A Tale of Two Earthquakes

A Tale of Two Earthquakes

Lew Rosenbaum

February 9, 1971 – 50 years ago – barely after 6:00 AM I awoke. For a second I thought I might be in a nightmare. In the next second I realized that the house I lived in really was shaking. My bed was shaking.  The brick and board bookcase perched on my desk swayed back and forth, threatening to spill toward me.  In the third and fourth seconds I remembered that I lived in the fourth, flimsy wooden house up the side of a hill, 86 stairs from the street. It took me about another second to calculate that before I got up and out of the house (without clothes on), the house could go tumbling down the hill; and I had no idea of what manner of peril awaited me if I even got to the door.

I then wrapped myself up in my blankets.  I told myself that if I were going to die on that day, I might as well die comfortably, or as comfortably as I could.  And, curled in that fetal position, I waited through the next five or six seconds of the 12 seconds that the earthquake lasted, the most powerful earthquake in the Los Angeles area in nearly the century preceding it. It’s remarkable how many thoughts can pass through one’s mind in 12 seconds.

That was the Sylmar earthquake or the San Fernando Valley Earthquake of 1971. It played havoc with steel structures, demolished large sections of the Olive View Hospital in Sylmar, upended large sections of major highways, and collapsed a section of the Van Norman dam, which held 3 billion gallons of drinking water for the city. The city forced evacuation of some 80,000 people for several days because of the flooding risk, until the dam was repaired. No flood took place, but after all casualties were counted, 64 died that day. I lived about 20 miles from the fault on which the earthquake erupted that day. The story of the earthquake is remembered in today’s Los Angeles Times.

The 12 seconds ended, I breathed a sigh of relief, recognized the aftershocks as they continued over the next few minutes.  Soon I realized I could not get back to sleep. Got up, got dressed, got breakfast, listened to the radio (KFWB – give us 27 minutes and we’ll give you the world) to understand what was going on, and figured I should go explore.  I was due in at work in a couple of hours, but had no idea whether L.A. County had closed the welfare office where I worked.  I don’t remember whether I worked that day.  But I do remember driving along the streets the long way round to get from Cypress Park to Pasadena, normally a 15 minute drive on the Pasadena Freeway.  I think instead I drove up along San Fernando Road, heading north to Glendale, and then approaching Pasadena from the West.  I don’t think I saw anything as bad as the twisted steel poles of Sylmar, but I did see many storefronts with broken glass windows, plenty of small and unstable structures in disarray, a lot of businesses that would not open that day. 

That was a natural disaster, a force of nature. A different earthquake is roiling society today, a specter is haunting the world. While not a force of nature, it threatens to upend the structures, which humans have built to govern the way we live. Every technological advance today encroaches upon the labor market, more and more people are thrown out of the ability to earn wages sufficient for them to survive.  A fault line has developed and widened: just in the last year as millions are de-employed while corporations rake in trillions of dollars. The political structure of our country is at least as twisted as the steel columns holding the 210 freeway in 1971. 

Today, Feb. 9 2021, begins the impeachment of Donald Trump on charges of inciting insurrection, a charge which reflects the turmoil wracking the country.  Rep. Cori Bush gave the most accurate analysis of why impeachment and conviction is necessary. This is not a question of semantics or whether or not impeachment of a former president is possible. This is not even a battle around insurrection.  This is the question: will the United States finally move beyond a government based on white supremacy as the tool to batter the working class into submission.

What is destroying society today is not the same as the earthquake as 50 years ago.

The battles around the changes at the economic base of society always take place in what is known as the superstructure, i.e. the cultural, social and the political arenas. Here the combatants wage the battle of ideas. Democrat leaders and Republican leaders alike are trying to contain the battle of ideas.  What is the main idea, which is being fought out?  On the surface, in the Congress, it’s whether Trump is guilty.  The fundamental question, which is not being debated, is: Are we going to be a society in which everyone enjoys the fruits of the abundance that is being produced?  Or will we continue to exacerbate the inequity of society and condemn the billions of worldwide poor to death by poverty?  Will corporations strengthen their dictatorship over us, will we allow them to shore up the dam to keep us at bay? Or will we breach the wall of that dam and attain the power to reconstruct society in the interests of all?

