Myths of Reconstruction: The Freedmen’s Bureau Medical Division

By Curtis Price

May 9, 2021


Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs (Oxford University Press, 2015

According to popular image, the end of slavery was an era of liberation, a happy ending to a bitter war, with jubilant ex-slaves embracing and flourishing under new freedoms denied in the regime of Southern chattel slavery. In this absorbing and well-documented book, Jim Downs questions this interpretation.

 The same troops that sung “John Brown’s Body” on marches, when confronted first-hand with disease and illness among slaves, closed down the informal settlements that had formed on the perimeter of Union camps, forcing newly free slaves away from Army bases.  Sometimes Union soldiers kidnapped escaped slaves and sold them back to their former masters. This continued after the war ended with military and Freedmen’s Bureau officials, obsessed with black bodies only as a source of labor, entering freedmen camps and communities, removing able-bodied men and shipping them to work on distant plantations.  (1)

As Downs notes, “many free slaves died once they secured refuge behind Union camps. Even after the war ended, they continually struggled to survive in a region torn apart by disease and destruction.”  (2) To Harriet Jacobs ,a northern aid worker comforting sick freewomen surrounded by the dead and dying in Washington, D.C., wrote how their eyes seemed to cry: “is this freedom?” (3)

These conditions continued in the post-war period, when the Freedmen’s Bureau set up by Northern authorities, prioritized ex-slave health only as a means to get ex-slaves to return to the fields they had just fled. The objective of the Freedmen’s Bureau Medical Division was to support the emerging free labor system in the South and, by restoring workers’ health, return the region to productivity while avoiding “dependency” on government largesse.

***

Toward the end of the Civil War, thousands of slaves abandoned plantations and escaped behind Union lines, what W.E.B. DuBois famously labeled “a general strike” against the plantation system. But they arrived sick and famished, having trekked great distances, and at considerable personal cost. Their forced mobility, always on the run, meant that freedmen lost community ties, ties that had nourished slaves throughout slavery’s harsh regimens.

As the collapse of the Confederacy accelerated, in large part because of a refusal – the second, yet unacknowledged general strike of the Civil War – by Confederate draftees to fight “a rich man’s war,” kinship bonds among slaves further eroded and families were thrown on their own resources. Medical care that slaves had gotten on plantations or through informal systems of folk medicine within the slave community vanished.

Although a sense of personal and collective agency had helped slaves flee bondage, the other side of the coin that hasn’t gotten attention, as Downs points out, is that ex-slaves faced obstacles “that could not be defeated, no matter how willing or independent they may have been.” Ex-slaves confronted multiple biological crises – the need of bodies for nourishment, shelter, and respite from illness – that even the keenest sense of autonomy could not vanquish. (4)

The Union army had neither the resources nor the political will to address this onslaught of mass suffering. To Union commanders, the presence of so many sick and debilitated slaves hindered war efforts. The Emancipation Proclamation carried no clauses governing Northern armies’ responsibilities towards escapees nor any funding to address their plight, in large part because the Emancipation Proclamation was conceived in narrow strategic terms as an economic weapon undermining the South’s plantation work force, not as a measure promoting social or human rights for African-Americans. (5)

The Union army saw escaped slaves only as a potential source of extra man-power for the war, to relieve grunt work falling on white Northern soldiers. Able-bodied male slaves either signed on voluntarily or were forced to enlist for rations and shelter. Sometimes raids were conducted in camps and freedmen’s communities (a practice that continued, although reduced, during the post-war period with a few local representatives of the Freedmen’s Bureau.)

Women, children, the elderly, sick and disabled presented a special problem. In the eyes of Union commanders, sick slaves, women and children hindered mobility and used up scarce resources.  At times, escaped slaves were viewed only for their monetary value as chattel, such as when General Benjamin Butler wrote that “… more than $60,000 worth of them had come in” in describing an influx of escaped slaves behind Union lines.  Old slave pens from chattel days were re-opened by Northern troops as holding areas for escaped “contraband.” (6)

Without warning, Army officials sometimes suddenly broke up slave encampments, even after promising safety, and scattered escaped slaves elsewhere, even if this meant their risk of death from starvation or the spread of infectious diseases. Slaves, as Downs points out in his description of one slave family’s ordeals, “did not die from complicated medical illnesses or unknown diseases, they died because they did not have basic necessities.” (7)

The Army and, later, Freedmen’s Bureau officials wanted local authorities to take on responsibility for the welfare of ex-slaves, but local officials refused. Hostile to Emancipation, local officials in the South saw slaves as traitors getting their just deserts for abandoning the plantation. Ex-slaves were taunted over what they had lost from rejecting “benevolent” masters.  Many Southern officials found an opt-out by declaring since former slaves were never legally constituted as citizens, they were ineligible for local aid. (8)

This resistance to treating the medical conditions or providing basic social services of ex-slaves was a permanent feature of Southern official response from the end of the Civil War through Reconstruction – and beyond. To make matters worse, crop failures and drought swept through a South destroyed by war in the years after war’s end, making slaves’ survival even more precarious as available resources went to whites first.

Reacting to ground-level reports of the growing plight of emancipated slaves, the Federal government felt forced to act, setting up the Freedmen’s Bureau as a temporary stop-gaps to assist desperate slaves entry into the new world of free labor. The Medical Division of the Freedmen’s Bureau, one of several sub-departments of the Bureau, each tackling an aspect of ex-slave welfare, was established by the War Department. The Medical Division built over 40 hospitals to tend to freemen’s health and hired over a hundred doctors. But these measures were just a drop in the bucket in proportion to the growing need. Very quickly, the hospitals became de facto poor houses, providing housing, food and clothing to emaciated ex-slaves.

Contributing to high death rates among ex-slaves were the racialized concepts of African health that dominated U.S. medicine in the Civil War era. Because slaves were wrongly seen as immune to malaria because of their African heritage, malaria cases among black troops, for instance, were ignored. Northern doctors sent to practice in Medical Division hospitals thought people of African ancestry had weaker constitutions than whites and thus when fell sick were either under-treated or outright ignored.  Some Northern Medical Division doctors, even when sent, refused to treat freedmen. Charles Cox, an Illinois Democrat congressman speaking in opposition to the Freedmen’s Bureau legislation, no doubt spoke for many in the North when he said, “no government farming system, no charitable black scheme can wash out the color of the negro, change his inferior nature or save him from his inevitable fate.” (9 )

The passage of the Freedmen’s Bureau bill led to a drop-off in involvement of Abolitionist Benevolent groups as former activists felt – wrongly, as it turns out – that the Federal government was now taking over work that had previously been done voluntarily by Northern abolitionist groups. Aid workers remained, but were  sidelined and their observations ignored. At no point was any opportunity given by Northern authorities to freedmen to define their own needs. The anecdotes of suffering supplied by abolitionists were quickly replaced by the cold, impersonal calculus of raw numbers with no names attached.

The newly changed status from slave to freemen needing to making their way as workers in a free labor economy meant that health benefits that were formerly provided on the plantation now had to be introduced into individual labor contracts – if offered at all. Often the costs were too high for freemen to pay from meager wages, so health benefits stayed unused as new employers – often the same slave owners as before – now transferred the costs of reproduction to workers in accordance with the principles of the free labor system.

President Andrew Johnson, hostile to the Freedmen’s Bureau from the start, was determined to reinstate the old system of labor control inherited from slavery with power now shunted to employers. To Johnson, all Bureau activities cultivated a culture of “dependency” that had to be tenaciously fought.

 Instead of taking up care of freedmen, however, the ex-slave owners ignored their plight, leaving the stench of rotting bodies hanging in the air as corpses piled up in city streets. In Chattanooga, for instance, one Army official wrote that freed slaves were “dying by scores – that sometimes thirty per day dies & are carried out by wagon loads, without coffins, and thrown promiscuously, like brutes, into a trench.” (10)

O.O. Howard, then head of the Bureau, ignored Johnson and set up medical facilities anyway. But even Howard bucking the system was done with a commitment to the same goals. As Howard wrote, “the negro should understand that he is really free, but on no account, if able to work, should he harbor the thought that the Government will support him in idleness.” (11) When confronted with rising numbers demanding help, Howard concluded the problem was not unmet needs but instead a dangerous trend toward permanent dependence on state intervention.

(DuBois, in Black Reconstruction only mentions the Medical Division in passing but cites success stories such as the death rate among ex-slaves being reduced from 30% to 2.03%. Dubois couldn’t have been aware that the Medical Division’s statistics should be treated as suspect, inflated to make the Division’s work appear more successful than it was.

