Since January 17, 1961, no one has been held accountable for the brutal murder of Congo’s independence leader and first prime minister Patrice Lumumba who was shot dead with two of his ministers, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo.
However, all fingers point to multinational perpetrators who sanctioned the elimination of one of Africa’s bravest politicians and independence heroes who stood his ground against colonizers.
He led the Democratic Republic of Congo to independence on June 30, 1960, after the country was passed on from King Leopold II, who took control of it as his private property in the 1880s, to Belgium in 1908 as a colony.
Lumumba was inspired by the independence movement of Africa after attending the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Ghana in 1958. This spurred him on to organise nationalist rallies in his country resulting in deadly protests that got him arrested and later released to negotiate Congo’s independence.
Independence came with lots of problems including a political divide and an unapologetic Belgium led by King Baudouin who minced no words during the independence declaration while praising his predecessor, the brutish King Leopold II.
“Don’t compromise the future with hasty reforms, and don’t replace the structures that Belgium hands over to you until you are sure you can do better. Don’t be afraid to come to us. We will remain by your side and give you advice,” he said.
An outraged Lumumba rather gave a damning speech highlighting “humiliating slavery, which was imposed upon us by force.” This heightened Belgium’s disinterest in Lumumba whose government was already being opposed by his political rival and president Joseph Kasavubu.
Only three months into the new and independent Congo, soldiers mutinied against Belgian commanders who refused to leave and some regions, including the mineral-rich Katanga and South Kasai, rebelled against the central government and seceded with the backing of Belgian troops who were sent to protect their interests.
The Congolese government called for the United Nation’s help and a resolution was passed by the Security Council calling on Belgium to withdraw its troops. UN peacekeepers were sent into the Congo to restore order and “use force in the last resort” to secure the country’s territories.
However, Belgium did not leave and the UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld failed to provide the Congolese government with military assistance as demanded by Lumumba and sanctioned by the Security Council. He also ignored the prime minister’s appeal to send troops to Katanga but rather chose to negotiate with secession leader Moise Tshombe.
Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash on his way to meet Tshombe in September 1961, winning him a posthumously Nobel peace prize. Meanwhile, the country was in turmoil and Lumumba got no help from the West and the United Nations. He called on Russia and the Soviet Union sent weapons and “technical advisors” which incensed the United States.
The U.S. was a strong ally of Belgium and had a stake in Congo’s uranium. It is suspected to have planned an assassination as disclosed by a source in the book, Death in the Congo, written by Emmanuel Gerard and published in 2015.
U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was reported to have given the order without any discussion. Lawrence Devlin, CIA station chief in Congo at the time, told the BBC in 2000 that a CIA plan to lace Lumumba’s toothpaste with poison was never carried out.
By September, the Congolese President Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba as Prime Minister after receiving a telegram from Belgian Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens. Lumumba also declared Kasavubu deposed. This ushered in the takeover by army chief Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko who placed Lumumba under house arrest and guarded by his troops and the United Nations troops.
Lumumba escaped in late November with his wife and baby son hidden in the back of a car leaving his residence. They headed towards the east where he had loyal followers in Kisangani (then Stanleyville). He engaged villagers on his way and on the evening of December 2 as they waited for a ferry to cross the Sankuru River, Mobutu’s forces appeared.
Mobutu ordered his detention at a military prison at Thysville, a hundred miles from Léopoldville. For six weeks, Lumumba was kept in cells and that’s where he wrote letters to the United Nations for help and to his wife to calm her nerves.
While Lumumba’s speeches from prison were creating confusion, Belgian Minister of African Affairs Harold d’Aspremont Lynden was putting pressure on the government to move him from Thysville where he could be freed by his supporters.
Lumumba and his two former ministers were flown to Katanga on January 17 while being beaten so badly that the pilot warned the violence was threatening the flight, says De Witte.
They arrived at the Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi) airport and taken into custody by Katangese police and military under the supervision of Belgian forces. They were driven to a colonial villa owned by a wealthy Belgian, Villa Brouwe, and the beatings continued by both the Congolese and Belgian forces.
By that evening, they were semi-conscious and had been visited by Katangese cabinet ministers and President Tshombe himself. Later around 10, a decision was taken on their fate and they were dragged from Villa Brouwe into a nearby bush where a firing squad awaited them.
The execution was commanded by Belgian Captain Julien Gat and Belgian Police Commissioner Frans Verschurre, who had overall command, discloses De Witte in his book based on documents he discovered in the Belgian archives. They were shot separately by a big tree as President Tshombe and two of his cabinet ministers looked on. The bodies were quickly thrown into shallow graves.
To conceal their crimes the next morning of January 18, the Interior Minister Godfried Munongo called a senior Belgian policeman, Gerard Soete, to his office and ordered that the bodies disappeared.
“You destroy them, you make them disappear. How you do it, it doesn’t interest me. All I want is that it happens that they disappear. Once it is done nobody will talk about it. Finished,” Soete recalled Munongo’s orders.
Soete said he and another helper exhumed the corpses and “hacked them in pieces and put them into the acid. As far as our acid because we had two bottles like that of acid, big bottles, but we hadn’t got enough so we burned what we could in those bottles. For the rest I know that my helper made a fire and put them in and we destroyed everything.
“We were there two days. We did things an animal wouldn’t do. And that’s why we were drunk, stone drunk. We couldn’t do things like that. Cut your own, your own – no, no, no. Nobody could say now, today, it’s there, it happened. That’s impossible, you couldn’t,” Soete was quoted in a BBC documentary, Who Killed Lumumba?, which aired in 2000 based on accounts from De Witte’s book published in English in June 2001.
