Political Discourse: Sowing the Seeds of Distrust and Discord

"Backstreet Djeli"

“Backstreet Djeli”

by William “Duke” Smither

“I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”  (Thurgood Marshall, Great-Grandson of Slaves and 96th Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court)

The older I become, the more appreciative I am of the lessons learned from my grandparents. Surely, parents are necessary for optimal child development. But,  grandparents are equipped with unique nuggets of personal and historical perspectives, especially during those critical formative years, before grandkids evolve into little arrogant tadpoles or pint-size and humble trainees for the ripened years of adulthood, like limited-scope apprenticeships, for the slices and dices of life- perhaps, the ones which parents never tasted, or were selectively screened from experiencing.

Clumsy Bigotry

For me, the regressive socioeconomic and political environs of those transitional ‘Jim Crow’-to-Civil Rights years first comes to mind. They’re lumped together with the power dynamics of bigotry and racism. And, the recent fiasco and fuss, within the wake of crass and clumsy political views, flowing from the lips of our nation’s current presidential candidates, is certainly no different.

Clearly, the recent competing news conferences (nationally televised August 25, 2016), for presidential hopefuls, Mr. Donald John Trump and Mrs. Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton, took presidential campaigning to new levels of rhetoric and mudslinging, further sowing the seeds of cultural distrust and hostility, not heard since the unfolding drama of the Civil War (1861-1865), in my opinion, of course.

But, never mind the obvious- that the water’s edge of presidential politics has expanded to include obscene and questionable campaign funding methodology, as well as contentious and mysterious musings of purportedly flawed and irrational minds- society’s toilet bowl overflow, already brimming with the muck and mire of hate-filled speeches, dog-whistle racism and confusion, now teeters on the edge of implosion.

These Friday afternoon news conferences, in particular, seemed to have launched the ideological fringes of partisan politics to crucial heights, beyond the once elastic points of no return.

It’s times like these which make me grateful for the lessons, wisdom and experience shared by my parents. More than ever, I see and understand their dogged determination and quests for peace and harmony, within and with others, which now resides in me, as within our own kids. But, my grandparents provided additional perspectives, along with painstaking research and study, of those post-Civil War and Reconstruction Era years (1865-1877) when slavery, supposedly flowing in the wake of our nation’s tears, remained a manifest reality, physical and perceived, in the dark shadows of geopolitical flesh-dealings, voodoo diplomacy and illicit, even treasonous, activities of notoriously racist politicians and capitalists.

Voodoo Diplomacy

Today’s hoopla, following the aforementioned news conferences, is remindful of the ideological arguments and shenanigans which existed in those dark political shadows, in the run up to the Civil War (1861-1865) and beyond, noticeably absent from classroom history books. That’s when Southern extremists in those states soon to be secessionists- and, certain elements of the so-called Confederate States of America (CSA)- within the encroaching crackdowns on a still flourishing slave trade with spiraling prices and increased traffic of  slave ships from Africa, began to formulate long-term strategies.

These were game plans drawn to protect the Southern way of life by scheming with shadowy politicians and businessmen in Colonial Brazil to bring in cheaper slaves, even after slavery was abolished (1865 in the U.S. and 1888 in Brazil), from Angola and Mozambique to ports in Brazil and Cuba, on foreign and/or privately owned merchant ships- illegally carrying the American flag- and surreptitiously outfitted to carry slaves. It was a complex scheme fraught with secret treaties and dangerous covert, high seas shipping runs to evade the “African Squadrons,” international anti-slavery naval patrols, as well as to escape capture and prosecution. It further included “deportation” of Africans and African-Americans, slave and free, from certain states in the Dixie South to Brazil, for work in the Amazon jungles and on sugar cane and coffee plantations, geared to a new Southern way of living.

After the Civil War, this “Dixie refugee”search for a “white paradise,” coupled with a fear that Southern States were on the verge of “war with races,” arguably, led between some 10 to 20 thousand CSA expatriates to Brazil. Some came with their own slaves; others made a bee line for the slave markets of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo to purchase slaves on arrival, like tourists, bartering for trinkets, souvenirs and sex. Interestingly, some of the ‘logic’ used for procuring “Negroes” included the white supremacist idea that “it is only in the early morning and late in the afternoon that white men can labour in the open air; but, where a white would inevitably receive a sun-stroke, a Negro labours with uncovered head without injury or exhaustion. The one has capacity to direct and the other the ability to perform….”; thus, the ensuing phrase, “…a co-operation of the two races.” (Gerald Horne, The Deepest South: The United States, Brazil, and The African Slave Trade, New York University Press: New York and London, 2007) 

New “Chickens” in Town…?

The 2016 Olympics, hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Aug 5 to Aug 21), with preparations initially damned by projections of being one of the “worse ever,” was a superb display of national and international cooperation and amazingly gifted athletes which all unfolded on the stage of Brazilian pride and multicultural cooperation- perhaps, one of the best Olympic games ever.

