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Chesa seems baffled that his father and mother could choose

the revolutionary imperative over, say, non-violent reformist actions.

For him, the imperative led his parents nowhere but to a prison cell.

 

 

Letters from Young Activists

Today’s Rebels Speak Out

Edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow

Review by Amin Sharif 

 

Given this book to review, I hesitated to open its pages. What could a book about today’s young activists say to me or my generation? I grew up in a segregated world so far from the reality of what today’s youth experience that I imagined that the gulf between the two worlds would forever separate us into two camps—those who lived under segregation and fought against it; and those who had not. Perhaps, the gulf still exists. If it does, this book has certainly narrowed the space between my generation—of Civil Rights and Black Power—and the present one of international anarchy and Gay rights. That is the best thing that I can say about this work.

Letters from Young Activists is a mixture of the most intimate and personal revelations, serious political insights, and fluff. The writing is, on the whole, exceptional and stylish. Yet the actual message of the book is at times confusing and lacks focus. By attempting to give voice to so many activists, Letters fails to make a coherent case for the “movement” of these young activists as a whole. We do not know at the beginning exactly what these young men and women want collectively and the question remains open even at the end of the book.

Letters from Young Activists contains some fine pieces that make it worth reading. I have chosen to focus on three letters more or less typical of the many presentations found within its pages.

Chesa Boudin

The very first letter in the book is by Chesa Boudin—an activist who works for the revolutionary government of Venezuela—and is addressed to his father, David Gilbert, who took part in the Brinks bank robbery which was a part of a series of radical actions taken by the white Left. After wishing him a happy birthday, Chesa says to his father who is being held at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York:  

Though Clinton Max is one of the last places I would like you to celebrate turning sixty, I take solace in the fact that your circumstances are largely a product of your own commitment to progressive political change and to the inherent value and equality of all human life.

It goes without saying that the prism through which Chesa sees and interprets the world is far different from any of his peers, even those who are activists. He has seen the consequences and cost of radical activity—not as a theoretical possibility, but as an actual fact in his own life. And despite his acknowledgement that his father’s actions were conducted with the best of intentions, Chesa finds it hard to reconcile the need to use revolutionary violence as a tool for social change with the sometimes devastating affect in might have on others.

The actions of his parents—both were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms for the robbery—resulted in three deaths and “the traumatic disruption of untold children’s lives.” It is evident in his writings that Chesa’s counts his own childhood and family life as a causality of his mother and father’s revolutionary activism.

There is so much humanity contained in Chesa’s insights that it is hard to render any criticism concerning all that he reveals to us. But it is clear that Chesa would have rather his parents had not taken part in the robbery.  He was only fourteen months old when the robbery was committed. He says that if “he had been old enough to talk” to them, he would have tried to “convince both of [them] not to go.” What Chesa reveals to us is that, in his mind, the cost of his parents’ participation in revolutionary violence was too great a price to pay for the uncertain reward of social progress.

This most human of responses to what Chesa considers the loss of innocent life and the disintegration of his own family. In the narrow context of family relations, Chesa is very much justified in his observations. Revolutionary action, by definition, transcends family needs. This position has always been an ethical dilemma This is a harsh but well known corollary of revolutionary struggle. One has only to read the letter that Patrice Lumumba wrote to his wife on the way to be executed to understand the consequences of revolutionary action on the personal lives of those who use it as a tool. Lumumba says to his wife on the last day of his life:

As to my children, whom I leave and whom I may never see again, I should like them to be told that it is for them as it is for every Congolese, to accomplish the scared task of reconstructing our independence and our sovereignty: for without dignity there is no liberty, without justice there is no dignity, and without independence there are no free men.

What Chesa is wrestling with in his letter is nothing less than what was known by some of us older radicals as the revolutionary imperative. There was much debate about the imperative or something equivalent to it in radical and revolutionary circles across the country in the sixties. Many radicals felt that it was indeed “imperative” to overthrow what they considered a ruthless, oppressive system that supported racist repression at home and imperialist aggression abroad.

