Kevin Coval: A People’s History of Chicago

March 31, 2017

Bertolt Brecht opens his famous note “To Posterity” by naming his political moment:

“Indeed I live in the dark ages! /A guileless word is an absurdity. A smooth forehead betokens/ A hard heart. He who laughs/ Has not yet heard /The terrible tidings.”

Brecht observes that  “…to speak of trees is almost a crime /For it is a kind of silence about injustice!” and he urges his future readers (“You, who shall emerge from the flood /In which we are sinking”) to speak not just of our weaknesses, but “Also of the dark time /That brought them forth.”

In a later poem he asked, “In the Dark Times will there be singing?” His answer: “Yes, there will be singing, singing about the Dark Times.”

For all the years I’ve known him, Kevin Coval has been singing the Dark Times, casting a healing light into the world, lifting up the unheard and the unseen, illuminating injustice, resistance, and alternative possibilities. Kevin is never alone, and whenever you hear him or read him you’ll find a gathering of students and mentors—a chorus of other dazzling poets—and you’ll catch echoes of Chicago writers gone by as well as intimations of a Chicago, and a world, that could be, but is not yet. Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Angela Jackson, Haki Madhubuti—Kevin Coval is in the tradition.

With his new collection—A People’s History of Chicago—Kevin resurrects our history and brings this great American city to life with all of its scars and bruises, its sparkling beauty, its broken noses, cut lips, and contradictions intact.  His lyrical narrative is exuberant and elegiac, poignant and ecstatic in turn. Chicago, as John Dewey noted over a century ago, is an every day dance of the dialectic—a frenzied meeting of chaos and opportunity. Chicago is a collision of art and politics, oppression and liberation, workers and immigrants, activism and organizing, La Villita and the Black Metropolis. Kevin notes how lucky we are to be right here, right now, wrapped in a history that has surprised us before and will surely surprise us again—and he reminds us that we may just be the agents of that surprise.

Here is Albert Parsons, one of the anarchists framed and hanged at the Haymarket as they mobilized workers in a fight for the 8-hour day—an event still marked around the world as May Day. His last words on the gallows: “Will I be allowed to speak, oh men of America? Let me speak! Let the voice of the people be heard!” The trap was sprung, and the police, bowing low to the ruling class, snapped his neck. But he was not silenced. His widow, Lucy Parsons, outlived him by half a century, long enough for Studs Terkel to hear her more than once speaking to a crowd from a soap box at the Bughouse Square. Studs told our son everything he knew about Parsons when Zayd was writing his play about the Haymarket, and Studs talked with Kevin for years about history and politics, writing and culture, about art and the art of listening.

Kevin Coval deploys listening as a method of research, and listening as a pedagogical gesture—he embodies the spirit of teaching as the art of seeing and hearing, of letting go, teaching that foregrounds students and places them at center stage in pursuit of their own growth and learning, teaching that nourishes the spark and agency that lives inside every young person.

In “Boy Breaking Glass,” Gwendolyn Brooks writes in the voice of a wayward youth: “I shall create!/If not a note, a hole/ If not an overture, a desecration.” Kevin  Coval is our own poet laureate of notes and overtures, of futures worth having, of lives filled with hope.

April 5 @ 6 pm in Asheville NC

March 28, 2017


March 28, 2017

Fighting Trumpism means fighting for the truth. Please join me in supporting @truthout today.

Remembering Derek Walcott

March 27, 2017

The State is the Lead Terrorist

March 25, 2017

A letter in response to Nicholas Lemann’s article (April 26, 2010), “Terrorism Studies.”

May 17, 2010

New Yorker

Nicholas Lemann’s otherwise excellent review of the current scholarship on terrorism becomes muddled when he attempts to answer the most basic and straightforward question: What is terrorism, anyway (Books, April 26th)? The expert consensus, according to Lemann, includes a few common traits: terrorists have political or ideological objectives, and they intend to spread fear and panic as they intimidate an audience larger than their immediate victims. Good enough, but he then veers off track: terrorists are non-state actors, he claims, which exempts Russia’s brutality in Chechnya, Iraq’s crushing of the Kurds, Sherman’s march to the sea, and countless other horrors and atrocities throughout history designed to cause terror for a political goal. Terrorists, he continues, target ordinary citizens, or, when they kill soldiers, their attacks don’t take place on the field of battle. That’s a convenient tautology: if any conventional government decides to pound a village to dust, it’s a field of battle; if a villager kills a soldier in the exact same spot before the invasion commences, that’s terrorism. Terrorism, according to Webster’s, is “a mode of governing, or of opposing a government, by intimidation.” This definition has the virtue of consistency and fairness; it focuses on the use of coercive violence, whether committed by a religious cult, a political sect, a group of zealots, or the state itself.

William Ayers, Chicago, Ill.

Dear Paul Ryan

March 19, 2017

I know that health care legislation is massively complicated, difficult for ordinary citizens to understand, and nightmarish for leaders like you to grapple with as you work to move things forward for the good of all. I’ve followed the debates, and I think you can easily cut through the fog by applying one of the following simple fixes: everyone should receive the exact health care plan members of Congress vote for themselves; or, massively cut costs by instituting a single-payer program (government paid health care, similar but better than Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, or the National Health Service) which would quickly put the predatory health insurance industry out of business and simultaneously weaken the power of Big Pharma.

Whatcha think?


Capitalism is bad for your health!

March 18, 2017
Health care is a human right, not a product to be sold at the market.
Capitalism is bad for your health!


March 17, 2017
Please offer a bill in Congress calling for National Universal Health Care. Let the debate include a proposal that most people support!

