Revolution #231, May 1, 2011
And Now... A Glimpse of Spring
A Reporter's Notebook on April 11 in Harlem
by a reader of Revolution newspaper
I begin these thoughts on the morning of April 12. I have just returned from a walk in a steady, soothing rain falling over newly blooming blossoms. The scene was beautiful and serene, but my thoughts of springtime come not only from the morning, but also from the night before.
April 11. Harlem, New York. "On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World."
I have just witnessed a night that could only be described as spectacular. Hundreds of people of diverse ages, backgrounds, and political perspectives came together in one place for an evening of jazz, funk, soul, rock, theater, dance, poetry, visual arts, commentary, and film. All of it aching for, giving voice to, and infused with the possibility of a radically different world than the maddening planet we live on now. All of it unleashed by—and cohered around—the occasion of the publication of BAsics, a comprehensive yet succinct new book of quotations and short essays by Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, with much of the evening's performances flowing from and a large portion of it explicitly inspired by the life and the work of Avakian.
An evening of such breadth, height, and depth cannot be fully captured in words alone. I have tried instead to provide a mere flavor of the evening; some initial recollections, snapshots, sights, sounds, words and impressions. Due to limitations of space, it is not possible to mention all the elements or performers that were part of this special night; and those that are mentioned can only be characterized briefly. But every person who took the stage at Aaron Davis Hall on this evening was part of a historic whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
And now, a look back at April 11...
It's a few minutes before 7 pm. I am standing in the lobby of Aaron Davis Hall, taking in an exhibition of visual arts that is much like the evening that awaits: Vibrant. Defiant. Diverse. Angry. Hopeful. Joyous.
The Guerrilla Girls Broadband have submitted a poem entitled, "The Advantages of No Choice Whatsoever," which deploys bitter irony both to condemn the escalating assault on a woman's right to an abortion, and to envision the future (or lack thereof) for women if that right is taken away. A painting by Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party, depicts a woman wielding the Black Panther newspaper. The painting proclaims: "All Power to the People." Hank Willis Thomas' work "Absolut Power" displays the familiar image of an Absolut Vodka bottle—except the inside of this bottle is a slave ship, with the infamous and horrifying visual of so many human beings packed together in tight, suffocating, unspeakable conditions. Dread Scott has taken inspiration from Bob Avakian's quote that begins, "If you can conceive of a world without America..."; Scott's print features the words "IMAGINE A WORLD WITHOUT AMERICA" printed on a map of the world. Kyle Goen's print of Harriet Tubman shows the abolitionist standing tall and proud, her hands clasped, her expression conveying: "I dare you to fuck with me." And Richard Duardo has contributed a beautiful, radiant color image of the person whose new book is the occasion bringing all of these artists—along with a broad range of performers and hundreds of attendees—together: Bob Avakian.
As I imbibe these various works of visual art, the sound of William Parker's bass line and Avakian's words—from the new version of Avakian's spoken-word piece "All Played Out"—are audible in the background, above the din of conversation of those waiting to enter the auditorium.
The words ring out, and I head inside.
A diverse crowd—perhaps more than half of whom are people of color, a large number of them Black—wait for the evening to begin. Many in attendance are middle-aged, but there are also youth and students on hand, as well as the elderly. By the time the night is over, the crowd will have expanded to reach nearly 400 people.
The lights dim. The celebration begins. Only the silhouette of saxophonist Moist Paula Henderson is visible as she plays behind a curtain, ushering in the night. Next, Cornel West appears on a video screen, and the first part of his comments are nearly drowned out because of cheers from the audience. West tells the people in the auditorium he is sorry he couldn't be there in person, but that they are right where they belong. He expresses his love for Bob Avakian because of Avakian's commitment to the poor, working class and oppressed people of the world, and speaks of the significance of BAsics being released into the world.
ACT 1: "Roots"...
"There would be no United States as we now know it today without slavery. That is a simple and basic truth."
