Friday, July 8, 2016

Black Power Revisited the L.P.

Mother once received a letter from William Faulkner. Or so she said. The letter was supposedly from the Nobel-prizewinner himself—the writer who Flannery O’Connor, no mere scribbler herself, called “the Dixie Limited.” Faulkner was the master of Southern Gothic among whose haunting characters are the bear of “The Bear” and my personal favorite Joe Christmas, the mulatto killer of Light in August. Mother said she threw Faulkner’s letter away. Her papers are now at Emory University, my siblings did it without consulting me, not that that’s a problem, and maybe one day an archivist will come across Faulkner’s note. Probably not. 
The chances that Mother did receive a communication from the great man are better than even though and even though accuracy was not always the hallmark of her storytelling. My mother was fortunate to live and work in another time when there were only a couple of degrees of separation between most people. For African-Americans, for example, you were either still slaving for a white man, or white woman, or you weren’t. My mother was a black female journalist in an age when that particular description was unheard of, not that it’s common even today. The world was also a smaller place back then. Blacks involved in the arts, letters or politics knew each other because there weren’t many to know, especially if they were making a living doing whatever they were doing. And you knew white people because they were running things. In our own culture there was a studied informality especially among the intelligentsia that included and includes many athletes and performers, originally due in part to Communist influence—but mostly because these were Negroes for whom, coming up from slavery, informality was a way of life, even among the glitterati. Brother and Sister served the same role as Comrade. Mother wasn’t a Red but she knew a few and everyone, whatever their politics, had pretty much the same goal and the same subject of their work. There was cooperation achieving common aims. The civil rights movement has been an ensemble work from the beginning. 
What mother experienced in the ‘50s alone, to say nothing of the ‘60s and ‘70s when she was writing for Hearst Newspapers in San Francisco was remarkable because she never talked much about it. She spoke in glowing terms of herself—but could be short on details about anyone else. Writing an article about a fiery young black Baptist pastor—she never told me she stayed with the M.L. Kings at their home in Montgomery, an anecdote that has arisen since her death and may not be true. It sounds like an exaggeration and is something that archiving her papers will prove one way or another, one supposes. Once, and this is an event in the historical record, Mother was short of money and in New York City and she drove, in a Mercury Comet—with me in the back seat—to a club where Duke Ellington was playing and said she was going in to get “Duke” to cash a personal check. She came back out with money, what can you say? It was a smaller community being black in America then. 
So, the backstory on the Faulkner letter is this: My mother was editor of a small newspaper in L.A. back in the day and she had a fondness for writing provocative editorials about race relations in a time and in a place—yes, even the Golden State of California—where diversity was not as popular a word as it is today.
After publishing fiery prose she usually licked stamps and mailed copies out to social and political leaders who, not being subscribers to the Tribune, otherwise might not see her work. One piece made its way to Oxford, Mississippi, home of the Dixie Limited. My mother recounted for me Faulkner’s response in a single sentence, either that was all she retained or all he had said, it’s still etched in my memory more than half a century later: and, once again, it’s my belief that the chances are better than 50-50 this is a factual anecdote, not because Mother was unfailingly accurate in her reportage but because of what she reported Faulkner said. 
“I am all for the emancipation of the Negro,” she quoted the great man, “but if they come marching down my street I’ll be waiting on my porch with my shotgun.” If that wasn’t William Faulkner it deserved to be. 
The reason to remember the Dixie Limited today is not just great prose, even if he was dismissive of the Negro, and even if the characters in his books preyed upon black people just as flesh and blood whites did and do. The reason to remember William Faulkner today is because he understood the fundamental quality of the struggle over race in this country: it has largely been about violence, committing it, being victim of it or writing about it, as was the case with Faulkner and Mother.
