Thank You For Your Service — a Review by Lew Rosenbaum

[I became FaceBook friends with Robert Sommer after an exchange with Oklahoma poet laureate Jeanetta Calhoun Mish. Bob was kind enough to send me an advance copy of his book then.  Although I had difficulty extracting myself from the book once I started reading it, the content was difficult for me to process.  Difficult as any important story told with lyrical and thoughtful earnestness. Difficult to figure out the entry point into such a complex story.  Thanks to Jeannetta for the indirect introduction, and to Bob for writing.The FB page for Losing Francis is here. You can order Losing Francis (Fomite Press, 2018, $15) through your local bookstore or other used and new sources. ]

Thank You For Your Service

A Review of Robert Sommer’s Losing Francis

by Lew Rosenbaum

 

“Sometimes people told me . . . thank him for his service. They were sincere. They meant well. But now, after years of war, and with so little sacrifice by so many and so much by so few, phrases like that resonate in the hollow white noise of bumper-sticker platitudes that have become the background chorus of our lives.”  Thank him for his service?  What could they know?

That refrain repeats itself, sometimes in Francis’ own words, throughout the Robert Sommer’s powerful collection of connected essays that form a coherent memoir.  Losing Francis gives us a strong and complex rendering of the complicated story of Francis Sommer, the son of anti-war activist parents, a young man who joined the army to fight in Afghanistan. Francis, with an IQ of 140, did poorly in school and barely graduated from high school. Without prospects for college, he resorted to alcohol abuse and found his way to the army as a kind of salvation.  The army deployed him in Iraq and then Afghanistan, and 4 years later, in 2007, discharged him.  He was treated by the VA for PTSD with a variety of medications, went to Johnson City Community College (Kansas City) where he nearly completed his education in culinary arts, and then, drunk, drove his car into a ditch and killed himself in 2011.

I have waited for months to write this.  I’ve actually sat down at the computer three or four times and too much inundated my head.  I couldn’t get straight all the strands, all the interwoven threads.  But somehow the poignancy of “Thank you for your service” seems to strike at the heart of it.  What service?  Francis certainly came to question the rationale for sending him overseas.  When you are “in-country,”  you are obligated to defend your comrades’ backs, because (if for no other reason) you depend on them.  But what about the tasks you are performing on the ground?  And also, imagine the misgivings of parents, like Bob Sommer and his wife Heather, who picket against the war while their son is on the front lines.  Francis comes to understand and support this, but isn’t there at least a little kernel of guilt that can never be assuaged by the slogan: “Support the troops. Bring them home”?

And then, of course, fundamentally, the pragmatism of American life removes us from the fields of conflict, the battlegrounds, such that fewer and fewer people have any personal ties to the wars.  Without a draft, with more and more deployment of drones and high technology warfare, the number of Americans isolated from any action of armed forces in war areas is minimal and shrinking.  Just exactly who are our troops serving?  How does a soldier come to terms with  his or her “service,” perhaps what they have come to regard as crimes committed?

Robert Sommer

Robert Sommer feels bitter about the environment of “so little sacrifice by so many and so much by so few,” where “bumper sticker platitudes” fill the air.  This is how he describes what it was like leading up to his son’s deployment (p. 68):

This is an American project, an American invasion and war, and it is without doubt coming soon, any day, following a long, intense build-up of arms and troops, and fear-mongering by the Administration and its apologists. By now, thanks to additional support for the war (and fear-mongering) in much of the corporate media, Americans have been mostly won over to the cause and along the way have become expert on a handful of factoids about the Middle East, which they recite to one another in coffee shops and kitchens and break rooms and garages and offices and warehouses and bars across the country.

Whoever tells the best story wins the hearts and minds of the people.  And clearly the best story was being told, through the corporate media, and repeated in every venue, over an over again. What makes this observation relevant and resonant are the factoids and platitudes and outright lies swirling in the media environment today.  It’s not clear who has the best story, but it is clear that the best story does not have to be grounded in reality.  And when Francis Sommer returned from deployment, that very unreality clashed with the reality he knew and had experienced.

Francis Sommer – Christmas morning 2007 (from the Fomite Press web site)

Francis Sommer was diagnosed on discharge with PTSD. He showed signs while still on active duty. His father observes that PTSD is not simply isolated to the combatants.  It is contagious, it vitiates families and communities. Much of the narrative that describes Francis after his deactivation portrays his inner and external conflict. That conflict started years earlier.  Robert Sommer tells the story of a call from Iraq in 2004. There were occasions when Francis asked his father to take the call where his mother could not hear.  This was one of those calls.  Francis had killed — by mistake — one of the translators on his team.  He was trying to come to grips with what he had done (the army hand cleared him of any blame) and wanting to hear his father’s voice.  So they exchanged words and assurances.  And, Robert says, “everything wrong with that war was compressed into what had just happened and now what we said . . . turned anger and pity into jingoism and nationalism.”  How can there not be post traumatic stress and its contagion?

The outcome of Losing Francis is betrayed by its title. It’s not entirely clear when Robert and Heather lost Francis — the author questions this as well.  But there is one definitive moment, the moment that the police came to the door to inform the parents about the car crash and the death of their son.  It didn’t matter that they had avoided the scenario they had rehearsed years before, expecting the visit from military personnel.  It didn’t matter that the Francis that returned from war was not the same person as before; or that even the pre-war Francis was, in a sense lost.  This was finality.  It’s over.

Or is it?  Losing Francis brings memory to lyrical life, and “Memory is not altered by truth, only strengthened. . . Like seeing rust on the hillsides, and dying glaciers, and wars.”

One of the most suggestive details in John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’ (1919) is the soccer match in the background, symbolically evoking the contrast between the worlds of war and no-war — a major theme also in ‘Losing Francis: Essays on the Wars at Home.’ (From the FB page for Losing Francis.)

 

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John Brown: Lessons for Today on the Anniversary of the Attack on Harper’s Ferry

 

The anniversary of the attack on Harper’s Ferry: October 16

What can today’s fighters learn from John Brown? 

