ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



T-Bones’ electrified Blues is identified with the Great (Black) Migration of the

Second World War. This migration brought hundreds of thousands of Black

workers from the Deep South to the steel mills of Baltimore and Allentown


A Post Industrial Blues

By Amin Sharif


I: What’s Goin’ On?

Many black men my age can count the days of their existence by the music that they have come to know in their lives. I, for instance, can remember hearing Jackie Wilson’s Your Love Keeps Lifting Higher while walking to grade school. And I can also recall listening on a small, baby blue transistor radio to the Temptations and the Supremes as my grandmother fried fish or boiled turnip greens. So went the days of my youth shared with Black men, known and unknown, sweet as the kosher, white wine we sipped straight from the bottle in the early days of my manhood. 

Life was as heady then as the reefer we rolled while listening to Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book or contemplating the meaning of Jimmie Hendrix’s All Along the Watch Tower. And though we had our trouble, we also had hope. For, as the Temptations sang in Since I Lost my Baby, “The bosses are paying . . . not a sad word should a young heart be sayin’.”

This was the height of the Industrial Age in America when U.S. Steel and Ford dominated the world. It was a time when a man, black or white, could see the “USA in your Chevrolet!” A time when America was trying to close the door on segregation and when Martin Luther King’s hymn-like sermon swept across America in a graceful call of the tongue and response of soul: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God, Almighty . . .” Yes, that was before America’s heart hardened and that hymn became a mournful blues–a dirge for American heroes of all colors.       

But as the Industrial Age in America peaked and declined, the music in my life changed. With the death of American heroes such as the Kennedy Brothers, Martin Luther King, and a newly discovered Malcolm X, even the songs of Soul groups like the Temptations became transformed. The world, as Temps put it down, became “A Ball of Confusion.”  

As my taste in music changed from Blues infused Urban Soul to Blues infused Urban Jazz, I can remember Marvin Gaye ask the question we all wanted to know the answer to, “What’s Goin’ On!”  What’s goin’ on with the Vietnam War? What’s goin’ on with the riots and the Panthers? What’s going on with Tricky Dick Nixon? What’s goin’ on? What’s goin on? And, of course, Marvin already had the answer. We all nodded in approval as Marvin crooned his reply over every black, urban AM radio station in America: “Mercy, mercy, me. Things ain’t what they used to be!”

Some will see all that I have said as coincidental. Those who see it as such are unaware of the mythic, purgative, transforming power that music has for the Black American. From plantation to plant floor, it has been hymns sung in church, Blues screamed in jukes, and Jazz played in clubs that have sustained us. And, if Hip-Hop is about anything, it is the scream of Black youth at war with itself as it watches the death of one world and the beginning of another. 

But the Black youth of America are not alone in their sense of profound confusion. For the whole world is singing the death song of the Industrial Age. All that we see in our children—the confusion, the obsession with drugs and thuggery, the fascination with death—speaks of the dislocation of their souls, their hearts, and their minds. 

Jimmy Carter began to sense the disintegration of American Industrial society decades ago when he spoke of America being captured by a malaise or an uneasiness. But, of course, America rejected Carter and this notions. If America has anything in its soul, it is the reluctance to face the truth, or, more aptly put, to face the music.

It is this uneasiness, sensed by the most intelligent president to sit in the White House since Jefferson, this madness that has created the Hip-Hop generation. The Hip-Hop generation is frequently accused of having no values. But how does one maintain values in an era where values are being erased by the high tide of historical change. Under the high tide of historical change, values are like sand castles—here one minute and gone the next. 

Yet, even as Carter perceived this malaise, Donny Hathaway was also giving us a clear warning about the quicksand of changing values in America. Wasn’t it Donny who warned us of a threat to our values—even to our very sanity? “Hang on,” Donny tells us, “to the world as it spins around.” Then he gives us both a warning and a hope, “You better hold on fast and you will last!”  This is how it is! We face the abyss of change and if we are not careful it will swallow us whole. But, if we have the courage to face this change—embrace it—then we can survive.

II. Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay!

Baltimore, the city that I grew up in, was nourished by two things in the old days: Bethlehem Steel (Sparrow’s Point)* and its great port. In my youth, it seemed that every other Black man in Baltimore worked either at the Point or on the waterfront. When segregation came to an end in the 1950s, I was certain of this fact. I was once told by a Black Steelworker’s son that his family was given the choice to work at Beth Steel in Alabama or work at the plant in Baltimore. There was some argument about which plant to work at, the Steelworker’s son told me. But finally, the family decided on the Point in Baltimore. “Why Baltimore?” I asked. “It is barely out of the South.”  “Yes, it is,” the Steelworker’s son explained, “but barely out of the South is a lot better than barely in it.” 

This was how things were back then. Every little thing seemed to be a cause for optimism.

Baltimore’s docks were originally in Fells’ Point where the great statesman and abolitionist Fredrick Douglass worked. Today, you can find one of Douglass’ ancestors giving tours and presentations related to the life of this Black giant in the same section of the city.  But now, the once graceful clippers ships of a by-gone mercantile era have been replaced by the huge, cargo ships of modern commerce and these ships tie up at the Dundalk Marine Terminal.

There are considerably fewer Black men working at the docks now. But I can remember catching the #20 bus with an Italian schoolmate to see where his father worked. I remember how impressed I was to see the great Dundalk Marine Terminal teeming with economic life and activity. I was just as awed when my uncle drove me, my brother, and cousins to see the sprawling Sparrow’s Point. I remember seeing what seemed to be thousands upon thousands of workers—black and white—filling the yards that stood before the gigantic steel mill. The fires of the Point’s great furnaces seemed to be pouring hellfire onto the earth rather than molten steel to be made into the cars and building for a once-grand America.

Today, Baltimore is a radically different place than the city I grew up in. 

It is, in areas, drug infested and dangerous—the eight most dangerous city in America according to a recent report. At one time in the 1980s, Baltimore was the murder capital of America. 

Now, Baltimore is a tourist town. Harborplace is the rage. Hundred of thousands of tourists come to Baltimore’s Harborplace to see the National Aquarium’s dolphins do their tricks. There is a running joke in the city that these dolphins can get more work than any young Black man in Baltimore. The racist retort to that joke, but all too true, is that the dolphins have a better education than most young Black men in the city. This is, of course, a slap at the Baltimore School system. But a system that is doing little to get thousands of Black males graduating will never be defended by me.

Today, there are arguably more Black women employed in Baltimore than Black men. Beth Steel has closed, leaving thousands of workers without health care after years of sacrifice. And Baltimore’s docks are fairing only a little better. Instead of seeing hundreds of Black men crammed onto buses, or in cars, or waiting in the early light of dawn, holding out brown paper bags to indicate they need a ride to the Point, the buses of Baltimore are now crammed with Black women, the sole support of many families, going to work at hospitals and hotels. This seismic shift in employment has made life difficult—extremely difficult in Baltimore.

Whenever I walked the streets and see Black men without jobs and hope, I cannot help remembering Otis Redding’s last song. The one he recorded before he was killed in a plane accident. My footsteps seem to accompany that magnificent horn section of his band as I pass these men. I see Otis moving across the stage filled with so much energy—energy that made him more popular than Elvis for a year or so. Then I hear him singing in that signature Otis Redding style, “Sittin’on the dock of the bay, watchin’ the tide roll away. Sittin’on the dock of the bay, wastin’ time.”  These words are the lyrics of America’s post-industrial Blues.

III. A Change Gonna Come!   

What this book is about is change and the way the world is choosing to deal with that change. The change that I speak of is unprecedented. It is as severe as the change that the great, original people of America, sometimes called Native Americans, experienced when they saw the first train come across the American plains. Until then, these First Americans had a ghost of a chance to save their way of life.

But the train announced more than the coming of the White Man. The train announced that Industrial civilization had arrived in western America. The great people of the Plains might have survived the soldiers and might have learned to live with broken treaties. But the Iron Horse meant that there would be no holding back the Whites. Wagon trains brought white settlers in the hundred over months; the Iron Horse brought them by the thousands over weeks. 

The pastoral, hunter-gatherer civilization of the Plains people was gone forever. The Native Americans saw it disappear before their eyes as Whites, without respect for their way of life, slaughtered hundred of thousands of buffaloes from the back of a hundred Iron Horses. The Buffalo—which had once sustained their civilization for thousand of years (a holy creature in their society)—was destroyed without a second thought. Today, this civilizational genocide is scarcely mentioned by American historians. (No doubt white American guilt plays a significant role in this nation’s eternal forgetfulness.)

