Thursday, September 29, 2005

Tim Tyson to speak at Greensboro hearing

Via Ed Cone: Tim Tyson will be one of the speakers tomorrow at Greensboro's final Truth and Reconciliation Commission meeting.

Constance Baker Motley

As my civil rights seminar was watching "The Road to Brown" on Tuesday, I had to interrupt to point out Constance Baker Motley. She gets too little time in the documentary, considering the key role she had in writing the briefs in the case, and I wanted her to be noted. In 1966, Lyndon Johnson appointed her the first female African American federal judge. She was a distinguished alumna of Columbia Law School. She was still officially working--on senior status--as judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York when she died yesterday at the age of 84.

Obits in the Post and the Times outline her distinguished career with the NAACP. These stories offer a window, if a small one, into the treacherous southern landscape against which she, along with Thurgood Marshall and other dedicated civil rights lawyers, worked for justice.

The thing I wanted to point out to my class was a small, kind of oddball point. It comes out in a quote that, interestingly, shows up in the Post obit.

In 1962, she represented James H. Meredith in his arduous but ultimately successful battle to gain admission to the University of Mississippi. Marshall gave her the case, she said, because she was a woman. "Thurgood's theory was, in the South, they don't bother black women because they all have mammies," she once said.

As a young woman Motley was not fat--she did not fit the most exaggerated stereotype of the black mammy--but she was "full-bodied," which is how Lorraine Hansberry describes the character of Mama Lena Younger in her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959). That's the work we had read the week before. It's based on a case her father was involved in that challenged a race-based restrictive covenant, Hansberry v. Lee (1940). The play, as you might expect, doesn't sound at all like the legal opinion. One crucial difference is that in the play, it's the mother of the head of the family who carries the weight, in every sense.

Using Trudier Harris' reading of the play in Saints, Sinners, Saviors, I suggested that we consider Mama Lena as one of a long line of strong black female characters--written by black women--who both conform to and play against the stereotype of the old black mammy. Hansberry's choice seems to have been calculated as a way to turn a radical argument for racial equality into a palatable story about a figure every white person knows ("they all have mammies").

Mama Lena Younger is what she is: a strong but stereotyped figure for whom Hansberry was largely forgiven because of the contribution she made to the fantastic success of the play as a whole. It would certainly be wrong to confine Judge Motley to such an image. I'd rather remember her the way Jack Greenberg does:

"She was indomitable," said Jack Greenberg, who succeeded Marshall as director-counsel of the NAACP Legal and Education Fund and is now a professor at Columbia University School of Law. "She would take on a project like opening up the University of Mississippi and just keep coming back again and again and again. She was like Grant at Vicksburg. She just dug in there and stayed there until they rolled over."

She may have been calm and comforting like a mythical mammy, but what carried the day was stateliness and dignity, steadiness and smarts.

UPDATE: Kim Pearson, who comments below, finds it telling that the President made no mention of Motley's passing; he was too busy congratulating Chief Justice Roberts.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Happy birthday, OP

Congratulations to Ruby and Orange Politics on its second anniversary. Hey, from the looks of things you'd think there was an election coming up.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

So not a shoe-in

Paul urges me to enter the essay contest at Manolo's Shoe Blog. I tell him I haven't bought a new pair of shoes in years. He says it doesn't matter, pointing out that I did win the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow award in high school (an essay contest). I'm just delighted to see some shoes on this site designed by Steve Madden. I think my Steve Madden black huggy sandals, not entirely dissimilar to these, is the last pair I bought, and they came from the PTA Thrift Shop. I feel an inspiration coming on.

I'm going to have to give Steve Madden more thought. Anybody who can propose this as a wedding shoe has more going on than meets the eye.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Don Adams was Smart.

We mourn the passing of Don Adams, a/k/a Maxwell Smart, a favorite anti-hero of the Cold War. Here's how smart he was: he took his wife's last name (his first wife's last name that is) because he noticed that auditions were often called in alphabetical order.

