The Clare Spark Blog

April 9, 2018

Ralph Ellison’s ambivalence re white racism

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Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was copyrighted in 1947, but the book was not published until 1952. It has become a classic of “Negro” literature. This blog is about his mixed message concerning black nationalism, for Ellison took care to separate himself from the separatist movement headed by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. And yet he gave much testimony regarding the appalling degree of what would be called today “white racism.” Moreover the last one-third of the book is a round condemnation of betrayal by the Communist Party (of which, like Richard Wright and other blacks in the American branch of the CP, the invisible man was an ex-member).

And yet Ellison was heaped with honors by the literary establishment; similarly he always seemed to me to be the most level-headed analyst of the (unfulfilled) promise of American life as it pertained to black citizens. This blog is also about the Herman Melville declaration that “the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.” For Melville shared Ellison’s ambivalence about the future of American democracy and the rationalism advanced by the Enlightenment. The “Epilogue” to Invisible Man suggests that Ellison had backtracked on his initial mocking words about “social responsibility,” just as Melville separated himself from Captain Ahab in the Epilogue to Moby-Dick.

One review of Ellison’s masterpiece (and his single published novel) mentions that the author became more conservative in temperament as he got older. Such is the case with many ex-communists. Perhaps Ellison, like Melville, was always upwardly mobile, and yet his emphasis on (white racism), so persuasively presented in the novel Invisible Man, must ingratiate him with today’s liberals and other moderates who support such separatist movements as “Black Lives Matter.”


July 9, 2016

Understanding “Black Lives Matter”

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Prince obit in Nation

Prince obit in Nation

[Update: 7-12-16: Nothing in this blog should suggest that I agree with the premises of black nationalism, and certainly not BLM. But I do deplore those who underestimate the condition of black persons; though many have climbed the class ladder since the early 20th century (the Niagara Movement, 1905)), the black masses have been left behind.]

It would be very easy to join with conservatives who are indignantly denouncing black nationalism (Black Lives Matter, Nation of Islam, Black Panthers) as controlled by white leftists (or worse). This blog is about my rejection of this political strategy (despite the pervasive antisemitism in these all-black, separatist groups), spiced with my own life experience as a Jewish woman born in 1937.

What prompted this statement was Sean Hannity’s program 7-8-16, where he was covering the Baton Rouge demonstration (live), and kept asking his local Louisiana surrogate to ask the protesters why they were supporting Barack Obama, given the record of black unemployment, etc. or if they were not ignoring “the presumption of innocence” rule that should have led them to understand that their demonstration was inappropriate. He also kept urging the surrogate to denounce Black Lives Matter (for their chant “Pigs in a blanket….”).

The demonstrators (all young and black) were having none of this, and I think I know why, for I found Hannity’s long-distance confrontation with the protesters to be wrong-headed, unempathic, and gross.

My father volunteered for the Medical Corps in 1942, and, as he was a pathologist working at various army bases in Texas, Missouri, and California, we followed him around. In school after school, I was the only Jewish girl amid a sea of white Christians. The teachers took me under their wings, and made me the teacher’s pet, so I was sheltered from the rejection of my fellows.

It was not until after the war when we lived in a veteran’s housing project that I felt the wrath of white boys (and girls?) with Italian, Irish, and Polish names. I bonded with some, but was chased home one afternoon by a gang of Elmhurst boys, one of whom was brandishing a knife. My mother confronted the principal of P.S. 13, one Lillian Eschenbecker (a German name!), who pronounced that I was like a shiny red apple, appetizing “on the outside, but rotten to the core.”

I have forgotten much of my life, but that incident will always be with me, for the rest of my scholastic career, I was most comfortable among other Jews, male and female alike. But I turned my righteous anger against myself, and have symptoms to this day.

For other mature white people lacking empathy with angry, bottled-up residentially segregated blacks, railing against [white] authority or millionaire actors and musicians, may I recommend that you read 20th century black authors, who have turned to fiction to express their maddening rage and longing for solidarity?  I remember reading Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, noting their candor– alongside of wistful desires to be accepted by a larger whole and not just as “gladiators.”

Once, at a big UCLA conference in the humanities, I turned around to face a packed room of faculty and students, pleading for integrated, not just the trendy separatist, classes in women’s and ethnic studies.  Famous honcho Hayden White came up to me to ask (ironically?) if I was on the job market, while other big shots (all white tenured professors) mocked me for imputed racism and un-hipness.

At this point in my life, I have experienced enough injustice to understand the cry of “no justice, no peace.”

I wish that I had had similar instruction when I was young and foolish.

November 14, 2015

No boundaries

David K. Flowers blog, photo credit

David K. Flowers blog, photo credit

It is difficult to wrench my focus away from the massacre in Paris, to concentrate on the ongoing turmoil in our most important universities, but try I must.

(First read this blog: By far the best course I took at UCLA while I pursued my doctorate was a seminar on slavery and Reconstruction taught by Margaret Washington (now at Cornell University but known as Maggie Creel when I studied with her).

Margaret Washington

We read histories written by Kenneth Stampp, Stanley Elkins, Herbert Gutman, Eugene Genovese, James Oakes, Peter H. Wood, Frank Owsley, and many more specialists on the history of the antebellum, Civil War, and postbellum South, looking often at opposing views regarding institutions and events. Dr. Creel was a strong feminist, and at least when I studied with her, she was no black nationalist. UCLA’s famously “Red” history department did not appreciate her many merits, and she left after receiving the offer from Cornell University.