This, of course, was done to justify winding-down services and proving to Congress that the war against “dependency” had been won.  Federal Reconstruction officials as a whole needed to paint for Northern public opinion optimistic pictures of a booming South. To this end, Northern journalists were given tours touting the South’s rebirth under Northern tutelage, tours that showed happy freedmen working in fields and masked mounting black suffering offstage.) (12)

In many rural areas, where need was the greatest, overworked Division doctors lacked both time and resources to comply with the Division’s onerous bureaucratic reporting standards, leading to case undercounts. In the countryside, many ex-slaves died anonymous, unrecorded deaths from illness and starvation in bushes and forests without ever encountering a Medical Division doctor.

Yet even at their height, Medical Division hospitals could only treat an average of 20 patients at a time. Sometimes, hospitals and aid programs were forced off their sites so the land could be returned to former slave-owners.  Howard at first hoped to recruit doctors from the military to staff medical programs. But most Northern Army doctors left the South, with many openly expressing their lack of interest in treating black patients. (13)

Starved of funding, pressured by Northern officials to shut down as soon as possible, local hospitals were forced to improvise. Some Doctors hired patients to do menial work and were paid in food rations. Hospitals were told by Howard to grow their own vegetables on scraps of unused land to lower costs, A few defied Federal authorities and hired local workers anyway. Outside associations such as the Colored Benevolent Societies raised funds and provided food and clothing.

But Federal officials used this outside support as an excuse to further cut funding. The primary objective was to get fields back running again. As Downs notes, “ . . . Radical Republicans and members of Johnson’s administration who otherwise disagreed on the objectives of the Bureau – shared a view of ill-health as it related to one’s ability to perform arduous field labor.” (14) Later, in 1866, the Radical Republicans argued for able-bodied freedmen to be denied health care or assistance if they didn’t go back to the fields – a position indistinguishable from Johnson’s.

Left out in both Johnson and Radical Republican calculus was any acknowledgement of the role of war and internal displacement in stoking illness. Everything was narrowed to simplistic ideas of a “will to work” that was either present or not. The larger structural impediments to employment such as a ruined economy and infrastructure were never considered

During this period, dating roughly from 1862-1865, smallpox raged throughout the South, undoubtedly aided by freedmen’s forced dispersion. Smallpox carried a stigma of affecting the immoral, poor and promiscuous and carriers avoided public attention, making it harder to practice quarantine. Ex-slaves, for instance, hid evidence of infection from white eyes because they feared being told infection was God’s disproval of Emancipation. As smallpox spread up the Atlantic coast, military officials in D.C. pressured many freedmen to go back over the Potomac River, where they were warehoused in former slave pens in Alexandria; others were just abandoned to die. (15)

Smallpox was spread by large movements of freedmen, often forced out by local Freedmen’s Bureau to seek services elsewhere. Tragically, many freemen viewed freedom as the right to go wherever they pleased and thus unwittingly carried smallpox with them.

Susceptibility to illnesses such as smallpox for both Northern and Southern officials became one more sign confirming Africans’ inherent racial inferiority. The role of overcrowding and lack of housing escaped notice as a cause, even as both factors were acknowledged as exacerbating conditions when applied to whites. Instead, smallpox offered “proof” that blacks and whites had different biologies. Widely accepted as fact was the theory that African slaves were inherently doomed to die out, like Native Americans, and treatment was futile in stopping this inevitable outcome. As one religious leader spoke in 1863 about Africans, “Like his brother the Indian of the forest, he must melt away and disappear forever among the midst of us.”  (16)

These views were also held in the top leadership of the Freedmen’s Bureau Medical Division and officials refused to provide adequate funds to build separate facilities – pest houses – to house the infected. The logic was since freedmen were inevitably slated to become extinct, efforts to stem the spread of smallpox through basic sanitation measures and vaccination were futile. Thus Federal officials refused to follow long-known strategies for containing smallpox that had been standard practices for decades.

Occasionally, freedmen organized to demand better protection. In New Bern, North Carolina, a group of freedmen successfully approached a commander alleging the Freedmen’s Bureau superintendent committed “oppression and outrages.” In Columbia, SC, ex-slaves demanded an end to the unsanitary conditions at the local smallpox hospital. At other times, freedmen, not trusting the Northern military with their health and exercising what they felt was their new freedoms, refused to cooperate with Union army campaigns for mass vaccinations. (17) But such protests were rare.

By the time the Freedmen’s Bureau Medical Division was shut, few of its hospitals remained. Although a handful of dedicated doctors and Northern volunteers continued to provide health care to newly emancipated slaves, these scattered efforts could never meet the overwhelming need. From then on, freedmen’s would be at the mercy of employers or their own wits and the first experiment with government-sponsored health care consigned to history.

***

In many ways, the end days of the Confederacy saw a horizontal shift in suffering as Union troops and later Freedmen’s Bureau officials, confronted with the immense suffering of escaped slaves, refused to respond, leaving tens of thousands to die of hunger, exposure, and disease. Why are these circumstances unknown? As Downs points out,

“The few and scattered references of freedpeople suffering from the challenges of emancipation have been overlooked because these episodes do not fit into the patriotic narratives of the Civil War. Frozen feet and starvation complicate accounts dominated by heroic black soldiers or freedwomen in Union camps caring for both freed slaves and Northern troops. These carefully cast representations of freedpeople were often created by white authors in the late nineteenth century who strove to highlight the happy outcomes brought by emancipation. Recounting the hardships endured by former slaves during emancipation risked sending the erroneous message that the institution of slavery was no wholly cruel – inadvertently supporting the argument of antebellum pro-slavery advocates in response to the abolitionist movement” (18)

Alongside the exalted phrases of the Emancipation Proclamation and stirring accounts of black freedom during Reconstruction, we also need to center the experience of an anonymous freedwoman living in a dump cart in Montgomery who passed out while giving birth, only to find when she woke that hogs had devoured her baby. (19 130) She too is a face of Reconstruction and her baby’s death a case of social murder, perpetrated by the indifference of both Northern and Southern authorities alike, when confronted with the mass suffering of ex-slaves in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

Notes

1) Jim Downs, Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 37, 123.

2) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 6.

3) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 162.

4) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 6.

5) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 38.

6) Ibid.

7) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 21.

8) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 68.

9) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 61.

10) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 27.

11) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 73.

12) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 144.

13) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 83.

14) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 93.

15) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 99.

16) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 103.

17) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 109.

18) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 6.

19) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 130.

Further Reading

Harris, Paul. “How the end of slavery led to starvation and death for millions of black Americans. “ The Guardian, January 16, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jun/16/slavery-starvation-civil-war?fbclid=IwAR1Zv08337Uwv090IoP_RWnWTYcEWVt6F3hcsjwj-rADQR13hWGoQtaM6Sk

Response to Hard Crackers Tribute to Noel Ignatiev

By Pekah Wallace

Posted May 9, 2021


We can pay attention to things that beg out empathy, or indulge in personally destructive, narcissistic and attention-seeking behaviors and self-aggrandizement…

The Seventh Edition Hard Crackers Release-Party was celebrated Sunday, October 27, 2019,at Freddie’s Bar and Backroom, Brooklyn, NY. A dive of sorts, and a throwback to times and places in the Boroughs where writers like Eugene O’Neill, surrounded by some of the most motley crew, was inspired to write masterpieces. The Iceman Cometh comes to mind.

If bad weather conditions were any predictor that the event would mark its final publication of Hard Crackers, Chronicles of Every Day Life, the size of the turnout told a different story. We started out for New York plenty early, and what should have easily been a two-hour sprint from Connecticut, became four hazardous, long hours, wrestling a rainstorm out of hell. The wipers never caught a break, neither did our eyes, peeled back, as blinding heavy downpours turned to perilous flooding. At no point did we think we’d make it there. On board were two of the most important pieces of cargo entrusted to my care. Jay, my son, and Noel Ignatiev, founder and chief editor of Hard Crackers. Noel was unusually excited to celebrate yet another publication of Hard Crackers. But foremost in his thoughts was his special invited guest, James Livingston, whom he would be meeting, in person, for the first time. He trusted me to get him there, if not on time, in one piece.

By the time we arrived at the Backroom, weather conditions had just begun to open up. The event was a success, surprisingly well attended, in spite of bad weather! Livingston read from his autobiography, someone played the guitar, and Noel spoke, as the many young aspiring revolutionaries listened, transfixed. Also present were some members of the Board, John Garvey, Mike Morgan and Geert Dhondt. I also recall seeing Matthew Capri. Ignatiev sold many copies of Hard Crackers that day which meant more money for publication of the next edition, and that pleased him very much. Making tbe budget of several thousand dollars, to get each edition of Hard Crackers to press, was hard work,

However, In spite of his illness and doctors’ appointments, sometimes twice a week, Ignatiev needed to make new connections daily and nurture old ones, to assure continued flow of subscriptions to Hard Crackers. He sought and encouraged new writers, reviewed and edited all submissions to Hard Crackers, at the same, worked diligently to finish writing his novel, Acceptable Men, dormant for 20 years. Between times, he practiced his Cello, and any of a number of harmonicas he kept nearby in his desk drawer.

