Ishmael Reed may have been present at the founding of the East Village Other — indeed, he seems to have been the one who gave the paper its name! — but many of his poems of the 1960s, the ones gathered in Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, are quite scornful in their assessment of the counterculture. In his “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” for instance, Reed calls out Theodore Roszak, noting that in the latter’s famous book The Making of a Counter Culture, “there is barely any mention of the Black influence on this culture even though its members dress like Blacks talk like Blacks walk like Blacks, gesture like Blacks wear Afros and indulge in Black music and dance” (20-21). Speaking of neglected black influences upon the counterculture, why am I only just now learning that the acid trip sequence in Easy Rider was shot at or near Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1? Hopper and Fonda filmed the sequence guerrilla-style, without permission … while tripping on acid. Reed’s collection also includes a poem called “catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church” — a self-conscious response of sorts, I imagine, to Millbrook resident Art Kleps’s Boo Hoo Bible: The Neo-American Church Catechism and Handbook. Several of Reed’s associates were participants in the psychedelic revolution — including East Village Other co-founder and publisher Walter Bowart. Bowart’s second wife was Peggy Hitchcock, the director of Leary and Alpert’s International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). Peggy’s brother Billy is the one who arranged for the Leary crew to live on the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook. Bowart went on to publish an important book on MK-Ultra in 1978 called Operation Mind Control.
In fugitive slave narratives of the nineteenth century, and continuing in neo-fugitive works like Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, freedom requires migration north on foot, master and his minions often in hot pursuit, as in the story of Harriet Tubman. It also involves extrication out from under the master’s religion, imposed over the course of the slave’s upbringing. Divinity has to be understood and believed in by the slave as something other than the wretched white tyrant who runs the farm. This understanding emerges surreptitiously, through what Fred Moten calls “fugitive study.”
Magic is a narrative device deserving of reinvention. Realism may be capitalism’s reigning mode — but it, too, is no more than a genre, and like all genres, emerges embedded in a particular historical narrative. Realism, in other words, is not reality; it can be supplanted through reemergence of magic. This reemergence hinges upon invention of the future by way of remembrance of a forgotten past among oppressed and colonized peoples. But the potentials available in forms of magic other than technology frighten Westerners into disbelief. Is there a way for disbelievers to be healed of this disbelief?
Pantheism is a condition of democracy, is it not? Athens is a many-voiced cosmos. I imagine it would be a condition of any polis built atop slavery and conquest, no matter the imperial ambitions of passing and changing monotheocratic regimes throughout history. Even “secular” states, monotheocratic in their own right, possess those who believe in angels, demons, spirits, ghosts, ancestors. Western rationalism demands adherence to a realism that denies these realities. The West imagines itself to be superior — more “Enlightened.” It brandishes its weapons and says “Might Makes Right.” Police keep a bloody peace, the latter maintained through ritualistic violence. The poet Allen Ginsberg recognized this; America worships a bloodthirsty god — a god like Moloch, the deity denounced in the second section of Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Yet rebellion persists; people rise up, riot, live communally, wage culture war, reclaim land. To win, we must ease the Other’s fears so as to prevent further violence.
Literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. appears as himself in the recent Watchmen series on HBO. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo figures prominently as a primary object of study in Gates’s groundbreaking book The Signifying Monkey. Watchmen is a work of alternate history, as is Mumbo Jumbo. Both works help us remember our history, parts of which have been buried in the white political unconscious. The Tulsa Massacre, for instance, is an event dramatically reenacted in Watchmen‘s opening episode, and the US invasion and occupation of Haiti reappears to consciousness in much the same way as one reads Mumbo Jumbo. The two works rhyme with each other — “repeat with a difference,” as Gates would say — in other ways as well. Reed’s secret, conspiratorial white-supremacist Atonist Order finds its correlate, its contemporary near-equivalent, in Watchmen‘s secret “Cyclops” conspiracy. Each work also features as its hero a black detective: PaPa LaBas in Mumbo Jumbo, and Det. Angela Abar, aka Sister Night in Watchmen. Yet there are differences. As Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Attribution of that saying to Twain appears in print in 1970, as in “A Said Poem” by Canadian artist John Robert Colombo. But Twain’s actual words appear in The Gilded Age, a novel Twain co-wrote with his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner: “History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.” The old legends and their systems of order are in pieces due to migration, diaspora, forced separation of people from the lands of their ancestors. The crack in the cosmic egg. With these multicultural fragments let us assemble a mosaic — something colorful, like the drawing by Cuban-born artist Alberto del Pozo on the cover of The Signifying Monkey.
Di Prima was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934. Her maternal grandfather was an active anarchist — a friend and confidant, in fact, of another author I’m teaching this semester, Emma Goldman. Like her fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg, Di Prima grew and evolved over the course of her long career alongside the leading countercultural movements of her time. She protested the Vietnam War; she experimented with free love and lived communally with others; she promoted mind expansion through use of psychedelics. After editing a newsletter called The Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Di Prima spent much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew of utopian psychonauts and psychedelic spiritualists at Millbrook. Her Poets Press published the first two editions of Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers in Spring 1966.
I’m planning to teach Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (or excerpts therefrom, not the book in its entirety) in my course this fall. The work is a serial poem begun by Di Prima in 1968. It was published as part of the famed Pocket Poets Series from City Lights Books — the same series that released the original iconic edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems a decade earlier. Di Prima lived for much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew in upstate New York on the Hitchcock estate in Millbrook.
What are white people whose grandfathers fought on behalf of the settler state to do? Silko would say begin by acknowledging one’s ancestry and one’s relationship to the land. The land upon which we stand is like the back of a turtle. Native people, along with their ancestors, including nonhuman relatives and kin, are the ones who made this world. I, meanwhile, am a child of people who called themselves “immigrants.” Before that, they were Europeans; upon settling, they became thinkable to themselves and others as “Italian-Americans,” “Irish-Americans,” or what have you. Assimilated into whiteness but for a hyphenated attachment — a sometimes-proudly, sometimes-guiltily-clung-to trace of ethnicity. These latter were everywhere present among members of my extended family. Dialect; manners of eating, speaking, and being together with others; a tendency to gesticulate; a regional accent. Some of what I myself possessed, I lost when I left home for school. Yet here I am now, with a home, and a family, and a bit of land. From this property mortgaged to me by a bank, the settler state exacts its fee.
Leslie Marmon Silko published a critique of Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island in a 1977 issue of the Yardbird Reader. 1977 is the year she published her first novel Ceremony. And Yardbird Reader was a literary journal founded in 1972 by Ishmael Reed — a yearly anthology featuring writing by contemporary authors of color. Several of the writers I’m teaching this semester, in other words, wrote in dialogue with one another over the course of the 1970s. Silko titled her critique of Snyder “An Old-Time Indian Attack Conducted in Two Parts.”
There is much to do: course preparation, childcare, cooking, housekeep. And all the while, we’re learning — trying to, here and there. Trying to do so lovingly. Growing with that which is growing all around us. A potter’s wasp builds two nests, each one a tiny architectural marvel, on the side of a wood post, part of the railing on my front porch. The nests look like little round adobes fashioned of mud and clay.