Thank You For Your Service — a Review by Lew Rosenbaum

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

Thank You For Your Service

A Review of Robert Sommer’s Losing Francis

by Lew Rosenbaum

 

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

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

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

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

Robert Sommer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Remember Antietam! A Civil War battle contains lessons for today

Remember Antietam!

A Civil War battle contains lessons for today

BY CHRIS MAHIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antietam_Overview

The battlefield at Antietam

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

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

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

                              

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

____________________________________________________________________________

Santiago On My Mind

Santiago On My Mind

by Lew Rosenbaum

 

I imagine myself

sipping my scotch

alongside reporters from

the Washington Post and The Guardian

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The Santiago, Chile, Hotel Carrera

in the bar in the basement

of the Hotel Carrera

across the street from La Moneda –

I’ve never been to Santiago,

one of the largest of cities

in the Americas,

on a day when Nixon-sent

bombs dropped on the palace,

where Kissinger doomed democracy

and later complained that

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Co-conspirators: Nixon & Kissinger

reporters had not given US credit

for its strangling hand in the coup –

sitting on a bar stool

downing my pisco sour*,

would I recognize the door opening

to the deaths of 3,000 —

or was it 30,000?

and the number of tortured?

did the blood from Victor Jara’s

severed hands run in rivers

all the way through Wall Street

Victor_Jara

Victor Jara, murdered September 16, 1973

or was it the silent sound

of his guitar that drowned out

the cheers from the stock marketers

on September 11, 1973.

 

Our own 3,000 dead

in New York City

food service workers and

janitors and traders and

secretaries – vaporized and rubbled upon,

embracing miraculous air coffins or

consumed by a collapsing monument

to global wealth and plunder –

how can we take advantage of these

fresh dead

ask the politicos looking for an enemy

around which flag to rally

the disconcerted, to declare, reimagine,

construct, flim-flamify this day as

patriot day

I wonder what a manhattan would taste like

in the bar on top of the World Trade Center

I imagine the dry heaves after the

taste of thousand dollar bills

 

and how can nine eleven only mean

nueva york,

in a country that styles itself “America”

or even THE united states

as if there were no other nation

that boasts united states

and now denying 1973

coopts tragedy for its unique

butchering self

 

sitting in a bar across from La Moneda

Palacio-de-La-Moneda-Santiago

Palacio La Moneda, Santiago, Chile

sitting in a café in Manhattan

dipping my finger in the memory of blood

growing purple morning glories whose vines

will strangle borders and bombs

 

 

 

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

Remembrance Of A Hunter Of Stories

Eduardo Galeano died in April 2015.  I think of him often, I was overjoyed to hear that Hunter of Stories would be published posthumously in Nov. 2017. This is excerpted from a post I wrote a year earlier, November 2016, on this blog:

Eduardo Galeano sat at my dining room table in my Chicago apartment on Lill Street one block away from Guild Books, pen poised and a stack of books to be signed at his side. Breakfast consumed, he had reluctantly agreed to sign some books in advance of his appearance at the bookstore later that Saturday, 1988.   He was anxious, it seemed, and we had been warned that his health was mending after some heart issues. We didn’t press him to sign books, but were delighted when he agreed with our suggestion that some folks might just want to purchase a signed copy without talking with him.

I sat mesmerized with the tremendous accomplishment of getting Galeano to Guild; even more amazed by the good fortune of giving up my bedroom to him and my relocating to the living room couch. How did that happen?

Three years earlier, in 1985, I’d been a bookseller at Midnight Special Books in Santa Monica, California. I had done many things at the bookstore, but in 1985 I was mostly the person in charge of ordering books. While the consolidation in book selling and publishing had been well underway, it was still a few years before the tremendous expansion of super stores. It was still important for sales representatives to call on booksellers for book orders.

Doug Hodges, who later became a national sales manager for Random House, s0ld the Random House catalogue to me then. He always came to see me early in the season. He told me I prepared more thoroughly than any of his accounts for our meetings, and, even with the smaller number of imprints under the Random House rubric than I would later have to deal with, meeting with Doug could be an all day event. Start at 9 AM, break at noon for lunch, then come back to wrap up from 1 to 3. All independent bookstores relied heavily on Vintage paperbacks, Pantheon literary and political titles. Less important for us were the books in the venerable Knopf imprint, the Random House titles and Crown and Villard were least important. Nevertheless I always combed through each of those catalogs to find the gems, which was one reason Doug came early to see me. He said he learned a lot about the importance of some of the books that no one else knew about. This day in 1985 was going to be one of those days.

In the Pantheon catalog I found Eduardo Galeano’s Genesis, “the extraordinary first volume of a great and ambitious project” reads the flap of the book jacket. This is probably part of the catalog copy that leaped out at me. And the first thing I said to Doug as we sat down to the Pantheon list was: “We want Galeano in our store when he tours for the book. He has GOT to come here. No place else in Los Angeles area would know what to do to promote this book or who has the connections to get people to hear him.”

Hodges sat dumbfounded. “Who is he?” Doug asked.

I told him about how a generation of Mexican and South American intellectuals had cut

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Galeano signed Genesis at my breakfast table

their critical thinking eye-teeth on Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (two decades later Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would choose to present a copy to recently elected President Barack Obama); how that was the most consistent best selling book on Latin American history in that section of the store; how the most important Latin American studies departments/teachers in the Los Angeles area from UCLA to UC Irvine to Cal State Los Angeles relied on that book, all of whom we knew and to whose students we therefore had a direct line. And when I got through Doug reiterated that was why he came to the Midnight Special first. He had never heard of Galeano, he now had something to tell other booksellers when he showed the catalog.

