Chris Mahin writes: On Thoreau’s 200th Birthday: His Plea For Captain John Brown

On Thoreau’s 200th Birthday: His Plea For Captain John Brown

by Chris Mahin

July 12, 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the writer Henry David Thoreau. Much of the commentary about this occasion has focused on Thoreau’s love of nature. This is understandable, given the current attacks on the environment.496e6f6286424697b36fa4e159c73599-640x433

But while “Walden” is justly celebrated, nothing Thoreau ever wrote did more good than the heartfelt essay he crafted on short notice to defend the opponents of slavery who attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the autumn of 1859.

Just two weeks after John Brown and his compatriots staged their daring raid, Thoreau stood up in a church in Concord, Massachusetts to defend them. On Sunday evening, October 30, 1859, he read aloud his essay, “A Plea for Captain John Brown.”

Describing Brown’s character, Thoreau said:

John_Brown_portrait,_1859“He was like the best of those who stood at Concord Bridge once, on Lexington Common, and on Bunker Hill, only he was firmer and higher principled than any I have chanced to hear of as there. … They could bravely face their country’s foes, but he had the courage to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong. …

“No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. In that sense he was the most American of us all.”

In the days and weeks after the Harpers Ferry raid, Americans were stunned. Many were willing to let Brown and his men hang. Thoreau’s early, brave stance helped pave the way for other Northern intellectuals to speak out in defense of Brown and his compatriots.

I have been to Walden Pond. I have been to the church in Concord where Thoreau uttered his plea.

Both are shrines.

 

  • Chris Mahin

For more information about the Harpers Ferry raid and Thoreau’s role afterward, see the article “Harpers Ferry: Courage and clarity changed history once – and will do it again” in Rally, Comrades!, Vol. 19, Number 5, September-October 2009.

To read the complete text of Thoreau’s “Prayer for Captain John Brown,” click this link.

A commemorative U.S. postage stamp in honor of Henry David Thoreau has just been issued, which you can read about here.

Digital Economy: Broad Restructuring of the Economy and Daily Life by Ali Hangan

Ali Hangan writes:

Hi folks,

I hope you are enjoying your Summer. I recently visited my son. He is working in Fortuna, CA. A small rural outpost, located off Highway 101 in Humboldt County, dotted with strip malls and sparse retail establishments. Without a car and few places to shop, I assumed he would have a chance to save a substantial amount of money. He revealed he had spent his entire first two paychecks, but managed to save his money from the last couple of checks he received. Feeling relieved that he had saved some of his money, I asked him how he was able to shop so much without a car? His reply, “I ordered everything from Amazon.”

My conversation with my son illustrates the extent e-commerce’s is taking over the retail space. Any consumer can access a global bazaar of products and services from any location in the world from a smartphone. Secondly, towns with small populations are at a disadvantage in the new age of e-commerce in keeping retail jobs. The more labor intensive retail activities, such as filling orders and stocking shelves, are being situated closer to urban markets to shorten the supply chain to cut cost and maximize efficiency. Another aspect of the process is demographics: My 19-year-old son, like many in his generation, view the smartphone as the first step to engaging the retail environment.

Beyond the shrinking of jobs, e-commerce is impacting broader sectors of the economy related to retail. For instance, commercial real estate and holder’s of commercial debt (i.e. banking) can expect a loss of market value and return on investment, due to the decline of brick and mortar storefronts. Moreover, cities that have long relied on retail taxes to pay for city services, finance capital improvement bonds, and maintain public employee pensions, will confront fierce headwinds to meet their financial obligations as tax revenue withers away.

In sum, the digital revolution cannot be viewed as industry specific, but a broad restructuring of the economy and daily life. The articles that follow illustrate the ebb and flow of the decline of brick and mortar retail, in light of e-commerce, throughout rural and suburban America.

One love,

AH

New York Times

In Towns Already Hit by Steel Mill Closings, a New Casualty: Retail Jobs

Thousands of workers face unemployment as retailers struggle to adapt to online shopping. But even as e-commerce grows, it isn’t absorbing these workers.

By RACHEL ABRAMS and ROBERT GEBELOFFJUNE 25, 2017

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Dawn Nasewicz comes from a family of steelworkers, with jobs that once dominated the local economy. She found her niche in retail.

She manages a store, Ooh La La, that sells prom dresses and embroidered jeans at a local mall. But just as the jobs making automobile springs and rail anchors disappeared, local retail jobs are now vanishing.

“I need my income,” said Ms. Nasewicz, who was told that her store will close as early as

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Sporting Goods store going out of business in Johnstown, PA.

August. “I’m 53. I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

Ms. Nasewicz is another retail casualty, one of tens of thousands of workers facing unemployment nationwide as the industry struggles to adapt to online shopping.

Small cities in the Midwest and Northeast are particularly vulnerable. When major industries left town, retail accounted for a growing share of the job market in places like Johnstown, Decatur, Ill., and Saginaw, Mich. Now, the work force is getting hit a second time, and there is little to fall back on.

Moreover, [read full story here]

* * * * * *

Forbes  magazine/ Bloomberg News

Amazon Robots Poised to Revamp How Whole Foods Runs Warehouses

The retailer could bring its distribution technology to the grocery chain
By
Spencer Soper and Alex Sherman
June 26, 2017, 4:00 AM PDT

When Amazon.com Inc.’s $13.7 billion bid to buy Whole Foods was announced, John Mackey, the grocer’s chief executive officer, addressed employees, gushing about Amazon’s technological innovation.

“We will be joining a company that’s visionary,” Mackey said, according to a transcript ofth the meeting. “I think we’re gonna get a lot of those innovations in our stores. I think we’re gonna see a lot of technology. I think you’re gonna see Whole Foods Market evolve in leaps and bounds.”

A major question about the acquisition is what Amazon’s technology will mean for those Whole Foods’ workers. Will it make their jobs obsolete?

In negotiations, Amazon spent a lot of time analyzing Whole Foods’ distribution technology, pointing to a possible way in which the company sees the most immediate opportunities to reduce costs, said a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because the issue was private. Amazon, through a spokesman, declined to comment, as did Whole Foods.

Experts say the most immediate changes would likely be in warehouses that customers never see. That suggests the jobs that could be affected the earliest would be in the warehouses, where products from suppliers await transport to store shelves, said Gary Hawkins, CEO of the Center for Advancing Retail and Technology, a Los Angeles nonprofit that helps retailers and brands innovate. As Amazon looks to automate distribution, cashiers will be safe– for now.

“The easiest place for Amazon to bring its expertise to bear is in the warehouses, because that’s where Amazon really excels,” Hawkins said. “If they can reduce costs, they can show that on the store shelves and move Whole Foods away from the Whole Paycheck image.”

Amazon sees automation as a key strategic advantage in its overall grocery strategy, [read full article here]

Jingoism — by Lew Rosenbaum

Jingoismo — Jingoism   by Lew Rosenbaum

[This article appears in the current issue of Contratiempo in Spanish.  Many thanks to Miguel Marzana for asking me to contribute to this important political discussion.  A link to the magazine can be found here; the Spanish translation of the article is on page 21).  

