Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Learning How To Hear

Twice today, I've been reminded why James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" is my favorite short story, and it seems like it happens several times a week. Like my other favorite stories--"The Lady with the Pet Dog," "Babylon Revisited," and "The Gilded Six Bits"--"Sonny's Blues" is a story that bucks easy answers to life's most intimate questions. Chekov would say why bother writing a story if you have the answers, a story's goal is to ask the right questions, and Baldwin manages to weave just about every damn one of them into a relatively simple tale about two brothers trying to connect.

"Sonny's Blues" tackles the particular issues surrounding brothers, addiction, heartbreak, education, parenting, and cultural prejudice. It's a story that captures the subjectivity of class division and the geography of racial segregation. It describes the insidious dynamics of social separation and the erroneous divisions between "high" and "low" culture. Set against the crushing disappointments of the Great Migration to the North, it celebrates the legacy of our roots and the promise of our posterity. Wrestling with the meaning of masculinity, the story reconciles seeimingly "right brain" arts with "left brain" sciences. Dreaming of liberation, the story finds the journey leads straight through our divine interdependence.... There is no ending to this list of the story's themes. Whenever I pick up "Sonny's Blues," it is speaking to what's going on in my life at that moment.

Baldwin does this by exploring how hard it is to truly be there for one another--what a feat it is to actually hear what is being said and how there is no other choice. No one line says it better than this, an epiphany Sonny's older brother has as he listens to Sonny play the notes that keep his soul alive--"Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did."

An article in Salon today, about Whitney Houston, quoted some things I had to say about Houston as it searched for a way to rationalize the way we've (American society's) felt compelled to give up on one of the most significant pop music voices of the past 20 years, why we want to feel okay about ourselves as we give good tough love and leave her to her own devices. I admire the writer's willingness to go there, but I was disappointed to find that she, more or less, gives up on Houston by the end of the piece.

I just don't think any of us can let ourselves off that easy. In one respect, what's happened with Whitney Houston is her fault, but, in another respect, every voice that slips away the way hers has, that never reaches its potential the way hers hasn't yet, is a loss we all suffer. And as "Sonny's Blues" insists, the key to our freedom comes with recognizing our need for one another, particularly when it fucks up our pretty picture of how things ought to be.

Baldwin doesn't have the answers. In fact, his argument is (if it can be so simply stated) that any easy answer is a lie. The choice between what's right and wrong in dealing with our responsibility to one another is, in the specific details, always changing, never absolute. All he can offer is a compass to help find our way, and that's what "Sonny's Blues" is for me. As in the ending of Chekov's "Lady with the Pet Dog," the moment when the older brother finally hears his little brother's song is the moment when he begins to grasp that the hardest part has only just begun.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Real American Movement

Yesterday, April 10, I called a friend at a local paper and asked her if she had any idea where any of the immigration rallies might be taking place that day. We were both embarrassed that we were clueless about it, but I could see what I've heard others talking about, the upside of it.

This is different. Unlike the many smaller demonstrations that result in multiple announcements landing in my Inbox, these demonstrations mark a relatively spontaneous movement on a scale we haven't seen before. All of the familiar organizers are not in control of this. Of course, it also points up the communication gulf that divides the relatively small “progressive community” from the rapidly expanding Latin American community.

From my perspective today, that’s mostly good news. Want to close the gap? Just show up. That’s what Lauren and I did last night when we saw that we hadn’t missed all of the day’s rallies because a nighttime demonstration was taking place in Kansas City, Kansas. The 10:00 news TV reporter said that KCK police were allowing the demonstrations to continue, but that traffic needed to keep moving up and down KCK’s Central Avenue, so people were no longer being allowed to stop and get out of their cars on that street. What was happening was a parade of cars looping the area waving flags and honking at the demonstrators on the street.

Lauren said "Let's go," and I have to thank her for that because I was done in from a long day (a sizeable part of it spent driving to all the wrong places, apparently, trying to find out what was going on) ending in an unproductive evening. My shoes were off; my allergies were driving me nuts, and I was feeling like turning in early, and without her shove I wouldn't have rationalized getting back out there. But she redeemed the whole day. Though the demonstration was a good 15 minutes from where we live now, I lived just off Central for the first 5 years of this decade, so it was like coming back to our home turf. But neither one of us had ever seen anything like it before.

Though the demonstration was focused around 10th and Central, we took the Central exit off of 18th, and we were almost immediately a part of a long line of slow moving cars, honking horns, waving hands and flags at the hundreds of people lining the sidewalks waving hands and flags back.

I don’t know how long that drive through the core of the demonstration took, but it was so beautiful, I wouldn’t have minded it lasting much longer. Although I’m sure all but a small fraction of the people involved were Hispanic to some degree, every race seemed to be represented (of course, this is true of the Latino identity anyway, and it's certainly true of the immigration issues). We immediately felt not separate from but a part of what was going on. We honked and waved, and folks waved back, everyone cheering everyone else on.

Since we had no flags, as we neared the center of the demonstration, Lauren held up a copy of the Tribuno del Pueblo newspaper which has a big, bold photo of a child waving both the Mexican and the American flag on its cover. We had hoped to find some centralized area where we might talk to someone about distributing the paper, but this impulse really arose from the perfect imagery on the cover.

Almost immediately, a group of young people shot out of the crowd and asked us if they could have a copy, and then, with some immediate unspoken understanding, the group along the sidewalk took all of the papers and began passing them out into the crowd. Maybe a minute passed from the time we showed that cover and when we were out of the 50 or so papers we had. We only wished we’d had more.

After all, we write for and distribute the Tribuno’s sister publication, The People’s Tribune, and our goal for this issue was to bring some specific historical and political context to the government’s current attack on immigrants as well as to underscore what unifies these struggles with others going on around the country. What we saw in the demonstrators' reactions to the newspaper was natural, welcoming recognition. We didn’t have to explain why we had a stack of papers to hand out; the demonstrators just got it.

When we reached the end of the route, we decided to turn around and plunge back in. The trip was even longer the second time because the police were beginning to flex their muscles, firing up sirens in all directions, racing through the crowds and routing cars off the main drag. But though things quieted a little, the crowd looked serene and undeterred, which was the way we felt. We were all Americans, standing up (or lowriding) for freedom, justice and our common humanity, and that felt like what it’s all about.

Below, I have pasted a link to a People’s Tribune page with an editorial on the government's divide and conquer strategy as well as the photo that graces the cover of the new Tribuno.