Monday, July 18, 2016

The Game

The shortstop and pitcher were best friends and they stared hard at each other knowing that one last out separated them from accomplishing arguably the biggest upset in Cleveland softball history. If successful they and their teammates would become the authors of “The Game,” one of the few positive monikers designated to Cleveland sport before 2016, Le Bron, “The Block,” and “The Shot.” There was still that one out to get.

Smart, small, cunning and always winners in their lesser Jewish Community Center softball league, Sol’s Boys, yes the sponsor was a local bookie, annually entered the city tournament in Cleveland. It was an open competition and that meant some teams were absolutely awful while others were Cleveland’s giants. This was not Sol’s Boys first trip to the city tournament. Previously, they might win a game or two but rarely went very far. But 1970 was the year of “The Game.”

Sol’s Boys
Tee shirts emblazoned with the bookie’s name and jeans was the uniform the team wore. Although Sol’s Boys won over 95% of their league games, they were neither rated in the city nor seeded in the tournament. For the most part, they played smart relying on some speed, good hitting albeit little long ball threat, and tactics – various players were students of the game. The team’s star was a fleet left fielder named Ray Racila. When he hit ground balls to the left side it was usually a single. On balls to the outfield he almost always ended up on second base. In addition, he controlled the land in both left and left center on defense. The two other exceptional players were the keystone combo of Marc Walter and Joel Cohn. They were both solid defenders up the middle and Cohn might have been the teams leading hitter while Walter was the only player with great power. They were both also very smart. Filling out the outfield were Larry Kanner in left center, Bob Snyder in right center, and Arthur Wohlfeiler in right. Snyder and Wohlfeiler had played with the group since the teams’ inception and while Kanner joined later, he might have been the craftiest, smartest player. He was not fleet but made up for it with his anticipation on defense and his ability to hit behind the runner for a high batting average with great run production. In some ways he controlled games both in the field and at the plate. Ronnie Pollack who played third base had power and was very solid both in the field and at bat. Various people took turns at first (this could have been an issue in “The Game” if not for a mensch on the opposing team[1]). The battery consisted of catcher Bruce Bogart and pitcher Alan Wieder. Bogart was very tough defensively and it was almost impossible for a base runner to get by him at the plate – he was an exceptional catcher. On one occasion he led the league in batting average with total hits equaling total bases. A feat that was unheard of in the sport. Wieder, the author of this article and also the team’s manager, fielded the mound well, was an average hitter, and never stopped chiding certain teammates, the opposition, and mostly the umpires. Put all of this together and Sol’s Boys played hard always winning their league. But, in realistic moments they did not have championship expectations when it came to the city tournament.

Angelo’s Pizza
The city tournament consisted of 128 teams and as already stated Sol’s Boys was unseeded. It is also important to note that the top ten teams in the city had never heard of the bookie sponsored club. The first two games were easily won, which meant for the first time they were playing amidst the final 32 teams. Unfortunately, Angelo’s Pizza, the number one team in the city, were the opponents. As had often been the case throughout the season and the tournament, Sol’s Boys scuffled to field a first baseman. On this particular night the answer was a very good player named Paul Brooker. The catch was that Brooker was not on the roster – his name that night was Ricky Fein

Ironically, details of Sol’s Boys offensive performance defy recollection. Angelo’s had three of the best players in the city – Donnie Smith, Barry Johnson, and Shelly Hoffman. Shelly was arguably the most formidable all-around player in Cleveland. Johnson was a great power hitter and Smith was the greatest power hitter. For some reason, however, in various non-tournament games around Cleveland, Smith could not hit Wieder. Barry Johnson, in contrast, murdered the Sol’s Boys pitcher. In addition, the game was not played at Angelo’s home field, the wonderful shallow-dimensioned Morgana Park. Instead, the venue was Kirtland Field, with unreachable fences that negated both Johnson and Smith’s skills.

The game was a low scoring affair, which in and of itself, was totally unexpected by the giants. Playing in the expansive park, the minnows came with tactics. The heart of Angelo’s line-up, batters three, four, and five were Johnson, Smith, and Hoffman in that particular order. Similar to his previous encounters with Wieder, Barry Johnson began his quest for the sweet-sixteen with an extra-base hit into the left center alley. It was that hit that convinced Sol’s Boys that there was no need for a second baseman or right fielder when Johnson or Smith came to bat. Like a ballet the defense all shifted toward left field daring the power hitters to try for the left field fence that was clearly out of reach. The shift and the inability to score runs greatly unnerved management and players on the favored side. Trash talking began and while the underdogs might have still awaited the expected explosion from the giants, their pitcher, for one, took great satisfaction in giving mouth right back to the stars.

Smith followed Johnson to the plate for his first at bat but the shift was on and almost dutifully, the batter hit a towering pop-up between Walter and the newly placed Cohn. Smith would do that three or four times during the game with the shortstop and second baseman taking turns making the play as the city’s premier power hitter went hitless. Smith’s last three outs, however, were proceeded by an unprecedented tactic that brought even more ire from Angelo’s towards Sol’s Boys and their pitcher. The idea, however, came from catcher Bruce Bogart. He asserted that there was no reason to pitch to Johnson since he was almost a guaranteed extra base hit whenever he stepped to the plate while Smith was an automatic out.

