Monday, December 18, 2017

A Christmas Carol revisited, and an immigrant family's search for refuge


(Charles Dickens)

Christmas is just around the corner, and I've pulled out my "Ultimate Collector's Edition" DVD of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens' wonderful story of the Cratchit family and mean old Ebeneezer Scrooge, whose greedy, miserly descendants are many today with few of them likely to experience a ghost-and-spirit-induced conversion! 

Of course, the DVD version I have is the best in my opinion, Alastair Sim's masterful portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 version of the film.

Ah, Scrooge, the moneylender who, as Dickens expert Norrie Epstein has written, "controls others by keeping them in his debt." Sound familiar? Today, it's entire nations in bottomless debt, and their Scrooge is the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, European Union, and hedge fund operators on Wall Street.

Then there's Scrooge, the "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" who begrudges his poor clerk Bob Cratchit ever hour away from the chains of his desk. Pick a modern-day corporation--Nissan or Walmart's a good place to begin--and there you have an example of the descendants of Scrooge.

"I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an idea," Dickens once wrote. "May it haunt (readers') houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it by."

I'm sorry to say the folks who most need to read Dickens probably don't and never will.

Below is another familiar tale, my version of which I first presented back in 2010. I've re-published it several times in this space, and I offer it again this year for pondering as, I sincerely hope, all of you have a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Here it is:

(The Holy Family's flight to Egypt, as depicted by Giotto)

They were descendants of immigrants who themselves became immigrants.

Soon after the baby arrived, a dream came to the father that the little family would have to leave their homeland if they were to survive. Even the life of an innocent child was in danger in their homeland.

So the three of them—father, mother and child—left their tiny village and embarked on a treacherous journey through the desert wilderness. They were very poor and had little more than the clothes on their backs.

They traveled by day and by night, ever fearful they might be captured or attacked, until they finally crossed the border. They brought no documentation with them, only their humility and the father’s willingness to work hard to support his family.

He was a trained craftsman, good with his hands, and his work was valued even if he was paid so little he could never hope to rise out of his poverty. With his teenage wife tending to their baby, he went out among the people to earn bread and shelter for them.

He heard the whisperings among those in this new land. They called him and his family foreigners, outsiders, and even illegal aliens, as if they had come from the moon and their very existence was something less than human, a violation of not only the law of the land but also God’s law.

“They’re just here to take our jobs, to feed, house, and clothe themselves at our expense,” he heard one of them say.

“They don’t even take the time to learn our language,” said another.

“Why are they even here? Is their own country not good enough for them? Perhaps they’re spies,” said yet another.

“The way people like these spawn they’ll soon be everywhere, expecting their new offspring to be treated equally just because they were born here, like so many little anchors for their illegal parents. Anchor babies, that’s what they’ll be.”

Some of these whisperings came from the very people who benefited from his labors. They would say these things as soon as they walked away from the worksite and rejoined their neighbors and friends. Local leaders heard the comments, too, and saw an advantage in such fears, prejudice, and suspicions. So they began to talk among the crowds and, being leaders, talked loudest of all, loud enough for everyone to hear.

Even some of the priests joined the chorus, invoking God’s judgment from their pulpits, condemning the strangers for breaking the law and taking advantage of people’s hospitality.

The father and mother, already homesick, longed for their faraway families and friends. They knew many did not welcome them in this strange land, but they also feared for their child’s life if they returned home. Did their little child have any idea of all the troubles that surrounded them?

The father remembered how his ancestors had been immigrants to this very land many generations before and had prospered here, but then a new leader had turned them into slaves and they had left. Now he and his wife and child had returned because their own land had become hostile. When would it all end? Where was there a refuge?

Eventually the father, whose namesake had been a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams, had yet another dream, and this one told him the time had come to return home. So he and his wife packed their belongings, wrapped up their child to keep it warm, and journeyed back to their homeland. They had to be careful. Dangers still lurked, but at least they were home.

And back in the strange land where they had sought refuge, some indeed missed them. “He did good work,” one said. “You know, they never really bothered anyone,” another said.

But these voices were quickly drowned out by the leaders and their priests who cried “Good riddance!” and then looked for others to condemn.

Monday, December 11, 2017

NAACP protests Trump's visit to Mississippi's new Civil Rights Museum with one fist raised and the other fist full of cash from anti-union Nissan

(Union supporters at the giant "March on Mississippi" in support of unionization efforts at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, last March)

I was sitting down today to write a post on the recent grand opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. As you may have read, the museum opened with major controversy because President Trump came to town to be part of the ceremonies.