201111 CoverAfter the 2016 elections, it seems that we are in a totally new period of time; and yet there are many elements that are painfully familiar. We have just been through a wrenching election in which many questions were raised about the times we are in, and about the direction we need to go, from going back to making big changes going forward.

Some characterize the election as the “revolt of the middle class,” while others describe it as the victory of the economic nationalists over the globalists. An accurate description of the changes taking place must recognize that an economic revolution is taking place that has three forms. First, since the late 1970s, with the advent of the widespread use of the microchip, electronic technology has reduced worker participation in production of both manufactures and services. Second, since the end of the WWII, capital has expanded world wide, leaving no corner of the world untouched. Electronics has facilitated this globalization and now characterizes production against which all labor must compete. Third, the effective formation of monopolies by corporate mergers has also globalized with supranational corporate mergers and mergers of corporations with national states. This latter, the merger of the corporations with the state, represents the economic face of fascism, a 21st century form of fascism, that is based in the new economy.

This new economy is not simply a new stage of capitalism. It is the end stage of an economy that is reaching toward a social structure no longer dependent on buying and selling of wage labor. This economy expresses itself as the polarity between wealth and poverty, and the proliferation of that most heinous example of a social organism that cannot provide for its people, homelessness in the midst of massive numbers of empty homes.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Republicans and Democrats, need to be evaluated in the context of the economic transformation they must protect.  Trump took advantage of the fact that the electronic revolution has left behind the vast majority of the American people of all nationalities, genders, and ethnicities. Elections are not coups. They actually require people to vote, and thus they require people to be convinced (in this case: about the” other” the bad hombre).

Pointing a finger of accusation at the “electronic revolution” would have led Trump into the predicament of having to tell supporters that “middle class jobs” were never coming back. Instead, he activated his base by taking the divide and conquer path well known in our history. While automation is the major cause of job loss in our country and the world, he chose to aim his fire at undocumented workers (especially from Mexico) and trade alliances (especially NAFTA). His campaign centered on the jingoism of national security, borders and islamophobia. Although he lost the popular vote by some three million votes, his victory in rural areas and especially the Midwestern rust belt gave him the electoral college majority. In other words, he won in the area where he was able to use racism to stoke the fears of a working class left behind. He raised the specter of the “other” eating at the heart of American working class unity and history.

Every day brings new confirmation of how the current administration, regardless of campaign promises or ideological conviction, is bound to long term policies of the government that reflect the direction of the economic revolution. The election campaign did, however, accomplish one important phenomenon: the appeal to racism consolidated a mass base for fascism that allows the new administration to move more quickly. For example, Trump has promised to send the military into Chicago to end violence, while Mayor Emanuel and Police Chief Johnson have genuflected toward Washington, asking instead for more FBI, ATF, and police funding, while ICE swung into action. The previous administration had already swamped municipal police throughout the country with military grade weapons and vehicles. The election has accelerated this direction.

We are in for some difficult times. The fact that the government of both major parties has neglected the people and cannot fulfill its promises only means the discontent will deepen. In the battle between hunger and ideology, the fight for basic survival needs wins.  Still, there is no guarantee that the starving will not turn against their neighbors who are also starving. Those of us involved in struggles for social justice must take every opportunity to bring together the people who now find themselves suffering under an equality of poverty, across all historical divisions. This section of the people holds the promise of reorganizing society for the benefit of all.

 

WHAT IS MAY DAY’S MEANING FOR TODAY? By Chris Mahin

[Published 20 years ago in the People’s Tribune, this article remains relevant as we celebrate the workers’ one universal holiday.]

WHAT IS MAY DAY’S MEANING FOR TODAY?
By Chris Mahin

Holidays are important. Whether joyous celebration or solemn remembrance, each one conveys some meaning or teaches some lesson.

When we celebrate a particular holiday — or decide not to — each of us says something haymarket-reenactment-april-30-2011
about who we are and what we believe.

For the downsized and the dispossessed, one holiday stands above all others. It is the only one observed by victims of capitalism the world over: International Labor Day, observed on May 1 — May Day.

May Day began in America. The story of how it began needs to told; it is a tale of how dramatic changes in the economy created a new class of people. It is the story of how men and women of different nationalities, born in different parts of the world, stepped forward to lead a new class of poor people and were willing to pay a terrible price for that decision. Above all else, May Day is about the absolute necessity of the unity of the poor — white and black, male and female, immigrant and native-born.

The story begins in Chicago. By the 1880s, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. Something new had been introduced into the economy — steam power. The introduction of this new productive force led to a gigantic expansion of industry and created a new class — the modern industrial working class. In Chicago, this new class included people from all over the world, as immigrants flooded into the city.

In the factories of that era, the pay was low, the hours were long and the conditions terribly unsafe.

On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States engaged in a massive strike to demand the eight-hour day. Chicago was the strike’s center. On May 4, a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police attack on a group of strikers. As this peaceful rally was winding to a close, 176 cops moved in to forcibly disperse the crowd. Someone threw a bomb. It killed one police officer instantly and wounded many others. The police opened fire, killing many participants in the rally.

A wave of hysteria followed. Hundreds of workers were arrested. The police broke into meeting halls, newspaper offices and even private homes without warrants. Suspects were beaten and even tortured.

The extent of the hysteria can be measured by comments published in the respectable Albany Law Journal just 11 days after the Haymarket tragedy. The Journal called for “a check upon immigration, a power of deportation, a better equipment of the police, a prompter and severer dealing with disorder” and denounced Chicago’s union leaders as “a few long-haired, wild-eyed, bad-smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches, who never did an honest hour’s work in their lives.” The Journal declared: “This state of things almost justifies the resort to the vigilance committee and lynch law. … It seems Eagle Columnsthat the penal law of Illinois would warrant treating all these godless fiends as murderers, and we hope they will be so treated and extirpated from the face of the earth.”

In June 1886, several leaders of the Chicago union movement were put on trial, charged with being accessories to murder at Haymarket Square and with a general conspiracy to murder.

Most of the defendants had not even been present when the Haymarket bomb was thrown, but that didn’t matter. They were revolutionary leaders and Chicago’s capitalists wanted their blood.

The trial opened on June 21, 1886, with only seven of the eight defendants in the courtroom. All seven had been born or raised outside the United States. Chicago’s newspapers had noted the foreign roots of most of the defendants and denounced them as “European assassins” and “foreign barbarians.” But just as jury selection began, the eighth defendant entered the courtroom. Albert Parsons was a native-born American. He had escaped the police roundup completely and had been living safely in Wisconsin, but bravely returned to stand trial with his innocent immigrant comrades.

Tried before a biased judge and jury, the defendants never had a chance. They were convicted; seven were sentenced to hang. (An eighth was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor.)

