Revolution #93, June 24, 2007

Special Showing of Bob Avakian Film at the Schomburg:

"Revolution" Comes to Harlem

The wail of a muffled trumpet called forth from backstage. A buzz rippled through the Langston Hughes Auditorium of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Slowly from the dark of the stage, jazz trumpeter Roy Campbell emerged, playing a riff from his piece, "The Surge," heralding the start of an incredible evening. Next, Herb Boyd, author and member of the Host Committee for the event, came to the podium and welcomed the nearly full house: "The Schomburg. Communism. Revolution. Who could believe it!"

So began the "Special Evening" at the Schomburg—and it lived up to its promise. Dreams deferred were awakened as the possibilities and prospects of revolution—a vision of a liberating socialism and communism that inspires—percolated through the multi-national, multi-generational crowd, aroused by meeting and engaging Bob Avakian through watching excerpts of the film of his 2003 talk, Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About.

Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party greeted the crowd and introduced the performers and the film. The comedian Aladdin opened by saying that when he first heard about Bob Avakian, he asked, "why would I listen to a white guy talk about revolution?" And he said that question was answered when he first looked at the DVD of the talk and read Avakian's memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist.

Poet Staceyann Chin, featured in Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, began with a refreshingly blunt and damning haiku about George Bush’s reelection, then got everyone laughing as she took irreverent stabs at religious taboos about sex. The heart of her performance was a roller-coaster ride of a rant that spanned the globe, from the children of the “third world” who make our clothes to indignities suffered by gays and immigrants and Black people in this country. The crowd was spellbound and silent as her poem arched, “Gather round, ye children of this necessary revolution. We are not simply at a political crossroads. We are buried knee-deep in the quagmire of a battle for our very humanity…” and concluded with a chilling variation of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s lesson of surviving a Nazi concentration camp, imploring the audience, "the time to act is now" before "you open that door to find they have finally come for you."

An ensemble that spanned the jazz world from the ’60s to today came together just for this evening. The group included world-renowned alto saxophonist and flutist James Spaulding; trumpeter and composer Roy Campbell; and percussionist and composer Michael Wimberly, who scored the evening's arrangements.

Wimberly kicked off a composition that started with a riff from John Coltrane's classic "Impressions," and the musicians were off on a journey to new heights that covered a lot of ground from bebop through free jazz to new sounds, opening minds and causing spirits to soar. The stage then went from white hot light to a deep blue, and the ensemble went into a haunting, abstract version of "Strange Fruit," the classic piece about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday.

When they finished, the stage went black, and the film began with Bob Avakian singing Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row," introducing his "They’re Selling Postcards of a Hanging," a deep, stinging indictment of this country's legacy of lynching and national oppression.

From here the audience took a journey that touched on how capitalism’s blind pursuit of profit and disregard for the environment are threatening the survival of the planet itself and destroying the cultures and ability to exist of whole peoples whose land is being destroyed; that sharply challenged and repudiated the degradation and oppression of women that is woven through every aspect of this system and the relations it fosters; and then lifted the audience up out of this nightmare world to imagine how, with state power, people can set out to transform everything.

After hearing about a vision of a society where not only are people’s most fundamental needs met, but where people are treated with respect and brought into making decisions about their lives and society, the live audience laughed along with the audience in the film when Avakian got around to talking about work under socialism: “First of all, imagine you actually wanted to go to work!”

Another section of the talk that got a big audible response was when Avakian went straight up against the way the masses on the bottom of society get drawn into being played by the system.  He approached this with plenty of heart—and plenty of biting humor. To see what people responded to, check out the chapter “How the World Got This Way,” on the DVD.

After the film showing, Rev. Earl Kooperkamp put words to the feelings of many when he said in the evening's concluding remarks: "This man can break it down but also then expand your imagination in ways that are just incredible." He urged everyone to stay and engage in conversation and discussion at the reception to follow. And most did.

The reception area was packed shoulder to shoulder for over an hour as white youth squeezed in next to middle-aged Black professionals in hats and suits and mixed it up with proletarian Black youth, including a group brought by a man who works at a charity organization, and a number of Spanish-speaking and other immigrants. Coming from a wide array of backgrounds and political outlooks, they got into questions that some had never thought about before ("I don't know anything about socialism and communism--but I want to learn"), and some were now taking another look at communist revolution after seeing the film. A white student at CUNY commented, "I'm more of an anarchist and I still have questions about leadership, but this film was beautiful and we essentially all have the same goals."

A number expressed their agreement with the "beautiful vision" of another world that Avakian presented, but they also raised questions like, "Is it possible?" "Who is going to run things?" "Can revolution happen, given how powerful the military is?" "What about 'human nature'?"…and much more. Many commented on Bob Avakian's "depth of humanity" and "great love for the people" that come through in the film.

People also noted the significance of this event being held at the historic Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in the heart of Harlem. Ages of people in the audience ranged from 10 to the mid-‘80s, including high school and college students. People attended from all over New York City and especially Harlem, from upstate New York, Long Island, Connecticut, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

A real buzz had developed about the event in the days leading up to it. WBAI featured it on several shows, including an interview with Herb Boyd on the Gary Byrd show, and PSAs, including one by Host Committee member Chuck D, that played regularly. People heard about it on the streets from Revolution newspaper sellers, thousands of palm cards were distributed, notices went out widely over the internet, and whole walls were covered by the bold black and red poster. Ads in the Amsterdam News two weeks in a row, along with the publication of the Engage! Statement the week before the event, and two relatively prominent announcements in Time Out New York reached many.

The Host Committee played an important role in helping spread the word and develop the program. In addition to Alladin, Herb Boyd, Carl Dix, Chuck D, and Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, the Host Committee included Rev. Luis Barrios; playwright and poet reg e. gaines; Christopher McElroen, co-founder and executive director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem; Philip Rice, M.D.; attorney Michael Tarif Warren; and filmmaker David Zeiger.

As one person put it, the entire event served to "open the conversation." Another said, " it whet my palate. Now I'm hungry for more."

Two days after the Schomburg event, a successful special screening of the film Revolution was also held at the Magic Johnson Theater in Los Angeles. Along with excerpts from the film, the event featured cultural performances by actor Lucia Marano and poet Jerry Quickley.

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What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond