Radio LORA, July 2011 und Altervative Radio
Naropa University, Boulder, CO 8 July 2010
Amiri Baraka rose to fame in the 1960s as LeRoi Jones. His 1964 off-Broadway play, “Dutchman” created a sensation. Later he became Amiri Baraka and was a central figure in the Black Arts movement. He is an award-winning playwright and poet and recipient of the American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. He is a member of the American Acdemy of Arts and Letters. He is the author of many books including “Home” and “Digging.”
“Corporate Control of the Arts: Censorship and Commercialism.” This was an essay that was given at the Vision Festival in New York. The Sisyphus Syndrome is the name of the jazz opera I wrote, with music by David Murray, that was performed in Paris and Milano last February. The title is my appropriation of W.E.B. DuBois’s comment in which he likened the African American struggle to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who, because he refuses to die”—remember that, Sisyphus refused to die—what his punishment was was that he had to roll this rock up the mountain and they would roll it back down, the gods would roll it back down. So that’s who is operating right now. Because he refused to die, because in the Afro-American history and tradition, slavery was supposed to kill you, segregation. You were supposed to die. Instead, what happened, you became Americans, which is even more dangerous. So Sisyphus was then ordered to be punished throughout eternity by having to roll a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down. This was the last rock-rolling-up episode we just went through. We are going now through the rock-rolling-down episode.
“The study of history will confirm this grim characteristic of U.S. social life. For instance, while the election of Barack Obama gave many of us great joy and fantastic expectations, this was the rock-rolling-up-the-mountain experience. But since that time we have had the rock slamming down the mountain again, from Sarah Palin to the Tea Party dope fiends.
“This tragic contradiction throughout our history has no more resonating example than the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” You know the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The Thirteenth ends slavery, the Fourteenth was supposed to be equal protection under the law, and the Fifteenth the right to vote. So this is a tragic contradiction, that is, “after the overthrow of chattel slavery”—chattel meaning you are owned, you are a thing, chattel—“presumably to give equal protection under the law,” the Fourteenth Amendment, every person, U.S. citizens, that’s what it said, “actually it was the stroke, according to some observers”—you should read Thom Hartmann’s book Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights. So the Fourteenth Amendment, what it did was make corporations human beings so that they had the equal rights of humans. In Hartmann’s book he claims that this was a trick made by a clerk of the court, a former railroad president, that changed the language of the actual decision so that a matter not discussed, that is, equal protection of corporations as artificial persons, later became the law, which is still being fought over today. That is, the corporation is now—has the equal status of you. It’s a person. “The irony that a law that was intended to stop the violation of former slaves’ civil rights, particularly in the South, was now twisted so the ex-slaves have rights and the corporations have the same rights to be protected.”
“But, first of all, a corporation is not a human any more than a corpse is alive. Nor is an entity whose power can be summed up, say, in General Motors, whose gross income is more than the gross national product of the whole of Afro-America.” That is, the whole of Afro-America is $700 billion a year, General Motors is $800 billion a year, this one corporation, even though they stubbed their toe. Oh, General Motors. In other words, what I’m saying is, the gross national product of Afro-America makes it sixteenth in the world. General Motors is fifteenth in the world. So to say that they’re both equal humans is bizarre. But that’s the story.
“It’s not cynicism to say, then, that in exchange for emancipation from the private owner, black and white workers could now be wage slaves to the corporate entity now protected as a fake human just like Frankenstein or the golem.” This is another aspect of what Obama’s presidency should teach us: the corporate domination of the U.S. and the corporate domination of the world. Anybody who thinks that one person, Obama, no matter what he’s got in his head or what he’s able to do, can successfully overturn monopoly capitalism is way off the mark, way off. What is called globalization, which is the corporate domination of the U.S. and the corporate domination of the world, globalization, the international domination of the world by imperialism. If we follow the struggle to pass the very modest health care bill, it’s incredible, against the power and strength of the corporations and their ubiquitous lobbyists.
First of all, most of those Congressmen, Senators, the House of Representatives, are not representing anything but corporations. They are lobbyists. They represent different interests. They don’t represent your interests. They might tell you something to make you think that, like the Extreme Court last month, that passed a law removing all limitations from corporate contributions to elections. So that means that “democracy” just went out the window. If you can give $10 and they can give $10 billion, that’s the question right there.
