Say What? James McCune Smith on African American Art and Culture

Left: James McCune Smith. Right: Nina Simone and James Baldwin, early 1960’s

‘It is the law …that an oppressed minority shall ultimately obtain a ruling influence over their oppressors. …

For we are destined to write the literature of this republic, which is still, in letters, a mere province of Great Britain. We have already, even from the depths of slavery, furnished the only music which the country has yet produced. We are also destined to write the poetry of the nation; for as real poetry gushes forth from minds embued with a lofty perception of the truth, so our faculties, enlarged in the intellectual struggle for liberty, will necessarily become fired with glimpses at the glorious and the true, and will weave their inspiration into song.

We are destined to produce the oratory of this Republic; for since true oratory can only spring from honest efforts in behalf of the RIGHT, such will of necessity arise amid our struggle…’

James McCune Smith, ‘The Destiny of the People of Color’ (1843),
published in The Works of James McCune Smith, 2006

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Paul Robeson, Black Dockworkers, and Labor-Left Pan-Africanism, by Peter Cole

Actor Paul Robeson, photographed at Madame St. Georges studio in London in 1925 (AP Photo/Courtesy Paul Robeson Jr.). Click to hear Robeson’s incomparably beautiful baritone voice sing ‘Shenandoah’

In honor of singer, actor, and civil and labor rights activist Paul Robeson’s birthday, April 9, 1898, here’s an excellent piece by Peter Cole, originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog

Paul Robeson was one of the greatest black internationalists of the twentieth century. A gifted actor and singer, he was also an unabashed leftist and union supporter. This resulted in his bitter persecution, destroying his career and causing, to a surprising degree, his disappearance from popular–if not academic–memory. Robeson’s connections to the fiery black dockworkers of the San Francisco Bay illuminate a form of black internationalism still left out of scholarly analyses –what I will refer to as Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

Robeson’s life exemplified Pan-Africanism, a global movement of politically conscious black people who believed they shared much in common with all people of African descent in Africa and across the African Diaspora. In the 1930s, Robeson embraced this ideology, along with communism, and supported the Soviet Union. Robeson and other leftwing, Pan-African black intellectuals and activists—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Eslanda Robeson, Vicki Garvin, and Hubert Harrison—fought long and hard for racial equality in the United States and for liberation of African and Caribbean nations abroad.

Robeson connected struggles for civil rights with socialism and working class politics. His interest in black equality first came from his father, William Drew Robeson, who was born a slave and successfully liberated himself. Robeson’s leftist politics emerged in the 1930s, first visiting the Soviet Union in 1934, and subsequently embracing socialism for treating black people as equals. He combined politics and artistry from then onwards.

In 1935, Robeson performed in the London debut of the American play Stevedore.1 The reviewer in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine concluded: “Stevedore is extremely valuable in the racial–social question—it is straight from the shoulder.” Later that year, he also played the lead in C. L. R. James’ take on Toussaint L’Ouverture, itself written shortly before James’ classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938).

In 1937, back in the United States, Robeson helped to establish the Council on African Affairs (CAA), which promoted African liberation in an era when few Americans actively engaged in such matters. Perhaps its greatest achievement came in 1946, when the CAA submitted a memorandum to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in support of the African National Congress (ANC). Led by its US-educated President, Alfred Xuma, the ANC successfully fought to prevent the annexation of South-West Africa (now Namibia) by racist, white minority-ruled South Africa. Alas, the CAA was red-baited out of existence shortly after this victory.

In 1942, during WWII, Robeson traveled to Oakland to champion the black and white union workers contributing to the Allied war effort on the home front. One of Robeson’s most famous photos shows him singing the “Star Spangled Banner” amidst a sea of black and white workers at Moore Shipyard in Oakland. The image captures his politics brilliantly, all the more so since Robeson had worked as a shipbuilder during WWI.

Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, at Moore Shipyard in Oakland, CA, leading workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner.

After WWII, the Cold War commenced and black people linked to communism, like Robeson and Du Bois, were persecuted by the US State Department, the FBI, and many so-called patriots intolerant of dissent. Historian Penny M. Von Eschen cites Robeson’s “extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa” as an explanation for his career’s destruction in the Red Scare. I would also add his labor activism.

