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It's been three decades since President Richard M.
The birds stopped coming after the annuals died.
I didn't realize how much I missed them until the bluebird
Returned, lured by the burgundy haze of the fall pansies
Pouring from the window boxes. I was too slow finding
The camera and then I left the cap on. The bird rose
Into a cut of sky and I was left with a vision of blue--
His sapphire eye and marigold breast. Maybe it was you,
Released from your standing body--fingers fluid between
Tissue and organ--as you operate in the crowded surgical
Theatre, transformed to tell me autumn is here. I would not
Be surprised. This brief visit imitates your frequent calls
Between cases. After he flies, the room seems to hold you.
I see the white waves throwing themselves into the Cliffs
Of Moher, your eyes stealing blue from the sky.
Die Nigger Die!, the autobiographical political memoir by H. Rap Brown, is a vital American historical document--historical almost in the sense of a message found in a time capsule, a missive from another age. But it remains of considerable interest for what it tells us about social and political attitudes, behaviors and expectations of a time--so my students believe--long past. The time, in this case, being a discrete, relatively short period of domestic upheaval in this country during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of "revolutionary" black uprising in Northern ghettos following hard on the heels of the Southern, nonviolent, direct-action movement engineered by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), a movement usually associated with Martin Luther King Jr. Rap's book has an added dimension of sociological interest, being a voice from the frontlines, the personal and political testimony of a radically militant chairman of SNCC who came to symbolize the defiance of a generation of angry and militant black youth. A third, perhaps less compelling, area of interest is the personal: what the voice and language reveal about the character and personality, the sensibility, if you will, of the speaker. Who is this man, of whom McGeorge Bundy reportedly commented at the founding gathering of the National Urban Coalition, "Wouldn't you, wouldn't all of us, sleep much better tonight if we knew that H. Rap Brown...was somewhere quietly running his own little drugstore?"
Well, for one thing, the author, H. Rap Brown, is no longer among us. Nor has he really been since 1971, when, as a young man in his late twenties, he made his shahadah (the Muslim declaration of faith). During a period of incarceration by the State of New York, the black activist known to the media as H. Rap Brown converted to orthodox Islam and emerged as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a Sunni Muslim. Brown went in and Al-Amin emerged. This change was by no means cosmetic or strategic.
By all accounts and the overwhelming preponderance of evidence over years, this was a genuine religious conversion, a classically "profound transformation of self." Al-Amin embarked on a life of rigorous study and spiritual and moral inquiry with the same single-minded intensity and uncompromising commitment Rap had brought to militant social struggle.
It is important to mention this because, as we know, not all conversions--religious or ideological--are equal. This was a time particularly famous for sudden, public and apparently infinitely reversible self-reinventions, two of the more dramatic being Jerry Rubin's conversion from the stridently countercultural Youth International Party leadership to Wall Street broker (from yippie to yuppie) and Eldridge Cleaver's from Black Panther Party revolutionary to born-again Christian.
Al-Amin's embrace of Islam, however, proved neither facile nor expedient, as his emergence as a bookish Muslim cleric and his years of work in faith-based social improvement have demonstrated. The fiery and impetuous young rebel who speaks out of the pages of Die Nigger Die! has long since evolved into an austere religious scholar, disciplined by faith and projecting the aura of a spiritually disposed ascetic.
After thirty years, Al-Amin has become, in many important ways, a vastly different person from the author of this book. A respected imam, he now sees--and for some time has seen--the world, his own role therein and the eventual liberation of his people in quite different terms: those of faith, self-discipline and spiritual development. This vision is reflected in both his demeanor and his language. Consequently he has, at this time, serious reservations about the appropriateness of reissuing a book of youthful struggle. It is not that he repudiates any aspect of the book--not the tone, the defiant struggle out of which it came or even the youthful persona of that text.
While he considers some of the language of the early work "unseemly," his reservation is more that he considers his later work, Revolution by the Book, far more relevant to his current concerns and the work of thirty years, as well as being more indicative of his present personal and professional style. No two books could be more different in style and subject, but what they share, apart from their common paternity, is that both are earnestly addressed to the same audience and purpose: the re-education of the African-American grassroots.
Revolution by the Book is not, as might be inferred from a casual glance at the cover, a handbook on guerrilla war. The revolution of the title refers very specifically to jihad in its classical Islamic meaning of the daily, internal struggle for self-mastery and moral discipline. The book begins with a collection of sermons, each explicating one of the foundations of Islam--shahadah (declaration of faith), tauheed (the Oneness and uniqueness of God), salaat (prayer and worship), zakaat (the redemptive value of charity) and saum (purification by fasting and abstinence)--and the expression of them in the hajj, or prescribed pilgrimage.
Liberally illustrated with quotations from the Koran, the Sunnah and other secondary Islamic texts, Al-Amin's tone is learned and reverent, exhortatory and precise. It is an eloquent articulation of the fundamental principles, values and practice of orthodox Islam, affecting every aspect of life, personal and social. The revolution it envisions is a moral one, which begins with the individual, stressing awareness of God and self through piety, study and self-discipline, and moves through family and out into the larger society.
The first responsibility of the Muslim is as teacher. That is his job, to teach. His first school, his first classroom is within the household. His first student is himself. He masters himself and then he begins to convey the knowledge that he has acquired to the family. The people who are closest to him.
To be successful in struggle requires remembrance of the Creator and the doing of good deeds. This is important because successful struggle demands that there be a kind of social consciousness. There has to be a social commitment, a social consciousness that joins men together. On the basis of their coming together, they do not transgress against themselves and they do not transgress against others.
On society and revolution:
When you understand your obligations to God then you can understand your obligations to society. Revolution comes when human beings set out to correct decadent institutions. We must understand how this society has fallen away from righteousness and begin to develop, Islamically, the alternative institutions to those that are in a state of decline around us. But we must first enjoin right and forbid wrong to ourselves. That is the first step in turning this thing around: turn your self around.
There is a directness and, if you will, a sincerity to this language, a sincerity that those who know the imam say has for thirty years been evident in his life and example. These qualities are said to have earned him a fierce loyalty and affection from the Muslim congregation to which he ministers in a working-class suburb of Atlanta, respect in the surrounding Christian neighborhood and a wider regard in the national Muslim-American community. This side of Al-Amin's vocational persona is one I had not been privileged to observe until 1998, at a farewell tribute to our brother Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), who was stricken with terminal cancer and had been about to return to his home in Africa, there to die. Perhaps 2,000 people gathered in the banquet room of a Washington hotel: family, friends, admirers and supporters of Carmichael's, mostly movement faithful, veterans of the "heroic days."
It would have been a remarkable gathering in any place and any decade, though it could probably not have happened in the 1960s, when doctrinal and ideological disagreement had loomed so urgent and divisive. Even recently, perhaps only respect for Carmichael could have assembled such a gathering. Black nationalists next to Southern Baptists; pan-Africanists, native Africans, a few Sunni Muslims, and NAACP integrationists next to Nation of Islam separatists; former Black Panthers next to former Students for a Democratic Society activists; progressive intellectuals--writers and editors--socialists, Marxists, liberals, black and white, next to Black Arts Movement cultural nationalists; and John Lewis, the assistant minority whip of the House, cheek by jowl with Minister Louis Farrakhan, the ubiquitous leader of the Nation of Islam. It was a fitting tribute to the extraordinary range and reach of Carmichael/Ture's political and personal charisma and the affection he commanded across lines of ideology and identity.
Prominent at the speakers' table were the former chairmen of SNCC (Marion Barry, Chuck McDew, John Lewis, Jamil, and Phil Hutchens). The talk from the platform was, as might be expected, nostalgic, affectionate, political.
The only real departure, and my only surprise, came when Imam Al-Amin spoke. What he delivered in tribute to his old friend was a thoughtful, Islam-inflected reflection on the nature of oppression and the moral duty, the religious imperative, of the faithful to resist. Liberally adorned with Koranic quotations, it was, as I recall, an erudite, elegantly constructed, finely reasoned explication of the categories and nature of oppression, and the moral dimensions and complexities of struggle as expressed in the prophetic poetry of the Arabian desert some 1,400 years earlier. In any terms--culturally speaking--it was scholarly. I found it startling in a curious way: It did not quite fit either stylistically or culturally with what had gone before, yet was completely appropriate.
Its traditional opening in the resonant cadences of classic Arabic poetry seemed to me and others a voice and sensibility out of a different culture and another time. Its text, taken from Sura 42, verse 41 of the Holy Koran--"All those who fight when oppressed incur no guilt, but Allah shall surely punish the oppressor"--seemed appropriate as a personal credo for both the speaker and the life of struggle being recognized.
As he spoke, I remember thinking: Ah, so this is what a serious Islamic sermon sounds like, huh? Rap really takes this calling seriously. The brother is indeed an Islamic scholar, an imam. (I took in the hang-jawed look of astonishment and dawning professional respect that crossed Minister Farrakhan's face as he listened to be confirmation of my impression.)
I'd known the youthful Rap at Howard University as the younger brother of my friend Ed and, of course, later with SNCC in Mississippi and Alabama, before he erupted in the nation's headlines as the black militant from hell, the Negro America loved to hate. I remembered a laconic, rangy (six-foot-five), hawk-faced youth, mostly silent, a preternaturally watchful, almost brooding presence. Said to be an extraordinary athlete, he looked the part. "Yeah, the boy can play him some ball, bro. Everything from point guard to power forward and some quarterback too," his brother told me. "An' there ain't no dawg in mah boy either. He a competitor from his heart. No quit in him."
Given the times, it was natural that the movement would draw him away from the courts and any possibility of athletic scholarships. He listened to our endless debates, read voraciously, joined our demonstrations and volunteered for the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964.
In 1965 he was back in DC, where he became chairman of NAG (Nonviolent Action Group), the local SNCC affiliate. This led to the infamous White House confrontation with President Lyndon Johnson. I believe it was a Saturday morning a week following the vicious police riot known as "Bloody Sunday" on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. I was alone in the SNCC office when the telephone rang from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Responding to international outrage over the atrocity in Alabama, President Johnson had suddenly agreed to a meeting with the national civil rights leadership. However, the meeting was that afternoon, and the leadership was scattered all over the country. The Washington representatives would have to stand in. Would I be representing SNCC? Hell, no, I most certainly would not. Just then in strolls Rap, attired, as I recall, for athletic endeavor.