The Sisyphus syndrome, like I said, is reflected in how the Extreme Court reacted to Obama’s Internet reliance on small donors to finance his campaign. How did they react? The fact that you could get enough money from small donors, and some large ones, but small donors, the Internet—that’s another generation, the Internet, that’s another generation—the fact that you could get that much money through the Internet means what? We will pass a countermeasure taking the wraps off the corporations so they can give as much as they want to. How much? As much as they want to. How much do they have? The whole Afro-American nation has got $700 billion, GM’s got $800 billion. It goes down to that coalition we mentioned determining, deciding to fight this. And anybody that sits on the side and says they don’t want to fight it because you’re “a poet,” Or they don’t want to fight it for some other sundry reasons is foolish.
When the U.S. economy was revealed to be in turmoil and tottering, particularly around the banks and financial corporations and the auto industry, I published a copy of a newspaper that said, “President Obama, No Bailout, Nationalize the Banks.” He bailed those people out. So what’s the story? Have they given out loans yet? No. Has the whole 6,000 people a day being foreclosed, has that stopped? No, no. But as we saw, there was a bailout. And the very reasons the President cited as a reason for bailing out these billionaires, these billionaire-owned corporations, so that pension funds would be saved, loans could be given to small businesses, the banks are still not giving out loans, 6,000 foreclosures a day are still going on. And though there are a few big financial firms that went under, some banks, but in the main Jaws survived and got bigger.
When I asked a real millionaire that I knew because his wife backed a magazine I contributed to back in the 1960s why millionaires cared so little about art and artists, he told me, “Because they’re not predictable,” as if the markets were. But it’s the human factor that frightens them—the fact that artists might have the brazen nerve to speak the truth. One poet said, “You have freedom of speech as long as you don’t say anything.” That’s certainly been my experience. Lenin said, “When artists say that they are free, that is, without restraints, that means that they enjoy being prostitutes.” The question of democracy presupposes that freedom, but when the 6/10 of 1% that run the society say “freedom” or “liberty,” they mean something entirely different. They don’t mean the same thing we mean. They mean their ability to do what they want with our world without interference. That’s what they mean by freedom.
Corporate control of the arts, which has intensified continuously since the Reagan years, usually as a result of public funds, your tax dollars being directed toward corporate projects rather than to artists and art. Corporate control means, first, censorship, either directly or objectively. If you can’t get your work published or shown or played, you are being censored, either because of the money that should come to support public works—remember public works? Money for public works that was voted. Or programs of public art or artists has been redirected or because the people charged with directing public money towards the arts are ignorant, frightened, or hand puppets of whatever power that controls them.
If we try to understand that the U.S. is in essence a corporate dictatorship, then it will be easier to understand why the arts, even education for the people, is undervalued. As the man said, the unpredictability of the arts and the artists, means that art will say something that the corporations cannot use or that they oppose or detest. Suppose some of us are burdened, we extreme cases, by Keats and DuBois, believing that that charge that the only directives the artist must follow are truth and beauty. You’re really in trouble, the woe is us, since in the world where it is the corporate control and influence that drenched the words in lies, even about lipstick or liquor or anything else, and a world that demands ugliness, at least shallowness as beauty-proof accessories to prevent many of s from even knowing beauty, then where does that leave us?
“So there is a censorship based on the rule of corporations and their monopoly capitalist ideology. But not merely meaning that they remove words or certain paintings, as Rockefeller did to Diego Rivera once he spotted Lenin in one he had commissioned. Corporate control means that certain areas of human experience, of human thought cannot even been expressed. And if by some effort those thoughts can be at least expressed, corporate influence will have rendered them, even to other soi-disant artists, inappropriate for art or even thought.
“The other tragic vice of corporate control other than a censorship that renders areas of your consciousness out of bounds is what thought that is allowed is always trivialized….” One thing I’ve gotten sitting here watching this television for hours, man, this is incredible. I didn’t know it was like that. Cable is about an inch better, but this is unbelievable. “…what thought that is allowed is always trivialized in the extreme for the sake of commerce. A world that once spoke of art adhering to the will of the prophets has been bent and mutilated by those with an addiction to maximum profit. The superficiality and childishness of much that is allowed to appear as art, no matter what genre, is disgusting. The most common requirement for widely distributed works in the U.S. is that they agree with the rigged contradiction between the state and the corporate lobbyists who are masquerading as elected officials on the nature of reality and, naturally, on the state policy, foreign and domestic.