On this particular night the strategy was perfect. While anger crossed the field the reality was that the champions had lost their composure. Angelo’s left fielder struck out swinging, unheard of in softball, and Hoffman, who had a good night hitting, took a called third strike with two outs, men on base, and the need for an extra base hit. When Hoffman questioned the call, the umpire retorted, “This isn’t Morgana.”
The minnows were in the champs’ heads and Wieder and Walter’s extended looks were no longer concerned with an explosion. Yes, there was wonder, but more so the look was let’s get this done. Then there was out number three and the scoreboard read, Minnows 5 Giants 4 and Sol’s Boys, not the Number 1 team, was moving to the Round of Sixteen.[2]

[1] One of Angelo’s star players, Shelly Hoffman, knew Sol’s Boys players and could have exposed Brooker in which case the game would have been forfeited to his team. He chose to remain silent.
[2] Sol’s Boys would lose the next game to a good Lachs’ Bar team, 8-7. They were, however, ranked 16th in the city, the first and only time a JCC team was ranked. And to this day, Wieder, who was coaching third, bemoans holding Kanner at third on a play that might have changed the outcome of the game.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Cambodian School

A few years ago, Billy Barnwell was kind enough to guide me through the streets of Phnom Penh.  In the afternoon we went to a school just outside of the city that was attended by children whose parents had either died from AIDS or were HIV-Positive at the time.  The children were playful & serious, mischievous & scared, & both happy & sad.  Below are some of their faces.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

South African Conversations: Studs Terkel on Racism and Apartheid

“The white is hit harder by apartheid than we are.  It narrows his life.  In not regarding us as human, he becomes less than human.  I do pity him,” said African National Congress president and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Albert Luthuli when Studs Terkel met with him in South Africa in 1963.  It was almost twenty years before Studs published his book, Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession, but Terkels’ meetings with South Africans had a tone that was similar to his 1992 book.  His journey preceded the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against South Africa in the 1980s.  While he did choose to visit South Africa at the time, Studs questioned the morality of traveling to an apartheid state.  Lufthansa Airlines asked him if he would join four other journalists on their inaugural flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg.  Ten years after the junket, writing in his first memoir-type book, Talking to Myself, Studs recalled: “I was about to say, danke schon, aber nein, auf Weidersehen (thank you, no, good-bye).  I am not especially delighted by our de facto apartheid, let alone Sou’frica’s de jure species.”
Terkel addressed racism in the United States on his radio shows beginning in the 1940s and continuing during his 45-year tenure that began in 1952 on WFMT in Chicago.  Studs became a blues and jazz aficionado and played both African and African American musicians on his 1945 radio show, The Wax Museum.  Initially, the radio station collection included neither jazz nor blues – Studs bought the records at the Concord Record Shop – a local kiosk.  At the time, Studs Terkel befriended Mahalia Jackson, who hired Studs as a writer and stood up for him when he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  He was the Master of Ceremonies in 1948 at the Chicago Civic Opera House celebration of Paul Robeson’s 50th birthday.  Robeson sang, as did Lena Horne.  Then in 1963, the same year that Studs visited South Africa, he and his wife Ida rode on the Freedom Train from Chicago to the nations’ capital for the March on Washington.  Later in the year, he was publicly critical when Chicago’s mayor, Richard J. Daley, proclaimed in a July 4th speech: “There are no ghettos in Chicago.”  Studs Terkel’s long-time friend, journalist Vernon Jarrett, capsulized Terkel’s understanding of American racism.
As much or more than anyone else I know, he’s been for equality of treatment for blacks.  In fact, I cant think of any other white person I’ve ever met in my life who knows so much about black history – by which I mean black feeling and black life.  I was aware of that quality in him from almost the very beginning of what’s now been almost a forty-year friendship.  It’s true what I once heard somebody say, that being black in a predominantly white populated area in any city in America you care to name, is like wearing an ill-fitting pair of shoes – you look all right in them to everyone else, and you know yourself you do – but its only you who knows the discomfort you’re in when you start to move around.
Studs Terkel’s anti-racist perspective, coupled with his propensity to explore in his interviews; called both “investigative conversations” and “moral history” by Victor Navasky, were magnified during his stay in South Africa.  Unlike other journalists on the trip, Studs carried his Uher[1] everywhere he went.  He had conversations with black and white South Africans, the uncelebrated, authors Nadine Gordimer and Alan Paton, and most importantly, Chief Albert Luthuli, 1960 Nobel Peace Prize winner and the President of the African National Congress at the time.  People who Studs has interviewed often comment that they describe themselves in ways that they didn’t know existed.  When interviewees spoke with Studs they went well beneath the surface.  He referred to his conversations as prospecting for gold.  In South Africa, in spite of 1963 being one of the most intense and contested historical junctures of the struggle against the apartheid state, Studs Terkel, in a very short time, touched the heart(s) of the people and their lives within the country.
When Studs Terkel travelled to South Africa, Nelson Mandela was in prison and key leaders of the struggle against the apartheid state had been forced into exile.  In 1962, with the backing of Luthuli, Mandela announced a move from peaceful resistance to armed struggle.  “If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent demonstrations we will have to seriously reconsider our tactics.  In my mind, we are closing a chapter on this question of non-violent policy.”  The government actually increased oppression culminating in the 1964 Rivonia Trial where eight struggle leaders, including Mandela, were convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison.  For all practical purposes, as Studs Terkel travelled South Africa, the struggle against apartheid was made moribund for at least a decade. 

