James “Plunky” Branch
Full circle is a meaningful route to travel, especially when its arc spans 40 years. Revisiting one’s roots can have the revitalizing effect of jogging the memory and clarifying some things buried under the accumulated dust.
The occasion of the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Columbia University student protests, which resulted in the arrest of over 700 and scores of injuries, brought me back to the campus. I didn’t realize how much I had forgotten, how far I had moved on, or how profoundly I have been affected by my (our) experiences there.
I had thought about not going to the reunion. I had a gig with my band in Richmond on Friday night, so I had to miss the fireworks of that night’s “What Happened?” event on campus. I wondered how and if it could be worth the drive, the expense and time to just put in an appearance on Saturday. But boy what an enjoyable, exciting and enlightening time I had in my brief time at the Columbia 1968 + 40 event! Faces, places and anecdotes brought back a flood of memories.
In 1965 when I arrived as a freshman I had to learn how to see White people with my physical eyes, having come from a Richmond, Virginia, where there was an avoidance of looking at white people, and where, by the time I left to go to New York for college I knew but one European (my high school Russia teacher). In 1967, I was an alienated youth, angry about a war, a draft system, civil rights demonstrations; and I was unclear about what I would do and where I would go after being immersed in the campus culture of rock & roll, bridge and poker, drugs and left wing politics.
For the first year, I was “Jim,” not Plunky, because I was not comfortable having white people know me that well. Later, I formed the campus interracial R&B group called the Soul Syndicate, leading “fourteen pieces of driving soul” on dance gigs at Columbia, other campuses and at discos like the Cheetah nightclub on 52nd Street downtown.
I missed the Saturday afternoon luncheon in Harlem, which everybody said was “da bomb!” But I made it to the Saturday night Voices of 1968 event that featured writers reading their works from and about their experiences during those turbulent and formative times. I was moved by the power of their words. Although it was largely a White literary event, it was like church for me, the church of the holy inspired activism. It was like a homecoming. And, it was gratifying to hear how different factions perceived and felt the proceedings of the protest week and its aftermath.
All of the writers were brilliant and insightful. I was moved by a woman who read a poetic work about lying on the paved stones of the campus walk to block the entrance of the mounted police to protect her building-occupying compatriots, while knowing she was pregnant with her first born. I was stunned to hear from a writer whose father had been killed during that period by the dark forces of the police state. I was inspired by the story of professors who formed a protective ring around the Low library to protect the protesters from the right wing “jocks” who wanted to beat up the “pukes.” I smiled at the thought of those writers who attempted to write poems in the midst of a rebellion. I was awed by the defiance of those who were undaunted by the harsh put down of the protest and went on to pursue revolutionary aims by forming the Weather Underground, taking a Bob Dylan song lyric more seriously than even he probably intended.
In the Saturday night audience were several members of my inner cadre of friends: Arnim Johnson, Ray Gaspard, Kent (Rashid) Parker, Alexis Scott-Reeves. I was happy to see the revolutionary poet Ngoma, a native Richmonder who did not attend Columbia, but showed up because he knew the event had value and meaning.
I was stunned and moved to see Ntozake Shange move ever so haltingly down the aisle with the aid of a walker, reminding me that no matter how young of mind and spirit I am on the inside, I am, we are, now a part of the old guard. Still avant, but older, nonetheless.
After reading her poem, Ntozake made her way out of the auditorium. I rushed to see if I could be of assistance and to let her know I was there and appreciated her work and the past we share. I was asked to go get her a cab and found myself out on Amsterdam Avenue, this April night dressed in black and trying in vain to hail a taxi. A young twenty-something white girl came up behind me and asked if she could help. She was able to get a cab to stop and she told me that she was a grad student doing her dissertation on Ntozake’s writings.
I realized how important writers have been in my life. All my girl friends at Columbia were and are writers and publishers, and I never before made that connection. Thulani, one of the organizers of the commemorative event who deserves all our unadulterated gratitude, was a superlative poet even 40 years ago. I often refer to her as my first wife because we lived together for the five years, bridging the 1968 strike and the years when I was a fugitive from the FBI as an anti-war deserter from the army, our time in San Francisco as supporters of Angela Davis, the Soledad Brothers and my earliest years as an avant-garde jazz musician and Strata-East Records producer, among a host of other things and activities. She was my support system for which I could never express enough gratitude and love.
I got goose pimples talking to Paul Berman, who played trombone beside me all those months in the Soul Syndicate, and hearing him reminisce about me leading the band into battle and encouraging new levels of creativity. He has since become a professional writer who was at one time on staff with Thulani at the Village Voice. Paul asked me to remind Cicero Wilson, back then one of the leaders of Student Afro-American Society (SAS) and drummer in our band, how Paul had arranged a meeting between Cicero, the leaders of SAS and Mark Rudd and the leaders of SDS on the night before the April 1968 protest. Paul thinks that he may have been the only person who could have facilitated such a powwow. He recalled that the student leaders met that night for several hours and had concluded the meeting believing that most likely nothing would happen that next fateful day.
When we took over Hamilton Hall I volunteered to man the switchboard, handling all phone communications in and out of the building for over 56 straight hours. One of my work-study jobs had been operating the switchboard in Furnald Hall in my freshman year so I knew the equipment. I left Hamilton Hall before the arrests because I had quit school in January and I would have been treated as an “outside agitator” had I been arrested. I would be drafted into the army later that year.
Frankly, I had forgotten that we were so radical. While in recent years I have cited my segregated Southern childhood, my public school education, my high school socializing, and my Black family and the sixties civil rights events as the most formative experiences contributing to my current political and social views. In fact, it was my years during and just after my matriculation at Columbia, 1965 – 1973, that radicalized me and made me a revolutionary artist.
I had forgotten that Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Hayden, Phil Ochs and so much of the Beat Generation, hippie culture and the white radical left was associated with Columbia. One writer related that he had few years ago tried to get his government files from that era and was told that he couldn’t have them because they were a part of an ongoing criminal investigation. The audience laughed.
I went to the Omega House later on Saturday night to be reminded how strong are the bonds between us Black people, how we party with a purpose and how we are a family. The news headlines – the Jeremiah Wright story, the Sean Bell verdict and this Columbia reunion of protesters – reminded me that those of us in the most progressive wing of our movement have to continue to struggle. But in this YouTube age we must know that timing, strategic planning and coordinated efforts are often trumped by images, demeanor and television set designs. We progressives are being asked to suppress our agenda, soften our voices and wait until after the elections to agitate for more media time. Yet the killings in our community do not wait. We are asked to bear yet another heavy price for the possibility of a grand PR coup, the historical forward step of a Black president.
Lessons from the weekend headlines: we may know the truth and can preach it, but pride still goeth before the fall. We may have a Black man running for president but the police with impunity are still gunning down unarmed Black men.
The Sunday morning memorial service at Earl Hall was well attended and moving. We called the names and remembered our fallen comrades. I played “Amazing Grace” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” and got two standing ovations. Once again, I brought soul music to Columbia campus proceedings.
On Saturday afternoon I visited Furnald Hall, my old dorm, and remembered how many hours I spent camped out in that lobby, playing bridge, in debates or just holding court like some southern social advisor. While walking past South Lawn I watched a group of current students playing touch football and remembered playing so many of those games myself 40 years ago, with Kent Parker throwing long touchdown passes to me as I speedily outran the white boys way back then. On this 2008 afternoon, the football bounded over the hedge; I retrieved it and tossed it back to the only Black guy on the field. Full circle.- by James “Plunky” Branch