Archive for the ‘Caste in America’ Category

In the previous post, “Rice and Slavery in Colonial America,” I wrote a brief paragraph on the Niger Inland Delta, locating it near the fabled Timbuktu, then moved on to the rice plantations of South Carolina. But “inland delta” was a puzzling phrase. A delta in the middle of a country, not at the coast? And on the map, besides this curious delta, the Niger’s course looked strange, coming out of nowhere, turning around in the middle and crossing three climate zones, desert, savanna, tropical forest, twice. And a Neolithic in Africa based on rice rather than the crops (yams, millet, sorghum, bananas, etc.) and animal husbandry of the Bantu expansion?  And the remarkable mud brick/adobe architecture of Timbuktu? I knew of adobe but the grand buildings and the houses in the Niger River Bend are beyond anything I could have imagined. How did all this come about?  So many questions.

First the river that made it all possible —

The Niger has its source in Guinea, in the middle of an irregular crescent of highlands and mountains that stretch from the border with Senegal down to Ivory Coast. The Gambia and the Senegal Rivers flow north and west to the Atlantic, while numerous other rivers, further south, flow westward to Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. The Niger flows northeast to the Bend near Timbuktu, bringing water to the Sahara desert and then, oddly, it turns south. Originally, the upper Niger flowing to the Bend emptied into a lake fed by hills that were, as well, the source of a river flowing south to Nigeria, into the Gulf of Guinea. However, over time, from 4,000 to 1000 BCE, as the Sahara dried into a desert, the lake disappeared and the two rivers joined, becoming one river with a most unusual course.

And the Inland Delta  —

Like the Nile, the Niger floods yearly, beginning in September, peaking in November, finishing in May, all of which floods a huge region where the gradient of the land suddenly decreases, resulting in a land of braided streams, marshes and enormous lakes. It is the Inland Delta, an area extremely productive for both fishing and agriculture.

And the Neolithic –

The Inland Delta gave the world a Neolithic, an agricultural revolution, a transition from the original nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life to growing domesticated crops and keeping domesticated animals, people living settled in a village, making pottery, basketry and (sometimes) cloth. I had never before read evidence of a Neolithic in Africa based on rice.  I briefly defined elsewhere, here, (scroll down to the map of China) the Middle East Neolithic based on wheat and cattle, sheep and goats that began before 9,000 BCE and the two Neolithics in China, one on the Yellow River, based on millet, then wheat, and the other on the Yangtze, based on rice. Pigs and chickens come from China. All three of these Neolithics were followed by the growth of cities, categorized as a Bronze Age and later an Iron Age. I wrote here on the Ages and present a diagram for the history of the technology and of the world growth of population that resulted.

For the Neolithic along the Niger River, the domestication of an indigenous species of rice, unrelated to Asian rice, began at the inland delta circa 1500 BCE. (Here for information on African rice.)

Farming villages based on this rice, and maybe cattle, certainly with fish, eventually supported a growing population that became the base for cities and the medieval kingdoms of the Western Sahel. The Niger Neolithic had pottery and basketry but I find no evidence of a fiber for spinning and weaving. In the Tigris-Euphrates Bronze Age, before linen, the Sumerian people wore skin clothing, pictured here, where I discuss my love of all sorts of cloth. Perhaps it was the same along the Niger. Cloth would have became available early on though trade. I haven’t yet seen paintings, but the terracotta sculptures dating from medieval times are fine art.

The Neolithic everywhere was based on stone tools adapted to farming but in the Middle East and in China the invention of metal tools changed the societies, the first metal being copper, then bronze, a copper-tin alloy. Metal hoes and axes for working the soil, clearing land and cutting wood improved productivity and efficiency. Metal arrow heads and spears for hunting and hooks for fishing further added to the food supply. Population increased. Trade increased in type and volume. Crafts became specialties and people became separated into social classes. Central village grew into cities. Metal weapons influenced warfare and the rise of chiefdoms. In the Fertile Crescent’s river valleys Bronze Age state societies were established by 3000 BCE.

By the 12th century BCE, iron tools were being used in the Middle East. Iron ore is more widespread than copper or tin, enabling more farming areas elsewhere to support denser populations and for more cities and civilization to develop. The technology soon spread throughout the Mediterranean region, to South Asia and further east. It reached Northern Europe by about 500 BCE.

Great Mosque of Djenné

Sub-Saharan West Africa had, and has, few sources of copper and I’ve read of none for tin. However, the working of iron was early in Africa, and the knowledge and skills may well have developed independently rather than by diffusion from the Middle East. It occurred to me that smelting and working iron requires large amounts of charcoal and in the Niger River delta area wood is a scarce resource, which is probably why logs and sun-dried mud, not fired clay, bricks were developed as the construction materials.

Timbuktu Mosque

Moreover, adobe functions well in the environment. The walls absorb heat during the day, keeping the interior cool, and release the heat at night, which can be welcome; nights in the desert are cool, even cold. Adobe walls breathe and they regulate humidity, keeping it in a range that is ideal for storing books. Timbuktu is famous for its Islamic university and today for the ancient texts stored in its adobe walled, termite-free library buildings.

The elements essential for cities and civilization to develop were present along the rivers, especially along the Niger Bend. Here for an article on an important archeological site near an ancient city, Djenné (adopted by UNESCO) that has some of the most famous example of the region’s remarkable architecture.



Archeologists Susan and Roderick McIntosh have determined that the rice-growing Djenné-Djenno town dates from 250 B.C. to 900 A.D. and grew in size as a result of regional and local trade. It can no longer be assumed that complex societies and long distance trade came to this region in the 7th and 8th centuries with the arrival of Arab influence. The archaeological evidence supports that Djenné-Djenno was part of a pre-Arab trans-Saharan trade network. The city’s location in the delta made it a center for trade – for the rice it grew and the Saharan commodities such as salt, gold, copper ornaments and dried fish. Djenné-Djenno would have been in the trade networks of Timbuktu and other large urban centers with traders from North Africa and the Mediterranean and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

This video shows how mud brick buildings are constructed and maintained. (Would that communities in other societies had that level of civic involvement.) Under “Description” is an explanation of the history of the Djenné towns. Photos of the buildings can also be viewed.

Islam and the Great cities —

The camel had been introduced into the Western Sahara in the 3rd century C.E., making possible the growth of trade with Morocco, primarily in salt, gold and slaves (household workers, not the devastating New World plantation slavery). The medieval empires in the region, first the Ghana Empire of Mauritania, 700s C.E. to middle 1200s,

archer 13th-15th century

followed by the larger Mali Empirec. 1230 to 1670, grew and dominated through control of the trade routes and the sources of gold and salt.

During the 9th century, Muslim missionary sects and Muslim Berber and Tuareg merchants introduced Islam into West Africa.  (The Berbers are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa, primarily inhabiting the Maghreb, the area inland from the Mediterranean, and the Tuareg are a nomadic people of the Sahara.)  Widespread conversion to Islam linked the region’s diverse communities to one another. It brought them a unifying religion, and with using Arabic as a common language, it turned them into literate societies. (as Christianity and Latin had done in Europe) Cities, including Timbuktu, Gao and Kano soon became international centers of Islamic learning.

A search that began with rice and slavery in America lead me to learning something of the ethnic origins of a good number of African Americans. I conclude with an excerpt from “Archeological Findings in the Middle Niger,” an article on modern archeology and Middle Niger history I highly recommend. It is short and a good read.

“Through dating techniques, McIntosh and his team (of archeologists) have determined that the earliest cities of the Middle Niger date back at the latest to the mid-first millennium BC. Evidence from artifacts reveal that some cities were of comparable size to the London and Paris of the time, with enormous populations, sophisticated trade and crafts, and large-scale production of goods.”

“The past is a major part of how the people of Mali see themselves today, and Malians are enormously proud that they were part of the original civilizations of the world,” McIntosh explains. “They are especially proud of having the first city that emphasized democracy and decentralization.”