"Hey, aren't you the chairman of NAG? Feel like going to the White House this afternoon?" Rap considered it for several moments.
"Well," he drawled, "why not? I ain't really doing much this afternoon."
Later, when he gave his report, I remember his indignation and amazement at the fawning subservience toward the President displayed by a delegation ostensibly there to represent the urgency of our people's struggle, courtiers so effusively grateful for the privilege merely of being there and so anxious to preserve their access that none dared be forthright with the monarch. So it had fallen to him to raise the questions of presidential responsibility for federal inaction in protecting the rights of black citizens that the group was there to represent. He described the delegation's shuffling during the meeting and their not-very-subtle distancing of themselves from his intemperance, in some cases even going so far as to apologize for him. Yet once outside they effusively praised his courage for saying the things that "really needed to be said." Then, within the week, an insidious column in the Washington Post (by Evans and Novak) described how 'deeply embarrassed responsible civil rights leaders' were professing to be at the 'disrespect' shown the President by the young student.
Rap told me that LBJ had entered the meeting expressing his great displeasure at all-night demonstrations outside the White House, which were so noisy that "his little girls" had been unable to sleep. The courtiers each in their turn had expressed distress and apologies for this inconvenience to the presidential family. Rap, when his turn came, said that he too was real sad that for one night the presidential daughters' repose had been disturbed, but black people in the South had been unable to sleep in peace and security for a hundred years. What did the President plan to do about that? He had thought that this was what they were meeting to discuss. Which apparently so upset the President that the courtiers felt a need to run to the press later to put their disapproval on the public record. It must have been a generational thing.
When, in 1967 at the age of 23, Rap succeeded Carmichael as SNCC chairman, it was at a tense and desperate moment in the country. SNCC's call for Black Power, coupled with its stand against the Vietnam War, had isolated the organization and left it exposed. Deep fissures had appeared in the civil rights "coalition." The long-simmering anger of alienated black youth at racism and economic injustice in the ghettos was erupting into violent and destructive urban insurrections. In every case these "riots" were triggered by police brutality or misconduct, most usually the killing or brutalizing of an unarmed black man.
The black insurrections traumatized white America, which was further divided, usually along generational and class lines, by the Vietnam War. Suddenly, middle-class white youth--the ostensible beneficiaries of the system--were, to an unprecedented degree, also alienated from their government. The New Left, a generation of white student activists, was becoming increasingly strident in its denunciation of the American establishment and adopting an increasingly anticapitalist and anti-imperialist "revolutionary" rhetoric.
About this time, the Black Panther Party made its appearance in Oakland. A "revolutionary" organization of urban black youth, they had great style. A variation on gang colors, their black leather jackets, black berets and blue shirts--with firearms either visible or implied--were an expression of ghetto youth culture. Appearing as if on cue out of America's Third World, the Panthers were the New Left's homegrown surrogates for the Vietcong. Black, virile, menacing, hip guerrillas, the Panthers were--depending on one's orientation--the incarnation of white America's most primal fantasy or its worse nightmare: angry Negroes with guns.
Their leadership, with a well-developed sense of theater and an instinct for hustle, permitted the white New Left to declare them the revolutionary vanguard, with predictable results. Their members paid a terrible price: Some were killed and many are still in jail, often on very dubious charges.
All of which, in the media's dependably sensationalist presentation, contributed mightily to a pervasive mood of racial tension and impending doom across the nation. Wars (abroad) and rumors of (race) war at home--mere anarchy is loosed, the center cannot hold? Something like that.
Well, not by a long shot, pilgrim. The response of J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation, a "hard-hitting" national counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), was of surpassing ruthlessness in its contempt for law and the civil rights of citizens. COINTELPRO cast a wide net covering the peace movement, the New Left, student activists, black militants ("black nationalist hate groups") and pacifist clergy, including even the very churchly Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover's specific instructions were to use all necessary means to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize...black nationalist hate type organizations [sic], their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters." Programs were designed to "convince them," Hoover instructed his agents, "that to be a black revolutionary is to be a dead revolutionary."
The bureau, taking him at his word, came up with a repertoire of dirty tricks--authorized by the director and usually illegal--ranging from character assassination, disinformation, false arrest on bogus charges, manufactured evidence, perjured testimony and cynical frame-ups to physical assassination by either uniformed officers or hired agents. All this has been documented by Congressional investigation, but none of the perpetrators--the so-called rogue agents--in the bureau have ever served a day of jail time.
This being the context in which H. Rap Brown undertook the SNCC chairmanship, it is therefore not surprising that his term of office, a succession of indictments and arrests, was spent mostly in court, out on bond or in jail. Some of this is recounted in Die Nigger Die!: It began in July 1967 after an appearance in Cambridge, Maryland, where he had given an "incendiary" and--in the presence of the media--politically ill-advised speech in which he urged black people to arm themselves, to be "ready to die" and to meet violence with violence. "This town is ready to explode.... if you don't have guns, don't be here.... you have to be prepared to die." This proved rather quickly prophetic: Immediately after the speech he and two companions were fired on from an ambush, and the community exploded.
After I spoke people were just milling around. A young lady who lived up towards Race Street where a bunch of white policemen were gathered asked for an escort home because she was afraid to walk by herself. Myself and two other people were walking her home and some dudes opened fire on us with shotguns from some bushes. We found out later they [the shooters] were black policemen. They were shooting at us a long time. I was hit, I dove to the ground, rolled into a ditch and made my way into someone's yard.
After the shooting there was a lot of commotion. People went into the street and just started tearing everything up. A few hours later they burned the school again. Two weeks earlier people had burned the black elementary school because it had been a rat infested, roach infested place. People were paying taxes and their children were forced to go to school in those conditions. It is these conditions which cause riots. Not anybody's rhetoric.
Shortly after this incident, Brown was charged by the State of Maryland with incitement to riot, beginning a succession of charges and protracted legal maneuvering drawn out over a two-year period.
I can remember following the process as it unfolded in almost Kafkaesque absurdity in the press. It seemed like every few months Brown would be hauled into court in a new jurisdiction on a different charge and held under an oppressively large bond. His attorney--the late William Kunstler--would struggle mightily to win a reduction. Rap would eventually come out and in a matter of days be reported somewhere else making even more "incendiary" utterances and be back in custody, there to begin the dismal cycle all over again. At least that's how it seemed to me. I can remember saying, "I guess you're right. Rap don't have no quit in him after all, but maybe he should." And Ed growling, "That boy hard-headed, bro. Jes' too damn stubborn."
Subsequently released FBI documents make it clear that this process of paralysis by indictment and legal intimidation was by no means limited to H. Rap Brown. It was a deliberate, across-the-board COINTELPRO strategy designed to cripple radical organizations by misusing the courts. First, there were arrests of targeted activists on serious charges carrying potentially long sentences. It was of little importance to the government whether it had a legitimate case, strong enough to secure a conviction. The point was to silence and immobilize leadership while forcing groups to redirect energy and resources into raising funds, organizing legal defenses and publicizing the cases. It was a government subversion of the American justice system resulting in drawn-out Soviet-style political show trials that became commonplace in the America of the 1970s: the Chicago Seven, the Panther Twenty-One, etc., etc.
Although the overwhelming majority of these cases did not result in convictions, government documents show that they were considered great tactical successes. They kept the movements off the streets and in the courts. However, a few convictions were attained, and it is clear that at least some activists who ended up serving long sentences--some of whom remain in jail to this day--were simply framed by the government. People were convicted on perjured testimony as witnesses were bribed or coerced into lying. Exculpatory evidence was withheld from the defense and made to "disappear."
As I write, Leonard Peltier of the American Indian Movement is still in jail. Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt of the California Panthers, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was recently released after spending nearly half his life in jail for a murder that the FBI had clear evidence he could not possibly have committed. Richard Moore (Dhoruba Al-Mujahid Bin Wahad), a New York Panther, has only recently been freed after a review of his case indicated similar government misconduct. Have you heard of the Angola Three?
These are two black men in the Louisiana State Penitentiary--Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox--who have been held in continuous solitary confinement for twenty-nine years. They, along with Robert King Wilkerson (who was freed in February 2001) are responsible for organizing a functional chapter of the Black Panther Party among the inmate population of Angola prison. In 1972 the men were convicted of the murder of a guard and have been held in isolation ever since (see www.prisonactivist.org/angola). These are only a few cases that have surfaced into public awareness. But there remain a great many such cases that seem irretrievably buried in the catacombs of legal bureaucracy. There are activists of that generation, in other words--fellow human beings and American citizens--who are in effect political prisoners, still serving time in an American gulag, often on very questionable evidence indeed.
Back to the Rap. In April 1970, after two years of tortuous legal jousting, he failed to appear in court for trial on the incitement charge and simply disappeared. For seventeen months, despite the best efforts of the FBI and an international dragnet, he appeared to have dropped from the face of the earth. To my knowledge he has never publicly discussed this period, so it remains something of a mystery. At the time, speculation was rife. None of our mutual movement friends seemed to know--or would admit to knowing--his whereabouts. He was variously rumored as being in Cuba, in Algeria, in West Africa or deceased. His brother Ed was "pretty sure" he was alive, but so completely incommunicado that even he had not a clue as to where Rap might be.
When he finally surfaced in late 1971 it was in truly astonishing circumstances and surprisingly close to home--Manhattan, in fact. His friends and supporters in the movement were stunned when large New York Times headlines proclaimed his capture, gut-shot and seriously wounded, following a running gun battle with police during "an attempted holdup" of a westside Manhattan bar. To us this made no sense. Armed robbery of a bar? C'mon, that was completely at odds with the political principles we considered ourselves to share with Rap. Indeed, had he not been in critical condition in a Harlem hospital, one would have been tempted to simply dismiss the entire story as false identification.
To many black Americans, this was an astonishing and dismaying development. The young SNCC chairman seemed to have crossed the line between militant political defiance and flat-out criminality. Much of the support he had enjoyed, both within the movement and in the general community, evaporated. But not all. According to a report from the Harlem street, "It was some black nurses who saved that boy's life. Them sisters made sure he got proper treatment in that hospital." Also, according to street lore, the bar holdup was really more of an ill-advised, armed sortie against reputed drug dealers and their police partners. After recovering from his injuries, Rap served five years in prison. Having theoretically discharged his debt to the law and re-emerged into society as Jamil Al-Amin, H. Rap Brown, for all intents and purposes, should have been history.
