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Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

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Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

H. Bradford

6/4/18

Warm weather is finally here, so I have spent the last two weeks readying my garden for the season.  Since I’ve been planting more, I have plants on the brain. Lately, I have been thinking about plants and issues of racism (and in one case, anti-semitism).  Some plants have some very questionable names. Other plants have racially sensitive histories that social justice minded gardeners should consider. Plants like Wandering Jew, Kaffir lime, Nyjer seed, Indian Paintbrush, and even Collard Greens may be taken for granted by most growers, but contain issues of race and ethnicity.  Thus, the following blog post offers an overview of some of these offenders, so that we can grow gardens as well as a more just world for everyone! (The list of problematic plants is not comprehensive. I also did not cite sources within the text, but a list of links that I drew from can be found at the end).


Wandering Jew:


If you visit a greenhouse, you may find a plant called a Wandering Jew.  There are several plants that bear this name, including three species of spiderwort plants, four species of dayflower, and two other plants.  The spiderwort species are the sort that seem most commonly used as indoor plants. A few years ago, a local greenhouse recommended a Purple Wandering Jew plant for our home, since they can grow in lower light conditions.  The employee assured my housemate and I that there was nothing antisemitic about the bushy, viney plant. Nearly Natural 27 in. Wandering Jew Hanging Basket The term Wandering Jew comes from 13th Century Christian folklore.  The character is a Jewish man who was said to have taunted Jesus before he was crucified.  As punishment for his taunt, he was cursed to walk the Earth until the return of Christ. In some stories, his clothes and shoes never wear out and after 100 years, he returns to being a younger man.  He was a perpetual traveler, unable to rest, but able to converse in all of the languages of the world. This is not based on any actual Biblical story, though it may have been inspired by the story of Caine and European paganism.  Much like Big Foot or ghosts today, Europeans of the time believed that they had actually seen this character. For hundreds of year, even into the present day, this character has appeared in literature and art. Image result for wandering jew art

Gaston Malingue’s painting “The Wandering Jew”

While the character is very fictional, the antisemitic context the character was born from is not.  In 1290, Edward the I expelled all Jewish people from England. During the middle ages, Jews were banned from owning land.  They were also barred from trade guilds. Medieval cities also relegated Jewish populations to certain areas. In the 14th century, Jews were expelled from France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain.  Expulsions and exclusion from various economic activities provided a material reality for the idea that Jewish people were outsiders or wanderers. Thus, “The Wandering Jew” represents not only a person, but a stereotype regarding the nature of all Jewish people.  This stereotype has been used in modern times to incite hate, such as the Nazi film entitled “Der Erwige Jude,” which revived and modernized the medieval myth and envisioning modern Jewish people as criminal, lazy, and perverse cosmopolitans who controlled the world through banking, commerce, politics, and the media.  The idea of the Wandering Jew has


With this history in mind, calling a rambling, hard to destroy plant a “Wandering Jew” does not seem like the most culturally sensitive nomenclature, to say the least.   Interestingly, the Swedish Cultural Plant Database (SKUD) has changed the name of the “Wandering Jew” plant as well as another plant with an anti-semitic name (Jew Cherry which we know as Chinese Lantern Plants).  I am uncertain what SKUD renamed the plant to, but perhaps Purple Spiderwort, Variegated Spiderwort, or Wandering Spiderwort might be some good ideas. There are other plants with “Jew” in their title and these should be changed as well.   While not a plant, no one should call a wood ear mushroom a Jew’s Ear. I could find no similar examples of plant names that are unflattering/prejudiced towards Christians or other religious groups, but if there were and even if the group did not share the same history of oppression and genocide, there seems no reasonable argument to use derogatory common names.  If I saw such plants at a local store or greenhouse, I would suggest a name change to the manager.


Collard Greens:

A few years ago, I planted collard greens.  I was curious about this vegetable and wanted to grow it because I enjoy trying new things.  However, my housemate suggested that the name was racist since it sounds like “Coloured Greens.”  The leaf green is associated with African American cuisine, so it seemed plausible that the name may have had a more racist origin.  Thankfully, it doesn’t! The word Collard comes from “colewort” in Middle English perhaps influenced by Old Norse “kal” for cabbage, and earlier still, kaulos, which is Greek for stalk.  The “Col” and collard is found in other words like cauliflower, kale, coleslaw, German kohl for cabbage, etc.

Image result for collard green


While the leafy green is more prominent in the cuisine of the Southern United States, it is also used in Brazilian, Indian, and Portuguese cooking.   It was cultivated in Greek and Roman gardens 2000 years ago as is closely related to kale. Prior to this, it is theorized that wild cabbages were in cultivation in Europe 3000 years ago and up to 6000 years ago in China.  Leafy cabbages were also grown in Mesopotamia. While collard greens in particular (in contrast to other leafy cabbages) have long been consumed by Europeans, the history is not devoid of racism or contention. A controversy arose a few years ago when Whole Foods Co-op suggested that customers buy collard greens and prepare them with ingredients such as cranberries, garlic, and peanuts.  Some African Americans felt that this was cultural appropriation of a vegetable used in their cuisine and food gentrification of a vegetable by white people who have recently discovered it and have now re-imagined it as something trendy. This critique is not unfounded. Afterall, Neiman Marcus sold out of their $66 frozen trays of collard greens in 2016. Historically, collard greens, like many members of the cabbage family were poor people food.  (Though Romans actually esteemed cabbages as medicinal and a luxury.) Members of the cabbage family are cool season crops with mild frost resistance, making them part of winter staples or lean time food. Image result for neiman marcus collard green African Americans came to the United States as slaves and were only allowed to grow a small selection of vegetables for themselves.  Collards were one of them. While the vegetable is not African in origin, the methods of preparation were. West Africans use hundreds of species of leafy greens and prepare them in ways that maintain their high nutrient content.  Enslaved Africans found fewer wild greens here and came to rely on collards, which were brought here by the British. (Depending upon where the slaves were taken from, they may have been familiar with leafy cabbages as in the Middle Ages, cabbages of various sorts were traded into Africa through Morocco and Mali).  They are unique among cabbages in that they can continue to produce leaves over their growing season. They can be harvested for months when other vegetables quit in the cold weather. Collards helped slaves to survive due to their productivity. For this reason, poor white people also grew collards. It is a cheap, productive, healthy plant.  Although white Southerners grew the plant, it was a marginal crop to European settlers and African Americans deserve credit for popularizing the use of greens and their preparation. Image result for collard greens

image from Foodnetwork.com

I love plants.  I love gardening.  I have no problems eating vegetables.  But, collard greens do raise the question of how white people (at least those who aren’t poor and from the south) should approach collard greens.  On one hand, when food is gentrified, the cost goes up for those who have traditionally eaten it. For instance, after kale was deemed a superfood, its cost rose 25%.  If food prices rise, it can drive poor people to unhealthier, cheaper foods. Collard greens are also a problem when they are commercialized and fetishized. Judging by the tone and content of internet articles on this topic, I don’t know that most African Americans would take issue with a white individual growing a small amount of collard greens for personal, private use for love of gardening and attempting to try new vegetables.  In the case of Whole Foods and Neiman Marcus, it represented capitalizing on and changing the culinary traditions of Black people. The foods were presented in inauthentic ways, devoid of history, and for profit by cashing in on a contextless notion of the exotic. Since the vegetable is tied to the traumatic history of survival and slavery and has cultural importance (such as a feature of New Year’s meals) it isn’t something to take lightly.   Collard greens have double the iron and protein than kale and 18% more calcium, so there may be legitimate reasons that many people should grow them. Personally, I am curious about many vegetables. Does my curiosity “Colombusize” the culture, culinary traditions, or agriculture of others? In small ways, yes. My hope is that I can be mindful of my decisions and the history/power embedded in even the simplest things.


Nyjer Seed:


Anyone who wants to attract finches to their yard may be familiar with nyjger seed, which is also called thistle seed.  The seed does not come from the thistle plant and the name “nyjer seed” seems suspiciously like another n word. When I was a kid, the seed was spelled “niger” which also makes the seed a little suspicious.  We pronounced it in a way that is similar to Nigeria or Niger in Africa. Unfortunately, some people did not pronounce it this way and instead thought it was pronounced like a racial slur. The bird seed industry actually changed the name of the seed because it had confused people or had been mispronounced.  Nyjer is the 1998 trademarked name of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry. Image result for niger seed While the name might suggest that the seed came from Nigeria or Niger, nyjer seed actually comes from the Guizotia abyssinica plant which grows in the highlands of Ethiopia.  I found a reference to the seed being called Nigerian thistle, which to me indicates that whomever named the seed must have had some confusion about the geography of Africa or, perhaps generically called it “niger” seed as a stand in for Africa itself.  Nigeria, Niger, and the Niger River are all located in West Africa whereas Ethiopia is in East Africa. The genus Guizotia contains six species, of which five are native to Ethiopia. A distribution map of the species shows that it grows naturally in some areas of Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan.  It also grows in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The plants found in and around India are believed to have been brought there long ago by Ethiopian migrants, who also brought millet to the region. Therefore, Nyger seed really has nothing to do with the countries of its (former) namesake and represents a sort of “imagined Africa” rather than any geographical or botanical reality. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

  Field of Nyjer Seed plants in Ethiopia

While in the United States, most people feed the oily black seeds to birds, it is used in the cuisines of India and Ethiopia.  It has been been grown in Ethiopia as an oil crop since antiquity and today, makes up 50% of Ethiopia’s oil seed production. Overall, the main producer of commercial nyjer seed is India, followed by Myanmar and Ethiopia.  About 50,000 metric tons of the seed are imported each year into the United States. It is the only commercial bird seed which is largely imported. This seems to be a tremendous amount of seed- which ultimately goes to bellies of wild birds!  The use of nyjer seed seemingly follows the rise of the U.S. as a post-war global power. Bird feeding became more common through the 1950s, which resulted in demand for commercial bird food. As people increasingly fed birds, it became apparent that certain seeds were likely to attract different (more socially desirable) species of birds.  Nyjer seed was adopted as a bird food in the United States in the 1960s. The first tube feeders used for the seed became commercially available in 1972. In the late 1960s, the seed had to be treated with heat, because it was often accompanied by the seeds of invasive weeds. All nyger seed imports must be subjected to 250 degree heat sterilization treatment. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

image from Northwest Nature Shop

Despite small scale experiments, Nyjer is not currently grown in North America, and in an experiment between N.A grown seen and Ethiopian seed, the birds preferred the Ethiopian grown seed.  Reading between the lines, it is important to think about what the import of this seed actually means. Various countries have tried to grow this seed, including the Soviet Union under the guidance of Ivan Vavilov.  However, the plants do not yield enough seeds to make it economically viable. The region of India which produces the most seed is Madhya Pradesh, which is the sixth poorest part of India (per capita GDP). The regions which grow the seed are also home to ethnic minorities, such as Nagar Haveli which is the home of the Warli tribe.  While I could find no articles which specifically addressed the plight of nyjer seed farmers, it stands to reasoning that because the center of production for these seeds are underdeveloped countries (and even greater underdeveloped regions within those countries) that the work conditions of those farmers is probably characterized by low pay, long hours, and hard work.  Since some of these countries actually used these seeds as an oil and a human food, the movement towards exporting the seeds to the West as bird food has likely reduced its use as a subsistence crop. Finally, the fact that it has not been viable in the agriculture of more developed countries means that it is probably a labor intensive crop (and our labor is too expensive due to labor laws, organization) hence, the fact that it is imported rather than domestically grown.


Personally, I love birds.  I want to attract finches to the yard and provide them with a fatty, seed that they love.  At the same time, it certainly represents a lot of privilege that I can buy imported seeds (sometimes eaten by humans) to give to the birds.  The origin of the seed itself is obscured by its name. There seems to be a lot wrong with nyger seeds. I think that my task as a socialist is to learn more about the specific labor conditions related to the seeds (since there is not a lot of information out there).  If there was more awareness regarding the seeds, perhaps there would be more interest in fair trade or better working conditions for those producers. It is also possible that I could try growing my own seeds for the birds rather than relying on expensive imported seed.  Nyger seed as been experimentally grown on a small scale in Minnesota. I think it is a fascinating seed with a wealth of history. At the same time, more should be done to illuminate the history and economic conditions of the seed.

Image result for niger seed

Image from The Zen Birdfeeder

 

Kaffir Lime:


About a year ago, I picked up some gardening books from the library.  One of the books was about growing citrus indoors. It introduced me to the Kaffir Lime.  I really didn’t think anything of this name at the time. It sounded vaguely Middle Eastern, but I didn’t associate it with any particular meaning.  Little did I know that kaffir is actually a racist term. The k-word is a racial slur in South Africa. The k-word was used in Arabic to describe non-believers, but was used by European colonists in South Africa to describe the African population.  The word is so offensive, that there have been legal actions taken against those who have used the slur in South Africa. The name of the lime itself may come from Sri Lanka, where the lime is grown and where there is an ethnic group which self identifies as kaffirs.  It is also possible that the fruit literally referred to non-believers, as it may have been named by Muslims who saw it cultivated by non-Muslims in Southeast Asia. However, because the word is racially offensive in most other contexts and considered hate speech in South Africa, a different name is an order.  In Southeast Asia, the fruit is called Makrut, which has been suggested as a viable name change. Image result for kaffir lime

Indian Paintbrush:


While this example is not as offensive as the k-lime, there are many plants that are named “Indian x” such as Indian Paintbrush, Indian posy (butterfly weed), Indian Blanket (Firewheel), Indian pipe, Indian grass, etc.  There are many North American plants which have common names which invoke something related to Native Americans. However, the way that these common names are used are not accurate, flattering, or supportive of Native Americans.  For instance, Indian Paintbrush sounds quaint. As a child, I imagined that perhaps the flowers were really used as paint brushes by Native Americans. Indian Paintbrush, also called Prairie Fire, was used as a leafy green, medicine, and shampoo by some Native Americans.  But, it was not used as a paintbrush. While the flower may resemble a brush covered in bright red paint, it could easily be called Paintbrush plant. Using the word “Indian” invokes something wild, mythical, or even something silly (such as literally using the plant as a paintbrush).  It reduces Native Americans into an idea about something primitive, whimsical, or even non-existent rather than actual, living people, with actual uses for plants. This is true of the other plants as well. Many of the “Indian” plants are wild plants that are not commonly domesticated (though some are used in ornamental or “Native” gardens.  There is also a colonizing tone to these names, as these are not the names that Native Americans themselves gave the plants but imagined names from colonizers and their descendents. There are often alternate common names for these plants, so there is no excuse to call them names which invoke a mythical idea of Native Americans. Better yet, maybe some of the plants could be given names from actual Native American languages.  This would demonstrate that Native Americans knew, used, and named these plants long before the arrival of settlers. For instance, Ojibwe called the Indian Paintbrush plant Grandmother’s Hair (though I don’t know what this translates to in Ojibwe). Since plants were used by many tribal groups for different purposes, it would be difficult to determine which language should take precedence over another. At the very least, I think it is important to be mindful of language and consider existing alternative names (which I haven’t always been, since I was raised calling certain plants Indian Pipe or Indian Paintbrush).

