U.S. Returns Balangiga Bells

The Belangiga Bells arrive in the Philippines.

The Balangiga Bells arrive in the Philippines.

The VIDEO below from The World Tonight * reports on the return from the U.S. to the Philippines of the Balangiga Bells, one of the most infamous symbols of the Philippine-American War, which raged brutally from 1899 to 1902.  After centuries of Spanish rule, the Philippines had expected independence after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War.  Filipinos had fought side by side with Americans to gain that victory in the Philippines, but suddenly the U.S. had other ideas.  It would not grant independence, but would embark upon an era of imperialism, and the bloody war ensued. To Filipino nationalists, it continued the fight for independence from Spain begun in 1896.  Americans regarded it as an insurrection.

On July 25, 2018, graduate student Bea Rodriguez-Franzen turned in a short paper (read it HERE) for my course on the “Third World.”  Titled “Brown Man’s Burden: A Commentary,” it focused on the decades-long attempt by the Philippines to have the U.S. return three bells: the Belangiga Bells, which were taken as war loot from perhaps the single bloodiest series of events in the Philippine-American war.  On November 15, 2018, roughly three months after she wrote the paper, the U.S. finally returned the bells.

The paper and VIDEO provide context and details on the Balangiga tragedy, as does a good Wikipedia article.  Because of these, I will only sketch it briefly here.

New York Journal, May 5, 1902. A vulture replaces the bald eagle on American Shield. Bottom caption reads: "Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines"

New York Journal, May 5, 1902. A vulture replaces the bald eagle on American Shield. Bottom caption reads: “Criminals Because They Were Born Ten Years Before We Took the Philippines”

“The Balangiga Massacre” originally referred to the killing of 48 American troops in the early morning of September 28, 1901, on the Island of Samar after a series of events—including the sexual assault of a Filipino woman by some American troops, the rounding up of 143 Filipino males for forced labor, and the confiscation of homes and crops.  The bells were rung supposedly to warn the troops of the attack by townspeople and tribesmen. But what followed is what the majority of people now call the real Balangiga Massacre.  Gen. Jacob A. Smith—nicknamed “Howling Jake,” or “The Monster,” or “Hell Roaring Jake”—ordered American forces to make the entire island of Samar a “howling wasteland.”  His most infamous order was condemned in the editorial cartoon at left: kill all males 10 years of age and older.  In the end, hundreds of villages were burned, and some 50,000 Filipinos killed.

In her paper Bea Rodriguez says the Philippine-American War itself, let alone the Balangiga Massacre, was left out of her history education, and she asks why it took so long for the U.S. to return the bells.  In some ways, the answer is obvious.  It required admission of a war crime—though, of course, this “admission” really wasn’t one, couched as if was in terms of “returning respect” and strengthening the bonds between two great allies.  Gen. “Howling Jake” was, in fact, court martialed and convicted for his orders, though the only punishment he ultimately faced was being forced to retire from the Army.

Balangiga5bIronically, the two Presidents under whom the Balangiga Bells were returned were Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte, two leaders not known for de-escalating crises.  Both appear briefly in the VIDEO below.

Bea Rodriguez’s paper title refers to Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which I write about HERE by way of introducing the paper of another graduate student, Janie Doutsos.  I begin this post by writing, “I had forgotten that Rudyard Kipling wrote his remarkably racist and smug poem to encourage Americans as they took over my homeland, the Philippines.  The ‘burden’ white men take up is the burden of civilizing the world.”  As the Balangiga Bells remind us yet again and again and again, “civilizing” people has often entailed murdering them by the tens of thousands, a process which throws dark questions on the word “civilization” itself.

* The World Tonight is a Philippine late night news cast airing on the ABS-CBN news channel.

  For more on Philippine culture begin with my article on one of its greatest National Artists, the writer N.V.M. Gonzalez, where I early on make reference to Americans calling Filipinos their “little brown brothers.”  Bea Rodriguez’s paper remarks about Americans soon turning to killing their little brown brothers during the Philippine-American war.