Just as planned, Lumumba’s death was announced a month later on February 13, 1961. Interior Minister Munongo announced that the three prisoners killed their guards and escaped in a getaway car before they were recognized by villagers, who beat them to death.
The truth was hidden despite international protests at Belgian embassies nationwide until 1999 when Ludo De Witte’s book titled, The Assassination of Lumumba, presented new evidence taken from documents long hidden in official archives and interviews of surviving witnesses.
The Belgian Parliament established a commission of enquiry three months after the book was published to determine the circumstances of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and if the Belgian government was involved.
The report was presented after 18 months of investigation in 2002 and then published as a book in 2004 for the public. It concluded that Belgium had a moral responsibility in the assassination of Lumumba and that it “acted under pressure from the Belgian public, which had heard for days about violence against Belgian citizens in Congo.”
It said there were plans to kill Lumumba and the Belgian government showed little respect for the sovereign status of the Congolese government. The commission confirmed that secret funds (about $8 million today) were used to finance the policy against the Lumumba government by the Ministry of African Affairs, reports the Brussels Times.
It, however, stated that execution was carried out by Kantangese authorities in the presence of the Belgian officials and there was no evidence to prove that Belgium was part of the decision-making to kill Lumumba.
The Belgian government admitted to having had “undeniable responsibility in the events that led to Lumumba’s death” but did not take full responsibility and issued a public pardon of the Belgians involved in the assassination of Lumumba.
The foreign minister at the time, Louis Michel, said “The government feels it should extend to the family of Patrice Lumumba … and to the Congolese people, its profound and sincere regrets and its apologies for the pain inflicted upon them.”
This was accepted by Lumumba’s son, Francois Lumumba, who later filed court cases against Belgium for hiding its role in the assassination of his father.
In January 2016, it was reported that a tooth of Lumumba was confiscated in the former home of police officer Gerard Soete who died in June 2000 during the parliamentary enquiry.
In his 1978 novel, the Belgian who helped dissolve Lumumba’s body in acid described the taking of two teeth, two fingers and bullets from the body, reports Brussels Times. He later declared that he had thrown them into the sea.
Civil rights legend Ruby Sales (OUR COMMON GROUND Voice) learned to ask “Where does it hurt?” because it’s a question that drives to the heart of the matter — and a question we scarcely know how to ask in public life now. Sales says we must be as clear about what we love as about what we hate if we want to make change. And even as she unsettles some of what we think we know about the force of religion in civil rights history, she names a “spiritual crisis of white America” as a calling of today.
Ruby Nell Sales is a highly-trained, experienced, and deeply-committed social activist, scholar, administrator, manager, public theologian, and educator in the areas of Civil, Gender, and other Human Rights. She is an excellent public speaker, with a proven track record in conflict resolution and consensus building. Ms. Sales has preached around the country on race, class, gender, and reconciliation, and she has done ground-breaking work on community and nonviolence formation. Ms. Sales also serves as a national convener of the Every Church A Peace Church Movement.
Along with other SNCC workers, Sales joined young people from Fort Deposit, Alabama who organized a demonstration to protest the actions of the local White grocery-store owners who cheated their parents. The group was arrested and held in jail and then suddenly released. Jonathan Daniels, a White seminarian and freedom worker from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts was assassinated as he pulled Sales out of the line of fire when they attempted to enter Cash Grocery Store to buy sodas for other freedom workers who were released from jail. Tom Coleman also shot and deeply wounded Father Richard Morrisroe, a priest from Chicago. Despite threats of violence, Sales was determined to attend the trial of Daniels’ murderer, Tom Coleman, and to testify on behalf of her slain colleague.
As a social activist, Sales has served on many committees to further the work of reconciliation, education, and awareness. She has served on the Steering Committee for International Women’s Day, Washington, D.C.; the James Porter Colloquium Committee, Howard University, Washington, D.C.; the Coordinating Committee, People’s Coalition, Washington, D.C.; the President’s Committee On Race, University of Maryland; and the Coalition on Violence Against Women, Amnesty International, Washington, D.C. She was a founding member of Sage Magazine: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. Sales received a Certificate of Gratitude for her work on Eyes on the Prize. Additionally, she was featured in Broken Ground: A Film on Race Relations in the South, by Broken Ground Productions. From 1991-1994, Sales founded and directed the national nonprofit organization Women of All Colors, dedicated to improving the overall quality of life for women, their families, and the communities in which they live. Women of All Colors organized a week-long SisterSpeak that brought more than 80 Black women together to set a national agenda.
In 2000, Dan Rather spotlighted Sales on his “American Dream” Segment. In 1999, Selma, Alabama gave Sales the key to the city to honor her contributions there. In 2007, Sales moved to Columbus, Georgia, where she organized: a southern summit on racism; a national write-in campaign to save Albany State from being merged into a White college; a grassroots and media campaign to shed light on the death of seventeen year old, Billye Jo Johnson, who allegedly killed himself on a dark road in Lucedale, Mississippi when a deputy stopped him for speeding; Long Train Running Towards Justice, which celebrated the work of Black teachers during segregation and explored the ways that the Black school culture has been destroyed by White officials under the guise of desegregation; and a meeting with students at Savannah State to assist them in organizing and mobilizing a move by officials to merge Savannah State with a White college.
“Ruby Nell Sales is an African-American social justice activist. She attended local segregated schools and was also educated in the community during the 1960s era of the Civil Rights Movement. She has been described as a “legendary civil rights activist” by the PBS program “Religion and Ethics Weekly” Wikipedia
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HARTFORD, Conn. — On a sweltering Saturday afternoon last June, Crystal Carter took a deep breath as she walked toward the red “for rent” sign.
