Point of View Columns

Weekend Edition – March 18, 2011

The weekend begins with breaking news as Jean-Bertrand Aristide returns to Haiti less than 48 hours before the election, accompanied by……Danny Glover (and what could Mr. Glover be thinking?). Meanwhile the critics of President Obama continue to unite over anything and everything that he might do. And what on earth could be the reason for hurling insults at Japan as it endures the combination of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster?

Finally, you are invited to visit the “Be My Guest” feature of Point of View to read a column by Professor Pamela Newkirk regarding her absolutely fascinating book “Between the Lines – The Power of African American Letters”. You will be doing yourself a great favor by taking the time to read it.

Really Danny Glover? Really?

The tragic aspects of Haitian history are well known. Haiti’s recent history has been marked by challenges of almost biblical proportions.

It is a testament to the good will of many Haitians, both in Haiti and in the diaspora, that elections will be held on March 20th that hold the promise of being free and fair. The presidential candidates, Michel Martelly and Mirlande Manigat, have engaged in a vigorous contest right until the final day.

As the fragile tendrils of democracy and transparency try to take root in Haiti, it is incomprehensible that Danny Glover, the famous actor, activist and humanitarian, would take it upon himself to escort former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristede back to Port Au Prince today.

Both presidential candidates and President Obama have asked that Mr. Aristede delay his return until after the election for concern that his presence at this point could destabilize a very fragile democratic process.

Since Mr. Aristede has not participated in any part of the elections and is not supporting either candidate, there would seem to be reason enough for him to agree to wait in South Africa where he has lived in luxury for the past six years (the source of that luxury is another story for another time).

Instead, Danny Glover has seen fit to bring a torch to gasoline refinery. Given the tragedy and pain and suffering that the Haitian people have suffered historically and recently, it is just wrong for Mr. Glover to participate in this potentially destabilizing event. His prior relief work and support of reconstruction is laudable and it makes his current actions baffling.

If Mr. Aristede wishes to distract and disturb the electoral process he must ultimately answer to the Haitian people for any disruption that takes place on March 20th. But to whom will Mr. Glover answer as he jets back to the United States, not having to live with the consequences of his high profile escort of Mr. Aristede?

Hopefully the elections will be fair and free of the intervention of negative forces. But there is simply no reason to increase the degree of difficulty at this point in the history of Haiti.

Critics of Obama Unite!

Since he was inaugurated, President Obama has had to accept the reality that, for some people, whatever he chose to do would be considered wrong.

The latest example of this is related to the turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East. As encrusted oligarchies in Tunisia and Egypt tumbled President Obama was critiqued for the timing of his support for agents of change in these countries even though his measured support resulted in the desired regime change and accompanying good will throughout the region.

Libya has proven to be a very different situation as the entrenched dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, has shown no inclination to leave and seems to be prepared to immolate his entire country.

In the face of this mindless strategy critics of the president have contended that he should show more “leadership” by establishing a “no-fly zone” and even providing supplies and troops to support the Libyan insurgents.

The commitment of troops and treasure cannot be the first response of this country as there are too many places on this earth with the same fact pattern – right now that would include Cote d’Ivoire, Bahrain, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe. Would these critics – most recently David Gergen and Senator Lindsay Graham, among others – have President Obama send troops and jets and materiel all over the world to fight injustice and tyranny everywhere at the same time like some latter day Superman?

Fortunately the United Nations Security Council has approved a resolution calling for a joint military effort in Libya and the wisdom of measured response has been demonstrated once more.

Mr. Gergen and Senator Graham seem to actually believe in Superman. Thankfully President Obama does not.

Insult to Injury

Since the triple tragedy in Japan the global response has been compassionate and tangible. Assistance has flowed to this island nation from all over the world.

But some knuckleheads are determined to show their stupidity by opening their raincoats of fame and flashing their miniscule intellects. Several celebrities including the noted blowhard Rush Limbaugh and the famous philosopher Fifty Cent have been quoted as stating that the people of Japan deserved the tragedies that they are suffering.

Some mish-mosh thought process linking Pearl Harbor to economic success to advocating environmental protection has resulted in this awful stew of hate and misinformation.

Of course Rush and Fitty just don’t care. But the rest of us should.

Have a great weekend!

