African American author James Baldwin, new biography


James Baldwin, flanked by actors Charlton Heston (left) and Marlon Brando at the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963. Photo US Information Agency, Press and Publications Service

By Tom King:

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Seeker of justice in the here and now

TOM KING recommends a new biography of the great black writer and political activist James Baldwin

Living in Fire
by Bill V Mullen
(Pluto Press, £20)

IN TRENTON, New Jersey, in 1942 the 18-year-old James Baldwin walked into a diner and ordered a hamburger and a cup of coffee. “We don’t serve Negroes here”, the waitress replied.

He left, calmly and without a fight, heading straight to an “enormous, glittering and fashionable restaurant” where he “knew not even the intercession of the Virgin” would get him what he asked for.

He went inside, repeated his order, received an identical reply and, lifting a mug full of water from the nearest table, threw it at the waitress. She ducked and it smashed against the mirror behind the bar.

“I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp,” Baldwin would later say of that day. “One was that I could have been murdered. But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder.

“I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.”

Living in Fire, Bill Mullen’s biography of Baldwin — the first in over 10 years — gives a context to understanding the activist and writer against the upheavals of the last decade, as well as his often overlooked radical political commitments.

Baldwin was an angry young man, with much to be angry about. Born in Harlem on August 2, 1924, to Emma Burdis Jones and a father he would never know, he grew up in Depression-era New York in the neighbourhood where unemployment in the 1930s reached 50 per cent.

His mother later married David Baldwin, a factory worker and son of slaves, and they proceeded to have eight more children together. Baldwin, with both parents out working, often looked after them “with one hand and held a book with the other.”

His stepfather left New Orleans in 1919 “to save his life”, Baldwin recalls. “They were hanging niggers from trees… and my father left the South therefore.” It was the “Red Summer” of 1919, when African-Americans in cities such as East St Louis and Chicago were brutally beaten, even killed, by soldiers returning from the first world war, whose jobs they had filled in their absence.

Baldwin Snr was a fundamentalist Pentecostal preacher and, from the age of 14 to 17, Baldwin himself was a young minister and spoke from the pulpit regularly. It was formative in two critical ways, by inspiring a love for the language and poetry of the King James Bible and honing his oratorical skills.

The ubiquity of Harlem’s churches also led Baldwin to sympathise with Marx’s famous observation that religion was “the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.”

This dovetailed perfectly with Baldwin’s experiences of racial oppression: “Religion operates here as complete and exquisite fantasy revenge: white people own the earth and commit all manner of abomination and injustice on it; the bad will be punished and the good rewarded, for God is not sleeping, the judgement is not far off.”

But for Baldwin, this wasn’t good enough. He wanted justice in the here and now.

It was around this time that he came into contact with young teacher Orilla Miller, who recognised Baldwin’s talents immediately. Miller, a member of the US Communist Party, moved to Harlem to work for the Federal Theater Project and she took Baldwin to see his first play, Orson Wells’s production of Macbeth. Set in Haiti with an all-black cast, it’s considered a landmark of anti-racist US theatre.

This, along with the literature he was introduced to by Miller, including Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, lit Baldwin’s imagination and he began to write.

Baldwin’s sexual awakening soon followed his political one, with the loss of his faith and the realisation he was gay precipitating increasing tension with his father. At the age of 17 he moved to Greenwich Village, the New York bohemian quarter famous for its gay bars, including the Stonewall Inn.

There, Baldwin entered what he called “the most exploratory and economically tenuous period” of his life. He worked in precarious jobs such as meatpacking or waitering while working on his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It On the Mountain.

He became more politically engaged, joining the Young People’s Socialist League around the time of the Harlem riots in 1943, when a white policeman shot a black soldier in the back, igniting a furious response from a community either living in dire poverty at home or dying in huge numbers fighting a war half-way across the globe.

Baldwin persevered as a writer and activist over the next few years. But he was poor, black, gay and left-wing. Apart from his gender, it’s difficult to imagine a less advantageous position in the US at the dawn of the cold war, when it wasn’t just communism that McCarthy sought to eradicate from US life.

He left the US at the age of 24 and would never properly return. He went to Paris where, energised by the culture and radicalism of the Left Bank, he thrived. He wrote Giovanni’s Room, perhaps his most famous novel, as well as the essay collection Notes of a Native Son.

He became more successful throughout the 1960s and engaged in the political struggles of that tumultuous decade. These were anchored for him around the civil rights movement, which he saw as allowing him to both identify with, and properly understand, international suffering.

“No black man in chains in his own country, and watching the many deaths occurring around him every day, believes for a moment that America cares anything at all about the freedom of Asia… every bombed village is my hometown,” he said of the Vietnam war.

