Friday, November 23, 2007

two women

I've wanted to write about Cathy Wilkerson and Hettie Jones, separately or together, but while my subconscious genie was pleased to send this little mania, it didn't give me a clue what to do with it. So this post starts out without an end in view. I'm eager to see where it takes me.

Some three-to-four decades past, Cathy was a couple classes behind me at college and Hettie worked at the nonprofit where I volunteered. My knowledge of each was infinitessimal and hardly more extensive now. They both stand for something: a test of the notion that a person can, by intention, achieve something large in the world. For Cathy this something large was to participate in a chivalric destruction of the Establishment's exploitation of weak, poor, and despised minorities in the US. For Hettie it was to help people who were members of these weak, poor, and despised minorities understand that they needed to break free of their servitude through their own initiative, and to help them learn how to do this. Cathy now admits that her attempt was a total failure. In Hettie's case, I think it's not clear whether things have changed for the better since her time: maybe they have, maybe not. I think it's safe to say we both wish it so.

So what did they do? You'll probably recall that Wilkerson made the newspapers when she and companions managed to blow up her parents Greenwich Village townhouse back in 1970. (Put your cursor over the dot on W 11th St in this map of the Radical Big Apple.) The group was going to use the bomb to blow up some soldiers at Ft. Dix in NJ.

{Click to view full size: This is Cathy today, outside the place she helped destroy. Photo credits: AP & NYT}

Jones did not make the news. She married a newsworthy man, gave birth to children, watched him go out and away from her and them, and moved on with her life.

The two women have in common a passion for righting society's wrongs. Both are literate, middle-class, and white. Both have endured and attempted to overcome male dominance within groups dedicated to overthrowing racial, class, and political injustices. Both have written memoirs.

But Wilkerson born in 1943, grew up in a prosperous Quaker home in Connecticut, while Jones (born Cohen), 9 years older, grew up in a less prosperous Jewish one in Queens.

Wilkerson says she was totally innocent of radical politics until 1962 when she entered college.
Swarthmore was a real hot bed of intellectual discussion. I mean the classes were peripheral and what happened amongst the students was more important to most of the students than what happened in the classes. And there were also people from every political sect on the left there. I had never met anyone from the left. I mean there were red diaper babies, there were Trots, there were Social Democrats, there were everything. ... My freshman year, I went to a couple of meetings ... I couldn’t understand a word anybody was saying about anything. And no women ever spoke. But the spring of my freshman year they organized trips to go down to Cambridge, Maryland, to participate in the demonstrations that were going on down there. ... If there’s one event that changed my life, that’s what it was. I don’t remember the demonstrations really clearly. But I remember, I think there were dogs and it was, you know, Southern, very Southern. ... It was big and intense and heavy. It just completely blew my mind, and nothing was ever the same again.*
After that for her it was SDS and then the Weather Underground, and the rest is history. She became single-minded, dogmatic, and driven by the notion that the ends justify the means. As she says,
Rather than listening closely to what people had said, I tried to manipulate them into adopting the organization's current perspective, into carrying out the organization's wishes in order to protect my own standing. Rather than facing the complexity of problems, I had settled for simplistic solutions and for the fiction that we, the authors of those solutions, were somehow superior to those we sought to guide.**
The transitions of Jones's life were less sudden, momentous, or radical.
{Click image at right to view full size: The cover of Hettie's memoir shows her in youth and middle age. Photo credit:}

A quiet rebellion took her away from straight-laced, homogeneous Queens into the publishing and jazz scene of Manhattan. She says,
By 1951, the year we were labeled the Silent Generation, I'd been recommended to silence often. Men had little use for an outspoken woman, I'd been warned. What I wanted, I was told, was security and upward mobility, which might be mine if I learned to shut my mouth. Myself I simply expected, by force of will, to assume a new shape in the future. Unlike any woman in my family or anyone I'd ever actually known, I was going to become -- something, anything, whatever that meant. To accomplish this I felt the need to cloister myself for a while, away from the usual expectations, at what was knows as an "all-girls college." Accepted at Vassar I chose instead Mary Washington, the woman's college of the University of Virginia.
She went there because it was cheaper and, she thought, less snobbish than Vassar, but she knew nothing about the place. For the first time in her life she was among Christians and, even more frighteningly, immersed in the culture of the ladies of the American South.
These were the people of white gloves and horse breeds, who had patterns of culture officially, including formal dinners and vespers.... I felt very much the Yankee Jew from New York. In the dining room, with a kind of tense awe, I was asked, "Are you Puerto Rican?" ... I seemed unique. In my dorm a black woman who worked as a maid sometimes picked up extra money ironing. As I had with my mother, I ironed beside her. She seemed to understand, smiled when she saw me coming, and showed me how to handle the tucks in my blouses. Apart from her, I met no other black people regularly.
A drama major, she had only one role in a college production, but performed many times for in the classrooms of backwoods schools and in the meeting rooms of Veterans' Hospitals. On graduating, she moved into Manhattan, taking menial jobs to get by. She listed to Wanda Landowska playing Bach on the harpsichord, read Whitman in Riverside Park, and studied Brecht at Columbia in a class taught by Eric Bentley.

