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How I Became a True Radical

Culture

an excerpt from my memoirs, a work in slow progress

I was 19 years old in September, 1967, when my new husband and I got into his funky old Volvo fastback, the one that looked like a late-forties Ford, hooked it up to a U-Haul trailer, drove from Toronto to Chicago and set up housekeeping. We rented a modest apartment, an English basement as they called it, in Hyde Park, the University of Chicago neighbourhood on the city’s South Side. Though our street and a few others where students lived were down at heel, generally speaking Hyde Park was a place of gracious homes, commodious apartment buildings, green lawns and the graceful, gothic buildings of the campus itself. Bruce was on a graduate scholarship, and he’d chosen the University of Chicago over Harvard and Columbia. He was 24, and well travelled. He knew New York and the American northeast well. He wanted to get a sense of the American heartland before he settled down to life and a career in Toronto. Besides, this was the land of Studs Terkel.

Chicago

To the east, Hyde Park came to a stop at the Illinois Central line that paralleled the shore of Lake Michigan, and connected the cities, suburbs and towns that stretched southward to downtown Chicago – to the Loop. To the north, west and south, however, Hyde Park sat surrounded by a vast sea of African-American neighbourhoods, almost all poor, many destitute. Shortly after we arrived, I heard the right-on black comedian Dick Gregory, who lived in a lovely modernist apartment building at the heart of Hyde Park, describe that community as “the only neighbourhood in America where white and black stand shoulder to shoulder…” he waited for the beat, “…against the poor.” The laughter was strained and painful.

Especially to the south, on the other side of 60th Street (also known as the Midway, with its broad, treed boulevard), 63rd Street was the vibrant centre of Woodlawn, a thriving, angry Black community where things had been seriously stirring and where Saul Alinsky had recently been in residence, training the local types in direct action against City Hall and its chief potentate, Mayor Richard J. Daley. The elevated train blocked out the sky, running 25 feet above the street and the old, blackened buildings, drowning out all sound every time it roared overhead. Down below, the joint was jumping.

Brothers in jackets, jeans and berets, or African shirts and dashikis, sisters in miniskirts or African dresses, talked in doorways leading to the second-floor offices of community-action groups including the Woodlawn Organization, whose creative, media-grabbing tactics showed that they had learned their Alinksy lessons well. Mothers and grandmothers, shopping for dinner, tugged their little ones behind them as they picked through the piles of fruits and vegetables outside grocery stores, or lined up at restaurant windows for take-out barbecue. Men of all ages, sweaty and tired after a hard day’s work, would go for a beer, maybe three, to cool off. Teenagers, boys and girls, turned out in adolescent mating finery, and grooved, like everybody else, to the strains of Motown pouring from speakers attached to the front of cigar stores and music emporiums, making the air waves dance. The sour smell of beer and the sweet smell of reefer wafted out with blasts of R&B every time someone opened a bar door. Here and there in a darkened doorway, someone would be nodding out, gone to a better place with his fix. Pimps in colour-coordinated outfits of dayglo lime, orange and mauve cruised the avenue in old Cadillacs painted in identical hues, or did their strut down the sidewalk, surrounded by their entourages, the woman in plumage more gorgeous than birds of paradise with tragic, angry eyes.

Geographically speaking, 63rd Street was only three blocks away from the southern boundary of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago campus, and its air of serious study, its old, white wealth, its dignified reserve. Culturally, Woodlawn was another universe. Though Hyde Park boasted plenty of disturbing elements, too: the Thomas Moore sculpture outside the Fermi labs, for example – a haunting fusion of mushroom-cloud and skull – creeped me out every time I passed it, and I still shudder when I think of it. I found the Friday-night shootouts in the basketball court in the schoolyard down the block from our apartment pretty disturbing, too. It was considered insanity for a woman to walk on the streets after sunset, or for any white person to walk anywhere in many black neighbourhoods, anytime.

We lived just a couple of blocks west of Blackstone Avenue – namesake, farther south, for the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) Blackstone Rangers, the reigning gang on the South Side. Our budget was $60 per week, and it covered everything except the rent, which was $85 a month.

