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Waging Peace: A Review

By Rev. Sharon Delgado
General Board of Church & Society
January 26th, 2015

Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist by veteran activist David Hartsough is part autobiography, part recent history, and part call to action. This new book shows how a commitment to active nonviolence can plant the seeds and provide the impetus for significant social transformation.

In 2012 I was arrested with David and Jan Hartsough, Shirley Osgood and Janie Kesselman at a demonstration at Beale Air Force Base, near my home in Northern California. We were the first of many to be arrested at anti-drone protests at Beale, home of the Global Hawk, a surveillance drone that helps identify targets for armed Predator and Reaper drones.

Our arrests resulted in a trial that generated significant publicity. Our case and others like it at bases around the country got people discussing and questioning the morality of killing people by remote control.

Throughout the trial, David urged our lawyers to focus on the Nuremburg Principles and International Law, even though the judge refused to consider these factors as a defense. We were found “guilty” of trespassing onto base property.

Before being sentenced we each gave a statement to the court. David’s complete sentencing statement is an addendum to Waging Peace.

The judge could have sentenced us to six months in jail. After hearing our statements, she acknowledged that we were motivated by "deeply held ethical and religious beliefs,” and consequently sentenced us to just 10 hours of community service.

We continue to demonstrate at Beale, however. As David says, “Sustained resistance brings transformation.”

Many adventures

David is Executive Director of Peaceworkers, based in San Francisco, and co-founder with Mel Duncan of the Nonviolent Peaceforce.

In Waging Peace, David shares some of his many adventures in active nonviolence, as well as his strong faith and the spiritual beliefs that motivate his actions as a Quaker and as a Christian. This book engages the reader every step of the way.

A man held a knife to his heart and threatened to kill him

Waging Peace is a compelling autobiography that tells the story of a life-threatening encounter David had at age 20 while sitting with African American students at a “whites only” lunch counter in Arlington, Va. A man held a knife to his heart and threatened to kill him. Fortunately for David, he had already incorporated a deep inner commitment to nonviolence, and was able to respond in a way that diffused the anger of his would-be killer.

As he tells the story of his childhood, David explains what brought him to this life-threatening event, how he handled the situation. He describes how the seeds of peace were sown by his remarkable parents, how he came to understand what Jesus meant when he said to love your enemies, how he began early experiments with nonviolence, and how he came to dedicate himself to living a life consistent with his values.

Modern-day history

David’s father was a Congregational minister who worked for the American Friends Service Committee, and his friends and colleagues had a big influence on David, especially the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. By the age of 15, David was organizing demonstrations against nuclear weapons.

In addition to being an autobiography, this book is a modern-day history of nonviolent social movements, written from the perspective of a committed activist. As an agent for nonviolent social change, David seems to have always been at the right place at the right time.

During the Cold War, David travelled to Russia and organized peace demonstrations there. As the United States and Soviet Union were threatening nuclear war over the divided city of Berlin, David lived in West Berlin just a few blocks from Checkpoint Charlie. He traveled back and forth to East Berlin, learning as much as he could and speaking out against both communist and capitalist propaganda. Ten years later the FBI issued a warrant for his arrest and questioned him about his activities there.

David and Jan, his beloved wife and partner in nonviolent action, stopped paying “war taxes” early on. David claimed conscientious-objector status and was an outspoken critic during the Vietnam War.

Committed to the good

David was protesting with his friend Brian Willson on the day that Brian was run over and his legs severed by a train carrying munitions to Central America. David writes about the trauma of that event, but also about how many people continued to block the trains. A short time later his elderly mother and father joined him and others on the tracks.

David and Jan traveled in Central American war zones during the 1980s, when U.S. financial support to corrupt regimes and death squads made such travel and life for people who lived there extremely dangerous. He worked in the United States with Cesar Chavez in the struggles for the rights of farmworkers.

In the 1990s, David was part of a Fellowship of Reconciliation delegation for peace in Bosnia-Hertzegovnia. He has travelled extensively in his peacemaking work, including to Iran and Palestine. His peacemaking work continues, including through Peaceworkers and the Nonviolent Peaceforce.

The book is written not only by an observer in these historic events, but from the perspective of one who is committed to the good: to compassion, justice and peace.

Call to action

In addition to being an autobiography and a first-hand history of social movements, Waging Peace is an inspiring call to action. Every page expresses David’s hope for lasting social transformation based on his faith and his experience. By reading about David’s adventures as a skilled practitioner of active nonviolence in key historical events of our time, the reader gains hope and confidence that significant change is possible.

Waging Peace is a “how to” book for transforming our society and the world. It encourages us to start where we are, by learning and practicing nonviolence in all areas of our lives. It includes a wealth of suggestions and resources for would-be activists. This book not only gives practical direction, but also shows us the strong foundation built by others upon which we can stand in solidarity with other people of faith and conscience around the world.

After describing some of the astonishing changes that nonviolent action has brought about in recent years in places around the world, David writes:

What other spots on our earth are waiting for such stunning change? What corner is beckoning to your heart and spirit? Where is God leading you to invest your life on behalf of a world where all God’s children share the abundance and live as one family in peace and harmony with the earth?

David closes Waging Peace with this statement of faith: “Deep in my heart, I do believe, that — together — We Shall Overcome!”

You can order signed copies of Waging Peace from Peaceworkers or order from a local bookstore. It is also available on online outlets, such as

Editor's note: The Rev. Sharon Delgado is a United Methodist member of the California-Nevada Annual Conference. You can read more about her at

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Solidarity Unionism reviewed in Waging NonViolence

By Eric Dirnbach
Waging NonViolence
November 4th, 2105

The debate on how to revive the troubled U.S. labor movement has been around for decades. Labor activists generally believe that much greater rank-and-file democracy and workplace militancy is the key to labor renewal. However, an essential perspective that is usually missing from the conversation is well represented by Staughton Lynd’s “Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below,” which was first published in 1992 and has been recently reissued.

Lynd is a legendary progressive lawyer and activist from Youngstown, Ohio. He is the coauthor with his wife Alice Lynd of the classic “Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers,” a collection of oral histories of militant union organizers, which informs much of the framework of “Solidarity Unionism.” At around 100 pages, the book reads more like a summary of his organizing philosophy, and many readers will come away wanting a more extensive discussion. It should be read along with several other recent books which make similar arguments: Stanley Aronowitz’s “The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement,” and “New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism,” edited by Immanuel Ness, who also provided the introduction for “Solidarity Unionism.”

Lynd argues for a rethinking of the assumptions of the labor movement and for a revived version of labor organizing that was more prominent in the pre-New Deal era that he calls “solidarity unionism.” What may surprise most labor-oriented readers is that central to this kind of unionism is the absence of a contract between the union and the employer.

Isn’t the whole point of forming a union to get a written collective bargaining agreement? Lynd doesn’t think so and he argues that workers fighting together with direct action on the job to make improvements in the workplace do not need a contract and may be hurt by having one.

He is critical of the “management rights” and “no-strike” clauses that are standard in almost all union contracts. He believes they reduce the power of workers to influence major decisions in how the workplace is run and to solve their problems at work immediately as they arise.

Contracts tend to remove agency from the workers and place it in the hands of union staff who typically bargain and process grievances while the members may be uninvolved and cynical. Lynd is also skeptical of a union’s exclusive representation of all workers in the workplace and automatic dues check-off, preferring for workers to actively join the union and pay dues because they want to.

Lynd’s view of the prevailing “contract unionism” differs from standard labor history, which considers the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA, labor reforms as a progressive advance for workers. In the mainstream view, workers organizing, with the support of President Roosevelt, finally won full government enforcement for the right to organize and bargain collectively. In exercising this right, unions typically hold workplace elections and then negotiate contracts with employers that set the conditions of employment and also guarantee labor peace (no strike/no lockout) for the term of the contract. This industrial relations framework led the way for millions of workers to organize and improve their wages and working conditions. This “class compromise” held for several decades until employers changed their mind and increased their opposition to unionization again.

For Lynd, this view is backwards. Workers were already organizing and improving working conditions, but the NLRA contract system was then imposed by the government to tame a militant 1930s labor movement and create the conditions for industrial peace. Opportunistic labor leaders used the rank-and-file workers’ disruptions to step in as responsible partners that could restore order with a union contract. Unions became contract administrators who disciplined unruly workers. Moreover, the ejection of the labor movement’s radical wing during the anti-Communist scare of the 1940s and 1950s eliminated a whole culture of militant unionism. Over the years, rank-and-file initiative and militancy has been weakened, such that when the employer anti-union offensive resumed in the 1970s and 1980s, unions were unprepared.

What does Lynd’s type of solidarity union look like? Shop floor committees based in workgroups organize and take direct action on the job to fight for their demands. The issues could be a wage increase or better scheduling and the actions could be marches on the boss, slowdowns, or other tactics. The goal is not to get official union recognition from the employer and a written contract, but simply the workplace improvements. If the workers have another grievance a month or a year later, they take further action to address it. This has been the model of the Industrial Workers of the World for over 100 years and is also the way many workers centers operate. Solidarity and initiative among coworkers with community support is the basis for this kind of unionism.

As an example, Lynd quotes John Sargent who worked at Inland Steel in Chicago in the late 1930s. “Without a contract we secured for ourselves agreements on working conditions and wages that we do not have today, and that were better by far than what we have today in the mill,” he said. “For example as a result of the enthusiasm of the people in the mill you had a series of strikes, wildcats, shut-downs, slow-downs, anything working people could think of to secure for themselves what they decided they had to have.”

Given Lynd’s analysis, what should the labor movement do today? Lynd doesn’t appear to advocate that unions rip up their contracts. But he does encourage the formation of rank-and-file shop floor committees. Union workers can certainly incorporate aspects of solidarity unionism by practicing workplace militancy as much as possible even with contracts in place, as Labor Notes has advocated for decades. Non-union workers can form independent unions based on solidarity unionism principles. We may also see more hybrid types of organizing, such as the fast food and OUR Walmart campaigns, sponsored by mainstream unions, and based in part on workplace actions. Some labor radicals are encouraged by these campaigns as something new, but Lynd reminds us that they recreate older forms of organizing, at least to the extent that they involve genuine worker leadership rather than stage-managed media events.

Lynd also encourages the formation of what he calls “parallel central labor councils” which are groups of workers in an area from different workplaces that provide solidarity to each other in their struggles. Lynd cites several examples of rank-and-file worker controlled solidarity initiatives in Youngstown in the 1980s, such as the Workers’ Solidarity Club, which provided picket line support and organizing assistance, as well as hosted educational and social events.

Given that almost 90 percent of U.S. workers are non-union, there is certainly a great opportunity to build a large solidarity union movement of the kind Lynd outlines. However, organizing is risky and groups that practice solidarity unionism in its purest form will tend to be small, with few staff or resources, depending almost entirely on the workers themselves. This is a lot to ask. Indeed many members of mainstream unions may point to the benefits of having a large, stable organization with contracts, funds, benefit plans, dedicated staff, lawyers, and political relationships. But for Lynd, these kinds of institutional arrangements tend to come at the cost of democracy and militancy.

This raises, I think, the greatest challenge and dilemma for this kind of unionism. It allows the best chance for workers to run their own union, making their own decisions on strategy and tactics with maximum democracy and freedom of action. But it also carries potentially more risk as workers are exposed to changes in workplace policy and arbitrary boss behavior without any written contract protections. Lynd would likely make the claim that contracts offer no real protection without worker power to back it up, and if you have that power you don’t need the contract. No doubt that’s true in some cases.

Ultimately the solidarity unionism model essentially makes two broad claims: that the outcomes for workers will be better and that it is a way of organizing that can more effectively challenge capitalism. Regarding workplace outcomes, this is a fascinating question that needs more data and there may possibly be too few documented modern cases of workplace organizing and improvements outside of the formal contract system. This certainly deserves more attention.

