Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Antiracism isn’t only an idea, it’s an action

As one who writes at the intersection of culture and social issues – racism, sexism, income disparity – I appreciated the opportunity to speak to comic, W. Kamau Bell and human rights historian Kate Schatz about their collaborative project, Do The Work! An Antiracism Activity Book. Not only was it an opportunity to learn by doing the work to become more antiracist, but it was a chance to ask the authors some of my specific questions about language, how to use it, and what steps we can all take today to be better people in a country mired in a history of racism that is yet to be fully reckoned with.

“We were thinking of people who want to know what to do but who are overwhelmed because they may be short on time or didn’t grow up around other cultures,” Schatz said. The workbook addresses white people, but its exercises may be of interest to anyone seeking to up their game and take action when it comes to identifying and abolishing systemic racism.

“One thing you learn from being Black in America is that a good preacher is also funny,” Bell said. “You have to have a sense of humor to the message. My mother was the first person who demonstrated to me the humor to keeping it real.”

I hope you will read with interest the entire article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle Datebook.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, , ,

Frisco Life of Pablo Celebrated This Month

You might remember when I reported on the memorial for skateboarder, drummer and visual artist Pablo Ramirez who died in a fatal collision with a truck on San Francisco’s Seventh Street in 2019 (ignore the byline which says “Danny Sullivan,” it’s actually me! An installment of my SFLives column, the piece earned an award from the San Francisco Press Club in 2020).

Famed for seeking out the city’s steepest hills and riding them all the way down, Ramirez was also a great explorer of the arts – a painter and a musician – and sought to cultivate his whole being by embracing life. He’s become a sort of folk hero within and outside the skate community.

Throughout March, the month between what would’ve been his 29th birthday and the third anniversary of his passing, the foundation set up in his name is hosting a series of events in San Francisco to raise awareness of skate culture(the full story is my latest for the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook section). Aimed at delivering access to skateboarding across traditional barriers (race, gender, sexuality, income), the foundation was also set up to introduce skaters and other interested parties in skate culture and its lifestyle. Disinterested in business as usual, skaters are often counted among the societal outlaws dreaming of a better way of life. But far from the trouble and noisemakers they are often perceived to be, skaters are interested in evolving, pushing forward, living on the edge, making change and bringing others along with them. Whether caring for the environment or channeling energy into making art and music, the skate community is multi-dimensional and growing. I hope I’ve piqued your interest in learning more about where the Bay Area’s justice-seeking, visionary arts and skate communities converge. As ever, thanks for reading.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, , , ,

Poly Styrene’s Time is Now

“When we all got into music, back in the day, we got into it to be anti-establishment,” said punk filmmaker and musician Don Letts. “Nowadays, bands start bands to become part of the establishment.”

Poly Styrene, late ’70s

In the ’70s and ’80s, Letts was an intimate friend and documentarian of the Clash. He was also acquainted with punk empress Poly Styrene, front woman of X-Ray Spex and a witness to her unfurling following a difficult evening spent in the company of Johnny Rotten.

Much has been left uncovered and to the imagination concerning Styrene’s reclusive post-punk life, but the new documentary, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, co-directed by Paul Sng and Styrene’s daughter, Celeste Bell, corrects the record and tells the true tale of an accidental icon.

“People often ask me if she’s a good mum – it’s hard to know what to say,” says Bell in narration of the film, exploring the life, career and spiritual-questing of her mother. Decades later, Styrene is still considered one of punk rock’s mothers and its premiere feminist, anti-capitalist and Afrofuturist.

Expertly weaving archival film with ephemera, testimonials and additional voicing of Styrene’s diaries by actor Ruth Negga, Bell’s very personal story is centered on the art itself, along with a narrative that underscores the artist’s ability to create lasting work in the face of the odds and a world that was built in opposition to her. That the artist was her mother makes for a complex telling but those complicated feelings never get in the way of keeping the focus on Styrene’s values as an artist; her contemporaries like Letts, ska music’s Pauline Black and Rhoda Dakar, and latter-day punk spokespeople like Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore are all quick to corroborate her impact. Bell does away with the documentary convention of talking heads which effectively keeps her subject in the spotlight rather than creating a distraction by fixing a camera on so-called experts. A daughter’s understanding of her mother’s role as a pioneering biracial feminist environmentalist with a spiritual directive to deliver a message to the world is a testament to Bell’s own commitment to making a film about art as opposed to conforming to commercial ideas of what makes good entertainment. Read full article here:

