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Derrick Bell’s Parable Of Afrolantica

Introduction And Posts In This Series

Chapter 3 of Derrick Bell’s Faces At The Bottom Of The Well tells the parable of Afrolantica. Out in the Atlantic Ocean a new continent suddenly begins to emerge from the water 900 miles off the coast of South Carolina. Months later when it emerges from the boiling waters and steam that surrounded its birth, it is revealed as a land mass the size of the New England States, with mountains, forests, rivers, and meadows; with plants, animals, fish; and with a whole lot of gold and silver. Nations vie for control, but the US gets a head start and tries to put people there. They are immediately sickened by a strange heavy air pressure which they cannot breathe.

It turns out that only American Black people, and not even Black people from other nations, could breathe the air just fine. A group of Black explorers reported:

… they needed neither their space suits nor special breathing equipment. In fact, the party felt exhilarated and euphoric—feelings they explained upon their reluctant return … as unlike any alcohol- or drug-induced sensations of escape. Rather, it was an invigorating experience of heightened self-esteem, of liberation, of waking up. All four agreed that, while exploring what the media were now referring to as “Afrolantica,” they felt free.

Black people begin to think of Afrolantica as the Promised Land. One minister likened it to the story of the Israelites in the land of Egypt. The Israelites, emancipated from Egyptian slavery, wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Black people lived this for hundreds of years. He urged Black people to emigrate to this Promised Land.

The arguments began. Some Black people, Remainers, argued that life in the US wasn’t as bad as the Israelite had it in their 40 years. They said Black people of today were better off than their parents and grandparents. This is our land, they said, and we don’t want to leave.

A pro-emigration group introduced a bill in Congress to give each emigrant $20K to cover expenses and start-up costs, to be repaid if the emigrant returned within 10 years. Opponents attacked it as unconstitutional because it created a race-based benefit without showing a compelling state interest as a justification.

The Remainers argued that things were definitely getting better and it would be dumb to leave just as the dream of equality was in sight. The pro-emigration people, Leavers, pointed out that the dream always favored white people, and was always hedged for Black people.

Each side quoted historical authorities. Leavers cited Abraham Lincoln who backed resettlement of freed Blacks throughout his life. Remainers cited Frederick Douglas who asserted that Black people belonged in America as much as any other immigrant.

Non-Black Americans were troubled by these events. Some saw the new confidence and pride of Blacks as arrogance or “uppity”. Racists were furious. Others were merely envious. Conservatives feared the possibility of another Cuba, a rallying point for third-world peoples who might identify more with Afrolanticans than US capitalists backed by US military and political pressure. The US government worked to undermine the Leavers, seeing them as a threat to world stability. Agents of the government tried to find Black leaders or academics to back up their conspiracy theories about this invented plot, but none were willing to sign on, which was surprising.

Meanwhile, Black people organized to leave. Even Blacks who didn’t want to go supported this movement with money and services. That frightened many white people. Governments and corporations set up barriers. Visas were denied. Threats were made of loss of citizenship. The right to return even to visit relatives. Criminal charges and civil litigation followed.

Black people banded together to fight off these attacks. A large flotilla left on July 4, in search of Black Independence.

But. As they neared Afrolantica, the mists rose, and the island began to sink back into the Atlantic. They watched it disappear. They realized they were not feeling grief or despair, but a deep satisfaction in having accomplished so much together. They spoke of the words of Frederick Douglass:

“We are Americans. We are not aliens. We are a component part of the nation. We have no disposition to renounce our nationality.”

This spirit inspired a huge number of Black people to renewed efforts to achieve their place in their America.

Discussion

1. The image of the pressure Black people feel in America just trying to live their lives, and the freedom they felt in Afrolantica is striking. It’s reflected in the coverage of the confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. The hearings featured the New Racist Stylings of the Republican Party. Ted Cruz brought in posters of a baby playing with blocks to illustrate something he didn’t like about Critical Race Theory, and asked Judge Jackson whether babies are racists. Elie Mystal explains what happened next:

Jackson started to answer. She said, “Senator.” And then she sighed. And then she paused. For a long time. As the silence filled the room, I felt like I could see Jackson make the same calculation nearly every Black person and ancestor has made at some point while living in the New World. It’s the calculation enslaved people made before trying to escape to freedom, or activists made before sitting down at the white lunch counter. But it’s also the calculation a woman makes before responding to the e-mail of the failson who was just promoted ahead of her, or the calculation I make when a white executive comments on my Twitter feed but not my published columns. It’s the calculation when black people try to decide: “Am I gonna risk it all for this?”

This is what Jeneé Osterheldt, writing for the Boston Globe, saw:

Black women are familiar with the weight of white supremacy even when it cloaks itself in a polite veneer.