But Random House was not planning on touring him, it was not in their plans at all, he was too unknown in the US, Random House could not afford to bring him from Uruguay where he lived. Excuse after excuse met my rants and raves and criticism of their short sightedness.

Random House did not bring Galeano to the US in 1985.

The situation repeated itself, complete with rants and raves and refusals from Random House in 1987, when the second volume, Faces and Masks, was published. This time, however, Doug knew who Eduardo Galeano was and thought he would pre-empt my tantrum by telling me in advance that Galeano was not coming to the United States.

At the end of 1987 I packed my Toyota Station Wagon with its rebuilt engine and its 200,000 miles and drove to Chicago to join the Guild Books staff. One of the first sales representatives I met was Random House’s Mary McCarthy. While poring over the Pantheon catalog I saw that Galeano’s third and concluding volume of the Memory of Fire Trilogy, Century of the Wind, would be published that season (1988). I guess the cumulative brow beating Random House reps had gotten from the likes of Richard Bray at Guild and me at Midnight Special must have taken its toll on the Random House touring brass.

This time Galeano would come to the US.  Richard had come to know Eduardo Galeano’s agent in New York, Susan Bergholz, who insisted that Galeano needed peace and quiet while he was here, recuperating from his illness. Some place away from what she anticipated would be a flurry of activists tiring him out and keeping him from getting the rest that he needed on what looked like a very strenuous tour. He hid out in my bedroom.

So there he was, in my dining room, at the table at which he had just finished breakfast, signing books, including all three volumes of the trilogy, Open Veins, Days and Nights of Love and War, and a copy of each signed to me, all signed “gratefully, mil mil abrazos,” and more importantly with the caricature of the pig with the flower in his mouth, a trademark he said he reserved for special autographs.

But, he said, “I will not read.” OK, we thought, we don’t want to press him on this, make him angry or more anxious. Yes bookstore patrons, our bookstore patrons, want the author to give them a taste of what is in the book and talk about it.   But here is a man who is clearly nervous about the upcoming event. So we backed off, and Eduardo went for a walk, returning directly to the bookstore an hour or so before the event was to start, declaring himself willing to sign more books in advance if we wished. And yes, we wished.

As he signed, the people began to arrive for the book signing. He was seated in the back room, but heard the commotion beginning to build, glanced into the store area, and said, “I think I will read. But I left my book with my notations in your apartment.” I ran to the building, ran up to the third floor apartment (yes, we had cleared with his agent that walking up 3 flights would not be too strenuous for Eduardo), found his book and ran back with it in time to start the program.

The crowd hung on his words, as he read in English but also in Spanish, and then answered questions, altogether about an hour and a half, and then began signing books, as the line snaked throughout the store. He talked with each person as much as the person wanted; he took pictures with the customers and their children. I stood at his side doing the task that all booksellers do in this situation: open the books to the pages preferred for the signature. And about 45 minutes into the signing ritual Eduardo turned to me with a broad but incredulous smile: “They like me. They really like me!”

Before he left, Eduardo toured the 3,000 square feet of the book store and spent some time looking at the political and labor posters we had for sale, on display in a rack. He fingered the display, took some notes, and left. The next morning friends of ours recorded an interview with him on video and took him in search of Haymarket Square, a search that proved unsuccessful.

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The Haymarket monument, sculpted by Mary Brogger, located just north of Randolph on DesPlaines, was not in place when Eduardo went in search of Haymarket Square in 1988

Four years would pass before Eduardo would return to Guild. In May, 1992 my divorce from my first wife was finally becoming a reality, my marriage to my second wife a month away, and the book Eduardo would be signing would be The Book of Embraces. The existence of the bookstore itself was tenuous as both a Barnes & Noble and a Borders had opened in the neighborhood and as the neighborhood became less affordable for our regulars. Our core clientele were moving away. We had to close one third of the bookstore and the Guild Complex, the not-for-profit literary organization we had spawned to take up the promotion of literary events, had to move (they occupied a performance space in the South Loop called The Edge of the Lookingglass. This is where Eduardo was going to read.

This time Eduardo stayed in a hotel off Michigan Avenue. We agreed to meet in the lobby of his hotel. There were some items he had to buy while he was on tour, and we could talk while I accompanied him on his rounds. We went to one of the “Magnificent Mile’s” most appealing shopping attractions, the Water Tower Place, where Eduardo wanted to pick up some CDs for his daughter and where I knew there was a small CD store. He picked up a couple of classical CDs and a jazz CD, off the sale rack at the front of the store, but then was stymied in finding the CD his daughter wanted.
Eduardo walked to the checkout counter and asked the sales clerk, in faltering but carefully pronounced words, “Do you have anything by the [clearly and slowly enunciated] Butt Hole Surfers”? A quizzical and sheepish look spread over his face as he said it, almost apologetic. But the clerk was the one who apologized, saying that he wished the store would carry them, but probably the best place to try would be Wax Trax Records (which was right across from the Guild Book Store!).

That evening at the Guild Complex at the Edge of the Lookingglass, Eduardo Galeano read to an even larger crowd than he had the first time in Chicago. And among the things he read was this tribute to Guild Bookstore, the “largest bookstore in Chicago” in this anecdote:

Forgetting
Chicago is full of factories. There are even factories right in the center of the city, around the world’s tallest building. Chicago is full of factories. Chicago is full of workers.

Arriving in the Haymarket district, I ask my friends to show me the place where the workers whom the whole world salutes every May 1st were hanged in 1886.

It must be around here,’ they tell me. But nobody knows where.

No statue has been erected in memory of the martyrs of Chicago in the city of Chicago. Not a statue, not a monolith, not a bronze plaque. Nothing.

