I. Where to start? Or, rather how to end?
This was to be my last post; the ending was going to tie to the beginning, to the climate, to Albany and the Pine Bush. They were going to circle around all the way to the university. That doesn’t fit anymore. Nothing feels like it fits, not now at least, not after the election.
That’s not to say the climate doesn’t matter. It, in fact, matters more. It’s more in danger, will have less funding, and then now today, this Monday morning, as I type is the deadline for protesters to leave Standing Rock. That matters. A 20 year-old girl will probably lose her arm for trying to protect the water. That matters. Thousands of vets mobilized to stand between protesters and police to protect the protesters. That matters.
But here, what? On one day everything changed, and now the blinking cursor on my screen waiting for me to write doesn’t offer much help.
II. Instead I have history. Past as prologue — as possibility. I have a list:
· Sojourner Truth.
· Frederick Douglass.
· William H. Johnson.
· Rapp Road.
· SUNY Albany
· It was one of the first schools in the US to start an African-American studies program, this in 1969 when the school was only a few years into its current incarnation, on its current campus.
· The school is a place for firsts, early adopters. It got women’s studies and Puerto Rican Studies as academic fields in 1972. It supported a Women’s Liberation Front and the Puerto Rican Organization for Liberation & Education.
· This was a school for firsts, where the first in a family to get a college education could go, and the school represented diversity in its student body but also in its fields of study.
· “Liberation” was a word embraced on campus.
· I’ve been trying to focus on history. It allows me to see the world was not ever thus, not always the one I woke up to on November 9. I read Frederick Douglass write in 1864:
Those who thought the country not worth saving have found the country entertaining a similar notion respecting themselves. They are not worth saving, yet we mean to save them by saving the country they would ruin.
· Born a slave, Douglass, still believes even the bigots and racists, the people who had enslaved him, are worth saving. By 1864 the Civil War has turned in the North’s favor; an end might be in sight, and if he can be that generous, I should too.
· Then I slump back into thinking about the struggle that came afterwards: Jim Crow, the KKK, lynchings, poll tax, literacy tests, segregation…. And, more recently: The Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court, police shooting black men at will, lines at polling places in poor urban (read non-white) neighborhoods, where people can least afford to take time off work or for childcare to wait for hours to vote. This is the new poll tax.
· Would Douglass still say they were worth saving?
· Sometimes as I stare at my blinking cursor I don’t see past as prologue, but pretense.
· I think of Nelson Rockefeller. He set up the SUNY system as an Ivy League for all, to build a more egalitarian population. He passed the first statewide minimum wage. He made sure housing projects were desegregated. State government jobs too. Then, there are the laws that bear his name: the Rockefeller Laws. 1973. Rockefeller is a “law and order” governor. In 1964 he introduces stop-and-frisk policing, while a decade later the Rockefeller Laws mean penalties for drugs are akin to ones for capital crimes. Heroin dealing as a murder charge.
· Here, just before our eyes we can see LBJ’s War On Poverty turn to one on drugs, and the War On Drugs bears a direct line to imprisoning African-Americans, young African-American men. The line leads to Clinton and his welfare reform, which cuts welfare funding at the same time he passes tough-on-crime policies. “Three strikes you’re out.” The laws are not just disproportionate, but racist. Simply the difference between crack and cocaine in sentencing guidelines make that clear.
· Or, think about heroin today. I live in a place now decimated by the drug: white rural America. But, in the early 70s those places decimated were the inner cities. Wouldn’t black and brown communities have appreciated addiction’s being labeled a sickness as it is now that addiction has moved to white enclaves, instead of calling it a moral failing, or worse, a crime? Or, sentencing victims as if they’d committed homicide? The structures of power, it seems, have been based on skin color.
· That is the two-step. One step is always backwards. That’s how it feels to me.
· I want to hang onto Douglass: they are worth saving. All are worth saving. If he, a former slave, could believe this in the 19th century, can’t I now?
· I think how the university system that was accessible gave many a way to avoid the Vietnam War.
· But then, avoiding the war was often only for white men. They had the leisure to protest, to burn draft cards, to flee to Canada. If you’re poor, if you’re working a job — or two — as you go to school, where’s the time to protest? If arrest is more punitive because sentencing is harsher based on your skin color, do you have the luxury to protest?
