James David Corrothers: The Closed Gate of Justice

Illustration of James David Corrothers "In the Manner of Two Men"As a young man James David Corrothers (1869-1917) entered the ministry and stayed in it his whole life.  He also wrote poetry and in his day was, among Black poets, second in popularity only to Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Like Dunbar he wrote many popular dialect poems, most notably “An Indignation Dinner,” and, like Dunbar, several classic poems about Blacks, whites, and racial injustice.  At left is a panel from the Graphic Classics series, Volume 22: African-American Classics—Great Stories and Poems from America’s Earliest Black Writers, illustrating Corrother’s poem “In the Matter of Two Men.” Corrothers says that because the white man “seeks the soft, fat place,” the black man grows stronger as he works and studies so hard.  Because of this Corrothers says, “I know which man must win at last, / I know!  Ah, Friend, I know!”  Such confidence was matched by a keen sense of injustice, as in his most quoted poem “At the Closed Gate of Justice,” which I included in my book Black Writing from Chicago.  It begins:

To be a Negro in a day like this
Demands forgiveness. Bruised with blow on blow,
Betrayed, like him whose woe dimmed eyes gave bliss,
Still must one succor those who brought one low,
To be a Negro in a day like this.

The next two stanzas name other things that being “a Negro in a day like this” demands: “rare patience” and “strange loyalty.”  The next, and final, final stanza has the speaker passing by the still-closed gate of justice.  It shines with gold and amethyst, but remains a “goal unwon.”

James David CorrothersBesides two books of poetry (the 1907 Selected Poems, and the 1914 The Dream and the Song), Corrothers published an autobiography, In Spite of Handicap, in 1916.  The handicap was race, of course, but also more complicated than that.  No less than W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his obituary for Corrothers that he was “a man whom not only white people, but the colored people themselves did much to deprive of a real chance; yet he made his rugged way.”  DuBois pronounced Corrothers’ passing as, “A serious loss to the race and to literature.”

In his autobiography Corrothers speaks disparagingly about what is for me perhaps his most interesting book, The Black Cat Club, a collection of humorous sketches which originally appeared in Chicago newspapers.  He says he regrets its publication, which he allowed only because “expenses had to be met.”  The fictional club met to read poems and discuss issues of the day, and in Black Writing from Chicago I included an excerpt of “De Eddicated Cullud,” which satirizes the pretenses of the educated.  The Black Cat Club shows yet another side Corrothers’ wide-ranging, sometimes contradictory, output.  While “In the Matter of Two Men” valorizes education, “De Eddicated Cullud” seems to ridicule it.  As the title suggests, it was also written in dialect, making the insult to education even more intense.  Yet in many ways Corrothers was seeking to put education in its place, to warn the race that it needed more than a diploma.  It needed to sharpen its street smarts.  It needed financial power.

“It don’t do no good foh to ‘buse de Southern white folks; an’ to tell ‘em whut God’s goin’ to do to ‘em ef dey don’t stop lynchin’ de niggahs,” begins the most crucial section of the piece.  “Dat only makes ‘em mad.  De thaing foh to do is to be a genamun an’ git yo’ pocket full o’ check books, fust mo’gages an’ cash.

“Now, s’posen dey wuz a lynchin’ ‘bout to take place, an’ de curly-headed brunette whut was to be de pahty acted upon hel’ a fust mo’gage on de home uv evah man in de lynchin’ pahty. An’ s’posen mose o’ dem mo’gages wuz ‘bout due er ovah due; an’ s’posen jes’ ‘fo’ dey lit de fiah er strung ‘im up, de cullud man wuz to say: ‘Genamuns, ef you lynches me, ma son ‘ll fo’close all ma mo’gages t’morrer!   Dis am ma ultimatum!  Do you thaink dey would have any lynchin’-bee ‘at day?  No sah!  Now, whut could de college dahkey do?—Nothin’ but say his prayers.  All de big wo’ds in de dictionary couldn’t save ‘im!”

For sure Corrothers proposes a vision of self-sufficiency that has deep roots in the Black struggle to protect itself from the white world.  Owning properties and businesses would become a major goal of Blacks in the years to come, and it remains a vital goal today when ownership has often dropped in many areas of the country.  In 2007 I was invited to the great Haki Maddhubuti’s 65th birthday party.  As he rose to address us, his first words were: “We own this place.  Can’t nobody throw us out.”  The American Quarterly published an essay on Corrothers by Princeton’s Kevin Gaines in its September 1993 issue.  The title makes reference to Corrothers’ dialect writing, but also sums up the importance of Corrothers and his vision of a truly free black future: “Assimilationist Minstrelsy as Racial Uplift Ideology: James D. Corrothers’ Literary Quest for Black Leadership.”

Go to a list of Black Writers written about on this site, and/or the Teaching Diversity main page.