Jamil Al-Amin, after making the hajj to Mecca following his parole, settled in Atlanta, where his brother Ed was director of the Voter Education Project, and set out to construct a new life outside the glare of the media. The imam, peaceably studying his religion and building an Islamic congregation, became--not that McGeorge Bundy was prescient--the proprietor of a small community grocery store cum culture center in Atlanta's West End.
The next episode in this remarkable tale might be seen as that of two utterly incompatible and mutually exclusive stories. One is the narrative of H. Rap Brown, the armed militant, prone to violence--"revolutionary" or "criminal," depending on your take. This old narrative is preserved alive and well in the computerized memory banks of law enforcement and the film clips and soundbites of the media, a convenient ghost to be summoned up at will over the next thirty years.
"Y'know," his brother Ed explained, "something happens. Say the first attempt to bomb the Trade Center, right? They feed their infallible profile into their computer. Muslim...radical...violent...anti-American, whatever, who knows. Anyway, boom, out spits the names, H. Rap Brown prominent among them. Next thing the Feds come storming into the community and haul Jamil in. This actually happened. Of course it's stupid. And every time they have to let him go. But how do you stop it? A goddamn nightmare, they never quit."
Then there is a more contemporary contending narrative, that of the Imam Al-Amin--pious, ascetic scholar/teacher and community leader widely perceived to have renounced violence--only to have his hard-won peace plagued at regular intervals by the ghost of the past persona, conjured up to that end.
Or, some suggest, could not the narratives sometimes merge: with the clerical robes and books of the imam being occasionally discarded for the weapons and fatigues of the militant?
One person has no doubt. "No, bro. It was just continuous harassment, pure and simple," Ed Brown says. "Harassment, sometimes routine and petty, sometimes pretty serious. Just one damn thing after another. No matter how absurd. The police simply would not leave my brother alone...an ongoing police vendetta."
Out of this series of low-level annoyances two incidents stand out. Immediately after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Imam Al-Amin was arbitrarily hauled in, interrogated and released under heavy and continuous surveillance, all in the absence of any evidence at all connecting him to the bombing--at least none the authorities cared to disclose.
Another such incident took place in August 1995. A month after a local shooting, agents of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms converged on Atlanta and arrested Imam Al-Amin as the shooter. At a press conference, they informed the press that the victim had identified the imam as his assailant. The charges were dropped when the victim--who subsequently joined the imam's mosque--told the press that he had not seen his assailant but had been threatened by the authorities with jail if he did not implicate Imam Al-Amin. He also told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the New York Times that it was the police who first presented him with the name and photograph of Imam Al-Amin. The whole thing stank of a setup and police impropriety. However, the mainstream civil liberties establishment was silent, so it was left to the national Islamic community to question the irregularities surrounding this incident.
On August 28, 1995, the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), joined by several other national Muslim organizations, held a press conference in which they called for a Justice Department investigation. The groups represented included the Islamic Society of North America, American Muslim Council, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and CAIR. Imam Al-Amin was also in attendance. The joint statement they released raises some interesting questions:
1) Why were agents of the FBI, the FBI's Counterterrorism Task Force and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms involved in a case that the police themselves described as a "routine aggravated assault"?
2) Why was the victim in this case, as he himself has stated and the Journal-Constitution reported, threatened with legal charges if he failed to identify Imam Al-Amin as his assailant? And why did authorities refuse to accept the victim's repeated statements that he did not see who the assailant was?
3) Why would the authorities in Atlanta wish to implicate Imam Al-Amin in this case?
4) Why was Imam Al-Amin arrested weeks after the alleged incident, even though he was easily accessible to law enforcement officials at his public place of business? Why was he arrested in his car and not called in for questioning at police facilities?
Good questions. I am not aware of a response from the Justice Department. Unfortunately, this is not where the story ends.
Five years later, on Thursday night, March 16, 2000, the troubled relationship between the brother and the various law enforcement agencies would escalate from farce to tragedy. As I write, Imam Al-Amin sits on trial on four felony murder charges, for which the state is seeking the death penalty. By the time you read this, part of the trial will have taken place, so we will have learned something of the quality and extent of the evidence the state has been able to produce in support of the thirteen charges it has brought. Here is the background--what we know of it at this time.
On the night of March 16, an exchange of gunfire between two Fulton County sheriff's deputies and persons unknown resulted in the death of Deputy Richard Kinchen and the serious injury of Deputy Aldranon English. The incident took place in the vicinity of the community mosque founded by Imam Al-Amin. According to the authorities, the deputies were attempting to serve an arrest warrant on Al-Amin, who had missed an earlier court appearance. (The charges--impersonating a police officer and receiving stolen property--while not insignificant, were relatively minor compared with the ones he now faces. Imam Al-Amin maintains that he never received notification of the court date, even though his residence and business address were well-known to authorities.)
In the immediate aftermath of the shootings, the Atlanta police released in rapid succession, and the media reported, four significantly different accounts of the incident. The precise location, the sequence of events, the description and even the number of assailants were all revised in these early accounts, the only constant being a "trail of blood." Deputy English was certain he'd seen, spoken to, shot and seriously wounded his attacker. The investigators reported following a "heavy trail" of blood up the steps and across the porch of an empty house. From photographs shown him, the wounded officer identified the shooter as Al-Amin, although there were discrepancies in his initial description. A regional manhunt was launched.
The local media had a field day with H. Rap Brown, whom they identified as a former Black Panther leader and all-around desperado. Apparently the most recent picture they could find was a police mug shot of a fierce-looking Black Power militant out of the 1960s. This image saturated all media (except radio) and is indicative of the general tone of the coverage. However, a few days after the shooting, when Al-Amin was arrested in Alabama, he was found to be completely free of physical injury. Subsequently very little was heard of the "wounded assailant" and the "trail of blood" motif, until it emerged in the first days of the trial.
There are other significant discrepancies between police and media reports and the known facts, but there is no need to recapitulate those here. They will come out in court, and I am no more the imam's lawyer than you are a jury of his peers. There is, however, one important dimension to this story that seems to have escaped the notice of the media.
Neither I nor the media commentators, having not been present, can say exactly what happened that night--who was present, or why and how things happened as they did. All that is indisputably clear is that an eminently avoidable human tragedy took place. One young black man was dead, another seriously injured. Somebody shot them. And a leader of the community is on trial for his life. Was this inevitable? Did any of it have to happen? Recall with me the prevailing context in which these events unfolded.
In March 2000, there was a particular mood in working-class African-American communities across the country. Our communities had been traumatized by a series of shootings of unarmed black men at the hands of police in urban centers, most of them innocent of any crime. In black Islamic communities in particular, feelings were extremely raw over the police shooting of a devout, law-abiding, unarmed young African Muslim named Amadou Diallo as he stood in the foyer of his apartment building in New York City. Although more than forty shots were fired at or into the young man, the four police perpetrators were found innocent of wrongdoing. The Diallo case was the subject of sermons in mosques across the nation, and the Atlanta mosque was no exception.
The Atlanta shootout took place within a month of the acquittal of the police officers in New York. One has to wonder, therefore, why, in the climate created by those events, the Atlanta authorities chose to act as they did. Why was it necessary to send into a Muslim community, under cover of darkness, heavily armed men wearing flak jackets to bring in a respected and beloved religious leader, a figure of fixed address and regular and predictable habits? And this in service of a warrant for charges they describe as relatively minor. Who authorized this action and in this manner? Was this abysmally poor judgment or deliberate provocation?
Al-Amin's neighbors also found it passing strange. "He understood the process, how City Hall works, how federal government works," one lady recalls. "So he was like a mayor to many people. Someone people could go to to make things happen." Another pointed out that "Jamil walked up and down the street all day, from the house to the shop to the mosque. So why would they wait till 10 o'clock at night? The man certainly wasn't hard to find."
There was a conference marking the foundation of SNCC a few months after the Atlanta shootings. The prisoner's colleagues from the movement said it well in a statement they issued there:
While we are deeply saddened by the bloodshed and loss of human life in this tragic and very avoidable incident, we are equally concerned by the presence in the record of a number of factors which threaten to compound tragedy with injustice. We refer to the number of glaring discrepancies in the official version of events and what appears to us as a precipitous and uncritical rush to judgment by the public media.
What further distresses us is that the facts as alleged are so completely out of character with the man we have come to know as Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. For twenty years, our brother has shown himself a serious student of religion, a devout spiritual teacher as well as a public spirited community leader.
We ourselves know him as a principled, compassionate, mature black man committed to justice for his people and the moral welfare of his community. These allegations are totally antithetical to the character of a man we greatly respect. We urge therefore a suspension of judgment pending a thorough investigation, not only of the tragic events of March 16, but of the chain of events preceding them.
Imam Al-Amin has been incarcerated since March 2000 under conditions that seem unnecessarily draconian. In solitary confinement, he was for a time deprived of his Holy Koran, and he has never been permitted to participate in weekly Jumu'ahservices with other members of his faith. He has been silenced by a court-imposed gag order. Before the order, however, he was able to make a personal statement. In the manner of his vocation and faith, the statement is issued in the name of his God, which inclines me to assume its sincerity. We should let him speak in his own voice, excerpted below:
My name is Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the former H. Rap Brown. I am a devoted servant of Allah, and an unwavering devotee to His cause. For more than 30 years, I have been tormented and persecuted by my enemies for reasons of race and belief. I seek truth over a lie; I seek justice over injustice; I seek righteousness over the rewards of evildoers, and I love Allah more than I love the state.
On March 16, 2000, Fulton County Sheriff Deputy Ricky Kinchen was killed and Sheriff Aldranon English was shot and injured in the neighborhood where I have lived, worked, and prayed. Indeed, this tragedy occurred across the street from the Mosque I founded. I have been accused by the State of Georgia of having committed these crimes. Let me declare before the families of these men, before the state, and any who would dare to know the truth, that I neither shot nor killed anyone. I am innocent of the 13 charges that have been brought against me. Let me also declare that I am one with the grief of this mother and father at the loss of their son. I am joined at the heart with this widow and her children at the loss of a husband and a father. I drink from the same bitter cup of sorrow as the siblings at the loss of a beloved brother....
[The police] have sought to marginalize my humanity and humiliate my family. They have done their level best to reduce me to a one-dimensional monster.... I am no monster. I am a human being created by Allah and am an instrument of his purpose. I am entitled to every right and every consideration as every other human being including fairness, a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.
