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A New York organization paid poor widows of Tuskegee experiment $100 to further study their dead husbands’ bodies

A Black man has blood drawn by a doctor in Tuskegee, Alabama in the Tuskegee syphilis study. Image: The National Archives

The Tuskegee Experiment was a 40-year research project that studied the effects of the disease syphilis when left untreated. Black rural farm workers were the subjects of the U.S. government-sponsored study and were kept in the dark as they were being left to suffer. A whistleblower revealed the unethical and morally unjust aims of the study after he went to the press in 1972.

For four decades, the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) studied the effects of the untreated disease in 600 Black men from Macon County, Ala. Starting in 1932, 399 of the 600 sharecroppers to be studied were already afflicted with the venereal disease. The farmers were led to believe that they were being treated for “bad blood,” a term used to describe a number of unknown ailments. The Tuskegee Institute, also in Alabama, was the site where the study took place.

The disease spread to the families of the men in a devastating fashion. By the end of the experiments, 28 men died from the disease, another 100 died from complications related to the disease, 40 of the wives contracted syphilis, and 19 children were born with congenital syphilis.

After several years, a foundation in New York has apologized for its role in the infamous experiment. The Milbank Memorial Fund said its role was to pay for the funeral expenses of the deceased men, up to $100, if their widows agreed to an autopsy allowing doctors to further study the bodies of their dead husbands, the Associated Press reported.

The fund’s apology came with a donation to Voices of our Fathers Legacy Foundation, a descendants’ group. The Milbank Memorial Fund said it became part of the study in 1935 after the U.S. surgeon general at the time, Hugh Cumming, asked it to. Milbank gave a total of $20,150 for about 234 autopsies, according to a study by historian Susan M Reverby.

Christopher F. Koller, president of the Fund, said there is no justification for what happened. “The upshot of this was real harm,” he told the Associated Press. 

In 1972 when Peter Buxtun, a White PHS venereal disease researcher, got the insidious nature of the study out to the public by way of the Washington Star, Sen. Edward Kennedy called several Congressional hearings over the matter, which Buxtun and other researchers testified. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a class-action lawsuit, which was later settled for $9 million. The settlement also included free treatment to the surviving study patients and their families.

In 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act, which helped develop guidelines for human medical research and was sparked by the findings at Tuskegee. On May 16, 1997, then-President Bill Clinton apologized to the study participants and their families, calling the act “racist.”


Public Housing Neglect Creates Lethal Trap

“You have these areas that are not clean and, on top of that, you have folks that don’t have access to health care because of racism and capitalism,” said Philip McHarris, a Yale University doctoral student active in public housing. McHarris wrote an article for Essencetitled, “Public Housing Residents May Be Some Of The Hardest Hit by the COVID-19 Outbreak.”


source:Public Housing Neglect Creates Lethal Trap

In 1918 and 2020, Race Colors Amerika’s Response to Epidemics

In 1918 and 2020, Race Colors America’s Response to Epidemics
In 1918 and 2020, Race Colors America’s Response to Epidemics

A century ago, In cities across the nation, black people struck by the flu were often left to fend for themselves.

“In Baltimore, white sanitation department employees refused to dig graves for black flu victims.”

In American epidemics, race is a preexisting condition.

Whether it’s the influenza pandemic of 1918 or COVID-19 over a century later, race and ethnicity have been, and continue to be, enormous factors in determining whether people will receive medical attention when they become ill, and the sort of attention they will receive.

In “The 1919 Influenza Blues,” Essie Jenkins documented the toll the flu took on the country, noting that viruses don’t discriminate when it comes to their victims. She sang:

“People died everywhere
death went creepin’ through the air
and the groans of the rich
sure were sad

But it was God’s own mighty plan
He’s judging this old land
North and South, East and West
can be seen

He killed rich and poor
and he’s going to
kill some more …”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, the 1918 flu infected 500 million people worldwide and resulted in 50 million deaths around the globe, 675,000 of which were American. But while viruses don’t discriminate, people do. In cities across the nation, black people struck by the flu were often left to fend for themselves. They received substandard care in segregated hospitals, where they could be relegated to close quarters in basements, or they were only allowed admittance to black-only hospitals. Even in death, black bodies were neglected by white public infrastructure. In Baltimore that year, white sanitation department employees refused to dig graves for black flu victims after the city’s only black cemetery, Mount Auburn, could not accommodate any more graves.

“The mayor then had to appeal to the War Department, which is now called the Defense Department,” said Marian Moser Jones, a social historian and ethicist of public health at the University of Maryland. “The War Department sent 342 black soldiers, black American soldiers to do the task, which is very much in keeping with the way black soldiers were treated by the Army in the war. They were detailed to the worst duties, the most grueling labor details were the ones who were most often sent out to clean out the trenches after a battle and even exhume and rebury dead soldiers’ remains.

“It’s sort of a continuity from the war. The resources that were there, that were limited, the resources to address African American health and even death were overwhelmed in cities like Baltimore.”

“While viruses don’t discriminate, people do.”

The flu epidemic is inextricably linked to World War I. The first cases in the U.S. were identified in soldiers living in close quarters in Army barracks before heading to Europe to join the war, which the United States entered in April 1917. Even the name that we use to identify the disease, the “Spanish flu,” is inaccurate, according to historian Kenneth C. Davis, author of More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War.

“Fear driven by propaganda, censorship and lies were so much a powerful part of the spread of the Spanish flu. People were misled, often deliberately, by officials,” Davis said. “Newspapers were censored. The reason it is the Spanish flu is because of censorship. [During the war] Spain was a neutral country. It didn’t censor its news reports as rigorously as some of the warring countries did, so the first report of a massive epidemic comes out of Madrid in the spring of 1918 and that’s the reason it was reported by Reuters in London that Madrid was under a mass epidemic. That’s the reason it was called the Spanish flu. It certainly didn’t originate there.”

Today, in the age of COVID-19, it’s worth examining the social dynamics of 1918 and how their legacy continues to shape modern public health.

“A lot of my historian friends have a cottage industry now talking about the lessons learned. I’m a bit more cautious,” said Vanessa Northington Gamble, a medical doctor and professor of medical humanities and American studies at George Washington University. “Who you are — and I mean in terms of your race, your gender, where you live — will have a major role in how you experience COVID-19. It also will play a major role in the services that you get. … If there’s anything we can learn from the 1918 influenza epidemic, is that we really have to look at issues around race and class and racial and social inequities.”

Race and Patient Care

When the flu epidemic of 1918 came to Chicago, black people were blamed, and that blame came directly from John Dill Robertson, the city’s commissioner of public health. It wasn’t just white medical officials who engaged in this sort of blame. Robertson had a tremendous influence on the way the Chicago Tribune covered migration, and there, the prejudice was plain. Even before the pandemic reached Chicago, the Tribune’s coverage of migration was alarmist.

