when the dust clears

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His hammer had five strings… Pete Seeger dies at 94

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Pete Seeger before rehearsal for Barack Obama’s inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, January 2009
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Expected news that’s still devastating … Nelson Mandela dies.

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RIP_Crop_2_Temp_Mandela_19930701_Image-004

A man, not a saint, who made war against apartheid; endured the inevitable, brutal reaction; and then emerged from prison to teach South Africa and the world about peace and compassion.

Slipping on the Third Rail of American Politics—and Recovering

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I made a mistake in a piece posted to the Root today about the role of racial bias in congressional Republicans’ opposition to President Obama. I attributed a quote to John McCain that actually came from candidate Obama: “He doesn’t look like the other presidents on the currency.”

I apologize to my readers and to the senator.

Here’s a fuller (corrected) version of the story.

IF ONE CAN LOOK regal and profoundly uncomfortable at the same time, that was Leta Watlington the other night before she spoke at the Hampton History Museum about Virginia’s Bay Shore Beach. Ms. Watlington, an 81-year-old registered nurse (still working), relaxed slowly as she described the motel and the rich family life that her grandmother Susie King built around Hampton’s beach for black folks.

After decades of shunning African American bathers like Mrs. King’s family—next-door Buckroe Beach was whites-only—city fathers began to covet the waterfront property blacks controlled.

“The powers that be, when they want to take something from you, they will. And they have,” Ms. Watlington told the small, largely African American audience.

Ms. Watlington said a lot of things about how her family’s property and Bay Shore were land-grabbed into oblivion by developers in the early 1970s. The one thing she didn’t say was the word white. “No I didn’t,” she told me later. “I tried not to get into the color situation.”

It’s impolite for many in her generation to talk race in explicit terms. But her omission was more than a matter of etiquette—Ms. Watlington pronounced the word nigger very clearly when describing the verbal abuse she endured. Experience informs how folks of that generation approach public discussions of matters black and white. As Russell Hopson, a Virginia historian and Jim Crow survivor, reminded me, “the shock waves are gonna come back heavy” when you name the proverbial elephant in the room.

They know we can’t prove it. We can deduce and infer from their actions, statements, and policies. But we can’t confirm that congressional Republicans—a bloc of nearly unbroken white maleness—and their media hatchetpeople are stealthily deploying race, blackness, to obstruct President Barack Obama at every turn.

Obstructionists seldom give us concrete, irrefutable proof of gutbucket prejudice. When we think we have them cold, they’ll use the I’m-rubber-you’re-glue strategy. You’re playing the race card, they’ll say. In fact, you’re the racists for bringing it up. It’s the nyah, nyah, nyah of savvy—or at least well-trained—political machinists. These are men and women who have studied the Republican race-baiting playbook drafted by party strategist and consigliere Lee Atwater.

“By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires,” said Atwater in 1981, quoted years later by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. “So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”

Rightwing pols continually update the Atwater script. During the president’s first term and the campaign that preceded it, we may recall that Barack Obama was cast as a Kenyan, Muslim, socialist, Nazi witch doctor. Tea Partiers, Birthers, and Republican backbenchers were the nasty tip of the spear of a full-on assault, but the big boys pitched in, too, usually in ways that kept them from getting hit by shrapnel from the vilest attacks.

Chris Matthews called out congressional Republicans on-air, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 2012, for what he deemed thinly veiled racism. Specifically, he cited Oklahoma congressman Tom Coburn’s accusation that “unlawful acts” and “incompetence” by the administration came “perilously close” to “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which would warrant the impeachment of the president.

“They never say their problem with Obama is that he is black, but look at the pattern,” Matthews said to an incredulous anchor. “The pattern is rejection of his legitimacy at the first point saying he is not really here legally.”

This wasn’t a one-off. In a different segment, Matthews hammered RNC chair Reince Priebus for Mitt Romney’s campaign quip, “No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate.” But he also took him to task for the candidate’s substantive statements, like saying that Obama had “a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.” Which wasn’t true.

“You are playing that little ethnic card there,” said Matthews to a momentarily abashed Priebus. “You can play your games and giggle about it, but the fact is, your side is playing that card. When you start talking about work requirements, we know what game you’re playing.” Powerful stuff, which hit a wall of denials, deflections, and pooh-poohing from the other members of the all-white MSNBC panel. Google this event to see the national ^%$@storm of denial that enveloped Matthews’s comments.