             Civil rights has changed in recent years, for the better, we’ve made great progress—today we see the “mountaintop” that MLK talked about even if we have not yet reached the peak. For that reason now seems like as good a time as any to review what we as a people have gotten right and what we’ve gotten wrong. “The Movement” for equality in America has been fought on several fronts and violence as a tactic and as a longterm strategy seems to have worked pretty well. On the most basic level it has involved doing to white people what they do to us, a strategy that was accepted from the start by most everyone in “black leadership,” the Talented Tenth as DuBois called it, or whoever they were. One day in my relative youth my then-sister-in-law the novelist Pearl Cleage, who came from militant stock, explained the Black Liberation tri-color flag to me. “Black is for the people, green is for the land,” she told me in complete earnest, “and red is for the blood that must be shed to get there.” Mother shed blood in print. One of my siblings even described the rat-a-tat-tat of our mother’s Smith-Corona as sounding like gunfire, well into the night. As for rhetoric, or words—Faulkner had that right too. And there, we haven’t done too badly either. You knew racists were doomed when Motown got involved, when black music became widely popular, social themes you could dance to. With the exception of James Brown, songs about black pride and solidarity marches never called to me personally, but they were effective. Music, painting, movies, TV, daily interactions with the white man, or white woman, the decentralization and wide reach of the civil rights movement is its genius. There has been a rebellion going on and everyone is involved but no one is in control. It's all coming together, often led by performers or athletes, as blacks everywhere seem to know what to do without being told. And we keep notes. We have the clippings because of people like my mother.
Once many years ago during my undergraduate years at UCLA: Mother had talked about her great editorials for so long but did not have copies—she sent me to a Cal State campus that had the Tribune on microfilm. The prose was ordinary, to tell the truth, but this was a business more than an art, you have to know what Mother used to say about the Black Press—newspapers that included her own: “Everything you see in a black newspaper has been paid for,” she told me. ”Everything you don’t see has also been paid for.” This was business, the repression and the rebellion.
             Mother’s magazine work, though limited, was outstanding. There’s a piece she wrote about crossing the South by bus back in the day, being in West Texas and being forced to drink from a blacks-only water fountain, in the Greyhound bus terminal in Big Spring. That was in The Nation and was a great story, from the front of the race wars so to speak. That same road trip from Dixie to L.A. forms part of my childhood memory and if you had asked me as a kid what Jim Crow was like—as it was explained to me by Mother at the time, on the road in the Comet until it died and then by Greyhound—it was like a tax that was added to your daily life and you paid and you paid and you paid and if you stopped paying they killed you, or sent you to prison. Does that sound extreme? Not in our social circle. Mother praised Yassar Arafat after all, in her later years. “I am not Jesus Christ,” she used to say, describing her own personal foreign policy, “if someone strikes me I’m not going to turn the other cheek.” There are so many stories, so many anecdotes—because she lived in interesting times. But that doesn’t mean the stories are all true. The most important anecdote, her moment as a reporter in the Bay Area that will define her career, that needs to be confirmed, thumbs up or thumbs down, factual or not, is whether my mother ratted out Angela Davis to the FBI. As in the examples above, the chances here are better than 50-50. Mother was covering cops for the Hearst paper, then the Examiner, now the Chronicle, and her boss was publisher Randy Hearst whose daughter Patty—nom de guerre Tania—was principal femme fatale of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the SLA, as in “slay.” Just like the incestuous inbred Dixie we had escaped, the Bay Area was also home to some freaky shit, the other pole politically but just as incestuous and dangerous.
Everyone it seemed—it’s important to note—had conflicts of interest those days, including my mother. No one was pure in service of whatever ideology they believed in. Everyone knew someone who was on the run, from the police or from the draft board, it was a time when, if the cops found marijuana in your backpack you could still go to prison, especially if there was a hand grenade with the weed. The moral question of the day, in the Bay Area, was whether to call the FBI tipline.
             Mother claimed that she saw Tania one day on the street in the Financial District, near the newspaper offices, while young Patty was being sought for bank robbery—we won’t go there, although it’s possible Mother did see her boss's daughter. At this point it was relatively late in her reporting career, covering cops for Randy Hearst and trying to keep an eye out for Tania. Mother had to hump it, frankly, it was a hard job to do. And dangerous. The Panthers respected her but the Bay Area’s institutions were all under siege including the Black Pathers, and a lot of civic interchange ended up on the police blotter, her beat. A la the Red Brigades or the Bader-Meinhof Gang, mostly it was overachieving kids, of all races and all colors, who had a plan to bring down society and were knocking over Wells Fargo in the meantime. Today the goal of terror is to kill a lot of people but back in the day it was to kill certain people and Mother saw it all covering the San Francisco police. There was the gunfight—some call it a massacre—at the Marin County Courthouse, across the Bay, where Judge Haley got killed, which was the bloodiest, somehow, even though the body count was comparatively low. The Marin massacre changed her life.
 Because it was after Marin that University of California Professor Angela Davis did a runner.