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Black Writers Picture Themselves – Part 2

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

Burt Britton’s 1976 book Self-Portrait: Book People Picture Themselves contains nearly 750 self-portraits of writers and actors, from Edward Abbey (A) to Paul Zweig (Z).  It all started when Britton, then tending bar in New York, tried to get a customer to leave, a customer who wanted drink after drink and kept asking, “What do you want from me, kid?”  In a flash of inspiration, the young Britton pushed him a napkin and said, “Draw me a picture of yourself.”  The man did.  He was a writer.  His name was Norman Mailer.  So began a life-long habit I tell more about in “Self-Portraits of the Artists.”

I was delighted to find ten self-portraits of black writers that I write about on this site—go Here for the complete list—five of which I presented in “Black Writers Picture Themselves – Part 1.”  They were Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Johnson, James Baldwin, Clarence Major, and Ronald L. Fair.  I commented there on the range of styles, “…from the scattering lines of Gwendolyn Brooks’ and Ronald L. Fair’s self-portraits, to

Leon Forrest

Leon Forrest

the bold starkness of Charles Johnson’s, and Clarence Major’s combination of these two styles.” I also said they all seemed to capture their peculiar styles and concerns—and their looks, too.

This is Part Two of “Black Writers Picture Themselves,” and in some cases the writers haven’t captured their looks at all.  Ralph Ellison did, though. And with a careful realism I find quite moving when you consider the protagonist of his great novel Invisible Man was, well, invisible.   What did he look like?  What could he look like?  It’s as if Ellison’s self-portrait is saying, Look at me.  This is what I look like, what the Invisible Man could look like.  Not so scary, so monstrous after all.

Leon Forrest‘s self-portrait is as far away from scary as you can get.  Still touching the realm of realism, his self-portrait, though, seems shot through with a childishness belying the multi-layered complexity of his fiction.  His scattering hair perhaps

James Alan McPherson

James Alan McPherson

captures his fiction’s messy-nest thickness, though in real life he was almost always seen with hair slightly slicked back and perfectly coiffed.  Which coif James Alan McPherson didn’t have in the slightest!  His self-portrait presents a bald primitiveness, almost an anti-drawing, which he explains in his note: “I’d rather write than draw”!

It’s the two women in this second set of five that are the real outliers—at least as far as self-portraits go—and I find it moving that Maya Angelou has chosen to present herself as just a set of lips with her name printed therein.  If you ever met her, as I had the great fortune to do, you understand that one of the most memorable things about her was her voice.  I suppose, then, that reducing herself to just a pair of lips makes sense.  But she was totally memorable—all of her—so it’s a kind of shocking reduction of one of the most memorable people of all time.  In “Meeting B-Angelou2Oprah,” a piece which is really about meeting Maya Angelou—whom Oprah calls “Mother”—I speculate on the traumas of her life that made her see herself in a diminished way.  Maybe that’s it: the reason her self-portrait is so diminished?

Which brings us finally to Toni Morrison, where no human form is present at all, not even lips!  Morrison pictures herself as a plant, a flower in her flower garden.  At first this seems just charmingly self-effacing, until one begins to think about Morrison’s fiction, and her extraordinary literary criticism in “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.”  I mentioned a kind of primitiveness in James Alan McPherson’s self-portrait, and I suppose there’s some of that here as well.  But a flower garden is a different kind of primitiveness than the bald skull McPherson presents.  If it’s sweeter, it’s also even more elemental in a way that suggests a kind of pre-human spirit that animates us, certainly, but all life as well.  Furthermore, it would be hard B-Morrison2to miss, in Morrison’s fiction, her obsession with shape shifting: of the human form vanishing or flying away (as in Song of Solomon) both as a form of escape and a manifestation of the human having touched some more vital, pre-human spirit.  The human doesn’t just escape this way, it also shows up this way (as in Beloved), born in from another world, almost sent back from there to take care of unfinished business.  We’re rooted in the here and now, but haunted by unfinished business in other realms of the mind, the spirit, the history and culture of our soil.

I believe there may be other black writers in the 750 or so self portraits in Burt Britton’s book, but I’m glad for these ten that add, to my mind, so much dimension to what I have written, or will write, about these writers on this site.  All writing is an exercise in portraying yourself, but pictures seem more elemental than words.  There’s that old cliche, of course, a cliche that seems more starkly true when writers themselves, so captured by, so entangled in, their nets of words, break free of them for a moment and say in pictures, Here—This, too, is me.


