Black and Brown Leave Green

I call it the Fannie lou Hamer reflex—named for the Mississippi activist who famously said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Say no, and damn the consequences. People in the street last week were telling me that after eight years of Giuliani, they were not afraid of Bloomberg. Rage sometimes wins out over fear. This reflex is such a famous black cultural signifier, originally associated with belligerent slaves and still so visible today, that it shouldn’t need explaining. Think of Denzel Washington in Glory defiantly taking that whipping rather than begging for shoes.

My favorite Hamer moment is the one that made her name, and which may shed some light on the defection from Mark Green. In 1964, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, there was an all-star cast asking the mostly black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to give up its attempt to replace the state’s segregationist delegation. Party unity, they said. The MFDP phones were bugged, as well as the rooms of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, and every word was reported to President Lyndon Johnson on an hourly basis. Hamer spoke and was so riveting that LBJ called an impromptu press conference to get her off the TV. He offered them a now infamous bad deal.

When the group asked King for advice, he said frankly that LBJ might help him and the movement if they gave in. “So, being a Negro leader,” he said, “I want you to take this, but if I were a Mississippi Negro, I would vote against it.”

King came clean on the fact that leaders have to advise staying with the party. We saw plenty of them chafing and waffling under this burden after the mayoral runoff. Clearly Freddy Ferrer and Al Sharpton couldn’t really call a boycott, and voters didn’t need to be told what to do anyway. The Democratic defectors, especially the 41 percent of Ferrer supporters who went for Bloomberg, thought it out like Mississippi Negroes.

The premise of Hamer-think is that you’ve already been kicked around. Saying no to Lyndon was, she said, not that big a deal when compared to what her people had been through just to register to vote: beatings, lost jobs, lost homes. Hamer personally suffered all of those and died young from Mississippi hardship. Black and Latino voters today could name a dozen races in which we’ve been asked to take little or nothing in party-unity scenarios, and we have usually been generous with our votes.

But this election was different from any I recall because the black and Latino votes split as some voters opted to punish Green. Dems usually expect to get 85 percent of the black votes. Likewise, expectation was that Hispanics in general and in the Bronx in particular would be delivered for Green. His appalling campaign, assuming it had our votes, pushed indifference until the Hamer reflex kicked in.

It wasn’t just that Green was aloof, arrogant, and unlikable, which he was. We sucked it up for the grim Mike Dukakis, who bombed against Bush. It wasn’t Bloomberg’s money and ads—although the promo repeating Green’s post-WTC claim,”I would have done better than Rudy,” was withering. Money didn’t make it happen for the likes of Ronald Lauder, Michael Huffington, Pete DuPont, or even Ross Perot. Lord knows the Rudy ads didn’t bring over black folks. And yet it was shocking nonetheless when people I know—mostly black and one or two whites—began saying they and everyone they knew would switch to Bloomberg. After all, Mark Green started out with the ultimate progressive résumé.

Before September 11, Green’s biggest problem with progressive blacks I hear from was that he didn’t seem to have any history of working with people of color in decision-making positions. But what’s new? How many of the white Democratic candidates out there in July had any high-level people of color working with them? Then while Green said repeatedly he had “been to every community” in the city, it became obvious that Ferrer knew something about living in them. Ferrer gained strength by saying that those who’d been ignored and who’d suffered during Giuliani should be part of the next government. Right away the papers started telling us that he was not reaching out to whites—borderline racist maybe?

I am told that Ferrer played the race card by embracing his obvious base. The New York Times and others said whites weren’t hearing anything from Ferrer, and blacks and Latinos said they weren’t hearing anything from Green. But the situations seem very different. Ferrer should have pitched more to white voters’ economic jitters for starters, but he certainly didn’t benefit from a press indulging in white stereotyping or from dubiously coded ads. And he never looked desperate.

Green not only failed to address our communities, he made specific mistakes:

  • Green had to have known that blacks and Latinos would back off when he started parading former police commissioner William Bratton around to show toughness on crime after his years being tough on police brutality. And he was intransigent, saying Bratton was “widely respected across the city.”

  • Caving in to Rudy was stupid, unnecessary, and, to many of us, alarming. We were supporting him as a remedy to Rudy, not a welcome mat. And yes, balls do count. It’s unfortunate that we have lived in conditions that required great courage of our leaders, but we have known many. Black and Latino leaders have had a regular diet of ridicule, loathing, death threats, and worse. Being afraid of Rudy, or even of keeping him waiting—no respect.

  • After the World Trade Center attack, Green tried to show how realistic he could be about the coming financial disaster. If a man not only gives it up to Rudy but also surrenders hope on his agenda, what could we expect later on?

  • The “borderline irresponsible” ad he directed at Ferrer let people know it was all going downhill. It buzzed with questions hurled against working people of color at all class levels.

  • After the runoff, Green snubbed the “other New York” camp and union leaders while seeking unity for his campaign. He made no acknowledgments of our communities’ needs in order to broaden his base, relying instead on listing the blacks on board.

  • Green really should have repudiated any use of hate literature. Yet his crew are still on TV denying that anything circulated to Jewish voters was racist. He should have fired those aides who met with Brooklyn Dems about using Sharpton as a tar brush. But he took advantage of a racially charged atmosphere, abetted by newspaper cartoons and rhetoric depicting Sharpton and Ferrer in stereotypes that have gotten people killed from Mississippi to Nazi Germany.

    Anyone should say “not in my name” to crap from the 200-year-old catalog of racial objectification that directly preceded periods of lynchings from Reconstruction to the 1930s. This is how Japanese Americans ended up in camps, and what we hope to resist for Arab Americans today. To have accepted racism’s largesse and played to it is heinous and unforgivable.

  • Green’s post-runoff ads were tawdry (“Kill it!”), or cheesy, like the black radio spot with a sham Sapphire reeling off how “we” fought for the vote and so should use it for Green. Yikes. While Green feared whites would think he was pandering by even being seen with Sharpton, there is no other word for that ad.

    In 1964 it was about stopping Barry “What’s Wrong With Being Right?” Goldwater, and Lyndon Johnson ran with slogans you couldn’t use today, like “All the Way With LBJ” and the anti-Goldwater “In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts.” Fannie Lou Hamer said she’d rather go home than take a deal that was not what she promised the people in Mississippi—a role in the process. She did, and in 1968, black Mississippians had their day.

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    Are You OK?

    E-mail from Malaysia: “WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON? I’m in a small gay bar in Kuala Lumpur, listening to the first house music I’ve heard in a while and on the TV it looks like CNN is announcing a photobook about the WTC bombing several years ago. There’s no volume, just the house music bumping. Then I find out it’s REAL. IS EVERYONE OK? I am completely freaked. Love to you all, Andy.”

    I was on my way out to vote Tuesday morning. There are five apartments on my floor, and that morning, unknown to me, a woman who lives across the hall, Sareve Dukat, called her daughter, Athena, from work. Sareve, 53, was working as a New York State tax adviser in the World Trade Center. She was on the 87th floor and phoned to say that though a plane hit the other tower, she was fine, and she asked Athena to call her grandparents and tell them so they wouldn’t worry. Then she said, “I’m at my desk.”

    I saw those towers slam down like someone had pulled open a hydraulic lift to hell. Though any metaphor falls apart, a biblical cataclysm brings up the language of holy books, mortal dust, ashes. The dust and smoke in New York may have smelled like burning tires, but it also had to contain the clay that the ancients said God used to make mortals.

    Days were spent checking on everyone with any degree of separation. Phones were difficult. “Are you OK?” was the only message.

    By midday, I’d offered my couch to two people. New York’s firemen, EMTs, and cops were down there dealing, and I trusted them much more than anybody who might show up later to get people out. We have that self-sufficiency of island people everywhere, and we have history—like the last WTC bombing. New York chauvinism filled my heart. Every chain store closed down immediately. Instantly, neighborhoods were returned to their pre-Starbucks character. Local folks stayed open.

    On the sidewalk, my neighbors were in their own “heightened state of alert.” One rattled off the names of groups he wanted blown away. My cousin, visiting a few miles from the Pentagon, left a message that she was on an empty, eerie highway south. Military jets overhead.

    Finally Irene Cabrera called. She and her husband, Derick Grant, and two children, Kaleo, three, and Lulu, 20 months, live in nearby Battery Park City.

    “I got up, trying to get to work early. I heard the first plane, but I thought it was maybe trucks outside. Derick looked out the window and said the building was on fire. The phone started ringing. The second plane came so close I felt like I could touch it. We jumped to the floor, crawled with the babies into the bathroom. We knew it was just a matter of time before it would just come down. I saw bodies flying in the air, people jumping. I just thought, That can’t be.

