Greening King

The author of the following post is C.E.O. of BlocPower—a black enterprise that cultivates green energy projects in under-served communities. (BlocPower is a business that’s shaped by a social commitment: “at every point in our value chain we seek out and hire underemployed workers from vulnerable communities.”) 

One of my favorite sermons by Dr. King is called “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart.” It starts: “A French philosopher once said that ‘No man is so strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked’…

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Norton’s Big Check

This story poem about a working class hero’s lost weekend, which First originally published in 2012, is a favorite of Mark Dudzic and it brings home class struggles that inform Dudzic’s analysis of Trumpism. (See Mr. D.’s post below.) Like Dudzic, Smucker is alive to the difference between the collective idea that still shapes aspects of working class culture and the ethos of “The Golden Boy on the Way Up.”

Smucker finds lyricism in lives at risk of being trumped now, if only in the society of spectacle. Whenever this editor re-reads “Norton’s Big Check,” I’m reminded of Hemingway’s memorable mockery of proletarian lit in the bar scene late in To Have and Have Not. But “Norton’s Big Check” is no joke. Though it’s not solemn. It even has something like a happy ending. While Smucker isn’t beamish, that finish is a sign he believes in more than Hem’s nada.  B.D.

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Why the Verizon Strike Matters

I’m a 1946 baby boomer. As a birthday present a friend once gave me a copy of LIFE magazine published the week I was born, a peek into the new world of post-war prosperity I would grow up in. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby dance across the cover, while inside Winston Churchill ponders and Rita Hayworth lounges amidst the ads for whiskey, toothpaste, gas stoves and a full page promise from the Bell Telephone System:  “We are short of Long Distance telephone circuits now but we plan to add 2,100,000 miles of them to the Bell System in the next twelve months.”

And one surprise: a seven page section titled The Great Steel Strike Begins with a full page profiling the strikers, including the president of Local 1397 and his retired steelworker immigrant father across from a full page photo of a surviving participant in the 1892 Homestead Steel Strike at “the monument to his old friends who lost their lives.” No pictures of frustrated managers, no pictures of angry consumers, no pictures of resolute right-wing politicians. All this in LIFE magazine, the network news of ‘46.

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Whorehouse Music

Asa Zatz, who translated nearly 100 books from Spanish to English, was 100 years old when he died last month. Asa was a modest man. He once compared translating to dentistry and joked he was the guy publishers called once they found out Gregory Rabassa wasn’t available.  But he was truly (and rightly) proud of his 1987 translation of José Luis Gonzalez’s classic novella of Puerto Rico, “Ballad of Another Time.” (You can find out more about “Ballad’s” undervalued author in this companion post by Irene Vilar—a slightly compacted version of the foreword to University of Wisconsin Press’s 2004 edition of the novella.) What follows is a chapter from “Ballad.” Take it as our public tribute to its (humble) translator who was a longtime supporter of “First of the Month” and a dear friend. B.D. 

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George Ohr: A Free Man in Biloxi

“I love George Ohr. More freedom in his head then in just about anyone’s.

Ohr was a 19th century ceramic futurist.  Looking at his work rubbing my fingers together, thinking about the feel of wet clay. his mind must have moved like clay moves when you throw it on a wheel or pinch it…it always seeks freedom…the potter seeks control…the dance is between the authority of the material and the will of the potter.   It can be a discussion or a debate.  A lot of talking.”—Michael Brod

Brod’s musings prompted your editor to ask him to say more on George Ohr, “mad potter of Biloxi,” (who surely looked the part—see the photo at the bottom of this post). Ohr, himself, was more than willing to think out loud about his works and days: “I brood over [each pot] with the same tenderness a mortal child awakens in its parent.”[1] A few of Ohr’s numberless creations were exhibited in NYC last year at the Craig F. Starr gallery. These three were in that show. (You can find many more examples of Ohr’s art pots here.)