The very first quote from BAsics flashes across the screen. This heralds the first act of the program: "Roots."
Singer Maggie Brown, the daughter of the singer, songwriter, playwright and activist Oscar Brown Jr., steps to the stage and delivers some of the more beautiful and poignant opening lyrics ever written: "I was born by the river/in a little tent/oh, and just like the river, I been a-running/ever since." The lines are from Sam Cooke's song, "A Change is Gonna Come." After singing the first two verses in a manner both soulful and serious, Brown transitions to Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free." Cheers of recognition spring forth from Aaron Davis Hall. Before long, the audience begins clapping in rhythm to Brown's vocals as she dances and twirls around the stage. I am moved to tears, both because of the beauty of the song, and because hearing it reminds me of the very poignant conclusion to Avakian's filmed talk, Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About, in which Avakian references Simone's piece in talking about how, for a time all too brief in past socialist societies, humanity had experienced what it truly meant to be free and how humanity could again reach—and even exceed—these previous heights.
Brown finishes by switching back to the final verse of "A Change is Gonna Come."
Next up is an excerpt from the film They Say They Will. In that excerpt, Joe Veale talks about how, in the days of the Black Panthers, Bob Avakian was the only white revolutionary to share the stage with Panther leaders such as Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver at the Huey Newton birthday party. This is followed by a clip of a young Avakian speaking at a May Day rally in 1969. In it, you get a sense of the fiery impatience and intolerance with the horrors of the capitalist-imperialist system—and the passionate determination to bring a much better system into being—that were already defining characteristics of Avakian, even at that relatively early stage in his political development.
"Let me say one thing to the white people in the audience," he says in the clip, going on to explain that the fact that the Panthers did not take the stance of hating white people did not mean that white people were somehow exempt from the struggle against racial oppression and the system that produces it...
Abiodun Oyewole, a founding member of the veteran radical artists The Last Poets, steps to the stage and sums up the evening thus far with a question: "Is this the '60s?" He then explains that he is about to read a poem that was not allowed to air on HBO's Def Poetry Jam. The piece begins: "America's a terrorist!" Oyewole's poem is full of righteous fury, as he masterfully weaves this refrain through condemnations of the brutal history of the United States and its violent, savage oppression of entire peoples here and around the world. The poem touches on lynchings, the 1985 bombing of the MOVE house in Philadelphia carried out by local police and the FBI, and the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four young Black girls, among many other crimes of this system. "Teach!" one woman yells in appreciation, as Oyewole recites the poem. After Oyewole concludes, the crowd responds with sustained, thunderous applause.
Tap dancers grace the stage next, performing "Excerpts from Tapsploitation." Dressed in all black (including their matching berets), the trio concludes an inspiring and liberating tap-dance routine by facing away from the stage and raising their fists...
ACT 2: "The Whole Globe In Mind...Dedication"
Appearing across the screen:
"American Lives Are Not More Important Than Other People's Lives."
Act 2 has begun. Henderson returns to the stage, once again supplying her saxophone to background a young woman's reading of Avakian's quote from BAsics that begins, "Look at all these beautiful children who are female in the world," and proceeds to viscerally and comprehensively condemn the many different forms of exploitation, degradation, and abuse that women face here and across the globe.
After the quote is finished, Henderson jams out for several minutes by herself.
The comedian and writer Aladdin is up next. Fusing the comic and the tragic in a way that would make Richard Pryor proud, he performs a portion of his play Indio, which will debut this fall at Joe's Pub in New York City. Aladdin's narrator recalls visiting and developing a precious bond with his cousin, who lived in Bangladesh amongst tremendous poverty. His reading is accompanied by a young man playing the tablas, or Indian drums. Both because it is very difficult to do justice to this performance in a limited number of words, and in the interest of not giving away too much before the premier of Indio, I will not say anything more...
