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The Personal is Political
Richard Beban, Poetry, co-editor

artwork by Deena Fisher

Angela Y. Davis wrote a hugely entertaining and illuminating book on pioneering women blues singers a few years back (1998), which I just discovered and bought at City Lights, San Francisco's independent bookstore and poets' Mecca.

In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism1, Davis catalogs and analyses the blues songs that Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday chose to record. Davis, who transcribed the songs anew for her book, offers a close political analysis of every lyric recorded (and often written) by the first two artists.

Davis notes that these pioneering black women's lyrics tackled head-on the issue of misogynist violence ("spouse-beating," even though neither partner has to be a legal spouse, or of an opposite gender) at a time (the decade of the 1920s) when the dominant white society was still hiding the issue behind closed doors. Those doors didn't open for most women until decades later, Davis writes:

In the early 1970s, women began to speak publicly about their experiences of rape, battery, and the violation of their reproductive rights. Obscured by a shroud of silence, these assaults against women traditionally had been regarded as a fact of private life to be shielded at all costs from scrutiny in the public sphere. That this cover-up would no longer be tolerated was the more explosive meaning behind feminists' defiant notion that "the personal is political."

In short, women were outraged about truths that had long been kept silent. It's frustrating, enraging, and eventually maddening to live under a regime that presents one face to the world and another at home, whether "home" is your country or your family.

Much of the outrage that I, and others of my generation, felt when we protested for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam was engendered by the disconnection between what we had been taught were American virtues and values, and the way those values were actually expressed. To remain silent while the world's most powerful democratic society gutted democratic values in the name of (freedom, capitalism, insert your favorite abstraction here) was unthinkable.

Our dreams back then were this simple: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." In case the phrase isn't familiar, it's from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.

We were being lied to in those days by "the best and the brightest," who believed that they could operate one way in private and mouth the opposite platitudes in public. We were going to the streets to get to the truth. It WAS personal, damn it.

And it still is. The shroud of silence demanded by the Bush Administration (with Dick Cheney the chief shroud weaver, as the recent Washington Post series so masterfully revealed, albeit a bit late in the regime's tenure) extends from Abu Ghraib, to Guantanamo, to the halls of Congress, to Main Street in every one of our towns.

The Bush-Cheney shroud is a giant quilt composed of every American flag we're not allowed to see draped over coffins at off-limits airbase mortuaries, every story the New York Times won't print for "national security" reasons, every uniform worn by the modern Hessians like Blackwater that our government hires at mercenary wages so it won't have to institute a draft, and every classified report about the neo-Depression gutting our economy.

The list of what they will lie about is apparently endless, and the fear they try to instill (the constant Orwellian threat of terrorism, or of un-Americanism) to silence those who lift the shroud (or even point out its existence) is all-pervasive.

Bruce Springsteen, in the cut "Long Walk Home," from his latest album, Magic, writes of a father who instructs his son

That, you know, flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't.

That father's courthouse flag (the one that waved over the White House in the Vietnam Era) is also sewn into the Bush-Cheney shroud of silence. And as long as that flag-shroud exists, the things set in stone will continue to be the epitaphs of our country's sons and daughters, and of the hundreds of thousands of people they kill in wars, declared and undeclared, across the globe.

All of which is to say, what do I look for as a poetry editor at a "political" publication?

For one thing, poetry that won't tolerate a cover-up.

Tell me what the powers-that-be would rather keep secret. And how that choice to keep secrets affects you personally. As the poet Chris Abani asks of every poet, "Where is your complicity?"

Could be the powers-that-be in your country, your workplace, your neighborhood, your family, or even your heart (Where is your complicity?). Tell me how these secrets affect YOU. If you reach deeply enough into them, you'll be able to illuminate how the secrets affect everybody else, too.

And make art out of it, please. I subscribe to the maxim I've read from more than one source: The poet has two jobs, 1.) to tell the truth; 2.) to tell it artfully.

But art doesn't mean you have to gussy it up. As "Ma" Rainey wrote in her adaptation of "Bo-Weevil Blues" in 1923 (foreshadowing Dick Cheney's birthday eighteen years later),

I don't want no sugar put into my tea
I don't want no sugar put into my tea
Some mens are so evil, I'm scared they might poison me

1 Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Random House 1998. First Vintage Books edition, 1999. ISBN 0-679-77126-3

2 Copyright © 2007 Bruce Springsteen (ASCAP)