Today we look at the nexus of politics and art, airing highlights of our cultural coverage from the past year featuring Alice Walker, Walter Mosley, Tony Kushner, Randy Weston, Steve Earle, Randall Robinson, Toshi Reagon, Tom Morello and others. We pay tribute to the late Adrienne Rich, Gore Vidal and Whitney Houston and mark the centennial of the birth of Woody Guthrie. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Today a Democracy Now! special, looking back at 2012. We look at art, culture and resistance. We begin with Randall Robinson, founder and past president of TransAfrica, a law professor at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book Makeda, his second novel. Set at the dawn of the civil rights era, it follows a young man coming of age in segregated Richmond, Virginia. Through his blind grandmother and her visions, he discovers his roots in Africa. Randall Robinson came to the Democracy Now! studios on the eve of Dr. King’s birthday to talk about his new novel. He now lives in Saint Kitts.
RANDALL ROBINSON: When I was a child growing up in Richmond, Virginia, we were called Negroes. No one I knew knew why we were called that. No one knew the provenance of that word. It had no connection to what we might have been before we were blocked from view by that lethal, opaque space of slavery. And so, we didn’t know anything about ourselves, except we had been called this, but not by ourselves. And it turns out that it’s much like the case of the sardine. There’s no such thing as a sardine as a fish living free in the ocean. It only becomes one when it is captured and put in a can. And we were only called Negroes when we were labeled during slavery as that as a way of severing us from any memory of what we had been. And so we lost our mothers, our fathers, our families, our religions, our languages, our cultures, our memories of what we had been. And so, we thought we had no history before slavery. And this name, this new name, this new label, helped to facilitate that loss of memory. Now, memory is the active agent of all collective social progress. If you can’t remember yourself, you’re suffering from serious debilitation.
This novel is the story of an extraordinary woman who is a poor, blind waitress in Richmond, Virginia, who remembers past lives. And so, she remembers Timbuktu in the late 1300s, when her father was a priest who underwent cataract surgery at the University at Timbuktu. She remembers her days in ancient Egypt, when the two Egypts were united thousands of years before. She remembers lives in West Africa. She remembers all of this, and she tells it to her grandson, who wants to be a writer. And they have a special relationship. And she swears him to secrecy that he tell no one that she has these memories, or people will think she’s a bit fruity, as she says. But she remembers these lives in extraordinary detail. And he is inspired by it. He gains his confidence from it. And this is, of course, to symbolize the enormous consequence. Sometimes when we think of slavery, we calculate the economic consequence of it. But we have not calculated the psychosocial consequence of it, unless we factor in the loss of memory, which was occasioned by a deliberate and systematic program imposed from those—by those who controlled us.
AMY GOODMAN: This young man you write about, Gray, your protagonist, doesn’t expect much of his older brother, outside of anything conventional. And yet, when they’re walking down the street one day in Richmond, Virginia, at the time of the first lunch counter sit-ins, it’s his older brother who says, "Let’s do it."
RANDALL ROBINSON: "Let’s do it."
AMY GOODMAN: And Gray says, "What are you talking about? Do what?" And he says, "Let’s go sit down at that lunch counter." And he’s the one who drags his little brother in. Talk about the effect of the civil rights movement on segregated Richmond, your home town, too.
RANDALL ROBINSON: My brother Max and I lived not terribly far from the capitol. It was unguarded in those days, and on Sundays we used to go down and bang on the door and run like hell. Or we used to go down to the White House of the Confederacy and throw rocks at it and run home, feeling better about what we had done. We had struck some kind of blow. I remember when I was at Norfolk State College in 1959, 1960, '61, went down to a lunch counter downtown. And our parents had said, "Don't do that." My aunt and uncle, with whom I stayed, "Don’t get involved." But everybody wanted it to work, but nobody wanted us to get involved. And I went down and did that. And I thought I grew a little in that day, at least an inch or two, because my back straightened. And that’s what Gray and his brother were doing down at the G.C. Murphy counter on Broad Street in Richmond, Virginia.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Gray, in this book, obviously, grows—in your book, grows, as well. He, at one point—he’s never quite sure, early on, how his grandmother has these vivid memories, but then he goes to West Africa, and he discovers particular descriptions of hers that were positively accurate.
