Sunday, December 29, 2013

Miss Ani

“The second mention of slaves came when the guide spoke of the ingenuity that Mr. Randolph displayed when he developed an intricate bell system which rang in different tones so that the slaves would know exactly which room they were needed in. The last mention of slaves on the one-hour tour came when the guide described the “whistling way.” This was the path that led from the outside kitchen to the dining room. As the guide noted, Mr. Randolph ordered his slaves to whistle while they walked along the path in order to ensure that they were not eating or spitting on any [sic] the family’s food.”

About 24 hours ago I was sitting at home thinking about the new year and minding my own business. Well, truthfully I was bored and that leads to indulging in my social media addiction. Social media can lead to further boredom, new and valuable information, or foolish drama. I ended up learning about a drama which actually did turn out to be illuminating. Read on.

While on facebook I saw that my friend Marc Polite posted something intriguing.  Two weeks ago Ani DiFranco, a feminist, bi-sexual, anti-racist, left wing, singer/songwriter, had announced that she was hosting an event called Righteous Retreat which would be held at the Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana.

Louisiana plantation? Uh oh. Black feminists and many others were quite rightly angry and as happens nowadays a facebook kerfuffle ensued. One white DiFranco fan decided to defend her idol under the disguise of  black womanhood. Yes, a white woman pretended to be black so that she might make a more pervasive case. She even called herself LaQueeta. Oh yeah, it has been a hot mess.

The story certainly piqued my curiosity. While doing my investigatory due diligence on facebook and twitter I discovered many things. Nottoway Plantation is not just a resort. Its antebellum owners held 155 people in chattel slavery as they harvested sugar cane. It is now a slavery theme park, complete with books extolling the virtues of the confederacy, the peculiar institution, and white supremacy.

“The gift shop cashier kept eyeing us suspiciously. Then we noticed the books for sale. The collection included books such as When the South was Southern by Michael Grissom, The South was Right by James and Walter Kennedy, Myths of Slavery by Walter Kennedy and Bob Harrison, and Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters by Grace King.”

Episodes such as this tell us a lot about who people really are.  The Righteous Retreat was also to have featured Toshi Reagon. Ms. Reagon is also an accomplished musician and as a black woman found herself in a difficult position. She attempted to explain herself via a facebook post called Plantations and frankly she should not have bothered.

“We know we are connected to a world economy that is based on the exploitation of workers many of whom are children, but a lot of us still have smart phones, computers, clothes on our backs, new sneakers, etc...”

It is true that we cannot live without some connection to exploitation on this earth, but that doesn’t excuse blithely supporting an institution which was the location of endless atrocities and which celebrates those atrocities to this day.  Nottoway is a no go and there is no getting around it.

“All told, I wish I had been more aware of this gig.  I would have spoken about it right away and there would be no way to go that place without being in dialogue with where I was.  We all need to be in dialogue with where we are actually standing.” 

Aside from wishing she had done her homework, it isn’t clear what Ms. Reagon is saying. I don’t know what it means to be in dialogue with where she is but I definitely know where Louisiana is. Nottoway was in the belly of the beast. New Orleans had the largest slave market in the country and as such was the epicenter of evil. That can’t be wished away with meditation and verses of kumbaya.

Today Ani DiFranco announced that she was cancelling the retreat and in so doing should have ended her misery and the controversy. But Ms. DiFranco obviously succumbed to pressure and not to conscience. She didn’t really understand why she shouldn’t have chosen Nottoway in the first place or why so many people were so angry for the past two weeks. She was also angry because complaining colored people foiled her plans.

Like Ms. Reagon she claimed ignorance about Nottoway.

“when i agreed to do a retreat (with a promoter who has organized such things before with other artists and who approached me about being the next curator/host/teacher), i did not know the exact location it was to be held.”

And also like Ms. Reagon, she didn’t ask enough questions. (Apparently getting information about the venue was not a big issue for anybody.) DiFranco went on to say that she didn’t see what the big deal was and she didn’t understand why colored people were so upset.