There is a specter haunting the world – a real possibility to abolish private property, corporate property.  In 1848 Marx said communism was haunting Europe.  With capitalism expanding, it’s taken almost two centuries to get to the point that capitalism is contracting.   Contraction means many are expelled from having any market relationship to capital. They cannot find work, they cannot buy the necessaries of life.  What can be done, except reorganize society? A century and a half ago abolitionists led a battle to end slavery and thus the practice of holding people as private property. Their demand, resting on the legacy of Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, and John Brown, was that Black lives matter. That war ended legal slavery; but it also elevated industrial and financial private property, a corporate structure which has continued to this day. Conditions have changed. In the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike, pickets carried signs saying “I Am A Man!” Black lives matter. In 2020 some 26 million people demonstrated against the murder of George Floyd, many carrying signs saying Black lives matter. The only thing left for this class of people who have nothing to lose but their chains of poverty and police terror, this world wide new abolitionist class, is to abolish corporate private property and distribute the goods and services of society according to the needs of the people.  That time has come and the outcome of this quake is up to today’s revolutionary class.    

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.

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.

george-bernard-shaw

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

lenin-iqbal

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.

It Is Difficult (Though Not Impossible) To Misuse Garlic

It Is Difficult (Though Not Impossible) To Misuse Garlic

by Lew Rosenbaum

In the spring of 1965 I moved into my own apartment.  Located on the corner of Zonal Ave. and Soto St. in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, it had once been a physician’s office in Hollywood.  The office had been sold, cut in half, and one half moved to the site i moved into.  The bottom floor was occupied by a family with small children.  The top floor was accessible easiest by a flimsy, rickety outside staircase, which opened into the living room.  Three of us — Steve, Art, and I — occupied the apartment.  The digs were cheap — we split the $70 rent, Art paying the least because he got the least cubby-hole for a bedroom. The landlord, whom we knew as Don Julio, lived next door, and behind his casita he raised vegetables, chickens, and I think a goat. On the occasion of moving into a place with my own kitchen, my sister Greta gave me a cookbook — actually a pamphlet from Jay Rosenberg, a philosophy student at Reed College, called The Impoverished

You Can Never Have Enough Garlic

Weatherbeaten, food-stained, but unbowed, the  Rosenberg manifesto continues to enlighten

Student’s Book of Cookery, Drinkery and Housekeepery.  From Jay Rosenberg I learned important life lessons:  The proportion of water to rice that makes good RICE; the role of spices in transforming cheap eats; and that it is difficult (though not impossible) to misuse garlic.

Rosenberg categorizes impoverished students into two groups: the merely impoverished and the really poor.  He wrote the cookbook for the first group, not the second (who could not afford to buy a cookbook, or even food).  I actually belonged to the latter group, and, having been gifted the cookbook, have spent the rest of my cooking life learning to adapt its methods  to various cuisines, heavily seasoning what is obtainable cheap.  Or free.  I will not regale you with my methods of obtaining fresh meat for free.  Use your imagination. No it wasn’t from Don Julio’s yard. 

I spent the summer of 1966 in Planada, a small town East of Merced, with five other students. We were on a fellowship designed by the Student Health Project — Margie and Effie, two nursing students from Vallejo, CA and Chicago, IL, respectively; Dave, a dental student from UCLA; and Dale and I, both from USC Medical School. We were documenting health care delivery to San Joaquin Valley farmworkers. The three men rented a small house for the summer and shared cooking responsibilities.  Because chicken was cheap (remember: I was a really impoverished student) — 19 cents a pound on sale — that’s what we had when it was my turn to cook.  Relying on the Rosenberg manifesto, I stocked the kitchen with garlic, rosemary,  paprika, and tarragon.  From there I launched my varied chicken recipes from the pages of that amazing tome, to the surprise and delight of my roommates. It was difficult to use too much garlic. 

A few years later I explored the “Drinkery” part of the cookbook.  That section gives directions for making your own beer.  This was long before yuppie beer-making kits and fancy equipment. Once again my sister Greta indulged me, allowing me to use her basement to store a large plastic trash can within which the various beer condiments — sugar, malt, hops, yeast — were allowed to ferment for the prescribed time after which, with the assistance of a plastic tube, I siphoned the liquid into bottles I had assembled for the purpose.  Then with a bottle-capper and fresh bottle caps, I finished off the process.  To this day, my niece Ronni and a number of my friends — those who are still alive from that time — whenever we see each other we recall those halcyon days of drinking the magnificent home brew. It gets better with every remembrance. Perhaps I need to say here, brewed without garlic. 