Image result for indian paintbrush

image from Wikipedia

Conclusion:

There will always be some people who feel that these issues are no big deal.  Some of these people feel that there is nothing offensive about using traditional plant names or that they know a Jewish person who doesn’t mind “Wandering Jew” or a Native American friend who likes to call plants Indian Paintbrush or Indian Grass.  The world is diverse and certainly there are diverse opinions on these matters. To those folks, this probably seems like much ado about nothing. On the other hand, others may feel that issues of racism or oppression in general are much bigger than the kind of bird seed we use or what we call a lime.  It is better to focus on the big picture than get caught up in the nuances of language. As for myself, I feel that this is a fascinating topic to think about and that to me, it uncovers subtle and not so subtle ways that various kinds of oppression are built into something as simple as what we call a plant or what we grow in the garden.  For me, thinking about these topics is intellectually satisfying (I am interested in learning more about the history of plants) as well as a way for me to be a better, more mindful activist. At the end of the day, helping to grow social movements is far more important than the plants that we grow and know. Growing as an activist means working with others in organizations towards social change, but also the internal change that comes with challenging assumptions and rethinking what is taken for granted.  With that said, hopefully this post helps others to grow in how they think about plants, but also their place in society.


Sources on Wandering Jew:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49614212_Creating_National_Identity_through_a_Legend_-The_Case_of_the_Wandering_Jew

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/feb/21/wandering-jew-history

https://sputniknews.com/art_living/201709151057426161-sweden-anti-semitic-plans/
https://www.theholocaustexplained.org/anti-semitism/medieval-anti-judaism/who-and-where-were-medieval-jews/

https://www.history.com/topics/anti-semitism
Sources on Collard Greens:

 

http://www.vegetablefacts.net/vegetable-history/history-of-cabbage/

A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/18/kale-compared-to-other-vegetables_n_3762721.html
https://www.wral.com/lifestyles/travel/video/13531214/?ref_id=13531197

http://www.crossroadsnews.com/news/lithonia-festival-is-all-about-the-collards/article_68af27d0-9968-11e7-a979-17d10f0b5b05.html

http://www.ebony.com/life/hungry-for-history-collards

http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2018/01/25/humble-hardy-leaf-defines-national-character/ideas/essay/

http://www.latibahcgmuseum.org/why-collard-greens/

https://weblogtheworld.com/formats/featured/history-of-collard-greens-extends-far-beyond-north-america

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/whats-leafy-and-green-and-eaten-by-blacks-and-whites/424554/

http://abc7chicago.com/food/neiman-marcus-sells-out-of-$66-collard-greens/1589488/

https://www.trulytafakari.com/ate-white-peoples-collard-greens-tasted-like-oppression/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/09/5-foods-from-africa/

http://meloukhia.net/2014/06/hipsterisation_and_its_hiked-up_prices_kale_quinoa_and_traditional_foods/

https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/11/foodie-without-appropriation/

 

Nyger Seed Sources:

https://www.topcropmanager.com/corn/niger-seed-production-is-for-the-birds-13172

https://www.petcha.com/nyjer-black-oil-sunflower-bird-seeds-a-history/

http://www.birdchick.com/blog/2009/12/growing-nyjer-thistle-in-north-america

https://web.colby.edu/mainebirds/2016/02/05/the-history-of-bird-feeding-ii/

http://www.manoramagroup.co.in/commodities-niger-seed.html

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2011/11/30/winegar

https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/139533/SB571.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

https://www.bioversityinternational.org/fileadmin/_migrated/uploads/tx_news/Niger__Guizotia_abyssinica__L.f.__Cass._136.pdf

https://www.bioversityinternational.org/fileadmin/_migrated/uploads/tx_news/Niger__Guizotia_abyssinica__L.f.__Cass._136.pdf

 

K-Lime Sources:

https://modernfarmer.com/2014/07/getting-rid-k-word/

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/07/03/kaffir_lime_racist_murky_origins_suggest_a_racial_slur_might_be_responsible.html

Socialism, Feminism, and the Plight of Pollinators

Socialism, Feminism, and the Plight of Pollinators

H. Bradford

5/11/17

The Feminist Justice League meets once a month for a feminist frolic.  These events involve an educational presentation and an outdoor activity.  This month, the Feminist Justice League will meet to do some seed bombing and learn about pollinators.  The goal of the event is to learn more about the challenges faced by pollinators and do something small to benefit them.  In preparation for the event, I researched the history and troubles facing pollinators.  However, since it is a feminist group, I wanted to add a theoretical component.  It is not enough to learn about pollinators.  To grow as feminists, it is important to analyze them from a lense that is critical of patriarchy and capitalism.  I am not a scientist nor am I an expert on this topic. Nevertheless, I hope it offers some insight to the history of pollinators and how this history is deeply connected to economic and social trends in human history.  Understanding this history can help us understand the present plight of pollinators as well as solutions of how to move forward in protecting nature.


A Feminist History of Pollinators:

Image result for bee goddess

 

Both flowers and humans depend upon bees and other pollinators for survival.  One third of our diet consists of food that requires pollination by bees, though it should be noted that beetles, ants, birds, bats, flies, and butterflies can also act as pollinators.  Bees themselves are believed to have evolved 140-110 million years ago during the Cretaceous Era, which is around the same time that flowering plants appeared (Cappellari,Schaefer, Davis 2013) .  It is astonishing to think that flowers and bees are relatively new in evolutionary history.  Turtles, sharks, frogs, and fish have hundreds of millions of years of evolution before the appearance of flowers and bees.  Even mammals and birds predate bees and flowers by tens of millions of years.  Butterflies also evolved about 130 million years ago, also appearing after the advent of flowering plants.  Since plants cannot move around in search of a mate, they evolved to attract pollinators to spread their pollen, or the male gametophyte of plants.  Pollen could roughly be described as something akin to the plant equivalent of sperm.  Plants produced pollen before the evolution of flowering plants or angiosperms, but prior to this, all plants were pollinated by the wind.  Angiosperms or flowering plants evolved nectar, attractive colors, or fragrances to attract pollinators.  Millions of years of natural selection has produced very specialized relationships between some flowers and particular pollinators.  For instance, some flowers are red and tubular to appeal to the beaks of hummingbirds.  Some flowers are so specialized that only certain species of hummingbirds can pollinate them, such as the sword-billed hummingbird of South America which has a ten centimeter bill (and a 4 cm body) that can reach the nectar deep within the tubular petals of the Passiflora mixta.  Hummingbirds are relative newcomers, which evolved from swifts and tree swifts over 22 million years ago, flourishing in South America (Sanders, 2014).


All pollinators are important, but bees have been particularly important in human history.  Humans have a long history with bees.  Even our closest relative, chimpanzees, are known to use sticks to obtain honey from hives (Kritsky, 2017).  Interestingly, both male and female chimps collect honey, with female chimps able to collect honey with babies on their back.  However, humans are less proficient at climbing, so it might be assumed that collecting honey was historically men’s work.  For about five million years of hominid evolution, humans and their ancestors hunted and gathered their food.  Modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but it is only in the last 10,000 years that some human societies moved away from hunter-gathering.  From a Marxist feminist perspective, hunter-gatherer societies were likely more egalitarian and placed more value on women than societies that existed after the advent of private property.  These societies were small and there there little social stratification, since there was less ability for individuals to accumulate significant wealth.  Although there is little stratification in hunter-gather societies, there are gender based divisions of labor.  As such, women likely had a different relationship to pollinators, and bees in particular, than men.  In a study of 175 modern hunter-gatherer societies, women provided four fifths of the food to these societies.  Typically, the food gathered by men is further away and harder to obtain.  Thus, men may have been involved in collecting honey as this would involve travelling larger distances and climbing trees.  This seems to be true in some modern examples of hunter-gatherer societies.  In Democratic Republic of Congo, Ngandu women and children would look out for hives, which men then collected honey from.  Some honey hunting societies ban women from gathering honey, such as the Ngindo tribe in Tanzania and the Bassari in Senegal.  Hunter-gatherer men have been observed eating honey when it is found, but bringing some back to home to be divided and then stored by women (Crane,2000).  Rock paintings in Spain depict humans stealing honey from bees 7000-8000 years ago (Kritsky, 2017).  The paintings do not clearly depict a man or woman, so it is hard to know the exact gender roles of men and women concerning bees.


Some societies moved away from hunter-gathering and adopted settled agriculture.  The development of agriculture allowed for private property to arise as well as larger populations and cities based upon stored and surplus food.  The first agrarian societies emerged 10,000-8,000 years ago in the Middle East.  Thus it is no wonder that the first evidence of beekeeping arose in civilizations of the Middle East.  In contrast to previous hunter-gatherer societies, agrarian societies developed classes and specialized occupations.  The oldest evidence of actual beekeeping is from Ancient Egypt, where pyramid artwork depicts beekeeping in 2450 BCE.   In Egyptian society, it appears that beekeeping was an established profession.  Likewise, in 1500 BCE, various Hittite laws were passed regarding stealing hives and swarms of bees.  The oldest bee hives themselves have been found in Israel.  Early hives were made from straw and then later pottery (Kritsky, 2017).   The oldest record of beekeeping in China dates from around 158 CE.  A relief at Angkor Wat in Cambodia depicts beekeeping and dates from 1000 CE.  Mayans also raised bees, which arose independently from Western Culture.  They depicted bees in art, hieroglyphs, and developed cylindrical, ceramic hives.  It is interesting to note that honey bees had gone extinct in North America, but the Mayans encountered stingless tropical bees (Kritsky, 2017).  Stingless bees do not produce as much honey as honey bees, but modern Mayans continue to cultivate them.  Deforestation has caused these bees to become endangered.

Image result for mayan bee

From a Marxist feminist perspective, the status of women fell with the invention of agriculture.  Thus, in all of these examples, the status of women would have been less than the the status that women enjoyed during the long history of hunting-gathering.  The development of private property marks the origin of patriarchy, as the exchange of property from one generation to the next required monogamy and close control of female sexuality.  These societies were often based upon slaves, which were used to build monuments, but also required warfare to obtain.  Because agriculture created surplus, it resulted in more specialization and stratification.  There emerged groups such as scholars, priests, kings, etc. who could live off of the labor of others.  Laws and written language were also developed for the purpose of managing property.  However, many of these civilizations continued to worship female goddesses, some of which were connected to bees.  For instance, the Minoans worshiped a nature, birth, and death, which was symbolized by a bee.  In Greek mythology, a nymph named Melissa discovered honey and shared it with humans.  She also is credited with feeding baby Zeus honey and was later turned into a bee by Zeus after his father tried to kill her. The Greek myths probably were drawn from the stories of nearby societies and societies that predated the Greeks.  Lithuanian, Hindu, Mayan, Greek, and Minoan societies had bee goddesses, though there are also examples of bee gods in other cultures.


Moving along in history, bees were kept during medieval times, and it was even ordered by Charlemagne that all manors raise bees and give two thirds of the honey produced to the state.  In the middle ages, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and the Baltic states were engaged in less formal beekeeping in the form of forest beekeeping.  This involved hollowing out trees to encourage bees to form colonies in them, then seal up the tree once the colony was established as a sign of ownership and to protect it from bears.  Early hives could not be dismantled.  Therefore, obtaining honey meant destroying the hive and the bees (Kritsky, 2017).  In Poland in 1337, a statute said that women and men had equal rights to in buying and selling honey.  Husbands and wives were both able to own land related to forest beekeeping and both a son or daughter could inherit this land.  Some evidence suggests that tree beekeeping was done by women.   Nuns and monks were known to raise bees.  In one story, Saint Gobnait, a nun from county cork in Ireland, is said to have sent away cattle thieves by unleashing bees upon them.  Hildegard of Bingen, also wrote about bees.  Examples of artwork from the 1400s and 1500s depict both men and women involved in beekeeping.  In the 1600s in England, there are literary references to housewives as beekeepers and that beekeeping was commonly done by country women.  The first use of the word “skep” in the English language appeared in 1494 and referred to female beekeepers (Crane, 2000).  Perhaps during European feudalism, women were more involved in beekeeping than in other periods of history.  It is hard to know why this might be, as the status of women in feudalism was no better than earlier agrarian societies.  Women were controlled by the church, had limited opportunities, were controlled by their husband or father, and were burned as witches.  Perhaps women’s involvement in beekeeping could be attributed to various wars or plagues that would have decimated or occupied the male population or the role of women in general food production.  Interestingly, when European thinkers saw a single ruler bee, they assumed it was male.  Aristotle called this ruler bee the king bee, and through the middle ages, bees were seen as entirely male.  Through the 1500s and early 1600s, queen bees were referred to as King Bees or Master Bees (Crane,2000).  So, even though women may have had an expanded role in beekeeping during European feudalism, the imagined social organization of bees themselves reflected a very masculine and feudal worldview.

