Hello all,I know I typically post on Mondays, but this week things moved a little differently. This week, I've transcribed most of an hour long interview with the poet, activist, editor and professor of African American Studies, Dr. Aneb Kgositsile aka Gloria House. Aneb has worked for many years with Broadside Press, a radical black publishing house founded by the poet Dudley Randall in Detroit in 1965. She was gracious enough to sit and speak frankly with me about Broadside Press, racial issues and activism in Detroit and the tradition of radicalism in the city. As many of you know, I am fascinated by 60s and 70s black radicalism as a historian, and while this week's post is a bit longer and more radically inclined than normal, it's well worth diving into because she makes some incredibly insightful points about Detroit's history and the impact of the past upon the present moment. If I had my druthers, of course, every month would be considered Black History Month--but Happy February and I hope you enjoy.
Casey Rocheteau: What is your position at Broadside, how did you get involved, and what is your involvement now?
Aneb Kgositsile: I got involved back in the early 70’s, maybe a little earlier, ’67-’68 somewhere in there, but a good friend of mine is the South African Poet William Kgositsile, and I met him through the Civil Rights Movement. And when I married and moved here to Detroit, Willie and his wife used to come back and forth to visit. In fact, he thought of our house as a place for R&R, to get out of New York and come to Detroit and write. And, he was in touch with Dudley because Dudley published his early poems. He introduced me to Dudley. Then a few years later, I got involved with a group called the Alexander Crummell Center for Worship and Learning. It was lead by a very innovative young priest; his name was Anthony Thornell, Father Thornell, who chose Kwasi as an African name. He pulled together a set of families who were interested in making the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal liturgy relevant to folks who were community activists on the progressive side. We came together at the Alexander Crummell Center and re-wrote the Episcopal liturgy, putting in Malcolm and Martin as our saints and martyrs, and just radicalizing the experience.
Out of that community grew the Alexander Crummell Independent School for Black Children, and a food co-op and several other cultural actions, bust most importantly at a certain point, when Dudley Randall was exhausted and no longer able to continue the press, the Crummell Center took it over, took it under its guardianship. That connection had been made through Haki Madhubuti who had been mentored by Dudley, and then when he went to Chicago and founded his own press they stayed in close relationship. So when Dudley was sick, he approached us in the Crummell Center, because we were doing an independent black school, and so was he. So he approached us to take the press and run it for a while. It wasn’t clear at that point what was going to happen, but we knew that Dudley wasn’t able to work. By this time, the Crummell Center was occupying a church that was owned by the Diocese of Michigan, and we moved the press business out of Dudley’s home into the church basement, and we started to run the press from the church. And for that project, I was sort of director. I got nabbed for it because I was teaching literature, I was writing poetry, so I was the likely one to have this responsibility put in my hands. So we ran the press, we took care of orders that were coming in from libraries and international orders, and paid the press out of debt, because there was some money owed to the local printer. Over a couple of years, Dudley was ready to come back. He came back; he published two or three books over the period that he was back. He also started the Broadside Press Theater that happens once a month on the third Sunday of the month, and from that time from the 1980s or so, the Broadside Press Theater has been going on. That’s the venue for bringing in beginning writers, or even established writers. We have a workshop that goes for a couple of hours, and then a reading, an invited reader.
So about 1975, the Crummell Center took over the press. Dudley came back in about three years or so, was with the press until 1985, and then sold the press to a couple, Don and Hilda Vest. I continued as a board member with Don and Hilda, so I’ve been involved with the press in one role or the other since ’74 or ’75. Don and Hilda operated the press from 1985 until 1998, and then they sold the press to a group of us writers and educators. This was the next dispensation of the press, but there was continuity in that two of us had been involved from Crummell Center days. That’s where we are now. We have three poets, myself, Aurora Harris, and Al Ward on the board, there’s a young educator, his name is Chris Rutherford, my son who is into technology and has just gotten a Knight Foundation grant to digitize some of the Broadside stuff, and a young lawyer. Of course, under Dudley’s direction, the press was phenomenal, and what happened was he actually worked himself into illness. He actually published the first book of practically everybody who’s considered a major black poet now—Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Etheridge Knight, and anthologies and prose, and biography, Gwendolyn Brooks’ biography, the first part, and cultural criticism, and the literary critics’ series, and then this incredible series of individual poems as broadsides. So this is what sent Dudley into illness. [Feel free to peruse this inventory list of Broadside’s publications between 1965-1975]
Casey: the work.
