An oral history, museum exhibit, jazz opera, play, open to members of our community in Maryland and DC served as a reminder that history is all around us -- and that it is up to us to take the time to open our eyes, ears and hearts so we can learn from those who came before. Awareness of linkages that go back in time provide a framework that can help us better understand how to overcome the challenges of today, for the past lives in the present even within the very different world we now inhabit. Distance sometimes enables a fuller view of the complexity and nuance that have accompanied the courage and integrity expressed in every step made toward greater social justice. Three very different instances of such historical tellings took place in our communities last month; individually and collectively they demonstrate the wide scope of experiences that continue to shape the paths we travel in making our future.
One such instance was a talk given by Thelma Boyd-Nash at the Prince George's African American Museum & Cultural Center in North Brentwood on April 8 (which can be seen/heard at www.cheverlyvillage.org). Over 90 years old, she grew up in a home where slavery was a living memory. That memory was used by her parents to instill within her the importance of never accepting anything less than living as a free and equal human being in society. So too was the critical importance of gaining an education, no matter what the obstacle, for such is essential to living a life of dignity. Boyd-Nash emphasized that such goals were personal and social, for self-advancement was not possible without community advancement and that not possible without a challenge to existing structures of society.
From this came choices she made -- to be a school teacher, and as such one of the first African American teachers in Prince George's County and the first African American woman high school teacher of an academic subject. When she and her husband moved to Cheverly, Maryland in 1955, they were the first blacks to live in what had been a "sundown" town (no person of color allowed after dusk), where covenants had restricted homeownership to whites only. A decade later she was in the middle of the struggle within Prince George's for school integration and to defend and renovate traditional African American schools slated for closure. Her talk lasted over an hour, but could have gone on hours longer to cover all her experiences in the civil rights movement, in building black community empowerment and building black-white, Christian-Jewish and other alliances for the benefit of all. The extraordinary achievement of Obama's election takes on greater meaning when seen in the light of the nature of the world she has encountered over nine decades, as does her continued engagement, as she sees the necessity to maintain progress made and still move forward even in the face of a Trump presidency. Progress in the face of adversity in times gone by accounts for her continued optimism, this a product of taking a long view of history.
The location of the talk was perhaps symbolic of that history; North Brentwood was originally populated by free African Americans after the Civil War. In the 1920s it became the first black community incorporated in Prince George's County, an enclave surrounded by often hostile neighboring white communities. That history was explained by former Mayor Lillian Beverly, who spoke alongside Thelma Boyd-Nash. The Prince George's African American Museum -- with a small collection that includes striking contemporary art, historical artifacts and family histories -- promotes knowledge of that past before it becomes lost, holding talks as part of its "Chocolate Cities," programs. This project examines the wide diversity of African American communities within Prince George's and Washington DC as well as throughout the United States as a means to preserve histories threatened by gentrification and the erasure of historical memory. The museum's website (www.pgaamcc.org) describes this in greater depth.
In a different way, this speaks to an aspect of the mission of Cheverly Village, which has sponsored other talks similar to Boyd-Nash's to preserve through telling our collective legacies. The "Village" is one of several such community projects within the Washington DC metropolitan area and has the goal of enabling people to "age in place" via mutual help and giving of skills by neighbors of all ages; itself a model of cooperation that flies in the face of all the logic of modern capitalism. Mutual support and social engagement, through such initiatives, form complementary streams moving toward a more just and equal world.
Black and white tobacco workers in North Carolina organized to that end in the 1940s and 50s, a story that was told in Love Songs from the Liberation Wars, a jazz opera written by singer/songwriter activist Steve Jones and directed by Labor Heritage Foundation Executive Director Elise Bryant. The Foundation sponsored three performances March 30-31 at the Amalgamated Transit Union's Tommy Douglas Conference Center in Silver Spring, Maryland -- each sold out, the crowds composed largely of unionists and other labor activists who could see the parallel between this early example of civil rights unionism and the tasks before us in reviving social justice unionism.
The songs ranged in tone from light-hearted to scornful, from wistful to angry, cumulatively telling the true story of the women and men who organized Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union at R.J. Reynolds at Winston Salem in 1943. Low wages and speed-up were the principal motivations for organizing; so too was the sense that life in a factory is a dead end, a trap that blocks all workers' sense of a future, but is especially painful for black women who managed to get an education but who found all other doors to employment closed. Thus the struggle of black and white workers at the plant became a struggle against the racism which kept everyone down by treating some worse than others. The company refused to give in and the press and the FBI were brought into break the union, as was the most potent weapon: Jim Crow -- the laws that kept black and white divided and unequal. The test comes when management offers a raise to white workers only as a means to undermine the emerging unity. But the union's refusal to back down on inequality keeps the workforce together and sets the framework for worker power to express itself in action.
Historical figures appear in the opera as they did in real life -- Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, all of whom at one time or another performed at concerts in North Carolina in solidarity with Local 22, are all depicted on stage. So too many of the rank-and-file members who found their voice in the union are given their due on stage. The campaign was launched by the CIO, and was part of the drive to build unionism that challenged racism in the South in order to solidify the New Deal. The opera was based on the research presented in Robert Korstad's account of the local's history in Civil Rights Unionism, with copies of the book on sale at the performance.
Ultimately, the FTA was destroyed by the anti-Communism of the Cold War, for the attack on Communists in the labor movement who led the fight for equality opened the door to a reversal of labor's policy and racism again was unchallenged by too many unions. But the struggle continues -- the opera ends with rousing songs that form a call to action in today's struggle. And the Labor Heritage Foundation announced its intention to raise funds to bring the play to North Carolina where today's struggle for democracy, for racial and economic justice speaks to a renewal of the successful initiative taken all those years ago. In the interim, a number of the songs that formed part of "Love Songs from the Liberation Wars" will be performed by Steve and Peter Jones at Busboys and Poets in Takoma On May 17 as part of DC Labor Fest (www.dclabor.org).
A very different -- and bleaker -- perspective was on offer at the Washington Stage Guild's performance of George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah, written in 1921. The rarely produced play runs over 8 hours and was shown in three parts over the past four years at the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church's Undercroft Theater in downtown DC. Shaw, an Irish dramatist, Fabian socialist, and advocate of women's emancipation, wrote scores of plays -- such as Saint Joan, Caesar and Cleopatra, Major Barbara, Mrs. Warren's Profession, Pygmalion (later turned into the musical My Fair Lady) -- that mixed humor with biting social commentary. He used the theatre to expose the hypocrisy of bourgeois morality which ever and again uses polite language to rationalize the brutalities of capitalist society, which he observed over his very long life (1856-1950). Back to Methuselah, however, is different, its length alone a sign that Shaw was in no mood to cajole or criticize, but rather to denounce out of the despair wrought by World War I. The murder of tens of millions in a war about nothing other than a dispute over the division of the spoils by the already powerful was bad enough, but even worse was the ease with which politicians, church officials, business leaders returned to the "normality" of power politics that had been the cause of such destruction. The second act of the play begins with the self-satisfied, self-serving exchanges of party politicians who brush off the realities of war to focus on the more "interesting" questions of who can outsmart who in a world of cabinet appointments and shallow elections.
Demonstrating that politics as usual result in more of the same, Shaw develops the argument that the brutality of society reflects the fact that people are as children, that we live and die before reaching maturity. An "answer" such as it is can only be found in humanity "willing" itself to live hundreds or thousands of years -- the choice made by two observing that discussion. Absent that, humanity is condemned as was Adam to work endlessly without satisfaction by tilling the soil, or like Eve, to give birth in pain or like Cain -- humanity's first murderer -- to discover "meaning" only through senseless violence, a story told at the play's start and reprised at its conclusion. Shaw counterposes that with the life force of Lilith, who gives women the power of curiosity that Adam lacks, and thereby the power to endure and overcome. Lilith was (in some tellings of the Old Testament and in Talmudic commentary), the first woman, prior to Eve, born equal and not of Adam's rib, and thus never subservient. In Shaw's telling she gives birth to both Adam and Eve, represents a life force freed from material conditions, and thus able to experience meaning beyond the labor of exploitation and war.
Shaw's outlook reflects an odd mixture of philosophical currents; Lamarck as an alternative to Darwin, Nietzsche, Bergson and other thinkers whose emphasis on will seemed to promise a path out of and against acceptance of that which should be intolerable. These were currents popular in some intellectual circles in the 1920s among those who sought to make sense of a world in which the path of material progress had led to a decline in social morality; a combination all too much in evidence in our 21st century world. And so the call for a spiritual renewal -- for a "Creative Evolution" that challenges the thinking and practice that justifies cruelty and oppression.
One need not accept Shaw's world view or despairing solution to appreciate the force of his critique of the present. Toward the play's end he has Lilith say, "I stood amazed at the malice and destructiveness of the things I had made: Mars blushed as he looked down on the shame of his sister planet: cruelty and hypocrisy became so hideous that the face of the earth was pitted with the graves of little children among which living skeletons crawled in search of horrible food," to which she counters a belief in an eternal will that seeks redemption through life, and concludes, from the view of centuries in the future, "... the horrors of that time seem now but an evil dream." They have redeemed themselves from their vileness, and turned away from their sins. Best of all, they are still not satisfied: Shaw posits a belief in an eternal life-force to serve as an impulse toward a change that can come, however distant it may seem in the worst of times.
Despair in the present is, however, an option that those who build change in the here and now cannot afford. Life can best be redeemed by engagement in our ever-existing present based on the belief that we can join our will to make the world better now and in the future. That is the legacy Thelma Boyd-Nash was passing down in her telling of her own history in which the civil rights movement was not something separate but rather was -- and remains -- a part of everyday living, a part of the personal quest to have comfort, dignity and meaning in the time we have. It is the legacy of tobacco workers who worked to build a union based upon equality and so brought about change that was personal and social and so able to remain a force in their lives even after victory turned to bitter defeat.
None of these -- an oral history, museum exhibit, jazz opera or play, pretend to give answers. All seek to question, challenge and make those who see and listen think about what has been observed. Works of telling, works of art, all of these put on display lives of the past, filled with fear and hope, that give perspective to our own search for a life in the present filled with meaning and beauty despite everything that conspires against those aspirations.