Regarding the challenge to capitalism, although Lynd doesn’t develop this point at length, he links solidarity unionism with the potential to build a socialist society. This is consistent with Lynd’s view that mainstream union practices cannot meaningfully challenge capitalism. We can see how this might be true since the regular practice of workplace militancy will likely develop more class-conscious fighters of the system than staff-directed contract bargaining. And a mainstream union’s assets and relationships tend to enmesh it in the capitalist system, making alternatives hard to envision within typical union practices.

In any case, union contracts and the working conditions they codify are the current compromise between labor and capital in any given workplace. With or without a contract, workers will have to struggle. Lynd doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that some workers may not be looking for constant class warfare on the job, and that settling a decent contract offers a much needed respite to lock-in gains. In any case, labor radicals should meet the workers where they are, and workers themselves should decide what kind of union they want. Let’s have many different organizing forms and see what works. The philosophy and practice of solidarity unionism provides a critical reminder of alternative ways of organizing and a valuable framework for the stronger and more militant labor movement that we need.

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Jewish Noir: Contemporary Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds: A Review

by Dawn Ius
The Big Thrill
November 30th, 2015

Some of today’s best-known crime writers have come together to create JEWISH NOIR, an anthology of new stories that examine the re-emergence of noir in Jewish culture.

Edited by Kenneth Wishnia, the book’s 32 compelling offerings tackle issues such as the long-terms effects of the Holocaust, sexual abuse in an insular ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn community, amoral  businessmen, and, much to Wishnia’s surprise, multiple stories on bullying.

“No less than three of the contributions focus on characters having been bullied for being Jewish,” he says.

The anthology is truly a diverse collection of work by an eclectic group of authors—some of whom aren’t even Jewish.

“This is a compilation of ‘not the usual suspects,’ ” Wishnia says, noting that among the stories by the more well-known authors, the anthology includes a few debut efforts, one vintage reprint, and a translation of a story originally penned in Yiddish in 1960.

At more than 400 pages, Wishnia admits, it’s a heady—but timely—book.

“We live in an age which parallels many of the conditions that gave rise to the first generation of noir writers—economic insecurity, corruption at all levels of government, and disillusion with the American dream, while those responsible for it all make millions and get away with murder.”

Despite the genre’s resurgence, Wishnia says these themes aren’t new. In fact, they date back to Biblical times. “To put it in rather simplified form, a majority of the world’s Christians are taught that if you follow the right path, everything will turn out well for you in the end. In Judaism, you can follow the right path and still get screwed (just ask Job). That’s noir,” he writes in the anthology’s introduction.

Or, for a more light-hearted description, Wishnia says, “If you’re not embarrassed by the cover, it’s not pulp fiction.”

While this is Wishnia’s first time in the role of editor, he’s no stranger to fiction. His novels and short stories have been nominated for or won several awards and distinctions.

But he can’t claim sole inspiration for JEWISH NOIR. The idea was conceived with the help of Reed Farrel Coleman, who unfortunately had to drop out of the project after landing another gig that featured a non-competitive clause. His story in the anthology was even penned under a pseudo-name.

Wishnia boldly took the reins on what he says ended up being a lot more work than he intended. What began as between 15 and 20 contributions bloomed to 32—it seemed everyone wanted on this unique noir revival project. There’s even talk of a second book, though Wishnia cautions that it might be a while before he can carve time out of his personal writing to take on another anthology of this magnitude.

“We hope this book gives readers an appreciation of Jewish noir,” he says, along with a shared celebration of the culture. “In a less enlightened time, people hid their identity. No one just discovers they have Catholic ancestry. Really, it’s only recently that we’ve been considered white—prejudices last a long time.”

To help tackle some of those prejudices, bring awareness to Jewish culture, and yes, to honor all that is noir, Wishnia and his co-writers have turned to the thread that often ties society together—the art of storytelling.

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Sisters of the Revolution: A Review in The New York Review of Science Fiction

by Gwyneth Jones
The New York Review of Science Fiction

This “highly curated” collection of feminist speculative fiction definitely bears the VanderMeer stamp: not only choosing their stories from every genre of the fantastic, including horror and fantasy” but offering a greater preponderance of the surreal and the richly grotesque than one might expect in an anthology on this theme. Of the surreal element, my favorite has to be Ann Richter’s “The Sleep of Plants,” an understatedly elegant escape story, translated from the French, though I also liked Rachel Swirsky’s “Detours on the Way to Nothing” and admit to having a soft spot for Eileen Gunn’s sly fable of corporate climbers, eagerly ditching their humanity just to get a corner office, “Stable Strategies For Middle Management.”

In the grotesque contingent, I liked Karin Tidbeck’s “Aunts.” This study of stultifying, matriarchal domesticity, replicating itself through the generations, is compelling: gruesome, relentless, and glutinously horrific, but never less than sharply political.

You can’t “expand the conversation about feminism” without first stating its terms: of course a selection of stories from the canon of feminist sf had to be included. Most of the well-known stories here, including Octavia Butler’s bleak, challenging, “The Evening, the Morning, and the Night”; Kelley Eskridge’s slippery, shape-changing “And Salome Danced”; Pat Murphy’s hallucinatory “Love and Death Among the Invertebrates”; and Nalo Hopkinson’s Caribbean Bluebeard tale, “The Glass Bottle Trick” are excellent choices, fitting neatly into the curated scheme. I welcomed the wider perspective of the Hopkinson story, suggesting that her pantomime villain is himself caught in the net of internalized racism: although this collection is reasonably international, I felt that politically it was rather narrow. Other canonical stories don’t seem quite as well chosen. Does Joanna Russ’s sparsely written and deliberately, painfully, unsensational account of the loss of a dream, “When It Changed,” really belong in this highly charged, emphatically sensuous company? It’s not as if Russ never had anything sensual or disturbing to say in her short stories. How about “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman”? I also wondered about using Timmi Duchamp’s “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” as an opener.

It’s a great story, but its closing promise of a world after the revolution “far wider and brighter than I’d ever dreamed existed ...” is not exactly accurate as to what’s in store here! (N.B., there’s a typo in the Acknowledgments. As internal evidence shows, “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” was not published in 1980. It was published in Pulphouse 8 in 1990).

Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Sur,” on the other hand (in which an international party of ladylike, responsible, and modest South American wives and mothers secretly prepare an expedition, embark, and succeed in reaching the South Pole before Amundsen), is unexpectedly successful: a counterpoint or even a rebuke to some other accounts of old-fashioned domesticy in this volume.

Among the well-known classics I have to give honorable mention to, James Tiptree Jr’s “The Screwfly Solution” with its spooky premise that all human males, no matter how hard they fight the plague, are a chromosome’s tweak away from slaughtering all human females instead of mating with them—the best and by far the most intelligent zombie apocalypse story in the world, ever. And lastly, my favorite vintage story is in fact my favorite in the whole collection: Élisabeth Vonarburg’s “Home by the Sea.” But I won’t say a word more about it, in case you’re lucky enough to be reading it for the first time. Enjoy.

I’ve now reached the point where the anthology reviewer traditionally lists the stories she or he thinks ought to have been included. I’m not going to do that although I did miss the Australians and the Southeast Asians. Malaysian female writers, at home and in the diaspora, have a particularly wild and rich vein of folklore-based speculative fiction. Instead, I’m going to tell you that this is a very good collection, absorbing, thoughtfully put together, and though it’s mostly a little serious and grim, there are at least two exceptional, witty, and charming female-authored fairytales to warm your heart, Nnedi Okorafor’s “The Palm Tree Bandit” and Eleanor Arnason’s “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters.”

But there’s a problem. Practically all the protagonists and female characters in these stories are defined by their traditional, female-ordered roles in society. We have a police chief, Janet Evason, in “When it Changed.” We have some very unhappy homemakers, daughters, and girlfriends with no other vocation. We have a couple of scientists, two artists, a Grammarian (of course), a journalist, a party of Antarctic explorers, and a Sword and Sorcery Woman Warrior, but almost without exception what they’re all doing in their stories is Being Female. Even the protagonist of “The Screwfly Solution,” though she gets a “Dr.” in front of her name in the text, is presented exclusively as homemaker and mother. Mother, daughter, bride, wife, crone ... It’s all very well, but I want more. I want a bit of weird listmania to break out in the next volume, and I’m not asking for a change of tone, not at all. I don’t share the assumption that the surreal and the grotesque as literary forms can only accommodate women who know their limited place.

There is more to be said about the sisters of the revolution than appears in this first episode, and despite the awful troubles of our twenty-first century, despite the horrific conditions under which many women live in the world today, not all of it is bad news.

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Ann VanderMeer's homepage | Back to Jeff VanderMeer's homepage

Legal Hangover: A Review of Crashing the Party: Legacies and Lessons from the RNC 2000

by Kristian Williams
Toward Freedom
November 25th, 2015

Once the march is over, the blockades removed, the tear gas dissipated -- another fight is only just beginning, one that may last for years, require thousands of dollars and endless hours of work, and which may determine whether protestors go to prison or go free.

Crashing the Party provides an extended case study of one such campaign, that of the R2K Legal Collective, supporting protestors against the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia. The city government sought to control protests with draconian restrictions, protest areas surrounded by chain link fences and police, and the denial of permits. Police addressed them with infiltration, pre-emptive raids, both mass and targeted arrests, and violence. Jail guards, with the usual bad conditions and the occasional use of torture. Prosecutors, with hyperbolic charges, exorbitant bail, threats of long sentences, and a refusal to negotiate. The protestor/defendants and their supporters meanwhile resisted in every way they could, skillfully finding pressure points, procedural bottlenecks, moments when demands could be made, places where cooperation could be withheld. They refused to give their names, turned down plea deals, publicly exposed police abuse and judicial bias, and sometimes argued their own cases. In the end, out of 420 arrests, there were thirteen misdemeanor convictions and one felony. None of the RNC defendants were jailed after conviction.

By recounting this story, Crashing the Party shows us some of the possibilities of legal defense, and outlines strategies to realize them (as well as the counter-strategies the state may employ). Had it been available sooner, I can think of numerous people I would have given this book to over the past few years -- defense committees short of ideas, panicking defendants facing felony charges, lawyers skeptical of politicizing cases, ultra-militants suspicious of legal strategies. Crashing the Party is not a how-to guide, but that is where it will go on my bookshelf, alongside Brian Glick's War at Home, Katya Komisaruk's Beat the Heat, and Sacramento Prisoner Support's Government Repression, Prisoner Support. Crashing the Party is descriptive rather than prescriptive, but the lessons are there for anyone who cares to learn them.

Though Kris Hermes was involved with R2K Legal's efforts, the book does not read as an "insider's account" in the usual sense. Instead, Hermes has offered something altogether more valuable: a careful, detailed accounting of what R2K Legal did, how they did it, and why, along with a sober assessment of their successes, failures, mistakes, and weaknesses. This approach is unusual, especially at such length, but if the left is serious about withstanding repression -- that is, if we are serious about winning, it is exactly the kind of approach that we need.

Hermes' book is remarkable in part for what it is not. It is not a self-aggrandizing memoir. It is not a clichéd manifesto inveighing against the injustices of the legal system, the corporate-imperial Republican agenda, and the opportunism of his rivals on the left. It is not a series of predigested talking points, a history composed on the model of the press release. Of course, the fact that such an honest, thoughtful account is remarkable says a great deal about the weaknesses of our movements.

And, unfortunately, those same weaknesses guarantee that Hermes' book will not get the attention it deserves. The Philly RNC was fifteen years ago -- which is a long time in a human being's life, but practically three generations in movement terms. The quick turnover means that we are prone to continuously repeat the same mistakes. Crashing the Party could be a partial remedy, at least in the area of legal defense -- if only we would pay attention.

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination, and Hurt: Notes on Torture in a Modern Democracy. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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Playing as if the World Mattered: A Review

By JJ Amaworo Wilson
JJ Amaworo Wilson
July 17th, 2015

Elite sport has a lot to answer for. Rabid consumerism, blind nationalism, rampant cheating, endemic corruption. Just in the last couple of years we’ve witnessed FIFA’s corruption scandal, mass protests in Brazil against expenditure on huge stadia, and the saga of Lance Armstrong. And don’t get me started on the feudal world of professional boxing.