The other evening, after dinner, a friend was telling what repetitive task she zones out on.  When I mentioned I meditate while washing dishes, she invited me over (please come frequently).  I might have said the same thing about cooking.  Chopping vegetables.  Slicing meat. It’s almost ritualistic.  Forget the almost.  This is especially true about my approach to Chinese style cooking. Eating in Chinatown, Los Angeles, is where I developed my respect for this cuisine.  My lab partners at USC,  Ed and Sam, would frequent Chung Mei for late night rice porridge — congee is what it is called on most Chinese menus, but we knew it as “juk,” a Cantonese variant. Then there was Green Leaves, a restaurant just down the hill from where I lived in Chinatown, and where my wife Lee and I would have dinner frequently. We came in so often, and always asked the waiter to hold the MSG, sugar, and salt, that he would chuckle as he approached us to take our order. “I know: No msg, no sugar, no salt, no taste.” One shop in Chinatown sold kitchen utensils and other goods made in the People’s Republic of China (every other place only dealt in Taiwanese or Hong Kong commodities).  Along with my long gone Mao jacket, here I purchased a prize:  a wooden handled, Chinese cleaver. I named it Eldridge and it accompanied me when I moved to Chicago. 

In the intervening years of betrayal, I changed the cleaver’s name to Kathleen and began to fear that the wooden handle was disintegrating. My good friend and spiritual advisor, pastor Barry, accompanied me to Chicago’s Chinatown in search of another cleaver.  After weighing all options, the most important of which was “How much does it cost”? followed by “Does it feel balanced when I hold it?” I found one, obtained an ecclesiastical blessing on the implement and whatever it participated in making, and have made it my favorite for slicing garlic and everything else.  The ritual — remember the ritual? — a bowl for every vegetable or meat to be cut: mushrooms, bok choy, bitter melon, onion, red bell pepper, lap cheung (Chinese sausage), you name it. When it comes to garlic, I take a bulb, smash it with the cleaver on the top to separate the cloves, and then take a quarter of the bulb.  Then I look at what is before me and probably add another two cloves. Hold the cloves on the cutting board with one hand, slice the garlic fine with the cleaver with the other, then holding the cleaver with both hands mince the garlic.  You can never have too much garlic. 

Today I’m making a pork based chili verde. It’s going to cook all day, the flavors slowly melding together.  I didn’t get poblano peppers, so it won’t be really green.  I’m starting with a little more than a pound of pork stew meat.  I’m used to slicing the meat into smaller sections that make them easier to sauté, as in Chinese cooking, and so that’s the way I start.  (I don’t deny it. As I cut the chunks of meat I think of all the metaphors that pork or pig calls up, what does the pork represent in political and police culture.  I kind of revel in the thought of pork barrel. Maybe I wield Kathleen and think I hear the Black Panther slogan, “Off the pig.”). Then I brown the pieces in a “Dutch oven”  coated inside with olive oil.   After ten or so minutes, as the meat browns on all sides, I add a can of pinto beans (for this amount of meat, a 30 ounce can will be sufficient).  While they are simmering, I take four tomatillos, of course take the papery covering off, then wash, quarter them and then cut the quarters once or twice more. Putting the tomatillos in the pot, I turn to cut an onion in half, core the end out and peel that half (the other half goes in a container in the refrigerator). Dicing the onion makes me cry, even though I’ve run cold water over it.  Perhaps in spite of myself, I’m thinking of the porker in the White House who praised in a speech last night the “heroes of ICE and the Border Patrol” which by itself is enough to make me sob.

Now I slice a green pepper in half and put one half in the refrigerator for another recipe.  I take the stem and seeds out of the half that I am holding, slice the pepper lengthwise into about 6 or 8 pieces, and then cut each into half inch sections.  Add the onion and the pepper to the beans and pork, add generous amounts of black pepper, cilantro (fresh, diced is best; dried is OK too), and cumin (both ground and whole seed — a generous amount). One whole seeded jalapeño is good; one-half jalapeño with seeds still in if you want a kick, something like what happens when the white house takes away your food stamp benefits.  Not really, the jalapeño tastes good, the government action is in bad taste.

Now is when I pick up the garlic bulb.  And the thought shatters my mind: how do I protect myself, my friends, from all these vampires clutching at my pocketbook, taking away my medical care, pricing me out of my home.  There isn’t enough garlic I can wear, give to all my friends, that will drive them away, is there?  Have I got enough with six large cloves? I still have my first cookbook, weather beaten, acid stained, falling apart though it may be.  Nah!  Add another couple or three or more.  Especially when you are fighting vampires, you can never use too much garlic.

