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In The Prison of His days

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In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

- W.H.Auden

We consider ourselves a free nation. We have the vote. We can choose our representatives. Well, so can black Americans.

We never identify with the African-American. And why should we look down when we are trained since childhood to look up? The streets of Dhaka were recently bannered with announcements of the latest lottery for American citizenship. "DV-2007 Let's go to the land of our dreams,  America!" Newspapers reported that the cyber-cafes were full since the forms had to be filled in on-line.

We were the "niggers" and "wogs" of the British Empire. For the first term, read casually through George Orwell's Burmese Days. Here's one passage that always has me chuckling:


"'Is it quite playing the game,' he said stiffly, 'to call these people niggers--a term they very naturally resent--when they are obviously nothing of the kind? The Burmese are Mongolians, the Indians are Aryans or Dravidians, and all of them are quite distinct--'

"'Oh, rot that!' said Ellis, who was not at all awed by Mr Macgregor's official status. 'Call them niggers or Aryans or what you like. What I'm saying is that we don't want to see any black hides in this Club.'"

For the term wog, I recommend John Masters' Bhowani Junction (see below).

Quondam wogs and niggers, therefore, have suffered a bout of amnesia and have American aspirations – here the Dravido-Aryans are like the Americans in that, like them, they can vote. Yet we have far more in common with the Afro-American than with the unhyphenated kind.

Malcom X continued to identify with black convicts after his release from prison, and he frequently used prison metaphors in his political rhetoric. "Don't be shocked when I say that I was in prison," he liked to tell his urban audiences. "You're still in prison. That's what America means: prison." In comments to reporters he characterized President Kennedy as a "warden," former Vice President Nixon as a "deputy warden," and called New York City's mayor, Robert Wagner, a "screw."

Why didn't black people seek the vote after emancipation? It would have been the logical thing to do. Voting brings power. But they were just too savvy to be deceived by a piece of paper.

Lincoln had written to Horace Greeley that his goal was to save the Union, not to free slaves. However, he did finally issue the Emancipation Proclamation. After war, the Thirteenth Amendment was modeled on the Northwest Ordnance, which allowed involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime. "Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a means of punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States...." Blacks feared they would be re-enslaved – and their fears proved perfectly justified. Therefore, they did not seek the right to vote, but the right to sit on juries – which was denied them.

In 1826, the population of New York State had been 1/35th black, while the prison population was ¼ black; and New York state was a free state! In Massachusetts the figures were 1/74th and 1/6th; in Connecticut, 1/34th and 1/3rd; in New Jersey, 1/13th and 1/3rd; in Pennsylvania, 1/34th and 1/3rd. Thus was born the coloured criminal. Today, African-Americans constitute 14% of the population, and 44% of its prison population.

The 'free' states were, therefore, only nominally free. The bias against the black man found expression in his incarceration. He was released from bondage to the individual only to be bonded to the state. In addition, his labour was contracted out to private businesses. In the South, after 'emancipation', black prisoners replaced their white counterparts. In the North, that had always been the case. They were now put to profitable use. Where formerly they had slaved on plantations, they now slaved in prisons. At any rate, they slaved. (For the above facts on slavery and prisons in America, see Scott Christianson's contemporary classic, With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998))

What good does the vote do for suppressed people?

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http://iftekharsayeed.weebly.com

Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, "ŽBangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL "ŽTEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. "ŽHe is also a (more...)
 

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