    “The first tower did go down. I knew this was part of something bigger. We decided to get out, and I just grabbed my wallet and a pair of baby shoes. When we got out in the street, it was covered with papers and shoes and flesh. I mean, we had to censor what we were saying to each other about what we saw because of the kids. We only got across the street.” Then the second tower fell.

    “We heard there were possible gas leaks and we had to go to the river. These great police officers helped us, carrying the kids so we could walk faster. We were put in a fisherman’s boat, and we’re in New Jersey. We landed in a construction site where there were people with food and juice and phones. I’m just grateful. I was there for the ’93 bombing, and it wasn’t as severe, of course, but mainly, I didn’t have my kids then. This feels like I dreamt about it, but it doesn’t stop.”

    In the late afternoon, just before the third building, number 7 WTC, collapsed, I went up to the roof to look downtown. After seeing the smoking hole in the skyline, I saw, on a nearby roof, two women sunbathing. In the elevator down I met two guys who had escaped the towers. They didn’t know each other but live in the same building.

    Memo from Kieron Devlin: Joel Craig Phillips, Kieron’s roommate, was late for work. Phillips told Devlin: “When I looked up at the World Trade I saw these white things in the air. I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ They were spread-eagle like birds. They were people jumping to their deaths. People were screaming and fainting. A black cloud of debris descended on us. I thought I was going to die.


    “I heard a second explosion. I thought it was a bomb at the Stock Exchange. I ran to 40 Wall Street. Women in high heels were running faster than me. We were evacuated to a smoky hot basement. Out of the windows was just black smoke. Security told us to use our wet undershirts as masks. I got hysterics. I wanted out of that frigging building.”

    Ruth Ford: “My boyfriend, Kerby Neill, works at One Liberty Plaza. He felt a rumble, saw the shadow of the first plane, stood up, and saw the crash. He called and told me not to worry, he was being evacuated. (Unknown to her he walked home to Park Slope.) When I heard that the second tower had been hit, I ran for the subway. The train stopped in the tunnel and people freaked. The first building had fallen, but we didn’t know. They cut off the air because of the dust. When we finally got out, there was ash everywhere. At the top of the stairs, I saw a man collapsed in a corner, his nose clogged with ash, hyperventilating, and someone helping him. I was just standing there and the building rumbled.

    “I panicked, running for the glass doors. The security people shouted at me to stop, and then all this debris started raining down. I thought when I went outside that it was the apocalypse. First it was gray ash; you couldn’t see 10 feet in front of you. Then black ash. The sun was a hard tiny dot. I don’t think I accepted it until I was walking across the Manhattan Bridge and I looked and the towers were gone.”

    According to a reporter, people wandering near City Hall were grabbing handfuls of the asbestos-laden ash to take home. One phone call at home: Cliff, my nephew and a doctor, had been treating patients evacuated to Jersey City, burns mostly.

    E-mail from Arnim: ” . . . We have slaughtered innocents throughout our history—from the Indians through the slaves . . . all to gain economic advantage and signal repression. We have turned former oppressed colonials of color into alleged “terrorists,” and the technology has empowered these individuals to wield a level of power and destruction once reserved as the exclusive province of the state. Now, there are thousands of people waiting in line to be the next suicide bomber. DuBois’s conclusion about the color line being the the hallmark of the last century is still appropriate. Remember, we A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

    Being here means facing the unreality of victims who failed to appear during torturous days of digging, waiting, listening. We face the prospect that thousands share a mass grave, a hole blasted seven stories deep into the city’s foundation. It’s a grave shared with our founders, for right there are the remains of Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans, as well as the remains of centuries-old wooden ships.

    Buddhist service book: “Compassion does away with the distinctions between self and other. When one sees the illusory nature of man, true compassion arises.”

    E-mail from Grace Bastidas: “This is a list of things needed by rescue crews: lip balm, aspirin/Tylenol, saline solution, toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, combs, Neosporin . . . ”

    E-mail from Geoff: “You know how they said they were evacuating everything south of Canal . . . what about “the Tombs” [the Metropolitan Correctional Center]? You think they evacuated those people?” And, “New York is frantically calling manufacturers upstate to make more body bags, according to one bag producer in Binghamton, my Uncle Wayne.”

    Wednesday, people were collecting clothes, especially socks. I took a subway, a cab, and a walk to get to work. I crossed a barricade at Union Square into the frozen zone. As the day went on, the smell became more acrid. The wind shifted and blew smoke north through the length of Manhattan. I tied a scarf over my face.