“Though these findings (of sophisticated iron work) may seem technical, such archaeological data have proven quite important to the inhabitants of West Africa. Unlike the United States, other countries are extremely invested in their prehistory. Of the handful of original civilizations throughout the world, only two were previously known to be in possession of iron. With the Middle Niger serving as the premier example of ancient democratic organization, McIntosh’s findings have instilled the Malians with a tremendous source of national pride.”





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I am elderly, in the fourth stage of life (explained here), but still have my mind, the internet for information and a computer for writing, all of which makes it possible for me to connect with the world I now live in and occasionally to use past experience for understanding the present. And due to a recent email exchange with a North Carolina friend this happened again. I had written to him, as someone who had also been a teacher, about an experience I had, many decades ago, with a group of youngsters, and his response set me on a long, circuitous path to revisit my time in Bali and use the knowledge acquired there to better understand unfortunate aspects of my own country’s culture. The friend in the email exchange is African-American and the unfortunate matters we discuss relate to the Black-White divide in American life (named in this essay) that affects all our social interactions.

The incident I wrote about happened in the mid-1960s, at a time when Ravi and I were with the university and teachers in the Black schools on the other side of town went on strike against the city, demanding better facilities, supplies, etc. for their students. I was not involved in city affairs and knew little about what the teachers were doing but somehow they knew me and asked me to teach in the Freedom School they had organized to keep their students occupied and learning while the strike was on. The “school” was held in a huge space contributed by the Lions Club or some such organization. Lots of kids participated. I met with a group of twelve- or thirteen-year olds for about three days, presenting materials on subjects I thought they would benefit from knowing. I took visual materials on human evolution, which was new to them, and for other anthropological subjects presented materials on various cultures. What I remember most vividly was their reaction when I described African cultures. They insisted, quite actively, that Africa was a primitive place, like a Tarzan movie, where people live in trees, like monkeys. I insisted that I had just returned from living in a thousand year old African city and described for them the ancient Mogadiscio and other traditional cities in Africa I knew from anthropological studies. (Mogadiscio indicated here on a map by Fra Mauro di Venezia, 1460) The children took it in quietly, unusual for them. Another of the volunteer teachers, a Black guy from Chicago, come over and listened, saddened by the children’s responses. It was a lesson for me.

My friend, a man in his seventies, raised in a middle-class family in a middle-class Black community, well-educated, retired from a high-level managerial position, responded by email. “Thank you for informing the children about African cultures. I have emphasized “cultures” because while it may not have been your first objective to instill in them pride of ethnicity and/or ancestry, that you even imparted the notion of an African “culture” was very important, for I know very well where their minds were about Africa (very much where my mind probably was when I was their age). Via a number of different inputs, some subtle and some not so subtle (very overt and direct) I was under the impression that Africa and/or Africans had no culture, no way of life that could be thought of as “cultured,” meaning “refined” or orderly or provident. And this was true of virtually every “Negro” I knew. We didn’t want to have anything to do with Africa, did not want to have any connection with it in any way, for it had been imparted to us that it was a place of ignorant and backward people who lurked and lived in the jungle as wild animals for all intents and purposes. While what you imparted to them was incomprehensible, it also probably made a lasting impression that did have some modicum of a positive effect, not the least reason being that they heard this from a White woman (this gave it an important degree of legitimacy, even as it was incomprehensible). They couldn’t believe it, and some didn’t want to believe it, and others were afraid to believe it — afraid that to begin to believe would all too soon dissolve into disappointment. That small bit of information you imparted, however, was retained by at least a few, and may have been the first spark to strengthening some young man or young lady’s  ancestral self-esteem. Again, thank you !!”

The Thirteen Colonies

His response arrived while I happened to be browsing through Joseph J. Ellis’s “Founding Brothers, The Revolutionary Generation,” a book analyzing critical actions taken by our “Founding Fathers” following the American Revolution and after the American Constitution had been adopted. I read the chapter on slavery and the compromises made by Northern states to the Southern states’ demands, where the narrative begins with a presentation in Congress, in 1790, by Representatives from New York and Philadelphia that called for the slave trade to be ended immediately, and that raised again the possibility they might call as well for slavery itself to be abolished. I had expected the Representatives from South Carolina and Georgia to argue for keeping slavery, but not being well-schooled in American history, was completely taken aback on learning that Southern slave-worked plantations at the time were not growing cotton. The cotton gin, the devise that made growing cotton so very profitable, had not yet been invented. Eli Whitney patented it in 1793. These two states, especially South Carolina, had become enormously wealthy from rice plantations, from exporting rice known as Carolina Gold (for more information here and here ) to Britain and Europe, rice grown by African slaves on plantations in irrigated fields. The Representative from Georgia informed the Northern Representatives  “that rice cannot be brought to market without these people (the Africans),” and “ … such is the state of agriculture in that country (S.C. and Georgia), no white man would perform the tasks required to drain the swamps and clear the land, so that without slaves it must be depopulated.”

I had discovered that rice paddy agriculture, a mode of agriculture I had observed in Indonesia, was part of American history and that it was brought to the rice plantations of South Carolina by slaves from Africa, possibly by the ancestors of my young students and my friend in North Carolina.

I’ve written on my blog of having worked several times during the 1980s in Bali for UNICEF and other organizations, evaluating rural health care programs, and of always being thoroughly charmed by the Balinese and their lives filled with lovely rituals and wonderful folk art. It was in later years, as I wrote of my experiences, that I seriously addressed the question of why this village culture was so different from others I had known and finally found the answer in analyzing their agricultural system.

Rice grown with irrigation produces an abundant supply of food that can be stored and traded as well as consumed. The Balinese had developed their own paddy rice system, the components of which were forests that protected water flowing from the mountain tops; terraced rice paddies connected by a system of canals, tunnels and weirs; and the people from the village communities using handmade tools to build, plant, harvest, drain and maintain it. No one person controlled the system; it was owned by all the communities and managed by the landowning families whose representatives gathered at the temples to keep informed and to make decisions for each year’s work plan, on the work to be done by members of the families. It was a system in which upstream owners of land shared equally with downstream owners because they would lose if they did not; all of the owners had to coordinate planting and fallow in complex ways to control the flow of water and to prevent an outbreak of pests that would destroy all the crops. Everyone contributed equally to the inputs and benefited equally from the harvest. They all shared in the prosperity and the leisure time for other aspects of their culture.

Paddy rice agriculture is practiced throughout Indonesia and in other Southeast Asian countries as well. The terraced rice paddies of the Philippines’ Ifugao villagers, for example, are widely admired for their beauty, while the culture is known to anthropologists because of its unwritten complex legal system for running their irrigation system, with rules and sanctions to enforce it, rules for sharing the produce, a system of justice, all of it overseen by a council of elders who represent the community, all of it integrated into their religion and broader sense for justice and morality.

cultivating rice along the Niger

The rice grown on South Carolina plantations came from Asia but the technology, the essential knowledge for how to grow it, came from the colonial masters having watched their slaves grow rice for their own consumption, perhaps with grains they had smuggled in from their homeland. That rice would have been a species domesticated some 3500 years ago in the inland Niger Delta, making possible, along with the system for its cultivation, a productive agricultural system that also spread to Senegal/Gambia and an area of Sierra Leon.

Incidentally, the inland Niger Delta, a remarkable part of the river, is located upstream, in Mali, not far from the ancient Timbuktu, a city I described to my young students so long ago. The drawing is by Martin Bernatz (1802–1878) after a sketch by Heinrich Barth (1821-1865).


From having experienced the sort of society and culture that results from village communities with a long history of highly productive paddy rice agriculture, I can imagine everyday life in Senegal/Gambia and in the other farming communities before the European slave traders discovered it. I am certain the people there had developed an admirable culture, one that was well-governed and just and with the arts as part of daily life, one that African-American children, their descendants, could be proud of and find joy in discovering and claiming.