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2014 Fall Festival of Independent Film

CELLULOID logoOn Sunday, September 14th, we begin the FOURTH ANNUAL Fall Festival of Independent Film at North Central College.  The college’s student film club CELLULOID hosts the event, a partnership with the Naperville Independent Film Festival (NIFF), now in its 7th year.

 Go here to view or download a full 2014 Schedule.

NIFF shows most of its foreign films at the college, films which come from Paris’ European Independent Film Festival (the ECU).  To get to Paris, films have to have won an award at another festival.  They’re judged again in Paris, and we show some of the winners there—making most of our foreign film showings double-winners to begin with.

A still from "iminy," one of the films in this year's festival.

A still from “Jiminy,” one of the films in this year’s festival.

This year features 18 films from the U.S. and eight other countries.  All shows start at 7:00 p.m. in Smith Hall, on the second floor of Old Main, 30 N. Brainard St., on the North Central College campus in Naperville.  We don’t want money to be a big obstacle, so the ticket prices are low:  $3 an evening and $12 for the whole week for North Central College students, faculty and staff, and $5 an evening and $16 for the week for the general public.

Best Animated Short Film, "Drag Me," from Greece.

Best Animated Short Film, “Drag Me,” from Greece.

Among the films in this year’s festival Jiminy follows Nathaniel, who works as a repair man fixing brain implants called “crickets” that allow people for a probably-not-so-distant-future to switch into “auto mode” any time they choose.  Jiminy, a French film, took home the Best Director prize from Paris.  Heritage explores the extraordinary place of guns in Swiss culture, Switzerland—that icon of neutrality—currently being the third most armedcountry on the planet.  The Best Animated Short Film went to Drag Me, from Greece.  And Best Non-European Documentary went to a U.S. film, Not Anymore, the story of the Syrian revolution told through the experiences of two young people, a rebel fighter and a journalist.

"Not Anymore," a film about the revolution in Syria is featured in the 2014 Festival.

“Not Anymore,” a film about the revolution in Syria is featured in the 2014 Festival.



Revisit past festivals:  2012 Schedule, 2013 Schedule.


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Remembering London – Part 5: Fear the “Urine”

Rochfort YoungEarly morning, August 17, 2014.  An email from Mr. Andrew Keen tells me of the passing of Rochfort Young.  He and Peter Knowles were my compatriots at Table 17 in the dining room of Vincent House, the Notting Hill residential hotel I stayed at in the Fall of 2000.  Pictured at left among the late-breakfast debris of our table, Rochfort—who always came down late—was initially standoffish to this stranger (me) invading the table he and Peter claimed as their special haven.  Rochfort had lived there since 1986.  That he soon let me into their circle and into his good graces stands as one my fondest memories of London…and of relationships generally.  Once past his sometimes thorny exterior, one came close to an extraordinary intelligence, even if one didn’t agree with all its particular opinions.  One also came close to a sensitive, vulnerable soul, which—I strongly sensed—that tough exterior and those strong, strong opinions had been erected to protect.  The following remembrance features Rochfort and Peter.

At Vincent House these are heady days for Rochfort Young.  A confirmed enemy of the Euro, he has taken to calling it the “Urine.”  Often he brushes past me at table #17 on his way to pick up his dinner entre, slapping the Financial Times in his left palm and announcing, “Good news!  The urine has fallen again!” as indeed it steadily has.  Rochfort expects it to sink to 80 or below which won’t wreck the European Union, but just might keep England from joining it.  Tony Blair is for joining, another reason he seems so widely despised, though his current majority in Parliament—he has at least 50 votes more than he needs for a majority, while the Conservatives have just half of what they would need—makes him untouchable for now.  A profoundly conservative Thatcherite, Rochfort is at least not as much a conspiritorialist thinker as Peter Knowles.


Rochfort, middle-left, at a Vincent House Celebration.

I invited Peter and Rochfort to attend a lecture on European business, making them promise not to interrupt, but asking them to respond afterwards.  Our lecturer was oddly brilliant.  He said that it made all the sense in the world for Europe to unite and adopt a single currency and for England to go along too.  Yet in the end during a straw poll he voted against the EU and the euro, saying, in essence, that culture weighed more heavily than sense, and there was just too much cultural separatism for a United States of Europe ever to come into being.  Rochfort, not wanting to miss the hot meal at Vincent House, didn’t show, but Peter did and was delighted.  Nearly two-thirds of our students stayed for Peter’s response which began: “I’m against the EU because you have to trust people you do business with and how can you trust the *@!&#$* French and Germans.”  About the fifth time he called them backstabbers, sonofabitches, and ruthless lying bastards, I jumped up claiming no responsibility for him or anything he said.  The students loved it.

Peter Knowles and Rochfort Young

Peter Knowles and Rochfort, deans of Table 17. Peter wears a Christmas crown!

