Activist Works on Next Level of Change

Activist Works on Next Level of Change


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


Home When a police dog bit a black woman in West Baltimore and took out a sizable chunk of her thigh, there was Sharif again, among a group of activists who protested  the mauling and got arrested and charged with inciting to riot for their trouble  


Activist Works on Next Level of Change

By Gregory Kane

The Sun, 15 December 1999


Ulysses Bagwell, book editor? The query will mean nothing to most of you, of course. But it will no doubt pique the interest of those who graduated from Baltimore City College’s Class of 1969, which the faculty probably would have voted the school’s looniest if such a tally had been taken.

Seventh District Congressman Elijah Cummings is one of the shining stars of that class, as is state Del. Tony Fulton. Bagwell now goes by the name Amin Sharif, the result of a conversion to Islam. None of us in City’s Class of 69 figured Sharif would go into politics. (He’s now a correctional counselor at the Baltimore City Detention Center.) But what we did know was that Sharif, single-handedly, made the 1968-1969 school year a helluva lot more exciting than in most other schools.

The fall semester found Sharif elected president of the school’s new Afro-American Club. Interviewed in The Collegian, the school’s newspaper, Sharif expressed the then-common notion among black militants that there were few, if any, good white people. The sentiment did not endear him to that segment of the City faculty who figured black students had already committed an offense simply by showing up at the school.

On Jan. 15, 1969, Sharif led a small but vocal band of students out of the school.

“We’re declaring Martin Luther King’s birthday a holiday,” he and other students announced, years before Congress and the rest of the country caught up. But the students spend the day goofing off. They went to Hopkins Plaza and conducted a teach-in on King and the civil rights movement. They didn’t consider themselves truant. They simply figured they had taken their education outside the walls of City College.

Later in the year, Sharif and other students went before the school board to urge it to give students options of taking the day off on Malcolm X’s birthday. In a close vote, the board agreed.

When a police dog bit a black woman in West Baltimore and took out a sizable chunk of her thigh, there was Sharif again, among a group of activists who protested the mauling and got arrested and charged with inciting to riot for their trouble. Out on bail, Sharif was in a car using a bullhorn to urge a crowd of people near Murphy Homes to protest the injustice when police grabbed him out of the car and arrested him again.

So we figured this Sharif guy might end up in the Nation of Islam or the Black Panthers or get some job as a professional rabble-rouser. But a corrections counselor and part-time book editor?

Well, he is, Sharif showed up at The Sun last week, dressed in a suit and tie, looking tres Establishment, to talk about the book. With him was Rudolph Lewis, who is co-editor of I Am New Orleans and Other Poems by Marcus B. Christian. How does a Baltimore guy end up co-editing a book about a New Orleans poet? That’s explained by the friendship between Sharif and Lewis.

After Sharif graduated from City, he and Lewis were roommates who shared a common philosophy.

“We were part of the black consciousness movement that lasted from the 60s to the early 80s,” Lewis explained. In the early 1980s, Sharif went abroad for a spell, and Lewis headed to New Orleans. While there, Lewis learned of the literary works—poems, letters, and history essays—of Marcus Christian. Impressed by what he read, lewis obtained some of Christian’s diaries, poems, and letters and “lugged them around” for ten years, trying to find a publisher.

In 1987, Lewis returned to Baltimore. He bumped into Sharif by accident. During the reunion Lewis told Sharif about Christian’s work, and the two worked together to find a publisher. Xavier University Press of New Orleans published 500 copies of the book in June, which have sold out.

“We’re ultimately interested in Marcus Christian being considered in the canon of African-American poets, especially at black colleges and universities,” Lewis said.

The editing duo managed to get 50 of the 2,000 poems Christian penned into the book. Christian wrote poems about love, racism, war (a couple of poems criticizing World War I and a few praising Ethiopians resisting the 1930s Italian invasion) and police brutality.

Lewis and Sharif consider Christian an unsung contributor to what Lewis insists should be called the “Negro Renaissance”—rather than the Harlem Renaissance—of the 1920s and 1930s.

“He’s different from most of the major figures in that he didn’t go to New York or Chicago,” Lewis said. But Christian was in frequent communication with the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes and “was a close friend of Arna Bontemps.”

It took 30 years Ulysses Bagwell to make the journey from militant firebrand to Amin Sharif book editor and preserver of a portion of black America’s cultural legacy. You have to figure the ghost of Marcus Christian, who died in 1976, is most appreciative.

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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posted 20 August 2005 / update 1 January 2012




Home  Amin Sharif  Marcus Bruce Christian  Selected Letters  Selected Diary Notes I Am New Orleans Table (Poems)

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