Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog


photo by Alex Lear

photo by Alex Lear





My body is scarred. 


A thirty-eight bullet blotch on my left knee. A twenty-five-cent, quarter-sized, raised, keloid on the back of my left shoulder from falling out of a tree when I was a pre-teen and a piece of cut branch pierced deep into my flesh. An eight-inch-long appendectomy line diagonally crosses my lower abdomen. Plus, there are other scarifications I’ve picked up along the sixty-three-year life-way I’ve traveled. 


And, of course, a series of stories accompanies each mark. I could narrate my autobiography just by relating the tales of how each wound came to be.


For example, there is a cut on my left hand. I was fighting with my brother when we were both young. If I remember correctly we were in junior high school. The two of us were tussling over one knife. He grabbed the handle, I ended up with the blade. You can guess what happened. You know the skin between your thumb and your pointing finger, that elastic part? That’s where I was sliced. I remember I could see the flesh inside my hand. Although it hurt, I was really fascinated by examining the inner workings. 


That altercation happened over fifty-some years ago. Although the physical scar is still there, the slicing did not produce any psychological scars. I am not afraid of knives or fights. I don’t hate my brother, nor did I hold a grudge against him. 


Although my body reveals the violence I have encountered, my deepest scars are not visible. Indeed, one of those invisible markings runs the length of my mental and will never disappear. I will never forget how seriously I stabbed myself, severing my budding self-esteem.


I was standing in the Manhattan street holding down a parking spot. A car came up. The horn blew. I ignored the sound. The driver blew again. I remained steadfast. The driver lowered his window and shouted for me to move. I didn’t respond nor did I move. 


This was in the seventies, four or five of us were headed to The Beacon Theatre to experience a double-bill of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi group and Pharaoh Sanders. As we drove around looking for parking spots, the brother who was driving spotted one on the other side of the street. He told me to get out and go stand in the spot until he could turn the corner and double back. I did as I was requested but I didn’t feel good about doing so. 


I had tried to assuage my guilt by rationalizing: maybe that was the way they did things up in New York. I hoped no one would come along before my friend got back. The night was warm. New York City. Anything could happen. How would I handle it if the police came along? Suppose someone jumped out and wanted to fight—not that I was afraid—but as I stood guard the myriad of possible scenarios playing on the screen of my consciousness was interrupted when that young black man drove up.


After I ignored him, he pulled up next to where I was standing and talked to me through his window. It wasn’t a long speech, nor was he cursing at me or even shouting. He was calm and accurate with his words, “Alright, brother, but you know you wrong.”


Those words scalpeled deeply. He was right. I was wrong; so wrong that I could barely enjoy the music because I continually questioned myself: why had I done something I knew was wrong?


That happened close to forty years ago but it indelibly mottled my memory, resulting in a sort of psychic scar. Ever since, whenever I’m asked to do something I know is wrong I don’t just go along with the situation just because it’s a good friend making a seemingly innocuous request, nor do I swallow my moral sense and do a jig because the outcome would be of some immediate benefit to me. 


With me, the outcome really doesn’t matter as much as does the process. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Especially, why am I committing an action I know is wrong?


Sure, we enjoy pleasure. We like getting things, consuming things. Let me be specific: we men like sex, crave power, being in charge, in control, but I constantly ask myself: at what price? Can I—my sense of being a man, an honorable human being—can I afford to be the boss if the cost of attaining power is knowingly doing wrong?


Physical pain rarely deters me but the psychic pain of doing wrong terrifies me. That is the pain I learn from; not just on a Manhattan street blocking a parking space but every day of my life, I do my best to avoid the pain of doing wrong. 


So, although I have a high tolerance for pain, I have a low threshold when it comes to my personal behavior. Regardless of what anyone else may think of what I do or don’t do, what I think of myself is my compass. What’s ok for them, may be anathema for me. 


The scars on my body, hey, that’s life. Life is a knife. Or a gun. An accident, a fall. Hot grease burning the skin in a cooking accident. The unanticipated pain of a hand slammed in a car door. The tooth chipped by a baseball unintentionally thrown in your face. The residue of  childhood chickenpox or an allergy to a food you didn’t know would cause severe rashes. Life, in all its complexities. Life, the myriad of petite disasters that challenge our personal morality and leave behind indelible indications of each encounter.


While we cannot avoid the inevitable markings of life, we don’t need to tattoo our souls with self-inflicted graffiti. My body may be scarred, but I try to keep my soul unblemished. 


Regardless of the scars you may or may not see when you look at me, what you don’t and can’t see: my internal moral wall—that is where is posted the most important lessons of my life. Inside of me is all that I have learned. And I guess you can say that I’ve studied myself deeply and tried my best to take note of and respond to both the pleasures and pains of my life.


That New Yorker taught me a key lesson when he told me, brother, you know you wrong. Even after over 350,000 hours of living, that wound remains tender. 


Knowingly doing wrong is one pain I just can’t stand.


 —kalamu ya salaam







glasper 01


& Metropole Orkest – NSJ 2014

glasper 02

Concert by Robert Glasper & Metropole Orkest at the North Sea Jazz festival in The Netherlands in 2014. 
Thanks to npo, ntr and of course Robert Glasper & Metropole Orkest.

1. Rise and Shine 00:48
2. Portrait of an Angel 07:43
3. Gonna Be Alright 16:12
4. Canvas  26:13
5. Lovely Day 42:02
6. Let It Ride 46:59
7. Jesus Children (with Lalah Hathaway) 55:32
8. All Matter (with Bilal) 1:04:40
9. Smells Like Teen Spirit 1:12:46





writers center

Emerging Writer Fellowships

May 30, 2015 

E-mail address:


Three fellowships are given annually to poets, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers. Fellows who live within a 250-mile radius of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, receive a $250 honorarium each, and others receive $500 each. Fellows are also invited to give a reading at the Writer’s Center. Poets who have published no more than three books and prose writers who have published no more than two books are eligible. Submit up to 10 pages of poetry or 16 pages of prose, a curriculum vitae, and a letter of interest by May 30. There is no entry fee. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

The Writer’s Center, Emerging Writer Fellowships, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815. (301) 654-8664. Judson Battaglia, Office Manager.








poets and writers

New Letters Literary Awards

May 18, 2015 

Entry Fee: 


E-mail address:


Three prizes of $1,500 each and publication in New Letters are given annually for a group of poems, a short story, and an essay. Submit three to six poems or up to 8,000 words of prose with a $20 entry fee ($25 for electronic submissions), which includes a subscription to New Letters, by May 18. All entries are considered for publication. Send an SASE, call, e-mail, or visit the website for complete guidelines.

New Letters, Literary Awards, 5101 Rockhill Road, University of Missouri, Kansas City, MO 64110. (816) 235-1169. Ashley Wann, Contest Manager.










CFP: Postcolonial Mobilities

in the Francophone World 

Society for Francophone Postcolonial Studies, in association with
Liverpool University Press, welcome reflections on the following:
Postcolonial Mobilities in the Francophone World

Friday 13 & Saturday 14 November 2015

Institute of Modern Languages Research,
University of London


The large-scale movement of people, objects, capital and
information has radically re-shaped the Francophone world
in the 21st century. However, the same processes that
promote movement and mobility also produce immobility,
exclusion and disconnection. This conference will ask what
potential does mobility beyond territorially fixed societies
hold for the Francophone world. What are the implications
of individualized and/or group mobility? What role does
mobility play in relation to the creation of new transcultural
and transnational identities? And, in turn, what challenges
do new social and cultural practices pose for mobility rights
and questions of ‘access’?
We welcome theoretical reflections
on Francophone Mobilities as well as proposals for papers
and panels on topics including:

  • Colonialism and mobility
  • Dynamics of power
  • Travel and migration
  • Borderlands and crossings
  • Class mobility
  • Social exclusion
  • The body and movement
  • Disability
  • Cultural transmission
  • Digital technologies
  • Forced mobilities

Please send abstracts of 300 words plus 50-100 words of biography to Conference Secretary, Catherine Gilbert ( Papers can be in English or French.

The Society for Francophone Postcolonial Studies’ website can be found here. The deadline for receipt of abstracts is: 1 June 2015








nytimes logo379x64

APRIL 16, 2015





Kwame Anthony Appiah:

The Complexities of

Black Folk


When I first started teaching in the United States in 1981 I had a joint appointment at Yale, in African and African-American studies, on the one hand, and philosophy, on the other, and I was casting about for things to do on the African and African-American side of my work, both as a teacher and as a scholar. I had been an undergraduate student at Cambridge in medical sciences for one year, and philosophy for two, and I was puzzled, as a newcomer to the United States, by the fact that many people appeared to think “race” was a biological concept, whereas I had been taught in my brief career in the life sciences to think it was not.

So I looked to see what there was of a philosophical sort to teach on this topic and discovered not very much. And since “race” was a rather central concept in the field of African-American Studies, it seemed to me that thinking a bit about it was a contribution that someone with my training could make.

Since my dissertation had been in the philosophy of mind and language, issues about reference seemed like one thing to take up, but I began mostly with explorations that were less technical, just trying to get across why it was that the life sciences had given up on race and what the best conceptual and empirical evidence suggested about whether they were right. Eventually I got to see that the concept had a life in many fields — or rather that many concepts travel under the flag of the word “race.” So I’ve written about it as a topic in literary studies as well as in biology, the social sciences and metaphysics.

G.Y.: In your new book, “Lines of Descent,” you write that W.E.B. Du Bois saw himself as an American and a Negro (as opposed to an African-American). You state correctly how being an “American” and being a “Negro” did not fit well for him. I’m reminded of Du Bois’s encounter in “The Souls of Black Folk” with the tall (white) newcomer and how she refused to exchange visiting cards with him and how this signified early on in his life a deep tension in his sense of “racial” identity. Do you think contemporary African-Americans also find themselves possessed by, as Du Bois describes it, “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps them from being torn asunder”?

K.A.A.: I think that Du Bois’s way of thinking about this, which was informed by 19th- century German social philosophy, can be put like this: Each people, each Volk, has a soul, a Geist, that is the bearer of a folk culture and of what he called spiritual “strivings.” American Negroes were possessed of the soul of America and the soul of the Negro. Since America’s folk culture was racist, they were possessed by a spirit that was, in some respects, hostile to them. The Negro soul gave them the resources for a positive sense of self, which helped to resist this, but it also gave them various other gifts.

The sense in which a black American in New York now shares the pain of the lynch victim in Georgia 100 years ago is importantly figurative rather than literal. 

