Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975: A Remix

The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975

Besides being a feat of editing and archival history, The Black Power Mixtape is a timely inoculation of revolutionary memory. At a time when we have finally begun to question the sterility of the planet’s socio-economic model of development, the Black Power Mixtape is a welcomed dosage of inspiration.  

Shot at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s by a group of Swedish filmmakers with the intent of producing a film depicting America as it “truly was.” That film however was never released, until now.  I present you here a synopsis/timeline/review/ thoughts and excerpts of the film.

1967: Stokely Carmichael

The film opens in 1967, the year in which “the U.S. has approximately 525,000 soldiers stationed in Vietnam“and the precise moment in which Stokely Carmichael begins to promote the concept of Black Power. Carmichael, known for his fiery and confrontational speeches is shown in a rather tender light: One of the most searing moments of the film is when Carmichael is shown interviewing his mother, prodding her to speak of the effects of racism and poverty on her family—reminding us that the Black Power’s radical rhetoric of liberation had at its roots a bitter experience and a collective urgency to break down these traditional structures of American apartheid. 

This cool and collected volcano of a man captured, contained and vividly expressed the frustration and impatience of a younger and more militant generation of activist whom had grown tired of the passive resistance of the late 50’s and early 60’s. They prod us to remember that without the specter of militant activism power does not concede to change. As Talib Kweli explains in the film:

“Today you can tell how the passive resistance of the bus boycott… it did work. But it would never have worked without people like Stokely Carmichael on the other side. They studied the passive resistance. He studied power. And what power meant. He was the first one to really talk about black power. But I mean that was really what was missing from the equation … the power.”

At its core, people like Carmichael are the finely-honed scalpel by which power can be dissected, studied and made understood that when power doesn’t yield to the demands of nonviolence it quickly becomes threaten with the total destruction of its anatomy by the more radical militant.

1967 continued…: Martin Luther King

When we think of Martin Luther King we think of his moral and Gandhian leadership. The Swedish film crew reminds the viewer of what we are too soon to forget: that by then end of his career MLK had begun to call with increasing and active urgency for an assault against the structures of power that are driven not by racism but by the mad logic of economics and labor and which turns the majority of the earth’s peoples—black or white, American or not—into disposable hands.

As musician, Questlove explains while speaking of MLK’s assassination: “Martin Luther King sort of had a change of heart. Martin Luther King was starting to take a more militant, stronger position. And his new battle was “No War…” Governors is like ‘it’s one thing to let you take a shit in the same toilet that I do, you know, I’ll give you that. But you ain’t about to stop my money flow. You gotta’ go.’”

Harry Belafonte best illustrates MLK’s transcendence on the global stage as a leader that sought to critique and uproot a system of hyper-capitalism which buttresses global institutions of racism, poverty and militarism,  when he stated:

“When he [MLK] said this is no longer about race, it’s now about the welfare and wellbeing of human life. We must talk about economics, we must talk about why people are poor, we must galvanize our nation to begin to take care of the poor… All these things put a huge bull’s eye on Doctor King because he was now tempering with the playground of the wealthy. ..When he came to that moment about dismantling the economic construct he had to go.”

1968: A litany of candles blowing out

No other year captures the complexity of these years better than 1968: And the film successfully mines this year by offering us a litany of the personalities and events that were murdered or suppressed in or around 1968. Here is that litany with some minor additions of my own—to further mine what the film intents to show: that the Black Power movement—as much as it was American-born—was intimately connected with the anti-imperialist struggles of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (note the Che portraits throughout the scenes depicting Black Panther headquarters and branches) and was subjected to the same methods of repression by the Empire’s machinery of death—already well oiled and in-tune from the practice of punishing anti-colonialist movements in the Congo, Vietnam, and in Cuba:

Patrice Lumumba of the Congo (1961)

JFK (1963)

Malcolm X (1965)

Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1967)

MLK (1968)

Robert Kennedy (1968)

Fred Hampton (1968)

Bobby Hutton (1968)

Tlatelolco Massacre (Mexico, 1968)

My Lai Massacre (Vietnam, 1968)

George Jackson (1971)

1969: The Black Panthers: Power to all the People

“I wanted some grassroots up power to the people. Legislation and laws that gave the grassroots real empowerment….What I believed in was: how do we get greater community control and community input into the political institutions that affect our lives? The very philosophy and slogan that we are spouting is all power to all the people. “--Bobby Seale

When we think of The Black Panther Party we think of police shoot-outs and violet extremism, we rarely if ever acknowledge the Party’s efforts to provide Black Americans with the basic needs their country had failed to provide: access to proper nutrition, education, child-care, legal aid etc.

