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Having lunch the day after with your mentors…by Ian Rocksborough-Smith

The day after the election I was fortunate to have lunch with Jack O’Dell and his wife Jane Power who have been mentors to my humble efforts as a scholar of U.S history. Both are exiles of the American left and now live in Vancouver, where I am from. They moved here in the early 1990s so Jane could do a PhD in history at a nearby university. But they were also leaving an America that was quickly moving into a period of entrenched neoliberalism and austerity under the administration of Bill Clinton. A political trend that continued in different ways under the war-mongering George W. Bush regime and, yes, the drone-striking and growing wealth inequities overseen by Barack Obama. These neoliberal regimes arguably set up the current moment where America’s most frightened and dangerous citizens, white working and middle class males have tried to make “America great again” riding a wave of frustration and anger to narrowly elect a radical right wing populist in Donald Trump. Many want to reimagine an imaginary U.S. past when that country’s citizens supposedly had good jobs and livelihoods. History shows that this reality was a reality mainly for white men only – that a true majority of people (people of colour, minorities, and women) have never experienced equality in the empire of liberty. But the elixir of American exceptionalism and its intoxicating dreams of capitalist plenty have fooled more than a few.

            These foolish dreams have never fooled Jack and Jane. Jack was international affairs director for the PUSH/Rainbow Coalition in Washington, D.C. and worked closely with Jesse Jackson, Jr. during his presidential campaigns in the 1980s, well before the Democratic establishment believed in the possibility of supporting a black president. Jane worked for years as an editor for the National Education Association’s newspaper – one of the more progressive public teacher unions in America. Both have been fighters for and from the real left in America for decades – yes, well before the movements for Bernie Sanders materialized. Indeed, Jack had been a member of the Communist Party of the United States at the height of Cold War and later became a key staff member for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Civil Rights era. He also became a chief writer for the radical left civil rights journal Freedomways through the 1960s. Jack’s radical past has meant that he has a lengthy FBI file – so he is no stranger to government surveillance and repression – mechanisms of power likely to expand even further under Trump. Having grown up in a working class African American community in Detroit, Michigan, Jack also has a long view of American racism and inequality that has meant that the political choices he made in his career as an activist have come to him naturally. For many decades, both Jack and Jane witnessed time and time again how the liberal elites of America, those very same elites who the mainly white, male voters of Trump have railed against – ignored the interests and aspirations of Americas’ most vulnerable citizens. But at the lunch I had with my mentors, never had I heard them both proclaim a current moment to be so reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s.

Make no mistake, the conditions in the present for fascism are ripe – albeit in a 21st Century context. Unchecked militarism, racism, sexism and a carceral state that has imprisoned more human beings than any nation in world history should give people pause for serious, soul-searching reflection and some indication that fascism is nigh. With the election of such a vicious symbol of America’s worst form of power – the unapologetic, white male chauvinist, billionaire – the sense that Rome will again fall in destructive flames does seem imminent. It is likely that such a figure should in this day and age hold power only tenuously. Just like when Hitler was elected in Germany, the U.S. electorate remains bitterly divided, and the protests against Trump’s victory give us a good indication that those who oppose him will not remain silent. The perception that such naked expressions of power have a limited shelf life in a more enlightened public sphere in the 21st Century should provide us with some hope. But the reality of this naked power also inevitably brings with it a very real sense of peril. Like many progressive Americans before them, Jack and Jane have lived and fought in the belly of the beast for decades, they have fought against injustice, racism and inequality their entire lives and have seen injustice and discrimination recreate itself in countless ways.  They know a thing or two about what young people can try to do in moments like this. Especially young people of colour who might be feeling understandably scared and vulnerable and traumatized. “Keep on steppin,’” Jack likes to say. Don’t give up in other words. Keep fighting. But stay safe, stay in community, avoid isolation, and keep active. Every little action will count. The future of the world will literally depend on it.

 Ian teaches history at various colleges and universities in Vancouver, Canada. He has published in journals such as the  Black Scholar , the  Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society ,   the  Journal of African American History,  and  Afro-Americans in New York Life and History . His first book,  Black Public History in the Windy City: Civil Rights Activism from World War II to the Cold War,   is due out next Fall through the University of Illinois Press.

Ian teaches history at various colleges and universities in Vancouver, Canada. He has published in journals such as the Black Scholar, the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, the Journal of African American History, and Afro-Americans in New York Life and History. His first book, Black Public History in the Windy City: Civil Rights Activism from World War II to the Cold War,  is due out next Fall through the University of Illinois Press.

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