Al Crosby didn’t gain fame until we had all left Washington State University and the little town of Pullman, out in the middle of the wheat fields. All our changes were there.
Al was the rare professor who bridged the generation gap and communed with us students. He even lived with us for a time in the Rosa Luxemburg Collective, a 40-something among us 20-something student radicals. I’m not sure I ever adequately apologized for that inedible garbanzo loaf. If any of you Rosa communards are reading this, I’d like to do so now. In my defense, I was stoned on acid.
Those were turbulent times. We vigorously protested the war in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia, the genocidal impulses of our rogue government. But our big student strike in the spring of 1970 was about racism. The university administration met our demand for a Black Studies program and Al, the white guy with the Boston accent, was tapped to teach Black History. That changed his life, and he changed our lives.
Thirty-five years later I was reading Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and I kept seeing Alfred Crosby referred to in footnotes. Could it be OUR Al? Of course, by then I could google him. I learned that Al’s 1972 book The Columbian Exchange had revolutionized the way historians view history! Al invented the concept of environmental history. He wrote a few other books as well, including Ecological Imperialism and a little history of explosions, Throwing Fire. He had become an expert on the flu epidemic of 1918 and I just saw him interviewed on PBS American Experience.
Some of us old communards got in touch and began a correspondence. Al had retired and was living with his wife Fran Karttunen on Nantucket Island. That’s where he died, of Parkinson’s disease, at Our Island Home where he had lived for two years.
Fran wrote to me: Al drew his last breath on March 14. There had been a tremendous wind and snow storm. Al waited out the storm and when it had passed and the sun was shining on fresh snow, Al followed Stephen Hawking into some other dimension where I would like to think of the two of them sharing a good laugh at the universe.
My latest favorite T-shirt shows two punks of indeterminate gender kissing. Its message is in Cyrillic script. I asked my friend Shelby, who had lived in Russia for a year, to translate, but she wasn’t able to make sense of it. Then recently I was wearing it when I encountered a Russian woman at a party celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. She gladly translated its message.
Shut up! Shut up! Punk out!
Now that I know its message is from the Pussy Riot era, I love the T-shirt even more. Wearing it on the anniversary of the 1917 revolution conjures thoughts of tangled Russian history.
I’ve been thinking about Russia a lot as I’ve been grieving the death of my friend Shelby Morgan. Shelby was a Russophile who loved Russian culture and the Russian people. She was deeply influenced by the poet Anna Ahkmatova.
I interviewed Shelby as she was dying of ovarian cancer. The story of her life is fascinating and I learned so much that I had not known. I was especially interested in how she became radicalized and why she joined the Communist Party.
Shelby Morgan was born in 1949. Her birth day, May 19, was the same birth day as Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X and Augusto Sandino. When she walked into Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco and saw a poster with the date and pictures of all of them, she knew she was destined to be a revolutionary.
Shelby was born and raised in Corning, a little Arkansas town on the Mississippi Delta. It was flat farming country, hot and muggy. Her father was a traveling fertilizer salesman.
Growing up a white girl in the South during the Civil Rights Movement colored Shelby’s political development. The forced integration of Little Rock Central High in 1957 when she was eight years old stunned her.
“I remember saying to my mom, ‘why would people act this way just because of skin color?’ Mom said, ‘It makes no sense.’ That was a very big deal to me.”
Because the Arkansas education system was so terrible, her parents sent her to a boarding school for white young ladies in Memphis, Tennessee in 11th grade (1966-67). Most of the students were from Mississippi and Alabama where schools had just been integrated, so their parents sent them there to get them out of the integrated public schools.
Shelby landed in San Francisco in the early 1970s. Her first job was at the Exploratorium where she worked with its founder, Frank Oppenheimer. The younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
“He would play the flute while I played piano. We had a sweet little friendship going on. He was an old man at that point, an old commie. His atonement for his brother Robert’s involvement with the atom bomb was to start the Exploratorium.”
She joined the Communist Party in 1978.
“I was totally anti-capitalist at this point and even with the disaster that the Left was in at that time, there was an international movement and it was just thrilling to me. I just felt this was where the good work was being done. And it was fun. Man, did I have fun. The people were just great.”
By that time, most of the older generation of commies had left the Party after learning of Stalin’s purges.