Moments like these offer black folks a dash of vindication. But in a society that doesn’t want to acknowledge the obvious—the persistence of racism—and that’s wedded to its own myths of egalitarianism, they don’t really change much.

On specific issues, congressional Republican obstructers will say, We have policy differences with the president. These are matters of principle. That’s why we fight the president on damn-near everything—health care, nominations, Libya, income assistance programs, gun control, the debt limit and budget; that’s why we’re on the brink of shutting down the federal government.

And yet John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Mitch McConnell, et al. will pretzelize themselves into the oddest, most contradictory, and self-denying positions just to be anti-Obama. They loved corporate tax cuts until the president, previously a socialist income redistributor, agreed to them. Instantly, such cuts were the work of Wall Street’s lapdog-in-chief.

House Republicans pulled the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a.k.a. food stamps) out of its customary place in the farm bill so they could kill it. A simple policy difference?

Killing SNAP—rather, replacing it with a plan from Majority Leader Cantor that would increase work requirements irrespective of local unemployment levels—isn’t sound economic policy, if one believes the Department of Agriculture. SNAP, says the USDA, “provides assistance to more low-income households during an economic downturn or recession and to fewer households during an economic expansion. The rise in SNAP participation during an economic downturn results in greater SNAP expenditures which, in turn, stimulate the economy.” Isn’t that what Republicans say they’re all about, economic growth?

Interestingly, 15 Republicans broke ranks. “I just felt the cuts were a little too steep, especially because right now, I have a lot of Sandy victims who have never been on assistance ever in their life,” New York Congressman Michael Grimm told The Hill. “And a lot of these hardworking families have lost everything, and for the first time, they’re needing food stamps. So I didn’t want to affect those Sandy victims.”

Before Sandy, Grimm didn’t think income assistance was such a great idea. He supported Paul Ryan’s budget plan that would have slashed Medicare benefits, welfare, and food stamps. A whole lot of hardworking people would have been hobbled by Ryan’s plan.

But here again is our helpful guide: history. Republicans have successfully linked income assistance programs to the duskier “special interests,” folks Ronald Reagan called “welfare queens.” More recently, Newt Gingrich labeled Obama “the food stamp president.”

History also tells us that this is much more than reflexive or even ideological opposition. From Capitol Hill obstruction to public finger-wagging (see Arizona governor Jan Brewer), the campaign to diminish, neuter, humiliate, and defeat the nation’s first African American president is but one battle in the larger war to preserve the last vestiges of white power and privilege in the face of a browning America. In other words, this is existential, strategic opposition with a profound racial component.

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” Attorney General Eric Holder remarked with rather surprising candor at an African American history event in 2009. His prescription for change: more candid talk about race.

I take issue with Holder’s national sweep, but I agree with the spirit of his comment.

For us to get beyond race, we—and by we, I mean people who are consistently targeted by this white power bloc—need to name race. And not just ours, but theirs, too.

A Journey Toward Healing in Yorktown, Virginia

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Young lady photographs newly installed wayside at the old Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, VA,  July 23, 2013

Young girl photographs newly installed wayside at the old Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013

A rough encampment for enslaved people was set up on July 23, 1863—150 years ago today—near Fort Yorktown, Virginia, a Union stronghold in Rebel territory. It took the generic name “slabtown.” That’s what many such camps were called because the shacks built by the self-emancipated women and men—otherwise known as fugitive slaves—were thrown up with any material at hand, including irregular, bark-covered tree slabs left over from timber milling. Residents later called it Uniontown for obvious reasons. They founded a church called Shiloh Baptist and built a town around it.

Last Sunday, Shiloh joined with the National Park Service to dedicate “waysides,” those hefty informational signs you find at national parks, to honor the community, which no longer exists. Given the rather difficult history of the Shiloh–NPS relationship, the event was an amazing example of hatchet burying and cooperation.

Uniontown survived the Civil War, endured Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and thrived into the 20th century. Then the National Park Service started eyeing the land, which happened to be part of the Yorktown National Battlefield. Lord Charles Cornwallis, commander of British forces, surrendered there to General George Washington, in 1781. The NPS wanted the area pristine for the bicentennial. The black folk were in the way.

Former residents of Uniontown and friends look at new wayside at the Yorktown National Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 23, 2013

Former residents of Uniontown and friends look at new wayside at Yorktown National Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013. Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer

“A community generally known as Slabtown still forms a wedge into the Yorktown Battlefield,” wrote Newton Drury, the park service’s director, in 1946. Just three years later, he referred to a “significant acquisition” in Uniontown. That was the beginning of the end for the community.

The NPS started offering to buy land from residents. “There was an agreement that nobody would move out without informing the others about what was on the plate—what the National Park Service offered,” a former resident named Sherman Hill told us. But “after all the years, you started distrusting one another.” He believes that the NPS used a divide-and-conquer strategy to break the community’s cohesion—and to get the land for bargain prices. It worked. They cleared everyone out by 1977, though one man who lived far from the battlefield (but still on land the NPS wanted) got life rights. When he dies, the park service gets his land.

But on Saturday, Shiloh’s Pastor, Barbara Lemon, shared a podium with Supervisory Park Ranger Diane K. Depew, and Dan Smith, Superintendent of the Colonial National Historical Park, at an eight-plus-hour symposium hosted by the church. Heavyweight scholars, an African American Civil War reenactor (and park service employee), and two Hampton University history majors held forth on the exodus of the enslaved and the genesis of Slabtown. On Sunday, all gathered at the Yorktown National Cemetery and Battlefield to unveil the waysides. It was a moving end to a remarkable weekend.

Young boy lays wreath on the grave of a Yorktown soldier who served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, Yorktown, VA, July 23, 2013

Young boy lays wreath on the grave of a Yorktown soldier who served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013. Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer

All injustices have not been remedied, and all wounds certainly have not healed. After nearly 40 years, the NPS has done nothing with much of the land acquired from Uniontowners. It is underbrush and patchy grass clearings in the woods. And yet, some kind of healing happened here. For that, we should be grateful—and ready for the next step.

From the BXP photo archive: Mandela, July 1993

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Nelson Mandela during visit to the United States, Washington, DC, July 2, 1993

Nelson Mandela during visit to the United States, Washington, DC, July 2, 1993

Nelson Mandela, then head of the African National Congress, came to Washington in July 1993. His visit coincided with that of then-South African president F.W. de Klerk. Later that year, they shared the Nobel Peace Prize, even as they were competing and contending in the runup to the first free election in the nation. This was a photo opp that my editors dispatched me to, a bit of Washington political theater. Mandela was not—could not—be defined by the cramped nature of the event. In fact, I can’t recall what the event was. There were prominent African American folks, mostly men in suits, on the dais with him, as I recall… but we were there for him.

Update from the Producer/Directors of Make the Ground Talk

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A few Saturdays ago, we led an audience at William and Mary’s Lemon Project Symposium on an audiovisual tour of the research we’ve done for our documentary, Make the Ground Talk. Our show started where we began our actual journey: Camp Peary, the military base that seventy years ago swallowed Magruder, the town where Brian’s father and his parents were born, and where the grave of his great-grandfather, Mat Palmer, still lies.

One of the most important things we’ve learned during our months of reading, talking, and filming—other than that Mat was a Union Army vet who had been a slave—is that many other historic black Tidewater communities were uprooted and displaced, usually by Uncle Sam, in the 20th century. Land was seized both by the government through eminent domain and by “market forces,” often large institutions that applied the tremendous economic and political power they wielded in pre–Civil Rights America.

We shared with folks at W&M—many Palmers as well as academics and others who have guided us this far—a realization we had a few months into our work. To do justice to the small story, that of Magruder and Brian’s family, we needed to tackle the much larger one: the series of evictions that erased a constellation of communities connected by family, church, and other fundamental bonds.

After the talk—we think it went well—we spent another week in Virginia, using Hampton as our base once again, to explore new places and meet people with stories about communities like Magruder, Uniontown, and Acretown. Najla Kurani told us how her grandparents, white folks who moved to Magruder from Indiana (by way of Panama!), found their property, coaxed food out of the poor soil, and then lost it to the Navy when everyone else did. With his wife, Louise, Brian’s cousin Horace Smith led us through Bible study, our first, and vividly described life in Grove, the place where many black Magruderites like the Palmers resettled. The club at Grove’s Log Cabin Beach on the James River was a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the network of nightclubs across the South where black entertainers—Fats Domino, Little Richard, B.B. King, and many others—performed for black folks, who were banned from white clubs. The club’s DJ had a slogan, which Rev. Horace bellowed for us at his kitchen table: “Everybody’s gabbin’ about Log Cabin!”

But the archives were calling us, too. Family historians, women like Brian’s late Aunt Ethelyn and late cousin Jean who laid the foundation for our work, have said that the Palmers originated in Amelia County. Knowledge passed verbally from forbears tells us this. But there’s also some documentary evidence: A marriage register from York County lists Brian’s great-grandfather Mat’s parents, Winnie and Lewis, and his place of birth, Amelia. Other documents, though—actual affidavits attached to Mat’s Union Army pension application—point to Goochland County (which we visited in November). So we headed west to the Amelia County Clerk’s office to hunt for answers.