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Capitalism arose in the 16th century in England with the privatization of public lands.  The enclosure movement turned former peasants into workers, driving them off the land into cities for paid work.  Landlords maintained the best lands, which were rented, again, requiring paid labor.  New laws were passed against vagrancy, again encouraging paid work.  The invention of the working class and increased agricultural production of paid farm workers, laid the groundwork for capitalism.  Of course, capitalism really took off with the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s.  It was not until the 1800s that hives with removable frames were developed.  Until the invention of modern hives in the 1800s, both the bees and the hives were destroyed to obtain honey.  Large scale production of honey also coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of a centrifugal honey extractor in 1865.  The 1860s also saw the commercial sale of honey.  Prior to this, it was produced and sold locally.  Honey was shipped in wooden drums at the end of the 1800s, but switched to 60 lb metal cans.  Specialized honey packing plants emerged in the 1920s (Oertel, n.d.)   In the U.S., women mostly worked to assist their husbands in beekeeping, but in 1880 Mrs. L Harrison of Illinois was a commercial beekeeper in her own right who later published a book about beekeeping.  In the early 1900s, work related to beekeeping was gendered, with women participating in extracting, selling, handling, and bottling honey and men tending to the hive and bees.  Today, 42% of the membership of local beekeeping clubs is comprised of women.  Women make up 30% of state beekeeping organizations and around 30% of national beekeeping associations as well.  However, women are not often in leadership roles and often serve as secretaries or supporters in the clubs.  Some clubs do not allow women as leaders or women as leaders do not last long.  A few clubs even have auxiliaries just for women.  As such, women make up less than ⅓ of the leadership of beekeeping organizations.  As a whole, in the United States, about 31% of farmers are women (Calopy, 2015).


 

Capitalism and Pollinators:

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Capitalism will be given special attention from hereon.  Despite the beauty and importance of pollinators, as well as their long history with humans, they are in peril.  According to a UN report, 2 out of 5 invertebrate pollinators are on the path to extinction.  1 out of 6 vertebrate pollinators like birds and bats are also facing extinction (Borenstein, 2016).  There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world and 17% of them face extinction.  Pollination is important as without it, plants cannot reproduce.  75% of the world’s food crops require pollination.  Without pollinators, there will be no food.  87% of the money made globally comes from food crops that require pollination (Okeyo, 2017).  More than half of the 1400 species of bees in North America are facing extinction (Worland, 2017).  Monarch butterflies have also garnered attention as over the past several decades their population has declined by 96.5%.  There are several reasons for this, including deforestation of their habitat in Mexico, climate change, loss of milkweed plants, and pesticides.  Habitat has been turned into farmland.  Nevertheless, there have been efforts to restore monarch butterfly populations such as planting $2 million of milkweed at 200,000 acres of land administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service.  In Mexico, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a project to expand their winter habitat (The Monarch Butterfly is in Danger of Extinction).  There are many factors related to the decline in pollinators, such as loss of habitat and biodiversity, pesticides, farming practices, diseases, and climate change.  97% of Europe’s grasslands have disappeared since WWII, often turned to farmland.  Pesticides containing neonicotinoids have been found in some studies to reduce the chances of bee survival and reproduction (Borenstein, 2016).  Aside from pesticides, bees are vulnerable to climate change.  Whereas butterflies can migrate to new areas with climate change, bees have difficulty establishing themselves in new areas.  In the north end of their range, they have failed to move towards the north pole.  At the south end, they have died off.  Together, bees have lost a range of about 200 miles on their north and south ends (Worland, 2015).  Disease and parasites can also be blamed for the decline of bees.  The Varroa Mite first appeared in the United States in 1987 and within ten years spread across bee colonies across the US.  Bees infected with the mite may be deformed, have shorter longevity, less ability to reproduce, and lower weight.   Pesticides used in mosquito control have also been linked to colony collapses.  Additionally, some scientists believe that pollen from transgenic crops can be harmful to bees as the pollen itself may have insecticidal proteins (Status of Pollinators in North America, 2007).

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The rusty patched bumblebee was the first wild bee listed as endangered in the continental United States, when it was added to the endangered species list in January 2017.  The bee was once common in 28 states and now can only be found in small populations in 13 states. In September 2016, several species of yellow faced bees were listed as endangered in Hawaii.  Once again, neonicotinoids are blamed since they are commonly used in agriculture, forestry, and lawn care, and are absorbed into a plant’s leaves, nectar, and pollen (Gorman, 2017).  The problem with neonictoninoids first noticed in 1994 in France, when the country first began using neonicotinoids.  The pesticide was produced by Bayer and first used on sunflower crops.  Bees that collected pollen from treated sunflowers showed symptoms of shaking and would abandon their hives.  One quarter of a trillion bees perished before French farmers protested the use of the pesticide, which resulted in its ban.  In the United States, the symptoms were first observed in 2006 and coined Colony Collapse Disorder.  There was confusion over the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, but a prominent theory suggests that beekeeping has shifted from being centered on producing honey to using bees to pollinate cash crops.  2.5 million hives are trucked around the country each year.  The bees are transported to farms and fed corn syrup rather than wildflowers.  The corn syrup may be laden with neonicotinoids, which results in Colony Collapse Disorder.  Almonds, apples, blueberries, avocados, cucumbers, onions, oranges, and pumpkins are just a sample of some of the crops that could not be grown without pollinators (10 crops that would disappear without bees, 2012).  Of course, there are some crops, such as soybeans, corn, cotton, alfalfa, beans, tomatoes, pecans, and peanuts which do not require honeybee pollination.   Nevertheless, our diets would be much different without pollinators.  Entire ecosystems would be quite different.


The plight of pollinators can largely be connected to industrial agricultural practices.  The key challenges to pollinators: loss of habitat, loss of wildflowers, use of pesticide, and agricultural monoculture are all broadly connected to agriculture in the context of capitalism.   Pollinators have been around for millions of years, so it is startling that it is only the past few decades that have pushed them towards extinction.  This begs the question of why agriculture happens as it does and what can be done?  Karl Marx was a critic of agriculture in capitalism.  Marx observed in Capital, that capitalism divides the city from the countryside.  Capitalism itself emerged as the result of the privatization of common land.  When people were pushed off their land, they were separated from their ability to feed themselves.  That is, they had to work for another person to earn the money needed to buy the things that are needed for survival rather than grow or make them themselves.  Capitalism depends on workers, who Marx called wage slaves because of their dependency upon wages to survive.  The birth of capitalism meant the death of a certain relationship to the land.  This connection is part of the Marxist concept of metabolic rift.  Just as workers are alienated from production and one another, they are alienated from nature and human nature.  Humans are deeply connected to the environment, but according to Marx’s belief, it is capitalism which severs this connection (Williams, n.d)  Marx  also observed that capitalism reduces the rural population while expanding the urban population (Westerland, 2015).  Human societies always depend upon the natural world to exist.  In this sense, humans metabolize nature.  For most of history, nature has been experienced in terms of its use-value, or the ways in which it is useful to our existence.  However, capitalism have commodified nature and separated humans from it.  Our economy is dominated by exchange value rather than use value.  This has resulted in metabolic rift, or a separation from our place in ecosystems (Foster, 2015).


Aside from the original sin of moving people off of public land and the privatization of land, Marx was a critic of how land was used in capitalism.  He noted that capitalism resulted in the exhaustion of the soil in the interest of profits.  Marx believed that it was possible to increase the productivity of soil through good management or use of manure, but that it was not profitable to do so in capitalism.   He observed that when land became exhausted it was often abandoned in search of new lands to exploit (Saito, 2014)  Capitalist agriculture not only robs the laborers but the soil (Westerland, 2015).  Oddly enough, despite the surplus of human and horse manure in cities, countries like Great Britain and the United States scoured the globe in the 1800s for fertilizers for their over exploited agricultural land.  Wars were even fought to obtain guano as fertilizer.  Capitalism is so wasteful and illogical, that it made more sense to colonize empty islands for their bat manure than sustainably manage agricultural land or obtain manure locally.  But, capitalism is not driven by what is sustainable, rational, or healthy.  It is driven by profits.  It is the pursuit of profits that results in the vast environmental destruction the world experiences today and the agricultural practices that imperil our food supply by destroying pollinators.  As such, around 75 billion tons of soil wash away or is blown away each year after ploughing.  320 million acres of agricultural land is salinated due to agricultural practices.  40% of the world’s agricultural land is in someway degraded.  Over half to three fourths of all industrial inputs return to the environment as waste within one year.  At the same time, pollinators are worth over 14 billion dollars to the US economy.  Despite their use value, the profit motive trumps sustainable agricultural practices which might protect pollinators.  As a result, farmers in China have actually had to pollinate their own apples with brushes and pots of pollen due to the decline of bees (Goulson, 2012).


Industrial agriculture in capitalism could be described as not very diverse, pesticide intensive, and wasteful.  Agriculture is not very diverse since crops are grown to make a profit.  Therefore, a few reliable varieties of crops are planted because they will grow predictably, ship easily, have uniform qualities, or other desirable traits.  This means a loss of biodiversity, as heirloom varieties of crops go extinct because they are not grown widely.  At the same time, since its beginning, capitalism has needed to divide people from their ability to sustain themselves.  This forces individuals into the economy as workers.  Farmers around the world are drawn into the economy when their seeds or agricultural inputs are privatized and sold on the market.  Farmers who may have once saved seeds have found that the seeds are not patented and they must buy them.  Again, this leads to a loss of biodiversity as old farming practices are replaced by paid farm labor and commercialized seeds.  In pursuit of profits, capitalism over uses fertilizers, as the land is overexploited.  Pesticides are also used because it is cheaper to dump chemicals on plants than practice sustainable, organic agriculture with natural pest control.  Fertilizers and pesticides themselves are often the product of chemicals developed for war.  After World War II, factories which produced nitrogen for bombs were converted to fertilizer factories.  DDT, which was used as a pesticide with devastating effects on bird populations, was actually used in WWII to protect soldiers from fleas and mosquitoes.  Capitalism requires war to open up new markets, destroy competitors, and access new raw materials and cheap labor.  But, it also develops new technology and weapons.  Agriculture’s chemical age in the 1950s was the peacetime application of war technology.  Finally, capitalism is wasteful.  It is wasteful because the drive for profit requires more production.  Production occurs to create more value, from which profit is derived.  Pollinators are in trouble because of the destructive, wasteful, and polluting nature of industrial agriculture within the context of capitalism.

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There are many things that can be done to help pollinators.  However, most solutions are individual solutions.  This is a flaw with the environmental movement, as it often focuses on consumer choices or individual behaviors rather than the larger issue of dismantling capitalism.  These small scale activities are not useless, but must be coupled with movements that challenge industrial agriculture within capitalism.  Individuals can plant gardens that attract pollinators.  Community groups can plant milkweed plants or seed bomb for pollinators.  Individuals and communities can partake in beekeeping.  Partaking in community gardens, visiting farmer’s markets, buying locally, saving seeds, etc. are all small scale actions that can be done.  However, these activities will not tip the scale towards saving the planet as they do not challenge capitalist production.  Capitalism must be overthrown so that giant agribusinesses can be dismantled, food production can be more locally centered and worker controlled, and rational choices can be made of how, what, and where to grow food.  The environmental and labor movement must work together towards empowering workers to take control of the economy in the interest of a sustainable future.  Agribusinesses and the fossil fuel industry donate millions of dollars to both of the major capitalist parties.  Neither can save pollinators or the planet as they pursue free trade and market solutions to environmental problems.  The anarchy of capitalist production could result in the destruction of pollinators we depend upon for survival and which have inhabited the planet for millions of years.  But, each society contains the seeds of its own destruction.  For capitalism, it is its instability and the immiseration of workers.  It is my hope that social movements that can seriously challenge capitalism will emerge and that the labor movement can be reinvigorated and mobilized towards ecosocialism.  Anything less will condemn the planet to a hotter, less biodiverse, more socially strained future.

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Sources:

 

10 crops that would disappear without bees. (2012, July 19). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.foxnews.com/food-drink/2012/07/19/10-crops-that-would-disappear-without-bees.htm

 

Borenstein, S. (2016, February 26). Species of bees and other pollinators are shrinking, UN report warns. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/species-of-bees-and-other-pollinators-are-shrinking-un-report-warns/

 

Bellamy Foster J.  (2015, October 13). Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from https://monthlyreview.org/2013/12/01/marx-rift-universal-metabolism-nature/

 

Calopy, M. (2015, November 25). Women In Beekeeping. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://www.beeculture.com/women-in-beekeeping/

 

Cappellari, S., Schaefer, H., & Davis, C. (2013). Evolution: Pollen or Pollinators — Which Came First? Current Biology, 23(8). doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.049

 

Crane, E. (2000). The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting. London: Duckworth.

 

Gorman, S. (2017, January 11). U.S. Lists a Bumble Bee Species as Endangered for First Time. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/u-s-lists-a-bumble-bee-species-as-endangered-for-first-time/

 

Goulson, D. (2012, February 10). Decline of bees forces China’s apple farmers to pollinate by hand. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/5193-Decline-of-bees-forces-China-s-apple-farmers-to-pollinate-by-hand

 

Kritsky, G. (2016). Beekeeping from antiquity through the Middle Ages. 2016 International Congress of Entomology. doi:10.1603/ice.2016.93117

 

The Monarch Butterfly is in Danger of Extinction – Here’s What You Can Do to Help. (n.d.). Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/monarch-butterflies-is-in-danger-what-we-can-do-to-help/

 

Okeyo, V. (2017, April 24). No bees, no food, no life. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://www.nation.co.ke/health/End-of-the-bee-end-of-mankind/3476990-3902228-c2u8hg/

 

Oertel, E. (n.d.). History of Beekeeping in the United States (Vol. 335, Agricultural Handbook, Rep.). USDA.