Early to bed and early to rise, Ignatiev maintained a strict routine, a daily constant, steady discipline. He had lost a lot of weight but remained strong and vibrant, often getting ahead of the day, he showered, shaved, dressed, to take himself and Miles for a leisurely walk. At the end of a very busy and productive day, he walked Miles again, took in an occasional movie or a tennis match, checked in on social media happenings, or chatted with a friend, as he settled in for the next 8 to 10 hours, connected to a feeding tube, and a noisy suction pump which swallowed for him. Yet, Ignatiev never complained, hopeful he would swallow again, as he looked forward to his impending corrective surgery.

Clearly, none of this was good enough for Jarrod Shanahan, a so-called comrade and disgruntled former member of the Hard Crackers Board, who, we later learned, spent countless hours begrudgingly trolling Ignatiev’s every move on social media, in an attempt to undermine Ignatiev’s integrity and position as editor in chief.

On November 9, 2019 Ignatiev passed; 13 days after the Hard Crackers Release- Party, and only seven days after arriving in Arizona to visit his grandchildren.  If death did not land the final blow, Shanahan, stabbed Ignatiev in the back, defenseless. Such cowardly act he could not have ventured on his own, without the help of members of the Hard Crackers Board, in particular, his handmaiden and partner in crime, Zhandarka Kurti, Ignatiev’s second most pernicious nemesis. I am not surprised Kurti would aid and abet placing Shanahan’s bellicose pen, front and center of the organization’s attempt to pay tribute to the work and life of Ignatiev.

On at least two occasions, Ignatiev rejected articles Shanahan submitted to Hard Crackers for publication. The first led to Ignatiev quitting the beloved magazine he founded, because of push-back form Shanahan and Kerti. With no discernable leader in place, Ignatiev resumed the role of editor in chief, on condition he hold ultimate authority to decide which articles make it into the magazine and which did not. Too much for Shanahan’s fragile ego, he quit the Board, claiming to avoid arguing with Ignatiev. Nonetheless, he continued to submit articles to Hard Crackers. His final submission bore no identifying markers authentic to Hard Crackers appeal to unite the working class of all races. It was clear to Ignatiev that Shanahan was not writing for Hard Crackers, but himself.  The article was academically obtuse, unwieldy, and its focus undecipherable. Ignatiev again rejected the article, before and after several unsuccessful attempts by other members of the Board to resuscitate it. 

It was around this time Ignatiev discovered that Kerti, unbeknown to Ignatiev, had placed in the archives one of Shanahan’s earlier articles Ignatiev had rejected. Kerti did not return Ignatiev’s call to inquire into her actions and, unceremoniously, Ignatiev removed the article from the archives, and blocked Kerti from future access to the archives.

Ignatiev died a month later. Shanahan and Kerti, unable to bring themselves to the podium at his celebratory memorial, strolled haplessly about, inseparable, claiming no pretentions or humility, conscience or remorse. Judas, a better man, would have run off and killed himself. Immediately thereafter, Kerti assumed the reins of Hard Crackers, James Murray and Curtis Price, resigned the Board, and Shanahan simultaneously resumed his position on the Board. Price went on to found Gasoline and Grits.

Whatever cheap fix Shanahan and Kerti and others may have derived from their impetuous, childish and malicious rants, to now claim themselves “revolutionaries who knew [Ignatiev] best,” is fiction, and an insult to Ignatiev and other revolutionaries everywhere. Shanahan and Kerti violated the golden rule and tried to extract special privileges from Hard Crackers for purposes of personal and professional gain. Failing to have his way, Shanahan blamed Ignatiev for his tortured ego, and set out to undermine Ignatiev’s reputation to others.

I have read the remaining submissions, including those by M. Treloar, Robert Gerst, Justine Johnson, John Strucker, John Bracey, Geert Dhondt, Cloee Cooper, Gary Fields, Don Hamerquist, Avery D’Agostino, Jay Kaspian Kang, John Garvey, and The Left Hook. While I admire Dhondt’s thoughtful inclusion of correspondence, in real time, between Ignatiev and the late Joel Olson his dear friend and comrade, as well as some excerpts from Ignatiev’s novel, Acceptable Men, Dhondt failed to assume greater liberty to countenance the very close, friendship he and his family have shared with Ignatiev over many years. Dhondt seemed to have safely avoided such personal endeavor, that would have otherwise smacked at the heart of the condescending, and hostile diatribe by Shanahan and his alliances. I view this as an opportunity missed.

A prominent, world-renowned historian and revolutionary, Ignatiev’s work speaks for itself. An anthology of his personal writings, essays, interviews, excerpts from his novels, and instructive submissions, would have best served as Tribute to his life and life’s mission.

Pekah Wallace, human rights law enforcement administrator and activist, is the surviving partner of Noel Ignatiev.

Appendix

We are attaching an article by Shanahan that Noel refused to print so readers can judge for themselves how appropriate this text was for Hard Crackers. Contrary to Kerti’s self-serving, moaning about Ignatiev’s heavy editorial hand, as anyone can see this poorly written, pompous gibberish and ad hominem sectarian attacks had no place in Hard Crackers – or any other self-respecting publication, for that matter.

Invisibility and Blindness

By Jarrod Shanahan

Beep beep beep…Since their installation in 2013, the shrill exclamation sounding day and night at Chicago Transit Authority bus stops has injected a subtle yet incessant irritation into the ordinary perturbation of waiting for a bus that may or may not be coming anytime soon. I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last, to declare this beeping a major annoyance.

Beep beep beep…Thirty times per minute.Where the fuck is my bus?It’s hot. I need not describe the heat in Chicago any more than the cold. The sun catches on a corner of the South Side bus shelter, furnishing a sliver of shade shielding all but an elbow I must today sacrifice to the risk of melanoma some decades down the line.

Beep beep beep…I struggle to hold my focus on some essential classic of critical scholarship, as the author stacks chic buzzwords likethey’re preparing full house in poker, coins needless neologisms of their own, and drops the names of their scholar friends for having first identified social phenomena experienced by hundreds of millions of people in their daily lives.

Beep beep beep…Neoliberal modalities of governance in the affective regime of the spatio-temporal metropole in the biopoliticalanthropocene, qua the biopoliticalanthropocene…Thinking back to when I first encountered sentences like this, and thought myself the hopeless inferior of their author, incapable of ever soaring to such Olympian heights, my face flushes and the page becomes a blur…

Beep beep beep BOOM! With great dramatic flair, a middle-aged black man standing three feet away from me has smashed an empty energy drink can completely flat. With great intent he rubs the aluminummedallion between his hands to inspect the thoroughness of the work. Satisfied, he paces ten steps to the periphery of the concrete. I observe, sipping Starbucks through a metal straw protruding from an otherwise plastic cup, which someone I had a crush on once assured me would spare a duck an untimely death. He reaches the corner of the concrete, where the bus station gives way to grassabutting an embattled woodland adjoining the Metra tracks. Then, with great sobriety, he hurls the disc into this woods.

Beep beep beepFor fuck’s sake!, I mutter, shaking my head conspicuously. He was standing next to a trash can to begin with!How inconsiderate can a person be?

Beep beep beep… The book is hopeless, and I’m not about to morph into Captain Planet and fight with a stranger over a singular piece of litter on a planet likely polluted beyond redemption. Instead I produce a Clif Bar, one of those candy bars for people who think they’re above candy bars. I struggle to keep chocolate off my hands and face as I devour this healthy snack in the midday heat, noting with satisfaction a seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance on the product’s wrapper. I then promptly deposit the wrapper in a prominent garbage can, two feet from the spot where the man originally crushed the can, and to which he has now returned. I pace back to my precarious refuge from the sun, stare down the block, and note, with a heavy sigh, the absence of an oncoming bus.

“Hey…” the man asks me tentatively,“…is there a trash can there?”

I stare blankly. Having recently relocated from New York City, it has been hard adjusting to social customs of the Midwest, where apparently not everybody who engages you on the street is looking to rip you off or start a fight.

“Oh my god,” he continues, staring intently at the can “there is a trash can there!”

“Yeah, man…” is all I can muster. Is he fucking with me?

“I can’t see!” he exclaims. “Well… I can kind of see it now, that you pointed it out.”

I look into his eyes for the first time. He’s blind! The exact fucking person the beeping is meant for, calling through the darkness like a beacon in an otherwise endless sea.

“Man,” he chuckles.” I do that every day! I never knew there was a trash can there. I like my energy drink before I get on the bus. I used to carry the can with me all the way downtown to throw it away, but I didn’t want to spill it on anyone.”

