Upon the filing of this petition, an order was issued upon the respondent to show cause why a writ of prohibition should not issue, and be made perpetual, and a further order that the record of the proceedings had in the criminal cause be certified and transmitted to the supreme court.
To this order the respondent made answer, transmitting a certified copy of the proceedings, asserting the constitutionality of the law, and averring that, instead of pleading or admitting that he belonged to the colored race, the said Plessy declined and refused, either by pleading or otherwise, to ad- [163 U.S. 537, 540] mit that he was in any sense or in any proportion a colored man.
The case coming on for hearing before the supreme court, that court was of opinion that the law under which the prosecution was had was constitutional and denied the relief prayed for by the petitioner (Ex parte Plessy, 45 La. Ann. 80, 11 South. 948); whereupon petitioner prayed for a writ of error from this court, which was allowed by the chief justice of the supreme court of Louisiana.
Mr. Justice Harlan dissenting.
A. W. Tourgee and S. F. Phillips, for plaintiff in error.
Alex. Porter Morse, for defendant in error.
Mr. Justice BROWN, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.
This case turns upon the constitutionality of an act of the general assembly of the state of Louisiana, passed in 1890, providing for separate railway carriages for the white and colored races. Acts 1890, No. 111, p. 152.
The first section of the statute enacts ‘that all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this state, shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races, by providing two or more passenger coaches for each passenger train, or by dividing the passenger coaches by a partition so as to secure separate accommodations: provided, that this section shall not be construed to apply to street railroads. No person or persons shall be permitted to occupy seats in coaches, other than the ones assigned to them, on account of the race they belong to.’
By the second section it was enacted ‘that the officers of such passenger trains shall have power and are hereby required[163 U.S. 537, 541] to assign each passenger to the coach or compartment used for the race to which such passenger belongs; any passenger insisting on going into a coach or compartment to which by race he does not belong, shall be liable to a fine of twenty-five dollars, or in lieu thereof to imprisonment for a period of not more than twenty days in the parish prison, and any officer of any railroad insisting on assigning a passenger to a coach or compartment other than the one set aside for the race to which said passenger belongs, shall be liable to a fine of twenty-five dollars, or in lieu thereof to imprisonment for a period of not more than twenty days in the parish prison; and should any passenger refuse to occupy the coach or compartment to which he or she is assigned by the officer of such railway, said officer shall have power to refuse to carry such passenger on his train, and for such refusal neither he nor the railway company which he represents shall be liable for damages in any of the courts of this state.’
The third section provides penalties for the refusal or neglect of the officers, directors, conductors, and employees of railway companies to comply with the act, with a proviso that ‘nothing in this act shall be construed as applying to nurses attending children of the other race.’ The fourth section is immaterial.
The information filed in the criminal district court charged, in substance, that Plessy, being a passenger between two stations within the state of Louisiana, was assigned by officers of the company to the coach used for the race to which he belonged, but he insisted upon going into a coach used by the race to which he did not belong. Neither in the information nor plea was his particular race or color averred.
The petition for the writ of prohibition averred that petitioner was seven-eights Caucasian and one-eighth African blood; that the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him; and that he was entitled to every right, privilege, and immunity secured to citizens of the United States of the white race; and that, upon such theory, he took possession of a vacant seat in a coach where passengers of the white race were accommodated, and was ordered by the conductor to vacate [163 U.S. 537, 542] said coach, and take a seat in another, assigned to persons of the colored race, and, having refused to comply with such demand, he was forcibly ejected, with the aid of a police officer, and imprisoned in the parish jail to answer a charge of having violated the above act.
The constitutionality of this act is attacked upon the ground that it conflicts both with the thirteenth amendment of the constitution, abolishing slavery, and the fourteenth amendment, which prohibits certain restrictive legislation on the part of the states.
1. That it does not conflict with the thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except a punishment for crime, is too clear for argument. Slavery implies involuntary servitude,-a state of bondage; the ownership of mankind as a chattel, or, at least, the control of the labor and services of one man for the benefit of another, and the absence of a legal right to the disposal of his own person, property, and services. This amendment was said in the Slaughter-House Cases, 16 Wall. 36, to have been intended primarily to abolish slavery, as it had been previously known in this country, and that it equally forbade Mexican peonage or the Chinese coolie trade, when they amounted to slavery or involuntary servitude, and that the use of the word ‘servitude’ was intended to prohibit the use of all forms of involuntary slavery, of whatever class or name. It was intimated, however, in that case, that this amendment was regarded by the statesmen of that day as insufficient to protect the colored race from certain laws which had been enacted in the Southern states, imposing upon the colored race onerous disabilities and burdens, and curtailing their rights in the pursuit of life, liberty, and property to such an extent that their freedom was of little value; and that the fourteenth amendment was devised to meet this exigency.
So, too, in the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 , 3 Sup. Ct. 18, it was said that the act of a mere individual, the owner of an inn, a public conveyance or place of amusement, refusing accommodations to colored people, cannot be justly regarded as imposing any badge of slavery or servitude upon the applicant, but [163 U.S. 537, 543] only as involving an ordinary civil injury, properly cognizable by the laws of the state, and presumably subject to redress by those laws until the contrary appears. ‘It would be running the slavery question into the ground,’ said Mr. Justice Bradley, ‘to make it apply to every act of discrimination which a person may see fit to make as to the guests he will entertain, or as to the people he will take into his coach or cab or car, or admit to his concert or theater, or deal with in other matters of intercourse or business.’
A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races-a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color-has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or re-establish a state of involuntary servitude. Indeed, we do not understand that the thirteenth amendment is strenuously relied upon by the plaintiff in error in this connection.
2. By the fourteenth amendment, all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are made citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside; and the states are forbidden from making or enforcing any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States, or shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or deny to any person within their jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The proper construction of this amendment was first called to the attention of this court in the Slaughter-House Cases, 16 Wall. 36, which involved, however, not a question of race, but one of exclusive privileges. The case did not call for any expression of opinion as to the exact rights it was intended to secure to the colored race, but it was said generally that its main purpose was to establish the citizenship of the negro, to give definitions of citizenship of the United States and of the states, and to protect from the hostile legislation of the states the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States, as distinguished from those of citizens of the states. [163 U.S. 537, 544] The object of the amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguish d from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation, in places where they are liable to be brought into contact, do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. The most common instance of this is connected with the establishment of separate schools for white and colored children, which have been held to be a valid exercise of the legislative power even by courts of states where the political rights of the colored race have been longest and most earnestly enforced.
One of the earliest of these cases is that of Roberts v. City of Boston, 5 Cush. 198, in which the supreme judicial court of Massachusetts held that the general school committee of Boston had power to make provision for the instruction of colored children in separate schools established exclusively for them, and to prohibit their attendance upon the other schools. ‘The great principle,’ said Chief Justice Shaw, ‘advanced by the learned and eloquent advocate for the plaintiff [Mr. Charles Sumner], is that, by the constitution and laws of Massachusetts, all persons, without distinction of age or sex, birth or color, origin or condition, are equal before the law. … But, when this great principle comes to be applied to the actual and various conditions of persons in society, it will not warrant the assertion that men and women are legally clothed with the same civil and political powers, and that children and adults are legally to have the same functions and be subject to the same treatment; but only that the rights of all, as they are settled and regulated by law, are equally entitled to the paternal consideration and protection of the law for their maintenance and security.’ It was held that the powers of the committee extended to the establish- [163 U.S. 537, 545] ment of separate schools for children of different ages, sexes and colors, and that they might also establish special schools for poor and neglected children, who have become too old to attend the primary school, and yet have not acquired the rudiments of learning, to enable them to enter the ordinary schools. Similar laws have been enacted by congress under its general power of legislation over the District of Columbia (sections 281- 283, 310, 319, Rev. St. D. C.), as well as by the legislatures of many of the states, and have been generally, if not uniformly, sustained by the courts. State v. McCann, 21 Ohio St. 210; Lehew v. Brummell (Mo. Sup.) 15 S. W. 765; Ward v. Flood, 48 Cal. 36; Bertonneau v. Directors of City Schools, 3 Woods, 177, Fed. Cas. No. 1,361; People v. Gallagher, 93 N. Y. 438; Cory v. Carter, 48 Ind. 337; Dawson v. Lee, 83 Ky. 49.
Laws forbidding the intermarriage of the two races may be said in a technical sense to interfere with the freedom of contract, and yet have been universally recognized as within the police power of the state. State v. Gibson, 36 Ind. 389.
The distinction between laws interfering with the political equality of the negro and those requiring the separation of the two races in schools, theaters, and railway carriages has been frequently drawn by this court. Thus, in Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303 , it was held that a law of West Virginia limiting to white male persons 21 years of age, and citizens of the state, the right to sit upon juries, was a discrimination which implied a legal inferiority in civil society, which lessened the security of the right of the colored race, and was a step towards reducing them to a condition of servility. Indeed, the right of a colored man that, in the selection of jurors to pass upon his life, liberty, and property, there shall be no exclusion of his race, and no discrimination against them because of color, has been asserted in a number of cases. Virginia v. Rivers, 100 U.S. 313 ; Neal v. Delaware, 103 U.S. 370 ; ush v. Com., 107 U.S. 110 , 1 Sup. Ct. 625; Gibson v. Mississippi,162 U.S. 565 , 16 Sup. Ct. 904. So, where the laws of a particular locality or the charter of a particular railway corporation has provided that no person shall be excluded from the cars on account of [163 U.S. 537, 546] color, we have held that this meant that persons of color should travel in the same car as white ones, and that the enactment was not satisfied by the company providing cars assigned exclusively to people of color, though they were as good as those which they assigned exclusively to white persons. Railroad Co. v. Brown, 17 Wall. 445.
Upon the other hand, where a statute of Louisiana required those engaged in the transportation of passengers among the states to give to all persons traveling within that state, upon vessels employed in that business, equal rights and privileges in all parts of the vessel, without distinction on account of race or color, and subjected to an action for damages the owner of such a vessel who excluded colored passengers on account of their color from the cabin set aside by him for the use of whites, it was held to be, so far as it applied to interstate commerce, unconstitutional and void. Hall v. De Cuir, 95 U.S. 485. The court in this case, however, expressly disclaimed that it had anything whatever to do with the statute as a regulation of internal commerce, or affecting anything else than commerce among the states.
In the Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3 , 3 Sup. Ct. 18, it was held that an act of congress entitling all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States to the full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances, on land or water, theaters, and other places of public amusement, and made applicable to citizens of every race and color, regardless of any previous condition of servitude, was unconstitutional and void, upon the ground that the fourteenth amendment was prohibitory upon the states only, and the legislation authorized to be adopted by congress for enforcing it was not direct legislation on matters respecting which the states were prohibited from making or enforcing certain laws, or doing certain acts, but was corrective legislation, such as might be necessary or proper for counter-acting and redressing the effect of such laws or acts. In delivering the opinion of the court, Mr. Justice Bradley observed that the fourteenth amendment ‘does not invest congress with power to legislate upon subjects that are within the [163 U.S. 537, 547] domain of state legislation, but to provide modes of relief against state legislation or state action of the kind referred to. It does not authorize congress to create a code of municipal law for the regulation of private rights, but to provide modes of redress against the operation of state laws, and the action of state officers, executive or judicial, when these are subversive of the fundamental rights specified in the amendment. Positive rights and privileges are undoubtedly secured by the fourteenth amendment; but they are secured by way of prohibition against state laws and state proceedings affecting those rights and privileges, and by power given to congress to legislate for the purpose of carrying such prohibition into effect; and such legislation must necessarily be predicated upon such supposed state laws or state proceedings, and be directed to the correction of their operation and effect.’
Much nearer, and, indeed, almost directly in point, is the case of the Louisville, N. O. & T. Ry. Co. v. State, 133 U.S. 587 , 10 Sup. Ct. 348, wherein the railway company was indicted for a violation of a statute of Mississippi, enacting that all railroads carrying passengers should provide equal, but separate, accommodations for the white and colored races, by providing two or more passenger cars for each passenger train, or by dividing the passenger cars by a partition, so as to secure separate accommodations. The case was presented in a different aspe t from the one under consideration, inasmuch as it was an indictment against the railway company for failing to provide the separate accommodations, but the question considered was the constitutionality of the law. In that case, the supreme court of Mississippi (66 Miss. 662, 6 South. 203) had held that the statute applied solely to commerce within the state, and, that being the construction of the state statute by its highest court, was accepted as conclusive. ‘If it be a matter,’ said the court (page 591, 133 U. S., and page 348, 10 Sup. Ct.), ‘respecting commerce wholly within a state, and not interfering with commerce between the states, then, obviously, there is no violation of the commerce clause of the federal constitution. … No question arises under this section as to the power of the state to separate in different compartments interstate pas- [163 U.S. 537, 548] sengers, or affect, in any manner, the privileges and rights of such passengers. All that we can consider is whether the state has the power to require that railroad trains within her limits shall have separate accommodations for the two races. That affecting only commerce within the state is no invasion of the power given to congress by the commerce clause.’
A like course of reasoning applies to the case under consideration, since the supreme court of Louisiana, in the case of State v. Judge, 44 La. Ann. 770, 11 South. 74, held that the statute in question did not apply to interstate passengers, but was confined in its application to passengers traveling exclusively within the borders of the state. The case was decided largely upon the authority of Louisville, N. O. & T. Ry. Co. v. State, 66 Miss. 662, 6 South, 203, and affirmed by this court in 133 U.S. 587 , 10 Sup. Ct. 348. In the present case no question of interference with interstate commerce can possibly arise, since the East Louisiana Railway appears to have been purely a local line, with both its termini within the state of Louisiana. Similar statutes for the separation of the two races upon public conveyances were held to be constitutional in Railroad v. Miles, 55 Pa. St. 209; Day v. Owen 5 Mich. 520; Railway Co. v. Williams, 55 Ill. 185; Railroad Co. v. Wells, 85 Tenn. 613; 4 S. W. 5; Railroad Co. v. Benson, 85 Tenn. 627, 4 S. W. 5; The Sue, 22 Fed. 843; Logwood v. Railroad Co., 23 Fed. 318; McGuinn v. Forbes, 37 Fed. 639; People v. King ( N. Y. App.) 18 N. E. 245; Houck v. Railway Co., 38 Fed. 226; Heard v. Railroad Co., 3 Inter St. Commerce Com. R. 111, 1 Inter St. Commerce Com. R. 428.
While we think the enforced separation of the races, as applied to the internal commerce of the state, neither abridges the privileges or immunities of the colored man, deprives him of his property without due process of law, nor denies him the equal protection of the laws, within the meaning of the fourteenth amendment, we are not prepared to say that the conductor, in assigning passengers to the coaches according to their race, does not act at his peril, or that the provision of the second section of the act that denies to the passenger compensa- [163 U.S. 537, 549] tion in damages for a refusal to receive him into the coach in which he properly belongs is a valid exercise of the legislative power. Indeed, we understand it to be conceded by the state’s attorney that such part of the act as exempts from liability the railway company and its officers is unconstitutional. The power to assign to a particular coach obviously implies the power to determine to which race the passenger belongs, as well as the power to determine who, under the laws of the particular state, is to be deemed a white, and who a colored, person. This question, though indicated in the brief of the plaintiff in error, does not properly arise upon the record in this case, since the only issue made is as to the unconstitutionality of the act, so far as it requires the railway to provide separate accommodations, and the conductor to assign passengers according to their race.
It is claimed by the plaintiff in error that, in an mixed community, the reputation of belonging to the dominant race, in this instance the white race, is ‘property,’ in the same sense that a right of action or of inheritance is property. Conceding this to be so, for the purposes of this case, we are unable to see how this statute deprives him of, or in any way affects his right to, such property. If he be a white man, and assigned to a colored coach, he may have his action for damages against the company for being deprived of his so-called ‘property.’ Upon the other hand, if he be a colored man, and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.
In this connection, it is also suggested by the learned counsel for the plaintiff in error that the same argument that will justify the state legislature in requiring railways to provide separate accommodations for the two races will also authorize them to require separate cars to be provided for people whose hair is of a certain color, or who are aliens, or who belong to certain nationalities, or to enact laws requiring colored people to walk upon one side of the street, and white people upon the other, or requiring white men’s houses to be painted white, and colored men’s black, or their vehicles or business signs to be of different colors, upon the theory that one side [163 U.S. 537, 550] of the street is as good as the other, or that a house or vehicle of one color is as good as one of another color. The reply to all this is that every exercise of the police power must be reasonable, and extend only to such laws as are enacted in good faith for the promotion of the public good, and not for the annoyance or oppression of a particular class. Thus, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 , 6 Sup. Ct. 1064, it was held by this court that a municipal ordinance of the city of San Francisco, to regulate the carrying on of public laundries within the limits of the municipality, violated the provisions of the constitution of the United States, if it conferred upon the municipal authorities arbitrary power, at their own will, and without regard to discretion, in the legal sense of the term, to give or withhold consent as to persons or places, without regard to the competency of the persons applying or the propriety of the places selected for the carrying on of the business. It was held to be a covert attempt on the part of the municipality to make an arbitrary and unjust discrimination against the Chinese race. While this was the case of a municipal ordinance, a like principle has been held to apply to acts of a state legislature passed in the exercise of the police power. Railroad Co. v. Husen, 95 U.S. 465 ; Louisville & N. R. Co. v. Kentucky, 161 U.S. 677 , 16 Sup. Ct. 714, and cases cited on page 700, 161 U. S., and page 714, 16 Sup. Ct.; Daggett v. Hudson, 43 Ohio St. 548, 3 N. E. 538; Capen v. Foster, 12 Pick. 485; State v. Baker, 38 Wis. 71; Monroe v. Collins, 17 Ohio St. 665; Hulseman v. Rems, 41 Pa. St. 396; Osman v. Riley, 15 Cal. 48.
So far, then, as a conflict with the fourteenth amendment is concerned, the case reduces itself to the question whether the statute of Louisiana is a reasonable regulation, and with respect to this there must necessarily be a large discretion on the part of the legislature. In determining the question of reasonableness, it is at liberty to act with reference to the established usages, customs, and traditions of the people, and with a view to the promotion of their comfort, and the preservation of the public peace and good order. Gauged by this standard, we cannot say that a law which authorizes or even requires the separation of the two races in public conveyances [163 U.S. 537, 551] is unreasonable, or more obnoxious to the fourteenth amendment than the acts of congress requiring separate schools for colored children in the District of Columbia, the constitutionality of which does not seem to have been questioned, or the corresponding acts of state legislatures.
We consider the u derlying fallacy of the plaintiff’s argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it. The argument necessarily assumes that if, as has been more than once the case, and is not unlikely to be so again, the colored race should become the dominant power in the state legislature, and should enact a law in precisely similar terms, it would thereby relegate the white race to an inferior position. We imagine that the white race, at least, would not acquiesce in this assumption. The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits, and a voluntary consent of individuals. As was said by the court of appeals of New York in People v. Gallagher, 93 N. Y. 438, 448: ‘This end can neither be accomplished nor promoted by laws which conflict with the general sentiment of the community upon whom they are designed to operate. When the government, therefore, has secured to each of its citizens equal rights before the law, and equal opportunities for improvement and progress, it has accomplished the end for which it was organized, and performed all of the functions respecting social advantages with which it is endowed.’ Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts, or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation. If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly [163 U.S. 537, 552] or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.
It is true that the question of the proportion of colored blood necessary to constitute a colored person, as distinguished from a white person, is one upon which there is a difference of opinion in the different states; some holding that any visible admixture of black blood stamps the person as belonging to the colored race (State v. Chavers, 5 Jones [N. C.] 1); others, that it depends upon the preponderance of blood ( Gray v. State, 4 Ohio, 354; Monroe v. Collins, 17 Ohio St. 665); and still others, that the predominance of white blood must only be in the proportion of three-fourths (People v. Dean, 14 Mich. 406; Jones v. Com., 80 Va. 544). But these are questions to be determined under the laws of each state, and are not properly put in issue in this case. Under the allegations of his petition, it may undoubtedly become a question of importance whether, under the laws of Louisiana, the petitioner belongs to the white or colored race.
The judgment of the court below is therefore affirmed.
Mr. Justice HARLAN dissenting.
By the Louisiana statute the validity of which is here involved, all railway companies (other than street-railroad companies) carry passengers in that state are required to have separate but equal accommodations for white and colored persons, ‘by providing two or more passenger coaches for each passenger train, or by dividing the passenger coaches by a partition so as to secure separate accommodations.’ Under this statute, no colored person is permitted to occupy a seat in a coach assigned to white persons; nor any white person to occupy a seat in a coach assigned to colored persons. The managers of the railroad are not allowed to exercise any discretion in the premises, but are required to assign each passenger to some coach or compartment set apart for the exclusive use of is race. If a passenger insists upon going into a coach or compartment not set apart for persons of his race, [163 U.S. 537, 553] he is subject to be fined, or to be imprisoned in the parish jail. Penalties are prescribed for the refusal or neglect of the officers, directors, conductors, and employees of railroad companies to comply with the provisions of the act.
Only ‘nurses attending children of the other race’ are excepted from the operation of the statute. No exception is made of colored attendants traveling with adults. A white man is not permitted to have his colored servant with him in the same coach, even if his condition of health requires the constant personal assistance of such servant. If a colored maid insists upon riding in the same coach with a white woman whom she has been employed to serve, and who may need her personal attention while traveling, she is subject to be fined or imprisoned for such an exhibition of zeal in the discharge of duty.
While there may be in Louisiana persons of different races who are not citizens of the United States, the words in the act ‘white and colored races’ necessarily include all citizens of the United States of both races residing in that state. So that we have before us a state enactment that compels, under penalties, the separation of the two races in railroad passenger coaches, and makes it a crime for a citizen of either race to enter a coach that has been assigned to citizens of the other race.
Thus, the state regulates the use of a public highway by citizens of the United States solely upon the basis of race.
However apparent the injustice of such legislation may be, we have only to consider whether it is consistent with the constitution of the United States.
That a railroad is a public highway, and that the corporation which owns or operates it is in the exercise of public functions, is not, at this day, to be disputed. Mr. Justice Nelson, speaking for this court in New Jersey Steam Nav. Co. v. Merchants’ Bank, 6 How. 344, 382, said that a common carrier was in the exercise ‘of a sort of public office, and has public duties to perform, from which he should not be permitted to exonerate himself without the assent of the parties concerned.’ Mr. Justice Strong, delivering the judgment of [163 U.S. 537, 554] this court in Olcott v. Supervisors, 16 Wall. 678, 694, said: ‘That railroads, though constructed by private corporations, and owned by them, are public highways, has been the doctrine of nearly all the courts ever since such conveniences for passage and transportation have had any existence. Very early the question arose whether a state’s right of eminent domain could be exercised by a private corporation created for the purpose of constructing a railroad. Clearly, it could not, unless taking land for such a purpose by such an agency is taking land for public use. The right of eminent domain nowhere justifies taking property for a private use. Yet it is a doctrine universally accepted that a state legislature may authorize a private corporation to take land for the construction of such a road, making compensation to the owner. What else does this doctrine mean if not that building a railroad, though it be built by a private corporation, is an act done for a public use?’ So, in Township of Pine Grove v. Talcott, 19 Wall. 666, 676: ‘Though the corporation [a railroad company] was private, its work was public, as much so as if it were to be constructed by the state.’ So, in Inhabitants of Worcester v. Western R. Corp., 4 Metc. (Mass.) 564: ‘The establishment of that great thoroughfare is regarded as a public work, established by public authority, intended for the public use and benefit, the use of which is secured to the whole community, and constitutes, therefore, like a canal, turnpike, or highway, a public easement.’ ‘It is true that the real and personal property, necessary to the establishment and management of the railroad, is vested in the corporation; but it is in trust for the public.’
In respect of civil r ghts, common to all citizens, the constitution of the United States does not, I think, permit any public authority to know the race of those entitled to be protected in the enjoyment of such rights. Every true man has pride of race, and under appropriate circumstances, when the rights of others, his equals before the law, are not to be affected, it is his privilege to express such pride and to take such action based upon it as to him seems proper. But I deny that any legislative body or judicial tribunal may have regard to the [163 U.S. 537, 555] race of citizens when the civil rights of those citizens are involved. Indeed, such legislation as that here in question is inconsistent not only with that equality of rights which pertains to citizenship, national and state, but with the personal liberty enjoyed by every one within the United States.
The thirteenth amendment does not permit the withholding or the deprivation of any right necessarily inhering in freedom. It not only struck down the institution of slavery as previously existing in the United States, but it prevents the imposition of any burdens or disabilities that constitute badges of slavery or servitude. It decreed universal civil freedom in this country. This court has so adjudged. But, that amendment having been found inadequate to the protection of the rights of those who had been in slavery, it was followed by the fourteenth amendment, which added greatly to the dignity and glory of American citizenship, and to the security of personal liberty, by declaring that ‘all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside,’ and that ‘no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ These two amendments, if enforced according to their true intent and meaning, will protect all the civil rights that pertain to freedom and citizenship. Finally, and to the end that no citizen should be denied, on account of his race, the privilege of participating in the political control of his country, it was declared by the fifteenth amendment that ‘the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.’
These notable additions to the fundamental law were welcomed by the friends of liberty throughout the world. They removed the race line from our governmental systems. They had, as this court has said, a common purpose, namely, to secure ‘to a race recently emancipated, a race that through [163 U.S. 537, 556] many generations have been held in slavery, all the civil rights that the superior race enjoy.’ They declared, in legal effect, this court has further said, ‘that the law in the states shall be the same for the black as for the white; that all persons, whether colored or white, shall stand equal before the laws of the states; and in regard to the colored race, for whose protection the amendment was primarily designed, that no discrimination shall be made against them by law because of their color.’ We also said: ‘The words of the amendment, it is true, are prohibitory, but they contain a necessary implication of a positive immunity or right, most valuable to the colored race,-the right to exemption from unfriendly legislation against them distinctively as colored; exemption from legal discriminations, implying inferiority in civil society, lessening the security of their enjoyment of the rights which others enjoy; and discriminations which are steps towards reducing them to the condition of a subject race.’ It was, consequently, adjudged that a state law that excluded citizens of the colored race from juries, because of their race, however well qualified in other respects to dischar e the duties of jurymen, was repugnant to the fourteenth amendment. Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303, 306 , 307 S.; Virginia v. Rives, Id. 313; Ex parte Virginia, Id. 339; Neal v. Delaware, 103 U.S. 370 , 386; Bush v. Com., 107 U.S. 110, 116 , 1 S. Sup. Ct. 625. At the present term, referring to the previous adjudications, this court declared that ‘underlying all of those decisions is the principle that the constitution of the United States, in its present form, forbids, so far as civil and political rights are concerned, discrimination by the general government or the states against any citizen because of his race. All citizens are equal before the law.’ Gibson v. State,162 U.S. 565 , 16 Sup. Ct. 904.