Blacks in Apartheid South Africa
In Talking to Myself, Terkel describes meeting people in what Bishop Desmond Tutu refers to as South Africa’s “Pigmentocracy.”  Like his work in the United States, Studs begins with the uncelebrated.  Lufthansa organized various tours for the American journalists and one those trips was to the famous Kruger Game Park.  The group stayed at a lodge called Pretoriakop where Studs met Magwiana Hlachayo who was assigned as the attendant for Studs’ room.  Moments after Studs entered his room, Magwiana appeared, wearing black, servants’ shorts, one of many symbols of the oppressive and demeaning nature of apartheid.  Magwiana introduces himself as John and explains to Studs that he will take care of him at the lodge.  He calls Studs “Mastah” to which Studs recoils and responds, “I’m not your master.”  Then, after a brief uncomfortable exchange, Studs asks Magwiana to talk about his life.  Studs Terkel learns about Hlachayo’s family and his aspirations for his children to become doctors.  He learns that Magwiana works seven days a week and travels home, a good distance, everyday, to be with his family.  And he learns that his name is not John.
‘What is your name?’  I ask.  ‘John,’ he says, as though speaking to a retarded child.  ‘I told you.’  ‘No, no,’ I say.  ‘What is the name your father gave you?’  He looks at me intently.  Who is this guy, anyway?  He smiles.  ‘Magwiana.’  He whispers it.  I take out a piece of paper.  Slowly, he spells it out for me.  Slowly, I write it down.  I show it to him.  He laughs.  There is a touch of surprise to his laugh.  ‘Is that your first name or your family name?’ I ask.  ‘My name is Magwiana Hlachayo.’  He pronounces it deliberately.  I repeat it and get it wrong.  Patiently, he enunciates it again.  He spells it.  Slowly, I write it down.  He laughs.  ‘John is not my real name.  The white people gave it to me because they can’t say Magwiana Hlachayo.’  We both laugh.
The following day Studs and the other American journalists go on an excursion to view zebras and wildebeests and elephants and lions, an experience that awes almost anyone who has such an opportunity, including Studs Terkel.  Before they leave on their outing, he observes, with an ethnographic eye, a scene that corresponds to Magwiana Hlachayo being renamed John.  A black man is sweeping the floor and two white men stand near him conversing on the childish nature of black South Africans.
He had come from Swaziland, he told me.  As a small boy, he took care of his fathers’ cow.  Of course he understood the conversation across the room.  God knows it was loud enough… One of the men let me know there was no point in talking to the boy: ‘He doesn’t understand a word you say… Might as well talk to yourself.’
Later in the day Studs spoke with Magwiana about what he had seen.  “Softly, Magwiana Hlachayo says, ‘I’m feeling bad on it.  My heart is sore.  I am also very cross because it is not very nice.’”  Studs writes of his new friend’s dignity, in spite of the fact that he lives in a country where culture and law work constantly to demean black people.  Because he had been asked his name the day before, and had told the story to his 12-year-old daughter, he comes to Studs with a gift – a plant of multi-colored paper and wire stems that his daughter has made for his fathers’ new friend.[2]
‘I told her about the white man who asked for my real name,’ he says.  I hold the plant in my hand like a hockey champion cradling the Stanley Cup… ‘It is the first time a white man asks me these questions,’ he continues.  ‘As long as I have been in this park, I have never seen a European sitting together with a native.’
Magwiana Hlachayo then asks Studs if there is anything else that he can do for him, before Studs leaves.  Terkel “surreptitiously” hands over some money but notes that Magwiana needs something else.  And what he wants is a letter – he wants to see in writing not only his name, but also the name of the white man who sat at his side.

