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!

Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!

Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, published, 1891, Image retrieved from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-107756, public domainIn the course of my journey following the life of Frederick Douglass last year, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and this fiery young newspaperwoman had published her very controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells would change all that. In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business. She was outraged, and began an investigation of the practice and history of lynching as a whole.

When Wells wrote Southern Horrors, she had already been an activist and writer for black rights for many years. In 1884, she resisted being forced out of the first class train car into the ‘colored car’; she later sued the train company, won the first suit, then lost on appeal. This incident (which echoes Douglass’ train protest in 1841) led to many other lawsuits, articles, and activism against anti-black laws and social practices. In 1892, her investigation of lynching revealed to Wells that lynching was far from just vengeance for rape, it was inflicted for petty crimes, supposed insubordination or impertinence, drunkenness, competition, and so on. She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they consisted a form of social control, a replacement for the terrorism of the slave system.

Douglass was inspired and energized by Wells’ writing and anti-lynching work, and wrote a letter praising Southern Horrors as an introduction. He visited her in New York City where she was living for a little while as a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, which was (probably) published at the site I visited in Harlem. I visited a second site associated with Wells two days after my New York visit: she delivered one of her hard-hitting speeches in her speaking tour following the publication of Southern Horrors at Tremont Temple in Boston on Feb 13th, 1893.

Education was another driving force in her life. Her first job was as a teacher at age 14, and she taught for many years, over time supplementing her teaching with journalism, writing and editing for the Evening Star, The Living Way, and the Free Speech and Headlight. Another of her most controversial, consciousness-raising articles was published in 1891 in the Free Speech about the conditions in black schools: the poor quality of the buildings which housed them, and of the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them. She was not fired outright, but the school refused to hire her for the next school year. She then went on to work full-time for the newspaper, promoting the Free Speech from city to city and writing articles along the way, until the Free Speech‘s offices and printing press were destroyed by angry whites after the publication of her ‘Lynch Law’ piece. Adversity only served to strengthen Wells’ resolve, each attack causing her to re-double her efforts on behalf of her people.

Wells went on to have a long and distinguished career in writing, investigative journalism, and activism for black rights and women’s suffrage. She worked with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, toured the United States and Europe as a speaker and activist, founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many other things.

For a long time, Wells thought of marriage and romantic relationships as oppressive, where women were expected to defer to men and flatter their vanity. But one day, she met a man who must have made her feel very differently, an attorney, writer, and fellow advocate for black rights named Ferdinand Barnett. She married him and they raised four children.

Please follow the links below to learn more about Ida B. Wells. If I manage to accomplish the tiniest fraction of what she did in my own life, I would consider myself a great success.

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!

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Sources and inspiration:

Ida B. Wells-Barnett‘, episode 25 of the History Chicks podcast by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett‘. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

McBride, Jennifer. ‘Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice‘. From Webster University’s website.

McNally, Deborah. ‘Barnett, Ferdinand Lee (1858-1936)‘, in BlackPast.org

Steptoe, Tyina. ‘Barnett, Ida Wells (1862-1931)’, in BlackPast.org

Wells, Ida. B. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Ed. Alfred Duster. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Wells, Ida. B. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, 1892, via Project Gutenberg

Wikipedia contributors. ‘Ida B. Wells‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wintz, Paul Finkelman, Cary D. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y. 2004.

Happy Birthday, Aimé Césaire!

Aimé Fernand David Césaire, photo credit manomerci.comAimé-Fernand-David Césaire was a poet, playwright, philosopher, and politician from Martinique. In his long life (1913-2008), Césaire accomplished much in each of these roles, a rare feat as they rarely coincide in one person!

In turn mayor of Fort-de-France, deputy to the French National Assembly for Martinique, and President of the Regional Council of Martinique, this prolific writer and intellectual was also co-founder of Négritude, a ‘literary movement of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris as a protest against French colonial rule and the policy of assimilation.’ (Encyclopædia Britannica). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Négritude as ‘the self-affirmation of black peoples, or the affirmation of the values of civilization of something defined as “the black world” as an answer to the question “what are we in this white world?”’. The term was chosen so as to be provocative, a way of re-claiming the word nègre, which had become a racial slur, while simultaneously shocking those who heard or read it into paying attention. Through his philosophy, political writing, and especially his poetry and plays, the world pays attention still.

Learn more about the great Aimé Césaire through the resources below; an excellent place to start is with Meredith Goldsmith’s article from The Poetry Foundation.

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!

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Sources and inspiration:

Aime Cesaire‘. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Chidi, Sylvia Lovina. The Greatest Black Achievers in History, chapter 1

Diagne, Souleymane Bachir, ‘Négritude‘. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Goldsmith, Meredith. ‘Aimé Fernand Césaire‘, 1913–2008. In The Poetry Foundation

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

~ 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 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: Alexander Thomas Augusta, Highest Ranking Black Officer in the Civil War

‘Alexander Thomas Augusta was the highest-ranking black officer in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was also the first African American head of a hospital (Freedmen’s Hospital) and the first black professor of medicine (Howard University in Washington, D.C… On April 14, 1863, Augusta was commissioned (the first out of eight other black officers in the Civil War) as a major in the Union army and appointed head surgeon in the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry’ – Blackpast.org. I took this photo at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, while on my history of ideas travels following the life and work of Frederick Douglass last spring

Happy Birthday, Maya Angelou!

Maya Angelou, author, poet, singer, dancer, activist, and so much more, was born on May 4th, 1928. We lost her only a few years ago, on May 28th, 2014.

There’s a wonderful Angelou biopic on PBS that I watched just a few weeks ago. In case you haven’t seen it, I highly, highly recommend it, and what better day to watch it than today? It’s only available now if you purchase a Passport subscription, but it’s very inexpensive and besides, our great public institutions like PBS need all the support we can give them in our current political climate of de-funding that which is not a weapon or a tax break for some special interest. I’ve long known of her and was aware of her prominence as an American author and civil rights leader, as most have, and had read and heard snippets by and about her over the years. This biopic, however, was my first sustained look at her life and accomplishments. How I went so long without more than a passing familiarity with her I know not. I am drawn in, and must discover more.

The Poetry Foundation’s page for Angelou is another excellent source for learning about her life and work and includes a short biography, lists of works by and about her, and some of her poetry.

What a fascinating woman.

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!