A March 5, 1917, headline from the Chicago Daily Tribune, as it was known at the time, blared, Rush of Negroes to City Starts Health Inquiry.

The flu simply heightened those existing prejudices.

“Half a Million Darkies from Dixie Swarm to the North to Better Themselves,” the paper proclaimed July 8, 1918. In the corresponding article, reporter Henry M. Hyde laid out a series of pathologies: Black people moving to Chicago from the South, he wrote, “are compelled to live crowded in dark and insanitary rooms; they are surrounded by constant temptations in the way of wide-open saloons and other worse resorts.”

The reason for such ills wasn’t any innate inferiority that could be attributed to blackness. In an academic paper about Jim Crow and public health, Betsy Schroeder Schlabach, a professor of history and African American studies at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, explained how discriminatory housing policies created ghettos. Black people were relegated to limited parts of the city. Housing was overcrowded, and white landowners became slumlords, charging rents that were 15% to 25% higher for black tenants, and then refused to make needed repairs when asked.

“When the flu epidemic of 1918 came to Chicago, black people were blamed.”

“The way that the Tribune, especially, talks about disease is the same way they talk about the Great Migration: swarms of migrants coming to the city and bringing with them all sorts of disease,” Schroeder Schlabach said. “There’s similar ways that today we talk about the border or the way definitely [President Donald] Trump talks about immigration crisis and disease.”

Interestingly, the Nov. 2, 1918, edition of the Cleveland Advocate bore the headline: Flu Shuns Us, Says Health Doctor, referring to black people. The idea that black people were not getting the flu, or dying from it the way white people were, was a widely held belief at the time, Gamble said. Getting a clear picture of what black people experienced nationally during the flu pandemic is difficult. Gamble thinks that segregated black neighborhoods may have functioned as a makeshift quarantine. But it’s also likely that instances of black illness were underreported.

“The only year in the 20th century when black people in the USA had lower influenza mortality than white people was 1918,” researchers Helene Økland and Svenn-Erik Mamelund wrote in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. “One hypothesis is that black people, who mainly lived in the South and under miserable living and working conditions, cramped conditions, white racism and violence, and poor medical care, were less susceptible to the 1918 influenza pandemic autumn wave due to higher exposure to the less virulent spring and summer waves. However, this hypothesis, the mechanisms for the crossover in the role of race in 1918 pandemic mortality, and the subsequent return to the ‘normal’ pattern of higher black than white mortality in 1919, have received little attention in the literature, nor has this [or other] hypothesis been theoretically or empirically substantiated.”

“The idea that black people were not getting the flu, or dying from it the way white people were, was a widely held belief at the time,”

Gamble was also circumspect about fully trusting black infection statistics. “I do not say it’s definitive. There’s some indications [that black people were less affected],” she said. “And black physicians believed it too. But even if the incidence was lower, the number of black people who got influenza in 1918 overwhelmed the health care and social services institutions that were available to black people. So black hospitals were overwhelmed. Black nurses were overwhelmed. Things such as the National Urban League, they had volunteers to go into homes to try and take care of people. They were overwhelmed, and especially because the black community, for the most part, was left on its own.”

Shroeder Schlabach found that Robertson’s public health edicts functioned as another layer of Jim Crow laws, limiting the movement of black Americans, and effectively quarantining them to ghettos on the city’s South Side. Public health officials became a de facto police force. Beginning in 1917, Robertson’s health department passed 75 regulations, regulating where people could drink water to where children could play. It also implemented mandatory reporting of flu cases.

“If you caught influenza, you were obligated to self-quarantine and then report that you had caught it to the Department of Public Health, and then they would come to your house and placard your house, like put a big red sign up on your house,” Schroeder Schlabach said. “That served to stigmatize disease. The Public Health Department sent visiting nurses on expeditions to find people who were sick. They would visit homes, and that resulted in about 40,000 visits [across the city] during the pandemic where nurses and public health officials could come into your house without your permission and ask if you were infected.

“What that does, especially for black households during the pandemic, is it takes away the sanctity of the home, giving the Public Health Department, who also had the power of the police, entering into your home. For the black family in early 20th-century Chicago, that’s a direct threat to their safety. These ordinances about mandated reporting of disease were the ones that functioned similarly to Jim Crow laws that regulated all facets of black life.”

“Black hospitals were overwhelmed. Black nurses were overwhelmed.”

Black people who were wealthy enough could visit a doctor in his office. Dr. Roscoe Giles, for example, placed ads in The Chicago Defender announcing his services. But for those who were less fortunate, Provident Hospital, the nation’s first black-owned and -operated hospital, was one of the few places where black people could be seen and treated. While black medical schools, such as Howard University Medical School, which grew out of the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, were instrumental in turning out black physicians, Provident was crucial in training black nurses.

The Defender also ran columns by Dr. Wilberforce A. Williams advising black readers how to avoid the flu.

“He combines really practical advice about washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough, but also, ‘If you want to be a good black citizen, donate to these things,’ or, ‘Live hygienically, and that means you can be a good person,’ ” Schroeder Schlabach said. “I found that to be a really interesting mix in his articles. In one article, he chastises a young mother who didn’t want to report that her child had contracted the disease because she feared social isolation. He just rakes her over the coals like, ‘This is foolish. You can’t put your pride before the well-being of the community.’ ”

Even as they were relegated to inadequate medical facilities, with black doctors and nurses facing shabby treatment and disrespect, black people still found ways to make the best of horrible situations.

“Black Chicagoans responded with innovation and tremendous grit and determination,” Schroeder Schlabach said. “At one point, the Public Health Department mandated that people needed to wear a mask. And what a group of black Chicago ladies do is that they start innovating with the masks and making them out of delicate lace and exquisite jewels. So even in the face of the pandemic, they were looking fabulous in these diamond-studded flu veils. Doctors and nurses just refused to accept any form of segregation. They’re more like icons. I see that as remarkable determination.”

Race, Professionalism and Modern Inequality

The effects of America’s doctrine of separate and unequal life permeated everything during the 1918 flu epidemic. It not only shaped who received treatment and where, but also which people were deemed qualified to provide medical care.

In the midst of the first World War and the flu epidemic, there was a hope that black people could prove themselves as full Americans by serving their country, both in the medical field and in the military. The occupations, they hoped, would function as a “citizenship machine.”

“It was W.E.B. Du Bois who really motivated African Americans to enlist and join the Army,” Davis said. “He thought this would really prove how they were loyal Americans who could make a great contribution to the war effort and to fighting. And some of the first American troops to go to France were African American troops, including the very famous group known as the Harlem Hellfighters.”

Yet white institutions like the American Red Cross (ARC) were loath to accept black nurses into their ranks to help with the war effort until the situation was so dire that they had no choice.