And yet … and yet … like a 300-pound wrestler in spandex, sport holds millions in its enthralling grip – me included. The greatest of our sporting men and women – our modern-day gladiators – are feted as gods, and their skills transport us to a place of dreams.

Gabriel Kuhn’s Playing as if the World Mattered: An Illustrated History of Activism in Sports (PM Press, 2015) is a potted history of activism in pro and amateur sports. At 158 pages, it’s as slim as the end of a snooker cue, and half those pages consist of reprints of old posters, illustrations and photos.

The book is all about breadth rather than depth. It contains very short essays on movements, organizations, heroes and key moments in sports activism. The usual suspects are here – Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali – but Kuhn also crosses borders to look at movements in Apartheid South Africa, Indonesia, Europe and elsewhere. He highlights several stories that are in danger of slipping out of collective memory:

*The wrestler Werner Seelenbinder, banned in 1933 for refusing to perform a Hitler salute, was executed in 1944 after his heroic stand in the underground resistance.

*In Mexico, 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the Olympic podium, shoeless, and did the Black Power salute, the Australian Peter Norman, who won Silver, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity. He was never selected again by the Australian athletics board. Smith and Carlos remained lifelong friends with Norman, and just as Norman had supported them, so they literally supported him in death, serving as pallbearers at his funeral in 2006.


787851-13430714-317-238*Brazilian soccer player Socrates spearheaded the Democracia Corinthians movement, 1982-84. The goal (excuse me) was to democratize soccer by involving the players in all decisions including training methods, team selection and transfers, and to thereby challenge the military regime. Alas, the movement fell apart when Socrates left to play in Italy, enraged by the military running his country.

*Argentina’s World Cup winning coach Cesar Luis Menotti refused to shake hands with junta leader Jorge Videla after Argentina’s victory on home soil in 1978.

Such stories made this fine book worthwhile for me; that, and its useful reference sections.

One drawback is that the book lacks a sense of how these movements and people fit together. What did Muhammad Ali learn from Jackie Robinson? What was the link between Mussolini’s use of the 1934 World Cup as a showcase for Fascism and Hitler’s use of the 1936 Berlin Olympics for Nazism?

The other drawback is that it’s very light on women’s struggles in sports. Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova are barely mentioned in passing.


Near the end, Kuhn writes, “What would an ideal world of sports look like? There would be no more superstars, no more billion dollar contracts, no more endless hours of televised sports …” (p. 155) Impossible to imagine? So was the end of slavery. So was women’s suffrage. I adore sport, but this slim book made me question how elite sports are run and what they really stand for. And that, for me, is priceless.

Buy book now | Download e-book now | Back to Gabriel Kuhn's homepage

“President Obama has been a cottage industry for racist imagery and racist memorabilia”

Why understanding the history of Jim Crow is still essential

by Scott Timberg
November 19th, 2015

Salon talks to David Pilgrim, human rights activist and founder of the Jim Crow Museum collection of artifacts

The language and images are hard to take – a black man with enormous lips eating a watermelon. Black women in exaggerated sexual poses. Broken English and racial slurs. They’re all important parts of “Understanding Jim Crow,” a new book subtitled “Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice.” Whether the book inspires tolerance or social justice, it certainly makes the existence of virulent racism hard to deny.

The book’s author, professor and activist David Pilgrim, began collecting racist items as a child, and now presents them at the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan.

“There was nothing understated about Jim Crow during that long, blistering century between the end of Reconstruction and the seminal legal victories of the American civil rights movement,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in the book’s foreword. “Racist imagery essentializing blacks as inferior beings was as exaggerated as it was ubiquitous. The onslaught was constant.”

We spoke to Pilgrim from his university office; the interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

I probably don’t have to tell you that these images are pretty disturbing. Why is it important that people see them?

I don’t remember who it was that said an image is worth 1,000 words. But what we’ve discovered is that when people come to our facility, and are confronted with the visual evidence of Jim Crow, it changes the discussion.

I can try to use my words to paint pictures… But when they come to the museum, they’re looking not just at two-dimensional images but sometimes three-dimensional objects. So they’re really confronted with evidence of the racial hierarchy.

When did you start collecting these images? What drew you to them?

I wish I had a better story. I wish I could tell you that when I was 13 years old I had a premonition that I’d be a great human rights activist. The reality is when I was 12 or 13 or 11 I happened upon a Mammy figure on someone’s table – a dealer. In those days down South, you’d have a carnival and someone selling used objects, just a hodgepodge. I bought a piece, I destroyed it. I don’t think there was anything particularly deep going on in my head except that I didn’t like it.

I don’t remember the second or the third or the fourth – but I was always collecting. Keep in mind, in those days, this stuff was everywhere. So the ideas that eventually led to this becoming a museum were spread over four decades or more.

For people who’ve not seen the book or the museum, give us a sense of some of the images we’re talking about here.

The museum focuses on everyday objects. We thought it was important to recognize that… the average American had in their homes postcards and games and toys and sheet music and ash trays… If you can think of an everyday, common object, there was a racist version of it. They both shaped and reflected attitudes about African-Americans. You would have images that reduced them to one-dimensional caricatures like the tom, the coon, the sambo, the mammy. All minority groups have had that happen, but not as often and in as many ways as African-Americans.

When you lead tours of the museum, are there people who are shocked, who tell you that these images shouldn’t be made public because they’re too distasteful? 


I used to hear it more – and I only really hear it these days from people who haven’t been in the facility. I don’t mean to be immodest, but just think the museum is set up in such a professional way. I think even though it’s horrible and ugly, it’s placed in a context… One of my goals was to re-create the experience so you feel like you’re standing in a history book.

So I think people get it. That doesn’t mean they’re not shaken when they come. I think the most common response is a kind of reflective sadness. I think it would be a failure on our part if that’s how they left. The purpose of the museum is not to create feelings of sadness, but to be useful as a tool for having meaningful dialogue. We’re not a shrine to racism, and we’re not a house of horrors: What we are is more of a classroom.

Nonetheless, there are emotional pieces there, and over the years I’ve had two or three times where I lost my balance.

The cover of the book has a picture of a black guy eating a watermelon – a classic racist image. I guess the implication of that is that black people are simple country bumpkins…

That was a game card… So a lot of people, white people, who in the safety of their home, they live out what they think it means to be black… It’s like blackface in the 1800s, or pimp-and-whore parties today. In other words, it’s not just an image, but an image that was functional.

An image like that says that black people are simple and non-threatening. What are some of the other stereotypes the Jim Crow era traded in, that we see in your book?


Images emerged after Reconstruction of a more threatening black person… Whereas, 15 years after the Civil War ended, you had the “silly coon” on minstrel stages; by the 20th century, that silly coon had become a razor-toter who used his razor against whites… So the fear was that this brute would hurt white people. A lot of black people were brutally killed and rationalization is that they were threats to the larger white society. Some of the most horrific lynchings occurred because a black person had been accused of doing something to a white person, often falsely accused… And that hasn’t died out yet.

Many of the images in your book are a century or more old. Have we seen a rebirth of this sort of thing, perhaps since Obama’s election, online or elsewhere?

Certainly President Obama has been a cottage industry for racist imagery and racist memorabilia. There was a time in my collecting career, two or three decades ago, when there was a definite dip, in the production, sale and purchase of these really harsh, nasty images. But that has returned. In the museum we have a section of new objects; some of them are made to look old.

I do believe that America is more democratic and egalitarian than it has been for most of its history. But race still matters in the U.S., and negative racial imagery is one way you can see that it matters. You cannot have a race-based incident in the U.S. and not within one week have material objects in the market being sold reflecting the incident.

Scott Timberg is a staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the new book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Puerto Rican Independence Activist Diana Block Discusses Her New Novel

By Victoria Law
Bitch Magazine
November 4th, 2015

In 1981, Diana Block joined a small clandestine group of white people who were committed to supporting Puerto Rican independence movements. Four years later, shortly after the birth of her son, the group discovered a tracking device under their car. Realizing that they were being watched by the FBI, the group split up and spent nearly a decade living under new identities.

Block and her partner Claude Marks raised two children while underground. In 1994, they negotiated a deal with the government in which Marks and one other member of the group served time in prison on charges of conspiracy to transport explosives. The others would not be charged. The group emerged from life underground and were able to reconnect with their families, friends, and community. Marks spent four years in prison, then rejoined Block and their children.

Since returning to public life, Diana Block has helped found the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which supports people in California's women's prisons, and the Jericho Movement, which advocates for the freedom of all political prisoners in the United States.

Six years ago, she detailed her life in the memoir Arm the Spirit: A Woman's Journey Underground and Back. “As I was finishing my memoir, I realized that there were many stories that I hadn’t been able to tell,” she explains. That realization was the seed for her new novel, Clandestine Occupations: An Imaginary History, which came out in October from PM Press. The novel tells the story of a movement—including the decision to go underground and the aftermath—from the points of view of six different women.

“In Clandestine Occupations, I have been able to explore characters and experiences from clandestinity, and beyond, that were too confidential or controversial to reveal in a memoir,” Block says. “Fiction gave me the freedom to splice characters and histories together in a way that disguised identities and factual record but ultimately revealed a true picture. It allowed me to adopt other people’s points of view and speculate about radical possibilities for the future.”

I have to admit that I'm not overly fond of novels told from multiple points of view. But Block pulls this off well. She has created memorable characters that anyone who has been involved with political organizing work can see themselves in. There's Luba, the character whom Block most identified with, who is forced to go underground for years after an unexpected betrayal.

There's Anise, a young woman whose political idealism contrasts sharply with her mother Sage, whose experience illustrates the ways in which movements can disillusion and push out those who disagree with tactics and strategies. There's even an informant, Joan, whose decision to sell out the group sends Luba on the run and another woman to prison.

“It was more difficult for me to get inside Joan’s head than any of the other characters,” Block reflects. “I have known informers and agents and so I had some background with the subject, but Joan is not based on anyone I have actually crossed paths with. I wanted to explore how someone who is ambivalent could get pushed into betrayal by their own subjective conflicts and also by the way other activists treat them. I wanted people to understand why she made the choices that she did without condoning them. And I also wanted to show the long term consequences of her actions on others.”

At the same time, Block creates memorable minor characters whose experiences illustrate the realities facing people who have loved ones in prison. Through Coretta, an older Black woman whose daughter is in prison, readers see firsthand the arbitrary rules and regulations that punish not only those held inside, but also their family members. Coretta recounts bringing her baby grandson to visit his mother at Easter. She waits 45 minutes to be processed only to be turned away because the baby is wearing beige, the same color as the prison jumpsuits. She then has to drive to Target and buy another outfit before they are allowed to visit that day. In another scene, Candelaria, a hospital clerk, tells her co-worker about her sister in prison, who has been taunted by the guards. In just two pages, Candalaria's story explains how California's sentencing works (if you're given seven years-to-life, you may very well end up serving a life sentence) as well as the horrific abuses inside prison.

But Clandestine Occupations never gets preachy. Every encounter with or explanation of systemic injustice moves the story forward until we get to the year 2020. I won't give it away, but suffice to say that if Block wanted to write dystopia next, she could give George Orwell a run for his money.

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How America Bought and Sold Racism, and Why It Still Matters


By Lisa Hix
Collectors Weekly
November 10th, 2015

Today, very few white Americans openly celebrate the horrors of black enslavement—most refuse to recognize the brutal nature of the institution or actively seek to distance themselves from it. “The modern American sees slavery as a regrettable period when blacks worked without wages,” writes Dr. David Pilgrim, the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and a sociology professor at Ferris State University and the author of Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice, who has spent his life studying the artifacts that have perpetuated racist stereotypes.

“If you’re trying to convince the nation that black people are not equal, then you come up with ideas like this: Black people don’t feel pain the same way white people do.”