A bit later in Act 2, Aladdin returns to the stage. He is one of several people to read letters written by prisoners to Revolution newspaper expressing appreciation for Avakian and BAsics. The letters share in common a deep appreciation for one particular quote: The one from the "Morality, Revolution, and the Goal of Communism" chapter of BAsics, which starts: "If you have had a chance to see the world as it really is, there are profoundly different roads you can take with your life..." and proceeds to sharply and poignantly contrast the bankruptcy of seeking to enrich oneself at the expense of others with the far more uplifting choice to contribute as much as one can to the revolutionary transformation of society and the world. The readers very creatively weave together—and alternate between—excerpts from the prisoner letters and the portion of Avakian's memoir from which the "profoundly different roads" quote is drawn, before transitioning into a full reading of the part that is in the actual BAsics book.
Immediately before intermission, Outernational, a young band that draws inspiration from The Clash— from rock, punk and many other forms of music—takes the stage, reading in Spanish and English a quote from the "Making Revolution" chapter of BAsics: "There is nothing sacred to us about the USA, as it is presently constituted, or about the borders of the U.S., as they are presently constituted. Quite the opposite."
Outernational then launches into an exhilarating and infectious performance of their song "Qué Queremos." Trumpet players make their way through the aisles of Aaron Davis Hall up to the stage, playing as they go. What follows is a superb, extended jam session that brings the house down.
By now, it is already extremely apparent how incredibly rare this evening is. And we're only at halftime. Somewhere around this time, veteran journalist Herb Boyd, who co-emcees the evening with Revolution newspaper writer Sunsara Taylor, sums it up well: "You ain't seen nothin' yet."
ACT 3: "A Different Way to Think, Feel and Be..."
"The truth will not set us free, in and of itself, but we will not get free without the truth."
This quote from Chapter 4 of BAsics—"Understanding the World"—kicks off the second half of the evening:
In a video submission, Richard Duardo says he is very honored to have designed the image of Bob Avakian that appears in BAsics. He explains that in working on the image, he paid particular attention to creating a visual that would be particularly magnetic and eye-catching for the youth.
Following Duardo's message, the audience is treated to the clip "A Better World is Possible," from Avakian's filmed talk, Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About. In this clip, Avakian uses history and humor to expose the absurdity and needlessness of the oppressed masses striving to get theirs within a system of vicious exploitation and oppression—which inevitably involves seeking to get over on others—rather than joining forces and raising their sights towards the total elimination of this oppression and exploitation. In bringing this point to life, Avakian references the scandal at a prison in California in which it came to light that guards were deliberately provoking fights between prisoners and then betting on the outcome. He uses this sickening episode as a metaphor for the way that oppressed people and groups are turned against one another more broadly. Later in the clip, the crowd laughs appreciatively when Avakian responds to those who claim to be "regulating" their corner by saying: "You ain't regulating shit." Avakian then compares this outlook to a situation in which a man is going around with a club in one hand and a knife in the other, breaking everybody's leg; and then says to the people that instead of trying to be the "baddest broke-leg motherfucker," the oppressed masses need to come together to stop the motherfucker breaking everybody's legs! The crowd erupts in cheers and applause.
Act 3 closes with a duet between bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp—widely considered two of the hottest contemporary jazz musicians around.
ACT 4: "A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World"
Scrawling across the screen as the final act commences: "...Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution..."
Former Black Panther Richard Brown steps to the microphone. Brown, a member of the San Francisco 8—a group of eight former Black Panther Party members and supporters who in recent years have been viciously railroaded by the government—says he has come to "pay his respects" to Avakian, a "bad-ass white boy." Brown notes that he has been in the revolutionary struggle for decades and says he hasn't been alone: Avakian has been there too. In rousing and defiant comments, Brown says that he is not discouraged but is impatient—and determined to help bring about a revolution. He implores young people in the audience, in particular, to get and study their copy of BAsics.
Sunsara Taylor takes the stage and prepares to introduce the evening's final speaker: Carl Dix, a founding member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. She urges the audience to become part of the movement for revolution in two major ways: by donating generously to cover the cost of the program and other expenses, and by leaving their contact information in order to get plugged in.
