An Outlaw Women Remembers
This gem of a book sparkles with revelations about what "the 60's" were like for a working-class part-Indian woman from Oklahoma turned feminist Marxist revolutionary on her way underground. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is also, and I rarely use the word, a unique activist/scholar/author. Her contribution ranges from leadership in the women¹s movement to longterm solidarity work with Nicaraguas to scholarship that has produced extensive works on native peoples struggles to 20 years as an international human rights activist at the United Nations representing a non-governmental orgnization.
And hang on to your hats, comrades, because this book
is also a suspenseful, good read .
Not that the author sheds all convention immediately. For a time she was "the little housewife" and wore her hair in the middle-class "Jackie Kennedy bouffant" style of the era. Being assaulted on a street in San Francisco¹s Tenderloin District by a drunken woman who screamed "you think you¹re something, don¹t you, fancy lady?," was key to her shaking off painful memories of an abusive, alcoholic mother and at the same time coming to hate the proper lady she, Roxanne, had become. From there the author went to long straight hair and expert shoplifing, various lovers,, acquiring a daughter and losing a husband, and intense, constant study in graduate school. We follow her rapid political growth, especially the impact of hearing Malcolm X speak, and an emerging feminism. Earlier, the alienation she first experienced in her contact with San Francisco activists carries a message that should never be forgotten today. Coming from rural Oklahoma, it never occurred to her that she could just join a protest; she thought one had to be invited. So when she encountered a campus table where CORE was recruiting people for the Freedom Rides through the South,. "It seemed like an exclusive club to which I could never belong." Thinking perhaps she could do volunteer office work, she worked up her nerve one day to approach the table. Hesitantly, in her southern accent, she asked: "Are you-all going to be talking to poor whites down there?" It wasn¹t the question she had intended but it had crossed her mind. The response was a long stare followed by total rejection. The "cliquenishness of the movement" is a danger that Dunbar-Ortiz never forgets, without constantly hammering on it. When a man in the audience at an anti-war event where she speaks asks her companion, Homer, "You ain¹t one of them peaceniks, are you?" she describes the moment with friendly humor and none of the patronizing or self-righteous tone he might have heard elsewhere. Her comments on "anti-leaderism" in the movement express a feeling heard more often from activists of working-class background than others.
In this and other ways, the author's class perspective colors her book .
When she finally overcomes that initial self-effacement, her first political effort is to organize a union in this case, of university faculty and graduate students like herself (at the University of California Los Angeles). She discontinues one major relationship because the man¹s upper-class lifestyle and worldview become stifling. The most vivid moment of her working-class consciousness comes after the screening of a documentary about the SDS-led occupation of Columbia University. Young men in bomber jackets and motorcyle boots strut around the stage, haranguing the audience about how to become a real revolutionary, you have to kill your parents. Dunbar-Ortiz watches a middle-aged Latino janitor who came on the stage to set up a lectern, ignored by the self-named Motherfuckers. She thinks of her father, who worked at a school after he quit sharecropping, and how her older brother and sister, students at the same school, were ashamed of their father being a janitor there. Now she sees the Latino janitor stiffen at the words "kill your parents" and turn to face the audience with a terrified expression. In this book the author¹s personal development through local, national and international experiences parallels events with a breathtaking speed that illuminates the inspiration as well as the challenges of the era. We charge through the Cuban Revolution, assassination of President Kenndy and Martin Luther King, the anti-apartheid movement, the Vietnam war protests, the 1967 uprising for land rights in New Mexico, Che Guevara and his capture, SDS, the southern movement and Anne Braden, the 1970 Chicano Moratorium against the war and three Chicanos killed by police that day‹all in all, a global kaleidoscope of humanity in struggle. Two themes come to stand out in Dunbar-Ortiz¹s personal evolution.
The first is her feminism, launched when she read Simon
de Beauvoir¹s The Second Sex and began to see the family as the
root of female oppression. Then she was catapulted into ferocious conviction
when she heard of Valeria Solanas shooting Andy Warhol and releasing
a proclamation known as the S.C.U.M. (Society for Cutting Up Men) manifesto.
Reading this news in Mexico, she left immediately for Boston to find
Solanas instead of going on to Cuba as planned
The book zeroes in on much debated issues of the time like the claim that the struggle for women's liberation would prove divisive. As the war went on and the violence at home also continued, her worldview begn to shift its focus from on women's liberation as the crucial, central, key to any and all revolution to a reassessment of her politics to a conviction of the need for underground, armed struggle.
This review will leave you there, with 100 pages to
go. The book¹s Epilogue entitled "Un-Forgetting" (in
Greek, that is the word for truth) is a passionate affirmation of the
war years as "A truly revolutionary moment [not] confined to the
United States or to one generation. Something new happened then, something
deeper and more radical than ever before in history."
-Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez is a Chicana writer, professor and anti-racist activist for 40 years now living in San Francisco.