From the Underground

(the New York Times 1978)

I have been a member (in good standing) of the Transit Worker Union since Dec. 8, 1968. Since then I have attended one union meeting. I was so completely disheartened with the manner in which that meeting was conducted, I decided right them that it would be a waste of my time to continue to attend them. At that meeting (I’ve been told that all of the meetings are the same), union members who disagreed with the chair were continually ruled out of order and not permitted to voice their opinions on union matters. Whenever a despondent member tried to speak, he was shouted down by what might be called the house crowd.

Seeing this once was enough for me and for many of my fellow union members. Now it seems that this was an easy “Cop-out” and recently we have begun to think of these meetings as a tactic to discourage participation and to perpetuate the rule of the old guard. This realization has caused many grassroots movements to spring up among transit workers and will soon become apparent to management, the public and the union.

For years, I have heard fellow workers express dissatisfaction with the T.W.U. the loudest complaint is the union’s complacency, as working conditions deteriorate and the cuts in services and jobs mount. Another major concern of transit workers is the lack of union protection in grievance and disciplinary procedures. Up until the recent contract however, the feeling had been that this was just something that we would have to live with. Most workers thought that we could trust our union at contract time. I suspect that this was why we were able to disregard our very serious misgivings about the union. We felt that the union leadership was aware of the financial hardship that we have endured (Along with most workers in this city) over the past four years. We felt that our union leaders would sincerely negotiate a contract that would bring us some financial relief.

It has become clear that this trust has been betrayed by the leadership of the T.W.U., and it’s now time for the workers to take up the matter themselves. Many workers know that when there is wide-spread worker dissatisfaction with any union, management usually exploits the situation to the union’s disadvantage. Workers dissatisfaction is usually management’s cue to try to weaken or destroy the union concerned. Transit workers look at our situation fascinated that this has not happened. What has happened is workers dissatisfaction with the union has resulted in management exploitation of workers with what can only be described as union compliance. The fact is that the Transit Authority and the leaders of the Transit Workers union seem to be in a shameful state of blissful harmony. And why not? How else can it be when management saves the union the cost of having to collect union dues and gives the union patronage assignments. Union members are now wondering which side our inion is on.

We don’t want our union to act irresponsibly, especially when our city is said to be in financial trouble, but when the traditional adversary roles of union and management disappears, we begin to think that our interest is not being looked after.

If there is a fair count of the ballots when transit workers vote on the recently negotiated contract, and many workers are concerned that there might not be, it will be voted down. We feel we deserve more, but this will not be the reason for defeating the contract. Workers now realize that it is more important to make the union responsive to the needs and the demands ot its members. So a “no “ vote against the contract will, in reality, be the workers way of regaining control of the union.

This is what I hear fellow workers saying. They feel that it is important to get a fair wage increase and they now know that the only way this can happen is to send our union leaders back to the negotiating table and to restore their role as opponents of management on the workers’ behalf. Like many of my fellow workers, I now see why not attending union meetings was a mistake. And how many of us talk about getting to these meetings and demanding to be heard. The latent dissatisfaction workers held for the union has surfaced and now the workers are talking change.

In the days ahead, all of this will become painfully clear to the union. Most workers hope that this can be done without creating any discomfort for our passages, but we must derail this contract.

A Fatherless Father

(Essence Magazine 1987)

An unshakable alliance with my children is a goal I had even before I had children. I grew up in a one parent household. The trauma that that caused me I promised myself at an early age not to perpetuate. I never got to really know the person who was my father. My mother became pregnant with me in South Carolina. Shortly after my birth, the United States entered World War II, and my father went off to drive the trucks of the Red Ball Express in Europe. When he returned in 1946, my parents married and quickly had two other children. By 1947 my mother had had it with my father’s brutality. She fled with her three children to New York City.

Over the next 30 years I saw my father maybe four or five times. In 1979, dying of cancer, he summoned me to his deathbed and asked that I handle his burial (which I later did). I taped a long conversation with him which I kept until about a year after his death. Then I did a very curious thing; I recorded over the tape, as if to say, “You once abandon me. Now it is I who abandon you.” This is vengeful thinking I admit, but I have never overcome my bitterness at not being the son in a good (or even bad) father-son relationship. Now that bitterness is being transferred to my eldest son for depriving me of a good father-son relationship with him.

Although I felt that my sons knew that I loved them, I can’t remember telling them so as they grew up. My sons are 22, 21 and 17; for most of those years I have enjoyed a good relationship with them. I proudly took each in his time for his first haircut. I instilled early in each an appreciation for the discipline of doing school homework without being reminded. I coached each of their basketball teams. Some Friday evenings I’d come home juiced, pick all of them up and wrestle them, all of us laughing, to the floor. I took them sledding in the park and hiking on a nearby mountain. We flew our model airplane and caught crawfish for their fish tank. My activities with my sons were expressions of my love for them and a means of feeding my near obsessive need to experience the father-son relationship I never had.

