How to Protest: UK Politics, Press and Propaganda
Thursday, 18 April 2024 13:52

How to Protest: UK Politics, Press and Propaganda

Brett Gregory interviews Giedre Kubiliute, principal author of Protests and the Media: A Critical Event Studies Exploration into the Future of Protest (Routledge, 2024)

BG: Hi, my name is Brett Gregory and I'm an associate editor with the UK arts, culture and politics website, Culture Matters. What follows is a wide-ranging interview with the principal author of ‘Protests and the Media: A Critical Event Studies Exploration into the Future of Protest’, an excellent book published in February 2024 which interrogates the interrelationship between protest, politics and propaganda in the UK.

Hi. What is your name, and what are the academic origins behind your publication?

GK: My name is Giedre Kubiliute. My path into research began through my Master's research project while studying at Leeds Beckett University, and that's where I met Dr Ian Lamond, the co-author of the book who was my research supervisor at the time. Ian's areas of research interests include conceptual foundations of event research, creativity and events of dissent, death, fandom, critical geography, whereas myself, having no previous academic background, my interest in protest and dissent is rooted in my own past growing up in Lithuania in the turbulent 1980s and 1990s, and the significance of dissent throughout my country's history.

BG Black Lives Matter

BG: And what was the experiential key which helped you to unlock your motivation and determination with regards to completing this project?

GK: The book started as my Master's research project which I was due to start working on during the Covid-19 pandemic. All the events happening at the time, particularly the wave of the Black Lives Matter protests across the world, and Sarah Everard’s murder and the vigil. They were so emotionally charged and emotive, and the unprecedented context of the lockdown and the unknown that they were happening in, it added a whole new level of intensity. So, I personally found myself feeling really moved on some visceral level by all the protests taking place, and I wanted to interrogate that feeling further.

BG The Baltic Way 2 Chain of Freedom Lithuania 1989

BG: You mentioned your Lithuanian background earlier. In what ways has this characterised your political outlook?

GK: It took me back to my childhood and the events of dissent I was a witness to from The Baltic Way of 1989 – which was a demonstration of close to 2 million people creating a human chain (see above) which connected Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – to the hundreds of people defending the Lithuanian Parliament and the television tower in Vilnius, and standing up to the Russian tanks on the 13th January 1991 where 14 people lost their lives, to many other events I have seen or have been told about. So, to me protest events of defiance against oppression first and foremost, and they can bring hope, unite people and change the course of history, and they are tools to achieve societal change and innovation.

BG: And what wider sources have helped to define your own personal understanding of political dissent and protest?

GK: As Matthew Mars has said for innovation and the betterment of the existing situation to happen, there must be a form of so-called ‘creative disruption’. Or, as Henri Lefebvre said, a group of people who designate themselves as innovators must firstly intervene by imprinting a rhythm on an era, and their acts must inscribe themselves on reality.

So, seeing protest from my standpoint, it was very uncomfortable to observe how the media twisted and framed those events. Not only influencing how the public saw those specific events in question, but how the purpose and the driving force for that dissent was at times twisted to meet certain narratives that were perpetuated by certain media outlets or the state; and there was often a certain lack of will from the wider public to interrogate those narratives as well. And once you see it happen over and over again you can't unsee it: it happens everywhere all the time.

BG: Please tell us a little bit more about ‘Critical Event Studies’ as an academic subject, and how it can relate to our everyday lives.

GK: ‘Critical Event Studies’ interrogates the concept of an event. It frames the event as a rupture that can reveal the structures of power that underlie what's holding the daily life routines in place. Different theorists will use different terms which, while the meanings differ, they basically show that it is power or oppression that binds the routines of daily life into the practices of daily life. However, as well as exposing those power relationships, we also open up possibilities for different ways the relationships can be formed, and it's the event's ability to open up the multiplicity of alternative formations that enables resistance to existing power relationships.

When we stop seeing an event as something anchored to corporate or commercial constructions of events and project management, that enables us to draw on multiple fields and disciplines whilst seeking to explore their disruptive connections.

BG: Could you give a few specific examples?

GK: I mean there are so many of them, from a mainstream event studies perspective. We could look at the reactions to recent sporting mega events such as the Qatar World Cup or the recent iteration of the Olympic Games. We'll look at the debates of how to manage the most recent Eurovision song contest. Outside that narrow frame of reference, in the UK general elections, recent and emerging legislation around the forms protest can take; the huge upsurge in hate crime, particularly associated with sexual orientation and gender identity. None of them are critical events but they are ‘evental landscapes’ that warrant critical interrogation.

BG: Let's now look a little deeper into the mechanics and organics of political dissent and protest. What is the overall purpose, for example?

GK: Public dissent is really about publicly demonstrating counter-narratives. When we increase the level of knowledge and awareness of a topic the general trajectory of public discourse can be slightly nudged. It won't be an overnight solution, it's not a magic bullet kind of thinking. It's just a slight push but it can influence the change: it can draw people into coalitions as well, maybe those who were floating before. Of course, it can push people away too.

BG Extinction Rebellion Protest at Blackfriars Bridge 2018

Extinction Rebellion protest

One of the people we interviewed for our book Pete, a scientist for Extinction Rebellion and other movements, made a very interesting and important point. There is often a misunderstanding that a movement behind a protest always seeks some sort of approval from the public which is then followed by an argument that more disruptive protest action will turn the public against the movement. And Pete argued that the purpose of a protest is never to make the wider public like the movement: it's to draw the public's attention to the problem, and that can often be lost in how the events are framed by the media.

BG: And what possible consequences can such actions and events have for wider society?

GK: Roland Bleiker, a Professor of International Relations, suggested that if we push the understanding of democracy beyond an institutionalised framework of processes and procedures, then dissenting protest could be viewed as a new kind of democratic participation that actually makes a meaningful contribution to the theory and practice of global democracy. But, instead, we witness governments refusing to deal with the causes that push people to protest and often those governments won't even attempt to eliminate those reasons but will instead put forward legislation to increase police powers and punishment in an attempt to squash the dissent which will only set the system up for further failure.

BG: So, how do governments, corporations and their media associates manage to keep the public at large in check?

GK: Public relations will often use propaganda and persuasion techniques that make use of emotional triggers instead of rational arguments, and often those are used without any regard for potential underlying ethical issues. Popular media sources and even some academics tend to frame protest by using traditional ‘angry mob’ or ‘mob mentality’ concepts which originate in historic crowd psychology. This cliché has been perpetuated to the extent where just one mention of a protest will evoke an image of an angry crowd in some people's minds.

BG: Can you give us a specific example of this?

GK: In April 2023 Extinction Rebellion organised an event called ‘The Big One’, and this event attracted approximately 100,000 participants and it was run in cooperation with the police. However, I'm pretty sure that hardly anyone has heard about it because we know that there are various reasons why the media will not cover peaceful gatherings.

If you speak to some journalists that have turned to activism I'm sure they'll tell you that disruptive events are partially driven and encouraged by the media itself, so the reporters are not exactly free to report the topics they feel are important as the power structures within their corporations decide what narratives and stories are acceptable. So, sometimes publishing a coverage of events may be the only way to touch on the issues at the heart of the dissent. However, for a journalist to be able to cover the event it has to be of significant scope and cause enough disruption to attract the media attention, so in that way media in itself can act as a catalyst for disruptive action.

BG: And the work of Noam Chomsky has been important in terms of your understanding of, for instance, ‘soft power’ shaping public opinion.

