Tag Archives: organising

Stone Butch Blues

139569Leslie Feinberg ([1993] 2003)

This was beautiful and brave and I so loved it. It wasn’t easy to read though, if only because we live in a society that reacts with horrifying fear and violence to difference — something that thankfully is changing, and all because of women like Leslie Feinberg. I moved this to the top of my to-read list after seeing the outpouring of love and grief after her recent death from among so many of my friends, and now I too can mourn her properly. I wish I had read it long ago.

It opened up a whole new world to me, one that must have taken such immense courage to share with strangers. I know it’s fiction, but it contains the same searing honesty that the best autobiography offers up. In that sense Feinberg embodies what I most value about writing, activism and intellectual thought and she writes it here, sharing what I too most love about writing:

I discovered Norton’s anthology of poetry in the patients’ library–it changed my life. I read the poems over and over again before I could grasp their meanings. It wasn’t just that the words were musical notes my eyes could sing. It was the discovery that women and men, long dead, had left me messages about their feelings, emotions I could compare to my own. I had finally found others who were as lonely and I was. In an odd way, that knowledge comforted me (22).

This is what is universal, what will touch all of us who have struggled with difference and exclusion and found comfort in the words of others fighting through this in our respective ways. But really it is in its courageous particularity that this book shines brightest. This set of experiences transformed my understanding of this struggle, even though I thought I had well-developed empathy and a fairly good grasp on such things. Instead this ripped my heart wide open in ways I was not expecting, especially as it had none of the cushioning layers of privilege that have always stood between me and other narratives of non-hetero experience. It’s all union all the way, but working-class Buffalo, damn. I hadn’t fully owned the fact that there were others with even more reason than myself to fear public toilets growing up, and for whom those spaces never ever became safe. For whom public spaces themselves were (are) never safe, and the cops always the greatest predators.

Stone Butch Blues lays out all the pain of difference, the limited places and communities of safety and the intensity of loneliness separating them in time and space. How so many others are forced for their physical and mental safety to navigate workplaces, cities, domestic spaces. How they have been forced always to fight, change, flee, or give up and die. There is none of the simple being in the world that I take too much for granted.

Above all it points to the broader social changes that Stonewall began to make possible, as well as a map of how social relationships and loving relationships could and should be. For all of its pain it has something of wish-fulfillment to it. But I appreciated that it never allowed itself to fall into despair and violent oblivion in spite of the fact that it keeps you always terrified — one wrong step, one unlucky chance could send Jess  to the abyss, taking you with her. It is written with purpose, its words of fire calling to a better way of being, of doing, of living. One that can only be created collectively. The last lines:

I heard the beating of wings nearby. I opened my eyes. A young man on a nearby rooftop released his pigeons, like dreams, into the dawn (301).

As a writer and activist, the afterword (written 10 years after) contained individual words to cherish,  just as I do the whole of the story and struggle of Jess’s life that the novel offers like a gift. I loved the following passages about the relationship between fiction and life, the relationship of the author to both:

Now, a decade later, I am surprised. Astonished to be reintroduced to characters I birthed, who like anyone’s grown children developed fictional lives of their own, independant from mine. I discover a journey not identical to my life’s path and yet blazed with the intimate familiarity of my own life experience. I locate theory–the way it is lived in motion and in interconnection. Not hard to understand; hard to live (303).

This is amazing:

“Is it fiction?” I am frequently asked. Is it true? Is it real? Oh, it’s real all right. So real it bleeds. And yet it is a remembrance: Never underestimate the power of fiction to tell the truth (304)

And this, rescuing authorship from the vaguely megalomanic ‘high art’ definitions so often pinned upon, and embraced by, writers:

But with this novel I planted a flag: Here I am–does anyone else want to discuss these important issues? I wrote it not as an expression of individual “high” art but as a working-class organizer mimeographs a leaflet–a call to action. When, at my first public bookstore reading, someone asked me to sign a copy of the book for a friend who was too shy to speak to a published author, it broke my heart. My life’s work is about elevating collective organizing, not elevating individuals (305-306)

And this about how words and struggle relate:

Recovering collective memory is itself an act of struggle. It allows the generational currents of the white-capped river of our movement to flow together–the awesome roar of our many waters. And the course of our movement is not fixed in its banks like the Hudson River–it is ours to determine. From Selma to Stonewall to Seattle, we who believe in freedom will not rest until every battle is won (307).

Like songs and marches and struggle in the face of overwhelming odds, this made me cry. It explored the intersections of our oppressions in ways so many fail to do, it worked to build a broader movement of all us to create a world we can live in. I am so glad I share the world and the struggle with such women:

I can say this with certainty: If your life is being ground up in economic machinery and the burden of oppression is heavy on your back, you hunger for liberation, and so do those around you. Look for our brightly colored banners coming up over the hill of the past and into your present. Listen for our voices–our protest chants drawing nearer. join us in the front ranks. We are marching toward liberation.