As I wrote in a blog post here, until late in the 19th century, Bali was protected from invaders. By contrast, by the 15th century, the Portuguese, sailing on the Gambia and the Casamance rivers into the countryside, invaded and captured people to work as slaves in Spain and in Portugal. They were the first Europeans in the slave trade for the New World, bringing on forces that greatly damaged Senegambia culture and the people themselves as individuals. (I haven’t read accounts of the damage done by the slave trade to communal life in West Africa. Perhaps I shall.) From 1445 to 1600 more than one million persons were captured and shipped from West Africa, particularly from the Senegambian region. In one ethnic group, the Jola, elders say that in the past the music of their Akonting, a string instrument, sounded so very sweet to the devils that when the musicians played in the rice fields at night, after the day’s work was done and it was time for music and dance and palm wine before going home, the best Akonting players did not come home. On the following day, when the people went searching for them, they saw prints of shoes on the ground, which they believed were from devils’ feet because in those days Jolas did not wear shoes or even know what shoes looked like. They say this is how the Jola Ekonting came to the Americas.

The following is taken from Drew Gilpin Faust’s NYT review of  Judith A. Carney’s book, “Black Rice.”

“In order to understand the role of Africans in rice history it is necessary to think of rice as a ”knowledge system” — not just a plant or a seed but an entire complex of techniques, technology and processing skills. Africans imported as slaves into Carolina possessed this knowledge, and used their understanding to guide phases of evolution in American rice production.

“Thus, after a vast increase in importations of slaves between 1720 and 1740 provided the necessary labor, Carolina rice cultivation, which had begun with upland or rain-fed culture, shifted to higher-yielding inland swamps. The newly arrived Africans created embankments, sluices and canals almost identical to patterns of West African mangrove rice production. With another influx of slaves after 1750, cultivation moved to still more productive tidal flood plains, which required such a large-scale deployment of floodgates, canals and ditches that rice fields became, in one planter’s words, a ”huge hydraulic machine.” This transition, Carney writes, depended on ”the large number of slaves imported directly from the rice area of West Africa who possessed knowledge of the crop’s cultivation.”

“Carolina planters even knew which African ethnic groups were expert in rice growing and explicitly favored them in their purchases of new slaves. A newspaper in Charleston, for example, advertised the sale of 250 slaves ”from the Windward and Rice Coast, valued for their knowledge of rice culture.”

“The knowledge system Carney describes called for different roles and distinctive kinds of expertise for men and women, and these aspects of rice culture were also transported to the New World. Women played a critical part in seed selection, sowing, hoeing and processing of rice. The importance of these skills enabled slave traders to command higher prices for women in Carolina rice-growing areas than in other American slave markets.”

It breaks my heart to read and think of this.

For more information, watch the video here for the history of South Carolina rice plantations, ending with a recipe for cooking rice that shows how quick, easy cooking is done in many American homes.




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I was so absorbed in the Hidden Figures story, so in awe of the women’s accomplishments that I needed to know if it were true, if based on real people and actual events. If so, a movie showing three women’s critical contributions to NASA during the Space Race in the 1960s, nearly sixty years ago, fits into a theme I’ve been following. Like the movies in my last two blog posts, Hidden Figures presents a new and modern perspective on women, on accepting women in roles previously held almost exclusively by men, on a woman being something and someone other than a mother, a wife, daughter, sister, or an essentially feminine, female presence. Until recently, movies made in Hollywood and elsewhere, with few exceptions, defined women, even strong women, in relation to a man. If the woman were employed, it was in a job considered appropriate for a woman, as a secretary, nurse, librarian, primary school teacher. The women in Hidden Figures are scientists and engineers working at the cutting edge of technology; only in recent years is the public prepared to hear their story and give them the respect they deserve.

Included in this excellent review of the movie is an idea for another such movie. In the late 1800s “ … the Harvard College Observatory employed a group of women who collected, studied, and cataloged thousands of images of stars on glass plates. As chronicled in Dava Sobel’s book The Glass Universe, these women were every bit as capable as men despite toiling under less-than-favorable conditions. Williamina Fleming, for instance, classified over 10,000 stars using a scheme she created and was the first to recognize the existence of white dwarfs. While working six-day weeks at a job demanding “a large capacity for tedium,” they were still expected to uphold societal norms of being a good wife and mother.” I and little girls of previous generations were told that scientists are always men because boys are naturally good at math and girls are not and everyone knows that this is true.

The movie Hidden Figures is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016). She was born in Hampton, Virginia, where mathematician Katherine Johnson, (played by Taraji P. Henson), engineer Mary Jackson (by Janelle Monáe) and supervisor/computer expert Dorothy Vaughan (by Octavia Spencer) lived and where the NASA-Langley Research Center is located. Shetterly’s father was a research scientist in NASA and her mother, a professor in Hampton University. Shetterly is Black and knows the Hampton community from the inside.

How faithful is the movie to reality? From Richard Brody’s review in the NYTimes for the racial situation —   “ … the movie is aptly and thoroughly derisive toward the discriminatory laws and practices that prevailed at the time. The insults and indignities that black residents of Virginia, and black employees of NASA, unremittingly endured are integral to the drama. …”   The first scene of the three women together shows them on a country road, their car stalled, the hood open and Dorothy underneath the engine, trying to fix it. “ … A police cruiser approaches. They tense up; Dorothy says, ‘No crime in a broken-down car,’ and Mary responds, ‘No crime being Negro, neither.’ Their fearful interaction with the officer—a white man, of course, with a billy club in hand and a condescending bearing—is resolved with a comedic moment brought about by the women’s deferential irony. What emerges, however, is nothing less than an instance in a reign of terror. …”

The movie’s historical accuracy is discussed here.  The scene where Harrison smashes the Colored Ladies Room sign did not happen. In real life Katherine refused to walk the extra distance to use the colored bathroom and, in her words, “just went to the White one.” Harrison letting her into Mission Control to witness the launch was added. Screenwriter Theodore Melfi said he saw no problem with the changes he made; the movie representations are essentially true in showing the racism that Black women dealt with every day. Because of Virginia’s segregation laws, African American “computers,” as the women mathematicians were called, had to work in a separate “colored” building at the Langley Research Center. Not mentioned in the movie — The White women “computers” were provided with special housing, while the Black women were left to find their own accommodations. An interview with Katherine Johnson is here, in a video. She’s an attractive person. She says, “I didn’t feel any segregation. I knew it was there, but I didn’t feel it.”

Johnson’s calm self-confidence is impressive, as is that of Mary and Dorothy. I wondered where it came from and decided to look into the personal history of each of the three and learn something of the community and culture that shaped her. To quote James Baldwin: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

While working at NASA, the three women were living in Hampton, in the city’s Black middle-class community. And what a history the city has.

It dates from 1607, when Captain Christopher Newport and his men, having sailed from London, landed at Old Point Comfort, later Fort Monroe, on the southeastern end of the Virginia Peninsula, and claimed it for the colony of Virginia. They continued sailing up the James River and established Jamestown, America’s first English colonial settlement. A few years later, Virginia colonials returned to Old Point Comfort, took over the Native American community on the Hampton River and established their own town on the site.

The Thirteen Colonies

We know from a letter written in 1619 by John Rolfe, widower of Pocahontas, that some 20 Africans from Angola had been rescued at Old Point Comfort from a slave ship. They were the first Africans to come ashore on English-occupied land in the future United States. The child of one couple, Antoney and Isabella, was baptized in 1624 in Hampton’s Anglican Church. At that time in that place, the Africans were considered indentured servants but the slave trade, mostly of Black slaves from the Caribbean, made slaves easily available in the colonies. In the North they lived in towns and worked as domestic servants, as artisans, sailors, longshoremen. In Virginia, the two Carolinas, and Georgia, in the South, where the weather was warm and wet and suitable for growing profitable cash crops, slaves worked on plantations growing tobacco, rice and indigo. In South Carolina, from the early 1700s to the mid-1800s, slaves outnumbered free Whites. Not insignificantly, South Carolina had in 1696 adopted the first full-scale slave code in British North America, modeled on the British colonial Barbados slave code of 1661 that came from the Caribbean, from island estates where White men ran plantations with African slaves who did the nasty, hard work of growing and processing sugar to be sold in Europe. In the northern colonies many colonists began to call for the abolition of slavery. They objected to slavery on moral grounds and, except for New England slave traders, it was not important to their economy. Nevertheless, after the American Revolution, 1775–1783, as a concession to the four Southern colonies, to keep them in the Union, the northern colonies agreed to the U.S. Constitution acknowledging, in coded language, the institution of slavery.

Wherever the plantation and whatever the crop being grown, plantation and slavery — dehumanizing, repressive, violent slavery — went hand in hand. In the 19th century, after the 1784 invention of a machine, the cotton gin, that removed seeds from the plant’s fiber, throughout the South cotton plantations grew in number and in size, becoming enormously profitable producing an easily storable and transportable raw material for the equally profitable textile factories of England and New England.

Ruins of Hampton, 1862

The American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, a war over the future of slavery in America, set the circumstances for the city of Hampton and Fort Monroe to play a unique role in the conflict. Most of Virginia became part of the Southern Confederate States of America, seceding from the United States, but Fort Monroe remained in Union hands, part of the North. Confederate-owned slaves, to gain their freedom, escaped to the Union fort and were protected there in the Grand Contraband Camp, America’s first self-contained African-American community. In 1861, Confederate troops burned Hampton as they left in defeat but after the war the Black people who stayed and lived there revived the city. A number of modern-day Hampton streets still carry the names from that community. In 2010, 49.6% of Hampton’s population was African-American.

Emancipation Oak, Hampton

Mary Jackson, who had grown up in Hampton, attended Hampton University, a special university with a special history. In November 1861, Mary Smith Peake, the first Black teacher of the American Missionary Association (AMA), taught the children of Black freedmen who were living in the contraband camp. Until a building was provided for her, she held class under an oak tree for up to 50 children and at night for some 20 adults. In 1863, the Black community gathered under the Emancipation Oak to hear the first Southern reading of President Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation.

Hampton Institute, 1899 class in mathematical geography

Hampton University grew out of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, later Hampton Institute, established in 1868 by the AMA and the post-civil war government’s Freedmen Bureau. It is one of the historically black colleges and universities and, as well, a land grant university. The latter were institutions of higher learning benefiting from a 19th century federal program that enabled state governments to use federal land and other resources to support such colleges. Booker T. Washington was one of Hampton Institute’s first students.

Mary Jackson graduated in 1942 with degrees in Math and Physical Sciences from Hampton Institute and taught math in a Black high school in Maryland before returning home to positions as receptionist, bookkeeper and secretary, all within Hampton’s Black community. In 1951, she joined the NASA-Langley Research Center, reporting to supervisor Dorothy Vaughan’s computer group, and two years later was selected by a leading engineer to work on designing an advanced wind tunnel, which lead her to fight the segregated educational system and take the graduate level math and physics courses required for her to continue on the job as an engineer. In 1979, having hit the glass ceiling for the center’s female professionals, she moved into management as Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager, hiring and promoting the next generation of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

Dorothy Vaughan was born in 1910 and grew up in a West Virginia town, in a state that was formed in 1861, after the American Civil War had begun. Counties on the northwestern side of Virginia broke away, separating from the Confederacy to stay in the Union and in the North, where they shared a border with Pennsylvania and Ohio. West Virginia on the west had coal mines for steam engines, of interest to northern railway building, and to the east mountain country suited to small family farms, not to plantations that were more like running a business that made slave holding profitable. The new state’s constitution provided for the gradual abolition of slavery and for “free colored children” to be provided with schools. African Americans were free but White prejudice and segregation continued. I wrote an essay here, on the movie Race and on Jesse Owens, the famous Black Olympics champion from Ohio. He was Dorothy Vaughan’s age. His history is relevant to this discussion.

The West Virginia state government required that schools be provided for all children but the town where Dorothy lived, Morgantown, at the Pennsylvania border, provided Black children with only part-time schooling and not in a public school building. Instead, classes were held in the St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 2010, only 4% of the town’s population was African-American, and in the 1910s and ‘20s the Black community may also have been that small. The very talented Dorothy graduated from high school at age 15 and and was moved by her family to Ohio, where she attended, on full scholarship, the historic Black Wilberforce University.

I thought it curious that an African American university would be situated in an Ohio town. The search for an explanation of why and how became an education in my country’s history.

Ohio joined the Union in 1803 as a free state, i.e. no slavery. The town was named for William Wilberforce, a statesman in England who worked for the abolition of slavery and the end of the slave trade in the United Kingdom and its empire. The Wilberforce townspeople were small farmers and tradesmen most of whom, most likely, were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), the organization that helped establish Wilberforce College.

The Methodist Episcopal Church began in the Thirteen Colonies in the 1760s, as an extension of the Methodist church being created in England by John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England who was organizing the common people largely neglected by the Church hierarchy. I once asked an English Methodist pastor about his church and the first thing he thought to tell me was of the early Methodists going into the factories and teaching workers to read and write, at the time an illegal activity. The Methodists in this break-off church were the poor but also shopkeepers, craftsmen, workers and small farmers, the sort of people who would immigrate to the New World. They respected hard work, honesty, virtue and repudiated upper class values and lifestyles. Their strong anti-slavery beliefs and actions were based on moral principles but also on the fact that cheap and docile slave labor undercut employment and decent wages for free men. They welcomed slaves as allies and members of their congregation.

By 1800, Methodism was expanding into the region around Cincinnati, Ohio, which includes Wilberforce, and by 1807, the first Methodist church had been built in Cincinnati. African American freedmen were members of the church but lacking equal status with Whites in the congregation, in 1816 a group left the Methodist Episcopal Church to establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). In the 1820s, the MEC began in a number of the states to build colleges for their membership, and in 1865, to provide classical education and teacher training for Black youth, the Ohio Conference of the MEC and the AME founded Wilberforce College. Both Black and White community leaders were on the college Board. The school was later bought by the AME, the first college to be owned and operated by African Americans. It has an interesting history, described here.

Wilberforce was a station on the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early 19th century until the Civil War. It was used by slaves to escape the plantations into free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause.

Dorothy graduated from college at age nineteen, in 1929, hoping to continue her education at Howard University, the highly ranked historically Black university in Washington, D.C., but the Great Depression set in and she needed to find a job. How she came to teaching math in a poor Black school in the middle of Virginia, I never discovered. I did learn, however, something new about the ground-breaking 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. In 1896, the Supreme Court had ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that the segregation of races in public facilities was constitutional if the separate facilities were equal. In the 1954 decision the Court ruled that separate cannot be equal and public school system must desegregate.

I discovered that the students of the school where Vaughan taught for ten or more years, the Robert Russa Moton High School, had played a critical role in bringing about the 1954 decision. In 1951, 16 year-old Barbara Johns organized the students to protest the unfair treatment of education for Black students and the NAACP convinced the parents to protest through the courts. Moton High provided three-fourths of the plaintiffs in Brown vs. Board of Education. The school building is now a National Historic Landmark and a civil rights museum. The school was named for Robert Russa Moton from the Hampton Institute.

In 1943 Dorothy moved with her husband and children to Newport News, a city on the James River north of Hampton. It was during World War II and NACA, based in Hampton, had need of mathematicians. She soon rose to supervisor of the Black women “computers,” prepared them and the White “computers” to work the machine computers by teaching herself and her staff Fortran. She later headed the programming section of the Analysis and Computation Division (ACD) at Langley. All this while also raising her six children.

Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in a small but wealthy West Virginia town near Virginia. Her curiosity and extraordinary math talent was evident at an early age, and because the town had only a primary school for Black children, her parents took her to a high school on the campus of West Virginia State College, which was, like Hampton Institute, a Black land grant college that attracted the top professors of the day, including the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois. Her Black professors tutored her and arranged for her to receive a level of education in mathematics not ordinarily available to highly talented Black students, or perhaps to many students anywhere. She graduated from high school at age 14 and at age 18 from college, with high honors in mathematics and French, followed by teaching in Black high schools.

