Mementos 3: How I Got Here
[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery in November, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]
When they find out that I came from sunny Southern California, people often ask (incredulousness saturating their voices) why did you come to Chicago. My usual answer is “Because of the weather.” A stunned few seconds follows before they get the joke and realize I have not totally lost my grasp of reality. The real reason is much more complex, and is connected to my meeting Nelson Peery, pictured below.
Nelson died a year ago, and I wrote this then:
Sunday, September 6. I lost a brother. He was 92.
Somewhere after midnight. A small building separate from the main house, which was also small, sitting on a lot at 107th and Mona in Watts, California. Sharon and I stood or sat at the table in front of us, collating copies of a book that had just been printed, shifting positions as pain in our bent backs demanded. Some 60 sheets of paper, 2 sheets for a cover, a very heavy duty stapler and staples, and red duct tape to cover the raw ends and the staples to make the book look half way presentable. Eyes bleary, hands slowing down, we were coming close to completing our task, preparing enough copies of the Textbook of Marxist Philosophy to go east, to Chicago, with the comrades leaving in the morning. The door opened, and in walked Nelson Peery, who took one look at our sagging posture and faces and told us to go home before we killed ourselves. We told him we had only a little more to do, then we would leave.
“Brother Lew,” he said, “Comrade Sharon, this is perhaps the most important contribution we’ve made to the revolutionary movement. Thank you so much for your dedication.” He returned to his home next door, getting ready to leave for Chicago in just a few hours.
That was 1977 or 1976. In 2012 Nelson wrote that the League of Revolutionaries for a New America is an organization based in philosophy, not in theory. That is why it has been able to anticipate the economic changes at the base of society and make conclusions reflecting those changes. The theory of the revolutionary movement from which we all emerged was a theory for a different period of history. Perhaps that’s why that book that we had published and assembled that night was so important, a significance I did not recognize at the time, a time when I scratched my head, Sharon and I looked at each other, and basked in the idea that we had done something important for humanity, but we didn’t quite grasp what.
That may have been the first time Nelson called me “Brother Lew,” and there was a certain thrill to it. We were in the same family, and, I thought, if I could have a sister 14 years older than me, why not a brother 20 years older? I was in my early 30s, he in his early 50s. Sure, that makes sense! And this resonates with me now, as a younger comrade consoled me today, writing to me that I lost a brother.
Indeed I have. Nelson Peery died yesterday, September 6, 2015 at 92 years old.
The first time I met Nelson – though meet is not the right word, we were not introduced – was at a meeting some 6 years earlier of the East Los Angeles Health Task Force. A coalition of groups and individuals had come together to work for improvement in the delivery of health care to the people of the east side. ELARCA, the East Los Angeles Retarded Children’s Association, advocated for children who could not get services in the nearby County Hospital and the public clinics. Planned Parenthood and Alcoholics Anonymous were also represented, along with students from California State College (not yet the University) in E.L.A. And there were individuals, activists like me. I represented a study group at the U.S.C. Medical School associated with Los Angeles County General Hospital.
Perhaps 10 minutes after the start of an already packed agenda, an older African American man, wearing dusty work shoes and clothes, walked in and excused himself as he took a seat a little in front of mine, to the left. The meeting droned on, it was September and hot despite air conditioning, and as I glanced over I noticed the man was nodding forward. It was a position I recognized, having slept through many university classes. But he was there with a mission. Near the end of the meeting José Duarte, chairing the meeting, introduced him; he walked to the front, and apologized for coming in late and for not being attentive to the business of the meeting (he was a bricklayer, he said, and had come directly from work). Then he told his audience that he had come to speak to the group about the recent Chicano Moratorium, and the police riot that had accompanied it. He brought greetings from the workers of Watts, who had their own experience with a police riot just a few years earlier, in 1965. Whatever support or assistance the workers of Watts could give, they would do so gladly. I didn’t catch his name when he was introduced, but what he said resonated: at every opportunity strive for the unity of the working class. Forty years later, under conditions much different, where an economic equality of poverty confronts a broad section of dispossessed workers, unity of the class is more possible and more important.
It was a few years later before I connected the dots, that this African American bricklayer was Nelson Peery. It happened somewhere around 1972, when I had given up social work and joined the California Communist League, that I actually saw Nelson in action as a teacher. My first recollection was as a neophyte going to a League “school,” a weekend retreat for two solid days of intense classes outside the city, in Riverside, CA. Later there were meetings with the Muni drivers from San Francisco; with members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers from Detroit; with students from Cal State LA deeply involved in the school walkouts and the social issues in the community. All through this time I would hear people talk about going to meet with Nelson about this or that problem, practical, theoretical or philosophical, going to the “Watts House” to have the conversations. And no matter what my problems, to me they never seemed important enough to bother Nelson. I think it was finally around the time of the publication of the Textbook that I apologized for never seeking his help, always feeling intimidated. Intimidation is no longer an excuse; still, of the comrades in Chicago, I think I’ve taken advantage of that opportunity least of all, and especially on this day I regret it.
