Wednesday, August 31, 2016


A couple weeks back I was having my usual commuting troubles, this time at Dulles airport. We had boarded the flight for Denver, gotten settled and comfortable, when the pilot came on the intercom to advise us that there was a maintenance problem. After some time had passed, we were asked to leave the plane and stand by. I was still in the middle of making a rebooking when the announcement came that the problem had been resolved, and we were reboarding. Somehow in the process I got upgraded to a seat in first class, where I found myself sitting next to this gentleman, who was already sipping at a drink.

In the way of commuters in this situation, we began talking about our chances of making connections and our business on the other end of the flights. My seat mate was on his way to Aspen, which sounded lovely. He was afraid he might have to drive the rest of the way from Denver in the dark if he missed his connecting flight. He had a meeting with a client in the morning, after which he hoped to spend some time on the white water rapids. As we do, I asked what business he was in. Turned out he is a political strategist, with his own company, Advancing Strategies LLC. As we do, I asked after his client, who turns out to be Gov. McCrory of North Carolina.

Oh dear . . . 

A friendly and effusive fellow, my seatmate, one Chris LaCivita, let me know that in the past he had worked for George Allen, Jack Ryan and others. I secretly sent up a prayer that his current client might be as unsuccessful as those two, but in fact Mr. LaCivita's clients have done quite well over the years.

Back in the day, he was the media consultant for the Swift Boat people.

There were several breath catching moments in our conversation, but one that almost made me lose my own drink came when he announced, "the Democrats are going to cause the end of women's sports."

Huh?  Was this some twisted complaint about Title 9?

No, LaCivita's theory was that "the Democrats" were going to allow "men who think they're women" to play women's sports.

This sounded extremely unlikely to me, so I made an uncharacteristic wager:  $50 says that ten years from now we will still have women's sports. I gave him my business card so that he would be able to locate me a decade on and pay up. He provided me with one of his cards in return, a considerably stiffer piece of cardboard, I have to say, than the one Penn State supplies me.

But there was more astonishment to come.  LaCivita told me that in the time before Jack Ryan had had to drop out of his Senate race against Barack Obama, LaCivita had paid over $140,000 for Oppo research on the young Obama. One tidbit he turned up proved one of the claims in Obama's first book to be untrue. Which claim? Obama, it seems, had claimed to have witnessed a murder while visiting a barber shop. LaCivita's investigators (at this point I can't help thinking they're the same guys Trump sent to Hawaii to look into the birth records) found that there had never been any such crime anywhere near that location around the relevant dates.

"I hate it when Democrats make race an issue," he injected a bit later. I observed that in my experience, when somebody is accused of making race an issue it's because somebody else is making an issue of race. "The Democrats shouldn't make ads telling Black people that Republicans want to chain them up and drive them back into slavery," he told me. I agreed that they shouldn't, but added that I had no knowledge of any such ad ever having been made. He described to me an ad that showed a black man being dragged behind a truck in chains and said the ad told Black people George Bush wanted to make them slaves again. I said I had never seen the ad, but that it sounded to me like it had something to do with the horrible murder of James Byrd, Jr., in Jasper, Texas, and that the ad most likely was a response to that outrage. "That's what I like about you professors," he said. "You can make things mean anything you want."

I pointed out that I was simply expressing doubts, and promised first thing to look up that ad.

As we were getting off the plane in Denver, and I was rushing like mad to make my connection. Chris said to me, "be sure to email."

I'm a man of my word. The next day I sent him this email:


I made the flight and, miraculously, so did my baggage.

Hope you managed at least a nap before the white water -- 

Two quick things:

1) As promised, I looked up the ad that showed a black person being dragged by a chain, and have it on the screen in front of me now. I see why I had not known of it; it was not a national ad. More to the point, I see that nowhere in the ad is there any suggestion that Republicans (generally) will put black people in chains or return to slavery. As I gathered from your description, the ad makes a specific invocation of the horrible Byrd case. It was an issue ad about hate-crime legislation. We may differ on the matter of hate-crime legislation (in the past I have supported hate-crime legislation while opposing hate-speech rules), but there's no doubting that is what the ad addresses. This is not a matter of my interpretation. The ad says "call Governor George W. Bush and tell him to support hate-crime legislation."