Shaded by tall oak trees, the three-story duplex looked cozy. The first floor siding was painted yellow, with white railings leading to the front door. The windows appeared new, the lawn freshly cut.
Although the property was in Barry Square, on the edge of a struggling area in southern Hartford, the family outside buoyed Carter’s spirits. Four children giggled in a recliner in the front yard, singing along to the radio while their father packed a moving truck. Across the street were Trinity College’s dignified brick pillars, the entry to the elite school’s 100-acre campus.
Carter tried to tamp down her excitement, but this looked like the kind of place the 48-year-old single mother so desperately wanted for her five kids: no mouse traps, no chipped paint trying to camouflage mold.
He put down a crate and offered her a tour of the first-floor, four-bedroom unit. Inside, she marveled at the modern kitchen, finished hardwood floors and large closets.
“This is a lot of space. When are you putting this on the market?” she asked.
“It’s ready, if you want to do the application,” he told her. Rent was $1,500 a month.
“I’ll be paying with a Section 8 voucher,” she said.
“Yeah,” the man shot back. “I don’t do Section 8.”
Officially called Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 rent subsidies were supposed to help low-income people find decent housing outside poor communities. But, for the better part of a year, Carter had found the opposite. This was easily the 50th place she had toured since her landlord sold her last apartment and evicted her. Nearly all of them were in poor areas. They had holes in the wall, uncovered electrical outlets, even roaches and mice. When she hit upon something clean, she learned not to ask too many questions. She complimented the landlord, talked about her children and emphasized that she didn’t smoke. None of it seemed to matter, though, once she uttered two words: Section 8.
Now, as Carter showed herself out of the first-floor rental, she felt panic welling within. “There really are no doors open for people that have a voucher,” she said afterward. “It makes you feel ashamed to even have one.” Typically, vouchers come with a time limit to find housing, and Carter had already won three extensions. She wasn’t sure she’d get another.
She had just 40 days left to find a place to live.
As the federal government retreated from building new public housing in the 1970s, it envisioned Section 8 vouchers as a more efficient way of subsidizing housing for the poor in the private market. They now constitute the largest rental assistance program in the country, providing almost $23 billion in aid each year to 2.2 million households. Local housing authorities administer the program with an annual budget from Washington and are given wide latitude on how many vouchers they hand out and how much each is worth. The bulk of the vouchers are reserved for families who make 30% or less of an area’s median income. That is $30,300 or less for a family of four in Hartford.
For years, researchers and policymakers have lamented the program’s failure to achieve one of its key goals: giving families a chance at living in safer communities with better schools. Low-income people across the country struggle to use their vouchers outside of high-poverty neighborhoods.
In Connecticut, the problem is especially acute. An analysis of federal voucher data by The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica found that 55% of the state’s nearly 35,000 voucher holders live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. That’s higher than the national average of 49% and the rates in 43 other states.
The segregation results, at least in part, from exclusionary zoning requirements that local officials have long used to block or limit affordable housing in prosperous areas. As the Mirror and ProPublica reported in November, state authorities have done little to challenge those practices, instead steering taxpayer money to build more subsidized developments in struggling communities.
Dozens of voucher holders in Connecticut say this concentration has left them with few housing options. Local housing authorities often provide a blue booklet of Section 8-friendly properties, but many of the ones listed are complexes that have a reputation for being rundown and are in struggling communities or have long waitlists. Many recipients call it the “Black Book” because “you are going to the dark side, for real. The apartments in that black book are nasty and disgusting,” said Janieka Lewis, a Hartford resident whose home is infested with mice.
Josh Serrano also lives in one of the state’s poorest neighborhoods. After landing a voucher in 2018, he tried to find a place in the middle-class town of West Hartford, where his son lives part time with his mother. He also looked in nearby Manchester and Simsbury. At each stop, the rent was higher than his voucher’s value or the landlord wouldn’t take a voucher.
“There is an invisible wall surrounding Hartford for those of us who are poor and particularly have black or brown skin like myself,” he said. “No community wanted me and my son.”
Nearly 80% of the state’s voucher holders are black or Hispanic and half have children. Their average income is $17,200 a year and the average amount they pay in rent out of pocket is $413 a month.
The federal government has taken a mostly hands-off approach to ensuring the Section 8 program is working as it was originally intended. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development typically leaves it up to each housing authority to determine how much a voucher is worth, which essentially determines the type of neighborhood a voucher holder can afford. And when HUD assesses the work of housing authorities — to decide whether to increase federal oversight — only a tiny fraction is based on whether local officials are “expanding housing opportunities … outside areas of poverty or minority concentration.” (And even at that, nearly all housing authorities receive full credit.)
Moreover, federal law does not make it illegal for a landlord to turn down a prospective tenant if they plan to pay with a voucher, so HUD does not investigate complaints of landlords who won’t accept Section 8 vouchers.
Connecticut goes further. It is one of 14 states where it’s illegal to deny someone housing because they plan to use a Section 8 voucher. And the state allocated more than $820,000 in the last fiscal year to help pay for 10 investigators to look into complaints of all types of housing discrimination and provide legal assistance. “There has been an effort to try to change” housing segregation, said Seila Mosquera-Bruno, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Housing.
But those efforts have done little to prevent landlords from continuing to reject voucher holders. The groups charged with investigating housing complaints say they lack the resources to be proactive and believe they are only seeing a fraction of what’s really going on.
“Housing providers keep coming up with ways to rent to who they want to rent and find ways around housing discrimination laws,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, which investigates complaints. “There is a lot more discrimination going on than what we are investigating.”
In 2018, fewer than 75 complaints were made that accused the landlord or owner of refusing to accept a voucher or some other legal source of income, such as Social Security. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center said that figure isn’t low because discrimination is scarce but rather because prospective tenants are fearful that complaining could hurt them and know that it will do nothing to help them with their immediate needs; investigations can take longer than the time they have to find a house with their vouchers.