From Galilee to the Gilded Ghetto

I thought I was prepared for Chicago, but I wasn’t. My early childhood had been spent on a kibbutz in Israel, high up in the Galilee overlooking the Lebanese border, steeped in beauty and history and conflict. When I was seven, my parents had come to Toronto to visit family, were forced by illness to stay, and we moved into a spanking-new, utterly sterile suburb called Don Mills, where I spent seven horribly depressed years. In my teens we spent another year and a half in Israel, in Tel Aviv this time, then moved back to Toronto, to an affluent, inner-city neighbourhood called Forest Hill (a.k.a. the Gilded Ghetto). I was a pink-diaper baby, and I had gotten involved in U.S. civil-rights solidarity work in my Toronto high school. I worked with fellow students and progressive parents to bring a speaker from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the magnificent SNCC choir to our school. The speech and concert lifted the rafters of the auditorium at Forest Hill Collegiate. We passed the hat in the Gilded Ghetto and derived some satisfaction from the results. My uncle was a well known comedian, and he and my aunt hosted a big soiree of the sort eventually described by Tom Wolfe in his 1968 essay “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers,” though the people who came were neither as rich nor powerful – nor obnoxious – as the party-goers at Leonard Bernstein’s New York apartment. Still, most everyone who was anyone in the Toronto liberal establishment was invited, and they donated thousands of dollars to SNCC, whose leader, Stokely Carmichael, would utter those immortal words: “The best position for a woman in the movement is prone.”

I knew at the time, of course, that all this was a far, far cry from the freedom marches in the South or the battle lines being drawn in Newark and Detroit and other U.S. urban ghettos. And I knew, from a short foray to Chicago that Bruce and I had made in August (for five days in a row, headlines had announced murders on the El), that things would be rough. Still, when we finally settled, the shock of the city on my provincial system was seismic. Its size and scale for one thing – stretching for more than 40 miles along the western shore of Lake Michigan, its vast expressways, the sheer enormity of its skyscrapers and apartment towers – all of it was overwhelming. Ditto its stark disparities. On the one hand, the Evanston mansions and great Gold Coast apartments of the Near North Side seemed fortresses of greed. They dwarfed Toronto’s genteel neighbourhoods of Rosedale and Forest Hill and Upper Bayview, which seemed almost hobbit-like in comparison. On the other, if you just walked a few blocks west of those palatial apartments, you stepped into grim, violent slums, most of them black, but also Mexican and Appalachian, and many of these poor neighbourhoods stretched out in endless, pitiless misery. These, too, were quantum orders of magnitude beyond their Toronto counterparts. Cabbagetown, Toronto’s official slum at the time, was a couple of square miles of run-down Victorian houses in the East End, where Irish immigrants had grown vegetables in the front gardens at the turn of the century. It looked like prime real estate by comparison to the West Side. And its adjoining post-war public-housing project, Regent Park, looked like summer camp compared to Cabrini Green.

The violence of the city, the product of these drastic inequalities, was palpable, pulsing in the air no matter which neighbourhood you lived in. Three small, clean bullet-holes hung like teardrops in the glass panels of the front door of our apartment building, the legacy of some shoot-out that had taken place in its tiny lobby before we arrived. In October, friends, also UC graduate students, pressed the button for the elevator in their rather more posh Hyde Park building, and the doors opened on a dead man – a fellow resident – sprawled on the floor with a knife in his back! They were New Yorkers and even they were spooked. The police were the scariest of all. They wore sunglasses so you could never see their eyes, left poisonous blue clouds of cigar smoke behind them wherever they went, flaunted billy sticks and big guns in open holsters.

Worst of all by far was the antagonism between the police and the Black communities. When we arrived, everyone’s teeth were on edge because Detroit and Newark had burned and everyone expected the Windy City to blow, too. Soon our nerves were zinging like high-tension wires. With the whole city, we waited with bated breath through a stifling late September. When the heat finally broke in early October, the police were punch-drunk with having escaped the red-hot danger season. They swaggered and smoked their cigars and beat heads in the ghettos with glee.

