Young activists put their doubtsand dreams into words
Written correspondence is often lamented as a lost art, but
the book Letters from Young Activists (Nation Books, 2005) cuts
against that conventional wisdom. The compendium includes dozens of
incisive missives to addressees who range from real people ('Dear
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice') to symbolic ones ('Dear
Doubter') to entire movements ('Dear Punk Rock Activism'). The
letters reveal a younger generation of socially conscious,
culturally aware people reflecting on the past and speculating on
what the future holds for their movements, and themselves. These
are a few of our favorites.
Dearest Hip Hop,
What's up? It's been a minute since we had a sit-down together. I mean, I still see you at shows, we give each other a pound, and sometimes we even kick it at my spot and listen to records. But it ain't like it used to be. You've changed, and I didn't want to admit it. I been thinking about it a lot lately. I see you everywhere I go, and you all up in folks' mouths that don't have no right to call you by your true name, 'cause they don't know even half the game. Sometimes it feels like you forgot where you came from, or someone's trying real hard to make you forget who you were, and that you coulda been more than a contenda, back in the day.
Oftentimes, I wonder if you even remember the times when we would hang out at the cement city schoolyards in the south, South Bronx, plug into a lamppost, scratch scavenged sides simmering with stolen sounds and spit street science and inner-shitty subversion all night, and say 'fuck you' to the popo as they rolled by, afraid to disturb our anti-governmental groove, un-regimented rhymes, and anti-authoritarian azz shaking.
You were born a bad azz bastard b-boy/girl, a historical hybrid full of as many counter_cultural contradictions as the project physicians that brought you into creation, built from bad breaks and basuras, cross colors and Krylon. You were salvaged from garbage cans and demolition dumps, boosted in bulky parkas, and borrowed from our mom's 45 collection, scrawled on the stank subway 6 train, and plastered on piss-filled platforms and sacred playgrounds.
You were our 10-point program, our list of demands, a declaration of existence, our statement of resistance, a shout (out) from those whose tongues had been previously tied by the shitstem, a voice for those who were not supposed to be seen or heard. Because you existed, we persisted. And you were as rebellious as a riot, as insubordinate as us, a borrowed black-brown-Boricua bible tribal tone poem pieced together from the Samo shit talk and sabotage Spanglish, a ghetto griot's god-guided tour of every gutter and all-borough bombing. You were just as hard as Harlem, as bad as the Boogie Down and Brooknam, and as stunning as Strong Island, St. Albans, and Shaolin.
You were the terrible twin of punk, Afrika Bambaataa in a 'Never Mind the Bollocks' T-shirt and afro-hawk, Ramalzee and Lee and the urge to get free, Dondi as a spray can splash Gandhi, Grand Master Flash and the Clash, both poles of Basquiat, painting primal anti-products on barrio billboards, ex-vandals drawing skelly courts on stolen streets.
We couldn't afford (to pay for) instruments or attention, so we scratched on vinyl; we had no canvases, so we painted on overpasses; we had no ballet classes on these crazy calles, so we made do with our own bold (b-boy) bodies and cardboard boxes. We stole back space and sound as reparations for the countless creations crafted by people of color then co-opted and commandeered by culture vultures with calculators, and the DJs and MCs of the APOCalypse didn't give a damn if their utterances got any farther than the little slum schoolyard where they first plugged in their two turntables and a microphone, powered by our war-words and spit. In our cheap Converses, appropriated Adidas, low-budget Levi's, and cool co-op Kangols, we created a counter culture that you couldn't get over the counter. And back then no one wanted you over the counter anywayz, not Virgin or the Tower (of Babel). Not Sony or MCA or Atlantic, BMG either. Not white (washed) boys in segregated suburbs straining to grasp slum syllables while stretching our sold Salvation Army skins to fit their permanent privilege. Not music moguls and mass-media mobsters who buy our muse for their amusement and market our azzes for mass consumption to the highest (and lowest) bidder.
Back then bling wasn't the thing, and the only platinum was a Pi?ero poem about a black woman with a blond wig on, and there was no half-nekked salt-shakin' sistas on MTV (or BET and VH1), and fuck Bentleys, you couldn't even catch a cab on 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. There was no corporate conglomerate to vomit back (and forth) our surreality, and no preacher-pimp publishing company would touch you with a 10-foot billboard.
