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I was a revolutionary, p.21

I Was a Revolutionary, page 21


I Was a Revolutionary

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  A few days later, the girl in row two approaches me after class. Lauren, I’ve learned her name. She is petite, with a short black bob that accentuates the pallor of her skin. She’s holding a book against her chest as she approaches and without a word flips it around. The book’s cover announces it as an exposé of the most “dangerous” professors in the country, academics who indoctrinate students with anti-American values. She opens to a spot she has bookmarked near the back. Side-by-side pictures: one, a mug shot from 1968, and the other, a recent photo from the department website. Underneath is a list of “crimes and exploits.”

  I look away from the book and meet her stare, but she says nothing. There is a long moment of silence that seems to confuse the nature of this encounter.

  “Do you want me to sign it?” I say.

  “It’s why I took your class,” she says.

  “There are a few things you should know about that book.”

  “I think what you all did was brave.”

  “I wasn’t that much a part of it.”

  “Sure seems like it,” she says, looking at the book.

  I’m trying to think of how best to respond and can only offer: “That was a long time ago.” I excuse myself to head to a meeting but turn back to her. “I would appreciate if you didn’t go around showing that to everyone.”

  The book isn’t a surprise. Brad approached me about it early in the fall semester. He’s familiar with my past and it’s never been an issue. This was a matter of PR. “We’ve had some calls,” he said, scratching at his bald head. “From parents and groups. With all the Ayers stuff in the campaign . . . they’re concerned about students taking your class.”

  “You make it sound like I’m a pedophile.”

  “You know I think you’re a great teacher, Paul,” he said, placing a hand on my shoulder. “We wouldn’t have renewed your appointment all these years if you weren’t.” He took his hand away, but the weight of his implied threat remained. Brad is big in ways I am not: he’s tall and thick, and I’m short and lean. I ran my hands through my thinning hair, sighing, and said from rote: “Like thousands of others who are today valued and contributing members of society, I protested the war and went to jail for it.” As I finished saying this, however, I opened the book and read my entry for the first time. “Half of this is bullshit,” I said suddenly. “I wasn’t involved in any of the bombings.”

  Brad removed a pair of glasses from the breast pocket of his oxford, rereading the passage. “Technically he doesn’t say you perpetrated any of them.”

  “He sure as hell implies it! Christ, I mean, I wasn’t even underground. Linda and I left before everyone disappeared.”

  “You’ve been very honest with me about your involvement,” he said, closing the book and removing his glasses. What hung in the air between us was the obvious: truth, and its airy abstractions, carried less weight than the physical existence of the book. We thought it would die down, but in the final month of the campaign things got worse. The calls and letters continued, people demanding the university fire a “domestic terrorist.” I was really worried for a while. Without tenure, I knew, I was vulnerable. They could have easily let me go, but Brad went to bat for me, attesting to my years of excellent teaching. He dropped my spring semester teaching load from my usual three classes to one. “Just till all the election fuss blows over. By next fall it won’t be an issue.” For a time I considered legal recourse of some sort, but when I talked it over with Linda she said it wouldn’t do any good. “This has nothing to do with you. This is about people who believe we’re going to have a black Muslim socialist as president.” We were drinking Pinot as we stood at the island in our recently remodeled kitchen. After a moment of silence, she said, “A girl can dream, can’t she?” and we both laughed.

  We talk about post–Civil War growth and the Industrial Revolution. We talk about railroads and unregulated monopolies. We talk about exodusters and Pap Singleton’s black colonies in Hodgeman County. We look at then-and-now photographs of Nicodemus, the oldest, still-surviving, all-black town west of the Mississippi. We discuss the People’s Party and the achievements of the Populists. We cover the Legislative War and the first female elected to political office in the country, Susanna Salter, mayor of Argonia. We look at the devastation of tribes confined to reservations. We talk prohibition and Carrie Nation raiding bars, smashing whiskey bottles. We talk Progressive Era. We decode the political and social commentary in the strange concrete sculptures of S. P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden. Do they know that Appeal to Reason, the largest-circulated radical newspaper in the country, was published in Girard, Kansas? They do not. We discuss the granting of suffrage eight years before the federal government passed the amendment. We talk strikes and oil fields, the IWW and WWI.

  One Thursday, at the end of class, as everyone is shoving notebooks into their backpacks, Lauren stands and announces that there will be a war protest the following Tuesday near the union. “You all should come,” she says to her classmates. “It’s important we make our voices heard.” Everyone looks at me. The class has started to turn a corner since my outburst. They engage more readily, the discussion is more lively. I repeat the homework assignment and tell them to have a good day.

  After the others leave, Lauren says, “What’d you do that for?”

  I ask her to come to my office. We walk down the hallway in silence, but when I shut the door it comes out unbidden. I tell her about dropping out and moving from Boulder to Chicago to join the collective. I tell her about the Days of Rage and trying to organize revolutionary working-class youth. I tell her about false IDs and training ourselves to fight. I tell her about getting beaten by police and jailed.