1970: The U.S. government recognizes the Black Power Movement’s transcendence as part of a global struggle against Western Imperialism (note the film’s depiction of the Black Panther’s headquarter in Algeria—a country having recently freed itself from French colonial rule—and Eldridge Cleaver’s exile in the same country. The violent suppression of the movement begins through government infiltration, terrorism, hounding and execution of Black Panther Party leaders and their allies, and the government-backed flooding of heroin into Black ghettos.

J. Edgar Hoover states that the Free Breakfast Program is the most dangerous internal threat to the U.S.

The FBI unleashes COINTELPRO covert operation to neutralize the Black Power Movement.

Angela Davis becomes the third woman to appear on FBI’s Most Wanted List.

Nicolas Guillen—the Cuban Revolution’s poet-laureate—immortalizes the movement and Angela Davis in his poem Angela Davis (not in the film):

Angela Davis
(Translation by Roberto Marquez)

I have not come to tell you you are beautiful.
I believe you are beautiful,
but that is not the issue.
The issue is they want you dead.
They need your skull
to decorate the tent of the Great Chief,
beside the skulls of Jackson and Lumumba.

And, Angela,
we need your smile.

We are going to change the walls hate has constructed,
for the transparent walls of air,
and the roof of your anguish,
for a roof of clouds and birds,
and the guard who conceals you,
for an archangel with his sword.

How your executioners mislead themselves!
You are made of rough and glowing stuff,
a rustproof impulse,
capable of lasting through suns and rains,
through winds and moons
in the unsheltered air.
                        You belong to
that class of dreams in which time
has always forged its statues
and written its songs.

Angela, I am not before your name
to speak to you of love like an adolescent,
or to desire you like a satyr.
That, alas, is not the issue.
I merely say that you are strong, resilient
enough to leap at (and fracture) the neck
of those who have wanted , still want,  and will always
to see you burned alive bound to the south of your
bound to a cinder post,
bound to a leafless oak,
bound to a burning cross alive bound to the South.

The enemy is clumsy.
He wants to silence your voice with his own,
but we all know,
your voice alone resounds,
that it alone ignites
high in the night like an exploding column ,
an arrested lighting flash,
a vertical consuming fire,
a recurring thunderbolt beneath whose light we glimpse
Blacks with fiery nails,
weakened and angry people.

Beneath the dream accomplished where I live
beside the decisive militia,
by the bitter edge of this terrible but friendly sea,
watching furious waves collapse on the breakers,
I yell, and make my voice travel on the shoulders
of the great passing wind
my wind our father the Caribbean.

Angela I say your name, vociferate. I join my hands
not in pleas, entireties, supplications, prayers
to your jailers for your pardon
but in applauding action, hand meeting hand,
hard and strong, very strong,
hand meeting hand so that you will know I’m yours!

“When you talk about a revolution most people think violence, without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles, in the goals that you are striving for, not in the way you reach them. On the other hand, because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere you have to expect that they are going to be such explosions.”--Angela Davis

1971-1975: The Final Years

While the Black Power Mixtape tells a story of resistance and pride, it also reminds us of the painful chapters in the Black history of this country and of its continued repression: The assassination of MLK, the human cost of the Vietnam War, the Attica prison uprising, the flooding of heroin into Black ghettos, these are not stories of triumph. And yet these events remind us that sometimes certain tragedies can be as galvanizing as the most resounding of victories and perhaps more importantly that imperialist domination does not have to be everlasting; that the apparent inexpugnability of the powerful is not without its crevices, and that when an entire peoples’ creative will is put to revolutionary usage it is possible to overthrow those sterile institutions of death and destruction.

“Sometimes I feel like there is a lot of rebuilding in order and a lot of that is going to come from old fashion principles, reading books and more importantly we have to write, document our history right now. It really isn’t about black and white, it’s about the story. If we are going to tell the story we have to tell it right… We have to tell our own stories… When we allow someone else to document our history, the history becomes twisted and we get written out.”--Erykah Badu

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Poet's Movement Against Mexico's Drug Violence: Javier Sicilia's "Hasta La Madre" Movement

Juan Gelman writes in his poem Confidances:
he sits down at the table and writes
“with this poem you won’t take power” he says
“with these verses you won’t make the Revolution” he says
“nor with thousands of verses will you make the Revolution” he says
what’s more: those verses won’t make
peons teachers woodcutters live better
eat better or him himself eat live better
nor will they make a girl fall in love with him
they won’t earn him money
they won’t get him into movies free
he can’t buy clothes with them
or trade them for wine or tobacco
no scarves no parrots no boats
no bulls no umbrellas can he get for them
they will not keep him dry in the rain
nor get him grace or forgiveness
“with this poem you won’t take power” he says
“with these verses you won’t make the Revolution” he says
“nor with thousands of verses will you make the Revolution” he says
he sits down at the table and writes

And in the spirit of this poem, Javier Sicilia--Mexican poet who earlier this year had his son tortured and added to the anonymous and growing list of 50,000 dead Mexicans in this the 6th year of President Calderon's War on Drugs--sits down and writes and continues the revolution against the mad logic of violence drenching Mexico in a wave of blood. His "Hasta La Madre Movement" is currently profiled in this article by The Time:

Why I Protest: Javier Sicilia of Mexico


When Javier Sicilia's 24-year-old son, health administration student Juan Francisco, was brutally killed by drug traffickers in March, it was headline-grabbing news because Sicilia, 55, is one of Mexico's best known authors and poets. But the tragedy made Sicilia realize how all too anonymous most of the 50,000 victims of Mexico's bloody drug war have been. Believing that President Felipe Calderón's five-year-long military campaign against Mexico's narco-cartels has simply exacerbated the violence, he created the Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity — which is informally and popularly called Hasta la Madre! or Fed Up! — to push for a stop to the mafia bloodshed and for new anti-crime strategies and reforms. The ranks of its rallies and marches quickly grew from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands, culminating in a June caravan through a dozen cities, where families held up pictures of slain relatives. By giving names, faces and voices to Mexico's drug-war dead, Sicilia helped prod Calderón to a conference at Mexico City's Chapúltepec Castle over the summer to discuss the kind of modern judicial institutions and social investment that Mexico's political class has too long ignored — but which may be the only way to end Mexico's narco-nightmare.







Sunday, December 11, 2011

Poet Rosa Alcalá on the Occupy Movement

Rosa Alcalá whom took part in installment one of Latino/a Poetry Now at Harvard University, is the current poet featured in Words on a Wire’s “Poetic License” segment. Words on a Wire, a radio show on poetry, fiction and issues of concern to writers and the community at large is hosted by Daniel Chacón and Benjamin Sáenz.

Like a finely-honed scalpel, in this roughly ten minute long segment, Rosa Alcalá dissects the Occupy Wall Street Movement’s demand at heart and in doing so shows us the human tissues behind the abstract language so commonly employed by the popular media in their attempts to dehumanize and discredit the movement and the people who most seek to benefit from it: the unemployed or underemployed, them whom compose the ball in this game of labor and markets and are tucked away at whistle’s final call.

Taking us through a hallucinating journey from office temp to graduate student to professor at UTEP, Rosa reflects on what it means to be at the mercy of those who control the rules and regulations of the labor game. Never a stranger to the whims of this game, Alcalá evokes her fight with cancer to further testify to these crimes of our times: had she not left her job as an office temp to pursue an education she might not have had survived her cancer. It was precisely being part of an institution of higher learning that gave her access to a top surgeon in that field. Alcalá reflects on the fact that unlike her, there are many who will never have the option of leaving behind hazardous working conditions and will be condemned to the violence of poverty. Rosa sums it best when she states:  

“But the Occupy Movement, not just on Wall Street now but everywhere, is at its core about demanding that we all have options. The option to see a doctor when sick without going broke. The option to live and work in a healthy environment. The option to afford a safe place to live. The option to get an affordable education. The option to save a little money for retirement. And the option to not live in fear that everything one has worked for might disappear. And to that I raise my pink message pad. Today it reads:


To listen to the show click here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Race and the poetry of John Beecher

One of the most common complaints I've heard when discussing poetry that deals directly with issues of race or racism is how inaccessible these poems are or rather how they fail as poems precisely because they rely on a racial or ethnic crutch.  I often wonder what is this racial crutch?