And though he hoped the creation of Israel as a home for the dispossessed would prove a model for African-American emancipation, the colonial realities of that endeavour clearly angered him greatly: “The creation of the State of Israel was one of the most cynical achievements — really murderous, merciless, ugliest and cynical on the part of the Western nations,” he declared in 1970.

Though he found a strong political voice in Black Power, Baldwin’s sexuality caused tension within the emerging movement. He was referred to as Martin Luther Queen and Eldridge Cleaver, leader of the Black Panther Party, accused Baldwin “in his real life and fiction of giving himself up to political sodomy from the white man.” …

The Black Panther Party expelled Cleaver, who turned to the right, joining the Moonie cult, the [historically racist] Mormons and the Republican party.

Living at this intersection between masculinity, sexuality and race, Mullin claims, drove Baldwin to a new awareness of women’s oppression. He corresponded with many feminist writers and became great friends with the scholar and poet Nikki Giovanni, with whom he discussed and argued about the gender dynamics of Black Power.

The twin oppressions of racism and homophobia clearly vexed Baldwin greatly. He recalled that he made David, the gay protagonist of Giovanni’s Room, white rather than black because he “could not handle both propositions in the same book.”

But he was unequivocal about what he considered the greater burden: “A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he’s black or she’s black.

“The sexual question comes after the question of color.”

Baldwin, it seems, considered the gay-rights movement a middle-class phenomenon, devoid of the radical commitments that would effect lasting change. As Mullin points out, this is curious, considering the role that queer and trans people of colour, such as Sylvia Rivera and Martha P Johnson, played in the Stonewall riots, which Baldwin never wrote about.

And though the Aids crisis would compel Baldwin as a public figure to speak out against the Reagan administration’s apathy, as well as nursing a partner who would die from it, the epidemic would barely feature in his writing at all.

Towards the end of his life, Baldwin described himself, sadly, as an “ageing, lonely, sexually dubious, politically outrageous, unspeakably erratic freak.”

But he still seemed to enjoy visitors, jokes, laughter and discussion at his home in the south of France. “People invent categories in order to feel safe. White people invented black people to give white people identity,” Baldwin told Giovanni one day. “Straight cats invented faggots so they can sleep with them without becoming faggots themselves.”

Giovanni responds that love is a “tremendous responsibility”, to which Baldwin simply replies: “It’s the only one to take, there isn’t any other.”

Hitler’s mass murder of LGBTQ people


Gay concentration camp prisoners in Sachsenhausen, Germany, pictured in 1938

By Ryan Williams in Wales:

Monday, January 27, 2020

Remembering LGBT people murdered in the Holocaust

TODAY, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Unison Cymru Wales will be remembering all those who perished in the Holocaust with a minute’s silence in our regional and branch offices.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with the Jewish community in commemorating the more than six million people murdered in a crime against humanity.

What is less well known is that alongside Jewish victims, many Romany Gypsies, people with disabilities and members of the LGBT community were also targeted by the nazis.

Berlin in the 1920s and early ’30s was home to a flourishing LGBT community, however, the rise of the nazi party changed that. It brutally cracked down on gay people, who they portrayed as a threat to society.

In the concentration camps, prisoners arrested for being “homosexual” were forced to wear a pink triangle on their sleeve as a badge of shame.

“Homosexuals” in the camps suffered an unusual degree of cruelty by their captors, including being used as target practice on shooting ranges.

Gay people were additionally used as subjects for nazi medical experiments, as scientists tried to find a “cure” for homosexuality.

Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested in nazi Germany as “homosexuals”, of whom 50,000 were sentenced, and between 5,000 and 15,000 were sent to concentration camps.

Lesbians, bi women and trans people, whose experiences remain under-researched, were also targeted. It is unclear how many LGBT people perished in these camps.

After the war, the treatment of “homosexuals” in concentration camps went unacknowledged by most countries, and some men were even rearrested and imprisoned based on evidence found during the nazi years.

It was not until the 1980s that governments began to acknowledge this episode, and only in 2002 did the German government apologise to the gay community.

In 2005, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Holocaust which included the persecution of “homosexuals”. Commissioned memorials around the world were adopted, including the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism in Berlin.

Now, the pink triangle has been inverted and reclaimed as a symbol of queer resistance and liberation, as was done most visibly by US HIV/Aids activists in the 1980s.

The pink triangle symbolises the power of remembering the past, reflecting on the injustices that persist today, and the possibility of a future where people are not demonised for their differences.

Today LGBT+ people face an increase in hate crime and continued discrimination in Welsh communities and workplaces.

Unison Cymru Wales, with 100,000 members in public services across the country, is using its enormous reach to challenge prejudice and intolerance.

Anyone who faces discrimination should think about how a union can help and join our campaign for equality and respect for everyone.

Ryan Williams is Unison Cymru Wales LGBT+ officer.

USA: FOOTBALL COACH SUSPENDED OVER HITLER COMMENTS Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, suspended new football coach Morris Berger after he said in an interview with the school’s student-run paper that the way Adolf Hitler “was able to lead was second-to-none” and that “you can’t deny he wasn’t a great leader.” [HuffPost]

US Trump administration promoting white supremacy, transphobia


This 25 August 2019 video from the USA says about itself:

Leaked FBI Documents Reveal Bureau’s Priorities Under Trump. Cenk Uygur and Ken Klippenstein, hosts of The Conversation, break it down.

From the Young Turks site in the USA about this:

Under President Trump, the FBI’s official counterterrorism priorities have included “Black Identity Extremists”, “anti-authority” extremists, and “animal rights/environmental extremists”, according to leaked Bureau documents obtained exclusively by The Young Turks. The documents, many of which are marked “Law Enforcement Sensitive” and “For Official Use Only”, also reference a mysterious plan to mitigate the threat of “Black Identity Extremists” with a program codenamed “IRON FIST” involving the use of undercover agents. …

While the documents depict concerns about violent black extremist attacks, they do not cite a single specific attack — unlike white supremacist attacks, of which several prominent examples are provided. …

So grave did the Bureau consider the threat of black extremists that from 2019 to 2020, using new designations, it listed the threat at the very top of its counterterrorism priorities — above even terror groups like Al Qaeda.

The Trump administration considers anti-fascism to be ‘terrorism’; while anti-fascists have not killed a single person. The Trump administration considers the pesaceful Black Lives matter movement to be ‘terrorist’. While by far more most attacks killing and injuring people in the USA are by far-right white supremacists; a lot more than jihadist attacks. But does the Trump administration really consider nazi terrorists to be terrorists?

This 24 August 2019 video from the USA says about itself:

Trump‘s DOJ Busted Spreading White Supremacist Propaganda

Trump’s Department of Justice is spreading white nationalist blogs to intimidate immigration judges. Cenk Uygur, Ana Kasparian, and Aida Rodriguez, hosts of The Young Turks, break it down.

“An email sent from the Justice Department to all immigration court employees this week included a link to an article posted on a white nationalist website that “directly attacks sitting immigration judges with racial and ethnically tinged slurs”, according to a letter sent by an immigration judges union and obtained by BuzzFeed News.

According to the National Association of Immigration Judges, the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) sent court employees a link to a blog post from VDare, a white nationalist website, in its morning news briefing earlier this week that included anti-Semitic attacks on judges.

The briefings are sent to court employees every weekday and include links to various immigration news items. BuzzFeed News confirmed the link to a blog post was sent to immigration court employees Monday. The post detailed a recent move by the Justice Department to decertify the immigration judges union.

A letter Thursday from union chief Ashley Tabaddor to James McHenry, the director of the Justice Department’s EOIR, said the link to the VDare post angered many judges.”

Read more here.

Trump Clears Employers To Fire Transgender Workers

Trump’s Department of Justice filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to allow employers to be able fire employees who do not comply with gender stereotypes.

Cenk Uygur, Ana Kasparian and Richard Eskow hosts of The Young Turks, break it down.

“Thirty years ago, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the Supreme Court held that “sex stereotyping” is forbidden by a federal law banning employment discrimination. “We are beyond the day”, Justice William Brennan wrote in the court’s plurality opinion, “when an employer could evaluate employees by assuming or insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group.”

Nevertheless, the Trump administration filed a brief last week asking the Supreme Court to bring back the day when an employer could evaluate employees by assuming or insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group.

The Trump Justice Department’s position in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC wouldn’t nuke Price Waterhouse entirely. But it would severely weaken protections against sex discrimination, and give employers broad new authority to fire employees who do not comply with stereotypes about how people of a particular gender should appear.”

Read more here.

Donald Trump’s lethal prisons for immigrants


Dead immigrant Johana Medina Leon, via Facebook: diversidadsinfronteraz (Diversidad Sin Fronteras)

By Niles Niemuth in the USA:

Three immigrants die in US custody in three days

6 June 2019

Three immigrants died in US custody in the three days between Saturday, June 1, and Monday June 3.

There is far more involved in these and many other deaths of immigrants than tragic oversights by individual agents or mismanagement by particular detention centers. It is US government policy that innocent people—men, women and children—should suffer and die in order to discourage others fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries from seeking refuge in the United States. The risks are calibrated to outweigh any “pull factors” that attract workers to make the harrowing and often deadly trek through Central America and across the Mexican desert into the US.

Johana Medina Leon, a 25-year-old transgender asylum seeker from El Salvador, died Saturday at the Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, after being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody for nearly two months. Medina Leon had been held at the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, a detention facility half an hour north of El Paso operated on behalf of the federal government by the for-profit Management and Training Corporation (MTC). The Otero facility is notorious for reports of assault, sexual harassment and medical neglect.