Whites in Apartheid South Africa
While Studs Terkel spoke with white people throughout his South African journey, his primary conversations were with his Durban driver, George Jones.  Corresponding to Studs Terkel interviews in general, his dialogues with white South Africans revealed their humanity, but also their privilege and the conflicting reality that within apartheid all people are dehumanized – blacks, whites, Indians, and coloured – all people.  Besides Jones and the man at Pretoriakop Lodge, Studs met people at parties and other public places.  Shortly after arriving in Johannesburg he and his fellow travelers were invited to a reception hosted by one of the Lufthansa Airlines directors and his wife.  Someone informed the woman that Studs had spoken disparagingly of apartheid and she approached him and said, “Nobody likes apartheid… When people first come here, they’re against it.  But when you live here a while, you see that it is right.”  The same message came via an advertising man who had emigrated from Amsterdam five years earlier.  “You’d feel the same way if you lived here for awhile.”  And the English immigrant piano player at a hotel in Durban expanded on the laurels of the country.
South Africa has been very kind to me indeed…  There are so many million black people here all looking for jobs, brought in from the jungle.  They work for absolutely nothing.  You can get a very good servant for nine pounds a month.  They’re not really downtrodden, these chaps, don’t get that idea.  The average house provides them with civilized amenities they’ve never really had.  Really, life out here couldn’t be better.  It’s a wonderful, wonderful, life.
Internationally acclaimed artist, Cecil Skotness, a resident of Johannesburg in 1963, also spoke with Studs and explained that South Africa was “a happy society for whites.”  He added, however, “one mustn’t think too deeply, of course.”  Sometimes George Jones, Studs’ Durban driver, made that mistake, he thought too deeply.  Almost as soon as Studs and George meet, the latter is talking about his life and his family.  He tells Studs of an experience that conflicts with apartheid commonplaces.  Centered around George and his family’s car running out of gas on a road trip, Jones explains that the only person willing to stop and help was a black man.
The European is so full of himself.  He’ll drive past and see a stranded motor car… He’ll drive past, smoking his pipe, cigar, or cigarette and not care a blow about anybody else… It makes one so really against your own.  You’re really sorry to be a European at times.
Yet, George Jones enjoys the benefits of apartheid for white South Africans.  White only privileges like movie theaters and beaches for example.
Sir, you can’t let him marry your daughter… That is the trouble with apartheid.  You are friendly with the native but you can’t hobnob with him.  You can’t bring him into your home as a neighbor.  And – how shall I say it? – you can’t allow sexual relations.  If you allow that, you will in time create a bastard race.
            George Jones chauffeurs Studs for a couple of days and in spite of Terkel’s certainty that his driver was well aware of the fact that the visit with Albert Luthuli was clandestine and against the law, Jones felt enough closeness to invite Studs to his home to meet his wife Zelda.  That meeting, too, brought the horrible cultural divide of apartheid into the open.  In what Studs refers to as a “long half-hour,” including chitchat, George convincing Zelda to sing and the couple showing affection as they dance.  At the mention of the word apartheid, Zelda speaks about being kind to black people and having admiration for her domestic helper before moving to a reproachful rant.
I’ve seen them, their children running around minus their little pants.  It wouldn’t be right, living next door to us.  It wouldn’t look nice.  They’re used to being like that, so they don’t think it’s wrong.  Now, with all these robberies.  When I was a little girl, we never had these things.  Ooohh, it’s shocking.
Studs asks about George’s story of only blacks helping stranded motorists, Zelda feels compelled to add a story: “Remember the native woman who poked into our car and put your hat on her head and ate my biscuit.  She wouldn’t be able to fix a car.”  George tries unsuccessfully to ameliorate the situation, but adds: “That is true.  But through the courtesy of those people, the natives, we got to get on our way.  They will never see a person stuck on the road without trying to help them.  Never has a European, my girl, ever done that for us.”  In response, Zelda’s anger grows, yet, Studs Terkel has recorded the depths of the impact apartheid has had on white people in South Africa.
Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer
            Alan Paton was one of the leaders of the Liberal Party during apartheid and his most famous book, Cry, Beloved Country, was published in 1948.  Studs visited him at his suburban, Durban home.  At the time Paton was working on the biography of Jan Hofmeyer, a liberal South African whom Paton described to Studs as someone who supported Christian principles regarding racial issues but was not able to practice them as a government minister. Paton’s apartheid dilemma was different.
This book would normally have taken only a few years of solid work.  One is inclined to resent being called away from the writing desk for this or that emergency, having to go to prison or hold, say, a protest meeting.  I don’t know whether the true writer doesn’t so much isolate himself as go into a retreat when he writes.  I have never been able to do it.
Paton was political but not radical, and oddly, as he was leaving Durban to return to Johannesburg, Terkel met a bus driver who knew of Alan Paton.  He spoke with Studs about white people socializing with black people in the apartheid state.  “You are suspect immediately.  You’re thought of as pink or communist or liberal.”  He also described attending some of Paton’s interracial meetings.  “Everybody who visits his house is under surveillance… They take down the names and addresses of all the visitors and the numbers of the cars.”  But yet, in what was the norm for many whites during apartheid, he departs saying to Studs: “The African people will govern themselves some day.  They must.  There will be panic and confusion.  And we’ll all say, ‘I told you so.  They can’t govern themselves.’”  Once again, Studs learned that apartheid dehumanizes everyone – blacks, coloureds, Indians, and yes, whites.
Nobel prize winning author, Nadine Gordimer, was more progressive than Alan Paton during the apartheid era.  Studs visited her at her Johannesburg house on the first leg of the trip and she trusted him enough to suggest that he meet with struggle leader, Albert Luthuli, when he went to Durban.  Knowing the reality of apartheid well, Nadine provided instruction on arranging a meeting with Luthuli.
When you reach an Indian marketplace in Durban, find a public telephone and call this number.  Ask for B.W. Medawar.  He is a close friend and colleague of the Chief.  His phone is undoubtedly tapped by the SB – Special Branch… Simply say you’re a journalist from America and a friend of Nadine Gordimer.  Say nothing else.  He’ll know what you want.
Albert Luthuli
            Studs followed the plan and that led to an interview with this great South African leader.  Luthuli had been banned by the apartheid government, the equivalent in the United States to house arrest except that in South Africa there did not have to be formal criminal charges.  He had won the Nobel Peace Prize three years earlier and had authorized armed struggle in 1962.  It is important to note, however, armed struggle was defined as attacks on electrical pylons and government facilities – not attacks on people.  Luthuli was forced to live in the small town of Stanger, about 30 miles outside of Durban.  His conversation with Studs defined so much of the apartheid state reality from the ground, from the struggle.  When the two men met, Studs relayed the story of his visit with Magwiana Hlachayo as well as that of the white men in the lodge lobby who spoke of blacks as children in the presence of the black worker.  Studs recalled that Luthuli laughed and Studs related it to the experiences of his friend, blues musician Bill Broonzy and the blues line “laughin’ on the outside, cryin’ on the inside.”  Studs added that it might be more like, “raging on the inside.”  “One of the sore points is that we are not regarded as human beings.  But if occasionally we are, it is as ignorant children,” added Chief Luthuli.
            Albert Luthuli spoke with Studs about Zulu history and culture as well as his own personal story.  Including his education at Adams College.  He shared his hope of a South African society where cultures come together to live but also his anger at government oppression.  He referred to himself as a militant but then quickly spoke of his hope for democracy – one person, one vote.  He concluded saying:The white is hit harder by apartheid than we are.  It narrows his life.  In not regarding us as human, he becomes less than human.  I do pity him.”
            Although his tenure in South Africa was brief, Studs Terkel explored the heart of the apartheid state through individual/collective South African stories – the uncelebrated as well as three more famous South Africans.  He learned the contradictions of individuals as well as the system, and he portrayed the complexities without ever denying the evils of apartheid.  In each of his future oral histories that address disparity, racism, and oppression; Division Street America, Hard Times, and Race: How Blacks & Whites Think & Feel About the American Obsession; he portrays similar complexities while at the same time never equivocating on the oppression that exists in American society.

[1] Uher was the tape recorder that Studs Terkel used in his work until later moving to a SONY.
[2] At the time Studs Terkel was writing Talking to Myself the gift still sat in his Chicago office.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Paul Buhle's Radical Jesus

Review of Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith
Paul Buhle, Editor
Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm, Nick Thorkelson, Artists

Paul Buhle is one of the most prolific and insightful critics from the American left.  While his topics at first glance appear incredibly eclectic, closer reading uncovers a sharp focus that thoughtfully challenges class disparity, racism, and imperialism in the United States and throughout the world.  The breadth of his work, even if you consider only his collaborative graphic titles, is mind-boggling as the topics include Che, Yiddishkeit, SDS, the Wobblies, Emma Goldman, FDR, the Beats, and Isadora Duncan.  And now, in collaboration with artists Sabrina Jones, Gary Dumm, and Nick Thorkelson, comes Radical Jesus: A Graphic History of Faith.

Like Buhle’s prior writings, Radical Jesus investigates the inequalities that exist in the world, historically and presently, but this time through a theological lens.  After an introduction, the sections of the book are “Radical Gospel,” “Radical History,” and “Radical Resistance.”  As a focus for reading the book we can assume that liberation theology began with Jesus and carries on at the present time.  Each section is illustrated by a different artist but is pulled together by both content and style.  As Buhle explains in the Introduction: “The book has been designed with a purposeful color progression from black and white in the first section, to a color choice reminiscent of the illuminated texts of the Middle Ages, to the full color of modern times.”  Combining substance and style, the drawings and text constantly switches between social issues of the past and the present.  Interviewed by a reporter for the Brown University newspaper, Buhle said that he wrote the book for the young people involved in the Occupy Movement.

