Thursday, March 19, 2015

Red Diaper Babies

“I sucked socialism at my mother’s breast,” Saul Wellman

Saul Wellman, a Communist Party leader in Michigan during the Cold War, had fought Fascism both during the Spanish Civil War and World War II.  His son David, a professor of community studies at University of California Santa Cruz, contributed to Judy Kaplin and Linn Shapiro’s “Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left.”  David wrote of his parents: “Peggy and Saully [Wellman] thought of themselves as American patriots. Communism, in their view, was as American as apple pie.  They invoked Jefferson, not Lenin, to legitimate their revolutionary ideals.  They were offended when their loyalty was challenged.  ‘I fought for my country!’ Saully would proclaim proudly when the loyalty issue was raised.” Nonetheless, David Wellman’s father went underground for two years, during which time the family was under close FBI surveillance.  One day David saw a photo of his father on the front page of a Detroit newspaper in chains and under arrest.  Then his mother was harassed and almost deported.  Years later, when David Wellman gained access to Detroit’s Red Squad files, he realized that his father was persecuted, not for any overt actions to overthrow the government, but for speeches and activities no more insidious than attending a Pete Seeger concert.

At Miller Bakery Café revelers in green at the bar were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day while I had lunch with Anne and Leah Balay, just back from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where Leah might attend grad school.  What I know about Lincoln, Nebraska, in addition to whom it’s named for, came from reading about William Jennings Bryan as a young attorney there.   Anne knew about Lincoln from reading Willa Cather and having attended a conference about the lesbian novelist near the university.  She also is friends with English professor Melissa Homestead, whom they stayed with during the visit.
Bettina Aptheker (above), author of “ Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became a Feminist Rebel” (2006), recently reviewed Balay’s “Steel Closets” for the Wellesley Center’s Women’s Review of Books newsletter.  The UC Santa Cruz professor of Feminist Studies wrote:

Analyzing the steel workers’ culture, Balay describes it as one of “hypermasculinity,” in which pornography, objectification, and sexual violence are embedded. As a form of self-protection, many women, not all of them lesbian, exaggerate their masculine traits. For example, she quotes Olshana, a lesbian, who says she had “no prior mechanical or industrial experience, but took the job as part of a leftist commitment to working with unions and among workers.” Olshana says,
I was pretty awestruck by how these guys could fix anything with very few resources. Sometimes to fix something really old they’d have to make a part, or find a part, or scavenge or something. I think that influenced a lot of how I behaved in there because it was so cool that they were able to keep these things, these old things and these big gigantic things, running. I wanted to be a part of that.
As Olshana strives to become as competent and inventive as her male co-workers, she achieves a highly skilled position as a motor inspector. Balay concludes that, however butch Olshana may have been before starting in the mill, ultimately it’s the dynamic of her work experience that shapes her female masculinity—more than her gender or sexuality.
Anne Balay has produced an astonishing work of ethnography. As a testament to the sheer magnitude of suffering, resourcefulness, and perseverance of our queer sisters and brothers in steel, she has written a labor of love.

The “Red Diaper” daughter of Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, a pioneer in the field of African-American studies, Bettina Aptheker during the 1960s attended Berkeley and became a leader in the W.E.B. DuBois Club (in 1966 Richard Nixon decried as duplicitous the similarity of its name to the Boys Club).  Briefly married, Bettina, with life partner Kate Miller since 1979, is currently working on a queer history of the US Communist Left.  Her memoir “Intimate Politics” created a storm of controversy because she claimed her father had molested her when she was a child.

Historian Eric Foner, son of Marxist labor historian Philip Foner and a leading expert on post-Civil War Reconstruction, spoke at IUN about the FBI surveillance that was part of his childhood.  My friend Mike Bayer was a “Red Diaper Baby” and loyally followed in his father’s footsteps, laboring for a pittance as Midwest organizer for the CP.  I always value his perspective on current and historical events.

At the National Lakeshore visitor center I dropped off a copy of Steel Shavings, Volume 44, to Bruce Rowe, whose father, former Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Lloyd Rowe, is eulogized in the issue.  I told him former employee Amanda Board was mentioned several times.  Lo and behold, she suddenly appeared from the next room, hired only yesterday.  Fortunately I had another copy in the car. At her graduation last May, Amanda tried to give IU President Michael McRobbie a copy of Steel Shavings, volume 43, with “Steel Closets” on the cover, but a university official snatched it away from her.

Also grateful for Steel Shavings were IUN Chancellor Lowe’s administrative assistant Kathy Malone and VU History professor Health Carter, who recently returned from taking students to Selma and other Civil Rights landmarks.  He wrote: “Selma was a remarkably rich experience.  We’ll have to get lunch later this spring and catch up.”

