Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

50 Years Ago: Four Little Girls and Two Songs

It was 50 years years ago that the four Birmingham, Alabama girls, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, lost their lives during the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.  In 2011, a marker was finally dedicated in their names at the site of the vicious, racially motivated attack.

Just three months after the murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and two weeks after the March on Washington and Dr. King’s momentum-building “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the Alabama tragedy became the pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement. Singer Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in immediate response to hearing the news: “I shut myself up in a room and that song happened,” she said of the song that begins, “Alabama’s got me so upset.”  From that moment forward, Simone was committed to writing and performing material that would jolt people awake or into action.  It remains her most enduring work.

Joan Baez,  had of course walked alongside Dr. King at the marches in the South all along; her tribute was a recording of “Birmingham Sunday” by her brother-in-law, the writer Richard Fariña.  Each girl was remembered by name in the verses, set to the tune of a beautiful folk melody. Fifty years on, both songs remain painful reminders of the brutalities waged here and yonder, year in and year out, by so-called humanity.

Filed under: Angela Davis, Arts and Culture, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Keep On Pushing, Nina Simone, Protest Songs, , ,

The Long Distance Revolutionary: Mumia Abu-Jamal

freedom

There is only one voice like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s, its tone perfect for professional broadcasting, its message carrying necessary information for our times.  But Abu-Jamal, as most people know, is no longer primarily an announcer by trade.  Better known as Mumia to the worldwide community of human rights activists who support his case, the former radio journalist has been serving time in prison for over 30 years now. He has spent much of that time writing and appealing his case.

In the documentary Long Distance Revolutionaryfilmmaker Stephen Vittoria and co-producer/Prison Radio sound recordist Noelle Hanrahan, make a compelling case that Mumia’s situation as a prisoner for life is more than a miscarriage of justice:  Rather than retell the circumstances that lead to the incarceration of the journalist/activist (whose views forced him to moonlight as a cabbie, just to survive), they shine a light on how he’s used misfortune as opportunity, to become a prophetic voice for the voiceless.

Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee and James Cone are among the scholars, theologians, journalists, actors, activists, writers, colleagues, and family members who testify in the film on the important role Mumia—the writer as political prisoner—plays on the world stage, reflecting the revolutionary’s role in contemporary American society. Through interviews, news reel footage, photographs and most of all, interviews and sound recordings of Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story of an intuitive and self-described “nerd” of a child, Wesley Cook, who journeyed into the Black Panthers, then followed his call to report on his city as he saw it, much to the distaste of its notoriously racist law enforcement. Of course, that’s business as usual in the land of the free, while the mystery that unfolds onscreen in Long Distance Revolutionary is more to a specific point: Just how does a death row inmate as sharp as Abu-Jamal  keep his mind in shape and his spirit alive while the state does its job squeezing the life out of him? Of particular note are the words of literary agent Frances Goldin who I’m unable to quote here, but who talks of how she was sufficiently moved by Mumia’s prose to take a chance on him in the book market.  But the most convincing voice of all is Mumia’s own which can be read in his multiple books in print all over the world and heard on Prison Radio, still recorded by Noelle Hanrahan.  At the film’s premiere in Mill Valley, California last October,  Mumia delivered an address, especially recorded for the Bay Area. He remembered its “luscious sun,” and the Bay as a place where he,  “a tall, skinny, dark sunflower,” could be among some of the “best, boldest, blackest, sweetest” brothers and sisters he claims to have known.

Curiously, the film’s only musical voice in the chorus is M-1 of Dead Prez. Used to be musicians sang out for injustice, the way that Bob Dylan once did for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who also appears in the film); in that case, the musical association indirectly lead to Carter’s exoneration. But the music community has largely remained silent on the subject of Abu-Jamal. So where are the other contemporary Musicians for Mumia? According to director Vittoria, the usual suspects were approached, but only Eddie Vedder responded to the urgency of the call.  “Please know that I (and my co-producers) tried hard to get…and a number of other musicians into the mix—on numerous occasions and through numerous fronts—but not one of them would agree to interview (except M-1) and/or offer a musical piece or new selection,” Vittoria wrote in an email to me.  Vedder’s song “Society” (previously associated with the feature film, Into the Wild,  concerning environmentalist/adventurer, Christopher McCandlessserves as the film’s closing theme. “I was fortunate that Eddie allowed us to grace the film with his powerful song,” added Vittoria.