“As much as art’s criticism should be a vehicle for class struggle, as Lenin directed, in a society such as the United State is, most so-called arts criticism is a form of advertisement but maintains the rudimentary function of class struggle since big news critics are members of the same prostitution ensemble. So their function is to kill what might be challenging to the corpses and push the pap the corpses sell. Any reasonable person ought to see that despite the budget cuts sweeping the nation as a result of the Wall Street-engendered economic collapse, the Wall Streeters are still getting their big million-dollar bonuses.” Mr. Fuld of Lehman Brothers, when he was questioned by Congress on television—I don’t know if you saw that—this guy Waxman was questioning him—Waxman asked him on television, “Mr. Fuld, is it true that you got away with $134 million personally when Lehman Brothers collapsed?” He said, “No, Congressman. It was only $34 million.” This man, when Lehman Brothers collapsed, walked away with $34 million. You understand what I’m saying? Like Scott Fitzgerald said, The rich are different from us, very different. “No, Senator, it was only $34 million.” Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs bristles at the same kind of question, but it’s revealed he got a $60 million bonus at the height of 6,000 foreclosures a day.
But arts programs, public, elementary, and high school and university, are being cut back almost to nothing. Most programs are being dropped. In Newark, where we are building in partnership with the Smithsonian a museum of Afro-American music, our budget has all but disappeared. And we’ve been working on that since 1982. 1982. As naïve nationalists, we thought all we had to do was get rid of the white people and we would be able to do—that was part of our education. And across the country, wherever you look, if you investigate, it’s the same thing. And not just with arts programs: housing, daycare, any program that benefits the working class or poor. In New Jersey they have fired 2400 teachers in public school, because the people he represents, their children don’t go to public school. So you say, “We’re going to cut the budget. We’re going to cut 2400 teachers.” What does that mean? But arts programs, most programs that deal with human need are being dropped.
I read this in The New York Times. A man was working for years on animal understanding of music. He was trying to measure how much animals actually understand music. And then, what’s weird, he found that his proposals were getting rejected because he kept mentioning music, which made it unserious, you see, to say animals and music. Music? That’s over. The New York Timesreported that once he removed the offending word, “music,” and just made it about synapses and neuro-response, and so forth like that, then he was funded. But they bristle at the actual idea of art. You’re wasting your time. Get a real job. That’s true. Get a real job. That’s the question. The problem is, if you’re an artist, you’re probably going to have to get a real job anyway. And the big dogs have always thought of art as superfluous.
But we should all have some understanding of what’s going on, why money for the arts is shrinking or already gone. What we must understand and begin to agree on is what should be our response. As artists, as citizens, it is the same answer broadly in all such cases: unity and struggle. The artists themselves must organize nationally, even regionally and internationally. The artists themselves.
That’s what the whole trip to Harlem was in the 1960s, the Black Arts movement, because we wanted art to fight alongside of the people who were fighting. That’s what we were doing. On the cover of my latest book called Digging is the porch of the Black Arts Theatre. And there I am at the bottom bringing some refreshments in a bag. At the top of the steps is Sun Ra, and we’re getting ready to go out on the street. What were we doing? Four trucks a day. We sent one truck with music, one truck with paintings, one truck with theatre, one truck with poetry. We sent four out a day. One went to parks, one went to vacant lots, one went to play streets. But every day we moved it around. Why? Because we thought that if we were so hip, if we were the most advanced artists, we thought, then how come we are not giving this advanced art to our people? If we think that we have the solution to the world’s consciousness problems, then why aren’t we trying to bring this consciousness to the great majority of people? The most brutal fact in our society is the lack of education. If the people were educated, they understood what was going on, they would stop it.
I’ve got some specific suggestions. We should not use our art merely for someone else’s entertainment. We should keep in mind that one of the most formidable weapons in social struggle is art. Mao said, “We want to be artistically powerful but politically revolutionary.” Artistically powerful. We’re not talking about poster art. Mao said that, too. He said, “All art is propaganda. Not all propaganda is art.” DuBois, when he was accused by Claude McKay, “Doctor, you don’t know what art is because you’re too busy with propaganda,” said, “I don’t give a damn about art if it isn’t propaganda.”
