R A L P H: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy
and the Humanities
Outlaw Woman Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (City Lights)
Halfway through this book I began to be afraid I was going to meet myself when I turned the page, and I didn't think it was going to be a pretty sight. The author and I had unknowingly circled each other for years as she moved toward the pointy end of the new political consciousness, and I dawdled around the fashionable edge. Not exactly a proud admission, but one that allows me to vouch for the accuracy of this excellent history of America's most recent revolution.
Dunbar-Ortiz and I did not meet in life or on the printed page, but both of us followed a path that led from an Oklahoma childhood to San Francisco in the ebullient early sixties. She came from the rural poverty she described in her first book, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie while I grew up in middle class comfort. The relative levels of our commitment probably reflect these different backgrounds.
The author's latest book is a continuation of her biography as well as a history of the Movement, the New Left, or whatever you call the militant political left during the turbulent period of the 60s and early 70s. Just as she revealed the shadow history of Oklahoma in Red Dirt, she has written a shadow history of America during those chaotic years in Outlaw Woman. "Write what you know," teachers have exhorted us, and Dunbar-Ortiz has masterfully folded the story of her life into this account of the turmoil and change that now seems so long ago.
Outlaw Woman begins as the author has escaped her stifling and occasionally violent childhood on an Oklahoma tenant farm. Head full of radical socialism imparted by her father, tough and strong-willed, shy and insecure, she found herself in San Francisco, the very seedbed of the coming political changes.
What follows is the history of the New Left, written by one of its leaders. She worked for civil rights and female liberation, with the anti-war and anti-apartheid movements, and consistent with her own heritage, the American Indian Movement. Her vignettes of New Left luminaries are some of the book's treasures, and not always flattering.
Though she fought free of her stifling background by the power of her intellect, it was no protection for her emotions. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and as she said, "...would cloud personal relationships for the rest of my life." Dunbar-Ortiz' personal life was as erratic as the times. This deep personal history moves her narrative along with the power of a good novel.
The new sexual freedom of the 60s did not bring concurrent improvement in the status of women. Female revolutionaries were supposed to man the phones, not the barricades, and wait until the battle was won before addressing their own concerns. Dunbar-Ortiz refused to accept this paradigm. She organized an early radical feminist group, Cell 16, always pushing the envelope, stalwart leftist, unwilling to compromise.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this book is its depiction of the Movement's descent into paranoia (or whatever it's called when they're really after you.) The Nixon White House, like the present administration, equated dissent with treason; government spies, deliberate disinformation and outright assassinations led radicals to arm themselves. "[W]e were joining a trend in the movement across the country, and once armed, our mindsets changed to match." It was a war that could have only one outcome, and she was lucky to survive it.
As I was writing this review in the big restaurant across from the University of New Mexico, a young man, seeing Outlaw Woman on my table, stopped and introduced himself. A native of Acoma Pueblo, he had worked with Dunbar-Ortiz in non-governmental organizations promoting the rights of indigenous people. He said that she had recently taken a lot of abuse for publicly criticizing the policies that led to Sept. 11, 2001. It cheered me to hear that she is still in the vanguard of dissent, still out there steadfastly refusing to allow us to ignore the consequences of a foreign policy based on fear and greed.
In our modern binary consciousness, revolutions seem to
be lost if they are not won. Those who dismiss the radical politics of
the sixties ignore the changes that were wrought in civil rights, gender
equality and the power of the government to wage an unpopular war. Dunbar-Ortiz
contributed to each of these victories. Now that the economy, government
policy and the national psyche are firmly in the hands of the same corporate
swine, revolution is harder to achieve. But Dunbar-Ortiz and her crowd
can still cause them to shift around uneasily at the trough, and sniff
the air for the smell of bacon. - Cese