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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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After I spent a decade in the Tenderloin (and God only knows how I made it out alive

—thank you God Allah) as a Crack addict, I knew many

mothers and fathers who abandoned their children for the drug life.



Books by Marvin X

Love and War: Poems  / In the Crazy House Called America / Woman: Man's Best Friend Beyond Religion Toward Spirituality

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The Pursuit of Happyness

Starring Will Smith

Review by Marvin X


Will Smith has processed himself into a great actor, from rapper to Fresh Prince, to Ali and other characters. But Pursuit of Happyness lacked the full drama of being down and out in the most beautiful city in the world, San Francisco. The film was a Miller Lite version of homelessness, and the narrow focus on the main character excluded the high drama of homelessness in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, that poverty area two blocks from the famous Cable Car line at Market and Powell, and a few blocks from the Shopping area for the rich, Union Square.  The contrast is so overwhelming we wonder how could the filmmaker fail to show us this.

It is totally shocking to tourists who often make the wrong turn coming out of their hotel room and find themselves in the Tenderloin, the multiracial ghetto inhabited by Blacks, Latinos, Asians and poor whites, with a great amount of the population addicted to drugs. All we see of the homeless are them standing in line at Glide Church, administered by Rev. Cecil Williams, the angel of San Francisco’s homeless, addicted and afflicted, the male version of Mother Theresa.

Cecil appears in the film as himself; after all, no one can perform his role except him. The most dramatic moment is this scene outside Glide when Rev. Williams allows the main character and his son to get in line for a room. But it is powerful because we see the army of the homeless and the hungry in America. This moment is communal and we see the individual as part of a nation of homeless. France has called homelessness a matter of national security. France is calling for its citizens guaranteed housing. America can do likewise. There is absolutely no excuse for homelessness and hunger in America, the richest nation in the world.

I lived the life of a homeless drug addict in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. On one level, it was good to see the main character was not drug addicted. But it would have added so much more drama. Maybe his little frustrated wife should have been on drugs, because she has no real motivation to depart for New York, leaving her son behind for a two dollar job. Her character was weak and should have been explored, or at least included a violent departing scene.  Since Will Smith used his son, why not have Jada as his wife, surely they could have created more drama, including a love scene that was absent in the film.

After I spent a decade in the Tenderloin (and God only knows how I made it out alive—thank you God Allah) as a Crack addict, I knew many mothers and fathers who abandoned their children for the drug life. Yesterday, a young lady at my outdoor classroom, downtown Oakland, told me she became homeless in San Francisco because her mother was doing Crack and she had to escape, so she lived in the street. The young lady, now 19, said she grew up in foster care.

A few weeks ago, a young brother recently released from prison, asked me about his mother whom he hasn’t seen since he was a baby.—she has been lost in the Tenderloin for years, and I have seen her from time to time, so I told the young man, also a product of foster care, now the California Department of Corrections, to go stand at 6th and Market and eventually he will see his mother, passing by on a mission impossible. I had told my nephew to do the same to find his father, lost and turned out in the TL.

This is some of the pain the film lacked.

It showed the grand beauty of San Francisco, but again, it should not have neglected the contrasting ugliness.  There was a scene with Chris and his son at the East Bay bus terminal, where they spent the night along with other homeless, although we don’t see the others in the film. I spent many nights on those benches at the East Bay terminal; it was difficult to find bench space in those days, around the same time as the film, early 1980s.

Ok, this is one man’s story, the struggle of an individual to get ovah in America, a slave narrative. Slavery was communal, not individual, so we need to know about all those others who are still there, who didn’t make it out. Can they get out? I got out. Chris got out, so it takes discipline as he demonstrated. You got to be bout it bout it. For Chris it was one step forward two back, but he fought all the way, trying to be husband, father, and worker in a racist society. Apparently he was successful.

Marvin X’s latest collection of essays is Beyond Religion, Toward Spirituality., Black Bird Press, 2006. ISBN: 0-9649672-9-4. His book is available in Oakland at De Lauer’s books, 14th and Broadway, and Your Black Muslim Bakery, San Pablo at Stanford.  Otherwise send $19.95 to Black Bird Press, P.O. Box 1317, Paradise CA 95967.

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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update 12 March 2012




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