My two younger sons and I get along fine, allowing for teenage rebelliousness. My relationship with my eldest son started to unravel in 1981, in his junior year of high school, and has deteriorated to the point where we rarely speak to each other. Until recently, the difference between the relationship and my aspirations for it had been a major source of disappointment to me. My strong desire to be what I considered a good father made it possible for my children to take advantage of me. I measure my parental success by how much I provided of what they wanted. The things I thought they should be grateful for – parochial schooling and the material trappings of a lower middle-class up bringing – they took for granted. I know what it feels like not to have a father at home, they do not. I know a young boy’s craving for fatherly guidance; they have the luxury of disregarding it. My three sons and I are of two different family structures, and our value systems are shaped by these differing experiences. That such could be the case never entered my mind back when I was formulating my idea of the father role.

When I got married in 1964, I warned my wife that if our marriage didn’t work out, any children we had would remain with me. My paternal instinct was that strong. My commitment to the role of father was real. I felt that the father’s role, if not paramount, was certainly the major source of family leadership. Our 23 year-old marriage has worked uncommonly well. My problem has been with our children. And, perhaps, with myself.

My Zealot’s approach to fatherhood may have led me to unrealistic expectations, but how does a father who has never had a father reach reasonable expectations? By stumbling blindly in my case. I wanted my sons to understand fatherless as I had experienced it and to form their opinion of me in that light. In other words, I wanted special points for doing something that is normal – being there. Undoubtedly I have sometimes expected gratitude when none was due. In my pursuit of that unshakable alliance I didn’t realize that the relationship between a parent and each child develops along separate routes. I can’t treat three sons as if they were one. I also had expectations for what I wanted my sons to gain from our relationship; a reverence for this family unit, self-esteem, honesty, compassion and the ability to make sincere efforts. I think my sons have the seeds of these qualities in them, though they often seem dormant. I learned these values from my mother who, by the way, ran a tight ship.

It is not always easy to recognize and reason out many of the problems that create tension and ill feelings in a family, and it is even more difficult to find solutions. I’m not sure I have effective solutions that will enhance my relationship with my three sons, but I have recently determined to make a renewed effort. My number-one project is to open up a civil new beginning with my eldest son. I will simply make it clear to him that I want a successful life for him, but that it is up to him to develop the attitudes and self-discipline that would make this possible. The same is true for the other two, but I’m mindful now to tailor my approach to the individual each one is.

All that I will expect from them is sincere effort, honesty and a reverence for this family unit. What develops further in our relationship will result not from my needs, but from our mutual needs and our ways of expressing those needs.

The (Brief) Return of Amos ’n Andy

(Truth & Absurdities, the blog 2010)

Amos ‘n Andy, the television show, was hauled off the air in the sixties, after years of protest by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP and its leader Benjamin Hooks and other African-American organizations and many African-Americans detested the stereotypical caricatures portrayed in the show. The show presented the antics of Amos Jones, a middle-of-the-roader who accepted the racial status quo, Andrew Hogg “Andy” Brown, a dim-witted, failed entrepreneur, George “Kingfish” Stevens, a scheming, overly clever smooth talker, Algonquin J. Calhoun, a crooked, third-rate attorney, Lightin’, a slow talking, slow stepping janitor, Sapphire, a loud back-talking wife, and Mama, a bossy, opinionated mother-in-law, as a microcosm of the entire American black urban community.

The show was viewed as a representation of all of black America. That there were no admirable characters in the show told viewers that there were no admirable people in black America – just clowns and buffoons. The show had a talented cast and was well written and produced, but was wrong for the times, perhaps wrong for any time. Some people contend that if there had been competing black television shows at the time which portrayed African-Americans in a more positive light, that counterbalance would have created more tolerance for the negative stereotyping that took place in Amos n’ Andy. A positive, counterbalancing view and the high quality of the acting would have saved Amos ‘n Andy – maybe.

Many of the show’s themes involved Andy and the Kingfish. Sometimes, Andy had something the Kingfish wanted, but most often, the Kingfish was trying to bamboozle Andy in some business deal or another; whether it was selling Andy a lot with a movie-prop house façade as a full-scale home, selling him land with the false claim that it had valuable oil deposits on it, or selling Andy a restaurant that would soon lose its customers because of the rerouting of a busy highway. The Kingfish could always smooth-talk the dim-witted Andy into the web of his many schemes. And, whenever Andy resisted, the Kingfish often enlisted the help of their fellow lodge member, the under-esteemed Algonquin J. Calhoun, Esquire. Together, the two frequently carried out their plans to dupe Andy, but karma was always on Andy’s side, and their schemes always backfired on them. The Kingfish’s charm was that he was always as glib explaining his way out of the situation as he was conning Andy into it. The Kingfish was a master at subterfuge and trickery and Calhoun often helped by paving the way.

