The Boy in the Picture: A Remembrance
Atomic bomb survivor Sumiteru Taniguchi, giving a speech at the United Nations
in New York in 2010 against the existence of nuclear weapons while holding up
a photo of himself from 1946 in Nagasaki.
A 16-year-old Japanese boy lies face down on a hospital bed, his eyes closed and face partially obscured from view. His back and arms, oozing blood and pus, show the severe radiation burns he suffered during the atomic bombing of his city, Nagasaki, just five months before by the United States. He is still clinging to life and the Japanese doctors keeping him in a bath of penicillin to fight off infection seem amazed that the boy is still alive.
“I shuddered when the lights were turned on to film him,” recalled Herbert Sussan, a U.S. military video specialist assigned to film Japanese survivors of the two atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in January 1946. The youth with the severely burned back was the worst of the cases his U.S. filming team had come across. “None of us expected him to live,” Sussan said, “but the doctors persisted.”
It was that persistence alone by doctors in Nagasaki that saved the life of the youth, and for decades afterward, Sumiteru Taniguchi would go on to publicly display to the world that video image of himself as the boy with the bleeding back, in an appeal for the permanent banning of nuclear weapons.
A New York Times obituary on Taniguchi, who died of cancer in Nagasaki on 30 August at age 88, is indicative of the high status Taniguchi held as one of the more well-known, publicly identifiable of the hibakusha atomic bomb survivors in Japan. News outlets around the world have reported on his passing, and told and retold his story.
Taniguchi was a teenage postal carrier delivering the mail on his bicycle around 11 a.m. that morning of 9 August 1945, and was 1.8 kilometers (about one mile) from the hypocenter when the “Fat Man” plutonium bomb — as it was nicknamed by the U.S. military — was dropped over the city, killing at least 40,000 people instantly, most of whom were civilians. Like many victims of the bomb that day, Taniguchi was subjected to a wall of heat measuring an estimated 4,000 degrees Celsius (more than 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit), hot enough to melt steel.
Those who died instantly in the blast or were simply vaporized into ashes may have been the lucky ones; those who survived faced a hellish reality of death and destruction all around them. Many, like Taniguchi, had their clothing grafted onto their skin by the bomb blast and could not keep their skin from sliding off their bodies. And like many, Taniguchi lived on the border of life and death in the immediate years of medical treatment that ensued.
Taniguchi would go on to say that in surviving the atomic bombing, he grew up with an intense hate for the world of adults that would do such a thing to him as a child. It was perhaps not surprising, then, that Taniguchi would later join, and then lead as chairperson, Nihon Hidankyo, an organization formed by atomic bomb sufferers in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1956 to pressure the Japanese government to improve support for the victims and to lobby governments of the world to abolish nuclear weapons forever.
In interviews and speeches in Japan and overseas over the years, Taniguchi would often hold up that famous film image of himself as the youth with the bleeding back for others to see. He did it less for pity or to accuse than as a stark reminder of what nuclear bombs can do to human beings and as a warning to never let such a horror be repeated. In the 2007 documentary film White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Japanese-American filmmaker Steven Okazaki (which I encourage you to watch here in its entirety), Taniguchi removes his shirt for the camera and reveals his once-bleeding back as it now looked decades later: still heavily scarred and still prone to infection. Like other survivors of the two atomic bombings, he was constantly plagued by radiation-induced illnesses and ailments through the rest of his life.
In 2010, Taniguchi, representing Japan’s atomic bomb survivors, reiterated his appeal for the banning of nuclear weapons during a review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the United Nations in New York City. “I am not a guinea pig, nor am I an exhibit,” he told the audience, once again showing the well-known photo of him as an ailing 16-year-old. “But you who are here today, please don’t turn your eyes away from me. Please look at me again.”
The hibakusha of Japan, over these past seven decades, have had to make sure two governments in particular get that message loud and clear: the United States, as the foremost nuclear power in the world, and Japan, with its increasing moves toward remilitarization as a staunch U.S. ally protected under the American nuclear umbrella.
Have these two governments gotten that message? Apparently not. In July 2017, just a month before Taniguchi died, 122 countries of the world voted to pass the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations in New York. This is the first legally binding international agreement ever to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons; the goal is total elimination of all nuclear weapons on the planet. But the governments of the United States and Japan, among a few others, have essentially boycotted the treaty negotiations from the start for political reasons and will not support its passage.
How supremely ironic it is that today the government of Japan, the only country ever to have been the victim of a nuclear bomb attack during war, will stand on the side of the USA, which dropped those bombs on Japan back in 1945, in opposing a treaty that could very well save us all from nuclear annihilation someday. In any case, with or without American and Japanese government support, the formal signing and enactment of this important treaty will go on as scheduled and take place later this month in New York on 20 September.
Sumiteru Taniguchi, at 88 years of age, did not live long enough to see this long-awaited day come, but his soul can rest peacefully knowing that he did as much as any one person could have done to help bring it about. From that hospital bed in Nagasaki in 1946 as a severely injured boy lingering near death, to his last public anti-nuclear appeal in Malaysia in 2016 as an ailing elder, he kept the hope for a truly peaceful world alive and in front of us, never allowing us to look away or to forget the past.
May we all find it within ourselves to help carry on his final wish from here and see that it becomes a permanent reality for our world, epitomized in the two simple words: “Never again”.
Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (3)
A former gymnast with short brown hair and dressed in a dark-blue pant suit, Talavera Baca sat somewhat nervously at a long conference table in a meeting room of a San Francisco law firm, where she was employed as a legal worker. She told us how U.S. government involvement in drug trafficking wasn’t some sort of “conspiracy theory”. It was fact. Her boyfriend, Rafael Corñejo, a Nicaraguan national, was then still in prison in California in connection with cocaine trafficking in the Bay Area, and she had long moved in family circles that allowed her to know firsthand of such U.S. government links to the illicit cocaine trade.
She recalled visits to a small, secluded island in the Bahamas some years before that was owned by Carlos Lehder (she used the pseudonym “Carlos Perez”), a Colombian drug lord and co-founder of the infamous Medellín drug-trafficking cartel. People who she came to understand were working for Lt. Col. Oliver North, a National Security Council staff member under former president Ronald Reagan, would fly cocaine shipments from South America and “stop off at his [Lehder’s] island usually and refuel, and then fly back to the United States”. Talavera Baca characterized North as “the biggest drug trafficker in the United States’ history” despite North’s repeated denials over the years of having anything at all to do with such criminal activities.
It was through fighting her boyfriend’s court case that she first reached out to San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb in 1995. Actually, she had contacted reporters from three other major newspapers as well — the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner — but none of them seemed “too smart” when it came to understanding the complex issues of drugs in society. She decided to open all her files exclusively to Gary Webb instead, which led to “Dark Alliance” eventually getting published, and she was sure now that she had made the right choice.
“When Gary started looking in all these boxes, I think he was pretty much blown away. I think he planned to come in and peruse them and make lunch in the city and what have you,” she said. “He was at that office the whole day, and at the end of the day, he says, ‘Can I take these boxes with me?’. And there was just a chemistry there, you know? From the first time, he was a great guy. He was a professional in every sense of the word. …I made a really, really good choice because he’s done a great job on this”.
“He documented everything [in ‘Dark Alliance’] beautifully,” she added.
Contrary to the portrayal of Webb by the big media companies as something of a journalistic loose cannon who was sloppy in reporting facts in “Dark Alliance”, Talavera Baca had found Webb to be just the opposite: a bit too cautious and even naïve about high U.S. government involvement in the cocaine trade . “His story very clearly implicates the United States government,” she said. “And I don’t think Gary went far enough. Gary just takes it to the CIA. I think he needed to take it and go right up to the steps of the White House. And he didn’t like me saying that to him. However, I got a phone call recently from [Webb] and he says, ‘Wow, you were right. It led all the way to Oliver North’”.
We asked Talavera Baca if she thought her life might be in any danger, now that she was going public on "Dark Alliance" through our interview. She put on a brave face and shrugged it off, making an oblique reference to the assassination of the late U.S. president John F. Kennedy. “No one has ever made threats,” she said. “But you know, it’s like, if they really want you taken out, they’ll just take you out. And if they can get to a president, they surely can get to me”.
Much of the interview with Coral Talavera Baca, the prime source for Webb in the “Dark Alliance” investigation, turned out to be a bit rambling and anecdotal, but there was enough information there to mold into a solid story. After the interview she saw us all off to the elevator, where we shook hands and said goodbye. As soon as the doors slid shut and the elevator started descending with all five of us and our gear crammed inside, I and Scott Gorman, our U.S. coordinator and interviewer, gave each other some triumphant high-fives. “Can you believe that?” “We got it!”
The other three Japanese members of our film crew looked on, a bit puzzled, at my and Gorman’s elation. I explained over lunch later to the Japanese crew members the gist of the interview with Coral Talavera Baca and Gary Webb, and how important they were. This could be the centerpiece of our documentary film — a real scoop, I said, that no journalist in the U.S. has yet gotten. I explained to them in Japanese all about the CIA and drugs and the contras. “Contras?” came the reply, with blank looks. I explained: “Yeah, you know, the right-wing terrorist army run by the CIA in Nicaragua back in the 1980s”. More blank looks: “Nicaragua?” Me again: “Nicaragua, yeah. You know, the country in Central America?” Still more blank looks. They did not seem to have the slightest idea where Nicaragua was geographically, let alone the historical significance of all this information we had gathered over the past few days concerning “Dark Alliance”.
It was at that point, for the first time in our 10 days of filming in the U.S. for a Japanese TV program on the so-called global “drug scourge”, that I realized we might be in trouble.
From there, the five of us headed up north to Washington state, where Scott Gorman had lined up for us some more good interviews with struggling drug addicts, drug treatment counselors, methadone center staff and others. Together with all the footage we had shot over a week and a half in New York City, San Francisco, Sacramento, and now Seattle and surrounding environs, we had what I considered to be the makings of one hell of an exposé on the state of America’s drug problems to be included as part of the Japanese TV program.
I was the one entrusted to hand-carry all the video footage in a locked aluminum briefcase with me from California back to Tokyo, while the other Japanese crew members continued on to Europe to get more drug-related footage for our planned documentary.
Two months later, with great anticipation, I sat before my family’s living room television in Japan and tuned into TV Tokyo during the evening prime-time hours of Tuesday, 1 April 1997 — April Fools’ Day, appropriately — for the broadcast of our two-hour program on drugs. By the second half of the program, I was still waiting for the part about “Dark Alliance” to come on. With each passing minute of the program, my heart sank lower and lower. With about 10 minutes left in the program, I had given up all hope, and it was all I could do just to keep the TV on through the closing credits.
There was no “Dark Alliance” in it. No Gary Webb. No Coral Talavera Baca. And very little of the best footage we had shot over 10 days of filming in the States. Instead, the TV program focused on some of the more sensational scenes of drug addicts getting high, scary background music, sloppily shot footage from Europe, and even some episodes that, to my trained journalist’s eye, appeared to be what Japanese media critics call yarase (faked scenes). Even the facts were screwed up: Seattle, for example, was referred to in the documentary as “America’s third largest city”, a major mistake. And in fact, I now realized that it wasn’t meant to be a documentary, per se, at all. It was conceived as just the typical kind of low-quality tripe that is so pervasive on the so-called “wide shows” of all the corporate TV networks in Japan, and that is what it finally delivered.
So much for the perfect alignment of the stars….
Picking Up the Pieces
I should have seen it all coming, back when the film crew members expressed puzzlement about Nicaragua that time in San Francisco. But looking back then, I couldn’t say I was totally surprised. There were lots of tense moments throughout our 10 days of filming between the Japanese and American team members. The three Japanese members were younger than us and had no journalism qualifications whatsoever; they were just employees of some Tokyo production company, not reporters. Scott Gorman and I had had more seniority, both age-wise and in the news field, and we did use that seniority often during our shooting schedule to keep things journalistically honest, which no doubt went unappreciated among our less-experienced brethren from Japan.
(And in the interest of public disclosure 20 years later, toward the end of our filming leg in the USA, Gorman and I did conspire among ourselves on how we might liberate and rescue all the “Dark Alliance”-related video footage we’d shot from a possible editorial death on the cutting room floor in Tokyo, and maybe use that footage instead to make a hard-hitting documentary film of our own on the issue in the States. But that conspiracy, dear readers, is another story for another time.)
In May 1997, just one month after our TV program on drugs bombed out in Japan, the hammer fell at the San Jose Mercury News in California. The newspaper abandoned the “Dark Alliance” investigation and essentially hung its star reporter, Gary Webb, out to dry. The “Dark Alliance” website itself was pulled down not long afterward. It was all over. Webb left his news company in disgust by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Scott Gorman, back in Washington state, had become managing editor of an online news magazine called REALNews. Gorman kindly offered to help salvage something of our “Dark Alliance”-related interviews by publishing our joint analysis of “Dark Alliance” and its significance to journalism in the new age of the Internet. REALNews later went defunct, but that analysis survives today as one of the first of its kind to recognize the long-term importance of “Dark Alliance” in the digital age of journalism.
I still had Gary Webb’s business card, though, and I kept in touch with him by e-mail, offering whatever long-distance sympathy and support I could as a fellow journalist in the ranks of the newly independent, for what it was worth. I told Webb that if he could somehow pay his own way over to Japan, I would try to use my connections over here to help set up a paid speaking tour for him in Japan concerning his “Dark Alliance” investigation and make sure his accommodations were taken care of while he was in the country. Webb thanked me in reply but politely declined my offer, saying that under his new job as investigative writer with the California state government, he was not allowed to accept outside remuneration. In hindsight, I should have realized the real reason — that Webb was going broke at the time and had no extra money to be flying anywhere.