Operation Breadbasket

I joined a “women’s liberation” group at the University of Chicago (its very first, headed by a young professor named Marlene Dixon) and Bruce and I both joined Operation Breadbasket, a direct-action economic pressure group run by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. He was a charismatic young minister then, part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, building his northern, urban political base and providing a throbbing core of activism and optimism on the West Side. Though we often agreed with the analysis of the Black Panthers about systemic racism in the U.S. – my God, we looked around, how could anyone pretend otherwise? – we favoured the direct, peaceful actions of the Breadbasket efforts. Most Saturday mornings, we’d drive across town to the West Side ghetto – the potholes in the streets were the size of small craters and were vicious after a rain – to an old dance hall with art deco friezes on the walls. The Operation Breadbasket band would lay down some hot riffs, and all assembled would listen to the remarkable speakers who regularly came to address the gatherings. Then we’d troop out to form picket lines outside ghetto A&P supermarkets, protesting the rotten produce and meat they sold at double the price of the good stuff they stocked in white neighbourhoods, protesting their refusal to hire Black managers who would and could change that.

One Saturday we heard Jeff Fort, the “Black Prince,” as he was introduced, the leader of the Blackstone Rangers. He stood on the stage wearing wrap-around shades with his arms solemnly folded over his chest. From my vantage point, he was immensely tall. He was draped in a dashiki from head to toe and sported an electric Afro. He never uttered a word. He simply stood there while his Grand Vizier delivered his message of support. Another Saturday we heard graying dignified Eugene McCarthy speaking about the Democratic nomination and why he was against the war in Vietnam. Bob Cosby and Robert Culp – then playing sexy tennis pros on the television series I Spy – attended that meeting. I sat near Robert Culp. I nearly died.

The Politics of Sports

The animosity between black and white in America at that time, which Bruce and I tried to ease for ourselves by becoming politically involved, was, however, inescapable. Bruce was a runner – had been a Commonwealth mid- and long-distance gold-medaller and unofficial world champion before two torn Achilles tendons took him out of serious contention at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He was still healing from major surgery in 1967, and for pleasure and therapy he joined the University of Chicago Track Club, led by a venerable and paternal coach named Ted Hayden. Hayden had coached some great black athletes as well as white, and he and the UCTC were among the reasons Bruce had chosen to study in Chicago. Ted was about six feet, hefty, with very pink cheeks, very blue eyes, very white hair, unshatterable calm and a deadly sense of irony. His runners adored him.

It had been personality and politics that had brought Bruce and me together – alright, sex too – but definitely not athletics. To say the very least. I was a typical young urban, Jewish, intellectual woman of the day – which is to say that sport was a great gray void of non-meaning to me. It had not escaped my attention, of course, that hockey was the central rite in some kind of weird national religion in Canada – you’d have had to be dead to miss that. And I knew that winning races had turned Bruce into a national demi-god. But all that wasn’t my religion, just like Christianity wasn’t my religion. One winter, when I was eleven and weeping copiously in the front seat of the family car, being driven to the hospital by my father because I’d broken my wrist while skating, we passed a place of worship in East York called The Church of the Comforter. In an attempt to distract me and cheer me up, my father had said, “Varda, look! They worship a blanket in there!” He made me laugh, and it eased the pain of the broken wrist. Somehow it also eased the pain of being one of only three Jewish kids in an all-gentile school in a very WASP suburb. In fact, from that moment on, my father’s little play on words gave me a serviceable stance toward the majority of people who surrounded me and who seemed normal and in touch with reality, except they believed that an actual person was the son of God. I felt the same way about the religion of sport. It was obviously important to many for obscure and unfathomable reasons, but it had nothing to do with me. Bruce, by contrast, loved all sports, and running was an ecstatic experience for him. When we hooked up I decided, in a spirit both spousal and anthropological, that it would be a good thing to learn about this utterly alien world. So, on fall weekends I accompanied him to myriad small, midwestern cross-country meets in towns like Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and Urbana. I remember as though it were yesterday the cold, pungent smells of the wet, broken clods on the cross-country trails as the pack of runners thundered past, the silvery frost on the dried milkweed and goldenrod, the brilliant orange and yellow leaves of the changing trees turning almost phosphorescent as the sun shone through. I remember standing with other wives and girlfriends, waving on the fresh, yelling, happy runners (they were all men, then) over hill and dale, horrified when they came back dripping with sweat and mud, groaning with every stride, their mouths encrusted with spit and salt, bent over and heaving as though they’d die when they crossed the finish line, some of them writhing in agony with pulled muscles or torn ligaments or stomach muscles knotted and hard as concrete. I remember the sweet hospitality of the wives of the local track coaches, who offered coffee and hot, spiced apple cider and homemade cakes after the meets.