We’d been told this was the red (as in Romney, not Lenin, red) part of the state, so we’d braced ourselves for a tepid reception in both Amelia and neighboring Nottoway County, where we stayed. While hardly Kumbaya country, the small town of Blackstone is almost exactly half African American, half white. Cars in the Grey Swan Inn’s gravel lot sported Obama-Biden bumper stickers. Turns out these cars belonged to our lovely innkeepers, Jim and Christine Hasbrouck. (Even better, Jim roasts his own coffee. Need we say more?)

Amelia has a slightly different feel. Perhaps it’s the monument to the “Confederate Dead” smack in the middle of town, in front of the courthouse. At the antiques shop across the street, we came face to face with a man-size Sambo-esque statue to which someone—perhaps the shoppe’s frosty owner—has affixed a handwritten note in “dialect” talkin’ ’bout “massa.” The rotund figure is merely the largest in a collection of Jim Crow–era curios.

That said, our guide to the clerk’s archives, Juanita Booker, was African American, as were Leroy and Sylvia Hatcher, the proprietors of our lunch spot, Hatcher’s Dining and Catering—which is separated from Mammy Land by a tiny parking lot. We haven’t gotten used to these juxtapositions.

At the clerk’s office, we dug into ancient deed books, marriage registers, and volumes of wills in search of Mat Palmer’s parents. Since slaves were property and recorded as such in documents, we searched the names of potential owners, beginning with the Hobsons, the Goochland family that owned Mat. Dig, dig, dig. Sigh, sigh, sigh. Harrumph. Then, a familiar name: Maben, a family with multiple connections to the Hobsons. Erin found the names “Winney” and “Lewis No. 2”—one of three Lewises— and “child William,” in the will of one David Maben. We levitated and beamed for a few seconds, despite the shock of seeing these names listed among feather beds and farm animals. These may or may not be our Winnie—Winney?—and Lewis, but we’ve found one more thread to follow on our journey.

Detail from will of David Maben, Amelia County Circuit Court Clerk's office, Amelia Courthouse, Va., March 21, 2013

Detail from will of David Maben, Amelia County Circuit Court Clerk’s office, Amelia Courthouse, Va., March 21, 2013

Our next tasks: create a reel with segments of our strongest interviews and other video imagery, and—wait for it—our first fund-raising push. We’ll be setting up on either Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Stay tuned.

From the BXP photo archives: White House beat, 1995; Million Man March, 1995

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Counter Sniper Unit, US Secret Service Uniformed Division, California, May 21, 1995

Counter Sniper Support Unit, US Secret Service Uniformed Division, California, May 21, 1995

I spent a lot of time documenting political theater during my nearly three years as a Washington, DC-based photographer for US News & World Report—on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, at the White House, and on the road with POTUS Bill Clinton.

I didn’t realize how extensively the national media colluded with those in power to produce photo ops and events until being a colluder myself. The apex was a trip to Hawaii with a White House advance team and other members of the national press corps. Our job: visit the venues for presidential speeches and other for-camera events and work with WH staffers to make the set look as good—as presidential—as possible.

For one outdoor address, official event planners had positioned the president’s podium with the sun behind it, which meant that the cameras collected on the press riser would be pointed directly into the glare. We got that taken care of, thank you very much.

Like many of the other thinking journalists on the beat, I enjoyed photographing the moments where the man behind the curtain was revealed. I shot the above photo of members of the Secret Service’s Counter Sniper Support Unit  on a rooftop behind Air Force One just before Clinton (and the press corps) left California after a series of events.

But US News provided me with many other amazing, even life-defining opportunities. Being posted to China was one of these. Of the domestic moments, though, one of the most important was covering the Million Man March. Although it was organized by the separatist Nation of Islam—which scared some people away and incited critics to tar the event before it occurred—the day was a rare and unprecedented celebration among black men. It was an opportunity to connect on their (our) own terms rather than ones carved out for us.

Traffic sign with enhancements, Washington, DC, September 23, 1995

Traffic sign with enhancements, Washington, DC, September 23, 1995

Million Man March, October 16, 1995

Million Man March, October 16, 1995

Fruit of Islam member at the end of the Million Man March, October 16, 1995

Fruit of Islam at the end of the Million Man March, October 16, 1995