The urge to forget this stain on our nation’s history is everywhere. In Texas, McGraw-Hill recently distributed a high-school geography textbook that refers to American slaves as immigrant workers. At Southern plantation museums that romanticize the idea of genteel antebellum culture, the bleak and violent reality of enslaved plantation life is whitewashed and glossed over. Discussions about how slavery led to modern-day racism are often met with white defensiveness. How many times have black people heard this line? “Slavery happened a long time ago. You need to get over it.”

The truth is when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the economic subjugation of African Americans, and the terrorism used to maintain it, did not come to a grinding halt. The Jim Crow racial caste system that emerged 12 years after the Civil War ended in 1865 was just as violent and oppressive as slavery—and it lasted nearly a century. Up through Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, black people across the country, in Northern states as well as Southern ones, were routinely humiliated, menaced, tortured and beaten to death, and blocked from participating in business and public life. Thanks to smartphone and social-media technology, we’re seeing how such violence continues in 2015, 50 years after the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Top: Graphic images of black children being eaten by alligators were popular souvenir postcards,
even in the 1930s. Above: This 1960s license plate mocked Lyndon B. Johnson’s
presidential campaign slogan, “All the Way With L.B.J.” (Images from Understanding Jim Crow)

Just last month, Ben Fields, a white sheriff’s deputy in Columbia, South Carolina, responded to an uncooperative African American schoolgirl by putting her in a chokehold, dragging her out of her school desk, and throwing her body across the room. In June, Eric Casebolt, a white police officer in McKinney, Texas, was recorded grabbing Dajerria Becton, a seated 15-year-old black girl in a bikini, turning her over, and pinning her down, even though she was not involved in the incident at hand. Nearly a year ago, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, was shot and killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio, for carrying a toy gun, and when his 14-year-old sister ran to him, police wrestled her to the ground and handcuffed her. In 2013, a Sanford, Florida, neighborhood watch crime captain George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder, for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black boy walking home from the store.

To understand why black kids like these are subjected to so much hostility and abuse, you have to look at the toxic beliefs white Americans embraced during slavery and throughout the Jim Crow era, which still pollute our culture today. These include the absurd notions that black people don’t feel pain, that without strict control black people are inclined to violence, and that black children are not innocents, but wild, unruly animals that need to be tamed. The ugly history of such ideas are documented in explicit detail at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, located at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, a place Dr. David Pilgrim, the museum founder, sometimes refers to as a “Black Holocaust museum.” The museum is featured in Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS documentary series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.”

To justify the exclusion of and violence toward African Americans after the Civil War, pop culture—encompassing everything from mass media and entertainment to product advertising and tchotchkes—churned out objects, images, songs, and stories designed to reinforce widespread beliefs about white supremacy and black inferiority. Pilgrim has pulled together some 12,000 examples of such so-called “black memorabilia,” and he clearly explains the meaning and purpose behind them—both at the museum and in his new book, Understanding Jim Crow, published by the nonprofit wing of PM Press, Friends of PM, which funded the book through a Kickstarter campaign this fall.


A “Running Nigger Target,” with bullet holes, from the 1960s. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

America has a long history of casual brutality toward African Americans, and Understanding Jim Crow puts the current violence into context. It explains, for example, how in the late 19th century, nearly every city had a carnival with a game known as “African Dodger” or “Hit the Coon,” in which white revelers paid to throw baseballs, or rocks, at a black man’s head—not a fake wooden head, but an actual person sticking his head through a painted canvas in the booth. Even children were desensitized through toys, like the McLoughlin Brothers’ board game Chopped Up Niggers.

“If you’re trying to convince yourself, the nation, and black people themselves that black people are not equal, then you come up with ideas like this: Black people don’t feel pain the same way white people do, black people deserve to be hit, it’s fun to hit black people,” Pilgrim tells me.

African Dodger wasn’t even the worst of it. The public lynching of black people was also a popular, savage spectacle: According to the book, scholars have recorded 3,440 public lynchings of black men and women on American soil between 1882 and 1968, which doesn’t account for undocumented lynchings or those that happened under the cover of night. The descriptions of these lynchings are shockingly, upsettingly gruesome. How horrific did they get? A mob of hundreds of white people would participate in slowly torturing the victims, first humiliating and mutilating them, then beating them until they were disfigured, and finally killing them.

This piece is an undated “book” of dart targets. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“In 1930s Florida, Claude Neal was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman,” Pilgrim tells me. “He probably didn’t. But either way, we don’t know because he never got a trial. A mob took him from jail, brutally beat him, and eventually hanged him and drug his dead body through town. During the beating, someone from the crowd—and we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of people—cut off his genitalia and then made him eat it and say he liked it. This happened in the light of day. That brutality seems almost incomprehensible to our brains today, but it happened thousands of times all over this nation.”

This story and others in the book are painful to read, but Pilgrim thinks it’s important that Americans examine the evidence our nation’s racist history, even if it hurts. In the museum, he’s gathered appalling souvenir postcards of lynchings and “whites only” segregation signs alongside depictions of black people as docile, hapless buffoons or inherently violent or sexually aggressive subhuman creatures.

Stock caricatures such as Mammy, Uncle Tom, Sambo, pickaninny children, coon, Jezebel, Sapphire, and the black brute were employed to spread these messages to millions of people. Companies mass-produced these images in every form—including postcards, cleaning products, toys and games, ceramic figurines, ashtrays, cast-iron banks, children’s books, dinnerware, songbooks, tea towels, cookie jars, matchbooks, magazines, movies, gag gifts, salt-and-pepper shakers, planters, fishing lures, trade cards, ads, records, and tobacco tins. If you lived during the Jim Crow era, you’d encounter such caricatures everywhere, in your newspaper, on restaurant walls, on the shelves at stores, and at the cinema or live theater.

Children's target games with African American caricatures taught kids it was fun to hurt black people. (From

Children’s target games with African American caricatures taught kids it was fun to hurt black people. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“If you believed that black men were Sambos, childlike buffoons, for example, then why would they be allowed to vote?” Pilgrim says. “Why would they be allowed to hold office, serve on a jury, or attend public schools with whites? If black men were brutes who were a threat to white women, why would they be allowed to share beaches, public-school classes, or taxicabs? If black women were Mammies whose best roles in life were serving white families, why would they be allowed in other occupations when the society needed them for that? So the caricatures, and the stereotypes which accompanied them, became rationalizations for keeping blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. Perpetuating these caricatures was a way to make sure you didn’t have to compete against black people economically. In short, it was a way of sustaining white supremacy.

“Some people are surprised when they see two dozen objects on President Obama, where he’s portrayed as a monkey, a Tom, a coon, or a Sambo. If you don’t know history, then you don’t know what those things are.”

“At the Jim Crow Museum, our goal is not to make some people look right and some people look wrong, or make some people feel good and some people feel bad,” he continues. “It’s simply just to deal with what was, and what is. If you are in higher education, you have to believe in dialogue. We do have people come in who lack a solid knowledge about history. But the museum is presented in a very academically sound way, so we can then have those discussions about, for example, what was blackface entertainment, how did immigration impact blackface entertainment, and how did Jim Crow become a synonym for the ways of acting, thinking, and feeling throughout the whole nation. Obviously, because it’s race, it’s sometimes hard for people to separate the emotional pieces, but there’s a way you can study race intelligently, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Pilgrim grew up in Mobile, Alabama, at the tail end of the Jim Crow era. He was 5 when the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four schoolgirls. He was 7 years old in March 1965, when Martin Luther King, Jr., and other Civil Rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, as a protest against local laws that prevented African Americans from voting. Newspaper photographers and television cameramen captured state troopers and sheriff’s possemen attacking the protesters, causing a national uproar that prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to push Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in August. Pilgrim was 10 years old when King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

Dr. David Pilgrim with some of the items he’s collected. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Thanks to the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation ruling of 1954, “most of the segregation signs were taken down in the 1950s, but a few lasted into the ’60s,” he says. “I mostly ran across the residue of Jim Crow, especially in the practices. My elementary school was all black; my high school was all black. It was still two worlds—a white world and a black world. My ancestry is mixed, so I grew up thinking about race a lot.”

Pilgrim first encountered a piece of so-called “black memorabilia” at flea market in Mobile when he was a little kid. “I remember purchasing a ceramic Mammy salt-and-pepper shaker, and I broke it in front of the seller,” he recalls. “I would like to think it was an act of philosophical integrity, but in reality, I probably just hated the thing, if you can hate an object.”

But Pilgrim, who sometimes refers to himself as a “garbage collector,” became fascinated with these grotesque racial caricatures, and by the time he was a teenager, he had accumulated a small collection of them. When he attended Jarvis Christian College in the late 1970s, a historically black college near Hawkins, Texas, he got more serious about his collection, buying what he could afford on a tight budget—the most brutally racist objects were usually prohibitively expensive. At the same time, his studies at Jarvis delved into the history of black activism, from the well-known heroes like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois, to the sharecroppers and domestic workers who put their lives on the line to fight segregation.

David Pilgrim’s first piece of black memorabilia was a Mammy figure like one of these. He
destroyed it in front of the seller. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“At Jarvis, we talked a lot about the Jim Crow period,” he says. “We talked about this new America that was being created, that we were transitioning to, after the Civil Rights Movement. So my collection became less of a personal fascination and more of a question of ‘How does this relate to all the discussions that I’m having about race?’ During that period, it also became really functional because I started giving presentations on race in America, where I would use the objects that I collected as visual aids.”

Pilgrim went on to study sociology at Ohio State University’s graduate school. There, Pilgrim learned that racist memorabilia was not just a Southern phenomenon. “Some of the more significant pieces in my collection were actually collected in the North,” Pilgrim says. “It’s hard sometimes to know where a piece originated. At summer flea markets and antiques shows in the North, some of the dealers are from the South or from border states. But it is also the case that every place I’ve gone, these objects have also been manufactured, not just sold and distributed. I have pieces that originated in every state, including New York and Michigan, and outside the country.”

While in grad school, Pilgrim would peruse antiques shows and purchase low-dollar items like a postcard depicting a black man being devoured by an alligator, or a matchbook with a Sambo-type caricature with a huge penis. In Understanding Jim Crow, he writes, “My years at Ohio State were, I realize now, filled with much anger. I suppose every sane black person must be angry—for a while.”

This 1920s “Alligator Bait” postcard is a variant of a 1896 print. (From Understanding Jim

In 1990, Pilgrim joined the sociology faculty at Ferris State in Big Rapids, Michigan, and a year later, he sought out an elderly black woman who was a small-town antiques store owner rumored to have a huge private collection of black memorabilia. “If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget the feeling that I had when I saw her collection; it was sadness, a thick, cold sadness,” he writes. “There were hundreds, maybe thousands of objects, side-by-side, on shelves that reached to the ceiling. … Every conceivable distortion of black people, our people, was on display. It was a chamber of horrors.” Right there, Pilgrim resolved to start a museum.

“What I hoped by building this museum was that we could talk about race, even the more painful things, in ways that are intelligent. That is what a mature nation does.”

The woman explained to Pilgrim that in the 1960s and ’70s, chagrined white people would give her these objects, as they wanted to distance themselves from such blatant racism after the Civil Rights Movement. Other whites, wracked by liberal guilt, destroyed their Mammy cookie jars and Uncle Tom ashtrays. But in the mid-1980s, publishers like Schiffer and Collectors Books released price guides devoted exclusively to “black collectibles,” which helped establish the current market for racist antiques. (The promotional text for the 2008 edition of Jan Lindenberger’s Black Memorabilia for the Kitchen, first published in 1992, reads, “An avid group of loyal collectors, spanning generations and races, can’t get enough of these rare and quirky antiques.”) Black celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Whoopi Goldberg, and Anita Pointer of the Pointer Sisters started collecting these items for much the same reason Pilgrim did.

“Before the ’80s, you could buy a lot of these objects very inexpensively,” Pilgrim tells me. “The new collectors books artificially increased the market, both the demand and the prices that people were asking. In just a couple of years, things that I had been buying for a nickel and a dime were selling for tens of dollars, and in some cases, hundreds of dollars.”

A collection of coon- and Tom-type objects in the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia became a reality in 1996, after Pilgrim donated his full collection to his employer, Ferris State University, with the stipulation the items would be displayed and preserved. “Most collectors are soothed by their collections, but I hated mine and was relieved to get it out of my home,” Pilgrims writes in Understanding Jim Crow. “I had small children. They would wander to the basement and look at ‘daddy’s dolls’—two mannequins dressed in full Ku Klux Klan regalia. They played with the racist target games. One of them, I do not know which, broke a ‘Tom’ cookie jar. I was angry for two days. The irony is not lost to me.”

In Understanding Jim Crow, Pilgrim writes that he reached new heights of outrage in the late 1990s, when he read The Turner Diaries, a piece of violent white-nationalist propaganda written in 1978 by William L. Pierce, the founder of National Alliance. He had a difficult time containing his feelings while giving a museum tour to a group of students. To his surprise, afterward, a middle-aged white man who had been in the group said to him, without prompting, “I am sorry, Mr. Pilgrim. Please forgive me.”

“He had not created the racist objects in the room, but he had benefited from living in a society where blacks were oppressed,” Pilgrim writes. “Racial healing follows sincere contrition. I never realized how much I needed to hear some white person, any sincere white person, say, ‘I am sorry, forgive me.’ His words took the steam out of my anger.”

Dr. David Pilgrim gives a talk to visitors at the Jim Crow Museum. Behind the crowd is part
of Jon McDonald’s 2012 mural “Cloud of Witnesses,” which honors some of the people who
were killed in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. (From the Jim Crow Museum Facebook

Of course, no amount of apologizing can undo the past, but Pilgrim believes that looking at the horrible truth and having an open, thoughtful conversation about race could go a long way toward healing this nation.

“I had a chance to talk to Naomi Tutu—who is a daughter of Desmond Tutu, the chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” a court-like government organization established in 1996 to address the horrific crimes of the Apartheid, Pilgrim says. “I’m starting to hear more and more Americans, especially grassroots activists, saying that what we need to do as a country is stop for a minute, look at some of the atrocities committed here, and own up to them.”

In order to own up to one’s history, though, one needs to know it. And a big gap in modern knowledge starts with where the name of America’s punishing post-Civil War hierarchy comes from. The term “Jim Crow” originated an 1828 comedy sketch created by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, a white actor who performed little skits between play acts at the Park Theater in New York decades before for the Civil War. Considered the “father of blackface,” Rice darkened his skin with burnt cork, dressed in rags, and performed a song-and-dance routine in exaggerated black vernacular. Legend has it Rice encountered an impoverished black stablehand in the city who inspired the character and his namesake tune. A smash hit, Rice’s Jim Crow became his signature character and then a full-blown one-man show, which took him all over the country in 1832. Comically incompetent, constantly smiling, and childlike, Jim Crow evolved into a caricature similar to the one known as “Sambo.”

Famous white blackface performer Bert Williams posed for Raphael Tuck & Sons'

Famous white blackface performer Bert Williams posed for Raphael Tuck & Sons’ “Coon Studies” postcard series, produced in 1904. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Thanks to Rice’s success, other white burlesque actors, clowns, and comedians began corking their faces and adopting his Jim Crow character. Others came up with more stock blackface characters such as Zip Coon and Jim Dandy, both of which mocked well-dressed free blacks for “putting on airs.” Chronically lazy and given to malapropisms, these onstage “coons”—named after raccoons—tried, and failed, to prove their intelligence.

“In most instances, the black facilities were grossly inferior—generally older, less well-kept. In other cases, there were no black facilities.”

In 1843, four white actor-musicians with experience as blackface circus clowns came together and created a feature-length show of blackface entertainment, incorporating songs, dances, and comedic riffs using a supposed slave dialect. Calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels, they took their popular act all over the United States, launching the theatre genre known as the minstrel show. In 1845, Christy’s Minstrels took the concept further and developed the standard minstrel-show format—which was the first unique art form to originate in the United States.

In 1848, William Henry Lane became the first African American minstrel performer, and in the 1850s, all-black minstrel shows, featuring at least a few performers who corked their faces, became a curiosity for white theatergoers. At that point, playing up these caricatures was the only way for black actors to get a job in theater, and they were paid a fraction of what the white actors made. But after the Civil War, some sly black minstrels were able to exploit the format to subtly mock white people at their shows, which were heavily attended by newly freed blacks but rejected by the black intellectual class.

This Minnesota

This Minnesota “High School Minstrel Book” was published in 1938. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“Even when enslavement ended in the U.S., the minstrel shows did not end,” Pilgrim says. “The professional shows lasted another two decades, but amateur shows lasted even until the 1900s.”

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Republicans in Congress pushed for what became known as Radical Reconstruction in the 11 Southern states that had seceded from the Union. Following Emancipation, these states had passed “Black Codes” restricting the freedom of former slaves to move through public places, conduct business, and own land and guns. New “vagrancy” laws allowed police to arrest freed people for the smallest of arbitrary infractions and then force them to do free labor under the “convict-lease system,” the forerunner to the current penal system.

“Poor blacks were rounded up and placed in prisons so that they could be worked for free,” Pilgrim says. “Some of them were locked up in these places for 20 or 30 years. But unless you put that history in a movie, most Americans won’t know it occurred.”

A photo from a small-town minstrel show in 1947. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Other former slaves—who never got paid for their pre-war labor—became indebted sharecroppers at the plantations that had formerly enslaved them. The federal government’s Freedmen’s Bureau, which often negotiated these sharecropping contracts, also attempted to round up so-called black “vagrants” and put them to work, either through the prison system or through sharecropping. Many white people in the South irrationally feared that, without labor to keep them busy, black people would “regress” into dangerous savages, running rampant in the streets, overcome by lust for sex and blood.

“If you believed that black men were Sambos, childlike buffoons, then why would they be allowed to vote?”

Gaining more power in Congress in 1867, Radical Republicans put former Confederate states under the control of the U.S. Army. They imposed punishments on former Confederate leaders—even removing most Southern representation from Congress—protected the rights of newly freed black men, and sought to squelch resistance from the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups. Passing the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the Republicans granted black men citizenship and the rights to vote and hold political office under the Constitution. The Reconstruction state legislatures, made up of blacks and whites, created the earliest public school systems in the South and many charities. U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, who was in office 1869-1877, promoted Radical Reconstruction and aggressively employed the military to protect African Americans in the South.

But when less-radical Republican Rutherford B. Hayes took office in 1877, in the name of reuniting the country, he abandoned Reconstruction, pardoning Confederate leaders and pulling the U.S. Army out of the Southern states—which promptly passed a series of anti-black laws, like poll taxes, that became known as “Jim Crow” laws. In the 1890s, Southern states, under Democrat control once again, passed new constitutions that made it even more difficult for black men to vote.

A sinister 1910 postcard. (From

A sinister 1910 postcard. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“If ever you had a Hall of Shame, Rutherford B. Hayes would be in it,” Pilgrim says. “But the truth of the matter is if you look at the period right after the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction, there were a lot of whites who were tired of the whole anti-slavery piece. Quite frankly, a lot of the abolitionists would be racists by today’s standards. They also thought blacks were inferior intellectually and morally. So I think the end of Reconstruction wasn’t just because of Rutherford B. Hayes. The North was tired of dealing with it. I think many white people in North recognized that they, too, had benefited from slavery. The nation, as a whole, turned its back on black people.

“After Reconstruction ended in 1877, the next two decades were a downward spiral,” he continues. “You had all the Southern states rewriting their constitutions to return to segregation. You had the creation of a number white vigilante and racist groups. Lynchings became a tool to keep blacks in line. A historian named Rayford Logan called the time between 1897 and 1906 ‘the nadir of American race relations.’ It was absolutely the worst for black people, because it was almost as if their entire nation hated them.”

A new kind of variety show known as vaudeville emerged 1881. More tame than the bawdy burlesque that came before, vaudeville was designed to appeal to the tastes of the middle class. Each show would include at least one song-and-dance blackface routine known as a “coon song.” While minstrels largely depicted black men as jolly, dim-witted fools, coon songs portrayed them as more sinister characters, lazy, razor-wielding petty criminals, given to drinking and fighting. Thanks to the explosion of the sheet-music industry, white Victorians could purchase copies of their favorite coon songs to play at home, which became a trendy thing to have on the piano stand.

The sheet music for a 1901 song that helped establish the derogatory term

The sheet music for a 1901 song that helped establish the derogatory term “coon” in the American vocabulary. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“This form of entertainment did as much to defame black people as the minstrel shows had,” Pilgrim says. “At first, coon songs, like with the minstrel performances, were done by whites only, but later by blacks, too. These songs were all about black people as coons who stole chickens and watermelons, fought one another constantly, carried razor blades, and got drunk all day—pretty much every nasty stereotype that you can think of. By the 1900s, those songs weren’t just a national fad; they were shaping future conceptions of black people.”

The second Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1890 was the first federal law that legitimized segregation, allowing states to build separate but equitable educational facilities for blacks and whites, which led to the establishment of what are now known as historically black colleges. Some states even passed local laws banning whites and blacks from being educated together. That same year, the state of Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, which required railroad companies to provide different train cars for blacks and whites.

In 1892, an activist group made up of African American, white, and Creole New Orleans residents came together with the East Louisiana Railroad, which didn’t want to purchase more cars. They asked a free-born mixed-race man Homer Adolph Plessy, who was seven-eighths European and one-eighth African descent, to buy a “whites only” ticket and had him arrested as soon as he sat down in the car. In his court case, Plessy’s defendants argued that the law violated his rights under the 13th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, which abolished slavery and offered African Americans citizenship and equal protection of the law. State judge John Howard Ferguson struck down that argument. The case went to the nation’s all-white Supreme Court in 1896, which upheld the legality of “separate but equal” services, public facilities, housing, health care, education, jobs, and transit.

Segregation signs like this one were widespread in the Jim Crow South. (From

Segregation signs like this one were widespread in the Jim Crow South. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

The “separate but equal” doctrine “was a smirk-in-your-face lie,” Pilgrim writes in Understanding Jim Crow. “In most instances, the black facilities were grossly inferior—generally older, less well-kept. In other cases, there were no black facilities—no colored public restroom, no public beach, no place to sit or eat. [The Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling] gave Jim Crow states a legal way to ignore their constitutional obligations to their black citizens.”

“The caricatures, and the stereotypes which accompanied them, became rationalizations for keeping blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.”

In his June 2014 “Atlantic” cover article, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates lays out how, in the South, former slaves and their families were often trapped in a system of debt peonage to the cotton planters, who served as the landlords, employers, and merchants. Their white employers took most of the money for their work, saddling them with debt and taxes, and usually ended up reclaiming their land and other property, too. In a state like Mississippi, where a majority of the population was poor and black, their tax money went to fund white schools and libraries that African Americans were not allowed to use. And there was no recourse since they were regularly denied the right to vote.

In addition to living under this anti-black economic system and anti-black laws, African Americans were deluged by messages from white Christian pastors, phrenologists, eugenicists, Darwinists, and politicians, who all preached that black people belonged to a lower race than white people. In particular, white people believed that if African Americans and whites had sexual relationships, it would create an “impure” race that would lead to the downfall of America. Jim Crow social etiquette demanded that blacks not shake hands with whites; eat, sit, or socialize with whites; or publicly show affection toward other black people.

A 1928 poll-tax receipt from the state of Texas. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

While blacks were being politically, economically, and socially disenfranchised in the Jim Crow South in the late 1800s, coon songs were at the height of their popularity, and public lynchings were regular events. At the same time, American industry was making significant developments in tin-stamping and lithography processes, which gave birth to a wide range of novelty advertisements and product packaging. Advertisers printed promotions for their products on everything from horse blankets and shoe horns to pencils and yard sticks. As novelty advertising and printing exploded, so did images showing black people as wide-eyed, big-lipped subservient idiots, lazy “coons,” shameless seductresses, and cannibalistic savages.