But nowadays, I see you on every (clear) channel of the tell-lie-vision, on (and off) every stage, hear you laughing (and crying) on the radio, watch you acting (and re-acting) in movies, hawking your 'hip hop' franchise fashions like French fries, your basketball shoes like rhythm without the blues, soda pop and pimp juice, and a million other mega-million-dollar marketing schemes you're tied into and tied up in, and I am faced with a painful question: You started out rebelling against the system, pounding on the doors of perception, but was that only 'cause you couldn't find the key to open the door? And now that you smacked the doorman and snatched the key, art turned alchemy, it's solid platinum, hanging from your neck like a slave chain. Sure, sometimes I think I see the old you peeking out shyly from underneath your worn Kangol, a glimmer of a vision in your eye, now obscured by the 'bling' and all them other material things. And I swear I can still hear you spittin' sweet sedition way left of the de-funkt dial on my battered boom box, but just when you about to bring the noise, it's inevitably drowned out in a bottle of counterfeit Courvoisier and a cup of (jim) crow. Tired of living the amerikan nightmare, you wanted the amerikan dream, so a microphone became just another way out of the hood, like a basketball or a kilo or a fast car. In the end, you weren't tryna bust out of the shitstem, only bust the door down to get in.
Yeah, you coulda been a leader for a people who will lead themselves, a real synonym for black power, the anti-nigga machine, the Moses for the massive, the true king (and better) of New York. Man, you was beautiful, full of innovation and inspiration, rebellion and redemption, energy and possibility, but never beyond belief. Because you were something to believe in, in a world with nothing left to believe in.
I hope you don't get it twisted, cuz I still got made love for you. How could I not? We been to the mountaintop and the project rooftop together, we rode and wrote on the subways and highways before we went our separate ways. We saw a promised land of free meals, free lands, free minds, free hands, and back then we really gave a damn. I still remember how we held our boom boxes and ghetto blasters high as our head and wherever the beat fell was our traveling autonomous zone. And we did it all on our own. Now that was fame. Remember?
David Gilbert 83A6158
Clinton Correctional Facility
Dannemora, NY 12929
Happy birthday. Though Clinton Max is one of the last places I would like you to celebrate turning 60, I take solace in the fact that your circumstances are largely a product of your own commitment to progressive political change and to the inherent value and equality of all human life. I deeply respect your commitment to your principles, your willingness to sacrifice yourself in the hopes of creating a better world for future generations of children, including me, your only son, even while you're staring a life sentence in the face. I am proud of you for standing up for your antiracist and anti-imperialist politics.
However, your decisions had real human costs, including the murders of three fathers and husbands, and the traumatic disruptions of untold children's lives, my own among them. When you and my mom, Kathy Boudin, were arrested for the 1981 Brinks robbery, I was just 14 months old. I know that politics motivated your participation, but the action was nothing to be proud of. I was too young to fully understand what it meant when you were sentenced to 75 years to life and my mom to 20 years to life, but we were already on a journey together. I, too, would become an activist.
Twenty-two hard years later, in September 2003, I was in your prison on a visit when we celebrated the news that Kathy was released under parole supervision. We were both jubilant. For you, I know, it was a moment of pure, unadulterated ecstasy. For me, the knowledge that you will not be eligible for parole until you are 112 years old made the joy bittersweet.
Neither of you was armed; neither of you directly hurt anyone; neither of you played a role in planning the robbery; and neither of you intended for any of those three men to be killed. Yet I had to turn my back on you and listen to the steel gate slam shut behind me, even as Kathy was enjoying her first minutes of freedom. Starting with her plea, she has consistently, publicly expressed her remorse. Why has it always been easier for you to express your remorse to me than itis to do so publicly?
Maybe if I had been old enough to talk, I could have convinced both of you not to go. Maybe if I had understood what was going on at the time of your trial, I could have convinced you to let a lawyer defend you, despite your political objections to participating in the trial. Maybe, just maybe, once those three families know how sorry you are for their losses and the role you played in them, they will be able to forgive.
Of course, I don't really remember those early years, a time that irrevocably changed all of our lives. I don't remember becoming part of a new family. I don't remember when I realized my good fortune at having fallen, a bit messily at first, into the home of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn with the support of their two sons, my big brothers. The fact that all four of my parents-and all of you really are my parents-shared a long political history going back to your organizing against the war in Vietnam with Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground made it much easier to build a relationship with you and my mom in prison.
On the other hand, the difficulties of growing up in such a logistically complicated, politically controversial, and spatially far-flung family are also part of my inheritance from you. Rather than focusing on this negative legacy-the tragedy, the failures, the mistakes, my childhood problems, or the burden of maintaining a relationship with you-I choose to focus on the positive side of what my parents' sacrifices, mistakes, and political activism have engendered. This legacy includes a wide range of principled life choices, a profound commitment to humanity and equality, and an emphasis on reflection and self-criticism. It includes as well the ability to laugh and love, to enjoy life's pleasures while fighting society's injustices. Perhaps most of all, it includes optimistic, open-minded engagement in local, national, and global politics. It is this legacy that has done the most to place me in a position to continue your struggle for a better world while avoiding the tragic mistakes you made.