“The old commies, people who’d left the Party, said ‘what about Czechoslovakia?’ We knew about all the atrocities. And I, because of my gender training, said I’d leave the theoretical issues up to the leadership who were primarily male. I said I’m about doing the work on the ground. And I just turned my back to it. It was only years later I started thinking I have to hold myself accountable for this too.”
Communists and others around the world were encouraged by Mikhail Gorbachev’s promise of reforms after he was elected to leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985. When the era of perestroika and glasnost arrived, “we were hot for Gorbachev. I didn’t officially drop out of the Party till we moved to Russia in 1990.”
Shelby’s husband at the time, Dan, was accepted to do research in Russia. They took their four-year-old daughter, Sarah, with them to Russia in 1990. They came back one week before Gorbachev was overthrown in 1991.
“It was a very Interesting and difficult year. We were in Leningrad (now called Saint Petersburg, the cultural capital and the second largest city in Russia). This is hard to talk about because it was so difficult. Russians were really suffering at that point. For the first four months I was living the life of a Soviet woman, so while Dan was in the archives at the University of Leningrad, I would wait in line. There was no food to be had. You would go into a store and the shelves would be literally empty. I would stand in line for a soup bone and cabbage for two hours. We lived off cabbage soup. Fortunately Sarah got fed three days a week at school. After four months we got diplomatic coupons so we could shop. Even then I had to ride a bus across town for an hour to shop. Buses were so crowded. To get on you would have to push people. Sarah was sick all the time with earaches. The clinics and hospitals were filthy. They had no equipment, not even syringes. There was no hot water. I had to boil water to bathe and to wash clothes.
In 1991 the Soviet Union was in a severe economic crisis. The government was collapsing.
“We lived a block from Red Square in Leningrad. People were burning effigies of Gorbachev in the square. I remember standing in Red Square just sobbing. My dreams were dashed. Then Dan went to another city for a while to do research and left Sarah and me in Leningrad after we’d only been there a couple of months. My Russian was very poor. The Iraq war broke out. The American embassy called us together and told us we had to be really careful, lay low, watch your back. Sure enough one night someone threw a rock through Sarah’s bedroom window. I was just terrified.”
“I had a job teaching psychology (Transactional Analysis) at U of Leningrad. The Russians were hungry for input from the West. Psychology was dismal there. I also taught at a collective called Harmonia and did a Radical Therapy (RT) group.”
Her husband was researching a biography of the physiologist Ian Pavlov.
“When the summer came around, we moved out to the country to Pavlov’s daughter’s house in Komarovo on the Finnish-Soviet border. Stalin had built a village there for artists and intellectuals. It was where Pushkin had lived along with other famous artists and writers. I was really happy there. It was a sweet village with pine and birch trees and a beautiful lake. We used to pick berries. There were no cars. Most people caught a train between Leningrad and Komarovo. Everyone rode bikes there. On the way to the lake there was an old graveyard with old crosses and tombstones where the great female Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, was buried. My father died then just as the government was changing and I couldn’t get a plane back. This was just weeks before Gorbachev was overthrown. Everything was shut down. So I hung out at Akhmatovas’s grave to mourn my dad.”
As her marriage dissolved and she mourned her father’s death, Shelby watched as anti-Gorbachev forces grew. In Leningrad she heard tanks rumbling by on the cobblestone street outside their window.
“We were supposed to come back in September but I started thinking about getting Sarah in kindergarten so we came back early or else we would have been there (on August 19, 1991) when Gorbachev was actually overthrown.”
“We knew it was going to happen just the way it did because there was no civil society to butt up against the government and the mafia. Because it was so heavily state run.”
In the States Shelby worked as a youth counselor, a union organizer, in electoral politics, in the anti-apartheid movement, in the non-profit world, sometimes the only white person on staff. Shelby’s anti-capitalist outlook influenced her work in the Radical Therapy Movement.
“The theory was you should work only with people in groups, not individuals because unhappiness in life was not based on mental illness. It was a result of alienation from meaningful work, from community, from your body, from meaningful relationships. It was a way to anti-pathologize people’s unhappiness, a total anti-medical model of psychology.
