John Muir On The ‘Negroes’ Of The American South

John Muir often wrote soaring prose about the beauties and majesties of nature, about how the outdoors were our ‘natural cathedrals’; he urged his fellow human beings to leave behind their sordid, grubby, weekday cares and let themselves be elevated by the sublime qualities of hill and vale and river and babbling brook. Here, on earth, he sought the transcendent, and his writings reflected that elevated aspiration and his delighted and delightful responses to the grand offerings of awe-inspiring locales like the American West. Elsewhere, in his opinions of human beings, he often showed himself to be anchored firmly in his times and place; a man ultimately, of a particular locale, at a particular point in history.

During his famed 1867 walk from Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, Muir passed through an American South still recovering from the Civil War. Its population included both ‘whites’ and ‘negroes.’ Muir’s encounters with the latter are described in a language typical for its time–‘negroes’ are creatures with distinctive characteristics, a sub-species of a very particular kind.

In Kentucky,  Muir met “a great many negroes going to meeting, dressed in their Sunday best. Fat, happy looking, and contented.” There too, when trying to cross a “deep and rapid” river, he had been aided by a “negro woman” who asked him to wait while she arranged for a horse. This was arranged; “the little sable negro boy that rode him looked like a bug on his back.” Muir was soon “mounted behind little Nig. He was a queer specimen, puffy and jet as an India rubber doll and his hair was matted in sections like the wool of a merino sheep….little Afric looked as if he might float like a bladder.” Muir did think that “many of these Kentucky Negroes are shrewd and intelligent, and when warmed upon a subject that interests them, are eloquent in no mean degree.” In Georgia, Muir found that the “negroes here have been well trained and are extremely polite. When they come in sight of a white man on the road, off go their hats, even at a distance of forty or fifty yards, and they walk bare-headed until he is out of sight.” Still, Muir was worried about “idle negroes..prowling about everywhere” and took considerable concern to avoid them–and their “wild eyes”– in his search for a resting place at night. He was generally less than impressed by their work ethic for “the negroes are easy-going and merry, making a great deal of noise and doing little work. One energetic white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half a dozen Sambos and Sallies.”

His impression of the negro’s essential wilderness was confirmed by an encounter with a ‘negro family’ in Florida, who he encountered in a forest:

When within three or four miles of the town I noticed a light off in the pine woods. As I was very thirsty, I thought I would venture toward it with the hope of obtaining water. In creeping cautiously and noiselessly through the grass to discover whether or not it was a camp of robber negroes, I came suddenly in full view of the best-lighted and most primitive of all the domestic establishments I have yet seen in town or grove. There was, first of all, a big, glowing log fire, illuminating the overleaning bushes and trees, bringing out leaf and spray with more than noonday distinctness, and making still darker the surrounding wood. In the center of this globe of light sat two negroes. I could see their ivory gleaming from the great lips, and their smooth cheeks flashing off light as if made of glass. Seen anywhere but in the South, the glossy pair would have been taken for twin devils, but here it was only a negro and his wife at their supper.

I ventured forward to the radiant presence of the black pair, and, after being stared at with that desperate fixedness which is said to subdue the lion, I was handed water in a gourd from somewhere out of the darkness. I was standing for a moment beside the big fire, looking at the unsurpassable simplicity of the establishment, and asking questions about the road to Gainesville, when my attention was called to a black lump of something lying in the ashes of the fire. It seemed to be made of rubber; but ere I had time for much speculation, the woman bent wooingly over the black object and said with motherly kindness, “Come, honey, eat yo’ hominy.”

At the sound of “hominy” the rubber gave strong manifestations of vitality and proved to be a burly little negro boy, rising from the earth naked as to the earth he came. Had he emerged from the black muck of a marsh, we might easily have believed that the Lord had manufactured him like Adam direct from the earth.