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Environmental Justice, film, Protest Songs, Punk, Women in Rock, , ,

Tongo Eisen-Martin: The revolution is live

Today April 30, marks the end of National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. The bookend to my April 1 post on musician, poet, and literary artist Gil Scott-Heron is in tribute to Tongo Eisen-Martin, San Francisco’s newly appointed poet laureate, and a multidisciplinary artist in his own right. Eisen-Martin’s inaugural address and the reading he curated for the occasion was live-streamed on April 22 by the San Francisco Public Library in cooperation with local literary institutions, City Lights Books and Litquake. You can watch the entire 90 minute program here:

Please be patient as I am only just now realizing the how and why of Eisen-Martin’s standing as a natural torch-bearer for a modern style of poetry the likes of which Scott-Heron forged and the performing hip hop poets of the ’90s brought back into vogue: Both Eisen-Martin, like Scott-Heron, make substantive use of revolutionary rhetoric and their dead serious lived experience as Black men in America. While rooted in Black experience, the content expresses a profoundly deep love of and want for liberation of all oppressed peoples which leads with the dismantling of the structure of a capitalist society built on white supremacy, the one we historically and presently inhabit. That’s a lot for some folks, I know. There is also a spiritual core to the content that veers from the satirical to the surreal, all of it of a piece with its message.

Scott-Heron famously followed in the footsteps of his inspiration Langston Hughes, and Eisen-Martin has direct links to that lineage of jazz and blues poets: I’m not going to give away the hand, so if you’re interested you can dig around on your own and make the connections.

Though familiar as I am with Scott-Heron’s work, and in the several hours I’ve talked poetry and in the many more spent reading and listening to Eisen-Martin, Scott-Heron didn’t come up. Why? Well, Gil is the poet most often checked when people not-so-well-acquainted with poetry, Black poets, hip hop, Black music or Black Arts think of the first time they hear Eisen-Martin at work: I didn’t want to be that person, so I didn’t say so. Besides, that, I knew Eisen-Martin was more likely to name revolutionary, feminist, activist poet Audre Lorde, as someone he’d read widely and revered; that he’d studied with scholar Manning Marable, who’s written extensively on Malcolm X, and that he has appreciation for a spectrum of music, from Handy to Hendrix. But anyone who’s a regular at Eisen-Martin’s virtual readings will have noticed the image tacked to wall of his Zoom background: A picture of Scott-Heron, preaching to thousands.

For his inaugural event, friends, family, fans and San Francisco poet laureates emeritas Janice Mirikitani, devorah major and Kim Shuck were in attendance as Eisen-Martin passed the virtual mic to a cast of extraordinary poets, their work helping to give him his start and sustain him: They were, in no particular order here, his brother, Biko Eisen-Martin; early supporter, Marc Bamuthi Joseph; running mates during his New York years, Jive Poetic, Anthony Morales and Mahogany L. Browne, and the local network upon his Bay Area return: poet Joyce Lee, community organizer Uncle Damien and Alie Jones, co-founder of his newly established independent publishing house, Black Freighter Press. All contributed to making the poet and his inaugural event unprecedented in its power and presence. The humility of Eisen-Martin, and all of the poets, their collective ability to be attentive to each other’s work as they prepared to respond then perform their own considerable pieces without any interruption to their respective flows was part of the revelation. The intensely personal and political content was extraordinary, alive with excellence, contributing to the livestream’s immediacy, prescience and what will be its staying power: It was epic, in all respects. These poets of the Bay Area and beyond are the voices of the here and now, speaking to our precarious times, to neverending police violence and murder of Black people, and the everlasting oppression of indigenous people, women and the environment – matters that impact all people – delivered through Black (and Brown) lenses.

I hope readers of this space will set aside time to listen to the 90 necessary and critical minutes archived here, so that you may see and hear what we are doing here in San Francisco under Eisen-Martin’s steady guidance. “It’s the best decision this country ever made,” said Mahogany L. Browne of Mayor London Breed’s appointment of Eisen-Martin. “You’re a soul survivor – you are the best of us,” said brother Biko Eisen-Martin. ”Tongo might be the greatest poet of our generation but he’s a very, very good man,” said Marc Bamuthi Joseph in an introduction that also served as a lead up to a piece in which he conjured the life, slow death and words of Gil Scott-Heron.

