An Homage to Aime Cesaire & Thurgood Marshall

I am most grateful for the life and works of Aime Cesaire, who passed away on April 10th of this year. His perspective was so important to the overall liberation struggle in the Caribbean, inspiring so many such as Maryse Conde and fellow Martinican Frantz Fanon. He wrote very important works about the question of “independence” in the Caribbean and the ultimate effects of the colonized mind. He to me is one of the many Caribbean forefathers and mothers along with Fanon and Walter Rodney and Maurice Bishop and Queen Nanny, who teaches us in important ways how to de-colonize our minds after necessarily achieving political independence. Pushing out the colonial powers is NOT enough. His works give us beginning steps as to how to de-colonize the mind. In particular, his play The Tragedy of King Christophe (or in his native French: “La tragedie du roi Christophe“) deals with the Haitian revolutionary leader King Christophe and the challenges of managing a post-colonial society. This is a very important question: now after the British is gone, what do we do? This is a question that King Christophe grappled with, and died as a result of, and its a question that Cesaire forces his readers to confront. In my humble opinion ever since the start of the Middle Passage, Cuba has provided the best answer to this question of what we do after independence. Its leader has, instead of following blind futile political ideology, seen needs of Africana peoples and have met them the best he can. Perhaps the most striking thing to me that Cesaire has ever written was this excerpt in Discourse on Colonialism translated from the French by Joan Pinkham:

“What am I driving at? At this idea: that no one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either; that a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization–and therefore force–is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistably, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another, calls for its Hitler…they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack. Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very bourgeois Christian of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe [during Nazi invasions of Europe] colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the “coolies” of India, and the “niggers” of Africa” (39, 36) –Aime Cesaire, 1955.

This quote reminds me so much of the United States. What is so profound about it is was his point that Nazism was only a problem when it was turned against other Europeans, however when it was turned against non-European peoples, its OK. This attempt at colonization and the CURRENT proof about how Hitler inhabits is evidenced by the U.S. occupation of Iraq. By controlling how people move and raiding their homes, and shooting unarmed civilians down when they move to try and improve their lives, and by torturing civilians that clearly have no affiliation whatsoever to the amorphous “al-Qaeda,” they are showing to the world the Hitler lives inside them, the U.S. will continue to cultivate the Hitler behavior until it comes to grips with the problems of colonization, which is what Cesaire AND the words of Jeremiah Wright teach us: that the U.S. needs to recognize how Hitler lives inside them in their treatment of Palestinians, Kurds, and other sufferers under Iraqi occupation. Cesaire’s was a voice of truth, and shows to all of us the cancer of the colonized Western mind that dismisses its role in the destruction of human life across the globe; this Western mind progresses irresistably “from one consequence to another, one denial to another, [and] calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment. Very analogous to Vere’s Opal in Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, the punishment that will be visited upon the U.S. will end up killing its originators and perpetrators quite simply and quite completely, a more simple analogy is the Frankenstein monster that one has created and ends up turning around and killing its inventor. It is imperative that the originators of imperialism actually care about their own life as well in creating the cancer of Western colonization, or creating “its Hitler.” I thank you, Aime Cesaire, for your writing and calling to our attention the Hitler among us. I especially thank the women that helped nurture Cesaire’s intellectualism which, like most strong women behind or under strong men, don’t get adequate notice. I am grateful for Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s book Negritude Women that tell us about Jane and Paulette Nardal and how negritude was a term originated by them (Jane, in particular I think) and how they created the whole salon culture in Paris that welcomed reading & conversation and the company of Harlem intellectuals like Hughes. I thank Professor Kersuze Simeon-Jones for telling me about this important text and adds an important study to the foundations of the Cesaire we can appreciate today; the Cesaire that points out the Hitler of Western civilization among us.

