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Garvey's Musings

Miscellaneous thoughts about the world and being a writer.

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Cover of Killens Review Fall/Winter 2015I am pleased to report that my article What's in a Name, about the influence of Marcus Garvey and his effect on my life, has been published in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of the Killens Review of Arts & Letters.  Copies can be ordered at Killens Review.


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We Americans are a mass of contradictions. We hail our freedoms while we lock up more of our citizens than the Soviets in Stalinist Russia. We complain that wages are being driven down by 'illegals' and in the next breath claim that labor unions do more harm than good. We lead the world in artistic and scientific innovation yet are so frightened of change that we pretend that climate change is a hoax and that women are content being paid less than men. We brag that the election of our first black President proves racism is over then acquiesce when our Supreme Court conspires to disenfranchise the young, old and poor. The Citizens United ruling, like the infamous Dred Scott decision, proved that Abraham Lincoln was right to warn that Americans were prepared to become “fit subjects of the next cunning tyrant who rises among you.”

The intent to render 'negroes' throughout the country sub-human chattel was annulled by the civil war, yet the 'land of the free and home of the brave' is as fearfully divided as the day Lincoln was elected. When, despite non-stop evidence of police grossly abusing their authority, 70 percent of whites and close to half of everyone else condone letting officers assault fellow citizens, it is clear that though the 16th president had preserved the Union, slavery's doctrines remain embedded both in the nation's mindset and its legal framework. While his fellow slave barons greeted Lincoln's election with trepidation, Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy's future vice president, saw no need for the South to secede, believing she would continue to receive more than her share of the nation's privileges just as she always had. The South had inordinate influence: by the 1860's Southerners could boast sixty years of presidents against the North's twenty-four; eighteen Supreme Court justices to the North’s eleven, and two thirds of court appointments, including twice as many attorneys-general. But though the plantation oligarchs had managed to fashion the laws in their favor, their cavalier way of life was under threat as public opinion responded to the democratic urges emanating from Europe's Enlightenment. If it is correct that a shameful truth is only expressed under duress, that may explain why a Southern writer felt forced to confess that "the slavery of the black race on this continent is the price America has paid for her liberty, civil and religious, and, humanly speaking, these blessings would have been unattainable without their aid."

 Young empires, needing cheap and abundant labor, are brutally unequal as they lurch towards a more inclusive statehood. In America, the blessings of citizenship are still delineated on the basis of skin tone. If the 13th Amendment claimed to end legal slavery, the abandonment of the freedmen after Reconstruction and the government's shameful capitulation to the Ku Klux Klan and segregationist Black Codes confirmed its commitment to white supremacy. Managing places like Ferguson, Missouri, and North Charleston, South Carolina, where people of color make up the majority, requires state-sanctioned violence to chasten dissent and suppress ambitions. As a consequence, much of the country has suffered uneven or arrested development – the denial of movement and free access continuing to hobble not only the poor but a fretful middle class, which, as the New South is finally learning, would benefit the most from the despised talent and industry of the underserved classes.

Though the nation's changing demographic is challenging the assumption of white supremacy, America still faces the dystopian future Marcus Garvey predicted when he toured the country in the 1920's. Upon seeing black resistance regularly met with cross-burnings, bombings and lynching, the Jamaican founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association urged his followers to reject the American Dream and turn their energies from fighting Jim Crow and instead towards helping to rehabilitate Africa. To those who scoffed and counseled patience, Garvey asked if they could contemplate a time when the struggling white laborer would sacrifice his meager benefit to promote his oppressed black neighbor. Though his 'back-to Africa' call was mocked and criticized, Garvey's adherents would number in the millions as the forceful anti-colonialist inspired liberation movements across the globe before being libeled by the FBI and finally deported back to Jamaica. The lawful end of U.S. apartheid appeared to disprove Garvey's prediction but a clear-eyed view of America sixty years after Brown v. the Board of Education shows that our racist history continues to hinder progress and disfigure our civic institutions.

A house divided against itself cannot stand, but as Garvey understood and Hannah Arendt uncomfortably points out there is a difference between the political and the social. No law can outlaw private prejudice. So long as a difference in color makes us all suspect we will continue to fear each other and made prey to those most indifferent to our country's well-being. The rich slave barons who purchased their influence have been replaced by a financial elite no less disdainful of democratic government. So long as we, the people, retreat from, rather than engage our founding principles, and that 'immortal declaration' that we are 'all endowed with inalienable rights' our children will suffer. The deficit they face will not be counted only in dollars but in strength – the strength of a citizenry united enough to weather the turmoil from global warming and resource depletion, from worker displacement and chronic underemployment. With our wealth and history we Americans of all colors are positioned to lead the world, but that time is running out. It is time to stop being slaves to fear and aggression and nurture leaders with courage and vision. Technology, trade and travel have made race separatism a disabling relic, so as we move to the brink of human history let us find the courage to take up the rejected challenge still engraved on our nation's seal, namely: will 'e pluribus unum' finally, truly, exist?

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In my previous post I cited Julia Kristeva, French Bulgarian psychologist, who suggest that to relieve the conflicts born of our xenophobic tendencies we must acknowledge the 'stranger in ourselves.' Some recent incidents suggest that not only is her theory correct, but more invidiously, we are often strangers to our inmost selves.

The first incident that struck me was the video of English soccer fans in Paris shoving a black man to keep him from boarding the train while singing 'we're racist and that's the way we like it!' Now the team these cocky bigots support happens to be Chelsea, a team roundly derided by their rival clubs' 'homeboys' for employing African players, foremost among them Chelsea icon, Didier Drogba, the stouthearted black Ivorian who led Chelsea to its greatest victories.

So how does one explain such discrepant behavior? In line with Kristeva's theory it would seem the urge to conform within the social hierarchy conflicts with the fan's inner child who craves to escape the coercive power that comes with 'belonging' and so seeks a champion to enhance his identity. No matter if that champion is a dark-skinned mercenary, the chance to boast 'being top' vanishes the taint. Still the damning question remains: would those boorish fans feel shame had the man they shoved from their train turned out to be one of their team's venerated heroes?

The second episode involved the former coach of Italy's national soccer team, Arrigo Sacchi, who bemoaned the fact so many of the players in a recent Italian youth tournament were not white. Challenged on his bigotry, Sacchi took offense, claiming he was a patriot only lamenting the lack of Italian players being developed. How could he, a man who had coached outstanding black players be considered a racist?

And here is where the issue gets tangled. Sacchi is not wrong to suggest that appearance assigns one's public identity. No one would see the man those Chelsea supporters victimized and ask why they are shoving that poor Italian. Nor would one wonder why they are harassing that young Frenchman, if he had been the black Lyon-born Chelsea phenom, Kurt Zouma. Society trains us to make our assumptions. So here's the thing: skin color does and can suggest a person's value, but that value perception is dependent on circumstance. Dark skin is no impediment so long as it serves the power structure which, being a deliberate stranger to itself, purports to be colorblind. Viewed historically, it appears that color prejudice intensifies when, instead of representing strength and moral nobility, dark skin augurs backwardness and poverty. A perceptible threat to those who already feel forced to compete for society's most meager rewards. The antagonism grows as the ostracized dark child is no less conflicted-- she also yearns to 'fit in' and find a champion that will defend what she believes to be her true identity. So it is for, Coach Sacchi. For as long as his public 'identity' also satisfied his inner hero he could give a fig if Italy's World Cup winning team was stacked with Argentinians.

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You know how it goes. An unarmed man is killed, most likely by an "officer of the peace." Barring witnesses, you will likely never hear the story. Another "thug" is dead. God Bless America.

Except – as recent events have proved – sometimes the dead won't stay silent. Turns out they had parents, or friends, or what the TeeVee covets most – video of their dying breaths.

Now tragedy morphs into a nationwide screen play. Actors are staged across the divide. Writers vie to control the unfolding narrative: White fights Black for the role of Victim. Directors wrangle over angles and acceptable context. How did an unarmed man end up dead? You probably already know the why – just not the how. How did a perfectly responsible armed policeman become an unarmed man's executioner? How is it all these fools decide to condemn themselves to death? And no, it has nothing to do with slavery or segregation or discrimination or poor education. Self-preservation needs no justification. Sane is sane. The Past is dead.

Still it haunts – the specter of state-sanctioned murder.

Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst, Julia Kristeva, offers a concept that may bypass the contentions of status and history. In Strangers to Ourselves she claims that to exist in harmony with the "Other" we need to recognize the "foreignness" in ourselves – to see in our role as "Observer" that the very features setting apart the "Other" both attract and then repel us. Following that line, one sees that on a Sunday the football fanatic lives and dies with his team, a team likely chock-full of exceptional, predominantly black athletes. On Monday, that same fanatic who almost felt right there on that field is confronted by his own diminished peculiarity. What yesterday was awe and admiration has congealed once more to fear and subconscious resentment.

That thug was no angel. He had it coming.

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It seems fitting that in the year we should be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, we are being driven to hysteria and panic by fear of disease, as our politicians prefer to profit through ignorance rather than be guided by science. Considered a dubious project at the time, Theodore Roosevelt perceived a canal linking the two great oceans as the lynchpin of America's 'Manifest Destiny', but what would be hailed as a triumph of engineering might never have happened had a young medical officer not asked to be transferred to the pestilent isthmus.

Along with smallpox, dysentery and malaria, yellow fever had stalked the ports of Europe and America since the murderous expansion of the African Slave Trade. Before Darwin’s Descent of Man provided them with the tainted morsel of legitimacy, slavery's defenders, finding their 'peculiar institution' under assault, used the public's fear of these infectious diseases to boost their racist theories. From Liverpool to New Orleans, citizens dreaded the arrival of summer when they would be left cowering indoors or burying the dead. Yellow fever offered 'proof' that the white man was not meant to labor in the tropics. Rebutting those 'foreign writers' who claimed 'there are no internal or physical differences in mankind', Samuel Cartwright, a New Orleans physician, explained that the difference in mortality rates was 'derived from the free colored persons, who have no masters to take care of them . . . and from the white people who make slaves of themselves by performing drudgery work in the sun.' 

Panama-Mosquito-ManIgnorant of the fact that the yearly scourge was the work of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, a finicky little pest with a taste for fresh blood, those who agreed with Dr. Cartwright similarly asserted such lack of 'good sense' was why the French had suffered such staggering casualties in their doomed attempt to dig a canal through Panama in the 1880's. The evidence of over 20,000 dead, six black to every one white, did nothing to dispel the consensus that the climate and 'toxic vapors' were far more deadly to the 'Caucasian' than tiny mosquitoes. Luckily, William Gorgas, that young medical officer, had been Havana's Chief Sanitary Officer after the Spanish American war, or Roosevelt's 'Great Undertaking' might have met with a similar fate. Having seen Havana made healthy first hand by attacking the pests where they bred, Gorgas  proposed an aggressive strategy for Panama. And luckily for the tens of thousands drawn to work on the Panama Canal, the President ignored those who scoffed at Gorgas's 'ridiculous' claim that for a million dollars (over $30 million in 2014 currency) the deadly threat could be stopped in its tracks and put his trust in the army scientist.

It took Gorgas and his 4,000 men just over year: city homes were cleaned and fumigated, their doors and windows screened in copper mesh wire; drains were sprayed and cesspools disinfected; exterminators with gallons of oil strapped to their backs sanitized fields, scouting for any trace of standing water and scattering tons of sulphur and pyrethrum powder, going so far as to treat the churches' holy water. By the end the plague that had sent four out five workers to an early grave or a Canal Zone hospital had been defeated. Freed from the stalk of Yellow Jack, if not the canal-work's deadly explosives, the diggers stuck to their task and finished under budget and right on schedule. Roosevelt had his canal and the U.S. Navy had its shortcut to the Pacific – just in time for the start of World War I.

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"America is another name for opportunity."

—Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I continue to be fascinated by the consuming human idea: the right to follow the enticement of our own imaginations. It is a worn out cliche to speak of the United States as a nation of immigrants, yet it was the colonists asserting their 'freedom to dissolve' all connecting political bands that birthed its conception. The Declaration of Independence confirmed Locke's notion that all persons possess natural rights bestowed by their Creator, including the fruits of his or her labor, but in place of one's right to "Life, Liberty and Estate," Jefferson craftily deflected Locke's most radical element with the light of men's dreams, the elusive and esoteric "Pursuit of Happiness."

Matilda de 'pon dyin' bed,
Me want go to Colabra,
Me want go to Colabra,
Matilda de 'pon dyin' bed.

From the Prodigal Son to Tuareg nomads to explorers who took ship and sailed across oceans, we humans have stared at the horizon and been moved to wonder. Like Matilda, who left her lover in Jamaica to labor on Panama's infamous Snake Mountain, we are willing to pursue our happier vision of life and face all perils, even if it takes us far from those we love and who love us most. What else explains why so many set sail from their island homes and risked their lives to dig a canal somewhere as dangerous as 19th century Panama, or why, even now, these determined dreamers get in their heads to pack themselves inside truck containers and cross a scorching desert to spend backbreaking hours harvesting tomatoes?

Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez never met Leon Campbell. If she had she might have warned him not to bind to that brittle dream too tightly. Sadly, she will not have the chance. Maria died tying grapes vines, not too tightly, in 108 degree heat in the fields of Stockton, California.

Maria was seventeen, from Oaxaca Mexico, two months pregnant and engaged to her one and only sweetheart. Leon is thirty-nine, from Jamaica's St Mary's parish, the father of two half-grown children. Like Maria, Leon left home bound to his own American dream that by resolve and unstinting labor he would assure his family of a happier future. A respected mason back in Jamaica, Leon is now bending in the fields a thousand miles away in Brewster, Washington, shoveling manure and picking fruit. The locals are delighted to see Leon and his oncoming wave of fellow Jamaicans. After the 5,000 acre orchard was forced to fire its Mexican workers, many having worked there for twenty-odd years, half of Brewster's businesses folded. There were fears the whole town was about to go bust. So no one asks about Leon's official status, for while Leon admits the work is "very hard" as far as the local sheriff is concerned, Leon and his mates "are nice to talk to ... always polite and cheerful."

In my mind, I see Maria's young face light with a guileless smile as she held that first California pay check. She may not have warned Leon Campbell from her grave, but her death still serves as a caution. Leon knows his own test is coming: "it's going to get hot," he muses softly, looking out to the horizon. How long that dream can sustain him while he labors to resist the heat is the unanswered question.

A nation has grown flush in glory and wealth thanks to dreamers like Leon and Maria. Like the thousands of West Indians who worked and died in Panama with their sights on a finer life, they staked their future on Jefferson's elusive promise, convinced that no law nor accident of birth foreclosed their right to chase Happiness.

"There are those, I know, who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind, is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American dream." —Archibald MacLeish

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