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Mojo Snake Minuet

John Litwelier is the esteemed music critic who covered the early days of the AACM and has written about all manner of jazz for Downbeat, the Reader, the Sun-Times, the Tribune, etc., along with a book about free jazz and a biography of Ornette Coleman.  Now he’s published his first novel, Mojo Snake Minuet, and it’s a murder mystery unlike any other murder mystery.

First of all, the sleuth is a music critic, and there are lots of music critic jokes.  (At one point the hero faces a drawn gun; “he could imagine the headline: ‘Musician Kills Critic’ —  it had to happen someday, but why me?”)  So we have a satire of the music critic racket, which is badly needed and long overdue, but the satire doesn’t end there.

The central conceit of the novel is that black people run America and white people are the oppressed minority. There are white civil rights and white power movements, white alcoholics are hounded and imprisoned, and degenerate opera arias are performed in dingy nightclubs. At times the conceit is revealing, at times cumbersome, at times a little absurd, but it quickly subsides behind a cast of lively characters, with sharp, intelligent dialogue and wild action.

There’s Yakub Yakub, the handsome, callow young critic, his fecklessness shielded by a grandiose ego, who manages to be both laughable and likeable. There’s his boss, Chief Danyal Kaida, the eccentric and autocratic owner of the Chicago Daily Messenger, who manipulates the city’s political elite as he looks out from the top-floor office in the Messenger Tower near the Michigan Avenue bridge.  There’s Yakub’s old flame, Aisha Salim, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Daily Drum — and courageous supporter of civil rights for whites.  There are a couple of pop divas, a couple of corrupt cops, a gangster kingpin and a renegade voodoo sect.

There’s a Back To Europe movement led by Bishop Joseph Johnson of the Church of St. Elvis (on 47th Street) and a thuggish white studies professor named Atilla Galahad.

The plot is complicated not just by a variety of crooks who are after the same treasure, but by two separate investigators, after the certified licensed private witch Shadow Mbalabala joins the chase.  We meet him in his shabby office over the Wabash el, where he’s reading a hardboiled witch thriller.  In contrast to Yakub, he is quietly competent, jaded, sardonic, and a bit run-down.

It’s all wonderfully entertaining – but does the upending of our society’s racial paradigm serve any purpose beyond entertainment, and a writer’s exercise?  I don’t know.  It does put things in a different light, to say the least.  It makes you think, in between laughs and thrills.

Litweiler will read from the book at 57th  Street Books, 1301 E. 57th Street, Thursday, January 21, at 6 p.m.

Dennis Brutus

dennis-brutus-1-sized South African poet and  activist Dennis Brutus, who  broke rocks with Nelson  Mandela on Robbins Island,  died in Capetown at the age  of 85 on December 26.

Monthly Review has an  obituary. A collection of  Brutus’s poetry and essays, Protest and Poetry,  was published by  Haymarket  Books of Chicago.

Brutus was a stalwart of the  local anti-apartheid  movement while he was on the faculty at Northwestern University in the 1970s and ’80s.   In South Africa, he had first been banned as a teacher, for teaching his students that they were not inferior; then he became a journalist, and soon received an order making it a crime for him to write for any paper. He said he never took his poetry seriously until the government served him with an order making it a crime to publish his poems.  He continued under a pen name.

In a sense he was also a forerunner of No Games Chicago, since the crime he for which he was imprisoned was organizing against South Africa’s inclusion in the Olympics.  He was arrested by South African secret police in 1963 at a meeeting with South Africa’s Olympic committee, where he went to present the case for including blacks on the nation’s team.  It was primarily due to Brutus that South Africa was kicked out of the games in 1964 and 1968, and out of the Olympic movement in 1970.

At the Progressive, Matt Rothschild has an incisive post on the conjunction of Brutus’s death with the opening of the film Invictus, which also deals with sport and apartheid, but reduces the anti-apartheid movement to one great man, Nelson Mandela; he also notes Brutus’s criticism of Mandela’s turn to neoliberalism.

A year ago Brutus scandalized the South African Sports Hall of Fame by showing up at a lavish ceremony only to refuse induction “alongside those who flourished under racist sport” while “so many talented black athletes were excluded from sports opportunities.”  Cheering Brutus’s stance last January, Dave Zirin also noted the history of racism in U.S. baseball and a hall of fame where its proponents and beneficiaries are enshrined.

(This week at the Nation, Zirin offers a fascinating eulogy for Daily Worker sports columnist Walter “Red” Rodney, who died December 22 at the age of 98, noting his place in “the central role of the radical press in agitating for the integration of Major League Baseball.”)

Fred Hampton’s murder

Friday is the 40th anniversary of the killing of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party.  A Panther alumni site features a page of  photos of Hampton and Chicago Panthers by Paul Sequeira. Hampton is recalled as incredibly charisimatic, and as a highly effective organizer.

“Under Hampton, within months of its founding the Chicago chapter had five daily breakfast programs serving thousands of children; a free medical clinic, and a door-to-door health program including testing for sickle-cell anemia and blood drives for Cook County Hospital; an emergency heating program pressuring landlords to maintain heat during the winter; free buses to prisons for relatives of prisoners; and a project promoting community control of the police.”  (Remembering Fred Hampton, the Guardian, November 29, 1989)

Twenty years ago, I interviewed then-Alderman Bobby Rush and Hampton’s fiance, Akua Njeri.  One of the things they recalled – which resonates strongly today – was his role deterring gang warfare.

“He felt the gang element was uneducated, but they were not the enemy; they were victims,” said Njeri. “Fred believed he should sit down with them and explain how they were being used by the system to kill their own people.”