BY CHRIS MAHIN

“I think that for once the Sharpe’s rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them.”

Those defiant words were spoken by the writer Henry David Thoreau in 1859, just days after John Brown and a small band of abolitionists attacked the town of Harper’s Ferry.

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John Brown

Because October marks the anniversary of that milestone in the struggle against slavery, it is important that we remember what took place there and examine what lessons it contains for today.

On the night of October 16, 1859, 22 armed men attempted to take control of the town of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. (It was in a region that would become the U.S. state of West Virginia in 1863.) Seventeen were white; five were free African Americans. All were deeply committed opponents of slavery. Their plan was to seize the federal arsenal in the town — which contained more than 100,000 firearms — and use the weapons to spark a slave rebellion. Due to a number of tactical mistakes made by the raiders, their plan failed. The group was quickly surrounded by Virginia militia forces and a contingent of U.S. Marines. Four townspeople and a marine died in the fighting. Ten of the raiders (including two of Brown’s sons) were also killed. After 36 hours, John Brown and several of his comrades were captured.

The raid on Harper’s Ferry was the culmination of decades of struggle against slavery. For almost 30 years, decent people in the North had denounced slavery and appealed to the South to end the practice. Their appeals fell on deaf ears. Opponents of slavery were physically assaulted and even murdered. As the defenders of slavery became more and more arrogant and violent, the movement against slavery began to polarize. Out of the bitter, armed conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in Kansas in the 1850s emerged John Brown, a leader who advocated physical resistance to slavery. Brown ultimately came to believe that abolitionists should “take the war to Africa” — that is, arm the slaves.

Brown’s view was a minority position. When news of the violence committed by his band at Harper’s Ferry first reached the North, the raid was condemned even by opponents of slavery. But when the state of Virginia put Brown on trial just one week after the raid — before his wounds had healed or his volunteer attorneys had arrived from Boston — public opinion in the North began to change. As his trial proceeded, even Brown’s enemies had to acknowledge the great dignity, courage, and sincere religious conviction that the anti-slavery fighter displayed in court.

On October 30, 1859, a Virginia jury found Brown guilty of murder, treason, and inciting slave insurrection. On November 2, Brown defended his conduct, saying that his actions had been in defense of God’s “despised poor,” and were “not wrong, but right.” Then he defiantly told the court: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country … I submit; so let it be done!” Then Judge Richard Parker sentenced him to be hanged.

Public meetings were called all over the North to denounce the sentence. In Boston, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson told a cheering crowd that Brown was “this new saint” whose hanging “would make the gallows as glorious as the cross.”

On December 2, 1859, Brown rode to his execution ground in a wagon, seated on his own

John Brown - Charles White (1949)

John Brown, drawing by Charles White

coffin, commenting on the beauty of the countryside. Fifteen hundred soldiers were present to guard the field where Virginia executed this old man, a farmer who faced death with courage and serenity. Church bells rang out throughout the North.

While the attack on Harper’s Ferry was a defeat in the military sense, it achieved its political goal of helping to end slavery. The North’s sympathy for John Brown outraged the defenders of slavery and helped push the South to secede, making the Civil War inevitable.

Today, there is much we can learn from the boldness of those who raided Harper’s Ferry. Those 22 men lived at a time when society was in crisis; so do we. They had a vision: Mobilize the “despised poor.” Obtain weapons and place them in the hands of the victims of a terribly unjust economic system. Have faith in the militancy of the poorest section of society, for when it moves, the very best elements of all of progressive humanity will then be free to move too. Thoreau captured the spirit of the Harper’s Ferry raid with his comment that finally the weapons were to be in the hands of those who could use them.

Today, we live in a world where weapons need to be placed in the hands of the “despised poor” once again. But here we should remember another of Thoreau’s comments about John Brown. Thoreau observed that the Virginia authorities did not gain much when they took Brown’s rifle away from him when they captured him at Harper’s Ferry. After all, Thoreau pointed out, Brown still retained “his faculty of speech, a Sharpe’s rifle of infinitely surer and longer range.” Today, there is an arsenal which needs to be seized by revolutionaries — the arsenal of political science. There is a weapon inside that arsenal that revolutionaries need to grab and distribute to anyone willing to receive it — the weapon of political clarity.

Today, we honor John Brown and his comrades-in-arms best when we use our “Sharpe’s rifle of infinitely surer and longer range” — our “faculty of speech” — to speak and write and agitate against a system where a tiny handful of millionaires rules society and, every day, creates more of the poor that John Brown strove to defend. If we do that, history will truly be able to say that while John Brown’s body is buried in his family plot in North Elba, New York, his soul really does go marching on.

____________________________________________________________

This article originated in the People’s Tribune,Vol. 26 No. 10 /October, 1999; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654, http://www.peoplestribune.org.

 

 

 

Remember Antietam! A Civil War battle contains lessons for today

Remember Antietam!

A Civil War battle contains lessons for today

BY CHRIS MAHIN

It was the bloodiest single day of fighting ever to take place in North America. On that day, more than 2,000 men gave their lives to halt a slaveholders’ army. Within days of their sacrifice, the first step was taken to abolish slavery in the United States. The Civil

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Confederate soldiers lie dead on the battlefield.  “The whole landscape turned slightly red.”  Over 2,000 Union solders were killed

War’s Battle of Antietam deserves to be commemorated by all those fighting to transform society today.

In a sense, the process of abolishing unjust property relations in this country began on September 17, 1862 on a battlefield near Antietam Creek in western Maryland. Twelve hours of hard fighting by brave soldiers that day gave the Union Army a victory of sorts. That gave Abraham Lincoln the political protection he needed to begin steps that would transform the Civil War from a defensive war to save the Union into a revolutionary war to abolish slavery.

Five days after Antietam, Lincoln convened his Cabinet and announced that, if the Confederate states were still in rebellion on January 1, 1863, he would free all their slaves. Lincoln was true to his word and, on New Year’s Day in 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This executive order freed only the slaves in those states or parts of states that were in rebellion. It did not abolish slavery throughout the United States. However, it transformed the nature of the war, and unleashed a process that led inexorably to the

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Abraham Lincoln recognized that Antietam gave him the rationale for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. This portrait of Lincoln was drawn by Charles White.

Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which did abolish slavery throughout the United States.

By the time of the Civil War, slavery in the United States was dominated by wealthy capitalists, most of whom owned thousands of slaves. This tiny elite represented about one percent of the population of the United States. They sold their cotton and other commodities on the world market and were an important part of the world capitalist system. Since the average price of a slave was $1,000 and there were 4 million slaves in the United States, emancipation removed $4 billion in value from the hands of capitalists.

At its time, the abolition of slavery in the United States was the greatest blow to a form of capitalist private property which had ever taken place in history. (That remained true until the Soviet Revolution of 1917.)

So, in a sense, the process of abolishing unjust property relations in this country began on the Antietam battlefield. The stage for the battle was set in early September 1862. Emboldened by several recent victories, General Robert E. Lee moved the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia into Maryland, a slave state that had remained in the Union. A major Confederate victory inside Union territory would strengthen pro-Confederate sentiment in the North right before the fall 1862 Congressional elections. It might also convince some European powers to intervene in the war on the side of the Confederacy.

Lee believed that the commander of the Union’s Army of the Potomac – General George B. McClellan – was cautious to the point of cowardice. Lee also thought that McClellan’s army would be demoralized from recent defeats. As historian Stephen W. Sears has pointed out, these assessments were “only half right.”

McClellan was a supporter of slavery who constantly made excuses for why he would not

McClellan

General George McClellan: his conduct fully justified Lee’s contempt for him.

fight the Confederate Army. At the Battle of Antietam, McClellan’s conduct fully justified Lee’s contempt for him. McClellan had learned Lee’s plans and had more troops at his disposal than Lee did. Still, he refused to move decisively against Lee, and allowed Lee’s army to escape after the battle.

But if McClellan violated all the principles of warfare at Antietam, the same cannot be said for his soldiers. Forced to attack in “driblets” (as one Union general put it), the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac fought bravely.

The courage of the Union troops was vividly demonstrated in the struggle to take “The Sunken Road” – a small depression at the edge of a farm. After several attacks against this strategic position failed, the task of capturing it fell to one of the Union Army’s most celebrated units – the Irish Brigade. This unit was known for marching into combat behind emerald green battle flags bearing gold shamrocks and harps. Shouting its battle cry (“Clear the way!”) in Irish, the Irish Brigade advanced across an open field. Intense enemy cannon and rifle fire “cut lanes” into its ranks. Within minutes, hundreds of its soldiers were killed or wounded. Ever since, the Sunken Road has been known as the “Bloody Lane.”

In all, 2,108 Union soldiers were killed at Antietam; 9,549 were wounded; and 753 ended up missing. The carnage that day was so terrible that – as one Union soldier put it – “the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.” This sacrifice saved the day for the Union; Lee was forced to retreat back into Virginia.

There are moments in history when the future of humanity rests on what a relatively

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The battlefield at Antietam

few people are willing to endure. September 17, 1862 was such a moment. The bravery of the Union soldiers that day did not end the Civil War. Lee’s army would invade Union territory again, and the war would drag on for two more long years.

The Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, the fruit of Antietam, did not guarantee equality for African Americans or a just society. Eventually, the post-Civil War Reconstruction governments would be overthrown and the South plunged into a reign of terror which rivaled slavery. But acknowledging those grim facts should not blind us to the reality that, in a sense, the fight for a new America began at Antietam. The Union victory there transformed the Civil War into a revolutionary war to abolish one specific form of capitalist private property: chattel slavery.

The finest tribute we can pay to those who died at Antietam is to finish their work. At Antietam, every soldier knew he risked his life if he drew enemy fire upon himself by picking up a flag dropped by a slain flag bearer. But battle flags in motion were absolutely necessary to signal the motion of troops, and so, time after time, a Union soldier picked up the fallen standard and raised it high again. In the Irish Brigade’s attempt to take the “Bloody Lane,” 16 of its flag bearers were shot dead, one after another. Today, “picking up the flag” means fighting to end the rule of all capitalists, just as those who served in the Union Army helped end the rule of one kind of capitalist, the slave-owning capitalist. When we fight that good fight, we pay our best homage to those who bled for freedom’s cause years ago beside a winding creek, on a day when the very landscape itself seemed to turn red.

                              

This article originally appeared in the September 1999 edition of the People’s Tribune. For more information about the People’s Tribune, go to: www.peoplestribune.org

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Santiago On My Mind

Santiago On My Mind

by Lew Rosenbaum

 

I imagine myself

sipping my scotch

alongside reporters from

the Washington Post and The Guardian

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The Santiago, Chile, Hotel Carrera

in the bar in the basement

of the Hotel Carrera

across the street from La Moneda –

I’ve never been to Santiago,

one of the largest of cities

in the Americas,

on a day when Nixon-sent

bombs dropped on the palace,

where Kissinger doomed democracy

and later complained that

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Co-conspirators: Nixon & Kissinger

reporters had not given US credit

for its strangling hand in the coup –

sitting on a bar stool

downing my pisco sour*,

would I recognize the door opening

to the deaths of 3,000 —

or was it 30,000?

and the number of tortured?

did the blood from Victor Jara’s

severed hands run in rivers

all the way through Wall Street

Victor_Jara

Victor Jara, murdered September 16, 1973

or was it the silent sound

of his guitar that drowned out

the cheers from the stock marketers

on September 11, 1973.