“In order to make it a real priority and address the real effects of discrimination in society, the government should dedicate more resources to ferreting it out,” said Greg Kirschner, the group’s legal director.
A Hartford native, Carter reluctantly moved back to her hometown in 2011 to escape an abusive relationship. She had delayed relocating, she said, because she worried she’d be taking her children from a quiet neighborhood in Florida to a “war zone” in Connecticut.
“They not from the streets. Their heart is trying to be goofy-cool,” she said of her three sons, now 10, 17 and 18, and two daughters, ages 13 and 14. “They don’t have that fight in them. I do.” (Worried about her children’s privacy, Carter asked that they not be named in this story.)
“Of the many myths told about American slavery, one of the biggest is that it was an archaic practice that only enriched a small number of men.
The argument has often been used to diminish the scale of slavery, reducing it to a crime committed by a few Southern planters, one that did not touch the rest of the United States. Slavery, the argument goes, was an inefficient system, and the labor of the enslaved was considered less productive than that of a free worker being paid a wage. The use of enslaved labor has been presented as premodern, a practice that had no ties to the capitalism that allowed America to become — and remain — a leading global economy.
But as with so many stories about slavery, this is untrue. Slavery, particularly the cotton slavery that existed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War, was a thoroughly modern business, one that was continuously changing to maximize profits.
To grow the cotton that would clothe the world and fuel global industrialization, thousands of young enslaved men and women — the children of stolen ancestors legally treated as property — were transported from Maryland and Virginia hundreds of miles south, and forcibly retrained to become America’s most efficient laborers. As they were pushed into the expanding territories of Mississippi and Louisiana, sold and bid on at auctions, and resettled onto forced labor camps, they were given a task: to plant and pick thousands of pounds of cotton.
The bodies of the enslaved served as America’s largest financial asset, and they were forced to maintain America’s most exported commodity. In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent. The profits from cotton propelled the US into a position as one of the leading economies in the world, and made the South its most prosperous region. The ownership of enslaved people increased wealth for Southern planters so much that by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region.
In recent years, a growing field of scholarship has outlined how America — through the country’s geographic growth after the American Revolution and enslavers’ desire for increased cotton production — created a complex system aimed at monetizing and maximizing the labor of the enslaved. In the cotton fields of the Deep South, this system rested on the continuous threat of violence and a meticulous use of record-keeping. The labor of each person was tracked daily, and those who did not meet their assigned picking goals were beaten. The best workers were beaten as well, the whip and other assaults coercing them into doing even more work in even less time.
As overseers and plantation owners managed a forced-labor system aimed at maximizing efficiency, they interacted with a network of bankers and accountants, and took out lines of credit and mortgages, all to manage America’s empire of cotton. An entire industry, America’s first big business, revolved around slavery.
“The slavery economy of the US South is deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves, and were extracting money from the labor of enslaved people,” says Edward E. Baptist, a historian at Cornell University and the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.
Baptist’s book came out in 2014, the same year that essays like the Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” and protests like the Ferguson Uprising would call attention to injustices in wealth and policing that continue to affect black communities — injustices that Baptist and other academics see as being closely connected to the deprivations of slavery. As America observes 400 years since the 1619 arrival of enslaved Africans to the colony of Virginia, these deprivations are seeing increased attention — and so are the ways America’s economic empire, built on the backs of the enslaved, connects to the present.
I recently spoke with Baptist about how cotton slavery transformed the American economy, how torture, violence, and family separations were used to maximize profits, and how understanding the economic power of slavery impacts current discussions of reparations. A transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When you talk about the sort of myth-making that has been used to create specific narratives about slavery, one of the things you focus on most is the relationship between slavery and the American economy. What are some of the myths that get told when it comes to understanding how slavery is tied to American capitalism?
Edward E. Baptist
One of the myths is that slavery was not fuel for the growth of the American economy, that it actually the brakes put on US growth. There’s a story that claims slavery was less efficient, that wage labor and industrial production wasn’t significant for the massive transformation of the US economy that you see between the time of Independence and the time of the Civil War.
And yet that period is when you see the US go from being a colonial, primarily agricultural economy to being the second biggest industrial power in the world — and well on its way to becoming the largest industrial power in the world.
Another myth is that slavery, in and of itself as an economic system, was unchanging. We fetishize machine and machine production and see it as quintessentially modern — the kinds of improvements in production and efficiency that you see from hooking up a cotton spindle to a set of pulleys, which are in turn pulled by a water wheel or steam engine. That’s seen as more efficient than the old way of someone sitting there and doing it by hand.
But you can also get changes in efficiency if you change the pattern of production and you change the incentives of the labor and the labor process itself. And we still make these sorts of changes today in businesses — the kind of transformations that speed up work to a point where we say that it is modern and dynamic. And we see these types of changes in slavery as well, particularly during cotton slavery in the 19th-century US.
The difference, of course, is that this is not the work of wage workers or professional workers. It is the work of enslaved people. And the incentive is not “do this or you’ll get fired” or “you won’t get a raise.” The incentive is that if you don’t do this you’ll get whipped — or worse.
The third myth about this is that there was not a tight relationship between slavery in the South and what was happening in the North and other parts of the modern Western world in the 19th century. It was a very close relationship: Cotton was the No. 1 export from the US, which was largely an export-driven economy as it was modernizing and shifting into industrialization. And the slavery economy of the US South was deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves and were certainly extracting money from the labor of enslaved people.