  “What’s the point?” she asks.

  “I’m trying to explain why I couldn’t just say ‘extra credit for anyone who goes to the protest.’”

  “Doesn’t mean you have to pretend you’re someone you’re not,” she says.

  I try to explain about being a spousal hire and the uneasy state of my employment after the attention from the book. “It’s why they gave me only one class this semester.” To everything she asks why, and I try to rationalize and explain until all I can see in her expression is disappointment, the slight accusation of cowardice.

  Next class, I arrive to find a flyer for the protest taped to the dry erase board of my room. Lauren doesn’t show. I leave the handbill where it is, writing dates and names from the Kansas past around it. Finally, someone asks what it is. I take it down and read it aloud. They are silent. I set it on my desk and continue lecturing until our time is finished.

  Afterward I walk to the union, where the rally is under way. There’s a young black man standing on a stone bench. He’s wearing a heavy peacoat and a black knit hat that keeps inching higher off his forehead because he’s shaking from cold or anger. Suddenly he shouts: “We are at war, and we are the citizens of an empire. The crimes of our government are being committed in our names and we ain’t gonna stand for it any longer!” He goes on another minute, and the crowd echoes back, chanting, “Not in our names.” Then I see Lauren. Booming forth from the crowd, she joins the guy on the bench. She looks around, taking in the sizable gathering. She opens her mouth but hesitates. I think maybe the moment has gotten to her, but she steadies herself and begins reading the casualty figures—military and civilian, American and Iraqi—the Pentagon tries to keep secret. The crowd shouts its frozen approval, fists raised here and there. She is electric in her nervousness, gaining confidence with each response from the crowd. She tells us that on the count of three we will fall to the ground and lie silent for five minutes in recognition of the war dead.

  I’m standing on the periphery with the other interlopers taking in the spectacle, but when she begins to count I move closer and lower myself to the snow-covered brick. Lying silently with the others, I look at the gray, sunless sky, and wonder what Linda’s doing. We never went in for something as static as a die-in. We were always marching som
ewhere, or trying to occupy some building. Looking for confrontation. I think of the March on the Pentagon and trying to break the line of police and National Guardsmen. I see Linda spitting in a marshal’s face and feel the old wounds from the clubs in my back when they countered. We were begging to be arrested, and when we finally were, cuffed and put on buses that took us to separate detention facilities, I thought of her then, too, as I stretched out on the holding-cell floor. I wanted only to pay my fine so that I could return to her. I feel no such desire now, just the curiosity of what it would take for her to dirty her winter coat here in the snow.

  When the five minutes are over, we all rise and dust off our jackets. I hang around, watching Lauren talk to a group of people who have surrounded her. I look away when she glances in my direction, but turn back to find her smiling.

  “You came,” she says as she approaches.

  “Of course.”

  The other speaker walks over and joins us. He’s thinner than, and not as tall as, he looked standing on top of the bench. She introduces him, Kwame, and we shake hands.

  “Lauren’s told me about you,” he says.

  “Don’t believe everything you hear.”

  The shortest month of the year, February won’t end just to spite us. We’re all runny noses and shivering, Lauren’s fair skin almost translucent in the cold.

  “What’d you think?” Kwame says, blowing into his hand. I tell them they’re doing the right thing, that the pressure will build. He nods as he looks around. “What should we do now?” he asks. I start talking about how it’s not just one rally, the commitment has to be sustained, that power concedes nothing without demand, and suddenly I’m twenty years old and standing on a Chicago street corner haranguing some poor guy on his way to work to stop slaving for the Man and come to a fucking meeting. “Nah, I know all that, man,” says Kwame. “I just meant what should we do now? You wanna grab a drink or something?”

  And so I follow them downtown to the Taproom. It’s off campus, and we’re the only people there, which I like. The bartender wears thick black glasses and a pearl-snap cowboy shirt over a white thermal. He’s just opened. As we lean on the bar considering the various taps on draft, he turns and kneels, slowly flipping through a crate of LPs on the floor behind the extra liquor bottles. He picks one and sets the needle before finally turning to serve us. There’s the old familiar crackle of stylus threading groove and then Dylan’s strange country croon fills the bar as Nashville Skyline begins. We take our pints to a corner booth by the window and discuss school. They are studying poli-sci and thinking about grad programs. They don’t say so, but I can tell Lauren and Kwame are together. The occasional touch on the other’s arm as they work to articulate a point, the hopeful expectancy that undercuts the seriousness with which they look at one another.

  “So, Lauren says you were in it deep back in the day,” says Kwame.

  “Sort of.”

  “Come on, man,” he says, scanning over the empty bar. “What was it like?”

  “What, the movement?”

  “Being underground.”

  I think a long moment before responding and when I do I meet their eyes and say, “How do you think?”

  When I say nothing else, it seems he might let it lie, but Kwame probes further: “What made you do it? How did you know you needed to go under?”

  I tell him I knew the exact moment.

