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(Where’s the) Rage against the Machine?

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The University of Alabama’s student government may have flip-flopped its way into the 21st century. In mid-April, UA’s senate voted to adopt a resolution supporting the racial integration of the school’s nearly all-white fraternities and sororities after killing a similar measure just a few weeks earlier.

On its face, this is a historic move. To alumna Jessica Patrick, it may very well be “a step in the right direction” toward greater diversity. Patrick—Jessica Thomas while at UA and now a an attorney in Nashville—was the subject of Bama Girl, a documentary that chronicled her 2005 campaign to become UA’s first African American homecoming queen. (Along with other candidates of color, she lost.)

History, however, gives us ample reason for skepticism. Former governor George Wallace made his notorious stand in 1963 on the steps of the school’s auditorium for the “southern way of life,” known nowadays as “state-sanctioned racial discrimination,” and against the enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood. More recently, UA has made national news for eruptions of old-school Dixie racism in the social sphere. The Crimson White, the school newspaper, ran an exposé in 2013 of the systematic exclusion of African Americans from prominent and powerful white fraternities and sororities.)

The recent resolution is a symbolic statement by students, not a plan of action that commits anyone to do anything, including the school’s administration. But it is something, one might say. “It’s only a step forward, but it is a step forward, and it should be encouraged,” University of Alabama law professor Paul Horwitz said in an email.

The Root requested comment from the University President’s office about the measure but received only a general statement asserting the university’s commitment “to a welcoming and inclusive campus.” University President Judy Bonner did speak out against the segregation of and discrimination by white Greeks last year after the Crimson White’s 2013 investigation, which revealed that two high-achieving African American women had been rejected by 16 sororities. (The U.S. Justice Department found that situation so serious it assigned a U.S. Attorney to monitor the situation.)

Nathan James, a Crimson White columnist, sees the yes vote as a straight-up PR move. “It’s clear from the previous vote where our senators’ loyalties lie, and that hasn’t changed because media pressure forced them to backpedal,” he wrote in an email to The Root. The “pressure” James describes built up after national and international news media hammered student government’s March 2014 decision to kill the first “diversity resolution.”

Terence Lonam, a progressive activist on campus from the class of 2017, is similarly skeptical. “When the last SGA senate voted to kill the original integration resolution, which I think honestly represented the state of race relations in Greek life at Alabama, I was horrified but not shocked – the powers that control a large segment of my campus, namely the Machine, are stuck to traditions that have kept them in power with relative ease.”

The Machine? Yes, “the Machine,” a secret society with deep roots in the muck of Jim Crow whose members are chosen from 28 of the school’s white Greek societies. The Machine has fought the move to integrate the Greeks through the immense—and stealthy—political power it wields in student government. A chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon, an umbrella organization of historically white Greeks founded in 1870, the Machine has operated and schemed at UA for a century. No surprise that it’s kissing cousin to Yale’s Skull & Bones.

So how does the Machine run? “UA’s Greeks vote in a bloc,” explains James, “they always elect representatives from a specific set of Greek organizations; these representatives, once elected, fight to preserve a segregated Greek system; students who run against Machine-backed candidates are frequently the targets of harassment and death threats; and elections featuring Greek candidates are frequently affected by voter fraud.”

“Death threats” leaps off the page. So we asked James to substantiate that charge. He provided links to news stories, including one from CNN, in which students made credible claims of such threats and other forms of nefarious Machination. Some, like the CNN.com piece, are more than a decade old. Others are quite recent.

“The Machine shouldn’t be overestimated, but the simple fact of its continued secretive status should be recognized as an obstacle to everything else the University of Alabama, its students and administration, want to achieve,” said Horwitz.

He writes with some authority. His wife, Kelly, was defeated in a Tuscaloosa city—not UA campus—election for Board of Education by Cason Kirby, a 26-year-old recent UA law school grad and former SGA president, under dodgy circumstances. AL.com ’s reporter on the UA beat, Melissa Brown, and others reported on emails sent to voting-age students by Machine-connected Greeks, pledging free booze and limo rides to the polls. (Kirby, a former member of Kappa Sigma, a frat identified in the Crimson White investigation as Machine-connected, did not return a phone call from The Root.)