The trial currently under way may not prove particularly inspiring, but it will certainly be instructive. It doubtless can do little to resolve, or, in the fashion of the day, deconstruct, the prevailing paradox of the Brown/Al-Amin personas. Thus it will tell us less about the accused than about justice and the state of the nation in its present mood. Less about guilt or innocence than about respect for human rights.
For, as Jimmy Baldwin, our late Prophet, warned, "In the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified and the accusing finger is not legend but consequence.... A people pay for what they do, and still more for what they allow themselves to become. And they pay for it simply by the life they lead."
It is now for the state and Al-Amin's fellow citizens to speak. In the national mood following the horrific events of September 11, it will be instructive to see what they say.
I offer these brief remarks today as a prayer for our country, with love
of democracy, as a celebration of our country. With love for our country.
With hope for our country.
Pat Buchanan surely holds the record for the greatest impact on a presidential election with the fewest votes. With less than 0.43 percent of the tally nationally, he still managed to decide the 2000 election. But for the thousands of votes mistakenly cast for Buchanan in Palm Beach because of the infamously confusing "butterfly" ballot, Al Gore would be President today and George W. Bush would be the Republican Michael Dukakis.
Buchanan's pernicious influence, however, did not end with the 2000 election. He's now picking up where he left off with his infamous "cultural war" speech to the 1992 Republican convention, a speech, as Molly Ivins quipped, that "sounded better in the original German." Well, Buchanan's been translating from Deutsch again, this time with The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, his new book. The Death of the West harks back to the xenophobic jeremiads of the early twentieth century, such as Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race, Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color, Houston Stewart Chamberlain's The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century and Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West.
Indeed, enterprising journalists and historians looking to expose the next Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin should consider comparing Buchanan's book side by side with these others. In addition to revising Spengler's title, Buchanan shares Stoddard's love of watery metaphors--both books gush with rising tides, surging oceans and flooding rivers of nonwhites, all of which push inexorably against the ever more precarious dams and dikes around the white world. The two authors also share a predilection for quoting Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of the "white man's burden."
Each of these earlier books shares the same simple theme: It's Us against Them, and with fewer and fewer of Us and more and more of Them, things look grim for Us. Buchanan readily accepts the "demography is destiny" argument: "As a growing population has long been a mark of healthy nations and rising civilizations, falling populations have been a sign of nations and civilizations in decline." Buchanan's data clearly put the West into the latter category. "In 1960, people of European ancestry were one-fourth of the world's population; in 2000, they were one-sixth, in 2050, they will be one-tenth. These are the statistics of a vanishing race."
And who's responsible for this disappearance? For Buchanan, women bear most of the blame. Liberated by technological and cultural changes, he argues, Western women have abandoned their true calling as designated racial breeders. "Only the mass reconversion of Western women to an idea that they seem to have given up--that the good life lies in bearing and raising children and sending them out into the world to continue the family and nation--can prevent the Death of the West."
Faced with declining birthrates, the only alternative available to Western nations if they wish to maintain themselves is massive immigration from the burgeoning populations of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But for Buchanan, this medicine is worse than the disease, since immigration on this scale entails the introduction of too many nonwhite non-Christians. Regarding Europe, he writes: "And as the millions pour into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East, they will bring their Arab and Islamic culture, traditions, loyalties, and faith, and create replicas of their homelands in the heartland of the West. Will they assimilate, or will they endure as indigestible parts of Africa and Arabia in the base camp of what was once Christendom?" Clearly he thinks the latter. The United States faces a similar danger, he warns: "Uncontrolled immigration threatens to deconstruct the nation we grew up in and convert America into a conglomeration of peoples with almost nothing in common--not history, heroes, language, culture, faith, or ancestors. Balkanization beckons."
Buchanan must know that many have rung this tocsin before him, and each time it has been a false alarm. The West's population has probably declined relative to the rest of the world ever since the Western world defined itself as such. For example, when Stoddard wrote in 1922, he sounded the alarm because Western nations had declined to only one-third of the world's population. By 1960, as Buchanan points out, the Western share of the world's population had fallen to one-fourth. Despite this relative decline in population, he considers 1960 as the height of Western power and influence. Furthermore, most evidence suggests that Western nations are at least as powerful now as in 1960, even with the decline in population.
Buchanan's warnings about the United States ring just as hollow. Of the 30 million foreign-born residents, he claims, "Even the Great Wave of immigration from 1890 to 1920 was nothing like this." He's right--that wave surpassed the current one. Today, foreign-born residents make up about 11 percent of the US population, but from the 1870s to the 1920s, that number fluctuated between 13 percent and 15 percent.
Buchanan, however, also argues that today's immigrants are fundamentally different from earlier generations of newcomers; but again, there's no evidence for this. America was hardly more familiar to a Southern Italian peasant who came to New York City in 1900 than it is to an immigrant today from Nigeria or the Philippines. If anything, the spread of global markets and American popular culture has made recent immigrants more attuned to the ways of their new home than their predecessors of a century ago. Furthermore, the bulk of contemporary immigrants come from Latin America, and thus possess the Christian faith that Buchanan views as central to any definition of America. Indeed, the vast majority of Latin American immigrants share Buchanan's Catholicism. Nonetheless, these immigrants "not only come from another culture, but millions are of another race," making it difficult if not impossible for them to assimilate into US society. While Buchanan might consider Latinos as his brothers in Christ, he draws the line at having them as neighbors or fellow citizens.
September 11, Buchanan argues, painfully exposed the threat from contemporary immigrants: "Suddenly, we awoke to the realization that among our millions of foreign-born, a third are here illegally, tens of thousands are loyal to regimes with which we could be at war, and some are trained terrorists sent here to murder Americans." But the past is full of similar warnings about the enemy within. During World War II, anti-Japanese prejudices combined with national security concerns to result in the internment of thousands of US citizens. During World War I, "unhyphenated" Americans saw German-Americans as the Kaiser's minions, engaging in sedition and sabotage to aid the cause of the Fatherland. Yet as these instances demonstrate, the real threat, then as now, existed largely in fevered nativist minds.
This selective and myopic view of American nativism runs throughout The Death of the West. On the one hand, Buchanan refers to nativist statements by such people as Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge to support his assertion that concerns over immigration are not un-American. On the other hand, while he is correct that nativism has always been one of America's multiple political traditions, Buchanan has nary a mention of how pervasive, inaccurate and pernicious such sentiments have been. Of the Know-Nothings, he knows nothing. He quotes Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated for the presidency by a major party, but includes no mention that anti-Catholic prejudices made a major contribution to his landslide defeat in the 1928 election, as he was vigorously opposed by Protestant leaders and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. (After the election, the joke went, Smith sent a one-word telegram to the Pope: "Unpack.") To Buchanan, it seems, anti-Catholic sentiment is a recent development and limited to left-wing intellectuals. Overall, he chooses to ignore the fact that nearly every immigrant to this country confronted nativists who argued that their race, religion, ethnicity or culture made them unfit to become full American citizens. Furthermore, if these previous nativists had had their way, they would have excluded the ancestors of most current American citizens, including Buchanan's.
Buchanan recognizes that he's in a minefield with this subject, and he makes some efforts to tread lightly. To rebut accusations that he's an anti-Semite, he sheds crocodile tears over the danger to Israel from a growing Arab population and occasionally (but not consistently) refers to America's Judeo-Christian values. But like Dr. Strangelove's hand, Buchanan's anti-Semitism refuses to stay under control. As examples of conservative leaders who have failed to fight the culture wars with sufficient zeal, he singles out Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Norman Podhoretz. One might well ask why these three when one could level similar charges against Jack Kemp, Bob Dole, John McCain and even George W. Bush.
By the end of the book Buchanan has dropped all pretenses, declaring America to be a Christian nation. His racism is equally apparent. For example, in addition to warning that many current immigrants are of a different--that is, nonwhite--race, he includes a lengthy discussion of black crime rates. Given that most blacks can trace their American ancestry back further than most white Americans, it's clear that Buchanan defines America not by "history, heroes, language, culture, faith, or ancestors" but by race.
If Buchanan's diagnosis of the problem is objectionable, his solution is even worse. For him, democracy, a shared culture and even a common race offer no defense against the West's impending doom. Rather, he argues, "If the West expects a long life, it had best recapture the fighting faith of its youth." And what were these youthful characteristics? "Protestant monarchs and Catholic kings alike did not flinch at burning heretics or drawing and quartering them at the Tyburn tree. The Christianity that conquered the world was not a milquetoast faith, and the custodians of that faith did not believe all religions were equal. One was true; all the rest were false." To believe otherwise invites disaster, "For it is in the nature of things that nations and religions rule or are ruled."
Buchanan's right-wing nativism is nothing new, so it might be tempting to dismiss him and his book as inconsequential. After all, didn't the 2000 election prove that Buchanan had only marginal electoral support and that even the Republican Party considers his views too extreme? But votes don't always measure influence, and The Death of the West has clearly struck a responsive chord. Not only does it stand near the top of the New York Times bestseller list, but its author remains a prominent fixture on the TV talk-show circuit. Indeed, it's interesting to contrast the reception of The Death of the West with that of Buchanan's previous book, A Republic, Not an Empire. The latter set off a firestorm of criticism, especially among Republicans and conservatives, when Buchanan argued that Hitler had not threatened the United States. If anything, The Death of the West is even worse, since Buchanan moves beyond minimizing the danger of Hitler to the open espousal of many of his doctrines. Yet this time around, the conservative commentators have not been nearly as critical. Then, of course, Buchanan was in the middle of bolting the GOP, potentially splitting the conservative vote and throwing the election to the Democrats. None of this came to pass, with Buchanan even helping Bush to win Florida. But the lesson seems clear: Conservatives are more than willing to tolerate Buchanan's racism and xenophobia, so long as he doesn't pose a direct threat to their political interests.
Even more disturbing than Buchanan's kid-gloves treatment by the media and the right is that the book's popularity stems from and seems likely to reinforce the upsurge in nativist sentiments after September 11. For many Americans, those tragic events gave even more reason to see the world in manichean terms and to divide Americans along lines of race, religion and ethnicity. Consequently, relatively open immigration policies came under attack. In Congress, a House caucus devoted to immigration restriction doubled in membership after September 11. Representative James Traficant, Democrat of Ohio, spoke for many of those members when he asked, "How do you defend your home if your front and back doors are unlocked? What do we stand for if we can't secure our borders? How many more Americans will die?... If 300,000 illegal immigrants can gain access to America every year, trying to find a better life, do not doubt for one moment that a larger contingent of people with evil intentions could gain entry into America and continue to kill American citizens."