And so the month ends where we began it: The revolution is in good hands.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Book news, Poetry, video, , ,

San Francisco: Where there’s hatred, let love rule

Sometimes there are coincidences that can’t be ignored. That’s what I said to the Reverend Roland Gordon and author/activist Benjamin Bac Sierra who echoed similar ideas when I interviewed them individually about their San Francisco lives and times for my San Francisco Examiner column, SFLives: Both men preach love and tolerance, Gordon (pictured below right) from the pulpit at Ingleside Presbyterian Church and Bac Sierra (pictured below left) from the podium in his classroom at City College of San Francisco (though for the past 365 days of the pandemic, their work has been done virtually). Both men are situated a matter of blocks from each other, coincidentally or not, just blocks from where I lived for the first several years of life with my parents, behind the restaurant and home of my grandparents. But when both Bac Sierra and Gordon conjured St. Francis, namesake of our city, I had to pause and acknowledge the source outside ourselves at play: A higher vibration that sometimes goes by the name of Love.

photos courtesy of Ben Bac Sierra and Kevin Hume for San Francisco Examiner

In this pandemic year, I’ve made fewer trips across town, had less in-person contact and left reporting from the frontlines to those who receive the hazard pay to do so. My writing has been more from the armchair and virtual perspective due to my own limitations; I’ve relied more than ever on my files and list of ideas and contacts — the ones I’d been meaning to get to but hadn’t, for one reason or another, than unearthing new discoveries. But then, that’s been the experience for many of us – exploring the great indoors, whether metaphorical or metaphysical, has been some of the work of our pandemic lives.

It’s said timing is everything and in the case of these two profiles, I can’t agree more: The stories crossed my desk/came to mind/dropped in my lap at the one year mark of the pandemic and our shelter-in-place orders. It’s been a watermark, a time when people and The City (as we call it) are suffering from the fatigue of isolation and light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel anticipation, mixed with COVID-anxiety and variant dread. For some of us, the vaccine is not yet available. It hasn’t been an easy year: Not for the families who have lost members and not for people with disabilities and high risk conditions, including those who suffer the pain of depression due to isolation. It’s been hard on essential workers, healthcare professionals and especially for Black and Brown communities disproportionately impacted by the virus. And there is an additional layer of distress on Asian American Pacific Islanders, who for the last year have been targets of an appalling number of hate crimes here — yes here, in the city of St. Francis, where over one-third of our population identifies as AAPI.

For Bac Sierra, a combat vet with an incredible backstory of survival and an evolving story of reclamation and redemption as an writer and educator, this time of year not only marks the anniversary of the pandemic: It’s been 30 years since he returned from the Gulf War and seven since his friend, Alex Nieto, was shot 59 times by SFPD. This is a solemn week in San Francisco as we once again remember those lives that were taken by police violence. Bac Sierra continues to honor his friend with Amor For Alex, an ongoing demonstration of love in action, a movement “beyond justice,” he said.

As for Rev. Gordon, the idea behind his Great Cloud of Witness, a giant building-sized collage mural devoted to Black excellence he’s crafted over several decades, is to inspire youth toward greatness. He established a basketball league and community center to develop community engagement and has been an advocate for over 30 years. Extending beyond his neighborhood, he offers the San Francisco World Peace Affirmation, based on the words of the prayer commonly referred to as The Prayer to St. Francis, but tailored so as to affirm peace in the now. “If you’re talking about love and honor and respect for everybody, San Francisco could be a microcosm of the world,” said Gordon. We still have quite a bit of work to do, thus the prayer and affirmation.

Francis of Assisi was born late in the 12th Century. By the turn of 13th Century, his visions of Christ drew him deeper toward living a life more like Jesus, renouncing his family and worldly goods and tending to the sick and poor (this is of course a general and capsule take on one of the most important figures to all of Christendom). He honored the elements, all creatures, and is the patron saint of nature and animals. It is probably needless to say that some thought he was mad. There are others, even those outside the faith, who believe in the prayer named for him, though not written by his hand: It is the prayer that begins, Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace; where there is hatred let me sow love… You may’ve heard it. If not, I encourage you to look it up, if you’re the praying kind.