 

Saito, K. (2014, October 20). The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from https://monthlyreview.org/2014/10/01/the-emergence-of-marxs-critique-of-modern-agriculture/

 

Westerland, P. (2015, December 15). Marxism and the Environment. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from https://www.socialistalternative.org/2015/12/15/marxism-environment/

 

Williams, C. (n.d.). Marxism and the environment. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://isreview.org/issue/72/marxism-and-environment

 

Worland, J. (2017, March 2). Bee Populations Decline Due to Pesticides, Habitat Loss. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://time.com/4688417/north-american-bee-population-extinction/

 

Worland, J. (2015, July 9). Bees Habitat Loss: Study Shows How Climate Change Hurts Pollinators. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://time.com/3951339/bees-climate-change/

 

Wuerthner, G. (2002). The Truth about Land Use in the United States. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from https://www.westernwatersheds.org/watmess/watmess_2002/2002html_summer/article6.htm

 

Sanders, R. (2015, July 09). Hummingbird evolution soared after they invaded South America 22 million years ago. Retrieved May 10, 2017, from http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/04/03/hummingbird-evolution-soared-after-invading-south-america-22-million-years-ago/

 

Status of pollinators in North America. (2007). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

 

The Story of International Women’s Day

The Story of International Women’s Day

H. Bradford

3/4/17

I first became aware of International Women’s Day when I was in my early 20s.  I learned about it through my Russian language class in college.  The professor gave all of the women in the class a flower and explained that the holiday was a little bit like Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day in Russia.  This quaint and apolitical version of International Women’s Day remained my template for understanding the holiday until after I became a socialist.  This understanding mirrored my understanding of May Day as a spring holiday with cute baskets.  Yet, both holidays are more than just flowers and baskets.  They are both celebrations that honor a long history of struggle against capitalism.

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 You mean International Women’s Day is not just a cute Russian holiday?


The Socialist Roots of International Women’s Day:

While I learned about International Women’s Day in the context of Russian culture, the holiday, like May Day, actually originates in the United States.  The first “National Woman’s Day” was organized by the Socialist Party and held on February 23, 1909.  The New York event was attended by over 2000 people and featured speaks such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Leonora O’Reilly.  The first “National Woman’s Day” focused on suffrage and women’s equality.  It was also called in support of ongoing labor organizing of garment workers, such as march of 15,000 workers which had occurred the year before.  At the time, socialists wrestled with the issue of balancing the demand for suffrage with their traditional focus on the economic rights of women, but ultimately, committed themselves to both through the advocacy of women within the socialist party.  Like May Day, the holiday was later popularized in Europe.  In 1910, women from 100 countries, consisting of socialists, labor organizers, working women’s clubs, and three female Finnish members of Parliament, gathered in Copenhagen for the Second International Congress of Women.  It is at this meeting that German socialist, Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin, motioned to create an International Women’s Day the following year.  The first International Women’s Day event was held March 18, 1911 and featured over a million demonstrators across Europe who used the event commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune and assert the economic and political rights of women.  That same year, on March 25, 1911, 146 mostly immigrant women lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York.  Because of unsafe working conditions, including locked doors to prevent theft and a lack of fire alarms on some of the floors, a fire originating in a pile of scrap material killed a quarter of the workforce in less than twenty minutes.  The fire was a catalyst for new safety regulations and a rallying cry for unionizing garment workers.  It was also memorialized in future International Women’s Day events.


Early International Women’s Day observances were focused on labor, suffrage, and other facets of political and economic equality.  While the relationship between socialists and suffragists was uneasy, the socialists became increasingly committed to suffrage and collaborating with suffragists during this time period.  American socialists actually marched together with suffragists in Boston a few days before women’s day in 1911.  While suffrage seems obvious today, at the time, socialists worried that suffrage would mean women could be drafted, thereby becoming instruments of capitalist wars.  There were also concerns that women were politically conservative and that suffragists tended to consist of wealthier and middle class women whose interests were not the same as working class women.  Despite misgivings socialists had regarding suffrage, the early celebrations of women’s day were expressions of their commitment to the economic and political equality of women.  According to the Russian socialist, Alexandra Kollontai (1920), North American socialists played a prominent role in arguing to other socialists that suffrage was a worthy demand.

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International Women’s Day and the Russian Revolution:

Peace became another central demand of International Women’s Day organizers during World War One.  Unfortunately, socialists who had been elected into office, were blinded by nationalism and voted to enter World War One, thereby discrediting Socialist Parties. However, in 1915 Clara Zetkin called a conference of women in Bern, Switzerland and encouraged them to demonstrate against war, even if this meant treason.  Women from countries involved in World War One were denied passports to attend this meeting and unfortunately, the only country that managed to host a demonstration in 1915 was Norway, though some women from war beleaguered European countries managed to attend.  It is during this time that International Women’s Day was first celebrated in Russia, which went on to play an important role in the holiday’s history.  The first Russian “Working Women’s Day” was organized in 1913 as a meeting, as demonstrations were illegal in tsarist Russia.  The following year, organizers for a “Working Women’s Day” were put into prison and the demonstration was stymied by police intervention.  State repression prevented Russian further observances of International Women’s Day until 1917  By then, the Russian population was weary from war, poverty, hunger, and tsarist autocracy.  The threat of imprisonment could not contain the anger of the masses.  On March 8th, 1917, or February 23rd by our calendar, women in Petrograd took to the streets to demand bread and an end to the war, which had taken the lives of two million Russians.  Garment workers played a central role in the strike, but other workers joined them, swelling to a mass of 75,000 workers on the first day and 200,000 on the second.  By the third day, 400,000 workers participated in the strike in Petrograd.  Four days later, military garrisons revolted and police went into hiding.  The International Women’s Day strike in Petrograd spread across the country, becoming what is now known as the February Revolution.  The revolution resulted in the abdication of the tsar a week later, ending over 400 years of tsarist rule and set the stage for the October revolution later that year.


The Russian revolution ushered in a variety of advances for women.  The October revolution granted full suffrage to women and enacted equal pay.  Russia became the first country to legalize abortion, which it provided free and on demand until Stalin came to power.  Divorce became easily obtainable and marriage was treated as a civil matter rather than religious affair.  Daycares and communal kitchens and laundries were established to alleviate the burden of unpaid labor.  Paid maternity leave was also extended to women, something that the United States lacks 100 years later.  All of this was granted to women during a time of civil war and economic collapse on the already shoddy foundation of centuries of tsarist autocracy and an undeveloped economy.  Many of these remarkable accomplishments were later rolled back by Stalin, who rebranded International Women’s Day as a benign Soviet Valentine’s Day.  The revolutionary character of the holiday was largely forgotten and the holiday itself became associated with communism, as countries ruled by Communist Parties tended to be the ones which made it an official holiday.  Like May Day, Cold War politics, which sought to tame, ignore, or persecute the far left, meant that International Women’s Day went mostly unnoticed in the U.S.

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The Struggle Continues:

International Women’s Day was a largely Communist holiday until the late 1960s.  The emergence of the feminist movement in renewed interest in the holiday, though, since socialists participated in the feminist movement, they may have played a role in promoting the holiday.  In any event, the holiday became less associated with communism after International Women’s Day was promoted by feminists and adopted by the United Nations in 1975.  As of 2014, International Women’s Day was observed in over 100 countries.  The United Nation’s version of International Women’s Day doesn’t quite capture the militant spirit of the original celebrations.  Each year has featured a theme, such as human rights, decision making, progress, and empowerment.  However, these themes often sound more like Girl Scout Badges that women should earn rather than rallying calls for the next revolution.  Thus, for most of my life as a feminist, I have been disappointed by the lack of interest or action around the holiday.  The Feminist Justice League, formerly known as the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition, has organized International Women’s Day events in the past, but these were never well attended and there was never much community interest in them.


All of this has changed this year after four million women marched on January 21st.  In the wake of this event, the Women’s March has called for 10 actions in 100 days.  Prior to calling for a “Day without a Woman” Strike on March 8th, feminists around the world were calling for a strike.  Women in Poland, Ireland, and Argentina have been particularly active in this call.  In Ireland, women plan to strike on March 8th in protest of restrictive abortion laws there.  In October, women in Poland striked against the introduction of legislation which sought to criminalize in all cases but imminent danger to the mother’s life.  In Argentina, and across Latin America, women striked against femicide in October, catalyzed by the gruesome rape and murder of Lucia Perez.  The strikers tied the violence against women to the economic conditions that women face, such as unpaid labor, unequal wages, and neoliberal reforms that have cut public spending, all of which render women unequal and vulnerable.  In solidarity with these struggles, and to spotlight the economic component of women’s oppression, the Women’s March called for a strike on March 8th.  This strike was called in mid-February.  As a result of the resurgence of feminism, events will be held all over the United States and abroad.  Locally, the Feminist Justice League is hosting a 78 minute symbolic strike, followed by a march and a panel which focuses on women as workers.  This event will be held at 5 pm on March 8th at the MN Power Plaza.  However, it is one of a dozen local events.  Other events include an the Feminist Action Collective’s International Women’s Day celebration on March 10th at Beaner’s, Domestic Violence Action Day on March 7th at noon at the Duluth City Hall,  PAVSA’s pack the Plaza at 11:30 am on the 8th, and a solidarity with Honduras event at 2:30 at the Building for Women on March 5th.  This is just a sample of the wave of feminist actions for International Women’s Day.

2016-02-25-1456409707-7874552-internationalwomenday


Conclusion:

I am excited by the revival of interest in International Women’s Day and feminism in general.  Sometimes there is so much activity that I worry that I will be washed away in this new wave of feminist activity.  At the same time, I am incredibly proud to be a socialist.  Some people enjoy pointing out their genealogy, finding joy that at some point in history they descended from a king or Viking.  I take pride in my socialist genealogy.  I take pride in my membership to a party which descends from the Russian revolution and from the socialists before this.  I feel that the history of International Women’s Day is my history.  It is my history as a socialist, as a worker, and as a woman.  Of course, International Women’s Day should be for everyone.  The story of garment workers dying in a fire continues to be the story of all workers who face dangerous conditions. The story of immigrant women who were afraid to organize because of their marginal position in society, continues to be story of immigrants.  The story of women standing up against the senseless loss of war should still be our story.  The story of women standing up to soldiers and the police, protesting in the face of state repression, should still be our story.  This gives new meaning to, “…and still she persisted.”  The story of women trying to build an international feminist movement should be our story.  The story of women connecting femicide to neoliberal policies and economic inequality should be our story.  The story of women making revolution should be our story.

international-women-s-day

 

Sources:

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/7/socialist-history-of-international-womens-day.html

http://kclabor.org/wordpress/?m=201703

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/7/socialist-history-of-international-womens-day.html

https://iwd.uchicago.edu/page/international-womens-day-history

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/russias-february-revolution-was-led-women-march-180962218/

https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1920/womens-day.htm

http://isreview.org/issue/75/februarys-forgotten-vanguard

http://socialistreview.org.uk/367/women-and-revolution

https://viewpointmag.com/2017/02/23/striking-for-ourselves/

White Winter: Racism and Winter Sports

White Winter:

Racism and Winter Sports

H. Bradford

1.28.17

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    This past fall, the Twin Ports Women’s Right Coalition began doing small events called “Feminist Frolics.”  These events were meant to educate our participants about feminism while enjoying the outdoors.  The very first frolic was entitled “Patriarchy in the Parks.”  This talk explored how patriarchy shapes women’s relationship to nature and participation in outdoor recreation.  The original talk discussed how history, gender roles, safety, and leisure influenced how women participated in nature.  Since that talk, I wanted to connect how racism, classism, ableism, and other “isms” shape how individuals participate in the outdoors.  As such, this talk puts a special focus on race and recreation.  In particular, it explores racism and winter recreation.  In my own experiences, when I spend time outdoors in the winter, I don’t often see racial minorities participating in skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking.  This talk hopes to shed some light on why this is.


 

The Myth of Geography:

elvgren_napaskier1   When one considers the racial composition of winter recreational activities, the whiteness of these activities seems almost a given.  In our racist imaginations, it seems natural that white people would participate in winter activities.  Afterall, Europeans live in the northern hemisphere, where there is snow and cold.  Thus, one might argue that geography plays a role in why winter sports tend to be more popular among white people.  But, arguments about geography ignore larger issues of racism and classism.  It is true that many parts of the earth do not receive snow and that these warmer regions are inhabited by darker skinned ethnic groups.  However, geography does not entirely account for participation. For instance, some parts of Africa actually have ski areas.  Algeria has two ski resorts and Morocco has three.  Morocco has participated in six Winter Olympics, but has never won a medal.  Algeria has competed in the Winter Olympics three times, but again, has never won a medal.  South Africa has one ski resort, which operates three months out of the year.  Lesotho also has a ski resort, which is open during the winter months and is located about 4.5 hours away from Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa.  Despite having one ski area, Lesotho has never participated in the Winter Olympics and South Africa has never participated in ski events.  In 2014, Sive Spielman, a black South African teenage skier was denied entry into the Sochi Olympics.  He qualified to compete in slalom skiing, but the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee disqualified him on the grounds that they did not think he was good enough.  Considering he came from a poor area of South Africa, was black, and learned to ski through a ski club at his public school, his participation would have been remarkable (South Africa withdraws only athlete, 2014).  Even more remarkable considering that blacks would have been barred from ski clubs and the single ski area until apartheid ended in 1994.   Because under apartheid black athletes could not compete alongside white athletes, South Africa was barred from competing in the Olympics between 1962 and 1992 (they were allowed to return to the Olympics before apartheid had ended).  Thus, four South African figure skaters competed in the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley and the country did not compete in a Winter Olympics again until 1994.