Thankfully, such sentiments have not gained much headway in the ensuing months. Although the Bush Administration has backed off its proposal for granting amnesty to illegal immigrants from Mexico, it has shown few signs of embracing significant immigration restrictions in response to September 11 and has even agreed to restore food-stamp eligibility to legal immigrants. In Congress, immigration opponents have failed even to gain a formal hearing for their proposals. Yet the popularity of The Death of the West shows that nativist attitudes have not disappeared, and Buchanan's diatribe will undoubtedly help reinforce such views. Furthermore, both opponents and supporters of open immigration recognize that another incident of terrorism is perhaps all that is needed to turn The Death of the West from polemic to policy.
For a while I thought about designing a flag. Something bigger, blurrier than "nation." I imagined a hovering planet on a field of blue, and "United We Stand" could be written under that--which felt good. I mentioned my idea to a few visual artists, who smiled and said I know what you mean, though some felt the American flag was fine and did stand for "something." Though no one could say what that something was, except maybe a desire to feel safe, together. Nonetheless, it kept happening. The war got sold on TV right in front of us. First, "Attack on America," then "America Strikes Back," then "America at War." It felt like a gradual poem coming across the TV screen in the same way a news story keeps adding one tiny little detail every hour on the hour. A poetry of repetition, so very American. We do understand the selling of a thing. Patriotism is, of course, a language system; a reality is getting constructed, just like "sobriety" exists as it does because of AA and the success of its endless repetitions ("it works if you work it!"), because, as Fredric Jameson says, conviction is related to the amount of redundancy in the message. But what about a flag for that other us? If there is another country, or many of them, in North America, or even in the world, how shall we know ourselves? Or shall we just darkly slide into the abyss under Gertrude Stein's ominous words: "Each civilization insisted in its own way, until it went away."
Long before September 11, I received countless e-mail petitions, still do, concerning the inhumane treatment of women in Afghanistan, though at dinner parties one hears the "good news" about the war--that windows in Afghanistan have been flung open, TV stations are coming back on and women are abandoning their burqas, going back to work. Suddenly, the US military has become the liberator of Afghan women. Yet this cheeriness is complicated by the story of Lieut. Col. Martha McSally, the highest-ranking female jet pilot in the Air Force, stationed in Saudi Arabia, who was, until recently, bizarrely forced to wear restrictive clothing--a black head-to-foot robe called an abaya, female Muslim attire, for her own protection whenever she was off base. Also, she was required to sit in the back seat of the car, as Saudi women do. (The Pentagon recently declared the black head-to-toe robe is now "not mandatory but strongly recommended" as off-base dress code. And McSally was reassigned to Arizona in what didn't sound like a promotion.) So while women were being liberated in Afghanistan, McSally's experience seemed like a recapitulation of the same oppression in mini-form, as if Muslim culture and the entire incident afforded the US military an opportunity to restrain women within its own ranks--obviously a goal. Because no one would ever suggest that a man in the military wear a dress for any reason. It would get him thrown out--so the masculine "out" is the feminine "in." Clearly, the patriotic have lots of work to do to change this pattern. Perhaps the war is "our" opportunity. We really need a flag.
In recent months I've read some radically female books that use poetics to promote a sexy and beguiling peace. Lisa Robertson, a Canadian writer, has written a small but epochal collection of poemlike prose passages and intermittent poems called The Weather. Once you crack the cover of this incidentally stunning-looking book--three floating white spheres in an azure sky--a folded turquoise sheet tumbles out, a press release it seems, from "The Office for Soft Architecture." It pronounces in boldface, "We think of the design and construction of these weather descriptions as important decorative work," and it wonders grandly, "How should we adorn mortality now?" This is a serious political question, since, it explains, "sincerity's eroticism is different from wit's." I suspect "sincerity's eroticism" is the condition of that "other America" that put Colonel McSally in an abaya. Lisa Robertson embarked on The Weather during a residency at the University of Cambridge, where she began an intense yet eccentric research in the "rhetorical structure in English meteorological descriptions." Referring to these weather descriptions, the Office for Soft Architecture temptingly promises, "They sculpt what rhythmed peace could be." The Office for Soft Architecture is a poet's fiction, a poet's dream--utopia, what used to be called a manifesto. Robertson's trope is exactly what we need to see whapping in the air, and, as the vastness of her international conceit reminds us, it is the air. In this so-often-impersonal book (which is no small crime for a female writer) she lets the landscape narrate, and from this newly constructed body politic, a collective tells the tale. The writing of the weather descriptions (which, I must admit, instantly changed mine) is incantatory. The Weather is a work of dazzling surface divided up into the days of the week, each "day" being rhythmic prose with a pendant poem at its end.
"Sunday" opens like a stick being thrust in the ground. "About here. All along here. All along here...." Later on it grows more dramatic: "Here a streak of light, here and there a house...." She continues: "Here is a system. Time pours from its mouth. We design it a flickering. Here is its desolation. Here it crosses. Here it falls at last...." The perspective is so deliberately precise and unclear, and so lovingly guided, that we follow it like a beautiful film, one quivering between art and politics, and the classic calm of her narration slides us over to a meditation on the State. Her text is a Virgil who would lead us humming through our mutating atmosphere. "Monday" begins with this suggestion: "First all belief is paradise." She shifts readily into the philosophic realm because she was never absent from it, and as the payoff for her constant mutation--just as swiftly she shifts out. The flickering ground of her book is all exits.
"Wednesday" is, among other things, a litany of female saints. She plops them into her landscape like paratroopers. These are military girls, leaders. "Days heap upon us. Where is our anger. And the shades darker than the plain part and darker at the top than the bottom. But darker at bottom than top. Days heap upon us. Where is Ti-Grace. But darker at the bottom than the top. Days heap upon us. Where is Valerie. Pulling the hard air into her lung." The effect of her naming and moving over the schematic, flickering landscapes is a cumulatively emotional one. "Days heap upon us. Where is Olympe. Going without rest. The polis crumbles open." When she quickens the pace of her unfolding, by shifting the scale, drawing her terms closer to one another, it sexualizes: "When monogamous, besieged. When no perception, doing warning. When none would, a pip of wet, stillness, a runnel." As each sentence opens with a poised "when," and as the gaps shorten, the field is suddenly jarring, exciting: "When the plan, a purse, optical." The rhythm of the collapse is a way of focusing, containing, then pulling back. This single practice, this excision of space and time, becomes a manner of speech itself. If all is weather dividing into week, week made of days, days of moments and letters, then the whole is a reference to a continuous surface of enlightenment in language, in being. It's exalted, even patriotic to me. We see the words that remain, and our selves reflected in it. In this fragment, the poem after "Friday," her work almost done, she speaks keenly of her utopia:
I make a little muscle
to disallow each part; a collar clamped against the cold, a nail against the rock. Sometimes, just what I praise, I believe.
Dodie Bellamy in Cunt-Ups uses overtly sexual texts, her own and ones written by others. She arranged her pages whole cloth, cut 'em into quarters and re-arranged them like tiles. She smoothed the resulting page out till it seemed right. The "cunt-ups" of the title refer to William Burroughs's famed cut-up technique. I think there's a deliberate air of domesticity (like working-class moms making dresses from patterns) to how she describes her project--this female riffing on the historic practice of the quintessential "outsider" man. Especially when I think of Burroughs's prophetic railing against the corporate monstrosity, while taking into account the irony of his being the scion of a huge corporate family; and when I recall how much Burroughs hated women, calling them (us) "two-holed monsters," and how he shot his wife (allegedly a lifelong sorrow for Burroughs, yet still how much worse for her!). There's something horribly fitting that Dodie Bellamy, who incidentally comes from a Midwestern, no-privilege background, would construct a small book of endless romps like:
I contact either myself or you, I recall being involved at this time when I moved our hand across my body and I felt like I had one of those small water pistols. You were dripping instead of shooting your victims, you were living in your stomach penis and balls. I fuck you in a garage, I fuck you as if you'll be recovered like a sledgehammer in a garage, like you'll eat my brains. I get all stirred up, I was still half asleep and started flopping about, I was shown to have my right hand cupped around the sledgehammer's base, I used to break up the bones to reach your balls, kneeling before you, here, a sledgehammer will be placed on inventory, your cunt is comfortable, that and your tits, orgasm, after orgasm, but I can't shake wanting to plant myself inside you, gray handle, my hips spreading across the chair, feeling me over. I just want to suck on your nipples.
In a way Burroughs could say anything--he couldn't be thrown out of anything, could he?--being a man, being on a small trust fund, living at the end of the world. Already killed his wife. What's to lose? I think about how Bellamy's appropriation of his method is not unlike Kathy Acker's, but Kathy was also a trust-fund kid, and was personally safer being bad--because the upper classes are entitled to transgress for us all. I applaud this dedicated act of replacement, the joyfully willful construction of a Frankenstein text, one where the genitals are all confused in a timeless flow--all present, as a particularly ballsy female accomplishment. Going one further than Bill, the avant-garde's Dubelyew, in taking this sublime stab at pleasure, the rearrangement of hundreds of cunts and clits and dicks and pussies: The exhausted "I just want to suck on your nipples" has tremendous immanence, all gesture, a mad kind of one-time power.
Honor Moore's Darling is in many ways the most ambivalent creature of the lot. Its cover is a photo that looks like a painting; the whole question of artifice abounds in this book. It's conventionally poetic in some ways, but the ground is unstable, the largest tease in Darling being its title. A female nude leans into her position, gazing at flowers, and so many of the poems in the book are about love; sometimes the lovers are female, sometimes male. It's truly a midlife book about love and relationships, but the "Darling" of the title is not the woman gazing on the cover or one of the lovers or all of them. Instead, there's a dream of a funeral in an eponymous poem toward the end of the book; it's a family funeral, I guess. And there the dream's narrator saw her first gay man kiss another. After which he calls him "Darling." It puts a spin on all the poems, making this trickster aspect of love be the star. Which love? The woman on the cover thinks: Hell, what's he gonna do now. Love is unfathomable, this poet knows.