Surely, thought I, as I started for Gainesville, surely I am now coming to the tropics, where the inhabitants wear nothing but their own skins. This fashion is sufficiently simple, “no troublesome disguises,” as Milton calls clothing, — but it certainly is not quite in harmony with Nature. Birds make nests and nearly all beasts make some kind of bed for their young; but these negroes allow their younglings to lie nestless and naked in the dirt.

These lines of Muir’s are only odd because Muir wrote so eloquently and voluminously about how he descended into a kind of feral existence himself when he ventured into the wild, how he slept wherever he could make a bed for himself, and so on. Clearly, in his case, his ‘wilderness’ represented a kind of movement outward, while for the ‘negro’ it was just an essential state of being.

Orange Is The New Black And The Privatization of Prisons

Spoilers Ahead. 

Orange is The New Black has attracted–not unjustifiedly–some flak for its powerful and painful fourth season: it has been accused of being ‘trauma porn for white people,’ and of having ‘failed the Dominican community.’ Still, the show has provided some powerful drama in those thirteen episodes, largely by throwing off any pretensions that were hoisted on it of being a ‘funny’ or ‘comedic’ look at what happens behind the walls of a modern prison, and by concentrating on those issues that are too often the stuff of contemporary headlines pertaining to mass incarceration: the privatized prison-industrial complex, the brutality of poorly trained prison guards and correctional officers, racism, violence, sexual abuse and assault, criminal activity behind bars, drug abuse, the complicated social dynamics of prisoner groups, prison protests, deaths in custody, and so on. (Orange is the New Black is set in a women’s prison, so these issues receive an interestingly different treatment because of its inclusion–even if incompletely, and often crudely–of the perspectives of lesbians and women of color. Despite its increasingly serious tone. the show retains its witty edge because of its sharp writing and because of the comedic talent of many of its actors.)

In the many indictments the show levels at our society, one stands out pretty clearly: the privatization of prisons, the transformation of incarceration into industrial endeavor. The show’s narrative and rhetorical arc in the third season was radically altered by its choice to concentrate on the privatization of Litchfield, and not coincidentally, that is precisely when the show took on its darker tone. The predominance of the economic bottom line, and the casual cruelty and indifference to human interests it brought in its wake ensured that change pretty quickly. Interestingly enough insofar as any sort of alliance between the various warring factions among the inmates ever emerges, it is in reaction to the lowering of the corporate boom on their heads: if prison administration was uncaring and callous before, then the new dollars-and-cents mentality is even more grim, ever more removed from the realities of their lives, one that demands, finally, even if only temporarily, the putting aside of differences.

As Orange is the New Black makes quite clear in its treatment of the death of Poussey–the show’s most traumatic moment thus far, the one that finally pushed it over the edge, and made clear the it was not in Kansas anymore–an innocent human being died as a result of the decisions made by those, and there were many, who chose to imprison her and her fellow inmates in the way they did. The overcrowding at Litchfield, the use of untrained guards, the tolerance of their brutality, the systematic, cruel, ignorance and indifference of corporate managers; they all applied that fatal pressure to Poussey’s windpipe; she died because a system’s weaknesses became too much for her to bear. As they have for all too many in real life. If Orange is the New Black can help us pay more attention to their fates, and to the actions that are required to ensure they are not repeated, it will have, despite some well-deserved criticism, done its part.

The Cruelest Cut Of All: Punjabis Are Not White

In 1921, a certain John Mohammed Ali became a naturalized citizen of the US. In 1925, this grant of citizenship was contested (United States v. Ali 7 F.2d 728 (1925) by Martin J. Kilsdonk, a United States naturalization examiner. His affidavit:

[A]lleges in substance that said defendant was born in Karpurthala, in the province of Punjab, India, on January 10, 1875, arrived in the United States on June 2, 1900, and has resided in the state of Michigan, in this district, since April 1, 1911; that when the said certificate was issued to him he was not a free white person nor a person of African nativity or descent; that such certificate was illegally procured, within the meaning of section 15 of the Naturalization Act, as decided by the United States Supreme Court in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U. S. 204, 43 S. Ct. 338, 67 L. Ed. 616, on February 19, 1923; and that, therefore, good and sufficient grounds exist for the cancellation of said certificate.

