Say What? James McCune Smith on the Exportation of Prejudice

L, James McCune Smith, via Wikimedia Commons; R, The Caledonia, via Upper Canada History blog, both public domain

…'[A]n American ship is an epitome of the great and rising country, whose Star Spangled Banner proudly floats o’er her deck. “E Pluribus Unum” “From many nations” were the men gathered who felled the trees and chipped the timbers and moulded them into “one” harmonious and beautiful craft that

“Walks the waters like a thing of life”-

“From many nations” are the men gathered under the command of him who “moves the monarch of her peopled deck.” Would that the parallel might here end! And that gathering something of the spirit of liberty from the ocean which she cleaves, and the chainless wind which wafts her along, she might appear in foreign ports a fit representative of a land of the free, instead of a beautiful but baneful object, like the fated box of Pandora, scattering abroad among the nations the malignant prejudice which is a canker and curse to the soil, whence she sprung.’

~ James McCune Smith, travel journal entry August 1832*,
published in The Works of James McCune Smith

*Smith was nineteen years old when he wrote this, a former slave who, early in life, took his destiny into his own hands through his intellectual accomplishments. He wrote this as he sailed to Scotland to study at the University of Glasgow where he would receive his Bachelors, Masters, and Doctor of Medicine degrees. He would go on to become a renowned physician, scientist, writer, and abolitionist.

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Happy Birthday, Una Marson! A Profile of this Great Cultural and Literary Nationalist by Lisa Tomlinson

Una Marson, image from AAIHS

Una Marson: Cultural and Literary Nationalist

Una Marson was born on May 5, 1905 in the rural parish of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, sixteen years after the novelist and poet Claude McKay. Following in the literary footsteps of McKay, Marson valorized African working-class cultural aesthetics and engaged with the wider African diaspora through her literary and political work. Although her work has not received the same attention or accolades as her fellow countryman Claude McKay, Marson has, without a doubt, made a significant contribution to Caribbean and diasporic literature. She was certainly a key figure in twentieth century black internationalist politics.

Fortunately, conversations around the life and work of Una Marson have been kept alive and archived in a few libraries throughout the world. Writers such as Erika Smilowitz, Honor Ford Smith, and Alison Donnell have also written critical essays on Marson’s literary and political involvement inside and outside of Jamaica. Additionally, her biographer Delia Jarrett-Macauley has provided a comprehensive documentation of Marson’s life and writing. Therefore, their works are most instructive in offering more information concerning Marson’s life and activism.

Not surprisingly, Marson’s early works of literature reflected her colonial education. Marson’s writing in her first collection of poems, Tropic Reveries (1930) and Heights and Depth (1931), adapted traditional European literary structure and spoke to pastoral style poetry. As her travels abroad strengthened her race consciousness in the mid-1930s, Marson’s literary work departed from the conventions of British Victorian and Romantic literature. As such, her third volume of poems, The Moth and the Star (1937), articulated themes that resonated with the experiences of African women entrapped within received notions of white beauty standards.

In her poem “Cinema eyes,” for example, the narrator tries to protect her daughter from procuring a “cinema mind” under the influence of white supremacy, which “saw no beauty in black faces.” Two other poems, “Kinky hair blues” and “Black is Fancy,” reveal black hair politics and many black women’s desire to alter their physical appearances:

I hate dat ironed hair
And dat bleaching skin
Hate dat ironed hair
And dat bleaching skin
But I’ll be alone
If I don’t fall in 2

Over time, Marson’s work also became more rooted in Jamaican experiences, and she integrated the indigenous culture of the black Jamaican working-class. In her poem “Stone Breaker, ”Marson sheds light on the experiences of black working-class Jamaican women using the native language, Jamaican, to express class and racial inequalities that inform life on the island: “De big backra car dem/ A lik up de dus’ in a we face” 3

Maintaining a bond to her Jamaican roots, Quashie Comes to London, a more lighthearted poem, highlights the immigrant experience of homesickness in the metropolis of London. Quashie’s diasporic journey in cold dreary London and yearning for familiar food items such as “some ripe breadfruit / Some fresh ackee and saltfish too / An’dumpins hot will suit,” later becomes common threads in the works of Caribbean diasporic writers living outside of the region.

Marson further developed her use of African Jamaican cultural aesthetics and experiences in her popular plays, London Calling and Pocomania. In Pocomania, for instance, she includes the local vernacular, folklore, and African-centered religious practice called Pocomania to challenge middle-class respectability and Christianity. She does this through Stella, the middle-class character in the play, who journeys to the world of the black Jamaican working-class in a bid to experience the forbidden religious rituals of Pocomania. Given the fact that the reference to anything “African” was frowned upon in colonial Jamaica, Marson’s plays and poems reflected a transgressive intervention in conventional Jamaican literature.