Horwitz notes that grassroots opposition to Machine politics cannot be ignored. “Some of the most important moments on campus this year—complaints and marches about continued segregation, resistance against adults who were involved, disgust with corrupt voting-bloc tactics that spilled off campus this year and into the local school board elections—came about because of undergraduates, mostly in the sororities, who were disturbed by what they saw and heard and willing to put themselves on the line to do something about it.”

So where does that leave us? With a student organization that has Alabama influence and national ties and clings tenaciously to inherited privilege and power. It may not be able intimidate and machinate with impunity as it did when it still had Jim Crow muscle, but it remains an influential and clandestine political bloc —members do not acknowledge the group’s existence—at a public university with a long history of racial discrimination.

The Machine’s power endures in large part because the UA’s leaders, the adults in the administration, have chosen to remain silent about the group for decades upon decades. Their silence equals tacit approval. That tacit approval amounts to active support for a secret clan of hyperempowered and historically privileged youth to discriminate.

“The Machine is not all-powerful or all-important,” Professor Horwitz wrote in a recent Crimson White op-ed. “But as long as it’s around, every other problem will be that much more intractable. It needs to become a public, accountable group. Or it must be killed, forcefully and publicly.”

God Sees All

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Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd drove his front-end loader to the end of the gravel road. He cut the engine, hopped out of the cab, and nodded at me. “That’s Maggie Walker’s grave,” Mr. Byrd said. I had just photographed the curved headstone without noticing who it honored, Maggie Lena Walker: savings bank founder, newspaper publisher, civic leader, Jim Crow battler, daughter of an enslaved woman.

Under my feet.

Mr. Byrd, a contractor, said he was heading to the mausoleum that Mr. Harris, who was working in another part of Evergreen Cemetery, had told him about. He took a narrow, grass footpath that looked promising into the trees.

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Mr. Byrd shouted for me in barely a minute.

As you approach from the side, the crypt looks more stately than spooky. The part of the building that isn’t obscured by leaves and branches appears solid. Tendrils of ivy creep down the walls from its roof. But as you swing around to the front, down a slight hill, you see tragedy head on—a huge, ragged hole has been punched through the cinderblock façade. I gather that the ugly gray bricks had been laid to cover an earlier desecration of the original door. The name carved into the stone at the top of the structure is “Braxton.”

We stared into the hole at the exposed coffins.

“Why would somebody do something like this,” Mr. Byrd said, not asking me, just saying.

I feel this whenever I document human ugliness: a surge of adrenalin and my news reporter’s predatory hunger mashed up with disgust and anger. Sadness, too.

Rust had destroyed the finish of the casket directly in front of us. The fixtures were busted. The lid had been wrenched off. The two caskets to the right had been dragged off their shelves as far as they would come. The floor was heaped with shattered headstones, trash, a woman’s wig. It seemed that the people who did this had plenty of time to destroy and despoil. We didn’t know how awful the story was—the dead had been pulled from their caskets—until afterward, when we Googled our way to video a by KIDA Productions. (Scroll down to “Evergreen Cemetery: History in Ruins.”)

Evergreen Cemetery is enormous. It’s part of a patchwork of African American graveyards that covers acres of Richmond’s east side, East End Cemetery among them. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of graves have been absorbed by the forest. They are invisible beneath the green and brown tangle. Volunteers from the Virginia Roots Cemetery Restoration Project, local colleges, professional landscapers, even the army’s Fort Lee do regular cleanup operations. A local chapter of black fraternity Omega Psi Phi minds the plot where Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, are buried. But nature is very aggressive here, hard to fight with limited resources; the cemetery’s owners made no provision for perpetual care, which led to its current state. And then there are the vandals. (Volunteer wrangler John Shuck tells us that “an issue” with the owners of Evergreen has ended cleanup efforts there. Volunteers are now working at East End. Here’s a link to their Work Calendar for folks who want to pitch in.)