2) I think you're due a refund from the people you hired to do that Obama research you told me about. Don't know if they had access to searchable text when they did their work, but we certainly have that technology today. Nowhere in Dreams from My Father does Barack Obama claim to have witnessed a murder while visiting a barber shop. I suspect your researchers were thinking of the following passage (unless they were really thinking of Ben Carson) the book narrates as Obama visits Smitty's Barbershop in Hyde Park:

"Somebody had just finished telling a story about his neighbor -- the man had been caught in bed with his wife's cousin and chased at the point of a kitchen knife, buck naked, out into the street -- when the talk turned to politics."

If somebody told you they researched this, they weren't being straight with you. In the first place, it wasn't Obama's story. In the second place, it would be impossible to research this as no time or place was given by the teller of the tale. (BTW, nearly every city has versions of this story in circulation. I first heard one, in a barbershop as it happens, when I was 13. There' a great book titled I Heard It Through the Grapevine about rumor and urban legend you might enjoy.)

Next time hire some English grad students. They're really good at this sort of work.


That was August 15. Haven't heard a word from him in reply. I'm beginning to think he won't be good for the $50!

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

E. Ethelbert Miller - The Aldon Nielsen Project No. 21 - GIL SCOTT-HERON: Pieces of a man made whole

Q.  What is your opinion of The Last Holiday: A Memoir by Gil Scott-Heron?  Is it an important memoir?  Would you teach it in the classroom? 

I taught this book just last year, as part of an undergraduate course in African American autobiography. The course was organized in a fairly traditional way. We started with the canonical slave narratives, Equiano’s Travels, The History of Mary Prince, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, moved on to the autobiography of Elizabeth Keckley. Then we took a slight turn to W.E.B. DuBois’s Dusk of Dawn: The Autobiography of a Race Concept, every word of whose title could be a seminar unto itself. We read Amiri Baraka’s autobiography and Angela Davis’s, and then turned near the end to The Last Holiday. The syllabus made a powerful circuit. Reading of Gil Scott Heron’s participation in the early days of school desegregation offered an important parallel to Davis’s early memories, and gave us an opportunity to reflect upon the evolution of the struggles in the Americas from the seventeenth century to our own.

But another reason I chose this book for the course was to underscore its literary qualities. Too many have forgotten that Gil Scott Heron was, before anything else, a writer. (This was brought home to me in the years following his death. I organized a series of panels at several conferences to bring forward discussion of Scott Heron’s life and works. What was the one conference that refused us a spot on the program? AWP, the conference of creative writing teachers, who seemingly did not recognize Gil as one of their own.)

When C.L.R. James was on trial in the United States, the federal prosecutors brought forward what they clearly considered their clinching argument to the judge, that throughout history, many revolutionaries had been writers. The author of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was a writer, and his last book, The Last Holiday, may be the best book he ever wrote.

Given that his first two novels and his first book of poetry were all published before he was twenty-five years old, I don’t suppose it should surprise anybody that a book he wrote in his fifties and early sixties should be even better than those youthful publications. Turns out there are many surprises in this book, especially for people who only know Gil Scott Heron as one of the most powerful singer/songwriters of his time, composer and performer of “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” “The Bottle,” “Winter in America,” “Johannesburg,” “Your Daddy Loves You,” “H2O Gate Blues,” “We Beg Your Pardon America,” “We Almost Lost Detroit This Time,” the list goes on and on.

I imagine that most of Gil Scott Heron’s audience never knew he had once been a creative writing teacher, let alone that he had talked his way into the prestigious graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins despite never having finished his BA at Lincoln University.

I’ve been writing an ever-growing, semi-autobiographical essay about Gil, which I won’t repeat here. (Still have it in mind to edit a collection of critical responses to his work, which would include my essay.) What I will say here is that The Last Holiday should become a classic of the genre.

One sign of the author’s imaginative power is his decision to make the campaign to secure a national holiday in Dr. King’s memory the organizing structure of the narrative. Gil was never short of ego, but this book is not just about him. He was part of that first generation of post-Brown v Board of Education strivers, and the arc of his life, as tragic as it turned out to be, is one we all can learn from. 

The publishers have been nearly silent abut the editorial process that produced the book as we have it. Only a brief comment appended to the British edition tells us much at all. What you can see reading the book is that it had at least two iterations. At one point, Scott Heron wrote the entire narrative in the third person. The book we are given is the second draft, composed in first person, but with one chapter of third person narration retained. I suppose it will be left to subsequent scholarship to determine if there were more than those two versions of the manuscript, and a history of editorial choices that may have been made along the way. Still, he book reads remarkably well for a text that was assembled from manuscript pages left at the author’s death. Another question to be answered is just how much Scott Heron had to do with any of these editorial decisions. The book had been announced by publishers more than a year prior to Gil’s passing, so presumably some version that he approved had been in the publishers’ hands earlier. How does the final book differ, if it does, from what Scott Heron had authored and authorized?