“He felt the gangs could be stimulated and organized and persuaded to go in a direction that was less counterproductive,” said Rush.  “He would try to talk to various gang leaders and establish a rapport.  And they respected Fred.  They respected his leadership ability, they respected his commitment, they respected his courage.

“He could speak the language of the gang-banger, and had Fred lived he would have had a major influence on curtailing gang activity in the city of Chicago and transforming those gangs into more of a constructive political force,” Rush said.  (Hampton was 21 when he was killed.)

It was a long and tortuous court battle to expose the conspiracies behind his murder and the coverup which followed, detailed in Jeffrey Haas’s new book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton.  There were highly fortuitous elements – an unrelated criminal case in which Hampton’s bodyguard was revealed to be an FBI informer; Senate hearings on the FBI’s COINTELPRO program which revealed that documents released by the FBI in a civil case were highly incomplete.

At In These Times, Salim Muwakkil, himself a former Panther, reviews the book.  In an older piece, Black Agenda Report editor Bruce Dixon, a former Chicago Panther, offers a personal reminiscence of Hampton.

On Wednesday, the Center on Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago marks the anniversary with a retrospective on the Black Panther Party at International House, 1414 E. 59th Street (pdf).  At 3 p.m. there’s a screening of “The Murder of Fred Hampton”; at 4:30 a panel with Haas and Njeri joined by two former Chicago Panthers, Willie Calvin and Lynn French, as well as Tracye Matthws of CRPC, who is working on a book on gender politics in the Panthers.

At 6:15 a second panel features two scholars joined by Emory Douglas, the Panther Minister of Culture and the artist whose graphics – incredibly bold, in content as well as style – gave much of the character to the party’s newspaper, which at its height had a weekly circulation of nearly 140,000.

An exhibit of Emory Douglas’s work opens Sunday, December 6 (reception from 2 to 6 p.m.) at DOVA gallery, 5228 S. Harper.  Examples are featured on a webpage for a similar exhibit last year at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

“They are dangerous pictures, meant to change the world,” wrote curator Sam Durant for a recent exhibition at New York’s New Museum.  Columbia College Professor Collette Gaiter offers an overview of Douglas’s career at AIGA.

Lester Brown: Hope for the future

Lester Brown discussed his latest book (Plan B 4.0) at International House last night – opening with dire predictions of overdrawn aquifers, disappearing glaciers, and rising seas all threatening humanity’s food supply, and moving to a cheery description of new technology which could allow us to curb climate change, if we choose to.

He held out little hope for serious progress from the Copenhagen conference next month – indeed, he thinks international climate treaties move far too slowly to make sufficient difference.  (He notes that politicians generally set carbon reduction goals for 2050, when they’ll be long gone, while scientists talk about the need to turn things around in the next decade.)  He was not sanguine about the cap-and-trade proposal now before Congress, noting such a regime has had little to no impact in Europe.

And citing a de facto moratorium on new coal plant construction in this country, he suggested the most significant changes will come from grassroots movements, not legislatures.

Wisenberg and Ervin

Two of Chicago’s best writers are featured in the November issue of the Progressive.

S. L. Wisenberg writes with biting humor and unnerving honesty about breast cancer and her “post-mastectomy dilemma.”

Mike Ervin writes of his “deep dread” as state legislators debate budget cuts which could eliminate the home assistants that enable him to live a full life – or even just get out of bed in the morning.

Barbara Ehrenreich

Following her best-selling Nickle and Dimed, for which she took a series of poverty-wage jobs, she went undercover in the world of laid-off white collar workers (for Bait and Switch) and was told over and over to stay upbeat, keep smiling, be happy.

So her new book, Bright-sided, takes on “the relentless promotion of positive thinking” and how it’s “undermined America.”  (It’s also a counterpoint to her 2007 book, Dancing in the Streets, which explores festival traditions and the human impulse for collective joy.)  She’ll read from her newest book at International House, 1414 E. 59th Street, Tuesday at 6 p.m.

Kim Bobo

Utne Reader has named Kim Bobo – founder of Interfaith Worker Justice and author of Wage Theft — one of the year’s 50 visionary leaders; historian Joseph McCartin interviews Bobo in depth here (pdf).

An Ofrenda by Sandra Cisneros

“Camino a Casa: Coming Home” is the theme of the 23rd Day of the Dead exhibition at the National Museum of Mexican Art, and author Sandra Cisneros is returning to Chicago to create a traditional altar in memory of her parents at the museum.

It’s also the 25th anniversary of the publication of Cisneros’s acclaimed first novel, “The House on Mango Street,” based on her experiences growing up in Humboldt Park. It was the first novel by a Mexican American woman to be published by a mainstream publisher.

Speaking in Chicago this spring (as reported at Latina Voices), Cisneros recalled how teachers at Josephinum High School worked with her to develop her literary vocation, and how she treasured the quiet she found at the Humboldt Park library.

Cisneros graduated from Loyola University and taught at Latino Youth Alternative High School in Chicago. She now lives and works in San Antonio, where she founded the Macondo Foundation to support literary artists whose work is “part of a larger task of community-building and nonviolent social change.”

She is creating an ofrenda, an altar with offerings to the spirits of the departed, as part of NMMA’s Dia de Muertos exhibition.

In addition, a community ofrenda is being constructed in memory of long-time civic leader Arturo Velasquez Sr., who died in April at the age of 93. The exhibition also features works of art and ofrendas by local and international artists.

An opening reception takes place Friday, September 25 at 6 p.m. at the museum at 1852 W. 19th Street. The exhibition runs until December 13.

Related events in coming weeks include demonstrations of the traditional art of sugar skull making; Mexican artisans demonstrating traditional folk arts; a community night on November 1; children’s art classes and a holiday market.



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