“i did not imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage or result in so much high velocity bitterness. i imagined instead that the setting would become a participant in the event. this was doubtless to be a gathering of progressive and engaged people, so i imagined a dialogue would emerge organically over the four days about the issue of where we were.”

Pity the poor do-gooder white person. Bitter black people just won’t let them get their groove on and dialogue about the distant mists of time.

“i believe that people must go to those places with awareness and with compassionate energy and meditate on what has happened and absorb some of the reverberating pain with their attention and their awareness. i believe that compassionate energy is transformative and necessary for healing the wounds of history. i believe that even though i am white, i can and must do this work too.”

So just say “Om,” as you strum your guitar and the bad ancestral memories will disappear. Voila! How very white of you.

“i know that the pain of slavery is real and runs very deep and wide. however, in this incident i think is very unfortunate what many have chosen to do with that pain.”

My response is simple. It is none of her business how anyone chooses to express their pain. If black people are mad get over it Miss Anne, I mean Ani. 

“i also planned to take the whole group on a field trip to Roots of Music, a free music school for underprivileged kids in New Orleans. Roots of Music is located at the Cabildo, a building in the French Quarter which was the seat of the former slaveholder government where all the laws of the slave state were first written and enacted. i believe that the existence of Roots of Music in this building is transcendent and it would have been a very inspiring place to visit.”

Black people really need to shut up. She was going to do a poor ghetto child tour and get all transcendent.
I know so many conscious white people but this incident proves there are precious few of them. When push came to shove, Ani DiFranco was self centered and petulant, whining because black people questioned her intentions.  Whatever else can be said of her, Ani DiFranco chose sides and she chose to be a white person before she was a feminist or non-racist or whatever else. She should have done a quick mea culpa and called it a day but she didn’t do that because she wanted to hang on to what she considered the rightness of her decision and her whiteness too.

“maybe we should indeed have drawn a line in this case and said nottoway plantation is not a good place to go; maybe we should have vetted the place more thoroughly. but should hatred be spit at me over that mistake?”

Well, Miss Ani, the answer to that question is yes. The fact that you even asked means that the answer is yes.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Trinity College Under Pressure

“We suspect it says a great deal about the state of US academia and its democratic traditions that presidents can speak for a college or university without the minimal courtesy of consultation of the faculty, staff, students and

The National Council of the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israel. They did the right thing but of course but the pressure placed on the ASA was immediate and intense.

Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut was among the institutions who bowed to the pressure. The president and dean issued a statement in opposition to the ASA vote without notifying Trinity faculty they were doing so. Some of those faculty are ASA members and are supportive of the call for a boycott.  They wrote this letter in response.

January 2014.

Dear President Jones and Dean Mitzel,

We received your letter by accident. It was sent to one of us after it was sent off to the American Studies Association (ASA). No announcement was made to the faculty prior to the letter going out, and so no discussion was permitted. The letter – which is below – condemns the ASA for its resolution on Israel. It is also found on the website of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as part of a campaign by that body to undermine the ASA.

Many of us who are signing this letter are members of the ASA, proudly so, and several of us voted on behalf of that resolution that you chose to condemn in your letter. We believe that your letter is wrong-headed for several reasons. Some of these are detailed below:

(1) Your letter is singularly uninformed.
One of the tired mantras of the Anti-Defamation League is to say that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East.” This is a factually challenged statement. You seem to neglect at least two countries – Lebanon and Turkey – that are formal democracies. In the region, as well, there are monarchical democracies such as Kuwait and Morocco, with Jordan not far behind. Surely these are not so different from the monarchical democracies of Europe that would not earn a similar sneer (Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom for example). We do not hold any water for monarchical democracies, but the double standards is remarkable.

