Amiri Baraka: Angry Black Communist, the Soul of the Sun


“Who invaded Grenada

Who made money from apartheid
Who keep the Irish a colony
Who overthrow Chile and Nicaragua later

Who killed David Sibeko, Chris Hani,
the same ones who killed Biko, Cabral,
Neruda, Allende, Che Guevara, Sandino,

Who killed Kabila, the ones who wasted Lumumba, Mondlane , Betty Shabazz, Princess Margaret, Ralph Featherstone, Little Bobby

Who locked up Mandela, Dhoruba, Geronimo,
Assata, Mumia,Garvey, Dashiell Hammett, Alphaeus Hutton

Who killed Huey Newton, Fred Hampton,
MedgarEvers, Mikey Smith, Walter Rodney,
Was it the ones who tried to poison Fidel
Who tried to keep the Vietnamese Oppressed

Who put a price on Lenin’s head?”
(Amiri Baraka)

Amiri Baraka (Photographed by Saswat Pattanayak)

Who says Amiri Baraka is no more?
He is alive as long as there exists humanity. He shall remain relevant as long as critical questions continue to be posed. When Baraka wrote the poem “Somebody Blew Up America”, he was accused of anti-semitism, he was stripped of the poet laureate rank of New Jersey and many prominent political leaders and activists ridiculed him for having taken such a radical stand at a time when the country was mourning 9/11, as jingoism was the only poetic license a poet could afford to retain in America then. And yet, Amiri Baraka did not give in to the patriotic flavor of the day. He instead spoke the truth. Awards and recognitions were not going to influence him. He relinquished the honorary positions. He adopted what a true radical does: he remained unafraid of truth.

This truth however became the contentious issue for a hypocritical world order that soon termed him as controversial. What was controversial about furthering the cause of peace as an active oppositional stand against militarism and racism? Upon his demise, New York Times called him the “polarizing poet”. Polarizing? What was polarizing about the poet who dreamt of unifying the world while challenging the artificial geographical borders conveniently set by colonial masters?

Amiri Baraka was neither controversial nor polarizing. He was a poet, a historian, a progressive, romantic, revolutionary communist. And he was always unafraid of truth. The truth to him was revolution. A revolution to him was beyond a certain group of people, certain race of people, or people of a certain nationality. Like Paul Robeson before him, he strove for the revolution through his art. He shunned social divisions imposed by the ruling class. And if to acquire this truth, he had to struggle to reach there, he remained unafraid of that. He was not ashamed of transforming himself as a political being if by doing so he could further the progressive causes of the world. He wrote:

“I see art as a weapon of revolution. I define revolution in Marxist terms. Once I defined revolution in Nationalist terms. But I came to my Marxist view as a result of having struggled as a Nationalist and found certain dead ends theoretically and ideologically, as far as Nationalism was concerned and had to reach out for the communist ideology.”

When I met Amiri Baraka for the first time in Summer of 2011 at his house, he was 77. I had expected to see an old man, a retired poet, a tired revolutionary, or maybe a combination of all three. What I found in him instead was a young man deeply curious to know about international affairs, a passionate researcher sharing his new findings, and an enthusiastic radical radiating hope for the future. I had promised to be back to his place for another meeting, perhaps to conduct a more formal interview. But then I also knew that formal interviews are not conducted with lovers of revolution. Or, maybe I was quick to abandon any professional project in the midst of the hearty welcome, fine homemade foods and introductions with his entire family; the warmth and love that they bestowed upon my father (journalist Subhas Chandra Pattanayak) and I, when we visited him along with my dearest friend Dr. Todd S Burroughs, and beloved Professor and freedom fighter Dr. Les Edmond.

Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, Subhas Chandra Pattanayak, Les Edmond Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, Subhas Chandra Pattanayak, Les Edmond

I saw Mr. Baraka two more times – once in Brooklyn during an evening of revolutionary recitals, and the last time was at a Left Forum event. On both the occasions, he kindly asked about my father and reminded me that we needed to have that interview we have been planning for. Well, the interview could never finally take place. But I have no regrets at all. The fact that I did get to see him in person a few times was itself such a precious experience. The fact that he and his remarkable wife, revolutionary poetess Amina Baraka posed for my lens will always remain the high point of my artistic career.

Amina Baraka & Amiri Baraka Amina Baraka & Amiri Baraka

Personal is political and that is how I was drawn towards him early on. And that is the philosophy which was embodied in Baraka’s works throughout. His poems inspired me and empowered me. Baraka to me was Langston Hughes of our times. A poet of his people, a poet for all people. Like Hughes, his songs carried messages not of hope, but of revolution. Not of charities and feel good rhetorics, of sweet talks or inner peace bullshits. But of raw emotions, critical posers and call for actions.