In United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind the Supreme Court had ruled that Thind, an Indian asking for naturalization on the grounds he was a Caucasian, and therefore eligible, was instead ineligible on the grounds he was not ‘white.’ The Supreme Court rejected the ‘scientific’ classifications of ‘race’ that ran together ‘White’ and ‘Caucasian’ and instead relied on the ‘common knowledge’ that Asian Indians, ‘Hindoos’, were not ‘Whites.’

Ali, for his part, had attempted to circumvent the impact of this ruling by claiming that he was of Arabian descent and therefore not Indian, not-not-White:

[H]e is not a “Hindu” of full Indian blood, but is an Arabian of full Arabian blood. While admitting that he is a native of India, as his ancestors for several centuries have also been, he contends that originally his ancestors were Arabians, who invaded the territory now known as India, and settled and remained there, but have been careful not to intermarry with “the native stock of India,” and have “kept their Arabian blood line clear and pure by intermarriage within the family.”

The court rejected this line of reasoning:

I am unable to follow the argument thus sought to be made. No reason has been suggested, and I can discover none, why the mere fact that the early ancestors of the defendant came to India from Arabia, where they had been called Arabians, renders the defendant a white person. His skin is certainly not white, but unmistakably dark, like that of the other members of his race.

The court ruled for the plaintiff, and stripped Ali of his citizenship, concluding:

He is a native of the continent of Asia, specifically of the country of India, and more specifically of the province of Punjab, the place of the nativity of the alien held, in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, supra, not to be a white person. Clearly, all of the conclusions of the Supreme Court in that case, as well as the reasons on which they are based, are equally applicable to this defendant.

The court also noted:

He admits that his ancestry, like that of other races residing in India, originally sprang from Caspian Mediterranean stock. It would seem that the most that could be claimed by him, by reason of Arabian ancestry, would be membership in the Caucasian race.

And so we have it folks, the official holding: Punjabis (whether Hindu or Arabian) are not White. We just can’t seem to catch a break.

Darren Wilson’s Post-Police Career

Darren Wilson has resigned from the Ferguson, MO, police force. His stated intentions are honorable, possibly even noble:

It was my hope to continue in police work, but the safety of other police officers and the community are of paramount importance to me. It is my hope that my resignation will allow the community to heal.

We should not, as some rather unkindly have, respond to this announcement with a chorus of “I got your healing right here.”  Yet, in the wake of his entirely unrepentant, six-figure earning, television appearance last week with ABC NewsGeorge Stephanopoulos, one in which Wilson made clear that he had no regrets for having shot Michael Brown dead, that he would do it all over again, and expressed no remorse at the loss of a young man’s life, and certainly no empathy with his grieving parents,  I am, how you say, somewhat skeptical.

In that non-gullible spirit therefore, I hereby offer some speculation about Darren Wilson’s post-police-career alternative means of employment. That  most of these involve speaking engagements should be entirely unsurprising: all too often, the clearest path to eventual riches in today’s US–now that seminars in real estate and finance have lost some of their former cachet–seems to be offering advice.

Darren Wilson could be:

1. A community speaker on neighborhood relations, offering talks such as “The Importance of Street Stops Done Right.”

2. A spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, speaking on ‘This Might Be My Gun, But It Sure Ain’t For Fun.” Flyers for his talks might note Officer Wilson’s “extensive experience in using and discharging firearms till they are good and empty.” (As a side bonus, Wilson will offer dark warnings on “the dangers of unused ammunition.”)