I notice at once he’s not walking with a cane. How does he get around? I mumble something sufficiently convivial, as the bus approaches at last. I hear it one last time as the doors shut behind me: Beep beep beep

As the driver glides the massive two-part articulated bus gracefully through the tight concrete confines undergirding the Metra tracks and onto Lake Shore Drive, opening the emerald vista of Lake Michigan vanishing into a hazy horizon, my mind wanders to the major story that has consumed the energy of many intelligent people in my social world on this beautiful summer day. Several short videoscherry-picked from a weekend-long conference of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)have become the latest “viral” sensation, on which everybody feels the need to comment. The children of cable news have all become talking heads, fashioning their daily rations of news into spicy hot takes.

In one of these clips, a conference organizer alerts attendees to disabilities among their comrades of which the listener may be unaware – in other words, they are invisible – urging considerate treatment of those who suffer them, and listing the amenities available for people who have a difficult time navigating the environments of a loud and messy national political conference. In another, an angry speaker takes issue with the use of the word “guys” as a generic term used to mean “people,” which in addition to reproducing the stubborn linguistic tendency in English to generalize masculine nouns, can be particularly hurtful to people who struggle in their social and professional lives to not be identified as men. As my friend Rebecca Hill put it: “On the scale of annoying things at meetings, this isn’t that big a deal.” How desperate must the haters be, she added “if this is the worst thing they could dig up for a ‘gotcha’?”

It wasn’t a big deal. But it became one. These short videos were abstracted from an entire weekend of debate and served up with no explanation save for “meanwhile, at the DSA.” By all accounts, over the duration of this conference,the largest and certainly most viable leftist organization in the United States struggled with fundamental questions implied by a deepening social crisis that calls for decisive action, and for which no rival left organization seems to have a better plan. With no mention of the broader conference, theseisolated clips were shared and viewed hundreds of thousands of times. The clips originated, it seems with other leftists eager to mock the organization, but quickly gained traction within the right-wing media, where the moral panic about “political correctness” run amok has simmered for decades, stoked with great alacrity by white male professors of a certain age who blame feminism for their students refusing to sleep with themand “identity politics” for being asked to not use chauvinistic language, or losing out on a job to someone who isn’t a white man.

Once in the hands of the right, these clips were used, as always, to deride and discredit all who seek to build a society according to the principles: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.By this point, the right’s work was largely done for it: the putative leftists sharing these videos had heaped derision in nearly identical terms as the Fox News article the story eventually earned. Leftist enemies of “identity politics” worked organically with reactionaries and outright fascists to reduce the entirety of the discussion surrounding the DSA conference to the content these short clips, and reduce the project of human emancipation to a punchline.

As a denouement of this sad spectacle, the avowednational chauvinist Angela Nagel relished a softball interview on the television program of Tucker Carlson, an avowed enemy of the working class and perhaps the closest mainstream pundit to the white nationalist movement, where the two chuckled together about the idiocy of the socialist left. Nagle, who did not attend the conference, conceded entirely to Carlson defining the convention in the terms of these stray clips, and actually upped the ante by claiming “everycampaign on the left and every organization on the left” to be this way.Nagle then claimed that so-called “invisible disabilities,” meaning any disability the observer cannot immediately discern in a person, do not exist, but are simply “bourgeois narcissism,” a phrase Carlson foundparticularly funny. “I don’t think if I spent a year trying to think of a better description,” Carlson replied gleefully, “I could come up with anything more precise than that.”Nagle’s latest declaration of chauvinism, for which she still has apologists disgracing themselves, is not an isolated case, but only the most prominent case of a hearty cooperative effort by left and right wing reactionaries to mock egalitarian politics in the name of some imagined purity of “class” based organizing.

Let’s be real: Are there people here and there who weaponized fantastic claims to disability for personal gain? Yes, and sometimes that is itself a sign of serious mental health issues. Are middle-class children politicized by radical liberal theory in the comfort of classrooms often irritating, and in need of serious real world experience to temper their righteous – and thoroughly petty bourgeois – indignation? Surely. Will a massive political convention of any group lacking an authoritarian power structure attract idiosyncratic individuals and likely degenerate into a total mess? Of course! That’s partly why most of the people mocking these clips can’t put together five people to start a group of their own.But to use the most outlandish adherents of a political perspective to discredit its intent, and to misinterpret in bad faith the strivings of political organizers to build inclusive spaces, is the stuff of Fox News anti-leftist smear, not serious left analysis. In fact, it’s not much of an analysis at all.

Such smirkingridicule is the stock and trade of a new breed of “socialist” evangelists touting the politics of “class” as somehow distinct from questions of how the class is stratified, and the impact class society has on those it victimizes – whether along the lines of race, gender, dis/ability, or countless other differential experiences one must consider in order to formulate a politics worth of the name emancipatory. This project becomes particularly evil when the most common “left” response to people vocalizing the particularities of their struggles in our cruel and dehumanizing society is derisive laughter – laughter that joins the chorus of fascist derision of the project of human emancipation. 

The is nothing “leftist” about laughing in the face of somebody’s claim to harm by capitalist society. There is nothing egalitarian about claiming to know somebody’s experiences better than they do, and to dismiss them outright.Nor is arguing that the outlandish excesses of “identity politics” are a more serious issue than the problems to which these politics are meant to respond.This is the same old neoconservatism which the Nagle’s of yesteryear have been peddling for decades.The denial of the reality of diverse experiences, no matter how “invisible” they may seem to the superficial observer, is not only bad personal behavior, but a reproduction of the chauvinism that structures our class society, and keeps working people divided while Nagel’s reactionary friends like Tucker Carlson look on smirking.

Chauvinism – especially the sneering, haughty, and derisive form of it that today passes as a serious “class” perspective among a new breed of “socialist” thinkers serving up the old wine of class-reductionism in shiny new jars – has no place in a movement for human emancipation. Chauvinism begins with a willful blindness to the validity of experiences outside one’s immediate perception. It hardens when that blindness becomes a willful ignorance. And thus it becomes something truly evil.

Or, so I thought as my bus slammed to a stop at Jackson Avenue, and the man who crushed the can went tumbling onto a row of seated passengers, apologizing profusely.

A New Bureaucratic Army of Social Workers?

By James Murray

Posted April 27, 2021


William Burroughs said one time the ”interpersonal corruption,”of 1950s Little Italy or parts of Mexico was much preferable to the “institutional corruption,” that existed in 70s/80s American cities. But Burroughs was trust-fund art trash so your mileage may vary, and nowadays the system is nothing but corruption and losing legitimacy every day.

The left demanding “defund the police,” and complete “police abolition,” in a total absence of any revolutionary movement or organization, is not just sillytown phantasm of the type propagated by AOC and Omar. It is malpractice. If the police were defunded and abolished, who will keep neighborhoods and productive centers safe and secure? A new bureaucratic army of social workers? I’ve known relatively tame single moms who lived daily in more and fear and paranoia of a possible DHS visit than my gangster acquaintances experienced while involved in ongoing criminal activities. In Syria or in the U.S., no society will long suffer a deficit of social control. Someone(s) will take up the space.

I was listening to a podcast interview with J. Prince, a rap industry mogul, owner of dozens of fast-food franchises and the “mob boss” of Houston’s predominantly black city wards. 

They asked what he thought about the “Abolish the police movement,” and he answered – “It would only be possible if there were some kind of alternative organization to maintain order and protect people.”

“You think that’s possible?”

“Of course its possible.”

“How would it be done?”

“I’m not gonna talk about that in public.”

Is the left really willing to make J. Prince the de-facto police chief of half of Houston? No doubt he could do a credible job, and in many ways the situation(s) might well improve. But I doubt an epidemic love fest of white liberalism would erupt in the absence of “professional policing.” Instead of days or weeks in county jail thieves, prostitutes and drug dealers who didn’t “play by the rules,” would get baseball batted, offensive homeless camps would be forcibly removed, summary executions, that kind of thing. Like any other shantytown on earth. Would that be better than the status quo? For many folks probably, and worse for others… but don’t kid yourself about what it would entail.. .Unless the proletariat has political-military organization it doesn’t have anything. It’s certainly in no condition to be making demands….

The Air Gun

By Kwame P. Dean

April 17, 2021

We had moved from cosmopolitan, coastal Virginia to a small town in central Illinois. We moved from a modern home to the old house of my father’s childhood with its tiny rooms under roof, a fraction of the size of the rooms we had before. My room was dark all of the time as the sunlight struggled to make an impression on the dark wood and pitch of the roof. Thankfully, it all felt temporary. My refuge would once again be restored when, a few years into the future, a new house would be built to replace this one. I would again have a place suitable for reading and thinking away from everyone else. Apart from the occasional visits I allowed my younger brother, and the forced invasions of my mother when she would clean because I was too lazy or distracted to, it was my room in every sense. 

