Thursday, July 14, 2011


Harry Targ

And finally, I am deeply grateful to the real Malcolm X, the man behind the myth, who courageously challenged and transformed himself, seeking to achieve a vision of a world without racism. Without erasing his mistakes and contradictions, Malcolm embodies a definitive yardstick by which all other Americans who aspire to a mantle of leadership should be measured (Manning Marable, Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, 2011, 493).

Professor Manning Marable was a member of the Political Science and Sociology Departments at Purdue University during the 1986-87 academic year. His scholarship, activism, and ground-breaking books and articles inspired faculty and students even though his stay at our university was brief. His classic theoretical work, "How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America," along with over 20 books and hundreds of articles, inspired social science scholarship on class, race, and gender. His weekly essays, "Along the Color Line," were published in over 250 community newspapers and magazines for years. He once told me that writing for concerned citizens about public issues was the most rewarding work he ever did. He was a role model for all young, concerned and committed scholar/activists (Harry Targ in Purdue University Black Cultural Center Newsletter, April, 2011).

I just finished reading the powerful biography of Malcolm X authored by Manning Marable. My encounter with this book was as fixating and transforming as I remember was my reading of Malcolm’s autobiography in the 1960s. While I lack the deep sense of Malcolm X’s impact on African American politics and cultural identity that others have, I feel compelled to write something about this reading experience. (Bill Fletcher’s review and analysis of the Marable biography provides much expertise on the subject. “Manning Marable and the Malcolm X Biography Controversy: A Response to Critics”, www.blackcommentator, July 7, 2011).

During my first year at Purdue University in north central Indiana in 1968, I requested to teach a course called “Contemporary Political Problems.” Since I was on the cusp of becoming a political activist in belated response to the civil rights and anti-war movements, I thought I could use this course to have an extended conversation with students about where we needed to be going intellectually and politically.

My plan was to assign a series of books that reflected different left currents, politically and culturally, and get us all to reflect on their value for understanding 1968 America and what to do about it. We read Abbie Hoffman, Ken Kesey, Herbert Marcuse, the Port Huron and Weatherman statements, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

While my students and I embraced, endorsed, or rejected various of these authors, we were profoundly impacted by the power of Malcolm X’s personal biography and transformations from the streets to the international arena. As the word got out about the course, and largely because of Malcolm X, sectors of the Purdue campus got the word that there was a new “radical” in the political science department. Therefore, I owe my growing enrollments to Malcolm X.

More important, during the second semester in which I taught the course, I had a very quiet and respectful African American student in the class. He was a member of Purdue’s track team. One day, after he showed up at the local airport sporting a very thin, almost invisible, mustache the track coach ordered him off the plane. Why? Because he had unauthorized facial hair. His modest symbolic act, growing the mustache, set off extended protest activities over several weeks.

Shortly before this incident, we had spent a couple of weeks in class discussing Malcolm X’s autobiography. During one class period this very quiet person announced to the rest of us that we should consider ourselves lucky that he chose to participate in this class. I saw him forty years later for a fleeting moment. He remembered me and said that he had read Malcolm X’s autobiography for the first time in my class. The student’s emerging boldness and his articulated sense of pride must have had something to do with his reading of Malcolm X.

Reflecting on the Marable biography, I was struck by the capacity of people to change their ways of thinking, their ideologies, and their practice. Marable attributes some of Malcolm X’s development to his conscious desire to reinvent himself and to do so as he told his life story to Alex Haley, his autobiographical collaborator. Despite the world of racism, repression, and theological rigidity Malcolm experienced, Marable records how Malcolm X’s experience and practical political work was in fact transforming.

Different people gleaned different things from reading Malcolm X’s autobiography, and the same is true of a reading of Manning Marable’s stirring and frank biography. While those of us on the left were most inspired by the last two years of Malcolm X’s life, my student was probably impacted as much by Malcolm’s developing sense of pride and self-worth in a society that demeaned and ridiculed people of color

Reading Malcolm and Marable reminds us, that while we bring change through our organizational affiliations, each individual can have a role to play in achieving that change. Not all of us can be Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Dolores Huerta, or Mother Jones. But we can make a difference.

In addition, Manning Marable makes a particularly strong case for Malcolm X as an internationalist. The United Nations had adopted a Declaration on Human Rights in 1948 but human rights discourse was not part of the language of international relations until Malcolm X demanded the international community address the issue.