  “I was in Chicago, walking past Fred Hampton’s casket after the police assassinated him and Mark Clark.”

  “You knew them?” Kwame says.

  “The Panthers’ offices were close to ours. They used to come over, sometimes to plan joint actions, and other times, just to fuck with us, they’d take stuff to test how truly anti-racist we were.”

  “Am I supposed to be impressed you hung out with Panthers or offended you calling brothers thieves?”

  “I’m just answering your question, Kwame.”

  The look in his eyes betrays the edge in his voice. “Go on, then,” he says. So I share some of the old stories, confiding how one of the last times I heard Fred speak he seemed to auger his own death: I might be gone tomorrow. I might be in jail. But when I leave, remember the last words on my lips: I am a revolutionary. “They killed him in December ’68,” I say. “By January we were moving underground.”

  The ease with which I relate this story is familiar. The Hampton-Clark murders had a big impact on Linda and me. Over the years they became part of our personal mythology, a way in which to understand our past and to account for what had become of us since. However, usually when I tell it—now and again it will come up at a cocktail party or university function—it’s a cautionary tale meant to explain not why we went underground but why we left the movement altogether.

  “Who’s ‘we’?” Lauren asks.

  “My wife. We were there together.” There’s a pause as they nod, and then I ask: “How’d you two meet?” The look they exchange tells me my hunch was correct. I learn they had a public policy class last fall.

  She says: “Even today people sometimes look confused when they see us walking together.”

  “It’s all good, though,” Kwame says, a cold smile on his face. “A black man’s in the White House. It’s like they say: We’re ‘post-racial’ now, right?”

  One night in early March, I receive an e-mail from Linda asking if I’ll leave the house so she can gather more of her things. With the first hints of spring in the air, I decide to walk downtown. As I pass an Italian restaurant we used to go to on special occasions, however, I catch sight of her out of the corner of my eye, having dinner with a man. I haven’t seen her since she left the house after New Year’s and can only stare. She’s straightened the curl of her long black hair, and she’s wearing an outfit I can’t recall. I don’t recognize the guy. They’re eating and smiling, and then she turns away from him and looks out the window near where I’m standing. Instinctively, I raise my hand, meaning, Why aren’t you at the house like you said you’d be? and Who’s this asshole you’re having dinner with? But she doesn’t acknowledge me. She turns her attention back to the man and raises her fork to her mouth. I leave, heading home, thinking maybe she didn’t see me after all. Must have been one of those tricks of the light where, inside the illuminated restaurant, she couldn’t see anything outside in the dark.

  We talk about the pressure to move from agriculture to industry. We talk about the development of the urban centers of the state. We discuss John Brinkley, the Goat Gland Doctor, who injected goat glands into men to improve virility. We marvel at how he manipulated early radio to nearly steal the 1930 gubernatorial race. We talk Depression and Dust Bowl. We read excerpts from the WPA Guide to 1930s Kansas and look at murals. We cover the war years, how Wichita doubled in population overnight after receiving bomber contracts from the government, how German POWs were relocated to Kansas to relieve the shortage of agricultural workers. We talk NAACP and Brown vs. Board of Education. Do they know that the sit-ins at Dockum’s Drugstore in Wichita preceded the famous Greensboro sit-ins by two years? They do not. The sixties get their own unit, culminating here in Lawrence with the 1970 riots after police shot two students, one black and one white.

  On the last day before spring break, Lauren stops by my office. She’s been doing this more and more, sometimes to talk about class, but usually just to talk. She says she’s going to D.C. for a rally on the Mall to bring the troops home. “Me and Kwame chartered a bus and we’ve been organizing people to come. It’s almost full,” she says. “You have any plans?”

  “In this economy?” I say. “Thought I might stay home and listen to some fireside chats on the gramophone.”

  It feels nice to have developed a rapport with her, one of the small pleasures of teaching.

  “You should come with us,” she says, setting a hand on my arm, which is what I’m looking at when I hear Brad’s loud voice from the hallway, asking if I have a second. “Sorry to interrupt,” he says. “Didn’t realize you wer
e holding office hours.”

  “It’s okay.” I wave him in. “Lauren was just leaving.”

  She shoulders her bag and heads for the door. I wish her good luck in Washington.

  “What’s in Washington?” asks Brad affably. “Family?”

  “A protest against the wars,” she answers.

  “Ah,” he says, looking from Lauren to me and back again. After Lauren leaves, Brad closes the door and pulls a chair close like he’s going to give me a real talking-to. He leans forward.

  “I heard about you and Linda.”

  “Oh, yeah,” I say. “What’d you hear?”

  “I bumped into her earlier today. She said you two were separated.”


  We let that silence just hang there awkwardly for a few seconds.

  “I’m sorry,” he says, putting a big paw on my shoulder. “I wasn’t aware. Are you doing okay?”

  I tell him I’m fine, that we’d been growing apart for years. “Really,” I say, “it’s the best thing for both of us.” He takes this in with a series of hurried nods. He seems to want to say more, but I tell him I need to go.

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