Tales out of (charm) school

Merck employees sure know how to party.

UPDATE: It's fun and games working for Merck!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Friday, September 23, 2005

Rita: Cousin of Floyd?

The reports today are that Rita will be a powerful but slow-moving storm once it makes landfall, generating heavy rains far inland. Sounds a lot like what we experienced in N.C. with Floyd: "[T]he costliest damage came not from the storm itself—it came from the swiftly rising rivers and creeks that course through eastern North Carolina like a dense cluster of capillaries connecting the Piedmont Region to the Atlantic Ocean."

Floyd flooding
Clogged estuaries, Sept. 23, 1999.

My family is in East Texas right in Rita's path, possibly far enough north to avoid the worst of it. Still I hope they have plenty of flashlights and batteries.

This just in: Cheese does not cause nightmares.

So concludes the British Cheese Board. Further notes from their study:

85% of females who ate Stilton had some of the most unusual dreams of the whole study. 65% of people eating Cheddar dreamt about celebrities, over 65% of participants eating Red Leicester revisited their schooldays, all female participants who ate British Brie had nice relaxing dreams whereas male participants had cryptic dreams, two thirds of all those who ate Lancashire had a dream about work and over half of Cheshire eaters had a dreamless sleep.

This good news sounds like more bad news for Charles Martell, who stands on the unwelcome brink of fame for reasons not of his cheesemaking.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


Not long after attending the funeral of our neighbor Bob Miller, a fine fellow and writer of, among other things, a biography of Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of the leaders of the progressive Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century, we learn of the death of Joe Straley. Two great Chapel Hill men who will be missed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Keeping the world safe for the book

Terry Belanger, founder of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, is one of this year's recipients of a MacArthur fellowship. "With thousands of former students currently at work in the field and offshoots of his programs in California, France, Australia, and New Zealand, Belanger is making the world a more secure place for the irreplaceable legacy of the book."

Monday, September 19, 2005

Impress your mateys today.

In case you're scrambling for resources on International Talk Like a Pirate Day, see Paul for tips.

"Rebirth of a Nation" in Chapel Hill

This Friday night, Sept. 23, Dj Spooky brings his "Rebirth of a Nation" to UNC's Memorial Hall. It's a postmodern remix of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation."

How to describe it? Words fail me. I saw it at Spoleto in 2004. It'd be cool to see it again.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Spirits abroad, shifting shoals

After a deadly flirtation with Florida, on August 28 Katrina whipped herself up into a Category 5 storm heading for the Louisiana barrier islands.

In Kate Chopin's 1899 novel The Awakening (which I just reread online courtesy Documenting the American South), August 28 is the date on which, on one of those islands, Grand Isle, Edna Pelletier begins her journey down the road of self-discovery that will become both her salvation and her undoing. Madame Ratignolle's piano-playing stirs her to a frenzy; she can't sleep; the whole night becomes "like a night in a dream." To her admirer and possible lover Robert she says, "There must be spirits abroad tonight."

Indeed, he responds: "On the twenty-eighth of August, at the hour of midnight, and if the moon is shining - the moon must be shining - a spirit that has haunted these shores for ages rises up from the Gulf. With its own penetrating vision the spirit seeks some one mortal worthy to hold him company, worthy of being exalted for a few hours into realms of the semi-celestials. His search has always hitherto been fruitless, and he has sunk back, disheartened, into the sea. But to-night he found Mrs. Pontellier."

Mrs. Pontellier is not, in the end, strong enough for the prevailing winds. But her decision to end her life by walking out into the majestic sea has to be read, on its own terms, as an affirmation. "The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace."

Southern writers and readers often talk about a "sense of place"--a notion that, while it can seem trite, has certain meaning. It has to do with the concrete and intimate relationship of geography to time and narrative. Among other and surely greater losses generated by Katrina, we should not forget the permanent destruction of so much of the physical environment.

An essay published earlier this summer, before the storm, explores the sense of place in Grand Isle, Louisiana.