Aneb: the work. Which he did pretty much by himself. There were volunteer associate editors and volunteer business managers, who helped him do some of the work, but the publishing, the editing, the processing of books from editing to the actual printing, he did all of that.
Casey: Was he just not good at delegating?
Aneb: Well, there was no money to pay anyone. The only volunteers he could get were people who loved poetry as much as he did. And then the books didn’t really bring in that much money, so it was really a labor of love. Then when Hilda and Don took over the press, they published another fourteen titles. And then since our little collective has been running the press, we’ve published six new titles, so it’s been a constant production on a very very small scale. So that’s sort of the history from ’65 until now. We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary this September.
Casey: That’s beautiful. It’s so funny for me to even try to conceive of an entity existing for this long in this capacity…
Aneb: running on volunteer energy.
Casey: right, exactly, for that amount of time. That kind of longevity of dedication.
I asked Aneb about the publication of prison poetry through Broadside and the state of prison poetry today, which I wondered about being consumed by corporate hip hop. She was mostly aware of Etheridge Knight, and we also discussed a publication of poetry from Attica published in 1975. To learn more about Broadside’s involvement with prison literature, you can check out this piece from PRX https://beta.prx.org/stories/110916
Casey: I was thinking about this trajectory where there was such a political attention paid to political prisoners, and the prison system in this particular kind of way, and also it being a space where people got radicalized but the progression where the prison industrial complex has expanded in this way, but you don’t necessarily see the same sort of continued interest in the literary vein.
Aneb: Yeah in the 70s and the 80s there was a very strong movement to support political prisoners, right. Especially among people in the nationalist movement. And to think of brothers who are in prison as prisoners of war that being waged on the black community. I’m trying to think of when that sort of tapered off. It tapered off as the government became more and more repressive against the movement in general. As COINTELPRO [The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program which extensively disrupted leftist movements in the 1960s and 70s] was more and more successful either in killing off militants, or in driving them crazy, or harassing them to the extent that they withdrew or went underground or whatever, so that that militancy around prisoners of war started to subside. I think there was a pretty strong push particularly among Puerto Rican nationalists, around those heroes of the Puerto Rican movement I think in Chicago, and then there was the sister who was down in the women’s federal penitentiary.
Casey: Lolita Lebron?
Aneb: Yeah, Lebron. So there was that consciousness among the Puerto Ricans, but that sort of tapered off as well. Whether that same energy sort of surfaces in hip hop—I don’t know.
Casey: Well, I think there are ways in which I was thinking about how you’ll see that as sort of a trope, like “I’ve been to jail, now I’m out, I got bars”.
Aneb: I’ve paid my dues.
Casey: right, and so there’s this kind of connection that sometimes isn’t even real. It’s like, “oh right, you were in prison because you were a Corrections Officer”.
Aneb: Or you did some petty crime, you’re not even a prisoner of war.
Casey: Right, like you robbed a liquor store or something and got a few months in, that sort of thing.
Aneb: Right, but you’re not a political prisoner. Now, I think that sort of politicization of the prison experience just sort of tapers off there. But I’m going to look for that [Attica] collection at the public library. I know at one point they had a really wonderful collection of Broadside’s books.
Casey: Another thing I wondered about too, was the way in which there is now starting to be more of an academic connection and interest in Black Power and the Black Arts Movement. I was at a conference last year about the Black Arts Movement where the university wanted to hold up this idea of Black Art but didn’t want to draw that connection to Black Power.
