The Presence of Memories

In late November I often think of this picture, an advertisement that appeared in Family Circle magazine, available at checkout counters in every grocery store in the country. That’s my mother, Anna, the matriarch of the picture, and although it’s a pot roast, not a turkey, it’s always Thanksgiving that brings it to mind. She was now a bona fide celebrity.

Anna, ever a presence, presiding in her close encounter with celebrity

My parents became an item in the 1920s — I’d say they got married then, but they never did go through the formal paperwork. I was born in 1942, after they’d been together almost 20 years, and 14 1/2 years after my sister, my only sibling, was born. They celebrated their anniversary at Thanksgiving, because it was a chance to get family and friends together. My father’s brother, Abe, and at least two of his children who lived close to New Haven (Herman and Milly) and their families might be there. My mother was close to two of her brothers, but only one, Lou, lived near by and would stop by with family and also their father, Aaron, (before he came to live with us). My mother ruled the kitchen, she prepared a family feast, and her presence was immanent. That’s the other reason I am now thinking of the photograph: in a conversation with my friend Kathleen, she reminded me of the time I introduced her to my mother, probably 1968. She told me the other day that my mother “was a presence.” The words have been rolling around in my brain since she said them.

In 1960 I moved to Los Angeles from New Haven, Connecticut. I moved to get as far away from home as I could, and to be near my sister. One year later, home moved to Los Angeles: my parents settled in an apartment near Olympic and Fairfax on Hi Point. My sister, Greta, and her husband, Leon, lived in the hills above Hollywood, on Outpost Drive. It seemed to me like a mansion, with its huge living room with 14 foot ceilings, its large kitchen, dining room, breakfast nook, and three bedrooms. And the magnificent tiled bathroom next to the master bedroom, that had a stall shower, a bathtub, and a toilet separated in such a way that three people could be using the bathroom and would not see each other.

When Greta and Leon moved to the Outpost house, Leon had been an aspiring lawyer for the Alden Construction Co. since the early 1950s. That is how they had gotten a choice home in a tract built by Alden in Buena Park, not far from Disneyland in Orange County. But Leon decided to start his own firm, based in Los Angeles, and the commute from their home in Buena Park was expensive and prohibitive in terms of time. The move to Hollywood meant finding a school for their children, and Greta found the Hollywood public elementary school severely lacking. They found Oakwood, a school begun by other parents dissatisfied with overcrowding and what educational opportunities they found. The school began in 1951 in the back yard of Robert and Jessica Ryan, and by the time Greta and Leon moved into the Outpost house, the school had a real building and the school community included a number of families in the film and other arts industries.

One of the parents was a commercial photographer — someone whose name I have long forgotten. Although by 1969 Robin, Randy and Ronni — Greta and Leon’s children — had outgrown Oakwood, Leon’s law practice kept him in contact with that artistic community. The commercial photographer was shooting a magazine advertisement for Hunt’s. He was looking for a grandmother-type person; perhaps he had even met Anna at Greta’s for dinner. That I don’t know, any more than I remember who the photographer was. In my fantasy, it might have been Haskell Wexler (whose son went to Oakwood) and whom I met at the time. I just can’t imagine the filmmaker having to make money by shooting advertisements.

The advertisement was published, my mother was a presence at every grocery checkout counter in America and we were properly impressed by our association with fame.

A decade later Leon and Greta were divorced and their children scattered away from Los Angeles. Anna had declined into early stages of dementia — she was no longer capable of living independently, but I would pick her up from her nursing home residence and take her to the Midnight Special Bookstore, then in Venice, where she presided at the checkout counter, greeting customers and regaling them with her favorite story of the family hiding from the Tsar’s Cossacks at her grandmother’s home in Vilnius, Lithuania. Radical students from all different political stripes would attribute their own ideology to whatever she said and walk out of the store reaffirmed by their perception of her steadfastness. In 1979 the Bookstore gave her an 83rd birthday party barbecue in a park in Mar Vista. She was still a presence, although the light in her eyes did not burn as brightly. She was pleased that the party raised $125 to support the organizing work of the Texas Farmworkers Union, where coincidentally granddaughter Robin was involved.

Anna died in 1983 at 87 years of age. We held a celebration of her life in the backyard of friends Kathryn and Brad Stevens in Cudahy. I left Los Angeles four years later.

I keep the presence of memories with me though.

Matt Sedillo interviews Lew Rosenbaum

I, Like You, Am Made of Stars

I, Like You, Am Made of Stars: Matt Sedillo’s Mowing Leaves of Grass

a review essay by Lew Rosenbaum

Anyone listening to Matt Sedillo spit his poems across a crowded room will be mesmerized. It’s the rapid fire of his delivery, the plain speaking, the cadence and rhythm, the word play.  The content.  Yes, it is the content.  After all, none other than Greg Palast calls him the best political poet in America. It’s an important book to read in the midst of a season of uprisings. A new poetics and a new way of seeing the world are needed in a time of rebellion. Having a chance to examine the poems in his book shows that the form you hear in the delivery is there, on the page, too. 

Matt Sedillo. Photos on the wall are from the 1970 Chicano Moratorium. Journalist Ruben Salazar, whose image appears in a poster behind Sedillo’s right shoulder, was killed in the Silver Dollar Cafe by LA Sheriffs on that day.

Take “Once.”  “Once upon a dream” the poem begins, evoking mythic origins.  “I had this dream once,” he continues a few lines later in the poem. ‘”son/There live the rich/And though you and I/ May never get to see it/One day this hill will run red with their blood.” Much of the rest of the poem reviews dialectical pairs of why the hill will run red – “Mendez and Lemon Grove” refer to the Mendez family’s fight against segregation in Lemon Grove, California. “Rodriguez vs. San Antonio” alludes to the 1971 racial and class equity fight of the School Improvement Association in Texas.  “Saul Castro and the blowouts” is actually Sal Castro, and the reference is to the 1968 high school student walkouts for ethnic studies programs, where the opposition was the LA Unified School District and, in particular at the beginning, Lincoln Park High. These class and racial conflicts fuel the rage that will lead to what the poet’s father predicts. If you’ve not heard of these incidents, that’s part of Sedillo’s poetic strategy.  He wants you to find something with which you are familiar, but he wants you to ask questions about what you don’t know, do a little work, realize that there is more to the poem than lies on the surface.  He is challenging you to inquire.

From the same poem, “I head east/ Toward clinics of cruelty/ All humanity stripped from a system/Sadism posed as social work.”  Clinics of cruelty and sadism posed as social work are two of my favorite metaphors in the book and they jump right off the line.  But this is a setup for Sedillo’s third dream.  “I have this dream/Every so often/Of people/ Beyond borders and prisons/Gathered in the distance/Telling tales of time/When women feared the evening/When communities were punished by color/And grown men hunted children/Hardly able to believe/People once lived this way.”  Three dreams and three outcomes.  Origins, retribution, and the world we want to live in. You can’t leave clinics of cruelty unless you can envision the kind of world you want to inhabit. And that is what Sedillo is giving you here.