· Luxury: I read in the New Yorker that the 100 Americans on Forbes billionaire list have together accumulated more wealth than all African Americans in this country.
· It will take all the African-Americans together in this country 228 years to amass the same level of wealth. Think back: two hundred and twenty-eight years ago was 1788. That year we ratified the Constitution. All men, it seems, are not created equal, no matter what the Declaration of Independence said.
· I am doing this two-step of history.
· Past is prologue. Or, perhaps a pretense.
· In my writing I turn to the past to find some traction in the present, some context to give a greater understanding for the structures we have built.
· But I am doing the two-step. There seems to be no going forward.
· History seems like a ghost. It’s still haunting us. Well, at least, it’s haunting me.
· “I sell the shadow,” Sojourner Truth wrote. “I sell the shadow to support the substance.” That was the legend she had printed underneath her photographs during the Civil War. The “shadow” is a haunting word like “ghost.”
· Selling a shadow of herself seems powerful for a woman who herself was bought and sold three times by the age of 13. Born into slavery in Ulster County, NY, she was sold first for $100 along with a flock of sheep.
· Once a week I drive past the blue historical marker by the tavern where she’d been enslaved:
· English was her second language.
· She never learned to read or write.
· She was the first black woman to sue to get her son returned from slavery. He’d been sold illegally to an owner in Alabama. Later, she went to court in DC for the right to ride in a street carriage. She won. She also sued for libel and won.
· She used the courts and won.
· She also used language and her image in her battles. She won.
· “Ain’t I a woman?” she declared. Women were being denied the right to vote because they were the weaker sex, so in 1851 Sojourner Truth stood up before the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention repeating “Ain’t I a woman?” as she detailed her strength that was more than equal a man’s.
· Then she sold her shadow. It was the 1863, the middle of the Civil War. She shaped her image and appeared like a poised middle class lady doing her knitting. The pose was a genteel one for the time. She was dressed demurely like a Quaker and was raising money for her causes: education for freed slaves, abolition, and a hospital to support injured African-Americans veterans.
· There is a literal read to the caption: the shadow = photography, and she is literally selling her image to raise money for the cause. Multiple versions of the photo exist as she knits or stands demurely.
· Then there is the way she appropriated language. Even her name. She was born Isabella Baumfree. As a freed slave, she first took the name Van Wagenen because she lived with the family, but she becomes the seeker of truth.
· Or there’s William H. Johnson
All things come to him who waits,
But that is merely stating
One feature of the case –you’ve got
To hustle while you’re waiting.
· That was the inscription in the frontispiece of his autobiography.
· In the one photo I find of him, he has a sharp nose and pointed ears. Light gleams off his balding head. He wears a suit and has a beard to rival Lincoln’s or the Amish. His brow is furrowed and his eyes seem wary. The Chicago Tribune calls him “the Albany barber orator.” “He is,” the paper writes, “tall and slim, wears a blue suit of clothes, a white plug hat and full whiskers. He has been a high Mason, a leader of the Knights of Labor and is a Republican State Committeeman at large of New York.” He was in Chicago for the Republican convention in 1888.
· You’ve probably never heard of Johnson. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.
· He lived on 319 Orange Street in Albany. (It’s just off Henry Johnson Road –not named for him, though his middle name is Henry. Where his home stood, there’s now a park and a playground. The house next door is boarded up.)
· He was a hairdresser. He worked on the Underground Railroad and was at the first Republican convention in 1856 in Philadelphia. He was the first African-American ever to give a public address as part of the official celebrations on the 4th of July in Philadelphia. This was in 1859.
· For him the Declaration of Independence was a promise, and he was still fighting for it to be filled.
· He fought in the Civil War at the first battle of Bull Run and then at New Bern. (New Bern was full of mud, lots of it)
· The first chapter of his autobiography promises to be “A Brief Sketch of the Life of Dr. William Henry Johnson, of Albany, N.Y., Proves Very Interesting Reading, and Goes to Show What Sheer Pluck Under Adverse Circumstances Can Accomplish.” (Perhaps that “pluck” is the “hustle” from the inscription).