That’s the question. Why write? For whom does one write? That’s the question. For whom? How can that poem, article, painting, concerto, song, sculpture lend its strength and power to defend the arts, to defend the people, and attack their attackers? That’s the question. Again, Mao’s question, for whom? Who is your ideal audience? For whom? Who are you writing for? Who do you hope to influence? Whose consciousness do you hope to raise? We should have the national/international means of consolidating our concerns and our forces, a Web site, internationally distributed newsletter, other means, sign up forces at programs, not just persons but organizations, groups, so that whatever is consolidated is a broad alliance of opinion and action. A division of that would be the establishment of some kind of core to discuss and advance.
Many times we think that what we do, if it’s far out enough, is naturally a superior kind of art, superior genre. But the banks, for instance, were opposed to abstract painting until they discovered that it was safer to have abstract painting up there—as Brecht said, they found it was safer to have abstract red than red pumping out of the slain workers’ chests. One of those makes people take sides. You understand what I’m saying? I’m not dismissing abstraction. I’m just telling you why suddenly the big dogs like abstraction. And the other thing that I always mention is what Sartre said. He said, “If you say something’s wrong in society and you don’t know what it is, that’s all right. If you say something is wrong and you know what it is, that’s social protest.” So we have to adjust ourselves to our audience, you understand? Adjust it to our audience. As far as people saying poetry and politics, I went thru that in the 1950s and the 1960s, and the 1970s, and the 1980s. One of the greatest poets I’ve ever known was Ho Chi Minh. Another great poet was Mao Zedong. The great Latin American poets we can talk about: Roque Dalton, Otto Rene Castillo, Nicolás Guillén, Pablo Neruda, on and on and on and on.
The problem is this: the art that came out of the turbulent 1960s is being covered over altogether. Black, white, Latino, it don’t make no difference. All of that turbulent poetry, which reflected the turbulence of the people. The artist didn’t make that up. They were reflecting what was going on in society. Think about this, from the late 1950s, from Brown v. the Board of Education to the murder of Emmett Till, to the Montgomery bus boycott, to the blowing up of Dr. King’s house, to the emergence of Malcolm X, the split of that movement, the revolution in Cuba, 1959-1960, the Greensboro sit-in by the students that began the student movement in 1960, the appearance of Malcolm X in 1960 on television for the first time, the murder of Patrice Lumumba, 1962. I was standing out in front of the UN with artists that we didn’t even know that we were artists. We didn’t even know that. Maya Angelou climbed up in the United Nations, and they started throwing shoes down at the people down there. How about that. I’m trying to tell you. Maya Angelou worked for Nkrumah in Ghana and worked for Martin Luther King here. So it’s not an exclusive thing. It’s something that if you really care about the world, then you have to include it in your understanding about the world. Remember that.
There’s three levels of learning. And I’m quoting Mao a lot because I want you to read him. There are three levels of learning. The first, he said, is perception. We all have this antenna: we perceive all kinds of stuff, that all kinds of stuff is happening. But the second level is rationale; that is, what does that mean? This stuff that we see happening in the world, what does it mean? And the third thing, of course, is use. How do we use that? How do we use that?
How many people here ever read Roque Dalton, the Salvadoran poet, Roque Dalton? He was the grandson of the Dalton who was the mobster, crook, who when they escaped, like Sundance and the other dude, rode from the United States all the way down to El Salvador. He was the great grandson, Roque Dalton, who was killed by political comrades.
Talk about “Somebody Blew Up America” and what happened when you read it.
I sent that poem—like I said, I had this terrible reaction, seeing the fire and stuff, the World Trade Center buildings blown up. It was very frightening if you were that close. But after a while Bush began to get on my nerves with the questions about terror, because I thought, Well, Jesus Christ, that’s how we got here. The slave trade, that’s terrorism, the Klan is terrorism. So then I wrote this poem. I sent it around the world on the Internet. I got mostly favorable responses. Some people thought it was negative in some ways.