“The Servant’s Song” goes one step further – the title first makes me think of Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales are filled with the tales of ordinary folk.  But by the end I see it as an allusion to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht –Pirate Jenny’s song. At first it is a song of “Captains of industry/Lords of limited liability,” and a celebration of their power.  But in the servants quarters people are dreaming and singing songs of blood and conquest. This hill too will run red with blood. Just like in Brecht’s poem, where hotel maid Jenny welcomes the pirates bombarding the hotel and the capitalists. Definitely songs for our times.

In “Oh Say,” Sedillo riffs on the lines of “Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful,” writing not only that he never saw any purple mountain’s majesty, but mixes in a refrain from “Strange Fruit” and hits the reader with the contrast – “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.”  How can you square one vision of America with another, he is asking, without questioning the blood at the root? Deep within this poem are references to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the ironic “Oh captain, my captain” and “Oh pioneer.” “The myths/ The hymns/ The bitterness/Of fairy tales/Best woven into song,” he says, including myths of Lincoln and the Civil War.  Words tumble over each other to reach the end of a poem of slashing ironies, of “amber waves of chains.”

The title of the book and the title poem demand that the reader come to terms with Walt Whitman.  The title is a challenge:  cut Whitman down to size, perhaps.

I bought my copy of Leaves of Grass somewhere around 1989 or 1990, after listening to Luis Rodriguez comment about how so many of the talented poets writing in Chicago had not studied the masters, like Whitman, didn’t realize how much we owe to him.  In a 2015 interview, Rodriguez said something similar:  “[Poetry] is not at the center of [our] culture. It’s pushed to the side. And yet we have some of the best, from Walt Whitman to Emily Dickinson all the way to the present.” I confess I’ve still not been able to read all of Leaves of Grass, though I recognize what Whitman meant to the poetic canon. At the time Leaves of Grass was published, it was condemned and admired for its sensuality. Some refer to him as the father of free verse. Most don’t realize that the title, Leaves of Grass, was a pun.  Grass was a term used at the time to describe trash literature, and a leaf is a page of a book. Grass, of course, is also a plant, and Whitman, in part 6 of “Song of Myself,” defines and describes grass.

None of that is Matt Sedillo’s contention.  Whitman, in Sedillo’s view, was a racist who deserves no respect.

George Hutchinson and David Drews, in an essay in the Whitman archive, begin as follows:

“Whitman has commonly been perceived as one of the few white American writers who transcended the racial attitudes of his time, a great prophet celebrating ethnic and racial diversity and embodying egalitarian ideals. He has been adopted as a poetic father by poets of Native American, Asian, African, European, and Chicano descent. Nonetheless, the truth is that Whitman in person largely, though confusedly and idiosyncratically, internalized typical white racial attitudes of his time, place, and class.” 

Some are saying, in the context of taking down statues of slaveholders and confederates, that statues memorializing Whitman should be removed as well. Hutchinson and Drews describe Whitman’s inconsistent racial attitudes that more or less mimic the different views of the time, views inconsistent with the “democratic spirit” of his poetry.  They conclude their essay thus:

Because of the radically democratic and egalitarian aspects of his poetry, readers generally expect, and desire for, Whitman to be among the literary heroes that transcended the racist pressures that abounded in all spheres of public discourse during the nineteenth century. He did not, at least not consistently; nonetheless his poetry has been a model for democratic poets of all nations and races, right up to our own day. How Whitman could have been so prejudiced, and yet so effective in conveying an egalitarian and antiracist sensibility in his poetry, is a puzzle yet to be adequately addressed.

But this is about Matt Sedillo’s Mowing Leaves of Grass, so what does Matt Sedillo say?  The title poem is, in a way, Matt Sedillo’s own “Song of Myself.”  Beginning “I am the as yet written vengeance of Elvira Valdez,” the poet leads us through a litany of Southwestern cities drawing connections to the Chicano past and present on a path through miseducation and misrepresentation and punishment unless we accept the canonic political and literary leaders.  These include Chaucer and Shakespeare and of course Whitman.  “If we let you in/What will become/ Of the canon?” The voice becomes that of the oppressor: “I will show you/ Who you are/ In a book/ And you will believe it/ ‘Cause I said it.”  But the poet seizes control again, says check out my poetry — “The universe/ Is a muralist/ The Cosmos/ Our self-portrait,”  and here comes Joaquin,  “Triumphant/ Marching/ Through the halls of Tucson/Mowing down leaves of grass/Fuck Walt Whitman.”  There it is:  the punch line, followed by the affirmation of what it means to be alive,  “all that we are and all that we have been.”

Whitman worked on a New Orleans newspaper for three months.  Having witnessed slave auctions with revulsion (also described in “Song of Myself”), he returned to Brooklyn, New York and founded a free-soil newspaper.  Free-soilers were not abolitionists, but they played a role in demanding the end of the expansion of slave-owner controlled territory and in opening the fight for the end of slavery.  The leadership of the fight to break the back of the slave power was industrial capital in the north.  Wall Street brought Reconstruction to an end when it reached an accommodation with the slave power and returned the planter aristocracy back to control, now under the domination of northern interests. The freedmen lost what they had gained and were driven back into peonage. This is the context in which all the transcendental poets and writers worked.  A group of New England abolitionists, dubbed the “Secret Six” and connected to the transcendentalists, raised money for John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry.  Whitman attended John Brown’s hanging, and joined Thoreau, Melville, and Emerson in condemning the execution. 

Today’s cause is also a form of abolition – a form that strikes deeper into what divides American society than ever before.  When we hear today the call for prison abolition or for abolishing the police, and we engage some of these abolitionists in conversation, we find that they are talking about restructuring society entirely. A secure and safe society is one in which human beings have all their needs met and in which they thrive, not just survive.  If 150 years ago the battle was to end chattel slavery, today increasing permanent unemployment demands why wages are necessary to obtain the abundance available today. Poets have been modernizing the democracy of 150 years ago, taking their verse into the streets with the demonstrators, taking the open mic to the people’s mic.  If free verse liberated poets to write in a more democratic form, contemporary spoken word has dragged poetry into the battle for today’s new world democracy – the democracy of distribution according to need. 

Sal Castro, a teacher at Lincoln High School, one of five high schools who took part in the “blowouts,” a coordinated school walkout in 1968. In the wake of the blowouts, Castro was arrested and charged with 15 counts of conspiracy to disrupt public schools and 15 counts of conspiracy to disturb the peace. The charges were dropped in 1972.

That, in my view, is Matt Sedillo’s genius.  I don’t disagree with Greg Palast, when he assessed Sedillo as America’s most important political poet.  But our new generation comes out of a cauldron that is producing – can’t help but produce – an army of brilliant writers with a vision of a new world.  I think Sedillo himself says this in “El Sereno.”

 “El Sereno” is one of my favorites in this collection, perhaps because the poet so concretely and vividly describes an area of Los Angeles I know well.  He speaks of the “industrial petrified forest,” and the people who worked there.  “As a child/ I could never quite/ Make the connection/Between the broken/ And empty bottles/ Across the steps/ And the broken and empty men/ Poured out the rust factories/From across the tracks,” he writes.  And there’s another, related  connection he could not make. His father “A prince among men/In a backward kingdom,”  Sedillo couldn’t make the connection “Between/ His fingers around my throat/And the anguish/In his chest.” It’s the same anguish he has explored in many of these poems, the same as the black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.  In the face of all this, and perhaps because of all this, the poet is defiant, but more than defiant. He evokes the communist poet Roque Dalton’s “Como Tu” when he writes “I like You/Am made of stars/ You like me/So full of pain/Are brimming with genius/Listen to no one/Who would make you feel different.” 

Listen to no one who would make you feel different.

Two Poems on Independence Day

[I wrote these two poems over the last couple of years and included them in my chapbook, Time’s Arrow. The book is available for $5 plus shipping.  Send me a message if you are interested — Lew Rosenbaum]

Independence Day

i don’t know what to tell you

Cover Time's Arrow

The cover art for the chapbook Time’s Arrow is from a denim construction by Diana Berek

about independence day

here in the you ess of A

my blue-eyed boy

my green haired girl,

independent from whom and for what

surely not from the corporations

for which we slave

or from the overseers who

happily expelled us from our

gainful employment

so we can dance forever

in the graveyard of jobfullness

gnawing on bones scraped

from the dumpster where we

dive and drink the contents of

half empty coke cans

and catch a few winks

before the copper taps us

on the toes and tells us to move on

or chokes us for selling loose squares

what can I tell you about sitting

hat in hand in front of the food emporium

i want to give you good counsel

but all i can think of is to

urge you to take what you need

but I know that while capital

takes what it wants

without a thought

you will wind up in solitary

for dreaming of the steak in the cold case

or even a bag of chicharrones

to munch on

with a cold old English gurgling down the throat

on a hot, windless summer day

the aroma of the barbecue

pulled pork or ribs

smothered in sweet baby ray

streaming from the park

on cool lake breezes

drives you to a frenzy

 

so what can you be independent of

my green eyed boy

my blue haired girl

without taking over the

whole mother fucker

and making it ours

 

Cooperation Day

 

I’m not sure about this independence thing any more.

Independence is overrated.

National or individual I mean.

It’s what I was told I needed to be ever since I was very young.

I wanted to be independent of my parents

I ran away from home as far away as I could get

And now my children, as they too struggle for independence

Come back and back again

And only part of it is because the safety net has shredded

But this independence thing doesn’t even work for nations any more.

You can Brexit as much as you want but you can’t disentangle yourself

From your neighbors

Those who struggled for independence in the hallowed 1960s

Find the tentacles of imperialism bind tighter

Even if they are coated with sugar

And while I sit alone in my apartment

Eating my salad and drinking Dos Equis

I tip my cap to the farm workers of Sinaloa

The Cuauhtemoc brewery workers in Monterrey

The timber workers of the Pacific Northwest,

Maybe they were Wobblies from Everett or Centralia,

Who cut the wood that made my table,

And even more these days

The silicon valley upstarts whose robotics produce everything

Including the Japanese car I drive

The shirt all the way from Cambodia clinging to my back

The lettuce from Salinas

Obliterating jobs, but not the need for real, creative work.

 

Don’t we need a new holiday that celebrates our

Interconnectedness, interdependence?

The way we relate to each other

The way we could take care of each other

Call the day “everybody eats day,”

Call it “Big Rock Candy Mountain Day,”

Call it the day we abolish money and jobs

And celebrate work and contribution

Call it cooperation day.

Book Covers 1.” They Got Us On A Rack”

Book Covers 1. John Edgar Wideman and “They Got Us On A Rack”

In 1984 John Edgar Wideman published Brothers and Keepers, a bestseller memoir and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for best book of non-fiction that year.  The book explores how he became an award winning novelist, while his brother wound up serving a life sentence convicted of murder.  I was working at the Midnight Special

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Cover of the first (Avon) edition of Sent For You Yesterday

Bookstore in Santa Monica.  I didn’t read Brothers and Keepers, but I did pick up his novel, published the year before, the third of what is called his “Homewood Books.”  Wideman is known for his experimental writing techniques, and perhaps that is what drew me into Sent For You Yesterday. The use of language, its color and rhythm and musicality.  But what really hit me hard was this passage, early on, when John French waits on a street corner in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, early on a chilly, damp morning, to be picked up for day labor. I wrote this four years ago about my daughter Courtney, her kids, and Diana and me, how we experience the life we lead mirrors what Wideman wrote many years ago:

How do you write about a life lived intensely, from crisis to crisis. Persistent, determined, bright, Courtney struggled as a single parent with three kids, still struggles. Mostly employed, but never employed enough to get out of debt, pay rent, buy enough food, afford health care.  Mirroring the irregularity of her precarious existence, Courtney shows the heights of creativity necessary to pick her way through the mine-field of poverty, falling into the depths of depression when circumstances gang up around her and block her way.  We’ve been lucky enough to be in a position to help when the depths were deepest; after all part of the joys of family is to alleviate the pain of those close to us.  But the other part that we have had to come to grips with is that we are living the life of a new section of society that is being born.  Yes even us, the old ones, Diana and I.

John Edgar Wideman wrote about it in a novel called Sent For You Yesterday. This is an image which has stayed with me for more than 30 years

wideman-autograph

“They used to put people on wheels and pull them apart. Pull the arms and legs out of the sockets just like a kid do a bug. Boiling people in oil and slamming their heads in a helmet full of spikes, and horses tearing men into four pieces and that wheel with ropes and pulleys stretch a man inch by inch to death. The rack, Albert said . . . They got us on a rack, John French.  They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected where its supposed to be. Ain’t even gon recognize our ownselves in the mirror.”

Courtney has her own image, a personal one, that comes from the character in the Lil Abner comic strip.  Joe Btfsplk, the world’s worst jinx, the well-meaning character who walks around with a rain cloud over his head.  Ever since I wrote [my poem to Courtney when she turned 21]  “Twenty-one Is,” we’ve been coming to grips with how one’s personal luck fits in the context of the relations of society.  The dialectic of taking responsibility for what is in your power to control, but not accepting guilt for what cards class society deals you.

That’s what John French is trying to negotiate that early morning when he waits on the corner to get a day-labor job as a paper hanger, feeling all the joints in his body aching, and trying to explain that to himself.  It’s the social relations that force him into the back breaking work.  And it’s the social relations that force Courtney into having to move every year or two, to struggle to get adequate care and counseling

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Cover art for this edition is by Romare Bearden

for the kids, to get food stamps when out of work, to avoid on pain of starvation and eviction, going to apply for welfare .  It’s the social relations that bring Diana and me to look at our social security to figure out if we have enough to pay rent this month, or pay the medicare premium.

“They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected to where it’s supposed to be.” This image split my brain 30 years ago.  How is it that such an image that is so horrible is at the same time so beautiful?  It is a Goya painting in words.  It fascinates. Your eyes keep returning to it.  Your fingers want to touch the blood to see if it is fresh, if it is real.  But it is real, because it captures the essence of what I am feeling each time I pay rent, each time Courtney loses a job. And each time I dream of diamonds out of broken glass, pearls growing around sand grains.

A pandemic makes you look at things differently.  Everything, even the rack they’ve got us on.  Wideman wrote about that too, first in a collection of his short stories. I wrote this four years ago:

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 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 novel Wideman was referring to came out a few years later, entitled The Cattle Killing. The plague fever was smallpox. Black Philadelphians in the late 18th century were both accused of being the origin of the disease and being immune to it, and thus were charged with caring for the ill.  Unlike today’s plague of COVID 19, the smallpox is spread by a mosquito.  There is no person to person way to spread the illness.  Like the Philadelphia plague, rumors spread early that Blacks were immune to the disease; however, today’s plague strikes hardest among the poorest, most congested populations, especially Black and Latinx.  That underlined passage rings truer even than it did when I first read it.

By 1990, when he published his Philadelphia Fire I was a certifiable John Edgar WidemanScreen Shot 2020-05-24 at 12.42.13 AM groupie.  His autograph in my copy reads “You’re a warrior in a good fight. Stay strong.” If the fight he was talking about was spreading new ideas, then Philadelphia Fire is the novel of a warrior in that good fight. My copy of the book is heavily annotated and underlined.  The inside boards of the cover are filled with page numbers — references to themes and concepts that struck me as I was reading.  Here’s what I wrote about the book a few years ago:

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.

[After Wideman’s reading at Columbia College] 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 how rap interpenetrates that section] 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.

The fire in Philadelphia that this novel remembers is not the historical Philadelphia of The Cattle Killing.  It is contemporary Philadelphia, just five years from the date of publication, the five year anniversary of when the city fathers dropped a bomb of C4 explosives on the roof of a row house on Osage Avenue, setting a fire that killed 11 of the 13 people living inside and burned an entire neighborhood to the ground. The residents of the building belonged to a group variously described as radical, anarchist, Black, environmentalist, back to nature activists.  May 10, 2020 was the 35th anniversary of an event that is little known outside Philadelphia, but continues to be traumatic in the city.  ‘We have bred the affliction within our breasts,”  Wideman said in The Cattle Killing. You can see it even deeper in this story. A Guardian article brings some of the history up to date.  Some MOVE activists who had been arrested and imprisoned before the attack on Osage Avenue remained incarcerated for over 40 years.  Ramona Africa, the only adult to escape the holocaust alive, was imprisoned.  Five children were incinerated in the blast and the ensuing fire. One child escaped, running naked through a wall of fire into an alley and away. Or so the story of the novel goes.

Birdie_africa-move-bombing-philadelphia

Iconic photo of Birdie Africa, taken by Michael Mally of the Philadelphia Inquirer as the van took the boy to the hospital.

In a sense, the main character of the novel could be the child that got away.  The novelist himself is a main character as well, under the name of Cudjoe (the historical antecedent of this name stems from a leader of the Maroons, enslaved West Africans who escaped into the hills of Jamaica and for more than a century resisted British colonization). Interviewing a woman who had been a MOVE member, Cudjoe searches for the child who escaped.  The name the woman gives him is Simbha Muntu, or “Lion Man.” In real life he was known as Birdie Africa, 13 years old when he got away. The mystery of his getting away is more important than the history, which is recounted in this Philadelphia Inquirer article. A police officer took the boy to a nearby van, which then took him to a hospital, where he stayed while his burns were being treated. His father, Andino Ward, not a member of the MOVE group, reclaimed his son and renamed him Michael Moses Ward. Birdie/Michael died in 2013 on a cruise ship in the Caribbean at 41 years old.

What is it that survived from the wreckage on Osage Avenue?  How did it come about? What are people thinking?  How does it reconcile with the author’s very comfortable life?  Or with his past life in this very city of Philadelphia?  How can we escape our past,

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Rhodes scholar and basketball star John Edgar Wideman on the cover of Look magazine

how do we beat the drums to recover our humanity?  Wideman poses no answers to questions.  Cudjoe has a dream.  He’s at Clark Park near Osage Avenue. “I’m also a witness, upright, floating, somehow staring down at the basketball court, screaming because a boy is lynched from the rim. A kid hanging there with his neck broken and drawers droopy and caked with shit and piss. It’s me and every black boy I’ve ever seen running up and own playing ball . . .”  Wideman was an All Ivy League team basketball player and leading scorer and captain of his University of Pennsylvania basketball team. Could the kid hanging there have been Simbha?

A howl ends the book:  “A mob howling [Cudjoe’s] name. Screaming for blood. Words come to him, cool him, stop him in his tracks. He’d known them all his life.  Never again. Never again. He turns to face whatever it is rumbling across the stones of Independence Square.”

Romare Bearden’s work explodes from the cover of Sent For You Yesterday (see illustration above). In 2018, Wideman published a collection of short stories, American Histories. I wrote this (you can read the whole essay in this blog) about the lens through which to read American Histories last year: “You can discover the key to American Histories, the profoundly dialectical collection of what purports to be short stories by master craftsman John Wideman, on page 206.  ‘Well, Basquiat asks, how does the artist resolve this dilemma, Maestro? This perpetual losing battle, this shifting back and forth, this absence, gap, this oblivion between a reality the senses seize and a reality the imagination seizes.’”  Basquiat, the young and brash artist, interrogates the old master

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John Edgar Wideman

Bearden in an imagined conversation.  They lived a few blocks from each other in Harlem and, as far as anyone knows, never met. That conflict, though, between what is real and what is imagined pulses through American Histories and through all his work; more politically stated, that conflict between what exists and what is possible. I can’t read American Histories without being haunted by the picture of every boy lynched from the rim of the basketball hoop; by the plague that needs no importation of refugees to spread its contagion; by the rack tearing us apart.

“They got us on a rack, John French.  They’re gon keep turning till ain’t nothing connected where its supposed to be.”  That’s still how I experience the world. If there is anything the current plague has shown us, it is that this statement is real.  They don’t care about us.  It remains for us, those whom the system has discarded, mutilated, wiped out of history — it remains for us to imagine and to build what is possible. “The drum must pound ten thousand thousand years to drive that evil away.”  We need to find that howl. We need to pound that drum.  We haven’t got 10,000 years.

Album Covers #1: “Just You Wait!”

Danny Alexander kind of challenged me to write about records which have influenced me — using the record covers.

I want to start with the very first album I got — it was 1957, I was visiting my sister, Greta, in Buena Park, Southern California, for the summer. That was the year that I helped her “fix up” the house she and her husband had just purchased in the Hollywood hills — sand and paint cabinets, clean, clean and clean some more. In Buena Park, though, I had made some friends from neighborhood kids my age: Jeff Jones from the family next door, Pinky and Jim Wilcox from the house down the street, Alan Wiggins also living on that street. We played in the street in front of the houses, went to the boys club together, went together with my sister’s family to Knott’s Berry farm, the alligator farm across the street from Knott’s, and of course to Disneyland which had recently opened up. The summer came to an end, I had to go back to school in New Haven, Connecticut, and given that my sister was moving, the chances of my seeing my new-made friends again was practically nil. The families were not well off in this complex of tract homes — working class folks who were from somewhere in middle America where they had been unable to make a 20140815_165252living. But the kids were sad to see me leave, and in a startling gesture I had no way to anticipate, and even today makes me want to reach out and thank them for their kindness again — they gave me my first LP record, “My Fair Lady.”

It was undoubtedly a record my sister had, undoubtedly one I played over and over again while I was there, knew all the words, copied the accents and dialects as best I could. She most likely suggested this album when they asked what they should get for me. But I couldn’t play it. I did not have a record player at home that would play LPs. We had an old record player that only took 78s. I didn’t tell them that though.

