The Heart in Action

for Duduzile

You come from the darkness of injustice, Soweto,

That flat, artificial city you showed us photos

Of, that camp without walls, an imposed rigor,

And you approach our guilt with warming light.

 

You are the one who comforts, Duduzile, and we

Need you, shamed that in our name wrongs are done

Daily to you and your people, need your courage,

The heart in action, saying the hard No to tyranny.

 

Your light penetrates our mind of darkness,

And that hurts, for we know we avoid the light,

Except for false flickerings on a screen.  Truth

From Soweto appalls us.  But your words confirmed

 

And comforted me as you stood so bravely speaking,

Refusing to weep as you described humiliation

And fear, the Soweto story, and your heart in action,

Peace and love to you. Remember me, your friend.

Karl Patten

The Impossible Reaches

Comment:  I met Duduzile (her African name, her English one being Joyce) at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat where I had gone for a quiet place where I could write.  She and her friend, Ellison, were travelling around the U.S. speaking of apartheid and its evils (this was 1987).

Surprising myself, I took to going to early morning Meeting, and one time Duduzile stood and described, compellingly, her experiences (and her children’s) as a black person in severely segregated South Africa – fear, humiliation, and a desire to fight back.  It was the most moving personal account I have ever heard.

Some times things combine.  I had given a poetry reading at Pendle Hill; Duduzile and Ellison were to go to Washington, DC, following their stay there.  They had no way to get to the railroad station, and, hearing this, I offered to take them.  As we stood on the platform, she asked me if I would write a poem for her, a request a writer never wants to hear and invariably dodges, but in her case I had to say “Yes,” and “The Heart in Action” is the poem I wrote.  To my astonishment I wrote another poem for her, this one for Joyce, and I sent them to Soweto, of course.  That is the only time I have ever acceded to the question, and I now am glad that she made it – compellingly.

A Learning

for Joyce

We think we make the pot,

Eager hands at the wheel.

Ignorant, we forget

How things become whole

 

And whirl the wheel faster

As thumbs and fingers grope.

The matter is the master,

The clay knows its shape,

 

The dark mind within it

Will make what it can make.

I and me and mine sought

To conquer – a mistake.

 

The vessel won’t hold water.

We learn about the clay,

That form follows matter.

You taught me that today.

10/13/87

Karl Patten

Spaces and Lines

Comment: In my comment on “The Heart in Action” I said that Duduzile, the brave and eloquent woman from Soweto, had an English name, Joyce, too.  That tells you something about South Africa in 1987 under apartheid.

I knew her at Pendle Hill, the Quaker retreat, where she was Joyce.  Among her many talents, she was a gifted potter, and one day she demonstrated her pottery work for the residents.  I admired how she worked and how she showed the difficulties of the wheel.  As I said before, she wanted a poem from me, and to my surprise I wrote her two, “A Learning” being the second.   “The matter is the matter,” and a poem about making a pot wanted to be tight and rhymed, but, for me, the poem is also dealing with human ignorance and the will to conquer – until we learn we can’t. Then we make something worthwhile. 13084

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Voting Rights Act: Have We Changed So Much?

A key provision of the Voting Rights Act (first adopted in 1965), provides that jurisdictions with a history of racial and ethnic discrimination must get prior federal approval before changing election laws. Many, but not all Southern states, and a scattering of states, counties and municipalities elsewhere, remain subject to that stipulation. In June, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court was widely expected to rule the provision unconstitutional. Instead, an 8-1 majority issued a narrow ruling that allowed the provision to continue, but warned Congress to take account of how the country has changed. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, on grounds that the blatant discrimination that occasioned the law is no more, and therefore the law should be deemed unconstitutional now.

