Tuesday, August 1, 2017

VMF, IAWA Present Screening of "Pane Amaro (Bitter Bread)"

On Saturday Aug. 12, the Vito Marcantonio Forum and Italian American Writers Association(IAWA) will cosponsor a screening of “Pane Amaro (Bitter Bread)” followed by a discussion with director Gianfranco Norelli and co-producer Suma Kurien.

The screening will take place at the Mulberry Street Public Library, 10 Jersey Street in lower Manhattan.

A review by University of Missouri professor Linda Reeder explains that the film, “traces how American racial ideology fell hard on the first generation of immigrants, placing all Italians below American whites in the racial order that defined status, rights and opportunities.” 

In her review, Reeder highlights the film's focus on the immigrant experience through “the lens of American racial hierarchies,” as a scholarly addition to the study of Italian immigration. “Historians have only recently explored the ways in which race shaped the meanings of ethnicity among European migrants, and very few students of U.S. migration know the racial history of Italians.” 

Also, the VMF and Chelsea Rising will convene a fifth reading circle around the speeches and writings found in “I Vote My Conscience: Vito Marcantonio: Debates, Speeches and Writings of Vito Marcantonio,” edited by Annette Rubinstein. 

The August session will focus on speeches and debates from Marcantonio's fourth term in Congress, pages 171 to 189 in “I Vote My Conscience.” 

The date is Aug. 16, the time 6 p.m., and location the “community room” in Penn South at 339 W. 24th St., between 8th and 9th avenues.  

Copies of “I Vote My Conscience” will be on sale for $10, or can be purchased in advance by sending a $13 check to Gerald Meyer, 381 2nd Street, Broooklyn 11215.

"Activism Matters" Reasons for the Triangle Fire Coalition

Professor Mary Anne Trasciatti
“Remembering the Triangle Fire: Performances, Screening and Presentations,” was held March 24 at New York University's Casa Italiana. The occasion was the 96th anniversary of the tragedy.

The program included Mary Anne Trasciatti, a professor at Hofstra University and president, board of directors, Remember The Triangle Fire Coalition, who talked about the group's plans and inspirations.

Trasciatti told those gathered that her connection to the fire is an organic one in as much as her mother worked in the clothing business and was a member of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union.

The first person to tell her of the tragedy, her mother explained, “how she knew she was safe in the factory where she worked because of what happened to the girls of the Triangle Fire.”
Clara Lemlich.

To read and study such things, labor history in general, Trasciatti observed, is to require a healthy optimism, “because you lose many of the battles.” 

However, the dark cloud of the Triangle tragedy is not without a silver lining.

“People who witnessed the fire were determined to do something,” Trasciatti explained. “And so unions did something. They stepped up their organizing. In 1913, they called a general strike in New York City. They won raises, a shorter work week and better labor management conditions.”

She highlighted the work of Clara Lemlich in helping to shape ILGWU Local 25 into a formidable entity.

Lamentably, Trasciatti noted, the union responded by denying her a pension when she refused to renounce her membership in the Communist Party. 

In 1919, Trasciatti said, Italians in New York formed their own Italian-language local. “The history of Italians and Jews is rather interesting. They worked together pretty well, but there were some issues in the union about language.”

Organizing in Local 89 of the Italian Dressmakers was driven by Angela Bambace, an important figure/character in Jennifer Guglielmo's “Living the Revolution.” “If you haven't heard of Angela Bambace, you should look her up," Trasciatti urged.

Suffragettes, women muckrackers, all contributed to the effort at making Triangle a turning point in industrial history, she stated.

Angela Bambace.
Frances Perkins, who would become the first female Secretary of Labor in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration, was part of the Factory Investigation Committee which informed landmark safety legislation in New York State.

“So look around this room,” Trasciatti directed. “Exit signs, sprinklers, maximum occupancy limits, outward opening doors. These are all the legacy of Triangle.”

The less obvious aspects of the Triangle legacy are the establishment of Social Security Insurance, a jewel of the New Deal, which Perkins claimed began on March 25, 1911, the day of the Triangle Fire. 

“Triangle showed that the state has a role in freeing us from the worst aspects or ourselves,” said Trasciatti. “In this case, the unfettered pursuit of profit.”

The hard-won victories of the New Deal are imperiled in the present political moment, said Trasciatti, “but the story of Triangle is more relevant than ever. Activism matters!"

The American cult of individualism, she observed, renders collective action a form of cultural subversion. Remember The Triangle Fire Coalition, “aims to channel this kind of subversion. To channel 'I' into 'We.' We are building a memorial, in part, to fulfill that aim," she said.  