Yet, during the televised opening ceremonies and tributes to Brazil’s unique multiracial history, I couldn’t help but recall our own multiracial legacy, as well as my past college studies and independent research in black history and the march of international players, on the world’s stage of Colonialism. Moreover, I was again reminded of the dark geopolitical shadows of the illicit dealings in black flesh, “Black Gold,” as one historian put it. And, I thought about some of the beautiful, sandy beaches I saw within Brazil’s pre-Olympic marketing of tourist advertisements and travel brochures. One beach in particular- Porto de Galinhas– stood out. It’s about a half-hour drive south from Recife, in Northeast Brazil.

Now promoted for its famous beaches, natural pools and ecological trails, history’s archives record that it was formally known as Porto Rico, in Colonial Brazil. But, some 15 years before slavery was officially outlawed in the United States, and some 38 years before slavery ended in Brazil, it was a seaport town where slaves were secretly traded to work in the spiraling growth of profitable sugar cane plantations.

When slavery was halted in the U.S., it became one of the places where slave ships avoided the “African Squadrons,” to trade in the illicit traffic of slaves. Its name stemmed from the Portuguese phrase, “Tem galinha nova no porto,” meaning “There are new chickens in the port,” code words to advise those dealing in the trading of human flesh that special ships- passed off as merchant ships, some illegally flying the U.S. flag, secretly packed with “guinea fowl” and slaves from Africa- were in port and ready for business. (See:  Porto de GalinhasBiosfera Brasil).

It was also part of the paradox of slavery, in Brazil. History’s archives reveal that all slaves “of foreign origin,” were declared “forever free,” in Brazil, in 1831 (“Law of 7,” November 1831). In 1871, all “children of slave mothers” were declared to be “free” (Rio Branco Law, “Law of Free Birth”). By 1883, all “slaves of Ceará” (the 8th largest Brazilian state, by population, located in Northeast Brazil) were “freed.” In 1884, an “emancipation proclamation” was inked in the Amazonas province (the largest Brazilian state, by area, in Northwest Brazil, said to be larger than combined areas of France, Greece, Spain and Sweden). In 1885, another law provided for the freedom of all slaves “reaching the age of sixty years” (“Sexagenarians Law,” the “Saraiva-Cotegipe Act“), And, on May 13, 1888, Brazil enacted its Lei Áurea (“Golden Law”), emancipating its “700,000 remaining slaves.” (John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., publisher: 1980.)

Southern Strategy Redux?

Fast forwarding, past America’s Reconstruction Era, on past the “Black Codes,” skipping the many years of segregation, the desegregation years, and the Civil Rights years, perhaps today’s dog-whistle politic, “wink-wink” communications and behind-the-curtain campaign dealings which might be some part-cousin (as we all are to each other) to the Antebellum South’s racialized strategies.

Clearly, this so-called Southern Strategy, passed down through the ages, simply despised the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that “…one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.” In fact, it’s laughable to me that Dr. King is so often quoted by those who still long for states rights, nullification and secession, even today. Personally, I’ve always felt these were the ideals folk were referring to within past campaign and ‘dog-whistle’ slogans of “take our country back.” Back to what! A “Dixie paradise”?

Perhaps, a whiter shade of white, maybe? But, how white can that be…? Maybe a paler, softer shade of white, instead? Even the U. S. Census Bureau forms have further confused this issue. Perhaps, the blended skin pigmentation issues which were evident when the Dixie South’s search for a “white paradise” eventually backfired, fizzled and faded from view, at least from transparency. Sadly, racism stems from ignorance; it’s what nonsense looks like, when the skin of racism and white supremacy is peeled back for a closer inspection, even today. The face of racism today runs deeper, much deeper, easily hidden in plain sight, by those who are not even aware they’re racist, as well as the ones that wear it as a ‘badge’, without understanding how their brand was even made. Think about it.

You didn’t have to be the sharpest knife in the drawer to understand that the Southern Strategy was alive and well when the kindly gentleman and U.S. State Senator from Illinois- Barack Hussein Obama, born in the U.S. state of Hawaii (the 50th state to join these United States of America, in 1959), was elected by “we the people,” in 2008, becoming the 44th President of the United States of America.

But, certain politicians felt differently. And, through their dark colored lens, this Harvard Law School graduate, and University of Chicago Constitutional Law professor, loved by “…the people,” but loathed by specific politicians from the day he took office, was undermined and road blocked in most everything he tried to accomplish, by the scheming shenanigans and voodoo politics- cousin to the Antebellum South’s Southern Strategy- and, a nation still at war with itself.

The current back and forth of the presidential campaign might eventually turn on the public’s pending verdict for both, Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. But, the jury is still out, and will likely remain so, until the forces still holding the election hostage, with the drip-drip of scandalizing controversies, all the way to November. Is “swiftboating” again on the horizon? What will these circling storm clouds now bring? Who knows what will happen.  The up again, down again daily polls suggest that many may go to the voting booths this time, holding their noses and closing their eyes to cast a vote, if they go at all.

Our system of government, though not yet broke, seems on the way to perdition, unless we change directions, of course. But, what worries me is not the election. What worries me is what we become the next day, after the presidential election. Surely, we can’t take another eight years of congressional gridlock and the results of what happens in the vacuum of statesmanship, the dangerous pandering to the far-flung fringe of reasoning, when politicians abdicate their responsibilities to their constituencies, as well as the world.