Invited by Republican Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a stalwart Trump supporter who boasts of being the state’s first Tea Party governor, Trump arrived amid a storm of protest, including boycotts of the event by civil rights-era legends like John Lewis and major progressive leaders in the state.

At the heart of what I wanted to write, however, was an underlying hypocrisy that bothers me about a museum—and I’ve heard that it is an amazing place—whose founders accepted a $500,000 gift from the Nissan corporation, the same corporation that fought tooth and nail against a unionizing effort among its predominantly black workforce in Canton, Mississippi, last August.

Amid the hue-and-cry by state and national NAACP leaders over Trump’s presence at the museum opening—and I agree it was a disgrace to have him there—I kept thinking how that same NAACP has gladly accepted large sums of cash from Nissan, cash that I believe kept the organization from fully joining the unionization effort and condemning the bullying and threatening tactics Nissan employed that ultimately defeated it.

I’m not writing the post, however, because my star student at the University of Mississippi, Jaz Brisack, has written a much better piece that was published this week by LikeTheDew. Mark my word, Jaz Brisack, already an active organizer and fine writer, is a future force to be reckoned with on the labor/progressive front in not only the South but across the country as well. I couldn’t be prouder of her than I am today.

Below is a link to Jaz’s article. Read and enjoy!


Saturday, December 2, 2017

The shared mission of charter schools, vouchers, the GOP, and charter school-supporting Democrats is to destroy public education

OXFORD, Miss. – My high school had one, and maybe yours did, too—the toughest teacher in the school. Feared but respected, she (it was usually a “she”) was polite but didn’t smile much, and when you entered her classroom you knew you’d better sit up straight and pay attention.

Back at my high school in Sanford, North Carolina, her name was Freda Kriminger. She taught English, and her students finished the year knowing a gerund from a regular verb as well as why Lady Macbeth couldn’t wash the blood off her hands.

I thought about Mrs. Kriminger recently as I proudly stood among several high school teachers during our induction into the East Carolina University (my alma mater) Educators Hall of Fame. I’m sure they are doing their best to keep the Kriminger legacy alive.

Still, I know that’s getting harder and harder.

In North Carolina, a state that once served as a Southern model for good public education, the right-wing Republican General Assembly is doing its best to disassemble public education. Between 2002 and 2013, North Carolina’s ranking in teacher pay dropped from 19th to 47th in the nation. Although pay increases in 2016 lifted the state to 35th, millions of taxpayer dollars are being shifted from public schools to for-profit charter schools and private school vouchers.

With a few exceptions such as the administration of Gov. Paul B. Johnson Sr. in the 1940s and Gov. William Winter in the early 1980s, public education has never had much respect or support here in Mississippi.

This is a state that had fewer than 9,000 students in public schools by the beginning of World War I.  First it was the farmers decrying the loss of child labor in the fields. “Children were encouraged to work throughout the year without regard for the importance of completing the school year,” write James W. Loewen and Charles Sallis in their classic text, Mississippi Conflict & Change about early 20th century Mississippi. “Mississippi ranked last in the nation in average days of school attendance per child … . Mississippi also ranked at the bottom in over-all financial support for education.”

By mid-century it was the race-baiters screaming about mongrelization of their precious whiteness if their children were forced to go to school with blacks.

As reported recently in Arielle Dreher’s compelling story in the Jackson Free Press on Jackson, Mississippi, public schools, the segregationist white Citizens Councils told Mississippians in 1964 that “It is better to miss school altogether than to integrate.” Indeed at the time when Governor Winter was pushing his sweeping education reform package in 1982, school attendance in Mississippi was not compulsory.

Teacher pay in Mississippi today ranks next to last—just above South Dakota—in the nation. A teacher in Mississippi averages $42,744 a year. A teacher in New York state averages $79,637. Teacher pay in the South and border states is so low that some have qualified for Habitat for Humanity housing. Many have to work two jobs to survive.

School districts across Mississippi are experiencing such faculty shortages that the state Board of Education recently agreed to ease licensing requirements.

The ongoing saga of the Jackson Public School system and its failure to meet accreditation standards is a tale of racism, poverty, mismanagement, short-sightedness, and lack of support and will.

Of course, what is happening in Mississippi is reflective of the nation as a whole. Republican rule, aided and abetted by Obama-era charter school promoters like former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have steadily undermined public school support everywhere. Charter schools and vouchers are Trojan horses, and their mission is to destroy, not to rescue.

“Will you teach me how to soar, to see things never seen before?” the poet Victor C. Johnson once wrote in homage to teachers. “But most importantly of all, will you teach me how to be, the only thing I can be … me?”

That’s the mission teachers like Freda Kriminger have always shared. Sadly, mission control is not in their hands.

A version of this column appeared recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.