40th Anniversary Celebration The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workerıs Notebook Detroit, Michigan, June 29, 2003,
Thank you for coming from near and far to add depth and breadth to this celebration. My hope is that you will go away with more questions than answers. The period we are living in is so unprecedented that almost anything, both negative and positive, is possible. So we should be wary of anyone who claims to know what the future will bring. In times like these, the future depends on what we do in the present, as the University of Michigan students, who helped organize yesterday's incredible 88th birthday party for me in Detroitıs historic Chinatown, put it. What we need in the present is a new willingness to ask questions of ourselves and others. We no longer allow others to define our ethnic or our sexual identity. But weıre still too ready to accept the narrow definitions of human identity, of society and of the nature of the cosmos that the system has created for us. That is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Jimmy's life, not to just go along but to keep asking questions. To think of our human identity and of reality not as fixed but as works in progress and in process. It was because Jimmy had the audacity to ask questions that he became such an independent and courageous thinker. And it was because he had the audacity to ask risky questions like asking me to marry him on our first date - that he had the nerve to make statements that took everyone listening to him to a new level. For example, a few months after the publication of this little book, Jimmy was invited to New York to speak to a Town Hall audience consisting mainly of Monthly Review readers and subscribers, in other words, mostly intellectuals and radicals. It was his first major speech to about a thousand people and he must have been a little nervous. So he started his speech by telling his audience that that they had better understand his Alabamese (or what we today call Black English) because one of these days they would have to understand a billion Chinese. I also recall a day in the 1960s when FBI agents came to our house seeking information about Max Stanford. General Baker was sitting in the living room and I can still hear him chuckling as Jimmy chided the agents for allowing J. Edgar Hoover, to push them around, inviting them to come to his next public meeting so that they could find out how to stand up to their boss. Another memorable occasion has been preserved on the video, produced by Frances Reid for Jimmy's Memorial Celebration ten years ago, that you saw earlier. It took place in 1991 in Jim Chaffers class in Urban Design and Social Change at the University of Michigan. Jimmy had just had surgery for bladder cancer and was not supposed to go to Ann Arbor with me. But at the last moment he showed up in his suit and tie, and once there, he startled the students by saying " I donıt believe nobody knows more about running this country than me." When they responded with nervous laughter, he went on to say, "You better think that way. You better stop thinking of yourself as a minority because thinking like a minority means thinking like an underling. Everybody is capable of going beyond where they are, and I would hope that everybody in this room thinks that way. That is going to be one of the biggest challenges, to believe that you can do what has not yet been done." Where did Jimmy get this gumption, this audacity, which comes through on every page of this little book? Recently Christopher Phelps, a historian of left-wing groups who teaches at Ohio State, wrote to ask whether I had proof that Jimmy had written the American Revolution because in leftwing circles some folks were saying that it had actually been written by me. The proof exists in the handwritten manuscript on yellow legal pads that are in the Reuther Archives, but it is a sign of the narrowness of most radicals that they need such proof. Jimmy's ideas in The American Revolution are not something you can get from books. They came mainly from his life experiences, experiences that a lot of people have had. For example, Jimmy was born and raised in Marion Junction, Alabama, a small agricultural community with two or three stores on the main street. Very few people in his little black community of sharecroppers, domestic workers, and farmers could read and write. So when he was eight, Jimmy became the community scribe, writing letters to Aunt Virginia and Uncle Jesse and Cousin Willie Mae about who had been ailing, who had recently been born, and how the crops were faring. Listening to him tell the story again and again, I got the sense that writing these letters was what started him on the road of becoming a revolutionary theoretician. He wanted to write because he experienced writing not only as an individual skill but as something that served the people and made a difference in their daily lives. His gumption also came from the way that his hands and mind worked together. Jimmy not only loved to do things for people - like filling out their income tax but he loved to fix things like clocks, radios, cars, TVs. As I watched him fixing things, I could see him figuring out how each thing worked and how each clock, each radio, each car that he tinkered with , or each seed that he planted in the garden, represented thousands of generations of human ingenuity and experience. His relationships with elders also contributed greatly to his sense of humankind as a work in progress. Constantly talking about the past with old folks apparently provided him with a foundation for evaluating the past and building the future. So when one elder, whom he had been visiting and caring for, died, he would seek out another. Jimmy also loved working with young people. He thought nothing of spending hours helping the kids on the block with their homework. He was so patient with them that as they grew older they thought nothing of ringing our bell late at night to ask Mr. Jimmy for a dollar for bus fare. It used to drive me up the wall because I was the one who had to answer the bell. It was not his experiences that made Jimmy exceptional. Millions of people have had similar experiences. It was the way he thought about them, his ability to see them not only as personal and individual, but as social, as part of the evolution of humanity and of the cosmos. The social movements of the last forty years have taught us that movements begin when members of a particular social group or a particular country begin seeing their conditions not only as personal and individual but as social, as part of the evolution of humanity. In that sense I think we can say that the secret of Jimmys creativity was that he had a Movement personality. Jimmy saw himself as a work in progress which may be the way we all should think of ourselves. Such enormous changes had taken place in society during his lifetime - he was fond of saying that he had lived through three epochs, agriculture, industry and automation that the first principle of dialectical thinking, that reality is not pre-determined but is constantly changing, came natural to him. Jimmys life experiences also helped him to take seriously another principle of dialectical thinking, that everything contains contradictions and that new contradictions are constantly emerging so that what was progressive at one stage can turn into its opposite. Coming to Detroit in the l930s when the labor movement was gathering momentum, he experienced the tremendous leap in his humanity that came from joining striking workers on picket lines. But inside the plant during World War II he also experienced the reluctance of union leaders to challenge white workers who resisted the upgrading of blacks. And after the war it became clear to him that the unions lacked the will and the power to resist the automation which was turning production workers like himself into a vanishing herd. Out of his experiences with the rise and fall of the labor movement, Jimmy was able to anticipate the new contradictions that would emerge inside the black struggle when blacks became incorporated into the system as school superintendents, mayors and now Supreme Court Justice, Secretary of Education, National Security Adviser, and Secretary of State When you think dialectically as Jimmy did, the new contradictions that inevitably emerge from struggle are not seen as defeats but as challenges to think more imaginatively, more audaciously, with more nerve, more gumption, more depth and breadth That is how humanity evolves, as individuals are constantly challenged by new contradictions to create more audacious solutions to shape the future. At this point our challenge is to see the many issues we face, Race, Work, War, Gender, Environment - not as separate issues but in their interconnection which is another principle of dialectical thinking. Thus, as we all know, black young people of Hi-Tech are a disproportionate percentage of the U.S. armed forces because unable to find jobs at home, they are being turned into outsiders. We also are becoming increasingly aware that after participating in an invasion that most of us opposed, they now risk being killed in an occupation that could last for decades. But if they were not in the U.S. military, what kind of useful, life-affirming work would there be for them at home? We need to be asking this question again and again of ourselves, of our neighbors, of our families, of our co-workers. Asking and discussing this question thoughtfully and courageously, we can learn how to think for ourselves and how to come up with imaginative, bold solutions. Out of ongoing conversations at work, at home, over back fences with our neighbors, in classrooms, in our dorms, we can create our own ideas and thereby free ourselves from domination by the mass media. Together we can discover that we are at one of humankindıs most momentous watersheds providing us with the opportunity and the challenge to make a paradigm shift in what it means to be human and what it means to be real. In order to transform these outsiders into insiders who feel needed and are needed, we will have to make a paradigm shift FROM the conventional wisdom that our human identity is defined by our jobs to new more holistic concepts of human identity. In the course of redefining our human identity, we will also find ourselves making a paradigm shift beyond other outmoded ways of thinking, such as making a sharp distinction between the material and the spiritual. Instead of viewing Space as a vacuum, we can begin imagining it as a womb. Instead of thinking of Time in terms of minutes ticking on a clock, we can begin thinking of it as duration. Instead of viewing the elements of reality as particles that move only when they are pushed or pulled, we can begin viewing them as multi-centers of possibility, potentiality and power. I wish Jimmy had lived to see this day. But since he didnıt, I want to repeat and expand on his challenge to you. Stop thinking in the polarizing language of the present system, in terms of inferiority/ superiority, minorities/majorities, victimization/ dominance, blame and guilt. Begin rejoicing in our diversity and celebrating our commonality, that each of us is a center of possibility, potentiality and power, and that we can do what has not yet been done!*formerly titled "More Questions Than Answers."