Today is Day 5 of Kwanzaa: Nia (Purpose).
Allow me to share with you what I discovered when reading about a great man named Jose Rizal, and how he helped me renew my purpose as a social worker.
I. Jose Rizal Day in the Philippines.
II. Black Power & Socialism
III. The Importance of Wealth and the Existence of Institutional Racism
IV. Streets of Hope
I. Jose Rizal Day in the Philippines.
On this day in history, 1896, Filipino hero Jose Rizal was executed by Spanish colonialists. Rizal is believed to be the first Filipino revolutionary whose death is attributed entirely to his work as a writer; and through dissent enabled him to successfully destroy Spain's moral primacy to rule.
Rizal was a polyglot, conversant in 22 languages, and became an eye doctor in order to personally help fix his mother's blindness, moving to Germany to study under the best ophthalmologists and to learn the most cutting-edge eye science. From Heidelberg, Rizal wrote his parents: "I spend half of the day in the study of German and the other half, in the diseases of the eye. Twice a week, I go to the bierbrauerie, or beerhall, to speak German with my student friends." He was also a sculptor, painter, educator, farmer, historian, playwright, journalist, poet, martial artist, and even while exiled on the island of Mindanao for being declared by the civil and Catholic authorities as an enemy of the state, he is said to have personally built and taught at two schools, one of which produced a future chief and future governor. His novels, published in Germany and Belgium, angered both the Spanish colonial elite and many educated Filipinos due to their insulting symbolism. He roasted the Catholic friars who had been controlling the Philippines, and put belief into action by forming a league for Philippines interested in reform. Among his reform demands:
Local priests instead of Spanish ones
Representation in the Spanish Cortes (their parliament/assembly)
Freedom of assembly and speech
Equal rights before the law
While Jose Rizal was exiled in Mindanao, his Philippine League became inactive. It partly morphed into a revolutionary party which kicked off the revolution in the Philippines, something which Rizal was erroneously implicated in by a group of corrupt Catholic friars, and executed for. The radical strand of Rizal's former group pushed for violent revolution, something which Rizal was against on two counts: He believed in nonviolence, for one; he also believed in prerequisites for freedom.
While imprisoned in Fort Santiago, he drew up a manifesto disavowing the current revolution in its present state and declaring that the education of Filipinos and their achievement of a national identity were prerequisites to freedom (the exact same methods used by Malcolm X). Rizal, like the founder of Kwanzaa, knew that colonialism meant to rob people of their culture, and one of the ways Rizal fought this was to argue against the negative racist images of pre-colonial Philippines that were presented by the Spanish. Likewise, Malcolm X told massive Black audiences about their legacy as descendents of kings, queens, and creators of culture- not simply hut-dwelling "savages" (not that dwelling in a hut is bad, but was stigmatized at the time). Rizal believed that the only justification for national liberation and self-government was the restoration of the dignity of the people, saying "Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?" Black Power's seeds were sown by Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Brown- who all waved the banner of "Black and Proud." The colonized Filipinos had been forced to choose Spanish surnames- oppression works by controlling things such as people's names. The 1970s saw many Black Americans choosing new names for themselves, part of the cultural reclamation that comes with liberation.
II. Black Power & Socialism
Kwanzaa is about self-determination (Day 2), that which Americans, Filipinos, and countless others have fought revolutions for. In America, the way wealth gets accumulated and passed on from generation to generation has by and large racistly left Blacks out, which makes saving for college, a health crisis, retirement, or starting a business out of reach for many people without going into severe debt. Many Black neighborhoods deal with anti-democratic forces like government bureaucrats and capitalist banks and business associations who all team up to make decisions for Black communities, usually at their expense. How can a person (on a micro-scale) or a community (on a macro-scale) set their own goals for themselves and fulfill their potential based on their talents and skills without being able to determine their own future?
Thus, Kwanzaa is about collective work and responsibility (Day 3) and cooperative economics (Day 4). This may smack of socialism to some. Is it any wonder that post-colonial nations found themselves attracted to communism, socialism, anarchism, and labor unions? Why Nelson Mandela became a communist and friend of Fidel Castro? Why did the first NAACP meetings include many communists? The FBI created Cointelpro to disrupt these movements, and had a mission to put away Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King, Jr. for the untrue ideas they were communists. Garvey simply wondered what would happen if Black workers united, and Black union leaders like A. Philip Randolph helped create the famous 1963 March on Washington, where MLK gave his famous speech. The simple acts of collective work and cooperative economics, Kwanzaa's 3rd and 4th principles, were inherently radical to the established order.
Whites in America relegated to wage slaves (turned from artisans and other manufacturers into proletariats) also flocked to these ideologies, just like the ghetto of Europe (Eastern Europe) and a certain Republic with sky-high unemployment (Germany right before the Nazis took over). Some influential British and Americans, including President Theodore Roosevelt, recommended giving labor rights to keep the poor away from communism and anarchism.