Making America Great Again? 

For many reasons, I’ve never been comfortable with Mr. Trump’s take or campaign mantra, “Make America Great Again,” nor his veiled appeals to the far right fringes and patronizing solutions to socioeconomic, political and military issues. His on again-off again mumbo jumbo, as it relates to foreign relations and NATO forces, whom we held many joint military operations with, while I was stationed overseas. His brand of leadership is not yet something I’m willing to risk our nation with. Yet, I do agree that significant changes are in order. First and foremost is a changing of the electoral college system of elections and seemingly ‘permanent campaigning’ we have in place today, from the eve of one election, to the dawning of the next! Surely there’s enough good minds on America’s soil to make this happen, when we finally do decide to sit together at the table of brotherhood, to reason as adults- for the overall good of the nation.

I suggest that we even consider going back to the military draft, with opportunity for some to opt out for voluntary or paid national services, akin to proven agencies like the U.S. Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. While our current volunteer military has performed admirably in recent years, it is evident that 1 or 2 % of the nation’s demographics cannot support 100% of our military mission challenges, foreign and domestic. America needs more ‘skin in the game’, before it can become the world leader we know it can be, again.

Even going against the grain of court decisions on prayers in school and pledge of allegiance constraints, as well as the declining number of Americans who even identify with any religion- or the country for that matter- as far as I’m concerned, if we fail to even examine new ways of fostering some sense of patriotism in the United States- besides waiting for the next national crisis or tragedy- America will never achieve its greatness again. On the other hand, we also need to avoid falling into the trap of arrogant isolationism and the fallacy of self-sufficiency. As a nation, we should always reach out to others, in time of need. Besides, at times- like “9-11-2001”- we too become the ‘needy’.

When I chat with former military folk or veterans like myself (Viet Nam Era and Cuban Crisis), I always come away with an appreciation for the bonds established during my own service, even during those awkward years of racial integration with so many people and cultures different from my own, but honed for the same ‘tip of the spear’ in service of my country. That’s the kind of ‘taking our country back’ that I can relate to- united  in spirit by the mission, not by hate.

This seemingly new game of presidential candidates trying to differentiate American military members, based on religion and race is a silly, self-defeating relic of the past. I’ve grown weary of seeing politicians trot on stage with military props, from soldiers to  mothballed battleships, for campaign speeches and so-called townhall meetings. I’m just as tired of seeing certain politicians visit African-American churches, only when they’re running for office.

Dead Patriots Still Speak

I suggest they also visit the long, symmetrical rows, rolling hills and manicured lawns of our nation’s military cemeteries, first. My wife and I do it every year, to honor fallen patriots and family members. The experience is eerily serene and comforting, yet reverent and reawakening for the better sense of purpose it instills, for the tasks that still lie ahead for the living.

Yes, true patriots will always ‘speak’ from the grave, wherever they lay. This includes stretching around the world from France, Belgium, England, Italy and North Africa, to Manila, Mexico and Panama. And, the United States’ vast network of national cemeteries, crisscrossing the nation in every direction, including Kentucky’s Camp Nelson National Cemetery Kentucky, where members of my own family are buried, and east again to the Richmond National Cemetery, where my wife’s dad is interred, then north to the D. C. area and the hallowed grounds of the Arlington National Cemetery and nearby Quantico, where several of my friends are entombed.

I still see potential benefits of some form of universal military or civilian service within our own three kids, including one son, now a teacher, following extensive deployments in the U.S. Marine Corps, a daughter now teaching after a stint in missions-related work, in Honduras, following college, as well as another son who, on graduating from college, chose to plunge headlong into entrepreneurship, which better prepared him for helping others in the public works he now performs for a local county government, the one where his siblings also teach.

During my recent, long-term illness and hospitalizations, I was blessed to see how each of them, including my my wife, stepped up to the batter’s box and took turns swinging at the myriad of chores I, nor my wife, could no longer perform. Along with the prayers and help of many friends, family members and health professionals, it restored my faith in American-styled humanity.

While I’m equally proud of our kid’s accomplishments, I’m most proud of their independence of thought and sincere contributions in helping others. I’m also proud of the life lessons they now share with others, as well as their own children, in various ways.

Frankly, I’m no longer sure where we’re heading as a nation. But, I don’t believe it’s for greatness, if we  keep harboring the same ‘voodoo politics’ of the past, having only a smidgen mentioned, above.

As Thurgood Marshall, another patriot and the first African-American Supreme Court justice, once pointed out, “Racism separates, but it never liberates. Hatred generates fear, and fear once given a foothold; binds, consumes and imprisons. Nothing is gained from prejudice. No one benefits from racism.”

Certainly not the seemingly elusive eminence of America, the prestige that ‘we the people’, still seek. But, one thing is for certain- another lesson I’ve learned over the years- while our skin coloring might be different, the blood we all bleed is red.

Think about that, too.

About William "Duke" Smither (a.k.a., "Backstreet D'jeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and former contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy. A second installment ["Passage(s) to Saint-Domingue...."] is pending completion.