Noel Ignatiev's Blog

A Modern-day Beloved

By Noel Ignatiev

“The United States-Israel Strategic partnership Act (S. 462) not only designates Israel ‘a major strategic partner,’ section nine of this legislation proposes to include Israel in the Visa Waiver Program while exempting it from the requirement to extend reciprocal privileges to all citizens and nationals of the United States.  The exemption would allow Israel to arbitrarily deny entrance to U.S. citizens under the rubric of national security, effectively importing Israel’s apartheid laws into the U.S. immigration system.

By now everyone has seen the video of the Baltimore mother, Toya Graham, whacking her son, Michael, around to make him leave the scene of the “riot.” Reactions have varied: some have praised her as Mom of the Year, the New York Daily News running a headline: “Forget the cops and the National Guard: Send in the Moms.” So far as I have been able to determine, none of those who expressed that point of view have shown any sympathy for the young black men of Baltimore and elsewhere whom everyone but the most intransigent right-wing troglodytes acknowledges have been treated unfairly (to put it as mildly as I can) by the police. I have searched my brain for terms to describe those people: “entitled,” “smug,” “reactionary,” are some that have come to mind; for now I have settled on “white.”

Opposing them are those who have denounced Toya Graham as a child abuser. Many of these are white, too, although not as belligerent about it as the first group. Unlike the first group, they mean well; they shop at Whole Foods and listen to NPR, and are for gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose, and other worthy causes; in most cases they sympathize with the young black men against the police. Yet they annoy me no less than the first crowd.

Stacey Patton, in a May 4 column in the on-line magazine Dame, joins in the criticism of Toya Graham, but her words gain force by her adopting the standpoint of a black woman, a process made easier by her being one. In the first place, she says she is not criticizing Toya Graham personally but treating her as a symbol of a tendency she regards as harmful. In the second place, she places her criticism of “child abuse” in the context of white supremacy. She writes:

Toya Graham is a symbol of Black America’s complicity in its own destruction. How else can we explain that she is a national hero for assaulting her child before the world? It is proof of the effectiveness of dominant institutions in teaching us the same lies, fictions, and stereotypes that fill us with self hate and drive us to beat our kids like we hate them all while thinking the switch, belts, fists, slaps and profanity laced whoopings are “love.” . . . 

We see people praising this mom—who was caught in the ultimate Catch-22 maternal nightmare—for violently terrorizing her son who, at the vulnerable age of 16, was publicly humiliated before the world. Yet, amid these celebrations there is little recognition that Graham, like millions of others, is parenting under a racist system that makes her violence against her son seem not only right, but necessary. . . . 

It’s not just White America. Many within the Black community are singing her praises.  We have gone from the Children’s Silent Parade, the Children’s Crusade, sit-ins, and the Panther’s ten-point program, from voting to marches, to parental beatings. We have gone from, “yes we can,” to yes we can beat and slap our children into safety and achieve the peace that we’ve been longing for in our communities. . . . 

Since whipping Black children does absolutely nothing to protect or save any Black child from racist police treatment or murder, not to mention a school system that sees suspension and expulsions as limited to Black youth, what is really being accomplished? Beating Black kids gives their parents the illusion that they have the power to resist White supremacy, or at least insulate their children from its dangers. 

The column is worth reading in its entirety. It is at

To complicate matters further, some cynic posted a note to the effect that the Baltimore Police Department should recruit Toya Graham, since she had demonstrated mastery of the methods they use on black youth (although he failed to mention that she didn’t use a gun, a billy club or pepper spray). I couldn’t tell where he was coming from.

A black woman I know said that if she thought her son was doing the right thing, she would join him. 

I suppose I should say what I think. My feelings were most succinctly captured by the person who wrote that parents, in their desire to protect their children’s lives, may sometimes destroy their spirits. I am on the side of the young people who “rioted.” I admire them for resisting the police even to the point of throwing rocks (and in Ferguson Molotov cocktails) at them. I like to think that if I had a black child in Baltimore who wanted to join his friends in the streets, I would support his doing so. But I do not, and so my aim here is not to advise but to understand.

Some things we can be sure of:

Toya Graham loves her son.

Her son loves her, and knows she loves him.

They agree that the cops are no good.

Of some things I am less sure: contrary to Stacey Patton, I do not believe Michael felt humiliated by his mother’s actions; indeed, I suspect he may have been secretly glad that his mother dragged him away from the danger, because he was scared and grateful for an excuse to leave without appearing cowardly.

My concern is to examine the internal stresses at work, what Patton calls the “ultimate maternal nightmare.” A historical example of such stresses was the escaped slave, Margaret Garner, who killed her daughter rather than allow her to be returned to slavery after she was apprehended by U.S. marshals. The incident served as the basis for Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.

I can imagine no one better suited than Toni Morrison to address the situation of Toya Graham. 