The use of this statement reveals how little effort was used to write this important position taken by the President and Dean of Trinity College. Or else you are of the view taken by Princeton’s doyen of Orientalism Bernard Lewis, that Arabs are somehow not capable of democracy – and that even where there is electoral democracy, this is simply a mirage. As an antidote to this view, we recommend Larbi Sadiki’s The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses, 2004 and the volume Democracy in the Arab World edited by Ibrahim Elbadawi and Samir Makdisi, 2011.

Democracy should not be reduced entirely to elections. It has to be seen in a wider context. For instance, the Israeli system has disenfranchised the totality of occupied Palestinians and has reduced the democratic rights of Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel (in other words, Palestinians who live in Israel and hold its passport have lesser rights in practice). We recommend for your reading the reports from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and from B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. If you are interested in these issues, we strongly recommend you read the new UN report, Report of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories (November 13, 2013). This has to be part of any discussion of “democracy in the Middle East.” At the same time, in the context of the Arab Spring, as vibrant attempts to create political democracy continue across the Middle East, your comment sounds tone deaf.

(2) Your letter is intellectually lazy.
The debate over the ASA’s resolution began in 2007, and was heightened over the past six months. The discussion about boycotts and academic freedom took center stage in the debate. The level of intellectual conversation on these themes was sophisticated and of great interest. Your letter avoids the fine-grained conversation and returns to clichéd denunciations. We would encourage you to read at least a few of the essays that offer the case for the ASA position and show that academic freedom is not violated. The best debate was held in the American Association of University Professor’s journal, Journal of Academic Freedom, vol. 4 (2013), edited by Ashley Dawson (; to us Princeton historian Joan Scott’s essay, “Changing My Mind About the Boycott” is a good place to begin. But the debate is an old one. The philosopher Judith Butler offered a scrupulous analysis of the idea of academic freedom and the boycott strategy in 2006 (“Israel-Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom” Radical Philosophy, vol. 135, January-February 2006; available ~ It would have been a useful gesture to have read up on the debate and engaged it with some authority. As it is, your letter returns to the first utterance when the campaign for an academic boycott was proposed by Palestinian and Israeli scholars in 2005 – there is no engagement with the long debate as it has unfolded over the past decade.

What is doubly disappointing is that you had a front-row seat a few years ago when Vijay Prashad’s appointment to lead an institution at the college was attacked by the ADL and faculty on campus – at that time Vijay had engaged President Jones in a discussion about academic boycotts in his role as member of the advisory board for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. On your faculty you have several people – Raymond Baker, a former Dean, and Johnny Williams, for instance – who have worked concertedly on issues of justice for Palestinians. None of this seems to have in any way troubled the tired language of your letter. At the very least, there might have been recognition that this is a long-standing discussion and not an impetuous decision by the ASA as you suggest. It behooves intellectual leaders who speak for academic freedom to at the very least take the ideas seriously. That is what the ASA did, which is why it hosted a long period of debate and discussion.

(3) Your letter ignores the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians.

In her essay mentioned above, Judith Butler lays out a broad understanding of academic freedom:
“a. The new formulation of an academic-freedom argument that insists that academic freedom requires and consists in the workable material infrastructure of educational institutions and the ability to travel without impediment and without harassment to educational sites; by linking academic freedom to the right to be free from violent threats and arbitrary detentions and delays, one would effectively be saying that the very idea of academic freedom makes no sense and its exercise is foreclosed by the conditions of Occupation. This would be a way of affirming that academic freedom is essentially linked with other kinds of protections and rights and cannot be separated out from them.
b. When academic freedom becomes a question of abstract right alone, we miss the opportunity to consider how academic freedom debates more generally – and here I would include both pro- and anti-boycott debates – deflect from the broader political problem of how to address the destruction of infrastructure, civil society, cultural and intellectual life under the conditions of the Occupation. As much as rights, considered as universal, have to be imagined transculturally and transpolitically, they also bring with their assertion certain geopolitical presuppositions, if not geopolitical imaginaries, that may not be at all appropriate for the situation at hand.”