On this day in history, 1905, Governor Frank Steunenberg of Idaho was assassinated by a bomb explosion during period of many bitter labor disputes in the state. Also, today is the birthday of the German-American governor of Illinois who pardoned German-American anarchists who were on trial for throwing a bomb at police during the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Riot over labor unions tired of being oppressed. When Communist dictator Lenin took over Russia, he told American anarchist Emma Goldman "During a revolutionary period there can be no free speech." We see here are two strands among every oppressed peoples: those who believe in Democracy, like Martin Luther King and Albert Einstein (avowed Democratic Socialists) and Russia's Trotsky (a communist), and those who believe in dictatorship, like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, Lenin, and a National Socialist named Hitler.
Thus Jose Rizal's emphasis on the prerequisites to freedom:
"Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?"
III. The Importance of Wealth and the Existence of Institutional Racism
Kwanzaa's principles of cooperative economics for Blacks are not new, and the principle is as important today as it ever was.
When American slavery ended, folks like w.e.b. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, and progressive Northern whites seeking Reconstruction sought self-determination through education for the freedman. They debated on what such an education might consist of: liberal studies (teaching you how to think- Dubois), practical studies (teaching you how to get a job and make money- Washington's Tuskegee Institute), and ideas for development.
Blacks were given former master's plantation land on the islands of Port Royal, South Carolina as part of Reconstruction. They rejected the white bureaucrat’s plan on using the land exclusively to grow cotton, instead wanting to grow foodstuffs to create a self-sustaining community. They prospered, made enough profit to buy their own land and create their own towns, and were seen as a model of an independent Black towns.
During World War I, a Black sociologist named George Edmund Haynes, Director of the Office of Negro Economics, noticed the Great Migration of Southern Blacks (most of whom were descendents of slaves, or once slaves themselves), and decided to form coalitions of interest groups, committees of employers, bureaucrats like himself, Black church leaders, representatives of civic groups like lodges, and progressive white community leaders. He formed them on state, county, and municipal levels. The migrant laboring Blacks got similar jobs in the same plants as white workers, and also had similar rates of absteentism, turnover, and even wages.
Tulsa, Oklahoma became known as Black Wall Street because of the high level of doctors, realtors, lawyers, and other professionals- many of whom were millionaires. Harlem, New York, had Striver's Row and Sugar Hill- where the elite realtors, musicians, architects and Congressmen lived.
What happened? When Lincoln was assassinated, Vice President Andrew Johnson (who was born, ironically, the day before today- Dec. 29th) ended Reconstruction and shut down the "Port Royal Experiment" by returning the land to the old plantation masters, along with all the other old plantation land in the South. As for sociologist bureaucrat George Edmund Haynes' experiment, unfortunately, the federal government refused to continue it. Whites returned from the war more racist than ever before, demanding the jobs Blacks had. Birth of the Nation came out in theaters, a racist propaganda flick mongering fears of ex-slaves becoming dictators and showing the KKK (which was now defunct) rising to heroically put them down. The film got rave reviews from President Woodrow Wilson, and the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was inspired to be born- and they last until this day.
These examples show how U.S. government policy could be used to help end racism, showing that racial oppression has an institutional component- the lack of energy in our government to uplift people it oppressed is to blame for structural, institutional inequalities of opportunity in our country. But it is not all the government's fault. Race riots destroyed Tulsa's Black Wall Street and Harlem's status as the Black Mecca and origin of the Black Harlem Renaissance; these riots were ultimately rooted in racist attitudes and practices of whites (the Harlem race riots were also caused by government policies). According to the meticulously researched book Black Wealth/White Wealth, Black communities on the road to wealth just like these were regularly thwarted by the often violent racism of whites, in a historical pattern known as the Black "Economic Detour."
As I mentioned before, the way wealth is accumulated and passed on to new generations in this country is important.
Blacks were racistly left out of the Homestead Act where dirt cheap land for homes was handed out to Americans encouraged to settle the West, or else they were given homes on swamps and other untenable lands. During the 1930s and especially post-World War II in the 1940s, suburbs flourished for cheap prices. But Blacks were redlined by government bureaucrats and capitalist bankers out of community investment or a chance to settle in suburbs. This was true for many Northern cities, and still happens today (look up "redlining"), explaining why Northern cities are so segregated. Also, in World War II, many Blacks were unfairly dishonorably discharged by racist Southern sergeants and thus prevented from taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, which helped many whites gain access to the suburbs and loans for colleges. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech about how Blacks were left out of these many channels for wealth, saying he wished to march down to Washington to demand his version of a G.I. Bill. He was just beginning his Poor People's Campaign, an inter-racial social justice movement, before he was gunned down.
IV. Streets of Hope
MLK knew that wealth inequality is more important than income inequality. Anger toward racism grew into even more riots post-Martin Luther King's assassination. Fires raged. Fires also raged in a Boston town called Roxbury, where insurance money-seeking landlords and criminals alike committed arson throughout the 1970s. In the 1980s, a Roxbury community group called the Dudley Street Initiative decided to take the power to control their destiny into their hands. They applied to become a CDC- a community development corporation- which had the power to use eminent domain to seize vacant land (much land was vacant, as it was charred by fire). They met resistance from politicians, bureaucrats, garbagemen, and shunned capitalists like banks and business associations who had for two long neglected the Black community out of investment. They had their own funds and associations representing local businesses, community organizations, activists representing all races/ethnicities, and religious institutions. They took the power back, and created jobs for adults and kids, redeveloped their downtown business district, and built a community center for the children that the kids themselves helped design, and everything was developed using input from the community meetings they held. The book Streets of Hope documents the fall and rise of this urban neighborhood.
