Monday, January 18, 2010

History Lesson

OK, here's the deal. I posted that Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders might be a better choice for donating to Haitian earthquake relief because I read that the Red Cross received millions by text message in just two days. Nothing wrong with that, but the Red Cross can be a red flag. They have a history and often it ain't pretty. If you want all the numbers and stats, just Google Red Cross corruption and it appears like magic. If you are only mildly interested, I'll provide some historical context.
In the last 10-20 years or so, after huge natural disaster, the Red Cross his bee the standard go to organization for well intentioned people who wanted to help. Problem is that a huge percentage of the money never got to the intended destination. The fact that the national director was taking home 3/4 of a million dollars didn't help either. After Katrina, the Los Angeles Times wrote:
Giving so high a percentage of all donations to one agency that defines itself only as a first-responder and not a rebuilder is not the wisest choice. Americans ought to give a much larger share of their generous charity to community foundations, grass-roots nonprofit groups based in the affected communities and a large number of international “brand name” relief agencies with decades of expertise in rebuilding communities after disaster
But that's only part of the story. In the long history of natural disasters in this country and particularly the American South, the Red Cross was actually hated by many victims it was attempting to help. The legendary folk and blues performer Huddie Ledbetter, better know as Leadbelly, was one of the first to sing and record a piece known as Red Cross Store. When many of the sharecroppers and urban poor would go into these "stores" for aid in the form of food, clothing, money, or supplies, they were often treated with disdain and disrespect. So much so that the singer does not want their help and tells his wife, "I ain't goin' down to the Red Cross Store no more."
Here is the original lyric:

I told her no!
Baby you know I don't wanna go
Justine I ain't goin'
Down to no Red Cross store
She come down Justine, tell me I wanna talk with you in just a little while
Ain't you goin' down and fight for your wife and child?
She come down here and she shook my hand
She said Daddy I want you to go down there and fight for me like a man

She said the Red Cross people they treat you mighty fine
They mixing everything up with whiskey and wine
She come down here talkin' to me about the war
I told her baby I ain't done nothing to go there for

She come down here and she fell down on her knees
I said baby I have to look somewhere for your butter and cheese
She said Daddy I just come down here to tell you so
You better go running down to that Red Cross store

The song was also recorded by Mississippi Fred McDowell and even Eric Burdon of the Animals Ted Barron, of Boogiewoogieflu.blogspot writes of the McDowell version:

To call this number anything other than an indictment would be wrong. Even more so, this particular take is a variation on the original lyrics. Instead of a man taken to task by a woman, McDowell counters that idiom with a stirring version about a man looking to feed his family. Encountering the sheer rejectionof an otherwise charitable organization--- “Go ‘way, boy, you know times got hard.”--- the song veers between an urgency and a telling narrative built on the era’s social injustice that isn’t found too often in McDowell’s catalogue. Though the driving rhythm is a signature style and serves up much of the tune’s anger, a resentful McDowell tells us from the outset: “Well I ain’t!/ gwine back!/ to that!/ Red Cross!!/ store no more // ain’t gon/ na let my baby go back (to that) Red Cross/ store no more.” This is the verse that gets me, the opener, because you know something’s terribly wrong (the delivery tells us as much) and he’s not having it. When followed by the vow that he won’t let his baby go back either, I hear the conviction of a loving and righteous soul who won’t let anyone else suffer the way he already has.

It's only one perspective, I know, but an important one. By the way, Oxfam stands for Oxford Famine Project. They have a long history too, but it's one without corruption.

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