At that point, many people thought the case was closed, but they had not reckoned with Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, the wife of Albert Parsons and a leader of the Chicago labor movement in her own right. While the case was being unsuccessfully appealed, Lucy Parsons took her two small children and travelled across the United States, speaking to anyone she could about the case. In almost a year, she spoke to about 200,000 people in 16 states. Her heartfelt eloquence helped spark a movement to stop the executions.

Despite worldwide protests, four of the Haymarket defendants were hanged by the state of Illinois in November 1887. On the morning of the execution of her husband, Lucy Parsons was arrested and locked with her children in a cell for attempting to see her husband one last time.

On July 14, 1889, at the International Labor Congress in Paris, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor proposed that the Congress adopt May 1 as International Labor Day and a day to remember the “Martyrs of Chicago.” This was accepted. Ever since, May 1 has been a day for the workers of the entire world to march in unison.

Holidays do teach lessons; May Day teaches many. The Haymarket Affair shows that America’s tiny handful of rulers will throw away all pretense of democracy once the stability of their rule is challenged by vast changes in the economy. It shows that they will make scapegoats out of the immigrant workers. It shows they will do anything to hold on to their rule.

But Haymarket also shows us the weapon that a new class created by vast changes in the economy can wield against its rulers: unity. Perhaps the lesson of May Day can be summed up best in the words of Haymarket defendant Oscar Neebe. The last words of his autobiography read simply: “I call on all workingmen or working women of all nationalities and all countries to unite and down with your oppressors.”

thumbnail-4

Haymarket Martyrs Monument, Waldheim Cemetery

******************************************************************
This article originated in the PEOPLE’S TRIBUNE (Online Edition), Vol. 24 No. 5/ May, 1997; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654.  For the current issue and archives to past issues see http://www.peoplestribune.org.

Isn’t This A Time?

Isn’t This A Time?

by Lew Rosenbaum

This is a time for Big Poems, / roaring up out of sleaze, /

gbrooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

poems from ice, from vomit, and from tainted blood. /

This is the time for stiff or viscous poems. / Big, and big. 

                                                                                        from “Winnie,” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Sure is a lot of sleaze to go around.

Don’t have to look far to see the vomit on the ground.

Not hard to dip your pen in quarts of tainted blood

So easy to pull metaphors from the vocal flood-

Waters pouring from vicious mouths’ roaring sound

Sure is a pile of sleaze to go around.

“Isn’t this a time? A time to try the soul of man?

Isn’t this a terrible time?!”

Dreams are supposed to make the sleaze go away,

Supposed to give you a boat to ride the flood

But I’m tired of praying for a bus bench on the corner,

Some thread to mend the hole that lets the rain in my tent,

Commodity cheese for dinner tonight.

Tired of begging for a library

Where my kids go to school.

Those dreams are small;

Dreams of what used to be.

Microscopic.

This is the time for stiff, viscous visions,

Visions looking forward

For a home for everyone

Food on everyone’s plate

Cops with wooden legs

Schools where children learn what they need

And how they can

Where we the people

End the carmagnole of corporate vampires

And open the hiphop doorway to abundance for all.

I sing no band-aid, dreamy verses.

“Isn’t this a time? A time to free the soul of man?

Isn’t this a wonderful time!”

Good morning revolution.

Yours is a visionary poem big, and big!th-4

The quotations are from a song,

“Wasn’t Tha
t A Time,”

composed and sung by The Weavers

and popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary

Mementos 11: California Family

Mementos 11:  California Family

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery November 15, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]

In 2000 and 2009 Diana and I traveled to California to rediscover places that I’d been, california-2000-10uncover links to her family in California, and unearth things we would learn about together.  Mostly this is a montage of photos of those times and something about what made them important to me.

Both times the plan was pretty broad, and covered some of the same routes, the same territory.  The details, however, were different.  This diagram, on the front of my photo book of that trip, gives a sense of the scopes of both trips.

Diana’s cousin Ardis Jackson lived in Sausalito and we arranged on the first trip to stay with her, after we arrived in San Francisco.  Ardis had early in her life studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in Taliesin (Wisconsin) and insisted that we had to see the Marin Civic Center, which he had designed.  We got some insights from her about the building, and about the architect,  that we could not have gotten from any docent.  And we visited Point Reyes on the coast North of San Francisco with her,

california-2000-1

Ardis on the left, with Diana, at Point Reyes

where this picture of her with Diana is taken.

Another mission of mine was to reconnect with Raymond Boyington, my closest friend in high school.  We had maintained a correspondence for a while as we went our separate collegiate ways and for a short time after.  But we lost touch with each other even, as it turns out, living in the same city for a time (Los Angeles) without knowing it.  In the early days of the internet is was possible to find an address and phone number for a friend free of charge — more convenient than, say, going to the public library and combing through volume after volume of telephone directories in the hopes of finding the person one is searching for.  And that internet search is how I found out that Ray was living in San Francisco, and we made arrangements to meet and have dinner in his San Francisco apartment. This copy of

california-2000

Lew and Ray, in Ray’s SF apartment

Ray’s photo comes from that visit (my only photo of that is underexposed by poor lighting and no flash).

Nine years later Ray had moved with his partner, Jack, from the high rent district to Richmond, having bought something they thought would be affordable.  The foreclosure crisis had hit, the economy was on the skids, and, as we drove around San Francisco, Ray pointed to office and residential high rises in the city that were virtually empty because no one could afford them.  Now Jack was facing a crisis of his own, as a city employee who had been fired, which had repercussions for them: Keeping their Richmond home was problematic and at the same time the housing environment made it unsaleable.

After leaving San Francisco, Diana and I went South to Santa Cruz, where my friend from undergraduate school at USC now lived.  He had gone on to UCLA Medical School, graduated and become a psychiatrist. Our efforts to keep in touch had been much more regular — he and his wife, Jill, had been to visit us in Chicago on an almost annual basis; and while I lived in Los Angeles, I had visited his home in Lomita while he did his residency at Harbor General Hospital.  I had also made the trek to Santa Cruz to visit with him, but this was the first time traveling there with Diana.  Bill and Jill had planned an intensive couple of days with us, but the centerpiece was the visit to the Steinbeck House and Steinbeck Museum in Salinas.  The

california-2000-2

The upper photo at the Harmons’ home (with daughter Meggin);  the lower photo with Diana, Jill and Meggin in front of the Steinbeck Home, where we had lunch.

very term “Steinbeck Country” evokes memories and emotions that come from the short time I’ve spent in The Valley — not so much the Salinas Valley, but mostly the great San Joaquin, and the places in between.  The smells of Cannery Row are gone forever in Monterey, but the ghosts of the smells still haunt the place, make you wonder about the gentry having dinner in the high priced restaurants along the way.