GK: In our book we talk a lot about how Herman and Chomsky’s ‘Propaganda Model’ is still very much alive today and it can be adapted for the new information technologies, and the way the information society operates. This model looks at how the so-called ‘raw information’ or ‘raw news’ gets filtered and manipulated by the factors of who owns the media firms, where their political interests lie, advertising as the primary income source; the reliance of the media on information provided by the government and so-called experts who are funded and approved by those sources and agents of power.

BG: What do you mean by the term ‘priority distortion’ with regards to mainstream mediated communication?

GK: Mainstream media, and particularly those sources specialising in ‘soft news’, they will use what we call ‘priority distortion’ by firstly reporting on some celebrity drama which will be followed by a story about political or social welfare issues, and that creates an absurd contrast in the reader’s mind and it devalues any interest in political engagement. When we spoke to a member of Extinction Rebellion they told us that the right-wing media will sometimes publish articles stating that the scientists are concerned about the climate emergency, but will not explain any details. So that makes such a topic and news too complex for some of the readers to understand or engage with; and, worryingly, as coverage of important social issues can be distorted and controlled by misinformation and omission, the public and some mid-level policy makers will still be basing their decisions on such filtered information.

BG: And ‘perspectivism’?

GK: ‘Perspectivism’ is a concept that looks at how we interpret the world around us based on our views and perceptions, and that is a result of the impact, the ideology and material conditions have on news reporting, which in itself is a process of choosing what information to report on and then using that information to carve it into further narratives. Most frequently we can witness the narratives that create a binary between us and them where ‘they’ will be positioned as problematic disruptive outsiders whose actions and nature are always so transparent to us, while they cannot fully appreciate the complexity of the virtuous ‘us’.

BG: Them and Us. Us and Them.

GK: So, there’s binaries are everywhere you can find them in the news reporting, ranging from the local reports about disruptive protesters in the UK, the asylum seekers in Europe, the narratives about gender identity, religion, to ultimately the West against Russia narrative which has been perpetuated by the Russian government over the last couple of years. We also witnessed it again when the right-wing media reacted to Extinction Rebellion's blockade of Murdoch's print works and used character assassinations of individual members of the movement in order to discredit the whole movement.

BG: Misinformation, disinformation, character assassinations … How do they keep getting away with it?

GK: Often the ruling elite will also use the concept of national security and intelligence to control any information leaks that could pose a danger to the ruling classes and corporations; and those who question the corporate political and military powers will be labelled as traitors. In the same way mainstream media can be used to drive the general public away from political debates by conditioning people to support the policies of political elites by claiming that those policies are essential for state security and public safety, although they are really aimed at silencing the voices that could be dangerous to those who are in power.

BG: And what else has your research uncovered?

GK: In our research it was interesting to observe how the media's portrayal of police actions at protests shifted depending on the event. All three events we spoke about in the book took place within about a year of each other during the lockdowns and under the same guidelines. However, the media was expecting the police to behave very differently in each of them; and not only that, the media can use a protest event as a basis to reinforce certain narratives that lie at the heart of the movement. In our book we explore how both right-leaning and left-leaning media displayed overall similar attitudes and coverage of the events around Sarah Everard’s vigil, but behind that coverage they had very different attitudes and discussions regarding the matter of women’s safety. And there are so many more examples of how public opinions are formed to avoid any interrogation.

BG Sarah Everard The Search for Justice BBC 2024

BG: For example?

GK: One that really boils my blood is the conversations we are having about gender-neutral toilets. What we have now is an argument that women's safety is put in danger as essentially men posing at trans-women or otherwise can get access to women's spaces. So, the narrative has been turned to position two marginalised groups, women and trans-people, against each other and to put trans-people in a role of the threat when the real and, in my opinion, very obvious situation is that women are worried about their safety because men in disguise or not pose a threat to women's safety, and not only women's: any other marginalised groups really. It's a historical, cultural and societal problem that we are avoiding and we're not talking about.

So, what we do as a society now, we position two marginalised groups against each other as enemies and allow the real perpetrator to walk away unchallenged and unscathed. Those who pose the real danger just so happen to also hold the power in terms of capital, legislation, justice, policing, yet they don't get challenged. Why don't we as a society start having those uncomfortable conversations? Why aren't we challenging our male friends, family members? Why don't we educate our sons and employees and teach them the values they never had to be bothered to learn? Because it's an uncomfortable conversation, and people would rather find an enemy in a marginalised group that holds no power than challenge the real problem. Again, you see this everywhere and I think as a society, and particularly in this country, we will do everything in order to avoid any uncomfortable conversation. So, we will happily reinforce power structures even though they are contributing to the collapse of society, and put people and the planet in danger, just so, God forbid, we don't have to question anyone.

BG: Indeed. Utterly shameful. We are talking about at least 2,000 years of white patriarchy however – fully resourced by seemingly unlimited wealth and power – and which is, sadly, as embedded into our society and collective psyche as the foundations of Hadrian's Wall are embedded into the earth.

I believe it is going to take at least another 200 years of round-the-clock vigilance, education, activism and sacrifice for a truly permanent attitudinal change to be accepted on a national scale.However, isn't this one of the reasons why we choose to be here right now in 2024: to continue to help bring about progressive and positive change in others in some small but significant way? And with this in mind, I suppose we should continue and explore how propaganda and persuasion techniques are currently being employed online.

GK: The dominant social media platforms have concentrated ownership and form a very concentrated market. So, while on television and in the printed press the advertisers can target specific audiences, on social media multiple audiences can be targeted at once and this can be done artificially through bots which not only create automated posts, shares, likes and such but can be used as a tool to target and harass journalists and activists to flood them with hate and threads from artificially created accounts.

BG: And, of course, the reaction of the billionaire owners of these platforms is to simply hide away in their high-security ivory towers and count their money. As a consequence, where does that leave the rest of us?

GK: Facebook and Google algorithms are kept as a corporate secret so the owners control them and determine new sources for the general public. So the algorithms selected, exposure and audience fragmentation, they all create a hotbed for radicalisation, deep fake videos, voice cloning, generative text and other AI-generated content are becoming more and more convincing, and they have been widely used to spread disinformation during the US presidential elections, the Kremlin's attempts to discredit European governments, bots and fake accounts have been widely reported to be used by Russia to create counter-narratives around the war in Ukraine. It's also suspected that the Chinese government used fake news stories in a barrage jamming technique to overwhelm certain hashtags and make the readers see images of cotton fields as opposed to the tweet about the forced labour camps.

One of the people we interviewed for the book shared her horrific experiences, when following her public actions trolls created a fake ‘Only Fans’ account where they had her face superimposed and which was shared to her family, and those trolls used and altered photographs of her mother who had passed away to harass this person even further.

BG: It's like a war, an ideological, hyperreal war. Such a daily and nightly barrage of abuse must take its toll on activists and protesters on a personal level?

GK: We gathered from the people we interviewed for the book that a lot of people come to social activism not really knowing what to expect or rather not understanding how hard-hitting and life-changing this choice can be. First of all it's a huge and steep learning curve. An individual may think they might know enough and that they stand firmly on the ground, however joining a movement seems to open a floodgate of information or truth that one was not prepared for. Ultimately, it can create a sense of burden and loss and foster a sense of duty to create a change, and it will likely impact personal life choices going further as well which can have a negative impact on existing relationships, family ties, even professional life. Ultimately, it is likely to have a very significant impact on a person's mental health.

BG: Of course, naturally.