Internal contradiction is the universal human condition. On one occasion years ago I was sitting on my front step when my neighbor came out of the house next door carrying her small child, whom she placed in her auttomobile. She turned away from him for a moment, and as she started to close the car door I saw that the child had put his hand where it would be crushed when the door was closed.  I shouted to the woman to stop. She halted in mid-motion, and when she realized what she had almost done an amazing thing happened: she laughed, then broke into tears and began hitting the child. It was the most intense and dramatic display of of conflicting emotions I have ever beheld. Probably the most well known examination of the phenomenon is the chapter “Lordship and Bondage” from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. There he describes the struggle that goes on within the mind of the slave trying to free himself: in order to do so he has to overthrow the master within his own mind. A splendid example from literature is in Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck discovers that Jim has been betrayed by two confidence men and is being held as a runaway. Huck’s slight exposure to school and church has taught him that the proper course would be to write to Miss Watson, Jim’s owner, informing her of Jim’s whereabouts. He starts to do so, but his mind turns to their trip down the river: “Somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.”

. . . and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.  I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

“The whole hog” was Huck’s translation of the Marxist notion of totality.

What Toya Graham and her son went through, what black people and others are going through in reflecting on her behavior, is what Huck went through and what every oppressed class seeking to emancipate itself will have to go through.

Pay close attention: we are seeing the formation of a class-for-itself.


John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd edited a book called The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid. (Stauffer wrote The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race, which I found valuable although I disagreed with its argument.) Christopher Benfey reviewed The Tribunal in The New York Review of Books on March 7 of this year. David Reynolds wrote a letter in response to Benfey’s review, which was published in the May 9th issue. (Reynolds, in addition to Beneath the American Renaissance, a marvelous study of the popular sources of great American literature, wrote John Brown, Abolitionist, the only biography of Brown fit to stand alongside W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic.) Benfey replied to Reynolds. Their exchange is at I have read neither The Tribunal nor Benfey’s review. The following was written in response to the exchange between Benfey and Reynolds.

To the editors:

A voice missing from the exchange over John Brown (May 9) is that of Wendell Phillips, who, while not one of Brown’s inner circle, neither fled the country nor checked into a madhouse after Harpers Ferry but stood defiantly in a church in Brooklyn two weeks later and declared that “the lesson of the hour is insurrection.” “Connecticut,” he continued, “has sent out many a schoolmaster to the other thirty states, but never before so grand a teacher as that Litchfield-born schoolmaster at Harpers Ferry, writing as it were upon the Natural Bridge, in the face of nations, his simple copy, ‘Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.’”

A month later, in a speech at Brown’s graveside, Phillips predicted, “History will date Virginia Emancipation from Harpers Ferry. True, the slave is still there. So, when the tempest uproots a pine on your hills, it looks green for months – a year or two. Still, it is timber, not a tree.”

Benfey reminds us that the South started the Civil War. Phillips anticipated that, too. In the same speech he said that Brown had “startled the South into madness.”

A year later, after Lincoln’s election, Phillips said that “for the first time in our history the slave has chosen a President. John Brown was behind the curtain.”

The slave system bred rebellion, which brought repression, which forced black people to flee the South, which gave rise to a black community in the north, which was the basis of Abolitionism, which engendered John Brown, who provoked Southern retaliation, which compelled the north to resist, which led to Lincoln’s election… and the war came.

In a scene that has become familiar thanks to the PBS series “The Abolitionists,” Shields Greene, the escaped slave who was present when Brown tried to persuade Frederick Douglass to join him at Harpers Ferry, when Douglass stood up to go said, “I believe I go wid de old man.” As Lerone Bennett, who recounted the incident in his essay “Tea and Sympathy: Liberals and Other White Hopes” (included in The Black Mood), explained, Greene went with Brown not because he believed in Brown’s plan but because he believed in Brown. Some people will never understand that.

The most exquisite touch in Benfey’s reply to Reynolds is his quoting from “John Brown’s Body” to support his “nuanced” view. It is of a piece with his calling upon Sean Wilentz writing in The New Republic. Ah, The New Republic, where without sneering they teach the rest to sneer. Benfey’s references to Syria and Srebrenica demonstrate the truth of C.L.R. James’s adage that historical controversy is always contemporary. Russell Banks, asked why he chose to write a novel about Brown, explained that he was interested in the one figure all white people think was crazy and all black people regard as a hero, adding that if Brown was not crazy, it says a lot about the country. In any case, it was not for his madness that Brown was hung but for taking seriously the injunction to ”remember them that are in bonds as bound with them.”

I believe I go with the old man, and Phillips, and the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, and Du Bois, and Malcolm X, and Bennett and Banks, and Reynolds.

Following Tommy by Bob Hartley. Cervena Barva Press, PO Box 440357, Somerville, MA 02144-3222. $17 (a lot of money).