“The reason people have trouble doing that: we grow up under capitalism, which is based on the idea that some people have to win, some have to lose. It’s based on competition and we carry that into our relationships. So RT developed this set of skills to teach people to have cooperative rather than competitive relationships. Radical Therapy was really key to building a mediation movement.”
Finding a time to interview Shelby was not easy. Even as she was dying, she was organizing, working for single payer health care, marching in demonstrations against Trump and for equality and justice. She was a lifelong activist and she is dearly missed by a large community of friends and comrades.
Shelby Morgan died August 28, 2017
From Wikipedia I learned that the poet Anna Akhmatova remained in Russia during the revolution and until her death in 1966. For long periods she was in official disfavor, and many of her relatives and friends fell victim to Soviet political repression.
In February 1917, the revolution started in Petersburg (then named Petrograd); soldiers fired on marching protestors, and others mutinied. In a city without electricity or sewage service, with little water or food, they faced starvation and sickness. Ahkmatova’s friends died around her and others left in droves for safer havens in Europe and America. She had the option to leave, and considered it for a time, but chose to stay and was proud of her decision to remain. She wrote of her own temptation to leave:
A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly.
It said, “Come here,
Leave your deaf and sinful land,
Leave Russia forever,
I will wash the blood from your hands,
Root out the black shame from your heart,
[…] calmly and indifferently,
I covered my ears with my hands,
So that my sorrowing spirit
Would not be stained by those shameful words.
— When in suicidal anguish, trans. Jane Kenyon
Russia on My Mind
On the revolution’s centenary I’ve been thinking about Russia as I read articles by the prolific journalist Masha Gessen and The Unwomanly Face of War by Pulitzer Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich who chronicles stories of Soviet women soldiers in World War II. Then I picked up the Smithsonian magazine to read a compelling piece by Ian Frazier, Whatever Happened to the Russian Revolution. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-ever-happened-to-russian-revolution-180964768/. He condenses the history for us in between reminiscences of his travels to Russia in the last 24 years.
There are many lessons here. I hope we Americans can learn them soon enough to avoid contemporary political catastrophes.
Longtime friends Angela Romagnoli and Lynn Stern were two of the foremothers of the Radical Lesbian movement. I sat down with them last November to record their story. Angie had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments. She died July 5, 2017. Angie leaves her wife of 39 years, Megan Adams, and their son Reese Adams-Romagnoli.
All three of us—Angie, Lynn and I—were born in the year 1949 and we all started college in 1967. We were all the oldest sibling in our families. We were all involved in radical politics in college and came out as lesbians. I was at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. They met at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Their stories resonate with me even though U of M is far from the wheat fields of eastern Washington State. We were making the same revolution.
Angela and Lynn first met when Angie encountered Lynn sitting on her bed weeping with homesickness in their college dormitory. It was the fall of 1967 and both were 17. Lynn was very close to her family in Chicago, and especially her mother. It was the first time she had lived away from home. They were roommates the next year in another dorm and they became lovers in 1970. They broke up in in 1978, but their friendship has lasted ever since.
Both of these women—all three of us—came from liberal families and the historical moment radicalized us.
The oldest of six siblings, Angie grew up in a union household. Her family moved to Dearborn, Michigan, just outside Detroit, when she was in high school. Dearborn was a white town, but they had lived in a mixed-race town before that. They watched as the city of Detroit fell apart, as jobs left the area and red lining took its toll on black citizens. Angie went to a progressive high school where she developed a class analysis.
Lynn was the oldest of three siblings. Her family were liberals and secular Jews.
In 1967 the U.S. government was escalating the war in Vietnam. The student anti-war movement gained steam. Lynn and Angie went to a bunch of meetings, looking around campus for a group to join.
“We saw who was just talking and who was doing. We didn’t want to hear guys just jacking off,” said Angie. “We picked SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) because they were doing sit-ins and actions, talking to classes.”
They went to marches, broke windows. “I was a baseball player and had a great arm,” said Angie. One time Angie’s mother picked up Lynn’s jacket and the pockets were full of rocks. “You would put your lead pipe in the pocket of your pea coat.”
They wore combat boots, overalls. “We could strut our stuff. No bras,” remembered Angie. “You needed boots in Ann Arbor.”
One night they broke into the ROTC building on campus, trashed it and didn’t get caught. But the SDS had been infiltrated by cops and many demonstrators did get arrested, including their friend Nais (a mutual friend who now lives in San Francisco), also a student there.