The decisions referred to show the scope of the recent amendments of the constitution. They also show that it is not within the power of a state to prohibit colored citizens, because of their race, from participating as jurors in the administration of justice.
It was said in argument that the statute of Louisiana does [163 U.S. 537, 557] not discriminate against either race, but prescribes a rule applicable alike to white and colored citizens. But this argument does not meet the difficulty. Every one knows that the statute in question had its origin in the purpose, not so much to exclude white persons from railroad cars occupied by blacks, as to exclude colored people from coaches occupied by or assigned to white persons. Railroad corporations of Louisiana did not make discrimination among whites in the matter of commodation for travelers. The thing to accomplish was, under the guise of giving equal accommodation for whites and blacks, to compel the latter to keep to themselves while traveling in railroad passenger coaches. No one would be so wanting in candor as to assert the contrary. The fundamental objection, therefore, to the statute, is that it interferes with the personal freedom of citizens. ‘Personal liberty,’ it has been well said, ‘consists in the power of locomotion, of changing situation, or removing one’s person to whatsoever places one’s own inclination may direct, without imprisonment or restraint, unless by due course of law.’ 1 Bl. Comm. *134. If a white man and a black man choose to occupy the same public conveyance on a public highway, it is their right to do so; and no government, proceeding alone on grounds of race, can prevent it without infringing the personal liberty of each.
It is one thing for railroad carriers to furnish, or to be required by law to furnish, equal accommodations for all whom they are under a legal duty to carry. It is quite another thing for government to forbid citizens of the white and black races from traveling in the same public conveyance, and to punish officers of railroad companies for permitting persons of the two races to occupy the same passenger coach. If a state can prescribe, as a rule of civil conduct, that whites and blacks shall not travel as passengers in the same railroad coach, why may it not so regulate the use of the streets of its cities and towns as to compel white citizens to keep on one side of a street, and black citizens to keep on the other? Why may it not, upon like grounds, punish whites and blacks who ride together in street cars or in open vehicles on a public road [163 U.S. 537, 558] or street? Why may it not require sheriffs to assign whites to one side of a court room, and blacks to the other? And why may it not also prohibit the commingling of the two races in the galleries of legislative halls or in public assemblages convened for the consideration of the political questions of the day? Further, if this statute of Louisiana is consistent with the personal liberty of citizens, why may not the state require the separation in railroad coaches of native and naturalized citizens of the United States, or of Protestants and Roman Catholics?
The answer given at the argument to these questions was that regulations of the kind they suggest would be unreasonable, and could not, therefore, stand before the la . Is it meant that the determination of questions of legislative power depends upon the inquiry whether the statute whose validity is questioned is, in the judgment of the courts, a reasonable one, taking all the circumstances into consideration? A statute may be unreasonable merely because a sound public policy forbade its enactment. But I do not understand that the courts have anything to do with the policy or expediency of legislation. A statute may be valid, and yet, upon grounds of public policy, may well be characterized as unreasonable. Mr. Sedgwick correctly states the rule when he says that, the legislative intention being clearly ascertained, ‘the courts have no other duty to perform than to execute the legislative will, without any regard to their views as to the wisdom or justice of the particular enactment.’ Sedg. St. & Const. Law, 324. There is a dangerous tendency in these latter days to enlarge the functions of the courts, by means of judicial interference with the will of the people as expressed by the legislature. Our institutions have the distinguishing characteristic that the three departments of government are co-ordinate and separate. Each much keep within the limits defined by the constitution. And the courts best discharge their duty by executing the will of the law-making power, constitutionally expressed, leaving the results of legislation to be dealt with by the people through their representatives. Statutes must always have a reasonable construction. Sometimes they are to be construed strictly, sometimes literally, in order to carry out the legisla- [163 U.S. 537, 559] tive will. But, however construed, the intent of the legislature is to be respected if the particular statute in question is valid, although the courts, looking at the public interests, may conceive the statute to be both unreasonable and impolitic. If the power exists to enact a statute, that ends the matter so far as the courts are concerned. The adjudged cases in which statutes have been held to be void, because unreasonable, are those in which the means employed by the legislature were not at all germane to the end to which the legislature was competent.
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guarantied by the spreme law of the land are involved. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race.
In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.
It was adjudged in that case that the descendants of Africans who were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, were not included nor intended to be included under the word ‘citizens’ in the constitution, and could not claim any of the rights and privileges which that instrument provided for and secured to citizens of the United States; that, at time of the adoption of the constitution, they were ‘considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant [163 U.S. 537, 560] race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them.’ 17 How. 393, 404. The recent amendments of the constitution, it was supposed, had eradicated these principles from our institutions. But it seems that we have yet, in some of the states, a dominant race,-a superior class of citizens,-which assumes to regulate the enjoyment of civil rights, common to all citizens, upon the basis of race. The present decision, it may well be apprehended, will not only stimulate aggressions, more or less brutal and irritating, upon the admitted rights of colored citizens, but will encourage the belief that it is possible, by means of state enactments, to defeat the beneficent purposes which the people of the United States had in view when they adopted the recent amendments of the constitution, by one of which the blacks of this country were made citizens of the United States and of the states in which they respectively reside, and whose privileges and immunities, as citizens, the states are forbidden to abridge. Sixty millions of whites are in no danger from the presence here of eight millions of blacks. The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana.
The sure guaranty of the peace and security of each race is the clear, distinct, unconditional recognition by our governments, national and state, of every right that inheres in civil freedom, and of the equality before the law of all citizens of the United States, without regard to race. State enactments regulating the enjoyment of civil rights upon the basis of race, and cunningly devised to defeat legitimate results of the [163 U.S. 537, 561] war, under the pretense of recognizing equality of rights, can have no other result than to render permanent peace impossible, and to keep alive a conflict of races, the continuance of which must do harm to all concerned. This question is not met by the suggestion that social equality cannot exist between the white and black races in this country. That argument, if it can be properly regarded as one, is scarcely worthy of consideration; for social equality no more exists between two races when traveling in a passenger coach or a public highway than when members of the same races sit by each other in a street car or in the jury box, or stand or sit with each other in a political assembly, or when they use in common the streets of a city or town, or when they are in the same room for the purpose of having their names placed on the registry of voters, or when they approach the ballot box in order to exercise the high privilege of voting.
There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But, by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race in Louisiana, many of whom, perhaps, risked their lives for the preservation of the Union, who are entitled, by law, to participate in the political control of the state and nation, who are not excluded, by law or by reason of their race, from public stations of any kind, and who have all the legal rights that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by citizens of the white race. It is scarcely just to say that a colored citizen should not object to occupying a public coach assigned to his own race. He does not object, nor, perhaps, would he object to separate coaches for his race if his rights under the law were recognized. But he does object, and he ought never to cease objecting, that citizens of the white and black races can be adjudged criminals because they sit, or claim the right to sit, in the same public coach on a public highway. [163 U.S. 537, 562] The arbitrary separation of citizens, on the basis of race, while they are on a public highway, is a badge of servitude wholly inconsistent with the civil freedom and the equality before the law established by the constitution. It cannot be justified upon any legal grounds.
If evils will result from the commingling of the two races upon public highways established for the benefit of all, they will be infinitely less than those that will surely come from state legislation regulating the enjoyment of civil rights upon the basis of race. We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow citizens,-our equals before the law. The thin disguise of ‘equal’ accommodations for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead any one, nor atone for the wrong this day done.
The result of the whole matter is that while this court has frequently adjudged, and at the present term has recognized the doctrine, that a state cannot, consistently with the constitution of the United States, prevent white and black citizens, having the required qualifications for jury service, from sitting in the same jury box, it is now solemnly held that a state may prohibit white and black citizens from sitting in the same passenger coach on a public highway, or may require that they be separated by a ‘partition’ when in the same passenger coach. May it not now be reasonably expected that astute men of the dominant race, who affect to be disturbed at the possibility that the integrity of the white race may be corrupted, or that its supremacy will be imperiled, by contact on public highways with black people, will endeavor to procure statutes requiring white and black jurors to be separated in the jury box by a ‘partition,’ and that, upon retiring from the court room to consult as to their verdict, such partition, if it be a movable one, shall be taken to their consultation room, and set up in such way as to prevent black jurors from coming too close to their brother jurors of the white race. If the ‘partition’ used in the court room happens to be stationary, provision could be made for screens with openings through [163 U.S. 537, 563] which jurors of the two races could confer as to their verdict without coming into personal contact with each other. I cannot see but that, according to the principles this day announced, such state legislation, although conceived in hostility to, and enacted for the purpose of humiliating, citizens of the United States of a particular race, would be held to be consistent with the constitution.
I do not deem it necessary to review the decisions of state courts to which reference was made in argument. Some, and the most important, of them, are wholly inapplicable, because rendered prior to the adoption of the last amendments of the constitution, when colored people had very few rights which the dominant race felt obliged to respect. Others were made at a time when public opinion, in many localities, was dominated by the institution of slavery; when it would not have been safe to do justice to the black man; and when, so far as the rights of blacks were concerned, race prejudice was, practically, the supreme law of the land. Those decisions cannot be guides in the era introduced by the recent amendments of the supreme law, which established universal civil freedom, gave citizenship to all born or naturalized in the United States, and residing ere, obliterated the race line from our systems of governments, national and state, and placed our free institutions upon the broad and sure foundation of the equality of all men before the law.
I am of opinion that the state of Louisiana is inconsistent with the personal liberty of citizens, white and black, in that state, and hostile to both the spirit and letter of the constitution of the United States. If laws of like character should be enacted in the several states of the Union, the effect would be in the highest degree mischievous. Slavery, as an institution tolerated by law, would, it is true, have disappeared from our country; but there would remain a power in the states, by sinister legislation, to interfere with the full enjoyment of the blessings of freedom, to regulate civil rights, common to all citizens, upon the basis of race, and to place in a condition of legal inferiority a large body of American citizens, now constituting a part of the political community, called the [163 U.S. 537, 564] ‘People of the United States,’ for whom, and by whom through representatives, our government is administered. Such a system is inconsistent with the guaranty given by the constitution to each state of a republican form of government, and may be stricken down by congressional action, or by the courts in the discharge of their solemn duty to maintain the supreme law of the land, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.
For the reason stated, I am constrained to withhold my assent from the opinion and judgment of the majority.” United States Supreme Court, Plessy Versus Ferguson; 1896
Hence rich-robust. He had the hawk-man’s eyes.
We gasped. We saw the maleness.
The maleness raking out and making guttural the air
And pushing us to walls.
And in a soft and fundamental hour
A sorcery devout and vertical
Beguiled the world.
He opened us —
Who was a key.
Who was a man.
Greg Londe writes: I’ve been trying to think lately about elegies on public/political figures in the 20th century. Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘Malcolm X,’ her slippery and conflicted elegy (or is it an elegy?) for Malcolm X is not perhaps one of her greatest poems, but it is one that registers her quicksilver ability to praise and lament simultaneously, in lines at once harrowing and delicate. The poem appeared (well after X’s assassination on 21 Feb 1965) in Brooks’s book In the Mecca (1968) and is given pride of place as the first poem in Broadside Press’s anthology For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X (1969, edited by Margaret Burroughs and the poem’s dedicatee/BP founder, Dudley Randall).
It is also a poem that seems to be reflecting on, and perhaps trying to find a voice both within and outside of, the formal and cultural transitions effected by X’s death, from which shocking moment followed Leroi Jones’s transformation into Amiri Baraka, the move uptown, and the establishment of the Black Arts Movement (for which Brooks would become an overdetermined mother figure and icon). The phrase ‘pushing us to walls’ may recall Amiri Baraka’s poem ‘Black People,’ which includes the infamous section, eventually used as evidence against Baraka in court, ‘you can’t steal nothin from a/ white man, he’s already stole it he owes you anything you want,/ even his life. All the stores will open if you will say the magic/ words. The magic words are: Up against the wall mother fucker/ this is a stick up!”’ In her autobiography, Brooks recalls seeing Baraka perform the poem at the Fisk Writers Conference in 1967: ‘I was sitting beside a youngish white fellow. He had been very quiet. But when Baraka said at one point, ‘Up against the wall!’ this man jumped to his feet and said ‘Yeah, yeah, kill ’em!’ And here he was, ordering his own execution.’
It may be harder in this forum to discuss such a markedly occasional work. So does this poem work? What work is it doing or attempting to do? Can we compare its politicized iconography to the operations of the Clifton poems which we were just reading? On a purely sonic level, how does it elaborate, or overcome, or supersede its origins?'” Gwendolyn Brooks, “Malcolm X;” in a Princeton University blog by Greg Londe, 1968 & 2008
‘Just take a look,’ he said, looking slightly embarrassed. ‘See if there’s anything inside that you can use. Maybe after I’m gone you can make a selection and publish it.’We were in my study, surrounded by books. My father was searching for a place to set down the suitcase, wandering back and forth like a man who wished to rid himself of a painful burden. In the end, he deposited it quietly in an unobtrusive corner. It was a shaming moment that neither of us ever forgot, but once it had passed and we had gone back into our usual roles, taking life lightly, our joking, mocking personas took over and we relaxed. We talked as we always did, about the trivial things of everyday life, and Turkey’s neverending political troubles, and my father’s mostly failed business ventures, without feeling too much sorrow.
I remember that after my father left, I spent several days walking back and forth past the suitcase without once touching it. I was already familiar with this small, black, leather suitcase, and its lock, and its rounded corners. My father would take it with him on short trips and sometimes use it to carry documents to work. I remembered that when I was a child, and my father came home from a trip, I would open this little suitcase and rummage through his things, savouring the scent of cologne and foreign countries. This suitcase was a familiar friend, a powerful reminder of my childhood, my past, but now I couldn’t even touch it. Why? No doubt it was because of the mysterious weight of its contents.
I am now going to speak of this weight’s meaning. It is what a person creates when he shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and retires to a corner to express his thoughts – that is, the meaning of literature.
When I did touch my father’s suitcase, I still could not bring myself to open it, but I did know what was inside some of those notebooks. I had seen my father writing things in a few of them. This was not the first time I had heard of the heavy load inside the suitcase. My father had a large library; in his youth, in the late 1940s, he had wanted to be an Istanbul poet, and had translated Valéry into Turkish, but he had not wanted to live the sort of life that came with writing poetry in a poor country with few readers. My father’s father – my grandfather – had been a wealthy business man; my father had led a comfortable life as a child and a young man, and he had no wish to endure hardship for the sake of literature, for writing. He loved life with all its beauties – this I understood.
The first thing that kept me distant from the contents of my father’s suitcase was, of course, the fear that I might not like what I read. Because my father knew this, he had taken the precaution of acting as if he did not take its contents seriously. After working as a writer for 25 years, it pained me to see this. But I did not even want to be angry at my father for failing to take literature seriously enough … My real fear, the crucial thing that I did not wish to know or discover, was the possibility that my father might be a good writer. I couldn’t open my father’s suitcase because I feared this. Even worse, I couldn’t even admit this myself openly. If true and great literature emerged from my father’s suitcase, I would have to acknowledge that inside my father there existed an entirely different man. This was a frightening possibility. Because even at my advanced age I wanted my father to be only my father – not a writer.
A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is: when I speak of writing, what comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or literary tradition, it is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward; amid its shadows, he builds a new world with words. This man – or this woman – may use a typewriter, profit from the ease of a computer, or write with a pen on paper, as I have done for 30 years. As he writes, he can drink tea or coffee, or smoke cigarettes. From time to time he may rise from his table to look out through the window at the children playing in the street, and, if he is lucky, at trees and a view, or he can gaze out at a black wall. He can write poems, plays, or novels, as I do. All these differences come after the crucial task of sitting down at the table and patiently turning inwards. To write is to turn this inward gaze into words, to study the world into which that person passes when he retires into himself, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy. As I sit at my table, for days, months, years, slowly adding new words to the empty page, I feel as if I am creating a new world, as if I am bringing into being that other person inside me, in the same way someone might build a bridge or a dome, stone by stone. The stones we writers use are words. As we hold them in our hands, sensing the ways in which each of them is connected to the others, looking at them sometimes from afar, sometimes almost caressing them with our fingers and the tips of our pens, weighing them, moving them around, year in and year out, patiently and hopefully, we create new worlds.
The writer’s secret is not inspiration – for it is never clear where it comes from – it is his stubbornness, his patience. That lovely Turkish saying – to dig a well with a needle – seems to me to have been said with writers in mind. In the old stories, I love the patience of Ferhat, who digs through mountains for his love – and I understand it, too. In my novel, My Name is Red, when I wrote about the old Persian miniaturists who had drawn the same horse with the same passion for so many years, memorising each stroke, that they could recreate that beautiful horse even with their eyes closed, I knew I was talking about the writing profession, and my own life. If a writer is to tell his own story – tell it slowly, and as if it were a story about other people – if he is to feel the power of the story rise up inside him, if he is to sit down at a table and patiently give himself over to this art – this craft – he must first have been given some hope. The angel of inspiration (who pays regular visits to some and rarely calls on others) favours the hopeful and the confident, and it is when a writer feels most lonely, when he feels most doubtful about his efforts, his dreams, and the value of his writing – when he thinks his story is only his story – it is at such moments that the angel chooses to reveal to him stories, images and dreams that will draw out the world he wishes to build. If I think back on the books to which I have devoted my entire life, I am most surprised by those moments when I have felt as if the sentences, dreams, and pages that have made me so ecstatically happy have not come from my own imagination – that another power has found them and generously presented them to me.
I was afraid of opening my father’s suitcase and reading his notebooks because I knew that he would not tolerate the difficulties I had endured, that it was not solitude he loved but mixing with friends, crowds, salons, jokes, company. But later my thoughts took a different turn. These thoughts, these dreams of renunciation and patience, were prejudices I had derived from my own life and my own experience as a writer. There were plenty of brilliant writers who wrote surrounded by crowds and family life, in the glow of company and happy chatter. In addition, my father had, when we were young, tired of the monotony of family life, and left us to go to Paris, where – like so many writers – he’d sat in his hotel room filling notebooks. I knew, too, that some of those very notebooks were in this suitcase, because during the years before he brought it to me, my father had finally begun to talk to me about that period in his life. He spoke about those years even when I was a child, but he would not mention his vulnerabilities, his dreams of becoming a writer, or the questions of identity that had plagued him in his hotel room. He would tell me instead about all the times he’d seen Sartre on the pavements of Paris, about the books he’d read and the films he’d seen, all with the elated sincerity of someone imparting very important news. When I became a writer, I never forgot that it was partly thanks to the fact that I had a father who would talk of world writers so much more than he spoke of pashas or great religious leaders. So perhaps I had to read my father’s notebooks with this in mind, and remembering how indebted I was to his large library. I had to bear in mind that when he was living with us, my father, like me, enjoyed being alone with his books and his thoughts – and not pay too much attention to the literary quality of his writing.
But as I gazed so anxiously at the suitcase my father had bequeathed me, I also felt that this was the very thing I would not be able to do. My father would sometimes stretch out on the divan in front of his books, abandon the book in his hand, or the magazine and drift off into a dream, lose himself for the longest time in his thoughts. When I saw on his face an expression so very different from the one he wore amid the joking, teasing, and bickering of family life – when I saw the first signs of an inward gaze – I would, especially during my childhood and my early youth, understand, with trepidation, that he was discontent. Now, so many years later, I know that this discontent is the basic trait that turns a person into a writer. To become a writer, patience and toil are not enough: we must first feel compelled to escape crowds, company, the stuff of ordinary, everyday life, and shut ourselves up in a room. We wish for patience and hope so that we can create a deep world in our writing. But the desire to shut oneself up in a room is what pushes us into action. The precursor of this sort of independent writer – who reads his books to his heart’s content, and who, by listening only to the voice of his own conscience, disputes with other’s words, who, by entering into conversation with his books develops his own thoughts, and his own world – was most certainly Montaigne, in the earliest days of modern literature. Montaigne was a writer to whom my father returned often, a writer he recommended to me. I would like to see myself as belonging to the tradition of writers who – wherever they are in the world, in the East or in the West – cut themselves off from society, and shut themselves up with their books in their room. The starting point of true literature is the man who shuts himself up in his room with his books.
But once we shut ourselves away, we soon discover that we are not as alone as we thought. We are in the company of the words of those who came before us, of other people’s stories, other people’s books, other people’s words, the thing we call tradition. I believe literature to be the most valuable hoard that humanity has gathered in its quest to understand itself. Societies, tribes, and peoples grow more intelligent, richer, and more advanced as they pay attention to the troubled words of their authors, and, as we all know, the burning of books and the denigration of writers are both signals that dark and improvident times are upon us. But literature is never just a national concern. The writer who shuts himself up in a room and first goes on a journey inside himself will, over the years, discover literature’s eternal rule: he must have the artistry to tell his own stories as if they were other people’s stories, and to tell other people’s stories as if they were his own, for this is what literature is. But we must first travel through other people’s stories and books.
My father had a good library – 1 500 volumes in all – more than enough for a writer. By the age of 22, I had perhaps not read them all, but I was familiar with each book – I knew which were important, which were light but easy to read, which were classics, which an essential part of any education, which were forgettable but amusing accounts of local history, and which French authors my father rated very highly. Sometimes I would look at this library from a distance and imagine that one day, in a different house, I would build my own library, an even better library – build myself a world. When I looked at my father’s library from afar, it seemed to me to be a small picture of the real world. But this was a world seen from our own corner, from Istanbul. The library was evidence of this. My father had built his library from his trips abroad, mostly with books from Paris and America, but also with books bought from the shops that sold books in foreign languages in the 40s and 50s and Istanbul’s old and new booksellers, whom I also knew. My world is a mixture of the local – the national – and the West. In the 70s, I, too, began, somewhat ambitiously, to build my own library. I had not quite decided to become a writer – as I related in Istanbul, I had come to feel that I would not, after all, become a painter, but I was not sure what path my life would take. There was inside me a relentless curiosity, a hope-driven desire to read and learn, but at the same time I felt that my life was in some way lacking, that I would not be able to live like others. Part of this feeling was connected to what I felt when I gazed at my father’s library – to be living far from the centre of things, as all of us who lived in Istanbul in those days were made to feel, that feeling of living in the provinces. There was another reason for feeling anxious and somehow lacking, for I knew only too well that I lived in a country that showed little interest in its artists – be they painters or writers – and that gave them no hope. In the 70s, when I would take the money my father gave me and greedily buy faded, dusty, dog-eared books from Istanbul’s old booksellers, I would be as affected by the pitiable state of these second-hand bookstores – and by the despairing dishevelment of the poor, bedraggled booksellers who laid out their wares on roadsides, in mosque courtyards, and in the niches of crumbling walls – as I was by their books.
As for my place in the world – in life, as in literature, my basic feeling was that I was ‘not in the centre’. In the centre of the world, there was a life richer and more exciting than our own, and with all of Istanbul, all of Turkey, I was outside it. Today I think that I share this feeling with most people in the world. In the same way, there was a world literature, and its centre, too, was very far away from me. Actually what I had in mind was Western, not world, literature, and we Turks were outside it. My father’s library was evidence of this. At one end, there were Istanbul’s books – our literature, our local world, in all its beloved detail – and at the other end were the books from this other, Western, world, to which our own bore no resemblance, to which our lack of resemblance gave us both pain and hope. To write, to read, was like leaving one world to find consolation in the other world’s otherness, the strange and the wondrous. I felt that my father had read novels to escape his life and flee to the West – just as I would do later. Or it seemed to me that books in those days were things we picked up to escape our own culture, which we found so lacking. It wasn’t just by reading that we left our Istanbul lives to travel West – it was by writing, too. To fill those notebooks of his, my father had gone to Paris, shut himself up in his room, and then brought his writings back to Turkey. As I gazed at my father’s suitcase, it seemed to me that this was what was causing me disquiet. After working in a room for 25 years to survive as a writer in Turkey, it galled me to see my father hide his deep thoughts inside this suitcase, to act as if writing was work that had to be done in secret, far from the eyes of society, the state, the people. Perhaps this was the main reason why I felt angry at my father for not taking literature as seriously as I did.
Actually I was angry at my father because he had not led a life like mine, because he had never quarrelled with his life, and had spent his life happily laughing with his friends and his loved ones. But part of me knew that I could also say that I was not so much ‘angry’ as ‘jealous’, that the second word was more accurate, and this, too, made me uneasy. That would be when I would ask myself in my usual scornful, angry voice: ‘What is happiness?’ Was happiness thinking that I lived a deep life in that lonely room? Or was happiness leading a comfortable life in society, believing in the same things as everyone else, or acting as if you did? Was it happiness, or unhappiness, to go through life writing in secret, while seeming to be in harmony with all around one? But these were overly ill-tempered questions. Wherever had I got this idea that the measure of a good life was happiness? People, papers, everyone acted as if the most important measure of a life was happiness. Did this alone not suggest that it might be worth trying to find out if the exact opposite was true? After all, my father had run away from his family so many times – how well did I know him, and how well could I say I understood his disquiet?
So this was what was driving me when I first opened my father’s suitcase. Did my father have a secret, an unhappiness in his life about which I knew nothing, something he could only endure by pouring it into his writing? As soon as I opened the suitcase, I recalled its scent of travel, recognised several notebooks, and noted that my father had shown them to me years earlier, but without dwelling on them very long. Most of the notebooks I now took into my hands he had filled when he had left us and gone to Paris as a young man. Whereas I, like so many writers I admired – writers whose biographies I had read – wished to know what my father had written, and what he had thought, when he was the age I was now. It did not take me long to realise that I would find nothing like that here. What caused me most disquiet was when, here and there in my father’s notebooks, I came upon a writerly voice. This was not my father’s voice, I told myself; it wasn’t authentic, or at least it did not belong to the man I’d known as my father. Underneath my fear that my father might not have been my father when he wrote, was a deeper fear: the fear that deep inside I was not authentic, that I would find nothing good in my father’s writing, this increased my fear of finding my father to have been overly influenced by other writers and plunged me into a despair that had afflicted me so badly when I was young, casting my life, my very being, my desire to write, and my work into question. During my first ten years as a writer, I felt these anxieties more deeply, and even as I fought them off, I would sometimes fear that one day, I would have to admit to defeat – just as I had done with painting – and succumbing to disquiet, give up novel writing, too.