The future of San Francisco, and the rest of the world, is still untold. Some would say we are at the point in our so-called civilization that only a divine source, the power of a miracle or some higher force outside ourselves is going to turn around this mess we humans have gotten into. But where there is love there is hope. I hope you will read the stories of Rev. Gordon and Ben Bac Sierra in the column and love what they have to say as much as I loved being reminded by them of the saint meant to guide our city and its actions, and the words to the prayer that bears his name: Grant that we may not so much seek to be loved as to love.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, San Francisco News, , , , , , ,

San Francisco Names Eighth Poet Laureate: Tongo Eisen-Martin

“My poems are a product of a complete life of resistance,” said Tongo Eisen-Martin when I interviewed him for the San Francisco Examiner in 2018. On Friday, the San Francisco-born movement worker, educator and poet was named the city’s Eighth Poet Laureate. With the civic appointment and as author of (the award-winning) “Heaven Is All Goodbyes,” No. 61 in the prestigious City Lights Books “Pocket Poets Series” — which includes “Howl and Other Poems” by Allen Ginsberg and “Lunch Poems” by Frank O’Hara — Eisen-Martin is receiving the kind of recognition it often takes poets a lifetime to achieve. Yet, he is exceedingly humble, his head in his work as a social and racial justice teacher, and his eyes on the prize. “The best reality for me is the reality that’s better for everybody,” he said, his extra-tall self contained in what looks to be a chair too tiny for him in the back of a Mission District bookstore. “If not that, I’m deluding myself and not living the ideas I’m championing in my poems.

Read my profile of Tongo Eisen-Martin here:

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Books, California, Civil Rights, Poetry, , ,

Four Little Girls and Two Songs

On September 15, 1963, 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, murderous 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-plus years on, both songs remain painful reminders of the brutalities waged by so-called humanity, here and yonder, year in and year out, against women, girls and Black lives.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, racism, , , , , , , , , ,

Freedom Singer Len Chandler and the March on Washington

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Today marks the 57th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Among those assembled to help Dr. King push forward his dream of racial harmony and economic justice was Len Chandler (often overlooked in the history of civil rights work), one of the voices in a trio that day which included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (he appears at about 17 minutes into the following clip, though the whole 25 minutes is worth your time).

 

Chandler would march with Dr. King and travel throughout the South in the name of voter registration, informing rural Southerners of their polling rights, often at great risk to his own life. His poems were recognized by Langston Hughes, he wrote the folk standard “Green, Green Rocky Road” with poet Bob Kaufman, and recorded two albums for Columbia Records, but little is known about him or his life.  I sought out Chandler when I wrote Keep on Pushing, my text that tracks the origins and evolution of freedom music, and its roots in African American resistance and liberation movement: a fraction of what we discussed was included in the book. I remain curious why nearly 10 years after publication, few scholars have pursued the lead and why so little is known about him…

Originally from Akron, Ohio, and studying on scholarship at Columbia in the ’50s, Chandler made his way to Greenwich Village folk music by accident: Lured to the sounds of Washington Square Park by the downtown youths he was mentoring, he easily fell into the scene with his natural ear for songwriting and his familiarity with the songs of Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Woody Guthrie.  Following a performance at the popular Village coffeehouse, the Gaslight Cafe,  Chandler landed a contract to go to Detroit, writing and performing topical songs for local television. A few months later, when he returned to New York, the folk thing was in full swing:  Bob Dylan was the latest arrival to town and the pair started to trade ideas and songs.

“I hadn’t yet begun writing streams of songs like I would, but Len was, and everything around us looked absurd—there was a certain consciousness of madness at work,” wrote Dylan in his book Chronicles.  Chandler remembers it like this in Keep on Pushing:  “The first song I ever heard of Dylan’s was ‘Hey ho, Lead Belly, I just want to sing your name,’ stuff like that.”  Dylan used Chandler’s melody for his song, “The Death of Emmett Till.” “Len didn’t seem to mind,” Dylan wrote (today, as it happens, is the anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till).