I don’t believe in the Volksgeist myself. (Big surprise.) So I would translate all this into perhaps less exciting terms. But to begin with I’d have to challenge one of the tendencies of this German Romantic line of thought — which is to think that there’s a kind of wholeness and homogeneity to the collective soul. Because it seems to me that black identity in America brings with it a whole host of contradictory forces, which are not easily parsed either as American or as black. And how they play out for you depends on other things about who you are — a woman, a skilled laborer, a philosopher, a bisexual, a Catholic, and so on.

Also, I don’t think it’s the case that you can parse African-American life as one tension between the two sides of the hyphen. I do think that there clearly are characteristic sources of racial storm and stress, but that class and gender and other factors mean that it’s a different story for different subgroups.

G.Y.: Even if one agrees, as I do, that there is not really anything like a “collective Negro soul” — and especially not in the metaphysical sense — isn’t there a way we can still hold on to something like “black identity”? In other words, aren’t there ways in which to be black in America is based upon shared traditions of resistance, shared pain and angst, shared assumptions about things like the racial policing of our bodies or white supremacy, and so on?

K.A.A.: One reason I’m a nominalist about identities is that you can say that there’s a shared label, then say that what it does, both in the mind of the bearer and in her treatment by others, has elements that are shared and elements that are distinct. So what makes the identity one identity is its label, I think, more than what is done with it.

Similar complexities surround the idea of a black culture. Black Americans can certainly draw on cultures transmitted within communities of black people, and those cultural traditions may have elements shared across the board. Black adults, for example, tend to teach black children ways to handle American racism. The black label explains part of why they do this: bearing the label brings with it the risk of racist responses. So we could then say that teaching kids to deal with racism is part of black culture.

Then there’s the equally vexed issue of shared experiences. The sense in which a black American in New York now shares the pain of the lynch victim in Georgia 100 years ago is importantly figurative rather than literal. And it is a difficult question how much Booker T. Washington shares the traditions of resistance of Frederick Douglass. An idea, a practice, a response can be marked as black in various ways, without its being shared among black people. The advantage of abandoning the Volksgeist is that we can ask what is and isn’t actually shared.

G.Y.: I’m also thinking about Du Bois’s essay “The Souls of White Folk” where he says he is “singularly clairvoyant” when it comes to understanding white people. “White folk” isn’t just a nominal concept here; it has political, psychological and existential content. His claim about knowing the ways of white folk is an epistemic claim that is grounded upon his own identity as an oppressed black person who is part of a suffering group, one who rides the Jim crow car, but who in his clairvoyance also sees what I don’t think we want to deny — that is, a collective white supremacist identity. What do you think?

K.A.A.: One thing that I think is absolutely true in Du Bois’s remark is the recognition that the oppressed often have a deeper understanding of the lives of oppressors than vice versa, because they have to make sense of the powerful to survive. (If you want to know how the marriage of a person with servants is going, don’t ask their friends, ask the servants.) But again, I’d be a nominalist about white identity. And I’d agree that the role of whiteness in white supremacy is part of the story. But John Brown, like many other white abolitionists, wasn’t participating in the supremacist narrative, he was trying to undo it. So while white people share an identity, it isn’t going to follow that they share an agenda, or beliefs or values in virtue of that fact.

G.Y.: You also wrote in “Lines of Descent” that “Du Bois would say that the race concept should be retained, or that a black identity should be preserved, until justice and freedom reign on earth.” Yet, this seems to confine black identity to a kind of master-slave relationship; once the white master disappears, there will be no need for a black identity. Do you think there are legitimate ways in which black people can hold on to their “racial identities” after, let’s say, the collapse of white supremacy? Isn’t black identity certainly more than being forced to ride the Jim Crow car or being disproportionately profiled by white police officers?

K.A.A.: I think it would take an imagination more powerful than mine to know what would be possible once white supremacy came to an end everywhere. Identities shift their meanings all the time, and a black identity in a world without white supremacist institutions or practices would undoubtedly mean something different. What would happen to the way the identity relates to transnational forms — Pan-Africanism, black churches — and how it would change within our country would be worked out by real people in real time. So while racism gives black and white identities a central role in their particular current inflections, who knows what they would mean in a future without racism?

And even in the present, as you say, the meaning of the black label for particular people and communities has to do with a great deal more than the experience of racial insult and injustice. We have vibrant black cultures in music, film, literature, sport, dance, the visual arts, and one’s relation to these forms is psychologically and sociologically mediated by a black identity. You can think of these things as “ours” through the black label, the black identity. And there’s no obvious reason why any of this would stop just because we got, say, institutionalized racism under control.

G.Y.: There are not enough John Browns fighting against white supremacy (even if one disagrees with his method) and all the subtle ways in which it has continued to exist. To invoke Du Bois again, how have you experienced what he says is an unasked question: How does it feel to be a problem? And in what ways do you personally negotiate that question and what it implies?

K.A.A.: Well, I should begin by saying that I think that a background of class privilege on both sides of my family has protected both my sisters and me from some of the worst challenges of living in a racist world. (They have also had the advantage of living much of their lives in various parts of Africa!) I was born in London but moved with my family to Ghana when I was 1. My sisters were all born there. When I was an undergraduate at college in England, Skip Gates and I and a Nigerian philosophy student we knew were the only black people in our college. But I had white upper-middle-class high school friends and upper-middle-class English cousins around, so I guess I didn’t feel that there was any question as to my right to be there, and I don’t think anyone else thought so either. (And I wouldn’t have cared if they did!)