Your letter notes that Trinity participates in the very important Rescue Scholar program – the program that funds scholars from parts of the world who feel threatened in their workplaces or whose political views deny them academic work. This is a laudable effort, and as you know many of us have been major supporters of it.

A study of the academic situation in Occupied Palestinian lands might have you reconsider your smug statement that “it is inconceivable to us that we would ever be welcoming a Rescue Scholar fleeing Israel for political reasons.” As a warm up to understand the situation of academic freedom in Israel, we recommend you read Ilan Pappé’s Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel (2010). Ilan used to teach at the University of Haifa, in the city of his birth in 1954, but was hounded out in 2007 when the President of his college called for his removal based on his support of the academic boycott campaign – a campaign that is illegal according to Israeli law (so much for academic freedom, by the way). Ilan now teaches, virtually as a Rescue Scholar, at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

If matters are hard for Israeli academics who wish to put their views against the Occupation on record, matters are worse for Palestinians and those who teach in Palestinian universities. Once more we recommend that you read a few of the publically available reports:

a) Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, “Obstacle Course: Students Denied Exit from Gaza,” July 2009.
b) Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, “Students from Gaza: Disregarded Victims of Israel’s Siege of the Gaza Strip. A Report on Israel’s Prevention of Gazan Students from Studying at the West Bank Universities,” July 2010.
c) The materials amassed by the Right to Education campaign at Birzeit University, a college that has been under siege for the past decade (
d) Ruhan Nagra, Academia Undermined: Israeli Restrictions on Foreign National Academics in Palestinian Higher Education Institutions, May 2013.

Your silence on this deep attack on the rights of Palestinians to an education indicates that the principle that motivates your letter is not academic freedom. If it were, you would certainly have expressed your concern about the violation of the academic freedom of an entire population since at least 1967. What principle you are upholding is up to you to establish. An indication might come from your failed attempt to suborn the American Studies faculty at Trinity to break their institutional linkage to the ASA; having failed with the faculty, you ignored them and claimed to speak as if there is not a rich seam of disagreement on our campus on this issue.

Your letter does not surprise us. In 2007, without a discussion in the faculty, President Jones signed on to an American Jewish Committee advertisement in the New York Times with the inflammatory tag line, “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!” We suspect it says a great deal about the state of US academia and its democratic traditions that presidents can speak for a college or university without the minimal courtesy of consultation of the faculty, staff, students and
alumni. The signing of the 2007 letter to the Times, this letter – these are political acts by a college administration that are disguised as acts of high principle.

That you have written this letter shows that the resolution of the ASA has had some effect – it has forced a conversation about the denial of the rights to full education of our Palestinian colleagues, about the impunity granted to Israeli institutions by the complicity in the US as well as the active financial, military and diplomatic support by the US government for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. That your letter does not seriously engage any of the issues – even academic freedom still less the actual occupation – is a sign of the lack of seriousness on your part. We look forward to a more robust discussion. As it is, you did not speak in our name – also members of the Trinity College community – when you wrote this ill-advised letter to the ASA President.

1. Anne Lambright, Associate Professor of Language and Culture Studies.
2. Davarian L. Baldwin, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies.
3. Drew Hyland, Charles A. Dana Professor of Philosophy.
4. Garth A. Myers, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of Urban International Studies.
5. Gary Reger, Hobart Professor of Classical Languages.
6. Janet Bauer, Associate Professor of International Studies.
7. Jeffrey Bayliss, Charles A. Dana Research Associate Professor of History.
8. Johnny E. Williams, Associate Professor of Sociology.
9. Maurice Wade, Professor of Philosophy.
10. Paul Lauter, Allan K. & Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Literature and past president of the American Studies Association (1998).
11. Raymond William Baker, College Professor of International Politics and Chair, Middle East Studies Program.
12. Robert J. Corber, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in American Institutions and Values.
13. Seth Sanders, Associate Professor of Religious Studies.
14. Thomas Harrington, Associate Professor of Language and Culture Studies.
15. Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian Studies and Professor of International Studies.
16. Zayde Antrim, Charles A. Dana Research Professor of History and International Studies and Director, International Studies Program.