In contrast to South Africa, Zimbabwe has no ski areas, but had a skier compete in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.  Their skier, Luke Steyn, was white.  Unlike Spielman, he was quite privileged, as his family moved to Switzerland when he was two years old and he attended college in Colorado.  Furthermore, he was provided financial support by the Zimbabwean government (Blond, 2014).  It is odd to think that Zimbabwe’s athlete was a white skier who left the country around 1995.  Although he was celebrated in the media, the celebration was oddly colorblind.  While many Americans adopt colorblindness as a way to avoid the sticky issue of racism, it actually perpetuates racism by skirting around issues of oppression and invalidating the continued racism in society.  While I am not sure about Luke Steyn’s history, his race in contrast to his country of origin seems like an elephant in the room.  His family would have been among the 120,000 whites living in Zimbabwe in the mid 1990s and likely left, like many did, because the political situation was not favorable for white people.  That is, his family probably left because of land reforms which sought to turn white landholdings over to the largely black population.  This was done to rectify a history of colonization, wherein white farmers were offered large tracts of land in exchange for the conquest of the country in the late 1800s.  It was also done to dismantle the economic foundation of apartheid in that country.  While I don’t know his family’s history, judging by his Dutch surname and his family’s ability to move to Switzerland, I can only assume that they were privileged if not landowners.  The stories of Steyn and Spielman make for an interesting juxtaposition, as it shows how a white man can still succeed in a black country whereas a black man struggled for recognition even though he was part of the majority population in South Africa.  One was privileged by race and class, the other disadvantaged.

 

 


All Olympic athletes are to some degree privileged, but in Africa, and when it comes to winter sports, this is more pronounced.  For instance, in 2014, Togo sent its first athlete in the winter olympics in Mathilde Petitjean Amivi, a cross country skier who grew up in France but has a Togolese mother.  In the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, Lamine Gueye was the first black African to compete in the Olympics.  But like Amivi and Steyn, he grew up outside of Africa.  He went to live in Switzerland after the death of his grandfather, also named Lamine Gueye, the head of Senegalese Party of Socialist Action.  Gueye has been an advocate for changing the rules of the Winter Olympics to allow more countries to compete.  In fact, 96 nations have never participated in the Winter Olympics.


While tropical climate is certainly an impediment to participation in winter sports, there are many countries which have snowy areas which have not participated in the Olympics to the same degree as European countries.  For instance, India has eleven ski areas and Pakistan has nine.  Iran has almost twenty ski areas.  Kazakhstan has four ski areas, Kyrgyzstan has three, and Lebanon has six.  Ski areas indicate that the countries have elevations high enough for snow, which lends itself to skiing, along with snowboarding and sledding sports.  Iran has participated in the Winter Olympics ten times, but has never won a medal.  Kyrgyzstan has never participated in the winter olympics and Kazakhstan has six times.  Kyrgyzstan is 94% mountains and has 158 mountain ranges.  The Soviet Olympic skiers trained in Kyrgyzstan Karakol Mountain Ski Base (Krichko, 2016).  Pakistan has participated in two winter Olympics and Nepal has twice.  Chile, which has eight ski resorts, has participated in sixteen Olympics, but has never won a medal.  Argentina has ten ski resorts, has participated in eighteen Olympics, and has never won a medal.


The trend is not so much that a country has to have snow to earn medals, as there are plenty of countries with snow, mountains, and wintry conditions which have not won medals.  Instead, it seems that the countries with the highest medal counts are European and high income countries.  The top ten countries for medals are Norway, United States, Germany, Soviet Union, Canada, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, Finland.  China, South Korea, and Japan each make the top twenty.  These countries have more money to devote to developing sport programs and more citizens with income required to compete at a higher level.  Thus, high income countries tend to be more competitive in the Olympics and high income individuals have more opportunities to participate and compete.  This explains why diverse countries like the United States do not have more athletes of color in winter sports.  Athletes of color have excelled in baseball, basketball, soccer, running, and many other sports.  African Americans have long participated in the Summer Olympics.  For instance, George Paoge competed in the 1904 summer Olympics and won two bronze medals in the 200m and 400 m hurdles.  In contrast, the first African American to compete in the Winter Olympics was almost 80 years later in the 1980 Lake Placid games when Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley competed as part of a four person bobsled team.  The first African American woman to win a medal was in 1988 when Debi Thomas won a medal in figure skating at the Calgary games(Winter Olympics: Why Team USA is Nearly as White as Snow, 2010).


Rather than geography, the reason why few African Americans participate in winter recreation is because winter sports require more money for equipment, training, and coaching.  Facilities to practice winter sports are often far from urban centers where African Americans might live (Winter Olympics: Why Team USA is Nearly as White as Snow, 2010).   While I could not find any recent statistics, as of 2003, 2% of skiers in the United States were African American, 3% were Latino, 4% were Asian, and 1% were Native American.  Among the membership of the National Brotherhood of Ski Clubs, an African American ski organization, 74% of the members are college graduates and 60% live in households with incomes of $50,000 to $100,000 a year (Rudd, 2003).  Thus at an international level, but also at the level of individual local participation, access to resources shapes these sports.  This is a barrier to participation among racial minorities.  So, even in places with wintry conditions, there is still the barrier of cost of participation.  On the low end, a beginner snowboarder would expect to pay $500-$1000 for a board, bindings, and boots.  Adult skis can range from $200 to $1200.  A winter season ski pass for Spirit Mountain costs over $400.  Since 27% of African Americans live in poverty, compared to 11% of the general population, these kinds of expensive outdoor activities are beyond the reach of many in their community.


 

The Role of History:

Another reason why winter sports are white is because of the history of these sports.  After all, when an individual imagines winter sports, they might imagine their white ancestors participating in some form of skiing, hockey, or skating.  However, this version of history ignores that some cultures may have their own winter sports.  For instance, Pakistan hosts a Baltistan Winter Sports and Culture Festival wherein participants play Ka Polo and ice football.  Pakistan actually has the highest concentration of glaciers outside of the poles (“Traditional Winter Sports festival and ice sporting in GB,” 2016).  Likewise, every two years, various circumpolar regions compete in the Arctic Games.  Participants from Northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Sami areas of northern Europe, and Northern Russia compete in snowshoeing, snowboarding, volleyball, futsal, skiing, and traditional Dene games like finger pulling, pole push, and stick pull.  Additionally, while there is evidence that skiing originated in Finno-Scandinavia with the discovery of rock drawings in Norway and a 4,500 ski in Sweden, Iran also has a long history of skiing.  In 2000 BC ancient people in Iran produced skis made of hides and boards (History of skiing, 2005).  Cree women would play a marble came, wherein marbles carved from buffalo horns were slid towards holes made in ice (Christensen, 2008).  Snowshoeing originated in Central Asia 6,000 years ago, then migrated across the Bering strait to the Americas.  Anishinabe, Cree, and Inuit invented sledding.  The word toboggan comes from the Algonquian word odabaggan.  Sled dogging was an indigenous invention and the Jean Beargrease sled dog race was named after an Ojibwe postal worker who delivered mail from Two Harbors to Grand Marais in often treacherous conditions.  The Iroquois also invented a sport called Snow Snakes, or snow darts.  In this game, the players must underhand throw a smooth stick along the snow to see whose stick rolls the furthest (“Winter workout: Enjoy traditional native snow sports,” 2011).  Thus, many cultures have robust histories of winter games and sports.  However, these winter games were either lost and diminished by colonization, appropriated by colonizers, or simply not promoted as mainstream winter activities.


Colonialism continues to play a role in winter sports.  The Ktuanaxa tribe of Canada has been fighting the construction of a ski resort for 25 years.  The tribe has argued that the site is sacred to them as it is a place called Qar’muk, where a grizzly bear spirit resides.  The Canadian Supreme court is reviewing whether or not the resort will impinge on their religious rights, as the tribe has argued that the resort will scare away the spirit and render their rituals meaningless (“Skiers v the religious rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples,” 2016).  Even Spirit Mountain in Duluth, was one of seven sacred sites to Anishinabe people.  It was a place for burials and worship and development of the ski area and subsequent golf course and hotel.  Spirit Mountain was a meeting place for Anishinabe and had historical significance as place on their western migration route (Podezwa and Larson).  Environment and culture did not stop a ski resort from being built in Arizona.  In 2012, the Navajos and twelve other tribes appealed a judge’s decision to allow Arizona Snowbowl to use wastewater to make snow for their ski resort.  The Navajo argued that the land was sacred and that the use of wastewater to make snow was a threat to human health.  Navajo people collect medicinal plants from the mountain, which have been contaminated by the wastewater.  Using only natural snowfall, the resort would have a nine day ski season.  However, the artificial snow extends the season to 121 days.  Once again, geography is not necessarily an impediment to winter sports if there is money involved.  As of 2015, the issue was not resolved (Finnerty, 2012).  While it would be unheard of to construct a skating rink in a cemetery or cathedral, the religious and cultural practices of Native Americans have been ignored, suppressed, and mocked.  It is little wonder why they would not be interested in participating in high priced, environmentally destructive leisure activities on sacred land.


While the lack of Native American participation in some winter activities could be attributed to a different relationship to land, it doesn’t account for why Native Americans do not participate in snowshoeing.  Rudimentary snowshoes originated in Central Asia 6000 years ago and moved across the Bering Strait to the Americas with the migration of aboriginal peoples.  Differing snow conditions resulted in various designs, with longer snowshoes developed by Cree people, who faced warmer, wetter snow conditions and shorter snowshoes were developed by Iroquois people (Carr. n.d.).  Snowshoes were developed as a matter of survival, as they allowed indigenous people to travel and hunt during the winter.  The construction of snowshoes themselves was a traditional craft undertaken by both men and women (Boney, 2012).   As with many things, European colonizers adopted snowshoeing for their own uses, eventually converting them to something used for recreation.  Snowshoeing first became a sport in Canada, then the U.S.  By the 1970s, they began to grow in mainstream popularity.  During the 1980s, aluminum snowshoes grew in popularity (King, 2004).  In the advent of manufactured snowshoes, the craft of snowshoe making has been declining.  This has also rendered snowshoeing a profitable industry to companies who make snowshoes.  Companies such as Red Feather, Tubbs, Atlas, and Yukon Charlie are not owned by Native Americans nor do they specifically seek to benefit them.  While Tubbs boasts about inventing the first snowshoe for women in 1998 and donating money to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, there is no mention of how their snowshoes might benefit anyone other than white women.  Likewise, Redfeather snowshoes based in La Crosse, Wisconsin mentions on its website that it hires people with disabilities, but does not mention anything about helping Native Americans, even if its name and company logo invoke Native American imagery.  It is no wonder that a simple google image search of snowshoeing features hundreds of pictures of white people, but no images of Native Americans partaking in the activity.  It has become a thoroughly white pastime.   It is an example of cultural appropriation that is so normal and commonplace that the historical and cultural meaning of snowshoeing is almost entirely invisible. snowshoes-add

The Role of Racism:   

The lack of participation in winter sports may seem trivial, but in many ways it is a microcosm of the larger racial issues in society.  For instance, in 1997, Mabel Fairbanks was the first African American woman inducted into the U.S. figure skating hall of fame.  She was 82 at the time of her induction and was never allowed to skate competitively.  Because of segregation, she was not allowed to practice at skating rinks.  However, she went on to do her own skating shows for black audiences and was a coach to Debi Thomas and Tai Babilonia.  Thomas cited income as a barrier to competitive skating, as she was raised by a single mother and the cost of training can be $25,000 on the low end (Brown).  In U.S. society, class intersects powerfully with race.  African American children are four times as likely to live in poverty in the United States than white children (Patten and Krogstad, 2015).  In 1967, the median income of African Americans compared to white Americans was 55%.  In 2013, this had increased to 59%, but a 4% increase over four and a half decades is hardly impressive.  Looking at wealth, or such things as retirement savings and house ownership, African Americans owned 7% of the wealth of white people in 2011.  This was actually down from 9% in 1984  (Vara, 2013).  The segregation that Mabel Fairbanks faced continues today in the form of economic segregation that relegates African Americans to poor communities and low paying service industry jobs.  It also persists through the criminal justice system.  After all, an African American male born in 2001 has a 32% chance of going to jail, compared to a 6% chance for a white male born in the same year (Quigley, 2011).


Aside from the racist structures that may prevent individuals to partake in winter recreation to begin with, there is racism within these sports.  Surya Bonaly, a black French figure skater from the 1990s,  was the only figure skater in the history to do a backflip and land on one blade.  This astonishing feat actually disqualified her in the 1998 Olympics.  She did the flip to flip off the judges, who she felt scored her lower because of her race.  At the time, the rule was that a jump must land on one blade, which was meant to deter back flips as this would be a two bladed jump.  However, she landed on one to test the judges, who disqualified her anyway (Surya Bonaly is the biggest badass in Winter Olympics history, 2014).  At the time, critics called her inelegant and more powerful than graceful.  Surya was accused of damaging the nerves of fellow ice skater Midori Ito, which caused Ito to fall in her performance (Du, 2016).  These critiques demonstrate both racism and sexism, as she did not meet the judge’s expectation of what a figure skater should look like.  To them, a powerful black woman was not only threatening to the sport, but to other skaters.  The nine time French National champion, five time European champion, and three time World silver medalist now resides in Minnesota, where she teaches skating lessons.

surya-02-679x1024


There are many examples of more blatant racism against athletes of color.  Irina Rodina, who lit the torch for the Sochi Olympics, posted an image of Barack and Michelle Obama as monkeys with bananas on her Twitter (Myerberg, 2014).  The Northwestern University Ski Team, consisting of 65 individuals, hosted a racially themed party in April 2012, where they dressed as South Africans, Ugandan, Ireland, Canada, Bangladeshi, and Native Americans.  The students participated in a “Beer Olympics” wherein they portrayed various nations competing with each other in drinking games.  The students dressed in a stereotypical and mocking fashion.  This caused a controversy on campus in which the ski team offered an apology but was also portrayed as victims of aggression from students of color who were offended by their party (Svitek, 2012).  Val James, the first American born black player in the NHL, experienced racism when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres in the early 1980s.  Bananas were thrown into the rink and a monkey doll was hung from a penalty box.  He was born into a low income family in Florida and did not start skating until he was 13.  Despite his accomplishment in overcoming racial and class barriers, mocking spectators would eat watermelons with his name on it.  Even today, only 5% of NHL players are black (Sommerstein, 2015).  These blatant acts of racism send the message that people of color are not welcome to participate in winter sports.