I believe something like this is happening now with Unity Square in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where I went to school. New Brunswick has for too long been giving a CDC named DevCo tax breaks to build things like luxury condos and student centers, focusing on the downtown district's gentrification rather than needy places like Ward 2. The poor subsidize the rich under DevCo and it is likely gentrification will price them out of the things DevCo builds. Unity Square is focusing on Ward 2. Also, many Blacks and Latinos who tried to go middle-class by settling in nearby Somerset homes off of places like Hamilton Street got tied up in the housing scandal, where client-screwing bankers and Wall St. traders sold junk and exploited minorities (especially those who spoke English as a second language).
In the summer of 2012, I participated in a movement to help Elisio Solis and his family, who had been the victims of predatory lending and were getting kicked out of their home because the organization which owned the home would not let them pay the real (non-housing-bubble-inflated) price of their home, making it too expensive for them to live in. He was also exploited by his attorney, Amro Badran, who recently was sentenced to prison for another crime. In California, people are experimenting with using eminent domain so the government could buy up all the houses that were inflated during the housing bubble and then sell them back to the victims of the scandal at the home's real-value (more affordable) price. Like in Roxbury, communities should use eminent domain to control their own wealth and, therefore, their own destiny. Occupy Wall Street, which helped get the depraved state of income and wealth inequality into the American policy debate, has an offshoot that is remarkably still thriving: Occupy Our Homes. Is there one near you?
Faith, creativity, and unity are the other three principles and days of Kwanzaa. Unity is foremost: Americans of all races and class backgrounds must come together to help the working-class and especially the neglected Blacks and Latinos who, in rural and inner-city areas, were left out of wealth accumulation in our country. We need laws to spread the wealth so that the top 1% of Americans do not own 40% of the nation's wealth and keep it within the family- things like capital gains and estate taxes are important for this, and threatened by most Republican candidates. We need a higher earned income tax credit, so that the working poor do not spend most of their money on taxes and barely have any left over to save. We need creative ideas, like funds for people in poor areas which are matched by the government and not to be touched unless it is used for things like a child's education, starting a small business, retirement, or buying a home. The book Black Wealth/White Wealth goes into more detail on how to do this.
The Creative Life Force, known to many as God (who's will is to balance our living out our potential balanced by justice and may include what seems to be wrong but may turn out to be important), to others as the Tao (creationand destruction, the dark and the light, the masculine and the feminine), and still others as the forces of the universe/nature (entropy and creation), exists- or so we must have childlike Imani (Faith) in this, or simply feel with our hearts uplift from things such as gratitude, shifts in consciousness, wisdom which gives us greater perspective, good feelings when reading about the moral or skillful excellence of others or doing these things ourselves while flowing with our skills and strengths, awe, and wonder (balanced with healthy skepticism of course).
Or as the heroic Jose Rival put it, in a letter to a priest-friend of his:
"We are entirely in accord in admitting the existence of God. How can I doubt his when I am convinced of mine. [...] Now then, my faith in God, if the result of a ratiocination may be called faith, is blind, blind in the sense of knowing nothing. I neither believe nor disbelieve the qualities which many attribute to him; before theologians' and philosophers' definitions and lucubrations of this ineffable and inscrutable being I find myself smiling. Faced with the conviction of seeing myself confronting the supreme Problem, which confused voices seek to explain to me, I cannot but reply: 'It could be; but the God that I foreknow is far more grand, far more good: Plus Supra!...I believe in (revelation); but not in revelation or revelations which each religion or religions claim to possess. Examining them impartially, comparing them and scrutinizing them, one cannot avoid discerning the human 'fingernail' and the stamp of the time in which they were written... No, let us not make God in our image, poor inhabitants that we are of a distant planet lost in infinite space. However, brilliant and sublime our intelligence may be, it is scarcely more than a small spark which shines and in an instant is extinguished, and it alone can give us no idea of that blaze, that conflagration, that ocean of light. I believe in revelation, but in that living revelation which surrounds us on every side, in that voice, mighty, eternal, unceasing, incorruptible, clear, distinct, universal as is the being from whom it proceeds, in that revelation which speaks to us and penetrates us from the moment we are born until we die. What books can better reveal to us the goodness of God, his love, his providence, his eternity, his glory, his wisdom? 'The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork'."
For Rizal, doing social justice on earth meant listening to God in the form of one's conscience, what the Quakers call a "still, small voice within." "How can I doubt his existence when I am convinced of mine. Who so recognizes the effect recognizes the cause. To doubt God is to doubt one's own conscience, and in consequence, it would be to doubt everything; and then what is life for?" wrote Rizal. In his final letter, he wrote – Tomorrow at 7, I shall be shot; but I am innocent of the crime of rebellion. I am going to die with a tranquil conscience.