At 112 pages, Following Tommy by Bob Hartley is a small-scale Studs Lonigan. Set in the 1960s in a largely Irish neighborhood on the far west side of Chicago, it is the story of two brothers, Jacky and Tommy O’Day. They are poor, motherless, their father a hopeless alcoholic. They do what they need to in order to get by, and have few illusions about politics, cops, the law, the Church or the other institutions that make up a system. (There is a girl, too, who if anything is even more realistic than the boys.) At one point they are on Maxwell Street trying to sell tools they have burgled from a store, alongside other vendors offering illegally obtained wares at discounted prices. (I lived in Chicago during those years; the street name evokes memories of noisy crowds, blues music, Polish sausages and tacos de lengua.) A policeman approaches. They fear he will arrest them.

“I knew it was a longshot, but I decided to take a chance . . .  ‘Are ya a homeowner officer?’ . . . ‘Yeah.’ I reached into the trunk, grabbed one of the drills and put in in his hand. ‘How does that feel?’ I said. He looked at me and said, ‘Pretty good.’ I gave him my best salesman’s smile and said that it was his if he wanted it. He smiled and nodded. He walked away, admiring his new toy and restoring my faith in the law.”

Of the novels and nonfiction chronicles of immigrant life in America, Studs Lonigan was unique in placing at the center of the story the relation of the new arrivals to black people. Following Tommy is in that tradition. Tommy, Jacky and their cousin Hippo are looked down on in the neighborhood—local storekeepers watch them when they come in to shop or shoplift. The only way they can gain their neighbors’ respect is to take the lead in driving out a black family who has recently bought a house nearby. (Fifty years later the area is all black.)

While neighborhood residents share then-prevailing white American attitudes on race, none is willing to act on them. The boys do, at the behest of a city councilman who expects thereby to boost his popularity. (The secret of Al Capone’s community standing, rarely spoke of, is that he kept Cicero white.) At the same time, no one comes forward to oppose them (except two cops—the one part of the story that rang false). The story reminds me of accounts I have read of white-race hate-strikes, where most whites simply go along with whoever sets the tone. (Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!)

It is not the job of artists to provide answers but to pose questions. (When they try to provide answers they usually fail, as with most “proletarian literature.”) The story raises questions for revolutionaries: If there is to be a communist revolution, who will make it? Here you have these brothers, the most oppressed and downtrodden in their community, to whom “law, morality, religion . . . are so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.” Yet [their] conditions of life “prepare [them] far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.” As a friend once pointed out, The working class is sometimes at work, sometimes in prison, and sometimes drunk in a ditch. Revolutionary strategists seeking to understand the role of different sectors of the working class would do well to reflect on these questions.

I once met Michael MacDonald, author of All Souls, the powerful account of growing up in South Boston in the years of the busing crisis. I told him I had always known there were plenty of poor Irish, but that before reading his book I had thought that even the most miserable knew someone with a city job or a union position who could help them up. He told me that that was true for other parts of the district, but not for where he lived. He attributed his escape to his accidental talent for drawing. What is the brothers’ way out? I won’t give away the ending. Jacky, the younger brother, from whose standpoint the story is told, is a reader. (To what extent the novel is Hartley’s I could not say.)

Sometimes light has to come from outside.

“Israel has a history of discriminating against Palestinian-, Arab-, and Muslim-American travelers and denying them entry. According to the U.S. State Department Travel Advisory for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza : ‘U.S. citizens are advised that all persons entering or departing…are subject to security screening and may be denied entry or exit without explanation… Those with extensive travel to Muslim countries or U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin may also face additional questioning by immigration and border authorities…’”

The above was taken from a letter sent out by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation asking people to call on their Senators to speak out publicly and vote against this bill, which is apparently before Congress, and to send letters and op-ed pieces to their local newspapers.

Now, I am not in the habit of writing letters to my Senators (mainly because I do not wish to give the impression I care what they do, or legitimize a system I want no part of), and I have always regarded writing letters to the editor to be the ultimate confession of impotence. Moreover, I am not interested in defending my “rights” as a U.S. citizen, because I reject “the U.S.” “citizen” and “rights” as motivating categories, preferring to take my stand on the basis of my membership in the human race and my obligation to do right by it. Having made all these qualifications, I am not averse to drawing a lesson from history: This measure reminds me of the insistence of pre-Civil War southern officials on controlling mail delivered to southern states lest abolitionist propaganda make its way into hands where it might have some effect. That was one of a train of abuses, including the “Gag Rule,” the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Act and others, that made it clear that the slave system enslaved not only those forced to labor in the fields without wages but compelled all “citizens” to sacrifice what they naively thought of as their “rights.” The Civil War broke out because the people of the northern states could not accept the domination of the southern system over the entire country. This latest measure may well awaken some to the realization of what support for Israel costs them, and to the realization that so long as Zionism prevails we are all Palestinians.

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