When I moved to southern California in 1960, I moved to go to the University of Southern California. When I moved into the dormitory that fall (Trojan Hall, with a room overlooking Figueroa St. at 36th St.), my sister gave me a table top record player. I set it on my desk, where I did my homework, the desk set into the wall under the window overlooking Figueroa. And of course the first record I played was “My Fair Lady.”

My father had been a used book dealer back in the early 1930s. As a child I watched my father build bookcases out of oak for the books that remained from the shop that had closed as the depression hit its depth. There was something seriously valuable about these old books is the message that wafted across these musty volumes. Wanting to be like my father, I sought out used book stores from my first visit to Los Angeles in 1953. I don’t know what it was that attracted me to George Bernard Shaw — I don’t remember any volumes of Shaw in his collection — but going into downtown LA and searching the shelves of the Goodwill and the Salvation Army stores, I found old GBS titles which I brought home. Even more, I actually read them. I don’t know if Pygmaiion was one of the plays I read then; but I do know that I knew the myth from my reading of Greek mythology, the fantasy stories that I loved. So I was just ready for loving “My Fair Lady” when it hit the musical stage.

In these years my mother encouraged my interest in the theater by taking me to plays in the local Schubert theater. New Haven was a major place shows on their way to Broadway to “try out.” I don’t remember much, except I saw some amazing actors in plays by . . . Shaw and Bertolt Brecht. And by the time I got to college, I had come to understand that both Shaw and Brecht represented artists who fused their politics with their art. Neither of them were satisfied with the status quo, both wanted a new society. While I didn’t understand the differences between them, I understood that one thing that united them was an understanding of class.

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George Bernard Shaw

No matter what Lerner and Loewe did to transform “My Fair Lady” into a simple love story, for me the question of “other” was always the most important thing in the story. The class representation in language, the idea that the upper class had the right to mold the people of the lower classes the way they wanted, the concept that workers could not think for themselves — all of this was very prominent for me in this play and even the musical. And the idea of Eliza standing up for herself, not just an object of these two wealthy men! And isn’t that what we are struggling with today, in a much more exaggerated form, perhaps even a qualitatively different form? In the 1950s, Lerner and Loewe could satirize the British caste system implying it didn’t exist in the US. In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, and despite reports that the virus does not discriminate, we know that it ravages “othered” communities; we know that the well heeled have better access to necessary health care. We know that COVID is spreading rapidly among communities where the poorer dialects of English are spoken. The class character of who gets hit by the virus most is clearer and clearer. And the resistance to a system that allows this is growing too. Because unlike the 1950s, those of us in that class have no choice any more. We have learned that the Henry Higginses of our world do not care about us.

So I would like to join Eliza in a chorus that I think is what our own ruling class is most afraid of: “Just you wait Henry Higgins, just you wait. You’ll be sorry but your tears will be too late.”

Earth Day at 50 — Lenin at 150

“He gave imagination to the writers
His every word became poetry”

by Lew Rosenbaum

On this day, April 22, 2020, perhaps millions of people are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day.  In 1969 then Senator Gaylord Nelson, an environmentalist, called for a national day of teach-ins on the environment for the spring of the following year.  He proposed April 22 as a day when most students would be most likely to participate.  An advertising man suggested that “Earth Day” might be a more broadly appealing name than a day of teach-ins.  And so “Earth Day” was born.  Nelson himself repudiated the idea that the choice of April 22 was a communist plot.  The John Birch Society, among others, had insinuated that the choice of April 22 was driven by the fact that date in 1970 coincided with the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Ilich Ulianov’s (Lenin) birthday.  Nelson quipped that the Birch Society knew more about Lenin than he did;  nevertheless, young people of 1970 knew more about Lenin than he did too.

At the time of the first Earth Day I was 27 and had come rather late to reading the works of the great Bolshevik.  Just a few years later, talking with my niece Ronni, a high school activist organizer working on Earth Day, I asked with a wry smile whether she knew that April 22 was also Lenin’s birthday.  She replied, with the characteristic twinkle in her eye, that was why the date was chosen.

Lenin lives

“Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin shall live forever” V. Mayakovsky

So maybe both stories are true.  Maybe Lenin’s birthday had nothing to do with the choice of April 22; maybe it had everything to do with that choice.  A Talmudic fight about that is really not the point.  The point is the perseverance of Lenin’s influence, even though now, in 2020, when everyone is talking about the 50th Earth Day, little attention is being paid to Lenin’s 150th birthday, which is today.  Here is evidence of that perseverance:  “Lenin in Urdu: His Every Word Became Poetry.” This is one of a number of essays intended to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth.  It is a short review essay of writers in Urdu who have celebrated Lenin.  People who saw him as the embodiment of revolution.  In no small part is this due to the fact that, after the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in 1917, Lenin was the main force within the Russian Communist Party who understood and fought for at first a minority position:  that what was then called the “national question” was the main form that the fight for socialism was taking, the liberation of the colonial countries from imperialism.

Well of course Lenin is remembered in many more places than in the Urdu language.  Bertolt Brecht wrote numerous poems that refer to Lenin.  One that is a bridge from the peoples of the East is this one:

The Carpet Weavers of Kuyan-Bulak Honour Lenin

Often he was honoured and profusely
The Comrade Lenin. Busts there are and statues.
Cities were named after him and children.
Speeches are made in numerous languages
Rallies there are and demonstrations
From Shanghai to Chicago, in honour of Lenin.
But thus they honoured him
The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak
A small village in southern Turkistan:

Twenty carpet weavers stand there in the evening
Shivering with fever, in front of their humble loom.
Fever runs riot: the railway station
Teeming with buzzing mosquitoes – a thick cloud
Arising from the swamp behind the old camel cemetery.
But the train, which
Once in two weeks brings water and smoke, brings
Also the news one day
That the day for honouring Lenin lies ahead
And so decide the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Carpet weavers, poor folk
That for the Comrade Lenin also in their village

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Left – V. I. Lenin; Right – Urdu poet Mohammad Iqbal

A gypsum bust would be installed.
But as the money is collected for the bust
All of them stand
Trembling with fever and contribute
Their hard earned kopecks with wobbling hands.
And the Red Army soldier Stepa Jamal, who
Carefully counts and meticulously watches,
Sees the readiness, to honour Lenin, and is filled with joy.
But he also sees the uncertain hands.
And all of a sudden he makes a proposal
To buy petroleum with the money collected for the bust
In order to pour it on the swamp behind the camel cemetery
From where the mosquitoes come, which
Cause the fever
Thus to combat the fever in Kuyan-Bulak, and indeed
To honour the late, but
Not to be forgotten
Comrade Lenin.

This was agreed to. On the day of paying respect to
Lenin they carried
Their battered buckets, filled with black petroleum
One behind the other
Over there and spread it on the swamp.

So they benefited themselves, in paying homage to Lenin and
Paid homage to him, in that they benefited themselves and had
Therefore understood him well.

