Lucy Parsons: Increasing the Sum of Human Happiness

Parsons1Born into slavery in Texas, Lucy Parsons sometimes shunned her African-American identity, claiming her Native and Mexican-American heritage for self-protection instead.  However, her marriage to the white Albert Parsons so clearly defied Southern anti-miscegenist society that they were forced to flee, winding up in Chicago in 1873, where she and her husband’s anarchist, labor activism reached its height, particularly in the infamous Chicago Haymarket riots of 1886.  Albert was one of the men eventually hung for allegedly being part of a conspiracy, and Lucy Parsons herself barely escaped execution.  A mighty opponent of poverty, racism, and capitalism all her life, Lucy Parsons was known as a fiery orator and a skillful organizer of workers, and into her late 70’s she lectured throughout the country championing free speech and fair working conditions.

She was also a writer, but most of her work and her library quickly and mysteriously disappeared immediately after the house fire that killed her, and rumors linger that it was confiscated by government authorities that always kept close watch on her.  In 1889 she wrote The Life of Albert Parsons, with Brief History of the Labor Movement in America, a biography which indicted the injustices that led to her husband’s execution.

Parsons4Haymarket, a new folk musical—(read my review of it Here)—focuses heavily on the contrast between Lucy and Albert concerning violence, the latter always pleading for non-violence.  Lucy sees it differently.  Her most famous writing is the essay “To Tramps,” which advocates direct violence against the state for the redress of wrongs against workers and the poor.  It ends with the famous imperative: “Learn to use explosives!”  Because it is readily available on the internet, for my book Black Writing from Chicago, I chose to represent Lucy Parsons with an interview she gave to the New York World, an interview Albert Parsons included in his Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Scientific Basis published in 1887.  In a brief editorial introduction to this piece, he calls this “the most succinct account we have ever seen” of the philosophy and goals of anarchism.

May 1986, 100-Year Commemoration of the "Haymarket Affair" at Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Part, IL.  Lucy and Albert Parsons are buried here.

May 1986, 100-Year Commemoration of the “Haymarket Affair” at Forest Home Cemetery, Forest Part, IL. Lucy and Albert Parsons are buried here.

In a recent email, one of my former students, James Stewart, tells of using Black Writing from Chicago in class, mentioning Parsons as one of the highlights.  “The amount of times I’ve pored over that book for inspiration and ideas for my class along with my own personal writing has been invaluable. I may never have come across Leanita McClain, Lucy Parsons, or Frank London Brown without it and what a shame that would have been. The class in which the student discussed Parsons and Hampton was one of the absolute highlights. To hear freshman from various backgrounds debating the merits of violent and non-violent revolution, along with America’s constant struggle against white supremacy definitely helped give me hope in the ongoing struggle for justice and equality, which was hard to come by this year.”

The interview I used for Black Writing from Chicago begins: “This is the evolutionary stage of anarchism.  The revolutionary period will be reached when the great middle classes are practically extinct. The great monopolies and corporations and syndicates met with on every hand are now rapidly extinguishing the middle classes, which we regard as the one great bulwark between the monopoly or wealthy class and the great producing or working class.”  This has such a contemporary ring that my students are always shocked that the interview was given in the late 1880’s!  And though a great deal of Parsons’ fire came from her not shying away from violence, this piece shows the larger context of her stance.  It’s a judicious use of violence.  And “anarchism” appears here as a political vision where politics isn’t totally abandoned but is radically de-centered.  It also places great store by guilds and unions.  “We hold,” says Parsons, “that the granges, trade-unions, Knights of Labor assemblies, etc., are the embryonic groups of the ideal anarchist society.”  Towards what end?  “Drudgery, such as exists to-day, will be reduced to a minimum. The children will be taken from the factories and sent to museums and schools…people will have more time for pleasure and cultivation of the mind…we claim that the sum of human happiness will be increased, while the drudgery and poverty and misery of the world of today, all due to the powerful concentration of capital, will be done away with.”

Such visions led to many practical reforms.  Anarchism as political philosophy has obvious shortcomings, but now in an age where the concentration of capital has reached heights greater than even she imagined—heights in many ways exceeding even the Great Depression*—we could do worse than turn at least a partial ear to Parson’s call for an equality that would increase “the sum of human happiness.”

* Read “Graphic Inequality,” about growing income inequality in America.

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

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Someone Overuses a Pager

In memory of the old, old days before smart phones.
Do pagers even exist anymore?



Not to speak directly to you, or to do so, is to choose
Between the fear of the distant and the fear of the proximate,
As in, A: The fear of a nothingness that really is there,

Empty, its cold comprised of stolen warmth. Or, B: The
Fear of the heart made too human by the sound of your voice,
Of words turned too honest by the breath of your voice.

Today I choose “B” and feel lucky you have a pager,
Feel lucky that everything—these sunsets, those jetting
Geese—can be digitized, rendered cool as numbers.

When you hear the beep, vibrations follow.
These half-bits traversing a screen of liquid crystal.
These emotions nearly coded, almost distant.
0000   Means I hope you find this annoyance charming.