But then I was named for some weird reason the poet laureate of New Jersey. I told the governor, “You must not read poetry. You don’t know anything about poetry. You obviously are witless on this.” He told me, “I can handle it.” So I read this poem at the Dodge poetry festival for maybe 1,000 people, and then my wife and I sat and signed books for maybe an hour. The last people to come by were this well-dressed man and women who didn’t look like they were going to a poetry reading. And the woman said, “That’s a hateful poem.” And I said, “What part?” The next day or the day after that the governor’s office called me and said I had to resign and apologize, that the poem was anti-Semitic. I said, “What part? Tell me.” I went down to the state house and said, “Put it on the legislative wall. Put it on the wall and let’s discuss it line by line. Let us debate that. Let us debate this name you’re calling me that’s going to last throughout eternity.” The guy told me, a guy named Cody, “We don’t have to do that.” I said, “What do you mean, you don’t have to do that? You can’t get away with this.” He said, “We can get away with anything we want to.” So then, since they couldn’t fire me as the poet laureate, because that would be ex post facto, they would have to go back in time, and they couldn’t do that, they got rid of the poet laureate program. New Jersey now has no poet laureate program. That means we are an officially ignorant state. That’s wild.
We went to court four times, once to the Supreme Court. But anyway, each time they have told me, except the Supreme Court—the Supreme Court refused to hear it—the other courts said that I don’t have any rights because I was a state employee. I wasn’t a state employee. I was the poet laureate. I was no state employee. But that’s the ruling. The last time they told me that about the Supreme Court I was in Venezuela on the stage, had a cell phone. Rrring. “Mr. Baraka, I want to tell you the Supreme Court refused to hear your case.” So I said. “Good. Let me tell these people in Venezuela so they know exactly who you are when you talk about democracy and freedom.”
But it’s a bizarre case. As it stands now, it’s been refused by the Supreme Court. The lawyers say they’ve got something else up their sleeve, but I don’t know what it is. I thought that maybe once Bush was gone, I would get another kind of hearing. They still owe me money, first of all. The irony is that the governor himself had to resign for having an adulterous homosexual experience. But I thought he was for gay rights. If you’re for gay rights, all you have to do is say, “Yes, I’m gay. So what? I’m the governor.” But he didn’t do that. He backed off of that. I don’t know if you’ve followed that case. It is sad. His wife claims she didn’t know it and he’s got a kid, all that stuff, sneaking around with this dude. Now McGreevey, the governor, has gone into a—what do you call that where you get trained to be a priest?—a seminary. I don’t know if that’s a good idea for the church. It has its problems and McGreevey announces, “I’m going into the seminary to be a priest.” Jesus Christ. But that’s what happened.
Of course, I went through a whole bad time. Still, people actually cancel appearances, refuse to publish your stuff. That doesn’t bother me as much as people then attacking you like that forever and saying, There is the anti-Semitic poet.” I even talked to this one guy, Gerald Stern, who is supposed to be—he’s a poet. I said, “But you all are the same people, you academics, who supported Ezra Pound and supported T.S. Eliot, and they were outright anti-Semites. What’s the story with that?” That was unanswered, of course.
Again, I say that the censorship of the 1960s and 1970s worked, as well as the censorship now has been intense. When you go to the airport or the drugstore, look for some books of quality in there. They discovered, was it 10 years ago, that the largest incremental leap in reading was black youth. So suddenly, if you look in a drugstore or an airport, you will see all of this garbage directed at black young people. You won’t see James Baldwin, you won’t see Fred Douglass, you won’t see Zora Neale Hurston, but you will see “I Was a Pimp and Sold Dope in New York,” or something like that.
I think that the one thing we should be clear about on the Obama question is that Obama is not a socialist. He never promised to bring socialism. But what you have to see is the move forward. From, say, 145 years before Obama, black people were chattel slaves, 145 years before that. What is that? How much time is 145 years? There are probably some dudes walking around who are 145. But that’s not a lot of time, in other words. So that actually the strength of that coalition, which, of course, at bottom was fueled by black people saying, “No, no, no, Bush, you got to go,” and, in fact, the other guy who was colored, “No, no, you’re going to be the President.” But the amazing kind of coalition that formed, that’s the kind of coalition that has to stay together. If that don’t stay together, the rock will come right down. It will come back down on your head and you will find out very closely.
For people who are still disappointed, I say, disappointed, what about? They don’t realize that 145 years. Brown v. Board of Education was 1954, desegregation of the schools. You know what I mean? The Voting Rights Act was in 1965, the right to vote. That’s 1965. The Civil Rights Act, 1962. These things have just happened. I can leave that at that. I think a lot of people probably are disappointed with—go ahead, I’m sorry.
