Revolution #236, June 19, 2011

"Pieces for Revolution"—Open Mic at Revolution Books

From a reader

On the third Friday of every month, Revolution Books in New York City hosts "Pieces for Revolution," an open mic night produced by Revolution Books and Price Tags Entertainment. These events feature a unique mix of poets, rappers, spoken-word and visual artists—including revolutionaries—who broadly speaking and from various angles, wrestle with the world as it is and might be. Artists are encouraged to share their most controversial and daring poems at the bookstore, which is the intellectual center of the movement for revolution, in a unique format that includes questions and discussion between the audience and artist after each piece.

I wanted to share some experiences and thoughts off of attending the April edition of "Pieces for Revolution." This open mic happened four days after a spectacular event in Harlem, On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World (see article "Learning from 'On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World'" in this issue of Revolution).

Some people who attended the open mic had first met the movement for revolution a few nights earlier at the celebration in Harlem, where people had been presented with a strong and living sense of BAsics, and of Bob Avakian, his work and leadership more generally. And this was at the core of a broader artistic expression that took different forms and engaged different key societal questions and phenomena; and there was a powerful interplay between the solid core of BAsics and Avakian's leadership and the elasticity of this broader artistic expression. All this made the open mic an extremely rich and lively night with a lot of important questions in the mix and a true revolutionary spirit on display.

The program began with an emcee reading two quotes from BAsics—2:8 (Chapter 2, quote 8) ["Let's imagine if we had a whole different art and culture..."] and 1:19 ["The bourgeoisie (capitalist class) presides over a system in which people are compelled by necessity—by the fundamental workings and dynamics of that system of capitalism—to compete with each other in a thousand ways, and this system too in a thousand ways promotes and rewards selfishness and surviving, and if possible thriving, at the expense of others...]

The evening's featured performer was a young poet from Nigeria who grew up in the U.S. He did several pieces dealing with a variety of different subjects, including the impact of slavery and colonization on Africa, the devastating impact of Shell Oil and other multinational corporations on Nigeria, the destruction of the environment and the stereotypes and misconceptions he faced as an African immigrant in a U.S. high school. His poems also addressed the oppression of women. Besides speaking very powerfully to the lasting legacy of slavery and imperialism in Africa, his poems also had a lot of wit and swagger. A sample line from one of the poems was something like: "This poem isn't about racism/but what if it is?"

After this, a young Black woman came up to perform. First, she did a poem entitled "Struggling" about the hardships people face struggling from paycheck to paycheck. Next, she said that she wanted to read a new poem she wrote that evening at Revolution Books. She said that the poem had originally started as a love poem and then turned into something else. The poem ended up speaking to the question of complicity—to people's reluctance to deal with reality and their tendency to instead stick their heads in the sand.

Another highlight of the evening was when a youth read a letter written to Revolution newspaper by a prisoner. He read the letter with a tremendous amount of feeling, really bringing alive the prisoner's voice for everyone in the room. After this reading, a young woman very proudly announced that she had taken up the call on April 11 to buy two BAsics books; one for herself and one for a prisoner.

The reading of this letter also started a very heavy and deep conversation about the conditions that prisoners face and about who is to blame for the situation they are in. After the reading, a young woman in the audience who has come to previous "Pieces..." open mic nights said that her sister was currently in jail. She said that her sister had agreed to undergo a "boot camp" type program in the prison in order to be released early. The young woman was clearly very distraught over the conditions that her sister was facing and said that she didn't think it was right for anyone to put people into conditions where they are "treated like animals." She also made some comments about how her sister would be able to be strong and survive, and that maybe she would be able to learn from her mistakes after the experience. At the same time, this woman suggested during the back-and-forth that perhaps people—including her sister—are responsible for the choices they make and the situations they are in. A couple of people replied that there is a system at work that is responsible for people being in prison—a system that leaves people with few if any choices in their lives.

Next, a young woman who had asked in the beginning whether all the pieces performed needed to be about revolution decided to get up to read a poem she had written that dealt with her parents' interracial marriage and the racism they had to deal with.

One of the emcees read a poem she had written that explored what love and relationships could look like in a new society. She used the metaphor of skateboarding to examine the idea of soaring to new heights in the realm of romantic love. It was a great poem and drew out a lot of conversation including what it meant for people to have romantic love in their life, but not having that be the only thing their lives are about. The last line of the poem spoke to this, saying that love was just "one move in our repertoire."

After this a young woman who was not originally planning to take the mic chose an excerpt on the spot from Bob Avakian's memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey From Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist. She explained that she hadn't originally planned to read but felt inspired and compelled to do so after listening to the conversation and the other pieces that night. She read from page 66 of the memoir, from the "High School" chapter, where BA talks about attending a New Year's Eve dance with a Black girl and how the two of them gave each other a really big kiss at midnight—both because they really liked each other and also in order to make the racists who didn't like that they were together "eat it." The young woman who read this excerpt from the memoir said she felt inspired to read this section because it served as a powerful example of what it looks like when people come together in romantic relationships in a way that defies the traditional, backward and dominant relations of society and exudes the joy that comes from finding a partner in your life who also finds the conditions of this society intolerable and stands together with you on that basis, making others "eat it" together.

This was the final reading of the night and got a very enthusiastic response from the room. The woman who had earlier read the poem about her parents' own interracial relationships was very struck by the fact that BA took such an uncompromising and principled stand in the early 1960s against white supremacist hatred for interracial relationships; having just been introduced recently to Avakian's work, she first assumed that this high school dance had happened much more recently.

The reading of the Memoir excerpt, and the reaction of others to this, was one good example of the spirit and morality of the evening and the way that a lot of different conversations were opened up and new ideas were explored, with people coming together around a basic sentiment—even if not always fully conscious or explicitly stated—that the conditions of this society are intolerable and a new culture must be created that stands against that.

All in all, the April "Pieces for Revolution" was a very inspiring and invigorating evening. The night was informed by the energy, liveliness, content and form of April 11. People were really given a powerful sense of BAsics, of BA and his leadership—including as it relates to the question of a whole new art and culture. And the night drove home the powerful impact that BAsics—and readings of quotes from BAsics—can and already is having, as well as the significant potential of things like "Pieces for Revolution" as a means of drawing people forward and introducing them to this movement for revolution and this leader, as part of—and in concert with—a broader artistic ferment.

It seems there is much to consider and learn from all this, in an ongoing way.

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What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond