by Nathaniel Smith, Politics: A View from West Chester, 5/28/13
There are whole chapters of US history that most of us have forgotten or haven’t even opened yet—which is unfortunate, because the past is all we have to learn from.
From early 20th century social agitation and progress in workers’ rights (see “The 1911 Triangle Fire, other disasters, and progressive eras,” 5/21/13), we can learn that the 1960′s were not the only progressive era and, in fact, that it could be time for another to begin soon. From the aftermath of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, we learn that horrendous industrial death tolls can force the hands of profit-makers–though not yet, apparently, in Bangladesh, which seems to have just set the world record for factory deaths in one incident (“Killing workers: business and consumption as usual?“).
And from Elaine Brown, we can learn the day-to-day details of what happens when a segment of the population feels so alienated that it tries to take the power it wants into its own hands. Having a shot at power is why many early immigrants came here, and was an old American tradition by the time of the revolution in 1776 and Shays’ Rebellion of 1786-87. The system reacts quickly; the results reverberate for a long time.
Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992) is a testimony of rare frankness about her personal life, surrounded by shootouts, violence against women, violence against men, drug abuse, sex for power, and power for sex.
Before I get launched here, I want to make clear that I am not necessarily approving Brown’s and the Black Panthers’ actions, goals and methods 30+ years ago (which Brown herself renounced). Rather, I am looking into about them as a way of understanding the American past and what paths have led wherever we are going. Some of the issues raised—inequality, racism, violence, the separatist impulse—are old and ongoing ones that all of us should be thinking about.
Somewhere, perhaps at my favorite book fair in Harrisonburg VA, I picked up a copy of her book (it’s probably not in your local library, but you can buy it online). The cover image of the iconic black panther snarling or bounding to attack caught my attention because it was prominent in the late 1960s, and I still possess a T-shirt bearing that image, twinned with the Yale bulldog….
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