 

Our own 3,000 dead

in New York City

food service workers and

janitors and traders and

secretaries – vaporized and rubbled upon,

embracing miraculous air coffins or

consumed by a collapsing monument

to global wealth and plunder –

how can we take advantage of these

fresh dead

ask the politicos looking for an enemy

around which flag to rally

the disconcerted, to declare, reimagine,

construct, flim-flamify this day as

patriot day

I wonder what a manhattan would taste like

in the bar on top of the World Trade Center

I imagine the dry heaves after the

taste of thousand dollar bills

 

and how can nine eleven only mean

nueva york,

in a country that styles itself “America”

or even THE united states

as if there were no other nation

that boasts united states

and now denying 1973

coopts tragedy for its unique

butchering self

 

sitting in a bar across from La Moneda

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Palacio La Moneda, Santiago, Chile

sitting in a café in Manhattan

dipping my finger in the memory of blood

growing purple morning glories whose vines

will strangle borders and bombs

 

 

 

*A pisco sour is an alcoholic cocktail of Peruvian origin that is typical of the cuisines from Chile and Peru, considered also a South American classic.[A] The drink’s name comes from pisco, which is its base liquor, and the cocktail term sour, in reference to sour citrus juice and sweetener components. The Peruvian pisco sour uses Peruvian pisco as the base liquor and adds freshly squeezed lime juice, syrup, ice, egg white, and Angostura bitters. The Chilean version is similar, but uses Chilean pisco and pica lime, and excludes the bitters and egg white. Other variants of the cocktail include those created with fruits like pineapple or plants such as coca leaves.

Who Shall Inherit The Earth? – Lew Rosenbaum

Who Shall Inherit the Earth?  

by Lew Rosenbaum

[First of all: apologies for the reproductions here, which come from my “phone” at the exhibit and consequently have all the defects associated with that.  Second, this exhibit has now left Chicago and will be opening at MoMA in New York in October, 2018; then at LACMA in Los Angeles in February, 2019. Do not miss this exhibit.  Last, with gratitude for having had the opportunity to meet Frances Barrett White, and her two children Jessica and Ian, and be welcomed into her home in the mid 1980s. — LR]

“Think! Think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me.” These lyrics from the song written by Aretha Franklin’s (1968, Aretha Now) are chasing through my head as I mull over my response to seeing the Charles White Retrospective exhibit in the Art Institute of Chicago. For the second time.  And I don’t go to exhibits more than once.  But I did make time for this exhibit, and these Aretha-lyrics come to me because of something Danny Alexander wrote.  It’s about the artist and the thought processes that galvanize the artist’s work, whether music to the ear or the visual music on paper and other media. It’s what the artist is telling the listener or viewer.  I am not skilled in the language of visual art, so I will leave it to others to comment on the techniques, of which Charles White was a master.  The force of the paintings, etchings, linocuts, drawings — everything — moved me to tears throughout the galleries.  Often tears of joy at experiencing something that struck so close to home that it felt like a personal communication, an embrace by what art should be conveying.

Thinking.  How do you capture brain waves on paper? The text accompanying “Awaken from the Unknown recalls White’s transformation after reading Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro anthology, and finding there “a new world of facts and ideas in diametric opposition to what was being taught in the classrooms and text-books as unquestionable truth.”  Maybe you start there, recalling what it was like, when your mother dropped you

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Awaken from the Unknowing – Charles White (1961)

off at the public library (it was at the Chicago Cultural Center then) at 7 or 8 years old, and you reconstructed the real world from what you read there, and then walked the few blocks to the Art Institute, wandering the halls, where you said your found the work of Winslow Homer particularly influential. At least that’s what Charles White did and said, and in this piece I see myself and imagine the subject of this piece on a road to discovery, perhaps after work, exhausted, and falling asleep over the piles of newspapers, just like I have done many times.  Falling asleep in the process of awakening, kind of a visual pun, I suppose.  She’s been asleep and here is the key to awakening. Discovering the new ideas that transform. Here’s a new idea that transforms: “Think! And let yourself be free!”

Much earlier in his life, Charles White contemplated what brought him to his own understanding.  He painted these two pieces in 1942, “Hear This” and “This, My Brother.”

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This My Brother – Charles White (1942)

Both these pieces speak to a kind of awakening, or different stages of awakening.  Referring to the title of the novel by John Rood, call “This My Brother”  social consciousness, the discovery not only that classes exist, but that the workers as a class, in this case the miners, have a class enemy. This form of learning comes directly from the struggle, the battles for a better life.  It evolves out of what is often called the “spontaneous movement,” though it should be clear that there is very little spontaneity even in this process.  But then you have “Hear This,” in which the two figures are engaged in, even fighting over, the written word.  One figure, grasping a book, tries to convince the other about its point of view;  the other, seems unconvinced

Hear This Charles White 1942

Hear This – Charles White (1942)

(the text next to the paintings implies that it referred to White’s own experience learning about the social struggle from communists).  They (the man with the book, the communists) introduced something new, something that came from outside the struggle itself, something that reflected that particular role that workers play in transforming society. Changing the social order is fundamentally different from the practical role workers have in fighting for better wages and working conditions. Looking at these two pieces gives a kind of visual representation  of the difference between the school of the strike struggle and the school of revolutionary propaganda. And, of course, the relation between the two: without the learning that comes from the practical struggle, the propaganda remains so much sectarian jargon.  But in these two paintings, along with that dramatic “Awaken” piece, comes a visual lightning bolt that 100 pages of explanation can never transmit so dramatically (or, dare I say, graphically).

* * * * *

Let’s take a step backward, talk about Charles White and this “communism” thing.  The text accompanying the exhibit alludes to it in a number of places aside from what is noted above.  For example, at the entrance to the exhibit, the text calls him a “political leftist who championed the rights of the working class.”  The text accompanying his mural work reads: “White aligned himself with a group of leftist artists [in Chicago] who drew attention to inequities in American society in order to effect social change.” It was much more than that.  Frances Barrett White wrote a memoir of her life with Charles White (Reaches of the Heart, Barricade Books, 1994, o.p.).  “Charlie’s art teachers,” she writes, “encouraged his talent and twice entered his work in statewide competitions. Both times he won, and both times when he appeared to receive the awards, they were denied to him.”  It was a mistake, he was told.  Someone else had actually won.  “By the time he was fifteen, Charlie had read . . . The New Negro many times.  The knowledge of his culture he found there was overwhelming. . .”  He began to dislike school intensely, stopped attending, and found as an alternative the “Arts Crafts Guild, a group of black artists who met every Sunday. It changed the direction of his art.” In his early meanderings in the Art Institute, he had been influenced by Winslow Homer and the Hudson River School, and this translated into paying attention to landscapes.  Now, with the Arts Crafts Guild, he took his easel “into the neighborhoods and painted people. Black people. . . on the streets, on the stoops of broken-down buildings, and hanging up their laundry.”  Winning another statewide competition this time brought him a one-year scholarship to the Art Institute.