It was encouraging, though, to hear a year later that Webb got full his “Dark Alliance” investigation published in book form by the New York-based Seven Stories Press. Of course, I ordered a copy of it here in Japan and devoured every word.
The last time I ever heard from Webb personally was some time in 1999, when he let me know in an e-mail that Seven Stories Press was coming out with a paperback version of his book Dark Alliance, and that I might want to pick up a copy, since it contained a lot of new information. And with the future looking bright once again for the journalist that the U.S. media establishment had tried so hard to discredit, I moved on and mentally wished him all the best.
Five years later in 2004, I happened across a news article on the Internet that referred to Gary Webb in the past tense, as “was”. No, I thought, it can’t be. But it was true, and Webb was found dead at age 49 of two gunshot wounds to the head in his Sacramento, California home. The date of his departure: 10 December 2004 — seven years to the day after he had left the San Jose Mercury News.
Like many of his colleagues in journalism I felt devastated, and overwhelmed by a personal and professional sense of loss. I still do. And the real loss, of course, is as much for the public as it is for the journalism community.
I can’t say that Gary Webb was a close friend. I can’t say I knew him well or that we worked closely together. And I can only imagine the deep despair he found himself in, a few years after enduring the sustained assault on his credentials by those in a profession to which he devoted his life. But as one who has worked in the media field for some years, I do know a very important news story when I see one and I do recognize a damn good journalist when I meet one. And Gary Webb was the best journalist I’ve had the honor to personally know in my lifetime.
Webb’s seminal work, the “Dark Alliance” investigation, has stood, and will continue to stand for many years, the test of time as a classic, high-quality work of journalism. And in a way that I wish could have turned out so differently, Webb and his laudable work will have the last word on it all. Of that much, I am certain.
In the post-“Dark Alliance” world of corporate-created news cycles, pompous press personalities and media self-censorship in the United States, the challenges remain as daunting as ever for those among us who still feel some sense of responsibility to the higher purposes of journalism and to take the kind of risks Gary Webb took in getting the facts and the truth out to the people. Twenty years after “Dark Alliance”, the real work, in many ways, begins now.
Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (2)
The three of us were getting our suitcases together when, suddenly, a big German shepherd dog appeared out of nowhere and was in front of me, aggressively sniffing at my ankles (apparently in search of some drug stash hidden in the socks, the oldest trick in the book).
I love dogs, but the sight of this unfamiliar canine blocking my way visibly startled me. The plainclothes agent holding the dog’s leash said something like, “Don’t worry, he’s just smelling you”, but I was still frozen momentarily in fear. The dog checked our bags and we got a pass from the drug agents, who disappeared as quickly as they had come. Man, I thought, they really are paranoid about drugs in this country. I also wondered at the time if the drug agent, a Caucasian, would have tried to reassure me like he did had my skin color been a darker shade of brown.
Our next big surprise was just outside the terminal doors at JFK Airport. There, we were met by Scott Gorman, a big, bearded bear of a guy who was living and working in Washington state as an independent journalist. I had invited him on to our project as the paid guide, driver and overall Stateside coordinator for the 10-day filming excursion of a planned Japanese TV documentary on the issue of drugs for our five-member Japanese/American team.
Gorman opted for making a big opening splash and, to our surprise, he had reserved a long, white limousine during our two days of filming in New York. So, we headed off on the expressway into Manhattan in style — the first and last time I had the pleasure of riding in a limo.
Through the Camera Eye
Our very first destination for filming the next day: a walk-in drug recovery clinic at 23 St. Marks Place in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City. There, we filmed heartbreaking stories of otherwise decent people from all backgrounds who were strung out on one narcotic substance or another and just in off the street, looking for a place to “dry out” before they could move on to a formal drug treatment program. These people’s wrecked lives struck me as the undeniable evidence of the failure of America’s so-called “war on drugs”.
This building with the drug clinic also happened to be a piece of countercultural history: It was once the home, back in the late 1960s to early 1970s, of the “Electric Circus”, a nightclub and multimedia event space where all the big names of American underground music and art hung out and performed. As we trudged up and down the faded psychedelia-colored stairway inside the old building, I had the distinctly eerie feeling of music, people, lights filling the now-deserted rooms. There were some old ghosts still lingering in that building, to be sure. By the time we got there in 1997 to film for our Japanese TV documentary, however, the old Electric Circus building was a near-forgotten relic of the past that was being used in part as a drug recovery clinic.
A few days later on Wednesday, 12 February, we were in downtown San Francisco, California, filming at the Cannabis Cultivator’s Club on Market Street. The issue of medical marijuana was a hot one at the time, and the U.S. government was coming down hard on doctors, patients and anybody else, including in “liberal” California, who went afoul of strict federal U.S. drug laws in daring to use marijuana even for healing purposes. We got a lot of great footage at the smoke-filled Cannabis Club of people legally toking up and buying plastic baggies of weed over the counter, just like you would at a drugstore.
By noon that day, we were set up in a classroom across town at City College of San Francisco, where we were going to film a quite different angle of the so-called drug problem: a special guest lecture by Gary Webb, the San Jose Mercury News reporter. At long last, I was going to see him in person. Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series on the CIA-contra-crack cocaine connections had been out six months by this time, yet the public outrage had still not died down. The Big Three newspapers — the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times — had already trashed the “Dark Alliance” series and run defense for the CIA, taking great pains to try and destroy Webb’s credibility as an investigative journalist in the process.
But as we soon found out for ourselves, half a year after “Dark Alliance” had been published, crowds of people were still gathering to hear Webb speak and were still angry at the prospect of the U.S. government having had a hand in the crack cocaine outbreak of the 1980s. And they were also angry about the way the U.S. corporate media had treated Webb and his big story. The classroom at CCSF that day was filled to capacity with 100 or more students, and even though it was a beautiful, sunny day outside and it was noontime, the students opted to skip lunch and stay indoors to hear what Webb had to say. There was a buzz of excitement in the crowd as the students waited for Webb’s arrival.
We had a camera and sound machine set up in the back row of the classroom by the main doors, and soon in walked Gary Webb with Juan Gonzales, head of the CCSF journalism department. Looking every bit the image of the overworked journalist, with his shirt sleeves rolled up and his necktie loosened at the collar, Webb was introduced to me. He expressed some surprise at my having come all the way from Japan, smiling as we shook hands.
Webb spent the hour or so with CCSF students that day walking through the “Dark Alliance” story, how he chased it down and where things stood at that point, then taking questions from the audience. There was a lively exchange of opinion, and Webb was warmly received by the audience. At the end, we interviewed some of the students as they filed out of the classroom. African American students were particularly incensed over the “Dark Alliance” controversy, as well they should have been, since it was their communities that were hardest hit by all the crack cocaine that had inexplicably flooded into cities across the United States a decade before.
The next day, 13 February, we drove up north to interview Gary Webb face to face at his Mercury News Sacramento bureau office, located in the press building just across the street from the state capitol complex. Webb kept us waiting for a while, and when he finally did show up, he came in casually attired in faded blue jeans, a tieless shirt with rolled-up sleeves and in tennis shoes, as if he had just gotten up (which he probably had). I have to confess: I wondered at that point if we would get a usable interview from him. But any doubts I may have harbored were soon dispelled as the camera rolled and Webb took all our questions in stride. And they were not all softball questions, either. Our coordinator, Scott Gorman, who did the interviewing, occasionally put Webb in defensive mode. But Webb handled all the questions forthrightly and directly, and gave us what I thought was a great interview.
Gorman, in fact, had put it plainly to me at one point during our filming trip in the U.S. that he was “not as enamored” with the whole “Dark Alliance” affair as I was. It was a hard sell, even among our film crew: I wasn’t “enamored” with anything, I had to explain. I just felt strongly that if we were going to be doing a serious documentary on the so-called drug problem, then at some point we would have to include U.S. government complicity in the global drug trade as part of our report. And Gary Webb had documented precisely that kind of complicity in his “Dark Alliance” series. As far as I was concerned, Webb’s story had to be a vital part of our planned documentary — or any documentary on the subject of drugs, for that matter.
We ended the interview with Webb that afternoon by asking him about what was next for “Dark Alliance”. He answered that there was “a lot more information” about the CIA-contra-crack connection to be reported and that his newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, was planning to run two additional follow-up stories that he had already written. Webb would go on to do a total of four follow-up stories to the initial three-day “Dark Alliance” series.
After the formal interview with Webb that day in his cluttered Mercury News office, we invited him out to lunch with us. I was dying for some good homemade Mexican food at this point (having been deprived of such pleasures while living in Japan), but knowing that the Japanese palate was often too tender for such spicy and heavy cuisine as Mexicana, we took the three other Japanese crew members to a nearby Chinese restaurant instead. There, Gorman and I continued to talk with Webb in a more relaxed and open way about the “Dark Alliance” investigation. It was a rare treat for us. On less serious topics, like music, Webb talked about rock musician Frank Zappa, whose music he apparently dug.
After lunch, we all walked across the street to the state capitol complex and filmed some final scenes of Webb conducting his research on a microfiche machine in the state capitol library. We said our goodbyes there, and as the five members of our Japanese/American team headed back toward our rental car through the tree-lined lanes of the state capitol grounds in Sacramento, I couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow the worst was yet to come for Gary Webb and his “Dark Alliance” investigation. To this day I can’t explain why it all hit me that way, but as events later played out, my gut instinct was proven right.
Straight to the Source
Before we left Sacramento that evening, however, at my request we contacted Webb for one more favor — a big favor that I knew he was likely to turn down: We asked him to let us talk directly to his prime source in the “Dark Alliance” story, Coral Talavera Baca. She was the one who had first tipped Webb off to the U.S. government connections to the Nicaraguan drug dealers who had, in turn, helped fuel the crack cocaine outbreak in inner-city Los Angeles back in the 1980s. Webb said he would run our request past Talavera Baca, and get back to us.
The reply soon came. To my great surprise, they said yes. I guessed that at that point, having endured the American corporate media onslaught against “Dark Alliance” and all the U.S. government denials about the CIA and crack cocaine, Webb and Talavera Baca probably felt they had nothing left to lose by sharing their story with a TV film crew from faraway Japan. Whatever their reasons were for accepting our request, I knew that we were getting access into the inner sanctum of the “Dark Alliance” story that no other press company, certainly not in the USA, was getting at the time. This was indeed an exclusive — the first public interview that Coral Talavera Baca would do in relation to “Dark Alliance”.
I also knew that Webb was also violating the unspoken rule in the news business of never sharing your prime sources with other journalists. It was a universal thing in the news business: When you had a big story, you kept your sources close to you and usually did not go around sharing them with other reporters. I myself had refused to share sources in Japan in the past when I worked for Japanese newspapers. The magnanimity of Webb’s gesture in our case was not lost on me, at least, and my professional respect for him rose a notch higher.
What kind of interview would we get from the woman who had lit the fuse that led to the national and international firestorm that was “Dark Alliance”? We headed early the next morning back down to the San Francisco Bay Area, where we would soon find out.
(continued in part 3)
Remembering ‘Dark Alliance’ (1)
As we walked into the store that late afternoon, my eye caught a set of free newspapers sitting on a small vertical rack on the sidewalk just outside the shop. I paused to browse through them. They were local African American community newspapers, and a front-page story on one of them immediately pulled me in.
It was a story about a recently held town hall meeting organized in Los Angeles by Ms. Maxine Waters, a representative of the U.S. Congress whose district covered this part of the city. She had brought a special guest to speak directly to her constituency: a reporter I had never heard of, Gary Webb, who worked for a newspaper I knew well, the San Jose Mercury News of northern California.
I read on, literally glued to the spot, and waved my wife and son on into the store ahead of me. As I stood in front of the store reading the article, everything around me was tuned out, even the noise of traffic on busy Melrose Avenue and passersby on the sidewalk. The newspaper article reported about how the journalist, Gary Webb, had published just the month before a three-part series in the Mercury News that linked the crack cocaine outbreak in the United States with the contras, a right-wing paramilitary force in Nicaragua sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the 1980s, back when actor-in-chief Ronald Reagan was president of the USA.
The CIA and crack cocaine? How come I never heard of this? I wondered. I had left the corporate newspaper business in Japan for good the previous year in 1995 and was admittedly out of the loop on things, but this seemed like a major issue. Why hadn’t I ever heard anything about it in the Japanese press — or even in the American press, for that matter?
Before I realized it, the sun was slowing sinking and lights were starting to come on. I put the newspaper back in the rack and made a mental note to myself to pick it up again when we left the store. And that’s just what I did. Later that evening, when I had time to sit down and read through the whole story, the sense of shock sank in even more deeply.
It was shock not so much at the thought of the CIA being linked to drugs — there was a documented history of that, after all — but more like shock over a U.S. government connection to a major social problem that had literally devastated Black communities all across America, as the outbreak of crack cocaine use and abuse had done in the 1980s and 1990s. Now the powerful truth was finally starting to come out.
And that’s how I first encountered “Dark Alliance”, one of the most important news stories in decades: not from the big U.S. corporate press companies (which were mostly ignoring the story at that early stage), but by Black news media across the U.S., which were all over “Dark Alliance” from the beginning. It was really due to them that I had come across this story at all.
Today, 18 August, and the next two days, arrive exactly 20 years on the calendar since Gary Webb’s three-part “Dark Alliance” series was published in the San Jose Mercury News, leaving its indelible mark on the world. Many things have happened since then, and at this point in time it seems appropriate to stop and reflect on all the events of two decades ago, and to share a few insights from my own humble place in the broader “Dark Alliance” saga.
I’ve gone on to write quite a lot about “Dark Alliance” and Gary Webb over the years, but this time, in commemorating both the story and the journalist at the 20-year mark, I’d like do something I’ve never done before and write about it more from the personal side: the impressions, thoughts, feelings I had about covering “the story about the story”, what it all meant to me personally and professionally, and why it remains so relevant to me and a lot of other people all these years later.