In red marker, someone has written on the center coffin, “God Sees All”; and at the rim of the hole, “Smile. Your [sic] On Camera.” Perhaps a deterrent to further outrages. Perhaps not.

 

Virginia Valentine

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The forecast promised clear skies on Friday the 14th, but it was hard to see how. We’d driven up to Richmond on a lark Thursday, only to discover that there’s a magic line somewhere between here and there — the snow hadn’t stuck for more than a few hours in Hampton, but Richmond was just peeking out from under a heavy wet blanket. Which is not to say the main roads weren’t clear and buses weren’t running — they were. But the Library of Virginia — the reason we’d come — was inexplicably closed. (Really, Richmond? Where’s your “rebel” spirit now? Stashed away in all those monuments, I suspect!) Happily, Lamplighter was not. We spent the afternoon huddled over our laptops in the chilly porchlike part of the café as dense gray clouds gathered. At one point, there was a flash of lightning (which I somehow missed) and a huge clap of thunder (which I did not), and snow blobs, not flakes, began falling soon after. It was already starting to accumulate as I headed for the car, and by the time I’d circled back around to pick Brian up, it was coming down thick and fast.

I’m not sure how long it took us to get to Williamsburg (a journey of about 50 miles), but somewhere along the way the snow stopped and the rain started and the road was miraculously clear. The next morning, when I cracked the blinds in our bedroom, the church steeple across the street was glowing pink through the bare branches — sun! We emerged blinking into the unfamiliar glare and headed back up the highway to Williamsburg, hearts aflutter. No, not because it was Valentine’s Day (Brian says, It was?), but because we were finally going to be allowed back on Camp Peary, a nearly impenetrable fortress, albeit one with a see-through fence. After much wrangling with the public affairs officer, Brian had been able to secure permission for us to visit again — for 30 minutes, with no cameras of any kind, and with a maximum of three other family members.

We had asked the three siblings pictured above — Lieutenant Palmer Jr., Ann Jones, and Dot Harrold — to join us, and we met at June’s house after lunch at Pierce’s Barbecue. Like Brian, they too are great-grandchildren of Mat and Julia Palmer; their grandfather was John Frank Palmer, Brian’s great-uncle. Both Ann and Dot were born in what used to be known as Palmertown, which was swallowed by the U.S. Navy in the early 1940s. John Frank lived there, and so did Big Daddy, Brian’s grandpa Lewis, along with other Palmer aunts and uncles. All were evicted when Camp Peary was built — collateral damage of the war effort and the defense of our great nation. The fading house you see in the picture below stood outside the perimeter of the new base and so narrowly escaped destruction, until a fire burnt

Dot and Ann in front of the old house, Williamsburg, Va., circa 1941.

Dot and Ann in front of the old house, Williamsburg, Va., circa 1941. Courtesy of Ann Jones.

it down years later. A new, brick house was built in its place, where the youngest sister lives today.

Ann and Dot climbed into June’s pickup truck, and we followed along behind. The entrance to Camp Peary is only about 10 minutes from June’s house, just down Rochambeau Drive and across 64. I was more aware this time of the military trappings through the minivan window, and I couldn’t help but notice the scary-looking automatic weapon lying on a bright blue pad on the ground. The cemetery we’d come to visit is tucked away in a wooded clearing next to a firing range; “operations” had apparently been under way when we got to the gate. These were stopped, obviously, before we were allowed anywhere near the place.

All was quiet when we arrived. Our minders stood back as the five of us entered the burial ground, which has been fenced in since our last visit (February 2012 for me; the summer of that year for Brian). In the two years that have elapsed, I have come to regard the people buried there as “our people.” Mat Palmer has come to life in our minds (and before our eyes — there’s a picture of him on the wall of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist church, which he helped build). He died in 1927, before Dot and Ann were born, but their daddy knew him, and they know of him. His wife, Julia Fox, has remained more elusive. According to marriage records, she was born in Gloucester County, just across the York River from where Camp Peary stands today. She was most likely a “contraband,” one of the thousands of enslaved people who flocked to Union-held territory during the Civil War and in so doing emancipated themselves. Her parents and her two siblings appear in the 1865 Census of the Colored Population in York County, but she is nowhere to be found — she would have been about 10 years old at the time. Where was she?