Abu-Jamal was taken off death row late last year; he remains sentenced for life without possibility of parole and lives among the general prison population at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. But the system has not vanquished his spirit or his message. Mumia is still on move: Long Distance Revolutionary has been on the festival circuit and in general release throughout the year. It opens August 23 at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco and next month at Spokane’s Magic Lantern.  Here’s the trailer:

Filed under: Angela Davis, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Book news, film, France, Never Forget, Now Playing, Poetry, , , , , ,

“All I Want is the Truth”

Remembering John Lennon (October 9, 1940—December 8, 1980) today, I offer an excerpt from Keep on Pushing and a clip from The Dick Cavett Show.john

“Upon the release of Some Time in New York City in June of 1972, critics and consumers decreed that a heavy does of politics with their music was not what the people ordered. The album became the couple’s worst-received recording in their catalog.  “We thought it was really good,” says Yoko Ono.  Though Dylan had a hit with “George Jackson” and the Rolling Stones wrote “Sweet Black Angel” for Angela Davis, Lennon and Ono took the most heat of all for supporting radical ideals in song, and Ono got her fair share of abuse. “I wasn’t heardthen.  Ok, I was heard, and then they trashed me for it,” she says.  And yet the prescience of the concerns that the Lennons reaised in the high-era of public protest and their position at the vanguard of musical revolution —-raising ideas like making art and music for peace, standing together, and suggesting we engage in small acts of human kindness as a way to change the vibration of the world—were deemed threatening to national security and rejected by fans. With his commercial potency at a low ebb and his position on nonviolence officially committed to government documents [translation: he was for peace], one might think there was no case for the US government against the Englishman and his Japanese wife.  But their problems with the immigration service and the Nixon White House had only just begun…”

Filed under: Angela Davis, anti-war, Interview, Keep On Pushing, , , , , , , , ,

Hello Mumia, Goodbye Columbus

There is only one voice like Mumia Abu-Jamal’s, its tone perfect for professional broadcasting, and its message carrying necessary information for our times.  But Abu-Jamal as most people know, is not an announcer by trade; better known as Mumia to the worldwide community of human rights activists who support his case, the former radio journalist has been serving time in prison for 30 years now. He has spent much of that time writing and appealing his case.

In a new film, Long Distance Revolutionarywhich made its worldwide premiere over Columbus Day Weekend at the Mill Valley Film Festival, filmmaker Stephen Vittoria and co-producer/Prison Radio sound recordist Noelle Hanrahan, make a compelling case that Mumia’s situation as a prisoner for life is more than a miscarriage of justice:  Rather than rehash the circumstances that lead to the incarceration of the journalist/activist forced to moonlight as a cabbie, they shine a light on how he’s used the misfortune as prophetic opportunity, to become a voice for the voiceless.

In the film, Angela Davis, Amy Goodman, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Tariq Ali, Ruby Dee and James Cone are among the scholars, theologians, journalists, actors, activists, writers, colleagues, and family members who speak to the important role Mumia, the writer as political prisoner, plays on the world stage, as he reflects the revolutionary’s role in contemporary American society. Through interviews, news reel footage, photographs and most of all, interviews and sound recordings of Abu-Jamal, Long Distance Revolutionary tells the story of an intuitive and self-described “nerd” of a child, Wesley Cook, who journeyed into the Black Panthers, then followed his call to report on his city as he saw it, much to the distaste of its notoriously racist law enforcement. Of course, that’s business as usual in the land of the free; the mystery that unfolds onscreen is more to the point: Just how does a death row inmate as sharp as Mumia keep his mind in shape and his spirit alive while the state does its job squeezing the life out of him? Of particular note are the words of his literary agent Frances Goldin who I’m unable to quote here, but who was sufficiently moved by Mumia’s prose to take a chance on him.  Of course the most resounding voice of all is Mumia’s own which can be read in his multiple books in print all over the world; it can also be heard on Prison Radio, still recorded by Noelle Hanrahan.  For the Mill Valley premiere, Mumia delivered an address, especially recorded for the Bay Area which he remembered from visiting once as having a “luscious sun,” where he, “a tall, skinny, dark sunflower,” could be among some of the “best, boldest, blackest, sweetest” brothers and sisters he claims to have known.

Curiously, the film’s only musical voice was M-1 of Dead Prez; traditionally, it is musicians who sing out for injustice, in the way that Bob Dylan once did for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (who also appears in the film), indirectly leading to his exoneration. Eddie Vedder’s recording of  “Society” (previously associated with the feature film, Into the Wild,  concerning environmentalist/adventurer, Christopher McCandless), serves as a closing theme. So where are the other contemporary Musicians for Mumia? According to director Vittoria, the usual suspects were approached, but only Vedder responded to the urgency of the call.

Abu-Jamal was taken off death row late last year; he remains sentenced for life without possibility of parole and lives among the general prison population at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy. But the system has not vanquished his spirit or his message. Mumia is on move: Long Distance Revolutionary is on its way to festivals in Denver, Copenhagen and New York City.  It opens in wider release in February of 2013.  Here’s the trailer.