Residents of Grand Isle are similar to many other Americans; however, Grand Islanders believe that they have a unique culture specific to the region that makes them different from many other Americans.

Residents’ landscapes convey ideas of uniqueness and fragility. Even those respondents who do not live permanently on the island talk about how the island is fragile. Respondents’ narratives of place are framed in terms of the island being unique socially and environmentally. The island’s unique quality is not separate from its fragility. As the land erodes and changes so do the cultural aspects of the island. Traditional forms of work change and it is unknown exactly what will replace it. Neither fishing nor the oil industry can be counted on to sustain life. Development and an influx of upper middle class outsiders also change landscapes. There is a sense of cultural fragility as well as fragility of the natural environment.

While the landscapes of these residents are shaped by the certainty of erosion and the prospect of the ‘big’ hurricane, the framing of their environment in terms of fragility also contains elements of faith that go hand in hand with the land - they will hold on and sustain community while never abandoning the idea of moving ‘up the bayou’. The fragility of place appears to accentuate the unique qualities conferred upon place.

Grand Isle appears to have fared relatively well in Katrina, better than the Chandeleur Islands to the east. The before-and-after photos there are astonishing.


Saturday, September 17, 2005

Constitution Day: enduring lessons

On this day in 1787, the 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention put their signatures to the document they had created.

In something of an oxymoron, President Bush signed a law that, effective this year, makes a formal celebration of Constitution Day mandatory for schools receiving federal funds. With the 17th being a Saturday this year, it was observed yesterday.

Mary Beth Tinker, child of a Methodist preacher with Quaker leanings, was an eighth-grader in Des Moines, Iowa, when she decided to become an activist against the Vietnam War. She, her brother, and others wore black armbands to class. They were suspended. For their trouble they ended up with a landmark free speech verdict from the Supreme Court, Tinker v. Des Moines (1969).

She grew up to became a pediatric nurse. She doesn't seem like a rabble-rouser. But yesterday, on Constitution Day, she was sharing her story with high school students in Washington, D.C. And she was wearing a black armband.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Muted homecoming

Abram Himelstein is back home.

Fact-checker wanted found

In thinking about what it means to lose New Orleans, I'm reminded that as a schoolgirl I "learned" that there were four "unique cities" in the nation: New Orleans, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Boston. Thanks to Google, I "learn" that it was Will Rogers who told us so. The trouble, though, is that it's only in the context of San Antonio. San Antonio's tourist industry has done a remarkable job in spreading the word that this is something Will Rogers said. But it never says where he said it (can't find it here), and besides, none of the other three cities seem to be making the claim.

A Texas tall tale?

Santa Fe apparently wants a bit of the action, substituting itself for Boston.

UPDATE: I gave up too soon. The answer is on the "Stumpers" listserv: Will Rogers did indeed call San Antonio "unique," but along with only two other cities: San Francisco and New Orleans. "They each got something that even the most persistent chamber of commerce can't standardize."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Windy City news

Chicago, hog butcher to the world, threatens to ban foie gras.

How is John Roberts like Daniel Libeskind?

They both like "North by Northwest." The difference is that Libeskind tells us why.

Cornel West on Katrina

It takes something as big as Hurricane Katrina and the misery we saw among the poor black people of New Orleans to get America to focus on race and poverty. It happens about once every 30 or 40 years.

What we saw unfold in the days after the hurricane was the most naked manifestation of conservative social policy towards the poor, where the message for decades has been: 'You are on your own'. Well, they really were on their own for five days in that Superdome, and it was Darwinism in action - the survival of the fittest. People said: 'It looks like something out of the Third World.' Well, New Orleans was Third World long before the hurricane.

It's not just Katrina, it's povertina. People were quick to call them refugees because they looked as if they were from another country. They are. Exiles in America. Their humanity had been rendered invisible so they were never given high priority when the well-to-do got out and the helicopters came for the few. Almost everyone stuck on rooftops, in the shelters, and dying by the side of the road was poor black.

More . . .

Hamlet's sister

News from the hamlet of Ocracoke.