“Many African American women were rebuffed by ARC chapters when they sought to participate, and had to create their own alternatives for wartime voluntarism,” Moser Jones wrote in a case study of the American Red Cross’s response to the flu pandemic. “Similarly, black women seeking to enroll as ARC nurses met with frustration. During the war, the ARC served as the official recruiter of nurses for the U.S. Armed Forces. The nursing division, which required every ARC nurse to have completed three years of training in an accredited nursing school, enrolled 24,000 trained nurses. Trained black nurses, however, were rejected for service abroad, and were only enrolled as reserve members of the home defense program.”

“They were finally allowed to come in and treat white soldiers, but they were still of course living in segregated facilities,” Davis said. “So, even the angels of mercy taking care of these dying soldiers still had to confront the racism of the day.”

“White institutions like the American Red Cross (ARC) were loath to accept black nurses into their ranks.”

A job listing in the December 1918 Monthly Bulletin of the Department of Public Health and Charities of the City of Philadelphia was openly discriminatory:

There are four vacancies for assistant physicians at the Philadelphia Hospital for the Insane. Thirty-fourth and Pine Streets, two at a salary of $900 per annum and two at $720 per annum, including board, lodging, and laundry. Applicants must be white, twenty-one years of age, residents of Philadelphia, and licensed to practice in the State of Pennsylvania. These positions are open to both sexes. Successful candidates must reside at the hospital.

The Nov. 2, 1918, edition of The Chicago Defender reported that a black nurse named Olive Walker in Ohio was “denied the privilege of helping the Red Cross nurse committee to down the influenza epidemic at Hiram College. The dean of the college refused to allow her to serve when he became aware of her racial identity.” Lincoln Hospital in New York would hire black nurses, but not black physicians, Gamble said. And even the famous Dr. Giles of The Chicago Defender was asked to leave a new job at a tuberculosis sanitarium after six hours on the job. White patients didn’t want him to treat them.

Public health historians say that prejudice in American health care is once again at the forefront with the emergence of COVID-19. This time, Asians are the target of racialized scapegoating, from the Trump administration labeling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” to Asian Americans being blamed for the pandemic’s presence in America.

“I called my mother, who works at a hospital in Northern California,” wrote Frank Shyong, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. “I asked her to stay home, but her boss told her if she didn’t show up, she would lose her job. At work, patients sometimes refuse to be seen by her, because suddenly an Asian woman in a face mask is a threat.”

“Lincoln Hospital in New York would hire black nurses, but not black physicians.”

In November 1918, the Rev. Francis J. Grimke preached a sermon about the flu epidemic and what lessons could be gleaned from it. His words, delivered to the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, still hold tremendous relevance:

Jesus said, “The first and great commandment is, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.’ And the second is like unto it, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’ Upon these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Race prejudice, colorphobia, runs directly counter to both of these great commandments. And, therefore, never mind what the white man may think of it, we see clearly what God thinks of it, and it is the estimate that He puts upon it that is to determine its character. Let us hope, therefore, not only for the sake of people of color, but also for the sake of the white people themselves that the great lesson as to the folly of race prejudice — of assuming that a white skin entitles one to better treatment than a dark skin, which this epidemic has so strikingly taught, may not be lost upon them. It is a lesson which for their own sake it is well for them to learn. It will be better for them here, and it will be better for them hereafter, if they learn it, and learn it well. And, of course, it will be better for us as a race in this country. It will remove out of the way some very serious obstacles to our progress, and will relieve us of many of the disagreeable things that we are at present forced to endure, though not without protest.

COVID-19 has not only brought interpersonal racism to the fore, but heightened the degree to which structural racism affects treatment and care.

Public defender Scott Hechinger and defense attorney Rebecca Kavanagh have pleaded with officials to release inmates as COVID-19 has spread through the close quarters of Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. Similar situations exist in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities, where detainees are facing shortages of soap. Both places disproportionately house black and brown people.

“My worry is that there will be two standards of care, that incarcerated patients with one set of symptoms may be denied access to hospitals, even though in the community people with the same sets of symptoms do go to the hospital,” Dr. Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for New York jails, told The Guardian. “And then that will lead to different rates of deaths and certainly to different rates of preventable deaths among people who are behind bars.”

“Detainees are facing shortages of soap.”

As with the 1918 flu, responses, or lack thereof, to COVID-19 have become tied up with patriotism and xenophobia in ways that exacerbate the spread of disease. In the midst of the 1918 pandemic, Philadelphia hosted a massive parade to sell war bonds to pay for the American war effort.

“There was enormous pressure,” Davis said. “If you didn’t buy the war bonds, you weren’t doing your part. You were a slacker. So 200,000 people go out, even though the health department knows that the virus is in and around Philadelphia, on the Navy bases, and they were going to have this parade and soldiers and sailors were going to be marching in the parade. Two days after that parade, every hospital bed in Philadelphia was filled and it was a complete disaster and it was a disaster because the authorities ignored the advice not to cancel this parade.”

In a live chat with constituents on Facebook, Tate Reeves, the governor of Mississippi, explained his opposition to giving official orders to the public to implement COVID-19 quarantines. “Eric Worth [a constituent] says ‘China did a lockdown and it was good for them. Why can’t Mississippi?’ Well, Eric, I’m going to tell you that Mississippi is never going to be China,” Reeves said. He has since given a shelter-in-place order to one county in the eastern part of the state, but insisted that a statewide shelter-in-place order was “not sustainable.”

In 1918, “things like the war effort and paying for the war and patriotism and support for the war, really outdid the concern for public health,” Davis said. “They were so interested to keep the troops going to Europe that they kept filling these ships up with sick men and these ships became what were called floating coffins. So, that’s a really important lesson as well. Misplaced priorities. When you place things like the economy over the public health, you do so at grave peril to many, many people.”



Prisoners avoid admitting they are sick because they don’t want to be put in solitary, so nurses go cell to cell to take their temperatures.

Juan Moreno Haines is an award-winning incarcerated journalist and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. This article was made possible by a grant from the Solitary Confinement Reporting Project, which is managed by Solitary Watch with funding from the Vital Projects Fund.

Flu epidemics, which have been common at San Quentin State Prison, can turn someone’s life upside down. Take for example the story of 52-year-old Michael D. Adams.

It was the 2019 flu season. Adams sat on his bunk in a prison housing unit. More than 700 men were held there, double-bunked in windowless cells stacked five tiers high, each smaller than the average bathroom.

His head throbbed and his body ached. Dryness scratched at his throat. A suffocating fever burned through him. But he was unwilling to seek medical help.

“Inmate Adams, cell 282, report to the front desk,” a loudspeaker blared in San Quentin’s North Block.

Adams’s discomfort turned to fear as he got off his bunk and went to a stainless steel sink attached to the cell’s back wall. He splashed water on his face. Then he spat into the cell’s shiny toilet.

“Are you all right?” his cellmate asked.

“I feel like shit,” Adams replied. Bloodshot eyes stared back at him in a handheld plastic mirror. The call to the front desk was for a scheduled eye examination. Every medical examination includes a routine temperature check. If he had a fever, there could be consequences.