Filed under: Angela Davis, film, France, Keep On Pushing, Reviews, , ,

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Last year’s most insistent documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, makes its public television debut this month: By any and all means, see this film.

Written and directed by Göran Hugo Olsson and co-produced by actor and one-time San Francisco State student activist Danny Glover, The Black Power Mixtape is a visual record of a period that inalterably changed America, as viewed through outsider lenses.  Edited from footage shot then by a Swedish television crew, the material was rescued and revisited 35 years later by Olsson and a cast of contemporary American musicians and activists who provide voiceovers. The resulting mash-up is as disassociated and cohesive, chaotic and united, as were the times themselves; the film is a testament to the people who lived and died through the upset.

This new version of American history, as told by Europeans and African Americans could ideally serve the new generation as a long-overdue introduction to who and what made the Black Power Movement move. From the Black Panther Party’s survival programs, toward its mission for freedom for all oppressed people, and into black empowerment’s more  general directive to teach true history, self-reliance and pride, the film also spells out the forces that conspired to decimate the people and dismantle the movement from within and outside it.  As for those already well-familiar with the subjects of political activism and the social changes that took place in the US in the ’60s and early ’70s, The Black Power Mixtape offers an opportunity to view rare footage that you haven’t seen a million times; rest assured, the contemporary voiceovers not only add fresh insights but are in synch with contemporary survival issues, as well as with the current protests taking place in US town squares.

My enthusiasm for The Black Power Mixtape is partly based on my interest in the subject matter and my passion for passing on recommended listening, viewing and reading materials; I also see it as the perfect  audio/visual companion to my own text on the subject, specifically chapters four, five and six of Keep on Pushing (though the film is undoubtedly more concentrated and is  enhanced by the voices of Questlove, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez and author Robin D.G. Kelley, among other noted artists and activists). I’m about to quote heavily from the film here so if you haven’t yet seen it and like being surprised,  you may want to stop reading and start streaming.

There’s a moment when the historic footage of the activists-then, dovetails in chilling harmony with the now-narration. Talib Kweli, a contemporary rapper/resistor, in the black radical tradition, begins his story of being inspired by the words of Stokely Carmichael. “He was a fiery speaker and had passionate ideas, but he was a calm, cool, collected person,” say Kweli. “None of these people were evil or bad or even extra violent.  Common sense meant that they had to speak and stand up for themselves….” In the name of research and inspiration, and in preparation for his own studio recording, Kweli began to study some of Carmichael’s widely available speeches.  “It was shortly after 9/11 in America,” he explains. “I was making a reservation on Jet Blue airlines to fly to California.  When I got to the airport…they came and intercepted me, all these guys in black suits, and they took me into a back room and started questioning me…They were very concerned with me listening to this Stokely Carmichael speech from 1967,” says Kweli. “We have gangster rappers talking about shooting people all the time but the FBI is not looking for them. They’re looking at me because I’m listening to a speech from 40 years ago…”

As the film wraps, author and scholar Robin D.G. Kelley underscore’s black power’s links to second wave feminism and gay liberation movement.  Readers of Keep on Pushing will also recollect that the entire second half of the book is dedicated to the impact of black power on other minority cultural and political movements, while it also follows power music into its next black incarnations. In The Black Power Mixtape, singer Erykah Badu puts in a word for the importance of documentation—the writing and reading—of black history by blacks, while filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles suggests that the movement was not a racial cause, but a freedom cause, for all the world’s people.

“People need to know, particularly in the 21st Century, it is important even under a black president, to bring the kind of pressure, to force the kinds of issues that will allow us to imagine a future without war, without racism and without prisons,” says Angela Davis.

“The rich are getting richer, not only in America but in the world…” says Sonia Sanchez.  “You’ve got to talk about that one percent or five percent that runs everything. It’s a lot of work. You don’t get any reward…The reward is knowing that when you make transition when you die, if you have children, there’s a better world for them and if you don’t have children, there’s a better world for other people too.”

Check your local PBS listings and Independent Lens for further February screenings of  The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975—there are many.  The film is also available as a DVD.

Filed under: Angela Davis, film, Keep On Pushing, , , , , ,

On Two Giants: Belafonte and Davis

It should come as no surprise that both Harry Belafonte and Angela Davis figure prominently in the text of Keep on Pushing:  both are great American activists, with essential ties to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and the political and cultural events that shaped their times—then and now. This week I had the good fortune to hear both of them speak in person: Monday, Harry Belafonte addressed an audience in discussion with Tim Robbins, at a benefit for the Actor’s Gang, a community theater organization that also works with the prison population.  Then on Thursday evening, a talk between Angela Davis and Robin Levi was aimed at raising awareness about the prison industrial complex, specifically the California prison situation and the women in them.  Held at the UCLA/Hammer Museum, the event coincided with Now Dig This, a survey of LA African American-themed art, which is the runaway hit and must-see show of the city-wide Pacific Standard Time art exhibit.  As Davis explained, many of the visual artists on display were also “of the movement.”