“One time a phalanx of police scattered our march, arresting people. I was pulling the cops off people’s backs, but they didn’t arrest me,” remembered Angie.
By 1970, the women in SDS were pissed off, questioning the leadership and meeting dynamics. Feminists like Gayle Rubin came to SDS to talk and the women listened.
Although their recollections of how it happened differ, best friends Lynn and Angie became lovers in 1970. “We were happy. It was great,” effused Lynn.
“We were fed up with SDS,” said Angie. “That summer they said read Mao’s Combat Liberalism. That Cultural Revolution shit was offensive to me. I’m from the working class. I said the revolution is not coming around the corner. I wasn’t under an illusion.”
“We were still living in an SDS house in the summer of 1970, but we knew about the Radical Lesbians in New York and Berkeley,” said Lynn. Two of the New York women visited them and suggested they start their own radical lesbian collective.
We were isolated. We called up the two other lesbians we knew in town and we put an ad in the Michigan Daily. We got a meeting room on campus. Altogether ten people showed up. Gayle Rubin held up a book at the end of the meeting and said everyone should read this. It was The Story of O. (they both laugh) “We didn’t get it, didn’t even question her.”
So they had an organization, Ann Arbor Radicalesbians. “We hopped right from SDS to radical lesbians with no feminist group in between. Two hundred different women came to those meetings. “Judy Dlugacz (who later founded Olivia Records and Olivia Travel), was one of the first. ‘I’m writing a paper on lesbians,’ she said. Then she came back with a little curly-headed girlfriend,” laughed Angie.
“We organized the first lesbian softball team in the women’s league,” said Angie. “Martial arts was an extension of feminism.”
“We made a publication called the Purple Star. I wrote an article called The Personal is Political,” said Angie. “That was before the butch-femme diatribe. Our roommate confronted me and Lynn and said you are nothing but a butch-femme couple. I got mad and wrote an article. Lesbians and especially separatists were talking out of two sides of their mouths. On the one hand they overvalued everything that was butch. On the other hand we don’t want have anything to do with butch-femme heterosexual norms.”
Lynn said, “I cried when they called me a femme. I didn’t want to be in a straight relationship. It also made me feel less powerful. (to Angie) You got to be more powerful. I couldn’t play sports. I always knew I was cute and smart but wasn’t very outspoken. I felt I wasn’t successful.”
Angie defines butch as someone who had a high male identification as a child. “I don’t think anyone has all of one ID. Butch is a complex psychological construct. I definitely felt that applied to me. I was a super tomboy. There are a few in every elementary school. I got in trouble about what clothes to wear. Mom gave me Betsy Wetsy doll. I gave it to my sister. My friend who was catholic said she had a dream the virgin came to me and we will get turned into boys. I thought great!”
Lynn teased, “I remember the skirt she wore when we were working as waitresses in the union.”
Angie: “I had to wear a skirt to work so I just wore the same one every day.”
Angie: “We (Radicalesbians) went to other places like Bowling Green and gave talks to 500 people.”
Lynn: “You really have power, influence. We just talked about feeling like ourselves. We told them about how it came about.”
Asked about coming out as a lesbian, Lynn said, “It took a lot to come out to my parents. I couldn’t figure out how to tell my family. We were estranged. My mom said we were laughing at her.”
Angie: “I was really uncomfortable. I came out to them about 1973. We were totally dedicated to coming out here, there and everywhere.” Angie’s mom was always supportive. She never wanted to be left out of anything. Her mom was only 21 when she was born. “She liked to talk to everyone.”
Angie and Lynn lived together for nearly a decade, in various collective houses, always poor. One time four people slept in one room. “We weren’t monogamous. We had a lot of experimentation. I never really did respect nonmonogamy. It wasn’t for me. Group sex and…so stupid,” said Angie.
Then, in 1978 they broke up. It was traumatic.
Angie: “I was really lost.”
Lynn: “I thought it would be like my parents. They stuck by each other. To learn that it wasn’t forever, not what we thought.”
Angie: “We were so young, so inexperienced. We became merged. I felt like you resisted my having more separate things, separating more.”
