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Black Families, Structural Racism and a Decision to Raise Social Problems to a Public Issue – Part 1

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

I read a great article in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration“. (Oct. 2015). I highly recommend it to readers of my blog and I hope to write more about it from my own perspectives in the future. The lengthy nine chapter article begins with a discussion of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous report, now 50 years old, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.”


For those of you currently blessed with youth, Moynihan was a scholar, US ambassador, a New York State Senator and a very influential intellectual in the waning decades of the 20th Century. (It still feels odd for me to say it.) At the time he wrote his report, he was ensconced as a young career civil servant in President Johnson’s administration on the eve of passage of the civil rights bill. He was one of many invisible administration officials who work behind the scenes in every public administration in government. He would have been a colleague of Bill Moyers and Chris Matthews, all of whom were among the anonymous legions that make governance possible in every administration.

The thrust of Moynihan’s report was the premise that structural white racism caused poverty in the black community and destroyed black families through a particularly devastating impact on black males. The intractable joblessness, poverty and social impotence of black males was forcing black families to become matriarchal: a status in conflict with the rest of American society. His critique of the public welfare system centered around the fact that it reinforced this matriarchal shift while marginalizing (some would say demonizing) black fathers. He argued that the federal government was underestimating the damage that this was causing. Moynihan wrote, as quoted in the article:

“The Negro family, battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice, and uprooting, is in deepest trouble… While many negroes are moving ahead to unprecedented levels of achievement, many more are falling further and further behind.”

In his view, the marginalization and emasculation of black males, even within the black community, is the root cause, and not the symptom, of the problems that we still read about today in local news accounts. Juvenile delinquency, higher high school dropout rates, gangs, higher black on black crime rates, etc., and all symptoms of structural racism, he would argue. Moynihan went on to write:

“In a word, most Negro youth are in danger of being caught up in the tangle of pathology that affects their world, and probably a majority are so entrapped. Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things now are, their children have to run the gauntlet all over again.”

Moynihan’s report was a prescient analysis of critical social problems that foreshadowed the accumulating impacts of structural racism, including mass incarceration and the ongoing destruction of black families today. His report made enough of an impact on Lyndon Johnson’s thinking that it was the subject of a subsequent speech that Johnson gave on the breakdown of black families in June of 1965. The speech was written, in part, by Moynihan himself. Johnson understood Moynihan’s point that white structural racism was responsible for the ongoing destruction of black families.

Johnson’s message in that speech, however, was quickly turned upside down in a social atmosphere that was in no mood to accept any blame for the plight poor black communities. The unreceptive public, and the media interpretation assigned to the Johnson’s speech, was that the root of poverty and social ills in the black community was a result of a weak black family structure, and of black males in particular.

Moynihan’s report was only an internal administration document at that time. Coates writes that Moynihan printed one-hundred copies of the report, submitted just one copy and kept the other ninety-nine copies in a safe. Moynihan had also removed from the report a whole section he had written on government policy recommendations for solving these problems. His rationale for this omission was that squabbling over proposed solutions would distract from sounding the alarm bells and raising a discussion on the plight of black families.

While the Moynihan report was not a public document at the time, internal discussions of the report spilled into the public domain and became a matter for public speculation. The false narrative that black families are responsible for their own social ills was ascribed to him and Moynihan was ridiculed by social activists for the black community. A moment had passed, the damage was done and the inverted perversion of Moynihan’s report seeped into the public consciousness despite efforts to dispel it.

Much more can be said at this point about the subsequent history of government policies and the negative impacts it has had on black families. This is covered quite well in the subsequent eight chapters on Coates’ article, and again I recommend you read it. My own experience working with public welfare families over the past three decades affirms Moynihan’s views and his criticism of the matriarchal federal public welfare system.

I hope to say more about this in the future also, but in part II of this article I want to shift gears and focus attention on that tactical decision the young Daniel Patrick Moynihan faced when he pull his policy recommendations from the original report. In doing this an important lesson may be learned about elevating a social problem to the level of a public issue within the context of the times. Where there alternatives might have been more effective? Would having raised a social problem to a public issue failed to happen if he left his proposed solutions in the original report? And what is it about the compressed and rarified air where civil servants work behind the scenes of public administrations that would cause him to lock up ninety-nine copies of his original report?


Steel Guitar Inventor Joseph Kekuku and His Obscure Grave

Joseph Kekuku (1874 – 1932)

Regarded as the inventor of the steel guitar.
I recently visited Kekuku’s grave. It is hard to find even when you know where to look for it.  

It would nice if people who appreciate his contribution to modern music would come together  and design a more appropriate grave marker.  I was expecting to see a small sculpture of a steel guitar or something. Share your comments below if you have any thoughts about this.

From Wikipedia
Kekuku was born in Lāʻie, a small village on the windward side of OʻahuHawaii. As a boy, he would experiment with guitar technique, sliding ordinary household objects across the strings to see what sounds could be produced. When Joseph was 15, he and his cousin, Sam Nainoa left for a boarding school in Honolulu, about 40 miles south of Laie. In 1889 while attending the Kamahameha School for Boys, Kekuku accidentally discovered the pleasing sound of the steel guitar.  By the time he was an adult, he had developed a unique style of playing. He traveled extensively, teaching and performing throughout the USA and Europe. 

According to C.S. DelAno, publisher of the “Hawaiian Music In Los Angeles” whose “Hawaiian Love Song” was the first original composition to be written for the Hawaiian Steel Guitar,

“Joseph told me that he was walking along a road in Honolulu 42 years ago, holding an old Spanish guitar when he say a rusty bolt on the ground. As he picked it up, the bolt accidentally vibrated one of the strings and produced a new tone that was rather pleasing. After practicing for a time with the metal bolt, Joe experimented with the back of a pocket knife, then with the back of a steel comb and still later on with a highly polished steel (bar) very similar to the sort that is used today.”

In 1904 at the age of 30, Joseph left Hawaii and in his 58-years of life, would never return to his native islands. Instead, he brought his native islands, through music, to the rest of the world. He started in the United States by performing in vaudeville theaters from coast to coast. His group was “Kekuku’s Hawaiian Quintet” which was sponsored by a management group called “The Affiliated.”

In 1919 at the age of 45, Kekuku left the U.S. for an eight year tour of Europe traveling with “The Bird of Paradise” show. During this time, Kekuku played before Kings and Queens in many different countries. “The Bird of Paradise” show had been on Broadway with brilliant Hawaiian scenery, dazzling costumes, plus authentic Hawaiian music. The show traveled in Europe for eight years and was a total sellout. European hearts were captured by the sweet teasing sounds of the steel guitar. NO OTHER INSTRUMENT HISTORY BECAME THE DARLING OF SO MANY COUNTRIES SO QUICKLY. (Lorene Ruymar) “The Bird of Paradise” show was so popular that it became a film in 1932 and again in 1951. [snip]

In the 1930s the steel guitar went electric. Electrification attracted other musical forms such as western, big band, jazz and country. The electrified steel guitar made its greatest breakthrough into country music. Little Roy Wiggins was the first widely known electric steel guitar player to back a major Nashville artist, in his case Eddie Arnold. Another influence was the rise in the use of the pedal steel guitar, where the player could produce a correct change in harmony by pushing a pedal or kneeing a lever.

Kekuku returned to the United States and, at the age of 53, settled in Chicago and ran a popular and successful music school. Around 1930, he left Chicago and visited Dover, New Jersey. Some think he came to Dover as part of a traveling musical troupe that appeared at the Baker Theater. Hawaiian groups on these vaudeville tours usually consisted of 5 or 6 musicians with the steel guitarist seated in the center. Why Kekuku settled in Dover is not known. A possible reason is wanting to be near the rolling hills of Dover, the bustling downtown district in the valley, the shows at the Baker Theater, and the trains that ran to New York City. Another possible reason is his wife Adeline was tired of traveling and wanted to settle down there. In any event, in 1932 Joseph Kekuku was living in Dover, New Jersey with his wife at 88 Prospect Street and giving Hawaiian guitar lessons. Around town, he was ofter referred to as “the Hawaiian.”

On January 16, 1932 at the age of 58, Joseph Kekuku died in Morristown, Dover, New Jersey of a cerebral hemorrhage.[1] His obituary appeared in the Dover Advance on January 18, 1932 and read:

“Funeral services will be held tomorrow at 1:00 o’clock for Joseph Kekuku, fifty-eight years old from the home of Mrs. Mary Stone on Prospect Street. Rev. Hedding B. Leach will officiate and interment will be in the Orchard Street Cemetery. Mr. Kekuku is survived by his wife. He died after a lingering illness at Morristown on Saturday. Mr. Kekuku, an Hawaiian, resided with Mrs. Stone last summer and gave lessons on the steel guitar which he claimed to have originated.”

Kekuku is buried in the Orchard Street Cemetery. A small marker at the Orchard Street Cemetery reads: JOSEPH KEKUKU JAN. 16, 1932 marking his final resting place.
[edit]Inducted into Steel Guitar Hall of Fame

In 1993, Joseph Kekuku was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame with full honors as the inventor of the Hawaiian Steel Guitar. The Dover Area Historical Society salutes this genius musician, this artist, this teacher, this ambassador of Hawaii and the Aloha spirit around the world. His passion brought him far from his birthplace of Laie, Hawaii to his final resting place in Dover, New Jersey.