The very next day when I came down to breakfast Peter said, “Richard, get your food and sit down.  I have something that will interest you.”  There on the front page of the Financial Times just below the fold was this story:  “Chirac repeats his call for France and Germany to lead two-tier EU.”  And on page 9, this: “Prodi fights back over EU reform call.”  France and Germany propose that those countries ready to join the EU and adopt the euro do so now under their leadership while those not ready simply join when and if they want.  But European Commission president Romano Prodi chides them, saying that “Too much direct co-operation between governments at the expense of an approach involving the Commission and parliament would undermine the democratic nature of the whole EU structure and would be a seriously retrograde step.”  For Peter it’s the same old story of the French and Germans grabbing power, and he believes, further, that Germany is only leading the French on until such time as it can flatten them economically and occupy the top of a European hierarchy alone.  He made me promise to copy the two articles and hand them out to our students, saying, “While I may be a lunatic, I’m not totally crazy.”

Even a bigger conspiratorialist is Torquil Dirk-Erickson.  An Englishman who has lived in Rome for 30 years, Torquil spends about a month a year at Vincent House.  His business is getting his Italian clients to good English language schools in London, and he visits to check on quality and get new leads.  He is one of Vincent House’s grandest eccentrics and occasionally comes to meals in suits so wrinkled I think the only way he could have rumpled them so was if he’d slept in them.  I have watched him night after night eat entire apples with a knife and fork, not once touching them fully by hand, and paring the skin away so thickly that only small portions of the inner flesh remain. An anti-papist, he says Italians, too, could care less about going to church, but everyone in Europe is in thrall to the Pope.  His Italian seems wonderfully energetic, though much too clipped, but the years in Italy have done crazy things to the accents of his native tongue.  Imagine the most exaggerated English accent you can, complete with squared-off face, mouth pulled tightly downward at the corners—bull-doggish, Churchill-style—and double it. “No one would dare offend the Pope,” he says.  The word “offend” lingers and glides down on the “n” until it suddenly swoops down to the “d” which bites off the glide so vigorously that it becomes another syllable: like, “No one would dare offennnnnnnnnn-da the Pope,” the last two words delivered lightly after a lyrical pause.  “It’s a kind of exaggerated actor’s English,” says Janet Macam, Vincent House’s resident Aussie, a crossword puzzled addict delighted that her name is a palindrome.  (That’s her in the large picture above directly across from Rochfort.)  But I was going to say before this excursion on Torquillian English that he fears most the proposal, already partly realized, of a European police force.  If England becomes too contrary, he feels it will just be invaded.

A September 30th London Times article by home affairs correspondent Philip Johnston, reports that,  “Protestors will accuse Tony Blair of treason today to highlight the perceived threat to British sovereignty posed by the forthcoming European Union summit in Nice…A ‘notice of treason’—naming Mr Blair, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Attorney-General—is to be handed in at courts across the country.”

And it’s not just Blair.  “If the Queen signs anything coming out of Nice,” Torquil says, “she should be brought up on sedition charges herself!”  And it’s not just the EU.  Many people here believe that at no other time in history has British sovereignty lain so much in the balance.  Or even the concept of Britishness itself.

My assertion in an earlier remembrance that the British needed to talk more about race caused some consternation here.  Yet on October 11th, while I was back in Chicagoland for a night before flying on to San Francisco, a 400-page report on multiculturalism in Britain was released under the auspices of Home Secretary Jack Straw.  “The word ‘British’ is racist–report” reads a headline in the Evening Standard, and in The Independent this headline: “Britishness is racially coded idea, Straw told.”  The headlines seem intemperate for a nation not used to thinking this way.  There are recommendations to revise and rewrite the histories used in schools to include both the contributions of minorities as well as the oppression visited upon them by “the British.”  There’s a quiet uproar over this in London, as you can imagine, the quietness due in part to how deeply this hits the British psyche, and in part because there’s so much else to be in an uproar about.  “We should not engage in flagellation over our glorious past,” said Gerald Howarth, a Conservative member of the Home Affairs Select Committee.  “I for one am proud of our imperial heritage.”  In Naperville one of the results of the diversity plan I helped put together for District 203 is that diversity is now one of the nine civic virtues at the center of the social studies curriculum.  [See brochure of this plan.]  Because people at Vincent House know a little of my work back home, there is often an uneasy silence when conversations begin touching these issues.  The silence just never lasts that long.

Robert Weil

Robert Wyle, the oft-embattled head of Vincent House.

“What are you people up to at Table 17?!” demanded Robert Wyle, Vincent House’s manager.  He slapped down the paper containing Johnston’s article, which specifically identifies Torquill not only as one of those bringing treason charges—but also as a resident of Vincent House!  As he strode away indignantly I thought I heard him mumbling under his breath what he’d said to me many times: “Richard, I don’t run Vincent House.  Vincent House runs me.”


♦ Go to the Lead Post in my Remembering London series.

Go to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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