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The Celling of America
Organizing in Lawrence
Poor People's Organizing
Slippin' & Slidin'
High-Tech Transportation Workers
The Heat is On
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Dutton Books; 304 pp.
Review by Camille Goodison
Bitter. Black. Beautiful: These, to paraphrase Jimmy Baldwinvocal in his disdain for American myth-making and its delusions of "innocence,"would be three very appropriate words in describing Defending the Spirit. Randall Robinson, founder and president of TransAfrica, the Washington-based pressure group that advocates for more friendly U.S. policies towards the countries of Africa and the Caribbean, was born over a half a century ago but has lived through a great deal of history, much of it wrenching.
His tone is often sardonic, as when he describes the dehumanizing nature and the stinking pettiness of life under segregation. His tone is often sweet, as when he describes black life as it isnt often seen, that is, when black folks have chosen to ignore white society and live for themselves. He describes friends, relatives, teachers, clergy, all with a firm moral core and a hint of protectiveness. The outside world is twisted, small-minded, barbarous, but within the circumscribed all-black communities, people are far more generous and reasonable.
Relying in a few places on flowery language that proves to be too much of a good thing, fans of style may find this distracting. Robinson is also guilty of some rhetorical excesses (a hair salon which does hair straightening sounds like a torture chamber).
Occasionally, disappointingly, he bases his conclusions on simplistic analysis; or he knows the story he wants to tell and then provides the facts which support it, leaving out others which might make for a more complete picture. He theorizes that black students werent as vocal in their opposition to the Vietnam War as their white counterparts because they didnt believe they could change foreign policy. Sure, there may be some element of truth to this, but in any case it is never this simple. Either his experiences have shaved his focus somewhat or hes not entirely trusting of the reader. These are, of course, minor criticisms.
From the most repugnant defamers of his people to the disquieting short memories of many black Americans, Robinson, motivated by a righteous anger, tells it as it is. It is not that it is a revelation to hear that an accomplished mover/shaker African American professional like Robinson (a Harvard man) can have such a strong mistrust and dislike of white Americans. Not that its a revelation to hear that the full measure of Americas insult towards black Americans is reflected in its foreign policies. Not that its so shocking to hear Ronald Reagan refer to "the jigs" or to hear what Senator Ernest Hollings, or any other member of Congress from either side of the aisle really thinks of Americans of African descent. And, its not surprising to read of the callous disregard and contempt in which our leaders hold possessors of darker skins. The degree to which self-hatred is imbued and practiced is startling, but not all together new territory, either. The willingness of other people of color to accept the class and social structure that places blacks at the very bottom is upsetting but not totally unheard of. What is new and remarkable is the full disclosure mode Robinson uses in order to write this audacious, remarkable book.
An atypical autobiography, there are no pictures of the author or of him meeting and greeting world leaders. One does get a sense of an extraordinary life lived and the costs paid by Robinson, his peers and ancestors. At the heart of Defending the Spirit, though, is a person making connection with the privation and abuse he suffered as a black youth growing up in Virginia and then Massachusetts, and the privation suffered by the black masses at the hands of Europe and the United States.
He sneers at the governments which sponsor assassinations of democratic, capable African leaders to put in their place Amins, Duvaliers, and Mobutus. It isnt enough that the pillagers, from colonialism through the cold war to the present, ensured that these black societies remained miserable and stunted, they insisted on rubbing our faces in the depravity of these African leaders: "Look, see why they cant be trusted to govern anything." Its win-win for one side and lose-lose for the other. He acknowledges the unpopularity of saying such a thing out loud and in polite company.
He regrets, also, the inattention that is paid to the countries who are able to make moderate gains despite the odds. Defending the Spirit contains kind words for much of the English speaking Caribbean. Robinson chafes at the general ignorance of most Americans to the blossoming democracies of Uganda, Botswana, Ghana, and so on. Why, if we hear about Africa at all, do we hear only of the Sani Abachas of Nigeria?
Defending the Spirit is remarkable in its pointedness and truth. Robinson takes to task black men like Vernon Jordan who gain positions of power and prominence due to the sacrifices of millions of freedom-fighting black men and women, and who use those positions to enrich themselves and oftentimes to impede the progress of their people. Hes equally unimpressed with men like Emerge founder, George Curry, who downplay the importance of black struggles south of the United States. He rakes himself over the coals for not being able to tear away the wool from his eyes sometimes. Hes not happy with ignorance or a lack of seriousness on the part of those who claim to be leaders. He wants black Americans to get off that great metaphorical plantation. In "Plantation Redux," he disabuses black Amer- icans of the notion that they are free. He expresses his irritation with multi-millionaires like Michael Jordan who are fooled into believing otherwise.
Randall Robinson, as revealed in this autobiographical account, is a man of integrity, seriousness, intelligence, and purpose. He has many things to say on a variety of subjects and it is well worth the effort to explore these issues with him. And, lest I forget to mention it, he can be quite funny. Robinson, known for his policy statements and for his hunger fast on the behalf of fleeing Haitian refugees, also displays a wicked wit. His passages on Vernon Jordan, John Conyers, and other men of privilege are hysterical.