May 1st is the only truly universal day of all humanity, the only day when all histories and all geographies, all languages and all religions and cultures of the world coincide. But in the United States, May 1st is a day like any other. On that day, people work normally and no one, or almost no one, remembers that the rights of the working class did not spring whole from the ear of a goat, or from the hand of God or the boss.

After my fruitless exploration of the Haymarket, my friends take me to the largest bookstore in the city. And there, poking around, just by accident, I discover an old poster that seems to be waiting for me, stuck among many movie and rock posters. The poster displays an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

* * * * * * * * *

We know now where the Haymarket was, where the rally was for which the Haymarket

galeano-we-say-yes-to-diana-and-lew

In his 1992 book of critical essays, We Say No, Eduardo wrote: “We say no to some people. And we say yes to Diana and Lew.

martyrs were arrested and imprisoned and executed. In 2006 Henry Holt published Eduardo’s Voices of Time, continuing the epigrammatic form he has worked with, this time “stories that I lived or heard.”   At the Guild Complex we convinced Susan Bergholz to take Eduardo’s strenuous tour through Chicago once more. He read for us at the Museum of Contemporary Art to a packed audience. For many, this was the culmination of what Guild Books had been about. For us, it was an opportunity of bringing memory, forgetting, and not knowing at all together, these themes that strike at the heart of Galeano’s work and of the revolutionary process.

May Day, 2006, just weeks earlier, I walked among almost a million Chicagoans along a route from Union Park to Randolph into the Loop and Grant Park. The steel, concrete and glass canyons resounded with the chants of marchers, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” reverberated from the walls of those buildings, the marchers swelling into the streets in a mass farther than anyone could see.

But before coming to the loop, just a few blocks out of Union Park, we came to Randolph and Des Plaines. I stepped to the sidewalk, stood in the shadow of the corner building and looked north as the throng walked by me. The contingent from one union, also looking north, paused briefly and saluted the sculpture across the way – a recreation of the platform from which the speakers addressed their audience that May, 1886. Most marchers seemed unaware of the historic place through which they were walking, although well aware of the historic day on which they were marching.

How could we bring this reality of American consciousness to the reading that Eduardo was going to do? We made sure that some of those union leaders representing the marchers and their consciousness of May Day introduce Eduardo. And so they did, and we had the chance to talk about the sculpture, the march, and that although many marchers did not know where Haymarket square was, the fact that their march reclaimed not only the memory of the martyrs but the reality of the struggle which continues.

********

And that’s how the blog post ends,  with shop floor union leaders who had been in the leadership of forming that march talking with Eduardo about the significance of that march, a way for us to return to the Book of Embraces, in a way to embrace this chronicler of the historic struggles of the international working class.  As I told Eduardo about this march that was more than a march, I explained that I had been to many May Days in my life.  They were travesties of what May Day used to be like.  I recounted to him how my father had walked in May Day marches in New York, as part of the insurance workers union (I didn’t know this then, but one of the largest unions in Chicago in the 1930s was the union of workers who worked for large insurance companies). In a way I felt cheated, because my sister, 14 years older than I, stood on the sidewalk with my mother while the parade went by.  But my May Days were small gatherings of at best 100 people.  And here, in 2006, hundreds of thousands of workers marched in the streets, while the ideologues had their small meetings and groused because “these were immigrants, not really workers”!

The National Museum of Mexican Arts celebrated the publication of Hunter of Stories in December, 2017. Sandra Cisneros, among others, read from the book.  She chose to read this selection:

May Day is the most widely celebrated of all holidays.

The entire world stands still to pay homage to the workers hanged long ago in Chicago for the crime of refusing to work more than eight hours a day.

On my first trip to the United States, I was surprised to learn that May 1st was a day like any other.  Not even the city of Chicago, where the tragedy occurred, seemed to notice. In The Book of Embraces I confessed that such willful forgetting pained me.

Much later I received a letter from Diana Berek and Lew Rosenbaum of Chicago.

They had never celebrated the holiday, but in the year 2006, along with the largest crowd they had ever witnessed, they paid homage to the workers sent to the gallows long ago for their bravery.

In the letter, Diana and Lew told me they finally understood the discomfort I described in the Book of Embraces.

“Chicago embraces you,” the letter said.

Hunter of Stories is a collection of  memories, sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp, alwaysGaleano Hunter of Stories penetrating.  There are, for example, two recollections of his book Open Veins of Latin America. One recounts how his native country, Uruguay, at first did not ban the book thinking that it was a book of anatomy. They discovered their error quickly.  The second, tells of the soccer player who carried the book that found its way across continents, a book pierced by a bullet that entered the back of a guerrilla fighter from El Salvador, killing him, found its way back to the hands of its author.  The book is a kind of a pearl necklace, an embrace of images of a lifetime strung artfully together for reminiscence . . . or for meditation on what is next.

 

Can We Put Humpty Back Together?

Can We Put Humpty Back Together? by Lew Rosenbaum

In the last year, so much of our thinking seems to be conditioned by elections coming up at the end of 2018. We get evidence, every day something new, that the corporate billionaires are enriching themselves exponentially while those of us at the bottom are losing what little we have. It seems we are so frightened by the currently frightful national political situation, that so many are obsessed with kicking out the Republicans and restoring a majority of Democrat officeholders.  It’s not exactly historical amnesia; it’s more like inability to think outside the paradigms we have come to accept as the natural world.  Some abstractions like “lesser of two evils” don’t help, as people confront a fight to maintain basic services.  A look back at the legislative history of the Humphrey-Hawkins “full employment” Act in the 1970s shows what we are dealing with.  In the wake of Watergate, with Nixon forced to resign and his VP Gerald Ford in office, the Democrats won both houses of Congress in 1974.  In 1975 Congressman Gus Hawkins of

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Gus Hawkins was elected from Los Angeles as the first African-American Congressman West of the Mississippi.