SC college official lets guard down, loses job

In Greenville, S.C., an administrator of a technical college resigned after twice referring to school-age hurricane evacuees as "yard apes."

This news comes to me from the H-Net Afro-Am listserv, which more and more is an indispensable source for Katrina news and opinion. It's going to be an invaluable archive of what you aren't necessarily getting in the MSM.

Homing in

Yesterday's homelessness forum was a success. It was well attended, the speakers were inspiring, and the notion of "housing first" got a good airing. Since the first of these forums last fall when the idea of creating our own 10-year plan was initially raised, I think there's been an increase our collective awareness of the seriousness of the problem and the many levels on which it needs to be addressed. All the talks were compelling, but I want to share Mayor Foy's remarks, because they were exceptional.

To talk about ending homelessness is ambitious. What we’re really looking at is jobs. We live in a capitalist society, and we’re probably not changing that any time soon. We need jobs available to create adequate income--jobs that pay wages that can support some kind of healthy lifestyle, which leads to the issue of health care. Health care is unaffordable for virtually everyone in our society. And then education. So there are at least four things that are really undergirding the effort to end homelessness.

Hurricane Katrina really shows us some things about us, some ugly things, but also that the American people have great heart and great love for our fellow human beings. And that’s represented in this outpouring of help and humanity that we have all participated in as well as witnessed. And it also shows the vastness of resources that we have in our society--and we’re very, very stingy. We’re very, very, very selfish as a society.

I heard on the radio this morning an economist say that 200,000 people being absorbed into the Texas economy is minuscule, it means nothing, it’s easy. It is? I mean, that’s news to me. People in North Carolina don’t have jobs. People that live in Texas don’t have jobs. There’s a big disconnect between what we accept and what could be. Because the economist was really just talking in terms of numbers, not making any kind of moral judgment; he was just saying our economy is so huge, sure, 200,000 new jobs is a blip on the screen. But that’s not how we conduct our lives. We say people are always going to be living on the margins.

So our challenge is to make an enduring difference. That’s another thing the hurricane helps us put into perspective. We have witnessed extraordinary generosity, we have felt extraordinarily generous, but how long is that going to last? We’re talking about a 10-year plan, we have to work to make sure it’s a difference that matters in the long term. And so what I think we are all saying by being here, by being interested, is that we don’t expect that the federal government is going to handle homelessness, or the state; we expect that we are going to have to do something about it. We take it as a personal challenge and make a personal commitment. Those of us who live in this community together make the commitment.

We have beacons of hope, the IFC, the land trust, and so I think it’s true that we are able to make a difference in this local community, that it is an ambitious goal, but that we can achieve it. There has been a lot of chatter and analysis about moral values. It seems to me that the basic moral value is, it’s not us and them, not us and homeless people, it’s all of us. The fundamental moral value is that we are all brothers and sisters and we have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters.

And so that leads me to what I’m supposed to talk about: where are we now? I sort of think that is where we are, but here’s the data. We expect to complete the development of the 10-year plan over the next 12 months and that we’re going to have a project administrator to coordinate the efforts, a steering committee of elected people, service providers, business people, homeless people. The development process of the plan is that we’re not creating something new from whole cloth. There are a lot of examples of what we can or can’t do from other parts of the country and state. Over the next several months that’s what we’re going to be doing. I urge all of you to participate to the extent that you can, but also to keep in mind and to believe that it is possible to have a society as rich as ours based on moral values that does not accept that some people just will be homeless.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Homelessness symposium today

I'm off to the 17th annual Orange County Human Services Advisory Commission Forum. Co-sponsored by the Partnership to End Homelessness in Orange County, it's titled "Welcome Home: A Bold Proposal to End Homelessness."

For a second time this year, Philip Mangano, head of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, will be with us. I'm especially happy that we'll be discussing an idea that was introduced into our Orange county discussions in May: the Housing First program.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The saga at Ground Zero

Four years later, I hope it is not a disservice to the memory of the victims to say we ought to be able to do better than this.