I am most grateful for the life and work of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to see another biographical play, Thurgood at the Booth Theatre on 45th Street & Broadway starring Laurence Fishburne in this one-man show. I was thoroughly impressed with his performance, and how he, like Phylicia Rashad, are able to completely physically embody the characters they play. He was trained partially at the Yale Rep when he played the role of Sterling in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. While Rashad was trained at Howard, Fishburne was trained by Lloyd Richards whose embodiment of characters is evident in this very bold interpretation. While I was humbled and silenced by Fishburne’s sombering and respectful interpretation of Thurgood Marshall, I was more fascinated by the script, which was written by screenwriter George Stevens, Jr. I appreciated Stevens including key parts of Marshall’s life, which I learned from Juan Williams’s expansive biography of Marshall, American Revolutionary. One of those key parts was when Marshall was child and he had to deliver a tall stack of hats and a white man dragged him off the trolley saying “don’t push in front of a white lady,” and “nigger, don’t you talk to me like that.” Williams writes: “Thurgood dropped the hats and started swinging…A nearby policeman…arested Thurgood who had to phone [Mr. Schoen, his white boss who gave him the hats to deliver] from the precinct to tell him…Schoen said, ‘Did the man really call you nigger?’ The young Thurgood responded forcefully: ‘yes sir, he sure did.’ Shoen stopped walking, put an arm around Thurgood and told him he had done the right thing” (16). Stevens’ inclusion of this scene is important, shows the challenges of Jim Crow society for young black men, but also showed the possibility of racial cooperation to help fight. Another poignant story in this play when Marshall was a waiter and one white man he was serving kept calling him “nigger.” When his father walked in and heard this, Fishburne tells us, he says to his son, “Thurgood, you are a disgrace to your race [or to all colored people]!” This is also recounted in Williams’ biography on page 44. Marshall says in real life he actually tolerated that epithet because that particular white man who called him such a name was a big tipper and he used his tips to get him to school. However Stevens tweaks it a bit by having Marshall say he can be called a nigger as long as he gets those twenties. In Williams’ biography we see a slightly more dignified Marshall who said: “the minute you run out of them twenties…I’m gonna bust you in the nose” (95). Stevens sweetens Marshall just a bit in this play to make it palatable to its majority white middle to upper class lawyers (in a similar way Obama is sweetening himself to these same audiences by denouncing Wright). I appreciated Stevens’ mention of the impact of Charles Hamilton Houston on the life of Marshall, especially since Stevens sets this play in the auditorium of the Howard Law School, which Houston helped turn into a powerhouse of lawyers and legal scholars that went out to help make segregated schools unconstitutional. However in my mind, Stevens starts slipping in his sweetened presentation of history in this play when one of Marshall’s lines about Eisenhower’s opinion of the Brown decision is: “he didn’t have an opinion one way or another.” This is probably not what Marshall would have said to a group of law students at Howard about Eisenhower. Williams shows us that Eisenhower DID have an opinion ONE WAY about Brown: he was against it in 1954. He was against it because he helped the cause of refusing to set a timetable to desegregate these schools. Williams writes: “The Eisenhower administration submitted a friend-of-the-court brief that proposed no delay be tolerated, but also asked that no firm date be set for integration. President Eisenhower personally read the brief and, treating it as a political document, took the unusual step of rewriting portions to reflect his slow approach” (233). Some sort of consideration by Marshall of Eisenhower’s sloth regarding this decision would have made Stevens’ Marshall more believable. Second, I think what would have made Stevens’ play more “lyrical” or filled with dramatic elements (as a New York Times reviewer suggested it needed) would be Marshall’s cooperation with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI in ridding the NAACP of supposed “Communist” influence. If we could not underestimate the level of knowledge of Marshall’s life by his Howard law school audience, then we could assume mention of his cooperation with the FBI is probably a reasonable inclusion; it certainly would not hurt the drama of this play. Williams writes that Marshall “showed no regret for his willingness to go after “Communists” and get them out of the NAACP: ‘I did more than anybody else did and ifyou don’t believe me ask…I didn’t like ’em and I didn’t like what they were doing” (257). I respect Stevens’ passing on this subject, especially since it might raise some drama and debate about Marshall’s life that might seem