Los Angeles and Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota brought to the floor of their respective chambers a bill promising full employment.  Despite a veto-proof Democrat majority, the bill failed to gather enough support.  By the time the Full Employment and Balanced Growth bill passed and was signed by Jimmy Carter,(1978), negotiations with Carter had significantly weakened the bill to almost meaninglessness (note: it was the icon of progressivism Carter who forced those concessions).  (See a more complete history of this legislation in this New York Times article). Humphrey died before the bill was signed.  At the signing ceremony, Hawkins — the first African American Congressman West of the Mississippi — himself declared the final bill was “symbolic.”

The conflict around this bill took place as a major change was just beginning in workplaces around the country.  Deindustrialization by outsourcing to other countries and the beginning electronic revolution was causing unemployment to soar (it exceeded 8% in 1975). The last breaths of capitalist expansion within the US coughed and gasped. The world as we had known it during the earlier part of the century was turning upside down.  Full employment was magically defined as 4% unemployment in a legislative trick that eventually expired in 2011.  It’s been downhill for four decades.

Can we act the same way we did in 1975, when Humphrey-Hawkins posed a reform goal that they asserted was possible?  Almost two decades after Humphrey-Hawkins, Entering and Epoch of Social Revolution was published, and the Communist Labor Party, which had published the report, was disbanded. An organization of revolutionaries was formed on a different basis, for a different task. Nelson Peery, the author of this report, also wrote a piece on “Polarization in U.S. — Basis for a Workers Party,” for Rally Comrades! and collected in the Epoch pamphlet.  The last two sections of that article are reprinted below. It is decisive in describing what’s different now and why the old tactics will no longer work.  If anything, the self-destruction of the two parties is much more evident today than then.

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Nelson Peery, shown here with Studs Terkel on his right, is the author of Entering an Epoch of Social Revolution

Humpty Dumpty is teetering on the edge of the wall.  Some would even say he has fallen over and lying shattered on the ground.  And that we are obsessed with trying to put the Humpties back together again.  But it can’t be done.  And the growing social movements that are widely scattered are nevertheless seeking some political expression, when the trade unions are not capable of providing one.  This is in part because they are inextricably tied to the Democrats; more fundamentally, because large sections of the working class, sections that are no longer working or working only contingently and part-time, have little allegiance to a trade union movement, fatally weakened by legislation such as Taft-Hartley, that has left them behind.

The only question left is, under what conditions will our thinking change to conform to the new reality, and what will the products of the new thinking be?  I think this helps:

V REFORM TO REVOLUTION
. . . The shift from reform to revolution doesn’t just happen. It is a process and like all processes involves destruction of the old to make way for the new. It includes destruction of the old organizational forms, and the destruction of the methods of dealing with the old.
The first thing is that we simply cannot apply the same tactic to an objectively reform movement and to an objectively communist movement. If we are correct regarding the development of an objective communist movement, wouldn’t it be deadly to carry the same tactic over from the fight for reform? Theory tells us that this objective movement is going toward communism. Do we have to direct it, keep it under our wing or try to pull it in a certain direction as we did with the reform movement? Or should we develop the tactic of pushing it forward from the inside? That means recognizing that it does have an objective goal, accepting the actual struggle of the revolutionary section of the class as the basis for our program, and pushing for its accomplishment.
The second thing is that we cannot have the same organizational relationship to the movement under these various circumstances. When a reform movement is fighting for reform within the system, a communist party must create a relationship with this objective movement that reflects that reality. Clearly we have to adapt our organizational forms to set up a proper relationship to an objectively communist movement.
The real skill of the professional revolutionaries is shown by their ability to grasp the quantitative aspects of a qualitative leap, their ability to change with the changing process.
We are at a very early stage of polarization, but we can see where this thing is going. Economic polarization developed on the basis of electronic technology applied to production by multinational corporations serving the world market. In every country, the qualitative increase in productivity by the workers so cheapens their value that absolute poverty becomes the condition for absolute wealth. Economic polarization creates social polarization. The unity of national and other social groups is destroyed as economic polarization regroups society according to wealth and poverty. The Los Angeles rebellion is testimony to this stage. Social polarization, in turn, is the basis for the next inevitable stage — political polarization.
VI AN ORGANIZATION OF REVOLUTIONARIES
Marx states in the Manifesto, “The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”
What is the future of this current motion? Marx continues, “every class struggle is a political struggle.” Further, he points out, “this organization of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party…” This means that as the workers are objectively formed into a class, they necessarily are, on the subjective side, formed into a political party. One is the expression of the other.
The next big and very difficult step will be the formation of a workers party. It will not be a populist, hybrid, “third party,” but a party of the class. It would be more than an electoral party. It would be the organizational center for the struggles of the class — strikes, demonstrations, protests, and elections. Such a party would create political programs to achieve the immediate demands of the class. A task that, under the existing conditions, is the unnatural responsibility of our Communist Labor Party (CLP). When such a workers party exists, the task of the communists will be to plan out the strategies and tactics of the proletarian revolution and win the mass leaders to that line.
Our proper role as communists is to become the most advanced and resolute section of the working class party, that section that pushes forward all others. Only by doing this can we establish the proper relationship between ourselves and the actual movement for communism.
We must do what we can to prepare the workers for and help them form this party. The starting point is grasping the concepts of and differences between economic, social and proletarian revolution. Secondly, we must see and prepare to work within the various stages of struggle and organization that lies between now and then.
We must put an end to the talk about liquidating the Communist Labor Party in order to form a workers party. We cannot form a workers party. Such a party is the result of consciousness on the part of the workers. On the other hand, an organization of revolutionaries is absolutely indispensable to the formation of a workers party. We intend to disband the CLP in order to build such an organization of revolutionaries.
This is an exciting historical moment. Skirmishing in the epoch of the final conflict has begun. All the objective factors are in place or almost so. From now on the subjective factor, our skill, clarity, astuteness and determination become the decisive factors. This is the moment we have waited for. We need wait no more.

