… [From this] contradiction arises the strange paradox that the poverty for the worker must be perpetual, in order to be compelled to work for the rich.
-W.E.B. Du Bois, 1953
Many of us are just ill-equipped to deal with the darkness. We’ve been living in America’s Disney World too long.
-Dr. Cornel West
The original prompt read: Write a letter in praise of someone in your community.
“This is our essay prompt for Friday night,” I said on Wednesday night as the intensive writing session came to an end.
“No. We don’t have anyone to praise in our community.” NO.
Older African and younger Black and Latino/a students populate the classroom.
“Okay. I will come up with another topic.”
At home, I select a topic from an English writing workbook:
You should not shop at Wal-Mart because they do not provide health care benefits for most workers.
It is a typical, simple, beginners prompt for a basic five-paragraph essay for the next session.
Wal-Mart executives cultivated support among lack city council members and church leaders in Chicago, according to Anmol Chaddha in Colorlines, “for building two stores…each about the size of ten football fields.” Wal-Mart’s strategy, Chaddha writes, is to bring “Wal-Mart to the ‘hood’ – touting not just lower prices but also racial equity.”
“With over $280 billion in annual sales and 3,500 stores across the United States, the company is now selling itself as a solution to urban racial inequality.” Wal-Mart’s “pitch” for conquering the “hood,” Chaddha explains, is to convince “poor people of color” that Wal-Mart means jobs and inexpensive goods.
What executives don’t mention is that the jobs come with notoriously low wages and that the company has cracked down on union organizing. But Wal-Mart executives know that poor people of color are in no position to be picky about who brings what jobs to the community.
Over 1.2 million workers make Wal-Mart the “largest private employer in the United States [and] also the leading employer of African American and Latino workers.”
Wal-Mart is not the only corporation capitalizing “amidst this urban gold rush for developers,” Chaddha explains. Staples, Marriott Hotel, and Ikea are just a few corporations spreading their wings in Black communities throughout the nation.
You can read and study Das Kapital until the heavily annotated pages of your copy fall loose from the book’s bind, but ultimately the students, particularly those on the margins of society, will teach.
Back in the classroom, I am at the board writing the new topic. I heard behind me, “she means ‘work.’” In other words, you should not work at Wal-Mart…
She has that wrong, of course – meaning, I have it wrong.
“Miss. Miss. Dr. Miss, don’t you mean ‘work’ at Wal-Mart”?
“I mean ‘shop,’” I answer, looking at the prompt again. Empathy, I say to myself.
“What’s the problem?”
Why should we stop shopping at Wal-Mart?
What’s that gotta’ do with us?
“Health care for others?” I asked.
“Wal-Mart is cheap!”
“Don’t you know why?” I paint a picture featuring workers, women sitting in a room, working long hours, piecing together sneakers, shirts, pants – women earning slave wages. “There is the shopper from an urban area, you, the Wal-Mart worker with low wages and no health care benefits, and the sweatshop worker in China.”
Now, who is in the margins? I am someone out of touch with reality!
“Okay, please, start the essay.”
Some twenty hours later, I am transported to the “hood” as I read paper after paper praising Wal-Mart.
The items are cheap…
My family shops at Wal-Mart
If people fill out a job application at Wal-Mart, then they know they will not have health care benefits…
Corporations can’t afford to pay workers health care!
A sister works without health care, therefore…
Wal-Mart helps children!
Would that be the children of women working for slave wages at sweatshops in over 40 countries?
Is an hourly wage of a little more than $8 helping the children of Black and Latino/a workers at Wal-Mart?
The students did write a praise letter – in support of corporate leadership in their community!
The conquistadors have never stopped capitalizing on others with material resources and sellable labor. Tactics have changed not the strategy of conquering. “At opportune moments,” writes Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, “the [enemy] combines his policy of brutal repression with spectacular gestures of friendship, maneuvers calculated to sow division, (sic) and ‘psychological action.’” The enemy employs “the traditional collaborates” and “the lumpenproletariat.” The enemy, Fanon continues, discovers the existence, side by side with the disciplines and well-organized advance guard of rebellion, of a mass of men who participation is constantly at the mercy of their being for too long accustomed to physiological wretchedness, humiliation, and irresponsibility.
Convince the poor and undereducated that they have someone looking out for them!
Malcolm’s plea for the development of Black entrepreneurs and Black self-reliance – is damned! The Sam Waltons of the world have been successful community organizers!
What was supposed to be a lesson in essay writing for these students becomes a lesson in the corporation’s growing interests in the lumpenproletariat.
When it comes to historical resistance against those who would withhold justice, freedom, indeed, human rights, Black Americans are on the record as coordinators of protest. As an enslaved population to budding capitalists, Black Americans were not human and certainly not citizens of the United States. To be white in the United States was not to be Black! Whites begin at one starting gate as immigrants and Blacks at another as enslaved labor.
Black Americans struggled to survive the brutality of slavery and protested the political and social oppression of legalized segregation. Most important, Black humanity is always in question, always at risk of being denied the right of recognition by those for whom the myth of white supremacy must sustain the superiority of Euro-Americans. In the face of this stubbornness, particularly directed at the Black community, Black resistance demands a constant stands of opposition, for we are far more vulnerable to the hatred of the mob – in the person of these modern-day, market-driven conquistadors.
Dissent, for any U.S. citizen, triggers the government’s law enforcement and military apparatus; however, dissent is perilous, particularly for Black Americans. Consider the long delay and the side winding maneuvers by the government when it came to civil rights for Black Americans and the systematic assassination of those Black leaders who called on the community to reject a demoralizing and a dehumanizing economic system.
The most vulnerable among us, writes Fanon, is the lumpenproletariat. “Any movement for freedom ought to give its fullest attention to this lumpenproletariat.” When it is feasible and profitable, the oppressor’s frown becomes a smile directed at the weak and vulnerable within the Black community. This segment of the community, starved for anything that will acknowledge its humanity, Fanon writes, “is so precarious and dim that it is affected by the slightest spark of kindness.” As willingly as the lumpenproletariat will work and then shop grateful on the new master’s plantation, he will pick up a police or military issue weapon and defend his right – to enslavement. If the leadership of rebellion fails to consider the growing masses of the “wretched of the earth,” writes Fanon, this mass of people “will throw itself into the battle and will take part in the conflict – but this time on the side of the oppressor.” The oppressor, on the other hand, “never loses a chance of setting the niggers against each other,” and the oppressor “will be skillful in using that ignorance and incomprehension,” characteristic of the lumpenproletariat, to his advantage.
The whole of Earth rattles as it tries to absorb such an unholy alliance.
We praise the workers and students in the Honduras, in Iran, in France. We praised the workers at Republic Windows in Chicago when they locked themselves behind the doors of their workplace and refused to permit owners to leave them without work, pay – an explanation. In the confines of the hood (as opposed to Black neighborhoods), the corporations are uniting corporate strategists with the servitude of weakened Red, Black, and Brown people. Genocide has a corporate smiley face, but the Left is silent. It is no wonder that similar to the corporate conquistadors, the Black lumpenproletariat lacks all empathy for humanity – including her own when lead by the likes of the Walton Klan!
The culpability of the Left notwithstanding, the Left has a responsibility to challenge corporations and corporate strategies that privatize the minds and bodies of the lumpenproletariat and ultimately weakens the Left’s overall opposition to the corporate-military complex.