BG Green and Black Cross Group Manchester 2023

Green and Black Cross Group

GK: Then again there are other significant aspects. The question of finding one's identity and purpose within a movement; finally seeing that a change can be achieved and advocated for through collective action; network-building, finding like-minded people. So, there is a lot to consider, there is a lot of potential for life-changing happenings. Social movements also need to support activists more. Whether that support will be on a movement by movement basis, or it adopts the lines of something like the Green and Black Cross Group where an independent body of volunteer counsellors are established to support movements.

This is something both Ian and I want to interrogate further. The mediated manipulation of activism and activists has raised profound mental health and well-being issues for social movements, and to neglect working on those can cause high risk to individuals and to the work of the movements for social justice.

BG: Due to the absolute derelict state the UK is in at the moment I'm certain there are many, many conscientious readers and listeners out there who have seriously considered political activism of some sort but then again, on a personal level, is it worth the risk?

GK: There is always a risk but there are a couple of important things to bear in mind. Engaged democratic mobilisation for change that operates through a perspective of care and conviviality is much stronger on the left than it is on the right politically. It is opposed to the neoliberalist stance that promotes the destruction of the social through increased focus on the individual. We mentioned well-being and personal transformations that individuals undergo when they get involved in activism, and that's not to scare or put anyone off, it's to highlight how all-encompassing such transformations can be. And I think it's important for the movements to remember that they are creating lasting networks where peer support and education must be and it must remain one of the priorities and, hopefully, external players being aware of what activism entails. The various aspects and sometimes risks, they can also contribute to the societal change by offering their support and promoting and facilitating the culture of collaboration between different networks and groups.

The political right is far less about conviviality and much more about the spectacle and Donald Trump is an example of this above all others. Late capitalist democracy is very skilled at appropriating the tools of activism and converting them into commodified commercial opportunities, but activism isn't static either. What this means is that as activists we must always be adapting, growing and evolving. By assuming the approach we are now adopting that will affect change we will essentially be walking those techniques into the hands of those we are opposing, so only by being agile and creative we can keep ahead.

BG: Many thanks for your time, insights and patience, Giedre.

‘Protests and the Media: A Critical Event Studies Exploration into the Future of Protest’ is available now via the Routledge website.

Disturbing Blacks in Custody
Thursday, 18 April 2024 13:52

Disturbing Blacks in Custody

Published in Poetry

Disturbing Blacks in Custody

by Jenny Mitchell

One by one, I free them from the cells,
trudging back to pick up bodies in torn clothes,
placed screaming in handcuffs, enslaved
for raving at dark clouds, black
a constant threat, beaten by new masters in blue-
bruised uniforms till every breath dies down.

They’re carried gently in my arms, hardly
any weight at all as if the spirit once disturbed –
crying out for God, arms waving in the street –
was lightened when they called for Help!
in the prison cell, or failed to breathe
that word, arm clamped across their throats.

I lay the bodies on the ground in a careful row
even when it rains so they can be baptised
before the soil becomes a shroud. We’ll pray
for those who lived close to the edge, tipped
over by their nights in jail, not helped
to stand, unbalanced by the past.

It flowed inside their blood, wrists clamped
in chains abroad slave ships, crying out
for women raped by overseers in high cane,
made to hold that pain for generations. If only
we could see ourselves reflected in each face,
know there’s no such thing as lawful death.

Subtracted
Thursday, 18 April 2024 13:52

Subtracted

Published in Poetry

Subtracted

by Dee Allen, with image from the Black and Missing Foundation

Sisters aren't valued
In this world of ours
Seen nowhere on the streets
Not the hospitals, malls or bars

Because they're

Missing
Subtracted
From the city
Headcount cut down in size.

Sisters aren't respected
In this world of ours
Yet their kin are fraught w/ worry.
Long absence digs in the scars

Because they're

Missing
Subtracted
From the city
Headcount fell before our eyes.

Sisters, mothers,
Aunties, lovers

Our hearts—snatched up suddenly.

Sisters, mothers,
Aunties, lovers

Police won't help—where could they be?

[Written in response to the Black women missing and murdered in Kansas City, Missouri U.S.A.]

Culture for All: Why Children's Literature Matters
Thursday, 18 April 2024 13:52

Culture for All: Why Children's Literature Matters

Published in Fiction

As part of the Culture for All series we're proud to present a short film about children's literature by Kim Reynolds, followed by the text of her talk

Why Children’s Literature Matters

People often ask me why I study children’s literature. The question comes from the misconception that children’s books are merely a stepping stone to ‘real’ books. In fact, they provide the platform through which most children enter culture and learn to think about the world. What I find particularly exciting is the way that children’s literature, whether in the form of told stories, printed material or performances, contribute to the social, political and aesthetic transformation of culture.

One way they do this is by encouraging young readers to challenge received opinion and approaching ideas, issues, people, problems and places from new perspectives as when the child in Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ speaks truth to power. Such stories help children and young people to recognise the fallibility of those in power and that the way the world is organised is not inevitable, meaning it can be changed.

As well as offering new perspectives, children’s writers and illustrators frequently reimagine the world as it is, was and might be. Think, for instance, of how many folk and fairy tales show the weak and marginalised in society triumphing over the rich and powerful. In the interwar years children’s writers such as Geoffrey Trease championed workers over masters and told of injustices endured by ordinary people in many parts of the world.

Such stories have come to be known as ‘radical children’s literature’, a body of writing with a clear set of characteristics and ambitions. These are to

- encourage social change
- introduce new visions of society
- assume the young are socially aware, competent and interested in improving society
- give readers the skills, ideas, and information necessary to effect change
- aim for a stable, fair and equal society
- feature all kinds of children, and
- value youthful opinions.

The potential for resistance and transformation

In other words, radical children’s literature sees both children and children’s literature as important in themselves and as replete with transformational potential.

Radical writing has existed from the beginnings of children’s literature, contributing to cultural revolutions and campaigns of resistance. Some of the earliest children’s books looked to the rising generation to help eradicate forms of injustice such as slavery. Thomas Day’s bestselling novel, Sandford and Merton, published in instalments in the 1780s, rails against the corrupting influence of the slave trade on British life. In it, Tommy Merton, who began life in Jamaica as the pampered son of a British plantation owner, is introduced to a former slave now living in England. Learning how this man grew up, was captured, abused, and became free, makes Tommy question the very system that provides his wealth. By influencing young British readers, Day’s book helped to prepare the way for the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.

Slavery and racism have not disappeared, of course, meaning radical children’s literature must continue to inform each generation of its pernicious effects in their own time. 

A notable example is Journey to Jo’burg (1985), by the South African-born writer, Beverly Naidoo. This tale of two black children living under apartheid graphically illustrates of the realities of the brutal injustices of that regime. Banned in Naidoo’s native country, the book was published to acclaim in Britain.

Today, radical children’s literature informs readers of the many ways BAME people have and continue to contribute to British life and culture over time, from Catherine Johnson’s books about people of colour who have been erased from history to Dean Atta’s Black Flamingo (2019), an upbeat verse novel about a mixed race drag artist. It also highlights the prejudices and obstacles encountered by migrants and refugees who have come to the UK to find safety and a better way of life.

Addressing classism and celebrating working-class culture

As the example of slavery shows, from its inception, radical children’s literature has combatted discrimination of all kinds, at home and in other countries. In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a particular focus on the way the British class system blighted lives and divided families. An important strategy for addressing classism in children’s books was to celebrate working-class lives and culture, as in Alan Garner’s Stone Book Quartet (1976-8) and the Nippers reading scheme conceived by Leila Berg and launched in 1968.  One Nippers author, Jacqueline Wilson, is one of the most popular children’s writers of recent years. She grew up on a council estate and regularly writes books that explore and validate the lives of children and families affected by economic deprivation.  