Lynn stayed in Ann Arbor. Angie got together with Megan, her partner of 39 years. She moved to San Francisco in 1979, becoming a therapist and founding the first therapy group for survivors of sexual assault.
Chuck and I bonded on a walk of the Fort Point Gang along San Francisco’s waterfront. The Gang was remembering dead communists and labor leaders whose names are inscribed on wooden benches at Fort Point, and also observing May Day, the workers’ holiday commemorating the birth of the eight-hour-day. We fell into an easy pace and Chuck told me he was a retired piledriver and carpenter. I learned that Chuck was a long-time member of the Piledrivers Union Local 34. I’m a retired electrician and so we talked about construction work. Chuck was the only black person in the group of old Reds. He, along with many in the Gang, had been a member of the Communist Party USA. Along with most of his comrades, Chuck left the party, but the FBI kept on surveilling him for years.
It was my first walk with the Gang. I’d been angling for an invitation to join and was delighted to be invited by a friend I’d known in the labor movement. It had really been started as a walking group, a way to get some exercise, by the seaman Bill Bailey and some of his pals. Since sometime in the 70s, the group had been meeting every Thursday near the St. Francis Yacht Club and walking to Fort Point and back, a distance of about four miles. Afterward we would adjourn for lunch at the Seal Rock Inn near Land’s End.
Chuck Cannon grew up in a small all-black community, Lake Como, in Fort Worth, Texas, and some years ago he started a blog about his hometown. By his account it was a wonderful childhood in a place where everybody knew everybody, although racism loomed large. He told me about hunting rabbits and squirrels and recalled vivid memories of the Texas prairie. He named the blog “ Warm Prairie Wind.”
In 2010, soon after we met, Chuck fell from a ladder while working on his house, breaking his right leg when it got stuck between the rungs. He was 82 then and never fully recovered. Over the years Chuck had remodeled the family’s 1910 Craftsman-style home, upgrading bathrooms, kitchen, bedrooms, building a basement garage and driveway and adding a deck off the kitchen. He was a handy guy with a full shop in the basement. And he didn’t let his poorly healed leg stop him. He rebuilt the deck, rigging it so he didn’t have to get on a ladder to do the work.
But by the time I came along, he and everyone else were too old and slow to make the whole walk with the Gang. By the time he died, at the end of 2016, he had not been walking far but, at 89, he kept walking. His wife of 64 years, Yvonne, a remarkable poet, would always be with him on the walks and I feel so lucky to have become friends with her as well. Yvonne became my writing teacher when I joined her group at a local senior center. Yvonne and Chuck raised three daughters together and found acceptance as a bi-racial couple in their Inner Richmond District neighborhood.
The deaths of the members of the Fort Point Gang mark the end of an era. The old commies represent a generation of people who sacrificed much in the service of justice and equality. They inspire me to fight the good fight.
I was delighted to be asked to eulogize Carla at a memorial for her at the Bayview Opera House on July 23, which would have been her 57th birthday. The Opera House is just now reopening after a restoration which Carla, as head of the Mayor’s Office on Disability, had a big part in. Her office provided vital funding for disability access, and now wheelchair users can enter through the front door. Here’s what I said about Carla.
Carla Johnson was my bestie. I loved her. I introduced her to her wife Anna. Carla and I worked together as building inspectors through the 90s; we worked on each other’s old houses for decades (of course we had permits for everything). Together we negotiated the prejudices we faced as women in the building trades. There were many. Still are.
From the time she made her first cutting board in high school shop class, Carla Johnson wanted to be a carpenter. She quit school at Cal to follow her dream and didn’t finish college till years later. She became a builder, working for small contractors and for a women’s carpentry collective called Seven Sisters Construction.
In those days, it wasn’t easy for women to get training (still isn’t). Carla learned the carpentry trade by reading. She told me she would just ask at the end of every day, “What are we doing tomorrow?” Then she would go home and open her carpentry books and the first thing the next morning she’d start throwing the terminology around. “So, we’re going to put the joists 16 inches on center, right. We’re going to start with the header joist.” She was assigned to be crew boss because she was the one who consistently showed up on time.