So those are the three myths: that slavery did not cause in any significant way the development and transformation of the US economy, that slavery was not a modern or dynamic labor system, and that what was happening in the South was a separate thing from the rest of the US. . . .”
When the new york times magazinepublished its 1619 Project in August, people lined up on the street in New York City to get copies. Since then, the project—a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions—has spawned a podcast, a high-school curriculum, and an upcoming book. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who conceived of the project, the response has been deeply gratifying.
“They had not seen this type of demand for a print product of TheNew York Times, they said, since 2008, when people wanted copies of Obama’s historic presidency edition,” Hannah-Jones told me. “I know when I talk to people, they have said that they feel like they are understanding the architecture of their country in a way that they had not.”
U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom. The 1619 Project, named for the date of the first arrival of Africans on American soil, sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different.
The letter sent to the Times says, “We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but then veers into harsh criticism of the 1619 Project. The letter refers to “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing’” and says the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz and his fellow signatories didn’t just dispute the Times Magazine’s interpretation of past events, but demanded corrections.
In the age of social-media invective, a strongly worded letter might not seem particularly significant. But given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.
Nevertheless, some historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.
“I think had any of the scholars who signed the letter contacted me or contacted the Times with concerns [before sending the letter], we would’ve taken those concerns very seriously,” Hannah-Jones said. “And instead there was kind of a campaign to kind of get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation.”
Until several days ago, I was a journalist at Newsweek. I decided to hand my resignation in because, in essence, I was given a simple choice. On one hand, I could continue to be employed by the company, stay in their chic London offices and earn a steady salary—only if I adhered to what could or could not be reported and suppressed vital facts. Alternatively, I could leave the company and tell the truth.
In the end, that decision was rather simple, all be it I understand the cost to me will be undesirable. I will be unemployed, struggle to finance myself and will likely not find another position in the industry I care about so passionately. If I am a little lucky, I will be smeared as a conspiracy theorist, maybe an Assad apologist or even a Russian asset—the latest farcical slur of the day.
Although I am a British citizen, the irony is that I’m half Arab and half Russian. (Bellingcat: I’m happy to answer any requests.)
It is a terribly sad state of affairs when perfectly loyal people who want nothing but the best for their countries are labelled with such preposterous accusations. Take Iraq war veteran and Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard for example, who was the target of such mud slinging for opposing U.S. involvement in Syria and for simply standing up to the Democratic Party’s most corrupt politician, Hillary Clinton. These smears are immature for a democracy—but I, in fact, welcome such attacks.
When the facts presented are utterly ignored and the messengers themselves are crucified in this way, it signals to right-minded people who the true perpetrators of lies are and where the truth in fact lies.
That truth is what matters most to me. It is what first drove me to journalism while I was working in Jersey’s offshore finance industry after completing my degree from Binghamton University’s School of Management in upstate New York. I was so outraged when I grew to realize that this small idyllic island I love and had grown up on since the age of nine, a British Crown dependency fifteen miles off the coast of France, was in fact a hub for global tax evasion. This realization came to me while the British people were being told that austerity had to continue—public funding for schools, hospitals, policing and all matter of things were to be slashed—all while the government “recovered” after bailing out the banks following the 2008 crash. That austerity lie was one I could no longer stomach as soon as I came to understand that my fairly uninspiring administrative role was in fact a part of this global network of firms to help multinational companies, businessmen, politicians and members of various royal families in avoiding paying trillions in tax—all under a perfectly legal infrastructure that the government was fully aware of, but kept quiet about.
In Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts, the word “nigger” appears exactly once, in a sentence that describes a queer artist feverishly at work. Miss La Trobe is in charge of putting on a pageant representing the procession of English history for an assembly of villagers on a beautiful summer’s day. With a phonograph at her disposal as well as a grab bag of costumes and a troupe of amateur actors, she runs around behind the stage trying to get everything in order, a depressingly familiar image of a woman laboring to restore the dignity and history of her community—and being rewarded, for the most part, with little to no recognition. Indeed, this is why the word is used: “Miss La Trobe had vanished,” Woolf writes. Where did she go? “Down among the bushes she worked like a nigger.”
Woolf’s usage reflects a disturbing if common colloquialism of its time. With the brutal shadow of slavery still darkening the horizon, the equation of blackness with unremunerated labor was as much an ordinary piece of mental furniture in the cultivated coterie of Bloomsbury as it was in the rest of the Western world. But Woolf’s description indicates something else as well: Miss La Trobe may not be a black woman, but by using the word, Woolf nonetheless forces her readers to confront the figure of the racialized outcast, a figure still prevalent in a society benefiting from the resources and exploited labor of millions of colonized people around the world.
Woolf always used the novel as a means for acute social criticism—to dilate those moments of moral complicity and complacency found in the daily lives of middle-class Westerners. Her celebrated style brought ordinary syntax into ever-closer contact with the layers of consciousness that operate just below our cultivated personalities, turbulent areas of inner life where the stability of human character and morality breaks down and creates, as Zadie Smith put it recently, “grave doubts about the nature of the self.” Woolf’s faith in this moral power of fiction allowed her to wager that the lived quality of a black person’s experience, however dimly apprehended, was not ultimately divorceable from the deepest self-understandings of white people.