                        2

We have heard how the Kuyan-Bulak folk
Paid their respect to Lenin. As now in the evening
The petroleum had been bought and discharged over the swamp
Stood up a man in the assembly, and he demanded
That a commemoration stone be erected at the railway Station
Reporting these events, containing
The altered plan and the exchange
Instead of Lenin’s bust the fever eradicating petroleum barrel,
And all this in honour of Lenin
And they did that too
And mounted the slab.

(Note: Kuyan-Bulak is the railway station of Ferghana in Uzbekistan. The Slab had the text: ‘In this place there should have been a memorial to Lenin, but instead of the memorial, petroleum was brought and poured over the swamp. Thus Kuyan-Bulak, in memory of Lenin and in his Name smothered malaria’. Translator.)

The Jamaica Peace Council, an organization of Jamaicans at home and abroad, published in April 2019 this poem by Langston Hughes:

Lenin

Lenin walks around the world.

Frontiers cannot bar him.

Neither barracks nor barricades impede.

Nor does barbed wire scar him.

Lenin walks around the world.

Black, brown, and white receive him.

Language is no barrier.

The strangest tongues believe him.

Lenin walks around the world.

The sun sets like a scar.

Between the darkness and the dawn

There rises a red star.

As explanation, the author on the site writes:

The poem uses the figure of Vladimir Lenin as a stand-in for the march of social equality across the world, the hope of racial and economic harmony in the world.

Though Hughes didn’t identify as a communist and claimed to have never read Marxist texts at his congressional trial led by the infamous “Red Scare” Senator Joseph McCarthy, his poem describes an awakening in the world among oppressed people of the world for justice.

And of course there is the series of four poems, written from 1920 to 1924, by Vladimir

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V. Mayakovsky

Mayakovsky that celebrated the life of Lenin and commemorated his death. “The time has come,” Mayakovsky wrote:

I begin

the story of Lenin

Not

because the grief

is on the wane,

but because

the bitter anguish

of that moment

has become

a clear-cut,

weighed and fathomed pain.

Time,

speed on,

spread Lenin’s slogans in your whirl!

Not for us

to drown in tears

whatever happens.

There’s no one

more alive

than Lenin in the world,

our strength,

our wisdom,

surest of our weapons.

Poetry, then, is a way into understanding the international reverence for V. I. Lenin, and why he might have been on the minds of the young people in 1970, as perhaps they enjoyed a private joke behind the scenes at the expense of their elders who serendipitously chose April 22, 1970 to launch Earth Day.

Chances are, though, they didn’t know who Lenin really was.  They probably didn’t know that he was a Latin scholar, and that his first introduction to revolutionary writing was through the Russian novelist Chernyshevsky.  They probably had never read the essays he wrote about Tolstoy, a novelist whose writing he loved, but whose worship of Russian mysticism he detested: He could never understand how the revolutionary and the reactionary could coexist in one man.  He read widely in Russian literature (Pushkin, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Gogol).  All of this and more was reviewed in The Guardian (“How Lenin’s Love of Literature Shaped the Revolution”) in 2017, as a way into looking at Lenin’s contribution to the Russian revolution and to the thinking of revolutionaries generally.

Lenin spent two decades building the foundation for the revolutionary organization capable of toppling the czar and establishing socialism in Russia.  At numerous points in that two decades he found himself in the minority among the revolutionaries.  Often he found himself in a small organization of exiles.  What he did in that twenty years was write furiously.  He wrote about the kind of tasks that were necessary (revolutionaries did not agree on those tasks; they did not agree on what forces in society were revolutionary; they did not agree on what role they should play as World War I got underway). He wrote about the ideological, organizational, and tactical building blocks necessary for the kind of political party he thought was necessary.  Some of these contributed some ideas particular to the revolutionary situation in Russia, ideas that he began to formulate when exiled early in his career to Siberia; when he researched and wrote a book that chronicled the Development of Capitalism in Russia. Here he maintained that despite the minuscule size of the Russian industrial working class, capitalism was already developing in Russia. Despite the general consensus that the Russian peasants were a monolithic class, Lenin described the stratification of peasantry into a wealthy section, a middle section, and the great mass of the peasantry at the level of an agricultural working class and serf.

He wrote the fourth book about the foundation of the necessary political party in 1908, and it was published in Russia in 1909. Here he defended the philosophical principles or world view of dialectical and historical materialism (Materialism and Empiriocriticism). It’s really in this book that he expounds on his idea of Marxism as a method as well as a theory and a doctrine.

Lenin in Russia in 1897 to 1917 faced a situation unlike in Germany, England, or the United States.  In those other countries the industrial revolution was well underway, appeared even complete.  Russia was in the beginning throes of the industrial revolution, much of the country enthralled to the big banks of Europe.  Lenin needed to devise a theory of the Russian revolution.  He did that in his description of the relationship of the various classes in Russia, the role of the working class and the peasantry, and the development of the national question in the Russian empire and beyond.  He did that by describing the objective reality the revolutionary classes faced and the role of the revolutionary organizations.  What is most significant about Lenin is his capacity to describe the reality he faced and the new ideas necessary for the new situation of his time and place.  He was a scientist.

What can we learn from Lenin’s experience on his 150th birthday?  In the 1970s, when I read Lenin I read him as the ideologue that I was.  What is to be Done?, State and Revolution, Left Wing Communism an Infantile Disorder, and Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism were the four books of my Talmud. I do not intend here to dismiss them as unimportant.  No, there are important lessons to be learned from all of them.  But the way we read them is important, especially when we realize we are no longer dealing with a revolution in the midst of industrialization. The great Russian political revolution was part of the 19th to 20th century economic industrial revolution. In fact, the ensuing liberation struggles of the colonies, the struggles that Lenin foresaw as the great movement of the 20th century, pulled those peoples into the orbit of industry and a connection to the capitalist world order, either through a bourgeois or a socialist revolution.  But that era is over.

A new economic revolution is underway.  And there are new Lenins walking the streets of our world, applying their understanding of the real world to develop a theory of today’s revolutionary times.  In 1917 — and from 1917 through the 1960s and the first Earth Day — history has witnessed the completion of the replacement of agricultural private property by industrial-financial private property. Today we are witnessing the demise of capitalism that exists on the exploitation of labor.  That seems counterintuitive, when we see people living in the streets and workers unable to buy the basic necessities of life.  But the robotization of contemporary life points to the end of wage labor.  If labor is excluded from the production of the means of survival, then there is no longer a way to measure the value in exchange of the means of survival. As long as money is the means of exchange, those expelled from the employer-employee relationship have no way to purchase the means of survival. The Lenin’s of our day must be developing a theory of the revolution of the end of the market and the end of private property under new conditions, when the way to resolve the problems we face must mean distribution without money.

On this Earth Day and this 150th birthday of Lenin, it’s time to recognize that the inspiration that Lenin gave to the poets in Urdu, the Russian poets, to Langston Hughes is real and deserving of reverence. We need to cultivate the Lenins of our times. Without discounting his numerous contributions, what we need to revere is Lenin’s scientific outlook and his willingness to find new solutions to solve new problems.

