All Over America the Lamps are Going Out

Agee photo finalThese are bad times. I thought of James Agee’s beautiful and heartrending work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men when I heard the verdict in the Zimmerman case. There’s an account, very near the beginning of the book, of Agee’s and Walker Evans’s encounter with a young black couple that made me think, when I first read it, how far we had come from those dark days. Agee and Evans had found a church they wanted to photograph. The church was in a relatively deserted wooded area and was locked. As the two men were wondering whether to force their way in, a young black couple came walking by. The couple, Agee writes,

[w]ithout appearing to look either longer or less long, or with more or less interest, than a white man might care for, and without altering their pace, … made thorough observation of us, of the car, and of the tripod and camera. We spoke and nodded, smiling as if casually; they spoke and nodded gravely, as they passed, and glanced back once, not secretly, nor long, nor in amusement. (p. 36.)

Agee decides to go after the couple to ask them if they know where to find a minister or someone else who could let them into the church. Agee, being Agee trails behind them at first simply observing them “taking pleasure… in the competence and rhythm of their walking in the sun, … and in the beauty in the sunlight on their clothes.” They are obviously courting, both dressed in their Sunday best. He in “dark trousers, black dress shoes, a new-laundered white shirt with lights of bluing in it, and a light yellow soft straw hat,” she in “a flowered pink cotton dress” and “freshly whited pumps.

“I was walking more rapidly than they,” explains Agee, “but quietly.” Still, before he had gone far, the couple, as if they could sense his presence, turned back and looked at him “briefly and impersonally, like horses in a field.” Agee waved at them, but they’d already turned away again. He began to walk faster, but was impatient to catch up to them, so he “broke into a trot. At the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel,” writes Agee

the young woman’s whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood, and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh, Jesus, no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears, and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, … [said] ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.’ They just kept looking at me. There was no more for them to say than for me. …. After a little the man got back his voice, his eyes grew a little easier, and he said without conviction that that was all right and that I hadn’t scared her. She shook her head slowly, her eyes on me; she did not yet trust her voice. Their faces were secret, soft, utterly without trust of me, and utterly without understanding; and they had to stand here now and hear what I was saying, because in that country no negro safely walks away from a white man, or even appears not to listen while he is talking. … I …  asked what I had followed them to ask; they said the thing it is usually safest for negroes to say, that they did not know; I thanked them very much, and … again, … I said I was awfully sorry if I had bothered them; but they only retreated still more profoundly behind their faces, their eyes watching mine as if awaiting any sudden move they must ward, and the young man said again that that was all right, and I nodded, and turned away from them, and walked down the road without looking back. (pp. 37-39.)

I remember when I read this passage the horror that came over me to think that anyone would ever have to live with such constant fear. That couple had been frightened, even if only briefly, for their lives.

I knew what it was like to be pursued. I was one of the very few white children at my school for most of my childhood and though the black children who knew me were almost always kind to me, the ones who didn’t know me, the ones I might encounter at recess or walking to or from school, were not. I’d been chased before and been called names and had things thrown at me. I once had a glass bottle thrown at me. It shattered just in front of me so that I could feel the force of the tiny fragments against my shins. I’d learned very early to keep walking, no matter what what was going on behind or in front of me, I’d learned somehow by instinct, I think, not to display fear. Of course I couldn’t ignore people either. I had to acknowledge them, but I couldn’t appear to be afraid. I don’t know why, exactly, that worked, but it did and I knew somehow, even as a child, that it would.

So I identified with that couple. I knew what it was like to affect nonchalance when you are really very afraid. I knew the intricacies of the subtle etiquette of self defense and how it kicks in automatically at such times. I identified with this couple. But still, I had never been afraid for my life.

There are not words to describe what it must be like to live that way, to live with an ever-present fear for one’s very life. I remember when I read that passage I thought to myself, thank God, thank God black people do not have to live like that anymore.

These are bad times.

(This piece was originally published in Counterpunch, 24 July 2013.)

The Great Conflict

Portrait caricatureDenmark experienced one of the most difficult periods in its recent history in the spring of 1998.  This was time of the paralyzing general strike that was known as “The Great Conflict.” The normally placid Danes were driven to unprecedented extremes in their efforts to survive what was a protracted period of privation. I lived in Denmark during that time and kept a journal throughout the strike. I do not pretend that my account of the events of this period is comprehensive or objective. I simply recorded the influence of the strike on my life and the lives of those around me, in the tradition of such distinguished diarists as Samuely Pepys and Elizabeth Smith, with the intention of preserving a record of this period for posterity.