Stylistically, Moore does not speak in excision. It's an older ear. I'm thinking that a material everything hovers in her view, and the poems feel selected from that. We're moving through the fullness of a world, and memory. The surprises, the replacements, are conducted almost by sleight of hand. Like Bellamy's, this is also a poetry of class. I mean, what poetry isn't, but here I'm thinking upper class, and the poems are full of the aches of privacy; figuratively it starts in the dark and it returns. In the book's first poem, "Bucharest, 1989," a painter yearns for white, but the color is unavailable. The whole of this book is richly dark. It's hard to imagine most readers not approaching this world without a certain covetousness. In the same way that the name Robert Lowell was part of that poet's poetry, so is "Honor Moore." Her name approaches allegory, and even when you know she's being daily, it's a rarefied daily and it sings differently. A poem called "In the Dark," however, approaches a Djuna Barnes or a Hart Crane wildness: "A goat strays/through my dreams, Doctor, a crazy dove,/and from Pontormo, a woman struck/blind, her arms raised against the stranger." It's a medallion of chaos, but emotionally it's as stamped as a coin, like an old dream that clangs long after its images are gone. I'm glad for the mystery here. The house of the book is huge, and it sheds light on the unknown. History is a place, after all, a very real and glamorous one, where strange things occur. In "Citizenship" she states: "I wake to cars raging north up a rise, a truck/banging south." There's a loneliness to the notation.
My sense of the real time of the book comes out of these matter-of-fact lines. The poet wakes up and you feel she is ready to move, while still swarming with dreams. You feel the pause before the gesture, and the effect is quietly awesome. In "Undertow" a woman is described: "She liked to wear bright/colors, used the word 'sweetie,'" then a line later you realize it's the poet's mother. There's a movie star quality to the description: "I'm tiny in her arms, as if/flat against a steep mountain." Even as we read the lines, the poet is fading into the distance--no one is bred for this experience. The poet endures her own pathos: "Understand, I don't/believe this will ever change." "Hollow Hill" is a swatch of prose that is not a "prose poem" but a tiny memoir of a child in a big house, where people have "old rooms," as in "my father's old room." On a planet where many people spend their lives moving constantly, on "Hollow Hill" not only is the poet's own childhood stable but her father's is too. Her parents sleep in "the Modern Room." The reality of this family life is uncanny, museumlike, and the child iterates herself theatrically: "They don't let me keep the doll. I gallop back...but I will never undress her or untie the red ribbons under her chin." How I understand this book has to do with what seems disallowed in this very ornate, very conditioned reality. So much undoing is not visibly possible. I understand, for instance, how our sense of the Gothic springs out of exactly this imaginary of old, dark ancestral houses, even beautiful places where things don't change much. Just deepen.
To be alive in these places one would become a reader of codes and elsewhere seek one's own undoing. That "undoing" being passion, which is the subject of this book. Passion being, I hate to say, so poetically, the most necessary flag. Lines slap us in the face, almost jumping out of the poems that hold them: "Nothing heals/like that hand," she utters in "Resonance," which I think is the finest poem in Darling. The moment of the line is followed by a sort of rejection: "We don't have a life/together," she says, "face toward/the child, window, the child running...." It's a heartbreaking reply, yet the power of the moment remains with the narrator. It resounds with a very female frankness that cuts across class in terms of knowing what one has made, has done.
Perhaps he's right about the cup.
You dig the clay or purchase it.
You cover it, keep it wet. One day
The clay calls you to model the cup
And what you've lived, every cup
To your lips, moves through your hands.
As a reader these new books make me feel that so much good is already on its way to us. Like Lisa Robertson says: First of all belief is paradise. The right to assemble a moment of presence--a poem, this flickering banner of passion is ours.
A historian questions whether he led a slave revolt, but his heroism still stands.
It's the largest profession in healthcare. It's the largest female profession in America. But despite its tremendous importance and impact, most people know very little about contemporary nursing. Public ignorance of the present-day profession, however, pales in comparison with ignorance of nursing's history. How many of us know that the development of nursing as the first secular profession for respectable women was a major feminist achievement? Or that Florence Nightingale was not, in fact, the "founder" of modern nursing? Or that nurses played a key role in developing the American hospital system, as nursing historian Sioban Nelson has documented in her recent book Say Little, Do Much? How many of us know about the role of nursing in the development of public health and care of the chronically ill and poor? Most important, how many of us recognize that society's persistent devaluation of nursing--reflected today in the prejudices of many newly liberated female physicians, health policy experts and journalists--is a legacy of longstanding, socially enforced subordination to medicine?
Katrin Schultheiss, an assistant professor of history and women's studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago, is one of a handful of non-nurses who understand what the profession has to teach us about the complex process of female emancipation, as well as about the development of modern healthcare systems. She recounts the tortuous history of how the "professionalization" of nursing in France coincided with anticlericalism and the secularization of the field. Although her story focuses on the forty-year period from 1880 to 1922 and takes place in one country, the gender dilemmas Schultheiss explores have hampered nurses' ability to care for patients in healthcare systems around the globe, including in the United States.
Her tale begins with the advent of France's Third Republic and follows political reformers who attacked clerical authority as they tried to modernize the healthcare system. Until that time, nursing outside the home was typically provided by convent-trained nuns. Modern hospital reformers recognized that nursing required more nurses with more systematic education, but therein lay the problem. Since knowledge is power, the acquisition of knowledge was inevitably a challenge to authority.
Physicians, as men, did not welcome women on their terrain. As members of a developing profession--one that did not then command the prestige it enjoys today--doctors were also adamant about defending their field "from irregular or illegal practitioners."
Even doctors who recognized the need for a more educated nursing work force and who wanted to laicize the care of the sick would not countenance the education of nurses if, in the process, nurses attained the kind of knowledge and stature that would allow them to demand greater authority and autonomy in both the workplace and society. So even lay nursing had to be constructed in altruistic terms that stressed not nurses' knowledge but their virtue. As Schultheiss writes, "As long as nursing was clearly understood to be a custodial, maternal, or charitable occupation, and as long as nurses were regarded as the social, economic, and educational peers of the patients, rather than the doctors, there would be no ambiguity about who held medical authority within the hospital."
In Paris, nursing nuns, while obedient and devoted, presented a problem to medical reformers. "The very existence of an autonomous community of women called into question the hierarchy of power within municipal institutions," Schultheiss notes. Happily, secular authorities found lay nurses, as one reformer commented, to be "infinitely more subordinate than the religious nurses and more scrupulous in the strict execution of doctors' orders."
While anticlerical reformers touted the benefit of lay nurses, the French public was attached to the nuns who had provided what out-of-home nursing care had existed since the seventeenth century, and even before. Of course, Schultheiss points out, even support for religious nurses was cast in gendered terms. Proponents of the nuns insisted that nursing should be left to a special group of religious women because it would corrupt lay women for their real work--which was mothering. "A woman is either a bad mother or a bad nurse," was their motto. To convince the public to support secularization, reformers had to "feminize nursing--to turn nursing into a general feminine virtue that all women could possess."
Schultheiss's story also introduces us to a peculiar hybrid form of religious nurse--the "hospitalières" of the Hospices Civils of Lyons. These women were secular nuns, congregationist sisters "who undertook a lifelong commitment to serve the sick and poor under harsh physical conditions and with virtually no monetary compensation, but who remained under the direct authority of the secular administration." According to Schultheiss, laicizers supported them because they were easily controllable and because their sense of devotion was easily manipulated by civil administrators who didn't want to pay the real cost of nursing care.
In this section of the book, class also enters the story: If civil administrators were to get nursing care for little or nothing, women's educational standards--and thus their salaries--had to be low. Whether they were secularizers or not, reformers recognized that more highly educated women of a better class would eventually demand more pay, and more say.
Finally, Schultheiss takes us to Bordeaux, where we meet Anna Hamilton, a reformer and devotee of Florence Nightingale. With connections to the international nursing reform movement, Hamilton wanted to open a nursing school that would produce a "new nurse," recruited from the so-called better classes. This new nurse, she insisted, would deliver better patient care than nursing nuns. Hamilton's critique of the nuns, Schultheiss explains, was not based on anticlericalism. Rather, Hamilton argued that the nuns had "distanced themselves from direct patient care" while creating obstacles to the creation of "a single medical hierarchy grounded on universal principles of hygiene and scientific health care."
Hamilton was able to gain support for her project from Paul-Louis Lande, a physician who became mayor of Bordeaux, because she firmly linked the "professionalization and feminization of nursing." Doctors in Bordeaux, Schultheiss writes, recognized "the need for improving the training of hospital nurses, but rejected all aspects of reform that expanded the nurses' autonomy or authority beyond the narrowest limits."
Hamilton accepted these limits, asserting that "it is extremely ridiculous for a nurse who possesses neither the knowledge nor the rights nor the sex of the doctor to try to imitate his way of interacting with the patient and to try to use his language." Thus, in France, as in England and the United States, the nurse-doctor game began with the acceptance of the notion that nurses could not--or should not--possess medical knowledge and that they therefore could not--and should not--use medical language.
Schultheiss ends her story after the First World War. The war produced such a huge need for nurses that the debate over the virtues of lay versus religious nurses effectively ended. When more than 100,000 nurses culled from every social class enlisted to serve "la Patrie," this "demonstrated that women's special aptitudes could be attached fruitfully to the state." However, even during this period and afterward, nursing was valued not for its knowledge but for its virtue. It had become, the author concludes, "a twentieth-century version of republican motherhood."
French nursing carries that legacy to this day. Last year, when I was strolling down the Boulevard St. Germaine in Paris, a book displayed in the window of a children's bookstore caught my eye. It was called Je Sais Qui Me Soigne ("I Know Who Takes Care of Me") and is part of a series on citizenship and the professions. Nurses make a brief appearance in the book--as doctors' servants who have, as the text reads, "just enough schooling to follow doctors' orders."
For nurses struggling to put their education to use for patients, rather than for physicians, the ability to escape, at least temporarily, medical domination has always made home care attractive. Which brings us to Karen Buhler-Wilkerson's part of the story. In No Place Like Home, Buhler-Wilkerson, a professor of community health and director of the Center for the Study of the History of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, traces the development of home care from the opening of the first US home-care agency--the Ladies Benevolent Society, founded in 1813 in Charleston, South Carolina--through the present.
In Charleston, as elsewhere, respectable society ladies started home-care agencies because they felt "obligated to improve the conditions of and provide for the comfort of the poor," who were, in turn, "expected to manifest their gratitude to the rich," who established these agencies. But they did not deliver the care. Nurses did.
No Place Like Home does a great service to these ordinary nurses who are often dismissed as know-nothings by some nursing elites today. Buhler-Wilkerson details the complexity of caring for victims of tuberculosis or managing patients during typhoid epidemics. She also documents the persistence of the issues with which home-care agencies still struggle today: how to navigate doctor-nurse relationships; how to choose appropriate patients for home-care services; how to deal with gender, race and class prejudice; and how to secure long-term services for the chronically ill.
From the early days of home care, doctors were concerned about nurses invading their territory. In Boston, for example, doctors "confided to lady managers that 'the constant danger with trained nurses is that they shall usurp the doctors' position and prescribe for patients.'"
At the turn of the twentieth century, with the founding of the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Lillian Wald and her colleagues developed public health nursing--"to improve standards of living" of the poor. One of the great innovations of the Henry Street Settlement was the establishment of a "First Aid Room." This was a kind of community clinic where immigrants could gain easy access to nursing care for routine health problems. Doctors, however, soon complained that "nurses were carrying ointments and even giving pills outside the strict control of physicians." Even outspoken nurses like Wald's colleague, socialist Lavinia Dock, feared a confrontation with powerful physicians. By 1911 questionable cases were no longer treated in the First Aid Room. "Later publications," Buhler-Wilkerson writes, assured the public that "the real Henry Street Settlement nurse will make the doctor feel that she is exerting every effort to have his treatment, not hers, intelligently followed."
An equally fascinating subject tackled by Buhler-Wilkerson is the impact of racial prejudice on nurse-patient and nurse-doctor relationships. In both the North and the South, lady managers as well as nurses fretted about whether it was appropriate for white nurses to care for black patients or black nurses for white patients. When insurers, notably Metropolitan Life, entered the field at the turn of the last century, managers considered the same imponderables. Race invariably trumped the needs of care and even of doctor domination of the nurse-physician relationship. For example, Buhler-Wilkerson tells us that the respectable ladies of Richmond, Virginia, who ran home care in that city, decided it was "'eminently' satisfactory for white nurses to care for black patients on the 'same footing' as white patients--but drew the line at white nurses 'taking orders from colored physicians.'"
The advent of health insurance also had a critical impact on the home-care agencies. Wald convinced Metropolitan Life to cover home-care services in 1909. Met Life wanted to reduce the high mortality rate of black life insurance subscribers--thus delaying payments on their life insurance policies. Home-care nursing's preventive approach initially seemed to make good business sense. By the 1950s, public health nursing and medical advances had paid off: Fewer people were dying of infectious diseases, and more acute illnesses were treated in the hospital. This meant that the bulk of home-care patients were chronically ill. To reward public health nursing for its success, Met Life curtailed its home-care program. "Providing care for those who failed to recover quickly was, from an insurance perspective, a poor investment," Buhler-Wilkerson states bluntly.
Since the fate of nursing is tied to the fate of the patients nurses serve, the situation has not improved much, as first Medicare and Medicaid and now managed care have "rediscovered" home care. Indeed, today the promise of the home as a place where nurses and their patients can escape the negative consequences of medical paternalism and give or receive higher-quality care has remained largely unfulfilled.
In Devices & Desires, Margarete Sandelowski uses a different lens--the world of medical technology--to explore the issue of gender and nursing. This brilliant book shows just how much the "charitable, devotional and altruistic" image of the nurse conceals. From the discovery of the thermometer to the development of intensive heart and fetal monitoring, Sandelowski documents doctors' dependence on nurses for their reputation for scientific and technical mastery. As Sandelowski shows, nurses have been critical in administering medical technology, monitoring the information it provides and interpreting that information to physicians, not to mention "educating patients about new devices, getting patients to accept and comply with their use, and alleviating patients' fears about them."
An eye-opening segment describes the use of the first thermometer, rather than the hand, as a diagnostic tool in the mid-nineteenth century. In it, we learn that the thermometer we take for granted today was originally an unwieldy, dangerous instrument that had to be carefully manipulated so as not to injure the patient. Because diagnosis and treatment involved taking the patient's temperature numerous times a day, busy physicians assigned the task to nurses. This involved, however, far more than simply recording data. The nurse, Sandelowski writes, "had to know what caused various temperatures to occur and the nursing measures that would lower or raise temperature to normal levels."
While physicians were the ones to insert the first unwieldy and equally dangerous intravenous devices, nurses were the ones to make sure the patient's arm remained immobile and that the patient could tolerate the discomfort of IV therapy. Nurses are the ones who developed the intensive-care unit--to provide intensive nursing care--and who track and interpret data from fetal monitors. As the primary users of much medical machinery, nurses are often more knowledgeable about equipment than doctors. Indeed, "the benefits of machine monitoring could not be fully harnessed without nurses who understood and could act immediately on the information monitors generated." While the public does not recognize this fact, the author tells us that medical equipment manufacturers certainly do. This is why nurses continually work with physicians and manufacturers to create design improvements and to insure that "expensive machinery [is] fully utilized."
What is amazing about this story is how little nurses have benefited from their technological mastery. Sandelowski shrewdly diagnoses a classic Catch-22. While it is true that nurses' status is somewhat enhanced by their technical proficiency, the recognition they receive does not match their actual accomplishments. That's because physicians quickly label the technical activities nurses engage in as "simple enough" for a nurse to perform.
No matter how much nurses participate in the diagnostic process, of course, physicians have maintained a legal and linguistic stranglehold on "medical" diagnosis. Even as "physicians were increasingly expecting them to perform de facto acts of diagnosis," Sandelowski writes, "nurses were in the bizarre position of having to be mindful of symptoms without speaking their mind about them."
Nurses were supposed to be able to distinguish between normal and abnormal conditions and to look for reasons for any abnormal findings. But nurses were never to use the words "normal" or "abnormal" in reporting or recording patient conditions, and they were to refrain from offering their opinions on etiology or diagnosis.... Nurses were to say (report and record) only what they saw, unlike physicians, who maintained the right to say what they knew.
This has produced the peculiar phenomenon--even today--of the nurse who recognizes that a cancer patient has diarrhea or a mentally ill patient is hallucinating, but who is not allowed to use the actual medical word because that would suggest that she, or he, is making a "medical diagnosis."
As she describes these phenomena, Sandelowski never paints nurses as innocent victims of nasty, overbearing physicians. In their perennial attempt to find "a socially valued place and distinctive identity," Sandelowski argues, many members of the profession have, albeit unwittingly, adopted common gender stereotypes that perpetuate the oppression of nurses.
One segment of the profession, Sandelowski contends, has bought into the notion that the complex practical, technical work that ordinary nurses perform is indeed simple and know-nothing.
Typically conceived of as nothing more than the physician's hand, and persistently caught in the Western cultural dichotomy between merely manual and highly prized mental, or intellectual, work, nurses have struggled to show that nursing is largely brain work. In the process, however, they have inadvertently complied with the prevailing cultural practice of denigrating the very "body-knowledge" that is the forte of the nurse.
This is particularly evident in the nurse-practitioner movement, which so many elite nurses now promote. "The key factor differentiating nurse practitioners from other nurses," she writes, "is both the use of medical instruments and the use of instruments in ways previously denied nurses." But, she points out, in our bottom-line-driven healthcare system "the role emerges as largely economically and 'medically-driven'.... The traditional image is maintained of nurses as the extra hands and eyes of physicians willingly and cheaply filling voids and bridging gaps in health care."
Other segments of the profession, Sandelowski argues, have opposed nurses' emotional and social work to their technological activities, arguing that technology is somehow an inauthentic nursing activity, while "caring" is both authentic and an essential "antidote to technology." Sandelowski shrewdly insists that in opposing "nursing/touch and technology," the profession has been "identified both with and against technology and thus, in an ironic way, with and against itself."
While it is not the purpose of these books to offer advice about dealing with the many problems nursing confronts, they implicitly point to one incontrovertible solution: We can appreciate what nurses do in the present only if we understand how their work has been constructed in the past and what they have contributed--and can contribute--to our healthcare system.
Understanding and analyzing nursing's decades-long struggle for "a socially valued place and distinctive identity" is not an academic exercise. It is central to reversing the chronic underfunding of the nursing services most of us will eventually depend on in hospitals and other healthcare institutions, and also the undereducation of the nursing work force at almost all levels of practice. And it is critical to any solution to the severe nursing shortage, which, if not quickly and effectively addressed, will have disastrous consequences as the population grows older and sicker.
On East Capitol Street a few years ago, I was in a taxi when a car pulled suddenly and dangerously across our bow. My driver was white, with a hunter's cap and earmuffs and an indefinable rosy hue about his neck. The offending motorist was black. Both vehicles had to stop sharply. My driver did not, to my relief, say what I thought he might have been about to say.
"When I write, I bid farewell to myself," Jimmy Santiago Baca said in 1992. "I leave most of what I know behind and wander through the landscape of language." This is a memorable quote from a poet whose voice, brutal yet tender, is unique in America. The landscape of language is what redeemed Baca in 1973 when, at 21, illiterate and jailed in a maximum-security prison on charges of selling drugs, he discovered the power of words. And then he let himself loose, reading anything and everything that touched his hands, writing frantically, even magically, a set of autobiographical poems that spoke of injustice and alienation. His characters were young males handcuffed by poverty, with "nothing to do, nowhere to go." Denise Levertov once talked of them as fully formed people with engaged imaginations, of the type that witness brutality and degradation yet retain "an innocent eye--a wild creature's eye--and deep and loving respect for the earth."
Baca made his name in the late 1970s when Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems was published. After that, he steadily developed an oeuvre, endorsed by small presses, about the tortured experience of Chicanos. The reader sensed a poet ready to denounce, and to do so angrily, but careful not to turn poetry into an organ of propaganda: "I Am with Those/Whose blood has spilled on the streets too often,/Surprising bypassers in hushed fear," he wrote in one poem. "I am dangerous. I am a fool to you all./Yes, but I stand as I am,/I am food for the future."
These poems came in the aftermath of the Chicano movement, as the country moved away from such activism. Change had been fought for by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, and by the Crusade for Justice, but its fruits remained intangible. Baca's anger spoke to the unredeemed and nonaffiliated on the fringes and also to a mainstream audience aware of the social limitations that remained after the civil rights era. He refused to give up denunciation, exposing the tension between whites and Mexicans in the Southwest. But then came an age in which complacency was accentuated and activism was institutionalized. Poetry left the trenches to enter the classroom: It wasn't what you had done, but the expository strategies you had used, that mattered. The Chicano middle class saw this as an occasion to reject outspokenness and endorse consent. Even the term "Chicano" came under fire and was replaced by "Mexican-American."