Oh, let’s say I was speaking to those young people. I’m not a person who goes to church. But I was speaking to those young people and to others who were looking for some alternative, there’s one page in the comic that says no to either passivity or violence. For some other way to respond to the crises, and you know, Americans by and large, still, have this religious thing, this mystique. It’s good to think of a way to speak to them in this fashion.

There are numerous poignant frames in Radical Jesus – below are some samples.  With stark black and white graphics page 23 in the “Radical Gospel” section, by Sabrina Jones, begins with a priest looking at a dead man lying in the street, “unclean – better keep away!”  Another priest does the same but then comes the Good Samaritan who helps the man who isn’t dead – who is the Christian.  Stories of Jesus and class disparity continue in this section with a distressing sequence on preaching and religious leaders on page 35, “They preach – But they don’t practice.”  Reminiscent of of Bishop Tutu’s story of Europeans coming to Africa: “We had the land and they had the bible.  Then they said, ‘Let us pray.’  And we dutifully shut our eyes, and when we said amen at the end and opened our eyes, why, they had the land and we had the bible.”  But of course Bishop Tutu said much more.  Corresponding to Radical Jesus:

This God did not just talk… He showed himself to be a doing God.  Perhaps we might add another point about God – he takes sides.  He is not a neutral God.  He took the side of the slaves, the oppressed, the victims.  He is still the same even today; he sides with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, and the victims of injustice.

Gary Dumm did the “Radical History” section of the book with Laura Dumm and others.  This section tells the story of dissent beginning in the 14th Century and concluding with the abolitionists.  John Wycliffe, the Anabaptists, Quakers and the Grimke sisters are introduced with many other people who challenged church hierarchy in the name of social justice.  On page 63 Buhle collaborates with Dumm on a story called “Escape from Galley Slavery.”

Some martyrs were burned at the stake, others were drowned, decapitated, had their tongues ripped out, or their mouths filled with gunpowder.  To go to a violent death with cold determination or even good cheer was to prove to all present that the believer placed ultimate trust in God’s judgment.

However, these executions were ultimately cynical and class disparately vicious.

French and Belgian royal courts sometimes offered ‘banquets’ for the intended victim the day before the execution.  In the city hall, the accused would be compelled to take the seat of honor between the mayor and a local religious leader while being mocked and offered expensive food and wine.

Many a martyr refused to eat or drink!

The last pages of “Radical History” speak to the Quakers in Pennsylvania losing the fight for Indian rights.  Two frames appear on page 85 with the first showing Quaker representatives in the Pennsylvania Assembly resigning and walking out of the chambers in protest of oppressive actions to attack Indians.  The second frame, titled “What was Lost,” depicts people in a living room watching a baseball game between the Philadelphia Quakers and New York Iroquois – shades of Howard Zinn history.

The 39 pages of the book’s last section, “Radical Resistance,” is thick as the art of Nick Thorkelson and the text speak to the many more modern quests for social justice through questions/statements of a grand diversity of people on-the-ground testifying at a faith-based meeting.  The courage of abolitionist Sojourner Truth is portrayed in a story called “Steal Away: Abolitionism and Black Freedom.”  We meet those who fought for civil rights in the United States like Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttleworth, Bob Moses, and many people whose names we don’t know.  The New Jim Crow is portrayed on page 104 with Reverend Jeremiah Wright connecting the incarceration of blacks in the United States with the plight of Jesus.  On Reverend Wright: “A prophetic voice much maligned in the mainstream media but cherished by the thousands of black churches allied against mass incarceration.”

“Radical Resistance” also tell us of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin’s Catholic Worker movement as a lead into the anti-war actions of the Berrigan brothers – liberation theology and the work and political assassination in El Salvador of Archbishop Oscsar Romero.  All of these accounts of activism conclude with stories of people that we have never heard of that fight for social justice in both their communities and throughout the world – and there lies the ‘mission’ of Paul Buhle and his collaborators in Radical Jesus.  Buhle writes:

The radicalism of Jesus has nothing to do with men hoarding guns against the imagined threat of black helicopters, or bearded fanatics burning down schools for women.  Instead, Jesus goes to the roots of assorted hatreds – not only our destructive exploitation of humanity but also our plundering of creation.  All of life is endangered and we cannot afford these hatreds running rampant much longer.

Radical Jesus is a book that provides the stories of models, teachers, for the young people for whom Buhle says the book was written.  The book’s portraits, graphics and text, are thoughtful, powerful, and are important not only for young activists, but rather for all of us who thoughtfully work for social justice.

Don’t Eulogize Mandela as a Hallmark Card

Long-time South African educator and President of the New Unity Movement, R. O. Dudley had a quote that he used when speaking of various iconic South African struggle leaders – “he had arms, not wings.”  It is a phrase that we should remember when speaking of the late Nelson Mandela, but unfortunately, press coverage in the United States as well as throughout the world has turned Madiba into a Hallmark greeting card figure.  And while Mandela’s role as a freedom fighter and the major force in reconciliation in the new democratic South Africa should be honored and celebrated – we must remember that we are talking about a complex revolutionary, and also a complex politician.

No one argues with Mandela’s leadership in the African National Congress during the fifties and through the 1964 Rivonia Trial where he and seven comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment.  The key word here, though, is comrades, because Nelson Mandela always worked with other people in the struggle, during his time at Robben Island Prison, and of course in both the negotiations with the apartheid regime and the forming of the first South African democratic government in 1994.  President Barack Obama was totally in error when he said that Mandela’s life proved the power of one man with courage and vision could change the world.