In Dixieland Helms takes his stand

Pick up the book review section of any major newspaper on a Sunday morning and you'll find a variety of books essayed, some reviewed interestingly and some not, according to your taste or the reviewer's talent; some reviewed favorably and some not. You don't, typically, find two reviews of the same book. If a review takes issue with the book, you don't, typically, see a positive review of the same book right beside it.

Yet that's exactly what you do see in today's Raleigh News and Observer. When Tim Tyson, in reviewing Jesse Helms' memoir, saw fit to gore an ox, the editors saw a sacred cow, wounded. And so, in the interest of "fair and balanced" criticism, they recruited a second review: reprinted from the American Spectator.

Helms titles his memoir Here's Where I Stand. Considering what, as Tyson shows, he leaves out of the story--the decades of race-baiting, beginning with his WRAL-TV commentaries--there's a certain irony to it. Or at least a Melvillian "subtilizing," as when Helms distances himself from his work on the 1950 campaign of Willis Smith, who opposed Frank Porter Graham in the Democratic primary for senate. (See other versions of his role in "one of the meanest and most racially divisive [primary elections] in the country's history" here, here, and here.)

Though he might, as Tyson suggests, have been "tempted to steal Eleanor Roosevelt's old book title, 'Some of my Best Friends Are Negro,'" the modest title he did choose brilliantly invokes that masterpiece of Southern subtlety, I'll Take My Stand, the 1930 "manifesto" by "Twelve Southerners" whose ostensible concern was the creeping corrosion, through industrialization, of religion, the arts, and other core values of the good southern life. Wendell Berry comes out of this deeply Jeffersonian thinking. But the book is more than it pretends. Try as they might, critics cannot ultimately rescue I'll Take My Stand from its roots in southern racism.

One of the Agrarians repented. Robert Penn Warren wrote the following in 1965 in Who Speaks for the Negro?

Back in the winter of 1929-30, when I was living in England, I had written an essay on the Negro in the South. I never read that essay after it was published, and the reason was, I presume, that reading it would, I dimly sensed, make me uncomfortable. In fact, while writing it, I had experienced some vague discomfort, like the discomfort you feel when your poem doesn't quite come off, when you've had to fake, or twist, or pad it, when you haven't really explored the impulse.

The essay was a cogent and human defense of segregation--segregation conceived of with full legal protection for the Negro, equal educational facilities, equal economic opportunities, equal pay for equal work.

As Fred Hobson points out, the essay he was referring to is "The Briar Patch," his contribution to I'll Take My Stand. Forty years ago, as Hobson writes, "Warren felt he had some long-overdue explaining to do." Tim Tyson is right: It's too bad the same impulse hasn't come to Jesse Helms.

UPDATE from Tyson:

Dear N&O folks:

Eager to see my name in the paper again, happy, as I always am, to remind my mother and all her friends that I am gainfully employed, I opened my Sunday N&O this morning to see just how that darned Peder Zane messed up my latest review. (Just kidding, he's actually the best editor I've ever worked with.) And I have to say I was surprised and disappointed to see that the N&O was running two reviews of Jesse Helms' pathetic new memoir, HERE'S WHERE I STAND, the one I was asked to write and another one a reprint of an article in THE AMERICAN SPECTATOR by a right-wing ideologue who knows nothing about North Carolina.

The silver lining here, of course, it that we can all look forward to an expansion of the N&O's fine book page. This will buck the national trend of closing or shrinking the book page, and demonstrate courage and adherence to principle. We'll need a bigger book page, to run all those second reviews of books whose initial reviewer did not admire them. Surely y'all have not created a special policy just for a former US senator who made no effort to write a decent book, and thus whose only claim to special treatment is his power, money, and fame. And so I assume that I will be getting some extra book assignments out of this, and my mama can look forward to seeing my byline in the paper more often. Otherwise, of course, this would be a craven abdication of principle and the creation of a special policy for one book that the N&O has no plans to apply to other books.