He completed his course work in 1938, a time when the depression still ravaged the streets of the U.S. The government found work for artists through the Works Progress Administration; numerous arts organizations brought writers and people in the theater and visual artists together to talk about their individual crafts and also how to address the issues raised by the depression.  Along with the fight to survive came the attempt to grapple with the issues intellectually.  Within this ferment communists brought their understanding of the drive toward World War that was seizing Europe.  In the John  Reed Clubs and later the American Writers Congress, authors debated how to stop the threatening war. Artists joined the Lincoln Brigade of the International Brigades to stop the fascist offensive in Spain. Artists looked to Mexico and the mural movement there and the involvement of artists in workers’ struggles.  The current exhibit mentions only four murals he worked on;  but Fran White relates that he “joined the WPA where he painted murals in post offices, libraries, and public buildings throughout the country, never staying in one place any longer than the work required.” In 1941 he married Elizabeth Catlett, a prominent Black sculptor, and in 1942 won a $2,000 fellowship to study the role of the Negro in the development of America.  The two of them spent the next two years in the American South studying and sketching subjects from Black life.

Drafted into the army in 1944, he suggested to his Sergeant that he could use his skills as a combat artist. He was therefore assigned to the Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, where “he painted the mess hall, the tables, the benches, and the chairs again and again, always using the same color of green paint.” During a flood he and his fellow soldiers in the segregated battalion  filled and moved sandbags, as if in a prison gang.  And shortly thereafter he came down with tuberculosis, which affected him for the rest of his life.

These are some of the events that formed the context of his early life for the intellectual development that brought him, for example, to be an art director at Wo-Chi-Ca, or Workers’ Children’s Camp in upstate New York (where he first met Frances Barrett).  Led him to form binding friendships with some of the most prominent artists of the time — Margaret Burroughs,  Gordon Parks, and Rockwell Kent — and, when he settled in New York, to form an organization, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, in the early 1950s, including Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Langston Hughes, and Oscar Hammerstein.  He appealed to friends in the Thomas Jefferson School of Marxist Studies (the Communist Party workers’ school) for help finding a place for an interracial couple to rent an apartment in New York.  These cohorts, his colleagues, his confreres stoked that intellectual fire and helped him conclude, as the text to the exhibit proclaims, “Art is not for artists and connoisseurs alone. It should be for the people.”

*****

Art isn’t only to illuminate horrors of the past.  It’s to envision, to hope for the future.  So yes there is “Birmingham Totem” printed after the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church.  And there is the series of “Wanted Posters” that summon up all the demons of

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Oh Freedom – Charles White (1956)

past enslavement and degradation post slavery.  About that group of works, done in 1969 to 1971, White said: “Some of my recent work has anger. I feel that at this point  I have to make an emphatic statement about how I view the expression, the condition of this world and of my people . . . I guess it’s sort of finding the way, my own kind of way, of making an indictment.” But there is also the ecstatic “Oh Freedom,” expansive joy in the face of the subject, with the vigorous open-handed casting of seeds (in my mind, the intellectual seeds falling on fertile soil of the oppressed).

Look also at the determination in the eyes of the woman depicted in “Ye Shall Inherit the Earth.”  I dare you to think that this woman will allow her child to inherit an earth like the one into which we have been born.  She has her eyes on the prize and will protect not only him, but all children.  Of course the title is a reference to “Sermon on the Mount,”  but keep in mind that in 1953, when he drew this piece, he could not marry his wife in the state of Michigan; and that he could not easily

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Ye Shall Inherit the Earth – Charles White (1953)

find an apartment to rent in the city of New York.  To live in this land was not his birthright, and to imagine it, well, that almost smacked of treason.

In “Hope for the Future” and in “The Children” White again turns to a rendering of the child as a symbol of what is possible.  Where can we go from here, he seems to be asking, how can we extricate ourselves from this dilemma in which we find ourselves?  It is certainly the same question revolutionaries ask themselves today, knowing that hope for our future lies with those recently born. And, perhaps much like Charles White, here we stand trying to figure out how can we prepare for that future with the best possible art? The way Charles White does it, as revealed in this exhibit and these pieces in particular, is by showing that the best art is also the best propaganda, the best propaganda is the best art. How do you convey, with the necessary ambiguity to express the shifting ground on which you are standing? Look at the massy workers’ hands — I don’t know another way of describing the strength, the weight, the solidity of those hands — gently holding the child in “Hope for the Future.” Is she looking off to the side, and if so what is she seeing?

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Hope For the Future – Charles White (1945)

Is she presenting us with a gift, this child, this future? Are “The Children” looking through the window  with confidence, anticipation, hope . . .or is it with fear? Now that we see it, it is ours to do with what we will.  It is our future now.

*****

I saw the show for the second time on the Thursday five days before the exhibit closed (Thursday nights are free at the AIC).  It was much more crowded than the first time I went, and from the moment I entered I knew I was among a group of people who were there not simply to be seen at the latest big exhibit.  These were folks who really engaged with the art, some who were, like me, old enough to be contemporary with some of his working years; others born long after he had passed on (he died at the young age of 61 in 1979).  It was a conversation starting crowd, because of the excitement with the art and what it represented.  Like when I first

The Children - Charles White (1950)

The Children – Charles White – (1950)

came into the exhibit hall and looked over the shoulders of three older people no longer looking at “The Cardplayers,” but talking about what was life like in the 1940s during the war, and what did it mean to throw all the effort into the war, what did that mean for artists, and the older man, trying to remember, the word was right on the tip of his tongue, he couldn’t quite find it, it had something to do with limited quantities of goods available in stores, and just then a younger man, standing next to me, interrupted to say the word, and they all said Yes! Rationing, that’s it!  And how do you know about rationing? And so the conversation continued with young and old appreciating each other and then talking about what they appreciated in the art work. And then they moved on, new friends made and exchanging views until, much later in the exhibit they shook hands, even embraced and bid each other good bye.