Aneb: That would be really hard. It came as the same ball of wax. It really did. So that would be false, I think to try to do that. You could say that the Arts were artistic expression of the same determination, or the same new vision or the same new sense of identity of who we were, who we are as a people. So it manifests one way in the arts, and it manifests another way in the streets or in demonstrations or in political formations or organizations. It was the same spirit of redefining ourselves--pulling out of the mainstream, and establishing ourselves in opposition to the mainstream, and for many of us identifying with Africa, and identifying with our origins, and attempting to understand that connection in a new way, and articulate it. So no, I wouldn’t try to separate that. That’s happened in academia among historians, people are really scary about power, about self-determination, about challenges, about critical challenges coming from the other. So then they sort of try to say “oh that didn’t happen” or it was just a bunch of crazies, or it was very much outside of anything real. That is true in almost…I look at the way the “civil rights” movement is written about by historians, and it’s the same thing. “We prefer SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] and nonviolence to SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]” because they represented a somewhat different way to approaching struggle. People weren’t comfortable with it, it was challenging, it was critical. It wouldn’t accept the authority of older people. So somebody like Taylor Branch, who‘s one of our best contemporary historians manages to always sort of sideline SNCC, and to misrepresent what it stood for.
Casey: Now, you were involved with SNCC
Aneb: I was involved with SNCC but that’s not the only reason I said that.
Casey: Yeah, I know, but it must be hard not to take it sort of personally.
Aneb: well, I don’t take it personally, I just see what is happening. Or someone like …there’s another book on SNCC particularly, but the book that he wrote on SNCC is just way way off, a real misrepresentation of who we were. But aside from that, I think in general, in the American mainstream there’s a rejection of those factors or those factions that question really profoundly our situation here in the United States—the black reality in the United States. It’s easier to sort of swallow non-violence and Dr. King than to deal with a nationalist and Black Power is associated with that. What kind of fool-hardy notion is that?
Casey: Right! I’m particularly interested in this because I wrote my Master’s thesis about the New York Chapters of the Black Panther Party, which there were two iterations of, and the earliest iteration in Harlem, that had heard the call put out by Stokely about what was going on in Lowndes County, AL. So he put out the call that people should be doing this across the country, and folks in Harlem took up the call, which was so tied up in the Black Arts Movement. This was before Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. Larry Neal was a member, and Sun Ra was helping them start off the Black Arts theater in Harlem and all of this is happening in New York around the same time. But the more I spoke to people who had been involved, there was a way in which it was so evident that the arts were entangled in the political. And I don’t know if this is just New York , but people would sort of counter pose the Young Lords and the Black Panthers in New York, where they worked together to say, Chicago, where they saw there were more tensions. I was wondering because there was so much going on in Detroit, what was the overlap like when you had the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Black Panthers, the White Panthers, and then the rebellion in ’67, and this arts movement where Broadside has a longer lifespan than say the Panthers for instance. I’m wondering what those connections are here, and if you feel like people are still invested in seeing that as a community within itself, or if it was a little separate for whatever reason.
Aneb: I don’t think it was separate at all. There was a whole black theater movement going on at the same time that Broadside was thriving. Ron Milner’s plays were coming out. There was another really strong impetus in the Concept East Theater, and they were doing plays written by local playwrights and all of the plays were about Black Power. So no, I don’t think there was any separation there at all. I think people just thought of themselves as simply expressing that one wave of self-determination through a lot of different channels. And even in terms of the political formations. I chose to work in RNA [Republic of New Afrika] because having just left the south, and SNCC and Lowndes County where I’d worked for 2.5 years, the whole land issue was very very strong in my mind. And I thought that ultimately in a revolutionary…in a revolution on the North American continent it would be about various national groups deciding how they were going to coexist, so I was sort of naturally pulled towards RNA. But, my friends were General Baker and Ken Cockrell [of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers or LRBW] and they were more attracted to the Marxist-Leninist line, but we didn’t see that as contradictions in terms of where we were headed in the long term, just in terms of what lines we felt more comfortable along, because we partied together, we raised each others’ children together. It was very much one community. And then, though I was in RNA, I was helping to produce The Inner City Voice [the LRBW newspaper]. So we were all moving in one direction, I would say, in terms of resistance to the status quo.
Casey: I think what happened in New York was really a political divide.
Aneb: Along what lines?
Casey: really around the issue of violence, and it’s position in the movement. I feel like that’s a somewhat common theme, in different pockets, this question of “how far do we take this?”