Mother had good sources, apparently better than the FBI’s—she found out that Dr. Davis was hiding in New York. That is the backstory, that is another anecdote from my childhood. Mother ran the info in the newspaper and the FBI picked up Dr. Davis, on a charge of having provided the weapons used in the courthouse shoot-out. That’s the story that my family accepts as factual today, more or less. It’s part of my memory, kind of—borderline, out there in the haze: in the periphery of what was important to me at age fourteen, going to school in the Oakland hills, not in the Badlands of downtown Oakland, there were so many shootings and so many shoot-outs in the Bay Area it was hard to know which ones to pay attention to, if you were a kid. The SLA killed the Oakland school superintendent, by the way, just before we enrolled. A brother with a PhD, he answered his door one night and they shot him with cyanide-tipped bullets. It was all over the top, and bloody. Anyway, Mother wrote the story, Angela Davis got picked up and even if she beat the charges which she did—it’s still a legitimate question: Did Mother sell out The Movement? The answer is in a box at Emory.
 My belief is that what Mother saw in San Francisco frightened her first and then changed her forever. She got us out, actually, relocated the family back to Los Angeles while she continued to commute during the week to work in San Francisco. There, she shared an apartment with my sister Michelle, may she rest in peace, who was writing about movies as a critic, also for Hearst Newspapers. Michelle claimed to have discovered Bruce Lee. But it was all too much for her, too, in the end. She went mad in San Francisco, that’s my belief—that era, that time—Michelle already had the predisposition if one can say that, medically, too much serotonin or too little, and the Bay Area being in revolt didn’t help. To be young, artsy and black in a city with no moral foundations, values gone or in transition, no barriers to behavior in an era of no restraint—it drove her mad, literally. 

              One Friday, when Mother was home in Southern California with her family on her day off, she got a call from the City Desk in San Francisco. The Symbionese Liberation Army was cornered in a “bad part" of Los Angeles, which meant a black neighborhood. Like my own family the SLA, which viewed itself as a family too, with Field Marshal Cinque at its head, had made the move to the Southland, for the climate, you might say. It turned out to be hotter than expected. 9,000 rounds were fired that day or so the Chronicle reported. The FBI and LAPD poured bullets into the house and a fire broke out and everybody inside, who wasn't shot, died from the fire and smoke. 
It was a brutal day in a brutal time and what the City Desk most wanted to know, when Mother came home to call in her notes, as the authorities identified the bodies—this is my memory and it may not be totally accurate but it’s close—what the City Desk wanted to know first and foremost, was Tania among the dead? Which she was not.
That was pretty much it, emotionally, physically and mentally for her, Mother not Tania although Tania took it hard too when they busted her ass a short while later. My mother could handle the civil rights movement because she grew up in it, the Panthers who always called her Mrs. Lomax, not by her given name—and certainly not “Sister,” or not more than once. But once you added the SLA and the Weathermen and everyone else who had a gun or a grievance, it was just too much. She started to shut down. After that Mother was pretty much PTSD, she hung up her notebook and tried to make sense of what she had seen, retired at age fifty-five. She barely left the house for the next four decades.
But that did give her time to write.
Mother’s primary long work, the writing she was best known for but never published is a novel called The Ten Most-Wanted White Men, the account of a young brother who decides to kill the ten most prominent white bigots in America, which is hard work, too. One of the targets, Mother told me while writing, was intended to be Alabama Gov. George “Segregation Forever” Wallace. She used real names, that was the beauty of the work. This was before Gov. Wallace repented and found God.
This was Mother’s revolution and, in some sense, mine. It's been bloody. The bottom line in anecdotes from The Movement, and in our black lives, these last decades, roughly the span of my lifetime because Mother did not live to see the mountaintop—or maybe she just did, not close up but distant and in a fog. The single message that has been repeated time and time again for the last 400 years of our co-existence with white people: Resist any way you can.
             Luckily, “The Movement” has always been an amorphous thing and collectively has been open-minded about what constitutes resistance. There’s been no fixed orthodoxy—no Little Black Book—although someone should write one now just to make it sound as if, for historical purposes, for dramatic uses, black people were more organized than we really were. No master plan ever existed—a vacuum that left open the way for creativity taking the competition down. Violence aside, my favorite part of these decades of struggle, not that it’s over but we can finally see an end, has been the rhetoric—the words, longform like with Faulkner, Southern Gothic is a perfect title for the genre because it really was some freaky shit, having seen it up close, and shorter works like Mother’s, some of which appeared in the Black Press, paid for or not. As for the slogans, “Black Pride” never called to me because it was always a given.

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