Getting on the Case
Once my family and I returned from our vacation to Japan later in September 1996, I kept my eye out for any word in the news about that story, “Dark Alliance”, and its author, Gary Webb. Not a thing about it appeared in the press here in Japan.
Then, a couple of months or so after we got back home, a door opened. I was asked by a Japanese photojournalist friend of mine, who was then working for a television production company in Tokyo, to join in the making of a planned TV documentary about the “drug scourge” in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. The documentary was to be broadcast on TV Tokyo, one of the major television networks in Japan, during prime time. I jumped at the chance, and knew right away what story I would push for as part of that documentary: the “Dark Alliance” investigation that I remembered reading about in front of Spike Lee’s store back in L.A only a few months earlier.
I then contacted Scott Gorman, an independent journalist based in Anacortes, Washington state, to be the Man Friday — the person on the ground back in the U.S. who would help us put it all together. I had recalled briefly meeting Gorman a couple years earlier in Osaka, Japan, when he was visiting on some kind of foundation-sponsored trip, and sent him an e-mail. In my pitch to him about the planned Japanese TV documentary project, I wrote:
One off-the-wall idea…is interviewing Gary Webb of the San Jose Mercury News, the intrepid reporter who recently exposed the CIA-contra-crack connection, to get his version of the sordid tale. My reasoning is that since politics and narcotics are so hard to separate these days, it is essential for a serious documentary on drugs to cover a government’s role in such a mess.
Luckily, Gorman took the bait, and we now had a team — and a lot of work to be done under demanding conditions. I thought of it as one of those situations that was almost destined to happen. The stars seemed perfectly aligned. All the connections and chance occurrences of the past few months and years seemed to be falling right into place. After 10 years of working for newspapers in the U.S. and Japan, I had recently quit the corporate news business and was now ready to prove myself as a journalistic free agent. The Japanese TV documentary project came along at the best possible moment, and I was passionate from the outset about getting coverage of “Dark Alliance” into our video report.
So, we started the gears moving on the project and soon were ready to begin our 10 days of traveling and filming in several U.S. cities, both on the east and west coasts, in early February 1997. The night before I was to catch my flight from Tokyo to New York, I got my first-ever view of something called a “website” on the computer of my Japanese photojournalist friend, the only person I knew in Japan who even owned a personal computer equipped with such high-tech functions at the time.
I gave him a website address I had jotted down, and soon saw for the first time what it was that had been causing all the uproar over the CIA and crack cocaine back in the USA. Slowly, as the image rolled down the pitch-black screen from top to bottom, there in all its glory was the stark image of a man smoking crack cocaine behind the official seal of the CIA. “Dark Alliance — The Story Behind the Crack Explosion” read the dark-red letters in typewriter font. And there was the reporter’s name, Gary Webb, the guy I had read about in that newspaper article in front of that store in L.A. some months before.
I sat there in front of the computer transfixed, as much by the advanced technology of these new things called the “World Wide Web” and the “Internet” as by the realization that I was witnessing the future of journalism right before my eyes. And all the way on the flight from Tokyo to New York, all I could think about was us getting to California in a few more days to interview that newspaper reporter and get his “Dark Alliance” story on tape so that TV audiences in Japan too could be exposed to the latest U.S. government connections to the underworld of international drug trafficking. I took it as something of a personal mission of mine to help get the “Dark Alliance” story out to the Japanese public.
But if I had bothered to look out at the vast night sky on that long overseas flight, I might have noticed just one or two stars that were not quite aligned. Fate, as they say, sometimes makes its own calls despite the best of well-laid plans.
(continued in part 2)
Peace Be to Brother Ali
The comparison between the two men is perhaps an apt one, since Mandela, as a former head of state, was truly a People’s President, while Ali was a genuine People’s Champion in every respect. Both men rose to the heights of glory in their respective fields in their own countries, yet maintained a love of their people and of humanity, and were deeply loved and respected in return.
One thing that strongly impressed me was how many of Ali’s accomplishments actually came outside of the boxing ring, not only within it. We all remember about Muhammad Ali refusing to be drafted into the U.S. war on Vietnam and being stripped of his boxing title, forcing him out of boxing from 1967 to 1971 as he appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won.
But how many of us remember a decade later in early 1981, before Ali formally retired from boxing at age 39 later that year, when he successfully saved a distraught man in the U.S. from taking his own life? In the late 1980s, Ali also spoke out in support of the Palestinian people in their intifada against Israel, and he went to Sudan to draw the world’s attention to famine victims there.
The 1990s opened with Ali traveling to Iraq and successfully getting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to release U.S. hostages — an action that drew a swift rebuke from the White House under then-US warmonger-in-chief George H.W. Bush. Twelve years later, as Bush’s son George Jr. was in the White House and busily waging war on Afghanistan under the newly declared “war on terrorism,” Ali traveled to that country as an official United Nations Messenger of Peace.
Muhammad Ali took an active part in 1998 in the global “Stop Torture” campaign by the UK-based human rights organization Amnesty International regarding the use of stun belts on American prison inmates — one of many such very public activities by Ali, both within and outside the US over the years. In short, Ali was never really out of the public spotlight for most of his adult life, and he used his status as celebrity well. He served humanity. And I was so glad to see that upon his passing, the world remembered and honored that part of his life as being equally important as his many feats in boxing.
I can still clearly remember the words of a friend of mine from my university days back in the mid-1980s, during a conversation he and I were having one day about Muhammad Ali. He noted Ali’s special place in the African American community: “Brian, I can’t tell you how proud Black people are of Ali”. Looking back now on Ali’s eventful life, it’s easy to see why he elicited such pride and just how deeply that pride ran.
We can see from early on in Ali’s career an athlete with a moral conscious in the making. Check out this great interview of a young Cassius Clay by writer Alex Haley for Playboy magazine in 1964, and you’ll see what I mean. (Haley, later of Roots fame, was the one who put the so-called “Playboy interviews” on the map and gave the magazine some much-needed credibility over the years.)
Then there was Muhammad Ali and his closeness to figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and his outspoken criticism of racism in American society.
Ali denied around that time that he had thrown away his lucrative career in boxing by taking a principled stand against being drafted in the U.S. war on Vietnam: “I haven’t thrown it away. I haven’t lost it. I’m going to say I turned it down,” Ali responded to a British interviewer. “See, the greatest sports title means nothing, mister, if you cannot be free. Boys in Vietnam are throwing away, you may say, their lives. I haven’t did that much. I’m still living. They are dying today to free somebody they don’t know. So, what in the hell is a heavyweight title, and a few stinky [U.S.] dollar bills, for my people’s freedom?”
Ali spoke those powerful words in the 2014 documentary film I Am Ali. See that movie, if you haven’t already, and another exceptional documentary film from 2013, The Trials of Muhammad Ali.
To catch another more personal side of Muhammad Ali in the later years of his boxing career, I encourage you to also watch this episode of the popular U.S. television show This is Your Life, filmed in Britain with Ali as the guest of honor. Ali was a man rarely at a loss for words, but this TV program caught him with his guard down a bit and literally speechless at times. The show was a wonderful tribute to Ali’s life up to that point by those who knew him best.
Ali left behind a lifetime of praiseworthy efforts, both in and out of sports. The Muhammad Ali Center that he and his wife established 10 years ago in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, USA guarantees that his legacy will be carried on in ways that he wanted.
What is left then, to say, about someone who personified the word greatness in his lifetime, who seemed larger than life itself? Many tributes have poured forth for Muhammad Ali in the wake of his passing from those of the Muslim faith and beyond. Anything I would have to add to those fine tributes would be trivial by comparison.
But since it comes from the heart, just let me close by saying: Peace be unto you, elder brother Ali, and a safe passage on your journey from here onward. The world you have now left behind will never, ever be the same. And I have no doubt that you’ll leave an even grander, more everlasting mark in the Big Boxing Bouts in the Sky.
I never met professor Ben Bagdikian in his lifetime, though I had always wanted to. So I did the next best thing: Over the past few years I introduced his classic book The Media Monopoly (the updated version) to students of my own journalism courses at the university where I teach in Kyoto, Japan.
But recently I realized I had known little about Bagdikian’s personal background, his family history and how he came to be the respected journalist and professor he was. What kind of price had he paid to get to that high place in journalism? I wanted to find out.
A few months ago, then, I bought a copy of his post-retirement book Double Vision: Reflections on My Heritage, Life, and Profession and added it to my (ever-rising) stack of books that I intend to read in the near future.
As it turned out, Bagdikian beat me to the punch before I could start on his book. The news traveled quickly on the Internet on March 11 that Bagdikian had passed away in the United States at age 96 — four years shy of a whole century.
And what a life he had. His family was among the Armenians who had escaped genocide at the hands of neighboring Turkey in 1915 and who had resettled on the east coast of the USA, starting life from scratch. Newly arrived Armenians on both the east and west coasts of the U.S. had a tough time of it in those days, being the target of ugly racism in American society.
Bagdikian later went into local newspaper reporting in the U.S., harboring a sense of social justice. As a young reporter, he said, he relished covering the local beats and interviewing the kinds of people that most other American reporters wouldn’t waste their time on. Bagdikian got in hot water with one newspaper he worked for in the 1950s, the Rhode Island-based Providence Journal-Bulletin (reportedly the oldest continuously published daily paper in the U.S.) by supporting the editorial staff’s demand for a new labor union branch at the paper.
He later reported on the “Little Rock crisis” in 1957 in Arkansas, as U.S. army soldiers had to be called to escort nine African American students into a racially integrated high school. Bagdikian recalled getting interviews and good stories that many of his competitors in other news outlets were simply missing in Arkansas.
A decade later, as an independent journalist, he was writing a column for the esteemed Columbia Journalism Review, the voice of the media establishment in the U.S. His final CJR column in 1967 was about the Washington Post and how it lacked greatness as a big-city newspaper. The Post responded by contacting Bagdikian and inducing him to essentially either put up or shut up, offering him a job as a high-ranking editor on the paper’s national news desk. Bagdikian took the offer. Having him on staff would prove to be a mixed blessing for the Washington Post.
Just a few years on in 1971, Bagdikian served as the conduit for whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to get the Pentagon Papers published in the Post. The documents Ellsberg had gathered showed the lie behind the United States' reasons and rationale for waging war on the sovereign nation of Vietnam.
Depending on whose version of the story you believe, the top people at the Washington Post were either boldly determined to go ahead and publish Ellsberg’s documents or they were hesitating to publish the documents for fear of reprisal by the corrupt Nixon administration.
But what most accounts of the Pentagon Papers generally agree on is that the Washington Post lawyers were strongly advising their client not to publish the Pentagon Papers and that Ben Bagdikian, the paper’s national news editor at the time, was pushing for the Post to keep its promise to Ellsberg that it would print the documents. At question was whether or not the Post even had the legal right to publish such confidential reports. “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish” was Bagdikian’s argument, and the paper soon did. The rest is history.
Bagdikian became the Washington Post ombudsman after that, and ended up leaving the paper a year later in 1972. By 1976, the Post was embroiled in a labor union strike by its own employees — a strike Bagdikian publicly endorsed. Post publisher Katharine Graham, in her 1997 memoirs, recalled how she had fired off a memo to then-Post executive editor Ben Bradlee about their former charge and his support for the strike. Graham’s memo read in part:
I am really embarrassed to think that this ignorant biased fool [Bagdikian] was ever national editor. Surely the worst asps in this world are the ones one has clasped to the bosom.
But Graham’s elitist eloquence was no match for Bagdikian’s journalistic street credibility, and he went on to an even greater career as a professor and media critic of big news corporations like the Washington Post. His book The Media Monopoly, updated over the years as fewer and fewer mega-corporations came to own and control the press, remains a classic work of media studies.
And so, with Bagdikian’s recent passing, his book Double Vision still sits here in front of me, waiting to be read for the first time. I will treasure reading it all the more now that he is gone, and as I do, I will remember a wise man who served us with a warning about the dangerous power of giant media corporations at a time when most people were scoffing at the idea.
After all the obituaries and reminisces have come and gone in the wake of his passing, I guess all that’s left to say from me is:
Professor Ben Bagdikian, thank you. It was an honor to serve in the same field as you and to share your ideals and concerns about this line of work. Your legacy will be carried on. And if there’s any divine justice up there where you are now, please have them send down a thunderbolt or two aimed directly at the headquarters of Fox News. Amen.
A Place Called ‘Motomenai’
But what most of the media here didn’t report in their brief stories on Kajima were the kinds of things I had gotten to know personally about him in recent years: how he had been among the up-and-coming literary figures in Japan after World War II, how he became a renowned scholar and translator of English-language classics (especially by the U.S. author William Faulkner), how he found a new form of expression in watercolor painting, and how, later in life, he rediscovered his Asian roots in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism and had become known as a respected Taoist philosopher in Japan.
You see, Shozo Kajima for me was a kind of mentor and a literary father — the kind any son would be proud of. And to think it all began with a single newspaper story and two books….
It was a late spring morning, a Saturday I remember, in 2008 when I opened the newspaper and read the English-language version of this story in the Asahi newspaper in Japan. It showed a bearded elderly Japanese man sitting in a windowed patio of his house with a wide vista of nature behind him.
The article said that his 2007 book Motomenai, a book of Japanese short poetry verses based on calligraphic paintings he had done, was a blockbuster in Japan, selling around 400,000 copies. It was especially popular among younger generations of Japanese readers, who apparently connected with the book’s subtle message of giving up the material clutter of life in favor of a more spiritually based existence.