    Bastidas: “Buckets, rubbing alcohol, scissors, deodorant, disposable razors, shaving cream, towels, washcloths, sheets, blankets, SOCKS . . . ”

    Ron Catenanova, who works in my building, tells me he’s got three sons who’ve been down there digging the whole time: William, 38, an engineer; Jeffrey, 37, a crane operator, and Adam, 30, a firefighter. He says their feet are very blistered and are constantly wet.

    E-mail from Robert Kasner: “Was on a plane to Seattle over Manhattan after WTC was struck. Saw smoke but didn’t know. During the flight I noted that we seemed to be going faster than normal. Diverted to Detroit. Once landed, I saw other planes landing but none taking off. Went outside for a smoke, saw a security man who was listening to a radio and said only: ‘New York is under attack, the WTC was destroyed, we’re at war.’


    “Tried calling my wife but circuits were down. Thinking she might be dead, or hurt, and that I needed to get home. Finally called my mom in Minnesota, who had heard from my wife Tricia that she was OK. I rented a car with two strangers: a woman from Florida and a French male fashion model. We drove straight through in 10 hours and waited at the Goethals Bridge another 10 hours.”

    Thursday, a day of 90 bomb threats. At work, I got upgraded to a dust mask.

    That night there was an impromptu vigil in Union Square. People improvised speeches, not knowing what to say. An NYU student named Jordan Shuster had laid butcher paper down on the pavement Tuesday, and for days he had scribbled a diary of messages on it. A Larry Mitchell had added, “I write this to all the people who no longer ride the subways, walk the streets, complain about the traffic . . . these people whom I never knew, but shared a seat on the train at some point.” A few messages were crossed out, like “Stop the Hate! Stop the Immigrants!” A question was asked, “God?” and answered, “God!”

    On 96th Street, Sunday, Jay Medina from the Bronx told me his friend who was missing for a day and a half because he was hit on the head and taken to a hospital was OK. I rode down the West Side Highway, and there were refrigerated “remains” trucks parked outside a makeshift morgue. A gigantic white Navy hospital ship with red crosses on the side was moored further down. To my left was a tiny camouflaged army tank. “I take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.” This is both a vow and an explanation that, for me, peace has to be the way. No vengeance. No more killing.

    As of this weekend, Sareve Dukat, across the hall from me, has not been found.

    E-mail from Jesus Diaz: “Jon Simonds recalls how his father, Harold, a cab driver for 30 years who lived in Bensonhurst, would figure out the weather. ‘We could see the towers from outside our kitchen window. For many years he would tell us if it was going to rain, or be one of those muggy days, just by the way the clouds formed around the towers. We didn’t need a radio.’ We both agreed Harold’s Tuesday forecast would have been,’I can see the towers. It’s gonna be a beautiful day—there’s not a cloud in the sky.’ ”

    E-mail from Doug Matsouoka in Hawaii:

    “When you get a chance just hit the reply button. OK?”


    Orpheus Ascending

    If Salman Rushdie’s last novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, was his retelling of the myth of Orpheus, the man endowed with superhuman lyrical gifts, then his new novel, Fury, is something of a coda to the ideas in that work.

    This Orpheus, if you will, Malik Solanka, distinguished historian turned dollmaker, is more mundane than Ground‘s dazed and shadowy rock star Ormus Cama (think of saying kharma with a subcontinental accent). Solanka is more pretentious and something of a fuddy-duddy despite his bouts with blackout-inducing rage. And he is certainly less compelling than the comfortably troubled narrator of the last novel. But Solanka is another of Rushdie’s gifted and damaged men, men like Moraes Zogoiby of The Moor’s Last Sigh and Saleem Sinai of Midnight’s Children—for me, his two greatest books—who become fugitives, exiles from India, from family, and from their own talents.

    The greatest Rushdie pursuers are furies, and of these, the most powerful is India herself, the fascinating, all-consuming, complex mother who is also coldhearted and abandoning. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, the Moor is chased out of India and imprisoned. He gives one of the finest soliloquies of modern literature—a Rushdie manifesto: “When my pursuers have followed the trail they’ll find me waiting, uncomplaining, out of breath, ready. Here I stand. Couldn’t ‘ve done it differently.”

    Next to the flight of other Rushdie heroes, Solanka’s is small and neurotic. He is running from his most recent wife, and his discovery of his own lethal rage toward her.

