Literature in a Locked Down Land

Working class literature is alive and well and living in prison. It is “well” not in the sense of being contented and happy but rather of being vital and impassioned. And it is imprisoned not just in the sense of being locked behind bars but also of being locked into poverty. Some prisons have walls of iron and stone, others walls of economics and racism. It is their efforts to escape from this second prison that get most inmates incarcerated in the first. As Mumia Abu-Jamal said, “I’ve been in prison my whole life.”

The life-constricting pressures in both types of prisons can crush some psyches and produce diamonds of art and wisdom in others. Struggle: A Magazine of Revolutionary Proletarian Literature has been publishing the diamonds (along with some glass) since 1985. Reading it is to rediscover the power of art to give us insights and inspire us to action, an invigorating change from the vapid musings and trivial subjectivity that pass for “literary” these days. By showing us the multi-layered oppression surrounding us and the strength of the human spirit caught within that, Struggle is contributing to a culture of resistance and eventually of revolution.

For example:

Doing time in Folsom State
By Arvan Washington III

Sleep slips away like tendrils of fog
before a Lompoc Valley breeze, a morning
sun dawns upon another moonless night.
I amble aimlessly, wandering twisted corridors
inside a convoluted mind seeking the solace
of an earthly slumber, yet find myself lost
amidst the wreckage of yesteryear: a Bermuda
Triangle existence where disappearing smiles
vanished without ever leaving a trace
upon a heart hardened by aloneness.
The passage of time mocks me as I search
for my truths, though I dread their discovery.
Thus, I find comfort in lies: origami constructs
of paper figurines dancing in the funeral pyre
like marionettes dangling from a hangman’s noose.

My country does to thee
By J. Glenn Evans

Your children walk barefoot through raw sewage
Behemoths lumber through your streets
Spitting death and destruction to ancient icons
Armed men burst into your homes
Terrify your women and children
Take a father and uncle a cousin a brother
Hold them in bondage
Humiliate defile torture

Through your land sacred rivers flow
Tigress – Euphrates birth of civilization
Brown people of the desert
I grieve for your suffering
And for the soldiers
Who just want to go home
But are trapped like you
In a fatal conflict not of their making

I would rather walk or ride a horse
Than rob you of the black sea
That lies under your ancient sands
This feeble pen seeks justice for what you suffer
I spill only ink you spill your blood
If the world be brave and not tremble
At the action of this teenaged nation
It would rebuke this brutal war
Declare perpetrators war criminals
All predatory war are criminal
Against peoples of the world
Like all empires of the past
This one too will have its fall

From Captive Audience
By Michael Monroe

I write my poems for the homeless and friendless,
parched by the sun of the searing day,
freezing in the chill of the callous night
as the cold slices skin like razors
and indifference multiplies
like malignant cells.

I write my poems for the working people
slaving in the heat of the cavernous foundry,
humping crates in eternity’s shipyard,
coughing in mines deep underground,
farming our food and harvesting life,
laying bricks at the noise-drenched construction site
like Sisyphus pushing his boulder
up that lonely hill in hell.

I write my poems for the prisoners
living out their lives in concrete closets,
in rows of chicken-coop cells,
dreams locked behind steel bars;
they traded their lives
for liquor store cash,
and now they pay the price
as the years blend together
and disappear like dirty water
down a shower drain.

The March on Washington, 1963
By Tim Hall

Twenty-four years have passed
since my heart first pulsed with hope
for a better world
when I saw those black youth marching,
arm-in-arm, their faces bold and clear in purpose,
under the trees beside the pool
at the Lincoln Memorial.
I didn’t really listen
to the melodic words of Martin Luther King;
they seemed to be a little rhetorical,
not quite down-to-earth enough
compared to the vibrant, rebelling
life on the march, the young people
arm-in-arm, under the trees,
chanting, singing — militant choirs, their
voices welling up from the long years of black resistance
and bursting forth into the air that day
in a pure joy at seeing
half a million faces
dedicated to burying racism.

I didn’t listen at all
to the pompous, empty oratory of Walter Reuther;
inexperienced as I was, it revolted me nevertheless.
I saw even then that it lacked
the depth and resonance to express the lives
of the oppressed and turbulent people;
I didn’t even much like
the uniform, stale, detached slogans
on the unions’ perfect picket signs;
I sensed in them something bureaucratic,
not poetic, and I demanded poetry
to express the feelings of the people.
But I loved the faces of the workers,
warm, resolute, lively, varied,
experiences of great depth evident
in the lines on their faces, in their unevenly
developed muscles, and I noticed
that the hundreds and hundreds of buses of workers
carried the most vivid variety of people —
they, more than anyone else at the March,
already trying to live out
our belief in equality.