I have already mentioned the two essential feelings that rose up in me as I closed my father’s suitcase and put it away: the sense of being marooned in the provinces, and the fear that I lacked authenticity. This was certainly not the first time they had made themselves felt. For years I had, in my reading and my writing, been studying, discovering, deepening these emotions, in all their variety and unintended consequences, their nerve endings, their triggers, and their many colours. Certainly my spirits had been jarred by the confusions, the sensitivities and the fleeting pains that life and books had sprung on me, most often as a young man. But it was only by writing books that I came to a fuller understanding of the problems of authenticity (as in My Name is Red and The Black Book) and the problems of life on the periphery (as in Snow and Istanbul). For me, to be a writer is to acknowledge the secret wounds that we carry inside us, the wounds so secret that we ourselves are barely aware of them, and to patiently explore them, know them, illuminate them, to own these pains and wounds, and to make them a conscious part of our spirits and our writing.
A writer talks of things that everyone knows but does not know they know. To explore this knowledge, and to watch it grow, is a pleasurable thing; the reader is visiting a world at once familiar and miraculous. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end to hone his craft – to create a world – if he uses his secret wounds as his starting point, he is, whether he knows it or not, putting a great faith in humanity. My confidence comes from the belief that all human beings resemble each other, that others carry wounds like mine – that they will therefore understand. All true literature rises from this childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble each other. When a writer shuts himself up in a room for years on end, with this gesture he suggests a single humanity, a world without a centre.
But as can be seen from my father’s suitcase and the pale colours of our lives in Istanbul, the world did have a centre, and it was far away from us. In my books I have described in some detail how this basic fact evoked a Checkovian sense of provinciality, and how, by another route, it led to my questioning my authenticity. I know from experience that the great majority of people on this earth live with these same feelings, and that many suffer from an even deeper sense of insufficiency, lack of security and sense of degradation, than I do. Yes, the greatest dilemmas facing humanity are still landlessness, homelessness, and hunger … But today our televisions and newspapers tell us about these fundamental problems more quickly and more simply than literature can ever do. What literature needs most to tell and investigate today are humanity’s basic fears: the fear of being left outside, and the fear of counting for nothing, and the feelings of worthlessness that come with such fears; the collective humiliations, vulnerabilities, slights, grievances, sensitivities, and imagined insults, and the nationalist boasts and inflations that are their next of kind … Whenever I am confronted by such sentiments, and by the irrational, overstated language in which they are usually expressed, I know they touch on a darkness inside me. We have often witnessed peoples, societies and nations outside the Western world – and I can identify with them easily – succumbing to fears that sometimes lead them to commit stupidities, all because of their fears of humiliation and their sensitivities. I also know that in the West – a world with which I can identify with the same ease – nations and peoples taking an excessive pride in their wealth, and in their having brought us the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernism, have, from time to time, succumbed to a self-satisfaction that is almost as stupid.
This means that my father was not the only one, that we all give too much importance to the idea of a world with a centre. Whereas the thing that compels us to shut ourselves up to write in our rooms for years on end is a faith in the opposite; the belief that one day our writings will be read and understood, because people all the world over resemble each other. But this, as I know from my own and my father’s writing, is a troubled optimism, scarred by the anger of being consigned to the margins, of being left outside. The love and hate that Dostoyevsky felt towards the West all his life – I have felt this too, on many occasions. But if I have grasped an essential truth, if I have cause for optimism, it is because I have travelled with this great writer through his love-hate relationship with the West, to behold the other world he has built on the other side.
All writers who have devoted their lives to this task know this reality: whatever our original purpose, the world that we create after years and years of hopeful writing, will, in the end, move to other very different places. It will take us far away from the table at which we have worked with sadness or anger, take us to the other side of that sadness and anger, into another world. Could my father have not reached such a world himself? Like the land that slowly begins to take shape, slowly rising from the mist in all its colours like an island after a long sea journey, this other world enchants us. We are as beguiled as the western travellers who voyaged from the south to behold Istanbul rising from the mist. At the end of a journey begun in hope and curiosity, there lies before them a city of mosques and minarets, a medley of houses, streets, hills, bridges, and slopes, an entire world. Seeing it, we wish to enter into this world and lose ourselves inside it, just as we might a book. After sitting down at a table because we felt provincial, excluded, on the margins, angry, or deeply melancholic, we have found an entire world beyond these sentiments.
What I feel now is the opposite of what I felt as a child and a young man: for me the centre of the world is Istanbul. This is not just because I have lived there all my life, but because, for the last 33 years, I have been narrating its streets, its bridges, its people, its dogs, its houses, its mosques, its fountains, its strange heroes, its shops, its famous characters, its dark spots, its days and its nights, making them part of me, embracing them all. A point arrived when this world I had made with my own hands, this world that existed only in my head, was more real to me than the city in which I actually lived. That was when all these people and streets, objects and buildings would seem to begin to talk amongst themselves, and begin to interact in ways I had not anticipated, as if they lived not just in my imagination or my books, but for themselves. This world that I had created like a man digging a well with a needle would then seem truer than all else.
My father might also have discovered this kind of happiness during the years he spent writing, I thought as I gazed at my father’s suitcase: I should not prejudge him. I was so grateful to him, after all: he’d never been a commanding, forbidding, overpowering, punishing, ordinary father, but a father who always left me free, always showed me the utmost respect. I had often thought that if I had, from time to time, been able to draw from my imagination, be it in freedom or childishness, it was because, unlike so many of my friends from childhood and youth, I had no fear of my father, and I had sometimes believed very deeply that I had been able to become a writer because my father had, in his youth, wished to be one, too. I had to read him with tolerance – seek to understand what he had written in those hotel rooms.
It was with these hopeful thoughts that I walked over to the suitcase, which was still sitting where my father had left it; using all my willpower, I read through a few manuscripts and notebooks. What had my father written about? I recall a few views from the windows of Parisian hotels, a few poems, paradoxes, analyses … As I write I feel like someone who has just been in a traffic accident and is struggling to remember how it happened, while at the same time dreading the prospect of remembering too much. When I was a child, and my father and mother were on the brink of a quarrel – when they fell into one of those deadly silences – my father would at once turn on the radio, to change the mood, and the music would help us forget it all faster.
Let me change the mood with a few sweet words that will, I hope, serve as well as that music. As you know, the question we writers are asked most often, the favourite question, is; why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write! I write because I can’t do normal work like other people. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at all of you, angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can only partake in real life by changing it. I write because I want others, all of us, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at all of you, so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page, I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all of life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story, but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – just as in a dream – I can’t quite get there. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.
A week after he came to my office and left me his suitcase, my father came to pay me another visit; as always, he brought me a bar of chocolate (he had forgotten I was 48 years old). As always, we chatted and laughed about life, politics and family gossip. A moment arrived when my father’s eyes went to the corner where he had left his suitcase and saw that I had moved it. We looked each other in the eye. There followed a pressing silence. I did not tell him that I had opened the suitcase and tried to read its contents; instead I looked away. But he understood. Just as I understood that he had understood. Just as he understood that I had understood that he had understood. But all this understanding only went so far as it can go in a few seconds. Because my father was a happy, easygoing man who had faith in himself: he smiled at me the way he always did. And as he left the house, he repeated all the lovely and encouraging things that he always said to me, like a father.
As always, I watched him leave, envying his happiness, his carefree and unflappable temperament. But I remember that on that day there was also a flash of joy inside me that made me ashamed. It was prompted by the thought that maybe I wasn’t as comfortable in life as he was, maybe I had not led as happy or footloose a life as he had, but that I had devoted it to writing – you’ve understood … I was ashamed to be thinking such things at my father’s expense. Of all people, my father, who had never been the source of my pain – who had left me free. All this should remind us that writing and literature are intimately linked to a lack at the centre of our lives, and to our feelings of happiness and guilt.
But my story has a symmetry that immediately reminded me of something else that day, and that brought me an even deeper sense of guilt. Twenty-three years before my father left me his suitcase, and four years after I had decided, aged 22, to become a novelist, and, abandoning all else, shut myself up in a room, I finished my first novel, Cevdet Bey and Sons; with trembling hands I had given my father a typescript of the still unpublished novel, so that he could read it and tell me what he thought. This was not simply because I had confidence in his taste and his intellect: his opinion was very important to me because he, unlike my mother, had not opposed my wish to become a writer. At that point, my father was not with us, but far away. I waited impatiently for his return. When he arrived two weeks later, I ran to open the door. My father said nothing, but he at once threw his arms around me in a way that told me he had liked it very much. For a while, we were plunged into the sort of awkward silence that so often accompanies moments of great emotion. Then, when we had calmed down and begun to talk, my father resorted to highly charged and exaggerated language to express his confidence in me or my first novel: he told me that one day I would win the prize that I am here to receive with such great happiness.
He said this not because he was trying to convince me of his good opinion, or to set this prize as a goal; he said it like a Turkish father, giving support to his son, encouraging him by saying, ‘One day you’ll become a pasha!’ For years, whenever he saw me, he would encourage me with the same words.
My father died in December 2002.
Today, as I stand before the Swedish Academy and the distinguished members who have awarded me this great prize – this great honour – and their distinguished guests, I dearly wish he could be amongst us.” Orhan Pamuk, “My Father’s Suitcase;” Nobel Literary Laureates Lecture, 2006
Practically speaking, any attempt to deal with an energy situation–involving as it must both commodified technology and either electricity or other ways of transforming fuel into power–is at its heart a political economic issue. Even more so, of course, sustainable business pursuits must deal with these matters.
For JustMeans purposes, especially today when the story investigates ways that working people can join together, for example in unions, to effect social transformation, readers will want to consider how one can put any such eventuality into perspective. For instance, a question that can help folks to get at what makes up political economy is to address such a fundamental inquiry as why a commentator might call some people ‘working people.’
After all, since before his days at the gaming tables at Courier House, Bill Gates has labored at something. Definitely, he must have put in some long hours to have banked several thousand dollar bills for each of the ten million singles that he inherited from his grandfather. He’s almost certainly worked more hours, as a case in point, than most humble correspondents such as the scribe behind the words of this little interlude.
Yet a distinction exists between Bill and most other citizens. He did in fact start with a capacity, a capitalization, an ante to a certain sort of poker game, that very few folks can access early in their lives, if ever they manifest such means. Thus, speaking about political economy involves speaking about the constituents of social class, a subject that on occasion has shown up in these pages as divisive and thorny for most Americans.
In turn, if observers bother to ponder what constitutes a ‘class’ in a society, they will, unless they simply thump their chests and say, ‘I’m middle class, by God, and that’s all there is to it!’ nod that what puts one group, or set, or kind, or class of person in a different category from another is some set of relationships that differentiate one group from the other. And truthfully, we might imagine all sorts of relations that should hold precedence in divvying people up.
Many bigots begin with the classification ‘Anglo,’ for example; others imagine that gender is most crucial; still others take some other signifcation, or set of attributes, and posit that these are what set people apart. Obviously, as well, one may start with a scientific fact such as the accurate statement that all people are cousins and conclude that nothing real actually separates one type, or class, of person from another. Others argue that community, or culture, is a much more reasonable way to ‘classify’ folks.
To all such speculation, I would ask people to take careful notice that food, housing, water, and other basic elements of human life have–at the least for thousands, and likely for tens of thousands, of years–not happened in anything like a ‘state of nature.’ From this recognition, that at some juncture in time and space in the past, human beings began not all to make a general mad scramble, whether individually or in certain sorts of family or kin collectives, for the necessities of survival, we have to deduce that a transition took place from nature to society, because now–wherever one turns his gaze, people ‘scramble’ in distinct ways to ‘make ends meet.’
This is not to say that society is unnatural. Such a view would be at best madness, in my estimation. But some sort of evolution, over time, had to have taken place from the days and places in which identifiable ancestors lived and died in more or less common circumstances to the way that exists today, when some ‘classes’ of people seem to stand in different relation to the basic constituents of keeping body and soul together.
Friederich Engels wrote a classic text about this: The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. But for a certain ‘evasiveness,’ about which I will be writing more soon, every citizen of an advanced country like the USA would study this text, inasmuch as it lays a foundation for understanding how social categories, and therefore society, operate, both over time, or historically, and in the present tense, as it were.
Put most simply, Engels does this by showing how knowledge about human ancestors, from a few thousand years ago to ten thousand years ago, lets a student of humanity view that social systems came to pass in which distinct sets of families ended up with differential types of access to life’s key elements–cattle and water and homes and so on–and to the ongoing creation of those elements in a definite useful form. Furthermore, the manifestation of such social patterns transpired all over the world in similar ways, marking the beginning of class societies, in which the children of different families tended to have divergent expectations about their relationships to each other and to the goods necessary for survival.
In this vein, one way of conceiving of ‘class’ is that it originates in differential links to the getting and keeping of the key elements that permit us to continue–food , shelter, clothing, and so on, right up to i-Phones and Satellites and repeating-cannons firing depleted Uranium shells. This is a hypothesis that I ask readers to test now, according to their own experience.
Can one acknowledge that people whose mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and neighbors, and who themselves, tend to, for example, work for wages to start their lives–this is one set of relationships to the ‘getting of necessities,’ after all–often, or even primarily both continue working for wages and have a certain way of looking at things? ‘Maybe, maybe not,’ might be an answer. Another sort of answer might be, ‘well, they definitely are most likely to keep being wage-earners, but they’ll have all sorts of different ideas about life.’