My cousin Darren was a city kid. Brought up in Chicago and then a small metropolitan area with big city problems an hour away. I liked him. He was older than me by a couple of years but never lorded that over me. He was cool, easy to make laugh and quick to smile. I think I would have been a better middle child than an older brother as playing with Darren took off the pressure and he taught me things I couldn’t find in my encyclopedias. Darren was one of six so having the chance to visit us away from his small family apartment in the projects was probably a welcome change despite the boredom. We were forced to use our imaginations to play army or cowboys appropriate to the big backyard and room to run. Oddly, we never thought to be Indians. To aid our re-enactments, we usually were satisfied with the clicks of cap guns without the caps. They still smelled like the remnants of gunpowder and carried the “bang, bang!” advantage of infinite ammunition. The only disadvantage was in the debates about who got the other first.

One time, the last time, was different. The Christmas before, I had graduated from my toy repeater rifle BB gun to an air rifle that looked like the real thing. It could fire pellets or BBs and was powerful enough to kill small animals, or so I was warned. That, and the fear of shooting a neighbor’s window gave me enough respect for it to leave it alone most of the time. Of course, I was told to never point it at someone as I could “put someone’s eye out”. I think every American boy of my generation heard that warning and most of us had never met a kid who’s eye had really gotten put out. It quickly faded into the list of “things adults say to keep us from having fun”. 

So during Darren’s visit, a rainy day meant we were forced to play inside. Not bothering my mother meant we were forced to play upstairs. Darren had a shiny, plastic replica Colt six shooter and I had my new rifle. The rifle wasn’t loaded but I had pumped it to build up the air pressure so there would be a satisfying “pfft” of air when I pulled the trigger. No “bang” for me this time. 

Playing a combination of cowboys and hide and seek, I waited in the darkest corner of my room and listened. The creaky floors announced everyone, no matter how careful, so I knew when he was coming. Darren reached the door with his six shooter at the ready. I was ready too. He burst in with a “bang” and I pulled the trigger. Darren dropped his gun and went down to one knee immediately, his hands covering his right eye. It was so convincing that I  excitedly congratulated him for his acting prowess until I saw the blood. 

Too panicked to think of anything else, I yelled for my mother as the terror set in. Normally my first instinct would be to cover up my wrong doing, as my brother can verify. But this time, there was no space in my head for any thought other than praying I hadn’t actually put Darren’s eye out. Lucky for Darren, a cut on the eyebrow was responsible for the bleeding. My mother took care of that and then immediately arranged my punishment by calling my father at work and exiling me to my room to await the carrying out of the sentence I knew I deserved. 

It was rare for my father to beat us. My mother was the usual judge, jury and executioner for the only infrequent occurrences of talking back or fighting with my brother. My dad was somber and conducted a brief interrogation though the facts were already clear. I recognized this years later when after starting my own military career, I too was trained to determine blame. I was exhausted from the fear, relief and waiting. I just wanted the inevitable to be over with as I answered his questions with tears streaming down my face more as a prequel to what was going to happen than for regret. He used his leather belt. He just took it from around his waist. There was no preordained instrument of punishment hanging around our house like my grandfather’s razor strap that he kept long after he stopped using straight razors. This was just a regular belt. My dad took off the belt slowly with a kind of ceremony to reinforce the gravity of the act. He told me why what was about to happen was going to happen. As an 11 year old, I didn’t need the explanation. This was about not doing it again and I never did.

After 16 years in the military, the extent of my weapons training was little more than target practice and simulating the “bang, bang” of my youth with blanks, a big red blank firing adapter in the muzzle of my assault rifle and laser sensors…professional laser tag, if you will. I think I’m capable of shooting someone if I’m protecting others but I don’t know. I hope I’ll never need to find out.

Interestingly enough, during military training we were told when firing blanks with our M-16 rifles not to shoot at a target who was too close. We could put someone’s eye out.

The Overdose

By Curtis Price

Posted April 4, 2021


He lay splayed out on the concrete behind my car trunk, legs spread and crumpled, like a limp doll that had been tossed out a fifth-floor window.  A neighbor and the apartment complex manager hovered over him. The manager dialed 911 and pacing frantically, shouted, “Where is the ambulance? Why aren’t they here?” The man – a young, black male in his late 20s-early 30s – breathed in short, rapid clips. His eyes rolled up in his head, exposing just the whites. I took his pulse – normal and regular rhythm – and gave him a sternum rub, to no response.  To me, his skin felt like a salamander’s, cool and clammy. He sweated like a pig. It was the tell-tale sign of an opioid overdose. But there were no fresh needle marks on his arms so perhaps he had swallowed the dose that was slowly killing him. 

His so-called “friends” – a multinational gaggle of one young white young male, one young black male, and a white woman in her mid-40s, a perfect demonstration of the values of diversity and inclusion so prized in these modern times of ours, jumped around agitated. The white guy, in his 20s, was stoned out of his gourd and maybe on the way to his own oblivion as he staggered around glassy-eyed and dumb-founded. The black guy, just like the mute body on the pavement, was café-au-lait complexion, wiry and gaunt, his hair also worn natural and disheveled. Were they brothers or was it just a coincidence that they looked so similar? This second man, the driver, was jittery and mumbling, but more alert than the other two. 

But when he heard the sirens, the driver jumped back in the car and revved up and out of the parking lot. The white woman had disappeared in the confusion. Someone said they saw her heading to the homeless shelter down the street.  

 The sprawled man’s “friends” were rightly looking out for their self-interest because under Alabama law, anyone who supplies drugs known to have killed someone becomes legally liable for their death. No doubt, they were “running dirty” themselves and couldn’t risk a car search. The car sped up and disappeared over the horizon. Only later did I find out the black driver had pushed the white guy out of the car at the other end of the complex, where he was found staggering and wide-eyed and then arrested for “public intoxication.”  

I don’t know if the sprawled man, Rashid Evans – for that was his name – survived. If he had taken Fentanyl,  a shot of Narcan may have been enough to bring him around. Maybe he had ingested Tianaa, known in the South as “gas station dope” because, until a couple weeks ago. Tianaa was legally sold at gas stations and vape shops throughout Alabama as a “dietary supplement.” Tianaa, widely used in Eastern Europe as an anti-depressant, has never been FDA-approved in the U.S. When taken in large doses, it produces a heroin-type euphoria, making it a popular street drug. And, until recently, legal too, because through a regulatory loophole, the Tianaa ingredients were allowed to be imported. 

It’s hard to see how this deep alienation, the desire to obliterate consciousness, among many parts of the working-class – young people of all races and middle-aged whites without a college degree especially – will end. Contrary to what the Left assumes, if tens of thousands of $25 dollar an hour factory jobs suddenly dropped out of the sky, I don’t believe it would put a dent in this state of affairs. Such is the contemporary situation in the United States, that “laboratory of human suffering as vast and terrible as that in which Dickens and Dostoevsky wrote” Nelson Algren so aptly wrote himself over fifty years ago. 

The Glove Man of Norman

By Richard Dixon

Posted March 19, 2021


       He was the best-known of all the mental patients who live in this university town full of college students, but also full of mental patients who have recently been released from the state mental hospital or the community mental health center; released to live in the community, classified (at best) as outpatients, most of them living in close proximity to the university campus, since that’s where the cheaper rents are. But not the Glove Man.  No one really knew where he lived.

            The Glove Man was a walker, having no driver’s license and no choice, and he walked all over the town, always in perpetual motion, as if afraid to stop, and constantly talking, like he was carrying on some kind of extended conversation with the universe, or himself: same difference. Sometimes ranting and raving; one arm, then the other thrusting up toward the sky; sometimes mumbling, muttering under his breath, quietly seething.

            To say the least, I was entranced. I would roll down my car window when I was stopped at the light and he was standing at the intersection’s corner, unsure if it was safe to cross, stoplights and crosswalks not being a part of his lexicon of living, so: he would be standing there, getting louder with what he was saying, and it was always a variation on, “I tried to tell those sonsabitches, but they wouldn’t listen.”

            Once, I saw him on Main Street, on the other side in a restaurant’s parking lot, picking up handfuls of dirt and depositing them into three small paper sacks, not all at once, but one at a time.  The sacks were spaced a few feet apart, but in no recognizable configuration.  At one point, he turned and looked in my direction, and would have caught me watching him if I hadn’t ducked down behind my car, just in the nick of time.  Later, as I was driving down Main Street, I saw him walking ahead on the sidewalk, and I pulled over all the way to the left-hand lane of this one-way street, and rolled down my window. As I passed by him, I leaned my head out of the car and asked, “Hey, how you doing, dude?” For several seconds, there registered no discernible reaction on his lean, hard, high-cheek-boned face.  Then he glanced at me, and then back, all in the space of maybe a second, and said,  “Don’t bother me; don’t bother me,” the accent of the word bother coming down when his right foot hit the pavement, like a drill sergeant out practicing the troops.

