dispatches from blue mountain, page 3

October 27, 2004

Well, this will be my last dispatch from here. I’m leaving on Friday to go speak at Cornell, and then home. Heartbreak city. I just watched an incredible sunset, the sky full of pink clouds (like on my new favorite cloud postage stamps that you should definitely look for if you don’t already have them) and then, when the sunset was almost over I turned around just to see if there was any lingering pink on the opposite side of the sky, and there was a giant full yellow moon just coming up over Blue Mountain. Tonight there will be a total eclipse (turn around, bright eyes)—the last chance to see it until 2007. And considering that the coming global superstorm is likely to kill us all before then, I recommend going outside!

One thing I thought would be fun would be to make a list of all the books I’ve read while I’ve been here. I’ve read a few things on purpose and lots of things just because this place is covered in books in no particular order and I just picked them up while I was waiting for water to boil or something. So here they are (and I’m not taking out the embarrassing or bad ones either): The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (not the work of genius I remembered from being 10), A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton, The Best Guide to Meditation, Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag, Yo Mama’s Disfunktional by Robin D.G. Kelley, Stir It Up by Rinku Sen, Lost by Gregory McGuire, Assata, Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman (I’m excited for the upcoming sequel, Motherless Trannies), All Souls by Michael Patrick MacDonald, Oasis by Gregory McGuire, and parts of: The Cornell West Reader, A is for Ox by Barry Sanders, Undoing Gender by Judith Butler, The Soft Cage by Christian Parenti.

The ones I feel like telling you about tonight are Assata and All Souls, which I think should be read together. They are both books that use autobiography to get across vital critiques and revolutionary ideas in a way that is accessible to a lot of different types of readers. I feel like I could read them again and again with my eye on different themes and totally different things would come out. Assata describes ideas that took years for me to understand in these perfect, straightforward paragraphs. I’ll give you some examples. At one point, talking about when she is first exploring political groups and stumbles upon a meeting that is really under-attended, she writes:

“No movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing with the times. If it isn’t growing, its stagnant, and without the support of the people, no movement for liberation can exist, no matter how correct its analysis of the situation is. That’s why political work and organizing are so important. Unless you are addressing the issues people aer concerned about and contributing positive direction, they’ll never support you. The first thing the enemy tries to do is isolate revolutionaries from the masses of people, making us horrible and hideous monsters so that our people will hate us. All we usually hear about are the so-called responsible leadrs, the ones who are ‘responsible’ to our oppresors. In the same way that we don’t hear about a fraction of the Black men and women who have struggled hard and tirelessly throughout our history, we don’t hear about our heroes of today.”

I also really liked the way she described what capitalism is: “Revolutionaries in Africa understood that the question of African liberation was not just a question of race, that even if they managed to get rid of the white colonialists, if they didn’t rid themselves of the capitalistic economic structure, the white colonialists would simply be replaced by Black neocolonialists. . .The whole thing boiled down to a simple equation: anything that has any kind of value is made, mined, grown, produced, and processed by working people. So why shouldn’t working people collectively own that wealth? Why shouldn’t working people own and control their own resources? Capitalism meant that rich businessmen owned the wealth, while socialism meant that the people who made the wealth owned it.” (page 190)

A place where I felt a lot of cross-over between All Souls and Assata was in the narration of court room scenes. In both books, people are facing politically motivated murder charges (and in Assata’s case, a bunch of other charges too). Reading them, you can really feel the fucked up ways that fighting battles in court magnifies oppression, draws it out, and makes the oppressed person a part of the oppressive system. The feeling of going through the court battles, coming to court for months and years on end, having to stay quiet in court, investing hope in jurors or judges, getting fucked over again and again. In both books the narrators don’t have faith in the system, but still put effort in to various trials. Assata writes later that she regretted her involvement in a particular trial, but as I was reading it I was totally freaked out and afraid for her whenever she chose not to participate in her trials or chose to represent herself, which are courageous acts of defiance. It was so painful to read Michael sitting quietly through the murder trial of his adolescent brother, watching the attorney disregard the evidence the family wanted to add to the case, trying to keep from screaming at everyone in the courtroom as he watched his little brother found guilty of killing his best friend. In that case, even though they appealed and won, you can sense the emptiness of that—by the time they won Michael’s brother had already served time in the juvenile justice system, had his life ripped apart, and been traumatized, along with the rest of his family, by the false charges and the trials. Its something I see so often—the pain of people forced into situations where they have to seek justice, for their survival, in courtrooms—bastions of injustice. Its even more awful when I have clients who become so deeply invested and attached to winning in court, especially since the law is not usually on our side, and can’t let it go and move on. Its amazing how these battles shape us, and how they are designed to silence us. When I’m in court I often think about the courtroom scene at the end of the movie Dancer in the Dark where Bjork is being unfairly tried—its far too close to reality.

Another thing I really loved about All Souls was Michael’s depiction of the racism in the Irish housing project he grew up in. A central issue in the book is the riots that took place in his neighborhood against the busing that was designed to integrate the schools in the poor black and white neighborhoods of Boston. His neighbors became unified against the busing, lining the sidewalks daily to protest the buses going by the project, pulling their kids out of school (most never returned) and engaging in targetted violence against unknowing black people who ended up in their neighborhood unaware of the dynamic. Michael’s exploration of this time period is amazing in its clarity, and his willingness to unflinchingly express what he saw and participated in as a child. His neighbors resistance to having their kids bused to schools far from home, and to feeling like because they were poor they had to be the ‘social experiment’ for the liberals, which bled into and was fueled by, for many, blatant racism, is depicted in all of its complexity. His own feelings of excitement about the neighborhood banding together, and then his horror when he watched a Haitian man beaten in the street are palpable in the book. I don’t think I’ve ever read another text that addressed the racism of poor white people—its hideous manifestations, and at the same time its roots in class oppression—more successfully. He writes about the need of his family and his neighbors to believe they weren’t poor, to dress in the best name brand (stolen) clothing, and to deny the massive violence and drug addiction in their community, and how a part of that was participating in the broader culture’s mythological assumptions that the poverty-related social problems that were killing people in Southie were only present in communities of color. He also talks about how, after the busing riots, Southie came to be considered by the media and some opportunistic politicians as the “last bastion of racism.” He and I have talked about how convenient it is for rich white people to displace racism, always, onto other white people, usually poor white people, visible white ethnic groups, or Southerners. While its no doubt true that lots of poor white people are racist, it seems like rich white people, and white people with political power, are responsible for a lot more important acts of institutional racism that affect a lot more people, and declaring poor white people to be the source of racism only deflects attention from those creating and maintaining policies that should be the real targets of anti-racists.

This book was amazing for me to read for so many reasons. It feels rare to get to read and think about class and poverty in the way that this book allows. I feel like it will keep sticking in my mind. Just reading about the things the family did to maintain their welfare check—its all feels so familiar, both from my own life and from the lives of my clients. Its painful to read this and think about how severely welfare has been cut, and how public housing projects are consistently being destroyed, and Section 8 has been frozen in New York State for almost a year, and now Bush is devoting even more welfare funds to “health marriage promotion” programs. Things are just getting worse—compared to the times when Michael’s family and my family were on welfare, benefits are far less now, and have short time limits. I’m really excited that Michael is working on another book. I’ve learned a ton from him while I’ve been here.

It’s time for me to go take another look and see what the moon is doing. Ellen is trying to convince me to move to Durham and I’m kind of excited about it (although when that could happen I don’t know). If you have any thoughts on that topic, email me. I promise I’ll try to keep posting on make even when I’m back in NYC, away from paradise.

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