Hughes had written:
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all-
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME-
I said, ME!”

Baraka, too wrote:
“We’ll worship Jesus
When Jesus do
When jesus blow up
the white house…
we’ll worship jesus when
he get bad enough to at least scare
somebody – cops not afraid
of jesus
pushers not afraid
of jesus, capitalists racists
imperialists not afraid
of jesus shit they makin money off jesus
we’ll worship jesus when Mao
do, when tour does
when the cross replaces Nkrumah’s star
Jesus need to hurt some a our
enemies, then we’ll check him out…
we ain’t gon worship jesus
not till he do something
not till he help us
not till the world get changed
and he ain’t, jesus ain’t, he can’t change the world
we can change the world
we can struggle against the forces of backwardness,
we can struggle against our selves, our slowness, our connection
with the oppressor, the very cultural aggression which binds us to our enemies
as their slaves.
we can change the world
we aint gonna worship jesus cause jesus don’t exist
except in slum stained tears or trillion dollar opulence stretching back in history, the history
of the oppression of the human mind
we worship the strength in us
we worship our selves….
throw jesus out your mind
build the new world out of reality, and new vision
we come to find out what there is of the world
to understand what there is here in the world!
to visualize change, and force it.
we worship revolution.”

Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka & Saswat Pattanayak Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka & Saswat Pattanayak

This is the Baraka I have known. The “real guy” Hughes wanted us to remember, emulate and while worshipping the revolution, to worship the revolutionary. It is not the gods who are immortal. It is Baraka and the revolutionaries like him who shall always live in our midst.

Immortality is radicalism. Going to the roots and to find that all of us never really perished. We are all connected with each other, in our life form and without, in our present and our collective history. This is again what Baraka used to characterize as “Digging”, the name of the outstanding work of his that traces the evolution of Afro-American art. About that book, he had written, “This book is a microscope, a telescope, and being Black, a periscope. All to dig what is deeply serious…The sun is what keeps this planet alive, including the Music, like we say, the Soul of which is Black.”

Baraka’s black-is-beautiful was a legendary call for international unity for the people of the third world. It was a call for communism in a country that was the most anti-communist in the planet. Baraka never faltered, never feared and always remained the fighter, against conventional wisdom. In “Reggae or Not!”, he outlined who he was as a black man in America:

“Self Determination
Socialism Socialism Socialism
I be black angry communist
I be part of rising black nation
I be together with all fighters who fight imperialism
I be together in a party with warmakers for the people
I be black and african and still contemporary marxist warrior
I be connected to people by blood and history and pain and struggle
We be together a party as one fist and voice
We be I be We, We, We, the whole fist and invincible flame
We be a party soon, we know our comrade for struggle…
Only Socialism will save
the Black Nation
Only Socialism will save
Only Socialism will save
the world!”

Goodbye, angry black communist. See you again in the morning, the soul of the sun.

Saswat Pattanayak ||


Lesson from Snowden: Myth of the Free Press

By Saswat Pattanayak


The recent rise in whistleblowers in America maybe new, but the governmental scrutiny and penalization process is hardly so. Apart from the widening scope of social/virtual media’s sphere of influence, there is hardly anything unique about the circumstances unraveled by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. Political radicalism, underground media activism and alleged unpatriotic nature among conscientious citizens in the United States are what has indeed uniquely created this country.

It has always been the case of the powerful ruling class elites duly supported by the judiciary, military and corporate media constantly engaged in wars against progressive activists and causes. Because the blazing speed with which various official and classified documents now reach a diverse global audience is something new, the use of technology in bridging the gap between ruling class and the formerly clueless audience certainly appears to be groundbreaking in our times.

But to claim that there are spectacularly outrageous misdeeds that the Obama and Bush administrations uniquely are culpable of when it comes to attacking free speech rights, is to get the peoples’ history entirely wrong. It might suit our times to highlight what appears to be bizarre and unacceptable to us from a legal standpoint, but to view that as historically decisive moment that is unprecedented, would be to trivialize the various ongoing struggles against ruling class monopolists.

To begin with, there is clearly nothing novel about collection of vital information about individuals. In many cases, it may not even be illegal. We have been willfully submitting information related to our private lives to corporations such as Google and Facebook since years now. Unless it is a special dislike we harbor towards the government as an institution, the privacy rights argument appears quite weak at the outset. But what is important to remember while expressing shock and disbelief at PRISM is that such experiments have been core to the way governments have always functioned in collaborations with business houses.

It is only after Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers that enormous importance was attached to the idea of a whistleblower, and by extension, to the idea that it is crucial to expose an administration when they lie. There’s no denying that it is important to leak official documents with an intent to secure individual rights, but what is equally critical is to not get all shocked at the findings of classified information. What is essential is to recognize what I.F. Stone used to say: that, all governments lie. All administrations resort to lies. That, international diplomacy is nothing but a systematization of lies. What is crucial is to acknowledge that individual freedom is always going to be limited so long as a state exists. That, it is not just the communist and overtly authoritarian regimes which manipulate individual rights to free speech and privacy, but the western liberal democracies have also always done so.

After rising to fame, Daniel Ellsberg has declared that Snowden’s are the most remarkable contributions in recent times. He said, “I definitely have a new hero in Edward Snowden, the first one since Bradley Manning, and I’m glad it didn’t take another 40 years. People who respect or admire what I did, they may not realize it right now, but before this is over, they’ll recognize that he deserves great admiration.” Whereas Ellsberg is right in calling Snowden, Manning or Assange as heroes of our times, they are not the only ones in the span of last forty years, or if Ellsberg’s claim to fame is considered, in the history of the United States.

Nothing could be farther from truth. Only in recent times, prosecution of Judith Miller clearly revealed to what extent journalists could be penalized for concealing their sources. As a New York Times reporter, even as she did not publish any article about the Plame Affair, Miller had to spend twelve weeks in jail for refusing to reveal her source. Miller clearly is not a hero in the sense that Glenn Greenwald or Bob Woodward are, but the lesson that needs to be drawn is that not all journalists are equally privileged in order to get away with what would be considered a “crime” for others. Race, gender, accessibility, networking, political rapport among many other factors influence the heroisms.

Even as Woodward has made millions of dollars off the sales of his investigative journalistic books – works that have ideologically helped the Democrats – during those very times, every other underground paper in the country were being shut down by the government. Woodward or Ellsberg were champions for a change of power in Washington to suit their political beliefs, not activists for press freedom on behalf of publishers and editors of radical media.  A Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) was formed just to address the assaults on press freedom in 1967. Managing editor Ron Thelin of Oracle wrote, “Well, here we all are, Uncle Sam on the verge of death. A sleep-stupor symbol-addicted environment haunts our hearts, and what are we going to do about it?” Jeff Shero who had campaigned for the abolition of segregated toilets at the University of Texas founded ‘Rat’, a major left-wing underground newspaper. New York’s ‘East Village Other’, California’s ‘L.A. Free Press’, ‘Berkeley Barb, Detroit’s ‘Fifth Estate’ – and at least thirty other small radical publications had together formed UPS as a means to organize, educate and agitate the masses, to make investigative journalism accessible and to make investigations that truly exposed the contradictions within capitalism.

UPS was inspired by the Black Panthers and shared information with the public that would help challenge the duopoly of phony democracy. They were also vehemently anti-sexist. One of their resolutions ran, “That male supremacy and chauvinism be eliminated from the contents of the underground papers. For example, papers should stop accepting commercial advertising that uses women’s bodies to sell records and other products, and advertisements for sex, since the use of sex as a commodity specially oppresses women in this country.” As a result of the underground media activism in the United States, as Abe Peck wrote, “DDT was banned, abortions were legalized, the draft ended, U.S. troops finally left Vietnam, the American Psychiatric Association “de-diseased” homosexuality, and draconian sentences for smoking plants were reduced.”

Scandals like Watergate were the bread and butter of the underground press, while New York Times and Washington Post were busy covering nuclear power stations. I.F. Stone and Hunter S. Thompson, Max Scherr, John Wilcock, were among the more prominent names in the underground media scene. It was only after the UPS became so impactful that it attracted FBI’s campaigns to shut it down, that the kinds of Bob Woodwards and Daniel Ellsbergs rose to prominence. With big media, pulitzer prizes and partisan favors monopolizing over investigative norms, the revolution found itself stalled. Ellsberg failed recently to appreciate his predecessors, maybe because the underground journalists were not just opposed to Nixon, but to the entire system of political economy that benefited the liberals and the white left. Whereas, “Actuel” published regularly investigative reports on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s murderous rampage, some sampled stories from a typical issue of “Fifth Estate” included: a strike by illegal Mexican American immigrants in the Californian vineyards; the MC5 tel
ling stores that wouldn’t stock their records to go fuck themselves; the white left: can you take them seriously?”

Berets and black leather jackets, Afro hair, military salutes, and iconic poster images – the underground press raised its fist; self-defense and communal self-sufficiency spawned new organizations such as the IBA (International Black Appeal) which appealed in the pages of the Inner-City Voice for help in distributing food in the ghettos of Detroits, suffering in the aftermath of the 1967 riots.