As a young person in Ghana, many people I met in my daily life in my hometown knew my family, and knew why I was brown and not black. They knew my mother was an Englishwoman (and white) and my father was Ashanti (and black). And throughout my childhood in Ghana the Asantehene, the king of Ashanti, whose capital was my hometown, was my great-uncle by marriage. (To those who didn’t know me, though, I was a “broni kokoo,” a red [skinned] foreigner; “broni” is often mistranslated these days as “white person.”) So, in a way, the most interesting “problem” for me, having been in America and then an American citizen for much of my adult life (since 1997), has been how to figure out a black identity, having come from two places where my color had a very different significance.

One of the things that I have always been most grateful to this country for is the sense of welcome I have often felt from African-Americans as a person of African descent. There’s no necessity about this: my ancestors — and not so many generations back — were in the business of capturing and selling other black people into the Atlantic slave trade (and some of my mother’s kinfolk back then were no doubt in the business of buying and shipping them). So one thing that race does in the world is bring black people together in spite of these divided histories. But I suppose that the main effect of my being black has been to draw me to black subject matter, black issues, and to give me an interest — in both senses of the term, an intellectual engagement and a stake — in pursuing them. Without this connection to the world of Africa and her diaspora I would just be someone else.

G.Y.: One central premise or conviction of cosmopolitanism, which you wrote about in your book, “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers,” is that all human lives matter. Yet in 2015 we continue to witness the need to declare “Black Lives Matter.” Has America failed to embrace this conviction when it comes to black people and other “strangers”?

K.A.A.: No society has yet lived up to the principle that everybody matters. Our American failures have indeed been around race and gender and religion and sexual orientation and disability, but we mostly move in the right direction over the long haul, though too slowly for anyone who cares about this principle. It ought, by the way, to worry morally serious conservatives that conservatism has been on the wrong side of so many of the struggles around these issues, even when they have eventually come round. Our defections are particularly scandalous, I think, because we began with the proposition that we’re all created equal.

It is just preposterous that in 2015 we have to be in the business of insisting that Black Lives Matter. It ought not to be necessary to say that the relative invisibility of black suffering and the racially oppressive character of our institutions, especially as they face the black poor, are huge problems. But it is necessary, alas. And surely one of the greatest scandals in the world today is the fact that the “home of the free” has more people incarcerated per capita than any other nation — O.K., except the Seychelles islands — and while less than half of our prisoners are (non-Hispanic) blacks, you’ve got to believe that the general indifference to this vast prison population has something to do with its racial composition. 

What kind of person would want to live in a society where half the male population has been arrested at least once by the time they’re in their mid-20s, which is the situation for African America? (Actually, what kind of country has arrested more than a third of its male population of any race by that age?) I think the general tolerance for the level of poverty in this very rich country is probably connected with the association of poverty with black people as well. So, as Du Bois pointed out a long time ago, among the victims of American racism are many of the white poor. My blood pressure literally rises in indignation whenever I think about the depraved indifference of too many of our politicians and too much of our media to these problems. I’ve argued (in “The Honor Code”) that patriotism is above all about having a stake in the honor of your country. So let me put it this way: On these questions, we Americans should be ashamed of ourselves.

G.Y.: I’m sure you are aware that the South Carolina police officer Michael Slager has been charged with the murder of Walter Scott, a black male, after a video of Slager shooting Scott in the back as he fled surfaced on the Internet. Some see this as a kind of turning point in the situation between white police officers and black people in the United States. Do you?

K.A.A.: We’ll see. Certainly, the response of the authorities in the town has so far been exemplary. But this was a very extreme case. An independent witness filmed the whole thing. The murder involved shooting a man in the back, a man who posed no threat because he was clearly running away. Officer Slager seems to have lied about what happened, and appears, in the video, to have planted evidence. So, of course, it’s a good thing that he will be charged and tried — and, of course, his trial, just to be clear, should start with the presumption of innocence — but I don’t know that the evidence will be so overwhelming the next time something like this happens. Without that iPhone video, it might just have been another case where the cop claimed self-defense. So who knows if a prosecutor or a grand jury would have believed him.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure what would have happened. Maybe the bullets in the back fired from a distance would have worried the coroner, but there have been more than 200 shootings of suspects, both black and white, by police in South Carolina in the last five years; only a few have been investigated, and there has not been one conviction of an officer. Still, one story often helps people to understand what a whole lot of argument doesn’t. So, let’s hope that this story helps people understand why too many black people are right not to trust too many police officers. Then, perhaps, we can develop the political will to do something about it.


This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in this series (with Linda Martin Alcoff, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Emily S. Lee, Joy James, Charles Mills, Falguni A. Sheth, Shannon Sullivan and Naomi Zack) can be found here.

George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Duquesne University. He has written, edited and co-edited numerous books, including “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “Look, a White!” and “Pursuing Trayvon Martin,” co-edited with Janine Jones.










The Secret History

of Guns

The Ku Klux Klan, Ronald Reagan, and, for most of its history, the NRA all worked to control guns. The Founding Fathers? They required gun ownership—and regulated it. And no group has more fiercely advocated the right to bear loaded weapons in public than the Black Panthers—the true pioneers of the modern pro-gun movement. In the battle over gun rights in America, both sides have distorted history and the law, and there’s no resolution in sight.

illustration by Joseph Durning/Durning 3D

illustration by Joseph Durning/Durning 3D


THE EIGHTH-GRADE STUDENTS gathering on the west lawn of the state capitol in Sacramento were planning to lunch on fried chicken with California’s new governor, Ronald Reagan, and then tour the granite building constructed a century earlier to resemble the nation’s Capitol. But the festivities were interrupted by the arrival of 30 young black men and women carrying .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols. 

panthers 01

The 24 men and six women climbed the capitol steps, and one man, Bobby Seale, began to read from a prepared statement. “The American people in general and the black people in particular,” he announced, must 

take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late. 

Seale then turned to the others. “All right, brothers, come on. We’re going inside.” He opened the door, and the radicals walked straight into the state’s most important government building, loaded guns in hand. No metal detectors stood in their way. 

It was May 2, 1967, and the Black Panthers’ invasion of the California statehouse launched the modern gun-rights movement. 

panthers 02

THE TEXT OF the Second Amendment is maddeningly ambiguous. It merely says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Yet to each side in the gun debate, those words are absolutely clear. 

Gun-rights supporters believe the amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms and outlaws most gun control. Hard-line gun-rights advocates portray even modest gun laws as infringements on that right and oppose widely popular proposals—such as background checks for all gun purchasers—on the ground that any gun-control measure, no matter how seemingly reasonable, puts us on the slippery slope toward total civilian disarmament. 

This attitude was displayed on the side of the National Rifle Association’s former headquarters: THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO KEEP AND BEAR ARMS SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED. The first clause of the Second Amendment, the part about “a well regulated Militia,” was conveniently omitted. To the gun lobby, the Second Amendment is all rights and no regulation. 

Although decades of electoral defeats have moderated the gun-control movement’s stated goals, advocates still deny that individual Americans have any constitutional right to own guns. The Second Amendment, in their view, protects only state militias. Too politically weak to force disarmament on the nation, gun-control hard-liners support any new law that has a chance to be enacted, however unlikely that law is to reduce gun violence. For them, the Second Amendment is all regulation and no rights. 

While the two sides disagree on the meaning of the Second Amendment, they share a similar view of the right to bear arms: both see such a right as fundamentally inconsistent with gun control, and believe we must choose one or the other. Gun rights and gun control, however, have lived together since the birth of the country. Americans have always had the right to keep and bear arms as a matter of state constitutional law. Today, 43 of the 50 state constitutions clearly protect an individual’s right to own guns, apart from militia service. 

Yet we’ve also always had gun control. The Founding Fathers instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them. While they did not care to completely disarm the citizenry, the founding generation denied gun ownership to many people: not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution. 

For those men who were allowed to own guns, the Founders had their own version of the “individual mandate” that has proved so controversial in President Obama’s health-care-reform law: they required the purchase of guns. A 1792 federal law mandated every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters—where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls. 

OPPOSITION TO GUN CONTROL was what drove the black militants to visit the California capitol with loaded weapons in hand. The Black Panther Party had been formed six months earlier, in Oakland, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Like many young African Americans, Newton and Seale were frustrated with the failed promise of the civil-rights movement. Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were legal landmarks, but they had yet to deliver equal opportunity. In Newton and Seale’s view, the only tangible outcome of the civil-rights movement had been more violence and oppression, much of it committed by the very entity meant to protect and serve the public: the police. 

Inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X, Newton and Seale decided to fight back. Before he was assassinated in 1965, Malcolm X had preached against Martin Luther King Jr.’s brand of nonviolent resistance. Because the government was “either unable or unwilling to protect the lives and property” of blacks, he said, they had to defend themselves “by whatever means necessary.” Malcolm X illustrated the idea for Ebony magazine by posing for photographs in suit and tie, peering out a window with an M-1 carbine semiautomatic in hand. Malcolm X and the Panthers described their right to use guns in self-defense in constitutional terms. “Article number two of the constitutional amendments,” Malcolm X argued, “provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.” 

Guns became central to the Panthers’ identity, as they taught their early recruits that “the gun is the only thing that will free us—gain us our liberation.” They bought some of their first guns with earnings from selling copies of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book to students at the University of California at Berkeley. In time, the Panther arsenal included machine guns; an assortment of rifles, handguns, explosives, and grenade launchers; and “boxes and boxes of ammunition,” recalled Elaine Brown, one of the party’s first female members, in her 1992 memoir. Some of this matériel came from the federal government: one member claimed he had connections at Camp Pendleton, in Southern California, who would sell the Panthers anything for the right price. One Panther bragged that, if they wanted, they could have bought an M48 tank and driven it right up the freeway. 

Along with providing classes on black nationalism and socialism, Newton made sure recruits learned how to clean, handle, and shoot guns. Their instructors were sympathetic black veterans, recently home from Vietnam. For their “righteous revolutionary struggle,” the Panthers were trained, as well as armed, however indirectly, by the U.S. government. 

Civil-rights activists, even those committed to nonviolent resistance, had long appreciated the value of guns for self-protection. Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a permit to carry a concealed firearm in 1956, after his house was bombed. His application was denied, but from then on, armed supporters guarded his home. One adviser, Glenn Smiley, described the King home as “an arsenal.” William Worthy, a black reporter who covered the civil-rights movement, almost sat on a loaded gun in a living-room armchair during a visit to King’s parsonage. 

The Panthers, however, took it to an extreme, carrying their guns in public, displaying them for everyone—especially the police—to see. Newton had discovered, during classes at San Francisco Law School, that California law allowed people to carry guns in public so long as they were visible, and not pointed at anyone in a threatening way. 

