The RW Interview: Engaging Connections

Revolutionary Worker #1238, May 1, 2004, posted at

The "RW Interview" is a special feature to acquaint our readers with the views of significant figures in art, theater, music, literature, science, sports, and politics. The short excerpts here give a flavor of the connections made through these interviews.

From the first RW Interview, in 1985--with writer Ntozake Shange:

RW :In your work you discuss "forbidden subjects"--in particular the centrality of women characters, the oppressive relations between men and women, parents and children. for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf struck a nerve. Why was this so controversial?

Ntozake Shange: Oh I think because Black women aren't supposed to have desires or needs. I think Zora Neale Hurston said it in Their Eyes Were Watching God, that they treat women like mules, or we are the mules of the world, I think that's the quote. And one of my big preoccupations as a writer is to explore the unconscious, because it is in the unconscious that our true motivations lie, our true fears and true desires. And as I explored my own unconsious and what I think were those of other women, I discovered all these elements, all these feelings and all these ideas about how we are treated and how we feel about how we're treated. And that's what I think was in for colored girls . And it was astounding to the rest of the public that a mere colored woman could feel this much and be able to articulate it. I think that was what struck the nerve, that we were not supposed to be able to talk, much less have the feelings or the nerve to present them to someone.

Radical historian Howard Zinn was interviewed by Maoist political economist Raymond Lotta:

Raymond Lotta: A People's History of the United States is probably your best-known work. So many people who read the book have had their eyes opened, not only by the conclusions you reach but by your whole approach to history. Could you spell out what you mean by "people's history''?

Howard Zinn : I guess what I mean by a "people's history'' is basically two things. First, the content of history, which is different from traditional history in that I am telling of the lives of the people who are generally ignored by traditional history. For instance, the so-called great "economic miracle'' of the United States between the Civil War and World War 1, when the United States becomes an enormously powerful industrial nation--that's presented traditionally as a great and wonderful triumphal experience. But left out of these traditional histories--it was very clear to me as I was studying both as an undergraduate and graduate student--was the experience of working people. Who were the people who worked for Rockefeller's refineries? Who were the people who worked on the transcontinental railroad? Who were the Chinese immigrants and Irish immigrants who died while working on the railroads? The girls in the textile mills of New England --going to work in the mills at the age of 12, dying at the age of 25--they were absent. I wanted to bring in these people.

The other thing is simply a point of view, simply to look at history with a different point of view, not just a different point of view in the academic sense, but very specifically to look at the events of American history from the point of view of people who have not had a voice, people who have been oppressed, and people whose struggles have not been noticed. So I decided I wanted to tell the story of Columbus from the standpoint of the Indians that he encountered.

Contributing RW writer Larry Everest interviewed Pierre Sané, Secretary General of Amnesty International, shortly after the release of Amnesty's 1998 report targeting human rights abuses in the U.S.

Pierre Sané: We felt it was necessary to do this because of the extent of human rights violations in the U.S. The human rights situation in the U.S. is bad, and our research shows it's getting worse. It is getting worse because there is a sort of warlike mentality in this country. There is a war on crime, there is a war on drugs, there is a war on illegal immigrants, there is a war on terrorism. And law enforcement agencies are given a lot of scope to deal with these issues, which are presented as national threats. And in a context like that, human rights are likely to be a casualty.

In a RW interview conducted last year, people's lawyer Lynne Stewart talked about why she has taken on the cases of Black Panthers and other radicals, revolutionaries, and political people persecuted by the U.S. government.

Lynne Stewart : I'm for directed violence with the support of the people. I think history has taught us that change does not come about except when people are willing to lay down their lives for it, to fight for it, to say I can't live like this any more. So, I'm not against violence, because I see that's what makes change--and I'm for change. I'm a hundred percent opposed to the status quo as it is.

From an interview with Black revolutionary political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1994--his 12th year on Pennsylvania's death row:

RW: Mumia, you once used the phrase that the police in Philadelphia saw you as "a target to be neutralized." What do you think is behind this campaign by the state of Pennsylvania to kill you? Why do they want to make an example out of your execution?

Mumia : Because to them and to other people I've become more than a living being, I've become a symbol.a symbol of resistance to the system. It is no accident that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in my prosecution--"persecution"--literally leaped back over a decade in time to tell jurors about my political background, about my membership in the Black Panther Party, about words I'd said, like "all power to the people" and "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" and "the Black Panther Party is a political and uncompromising party."

From interview with Boots Riley of the hip hop group The Coup [#1122]:

RW : How do you think things have changed [since 9/11], in the arts especially?

Boots: In the aftermath of September 11 there is a lot of censorship going on and there's also some self- censorship going on. One group took a song off of their album because it was slightly offensive to the New York police. Some artists who would normally be saying something against the system or whatever are scared to say it right now. It's in the air, censorship is in the air. There's all these images out there--on that Hollywood telethon they had and other places--people standing in front of the flag and singing and in between they have these images saying "we're gonna stand together."

What does that really mean. They're not saying that we're going to stand together to go and put the buildings back up and they're not saying we're going to stand together to go and hug each other. So people have to ask what that really means. And what they mean by standing together is in fighting whoever the U.S. says the enemy is. You know they want artists to all just line up behind George W. Bush.

In 1996 the RW interviewed investigative reporter Gary Webb, whose series in the San Jose Mercury, "The Dark Alliance," exposed the links between the CIA-run Contra army in Central America and the crack epidemic that hit U.S. cities during the 1980s. Webb came under heavy attack from the CIA and the mainstream press.

RW : In light of all these attacks on you and the series, why have you decided to stick to your guns, to take the risks--to tell the story and stick to it?

Gary Webb : Because it's true. And the bottom line is: it's true. And you get into journalism specifically for this reason. And if I thought the stories were wrong or I'd made a mistake, I would say yes, I was wrong. But I wasn't wrong. And this is a story that people need to know--(A) not only to understand what happened, but (B) I mean somebody needs to be held accountable for this. These were crimes that were committed. People get sent to jail for cocaine conspiracies all the time. And this was a conspiracy that brought in thousands and thousands and thousands of kilos of cocaine into the United States. Into the inner cities. And nobody has paid a price for it yet, except the people who are living in those neighborhoods.

From a 1985 interview with the great trumpet player and jazz composer Lester Bowie:

RW : I want to ask you about the song "Theme for Soco" from the Urban Bushmen album. That song is clearly about a people's struggles and eventual victory. There's a real optimism to that song, which I think runs through the Art Ensemble's work as a whole, but it really stands out in that song.

Lester Bowie : Yeah, there is a lot of optimism. What we're trying to say is that we know that this is going to be hard, but at the same time we know that it's going to be beauty at the end of it all. We know that once we can put this together, once the cultures do become together and the people learn to understand and work together, it's going to be beautiful. This planet can really be nice and we believe that it will actually happen, even though a lot of pessimistic people are saying it won't. It's going to be really nice and we try to convey that in the music, but at the same time we try to show what we have to go through. Like, for instance, "Theme for Soco"--it's war there for a while. There's a lot going on. It wasn't easy to get to that triumphant end. It took a lot of things. But we believe that people and goodness will eventually triumph. And it will. I know this already. Thing is, we want everybody else to know it.

Among the people interviewed by the RW are: