Dust Bowls and Wading Pools

Dust Bowls and Wading Pools


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



But maybe a black Woodie Guthrie might be more suitable for Marvin as a moniker.

Plato hired himself out to the state and the children of the aristocracy. Woodie was for the least,

the down and out, even to the extent that he neglected domesticity



Dust Bowls and Wading Pools

A Kwanzaa Editorial by Rudolph Lewis

December 28, 2008

Rudy, thank you for your love of our people in their wretchedness, all of them, from the bourgeoisie to the grass roots. love, mx


Here, in Jerusalem’s pine forest, it’s dark, damp, drizzling. Tomorrow promises to be sunny and 70 degrees. The only sound to be heard tonight is the dripping of water on dry oak leaves by the front porch and the occasional horn bursts of trains at crossroads four miles away rumbling through Jarratt Town—headed north, headed south. And the sounds in my sometime troubled head: they are human voices: tight-tensioned weariness and fear; the sounds of Depression, coming from far too many sources: near and far: NYTimes headlines—Israeli Gaza Strike Kills More Than 225.

Others are aware too of the gargantuan bloody dust storms of the widely mad use of war machinery, discoloring the world red and black and causing distemper between citizen and citizen, neighbor and neighbor, wife and husband, girlfriend and boyfriend. Many of these feuds rage because of the seizing of the earth’s resources for the few and the lack of money in the economy, or desperation of the bold, the air of rebellion, and the call for unionizing.

I have abandoned the well-lit urban centers (which have devolved to war zones between the poor and the police forces) with their weird blue-flashing security cameras on every corner where the black poor struggles for the dregs of oppression. I left this street life for the darkly silent impoverished wooded country side. Do I miss the restaurants, the cinema, the theatres, the symphony, the opera, the ballet, the parks, the museums? Yes. I pray for a more civil America. I do my best to keep up with city life.

Here in the woods with its deer, rabbits, squirrels, possums, coons, and turkeys, there are satellite dishes for TV and internet; radio; telephone that I may stay in touch with friends and the news which fill me in on how the nation and people globally are faring. Much of it is about war and starvation. Last evening, I received a piece from my friend the poet, playwright, and philosopher Marvin X, who usually camps out, when he is not on the road, at 14th and Broadway, the crossroads of Oakland. The police because of his popularity among the local poor and downtrodden informed him that he could no longer “vend his books or teach.” That is, Oakland can no longer tolerate his peripatetic activities.

Tonight, while Mama lay in bed, I watched Bound for Glory, a 1976 film about Woodie Guthrie and the 1930s Depression: a Turner Classic. Woodie was played by David Carradine. The latter half of the film dealt with Woodie the Artist in the work camps and the factories encouraging workers to unionize and the blowback from thugs hired by farm and factory owners. Today, in the halls of Congress it is Southern Senators in the pay of foreign companies that we now have to contend.

Woodie gets busted up numerous times trying to change the tenor of reactionary America with its Chambers of Commerce and corporate media, the entertainment industry (cable news, TV and radio as well as the music industry) that blocks out or represses the artist and the poet. But Woodie gets right back up and composes another song, jumps another train, and seeks out impoverished souls that need a kind and inspiring word. The film reminds me of Marvin X, whom Ishmael Reed called “Plato” for the work he does on the streets of Oakland.

But maybe a black Woodie Guthrie might be more suitable for Marvin as a moniker. Plato hired himself out to the state and the children of the aristocracy. Woodie was for the least, the down and out, even to the extent that he neglected domesticity: in the process, he lost the love and comfort of wife and children. I know my friend Miriam would ask the question, Did he love enough? Did Malcolm? Did Martin? Did Jesus of Nazareth? All three abandoned their families for a higher calling. With the feuding kids of ML King, maybe we can indeed now see the small petty effects of a father’s sacrificial abandonment.

All of this thinking and contemplation about the role of the artist come in the larger context of  E. Ethelbert Miller’s call for a Stimulus Bill to Support Artists and Writers. There are those whom I admire who benefited by such government intrusion into the arts: Marcus Christian, Sterling Brown, Richard Wright, and Arna Bontemps. I do not believe that Woodie Guthrie received anything from the 30s government arts program, which was more or less a study of the poor, workers, and former slaves. Woodie wanted to raise up the poor to Power over and appreciation of their lives and art. Woodie said he didn’t want to sing for those drinking champagne.

I do not know what kind of poem Elizabeth Alexander has written for the Inaugural. Maybe it will go beyond that of Frost (1961)and Maya Angelou (1993), and really lay the foundation for a New America. We hope it is not a windy inclement day: overcast and damp. I hope it will be sunny and bright as tomorrow promises to be. That it will be mild and truly hopeful of the tomorrows to come in the next two years. That it will begin a new era in literature and politics in America.

We know that it has to begin at the bottom and rise up to new values and ethics if real change is to take root in the rural, urban, and suburban centers of despair and cynicism. I read somewhere that Republican president-elects do not care for poetry and the arts. And so do not invite poets to their inaugurals. Maybe we can disband and outlaw such Republicans and their ethics of greed and power. Maybe we can to flight the ethics of our children’s gangster heroes—the worship of benjamins, ghats, and rides.