3.  An adviser to Marvel Comics for a new super-villain series, starting with a yet-to-be-named dastardly entity, who, as a mash-up of “Hulk Hogan” and your garden-variety “demon,” gets “mad” if you “shoot at him.” Wilson will also be contracted to supply some artwork, especially for the villain’s highly emotive expressions.

4. A distinguished guest on Rush Limbaugh‘s radio show, speaking on “Model Majorities: The White Police Officer.”

5. An author, writing his memoir–titled My Life Drawing And Coloring The Thin Blue Line‘–one contracted to a major publisher with a hefty advance.

6. A commencement speaker, offering advice on how to navigate the grand jury process and emerge indictment-free. (Pro-tip: start white.)

7. A security director for the National Convenience Store Owners’ Association, describing and designing appropriate steps to secure small items from the depredations of large young black men. (Pro-tip: Start shooting.)

8. A  security consultant on anti-looting measures. (Pro-tip: See #7 above.)

9. A public relations consultants for the pharmaceutical industry, offering talks such as “What To Do When Accused of the Deaths of Innocents: Managing Public Relations’ Disasters.”

10. A special guest on  Fox News, speaking on, “Why They Hate Us And Our Freedoms (Especially Those Pertaining to Peaceful Assembly.”

The demand for Wilson’s resignation was grounded in one overriding principle: that Wilson not do more damage–especially to the communities he polices. As my only half-facetious list suggests, Wilson could yet do more damage and make a better living than he ever has before.

“Look Out of the Window, Camel Jockey”

Twenty-seven years ago, I arrived in the US, and shortly thereafter, began graduate school at a small technical school in Newark, New Jersey. Once classes picked up speed, I spent increasing amounts of time in our grim library–rather inefficiently if I may say so–struggling to stay awake while finishing my readings and programming assignments. To this end, I would often park myself in one of the many carrels that ran along the walls of the library. Thankfully, some of these were positioned next to windows through which one could cast despairing, if drowsy, glances at the world outside.

It was on one of these desks that I spotted a bit of illegible graffiti in Arabic. Written below it, clearly in response to its provocations, was a blunt and sharp message:

Look out of the window, camel jockey. Do you see any sand? Do you see any camels? No? Then learn how to speak English or fuck off back to where you came from.

My graduate school’s student body was richly populated with international students (like me then). Most of them, unsurprisingly, originated from the usual suspects–India and China/Taiwan–with the rest drawn from the Middle East and other far-flung corners of the world. They were often a source of much perplexity to the college’s administration, which desperately sought their tuition payments, but didn’t quite know how to cater to their visible and vivid presence on campus. Neither, it seemed at times, did the staff, the faculty, or the rest of the local student body; stories of brusque, unhelpful, rude, or racist behavior were all too common. Administrative staff disliked the daily negotiation with unfamiliar accents and incomprehension of bureaucratic procedures; faculty were made irate by the constant, anxious requests for fellowships; local students found the international student’s cliquishness annoying and intimidating.

International students found their own ways to combat this prickly response to their presence; some retreated, as noted, into cliques; yet others into heavy drinking. And some began counting down the days to their graduations and onward movements to jobs or returns back home.

One member of that demographic had decided to lazily doodle on a desktop in the library; perhaps he or she was thinking out loud about distant homes; perhaps a witticism or rude joke or dirty ditty had occurred to them, which needed immediate commitment to concreteness; perhaps, sloppily, a note was being left for a fellow student.

Whatever the reason and rationale, the effort had not gone unnoticed. It hadn’t been appreciated. It had reminded someone of the ever-present imposition of the unfamiliar on the previously familiar; it had evoked prejudices and disdain of all sorts. It provoked thus, a sharp and pungent retort, an exhortation to remove themselves from the premises if they were unable to abide by its rules.

I wasn’t from the Middle East; I didn’t speak Arabic; I was not a “camel jockey.” But I was unnerved anyway. I knew that for those who could and would write graffiti like that, these variations were irrelevant. It certainly kept me on my toes.