That’s what the characters in Stone Butch Blues fought for. The last chapter of this saga of struggle has not yet been written (308).

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Why We Can’t Wait — Martin Luther King

9831183Martin Luther King, Jr (1964) Signet

I can’t believe I hadn’t read this before, but how amazing to readjust what I think I know, my ideas of someone I think I know, writing in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, describing 1963 as the great year of revolution when:

The Negro also had to recognize that one hundred years after emancipation he lived on a lonely island of economic insecurity in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Negroes are still at the bottom of the economic ladder. They live within two concentric circles of segregation. One imprisons them on the bases of color, while the other confines them within a separate culture of poverty (23).

‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ remains so so powerful. What surprised me most–though it shouldn’t have, because what school will teach this about King?–is just how much time he spends not on white supremacy in its violent forms, but on white liberals and their hindrance of the cause. I feel in many ways this book was written for them, but it is much more scathing than I expected, and doesn’t fail to get to the meat of the matter. I have the impression of King as more conciliatory and more liberal at this point, but that isn’t what you take from the book.

There were two and one-half times as many jobless Negroes as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man. Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice, but tolerated or ignored economic injustice. But the Negro knows that these two evils have a malignant kinship (24).

There is also less on nonviolence than I expected, but it is good:

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and enobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both a practical and a moral answer to the Negro’s cry for justice, nonviolent direct action proved that it could win victories without losing wars, and so became the triumphant tactic of the Negro Revolution of 1963.

Yes he does call it a revolution. When he discusses violence as opposed to nonviolence, it is in such a way that you feel if he didn’t believe violence doomed to fail, he’d consider it much more carefully. He knows that struggle is itself a good in the face of so much oppression: ‘The Revolution of the Negro not only attacked the external cause of his misery, but revealed him to himself. He was somebody. He had a sense of somebodiness. He was impatient to be free’ (30). This was not an understanding that could be won through legal battles in the courts. Instead direct nonviolent action was more suited to the times and to what was possible (though carried out to supplement legal strategies, not to replace them). What I also loved is the insight that this transformation ‘had the marvelous effect of changing the face of the enemy. The enemy the Negro faced became not the individual who had oppressed him but the evil system which permitted that individual to do so’ (38). This is how people move and change and in doing so, change the world.

I loved the many details of the Birmingham campaign, I wish I had read this long ago. While recruiting people for trainings in tactics and nonviolence, Wyatt Walker was mapping out all of downtown Birmingham — each store and its eating facilities, its entrances and exits, number of tables and stools and chairs to determine the number of demonstrators per shop, primary and secondary targets so if one meeting place or route was blocked by the police they had a backup plan. That kind of planning, along with the long preparation of demonstrators to stay strong yet remain nonviolent in the face of violence through trainings and role-playing is what made these campaigns work. My admiration is immense, and it has grown for King who knew so well the nuts and bolts of the campaigns for which I have heard argued he was a figurehead. They started their campaign small–and late for reasons to do with the elections–and ramped it up with 65 nightly meetings. I have to write that again, 65 evening meetings. That’s a hell of a hard pace. Even when you do so much singing.

I also know the prominence of the church should not surprise me, but still, it did. All volunteers had to sign a Commitment Card as part of their training, and all respect to these precepts even as someone not entirely behind nonviolence:

I HEREBY PLEDGE MYSELF–MY PERSON AND BODY–TO THE NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT. THEREFORE I WILL KEEP THE FOLLOWING 10 COMMANDMENTS:
1. MEDITATE daily on the tecahings and life of Jesus
2. REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation–not victory,
3. WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.

I love that King noted what a mistake it had been — and not entirely their fault given the circumstance — not to have brought on board the many different local organizations before they started, and his hard work to do so a little belatedly. King’s role as the principal fundraiser for the movement–always a huge concern in social justice worker–is also made clear. I am glad he chose prison over fundraising for bail money, glad that Harry Belafonte is so damn awesome. And glad that he saw that youth and the students were the key to victory.

I was a little confused at the care King takes to defend their actions in defying for the first time an injunction against protest–it would not occur to me to critique anyone for ignoring such a racist and unconstitutional order in Alabama, but clearly, there was much critique from white ‘allies’, prompting a public letter that King responded to in the extraordinary ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ included here. I imagine him sitting in prison finally allowing some of the rage to escape in his description of the suffering a father feels when his children come face to face with prejudice, his descriptions of the daily struggle must have brought the relgious figures censuring him to their knees. Other highlights:

I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth (79).