Adams reluctantly got dressed. He grabbed his prison ID out of his locker. A correctional officer showed up at his cell to escort him. As predicted, when he got to medical, a nurse took his temperature. It read 101.3.

During flu season, incarcerated people at San Quentin know high fevers mean you are going to the hold. So Adams thought about raising hell, but didn’t want to make a scene.

The nurse alerted the public health supervisor. Adams was told he would be screened for the flu and was taken to the triage section of the medical department. There, a nurse took a swab from the inside of his mouth. He overheard a doctor say, “If he’s sick, he needs to be in Carson.” Prisoners in Carson are held in solitary confinement and it is known as The Hole.

“This is only temporary,” the physician told Adams.

A sergeant then read Adams a lock-up order. “Because of your sickness, you have been deemed a threat to the safety and security of this institution.” The sergeant told him that this language was the “only way” the prison could move him to Carson to increase his security to maximum.

Punished for getting sick

Like Adams, prisoners at San Quentin are regularly punished for being sick.

In early February last yearthe 167-year-old Northern California prison was on the verge of an influenza outbreak. Prison officials feared an epidemic because, two years earlier, an older prisoner had contracted the flu and died.

West Block was under a quarantine that kept prisoners confined to their cells, with the exception of walking to the chow hall for their meals and to the showers once every three days.

In North Block, correctional officers escorted nurses from cell to cell to take prisoners’ temperatures. If a prisoner’s temperature was 100 degrees or higher, he was sent to medical isolation.

San Quentin’s medical isolation policy requires that patients be placed in rooms with solid doors that restrict outward-flowing air.

North and West Blocks have cells with bars, and air flows freely in and out. Since Carson has cells with perforated steel doors, prison officials use it for medical isolation. Carson, however, was designed to administratively segregate prisoners from the general population pending disciplinary action, for a prisoner’s safety, or for institutional security. It is therefore staffed with correctional officers, not nurses as in a hospital.

The National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) defines medical isolation as housing patients in separate rooms with a separate toilet, hand-washing facility, soap, single-use towels, and appropriate accommodations for showering.

The standard requires that the facility have a comprehensive program that includes surveillance, prevention, and control of communicable diseases. Prisoners with contagious diseases are to be identified, and if indicated, medically isolated in a timely fashion. Infected patients are to receive medically indicated care.

NCCHC’s Infectious Disease Prevention and Control compliance indicators for respiratory isolation say that patients are to be housed in functional negative-pressure rooms that are inspected monthly to verify that the unit is clean and sanitary.

‘Anything to stay out of The Hole’

In 2010, San Quentin’s Central Health Care Service Building was completed, costing $136 million. The facility has a designed capacity of 45 medical beds.

A 2017 Pew Charitable Trusts report showed that from 2014-15, California racked up the highest average healthcare cost per prisoner in the nation at $19,796 for each of the approximately 120,000 prisoners housed in the state’s 35 prisons. The nationwide median average healthcare cost per prisoner was $5,720.

Despite the high cost, San Quentin’s new facility included only 10 rooms dedicated to prisoner patients, former Chief Medical Officer Dr. Elena Tootell told San Quentin News in 2017. “Inmate patients placed in medical beds are those who are the most vulnerable, the ones who could die from their illnesses. This is where my sickest patients are. The remaining beds are for psychiatric patients,” Tootell said.

San Quentin’s medical isolation policy is not new.

In 2017, Angelo Ramsey of North Block informed his work supervisor that he wasn’t feeling well and a nurse came to his cell to take his temperature. It read 101.3. Three other prisoners were taken along with him to Carson for having high temperatures, he said.

Another prisoner, Edward Dewayne Brooks, said he now takes precautions to avoid a repeat of a 2017 experience that landed him in Carson.

“When it’s flu season, I say to myself, ‘Here comes a lockdown,’” Brooks said in a June 2019 interview.

He added that if he feels like he might have a fever and a nurse wants to take his temperature, he fills his mouth with cold water and holds it, hoping the fever won’t register. “Anything to stay out of The Hole,” he said.

In West Block, Reggie Wimberly, then 63 years old, was sent to Carson in February 2019 after a nurse took his temperature. It registered in the triple digits. The following morning, he said, “they stripped me out, handcuffed me and took me straight to The Hole.”

Unsanitary conditions

Adams said his treatment on the way to Carson was harsh and demeaning.

“I felt humiliated walking past everyone going to The Hole,” Adams said. He said he was handcuffed tightly from behind while having to carry his property. As he passed by, prisoners asked him what was happening. He told them he had a high temperature.

Once at Carson, a correctional officer put Adams in a holding cage and gave him linen that his cellmate had packed for him. Feeling weak, he balled up his coat and rested on top of it on the floor in the fetal position.

“I felt like I was in a new prison, tried and convicted of being sick,” Adams said.

The cell he was assigned, he said, was filthy and littered with dirty clothes. Old medication lay strewn about. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says it cleans out medical isolation cells between each use.

“I wondered if I would be contaminated, since it was supposed to be an isolation cell,” Adams said. He was exhausted. He took the old linen off the bunk, put it by the door, climbed in the bunk, and fell asleep.

The next day Adams got tooth powder, soap, and toilet paper, but he didn’t get to shower until the third day. He wanted to write home and let his family know what was happening, he said, but he wasn’t given writing material.

Other prisoners who were isolated have reported similar conditions.

Brooks said that the cell assigned to him in 2017 had snot blown on the walls and was extremely grimy and dustyHe said he wiped down the bed space with his socks and a bit of soap.

“I stayed up all night trying to figure out how to clean the cell,” Brooks said. “I’m sitting in The Hole, totally isolated. The only time I saw anyone was when an officer escorted someone to a hearing. I felt like I was in The Hole for nothing. I felt humiliated.”

And, maddeningly, he couldn’t get a consistent answer about why he was there.

“When I asked an officer, ‘Why am I being treated like this?’ he said I am here because of medical,” Brooks said. “But when I asked someone from medical the same question, they told me that they didn’t have any control on how The Hole is run.”

For Wimberly, the problem was not a dirty cell, but a very bright light that stayed on all night.

“The only thing I could do is tape a paper bag in front of it,” Wimberly said. “It was very hard to sleep and get comfortable.”

Dangerous indifference

Adams’s temperature dropped to normal after his first day in medical isolation, and he wondered how long he would have to stay in Carson. He was feeling stronger and getting restless.

Health officials say flu vaccinations may not prevent someone from contracting the flu, but being vaccinated could shorten the life of the virus in the body. Adams had taken the flu vaccination the past three years.

“I’m in The Hole and nobody is telling me what’s happening to me,” Adams said. “I determined that I would have to make a little noise to get something going on. So I asked the CO on the tier if I was slated to go.”