RANDALL ROBINSON: She tells him this story when he’s 15, that her father sat her down, the priest. He used to have counseling sessions with his children, at least once a week. And he told her about the mysteries of the interplanetary system and the Sirius star system, the pattern of the rotation, the revolutions, the weight of the Sirius star, the weight of Emme Ya, the weight of Po Tolo, another rotating body around Sirius. How did the Dogon people in ancient Mali in the 1300s know all of this? It has been documented that they did. She told this to her grandson and had him draw a map based on her recall of what her father had described to her, and he kept this all these years. And then, when Western scientists finally identified some of these bodies her grandmother had told him about, he was agog that she was right. She had been there. She had seen it. The truth is that only in the 1990s did French astronomers finally identify the tiny "star of women," the Dogon people call it, Emme Ya, finally saw it with a Western telescope. They have known it for more than a thousand years. It’s an incredible story.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival. Over the weekend here in Park City, Utah, we spoke with Robert Redford, the founder of Sundance. He’s an Academy Award-winning director, renown actor, producer, activist. And I asked him, with all of his great commercial success in Hollywood, how was it that independent film has become his passion?
ROBERT REDFORD: To me, stories that were worth telling were stories about what’s the truth beneath the truth that you’re given, or you think you know. And I think that, like All the President’s Men, was, well, what’s the truth? What’s the story about two guys that did something other people weren’t doing that managed to take down a top figure in government? How did that work? You know, it was about hard work. And so, for me, I started to get really obsessed with, OK, if we’re so obsessed about winning, what’s a personal story? What’s the story behind quiz shows that made so much money? And I was—I just went along with it. I was a young acting student in New York. I watched $60,000 Question, whatever, hundred, whatever it was, or 21. I thought, "Wow! Except there’s something wrong here. The guy that’s winning all this, everybody is going all over themselves on this guy, except he doesn’t—I don’t know that I believe him." But I never doubted the whole system was corrupt. I never doubted the whole system was rigged. When I found that out, I thought, well, that’s another example. What’s the truth beneath what you’re given? So I think that’s what’s driven me.
LL COOL J: The only thing that feels right is to begin with a prayer for a woman who we loved, for our fallen sister, Whitney Houston. Heavenly Father, we thank you for sharing our sister Whitney with us. Today our thoughts are with her mother, her daughter, and all of her loved ones. And although she is gone too soon, we remain truly blessed to have been touched by her beautiful spirit and to have her lasting legacy of music to cherish and share forever. Amen.
AMY GOODMAN: Whitney Houston is the latest cultural icon to pass away during this year’s Black History Month. On February 1st, television host Don Cornelius was found dead at his home in Los Angeles in what appeared to be a suicide. Cornelius brought black music and culture into America’s living rooms through his dance show, Soul Train, one of the longest-running syndicated shows in television history, and played a critical role in spreading the music of black America to the world. And late last month, the Grammy Award-winning R&B singer Etta James died at the age of 73 from complications of leukemia.
ETTA JAMES: [singing "At Last"]
AMY GOODMAN: Etta James is regarded as having bridged the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, and is the winner of six Grammys and 17 Blues Music Awards. Neither Don Cornelius nor music icon Etta James were included in last night’s "in memoriam" segment of the Grammy Awards ceremony, although Etta James was honored at the ceremony.
Well, for more on the lives and legacies of these music icons, we’re joined now by Mark Anthony Neal in Madison, Wisconsin. He’s professor of black popular culture in the Department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He also hosts the weekly webcast called Left of Black and blogs at NewBlackMan.blogspot.com.
Mark Anthony Neal, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of the death of Whitney Houston?
MARK ANTHONY NEAL: Thank you. First, thank you for having me on this morning, Amy.
The significance of Whitney Houston—you know, she is part of a generation of what I call "black pop crossover artists," that would include Eddie Murphy, it would include Michael Jackson, the late Michael Jackson, and even basketball player Michael Jordan, in that they had unprecedented amount of access to the American mainstream. We had never seen that level of black celebrity before. There were precursors, obviously, and predecessors to their careers, in terms of what they—in terms of their own musical or even athletic careers, but in terms of the kind of access that a woman like Whitney Houston had to the American mainstream, her success in that mainstream was really unprecedented.
You go back and look at her lineage. You know, included in her family is the great Aretha Franklin, who redefined soul music—in fact, defined soul music in the 1960s, but also Dionne Warwick, you know, who chose much more of a pop—a crossover pop style. What you see in Whitney Houston in the 1980s is really the coming together of two very different streams of black popular music from the 1960s. And she perfected it. I mean, she really found the perfect pitch for what was really pop music. I think, in some ways, we do an injustice to Whitney Houston to even think of her as an R&B singer. She really transcended R&B as it was even in the 1980s. She was, you know, America’s pop princess, and definitely black America’s pop princess.
But when you see the successes of what she did—right? And, of course, there’s a price that she paid for this level of celebrity. We see the same thing with the late Michael Jackson. But to think that in 2012 that LL Cool J, right, coming out of hip hop, you know, 16 years old when he records his first album in 1984, that someone like LL Cool J would be hosting the Grammy Awards, you know, 25 years later, is simply amazing, and it’s a testament to the level of success that someone like Whitney Houston had as a crossover artist in the 1980s.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps. Dave, it’s great to have you with us on Valentine’s Day.
DAVE ISAY: Hi, Amy. Good to see you, always.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this project that you’ve been doing.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. Well, you describe StoryCorps very well. It’s this massive oral history project. We’ve done 40,000 interviews with about 80,000 everyday people across the country. We hold—
AMY GOODMAN: But then, of course, it’s not you doing the interviews.
DAVE ISAY: No. So these are everyday people who come to the booth together and are met by a facilitator, who’s—they think of themselves as bearing witness to these interviews. They sit during the interviews. This conversation is had. Many people think of it as, if I had 40 minutes left to live, what would I say to this person who means so much to me? At the end of the 40 minutes, as you said, two CDs have been burned: one stays with you, the other goes to the Library of Congress, so your great-great-great-great-grandkids can someday get to know your grandmother through her voice and story.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dave, one of the couples who has so inspired you through the years—I’ve been to your various events as you launch your books and StoryCorps—are Danny and Annie. And I think a lot of people have followed them over time. And I wanted to play this clip. And if you could start off by saying what you’ve done. Now, for our radio audience, they will hear these two wondrous voices, Danny and Annie. But for the TV audience, you’ve taken another step.
DAVE ISAY: So, we started animating StoryCorps stories about two years ago. And what happened is, one of these facilitators, who’s one of these people who gathers the wisdom of humanity, came into my office one day, and he said, "You know, I’m a facilitator, but I’m also an animator. And my brother, who teaches swim class at the Y, is also an animator. And we started animating StoryCorps stories." And I tried to toss him out of my office. I know you’ve tossed people out of your office before. Before he could—before I could get him out, he slammed a DVD into my computer, and this wondrous thing showed up. And StoryCorps animation was born.
So, you know, I am a radio purist. You’ve known me since the day I started in radio many, many years ago. But I thought that what these young men had done was to add a layer of magic to the magic that happens just between the two people and the voices. So—and we’re also doing a big push into schools now. So I think of this kind of as a gateway drug to get kids to engage with the video and then listen to the audio. So this is Danny and Annie.
DANNY PERASA: I always feel guilty when I say "I love you" to you, and I say it so often. I say it to remind you that, as dumpy as I am, it’s coming from me. It’s like hearing a beautiful song from a busted old radio, and it’s nice of you to keep the radio around the house.
ANNIE PERASA: If I don’t have a note on the kitchen table, I think there’s something wrong. You write a love letter to me every morning.
DANNY PERASA: Well, the only thing that could possibly be wrong is I couldn’t find a silly pen.
ANNIE PERASA: "To my princess, the weather out today is extremely rainy. I’ll call you at 11:20 in the morning."
DANNY PERASA: It’s a romantic weather report.
ANNIE PERASA: "And I love you. I love you. I love you."
DANNY PERASA: When a guy is happily married, no matter what happens at work, no matter what happens in the rest of the day, there’s a shelter when you get home. There’s a knowledge, knowing that you can hug somebody without them throwing you down the stairs and saying, "Get your hands off me!" And being married is like having a color television set. You never want to go back to black-and-white.
DAVE ISAY: So, Amy, this is—on the animation now, it says, "Danny and Annie spent 27 happy years together. In January of 2006, Danny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A few weeks later, Danny and Annie recorded one last interview together from their living room in their home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn."
ANNIE PERASA: The illness is not hard on me. It’s just, you know, the finality of it. And him, he goes along like a trooper.
DANNY PERASA: Listen, even downhill a car doesn’t roll unless it’s pushed. And you’re giving me a great push. The deal of it is, we try to give each other hope—and not hope that I’ll live; hope that you’ll do well after I pass, hope that people will support her, hope that if she meets somebody and likes him, she marries him.
ANNIE PERASA: Yeah, he has everything planned. You know.
DANNY PERASA: I’m working on her. She said—it was her call—she wants to walk out behind the casket alone. I guess that’s the way to do it, because when we were married, you know how your brother takes you down, your father takes you down? She said, "Well, I don’t know which of my brothers to walk in with. I don’t want to offend anybody." I says, "I got a solution." I said, "You walk in with me. You walk out with me." And the other day, I said, "Who’s going to walk down the aisle with you behind the casket?" You know, to support her. And she said, "Nobody. I walked in with you alone. I’m walking out with you alone."
ANNIE PERASA: Mm-hmm.