From Fred Hampton to Emmit Till, from Alabama to Vietnam, radicals and revolutionaries could see the hundreds of thousands of death that innocent Black Americans, Latin Americans, Africans, Palestinians, and Asians suffered at the hands of a misguided U.S. policy. The question for radicals in America and around the world was whether to redress this policy through gradualist, non-violent actions or through revolutionary violence.

The question was as Lumumba put it: How to make free men? Folks like the Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army and the anti-colonial freedom fighters of the last century decided in favor of the imperative. They believed that not only was revolutionary violence a necessity but that it was also a morally acceptable choice when faced with overwhelming oppression.    

Chesa seems baffled that his father and mother could choose the revolutionary imperative over, say, non-violent reformist actions. For him, the imperative led his parents nowhere but to a prison cell. He would have his father express publicly remorse for his actions. Only then does Chesa believe that his father can be forgiven for what he did. Stubbornly, Chesa’s father declines to express any remorse. It is clear that Chesa does not know exactly why his father seems unwilling to make this concession to the families of those killed in the robbery.

All this makes for a kind of bittersweet emotionalism which runs through not only Chesa’s letter but through many other letters contained in the book. But, it begs the question whether these new radicals fully understand what they are getting themselves into? Are they saying that they are only willing to go so far in the eradication of oppression?

If this is what they mean by activism, than I would rather they sit in their living rooms listening to hip-hop and play video games. They do not seem to understand that if you really believe in the transformation of the world, you may regrettably have to get blood on your hands. This does not mean that one should seek to use revolutionary violence as a first option when other non-violent methods may achieve one’s purpose.

Going in one must be aware that revolutionary violence may be one’s last, best option to end oppression. The alternative view would be to throw up one’s hands when gradualist tactics no longer work and allow the oppression to continue. Denial of the imperative may mean the denial of freedom for the oppressed and an end to the transformation of society. Does the imperative rise exacting questions concerning radical and revolutionary morality? Yes, of course, it does. And, this is exactly why the choice to use it as a tool is so complicated and makes the political transformation of society such a messy affair.

It is this awareness that revolutionary violence may be justified under extreme situations that separates Chesa from his father in terms of political consciousness. His father understands that the actions he took might be considered reprehensible to those who believe that the oppressor can be reasoned with—who think that moral arguments can prevail and orderly change will follow. Chesa’s father exercised the revolutionary imperative to end to the suffering that he felt his country authored at home and in the Third World.

He decided that his political life was secondary to his role as father and husband.  This was no doubt a difficult decision for Chesa’s father. But revolutionary violence has been the principle means by which oppressed peoples throughout the world have thrown off repression. That revolutionaries in America should choose to use it as a tool in their own struggle against injustice during the turbulent period of the 1960s was perhaps inevitable.

Still that this decision had tragic personal consequences for Chesa and his father can not be causally set aside. Nor can the deaths connected to this action be easily justified or dismissed. One feels deeply for Chesa’s plight. It is a testament to his strength that he has become something of an activist himself. Yet one is still haunted by the question: Does he really understand what it takes to change the world? In the end, only Chesa knows the answer. Many will find Chesa’s letter troubling but I strongly recommend that it be read by all activists—young as well as old.

Andy Cornell

Perhaps the most fascinating missile found in Letters comes from a self-proclaimed white punk rock activist named Andy Cornell. He is an exceptionally intelligent young man endowed with the ability to apply criticism to his own political life and those involved in what he terms acts of “cultural resistance.” Andy is one of the many white youth who reject all “middle class white culture.” In a broader sense, Andy’s definition of punk seems to be part of a legacy of alienation that extends back to the counter culture movement of the 1960s.

One of the problems that emerged around that movement was whether it should be considered part of a greater political effort for equality and justice or whether counter culture was rooted in the non-political rejection of corporate culture found in a white, capitalist society. Was the counter culture of the hippies radical in nature or a rebellion born of youthful alienation?

Andy sees the alienation he experiences as a punk-rock activist interwoven in the oppression experienced by others factions in America.  This is not a naïve assertion on his part. There is every indication in his letter that Andy fully realizes the difference between “alienation” on one hand and “political oppression” on the other. Yet Andy posits that there can be no ending of the alienation experienced by America’s white punks without the ending of the general oppression of other minority factions within America.