Kajima had for years been living and working alone in a cottage in the rural Ina valley in Nagano Prefecture, near the Japan Alps mountain range, far from the urban madness of Tokyo, where he used to be based. These words by Kajima in the newspaper story caught my attention and made straighten up in my chair:
“It takes me five years to write a book of poetry. I have to wait for the high energy necessary to write poems and draw pictures. While I’m waiting, I lack all ambition. I waste whole days at a time. Art emerges from the unconscious. It doesn’t happen according to a plan.”
As something of a poet myself, I knew exactly where he was coming from. I had self-published my own bilingual (English and Japanese) book of poetry in 1999 titled Inochi, the Japanese word for “life”, and I never charged anyone a cent for the book. It was my first published book, and I wanted to write it purely from the heart and soul without any thought of making money off it; I donated any money I did receive for the book to charitable causes.
Why haven’t I heard about this bestselling book Motomenai? I thought to myself, as I read the newspaper article. And who in the heck is Shozo Kajima?
I bought the book soon afterward — a small, square-shaped book with a humble-looking cover — and carried it around with me throughout my busy day, reading the simple poems within it whenever I could. I instantly fell in love with it. Unlike most books of poems, here was one that really said something to me. I soon understood why readers all over Japan had connected with it too.
I decided to try and write to Kajima, tell him how much I loved his book, and send him a copy of my own book of poetry. But I could find no definite street address for him anywhere. So I just mailed it to the general neighborhood where he lived in rural Nagano Prefecture, hoping against the odds that the package would somehow find its way through the postal system to his rural home.
By some miracle, it did.
One day, not long afterward, I received in my home mailbox a reply letter from Kajima, brush-painted on traditional rice paper. Watashi mo anata no nakama da to kanjimashita, it read in Japanese: “I felt a kinship with you as well”. He invited me in the letter to make a trip to his home someday in rural Nagano Prefecture. I was humbled, to say the least, that he would even write back.
Making a long story short, I eventually did take Kajima up on his invitation in 2008, setting out by bus for half the day through a part of Japan I had never seen before. The bus wound its way through the majestic Japan Alps, awing me with the sheer natural beauty in abundance. I finally made it to Kajima’s spacious rural home, which also functioned as his personal library and creative studio space — Banseikan [Clear Evening Hall], as he had officially dubbed his two-story wooden quarters. I felt, somehow, like I had was being welcomed home again.
We agreed that I would translate his Motomenai book into English, and in the subsequent trips I made to the Banseikan, he and I would spend hours going over my translations poem by poem. It was not my first time to translate Japanese documents into the English language, but it was the first time for me to translate Japanese poetry into English, which turned out to be far more difficult than I had anticipated.
Kajima coached me well, telling me to forget a strict translation of his poems and aim for a very loose translation instead. “Make them your own”, he advised me one day, and from then on I did. My translations became more organic and naturally flowing, much like the fresh air and water of the mountains and surrounding farmlands that were his home.
In all I made three trips to visit Kajima up in the high plains of Nagano over the course of 2008 and 2009 to work on our draft of Motomenai. It was a wonderful way for me to spend a few days each time, just walking the country roads where he lived, photographing the rich natural scenery of the area, taking in the crisp, clean, mountain air, and watching the evening sun set over the Japan Alps on the other side of the valley from us. It filled my spirit with renewed energy and an even deeper love for the Earth.
One memorable evening after dinner, I never will forget: The conversation at Kajima’s dining table over tea casually turned to spiritual matters, and he asked me if I believed in the channeling of spirits. I said I did. That was how the calligraphic poems that became Motomenai were conceived, he told me: “They just kept coming to me, one after another, like they were being channeled through me by some force”. Over weeks and months, the inspiration for the poems had come through him and onto the paper, he said. He had never had such a profound experience before in all his years of writing. He was in his 80s at the time this all happened.
During the months that Kajima and I were working on my translated draft of Motomenai, the Tokyo-based English Journal, a monthly magazine geared toward young professionals and readers wanting to brush up their language skills, approached Kajima about publishing some of his Motomenai poems in a special series. He asked me to do it, as a first step in possibly getting the whole book published somewhere someday. I jumped at the chance.
So, for one year from spring 2010 to spring 2011, each monthly edition of English Journal magazine featured Kajima’s original Motomenai poems and watercolor paintings, along with my English-language translation of them. The CD that came with each issue of the magazine also featured audio tracks of my reading of the selected poems, which we had recorded in a professional studio in Osaka.
You can view images of the entire yearlong series of Kajima’s Motomenai poems, together with my translations, exactly as they appeared in the pages of English Journal, on this website’s POETRY page.
We eventually finished the back-and-forth work on the draft of his book Motomenai around that time. I was hoping that he would be able to find a suitable publisher for it in Tokyo, and looked forward to one day seeing it in print. I guess Kajima never did find that publisher, as I heard that a couple of years back he had suffered a stroke, which had left him bedridden and unable to create anymore.
And an eerie thing happened some time after that: On 25 December 2015 — Christmas Day — here in Japan, I remember waking up with a feeling of grief and deep sadness. It stayed with me the whole day, a blue mood that I just couldn’t get rid of: Where’s this coming from? Did someone I know die? I felt sure that some person close to me must have gone. I got on the Internet and checked, but found no deceased relatives in the States. As it turned out, I was looking in the wrong place.
The next thing I heard in early January of this year was the news media reporting in Japan about Shozo Kajima’s passing of old age. The obituaries placed his dying day as 25 December 2015 — the same day that I had inexplicably felt the death of someone close to me. Now I understood.
I heard from one of Kajima’s family members that he had died peacefully in bed, “almost like sleeping”. I was saddened beyond words to hear of his demise, yet comforted to know that there was no suffering for him at the very end.
Although I had joined Kajima only in the final years of his life, I was supremely grateful for having walked that last road partially with him. It changed me forever. The sadness of losing him, a source of so much creativity and wisdom, is somehow soothed by a feeling of enrichment within me in having known and worked with him as an apprentice of sorts, even for a short time.
Not long after the media reports of Kajima’s passing, he was constantly on my mind and one day it dawned on me where he actually was now. Out in my backyard, I had a silent conversation with Kajima, the way people sometimes do with lost loved ones. Well, you’ve finally made it to that place of “motomenai” you always wrote about, I said smiling. Where you are now, there’s no more wanting, no more desiring, no more material things. Now you’re at peace.
And to think it all started with just two books of poetry, Kajima’s and mine, which had unexpectedly brought us both together back in 2008 — books from two different generations of writers and so different in appearance and style, yet containing the same simple message: Life is the most precious thing of all. Treasure it and live it well.
Who knows? Maybe our English version of Motomenai will be published someday. I had wished all along that Shozo Kajima would live long enough to see the book printed up in his lifetime. But now he’s gone. With his departure, I feel a renewed sense of wanting to share with the world that treasure of a book that had moved and inspired so many people all across Japan.
And with a literary father’s help from a faraway place called motomenai, maybe, just maybe, I will get it done after all.
In the Spirit of John Trudell
His voice on the new CD now coming through my stereo speakers, right after his passing, seemed to cast things in a new light for me. It really felt for the first time like it was not him personally, but rather his spirit that was now doing the talking.
Coming from the Santee Dakota nation in the United States, John Trudell had a lot to say about First Nations issues and I was among many who had listened to him. I knew that he had helped organize the occupation of the former prison at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay starting in late 1969 to call urgent attention to Native issues; it was Trudell who had set up a broadcast from the island called “Voice of Alcatraz” and got the word out to the wider public through a local radio station. Trudell was a person who was good with words and could communicate naturally to an audience. Check out this interview by local Bay Area media around the time of the Alcatraz occupation to see what I mean.
Trudell served as the national chairman of the American Indian Movement from 1973 to 1979, some of the group’s most active and visible years. Trudell withdrew from AIM activities for a while after that and eventually made his way into musicians’ circles on the U.S. West Coast. Though not a trained musician, through music and spoken word recordings Trudell would find a way to keep his voice out there for the people to hear for the rest of his days.
Listen to a spoken word recording he put out just a few years ago, DNA — Descendant Now Ancestor, and you’ll see what I mean. He was a natural communicator and a serious spiritual thinker.
I always paid close attention to what Trudell had to say, ran his words and ideas over and over in my mind, thought about how they might apply to my own life. He had an influence on the way I viewed things, to be sure.
He talked about the difference, for example, between believing and thinking: Believing (which, he noted, contained the word “lie” within it) is a passive, almost mindless action, while thinking is an active, forward-moving action that makes you mentally challenge things. After hearing Trudell break it down like that, I never again used the words “I believe that…” or “I believe in…” to get my point across. That holds true even today. For me, it’s always “I think” or “My thought on that is…”.
Trudell also drew a clear distinction between power and authority. Authority, he maintained, was some entity outside of us that exerts control over our lives, such as the government, police, military, corporations, etc. Power, on the other hand, is something that is inside of us: will power, for instance, or mental and spiritual power. Power in its very purest form, Trudell pointed out, was something within each of us that we could tap into at any time — the power of life, the power of the universe, in other words. And once again, after thinking that concept through deeply, I came to understand what he was getting at. I am now much more careful in my own thinking and writing when dealing with any issues involving “the powers that be” or “centers of power” in society. True power indeed comes from within; authority is something that comes from outside.
A 2007 documentary film about him, titled Trudell, tells his story much better than I ever could. Check out the full film here or get a copy of the DVD for yourself and listen to what this man had to say. Likewise, I encourage you to listen to the various recordings he made over the years. His voice was, in many ways, the voice of us all.
“I’m just a human being trying to make it in a world that is very rapidly losing its understanding of being human,” Trudell used to say. Well, he’s in another world now, having left us to make sense of this world we’re still in. I honor the spirit of brother John Trudell, in both his past journey among us and his current journey beyond us, knowing that somehow we haven’t yet heard the last of him.
Healing for the Healer
He is also now, at age 89, bedridden and recovering from a severe stroke that he suffered about a year ago. He has come out of a coma, and with the help of qualified medical professionals and the love of his Buddhist students and colleagues, he is slowly learning to do basic things like move his body and speak words again.
The man who has given the better part of his life to sharing the Buddhist spiritual ideals to help heal that which ails us — our own fragile egos and selfish human desires, in other words — is now the one who needs some healing. Could we find some time and space in our busy lives for that?
I can. Master Thay (the Vietnamese word for “teacher”), as he is affectionately known, has been regularly in my thoughts and my nightly prayers since I, like many others around the world, received the jolting news that he had suffered a brain hemorrhage in November 2014. We seemed to hold our collective breath until word came that he would live after all, though just barely.
I look back on his life with humility and respect. This was the man who spoke out, like many other Buddhists in Vietnam, at the risk of their own lives against the U.S. genocide in their country during the Vietnam war (but which the Vietnamese people have always referred to as the “American war”).
During a trip to the United States in 1965, Nhat Hanh wrote and sent a letter to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., calling for him as a man of peace to join the masses of people worldwide who were raising their voices against the Vietnam war. “I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights,” Nhat Hanh wrote to King, “you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people.”
King understood. A Nobel Peace Prize recipient himself from just a few years before, King in turn nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the peace prize in early 1967. “[C]onferring the Prize on Nhat Hanh would itself be a most generous act of peace,” King told the Nobel prize committee in Oslo, Norway. “It would remind all nations that men of good will stand ready to lead warring elements out of an abyss of hatred and destruction. It would re-awaken men to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace. It would help to revive hopes for a new order of justice and harmony.”
The Nobel committee ended up giving nobody the peace prize that year — a sign, perhaps, of just how divided the whole planet was over the U.S. killing in Vietnam. In any case, Rev. King went on to speak out against the war, and was assassinated exactly one year to the day after he first did.
A few years later Nhat Hanh was barred from returning to his country, with the South Vietnamese government considering him a traitor of the highest order. Nhat Hanh spent most of his years in exile in France, where he went on to co-found Plum Village, a Buddhist meditation center and retreat that has been his home base ever since. (He later founded a few such Buddhist study/retreat centers in the U.S. as well, most notably the Deer Park Monastery in California, Blue Cliff Monastery in New York state and Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi.)
He also founded a publishing company, Parallax Press, for helping to spread the word of the Buddhist teachings, and in so doing, has gained a worldwide following of loyal readers, of which I proudly include myself. As a Buddhist (though not of the Zen school), I have always respected Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep understanding of the causes of human suffering — and the path of reflection and reconciliation that he wisely promotes as a positive way forward in his writings.
He was transferred from France to the United States for physical therapy following his debilitating stroke a year ago, and is reportedly making slow but steady progress. His loving circle of supporters call this progress his “continuation” — a beautiful way of putting it, I thought. The wise elder, in just being alive, is continuing his lifework one small step at a time. Read this emotion-filled update on Nhat Hanh’s progress as of a couple of months ago for the latest news on his continuation at a hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.
For those who would like to donate or contribute something tangible, as I have, toward Thich Nhat Hanh’s medical treatment and physical therapy, you can do so here. And if the spirit moves you, as it often does me, you can always send your own wishes and prayers for Master Thay’s recovery via the direct line (that is, your mind).
In the meantime, there is a treasure trove of information about Thich Nhat Hanh on YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet, and I encourage you to take a few minutes to read or watch them. One of the interviews I like best is one that U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey did with him a few years ago — one of the highlights of Winfrey’s long and storied career, in my opinion. (video version here) (print version here)
This blog space you are now visiting, dear reader, is not only a place where I can rant and rave about all the important goings-on of the world (which, as time goes on, I think are not really so important in the long view of things). No, this blog space is also intended to be a place where I can help send out some positive vibes to the people, and help spread a little love and light around whenever possible. And this is one of those times.
Thich Nhat Hanh stands as one of the great spiritual leaders of our time, and he has done it all with compassion, humility, perseverance and grace, and without resorting to philosophical dogmatism, religious fundamentalism or any other kind of “-ism”. All have been welcomed in his house, and many around the world — regardless of religious faith or spiritual belief — have indeed been healed in some way, thanks to his writings and spoken words.