disrespectful. However to present a human being is to present a human being. It is important not to sugar coat their experiences, controversial or not. What I don’t appreciate however in Stevens’ script is the missing of the greater nuances of Marshall’s relationship with King and Malcolm X. Stevens includes this disagreement with King in his play however does not mention Malcolm X, unfortunately. Malcolm X tried, Williams writes, on many occasions to contact Marshall by writing letters, but I think we see the elitist side of Marshall at his height when we see how he reacted to Malcolm X. In retrospect, I think that Stevens included all the major, all the important parts of his life. However the most significant slight was the element of pessimism about the future of America being on the Supreme Court after 1976, after which time Nixon stacked the court with conservative judges. Williams captures this in ways that Stevens could have pulled much more from: “He wrote as if lecturing people who were beneath him. His rhetoric [in his decisions] about the lives of poor children and minority children also seemed dark and tortured. This was an unhappy and angry man.” Marshall spent his whole life in the law and, in the play, we get the idea that he has so much hope for improving racial justice after expecting to be a simple court magistrate yet becoming a Supreme Court Justice. However Stevens fails in the end of this play by not capturing dramatically the loss of despair and hope that Marshall endures as the Court he’s on becomes increasingly conservative. Stevens’ Marshall and consequently Fishburne’s Marshall, is more or less resigned to the conservative court rather than expressing an indignation that according to Marshall’s actual life is more probable. Equally troubling was no mention of the Bakke case. In Marshall’s life story to a group of Howard law students, wouldn’t he mention Bakke? Williams shows us a side of Marshall that criticizes the Jewish conservative efforts in the late 70s: “the trouble with Bakke to my mind was that the Jewish people backed it” (368). This speaks to Marshall’s recognition of the ways in which some Jewish money have stopped the cause of civil rights, which is a narrative we don’t often get, because its a narrative that can quickly and improperly be labeled “anti-Semitic” since I guess all African Americans or blacks should just love Jewish people since some of them worked in Freedom Summer 1964 and that should be the end of the story. Its not. Williams’ captures a much different Marshall after 1980 whose persona grows increasingly bitter in response to the increasingly conservative court: “The Bakke defeat left a deep scar on the seventy year old Marshall. He took it as a personal affront, a signal that he, the only black justice, no longer had a major influence on the nation’s legal apporach to race relations. Marshall’s isolation, combined with his recent illnesses, his sense of being threatened by the Carter people, and his drinking, began to bring out a grumpy, gruff, even rude an imperious side to his character” (368). We should have gotten some part of this in Stevens’ play, especially if its titled Thurgood. What we do get of this in the last third of this play is an obvious jab at Clarence Thomas when Marshall says: “there’s no difference between a white snake and a black snake: they both bite.” Stevens’ and Fishburne’s Marshall is compelling. However Stevens’ play lack the key lines of Marshall’s life that show the nuances that would make this a more accurate production, such as the effect that the conservative court had on his thinking. Fishburne’s most moving moment in this play comes in his revelation to the audience about his first wife, Buster, asking: what kind of a husband doesn’t know his wife has cancer? I saw Fishburne’s nose get more red and felt his pain powerfully delivered then. However, overall the most significant slights were the Eisenhower slight and the overall sugarcoating of Marshall’s opinion of the law after 1976. This is a slight not on the level of William Styron’s gaffe of Nat Turner, as identified by Vincent Harding (in his article, “You’ve Taken My Nat And Gone”) however, it sugar coats Marshall in a way that belittles the very serious racial injustices in that day, racial injustices that he fought so hard for were being destroyed and he thought MUCH more about that, than what we get in Stevens play. However I thank Mr. George Stevens for writing this play, I thank Joanne Woodward and Tazewell Thompson of the Westport Country Playhouse for producing it first in a remarkable production with James Earl Jones as Thurgood, and I thank Bill Haber of OSTAR Enterprises for committing so much to this very important Broadway production. I encourage readers of this blog and audiences of Thurgood to read more about his life, in the press guide (at http://www.thurgoodbroadway.com/ThurgoodEducationGuide330.pdf) and to learn more about his life in Juan Williams’ masterpiece, American Revolutionary. -RF.

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Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.