As the year wore on we would travel even farther afield, to Milwaukee, to Madison, and even to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Over all those months, watching all the races, meeting the runners and coaches and promoters and fanatical fans, I developed quite a fascination, even a taste, for athletics – that is to say, track and field. I did find many athletes true to the jock stereotype – single-minded and narrow-minded. But I met more than a few absolutely remarkable track athletes and journalists, men and women, for whom I developed tremendous and lasting respect. These were people who seemed to combine great thoughtfulness and intelligence with an incredible – if, at least to me, slightly masochistic – physicality.

Don’t Kill Me, I’m Canadian

In any case, we were at home in Chicago for the weekend in mid-November and the UCTC was hosting a small, informal meet for a group of runners down from the University of Madison’s track club. The run was being held in Washington Park, just northwest of Hyde Park. Ted had selected the park because it had some gently rolling land and a pond or two, so it made for much better going than Lincoln or Grant parks, or the parkland along the lake, all flat as pancakes. The catch was that Washington Park was Black turf. And on this occasion all the runners were white. It was a drab day, misty, damp, and the runners’ faces looked ghostly as they stretched and warmed up in their grey sweats on the sodden grass. Most trees had lost their leaves and their boughs formed a black filigree against the low, pearly sky. Tiny droplets of water hung from the branches and you could see your breath. The UCTC and UM groups lined up, ready, set, Ted shot the starter’s pistol, Go! And they were off, headed directly west, up and around the outer perimeter of the park, back to start, to repeat four times. They took off with determination and whooped when they hit the first puddle. They were happily covered in mud by the time they faded from sight. Directly in front and some distance away from where Ted, a few other observers and I stood, a group of young Black men were playing football. Ted had waved to them when his gang had pulled up, had gone over and talked with a couple of them, indicating the course he wanted his guys to run, and the young men had nodded agreement. Then he’d come back and made it clear to the runners to follow the course well away from the game.

Well, as Ted put it later, there’s always one asshole who’ll turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear. On the second lap, the runner’s pack came close to the line of scrimmage and the cluster of players. For reasons no one ever did understand, one of the Madison runners took it into his head to “accidentally-on-purpose” body-check one of the football players as the runners went by. I’d only been in Chicago three months, but my jaw dropped at the blatant provocation of the gesture and my pulse started racing. The football game stopped dead, and the players turned as one to look at the offending runner. A few reached into their pockets and – I watched it in slow motion– several of them hurled knives at the runner’s pack. One knife grazed the provocateur, and one landed in Bruce’s upper left arm, cut through his jersey and caused copious amounts of blood to spurt down his sleeve.

Every runner froze. Bruce yelled “Arghh!”, clutched his arm and looked to Ted. The football players formed a wide ring and stood glaring, hands on hips. The one whose knife had cut Bruce, who had been one of the two who’d negotiated with Ted earlier, stood forward. Ted nodded at Bruce, then turned and walked right up to the knife-thrower and said, “Son, I am very, very sorry for the asinine and disrespectful behaviour of this fool from Wisconsin. My whole club apologizes for his reprehensible behaviour. We will leave now, with our apologies.” Then he turned to the runners and yelled: “Race is over because of some damned fool, acted like an asshole.”