Aneb: Exactly, right, and no one really had the answer to that, and various people made different decisions about it. I don’t think there was ever a uniform position or a coalition saying “this is what we’re going to do”. There were people who were underground doing things, and there were people advocating things but not really doing anything, you know running a good line, but not really seriously doing anything. It wasn’t as if we were like, say Robert Williams [activist and author of Negroes with Guns] who said, “if the Klan comes and shoots, we’re shooting back” and did. There was nothing like that, but there were brothers who were breaking into drug houses and flushing down drugs, and taking drugs, and breaking into those houses at gunpoint, so that sort of stuff was going on, but there was no general cohesive commitment to how that should be done, whether it should be done. One thing we didn’t do—there was no condemnation or criticism by those of us who were not carrying guns. It’s like the thing from Fanon—always support the most extreme end of your movement, you never undermine. But there was no organized committed consensus around the question of violence. And even now there isn’t. Except for me, all of it moves us forward as long as it isn’t terroristic and anti-human—self-defense, certainly.
Casey: So one of the things for me in moving to Detroit is the way in which so many people are disparaging, be it media or people [in interview comments on the internet] acting like living in Detroit is some sort of punishment. For me, I think of Detroit as a kind of black Mecca, particularly for the urban north, and I would much rather be in Detroit than even in Brooklyn at this particular moment in time.
Aneb: It is Black Mecca, it truly is. I think…I’ve traveled a lot and I always feel when I come back I always think when I come back “my God, blacks here are so sophisticated” if you look at them from a world perspective because of the historical perspective of the city and this huge working force that there used to be, and how they were unionized and how they had fought for generations to be unionized, and just the sort of savvy of ordinary workers in Detroit, and how that just penetrates the whole culture of the city. I think people hear so much bad press about Detroit, they have no idea. It takes being here for a while and meeting some people and learning something about the history. There are so many layers of politicization through the history of the city, from the early early early days. Not only the struggle of free blacks to maintain freedom, and to create a refuge for enslaved folks who were trying to get free. And they did that, they did that in a very real way—rescuing people, getting them across the river, getting them out of jail. So there’s that, there’s all that energy there of resistance. And the fact that all the abolitionist came here for meetings. There are points in the landscape where we can still go and say “well that’s where Frederick Douglass was”. There’s that, but there’s also the European radicalism--all of those folks who came, who were really turned on by Marxist Leninism and brought it here, and organized. So it’s just so many layers of radical political work, commitment, ideological references and so if you have a mind for that sort of lifestyle, this is the place you want to be, because we’re on the forefront here. Who knows what is next for Detroit? The powers have decided they want the city again. They left it after the 67 rebellion, but they’re coming back in real force. They realized they had left so much of value—the river, the lakes, the access to international trade, Canada, Illinois, Ohio—you know, all of this. It took them a minute to say “oh my god, what have we run away from? We’ve got to make our way back.” And they are making their way back, and it’s really ugly right now because blacks are being just kind of…it’s ethnic cleansing American style. You know, all the foreclosures and meanwhile whites are being enticed back into the city in a very systematic way. So who knows where we’re going to go from here.
Casey: That was one of my questions, too, because there’s this sort of narrative in the media around the regeneration of Detroit, and even as someone who’s not lived here my whole life, I feel like “we’ve seen this movie before”. So this feels maybe different, but I don’t know. Do you feel like it’s at a point right now where there’s a stronger push to change the city or do things…I’m looking at the tax evictions and the water shut offs and the way that the city is acting even in just the problems around transportation, and this just feels like…this is so evident in what you’re doing, and who you’re trying to push out, and who you’re trying to bring in. And y’know, I’ve lived here for three months and it’s that evident, but I just wondered if that feels any different in the trajectory of Detroit to you or if it’s new.
Aneb: It’s really coming on stronger now than I’ve seen it before. They are very very determined to make this happen, and quickly if possible, and to continue to cover up the ruthlessness of it with this whole spiel of “we’re revitalizing the city, come it’s a beautiful city now.” And it is becoming a very interesting city for upper middle class and upper class whites. Really from the Boulevard down to the waterfront it’s a city for whites. And the rest of the city has really been left to sort of go to whatever. If you drive off the main drags, off Woodward into neighborhoods, you’ll see.
Casey: Yeah, and that’s one of the things too that irritated me too, even before I got here was all of the talk around “Wow! Blight!”
Aneb: Big Blight!
Casey: let’s take pretty photographs of it, and make money off of that and all this.