The book also holds a tragically odd position in the history of Scott Heron’s final years. At the time Gil was arrested in New York for drugs he spoke with the press about his situation, revealing in the process just how deep in denial about his problems he could be in those years. He told reporters he had an 800 page book manuscript completed, insisting that in itself the writing was evidence that he could not be in the grip of addiction. When I read that my first response was, that’s just the kind of thing a writer on crack might do, though I prayed that Gil would conquer his dependence and that we would one day see the book as a late manifestation of his brilliance. That first prayer remained unanswered. Many now recall with deepest sadness our feelings upon reading a profile of Gil in that last year by a journalist who had been in Gil’s apartment as he periodically lifted a small blow torch to his crack pipe.

And that same air of regret and sadness hovers over the reading of this book. Gil Scott Heron is one of the starkest instances of wasted talent and life in recent memory. Reading his memoir you find yourself over and over again yearning for him to escape the fate he is heading towards and to give us more of the writing we hold in our hands. For that matter, most of us would have been content with the work he had already accomplished, and just want him to be alive in the world, even if he never wrote another word.

But that’s all he wrote. We had one last CD, short, combining covers with recordings of work he had  written long before, a ghostly reminder of what he had been. “New York Is Killing Me,” was one prophetic title. The CD’s ironic title, “I’m New Here,” signaled more than just Scott Heron’s wry humor, though. (Those of us who knew him could easily imagine him announcing “I’m New Here” with his characteristic lop-sided grin.) There were elements of the collection that showed the artist in much the same mode as his final book. The CD was book-ended with “On Coming from a Broken Home,” a sort of capsule version of his memoir. More mischievously, the album featured a piece titled “Your Soul and Mine,” which long time fans recognized as an adaptation of a poem titled, like his first novel, “The Vulture.” That poem had appeared on Gil Scott Heron’s LP Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, an album that bore the heading “a new Black poet” back when he was new here. Still, to play upon another of Gil’s pieces, this was deep. “The Vulture” appears as an epigraph to the novel of the same name and the suggestion is that it comes from the character “IQ,” Ivan Quinn. The poem is premonitory not only of the character’s fate, but of his author’s. It begins, “Standing in the ruins of another black man’s life” and ends, “Only promise me a battle; battle for your soul and mine.” On the one hand, Scott Heron’s ironies were well placed; he was in so many ways still new here, even as his final recordings drew so heavily from the work he gave us when he (and we with him) was still new here. “Plastic Pattern People” was another of IQ’s works that had appeared in subsequent publications as Scott Heron’s own. IQ was Gil’s creation and projection, an alter ego, another piece of the man.

Reading The Last Holiday is wrenching. When we arrive at the last pages, we witness Scott Heron writing that his former wife and children were probably better off without him. It’s hard to disagree with his judgment, and at the same time wish to god he’d had such clear judgment early enough to have saved himself, for his children if not for the rest of us. Another sign of Scott Heron’s sureness as an author, though, is right there in that moment. He knows that many of us will agree with him, but he also knows that moment comes to us as we are holding in our hands evidence of just how much he has left us, for the book is a testament to the triumphs of his artistry even as it voices his own regrets and missteps.  He also writes, and expects us to agree even though so many of us will be surprised by the revelation, that he did his best writing during the brief period he was a teacher of writing at Federal City College, and before that as a student-teacher at Johns Hopkins. From the beginning, Gil Scott Heron wanted to be a writer. (There was even a moment when he considered following the example of Brian Wilson; leaving the road tours to the band, staying at home writing the songs and other works.) 

As the title suggests, the book builds to and away from that moment so many of us recall so vividly, that one cold, snowy day in the nation’s capitol when Stevie Wonder led Gil and all of us in singing “Happy Birthday.” That day we all sang of making a dream into a reality, and the sign of that possibility now shines from our calendars. It may not be the last holiday, but it was the first to be achieved by such a union of artistry and activism. Gil Scott Heron didn’t have that end in view when he wrote The Vulture, and by the time he wrote The Last Holiday he was a shattered piece of a man. But this book stands as a monument to a life and to Gil Scott Heron’s art. If we keep this book from slipping out of consciousness, we won’t have to rely on later generations to recover what should be seen as a canonical text of American autobiography and of African American culture.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

E. Ethelbert Miller - The Aldon Nielsen Project No. 20 - "WAS OLIVER COX THE BIG O BEFORE OSCAR?"

Q. Caste, Class and Race by Oliver Cox is often not mentioned these days. How important is Cox to black intellectual thought?

How do we speak of the importance to black thought of someone who we have been in the act of forgetting? In at least one describable sense, Cox’s influence remains visible and active even in the conversations of people who do not know of him: an unspoken, but not unspeakable legacy.

I first heard of Cox from C.L.R. James, who shared his Trinidad origins. The one book of Cox’s that was still readily available at the time was his first, and still his most widely read, Caste, Class, and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics. That Cox was in ways affiliated with the Chicago Schools of Sociology and Economics might have given me pause, but I didn’t know much about them at the time and so came to Cox with none of the cautions I might have later carried into the reading. The book’s title may sound strange to the contemporary ear, but in the era of Cox’s writing it was especially cogent. There were many who argued that American race was a type of caste system. Cox saw the pitfalls in that explanation for racial antagonisms, and was having none of it. His book offered a thorough examination of the ways in which capitalist labor relations produced “race,” and even naturalized racial ideology. Race was, as his subtitle indicated, a social dynamic, not a biological fact. This was not the dominant way of thinking in 1948, and Cox could be, to put it mildly, unstinting in his dispraise of other prominent scholars and activists he thought mistaken. Against the tide of most sociology of his day, Cox wrote in that first book: “it should not be forgotten that, above all else, the slave was a worker whose labor was exploited in production for profit in a capitalist market. It is this fundamental fact which identifies the Negro problem in the United States with the problem of all workers regardless of color." A fuller history of African diasporic thought would give close attention to the far reaching influence of three men from Trinidad: C.L.R. James, especially through his master work, Black Jacobins (1938); James’s student Eric Williams, and his Capitalism and Slavery (1944); and Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race four years later.  In the span of one decade, these three men overturned the standard model of history and economics and set a new path for scholarship and political theory.

Melvin B. Tolson once wrote that “If Mr. Eliot had read Dr. Oliver Cox’s Race, Caste and perhaps Class, he would not have written his ‘Class and the Elite.’” Whatever T.S. Eliot might have written if he’d ever read Cox, there was little chance he ever would read Cox. African American philosophy and social thought were not high on Eliot’s intellectual agenda. But Tolson was wise to offer Cox as a counterpoint to one of the dominant strains of modernist thought. Cox and Tolson had both taught for a time at Wiley College, though Cox was to spend the greater part of his career at Lincoln University (the one in Missouri, not the one in Pennsylvania), and taught during his final years at Detroit’s Wayne State University, at a time when Detroit and Wayne were still the locus of the political thinkers and activists associated with C.L.R. James. These sorts of intellectual lineages are important for us to keep in mind. Cox later published Foundations of Capitalism (1959), Capitalism and American Leadership (1962), Capitalism as a System (1964) and his last, Jewish Self-Interest and Black Pluralism (1974). As important as these works are, they are little known today and certainly weren’t read by the likes of Eliot during Cox’s life time. It was not just that Cox was working from small, historically Black universities, whose scholars are even now too often neglected by scholars at Research 1 universities, it was also simply the fact of his blackness. 

But Cox always had readers. His work figures importantly in the late Cedric Robinson’s classic Black Marxism, and readers wanting an introduction to Cox today can find a paperback edition of his Foundations of Capitalism along with Caste, Race, and Class. When I moved to Santa Barbara, I met Chris McAuley, who was well versed in the Detroit circuits of Black radical thought, and who was to publish The Mind of Oliver C. Cox, a valuable introduction to Cox’s works.  

While Cox is mostly unknown within the general public’s discussions, there is a small revival of interest that may well lead to his getting his due at long last. It is now possible to get an ebook version of Caste, Race, and Class. And there’s been a crucial recent publication. In the early 1970s, C.L.R. James delivered a series of talks at The Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, talks I have written about in a chapter of a forthcoming collection, The Black Jacobins Reader, out shortly from Duke University Press. One of those talks was devoted to the legacy of Oliver Cromwell Cox. I supplied a recording of that talk to Ravi Malhotra, who arranged with Derrick White and Paul Ortiz to have the talk transcribed and published for the first time in New Politics. You can read an introduction by White and Ortiz online at this URL:

We can hope that these recent publications will attract more scholars and activists to Cox’s work. They will find much that is familiar there, because Cox has had such an extensive, but unacknowledged, influence on thinking about race and class over the past decades. 

“What the ruling class requires of race prejudice is that it should uniformly produce racial antagonism; and its laws and propaganda are fashioned for this purpose.”

– Oliver Cromwell Cox