What about those who start out more or less surrounded by ownership, whose main or only experience of wages is as ‘practice’ for taking up the reins of power? Do they tend, in the main, both to stay at that elevated level and to evince certain sorts of ways of contemplating existence? Once again, the answer might be, ‘Well, mostly yes to the first question, but not so much to the second.’
And, voila! If folks have followed along, I have inaugurated them to a social class approach to the modern world. In contemporary surroundings, with only a very few absolute exceptions, almost everyone either begins existence surrounded by people who get and keep jobs to eat, or they bask in a more supportive milieu, one in which their cohorts and family and neighbors tend to own things and live off a combination of their jobs and one sort or another of ‘investment,’ or capital, or other material investiture, like a big farm or a father who runs a country.
And, while all such discussion bristles with conflict, arguably, as the saying goes, the owning class, or the rich, have tended to get richer, all the while, and more so today than ever, the poor stay poor. More and more, in addition, the vaunted middle that supposedly distinguishes the United States from most other places, has seemed to be fading away, providing all manner of fodder for politicians of all stripes to promise a return to the middle-class ways that supposedly have set America apart.
I’d have to be the first to admit that this is a huge topic; moreover, many people get the heebie-jeebies even thinking about it. Their voices rise in timber, their body posture suggests a certain defensiveness, their eyes dart hither and yon.
Furthermore, this tiny little introduction today does not begin to do justice to this area of understanding, an aspect of being able to think straight that the likes of this humble correspondent would place at the highest level. For one thing, historical elements are largely missing, although I am hopeful that observers can see that I allude to such historical developments.
Despite its limitations, nevertheless, this paltry bit of a precis can, if readers suspend disbelief and discomfiture long enough to think about the world, let us move forward with today’s plausibly interesting and important story in a way that will yield greater appreciation for the nuances of a phenomenon called the Blue-Green Alliance. This stems from the fact that this coalition results from its promulgators recognition that keeping such matters of class as I’ve touched on here in mind is a key to the kinds of social progress that they are seeking to make through their organizing efforts.
This notion–of organizing for social progress–implies another point for readers to hold in awareness. In the case of all the multiplicity of mayhem and chaos that characterize human existence now, one may advance the argument, with a fair chance of defending it, that almost every problem–the fight over nuclear versus renewable energy, the battle over Afghanistan, the idiocy of the War on Drugs, the nastiness so common now over immigrants, and on and on and on and on, forever–has some core component of class conflict that is key to understanding the particular issue, and, more important, to deciding how to ‘get political’ in relation to the issue.
One commentator states this very simply, in the monograph, Class and Class Conflict in the Age of Globalization.
|“This book highlight(s) the centrality of class and class conflict in the age of contemporary global capitalism. …(T)he past century has formed and transformed capitalism on a global scale. …restructuring…the international division of labor…by the export of capital and the transfer of production to cheap labor areas… .A major consequence of this process is the increased polarization of wealth and income between capital and labor at the national and global levels and the growth in the number of poor and marginalized segments of the population throughout the world.”|
Today’s article, along with all of the work I do basically, seeks to actuate an awareness along these lines, on the one hand, and then set that awareness in motion toward a goal of social justice. As Engels’ partner, Karl Marx, was wont to say in effect, ‘understanding the world is all well and good; it’s part of being human. But the point is to change it; we exist to improve the human prospect, not merely to see it.’
The two expressions of social progress that disport through today’s narrative, trade unions and environmental groups, for the most part represent at least somewhat diverse social origins. For the better part of several decades, a substantial tension as often as not divided labor activists from environmental activists.
In some ways the high point of that discomfiture occurred in the late ’70’s and early 80’s, though it existed prior to that and will probably continue to show up as long as ‘divide and conquer’ remains the most popular strategy of big business in keeping gadflies at bay. A particularly potent, but annoying, expression of this apparent opposition between environmentalists and working class leaders occurred in the article “Environmentalism and the Leisure Class,” by William Tucker.
Though the thesis of this essay has many flaws, as evidence of a snarling attitude between ‘green groups’ and labor groups, it is indisputable. I expound on the importance of understanding this division in my article on the Environmental Justice Resource Center, proffering both a background for the development of environmental justice thinking, and how this has served as an important bridge to allow joint efforts and unified political orientation for unions such as the United Steelworkers and United Auto Workers, on the one hand, and groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, on the other hand.
In providing a basic orientation to the Blue Green Alliance(BGA), today’s article blatantly takes for granted that any notion of fostering renewable energy, or all hope of accomplishing sustainable business, would benefit from the creation of the sort of coalition that the BGA represents. Though many avenues exist ineluctably to prove this assertion, we might merely reflect on three things to allow the presumption to pass: political experience; political muscle; and troops.
The thirteen groups that comprise BGA, as readers will soon see, represent, in aggregate some plus or minus ten million active United States citizens. In aggregate, these folks have the status of hardy political veterans. They know how to mount campaigns, fight campaigns, and win campaigns. Thus, if these collectives and individuals propose to lend a hand to bringing about better business and superior energy technologies, this offer is a godsend, pure and simple.
In a follow-up article, I will maintain, even more pointedly, that only through this sort of organizational initiative, and, most critically, only through the proper sort of organizational understanding on the part of the allied participants, do sustainable patterns and ‘green energy’ techniques stand a snowball’s chance of success vis a vis the well-oiled plutocratic juggernaut of atomic energy. Today’s purposes are more or less purely introductory and descriptive, in this tempestuous and difficult arena.
As just noted, thirteen separate organizations have come together to form BGA. Each represents a substantial membership and many decades of struggling to improve something about life. Here folks will find a precis of each member of the alliance.
United Steelworkers (USW)
“The USW is 1.2 million working and retired members throughout the United States and Canada, working together to improve our jobs; to build a better future for our families; and to promote fairness, justice and equality both on the job and in our societies,” the website states. I can attest that USW has taken the strongest possible stand for workers rights around the globe(INTERLINK, Coal); moreover, USW also ‘walks the walk’ in relation to renewables.
“The Sierra Club is America’s oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, whose members work together to protect communities and the planet,” sums up the site. I can attest that Sierra Club, in Georgia, is one of the only environmental groups that consistently goes into communities with a willingness to listen and a open attitude about dialog; 1.3 million Sierrans have also long sought to unravel the environmental justice knot so as to activate a truly grassroots geyser of action for sustainability.
Natural Resources Defense Council/NRDC Action Fund
“NRDC is the nation’s most effective environmental action organization,” notes the web, continuing that “NRDC uses law, science and the support of 1.2 million members and online activists to protect the planet’s wildlife and wild places and to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all living things.” While I have not had occasion to work alongside NRDC, they have won plenty of courtroom battles and come down on the human and community side of issues of environmental and energy importance.
Communications Workers of America (CWA)
“The Communications Workers of America – the union for the Information Age – represents 700,000 workers in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Itâ€™s one of Americaâ€™s fastest growing unions.” I have only long ago and far away had personal contact with CWA, but their record as a progressive political force on the national scene is certainly solid.
National Wildlife Federation
NWF is one of the oldest environmental groups; here in Georgia, they are not particularly of the ‘activist’ bent; nationally, they have worked with or otherwise supported nuclear power generating facilities that have promoted themselves as ‘green’ and ‘alternative’ energy sources; with over four million members, NWF is the largest of all environmental groups.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU)
“With 2 million members in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is the fastest-growing union in the Americas,” the website notes. SEIU has been a stalwart in Georgia in supporting living wage, peace, and generally progressive politics; nationally, they have struggled recently, while continuing to fight the good fight on the organizing front.
Union of Concerned Scientists
Not only does this key constituency of pro-science folks recognize the opportunity costs and other drawbacks of nuclear, but they also consistently back peaceful foreign relations and generally progressive stance across the board, as well as providing research assistance repeatedly to the likes of this humble correspondent.
Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA)
“The half-million members of LIUNA build America,” states the BGA site. “They work predominantly in the construction industry, building mass transit, highways, power plants, wind farms, schoolhouses and other basics that working people rely on every day.” These are the workers who, along with twenty million others who don’t have the privilege or opportunity of union membership, or who don’t recognize their class position and oppose unions, constitute the core of the wage-earning class in the United States over the past several decades, as manufacturing workers have declined in number. While the service trades, reflected by SEIU’s larger membership, do amount to a larger sector of the labor force, these folks are key troops in any political campaign where grassroots muscle makes a difference.
Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA)
According to the material at BGA’s web address, “The Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO (UWUA) is one of the most successful and progressive unions in all of the labor movement.” Moreover, it works in the ‘belly of the beast,’ seeking to insure worker rights and safety inside the present electrical power production structure, including nuclear. “We have over 50,000 members working in the electric, gas, water, and nuclear industries across the United States.”
American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
“The mission of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO,” announces the BGA text, “is to improve the lives of our members and their families, to give voice to their legitimate professional, economic and social aspirations, to strengthen the institutions in which we work, to improve the quality of the services we provide, to bring together all members to assist and support one another and to promote democracy, human rights and freedom in our union, in our nation and throughout the world.” Long regarded as the more activist and more militantly ‘pro-labor’ teachers’ union, AFT represents nearly a million teachers, plus, as is the case with all of the unions here, also involving many retired members.
Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU)
“The Amalgamated Transit Union is the largest labor organization representing transit workers in the United States and Canada,” according to the website. 160,000 strong, this group of progressive, pro-peace trade-unionists–mainly operating through their state organizations and locals–represent a key sector of the economy and provide leverage in many other ways in any political or policy campaign.
Sheet Metal Workersâ€™ International Association
in Georgia, the Sheet Metal Workers worked with the Living Wage Campaign and generally support the most progressive agenda, which is difficult for any membership organization to do in this state; their 150,000 members are the core ‘natural constituency’ of renewable energy, inasmuch as their craft skills and work experiences are completely congruent with solar and wind development.
United Auto Workers
“The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) is one of the largest and most diverse unions in North America, with members in virtually every sector of the economy,” according to the website. As an earlier article points out, UAW played a leading role in the inception of the environmental justice movement; its half million members and many retirees for about ten years included this humble correspondent, as a member of the UAW affiliated National Writers Union. Generally progressive and pro-peace, few other unions have the record of militancy and solidarity that characterize the auto workers.
This impressive amalgamation of progressive organizational potential is in motion too, as the following section illustrates. BGA is not a window-dressing sort of project. The membership and the leadership are literally in motion across the U.S.
One of many sources that point to the underpinnings of this new model of effort on the part of U.S. unions, that have historically tended to avoid such involvement, expressed the underlying motivation incisively. “If mature trade union movements are to undergo revitalization, it has been frequently argued, then they must recreate themselves as social movements. They must broaden their goals to encompass social progress beyond the immediate employment relationship and rediscover their capacity to mobilize workers in campaigns for workplace and wider social justice. In Waterman’s words, unions should` add to the lay trinity (liberty, equality, fraternity) the values of diversity, peace and ecological care.”
If nothing else, the BGA is following this thinking. A subsequent look at the group’s work will examine matters of strategy and development; however, even this brief description will show the sorts of potential that JustMeans readers might notice as inherently supportive of both renewable energy potentiation and sustainable business practice.
THE BLUE GREEN ALLIANCE’S TRANSFORMATIVE POTENTIAL AND THORNY PRACTICAL POLITICS
My interview with Margrete Rangnes, BGA’s Deputy Director, evinced from Washington a campaign HQ of a 148 years ago, when a stalwart young Ms. wouldn’t have played nearly so visible a role and when the city of Washington itself seemed about to come under siege. The hounds of hell always threatening Lincoln, as far as I understand them, remind me of what afflicts Barack-the-Magnificent. But the still new G.O.P. was at least a new political beast, unlike present day Democrats.
My questions were much softer in tone than this. “First of all, can you break down the structure of the BGA, in terms of origins, how things get done, models being followed?”
“It all started with the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers; we’d done a lot of work together, over the years, over issues of trade and globalization,” with some more local campaigns around clean water and air. “We asked ourselves, do we want to do more than one date at a time? Was a formalization of the relationship possible?”
“You wanted to try a marriage instead of a series of one night stands,” I quipped.
She laughed. “Anyway, the first few years, it was just the two of us, reaching out to our own members, and to grassroots people” wherever they were working. Now, however, as we’ve seen that has grown into a significant chunk of America’s working class and its progressive environmentalists, with nine unions and four organizations.
“It’s really a broad spectrum, from industrial unions to newer organizations like (the Service Employees International Union); from large membership organizations like (the National Wildlife Federation) to more expert-based groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists,” that just came on board recently.
The way it all works, she explained, is that “specific issues like global warming, clean energy, fair trade, workers’ rights, these are things we all buy-in on, with the strategic link connecting them all that solving the economic crisis is easiest if we work on these issues together; I mean, they’re inherently interconnected anyway. Overall? Addressing the climate situation by inviting in clean energy can address all the other challenges.”
She notes that this really makes sense to groups like the Laborer’s International Union and the Sheet Metal Workers whose members have been so decimated by the construction downturn. In terms of the timing of the expansion, “The second wave came on board in 08, and since then it’s been in dribbles. It’s been an incremental process,” she emphasized, “because we wanted to make sure it was real and anchored on real principles,” by which I understood her to mean a real scientific understanding of what was at the root of environmental and economic problems, and what might address those root causes.
“Can you think of any particularly powerful anecdotes that you would want to see, read about, or learn about in a story?” I asked her.
“I’m always interested in how we effect change, how we are relevant. As a progressive movement in today’s climate, how we’re gonna get to victory can be difficult to envision, so it’s important to think through” the steps that need to happen.” She paused to see if I followed; I hope that I did.
She gave some examples. From her position in the Sierra club, she coordinated the Employee Free Choice Act campaign, a labor issue that, because of union support for safety and anti-pollutions standards, and because of provisions against exporting toxic processes had environmental implications right down to its core. “On the flip side, USW led a massive grassroots membership campaign to pass climate legislation.”
“It was all about building up support for equity and fair labor standards with good jobs and everything, with the flip side being the union’s talking about clean energy solutions being a necessary way to go.”
I asked if this had led to the production of real cases of new knowledge about how to operate politically, and she agreed, “Oh, absolutely.”
“Are all of the membership organizations pretty much of equal standing, or are some of the initiators sort of like ‘first among equals’?”
She explained that no hierarchy of organizations was possible under the bylaws. The board allows equal representation. “It’s a very active process,” she went on, giving me the example of the green chemistry work, where the academic experts might pitch in something, and then OSHA reps from the unions would have good stuff to offer, and then the climate lobbyists, could contribute their part. “We always bring in as many viewpoints as possible from as many member organizations as possible, depending on the particular issue we’re dealing with.”
“I notice specific bills in the ‘take action’ section and then a general positive orientation to real ‘clean energy’ as a policy; is there a ‘model bill’ about that, or some other nation’s approach, that you’d recommend to readers to look at?”
“Well, we supported the Waxman-Markey Bill framework of cap-and-trade for a climate bill.” She waited for an “Oh, please!” that never came. “We thought it could be ‘good,’ even though it’s hard to get a perfect bill.” I accede to the demands of ‘practical politics.’
But she drives home the point that “principled community work is non-negotiable.” BGA seeks to find a balance between working legislatively and from the grassroots simultaneously, at the same time helping to seed good business options that bring local jobs that support a refurbishing of the country’s manufacturing base. The 8,000 parts in wind turbines and massive opportunities in home retrofits are just a couple of examples. “We’re also working with (the Communications Workers) to expand rural access to high speed internet.
When I express my ignorance of this area, having thought the U.S. still to be ‘ahead of the curve now, she corrects this misimpression. “We’re 15th in the world now, really lagging behind.” She concludes by acknowledging that community development “is just very difficult.” Working sector by sector, industry by industry, is the only way. “There’s no quick fix.” And that’s where having some principles comes into play.
I ask, in relation to BGA’s “The Job’s Not Done,” seventeen state tour, “You didn’t come South; why not?”
“Given the original part played by the steelworkers, a focus on the Midwest was natural,” and I’d assume that such would also hold for the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. I mention the ‘Right-to-Work,’ anti-union climate in Dixie, and she agrees that a lot needs doing in the land of Jimbo.
She views the work around California Proposition 23, which is trying to turn back the State’s strict environmental and safety standards as an extension of the organization beyond its core area. Washington and Oregon and Maine all also have statewide action of some sort going on too.
I note that the organization’s Green Files has some interesting ‘grassrootsy’ cases to share. But I do have one query that might qualify as ‘semi-tough.’
I point out, “Eric Justian worked pretty diligently in Muskegon County and Western Michigan to support a wind farm development there that has a lot of State and regional potential; he felt that unions did not support the grassroots efforts. Do you have any insights into that, or could you direct me to a good union contact in Michigan when I go there to follow up this story?”
The timber of her voice was a little sad here. “We’re wholeheartedly interested in wind. We just weren’t sure about the community base there,” which I promised her was overwhelmingly positive. “So many jobs are possible in the wind sector; we’d love it, maintenance, specialized trucks for Teamsters.” And a resuscitation of the manufacturing base that Michigan has been waiting twenty years or more for, I point out.
I don’t press on this. I’ll send the story to Eric, and to Steve Warner at Scandia, and see if anybody has any way to move the process forward. Michigan doesn’t need this opportunity to wait another day.
We don’t even scratch the surface of a ton of what BGA is up to on a day-to-day basis, but as I say, I’m going to follow up on this introduction. ‘Born a critic,’ I have my doubts about the underlying political economic analysis that I infer from the website. I buy the tactical and legislative ideas, so far as they go. Ms. Rangnes is obviously an old pro at all of this, despite her youthful voice.
But missing Muskegon just doesn’t add up, if a community focus were truly in place, too much Facebook notwithstanding. How BGA will get from alliance to movement, from coalition to community capacitation just doesn’t come through. I’d sure love having the answer be that something obvious is escaping my attention.
Without doubt, the United States of America desperately needs vastly more of what the Blue Green Alliance is selling. The only real issue is whether the political formula that the organization practices, all in good faith, can deliver the product, which is an empowered base of communities capable of taking on capital in what is shaping up to be a decade or more of dog fights.
Coalition does not equal community. Coalescing, and ‘practical politics,’ sometimes is the only way to proceed. At other times, however, any process that relies on such formulas, without the necessary component of capacitated local citizens, will face insurmountable difficulties. The experiences of TVA, a chronicle which began yesterday(INTERLINK) and which will continue once a week over the next few weeks, aptly demonstrate the way that the bureaucratic partners of the ruling business coalitions will always take over any ‘reform’ process that does not actually emanate from the people and their organizations directly.
Expanding democracy is the key. But this, by definition, must go far beyond a by-election for institutions already bought and paid for by the business coalitions. The thinking of Benjamin Barber in this regard has repeatedly appeared in these pages, but other contenders for the ‘fresh-shoots-of-real-
|“Every challenge we face today from climate and crime to technology and markets, and communications and public health is global in character. Yet the institutions of democracy we rely on to address these challenges are still locked up inside sovereign states pursuing the old logic of independence. But in an interdependent world of diseases without borders, we also need citizens without borders â€“ democracy without borders. Which means if we are to survive interdependence and flourish in liberty, we must either globalize democracy or democratize globalization.”|
And, even in this context of being willing to have a ‘knife fight in the dark,’ if necessary, for the most potent manifestations of participatory democracy, nothing will come to pass in a social vacuum. Only by keeping in mind the centrality of strengthened communities is progress possible; tomorrow’s examination of the Lakota Sioux can be instructive along these lines. Then, somehow or other–and again, a plug for Peoples Information Networks seems essential, methods for linking these communities to look both outward and upward as well as inward must happen, across all borders and beyond all subsequent approaches to human involvement in collaborative enterprise.
Expanding voice and input is likely the only pathway that can lead both to grassroots participation and community capacitation. But what are the topics about which we sing now? A new cell phone is so cool; a new guest crooned such a rad tune on American Idol; a further devolution of any prospect for real involvement just took up another hour with a new Facebook application. Transition communities, a flowering of the inner nerd, and all manner of new forms that have shown up in these pages could provide vehicles to convey the focused expression of these grassroots voices.
Finally, expanding coalition toward movement is a dividing line between making noise and making progress between talking about possibility and manifesting transformation. Such a movement came into being in 1914; again in the 1930’s, explosive flights of coalesced people took place; since then, time and again, smaller outbursts of motion have slaughtered a few million cousins here and a few million cousins there.
Yet the fundamental contradictions of the rules of this game remain. And another ‘big play’ of tribe against tribe might be the last human upsurge to transpire. Perhaps a new sort of march can come from people banded together. I’m a believer in this capacity for new musical forms.
Will they emerge from the Blue Green Alliance as currently constituted? I would say, ‘yes,’ if I thought a reliance on the Democratic Party of the United States might ‘deliver us from evil,’ but I don’t believe that. This partisan formation does not seek to empower communities so much as it attempts to divert and delay community potential.
I would say, ‘yes,’ if I were inclined to accept that imperial war were a form of patriotism, doing battle against ‘terror,’ but that is beyond absurd, like a blindfolded fellow agreeing to a sword fight with unseen assailants on the promise that this duel will bring glory. Empire eviscerates any emanation of community that might otherwise exist.
I would say, ‘yes,’ if I bought the notion that America first had any merit, that ‘foreigners don’t belong here’ had a resonant ring of salvation, but such notions seem worse than false. They guarantee that communities that must be a part of the community power movement become enemies. The best result from these strategic positions will be a slow death at home, on the basis of carnage abroad; more likely, as the inherent futility of the fight on these terms becomes clear, a mass collective suicide more like the Bhagavadgita than Armageddon will be the destination point.
In my estimation therefore, despite great spirit and great ideas and tremendous potential, the Blue Green Alliance has some goal-setting and analysis still to do. In a month or so, I’m going to offer my take on what such dissection and objectives might include, but I’d love to hear that I misinterpreted everything and that dandy developments are nigh. As such, I’ll await the favor of a reply.
When a sector of the analysis of reality is off limits, then democracy and free speech might as well fold up its tent. No matter the cries of ‘practical politics,’ no matter the insistence that ‘reason dictates’ that we ‘not rock the boat,’ no matter the long-standing affiliation with a political party predominantly financed by ‘class enemies’ of trade union and environmental stewardship, if a dialogic context excludes things like ‘social class analysis’ and a potential role for social democracy, then, whatever is happening, it is no longer honors the first amendment. It may be pragmatic, but it has nothing to do with letting every perspective have a say.
I had a nice chat with an obviously hard-working BGA combatant. An interviewer can hear the long hours and the late nights and the many, many cups of coffee, even over the phone. Our conversation was cordial and revealed many avenues for further investigation and assessment of how BGA might make a profound and positive impact on the desperate straits in which progressive energy policy finds itself in the U.S.
I have been at this work, of trying to report on social movement as a proponent, as a journalist with a definite point of view, for many decades. More than once, I have tripped and fallen on my face as a result of being a clueless boob about the delicate balance that trade-unions, in particular, have generally sought to maintain in this country.
On the one hand, they are the only bulwark that workers can count on to fend off the worst depredations of capital. OSHA came from the miners health counsels. The civil rights movement was a part of the auto-workers’ strategy. Public schools, minimum wage, social security, the list of privileges that have roots in the sweat and blood of trade unions is just about endless. Thus, every time that big business gains a new advantage, one can be certain that one prong of its next strategy prospectus will be some new and sinister move to undercut trade unions.
At the same time, the identification of many unions with empire, of almost all unions against an opening of the borders and a broadening of their international work, is also an accurate appraisal. And, without a doubt, any of BGA’s trade unionists who happened to read this article–which I will send along to the organization, as sure as the sun shines–will be better than 50-50 to recoil a bit upon perusing some of what is here.
It’s pinkish tinge will appear altogether red to some readers. I certainly don’t hide my social democratic proclivities; as I’ve pointed out to JustMeans readers before, that’s a fancy word for socialist. But I’m intellectually open and willing to ‘throw down and ‘chew the fat’ with anyone.
I am willing to be convinced that capitalism is capable of resuscitation, if someone can make a convincing argument to that effect. I can listen to an assessment that imperial mass murder is not an inherent component of U.S. militarism. I can let a proponent of big business–as I did for David Lilienthal yesterday–boost the marvels of untrammeled markets and unfettered profiteering as a sidebar of greater growth.
But neither I nor anyone else who truly wants to promote either ‘renewable energy’ or whatever potential for ‘sustainable business’ is real can carry on in an environment in which the long knives or the dagger awaits the mention of Karl Marx or socially democratic assessments of what in the heck needs to happen if we’re going to win.
The essence of a victorious class war, or if that’s too strong, social dispute, is that the winning side–and this is especially true if that ‘side’ is a fractious majority with many divisible fissures in it–spends more energy battling its opponent than trying to bury those on its own front lines who are not in sync with the dominant views.
Maybe that’s way too simplistic. I’ve never been any good at ‘practical politics.’ But I know a winning strategy when I see one; and while the Blue Green Alliance is making some impressive tactical moves, I do not yet notice a strategic orientation that can bring about the fruits that even the organization’s tactical ploys are seeking to win, to wit, more wind and sun and less radiation, more human rights and jobs and less war and terror.
A recent strategic analysis from England made this point quite common sensically. Across the developed world unions have experienced membership decline, and in many cases have lost influence in the labour market and political system. As a result, they are under pressure to develop new tactics and access new resources. ‘In certain respects, coalitions are a symptom of weakness and unions will experience pressure to seek coalition partners if that underlying weakness remains.’
But what is the source of this weakness? Perhaps the time has finally come for workers in North America to become conscious of themselves as a class. Perhaps a movement for community power, involving democratic dialog and increased capacity at the grassroots, can bring about he revitalization that so many good-hearted and hard-working environmentalists and labor-unionists aspire to obtain.
Or maybe not. Maybe we need more accommodation with the Fortune 500 and the rulers of capital, right down to pretending that a ‘nuclear renaissance’ is compatible with a blue and green coalition. Or, I’m certainly all ears, maybe somebody has another idea.” Jim Hickey, “Blue and Green For a True Renewable Energy Scene;” JustMeans, 2010
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I taught Mr. Cho, mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: You taught him. You wanted him out of your class.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: No, he had to leave my class. I didn’t want; that had to be. Whatever it was, I wasn’t trying to judge Mr. Cho. I’m not a psychiatrist; I’m just a writing teacher. But—
AMY GOODMAN: And a social worker.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, I didn’t graduate. I did publish some books, but I never got out of social work school. But Mr. Cho, whatever it was, it truly was the damp blanket on the fire, and something was wrong. He was not participating. I’m not here to tutor; I’m here to teach. And after a certain point, you have to say, I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. There are a lot of students here that would not enjoy a class with me, you know, and I understand that. And there are a lot of students, I think, who get something out of the way I try to access information for them. But it was not working, so I just—and I don’t have private conversation with students. Y ou need to know that. Then, it’s subject to interpretation, whereas if you say what you have to say in front of the class, then everybody knows what you—at least what you’ve said.
And so, when—I don’t know—about the third or fourth day in—fourth class day, which would make it second, third week, I said, ‘You know, Mr. Cho, I think this is not working,’ because every day I would have to—every—I teach the Tuesday, Thursday. It would be because he had a hat pulled over his eyes. Well, you can’t do that. And I said, ‘Mr. Cho, please take your hat off.’ You know, that would be—we’d go through that. And then, ‘Mr. Cho, please take your dark glasses,’ because he’d have on, you know. And it’s just like, you know, this has to stop, because this is a will struggle. Now, first of all, I’m not your girl for will struggles. You know, that’s just not what I do. And so, I finally said, ‘Mr. Cho, this relationship is not working. I’m not teaching you, and actually I’m not teaching the class, because I’m expending a lot of energy on you. And I don’t—this is just not what we can do here. So I would like for you to find another class that you would prefer to be in, and I will speak to’ — because it was beyond drop-add — ‘and I’ll speak to whomever, and we will—we’ll get you all settled, and that’ll be fine.’
And he said, ‘I don’t want to leave.’
And I said, ‘Mr. Cho, this is not column A and column B. What I’m trying to say, as gently as I know how to, is that you have to leave my class. That’s—you see, you have to leave my class. Now can I help you go someplace else?’
And he said, ‘I don’t have to do, and I’m not going to.’
I said, ‘No, let me try this one more time, Mr. Cho. Either you or I will not be in class next Thursday. One of us will be gone. If I have to keep you in class, then I will resign, and that will solve that. If Virginia Tech has to make a choice between you and me, I daresay I think they’ll keep me. But this is something we’ll just have to work out.”‘ And I meant it. And I said it in front of the class, because I wasn’t trying to—he had to go.
And so, I went to my department head, Lucinda Roy, and I had been dealing with the fact that there’s just something so wrong here, but that mostly it’s disrupting my class. I’ve taught students that had difficulties. I’ve taught a student with Tourette’s. I’ve taught students that are autistic. I’ve—I can handle it. I’ve taught alcoholics. I’ve taught ex-soldiers who were nervous. Whatever this was was very different, and I wasn’t going to subject myself. And so, I said that to her. “This is the way this is. Either you get him out of my class, or Thursday morning you’ll have my resignation. It’s just that simple to me. I came here with a job, and I’ll leave with one. So, I’m fine.”
And Lucinda said—well, she talked to whomever she had to, I suppose. And she said, “Well, would you mind if I tutored him?” I said, “I don’t—I really don’t. I don’t care what we—this is my bottom line: he has to go.”
And I didn’t see Mr. Cho but one other time, between—that was in, like, I suppose 2005, you know, maybe ’04. I didn’t see him but one other time between then and the shooting. I know that Mr. Cho was not looking for me. I know that was not even—because everybody knows I’m not even on campus on Monday. This is an unusual day. I know that whatever it was, he had it planned. I’m not a big fan of, you know, mental breakdown. They plan, plan, plan, whether it’s Aurora, Colorado, or whether it’s the man that shot Representative Gifford and the federal judge. They plan, plan, plan, but then all of a sudden they have this—they’re mentally incapable, you know, mentally incapable. If they can buy a gun and buy bullets, then I think they’re very well capable. I think that guns are not one of our good ideas. I read the Constitution, and I didn’t see anything that said that any fool that wants a gun should have one. What did I miss?
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened? Where were you at the time?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I was coming back from San Francisco. I had been to a principals’ meeting in San Francisco. And I’m a big fan of what I call “something.” And I had had my—I had made my presentation to the principals, and it was high school conference. And I was to have dinner with a group that evening, so that we could continue. And something said, “You need to go home,” this—I’m a poet, so whatever the universe talks to me. Something said—I mean, I’ve shared this before. It’s not—something said, “You need to go home.” And I thought, well, if I leave now, if I leave downtown San Francisco, I can be at SFO by 9:00. If I can’t get into SFO at 9:00, I can be on the 10:50 red-eye. And that’s what I was shooting for. And so, I did. And I said to the principals, you know, I said, “I’m really sorry, but I just—I just really have a strong feeling I need to go.” I was thinking maybe something was happening in San Francisco that I needed to—I was never thinking I was coming into a buzzsaw, really didn’t have a premonition, just like I need to go.
And so, I flew all night into Charlotte. And when we got in Charlotte, the winds were—and, you know, we’ve been—I sleep. I could sit right here and sleep with these lights on. It’s a gift. God has given me a great gift: I can sleep anytime. And we started bouncing into Charlotte, and I was like, “Whoa!” You know, you woke up. And so, we got in. We got into Charlotte. And at 6:15, you know, it’s—the red-eye gets in. And we should have been on the 9:00 to come up here, but the winds were too bad. And so, they announced that it wasn’t, so I put my—I fly with my—with jazz. I flew with my ears on. And so, I just was in there. We’re on the E concourse, if you know Charlotte, and went back to sleep just waiting for the announcement of what we’re going to do. And then they—the next one canceled because of the winds.
But, you know, the airport doesn’t let you have information. And if you think that’s news you’re watching, you’re really crazy. They have wiped out anything that will scare you. So we had no idea — and I say “we” — those who were coming into Roanoke had no idea what was going on, absolutely none.
And we flew in, and they finally said, “We think we can make it.” And so, we’re used to it here in Roanoke that you make the run for it, because we’re in the valley, so if there’s anything that’s around, it’s a problem. And they said, you know, “We’re going to go now.” And that meant if you weren’t there, they loaded that plane, and we were gone. And I was ready, you know. And so, we flew in, because you come in on crosswinds. And we did get down.
And, you know, the kids live on their phones, on their iPhones or whatever it is. And a girl said, “Oh, my god!” I was sitting in like 13, I think. I think I was sitting in 13. So, she was about in 11. And she said was like, “Oh, my god!” She said, “There’s been a shooting at Tech. Twelve people.” Then she said, “No, 21 people.” And the whole plane, you know, is going like, “What?” You know, and we all—everybody said, “Oh, no. You must be mistaken. But, you know, it’s bad enough, but it’s probably one or two that you’re looking at.”
And I weigh about 140 pounds. And as I came out of the plane, the winds were so strong that one of the guys came and got me and just kind of hugged me. And, you know, it wouldn’t have blown me away, but it was going to be pretty hard. And he brought me in, and you walk upstairs. We walked upstairs. And, of course, now we’ve got real news going, because it’s coming in real time. And at that point, it was 21, and then it went to 25. And normally, I’d take something called the Smart Way Bus, which is—at that point it was a dollar to take the bus from the airport to come to Tech. And I thought, OK, I’ll do that, and then I’ll get a ride home, because I didn’t have my car. And when we saw that it was 25 and rising, I ran down to Hertz and got one of the last cars, because it was a piece of—I want to call—name it as a piece of junk that I was ashamed to be seen in.
And I was driving home, trying to find news. And I don’t know what you’ve done in your—I was—I don’t know what the term is. I covered the Biafran war. I don’t know if I was privileged or crazy or what, but I—that’s the only war zone I’ve been in. And it’s a very strange feeling when you’re in a war zone, and you start with your radio and you can’t get anything. And I turned the radio on. It was a regular car. It was the—you know, not Sirius or something, just regular AM radio. And so, I’m turning, and I thought I’d get NPR, because VT is on, and couldn’t get that. I thought, whoa, that’s not good, because it felt like a coup. And I kept turning and turning. And so I went to Radford, because Radford has a really nice station. I thought Radford will give me some information, because now we’re—I’m alone in a car trying to figure out what’s going on. And we couldn’t get Radford. I finally was able to get a station, quite a distance here. It’s called Rock of Virginia, and it’s a rock station. It’s Rock of Virginia. And he had someone in Norris. And the person he had on the cellphone in Norris was relaying to him.
AMY GOODMAN: Norris is?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Is where the shootings occurred. And so, at that point, there were no shootings. Of course, we now know the shootings were over, but we didn’t know it then. So we’re getting that report from Norris. And that’s all of the information. So you felt like you were in the third world, that there had been a coup.
And about that time, WDBJ just shot past me. I mean, I was probably doing—I speed; that’s why I got the ticket the other day. I have a pretty heavy foot. And they shot past. They must have been doing 120 miles an hour. They just went shyooooh! And I thought, that was WDBJ. So, WDBJ shot past me.
AMY GOODMAN: This is the radio—TV.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: WDBJ is the hometown station, channel 10. And you see them around, this automobile, you know, but they had to be doing 120. So I did know this is serious.
I don’t live in Blacksburg; I live in Christiansburg. So when you come up the expressway, you—Christiansburg is first, and then you go on. And they had blocked Blacksburg off; you could not get into Blacksburg. And that was like, “Oh.” So I couldn’t come on—you couldn’t get into Blacksburg. And it was like, “Oh, my god.”
And my phone—I have three lines that come into my house, plus my mobile. I’ve never understood how people got my mobile. But all of a sudden—well, I went home, because there was nothing else to do. I turned on the television, and all of my lines were lit up. Just all of them was like all—a friend of mine from Cincinnati called, and he said, “Are you all right?” And I said, “I am all right, and I think I know who did this,” because I couldn’t think of anybody but Mr. Cho. And somebody else said—I was talking later in the afternoon, and somebody said, “Well, you know, you shouldn’t say things like that.” I said, “Maybe I shouldn’t, but I would bet.” And I was right. It was Mr. Cho.
AMY GOODMAN: And it was you who gave this rousing statement at the rally.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, I got a call from the president’s secretary—that’s how I got to know here, actually; I love her so much—Sandy Smith. And she called. She said, “Well, we need you to” — they had — I mean, these are not things I knew. I still can’t get into Blacksburg. She said, “We’re going to have convocation tomorrow, and we want you to wrap up convocation.” And there’s nothing to say but yes.
But it’s a sad time. It’s still a sad time. And I wasn’t sure. And I knew that I was upset, because I lost friends. And I thought, well, I’m pretty good on my feet. But I thought, I don’t want to take a chance, because it’s going to be sad. And so, I just sat down at my computer, and I thought, we need a definition. We are Virginia Tech. We are [inaudible]. And I just got lucky. You know, it worked. I was never sure, but I just didn’t have any time to work on it. It was one of those things, like, OK, I can’t fix it. You know, you have to go with it. So, I think it did its job, so I’m very—I’m glad that it did. It’s still sad.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to be done about gun violence, about violence?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I think we need—I think guns are a bad idea. And I think guns and automobiles are probably the two things we need to eliminate, that—simply because—excuse me, I’m sorry about this—they’ve outlived their usefulness. And I could see the point of guns when you were, you know, shooting, you know, Peter Rabbit and bringing him home and eating him, and, you know—or you were shooting, you know, Bambi, because your family is hungry. But there’s no sport to hunting. What makes that a sport? Tennis is a sport. The person on the other side has the ability to hit the ball back. Even football, which is violent, but I like football, is a sport—11 guys, 11 guys. You hope they don’t kill each other. That’s a sport. I’m not even sure golf is a sport, because you don’t really play anybody. But the golfers get mad when I say that. But I know hunting is not a sport.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re flying off to Colorado after this, and this—professors at the University of Colorado Boulder, a number of them are very scared because these students are now allowed to carry concealed weapons onto campus. What do you say to them?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I said to my students, because Virginia had the same thing—I said, ‘Now here’s going to be our problem.’ I said it when this happened, because that’s when it came up that we’re going to—I said, ‘This is what we’re going to do if Virginia passes a law that students can carry guns. We’re going to drop our clothes outside the door, and we’re going to come in in underwear that is form-fitting. I will, and you will. And we will have class as close to naked as we can, because I’m not going to try to teach somebody that I don’t know what’s in his pocket. It’s that simple. And why should he—why should you all have to be bothered with me not knowing if I’m carrying, you know, a grenade? So we’re all going to drop our clothes, and we’ll come in, and we’ll all know that we’re naked and vulnerable, and it’ll be fine.’ I meant it.
That would frighten me. Then what are you supposed to say? Somebody doesn’t like your interpretation of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame; they pull out their gun and shoot you? You remember—you’re New Yorkers. Are you New Yorkers? Do you remember, because I was living in New York then, when we had the gas wars? And people jumped—you know, every now and then, somebody would jump in front—in line in front of somebody. We had people to shoot people, to kill—no, not shoot, to kill people. We’ve had people in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles—these are what I know of—to shoot people on park—over parking spots. What kind of sense do you let everybody have a gun? And what kind of stupidity—I mean, I get so tired. I’m not against the Old Testament, but I get so tired of the Old Testament, you know, well, ‘an eye for an eye.’ And as somebody else said much better than I, that leaves everybody blind. Guns are an idea whose time has passed. It’s that simple. Cars and guns are two things you don’t need.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any message for President Obama, for Mitt Romney?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Neither one of them is standing up for anything, and I think that that’s disgusting. You running for president, then tell me what you’re going to do about it, because if you’re not concerned about gun violence, what in the world are you concerned about?
AMY GOODMAN: Nikki Giovanni, Virginia Tech University distinguished professor, as we sat in her office just a few hours ago.” Nikki Giovanni, “Guns Are an Idea Whose Time Has Passed;” interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! 2012