Chandler went on to record two albums for Columbia:  To Be a Man and The Loving People. He continued to work as a topical songwriter, a peace and civil rights advocate, and as a songwriting teacher; his tour of Pacific Rim bases with Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda, Holly Near and Paul Mooney was documented in the Francine Parker film, FTA, a must-see for anyone interested in US history and anti-war efforts within military ranks. Catch a glimpse of Chandler at the end of this trailer for the film:

It was an extreme privilege (and I have since found out a rare opportunity) to meet one of the true unsung heroes of singing activism (as well as his wife Olga James, a pioneering performer in her own right), and have him tell his story to me. Though largely retired from performing, he remains well- informed on human rights, politics, and the arts and will step up and step out for civil rights. You can read a portion of our talks in Keep on Pushing, and someday I will post the complete unedited transcripts, though for now, enjoy the voice of Chandler from back in the day, when singing was a huge part of moving the movement forward.

 

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Civil Rights, Folk, Freedom Now, , , ,

Surviving the Pandemic with Frisco Style

Since March, I’ve been devoting my SFLives column in the San Francisco Examiner to people who are taking the virus and caring for others seriously by living their lives responsibly and generously. They are people like Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, who tracks the health of people in Bayview-Hunters Point where airborne toxins put the community at risk of all kinds of respiratory ailments and cancers.  Or Leroy F. Moore Jr, an international disability rights activist who is leading fellow artists in a fight for increased visibility and against police violence. And then there is Ericka Scott, who takes an interest in society’s forgotten and neglected population  – the people who are incarcerated, including her husband – by facilitating discussions among families with loved ones in prison. And there are the small business owners like Tricia Principe of Cal’s Pet Supply, where they took precautions early so the store could remain open for the sake of employees, locals pets and the community. Every neighborhood has its leaders, people like the Cruz family, who not only run a cleaning business but a sewing workshop.  Victor and Ariana call their custom goods and embroidery business Sew Frisco and started turning out masks when they heard of the shortages.

I am so proud of my fellow citizens who are doing their own thing and getting the job done in a way that’s so Frisco in these most difficult times. If you’re interested, you may read all about them in this collection of columns about our SFLives.

If you’re much of a traveler, well, hopefully you haven’t been to San Francisco in awhile. You see, our city, known to locals as The City, is taking quite seriously the shelter-in-place orders during the pandemic, as well as the guidelines to WEAR A MASK (as you will see in the above photos, all by photographer Kevin Hume for the Examiner). Aside from the essentials, only a fraction of our businesses have reopened; cultural destinations like museums have not reopened. Services like salons and barbershops remain closed. Restaurants are take-out only, some have adapted to outdoor seating but many remain shuttered. Some, like historic legacy businesses Louis’s at Seal Rock and the Tadich Grill downtown are closed forever. Sure the orders to close or limit services have been a terrific let down for small businesses and tourism: Without government assistance and cooperation from lenders, our beloved site-specific and characteristic businesses aren’t making it. However, the compliance with the orders has meant that for those of us invested in controlling and eradicating the coronavirus, staying at home and wearing a mask remain the best options. These are confusing, terrifying and disappointing times.

Despite the illness in the air, we must celebrate and breathe in our lives, particularly the lives of folks making a difference. Their devotion to community wellness has a ripple effect: I invite you to be inspired by them to follow your calling and do what you can in your own home and in your own community to make these days a little brighter for someone else. Until next time, I send wishes for you to stay healthy. And if you can are able, stay at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: anti-capitalist, Arts and Culture, column, Environmental Justice, San Francisco News, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , , ,

Writers making change in the pandemic age

This week, and what a week it was, I’m pleased to introduce you to several writers living and working in San Francisco, all of them striving

Poet and activist Thea Matthews in the Mission District on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

toward a more just and equitable society in their own unique ways.  First, poet and activist Thea Matthews is a San Francisco born and raised writer, celebrating the publication of her first poetry collection for a local press. She’s also deeply involved and on the frontlines of the Movement 4 Black Lives. Read more about where she’s been and where she’s going in this week’s San Francisco Examiner column, SFLives.

Also publishing today, a story I was reporting on and off for about five months on the Writers Grotto, a community of authors who found they needed to recreate their organization so that it would be more inviting to writers of color. You can read the full story in today’s San Francisco Chronicle Datebook  (and one day, I promise to a write story about the process of reporting it).

I love my work, seeking out the stories on the lives of the people and places that show San Francisco at its best. What a privilege it is to be trusted to tell these stories and deliver them to you, especially in these times. As ever, I thank you for taking the time to read and I bid the best to you and your families as the pandemic runs its course. May the moral arc of the universe continue its bend toward justice.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, Black Power,, Books, Poetry, racism, San Francisco News, ,

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