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

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“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.

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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.”