When the correctional officer came back with confusing information regarding his security status, Adams yelled that he wanted to talk to a sergeant.

Less than an hour later, a nurse who Adams knows came to his cell and asked him why he’s still in Carson.

“I told her that I haven’t had a temperature in four days, but I’m still here,” Adams said. Medical had cleared him to re-enter the main prison population the day before.

Adams recalled feeling disregarded, discounted, and unimportant. They didn’t care that he was well enough to leave, he thought, and he doubted they would care if he’d gotten worse.

“If I were dying at that moment, I’d die because they don’t care,” he said.

Later that day, he was released from Carson.

“It’s scary to be a man of a certain age after your health is compromised and be in a place that doesn’t seem to care if you’re dying,” Adams said. “I was pretty upset about that. It highlighted the warehousing effect of prison and the poor protocols that are in place in the event of a real health care crisis.”

In Wimberly’s view, sending people to Carson for medical isolation doesn’t make sense.

“I didn’t get a write-up or anything,” Wimberly said. “They kidnapped me and took me to The Hole. I had already lost my job at the canteen due to back injury. Now they said that I can’t get it back because being taken to The Hole is a disciplinary problem.”

According to the American Journal of Psychiatry,  several U.S. and European studies on solitary confinement have found that people can suffer lasting psychiatric injuries even after short periods of isolation.

Ramsey’s cellmate, Gary T. Harrell, witnessed the profound effect that being sent to Carson had on his sick friend.

“The people the administration sends to Carson are treated like criminals, like they committed another crime,” Harrell said. “They’re stripped of everything. So why would you want to say you’re sick?”

On July 6, as this story was being produced, San Quentin administrators put North Block under medical isolation “due to multiple cases of respiratory illnesses and two confirmed cases of pneumonia,” according to a Program Status Report released at San Quentin. The state Department of Corrections later said it could not confirm there were any cases of pneumonia.

Juan Moreno Haines was alone in cell 363 in the North Block.

Correctional officers escorted nurses cell-to-cell taking prisoners’ temperatures. A nurse took Haines’s temperature, and it read 99.1. When they returned the next day, he felt a fever coming. He refused to let the nurse take his temperature. He drank plenty of water, took 200 milligrams of ibuprofen once every four hours, took one 24-hour 10-milligram tablet of antihistamine, and rested. The sickness quelled after two days. He takes the flu vaccination shot every time it’s given.

The powerful example of the Wet’suwet’en resistance

It took longer than it should have, but Canadians are finally paying attention to the struggle at Wet’suwet’en. The hereditary chiefs and supporters first built cabins on their traditional territory in 2010 to try to stop a pipeline from being built across their land but their campaign has grown thanks to effective solidarity actions.

In an era where despair and cynicism about the fate of the planet is widespread, the campaign at Wet’suwet’en has been an important example of what it takes to resist corporate projects that will further pollute the land and air.

The camps at Wet’suwet’en are trying to stop Coastal GasLink from bsolidarityuilding a pipeline through their traditional territory. The pipeline will carry liquefied natural gas (LNG) to a port at Kitimat where it can be shipped overseas, making a few people extremely rich.

In solidarity with their camps, actions and blockades have been set up all over Canada. Regular protests, including in Vancouver and Victoria, have stopped traffic, disrupted ferry service and even pushed the Throne Speech back, as politicians were physically blocked from entering the Legislature.

In Halifax, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was blocked from entering city hall to meet with mayor Mike Savage.

People have occupied banks and have shut down highways. But the highest profile actions right now are happening along rails: supporters have occupied railway tracks in Toronto, at Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory on the Toronto-Montreal and Toronto-Ottawa rail corridors, and on the Candiac commuter rail line just outside of Montreal.

These actions are non-violent civil disobedience at their finest: they have caused economic disruption and, importantly, have forced Canadians to pay attention to the fight against Coastal GasLink.

The symbolism of choosing to shut down rail is important. Canada’s railway is entwined with our history of colonialism. Canada’s first major political scandal saw Prime Minister John A. MacDonald forced to resign for having accepted political donations in exchange for the contract that would be the railway.

The railway was the critical link that allowed Canada to flood the west with White settlers while also sending state troops to forcibly confine Indigenous nations to reserves. The railway played a key role in genocide.

And, the CPR was built using effectively slave labour from Chinese workers, as many as 4000 who died as a result extreme and dangerous working conditions.

In an era where despair and cynicism about the fate of the planet is widespread, the campaign at Wet’suwet’en has been an important example of what it takes to resist corporate projects that will further pollute the land and air.

When Indigenous people block rail lines, they’re targeting the veins of colonial Canada. By stopping the flow of blood, they are forcing Canadians to pay attention.

I love rail. Maybe it’s because my parents held early birthday parties for me at the Halton County Railway Museum in Rockwood, Ontario. Maybe it’s because I used to run outside, barefoot, whenever we heard the freight trains pass, half a mile up the road from my Grandmother’s house, and count the number of cars the train had. Maybe it was the faint memory I have of travelling to northern Ontario by train at the age of three and watching the sun dance through the tree branches we passed (those tracks have all been removed). There is a sentimental quality to watching the world pass while you’re on a train, and it symbolizes so many contradictions of living in a settler-colonial state.

That’s why these solidarity actions can’t simply be seen as protests. As Montreal Gazette journalist Christopher Curtis posted on Twitter, “In Kahnawake, the blockade of a commuter rail to Montreal is about solidarity with the #Wetsuweten but also pride in Turtle Island, in sovereignty, in securing a future for Indigenous youth across the country.”

The desire to push through this pipeline project under the guise of economic prosperity is another in a long list of examples where profits are king and the damage that a pipeline will cause to the land and air don’t matter. Our obsession with resource extraction will be our eventual demise. We know that the atmosphere is warming. We know that LNG pipelines leak methane into the atmosphere. We know that pipeline projects destroy forests and waterways. So why are politicians hell-bent on ensuring this project passes?

The LNG market is a trillion-dollar industry whose time may be running out. Large infrastructure projects like pipelines cannot get built without the full support of government, even if that support means sending in militarized state agents to force people off their land.

We need to listen to the Wet’suwet’en traditional leadership. We need to heed their call that this project is folly and needs to be stopped. They’re experts in knowing how to care for the land: they’ve been doing this for time immemorial.

Yes, even when it inconveniences us. Even though my parents had their trip to visit me this weekend cancelled by Via Rail, it’s an inconvenience that pales in comparison to the “inconvenience” that Canada has imposed on Indigenous nations on this land. And just wait – the “inconvenience” that will accompany catastrophic climate change will be a different kind of chaotic hell.

We need to act before it’s too late, and Wet’suwet’en shows us the way.


BAR Book Forum: “Books I Teach”

BAR Book Forum: “Books I Teach”
BAR Book Forum: “Books I Teach”


Black adults must not allow “Hollywood to fill in the blanks” in our children’s understanding of Black history.