So – point number one!  Nelson Mandela worked with comrades throughout the struggle and beyond.  Internal colonialism, racism, class disparity and extreme oppression were part of South African history long before the apartheid regime came to power in the late 1940s.  Nelson Mandela collaborated with other activists, black, Indian, coloured, and white, at Wits University in Johannesburg and it was within this grouping, as well as from his fellow African National Congress Youth League leaders that he came to a belief in nonracialism.  I was asked last week if he was criticized for promoting nonracialism during the struggle and I answered that he actually late came to the party.  He clearly stated that it was the struggle commitment of fellow students at Wits – Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Bram Fischer, Ishmael Meer, Norman Levy, J.N. Singh and others, as well as his close friends, and struggle stalwarts Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, that changed his view on the struggle.  A view that went from African Unity and only fighting racism to a belief that imperialism, class disparity, and racism were all connected.

Countless are the continuing statements on Nelson Mandela as a man of peace and love and forgiveness – none of them are untrue yet they are clearly only a partial portrait as Nelson Mandela was part of a struggle fighting against what Bishop Desmond Tutu often refers to as a “pigmentocracy.”  And an organized pigmentocracy at that.  Throughout the 1950s beginning with the Defiance Campaign against the magnification of racist legislation, to the Freedom Charter calling for democracy for all South Africans, to the 1956 Treason Trial, the mission of Mandela and his struggle comrades was to change the South African government.  However Gandhian the strategy and tactics of this part of the struggle took, the government oppression became more harsh, more violent, and more oppressive.  Thus, by 1962, for Nelson Mandela, who had gone underground, as well as his comrades, it could not be all peace and love.   Before he was arrested that year Mandela was clandestinely interviewed by British journalist Brian Widlake. 

If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent demonstrations we will have to seriously reconsider our tactics. In my mind, we are closing a chapter on this question of non-violent policy.

Mandela was actually asking the apartheid regime, once again, to question their own policy of harsh, violent, repression.  And what he was proposing at this point was not actually armed struggle, but rather armed propaganda – attacks on government facilities in an attempt to show, first, the people, and then the government, that the apartheid regime was not invulnerable.

At this point, 1962, armed propaganda didn’t do much to reach either goal and although Mandela, in partnership with Joe Slovo, had written a document for armed struggle, called Operation Mayibuye, and cadres of struggle soldiers were sent out of South Africa for military training, the arrests at Rivonia crippled the struggle for almost a decade.  Yet even at trial Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary – his message certainly wasn’t peace and love.  His now famous speech in the court deserves repeating.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Mandela went to Robben Island prison in 1964 and would not see freedom until 1990.  In fact, his face was not even seen in a photograph again until 1988 – representation of the totality of apartheid.  His interactions in prison, however, were both revolutionary and human, and in spite of the harsh conditions he faced he was involved in political conversations across the boundaries of competing struggle organizations and was very much part of what prisoners referred to as Robben Island: Our University.

But Nelson Mandela spent the struggle years in prison and it was comrades like Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Pallo Jordan, Ronnie Kasrils and younger MK soldiers that continued the struggle-in-exile.  Within South Africa black people on the ground and the in country exemplification of the ANC, the United Democratic Front, kept the struggle alive.  But by the mid-eighties Nelson Mandela was part of the conversations with the apartheid regime and he was released in 1990.  It must be remembered that South Africa did not have a successful armed revolution, but rather a negotiated settlement.  And this is where Nelson Mandela becomes a politician.

So while I do not begrudge the peace and love eulogies nor question the magnitude of the end of organized and legislative apartheid in South Africa, I again think that it is important to view Madiba with more complexity.  No one will ever claim that the negotiations with the apartheid regime were easy and it is here where Mandela’s brilliance as a politician comes front and center.  Yes, it was important that he publicly stood up to DeKlerk.  But one has to question whether these clashes played well for both men within their own constituencies.  We have to also wonder at which point the United States, United Kingdom, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund entered negotiations about negotiations.  Because the formal negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid regime is where Mandela’s political brilliance is paramount.  Nelson Mandela basically sidelined (albeit temporarily) Thabo Mbeki and chose three negotiators that represented the far left of the struggle – Cyril Ramphosa then of the Mineworkers Union and Joe Slovo and Mac Maharaj from the South African Communist Party.  Did Madiba know that selling what would surely become a neo-liberal transition to the struggle left was more difficult that negotiating with the enemy?  Did Madiba know that he needed Joe Slovo to proclaim the sunset clauses that would protect the jobs of apartheid regime bureaucrats?  Again a question – but one surely worth asking.

What we do know is that neo-liberalism came with vengeance to South Africa and that the ANC and President Mandela became partners with the west. But we also know that in the early struggle years Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary who believed and fought for a people’s democracy.  So even if there is much more complexity than the present eulogies exhibit – Madiba is still deserving.  And the hope, at least from my perspective, is that the love of people that these Hallmark eulogies proclaim, will lead to 1980s struggle conversations and actions that address the class disparity, lack of services, freedom of press issues, and corruption that exist today in South Africa.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Review of Public Enemy by Bill Ayers

Review of Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident
Bill Ayers
(Beacon, 2013)

Bill Ayers and the Radical ‘Spark’ – Past and Present

“They just don’t get it.”  Yes, the phrase is overused, yet, all too appropriate when addressing the continuing critiques, from both the left and the right, of Bill Ayers. The recent publication of the second phase of his memoir, Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident, was followed on the “SDS and ‘60s Leftists” page of Facebook by an un-thoughtful conversation on Ayers, his comrade and wife Bernardine Dohrn, and the Weather Underground (WO).  Facilitated by George Fish and responding to a negative book review by Jon Wiener, 43 comments followed Fish’s post.  Mostly sour, bitter, and ahistorical in tone, the comments provide the antithesis of Ayers’ book and life, that of learning from the past and continuing, in a human and life affirming way, the ongoing struggle that began for Ayers in the civil rights movement, antiwar movement, Students for A Democratic Society, and then the Weather Underground.