In many ways, Marson unselfishly employed her literary status to foster and build upon the development of a Caribbean literary canon. In her desire to advance Jamaican literature and culture, Marson formed the Writers Club, the Kingston Drama Club, and the Poetry League during the 1930s. Marson was also responsible for starting a publishing press.

una1While living in England, Marson developed the BBC radio program, “Caribbean Voices,” which evolved into a significant literary show, one that would have a crucial impact on the development of new writings and writers from the Anglophone Caribbean. Caribbean cultural luminaire Kamau Braithwaite has characterized the forum as the “single most important literary catalyst for Caribbean creative and critical writing in English.” 4

In addition to her literary engagement, Marson was also very politically active in local and international affairs. In 1928, at the age of 23, she became the first woman in Jamaica to own and edit a magazine, The Cosmopolitan. Marson used this publication as an outlet to express social concerns in Jamaica (i.e., race and class prejudices) and also to address gender issues. In her editorials, Marson consistently advocated for the expansion of educational and employment opportunities, the development of women’s self-help groups, and the granting of women’s suffrage.

As a feminist, Marson worked in various overseas women organizations and was the only black woman to attend the 12th Annual Congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship conference in Istanbul, Turkey in 1935. Motivated by wider diasporic experiences, she used the opportunity to advocate for the rights of black woman globally and called on the conference to recognize African women in their daily struggles.

Coupled with her feminist work, Pan-Africanism became a dominant feature of Marson’s activism. Marson’s Pan-Africanist vision, for example, was invested in the need for educational reform on her island, a reform that would reverse the colonial education to which she was subjected and instead teach Jamaican children about their African past. Equally, Marson worked as a secretary for the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, where she used this position to highlight the separation of families and Italian atrocities against women and children in Ethiopia. As his private secretary, Marson also accompanied him to Geneva where he pleaded his country’s case to the League of Nations on the matter of the Italian invasion and occupation.

Marson’s last years of political activism focused on advocacy for the Rastafarian community in her native Jamaica, where she successfully established a home for Rastafarians. She also created the Save the Children Fund, an organization that helped to fund poor children’s basic education.

According to published sources and acquaintances, Marson’s extensive work and travels later contributed to her frail health. Marson struggled with depression and was hospitalized several times in mental health facilities before she died of a heart attack in Jamaica in 1965.

Like Claude McKay, Una Marson’s literary and political work emerged out of their native country Jamaica and later became a part of a wider community of diasporic Africans who sought to assert a distinct national voice and identity. Both writers combined their work with the indigenous cultural expression of the island but were also open to bridging the conversation with other black art forms as evident in the jazz poems of Marson and her brief experimentation with the African American vernacular.

Unlike McKay, however, Marson remained in Jamaica to witness the fruition of her goal toward a cultural and literary renaissance. The 1950s and 1960s defined a literary and cultural rebirth for Anglophone Caribbean people as seen in the dramatic growth in the number of artists, musicians, and creative writers working regionally and internationally. Writers such as Jamaican Andrew Salkey, Barbadian George Lamming, and Trinidadian Samuel Selvon all began to make their mark as renowned Caribbean writers and cultural activists in various parts of the globe.

Therefore, Marson’s commitment to gender politics, race, class, and her impulse to divert from British literary style shaped a generation of writers who aspired to attain cultural and political sovereignty. Indeed, Marson belongs to a long line of black internationalist intellectuals and activists, whose works have been fundamental to struggles for cultural assertion and self-hood.

  1. D. Jarrett-Macauley, The Life of Una Marson 1905-65 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 73
  2. Una Marson, Moth and the Star, 91.
  3. Una Marson, Moth and the Star, 70; Like Professor Carolyn Cooper and some Caribbean linguistics I have chosen to use Jamaican (rather than patois) because the term “patois” has a negative linguistic connotation of inferiority.
  4. Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London: New Beacon, 1984).

This piece was originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog on March 26, 2016, and published here when under a Creative Commons license

~ Lisa Tomlinson is a Jamaican researcher and scholar residing in Kingston, Jamaica. Her area of specialization includes literary and cultural studies of the Caribbean and African diaspora, Black literary criticism and anti-colonial studies. She holds a degree in English Literature from Carleton University and a Ph.D. in Humanities (Comparative Perspective and Culture) with a graduate diploma in Latin America and Caribbean Studies.

Lisa has worked in tertiary institutions in Ontario, Canada where she taught courses in English literature, humanities, and visual culture. She is currently a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus in the Department of Literatures in English. Some of her publications include book chapters in Jamaicans in the Canadian Experience: A Multicultralizing Presence, Archipelagos of Sound: Transnational Caribbeanities: Women and Music, Critical Insights: Harlem Renaissance, as well as encyclopedia entries in the Dictionary of Afro-Latin American and Caribbean Biography. (Bio credit: AAIHS)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Say What? Frederick Douglass on Race Relations

Frederick Douglass c. 1855, and the first edition of his North Star, Dec 3 1847, public domain via the Library of Congress

‘We are here, have been here, and we are to stay here. To imagine that we shall ever be eradicated [by removal to Africa], is absurd and ridiculous. We can be re-modified, changed, and assimilated, but never extinguished. The white and black must fall or flourish together. We shall neither die out, nor be driven out, but we shall go with you, remain with you, and stand either as a testimony against you, or as an evidence in your favor, throughout all your generations.’