Thirty years since, underground press no longer exists in the United States. Instead of asking what led to the demise of an activist oriented news coalition that not just made investigations and made classified information accessible, witnessed its publishers getting jailed and offices ransacked, and virtually experienced first-hand the murder of press freedom – if we continue to glorify four white men in last forty years for merely leaking information that would have otherwise kept our private lives private, then we are missing the mark entirely.

Long before the UPS came to fore, when the American administration was attacking radical newspapers, W.E.B. Du Bois already had attested in 1953, “It is not a question as to whether these facts and opinions are right or wrong, true or false. It is the more basic question as to who is going to be the judge of this, and as to how far honest people can remain intelligent if they refuse to listen to unpopular opinions or to facts which they do not want to believe. There is a determined effort today to put papers like these out of existence, to harass and harry them, to make readers afraid to subscribe to them or to buy them on news stands; to keep newspaper distributors from handling them; and in these and other ways to make their continued existence impossible.”

Snowden’s episode followed by Lavabit exposes what should have been long known, had we been paying attention to the history of the underground press. Cops have confiscated typewriters, cameras, darkrooms, graphic equipment, business records, books and posters; editors have been convicted of false obscenity charges, on charges of immorality, their cars firebombed and their offices infiltrated by plainclothed officers. Starting from the “red scare” to the “witch hunt” to the underground press, anticommunist arrests of journalists and sustained harassments targeting anyone, black or white, that exposed the racist administrative policies, press freedom in the United States (and much of Europe) has been a sham all throughout the recorded history.

Ellsberg, Woodward, Assange, Manning, Snowden are merely those who have relatively survived the assault.

Occupy Wall Street: Challenges, Privileges & Futures

“One who tells the people revolutionary legends, 
and who amuses them with sensational stories, 
is as criminal as the geographer 
who would draw up false charts for navigators.” 

– HPO Lissagaray, “History of the Paris Commune of 1871” (1877)

The challenges to Occupy Wall Street are many. Some even more critical than the very issues the protestors are fighting against. Whereas it claims to be the 99%, yet the movement practices the age-old privileges of class and race blindness. Similar to most white liberal movements, the OWS is hardly inclusive of the people of color. Although the spirit is radical and the intent is revolutionary, the movement itself suffers from a lack of critical understanding on how race and class intersect. In reality, 99% of people do not form a class in themselves. This is because the 99% of population comprise a significant amount of aspiring rich, a “middle class” category of people who have steadfastly refused to side with the poor working class whenever the latter has organized itself. In the US, this segment of opportunistic liberal citizens have always believed in the country’s racist foundations, its heritage of exclusionary democracy, and its segregated educational system, and amply benefited from patriotic allegiances. And as a result, they have lent unconditional supports to electoral reforms that sustain an individualistic social order, to corporate policies that help private business thrive, to political outfits such as the Democratic Party in recent times, which upholds the status quo in every level of governance defining American imperialism.

In the current romanticized version of revolutionary zeal at the Wall Street protests, there is a marked denial on part of the “General Assembly” of the movement that it could be perceived as supportive of the status quo. Proudly boasting of a movement without specific goals and leaders, the movement publishes formal newspapers and handouts clearly stating its disavowal of “Tea Party” right-wing movements. Not only is the OWS appearing left-wing and liberal – a political lineage that may not find endorsement among the 99% of people – it is also claiming to be without ideologies and specific goals. OWS is in a state of denial that anarchism of various forms are themselves ideologies, and the organizers of the movements are their leaders, the money which enables publications of the “Occupied Wall Street Journal” has sources to its sponsors. If rejection of current economic situation is the inspiration for the movement, the rejection of the current economic situation is the goal.

The biggest challenge for the OWS is to humbly acknowledge that it is a movement driven by a specific ideology which refuses the use of violence as a revolutionary tool, demands increased taxes for the rich, envisions student debt relief, opposes the Tea Party politicians, demands “direct democracy” as a political approach, and has raised over a half a million dollars within a couple of weeks to fund its campaign. And, it has allowed MoveOn, a multimillion dollar partisan initiative to speak on behalf of OWS to the media. The Occupy project has organizers who decide when the General Assembly will take place, which celebrity will address them, which entertainers will put up shows, which specific websites will be declared “official”, which post-box addresses the charity checks will be received at, and what heads will the money be spent on. Despite massive financial assets, when the OWS refuses to replace the drums of an activist which was destroyed at the protests, it is unilaterally decided by the specific organizers.

In their postmodernist hues, when political movements decry ideologies, refuse to take sides on political issues and pretend to distance themselves from power struggles, they smack of redundancy at best, and hypocrisy, at worst. When the educated youths refuse to acknowledge their race and class prerogatives, and claim that their movements let everyone have equal voice, it speaks of the gravely misplaced understanding of how freedom of speech is interlaced with entitlements. If the Occupy movement has not attracted majority of Black and Latino people into its fold, it is a sad reflection of how the movement has failed to address the needs of the most oppressed while boasting of representing them.

People of color are disproportionately incarcerated, disenfranchised, and unemployed in the United States. There is a rigid American class society in place ever since the country was founded. And yet, “class” as a realistically oppressive concept is seldom discussed in the country. Without any necessary critiques of the class society, majority of white liberals almost never understand their hidden privileges. They unequivocally endorse similar newspapers, television channels and textbooks that are inherently biased against class and race analysis. They invariably exalt founding fathers who owned slaves, presidents who denied racial disparities, and swear by the prison-military-industrial complex of the largest imperialistic society in history of humanity. OWS is based on the primary notion that the American society was absolutely democratic and fulfilling until Reagan spoilt the show. If they tried to include black people who suffered the brutality of every presidential regime in American history, the Occupy movement would not be wishing for the American democratic model to continue while singling out Wall Street.

Occupy Wall Street has every possibility of becoming its own nemesis. A separation of economy from politics of the day is naive and reactionary. Merely opposing a bunch of corporate houses in the Wall Street without disrupting the political climate in Washington DC is a hopeless distraction. Calling for arms may or may not be a suitable alternative to political misrule, but to clearly disavow any use of violence while calling for “revolution” is a utopian approach. In fact, just around the time when majority of Americans were clearly fed up and were beginning to demonstrate repressed anger with the entire political establishment, when a Malcolm X demand for replacement of the existing political economy by “any means necessary” was going to be a possibility; a movement that preaches nonviolence and targets a few corporate houses as the only stumbling blocks in the path to progress while giving the Democratic Party and its fundraisers a space within its platform either defies progressive logic, or works towards crushing collective demands for concrete replacements at the corridors of power, in lieu of possible electoral gains in the coming year.

The problem with a movement such as OWS is that majority of white liberals who protest at Wall Street do not live in colored neighborhoods, nor do they acknowledge that they have any similarities with the poor working class of the country, the homeless and the destitute of America, the black families whose children are imprisoned without trials, the Latino construction workers whose health issues are not covered by any insurance corporations that the otherwise liberal Democratic Party leaders have been receiving donations from. Yet, year after year when neglected teenagers from minority communities are routinely murdered and assaulted and detained without justice, most white liberals refuse to show up at demonstrations led by minority leaders to challenge the police state. The OWS should be a venue for rendering apologies with an effort to seek supports of lesser privileged comrades, not as a self-proclaimed glorified uniqueness in the history of protest movements.

Serious issues have been affecting the majority of people in America; they are all for real. They have been well known crisis, nothing abstract to articulate for months on. The tall claims for forming “consensus” through direct democracy are also without merit considering that a huge majority of people that are apparently being represented by the OWS, are the very folks who are not privileged enough to join the “General Assembly”; and timely decisions must be taken on behalf of them without waiting for any consensus. This demands for organized leaderships charting out the most pressing – and therefore, known – issues affecting the most oppressed.

For instance, unemployment crisis is neither new nor shocking for the people of color in this country. Racism is alive and thriving at an institutional level. And demonstrations and marches have been carried out by black people in this country against unjustified administrative policies concerning wars, atrocities, discrimination, and immigration procedures. People of color vastly are drafted into the military facilitated by an economic system that has failed to work for them from the days of slavery. It is not a mere coincidence that Wall Street is not controlled by racial minorities. In fact, it is a common knowledge that capitalism was founded by plantation/slave economies.

That, the majority of working class folks of color who survive by dodging random bullets in their abjectly neglected neighborhoods shall suddenly identify with the rich spoilt educated group of youngsters that abruptly woke up to an accidental American nightmare while having always lived amidst downtown luxuries remaining predictably clueless on specific demands of a movement, is an insensitive expectation. That, the “illegal aliens” from the restaurant kitchens owned by overprivileged “citizens” who are upholding American flags at the Occupy Wall Street, will somehow join this movement to sing glories of “First Amendment” rights of the liberals selectively granted by a Constitution that refuses to recognize people in dire despair as full human beings, is utterly inconsiderate a demand.

A movement which fails to adequately address the needs of the most oppressed among the oppressed is a movement that somehow must end up diluting the most basic needs of the society with the peripherals. Such a movement can only enhance general cynicism, which is certainly a desirable wake-up call, but transformative revolutions that address the roots and not just symptoms call for agenda-driven optimism, armed organizations for self-defense, and principled leaderships with theorized visions that must replace political economies which have failed their subjects for hundreds of years.