I was too naive to notice
a slight difference in tone
in the speech of John Lewis,
the young SNCC field worker from the rural South
who knuckled under to the big shots
and, moments before he spoke,
hastily removed all militancy from his text
and lost any chance
of presenting a radical alternative
to innocent but questioning
characters like me.

I was also too ignorant
to question the absence of Malcolm
who would have scourged the union hacks
and official black “leaders”
With a fiery exposure
and sent an insurrectionary spirit
running among the gathered masses
like a flame sweeping across
a spill of gasoline.

There were many things I missed that day,
many a lesson that went past me,
but that one fragrant blossom of hope
embodied in those singing, marching youth
and in those hundred thousand united workers’ faces
changed my life for good.

Only Chiapas?
By Tamar Diana Wilson

(with homage to Allen Ginsberg)
I have seen the best minds of five generations destroyed by poverty
struggling naked moaning sobbing howling in despair
fighting battles often lost infants dying before one year
mothers fathers anemic shrunken crippled haggard hungering

Who dragged themselves through dusty streets at dawn searched for a
way to survive laborers for others who had more lands or capital
sellers servants shiners of shoes bone pickers
great grandfathers who rented clothes from roadside stands
they hadn’t even rags or cloth spare walked barefoot
queued up beside construction sites mines railroad lines
begged for a day’s employment at any wage
hawked platanos and mangoes tomatoes and onions
while they did without or did with less
offered woven blankets embroidered lengths of cloth supplied by
middlemen work of wives and daughters straw hats and mats and
cane backed chairs serapes rebozos silver rings and broaches
carved statues of dogs cats burros children saints madonnas to people passing by mostly

tourists from nearby far off richer
lands where exploitations had occurred earlier in history but now
were exported mainly not exclusively

Who sowed hoed cut harvested tended sheep cattle
horses goats burros on haciendas from age seven or eight
beside fathers indebted by their fathers at the hacienda store
cross-generational peonage sweated in the sun
drenched in the rains shoeless bootless illiterate
their mothers sisters daughters worked free in the big house
washing ironing grinding corn cooking meals they never shared
emptying slop jars and spittoons sweeping floors and fountain adorned
patios amidst the bougainvillea for the privilege to remain
indebted without lands of their own or any hope of any
until they revolted 80 years ago

Who after 16 years of civil strife after more than a million men had died
after dislocations unrepaired after houses and scant possessions burned
after sons murdered after brothers lost after daughters sisters
mothers wives raped and disappeared
some became ejidatarios others pequeno proprietarios
some rural proletarians owning little more than life
most flocked into state capitals in Distrito Federal U.S. border towns
some to sell their labor power in fluorescing factories sweatshops
talleres cantinas on construction sites and brickyards
some to vend manzansas Marlboros contraband radios and relojes
to neighbors better off Mickey Mouse hand puppets ceramic
hamburgers slopping mayonnaise rearing stallions made of stone
mixed with traditional handicrafts woven dyed embroidered
carved painted to visitors from far off nearby richer lands
some to cross the raya to plant and harvest crops in California
Arizona Michigan Oregon Arkansas Texas or on the railroad lines
across the west or in factories foundries sweatshops in Gary Chicago
Los Angeles Detroit San Antonio until deported when no longer
needed 60 years ago 40 years ago 20 years ago today

Who then joined their urban cousins some to live on lonely brickyards
no electricity no fans no refrigerators no running water
no schools for their children mold bricks to build the malls houses
hotels industrial complexes tourist complexes banks
provide a subsidy wrung from sweat of self and family
to burgeoning urban conglomerations inhabited by the dispossessed
and those parasitic on them

Some to invade unused lands to form squatter settlements
shanty towns colonias paracaidistas colonias perdidas
colonias populares to build shacks of tarpaulin scrapwood
cardboard crushed aluminum cans trashed by Budweiser and Coca Cola
drinkers to tap the holes against the rain

Who arrived in greater numbers after the Green Revolution
Rockefeller inspired chemicals fertilizers monocropping
imported John Deere tractors International Harvesters
the lucky buy land from the luckless those whose crops failed those
with nothing left to mortgage most day laborers deprived of work on farms now mechanized

no lands to sharecrop anymore
machines replaced men machines displace men imported machines
50 years ago and today and more tomorrow now that Salinas has
revised and mangled Article 27 for which the Zapatistas fought
in 1910

Whose children labored beside them from an early age
in icy mud to mold the bricks to mix the clay
toenails rotted fungus growing on ever damp hands and feet
as ambulant vendors selling tacos fruit vegetables serapes
carved wooden statues carved stone statues white ceramic ducks
quartz pipes and bookends silver earrings hot dogs
as garbage pickers collecting metals cardboard bottles for recycling
as itinerant construction workers washers of windshields on myriad
corners singers on buses jugglers clowns ice pick swallowers
shoeshine boys dotting plazas sometimes selling glue or pingas
newspaper boys amidst the traffic which sometimes grinds them down
anything for a spare coin beggars without eyes without legs