A design has been chosen and a deal has been made with the building owner, NYU. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) budgeted $1.5 million for the project, but it is not enough and fundraising for an endowment to maintain the memorial is ongoing. 

“This is a globally significant site for women's history, immigrant history and labor history,” said Trasciatti. “We want something on the building that forces people to stop and take notice.”

The program, linked to here, also features a performance by LuLu LoLo of two acts from her play, "Soliloquy for a Seamstress." LuLu is a founding member of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, which is a constituent member of the coalition and committed to supporting its important work. She is also a member of the Triangle Coalition's board.

Paul Robeson's Rancorous Heart

Vito Marcantonio may have been, for a time, the most powerful politician in New York City, yet the aftershocks of the Red Scare were enough to erase all but the slightest traces of his impressive legacy.

Paul Robeson was a man of like fame, in a different arena, that of the theater and the concert hall, but his blacklisting led to a similar forgetting.

From ALBA's "The Volunteer."
Like many blacklisted performers, Robeson lost work thanks to his defiance of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC).

He had an adoring overseas audience which, when he was permitted to travel by the State Department, sustained the actor and singer, but his personal American epic was reduced to a small blurb and a black hat to boot. 

He was born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey. His father was minister of a small a New Jersey parish, a former slave, who reportedly drove his son hard. Robeson's mother died when her dress caught fire at the kitchen stove.

Robeson was just the third African-American to receive a scholarship to Rutgers where he was Phi Beta Kappa and an All-American collegiate footballer.

He attended and completed Columbia Law School (1920-1923) while rising in reputation as an actor with the transformative Provincetown Players. These included the works of Eugene O'Neill, such as “The Emperor Jones,” which was written specifically for the young thespian.

In an otherwise unkind portrait, later bound with similar accounts of American communists as “Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties,” Murray Kempton of “The New York Post wrote that, “Robeson was the Negro of the future, yet in Hollywood they would not let him portray anyone but the Negro of the legendary past.”

“Robeson,” Kempton added, “was especially appealing because he could act this Negro of theater tradition and appear thereafter at a [Greenwich] Village party as a guest of intellectual distinction. He looked like a tribal deity, and he could swagger for his audience as an Ethiop clown and then talk after the show with engagement and cultivation. He had some of the charm of a superbly tamed savage.”

Henry Wallace, Vito Marcantonio and Paul Robeson
Jeff Sparrow is author of a newly released biography of Robeson entitled, “No Way But This.” He told a “Guardian” podcast with Claire Armitstead, that the performer and activist's life “was circumscribed by the extraordinary racism that he was born into...Particularly as an actor, where he was constantly being shunted into roles that were demeaning or scripts that were racist for the entirety of his career, which was about trying to transform those roles into something less demeaning.”

Roles for blacks were hard to come by and Robeson, seemingly without effort, launched a successful singing career.

On May 15, WBAI radio in New York broadcast a special program on Robeson through its “Building Bridges,” offering.

It includes a discussion from historian (University of Houston) Gerald Horne, who said, “Being a man sensitive to social science, Robeson could recognize that, in terms of creativity in art, there is oftentimes a relationship between the capital investment in the particular art and one's ability to be progressive. If one is a poet with a pencil and pad, one can be exceedingly radical. Whereas, if you are working in a Hollywood production with millions of dollars in capital investment, and scores of workers involved, it's more problematic to be progressive.”

For that reason, Horne said, Robeson left the silver screen. “Many of his cinematic performances are not necessarily the Zenith of his artistic creativity.”

In 1920, Robeson relocated to Europe where he lived for a decade. In London, Horne said, he was exposed to important Marxist thinkers such as Maurice Cornforth and Harry Pollitt and was in close contact with the British Labour Party through which he drew his personal conception of socialism.

Marc with civil rights giants Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois
There he witnessed rising fascism first-hand. Horne said Robeson himself barely escaped a scrape with Nazi jackboots in a Berlin train station. He was, in fact, en route to Moscow where he met an old friend, William Patterson, a leading African-American communist and leader of the International Labor Defense.

Robeson subsequently joined the Communist Party.

“It's after his journey to Moscow that you find Robeson on the front lines in Spain," observed Horne. "The Spanish Civil War became an international cause for the left.”

The singer regaled the Spanish front with the rich timbre of his voice and raised money for the beleaguered Republic at the same time.

In 2009, our friends at the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives(ALBA) published a special "comic book" issue recounting Robeson's travails during the epic conflict.

Drafted by Joshua Brown, the text includes the collaboration of Peter Carroll, a prominent Spanish Civil War scholar. Find it here.  

Sparrow explained how the singer sparked a revival of the Negro spiritual.