WHAT IS MAY DAY’S MEANING FOR TODAY? By Chris Mahin

[Published 20 years ago in the People’s Tribune, this article remains relevant as we celebrate the workers’ one universal holiday.]

WHAT IS MAY DAY’S MEANING FOR TODAY?
By Chris Mahin

Holidays are important. Whether joyous celebration or solemn remembrance, each one conveys some meaning or teaches some lesson.

When we celebrate a particular holiday — or decide not to — each of us says something haymarket-reenactment-april-30-2011
about who we are and what we believe.

For the downsized and the dispossessed, one holiday stands above all others. It is the only one observed by victims of capitalism the world over: International Labor Day, observed on May 1 — May Day.

May Day began in America. The story of how it began needs to told; it is a tale of how dramatic changes in the economy created a new class of people. It is the story of how men and women of different nationalities, born in different parts of the world, stepped forward to lead a new class of poor people and were willing to pay a terrible price for that decision. Above all else, May Day is about the absolute necessity of the unity of the poor — white and black, male and female, immigrant and native-born.

The story begins in Chicago. By the 1880s, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. Something new had been introduced into the economy — steam power. The introduction of this new productive force led to a gigantic expansion of industry and created a new class — the modern industrial working class. In Chicago, this new class included people from all over the world, as immigrants flooded into the city.

In the factories of that era, the pay was low, the hours were long and the conditions terribly unsafe.

On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States engaged in a massive strike to demand the eight-hour day. Chicago was the strike’s center. On May 4, a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police attack on a group of strikers. As this peaceful rally was winding to a close, 176 cops moved in to forcibly disperse the crowd. Someone threw a bomb. It killed one police officer instantly and wounded many others. The police opened fire, killing many participants in the rally.

A wave of hysteria followed. Hundreds of workers were arrested. The police broke into meeting halls, newspaper offices and even private homes without warrants. Suspects were beaten and even tortured.

The extent of the hysteria can be measured by comments published in the respectable Albany Law Journal just 11 days after the Haymarket tragedy. The Journal called for “a check upon immigration, a power of deportation, a better equipment of the police, a prompter and severer dealing with disorder” and denounced Chicago’s union leaders as “a few long-haired, wild-eyed, bad-smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches, who never did an honest hour’s work in their lives.” The Journal declared: “This state of things almost justifies the resort to the vigilance committee and lynch law. … It seems Eagle Columnsthat the penal law of Illinois would warrant treating all these godless fiends as murderers, and we hope they will be so treated and extirpated from the face of the earth.”

In June 1886, several leaders of the Chicago union movement were put on trial, charged with being accessories to murder at Haymarket Square and with a general conspiracy to murder.

Most of the defendants had not even been present when the Haymarket bomb was thrown, but that didn’t matter. They were revolutionary leaders and Chicago’s capitalists wanted their blood.

The trial opened on June 21, 1886, with only seven of the eight defendants in the courtroom. All seven had been born or raised outside the United States. Chicago’s newspapers had noted the foreign roots of most of the defendants and denounced them as “European assassins” and “foreign barbarians.” But just as jury selection began, the eighth defendant entered the courtroom. Albert Parsons was a native-born American. He had escaped the police roundup completely and had been living safely in Wisconsin, but bravely returned to stand trial with his innocent immigrant comrades.

Tried before a biased judge and jury, the defendants never had a chance. They were convicted; seven were sentenced to hang. (An eighth was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor.)

At that point, many people thought the case was closed, but they had not reckoned with Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, the wife of Albert Parsons and a leader of the Chicago labor movement in her own right. While the case was being unsuccessfully appealed, Lucy Parsons took her two small children and travelled across the United States, speaking to anyone she could about the case. In almost a year, she spoke to about 200,000 people in 16 states. Her heartfelt eloquence helped spark a movement to stop the executions.

Despite worldwide protests, four of the Haymarket defendants were hanged by the state of Illinois in November 1887. On the morning of the execution of her husband, Lucy Parsons was arrested and locked with her children in a cell for attempting to see her husband one last time.

On July 14, 1889, at the International Labor Congress in Paris, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor proposed that the Congress adopt May 1 as International Labor Day and a day to remember the “Martyrs of Chicago.” This was accepted. Ever since, May 1 has been a day for the workers of the entire world to march in unison.

Holidays do teach lessons; May Day teaches many. The Haymarket Affair shows that America’s tiny handful of rulers will throw away all pretense of democracy once the stability of their rule is challenged by vast changes in the economy. It shows that they will make scapegoats out of the immigrant workers. It shows they will do anything to hold on to their rule.

But Haymarket also shows us the weapon that a new class created by vast changes in the economy can wield against its rulers: unity. Perhaps the lesson of May Day can be summed up best in the words of Haymarket defendant Oscar Neebe. The last words of his autobiography read simply: “I call on all workingmen or working women of all nationalities and all countries to unite and down with your oppressors.”

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Haymarket Martyrs Monument, Waldheim Cemetery

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This article originated in the PEOPLE’S TRIBUNE (Online Edition), Vol. 24 No. 5/ May, 1997; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654.  For the current issue and archives to past issues see http://www.peoplestribune.org.

Mementos 10: Three Authors And What My Comrades Have Taught me

Mementos 10:   Three Authors And What My Comrades Have Taught me 

[I’m preparing for mitral valve surgery  November 15, 2016. One of the instructions is to bring mementos with me. The best way to do this without hiring a moving truck (Diana’s suggestion) is to put some of what I would bring with me on this blog. I can then access it on my phone. That is my goal here]

Mementos recover our experiences, make them live again, ones we want to remember. So much of my life has been entwined with writers and writing, with revolutionary work, that everything is colored in those hues. I would not do what I have done over the years without the collective discussions with the comrades, who helped me understand what I had lived through and helped me understand what was to be done as different circumstances arose. Disagreement and struggle have all been part of the learning process. I owe everything to them, and to my comrade Diana, on whose companionship, encouragement, constant pushing me forward and provocative ideas I have come to depend as much as I depend on air to breathe. I cannot emphasize this point enough. So this section is about three of the thinkers I’ve met because of the work I have done among writers, because of what my comrades have taught me.

 

* * * * * *

 

My friend Anne and I got to the auditorium early to get a place on the waiting list. More than 1000 people had reserved seats, but we still had hope we’d get in, and our ticket said we were number 12 in line. We got in and quickly found seats in the fourth row, right in the center, and sat down. Audience was buzzing all around us. The speaker would be Jonathan Kozol, I pulled out my copy of his latest book and told Anne, “I’ll never get him to sign this today, Guess I’ll have to give up on that.”

The woman next to Anne leaned over to look at the book, Shame of A Nation. “Is it as good as Savage Inequalities,” she asked? “That book changed my life. My daughter just graduated as an elementary school teacher and I had to give it to her.

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Warmest thanks from a grateful friend and admirer — Savage Inequalities

I nodded vigorously, “I think it’s much stronger than Savage Inequalities, but let me tell you about his book that changed my life, Death At An Early Age.”

At that, the woman in front of me turned around and asked, “Is that an older book? It seems to me I read that, maybe about 30 years ago? Yes that was amazing!”

“That was his first book, his book about his own experiences teaching in segregated schools of Boston.”

“That’s what he writes about, education . . .”

“But you know,” I interjected, “between Savage Inequalities and his new book, Kozol wrote two remarkable books, Amazing Grace . . .”

“Is that the one you gave me,” Anne asked me, while the woman sitting next to the woman in front of me exclaimed, “Yes, that’s the one I read!”

“, , ,and Ordinary Resurrections, two books really about the beauty and resilience of young people despite the degradation forced upon them.”

* * * * *

This excited exchange is what books are about. . It took place in the third and fourth rows of the auditorium of the Harold Washington Library, March 16, 2006, as the audience walked in. Much of my life has been among the community of people who write, publish, sell and read books that change the world. I write about how literature participates in social transformation. I’m starting with Jonathan Kozol here, but I could be writing about any of dozens authors whom I’ve been lucky enough to have met.

* * * * *

I “met” Jonathan Kozol in 1970, when I was a social worker working for the County of Los Angeles, assigned to the Pasadena “Adult Aids” office. This was my first permanent employment after I left medical school, after my temporary gigs had evaporated, after the Los Angeles Unified School District told me they did not want me to be a teacher.

Adult Aids shared an office with “Family Aids,” that is, those who provided Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the largest portion of the welfare system. There were two parts of the adult aids section: “Old Age Security,” for those who were ineligible for Social Security, or whose Social Security did not provide for all of their needs. These were the “deserving poor.” The other part of adult aids was called “General Relief” in Los Angeles County – it went by other names elsewhere – but it was aid for the “undeserving poor,” that is, up until the early 1970s primarily single men who could not get a job. In fact, most of the general relief was routed through the welfare office on 4th street on Skid Row, called by the welfare department the “Single Men’s Center.” For years people had been sent to the Fourth Street office to register for welfare, from which they would immediately be placed in a welfare hotel on Skid Row and then dispatched to what was euphemistically called “Work Project.” Gangs of men could be seen around the parks raking leaves or sweeping streets or, when the fall fire season began, on the front lines fighting conflagrations. When farm workers were needed, men would be dispatched to the tomato fields or the grape ranches. The pay was often in vouchers for food and housing; when it was in money, the rate was in the range of $109 per month. (Vouchers for food and rent were in the $15 a week range).

There were maybe a dozen of us in the general relief section, and we quickly got a reputation for being the radicals in the building. In the first place, we were the most completely unionized section of the workforce. Art Grubel, the Pasadena chapter president was a little shocked when, on my first day of work, I sought him out to join; later on Jack and Harry, two union members from the Single Mens’ Center, transferred in; Rita who came from a family aids background also transferred in; and the supervisor, James Elcock, had been promoted from the ranks and was also a union member.   (Pat Kuntz, the other supervisor, was not a union member; Jim Starrs, who supervised some of the OAS workers, was also a union member).

Even more important, we all believed that the welfare regulations were too stringent, and we got to know what the regulations actually were and how that differed from the even more restrictive practical policies. As a result, our office became known as the office that had figured out how to give away the most money per recipient, and the administration clamped down on us little by little.

Conversation with Elcock and Starrs often turned to the political, and ranged far beyond the problems of the welfare offices. My experiences earlier in the (also radical) Student Health Project and then with the Black Panthers and some of the East Los Angeles community organizations, my trip to Cuba, and the fact that the Los Angeles Unified School District rejected by job application because of my long hair and my beard placed me on an interesting playing field in relation to them and to my fellow workers. Mary Alice, for instance, who sat behind me in the office, with her flask of Jack Daniels in her drawer just in case, would torment me about my willingness to give away the County’s money. She traced it to my radical roots. Not the case with most of my fellow workers and with the two supervisors. It was in this environment that I discovered a best selling book of the day: Death At An Early Age. I devoured this book, written by a teacher in Boston, about my own age, could not stop talking about it. To this day, I feel the chills the children in his school felt, that winter day he describes, huddled in the corner of the auditorium assigned to them for their classroom, under a broken window with the wind howling outside. Reading this book introduced me to Jonathan Kozol and helped me understand something more how the social issues I was dealing with daily had a systemic origin. And of course, as a person who had hoped to be a teacher, the frustrations Kozol related, the discrimination against Black students he reported, and the fact that what he described, short of the howling winds and snow, resonated with my own experiences in Watts, California.