0001   Means one of the boys may have fallen out of the
          Garage loft, but probably not. Cancel this message.

0010   Everything adds up. What it adds up to is another matter,
          Which is why all accountants should have minored in religion.

0100   I see you writing, gripping the pen in that funny way that
          Has given you a callous on the tip of your middle finger.

1000   The center depends on the margin. Order on chaos.
          Degas scribbles randomly until a ballerina appears.

1001   Call if you need help, or to tell me that you don’t need help.
          In either case, I will think I do not know what to do.

1010   Every time I’m on a bridge I have a dizzying urge to
          Jump off, unless it’s arching over a pond filled with lilies.

1100   It’s me, only voiceless, a body of 0’s and 1’s, fears
          Cycling to a Boolean rhythm—on, off, on, off, on…

1111   Milk pours silkily out of glass bottles. We’re out of this milk.
          Pick up a plastic gallon on your way home, noting the decline.

1110   The Twist, The Swim, Texas Line Dancing, Saturday Night
          Fever Disco. This yearning for Waltzes, close and slow.

1101   I miss you. River Birch, Norwegian Maple, Buckeye, Pin Oak.
          Names I chant to branches black against purple winter sky.

1011   This thing in 0100. I know this. It is one of the smallest
          Things I know. I smile because I know I know this.

0111   Within this numbering system only 16 distinct markings may
          Be possible: what I have to say is only definite, not infinite.

0011   This sudden urge to dial, to talk directly. This red streaking
          Through the thick pastels of Monet’s Giverny.

I wrote this poem—in homage and parody of Wallace Stevens—for my wife Linda. When it also appeared in the Wallace Stevens Journal (in slightly different form), she said: “I thought you wrote this just for me?”   Well, yes, but…

GO TO Poems and Poetry Commentary on this site.

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Pentecost Means No “Supremacies”

We celebrate the Church’s “birth” on Pentecost Sunday, the day the promised Holy Spirit arrived.  This year we celebrated on May 20th, a Sunday where at my church its large Filipino group took charge of the service.  The VIDEO below shows the sermon I gave, but before you watch it, please read these

Corrections, Additions, Disclaimers:

I think about my sermons a lot, but then usually speak extemporaneously, with little or no notes; so sometimes things don’t come out quite as planned.  Here are three main things I wanted to “disclaim,” at least slightly, or correct.

1)  At 13:23 into the sermon I simply misspeak, saying that half the anger of the current white supremacist backlash doesn’t come from “hating whites.”  I meant to say “hating people of color.”  I was pointing out a great irony of this backlash.  Though of course many white Emptysupremacist do hate people of color, perhaps as much of their anger comes from hating what they consider this country’s white elites.  I say the “majority” of their anger comes from hating these elites, though it’s probably a slim majority, like 50.9%.  People of color and women continue to be the live proxies for their anger, and they take it out on them rather than the white elites they detest.  I could also have added that a decisive number of whites who voted for Trump did so because they hated “white elites.”

2)  I say that James Baldwin’s words concern patriarchy as well as white supremacy, which I think they do, though he doesn’t say this directly, just heavily implies it.

3)  I say white supremacy and patriarchy hurt whites and males as much as it does people of color and women.  I do stand by this, in a way, though I do not mean to equate this to the suffering of people of color and women at the hands of whites and males.  This suffering has been horrendous at both the personal and systemic level, and it continues, in many cases unabated, or only slightly improved.  But it does hurt whites and males deeply and profoundly, as all oppressors are hurt when they oppress others.  They spend tremendous amounts of psychic and physical energy maintaining this oppression, and they close themselves off from being in touch with and developing their own humanity.  It’s a stunning loss and hurt for them, though they often don’t know this consciously.  In fact, they often continue oppressing others to shield themselves from their own monstrousness, their unease and emptiness.

WhiteSupremThere’s more I could say to “correct, add, or disclaim,” and not just because I might have misspoken or said things that could be taken the wrong way.  I lean heavily on James Baldwin’s writings in this sermon, and say a couple of times that his writings are complex, ironic, paradoxical.  They are this way partly because the nature of the things I touched on—and I really did just touch on them—is also supremely complex, ironic, and paradoxical.  All this complexity underlies the main message of the sermon: the first thing the Holy Spirit does is to announce that in this “new religion,” which quickly becomes Christianity, there is no room for “supremacies,” not white supremacy, male supremacy, or any kind.  At the center of our faith, I say, is an empty tomb.  Jesus isn’t there.  He’s out on the peripheries, the margins, of society.  He was often criticized for hanging out there, but it’s out there that differences can be more easily accepted and celebrated, and we don’t have to be like those people—white supremacists, male supremacists, or anyone else—who try to proclaim, with supreme unease, that we must submit to their rule and be like them to be full members of what they think is their society.  To paraphrase Baldwin: When they stop thinking like this, not only will all of us be freer, they, too, will also be freer than they ever thought they could be.

Another note:  Kloie Valdez reads scripture, Ann Louise Kuehn sings “Bayan Ko,” one of the Philippines’ great patriotic songs.  I cut the song short because when she’s singing the mic does not pick up the instrumental track she’s singing to.  Read more about “Bayan Ko” HERE.

  Hear another sermon, this one on Sacred Doing.

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