Woolf, in other words, dared to insist that there are “other” people in our midst; all around us (and within us) are hidden facets of humanity. Virtually everything in our society encourages us to deny, repress, disavow, distort, or irreparably damage that truth, which is, of course, one of the main goals of racism. Part of this invisibility is the result of a social system beyond any individual’s making. But Woolf’s point is that the perpetuation of this invisibility is our collective responsibility. To make us safe from the abjection of living in a society built on the foundations of violence and stratification, we assure ourselves that such a status belongs only to a well-defined stranger. The power of great fiction to challenge that common sense lies only partially in reflecting our lives to us like a mirror; a great deal more resides in its capacity to dispossess us of our preferred assumptions, plunging us into knowledge like photographic paper into its chemical bath, revealing, even against our will, all the gray areas we find inconvenient, unpleasant, even impossible to acknowledge
Today we almost take for granted the idea that a powerful eruption of racial blackness in a novel should be obviously worthy of comment. But of course, that hasn’t always been the case. Our reading practices and habits are shaped by, among other things, our education, and the systematic examination of race in literary texts was still a relatively new concept well into the 1990s. At one time I, too, might have casually glossed over the page on which it appears. But by the time I started reading Woolf, Toni Morrison had made her powerful argument in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination for us to pause and consider precisely how racial eruptions like this occur throughout modern literature.
Since its publication in 1992, Playing in the Dark has become a seminal reference work for literary studies in the academy and a regular presence on syllabi. The book has helped transform the way many general readers consume the West’s so-called canon, offering searing dissections of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and teaching a generation of literary scholars how to read for the “Africanist presence” in texts that otherwise pretend not to be concerned with race.
With Playing in the Dark, Morrison changed the rules of the game, effectively recasting what we see when we look back to figures like Woolf and to writers of the present and future like Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward, and Angela Flournoy. “All of us are bereft,” Morrison writes, “when criticism remains too polite or too fearful to notice a disrupting darkness before its eyes.” Although we focus, for good reason, on Morrison’s novels, which will endure far into the future as great works of art, her essays opened up new worlds as well: As is seen from the range and depth of moral insight collected in her last book, The Source of Self-Regard, her essays bequeathed to us a mandate to see and speak clearly, in particular about the ways in which otherness persists in almost every facet of life—a responsibility we need to acknowledge more than ever in the present.
Taking the full measure of Morrison’s recent passing—comprehending all that she has done to change what we read, how we read, and who we read—will be the work of subsequent generations. Arguably, no single writer has done more to shape the direction of American fiction in the past 50 years, and no writer has set the bar for achievement in the form of the novel higher than where she left it in 1987 with her masterpiece Beloved. As with Pilate, the fierce outsider and moral conscience who guides the plot of Song of Solomon, it never occurred to Morrison to ask for the proverbial seat at the table. Instead, she pulled the entire table over to her side of the room.
Born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Morrison began her revolution in American literature from within the gates of the lettered city. A graduate of Howard University, class of 1953, she went on to Cornell, where she studied modernism and wrote a thesis on Faulkner (already a major figure in American letters) and Woolf. It was a pioneering choice for a thesis in the 1950s, when Woolf had not yet been canonized and many of her books were out of print.
With her degree in hand, Morrison embarked on a teaching career, first at Texas Southern University in Houston and then at Howard, where she remained for seven years and met her husband, Harold Morrison. That marriage ended in 1964, and she was forced to leave academe to support her two children with a job editing textbooks for Random House. Her confidence and formidable talents as an editor got her noticed, and after an opening appeared in the company’s trade division in New York City in 1967, she became the first black woman to occupy a senior editorial position in the publishing industry.
Toni Morrison’s time at Random House was productive. She used her position to irrigate the literary and cultural landscape with new voices from the Black Arts Movement and with the icons and political champions of black power and black feminism, publishing Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara, the still underrecognized Henry Dumas, and the autobiographies of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali.
Morrison’s most daring and experimental project at Random House was The Black Book, which gathered stories of black life across history and created a remarkable and mesmerizing commonplace book from it—something in between W.E.B. Du Bois’s cherished dream of an Encyclopedia Africana and Stéphane Mallarmé’s vision of “the Book” as a repository in which all that has ever been attains its preordained legibility.
In these years, Morrison began to write, publishing The Bluest Eye in 1970, Sula in 1973, and Song of Solomon in 1977—works of uncompromising vision, assured in their purpose and crackling with passionate urgency. Each was groundbreaking in its own way, combining the power of black oral tradition with the authority of folklore, communal memory, and a feminist consciousness.
Morrison did all of this fearlessly, no matter the costs that came with forcing American culture to come to her and her people. She composed her novels, edited her books, and published her literary criticism knowing that she could write circles around her critics—and often did. No one has gone to bat for William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner since. The genuflecting esteem and towering fame accorded to writers like John Updike and Norman Mailer have never recovered. Others played a role in this too, but Morrison’s critiques were hard to look past, and the due respect accorded to female novelists white, black, and of every other shade owes something to her epochal impact on the “literary field,” as Pierre Bourdieu would put it. That Morrison will always be read first and foremost as a novelist is, of course, as it should be. But the tremendous impact of her fiction and her very public career as a novelist have tended to eclipse her contributions as a moral and political essayist, which the pieces gathered in The Source of Self-Regard help correct. Taken together with What Moves at the Margin, her first volume of nonfiction, as well as Playing in the Dark and The Origin of Others, her 2017 collection of lectures, this final book brings Morrison the moral and social critic into view.
In her essays, lectures, and reviews, we discover a writer working in a register that many readers may not readily associate with her. Rather than the deft orchestrator of ritual and fable, chronicler of the material and spiritual experience of black girlhood, and master artificer of the vernacular constitution of black communal life, here we encounter Morrison as a dispassionate social theorist and moral anthropologist, someone who offers acute and even scathing readings of America’s contemporary malaise and civic and moral decline in an age defined by the mindless boosterism of laissez-faire capitalism.