Decades ago, when a world at war with itself most needed a gentle, wise soul of a healer, it got one in the person of Thich Nhat Hanh. Now that the healer himself needs healing, we can be there to send some back to him. Let us do so in whatever way feels right to each one of us, and make his “continuation” on this path of life that much more joyous in the precious time that this wise elder still has left with us.
Song for All Fathers
And there is really only one song I know, amongst all the songs I’ve ever heard in my life, that expresses the respect and love that we send to our fathers on their special day: “Song for My Father” by the late jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver.
The original version of “Song for My Father” was released back in 1964 on Silver’s famed Blue Note album of the same name, a true jazz classic. Silver related how the song was inspired in part by the African folk rhythms often played around the house by his father, John Silva, a musician who hailed from the island nation of Cape Verde off the west coast of Africa (and who graces the famous cover of that Blue Note record, as seen in the above clip).
As you’ll see if you do a search for the song on YouTube, an amazing number of artists over the years have done their own cover versions of “Song for My Father”. But the first one to cover it with words was apparently the late jazz vocalist (and former Santana rock band singer) Leon Thomas, who added some lyrics to the song, along with some jazz yodeling, on his 1969 album Spirits Known and Unknown:
If there was ever a man who was
Generous, gracious and good,
That was my dad —
Fast-forward to about 30 years later, and Horace Silver reclaims “Song for My Father” on his 1993 CD It’s Got to Be Funky, as sung by the ever-soulful vocalist Andy Bey, with a completely new set of lyrics:
Our mother’s love is real nice
But old Dad sacrificed
For us too
Let us give him his due...
Jazz singer extraordinaire Dee Dee Bridgewater took those same lyrics and offered up her own rendition of “Song for My Father” in the superb recording Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver, released in 1995. Silver even joined in on piano for this version of his famous tune, making it one of the more memorable moments in recent jazz history.
“Song for My Father” came back around full circle by the 21st century with yet another reworked version of the tune by Carmen Souza, a young singer from Cape Verde, the same country as Horace Silver’s father. Souza, singing in Portuguese, added new lyrics of her own to the song, telling of the joy she feels of a father’s return home after being away for so long at sea.
Horace Silver made his transition to the spirit world at age 85, just about one year ago to this very day. Thankfully, he lived long enough to see the song he originally composed as a dedication to his own dad so many years ago taken to heart by many people around the world since then. It’s one of those songs that has universal appeal — which makes sense if you think about, since every person in the world has at least one father (some of us have many of them).
So, if you’re looking for a warmhearted yet affordable gift for that special patriarch in the family, I can’t think of a better gift than sharing with them the Horace Silver tune “Song for My Father”, no matter which version of it you choose.
This blog piece, then, goes out to all the fathers out there — mine, yours and everybody else’s. Consider this write-up a song for all fathers, and feel free to share it with the papas and grandpas who have made a positive difference in your own life, just as many have in mine.
Much respect and love to them all on this day after Father’s Day!
An Outpouring Fit for a King
We all tend to take for granted just how influential such popular figures are in our lives until they are gone. But B.B. King, it seemed, had never been forgotten or taken for granted anywhere in the world. He was reportedly working and planning another tour up until just a few months before his death.
Just a few years ago he was the subject of a feature-length musical documentary, B.B. King: The Life of Riley, which was made by a filmmaker from Britain (home of some serious blues hounds). The film only now seems to be making it to movie theaters in the USA, so hopefully many people there will go and see it soon. The Life of Riley (Riley being B.B. King’s real first name) is perhaps the final testament and chapter to the blues king’s rich, long life and the legacy he now leaves behind. I recently got a copy of the DVD edition of the film, and it’s exceptionally well made.
You see, I have this thing about what I call The Great Ones in the world, those from various walks of life who leave such a deep impression on our minds, our hearts and our lives: They are, for me personally, an extended family-in-spirit. Nelson Mandela, Pete Seeger, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama of Tibet are just a few great souls that come to mind. I consider them all my fathers-in-spirit, and no son could be prouder of them or more humbled by their presence than I am. B.B. King, too, falls in that category for me. He was one of my fathers.
And apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way.
I had to smile when I saw a scene in the Life of Riley movie in which B.B. King’s manager said that King was “father of us all”. I smiled again when I recalled a live jam session that B.B. King had recorded back in 1990 in Japan with some younger, well-known Japanese blues musicians. The title of the record: B.B. King & Sons. Need I say more? In a sense we are all the sons and daughters of B.B. King and many other Great Ones, both living and departed. Those of us for whom the blues means so much are now mourning his passing as something very close to us.
But at the same time, there is much to celebrate in the life of B.B. King, and it has been a real joy for me over the past week since his passing to go back and listen again to some of those old recordings, reminding myself once just how fortunate I am to be living in times like these.
Live at the Regal from 1965 is the B.B. King album that most blues fans would probably point to as the seminal recording by the King of the Blues, one that especially got all the rock musicians of the day so excited. I too would recommend that one, but would also suggest checking out another live album for any B.B. King fans out there: Live in Japan, recorded during B.B. King’s 1971 Japanese tour at some of Tokyo’s biggest concert halls. For many years this record was available only in Japan; now it’s out on digitally remastered CD and available to the rest of the world. A real gem.
B.B. King — Live in Africa ’74 stands out as possibly the best-ever live video concert footage of King in his prime. It was recorded as part of the three-day, all-star “Zaire 74” concert held in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974 in connection with the big boxing fight there between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Luckily we can see the entire DVD here on YouTube. So, set aside some time and watch this masterful performance, and understand why there could only ever be one King of the Blues. Someday, someone is going to get wise and release this full live show on audio CD as well, though it hasn’t happened yet.
If the thought intrigues you of hearing B.B. King backed up live by a full philharmonic orchestra and one of the best American jazz-funk outfits — all at the same time — then you might want to check out the CD Royal Jam. It’s a 1981 live gig by The Crusaders (RIP, Joe Sample) recorded at Britain’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall auditorium in London and featuring B.B. King as special guest. You may have heard King classics like “The Thrill is Gone” a thousand times, but you’ll never listen to them quite the same way again after hearing this record.
Blues Summit from 1993 also stands out for me as one of the classic CDs from B.B. King’s later career period. This is an all-African-American studio recording session, pairing up King with a number of his peers from the old school of blues. For a studio recording, the atmosphere sounds live and raw from start to finish, with such a great vibe by every guest guitarist and vocalist. The track I dig most is the jam between B.B. King and blues guitar master Albert Collins on “Call It Stormy Monday”, the old T-Bone Walker tune. This turned out to be among the last recordings for Collins, who died later that year of cancer, underscoring even more the importance of this CD as a chronicle of modern blues music.
And capping it all off is the 2012 DVD The Life of Riley, with an accompanying two-CD soundtrack that spans King’s whole career. B.B. King was interviewed for this film just a few years ago at age 85, and in the movie he is alert, active and full of old blues stories to share. I’m so glad they got to make this film before he passed on. It’s a real cultural treasure, and we are all lucky to be the recipients of it.
As for myself, I got to see B.B. King live only once, and that was back around the mid-1990s at an outdoor concert at the Osaka Castle Park amphitheater on a hot summer’s evening. The local Japanese-Korean blues band Yukadan opened for King. It was a magical night I knew I would never forget; B.B. King, even at that age in his life, brought the house down.
More recently, about 10 years go, when my family and I were temporarily living in northern California, I had tried to get tickets for a one-night-only B.B. King concert at the local university but the tickets sold out before I could snag any. I still remember, though, the morning after that concert: As we were riding the city bus to go into town, we passed by a local chain hotel and there, in the hotel parking lot in all its glory, sat a big, brown tour bus emblazoned on the sides with the lettering B.B. KING. He and the band had been staying in the hotel just around the corner from us. It did cross my mind, just for an instant or two, to demand our city bus driver to immediately stop the vehicle so I could get across the street to B.B. King’s tour bus and seek out an autograph from the Maestro. I was sorry I had missed the show.
But I find myself today feeling deeply grateful, both as a son and as a fan, that I can join the global wave of affection that is being directed at B.B. King in the wake of his passing. A memorial page is now up on the official B.B. King website where anybody can post comments as part of that outpouring of respect and love befitting musical royalty. It’s a nice touch, and an appropriate way for the whole world to say a final goodbye to a true king. Maybe I will see you over there.
The Long Morning after Mandela
Has it really been one year already? These past 12 months have sped by, almost like they were one long morning after Mandela’s final rest. And who could ever forget the dramatic scenes we saw coming out of South Africa in the world’s media back then?
At the initial news of Mandela’s passing a year ago today, the whole world seemed to pause in unison, and turn its attention to the southernmost nation on the African continent. Coverage from literally every nation around the globe dominated the news pages and airwaves. South Africans poured out into the streets by the thousands to grieve and also to celebrate their beloved former president, Tata Madiba, the father of the nation.
Ten days of mourning for Mandela was officially announced by the South African government, which seemed to me — and probably most South Africans — as way too short a time for such a towering figure. The big memorial service for Mandela at the soccer stadium in Soweto township on 10 December was broadcast across the planet, and the scale of the event and the love and respect that poured out from both the South African people and the visiting dignitaries just took my breath away.
Mandela’s body lay in state for three days from 11-13 December, followed by the formal state funeral on 15 December with full military honors. It was, without question, the funeral of the century. There has never been one like it, at least not in modern times, and there is not likely to be a state funeral that ever equals it. It was deeply moving, and as I watched, I too could not help but join South Africans in shedding some tears.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation, the nation’s public broadcaster, was reporting around the clock, and I have to say that the SABC really outdid itself in its coverage. I followed as much of the SABC’s reporting of Mandela’s passing that I could on the Internet, hardly able to break away from it for even a minute.
Actually, for me, the SABC in itself was something to marvel at. I had to constantly remind myself that, yes, I was now watching public television in a democratic and free South Africa. That was because 20 years ago, when Mandela was still in prison, it was a much different story: The SABC was tightly controlled back then by the country’s small, white minority government and the public broadcaster served as little more than a shameless propaganda organ for promoting and perpetuating an illegitimate, mad-dog apartheid regime.
Now, under the Rainbow Nation of Mandela, the SABC announcers and reporters were from all the country’s races and backgrounds, they spoke in English, Xhosa and other South African languages, and without exception, they all did their jobs professionally and well. As a fellow journalist, I was feeling extremely proud of them.
By the time the formal state funeral wound to a close late in the day, with the cannon/21-gun salutes, military plane flyover and the lowering of Mandela’s casket into his family’s modest burial plot in the South African countryside of Qunu, I felt emotionally drained. I could just imagine how hard it was for South Africans to deal with it all.
During the 1980s and 1990s in Japan, I had joined South Africans and other persons of good conscience the world over in raising a voice — or in my case, using the power of the pen — to denounce apartheid, an evil that Mandela once accurately called an “indelible blight on human history”. With South Africa, I found my political voice and a renewed sense of higher purpose for using my writing as something other than just to make money. And this sense of purpose wasn’t only about South Africa: It also applied to human rights issues the world over — especially in my own country, the United States, which had (and still has) its own brand of apartheid to overcome.
Late into the evening (Japan time) when Mandela’s funeral day had come to an end, I knew I would not be able to sleep for a few more hours, at least. So I slipped out of the house and took a midnight walk alone, amid the brisk autumn chill, down the hill to a small farming community nearby where a traditional, unassuming Japanese Shinto shrine was nestled among the trees. There, I made my offering and prayers for Mandela’s spirit and for the good journey that he would be taking from here.
I remember that the next day, a Monday, when I stepped out into the warm bright morning, the world seemed to me an emptier place, a lonelier place, now that someone of Nelson Mandela’s high stature was no longer here in it. That same evening though, something unusual struck me as I scanned the night sky, lost in my thoughts: The dark sky was more illuminated by starlight than before, as if there more stars in the heavens at night after Mandela’s passing than there had been before.
My imagination at work? Probably so. But it was somehow comforting to think that perhaps Mandela, in his journey, was responsible for adding a few more extra stars up there in the panorama of night sky. And tonight, one year after his departure, as I again gaze at the sky on a very chilly autumn evening, I still feel that way. The days have somehow seemed emptier since Mandela bid us all farewell on his spiritual journey, but the nights have seemed to me so much fuller.
All of which leaves but only one thing to say to Baba Nelson Mandela after this past one year — the same thing I said alone at midnight at that Shinto shrine a year ago: Hamba Kahle, as South Africans put it — Go well. May we meet again. And may you keep those stars shining brightly up there in the heavens for a long, long time to come.
Blues for Brother Hilton
Tito Puente, the reigning mambo king on the timbales, had formed a new band, the Golden Latin Jazz All Stars, and was taking it on the road in the U.S. and overseas. A recording by the band released the year before, Live at the Village Gate, had been generating a buzz in the States and burning up my own CD player here in Japan for months. I dragged my wife along to the club with me, thinking I might never see the likes of this moment again. That turned out to be truer than I could have imagined.
For on the stage that night was a musical dream-team of some of the biggest names in the Latin jazz world. Leading the pack was Puente and, as special guest, the legendary conga master Mongo Santamaria from Cuba. It was incredible to see the two aging musical giants on stage together, especially when the band jammed on Santamaria’s classic hit “Afro Blue” and brought the house down.
But there were a couple of relatively young lions in the band — musicians representing my generation — who I had also come to see: Giovanni Hidalgo, then considered the baddest conguero around, and Hilton Ruiz, the piano player. I hadn’t known much about Ruiz then, but after that night at the Blue Note when his star had shone brightly on that stage, I became a permanent fan of his music.