Just like Robeson, many of the black dockworkers I study adhered to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism. In the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of African Americans belonged to the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU).2  This leftwing union was renowned for its fierce and proud commitment to racial equality and black internationalism. Indeed, during WWII, Robeson became an honorary member of the ILWU. Robeson and the ILWU were, in many ways, a perfect fit.

The ILWU was—and remains—amongst America’s most radical unions, led for decades by its leftist President Harry Bridges and supported by many leftists in the rank-and-file. The union put socialism into action in its hiring halls, which dispatched members based upon a “low man out” system in which the person with the fewest amount of hours worked, that quarter, received the first available job.

In keeping with its politics, the ILWU attacked racism on the waterfront beginning with its initial “Big Strike” even though the workforce was 99% white in 1934. Local 10 welcomed thousands of African Americans during the WWII-induced shipping boom and these blacks, alongside leftist white allies, fully integrated their union and fought for civil rights in the Bay Area and nationwide. Due to their aggressive efforts, ILWU Local 10, which represents dockworkers in San Francisco, Oakland, and throughout the Bay Area, became black majority in the mid-1960s with blacks elected to every leadership position available. Truly, the ILWU embodied what historian Robert Korstad labeled “civil rights unionism.”

Robeson understood the significance of the ILWU as a platform from which to demand civil rights. Two of Robeson’s best friends– Joe Johnson and Revels Cayton— belonged to the ILWU. Together, these three black men articulated a commitment to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

The best example of its Pan-Africanism was ILWU’s commitment to the struggle against apartheid and, more broadly, for the liberation of all the peoples of southern Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, the union repeatedly condemned white-minority rule in South Africa and also noted the ironic similarities with Jim Crow segregation in the States. In the 1970s and 1980s, rank-and-file members of ILWU Local 10 formed the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee, which stood at the vanguard of black working class anti-apartheid activism during this period. Leo Robinson, Texas-born and a child of the 2nd Great Migration to Oakland, followed in his father’s footsteps to the waterfront in 1963. In Local 10 Robinson became a communist and activist who helped found the SALSC after the Soweto student uprising of 1976. Although Robeson died that same year, after declining health and decades in forced retirement due to McCarthyism, other radical longshoremen inspired by socialism and liberation movements in Africa joined Robinson and following in Robeson’s footsteps.

The black and white members of the SALSC fought for the liberation of black people in South Africa, Mozambique, Rhodesia, and elsewhere in the best way they knew how: direct action on the job. To leftist, Pan-African dockworkers, the most logical way to attack apartheid and racial capitalism was flexing their economic muscle, i.e. stop work. In 1962, 1977, and for eleven days in 1984 (shortly after Reagan’s landslide re-election), they refused to unload South African cargo. By contrast, other black Pan-Africanists embraced consumer boycotts or economic divestment. Local 10’s actions set the bar for US anti-apartheid activism and helped inspire many in the Bay Area to join the solidarity struggle. Nelson Mandela thanked the union on his first visit to Oakland in 1990 and Robinson received a posthumous award from the now-democratic South African government.

Long after his death, Paul Robeson continued to inspire African Americans in the ILWU including the Bay Area’s Alex Bagwell. Like Leo Robinson, Bagwell’s family moved to San Francisco during WWII. In the 1960s, he dropped out of college after admission to the union, which had elevated so many black folks into the middle class. Like Robeson, Bagwell was a leftist and active in the union’s anti-apartheid efforts. He and his wife, Harriet, belonged to a radical choir, Vukani Mawethu, founded by a South African who belonged to the ANC and had gone into exile. Alex and his wife were among those in Vukani who sang when Mandela visited Oakland.

In the early 1990s, though not yet retired, Bagwell finished his B.A. and then earned his M.A. in Creativity and Arts Education at San Francisco State University. For his graduate degree, he wrote a play on Robeson’s life, conducting interviews with twenty people who knew him including Local 10 member Joe Johnson, Robeson’s long-time friend.