DANNY PERASA: There’s a thing in life, where you have to come to terms with dying. Well, I haven’t come to terms with dying yet. I want to come to terms with being sure that you understand that my love for you up to this point was as much here as it could be and as much as it could be for eternity. I always said the only thing I have to give you is a poor gift and it’s myself. And I always gave it. And if there’s a way to come back and give it, I’ll do that, too. Do you have the Valentine’s Day letter there?
ANNIE PERASA: Yeah. "My dearest wife: This is a very special day. It is a day on which we share our love, which still grows after all these years. Now that love is being used by us to sustain us through these hard times. All my love, all my days, and more. Happy Valentine’s Day."
AMY GOODMAN: The legendary pianist and composer Randy Weston. For the past six decades, Weston has been a pioneering jazz musician, incorporating the vast rhythmic heritage of Africa. The poet Langston Hughes once wrote, quote, "When Randy Weston plays, a combination of strength and gentleness, virility and velvet, emerges from the keys in an ebb and flow of sound seemingly as natural as the waves of the sea."
Langston Hughes. Talk about meeting him and—
RANDY WESTON: Wow, wow.
AMY GOODMAN: —how he inspired you and what you did together.
RANDY WESTON: So many ways. Again, Marshall Stearns.
AMY GOODMAN: Marshall Stearns, the—
RANDY WESTON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —white professor.
RANDY WESTON: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Western Mass.
RANDY WESTON: Exactly. He brought Langston Hughes up to the Berkshires to the Music Inn. And I met Langston—automatic connection between the two—and I was very young. I wasn’t a professional pianist now. I’m playing at night, and I’m cooking during the day, but I wasn’t a professional musician. But to make a long story short, he knew my interest in Africa, knew my interest in African culture. So as it turned out, in 1961, the very first summit of African Americans going to Africa was in Nigeria. And Langston was part of that movement.
And then, later on, when the great Melba Liston, whom we did the "Freedom Africa Suite," I asked Langston would he come and write a freedom poem for me, because the African countries were just getting their independence in 1960. Seventeen African countries got their independence in 1960. So I wanted to create a work of music celebrating this freedom of Africa. So Langston wrote a freedom poem for me, and also he wrote the words, a song I call "African Lady." That song was dedicated to our mothers, our sisters, those African women who were always in the background, who always supported us, you see. And then, finally, we did—
AMY GOODMAN: Can you play a little?
RANDY WESTON: Oh, yeah. Oh, you mean, which one? "African Lady"? Sure. [playing "African Lady"]
AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned the freedom poem of Langston Hughes. Do you remember it?
RANDY WESTON: Well, it’s like a—you know, what we did was this. As a boy, I was always upset with Tarzan movies, you know, because the image of African people in Hollywood was rather hard. That’s putting it mildly. The image, you know. And I was always upset with what they called African languages, like African people have no language, you know? So the freedom poem, I wanted to put the freedom poem in an African language, so when people hear the music, they realize the beauty of African languages and that language began in Africa in the first place. OK? So I went to Langston, and Langston—the freedom poem was like "Afrika Uhuru," which means "freedom." Actually, my memory—
AMY GOODMAN: "Africa, where the great Congo flows!"
RANDY WESTON: "Where the great Congo flows!" "Afrika Uhuru." And "Uhuru" is Kiswahili. And I—so, I went to the United Nations. I talked to a number of diplomats at that time. I said, how could I use one African language? There’s so many languages in Africa. How could I choose one? So the general consensus was, use Kiswahili. So I had this guy, his name was Tuntemeke Sanga from Tanzania—Tanganyika at that particular time. And he was a scholar of Swahili. So what he did, he took Langston’s poem from English to Kiswahili. And his diction and his voice was so wonderful, we used him on the recording of Uhuru Afrika.
[excerpt of Uhuru Afrika]
I guess Paul Robeson said it best: An artist is responsible to fight for freedom. An artist is responsible to change society. That’s how Paul put it, very great. Not only do you have to be good at your craft, but you have to make a contribution to society, you know.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m joined now by the award-winning author Walter Mosley. He has published 37 books, though written many others, including a series of bestselling mysteries featuring the private investigator Easy Rawlins. The Rawlins novel Devil in a Blue Dress, set in 1948, was made into a film starring Denzel Washington. Walter Mosley has been hailed for his use of the popular detective novel as a vehicle for confronting racism across multiple decades. But he is less known for his non-fiction works that address the pressing political issues of our time.