It was a conversation starting crowd.  The secret smiles between two people as they saw the same things in the drawings.  Yes this is my favorite in the whole show.  I really like the “Wanted Posters”!  I don’t know how he created this sense of motion with his pen and ink.  And near the end, I found myself standing next to an older man, perhaps my age, who wondered why it had taken so long for a show like this to be mounted. He told the woman standing next to him, I don’t give the Art Institute credit really.  They should have done it a long time ago.  Of course I’m glad they did it now. You notice one thing about his work, he tells me, and that is the large hands and feet, the parts that engage in work.  The emphasis on these, and his voice trails off. And then he begins to tell me, you know why there are so few oil paintings?  It’s because oils are expensive, and he never had enough money to spend on oils.  Well, maybe this is true.  But I cannot get out of my mind Charles White’s own words, that art is not simply for the artist or the connoisseur but, most emphatically, for the people.  And his work was displayed and copied  and shared everywhere. Prints are a form adapted to this kind of art. Often people’s first exposure to a Charles White print was a poster on a telephone pole.  “Ye Shall Inherit The Earth” was used as a poster to advertise a 1960 NAACP rally in Los Angeles.

It is disappointing that the mural — “Struggle for Liberation (Chaotic Stage of the Negro, Past and Present)” — Charles White designed for the Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library was never installed.  He began the mural in 1940, near the end of his WPA days

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Study for Struggle for Liberation (Chaotic Stage of the Negro, Past and Present – Charles White (1940)

and before he and Elizabeth Catlett went into the South to gather material for the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship.  Striking out from the left panel of the mural is the insurrectionary John Brown, while more modern forms of protest form the core of the right panel.  A color study for the mural showing both panels is in the show, and it gives some idea of his bold ideas. The exhibit also presents a study for the mural, “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America,” the result of the Rosenwald Fund

Study for the Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America - Charles White (1943)

Study for the Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in  America – Charles White (1943)

fellowship, and still installed at Hampton University in Virginia.  The text for the exhibit identifies fourteen figures in the mural, including his contemporaries Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Leadbelly. I listened in to the conversations around these murals, to the excited identification of the people in the murals, to the careful examination of the features of the black and white studies for the mural (Robeson and Denmark Vesey, for example).

Charles White grappled with the idea of how to introduce new ideas into widespread discourse all his life.  Roque Dalton wrote that “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”  Bertolt Brecht or maybe Vladimir Mayakovsky perhaps wrote, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”;  Both certainly could have said this: it is congruent with their writing and their philosophy.  There is no doubt that Charles White, along with these other titans, saw his pen and brush as his weapon:  Art is, after all, not for the artist or the connoisseur but should be for the people.

*****

Huntington Museum acquires “Soldier”   

 

The Enemy of My Enemy

The Enemy of My Enemy  

by Lew Rosenbaum

You may not want to read beyond this first sentence: I actually concede that there may be individuals who have joined law enforcement because they believe that they will be called on to serve and protect the people. Honestly. (Here I think of the Czech revolutionary Julius Fucik, imprisoned by the Nazis and ultimately executed. His manuscript was smuggled out of prison by guards wearing German uniforms, yet putting themselves in

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The memoir of Communist revolutionary Julius Fucik was smuggled out of prison by a Nazi guard who sympathized with the author.

 

great danger for Fucik. See here for his story).

At the same time, there is a reason (or many reasons) why I fear for my life when I see a cop car in my rear view mirror (even though I’m not Black).

So when I saw BlacKkKlansman, the new Spike Lee film, I was prepared for the worst. In fact, the film exceeded my expectations. I am not a film critic, so I will spend very little space talking about how slow moving the pace was, how cardboard the characters were, and how sloppy the side by side Klan and anti-Klan scenes were juxtaposed. On that last point: what’s the message when you see a Klan rally shouting “White Power!” side by side with a Black Student Union rally shouting “Black Power!”?

There is a politics to this film, and it is scary. In some ways, this film mimics every TV police procedural (and I’ve spent time watching them all). Each and every one has a liberal veneer. They all take pains to have one Black officer protagonist; they all have episodes in which the police themselves reveal that inside the generally good barrel there are bad apples that need to be rooted out (there is one episode of BlueBloods in which the bad apples are a whole cohort that have even organized to kill the Commissioner’s son and attempted to kill another of his sons, both cops). In the final analysis, they all support the conclusion that the good apples prevail; or, more accurately, the system prevails to protect the people, despite any flaws.

BlacKkKlansman does precisely this. Who can deny that the Klan and the Nazis (lumped together as “white nationalists,” though I can’t for the life of me understand where the “white nation” is that they claim to be defending) are fascists? If you need any convincing, there’s plenty of evidence, or at least narrative, in the movie. In case you can stomach the ordinary venality of David Duke, there are two over-the-top Klansmen who are kind-of the Abbot (and his wife) and Costello, a triumvirate of Klan caricatures in hatred.

The policemen of Colorado Springs are a mixed bag, all but one of whom turn out to be good guys at the end. All but one, that one who is and always was a confirmed racist who gets caught and arrested and presumably gets his comeuppance. And the hero of the film, Ron Stallworth, is celebrated by the whole department at the end. Maybe you want to consider that this statement should have been preceded by the phrase, “Spoiler Alert!!!” Not if you have ever seen a police procedural. You know how it comes out. And you even know that the ending, like many Law and Order endings, can be ambiguous or perhaps not exactly the happy ending you long for. And since you, who are reading this, if you’ve gotten this far, you are astute enough to know that the Klan has not disappeared and just in the last few weeks there were heralded “Unite The Right” rallies that commemorated the Charlottesville rally of a year ago. So you will not be surprised that Spike Lee makes a point of drawing a direct line from the operation in BlacKkKlansman to Charlottesville, and the killing of Cindy Heyer by Klansmen and Nazis. There’s even a clip of DJT talking about the violence on both sides. On both sides. He said it twice.