Occupy Wall Street has the same potential of evolving into a revolution as countless other marches across the globe. The first American peoples’ revolution would have well begun, if occupations had inculcated limitless revolutionary imaginings, duly recognized the possible sparks, drew the most oppressed to clearly charted out radical visions in a timely manner, dissociated itself from the very political parties and electoral systems which have historically facilitated capitalism and phony democracies,

After all, there are no surprises in revolutions. They are historical necessities.

(Saswat Pattanayak, 2011)

Gil Scott-Heron :: Revolutionaries Live Forever

The brother who prophesied that the revolution won’t be televised is no more.

Many of us did not believe in his cautionary words. Some of us caricatured the concept of revolution as manifesting in fast cars and expensive elections. Those in Egypt claiming themselves to be revolutionaries even held up signs to proclaim revolution was indeed being televised. Some Iranian protesters claimed revolution was being Twitted. Indeed, during his lifetime, Gil Scott-Heron was ridiculed, neglected and relegated to a hopeless corner. After his passage, he will probably be obliterated from prospective history narratives, as our liberalized society continues to glory itself in post-racial illusions.

After all, Gil Scott-Heron was not a gem or an ornament in any literary tradition. In obituaries he will probably be called a Godfather of Rap, but he consciously distanced himself from such tags. Naturally enough, he was neither a millionaire nor a philanthropist. He was not a best-selling poet on New York Times lists either. And certainly he was not counted among Time Magazine’s most influential persons of the century. He was not a charismatic leader or evangelical preacher providing hope pills and change promises on television channels. It is critical to remember who he was not, in order that we can identify with the actual tradition and legacies of Scott-Heron.

He was never a pawn in their game. Scott-Heron, an extraordinary poet of radical consciousness never became a sale-out. Besides, he was determined, not to. He cared more for his free mind than anything else in the whole world. When he died today, he died penniless, and homeless. He was still searching for a place to call his home in a country whose consciousness he strived to influence throughout his life. Some called him a hero, some a godfather, some a genius. But none could dictate him what to write, say or express. He was as Gwendolyn Brooks called him: a “chance-taker, street-strutter, untamed proud poet, rough healer, he is his”.

The rough healer that he was, Scott-Heron had a prescription for America’s oppressed: “Free will is free mind. Free to evaluate the systems that control our lives from without and free to examine the emotions that control our perspectives from within. We have things to do for tomorrow. Our children will have to deal with all the mistakes we make today. To live in dignity they will have to erase many of the personal compromises we made. We must actively search out the truth and help each other.”

Brother Scott-Heron’s attempts at truth-seeking were exceptionally radical. They were so fundamentally trenchant that they would shame the contemporary progressives. He was unforgiving towards the lousy liberals who equate electoral systems with democracy. Voting as an act of resistance is deeply imbued in the culture of the oppressed, especially considering the long struggles on part of African-Americans, among other racial minorities, for political rights. But Scott-Heron always warned against the accompanying complicity coherently characterizing the basic fabric of the so-called free world. Every four years, the theater of the oligarchs seduce the majority masses into reposing a manufactured faith in an inherently flawed and politically illiterate, disempowered system. Scott-Heron without mincing words, declared the American democracy phony and rigged a system. He wrote:

“How much more evidence do the citizens need
that the election was rigged with trickery and greed?
And, if this is so, and who we got didn’t win
let’s do the whole Goddam election over again!”

His methods as a poet-activist were intrinsically incisive, and relied upon substantial amount of topical realisms. “The Revolution will not be Televised” is a much-cited classic in this genre, but there are less prominent works of his that are equally powerful tools of social justice struggles.

In a scathing criticism of the military-industrial complex, Scott-Heron declared Eisenhower as “politically dead” and wrote:

“The military and the monetary
Get together whenever they think its necessary
They have turned our brothers and sisters into mercenaries
They are turning the planet into a cemetery.”

Peace is a merely wishful thinking if the efforts towards attaining peace are not made with levels of ferocity usually reserved for war preparations and escalations. Scott-Heron was never the one to subsume under prevailing doctrines of war hypocrisies that positioned peace as a status quo, wars an aberration. In fact, quite the contrary. Scott-Heron, like Langston Hughes before him, argued that war is the normative of our times, peace is simply absent from our lives.

He wrote:

“We’ve got to work for peace.
If we all believed in peace, we could have peace.
The only thing wrong with peace is that
You can’t make no money from it.
…….Peace is not (merely) the absence of war
It is the absence of the rumors of war the the threats of war
And the preparations for war.”