Nearly two decades later I’d started working at Guild Books in Chicago. One night, back at home listening to a call-in show on public radio, I heard Otis Thomas, a member of the Chicago-Gary Area Union of the Homeless talking about housing takeovers and wintering in Chicago weather. I called the station, said I had just come from the west coast where the weather is less brutal, but where in Los Angeles they had considered rounding up all the homeless and placing them on a barge in the ocean. Thomas said he’d spent winters in California, where you could still die of hypothermia sleeping outside.

A few months later, I heard that Jonathan Kozol was in Chicago promoting his new book, Rachel and Her Children. This book about homelessness was a departure for Kozol. I was angry that I’d heard about this so late and could not invite him to sign books at Guild. I called the Crown Publishers sales representative to see if there was any way we could get him to drop by the store and meet some activists involved in homelessness. I got a local number for him and persuaded him to stop by. Because Guild was also the center of “Artists Against Homelessness,” organized by artist and staff member Sue Ying Peery, we contacted some of the artists Sue Ying was working with. They came to the store when Kozol was due to arrive. Then I called Otis Thomas and others to ask them to come to meet Kozol. The result was something that could happen only at Guild.

In January, 1988, the New York Times ran a story that featured Otis Thomas. ”Why are people dying on the streets when there are perfectly good apartments available?” . . . ”People say we’re crazy out here on the streets,” said Mr. Thomas. ”Well, what’s crazy is sitting around and not doing anything about it. We’re not going to give up. We’ve had enough.” (Jan. 7, 1988: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/01/07/us/homeless-plight-protested-in-3-cities.html ) Otis had been homeless for about 2 years. He was tall, plain-spoken, gentle and anxious to exchange conversation with Jonathan. On his part, Kozol amazing-grace-coverwas eager to learn about the street-level situation in Chicago and delighted to meet people putting up tent cities, reclaiming abandoned housing, and protesting the thousands of empty public housing units with so many people out on the street. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated the numbers of homeless in Chicago at about 20,000 that year, and the Chicago Housing authority admitted to a waiting list of 4,000 approved for entry to public housing, with over 3,000 empty units they called uninhabitable.

The morning ended with Jonathan giving me his telephone number in Massachusetts, the number of his assistant, and promising to do a reading for us his next time in Chicago. A year later, Rachel and Her Children came out in paperback. This time we were ready, and arranged for a reading. Of course we were able to bring the homeless activist community together for this event. Jonathan was soft-spoken, but when he started speaking there was a tremor, a fervor in his voice. He spoke about how, as a writer, he always hopes to convince people with his writing; he wants his writing to have an effect, to make a difference. And so it was with Rachel. He thought it would be a part of an effort to end this travesty of homelessness in a country that brags it is the richest in the world. But, he pointed out, a year after Rachel was published, and many lectures and travels since, he had found that the main consequence of the publicity is that a whole industry has arisen around homelessness. “There are even degrees in shelter management given in universities,” he said.

A few years later, June 5, 1995, House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich was scheduled to give a talk to the final lunch meeting at the American Bookseller’s Association annual convention, this time in Chicago. There had been considerable opposition to this among booksellers. Nevertheless, ABA director Bernie Rath defended his decision to invite him. I called John Donahue, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, to tell him about Gingrich’s appearance. Gingrich had issued his infamous “contract on America,” that included Medicare and Medicaid cuts as well as welfare and food stamp cutbacks. John called me back after consulting with his colleagues. Could I buy them tickets to the luncheon? Of course I could, if you can give me the money! Done! And so I purchased 10 tickets at about $30 a pop. Minutes into the luncheon the Coalition members present stood and shouted at Gingrich, stopping the presentations for about 30 minutes. The Chicago Tribune reported that 300 demonstrators marched outside the convention center as well.

Later that afternoon, as things were winding up outside and booksellers were saying their last good-byes to people they saw, Jonathan Kozol came up to check in (our paths had crossed earlier, because he had been at the convention to promote his new book, Amazing Grace, and he’d been on a breakfast panel). His curiosity had been piqued by the demonstration at the luncheon, and so he asked if I knew how the demonstrators had gotten inside. I told him that I had purchased tickets for them. He smiled, said he thought that might have been the case, and congratulated me: “Good work!”

* * * * * *

Jonathan Kozol returned to his main interest, the education of young children, with his next books, Savage Inequalities (1991), Amazing Grace (1995) and Ordinary Resurrections (2000). They each brought him back to Chicago, but only one while Guild Books was still open and could offer a platform for him to read and discuss. We took the opportunity to invite him to Michael Warr’s apartment in Wicker Park to meet with teachers and other community members. On the way to Michael’s apartment we chatted about who would be there and what they might expect; then about the children he had known in the Bronx; also, tenderly, about the health of his dog. But once we got there, in a packed, standing room only living room, Jonathan listened to what people told him about teaching and learning in the segregated Chicago public schools.