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light…but groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed (80).

We have waited more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independance, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter (81).

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councils or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season’. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will (84-85)

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people (86).

Amazing. I was also not expecting–and loved–this:

Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society…. It was upon this massive base of racism that the prejudice toward the nonwhite was readily built, and found rapid growth. This long-standing racist ideology has corrupted and diminished our democratic ideals. It is this tangled web of prejudice from which many Americans now seek to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness….Our history teaches us that wielding the sword against racial superiority is not effective…On the other hand, history also tecahes that submission produces no acceptable result. Nonresistance merely reinforces the myth that one race is inherently inferior to another (120).

A final note, though there is so much more here. It’s almost a throw-away line, but King notes that the African-American movement has become strong enough that it can now have allies, it can make its own commitments that it can deliver and have equality in that it will still be powerful if its allies walk away. This is core to some of the later theorizing, by Stokely and Carmichael and Julius Lester for example, of how to built movement. I like that King said it too. For all their differences, they had so much more in common in terms of hope and vision and audacity than most of them have with leading figures in these sad days.

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Wyndham Mortimer: Organizing the UAW

I’m not saying that I know all the ins and outs now, but having just finished Wyndham Mortimer’s book Organize! My life as a union man, I have a much better idea. And I know he has been a hero to many before me, but he is ranked at the top of those I love and admire. To stumble across people like that is always an unexpected joy in a country that seems to pride itself on rubbing out their memory.

It is a beautiful, powerful, hell-raising sort of book. Mortimer started working at the age of 12 in the coal mines, went on to organize unions in coal, auto, and parts manufacturing. He wrote of the 1890’s that “It was during this era that the Nebraska farmers decided to raise more hell and less corn.” He was one of the key people in breaking the open shop in America, a  founder of the UAW, and he stood for a broad definition of syndicalism, a union led by its members for its members, an anti-capitalist vision for the future, the equality of all races in the movement and the country… And so if you want to know just what the hell happened to the union movement in the U.S., this will tell you, and break your heart while doing it.

After organizing his own auto plant, he left for Flint to build a broad-based industrial union. Here is what happened when he arrived:

Early in June, 1936, I went to Flint, the center of General Motors operations and power. I registered at a cheap hotel (The Dresden) obtaining a room costing twelve dollars a week. I had barely time to remove my coat when the phone rang, A voice said, “You had better get the hell back where you came from if you don’t want to be carried out in a wooden box!”

“How would you like to go to hell?” I shot back, but the person had hung up. I was fifty-two years old and nobody had taken me out in a box yet; I’d be damned if this was going to be the first time!

Here he is, second from your left, marching on Cadillac Square in 1937

Wyndham Mortimer

He was there of course, at the founding of the CIO. Here is the historic moment in his own words:

Hutcheson having protested the chair’s permitting Thompson to speak, Lewis observed to him, “I think it is pretty small potatoes when the President of a great international union takes advantage of parliamentary rules to prevent a working delegate from telling us of the problems confronting his people…”

Hutcheson replied sarcastically, “I eat small potatoes, that is why I am so big.”

Lewis stood glaring at him. “I would think you would be ashamed to do this sort of thing.”

Hutcheson then called Lewis a “dirty bastard.” These words were scarcely uttered when Lewis struck Hutcheson on the jaw, knocking him over a table. The Carpenters’ chief landed on the side of his face, which was badly skinned.

The convention was in pandemonium. Sitting across from me was Wharton, President of the Machinists. Picking up his folding chair, he shouted, “Kill the bastard!” … Our entire union delegation moved over to the side of the Miners, prepared to do battle, if necessary.

His feelings on labour and government, written in 1949 and long since proven true:

A ‘Labour’ government, committed to the policy of ‘gradualism’ cannot come to power. It can only come to office.

And this piece of amazing writing on race, from his Newsletter #7, 1950

The fact is–and the top leadership knows it–that the Negro will never receive recognition without pressure. When discrimination is abolished, it will be time enough to think in terms of merit, not before. It took terrific pressure to abolish chattel slavery. It required pressure to have the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to our Constitution adopted. It has required pressure from our unions before many employers would even hire a Negro…

In a white man’s world, the Negro worker has every problem of the white worker–plus one more: he has the problem of color. No person of the white majority can ever possibly understand what this means. The claim that our Negro membership is adequately represented by an all-white Executive Board is a piece of brazen, chauvinistic nonsense, advocated by those who see nothing really wrong in racial discrimination and do not understand the harm it does the American labor movement.

It is an amazing book from an amazing man. And it is the best and the worst of the American labor movement, its brilliant spark of promise before that was crushed through red-baiting, fear, and greed.

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