of the Children's Crusade
Beth Henson is associate editor of Race Traitor.
I attended my first civil rights demonstration in 1961 when my dad joined the NAACP in Salt Lake City. We gathered at the capitol building during a vote on school desegregation and formed two silent lines, from the heavy doors to the legislative chambers, under the rotunda with its paintings of stage coaches and sagebrush and down the broad stairs. When the doors finally opened (we had lost) we stayed at our places while the legislators moved between us, white men all, in expensive topcoats, avoiding our eyes and looking forward to supper.
In the car my dad began to sing and we all joined in. Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home, swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.
Camping in Yellowstone with my family, I went for an after-dinner walk and joined a circle of singers around a campfire. Those were the days of the freedom songs and the hootenanny, of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Buffie St. Marie.
I joined the Unitarian Church and their youth group. We invited speakers, the two boys from Utah who took part in Mississippi Freedom Summer. They had travelled a long way from the valley's bland, well-nourished conformity and bore the aura of a dangerous quest; they spoke of fear on country roads and the courage of black church women.
Friday nights we went to the Joe Hill House, a shelter by the train tracks run by an old Catholic Worker organizer, Ammon Hennessy. We sprawled on the floor with our coats on and he lectured us on strikes he had seen and then Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest, would haul out his guitar and lead us in song. Oh, the banks are made of marble, with a guard at every door. And the vaults are lined with silver that the poor have sweated for. The residents -- we called them bums -- stayed in the parlor and stared at us from behind Utah's back.
We would make out on the way home, bundled in the dark back seats of cars.
In 1964 I met Julie (who was calling herself jew in sympathy for the outsider). She took me home and showed me her books: Dostoievski, Pound, Eliot, Sartre. Together we read Prufrock, swooning over the lines, "I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled." Together we discovered Howl and the small collection of poetry books from City Lights and New Directions; we read Diane di Prima; we called each other after school to read Patchen and Creeley over the phone; we were the first beatniks at our respective schools.
I acquired an all-black outfit, slimming and chic; my mother threw it away.
We met Perry, a practicing Zen Buddhist, a college dropout from Kansas, who walked downtown every day to study Chinese characters above a chop suey joint in Japantown. We met his roommate who slept all day and played bass at a downtown club, and Randall, a poet who drank bottles of cough syrup for the codeine it used to contain.
We would meet in the perpetual gloom of Perry's attic apartment, with Pip, who later married Randall and had a child named Rain and then divorced him as a hopeless junkie and became an instructor for the Maharishi.
By the time I entered high school, I was ready to run away and live in a bare fifth-floor walkup where the sun came through a grimy window to illuminate a jar of wildflowers placed on the stove. I skipped school as often as I attended and attended only to meet my friends, girls who wrote poetry, boys with long hair. We began buying pot from Mexican dealers on the west side and listened to the Beatles (Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream, it is not dying) while incense burned and we lay back on cushions in darkened rooms in our parents' basements.
I lost my virginity to a drifter with velvety eyes and a thin nervous build; he used to tell me he loved me so much he wanted to carry me with him as a woman with child, unaware that I, too, had read Lolita. I led him to a local commune and they let him sleep on the back porch; we fucked ecstatically for a week and then he disappeared for good; I waited till evening and learned that he had stolen $300 from his hosts.
1966: the first Be-In was held in Golden Gate Park, and in Salt Lake City, Ken Kesey parked his magic bus by Temple Square and gave away LSD. Coltrane and black turtleneck sweaters were out; we wore bright colors, silk shirts with broad sleeves and old velvet dresses, ribbons fastened around our necks with Victorian brooches; we wore paisley miniskirts and capes and listened to the Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish.
The Cream were playing the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco; we drove 700 miles over the Nevada desert and arrived at dawn in the city of love, slept on someone's floor and woke up at dusk to stroll through the Haight.
So many beards, so many beads. Posters from the Straight Theater, panhandlers, tourists, bikers, entrepreneurs, runaways, dresses made from Indian bedspreads, leather fringe, tie-dye and sandals. I felt provincial, I was used to knowing all the freaks in town. At the concert I was overcome by dizziness, the swirling lights and undulating dancers; I had smoked too much, eaten too little, I went outside and walked around. I swore to return to the city of love.
Back in Salt Lake City, I took LSD the last night of Christmas break my senior year of high school in an unoccupied apartment and tried to keep warm by lighting the oven and climbing between the mattress and box spring to sleep, then had breakfast at Dennys where I tried to figure out if I looked "normal" after a night of visual hallucinations.
I cut out after math and finished high school with
a GED six years later.
The day I turned 18, I moved to a former mining town in the nearby mountains with my lover, John, and rented the last house on Main Street for $35. It was a miner's shack with two bedrooms, a clawfooted bathtub, and a backyard where John grew carrots.
A friend from high school paid a visit, dressed in a velvet gown. I was so envious, in my wornout homemade muslin shift; she let me try it on and I was pretending it was mine when John brought me the first harvest, a clump of dirty roots which he tossed into my lap. I threw them in his face and burst into angry tears. Then I hitchhiked down the mountain and all the way to San Francisco.
I met Caspar, an organic farmer from Vermont, who'd left the farm in care of his sons and come west to talk about compost. He ate a can of sardines every day. I lived with him till John came and got me, then I left Caspar without notice, abandoning the room we had shared with two other couples.
We joined Carmen in a commune on Fell Street near Fillmore. We loved to walk Fillmore Street on a Saturday night with the rib shops and families sitting out on stoops; John was light on his feet and led me invisibly through the crowd, moving in time to the beat.
Viet Nam was in the headlines every day; we never
read the paper.
In Berkeley I spent the afternoon with an old friend in a dim bar where the beer was cheap and the TV broadcast the World Series; we talked about tarot cards and the Kabbala, and how much more relaxed California was than Salt Lake City, then stepped outside in a beery fog to find tear gas canisters exploding on campus and wet paper towels thrust in our hands.
Later we lived across the street from the public library on Page Street near Golden Gate Park; Carmen made draperies of crimson velvet for the living room and kept them closed, turning our common room into a subterranean cavern with the eye of Gurdjieff staring down from the mantel.
John drove a taxi and I took care of a girl in a whole-body cast; she'd had spinal surgery, I sat with her while her mother worked downtown, brought her lunch and a bedpan and sold her grass which we'd smoke in the afternoon. She subscribed to Rolling Stone, together we read about the Plaster Casters, who made casts of the genitals of rock stars. We looked at each other's faces through a mirror.
When John got home, he would soak in the tub while I'd read to him from Ouspenski's The Fourth Way.
Was I a race traitor or just another tie-dye hippie? One thing for certain: I was utterly, ineluctably opposed to official society, a one hundred percent dropout, willing to roll my cigarettes from Bull Durham and live on oatmeal and brown rice and welfare commodities and what I could earn charting horoscopes and selling lids. Having rejected the burdens of being white, I was willing to do without the privileges, too: regular wages, easy credit, cheap higher education. But I could have dropped back in at any time. Most of my generation did.
It was not primarily the racism of official society that I abhorred; it was its soullessness, its hypocrisy, the sacrifice of the here-and-now for abstract goals like security or prestige, the tedium of the daily commute to a nine-to-five job, toiling in the company of like-minded Babbitts to pay for the cinderblock apartment with wall-to-wall carpeting and built-in cupboards in a so-called safe neighborhood, with parking downstairs for the modest but late-model Ford. I wanted poetry and I wanted leisure: I wanted to observe a moment of stillness, watching the sun come up and go down. I won't grow up, I don't wanna go to school, just to learn to be a parrot and recite a silly rule.
I hated the war, identified with its victims, and said yes to boys who said no. I did not know a single person who had volunteered for the draft, and the ones who were drafted against their will came back in a matter of months with dishonorable or "crazy" discharges. The handful of guys who'd done their time were the focus of morbid curiosity. I -- we -- hated the war because it was murder and destruction, bootcamp and buzz cuts, because it pitted "us" against "them." As to the details of its origins and progress, I knew nothing; I never read the paper and don't recall the Tet offensive, as one example, though I did join in the massive demonstrations against the bombing of Cambodia in May, 1970.
As for the black movement, mostly we stayed out of its way while we followed the siren call of self-realization. Our pacifist sensibilities were offended by its growing militancy and the flourishing of shotguns. Some of us felt rejected by the integrationist movement we'd grown up with. We heeded Stokley Carmichael's 1967 injunction to abandon the movement to its rightful proponents, while ignoring his demand that we work in our own communities.
We did not demonstrate because we were above it all, we were at work creating a new world within the old, not for us the committee meetings and mimeograph machines and maneuvering of political activity. We were the real anti-war movement, and we were millions around the world. Without us governments would dissolve into dust; we held up half the sky.
But were we race traitors? We emulated the Indian, decking ourselves out in beads, fringe, headbands, and face paint; we forsook the God of the Old and New Testament and prayed to various anthropomorphic spirits; we joined the Native American Church and took peyote; we devoted ourselves to handicrafts. We abandoned the cities and moved into teepees on small plots of land, laboriously cultivated without machinery. We bartered among ourselves, we attempted to live without cash in a vernacular economy. We refused to go to war.
We also emulated the Negro, or our idea of the Negro, sexually uninhibited, gifted in music and dance, a rebel, a hipster, the epitome of cool, a race enobled by suffering. We identified with the outcast: black sheep, white Negroes. We also competed for low-income housing in the ghetto, moving a dozen or so adults into a three-bedroom flat, where our adherence to voluntary poverty, free love and exotic costume was considered mocking and offensive by most of our neighbors.
We and the black movement were going in opposite directions: freedom for us meant turning our backs on our parents and their way of life. We were on an inner journey away from affluence (tune in, turn on, drop out), while the black movement was advancing on the world with some very material demands, including the right to some of the affluence we were rejecting and the right to have their families respected. They were fortifying their community and proclaiming pride in their roots while we were denouncing ours as unjust, warmongering, and consumption-driven.
So were we race traitors? The police thought so. Long hair, beads and granny dresses were a badge of defiance understood by all sides, and provoked murderous rage on more than one occasion; white skin was not much protection for hippies and draft-dodgers. Black people understood, as well, that we posed no threat to them; "no hippie ever beat up no black man." The cops knew what we were about: we could spend our days picking flowers in Golden Gate Park and our nights making love by candlelight, we were still enemies of the state.
We did not need to march to oppose the war; we did not need diversity training to undermine white supremacy. By refusing to play the part of loyal whites, no matter how silly the specifics of our rebellion, we mounted a threat to capitalist rule. That the end of the draft meant the end of the party and we allowed ourselves to drift back into respectability, the caring professions, and private school for our children does not obscure our accomplishment: for one brief shining moment, we were race traitors.
If you don't believe me, ask a pig.