Chicago Elections 2019: The (April) Day Of

Chicago Elections 2019:  April 2

by Lew Rosenbaum

This is more than a guide to the election map of April 2, 2019.  Enough people are talking

Chicago_Mayor_Election-0ead1-3596

Mayor Emanuel isn’t running, but his fingerprints are all over the crime scene.  He has personally given thousands from his campaign war chest; and his PAC, Chicago Forward, has spread money like peanut butter on the campaigns of his allies.  He’s hoping to preserve his “legacy” by ensuring that his friends remain in their seats.

about how this election could transform city council, how there are some exciting candidates as well as a load of incumbents deserving to be retired. We don’t have 20-20 hindsight yet, so we can’t offer perfect predictions of what will happen.  But here’s the deal:  a debate about major questions of our survival is raging across the electoral landscape.  Whether or not you will have a house or home to return to;  whether or not your neighborhood school will be replaced by privatized charters; whether or not mental health clinics will be restored;  whether or not police will continue to terrorize our communities; these are real debates taking place from wards on the south side to the north.

The demands that people have been making, for example for police accountability and for housing as a human right, have pushed a new crop of candidates into the electoral arena.  As much focus has been on the individual candidates, we should be paying at least as much attention to the movement on whose waves these candidates are riding. And while there is a significant amount of simply populist backlash to turn the long term incumbents out, the real catalyst to the emergence of the new crop of challengers is the anger — righteous and deep — of the people.

Let’s look at some of the wards up for grabs.

Ward 5: Activist William Calloway, best known for his efforts to bring the video of the murder of  Laquan McDonald to the public, has forced incumbent Leslie Hairston into a runoff.  His main support comes from the South Shore neighborhood, but he has gotten an endorsement from the other Hairston challenger, Gabriel Piemonte, whose base is in Hyde Park.  Hairston came close to winning outright, so this will be a difficult one to flip. What makes this race even more interesting is that Willie Wilson endorsed Calloway over Hairston (no love lost between Wilson and Rahm Emanuel).  Wilson took more African American majority wards than any other candidate in the February election. A Calloway victory holds the most promise for the workers of the fifth Ward.

Ward 15: Rafa Yanez led 4 other candidates to force Rahm Emanuel rubber stamp Ray Lopez into a runoff, but just barely.  Yanez had union support in the first round and continues with union support and the endorsement of United Working Families.  A former policeman, he has been vocal in supporting the NoCopAcademy campaign and exposing abuse in the police, not as a matter of bad individuals but as a systemic problem.  Rafa Yanez has the movement support that could make a change in the ward.

Ward 20: Nine candidates vied in February to replace retired/indicted alderman Willie

ct-illinois-election-early-voting-20160929

David Orr retired as County Clerk. He has played a role in the elections often endorsing candidates opposing the incumbents.  This is an indication of fissures developing in the Democratic Party itself.

Cochran.  Of these, Jeanette Taylor and Nicole Johnson made the runoff.  Jeanette, with 29% of the vote, came to the attention of Chicagoans with her participation in a hunger strike to keep Dyett School open.  She earned her right to be part of that group, by decades of volunteer work leading the Local School Councils in the neighborhood.  Her fight for public education is not a whim; it’s life or death, a matter of survival for her, her children and the families where she grew up.  Incidentally, she apparently just joined DSA.  Jeanette Taylor shows something about how the programmatic demands of the people are embodied in the candidates themselves.

Ward 25: In 2015, Byron Sigcho-Lopez and other challengers almost forced Danny Solis into a runoff.  This year Solis decided not to run, after the FBI got him to wear a wire to establish corruption among the aldermen.  Byron is in a runoff this time against Alex Acevedo, a machine hack.  Hilario Dominguez, a teacher and one of the other candidates with progressive endorsement, has endorsed Sigcho-Lopez, who has impressive credentials fighting for public education and against charters (he did a lot of the work uncovering the corruption in the UNO charter network).  He is also an activist in Pilsen Alliance and embraced the “Five Point Program” of the Concerned Puerto Rican Voters, a model of the fight for basic needs.  The movement around Byron Sigcho-Lopez provides an opportunity to develop a citywide network of fighters against gentrification and for public education.

Ward 30: Ariel Reboyras, the incumbent in the ward and Rahm Emanuel shill, is best known this year as the man who went to the West Coast to research police oversight practices, and came back with two proposals to divert from the Chicago Police Accountability Council, or CPAC.  Jessica Gutierrez, daughter of former Congressman Luis Gutierrez, is in the runoff challenging Reboyras. To some extent this campaign reflects an opposition to Emanuel and the whole police accountability question. A vote for Gutierrez could solidify that opposition.