“When Robeson gave the first concert dedicated solely to spirituals in 1925," he explained, "it was this tremendous revelation for a lot of people to hear what W.E.B. DuBois had always talked about,” said Sparrow. “The beauty of this music and also its ability to speak to a new generation.”

DuBois was a champion of the form, explained Sparrow. He called them "Sorrow Songs." Harlem Renaissance intellectuals such as Richard Wright saw the spiritual as the legacy of a past better forgotten and preferred classical influences in the development of African-American culture.

Ishamael Reed, author of the newly resuscitated 1970's breakthrough novel, “Mumbo Jumbo,” also participated in the "Guardian” podcast.

He argued that there was more standing between the Harlem intellectuals and Robeson than culture.

“There was a clash between black nationalists and Communists going back to the 1920s,” Reed asserted. “Many black intellectuals and political leaders broke with the Communist Party over what they considered a betrayal. This is what Ralph Ellison's 'The Invisible Man' is all about. They felt black issues were being ignored in favor of rescuing the Soviet Union. Police brutality, foreclosure, dispossession. These are what Richard Wright and Ellison and the rest were upset about.”
Making Art.

Gerald Meyer, co-chair of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, remarks that, "Robeson, DuBois, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansbury and many other African-American intellectuals and political leaders supported the communist position. Ellison was an outlier and a very dubious one at that." 

There is photo-documentation enough attesting to the close relationship between Marcantonio and Robeson. Less is written about their collaboration. In “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” Meyer noted that Marcantonio's 1948 reelection campaign included projections from a soundtruck of a 10-minute film with a voiceover by Robeson.

Meyer observed that, when Marcantonio's Puerto Rican lieutenant Manuel Medina ran on the American Labor Party line for New York City Council, Robeson was part of his multiracial election committee. 

Such collaborations run counter to Murray Kempton's portrayal of Robeson as an American black separated from his people and national politics, while enjoying a perpetual European idyll.

Salvatore LaGumina, author of “Vito Marcantonio: The People's Politician,” called Robeson, along with Henry Wallace, one of the "big guns" in Marc's 1950 mayoral run.

At Marcantonio's funeral, Robeson distributed a statement that said, “Progressive humanity has suffered a shocking and grievous loss. He was the people's tribune. Standing, often alone, in defense of their rights and interests in the halls of Congress...

“....Perhaps no group of Americans is called upon to honor his name and memory more than the Negro people. Marcantonio was the Thaddeus Stevens of the first half of the 20th century.”

Actor Troy Hodges rendered this statement into a live speech at Marcantonio's gravesite during a celebration commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the congressman's death convened by the Vito Marcantonio Forum.

The WBAI podcast contains a recording of DuBois explaining how, at the 1949 Paris Peace Conference -- “a magnificent meeting” the venerable intellectual called it -- “Robeson said he didn't believe colored men would join in any war against Russia.”

The reaction was swift and brutal. Among other things, the U.S. government and the Brooklyn Dodgers tried drafting baseballer Jackie Robinson to smear Robeson. The actor/activist was branded a communist and criticized by government officials and African-American leaders alike. 

The State Department ultimately barred his application for a passport in 1950. He was blacklisted from domestic concert venues, recording labels and film studios and suffered the economic consequences of his stands on behalf of the rights of Negroes and workers worldwide.

According to “Smithsonian” magazine, his income dropped from $150,000 in one year, to $3,000 the next.

In 1958, his passport was reinstated. He toured internationally, enjoying renewed success, but struggling with depression and related illness.

In 1961, he was found unconscious in a Moscow hotel room, having tried to slit his wrists, according to Sparrow, an Australian author who noted that, while Robeson gave the impression of effortless success, his was anything but. “Being Paul Robeson was a difficult thing, from being a prodigy at an early and the expectations of so many people riding on him.”

Robeson published an autobiography, “Here I Stand.” He died from a stroke in Pennsylvania in 1976.

"And Forget It!" Paul Robeson Before HUAC

Robeson takes on HUAC.
Paul Robeson had been to Moscow. He'd cavorted with prominent leftists in London. He sang to entertain the troops of the Spanish “Red” Republic and to raise money. That's just to name a few of the transgressions that landed him before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee(HUAC) in the mid-1950s.

There is an archived recording of Robeson locking horns with HUAC chairman Rep. Francis Walter (D).

Walter is the Walter of the McCarran-Walter Act, a nefarious piece of legislation still on the books used to root out and deport “subversives” in America. 

Here's the link.

The exchange has been transcribed below, although the real magic is in Robeson's stentorian voice, dripping with contempt for Walter. 