Her life-changing event was wholly unlike Wilkerson's. She had been dating men of other races, religions, and cultures and so it's not entirely surprising to find that meeting Leroi Jones was transformational for her. She was working as a clerk in a Greenwich Village record store at the time. Here is her description of the encounter:
Nearby, running half the length of a cluttered storefront office, is a six-foot-high row of wooden milk crates, housing old 78 rpm jazz records in crumbling paper sleeves. Flakes of this yellow-brown stuff drift down and settle like snow on the dirty linoleum, and the smell of it masks the casual funk from a darker back room, where Richard (Dick) Hadlock, editor of the Record Changer, the magazine published here, sleeps whenever he's not with his girlfriend.

But he's with her now--or somewhere--leaving me: Hettie Cohen. a small, dark, twenty-two-year-old Jew from Laurelton, Queens, with a paperback book in my hand, Kafka's Amerika. I'm the Subscription Manager and I'm about to interview an applicant for the job of Shipping Manager. It's March 1957 in Greenwich Village. A haphazard pile of boxes, holding unsold issues, partly obscures the unwashed front (and only) window of the store. From time to time I glance toward this pale daylight, up from Amerika, waiting.

The applicant, arrived on a gust of sweet afternoon, turned out to be a young black man, no surprise. It was he who was surprised. "You're reading Kafka!" he said happily. He was small and wiry, with a widow's peak that sharpened his closecut hair, and a mustache and goatee to match. Yet the rakishness of all these triangles was set back, made reticent, by a button-down shirt and Clark's shoes. A Brooks Brothers look. I sat him down and we started to talk. He was smart, and very direct, and for emphasis stabbed the air with his third -- not index --finger, an affectation to notice, of course. But his movements were easy, those of man at home not only in skin but in muscle and bone. And he led with his head. What had started with Kafka just went on going. An hour later, when Dick arrived, we were still talking. "Did you tell him about the job?" Dick asked me. "The.job?" I echoed, and blushed. Left responsible and gone derelict. No interview. I see myself, now, as the heat invades my face, a hand up to my open, astonished mouth. On the left is my subscription corner, the typewriter, unanswered mail. And on my right LeRoi Jones--square-jawed, pointy-browed, grinning at me shyly, and still, I think, a little surprised I'd had so much to say.
She stuck with Roi as she called him from then on. They stuck to each other, that is, until he unstuck himself. By then, she'd been through an abortion, wedding, and birth of two children. She wrote with him, edited a magazine with him, and supported their kids -- with no help from him -- after he left. She did not waver in her faith that she -- and anyone else -- could breach barriers of race, religion, ethnic origin, and the like by making a conscious effort to learn, understand, and honor the differences among people and treat none as simply a member of some group, whatever the group or its stereotype. When the path of my life briefly intersected with hers, she had helped design the innovative Head Start Program in which I worked, one which paid women on welfare to take care of the children of other women on welfare, freeing the women to work their way out of poverty and giving their children a high quality preschool education. While the money to support the program lasted, it worked well, but the money didn't last long enough for it to achieve its aims. She was a leader in what was, in the 1960s, a controversial effort to give people tools to overcome poverty. Accounts have since said the effort was bound to fail since as poor people began to exert influence in local affairs, they provoked insuperable resentment in their local jurisdictions -- the local power structure.

Hettie is still an author and now also teaches writing to others, including -- no surprise -- people incarcerated in state and federal prisons. You can read her academic curriculum vitae on The New School web site.

Cathy Wilkerson's memoir is Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman. Seven Stories Press, 2007. Hettie Jones' is How I Became Hettie Jones, Dutton, 1990. As well as showing their opposite approaches to making the world a better place (narrow-focussed and exclusive vs. broad-based and inclusive), the memoirs demonstrate the difficulties faced by women radicals during the 1960s and '70s.

You can read about Wilkerson's memoir in many places. I noticed it in a review by Scott McLemee in Newsday which I recommend. You can get yourself a second-hand copy of Jones' memoir very cheaply and it's widely available in academic libraries.

Some addenda:

1. Though closer in age to Wilkerson than Jones, I'm tempermentally more sympathetic to the latter. I envy her for being able to experience the cultural transformation effected by the Beat Generation in Greenwich Village of the '50s and '60s. (More on this here.) Her memoir uses a quote from Beat poet which is pertinent to her life: "The idea ... is to change first of our own volition and according to our own inner promptings before they impose completely arbitrary changes on us." (Janes Bowles, Two Serious Ladies, 1943). This faith in self-actualization through self-realization contrasts strongly with Wilkerson's tragic yielding to the rage she felt on encountering the repression of people poor, uneducated, and inarticulate.

2. Jones' husband is a subject all his own. Born Everette L. Jones, he re-made himself first to LeRoi Jones, then Imamu Amiri Baraka. The wikipedia article on him describes his transformations pretty well. I know him best as the author of the book Blues People.

3. Note that all three of these interesting people have mingled intellectual and activist pursuits in their lives. All three write. All three have produced readable memoirs.

4. I thought maybe one of the three might have released some writings into the internet under a Creative Commons license, but their idealism does not seem to take them that direction.

5. While researching this post, I came across an article on SDS at Swarthmore which quotes my friend and classmate Paul Booth.

6. Hettie Jones answered questions about her memoir in an interview entitled Women of the Beat Generation: Conversations with Joyce Johnson and Hettie Jones.

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