We are in a time where individualism is encouraged over community.”

In this feature, we ask educators to list books they most enjoy teaching in their communities. Contributors include professors, graduate students, artists, journalists, organizers, activists, and other community leaders. Readers of the Black Agenda Report understand that the university classroom isn’t the only place where learning happens. Submissions therefore include lists of books that are taught at community workshops, mosques, churches, prisons, libraries, the local preschool, or even a weekly book study on one’s front porch. This week’s contributor is Erica Caines.

One of the many things that sadden me is the warped and shallow conversations about “representation.” There is a fixation on “seeing ourselves” without truly knowing or understanding ourselves. This is the reason I started Liberation Through Reading, a children’s book gifting initiative that provides free Black centered books to Black children, written by Black authors. At each event, I talk about the importance of cultivating home libraries and the importance of seeing ourselves in our homes. There are a variety of books that range from picture book/ early reader to college level.

There is a fixation on ‘seeing ourselves’ without truly knowing or understanding ourselves.”

What has driven me to create this program is the reliance on Hollywood narratives to tell stories we are more than capable of telling ourselves and have. When Hollywood tells our stories or gives us a platform to tell our stories, we are often left wanting more and that is because we are unfamiliar with these stories until they are put on a big screen. That is because our colonized education system gives us bite-sized versions of our history and we then look to Hollywood to fill in the blanks.

Liberation Through Reading seeks to foster the love of reading in our children through representation so that we don’t lose that hunger for our stories and histories as an adult— so that we aren’t misinformed about our stories and histories because we never sought to learn it outside of the Hollywood lens.

The recent release of the movie Harriet,  and the controversy surrounding the Hollywood narrative helped me understand the importance of Liberation Through Reading. Below, I’m going to discuss three books offered for free to Black children in Black communities about an abolitionist and Black American legend, Harriet Tubman.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And wasn’t going to stay one either
“Farewell!” she sang to her friends one night
She was mighty sad to leave ‘em
But she ran away that dark, hot night
Ran looking for her freedom
She ran to the woods and she ran through the woods
With the slave catchers right behind her
And she kept on going till she got to the North
Where those mean men couldn’t find her
Nineteen times she went back South
To get three hundred others
She ran for her freedom nineteen times
To save Black sisters and brothers
Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And didn’t stay one either
And didn’t stay one either

by Eloise Greenfield, Honey, I Love

Honey, I Love , by Eloise Greenfield

My earliest recollection of this biographical poem is first grade. My teacher, a proud Pan-African Brooklynite, assigned the class with the task of memorizing the poem to read aloud at an assembly for a later date. Twenty-seven years later, I can still hear her yelling “Harder! Fiercer!” when I read this poem to my son and got to “wasn’t scared of nothing either.” What was drilled into me wasn’t simply a poem, but a testament to the character of Tubman.  This wasn’t only a poem my 1st-grade teacher had me memorize but also made me feel.

Since then, the words of Eloise Greenfield have stayed with me and shaped how I’ve come to not just know the legacy of Tubman but understand the history. Greenfield is a Black American treasure. As a biographer, children’s book author and poet Greenfield’s work has captured the life of everyday Black- American communities and families. Her positive portrayal of Black life and rhythmic style is evident in this poem found in her children’s poetry book, Honey, I Love.  This poem captures is the essence of Tubman in just a few stanzas.

Greenfield is a Black American treasure.”

“Didn’t come in this world to be no slave and wasn’t going to stay one either”  speaks to the determination of a woman who knew there was more to life than being enslaved and set out to seek a life free from that. “Nineteen times she went back South to get three hundred others”  speaks to her selflessness. After gaining her freedom, she went back not once, not twice, but 19 times for her “Black sisters and brothers.”

There is much current significance in her repeatedly going back when we look at the systemic oppressions we are facing. We are in a time where individualism is encouraged over community simply because our communities are fractured and escaping them seems to be more of a concern than healing them. Tubman could have very well lived the rest of her life as a free woman (for whatever that was worth during that time) with no concern for who she left behind, but she didn’t. She instead saved over 300 enslaved Africans by helping them make their way to freedom utilizing allies in abolition through the Underground Railroad.

Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad In The Sky by Faith Ringgold

Which brings me to another important children’s book on the legacy of Harriet Tubman: Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad In The Sky, by Faith Ringgold.  Ringgold is a Black American teacher, sculptor, and mixed-media artist best known for her painted story quilts and her impact on Black children in the 90s with her more than 30 children’s books.

This book reintroduces us to Cassie from Tar Beach, who flies over New York City, and her little brother Be Be. In this story, Cassie takes us on another adventure traveling the Underground Railroad to freedom, just like her enslaved ancestors generations before did. The siblings are separated and Cassie, with the help of Harriet Tubman, has to trace her brother’s steps through the Underground Railroad (from the South to Canada) in order to find him.

This book helps familiarize our children with how the Underground Railroad functioned and the many risks enslaved Africans faced to be free. The book shows a variety of people that made up the network (Black and white, alike) who offered shelter and aid to escaped enslaved Africans traveling North.  It also shows us how the Underground Railroad, while not literal, functioned like a real railroad system—homes, and businesses that harbored runaways were known as “stations” and were run by “railroad agents.” “Conductors,” like Tubman, moved the fugitives from one station to the next.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People To Freedom , by Carole Boston Weatherford

One important aspect that neither the poem by Greenfield nor the book by Ringgold touched upon is Tubman’s belief in Christianity. While it is said that her relationship with God and hearing him was the result of a head injury when she was a young enslaved African, it is that relationship that made her fearless in her pursuit to freedom for herself and hundreds of others. Her fearlessness, of course, did not mean she moved without fear but instead moved with a purpose.

That is capsulated in the book Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People To Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford. With vivid and bold imagery by renowned Black illustrator, Kadir Nelson, Weatherford depicts Tubman as not only strong and humble but devoted to God. Tubman is led by her faith, believing that freedom was her personal mission from God.

This, of course, is the antithesis of the material realities of how “Black church” functions today, with more emphasis on assimilating into conditions instead of breaking free from them. Weatherford, who “mines the past for family stories, fading traditions, and forgotten struggles,” does a fantastic job of allowing us to understand Tubman as a full person and real person—not a superwoman, but a woman of God.

Didn’t come in this world to be no slave… And didn’t stay one either”  


SF – Thursday, January 16th 6:30p – Born on the MOVE with Mike Africa Jr and Debbie & Mike Africa Sr

Using storytelling and hip hop, Mike Africa, Jr will take us on a journey of his life from the day that he was secretly born in prison, to the bombing of his family on May 13th, 1985, up to his parents’ release from prison after each serving 40 years.

Mike will be joined by his parents Debbie and Mike Africa, Sr for a conversation moderated by Maisha Quint.