            Another time, I saw him again at one of the usual intersections. This time I wasn’t driving; my car was parked in the adjacent parking lot of the grocery store. I walked up behind him, then slightly around him to make sure I approached from the side. He didn’t look at me or in any way acknowledge my presence. As innocently as I could sound, I asked, “Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to the university?” Almost without pause, but again without making eye contact, he answered, “Go down Flood to Boyd;  turn left and keep going.” I walked away smiling at the utter simplicity of his direction;  most people would have given a far more complicated answer, to no better effect. And:  he had answered me!

            The story I heard about the Glove Man, or “Gloves,” as I called him, was that he had gone into his burning house to try and get his family out, or maybe just one person;  the details sketchy, as well as the outcome: did he ever get them out? In the attempt, at any rate, he had severely burned his hands, and had henceforth worn gloves, usually heavy-looking work gloves ever since, the hundred-degree days of summer making no difference, and also making no difference to his regimen, his 15-20 miles a day constitutional. Occasionally bringing his name up to friends, maybe twice a year in casual conversation, the last time I did I was informed that Gloves had passed away, his obituary having been read by my informer the week before. Gloves was probably close to sixty years old, maybe a little older, although he had an athletic twenty-five year old body, and I wondered about the cause of his death. Heart failure from over-exertion? Hit by a moving car, trying his best to get through one of those damned intersections? Or possibly by the long-burning memories of a long-ago fire, memories that eventually extinguished?    Or, fatigue and frustration, finally, with all those sonsabitches who wouldn’t listen.

                                      

On The High Horse (A Serious Look at the Margins)

By Richard Dixon

Posted March 10, 2021


  I had gone into the biker bar with the straightforward assumption of shooting some pool. I enjoy playing pool, but hadn’t done much of it in several years. I was invited to play pool by Jerry, the manager of the Kerr-McGee service station where I sometimes worked weekends. (I also cut their grass, as well as the owners’ house). Jerry worked at the service station every day, of course, and everyday, at the end of his shift, headed to the bikers bar, which was located no more than a hundred yards from the station, at the far end of a building which also housed an automotive garage. Ford Parker was a mechanic in that garage (and my future bodyguard, if only in my mind). Ford was a big guy, and though polite to a fault, always wore an air of quiet menace. 

            Jerry seemed to me a big guy; not so much tall but stout, like a bull, demeanor and all. Jerry was a brawler, I sensed, and so always resisted kidding him about the biker bar being his second home, which it was; he went there every night, ended up drunk and passed out, usually on one of the pool tables, only to be awakened in time to open up the service station at 7 a.m., him being the manager – and if he stayed hung over the better part of the day, who was to say? The owners themselves were alcoholics, mixing drinks all day in the back of the station even as they tried to balance the books, but somehow, until they sold out three years from then, always managed to make it come out right. 

            The bikers bar was called The High Horse, and had a reputation for being quite wild; it was run by bikers, who sold speed on the side while their ‘ol ladies danced topless and turned tricks, that is to say prostituted on the side, the Ramada Inn by the interstate being their destination of choice. What was always strange to me was  even though the High Horse was a biker bar, it was managed by a fraternity pin-wearing college graduate named Donnie, who was preppy as he could be, a 180 degree contrast from the bikers who seemed to really run the place. 

            If I had known that evening, upon entering that bar, my life was going to take a drastic change for the next few weeks, I would have had strong, serious reservations. As it was, my ignorance and my love of pool were my guiding lights that mild January evening, and they led me through the door.

            The strains of “Honky Tonk Women” were ripping through the speakers from the jukebox as Jerry and I walked in. I could see the bar was clearly divided into two parts; the two pool tables in the rear, partitioned off by the actual bar, and the large room in front with many tables, chairs and booths, all leaning toward a half-circle stage, bright stage lights, and more chairs all around the stage apron. I could easily see that all these chairs were occupied, twenty shining male faces turned up attentively to the girl dancing naked on the stage.

            Jerry racked the balls and we played a game. Or rather, after I broke the rack and made nothing, Jerry proceeded to run the table. Jerry was a good player; steady practice is nothing to be sneezed at. I had the thought that having a second home with pool tables in it had its advantages.

            I started to put the quarters in for another game but Jerry stopped me, saying, “Well, I’ve gotta meet somebody over here on the other side in a couple minutes, come on over and I’ll buy you a beer.” Silently, I followed him.

            Having just been recently divorced, I was still in the phase of not taking any chances with females, any sort of initiative, so as to keep the safety of the rejection net perfectly intact. Safety or not, I also had a natural aversion to being one of the ogling, all-too-obvious guys who watched nude dancers. But, a free beer was hard to turn down, so I joined Jerry in a booth on the dancers’ side of the bar, about thirty feet from the stage. 

            A rather short, blond and nice-looking girl came over to take Jerry’s order. Her blond hair was long and straight, down to the middle of her mostly-bare back, her skin white and, in this light, nearly translucent. Her teeth even sparkled when she smiled and said, “Hi, my name’s Melody. What’ll it be for ya’ Jerry, and your cute friend over here?” 

            Jerry ordered the beers, and as soon as they arrived so did Jerry’s “appointment,” and they immediately left me at the booth and moved to the back part of the bar. I thought, Well, I have a beer to drink, it would look kind of dumb, me sitting here with my back to the entertainment; I might as well watch the dancing. As I turned around in the booth, Melody returned, eyes fixed on me, and asked, “So what are you up to?” 

            “Not a lot,” I answered, looking at my watch. “I think in about twenty minutes I’m going down to the dollar-fifty theatre to see this Neil Young concert film, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’.” 

            “Oh, really?” Melody smiled, “I love Neil Young. Listen; if you can stick around, I think I can get off the rest of the night – I’d love to go and check out Neil Young – do you mind?”

            “Not at all,” I managed to say, flattered and confused. “Great,” she said, “it’s a date.” 

            Before we went to the movie, Melody had some dancing to do, and I had some dancing to watch. The jukebox tumbled out the cowbell-and-drum intro to “Honky Tonk Women” (this Rolling Stones song was a recurring favorite of the dancers), then the rest of the song proceeded to (again) rip through the huge, overhead speakers. I turned in the booth toward the next dancer stepping out onto the stage, moving the lower half of her body to the rhythm of Mick and the boys. She was dressed in a halter top and bikini bottom, both fringed in white, and black stiletto high heels. The smoke from the room wafted onstage and found a home in the spotlights. I felt secure in the booth, safely away from the stage, while the men in the chairs surrounding it worked their sweaty faces into different levels of anticipation.

            The tall brunette finished her dance, turned and walked to the jukebox and punched in another song (I learned later that all the dancers had their favorite songs programmed on there). The brunette stepped away and out of the jukebox came the nine-bar intro to “In The Garden Da Vida.” During the song’s intro, the new, dark-complexioned dancer took off her top, with considerable response from the peanut gallery ringing the stage. By the middle of “Start Me Up” (this girl was definitely a Stones fan), she had nothing on except a few beads of sweat above her eyes and, while deeply bending her knees, was gesticulating her entire pubic area just inches from the hot, glazed eyes and protruding tongues in front of her, all around  that stage apron. All at once, as if on some silent cue, arms and hands came out toward her, each holding a bill of dubious denomination creased sideways, down the middle. These bills were then placed on the stage, creased side up; the dancer then bent her knees, back arched and, while keeping perfect beat to the song, picked up each bill in succession, without benefit of appendage or apparatus, all the true work being done by her vaginal muscles. All the bills thus dispatched, she danced off the stage, in step and time, to the song’s dying strains.

             Melody and I proceeded after another twenty minutes (she was officially “off” work), to go see the Neil Young concert film, and from there, to my house, where I had hoped to engage in a one-night stand, but that was just the beginning of surprises.

            The company I kept during this time was somewhat strange, to say the least. After my divorce, I had just been through a drag-me-through-and-count-me-fortunate-for-surviving fling with a ballerina, the original prima donna, and that had left me not scarred, but feeling a little rode-hard-and-put-up-wet. And then along comes Melody. The company I kept since my divorce, I have to admit, had been strange indeed, and I just seemed to keep adding to the equation, like some mathematician in search of the perfect quantum theory. In retrospect, I should have added up two and two, and figured out it equaled time to cut this shit out. But, like the dumb-ass-fatalist I was, I had to see it through. 

            Melody was very short, shapely and sexy; a hair’s breadth over five feet, she had long, blond hair to the middle of her strong back, nicely-muscled legs and breasts that just wouldn’t quit, sticking right out there, full and pointy, like an L.A. version of the perfect short woman. She also had a pretty face, but in a plain, Midwestern way. Most of the plainness came through in her eyes, which were myopic-looking, and I found out later she needed (and secretly used) glasses to really see anything, but right now, in the throes of stardom at the High Horse, she was doing without them. Melody gave off this incredibly innocent persona, but in her own clever way was always angling everything to her advantage, always working the score to be: Melody, 10 – dude, 0. And she was a good scorekeeper, and an incredible athlete on this field of endeavor of her choosing. She captured me in more ways than one, and thus in her eyes, most likely another fool.