We are also delighted that the Museum had an exhibit of the photos of Tina Modotti, who had been so much a part of the revolutionary artistic ferment of Mexico in the 1920s, joined the Communist Party of Mexico, and who later participated in the the Spanish Civil War. She had come to Mexico with her photographer friend Edward Weston, but soon struck out on her own.   (The novel, Tinisima, by Mexican author Elena Poniatowska paints a vivid portrait of her and of the period, and is available in a number of English and Spanish editions.)

From Santa Cruz we headed South through Salinas and through the Los Padres National Forest West of the San Joaquin — mostly oak woodland and chaparral country — to “the 198,” the highway that traverses the Valley from the Los Padres to the foothills of Sequoia National Forest.  The 198 leads through Hanford, which california-2000-4at one time had held a large Chinese community, immigrants who had worked building the railroads and were farmers bought property here until the “exclusion acts” recognized that capital no longer needed to exploit their labor.  They had found a kind of refuge in Hanford, with a vibrant commercial district called China Alley. What I knew about this place came from a Los Angeles Times article I’d read many years earlier. You know how some piece of trivia sticks in your mind and memory, every once in a while pricking you as if it were a sliver?  A high level delegation from the only recently recognized People’s Republic Of China were in California, and one of the places they wanted to go was China Alley in Hanford, where a world class restaurant was reputed to be serving their world class cuisine, perhaps “the legendary Imperial Dynasty Restaurant” mentioned here. We were hoping to get to our campground cabin in General Grant Grove up in Kings Canyon, so as we drove into Hanford it was late afternoon, not quite the dinner hour, and no bustling commercial district greeted us.  We had a meal in the one restaurant that was open — there did not seem to be any other place to eat anyway.  Like most rainbows, there was no pot of gold at the end of this one.  But there was a China Alley, and I know that it was not simply a figment of my imagination that I read about in in the Los Angeles Times.

The next time through the Valley, 2009, our route was different leading to Sequoia, taking us out of the mountains and into Bakersfield, looking for a different cuisine, but with a similar result.  When I was in medical school and involved in the Student Health Project, a meeting was called for students in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the location was half way between in Fresno.  I rode up to Fresno with one of the physician mentors of the Project, Don Weston.  We left late in the afternoon, as classes ended, and 2 hours later made our way off the highway toward the east side of Bakersfield.  Don told us that whenever he traveled through the Valley he’d stop for dinner at one of the Basque hotels in Bakersfield.  Bakersfield boasts the second largest number of immigrants in the U.S. from Basque Spain (second to Boise, Idaho).  The immigrants came in the second half of the 19th century, after the gold rush, settling in the fertile foothills on the east side of the Valley, where herding was  temperate, sheltered from the intense summer heat.  They specialized here, as they had in Basque country, in herding sheep for the woolen industry and for food.  And so hotels were established in Bakersfield to cater to this group of workers, who would come in for several days (or longer during shearing season), stay at the hotel and eat the boarders’ food provided.

california-2000-5Don introduced us to a sumptuous family style meal, with one course after another rolling out, beginning with cabbage soup, beans, and thin sliced pickled tongue, and leading through a cornucopia entrees and side dishes to dessert. When Diana and I came off the highway of out Sequoia, we found our way to the Basque section of town, only to find it as closed up as Hanford’s Chinatown had been 9 years earlier.  The restaurant I had been to was probably Noriega’s, but it could have been Woolgrowers too.  But they were not open. And we made our way to one close to the highway that was a poor representation of what I was looking for.  Both Woolgrowers and Noriega’s are still around though, and next year, when I go to visit in California, I want to go there to celebrate!

Diana and I, still in 2000, then went on to General Grant Grove.  Much of my camping and hiking life in California was spent in Sequoia National Park and Forest, and in Kings Canyon as well.  But this was the first time for me staying in Kings Canyon — we didn’t have with us the equipment that would have made camping pleasant, so we rented a cabin for a couple of days.  I was horrified by how breathless I was on a short walk in that altitude, more than a mile high.  I knew then that any dreams I had of reaching Emerald Lake again were now pure fantasy, that I could only get to places this high up on wheels.  Nevertheless the magic of the big trees dwarfing us reasserted its hold on me.  To this day, california-2000-6the image of me with my neck craned to look upward into the boughs of sequoias 100 feet and more above me contrasts with that of Diana, examining the tiny flowers in the undergrowth by the paths on which we were walking. The exception to this was, on the way out of the Forest and onto the Valley floor, still about 3,500 feet up, Diana and I stopped to look at the middle fork of the Kaweah River.  Here I delighted to find a snow plant, one of my favorite discoveries in the mountains many years earlier. The snow plant is not a fungus, as I thought.  Instead, it’s related to manzanita and azalea except that it has no chlorophyll and therefore lives by absorbing food from fungus in the ground that gets its nutrients from the surrounding pine trees.  Its above ground flowering stalk grows from these underground fungal mycelia as the snows thaw in late spring.

california-2000-7From here in to Los Angeles (there are a number of extraordinary murals in the small town of Exeter that are worth stopping to see; especially since you have to drive slowly anyway, because I am convinced that most of the town revenue comes from speeding tickets), where we visited friends and comrades, caught up with Diana’s relatives, and paid homage to the Watts Towers, and I made my first visit to the “Great Wall of Los Angeles.”

While I lived in Los Angeles, I wrote about the mythic Watts Towers and its creator Simon (“Sam”) Rodia in an essay that has long gone missing — unless I am merely making it up, which could be the case.  In any event, there is an official web site for the Towers and much more on the web now, so I’m not going to write that here. But the Towers continue to be one of the most spellbinding places I’ve been, where I always want to return.  And the fact that Diana and I stumbled across similar places in Wisconsin (Dickeyville, Prairie Moon and Grandview, Nick Engelbert home in Hollandale are places we’ve been) only makes the Towers more wondrous.

california-2000-8In a way, the Great Wall is the painterly comparative to the Towers.  Judy Baca, founder of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice, CA., began this project in collaboration with L.A. youth in 1974.  Over the next 5 summers many youth participated in its production, and extended the length of the mural to over 2,700 feet.  The ongoing process of restoration and extending the historical work through the end of the twentieth century — originally entitled “History of California,”  it only covered the time through the 1950s — has included more than 400 young people in the process, some the sons and daughters of the youth who originally worked on the mural.  It’s an unknown history, a history from the bottom, it’s our history.  And that’s why standing on the side of the Tujunga Wash and looking down the dry flood control channel to the wall on the other side, what really grabbed my eyes and my heart was the smiling, determined and encouraging visage of Paul Robeson.  And then there was the sheer enormity of it!

Nine years passed, another trip to California, and this time on the advice of Susan california-2009-2Martinez we had one major objective in San Francisco — to see the hidden mural of Diego Rivera on a campus of the City College of San Francisco.  Coming in to the Bay Area this time we were picked up by Ray Boyington.  We stayed with him and Jack while on our various rounds, but as much as we appreciated the hospitality, we were much more delighted with their companionship around and about — in the first place Clarion and

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Ray and Jack, outside the taqueria where we had lunch

Balmy Alleys, both filled with colorful murals with Susan Martinez, who joined us for this excursion.  Then Ray drove us by way of Twin Peaks, overlooking San Francisco, to Chinatown and North Beach.  Diana and I walked around for a couple of hours while Ray went home, and then returned with Jack to join us with Diana’s cousins for dinner in Chinatown.