He leaned forward, intent, often cradling his chin in one hand, his elbow resting on his knee. His brow furrowed, his head shook in assent or in disappointment as he heard tales from the war zone of public education. Finally he called on a young woman, a student at a magnet school, Whitney Young High School, and his face changed, as it often did when he talked with or about young people, inviting her to give her experience. His voice was tender and welcoming. She spoke with passion, about how her working class parents had started her early with special school programs to take the tests to get into magnet schools from before she was in kindergarten, and because of that she had gotten into Whitney Young, one of the best public schools in the country. She said she was very grateful for her own education. But she was upset about so many of her friends in her neighborhood who did not have access to schools like this; or that the neighborhood schools (like Roberto Clemente, which was in her neighborhood) did not have anywhere near the programs that her school had. It wasn’t fair, she said. There is something wrong with this. Jonathan simply nodded. And the afternoon drew to a close.

Savage Inequalities echoed Kozol’s frustrations after publishing Rachel and Her Children. 25 years after Death at an Early Age was published, segregation by race, inequality by race and class was just as rampant, whole industries and a not-for-profit-industrial complex had grown up to profit on this inequality. When his next two books were published, Jonathan turned to a different face of what he had been exploring. What may be unique about Kozol is that he kept in touch with many of the families we met in his earlier books in the South Bronx. In Amazing Grace and Ordinary Resurrections, we see them later on, we look at their growth and how they have resisted being ground into oblivion. Their resistance, Kozol makes it clear, has nothing to do with any systemic aid that the children have received. Indeed, their survival is often in spite of the efforts to suppress them. In the pages of these books you can actually hear Kozol’s voice, tremulous and soft, just as he talked with and listened to the young woman in that Chicago living room: intent, pained but open and friendly.

A different Jonathan Kozol spoke at North Eastern Illinois University in 2000, after the publication of Ordinary Resurrections. Ringing accusations against a system that failed young people punctuated his presentation, and once again the hope that emerged because in some inexplicable fashion some young people managed to achieve resurrection; the implicit metaphor of children – children — having been crucified was not lost on his audience. Most of his audience of perhaps 500 were teachers or education or sociology students. Afterward, a sociology professor gathered about 20 students around a table in a nearby open area, and a heated conversation took place about the lessons of the presentation. Can the system be reformed? Do we need to start all over again? Who profits from it being the way it is?

Jonathan Kozol expressed frustrations that his work actually hadn’t changed the world, and perhaps this opens a conversation about what changing the world means, beyond reform. And that’s what I try to chip away at in my writing.

* * * * * * *

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

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May Damballah watch over you and yours — Damballah

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 audience was small – it was generous of Wideman to write “Thanks for the party” in his autograph. One person listening intently had read Wideman before and came prepared with questions. One in particular was pointed. The listener, an African-American student, asked the author what he thought his responsibility as a Black writer was to the Black community. A few years later, by which time I’d been certified as a Wideman groupie, I was invited to a lecture he gave at Columbia College. The occasion was the publication of Philadelphia Fire, a novel that returned to late 20th century Philadelphia and the tenth anniversary of the day on which the Black mayor of the city of brotherly love bombed a block of row houses one of which was occupied by an activist group called MOVE. 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.

Afterward, 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 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.

I’m not sure when this next conversation took place, it was in a crowded anteroom and again at a reading that Wideman had just done. The poet, Sterling Plumpp was telling me his impression of Wideman. Sterling had been one of the leaders in the committee to defend Dennis Brutus, the South African poet, from being deported to his certain imprisonment under apartheid. He also gave a very fine critique/review of the Arnold Rampersad two volume biography of Langston Hughes, helping us to understand Hughes relation both to the Black Arts movement and to the Black (especially Southern) working class. Stuffed in that lobby, Sterling didn’t need to twist my arm to convince me: John Edgar Wideman is one of the best American writers of our generation. I think I’d known that 10 years earlier when I first read his Sent For You Yesterday, returned over and over to the passage where John French muses over the words of Albert Wilkes, “They’ve got us on a rack.” That has epitomized, in six words, how I have experienced the world, how it seems to me Jonathan Kozol has described the lives of the children he has met.

* * * * *

In 1991 Leslie Marmon Silko published a book she had been working on for 10 years. Compared with the spare work of John Edgar Wideman and with her own Ceremony, a slim volume that had become a staple of school reading lists, Almanac of the Dead is a huge panorama of a novel encompassing more than 750 pages and a hemispheric landscape. autographsDiana and I read the book – we each had our own copy because it was so riveting, and because we had decided early on that it was a book we’d want to lend to others – and the day I finished the book I was on my way to work at Guild. I was so wrapped up in the text that I missed the Fullerton stop on the Purple Line express. By the time I’d realized this, I looked at my watch and noted that I was typically early. I made a split decision and happily rode into the loop and back to the bookstore by which time, 30 minutes later, I had finished the book.

Much of my memory of this novel is of what was happening at the time in the real world. We had a book discussion group at the bookstore and those of us who had read the book would look at each other after hearing the news that day and say, “Almanac of the Dead,” and we’d exchange knowing glances, shake our heads. Zapatistas, the Union of the Homeless, traffic in human organs, all the way to Standing Rock and Blackwell, all of these “appear” in the book. Brecht described art not as a mirror to reflect reality but as a hammer to shape it. And that was how we saw Silko’s book, which reflected reality but gave us a door to imagine what reality might otherwise be like.

In February, 1993 we hadn’t yet made our decision to close Guild. But the handwriting was on the wall. Our last day was at the end of May, but this February 17, Leslie Marmon Silko was in Chicago and sat at Guild’s sales counter to sign books. I can’t remember who was there aside from Diana and I, but when we handed her our books, almost falling apart from rereading, dog-eared and underlined, I remember the glow that spread across her face. She wrote along with the autograph: “When I was writing ALMANAC all those 10 years, I think I relied on energy and enthusiasm of readers like you – somehow the support travelled back through time to help sustain me.”