2020年1月31日 星期五

Pulling out jives and jamboree handouts

Two turntables and a microphone.
Sen. James Kimble Vardaman, of Mississippi.Library of Congress
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By Jamelle Bouie

Opinion Columnist

My column this morning is on the inmate deaths at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, infamous in Southern memory for its hard labor and brutal conditions. I drew most of the material for the column from “Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice” by the historian David Oshinsky, published in 1997. The book is a sharp and unflinching portrait of the social and political landscape of the Jim Crow South, with the prison as an extreme example of what segregation and white supremacy wrought in much of the region.

In the column, I wrote a little bit about Gov. James K. Vardaman, who led Mississippi at the turn of the 20th century, and was responsible for the construction of Parchman. I didn’t say much about his political appeal, only that he ran on a “demagogic platform of rural chauvinism and white supremacy.” What I want to do here is give a little more detail, since it’s hard to read about Vardaman without experiencing a sense of déjà vu. Here’s Oshinsky:

Vardaman knew that white fears about social equality grew stronger in rough economic times, and he sensed that for poor white men, the ability to protect one’s wife and daughter from the “black beast” had become a vital substitute — a compensation of sorts — for the inability to shield them from the ravages of hunger and debt.

He continues:

Not since the 1870s had a political campaign in Mississippi been mired in so much hate. At one point, Vardaman defended the lynching of a black rape suspect who had been horribly tortured and then burned alive at the stake. “I sometimes think that one could look upon a scene of that kind,” he mused, “and suffer no more moral deterioration than he would by looking upon the burning of an Orangoutang that had stolen a baby or a viper that had stung an unsuspecting child to death.” At another point, Vardaman spoke approvingly of “local mob rule,” adding: “If I were the sheriff and a Negro fiend fell into my hands I would run him out of the county. If I were governor and asked for troops to protect him I would send them. But if I were a private citizen I would head the mob to string the brute up, and I haven’t much respect for a white man who wouldn’t.”
These statements did not go unchallenged. A fair number of merchants, professionals, and planters — the so-called better whites — portrayed Vardaman as a “vain demagogue” and a “top-notch medicine man.” “He has done more to arouse a spirit of lawlessness and mob rule throughout the state,” said one critic, “than all other causes combined.”

And here’s the kicker of this extended discussion of Vardaman:

Vardaman carried the day. His margin of victory in the governor’s race came largely from the hill country, where the fear of “race leveling” was most intense. For many people, a vote for Vardaman meant that a white man, however humble, could always consider himself superior to the Negro. As one newspaper gloated, “a nigger is still a nigger” in Mississippi, and even President Roosevelt “could make him nothing more”

One thing I hope to impress on readers, whether it’s in this newsletter or in my column, is that many things we see as novel have clear antecedents in the American past. The scale might be different — the impact might be greater — but the underlying dynamic is similar, if not the same. That reality, in turn, should push us to think more deeply about the underlying forces of American life, and race and class in particular.

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What I Wrote

I have a longstanding interest not just in the founding but in the dissenters and opponents. I channeled some of those opponents for this column on impeachment and the Senate.

In talking and thinking about impeachment, observers and participants have gone on (and on) about the founding fathers: about Hamilton and Madison and the Federalist Papers. But their opponents, the antifederalists, also thought about the process. In their fight against the Constitution, they covered every inch of the new governing document, touching every section, every article and every clause. Looking from the perspective of now — one week into the impeachment trial — it’s striking to see how, without knowledge of political parties or partisan factionalism, they captured the exact dynamic that will keep a corrupt president in office.

As you read this column on Parchman and prison brutality, I want you to ask yourself a question: If democracy is a way of living and thinking as well as a system of government, what ways of living and thinking are we exercising through our criminal justice system?

A prison may or may not be humane, but it will always be dehumanizing. The isolation, the lack of liberty — the separation from family and community — are antithetical to human life. In which case, the only way to “fix” a problem like the American prison system is to end it.

Currently Reading

David Waldstreicher on the historiographical stakes of The 1619 Project in the Boston Review.

Alex Lichtenstein on the 1619 debate in The American Historical Review.

Jill Lepore on “the last time democracy nearly died all over the world and almost all at once,” in The New Yorker magazine.

Emily Parker pens a short story about blockchain for Slate.

Brianne K. Nadeau, Ibraheem S. Samirah and Vaughn Stewart explain the problem with single-family zoning in The Washington Post.

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Feedback

If you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please consider recommending it to friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week’s newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at jamelle-newsletter@nytimes.com.

Photo of the Week

The McMillan Sand Filtration Site in Washington.Jamelle Bouie

From my personal archive is this photo of abandoned sand filtration structures in an area of Washington D.C. called “McMillan Park.” Never actually a park, it’s been unused for most of a century. The city is currently fighting a fierce legal battle with local activists over a plan to turn the area into housing and amenities. I took this photo with a 1984-vintage Nikon point and shoot, that I have since sold.

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Now Eating: Weeknight Fancy Chicken and Rice

This, from The New York Times Cooking Section, comes via the cookbook My Two Souths: Blending the Flavors of India into a Southern Kitchen by Asha Gomez. It’s a wonderful book geared toward preparing big meals for friends and family. This recipe, however, is relatively simple — a one pot meal that takes less than an hour to prepare. Ghee, if you’re unfamiliar, is Indian clarified butter. You can buy it at most grocery stores or, better yet, you can make it yourself from the best quality butter you can find.

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup ghee (or use unsalted butter)
  • 1 large yellow onion, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
  • 6 green cardamom pods, crushed
  • 3 whole star anise
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons kosher salt, divided
  • 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 ½ teaspoons turmeric powder
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into ¾-inch pieces
  • 2 ¼ cups low-sodium chicken stock
  • 1 ½ cups basmati rice
  • ¼ cup chopped dried apricots
  • ¼ cup sliced raw almonds, toasted
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro leaves

Directions

In a medium saucepan with a lid, melt ghee over medium-high heat. Add onions, cardamom, star anise and ¼ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are soft and a very deep golden brown, about 15 minutes, lowering heat if necessary to keep from burning them. Add garlic and turmeric; cook and stir for 1 to 2 minutes, or until very fragrant. Add chicken and cook for 4 minutes, stirring to coat chicken with the onion mixture.

Add stock and remaining salt, increase the heat and bring to a boil. Add rice, stir and cover. Reduce heat to low and simmer until the rice has absorbed liquid, about 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, for 12 minutes. Remove lid and fluff rice with a fork.

Transfer chicken and rice to a bowl, taking care to remove and discard cardamom pods and star anise. Garnish with apricots, almonds and cilantro. Serve at once.

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