Despite every portrayal of the racism deep within the police department of Colorado Springs, the film presents the department as ultimately the professionals that will protect the public good. Ultimately. Here is how the film is being promoted:

From visionary filmmaker Spike Lee comes the incredible true story of an American hero. It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The young detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), into the undercover investigation of a lifetime. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group. . .

Stallworth is portrayed as a hero (the Jackie Robinson of policemen, breaking Colorado

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The film is very loosely based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth.

Springs’ color line, and taking down the Klan). The more dangerous mission is carried out by Flip Zimmerman, who plays Stallworth when he has to meet Klansmen face-to-face. In the film, Zimmerman is supposed to be Jewish policeman. (In real life he is not Jewish). It’s never clear, however, why they are infiltrating the KKK. In fact, the film is billed as a comedy, as if we should be laughing at the Klan antics and the very fact of a Black man doing the infiltrating. Did they actually “take down” the Klan? Charlottesville should provide the answer to that question, and so does the prominence of David Duke on the present political scene.

Spike Lee’s film isn’t entirely factual. As noted above, in the film, Stallworth’s white partner is Jewish, while in real life, he was not. In the film, Stallworth’s operation thwarts a Klan bombing. There was no such bombing and no Klan member was ever even arrested. Stallworth’s love interest in the film appears to be a made up character.

But this is not about whether or not Stallworth or Zimmerman were heroes. This is about what the role is of law enforcement agencies, and whether they deserve to be glorified. In fact, law enforcement is intended to protect the private property of the elite and has been ever since they were established as special bodies of armed people employed by the government. The private property they were established to protect was, from the beginning, both the enslaved property of the plantation owners and the industrial property of the robber barons – and the vast amount of commodities produced by each. Chicago has an especially rich history experiencing the use of police forces against workers and in defense of private property – from the days of the Haymarket Massacre (Haymarket took place only 10 years following the end of Reconstruction) through the Pullman strike to the Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel. One key method of protecting private property is in fomenting or deepening the divisions among workers, and again Chicago shows us some extreme examples: e.g. the long career of Jon Burge, the acknowledged chief torturer among the police; and the not-so-illustrious career of the Chicago “Red Squad.” Let’s not forget how the squad targeted the Black Panthers and murdered Fred Hampton, and how that history continues to the murder of Harith Augustus this summer.

There is more than enough evidence to show that the natural direction of law enforcement is to infiltrate those committed to disrupting private property. At times a conflict between different sections of the owners of private property results in some rather strange circumstances. After the Civil War, for a short time during the decade known as Reconstruction, the military had to discipline Southern law enforcement in order to break the back of the plantation aristocracy. But, once Wall Street had subjugated the plantation owners, the Klan was unleashed (inside and outside the police) to maintain the law and order of recently reinstated political leadership of the slaveocracy.

At various times within the ruling circles of this country, one section has debated with another about how to carry out the program that each have agreed on. These debates have from time to time spilled over to violence. In recent memory, the Civil Rights Movement provided such a backdrop. Again there is much evidence that the rulers were divided about how to expand the profitability of capitalism. This was the consolidation of American expansionism around the world, that coincided with the end of the direct colonial era, Europe’s domination. The extent to which the Federal Government and the Democratic Party came to be seen as the protector of civil rights comes from this era. Police, the national guard, the military and the FBI were enlisted in this effort. But this is also the period in which the FBI spied on Martin Luther King, Jr. and called the Black Panthers the most serious threat to American Democracy (while they planted provocateur infiltrators in the midst of the Panthers).

The political arena today provides us with numerous conflicts that illustrate the general problem of conflating heroes and villains, friends and enemies. Take, for example, the Mueller investigation of Trump’s administration. I can’t imagine any one of my friends, people I regularly talk with, who would argue that Trump has not committed numerous offenses and corruptions. Even more, as President he has attacked the lives of working class Americans and as such deserves to be deposed. Yet we are called to lionize the problematic office of the special prosecutor and the individual in that office. For years we have been criticizing the mainstream media for not reporting the truth; yet when Trump and his supporters call the New York Times a repository of fake news, we are called to their defense, as if they are now journalistic heroes. And now we are supposed to rally around that archetype of fascism, Jeff Sessions, because Trump is denouncing him.

Stallworth’s and Zimmerman’s stories are not unique, and they did, intentionally or not, interrupt a fictionalized rogue Klan action. But it is even more important to understand that it did not interrupt the moral arc of the law enforcement universe bending toward injustice. It did not interrupt the continuing role that Klansmen and Nazis play in our lives. This “visionary” film appears in a context in which we are directed to believe the enemies of our enemy are our friends. We may even find ourselves, as I have,  in a situation, in which it is necessary to depend on police in the face of a momentary common enemy.

With “friends” like these, once the common enemy is vanquished, watch your back.

 

Ruben Guevara’s Memoir of a Chicano Culture Sculptor

Ruben Guevara’s Memoir of a Chicano Culture Sculptor

by Lew Rosenbaum

Ruben Funkahuatl Guevara ends his memoir, Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer, with a lyrical hymn to Los Angeles. By naming names and places, he evokes visceral memories for me. All he has to do is mention Grand Central Market, and a long

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Inside Grand Central Market, L.A.

hidden experience of musical sound, visions of stall after stall of fresh produce with its overpowering aroma, and taste from taco vendors’ offerings — all of this explodes out of my memory. Here is how he describes the downtown Union (train) Station, in a West Coast Whitmanesque/Sandburgian voice: “I know Union Station, that grand cathedral of trapped ghosts of ripped hearts and laughter, where the pinche Manifest Destiny Railroad connected east and west on the blistered, busted backs of human beasts of burden.” In that one sentence, Guevara captures the context of what his book is “about.”