“The proliferation of these racist items after the Civil War had to do with advances in technology like printing, specifically printing on tin,” Pilgrim says. “New manufacturing techniques also made it easier to mass-produce objects, whether they were ceramics, postcards, or tins. I’ve always said that if you show me the things that a society produces, I can tell you a lot about their attitudes, tastes, and values—which may also shape attitudes, tastes, and values in the future.

“If you hate a people, it’s going to show up in the images that you have of that race or ethnic group,” he continues. “When you draw a picture of a person of that race, you’re going to draw them a certain way. When you put the images on a can of Niggerhead Oysters, that makes sense. The stereotypes and all the other stuff just become expressions of that hatred.”


This “nigger milk” joke was a popular gag in 1920s cartoons. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

The invention of Kinetoscope films in the 1890s offered another medium for whites to reinforce black caricatures and support white supremacy. For example, in the 1900s, film pioneer Thomas Edison produced racist short films such as “Watermelon Contest” and “Ten Pickaninnies.”

“As with color lithography, some of the early usages of the Kinetoscope to spread racism,” Pilgrim says. “I don’t think Edison set out in some way to defame African Americans. That’s just the world he knew and what he believed. Every time there is a new technological advancement, it increased our ability to share our ideas, whether those ideas were good or bad. It’s like YouTube today. You can share both good things and bad things, so now we have more racist videos than we’ve had at any other time in America’s history.”

Racist objects and packaging latched onto a standard set of characters, each meant to justify a particular aspect of discrimination. In Understanding Jim Crow, Pilgrim breaks down these caricatures—where they come from, how they developed and evolved, where they showed up in advertising and film, and where we still see them today.

A Mammy in a 1910 edition of The Story of Little Black Sambo, published by Reilly &
Britton, one of many knockoffs of Helen Bannerman’s 1899 book. (From Understanding
Jim Crow

One subset promoted the idea of black people as natural servants who were most happy and productive as slaves. To white collectors, antiques with these portraits might seem cute or affectionate because the characters are docile, loyal to the point of being self-sacrificing, and nearly members of the white family. The not-so-cute reality is these caricatures were used to defend and romanticize slavery, and the characters were never shown as particularly smart or able to function well outside their role as domestic servants, as they neglected their own rowdy families. After slavery, these stereotypes encouraged employers to restrict African Americans to low-income drudgery work.

“During enslavement, the most popular caricatures would’ve been ones that were viewed as not being a threat to the dominant society—Mammy, Tom, Sambo, and pickaninny,” Pilgrim continues. “These characters would be mostly loyal, not a threat to the social order at all. After enslavement ended, there were great fears. I mean, there were always fears among whites that blacks would attack them, rebel, or create a black nation. But after Reconstruction began, those fears grew, and caricatures that were seen as dangerous, like the coon and the brute, became more popular.”

Mammies, like this Aunt Dinah on a 1905 postcard, were depicted nurturing white people. (From

Mammies, like this Aunt Dinah on a 1905 postcard, were depicted nurturing white people. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

A Mammy is an obese, do-rag-wearing, smiling, motherly figure who cooks and cleans for a white family, but doesn’t care for her own family, as Pilgrim details in Understanding Jim Crow. Her portrayal is dark-skinned, middle-aged or elderly, intentionally ugly, and lacking sex appeal and desire so she’s never a threat to the white wife. She originated in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Aunt Chloe, but she was quickly adopted by slavery apologists. And she was a stark contrast to the reality: Only the wealthiest planters could afford to keep slaves in the house and not working in the field. The women put in charge of the kitchen were usually young and mixed-race, and not very well-fed. Plus, all female slaves, attractive or not, lived with the risk of being raped by their owners.

With names like Aunt Delilah and Aunt Dinah, the inarticulate and superstitious Mammy grew in popularity during the Jim Crow era, when middle-class white women could afford to pay for black servants. Depicted as content to perform menial labor, Mammies appeared on household products like cleaners and baking ingredients. In 1893, the R.T. Davis Company took its patented self-rising flour—which it named “Aunt Jemima’s flour” after a popular vaudeville Mammy—to the world’s fair in Chicago. They hired a black actress named Nancy Green to play Jemima at the fair, cooking pancakes, singing, and telling stories that described the slavery era as a pleasurable time for the enslaved and their masters alike. While Mammies also appeared in the movies “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind,” Aunt Jemima remains one of the most enduring.

A ceramic piece, possibly a creamer, from the 1940s shows Uncle Tom as a dutiful servant. (From

A ceramic piece, possibly a creamer, from the 1940s shows Uncle Tom as a dutiful servant. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Mammy’s male equivalent, of course, was Uncle Tom. In Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom is a perfect Christian, a hard-working “broad-chested, strong-armed fellow,” who stays loyal to his masters, but refuses to betray his fellow slaves. Because of this, his master has another slave beat him to death, making him the wide-eyed innocent and Christ-like figure in the book. When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted for the stage (49 theater companies toured with their version of the book in 1879), Tom became a physically weak, elderly, passive character, a “happy darkie,” who always bends to his master’s will, instead of Stowe’s noble Christian who puts his commitment to God first.

“I remember purchasing a ceramic Mammy salt-and-pepper shaker, and I broke it in front of the seller. I would like to think it was an act of philosophical integrity, but I probably just hated the thing.”

In the 1890s, Pilgrim writes, nonthreatening, acquiescent Toms appeared as on products as cooks, butlers, waiters, porters, and fieldworkers. Smiling, eager-to-serve, and dependent on whites for their self-esteem, Toms have appeared in ads for products ranging from stove polish and Listerine to Uncle Ben’s Rice and vitamin drinks. Probably the most well-known commercial Tom is Rastus, the Cream of Wheat cook, created in 1893 by Emery Mapes. In early ads, Rastus is depicted as an ignorant, grammatically challenged servant who only has a wholesome breakfast to offer the world. A particularly offensive 1921 Cream of Wheat ad shows an elderly Rastus pulling a white boy in a rickshaw. The subservient Tom and Mammy caricatures undermine the fact that, from enslavement through the Jim Crow era, there were plenty of black people who fought back and resisted subjugation at great personal risk.

Tom and Mammy’s neglected children are known as “pickaninny” or “picaninny”—they’re unruly, dirty, and dressed in rags with wild, kinky, and matted hair, bulbous eyes, and exaggerated mouths. Like their parents, they take great liberties with the English language. Thought of as unambitious future coons and left on their own with no caretaker, they’re shown as good-for-little, grubby, untamed animals stealing watermelons and fried chicken. In many images of pickaninny children, Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow, they’re often in clothes so worn out that they’re nearly naked with large, sexualized genitals or butts. They’re sometimes shown being stalked or consumed by alligators. Topsy, an enslaved girl first described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is the first well-known pickaninny. While Stowe intended Topsy to be a sad, heart-rending character, she was quickly adopted for minstrel shows where she became a devil-may-care fool who delighted in her low status. In the 20th century, Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” and “Little Rascals” film series featured multiple pickaninnies, including Sunshine Sammy, Pineapple, Farina, Stymie, and Buckwheat.

This 1906 postcard expresses nostalgia for the days of slavery, when little black girls would be put to work babysitting their masters' children. (From

This 1906 postcard expresses nostalgia for the days of slavery, when little black girls would be put to work babysitting their masters’ children. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Outside of Mammy, caricatures of black women show them as either Jezebels—sexually predatory or promiscuous women who birth many children—or Sapphires—also known as “angry black women.” In Understanding Jim Crow, Pilgrim explains that the idea that black people are hypersexual goes back to the days of early European explorers, who didn’t know what to make of the scantily clad Africans they encountered and the tribes’ polygamous lifestyles. In America before the Civil War, enslaved black women were considered property and thus, legally, the concept of rape didn’t apply to them, but the Jezebel was used to rationalize the planter’s dalliances. She was depicted as so irresistibly animalistic, lascivious, and sexually available that she didn’t even have to be raped—she was “asking for it.”

Many of the stereotypes about black women’s promiscuity came from the nature of the slavery institution itself, Pilgrim writes. Enslaved women who rejected the sexual come-ons of their owners would be flogged, raped, or sold away from her family, so some would consent to avoid these dire consequences. When men and women were sold, they were often stripped and scrutinized by potential buyers, a practice that sometimes took a tone of sexual abuse. Working in the hot sun, slaves often wore minimal clothes that were so ragged that their bodies were exposed, while Victorian fashion dictated that “morally upright” white women cover up as much as possible. Enslaved women, called “breeders,” were pushed to have sex with enslaved men at an early age and then incentivized to have as many children as possible so that the plantation owner’s slave holdings would increase. When it came to their own preferences, historical record shows that most slaves sought marriage-like monogamous relationships and condemned cheating.

A ceramic depiction of a Jezebel sold in the 1950s. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Starting in the late 1800s, Jezebels appeared on drinking glasses, figurines, ashtrays, postcards, swizzle sticks, sheet music, fishing lures, and even a metal nutcracker shaped like a woman’s body, where they nut is cracked between her legs. In these objects, the Jezebels are sometimes depicted as ugly, pitiable, and desperate for the white male attention they can’t get. Other times, they’re shown as exotic, beautiful temptresses with loose morals. Even images of little black girls from the period describe them as sexually experienced and depict them naked, even pregnant.

A Sapphire is a shrill, rude, emasculating, and overbearing version of Mammy. In the beginning, only her weak, “morally defective” black husband and children would be subjected to her derision. During the Jim Crow period, fictional “sassy Mammies” would be portrayed as almost impertinent to their white families, in the same manner a blood relative might be, to make the case that slavery wasn’t so bad. In real life at the time, a black servant would be assaulted, arrested, or murdered for talking back. This negative caricature of assertive and opinionated black women has been—and is still—used to silence and undermine African Americans who stand up for themselves or speak their minds.

A 1910 postcard shows an immodest Sapphire beating and berating her husband. (From

A 1910 postcard shows an immodest Sapphire beating and berating her husband. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Another caricature was inflicted upon mixed-race women: the “tragic mulatto,” which is based on the “one-drop rule” that says any African American blood in your lineage makes you a black person. In this story, the mixed-race woman grows up living as a privileged white person. When her white father dies, her black heritage is revealed, and she’s enslaved and subjected to violence by white men. Rejected by both racial groups, she’s often suicidal and alcoholic, and she in particular loathes her black side.

Reality, of course, tells a different story. In Understanding Jim Crow, Pilgrim says it’s true that in the days of slavery, mixed-race slaves (usually the illegitimate sons and daughters of their owners), sometimes sold for higher prices, and masters saw these women as particularly sexually desirable, claiming their beauty drove them to rape. Enslaved mixed-race women were also frequently sold into prostitution, and freeborn mixed-race women sometimes became the mistresses of white men under the “plaçage system.” Some people with “Negro blood” worked to “pass” as whites, which helped them get better education, pay, and homes. But throughout history, mixed-race people—who had the slur “mongrels” hurled at them by whites—have been well accepted in the black community: Take for example, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Mary Church Terrell, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Langston Hughes, and Billie Holiday.

Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno played the

Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno played the “tragic mulatto” in the 1960 film “This Rebel Breed.”(From Understanding Jim Crow)

While some caricatures of black men are subservient like the hard-working Tom and the idle, simple-minded Sambo, two other caricatures played on whites’ worst fears about freed African Americans. The coon was similar to Sambo, except he was not contented to be a servant. While he was also a slow buffoon, the coon—usually a hedonistic young, urban man—disrespected whites, fought with other blacks, and was prone to criminal behavior.

The belief that African Americans are naturally lazy comes from enslavement, as Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow. The planters wanted their slaves to produce as much as possible. If enslaved people were not able to run away, they protested quietly by moving slowly, doing low-quality work, sabotaging their tools, or playing sick. Slave masters decided this meant all African Americans must be naturally dumb, incompetent, and shiftless—in other words, coons. Historical records show slaves generally worked hard, from dusk to dawn, and if they got time off on Saturday or Sunday evening, they spent it tending their own gardens, washing their garments, cleaning their quarters, and cooking. Describing slaves as childlike and helpless was another way to push against abolitionists calling for their freedom.