The trip to the theatre building where the mural is displayed was another issue.  In 2009, with the economic plight that the schools found themselves in after the economic meltdown, the building was only open by appointment (!) so we had to arrange to have it open.  Thanks to Susan, I  had made the connection and so we anticipated no problem except that the building was locked when we got there (we had difficulty enough finding the building in the first place).  Phone calls went unanswered, and Ray, Diana and I stood stymied outsidecalifornia-2009-4 the building perhaps for half an hour, while another couple, coincidentally up from Los Angeles, joined us to attempt to see the mural.  Finally the person came to let us in.  The panel shown here, the tree of liberty, really struck home with me.  John Brown’s fight against slavery has been for me a beacon in American history; his son Owen lived and was buried in the foothills above Altadena near Los Angeles; and in 2010 I made a special trip to visit his farm in upstate New York.  And Old Brown is the centerpiece of a panel that uses the famous words of Thomas Jefferson about the tree of liberty, something that Diego

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At Twin Peaks, Diana and Ray with San Francisco at their feet. One of my favorite photos.

Rivera latched onto, and even more to what the figure of Brown represented.

After renting a car in Oakland Diana and I drove to Santa Cruz where we stayed with Bill and Meggin. We convinced Bill to drive back with us to San Francisco the following night to a screening of the Red Poet, a documentary about the life of San Francisco poet Jack Hirschman.  I think he enjoyed himself — at least he had the good manners not to say no — but it was a great time for Diana and me to see Jack again and to hook up with some of the wonderful poets in the San Francisco scene that I have known.  Any thoughts going back to those days bring me to the time Sue Ying and I caught up with Jack in his haunt, the Café Trieste, and we wandered about North Beach, Hirschman’s booming voice singing out “Jackie and Susie and Lewie”!  Standing outside the place where the film had been shown, walking over to the car to head south, we had a chance to talk with Sarah Menefee, our dear friend and comrade poet, and embrace one last time before leaving.

Then, after lunch in Santa Cruz with the Harmons, it was off again to the Sierras, this

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Lunch with the Harmons at the Santa Cruz pier

time through Merced.  I knew this route well, having lived in Planada 7 miles East of Merced for one summer.  The towns along the way are etched in my memory, Los Banos, Dos Palos, El Nido (nothing more than a gas station) and Merced; and when we got to Merced we called Sal Sandoval, a physician friend who practices in Merced.  Some years ago we realized we had an acquaintance in common, a woman I had known from that summer in Planada.  At that time Flora Martinez lived in the labor camp for the workers of the Del Monte peach orchard.  The camp was an all year camp, permanent dwellings rather than simply for the migrant labor force. They were brick dwellings to, not the ramshackle clapboard that most camps were made of.  And they had trees and some residents had planted flowers.

Flora was one of a number of volunteers who helped out at the clinic and with the head start kids and other community activities, people I got to know that summer as we went our way in the Valley that summer.  Dora Bustos, who worked despite the difficulties she had walking, Vera Salcido, whose laughing countenance would bring brightness to anyone; Sarah Gracia, always gentle and kind;  all patient with us as we were more than anything under foot that season.  And of course the Rosales family, Hector, 19 years old and working with us every day, and his father, brother and sisters who worked in the fields, the family that invited us in to their household to share a meal after the long day’s work.  The memories of how we learned flood back.  So I had asked Sal to see if we could take Flora, Sal and his wife Gloria out to dinner, and he said he had arranged it.

Lew & Diana with community activist Flora Martinez, Planada, Ca. 7/16/09

Lew, Diana and Flora, it’s 8:45 and time to leave.

We met Sal and Gloria at their home and drove with them to Flora’s house, no longer in the camp.  And we were surprised by the fact that she had prepared dinner for us — it would have been an insult to insist at that point to take her out to dinner.  We were so flattered, and so we stayed and talked and I’m sure we made no sense, whatever it was we talked about, but the welcoming smile on her face remains with me.

I told her about a poetry book I’d read that mentioned the camp that we knew back then as the “Red Camp,” or “Montgomery Camp,” where many of the migrants lived who came up for the season in Planada.  Later, on the trip through Los Angeles, I stopped at Tia Chucha Café Cultural and ordered two copies of the book, one for Flora and another for Sal, when-living-was-a-labor-camp by Diane Garcia.  I wrote this letter to her when we got home, received a gracious letter in response and heard, through Sal, that the book was appreciated.  She was still active in community affairs even into her 90s. I was sad to hear a few years ago that Flora passed away.

We reached Los Angeles after a day trip to Giant Forest Village and the fruitless quest for a Basque restaurant, stopping first at Tia Chucha.  I’d known Luis Rodriguez since he was just out of high school, we worked together at the Guild Complex, but we’d never read poetry together.  This night at Tia Chucha we did read together in the open mic.  Then on to stay with Margie Ghiz, our good friend and comrade from the Midnight Special, who invited some bookstore people over for breakfast so we could catch up.

Outside Tia Chucha Centro Cultural Luis & Lew and Adam Leipzig and Lori Zimmermann, Sylmar, Ca. 7/17/09

Outside Tia Chucha with Luis Rodriguez, Adam Leipzig and Lori Zimmerman

The Midnight Special Gang for brunch at Margie's: Jim Grizzell, Frank Curtis, Lew, Lorraine Suzuki, Lisa Hartouni, and, standing in back, Margie Ghiz

Margie Ghiz in the back with Marcus Lopez; Jim Grizzell and Frank Curtis sit on my right, Lorraine Suzuki and Lisa Hartouni to my left.

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Ed Wong was one of my lab partners at medical school.  Susan and Ed were gracious enough to put us up for the night and to make an amazing dinner for us.

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Nancy Shinno and I were in the same class in medical school. This is Nancy and her daughter, Tomoko.  The last evening in Los Angeles was a dinner at a favorite Chinese sea food restaurant, the ABC, on Ord Street in Chinatown.

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Diana and artist Adrian Wong-Shue at dinner the last night.

When I worked at Midnight Special in 1983, we moved the store from Venice to Santa Monica.  Shortly after the store moved, Sue Ying curated an art show there — I think it may be the only one I ever helped hang.   The artist was Jamaican born Adrian Wong-Shue. The pieces were modestly priced for the most part (my budget could not afford any of it) and there were some pieces that I really liked.  The prices on these were far above the rest of the work on display, and I could see no relation between price, complexity, size or any rational reason I could give.  Finally curiosity got the best of me and I asked what led him to price these pieces as high as they are.  With the hint of a smile on his lips, he said there are some paintings he just doesn’t want to sell.