At The Junction — Lew Rosenbaum

[This is the first poem in my new chapbook, “Time’s Arrow.”  Being the January selection, I suppose it is appropriate for a December 31 post.  Each poem in the chapbook is linked to a month; but not all months are represented, and some months have more than one poem. — LR]

At The Junction

by Lew Rosenbaum

Janus

the two faced god

sits at the junction of before and afterjanus

he can’t fully give up the past and

won’t commit to the future

two faced meaning a liar?

perhaps he is telling tales that never were

or forecasts he knows will never come to pass

the counsel for what they call the political class

facing back he is gray-bearded but

looks forward without hair on his chin

this has always been the fascination

the disambiguation

the what’s-in-it-for-me kid

the facialization of January

a hell of a cold welcome for the baby new year

cold as hell

but out of the hell hole heat of the past year

with its wars and famine and

apocalyptic horsemen

hope springs eternal — again —

that this external new year will see no more war

not even bake sales this year for the pentagon

two faced Janus is a dreamer

when we need visionaries

dreaming of what was

trying to bring back

when the good times rolled

those ozzie and harriet days

when america was america

the america that never was for langston hughes

but janus can’t grasp the dialectic

it’s either yesterday or tomorrow

yet there is no tomorrow without yesterday

and if he’s not aiming for all those yesterdays

he’s telling us to close the door

build a wall

dig a moat

between yesterday and today

preserve our purity

the baby has no clothes

but the emperor with all his fascist robes

is naked in his vulturosity

what is my point anyway?

tomorrow is a new year

how new can it be

when we drag our ropa vieja with us

and they don’t fit, never will again,

don’t look back

something may be gaining on us

you can’t fool me

that by adding one day after another

something new strides forth

all those screams and fireworks and horns at midnight

full of sound and ecstasy that signify nothing

but another drunk corporatico plodding in snow

when the day breaks

protecting his stranglehold on his privates property,

the edifice of his wealth and the military that guards it,

the public display of his masturbo-obscenity

so what compels us to ask

what really is new under the sun?

what makes today different from any other

liturgical day

 

either the iron heel of robotofetishism

or the unheard-of abundance of all of us or none

everything or nothing

when the wretched of the earth arise

because we must and because we can

Married to the Revolution by Lew Rosenbaum

Married to the Revolution

 Remembering 41st And Central 50 Years Later

by Lew Rosenbaum

Fifty years ago, December 4, 1969, a Thursday — the same day Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated by the Chicago Police —  I was making plans in Los Angeles to take my girl friend Pam to San Francisco.  We were co-workers in the welfare department in Pasadena, California.  Tall, slim, with short blond hair and an engaging smile, she and I shared union and social justice interests. And let’s be honest:  Girl friend? we were just beginning to date, and I was looking forward to getting to know Pam better than casual or business conversation in the work environment would allow.

The weekend is now a blur.  Events which were about to happen may have shoved them into a permanent background. Probably they were nothing memorable anyway. I reconnected with a good friend from high school, then practicing optometry in Berkeley. Never saw him again. I tried to meet up with a friend who I’d last seen interning with the San Francisco Mime Troop.  That went nowhere. But I do know we left San Francisco Sunday afternoon in my VW bus, arriving in Los Angeles past midnight, early Monday morning.  I dropped her off at her apartment in Highland Park about 1 A.M. and went to mine, a small bungalow up 87 stairs from Isabel Terrace in the Cypress Park neighborhood.

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41st and Central was destroyed by the SWAT assault.

Then came the phone call that woke me up at about 5 A.M, Monday December 8. Marie Branch, a nurse who coordinated the Black Panthers’ Free Clinic, called me up.  I had come to meet and work with her through activity with the Friends of the Panthers in L.A. She told me that police had massed around the Panther headquarters on Central at 41st St and had attacked it with tear gas and bullets in a shootout that lasted four hours.  Marie wanted to see if I could rouse some of my medical student friends and have them put on their white jackets and offer a “medical presence”  as witnesses. Her team hoped we would provide an incentive for the police to withdraw.  

Within a matter of minutes I was dressed and out the door to pick up Pam as well as two students from the dormitory, Gordon and John.  Gordon had been an SDS member in college and wore his impetuosity on his sleeve; John was an older student, originally from Canada, and politically more mature than most of his U.S. counterparts. Conversation in the car circled around the events four days earlier in Chicago.  We found our way to what was then Santa Barbara Ave. (now renamed for Martin Luther King Jr. and 2 blocks north of 41st) and Central and discovered that Central was blocked by the police.  We turned one block west and again headed south, finding all streets to Central blocked by the police.  Frustrated and foolhardy, Gordon stuck his head out the window and shouted a derisive comment about the pigs (most likely “Off the Pigs”; we didn’t as much say “Fuck the Pigs” back in that day, Fuck 12 was unknown).  In a matter of minutes we were pulled over, spread-eagled against the car and searched.  Once the cops realized they only had some stupid white kids on their hands, they let us go with a warning.  Dawn had come and they had more important work to do than detain us.

We continued to Vernon Avenue, a few blocks south, parked and walked to the corner of Vernon and Central.  The canisters being fired near the headquarters boomed and the acrid smell of tear gas spread and lingered over our intersection.  The Monday morning crowd gathered on the street to catch a bus for work or just to watch and listen and cough in the fumes. From out of tight lipped mouths on taut and fearful faces grumbled and tumbled angry sounds about the occupying police. On the southwest corner of the intersection, in the parking lot of a fast food joint, a man in a brown suit and tie stood on a milk crate and soap-boxed to a crowd that gathered around him.  This street-corner sermonizer preached the gospel of stopping the police invasions of the community, and his instant parishioners nodded their heads in agreement. 

At 8:30 I walked to a nearby phone booth and called the welfare office.  I told my employer the story that Pam and I had concocted.  My van had broken down in San Luis Obispo on the way from the Bay Area, and we couldn’t get it fixed at night on a Sunday.  I said it was being repaired now and we should be on the road in an hour or so and in the office in the afternoon.  When I got back to the corner the cops were forcing their way through the crowd, beating the suited orator, handcuffing him and throwing him to a police vehicle.  Someone from the ACLU was also there to observe and asked us to testify

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LAPD arresting two BPP members after the shootout.  5000 rounds of ammunition were used during the raid.

on the orator’s behalf in court, and we agreed. By about 10 the crowd had mostly dispersed. The smell of tear gas still hung heavy over the corner, and the memory of what we had experienced still seared our brains. The gassing had forced out all the Panthers in the headquarters;  the police had riddled the body of Panther Party member Roland Freeman with bullets, but he survived. And the four of us headed back north, Gordon and John to class, Pam and I to work.

That night, Monday, the Friends of the Panthers called for a rally on Wednesday on the steps of city hall.  I wrote a leaflet explaining what happened and advertising the rally, printed it up and passed it out at work, an informational leaflet sponsored by Local 535 of the Social Workers Union.  My office manager, Esther Matthews, called me in to warn me:  under no circumstances was I to miss work or I would be terminated.  When I got off work I called a friend from medical school who had graduated and was a resident at County Hospital.  I guessed he would be at the rally, and I was right.  Neal offered to meet me there and give me a medical excuse I could take to Matthews.  It was a little more difficult than I thought, because in only two days 5,000 people showed up for the rally. 

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Dec. 11, 1969 on the steps of City Hall, Los Angeles.

But when I found Neal, he turned a gleeful smile in my direction and handed me the excuse.  