~ Frederick Douglass ‘Henry Clay and Colonization Cant, Sophistry, and Falsehood:
An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on Feb 2, 1851’,
published in the North Star on Feb. 6, 1851

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Happy Birthday, Angelina Weld Grimké!

angelina-weld-grimke-image-public-domain

Angelina Weld Grimké

El Beso

Twilight—and you
Quiet—the stars;
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
Yearning, yearning,
Languor, surrender;
Your mouth,
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Then awakening—remembrance,
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
Twilight—and you.   (via Poets.org)

Let us celebrate the memory of the wonderful and far-too-unknown author of this gorgeous poem and so many other wonderful works of art and literature on her birthday!

Alix North of Island of Lesbos writes of Grimké:

Angelina Weld Grimké was born [on February 27th, 1880] in Boston, the only child of Archibald Grimké and Sarah Stanley. Angelina had a mixed racial background; her father was the son of a white man and a black slave, and her mother was from a prominent white family. Her parents named her after her great aunt Angelina Grimké Weld, a famous white abolitionist and women’s rights advocate.

Angelina received a physical education degree at the Boston Normal School of Gymnastics in 1902. She worked as a gym teacher until 1907, when she became an English teacher, and she continued to teach until her retirement in 1926. During her teaching career, she wrote poetry, fiction, reviews, and biographical sketches. She became best known for her play entitled “Rachel.” The story centers around an African-American woman (Rachel) who rejects marriage and motherhood. Rachel believes that by refusing to reproduce, she declines to provide the white community with black children who can be tormented with racist atrocities. “Rachel” was the only piece of Angelina’s work to be published as a book; only some of her stories and poems were published, primarily in journals, newspapers, and anthologies.

Only her poetry reveals Angelina’s romantic love toward women. The majority of her poems are love poems to women or poems about grief and loss. Some (particularly those published during her lifetime) deal with racial concerns, but the bulk of her poems are about other women, and were unlikely to be published for this reason. Only about a third of her poetry has been published to date…  (The orginal site at http://www.sappho.com/poetry/a_grimke.html is no longer active, please see below to learn more)

angelina-weld-grimke…and learn more about the luminous Angelina Weld Grimké at:

Angelina Weld Grimké – in Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, edited by Yolanda Williams Page

Angelina Weld Grimké – by Judith Zvonkin for The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C.

Angelina Weld Grimké – from Encyclopædia Britannica

Grimke, Angelina Weld (1880-1958) – by Claudia E. Sutherland for Blackpast.org

Grimkè’s Life and Career: The Introduction to The Selected Works of Angelina Weld Grimké – by Carolivia Herron for Modern American Poetry at the Department of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Further reading: Selected Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: A Resource Guide – Angelina Weld Grimké 

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!

Happy Birthday, John Jones!

John Jones, portrait by Mosher & Baldwin, 1882, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

When I visited Springfield, Illinois this summer, I found a very interesting plaque at the Old State House downtown. It told the story of John Jones and his activism against Illinois’s Black Laws, a set of legal codes that pertained only to black people, and, as you likely and immediately supposed,  were terribly oppressive. Such laws have a long history in the United States and as long as they’ve been around, lovers of justice have been around to fight them. John Jones was one such person.

Born on November 3rd, 1816 to an American black mother and German white father, Jones had to make his own way early in the world. Jones’ mother did not trust his father to do right by his son so she apprenticed him to a tailor when he was very young. The resourceful Jones taught himself to read and write and, having learned what he needed to, he released himself from the tailor’s service by age 27. He then obtained official free papers for himself and his wife, née Mary Jane Richardson, and secured their freedom to live and travel by posting a $1,000 bond in 1844. While he and his wife were both born free, they had to worry about the numerous ‘fugitive’ slave catchers and kidnappers prowling around, all too happy to capture as many black persons as they could get ahold of, passing them off as escaped slaves in exchange for a substantial payoff.

The Joneses moved to Chicago from Alton, Illinois in 1845, where there was an established community of black entrepreneurs and therefore, more opportunities for families such as theirs. Jones worked hard and savvily, building up a very successful tailoring business and amassing an impressive fortune within just a few years. The Joneses used their success to help their fellow black citizens, making their home one of the key Chicago stops on the Underground Railroad. Jones poured much of his money and time into civil rights activism, working for the abolitionist cause and to overturn the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the already decades-old Black Laws of Illinois, sometimes with his fellow autodidact and activist Frederick Douglass. For the rest of his life, Jones was a prominent intellectual, moral, religious, and political leader in the black community of Chicago and beyond.

Learn more about the courageous civil rights leader John Jones at:

John Jones (1816–1879): Activist, politician, tailor, entrepreneur  ~ by Jessie Carney Smith for Encyclopedia.com

Jones, John ~ by Cynthia Wilson for Blackpast.org

Historical placard for John Jones, Old State House, Springfield, Illinois

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On July 26, 1948, Harry Truman Abolishes Discrimination and Segregation in the Armed Forces by Executive Order 9981

On this day, President Harry Truman took one more step towards realizing the idea, central to the founding documents of the United States, that all persons are created equal.

Thank you, Grinman Films, for telling the story!

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!