Over the years I followed Hilton Ruiz’s releases on CD, including Hands on Percussion, which I loved. Ruiz always had an innate sense of groove and swing, which was due no doubt to his years of learning from and playing with some of the greats of jazz, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Mary Lou Williams.
I found over time that whenever I would have a Hilton Ruiz disc playing in the background, I’d just have to stop working or whatever I was doing and listen to him finish soloing on piano — and it almost always elicited the same kind of awed reaction from me: Damn, he’s right on it!
Admittedly, Hilton Ruiz didn’t have one of those instantly recognizable piano styles like, say, Horace Silver or Mal Waldron. But what did make Ruiz stand out among many other pianists on the jazz scene was his versatility in playing various styles of music and his infusion of some serious Nuyorican soul into the hard bop genre of old-school jazz. And Ruiz, to my mind, was undoubtedly at his best in a live group setting more than in a studio session, always holding the fort down and yet lifting the music up and letting it soar.
And so it was a major shock years later to find out that Ruiz had died in some kind of accident in New Orleans, the news of which was reported around the world at the time.
It seems that Ruiz had gone to a live jazz club in the city’s French Quarter one night in 2006 and was later found unconscious in the street nearby with serious injuries to his head and face. He never regained consciousness, and died at age 54.
The New Orleans police announced the death as merely the result of Ruiz falling down on the curb outside the jazz club and closed the case quickly. This raised suspicions that the New Orleans police department (some of whose officers apparently worked side-jobs as bouncers for that jazz club) were possibly involved in Ruiz’s death and now were covering it up. The police in New Orleans, after all, have never been known for being the most honest group of people around.
There were calls for an official investigation into his death. The family of Ruiz sued the jazz club, seeking the truth and justice in the courts. But it seems that nothing ever came of either of those efforts.
Hilton Ruiz’s death remains unsolved to this day, a “sad and mysterious” accident that extinguished one of jazz’s brightest lights. It has always been hard for me to conceive as dead someone whose music was so alive and so full of the passion and energy of life. I could never really reconcile that.
Yet though the man may be gone, his music has not been forgotten. A few years ago, Hilton Ruiz’s daughter, Aida, released some of her father’s final recordings on a CD, Hilton’s Last Note, a collection of New Orleans-inspired songs containing a soulful blending of Latin, African and French influences.
The CD’s liner notes also include these bittersweet words: “To Hilton’s friends, fans and lovers of Jazz: be consoled in the fact that although we lost him decades too early, his music will live on for all to enjoy. Those who caused his demise WILL be brought to justice.”
I had a chance to contact Aida Ruiz through the website she had set up for keeping alive her father’s legacy, shared my condolences with her, and assured her that the spirit of Hilton Ruiz’s music continues to live on even in faraway places like Japan. I was deeply moved to read this story, “The Life and Death of Hilton Ruiz”, in which Aida shared the tragic circumstances of her father’s death but also his richly lived life. I encourage you to take a few moments to read it too.
I’ve been listening recently to CDs of music by Hilton Ruiz and am still greatly saddened all these years later. Yet at the same time, I’m inspired anew by the gift of his music — and especially appreciative now that I got to see him on stage that night long ago at the Blue Note, truly a memorable moment in my lifetime.
Now, I’m not a musician by profession (maybe in my next life, if I’m lucky), but if I were, I’d compose my own final tribute to Ruiz by perhaps writing a song that goes something like this: a slow blues number that starts off as a lament or dirge mourning the passing of someone beloved in the family, then gradually growing in intensity and finally breaking into an all-out Afro-Cuban dance celebration in the true tradition of the New Orleans second line. A celebration, in other words, that gives the spirit of Ruiz a glorious send-off to that Great Jazz Gig in the Sky.
But since I’m merely a wordsmith, I guess I’ll have to settle for this blog piece as my way of paying tribute to someone whose lifework of creating musical beauty continues to mean something good to a whole lot of people in this world. So here it is: one for brother Hilton Ruiz. Long may his star continue to shine in the night sky.
The Year of Baldwin (1): Joining the Celebration
If Baldwin had been living among us today, he would have been heartened, I’m sure, to see his 90th birthday feted just a few days ago on August 2, and his legacy as one of the greatest writers of our time still recognized and warmly embraced.
Toward that end, a series of events commemorating “The Year of James Baldwin” has now kicked off in the United States, giving us the chance over the coming 12 months to remember and reflect on Baldwin’s legacy and, if we so choose, to rededicate ourselves to carrying on his passion for seeking/telling the truth and for getting socially involved.
The writings of James Baldwin have had an enormous influence on my own work, my writing and indeed my life, just as they have had with many others around the world. I tend to look at writers in general not as rivals or competitors, but rather as members of one big, extended family. In that sense, Baldwin occupies the honored place at the head of the table as one of my fathers in the world of writing.
A quick look at the overcrowded shelves of books here in my home in Japan, and I find Baldwin still well-represented there: Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), One Day, When I was Lost (1972), The Devil Finds Work (1976), Jimmy’s Blues (1983), The Evidence of Things Unseen (1985) and The Price of the Ticket (1985). In order to make space for newcomers, some of the books in my personal library have been removed and given away over the years, but Baldwin remains a permanent fixture among my collected books and always will be. His work is that important to me.
How so? Well, for one thing, especially in his nonfiction works, Baldwin cut through the crap and told it like it was. He never let America off the hook for its social ills — racism most predominantly among them — and he often disrobed American society of the sanctimonious self-image with which it seemed to wrap itself. I always respected Baldwin’s courage as a writer in confronting issues rather than retreating from them.
I may not have been Black or gay, as Baldwin was, but I have, like him, known the indignities of life and how hard it can be to raise your head unbowed to a world that seems to want to have nothing to do with you (whether for real or imagined). Yes, I’ve stood in the unemployment line too and had to clean toilets to pay the bills and get by. I too have been spat at, both literally and figuratively, in a search for something resembling acceptance and affection in this life. I’ve known the fireball of blind fury in the gut over the ignorance and injustices directed at me and others, known and unknown to me, who didn’t deserve it.
Baldwin let me know as a writer that I was not alone out there. The wretched of the earth were his brethren, and they became mine too.
It is sometimes said that Baldwin’s works were more heat than light — that he aroused emotions in his readers rather than enlightened them. And I think there’s truth in that. But what’s wrong with it? Every writer has a style, and Baldwin remained true to his way of writing without any phony pretensions of intellectual stuffiness and academic snobbery.
And if you focused only on the anger found in Baldwin’s writings, then you inevitably missed out on the love in them. For Baldwin often wrote of love and the desperate need for it: love for our own selves, love for the other, love as a liberating force, love as a sheer matter of survival. It’s all there in the many pages he wrote. He was a Lover with a capital “L”, the kind that really counts.
That’s why it’s so exciting and moving to see folks in the U.S. and elsewhere remembering Baldwin in his 90th year with all these special events and projects lined up over the coming months. Far from forgetting his enormous presence in the literary world, people are keeping his fire burning and carrying his torch onward.
And since it’s been a long while since I’ve dropped in on a really good party, especially one with some higher purpose to it, I’ve decided to join in these celebrations of The Year of Baldwin, even if from a distance, and honor Baldwin’s legacy in my own way over the coming year. Starting with this article, I will occasionally post on this blog page in the year ahead my own assorted thoughts, impressions and reviews of Baldwin’s works. Check back often to read them.
Acts of celebration
My first act of celebration starts right here: I’ve just bought an updated, recently published version of Baldwin’s 1955 classic book Notes of a Native Son, his first collection of nonfiction essays, and have begun rereading it and walking that road again. The journey has just started, and already it’s a fascinating trip. This passage from the “Autobiographical Notes” section of Notes of a Native Son jumps right out:
I do not like people who like me because I am a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
I want to be an honest man and a good writer.
Baldwin was brutally honest, with himself and with his readers, which is always the mark of a good writer. But he was much more than a good writer or even a great one — he was a universal writer, the kind that could connect with people like or unlike himself by the pure power of and feeling behind his words. Baldwin never believed his own bullsh*t, as the saying goes, and never expected you, the reader, to either. Honesty was his policy, and it worked. And for me, this about says it all: To be an honest man and a good writer — that is what I too strive for.
So, will you join me in celebrating The Year of Baldwin during this year ahead? Let us together delve back into some of James Baldwin’s past familiar works that have inspired us along the way, or even get into some of his works we’ve never read before.
On that latter score, some of Baldwin’s fiction writings that I had never gotten around to reading over the years — Giovanni’s Room, Another Country and Just Above My Head come to mind — are books considered today as international classics in the genre of gay literature. And since it would be impossible to know and appreciate the legacy of Baldwin without having read them, The Year of Baldwin provides an ideal opportunity to catch up on such long-respected works of his that I had long overlooked.
'The time that's left'
There is no shortage of works of Baldwin to be found online on the Web, so we can enjoy searching for and reading them. While you’re at it, check out this warm, recent piece by a nephew of Baldwin on his uncle’s love affair with life.
And if you can set aside some extra time to look around this website and watch a good documentary film about Baldwin and his life, all the better. PBS, the public television broadcaster in the U.S., offers a free showing of the complete 1989 film James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket. A Japanese version of this same film, titled 『ハーレム１３５丁目 〜 ジェームズ・ボールドウィン抄』(literally: “Harlem, 135th Street: Excerpts of James Baldwin”) was released in the mid-1990s in Japan, and I’ve still got that old VHS version in my video collection as well. Looking forward to going back and watching this superb film again sometime soon.
There was also an outstanding CD, titled A Lover’s Question (which I am listening to as I write these words), released back in 1990 and now apparently out of print, featuring Baldwin in the last years of his life. In it, Baldwin recites his some of his poems over soulful jazz music sounds; he even sings an a capella version of the beloved gospel song “Precious Lord Take My Hand”. You can listen to those CD tracks here at YouTube, as well as some audio and printed excerpts from that CD and an extended written interview with Baldwin at this website.
The liner notes of that CD contain some especially inspiring words from Baldwin himself that I will leave you with here:
I would like to use the time that’s left to change the world, to teach children or to convey to the people who have children, that everything is holy. I hope to suggest the possibility of a new vocabulary, of a new morality, by way of looking at the world.
Words, indeed, to live and die by. And with those words, it’s time for me to head off in joining a bunch of other people in joyously honoring The Year of James Baldwin. From here the celebration begins!
Goodbye, Hardbop Grandpop
As I was preparing to launch this new website edition with my tribute to Silver, I opened the pages of my morning paper, the international edition of the New York Times, over breakfast yesterday and was hit with this obituary of Horace Silver on page 2 of the paper. Although many fans and followers had been expecting such sad news about the aging and ailing Silver for quite a while now, his passing at age 85 in New York still came as something of a shock to me.
The maestro has really left and gone on to that Great Jazz Gig in the Sky.
There is so much to say here about the influence of this giant in the musical world, who still has a large following of international fans (including here in Japan and including myself), but the words don’t seem to come easily right now. So by necessity, this blog entry will have to be a short one.
But you can bet that in the coming weeks and months, I will have lots more to say about the magnificence of Silver and the treasured body of works he leaves behind for us. I cannot think of any one single musician who has had more of a positive influence on my writing (and on my life in general) than has Horace Silver.
So, do stay tuned to this blog page for more on my future tributes to the “Hardbop Grandpop,” as Silver was humorously nicknamed some years ago. (More details here on an outstanding album of that same name that Silver recorded back in the mid-1990s, one of his last recorded works.)
And in the meantime, I encourage you to check out Silver’s official website here for information about his life and work. It’s a great starting point if you don’t know much about him, and a great place to hang out for a while if you do.
Also, be sure to take a look here at the music review of a Silver CD on this website’s REVIEWS page that I had originally written up and was preparing to publish long before I got the news that he had passed on.
All that’s left to say at this point is simply: Goodbye, Hardbop Grandbop. Thank you for making the world a more bearable, beautiful and bright place through your music and inspiring approach to living life. You’ve checked out now, but the music remains here to remind us. And remind us it will — for many people around this great big world and for a very long time to come.
A Mourning Moment
If today I follow death,
go down its trackless wastes,
salt my tongue on hardened tears
for my precious dear time’s waste
along that promised cave in a headlong
to mourn for
This poem, “Mourning Grace” by writer/master storyteller Maya Angelou, comes to me as I take in the news that she has just passed away in the United States at age 86. I listen over and over to the voice of Angelou herself as she recites these brief but touching words from a recording she first made back in the late 1960s.
I mourn her passing as I also celebrate her memory. Her words have touched and inspired millions of people around the world, and I am no exception. She is one of the writers I include as members of my extended spiritual-literary family around the world who have helped clear the path and led me to become the writer I am today.
Her autobiographical book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is her most famous work, but of course there was so much more. I encourage you to check out her official website to find a more comprehensive legacy than you are likely to find in the news media, especially in the United States.
Speaking for myself personally: From Maya Angelou, I learned the power of words and how they can be used to hurt but also to heal.
The Poetry of Maya Angelou, an LP record that she made back in 1969 (later re-released on CD), pulls no punches when it comes to cutting white American society down to size like a precisely honed sword of truth. Angelou, especially in her younger years as a writer, seemed to suffer no fools gladly and if some of her words seemed overly harsh and cutting to the bone, I can respect the fact that someone, somewhere must have deserved the truthful wrath of her words.
In an old home-videotape recording from around 1989 that I still have (thank you Andrea Hedgley), Maya Angelou joins another well-known writer, Alice Walker, on the afternoon talk TV show of the young, rising media star Oprah Winfrey. Angelou jokingly talks on the show about how she once sliced her son’s pride with the sharp cutting-edge of her words, causing Walker and Winfrey both to kind of wince in response. Maya Angelou knew the real power of words.