Still the young man glared and the others maintained their tense stance. So, Bruce went up to the leader, wiped the blood off his hand, extended it and apologized sincerely. The young man said, “Hey, don’t worry man. If we’d wanted to kill you, we’d have shot you,” and pulled a gun from his pocket. I nearly fainted. Then he laughed out loud and all the others laughed, and he put out his hand to Ted, and said, “You’re cool man, finish your race.” Ted said, “I appreciate your generosity, but I’m sticking with my decision.”

Later Bruce told me he wanted to get a t-shirt made that said, “Don’t kill me, I’m Canadian.” At the time, once over the shock of the weapons and the blood, I pondered what I had witnessed. Clearly, sport was hugely charged with meaning, not by any means “just a game,” even a rough one. And it was really that way for men. I tried to see it, but I couldn’t imagine the scene I had just witnessed played out by women.

The Year 1968

The fall turned into winter, and the winds blew down Michigan Avenue with the force of hurricanes, presaging the year to come. The roll call of events that began with the Tet Offensive in February, 1968, has never been equaled since. The anti-war movement swelled over the winter, and hundreds of thousands marched and protested across the country. Then, in April, the Prague Spring blossomed in Eastern Europe and brought burgeoning hope for a real, a people’s socialism. On a visit back to Toronto that month we watched Godard’s film, La Chinoise, at the New Yorker and marvelled at what must be happening in Paris. Then, as we were driving back to Chicago, we heard that Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. We felt it like a body blow delivered by the agents of the Dark Side. The next day our little Rover was torn apart by U.S. immigration officials at the border in Detroit when we crossed back, as though we might be guerillas smuggling arms under the spare tire. When we got back to Chicago that night, we went to visit a friend around the corner. From her apartment window we gazed northwest, toward the West Side. Before our eyes, a low glow emerged in the night sky and grew brighter and brighter, turning it from black to navy, then to bright royal blue as orange flames spread from block to block. So, Chicago burned after all, and then it suffered and mourned.

In May, we watched Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers at a repertory cinema on the near North Side near Lincoln Park and thought a lot about the Black Panthers, increasingly under terrible fire. Then, on television, we witnessed the students going to the barricades in Paris. Hope and amazement rose again like a phoenix with wings the size of sails. When it was all over in June, renewed despair set in, plummeting in July when Bobby Kennedy, ten times more progressive than his assassinated brother, was killed in Los Angeles. Bruce was campaigning for him, going door to door to the houses of steelworkers in Gary, Indiana, when we heard the news.

And things got a lot worse closer to home. Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley (“Ubi est mea?”) held nationally televised press conferences informing the nation that his civic machine would welcome the Democratic convention with open arms, but no sleeping would be permitted in the city’s parks, nor other facilities provided during the convention to accommodate the thousands of expected youthful Vietnam war protesters then being mobilized by a panoply of anti-war organizations. UC medical students held meetings to organize volunteer brigades to deal with the inevitable catastrophe. We signed up. In late August, as we waited for the convention to descend like some monstrous black cloud, we watched television in a Ghanaian friend’s apartment on the Woodlawn side of 60th Street, and we wept as we saw the tanks roll into Prague, whose streets, broken and pocked by armoured vehicles, looked a lot like what we could see right outside Kwami’s front window. Then we got ourselves together and hit the streets to help deal with the thousands of beatings and gassings that duly ensued when the Democrats came to town and ten-thousand anti-war protesters encountered thirty-thousand police and National Guard. Bruce was still working on his thesis, so he could only stay downtown a few hours at a time. I was out 18 hours a day, and my volunteer group was stationed in a church basement near that repertory cinema in Lincoln Park where we’d seen The Battle of Algiers. Every night the cops and militia would turn on the blinding grids of klieg lights mounted on jeeps, so familiar from sporting events, and blaze them on the protesters in the park as they bore down on them, pushing them inexorably into the lines of men with shields and clubs and tear gas. The confusion, pain and panic were horrendous. Still, the very worst moment for me took place downtown, in daylight, in the warren of streets in the Loop, crammed to bursting with protesters, when the police blocked off all the exits to every street and used their vehicles to crush the protestors together, then let the tear gas fly. I’m small, I fell, and I thought I was going to depart this world when someone gave me a hand up, and somehow – to this day I don’t remember how – ten minutes later, I was on a quiet street, alone, safe in body, if not in spirit, gasping for air. When the week-long confrontation with the armed power of the state was all over, Bruce and I were in a state of deep shock. We gave a UC Ph.D. chemistry student a ride back from the Loop to Hyde Park. He was equally shaken. “Hell,” he said, “I’ve been making acid in my lab till now. I don’t see why I shouldn’t make Molotov cocktails.”

