Sending a Message

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.

The Editors

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

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

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?

Walidah Imarisha
and Not4Prophet

David Gilbert 83A6158
Clinton Correctional Facility
Box 2001
Dannemora, NY 12929

Dear Dad,

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

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

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

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
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.

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.

Your son,
Chesa Boudin

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

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
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

May you truly know peace,
Kenyon Farrow

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