It was, however, only natural that when Diana and I were married in 1992, I asked
Nelson to speak at our reception. In 1991 Nelson’s wife Sue Ying’s delicate (and sometimes not-so-delicate) probes had engineered my asking Diana out on a date. In the winter of 1991-92 Guild Books celebrated its longevity at Tony Fitzpatrick’s World Tattoo Gallery, and Nelson came over to talk to us above the music and merrymaking. “You guys must be doing something right, judging by the light in your eyes and the smiles on your faces,” he told us. We held the wedding reception in the field house at Margate Park, and we invited people from my family, Diana’s family, the Guild Books family, and the extended revolutionary family around us. It was a curious assemblage, and I can’t say that everybody felt comfortable together in that room. Nelson made his remarks brief but memorable. It’s wonderful when two people find each other, but two people cannot fulfill each other’s social needs for a lifetime. The way to maintain a healthy long term relationship between two people is to maintain, at the same time, a relationship to the revolutionary class. That connection gives a marriage a kind of stability. [See the attachment below of the actual text] I’ve often thought about this, I’ve seen it like Antaeus’ connection to the earth gave him strength, and how an organization of revolutionaries gives the broadest connection to the class. I think about it in nearly all my conversations with Diana as we struggle through the difficult times around us.
When I first came into the movement, it was a much different movement than it is today. Then, in the midst of the civil rights and anti-war movement, the struggle against direct colonialism was reaching its end. Those of us came into the movement buoyed by national liberation struggles and ideas of a socialist or communist America. If only we could win over enough people to our ideas, we would win! In the first collectives of which I was a member, I was given the task of literature director for the area and placed on the area education committee. I think that’s because the comrades couldn’t figure out what to do with me, and I had more education than most of the other comrades. The fact is that I didn’t know much.
Sue Ying suggested that I work on a philosophy class for the education committee, one on “relative and absolute truth.” The function of the class was to examine under what circumstances things may be true. Without my understanding what I was doing at the time, the collective developed a class that later could be used to recognize how we were passing from one quality of struggle to a new quality; from a quality in which reforms were possible to one where reforms are no longer possible. It took years to refine this investigation to an intensive study of political economy and the implications of a new economy.
But once that happened, I realized that I had never made the kind of contribution that could be expected of someone who had the research strengths that I did. Diana and I collaborated on an article for the Rally Comrades! on the environment, one which we struggled over along with the editorial board to have it say what needed to be said. This was only 2 years ago. In an LRNA meeting shortly before the article was scheduled to be published, I was sitting not far from Nelson, when he leaned over and said, “You’ve written an excellent dialectical article! Congratulations.”
Many years earlier, in the 1980s, Nelson and I were talking. He asked me: “Tell me, we did so many bad things to the comrades in those early days. I’ve been thinking about this for years. Do you ever regret that we kept you from finishing medical school?” I assured Nelson that I had quit school before even meeting the League. I’m not sure he quite believed me, but it seemed he was much relieved at the moment. Even if the League was not responsible for my quitting school, it was responsible for my quitting Los Angeles.
My “literature director” assignment had brought me to the Midnight Special Bookstore to sell them publications we were printing, books as well as periodicals. In the process of meeting these dedicated revolutionaries, they asked me to facilitate a study group. This led to my working for the bookstore as a volunteer, a function which turned into a full time assignment, ultimately as an employee of the bookstore. One day I got a call from Nelson, then in Chicago, asking if I would consider the possibility of moving to work in Guild Books. That required a visit to Chicago, some intense meetings, a lunch at My Pi restaurant on Clark St., and then figuring out how to leave
my L.A. assignments with the least possible harm. And so it happened at the end of November, 1987, with my Toyota station wagon packed to the gills, that I drove out of L.A.
The last time I heard Nelson participate in a meeting, about three weeks before he died, he was preparing for an upcoming national meeting, and talked about the ideas he felt were most important. What struck me was how tired he seemed, how the frustration in his voice was palpable. As he had said very often, “I’m not saying anything new, I’ve said the same thing over and over again.” He went on, and this is a paraphrase of what he actually said: People adhere too much to the texts of the past, the period of ideological communism, trying to master the texts as if memorizing them will answer the questions we have to face now. If we could only get across that we need new forms, that we need to try new things and evaluate them. You can’t use the same tactics of a period of reform in a period of a leap to a totally new quality.
Tonight I’m thinking of all these instances, of his smile when Diana and I were courting, of his concern about misleading me from my future, of his congratulations on doing something of value. And I think back to that night in the Watts house with Sharon and the Textbook, and I think of the legacy of thinking for ourselves to chart the course of the future, a future that no one has ever experienced before, when humanity can for the first time become fully human.
As with any person who has had a profound impact on the people around him, Nelson’s story is also the story of the people he influenced. A few weeks ago I gave Courtney, my
daughter, a photo of Nelson that we had, because she wanted something on her desk to inspire her, something that reminded her of her Papa Nelson. The need for building a revolutionary organization, for collective decision making, were foremost in his thinking. I can’t remember Nelson without also remembering Sue Ying, that first education committee, and the importance she gave to political education. The ride from one of those education committee meetings, me driving my beat up VW bus from Sid’s house east along Gage Ave and the discourse about Marx and Capital, my first serious conversations about political economy. I can’t remember Nelson without remembering the twinkle in Sue Ying’s eyes, the mischievous smile when she invited me to the artist salons she and Diana were engineering in Diana’s Evanston apartment. How I got here, how we got here, is so much a part of the process that began that night in East Los Angeles, when Nelson Peery stood up and expressed the solidarity of the workers of Watts for the workers of East Los Angeles.