Committee: Now, Mr. Robeson-
Robeson: [interrupting] Do I have the privilege of asking who is addressing me?
Committee: I'm Richard Arons.
Robeson: What is your position?
Committee: I'm director of the staff. Did you file a passport application in July 2, 1954?
Robeson: I've filed about 25 in the last few months.
Committee: In July of 1954, were you requested to submit a non Communist affidavit?
Robeson: Under no conditions would I think of signing such an affidavit. It is a contradiction of the rights of American citizens.
Committee: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?
Robeson: Oh, please, please, please.
Committee: [interrupting] Please answer will you Mr. Robeson?
Robeson: What is 'the Communist Party'? What do you mean by that?
Committee: Are you now a member of the Communist Party?
Robeson: [interrupting] Would you like to come to the ballot box when I vote and take out the ballot and see?
Rep. Francis Walter.
Committee: Mr. Chairman, I respectfully suggest the witness be directed to answer the question.
Chairman: You are directed to answer the question.
Robeson: I invoke the Fifth Amendment and forget it!
Committee: I respectfully suggest the witness be directed to answer the question, whether if he gave us a truthful answer he would be supplying information, which might be used against him in a criminal proceeding?
Chairman: You are directed to answer Mr. Rob-.
Robeson: [interrupting] Gentlemen, in the first place, wherever I've been in the world, the first to die in the struggle against fascism were the communists. I laid many wreathes upon the graves of communists. That is not criminal. Chief Justice Warren has been very clear that the Fifth Amendment does not have anything to do with the inference of criminality, and I invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Committee: Have you ever been known under the name of John Thomas?
Robeson: Oh please, does somebody here want me to put up a perjury someplace, John Thomas? My name is Paul Robeson and anything I have to say I have said in public all over the world and that is why I am here today.
Committee: Mr. Chairman, I ask that you direct the witness to answer the question. He's making a speech.
Chairman: I ask you to affirm or deny the fact that your Communist Party name was John Thomas.
Robeson: I invoke the Fifth Amendment. This is really ridiculous.
Committee: The witness talks very loud when he makes a speech, but when he invokes the Fifth Amendment I can't hear him.
Robeson: I have medals for diction. I can talk plenty loud.
Committee: Will you talk a little louder?
Robeson: I invoke the Fifth Amendment. Loudly! 
Committee: Sir, who are Mr. and Mrs. Vladimir-
Robeson: [interrupting] I invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Committee: Do you know a Manning Johnson?
Robeson: I invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Committee: Do you know a Gregory Kiefitz?
Robeson: I invoke the Fifth Amendment.
Committee: Do you know a Max Yergan?
Robeson: I invoke the Fifth Amend-
Committee: Max Yergan!
Robeson: Why don't you call these people here to be cross-examined. Could I ask whether this is legal?
Committee: This is not only legal, but usual. By unanimous vote this committee has been instructed to perform this very distasteful task.
Robeson: [interrupting] To whom am I talking?
Committee: You're speaking to the chairman of the committee.
Robeson: Mr. Walter?
Committee: Yes.
Robeson: The Pennsylvania Walter?
Committee: That is right.
Robeson: Representative of the steel workers?
Committee: That is right.
Robeson: And the coal mining workers?
Committee: That is right.
Robeson: Not United States Steel by any chance? A white patriot.
Committee: That is right.
Robeson: You are author of the bills that are going to keep all kinds of decent people out of the country?
Committee: No, only your kind.
Robeson: Colored people like myself. And you would let in the Teutonic Anglo-Saxon stock?
Committee: We are trying to make it easier to get rid of your kind, too.
Robeson: You don't want any colored people to come in. Could I be allowed to read from my statement?
Committee: Will you just tell this committee please, while under oath, Mr. Robeson, the communists who participated in the preparation of that statement.
Robeson: Ohhhh....please. The reason I am here today, from the mouth of the State Department itself, is I should not be allowed to travel because I have struggled for the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa. The other reason I'm here today, again, from the State Department and from the record of the Court of Appeals, is that when I am abroad I speak out against injustices against the Negro people in this land. That is why I'm here. I'm not being tried for whether I'm a communist. I'm being tried for fighting for the rights of my people who are still second-class citizens in this country, in this United States of America. My mother was born in your state. And my mother was a Quaker. My ancestors in the time of Washington, baked bread for George Washington's troops when they crossed the Delaware. My father was a slave and I stand here struggling for the rights of my people to be full citizens in this country and they are not. They are not in Mississippi. They are not in Montgomery, Alabama. They are not in Washington they are nowhere and that is why I am here today. You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up for the rights of his people, to stand up for workers. And I have been on many a picket line for the Steelworkers too. And that, is why I'm here today.
Committee: Would you tell us whether or not you know Thomas W. Young?
Robeson: I invoke the Fifth Amendment.