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Ruben Guevara’s new memoir

How can you write about what a book is “about,” when the author has spent 300 pages describing that very process? The best you can hope to do is express what the book means to you; and so I want to touch on three themes, all of which have to do with the dual aspect of life under capitalism. The musician, only a few steps away (and a million miles) from stardom. The Southern Californian negotiating the Chicano/Mexicano historical process. The radical Chicano who stretches his cultural tendrils to reach throughout the Los Angeles communities among different nationalities. All of this within the time that spans from when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to L.A., the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Watts rebellions of 1965 and 1992, and the Chicano moratorium of 1970 to the bubble and crash of 2008. From the provincial Los Angeles Times that represented the post-war industrial boom to the Los Angeles Times of globalization.

For me, Union Station becomes a metaphor of that duality under capitalism. Who has not

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Union Station, L.A.

traveled by train and not sat with lost souls, hoping to be on their way to a better place (often winding up in worse), or who are just sitting or sleeping to get some respite from being on the streets? The grand cathedral that captures the dreams as well as the nightmares of travelers. Not to mention the explicit dreams and nightmares of those who built the building and laid the tracks to the building and all the social chaos and construction that accompanied the railroad as it conquered the land in the name of industry.

Ruben Guevara is not only the musician of “Ruben and the Jets,” the confidant of Frank Zappa, the  vocalist who performed with Bo Diddley and Tina Turner,  and band leader.

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Ruben Guevara: Boyle Heights

He’s the creator of Chicano musical theater-pieces which he’s taken from UCLA to Lyon and Rennes in France. And he’s the performer who, practically the very next day, and often in his career, found himself homeless and living in his car.  Often not knowing where his next dollar would come from. In 1965, his mother arranged an audition on the nationally televised hit show, “Shindig,” where he shared a dressing room with his hero Bo Diddley and was hired for a regular gig. Dreams of a Hollywood mansion (never mind a regular paycheck) crashed when the show was moved to a different time slot, failed to connect with its new audience, and was canceled, and he wound up delivering Chicken Delight on the Sunset Strip. In these instances he brushed so close to fame’s cheek, only to be thrown back to struggle. Nevertheless, throughout he built an extraordinary output of creative work that this memoir describes.

He writes about a pilgrimage to his ancestral land, to Guadalajara in 1974, and his surprise and shock to find the disrespect that Mexicans had for the Chicano culture. Asking, in broken Spanish, directions of someone he met on the streets, he finds that pochos are considered no better than mongrels. Much of what he shows us celebrates that very cultural production, from the muralists to the musicians to the theater and RG Ruben-Guevara-short-story-2nd-placebeyond. In this context he begins to draw the distinction of “Chicano” as a political reality rather than an ethnic or racial one. Cheech Marin tapped Guevara to work on the classic film, Born in East L.A. Guevara traveled to Monterrey on one leg of a journey to promote the film, and asked Marin if he could say a few words about Chicano culture while there. In his remarks, he pointed out that, while the term Chicano had originated as “a pejorative term used by the Mexican upper classes to describe los de abajo” (the lower classes), the word had undergone a transmutation in the actions of the fight for civil rights of the 1960s. “. . .it is a political term. Chicanos are Mexican Americans who commit to enrich their culture and community through politics, education, science, and the arts. Chicanos are made, not born. It’s a choice.”

He goes on to list some of the people who have contributed to the renaissance of Chicano culture and ends with a signature, defiant comment that punctuates many of his performances: “Con Safos!” This phrase is both a consistent Guevara theater piece ending and an album he made and a band he put together after Ruben and the Jets; but, more importantly, Con Safos is a statement that if you don’t like it, well, you know where you can put it. While he describes in detail the evolution and execution of some of the performance pieces, words can only convey so much. I would love to be able to see and hear some of these pieces as he writes about them. Here you can listen to the doo-wop “classic” versions of “America The Beautiful” and the “Star Spangled Banner”;

Still Con Safos is a central feature of self-consciousness that sets the ground for how to build bonds with others – through doo-wop music, Japanese theater, Japanese-American activists, Frank Zappa (and the connection Guevara and Zappa had to the music of Stravinsky and Bartok), to the family heritage that goes back to indigenous Mexican people and to Spain, and also to indigenous people from British Columbia. The Japanese-American activists Guevara mentions were seasoned community organizers when he encountered them, people who had coalesced decades earlier around the Amerasia Bookstore (1971-1992: http://articles.latimes.com/1992-02-04/news/vw-1197_1_recession) and Gidra, the monthly magazine that UCLA students began in 1969 (http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2012/1/12/gidra/), This theme reminds me so much of one of Guevara’s collaborators, the performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena, whose Warrior for Gringostroika also straddles a border and, in the final analysis, provides a ground for class connection defying division and demanding unity.

RG P1010538The reader of this memoir will also find in its pages the haunting reminiscences of a man who confesses his sexual impulses often drive him where he would be wise not to go. He is a man of many failed relationships, often, as he admits, of his own making. But while a memoir is by genre a personal book, and it can be read solely as a personal history, I think it would be a mistake if the reader left it a chronicle of personal exploits. The book is a document of the time. It provokes one to think about what “radical” means as much as what “Chicano” means; how a boy who played first trumpet in his high school orchestra found doo-wop music and became the leader of a band; what does the search for identity mean for all of us.

I like to remember the first time I met Ruben Guevara. Sue Ying Peery had organized a poetry reading at the Midnight Special Bookstore in support of the struggle of homeless residents of Los Angeles. The featured poet was Jack Hirschman, in L.A. on a reading tour. Sue Ying had asked Guevara to read, and he did (the book, by the way, is sprinkled liberally with examples of his poetry). Afterward, I walked over to where Ruben was standing and told him how much I appreciated his reading for this event and how much I liked his poetry. He told me that it was important to support such events, but that he didn’t consider himself a poet. “People like Pablo Neruda are poets,” he said. I think time has proven that, in his own right, Guevara is a poet, or, as he has styled himself, a “Chicano Culture Sculptor.” Con Safos!

Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer, Ruben Funkahuatl Guevara, University of California Press, 2018