This 1907 vinegar-valentine postcard characterizes the coon caricature. (From

This 1907 vinegar-valentine postcard characterizes the coon caricature. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

After Radical Reconstruction, white Americans started to pine for “good ol’ darkies,” who, according to slavery advocates, adored their enslavers and had no interest in freedom, Pilgrim writes. At that point, coon went from describing all black people to specifically insulting “uppity” young black men who didn’t disguise their scorn of white people.

Dressed like a dandy, a coon would misuse words and employ logical fallacies as he evaded honest labor and pursued pleasure from women and watermelons. In 1920s Hollywood, the coon character was embodied by black actor Stepin Fetchit, a superstitious, strutting, work-averse fool who spoke and moved in a ridiculously slow manner, unless he was frightened. Fetchit’s coon felt comforting to white audiences because he was deferential and never resorted to violence. However, the coon songs from vaudeville had depicted a more menacing character, a blade-carrying nitwit with no honor.

This 1904 postcard suggests that even little black children are inclined toward violent
behavior. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

While the coon had the potential to become violent, the black brute caricature is inherently violent, Pilgrim explains. Like Jezebel, the brute goes back to the reports of European explorers who described Africans as overly sexual heathens. Perceived as an animal unable to control his sexual urges, the black brute is constantly threatening to rape white women. The brute is also a homicidal, sociopathic fiend, bent on destruction.

At the beginning of the 20th century, anti-black propaganda spread through newspapers, magazines, books, and scientific papers, claiming that black brutes were raping white women in alarming numbers. According to Understanding Jim Crow, this fixation on rape came from an obsession with keeping white women, and the white race, “pure,” and it was used as a justification for lynching blacks, a practice similar to ritualistic torture. However, only a fraction of those lynched were even accused of rape. Still the myth lived on in portrayals like the 1915 racist propaganda film “The Birth of a Nation,” which was based on a 1905 novel about a “black beast” viciously raping a white virgin.

“There were black rapists with white victims, but they were relatively rare; most white rape victims were raped by white men,” Pilgrim writes. “A black man would be risking his life even having a consensual sexual relationship with a white woman. In fact, it was far more common for white men to rape black women.”

In 1900, Charles Carroll published

In 1900, Charles Carroll published The Negro a Beast; or, In the Image of God. Carroll claimed that white people were made in God’s likeness, and black people were soulless, immoral beasts. He asserted race-mixing would wreck God’s plan. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“During enslavement, you had groups like the Patrollers and others who regularly went out and raped black women,” he tells me. “After Reconstruction, you had a number of black women who were raped by vigilante groups. If you look at a lot of the race riots of the 20th century, black women were raped then, too. Oftentimes, black men fought even to the death to try to keep the women from being hurt. But there was no legal recourse for these women because all of the major societal institutions supported white supremacy.”

One unintended consequence of Jim Crow segregation was that African Americans had to found their own separate businesses and institutions—and therefore, establish their own professional class, including doctors, merchants, barbers, professors, and pastors. Some of these professionals did reasonably well for themselves, so they could afford cars, but they had to be extremely carefully where they drove. In Understanding Jim Crow, Pilgrim recounts the story of having a black professor at Jarvis walk into class wearing a chauffeur’s cap and explaining how black professionals had to wear these hats while driving to avoid white rage. A black man was expected to look like a servant and not someone ostentatious enough to own his own car. The Green Book, published regularly between 1936 and 1966, gave black motorists further tips on how to stay alive while traveling.

The fall 1956

The fall 1956 Negro Travelers’ Green Book lists hotels, motels, and restaurants that were safe for black families on the road. The cover warns, “Carry your GREEN BOOK with you—you may need it.” (Via Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library)

“Having a car has always been a big deal in the U.S.,” Pilgrim says. “If you were a black person with a beautiful new car, you didn’t know your place. ‘Social equality’ were considered dirty words. Especially in the Deep South, you could not imply that blacks and whites were equal, because it was considered a threat to the Jim Crow system.”

“By the 1900s, coon songs weren’t just a national fad; they were shaping future conceptions of black people.”

Jim Crow started to break down, very slowly, during World War II. Desperate for workers, shipbuilders in the San Francisco Bay Area began to employ African Americans in 1943, albeit at a much lower pay rate than their white counterparts. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a long-time civil-rights activist, pushed for the U.S. military to remove its restrictions how on African Americans could serve—most were limited to lowly labor like driving delivery trucks and serving in mess halls. As American forces were ravaged overseas, in 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower agreed to allow black soldiers to fight in combat for the United States, a first step toward desegregating the military. Segregated black units were among the troops sent to Normandy Beach on D-Day on June 6, 1944. After the war, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the military to integrate. In 1954, a lawsuit in Topeka, Kansas, that became known as Brown vs. Board of Education exposed the drastic inequities between black and white schools, prompting the Supreme Court to overturn “separate but equal” segregation.

While slow progress toward racial integration was being made in the 1940s and 1950s, city and state governments around the country were redlining districts to divide cities up into race-based neighborhoods, as Coates explains in “The Case for Reparations.” Irrational fear of an imagined black menace, the black brute, had a real affect on home prices in neighborhoods, while predatory lending practices kept black people impoverished, constantly on the brink of losing their homes.

The hand-written message on the back of this postcard, dated 1924, says “This picture
shows what they do to the bad people of Del.” (From Understanding Jim Crow)

The idea of the black rapist stalking and threatening to defile white women was alive and well. In 1955, Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old boy from Chicago was visiting Mississippi and may have called a white female store clerk, “baby.” For that, her husband and brother dragged the kid out of his uncle’s house, attacking and pummeling him until they crushed his head. Then they dumped his limp body into a river. When the men were tried, the all-white jury found them innocent. This case—and the lack of justice for this murdered boy—became a defining moment the new Civil Rights Movement rallied around.

During the 1960s, the Civil Rights protesters, most of whom adopted King’s philosophy of nonviolence, sacrificed their bodies to the cause. Seeing black adults and children getting savagely attacked on television and in newspapers caused many white people to reconsider black people as the subjects, not perpetrators, of violence, Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow. Lynchings stopped being popular public spectacles but rather “hate crimes” that took place in secret.

As the 1960s Civil Rights Movement marched forward and the country began to desegregate, fears about black criminality only increased, and President Richard Nixon launched his “war on crime” and “war on drugs”—which was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, the black brute caricature returned, first in 1970s blaxploitation films, B-films that supposedly portrayed a more realistic world of corrupt authorities, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, and tough, gun-toting criminals than the Stepin Fetchit movies had. While these films countered the decades of sexless and disempowered Toms and Mammies, featuring powerful black revolutionaries fighting racist forces, in reality, they were written, directed, and financed by whites who relied on old caricatures of blacks as overtly sexual and violent animalistic beings.

Two cards from the 1930s game 72 Pictured Party Stunts. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“When you get to the 1970s, I think black people had grown tired of seeing Mammies, Toms, Sambos, and pickaninnys, these ignorant, one-dimensional characters, in the movies,” Pilgrim says. “And so they embraced a whole new set of racial caricatures, reflected in the so-called blaxploitation movies. The black pimp, the black radical, the dope dealer, and the hustler emerged out of these films. One set of stereotypes was substituted for another.”

Then the lurking black menace became a staple of television cop shows, meant to embody the cruelty of city streets. Hard-hearted and remorseless brutes plundered, assaulted, raped, and murdered innocent victims on “Law and Order,” “NYPD Blue,” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets.” New channels drummed up fear of black-on-white crime, to the point that white people who murdered their families would cover their crimes by trying to pin them on nameless black criminals. In a recent Salon article, Chauncey DeVega writes that in contrast to the exaggerated reports of “black crime,” “there is no equivalent language of ‘white crime’ in America’s dominant political discourse.” In 2001, Denzel Washington won the Academy Award for playing the vile, back-stabbing cop Alonzo Harris in “Training Day,” who, as Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow, is a modern version of the brute sociopath.

A postcard from the Bamforth series

A postcard from the Bamforth series “Black Kids,” produced in London from 1907 to 1915. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

While all these crime dramas depicted mostly white cops fighting black drug lords and homicidal monsters, in the real world off the big and little screens, black men were also more frequently arrested than white men for the same crimes and being punished more severely. In his October 2015 “Atlantic” cover story, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Ta-Nehisi Coates explains, “From the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, America’s incarceration rate doubled. From the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, it doubled again. By 2007, it had reached a historic high of 767 people per 100,000. In 2000, one in 10 black males between the ages of 20 and 40 was incarcerated—10 times the rate of their white peers. In 2010, a third of all black male high-school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned, compared with only 13 percent of their white peers.”

According to the NAACP, African Americans now make up nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population, and black people are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate of white people. Even though the rates of drug use are similar across all races in the United States, according to the Sentencing Project research, “African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).”

At the time of the Civil War, roughly 4 million African Americans were enslaved, providing labor that kept the American economy afloat. In Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she explores how the penal system is not unlike slavery: Federal and state prisons contract out their inmates as laborers to big corporations, while other prisons are simply owned by corporations. Prisoners make as little as $.17 per hour to minimum wage, if they’re lucky. After they’re released, ex-cons are stripped of their rights to vote and often have a difficult time finding jobs.


The “Be-Bop” toy from the 1950s. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

And other Jim Crow caricatures still haunt our culture, as Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow. In the 1970s, we saw them on TV: J.J. Walker on “Good Times” was an updated version of the coon, while his sister Thelma played the withering Sapphire role. Other sitcoms had their own sharp-tongued Sapphires: Aunt Esther on “Sanford and Son” and Florence Johnston in “The Jeffersons.” Today, we still have women depicted as Sapphires, as Omarosa was on the reality show “The Apprentice.” Like the black brute, the Jezebel re-emerged in 1970s blaxploitation films, wherein male pimps became folk heroes, but the women were demeaned. Even when the lead was a fierce woman, like Pam Grier in “Foxy Brown,” Pilgrim argues, she was still portrayed as a sexual deviant. The insatiable, sex-addled Jezebel caricature lives on today, particularly in online porn and music videos, as well as complaints about “welfare queens” who have too many children.

“I’m starting to hear more Americans saying that what we need to do as a country is look at some of the atrocities committed here and own up to them.”

“Today, I would say the dominant image of young black men is probably a son of a brute, expressed as a hip-hop ‘gangsta,’ with sagging pants and an Uzi,” Pilgrim tells me. “The Jezebel has resurfaced today as a ‘hoochie mama’ or ‘ghetto whore.’ The caricatures don’t really die; they morph. The ‘thug’ is an updated version of the coon. You can go back and look at those coon songs from the 1890s, the depiction is not that different from what you see today.”

What’s unique about “Uncle Tom” as a slur is that it’s most frequently invoked by blacks to describe black men, sometimes those in the unfortunate position of working for a white boss while overseeing black employees, Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow. Also called “race-traitors” and “white men’s negroes,” African Americans ranging from 1960s civil-rights leaders willing to work with white people to modern-day Republican politicians have been labeled Uncle Toms. In conservative arenas, public figures who embrace “respectability politics” like Bill Cosby and presidential candidates like Ben Carson can say things that their white colleagues believe but don’t vocalize. They assert black people are to blame for their communities’ problems and that the history of deeply entrenched white racism has nothing to do with it, often calling up caricatures of lazy “thugs” and “welfare queens” to make their cases.

This May 10, 1941,

This May 10, 1941, “Liberty” magazine cover shows a black porter as a Tom or a lazy, dumb coon. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

The “hoochie mama” Jezebel caricature is still being wrestled with in discussions about respectability politics. On one hand, in hip-hop music videos, many male artists surround themselves with beautiful, scantily clad young women, who are only there to serve as objectified props. Female pop, hip-hop, and R&B stars, however, often wear skimpy costumes and present themselves as powerful seductresses. The difference being that in the latter case, the woman is in control of her image and talking about her own desires—breaking free of the notion that black women’s sexuality is something that is dangerous and must be policed.

