second speaker, tired of the “dog eat dog” world, represents every worker and every one who has suffered horrors, atrocities, and exploitation at the hands of the current society, namely, the American political economy and those who run it. He continues his criticism of American capitalism by explaining that the burgeoning generations are:
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
After being won to the second speaker’s argument, the first speaker begins to question his own previous position. He asks, “Who said the free? Not me?” The speakers jointly address this change, and the first joins with the second. The two voices, now in unison, chant “O, let America be America again- / The land that never has been yet- / And yet must be – the land where every man is free.” Not only does Hughes masterfully fuse both speakers into one, but he simultaneously weaves both purposes together. By asserting that there is a prodigious gap between the two Americas, the symbol and the material reality, he pushes for the reader to accept that the symbolic version of America can be achieved. By understanding the past realities, the oppressed can articulate their own collective aspirations and desires and assert control over their destiny and their future. The combined speakers exclaim, “America never was America to me, / And yet I swear this oath - / America will be!” As with “Justice,” this poem leads the reader to question the dominant political and economic institutions of American society. It separates the symbolic idea of America from the reality, and, by acknowledging the past, resolves that the oppressed are capable of making America anew.

Both poems present a terribly insightful look into American society. Whether it is the four lines of “Justice,” or the eighty-seven lines of “Let America be America Again,” Hughes advocates that inequality and injustice are currently, and have always been, fundamental aspects in American society. He beautifully articulates these reflective poems to make the reader consider the speaker’s own view of society, giving a voice to the voiceless. These poems intricately compliment each other and the history, emotion, and thought which each provokes is so profound that they come together to form a complementary, ravaging critique of American history and the social, political, and economic order which dictated its terms.

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