Asante Sana, Randall Robinson

Randall Robinson is now an Ancestor.

He lived almost 30 years after I first seriously meditated on him because of this Donna Britt Washington Post column.

In many fundamental ways I never left this account, never turned the newsprint page, so Robinson, a man I learned about because of apartheid, today remains for me frozen in this moment of heroism.


Donna Britt/Washington Post

April 29, 1994, Page D1.

A Good Man Going Hungry For a Good Cause

On Saturday night, President Clinton dined with hundreds at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on asparagus and Roma tomato salad, petit filets of beef and salmon and a dessert of fresh berries in Grand Marnier sauce served in a chocolate scoop.

That same night, my family gathered at a favorite eatery to consume angel hair pasta, Caesar salad, a wheelbarrow-sized burrito and barbecue chicken pizza.

In the basement that is now his home, Randall Robinson feasted on two glasses of tomato juice and some spring water. His wife, Hazel – who on weekend nights leaves their 4-year-old daughter, Khalea, at home with a friend to join him – sipped iced tea.

By now, many Americans know about the 18-day fast of Robinson, 52, executive director of TransAfrica, a group that lobbies on behalf of Africa and the Caribbean. He says he will subsist on juice and water until the United States ends its policy of automatically repatriating all Haitian refugees back to an island where many are immediately murdered.

As somebody who has real trouble bypassing a Snicker Doodle at the mall, I felt many things when I learned of Robinson’s fast: admiration, awe – and fear. A story from a colleague explains the fear:

Last week, after ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide spoke of Robinson’s stance to a crowd in Los Angeles, a female Haitian emigre approached. “Is Randall Robinson black or white?” she asked.

He’s black, Aristide replied. The woman looked crestfallen.

“You should find someone white to fast with him,” she said. “Because Americans won’t care if a black man dies.”

In truth, many Americans are too numbed by images of death from Bosnia to Rwanda to a Japanese airfield to be exercised about the death of anyone who wasn’t an ex-president or a suicidal rock star.

It’s also true that if white Americans were dying in the streets the way black citizens are, our government would come to a standstill until the carnage stopped. Like that woman, I wonder: Can the threatened demise of anybody as devalued as a black man change a U.S. policy that results in other blacks’ deaths?

But this column isn’t about desperate city youths killing each other out of ignorance and despair. It isn’t about somebody faceless, who can be dismissed as a druggie or gang member who “deserves” it.

It is about Randall Robinson. It is about the man whose 1984 arrest with two others started a ball rolling that grew into a boulder massive enough to flatten a virulently racist regime – and to help spawn this week’s historic South African elections.

It is about an eloquent, flesh-and-blood guy who delights in a pigtailed daughter, a child who nightly sketches family pictures and whose eyes fill when she’s asked about his absence. “I miss kissing Daddy when he comes home from work,” Khalea says. “But he has to help the people in Haiti.”

It’s about a man whose son, Jabari, 19, will attend Lincoln University, and whose aspiring-writer daughter, Anike, 22, says, “The word `proud’ is so small {to describe} having a person in your life who inspires you to want to do the most passionate thing for your beliefs.”

It’s about a man whose face makes you believe it when he says he “can’t imagine life” without his wife, Hazel Ross Robinson, a foreign policy adviser to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.). “I believe in what Randall’s doing,” she says. “But as a wife, it is heartbreaking.” Her husband’s doctor says that the always-slim activist has lost eight pounds and that the protein level in his blood has dropped below normal.

It’s about someone who literally would rather die than not risk everything to save Haitians – real people, too, with wives and husbands and cute little girls – trying to flee a killing field. Their attempts to escape an island where thugs hack to death democracy-seekers with machetes, lop off their faces and feed the remains to pigs, are thwarted by U.S. vessels that scoop them up and return them “home.”

Some of us don’t know what to make of a guy who’d abandon a graceful, colonial-style house, beloved Chopin recordings and even his gorgeous office upstairs to exile himself to a Spartan room in TransAfrica’s basement.

I don’t. I woke up at 4 a.m. yesterday, haunted and taunted by the magnitude, the madness, of Robinson’s mission. The darkness couldn’t obscure my sense that his stance makes my own efforts to make the world a fairer, more loving place seem cowardly, ineffectual.

But each of us, I told myself, has power. More than we even begin to exert.