For Malcolm X, United States racism, while violating the civil rights of its Black and Brown citizens, was also violating the fundamental human rights of peoples at home and abroad. At the time of his assassination, Malcolm X was working to build a coalition of largely former colonial states to demand that each and every country, and particularly the United States, respect the human rights of all peoples. Multiple problems including racism, poverty, disease, hunger, political repression and sexual abuse were problems at the root of twentieth century human circumstance AND the United States was a major violator of human rights.

Marable describes in great detail Malcolm X’s frenetic travels through Africa and the Middle East to build a coalition of Black and Brown peoples to demand in the United Nations and every other political forum the establishment of human rights. Bombing Vietnamese people and killing Black children in Birmingham were part of the same problem. And, this campaign was being launched at the very same time that the countries of the Global South were struggling to construct a non-aligned movement to retake the resources, wealth, and human dignity that had been stripped from peoples by colonialism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism. This was the position that Dr. Martin Luther King came to in 1967, as articulated in his famous speech at Riverside Church in New York. Malcolm X was introducing this global human rights project in 1964.

Marable’s Malcolm X therefore transformed himself from a minor street hustler, to a Black Muslim, to a visible world leader advocating a global human rights agenda. This is the Malcolm X that has meant so much to us over the years, along with his insistence that Black and Brown people be accorded respect everywhere and they should honor and respect themselves. But, Marable carefully documents Malcolm X’s flaws as well as his strengths. He was anti-Semitic, misogynist, not unsympathetic to violence, and a man engaged in intense, some times petty, political struggles with his organizational colleagues.

Manning Marable humanizes Malcolm X. Humanizing our heroes makes our efforts to pass the messages and symbols of the past to newer generations of activists more convincing. Young people do not need to see progressive heroes as untainted by their own humanity. And when we present those who make a contribution to building a better world to new generations, the examples of their flaws make it clear that no one is beyond personal and political redemption.

Finally, the biographer, Manning Marable, as my statement at the outset suggests, was a profoundly important scholar/activist. Marable used his historical knowledge, social scientific analytical skills, and political values to craft a career of writing and activism that impacted his students, his academic colleagues, and his fellow socialists in the struggle for a better world. Telling Malcolm X’s story was Marable’s way of advocating for fundamental social change in a deeply troubled world.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Harry Targ

When the sun comes back,
and the first Quail calls,
Follow the drinking gourd,
For the old man is a-waiting
for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.


Follow the drinking gourd,
Follow the drinking gourd,
For the old man is a-waiting
for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.

The riverbank will make a very good road,
The dead trees show you the way.
Left foot, peg foot traveling on,
Following the drinking gourd.

The river ends between two hills,
Follow the drinking gourd,
There's another river on the other side,
Follow the drinking gourd.

When the great big river meets the little river,
Follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting
for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the drinking gourd.

(Old song directing slaves on their escape, in modern times popularized by Pete Seeger and the Weavers)

“Dad, didn’t you ever go to elementary school?” (my daughter responding to my enthusiastic report on a two-day trip along the Underground Railroad).

I just returned from an inspiring two-day trip to southern Indiana and Ohio, visiting three sites along the Underground Railroad. I was familiar with the history of African Americans’ active resistance to slavery, such as armed revolts, and forms of passive resistance, including purposive manipulations of master/slave relationships. However, my knowledge of the underground flights to freedom was limited.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, as many school kids know, slaves fled the plantation dictatorships to travel north to so-called “free states.” They continued their journey to Canada where slavery was outlawed. In 1850, the controversial Fugitive Slave Law passed Congress which strengthened the hand of slaveholders in their efforts to stop the Underground Railroad. It declared that although slavery was prohibited outside the South, slaveholders and bounty hunters could travel north to retrieve their human “property.” Escaping slaves, therefore, could not regard themselves as secure until they reached Canada.

While the flight of slaves was largely unplanned, African American slave society was replete with secret directions for escape transmitted through songs such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Go Down Moses.” Even the quoting of certain scripture in Black churches was designed to give information on routes to the North and possible safe houses to seek. The courage, creativity, and will to freedom of the slaves were extraordinary.

A trail of safe houses in the “free” state of Ohio was created to give runaway slaves sanctuary, food, and directions for moving further north, ultimately to Canada. Ohio was north of the Ohio River, and Kentucky on the river’s southern banks was still a slave state.

Safe houses existed in Indiana, Michigan and elsewhere in the Midwest and the East. Those providing sanctuary were both white and Black abolitionists. In Ripley, Ohio, John Rankin, a white Presbyterian Minister and long-time abolitionist, and John Parker, a former slave and local entrepreneur, risked their livelihoods and their physical security to provide safe havens to fleeing slaves.