Day 1 (Monday, 27 April)

The hysteria over “The Great Conflict,” as it is being called, started the weekend before the strike itself. Paul was dressed earlier than usual Saturday morning. When I asked him where he was going, he said he had to stock up on milk and other basic foodstuffs before the big strike began on Monday. That was actually the first I’d heard of the strike. We don’t have a TV, so I’m sometimes behind on the news. There’d been talk of a general strike about a month ago, but then nothing happened, so I figured they’d come to some sort of agreement.

“They” are LO, which stands for Landsorginasationen and which translates into English as the Confederation of Danish Trade Unions, and Dansk Arbejdsgiverforening, or the Confederation of Danish Employers. One out of every ten Danes is a member of LO. They are striking for, among other things, a sixth week of paid vacation. I don’t know why they didn’t strike last month when they were supposed to, but now it appears they are serious and people have been hoarding, or “hamstering” as the Danes call it, since the weekend. Milk is the main thing people have been buying, milk and dairy products generally. (I don’t know why they are going for dairy products particularly, except that this is Denmark where life without dairy products is inconceivable.) The papers said on Monday, however, that the dairy drivers were not affected by the strike and now everyone is stuck with 15 liters of milk in their refrigerators.

People are buying other stuff too. There is no more yeast anywhere in the entire country. Yeast! I can’t imagine why people are buying yeast unless they are afraid the strike will last so long they won’t be able to get bread. But then why aren’t they buying flour?

The strike hasn’t affected us much yet. We have enough milk to last a couple of weeks and lots of lunch meat and dinner stuff. The stores in our neighborhood did run out of toilet paper, so Paul bought paper towels instead. We aren’t out of toilet paper yet though, so I don’t know why he bought the paper towels unless it was because he was afraid even they might be gone by the time we needed toilet paper.

Day 2 (Tuesday, 28 April)

I forgot to mention that I got into an argument with someone at work over whether it was reasonable to demand six weeks of paid vacation. I hadn’t actually said it was unreasonable. I’d just said it was hard for an American to understand how a sixth week of vacation could be so important. This observation was met with such hostility from my Danish colleagues, however, that I felt I might as well have suggested the reinstatement of child labor.

Today was pretty uneventful, except that I noticed a sign on the front door of our apartment asking us to do something in particular with our trash since it wouldn’t be collected during “The Great Conflict.” I think we were supposed to sort it or something, but we do that already, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the sign. I’ll have to go back down later and take another look at it.

I got a letter from my union (Ph.D.s have a union in Denmark) informing me that although they were not directly involved in the strike, I shouldn’t do any scab work or cross any picket lines. They did say, however, that I could call the police if the entrance to my own workplace were blockaded.

Day 3 (Wednesday, 29 April)

Well, it seems the wave of “hamstering” is continuing. The paper went out and interviewed a bunch of theologians (yes, theologians, Denmark still has a state church) on why people were hamstering. When I heard that, I figured we’d get some long editorials about hamstering being an expression of sin and all that. Sin is actually a bit extreme, however, for the Danish Lutheran Church. They wouldn’t come right out and say it had anything to do with sin. They just said it wasn’t very nice, that people shouldn’t do it and that Kierkegaard wouldn’t like it.

I dragged Paul to our “Nationalism” class tonight, but our teacher never showed up. Some of the trains and buses are running on a reduced schedule because they are afraid the strike will eventually cause gas shortages, so I figured she might have been held up. I mentioned this to the unruly mob that was the other five people in the class, but they responded that she lived right downtown and that the bus schedule should not thus affect her. They left after fifteen minutes, but Paul and I stayed an extra five minutes just to make sure.

She never came, so we went to Illum, the department store, to look for a birthday present for me, and then tried to go over to McDonalds. McDonalds was open, but the door to the walkway between Illum and McDonald’s was locked. There was a sign on it that said “Locked because of The Great Conflict.” I didn’t quite understand that, but anyway, we just went outside and around the corner to get into McDonalds.

I got a letter from the university informing me that classes would continue as usual during The Great Conflict, but that they would be in touch in there were any new developments.

Paul said there was someone in the store on Monday with 36 liters of UHT milk in his cart. Some other guy apparently got irritated with him and suggested he should leave some milk for everyone else. That must be an example of the “hysterical frenzy” the newspapers have been saying the television news has whipped everyone into.

Day 4 (Thursday, 30 April)

The animal rights people are demanding dispensations for the people who drive the feed out to farm animals so none of them will go hungry. It looks like dispensations will also be handed out to lots of other groups such as zoo workers, ambulance drivers, employees in the pharmaceutical industry, truck drivers (how else will the drugs get to the pharmacies?) and lots of other groups that I can’t remember now.

