Notes for Anthology (for Diana and Co.)

Preliminaries/notes from my notebooks (for collaboration–to be revised, added to, etc.–for work to be done–a start).

Gentrification in the Bay: “There’s Bluebird on My Shoulder–Can I Kill It?”

At this point statements that point out the fact of gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area seem obvious. They are repeated. Are we still listening? Whether we are or not, the process continues. We are living in the midst of historical change. This is always true, and yet the changes that the Bay are going through—have been going through for the past several years—seem especially noticable, especially rapid.

Continue reading Notes for Anthology (for Diana and Co.)

Amiri Baraka’s “Communications Project”

Comments I delivered for a panel on Amiri Baraka’s essays at the 2015 MLA Annual Convention in Vancouver. The panel was organized by the Divisions on Non-Fiction Prose Studies and Black American Literature and Culture. Margo Natalie Crawford, Jeremy M. Glick, William J. Harris, and Aldon Lynn Nielsen also spoke on the panel, Brian J. Norman and Dana A. Williams presiding.


When we talk about the Black Arts Movement—or, for that matter, most movements—how can we do so? By that I mean, how can we address not only the flux of movement, but also the diversity of thought and action shaped by regional conditions and philosophical differences? How can we take stock of the activity of movement broadly but also specifically—what it looked like on the ground? And in the case of the Black Arts Movement’s most emblematic figure, Amiri Baraka, whom we honor here, how shall we assess the volume and diversity of his movement work and his contributions to the development of art, culture, politics, and consciousness?

Cover, Black Revolutionary Theater, Special issue of The Drama Review, Summer 1968
Cover, Black Revolutionary Theater, Special issue of The Drama Review, Summer 1968

In order to think about these questions, I want to turn to the spring of 1967 and to a unique document of that moment, Baraka’s “Communications Project”, published in 1968 in the “Black Revolutionary Theatre” special issue of The Drama Review.[1]  Ed Bullins served as guest editor; the issue contains primarily plays, by Bullins, Sonia Sanchez, Marvin X, Jimmy Garrett, Baraka and others. Of the few critical pieces, Larry Neal’s seminal essay “The Black Arts Movement” is probably the issue’s most widely circulated piece, and alongside other essays by Neal, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Baraka, among others, it is certainly one of the most emblematic pieces of Black Arts criticism.

Continue reading Amiri Baraka’s “Communications Project”

Art of Movement: UNIVERSES’s “Party People” and Campo Santo’s “Superheroes”

“In a nation that just can’t stand much more/ Like the forest buried beneath the highway/ Never had a chance to grow/ Never had a chance to grow/ And now it’s winter/ Winter in America/Yes, and all of the healers have been killed/ Or sent away, yeah/ But the people know, the people know/ It’s winter…/ Winter in America.”

-Gil Scott-Heron, “Winter in America” (174)

“There’s something goin on/ Something’s goin on [repeat]”

-The Roots, “Intro/There’s Something Goin’ On” from Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995)

In the last week of November 2014,  Party People, UNIVERSES’s play about the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords,  was finishing an extended run at the Berkeley Rep. At the same time, Campo Santo’s Superheroes, about the crack epidemic, had begun preview shows at the Cutting Ball Theater. During this one week overlap, the announcement came from Missouri that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Hardly a week later in New York, Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted for the killing of Eric Garner.

Maybe this is coincidence–but something is happening now, here, in this place. The simmering a boil now.

Party People grapples with the history of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party, black and Puerto Rican activists who confronted not only the very basic fact of racist police terror but discriminatory and exploitive governmental and corporate institutions.  In that fight against racism and oppression, they also imagined a new world, posing new possibilities: they created food, health, educational, and safety programs to communities neglected and exploited; they formed coalitions and relationships across lines of race, nation, and class; they imagined a humanity.

In the wake of the 1960s and 1970s, with many organizations and activists thoroughly abused, dismantled, or destroyed by government subversion, sabotage, intervention, and outright killing, drugs and the drug trade occupied communities of color, suffering not only the absence of those activists and radical energy but also the methodical dismantling of the postwar welfare state. If the scourge of heroin in the late 1970s provided sufficient damage on its own, the introduction of crack cocaine in the 1980s was a neutron bomb. Superheroes looks back on that period by delving into the role the U.S. government played in bringing cocaine into this country and into poor communities of color in particular.

Both plays look back from the present. In Party People, two young men whose parents or relatives were activists organize an art show/performance that also acts as a  reunion for party members. In Superheroes, a journalist–loosely based on Gary Webb–tries to piece together the narrative of how the CIA and other government agencies facilitated the drug trade as part of support for the Contras in Central America.  Rather than presenting narrow stories, rigidly loyal to timelines and geographies, both plays draw broadly, providing us with the assemblage of scenes and memories that make history, and in particular that help the make the histories of movements and eras, which are messy, scattered, and diverse.

Party People and Superheroes take up post-Civil Rights black/American history (black history IS American history–in case that is a question for you), which holds them together, complements to each other. Too long the American mainstream has treated African American history as something that begins during slavery and ends in 1964 and 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Then, somehow, we skip to 2008 when Obama is elected, and the world is a different place, one in which laws, policies, language, and people are, somehow, color-blind. These plays follow recent historical scholarship that argues to the contrary. We live in a racialized, virulently racist, and highly unequal society. As Gil Scott-Heron told us 40 years ago in 1974, Winter had arrived in America. And it has been winter for a very long time, despite the passage of Civil Rights laws, the development of Ethnic Studies programs, the increased presence of people of color in our media. Party People and Superheroes are our Winter-in-America theater, remembering, reflecting, and trying to represent what has happened in America the last 40 years–and not just what has “happened” to black and brown people in American, but how it has happened, who has caused it, what the consequences have been, what legacies we live with–how race continues to shape the conditions and possibilities of our lives.