Another example of racism is evident in the story of the Jamaican bobsled team.  Jamaica debuted its famous bobsled team in the 1988 Calgary Olympics.  The story was made into a highly fictionalized movie called Cool Runnings.  The national team appeared again at the Salt Lake Olympics and Sochi.  In the Lillehammer Olympics, the team placed 13th and beat the US, Russia, and Italy.  Bobsledding was easier to adapt to Jamaica since it entailed pushing a 600 pound sled as fast as possible, then jumping in.  The Jamaican bobsled team crashed during their first Olympics, but were treated as national heroes.  The team inspired other unlikely countries to form bobsled teams such as Mexico, Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, and several U.S. territories (Atkin, 2014).  Nigeria wants to field its own bobsled team in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.  The Nigerian team of former Olympian sprinters has formed to practice with a wooden sled until they can raise enough funds for an actual sled and track (Payne, 2016).


The Jamaican bobsled team could be seen as heroic, considering the challenges of becoming a winter athlete in an impoverished tropical country.  Yet, the team continues to be a joke at best and racist trope at worst.  For instance, two San Diego High School football coaches wore “Cool Runnings” inspired Jamaican Bobsled costumes, complete with black face in 2013 (Walsh, 2013).  In 2015, a group of UW-Stout students attended a private Halloween party as the Jamaican bobsled team, again in black face.  The college made a statement that they do not affiliate with those actions (Perez, 2015).  In 2014, a group of Brock University college students dressed up as the Jamaican bobsled team and won a $500 costume prize.  A critic of these students wrote that black costumes represent the limit of the white imagination to envision black people as anything other than rappers, gangsters, or athletes.  These costumes are also a way to control how black people are understood.  The film Cool Runnings itself represented Jamaicans in a stereotypical way by actors who were not even Jamaican.  Blackface dehumanizes black people.  The Jamaican Bobsled costumes affirm a racial hierarchy by making the athletes a stereotype or joke (Traore, 2014).


While much of this discussion has focused on African and African Americans, other racial minority groups face similar challenges.  Out of 11,000 U.S. Olympic athletes, only 14 have identified as Native American.  Only two of the 14 were female.  One of the two was Naomi Lang.   In 2002, Naomi Lang became the first Native American identified woman to compete in the Winter Olympics.  She is a member of the Kuruk tribe of California but was mocked for wearing traditional regalia at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.  Skating cost her family $60,000 a year.  To afford this, she slept on a mattress and wore hand me down clothes as a high schooler.   Lang resisted competitions, since she felt that her culture stressed cooperation and community.  Aside from differences in culture and challenges such as racism and poverty, Native Americans face the added challenge of health.  30% of Native American 4 year olds are obese, which is twice the amount of any other ethnic group (Sottile, 2011).  Native Americans are also three times as likely to develop diabetes than white people.  These health problems can be related back to colonization, which removed Native Americans from their land and traditional food sources and created historical trauma that continues to cause stress and health problems.


Conclusion:

The goal of feminist frolics is to enjoy the outdoors while learning.  As we venture outdoors this winter, perhaps we will notice how very white the forests, trails, and hills are.  Hopefully, this can be connected back to the larger racial disparities that exist in society.  It is my hope that this can help us become attuned to other spaces that are largely white.  For instance, one of the critiques of the recent Women’s March in Washington was the whiteness of the feminists in attendance.  Many of the issues that keep racial minorities out of winter sports also prevent them from participating in politics.  For instance, the media and police had an easier time imagining the protests as non-violent because it was undertaken by large crowds of white women, as opposed to Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter, which are viewed more negatively and violently by police and the media.  Becoming aware of why certain groups may feel excluded or unwelcome can help us build stronger and broader movements.  So, that is the larger mission of this discussion.  There should be more spring times for oppressed groups than endless, white winters.

 

Sources:

 

African Athletes representing at Sochi Winter Olympic Games. (2014, February 5). Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://afritorial.com/african-athletes-at-sochi-winter-olympic-games/

 

Atkin, N. (2014, February 5). The real cool Runnings. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from http://en.espn.co.uk/olympic-sports/sport/story/280229.html

 

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Blond, B. (2014) Ten things to know about Zimbabwe ski sensation Luke Steyn.  Retrieved December 21, 2016 from

http://afkinsider.com/41662/10-things-know-zimbabwe-ski-sensation-luke-steyn/9/

 

Boney, N. (2012, June 17). Snowshoes and the Canadian First Nations. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.snowshoemag.com/2012/06/17/snowshoes-and-the-canadian-first-nations/

 

Brown, S. L. (2015, August 18). The rebellious, back-flipping black figure Skater who changed the sport forever. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from https://newrepublic.com/article/122561/back-flipping-black-figure-skater-who-changed-sport-forever

 

Carr, K. E. (n.d.). Native American Science. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://quatr.us/northamerica/before1500/science/#topbar

 

Christenson, C. (2008). Aboriginal Sports. Retrieved January 27, 2017 from

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Du, S. (2016, September 7). Surya Bonaly, figure skating’s bad-girl star, makes new life in Minnesota. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://www.citypages.com/news/figure-skatings-bad-girl-star-surya-bonaly-makes-new-life-in-minnesota/392501041

 

Finnerty, M. (2015, March 14). Compromise complicated in debate over faith, water, land. Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://www.azcentral.com/story/travel/2015/03/13/navajo-nation-files-human-rights-protest-snowbowl-snow-making/70214892/

 

Harrison, A.K., (2013). Black skiing, everyday racism, and the racial spatiality of Whiteness. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 37(4), 315-339.

 

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King, C. R. (2004). Native Americans in sports. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference.

 

Krichko, K. (2016, January 13). Skiing Kyrgyzstan’s vast, snowy frontier | VICE sports. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/skiing-kyrgyzstans-vast-snowy-frontier

 

Myerberg, P. (2014, February 7). Skater who lit Olympic flame took racist shot at Obama. . Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/sochi/2014/02/07/winter-games-obama-flame-irina-rodnina-racist/5289869/

 

Patten, E., & Krogstad, J. M. (2015, July 14). Black child poverty rate holds steady, even as other groups see declines. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/14/black-child-poverty-rate-holds-steady-even-as-other-groups-see-declines/

 

Payne, M. (2016, December 17). Move over, Jamaica: Nigeria wants to field the next unlikely Olympics bobsled team. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/12/17/move-over-jamaica-nigeria-wants-to-be-field-the-next-unlikely-olympics-bobsled-team/?utm_term=.85c8bee75cd7

 

Perez, I. (2015, nov). UW-Stout students upset over blackface Halloween costume. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from http://www.fox9.com/news/44912694-story

 

Podezwa, Kathy and Larson, Tim  n.d. Building a coalition on Spirit Mountain. Retrieved December 21, 2016 from

https://freshwaterfuture.org/services/success-stories/building-coalition-on-spirit-mountain/

 

Quigley, B. (n.d.). Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-quigley/fourteen-examples-of-raci_b_658947.html

 

Redd, C. K. (2003, November 09). Giving African American Skiers a Lift. Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://archive.boston.com/travel/articles/2003/11/09/giving_african_american_skiers_a_lift/

 

Skiers v the religious rights of Canada’s indigenous peoples. (2016, November 26). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21710857-case-supreme-court-will-set-noteworthy-precedent-skiers-v-religious-rights

 

Sommerstein, D. (2015, February 26). As First black American NHL player, enforcer was defenseless against racism. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from NPR, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/02/26/389284068/as-first-black-american-nhl-player-enforcer-was-defenseless-vs-racism

 

Sottile, C. (2014). Winning for native America. Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://www.chiarasottile.com/winning-for-native-america/

 

South Africa withdraws only athlete. (2014, January 24). Retrieved January 26, 2017, from http://www.espn.com/olympics/winter/2014/alpine/story/_/id/10343352/south-africa-denies-only-olympian-sive-speelman-place-sochi

 

Svitek, P. (2012, April 26). Aggressive effort’ behind exposing ski team party. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Administration, https://dailynorthwestern.com/2012/04/26/campus/campusarchived/aggressive-effort-behind-exposing-ski-team-party/

 

Svitek, P. (2012, April 25). Ski team apologizes for hosting controversial party. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Campus (Archived), https://dailynorthwestern.com/2012/04/25/campus/campusarchived/ski-team-apologizes-for-hosting-controversial-party/

 

Surya Bonaly is the biggest bad ass in Winter Olympics history. (2014, February 6). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://groupthink.kinja.com/surya-bonaly-was-the-biggest-bad-ass-in-winter-olympics-1517897822

 

Traditional Winter Sports festival and ice sporting in GB. (2016, January 27). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from http://gbtribune.blogspot.com/2016/01/traditional-winter-sports-festival-and.html

 

Traore, I. (2014, November 20). Blackface, trauma and cultural racism — the silhouette. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from https://www.thesil.ca/blackface-trauma-and-cultural-racism

 

Vara, V. (2014, July 16). Race and Poverty, Fifty Years After the March. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/race-and-poverty-fifty-years-after-the-march

 

Walsh, M. (2013, October 30). Coaches’ “cool Runnings” blackface outrages civil rights groups. Retrieved December 21, 2016, from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/coaches-cool-runnings-blackface-outrages-civil-rights-groups-article-1.1501735

 

White as Snow – Racism and the Winter Olympics. (2013, January 30). Retrieved January 27, 2017, from https://www.ua-magazine.com/22252/

 

Winter workout: Enjoy traditional native snow sports. (2011, December 16). Retrieved December 18, 2016, from Indian Country News, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/winter-workout-enjoy-traditional-native-snow-sports/

 

The Sociology of Pumpkins

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The Sociology of Pumpkins

H. Bradford, 9/25/2016


For the first time in eight years, I am not in school.  You might think that after all that time I would be a professor, doctor, or lawyer, or at the very least well on my way to becoming one of those things.  Nope.  I’m just a pretty ordinary person.  Not particularly accomplished.  Two master’s degrees, two bachelor’s degrees, student debt, and the growing paranoia that if I am not in school that my brain will start to decay into mush.   I can see it now.  It looks a lot like a Jack-o-Lantern left on a front porch until the following March.  Just a mushy, discolored, vaguely orange, puddle of goop on the steps.  That is my brain.  No, I must rage against this.  I must learn new things.  I must not forget the old things.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  Write about things.  Write about sociological things.  Write about pumpkins.  Most of the history in this piece is derived from a book that I just read called Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, by Cindy Ott.  While the book provided a pretty good history of the pumpkin, it did not have much theoretical analysis of pumpkins.  I suppose most people don’t consider the theoretical implications of pumpkins.  So, here is it, a sociological analysis of pumpkins.  My late night rage against my dying life.  You know, since someone has to write about pumpkins…sociologically.   


main_butternut-vs-pumpkin

Cognitive Schema:  


I learned about this in my undergraduate course on Social Psychology.  Basically, according to Eviatar Zerubavel (a name that sounds more like a Final Fantasy villain than a sociologist) we are a part of thought communities which think a certain way about the reality around us.  Our thoughts are shaped by cognitive schemas, or frameworks that pattern how we think about things.   For instance, usually we view butterflies and moths as two separate things.  We lump colorful, pretty, slender, diurnal insects into the category of butterfly.  As the same time, we lump plump, hairy, dull colored, nocturnal insects into the category of moth.  Each of these categories have a shared social meaning.  Women get butterfly tattoos, but probably wouldn’t get a tattoo of a moth.  Gardeners attract butterflies to their gardens, but don’t particularly want to attract moths to their lights.  There are social organizations to protect Monarch butterflies, but one would be hard pressed to even name a single species or family of moths.  Moths and butterflies, as social concepts, are examples of cognitive schemas.  They are social objects with some shared meanings.  Thus, if a fat, dull colored insect flutters by at night, it may get lumped in the moth category.  A brightly colored Luna moth might perplex some people, but generally this lumping and splitting happens without incident.  Things are more complicated with gender or race, wherein cognitive schemas have a greater political and social consequence.  When we think of female we might think: pretty, weak, emotional, passionate, illogical, breasts, long hair, pink, or thousands of other thoughts that create a framework of how we think of women.  Of course, this pigeon holes people, creates difference, divides people, justifies oppression, and ignores all of the gray in-between areas.     


Compared to gender or race, pumpkins are pretty benign in terms of power, but not devoid of it.  The first European colonists to the United States came here with pre-existing ideas about fruits and vegetables.  As such, they classified pumpkins variably as cucumbers, melons, or squash.  Botanically, it is true that a pumpkin is in the same family as cucumbers, melons, and gourds (Cucubitaceae), but socially we make distinctions.  Further, even in the scientific sense, these things are divided by families.  In a pre-scientific taxonomy world, the lines between melons, squash, gourds, and cucumbers were blurry.  Today, pumpkins are viewed as something special and separate from squash, and certainly not a type of cucumber or melon.  Botanically, a pumpkin is, in fact, a squash.  Socially, a pumpkin is above a squash.  No one promotes squash spice lattes or squash pie Blizzards.  Even as a child, I was dubious that my mom’s squash pie was as good as a pumpkin pie.  There was something psychologically different about eating a squash pie compared to its pumpkin counterpart, though this is likely because the squash came from the garden instead of a can.  