            Patty, Melody’s roommate, was an ex-old lady of some biker. She had been through several reform schools and in and out of a life of (minor, I think) crime. She was sweet, in those wee hours of the morning, but ultimately deadly, as was Melody. And, as with the other dancers in the High Horse, these two ladies of the late, late night supplemented their income by turning tricks, and if they could get a john to ultimately fall in love with them, or be otherwise romantically stupefied, they could milk him for several days, really getting their (actually, his) money’s worth. Buy me this, buy me that, buy me the world, and tonight, about 4 or 5 in the morning, if you’re not passed out from all the drugs, drink and overindulgence, I just may give you the fuck of your life.

            Patty shot speed, “crank,” then sipped whiskey, smoked cigarettes and stayed up all night, tending to her bitch dog who had just had eleven puppies, all of them shitting on every space in that duplex where a person was likely to step.

            Melody’s former boyfriend was a junkie, as were several other of her friends. Not to say there was an attraction, but junkies didn’t mind at all the hours Melody kept and, rather than someone to fuck, she mainly wanted someone to hold her (tightly) when she came home from “work,” very late at night, or when she didn’t come home at all for a day or two. If you didn’t have infinite patience, then being a zonked-out junkie is the next best thing, according to Melody’s schedule.

            Melody needed $400 to move into a house; she needed to get out of that too-small duplex-apartment. Her two options were: going to New Orleans to the Mardi Gras and tricking for a week or two, or borrow the money from her boss, the owner of the High Horse. Going that far to trick was kind of a clown trip, but then so was fucking her boss for his $400, which would be the way they’d both set it up. For Melody, life was becoming one big dilemma.

            I was only one of two or three “boyfriends” Melody had at this time. Her other main boyfriend was Willie, a 25 year-old guy who was already bald, and already a dope-addict/alcoholic. I called him Weak-Knees Willie, after a character in a Springsteen song. One night at Melody’s duplex, it was me, Melody, Willie, Patty, Paula and Paula’s biker ol’ man, Alan, who sold speed out of the High Horse while Paula, one of the dancers, took her intermittent tricks for forty-five minute intervals to the Ramada Inn. At some point, Willie decided we were out of beer, and jumped up to make a run to go get some more. He was parked in the driveway of the duplex, and Alan was parked parallel on the street, right behind him. What does Willie do? He backs his old Chevy straight into Paula’s old man’s car, full-speed, mightily crunching it. We all heard the loud crash (I had already guessed it was coming; Willie was just too fucked-up). When Willie came back in, minutes later, sheepish only a mild word for the expression on his face. He earnestly told Paula’s ol’ man he would settle up with him on the damages, then left again on his beer run.

            Before I left her duplex the next day, I felt as if I had had enough; enough of this drug culture, enough of this late-night craziness; enough, mainly, of my feeling that Melody was trying to use me, in the manner of a john, so I wrote her a note:

             Melody – your getting to be (and this ain’t your daddy talkin’) real selfish. I’ve been your bitch, which is fine, but I have yet to be your lover. It’s like you’ve fucked so much for money, you can’t fuck (or make love) for the pure and simple pleasure of it.  Where has that gone?  A $100 bill?  $200?  $400? 

            I can’t be your pimp, and I can’t be your boyfriend/lover, and it’s getting really hard to be your friend, and I goddamn sure ain’t no junkie, which seems to be your perfect mate cause they’re fucked up for four days (a life) at a time and don’t notice too much you’re not being there, cause you’re out bringing home the bucks.

            The point is I feel hostile, cause you introduced me to Willie, whom I’ve met, through you, three fucking times in almost as many days – that’s outrageous.

            You are inconsiderate as a person to the point of causing consternation or at least frustration or at least constipation cause you don’t have time to separate your clothes – it takes too much time, all of it 5 minutes.

                                                                            Your friend, Badass

            Let it not be said that Melody couldn’t give as good as she got. Sometime in the next few days, she got hold of my notebook ( I had decided to quit seeing her, and maybe did so only once more, so this really had to be surreptitious) – a few days after that, opened my notebook to read the following “poem,” which Melody had inscribed:

                                                “A WHORE STORY”  

Here I am out with this man never seen him before in my life but he had the money and I had the time, for trickin’ on a Saturday nite

they’ll go to McDonald’s and out to a show she might kiss him goodnite you

my sister is probably out with some guy who asked for his date on Monday

just never know. But here I am the best restaurant in town in my high heels,

my hat a loose open blouse, my nails politely filed down when the waiter comes with the check we’ll go to the Holiday Inn or some other nice clean hotel where they clean up the sheets and no one will ever know

well paid for my services, treated like a queen, this man’s face even looks alright but there’s so many other things I’d rather be at than trickin’ on a Saturday nite.

            That kind of says it all, doesn’t it, as far as relationships go?  I mean, with Melody? One afternoon, I had just pulled up to a convenience store to get a Dr.  Pepper, and in trying to find a blank page in my notebook, had just read the above. A girl, all of seventeen and blond, sat in her maroon Mustang next to where I had just parked; sunglasses on, waiting for Columbus. When I came out of the store with my soda, I could see her looking at me through those impenetrable dark lenses. I backed up, pulled forward to the road, looked once again at her in my rear-view mirror, and waved. Lolita waved back.

            Damn, I thought. Why don’t I just go back there and strike up a conversation?  But I didn’t; I was on my way to somewhere else, my map only partially unfolded.

            One of my problems, my half-sister had told me (the night before, over the phone), was that I had a preoccupation with younger girls. What had set her off (what didn’t?) was me telling her about accepting a bicycle from a crazy man at the park while I was playing tennis, a couple days previous. The guy had just pulled the bike up, parked it beside the courts, looked over at me and said, “This is a personal communication; it’s what’s on my mind at the moment. I got home at 5:30, smoked a joint and went out to witness a beautiful winter sunset – the sky was raining fire. So many things on my mind;  I’ve been riding my ass off since 3 P.M., in my head and someday on paper. I may have pissed off my boss by being late again; another example of my trying to be too many things at one time to too many people, and not paying enough attention to my source of sustenance, anyway – doing things I end up not liking myself for – but then that becomes inspiration and I merge out of that, usually with a good feeling but sometimes with cynicism and self-hate. Anyway, thanks for such a nice-looking, well-made bed. I hope you got a ride. You keep leaving stuff – I’ll have to check you out a locker – okay, coach? This is on my mind – too much alcohol blunts my passion, can’t call it an orgasm, guess I’ll have to call it fashion, but then Sunday morning I could’ve come in a minute. Two extremes – I’m having trouble finding the balance.”

            And the guy just walked off, and left the bike. And after another hour playing tennis, since it was still laying there, I took it with me. And I’m still riding it.

             I never talked to Melody again.  I just cut it off, like I had this sharp knife that was useful for that purpose. And, about two years later, I came home to my bachelor house after work one afternoon and found this note taped on the front door: “Dear William, I am hoping beyond hope that you still live here – still mad at me?  It’s been 2 years? About that, I hope you’re doing well, no doubt I’ll stop by sometime & find out (when you least expect it – expect it).        OX –  Melody

P.S. – if you’re not William, then please don’t laugh at me, I’m trying pretty hard.”

            About an hour after I got home and read the note, the phone rang; it was Melody.  She was still in town and wanted to know if she could come by. Sure, I said. An hour later, Melody was sitting in my living room, where she had been a few times before, telling me she was the mother of a fourteen-month old baby boy, courtesy of Weak Knees Willie, and was living back home, in her small, rural town, in her parents’ house.  She told me she had, in the interim since we had last talked, become a born-again Christian, and would be raising her infant son in that tradition, and that one of the main reasons she had wanted to contact me, while she was in town, was that she wanted me to make her a cassette-tape copy of an album I had played for her one time, Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” She loved it, she said; she now wanted to make it a part of her ‘life’s music.’

            Be glad to, I said.

                                                                   

Shelia Washington Dies

By Curtis Price

Posted February 10, 2021


In early February, Shelia Washington, the founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum, suddenly died. We had been friends on FB and I occasionally sent her “Gasoline & Grits” posts concerning North Alabama.

The one time I went to visit the Scottsboro Museum a couple years back, it was closed. I thought (incorrectly as it turned out) that it was a dead project, like so many of those that are driven by a single individual’s commitment and lapse when they no longer commit. But I found out later it was not only open but undergoing renovations.

I hoped to go back this upcoming spring when I moved closer to Scottsboro and meet Shelia but sadly this won’t be. You can contribute to keeping the Museum alive at this GoFundMe link:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/scottsboro-boy039s-museum-remodel-project?qid=0869d24fe89b4eeb52ffa8e603fcb441

The Museum webiste: The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center

Below is an edited tribute written about Shelia from a non-profit she worked at times with.