But we have much work to do within our communities: from the “bourgeois to the grassroots.” My friend Kam Williams sent me an interview of one of the stars of the new film  Notorious, which deals with the life of Notorious B.I.G. I checked out some YouTube clips of Biggie Smalls and Lil’ Kim, which emphasize the extolling of the gangster (or thug) life, the irresponsible lives of the more talented younger blacks—many who dropped out of school and respectable life to sling blow and crack.

What is worse, worst of all, thug life makes pornography a salient aspect of teenage life: conversations and sexual activity. It’s a life highly individualistic: anti-family, anti-community, anti-intellectual, anti-life. Maybe the artistic individualism of a Biggie or a Lil’ Kim is necessary to pull oneself out of poverty and criminality. But to what end. There’s a long horrid distance from Nat King Cole to Notorious B.I.G.; the recently late Eartha Kitt and Lil Kim. Success and show biz (and even rising from the lower depths) may connect them—but the difference and the problem is the message. My view is that Biggie and Lil Kim, though they “made it,” they did more moral and ethical harm than good. They create ethical chasms in our lives that seemingly cannot be bridged.

Can we bourgeois and petty bourgeois poets and writers and artists counter the proletarian raps about killing and raping one another, niggering and bitching one another; about the Ten Commandments of Crack (one of the more noted and intriguing pieces by Biggie Smalls)? Can we replace the culture of poverty with a culture that is neither wine and cheese nor cocaine and other kinds of blow? Can we (our children) stop sounding and playing the dozens as the major aspect of our poetic gifts from the bottom up? Can we begin another cultural trend that does not emphasize graffiti and communal warfare?

Yes, money is necessary. But do we want it at any cost, at the cost of friends and family? In his Ten Commandments, Biggie says that in the crack life: “Never trust nobody.” “Money and blood don’t mix.” The primary activity of our children has to be more than “Bullshit and Party.” Of course, we need government intrusion. But not that which emphasizes police repression, forcing one of America’s finest intellectuals off the streets because he questions what is just in our cities with 25 per cent unemployment.

We need the intrusion that supports unionizing as Obama did in Chicago. We need poets at workers and union rallies. We need workers (blue collar and pink collar) who love poetry and poets as they do in Russia, according to Yevtushenko. If we are going to have a new New Deal, a much higher per cent of American workers have to be organized; fewer jobs must be shipped abroad for the lowest wage. A living wage must become a reality. I am not for extolling or funding the arts so that our children worship Wall Street; or for promotion of an ethics of getting ahead at any cost, whether it is selling crack or bundled securities.

I do not know what will become of Marvin’s peripatetic activities on the streets of Oakland. Maybe police repression will win out in America against poets and change one can believe in. There is no global ban on military take-overs. It is on dark, damp, drizzling nights like this that make me worry about the delicacy of good feelings and people unity. Many may have misread scribbling about the Obama phenomenon, post-racialism, and post-partisanship. Indeed, as the poet Jerry Ward asks, “Where are the coordinates?”  Will they pull down the flashing blue security lights in black neighborhoods in Baltimore? Will Marvin X be allowed to walk freely and teach on the streets of Oakland? Will the UAW be allowed to organize in Mississippi and South Carolina, and in Tennessee and Alabama for a union shop? When will we see true signs of a new and lasting New Deal?

Anything worthwhile requires the blood of saints—defiance and challenging the status quo will remain a necessity—like Woodie Guthrie in the labor camps, playing on his guitar and singing about a new union of worker with worker, American with American. That which is worthwhile will not be an armchair sport. For Obama’s sake or his sensibilities should protest be silenced on 20 January 2009 if gays have a beef with a Reverend Warren benediction or any other political issue that demands redress?  Obama is human: he can overestimate (as Barney Frank points out) and underestimate (as Frank Rich points out). Maybe the  Warren invitation as expended capital is small change. But none wants to be overlooked! None wants to be silenced by force.

There is no growth without thunder and lightning: without hands to the plow: without genuine struggle. MLK knew this reality, despite LBJ’s civil rights bills and because of his Vietnam war. Fred Douglass knew this reality, despite Lincoln the Emancipator and his emphasis on the Union. Malcolm X knew this reality, despite his love for his mentor Elijah Muhammad and his emphasis on silence and appeasement of American hypocrisy. All three paid the highest debt for our present progress. What shall we do besides enjoy the Inaugural spectacle from our living rooms or from the great throng at the wading pool? Should all arrogance, of our betters, be challenged? A resounding Yes! This is no time to “sleep in a dictionary,” as Jerry Ward would say. We must strike while the iron is hot and our minds clear.

I must go. Deer Woman is calling me from the dark deep forest. I’ll see you on the new moon.

*   *   *   *   *


Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. “Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”—Lisa Adkins, University of London

*   *   *   *   *


The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man’s turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners’ plans to give him a “necktie party” (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by “the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn’t operate in his own home town.” Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson’s magnificent, extensively researched study of the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an “uncertain existence” in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

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

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


*   *   *   *   *






posted 28 December 2008




 Home  Editor’s Page

Related files:  Black Boys and Burning Midnight Oil

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.