Revolution#114, December 30, 2007

2007: In Memory Of...

People who made a positive mark on the world, and who died this year, include:

St. Clair Bourne, 64, documentary filmmaker and revolutionary Pan Africanist whose subjects included Paul Robeson, historian/educator/writer John Henrik Clarke, photographer Gordon Parks, poet Langston Hughes as well as the critically acclaimed documentary Making “Do the Right Thing.” Of his work Bourne said, “all my themes are always about people who are outside the system and they are trying to right the wrongs…” (Interview on KPFK)

Alice Coltrane, 69, jazz pianist who brought the harp into the jazz scene, and who carried on the legacy of her late husband John Coltrane, one of the most towering innovators in the history of jazz.

Molly Ivins, 62, mainstream political commentator, writer and Texan who dubbed George W. Bush “Shrub”, wrote books and columns skewering the Bush Administration and who lived by the motto, “Raise More Hell.” She began one of her last columns with “Some country is about to have a Senate debate on a bill to legalize torture. How weird is that?” She called on readers to protest, “Now, right away,” and challenged people: “How will you feel if you didn’t do something? ‘Well, honey, when the United States decided to adopt torture as an official policy, I was dipping the dog for ticks.’” (“A Tortured Debate,” 9/20/06)

Norman Mailer, 84, author, wrote his debut (anti)war novel The Naked and the Dead in 1948. His book Armies of the Night chronicled and supported the movement against the Vietnam War, including his stint in jail for protesting the war. On the war on Iraq, he said: “War with Iraq, as they originally conceived it, would be a quick, dramatic step that would enable them to control the Near East as a powerful base—not least because of the oil there, as well as the water supplies from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—to build a world empire.” Mailer was a very contradictory person, including being an unapologetic male chauvinist (in one notorious incident, which Mailer himself called the low point of his life, he stabbed his wife). He came under fierce fire for campaigning for the release of Jack Henry Abbott, author of the acclaimed prison memoir In the Belly of the Beast.

Stanley Miller, 77, scientist who, as a graduate student in 1953, pioneered the study of the origins of life on earth through an experiment inspired by, and developed with, scientist Harold Urey. Urey had suggested that scientists could create life by combining organic compounds that were present on the primitive Earth. In an experiment that chemically simulated the earth’s atmosphere and the ocean, they introduced lightning. The effect of the lightning created amino acids, one of the building blocks of life.

Herbert Muschamp, 59, New York Times architecture critic for many years. In 2003 he wrote caustically about Daniel Libeskind’s architectural plan for Ground Zero saying, “Even in peacetime that design would appear demagogic. As this nation prepares to send troops into battle, the design’s message seems even more loaded. Unintentionally, the plan embodies the Orwellian condition America’s detractors accuse us of embracing: perpetual war for perpetual peace.”

Ousmane Sembène, 84, Senegalese film director and writer known as the “father of African cinema.” After World War 2, and before becoming a major force in literature and film, Sembène worked in factories in France where he participated in a strike against the shipment of weapons to French colonial troops fighting the Vietnamese people, and became a student of Marxism. In his art, he used satire to skewer imperialism, neo-colonialism and its influence among the upper classes in Africa and worked to depict the heroism of ordinary people. Returning to Senegal in 1960, Sembène produced his first film, La Noire De..., in 1966, a beautifully made and moving story of the life of an African maid in France. His 2004 film Moolaadé depicts the clash between traditional patriarchy and women over female genital mutilation in an African village in Burkina Faso. Several of Sembène’s films are available on DVD.

Grace Paley, 84, prominent writer and activist wrote collections of stories about the lives of women. She was a life-long activist who was jailed for protesting the Vietnam War. Her poem, “Responsibility,” read after the start of the Iraq War, begins: It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet | It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman | It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets also leaflets they can hardly bear to look at because of the screaming rhetoric

Francine Parker, 81, director of the documentary FTA (Fuck the Army [1972]) which followed an anti-war USO style tour to military bases around the world by Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and others during the U.S. war against Vietnam. Scenes from FTA are shown in Dave Zeiger’s film, Sir! No Sir!

Max Roach, 83, musician who changed the role of the drummer in jazz, exploring the musical possibilities and bringing them center stage. In 1960 Roach recorded the stunning and politically militant We Insist—The Freedom Now Suite, a blistering condemnation of racism, an act of political and musical defiance which featured an extended and searing exchange between Roach and vocalist Abbey Lincoln. Roach continued to surprise and delight many, and continued to shock others, always trying the new. He recorded two collaborations with Archie Shepp that link the themes of hope: then-revolutionary China and the struggle of people in South Africa, The Long March (part 1 and part 2) and Force: Sweet Mao—Suid Africa ’76 (the album cover has the Black fist rising out of the churning green sea and Mao Tsetung swimming in the background). While Roach, under the influence of bourgeois summations, later wavered on Mao, his record remains a powerful artistic statement. He wrote music for Alvin Ailey’s ballet company and for plays and in 1983 embraced rap, and appeared onstage with rappers and break dancers, saying that it had a place on music’s “boundless palette.”

Tom Snyder, 71, hosted the late night TV interview show Tomorrow in the 70s and 80s. Snyder took some chances in his choices of guests, including an interview with Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.

Sekou Sundiata, 58, poet who was part of the Black liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s and who survived heroin addiction, a car crash and kidney transplant and reflected on all this in his work. A long time activist against U.S. wars of aggression, he explored musical theater and dance as well as poetry. Sundiata’s play The Circle Unbroken is a Hard Bop was a powerful rendering of the effect of the defeat of the Black Panther Party on a generation of activists.

Kurt Vonnegut, 84, novelist and science fiction author who wrote humorous, outraged and outrageous stories lampooning the U.S. government and the overall state of the world. His most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade, is about the bombing of Dresden during WW2 by the U.S. and Britain. Published during the time of the Vietnam War, the book highlighted the crimes against humanity committed in imperialist wars. “The system promotes to the top those who don’t care about the planet,’’ Vonnegut once said, and his crazy story plots teetering just one step from reality, showed us how intolerable things really are. Vonnegut loved science, and played with the possibilities in his fiction. He created characters, whole cultures and even worlds which would pop up again, here and there in novels spanning his lifetime. Vonnegut was a founding signatory of Refuse & Resist! And signed the 2002 “A Statement of Conscience: NOT IN OUR NAME” that concluded “Let us not allow the watching world today to despair of our silence and our failure to act. Instead, let the world hear our pledge: we will resist the machinery of war and repression and rally others to do everything possible to stop it.”

Floyd Red Crow Westerman, 71, musician, actor, and Native-American (Dakota) activist. His first album, released in 1969, was Custer Died for Your Sins. He worked with the American Indian Movement in the 1970s and acted in many films including Dances with Wolves. Westerman founded his own production company in the 1990s and recently hosted the pilot for a series Exterminate Them: America’s War on Indian Nations.

Ernest C. Withers, 85, documentary photographer of the civil rights movement in the South, the Memphis blues scene, and the Negro Baseball Leagues. He was the only photographer who covered the entire trial of those charged with killing Emmett Till, a Black teenager murdered for having whistled at a white woman. His most famous, a black and white photo taken during a 1968 sanitation workers strike, depicted dozens of Black men standing together holding identical placards reading I AM A MAN.

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