Born and raised in Birmingham Alabama and educated at Brandeis University, while studying French and philosophy in Paris, Angela Davis learned of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed the four little girls with whom she’d been acquainted at home as a child.  Continuing her studies at home and abroad, she eventually returned to UCLA and Los Angeles in 1969, a time where the heat was turned up high on the Black Panthers, as well as anyone else interested in the politics of revolution; the UC Board of Regents made it difficult for her to teach peacefully.  When she was falsely accused of being an accomplice in the kidnapping and murder of Marin County Judge, Harold Haley, she served time in a California detention center.  A nationwide, grassroots campaign to liberate her contributed to her being set free after 18 months and her ultimate acquittal.  In 1972 the  Rolling Stones recorded “Sweet Black Angel” about her on their epic set, Exile on Main Street; John and Yoko/Plastic Ono Band cut “Angela” on their Some Time in New York City album  (the Stones sing “keep on pushing,” while John and Yoko tell her to “keep on moving”).

In the decades since she made headlines and the FBI’s most-wanted list, Davis has continued to work as an activist, educator and author.  After teaching at one prestigious university after another, ironically, she returned to the UC system, to become a Distinguished Professor Emerita at UC Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness Department.   She also founded the prison abolition organization, Critical Resistance, “dedicated to opposing the expansion of the prison industrial complex.”

Harry Belafonte was inspired by the works of singer-actor Paul Robeson, who became a mentor.  Early in his career as an actor turned singer, he reached out to foster a cross-cultural alliance with South African artists like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.  On the Greenwich Village music scene, Belafonte had familiarized himself with traditional American folk songs through his work in the theater.  In 1956, he released Calypso for which he turned to his Caribbean roots; it would sell in the millions.  Choosing his roles and repertoire with precision, Belafonte was uncompromising as an artist which earned him a commanding reputation; he explained that sometimes it was difficult for his peers to metabolize his energies, though he didn’t mean for it to be this way. As it was, he was the obvious choice for Dr. King who needed his assistance organizing the entertainment communities and their financial resources for the Freedom/Civil Rights movement.  Helping to organize the March on Washington, Belafonte became not only a confidante of Dr. King’s but he helped introduce African music to wider audiences.  His relationship to South Africa and the struggle against apartheid grew deeper; he became an intimate of Nelson Mandela.  From famine relief in Ethiopia to working with the incarcerated in the USA, Belafonte’s artistic gifts landed him on the frontlines of activism, which is where he’s lived for over 50 years.

The similarities between Belafonte’s and Davis’ stories are striking, a man and woman, two different generations, one a drop-out, the other highly educated. Yet both told stories of their mothers, young country girls who had to overcome resistance, obstacles and indignities to get themselves schooled, then went on to become fierce defenders of education. Today, both Belafonte and Davis are advocates for education, especially among prisoners—the people Davis calls “the other one percent”—who need to know their basic human rights.  Education has also been proven as a solution to recidivism, and contributes to the greater good of humankind, inside and outside prison walls. Both activists also share a vocal and visible enthusiasm for the Occupy Wall Street Movement; both had visited the New York encampment, while Davis has visited and spoken at various Occupy demonstrations.  She said that on November 2, the day the Port of Oakland was shut down, she joined somewhere between 10,000—to 15,000 people on the street, some of them from her own generation, all of them cheered by the protests led by the new generation of activists.  As for President Obama, and to anyone who may be disillusioned by his performance after three years on the job, Davis offered a reminder.

“Let us not forget that moment,” she said, referring to election night, 2008, as well as the collective amnesia that afflicts American consciousness.  “It was a triumphant moment,” she said.  Reiterating that protest and pressure is an American tradition she added, “We cannot allow one of these Republicans to get elected,” she said.  While Belafonte had  a few things to say about Herman Cain…

I probably don’t need to add that Mr. Belafonte, 84, and Ms. Davis, 67, were both extraordinarily gracious while greeting their public after their formal presentations.  They took time, meeting each gaze and responding to the individual requests of handshakes and photos with them. Their love for the people, has made them much beloved by the people. The warmth generated in the rooms they occupied in LA during the blustery last week of November/first week of December  will sustain some of us through the upcoming season—the one that passes for winter around here.

Filed under: Angela Davis, Calypso, Harry Belafonte, Keep On Pushing, Occupy Wall Street

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