 

The story of the shootout is told here (the original article is from the Los Angeles Times) from within the Panther offices, fortified by the efforts of Vietnam War Vet and Panther leader Geronimo Pratt, and defended by youthful Party members until they ran out of ammunition and were suffocated by tear gas.  The SWAT assault on the headquarters begin at 4 AM and ended some four hours later. Reneé “Peaches” Moore, one of the two women in the building, led the defenders out under a white flag. After the events of December 4 in Chicago, the Panthers expected the LAPD to do something similar in Los Angeles.  They had prepared themselves, but they had no way to anticipate the assault of hundreds of police and the deployment of a Defense Department authorized tank. On their part, the cops rethought what kind of nine-lives-of-a-black-pantheroperation they were dealing with and sent their SWAT division for training with the army.  

Wayne Pharr, 19 years old on that day in 1969, was among the first to fire his weapon at the invading SWAT team and drive them out of the building.  In 2014, the Chicago Review Press imprint, Lawrence Hill Books published Pharr’s Nine Lives of a Black Panther which documents the history of the Los Angeles Panthers. Pharr died in September, 2014, at 64 years of age.  This obituary also contains a trailer to the documentary, “41st and Central,” that features a number of the surviving Panthers including Pharr, Pratt, and Freeman.

One more thing about December 4 and Fred Hampton.  These attacks were coordinated nationally against an organization the FBI deemed the greatest threat in the US.  Fred Hampton, who had built a coalition with Appalachian whites as well as Puerto Ricans in Chicago, explains why. “We say primarily that the priority of this struggle is class. That Marx and Lenin and Che Guevara and Mao Tse-Tung, and anybody else who ever said or knew or practiced anything about revolution, always said that a revolution is a class struggle.”  And then, “We might not be back. I might be in jail. I might be anywhere. But when I leave, you’ll remember I said, with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary. And you’re going to have to keep on saying that. You’re going to have to say that I am a proletariat; I am the people.”

On a personal note: later on in the week, when I asked Pam to go out to dinner, she told me that we should stop seeing each other.  She said she’d learned something she hadn’t realized before this weekend: that I was already married.  “Married,” she said, “to the revolution.”

That Muddy Waters Green Chevy Van by Austin Long-Scott

[A few weeks ago a friend posted a notice that Gospel record store Reid’s Records in Berkeley was going to close the next weekend.  Poking around the internet, I came up with this article in Berkeleyside.  The dates seemed to be fuzzy, and the notice I got was a week later than one closing date I had seen.  And then, today, in preparing this post, I found on Reid’s FB page that Diara is planning to be open Saturday, November 2.  So you can still check Reid’s out.  But also, when I shared this with friends in Oakland, Austin responded with this gem.  LR] 

That Muddy Waters Green Chevy Van

by Austin Long-Scott

I didn’t know about Reid’s but the article made me nostalgic because It connected me to

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I never was a gospel fan, maybe that’s why I ignored Reid’s even though I used to ride my bicycle along Sacramento Street right past their 3101 address.

memories I hadn’t thought about in decades. In my 20s and 30s I hung out in record stores, from small independents like Reid’s and El Cerrito’s Down Home Records to big independents like Berkeley’s Amoeba and chains like the then-new Tower Records. I was a traveling national reporter in the 60s and 70s and I had favorite record stores in half the states. No matter what was going right — or wrong — with an assignment, I always enjoyed a visit to a local record store. And yes, it was partly the joy of reading the album covers. I never was a gospel fan, maybe that’s why I ignored Reid’s even though I used to ride my bicycle along Sacramento Street right past their 3101 address. Blues and jazz and rock were more my taste. So I followed tiny used record stores like Grooveyard as they moved from one storefront to another, because I knew the owner, who was also the only employee, loved Abdullah Ibrahim and I might find a rare album of his in one of Grooveyard’s record bins.

The Reid’s article was framed to bring up how people work hard to build nests and a community based on shared interests grows up around the nests. And then things change and the nests they worked so hard to build slowly become unimportant to the community and then the community disappears. I’ve often remarked on how strange it is

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The Reid’s article was framed to bring up how people work hard to build nests. . .

that human beings seek stability in a world that is ceaselessly changing. Capitalism speeds up change, of course, because change opens new opportunities for exploitation, which is the most cherished American freedom, the freedom to exploit.

And those thoughts took me to neighborhoods and gentrification. Not just the black working class Oakland that is being driven out by the flood of high rise luxury condos going up in the heart of the city, attracting Silicon Valley professionals with money to burn, driving rents sky high and smothering the nests that gave so many people so much pleasure in their heyday. There’s a 5-minute talking blues about Oakland’s after hours, mellow, down home juke joints of the 1980s that would come alive around 2am and go until 5 or 6am. It’s titled “Three Sisters,” by blues guitarist Frank Goldwasser on his “Bluju” album. When I was first getting to know San Francisco I paid attention to the Fillmore where black folks were being pushed out and the blues clubs were closing. I’ve never lived in San Francisco but I’ve studied it and the gentrification of the Fillmore was as real to me then as the gentrification of Oakland is now.

And those memories took me into memories of Chicago, where I was born. I didn’t grow up in Chicago, but back when I was a reporter I used to get to Chicago at least a couple of times a year and I alway took time to take pictures of those South and West side murals painted on crumbling slum building walls. Most of those are gone now. I was still doing that when the Wall of Respect and the Wall of Truth disappeared. And remembering that led me to a happier memory — the time a reporting assignment in Chicago led me to happen by a used car lot with a big sign that read “Drexel Chevrolet.” I suddenly remembered that my late father bought his first Chevy in 1948 from Drexel Chevrolet. So I stopped to take a look. As I stepped onto the lot a salesman left the office and headed in my direction. By the time he reached me I had spotted a 1967 Chevy van among the used

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This is the body style of the van in Drexel Chevrolet; and it was the same color green without the white accents.

vehicles for sale. I happened to be in the market for a used van, so when the salesman greeted me I asked about it. He described it as having belonged to Muddy Waters.

Yeah, sure, I thought. I told him I wanted to look around and when he went back to his office I opened the door of the Chevy van. It was filthy inside. The floor was littered with greasy engine parts, cigarette butts, a few reefer remnants and quite a few used rubbers. When I rummaged through the glove box I found the original metal owners’ plate. It said this van had been sold to McKinley Morganfield.

Holy shit!! I thought. I jumped out of the van and headed for the nearest pay phone. I dialed information and asked for the number of McKinley Morganfield. It was listed. I dialed it. A woman answered the phone. I asked to speak to Muddy Waters. “He’s not home right now,” the woman said. “I’m his wife. Can I help you?” By the time we finished talking I had a complete history of how troublesome that van had been and why he traded it in at Drexel Chevrolet for a new station wagon. I used to go see Muddy Waters every time he performed in D.C., so I knew I had to have it. The salesman and I agreed on a price, I put a down payment on it, caught my scheduled flight back to D.C. and arranged another assignment in Chicago so I could drive it back home. I kept that van for 2 years and drove it from D.C. to California and back. Small stuff was always going wrong — door handles, window cranks, instruments, dashboard switches. But the big stuff, engine, driveline, cooling system, electrical wiring, all held together.

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Muddy Waters