President Clinton, who like me, ate well on Saturday, has the power to keep this man – and by extension, thousands of Haitians – alive. If he can move beyond his ennui and fear, he can by executive order rescind the automatic repatriation order he railed against during his presidential campaign.

We have power too: In fingers that can dial the White House and tie up phone lines at Congress; in feet that join tomorrow’s 11 a.m. rally at the Capitol; in hearts that can pray for Robinson’s continued strength.

We have the power to be just a bit braver. To acknowledge, at our next meal and the next, one man’s willingness to sacrifice that and so much more – for a good cause.

Some Brief Words About That Nikole Hannah-Jones/Ta-Nehisi Coates Announcement

This is significant because this move will now establish a national, 21st-century Black liberal journalism tradition. I just wanted to point out that this will not erase what award-winning journalism professor Allissa Richardson has written: that post-modern Black activism–symbolically represented now by Darnella Frazier--finds mainstream journalism irrelevant.

With the Black liberal J-wing on the way to being established, this allows a Black Left to do what it is doing now–to build itself as an alternative. In the olden days, the best Black newspapers held all views. Here’s a book on that.

And with Haiti in the news, here’s an example of the present and future:

And the below is an on-the-ground Haiti discussion from this morning’s ReMix!

My Root Article On Wonder Woman vs. Real African Women As U.N. Ambassador For Women And Girls…..


…… here.

I’ve since learned that there are different types of U.N. ambassadors: some for fantasy characters and some for real ones. DECEMBER 21 UPDATE: Not that it mattered, I see.


James Baldwin, And His Scholars, Confront Paris: At Last Weekend’s James Baldwin International Conference In Paris And In A New Book Out Next Month, The Artist’s True Relationship With His Adopted Home Got Real



PARIS—Let’s just make this point up front that kept being made all weekend: James Baldwin was not an expatriate, and he didn’t escape anything. Maxine Gordon, Dexter’s wife, told a story about the couple meeting Baldwin at a Harlem party (her first time), and the writer calling out to the jazz master: “Hey, Dex, I was reading in the paper that we were expatriates. I thought we just lived in Paris.”

Baldwin said repeatedly that he made France his (writing) home—first from 1948 to the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement in late 1950s, then from 1970 to his death in 1987 at the age of 63—because he was afraid that, as a Black man, he was going to either kill or be killed in America. During his first exile, he believed he would be murdered by Northern white racists; the second, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Central Intelligence Agency. With two very different generations of Black male writers and artists—elders Ralph Waldo Ellison, Albert Murray and Romare Bearden on one end, and his younger, fiercer critics LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed on the other—all determined to either bloody, or proudly survive being bloodied in, America, Baldwin, stuck in the middle of opposing generations and ideologies, received brickbats for becoming a long-term Trans-Atlantic commuter.

The writer’s relationship with France, Paris specifically, was the topic of no less than three panels at the James Baldwin International Conference, held last week at The American University of Paris. About 240 scholars, activists and writers from across the world came to a cautious nation –in a state of emergency until next month, implemented after last November’s terrorist attack—to honor their hero by gathering in his name and examining every facet of his life and work they could squeeze into the three days.

Before the conference opened, I read galleys of Jules B. Farber’s “James Baldwin: Escape From America, Exile in Provence” (Pelican), a new full-length book on Baldwin’s base of operations in the southeastern corner of France. Scheduled to be published next month, it revealed a very complicated negotiation on Baldwin’s part with the European version of white supremacy.

Provence, specifically the commune of Saint-Paul de Vence, allowed him to recover from the deep depression he felt from losing Malcolm and Martin—“Far from the Harlem tenements,” writes Farber, “this was paradise for Baldwin, who, with childlike glee, wandered barefooted in the groves, picking fruit and nuts”—but he would have to work hard at creating that permanent respite. The story of how with only sporadic rent payments and a stack of IOUs, he slowly charmed Ms. Jeanne Faure, his white racist landlady, to virtually give him the Saint-Paul house he would live and work in for 17 years, is worthy of a one-act play. It’s an extraordinary example of a former “boy  preacher”’s ability to make a convert—provided the renter was the commune’s sole Black and, much more importantly, internationally famous.