The Eric Quezada Center is fully ADA compliant. For further information call 415 863.9977

A blueprint for rebellion: C.L.R. James and the politics of ‘Black Jacobins’

by   M. Matsemela-Ali Odom

C.L.R. James

Published in 1938, “Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution” became C.L.R. James’ magnum opus, though fans of the sport of cricket might beg to differ. “Black Jacobins” was printed by the British publishing house Seckel Warburg as addressing “the only successful slave revolt in history.” Though this claim has been countered by successive historians, it should be argued that the Haitian Rebellion was truly the first social revolution in modern world history.

Defying the capitalist and racist historiography on Black rebellion that had defined academia and even radical intelligentsia, James displays how it was, in fact, Saint-Domingue/Haiti which resulted in the greatest shift in social relations. For, despite the French overthrow of the Ancien Régime, which left the bourgeoisie in power, the uprising on what was once known as “the Jewel of the Antilles,” when the dust settled, the ownership of the land rested in the hands of the formerly enslaved.

As one historian quaintly notes: the paradox of the Haitian Revolution is in the end, Africans defended ideals of the French Revolution against the French themselves. What the radical historian Robin D.G. Kelley says of the James’ abbreviated account of the Black radical tradition, “A History of Pan-African Revolt,” is certainly true of “Black Jacobins”: “What made this book even more subversive is that James places Black people at the center of world events; he characterizes uprisings of [people previously described as] savages and religious fanatics as revolutionary movements; and he insists that the great Western revolutionaries needed the Africans as much as the Africans needed them.”1

The dialectical materialism of James as well as Toussaint L’Ouverture and the other revolutionaries in “Black Jacobins” altered the way we all came to the process of Black internationalist struggle for the last 200 years. It also alters the erasure of the Black Radical Tradition amongst the other great social revolutions. No longer just “France, Russia and China,” as Theda Skocpol writes about, Haiti, Jamaica, the Reconstruction American South, Cuba and South Africa, are indispensable for our study of global revolutions.

“Black Jacobins” is the result of C.L.R. James’ ideological and political development as James moved from the liberalism of West Indian society to revolutionary socialism, pan-Africanism and Black Internationalism.

Culture and anti-imperialism

Cyril Lionel Robert (C.L.R.) James was born in 1901 in Tunapuna, Trinidad, about ten miles east of the nation’s capital, Port of Spain, to a family of Barbadian descent. Affectionately known as Nello by his friends, James was raised in a middle-class and religiously conservative household, where he was deeply impacted by British culture from classical to Late Victorian culture, namely theater and literature.

James read everything from William Shakespeare to William Thackeray and developed a deep interest in the humanities and social sciences. James writes, “I laughed without satiety at Thackeray’s constant jokes and sneers and gibes at the aristocracy and at people in high places. Thackeray, not Marx, bears the heaviest responsibility for me.”2 James completed his secondary education at the prestigious Queen’s Royal College (QRC) in Port of Spain. Excelling in academics and athletics, James became a club cricketer and an accomplished track and field athlete, setting the Trinidadian record in the high jump. It was there that James also developed his love for writing.

In his first act of resistance, James rebelled against the Puritanic Christian beliefs of his parents and the trappings of bourgeois Caribbean culture. James’ love for carnival, calypso, jazz and cricket literally moved him beyond the trappings of his class privilege and racial subjugation in colonial Trinidadian society.

It would eventually be his works as a sports journalist and biographer that influenced his migration to England in the early 1930s. Yet, after his completion at QRC, James had decided to remain in Port of Spain, where he served as a schoolmaster teaching English and History.

At QRC, James taught the radical scholar and future Trinidadian prime minister, Eric Williams. As a teacher and part-time journalist, James joined two groups that expanded his love for literature and began the process of advancing his political ideology. Now a liberal Trinidadian nationalist, James became the secretary of the Maverick Club, an elite social club free of white colonial participation: “For the most part we were Black people and one brown,” James noted.

James also participated in an anti-colonial literary society called the Beacon group. James’ love for Victorian literature became the counterpoint through which he began to attack colonial British society through what has been defined as his cultural activism.

With the Maverick Club, James staged operas and other theatrical performances. With his class at QRC, James put on a fully public rendition of “Othello.” James’s production of the Shakespearean classic undoubtedly anticipated his chronicling of the man that Abe Reynal defined as “The Black Spartacus”: Toussaint L’Ouverture. Understanding the centrality of art and cultural production to radical scholarship and social movements, at the climax of “Black Jacobins,” James notes, “There is no drama like the drama of history.” It was not enough just to tell the truth. One must make it fun.

C.L.R. James and the Black radical tradition

In 1958, the Caribbean American radical Cyril Briggs was red-baited by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Cold War U.S. strategy had sought to blame the surge of Black communist activity in the United States on outside agitation, removing any form of Black agency.

In his retort, the founder of the African Blood Brotherhood and former Communist Party member Briggs stated, “I don’t know what Communists or communism have to do with my position, because this has been my position since 1912, before there was, as I understand it, a Communist Party in the United States. It will continue to be my position despite any attempt by this committee to intimidate me.”3

Briggs’ story is true of James and many other Black Marxists since. Communism did not bring them to Black liberation politics. Black liberation politics brought them to communism. Though many would like to remove this context from the production of “Black Jacobins,” it would be ahistorical. “Black Jacobins” is the result of James’ movement towards revolutionary socialism and African liberation politics upon his migration to England in the early 1930s as he fell into Trotskyist circles.

“Black Jacobins” is not just a historical text but also a Black manifesto — a declaration of revolutionary independence. In the preface to the 1963 version of the book, James writes that “Black Jacobins” was “intended to stimulate the coming emancipation of Africa” but “only the writer and a handful of close associates thought, wrote and spoke as if the African events of the last quarter of a century were imminent.”

As well, he intended his second edition of the book to attempt “for the future of the West Indies, all of them, what was done for Africa in 1938.” Both of James’ editions proved to be prescient adventures seen as an independence movement emerged in the Caribbean in the 1960s as it had in Africa during the 1940s — and let us not forget the social and cultural revolutions taking place in Black North America as well.

“Black Jacobins” has become not just a blueprint for revolution, but a blueprint for writing about revolutions. The text stands out because of the fact that it is not simply a historical analysis but also a historiographical analysis in which James engages the traditional historian critique of the Haitian Revolution as well as the overall discourse on Black agency.

“The only place where Negroes did not revolt is in the pages of capitalist historians,” James wrote in 1939. Notably, James did not simply say “conservative” or even “white supremacist.” Instead, he states “capitalist historians,” which expresses the limits of conservative and white supremacist scholarship. Conservative historians such as Ulrich B. Phillips had penned apologies for slavery. Yet, it was the liberal scholar that attributed Black freedom to well-intentioned European and white American reformers.