Capitalism is Bad for Your Health

March 16, 2017
Medicare—government-run health insurance for the elderly—was fiercely opposed by conservatives and political reactionaries when it was proposed half a century ago: “We are against forcing all citizens . . . into a compulsory government program,” said one; it’s nothing less than “socialized medicine,” and, if implemented would mean that “one of these days, you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”
That was the demigod of today’s political right, Ronald Reagan, speaking before he’d entered electoral politics, and his comments echoed right-wing opposition to Social Security in the 1930s (a plan to “Sovietize America”), and the minimum wage and mandated overtime pay (“Communism, Bolshevism, fascism and Nazism”). Here we go again.
Good medicine at its heart requires trust and an assumption of honesty and fairness; the market requires nothing more nor less than profits for shareholders. The near-total corporate capitalist capture of health care incentivizes bad behavior: a primary-care doctor ordering a battery of tests of questionable medical value because fee-for-service makes it profitable, or an obstetrician performing an unneeded Caesarian section because that procedure brings in more money only makes sense if dollars—and dollars alone—are the standard of care. Unnecessary medical tests (and procedures) are to the health industry what alcohol is to the hospitality industry: the Midas touch, everything turning magically to gold.
The health care marketeers lie in public, devise make-believe disorders and promote them through public relations and clever advertising, and then deal meds at the open-air drug bazaar to treat invented afflictions. Erectile dysfunction is now a fact of life, so I’ll leave that one alone—except to note that Viagra is covered by Hobby Lobby’s health care plan and birth control is not. But who knew millions of men are also suffering from a “medical condition known as Low-T?” “Known as” by whom, you might ask; well, known as Low-T by the drug runners who made the condition up. Here is their sales pitch: “If you’re forty-something and just feel blah sometimes, out-of-focus, lacking energy, and not as charming as you thought you were at twenty, maybe it’s not you . . . maybe it’s Low-T. Here, just apply this special underarm deodorant filled with testosterone for a few weeks and you’ll be the life of the party once more. Oh, and we should warn you to keep this out of the reach of women, children, and household pets, wash thoroughly after applying, and (sotto voce) be aware that this product may cause uncontrollable itching, hearing loss, temporary blindness, sneezing, hiccups, rectal bleeding, tumors, athlete’s foot, dry mouth, suicidal thoughts, stroke, heart attack, hair loss, night sweats, crippling gas, adult-onset acne, attention deficit disorder, fever, moodiness, frequent nose hemorrhages, gagging, facial tics, vertigo, burning sensations in your testicles— no worries, we have pills for each of those, too. If you have an erection lasting more than seven days call this toll-free number and we’ll rush you the antidote for that at reduced cost.”
The United States is the only industrialized country in the world in which it’s legal to advertise prescription drugs to the public. It serves no public health interest whatsoever, but it does indeed serve corporate wealth: antidepressants alone represent a $10 billion market; half of all Americans are taking prescription drugs at any given moment, and one in ten is taking more than five; millions of youngsters are taking prescription drugs for ADHD, including fourteen thousand children ages two or three. We are all potential customers; even babies are the potential drug fiends the old dope peddlers hope to hook for the future.
The market in health care has created a deeply unequal system that stretches from the shameful state of mental health care to the tawdry patchwork of nursing home care, from disdain for the poor to the war on women The market—like all markets—creates winners and losers, and not surprisingly the biggest winners are the rich, and the biggest losers are those traditionally oppressed and exploited: descendants of enslaved people, First Nations peoples, recent immigrants from impoverished countries, people of color, women, and poor and working people. Health disparities are everywhere, and universally appalling: 25 percent of Black mothers get no prenatal care during the first trimester of pregnancy (and 6 percent get no care for the entire nine months) compared to 11 percent (and 2 percent) of white mothers; mortality rates during the first year of life are fourteen per one thousand for Black children and six per one thousand for whites; by the age of thirty-five months 25 percent of Black children and 16 percent of white children have not received standard vaccinations; in poor Black urban neighborhoods in California there is one physician for every four thousand residents compared to one in twelve hundred in white neighborhoods.
Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane.”4 Since 2011 more than 280 laws have been enacted in 31 states restricting women’s access to reproductive health. These laws make access more costly, more difficult (with mandatory wait times and multiple visits), and more humiliating.6 Health disparities focus a hard lens on our avowed values revealing monstrous contradictions in a society that claims to value equality. It is wrong and shameful that one’s zip code, for example, can be the strongest predictor of whether a person will suffer chronic lung disease.
Inequities between men and women are monstrous in the capitalist industrialized health system. Women’s judgments about reproduction and birth are strictly policed by the state and the mobilized mob; this policing now includes a broadly accept- ed sense that a doctor and a hospital provide the best care during childbirth, while a mother is always cast as a potential risk to her baby, or a danger to be managed (“Don’t drink wine during pregnancy” and “Women of a certain age should always assume they are pregnant!”). Since 2011 more than 280 laws have been enacted in 31 states restricting women’s access to reproductive health. These laws make access more costly, more difficult (with mandatory wait-times and multiple visits), and more humiliating.
Health care must be taken back from the grasping hands of the profiteers, and taken to a higher ground appropriate to the project itself: everyone has the right to a standard of living ad- equate to health and well being, including food and clothing, housing and medical care, and security in the event of circumstances (unemployment, sickness, disability, old age) beyond their control. Everyone has the right to lead a healthy life in a healthy community. Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—in the language of human rights, the highest available standard. It’s time to organize ourselves to transform a system so blatantly destructive to these ends, and to institute a new community of associative living that will guarantee those rights to all.

Ryan Alexander-Tanner, artist and the brilliant co-author of To Teach: The Journey in Comics rocks the NYT…

March 14, 2017