Other issues regularly featured in radical writing today include prejudice based on biological sex, sexual orientation, religion and age. Some of the most effective ways of bringing about change come from works that appreciate and celebrate difference. That said, the ambit of radical writers and illustrators is wide. Other significant topics regularly addressed in radical children’s literature include pacifism, access to health, education and opportunities, living conditions, children’s rights, size, disability and caring for the planet.

Radical children’s books have been highlighting environmental issues and encouraging children to care for nature for decades. In the last century, when the impact of industrialisation, over-population and excessive consumption was beginning to be understood, books about animals and the environment became popular. Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax (1971) warned against environmental destruction, while Colin Dann’s bestselling series, The Animals of Farthing Wood (1979), showed humans’ impact on animals’ lives. These themes live on, for instance, in the award winning novels of Gill Lewis, vet and wildlife activist.

Radical writers have for long warned about the consequences of human action on the planet. The turn of the millennium saw a great many stories in which the future is shown as difficult and unfair because resources are scare on a depleted and damaged planet. Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles (2001-6) are set in the far-distant future after the world we know was blasted with weapons that have permanently blighted it.

Such devastating critiques of humans’ actions can lead to feelings of hopelessness, but radical children’s literature as a body of work strives to balance such warnings with the belief that situations can be improved. Some books focus on collective action and political solutions. For instance, Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach (1991) combines informative history with magical realist adventures to tell the story of American labour unions and the underground railroad. Other books feature child characters helping to stop pollution, caring for endangered species, standing up to bullies, speaking out about abuse, and generally preparing themselves to help bring about a more socially just and sustainable world.

Given the many very real threats to the planet, peace, global economics and health, there is a great need for radical writing that will prepare, sustain and encourage young readers to become young activists.

As the links below show, there are a great many resources that provide lists and descriptions of books that promote progressive change. Some good places to start are:

The Little Rebels Book Award

Liverpool Learning Partnership Diversity 

The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education 

Booktrust provides lists on various topics including Black Lives Matter

The journal Books for Keeps runs a regular feature on BAME representation in children’s books

And here are some other useful links, on classism, diversity and activism 

Thursday, 18 April 2024 13:52

Statues, Context and Historical Narrative: Statues Glorifying Colonialism are a Bad Idea!

Published in Visual Arts

Stuart Cartland discusses the recent attacks on statues in Canada

The toppling of the statues of British monarchs in Canada recently is a hugely symbolic moment of reflection on the legacy of British colonialism. It is also feeding a wider anti-woke backlash from the right.

Following on from the toppling, and subsequent throwing of the Colston statue into Bristol harbour last year, the recent toppling of statues of British monarchs in Canada come as poignant, symbolic acts that coincide with the uncovering of hundreds of remains from the residential school system in Canada. These places sought to culturally assimilate indigenous children who were, more often than not, forced to attend. The toppling of these public monuments represents a reckoning with the very real horrors of colonialism and empire upon the First Nations people and seeks to challenge dominant narratives concerning the past.

We often walk past or don’t even recognise public statues. Who they are and what they represent are often so taken for granted and unchallenged that they are just part of a passive acceptance of social and cultural history. However, until one is defaced or toppled this prompts a contested ideologically motivated defence of what they might represent, and to who and if they should be celebrated or glorified at all. Indeed, for there to be a very large public statue of someone in a particular location this indicates a dominant and very public celebration of that person, what they did or an era they represent and a very particular narrative associated with them.

Statues are symbolic representations not objective fact, although this has been deliberately conflated by the political right. By the same token, history is not objective fact but reinterpretation of tenuous links to past events viewed through the prism of the contemporary world. Nevertheless, statues are rejected because what they symbolically represent is rejected. So a statue of Queen Elizabeth II is toppled in Canada in the twenty-first century not because she is a slave-owning, empire-promoting colonialist seeking to culturally obliterate or assimilate First Nations peoples, but because statues of British monarchs represent (in this case) colonialism – and not only that but the impact empire and colonialism had (and continues to has) upon First Nations people.

The toppling of these statues is thus a huge symbolic action which signifies a very public highlighting of the rejection of colonialism and racial injustice, highlights the hugely destructive legacy and impact colonialism and empire has had, and signifies an end to passive acceptance and glorification of British colonialism. For many, this challenges an accepted understanding of the past and structures of power in the present.

Although the political right will be outraged at the toppling and defacement of statues of British monarchs (past and present) the point isn’t necessarily a rejection of the British monarchy. Indeed, the Queen as head of state in Canada still carries much widespread support; nevertheless it is what these monarchs represent – a system of colonial power and abuse, the systematic destruction of indigenous culture and communities and the imposition of British rule and cultural assimilation. Moreover, the recent statue-toppling also symbolically represent the contemporary and overt rejection of ‘business as usual’ in terms of passive acceptance of British and colonial legacy as being ‘good’ – it was not and largely is still not good for First Nations people, not only in Canada but also other former colonial possessions such as Australia.

Again, this will be rejected by the right as woke revisionist madness and extremism. Any contemporary comment on a legacy of the British empire that is anything other than an over-simplified glorification is unacceptable. Yet this long-held and dominant narrative must be challenged for the mythological and ideological obfuscation that it represents. The uncovering of the remains in Canada of hundreds of indigenous victims of a colonial system of abuse and cultural genocide is not a shock, and comes on the back of the expansion into the mainstream dialogue of the BLM movement and a highlighting of the extremes of white supremacism and historical, systematic inequalities. These structural injustices must be exposed and challenged.

The Colescott Chronicles Part I: breaking free of the shackles of colour blindness and abstract art
Thursday, 18 April 2024 13:52

The Colescott Chronicles Part I: breaking free of the shackles of colour blindness and abstract art

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe presents the first of a two-part topical study of Robert Colescott, whose politically committed art tackled issues of unequal racial and gender representation, and the history of racial exploitation and domination in the U.S.

One of the founding members of New Black Art just reaped the rewards of his painterly prowess. Robert Colescott’s monumental George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware (above) recently sold for $15.3 million and is thus far the highlight purchase of the George Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Art, scheduled to open in Los Angeles in 2023.

This was nearly 17 times what any previous Colescott painting sold for and unfortunately the artist, who died in 2009, will not reap the rewards.

The painting, which shows a ragtag band of black workers in their professions and at leisure in a ragged vessel with a patch that could at any moment spring a leak, is a satirical rendering of the 1851 staple of Americana Washington crossing the Delaware. Colescott’s humorous rendition was described by the Lucas Museum head as “racially, socially and historically charged” and “at once a contemporary and historical work of art.”

That description suits Colescott’s art as a whole, which emerges after a long and arduous journey out of the dominant mode of American painting when he entered the field, Abstract Expressionism, through his engagement with Egyptian art, and his own, sometimes hilarious, sometimes painful, observations and experience with the legacy of colonialism and racism. These insights led him to raid the treasure trove of Western art to imprint his own stamp on it in a way that was more expansion of Black representation in line with the work of artists, filmmakers and television showrunners today than simple “appropriation.”

dbart 2

Colescott was born in Oakland in 1925 after a westward migration of his parents described in his painting 1919 (above). In it his mother, an African-American who identified as white, in white dress and green hat with a bow, and his father, with mixed African and Native American heritage in army fatigues bearing the mark of the Buffalo Soldier, face off on opposite sides of the country. His father was a jazz musician who was forced instead to work on the traditional Negro job as a Pullman conductor. Colescott, his mother’s favourite, as a teenager “passed” by enlisting into the army as white, fighting with a Caucasian unit in World War II. It wasn’t until an extended trip to Egypt, where he discovered a history of Black Art, that he stopped passing - denying his African-American heritage - at the same time as he definitively discontinued a flirtation with abstract art. 