    It was precisely his back-story that he wanted to destroy. Never mind where he came from or who, when little Malik could barely walk, had deserted his mother and so given him permission, years later, to do the same. To the devil with stepfathers and pushes on the top of a young boy’s head and dressing up and weak mothers and guilty Desdemonas and the whole useless baggage of blood and tribe. . . . He had come to America as so many before him to receive the benison of being Ellis Islanded, of starting over. Give me a name, America, make me a Buzz or Chip or Spike.

    If he was fleeing the entanglements of London by coming to New York, he has leapt from the frying pan into the fire. This Orpheus descends, presumably by way of JFK, into a West Side apartment: “Outside . . . the first hot season of the third millennium, baked and perspired. The city boiled with money.” Solanka’s hell is stinking with the overcooked tripe of disposable culture, the name-dropping superficiality of old gossip items and forgotten boldface names. It is a New York with the horrid painted cows of two years ago on the streets, of jokes like “George Gush and Al Bore” and peopled by names borrowed from Page Six. Some of it bores before it horrifies, some of it just doesn’t feel lived in.

    Rushdie’s New York is a suit that looks good at the store but shows none of its virtues of cut and style without some flesh and blood inside. It is an observer’s New York, conversation overheard on a movie line, but unlike Woody Allen’s much-lived version of same, which tells us who he thinks is living here, Rushdie’s remains opaque. But this hot metropolis has a scary lower level (in the city’s highest aeries, of course), a group of men who call themselves “S&M” (single and male), whose loathing for women has nauseatingly cruel and depraved expressions.

    Solanka’s underworld is one to which he fears he may belong, where women are the victims of the fury of men. His unwitting guide here is one of those Rushdie false brothers who often betray, but this one is an erudite black man, war correspondent, jock, and ladies’ man who is the desperate token of the white glitterati. Jack Rhinehart is one of the book’s most successfully realized characters, an immigrant from the hood (well, maybe not quite) whose assimilation is nearly complete, an outsider who is also one of the ultimate American insiders.

    But if this hell is full of suffering women, this Orpheus is yet the victim of Harpies. He hears beating wings in his ears. (Is that Poe or an old B-movie?) On the periphery, one ex-wife pops up, then a spurned academic groupie bad-mouths him on Howard Stern. If the true end of Orpheus is being torn to pieces by a bunch of women, be they the women of Thrace, the Maenads, or the Three Furies Alecto (“Unceasing Anger”), Tisiphone (“Avenger of Murder”), and Megaera (“Jealous”), then Solanka is all set. There are three in Fury who act out the events following Orpheus’s ascent from hell. Mila Milo, the spiky blond seductress of West 70th Street, is the daughter of a possibly predatory, semi-famous Serbo-Croat writer. She is precocious with computers, PR, and Solanka’s dark side. Mila reminds Solanka of the wildly popular time-traveling doll he has created with the unfortunate name “Little Brain.” Little Brain is like a TV reporter Barbie who goes after the Great Minds of history (all boys, mind you: Bertrand Russell, Kierkegaard, Machiavelli, Socrates, Galileo, etc.). And she pursues them like a fury: ” . . . not so much a disciple as an agent provocateur with a time machine, she goaded the great minds of the ages into surprising revelations.” Their relationship is pure Blue Angel, Emil Jennings meets Courtney Love.

    The real TV girl in his life is perhaps the avenger fury: Neela Mahendra, an independent producer-cum-revolutionary who embroils Solanka in South Asian politics and a romance that makes him quote Pat Boone lyrics. Lastly, Jealous would have to be Eleanor Masters Solanka, the Shakespeare scholar and jilted ex-wife. She haunts him on the phone and taunts him with the chance to be jealous himself. (And maybe it’s middle-aged me but I couldn’t help thinking that a novel like this with a female protagonist—not particularly fit or fine, a middle-aged, stuffy academic-cum-dollmaker who is nonetheless irresistible to the erudite, the kinky, and the fabulous—would not be taken seriously. But hey, we can hope.)

    Suffice it to say that in Fury these creatures pursue Malik with zeal. If Rushdie brought Ormus, the Orphic musician of Ground Beneath Her Feet, to an end reminiscent of John Lennon’s, he goes by the mythic book this time and brings Malik Solanka fatefully to a staircase in the sky. Fury comes nowhere near the heights this brilliant novelist has reached before, lacking a real match between the mythic leanings of the author and the mysteries of his new home. I’d give him some time to get to know us and our gods and demons.