In 1939, a few years after Katherine graduated, West Virginia State College became the first of six historically Black colleges to be authorized by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to establish an aviation program, a program that graduated a number of the Black aviators in the World War II U.S. Army Air Corps. Others joined the famed 99th Fighter Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group (the Tuskegee Airmen) that served with distinction in the European TheaterRose Agnes Rolls Cousins was the first African American woman to become a solo pilot in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

Following Brown v. Board of Education, West Virginia State College desegregated and was transformed from an all-Black land grant college to one with mostly White students.

After graduation, Katherine taught in Black high schools. When West Virginia decided, in 1939, to integrate its graduate schools, she and two young men were the first Black students to be offered places in West Virginia University, in Morgantown. She resigned from her teaching job and enrolled in the graduate math program. At the end of the first semester, however, she left school to have a child, then returned to teaching when her three daughters were older. In 1952, having learned of positions opening in NACA for Black women, Katherine and the family moved to Newport News for her to take advantage of the opportunity. Her husband died of cancer in 1956. In the movie, she is shown raising her daughters with the help of, I think, her mother and the beginning of her marriage to James A. Johnson, who had been a Second Lieutenant in the Army.

On September 22, 2017, the 99-year-old Katherine Johnson cut the ribbon for the Katherine G Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley research center in Hampton, Virginia, where she was honored as a trailblazing “human computer.”

It felt good seeing Katherine Johnson so honored and knowing that she and Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan are being honored by the movie and the book on which it is based.


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I find it difficult these days to concentrate on my past, on my memories, and writing about them seems particularly irrelevant. Instead, endlessly I read and listen to news reports and political analyses, obsessed with the crises Donald Trump is creating in and for the American government. I believe Trump and the people he brings into office are a danger to America’s democracy and economy, maybe also to other countries’ well being.

And I worry about what is happening to young people. They face a job market where wages are abominable.

Since 2000, the hourly wage of the median worker rose just 0.5%, while productivity increased by nearly 23%. From 1979 to 2011, wages for the median worker grew by 6%, wages for the highest-earning 5% rose by nearly 38%, and for the top 1% they rose by 131%. For the lowest paid workers, wages actually fell during those years. Nearly one-third of women, compared to nearly a quarter of men, earned poverty-level wages in 2011. For more statistics, check here. But know that this sort of inequality has happened before in capitalist democracies and has been reversed through collective action by the workers. In the 1930s my grandfather and father worked as unskilled, low-paid laborers in a steel mill, in a dangerous setting, for long hours six days a week. They joined with other workers and formed a union. Unions transformed the society and the economy.

Norma Rae captures the meaning of the union, which is why I remember so many of the scenes. Besides, it’s a wonderful movie about friendship, family, love, relationships, individuals growing and changing, all of which made it a box office success. Watching a real textile factory floor in action, both the technology and how the workers and managers related to one another, fascinated me. The cinematography is exceptional and the acting remarkable. Sally Field won a large number of Best Actress awards for portraying Norma Rae, including at Cannes in 1979 and the Oscar in 1980, along with “It Goes as it Goes” sung by Jennifer Warnes, as Best Song. It’s a classic film, selected in 2011 for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Nevertheless, very few reviews of Norma Rae are available on-line and the reason why is explained in this excellent summary of the story Matt Langdon wrote in 2011.   “This is a classic 1970’s film that successfully blends a feminist component with the typical management labor struggle that have existed in factories and mills since the 19th century. It’s an important subject but more than 20 years after it was made it continues to have a bad rap with mainstream audiences. Mainly because it is a feminist film, a pro-labor film as well as one that is very class conscious and takes place in a small southern town. All these things, though, make “Norma Rae” a unique Hollywood film since its kind wouldn’t be made today. … …”


An early meeting

I like this detailed summary of the plot, but certain expressions need to be explained. For example, “balled out” should be “bawled” out, meaning to shout at and scold someone. In the last paragraph, regarding the expression: “And boy that Sally Field really did an excellent job.” I no longer hear “boy” used to emphasize an idea. When I was young the expression was “boy oh boy.” Perhaps the original meaning was from buoy (same pronunciation), a devise that bloats on the water and serves to warn people of a hazard, such as a reef. The buoy often had a bell attached. As a verb, buoy or buoy up can mean to boost or increase. For another slang expression:  “And the Flying Nun was looking pretty sharp in the film.”  “Looking pretty sharp” means looking bright and very pleasing. Flying Nun refers to a television series Sally Fields starred in.

I love this video clip from the movie. It expresses why the union was important to ordinary people.

The man speaking is a union organizer from New York. He is Jewish, the first Jew Norma Rae has met. The meeting is being held in a humble Black church. This photo is from its interior, with people sitting on the church’s benches. Norma Rae later asked the White preacher for permission to hold a union meeting in the much better equipped White church, the sort of church in the other photograph, and he turned her down.

The events in the movie took place in 1974, at a time when the textile industry was already unionized, nationally, except for this one company, J.P. Stevens.

The turning point

The U.S. Congress had passed laws to protect the right of workers to unionize, but by keeping its workers from knowing about the law and worker rights, the J.P. Stevens company was able to keep worker wages low and their work conditions dangerous to health. In one dramatic scene we see Norma Rae’s bosses harassing her as she copies a paper posted on the factory’s bulletin board. Management had written it to frighten the White workers. The paper states that if the workers formed a union, the Blacks would run it, which is untrue, and under national civil rights law such a prejudiced assertion is illegal. The company is gaslighting the workers.


The woman, Crystal Lee Sutton, on whom Norma Rae is based is described here.  She was pleased with the movie’s interpretation of her union activities and of her life.

The movie’s presentation of a town such as Crystal Lee’s town is authentic. Compared with those in the North where I grew up, it is a life of relative poverty. Norma Rae’s household needs three adults, her mother and father and her, a mother of small children, working full-time to support the family. (After all, the textile industry owners moved their factories from the North to the South because the wages there were significantly lower.) I compare this scene of Norma Rae and her parents in their yard with the yard of my low-income working-class grandparents. In the 1940s, Grandmother had a washing machine and wringer in the house and her clothes line in a neat back yard. Norma Rae’s mother, in 1974, is doing laundry in a tub, wringing it out by hand. It seems like a hardscrabble life.

This article is by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was sent in 1974 to North Carolina to report on efforts to unionize the workers in large textile mills. It is a lengthy discussion of struggles between the textile companies and the unions, including the movie’s unionization, and of the government’s involvement in settling disputes.

Finally, my memory of union country — In the 1940s, I lived for three years with my White Anglo-Saxon Protestant working class grandparents (described here) in Ohio. Like many small town White Christian working-class girls, I never heard the word “Jew” outside of Bible studies at church and was quite unaware of anyone in my high school being Jewish. The Negro community in the South (“Negro” being the polite word at that time) was a large minority, unequal and living segregated from the Whites, except as servants. (described here in The Help) In my Ohio town the Negro community was small and socially invisible to most Whites. The high school was integrated and I chatted with a few Black kids in the classroom but social segregation reigned. (a note here on sports and Black/White school integration.) My circle of friends included children of Catholic families who had come in the early 20th century as immigrants to the northern U.S., rarely to the South, from southern and eastern Europe, and although Grandmother and Granddad disapproved of the Catholic Church they reluctantly accepted my visiting with families they found so different from themselves. I was always curious about different people and asked Granddad to tell me where the Negro children lived and why nasty words like Dago and Wop were used for people from Italy and other strange places. He said, “We don’t talk about that.” End of discussion.

His non-answer, so unlike him, puzzled me, but I now think his silence had to do with the union. Granddad and Grandmother personally held the standard racial and ethnic prejudices but did not like to say negative things against other people. To avoid unpleasantness they, in their own words, stayed with their own kind. However, Black men and men of the new ethnic communities were in the union with Granddad. They had been on the picket line together, together they fought the company and its well organized, well financed supporters. They had won and together elected leaders, fought for decent wages and safe working conditions, followed union principles and acted as one. The union saw to it that Grandmother had a nice, affordable place to live when she was widowed. My grandparents had no vocabulary for a rationale discussion of the inconsistencies between their union identity and social differences in the larger society, so they choose not to talk about it. They believed in the union and were faithful to its ethic of collective identity and action. I think it taught them tolerance. In later years, although not always comfortable with it, they accepted my stepping out into a diverse world. They even accepted my marrying a foreign student from India, without going so far as to include his photograph among the family photos on the top of the piano in the living room.