Then, on reservations, these Native Americans saw themselves being turned into Whites or as close to White as possible. This was a process that they knew about. They had seen African slaves set free only to fight them in place of the White man. And while some find this to be a noble undertaking for Black men or a proud moment in African-American history, it is for others—including me—a thing of shame.

Finally, the original people of America were so decimated that they nearly ceased to exist. The White World had conquered the Red World. The First civilization in America gave way to a Second, new and alien one. American history was established and the history of the original people of America erased. This is the kind of change—the replacement of one civilization by another—that I speak of.

Black people despite notions to the contrary are like all people in the world. They see their existence as a thing guaranteed. After all, they survived slavery, Reconstruction and the Klan, and segregation. All this attests to the strength of Black people. But there was a time when the original people of America felt the same way about their own strength. Hundred of thousands of days passed before they saw the mast of a European ship. Then, in the space of a century or two, their whole society was, for all practical purpose, erased from the earth. Notions of permanency and strength are, sometimes, greatly overrated.

But what Black people do not understand is that in the Age of Industrialization their labor was essential and valuable to development of the American Industrial system. American Industrialization in its early stages (slavery or northern Mercantilism) certainly required the labor of Black people. When the early stages of American Industrialism passed into a more mature stage of factories and mines, it required even more of their manpower. Finally, when American Industrialism reached its peak, Black people were totally integrated into the American Industrial process. 

Of course, two World Wars greatly assisted Blacks entry into the American economic system. Yet it was in the very midst of the Second World War, according to the futurist Alvin Toffler, that the seed of the destruction of the American Industrialism was planted. The digital computer was invented to decode Germany military messages. And it was the invention of the digital computer that set the stage for a civilization wide change—a replacement of one with another.

This emerging civilization is founded on rules that may make Black people as powerless to control their destiny as the original people of America were when they first encountered the Iron Horse. In fact, under these new civilizational conditions, Black people in America may become just as expendable as the people of the Plains were when they confronted Industrialization. 

Black men are especially vulnerable to being rendered obsolete under the new conditions spawned by the transition from Industrial to post-Industrial civilization. Industrial America was based on a marriage of man’s body with machine. Post-industrial society is founded on a marriage of man’s mind with information. Plantations, steel mills, and the docks need the body. Software development needs the mind. What served Black men well in one civilization will not serve them well in another.

There is a fitting lesson for Black men found in the Legend of John Henry and the (steam powered) steel-driving machine. John Henry was an ex-slave some say. Others say that he was a free-born Black man. But whatever the disagreement about John’s social standing; there is nothing but agreement about his mythic strength and his persistence in the face of adversity. As the legend goes, John Henry was a railroad worker whose job was to drive steel spikes into rails with a hammer. John Henry was a natural at this because, “He was born with a hammer in his hand.”

One day after John learned that the railroad company he worked for was going to replace him with a steel-driving machine, he proposed a test to keep his job. He would race the steel-driving machine through a tunnel. Whoever emerged from the tunnel first would be the winner. If John won he would keep his job. But if the steel-driving machine won, John would have to hit the road. It is recorded in legend that John Henry beat the machine. They say that even before he emerged from the tunnel sparks were seen flying from his hammer and the sound of his strikes were said to rival God’s own thunder. But legend also records that when John came out of the tunnel that he died from exhaustion. As the long song “Ballad of John Henry” tells it, “He died with his hammer in his hand. Lord, Lord! He died with his hammer in his hand.”

Now, all great legends are said to be based in fact. The Legend of John Henry also holds true to this pattern. The real contest between a human John Henry and a steel driving machine is said to have occurred at Big Tunnel near Telcott, West Virginia some time in the 1870s. And, just as in the legend, John Henry defeated the machine and also died of exhaustion. While the Legend of John Henry is awe inspiring, there is a lesson to learn that is sometimes missed by those who tell his tale. Yes, he defeated his mechanical rival. But, he died in the process. 

Today, Black men (and women) of the Industrial Age can also hold onto the romantic notions of their participation in America’s economic past. And, like John with his hammer, they too will find that nothing but death and exhaustion will result in this act.

The Legend of John Henry makes a nice folktale. Taken in the context of a folktale, this legend still has many lessons for Black children. Perseverance is one of these lessons. But, like all things, perseverance must be tempered with reality. Rooted in the Legend of John Henry is the subtle point I wish to make: fight civilizational change and you will win a battle. Join civilizational change and you will win a war!

As I pointed out earlier, there was a time when Black labor, especially Black male labor, was needed to run the docks, factories, and steel plants of America. And it is no coincidence that Black labor reached its apex when the Civil Rights Movement took hold in America. Civil Rights have many connotations depending on the part of society where it is applied. For American industry Civil Rights meant that a whole under-used sector of labor could be brought onto the plant floor. 

But what needs to be realized is that the integration of the plant floor was not an act of charity. It was only because American Industry came to see the labor of Blacks as being as valuable as that of Whites when it needed to expand production, as in the case of World War II, that integration became possible in the workplace. The proof to make this case is found in the old, experienced-based saying — “Blacks are the last hired but the first fired.” 

What this saying reflects is that Black labor is valued when it is needed during periods of economic expansion. However, when there is economic contraction, recessions and depressions, Black labor is spurned. The Civil Rights Movement emerged, in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, when American Industry was expanding—Black labor was needed. This great social movement gave American Industry the cover it needed to push aside white racism in the interest of expanding production. But a decade latter when recession gripped the American economy, Black unemployment was at record levels despite tons and tons of Civil Rights legislation!

Yet it was not simply economic expansion that made the economic integration of Black Americans on the plant floor possible. A major contributor to Blacks being brought on the plant floor was the nature of the work being performed in the ‘50’s and 60’s.  Assembly line work is pre-planned by industrial engineers. It is repetitive in nature and requires only a limited amount of mental agility. The uneducated, near educated, Black and White man and woman, were welcomed on the plant floor by management in the expanding economy of the early 60’s. But, as labor unions began to push for a greater share of profits and American industry faced foreign competition, corporate management began to look for ways to cut their labor costs. And it was robotics and other high-tech devices that came to their rescue.

Robotics did not appear on the plant floor of American industry until well after it had been utilized by the Japanese in their industries. But suddenly workers all over the industrialized West saw robots replace them on assembly lines. The savings from the use of robotics were astounding. Sick leave, worker’s compensation, and vacations pay never had to be paid to a machine. These robots never went on strike or got tired. They could work night and day and seemingly without end. 

More importantly, unlike John Henry, there was no test that any human worker could devise to show his or her superiority over robots on the assembly line. Even if such a test could be devised, the result of a human worker challenging a robot to see who could perform the repetitive tasks of assembly line work better would be futile. Like John Henry, the worker would likely end up dead in the effort. 

It is at this point that we come back to the digital computer invented back during the Second World War. It was the technology derived from the digital computer that led directly to the invention of robotics—and the large scale reduction of the assembly worker. Anyone who has seen the precision of a robotic assembly line cannot but notice an almost symphony-like performance of its movement. There is an undeniable rhythm in the way that a robotic assembly lines sounds. If one listens to this rhythm and watches its movement, they can almost hear history reciting the lyrics of a Sam Cooke classic: “A change is gonna’ come!”  

IV. Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow!

Stevie Wonder is, without a doubt, one of the greatest artists, Black or White, to have ever sung or written a song in America. I remember well those early years when Stevie played the harmonica and was soon recognized as a virtuoso talent. In the South, the harmonica is associated with the Blues. I have never heard the instrument used to accompany Spirituals or the modern Gospels sung today. So, when Stevie recorded Fingertips Part I, every Black person in America with roots in the Blues was astounded by what Stevie had done by breathing a new, vibrant life into a familiar instrument. There is a lesson in Stevie’s recording of those wonderful harmonica solos put down on Fingertips, innovation (along with a hell of a lot of talent) will take you far.

Innovation is described as a change in the established way of doing things. Innovation is the only way that I know how to describe the phenomenon we know as Stevie Wonder. First, he revolutionized the way people thought about playing the harmonica. Later, he showed that a Black man’s music could be infused not just with Soul but with a socially valid message and still be popular. 

In accomplishing this, Stevie prefigures Hip-Hop artists by decades. With Stevie, it wasn’t all about hype. Unlike today’s artists, Stevie made history not by dying for a cause but by living for one. His campaign to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday and his forthright stand against South African apartheid had international ramifications and struck a blow against white racism around the world. This is something that, with all their impact, Tupac or Biggie could not accomplish.

Wonder’s inventiveness emerged again when he introduced in 1972 the Moog synthesizer to his music fans on his Talking Book album. It was the synthesizer that allowed Stevie to stretch out and move from R&B artist to an international icon. While the history of the Moog synthesizer is too complicated to reveal here, it is accurate to say that the heart of the synthesizer is the transistor. 

It was the invention of the transistor that made the microchip and all other computer technology possible. Stevie’s decision to play the Moog synthesizer is a tribute to his visionary and innovative attitude toward music. Whether Stevie knew it or not his choice of using state of the art equipment was in line with what the Chicago Blues men did with the electric guitar.

One of the greatest blues artists who ever lived was the legendary T-Bone Walker. Born in northeast Texas in 1910, Aaron Thibeaux Walker was already something of a blues legend throughout the South even before he played an electric guitar. In 1940 or soon after, T-Bone mastered the electric guitar inventing a style that would earn him the title “father of the electric blues.” It was the electric guitar that other Blues men such as B. B. King and eventually Muddy Waters would use to thoroughly urbanize the blues. Today, not only is the Blues celebrated as an art form emanating from the Mississippi Delta, its electric version is celebrated as an art form emanating from northern cities like Chicago.

What is important about Stevie Wonder and T-Bone Walker is that their talent was raised to a whole new level after they embraced new technology. T-Bones’ electrified Blues is identified with the Great (Black) Migration of the Second World War. This migration brought hundreds of thousands of Black workers from the Deep South to the steel mills of Baltimore and Allentown, the meat processing plants of Chicago and Kansas City, and to the assembly lines of Detroit. The electric blues was just as much a product of the Industrial Age as Stevie Wonder’s Moog synthesizer is the product of a post-industrial invention—the transistor.

Just as it was the ability to embrace cutting edge technology that advanced the musical genius of T-Bone Walker and Stevie Wonder, it will also be the ability of all peoples and nations to embrace the new technological based post-industrial society that will ensure their survival. But, if the people and the nations of the world want to do more then merely survive the transition from industrial civilization to post-industrial civilization, they must move beyond a passive embracing of the new post-industrial technology. They must apply the principle of innovation to their new situation. For only an innovative approach will allow people to keep the best of the old civilization and blend it with the best of the new one.

For example, the personal computer and the internet have allowed for an unprecedented exchange of trans-cultural information throughout the world. Websites have been established by cultural workers, lay and professional, to preserve the history of the most remote peoples of the world. This preservation of world culture through a medium of the post-industrial age presents a unique way to challenge global racism in the intellectual arena. 

If one can click a mouse and see an extensive history of the Hopi Indians of America, the Basques of France, or the Kurds of Iraq and Afghanistan—not to mention all the varied cultural expressions of Africa, then intellectual movements that are based in cultural chauvinism will be given less credence in the future. In fact, Information Technology (IT) allows such a massive accumulation of economic, social, political, and cultural data that the very consciousness of man of man will undoubtedly lead to the erasing of all kinds of prejudice throughout the world in the future. 

It is the erasure of prejudice and other uses of Information Technology that will free man’s mind to consider all kinds of possibilities. The real question in the transition from industrial to post-industrial technology is what people will be intellectually liberated by this transition and what people will be enslaved and intellectually impoverished by this civilizational shift. 

The purpose of this book is to demand that Black and Third World people consider engaging in the movement to liberate the human intellect that will characterize participation in a new post-industrial civilization. Succinctly, I asking Black and Third World people to follow the wisdom of the Funkadelics and “free their minds” so “their ass will follow!”       

* At its height Bethlehem Steel employed 45,000 steel and shipyard workers! Source: Maryland Department of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Credit: Painting of John Henry  Swinging  His Hammer by Ezra Jack Keats

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From the Ashes of the Old

American Labor and America’s Future (2000)

By Stanley Aronowitz

Aronowitz presents a compelling case for the idea that “unions, if they are to thrive, must overcome the complacency of the last fifty years and expand labor’s influence throughout politics and culture. But first labor must overcome its image as the representative of a narrow segment of the working population….” In intellectually strong but clear-spoken language, Aronowitz urges labor once again to define itself in sharp opposition to the ideology of corporate capitalism. He might attract some controversy with his suggestion that doing so requires a distancing of the unions from the Democratic Party (which, he reminds the reader, has drifted increasingly to the right under Bill Clinton, whose “reform” of welfare not only took money from the unemployed but may also keep wages down for the working poor). Might, that is, if labor had a strong enough voice for its dissent to be heard. Aronowitz delivers some rather intriguing proposals; it remains for history to determine whether an audience exists that will absorb and act upon them.—

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

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She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—


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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 9 November 2007




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