James F. Jones, Jr.
President and Trinity College Professor in the Humanities
Office of the President
Trinity College
300 Summit Street
Hartford, Connecticut 06106
(telephone) 860-297-2086, 2087
(fax) 860-297-5359

From: Jones Jr., James F.
Sent: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 9:49 AM
To: ''
Cc: Mitzel, Thomas M; Keating, Mary Jo M.; Holland, Jenny N.; Jacklin, Michele J.
Subject: ASA boycott of Israel
Importance: High

To The Immediate Attention of the President of the American Studies Association:

Our Dean of the Faculty, Thomas Mitzel, and I wish to go on record announcing the boycott of Israel on the part of the ASA. Trinity once years back was an institutional member (we were then advertizing for an open position), and apparently some members of our faculty are individual members. Were we still an institutional member, we would not be any longer after the misguided and unprincipled announcement of the boycott of the only democracy in the Middle East. The Dean and I oppose academic boycotts in general because they can so easily encroach upon academic freedom. In this strange case, why the ASA would propose an academic boycott of Israel and
not, for example, of Syria, the Sudan, North Korea, China, Iran, Iraq, or Russia escapes rational thought. Trinity has participated in the Rescue Scholar program since its inception; we have welcomed scholars from some of the most repressive countries on the planet, and it is inconceivable to us that we would ever be welcoming a Rescue Scholar fleeing Israel for political reasons.
As President of the ASA, you have tarnished a once distinguished association.

James F. Jones, Jr.
President and Trinity College Professor in the Humanities
Office of the President
Trinity College
300 Summit Street
Hartford, Connecticut 06106
(telephone) 860-297-2086, 2087
(fax) 860-297-5359

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"Talking About Mandela" with Netfa Freeman

Today I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Netfa Freeman of the Institute for Policy Studies. We talked about my recent Black Agenda Report column, Talking About Mandela. The interview will be aired on Tuesday, December 23rd on the Voices with Vision program on WPFW radio.

I would like to add that Netfa had a great interview with Rene Gonzalez, one of the Cuban Five. We linked to the interview in Black Agenda Report. Read it here.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Obama’s Phony Commutations

My Black Agenda Report colleague Glen Ford pointed out that Barack Obama is not the lesser of two evils. He is the more effective evil and all of his nefarious skills were seen clearly today with an important announcement. The president made a decision which is right and proper and that will be applauded by anyone who believes in justice. Unfortunately a grave injustice was recently done with Obama’s help and hardly anyone knows about that.

There is good news for eight fortunate people. The president will commute their drug conviction sentences which were determined by terribly draconian crack cocaine laws. Thanks to presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton, 5,000 people languish in prisons across the country because the mass incarceration, prison industrial complex was brought to its fullest fruition on their collective watch.

The crack cocaine “epidemic” was a trope used to whip the public into a frenzy of fear. The media and politicians used justifiable concerns about drug trafficking to turn the United States into a gulag for black people.

Judges were stripped of discretionary authority and mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine were meted out at a ratio of 100:1. Possession of 5 grams of crack was treated like 500 grams of powdered cocaine.

We were told that only “kingpins” would do serious time but every black person was turned into a kingpin and all did serious time. After years of protest and lawsuits Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 which lessened the ratio to 18:1. 

But an important question remained about those sentenced under the older guidelines. Would they be able to request resentencing based on the new rules? On December 3, 2013 the Sixth Court of Appeals answered in the negative.

Organizations like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund immediately protested but didn’t bother to point out that president Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder also opposed making the new guidelines retroactive.  Another BAR colleague, Bruce Dixon, asks an important question. “Are establishment black  ‘civil rights’ organizations like the NAACP, the National Action Network and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund really opposed to mass incarceration and the prison state?”