Be My Guest

Letters from Black America: Intimate Portraits of the African-American Experience by Pamela Newkirk

In an instant our most heartfelt emotions are conveyed via e-mail, text messages and cell phones, the remnants of our communiqués often vanishing as quickly as they appeared. We are liberated from the inconvenience of handwritten notes, purchasing and affixing stamps, locating a mailbox and delayed gratification. But surveying the rich letters of our past may cause us to question what has been lost in the name of progress. These letters, replete with personalized stationery, stylized penmanship, sentimental postmarks and quiet reflection, were eagerly anticipated, read and reread and cherished like family jewels. They are irreplaceable relics – the stuff of our personal and public history. And they are increasingly a dying art and lost historical artifacts.

The fleeting tradition of letter writing was in part the inspiration for Letters from Black America, a collection of more than 200 letters that traces the footprints, large and small, of a people from bondage to self-determination; from the Civil War to the War in Iraq; and from dusty plantations to the glistening White House. The correspondence of unsung slaves, soldiers, lovers, fathers, mothers, artists and activists are woven together with those of historical giants – from writers Phillis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin Alice Walker and Toni Morrison; to activists and statesmen Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Colin Powell.

The likely missives of the extraordinary are matched by the equally poignant letters of the ordinary who, pen in hand, share their joy and pain; ecstasy and heartache.

“My dear son Cato,” writes Hannah Grover on June 3, 1805. “I long to see you in my old age. I live in Caldwell with Mr. Grover the Minister of that place. Now my dear son I pray you to come and see your dear old Mother…. I am a poor old servant. I long for freedom. And my Master will free me if any body will ingage to maintain me …. I love you Cato you love your Mother You are my only son.”

On Sept. 19, 1858, Abream Scriven wrote his wife Dinah to inform her that he had been sold: “My Dear Wife,” he writes. “I take the pleasure of writing you these few with much regret to inform you that I am sold to a man by the name of Peterson a Trader and stays in New Orleans … Give my love to my father and mother and tell them good bye for me and if we Shall not meet in this world I hope to meet in heaven. My dear wife for you and my children my pen cannot express the [grief] I feel to be parted from you all.”

We’re taken behind the public façade of scholars and activists: In a letter to his wife from a state prison in 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes: “I know this whole experience is very difficult for you to adjust to especially in your condition of pregnancy but as I said to you yesterday, this is the cross we must bear for the freedom of our people.”

And W.E.B. Du Bois, the eminent scholar and activist, morphs into the doting father who tries to brace his 14-year-old Yolande for the curiosity of race at her British boarding school. “People will wonder at your dear brown [skin] and the sweet crinkly hair,” Du Bois writes in 1914. “But that is simply of no importance … Remember that most folk laugh at anything unusual whether it is beautiful, fine or not. You however must not laugh at yourself. You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkly hair as straight though it is harder to comb.”

In 1937 a disheartened young soldier serving in the Spanish Civil War writes of the pain of being segregated on the Queen Mary during his voyage to Europe. “That ship is really a marvel of man’s inventive mind. Its size and beauty is a credit to the genius of the human race,” wrote Canute Frankson. “I sure appreciated the opportunity of being on that ship. But I’m still burning up because they segregated, or may I say Jim-Crowed me. I cannot yet see how segregation, that despicable scourge of human society, could be alongside of such beauty. But it sure enough was. And with bells on.”

And in November, following Barack Obama’s historic election, Alice Walker wrote to express her soaring pride as an African American and southerner. “Dear Brother President (elect),” she wrote. “You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is for us. Us being the black people of the Southern United States. You think you know, because you are thoughtful, and you have studied our history. But seeing you deliver the torch so many others carried, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, only to be brought down before igniting the flames of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear.”

What emerges is a multi-dimensional portrait of black life, a life long fraught with hardship, despair, and injustice but sustained by prayer, faith, humor and love.

In the end, it is apparent that while America so often fell far short of its ideals, African Americans rarely gave up on America. Here they loved their families, served their country in war and civilian life, expressed their humanity in the arts and fought a valiant and uphill battle for equality and an elusive acceptance. They remained on the soil they had tilled, and on which their blood spilled, determined to someday reap the rewards of their efforts.

We all have much to gain from the wisdom, passion, courage, and uncompromising commitment to justice contained in these letters. It is my hope that this volume will help inspire a greater appreciation for the collection and preservation of African-American letters.

Pamela Newkirk is an Associate Professor of Journalism at New York University and the author of Letters from Black America; A Love No Less: Two Centuries of African-American Love Letters; and Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media.

For more on her book please go to this link -http://www.thedefendersonline.com/2009/02/02/between-the-lines-the-power-of-african-american-letters/print/