April 27, 2011
Campus Whits went to a screening at MOMA last week. Canadian cinemaster Guy Maddin introduced a series of shorts made by Dziga Vertov, a 1920s avant-garde filmmaker who crafted collages of Worker and Peasant life after the Russian Revolution. In Kino-Pravda No.22, a throng of Peasants lines up to spectate Vladimir Lenin’s Tomb, allowed into royal chambers which previously were the exclusive spaces of the Monarchy.
The Worker is an intellectual armed with the knowledge to farm and build machines. The Worker is a speech-stumper, a friend to zoo animals, and often a smoker.
Instead of baptism, the Workers “Octoberize” their children, and instead of Jesus, they raise Lenin from the dead.
In 1969, Civil Rights activist and organizer James Forman issued the “Black Manifesto.” Forman interrupted a church service at Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan and fired off the text of the Manifesto. Riverside Church is an ecumenical house of worship built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in the late 1920s, just when Jr. was signing the lease on the land in midtown for Rockefeller Center. Riverside Church claims to be the tallest in America, and in the belfry hangs what is said to be the largest tuned bell in the world. Martin Luther King spoke out against the Vietnam War at Riverside a year before his assassination. The Church is right down the block from Grant’s Tomb, where lay the General who won the War of Rebellion in 1865, ending slavery in the United States. In 2011, at the 150th anniversary of the War’s inception, the promenade before Grant’s Tomb serves as a meeting place for weekend unicyclers, whereas 100 years ago the bustling crowds equaled the magnitude of those in Red Square for Vertov’s Kino-Pravda.
The Black Manifesto called for Christian churches and Jewish synagogues nationwide to pay $500 million in reparations for slavery. Forman, with wry militancy, estimates the cost at “15 dollars per nigger.” Black Americans, disenfranchised since 1619 at Jamestown, VA., “have helped to build the most industrial country in the world.” Backed by the National Black Economic Development Conference, Forman indicts the Judeo-Christian complex as culpable agents in the suppression of blacks in Africa and America. Forman details a budget plan for the money, including a Southern land bank, a publishing and printing firm, and a National Black Labor Strike and Defense Fund.
In Kino-Pravda No.22, the Worker is sublimated as the educator of the Peasant.
Likewise, the Black Manifesto will form training centers in research and “futuristic” audio/visual communications skills, and calls “upon all our brothers and sisters” who can teach subjects like engineering, electronics, physics and military science. Hope and faith lie in the brain and the hands. Nonviolence is asked of the churches and synagogues, but Forman asserts “we have been dying too long for this country,” and that “the new black man… must not… merely believe in self-defense.”
Read the full text of the Black Manifesto at the New York Review of Books, where it was published July 10, 1969, the Summer of Love.
There is something disingenuous about Vertov’s lionization of Vlad Lenin. Marxist ideology promotes the group over the individual. All the Workers and Peasants are bewhiskered and dress in dark wool, and uniformed officers are shown to step in time before the Kremlin. It would seem, to keep with the program of mass consciousness, that Lenin should be read, quoted, put into action, rather than exhibited as if in The Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, MI.
Vertov shows the iron pail Lenin used to cook with while in hiding, like any presidential Americana artifact.
Contents of Abe Lincoln’s pockets at Ford’s Theater:
In James Forman’s 500-plus page memoir, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Forman describes his work as executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which agitated for the voting rights of black communities in the South persecuted by white vigilantes, like Public Safety warlord “Bull” Connor in Birmingham, AL. Forman stresses that all his acts support the group, otherwise the Movement fails, and he criticizes the NAACP and SCLC as victims of self-aggrandizement and pandering to the Justice Department. “We were not spokesmen, interpreters, or philosophers. We existed to serve the field.” Forman’s memoir is layered with oral histories, sworn Affidavits, prison journals, unpublished manuscripts, and many more textual voices of fellow actors in the Movement. A similar palimpsest of text is found in the FBI file on Forman, where memos, literary excerpts, informant summaries and redacted medical records are assembled and indexed to portray the individual. The FBI opened a file on the Black Economic Development Conference, and cast the BEDC’s demand for slavery reparations as a crime of extortion against religious groups.
In 1832, a congregation of black Protestants incorporated St. Peter’s Church in Brooklyn Heights. At the time, five years after New York State abolished slavery, oppressed free blacks could use “the legal commonplace of a certificate of incorporation” to claim “the rights of citizenship regardless of race” and assert “equal rights under the law.” Read a revealing article by Larry Weimer, project archivist at the Brooklyn Historical Society, on the early leap in civil rights which incorporation laws afforded blacks in Brooklyn, one year after Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion in Virginia.
The MOMA screening opened with a short movie by Guy Maddin, The Heart of the World, which dramatizes the creation myth of cinema as a cataclysmic sci-fi newsreel romance… watch its whipcracking six minutes here.
April 14, 2011
My last vacation was October 2006, when I visited my brother in Redondo Beach, CA for a month. It was my first time in Los Angeles, the Internal Combustion City, and I was totally into it and can’t wait to go back next time I get a month off.
A couple of nights before I left for back home, I spoke on the phone to my friend, Marty Reisman, a veteran table tennis champion and ping-pong hustler who spent his youth honing his skills in the pool halls of old Broadway.
Watch Marty break a cigarette in half with a sizzling forehand here.
Marty suggested that I contact his friend, Dexter Gray, who lives in the Hollywood Hills. I waffled, stupidly, but took Marty up on the introduction, and Dexter was thrilled to have us. Dexter is a virtuoso pianist, who played a legendary concert on the Great Wall of China.
We scheduled a time to come by Dexter’s place. Turned out we also promised a friend we would get him at the airport around the same time. “So, before we head to your mom’s, we’re gonna stop at my friend Marty’s friend Dexter’s place, okay?”
Dexter greeted us at the door in track pants and a leather jacket. His hoary blond hair fitfully swept to his shoulders, weathered by a life of music wrought and blast of his hands and mind.
Dexter lived in a Spanish revival house set lordly on the lower slope of Laurel Canyon. Dexter calls it the Holly Mont Castle, with a sign outside. The firebrand actress Barbara Stanwyck lived there in the 1930s, unhappily, with her first husband, Frank Fay. Ghost-hunters have visited Holly Mont looking for spirits. In the 60s the house was a scene for psych head bands like Buffalo Springfield.
Dexter showed us around.
A famous, unplayable piano.
Dexter had arranged a cozy viewing nook for Jesus. The pianist explained that he wasn’t particularly religious, but one day when he ends up at the gates of Almighty, he can show the angels that he did his part.
He let us try on the jackets once worn by Liberace.
Dexter posed at the Marty Reisman shrine.
Dexter described to us the rejuvenation that possessed him after a recent near-death experience. Before we left, Dexter repeated what seemed to be his mantra: “The Unstoppable Force Meets the Immovable Object!” It was the first time I’d heard the phrase, and apparently its a saying. Among others, The Joker says it to Batman at the end of the movie The Dark Knight. It’s catchy. No other than a binary universe. Forces at odds make life. Human history is the story of self-awareness, and the rights which may or not be given, are fought for. The brain negotiates truth against the powers who kill over power. Those who cannot control themselves naturally move to control others.
In the 1960s, FBI agents visited the sites of protest and violence in the Deep South, but did not intervene, and instead took notes to record an account of the actions of individuals and groups getting their heads bashed in by rednecks. James Forman, a revolutionary, and other veterans of the Civil Rights movement have published their own accounts, as counteragents of memory to the history told by the Justice Department. As the FBI created private files on figures in the Movement, it also investigated sicko members of the Ku Klux Klan. J. Edgar Hoover believed he existed at some realizable point between the unstoppable force and the immovable object.
Watch a vintage example of James Forman on the soapbox here.
Norman Mailer took the quip as his pontificate’s pose each time he addressed the public when running for Mayor of New York City in 1969, as when Mailer & running mate Jimmy Breslin roiled the campus of Queens College.
March 30, 2011
My work with the James Forman Library is ongoing, and involves a term new to my vocabulary, “bio-bibliography,” which is the study of a person by way of their book reading, and the traces of their life’s work that can be found in the books they left, beginning with jottings, underlines, inscriptions, bookmarks, to get happy on the trust that these aims are true, painted from memory.
I have found several things so far that support the living interpretation of the collection, as in a signed copy of Toward Soviet America (1932) by William Z. Foster, a Communist leader in the 1920s who ran for President in the Jazz Age; and a copy of River of No Return, by Cleveland Sellers, a memoir of SNCC, and lengthily inscribed to Forman.
My focus is Forman’s collection of FBI reports – giant stacks of manila-backed papers compiled by J. Edgar Hoover’s crew-cut knights on SNCC, James Forman himself, and mid-20th century mob bosses like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Forman was a prolific chronicler of his own times, and studied the FBI reports as alternative, authoritarian versions of history – on which versions Forman called bluff.
Here is a page from Forman’s FBI Report, 1967, where Forman is introduced in terms of Hoover’s informant:
Here the G-Man assesses Forman’s psycho-political predicament:
Forman’s actions are cast in the mold of a master spy:
The FBI moves forward to make their subject an inFormant:
To study the “marginalia” of a reader’s book collection, one can never be sure whose marginalia it is. Avid bookbuyers often get the bug for the musty majesty of used bookstores, which are cheap and bountiful. A working survey of James Forman’s library, written last semester by QC bibliographist David Gary, finds that “most of the books were acquired second hand by Forman at used bookshops in Detroit, New York, Ithaca, and Washington,” and that he “also bought books that were sold by public libraries after weeding.” To authenticate the notations, one might get familiar with the subject’s reading, writing, thinking habits. Otherwise you could hire someone like Joe Nickell, an investigator of mysteries. Judging by several books in the personal collection of Campus Whits which have previous owners’ markings, it seems most readers stop underlining by page 20, especially if the volume was once assigned on the syllabus.
I worked at a used and rare book shop for five years in downtown Manhattan – the type of place James Forman might buy books. But in the used book market, marked-up copies lessen the value of the “piece.” When our shop bought the library of historian and fervent diarist Edward Ellis, alot of good books were sold cheaply because Ellis had a habit of highlighting passages with a yellow fluorescent pen. If anything, it would tell the bio-bibliographer how Ellis compiled his research, how and what information he valued as writer of history and as a prodigious jotter of his own times – and also that Ellis had little aesthetic for marginalia, since a yellow highlighter is about the most offputting of penscript.
One time, the shop had a copy of a rare Timothy Leary book, published in the heyday, which a curious browser was interested in but only because he liked how its former owner marked it up, with doodlings induced by a state of mind brightly bewizened by the brown acid. But we priced-up the book, at a bookdealer’s number, and the curious browser put it back. If it was five bucks we would have had a sale, but the book’s rarity outweighed any doodle depreciation. In both these cases, with the books of Edward Ellis and Timothy Leary, the value and lack of value of each book had equally nothing to do with its contents.
The writer Edmund Wilson, in 1926 (The American Earthquake: A Documentary of the Twenties and Thirties), takes bookdealers to task for what he sees as their exsanguination of books. They are “the most blighting influence on the book shops,” who “traffic in first editions and other rarities.” Wilson is acrimonious in recognizing that “there are book galleries just as there are art galleries,” which are staffed by “old gentlemen with eyeglasses and ragged mustaches, who seem to live in a state of morose trepidation for fear somebody will ask them for a copy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
If the biobibliographer of the year 2111 found my copy of Gaming: The Future’s Language (1974, Richard D. Duke), they might have been turned on to the hermeneutics of finding this clipping I recently found stuck in the pages of the book, for some reason:
As a NYC tour guide for Gray Line Bus Tours, I like to tell passengers that the city is not just the Big Apple, but also The Big Book, since while you’re here you get a story. So it was encouraging to find this Gray Line brochure from 2001, which trademarks the sentiment:
This book I found in the QC Special Collections room, which allows a peer into the third eye of design by which the QC campus has come to life:
February 22, 2011
Last week at Rosenthal Library Auditorium, civil rights leader Julian Bond was invited as distinguished guest speaker to celebrate the acquisition of The James Forman Library for the QC Civil Rights Archive. James Forman was an executive secretary and active member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Julian Bond – who as a student at Morehouse College spearheaded protest action from the booths of Yates & Milton Drugstore in Atlanta, GA. – joined the SNCC as communications director, and among other things worked with photographer Danny Lyons to document the Movement.
Africana Studies Director Dr. Julmisse opened the evening with cogent and evocative remarks. QC president Dr. Muykens introduced Mr. Bond, and did not buck any cliches about the campus-comedy dean, as he numerously referred to the James Forman collection as “papers,” when the acquisition is not Forman’s papers, but his personal library of books. Forman’s papers are in the Library of Congress. Not the gravest error, but a conspicuous one. Archivists are up in arms over that crusty old dean.
James Forman’s son, James, Jr., spoke humbly and enthusiastically, and attested to the sublimating effect of Julian Bond as a speaker. And Julian was masterful. He provoked, quipped, stated statistics with the narrative command with which he also deployed rhetorical tricks. He looked back to the 1960s, when the movement was alive with change, and he was keen to the ravages going forward. Summing up the old days with the new, he used a device the Greeks called Antanaclasis, noting that back then “good music was popular, and Popular Music was good.” Julian must have seen the tribute to Aretha Franklin at last week’s Grammy Awards.
Watch footage of Julian Bond’s remarks here.
Mr. Bond had the style of a seminal toastmaster, if the subject of the roast was Race in the United States. Race was not about skin, but power. Race trumps education, health care and war. In James Forman’s autobiography, Making of Black Revolutionaries, Forman is passionate about reading and knowledge, and repulsed by his service in the Air Force, where institutional racism is the suppressor of the active life of the mind.
Julian made clear his own stance, dropping phrases about “right-wingers” and ‘Tea Baggers.” Though he promotes the role of government in creating civic and social justice, he also founds his approach to government by the faith that government can be caused to change. That it is by nature an organic body in flux, not a bedrock that refuses the drill of the people. The setting is ripe for action, in a world where once “banks lent to people, instead of people lending to banks.” Julian is both a veteran of the Atlanta Senate chambers and the stage of Saturday Night Live. On SNL (which is available to watch on Netflix, season 2, episode 18, with Brick and Tom Waits as musical guests), Julian is more ready to play prime time than the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, and the skits skewer race and exploit white politics. He opens the show on stage in a 3-piece suit, reciting a litany of his past accomplishments, and concludes that his appearance on the show was not based on his pedigree, but only because they wanted a “chocolate Easter bunny.” It’s archival evidence that Saturday Night Live was once counterculture.
This semester, Campus Whits will be working to accession James Forman’s Library, 75 boxes of books on Southern history, NVA pamphlets, true-crime Mafia paperbacks, subscriptions to Marxist journals, handouts on health, and FBI reports. James Forman was enlightened and pugnacious and determined, and his revolution, unlike much freedom fighting, was nonviolent. As the event at Queens College Rosenthal Library came to end, a handful vets of the movement stood up and chanted “We Shall Overcome.” It was the first time I’d heard it live. Louis Armstrong has his own version.