There’s an article from 2006—
WALTER MOSLEY: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: —called "Walter Mosley on a New Black Power." And it begins: "Most black Americans have been Democrats for at least the fifty-three years that I’ve been alive. What have the Democrats done for us in all that time? We have the lowest average income of any large racial group in the nation. We’re incarcerated at an alarmingly high rate. We are still segregated and profiled."
WALTER MOSLEY: Mm-hmm, yeah. Well, that was—that was the beginning of a long arc of thought for me. At that time, I was saying, well, we should just have a black party and get all these black people together and tell whoever’s running for office what we want. And you say, "You get our vote, and we’ll be an interest group, rather than, you know, a Democrat or a Republican." But later on, as I worked on it, I kept thinking, well, really, the problem with America is its inaccurate interpretation of democracy. We go out and say, well, you vote, and then things happen, you know?
And so, later on, I actually wrote a book that I haven’t published. I just give it to people. It’s called Making Democracy in America, in which you get people to vote blind, meaning to say, vote for what’s good for you, never for things you don’t like. And in order to—if you could get people to do that, everybody in America thinks the same thing, because everybody in America is in the working class. Everybody in America wants a living wage, wants to retire comfortably, wants education for their children. You know, if you only voted for the things that were important to you, we would all vote together. And that’s what democracy is about. It’s not whether I like you or not, or I agree with your lifestyle or not. It’s what’s important for me in my life. And so, I’ve been trying to work out a way to create a blind democracy, completely ignoring the—you know, basically, the self-interests, corporations of the Democrats and the Republicans.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s stay on electoral politics. You recently wrote a piece, an opinion piece, for CNN called "'Food Stamp President': Gingrich’s Poetry of Hate." I want to play a clip from the January Republican debate, when Fox News moderator Juan Williams questioned Newt Gingrich about his food stamp comment.
JUAN WILLIAMS: You refer to President Obama as "the food stamp president"? It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people.
NEWT GINGRICH: Well, first of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Newt Gingrich being questioned by Fox News’s Juan Williams at a Republican presidential debate. Walter Mosley, your response? "The food stamp president."
WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know—you know, it’s so interesting. You know, I had to struggle with CNN a little bit, because I had written it about the poetry of the statement. "Food stamp president," it’s a brilliant—I mean, like, it’s like a whole book of things in three words, you know, that he’s—you know, and he implies them, so he’s not really saying it, you know? And then, you—and when you watch the clip, it’s the same thing. He goes, "Well, Juan," and he stops, because he wants you to understand, "I’m talking to somebody of color." You know, I mean, it’s like the way he does it is so—he’s really a master at that.
And I wanted to talk about how that’s the kind of useless—useless, if brilliant—American politics. We’re talking about things which don’t matter. You know, what matters is people being able to afford their own lives. What matters is, is people saying whether or not they think the rich should be taxed. What matters is, really, what the issue is in American politics. And Newt is so brilliant at getting around that, you know? Luckily, people see through it, which is good, but I just—I’m kind of amazed by him. And I’m not bothered or even frightened of him. What I’m frightened of is people who don’t understand their own system.
I spoke at a fundraiser for Obama, you know, back before he got elected. And the only thing I said was, "Look, we’re working really hard now to get him elected. We have to work twice as hard after he gets elected to make sure what we voted for actually happens."
ADRIENNE RICH: I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Adrienne Rich reading her poetry. She died on Tuesday at the age of 82. Alice Walker, your thoughts about Adrienne?
ALICE WALKER: My sense of her, the thing that I most loved, was her integrity. She lived exactly what she said. And this was so rare and so beautiful. And we will miss her.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the National Book Award in 1973 that she won for Diving into the Wreck that she insisted that you, Alice, and Audre Lorde accept the award with her on stage? Talk about that moment. Where were you?
ALICE WALKER: I was in Mississippi. I was, you know, fighting the good fight down there. But anyway, what happened was that we were all three nominated for this award. And we understood that we were living under apartheid and segregation and, you know, all of that, and that under such a system, which favored white people, she would get the award. We knew that. And so, we decided, before anybody—anything was announced, that we would not accept being ranked, and we would not accept the racism implicit in an award that would go to someone—you know, she was a great poet, but it would go to her also because she was a white person. And to her immense credit, she had no desire to be honored as we would be dishonored. And so, we got together. Audre called me in Mississippi, and we chatted about it, and Adrienne. And so, we decided that we could only accept an award so suspicious if we accepted it in the name of all women and indicate by that action that we understood that women were not honored in the arts and elsewhere.
STEPHEN COLBERT: Why write for children?
MAURICE SENDAK: I don’t write for children.
STEPHEN COLBERT: You don’t?
MAURICE SENDAK: No, I write. And so—but it says, "That’s for children." I didn’t set out to make children happy or make life better for them or easier for them.
STEPHEN COLBERT: Do you like them?
MAURICE SENDAK: I like them as few and far between as I do adults, maybe a bit more, because I really don’t like adults—at all, by the way.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the late Maurice Sendak on Stephen Colbert. Tony Kushner, can you talk about his work, his legacy, who he was?
TONY KUSHNER: We were joking with him when he was in the hospital that—and maybe it wasn’t a joke when he said on The Colbert Report that Newt Gingrich was an idiot—that he may have actually ended Newt Gingrich’s hopes for, you know, a run at the presidency, because it was right around the time that the Gingrich campaign—
AMY GOODMAN: Because the children of the world rose up?
TONY KUSHNER: The children and the adults. I mean, that segment was unbelievably popular. Maurice had that ability to speak universally, which I think was evidence of the fact that he really was a genius, which is a word that I don’t use often or lightly, you know.
And I’m—one of the things that I felt, listening to the President yesterday, was—Maurice died on Tuesday morning at around 3:00, and I was very sad that he wasn’t alive to hear that. He was somewhat grumpy about marriage, in general. But he really loved Obama. Obama read Where the Wild Things Are and still, every Easter, reads the book to kids in the Rose Garden, and that meant a lot to Maurice. He has a little plastic Obama doll on his table. There’s a photograph somewhere of Maurice pretending to eat the Obama doll, because oral incorporation was one of the highest tributes — you know, "I’ll eat you up, I love you so" — I mean, that Maurice could give anyone. And I think he would have been tremendously pleased and moved.
He was a wonderful, wonderful friend and an immensely delightful person to spend time with, and I think just a very—I mean, as people have been saying, without question, the greatest figure in children’s literature in this century and a very great artist, I think, a very significant American artist.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, protesters marched from Grant Park to near the NATO summit. Among those there was musician and activist Tom Morello.
TOM MORELLO: Well, I was asked by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War to perform today, and I have done many solidarity actions with them through the years, and I was very happy and pleased to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: What about these soldiers who are about to return their medals? I know that it is not easy for many of them.
TOM MORELLO: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: Or their families.
TOM MORELLO: I think there’s nothing more courageous than a soldier who stands up against an unjust war. And that’s what these soldiers are doing, very brave soldiers, courageous soldiers, are doing today.
AMY GOODMAN: And the role of music and art in resistance?
TOM MORELLO: Yeah. Well, I mean, what music can do is it can help steel the backbone of those in the midst of a struggle and help put wind in the sails of social justice movements. And I’ve been here over the course of the last three days exhaustively playing songs for a variety of causes, but none more important than today.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Toshi Reagon singing Woody Guthrie’s "This Train Is Bound for Glory," recorded live Saturday night at a concert organized by Portoluz here in Chicago marking Woody Guthrie’s centennial, also marking the protests at the NATO summit.
WOODY GUTHRIE: [singing] She ’rose from her blanket with a gun in each hand,
Said: Come all of you cowboys, fight for your land.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A rare 1945 video recording of Woody Guthrie. Known as the "Dust Bowl Troubadour," Guthrie became a major influence on countless musicians, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. While Woody Guthrie is best remembered as a musician, he also had a deeply political side. At the height of the McCarthy era, Guthrie spoke out for labor and civil rights and against fascism.
AMY GOODMAN: Steve Earle, I’m wondering if you could talk about the significance of Woody Guthrie in your life.
STEVE EARLE: You know, it’s 1969. I’m 14 years old. The Vietnam War is going on. I’m not a candidate for a student deferment. As I got older, my friends started getting drafted. And I started out playing in coffeehouses because I wasn’t old enough to play in places that served liquor. And the one coffeehouse in San Antonio, Texas, was a pretty politicized environment. So I heard of—you know, these people quoted Woody Guthrie chapter and verse. They were the—the local underground newspaper was published upstairs. So I never separated music and politics, which kept bringing me back to Woody, over and over and over again, over, you know, writing songs. And I finally went to Nashville when I was 19. And I was trying to make a living playing music. I still don’t consider myself to be a political artist; I’m just an artist that—I think like Woody was—that lives in really politically charged times. And when I started playing, the war was going on. And now, I think these songs become, I think, you know, more relevant every second in the times that we’re living in right now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Steve, precisely about that, his ability—his importance, in terms of merging politics and music. On his guitar, he had "This Machine Kills Fascists."
STEVE EARLE: Several guitars, including some that didn’t belong to him. It was—there were a few.
AMY GOODMAN: It was written right over the guitar?
STEVE EARLE: Well, yeah, it was actually—it’s several. Sometimes it was written on the surface of the guitar. There’s several signs that he had made that were put on other guitars, yeah. There’s a whole thing of like—I’m kind of a guitar collector, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to track down the history of various guitars that Woody Guthrie was photographed with, because there’s about five or six of them that he was photographed with. And some of them consistently—one guitar is one Gibson that belonged to him. There’s—I know one of them, there’s a Martin that he’s photographed over and over again, and he even has artist’s model based on it, but it was not his guitar. It was Will Geer’s wife’s guitar that he borrowed and kept for a very long time.
So, it’s—you know, the whole thing about—a lot of it has to do with just who Woody was and how Woody was. It’s one of those things. I think he made decisions that—you know, you could make a different decision and make more money, but I think there’s a point in which you realize, OK, I’ve got this audience, and I’m going to keep this audience, and I’m going to be able to look at myself in the mirror, if there are certain lines that I draw for myself as I go along and identify who I am as an artist that I don’t cross. And that can change. It’s not necessarily a static thing. Times change. What’s important to you changes. But I think—I think just, you know, money isn’t—he wasn’t doing this for money. He wasn’t—he was doing it because it happened. He became who he was as a performer as organically, I think, as anybody can, you know, come up with a career plan. It sort of happened, and, you know, a lot of it’s who he was, who he was born in. And most of it, I think, is—as artists, is who we become as whatever, you know, the world presents to us and that we travel through, the paths that we travel.
AMY GOODMAN: Our next break, Steve, it’s your choice.
STEVE EARLE: Oh, I think the one—I don’t think I have any doubt about that, for this.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a Democracy Now! special, looking back at 2012 through culture and resistance. If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. Back in a minute.
STEVE EARLE: [singing] I was standing down in New York town one day,
I was standing down in New York town one day,
I was standing down in New York town one day,
Singing hey, hey, hey, hey.
Yeah, I was down on luck and didn’t have a dime,
I was down on luck, didn’t have a dime,
I was down on luck, didn’t have a dime,
Singing hey, hey, hey, hey.
EILEEN MYLES: My name is Eileen Myles, and I’m a poet. And I’m out here because—because it’s been an overwhelming year in which we’ve all realized that we have to do something, and it’s become an opportunity, through the whole Occupy movement, to stand up and say that the conditions in this country and in the world are impossible. And so, we can stand together as a group for once.
And so, as a poet, I’m taking the opportunity both, for myself, to actually not read poems today and to not write poems today, and to kind of resist poetic labor, which I take entirely seriously. But as it happens, I teach a class at Columbia called avant-garde poetry. And so, we had to make up a class, and we looked as a group to see how we could take part in May Day. And so, Occupy organized a May Day educational day, in which people who are doing similar things to us met and talked about, you know, possibilities of resistance in education and new ways of dealing with education as a people. But what’s interesting is we came to all the different groups, and none of them seemed to totally be like us or for us.
And I had encouraged everybody to bring a poem. So we decided to do—you know, to do the human microphone and to just share poetry with everybody. And so, that’s what we’ve been doing for a couple hours. And it’s kind of amazing, because people are just jumping up on the bench and taking part, and people are reciting poems that they know by heart. And people who do rap are standing up and getting us to do call and response with that. So it’s been kind of incredible.
The one thing humans do that does make us different from animals is that we have language. And so, I think poetry, weirdly, is like the first language and the last one, you know? I think when language was being invented, I think it was poetry before it was anything else. It was kind of religious and shaking and chanting. And I think when languages are dying, often, the last old person that knows the language is reciting a poem. So, it’s sort of like—I think it’s deeply embedded, even in our genes.
And poetry, you know, whenever there have been—you know, like, poetry, I think for the past 20 or 30 years, has been sort of regarded as a little, you know, non-techno—not seen as a media on its own. But if we think of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, with all kinds of liberation movements, it was always—there was always, you know, Allen Ginsberg and Judy Grahn and, you know, Amiri Baraka, standing in the front of the crowd and reciting poems. Poets were always kind of the human statue giving voice to a lot of needs.
AMY GOODMAN: The author Gore Vidal has died at the age of 86. Vidal was one of the best-known chroniclers of American history and politics. He dedicated his work to writing and critiquing the injustices of U.S. society. In a 2004 appearance on Democracy Now!, Gore Vidal talked about the role of democracy in the U.S. dating back to the Constitution.
GORE VIDAL: The word "democracy" is not only never mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, but democracy was something that the Founding Fathers hated. This is not generally known, because it shouldn’t be known, but it is. I wrote a little book about it called Inventing a Nation that Yale published last year.
Our founders feared two things. One was the rule of the people, which they thought would just be a mess. And they feared tyranny, which we had gone through King George III. And so, they wanted a republic, a safe place for men—white men—a property to do business in. This is not ideal, but it’s better than what we have.
So, here we are bringing democracy to the poor Afghans, but only the real democracy, of course, in the prisons, which we specialize in everywhere and which—one interesting thing that came out of all that mess was now the world knows how we treat Americans in American prisons. All that behavior, the humiliation and the violence and so on, that is typical of not so much—federal prisons, somewhat, but state prisons, municipal prisons, detention centers. This is the nation of torture. And those who disagree with me, you can write an angry letter at this very moment, if you can write at all. Sit down and write an angry letter to the commander-in-chief.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. We’re joined here in Washington by Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. This year is the 30th anniversary of her momentous work, The Color Purple. You have now written a poem in this election year, and I was wondering if you would share it with us.
ALICE WALKER: Yes, I’d like to. It’s dedicated to Wangari Maathai, who remembered the beautiful bountifulness of her land before the colonial invaders laid waste to it, and she resolved to bring it back to health by planting trees. And as you know, she died last year. Rest in Well Done; beloved sister of our clan.
You ask me why I smile
when you tell me you intend
in the coming national elections
to hold your nose
and vote for the lesser of two evils.
There are more than two evils out there,
is one reason I smile.
Another is that our old buddy Nostradamus
comes to mind, with his fearful
400 year old prophecy: that our world
and theirs too
(our "enemies" – lots of kids included there)
will end (by nuclear nakba or holocaust)
in our lifetime. Which makes the idea of elections
and the billions of dollars wasted on them
A Southerner of Color,
my people held the vote
while others, for centuries,
merely appeared to play
One thing I can assure
you of is this:
I will never betray such pure hearts
by voting for evil
even if it were microscopic
which, as you can see in any newscast
no matter the slant,
it is not.
I want something else;
a different system
One not seen
on this earth
for thousands of years. If ever.
Notice how this word has "man" right in the middle of it?
That’s one reason I like it. He is right there, front and center. But he is surrounded.
I want to vote and work for a way of life
that honors the feminine;
a way that acknowledges
the theft of the wisdom
female and dark Mother leadership
might have provided our spaceship
I am not thinking
of a talking head
kind of gal:
happy to be mixing
with the baddest
on the planet
her eyes a slit
her mouth a zipper.
No, I am speaking of true
Where women rise
to take their place
at the helm
of earth’s frail and failing ship;
where each thousand years
of our silence
and the cruel manner in which our values
of compassion and kindness
have been ridiculed
brought to bear on the disaster
of the present time.
The past must be examined closely, I believe, before we can leave
I am thinking of Democratic, and, perhaps
For who else knows so deeply
how to share but Mothers
and Grandmothers? Big sisters
both female and male?
Not to mention those in between.
To work at keeping
the entire community
would have as its icons
such fierce warriors
for good as
Aung San Suu Kyi,
& Barbara Lee:
With new ones always rising, wherever you look.
You are also on this list, but it is so long (Isis would appear midway) that I must stop or be unable to finish the poem! So just know I’ve stood you in a circle that includes Marian Wright Edelman, Amy Goodman, Sojourner Truth, Gloria Steinem and Mary McLeod Bethune. John Brown, Frederick Douglass, John Lennon and Howard Zinn are there. Happy to be surrounded!
There is no system
There is no system
now in place
that can change
the disastrous course
the Earth is on.
Who can doubt this?
The male leaders
appear to have abandoned
their very senses
though most appear
to live now
in their heads.
They murder humans and other
forests and rivers and mountains
they are in office
and never seem
to notice it.
They eat and drink devastation.
Women of the world,
Women of the world,
Is this devastation Us?
Would we kill whole continents for oil
(or anything else)
rather than limit
the number of consumer offspring we produce
and learn how to make our own fire?
Democratic Socialist Womanism.
A system of governance
we can dream and imagine and build together. One that recognizes
at least six thousand years
of brutally enforced complicity
in the assassination
of Mother Earth, but foresees six thousand years
ahead of us when we will not submit.
What will we need? A hundred years
at least to plan: (five hundred will be handed us
when the planet is scared enough)
in which circles of women meet,
organize ourselves, and,
allied with men
brave enough to stand with women,
men brave enough to stand with women,
nurture our planet to a degree of health.
And without apology —-
(impossible to make
a bigger mess than has been made already) -—
devote ourselves, heedless of opposition,
to tirelessly serving and resuscitating Our Mother ship
and with gratitude
for Her care of us
AMY GOODMAN: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. We spoke on the 30th anniversary of the publication of her book The Color Purple. And that does it for our year-end special.