There were many episodes of the show in which, when the Kingfish’s schemes were uncovered, the Kingfish would use whatever evidence Andy or Sapphire (his most frequent targets), had against him to prove his good intentions. The Kingfish would recite the same evidence that pointed to his guilt, twist it a little, to prove that he had committed no wrong, legal or otherwise, and that he meant no harm.

I was watching a cable news station for most of the day on May 27 when the story broke about the release of the secretly recorded telephone conversation between now Senator Roland Burris, Democrat of Illinois, and Robert Blagojevich, the brother of Rod Blagojevich, then the Democratic Governor of Illinois. In the conversation, Mr. Burris could be heard cooking up Kingfish style (Now let me see here) scenarios on how to pay for an appointment to the US Senate seat vacated by the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States. Mr. Burris ran through many of the possibilities, and having found them all to be equally unsatisfying, promised to send a personal check for the governor before November 15 (2008). What is heard in that telephone conversation is clear: Mr. Burris was willing to help the governor financially in exchange for the appointment to the US Senate.

Mr. Burris even disclosed that his backers, the people from whom he would raise money to donate to the embattled governor, would be disappointed if after laying out their cash, their man did not get the appointment, thereby denying them a seat at the table of power. What this says is that Mr. Burris was already divvying up shares in the Senate seat he was now seeking to buy. The Kingfish would be proud — and envious. Now, none of you ought to be snickering. This is a near normal transaction in politics; it is only because of the release of the wiretap that we get this glimpse into the inner workings of government.

In an earlier segment of the news, I saw Senator Burris’s attorney and law partner, Tim Wright, explaining how the secretly caught conversation proved that Mr. Burris had done no wrong, because it showed that Mr. Burris was only placating the governor’s brother to stay in their good graces while the Senate seat was still open. If Mr. Burris had made a contribution to the governor, his attorney explained, it would had been for under five thousand dollars, far short of what a Senate seat could bring on the open market. This trifling amount, in itself, proved that Mr. Burris could not be attempting to buy his way into the Senate. But since Mr. Burris never intended to make a contribution to the governor and never did, the taped conversation proves that he did not engage in “pay-to-play,” a form of Chicago political affirmative action. Oh yeah, I thought, man, that reminds me of Algonquin J. Calhoun – just the argument Calhoun would make in defense of his client George (Kingfish) Stevens. The information you have that shows my client’s guilt, if you turn it over, it also shows my client’s innocence.

Then later, I saw the senator on television, stumbling and shuddering through the same explanation as had his Calhoun. He was only trying to hoodwink Andy (in this episode played in white face by Governor Rod Blagojevich) into appointing him to the Senate, and he had done no wrong. Mr. Burris admitted that he told anyone who would listen that he wanted that appointment. In this episode, Andy had something the Kingfish wanted. You see, Mr. Burris had already purchased his mausoleum and had all of his great achievements inscribed upon it. Chief among his achievements were these: He had been a foreign exchange student at the University of Hamburg in Germany, he had been elected as State Comptroller and Attorney General of Illinois. It would be grand if US Senator could be included on his mausoleum. The inscription would have to read “Appointed” and not “Elected” but that would be okay, it would be like when parents tell their adopted children that they’re special because they were “chosen” and had not come to them from the natural process where parents don’t have a choice.

Senator Burris was reminded by his interviewer that he had stated on several occasions that he had made no attempts to pay-to-play. He made this assertion on television, before the US Senate and before the Illinois State Legislature, two of these times he was under oath, and now the disclosure of the wiretapped conversation with the governor’s brother disputed his claim. Mr. Burris shuddered through a maze of unrelated words that ended with him declaring that he did not make a contribution to the governor and therefore had done no wrong. This was his story and he was sticking with it, or, maybe to it.

The return of Amos ‘n Andy in the persons of Roland Burris and Rod Blagojevich brought back a flood of memories; I was surprised that I related the incident to my very mixed feelings about that show, but hearing Mr. Wright’s explanation on television immediately brought back my youthful fondness for Algonquin J Calhoun, and I started shaping the comparison in my mind as events developed. I was happy that it was I, a black man, who made the comparison and not a white person from my era, because I can’t come to the belief that a white person would have brought the same degree of empathy (a word much in the news these days) to the comparison. Senator Burris is a very accomplished man and I don’t intend to diminish any of his great accomplishments by pointing out this one similarity to the great Kingfish. I mean the man rose to be one of only four (Edward Brooks ( R ) MA, Carol Moseley Braun (D) IL, Barack Obama (D) IL) black United States Senators since reconstruction. But I can see him now with both his hands to his cheeks uttering that great Kingfish lament “Holy Mackerel Andy, What is I gonna do now.”