Later, she did maintenance on Victorian buildings for a property management company. She got a lot of love from tenants for keeping the systems going. She was a skilled locksmith. She could rehang a door that had been kicked in before the tenants got home from work. She could jerry rig the boiler so tenants would have hot water till the boiler repairperson could get there. Carla loved old buildings. She loved old houses, old trucks, old things. Things with some history in them.
For a time she had her own business, Carla’s Custom Care Construction. No doubt she worked on the homes of some of you in this room. Then she got a civil service job working as a carpenter at the Department of Public Works where she felt privileged to work on City Hall and other historic public buildings.
I didn’t meet Carla till after the saw accident that mangled her left hand and changed her life. It was shocking that such an accident could happen to her. She was the most risk-adverse safety-conscious person I ever met (a trait that sometimes drove her friends crazy).
She told me she couldn’t even remember the date it happened in 1992, which she said is a good thing for people with PTSD. She lost her little finger and she suffered through many long surgeries to repair her ring finger, and a year of rehab. She was disabled. She couldn’t earn a living as a carpenter anymore.
She told me the first thing that her workers comp attorney said to her when she got out of the hospital was, “I want to tell you about this new law that just went into effect.” Her employer had an obligation under Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide her with a reasonable accommodation–to place her in a job where she could still use the skills without the tools. That’s how she came to work at the Department of Building Inspection. Carla was happy when she was assigned to the Castro as a district inspector. She always loved working with “my people.”
One job of a building inspector is to perfect the art of saying no, not always an easy thing to do, especially if you’ve been on the receiving end as a contractor who has to do the job over after you fail inspection. Carla, with her quiet thoughtful demeanor, could say no and make you feel grateful for her advice.
She developed a reputation as a stickler for the building code’s technical details. Competent contractors who played by the rules liked her. Sloppy mechanics with poor workmanship hated her. Stairs are required by code to be the exact same height for a reason. Varying stair heights can cause falls. Carla carried a measuring tape and she used it. Our friend Nina Saltman just now told me about a job she ran that failed Carla’s inspection because it was a quarter inch off. She is not the only one who tells that story.
Carla became an expert on disability access. And she became a skillful advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. At DBI she saved us taxpayers money by resolving disability issues out of court. Then she moved over to the Mayor’s Office on Disability and she eventually was promoted to head that department.
When Carla called me to tell me she had just been diagnosed with stage IV metastasized breast cancer, I said, “I’m coming over now.” I ran the five blocks to find Carla and Anna standing in front of their house conferring.
“I need help,” Carla said when I got there.
“Anything,” I said, grateful there was something I could do to help my sick friend.
“I need you to get up on the roof.” She wanted me to accompany her to check whether the roofers who worked on the house next door damaged her roof. This was so very Carla. She wouldn’t be able to rest until she made sure her roof was sound.
Carla was fascinated by the details of city government. She would entertain herself during nights of insomnia by watching commission meetings on the public TV channel. I will especially miss talking about city government and politics with Carla over a beer at the Wildside or the Lucky Horseshoe. It was a topic that bored our wives and most friends.
Carla was the kind of civil servant all citizens want working for us, who understands she is there to make our lives better. But at heart she was a carpenter, a builder. She built a life that impacted so many of us, she built institutions, she built buildings, she built a marriage, a home, a neighborhood, lasting relationships.
We marvel at her legacy. And now those of us who are left must do the maintenance.
My answer is a resounding yes. I just read Klee Wyck, the Indian stories, and Growing Pains, her posthumously published autobiography, and was sorry I ever picked up my phone to read that fictionalized bio by Susan Vreeland. She invents pieces of the Canadian artist’s life, as if it wasn’t interesting enough. She invents love interests–men of course–and I’ve come to believe that Vreeland is trying to argue that Emily was not a lesbian. Which makes me even more certain she was.
Here’s the thing: It’s possible that Emily never had sex with anybody. I think there may have been many Victorian women like her. She recognized that marriage would ruin her life as an artist, and sex outside marriage for women wasn’t possible. If you did it you certainly wouldn’t admit it to anyone, and certainly not write about it. She does mention a love interest in one sentence of the autobiography, but that’s it. She had many very close female friends. Emily did have male suitors, all spurned. At least one didn’t go quietly, but she persisted in rejection. Making art was her first love.
