Monthly Archives: October 2006

Old Ship of Zion

On my desk is my friend Walter F. Pitts’ posthumously published Old Ship of Zion: The Afro-Baptist Ritual in the African Diaspora (Oxford UP). It was reprinted in 1996, but my copy is dated 1993, and signed by Walter’s partner, the Reverend Leroy Davis.

Walter’s funeral, at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he used to play the piano, was the first open casket funeral I ever attended. I had always heard that these were difficult, but I liked it. I had not realized Walter’s death was so imminent, and seeing him en cuerpo presente was reassuring. He had been here, and now he was leaving. Tomorrow, he would be gone, but at that point, his spirit still lingered close to us.

The church was packed. In their robes, standing on a raised platform, the large choir looked like a band of angels. Swing low, sweet chariot. People were “falling out” in religious ecstasy all around. The preacher gave one of those rousing, Baptist sermons, based on repetition and the extension of poetic lines.

“My friend, Walter Pitts, has died today. My friend, Dr. Walter Pitts, has died today. My good, kind, caring friend, Dr. Walter Pitts, has died today. My good, kind, caring friend, Dr. Walter Pitts, was a brilliant man. My good, kind, caring friend, Dr. Walter Pitts, was a brilliant man made brave by Leroy’s love! Yes, sir, made brave by Leroy’s love.”

He went on to discuss “the Job question,” saying, “and I am not satisfied, I am not satisfied with your answer to the Job question, I cannot accept that Walter has died.” Then, having brought the audience to this emotional crescendo, he ended: “Good-bye my dear friend, I will see you on the other side!” And although I do not believe in the afterlife, Walter did, and I saw his spirit rise.

My mother said that when you visit someone’s church, you must thank the preacher, so I did this on the way out. I told him he had given a lovely ceremony. “And you were inspired,” he said. Now, I am not a Christian and I would never be a Baptist, but when I had expressed surprise to Walter that he belonged to such a non-intellectual church, he had said, “Oh, I don’t go for the dogma. I feel the spirit in the ceremony.” And when his preacher told me I had been inspired, all I had to say was “Yes.” And that is one of the reasons I always sign these posts axé, calling on the power of the spirits.

In honor of all of this, we will listen to Huddy Ledbetter singing Old Ship of Zion–a  ship which has, in his version of the lyrics, “landed many a thousand,” and which in Walter’s words, “provided both a shelter against the storm of racial oppression and a vessel for sailing through it” (p. 175).

Here is another version of the lyrics.

What ship is this that will take us all home,
Oh, glory hallelujah,
And safely land us on Canaan’s bright shore?
Oh, glory hallelujah.

She landed all who have gone before,
Oh, glory hallelujah,
And yet she is able to land still more,
Oh, glory hallelujah.

If I arrive there, then, before you do,
Oh, glory hallelujah,
I’ll tell them that you are coming up, too,
Oh, glory hallelujah.

‘Tis the old ship of Zion, hallelujah.
The winds may blow and the billows may foam,
Oh, glory hallelujah,
But she is able to land us all home.
Oh, glory hallelujah.



Filed under Songs

Ça chante


Our featured singer this weekend is Corey Harris. I first met Corey in connection with anti-death penalty work and academia, before he had recorded his first album. Should he do a Ph.D. in Linguistics or History of Consciousness, he was wondering – or should he play music? “I think I’ll play music.”


Today I would like to discuss the incident at Oglala, which as Joe Allen and Paul D’Amato point out, is newly relevant in the context of the Patriot Act and the still newer anti-terror legislation. I would like to discuss a battering incident which took place some time ago, and which I did not recognize as such until much later.

I would like to tell the story of how and why I went to college, very different from Moksha‘s, but still interesting as a story of women. I would like to discuss my dislike of academic feminists. I would like to describe my visit to Nicaragua last December, which I did not enjoy, but where I met some of the very most admirable people I have ever seen. In short, I would like to surround myself in an imaginary bubble of white light and write an interesting memoir.


I am, however, assembling documents for an upcoming Pardon Board hearing, where I will speak in favor of the release of a Vietnam veteran who has done over thirty years of hard time for non-violent drug crimes, and I am preparing class.


I certainly know enough, and have strong enough presentation skills, to wing my classes. Given that, the whitemen have often told me that time spent preparing classes is time better spent doing other things.

The opportunity to teach was not what attracted me to academia: it was what I was willing to do so as to retain access to university libraries, and have time to continue reading books and writing papers. I tend to mistrust those who say they like to teach. What they often mean by this is that they do not like to learn, but do like to hold power over other people.

But I like to prepare class. I discover things, and gain insights I would be unlikely to have otherwise. I put these together as one would put together an interactive exhibit. I come up with interesting questions to hone the mind. It is renewing, like an art project, literally re-creational.



Filed under Songs

White Dialogue

The Perceptionists have a great album called Black Dialogue, but this dialogue took place with a whiteman.

WM: I would like to work with you. Would you like to work with me?

PZ: In principle, yes, but what shall we work on?

WM: On my project.

PZ: I am working on a different project, so I am afraid I cannot collaborate on your project at this time. Perhaps we could plan a joint project, of interest to both of us, to be undertaken when we have each finished the projects on which we are working now.

WM: You are sending me a mixed message.

PZ: How so?

WM: You asked to work with me, and then said you did not wish to work with me after all, in practically the same breath.

PZ: No. You asked me to work with you. I said yes to the general possibility of working with you, and no to the invitation to collaborate on your current project. I then suggested we plan to undertake a joint project, which we could create together.

WM: You are refusing to work with me.

PZ: Until I finish my current project and you finish yours, yes.

WM: Well, if you want to work with me, it must be on my project, and it must be now. It really is that simple, and it is your choice.

PZ: I decline.

WM: You decline?

PZ: I decline.

WM: Why are you so mean?

Translation: I do not want your collaboration, I want your elbow grease. If you do not offer it willingly, I will press my case in any way I can.

It is Friday, and the plate lunch place had fried catfish and crawfish etouffée. I chose green beans and cabbage, but I could have chosen red beans and potato salad. The afternoon is sunny and beautiful, and it is the weekend, and we will sing.



Filed under Da Whiteman

Da Whiteman Speak Wit’ Forked Tongue

From the photograph on my office wall the face of a man from an indigenous Amazonian tribe looks evenly at me.

Contemplating this picture, thinking about colonialism, reason, and reasons of state, a very basic perception came to me, with the requisite sense of déjà vu. This time, however, it settled in differently.

The most frustrating aspect of being colonized is, having to negotiate with, and being expected to submit to, someone who does not see you as you are, who insists upon imposing their own image of you. Who, furthermore, does whatever they can to further your internalization of this image, and expects you to be grateful. Who will, if your internalization is perfect enough and your gratitude great enough, offer you a fellowship to study in their country.

I have not reported on Da Whiteman lately, so I will offer some brief takes. Da Whiteman, as the assiduous reader will know, is a composite character. He is not always white, and he is not always a man; he is Da Whiteman.


PZ: Please do not behave in this manner.

WM: I do not know what you mean. When you find me behaving in this manner, please let me know at the time.

PZ: I am referring to issues of common courtesy. I do not wish to engage in the teaching of basic manners to adults. As an adult, you should already be aware of the rules and principles of common courtesy.

WM: I am not a mind reader.

Translation: I am committed to poor behavior.


WM: In the spirit of equity, democracy, reason, progress, openness, and affirmative action, I hereby decree that the graduate fellowship this year shall be granted to a whiteman, respresenting the class most in need of support!

Translation: stand aside, colored girls. Whiteman coming.

Thank you for reading this post, in which I oppress the Whiteman by pointing out oppression.



Filed under Da Whiteman

Exigimos verdad y justicia


A friend took this photograph in Tegucigalpa not so long ago. It is a poster demanding the appearance of evidence about a disappeared person. Relatives and friends demand truth, justice, and in particular, uncensored information: documents of which no portion has been blacked out. NO to impunity, they say.

An assiduous commentator points out that someone has written the word “loco” onto the poster with an arrow pointing to the word “impunity.” Are the relatives and friends of the [deceased] are “crazy” to imagine the possibility of justice?

Disappearances are not uncommon in Honduras, and the Comité de Familiares de Detenidos is keeping track.



Filed under Movement

Law of Desire


Another early Almodóvar film is La ley del deseo. One thing I do not like about some of the institutions for which I have worked is, they do as they wish; that is to say, they follow the law as they do or do not desire. They follow the law of their desire, or in other words, their desire is law.

They have coherent policy statements and rulebooks, which they follow when to do so, suits their purposes or at least, the purposes of one or more powerful actors. Then the law of their desire is cloaked in propriety.

When what they wish to do, falls afoul of their own professional guidelines, they pay very little attention unless the lens of state or federal law presses closely upon them.


Some of us have been taught that although the justice system may be flawed, the legal system is universal and impartial, and it protects one and all. This is why Critical Legal Theory, or Critical Legal Studies, is an important development.

Critical legal studies (CLS) is a theory that challenges and overturns accepted norms and standards in legal theory and practice. Proponents of this theory believe that logic and structure attributed to the law grow out of the power relationships of the society. The law exists to support the interests of the party or class that forms it and is merely a collection of beliefs and prejudices that legitimize the injustices of society. The wealthy and the powerful use the law as an instrument for oppression in order to maintain their place in hierarchy. The basic idea of CLS is that the law is politics and it is not neutral or value free.


Law and power both often masquerade as reason. Some say that reason and logic are imbricated with law and power. I would prefer to believe these elements can be unwound from each other.



Filed under Resources

Leaving Union Station

One of the things I liked about living in the great state of Illinois was that not just one, but several radio stations played rhythm and blues 24/7. I would drive along maple-lined streets, past tidy houses with wraparound porches, and out through the regular lines of industrialized cornfields. The view was one thing, the soundtrack was entirely different, and yet both were local.

Sometimes I would ride from Chicago to Champaign by train. At Union Station, people were on their way to Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York. They were dressed very properly, with nice bags and hats. They stood waiting for their trains in orderly formation.

I never needed a track number to know where my train would come in. I could spot the passengers from blocks off, sitting and standing in a disorganized group. They had boxes and duffle bags and unconventional clothes. Grandmothers in turbans. Black men dressed all in white, flashing mouths full of gold. Mediterranean looking writer types.

When the train was ready, the conductor would come out to call us. I liked the way he rolled off the names of the stops. “Kankakee, Champaign, Carbondale, Illinois! Memphis, Tennessee! Greenwood, Mississippi! Hammond, Louisiana! And finally: New Orleans, New Orleans!

As I say, I always got off at Champaign, but I enjoyed the ride. I looked at the street names written on the passengers’ boxes – names like Miro, Dufossat, Clouet, Pleasure. I imagined the neighborhoods standing before my eyes. For the length of the journey I felt as though I, too, were going home.



Filed under Poetry

Early Almodóvar

Here is the IMDB’s synopsis of Pedro Almodóvar‘s ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!! (1984), a film I have always wanted to see but never have.

A dysfunctional family in Madrid: Gloria is a cleaning lady, hooked on No-Doze, living in a crowded flat with Antonio, her surly husband, a cabby who adores an aging German singer he used to chauffeur; he’s also a forger. One teen son sells heroin, the other sleeps with men. Her mother-in-law keeps bottled water and cupcakes under lock and key, selling them to the family. Two alcoholic writers cook up a plot to sell a manuscript as Hitler’s memoirs, if Antonio will transcribe it in Hitler’s hand. He won’t, so they ask the German singer to intercede. Meanwhile, Gloria has given away one son to a sex-crazed dentist, and grandma picks up a pet lizard. Can this chaos be tamed?

The English translation of the title is “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” It is a question asked by many, both rhetorically, as a wry comment, and seriously. What did Iraq really do, for instance, to deserve the most recent United States invasion?

As the question relates to the mistreatment of persons, I have discerned that there are some three schools of thought:

1. You brought it on yourself: you were guilty, you were a reasonable suspect, you were careless, you have an unconventional appearance, or, in the ‘therapeutic’ industry, you sought it out, or if not, you have an inner flaw which ‘attracted’ mistreatment to you. In all of these cases, the assumption is that the problem is an individual one, and the subject is not working well enough with the system. The individual, if they control themselves better, can improve outcomes.

2. You did nothing. Mistreatment can happen to anyone, and it is destructive to everyone. Therefore, for instance, do not feel inadequate if you broke under torture; most people do.

3. You attracted attention to yourself because of some particularly brilliant or heroic qualities you have, or some other special skills. You thus became a threat, or the target of destructive envy, through no fault of your own. These, however, are not qualities you should change: they are positive traits, and they bring rewards as well as risks.

There may be more interpretive models than these, and there is surely more to say about each. My comment for now on the matter, however, is that if one is seeking causes, and if these are the possibilities, it may not be necessary to choose only one. They could very well all coexist in the same instance.



Filed under Resources

Mi retrato

Mi retrato

This is my true picture. I am a detail from the Casa de la Muerte in Copán, which has its own writing system as well.



Filed under Arts

Nikolai Bukharin

When she was 97, my aunt Helen took me to lunch at the upscale Lark Creek Inn. Normally she took members of our family to the Blue Rock, where we would drink gin fizzes, but we went to the Lark Creek Inn because she had been to the Blue Rock the day before.

“I am a socialist, Z,” she said, “but don’t tell anyone.” She had gone to meet Emma Goldman on the docks in San Francisco in 1917. She complained to Goldman, she said, that some of the birth control methods she recommended, had proved all too fallible. Earlier on, Goldman had made a speech on patriotism in San Francisco. I wish she were alive to give it today.

A book I would like to read is Jochen Hellbeck’s Revolution On My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin (Harvard, 2006), in which it is revealed that diaries in this period were used as a means of self-transformation, and as a tool for transcendence from individual to collective consciousness. A book I wish I had enough background to read critically is Bukharin‘s Philosophical Arabesques (Monthly Review Press, 2006). Fortunately, Ronald Grigor Suny has written a fascinating review of this book.

Philosophical Arabesques is about dialectics, and it is sophisticated. I am interested in dialectics as they were discussed during Bukharin’s lifetime because César Vallejo was, and it is written all over his later work; and because I suspect that Bukharin and his contemporaries, whose theoretical concerns were not dissimilar to ours today, were better prepared to consider these matters than are many current literary theorists.

The other person whose work I would like to study in much greater detail than I have is Walter Benjamin, on whom Richard Wolin has written an interesting review essay. I realize that I am pointing to these peoples’ writings without explaining them or even giving an account of my interest in them, but I shall return to these topics.



Filed under Bibliography


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