According to the Nation, Medina Leon had spent months in Juarez on the Mexican side of the border waiting for her asylum claim to be heard. She was forced to remain in limbo in Mexico due to new restrictions implemented by the Trump administration before she was finally admitted to the US on April 11 by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and transferred to ICE custody several days later.

Despite repeated complaints of ill health, Medina Leon did not receive medical attention until she complained of chest pains and requested an HIV test on May 28. She tested positive for the disease and was transferred to the hospital. ICE quickly processed her case and approved her for release on parole. Four days later she was dead.

Early Sunday morning, a 33-year-old man from El Salvador died after being detained by CBP agents near the border in Roma, Texas. An official statement notes that agents called Emergency Medical Services after the man began to suffer from what appeared to be a seizure. He was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead.

On Monday, a 40-year-old woman from Honduras died after she was arrested by CBP officers for crossing the border in Eagle Pass, Texas, outside the official port of entry. The woman collapsed at a Border Patrol facility and an ambulance was called to take her to a hospital, where she died.

Medina Leon and the still unidentified man and woman join six immigrant children who have died in federal detention since September. They are all victims of the Trump administration’s war on immigrants.

Internal ICE documents published this week by the Young Turks news website show that agency administrators were aware that multiple deaths in ICE custody were entirely preventable. They show, for example, that ICE agents have repeatedly failed to treat detainees for drug and alcohol withdrawal, leading to unnecessary suffering.

A memo sent on December 3, 2018, by an ICE supervisor to acting Deputy Director of ICE Matthew Albace outlines 18 cases where detainees where subjected to preventable harm, resulting in three deaths. ICE Health Service Corps “is severely dysfunctional and unfortunately preventable harm and death to detainees has occurred,” the supervisor noted.

The supervisor wrote that many detainees with serious mental illness were simply ignored, highlighting the case of Efrain De La Rosa, who committed suicide after a dozen notifications that he was suffering from suicidal ideation and psychosis. Such reports were routinely ignored, the memo’s author noted. Despite the warnings, De La Rosa was not given any medication and instead placed in solitary confinement, resulting in his death. The memo stated that De La Rosa “could have been saved.”

Immigrants are being subjected to inhumane treatment all along the line, guaranteeing that there will be more deaths.

A Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report found that 900 immigrants had been crammed into a facility designed to hold just 125 people. At the Paso Del Norte Processing Center in Texas, detainees in one cell were seen to be standing on the toilet in order to get breathing space and make room for others.

Meanwhile, children are being forced to sleep on concrete floors in cells designed for adults or on the ground outside at Border Patrol stations as they await transfer to detention centers run by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). NBC News reported this week that 37 migrant children spent between 23 and 39 hours in a van last July as they waited to be reunited with their parents after having been torn from them as part of the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

Increasing the hardships faced by children, the administration has directed the HHS to end services in migrant shelters which are “not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety”, including English language courses, free legal aid and recreation programs.

Pastor Betty Rendón

Less than a month after being held at gunpoint and kidnapped in her home by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agents, Betty Rendón, a grandmother, wife and aspiring Lutheran pastor was deported to Colombia last Tuesday, May 28, along with her husband, Carlos Hincapié. The couple had resided in their Chicago home for over 10 years before ICE agents detained them last month: here.

Saudi regime beheading moderate Sunni Moslims


This 25 May 2019 video from the USA says about itself:

Saudi Arabia Sentences 3 Moderate Sunni Scholars To Death

Three prominent moderate Saudi Sunni scholars held on multiple charges of “terrorism” will be sentenced to death and executed shortly after Ramadan, two government sources and one of the men’s relatives have told Middle East Eye.

The most prominent of these is Sheikh Salman al-Odah, an internationally renowned scholar known for his comparatively progressive views in the Islamic world on sharia and homosexuality.

Read more here.

This 20 February 2019 video is called Saudi scholar Salman al-Odah facing the death penalty.

SAUDIA ARABIA WANTS TO EXECUTE ANOTHER TEEN As a boy, Murtaja Qureiris participated in demonstrations and expressions of dissent in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province during the 2011 Arab Spring. Three years later, Saudi authorities arrested Qureiris, then just 13 years old. Now 18, he faces the death penalty. [CNN]

Donald Trump attacks LGBTQ people


This 3 May 2019 video from the USA says about itself:

Trump Turns Back the Clock on LGBT Rights (w/ Jason Baumann)

50 Years after the Stonewall riots set the stage for the LGBT movement, Donald Trump is coming after the rights of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender people.

What can we learn from the Stonewall Uprising? Marsha P. Johnson and other early leaders and moments in the fight for queer liberation? Jason Baumann, author of the Stonewall Reader joins the Thom Hartmann program to discuss.