Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ted Vincent 1936-2009

On Sunday, June 14, 2009 I lost my dad.

He had been recovering from a heart attack on May 22nd, and there are some controversies about the change in his care when he was moved to Kaiser Oakland two days before his passing, but it is not important right now because he cannot be brought back.

Ted was always his own man and was courageously original in his ideas and how he went about pursuing the issues that mattered most to him. A central part of his values had to do with social justice and racial justice in particular. As an historian by trade, he wrote five books and dozens of articles in papers and magazines all over the world. Most of his writing had to do with uncovering the many untold elements of the struggle for racial equality for blacks in America.

As a white man dedicated to black equality, his life and career took some bittersweet turns, but his legacy will stand on its own for generations. My cousin calls him “the last of the white black nationalists.” One of his first teaching gigs was at Merritt College in Oakland in 1964, and the class featured a young, talkative student named Huey P. Newton, eventual founder of the Black Panther Party.

Ted was an avid runner, political activist, musician and teacher. He was born in Washington, D.C. in 1936, and earned a Master’s Degree in History from UC Berkeley in 1970. He had entered the doctoral program in History at UCLA but left to write the books he wanted to on his own terms. He always was self -driven, self-taught, and self defined, and I believe that’s where I got my open-minded approach to The Funk as a way of life.

His three children are testament to this belief and faith in humanity. He had three loving wives at different times in his life. Toni, my mom, shared Ted’s radical politics and forward thinking social values, and my brother Teo Barry Vincent and myself are proof of those values. Ted’s second wife Selma and their daughter Mimi shared much of the counter-culture Berkeley lifestyle values we always enjoyed while growing up, and his third wife Bernice kept up with him as he was running his marathons for much of the 1990’s.

Then there is his massive track record of writings, in essays and books, ranging from comparisons of slave overseers to modern cops, to pioneering research on the runaway slave Yanga, an African prince that founded a city if his own in southern Mexico in the 1600s which survives to this day. Ted uncovered the writings of Malcolm X’s mother, Louise Little, which she contributed to the Marcus Garvey paper The Negro World. Historians now agree that both of Malcolm’s parents were Garveyites, not only Malcolm’s father, which was implied in Malcolm’s autobiography. These are the quiet contributions great historians make to our world.

He was a frequent contributor to the Berkeley Daily Planet, and had recently been translating contributions to the mixed race heritage publication Somos Primos. He was also a consultant to the Oakland Museum's current exhibit "The African Presence in Mexico" and was a scheduled speaker the following day when he took ill on May 22nd.

Ted’s most enduring legacy will be his books, which are paradigm shifting, often epic and groundbreaking re-evaluations of the established historical record. Here is a list of them, they are all fascinating, accessible reads:

1970 - (as Theodore G. Vincent) Black Power and the Garvey Movement Ramparts Press, San Francisco (reprinted by Nzinga press, 1987, and reprinted by Black Classic Press, 2007);

1972 - (as Theodore G. Vincent) Editor: Voices of a Black Nation: Political Journalism in the Harlem Renaissance Ramparts Press, San Francisco. (reprinted by Afrika World Press 1991)

1981 - (Ted Vincent) Mudville's Revenge: The Rise and Fall of American Sport University of Nebraska Press (1981; reprinted in 1994)

1995 - (Ted Vincent) Keep Cool: The Black Activists Who Built the Age of Jazz London, Pluto Press

2003 - (as Theodore G. Vincent) The Legacy of Vicente Guererro, Mexico's first Black Indian President. University of Florida Press

Ted was a Berkeley fixture and will be deeply missed. I am still processing the scope of the loss on a personal level. Knowing we won’t be going to any more baseball games, or watching him playing any more piano, or discussing black history or modern politics, or watching him teach my kids those little bites of wisdom, will be a brand new struggle for me. But I know he lived a full and rich life, saw his children grow up, enjoyed the unconditional love of his grandkids, and lived to see a Black President. I think he will be at peace with all of it now.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Barack Obama, President of The World

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Barack Obama’s magnificent speech to the “Muslim world” in Cairo on Thursday, 6/4. (Watch it here: He said all of the right things. He showed a surprisingly strong recognition and respect for Islam, Muslim people, their traditions and their values. He gave Israel the historical recognition that so often grounds its rhetoric of defiance, but he gave Palestinians an actual acknowledgement of their misery, saying their plight is “intolerable.” This was some very bold truth, especially coming from the mouth of the leader of the most powerful Western nation on earth.

At times I was ready to quip with my own issues with some of the topics he brought up, but to mention them at all was a spectacular breakthrough in the global discourse of justice that Barack Obama now is operating in so enthusiastically. For example, he acknowledged the US role in overthrowing the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister in the 1950s – before denouncing the extremist government that followed. And if you listen carefully, he also acknowledged that some people felt the US “deserved” the 911 attacks, before denouncing those people too.

I thought that admission was incredible. Amiri Baraka lost his title as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (whatever that means) because he put forth similar sentiments. Under Bush 2.0’s Patriot Act, it has essentially been a federal crime for some to speak words that amounted to blaming the US for fostering the sentiments behind 911.

The US right wing and the “Muslim extremists” have served each other’s hateful interests for most of this decade. Obama is navigating an environment where the haters on both sides had been setting the terms of engagement, but now he’s the one blowing up things. It was astonishing, stupefying, and uplifting to hear such magnanimity and humility from the leader of the “free world.”

There was also an implication in this: that if you say ‘Muslims are people too, there are just some wackos you have to watch out for,” then what does that say about us here in the majority Christian US? That’s right, we have wackos too that are killing doctors, shooting unarmed black people on subways, and voting into law marriage discrimination too. Okay he didn’t go there, but I did.

I also found it ironic that it was Obama’s Muslim elements that almost derailed his Presidential campaign are now some of his greatest assets. From the right wing pundits emphasizing his middle name of Hussein, to falsely accusing him of taking his Congressional oath on a Qur’an. In his speech, Obama made prideful mention of his Muslim heritage, his childhood in Indonesia, and the fact that the first American in the House of Representatives (Keith Ellison, D-MN) took his oath on Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.

Yes it is all superficial rhetoric from Obama. But from the point of view of this new agenda of respectful global engagement, it is more “change” than I could have imagined when I voted for the brother last November. And think about the number of folks considering Islam for themselves that just got pushed over the fence by Obama’s not so subtle endorsement? That is tangible, and beautiful.

His outline for economic redevelopment started to lose me however, because it started to sound like a campaign speech, with a lot of promises. But as it turns out, to me the speech really was a campaign speech: a speech in which Barack Obama was campaigning for President of the World. But not through crude brute force in the way Bush 2.0 tried to do it, but through smooth sentences, heartfelt sympathies and much cultural affinity.

George Bush 2.0 saw American “Exceptionalism” in terms of its ability to use brute force, tired colonial objectives, and blatant white supremacist values to rule the world.

Barack Obama is a paradigm shifter. He is changing the center of the world’s discourse away from America’s exceptionalism in terms of economic & military domination, towards the fancier gloss of morality, a global community, and the myth of “opportunity.”

Obama did this during the campaign, by fusing his own biracial and immigrant narrative into the larger American mythos of immigration and opportunity, something many of us felt were primarily the pervue of European migrants. Barack Obama has integrated the American Dream in many ways, and now he’s spreading that hype – that hope – to the rest of the world.

It feels great. So did the election. But we also now have some of the worst urban violence in decades, and an economy on the brink, so the brother still has some work to do. But if he wants to be President of the World, I’ll vote for him.