“They claim to oppose mass incarceration and the prison state, although they've only just learned the phrase ‘mass incarceration’ and cannot fix their lips to say ‘prison state.’

But since their first priority is boosting the political fortunes and careers of their peers in the black political elite, who we affectionately call our black misleadership class, they are unable to call the devil in charge of mass incarceration by his name, if that devil has a black face.”

I have not read about Obama and Holder’s duplicity outside of the pages of the Black Agenda Report. The New York Times article I linked to doesn’t mention it, and neither do the rest of the corporate media. Obamabots are dancing for joy but most probably have no idea that Barack Obama could have begun the process of releasing 5,000 people unjustly incarcerated. Sadly, even if they did know they would still be in love with their idol.

Obama had an opportunity to fight for the rights of 5,000 people, but instead fought against them, and then makes a big splash about doing the right thing for just eight individuals. Well played.

I am happy for these few people who will soon be going home but I haven’t forgotten about the rest. I also haven’t forgotten that the first black president and first black attorney general chose to keep them behind bars.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Telling the Truth About Nelson Mandela

“Mandela, too, fostered crony relationships with wealthy whites from the corporate world, including those who had profited from apartheid. He saw this as part of ‘reconciliation’.” John Pilger
I am feeling very sad right now. I don’t feel sad because Nelson Mandela died today. After all he was 95 and had been ill for some time. Of course if he were my father or grand father I would not be so sanguine, but ultimately we all have to die and preferably in peace without physical suffering.
I feel sad because the hideous hagiography has already begun. The sickening mantra that he forgave white people. As I pointed out in a recent Black Agenda Report column, Black people are always lauded if they forgive white people. If Mandela didn’t forgive white people for what they did to South Africa, well, who could blame him? White people of course but I digress.
Mandela fought the good fight against oppression for many years. That is why he was imprisoned in the first place. But his release from prison and the direction the ANC took after he became president were intertwined with deals he made to keep white people on top economically and the country firmly in the grip of avaricious capitalism.
We at Black Agenda Report have reported numerous times on the betrayal of black South Africans by their own misleadership class. We were fortunate to meet with Ronnie Kasrils, a long time ANC member and Mandela comrade who has told uncomfortable truths about the end of apartheid.
“What I call our Faustian moment came when we took an IMF loan on the eve of our first democratic election. That loan, with strings attached that precluded a radical economic agenda, was considered a necessary evil, as were concessions to keep negotiations on track and take delivery of the promised land for our people. Doubt had come to reign supreme: we believed, wrongly, there was no other option; that we had to be cautious, since by 1991 our once powerful ally, the Soviet union, bankrupted by the arms race, had collapsed. Inexcusably, we had lost faith in the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome all obstacles. Whatever the threats to isolate a radicalizing South Africa, the world could not have done without our vast reserves of minerals. To lose our nerve was not necessary or inevitable. The ANC leadership needed to remain determined, united and free of corruption – and, above all, to hold on to its revolutionary will. Instead, we chickened out.”
Mandela need not be vilified completely, but he doesn’t need to be canonized either. While the Cubans must be given credit for bringing about South Africa’s military defeat, it is also necessary to talk about the deals that Mandela made to get out of prison.
Black South Africans are free to travel where they want but that freedom means little if going on strike means being killed by the police. It doesn’t mean anything if the country still supplies the world with  wealth which the workers will never enjoy.
I am feeling sad because the lies and dumbing down will be thick until his funeral takes place. I’m hoping that event will take place as quickly as possible. I don’t look forward to Obama claiming that he loved Mandela and he was inspired by him and blah, blah, and blah. I don’t want to see British royals looking solemn or celebrities who don’t much of anything suddenly claiming to know South African history.
I wonder how Fidel Castro is feeling now. He fought for decades to aid African liberation movements. How does he feel after seeing his South African comrades succumb so badly and so blatantly? Does he regret his decision to defeat apartheid? I wonder.
Let’s tell the truth, the whole truth about Nelson Mandela.