In essays like “The Foreigner’s Home,” one almost hears echoes of Jean Baudrillard’s theories of simulated life under late capitalism and Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle as she examines the disorienting loss of distinction between private and public space and its effect on our interior lives. The politicization of the “migrant” and the “illegal alien,” Morrison argues, is not merely a circling of the wagons in the face of “the transglobal tread of peoples.” It is also an act of bad faith, a warped projection of our fears of homelessness and “our own rapidly disintegrating sense of belonging” reflecting the anxieties produced by the privatization of public goods and commons and the erosion of face-to-face association. Our lives, Morrison tells us, have now become refracted through a “looking-glass” that has compressed our public and private lives “into a ubiquitous blur” and created a pressure that “can make us deny the foreigner in ourselves.”
In other essays, one finds Morrison venturing bravely into the tense intersections of race, gender, class, and radical politics. The essay “Women, Race, and Memory,” written in 1989, offers a retrospective attempt to make sense of the fractures within the 1960s and ’70s left, to understand why a set of interlocking liberation struggles ended up splitting along racial, gender, and class lines. One can’t help feeling a wincing recognition when Morrison writes of “the internecine conflicts, cul-de-sacs, and mini-causes that have shredded the [women’s] movement.” On top of racial divides, she asserts, class fissures broke apart a movement just as it was coming together, exacerbating “the differences between black and white women, poor and rich women, old and young women, single welfare mothers and single employed mothers.” Class and race, Morrison laments, ended up pitting “women against one another in male-invented differences of opinion—differences that determine who shall work, who shall be well educated, who controls the womb and/or the vagina; who goes to jail, who lives where.” Achieving solidarity may be daunting, but the alternative is “a slow and subtle form of sororicide. There is no one to save us from that,” Morrison cautions—“no one except ourselves.”
Even as her essays ranged widely, from dissections of feminist politics to the rise of African literature, from extolling the achievements of black women (“you are what fashion tries to be—original and endlessly refreshing”) to the parallels between modern and medieval conceptions of violence and conflict in Beowulf, they came together around a set of core concerns about the degradation and coarsening of our politics as we cast one another as others and how this process often manifests itself through language.
This is particularly true of the essays included in The Source of Self-Regard, which give their readers little doubt about the power of her insights when she trains her eye on the dismal state of contemporary politics and asks how the rhetoric and experiences of otherness came to be transformed by the rise of new media and global free-market fundamentalism into a potent source of reactionary friction. Despite the fact that some of these essays are now several decades old, Morrison’s insights are still relevant. For example, her gimlet-eyed description of the cant of our political class in the essay “Wartalk,” that “empurpled comic-book language in which they express themselves.” Or her warning against “being bullied” by those in power “into understanding the human project as a manliness contest where women and children are the most dispensable collateral.” Or her chiding of the “commercial media” in the run-up to the Iraq War for echoing the uninterrogated lines of Tony Blair and George W. Bush. Journalists, she insisted, must take up the cause of fighting “against cultivated ignorance, enforced silence, and metastasizing lies.” They are not supposed to contribute to it.
The sheer quantity of her speeches and essays testifies to Morrison’s power as a moral and social critic. But this does not mean she left literature entirely behind in her essays. In fact, the greater part of The Source of Self-Regard is dedicated to her applying her moral and political insights in the arena of art as well. Fiction writers are not always the best readers of their own work or others’. (It’s only natural that they have their blind spots.) Yet Morrison proves to be a literary critic of the highest order, besotted with the intricacies and pleasures of textual interpretation and with their political and moral import and enviably providing such close readings of her own work that we are sometimes left wondering whether there is anything else for us to really say.
that makes them spoken, heard, in this context, because one expects words to read in a book, not numbers to say, or hear. And the sound of the novel, sometimes cacophonous, sometimes harmonious, must be an inner-ear sound or a sound just beyond hearing, infusing the text with a musical emphasis that words can do sometimes even better than music can. Thus the second sentence is not one: it is a phrase that properly, grammatically, belongs as a dependent clause with the first…. The reader is snatched, yanked, thrown into an environment completely foreign…snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, from any place to another, without preparation and without defense.
Reading her pieces on literature, one immediately recognizes that, for Morrison, literary criticism was also an art, the essay another vehicle for conveying her moral and political insights. Her skills as a writer of nonfiction are one and the same as her powers as a writer of fiction. For her, both the essay and the novel can undo the work of individuation foisted upon us by modern society; they can bring “others” into contact and remind us of our common humanity.
Sometimes this larger project of humanization can show itself in the choice of a single word, like the solemn weight and subtle inflections of the adjective “educated” as it describes Paul D’s hands in Beloved as he and Sethe fumble toward the beginnings of a new life eked out within the living memory of enslavement. Other times it expresses itself in a lyrical outburst that captures a fleeting moment of self-fashioned freedom, a world of possibility momentarily gleaned from an otherwise desperate circumstance, as in this passage from Jazz:
Oh, the room—the music—the people leaning in doorways. This is the place where things pop. This is the market where gesture is all: a tongue’s lightning lick; a thumbnail grazing the split cheeks of a purple plum.
Finding those places where things pop is the central task of her humanism, which she calls, in the titular essay of the new collection, the act of “self-regard.” Self-regard, Morrison insists, is the process in which we recover our selves—in which we once again become human. It means experiencing black culture “from a viewpoint that precedes its appropriation”; it means seeing humanity after the veil of otherness has fallen. By stirring people into prideful expression, self-regard can help us see through the literalism and literal-mindedness that centuries of racist thought and practice that has prevented us from being better readers of our lives and, in turn, others’.