I’m fairly certain now that she, too, is buried on Camp Peary, right beside her husband of nearly forty years. The gravestone is cruelly blank, which hadn’t struck me two years ago. I don’t think I even saw it. At that time, Mat and Julia had only just become real on paper — we had visited the York County Court House the day before and seen their marriage record, dated July 17, 1873 — and I didn’t yet realize the turn our lives had taken. This time, though, I felt a bond between us and would have liked to sit and stay awhile.

Instead, we climbed back into the van and were driven the short distance to the exit. Rather than heading back to the library, we asked Ann, Dot, and June to show us where Palmertown used to be. Ann had told us you could still see the shadow of the road that ran through it, and sure enough, there it was on the other side of the fence, clearly visible through the trees at this time of year. It’s called Samoa Road now (is that supposed to be a secret?). A little farther along, we came to their stomping grounds, to use Ann’s words. That’s Daddy’s truck, they said, laughing and pointing at an old white Ford half buried in brush. And down the old driveway is the wooden garage, ramshackle now, and the remnants of a small barn where the cow and pigs were kept and the mailbox discarded. Keep going down the hill and you’ll come to the swamp, where they played as children, swinging on vines across the water.

The stories started to burble up as they stood in the woods, remembering. The black snake coiled in the corner of the garage that spooked June as a boy. The thigh-high snow that came right before Dot was born. The aproned midwife, Mary Jones, whose house is still standing, over by where June lives now. These are the stories we hope to share before their outlines dim. —EHP

Daddy's old mailbox, Williamsburg, Va., 2014. Photo by Brian Palmer.

Daddy’s old mailbox, Williamsburg, Va., 2014. Photo by Brian Palmer.

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

Expected news that’s still devastating … Nelson Mandela dies.

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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.

Violence as a Way of Life

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To be honest, I’d been secretly dreading seeing 12 Years a Slave, but I also knew I couldn’t not see it. The last gruesomely violent movie I saw was Gangs of New York, which a friend of mine persuaded me to go to when we were living in Amsterdam way back in ’02—I “watched” most of it with ears plugged and eyes narrowed to slits behind the shelter of my fingers. By the time we finally left the theater, I was clammy with sweat and cramped from having been bunched up in my seat for nearly three hours of torture. I’ve carefully avoided such films ever since, which is why I haven’t seen No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood or Django Unchained. If I’m going to sit through something harrowing, there needs to be a damn good reason, and Daniel Day Lewis, for all his brilliance, isn’t a good enough one for me!

Given the nature of what Brian and I are trying to do here in Virginia, I probably don’t need to explain why I had to see 12 Years a Slave. I suppose you could argue that I’ve read enough about slavery at this point to be familiar with the relentless brutality—physical, psychological, emotional—upon which the entire system was predicated and without which it could not have persisted. But I’m not sure the written word can fully capture slavery’s sickening violence, or the constant threat thereof. (I might make an exception for The Book of Night Women, by Jamaican writer Marlon James; a number of scenes from that novel have lodged in my brain and will not be ousted.) You cannot unsee the fear — and the life — in a person’s eyes as the noose tightens, or the raw, bloody flesh of a person’s back as she’s whipped while bound to a post, or the terror and disbelief of a person who wakes to find himself in chains, or the disgust and despair in the eyes of a person who is raped and will be raped again, and again. I insist on the word person, because that is what 12 Years a Slave makes most painfully clear. These were people upon whom unspeakable violence was inflicted by other people. You knew that, of course, but I think it’s possible not to really know until you see that violence (re)enacted before you.

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I have yet to meet a white Southerner who openly romanticizes his or her “heritage,” though evidence of nostalgia for an imagined/invented past is everywhere down here—it’s as much a part of the landscape as magnolia trees and Golden Corrals. I wonder what neo-Confederates would make of 12 Years a Slave? I’ll admit to fantasizing about force-screenings, though I suspect that 150-plus years of denial would not be so easily overcome. And honestly, I’m less concerned about the Stonewall Jackson acolytes (who are likely beyond hope) than those who don’t give our history a second thought. If this film can reach them and shake loose some of the persistent Old South and “America the Beautiful” mythology, it might help open the road to understanding and, ultimately, acknowledgment of where we, the American people, come from.