After the birth of a multiracial, democratic South Africa, the Bagwells traveled to the country, as part of Vukani Mawethu, to perform there. Other black and white radicals in the ILWU did so, as well. The Pan-Africanism of these dockworkers clearly followed in the footsteps of Robeson, who first championed the rights of black South Africans in the 1940s. The spirit and ideals of Robeson continue to shape the Pan-Africanism of working class black dockworkers who now have established connections with black dockworkers in South African ports. Robeson would be proud.

  1.  Stevedore is an older term for dockworker or longshoreman, workers who load and unload cargo ships.
  2. The ILWU’s original name was the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union but, in 1997, a resolution was approved, unanimously at its biennial convention, that made its name gender-neutral. “What’s in a Name? For ILWU, it’s not ‘men’,Journal of Commerce, May 4, 1997

~ Peter Cole is a historian of the twentieth-century United States, South Africa and comparative history. Dr. Cole is Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes on labor history and politics (Bio credit: AAIHS)

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Happy Birthday, W.E.B. Du Bois!

W.E.B. Dubois, Photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

W.E.B. Dubois, photograph taken by J.E. Purdy in 1904, public domain via Library of Congress

Let us honor the life and legacy of the great American writer, historian, journalist, professor, activist, philosopher, and race theorist W.E.B. Du Bois, born on February 23, 1868.

The NAACP (of which he was a founder) writes of Du Bois:

‘William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963) was an American civil rights activist, leader, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian, writer, editor, poet, and scholar. He became a naturalized citizen of Ghana in 1963 at the age of 95.

…In 1891 Du Bois got his master of arts and in 1895 his doctorate in history from Harvard. His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, was published as No. 1 in the Harvard Historical Series. This important work has yet to be surpassed. In 1896 he married Nina Gomer, and they had two children. …[A]t the University of Pennsylvania… he conducted the pioneering sociological study of an urban community, published as The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899). These first two works assured Du Bois’s place among America’s leading scholars.

Du Bois’s life and work were an inseparable mixture of scholarship, protest activity, and polemics. All of his efforts were geared toward gaining equal treatment for black people in a world dominated by whites and toward marshaling and presenting evidence to refute the myths of racial inferiority’ …

Read his NAACP bio in full here

Donald J. Morse writes of Du Bois for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘W. E. B. Du Bois was an important American thinker: a poet, philosopher, economic historian, sociologist, and social critic. His work resists easy classification. This article focuses exclusively on Du Bois’ contribution to philosophy; but the reader must keep in mind throughout that Du Bois is more than a philosopher; he is, for many, a great social leader. His extensive efforts all bend toward a common goal, the equality of colored people. His philosophy is significant today because it addresses what many would argue is the real world problem of white domination. So long as racist white privilege exists, and suppresses the dreams and the freedoms of human beings, so long will Du Bois be relevant as a thinker, for he, more than almost any other, employed thought in the service of exposing this privilege, and worked to eliminate it in the service of a greater humanity. Du Bois’ pragmatist philosophy, as well as his other work, underlies and supports this larger social aim. Later in life, Du Bois turned to communism as the means to achieve equality. He envisioned communism as a society that promoted the well being of all its members, not simply a few. Du Bois came to believe that the economic condition of Africans and African-Americans was one of the primary modes of their oppression, and that a more equitable distribution of wealth, as advanced by Marx, was the remedy for the situation ….

Read the full IEP bio here

You will find another good short bio and list of Du Bois’ writings at The Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s website

…and click here for pieces about or featuring Du Bois at Ordinary Philosophy

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Photobook: Jameson Jenkins and the ‘Slave Stampede’ Rescue

Jameson Jenkins’ lot in the Lincoln Home National Historic Site National Park in Springfield, Illinois, on 8th street next to the Henson Robinson House. On January 17th, 1850, Jenkins helped a group of 11 slaves escape northward, planting false rumors so that local papers would confuse the story and thus help the refugees evade capture. Jenkins was a drayman, and according to SangamonLink: History of the County of Sangamon, Illinois, ‘On Feb. 11, 1861, Jameson Jenkins drove [his near-neighbor] President-elect Abraham Lincoln on his last Springfield carriage ride, from the Chenery House at Fourth and Washington Streets to the Great Western Railroad depot — now the Lincoln Depot — as Lincoln began his trip to Washington, D.C.’.