Unlike many pacifists, Scott-Heron was not delusional about the prospects of peace. For him, “peace ain’t coming this way, we’ve got to work for peace.” To that extent, he expressed staunchest oppositions against imperialistic tendencies. If Reagan did not escape his radar those days, Obama would not have today. Both of them were architects of war against Libyan peoples, among others. Scott-Heron lambasted America’s war-mongering obsessions in no uncertain terms –

“We hounded the Ayatollah religiously,
Bombed Libya and killed Qadafi’s son hideously,
We turned our back on our allies, the Panamanians
Watched Ollie North selling guns to the Iranians
Witnessed Gorbachev slaughtering Lithuanians
So we better warn the Amish, they may bomb the Pennsylvanians.”

Political poetry aiming towards social justice was the crux of Scott-Heron’s relentless, powerful, and unwavering declarations. His poetry did not follow rules, did not clamor for awards, or literary reviews. His poetry was anti-poetry. His was satire, radical satire, turning the world upside down, turning the world we have come to know through corporate media upside down, turning the world as we would like to believe in through our normalized selves upside down. There is no “good old days”, Scott-Heron announced. Those who want to experience the “good ole’ days” are the ones who mock the movements for social justice. They are the ones who decry the progresses made on the basis of absolute rejection of the halo that zealously protects the heritage of the days gone by. Those that want the “good old days” back declare everything that clamors for change as necessarily evil. Scott-Heron in his “B Movie The Poem” wrote-

“Civil Rights. Gay Rights. Women’s Rights. They’re all wrong! Call in the cavalry to disrupt this perception of freedom gone wild. First one of them wants freedom and then the whole world wants freedom! Nostalgia. That’s what America wants. The good old days. When we ‘gave them hell!’ When the buck stopped somewhere and you could still buy something with it! To a time when movies were in black and white and so was everything else.”

Scott-Heron had no illusions about the ghastly past that the racist liberals and conservatives alike have been wishing for. Sure, America had its golden days in the past in its harvests, and economy; but the golden days were white days, days of the nobles and the lords, of the capitalist pigs, of an extremely limited America, the days when the black folks would not dare mingle with the elites. Sure gas prices were low and the average American household had savings and a house. But the racial minorities were not owners of either their houses or their businesses. America did not belong to all. Neither does it belong to all, even now. And that is why there is a need to reverse the psychology of slavery and servitude, and there is a need to destroy any association of fancy and glory with the collective memories of the “good old days”.

What is even more depressing about today is that the good old days Scott-Heron despised is alive and well. American power continues to prevail as brutally as it did during the cold war era. And the power trip is embraced by the people, the electorate, without much opposition, as it is sugar-coated with the Hollywood cliches. Be it Kennedy, Reagan or Obama, there is a style to the substance in the packaging of war machinery. There is a Marlboro effect. Scott-Heron said the military tune of American war on countries that need to be silenced is the tune of “Macho Man”. America wanted to eliminate Qadafi during Reagan and Bush, and now its the wish of President Obama. Scott-Heron wrote, our Presidents are likely to quote from Hollywood: “Tall in the saddle. Like ‘Riding on or off into the sunset.’ Like ‘Qadafi, get off my planet by sunset.’ More so than ‘He died with his boots on.’”

Even as American imperialism is taking over the world, and still aiming Qadafi in a Reagan-isque manner, there is a parallel revolution that is going on, and that is not being televised. Like all revolutionaries, Scott-Heron was an optimist, one who had undying desire to showcase the untold struggles. Revolution begins with the heart, and it is the duty of the revolutionary to acknowledge the unsung protagonists of the undercurrent. He wrote, “There is a revolution going on in America/the World; a shifting in the winds/vibrations, as disruptive as an actual earth-tremor, but it is happening in our hearts. A change as swift as blackening skies when the rains came, as fresh and clear as the air after the rain. The seeds of this revolution were planted hundreds of years ago; in slave ships, in cotton fields, in tepees, in the souls of the brave. The seeds were watered, nurtured and bloom now in our hands as we rock our babies…There are bitter winds born in the knowledge of secret plans hatched by Western Money Men that backfired and grew out of control to eat its own…No one can do everything, but everybody can do something. We must all do what we can for each other to weather this blizzard. Now more than ever all the family must be together, to comfort, to protect, to guide, to survive because…there is a revolution going on in America/the World.”

As much as his poem reminding us that the revolution will not be televised is indeed truer than before, beloved late brother Gil Scott-Heron’s message that the revolution is going on at the same time is equally relevant a reminder. And the poet might have departed us, but the revolutionary is still alive in spirits…

“Don’t give up,” he said. “It’s time to stop your falling. You’ve been down long enough. Listen to the spirits calling! Remember the spirit of brother Malcolm X. And know that you can leave all your mistakes behind, The day you really make up your mind…”

(Saswat Pattanayak, 2011)

Lucy Parsons :: Revolutionary Feminist

By Saswat Pattanayak

No legal case in American history has been more cited than The Scottsboro Trial. Nine young African American men, aged 13 and up, were jailed in Scottsboro, Alabama to await trial over an accusation that they had raped two white women on a train in the Spring of 1931.

The nature of racism in this instance was not the novelty – indeed, American society was witness to countless false charges brought against the black people. However, The Scottsboro Trial became a landmark via the manner in which racism for the first time was fiercely and openly challenged in the United States.

When the entire country was refusing to take side of Scottsboro Nine, it was the Communist Party which came to aid the young men. International Labor Defense – a coalition formed by the communists to defend Scottsboro Nine benefitted from the active involvement of a black woman on their national board – a pioneering champion of labor classes in America – Lucy Parsons (1853-1942).

Class, Race and Gender
Parsons’ commitments towards freedom of the young Black Communist Angelo Herndon in Georgia, Tom Mooney in California, and for the Scottsoboro Nine in Alabama were unflinching. Parsons recognized the class system in America as the prime factor in perpetuating racism. She was the foremost American feminist to declare that race, gender and sexuality are not oppressed identities by themselves. It is the economic class that determines the level of oppression people of minorities have to confront. Notwithstanding her social location of being a black and a woman, Parsons declared that a black person in America is exploited not because she/he is black. “It is because he is poor. It is because he is dependent. Because he is poorer as a class than his white wage-slave brother of the North.”

Lucy Parsons was a relentless defender of working class rights. To contain her popularity, the media portrayed her more as the wife of Albert Parsons – a Haymarket martyr, who was murdered by the state of Illinois, while demanding for eight-hour working day on November 11, 1887. While identifying her with Albert’s causes, history textbooks – both liberal and conservative – seldom mention Parsons as the radical torchbearer of American communist movement.

Communistic Commitments
Parsons’ commitment to the cause of international communism often embarrassed the United States administration. FBI confiscated her library comprising over 1,500 books and progressive works soon after her accidental death – thus preventing the country of having access to her radicalism. But those that witnessed Parsons‘ oratory and benefitted from her skills of organizing labor knew of Parsons‘ disdain towards anarchism which she felt was not capable of leading the masses onto revolutions.

Following Bolshevik Revolution in Soviet Union, IWW would witness several of its main organizers joining the Communist Party. Parsons, along with Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Flynn were among the pioneering American communists. Parsons not only had officially joined the Communist Party of the United States, she was also vocally opposed to distractions within revolutionary movements.

Parsons condemned celebrated anarchist Emma Goldman for “addressing large middle-class audiences”. Whereas Lucy Parsons‘ feminism considered women’s oppression as a function of capitalism, Emma Goldman was clearly not in favor of a vanguard party taking up feminist causes. Parsons in her dedication towards working class liberation movements never lost sight of her goal, never compromised on her principled stands on the side of the working poor, and never aspired for mere social acceptance or glory.

Voice of Dissent
Parsons was among the first women to join the founding convention of IWW. She thundered: “We, the women of this country, have no ballot even if we wished to use it. But we have our labor. Wherever wages are to be reduced, the capitalist class uses women to reduce them.”

In The Agitator, dated November 1, 1912 she referred to Haymarket martyrs thus: “Our comrades were not murdered by the state because they had any connection with the bombthrowing, but because they were active in organizing the wage-slaves. The capitalist class didn’t want to find the bombthrower; this class foolishly believed that by putting to death the active spirits of the labor movement of the time, it could frighten the working class back to slavery.”

She had no illusions about capitalistic world order. Parsons called for armed overthrow of the American ruling class. She refused to buy into an argument that the origin of racist violence was in racism. Instead, Parsons viewed racism as a necessary byproduct of capitalism. In 1886, she called for armed resistance to the working class: “You are not absolutely defenseless. For the torch of the incendiary, which has been known with impunity, cannot be wrested from you!”

For Parsons, her personal losses meant nothing; her oppression as a woman meant less. She was dedicated to usher in changes for the entire humanity – changes that would alter the world order in favor of the working poor class.

Even as a founding member of IWW, she was not willing to let the world’s largest labor union function in a romanticized manner. She radicalized the IWW by demanding that women, Mexican migrant workers and even the unemployed become full and equal members.

With her clarity of vision, lifelong devotion towards communist causes, her strict adherence to radical demands for a societal replacement of class structure, Lucy Parsons remains the most shining example of an American woman who turned her disadvantaged social locations of race and gender, to one of formidable strength – raising herself to bring about emancipated working class consciousness.