Apparently, the unions that built middle-class America are dead, gone. I read that Americans have reached the (incorrect) conclusion that organizing workers is counterproductive. If so, this has to be changed.

As an addendum — In a fascinating, well written article, “Confronting the Parasite Economy,” in the American Prospect magazine, Nick Hanauer, an extraordinarily successful businessman, presents his view of the economy and of wage scales, of what is wrong with both and why and how they should be changed. His ideas are controversial among economists but I find them convincing.

Hanauer’s argument is that in the U.S. we have two types of businesses – (1) businesses in the real economy that pay their workers decent middle-class wages and (2) parasite businesses that pay unjustly, economically unnecessarily low wages. The cost is high for taxpayers working in the real economy because the majority of the money we collectively pay for anti-poverty programs goes not to poor people without jobs; it goes to low-wage workers who must rely on government welfare programs to survive. Our tax money supports the working poor employed by parasite businesses — businesses that keep wages low because they can, not because it is necessary for running a profitable business but because they have total power over their employees. Parasite businesses are bad for the economy; they reduce their workers’ ability to buy goods and services from businesses in the real economy and prevent those workers from contributing to the nation’s economic growth. And the wrongs the parasite businesses create for the society … … too numerous to list.

The solution is collective action. Governments should raise the minimum wage, which entails raising citizen awareness of the negative effects of poverty-level wages. Mostly, we need a rebirth of unions to increase wages, improve working conditions and bring individuals from diverse communities together in collective action. With our nation’s growing ethnic diversity, bringing people together for collective action is especially important for our democracy.

Addendum 2 — An important study indicates that the growing income inequality in the U.S. is caused in large part by a politically induced decline in the strength of worker unions. Unions reduce pay differences within companies and unions lobby in the federal and state governments on behalf of the working and middle classes for better education, better health services and generally for a strong public social infrastructure. Union decline, and the decline in public infrastructure, has come from business-financed political conservatives who spread misinformation and successfully lobby Congress to pass laws that make it difficult for workers to unionize. When in my mid-forties, in the 1970s, I did an M.B.A, in the Kellogg School. The hostility many of the student expressed toward unions, and toward workers, surprised me. How different from the small business people I had known for whom employees were people, not factors of production requiring cost control.

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race-posterSports events do not often interest me, so neither do movies about them. If Jesse Owens had not been African-American, I would not have watched Race, a movie that explores the meanings of an athlete’s personal history and of the 1936 Olympics. Owens ran races, set records and won medals, but the race that interested me was his being Black and famous in the 1930s. What he was famous for I barely knew, only that it had to do with Hitler’s Olympics and Hitler disapproved of Blacks and Jews participating, let alone winning, in the games. I had read that Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1936 Olympics is one of the best documentaries ever made. I really had to watch both Race and Olympia – Festival of Nations – 1936. (They can be seen on-line.)

Viewed on-line, the first scenes of Olympia are dark and foggy but gradually this clears to show great photography, great story-telling, and beautiful young bodies. ollympicjesse-owensFilming the action of the sports events, Riefenstahl focused the camera on some athletes more than on others, and especially on Jesse Owens. He was a wonder of grace in motion. In the second part of the documentary her picturing of the diving competition is magical. We see the women divers from on high, one after another in flight, knifing into the water, then gliding upward to it’s surface.

The two prestigious and most read reviewers, here and here, recognize the importance of historical events and individuals presented in Race, comment interestingly on them, tell of the terrible prejudice against him that Jessie Owens (Stephan James) suffered throughout his life but nevertheless consider the movie to be a story filmed in “the bland cookie-cutter mold too often seen in the biopic genre” or as a “standard inspirational biopic.” Another reviewer, here, remarks on the high quality of the work behind the camera while characterizing the movie as well-meaning but at times naive, simplistic and at pains to show almost every character (Hitler and Goebbels excluded) in the most flattering light possible.

For me, Race is quite a good movie and certainly rises above the usual biopic level. Actually, it is not biographical, not a picture of Jessie Owens’ life. It is the story of an exceptionable young man caught in the center of an important ideological conflict in the America of the 1930s.

Jessie was born in Alabama in 1913, the seventh child of poor farmers, sharecroppers, where Black children picked cotton instead of attending school.

The Great Migration by Lawrence Jacob

The Great Migration by Jacob Lawrence

The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio when Jessie was nine, from the deep South to the industrial North. They were part of the Great Migration, a movement that took place between 1910 and 1970 of 6 million African-Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West , illustrated and illuminated by the powerful paintings of Jacob Lawrence. Do see his paintings, here.

I grew up in a number of towns not far from Cleveland, from 1935 to the mid-1940s, attending various primary schools and one high school. We see in the movie a Black community in a Black neighborhood.  Black children attended a primary school with other Black children in their own neighborhood but Cleveland’s junior and high schools were like mine, for all children from all the primary schools, Black and White.

fifth from the right

Jessie Owens’ high school team. He is fifth from the right

Jessie attended integrated schools where his outstanding record in the schools’ track and field competitions attracted the attention of athletic departments in colleges and universities across the country, followed by several offering him a scholarship. Why he chose Ohio’s state university is not explained anywhere, but perhaps he preferred a school closer to home. Besides attending classes, studying and training, he worked as a night elevator operator, a waiter, at a gas station, in the University library to support him and the baby girl born to his future wife, Ruth. After a year or so, to keep him as a winning athlete, the university awarded Jessie a token job in the Ohio government Statehouse that paid him, as a student, without requiring much time or work from him. In the movie he has one friend, the other Black student on the track team, and no friends among the White students. In fact, White students are shown as hostile to the two Black students and only after he becomes a hero for the U.S. team in the Olympics are a few of them somewhat friendly toward him. The Ohio State University coach Larry Snyder’s (Jason Sudeikis) support and friendship is critical in sustaining Jessie and ensuring his success in the Olympics.

For sports fans  —  a summary of Jessie Owen’s track and field records before the Olympics —  At about 12 years old, in a city-wide school athletic competition, Jessie set records by clearing 6 feet in the high jump, and leaping 22 ft. 11 3/4 in. in the running broad jump, now known as the long jump. In high school, he won all of the major track events, and for three consecutive years the championship of the state of Ohio high schools’ competition. In Chicago, at a national competition, he set a new high school world record by running the 100-yard dash in 9.4 seconds to tie the accepted world record, and he created a new high school world record in the 220-yard dash by running the distance in 20.7 seconds. A week earlier he had set a new world record in the long jump by jumping 24 feet 11 3/4 inches. In a major competition between universities, in 1935, he set three world records and tied a fourth, all in a span of about 45 minutes, and performing while suffering from a back injury. Jesse accomplished what many experts still feel is the greatest athletic feat in the history of track and field events.

Leni Riefenstahl was marginal to American concerns at the Olympics but her presence in the movie adds to the interest.

She is shown as Goebbels’ associate, serving informally as his interpreter, probably a dramatic device for keeping her in the action. We understand that he controls the finances for her to film the games and she is cool toward him. triumph-des-willens-posterIn reality, she was friendly with Hitler and did associate with Goebbels and others in his circle. Critics disagree on whether she was ideologically and actively a Nazi. Hitler admired the first movie she directed, The Blue Light (Das blaue Licht ) and asked her to make a film for him. She wrote he wanted a film ” … showing the Congress through a non-expert eye, selecting just what was most artistically satisfying – in terms of spectacle.leni-riefenstahl-poster … … a film which would move, appeal to, impress an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics. …” In 1935, she directed, produced, edited, and co-wrote Triumph of the Will, recognized, despite its content, as one of the greatest propaganda films in history.