“Maybe three weeks ago, I was watching an infomercial selling Motown CDs,” Pilgrim tells me. “Middle-class and upper-class African Americans were in the audience, and these iconic musicians were on the stage. This is going to sound really corny, but just for a second, I thought to myself, ‘Why not just forget about all this stuff and just dance?’ And I chided myself about that a little bit, because I have heard that so much.

“Giving presentations on the road, I often will have someone say to me, ‘If you didn’t travel this country talking about race, racism would go away,’” he continues. “That doesn’t even make stupid sense. The reality is we talk about race all the time. We talk about it in our restrooms, in our living rooms, at work. We talk about it in places where our ideas are not challenged. If I didn’t build a museum, we wouldn’t stop talking about race. What I hoped by building this was that we could talk about it, even the more painful things, in ways that are intelligent and sometimes difficult. But that is what a mature nation does. Race-based struggles and conflicts still occur in our country. Race still matters in the U.S., in ways that serve to limit people, that serve to shape and, forgive the pun, color interactions between people.”

In this 1916 Cream of Wheat ad, a pickaninny boy who's stolen apples runs from a dog that has torn open the backside of his pants. (From

In this 1916 Cream of Wheat ad, a pickaninny boy who’s stolen apples runs from a dog that has torn open the backside of his pants. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

As foreign as these Jim Crow artifacts may look to us now, we’re still living in a country where white people irrationally fear a black menace will kill them, which has led to the murders of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; and countless others. It’s still a nation where African American children are viewed as wild, unruly animals destined for a life of crime—just look at the treatment of the teenage girl in Columbia, South Carolina; Dajerria Becton in McKinney, Texas; Tamir Rice and his sister in Cleveland, Ohio. In a recent survey by the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, more than half of African American men and women ages 18 to 34 said they or someone they knew had been harassed or brutalized by the police.

“One of the more powerful sections of the museum is a section on objects that have been made in the last 10 years,” Pilgrim says. “Because our name implies we’re only about another era, some people are surprised when they see two dozen objects on President Obama, where he’s portrayed as a monkey, a Tom, a coon, or a Sambo. If you don’t know history, then you don’t know what those things are. But if you understand history, you see that even though the United States has made a tremendous amount of progress, the old stereotypes and some of the old patterns of relations between different groups still exist. That’s why we should talk look at it, study it, talk about it. It’s a history that, in some ways, has not ended.”

Dr. David Pilgrim shakes hands with famed Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,
at the Jim Crow Museum. Gates visited the museum with a PBS film crew while working
on his award-winning 2013 documentary series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers
to Cross.” Gates also wrote the foreward for Understanding Jim Crow. (Via the Jim Crow
Museum Facebook page)

(To learn more, pick up a copy of “Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice” or visit the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, 1010 Campus Drive, Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan, open noon-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. The museum is featured in Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS documentary series on the black American experience, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The Jim Crow Museum also offers a touring exhibition “THEM: Images of Separation,” which addresses objects used to stereotype and discriminate against other groups, including homosexuals, immigrants, and Arabic and Jewish people.)

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C.L.R. Jame's Modern Politics in Marx and Philosophy

By Michael Lazarus
Marx and Philosophy
September 2nd, 2015

In the Preface to his 1938 book Black Jacobins, C.L.R James writes of the contemporary state of world affairs: ‘It was in the stillness of a seaside suburb that could be heard most clearly and insistently the bombing of Franco’s heavy artillery, the rattle of Stalin’s firing squads and the fierce shrill turmoil of the revolutionary movement striving for clarity and influence. Such is our age and this is of it, with something of the fervour and the fret.’ (James 1963, xi) Much of this remains true for James in 1960. But now it is the menacing rumble of Stalinist tanks rolling through the streets of Budapest that punctuates Modern Politics. For James, the revolutionary movement that saw the establishment of the workers councils in Hungary in 1956 embodies the essence of the modern world.

Modern Politics is the publication of a lecture series James gave at the Adult Education Centre in his native Bay of Spain, Trinidad throughout August 1960. At the outset James makes clear his aim is not to propagandize, but rather to introduce the attendees to the problems of contemporary politics. This is done through the prism of the history of Western political thought, underscoring the centrality of Marxism as both a historical and philosophical project. James’ tone in these speeches is markedly more restrained than his lyrical historical writings (Black Jacobins being the most remarkable). While popular and introductory, Modern Politics sheds significant light on the theoretical underpinnings of James’ Marxism. Simultaneously, its republication challenges the arid academic view of James as just another cultural critic. Although the interest in James’ work has been relatively constant since the 1980s, this book is a strong reminder of his importance and his dynamism as a Marxist thinker and a reaffirmation of the breadth and effortlessness of his oratory.

The lectures were given by James in the immediate period before his resignation from editorship of the Trinidad People's National Movement’s organ The Nation. The betrayals of the P.N.M. had seen the pro-independence party move considerably to the right and James came into conflict with his old co-thinker turned political foe, Eric Williams, now Premier. James was a popular figure at this time and Trinidadian politics was at boiling point; the transition from colonialism to independence was in its most crucial stages. And after twenty-six years abroad James returns to Trinidad. It comes as no surprise that the halls were filled for this event. However, the initial publication was suppressed and only released in 1973. Its reissue has been long overdue. Regrettably the new introduction by Noel Ignatiev, is overly workerist and oddly misses the opportunity to discuss much of this crucial (and fascinating) contextual detail. Instead, Ignatiev leaves the original 1973 Introduction by Martin Glaberman to sketch the context in just one page and prefers to spend considerable time explaining his own experiences as a militant worker. This seems a pity.

These lectures, delivered in a popular style (like that of Marx’s Labour, Prices and Profits) were designed for an audience largely unfamiliar with Marxist jargon and untrained in the technical language of specialists. Still, the characteristic profundity of James is present throughout these lectures. Like any great popularizer, James does not bastardise his argument in the name of simplification but introduces a nuanced perspective, aimed at adding political clarity and comprehensibility. To achieve this and at the same time provide a deeper elaboration of philosophical insights has always been the test of the socialist intellectual.

To give a sense of how James attempts this, it is worthwhile first offering an overview of the content of the lectures.

In Lecture I, we learn of the remarkable virtues of the ancient city-state: the legacy of direct democracy, the unity of the individual and society, and the establishment of the fields of human thought established by the Greeks and still pertinent today. From here we are taken from Rome to the Renaissance city to Cromwell and the Levellers, culminating in the Enlightenment and Rousseau. The second lecture judges the inheritance of Hegel and Marx to the Enlightenment, tracing the development of Marxism, through 1848, the Paris Commune, the betrayal of the Second International to the banner of the Third International and October 1917. Lecture III outlines the importance of the form of the Soviets and covers the period between the wars, including comments on those twins of totalitarianism Fascism and Stalinism. To understand one, you must understand the other. (In an appendix, James speaks very favourably of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (157). While Arendt was also a keen supporter of the Hungarian Revolution, James is well aware she might have preferred the workers councils without the workers.) The fourth lecture concerns World War II and the operations of the modern market, here he ties his analysis of politics to Marx’s labour theory of value. In Lecture V James critiques the compromises of the welfare state and deals with the exploitation of sex, class and race. And finally in the last lecture, advancing from a discussion of the great modern artists, James brings the disparate themes together to suggest the only way out of our current predicament is the movement of the masses and the establishment of a new form of class rule.

The narrative of the lectures is framed by the central questions of political theory; his starting point, the great achievement of Classical Athenian democracy, is used to advance his conception of history and political thought. Here the ‘good life’ is first elaborated, tied intrinsically to the organisation of society that allows for the active political life to be realised.

The historical (and slightly idealised), example of Athens provides an example of the possibilities of direct democracy that is the yardstick that is used to connect democracy, ancient and modern. A ‘return’ to the polis, in this conception, can only be achieved with the total democracy of worker’s councils.

James takes up, perhaps unexpectedly, Aristotle and Rousseau to make this case. He insists that ‘you should always have with you’, The Politics and The Social Contract on top of the Marxist classics like State and Revolution and Capital (155, cf. 32). In Aristotle, we find the individual defined in relation to society. To be human is to be a polis-dweller. This conception of society before the individual, the whole defining the part, is taken up crucially by Marx.

Rousseau returns the question back into political thought, ‘seeking a form of political organisation in which the individual will feel himself in relation to a government in much the same way that the Greek citizen felt in relation to the city-state’ (34). Rejecting representative democracy and the Age of Reason, Rousseau’s social contract is between people to form a society, and when a government refuses to do what is satisfactory, the ‘general will’ is broken. James sees in this doctrine ‘profound revolutionary implications’ (33). James’ usage of these two thinkers, interestingly, is a forerunner to the debates over the philosophical foundations of Marx that became a staple of the scholarship by the early 1970s.

The bourgeois and industrial revolutions frame James’ discussion of the history of philosophy that precedes Marx. Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume are touched upon before more substantial engagement with Kant and Hegel. The theoretical developments are centred around the relation between intellect and experience. James’ Hegelianism is evident, in his (albeit brief) discussion of the master. It was of course, Hegel who ‘brought philosophy to an end’, coming to a point that ‘if he had of gone on, he would have been compelled to say that the only solution to these problems was the proletariat establishing a new regime and laying the basis of human equality’ (43). In this discussion, the relationship that Marxism has to the Enlightenment is opened up. James suggests that Marx could claim to be both the heir and solution ‘to the finest currents of thought and action of five hundred years of European history’ (44). This background of inheritance and rupture is embodied in the composition and the tone of the lectures; a sophisticated philosophical theme laid out in an introductory way.

Further, after outlining the development of philosophy, James can more fully furnish the other legacy of the French Revolution, the birth of the workers movement. ‘The new doctrine of Marx was not the doctrine of the age of the men of Reason; it was not the doctrine of Rousseau either. It sprang from the socialism which evolved at the last stage of the French revolution’ (44). James can now deal fluidly with a history of 1848 onwards, which to him is a battle between the defenders of capitalism and the proponents of Marxism (56-7).

Repeatedly, James emphasises the inherent capacity of workers to make their own history. In the form of the worker’s councils, he completes his Aristotelian insistence that the ‘the good life’, is the one to which workers strive. It signals ‘the end of the capitalist mode of production’, the ‘vindication of our theory and a guarantee of a high destiny for the great mass of mankind’ (146). The significance of the events of Hungary in 1956 are repetitively used to demonstrate James’ unequivocal belief in workers councils as ‘the ultimate form of modern political development’ (98).

James is able to remain faithful to ‘socialism from below’ due to his rejection of Stalinism and his uncompromising internationalism. Linking the triumph of Nazism with the tragic failure of the German Revolution in 1923, James shows ‘there is no history of any single country anymore’ (66). From this defeat and through the savage rise of the bureaucracy, Stalin presided over the ‘destruction of the Leninist Bolshevik Party’ (67). What form of state the USSR was became a key question for socialists. Trotsky and the mainstay of Trotskyism saw the USSR as some form of a ‘workers state’, whereas James and the Forrest-Johnson Tendency, argued that the USSR was actually ‘state capitalist’ (73). This was a seriously minority position, held previously by few. However, this analysis led James to relatively drastic anti-party conclusions (despite Trotsky remaining a key figure in his politics). This hostility is reflected in his abandonment of the dialectical necessity of the party as the mediator between revolutionary theory and practice. James places an over-emphasis on spontaneity rather than seeing the two-sided relation spontaneity has with organization (58, 97-100).

Modern Politics is a quality introduction to Marxism by a major theorist. Although clearly not a work of academic scholarship, James’ heavily textured approach to Marxism and its social context is refined and enjoyable. This task is seldom accomplished well but James, with the elegant turn of phrase and clarity that is so characteristic of his style, manages. What is most clear throughout these lectures is the importance of looking at the movement of history as the insatiable desire for human agency within the structures that define the possibilities of action. The conclusion: the self-activity of the working-class to make their own history is the hope of modern politics.

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