I once labored on a book for nine years. It was a book about North Carolina and the civil rights movement, and it focused upon events in 1959-1961 that one could read about on the front pages of the NEW YORK TIMES, LONDON TIMES, PRAVDA and many other papers around the world, even though these events occurred in a small town in North Carolina. Though it was a homegrown story, it had much larger implications, the reviewers thought. And all of them agreed, too, that the book was exceptionally well written. The Organization of American Historians, which does not care that much about literary merit, actually, but focuses on scholarly importance, gave it two of the four major book awards that OAH hands out each year. The literature of the civil rights movement changed a good deal because of this book. But it did not get a review in the NEWS AND OBSERVER.

Meanwhile, Jesse Helms brays into a tape recorder in between naps and gets not one but two reviews from the N&O, one of them handpicked to present a favorable review of the book. And it was a deeply dishonest review, too, because anyone with any intellectual integrity, even if Jesse Helms was their hero, could not deny that this is a pretty bad book. I am a professional historian, able to read tax records and city directories without falling asleep. And a book by Jesse Helms is inherently interesting to me. But this one, well, the level of craft and candor here is so low that I fell asleep reading it over and over again.

Well-rested from all these naps, and happy to see my name in the paper again, I return to my Sunday rituals and leave you to yours. But I wanted to thank you for expanding the book page to accommodate two reviews of every book, unless the first reviewer likes it. It's more work for Peder, of course, but he's a talented and hard-working editor, and perhaps you can hire him an assistant.

All best,

Tim Tyson

Timothy B. Tyson, Professor of Afro-American Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Visiting Professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture, Duke Divinity School, Senior Scholar of Documentary Studies, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Cuban model

Cuba is ready to send 1,500 doctors to the Gulf Coast, putting humanitarianism ahead of politics.

So far, the word from Washington has been thanks, but no thanks. The White House snubbed Cuba's offer and said Castro would do better "freeing" his Communist-run country.

One thing the White House can't say is that Castro ought to do better when it comes to Cuba's own hurricane victims. According to an Oxfam study from last year,

Cuba is a case study in successful disaster risk reduction. At the national level, Cuba's disaster legislation, public education on disasters, meteorological research, early warning system, effective communication system for emergencies, comprehensive emergency plan, and Civil Defense structure are important resources in avoiding disaster. At the local level, high levels of literacy, developed infrastructure in rural areas and access to reliable health care are crucial for national efforts in disaster mitigation, preparation and response.

Between 1996 and 2002, six major hurricanes have hit Cuba, including Michelle (2001), Ivan (2004), and Charley (2004), out of all of which only 16 people died. Seems like we could learn a few things.

Art imitates life

I was not myself last night, and neither was Paul. At Tyndall Galleries, on the Second Friday Art Walk, we were art, walking. "It's so great to see my creations come alive," said Jane Filer, the artist who made the masks. It's kind of great also, and liberating, to be so completely disguised that no one, not even people you know, knows you. Children, naturally, are the most responsive. Believe it or not, there are ordinary adults walking the mall of a Friday night who on seeing creatures such as us really don't see us at all. It's like they get in an "I'm in the mall" space in their heads and nothing touches them. But then, as someone in the gallery said, unkindly I thought in a way, "This is Chapel Hill."

Thursday, September 08, 2005

"Definitive" Middle Passage account may not be.

Here's a fascinating bit of scholarly news with major implications for African American studies. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself may be a fabrication. This is news because it has been relied upon as the definitive first-person account of the journey through the Middle Passage. The discovery was made by Vincent Carretta, an English professor. His biography of Equiano is just out from the University of Georgia.

Today at 1:00 there will be a live chat with Professor Carretta. Since his claim is not being met with 100 percent acceptance, I expect it'll be interesting.

Shut out

I don't really want to see these pictures, but I do want them to exist.

UPDATE: Josh Marshall elaborates (via IsThatLegal?).