I watched The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Rienfenstahl and it was wonderful. She was incredible. She died in September 2003, aged 101, active and outrageous until the last.


Until watching Race I was unaware of the serious public debate at the time over whether to boycott or to participate in Hitler’s Olympics. Major national figures were involved in the controversy. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wanted a boycott of the Olympics because of Hitler’s rabid racism against Jews, blacks and other minorities, and in the movie, an NAACP representative comes to the Owens home to persuade Jessie not to participate in the Olympics.

olympic-hitlerQuoting from the Holocaust Encyclopedia    –  Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in 1933. Observers in the United States and other western democracies soon began to question the morality of supporting Olympic Games hosted by the Nazi regime.

Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC),  stated: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.” He claimed: “The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.”

Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, led efforts to boycott the 1936 Olympics. He pointed out that Germany had broken Olympic rules forbidding discrimination based on race and religion. In his view, participation would indicate an endorsement of Hitler’s Reich. When the American Olympic Committee put before its members for a vote the decision to participate or to boycott participation won by only two votes.

In the movie, we watch Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) and Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) debating the issue before other men in what appears to be a meeting of the American Olympic Committee. Mahoney makes the case for boycott and Brundage for participation.  Avery Brundage is the more complex figure and facts may have been modified somewhat for dramatic effect, to present the spirit of what happened, if not the exact sequence of events.

Brundage is at the games, shown negotiating with Goebbels, trying and failing to have Hitler meet and congratulate Owens as he did with all other winners. (The movie shows little of the other Black athletes.) Brundage is at fault when he does not protect the right to participate for two American Jewish athletes.

High-level American diplomats warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Nazis were exploiting the Olympics for propaganda purposes, but he chose not to become involved in the national debate over a boycott. He continued a 40-year tradition in which the American Olympic Committee operated independently of outside influence.

owens-and-langFor Jessie, the experience of being in Germany added to that of running and winning in the games. In hotels and restaurants no one discriminated against him. At the games, Germans in the stands adopted him as a favorite and cheered him on. A German competitor, Carl ‘Luz’ Long, gave him advise on the rules that allowed him to win. The two became friends and corresponded until Long’s death in the war. At home, President Roosevelt invited the White athletes to the White House but not Jessie or the 17 other Black men on the U.S. team, even though they had won 14 of the 56 U.S. medals in Berlin.

In the movie, a most ironic situation occurs after Jessie has arrived home, is famous throughout America and beloved for winning in Berlin. We see him and Ruth (in real life his mother) with Larry Snyder and his wife and other guests, all elegantly dressed, approaching the entrance of the grand hotel where a celebratory dinner in Jessie’s honor will be held and the doorman refusing entrance to Jessie and Ruth because they are, in the word of the time, Negro. Larry protests, but Jessie, maintaining his dignity, accepts. He and Ruth walk around to the back of the building, to the servants’ entrance, continue through the huge kitchen in the basement to the service elevator and take it up to the dining room where he will be received as the star of the event.

President Roosevelt’s snubbing of the Black athletes disturbs me. FDR was a major figure in my childhood, and now, with this incident and others, I realize he was a racist. Oh, well. Although a flawed individual, he was a great President. Fortunately, Eleanor Roosevelt was a great human being. She served as liaison between her husband and the NAACP and she defied segregation laws by sitting between White and Black attendees at the 1939 Southern Conference for Human Welfare in Birmingham, Ala. Read here of the famed singer, Marian Anderson, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the Times of India, Reagan Gavin Rasquinha, has in the second section of his review of Race a discussion with the screen writers, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, and of how they approached the movie. They studied documents and social and political biographies from the era, everything available about Jesse Owens. They informed themselves about the 1936 Olympics, its significance, and the out-sized personalities of the people who ran it.

In writing the screenplay, Shrapnel and Waterhouse decided to tell the story of a particularly significant period in Jesse’s life, the time when he matured from a talented runner into a worldwide champion. They also sought to go beyond the boundaries of a typical sports film, onto a broader social and political canvas of the Nazi’s rise in Germany and the controversy in the U.S. “… In order for the audience to appreciate the enormity of Owens’ accomplishments – the scale and importance of his victories – we had to give them background and history; people may not know just how close these Games came to not happening, or happening without U.S. participation. As it was, the Berlin Games were the last Olympics until after World War II. The world was changing fast.”

Mr. Jessie Owens

Mr. Jessie Owens

I think another story to be told, and one worth filming, is of how Jessie Owens coped with the contradictions he faced, being alternately accepted and rejected, yet persisting through a series of failures and successes, through humiliation and honors. In 1976 he narrated a short film, Jessie Owens Returning to Berlin, here on video, about the 1936 Olympics and the Germans welcoming him in 1951 for a visit to the city. He is impressive, a fine, dignified presence, a pleasing voice, thoroughly at ease before the camera. In today’s America, with his talent and personality, he would have been a huge success at whatever he chose to do.


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pinky posterThis is the most recent in a series of comments concerning movies depicting relations between Black and White in America. I state my basic perspective on the situation here in The American Caste System.

In the New York Times review of Pinky, 1949, the heading was “Pinky, Zanuck’s Film Study of Anti-Negro Bias in Deep South,” ‘Negro’ being the word used at that time for African American. The movie was a commercial success and won Oscar nominations for the three main actors, Jeanne Crain as Pinky, Ethel Waters as Granny, and Ethel Barrymore as Miss Em. (The movie can be watched on-line.) It is the story of a Negro woman, Pinky, who can “pass for white” and did so while living in the North, possibly in Chicago, then returned to her home in small town Mississippi. pinky and miss em We know from the uniform she wears at work that she is an RN, a licensed Registered Nurse, formally trained in a hospital nursing program in the North, and she insists that Miss Em and others recognize her professional qualifications.

Two Black actors, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge were interested in playing the role but the movie’s initial Director, John Ford, decided to cast a White woman in the part. Since the African American identity is a caste, not a race, discussed here, a White woman could realistically portray Pinky and White audiences would identify with her, at least in the North, and accept the movie’s premise. Pinky_1949The tragic beautiful young “mulatto” was a Hollywood cliché.

Shortly after the filming began, Elia Kazan took over as Director. He wanted to make at least part of the movie on location in the South but the studio would not allow it, requiring him to shoot almost everything in the studio – one reason he did not much like the movie. Neither could he change the casting. He later said, “Jeanne Crain was a sweet girl, but she was like a Sunday school teacher. I did my best with her, but she didn’t have any fire. The only good thing about her was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is what ‘passing’ is.” He wrote, here, “[T]he most memorable thing about making that picture was the party at the end of shooting. Ethel Waters had been so sweet, kissing me all the time and telling me how much she loved me and how grateful she was to me. She and I got drunk, and I said, ‘Ethel, you don’t really like any white man do you?’ And she said, ‘I don’t like any of them. I’d never trust any of ’em.’ When she got drunk she told the truth, and I liked her better for it. I thought, ‘I don’t blame her. I can understand that.”

pinky as nursePinky’s manner is that of an educated middle-class woman. A doctor from the North, a White man, unhappy that Pinky has left him, comes looking for her and discovers she is the granddaughter of a humble Black servant woman. After absorbing the shock of her being Black he still loves her. He wants them to marry and go off together, far away, to where her true identity will never be discovered. She chooses to stay and live her life as a Black woman despite, in the NYT review, “… the hopeless discomfort of poor housing, the ignominy of police abuse, the humiliations of Jim Crowism … the sting of epithets, … …the mean antagonisms of certain bigot(s) ….

A young Black doctor has stayed to serve his community, and an inheritance from Miss Em enables Pinky to do the same, to challenge the system. An interesting theme in her battle for justice is that the Law and the Courts are universal, above personal prejudices, for all the people. Would that it were so.

When I first saw Pinky, in 1949, I was a student on a university campus in the North. The South was not as yet for me a meaningful place and a culture. I hardly knew what to think of it. I had two Black working-class friends, described here, originally from Mississippi. On campus, Black students, clearly upper middle class, were integrated into the university but they were few in number, and although we were together in the classrooms and social areas like the student union, White and Black self-segregated socially. For most White students, non-Whites were simply invisible. My social clique was, except for me, White male, mostly graduate students in anthropology and sociology. They recognized the “race problem” but did not discuss it. I had not heard of organizations like the NAACP.