Tribute to Shelia Washington

With profound sadness, we learned of the death of Shelia Washington on Friday. Shelia was the executive director and founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum

in Scottsboro, Alabama. She was strong, determined, and overcame a wealth of obstacles and setbacks to tell the story of a horrific miscarriage of justice that occurred in her hometown. Her inspiring journey spanned more than 30 years, as she worked to create the museum that many in her community didn’t want.

When she was 17, Shelia found a book stored in a pillowcase under her parents’ bed, a discovery that would shape the rest of her life. The book told the story of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape by two white women in 1931.

Eight of the nine were sentenced to death by an all-white jury in a Scottsboro courthouse, with the youngest receiving life in prison. Even after one of the women admitted to lying about the rape, the boys were convicted again. The case created a national protest and was considered a seminal moment in the birth of the civil rights movement. In Scottsboro, it wasn’t talked about.

A few years after she found the book, Shelia’s brother was murdered in prison, his body filled with many stab wounds. He had been accused of killing a white man. From that point on, Shelia said, she was determined that “one day when I get older, I’m going to found a place and honor the Scottsboro Boys and my brother, and put this book on a table and burn a candle in their memory.” She talked about her effort to create the museum during “Confronting Racism’s Legacy, One Community at a Time,” a webinar organized by Widen the Circle in November.

The Scottsboro Boys case led to two landmark Supreme Court decisions, on the right to adequate council and on jury diversity. None of the boys were executed, but all served at least six years in prison and one as long as 19 years.

Despite strong local opposition, Shelia opened the Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center in 2009. The museum was housed in a building that had once been a church and was built by former slaves after the Civil War. Opening the museum was the fulfillment of a lifetime of effort. “If you have a dream, don’t give up on it,” she said, “And at 17 I had a dream that one day I was going to honor those nine Scottsboro boys.”

Many in the Scottsboro community actively opposed her dream. “I even lost my job because of the Scottsboro boys,” she recalled. “I was working at city hall for 22 years….They were going to do a walking trail and I mentioned to [the mayor] ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be good to do something for the Scottsboro boys?’ and he pointed his finger to the tip of my nose and said, ‘You leave a dead dog sleeping and don’t you do anything to resurrect it.’” She added, “If only he could see me now.”

Shelia was a gifted storyteller, and she had a powerful story to tell. The museum included an old church pew that was designated the crying pew. The saga of the Scottsboro boy is so moving that the pew was used frequently.

One day, she said, the grandson of the town’s founder stopped by to tell her he wanted the museum closed. She told him, “Well it’s too late. The story is out there and it’s going to be told.” It turned out he didn’t know the history in detail, and by the time she finished talking to him, she had changed his mind. His family foundation gave the museum a $5,000 donation.

For years, Shelia and others advocated for the state to exonerate the Scottsboro Boys. The governor told her that it had to be done through the state legislature. In 2013, with the help of legislators on both sides of the aisle and the state’s Black Caucus, the legislation was passed. Gov. Robert Bentley traveled to the Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center to sign the bill.

Despite its successes, the museum had to get by strictly on donations for its first 10 years. Shelia appealed several times to the city council for a grant, as the council provide to other local museums. Each time she was turned down, and eventually she decided she would not go back. In 2019 the museum received its first government grant, from the Alabama Historical Commission. In 2020, the attitude in Scottsboro had changed enough that the city approached her with a $20,000 grant to help fund a renovation project.

“Perseverance helps. Time helps” she said. “Time brings about change. And I guess they figured we weren’t going anywhere. We weren’t moving or giving up. We kept pushing forward.”

.

Cultural Monosophy And A Plant In Eastern Iowa

By Kwame P. Dean

Posted January 2, 2021


I was hired to fulfill a court order to work as a management level generalist in Human Resources. I was there to satisfy the settlement of a successful hostile environment lawsuit brought by long-suffering black employees, all of whom were hourly workers. I didn’t know about the law suit until after I was hired as a complete outsider. It never came up in the rounds of interviews, surprise, surprise.

My job, was to act as a management liaison for black employees and keep them happy with a willing ear, diversity initiatives, investigations of racist acts, and teaching the settlement mandated “get-a-long” school, as zero tolerance racial harassment policy training was known. I wondered how a plant in relatively tolerant and integrated Eastern Iowa could be such a hot bed of racism that even a traditionally conservative, pro-business US District Court would force them to change?

Built in the late 1940’s, the plant grew into one of the largest aluminum rolling plants in the world. A mile long under roof, the plant needed lots of workers quickly to satisfy the growing post WWII airline industry in a competitive local job market. One of management’s staffing answers was to look to the South for employees in places like Alcoa, Tennessee.

Alcoa, TN was a segregated company town in every sense in 1948. It seems that opening an operation in the Sough meant following local customs and paying lower wages rather than bringing any enlightened Northern thinking. Much like the carpetbaggers of the post civil rights era, making money led to northern support of social divisions rather than seeking to change them for any greater good.

Incorporated by a closed door act of the Tennessee state legislature, organizing the town of Alcoa deprived the next closest town, Maryville, of tax revenue. Alcoa, TN was designed, built, and run by company leadership. The city manager was an Alcoa manager from its beginning in 1919 until 1956. The police of Alcoa, TN acted as plant security and protected strike breakers when necessary. A violent confrontation in 1937 resulted in the death of a police officer and striker when management broke a strike by busing strike breakers through a picket line. Alcoa, Inc’s economic hold on the town wouldn’t break until the ‘60’s. Alcoa is today one of the most violent cities in Tennessee.

Why would a plant in Iowa go so far to recruit workers instead of just competing for them closer to home? The answer became more obvious when I visited other plants across the country and noticed their commonalities. From Pennsylvania to Texas and beyond, these plants were near cheap sources of electricity and were in the middle of nowhere. The company obviously liked being the only game in town.

Monopsony is a market condition of one buyer and many sellers. It is the hallmark of a company town. Plant management succeeded in creating a cultural monopsony in Iowa by recruiting southern and local segregationists to a place in the North where labor unions had been desegregated for over 40 years. Plant management didn’t seem to care what people thought about others as long as they did the often back breaking work when demanded. Plant management used an overtime, slow growth, and nepotism approach to create a stable work force. It also protected itself from the unwanted complications of the differences between the local culture outside of the plant and the one inside.

Long before people thought about work-life balance, plant employees were encouraged to work overtime whenever possible, and there was a lot of overtime to be had. 80 hour work weeks were not unheard of in the 24/7 plant. I asked an old timer how that was possible and he said there was a difference between being at work and working. The management culture in the plant was one of surveillance, control and appeasement. By the time I arrived, management and union leadership had learned to play nice as long as it wasn’t contract negotiation time. The social culture inside the plant had to be appeased since management preferred new workers who were family members and friends of those already there. With long hours and familiarity, the plant became a petri dish of marriages, divorces, cliques, grudges and restraining orders.

The plant, as a federal contractor, was forced to hire black workers in the 70’s by Nixon Administration Equal Employment Opportunity laws. Plant management was unconcerned with or unprepared for the social backlash within the plant. It left black workers exposed to open acts of racism from management and their union brothers. Nooses in lockers, KKK graffiti, aluminum shavings in safety shoes as well as the trump card of the “N” word in conversation were just some of the examples of things that happened there. Plant medical staff were accused of giving substandard care to black workers and were specifically noted in the settlement. If you’ve ever received treatment from someone who didn’t want to touch you, you’ll know the feeling black employees said they felt when seeking medical attention.

Management’s answer was to keep blacks separated by shift and department and as few as possible. Results of tests for promotion were manipulated and ignored. Getting ahead while black had more to do with being tolerable to the toxic culture than anything else. Despite the hardships, the overtime pay meant the money was good so many black workers kept their heads down and endured for the sake of their families and their hard won middle class lifestyles. They petitioned management. They petitioned the unions. They took all they could until they couldn’t take it anymore and started a class action suit.

The historical, cultural monopsony in a plant community of 2,500 people made tolerance of intolerance the rule. Equity across racial, ethnic and gender lines didn’t seem to even occur to people who should know better until they were forced to recognize it with the threat of fines and public embarrassment. It was like going back in time to the civil rights battles of the 50’s when I joined the plant in 1998.

I talked to a friend who was part of the class action recently. She said going through the 4 years of Trump in the White House reminded her of what they had to endure over 20 years ago in the plant. Management gaslighting and union downplaying of the significance of racists acts in the past felt all too familiar with the same things happening locally and nationally today.

Some traumas run deep and the more things change…

Notes

https://www.areavibes.com/alcoa-tn/crime/
Crime in Alcoa, TN
https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/268805969.pdf
History of Local 309, United Steelworkers of America, Alcoa, TennesseeSammy E. PinkstonUniversity of Tennessee, Knoxville
John P. Cooper, et. al. v. Aluminum Company of AmericaCIVIL NO. 3-95-CV-10074