While I was growing up, my family's dinner table conversations about a recent suspension of a classmate at school, urban renewal projects in our neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, or the role of the U.S. military in Central America made local and global politics intimate family affairs. Learning to view the world through a political lens was much broader than simple participation in electoral politics. I did not have to study civics to learn that there are responsibilities that come with political freedoms, that living in the heart of empire imposes particular obligations, that members of civil society have a duty to participate in inclusive, public debates as part of the fertile and dynamic democratic process.
I can hear you telling me about the systematic elimination of alternatives and progressive leaders. I read Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America, George Jackson's Soledad Brother, Ward Churchill's Agents of Repression, William Blum's Killing Hope, and how many other books you suggested? I know that living through the Chicago police and the FBI murder of 21-year-old Fred Hampton, the rising star of the Chicago Black Panther party, in his sleep, and the U.S. military napalming of entire villages in Vietnam drove you down a long, long road from pacifism, where you spent the first seven years of your career as an activist, to revolutionary armed struggle in support of third world liberation movements.
During the past few months, as I traveled overland from Santiago, Chile, to Caracas, Venezuela, you and your political legacy were with me. If I had grown up with different parents, that journey might have been nothing more than an adventure vacation. Instead, I was constantly looking to understand the challenges of local circumstances and the beauty and resilience of the cultures that developed in response. You helped teach me the value of an open heart and mind. In a sense, you enabled me to learn from that bus driver in Antofagasta, Chile; the single mother in Manaus, Brazil; and the youth activists in Caracas.
Having you with me on life's journeys not only encourages me to appreciate the luxury of my freedoms, but also to learn from the world around me and to actively search for ways to play a positive role in it. You and your experience helped me realize that staying put was never an option, not after all we have seen and lived. Because of you, I can see myself, with one foot in Yale or in Oxford and the other in Latin America, as a possible conduit for resources to flow against the current, back to the poor countries and communities I have known. Your legacy encourages me to stay here in Venezuela and dedicate whatever skills I may have to supporting the Bolivarian Revolution in the face of ongoing U.S. intervention.
Che Guevara would have described your revolutionary spirit as guided by love. My ability to carry your spirit with me wherever I go, a skill necessarily learned from too early an age, means you are and will always be with me. Your presence, your spirit, and your example give me solace as I prepare to face the temptations, the tough decisions, the struggles, the losses, and the joys in the years to come. From Amsterdam Avenue to Auburn, from Hyde Park to Attica, from great ivory towers to Great Meadows, and from the revolutionary streets of Caracas to the snow-covered razor wire at Clinton Max, I am sending you much love.
Dear Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,
When I first decided to write you, I was ready to go for the jugular. I wanted to let you know, in no uncertain terms, just how much I disagreed with your political positions, abhorred your relationship with the Bush clan, and anything else I could think of. I decided I was going to look through every nook and cranny, leave no stone unturned in search of some faulty move, a misspoken word, or some sort of flaw that I would use to turn you out on paper. I downloaded whatever I could find on you: commencement addresses, interviews, speeches, and your famous remarks to the 9/11 commission. I even went to the bookstore and purchased some right-wing puff piece posing as a biography. Just as I was preparing to write, you were nearing the end of your tenure as national security adviser and nearing your Senate confirmation as the new secretary of state. And I was poised to give you what the black gay children call a 'read.'
But then a strange turn of events occurred. I was reading your biography on the flight to your second hometown, Denver, where I was giving two public talks: 'Same-Sex Marriage and Race Politics' and 'Gentrification, Prisons, and Anti-Black Racism.' My talks were attended by members of Denver's left-from liberal Democrats to punk-anarchist radicals. Here I was, black revolutionary that I am, giving talks to almost exclusively white audiences. Your name came up both times, and I didn't come anywhere near mentioning you in my talks. Two white people asked me the same question: 'What do you think about Condoleezza Rice?'
Why did they care what I thought about you? Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. These white people wanted me to do what I was planning to do with this letter: finger-point, neck-bob, and hand-wave. Call you a traitor or, worse, a 'Tom.' Dog your personal appearance. And in doing so, I would be met with thunderous applause. On both the right and the left, black people publicly scolding other black people for being culturally or politically backward is what's hot! On the right, there's Ward Connelly's crusade to end affirmative action in higher education in California and the success of writer John McWhorter's disturbing right-wing books that label virtually anything that black people do as pathological. In mainstream pop culture, it's J.L. King's sensational and tabloidish best-seller On the Down Low to Bill Cosby's public rants about poor black people. Even the left has not been immune from this trend. Lately, many prominent black leftist intellectuals have publicly scolded the black community for not being more involved in post-9/11 immigrant detention and antiwar organizing, as if policing and imprisonment, poverty, and HIV/AIDS as issues have significantly decreased or become insignificant for black people in America since September 12, 2001. Whether right or left, the message is, if you're black and have something shitty to say about somebody else black, you're likely to find an appreciative (and mostly nonblack) audience.
So, why are American politics at a place where white people can use black people to justify their own racist hatred of black people? And is it even possible as black people to articulate critiques of other black folks in ways that won't be manipulated by mass media on the left and on the right, to the ultimate detriment of us all? Are the media and the white American public really interested in preventing HIV infections among black women and challenging homophobia? Or are they interested in salacious tales of black sexual pathology? Is the white left really interested in my analysis of your political legacy? Or are they interested in witnessing a black man publicly denigrate a black woman?
And now that I understood that this was the game I was supposed to play, I could not bring myself to do it. Not in Denver, and not in this letter. I didn't give them what they wanted. As they paused, eagerly wondering if I would take the bait, I calmly stated, 'While I disagree with most of her choices politically and personally, I also understand that America offers black people very few options, and she has chosen one of the few options we have to ensure her personal survival. What other options has America offered a genius black girl born in 1950s Birmingham, Alabama?'
And it is this question that brought to bear the reality of my own life, my own situation, and how strangely similar it is to yours. Among other similarities, we were both 'smart black kids.'
Now, there are many smart black kids in and out of American public schools. But you get designated a 'smart black kid' not only because you show some signs of above-average intelligence, but also because you also know how to obey. You know as well as I do that there are many black children who are highly intelligent but don't play the game well or at all. The prisons and the grave are full of smart black people who either didn't know how or flat out refused to 'behave' in a system that is designed to physically or symbolically isolate the smartest and most well behaved and let the rest sink or swim. If you are termed the 'smart black kid,' doors open for you, teachers and principals and guidance counselors work to see that you have every opportunity to succeed. I was tracked into the honors program and then encouraged to attend private school through the A Better Chance program and my own mother's tenacity and ingenuity. You must have skipped several grades to graduate from high school at age 15. And I know from reading your biography that you also were very 'obedient' and had the support of nearly all the teachers you came across, both in Birmingham and later in Denver, where your family moved when you were 13.
We also know something about living under the threat of violence. Your circumstances were somewhat different, though: You were 8 when your childhood friend Denise McNair and three others were murdered by some white racist who planted a bomb at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. You described living in Birmingham as living under terrorism, as bombs were exploding in black neighborhoods all over the city for years. Growing up in Cleveland in the 1980s I did not fear white mob violence, but I remember being a child, like you, and having police helicopters shine lights from high above on my frail brown body, their bullets shooting into the night, wondering which of my friends or neighbors those bullets would strike. It is an experience that I, and many poor black people, liken to terrorism as well.
Our families did what they could to get us, you and me, out of our respective predicaments in order to save our lives. You, in Birmingham in the 1960s. Me, in Cleveland in the 1980s.
So I think that we know something about each other. I think we know something about wanting better for our lives than bullets and bombs. I think we know about being the 'first black' fill-in-the-blank. And we definitely both know about being the 'only black' fill-in-the-blank.
So here we stand, the black Republican and the black revolutionary, poised against each other. But as we stare each other down, each of us recognizes something familiar in the other's eyes. For we are two manifestations of what it means to be black, to have to grapple with our existence in America and make choices based on what we know are really fucked-up options. We have both spent a lifetime proving we are smart enough, competent enough, good enough, but we still have no means of self-actualization that is not mitigated by white-dominated institutions that we must negotiate with in order to do what we feel passionate about. All black people in the United States make choices and make more concessions, for we know that the battle for self-realization is never fully on our terms.
But, inevitably, I will again be distracted from my task by someone asking me, 'What do you think about Condoleezza Rice?'
And what I think about you and your chosen occupation is
precisely this: Your ascendance to the role of secretary of
is, for me, simply what it is-a reflection of a racist society that isolates brilliant black people from themselves and forces them
to serve America's imperial interests. What happens next is that the left or the right, depending on which trajectory the black person has chosen, will use that person as an example of how politically or culturally misguided black people are. In my fight to rebel against that fate, I find that I too am trapped by the options. I have to do what I am also good at-which is to work to ensure that no other black children, traumatized by bullets and bombs, feel they have to abandon everything they know and love, and attack another black person's limited options in order to save themselves.
May you truly know peace,