Humanism is not much in vogue these days. The urgency of our moment has impressed upon us other, more specific political programs. Yet the quiddity of Morrison’s writing ultimately is just that. Her humanism is not restricted, as it is still often taken to be, to a tradition solely refracted through a small circle of men whose taste for classical learning, preference for moderation and reform, and disposition to kindliness and optimism helped them weather late medieval Europe’s brutal religious and tribal warfare. For Morrison, humanism is a tradition of self-regard, confident and open to all that is worth knowing, but one that draws its special strength from the historical experience, community, and values possessed and refashioned by those Africans driven into the holds and shipped across the Atlantic while Erasmus and Thomas More exchanged their letters on the duties of conscience and friendship.
Morrison’s humanism, therefore, is something made of far loamier and more challenging conditions of dispossession and natal alienation that only make the project of humanization all the more pressing. “It was there I learned how I was not a person from my country, nor from my families. I was negrita,” as the mother in her novel A Mercy, known to the reader only in her Portuguese form of address, “a minha mãe,” puts it, and it is in these conditions that humanity is also recovered, where “language, dress, gods, dance, habits, decoration, song” take on new meaning.
Morrison has always written out of this black humanist tradition. The battle over the meaning of black humanity has consistently been central to both her fiction and her essays—and not just for the sake of black people but also to further what we hope all of humanity can become. This is a humanism informed by Anna Julia Cooper, who insisted on the education of black women and the affirmation of their “undisputed dignity” as vital to any meaningful realization of social justice. It is the determination of Mary McLeod Bethune, who told a doctor who advised her in 1941 to slow down her relentless administrative and philanthropic activism, “I am my mother’s daughter, and the drums of Africa still beat in my heart. They will not let me rest while there is a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove his worth.” And of Sojourner Truth, who, when advised that the meeting house in Angola, Indiana, where she was to speak was going to be burned down, replied, “Then I shall speak upon the ashes.”
Although her writings remain far less well-known, one of the contemporary thinkers who most resemble Morrison in this respect is the philosopher Sylvia Wynter, who has, as it happens, called for a “re-enchantment of humanism” that would complete the work of Erasmus and his circle by breaking out of the paradigm that understood his intellectual and ethical virtues to be the special property of bourgeois European men over all the other inhabitants of the globe. While humanist, it seeks to effect a revolution in ethics and perspective that is sensitive to the natural world around us. Such a humanism knows that those who endured slavery are some of the best people to consult on questions of social and political freedom.
This humanistic bent is especially evident in one of Morrison’s most important essays included in the collection, “The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations.” Its ostensible subject is the apocalyptic way we regard the future of human life—a future that is unquestionably at risk of being foreshortened—but its real targets lie elsewhere. What Morrison takes issue with is the pronoun at the center of the appeal for action:
Political discourse enunciates the future it references as something we can leave to or assure “our” children or—in a giant leap of faith—“our” grandchildren. It is the pronoun, I suggest, that ought to trouble us. We are not being asked to rally for the children, but for ours. “Our children” stretches our concern for two or five generations. “The children” gestures toward time to come of greater, broader, brighter possibilities—precisely what politics veils from view.
Morrison wants us to think in more general terms: for humanity itself. Our inability to do so—to envision, plan, or imagine a deep future for the human race—is evidence, she worries, of a larger bankruptcy in our present culture, which cannot summon a sense of what we would do even if we could safely guarantee that kind of longevity. To have such an attitude toward the future we would need a common mission, some cultural pattern of vitality with which to fill the empty stretches of time to come—in short, we would need a humanism. “It will require,” she concludes, “thinking about the quality of human life, not just its length. The quality of intelligent life, not just its strategizing abilities. The obligations of moral life, not just its ad hoc capacity for pity.”
There is a speech not included in The Source of Self-Regard that should have been: Morrison’s 1995 convocation address to the students of Howard University on the 128th anniversary of its founding. In it, she apologizes for not dwelling on “the sweetness and the beauty and the conviviality” of the old days and instead traces Howard’s long history of perseverance in the face of a nation openly hostile or skeptical (often both) to the notion of educating black people in the liberal arts.
Turning to the present, Morrison warns her listeners that this struggle is far from over. There is, she insists, a creeping fascism in the midst of American culture that relies on the construction of “an interior enemy” for “both focus and diversion.” Do not, she commends her audience, trust any one political party to combat this drift toward creating others out of neighbors. It will make no difference who is in power if, in the end, we are interested only in building a bunkered future, a siloed desert without social intercourse and mutual conversation, a world with quantified convenience but no qualitative conviction that can help us transcend the otherness imposed on all of us.
Making a homeland worth keeping, for Morrison, is centrally about this: It requires a deep mutuality—a solidarity that can’t be achieved by cutting any group or individual out but that looks past difference to find a shared sameness. As Morrison told another gathering of students, this time in 2013, “We owe others our language, our history, our art, our survival, our neighborhood, our relationships with family and colleagues, our ability to defy social conventions as well as support these conventions. All of this we learned from others. None of us is alone; each of us is dependent on others—some of us depend on others for life itself.”
To read Morrison today is to remember all over again how badly we need the rogue sanity found in her essays and speeches as well as her novels. Sometimes this rogue sanity consists of bright new ideas, but many other times it is just very simple things, very old ideas that we already know and should already understand but that magnify under Morrison’s glass. As Morrison puts it in her penultimate collection of lectures, The Origin of Others, “The resources available to us for benign access to each other, for vaulting the mere blue air that separates us, are few but powerful: language, image, and experience.”
Our country is not now and never has been as noble as Morrison’s work insisted we could be. In this sense, she wrote for the future—for the young readers who are only now taking their first steps into the classroom and the public library, gazing at the shelves searching for answers to as yet unknown questions. This generation will pull down those books and feel with enviable freshness that inordinate beauty and vitality we hold dear. They may find themselves, as we so often have, echoing Morrison, who said in praise of James Baldwin at his funeral, “In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive.”