Like some hideous coda…

And then, just a few weeks later, like some hideous coda, came the Mexico City Olympic Games. For the previous year, Bruce had been taking part in a U.S.-wide discussion among progressive athletes and coaches, Black and white, regarding the matter of African-American athletes competing for the United States at these games. Many of the best Black athletes were highly politicized, and understood that if they did well their successes would serve to legitimate America and the “American Way of Life,” as it was always referred to, in the eyes of the world, notably in ideological combat with the Soviet Union, China and the numerous colonial and neo-colonial revolutions, Vietnam included, still unfolding. Being part of the progressive sports grapevine, we also learned that many students and popular organizations in Mexico itself opposed the mounting of the games and wanted the funds directed toward social and educational needs. We knew it was going to be a very different kind of Olympics, and waited for the fireworks. But our horror was literally boundless as we watched the television coverage of Mexican students and other activists being shot down in cold blood in the streets of Mexico City as they protested the games in front of the big stadium. Hundreds of lives were lost to police assassination. In fitting disgust, and as a defiant gesture for their communities back home, John Carlos and Tommy Smith performed a radical act inside the stadium: they raced, they won, and then they gave the flying finger – the Black Power salute – to the U.S. Olympic Committee, the U.S. government and the IOC.

The whole world understood. America’s strongest men, representatives of its warrior class that was fighting and dying in Vietnam and in the ghettos, were standing up and saying, “We don’t recognize the legitimacy of your authority! Our victory is not yours!” to the generals and dictators on the IOC and the elite members of the U.S. Olympic Committee. I screamed myself hoarse at the televised image of those men on the podium, heads bowed, arms raised high. Right on, right on! And then they paid for it – they were stripped of their medals and expelled from the games.

“Sport and the Olympic Games are above politics,” the IOC spokesman pompously intoned as he took the podium to announce the decision to expel the athletes. “And they must remain so. These sacred games transcend nation and race and partisan interest….”

As his voice droned on, I sat on our couch, pulverized, nauseated. I couldn’t believe my ears. I was literally gagging on the hypocrisy. Never, ever would I regard the Olympics with a benign eye, never believe the self-serving lies. Nor would I ever again think that organized sport was an innocent player in world culture. I remembered the way that George Orwell and Aldous Huxley had treated sport in their dystopian novels, 1984 and Brave New World – as an institution of profound integration into steeply stratified, undemocratic societies. And I really understood why.

With that final shocking addition to a year of stunning events, which we had lived out in small measures compared to the real combatants in Vietnam, in Eastern Europe, in France, in Mexico, in the American ghettos, my entire being, which had been shifting leftward by small and medium steps for the twelve preceding months, finally took a flying leap far, far out into political space and landed on a new and different level, vibrating and poised, in deep, bitter, committed opposition. And I was transformed, irrevocably, into a true radical, right down to the core of my being.

Varda Burstyn is an award-winning political writer whose work has appeared in popular media – film, T.V., magazines, books, radio – and in scholarly publications. (Her very first published article appeared in Canadian Dimension in 1971.) As well, she has taught film studies and worked as a ministerial speechwriter and public-policy and health-policy consultant. Over the last 25 years, she has focused on the politics of science, ecology, genetic engineering and reproductive technologies; government, public administration, censorship and freedom of expression, including sexual expression; the culture and politics of film, fine art and sport; and health policy and health-care reform. Her 1999 book, The Rites of Men: Manhood Politics and the Culture of Sport (University of Toronto Press), won the Book of the Year Award of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport. Her first work of fiction, Water Inc., is a political thriller that will be will be released in Canada and the U.S. in April.

This article appeared in the March/April 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .

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