Our paths did not cross again until some years later I spotted a sign indicating he was having a show on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  When I got to the gallery, I found he had been there for the opening, but that had been a month or so earlier.  And then a mutual friend of ours came through Chicago and mentioned he had been asking about me.  And so we got in touch again.  He was still working in Los Angeles, and obviously very successful.  And in 2009, on my way to California, I made sure to contact him to see if we could connect.  The day that we stayed with Nancy Shinno and Patrick Burrows, I arranged for us to go see Adrian at his studio, and for Lorraine Suzuki and Nancy’s daughter Tomoko to meet us there.  I didn’t realize we were actually crowding into his home.

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Outside Wong-Shue’s studio:  Lorraine Suzuki and Diana in front, me, Nancy Shinno, Patrick Burrows and Adrian Wong-Shue in the back.  Tomoko took the photo.

Adrian showed us the work he had been doing and told us about how that first exhibit at Midnight Special took place.  Without a car and living in the Rampart district of Los Angeles where the rent was inexpensive for a living/work space, he went to school in Santa Monica at Antioch (where he also worked as a security guard).  He tried, as a student, to get galleries to take his work.  They refused.  He’d call making believe that he was an agent.  They still refused.  Everywhere he was refused, until finally a gallery on La Cienega (kind of the gallery row of Los Angeles) agreed to look at his work.  He gathered material into a portfolio, dragged it on public transportation from central LA to the west side, not an easy trek, and got to the front door of the gallery.  He rang the buzzer, the gallery owner looked at him, and told him no.

These were the circumstances under which he met Sue Ying, who told him without question he should display his work at Midnight Special.  Sue had met him because he was in a group of expatriates from the Caribbean, many of them students of the revolutionary process going on at that time, the University at Kingston, Jamaica being a center, with a peak developing in Guyana.

At dinner at the ABC Seafood Restaurant in L.A.’s Chinatown that night, the last night of the 2009 trip, the conversation was wide ranging about art, politics and life.  Standing outside the restaurant and bidding farewell, Adrian hinted again at a smile as he insisted that I have a talent of having a wonderful array of friends.  Diana and I knew we had been through an amazing 10 days.  The people we know make such a special, caring family.  It’s really important to understand that about the human family, “los pobres de la tierra” as José Marti calls us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mementos 10: Three Authors And What My Comrades Have Taught me

Mementos 10:   Three Authors And What My Comrades Have Taught me 

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery  November 15, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]

Mementos recover our experiences, make them live again, ones we want to remember. So much of my life has been entwined with writers and writing, with revolutionary work, that everything is colored in those hues. I would not do what I have done over the years without the collective discussions with the comrades, who helped me understand what I had lived through and helped me understand what was to be done as different circumstances arose. Disagreement and struggle have all been part of the learning process. I owe everything to them, and to my comrade Diana, on whose companionship, encouragement, constant pushing me forward and provocative ideas I have come to depend as much as I depend on air to breathe. I cannot emphasize this point enough. So this section is about three of the thinkers I’ve met because of the work I have done among writers, because of what my comrades have taught me.

 

* * * * * *

 

My friend Anne and I got to the auditorium early to get a place on the waiting list. More than 1000 people had reserved seats, but we still had hope we’d get in, and our ticket said we were number 12 in line. We got in and quickly found seats in the fourth row, right in the center, and sat down. Audience was buzzing all around us. The speaker would be Jonathan Kozol, I pulled out my copy of his latest book and told Anne, “I’ll never get him to sign this today, Guess I’ll have to give up on that.”

The woman next to Anne leaned over to look at the book, Shame of A Nation. “Is it as good as Savage Inequalities,” she asked? “That book changed my life. My daughter just graduated as an elementary school teacher and I had to give it to her.

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Warmest thanks from a grateful friend and admirer — Savage Inequalities

I nodded vigorously, “I think it’s much stronger than Savage Inequalities, but let me tell you about his book that changed my life, Death At An Early Age.”

At that, the woman in front of me turned around and asked, “Is that an older book? It seems to me I read that, maybe about 30 years ago? Yes that was amazing!”

“That was his first book, his book about his own experiences teaching in segregated schools of Boston.”

“That’s what he writes about, education . . .”

“But you know,” I interjected, “between Savage Inequalities and his new book, Kozol wrote two remarkable books, Amazing Grace . . .”

“Is that the one you gave me,” Anne asked me, while the woman sitting next to the woman in front of me exclaimed, “Yes, that’s the one I read!”

“, , ,and Ordinary Resurrections, two books really about the beauty and resilience of young people despite the degradation forced upon them.”

* * * * *

This excited exchange is what books are about. . It took place in the third and fourth rows of the auditorium of the Harold Washington Library, March 16, 2006, as the audience walked in. Much of my life has been among the community of people who write, publish, sell and read books that change the world. I write about how literature participates in social transformation. I’m starting with Jonathan Kozol here, but I could be writing about any of dozens authors whom I’ve been lucky enough to have met.

* * * * *

I “met” Jonathan Kozol in 1970, when I was a social worker working for the County of Los Angeles, assigned to the Pasadena “Adult Aids” office. This was my first permanent employment after I left medical school, after my temporary gigs had evaporated, after the Los Angeles Unified School District told me they did not want me to be a teacher.

Adult Aids shared an office with “Family Aids,” that is, those who provided Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the largest portion of the welfare system. There were two parts of the adult aids section: “Old Age Security,” for those who were ineligible for Social Security, or whose Social Security did not provide for all of their needs. These were the “deserving poor.” The other part of adult aids was called “General Relief” in Los Angeles County – it went by other names elsewhere – but it was aid for the “undeserving poor,” that is, up until the early 1970s primarily single men who could not get a job. In fact, most of the general relief was routed through the welfare office on 4th street on Skid Row, called by the welfare department the “Single Men’s Center.” For years people had been sent to the Fourth Street office to register for welfare, from which they would immediately be placed in a welfare hotel on Skid Row and then dispatched to what was euphemistically called “Work Project.” Gangs of men could be seen around the parks raking leaves or sweeping streets or, when the fall fire season began, on the front lines fighting conflagrations. When farm workers were needed, men would be dispatched to the tomato fields or the grape ranches. The pay was often in vouchers for food and housing; when it was in money, the rate was in the range of $109 per month. (Vouchers for food and rent were in the $15 a week range).

There were maybe a dozen of us in the general relief section, and we quickly got a reputation for being the radicals in the building. In the first place, we were the most completely unionized section of the workforce. Art Grubel, the Pasadena chapter president was a little shocked when, on my first day of work, I sought him out to join; later on Jack and Harry, two union members from the Single Mens’ Center, transferred in; Rita who came from a family aids background also transferred in; and the supervisor, James Elcock, had been promoted from the ranks and was also a union member.   (Pat Kuntz, the other supervisor, was not a union member; Jim Starrs, who supervised some of the OAS workers, was also a union member).

