“U.S.A. is the slick of a continent. U.S.A. is a group of holding companies, some aggregations of trade unions, a set of laws bound in calf, radio network, a chain of moving picture theatres, a column of stockquotations rubbed out and written in by a Western Union boy on a blackboard, a publiclibrary full of old newspapers and dogeared historybooks with protests scrawled on the margins in pencil, U.S.A. is the world’s greatest rivervalley fringed with mountains and hills. U.S.A. is a set of bigmouthed officials with too many bankaccounts. U.S.A. is a lot of men buried in their uniforms in Arlington Cemetery. U.S.A. is the letters at the end of an address when you are away from home. But mostly U.S.A. is the speech of the people.” -John Dos Passos, preface to U.S.A.
I don’t dream (of American royalty)
King or Queen,
I don’t dream of American
royalty. I see a man and a woman
climbing the front steps of a slum
in blistering Chicago
and sheltering from the swelter
of a rock and a bomb
Cicero and Birmingham.
Queen and King,
I recall an enlightened
declaration that wasn’t worth
much if you count paper as
weight or gold over ash in
the mouth of Moses
I just hear
I Am A Man
and the memory of four
young girls in the twisting
bell of Coltrane’s sermon
to King’s after the girls were
laid to rest
And then Mrs. King,
say the given names:
having to raise her own klan
when the King was slain.
–Jeremy Nathan Marks
My tribute to Aretha Franklin can be found here: http://ratsassreview.net/?page_id=2944
LADY LUSTITIA (IT TURNS OUT)
-for Aretha Franklin & Angela Davis
It turns out that I should read everything into music-
That piano intro into Think . . .
it’s just the footfalls of four youths
an afternoon before they were shot down
in the Algiers Motel in the hometown of
The Queen of Soul.
Those rising horns in Sweet Sweet Baby . . .
three hundred and fifty years of tidal Mississippi
rising to raise a gin fan and Huck’s raft
plus the flotsam rope they cut for some boys from Scottsboro
All thrown off a Tallahatchie Bridge to go down to the Gulf.
Let it all wash out among the hulls
of sunken ships and blown well heads spewing
the blackest crude onto those white sands
of a Riviera in Mississippi where they wouldn’t serve
The Queen of Soul.
The backbeat to The Weight . . .
well, shit . . .
It turns out that the weight itself was something
some Canadian of Mohawk blood
channelled like another black man felt the Wabash Cannonball
thumping through his pulmonary until he just had to become
A Pullman Porter.
One among countless standing with patches
behind a hammer and a hoe.
All of them
and how many women
now soundtracking the debutante balls
on countless new plantations
from Oakland in Michigan
to Sunflower County
and the precincts of starvation wage
trash collectors in Shelby
that’s Memphis, baby
The Queen was there,
must always be where mourners
and eye-of-the-needle transponders
move like Miss Angela herself
through the halls of blind Lady Lustitia;
how long she gon’ wait?
The Queen ain’t done preaching.
-Jeremy Nathan Marks
“White lives, for the forces which rule in this country, are no more sacred than black ones, as many and many a student is discovering, as the white American corpses in Vietnam prove. If the American people are unable to contend with their elected leaders for the redemption of their own honor and the lives of their own children, we, the blacks, the most rejected of the Western children, can expect very little help at their hands; which, after all, is nothing new. What the Americans do not realize is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil, is not a racial war but a civil war. But the American delusion is not only that their brothers all are white but that the whites are all their brothers.”
-James Baldwin, “An Open Letter to My Sister Angela Y. Davis” (November 19, 1970)
In the days following Dr. King’s assassination, Washington D.C. experienced the most destructive rioting in its history. I think that the disturbances which followed King’s murder are worth revisiting because of what they can tell us of the disparity between the promise of American life and its reality for many. I also think it is worth revisiting on account of the role of racism in shaping the physical, economic, psychological, and sociological landscape of urban and black life in the United States.
In the fall of 1968, the Washington Post put out a book on the riots which still stands as a valuable document that has helped me to understand a world I grew up adjacent to but also very far away from.
Here is my piece on Dr. King’s family that appears today in the London Free Press:
I remember so well being confronted with a terrible feeling of inadequacy when I was immersed in graduate studies whereby I felt that my work in history was irrelevant; irrelevant to the concerns of contemporary society. The inadequacy was, I think in hindsight, the result of a flaw in my approach to my research (these things often are). But I have never been able to move away from, or beyond, a terrible sense that the careful examination of first order principles of how a fair and just society is to be constructed are somehow far removed from the historical legacy and the contemporary socio-economic and political -not to mention ecological- realities of the United States (Canada, too). I mention the U.S. specifically as it is my native land and therefore the society I know best.
In the short clip that follows, Noam Chomsky speaks to this dilemma I am facing as I read and re-read Rawls and try and respond to the claims and criticisms Ta-Nehisi Coates has so profoundly drawn together in his essays on the 2009-2017 period in American history (with all of its antecedents).