GEORGE ZIMMERMAN KILLED Trayvon Martin, was acquitted for it, and has now switched from security guard to painter, boxer, butcher, baker, candlestick-maker, whatever he wants. One round point blank to the chest = a perfect exchange. A young life for his art. The Gun as art and culture.
The Gun as work of art. The Gun as art form and genre. The Gun makes history. The Gun as steel metaphor carrying the human urge to dominate and lay waste to an enemy or perceived threat. Guns as import and export. Hollywood’s Gun, its cinematic ordnance, is the United States’ international calling card.
The Gun is oh-so-social as it erases human inequality. Anyone can obtain one and point…shoot…kill. A bullet has no name, face, race, gender or class. The Gun is its microphone, the shooter but the stand for the microphone. The bullet is absolute, life-ending or life-changing, irreversible. The Gun is clean, leaving only smoke and powder in its wake. The Gun is the ultimate performance poem; the message in the poem is the bullet.
As much as I think I’m peaceable, I keep falling in with The Gun.
I moved back to my parents’ house in East Oakland in 1990, in the middle of an intense drug war. My childhood home was a stone’s throw from the notorious projects where heroin kingpin Felix Mitchell, as head of the 69 Mob, created an industry of drug trafficking as efficient for a decade as Henry Ford’s assembly line. Felix the Cat’s death in 1986 had left a fierce turf war in its wake. The nightly sequence I heard from my writing desk was spine-chilling: rapid machine gun fire, a car burning rubber as it screeched into the dark, silence for 10-12 minutes, then the ambulance siren. I never heard screams. Why were there no screams?
Without the noble purpose I conceived guns to have when I was a young black militant, without art or revolutionary credo, these were unbearable microphones for a shattering community. Guns. Guns. Guns. I had liked guns.
Decades earlier, while a college junior, I joined the Black Panther Party in 1967 right when it split from a rival group of black cultural nationalists. Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, had come to San Francisco that February for a celebration of his life. One group called itself the Black Panther Party of Northern California, the other the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense; each agreed to meet her plane at the San Francisco airport with guns to protect her. One group showed up with loaded guns, the second came unloaded. The second group had no art, no ability to make history, no message. Though the second group was full of poets, writers, intellectuals and bright young minds, the first group prevailed, and Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver joined the pantheon of holders of The Gun. The activists upstaged the artists/intellectuals. I had immense sympathy for the second group, but pitied them (Pitied their women more. How much subservience would soothe a wounded ego?). The Gun was the shatterer of the boundary between the personal and the political. I liked guns. They were talismanic and palm-friendly. I liked being clandestine, carrying that .22 in my clutch purse when I went to work at the post office. The BPP labeled the intellectuals “paper panthers.” This conflict between conscience and activism is not new. Stephen Spender, writing about the Oxford intellectuals said “detached intelligence” was a stance that a generation of anti-Fascists in the 1920s and 1930s rejected. “Personal values had to be sacrificed to the public cause. All that mattered was to defeat Fascism….choices had to be decided by the Marxist interpretation of history. Subjective motives did not count.”
The split between the two groups of black militants shattered the viability of “detached intelligence” in the San Francisco Bay Area. The BPP cut through the pacifistic and rhetorical gestures and stance of the cultural nationalists with the pragmatism of the bullet. It resolved the issue of activism. How active should an activist be? Ready to die for the cause. The BPP resurrected the spirit of Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. The latter told her charges who wanted to return to the plantation once they’d gone underground: If you turn back, I’ll shoot you.
The idea of carrying a loaded gun in May 1967 into the legislative chambers of Sacramento, the dominion of Governor Ronald Reagan, into the harsh deadly face of mid 20th century racist stolidity, rocked the world. Thirty black men, armed to the teeth and dressed in the signature beret and leather jackets, had the kind of impact that suicide bombers or serial killers have today. Scary.
The Gun is a revolt of the mind, an expulsion of hatred and thus a cleansing agent. Once it is fired, the act done, the two opposites are united forever, the killer and the killed written into history, memorialized or castigated
To shun The Gun is to fear recklessness, to abhor chaos. Yet activists, oft called anarchistic, despise artists who don’t overtly join them. Stanley Kunitz contends: “In a revolutionary period the activists are understandably disappointed in artists who do not overtly serve their movement. The Irish fighters for freedom despised [poet William Butler] Yeats for his failure to give them his unqualified support, not realizing that it was he who would immortalize their names and their cause…”
Bertolt Brecht said that a “conversation about trees is almost a crime because it involves keeping silent about so many misdeeds.” The Black House in San Francisco flourished for a very short period (not as long as Felix Mitchell’s drug empire) in 1966-67. I was there, and no one was talking trees. Eldridge Cleaver’s book Soul on Ice was a bestseller, and playwright Marvin X had plays on at San Francisco State and in community theaters. They formed The Black House and opened it up for readings, political education classes, poetry and dance performances, jazz and lectures. In the Fillmore District, the Black House was a seemingly perfect black counterpart for the hippie and drug-oriented Haight-Asbury. But its split was not only political; in retrospect, its air had a chauvinist aura. Women were often ornamental, breeders not warriors, cooks and clericals, servers not speakers, as if there to divert the heavy thinkers from the heavy biz of the day – fighting the man.
Many cultural nationalists– LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], Don Lee [Haki Madhubuti], Sonia Sanchez – were poets, and poets were the shining lights of the Black Arts Movement. Kunitz points out that the writer works alone, unlike other workers, and the poet is even more exceptional: “Among writers the poet is freer than his brothers the novelist and playwright, because his work, unlike theirs, is practically worthless as a commodity. He is less subject than they to the pressure to modify the quality of his work in order to produce an entertainment. Nothing he can do will make his labor profitable. He might as well yield to the beautiful temptation to strive towards the purity of an absolute art.”
Thus when we see the Black Arts Movement and its relation to the BPP, the poets and dramatists stand in stark counterpoint. As student activists at San Francisco State, the Black Student Union fought to bring Jones, Lee and Sanchez onto campus. We formed the Black Arts and Culture Troupe and toured community centers throughout the Bay Area with poetry, dance, and agitprop plays. We enacted ideas we were hearing on soapboxes about black power, black consciousness and black beauty. We staged the conflagrations that were taking place in urban cities. We were empowering ourselves, our communities and getting academic credit. A natural progression was community activism. In 1967, my roommates and I joined the Black Panther Party which we found far more than a linguistic call to arms. It was a family, the place where you get together on holidays, tolerate the bigmouths, take care of each other, and keep it in the family, i.e. the secrets, the dirty laundry, the drunks, the incest, the beatings…. Robyn Spencer, who interviewed former Black Panther women in the 1990s for her doctoral research, commented at our final interview that she was frustrated by our overall lack of forthrightness. I reminded her that there is no statute of limitations on murder, not that I knew of any such event.
However, the most important idea from that time, as I told another interviewer, was that we changed the language, the way black people thought and spoke, the way black people thought about how they were spoken about. A major assault on oppression is to assault it linguistically. Pre-Edward Said’s Orientalism, two black males from the flatlands of Oakland, California, gave a voice to the oppressed using English in a wholly new way. Jean-Paul Sartre said the oppressed gain the use of the oppressor’s language. In one instant, Off the Pig tossed back all the awful, dehumanizing, negative ways African-Americans had been characterized for two centuries. Baboons, coons, animals. To come up with this one phrase to describe abominable behavior, not physicality, was genius.
In Virgin Soul, my coming-of-age novel about that time, I handle The Gun often. The narrative would have lost its essence if I hadn’t. At one point, my protagonist Geniece shows her proper aunt the very first Black Panther Party newspaper. Her aunt recoils at the blood, guts and violence in Emory Douglas’ artwork, with its copious use of the steely black metaphor. The Gun was an actual weapon carried and maintained by party members. It was Art. It was Metaphor. It was loaded with meaning and death.
The use of language and ritual had awed me in childhood where I loved communal gatherings, gospel fests, family and religious celebrations. I’d worked since high school as a journalist but became disgusted with the narrow scope of the field, its all-whiteness, sameness and predictability. Assigned to edit the BPP newspaper, I found myself embedded in the inner workings of the party, typing, retyping, printing words and phrases like off the pigs. Power to the people. All power to the people. Free Huey.
My hands shocked me as they lettered and typed these words and the manifestos they formed. The BPP was appropriating the oppressor’s language and using it to shatter oppression. This new use of language by the BPP was as powerful as The Gun and even more so because it aroused feeling and changed the terms of discourse between friends, enemies, lovers, generations and cultures. Being an agent of change meant I aroused deep feeling, affected discourse, found the powerful voices that I had heard in childhood, in church, in soul music, in the pulpit – within my own voice. Thus empowered, I began writing poetry, essays, and eventually moved on to drama and fiction, my start as a writer.