Day 5 (Friday, 1 May)

We still have plenty of milk and Paul even found some toilet paper.  I heard on the radio today that some of the strikers were actually making more money striking than they would make if they were working because strike pay is not taxed. Someone from LO was being interviewed about this and was asked whether this might not encourage the union to draw out the negotiations unnecessarily. Oh no, of course not, was the reply of the union representative, although his wording was a little less straightforward.

Day 6 (Saturday, 2 May)

The strike apparently had no effect on the annual May Day festivities in Fælledparken (The Communal Park). The brewery truck drivers, the papers explained, were not involved in the strike.

There was an article in the paper today about church functionaries (i.e., organists and people who sing in the choir). “Church Functionaries have Wretched Working Conditions!” was the headline. It seems these people, who work only on Sundays and religious holidays, receive what Danes consider meager wages (though they are, of course, well above minimum wage in the US) and now it looks like they may lose their paid vacations. “No wonder,” read the article, “it is becoming so difficult to find organists and choral singers. Who would want to work under those conditions!”

Day 7 (Sunday, 3 May)

A guy wrote in to the paper that they had run out of coffee where he worked and that now everyone was having to drink tea. That’s rough for the Danes, who drink more coffee than everyone else in the world except the Dutch. Of course he didn’t say that he’d run out of coffee at home.

Day 8 (Monday, 4 May)

Not much happened yesterday except that we didn’t get our Sunday paper, which is a drag. I couldn’t get my regular bread from the bakery either. I got some kind of cornbread instead. It’s not cornbread like we make it in the U.S., but regular bread with cornmeal in it. It was quite good though.

We had to cancel our reading group meeting because Jette said Ole was saving gas for visits to patients (doctors still make house calls here). That was just as well because I had a lot of work to do.

Paul said the stores were nearly cleaned out except for milk. He said Netto had just gotten a shipment of milk, but that there was no one in the store to buy it. I haven’t been in a grocery store yet, so everything seems pretty normal to me.

I heard from my students today that the night buses were gone. We were discussing the field trip I’d planned for next week, when one of them pointed out that the buses might not be running by that time. That was when it came out that they’d already stopped the night buses. Everyone in class seemed to know this. The loss of the night buses must be cutting seriously into their drinking and carousing.

I don’t think the strike will go into next week. Of course I could be wrong. I passed a couple of strikers set up at Rådhuspladsen (The Court House Square) on my way to the German book import store. They were sitting in chairs in front of one of the shops with a big sign that said “6 Ugers Ferie!” (Six Weeks of Vacation!).

The mail came early today. It usually comes around 1:00, but today it was here before 10:00.  It was as if the normally lackadaisical postal workers (who were themselves out on strike last month) were trying to make amends for the behavior of LO.

Day 9 (Tuesday, 5 May)

I went to the post office today to pay some bills. (There is a bank that operates out of post offices here, as in many other European countries.) There was a sign there on the little machine that spits out the numbers you take to determine the order in which you will be served. I copied it verbatim. It read:

To Our Customers:

We would like to make our customers aware that as a result of the Great Conflict, we are unable to guarantee that the payment of bills will be recorded by the recipient according to the standard schedule

There may, among many other things, be a problem if all our computers, or the computers of the recipients, break down and we are unable to call anyone to repair them.

We hope our customers will excuse the inconveniences that may possibly result from the Great Conflict.


BG Bank

Day 10 (Wednesday, 6 May)

The government stepped in and forced a settlement. They said the strike was beginning to affect the economy (too horrible to contemplate).

We never did run out of toilet paper, so we still have all those paper towels Paul bought. It’s kind of nice, actually, to have paper towels. We don’t normally buy them. I hope I don’t become addicted to them.


I read in the paper some baker had calculated there was enough yeast now in Danish households to bake a loaf of bread that would reach from Copenhagen to the Black Sea and back again.

The “Housewife Hotline” in Glostrup has been besieged by callers who want to know whether it is possible to freeze yeast. Gerda Rieber, from the hotline, says you can freeze it, but that it should be thawed in the refrigerator and preferably in a cup because it will have a tendency to become runny.

We were finally able to get together with Ole and Jette a couple of days ago. We had hoarded so much half and half we thought we would bring them some along with our usual hostess gift. A “hamster gift” we decided to call it. I envision them becoming all the rage. Imagine handing your hosts a package of frozen yeast along with the traditional flowers or bottle of wine!

Paul said he heard on the radio this morning that Danish priests (who, remember, are state functionaries) are complaining about having to work on Sundays. It seems it cuts into their quality time with their families.