On that same television program, Angelou had this to say (verbatim) on the topic of the “magic of writing” that had come up:
“I don’t mean, in my discourse on writing, to in any way diminish its magic. But I simply mean at the same time to say: It [writing] is no more magical than the art of laying bricks or running a family with some grace and some charm and some laughter and some love. ...At best, what we’re trying for, I think — all of us, if we have enough courage, I think what we’re all trying for — is to elevate whatever it is we do into that realm of magic. And the truth is, it is already there. It is recognizing how wondrous it is: how wondrous it is to be a parent or to be a daughter. How fantastic it is to be a friend. What, I could go on for hours on that alone!”
Maya Angelou used her words to help heal. I love this video clip of a few years ago about how she sees love as a liberating force for the human spirit. She knew, both from instinct and from the harsh experiences of her own life, that words can be a salve to heal deep scars and can help free the human soul.
A few months ago, as the world mourned the passing of South African leader Nelson Mandela, it was Angelou who wrote and recited this poem, “His Day is Done”, as an official contribution from the people of the United States for Mandela’s memorial celebration. (Interestingly, Angelou had first met Mandela back in the early 1960s in Egypt, at a time when Mandela was secretly traveling through African countries to gain monetary support and military training for a planned guerrilla army to fight the apartheid regime of South Africa.)
And looking at her official Facebook page, it seems that Angelou was still actively posting messages there even up to a few days ago, just before her own death. She was a true writer-warrior all the way to the end of her life.
I have many fathers in my extended worldwide family of writers, and Maya Angelou is one of my mothers in that family. I am truly grateful to have had the chance to live in the same period of history as so many great literary giants like her.
If today I follow death, she wrote nearly a half-century ago in that short, humble poem, would you have the grace to mourn for me?
Now that that the moment of her passing has indeed arrived and we must bid Maya Angelou farewell on her eternal journey, the answer to her question comes back in an emphatic YES: The world pauses at this mournful moment to respect and remember, to praise and to honor, this Phenomenal Woman of the written and spoken word.
Thank You, Pete Seeger
It does put a smile on my face to know, as this news story reports, that Seeger was still energetic enough to be chopping wood near his home along New York’s Hudson River even up to a few days before his passing.
There is so much to say in tribute to this great musician and human being, but since I have said it already on the occasion of Seeger’s last birthday, let me share with you again the words I wrote last May. You can find them here on my blog: “Old Folkie: Tribute to a Musical Treasure”.
All that’s left for me to add to are the words “Thank you”. Pete, you have, in your own way, made the world a much better place to live in and have shared with us all a rich musical legacy that we can all pass down to our children and grandchildren.
Thank you, Pete Seeger. I believe I can hear now some distant strains of “We Shall Overcome” being played somewhere in the far-off distant horizon, as you lead a heavenly choir in singing in full glory. It sounds so beautiful, I can’t wait to get there myself!
A Mandela Moment (2)
My first such Mandela Moment took place on 28 October 1990, a Sunday, when I had a chance to shake hands with the great man at a welcoming rally in Osaka, Japan just a few months after Mandela, then-deputy president of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), had been released from 27 years in South African prisons.
My second Mandela Moment a few months after that was just as memorable, if not more memorable, than the first one.
Some of us who had been active in the anti-apartheid movement in Japan were informed by Jerry Matsila, the South African head of the ANC based in Tokyo, that Mandela was scheduled to visit Japan again in May 1991. He had been invited by the Austria-based International Press Institute to be the IPI’s keynote speaker at the group’s annual international meeting, which was to be held that year in Kyoto, Japan. We were elated to hear the news; maybe we could organize another welcoming event for Mandela in Japan.
But it came with hitch: The Japanese Ministry of Justice was reportedly allowing Mandela to come into Japan on one condition — that he not make any public “political speeches” while he was in Japan. Any ANC fundraising events to be held in connection with Mandela’s Japan visit would be strictly off-limits.
Which was a strange condition, indeed. Mandela made headlines in whatever country he happened to visit, and his visits to foreign countries were always met with a warm reception and with big fundraising events. Why the cold shower from Japan this time?
We heard that Matsila, the Tokyo ANC representative, was enraged by the Japanese Ministry of Justice conditions on Mandela’s visit. Mandela had been invited by Japan’s government just a few months before in October 1990 as a VIP and given the royal treatment (though no monetary assistance for the ANC) while he was in Japan for a week. And now Japan was allowing Mandela to visit the country again, but essentially in secret and under the media’s and public’s radar? What was that?
Well, no matter. If Mandela couldn’t come to us, we would go to him. And if he was barred from being “political” in Japan, we citizens and residents of Japan certainly weren’t. We decided to give him a warm political welcome of our own when he arrived at the airport.
And so, during a weekday in mid-May 1991, seven months after I had met Mandela the first time, I had a chance to possibly meet him again. A Japanese friend of mine, Kyoko, who was not involved in the anti-apartheid movement but who shared an interest in South African culture and issues just the same, asked if she could come along too.
So there I was at Osaka (Itami) Airport with my trusty Minolta camera. My friend Kyoko brought along a bouquet of flowers that she wanted to hand over to Mandela personally, though I discouraged her from getting her hopes up too high. There was no guarantee that either one of us would even get close to Mandela.
But luck was with us. As it turned out, there were few or no members of the press there at the airport to report Mandela’s arrival that day; it seemed to be business as usual as people came and went through the airport terminal. The only visible sign, in fact, that a VIP was about to arrive was the big yellow banner reading NELSON MANDELA – WELCOME TO JAPAN that some of the Japanese anti-aparthed activists had made and were hanging over the second-floor balcony at the airport’s international arrivals section.
We waited and waited for what seemed like forever in the airport lobby, with people exiting the doors one after another.
Then the doors opened, and suddenly there was Mandela. He and his small entourage were on the other side of the waist-high railing and heading right toward us. He raised his fist in solidarity with the small crowd welcoming him. One thing you could always say about Mandela: The man knew how to make entrances and exits.
When he got within a few feet of us, I used Baba, the respectful South African (Zulu) word for “father” to get his attention. “Baba Mandela,” I called out to him. He looked over: “Yes,” he answered.
“Welcome back to Japan,” I said, with some pride at having been the first one to do the honors. “Thanks a million,” he replied.
I nudged my friend Kyoko, then I said to Mandela: “She has something she’d like to give you.” Kyoko handed her flowers to him, and he graciously thanked her and carried them on his way as he continued greeting others.
Undercover agents of the security police then escorted Mandela not through the front doors of the airport terminal, as we had expected, but out through a side door that led out into a parking lot. So all 25 or so of us made a mad dash out the front doors and around to the parking lot and watched from a respectful distance as Mandela waved in our direction.
He was just about to get into his specially appointed black car, when he did something unexpected: He turned away from his Japanese and South African handlers, and started walking toward us a couple yards away. I can still remember the looks of surprise and concern on the faces of Mandela’s handlers as he did so.
There was the 72-year-old Mandela, just within arm’s reach of us, larger than life, in his ordinary-looking greyish suit and brown/grey tie. I glanced at the Japanese activists standing around me and they were speechless, their mouths agape. But I just did what came naturally: I kept taking photos of him.
I forget now the exact words Mandela told us, but to the best of my memory it went something like this: Thank you for taking the time to come out here to welcome us. It means a lot. And thank you for raising your voices against apartheid in South Africa. Someday South Africa will be free, so keep on standing up and speaking out.
“OK?” he said, then, “Thank you”. And smiling, he turned and headed back to where his handlers were anxiously waiting for him.
The Japanese activists around me were stunned and couldn’t say a word. So, without even thinking, I made the first move. I raised my fist as Mandela was walking away, and began singing the first few lines of the famous anthem of the South African liberation struggle, “Nkosi Sikekel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa), a song I knew by heart and had always loved:
Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo....
(which translates roughly as:
God bless Africa
May her glory be lifted high
Hear our prayers,
God bless us, Your children....)
To my surprise — and great relief, since I must have looked like a fool singing solo — the other Japanese activists started joining in singing with me.
And we kept on singing it too, as Mandela got into his car and as the procession of cars edged toward us and moved out of the parking area. My last glimpse of Nelson Mandela in person was him inside the black car, smiling and raising his fist through the closed car window as he went past us. And then, he was gone and on his way.
That was in mid-May 1991. Three years later, almost to the day, Mandela became the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa — just as he had promised us the country would be one day.
When I heard the news that Mandela had passed away at age 95 on 5 December 2013, my mind turned to the two very memorable Mandela Moments I had had here in Osaka, Japan more than two decades before. And on the evening of his deeply moving state funeral ceremony in South Africa on 15 December, just like when I had first shaken hands with him at that massive rally in Osaka, I was deep into my thoughts and had trouble falling asleep that night.
So, the evening that Mandela was laid to rest in South Africa, I went out for a midnight walk alone in my neighborhood, down the hill and over to a small Japanese Shinto shrine that was nestled in the woods among some small farms, to pay my own respects. I brought along a food offering for the spirits, as is the custom.
And I thought about things as I walked along in the silent night. I thought about the long walk to freedom of Nelson Mandela and his people. I thought about all the suffering, all the countless South African lives destroyed by an evil system of segregation called apartheid, which had been propped up and supported by the major Western countries for nearly 50 years.
I thought about the African continent, the birthplace of humanity, and all the suffering there throughout the ages. And I thought about all the problems around the world today, and how we could use more Mandelas in the world — how we could be such persons ourselves, if we really wanted to be.
And at the Shinto shrine, there in the still and quiet of a chilly, late-autumn night, I prayed: for the spirit of this man, Nelson Mandela, to have a good journey; for the peace and prosperity of the South Africa he left behind; for all of Africa; and if the truth be known, for all of us in the world. We need it.
That is what my Mandela Moments, all two of them, meant to me. They will always be a part of me, for as long as there is breath and life left in me.
And who knows? Somewhere on that eternal walk that we all must make in our own time, somewhere in a time and space far away from here, maybe we will meet Nelson Mandela again. What a Mandela Moment that would be....
A Mandela Moment (1)
One of my favorite Mandela stories from South Africans themselves is this one that appeared in the New York Times: how, during an early-morning walk in his native village back in 1995, one year into his presidency, Mandela helped a farmer plow his field. It’s a warm story, yet so typical of the testaments that so many people from all walks of life are sharing about their own encounters with Mandela.
Like some folks who have actually had the high honor of meeting Mandela in person, I too have my own personal episodes to share, two of my own special Mandela Moments that will remain a part of me for as long as I live.
My first one came on a Sunday, 28 October 1990 in Osaka, Japan.
That was the day when a group of Japanese anti-apartheid volunteer activists, of which I was a part, organized a major two-hour “welcoming rally” for Mandela and a small contingent of members of Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress (ANC). The rally was held at an old sports stadium at a public park in downtown Osaka, and we managed to fill that stadium with 20,000 people. Mandela, as deputy president of the ANC, was on his first-ever trip to Japan following his release from South African prison some months before, and there was a sense of great anticipation in the air in Osaka that day.
The rally had already started and been underway for a while when the special guests from South Africa filed in a bit late, receiving cheers from the crowd when they were spotted. The guests were ushered over to a VIP tent near the stage and then, before I knew it, there was Nelson Mandela, wearing a gray suit and standing in front me a few feet away — the man the world had been waiting to see for more than 25 years.
Some of our Japanese organizing group members spontaneously lined up to welcome Mandela in front of the VIP tent, and I nudged my way into the small queue. One by one, we moved closer to him. Then it was my turn. Mandela looked down at me — he is quite tall — he kind of smiled, and I extended my hand to him.
I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe something like my grandfather the very last time I had seen him alive in the United States; his handshake had been a bit loose and weak due to his advancing age. But I was taken aback at how strong Mandela’s handshake was, considering he was 72 years old at the time. For an instant or two, I studied Mandela’s hand as I clasped it. I was surprised both by the largeness of his hand and the firmness of his grip.
Then, quickly my gaze went from Mandela’s hand, up his arm to his shoulder, and then up to his face. The feeling I had looking up at him was: Here is a king. It’s really true what people say — that Mandela always had something of a regal air about him, due no doubt to his childhood link to royal members of his Xhosa tribe. And here he was right in front of me, standing erect, looking straight ahead and shaking my hand, and I just had this feeling that I was meeting a king for the first time.
It was a very quick, slightly rushed encounter; no words were spoken between us. But in those few moments, I understood instinctively what people mean when they talk about the “Madiba magic” (Madiba being the name of the extended tribal clan to which Mandela belonged). It was something you could just feel in the man’s handshake and see in the dignified way he carried himself. He was African royalty in a very real sense.
I went home that Sunday afternoon after the big welcoming rally and stayed on an emotional high the rest of the day. My excitement over the historic events of that day kept me awake late into the night, and I had trouble falling asleep. When I finally did drift off into slumber, I remember it was with a big smile on my face.
Meeting Nelson Mandela that day was one of those moments that I somehow knew, even if I couldn’t really put it into words, would be life changing. And indeed, life never was the same after that first Mandela Moment of mine.
(to be continued)
Honoring the ‘Father of Global Humanity’
It has been deeply moving for me these past couple of days to watch people from all walks of life, from all corners of the world, being asked that same question and to witness their responses.
Whether they are heads of state in some of the biggest countries of the world or ordinary South Africans in their own neighborhoods, people have been emotionally expressing their love and respect for the man that South Africans affectionately call Tata Madiba, the loving father of their nation.
It brought tears to my eyes to listen to the calm, subdued reminisces of Mandela by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu during a press conference, speaking as only he can. It was equally touching to see a live broadcast of members of the South African parliament, during a special session of that body, as one member after another shared what Mandela had meant to them personally.