Dix then takes the stage and reads a quote that cuts to the essence of Avakian's re-envisioning of revolution and communism and, more specifically, the critical role of artistic experimentation and ferment in relation to each. In light of this, and in light of everything and everyone that has preceded Dix, the quote—from Chapter 2 of BAsics, entitled "A Whole New—and Far Better—World" could not be more fitting:
The quote begins: "Let's imagine if we had a whole different art and culture. Come on, enough of this 'bitches and ho's' and SWAT teams kicking down doors...."
There are murmurs of assent—especially from women in the audience—when these lines are read: "Enough of this 'get low' bullshit. And how come it's always the women that have to get low?"
After Dix finishes the quote, he tells the audience: "Get In. Get Out. Get connected," explaining that he means people should get deeply into the content of BAsics; get this new book out everywhere in society; and get connected to the movement for revolution.
Jazz prodigy David Murray steps forward. He does not speak. Correction: he does not speak with words. He lets his tenor sax do all the talking.
Here is the best way I can think of to describe the next few minutes: If Jimi Hendrix were still alive, and if he played the sax instead of the guitar... enough said. Later, a revolutionary and jazz enthusiast tells me it may be the best solo he has ever seen.
The program is over? Damn! But not quite yet. Maggie Brown returns, as do many other performers, speakers, the evening's two emcees, and others. Brown leads them in a stirring rendition of McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now." Many people in the audience stand, clapping in rhythm and dancing along.
The program ends with lengthy, boisterous applause and cheers. But the night is hardly over.
The crowd files back into the lobby, which buzzes with conversations. Masses of different backgrounds and strata, volunteers from Revolution Books, and some of the performers are mixing it up and talking with one another.
"Fabulous!" an older Black woman tells me when I ask for her impressions of the event. She adds that she is leaving with a "a book and a T-shirt."
Many people carry copies of BAsics; 73 copies had been sold during intermission or after the program.
One volunteer from Revolution Books says that people told her they were inspired to learn more about Bob Avakian after the program. Another volunteer says there is a sentiment among those who attended—reflected explicitly in the comments of some—that "maybe this is it." I ask her what she means, and she says there is a sense among masses who attended that "maybe revolution is possible after all."
By the time I exit the Harlem Stage, it is roughly 11 o'clock; nearly four hours after the celebration began.
I believe that those who—heading into this celebration—were unfamiliar or barely familiar with Bob Avakian received a fantastic introduction to this leader, his decades of pathbreaking work, and the concentration of that work embodied in BAsics. Through film clips from back in the day, as well as those more recent; through readings of Avakian's quotes speaking poignantly, powerfully, and provocatively to a broad array of topics; through thoughtful and heartfelt comments from a very wide range of people explaining why they treasure Avakian; the evening vividly illustrated his burning hatred for oppression and exploitation... his longstanding and unwavering commitment to eliminating that oppression and exploitation... his comprehensive understanding of the world we live in... his inspiring vision of a whole new way humanity could live... his humor... his poetic spirit.
And I further submit that those, such as myself, who entered the auditorium already deeply familiar with and appreciative of Avakian experienced him in a new way on April 11. Never before has such a diverse and supremely talented group of performers come together—on one stage—around Avakian's words and for the purpose of celebrating revolution and the vision of a new world. The result was a night characterized by the very sort of artistic expression, experimentation and exuberance that Avakian has identified as critical to the process of making revolution and transforming society.
In other words: the evening provided a glimpse into one key aspect of the future that Avakian has envisioned, and is fighting to bring into being. In this sense, anyone wondering—with sincerity or sarcasm—just what it is that is new about Bob Avakian's vision of communism need only to look to the night of April 11.
It is not often one can say they have been part of something truly historic; something they will remember and carry with them for the rest of their lives. But as I walk out into the night, I have no doubt that I just have.
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