But Party People and Superheroes wrestle with history–they are not interested in theater as a series of dates and reenactments, and neither are they interested in narratives of pity and victimization, nor with blind exaltation. They struggle, fight, converse with that history. From the present moment they shake a fist at that history, yell at it, punch and kick it. From the present moment, they caress that history, offer healing touches and words. From the present moment, they raise these spirits and honor them in all their beautiful and ugly struggle. From the present moment they act as the sankofa, reaching, looking back while moving forward. They pull our past toward us, and us toward our past, not simply to see it but to feel, with body, heart, and mind, the pain, loss, hope, power.

Performing such work is not easy. It takes work. And perhaps one of the most defining aspects of both Party People and Superheroes is this work: movement, blood, sweat, and tears. All actors expend energy, but the amount of energy given in these two plays–to the other actors, to their subjects, to us, to the spirits they embodied–was extraordinary. There was movement in these plays. Dancing, running, stomping, yelling, singing. Sweat came, glistening, dripping.

But we should not be surprised. There’s movement in the air and on the streets in this country right now. And that movement takes work. Great theater or art or culture tells us where/when we are, and these plays show us and demand from us the sweat, the work that the movement in the air, in the streets, in the minds and hearts requires. They show us what #BlackLivesMatter means:  that a hashtag is great cultural communication but not shit without the sweat of movement to give it the depth of meaning and power. They also tell us what we see and know right now: that people are moving, that the beads of sweat are forming. That we are ready to exhaust ourselves and that exhaustion will not make us tired, will not cause us to fall. There’s something goin on right now. That should be clear. It’s in the streets but it will be the art–that movement art, the plays, poems, songs, films, posters–that will nourish brains and hearts, allow those forests Gil Scott sang about to grow. There’s something goin on. D’Angelo released Black Messiah this week, and the other night, Kendrick Lamar performed a new song, “Untitled” for the Colbert Report’s last show. And with that same intensity of movement he told us what Party People and Superheroes also have:

“Tell em we don’t die/ Tell em we don’t die/ Tell em we don’t die/ We multiply.”

-Kendrick Lamar, “Untitled” (2014)

Scenes of Gentrification: Before Your Very Eyes

“You can’t perform the duties of a police officer and have racism in you.” -Darren Wilson


“It’s everyone’s movement, because its a movement for freedom.” – Anonymous @AnonymousChaos_




Scenes of Gentrification: The Life of Memory?

(Wasn’t it Beenie Man who said
“memories don’t live like people do”?
well, whatever to my cultural contexts…)

registering change
requires a test of memories, of memory

a battle with brain
pathways, clandestine tunnels.

what was here

can you remember?
can you toni morrison rememory?

loss is so easy
the victor is now—always

the challenge set before you
the duel proposed

whose blood will spill, evaporate
whose reality will spill, evaporate

whose blood will circulate
whose reality will circulate

we may pray for blood on the sidewalk
at least

Scenes of Gentrification: Sale Pending

sale pending
wavers in the breeze
a flag planted
driven into the earth
seismic ripples
ground shifts
reshapes plates
fire seeps out of newly split cracks
the reordering above
no less than
the scrape of the barnacled ship
on sand as it hits the shore
men in metal step onto land
and say
“it’s mine—i bought this—here’s the paper”
and soon, not long before they leave
the wreckage of the plunder
they have wrought, moving on
more destruction to come
they will say
“i have been here, like,
over a year now.”

1 Year Later, Same Shit: Oscar and Trayvon and Mike and…

July 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in for the murder of Trayvon Martin I wrote this and read it on the air for the KQED Perspectives segment. 2014, same shit. The original with audio is here.

“The Weight of Race”

One of the tragedies of racism is that many Americans, most of them white, talk about it as an issue facing African Americans exclusively-and sometimes other ethnic groups — but not white Americans. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, I have heard it said again and again that “African-Americans are angry;” “African-Americans are fearful for their safety;” “African-Americans are disheartened by what this says about the value of their lives in this country.” This phrasing, again and again: that this case matters only to African-Americans.

I am a white American man and I say this is an American issue, an American injustice. Many Americans like me are unhappy with this verdict. In a just world people do not judge someone based on skin color and dress; in a just world people are held responsible when they take the life of another; in a just world the victim is not turned into the assailant and the killer the victim of an “assault with the deadly use of a sidewalk.”

But more than this, I feel the way I do because young black men like Trayvon Martin are people I love. The deaths of Oscar Grant and now Trayvon Martin have shown clearly the value of young black men’s lives. And so I have been shown the safety and value of my best friends’ lives, men I grew up with. And the value and safety of their sons’ lives, boys I am watching grow up. As a friend to these men and play-uncle to their boys I cannot be ignorant of the danger. I cannot take my son and their sons to the park without this awareness. Young black men are our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, our friends, our neighbors, our students and teachers, our patients, our doctors, our co-workers.

When I leave the house this morning, I do so white and free from the weight of the sensation, felt by African-Americans like my friends, that “it could have been me.” But I do leave the house with the weight of knowing that “it could have been someone I love.” And that is an American weight. And I pray that it is a weight heavy enough to guide us toward justice.

With a Perspective, I’m Simon Abramowitsch.

Berkeley, California, USA