A second major influence on Colescott was his study in Paris with the cubist Fernand Leger in 1949, courtesy of the G.I. Bill. After Leger returned from the U.S. after the war, he abandoned the abstract Cubist inheritance for a figurative style that was still highly stylized, with meticulous straight lines crisscrossing the composition. But the compositions themselves now incorporated some of the direct language of advertising, being stark oblongs of figures designed to be accessible to ordinary people. Leger refused to look at Colescott’s Cubist abstract renderings and instead steered the young painter toward the kind of representational exhibited in Leger’s own Construction Workers, a kaleidoscope of workers rebuilding France after the war, including an Algerian worker as a centrepiece. Colescott later reworked this motif in the American context as Hard Hats, showing the hierarchy of white American workers with black workers surrounding them and underpinning their labor.

The major change in Colescott’s work though occurred because of two sojourns in Egypt where he was confronted with 3000 years of Black Art. He was particularly enamored with the paintings in an ancient burial site in the ruins of The Valley of the Queens. These tomb murals of Nubian female royalty had figures floating freely in space everywhere surrounded with splashes of pure colour. Colescott incorporated this freedom and this concentration on the Black female form into a series he did at the time, a highlight of which is 1967’s depictions of one of these queens in Nihad in the New World, with the title suggesting his wish to transport what he learned in Egypt to the African-American context at home. The importance of Egypt to Colescott and Colescott to Egypt was acknowledged in the recent “Robert Colescott: The Cairo Years” exhibit at the American University of Cairo. My exhibition talk on Colescott is available here

Along with this immersion in a tradition of Black Art went his being thrown into the turbulence of the 1960s. First he was forced to flee Egypt because of the onset of the Arab-Israeli Six Days War, thus experiencing Middle Eastern colonialism firsthand, and then he returned to the political hotbed of San Francisco as the Vietnam War Protest and Haight Asbury counterculture reached its peak in 1968.

As Colescott made the transition from pure abstraction to a more socially and politically committed art, a journey that was not validated at the time in the art world, he was sustained by his university connections, the last place artists could find public support for their work, due to the dominance of abstract art in the gallery system.

Here though he was also thwarted. He wanted to be full time faculty at Berkeley, where he had gone to school, but was passed over for a job. He finally went to the University of Arizona at Tucson, where he became the first faculty member in the art department to receive the prestigious title of Regent’s Professor.

From Social Expressionism to Abstract Expressionism and back again

The triumph of Abstract Expressionism in the postwar 1940s and 1950s and its subsequent influence on conceptualism, minimalism, serialism etc. was accomplished at the height of the Cold War with the blessing of the CIA, and through the silencing of two other currents of modernism, the American Social Expressionists and the Mexican Muralists, both of whom retained the political thrust of earlier modernist movements.

This suppression, detailed in my book Cold War Expressionism: Perverting the Politics of Perception, subtitled Bombast, Blacklists and Blockades in the Postwar Art World, saw the work of the Popular Front artists of the 1930s and ’40s dumped on the market and sold for pennies. Their work was outlawed in the prestigious galleries which came into prominence with the decline of government support for an art of the people. What grew up alongside what the banker and later vice-president Nelson Rockefeller termed “free enterprise painting” was a privatization of visual art, was designed to be consumed by the burgeoning postwar corporate elite.

The high priest of the movement, the critic Clement Greenberg, urged artists to re-engage with “those to whom…[art] actually belongs – our ruling class.” Tom Braden made the apparently not very arduous leap from the executive secretary of the Rockefeller’s Museum of Modern Art, the temple of Abstract Expressionism, to the CIA’s director of cultural affairs. There he extolled the virtues of the new abstraction which he claimed “constituted the ideal style” now that its artists had “left behind [their] earlier interest in political activism.”

The artists themselves had mixed views about this adoption of their art where once monumental murals that expressed social struggle were replaced by large-scale abstract gaudy color schemes, such as the yellows and reds of Mark Rothko’s 1953 Untitled No 10, colours that announced the global triumph of American consumerism in works that now hung on suburban walls and in corporate lobbies.

Meanwhile, the political artists, who had been supported by the government in the New Deal 1930s were now forced into exile – for example, the artist Alice Neel, currently the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, had to move to Spanish Harlem. There, she painted portraits of its inhabitants and grey, dingy landscapes such as Rag in Window, that expressed the loneliness of her political exile and contrasted with the productivist, corporate spirit of that other symbol of the New York landscape – the skyscraper.

Another prominent political artist, Jacob Lawrence, who described himself as an expressionist painter and whose subject matter centered on ordinary black workers, also fell on hard times and, at the height of this Cold War repression, had a mental breakdown and spent a year in an asylum. His work was scattered to the four winds and a recent painting, ironically of farmers contesting the power of the government in Shay’s Rebellion as part of the series “The American Struggle,” has recently been recovered after it was passed around and sold at a charity art auction.

The other suppressed movement prominent in this period, which Colescott when he came out as Social Expressionist would have affinities towards, was that of the Mexican Muralists, and particularly in the 1950s and ’60s the work and path of David Alfaro Siqueiros. The movement vied for renown with the Abstract Expressionists at the 1950 Venice Biennale. It was a triumph and then toured Europe where it was finally savaged by French critics – with American backing – and re-confined to Mexico. It didn’t re-surface in the American consciousness until last year’s thoroughgoing reexamination at New York’s Whitney Museum in the wake of which it was claimed the Mexican Muralist’s were more important as influences on American modernism than French artists.

dbart 3 resized

Siqueiros was one of the first to represent the female Mexican indigenous body in a corporeal way, in for example 1924’s Peasant Mother. That might have sensitized Colescott in his later representation of many shades of African and African-American female bodies, most notably in his 1986 Picasso takeoff Les Demoiselles d’Alabama (above). Colescott, who had watched Diego Rivera’s painting of a mural of the Golden Gate Bridge, also had in common with Siqueiros the journey to Egypt where in ’65 Siqueiros declared himself to be in favour of the non-aligned movement in an extended stay in Nasser’s Egypt.

Colescott himself satirized the gallery-collector system of privatized and marketized or commodified art in his work Tea for Two (below)Colescott appears as himself, a hip black artist in checkerboard pants, leaning languidly on the fireplace of an affluent home. The artist knows what sells, how to brand himself, and how to appeal to the sexualized white female rich collector who gazes at him. The curlicue wafting of the artist’s cigarette and the tea is picked up in the abstract designs on the canvas the artist is peddling. A black servant delivers the tea, highlighting the structure of racial inequality that underpins the entire arrangement. 

2017.128 o10

Colescott’s work in breaking free of the legacy of Abstract Expressionism, detailed in Part II (to come), would be a sustained challenge to the still formidable injunction that art should properly remain silent on the world’s increasingly more violent devastation under a form of capitalism where greed knows no bounds; or that art’s sole role must be confined to obscure and wry comments on its place in a certain highly limited and reified area of commodity exchange. In the 1980s and 90s Colescott would move beyond Tea for Two to take on wider issues of unequal racial and gender representation and to put on display the ways the U.S. postcolonial system was built on a history of racial exploitation and domination. 

CAMRA at 50: will it combat Big Beer?
Thursday, 18 April 2024 13:52

CAMRA at 50: will it combat Big Beer?

Published in Eating & Drinking

Keith Flett mulls over CAMRA's history and its options for future campaigning activity

CAMRA is 50 years old in March. That is quite an achievement for a voluntary campaign, implying at least renewal through several generations of activists, something which is often hard to achieve. It now has 170,000 members and most will be active at least in the sense of promoting CAMRA’s raison d’etre, the production and drinking of good beer.

It is not a party political organisation or, in the main, a campaign that takes capital ‘P’ political decisions. After all drinkers of decent beer come with all kinds of opinions and none. All that said of course there are politics. That can’t be avoided for any campaign that operates in a capitalist market economy.

CAMRA is neither pro or anti-capitalist as such but strongly in favour of a ‘moral economy’ of beer. That is, a society where brewers and publicans can make a fair profit but the quality, price and supply of beer are influenced by ordinary drinkers.

When CAMRA started the outlook for beer and pubs was poor indeed. There had been a long process, accelerating from the 1950s, of brewery consolidation. That meant takeovers and closures. By the early 1970s beer in Britain was very largely controlled by what was known as the Big Six – giant brewing concerns such as Courage, Watneys and Whitbread. Since the breweries also owned most of the pubs, that meant a significant restriction of choice for the drinker at the bar. To put it in perspective, in 2021 London has well over 100 independent breweries. 50 years ago there were just two – Fullers and Youngs.

There was also the question of the beer the Big Six were producing. With the consolidation big brewing operations brought , cost reduction was looked for. That meant a move away from traditional cask beer to pasteurised keg beer, which was much easier to transport and keep in the pub without cellaring skills. One problem was that for many beer drinkers this cold, fizzy beer, served under gas pressure, was either tasteless or had a distinctly unpleasant taste. A related problem was often that as breweries owned the pubs, there was little escape from keg.

The beer writer Richard Boston wrote in his 1970s Guardian column of areas of East Anglia where if you didn’t want the Watneys Red Barrel served in one pub you could always try another. The problem was that also sold Watneys. There was a lot for CAMRA to oppose and that meant it had no choice but to confront the Big Six, aka Big Beer. That meant a range of campaigning tactics. The Big Six were lampooned – Watneys became Grotnys and Whitbread Twitbread. Pubs were boycotted and those that sold traditional cask ale promoted. The first Good Beer Guide to CAMRA-approved pubs appeared in 1974. At the same time campaigning pressure was exerted on the Big Six to draw back from keg and start selling cask beer again. Over time this campaigning pressure worked. Allied breweries were first producing a cask Burton Ale from 1976. Even Watneys finally gave in and brewed Fined Bitter real ale.

CAMRA pressure on large companies had its impact. They had to change their strategies and plans. Capital constantly revolutionises itself, or tries to, however and no battle against it within its framework is ever definitively won. The Big Six had to return to cask beer and more pubs now sold it. But the choice remained very limited. In early Good Beer Guides, symbols were used to show the range of beer available. To stretch beyond a mild, an ordinary and best or special bitter was unusual. Beer from the remaining independent breweries – around 100 of them – was very hard to come by, outside of their own local area.

CAMRA’s focus shifted to an extent to lobbying for changes in the law, under a Tory Government. No easy matter clearly, but it was achieved. The Beer Orders restricted the number of a pubs a brewery could own. That meant pubs were sold and saw the rise of pub companies. At the same time there was legal provision for a guest beer to be sold in pubs which were tied to particular breweries. Again it was a pursuit of the moral economy strategy of CAMRA – not ending the control of capital but tempering it in the interests of drinkers.

That was 30 years ago and capital has not stood still since. If the first wave of Big Beer had been successfully grappled with by CAMRA, a new wave appeared that posed significant new challenges. If you want a pint of Courage Best or Whitbread Bitter you won’t find one in 2021. The Big Six companies that once dominated British brewing are long gone. Even the classic and benchmark pale ale, Bass, is hard to come by. Its recent history summaries well where Big Beer has now gone.

The Bass brewery in Burton is owned by Molson Coors, a US/Canadian brewing giant. The actual beer however is owned by another huge brewing operation, ABInBev. It is based in Belgium but has significant interests across the world – in Latin America and South Africa, for example. However, it has contracted out the brewing of the beer to Marstons, one of the larger UK-based brewers and pub companies. Or it was – in 2020 it sold a majority stake in its brewing operations to Danish brewer Carlsberg.

Grappling with UK brewers as CAMRA did successfully in the 1970s and 1980s is one thing. Trying to take on global brands is a rather different matter. The focus has shifted to some extent to supporting those larger brewers that remained UK owned – albeit often supporters of the Tory Party. However Big Beer has marched on here as well. As well as Marstons, Fullers’ brewing operations were brought by Japanese brewer Asahi and Greene King is now owned by a Hong Kong businessman. Nor has it stopped there. Some of the larger craft brewers whose backgrounds had rested on the idea of independence from Big Beer have ended up being swallowed by it. Heineken has a 49% stake in Beavertown while ABInBev owns Camden.

This is not a counsel of despair. CAMRA remains a large organisation with the capacity to campaign and influence. It’s fairly clear though that on its 50th birthday the original model – even with later tweaks – of promoting a moral economy of beer, not anti-capitalist but for a constraining influence on it, needs to be re-thought.

Firstly, CAMRA could do more to combat Big Beer on a global basis. Consumer organisations around beer, like CAMRA, exist in a number of European countries and the US. There are long-standing links which could be developed and mobilised further. That is easier now using global communications apps like Zoom. The trade union and anti-war movements have been co-ordinating activity across the world for a while.

Secondly, CAMRA could look to build on its original campaigning focus. It’s very good at lobbying MPs and Government for legislative changes, but the protests of the 1970s about brewery closures or takeovers are now rare. To some extent this relates to an ageing membership, but with the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, it’s clear that the mood to protest which was there in the early days of CAMRA is back again.

In practice both of these could be done, but a lot does depend on managing to engage and mobilise younger drinkers in a way CAMRA did so successfully 50 years ago.

Thursday, 18 April 2024 13:52

Whose Son Next? 

Published in Poetry

Whose Son Next? 
(i.m. Trayvon Martin 26th February 2012)

by 

The Incident

A boy’s walking back to his dad’s
girlfriend’s place in Sanford, Florida
with a pack of Skittles, can of Arizona
iced tea from the 7-Eleven for his bro,

in time for the NBA All-Stars game.
Earphones in, he’s chatting to his girl,
oblivious; it’s early, no-one’s around,
no reason for vigilance.

A man cruises by in a truck, self-appointed
neighbourhood watch vigilante,
George Zimmerman, looking for trouble;
thinks his luck is in, he’s found it.

He calls 911, reports a real suspicious guy…
up to no good, on drugs or something.
It’s raining and he’s just walking around
looking about. This is Zimmerman’s

46th 911 call since the New Year.
And he’s a black male… something’s wrong
with him… got something in his hands…
These assholes, they always get away.

Shit, he’s running! The operator thinks
he’s left his vehicle to run after the male.
Are you following him? Yep.
OK, we don’t need you to do that.

Trayvon tells his girlfriend a stranger’s
following him. She tells him to run, hears
him say, What are you following me for?
The reply, What are you doing round here?

She hears shoving and the line goes dead.
It is 7.16pm. Police arrive on the scene
at 7.17. Trayvon’s lying on the ground
fatally wounded, a bullet in his chest.