I remembered the movie in more detail than usual, especially the last scenes of the way Pinky used Miss Em’s mansion for I was not certain what. Was it a school, a clinic, both? Whichever, it was good and I assumed that because of her nurse’s training she knew what she was doing.  My image of nurses in general was positive but not specific. I had never known a nurse. None of my girlfriends in high school had intended to become a nurse and on campus there were no nurses, other than in the university hospital I came to know quite well. Seeing Pinky recently, it still held up as a good movie and I recognized the picture of the South as authentic. I felt the Granny-Miss Em relationship reflected a stereotype —  loyal servant and kindly matriarch, but individuals can bridge a social gap and genuinely care for one another.  I was impressed with Pinky’s pride in her nurse identity and the authority gained by wearing the uniform.

In the America of the era, it was generally expected that after finishing high school, a girl would work outside the home until she married. Nursing and the skilled office secretary were the two women’s occupations I knew of, plus the hairdresser and a shop-owner or two. Otherwise, the jobs were ordinary office, sales, clerical or factory wage employment. In 1949, barely five percent of women held a college or university degree. For the girl who went on to school and graduated, a variety of attractive, usually non-career, positions opened to her, most often as a school teacher, but only until she married. Married women, and especially mothers, were not welcomed into the work force.

One further observation from the movie:  In 1949 the fact that Pinky’s doctor friend wanted to marry her seemed perfectly normal to me. In America doctors marry nurses and always have. I later learned that in some countries, among certain families, it was not acceptable for a doctor to marry a nurse. More on that in another context.

I may watch The Nun’s Story again. Audrey Hepburn plays a nun who is also a nurse. The nurse’s uniform, incidentally, is modeled on the nun’s habit. The Deaconess as nurse, in the Protestant tradition, was the model for modern nursing as it developed in Western Europe.

Wit deals with profound issues of life, science and character. A professor is diagnosed with cancer and must decide how she will die. The nurse becomes integral to her thinking and her actions. I will probably see the movie again and learn who wrote the script and who directed it, mostly to observe the nurse.

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Fruitvale Station poster 2

This is one comment in a series of comments on movies depicting relations between Black and White in America. I state my basic perspective on the situation here in The American Caste System.  — —

Violence in movies upsets me, and “Fruitvale Station” opens with violence, wild and confusing, followed by scenes of a young African-American man who seems headed for trouble. I thought “Oh, no!” and took the disc out of the DVD player.

Months later, though, I discovered that the movie had won major awards at the Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival and that its audience reception was extraordinary. —  “Well before the movie had ended — by the scene in which Oscar’s mother, Wanda Johnson, his girlfriend, Sophina, and his friends have assembled in the hospital waiting room, praying and worrying — you could hear people in the audience begin to lose it. The college-age woman to my left was sobbing so hard that I closed my notebook and put my arm around her. This movie had reduced people to their most vulnerable selves. It opened in American theaters two weekends ago, and the crying hasn’t stopped. Some of the current reaction is compounded by timeliness. Fruitvale Station opened the weekend that a jury in Sanford, Florida, acquitted George Zimmerman of manslaughter and second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin.” (for information here)

FRUITVALE police and BARTOscar Grant was a young African American man who died from a gun shoot to his back, by a policeman, on New Years Eve, on the Fruitvale station of San Francisco Bay Area’s BART train line, and witnesses with cell phones captured it all on videos. The violence in the opening scene was real; it is not Hollywood gratuitous fun stuff. I decided I really should see the movie. (It can be watched on-line.)

“Fruitvale Station” is the story of Oscar’s last day of life, conceptualized, written and directed by Ryan Googler, a young African-American man from the Oakland area and a student in the USC School of Cinematic Arts on January 1, 2009, the day Oscar died.

Television stations in the San Francisco area ran, over and over again, videos of the fracas with the police and the shooting of Oscar, of angry crowds charging through city streets, burning cars and smashing storefronts, of protesters being arrested. Googler watched, horrified, and soon began planning the film he would make. He contacted Oscar’s mother and girlfriend, gained their trust and interviewed people who knew Oscar, learning about him as a person. By January 2011, he had met Forest Whitaker, famous actor turned movie producer, and Whitaker agreed to do the movie with him.

Fruitvale BART station platformThe movie plot is here. It has the veracity of a documentary film about real people and a real landscape. The cast is outstanding. Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Oscar Grant III is totally believable, as is that of Octavia Spencer as his mother, Wanda. Googler filmed in the city, Oakland, and on the BART train and train station. We see an ethnically and racially diverse working class neighborhood, which has to be a San Francisco Bay Area phenomenon; I know of no such integrated neighborhood elsewhere. Oscar’s girlfriend, Sophina, is played by Melonie Diaz, of Puerto Rican descent. She is not Black but nothing is made of this fact and she is shown happy and comfortable with Oscar’s Black family. She and Oscar have a five-year-old daughter, which means he was seventeen when the girl was born. Sophina is raising the child in an apartment that seems more hers than theirs as a cohabiting couple and she has a job, goes to work each day.

Fruitvale Station posterAt the time of the filming both Micheal B. Jordon and Melonie Diaz were twenty-six, not twenty-two, like the couple they played. In photographs the real Oscar looks very young; four years makes a difference in the early twenties. I see him as a boy struggling to face adulthood. He adores his daughter and is totally dedicated to her but has not been a stable presence in her life. He has been unfaithful to Sophina but he promises, and intends, to change, to become a husband and a father. He is close to his sister and brother, both of whom work in low-income service jobs, and they all are continually short of money. He has been fired from his job at a grocery store for habitually arriving late and he tries, unsuccessfully, to talk the owner into giving him another chance. Fruitvale marijuana arrest rates by race yearHe does not want to return to selling marijuana on the street, a profitable, illegal activity. In the store, standing at the meat counter, Oscar initiates conversation with a young White woman whom he sees is in a quandary. When she tells him she has no idea how to cook fish for her New Years Eve dinner that night, he phones his grandmother to advise her. I did not interpret his behavior as a come-on with the girl; he was being himself, curious and open. Many incidences in the movie show him to be kind, generous and in great need of communication with others, a trait that at times probably gets him into trouble.

A problematic aspect of his personality is his quick temper. A flashback has him in prison and his mother visiting him. She realizes from bruises on his face that he has again been in a fight. While they are talking a huge bully of a man makes a derogatory remark that sets Oscar lunging at him, ready for another fight.

The fact that Oscar’s police record shows he was arrested several times says nothing in particular about his character. African-American men are unfairly targeted by the police and the prison sentences they face are far harsher than those of their White counterparts.

Ryan Googler

Ryan Googler

Googler gives an example from his own experience of how being Black is enough to arouse a policeman’s suspicion  —

“I’ve been detained by the police before, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I’ve been detained in several situations. … … I remember one time my fiancée and I were just hanging out in the car talking, and we got stopped, pulled out of the car, had to sit on the concrete because there was a robbery close by. They said I fit the description, so me and her were sitting out there for hours until somebody came by and said that it wasn’t us.”  He was lucky. If the police had not found the culprit, Ryan Googler would likely have been held and arrested.

A scene that touched me was Oscar’s conversation with a White man, maybe ten years older than Oscar, who talked about having drifted for years between jobs, going nowhere, then committed himself to marriage with his girlfriend, found work that he could do successfully and was becoming a good family man. He sounded rather like Oscar in personality and could have continued indefinitely going nowhere if opportunities for him had not been there, far more often than for a Black man. I read that the real Oscar was thinking of becoming a barber, a trade he had learned in prison. In many communities, the barbershop is a social center for men. Oscar would have flourished in that environment, would have married Sophina and settled down to the life he wanted.

By the last scene I was involved with Oscar, hopeful for him, shocked at his death and how he died. I was in tears.

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