Ward 33: Rossana Rodriguez has become the star of the runoff season.  She actually polled more votes than the incumbent, but not enough to win outright.  Rodriguez has run as a Democratic Socialist;  the incumbent, Deb Mell, is the daughter of long time Chicago pol Dick Mell, a loyal follower of Rahm Emanuel.  More important than her star quality is that Rodriguez has embraced the NoCopAcademy campaign, supports CPAC, wants an elected school board, and seeks housing as a human right.  Endorsed by United Working Families, a citywide movement is coalescing around the Rossana Rodriguez. campaign.

Ward 40: Alderman Pat O’Connor was part of the Vrdolyak 29 that obstructed Mayor Harold Washington’s program in 1983. He never apologized for his participation in this racist, anti-working class cabal.  As the floor leader in city council for Mayor Emanuel, O’Connor did Emanuel’s bidding for the last eight years.  When Alderman Ed Burke was indicted 6 months ago for extortion and then stripped of his chairmanship of the powerful finance committee, Emanuel placed O’Connor in his place.  In that role just last week he prevented a referendum from reaching the floor of the Council that would tax sales of homes more than $1 million.  That tax would provide funds for services for the homeless. Andre Vasquez was the first among challengers to O’Connor’s seat and will face him in the runoff.  Coming out of the hip-hop movement, Vasquez has embraced everything decent that O’Connor opposes.  He’s endorsed by United Working Families and points out that his winning this office would allow for the further development of a Socialist Caucus of aldermen. Ousting O’Connor by itself would be a worthy achievement. As with a number of other wards, here too the movement for affordable housing for all, for public schools, for police accountability could be solidified with the victory of Andre

Erika and other challengers in 46th ward

Before the February 26 election, the challengers in the 46th ward agreed to support whoever got into a runoff against Alderman O’Connor

Vasquez.

Ward 46:When the votes were counted after the February 26 election, less than 300 votes separated the three top challengers to incumbent Jim Cappleman, gentrifier extraordinaire.  Any of the three would have been a vast improvement over the man Emanuel tapped to take Danny Solis’s (the alderman who wore the wire, ward 25) position on the Zoning Committee. That lot fell to Marianne Lalonde, a PhD chemist who is also on the Board of a shelter for homeless women, Sarah’s Circle.  She is a fierce advocate for people experiencing homelessness, a big problem in Uptown where this ward is located.  Cappleman gained about 44% of the vote in February; Lalonde’s chances are improved by the fact that the other challenger candidates have endorsed her. Getting rid of Cappleman would be advantageous by itself.  A victory for Lalonde could strengthen an already strong movement for housing and education in this ward. 

Ward 47:  Alderman Pawar decided not to run for re-election and instead to run for treasurer.  Nine candidates vied for this office. Matt Martin won 40% of the vote and will face Michael Negron in the runoff.  Martin is endorsed by United Working Families and has a good chance of winning this seat.

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On February 26, volunteers pack the 49th Ward office of Maria Hadden turning out the vote that gave her practically a 2 to 1 margin of victory.

We should at least note that Democratic Socialist  Daniel LaSpata beat incumbent Proco “Joe” Moreno by a 2 to 1 margin; and Democratic Socialist Carlos Ramirez Rosa retained his seat with 60% of the vote. Maria Hadden ousted incumbent Joe Moore by an almost 2 to 1 margin; Moore held his seat for 28 years and operated as a gatekeeper for Rahm Emanuel.  But we should also note that John Arena, a champion of affordable housing, lost his seat because of racist and anti-homeless smear by his challenger.   Most of the African American incumbents on the South and West side retained their seats regardless of their sycophant connection to the Democratic Party machine.

The Mayor: If you have read this far, you are perhaps wondering if we are ever going to discuss the mayoral race.  For a race between deeply flawed candidates, this campaign has ignited considerable passion.  Of the original 14 candidates, few would have predicted that two African-American women would face off against each other.  That the next mayor will be an African American woman is pretty remarkable in this city.  One, Lori Lightfoot, is best known as a Rahm Emanuel appointee to the police review board as well as a federal prosecutor and a lawyer for one of the most connected law firms in the city. Her defense of police in, for example, the Rekia Boyd murder, has earned her the enmity of the police accountability movement.  The other, Toni Preckwinkle, chairs the Cook County Democratic Party.  She is the ultimate insider with scads of experience as an alderman and also as the President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners.  Anyone in politics as long as Preckwinkle would have to have ties to the corrupt (ties to the recently indicted Ed Burke and the disgraced Joe Berrios).