3-double-handed-vases_1895-1910 (1)

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Emergency Rooms & Cutting Rooms: What’s Wrong with “The Fighter”

“Very few things happen at the right time and the rest don’t happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.” — Herodotus, by way of Mark Twain

Like most biopics, The Fighter is a lavish celluloid Valentine to its subject. Unfortunately, it’s also a Valentine that’s unfinished, riddled with typos and unwitting backhanded compliments to many of its recipients.

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Standardized

Headaches, nausea, asthma, crying,
sleep disturbances, reluctance
to go to school—in forty-five states,
the children ready their pencils.
Let’s Solve This, the Exxon announcer
purrs, while bright, hopeful cities
configure themselves in the background.
Using your knowledge
of oil companies, what can you infer
about the speaker’s motives? How is Common Core
like drilling in the sea?

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Solidarity in Alabama

Things are looking bad, but just hold on. There’s some good news from liberal prognosticators who’ve been staring into the future. The “relatively conservative white working class” is in decline! Women, Gays, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, Singles, College Grads, and Digital Henry Fords are all compiling into a demographic wave that only needs one more decade to crest and wash the Tea Party, NRA, Baptists, and Republicans in general into the oblivion of a permanent minority.

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Hard Call & Wise Responses

Historian – and longtime First contributor – Wesley Hogan was sparked by The Help’s spin on the Southern turn toward freedom in the 60s. Her piece on the book and movie starts our mini-roundtable on this cultural phenomenon. Hogan’s Call generated a response from a reading group of retired black women who had their own opinions about The Help. Ancella Bickley recorded their views for First and her summary follows Hogan’s piece. After that, Hogan returns with a quick review of recent historical writing related to the subject of black domestics.

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Workingman’s Blues

A few years back, the Los Angeles Local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union opened up the books to accept applications for 3,000 casual stevedore jobs. The positions paid well enough—about $28 per hour—but, as casual jobs, there were neither guarantees of regular work nor any benefits. Over 300,000 people applied. It was clearly a step up for a major percentage of the LA area’s physically fit, U.S. citizen/legal resident, drug-free blue collar workforce.

There was a time when someone with those qualifications (well, actually, you didn’t even have to be drug-free), could graduate high school or get discharged from the military on a Friday and start work in the steel mill on a Monday. If they didn’t like it there, they could hire into the auto plant on a Tuesday. There was a time when getting laid-off didn’t mean a near-permanent loss of income and career prospects. There was a time when going out on strike didn’t mean risking everything that you worked for.

I missed this heyday moment by a year or two. By the time I got my first full-time job in 1972, things were already beginning to turn to shit. Plant closings and permanent reductions in force were becoming part of the landscape and the country was about to be rocked by an oil crisis and a series of increasingly severe recessions. I was too late for the steel mill/auto plant thing but you could still fairly easily get a living wage job in a cookie factory or a warehouse and not worry too much about how you would survive if the plant closed or the boss fired you for being a smart ass. I traveled the country in the mid-70’s working a series of light construction and cannery jobs—many dispatched from union hiring halls or state employment agencies—that are being done today by undocumented immigrants at close to the same actual wage (not adjusted for inflation) that was prevalent back then.

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How I Became a Writer (Pt. 1)

Brandeis accepted me on a Thursday, May, 1960. Friday, it dropped football. I had two varsity letters. I should have read the sign. I was leaving a land that valued touchdowns and jump shots for a preserve where the only score that brought respect was your G.P.A. “A place,” said Don Nussbaum, a disgruntled power forward from Rockville Center, “run by the first ones out in dodgeball.”

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Born in the U.S.A.

Mark Dudzic is the Labor Party’s National Organizer. This summer he summed up progress made by the Party during the past decade. It’s a perfect time now to take stock as the Party has just concluded its successful effort to establish the first state Labor Party in South Carolina. (See Dudzic’s account of the campaign below.) Last month, the South Carolina Election Commission officially declared the Party has the right to run candidates on its own ballot line. The South Carolina Labor Party held its founding meeting in September. To find out more about the national Labor Party (and the South Carolina Campaign) go to http://www.thelaborparty.org. You can also contact the Party (and make a donation) at P.O. Box 53177, Washington DC 20009.

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