Even more important, we all believed that the welfare regulations were too stringent, and we got to know what the regulations actually were and how that differed from the even more restrictive practical policies. As a result, our office became known as the office that had figured out how to give away the most money per recipient, and the administration clamped down on us little by little.

Conversation with Elcock and Starrs often turned to the political, and ranged far beyond the problems of the welfare offices. My experiences earlier in the (also radical) Student Health Project and then with the Black Panthers and some of the East Los Angeles community organizations, my trip to Cuba, and the fact that the Los Angeles Unified School District rejected by job application because of my long hair and my beard placed me on an interesting playing field in relation to them and to my fellow workers. Mary Alice, for instance, who sat behind me in the office, with her flask of Jack Daniels in her drawer just in case, would torment me about my willingness to give away the County’s money. She traced it to my radical roots. Not the case with most of my fellow workers and with the two supervisors. It was in this environment that I discovered a best selling book of the day: Death At An Early Age. I devoured this book, written by a teacher in Boston, about my own age, could not stop talking about it. To this day, I feel the chills the children in his school felt, that winter day he describes, huddled in the corner of the auditorium assigned to them for their classroom, under a broken window with the wind howling outside. Reading this book introduced me to Jonathan Kozol and helped me understand something more how the social issues I was dealing with daily had a systemic origin. And of course, as a person who had hoped to be a teacher, the frustrations Kozol related, the discrimination against Black students he reported, and the fact that what he described, short of the howling winds and snow, resonated with my own experiences in Watts, California.

Nearly two decades later I’d started working at Guild Books in Chicago. One night, back at home listening to a call-in show on public radio, I heard Otis Thomas, a member of the Chicago-Gary Area Union of the Homeless talking about housing takeovers and wintering in Chicago weather. I called the station, said I had just come from the west coast where the weather is less brutal, but where in Los Angeles they had considered rounding up all the homeless and placing them on a barge in the ocean. Thomas said he’d spent winters in California, where you could still die of hypothermia sleeping outside.

A few months later, I heard that Jonathan Kozol was in Chicago promoting his new book, Rachel and Her Children. This book about homelessness was a departure for Kozol. I was angry that I’d heard about this so late and could not invite him to sign books at Guild. I called the Crown Publishers sales representative to see if there was any way we could get him to drop by the store and meet some activists involved in homelessness. I got a local number for him and persuaded him to stop by. Because Guild was also the center of “Artists Against Homelessness,” organized by artist and staff member Sue Ying Peery, we contacted some of the artists Sue Ying was working with. They came to the store when Kozol was due to arrive. Then I called Otis Thomas and others to ask them to come to meet Kozol. The result was something that could happen only at Guild.

In January, 1988, the New York Times ran a story that featured Otis Thomas. ”Why are people dying on the streets when there are perfectly good apartments available?” . . . ”People say we’re crazy out here on the streets,” said Mr. Thomas. ”Well, what’s crazy is sitting around and not doing anything about it. We’re not going to give up. We’ve had enough.” (Jan. 7, 1988: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/07/us/homeless-plight-protested-in-3-cities.html ) Otis had been homeless for about 2 years. He was tall, plain-spoken, gentle and anxious to exchange conversation with Jonathan. On his part, Kozol amazing-grace-coverwas eager to learn about the street-level situation in Chicago and delighted to meet people putting up tent cities, reclaiming abandoned housing, and protesting the thousands of empty public housing units with so many people out on the street. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated the numbers of homeless in Chicago at about 20,000 that year, and the Chicago Housing authority admitted to a waiting list of 4,000 approved for entry to public housing, with over 3,000 empty units they called uninhabitable.

The morning ended with Jonathan giving me his telephone number in Massachusetts, the number of his assistant, and promising to do a reading for us his next time in Chicago. A year later, Rachel and Her Children came out in paperback. This time we were ready, and arranged for a reading. Of course we were able to bring the homeless activist community together for this event. Jonathan was soft-spoken, but when he started speaking there was a tremor, a fervor in his voice. He spoke about how, as a writer, he always hopes to convince people with his writing; he wants his writing to have an effect, to make a difference. And so it was with Rachel. He thought it would be a part of an effort to end this travesty of homelessness in a country that brags it is the richest in the world. But, he pointed out, a year after Rachel was published, and many lectures and travels since, he had found that the main consequence of the publicity is that a whole industry has arisen around homelessness. “There are even degrees in shelter management given in universities,” he said.

A few years later, June 5, 1995, House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich was scheduled to give a talk to the final lunch meeting at the American Bookseller’s Association annual convention, this time in Chicago. There had been considerable opposition to this among booksellers. Nevertheless, ABA director Bernie Rath defended his decision to invite him. I called John Donahue, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, to tell him about Gingrich’s appearance. Gingrich had issued his infamous “contract on America,” that included Medicare and Medicaid cuts as well as welfare and food stamp cutbacks. John called me back after consulting with his colleagues. Could I buy them tickets to the luncheon? Of course I could, if you can give me the money! Done! And so I purchased 10 tickets at about $30 a pop. Minutes into the luncheon the Coalition members present stood and shouted at Gingrich, stopping the presentations for about 30 minutes. The Chicago Tribune reported that 300 demonstrators marched outside the convention center as well.

Later that afternoon, as things were winding up outside and booksellers were saying their last good-byes to people they saw, Jonathan Kozol came up to check in (our paths had crossed earlier, because he had been at the convention to promote his new book, Amazing Grace, and he’d been on a breakfast panel). His curiosity had been piqued by the demonstration at the luncheon, and so he asked if I knew how the demonstrators had gotten inside. I told him that I had purchased tickets for them. He smiled, said he thought that might have been the case, and congratulated me: “Good work!”

* * * * * *

Jonathan Kozol returned to his main interest, the education of young children, with his next books, Savage Inequalities (1991), Amazing Grace (1995) and Ordinary Resurrections (2000). They each brought him back to Chicago, but only one while Guild Books was still open and could offer a platform for him to read and discuss. We took the opportunity to invite him to Michael Warr’s apartment in Wicker Park to meet with teachers and other community members. On the way to Michael’s apartment we chatted about who would be there and what they might expect; then about the children he had known in the Bronx; also, tenderly, about the health of his dog. But once we got there, in a packed, standing room only living room, Jonathan listened to what people told him about teaching and learning in the segregated Chicago public schools.

He leaned forward, intent, often cradling his chin in one hand, his elbow resting on his knee. His brow furrowed, his head shook in assent or in disappointment as he heard tales from the war zone of public education. Finally he called on a young woman, a student at a magnet school, Whitney Young High School, and his face changed, as it often did when he talked with or about young people, inviting her to give her experience. His voice was tender and welcoming. She spoke with passion, about how her working class parents had started her early with special school programs to take the tests to get into magnet schools from before she was in kindergarten, and because of that she had gotten into Whitney Young, one of the best public schools in the country. She said she was very grateful for her own education. But she was upset about so many of her friends in her neighborhood who did not have access to schools like this; or that the neighborhood schools (like Roberto Clemente, which was in her neighborhood) did not have anywhere near the programs that her school had. It wasn’t fair, she said. There is something wrong with this. Jonathan simply nodded. And the afternoon drew to a close.