· That chapter lays out all these details of his life:
He drew up the constitution of the New York State Equal Rights Committee; elected Chairman, 1866–73 (re-election declined); drafted an amendment to the Military Code, striking out the word ‘white,’ which was passed in 1872; drafted the Civil Rights bill in 1873, which then became a law; in 1867 he memorialized the constitutional convention to reorganize the fundamental instrument by omitting the property qualification clause which imposed a real estate ownership as a precedent condition to allow colored citizens to vote, and was successful in his endeavor. In 1891 he drafted a bill and secured its passage through the Legislature of this State, abolishing the discriminating, unjust insurance law which permitted the acceptance of colored people upon the same terms with white people, and at death deducted one-third of the face value of the insurance policy, basing this deduction upon the pretense that the longevity of white people was one-third greater than that of black people. In this noted case Dr. Johnson [note: I’m not sure when he became “doctor.” ] delivered a speech before the legislative committee exposing the fraud perpetrated upon his people by insurance institutions His argument received the applause and outspoken approbation of all his listeners, his interpretation of the law upon the question, as well as the humane and business aspect of the case which he presented, won him a complete victory. The bill passed both houses of the Legislature of 1891, and received the approval of the then Governor… It causes a saving to the colored people insured in this State amounting to at least $50,000 per annum.
His life work along these lines culminated in the triumphal enactment into law of the bill passed by the Legislature of 1900, and signed by the Governor (Col. Theodore Roosevelt) [later President Roosevelt], which wipes from the statute books of the Empire State the last vestige of racial discrimination. It is the bill known as №492, of the Laws of 1900, repealing all laws on the statute books prohibiting the free and equal accommodation of children of African descent in the public schools of this State.
His wrote legislation that desegregated schools and the military, guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote and stopped unfair business practices penalizing black households.
· “There are Tories today, in our midst,” he called the people who would drag slaves back to the South in his speech on the 4th of July. He lays out the ironies of the Declaration of Independence and in talking of those metaphorical Tories tied to the South, he says, “Their business is to hunt down the poor fugitive Negro, and to handcuff and drag him hundreds of miles from his home to be tried as a slave, and to be remanded, if the commissioner’s sense of honor and justice are to be governed by the paltry fee of ten dollars, under the sound of the old State House bell, and within sight of the hall where independence was declared.”
· As I understand it that year he too had to flee those “Tories,” trading in people’s bodies.
· In Shubuta, Mississippi there was a hanging bridge.
· In the 1920s and 30s, nearly the entire African-American community of Shubuta fled to Albany. They were led by their pastor. Part of the Great Migration, they settled in the city, until homesick — heart sick — for a rural setting, they moved to “the countryside,” to some poor land in the Pine Bush.
· In the Bi-Centennial History of Albany: History of the County of Albany, NY from 1609–1886. With Portraits, Biographies and Illustrations by George Rogers Howell and Jonathan Tenney I read this ode to the Underground Railroad:
· The passage is joyous, full of liberation language. “Every lover of liberty was a stockholder, and ever stockholder was a minute-man. Of course, every true black man was a charter member.”
· No metaphorical railway but an actual road: Under eminent domain the state claimed half the homes on Rapp Road to make way for the Washington Avenue Extension. Now the houses that are left stand in the shadow of Crossgates Mall, and most of the people who live in them are descendants still from the original community in Shubuta. They have a celebration once a year in Albany and in Shubuta, family reunions for those who came and those who stayed.
· Not even a mile away, SUNY Albany too claimed the Pine Bush in eminent domain, but the school took the land (the sand) from a golf course.
· I read the line in Citizen where poet Claudia Rankine writes:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying.
· I try to sit with my blinking cursor.
III. The failure of imagination.
The blinking is an open space, a space I wish I could transcribe here. If I could draw out the flash of that line -> | <- imagine it blinking between letters. Seconds pass. They slip into minutes, minutes into an hour. Imagine that space empty before you, with no answers, just a blank page that spreads into possibility, into the unknown. The blink is a portal to step through. It is imagination. Open it up.
I love writing because it makes me sit with the unknown, with fear.
Black men are dying because police can’t do that.
We live in a moment where everything is as we think it will be. Algorithms reinforce expectations. Online, we get repeated back to us everything we already know: our truths, our news, our friends. Algorithms fix us to the failure of imagination.