In the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law it became a crime for northern abolitionists to provide such sanctuary. Northerners were obliged by law to cooperate with slaveholders, blood thirsty bounty hunters, and local law enforcement officials in the brutal kidnapping of those who sought their freedom.

In my travel along the Underground Railroad, a trip that ended at the exciting new museum in Cincinnati, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, I learned about the ingenuity of the runaway slaves and the abolitionists in their construction of this long road to freedom.

Much of the story of the Underground Railroad has only been reconstructed in the last thirty years or so. The paths to freedom embarked upon by the slaves, their level of organization, and the numbers of those who tried to escape and who succeeded remain unclear as do the names and activities of abolitionists. Information at the time about the Underground Railroad, of necessity, was shrouded in secrecy for reasons of security and for the most part narratives of the trials and tribulations of slaves and abolitionists come from memoirs of abolitionists written after the Civil War.

Historians debate any number of elements of the story of the Underground Railroad. But the historical narrative that I experienced on a simple guided tour left a deep impression on me, particularly on what seems to me to bear relevance to our continuing work today.

Contrary to paternalistic accounts of the slave system that many of us were exposed to as children, the slaves, against all odds, were courageous and possessed an extraordinary ingenuity. Slave society was built on a profound level of human solidarity such that the successful flight to freedom of each and every slave was built on the common struggles of entire communities. Language, songs, community leaders such as “the old man waiting for to carry you to freedom,” and the sacrifices of men and women to get some of their kin “over Jordan” was the collective responsibility of every family and community.

Abolitionists, white and Black, refused to accept the slave system. They were willing to put their lives on the line to oppose an oppressive and immoral system.

The abolitionists were the first revolutionaries in U.S. history after the formation of the new nation. Some were motivated by a conception of the slave system as a system of super-exploitation of the labor of the slaves by the ruling class of cotton producing slave owners. Others were motivated by religious passion. Quakers, Presbyterians, and people of other faiths deemed slavery an immoral system that contradicted God’s law. For them, the laws of society, such as the Fugitive Slave Law, were superseded by God’s law. And still others, mostly the Black abolitionists, combated the slave system because they experienced it directly and because it was their brothers and sisters who suffered under its yoke.

Examining the slave system and the laws that gave it sustenance suggests a perverse feature of the U.S. constitutional system. Throughout U.S. history, and particularly during the period of slavery, the Constitution and the political system have, on the one hand, opposed immoral laws such as the Fugitive Slave Law, and, on the other hand, accepted them because of the necessity of political “compromise.” The Fugitive Slave Law was the result of compromise dictated by demands from pro-slavery advocates in contention with anti-slavery advocates. California would be admitted into the federal union as a free state at the same time that southern bounty hunters would be allowed to enter “free” states and kidnap runaway slaves. Ohio was a free state but slave owners, or their henchmen, could lawfully enter the state to retrieve their “property.” The United States political system has been based on this system of “compromise.” Abolitionists said “no” to what was seen as compromise. They viewed the Fugitive Slave Law as hypocrisy.

The lessons of the Underground Railroad parallel our politics today. First, the story of the Underground Railroad and the slave question is one instance among many in which what is called “compromise,” is in fact hypocrisy. Lofty principles continue to be endorsed which are defied in common practice. The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade in 1973 declared that women
have the right to control their own bodies, but health care services are denied to them if they make certain choices. Moreover, health care workers risk death if they provide services that are guaranteed by the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. In the 19th century slavery was outlawed in Northern states but slave holders and bounty hunters could kidnap former slaves to be brought back to their owners.

Second, there is a continuity in the flight to freedom from slavery to the present. In the 1980s, during the Reagan wars on Central America, refugees came north to avoid death squads or because of desperate economic circumstance. Central American activists in the United States risked arrest providing sanctuary for those fleeing repression. Today, modern day bounty hunters, federal agents, and local police pursue immigrants, defined as illegal, who were driven from their homes by global economic policies. They are often kidnapped, detained, and deposited in their home countries irrespective of the local circumstances. The anti-immigration movement and draconian state laws such as those in Arizona are contemporary variants of the story of the Fugitive Slave Law.

On the other hand, resistance, in the best of the tradition of the Underground Railroad, continues as those most victimized rise up to seek their freedom. They work in solidarity with political progressives in common struggle to create a better world for economic and social justice, and for freedom.

It is an old story: “Follow the drinking gourd.”