Savage Inequalities echoed Kozol’s frustrations after publishing Rachel and Her Children. 25 years after Death at an Early Age was published, segregation by race, inequality by race and class was just as rampant, whole industries and a not-for-profit-industrial complex had grown up to profit on this inequality. When his next two books were published, Jonathan turned to a different face of what he had been exploring. What may be unique about Kozol is that he kept in touch with many of the families we met in his earlier books in the South Bronx. In Amazing Grace and Ordinary Resurrections, we see them later on, we look at their growth and how they have resisted being ground into oblivion. Their resistance, Kozol makes it clear, has nothing to do with any systemic aid that the children have received. Indeed, their survival is often in spite of the efforts to suppress them. In the pages of these books you can actually hear Kozol’s voice, tremulous and soft, just as he talked with and listened to the young woman in that Chicago living room: intent, pained but open and friendly.

A different Jonathan Kozol spoke at North Eastern Illinois University in 2000, after the publication of Ordinary Resurrections. Ringing accusations against a system that failed young people punctuated his presentation, and once again the hope that emerged because in some inexplicable fashion some young people managed to achieve resurrection; the implicit metaphor of children – children — having been crucified was not lost on his audience. Most of his audience of perhaps 500 were teachers or education or sociology students. Afterward, a sociology professor gathered about 20 students around a table in a nearby open area, and a heated conversation took place about the lessons of the presentation. Can the system be reformed? Do we need to start all over again? Who profits from it being the way it is?

Jonathan Kozol expressed frustrations that his work actually hadn’t changed the world, and perhaps this opens a conversation about what changing the world means, beyond reform. And that’s what I try to chip away at in my writing.

* * * * * * *

In the spring of 1989 John Edgar Wideman read from his short story collection, Fever, at Guild Books. He read from the last story, the title story, held me spellbound. He told us that it would be part of a new novel he was writing, and the fever was a famous plague year

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May Damballah watch over you and yours — Damballah

in Philadelphia. I have this underlined in my copy of the book: “To explain the fever we need no boatloads of refugees, ragged and wracked with killing fevers, bringing death to our shores. We have bred the affliction within our breasts. . . Fever grows in the secret places of our hearts, planted there when one of us decided to sell one of us to another. The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.” It’s an allegorical fever that riddled Philadelphia as the 18th century drew to a close; but one that still stalks our streets.

The audience was small – it was generous of Wideman to write “Thanks for the party” in his autograph. One person listening intently had read Wideman before and came prepared with questions. One in particular was pointed. The listener, an African-American student, asked the author what he thought his responsibility as a Black writer was to the Black community. A few years later, by which time I’d been certified as a Wideman groupie, I was invited to a lecture he gave at Columbia College. The occasion was the publication of Philadelphia Fire, a novel that returned to late 20th century Philadelphia and the tenth anniversary of the day on which the Black mayor of the city of brotherly love bombed a block of row houses one of which was occupied by an activist group called MOVE. The novel is in three parts, each of which has a distinct musical style to the language. The middle section, also, is an autobiographical riff on when the author taught Shakespeare to Black students in the parks in the summer, and the particular play is The Tempest. Who Caliban really is plays an important part of this section and in some way inhabits the rest of the novel.

Afterward, I joined a few Columbia faculty and grad students at dinner with Wideman. One student asked a question about Shakespeare and about Wideman’s use of language, which reminded me of the question asked at Guild. Why Shakespeare in a novel of Black Philadelphia? The answers to both questions broke the boundaries that separates one genre from another and stretched the complaints about cultural appropriation. English, Wideman pointed out, is his language and he has the obligation to make the most of all his heritage, whether it is the language of the streets or the language of the Bard. It’s all his, and his responsibility to stretch that to its limits. I still find Philadelphia Fire the most exciting of John Edgar Wideman’s work because of this use of Shakespeare and because of the rhythmic cadences that mark each section – and because of the way his own biography sneaks into places of the novel, not just the teaching segment, but also basketball and his relationship with some of the political forces in Philadelphia. One of the most artful political novels I’ve read.

I’m not sure when this next conversation took place, it was in a crowded anteroom and again at a reading that Wideman had just done. The poet, Sterling Plumpp was telling me his impression of Wideman. Sterling had been one of the leaders in the committee to defend Dennis Brutus, the South African poet, from being deported to his certain imprisonment under apartheid. He also gave a very fine critique/review of the Arnold Rampersad two volume biography of Langston Hughes, helping us to understand Hughes relation both to the Black Arts movement and to the Black (especially Southern) working class. Stuffed in that lobby, Sterling didn’t need to twist my arm to convince me: John Edgar Wideman is one of the best American writers of our generation. I think I’d known that 10 years earlier when I first read his Sent For You Yesterday, returned over and over to the passage where John French muses over the words of Albert Wilkes, “They’ve got us on a rack.” That has epitomized, in six words, how I have experienced the world, how it seems to me Jonathan Kozol has described the lives of the children he has met.

* * * * *

In 1991 Leslie Marmon Silko published a book she had been working on for 10 years. Compared with the spare work of John Edgar Wideman and with her own Ceremony, a slim volume that had become a staple of school reading lists, Almanac of the Dead is a huge panorama of a novel encompassing more than 750 pages and a hemispheric landscape. autographsDiana and I read the book – we each had our own copy because it was so riveting, and because we had decided early on that it was a book we’d want to lend to others – and the day I finished the book I was on my way to work at Guild. I was so wrapped up in the text that I missed the Fullerton stop on the Purple Line express. By the time I’d realized this, I looked at my watch and noted that I was typically early. I made a split decision and happily rode into the loop and back to the bookstore by which time, 30 minutes later, I had finished the book.

Much of my memory of this novel is of what was happening at the time in the real world. We had a book discussion group at the bookstore and those of us who had read the book would look at each other after hearing the news that day and say, “Almanac of the Dead,” and we’d exchange knowing glances, shake our heads. Zapatistas, the Union of the Homeless, traffic in human organs, all the way to Standing Rock and Blackwell, all of these “appear” in the book. Brecht described art not as a mirror to reflect reality but as a hammer to shape it. And that was how we saw Silko’s book, which reflected reality but gave us a door to imagine what reality might otherwise be like.

In February, 1993 we hadn’t yet made our decision to close Guild. But the handwriting was on the wall. Our last day was at the end of May, but this February 17, Leslie Marmon Silko was in Chicago and sat at Guild’s sales counter to sign books. I can’t remember who was there aside from Diana and I, but when we handed her our books, almost falling apart from rereading, dog-eared and underlined, I remember the glow that spread across her face. She wrote along with the autograph: “When I was writing ALMANAC all those 10 years, I think I relied on energy and enthusiasm of readers like you – somehow the support travelled back through time to help sustain me.”