In a remarkable line in the preface, James says that the traditionally famous historians were more artists than scientists: “They wrote so well because they saw so little.” This trend–his critique of traditional historiography–continues later in the text; he criticizes French historians’ patronizing and critical views of Toussaint while lacking major critique of Laveaux (Etienne Laveaux). As well, another instance of historiographic critique is in his explanation of the destruction of the white population of Saint-Domingue, which James describes as being caused by voluntary white emigration to the United States of America in the late 18th century. In James’ critique, historians seemed more interested in apologizing for white racism than actually intensely critiquing the actions of the Black revolutionaries.

It is worth noting that James also departed from Marxist scholarship of the moment, including that of his childhood friend Malcolm Nurse, who had by the 1930s assumed the nom de guerre George Padmore. At that moment, in stark contrast to James’ Trotskyism, Padmore was a Stalinist. Yet, despite the anti-vanguardist position taken by some adherents to Trotskyist socialism, the difference between Padmore’s “The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers” (1931) and James’ “Black Jacobins” was not whether a vanguard party would emerge to lead the cause for Black liberation, but exactly how that revolutionary leadership would emerge.

The question of power

This became the essence of what James would later call “The Question of Power.” Very similar to James in his text, Padmore chronicled the exploitation of Black workers, condemning slavery, colonialism and the exploitation of the Black masses by opportunist reformists. Yet in the end, Padmore saw it as the role of the progressive white working class to educate “backward” Black workers.

In an obituary to the historian and revolutionary, Walter Rodney, C.L.R. James recalled a conversation he had with Leon Trotsky about Vladimir Lenin’s leadership and political analysis. Trotsky told James, “Lenin always had his eyes upon the mass of the population, and when he saw the way they were going, he knew that tomorrow this was what was going to happen.”4

Far from a submission to spontaneity, revolutionary leadership came from within, “ This defined Toussaint’s leadership. A formerly enslaved coach driver, Toussaint had risen to the level of a well-read landowner. But once the revolution began, Toussaint committed what the Guinean-Cape Verdean revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral, called “class suicide.” Toussaint abandoned his wealth and privilege, fled to the hills and built amongst the rebels.

Throughout the text, emphasis is placed on the collective organization of the slaves as well as the remarkable sense of justice and restraint repeatedly shown towards mulattoes, big whites (“grand blancs” — the planter class) and the small whites. Common identity and place of origin as well as religious commonality emerge as signifying factors in “Black Jacobins.”

“Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy. In spite of all prohibitions, the slaves travelled miles to sing and dance and practice the rites and talk.” The first leader of the conspiracy was a head slave and high voodoo priest named Boukman. James describes Boukman as following in the tradition of a maroon slave revolutionary, Mackandal, who attempted to lead an overthrow of slavery in Haiti a generation earlier.

African slaves poisoned their masters, broke tools and destroyed crops. Obviously, James attempts to explain the role of slaves in the destruction of capitalism; henceforth, he compares them to “the Luddite wreckers.” As stated earlier, even amidst the remarkable white-on-Black violence that takes place throughout the text, the slaves and Toussaint are repeatedly described as practicing restraint.

Distinction is placed on this being an organized revolution and not merely a slave riot, as it was repeatedly described. “The slaves had revolted because they wanted to be free,” James writes. But as the famous adage goes, without struggle there can be no progress, and progress for Haitian revolutionaries took over a decade. Toussaint led the fight against the white and mulatto slaveholders, the Spanish, the English and the French before the Black slaves of Saint-Domingue were able to declare complete independence in 1804.

The lessons of Saint-Domingue

Besides Toussaint and Boukman, major players in this text are:

The story plays out as a struggle between the most privileged of the population versus those seen as grassroots leaders. The whites and mulattoes are treated with the most suspicion throughout the book. They are even treated with more skepticism than metropole white’s Sonthonax, the right-wing Jacobin.

Seemingly critiqueing his contemporary times, James goes back and forth with his critique of French liberal efforts to end slavery — such as the efforts of the “Friends of the Negro” society. While they had very well-intentioned rhetoric, they are depicted as powerless early on in the book and unwilling to take extra steps to eradicate slavery later on in the book. At the points where they do find legislative success in France, it is because they were aided by the revolutionary actions of slaves back in the Antilles.

Recalling his love for drama, “Black Jacobins” is told in acts. James begins with the conspiracy of the island’s maroon societies led by François Mackandal and ends with Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ final thrust towards Haitian Independence.

Toussaint’s central leadership, in “Black Jacobins” is defined by his keen sense of strategy. Toussaint successfully united various forms of Saint-Domingue’s society: Free and enslaved; Christian and Vodun; African and mulatto.

Unlike almost every other African slave rebellion, the rebels in Saint-Domingue solicited foreign support for the cause of the rebels and not the slave owners, as Toussaint played European nations against each other. However, Toussaint’s organizational strength in the end became his weakness. Captured by the French and imprisoned in a cold prison in the French Alps, Toussaint fell victim to his own Eurocentrism.

His “failure was the failure of enlightenment, not of darkness,” James wrote. Comparatively, Toussaint’s successor, Jean Jacques Dessalines “could see so clearly and simply … because the ties that bound this uneducated soldier to French civilization were of the slenderest.” The path towards freedom for people of African descent now is just as it was in Haiti, James believed: Clear your mind of any negative ideas of Africa. Turn your head away from Europe and towards Africa to find freedom.

“Black Jacobins” was the final leg in a three-part chronicling of the Haitian Revolution and the Black Radical Tradition. First, James produced a play on the life of Toussaint starring Paul Robeson. Second, James produced the pamphlet, “A History of Negro Revolt,” later retitled “A History of Pan-African Revolt,” and lastly, was the masterpiece: “Black Jacobins.”

With three distinct forms of media, James altered Black consciousness and world history. Accompanied by W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Black Reconstruction in America” and Herbert Aptheker’s “American Negro Slave Revolts,” no longer could it be said that freedom was something given to African people. Subsequent authors like Cedric Robinson, Robin Kelley, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, William Martin and Michael West, Vijay Prashad, Robin Blackburn, Steven Hahn, Gerald Horne, Hakim Adi and others have followed in James’ stead. But James’ work remains the pinnacle of Black radical scholarship.

  1. Robin Kelley, “Introduction” to “A History of Pan-African Revolt” by C.L.R. James, 17.
  2. James in “Beyond a Boundary”quoted in Cedric Robinson’s  “Black Marxism, 70.
  3. HUAC,
  4. Walter Rodney and the Question of Power,” C.L.R. James, 1981,


source:A blueprint for rebellion: C.L.R. James and the politics of ‘Black Jacobins’

Interview with Janine and Janet Africa of the MOVE 9

source:Interview with Janine and Janet Africa of the MOVE 9

The History of the Black Radical Group MOVE and Its Infamous Bombing by Police

Image of rows of destroyed homes in Philadelphia in the aftermath of the MOVE bombing and fire


And how Philadelphia became “the city that bombed itself.”