In February of 1967, Oakland police officers stopped a car carrying Newton, Seale, and several other Panthers with rifles and handguns. When one officer asked to see one of the guns, Newton refused. “I don’t have to give you anything but my identification, name, and address,” he insisted. This, too, he had learned in law school. 

“Who in the hell do you think you are?” an officer responded. 

“Who in the hell do you think you are?,” Newton replied indignantly. He told the officer that he and his friends had a legal right to have their firearms. 

Newton got out of the car, still holding his rifle. 

“What are you going to do with that gun?” asked one of the stunned policemen. 

“What are you going to do with your gun?,” Newton replied. 

By this time, the scene had drawn a crowd of onlookers. An officer told the bystanders to move on, but Newton shouted at them to stay. California law, he yelled, gave civilians a right to observe a police officer making an arrest, so long as they didn’t interfere. Newton played it up for the crowd. In a loud voice, he told the police officers, “If you try to shoot at me or if you try to take this gun, I’m going to shoot back at you, swine.” Although normally a black man with Newton’s attitude would quickly find himself handcuffed in the back of a police car, enough people had gathered on the street to discourage the officers from doing anything rash. Because they hadn’t committed any crime, the Panthers were allowed to go on their way. 

The people who’d witnessed the scene were dumbstruck. Not even Bobby Seale could believe it. Right then, he said, he knew that Newton was the “baddest motherfucker in the world.” Newton’s message was clear: “The gun is where it’s at and about and in.” After the February incident, the Panthers began a regular practice of policing the police. Thanks to an army of new recruits inspired to join up when they heard about Newton’s bravado, groups of armed Panthers would drive around following police cars. When the police stopped a black person, the Panthers would stand off to the side and shout out legal advice. 

Don Mulford, a conservative Republican state assemblyman from Alameda County, which includes Oakland, was determined to end the Panthers’ police patrols. To disarm the Panthers, he proposed a law that would prohibit the carrying of a loaded weapon in any California city. When Newton found out about this, he told Seale, “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to the Capitol.” Seale was incredulous. “The Capitol?” Newton explained: “Mulford’s there, and they’re trying to pass a law against our guns, and we’re going to the Capitol steps.” Newton’s plan was to take a select group of Panthers “loaded down to the gills,” to send a message to California lawmakers about the group’s opposition to any new gun control. 


THE PANTHERS’ METHODS provoked an immediate backlash. The day of their statehouse protest, lawmakers said the incident would speed enactment of Mulford’s gun-control proposal. Mulford himself pledged to make his bill even tougher, and he added a provision barring anyone but law enforcement from bringing a loaded firearm into the state capitol. 

Republicans in California eagerly supported increased gun control. Governor Reagan told reporters that afternoon that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.” He called guns a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” In a later press conference, Reagan said he didn’t “know of any sportsman who leaves his home with a gun to go out into the field to hunt or for target shooting who carries that gun loaded.” The Mulford Act, he said, “would work no hardship on the honest citizen.” 

The fear inspired by black people with guns also led the United States Congress to consider new gun restrictions, after the summer of 1967 brought what the historian Harvard Sitkoff called the “most intense and destructive wave of racial violence the nation had ever witnessed.” Devastating riots engulfed Detroit and Newark. Police and National Guardsmen who tried to help restore order were greeted with sniper fire. 

A 1968 federal report blamed the unrest at least partly on the easy availability of guns. Because rioters used guns to keep law enforcement at bay, the report’s authors asserted that a recent spike in firearms sales and permit applications was “directly related to the actuality and prospect of civil disorders.” They drew “the firm conclusion that effective firearms controls are an essential contribution to domestic peace and tranquility.” 

Political will in Congress reached the critical point around this time. In April of 1968, James Earl Ray, a virulent racist, used a Remington Gamemaster deer rifle to kill Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s assassination—and the sniper fire faced by police trying to quell the resulting riots—gave gun-control advocates a vivid argument. Two months later, a man wielding a .22-caliber Iver Johnson Cadet revolver shot Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles. The very next day, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, the first federal gun-control law in 30 years. Months later, the Gun Control Act of 1968 amended and enlarged it. 

Together, these laws greatly expanded the federal licensing system for gun dealers and clarified which people—including anyone previously convicted of a felony, the mentally ill, illegal-drug users, and minors—were not allowed to own firearms. More controversially, the laws restricted importation of “Saturday Night Specials”—the small, cheap, poor-quality handguns so named by Detroit police for their association with urban crime, which spiked on weekends. Because these inexpensive pistols were popular in minority communities, one critic said the new federal gun legislation “was passed not to control guns but to control blacks.” 

INDISPUTABLY, FOR MUCH of American history, gun-control measures, like many other laws, were used to oppress African Americans. The South had long prohibited blacks, both slave and free, from owning guns. In the North, however, at the end of the Civil War, the Union army allowed soldiers of any color to take home their rifles. Even blacks who hadn’t served could buy guns in the North, amid the glut of firearms produced for the war. President Lincoln had promised a “new birth of freedom,” but many blacks knew that white Southerners were not going to go along easily with such a vision. As one freedman in Louisiana recalled, “I would say to every colored soldier, ‘Bring your gun home.’” 

After losing the Civil War, Southern states quickly adopted the Black Codes, laws designed to reestablish white supremacy by dictating what the freedmen could and couldn’t do. One common provision barred blacks from possessing firearms. To enforce the gun ban, white men riding in posses began terrorizing black communities. In January 1866, Harper’s Weekly reported that in Mississippi, such groups had “seized every gun and pistol found in the hands of the (so called) freedmen” in parts of the state. The most infamous of these disarmament posses, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan. 

IN RESPONSE TO the Black Codes and the mounting atrocities against blacks in the former Confederacy, the North sought to reaffirm the freedmen’s constitutional rights, including their right to possess guns. General Daniel E. Sickles, the commanding Union officer enforcing Reconstruction in South Carolina, ordered in January 1866 that “the constitutional rights of all loyal and well-disposed inhabitants to bear arms will not be infringed.” When South Carolinians ignored Sickles’s order and others like it, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act of July 1866, which assured ex-slaves the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings concerning personal liberty … including the constitutional right to bear arms.” 

That same year, Congress passed the nation’s first Civil Rights Act, which defined the freedmen as United States citizens and made it a federal offense to deprive them of their rights on the basis of race. Senator James Nye, a supporter of both laws, told his colleagues that the freedmen now had an “equal right to protection, and to keep and bear arms for self-defense.” President Andrew Johnson vetoed both laws. Congress overrode the vetoes and eventually made Johnson the first president to be impeached. 

One prosecutor in the impeachment trial, Representative John Bingham of Ohio, thought that the only way to protect the freedmen’s rights was to amend the Constitution. Southern attempts to deny blacks equal rights, he said, were turning the Constitution—“a sublime and beautiful scripture—into a horrid charter of wrong.” In December of 1865, Bingham had proposed what would become the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Among its provisions was a guarantee that all citizens would be secure in their fundamental rights: 

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. 

The key phrase, in Bingham’s view, was privileges or immunities of citizens—and those “privileges or immunities,” he said, were “chiefly defined in the first eight amendments to the Constitution.” Jacob Howard of Michigan, the principal sponsor of Bingham’s amendment in the Senate, reminded his colleagues that these amendments guaranteed “the freedom of speech and of the press,” “the right to be exempt from unreasonable searches and seizures,” and “the right to keep and bear arms.” 

Whether or not the Founding Fathers thought the Second Amendment was primarily about state militias, the men behind the Fourteenth Amendment—America’s most sacred and significant civil-rights law—clearly believed that the right of individuals to have guns for self-defense was an essential element of citizenship. As the Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar has observed, “Between 1775 and 1866 the poster boy of arms morphed from the Concord minuteman to the Carolina freedman.” 

The Fourteenth Amendment illustrates a common dynamic in America’s gun culture: extremism stirs a strong reaction. The aggressive Southern effort to disarm the freedmen prompted a constitutional amendment to better protect their rights. A hundred years later, the Black Panthers’ brazen insistence on the right to bear arms led whites, including conservative Republicans, to support new gun control. Then the pendulum swung back. The gun-control laws of the late 1960s, designed to restrict the use of guns by urban black leftist radicals, fueled the rise of the present-day gun-rights movement—one that, in an ironic reversal, is predominantly white, rural, and politically conservative. 


TODAY, THE NRA is the unquestioned leader in the fight against gun control. Yet the organization didn’t always oppose gun regulation. Founded in 1871 by George Wingate and William Church—the latter a former reporter for a newspaper now known for hostility to gun rights, The New York Times—the group first set out to improve American soldiers’ marksmanship. Wingate and Church had fought for the North in the Civil War and been shocked by the poor shooting skills of city-bred Union soldiers. 

In the 1920s and ’30s, the NRA was at the forefront of legislative efforts to enact gun control. The organization’s president at the time was Karl T. Frederick, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer known as “the best shot in America”—a title he earned by winning three gold medals in pistol-shooting at the 1920 Summer Olympic Games. As a special consultant to the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, Frederick helped draft the Uniform Firearms Act, a model of state-level gun-control legislation. (Since the turn of the century, lawyers and public officials had increasingly sought to standardize the patchwork of state laws. The new measure imposed more order—and, in most cases, far more restrictions.) 

Frederick’s model law had three basic elements. The first required that no one carry a concealed handgun in public without a permit from the local police. A permit would be granted only to a “suitable” person with a “proper reason for carrying” a firearm. Second, the law required gun dealers to report to law enforcement every sale of a handgun, in essence creating a registry of small arms. Finally, the law imposed a two-day waiting period on handgun sales. 

The NRA today condemns every one of these provisions as a burdensome and ineffective infringement on the right to bear arms. Frederick, however, said in 1934 that he did “not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” The NRA’s executive vice president at the time, Milton A. Reckord, told a congressional committee that his organization was “absolutely favorable to reasonable legislation.” According to Frederick, the NRA “sponsored” the Uniform Firearms Act and promoted it nationwide. Highlighting the political strength of the NRA even back then, a 1932 Virginia Law Review article reported that laws requiring a license to carry a concealed weapon were already “in effect in practically every jurisdiction.” 

When Congress was considering the first significant federal gun law of the 20th century—the National Firearms Act of 1934, which imposed a steep tax and registration requirements on “gangster guns” like machine guns and sawed-off shotguns—the NRA endorsed the law. Karl Frederick and the NRA did not blindly support gun control; indeed, they successfully pushed to have similar prohibitive taxes on handguns stripped from the final bill, arguing that people needed such weapons to protect their homes. Yet the organization stood firmly behind what Frederick called “reasonable, sensible, and fair legislation.” 

One thing conspicuously missing from Frederick’s comments about gun control was the Second Amendment. When asked during his testimony on the National Firearms Act whether the proposed law violated “any constitutional provision,” he responded, “I have not given it any study from that point of view.” In other words, the president of the NRA hadn’t even considered whether the most far-reaching federal gun-control legislation in history conflicted with the Second Amendment. Preserving the ability of law-abiding people to have guns, Frederick would write elsewhere, “lies in an enlightened public sentiment and in intelligent legislative action. It is not to be found in the Constitution.” 

In the 1960s, the NRA once again supported the push for new federal gun laws. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald, who had bought his gun through a mail-order ad in the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine, Franklin Orth, then the NRA’s executive vice president, testified in favor of banning mail-order rifle sales. “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.” Orth and the NRA didn’t favor stricter proposals, like national gun registration, but when the final version of the Gun Control Act was adopted in 1968, Orth stood behind the legislation. While certain features of the law, he said, “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens, the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.” 

A GROWING GROUP OF rank-and-file NRA members disagreed. In an era of rising crime rates, fewer people were buying guns for hunting, and more were buying them for protection. The NRA leadership didn’t fully grasp the importance of this shift. In 1976, Maxwell Rich, the executive vice president, announced that the NRA would sell its building in Washington, D.C., and relocate the headquarters to Colorado Springs, retreating from political lobbying and expanding its outdoor and environmental activities. 

Rich’s plan sparked outrage among the new breed of staunch, hard-line gun-rights advocates. The dissidents were led by a bald, blue-eyed bulldog of a man named Harlon Carter, who ran the NRA’s recently formed lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. In May 1977, Carter and his allies staged a coup at the annual membership meeting. Elected the new executive vice president, Carter would transform the NRA into a lobbying powerhouse committed to a more aggressive view of what the Second Amendment promises to citizens. 

The new NRA was not only responding to the wave of gun-control laws enacted to disarm black radicals; it also shared some of the Panthers’ views about firearms. Both groups valued guns primarily as a means of self-defense. Both thought people had a right to carry guns in public places, where a person was easily victimized, and not just in the privacy of the home. They also shared a profound mistrust of law enforcement. (For years, the NRA has demonized government agents, like those in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal agency that enforces gun laws, as “jack-booted government thugs.” Wayne LaPierre, the current executive vice president, warned members in 1995 that anyone who wears a badge has “the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.”) For both the Panthers in 1967 and the new NRA after 1977, law-enforcement officers were too often representatives of an uncaring government bent on disarming ordinary citizens. 

A sign of the NRA’s new determination to influence electoral politics was the 1980 decision to endorse, for the first time in the organization’s 100 years, a presidential candidate. Their chosen candidate was none other than Ronald Reagan, who more than a decade earlier had endorsed Don Mulford’s law to disarm the Black Panthers—a law that had helped give Reagan’s California one of the strictest gun-control regimes in the nation. Reagan’s views had changed considerably since then, and the NRA evidently had forgiven his previous support of vigorous gun control. 

IN 2008, IN A LANDMARK ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the government cannot ever completely disarm the citizenry. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court clearly held, for the first time, that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to possess a gun. In an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court declared unconstitutional several provisions of the District’s unusually strict gun-control law, including its ban on handguns and its prohibition of the use of long guns for self-defense. Indeed, under D.C.’s law, you could own a shotgun, but you could not use it to defend yourself against a rapist climbing through your bedroom window. 

Gun-rights groups trumpeted the ruling as the crowning achievement of the modern gun-rights movement and predicted certain victory in their war to end gun control. Their opponents criticized the Court’s opinion as right-wing judicial activism that would call into question most forms of gun control and lead inevitably to more victims of gun violence. 

So far, at least, neither side’s predictions have come true. The courts have been inundated with lawsuits challenging nearly every type of gun regulation; in the three years since the Supreme Court’s decision, lower courts have issued more than 200 rulings on the constitutionality of gun control. In a disappointment to the gun-rights community, nearly all laws have been upheld. 

The lower courts consistently point to one paragraph in particular from the Heller decision. Nothing in the opinion, Scalia wrote, should 

be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. 

This paragraph from the pen of Justice Scalia, the foremost proponent of constitutional originalism, was astounding. True, the Founders imposed gun control, but they had no laws resembling Scalia’s list of Second Amendment exceptions. They had no laws banning guns in sensitive places, or laws prohibiting the mentally ill from possessing guns, or laws requiring commercial gun dealers to be licensed. Such restrictions are products of the 20th century. Justice Scalia, in other words, embraced a living Constitution. In this, Heller is a fine reflection of the ironies and contradictions—and the selective use of the past—that run throughout America’s long history with guns.


ADAM WINKLER is a professor of constitutional law at UCLA law school. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, to be published by W. W. Norton in September.




africa is a country

April 15, 2015




This is the sound of

Cecil John Rhodes


rhodes 01

Historic moments get a lot of phone camera coverage these days, but I wondered if radio could better capture the atmosphere at the rally to celebrate the removal of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town. As the #RhodesMustFall movement said repeatedly, it’s not just about a statue. So I recorded what people were saying and singing.

I took a portable digital recorder to the mass rally outside the Azania House (the renamed administration building occupied by the student activists). The rally featured powerful speeches from students, academics, workers and school children. There was poetry, song, and then the mass surge to upper campus to see old Cecil the statue being taken down and driven off on the back of a lorry.