I am thinking now of a piece I read by Aracelis Girmay in which she discuss the issue of race and audience or more precisely the perceptions of white audiences when reading so called "ethnic poems." Aracelis writes: 

The racial crutch becomes clear now: an "ethnic poem" is problematic because it raises issues of privilege. To write of race or racism is to write from outside the margins of a "white center,"a center in which those who belong hold the only human experiences by default. A poem written outside this center cannot possibly succeed as it automatically rendered lacking of the aesthetic or human values that would make it universal; its existence outside this circle of privilege prevents those within the circle from ever appreciating it "humaness."

beecher.jpgBut it is not only those whom belong to the circle who over-impose these restrictions on poetry that deals with race. I am also often confronted by poets of color who find it troubling to read poetry written by white poets in the voices of minorities or which deal with issues of race. Which brings me to the poetry of John Beecher (1904-1980). Take for example the following poem: 


The field boss claimed his privilege. Her knife
quenched all his lust for black girls. She got life
in the Big Rock and swung a chain-gang pick
a quarter century before she broke.
To save her keep they kicked her out, paroled.
Root, hog, or die! Thereafter she despoiled
our garbage cans of what our pampered pets
repudiated. We capering white brats
dogged her around, mocking that tethered gait.
She shambled, rolling-eyed down every street
in Birmingham, mumbling of "Jedgment." All
our minds were shackled by her chain and ball.

The poetry of John Beecher doesn't appear in any anthologies nor is he a part of the cannon, he is in essence a forgotten poet but his poetry nevertheless can teach us a multitude about race and poetry. Beecher not only unveils the classism prevalent in his lifetime but also the racism that comes with it. Many of his poems speak from the perspectives or voices of black Americans, often using racial epithets. John Beecher was not black, he was white. Which reminds me of James Baldwin's saying "as long as you think you are white, there's no hope for you." Beecher certainly did not see himself as just white nor do I see myself as just Mexican.  Perhaps because I write from an ideological perspective it does not bother me to hear/read white writers speaking from the perspectives of minorities just as I do not see myself not able to speak from the perspective of "whiteness." As long as these poems help to break this center which renders only certain experiences as human or universal by default and excludes the great majority of the earths peoples--the poor and the brown--I will not be made uncomfortable by this type of poetry. Again, perhaps because I write from an ideological perspective I can say that I am more at home with the poetry of John Beecher than with other Latino writers whom refuse to speak about race or class. 

To read more poems by Beecher click here.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Re-membering Joe Gaetjens

Just something I wrote, re-membering the image of Joe Gaetjens.

Joe Gaetjens
Belo Horizonte, Brazil 1950

                In the world of soccer as in everything else the English are inexpugnable giants, unmovable jugglers of the ball and globe. The U.S. on the other hand is as insignificant as the sigh of a flea. At the 1950 edition of the World Cup, the English national team, gods and creators of the sport, are the indisputable favorites to take home the trophy. England had just trounced the Italians 4-0 and the Portuguese 10-0 two weeks before, the U.S. in contrast reach Brazil having lost their last seven matches with a combined score of 45-2. On this day destiny has decreed the U.S. a sacrificial lamb on the English’s way to the final. On the 37th minute of the game the unthinkable happens; the blind reclaim their eyesight, the moribund hold of their deaths and babies hurry up their births to witness as U.S. midfielder Walter Bahr takes a shot at the British goal box and Joe Gaetjens, Haitian dishwasher from New York, leaps head first twelve feet into the air, spearing the wind like a swallow. In midair Joe kisses the ball with his head, the ball sails past the English defense and into the back of the net, leaving everyone on their asses spinning.  And so Joe Gaetjens commits the unforgivable sacrilege of bringing down the soccer gods. In the U.S. the score will go unnoticed, in England—thinking it an error in typography—the papers will publish a U.S. defeat of 10-0.
                At the height of the Duvalier reign of terror, Joe returns to Haiti a national hero. Although Joe is as unmoved by politics as is a rock, his family is not. Gun to his back, Joe steps into the Fort Dimanche Prison where the Tonton Macoute—bogie-men who kidnap and disappear unruly children by serving them up for breakfast—disappear him forever.

The Resurrection of Joe Gaetjens
Port-Au-Prince, 2010

                The night before the earthquake nobody could fall asleep.
                The morning after nobody wanted to wake up.

                Of all the places gobbled by the earthquake the National Stadium still stands, its gates guarded from apparitions—dead or alive—wandering among the rubble. More than forty years after the murder of his father, Leslie Gaetjens, recently arrived from the U.S.—stands at the gates. At the mention of his father’s name a smile splits the guard’s face from ear to ear, and so the gates are opened. Not a speck of dust blemishes the burning green of the field. Surrounded by Haitian officials and stadium staff Leslie poses for pictures. Until one man—an old employee of the stadium reveals a photo of his own: yellow and almost faded the photo shows a smiling Joe Gaetjens being carried—on the shoulders of his teammates—after having scored the goal the beat England.
                For more than fifty years, in a corner of the stadium, Joe Gaetjens has been awaiting his rebirth at the eyes of his son.