I write for that moment with the unknown.
And right now, I do the two-step.
I want to believe in progress, this dream of rationalism and the enlightenment, that history is a line, that things improve… The world gets better. My father believed in it.
I just see the two-step.
I think of the laws William H Johnson worked on. They made a material difference in people’s lives.
There is another William H. Johnson from Albany nearly lost to history. He was called the Black Death. He was a hero too. That road next to Orange Street, what had once been part of Northern Boulevard is now named for him.
There is a page for him on Wikipedia. He paraded up 5th Avenue, a war hero.
There’s no bio for my Johnson, the lawmaker and hairdresser.
He is from my hometown.
My hometown, Alexandria, Va. had the biggest slave traders in the country at the start of the Civil War.
I never knew.
I drove by the building on my way to high school every day. It was a white brick row house that looked, to me, genteel.
I never knew.
Washington Street, the main thoroughfare cutting through town, passes Christ Church where William H. Johnson (born a freeman in 1833 either on November 11 or March 4, 1833) attended Sunday school. It was his only education until he was 15 and moved to Philadelphia. This was the church where George Washington had gone to services. Three blocks away is a statue, Appomattox.
A confederate soldier cast in bronze, looks down, stares at the ground. He stands at the intersection where in 1861 the troops mustered as they surrendered the city and he faces south. He faces Appomattox where the South surrendered.
His arms are crossed, his hat is off. The sadness survives the patina of age. He is cast in bronze, the material of heraldry and power, reserved, where statues are concerned, usually for men on horseback, triumphant. Up until a year ago the city flew Confederate flags by the statue on Robert E Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day. (Robert E Lee, like William H Johnson is a native of Alexandria).
Appomattox is illegal to take down even though the city council voted to this year. To get rid of him, or even move him to a corner rather than the middle of the intersection, would have to be approved by the state legislature, according to a law passed the year he was erected:
And whereas it is the desire of the said Robert E. Lee camp of Confederate Veterans and also the citizens and inhabitants of said City of Alexandria that such a monument shall remain in its present position as a perpetual and lasting testimonial to the courage, fidelity and patriotism of the heroes in whose memory it was erected… the permission so given by the said City Council of Alexandria for its erection shall not be repealed, revoked, altered, modified, or changed.
So many copies of the statue were erected around the South after Appomattox was put up that the United Confederate Veterans had him copyrighted.
The other main artery through town is Route 1, also known as Jefferson Davis Highway in honor of the president of the Confederacy.
What does it mean when the civic landscape celebrates hate? These are the ghosts that haunt me. What does it mean to drive past what was once the largest slave trading operation and never know that it had been there? Or to pass statues celebrating the South, roads named for the Confederacy? What does it mean that it’s nearly impossible to remove them?
I do the two-step.
All of this represents my failure to find an answer.
I … I … type more ellipses. The cursor blinks.
The Assistant Librarian of Congress Daniel Murray wrote to William Johnson pleading with him to produce an autobiography:
Cicero, who died nearly a thousand years ago, is still remembered. Caesar’s Commentaries, today, delight thousands, though fully two thousand years have passed since his birth. A good book, one depicting scenes in the life of a good man, will outlast any monument of marble the hand of man can fashion. It is remarkable that so perishable an article as paper should resist so effectually the destroying action of the rust of decay, so much better than iron or marble. we have books in the library, hundreds of years old, looking bright and well preserved as if from the printer’s hand but a short time ago.
Therefore, I commend your wisdom to put what money you would otherwise spend upon a grave-stone, in an autobiography, so your friends can ever recall your services to your race, and the young of succeeding generations strive to emulate your noble self-sacrificing example.
Your eminent services will grow brighter with the lapse of time, when the asperities, and all the jealousies incident to an active political career, shall have healed. Then, and not until then, will your eminent services command that appreciation they so richly deserve.
Daniel Murray was the son of a freed slave. At nine, he moved to Washington to work for his brother in the US Senate’s restaurant. At 19, he became the assistant to the Librarian of Congress. He was key to getting works and pamphlets by African-Americans included in the Library of Congress. Today too he is largely unknown.
My cursor blinks.