Aneb: right, right, the ruin…the sort of pornography of ruin. Sort of “oh wow look at that”
Casey: One of the things that struck me in coming to Detroit was that impulse, that gaze upon the destruction without the impulse to do anything
Aneb: or even to understand how it got that way.
Casey: Right. There are many ways in which being in certain areas …it’s one of those things that it’s here, that it’s ubiquitous as long as you’re not in this epicenter.
Aneb: Yes, you got it. That’s the way it is. So the epicenter is thriving and intended to entice. All the amenities, you know, the good life. Even the medical things, all the things that will make people comfortable in asking “does it have this, does it have that?”. They’re sort of checking off the list, like “yes, you do want to come here, because look at what we have.” It’s real. Sometimes it’s hard to believe. It’s so ruthless that it’s hard—like my God, they’re actually doing this. They have actually done this.
Casey: So my question is—so what’s really going to come of that? I know we can’t know the answers, but I think what I’m curious about it is—is there a role that the arts play in stemming the tide against displacement?
Aneb: I do think so, and fortunately we do have some young artists in the city who are aligned with progressive and radical forces and want to make their art speak to that, right? But the corporations and the foundations are quickly trying to buy off the artists in the city, you know there are so many grants up for grabs now. You gotta have a spiel that matches what they want in order to get the grants and they’re working hard at that. But no, I think there are artists who understand what’s going on and I think they’re not buying into all that. One of the things that I think is going to happen is that as they build their special city, special enclave, there’s going to be an increased militarization of the police. They’ve already moved to unify Homeland Security, FBI, local police force—they’re already in a kind of consortium, they’ve got each others’ back. And I think that’s going to be more and more visible, protecting this special city from all the rest of us. As you said, I can’t predict how our efforts to resist, how effective they’re going to be. I just don’t know. I know that there’s organizing going on against the foreclosures—Moratorium Now is very strong, and People’s Water Board is very tenacious, they’re going to continue to work, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, which is a group I’ve been working with—we’re determined to continue. For the most part we’re a coalition of about fifty organizations and we’re the working group of us have been issuing statements trying to provide sort of analytical frameworks. So those groups are on the ground trying to do stuff, but whether or not we can really make a difference, hold the fort, I don’t know.
We have a webpage, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, you can go and see some of the statements we’ve written over the last six months or so. The coalition managed go get the UN to come in and do a report on the water shutoffs, as a human rights violation. Most of us have been in the movement for a long time and we are going to continue, but I don’t know the answer to if we can prevail in any way, in holding on to something for the rest of us. Of course we hope, but it’s one day at a time.
Casey: I have one last question—are there poets today that you look at and you think these poets are in the tradition of Broadside Press, or not even necessarily poets, but writers.
Aneb: Let’s see. I think Saul Williams, brilliant young poet. And politically he’s very much in line with Broadside, whether he takes another turn or not. He has this incredible sort of mind that pulls in spiritual, political, historical stuff and then morphs it into…
Casey: something completely itself, a sort of complete package.
Aneb: right, something that you’ve never seen before. And that’s very very exciting. Jessica Care Moore, of course. She knows that she comes out of the tradition. I think I’ve even heard her say that—“of course, I grew up in Detroit, I’m under the influence of all of that”. There’s this wonderful poet who’s been published by Third World Press, Quraysh Ali Lansana. Very brilliant, very insightful. Um, there’s a young white poet in the city—who would be shocked if I said, oh, y’know, you really are in that line of Broadside Poets. And by the line of Broadside I mean culturally hip, politically hip, self-determining and pushing back against—they go by Ill, they’re a rapper.
Casey: Oh, yeah, Ill—Invincible, I know Ill.
Aneb: absolutely brilliant. Ill did a multimedia kind of thing with poetry and an installation and music, last year, at the museum. You sort of entered a kind of cocoon, and it’s sort of taking it to the next level. I think they’re really important in that sense. And there’s a young brother named Will Copeland, if you hear he’s doing a performance, try to go hear him or see him. I would say Ill and Will Copeland, and there’s a young poet Adaore Bandele who is very much in the nationalist line, whereas Ill has been under the influence of Grace Boggs. But Ill is not a nationalist, obviously, they’re white. But Adaore Bandele very much—she won a Broadside Press award a couple of years back in a competition. Yeah, we’ve got some good folks here in the city.