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James Alan McPherson: Junior and John Doe

McPhersonJames Alan McPherson wrote “Junior and John Doe” for Gerald Early’s 1993 essay collection Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation.  It’s a great essay in a great and important collection.  Twenty writers—on a spectrum from conservative (Glen Loury, for example) to liberal (Kristin Hunter Lattany)—all reflect on W.E.B. Dubois’ famous statement that the American Negro has been “gifted with a second sight,” “a double-consciousness,” “a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”  “An American, a Negro,” Dubois wrote, “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings.”

CertaintyMcPherson’s essay contends that in the battle for assimilation American blacks have begun to lose that crucial two-ness of sight, a two-ness that allowed them to maintain an ironic stance towards American culture, a stance protecting their own sense of humanity and moral certainty won in their struggles to survive racism.  This waning irony has led them, says McPherson, to give up their ability to level a strong critique at American culture, a critique the culture desperately needs to curb its aberrant desires to maintain racist structures and chase material wealth instead of spiritual depth.  “As a substitute,” he writes, “we now compete with white Americans for more creature comforts,” choosing “product, which goes against the fundamental ends of life” over “process, which is on the side of life.”  Blacks have chosen to participate in “an increasingly sophisticated bureaucratic culture” full of shallow lies and “poor quality…manipulations.”  They have become not even your average, white “John Doe” but a smaller version of that, a “Junior” following around a retrograde “father”—hence the essay’s title: “Junior and John Doe.”

Next to the writings of James Baldwin, I believe this McPherson essay is one of the deepest looks at black culture in America and how White and Black could relate to each other in profound, transformative ways. If only they would.

“Traditionally, it has always been black Americans who call attention to the distance between asserted ideals and daily practices, because it is the black American population which best symbolizes the consequences of the nation’s contradictions,” he writes near the beginning of the piece.  “This unenviable position, or fate, has always provided black Americans with a minefield of ironies, a ‘knowingness,’ based on a painful intimacy with the cruel joke at the center of the problematic American identity.  At the core of this irony there used to reside the basic, if unspoken, understanding that identity in America is almost always a matter of improvisation, a matter of process; that most Americans are, because of this, confidence people; and that, given the provisional nature of American reality at almost any time, ‘black’ could be in reality ‘white,’ and ‘white’ could be in reality ‘black.’”

LureLoatheThat’s how close the relationship could be.  A two-ness that’s close to being a one-ness.  But black culture’s ability to influence American culture towards greater humanity requires that it keep its own culture—its own inner “feeling tones”—nourished and intact.  For at the core of this culture is a moral certainty America as a whole needs, especially now in this time of an ethics based on fashion, self-interest, and greed.  “This [certainty] was our true wealth, our capital,” he writes.  “The portion of this legacy that fueled the civil rights movement was a belief that any dehumanization of another human being was wrong…Beneath it was the assumption that the experience of oppression had made us more human, and that this higher human awareness was about to project a vision of what a fully human life, one not restricted by color, should be.”

This didn’t happen, obviously—though perhaps it still could?—because blacks lost touch with that protective irony that kept white American culture at bay.  “It seems to me,” says McPherson, “that by the end of the 80’s black Americans had become a thoroughly ‘integrated’ group…at last no better than and no worse than anyone else.”  “Something humanly vital in them had been defeated, and they were involved in a constant process of self-improvisation,” BUT “an improvisation relying on the ‘tape’ provided by some external script” [my emphasis].  It was a white script, one that’s come to fruition today, enabled by the Trump Presidency, as a script desperately wanting to define a static, white identity for America, not one moving towards a fuller, more inclusive humanity, propelled by a creative, improvisational exchange between black and white.  That’s become less possible because the core vitality of that blackness has been given away by blacks themselves.  If McPherson were alive today, I can just see him saying, “See what you get when you, black people, give up aspiring for the deep humanity you fought for all through the Civil Rights Era, and now just aspire to be a plain John Doe?”

♦  My favorite short story collection is McPherson’s Elbow Room, winner of the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Here he illustrates—in wonderful, moving fiction—some of the ideas in “Junior and John Doe.”  I am fortunate to have counted James Alan McPherson as one of my acquaintances—even a friend, perhaps.  That relationship is briefly sketched in Part One of my 2004 piece “Miscegenation and Me.”

  Go to a list of Black Writers on this site.

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