How much has the South changed? How much has the country as a whole changed? On the face of it, the South has changed radically. Before 1965, Southern states systematically posed legal and informal barriers that prevented almost all blacks from voting. Poll taxes and literacy tests were administered unfairly so as to block blacks while allowing whites to vote. Outright intimidation and violence were not uncommonly applied to those blacks who nonetheless insisted on voting. The monopoly of the Democratic Party in most parts of the South meant that the real contests were in the primary, not the general election, and primaries were generally judged by the courts as private affairs not subject to the provisions of the Fifteenth Amendment, which enfranchised former slaves and their descendants. This comprehensive system of discrimination had been in place since the end of Reconstruction. The enactment and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act (and the preceding 1964 Civil Rights Act) was like a devastating earthquake to the racist order of the old South.

The South was required, finally, to become more like the rest of the country. That (along with air conditioning) made the dynamic New South possible. Blatant, public racism and discrimination were no longer permitted. Blacks registered and voted in large numbers. Whites began a long process of migrating to the Republican Party, as the Democrats increasingly abandoned the old Solid South and became more liberal. The Republicans, correspondingly, downplayed their identification with Lincoln and Abolition, moving toward an increasingly ideological conservatism that appealed preeminently to Southern whites. It was no accident that Barry Goldwater, in 1964, carried only his own state and most of the Deep South. That was the foundation for the new Republican Party, built by Reagan, as we know it today.

In most of the South today, the Republicans are the party of the white majority; the Democrats have the support of blacks, Latinos, and a minority of white liberals. That makes the Republicans almost as dominant as the Democrats were in the Old South. They can’t use the old techniques to keep blacks from voting, but they can and do gerrymander, they can and do pass voter ID and “anti-fraud” legislation that are administered in a manner that discriminates against poor blacks and Latinos. The techniques are more subtle: educated, middle class blacks can get through, but the intent is still to keep black voting down enough to assure white control.

The blatant manipulation of the vote count in Florida in 2000, to the disadvantage of black voters and Al Gore, serves to emphasize that this is not only a problem in the Deep South. The Republican-dominated state government had the motive and the means to deny the vote to thousands of African-Americans, and finally had five conservative Republican votes on the Supreme Court to back them up. Those same five are the ones who threaten the Voting Rights Act today.

It is true that voting discrimination also occurs outside the South. It’s not as common, but the difference between the South and the rest of the country is less extreme than it was in 1965. But the answer to that convergence is not to do away with a proven tool for electoral justice, but rather to make all states equally subject to it. Even as blacks have less trouble voting, we are in an era of strong anti-Latino prejudice and rapid growth in the Latino electorate. This is no time to give in to the right-wing agenda by gutting the Voting Rights Act.

EARLY LEARNING

submitted by Karl Patten

Duke Ellington comes to Salem, Mass.

The front row of the Paramount Theatre
Is the only place to be and see and hear
For two nights running the Duke’s spectrum
Of Olympians.

                                       I proclaim their names:

Hodges, Hardwick, Webster, Carney, Noone,
Williams, Stewart, Miley, Nanton, Brown,
Raglan, Guy, Greer, the Duke himself.

                                   *

— And a couple of days later I was told
That Ellington’s band could not stay
At Salem’s one good hotel, the Hawthorne,
But had had to put up at the fleabag down
By the railroad tracks.
                                           All of those gods
Sequestered in that dump!
                                                       In all white
Salem I was only fourteen but suddenly
Saw some serious problems in the USA,
Not just Salem.
                                   Good jazz swings lessons.

                                       *

Hodges, Hardwick, Webster, Carney, Noone,
Williams, Stewart, Miley, Nanton, Brown,
Raglan, Guy, Greer, the Duke himself.

from Spaces and Lines
by Karl Patten

Commentary: “Early Learning” is simply a brief narrative poem, based on my memory. Enamored of jazz, my best friend and I had to sit in the front row for the two nights that Duke Ellington’s orchestra played in Salem, a truly special event. Somehow, I learned that the band had had to stay in what could hardly be called a hotel down by the railroad tracks. It was my first encounter with race prejudice, but it was a searing one and taught me.

To me, the strength of the poem lies in the recording of the names of the players, exactly as they sat up on the stage. They were Olympian gods on their mountain, and their names had to be repeated.