Because, while indisputably beautiful, the landscape itself feels sinister, oppressive—the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the waterways snaking through dense, nearly impenetrable vegetation. The plantation houses, too, are stripped of their romance, despite their graceful balconies and sweeping staircases. Their picturesque presence in the Louisiana outback becomes ludicrous and obscene—and might even be laughable if not for the suffering and depravity that they both embody and engender. Their very existence—the “way of life” they represent—would not be possible were it not for the unending, backbreaking labor of the enslaved.

Which is another thing the film underscores (and not, I don’t think, just because I’m primed for it after steeping myself in related reading for the past couple of years): Enslaved people built everything in sight; they did all the work, and were used up in the process. That was their raison d’être, of course, at least in the eyes of most whites. What’s striking, once again, is that there is no acknowledgment of that work in the national narrative. And by acknowledgment, I don’t mean thank-you (that would probably be too much to ask, even in this “postracial” day and age). I mean a statement of fact that enslaved African Americans carved much of this country out of the wilderness. You see it in 12 Years a Slave, as one white master or another lolls on the wraparound porch or inspects his field hands, pharaoh-like, from the comfort of his coach. True, the planter class was a tiny elite, which means the great mass of whites had to get their hands dirty too, but they were vastly outnumbered by enslaved blacks in many parts of the South. African Americans were the fuel, the engines, of the economy.

This inconvenient truth has not only been neglected or “forgotten,” it has been vigorously denied. Just the other day, I came across this passage in Leon F. Litwack’s brilliant, distressing book Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow: “‘This is our country,’ John Temple Graves, an Atlanta editor, told a University of Chicago audience [in 1903]. ‘We made it. We molded it. We control it, and we always will. We have done great things. We have mighty things yet to do. The negro is an accident—an unwilling, a blameless, but an unwholesome, unwelcome, helpless, unassimilable element in our civilization. He is not made for our times.’” Yes, the charming Mr. Graves made this speech 110 years ago, but the language of rugged individualism—the language of white men, primarily—is still very much with us today. Remember how Romney, Ryan & Co. trotted out that “We built it” slogan late in last year’s presidential campaign? Not only was that pat phrase born of phony indignation (whoever came up with it deliberately took President Obama’s words out of context), it sharply limited the “we” to exclude all but the entrepreneurs among us, as if business owners existed in a vacuum. It’s a “we” the rest of us have heard before—the “we” that takes all the credit for the toil of others.

Anyway, to get back to 12 Years a Slave, what has stuck with me, even more than the scenes of sadistic violence and forced intimacy (when, for instance, a raving Master Epps rests his arms on the shoulders of an enslaved woman who’s hanging laundry on the line and leans his head against hers—the absolute power he wields over others’ lives is clear in this gesture), is the endless unspooling of days of drudgery and hard labor. It’s also the isolation in which that labor was performed, and in which most, if not all, of life was lived. That plantation in the back of beyond was your universe—cruel, stifling, (nearly) inescapable. Even if you did manage by some miracle to escape and make it all the way to “free” soil, you still weren’t safe. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ordered “all good citizens”—white people, obviously—to send African Americans back into bondage, no matter how far they might have fled or what horrors awaited them upon their return. This effectively made all of America a prison, not just the South, not just a particular plantation. And even free blacks were free only if they had the papers to prove it. The fragility of that freedom is heartbreakingly clear in the film. Solomon Northup’s story makes the heartbreak somewhat easier to bear because we know from the start how it will end. But what of the people Solomon leaves behind when he’s rescued from Epps? Those are the people who haunt me.

—Erin Hollaway Palmer

Written by bxpnyc

2013/11/14 at 09:52

Juneteenth, African Burial Ground, New York City, June 19, 2013

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Here’s the piece I shot and wrote for Parade.com on the day of.