The GOP repeatedly has said Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings are to be fair and respectful. They tell her how “intelligent” and “articulate” she is, affirming how proud Jackson should be as they look for ways to lay pressure on her in hopes of making her chin reach her neck in shame.

Black people in, say. Kenya don’t feel the pressure Mystal and Osterheldt describe, pressure not mentioned in other coverage. That’s just for American Black people.

2. As with any parable, we have to ignore the parts that don’t match up well with reality. (Do not get me started on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.) Bell ignores the practical difficulties of living in a land with no electricity or other form of power, the problems of capitalism generally and many others not central to his concerns. We should ignore them too if we want to learn anything useful.

Taking the parable at face value, we see one of Bell’s central concerns. He believes that racism is so deeply entrenched in US society that it can not be eradicated. Black people will only make progress by working together. As I noted in my introduction to this series, he believe that the effort has to be the goal, it has to be its own satisfaction and justification.

3. As with any good parable, there are layers of meaning, and different lessons for different people. We might ask White people how they would react to the situation. I’m not at all sure how I’d react.

My first thought was that it would be great for the people who wanted to go, and I’d be delighted to help. Then I thought that I’d feel terrible that so many Black people would want to go. I’d take it too personally, as them saying I have failed to treat them right, even if #NotAllWhitePeople. But that gets really complicated. It isn’t just my fault, and I don’t know what I personally could or should have done differently. How do we even allocate fault in the situations we are born into, and only escape with the help of others? Communities of every nationality and race in our country are dysfunctional. I would gladly support any plausible effort to fix them as best I can, but I have no ideas about what to do.

Maybe Bell is asking us to think about how we get people to work together to solve common problems. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in a real Democracy?

We’re So Not Through Here

This is emptywheel, where we have frequently posted work contrary to conventional wisdom, or dissented from political leadership with indifference to party.

Each contributor here has their own voice though we’re sometimes confused for each other.

Today is one of those days when you will see a wide gap between emptywheel contributors.

Specifically, I do not personally subscribe at all to Quinn Norton’s belief that the Union is done.

I have written before, however, on numerous occasions, that the United States has not lived up to its ideals.

The concept of this union was flawed from the beginning, having launched as it did with a concession to slaveowners. That original sin dogs this nation to this day; slavery still exists in the form of a carceral state which is heavily weighted against minorities.

The concept of this union was also predicated upon the occupation of lands belonging to pre-existing nations. I’m a product of one of those occupied nations, whose people were nearly wiped out by disease and greed white American occupiers brought to their land.

But I am also an example of what happens when disparate people come together under a singular proposition: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.”

I am the product of people from Nordic and middle European countries, the product of trips around the Pacific and East Asia. All my forebears came here because they perceived a freedom to pursue lives and opportunity they did not have in their home nation-states.

They found an appeal in this premise worth risking their persons as well as their fortune, meager as it was: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

My forebears stayed in spite of being erased in a number of ways — like the records of my French-Canadian family members’ existence in Michigan being repeatedly obscured or deleted by majority English- and German-speaking occupants, or my Asian family losing its true name when recorded by customs, and then stranded by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Or my Hawaiian family losing the right to its own land because whites deposed its monarchy and seized the islands, in addition to spreading deadly disease.

In spite of being marginalized then and now, my forebears and family made a comfortable life and felt it was their honor, privilege, and duty to contribute to these United States. Among my family members is a Medal of Honor winner — a second generation American who served in the Navy until he retired. My father and brother both served in the armed forces as well.

This isn’t an easy country. If you don’t speak English and especially if you’re not white, it can really demand a steep price. Try taking the citizenship test.

Witness the harassment Ilhan Omar has faced for her race, ethnic heritage, and religion, in spite of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, yet she continues to serve her constituents as their representatives in our democratic republic system of government.

It’s because of the price many Americans have faced to become and remain Americans that I’m put out at Norton’s “the Union is done” essay.

I don’t think she truly has a clue what it’s taken for a sizable percentage of this country to hold this union together, such as it is. She may have faced misogyny but really, in which countries does misogyny not exist?

She can play with sentiment and co-opt others’ pain in her argument that the Union is done, but she hasn’t faced the existential threat one’s skin can pose in a land founded by slaveowners and their sympathizers.

She has the unacknowledged privilege of associating with people who’d rather see people like my family dead, and yet she thinks she can declare “the Union is done.”

Take a hard look at what the Black Americans of this country have been doing since voting began last month as a commitment to form a more perfect Union. Ask them if the Union is done.

Take a hard look at what Native Americans have had to do — forced to change their lifestyle, assigning addresses to places which to them are simply Home — in order to vote, otherwise invalidated and erased if they don’t. Ask them, too, if the Union is done.