Managing editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald of “The Sun,” a magazine based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, emailed:
I read your blog post about David Malham’s ‘Memento Mori’ with interest. Thank you for posting it.  I love David’s writing and want to invite him to send his work to The Sun. I know his perspective would be of interest to our readers. We frequently publish interviews and essays on the subject of illness, grieving, and loss. (I’d be happy to give him a complimentary subscription to the magazine so he can see the kind of work we publish.)  Would you be so kind as to forward my email to David?” 
Malham, excited over the opportunity, emailed, “You make my heart sing!”
Former student Lynette Jones sent me a digital card that read: “Kenny proposed on February 22, 2015, and Lynette said yes!  They are overjoyed to announce their engagement.”  Nice.  The last time I saw Lynette was at a political function for Sheriff Roy Dominguez; before that she invited me to her fortieth birthday party, along with IUN Communication professor DeeDee Ige and a couple Valpo law professors.

Although we didn’t bowl especially well, the Engineers won two games and series from a team called 33 Weeks of Hell (sounds like the lament of someone undergoing a rough pregnancy).  I had three doubles but several terrible first balls and missed three 4-pins, normally an easy pick-up.  Maloney floated the idea of the Engineers switching to a seniors league; we’ll see.  Most are in the morning and coed, not that there is anything wrong with coed.  After Melvie picked up a difficult spare, the captain of 33 Weeks of Hell congratulated him but Melvin didn’t react.  “We’re all half deaf,” I joked to the guy.

Someone I like very much got banished from Cressmoor Lanes due to an altercation last Friday in a different league.  From what I could gather third-hand, he rolled a strike and then an opponent claimed a 5-pin was missing from the rack and it shouldn’t count.  Normally if there’s a missing pin, which is rare, it is pointed out beforehand. Anyway, an argument ensued and threats allegedly made.  If such a thing happened in our league, I’m quite certain cooler hands would intervene and make the two parties to shake hands and get over it.  Again, what I know is sketchy at best but troubling.
March Madness in Miller; photos by Jim Spicer (above) and Samuel A. Love 
The weather has been great, albeit very windy.  One morning our Times newspaper was nowhere to be found, and stiff northern breezes make the Lake Michigan shoreline especially exciting.

I watched “The Big Combo” (1955) at VU’s Brauer Museum of Art, part of the “Thursday Night Noir” film and lecture series hosted by Gregg Hertslieb (who provided bottled water and packages of cheddar-flavored popcorn) and featuring speaker Peter Aglinskas.  Beforehand former IUN Continuing Studies administrator Joan Wolter said hello and Peter introduced me to a couple who turned out to be neighbors who had attended a talk I gave a few years back at Chesterton library.  I was tempted to ask what I spoke about (I think it was my audience participation talk on the postwar “Age of Anxiety” in the Calumet Region) but didn’t want to embarrass them.

Starring Cornel Wilde as Police Lieutenant Leonard Diamond, Richard Conte as gangster Mr. Brown, and Jean Wallace as Brown’s suicidal girlfriend Susan Howell, “The Big Combo” features a memorable musical score by David Raksin and haunting visuals by cinematographer John Alton.  Film critic Ed Gonzalez wrote: “Shadows and lies are the stars of ‘The Big Combo,’ a spellbinding black-and-white chiaroscuro with the segmented texture of a spider’s web.”  Aglinskas pointed out that unlike gangster movies of the 1930s, where you had heroes and villains, in film noir the moral lines are blurred.  In fact, the most sympathetic character in “The Big Combo” is a dark-haired burlesque dancer, while the blond in white is weak and dissipated.  Diamond’s superior tries to dissuade him from pursuing Brown, who is a much more interesting character.  My favorite scene is when he pulls out his double-crossing underling Joe McClure’s hearing aid before having him gunned down – soundlessly, as if we the audience are suddenly in McClure’s shoes.

Peter Aglinskas pointed out other elements commonly found in the noir genre, including torture, sexual perversion, corruption, suicide, and ethnic characters.  In subtle ways to avoid being censored, director Joseph H. Lewis inferred that henchmen Mingo and Fante (played by Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef) are gay.  When Fante offers Mingo a sandwich while they were on the lam, Mingo replies, “I couldn’t swallow any more salami.”  In the movie’s most erotic moment, Mr. Brown is kissing Susan’s neck and then goes down on her while the camera remains on Susan’s face, revealing a tortured lust.  Cornel Wilde, married in real life to Jean Wallace, couldn’t bear to be on the set during the filming of the scene.  Peter made references to other noir movies and actors such as Raymond Burr, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan not normally associated with the genre.  In “The Killers” (1964), Reagan’s last film, the future president played a mob boss and slaps a woman around.  Peter quipped that Jimmy Carter might have won a second term had he used that shot against his opponent in 1980.

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