Some would whitewash the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into benign icons of a distant era, outsized statues or memories for annual celebration. Some would not see the movements for civil rights and black power nor the varied tactics of the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, BPP, CORE, the Urban League, and the Nation of Islam as a spectrum of resistance against the racism that determined every facet of American life. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was the fist (The Gun, loaded, that is) of the kid (black people) who’s been bullied (racism, oppression, legalized discrimination) long enough by the outsized bully on the block (US govt., US Constitution until 1865, opponents of Radical Reconstruction, Jim Crow, KKK, Bull Connor, etc.). Power concedes nothing with a demand, Frederick Douglass said. To demand is not to ask or beseech. That time when the streets were packed with citizens, students, protestors, workers, mothers against the war, unionists was not an acquiescent moment in this country’s history. The numerous deaths are memorialized and well-documented. Did the moment peter out? Vanish into thin air? Not quite. The principles spread into society.
From the virgin soil of turbulence came the second wave of feminism and gay rights movements. The disabled emerged from seclusion and institutions to lobby for public access and accommodations. Senior citizens became Gray Panthers. Maria Gillan [a friend and fellow poet] became Maria Mazziotti Gillan, reclaiming her Italian-American roots and triggering the ethnic white literary movement at once. Bilingualism and Ebonics became recognized as essential curricula. Caucus as an intransitive verb meant your group agenda had to be strengthened privately and exhaustively to have maximum impact. Self-help, self-empowerment and self-enhancement became ideals because an entire society had watched the 98-pound weakling (black people) go from chump to champ. Black music, musicians and dancers became ambassadors-at-large to American society and the world. Duke Ellington and Count Basie had been there, done that. But the airwaves and new media amplified the beat, the dances, the Soul Train lines, the frizzy hair, the handshakes, the lingo (bro), none of which needed The Gun or its bullet because the BPP had handled that task. Our current heated debate about the n-word is permissible because of the BPP and Black Arts and Culture movement. Ishmael Reed, in grand old man fashion, came out with Writing is Fighting: Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper in 1988. The feat of aging gives one that Yeatsian right to write the story.
A few years ago, I woke up surrounded by Guns. Guns. Guns. My boss at the state arts council hosted me at her South Jersey home during my artist-in-residency. We’d had a falling out after her son had been killed in a hunting accident and she’d had three months of disarray and grief. Without money to meet my basic expenses and no checks coming in, my capacity for sympathy plunged. Angry words ensued. Eventually we made up. She invited me to her beautiful, starkly contemporary home nestled in the woods. We drank wine and talked late into the night; I looked through photo albums as she recounted how her grown children had been hunting when one fired the bullet that ricocheted and hit her son. He died in surgery. I went to sleep in the spare bedroom, too tired to take a good look around me. I woke up an hour later and turned on the light. The room was decorated with guns – handguns, rifles and guns with bayonets mounted in wooden and glass cases. I was sleeping in an ordnance. I tried to fall asleep but couldn’t dispel the images. In the moonlight I saw that the sheets on my bed had gun insignias all over them. For a moment, I thought I had gone crazy. Gun sheets? I had to do some serious calming down. The guns on the sheets and the walls were art, fashion and memorabilia.
I liked guns. I like mystery, intrigue, even devilment. My father was an avid reader of westerns, thrillers and detective novels. He had stacks of them next to his side of the bed. My mother had Bibles, loads of them, modern ones, illustrated ones, the King James Version. As far as I could tell he never read from her side, and she never read any of his books…complete opposites married for 50 years. There was no gun. My mother said we couldn’t even have sharp knives because tempers were too short in our household.
I would like a society without The Gun. Too many short tempers in the world and this society. The BPP had a message that was received. As it deepened its focus in community service, the guns became purely metaphoric and the party split into factions for and against The Gun. Internecine rivalries sprung up. I had moved far away spatially and spiritually.
I don’t want gun control. I want police who are unarmed, peace officers. We can’t have that unless we do away with guns. Maybe we can have parks where people play with guns the way we play with dinosaurs. That sounds like a shooting range. But it wouldn’t be for target practice. It would be for fun. It wouldn’t be a rehearsal for cruelty.
When Trayvon Martin was killed by The Gun, my heart ached. Trayvon was at risk because he didn’t know how to cower, a posture that my generation destroyed. He didn’t turn tail and run – although he might just have been shot in the back; he didn’t yessuh back stepping. He fought George Zimmerman, toe-to-toe, and Zimmerman fired The Gun, at point blank range, because that was his creative moment. His high art. His historical moment. George Zimmerman united with his opposite Trayvon Martin forever. And the performances continue, in Aurora, Illinois, in Newtown, Connecticut, in schools and theaters and public spaces throughout the country. I liked guns. I hate The Gun.