Around this time, Baca's pathos was acquired by Hollywood. He began to write screenplays, one of which, about gang wars in California's prisons, became Bound by Honor (1993), an epic directed by Taylor Hackford, with Benjamin Bratt, Damián Chapa and Jesse Borrego. On occasion he would surface with a pugnacious reflection, and eventually he assembled these reflections into a volume with a symbolic title: Working in the Dark (1992). But silence impregnated his poetic journey, silence and detachment. That, at least, was the view of his readership. Was Baca the poet still active, or was he going mute?
Black Mesa Poems, published a decade after Immigrants in Our Own Land, showed a shift in Baca's concerns--from the roughness of crime and conflict to depictions of barrio and rustic life. There are some existential poems in that collection, but a significant number of them deal with community--in particular, with his second home in a New Mexico rancho. These poems are about the redemptive power of love, about birth and death, about motherhood--and about rivers and pinyon trees.
The move from the individual to the family, from confrontation to introspection, is apparently what has occupied Baca in all the years since Black Mesa Poems, and his resurfacing comes with a vengeance in the form of two interrelated books: a hefty series of lyrical poems, Healing Earthquakes, billed by the publisher as a love story; and a poignant memoir, A Place to Stand, that is at once brave and heartbreaking. One feels a gravitas in the poet's voice that was absent before. Impetuosity has apparently given way to fortitude. Baca seems more patient, attentive to the passing of seasons, in tune with the smiles of children and the wisdom of elders.
The style of Healing Earthquakes is at times flat, even repetitive, and the book's plot insinuates itself with the accumulation of insights. But overall the work is stunning, the product of a poet in control of his craft, one worth paying attention to. Divided into five solid, asymmetrical sections that range from adulthood to rebirth and back, the series is shaped as a quest--again, semiautobiographical--for balance in an eminently unbalanced universe. But this is no redraft of Pilgrim's Progress, from earth to hell and up to heaven. Instead, it is a downpour of passion, which leads the narrator astray as he lusts for women, tangible and chimerical, and explores myths and archetypes that come from Mesoamerican civilization. He reflects on his imperfections, runs into trouble with others and wonders: where to find dignity? Not in religion, it seems, but in morality. It is through others and through their vision that one might find a sense of self. (This reminds me of the late Pablo Neruda, ready to turn himself into a Boswell of the heart's disasters: burning with life, agitated by the confusion around, yet eager to make poetry into his metronome.)
The poems include an explanation of silence that readers should welcome. The series uses the emphatic "I" that is a sine qua non of minority letters and that is ubiquitous in Baca's poetry, a device employed as an affirmation of the self in spite of all odds. "Here I am," it announces. "You better pay attention to me, because I will not go away." But this older Baca has become philosophical with age, and his "I" is now more contemplative:
I used to party a lot, but now I study landscapes
and wonder a lot,
listen to people and wonder a lot,
take a sip of good wine and wonder more,
until my wondering has filled five or six years
and literary critics and fans
and fellow writers ask
why haven't you written anything in six years?
and I wonder about that--
I don't reveal to them
that I have boxes of unpublished poems
and that I rise at six-thirty each morning
and read books, jot down notes,
compose a poem,
throwing what I've written or wondered on notepads in a stack in a box
in a closet.
To my mind Baca's most concentrated, lucid effort is "Martín," a forty-five-page exploration about a young Chicano abandoned by his parents, whose travels from Santa Fe to Albuquerque and across states force him to confront his own limitations. After "Martín" appeared in 1987, Baca ran into trouble with Chicano critics for his portrait of Mexican adolescence--a portrait that didn't shy away from such negative attributes as alcoholism, violence and narcotic escapes. They accused him of pushing his people down by stressing the ugly and not the beautiful. His reaction, in an essay titled "Q-Vo," collected in Working in the Dark, was a welcome respite in an atmosphere of cheap ethnic pride. (The title is a phonetic redraw of ¿Qué hubo?, "Wassup?")
[In the critics' view] Chicanos never have betrayed each other, we never have fought each other, never sold out; nor have we ever experienced poverty or suffering, wept, made mistakes. I never responded to these absurdities. Such narrowness and stupidity is its own curse.... Because I am a Chicano, it doesn't mean that I am immune from the flaws and the suffering that make us all human.
The incident recalls a comment I once heard from an aspiring Chicano critic, whose teachers reiterated to him that to write a bad review of a fellow Chicano author is to be an Uncle Tom: un traidor. "Why add to the stereotypes?" he was told. Baca responded to such nearsightedness with courage. And it is that type of unremitting courage that colors A Place to Stand, his memoir, subtitled The Making of a Poet. It is, once again, a thunderous artifact. (Readers of "Martín" especially will find it a box of resonances.) It follows a straightforward, chronological pattern with an occasional detour into the realm of the fantastic, in which the author offers dreams and imaginary visions of the past. This fantastic element isn't atypical. For instance, in a chapbook of 1981 that included the poem "Walking Down to Town and Back," about rural New Mexico, a widow lights her adobe house on fire after she believes it has been taken over by snakes, and from the flames emerges the image of the Virgin Mary. The tale is delivered in a voice that once belonged to a child, and makes use of what Freud called "the uncanny": real incidents twisted by memory into supernatural anecdotes. "Miracle, miracle," the townspeople announce. Is it all in the widow's mind?
Figuratively speaking, Baca's memoir only partially takes place in his mind, as he ponders the loss of his father, mother and brother. A few passages push the narration to a more surreal level, but these are far between. Most of the memoir is not about miracles but about the summons of a life on the verge.
I was born [in 1952], and it was about this time that Father's drinking and his absences first became an issue.... The whites looked down on Mexicans. Mother's frustration began to show. La Casita, with its two tar-papered cardboard rooms, one bed where we all slept, woodstove, and cold water spigot, wasn't the white picket-fenced house in the tree-lined city suburb she'd dreamed of.
A Place to Stand begins here, with Baca's Indian father leaving the family and his Chicano mother having a romance with a man who persuades her to leave her children behind, mask her Mexican ancestry and begin a WASP family in California. Baca went to his grandparents first, then to an orphanage. He soon found himself destitute on the street, afraid of the deceitful manners of adults. By then he was already a school dropout. His race, obviously, reinforced his status as pariah--Mexican was synonymous with slime. Perennially harassed by the police, he was adrift, disoriented, a stranger in his own land; eventually, he was incarcerated on murder charges for a crime he did not commit.
Upon his release, Baca sought to find his center, to turn himself into an honorable man. But he stumbled, and in flight he sold drugs, rambling without direction through San Diego and Arizona. The narcos' and the FBI's tête-à-tête in a bullet-infested crash the scene is vividly described in the memoir. Arraigned again, he ended up in solitary confinement, and after defying the system that purportedly sought to reform him ("prison did not rehabilitate me. Love for people did"), he learned to read. From that moment on he read, and read, and read, and then turned ink to paper, at which point he surprised himself a poet--and he surprised others too: His gifts were pristine, unadulterated from the start.
I was often overwhelmed by the sorrow and commiseration conveyed in Baca's memoir. It is a luminous book, honest to a fault. Every so often the author indulges in epiphanies that sound like clichés: for instance, "I didn't know what I'd done to deserve my life, but I'd done the best I could with what I had." But those platitudes are what people less interested in literature and more in the rough-and-tumbleness of life are likely to respond to fully. A Place to Stand is about place in the largest, most flexible sense of the term: as home, but also as the soil of one's roots and as the literary pantheon in which one fits. In that sense the book belongs to the subgenre of prison tales for which the twentieth century was fertile ground. From The Autobiography of Malcolm X to Vaclav Havel's diaries, the central paradigm doesn't change: involuntary confinement as a ticket to enlightenment--and even messianic revelation. In the Americas, this subgenre is obviously substantial, filled with names like Graciliano Ramos and Reinaldo Arenas; north of the Rio Grande, figures like Piri Thomas, Miguel Piñero and Luis J. Rodríguez have also heard the sound of their voice behind bars. Baca too enters jail as a lost soul and leaves it empowered; in the early fragments of the book he is a vato loco, a crazy dude. But after the imprisonment he is an unapologetic, ideologically defined Chicano. "Most people might assume that cons spend their time thinking about what they're going to do when their time is up, fantasizing about the women they're going to fuck and scams they're going to run, or planning how they're going to go straight and everything will be different," Baca writes. "I did think about the future sometimes, but more and more it was the past my mind began to turn to, especially during those first days and nights in solitary." Those nights led Baca to a debacle with his own phantoms, and to the conviction that life has a purpose only when one devises one for it. The epilogue of A Place to Stand is especially moving: In it Baca's mother returns to her Mexican identity, but her second husband stops her short with five bullets in her face from a .45--a mesmerizing image of defeat, which Baca successfully turns around in his telling.
Maturity... For years I've been looking for an accurate definition of the word. What does it really mean? "Fullness or perfection of growth or development," announces, tentatively, the Oxford English Dictionary, but this is an unsatisfactory explication. The purpose of any artist who takes himself seriously is to make the best of his talents fit the condition in which he finds himself. Is maturity the capacity to change and still remain loyal to one's own vision? Earlier in this review I referred to Baca's work as an oeuvre, which isn't the same as work. Oeuvre implies mutation, the desire to change from one mode to another, the willingness to comprehend nature and society from contrasted stands. Baca's poetry is monochromatic, but the same might be said of any poet of stature: A set of motifs and anecdotes reappears under different facades. But every time, the reader reaches a depth unlike the previous one.
Baca's latest books are about anger, but he seems to be less angry than before. Time has allowed him to zoom in on his mission: to travel outward and inward as a Chicano in America, with all the complications that the identity entails; and to use language to bid farewell to his many selves. In Healing Earthquakes he describes his search as
leading me back across the wasteland of my life
to marvel at my own experience and those around me
whose own humbled lives graced me with assurance
that if I stayed on the path of love, of seeking the good in people,
of trying to be an honorable man,
that I too would one day have the love of family and friends
and be part of life as it spun like a star in the dark
radiating light on its journey--.
This search, it is clear now, is a towering legacy.