Dead on

A stunningly accurate weather forecast is found in the October 2004 National Geographic.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

More blogging from Houston

I've become a real fan of Abram Himelstein's, who has written, among other things,

It's true that I am delirious, but I'm pretty sure that George Bush made nature the enemy in one of his speeches. [Referring perhaps to this?] Not everything is either ally or enemy. Lying in bed this morning, not sleeping, I worried that George Bush might get wind of the butterfly effect -- the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in China can create a hurricane in the Gulf. His response would be to invade China to kill all the enemy butterflies.

I think Abram would appreciate Ed Cone.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Vanishing city

NASA animation of a storm surge in New Orleans.

Separate, not equal

It's an interesting week to be teaching Plessy v. Ferguson. Just as I'm trying to imagine Homer Plessy's New Orleans world, I'm struggling to imagine every trace of it washed away. Before the sea changed everything, it was at least possible to argue that there had been a sea change on issues like the one he brought to court in 1896. Now, it is a national embarrassment to admit that we aren't so much farther along after all.

Freelancer and New Orleans native Keith Weldon Medley, who has written a book about Plessy (see Quicktime video), wrote in 2000,

Those who explore the city without seeking its African and African-American roots will surely miss what it means to know New Orleans. People of African descent - enslaved and free - have been there since its earliest days. Between 1718 and 1722, boatloads of Africans from the Senegambia region of Western Africa arrived in New Orleans for forced toil in the Louisiana marshes. They hacked and drained swamps, constructed buildings and levees, and dug canals. For most Africans, it was a life sentence of slavery. Their sweat is in the city's architecture, their rhythms move its music, their creativity and flair spice its cuisine's. New Orleans was home to a large number of "free people of color"; defined as those who possessed property rights even while lacking political and civil rights. They gained their freedom in a number of ways: through manumission (sometimes by a white parent), by purchasing themselves, by being bought by a loved one, or by arriving as a free person from elsewhere. They defended the city in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans when two battalions consisting of five hundred blacks from Louisiana, serving under Gen. Andrew Jackson, stood in the line of British fire. Jackson later credited a shot fired from a black sharpshooter's musket for felling the British commander, Gen. Edward Pakenham, effectively routing the enemy. As of 1820 the city's population contained approximately twenty thousand whites, fifteen thousand slaves, and seven thousand free people of color.

After the Civil War, consistent with what happened in the rest of the reactionary South, segregation was forced upon New Orleans. Homer Plessy, born during the war, saw the limits of his world shrink as the new reality of Jim Crow took shape. He could usually pass when he wanted to, though, being only one-eighth black. In fact, his arrest on June 7, 1892, on the East Louisiana Railroad had to be staged: otherwise he might have escaped notice among the white first-class passengers. (The railroad cooperated, for it too disliked a law that required of it so much trouble.)

The Plessy opinion is a piece of work. A pretense of even-handedness combines with an appeal to "the nature of things" to conjure up a world that, even at the time, must have been unrecognizable to honest souls. The world the opinion describes does not impose any prejudice on one race or the other, at least not in matters that the law is capable of addressing:

A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races--a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color--has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races.

It is noted, for example, that "nothing in [the law] shall be construed as applying to nurses attending children of the other race." That is, if you are a black woman with a white nanny, it would be fine for the white nanny to ride in the black car. And if you question the logic of that image and you are black, you need to adjust your attitude. If you sense that you are stamped "with a badge of inferiority," it is your own fault: "it is not by reason of anything founded in [the law], but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction on it."

Much of course has been written about Plessy, but what strikes me most now is just this: the court's ability to ignore reality and damn the consequences. Kind of like Condoleezza Rice saying race had nothing to do with Katrina's death toll. "Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unattended on the basis of race."

Catch as catch can

If you have your own blog, you know that many of your hits come from Google searches. It's funny to see what topics you inadvertently become the expert on.

On this Labor Day I'm proud to say that if you do a search on "Labor Day poem," you'll find the second entry to be a GreeneSpace posting from last year citing Philip Levine's "What Work Is." The first entry is a PBS NewsHour piece by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky recommending the same poem. It's a great poem, worth revisiting at least each Labor Day.