It was obvious from all my graduate studies that the history of the “peculiar institution” was central to the study of US History, and in later reading, I read the major novels of Thomas Dixon, and caught up on the most recent thinking of such academic superstar historians as David Brion Davis, David Blight, Seymour Drescher, Eric Foner, and their contemporaries, all of whom were writing during the rise of black nationalism (the latter ideology a departure from Martin Luther King Jr.’s focus on integration).

I remain puzzled over their reluctance to study the transformation of the 1960s civil rights movement from integrationism to (divisive) nationalism, though I believe that the transformation of the leftist line against the very concept of “race” was central to their silence on a subject of central importance to their profession, not to speak of contemporary social movements that accept without demur separatist and “multicultural” “African-American” histories. (Do we really want to legitimate Pan-Africanism?) These eminent intellectuals accepted without protest the lack of boundaries between MLK Jr. (and his contemporary Ralph Bunche) and their most famous opponent, the now glorified Malcolm X.

In short, I believe that these prominent professors had gone with the flow. No boundaries, unlike the line drawn by Maggie Creel in 1984.

Prize-winning book by Margaret Washington on Sojourner Truth

Prize-winning book by Margaret Washington on Sojourner Truth

It was also in graduate school, that I witnessed an angry black student walking out on a lecture by Ira Berlin (by then, another prominent scholar of slavery, whose talk was focused on the creativity of many slaves, who planted their own vegetable gardens to supplement an inadequate diet furnished by their owners). This furious militant did not want to hear about slavery at all. He was obviously a warrior of the type presaging “Black Lives Matter.”

Turn now to Peter H. Wood’s major contribution, The Black Majority (on South Carolina), that I reread a short time ago. My major take away from that impressively researched work was the ongoing rivalry between black and white workers; i.e., bitter labor competition was the lingering effect of slavery. This focus on class was a welcome diversion from the now constant concentration on a supposed “institutional racism,” not to speak of the endless leftist attack on “American exceptionalism,” as if, for the protesters, blacks were still toiling on plantations. Labor competition also explains why some white policemen (themselves often of working class/urban ethnic origin) might be quick on the trigger.

Back to boundaries and the lack of them. The cry of black militants (and their lefty allies) against an obviously overstated “white supremacy” suggests that they too have no boundaries between past and present. It is clear that the fights over slavery shaped American history, but many Americans have given their lives to stop the racist practices of the past, not least in the Civil War and in the 1960s too..

One can only speculate on the parenting that misshaped today’s “social justice” warriors demanding reparations and revolution. Their liberal professors and various delinquent parents should take responsibility for their children’s deficient educations. In a misguided revolt against “puritanism” (New England is often blamed for the introduction of slavery) professors and parents alike have driven their students and children into primitivism and a misguided life that celebrates the escape into terror.

It is not only Islamo-fascists we should fear today.

More boundaries, please.

David K. Flowers blog, photo credit

David K. Flowers blog, photo credit

October 17, 2015

The October 2015 Political Scene in a few words

Credit SodaHead

Credit SodaHead

I apologize for the satirical, repulsive picture of Mrs. Clinton, but Hillary is turning into a hag/Medusa/Gorgon because aging women can’t yell as she often does. They are already suspect as crones. I noticed that the 1960s rallies featured speakers who hollered. The more feverish part of the Sixties are partly over, though their effects linger in the Democrat Party.

Hillary is also evoking the image of the unreliable mother: too many switches from smiling protector to scolding and disapproval, turning her opponents to stone. She has flip flopped frequently in her move to out-“socialist” Bernie Sanders: gay marriage, free trade, and the Keystone Pipeline (that the State Department approved under her watch as Madam Secretary).

Bernie. The idea that he is a communist or some kind of ultra-leftist boring from within is absurd; real communists abolish private property altogether, would never tweak the system as vindictive populists would. He is a regular social democrat, imitating the (failing) West European states. The Old “McCarthyite” Right was understandably confused. Statist New Dealers, statist Stalinists, and statist Fascists were all conflated in the notion of “totalitarianism,” a notion perpetuated by social democrats and other New Dealers. (On their secret thoughts see, retitled “Balance, equilibrium, and psychological warfare.”)

Black Lives Matter. Anyone reading the history of black people in this country may be tempted to erase boundaries between past and present. Our transformation to a non-racist society creeps along, but it is untrue that there has been no black progress. Dems still push the idea of white supremacy to mobilize the black base, all the while ignoring labor competition as a factor not to be ignored, lest they be labeled as Reds, which is a no-no for social democrats. For origins of the movement, see They don’t mention black nationalism, however.

Renee Jones Schneider Star Tribune 4/29/15 Minneapolis

Renee Jones Schneider Star Tribune 4/29/15 Minneapolis

The Mid-East. Fox News Channel continues its moderate approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, criticizing POTUS for not seeing that Israelis are victims, not morally equivalent perpetrators. But they don’t review the history of the region: Arab elites were horrified that Europeans were cooperating in parking modernizing Jews in “their” neighborhood. “Palestinians” still insist on the Right of Return, which would destroy the notion of a Jewish national home. Oil politics matter too.

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