Who malnourished never obtained full growth who poor could not pay
school fees books notebooks pencils crayons
though now there were schools unlike back on the ranchos
at least they learned to read some of them

Who built and build Acapulco Cancun Cabo San Lucas Mazatlan
Puerto Vallarta Cuernavaca tourist hotels the Hyatt the Hilton the
Westin the Lucerna the Continental Plaza the Fiesta Americana
World Trade Centers conference halls for businessmen and academics
shopping malls Plaza Mexicana Plaza del Sol Plaza Cachanilla
La Zona rosa hippodromes country clubs restaurants adorned with
Riviera murals and hanging plants in multi-colored ceramic pots
places they cannot enter and enjoy for lack of funds
lunch for one at the Rosarito Beach Hotel once a favorite haunt
of Hollywood stars costs one day’s minimum wage no drink included
two beers at the Westin and the day’s pay is gone
they build them then return
to their colonias perdidas their scrapwood dirt floored shacks
since 40 years or more ago until today

Who recycle metals cardboard newspapers collected in the local
dumps to national multinational companies
who gather dented cans of food thrown out from newly established
supermarket chains tomatoes oranges rotten on only one side
collected in the local dumps fishheads for fishhead soup thrown out by
the fish shop after filleting clothing discarded by those so better off
they have no one to hand the garments down to collected in the local
dumps a fork spoon mattress broken chair anything of human
use found in the local dumps up to now

Who rise early to make tacos burritos fruitades to sell to factory
laborers maquiladora workers who made it through primary school
at least

Who sometimes cross to U.S. cities to work in Taco Bell in Beverly Hills
gardens in L.A. N.Y. Miami garment factories Milwaukee Chicago Pittsburg Detroit

foundries in construction cleanup carwashes
gas stations as janitors busboys waiters gardeners maids
in old folks’ homes in rich folks’ homes
in the countryside to plant cultivate weed prune harvest lettuce
apples broccoli oranges peaches tomatoes grapes melons
cabbage onions still

Whose children will secure lots in newer squatter settlements
self-build housing pay one third of infrastructural costs in
installments for electricity running water sewage
buy bricks from the brickmakers still living on lonely isolated
unserviced brickyards their children still the family’s labor force
like that of the peasants from which they sprang their children their
only welfare system

Whose growth as those of parents grandparents is still stunted due
to lack of food though not as much as previously the population is
growing taller and more can read

Who will couple with daughters of fathers like their own see a movie
or two Predator Rocky III Robocop Superman Batman
Pretty Woman Deep Throat Fantasia Total Recall
dubbed in Español give them circuses if not bread
and the girls tint their hair yellow to look more like some Hollywood star
and spent their maquiladora savings on mini-skirts lipstick Clairol

Whose parents now have second hand television sets electric lights if
they have been extended to the newest squatters local politicians do
that now listen to music from cassette players bought with a
week’s wages at the local tianguis or smuggled in when returning
from California fields Wisconsin factories Arkansas show horse
stables dance in someone’s lot on Saturday nights to celebrate
quinceaneras baptisms bodas birthdays

Whose mothers gave birth without doctor’s care whose wives now go
to the Red Cross free clinic or to the General Hospital erected for
those who have no steady formal sector job the IMSS is overflowing
anyway

Who will bring up children less of whom will die before the age of five

Who are the only precious possession they will have of which they
cannot be deprived until later

Who will be unable to go to college but may complete ninth grade now
it became the law in ’95 at least those can afford books
cuadernos uniforms shoes cuotas for new desks chairs a roof
a real floor take factory jobs become cashiers nurses aides
mechanics bank tellers if they study long enough paid for the week
what is paid across the border for a day that’s why the multinationals
move there from the US from Japan from Germany
Who hope their children will continue the upward movement their past
four generations have described for many except those who dropped died gave up were

killed in strife
along the way

Although now in the cities there are more gangs defending space
some of the muchachos sniff glue smoke that old rancho weed gobble
down acids and pills designed in laboratories on the other side
take a sniff of cocaine on its way to the north
international exchange that keeps those in the barrios
on both sides of the border unorganized quiescent stupified
jobs last a few weeks a few months some cycled out so the company
need pay no benefits and the factory managers and the construction
engineers and the supermarket supervisors comply

And the peso has fallen just this year
multinationals arrive like carpetbaggers
the wage in dollars has been halved prices have doubled
in the countryside the Zapatistas unite

For more, visit Struggle Magazine.

William T. Hathaway is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His latest book, Wellsprings, concerns the environmental crisis. He is a member of the Freedom Socialist Party, a red feminist organization. A selection of his writing is available at www.peacewriter.org. Read other articles by William.