The last couple weeks we’ve heard, students in a lot of these lectures, a lot about sometimes out of necessity being a rogue-type artist, autonomous from the group, indifferent to the artist community, and sometimes you have to go out and do it on your own with that sort of an individual or singular mission. But we’ve also heard the importance of community and having comrades and doing things in groups and starting things up as one unit. I know in some ways you’ve experienced both. So could you speak a little bit about that dynamic in today’s present-day America’s artists, the difference between having a singular mission, going out and writing investigative poetry or controversial poetry or trying to start things up as groups? Where do you think the impact lies for both?
Organization is always the most important, how you organize. Individuals can only do so much, ever, no matter how brilliant. I hate the word “gifted,” because art is work and art is study. See, the point is, if you studied the world assiduously, since you’re in it, but if you studied it, studied it, then that would make you a greater artist, you understand, because then you would know what you’re talking about. Young people, a lot of times they’re just talking about what’s in their head—I hurt, I feel, I love, I want. But what about the world? What about the world? So the question of how do you organize, that’s a good question. The reason that we were so intent on getting Ras Baraka elected as a councilor was because for the arts that means something. See what I mean? It’s not just that we want a councilman. It means now that the programs, hopefully, that have been turned down relentlessly by these fools, that we might get some kind of power behind that.
We never changed our intention as artists that we wanted to remake the world. But the point, how do you do that? It’s not enough to say, “We’ve got to make change, we’ve got to make change.” How are you going to do that? If you are magic and you say, “We want to make change,” and it changes, solid. I’m with that. But that won’t happen. And many times just your saying you want to make change, you want to make change, makes something happen to you. In 1967, having returned to my native city in 1966, we gave a poetry reading. The police stood there at the entrance to the loft. What do you mean? Are you going stop a poetry reading? What’s wrong with that? We were rehearsing in that loft. A policeman came up in the loft and snatched the script out of my hand. You’re talking about extreme cases. But at the same time, it shows you that there is a low and you can go to it. There is such a thing as below.
If you study, for instance, as boring as it might seem to you, the politics of everyday life in America, you should be terrified. If you can spend $10 billion a month fighting people who have done nothing to you at all, what can I do with $10 billion, what could the arts do with $10 billion a month? You could actually teach the people. You could actually make them understand who Blake or Douglass or Zora—you could actually have the people walking around with something in their skull other than the stuff on the TV. I swear to God that is sickening, inciting, just making you want to “gggrrhh.” So we’re at a point—you say Obama. What is he, a social democrat, progressive democrat? But as opposed to Bush or McCain or Sarah Palin, what is this?
This is a period of change. How much change depends on us. It’s a transitional period, you understand? How much change depends on what we do. When I say “we,” I mean if you are supposed to be the most conscious, you poets—and we always were poet chauvinists because we thought that—I know that when I wrote the play Dutchman, I got the Obie award. When I took it uptown to Harlem, they said it was racist. Wait a minute. You mean in 100 blocks it changed? Why did it change? Because your audience was different. What you’re saying is no longer just abstract. What you are saying to people who need that change is, Oh, yeah? That’s different. That’s different. So that the poem “Black People,” the judge who sentenced me to three years, no parole, for possession of two pistols and a poem, who said, “This poem is a prescription for criminal anarchy.” Have you ever heard that about a poem? I said, “Judge, do you mean that the people came into my house and read the poem, then burned the town down do you know? Is that what you’re saying? That they weren’t ready to burn the town down until they read this little poem, this feeble poem here? Three years, no parole. He read the poem in the courtroom. But I had to supply all the dirty words. He had taken them out. They drove from the courthouse to Trenton to the jail with the siren blowing. You know what I mean? What is it? It’s a little, 120-pound poet. What is this? Guns and stuff like that.
But that’s the point. If you understand, like David Walker, the Appeal. Do you know David Walker’s Appeal? Read that. David Walker was born of free parents in Boston so he could read and he could write. He also was a printer, so he could print it. He circulated the Appeal. Not only was that seized by the authorities, but you were ordered to prison if you possessed it. Why is it that the slaves were forbidden to read or write? Why were they forbidden to read or write? The possession of a book automatically meant you would get killed or locked up or something. Why? Fred Douglass said, “Until I learned to read”—and he was taught to read by some young white boys in Baltimore because he was a house slave, and they were hungry, so he could steal food from the house to give them, and he learned to read. He said, “But once I learned to read, then the idea of slavery became unbearable, because I then realized it was not God’s will but these were some soul thieves.” Read that, the autobiography, the narrative of Fred Douglass. So, “Once I learned how to read, then slavery became unbearable.”
In Lisa Berman’s civil disobediences class we listened to one of your lectures from several years ago. And in it you asked a series of questions, where are our poets, where are our poets in the street, where are our theaters for the people. It was a twofold question. And you also said that you had taught a class and asked the students to send you a postcard and let you know what they were up to. So I wanted to know, had you gotten any postcards from that.
About three people who are consistent, let me know what they’re doing. It’s the truth. I don’t know what cities you all come from, but if you were to go back to the city and try to take your art into the masses, into the street, no matter what it is—I’m not telling you what kind of art—but try it. I always told my students at the university, “If you think your writing is so great, see those guys digging that hole there? They’re sitting down there eating a sandwich. Go over there and ask them if they want to hear a poem. Try that.” Because as long as we stay in this kind of ivory tower, then you’re not even testing the power of art, you’re not even testing it. What if somebody arrests you for a poem? But I thought that—I studied David Walker. I said, “Oh, maybe one day I can do that.” I didn’t know that you could actually do that in modern times. I thought that was about slavery. I didn’t know you could actually bring the authorities down on your ass with a poem. So it’s just a poem. It’s on the page.
But I still believe if you try to organize the artists that you know where you live, whatever you’re doing is going to have an effect. You at least are going to convince somebody to read. Sun Ra people used to say was too way out. When we brought Sun Ra to Newark and to Harlem, the people thought it was dance music. Even though he was in his costume talking about “Spaceships, spaceships, spaceships,” the people thought it was funny and thought it was dance music. They were dancing to that. They didn’t think it was weird at all because they were dressed up weird. We brought Sun Ra to Newark in our organizing, and they marched through the streets with their costumes on. And they got up on this flatbed truck, and Sun Ra started chanting, said, “What you gonna do when they push that button? What you gonna do when they push that button? What you gonna do when they push that button? Kiss your ass goodbye. Aaaaaah!” All the people wanted to know, what was that?
My second part is, are you still accepting postcards?
Sure. E-mail cards, better.
I try to adopt kind of what Ginsberg and those—you do it as well—adopt or try to see, have a macro view of all our problems. I kind of just see, like, presidents today, there’s this revolving door to like a higher financial kind of an elite. My question is, how do we have this kind of drastic needed social change
To say it doesn’t matter is very naïve. If you think there is no difference between, say, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, you’re making a mistake, or between Hoover and Roosevelt. It’s a question of the cumulative nature. If you have faced some serious problems, then you can appreciate the change, even if it’s minuscule. To just wave it aside as not having—we don’t have any kings anymore except the Queen came here, and she’s even a—what do you call it?—a constitutional monarch. Chattel slavery has been abolished, even though there is a lot to say for the comparing of the Afro-American question to another form of slavery. People wanted Hillary Clinton. One wonders why all the time she and Bill were in office, why they didn’t say nothing about equal pay for equal work for women. Obama did that after a month. If you’re aware of what’s going on, then you can understand it and you can understand why you have to fight for every little space you can get. I always say, why are you writing? Don’t do something nice, don’t strain your brain to be relevant and an artist. But the artists that I always wanted to be like were people who were relevant.
The only reason I got hooked up with Allen Ginsberg, I was in Puerto Rico and I read that they didn’t like “Howl.” It was in the first issues of The Village Voice, when Norman Mailer was on the board and Mayor Koch was a liberal. That’s how far back that was. Wait a minute, wait a minute. A guy wrote this poem? 1955. Why are they making so much fuss about this? As a result of that, I went back to New York and sought him out. Why? Because I could see that whatever it was he was doing in that poem, that was kind of interesting, that you could actually get that much. And then years later, of course, the cops broke into my house about a poem, the little magazine we put out called The Floating Bear.
So you should not minimize your own power. You should not minimize your power. You don’t know the power that you have. This group of students, the stuff that you can generate just as students is significant. If you have that kind of organizing skill when you go home, or where you’re going to go to do whatever you want to do—a magazine, a zine on the Internet, whatever you want to do, a regular series of programs—raise the consciousness of the people. You might be doing something I don’t even like, but I would rather have you do that than do nothing. You understand what I’m saying? You have to raise the consciousness of people. That’s what it is. That’s the gig, that’s the gig, to raise the people’s consciousness, to have them know more than they do.
I feel like I vote with the way that I live and what I am writing. So my question for you in relation to that is, how effective do you think that voting actually is?
You never heard of the 1960s. You never heard of people getting killed for organizing people. You never heard of Stokely Carmichael. You never heard of Martin Luther King. That’s why you can be light about it. They killed people for trying to vote. What do you think they were lynching the civil rights workers for down there? For doing what? Trying to blow up city hall? No. For trying to vote. And were they correct in doing that? Absolutely. They were absolutely correct in trying to stop the vote. You see the result when they let them vote. When the South can vote, things change. When the South, which is still the Afro-American nation, so to speak, can vote. When Bill Clinton went down to Columbia and started talking foolish with Hillary, I knew that they were in trouble, because South Carolina is overwhelmingly black. It’s been that way. So the question of what is voting means who are you. That’s what it means. You think you would be better off without the right to vote?
It just seems to me like it’s not actually democratic and that our votes—that it’s so twisted and that people have this illusion like I’m voting so that’s the only voice that I have and that’s the only thing I have to do. And it seem—like how did Bush get elected twice? What happened with all those votes? What is really happening in process of voting, to me it seems like voting is like the sort of illusion that we are being served. I know it was different. But what’s happening now. It’s the idea of you get to vote so there is your stand. People say, “Well, I vote, so that’s all I have to do.” But your votes, are they really being counted? Do we really have people in power that they want? Do we even want bigger people in power?
But, you see, just pulling the lever is the least of the acts, but you have to do that. When you talk about political power, which is what revolutionaries—revolutionaries’ only concern is the seizure of power. You cannot change anything unless you have the power to do it. You cannot change anything. No matter how good you are, how smart you are, you cannot change anything without the power to do that. If you say, “I voted,” hey, what else did you do? Demonstrations. My son just won the councilman election. That was a forward step for us. But what was he doing in the meantime? He was demonstrating. Every couple weeks he was out in the street with a group of people, young people, the older than you. In their thirties, in their twenties, marching.
What he was doing was changing people’s minds. First, demonstrating against violence, because in Newark people get shot down regularly. They would stop traffic. “Mayor, you have to do something about this.” Lay down in the street. Stop traffic. At the same time, you don’t say, “I did this, therefore I don’t have to vote.” They’re both weapons, and you have to use them. Boycotts, elections, demonstrations, they’re all political weapons, and you have to use them. The question is, how conscious are you of those weapons? Now, if you have something you want to change, then the people that you like, the people that think like you, get them to do something, get them to do something. Otherwise—when I was rolling through the streets on the microphone with this campaign, I was saying, “If you don’t vote, don’t complain. If you don’t vote, don’t complain. Then you should just sit like you did on election day. Don’t complain.”
But the point is that the whole question of democracy is based on—when they say “democracy,” “freedom,” too often democracy doesn’t exist in the U.S. We know that. But you have to struggle for that. It’s more than it was. You have the Extreme Court trying to take it away. But you cannot minimize the importance of voting, nor can you absolutize it. Do you understand what I’m saying? Voting is not enough, but it’s a minimum.
One thing we should be trying to do is change the political culture in America. All that stuff about two houses of Congress? That’s jive. You don’t need no two houses of Congress. The Senate’s only role is to veto the House of Representatives. That’s the House of Lords, the Senate is. Two per state, that isn’t democratic. You understand what I mean? You need one person, one vote. You don’t have that here. For the presidential election you don’t even vote for the president; the electors vote for the president. You understand what I’m saying? So that the question of how do you make change, first you’ve got to study it enough so you know what has to be changed.
There is a guy in my hometown in Newark—the mayor, Booker, who went to Stanford University, Yale Law School, Rhodes scholar, actually without a clue, with all that. He came to our town. Now he wants to sell our water. Thirty-eight thousand acres of land, which is the watershed in Newark, he wants to sell it. What’s the first question you ask: Why? The second question: To whom? Why. He says there is a debt. Prudential has been given tax abatement since 1970. They have not paid taxes, when one of their buildings is worth $200 million a year. The dock, Port Newark, the airport, all those sit on our property. Go get that money. Instead of saying you’re going to cut off the water to my house, go get that money.
Outro music – Steve Earle: The Revolution Starts Now
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