When confronted by a radio interviewer who referred to the sub-title as snide, Ayers softly replied that the entire title was chosen for its irony.  Missing both the breadth and depth of Public Enemy, the interviewer as well as Wiener and other critics fail to acknowledge the thoughtfulness and energy that Ayers brings to struggle, both past and present.  In this particular book, we alternate between the author’s recollections of first, his experience in the 2008 attempt to demonize Barack Obama because he “palled around with terrorists,” and, second, the years after he surfaced from underground beginning in 1980 from where Ayers left-off in his previous book, Fugitive Days.  There are both multiple and complex events, issues, and ideas presented in Public Enemy.  A sampling will be discussed in this review.

Recently, South African anti-apartheid struggle leader and Constitutional Court Justice (comparable to the U.S. Supreme Court) Albie Sachs spoke at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon.  Talking about his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Sachs emphasized the importance of acknowledgement for both personal and political healing.  Acknowledgement causes me to return to the radio interviewer’s portrayal of Confessions of An American Dissident as snide. In fact, irony aside, Ayers responded by talking about acknowledging one particular flaw during his time in WO.  He asserted that neither he nor his comrades ever doubted their positions and that by not being skeptical they were arrogant and without reflection.  Doubt is discussed in Public Enemy and Ayers also talks about apologetics within a conceptual framework of an American Truth Commission.  In both the book and current media interviews, Ayers has continually repeated that neither he nor the WO ever killed anyone in the bombings of buildings.

Not only did I never kill or injure anyone, but in the six years of its existence, the Weather Underground never killed or injured anyone either.  We crossed lines of legality to be sure, of propriety, and perhaps even of common sense, but it was restrained, and those are the simple, straightforward facts.

The correct term for Weather Underground bombings, in correspondence to the armed struggle in South Africa, is “armed propaganda.”  And like Umkhonto We Sizwe underground soldiers in South Africa, Ayers would welcome the opportunity to answer queries about his WO activities at an American TRC.  In Public Enemy Ayers writes:

America, it seemed to me, was in urgent need of some kind of truth and reconciliation process… We needed a process to understand the truth of the past in order to create the possibility of a more balanced future… Everyone together would have the opportunity to tell their stories of suffering, and the victimizers would be asked why and how they created that misery.  Society would have the opportunity to witness all of it in order to understand the extent and depth of the disaster as a step toward putting it behind us and moving forward.  In that setting and standing with Kissinger and McCain, McNamara and Kerry, Bush and Cheney, I’d be happy to say exactly what I did, take full responsibility, and bow deeply.  But without any chain of culpability whatsoever, I’ll stand on the record, or just stand aside.

While five chapters in Public Enemy present the threats and black listing Bill Ayers experienced during and after the 2008 presidential campaign, I will address the topic with brevity as it has already been explored in other reviews.  An in-depth description and analysis is portrayed in Maya Schwenwar’s Truthout review, “Bill Ayers Weighs in on Democracy, Selfhood, and His ‘Unrepentant Terrorist’ Alter-Ego.”  Besides endless email threats and having someone actually come to his office at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Ayers was banned from talking on college campuses throughout the country.  At the time my colleague at the University of South Carolina, Craig Kridel, the Curator of the Museum of Education, posted a page titled “The Bill Ayers Problem” on the Museum webpage.  The page title, like Public Enemy, is ironic and at the time I wrote:

The inequality, unfairness, violence, and global greed are what Bill Ayers has fought against for many years. The fight is every bit as important today as it was during the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War. And while some people might call me insensitive because I refuse to enter a debate on Bill Ayers as a terrorist, I choose not to speak back to the cries of O’Reilly, Hannity, and Colmes and their nameless comrades because the work Bill Ayers is doing does not need defenders but, rather, supporters and allies that fight for a more just world. Finally, as an academic who works with teachers who fought against apartheid in South Africa, I can’t help but think that the same people who define Bill Ayers as a terrorist would have given that label to Nelson Mandela and his less known comrades during the struggle against the apartheid regime. We know now what history says about that – we can only hope that Bill Ayers and many other people continue their work as progressive educators and activists.

But Bill Ayers does not rail against his detractors in his writing.  Rather, while he is critical in a political/personal way of their harassment and silencing and analyzes their actions, his emphasis is a celebration of people who continue the struggle.  While the story of the cancellation of his talk at the University of Wyoming is politically important, from Ayers we learn more about the woman who fought for his right to speak.  More accurately, she fought for her own free speech.

‘I’m going to sue the university in federal court,’ she told me during our first conversation.  ‘And I’m claiming that it’s my free speech that’s been violated – I have the right to speak to anyone I want to, and right now I want to speak to you.’  She was young and unafraid, smart and sassy, her dreams being rapidly made and used – no fear, no regret.  I liked her immediately.  Meg’s approach struck me as quite brilliant – students (and not I) were indeed the injured party.

The University of Wyoming student won the case and Bill Ayers spoke on democracy and education with over 1,000 people at the University.  In discussing the event, he also honors his sister’s father-in-law, a retired United Church of Christ minister who drove a couple of hours to Laramie for the talk and told Bill: “‘The Lord moves in mysterious ways,’ he said with a wink and a smile gesturing with his Bible.  ‘If any of the crazy Christians get out of hand, he wants me to set them straight.’”

Ayers writes of other cancellations at places throughout the country.  The University of Nebraska stands out but only because he was in Tapai at the time and was woken with the news from a dean at three in the morning.  In contrast to Nebraska, there are brave academics at Millersville University and Georgia Southern University where Ayers was welcomed.  At Millersville administrators explained that it was their “duty and honor” to have him speak.  “It’s not about you personally, it’s about the mission and the meaning of the university.”

Honoring people throughout Bill Ayers’ journey is the stuff of Public Enemy.  One of the funniest yet potent tales is the reaction of Ayers’ comrade and friend, Michael Klonsky, when he was invited to give an education conference keynote address.  The organization told Klonsky that they had intended to invite Bill Ayers but that he was “too controversial and too radical.”  Klonsky scolded the inviter saying: “How dare you ask me to scab on Bill Ayers?”  When Ayers thanked him, he replied: “Defending you?  I wasn’t defending you, I was defending myself – I was deeply and personally offended when they said that your were too radical, and by implication that I wasn’t too radical.  I’m as radical as you are, motherfucker.”