Preckwinkle has raised over $8 million for her campaign, while Lightfoot in excess of $4 million.  Preckwinkle’s top donors include various branches of SEIU for about half of her donations (teachers’ unions have contributed about $400,000).  Lightfoot has gotten about $500,000 from the Laborers Union and has been endorsed by the Plumbers.  It appears that the Building Trades have more confidence in a Lightfoot administration, while public workers and service workers unions think they have more to gain from Preckwinkle winning.  The newspapers (Chicago Tribune, Sun Times, Crain’s) have endorsed Lightfoot. Both Lightfoot and Preckwinkle style themselves as progressive and independent, though their claims make one wonder if we are speaking the same language.

As we said above, the passions are running high in this campaign among activists. The opinions on both sides are understandable, and the objectives (stopping a cop supporter vs dealing a blow to “the machine”) are worthy.  A number of the activists on both sides of the divide recognize that, no matter who wins, the movement is going to have to fight like hell.  And, with respect for the passions of those involved, that is the word we want to leave you with:  no matter who wins, we are going to have to fight like hell.  Thankfully, with the rising movement in the wards around the fight for survival, a citywide movement of those at the bottom will be much more possible.

Collage — by Lew Rosenbaum

Collage

a review essay by Lew Rosenbaum

[American Histories, by John Edgar Wideman, was published in May, 2018.  The paperback9781501178351_p0_v2_s600x595 will be released later this month, March 26, 2019, by Scribner– ISBN 9781501178351, $16.  It should be available at your favorite bookstore]

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.”  The Maestro in this story is Romare Bearden, the artist who in his youth lived in the Pittsburgh neighborhood, in which Wideman himself grew up a couple of decades later.  The conversation is imagined, but it could have been real, because Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat lived and worked not far from each other in Harlem, jean-michel-basquiatwhere both of them died in the same year, 1988.  Bearden, who preferred to be considered an artist and was usually called a “collagist,” was born in 1911.  Basquiat, described primarily as a painter, was born in 1960 and died  at 27.  Bearden and Basquiat never met.

Perhaps it’s the parallelism in their work, the fact that they were both giants of the art world in New York at the same time; that they incorporated, in abstract work, elements that clearly responded to the social situation that surrounded them; that jazz influenced their work; that Bearden was of the Black art movement and that Basquiat seemed unaware of it  – perhaps all of that is why Wideman chooses to imagine a conversation between the two of them.  You can be curious about that if you want to.  But it’s what he does with the mystery of the artistic forms that connect them and what separates them, and the Pittsburgh story, that intrigues me.

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Romare Bearden

For instance, a page later he expands on this  “losing battle” in describing the problem of collage:  “He’s (Bearden) unable to explain to Basquiat why removal of objects from an array sometimes makes the array more plentiful, not smaller.  Nor can he explain how a board on which he is arranging things becomes more spacious as he packs it.” Or, Wideman has Bearden say, a few sentences later, “You might say each collage starts with the bare bones of a story.”  He tells a brief story about how he and two other kids beat up a neighbor. When Bearden’s grandmother intervenes, she brings that disabled neighbor boy, Eugene, to live with his family. A story that haunts the artist for 50 years: “A collage I built [Farewell Eugene] is layer upon layer questions about that simple story.” Adding each piece to the collage requires studying that piece, and the whole composition disappears;  “To see it whole again, his eyes must relinquish his grip on the element.”

And so it is with the whole of American Histories. But in this collage, concentrating on this one piece (“Collage”) brings everything else into focus. American Historiesis a collage of imagined American history, in which the imaginative is at least as important as the sensual.  The writer struggles with the gap between what maybe ought to have occurred and what we believe did happen.  John Brown and Frederick Douglass converse in the very first story, the Old Man unable to convince the escaped slave to join him at Harper’s Ferry. It’s not clear what part of “JB and FD” is real, what is imagined, and through it all what part is the writer’s voice. And ends with wondering why the author makes John Brown a Black man.

Wideman plays with the confessions of Nat Turner, imagining what is going through his head as he stands ready for execution. Turner begins to recite his “abc’s” – he is self taught, and instructs us about his own history and plans. As he explains the meanings of letters, he reaches his conclusion skipping to the end of the alphabet. An alphabet foreshortened as much as execution foreshortened his life.

At the very beginning, Wideman’s “prefatory note” is an open letter to the president. It’s likely written, or at least finished, after the 2016 election, and he wonders if the president who receives this note along with his stories will be a woman, perhaps a Black woman. If any president will receive it, he doubts. Wideman doesn’t explain the stories: They speak for themselves. “The note is a plea, Mr. President. Please eradicate slavery.”   And maybe, Wideman declares, terminating slavery may even be “beyond your vast powers.”  The thirteenth amendment did not accomplish the fact, another example of the play between sense and imagination, “But you should understand better than most of us, Mr. President, that history tells as many lies as truths.”