And take note of the naturalized immigrants who are worried they and their kin will be harassed by ICE and potentially incarcerated or deported while trying to vote simply because they aren’t white and have come to this country too recently. Ask them if the Union to which they emigrated, many as refugees, is done.

My Chinese family members weren’t permitted to emigrate here or own land until 1943, when it suddenly became convenient to have China side with the U.S. against Japan. I tell you this Union is not done, from the house I own under a hyphenated Chinese name.

I’ve pointed to the words of former escaped slave Frederick Douglass before, with regard to the shortcomings of this nation:

… Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. …

The work is slow, so often grinding. It is like farming on a’a and pahoehoe lava, which my family knows well. The biases which are foundational to the problems this country faces are older than this country. We are kidding ourselves if they won’t take at least a half-life to fully end, during which time the demographics of this country will force change. Look at what has transpired, the push and pull in the dozen-plus years this site has tackled the nature of security in an open society.

But this union is by no means done and over. It’s there in the lines we have seen in the streets for weeks, snaking out the doors of polling places across this country. It’s in the cars lined up in a drive-through campaign rally, queued hopefully, trustingly in a drive-through foodbank.

It was there in the streets after George Floyd was murdered.

From goose quill pen’s first ink on parchment 244 years ago, this union has always been aspirational, a nation in a state of becoming, a people who must occasionally check themselves and listen to their better angels.

From the speech before a battlefield of nearly 50,000 American dead 157 years ago, we re-consecrated ourselves,

that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The union is not over. The dream still lives, its work goes on; we will not yield.

It’s simply time once again to rededicate ourselves to forming a more perfect union.

We can begin this day of all days by exercising and protecting our right to vote.

In Order to Form a More Perfect Union

Last year when I wrote a post for the Fourth of July holiday I shared the full text of the Declaration of Independence.

Since that post our country slid increasingly backwards toward an autocratic monarchy, losing sight of the reasons why this nation’s founders threw off a long train of abuses and usurpations, dissolving the American colonies’ relationship with Britain.

Today in our streets fought for and paved by the American people, a belligerent, petty and abusive tyrant who obtained and holds his office by questionable means will have the military parade he has envied other autocrats.

Across town his minions in the so-called Department of Justice will continue to chip away at the Constitution in search of some means to deny to persons within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws in the execution of the 2020 U.S. Census.

And persons of color who’ve fled to the U.S. seeking asylum from violence will continue to suffer inhumane treatment at the hands of federal employees who swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution including the same equal protection spelled out in the Fourteenth Amendment.

(Do take note there have been no raids by ICE ejecting white birth tourists like the Russians in Florida. No Congressional caucuses will find these birth parents in American concentration camps.)

Noting the grim slide we should recall this holiday has always been aspirational. It may mark the day when the republic’s birth began but this nation has always been in a state of becoming.

We have yet to form a perfect union; we can only work toward perfecting it.

To this end it’s worth revisiting this year a historic address by Frederick Douglass delivered on July 5, 1852 — nine years before the Civil War began, when the country was 76 years old. He did not stint when reminding his audience the holiday observed meant little to slaves:

… What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the old world, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival. …

Our shouts of patriotic fervor ring hollow today when one thinks of the undenounced tyrant occupying our White House making a mockery of this nation of laws through his numerous frauds and manifold obstructions while willfully, shamelessly persecuting helpless children and their families, and ignoring the thousands of American deaths he has caused through his bad faith execution of office. Revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, indeed.

As grim as things are today, it cannot be more so than it was for Douglass who could not know as he spoke that it would be another thirteen years before slaves would be emancipated, or that it would be another 113 years before the Voting Rights Act would pass Congress, to secure the right to vote for persons of color.

Or that we would still be fighting voter suppression of minority voters 167 years later even this week as the Supreme Court failed to protect minority voters’ rights and the same petty tyrant rejects his oath to protect and defend the Constitution including its Census of all persons.

Somehow Douglass, an escaped slave himself, remained optimistic:

… Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. …

What lies ahead is not as dark and unknown as that which lay before Douglass in July 1852. We have seen better if not perfect. It can be had again and improved upon with a re-dedication to the principles the founders laid out in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution.

We must recall our nation’s identity began with a shared belief that we are all created equal, that we are endowed with certain unalienable Rights including Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Seeking to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, we instituted a government to secure our inalienable rights and these common interests.

We can and will check this government of and by the people when it fails us just as we checked a monarch in 1776, just as we’ve checked executives and other elected office holders who have failed their oaths. We have continually refreshed our representatives and justices to the same end.

As we have for 243 years we still have work to do. Ted Kennedy spoke of the ongoing nature of this nation’s mission when he said, “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Recommitting to the American dream, I leave off with hope that we can and will continue to pursue a more perfect union.

Wishing you and yours a safe Fourth of July. Consider this an open thread.