But I don’t think lesbianism is only defined by who one sleeps with. Even if she never had sex with a woman, I still think she was a dyke. Look at the pictures of her! She cut off her hair and wore comfortable clothes. One photo I found shows her in the doorway of her trailer house with a couple of other female friends lounging around outside. I have never learned who they are. Who buys a trailer shack and roams around in the woods? Lesbians!
And the pets! There was a monkey, birds of all descriptions, and always several dogs. Who adopts and communes with animals? Lesbians!
Carr’s old trailer is sitting next to the house with a display in its interior. Hard to imagine living in this tiny space!
The caravan Carr lived in for weeks at a time out in the woods (with her pet monkey!) is impossibly small.
Emily was an iconoclast. She was an Indian lover, perhaps because she felt herself to be an outcast too. Her family and the sister who controlled the family after her parents died were the worst kind of religious nuts. She was proud of thumbing her nose at them whenever she got a chance. The British ruling class of her hometown of Victoria reviled her art until she became famous in the East near the end of her life.
Then there was that 18-month stay in the sanitarium in East Anglia. No diagnosis was ever mentioned, except that she was anemic. In the sanitarium she was not permitted to paint. It was thought that she had overworked herself. She consoled herself by raising songbirds. The reader cannot help but wonder at the real reason for such confinement.
I did enjoy her books and learned that she became a writer when her health failed and she wasn’t able to paint as she had. I’m so glad she wrote these books. I checked them out of the San Francisco public library–first editions from the 1940s, with thick paper and color reproductions of some of her paintings. I loved holding them in my hands and thinking of all the other hands that had held them since before I was born!
Whatever her sexuality, Emily Carr is a lesbian-feminist icon. She was driven to make art at a time when women were discouraged from doing much of anything. There is no need to invent male suitors to make her life interesting. She was a fascinating person all on her own.
Driving from one place to another is the best time to get the old Commies talking. Today I drove Jack from Fort Point to our regular lunch at the restaurant near Lands End. He started telling me about visual images still in his head from his childhood, memories of walking across the plains in Texas hunting as a kid. I think he said prairie.
“What did you hunt?”
“Rabbits, squirrels, really anything that moved.”
“What kind of gun did you have?”
“I started out with a .22, and then later got a shotgun when I was about 14.”
“Did you skin them and eat them?”
“Yes, I ate everything I killed. I loved that shotgun and kept it till just a few years ago. I didn’t want a gun in the house. My grandson was growing up.”
I told him I have a gun, a .22 handgun, how my mother was horrified when I told her I’d bought it. It was just before John Lennon’s murder. My gun is a Taurus revolver, the exact model that killed John. I put my gun far away in the storage room, partly because I didn’t want any visiting kids to find it, but also because I went through a period of deep depression and was afraid I might kill myself.
Then he said he had owned another gun, a .45. Jack had been in the Army in World War II. An Army friend who took it from the Oakland Army base after the war gave the gun to him. The guy asked him, kept asking him, if he wanted a gun. Now he thinks the FBI planted it on him.
“Most of the black Army officers were recruited to the FBI,” he said, and this friend was one. The FBI kept close track of Jack, and maybe they still do, he said. He was in the Communist Party USA till the mid-50s and the FBI would call him up periodically just to check on him.
The CP, and particularly one friend, bugged him to get rid of the .45. The CP frowned on their members having guns. It was dangerous, and especially dangerous for black men. Finally he took the .45 apart, every screw, he said, put all the parts in a paper bag, then walked along the waterfront throwing the parts in the water one by one. No one will ever find that gun, or pin it on him!
Later, when a president was about to visit San Francisco (he thinks it was Truman) the FBI came to his house. When they knocked on his door and asked him if he had any guns, he was able to honestly say no.
The FBI would always have someone at CP meetings recording who was there and making lists. But even after Jack stopped going to meetings, they were surveiling him. He thinks an FBI agent even came to a Catholic prayer meeting he was leading a few years ago. “The guy picked up all the religious books and looked at them. He came a couple of times. I knew he was FBI,” Jack said.
“Didn’t it make you paranoid, knowing they were watching you?”
At first he said no, but then he admitted yes. That’s why he got rid of the gun.
Jack said he left the CP in ‘55 or ‘56, when the Krushchev report came out about Stalin. “We thought the Western press was making up all those stories, but there was no need. The truth was awful enough.”