Nikhil Pal Singh, ed.: Climbin' Jacob's Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O'Dell.
In Climbin' Jacob's Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O'Dell, editor Nikhil Pal Singh has taken on the formidable task not only of reintroducing the intellectual contributions of Hunter Pitts "Jack" O'Dell and the Freedomways journal that he served but also of reexamining the trajectory of civil fights movement history as constructed in academe and popular memory. In an extensive introduction to O'Dell's collected writings, Singh notes that though "[t]he remarkable gains of the civil rights era have set new thresholds of tolerance and inclusiveness within U. S. political culture.... [I]t becomes increasingly difficult to connect the dots between explicit exclusions and injustices of the past that persist in the social structures, norms, and institutions of the present" (5). Singh provides a compelling account of the importance of the civil rights movement not as a static piece of history, but as a critical missing link with the potential to animate our critical consciousness of the present:
The political wisdom born of O'Dell's acute historical sensibility and his defiant longevity is urgently needed in an era characterized by active forgetting and severe retrogressions in commitment to public life. Although the United States calls itself an advanced democracy, a majority of inhabitants seem to have lost the capacity to think about social reform from below which is to say, change that is initiated from outside or from the margins of already empowered constituencies and established institutions. (50; original emphasis)
O'Dell, who began organizing in the 1940s and continues to work and theorize, offers a unique vantage point from which to examine the intersection of U. S. political culture and worldwide black liberation. Singh concludes that "[t]o admit a figure like Jack O'Dell from history's waiting room ... means recognizing that black freedom struggles are less the culmination of America's founding ideals than a tectonic shift in Western political orders, whose impact is still being registered and fought over today" (9).
For Singh, Jack O'Dell's life and work, his critical analysis past and present, offer an under-recognized yet crucial nexus for understanding the ongoing struggle for black liberation. O'Dell, a committed socialist, worked as an organizer for the Communist Party in the South in the 1950s. Thanks to red-baiting by John and Robert Kennedy, among others, he was forced out of the National Maritime Union in the 1940s and then from a position of prominence with the SCLC in the 1960s. O'Dell's presence as an organizer and an intellectual provided a radical challenge to the movements he participated in, and that challenge continues. For this reason, his legacy has largely been obscured. As Singh notes, "if King has been woven into the fabric of national civic life by means of myth and selective memory, the vast contributions of Jack O'Dell remain largely unknown" (5). Climbin' Jacob's Ladder remedies this failure of memory by collecting O'Dell's writings for the first time, including pieces produced from the early 1960s to the present.
O'Dell's collected essays range from discussions of African Americans and colonialism and the early days of Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH, to accounts of organizing classic civil rights actions such as voter registration drives and the creation of SNCC. The collection's focus on lesser-known events, including the Charleston hospital workers strike of 1969, described by O'Dell as "being to the Poor People's Campaign what Montgomery was to the mass action phase of the civil rights movement," brings into focus how much of our collective understanding of the movement is shaped by convenient myths rather than thoroughgoing analysis (178). Much of
O'Dell's analysis is focused on the South not just because it was the historic battleground of much of the civil rights struggle, but also because it is the continuing site of the crime of slavery. For O'Dell, it is the instantiation of civil rights that becomes the foundational moment of American democracy:
The widely held assumption that there is some automatic, ingrained American ideal inevitably pushing America toward some "great day" when the sunshine of brotherhood equality will beam over the country is just another kind of Alice in Wonderland fairy tale. The dominant American ideal is to make money. That ideal got its formative baptism in the slave trade, buying, selling and breeding human beings as labor without pay. (137)
O'Dell's work in the civil rights era is also elegantly prophetic in recognizing antiblack police violence as a continuing factor in black oppression and therefore an important precursor to the injudicious policing and incarceration African Americans face today. He argues that
The establishment of the state system of segregation took place under conditions which amounted to the resumption of the Civil War, undeclared , and directed against the black population. That fact is manifest in this decade (the 1960's) by the instruments of war used by the state power against peaceful, unarmed citizens engaged in the Freedom Movement to end segregation and discrimination. Tear gas, police dogs, the state police and troopers, M-1 rifles, fire hoses, police riot squads armed with billy-clubs and machine-guns, the use of cavalry, and that monument to southern tyranny, the filthy overcrowded jail cell. This finds its parallel in the north in acts of wanton police brutality frequently committed, seldom reported by the news media and almost never punished by the institutions of Justice. (99-100; original emphasis)
Like the title of Ornette Coleman's classic 1959 album Tomorrow is the Question!, Climbin' Jacob's Ladder questions the ultimate legacy of the civil rights movement as chaotic social and economic conditions continue to define many African Americans, as well as they do the global poor. In his introduction, Singh stipulates that "this book is meant less as a simple act of recovery than as a reminder and resource of hope in times of darkness" (60). With Climbin' Jacob's Ladder, Singh and O'Dell have more than accomplished the difficult task of prompting productive memory.
Reviewed by Amy Ongiri, University of Florida
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
|Previous Article:||Amiri Baraka. Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music.|
|Next Article:||Deborah Willis, ed.: Black Venus 2010: They Called Her "Hottentot.".|