Freeze-frame the scene right here. Imagine
you’re a cop who’s just jumped out.
A black boy is on the ground, barely alive,
a man’s brandishing a gun, admits

he shot the youth but claims self-defence.
You’ve seen crime dramas, know the score;
paramedics try everything, police cuff
the gunman, get statements off neighbours

who called 911. Wrong. This is Florida: the law
allows anyone to ‘stand their ground’, fire
a gun if they think they’re under threat.
The man’s not breathalysed, arrested or charged.

Nicknamed Crazy-Legs because he never sat still,
the boy will be taken to the morgue in a body bag,
his corpse tested for alcohol and drugs – negative.
Despite slurring his speech, Zimmerman goes home.

Aftermath

March 2012 and still no arrest: hundreds
of students at Trayvon’s High School hold
a walkout in support. A white supremacist ‘s

hacked Trayvon’s email and twitter, making
selective posts on The Daily Caller and Gawker
to suggest violations, violent tendencies.

The day before the funeral in Miami,
more than a thousand queue to view
Trayvon’s remains, pay their respects.

2.2 million sign an online petition, seeking full
investigation and Zimmerman’s prosecution;
police still claiming no grounds for arrest.

Trayvon’s parents, Tracy and Sybrina,
contact Benjamin Crump, civil rights
attorney, who takes on the case, pro bono.

The Million Hoodie March is held
in Manhattan, against racial profiling
of non-white youths in hoodies.

Media coverage of Trayvon Martin
overtakes reporting on the presidential
race. Obama goes on record – If I had

a son he would look like Trayvon.
Romney calls for an inquiry so justice
can be carried out… with integrity.
Whose Son Next? Page 3

44 days on, Zimmerman’s arrested
and charged. In June the Martins deliver
a petition with 340,000 signatures asking

for changes to the stand-your-ground law.
The task force eventually reports back,
recommending against repealing the statute.

July 10th 2013, the case goes to court.
Zimmerman pleads innocent to murder
and manslaughter. On July 13th

the jury – 6 women, 5 white, 1 black –
agree and acquit him. Obama says Trayvon
Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.

A girl posts online – black lives
matter – the message goes viral
and a movement is born.

3 years after the shooting, the US Justice
Department closes its investigation,
will not bring a civil rights charge

as the killing was not race-based,
not motivated by hatred. Trayvon’s
parents’ hearts are broken again.

Repercussions

Is this where the story ends?
Well, no. Tracy and Sybrina set up
a foundation in Trayvon’s name

to support other parents who’ve lost
their children to violence.
Rest in Power takes 5 years

to write. We don’t portray
Trayvon as being an angel…
but he was our angel.

Zimmerman sells the gun
he used to kill, online,
for 138,900 dollars,

claims some of the proceeds
will be used to fight
Black Lives Matter violence
Whose Son Next? Page 4

against law enforcement
officers. He’s currently suing
Trayvon’s parents for 100 million

dollars for defamation, conspiracy
and malicious prosecution
in the Trayvon hoax.

Coda

In the picture I have of you
the pale grey hood of a sweatshirt
haloes your adolescent face.

You could be any age between thirteen
and seventeen, faint line of hair
on your lip, ghost of a future moustache;
that vulnerable, frightened stage boys
go through. I should know – my son
was nine months younger than you
when you were killed.

The wary look, retreating into
the hoodie’s safe space.
Over and over your eyes
challenge –
How could you let this happen?

I didn’t have to teach my son
to be frightened of all white men,
especially on streets after dark;
the drill for being stopped by cops –
hands in the air, call them sir, ma’am,
keep your voice low, respectful
and never, ever answer back.

What I can do now is honour you, Trayvon,
and all the other Americans who lost
their black lives and for whom justice
was found wanting. Your lives mattered,
they matter and I can no longer stare at
your photo and say I did nothing.

She Died Alone
Thursday, 18 April 2024 13:52

She Died Alone

Published in Poetry

She Died Alone

by Mike Jenkins

She died there in hospital,
no husband, Sissy, daughter Ingrid
no church kin around her
and at her funeral of regulation 10
her own Lusamba saw the coffin
and could not imagine her within.

She was a mother to everyone
who was blown into Victoria station
lost for food or direction,
took them home like injured creatures
fed them till they were strong
watched them fly, never to return.

The concourse deserted like Christmas Eve
only without the straggling drunkards
or last-minuters wandering homewards,
when a man cursed and spat hatred
announcing that he had Covid
(though he later tested negative).

She'd worked all hours overtime
to send money home to her mother;
they made her work without PPE
sickness made her vulnerable to disease.
She died alone, the banners remember
outside her station chants of – 'Justice for Belly Mujinga!'

Belly Mujinga was a ticket controller who worked at Victoria station, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She died on April 5th of Covid-19. She was spat on by a man who claimed he had Covid, though later tested negative. She had been working without PPE. ‘Justice for Belly Mujinga’ was a vital part of recent BLM protests.

“Radio Station: Harlem”: Listening to Langston Hughes
Thursday, 18 April 2024 13:52

“Radio Station: Harlem”: Listening to Langston Hughes

Published in Music

As increasingly militarised police forces and emboldened white supremacists provoke and attack people of colour and their allies, Ciarán O'Rourke shows the relevance of Langston Hughes' political poetry

“I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street,” recalled Langston Hughes of his first literary forays: songs that “had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.” The remark indicates in microform the emphasis and direction of Hughes's poetry in general: its blues-inflected verve and musicality; its demotic modernism and open-eyed, streets-up democracy; its refusal to ignore or reify the pain of poverty in American life, and the devastation of what W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the century had called “the color line”; its urge by contrast to pay tribute to the perseverance and creativity of 'his' people as a collective. “I am the darker brother”, Hughes wrote in one poem, partly addressed to Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, whose rollicksome, quasi-proletarian verses he credited as formative influences on his own work: “I, too, sing America.”

For Hughes, such a cultural mission could delight and inspire, revealing new depths and dimesnions to the national dream as it was lived by the masses, by communities of colour, by vast swathes of the population ordinarily rendered invisible by the literary and political mores of the time. In one early piece, he claimed fellowship with the “Dream-singers, / Story-tellers, / Dancers” of Harlem – a poetic comaraderie he likewise extended to “Elevator-boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers”. Against the harshness and desperation of contemporary experience in the nation's urban centres, the Missouri-born Hughes had an almost preternatural ability to tune in to the vibrant, rough-and-tumble clamour of local lives on their own frequency.

Colloquial sass and effortless cool

His portrait of “Lenox Avenue: Midnight” thus begins with colloquial sass and effortless cool: “The rhythm of life / Is a jazz rhythm, / Honey. / The gods are laughing at us.” For Hughes, this “jazz rhythm” was a sign of the times: of a new modernity shaped and sounded by black, largely working-class communities. But it was also a portal into American history. In one late poem, Hughes re-imagined the songs of enslaved Africans during the nineteenth century in its light, their voices sublimated – bursting finally free – in the form of the “Jazz!” concocted by “Jelly Roll's piano, / Buddy Bolden's trumpet, / Kid Ory's trombone”.

In his later years, Hughes was in fact criticised (including by a precocious James Baldwin) for his tendency to aestheticise black art and experience, speech and music, in the process creating stereotypes, his critics objected, that lesser (or outright hostile) writers could easily parody or dismiss. Hughes countered such critiques deftly, by highlighting the validity as well as the luminously many-storied tradition of writing from life in America, and farther afield. “The local, the regional can – and does – become universal”, Hughes responded, expressing sentiments shared (almost word for word) by contemporary modernists such as William Carlos Williams and Lola Ridge, before adding his own flavour to the tale: “Sean O’Casey’s Irishmen are an example. So I would say to young Negro writers, do not be afraid of yourself. You are the world.”