There is of coure the poetry of the language, a defining characteristic of Wideman’s writing. Framing the whole as a collage though, makes me look again and again at an element in “Maps and Ledgers,” a sentence that begins on page 57 and ends on page 59 and has to be written this way. A story as much about language as about a life experience.  Story with sentences, like this one, without verbs and articles. Another gem of a short story in which every paragraph begins with “We go out to dinner and discuss.” The two paragraph story “Bunny and Glide” parodies with the robbers of legendary fame. The long story, in which Wideman’s narrator stands at the edge of the Williamsburg Bridge contemplating suicide.

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John Edgar Wideman

In the Aldous Huxleyesque universe of “Empire,”  Wideman replaces “superfluous distinctions” like race and gender with the “gratefuls” and the “givers.” This, in a way, a reprises the prefatory note’s allusion to the separation of peoples by immutable but superfluous categories and the question, when will it end and under what circumstances? His story “Expectations” ends with “I expect Nat Turner.  I expect he will die again for the sin of color.”  If we get a second coming of Nat Turner, do we also get a second coming of John Brown?  What will the next Harper’s Ferry look like?

From beginning to end, Wideman layers story after story, after a patient lifetime’s practice, as if they are colors, fabrics, doing what Bearden did on a board, having “practice[d] patiently for a lifetime the skills of cutting and pasting, gluing down

Pittsburgh Memories Farewell Eugene

Pittsburgh Memories — Farewell Eugene by Romare Bearden

textures, colors, fabric, layer after layer to picture what the past may have been and how it rises again, solid and present as the bright orange disc of the sun I put at the top right corner of Farewell Eugene.”

Chicago Elections 2019: The Day After

Chicago Elections 2019:  The Day After

Lew Rosenbaum

[This article was written for the People’s Tribune Chicago Area Facebook Page.

The People’s Tribune encourages reproduction of articles so long as you credit the source. Copyright © 2019 People’s Tribune. Visit us at http://peoplestribune.org Please donate whatever you can to the People’s Tribune! We are supported by reader donations. We get no grants, have no paid staff and have no advertisements. Donate via PayPal at peoplestribune.org or send to PT, PO Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654-3524.]

If the November midterm elections were a wave of resistance, how to describe the Chicago general election of February 26, 2019? With sub-freezing weather coupled with a lackluster bevy of 14 mayoral candidates, turnout rose only slightly above record low numbers.  One thing was consistent throughout: the electorate is showing how fed up they are with the officials who ignore them or actively work against them.  The people are taking their fight for housing, healthcare, schools and a safe community to the polls, and candidates are stepping up to respond.

Here is a brief list of what the people of the city of Chicago accomplished yesterday:

  • 1st. Ward: Voted overwhelmingly against corrupt incumbent Proco Joe Moreno, electing in his place Daniel LaSpata
  • 5th Ward: William Calloway, perhaps best known for fighting to have the video of the murder of Laquant McDonald released, appears to have forced Leslie Hairston into a runoff.
  • 10th Ward: Sue Sadlowski Garza won re-election in a deindustrialized South side ward, once a center of steel production in the midwest.
  • 14th Ward: Ed Burke, longest sitting alderman in Chicago history, now under indictment for extortion, retained his seat by an unexpectedly slim margin.  Tanya Patino captured almost a third of the vote in her challenge to Burke.
  • 15th Ward:  Rafa Yanez forced incumbent Raymond Lopez into a runoff.
  • 20th Ward: Jeannette Taylor, long time community activist and leader in the Dyett School hunger strike is the leading candidate in a runoff in a ward without an incumbent running.
  • 25th Ward:  Byron Sigcho-Lopez, an activist in the Pilsen Alliance and in struggles around education, won nearly 30% of the vote to force a runoff in the ward formerly represented by the corrupt former chair of the zoning committee, Danny Solis.
  • 33rd Ward:  Rosanna Rodriguez-Sanchez actually leads incumbent Deb Mell in the vote tally.  Both are polling a little above 40%,  in a ward that will see a runoff in April.
  • 35th Ward: Democratic Socialist Carlos Ramirez-Rosa was reelected.
  • 40th Ward: Andre Vasquez will face incumbent Pat O’Connor in a runoff.   The main issue in this ward, says Vasquez, is affordable housing.  O’Connor has been Emanuel’s floor leader in the City Council, was tapped to head the finance committee when Burke was stripped of his chairmanship of that committee.  One of the most powerful of the City Council, O’Connor only got a third of the votes.
  • 45th Ward: We missed this one in the original article. Jim Gardiner defeated incumbent John Arena in a close race, capturing 51% of the votes.  Arena was elected in 2011 and in 2012 was one of very few alderman willing to walk a Chicago Teachers Union picket line. He was reelected in 2015 by only 30 votes.  In the last years he has taken heat for supporting affordable housing in his ward, assailed by critics who accused him of bringing “Cabrini Green” to his ward — a naked racist slur referencing the now-demolished near north housing project. Kathy Powers writes us: “You missed the 45th ward (Jefferson Park) .We lost the very special John Arena who actually fought and won a NEW building for accessible, affordable housing on Northwest Highway. I protested there a couple of times. The racist SOBs in JP didn’t like it.”
  • 46th Ward: With 3 precincts left to be counted, three challengers are separated by 300 votes in their bid to unseat gentrifier-in-chief James Cappleman.  Maryann Lalonde seems most likely to wind up in the runoff, followed closely by Erika Wozniak Francis and Angela Clay.  The challengers have promised to support whoever gets into the runoff against Cappelman, whom Emanuel has tapped to lead the Zoning committee instead of disgraced Danny Solis.
  • 49th Ward: Maria Hadden trounced 28 year incumbent Joe Moore, winning nearly