That fame reverberated in ways that buoyed the spirits of the lonely writer. Baldwin transformed his house, and, therefore, his adopted community, into a must-stop, a welcome table, for traveling celebrities who sought refuge from congested Paris. It’s important to note that virtually all historical accounts show Jimmy as great company, whether entertaining American luminary friends at his home, or heavy drinking among locals in a bar in politically and socially conservative Saint-Paul. His survival instinct was always sharp, and he always made sure to surpass the needed mark.

That house, the subject of a long legal fight since Baldwin’s death and the site of at least two recent journalistic pilgrimages, is in a state of disrepair and may be destroyed. The novelist and essayist who died in that house is considered one of Paris’s many, many, national treasures, but as international travelers quickly learn, currency is constantly in flux, and the value of exotic trinkets relative.

Baldwin book cover

When Baldwin wrote in his last book, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” that the Western World was “located somewhere between the Statue of Liberty and a pillar of salt,” he meant France, too. Lest we forget, the statue was an 1886 gift to America by France and created by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor, to celebrate, from the perspective of the formerly enslaved, their Jim Crowed, Reconstructed freedom offered by America.

“At the center of the European horror,” Baldwin continued, “is their religion: a religion by which it is intended one to be coerced, and in which no one believes, the proof being the Black/White conditions, or options, the horror into which the cowardly delusion of White supremacy seems to have transformed Africa, and the utterly intolerable nightmare of the American Dream.”

And France, as one of the members of the European axis of evil, did transform L’Afrique: it conquered lands now known as Senegal, Guinea, Niger, Chad…..the list can go on well into the next article. It was defeated by Africans who declared a free Black country called Haiti, but the price of that freedom ticket was to pay the French reparations! It’s such a beautiful country. But although it’s not hard to figure out why, it is hard sometimes to remember why when its splendor soaks into the soul. All throughout time, beauty seduces to hide away ugly truths for as long as it can, and France has beaucoup d’expertise.

(As the Baldwin conference closed, The Washington Post reported that French President Francois Hollande announced the nation would create a memorial and museum devoted to the country’s role in the slave trade. The Franco-Algerians, France’s long-suffering and abused immigrants, are still waiting for any such equivalent public acknowledgement and study of, say, the Algerian Massacre of 1962. And Gordon, explaining how the French love to spotlight American racism but remain in denial about their own, held up an issue of Liberation, a French tabloid that made that day’s cover story about Ferguson.)

Panel presenter Dorrie Wilson explained how in 2016, it’s not just the Franco-Algerians who are, as Baldwin famously called them, France’s niggers. Citizenship in Paris today, she explained, is determined by France’s arbitrary power, which creates a permanently unstable relationship for its residents who have settled into their new nation, including those recently arrived, and unwanted, Afghan, Syrian and other migrants. They are all eternal strangers in the village, she explained. And last November’s terrorism attack, she held, has made things worse, the xenophobia increased.


These ridiculous contradictory European (read: white) impulses are why “Meeting The Man: James Baldwin in Paris,” a 1971 documentary screened at one of the Baldwin/Paris conference panels, produced laughter and irritation from the assembled scholars. In the film, the novelist throws the European filmmaker’s plans for a combo travelogue-literature chat into the rubbish bin. He instead of being filmed associating with Franco-Algerians and standing in front of the Bastille, the prison that was torn down—stormed, actually—during the French revolution. Baldwin literally stood tall in front of it, mentioned that there were political prisoners in America and proclaimed: “I could be Bobby Seale. I could be Angela Davis. I could be Medgar Evers…I’m not interested in giving you ‘James Baldwin’s Paris.’”

Baldwin demands his own platform right then and there, and gets it. He exposed the double-standard of the Bastille being a symbol of liberation because the prisoners were white, when, if the imprisoned were Black, they’d be considered savages by Europe. He may have loved his enemies, but he proved he knew them well when he told the ignorant, exasperated European filmmaker that, “You [the white Western world], for me, is my prison. You are my warden.” That’s not the theatrics of a man ridiculed for decades as “Martin Luther Queen”: that’s a meaningful symbolic gesture in, and at the heart of, France. His stance is the equal of any such public act of Frederick Douglass or Ida B. Wells-Barnett in America.

As a “writer in a revolutionary situation,” as Baldwin describes himself later in the flick, he had to know, ever stuck in the middle—between Europe and America, and promising both rage and reconciliation (“I’m a Black man in the middle of this century”)—when and where to claim his historic space. He chose well, and it’s one of the reasons that what the conference organizers and participants referred to as “Baldwin Studies” is just beginning.