The historical placard at Jameson Jenkins’ lot. The photograph is at an angle because the glare was so bright on the direct shots that most of the text and images were obscured

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr.!

Sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr by Lei Yixin on the Mall in Washington D.C.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born January 15, 1929, is among the world’s most influential and memorable civil rights leaders. The young, respected theologian and pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association in late 1955, which ran the bus boycott following Rosa Park’s refusal to move to the back of a segregated bus earlier that year. King proved to be a charismatic and eloquent leader and soon moved to the forefront of the larger movement to end legal and social discrimination and segregation in the American South. His philosophy of nonviolent direct action, heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, resonated widely and still does. It’s consistent with key religious sentiments and principles found in King’s and the majority of Americans’ Christianity, as well as other philosophical and religious systems which emphasize both justice and mercy. The nonviolent tactics that King endorsed also kept the movement on such a moral high ground that it stymied would-be white critics who found it necessary to resort to smear campaigns and ad-hominem attacks, including and especially J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI administration. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and his ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail’ are two of the most moving and most influential creations of the American modern Civil Rights Movement, or indeed of any civil rights movement.

King was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, outside of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was engaged in worker’s rights activism, another major cause to which he dedicated his life.

Learn more about the complex, flawed, and great Dr. King at:

About Dr. King ~ at The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change

Envisioning Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Twenty-First Century ~ by Dr. Elwood Watson for Black Perspectives, blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS)

I Have A Dream ~ speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1929-1968) ~ by Clayborne Carson for BlackPast.org

Martin Luther King ~ by the BBC

Martin Luther King, Jr. ~ by David L. Lewis and Clayborne Carson for Encyclopædia Britannica

Martin Luther King and Union Rights ~ by Michael Honey for Clarion, newspaper of PSC/Cuny

Martin Luther King, Jr: An Extraordinary Life ~ a project by The Seattle Times

Martin Luther King Jr.: Leader of Millions in Nonviolent Drive for Racial Justice ~ obituary by Murray Schumach for The New York Times

A Reading of the Letter from Birmingham Jail ~ by Martin Luther King, Jr, read and recorded by The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and project participants

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Athens and Springfield, Illinois, Part 1, in Search of Abraham Lincoln

E. Hargrave and Main Streets in Athens, Illinois

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Journal: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Illinois, Monday morning, July 31, 2017

Here I am in the handsomely designed, nicely lit, spacious reading room of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. I don’t at this moment require any research materials from the collection, but as I often do, if I find myself with access to a grand space dedicated to the acquisition, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge, such as the Reading Room of the Library of Congress’ Jefferson Building or the National Library of Scotland, I feel the urge to go inside and do some thinking and writing just because I can. So here I am… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, Part 1

Abraham Lincoln portrait head, cast of Gutzon Borglum model for Mount Rushmore at Tower Park, Peoria Heights. Other versions of this sculpture are at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the Lincoln Tomb, and the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Peoria, Illinois, July 28th, 2017

I awake in a spotlessly clean, perfectly comfortable, aggressively unimaginative Motel 6 hotel room on the north end of Peoria, Illinois. I’ve noticed that Motel 6’s are much better than they used to be when I was a child and young adult, at least in terms of cleanliness and amenities. They were never glamorous, but they now have less character. For many years, for example, the beds sported these wonderfully colorful blankets printed with stylized images of famous cities and landscapes all over the United States. Now, the rooms and draperies are beige highlighted with rust-orange, furnished with the plainest of midcentury-style designs, angular objects only occasionally relieved by a sleek curve here and there.

My term for this sort of accommodation is ‘people storage’: strictly utilitarian, uninspired, and uninspiring. Perhaps that’s a good thing for my purposes: I fled the room as soon as I could to place myself in a more interesting environment. Still, I’m irritated as I so often am with modern architecture and interior design. Why have we stopped bothering to go on artistic flights of fancy, then directing the inspirations found there towards making these things beautiful?

My first destination is a quick stop to see a bust of Abraham Lincoln at Tower Park in Peoria Heights… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!