He asks his fellow punks: “Is being radical about creating an alternate identity or is it about organizing masses of people?” Thus, he is asking again whether the punk rock culture of his own time, like the hippie culture of decades ago, is based in a self-indulgent alienation or in social and political responsibility.

What I enjoyed about reading Andy’s letter is his ability to cut through the hype and get to the crux of matter. Andy is not a member of an “oppressed minority.” He is not a woman nor is he by any outward indication gay. But he is a young, white man who sees himself as a member of a greater humanity and who is just as concerned with issues of justice as any Black, woman, or gay activist. Andy says it all much better than I when he addresses other punk rock activists in his letter:  

We . . . know that in the United States, punk is overwhelmingly a white and middle-class subculture. You channel and encourage rage, anger, and disillusionment of a largely privileged youth—and you are right to do so. But along the way, the racist police brutality, the poverty of minimum wage, the violence of rape and war that others feel becomes almost one and the same with the emptiness of the consumer culture, the stultifying pressure of middle-class expectations and boredom of cul-de-sac suburbia that we much more immediately feel in our lives. Oppression and alienation are connected, of course, but they are certainly not interchangeable.”  

This passage is beautifully composed and insightful. Letters such as Andy’s makes this book socially and politically relevant and gives hope to a long-in the-tooth radical like myself for the next generation.

Kenyon Farrow

Sadly, for every eloquently composed letter by Chesa Boudin and Andy Cornell, there is one or two composed by a Kenyon Farrow, a gay activist. In a section of Letters from Young Activists addressed to “authorities,” Kenyon addresses Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He begins his letter with the promise of a fiery exchange between himself and Rice:  

When I first decided to write you, I was ready to go for the jugular. I wanted to tell you, in no uncertain terms, just how much I disagreed with your political positions, abhorred your relationship with the Bush clan and anything else I could think of . . .

Kenyon was constantly asked by white radicals what he thought about her. He thought that these radicals were asking him about Rice so that he might break ranks with his sister.

On a trip to Denver, Kenyon reads Rice’s biography. He is impressed and decides that he will not be pulled into the game of “a black man” denigrating “a black woman” for the benefit of whites on the Right and the Left. The rest of Kenyon’s letter is a justification as to why he can and will not criticize Rice in public.

Kenyon argues that because Rice was a “genius black girl born in 1950s Birmingham, Alabama” she had “no other options” but to become a conservative and to serve a racist administration. Not only is this reasoning sloppy, it is just plain wrong. Are we to absolve Rice of her responsibility as a leading member of the political ruling class because of an accident of background and birth?

This is exactly what Kenyon suggests. This is a woman who stood by Bush’s side when Black people were trapped in the Superdome during Katrina and said nothing. This is the person who supports the War in Iraq.  This woman Kenyon has decided to give a free pass. In the interest of Black Unity, no word should be uttered against her.

Sorry, Kenyon, but I am having none of it. Why stop at Rice? Why not give blacks who rape and rob a free pass as well? Many claim their acts of violence are born of accidents of background and birth.

There has been for too long a kind of self-indulgence evident among many—thankfully not all—young black activists—that implies that the older generation has no sense of what is going on in the new political environment. If Kenyon’s letter to Rice is the norm for the quality of reasoning that is prevalent among new black activists then there is real trouble for all of us on the horizon. Mistakenly, Kenyon refers to himself as a “black revolutionary.” 

A revolutionary would have skillfully, creatively found a Rice criticism that did not “denigrate” her as woman or as Negro. A revolutionary has an obligation to educate not only Black folk but also white folk about the racist, sexist, and imperialist intentions of the Bush regime. And point out those who defend it.

In any event, Rice is more than capable of her own defense. She has risen to her position of power with skill. She’s been through the grinder of more skilled criticism than he even dares to muster. Kenyon’s Rice is the “little lady” you don’t throw hardballs.

He is neither clever nor original, nor an encouraging guide. How are the masses to know friend from foe if an activist is silent and refuses to expose the truth? How can his white colleagues trust him if he’s going to fall back on race in the most crucial issues of our time? He should state plainly whether he thinks Rice has acted in the best interests of the poor and oppressed in this country and around the world.

Kenyon’s equivocation blurs the issue of where he really stands. Our responsibility to the poor and oppressed requires more than this letter writer is willing to express. We cannot without emphasis allow this kind of passive deference to race and class go unnoted, the phenomenon is so widespread. We all need to sharpen our analyses when it comes to faces in high places, regardless of color. A letter “to” authority is different from a letter “for” authority.

Even with its fluff and lack of focus, Letters from Young Activists, contains enough passion, revelation, and truth to make it worth reading. I sincerely hope all these young activists find a way to serve humanity and achieve their dreams.

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Other Reviews

Whether North American or Other you will not regret the hours spent with this inspiring, compassionate and soulful book. It allows a glimpse into the hearts of young activists of today, one much needed by their elders. Here they are, our children: beautiful, committed, serious in their belief that it is possible to assist and care for the human and the natural world. They are making of themselves an offering to the Goddess of Peace. Aché. – Alice Walker

If anyone wonders about what that nebulous thing called ‘the Movement’ is, here are their many and varied voices. In letters of love and hope, of anger and depression, of wonder and rebellion, young people, from preteens to twenty-somethings, grapple with what it means to be part of ‘the Movement’ in these dim days of empire. They demand to be heard, by parents, by politicians, and by those who peopled ‘the Movement’ before their birth. These voices will not be ignored. They will be heard.– Mumia Abu-Jamal

 

posted 12 January 2006

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

Fiction

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#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
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#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter

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#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man's turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by "the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn't operate in his own home town." Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively researched study of the "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest.

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Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change

By John Lewis

The Civil Rights Movement gave rise to the protest culture we know today, and the experiences of leaders like Congressman Lewis have never been more relevant. Now, more than ever, this nation needs a strong and moral voice to guide an engaged population through visionary change. Congressman John Lewis was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a key role in the struggle to end segregation. Despite more than forty arrests, physical attacks, and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. He is the author of his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of a Movement, and is the recipient of numerous awards from national and international institutions, including the Lincoln Medal; the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage” Lifetime Achievement Award (the only one of its kind ever awarded); the NAACP Spingarn Medal; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, among many others.

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So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America

By Peter Edelman

If the nation’s gross national income—over $14 trillion—were divided evenly across the entire U.S. population, every household could call itself middle class. Yet the income-level disparity in this country is now wider than at any point since the Great Depression. In 2010 the average salary for CEOs on the S&P 500 was over $1 million—climbing to over $11 million when all forms of compensation are accounted for—while the current median household income for African Americans is just over $32,000. How can some be so rich, while others are so poor? In this provocative book, Peter Edelman, a former top aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and a lifelong antipoverty advocate, offers an informed analysis of how this country can be so wealthy yet have a steadily growing number of unemployed and working poor. According to Edelman, we have taken important positive steps without which 25 to 30 million more people would be poor, but poverty fluctuates with the business cycle.

The structure of today’s economy has stultified wage growth for half of America’s workers—with even worse results at the bottom and for people of color—while bestowing billions on those at the top. So Rich, So Poor delves into what is happening to the people behind the statistics and takes a particular look at the continuing crisis of young people of color, whose possibility of a productive life too often is lost on their way to adulthood.DemocracyNow 

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Jefferson's Pillow

The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism

By Roger W. Wilkins

 In Jefferson's Pillow, Wilkins returns to America's beginnings and the founding fathers who preached and fought for freedom, even though they owned other human beings and legally denied them their humanity. He asserts that the mythic accounts of the American Revolution have ignored slavery and oversimplified history until the heroes, be they the founders or the slaves in their service, are denied any human complexity. Wilkins offers a thoughtful analysis of this fundamental paradox through his exploration of the lives of George Washington, George Mason, James Madison, and of course Thomas Jefferson. He discusses how class, education, and personality allowed for the institution of slavery, unravels how we as Americans tell different sides of that story, and explores the confounding ability of that narrative to limit who we are and who we can become. An important intellectual history of America's founding, Jefferson's Pillow will change the way we view our nation and ourselves.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

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

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Ancient African Nations

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