Just as Martin Luther King Jnr (whom Hughes came to know tangentially through the Civil Rights Movement) would later perceive in the African-American movement against “racism, militarism, and extreme materialism” in the United States the “arc of the moral universe” at large (bending slowly, King said, towards justice), so Hughes's supposedly local concerns were framed in an internationalist and “universal” perspective. “In the Johannesburg mines”, one piece read, in 1925,

There are 240,000
Native Africans working.
What kind of poem
Would you
Make out of that?

Hughes quietly draws a line of association between questions of race and labour in America and similiar patterns of erasure and exploitation abroad, while signalling the arrival of a poetry concerned less with mannered gentility or academic allusion than with mass, black experience per se. “I herd with the many”, Hughes had declared the previous year, “Caged in the circus of civilization.”

As the last image implies, to capture and distil down to its essentials the (African-)American experience could also be fraught with political and personal anguish. “All the way from Africa to Georgia”, Hughes wrote, “I carried my sorrow songs”, placing the blood-spattered record of American racism within a centuries-long context of European colonial policy and thought: “The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo. / They lynch me still in Mississippi.”

Communist sympathies

In the period in which Hughes lived and wrote, indeed, such lynchings were recurrent events, along with the systematised destruction of black property, from Mississippi to Oklahoma. De facto apartheid in the American South co-existed with more subtle forms of racial and social ostracism that remained in force across the Northern states. For all its ease of address and rhythmic exuberance, Hughes's poetry offered a chillingly close-focused catalogue of the agonising effects and insidious nature of such exclusions and abuses pervading American life. His work is populated by loner figures, suffering what Hughes once called “queer pain” (interpreted by some critics as a guarded reference to his own repressed Queerness, in a violently homophobic society). “Strange Hurt” recollects a woman whose behaviour seems mysterious and yet achingly familiar to the speaker:

In months of snowy winter
When cozy houses hold,
She'd break down doors
To wander naked
In the cold. 

As here, one of Hughes's great talents as a political writer was his ability to acknowledge the psychological complexity of the people and characters he described, without softening the often multi-pronged critiques of power his poems simultaneously sought to articulate.

As we've seen, Hughes's anti-racism and social sympathies were coupled with a profound recognition of the forms of economic exploitation and hierarchy that shaped the political landscape of the unfolding century, both at home and abroad. “I live on a park bench. / You, Park Avenue”, begins one piece, “Hell of a distance / Between us two.” Another goes so far as to imagine a time “When the land belongs to the famers / And the factories to the working men”, asserting triumphantly that “The U.S.A. when we take control / Will be the U.S.S.A. then” – a concise expression of Hughes's Soviet sympathies throughout the 1930s, beliefs for which (to his distress) he would later appear before Joseph McCarthy's House of Un-American Activities Committee on the accusation of Communist Party membership.

The episode was telling. For although Hughes is rightly recognised today as a chronicler of America's grassroots life and democratic culture, containing multitudes, by the early 1950s he had long been known (gaining the attention of FBI) as a leading critic of US exceptionalism in his work. “Strangely undemocratic doings take place in the shadow of 'the world's greatest democracy'”, Hughes observed, as governmental and military leaders approved the deployment of segregated American regiments in the fight against global fascism during the second world war. “We want the right to ride without Jim Crow in any conveyance carrying the traveling public”, he likewise wrote in 1944, replying to an editor seeking clarification as to the aims of the black struggle for equality and meaningful citizenship: “We want the right when traveling to dine in any restaurant or seek lodgings in any hotel or auto camp open to the public which our purse affords. (Any Nazi may do so.)”

To read Hughes's work in an early 21st century context is to be reminded of the vast discrepancies between aspiration and fact, and in particular the extended history of white supremacy (its protean endurance) in American society. In the mid-1980s, Gwendolyn Brooks purported to speak for all “those of us who knew Langston” when she described his presence on the literary scene as one that had “made us all better people” – yet this geniality and warmth on Hughes's part belied a deeply registered sense of the crimes on which the USA's prosperity and political life were built. “The wreckage of Democracy is likely to pile up behind that Jim Crow Car”, he summarised in the 1940s, a premonition based on the cruelty and immense burden of racist violence he saw lurking at the heart of freedom's new, self-proclaimed protector on the global stage.

The Black Prophetic tradition

“Way down south in Dixie,” Hughes had written amidst the wave of racial lynchings that swept across the South throughout the 1920s, “(Bruised body high in air) / I asked the white Lord Jesus / What was the use of prayer.” Two decades later, he was equally clear in his perception and condemnation of police brutality as a method of racial terror. “Hit me! Jab me! / Make me say I did it”, opens one poem, entitled “Third Degree”. “I looked and I saw / That man they call the Law”, reads another: “I had visions in my head / Of being laid out cold and dead.” The piece finishes on an admonitory note, anticipating Hughes's explosive understanding of the likely consequence of Harlem's “dream deferred” in 1951:

Now I do not understand
Why God don't protect a man
From police brutality.
Being poor and black,
I've no weapon to strike back
So who but the Lord
Can protect me?
We'll see.

Significantly, in both pieces Hughes deploys the religious language of what Cornel West has termed the Black Prophetic tradition, specifically as a means of highlighting the mutual bonds and necessity for self-organisation (and even self-defence) among communities of colour – in the face of systematic racial violence. As here, however, Hughes's most perennial and valuable insistence is on the capacity of ostensibly marginalized and subjugated peoples to voice their own experiences and shape their own stories – primarily by acknowledging themselves in one another, as Hughes himself attempted to do in verse. “Radio Station: Harlem”, opens one poem addressed to the people of the West Indies, “Wave Length: The Human Heart.”

Against the vista of entrenched social hostility and exclusion alluded to in the pieces above, then, Hughes was unafraid to offer elegy and denunciation: a politics of feeling and poetics of response that would shake loose the social blindfolds preventing his fellow citizens (as he always perceived them) from recognising the terrifying reality of racism in America. But his poetry also gleams with the dance and flow of life on the move: hums and sings with living voices. “Folks, I'm telling you, / birthing is hard / and dying is mean”, reads one fragment of poetic plainsong, “so get yourself / a little loving / in between.”

The result is that Hughes's work stands less as a static archive of gone time, catering to a merely historical interest, than as a stereoscopic unreeling of riffs and scenes that seem, somehow, to involve us still, beckoning us into a world both theirs and ours. “I play it cool / And dig all jive. / That's the reason / I stay alive”, runs Hughes's “Motto” – a precursor to Gwedolyn Brooks's iconic snapshot and street-corner rap, “We Real Cool”. Today, Hughes's vim remains infectious, his observational intimacy both enveloping and fresh.

Politically, too, Hughes speaks to us in our time. As monuments to Confederate generals of the American South and the merchants and genocidal monarchs of European imperialism are toppled, as increasingly militarised police forces and emboldened white supremacists deploy strategies of violence and provocation against communities of colour and their allies, his poetry offers both consolation and guidance. Hughes consoles: in his perennial capacity to side with and celebrate the self-activity of communities who exist in defiance of those lines of colour and class that power would draw across the map of our collective life. And he is a guide for our age, in the combination of clarity and dream, political fire and poetic soul, he carries to the fray of action: the not-yet-written pages of a future in which he heard, as we might do, the street-songs forming anew, the music of people who keep on going, going strong.

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