With that said, the pumpkin became more than a squash sometime in the mid 1800s.  This is around the time that Halloween and Thanksgiving became popularized as holidays.  It is also a time when the U.S. was moving away from its agrarian roots to a more industrialized society.  The pumpkin emerged as its own entity because of its symbolic value as an icon of plenty, harvest, and rural America.  It also possessed symbolic value as an icon of the North (especially New England) during the Civil War.  The South traditionally used sweet potatoes in pies and desserts, rather than pumpkins.  Abraham Lincoln even made pumpkin pie the national dessert.  Thus, pumpkins were viewed as a food of anti-slavery and a food that represented American history (even though pumpkins were not idealized by colonialists).  It is a similar symbolic value that makes it popular today.  It is an icon of fall, rural living, simplicity, and nostalgia.  It is also a Thanksgiving symbol and symbol of America.  As such, in our American thought community, the pumpkin exists as something more than an winter squash.  Of course, there are other factors that allowed the pumpkin to become a social object that is apart from and above squash, cucumbers, and melons.  


30175_easy_pumpkin_pie

Use Value:


Use Value is a Marxist term which basically means that an object is valuable based upon its usefulness.  For instance, a pencil is valuable because it can be used to write.  A tree has use-value if it provides fruit or shade.  For most of the pumpkin’s history, it was valued for its use-value.  To colonists, it was useful as a food during lean times.  Since pumpkins store well, it could be eaten through the winter.  It was also used to feed animals.  Even as pumpkins became more popular in the 1800s, they were still used for pies and desserts.  Pumpkin farming was not a profitable venture, as even at the end of the 1880s it was still one of the least profitable vegetables-worth about 1/10 of a cent per pound.  In Marxist terms, pumpkins had use value as a food, but very little exchange value as a commodity.   Yet, in the early 1900s, something changed.  Perhaps owing to decline of rural living, there were pumpkin shows and pumpkin growing contests as rural life became a spectacle.  Pumpkins also had value as Halloween decorations.  In the earlier half of the 1900s, pumpkins started to become more profitable as demand increased and canned pumpkin made its use in foods more convenient.  Today, 87% of pumpkins are grown for decorations.  Ornamental pumpkin farmers net about $691 per acre, a modest amount, but still useful in providing income to small scale farmers.  Pumpkin festivals inject money into local economies through tourism and farms themselves are autumn tourist attractions.  Thus, in the last century, pumpkins have largely shifted from having high use value and little exchange value, to higher exchange value and little use value.            


pumpkin-pie-mix-libby-can-30-oz

McDonaldization of Society:  

The commodification of the pumpkin can be connected to a trend towards the McDonaldization of society.  George Ritzer coined the word McDonaldization to describe the rationalization and homogenization of society.  This process is the result of four trends: calculability, predictability, control, and efficiency.  A McDonald’s restaurant generally has a standard menu with uniform, predictable service and regimented workforce.  Part of the process of a pumpkin becoming a pumpkin (in the social sense) rather than a winter squash was increased control over the production of pumpkins.  Because most pumpkins today are used for decorations, they must possess qualities which make them predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient.  For instance, if a farmer grew off colored, lop-sided pumpkins, they might not appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be.  The classic or standard pumpkin is the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, which is an heirloom pumpkin from the 1700s when pumpkins were still considered melons and cucumbers.  There are several varieties of pumpkins that have been developed from the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, made specifically to appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be.  Autumn Pride, Casper, Paint-a-pumpkin, Spooktacular, Ghost rider, and Spirit are examples of pumpkin varieties that have been developed because their size, color, and shape conform to consumer expectations.  Varieties like these have been bred to remain orange longer and have sturdy stems for carrying.  That is, they can be relied upon perform in a predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient manner.    

On the non-decorative end of the spectrum, the predictability of pumpkins is more pronounced.  In order for something to become a commodity, the item in question must have a predictable supply, be transportable or exchangeable, and be profitable to sell.  The industrialization of food made food products more transportable, predictable, uniform, efficient, inexpensive, widespread, and plentiful.  Consider pumpkin pies before industrial agriculture and food.  A person would have to either grow their own ingredients or purchase them locally.  Then, these ingredients would be assembled over the course of hours.  Pumpkins require cutting, gutting, steaming, and peeling.  With the advent of canned pumpkin, a pie could be made easily and cheaply, with more predictable results.  Efficiency, control, predictability, and calculability made products more uniform, which generally appeals to consumers.  For instance, Libby’s (which accounts for 85% of the canned pumpkin market) uses their own variety of Dickinson Pumpkin for the canned pumpkin pie.  Dickinson is a variety of squash that they developed themselves.  These pumpkins actually look more like butternut squashes, but since they are only seen in their canned form this hardly matters.  The company uses fields near their factory to make transportation easier and utilizes smaller contracted farms near their Illinois factory to supply them.  Libby’s provides the seeds to the contracted farmers, but hires other farmers to harvest the pumpkins with machinery that they supply them.  Then, pumpkin loaders are used which can loan a ton of pumpkins onto trucks within 20 minutes.  These are dumped directly onto conveyer belts that move the pumpkins into their factory.  This is all a very predictable, rational, and efficient process.  At the same time, as a labor practice, rationalization increases profits by extracting more surplus value from workers.  If workers are trained minimally, complete tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible, with few mistakes and high output, their labor creates more value for the producer.       

     

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Cultural Capital:

 

According to Pierre Bourdieu, a person’s status in society depends upon their capital.  But, unlike Marx who viewed capital in a strictly economic sense, Bourdieu believed that capital could exist in a social sense as well.  Of of these forms of social capital is cultural capital, or knowledge, attitudes, education, and skills a person possesses.  The original colonists viewed pumpkins as a low class food or the food of primitive people.  They denigrated the pumpkin as rustic and uncivilized.  By disassociating themselves with the pumpkin, really, they were asserting their difference and superiority over Native Americans.  Later, Europeans looked down upon colonists for eating pumpkins, again as a sign of their backwardness.  The foods that one eats is an example of cultural capital.  That is, anyone who is affluent or powerful should not be eating pumpkins.  The conventions of what one eats and does not eat is a form of cultural capital.  Eating the wrong foods could be a sign of one’s race or social class.  To be with the “in club” of those with power, one must adopt their tastes and habits.  Of course, access to economic capital often determines what one eats.  A poor rural person may have no choice but to eat pumpkins.  A Native American might have genuinely liked to eat pumpkins as there was no negative social sanction for eating them.

Today, things have changed and pumpkins are no longer looked down upon.  However, we are in a society wherein obesity and unhealthy eating habits are a sign of poverty.  Thus, eating healthy foods is a sign of greater cultural capital.  Eating a pumpkin soup or pumpkin and quinoa salad is more respectable than eating a hotdog and fries.  Thus, on one hand, pumpkin could be seen as a sign of cultural capital.  On the other hand, because pumpkin spice has proliferated across various fast food and coffee shop chains, it has come to be seen as common.  It is viewed as both feminine and white….and ordinary.  Things that are feminine have traditionally been looked down upon, though whiteness has usually been viewed positively in our racist society.  Perhaps, the lovers of pumpkin spice are not doing whiteness right.  In our globalized pluralistic society, a truly educated and elite white person should seek out exciting, exotic, ethnic and interesting foods.  A taste for the unknown and an adventurous palate are signs of cultural capital.  While the pumpkin spices: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon are certainly exotic, as they come from far off places, they have become too ubiquitous to be seen as ethnic.  A person who likes pumpkin spice is therefore seen as provincial or commonplace, much like how pumpkin eaters of the past were looked down upon.  It is also looked down upon for being feminine.   Rape, unequal pay, unpaid labor, sex work, sexual harassment, and domestic violence are all easier to justify if women aren’t viewed as worthwhile to begin with.  

p1-rop-pumpkin-growing-cl

Hypermodernity and Consumption:

 

Simon Gottschalk argued that we are living in a hypermodern society.  Hypermodernity is characterized by such things as extreme individualism and hyper consumerism.  He also observed that there is a certain narcissism and megalomania embedded in hyper consumerism.  This megalomania is evident in the use of superlatives such as better, bigger, best, most, fastest, etc in advertisement.  Hyper-consumerism itself is characterized by extreme individualism that stomps out social considerations.  I think that the best illustration of this is the phenomenon of the giant pumpkin.  The giant pumpkin originated in the late 1800s as a spectacle at the world’s fairs.  In 1903, the record sized pumpkin was 403 pounds.  In 2010, the record holding pumpkin was 1,810 pounds.  To obtain pumpkins that size, they must be overwatered, overfed, pruned, and shaded.  The pursuit of the giant pumpkin is an inherently individualistic pursuit as it is done to test the boundaries of size, win prize money, and obtain attention.  The ecological and social costs of the inputs, such as fertilizers and water use, for a pumpkin that will never be eaten and can hardly be moved, is not even considered.  


Perhaps applying hypermodernity to giant pumpkins is a bit of a stretch.  However, I do remember watching this TV show back when I was a child.  The show was called Amazing Stories, and in one episode, a woman purchased some special pumpkin seeds from a traveling botanist (which sounds like an awesome job!).  She became obsessed with growing a giant pumpkin, but is cruel to everyone around her.  She is miserable about having lost the contest so many years in a row and convinced that she will finally win.  Indeed, she grows an enormous pumpkin.  However, she has no means to tow it.  She drags it behind a vehicle, destroying it along the way to town.  Even though the pumpkin is disintegrated, she is convinced that it is still the largest pumpkin.  In the end, she sees that everyone bought the special seeds and that everyone else successfully brought their perfect pumpkins to the contest.  She is a loser once again, left with nothing but the tattered remains of her dreams…and the pumpkin.  The episode really spoke to me as a child.  I remember it after all of these years.  In any event, her jealousy and megalomania drives her destroy her pumpkin and herself.  Blinded by her hyper-individualism, she can’t fathom that perhaps the seeds were a trick or notice that others may also be growing pumpkins.  In a way, we live similarly, trying to assert our individual existence through Pinterest projects, the things we buy, or our facebook photos.  Our giant pumpkin is the identity we cultivate.  The water and fertilizer are the things we buy.  In this way, the pumpkin is a symbol of hypermodernity.  Okay, maybe it is still a stretch…


Conclusion:

I am sure that I could think of other sociological theories or ideas to connect to pumpkins.  It is actually a fun little exercise and a bit of a challenge to think back at some of my coursework.  Perhaps I could connect pumpkins to Foucault’s power-knowledge, as who has the power to decide what a pumpkin is?  Scientists have a monopoly on defining a pumpkin.  To some degree, the food industry has power to determine what pumpkins are.  Pumpkin contests define the rules to what a pumpkin is or is not.  For instance, a pumpkin must be 80% orange to count as a pumpkin in some contests.  Maybe pumpkins could be examined from a feminist perspective.  Peter Pumpkin eater had a wife that he put in a pumpkin shell to control her!  How about the fact that women must haul their kids to pumpkin patches for photo opportunities.  Or the fact that women are looked down upon for our taste pumpkin spice candles, lattes, ice cream, etc.  I say, there should be no shame. Take back the Spice!  Really, the sociological possibilities are as endless and complex as a long tangle of pumpkin vines.  

What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

I recently read Martin Meredith’s book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. My boyfriend saw the book and asked me what a “Mug-a-bee” was. As my previous post indicates, I am not an African history buff. I wish I was a history of everything buff. But, I am just me. This version of me is interested in history, but has so much to learn. That is why I read Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. I wanted to know what a Mugabe was.


To give a brief history, as presented in the book and from some previous knowledge, the country now known as Zimbabwe was once called Rhodesia, named after the British diamond mine owner/promoter of imperialism, Cecil Rhodes. Basically, Rhode’s mining company BSAC was granted the mineral rights to an enormous track of land spanning from Limpopo River to Lake Tanganyika. To secure the land (i.e. colonize or take control of), Rhodes promised 3,000 acres of land to anyone who volunteered to be in his pioneer army. Thus, an army of volunteers basically conquered what would become modern day Zimbabwe, taking over the land, killing native people, crushing resistance, and forcing the remaining native people to pay taxes (thus forcing them into a cash/labor/wage based economy).


Fast forward to 1965. A minority of wealthy white land owners have controlled the country since 1890. This is because in order to vote, the electorate must meet certain wealth, educational, and property thresholds. Only the white population, 5% of the total population, met these qualifications. And, having enjoyed over seventy years of uncontested political and economic power, this white minority was not eager to give it up. Thus, in 1965, Rhodesia, which is still a British territory, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain. They did this because the white elite did not want to negotiate with the British for their independence, as this would entail at least some commitment to transferring power to the black majority. In short, the UDI was not really a declaration of independence, but a declaration of the government to independently continue the status quo of white power.


While I don’t expect much from the United States, UN, or Britain, in this case, the whole world was against white Rhodesia (or at least gave lip service to being against white Rhodesia). The UN condemned the declaration as illegal and racist and the Security Council imposed sanctions on the country. The sanctions weren’t necessary strictly followed and South Africa continued to provide military support, Iran provided oil, Japan purchased imports, and the United Sates continued to purchase chromium and nickel. Meanwhile, various rebel groups launched a bloody war of liberation that continued until 1979, when all parties agreed to terms of independence (elections, delayed land reform, a constitution, ceasefire, etc.) in the Lancaster Agreement.


That brings me back to the original question, “What is a Mugabe?” In the book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future, Robert Mugabe began as a relatable character. He was an isolated, serious, bookish person. I can relate to that. He didn’t drink or smoke. I can relate to that. He became a teacher and worked in Ghana, where he was introduced to socialism. I can relate to that. Then, he becomes a paranoid, ethnic cleansing, corrupt dictator…wait, what happened?! I’ll back up. Alright, so Mugabe was a part of a Maoist leaning rebel group called ZANU. This was one of two major Marxist Leninist rebel groups in Rhodesia, the other being ZAPU, a Warsaw Pact, Soviet aligned rebel group. To make things more complex, these parties have armed wings, ZANLA and ZIPRA. Mugabe eventually became the head of ZANLA, the armed wing of ZANU. Now, the author of the book portrays Mugabe’s descent into dictatorship as somewhat of a personal matter. For one, he spent eleven years in prison for his role in ZANLA. During his time in prison, his three year old son died. Ian Smith, the Prime Minister, personally denied his request to leave prison to comfort his wife, even when prison guards believed he could be trusted to return. Besides prison, he fought in a civil war that killed over 10,000 guerillas. The book suggests that going through the experiences of war, prison, and loss contributed to the direction he took after he was elected and became Prime Minister in 1980. It is also suggested that his austere and driven personality traits contributed to his dictatorship. While this may be a welcome explanation compared to the typical “absolute power corrupts” or “socialism always leads to dictatorship” I was not satisfied with this storyline.   Why does a man starve his country to root out opposition? What did he oversee the killing of up to 30,000 political opponents in the early 1980s, killed along ethnic lines? Why the corruption? Why the excess and pilfering of state money? Rather than the question of “what is a Mugabe?,” which I think the book answers by conveying his history, terrible deeds, and persona…I wonder, why Mugabe?


At first I thought that perhaps it was a matter of some ideological flaw. ZANU was aligned with China and sought assistance from North Korea. North Koreans helped Mugabe train his notorious 5th Brigade, which was used to crush political and ethnic opposition. To clarify this, ZANU was mainly supported by Shona people in the north of Zimbabwe, whereas ZAPU was supported by the Ndebele. When someone in Mugabe’s government is quoted as stating that they will bring Zimbabwe back to zero if they must, I couldn’t help but think of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The official believed that it was alright to starve the population if this meant starving out opposition to the government. Thus, food distribution occurred along party lines. Both ZAPU and ZANU were products of their time. Both carried the baggage of the logic, or illogic, of degenerated workers states. That is, their templates or role models were repressive, so why would either be different once in power?


Both of the perspectives are flawed because they keep things within the realm of the personal and the ideological. While wrestling with this, I discussed this with my friend Adam, who added the material. I had some inkling of the material as well, but had not been thinking about the topic long enough to fully flesh out my thoughts on that matter. Adam rightly observed that a socialist revolution would have been fairly impossible in Zimbabwe. Mugabe, as well as anyone else in ZAPU or ZANU were raised in racist Rhodesia. Their consciousness, tactics, world view, way of living, was shaped by racist, classist oppression. The existence of Zimbabwe itself is artificial. South Rhodesia, North Rhodesia, really all countries of Africa, are imperialist constructs. Their borders were decided by Europeans. As a result of colonization, ethnic groups were mashed together or pulled apart haphazardly. Mugabe inherited a colonial construct with an economy geared towards a peripheral role in global capitalism.   Making any sort of socialist reform that challenged global capitalism, without worldwide revolution, would cause the country to become an isolated, embargoed, pariah state. Which is exactly what it is, though for humanitarian and democratic reasons. The cards are stacked against socialism. Even with the best intentions. Machel, the Marxist leader of Mozambique even warned Mugabe against pursuing socialism too aggressively. Can it be expected that there would have been anything different or the country would have had a different fate? Anything is possible. I am a socialist, of course. But, there were many material factors, along with some ideological and personal ones, which directed the course of events.


Having addressed the what and why of Mugabe, there is one critique that I will launch against the book. The book is very sympathetic to white farmers. This raises many questions. Now, the book discusses how his first decade or so in power consisted of consolidating his party with ZAPU, destroying political and ethnic opposition, while enriching the political elite with the profits derived from state owned enterprises/investments. However, as criticisms mount regarding the corruption of the government and misuse of a veteran’s fund, he turned his attention to the white population. In various waves through the 1990s and 2000s, he unleashes bands of veterans to attack white farmers, taking their lands. Eventually almost all of the white farmers are evicted from their lands. The book is very sympathetic to these white farmers, who hide in terror as their land is ransacked and occupied. Throughout this narrative, Mugabe is called a racist. Cowering, courageous white folks flee the country and mourn the losses of their farms. Another part of the narrative is that after the veterans took over the farms, they fell into disrepair and food production plummeted. The author seems to ignore how this narrative is very much like the Rhodesian narrative that black people are not ready to govern themselves, as they will ruin the country. Apparently, black people cannot farm, as they will ruin the farms. This is incredibly racist.


The book portrays white farmers as victims. To backtrack, in 1980, 70% of the land was controlled by less than 5% of the population (whites). To backtrack further, white people were given 3,000 acres of land when they conquered what became Zimbabwe in 1890. For almost 100 years, white people had a monopoly on political and economic power in the country. This raises the question of what rights do colonizers have? Do the white farmers have a right to keep their land? On what basis? If they earned or obtained that land any time during the 100 years of white rule or because an ancestor did, then they have no real right to it. It was not collectively decided that white people should own 70% of the land. The land was taken and maintained through a repressive government atop of a segregated society. And while the white owners must have done a good job overseeing the land and making it productive, this also does not give them a right to keep their land. If someone took your house, but repaired it and kept it cleaner, it does not give them the right to own it. The problem of course is that the land was taken violently and erratically. Much of the land fell into the hands of government cronies. Ideally, a more peaceable, rational, and socially beneficial land distribution should have occurred. But still…what rights do colonizers have? Further, they are called “farmers” but this invokes grandma and grandpa on a 40 acre farm. The farms were mega, corporate, sometimes cash crop farms with hired workers. The whites were wealthy landowners, not farmers in the mom and pop with a few milk cows sense. So, while I don’t want to see any human being suffer, I am uncomfortable for the sympathetic nature in which the whites were portrayed.


In all, I feel that I learned quite a bit about Mugabe. I read the book in about three days, so I found it engaging enough to plow through it. Finally, it raised some questions. As a whole, I enjoyed it and would recommend it, though, it is lacking political analysis and self-awareness of its own narrative.

What Do We Learn about South African Apartheid?

What do we learn about South African Apartheid?


This blog post stems from my plans to embark on a trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe in late June. Now, I am not an expert on South Africa or Africa in general. I really am in the stages of learning and thinking, rather than producing knowledge. In this attempt to learn more about Africa in general, I headed to the Duluth Library Book Sale. I came home with dozens of books, but there was next to nothing for sale on the topic of Africa! The only book I found was Brian Lapping’s Apartheid: A History, which was written in 1986! I read the book, but because it is so old, it does not make sense to write a book review. If I reviewed the book, much of the story would remain untold.   In any event, the book was a quick read that didn’t offer much depth or political analysis. I wouldn’t recommend it except as a nice introduction to the topic. Nevertheless, I wanted to write an easy to read blog post about apartheid in South Africa. As I thought of the topic, I considered what I learned about South Africa in school. Really, I learned next to nothing. I think I was given this general idea that once upon a time there was racial inequality in South Africa, then Nelson Mandela came along, and everything was better. With that said, I will explore some of the narratives about South Africa that seem to be popular in our society.


  1. Everything is Better Myth:

If you learn about apartheid in school, the narrative of apartheid is one of victory over injustice. This is the same way we learn about the Civil Rights movement or women’s suffrage movement. We are provided with a narrative that a historically isolated moment of struggle ends in triumph and change. Everything is better. The end.


Spielvogel’s Glencoe World History textbook, published in 2005 and used at a local high school, ends its two page coverage of apartheid (out of over 1000 pages) with the election of Nelson Mandela and a quote about the rainbow nation. This leaves the distinct impression that good triumphed over evil.


One of the problems with this narrative is that it ignores the ways in which apartheid continues through economic mechanisms. In 1993, South African Trotskyist Neville Alexander, wrote that apartheid laws could be removed because racial inequality already had a firm foundation. Over two decades later, 60-65% of South African wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population. 47% of the country lives in poverty and 25% of the country is unemployed. If unemployment is looked at along racial lines, about 39% of Black South Africans are unemployed compared to 8% of whites. The average white family earns six times more than the average Black family. Although some Black South Africans have joined the middle class since the end of apartheid, the country remains economically divided along racial lines.


There are many reasons why economic inequality persists. Although the original Freedom Charter adopted by the ANC supported the redistribution of wealth and land, economic demands of the charter were not adopted. The ANC is not an anti-capitalist party and apartheid was built upon economic inequality. As such, the end of apartheid allowed only for a democracy founded upon fundamental inequalities and a system that promotes such inequalities. The same state, police, and military continued on, but with a different face. While the racial demographics of government have changed, the state remains the same inasmuch as it has pursued neoliberal policies and used the police to kill workers (i.e. the Lonmin mine massacre that killed 47 people)!


 

2. The Nelson Mandela Myth:

 

Nelson Mandela died back in 2013 when I worked at the Boys and Girls Club. The children told me that they learned about Nelson Mandela in school. Although they learned about him in school, the content was pretty minimal as he was presented as a sort of Santa Claus like character. He was a mythical, jolly, peaceful fellow who ended apartheid and brought the gift social justice to the world. While there is nothing wrong with learning about Nelson Mandela, the way in which he and any other historical figure is presented is as a maker of history. This ignores other individuals, economic conditions, social movements, labor organizing, and other important factors in social change. In short, social change is reduced to the heroic actions of a mythical individual. Beyond this, the depiction of these heroes is white washed. For example, Spielvogel’s (2005) Glencoe World History textbook says the following: “After the arrest of ANC leader Nelson Mandela in 1962, members of the ANC called for armed resistance to the white government (p. 922).” In this statement, Nelson Mandela is a catalyst for armed resistance but not a promoter of it. Nowhere in the paragraph does it mentioned that Nelson Mandela believed in armed resistance and was the head of the Spear of the Nation (the armed wing of the ANC). He co-founded it in 1961 AFTER the Sharpeville massacre wherein 69 unarmed protestors were shot (in the back as they fled) by police. But, the textbook does not mention the Sharpeville massacre and the role it played in changing the tactics of the ANC. Rather, the reader is lead to believe that it was the arrest of Nelson Mandela (the great individual in this narrative) which was the cause of arm struggle. This neutralizes the subversive aspects of Nelson Mandela, making him out to a Barack Obama type character.   He was considered a terrorist and leader of a terrorist organization. He went to prison under laws made to persecute communists. He was, at least for a time, a member of the South African Communist Party. He was also a domestic abuser who threatened his first wife that he would attack her with an axe.


Individuals are thorny and imperfect. The right wing has a heyday with such things. Instead, it should raise issues of how a “terrorist” is socially constructed and what is deemed a terrorist organization is a matter of the power. It should also raise issues about the role of violence in social change or considerations of the role of capitalism in promoting racial inequalities (the SACP should not be idealized, but at least recognized as a part of history). In later textbook passages, Nelson Mandela is described with more apolitical staleness. He was imprisoned for 26 years and became the first Black president of South Africa. That is all. Desmond Tutu is mentioned in one sentence as a person who helped to release him. This is the complete cast of characters in the story of apartheid. There is no mention of Steve Biko, one of many people who mysteriously died in police custody (after torture). More important than the addition of other anti-apartheid figures is the lack of coverage of social history. The textbook does not mention the Soweto massacre, for instance. Students might be able to relate to the struggle of fellow students against curriculum changes. Up to 1000 (700?) people died to learn math and to speak their own language!


  1. America the Invisible/Elephant in the Room:

            Nowhere in the textbook I’ve been using as an example is there any mention of the role of the United States in all of this. I learned the other day that U.S. companies Polaroid and IBM profited from the creation of identification cards and card reading systems used for the passes that kept Black South Africans segregated and relegated to Bantustans. As of 1985, U.S. companies controlled 70% of the computer market in South Africa. The tires used by South African police and military vehicles were purchased from Firestone and Goodyear. In 1985, 20% of all foreign investment in South Africa was American. These corporations profited from the cheap labor of black workers, who lived and worked as impoverished guest workers in the slave like conditions of their own country. The United States refused sanctions against South Africa until 1986 and vetoed a UN resolution to expel South Africa’s membership. Even under the Carter administration, the United States abstained from a UN vote to impose an oil embargo on South Africa. Beyond the economic bounty that corporations gained from apartheid, South Africa was an important U.S. ally and staging point for wars against left leaning independence movements in Africa.   Of course, textbooks try to be apolitical and inoffensive, so the omission of this close relationship with South Africa is expected. But, the absence of the U.S. is political. It only adds to the amnesia of our negative role in history and a denial of our own troubled race relations. Digging deeper, it might call into question the U.S.’s relationship with Israel or the parallels between Israel and South Africa. White South Africans (of Boer descent) saw themselves as a chosen people who belonged on the land. People who had always been there. They also saw themselves as victims of British imperialism and genocide with a right to defend themselves. Just as the story of apartheid ends with Nelson Mandela, the story of segregation ends with Martin Luther King Jr. or the story of slavery ends with the Civil War. In these stories, racism exists only in a historical moment. It existed and, like the dinosaurs, vanishes into the deep history of dust and fossil imprints. The dinosaurs aren’t with us now. And we are led to believe that racism is also a thing of the past.


Conclusion:  

I am not an expert on South Africa or racism. I am not an expert about anything. I am a student. I like to learn. I would also like to be a teacher. In this capacity, I hope I taught you a few things about apartheid and how we think about it in American society. There is much more to say on this topic. I have a lot on my mind. I will save it for another post or wait until I do more reading. Until then, the story continues.

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