Bill Ayers’ book is about issues, ideas, actions, and people – it is not solely about Bill Ayers.  Epsie Reyes was a colleague at the University of Illinois-Chicago.  She supported Hillary, not Barack, in the 2008 democratic primaries, and she was one of many people who consoled Bill Ayers after Hillary Clinton first demonized him in a primary presidential debate.  Reyes sent strong emails to both Clinton and the Democratic National Committee “detailing how much money she’d donated and how many weekends she’d devoted to organizing on her behalf, explaining who I really was in her ‘humble opinion,’ and encouraging, then demanding that the campaign apologize to me personally and denounce the smears – or else she would have to rethink her commitments.”

Close friends and colleagues, of course, also came through in both 2001 and 2008.  Mona and Rashid Khalidi were both supportive and insightful as were dozens of others.  In 2008 there was a surprise call from Edward Said: “Of course it’s painful for you personally, but cringing and going quiet is the worst thing you could do at this moment.  Your kids are watching you and your students too and a lot of others.  Don’t let them down.”

Said’s message corresponds to the entirety of Public Enemy.  Ayers celebrates political struggle and the people who try to sustain the fight.  Two quotes come to mind, the first from a speech by Paul Potter referred to in the book. “Don’t let your life make a mockery of your values.”  Margaret Meade’s words correspond to Potter’s connecting the personal to the collective.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  In addition to the 2001, 2008, and more recent stories, Public Enemy includes portraits from the time Bernardine and Bill came up from underground in 1980.  Ayers writes admiringly about his childrens’ pre-school teacher at the time, BJ, whom he refers to as “an inspired early childhood educator.”  “She was one of a kind, and everyone knew it.”  Ayers’ portrait of BJ brought a response in Ron Jacobs’
 Counterpunch article, “Get Bill Ayers,” “Indeed, the truest hero in the book is the family’s New York child care provider, BJ.”

On Bill’s journey we meet Bernardine’s lawyers Eleanora Kennedy and Michael Kennedy and various other people including Ellie and Robby Meeropol who were Bill’s friends at the University of Michigan.  Robby was the son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and he was three years old when his parents were executed.  Bernardine and Bill had just adopted Chesa Boudin whose parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, had been sentenced for murder in the Brinks Robbery in Nyack, New York.  Robby explained that there was no road map and that times would be rough for Chesa – honest responses are very much a part of the many vignettes that Ayers presents throughout Public Enemy.

The real heart of the book, however, within the context of continuing struggle, is the authentic portrayal of the Dohrn/Ayers family – Bernardine Dohrn and their sons Chesa, Malik, and Zayd.  The book depicts seriousness and humor and mostly respect and admiration.  There is a story from the early above ground days that I must include in this review.

Leaving swim class one day, we were swept up into a raucous women-led march heading from Broadway and Fifty-ninth Street toward Times Square.  ‘No more porn!  No more porn! No more porn!” we chanted ecstatically, fists pumping and voices rising as we entered the pornography district.  It was a feisty and colorful crowd, our attendance just a happy accident, but with Zayd cheerfully perched on my shoulders we were in high spirits and quite pleased to be in cahoots.  Soon we spotted a pizza stand along the route, and Zayd was famished from swimming and ready for a slice, so we settled into a booth.  Zayd reflected on the parade we’d just left: ‘That was fun,’ he said.  ‘Why don’t we want more corn?’

Ayers tells the story of all three sons advising him during 2008 and the respect appears to go both ways.  Pages 129 to 131 serve as an illustration as Malik, Zayd, and Chesa join Bernardine in coaxing Bill not to speak with the media – a disposition alien to his being.  Malik warns him of ambush and it recalls Mailer’s self-admonitions of never talk to the press – they control the story.

The consensus from them, in line with Bernardine’s steady and consistent basic instinct, was that whatever happened on the web or in the press, we should simply turn away.  No comment, no elaboration, no clarification, no response.  ‘Be completely quiet,’ they said, ‘and stay calm.’  ‘It’s harder then it sounds,’ Zayd added, looking right at me, ‘especially for you.’  True, too true: I tend to have a lot on my mind – who doesn’t? – and I’m genetically wired to speak up and speak out, and not always with considered judgment.  My default position, no matter what, is to say something… ‘You’ll get flattened,’ they now said in unison.’

Bill Ayers remained silent through 2008, but of course, “palling around with terrorists” quietly lives on.  There is an ethos throughout Public Enemy, consistently present in the ideas, issues, actions, and people portrayed in the book, amidst everything else – this book is homage to Bernardine Dohrn.  Her strength, thoughtfulness, commitment, and humanity is the spirit of Public Enemy: Confessions of An American Dissident.  Whether it is gently chiding Bill with their children or being warmly welcomed back by the judge in Chicago when she surfaced from underground – her humanity is ever present.  Political commitment is obvious in Dohrn’s first above ground statement: “This is no surrender.  The fight against racism and war continues, and I will spend my energy organizing to defeat the American empire.”  Ayers writes of her actions and dispositions when she was imprisoned at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York for refusing to give Grand Jury testimony on the Brinks Robbery.  The emotion of being away from her kids but at the same time focused political commitment.  There is also a great story of her mother passing on contraband when she visited the prison – a chocolate chip cookie!

There is much more to Public Enemy than the samples that I present.  Bill Ayers critiques the Weather Underground and provides much more breadth to the ideas, issues, actions, people, and events he portrays.  He also pushes his story to the present and therein lies the further message.  Ayers, Dohrn, and many of their WO (and beyond) comrades continue to work for the same issues they have pursued beginning in the sixties.  For Ayers it is education and more and the latter includes working with young activists who continue the fight for the end of racism, class disparity, and imperialism.  First in the civil rights movement, then SDS and WO, Ayers was part of the “spark” for a just world.  His book is a partial story of continuing to keep that “spark” alive today.

Alan Wieder

Alan Wieder is the author of Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid (Monthly Review Press, 2013)