One South African parliament representative at the podium, his fist raised in salute, managed to get all the other parliamentary members on their feet — on the floor of the parliament, mind you, during an official session — to sing in unison the words of an old liberation song, “Rolihlahla”, that had often been sung and marched to during the long years of apartheid:
Freedom is in your hands!
Show us the way to freedom
In our land of Africa...
It is a song that those of us who were involved in the anti-apartheid movement worldwide, in support of the liberation struggle within the borders of South Africa, knew well. Hearing that song sung by South Africans to a marching beat had always, for me, signaled the coming death of the apartheid regime as we knew it. After all, with freedom in Mandela's hands, how could we lose?
But perhaps the most poignant comment came during one interview I saw with someone associated with the South African government, a person involved in the communications side of things. He said that it is a bit limiting to say that Madiba is the father of the South African nation. In fact, he said, Mandela is "the father of global humanity".
A father figure — yes, that is what Mandela means most of all to me.
In a world where father figures serving as positive role models often seem in short supply, Mandela filled that role for many. One young South African who was interviewed said just as much: that there was no real father at home and, in a broader sense, Mandela represented the missing father role in that young person's life as a guiding moral hand and a force for good.
As someone who similarly grew up in a dysfunctional family background, I too look up to Mandela in much the same way — as the father of his own immediate family and of his nation, surely, but also the father of global humanity. And in a very wide sense, Mandela was my father too.
But what does he mean to you? What about the man and his life has inspired you?
In the spirit of Madiba’s life and commitment to inclusion of everyone as members of one family, I invite you to share below, in this humble space in a small corner of the Internet, your own memories, thoughts, opinions, commentary, whatever, on his passing. It would be my honor to hear from you — wherever in the world you are — and to have you share with us the meaning of Mandela in your own life and how his passing has touched you personally.
As South Africa prepares to host an unprecedented, international memorial service in Johannesburg to honor a very special human being, let us join in the honoring too by sharing our own responses to the often-asked question these days: What does Nelson Mandela, Tata Madiba, mean to you?
Come, brothers and sisters, and share it with us.
In Memoriam: Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela
The world stands divided in many ways, yet in Mandela's passing, he does now what he always did: bring the world that much closer together and remind us of our common bonds to each other.
I will have more to say on this blog page in the following days and weeks about Mandela and my personal memories of him. But for now, let me just say that it is difficult for me to imagine anyone who has had a more profound influence on my life than Nelson Mandela. There is simply no one else who even comes close to it. I'll be sharing those thoughts with you sometime soon; please look forward to it.
In the meantime, I am devoting today and the days to come to a time of quiet reflection and solemn remembrance of the life and times of this remarkable man. I'll read his words in books, listen to his audio speeches, perhaps watch a DVD or an old videotape or two featuring him. In grieving, I know I am just one of the many millions around this planet who are sending Mandela our last farewell and wishing him a magnificent journey back home to the ancestors and among the spirits.
Remembering with deepest respect Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.
Old Folkie: Tribute to a Musical Treasure
But we need not wait until those people pass on and become ancestors and figures from a distant past. It is always better, of course, to honor and pay tribute to these elders and veterans of Life while they are still living and still with us. And today (May 3) being the 94th birthday of one those veterans of the Good Fight, I would like to pay tribute to an “old folkie” who lives and works among us today: Pete Seeger.
Folk singer, musical historian, environmental educator, social activist/organizer — Pete Seeger has worn many hats and served in many roles in his 94 years. In many ways, his life story is the story of “America” in the last century and into this new century, with many ups and downs and hard lessons learned along the way.
In the late 1930s during the Great Depression years in the United States, a time of economic recession and social upheaval, Seeger as a young man got involved in politics (including with the Communist Party) and dropped out of his studies at the prestigious Harvard College. He worked for a while for the U.S. Library of Congress, helping to document and archive the roots music of the United States.
In the early 1940s, as guitarist and banjo player, Seeger cofounded the New York-based musical group The Almanac Singers, which played pro-labor union, anti-racism and anti-war songs in the American folk and blues traditions. Seeger often performed at “racially integrated” events at a time when it was dangerous for artists to do so. In the late 1940s/early 1950s, that band evolved into a group called The Weavers, and their records, featuring folk songs from countries around the world as well as blues, gospel music and children’s songs, sold millions in its heyday. It was The Weavers, more than any other band, that paved the way for the “folk music boom” that followed in the U.S. and internationally in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the mid-1950s, paranoia was in full swing as the political powers-that-be in America searched high and low for “communists” hiding in the arts, politics, military and everywhere else. Seeger was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in New York and ordered to name names, to answer questions about his past affiliation with the Communist Party and its members. One of Pete Seeger’s answers to the committee stands out for me:
“I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir.”
In the end, Seeger refused to give the committee the names and answers it kept pressing for, and he was charged with contempt of Congress. Seeger would spend the next seven years in court, fighting a legal battle to clear his name and stay out of prison. He eventually won in 1962.
Looking back now, going after Pete Seeger in such a public way was probably the biggest mistake that America’s “commie hunters” could have made. That is because even after he won his court case, Seeger was essentially blocked out of coverage by the major U.S. media companies, who treated him as persona non grata. So, in the years following his court case, Seeger bypassed the media and took his songs directly to the people — especially to schoolchildren and university students. The result was that a generation of youth in the U.S. from that time grew up directly on the music of a true musical troubadour and storyteller.
“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Guantanamera” and yes, even the classic “We Shall Overcome” are among the folk or gospel songs that Seeger helped to rework and re-release to the public, breathing new life into traditional tunes for the turbulent times. When the times called for it, Seeger went down to the American South and lent his voice to the Black churches and mass rallies in the 1960s during the height of the U.S. civil rights movement (which I prefer to call the U.S. “human rights movement,” since that was what African Americans were actually fighting for back then).
In June 1963 Seeger held a charity concert in New York City to help raise money for the organizations in the South that were on the frontlines of the Black freedom struggle. That historic recording is now available on CD in its entirety as “We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert,” a vintage piece of American musical history.
Many of Seeger’s songs of struggle and hope have stood the test of time and proven to be an indelible part of the rich musical heritage of the U.S. Every culture has its own version of a “people’s poet,” and if there is such a thing as an American musical treasure, then we can say that Pete Seeger is one of them.
But not only Americans were inspired by Seeger; musicians all around the world were too. The Chilean folk singer Victor Jara (who died in 1973 during the U.S.-sponsored military coup in his country), as one example, recorded a beautiful cover version of Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” for the Chilean people and their own freedom struggle titled “El Martillo”. I know too that Japanese folk musicians were inspired by Seeger: One of them, Goro Nakagawa, in 1969 covered Seeger’s anti-Vietnam war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” (which was censored on U.S. television at one point), and it remains a part of Nakagawa’s repertoire to this day.
I think the late U.S. singer/songwriter Harry Chapin, though, put it best when he recorded a tribute to Seeger in the 1980s titled “Old Folkie”:
For forty years now he's been pushin’ on
Carrying the dream ’cause Woody [Guthrie]’s long gone
He’s the last voice singing that “bound for glory” song
And if you never seen him, you might take a look
He’s the man who put the meaning in the music book
Yeah, the world may be tired but Pete’s still going strong....
Over the past few decades, Pete Seeger has taken on the environmental pollution plaguing the United States and other related issues. His environmental education programs for young people aboard a sailboat that sails along the Hudson River in New York state, the Clearwater, are still being held, and they have without a doubt helped raise public awareness of the importance of keeping waterways clean.
In these early years of the 21st century, Pete Seeger still remains relevant. In January 2009 Seeger performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first Black U.S. president, and a few months later Seeger’s 90th birthday was celebrated with an all-star musical tribute at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Last year in 2012, having topped the 90-year mark, Seeger released another inspiring song, “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You,” encouraging people to get out and get involved in changing the things around them that need changing. You can see a wonderful video of the song here.
While you’re at it, sit back, take some time out of your busy schedule today and have a look at a well-produced documentary film about Pete Seeger titled The Power of Song, which was shown on U.S. public television in 2007. It tells the story of the “old folkie” better than I've ever seen it told — the songs, the issues, and Seeger as the conscience of a nation that often seemed to have no conscience. You can watch it in its entirety here.
So while he is still here with us and not yet gone, let me add my own personal wishes to one who has fought the Good Fight in his lifetime and never lost sight of the most important role of music in the world: to inspire, to speak up, to bring people together, to help correct wrongs in society. It has been a real joy to spend the day today going through Seeger's life and music, and being reminded once again of the powerful spirit of music in our lives.
A very Happy 94th Birthday today, Pete Seeger....and thank you!
A Happy 100th Birthday
Though I can’t be there for that official event, I would like to commemorate Fukuoka on my own this weekend by reflecting on his life and remembering how, in his way, he helped changed the world. It would be no exaggeration to say that at least in the field of agriculture the world over, certainly in the so-called “organic farming movement” that has grown so dramatically the past few decades, Fukuoka has been a leading light and a huge inspiration to many people.
During a time of massive industrialization of agriculture in Japan after World War II, Fukuoka stood out from other farmers by advocating instead a saner, healthier relationship with nature in every way — physically, mentally, spiritually. He rejected the corporatization and government-supported mass production of food and predicted early on how this would come back to haunt us someday in a big way.
As a farmer, Fukuoka practiced what he preached by following the ancient, time-honored patterns and laws of nature, not of man, in what he called shizen noho (natural farming): no pesticide, no weeding of crops, no fertilizer and no cultivation (that is, no tilling or plowing of the land). In other words, he said, we need to let nature do its work instead of humans trying to control the course and results of nature. His methods proved to be more sustainable in the long run than the industrial-style farming practiced on his neighbors’ rice farms and by other farmers around Japan.
Most importantly, the foundation of Fukuoka’s farming practices was a strong sense of spirituality. In the true Buddhist way, he believed in the interrelated of all things in nature and in human society, and saw the only real way forward for the human race as being a return to and a reliance on nature, just as indigenous societies have done since the beginning of human time on this planet.
In 1975 Fukuoka laid out his philosophy and farming practices in a Japanese book titled Shizen Noho: Wara-ippon no Kakumei （「自然農法・わら一本の革命」）, literally, “Natural Farming: The One-Straw Revolution.” As luck would have it, Fukuoka had young volunteer farmhands from around Japan and from foreign countries helping him out on the ground at the time.
One of those visiting farmhands, Larry Korn from the United States, helped get that Japanese book translated and published in 1978 in Fukuoka’s name as The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. The book introduced Fukuoka's farming methods to a new audience beyond the borders of Japan, and reportedly went on to be translated into more than 25 languages internationally. The One-Straw Revolution is considered today a key literary contribution to the sustainable farming movement worldwide.
With the international publicity that came from his English-translated book, Fukuoka went from being a little-known (if not eccentric) farmer in a small corner of Japan to being a respected voice in the growing movement of organic farming worldwide. Over the years he traveled to various countries and shared his farming practices and spiritual philosophy; he was always warmly welcomed, especially in India. With great passion Fukuoka took up the cause of what he called “greening the deserts” of the world, in Africa and elsewhere, using the same kind of “natural farming” method and philosophy that he had proven successful back in Japan.
Fukuoka’s proposed “revolution” was not only in the way that we humans treat nature but also in how we view nature and live with nature in our daily lives. There was a lot of radical talk in Western societies of “revolution” back in the 1960s and 1970s, but what Fukuoka proposed from an Eastern perspective was a major change literally from the ground up and from deep within us. As he wrote in The One-Straw Revolution: “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
Fukuoka passed away in 2008 at the age of 95 in Iyo, the small town where he had grown up and spent much of his life. By that time, organic farmers around the world had taken up what they call “Fukuoka farming”, adhering not only to the practices of tending to the land that Fukuoka espoused but also doing so from a spiritual base. There are today a number of such Fukuoka-style farmers in Japan and around the globe. I call them “Fukuoka’s Children” since they are carrying his message and life’s work into a new generation, something we sorely need today.
Two years after Fukuoka’s passing, in May 2010, I (as a mere backyard gardener) decided to make my own personal pilgrimage by visiting the original Fukuoka Farm in rural Shikoku. After arriving, I was quickly put to work by helping to harvest the citrus fruit that grew abundantly in the steep, mountainous orchards — not an easy job!
I imagined then how Fukuoka had planted those very same trees himself in what he once admitted were near-impossible conditions so many decades before. When I was there, though, the ripe, beautiful-looking citrus fruits were so abundant that they would occasionally drop off the trees and roll down the mountainside as we were picking and hauling them back to the warehouse for sorting and packaging. Later I helped out with the chores at the warehouse and prepared the fruits and vegetables then in season (citrus and kiwi fruits, and mushrooms) to be shipped out by small trucks.
In just the two days I was there, I saw how Fukuoka’s vision of sustainable, healthy-minded farming was alive and well, long after he had shared those practices with farmers the world over. I returned home by bus tired but profoundly inspired.
So today, on the centenary celebration of Masanobu Fukuoka’s birth, I remember the man and the message. I honor his life and his achievements, many of which you can read about in the links below. Take some time, reader, and find out who Fukuoka was — and in doing so, be reminded that one person’s life can indeed make a positive difference in this world.
I honor the light of Life that Fukuoka has shined in these desperate times, and am filled with hope and optimism that there are many people in various countries and cultures who still carry his vision forward, even as we speak.
Fukuoka-sensei, wishing you a very happy 100th birthday today!
■ Mother Earth News: "Masanobu Fukuoka's 'The One-Straw Revolution'" 
■ Mother Earth News: "Masanobu Fukuoka: Japanese Organic Farmer" 
■ Video documentary: "Natural Farming with Masanobu Fukuoka" 
■ Japan Economic Forum: "Farmer Philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka" (part 1) (part 2) (part 3) 
■ The Gandhi Foundation: "Masanobu Fukuoka and Natural Farming"