Revolutionary Worker #1209, August 10, 2003, posted at rwor.org
In response to interest among our readers about the background of RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, this week we are publishing two memoirs: a letter written by Bob Avakian for the 40th Reunion Memory Book of Berkeley High School, class of 1960; and "FSM Reflections; On Becoming a Revolutionary" which was first published in the RWin 1996.
First, let me say that I am really sorry that I am unable to attend the reunion in October. I would love to be there to "catch up" and to share recollections of times that I still look back on, fondly, as a formative experience for me in a very positive sense. And I would like to send greetings to all my old friends and to my former classmates generally. I will look forward to reading the memories of our days at Berkeley High School (BHS) that others will be sharing and to learning at least a little something about their lives since then.
There are many recollections of my experiences at BHS that are still very vivid even now. It is hard to choose which to include for the memory book, but the following are a few that still stand out. (If these recollections of mine are inaccurate in any detail, and especially if they cause any embarrassment in regard to any of the people mentioned, I apologize for that. I look back on all the things mentioned here warmly, as positive experiences that helped me learn and grow as a person and in my understanding of the world.)
I want to begin with a memory that involves Langston Tabor--whom I was very upset to see listed as deceased along with some others who were part of our BHS class. When I went to Garfield Jr. High, the basketball games between Garfield and Burbank, where Langston went, were very intense and just plain tense. In our last year in junior high, the game at Burbank was interrupted several times by fights or near- fights, including several shoving matches between me and Langston. There may have been particular incidents, typical of sports rivalry, that set off these confrontations, but the larger and underlying factor was that Berkeley was then blatantly segregated. This was reflected in the school system to a large degree, including on the junior high school level; and, regardless of anyone's personal views, Garfield objectively stood as a symbol and bastion of that segregation and discrimination. When we went to Berkeley High the next year, these antagonisms carried over. But Langston and I, who had gym class together, got beyond our past conflicts and began to become friends. One day that year in gym class I was standing on the edge of the swimming pool when I looked up and saw someone looming over me. "Is your name Bob Avakian?" he demanded. "Yeah," I responded." "Did you play basketball for Garfield--did you play against Burbank last year?"--his questioning continued. I answered "yeah" again, and then he got to the "punchline": "Did you foul me?!" I didn't know what was going on--I felt like laughing, but something told me not to--so I just answered simply: "I might have--I can't remember something like that." A big smile--but more like a smirk--came across his face. He studied me for what seemed like a long time, even though it was probably only a few seconds, and then he turned and walked away. At that point, Langston, who had been watching all this, came over to me and said: "Man, you don't know how lucky you are. That was Jack McCray--he's one of the baddest dudes in the school! He was getting ready to deal with you." "But he was smiling ," I objected. "Yeah," replied Langston, "but when he smiles at somebody like that, it means he's getting ready to punch him out!!" Then Langston went on to tell me how I might handle a similar situation better in the future, but he also laughed at the fact that I must have seemed so out of it (or maybe so naively straightforward) to Jack that he didn't know quite what to do with me, so he just decided to let me slide.
Over the next three years, through playing on the football team and doing some other things together, Langston and I became "tighter," but I remembered that incident a long time--how could I forget it!--and I thought of it once again in learning that he had died.
I also remember that, in my senior year, the bus ride to Vallejo for a rare night football game became the occasion for a heartfelt discussion with several Black teammates about questions like: why was there so much discrimination and prejudice and what could be done to change this? Without pulling punches, they talked about what it meant to have to deal with and fight against this every day, and I learned much more in that short bus ride than I did in hours of formal classroom time.
When I read the recollections of me that Mike Scott wrote in material that was sent out by the Reunion Committee, I was moved by what struck me as very generous remarks on his part, including his observation that "[Bob's] empathy and understanding about American society and in particular white racism seemed beyond his years." (And yes, Mike, despite having been forced into exile in France in 1980, I am very much alive and definitely kicking. Still crazy, in the most sane way, after all these years. Still working for revolutionary change--still doing my part as Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA--still doing everything I can to act on my conviction that the horrible and unnecessary suffering, to which the great majority of humanity is subjected, can and must be done away with and a radically different and much better world brought into being.) I very much appreciate the generosity of Mike's comments. But the fact is that my "empathy and understanding," to which Mike refers, was something that I gained, to a large extent, as a result of the insight, the courage, the firmness, and the patience of people who opened up to me, struggled with me, and taught me invaluable lessons. A few years ago, in writing some reminiscences of the Free Speech Movement at Cal(see centerfold), I felt it was important to emphasize this point:
"I was extremely fortunate to attend a high school, Berkeley High, which for many decades has had a large number of Black students: some became close friends of mine, and both their personal stories and the larger experience of Black people that I was made aware of, the horrendous atrocities as well as the daily outrages and insults they were subjected to, burned into me very militant feelings about fighting against this oppression and made me recognize the rightness as well as the righteousness of Malcolm X's stand that this fight should be waged by any means necessary."
It was also at BHS that a number of my female classmates provided a refreshing challenge in "breaking the mold" of sexist stereotypes in all kinds of ways, big and small. They taught me the possibility and the value of being friends with women and not just seeking out "girlfriends" in the traditional sense. They helped introduce me to culture and ideas that were "off beat"--or in some cases actually "beat": I remember going to the Cal library a number of times during my senior year at BHS, putting on headphones and listening to a hypnotic recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his poem "Howl." In that same year, a number of my friends took off from school and joined with many others to protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings in San Francisco. Their recounting of the events--including how they were attacked and fire-hosed down the stairs by the police--conveyed a sense of outrage but also of excitement, even joy, at daring to challenge HUAC and everything rotten and reactionary that it represented. They conveyed an optimism that things not only should but could be changed. I kicked myself for missing out on this. (On the crucial day of protests I went instead to a conference of aspiring high school poets from around the Bay Area. There were others there whose poetry was bringing alive a fresh vision with bold new rhythms. As for me, I would have made a better contribution by going to the anti-HUAC protests!)
There are many, many other meaningful and moving memories I have of those times at BHS. But I want to end by recalling a simple unanticipated moment of spontaneous expression, of innocent subversion. One day, in glee club, the teacher was called out of class for some reason. As soon as he left, everything suddenly changed. A few people quickly stepped up around the piano. One of them sat down to play, and everyone gathered around while Johnell Fields (who was a year ahead of our class, I believe--and whom I also recall running for the game-winning touchdown, on a classic "statue of liberty" play, in the fourth quarter of an otherwise scoreless football game) took the lead in singing a classic doo-wop song: "Tell Me Darling." As Johnell sang lead, and others provided background harmony (and still others crowded in closer to be a part of this, even without singing, while a few people "stood guard" at the door to give warning if the teacher returned), there was an excited air of shared conspiracy, of joyful cutting loose, and of embracing something that was new, was at odds with "the mainstream" and was perhaps a little dangerous, in the best sense.
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