It seems I've also become one of the go-to sites for "bare breasts"--because of this disappointing entry. (As Paul points out, these people should be doing image searches.)

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Rehnquist: the rough draft

In Mark Tushnet's analysis, dramatic changes in constitutional law happened while Chief Justice Rehnquist sat on the court, not because he did. "Like Peter Sellers' character Chance in 'Being There,' Rehnquist was on the Supreme Court when things happened around him."

For Jack Balkin, Rehnquist's legacy will be in the eye of the beholder.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Blogs from Houston

Abram Himelstein, who runs a neighborhood story project at an inner-city New Orleans high school, blogs from Houston. He desperately wants to hear from his students and friends. "With each text message that comes through, I feel less underwater."

He says most people in the Astrodome as of now are from the Seventh Ward, not many from the Sixth.

It would be nice to tell you that in exile, we are one big ward, and the divisions are gone. But in truth there are many of us who are setting up laptops and and checking lists on-line, while others are writing names on pieces of cardboard, trying to span hundreds of miles with hand-held signs.

He vows to return. "True, some of the old crumbly charm will be replaced by the eerily functional. More sheetrock, less plaster. But maybe we will know each other better and look after each other better."

The Houston Chronicle has its own blog at the Astrodome.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The perfect storm

Take nature's customary bad habits. Add overdevelopment of the buffering wetlands, and the war in Iraq, and throw in a little global warming.

It still adds up to a work of nature made worse by benignly misguided human beings. But to the President, "It's as if the entire Gulf Coast were obliterated by the worst kind of weapon you can imagine." He's a man of few metaphors. We knew that.

Homeland insecurity

New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane. In fact, the federal government has been working with state and local officials in the region since the late 1960s on major hurricane and flood relief efforts. When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.

Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.

Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for the strain. . . .

An emergency management official in Jefferson Parish said in 2004, "It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."

Yet FEMA says they had no idea. In fact, President Bush says he had no idea:

In an interview Thursday on "Good Morning America," President Bush said, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

Simply incredible.

UPDATE: In 2001, the Houston Chronicle predicted it all with great accuracy, including the "thousands of refugees" who "could land in Houston."

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Beyond the gunshots, the questions

The color of misery in New Orleans is inescapable. On the H-NET Afro-Am listserv (web pages temporarily unavailable), a member asks,

Are we silent about the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina on the thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of poor and largely black people who are struggling to survive and dying in the midst of this because we're stunned, because we don't know what to say and/or have nothing to bring to bear on this, or because it's off-topic for the list?

Another raises the issue of the two very different captions for similar pictures, similar except that the actor in one is black and in the other they are white. Another says,

Years ago, Audre Lorde wrote that, in a society that defines its good based on profit rather than human need, there will always be people defined as "surplus," people who are marginalized and treated without regard for their basic human rights. Isn't that what we're seeing right now in New Orleans? How can one justify the obscene focus on property crimes when human beings are in dire need of life-saving assistance? And how might the portrayals of these desperate folks, even people committing crimes against property, people the governor of Mississippi characterized as "animals," be used to rationalize slow, inadequate, and, in some cases, non-existent rescue and assistance efforts?

And finally: Fats Domino and his family are missing. He told his manager he would ride it out in his Ninth Ward home. He hasn't been seen since Monday afternoon.

UPDATE: Joan Walsh in Salon, "Flushing out the ugly truth" of race and poverty:

Personally, with all the destruction in view on Tuesday and Wednesday, I couldn't be horrified by people stealing food; I didn't even care much about people running off with sneakers and beer and TVs. Looting Wal-Mart? I don't defend it, but what do we expect? These are desperately poor people who've been deliberately left behind, in so many senses of the word -- left behind by society, shut up in housing projects and hideous poverty, and now truly left behind by local and federal officials who failed to come up with an evacuation plan for people too poor and isolated to leave on their own.

UPDATE 2: Fats Domino reportedly rescued.