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    At the Maria Hadden campaign office on election day, Feb. 26.  Maria is in the right foreground.  Photo taken from her FB page, posted by Jeff Reed

    2/3 of the votes against her opponent.  Hadden announced in her victory speech that the next step would be to mobilize to help other similar candidates in other wards.  This could have important consequences for runoff campaigns, especially the 40th and 46th Wards, where entrenched, reactionary aldermen are vulnerable.

  • Furthermore — incumbents were forced into runoffs in the 16th, 21st, 30th, 31st and 43rd, Wards.  It’s noteworthy that incumbent John Arena lost to James Gardiner in the 45th Ward. It’s also worth mentioning that Ariel Reboyras, the incumbent in the 30th Ward, distinguished himself in the last year by bringing to City Council two police oversight proposals intended to undercut the CPAC (Chicago Police Accountability Commission) proposal, an outgrowth of community, grassroots agitation.

And then there is the mayoral election itself.  While there were some very fervently held opinions about the candidates, the most consistent at the grass roots was against Bill Daley, scion of the Daley dynasty. There was very little enthusiasm for anyone. People often modified their arguments for any candidate  by the proviso, “She’s not perfect, but . . .” All of the top four candidates, who together garnered about 60% of the votes, had ties to the “Chicago Machine.”  Lori Lightfoot, who had never won elected office but had been appointed to various positions in city administration, was the “outsider” and  won the most votes.  Daley, who served in the Obama and Clinton administrations , received $2 million from hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin.  Toni Preckwinkle is Chair of the Cook County Democratic Party.  She occupies a power base in the Party tactically in opposition to Emanuel, but strategically going in the same direction.  Susana Mendoza, on the other hand, has distinct connections to Emanuel.  The indictment of Ed Burke ensnared both Mendoza and Preckwinkle in a web of corruption that they can’t entirely shake.  The runoff between Lightfoot and Preckwinkle will yield the first African American woman mayor of the city.  It will not yield a mayor friendly to the interests of the working class, whatever it’s color.

The tremendous advances that we’ve seen in this election should only whet our appetite, not satisfy us or make us complacent.  In fact, for all that was accomplished, here are a couple of sobering thoughts.

First of all, the election turnout.  What do the majority of Chicagoans think about these candidates?  Does the electorate think that voting makes a difference?  Even in wards like the 49th, the turnout was 40% and rarely in the city exceeded 45%.  In some wards, the cynicism was rife.  But how can you blame people whose votes are taken for granted and whose elected representatives don’t bother to represent? The signs are there that a sleeping giant is awakening, how quickly we don’t know, but direction is more important than speed.

Second, even if we can toss O’Connor and Cappleman overboard onto the trash heap of history, even if in Wards 5, 15, 20, 25, and 33 the winners are ready to fight for a program of the working class, that still leaves a large number of politicians in place that graze in the pastures of wealth.  It will be an uphill battle for the working class, and we’d best remember that the victory is less in the seats captured than in forming ourselves into a battle-ready contingent for future encounters.

We won a lot in this election cycle, which continues now until April 2 and the runoff. No matter what happens in the runoffs, we have a potential network of grass roots activists developing across this city. We especially won the right and responsibility to up our game and keep fighting together for that which did energize the electorate:  the right to housing, education,  police accountability and an end to violence, and all the basic needs of the people.

[See also “The Four Aldermen of the Apocalypse” on this blog.]