Thursday, May 12, 2011

Civil Rights

After I listened to Sue Monk Kidd speak about her book in the library and after watching the movie adaptation of ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, one learns more about the Civil Rights movement in the South.  The usual perception of people like me is that Negro emancipation occurred after the Civil War. But the struggle has in fact continued well into the 1960’s even after Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights act that resulted in the South moving into the Republican camp. In fact, some would even argue that the struggle still rages today. One has given a sort of peripheral attention to the struggles of college students and the non-violence movement against segregation. In one’s memory, Martin Luther King’s epic speeches and his assassination were the main events of the struggle. The 1960’s were also about other events like the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy killings, Vietnam and the hippie movement. ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ bring the full attention back to the Southern anti-segregation movement and the Civil Rights struggle.

One often believes that the giant of Civil Rights is Nelson Mandela with his epic fight against the South Africa apartheid government. It was actually a violent battle against the white supremacist unlike the principles of Martin Luther King who favored Gandhi’s non-violence. It was only after Mandela’s rise into the presidency and his advocacy of forgiveness and reconciliation without retribution that exalted his name. It follows Abraham Lincoln’s grand gesture of presidential forgiveness of the rebellious Southern States. As everyone knows, the Civil War ended slavery but resulted in segregation and the Jim Crow laws – not true liberty and racial equality. It took generations more with the recent struggle (about 45 years ago) to end segregation that just started with Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation. This period is not well documented except for the excellent photographs of those who participated in the movement.

There is a revival of this period with Sue Monk Kidd’s book, the recent memorial to King and the recognition of people like Rosa Parks and the freedom riders. The election of a black president seems to herald the end of this injustice. But the recent attacks of the so-called ‘birthers’ like Donald Trump smacks of racial prejudice. This has been called out by Jimmy Carter a few years ago to explain the inappropriate outburst during the President’s State of the Union address in Congress. The Civil Rights struggle needs to be celebrated and understood to appreciate today’s progress. An achievement that even Nelson Mandela learned from but without the dynamics of his epic story. It was more of an evolution of a people who matured enough to accept the civil liberties and rights of former slaves. It’s an ongoing education - continuing with the acceptance of the first African American President.

‘The Secret Life of Bees’ is a good book and a move in that direction of celebrating the civil rights struggle. It’s an educational journey that young people should read and learn so a better place and union is achieved. One cannot understand the civil rights struggle with Obama’s story because he is divorced from that history. He is a new man who stands in the shoulders of great people like King, Rosa Parks and other heroes. Perhaps even the young heroine in Sue Monk Kidd’s book. One understands the story from rap and hip hop, from Jay-Z’s book ‘Decoded’ from the poetry of Alice Walker and Langston Hughes and in the movie of King.  Skin color no longer matter and it’s an achievement of every person who has risen above his own racial prejudice and bias. The only refuge for this type of injustice is right wing groups, religious conservatives and fascist movements. Unfortunately, it’s the preserve of rich and powerful people.

I finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s excellent book ‘Freedom’. A big sprawling work about a dysfunctional family that finally achieved bliss and grace in the end. He is like an American version of Anthony Burgess with his scope. He brings a macro focus on the American experience like Burgess sophisticated sweep of European manners in books like ‘Earthly Powers’. Franzen has Burgess prodigal range of a wide array of subjects. Franzen writes about neo-conservatives, obscure rock stars, Bush II presidency, conservancy movement, rare birds, mountain top mining, capitalism and free markets, college life, suburbs, marriage, sex, adultery, adolescence and fringe groups. It’s all about the concept of freedom and the American experience in using freedom perhaps to the detriment of the world. It’s a more serious book when compared to Thomas Pynchon ’Inherent Vice’ but with a similar deadpan humor. But Franzen did not write about the civil rights movement with his focus on the affluent white middle class similar to the stories of John Updike.

The subject of Sue Monk Kidd and Jonathan Franzen are strikingly different; like stories from different countries. Perhaps the country is a dissimilar place today than in the recent past. The African American experience is remarkable no matter what people try to present today. The DVD series ‘Poetry Lounge’ presents the voices of African Americans writers. Poetry is expressed with open mike sessions where people express their work in front of a live audience. Perhaps it’s the poetic version of a rap session with hip hop singers. Some say that rap or hip hop is the modern version of the blues or jazz - the songs that express the black experience in the South. It’s a strong vibrant voice that has more raw energy than the voice of mainstream writers who have sunk into the comfortable affluence of middle class existence. Perhaps that’s the difference between the Obama candidacy with a promise of change as compared to the status quo of conservatism (with their misuse of freedom).

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