‘Witness—The Sixties’ (04/89)

the sixties

When it comes to books on “the sixties,” my favorite—and all too typical—Horrible Example comes from Sara Davidson’s 1977 Loose Change: “The times were changin’, the waters had grown. President Kennedy was shot. The Beatles arrived. We’d better start swimming or sink like a stone. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were run out of Harvard for fooling with LSD. Negroes sat in at Woolworth lunch counters. Buddhist monks set fire to themselves in South Vietnam…”

With a couple of forgotten names, a couple of remembered heroes, there you have it: the “sixties” collage that, in picture form, graces the jacket of nearly every book, good or bad, that means to catch the decade. Shot of Kennedy, shot of Beatle, shot of Vietnamese peasant, shot of marching crowd, shot of naked girl at Woodstock, shot of Martin Luther King—the collapse of one subject into the other turning each into a joint cliche, letting you experience as nostalgia the fact that so many of these subjects were shot.

In their texts, more writers on “the sixties” than not submit to this killing smear of meaning. They don’t tell one who was part of the smeared events they recount much he or she doesn’t already know. For those who weren’t part of the events, they offer little or nothing that could allow them to understand even one true idea: the belief, say, that civil rights workers, blacks and whites in the South in the early sixties, that they were “the beloved community.”

On the surface, Witness is just another collage. It carries the requisite jacket; inside are neatly ghettoized pieces (interviews, fiction, memoirs, a critical essay, histories) on Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, hippies, music, and a stolid closer, “The Legacy of the Six­ties.” (More than half of the selections in this issue of the quarterly journal are taken from recently published books.) And yet, read in snatches or cover to cover, Witness hurts—not so much because it’s serious as because its best pages contain a profound and daunting moral gravity.

Even the pieces that don’t convince, that seem like apologies or evasions, are nevertheless convincing in a strange way: they’re weirdly honest, at the least transparent, in their evasiveness. Reading Tom Hayden’s essay, “The Streets of Chicago: 1968,” you sense the Santa Monica assemblyman, in 1968 a leader of the antiwar demonstrations against the Democratic Convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey for president (after antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy’s campaign had collapsed, after antiwar candidate Robert F. Kennedy had been shot), calculating the revisionist, self-serving effect of every word. Quoting several famous names, Hayden now concludes that, had he lived, Bobby Kennedy would have been elected president in 1968. But it isn’t true: when Kennedy won the California primary, on the night he was killed, Humphrey had the nomination locked up. No recently published book would help one remember this, or learn it, but it’s so: those were different times, the rules were different, and that June it didn’t matter how many primaries Kennedy had won that Humphrey never had to enter. But Hayden’s point is not that it was the very populism of the 1960s that makes such an event impossible today. His point, after so many blamed Humphrey’s defeat on the Chicago demonstrations that indelibly linked the Democrats to a spectacle of anarchy and violence, is that it wasn’t his, Tom Hayden’s, fault that in 1968 Richard Nixon was elected president.

Side by side a piece like Hayden’s, the corrosive truth-telling one can find in Witness hits hard. There is poet Louis Simpson, in a Berkeley memoir, jumping out of the 1960s and into the present: “I see Richard Nixon these days sitting in the stands at ball games… What is he doing there? Why isn’t he in jail?” There are interviews with two early-sixties civil rights workers, John Lewis (now a congressman) and Bob Zenner (now a carpenter): they talk about integrating lunch counters and trying to get Southern blacks to register to vote. Too quickly, or too slowly, in awful detail, they describe the violence such attempts to enact the Constitution brought forth—violence so gruesomely generalized, so sadistically specific, that it has been expunged from national memory. And there is Lawrence Wright, in “Existential Politics” (from his 1988 In the New World), capturing still more that has been conveniently forgotten: the irrelevance of Martin Luther King in the months before his murder, the brilliant fraud of the John F. Kennedy “Camelot” myth, and the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, who, after being driven from office in 1968 by antiwar protesters and the North Vietnamese Army, “came home to Texas and let his hair grow down to his shoulders.” The symbolism of that line is bottomless. Was Johnson’s long hair the long hair of the people who shouted him down? The men who died at the Alamo? George Custer?

Irony is the currency in postmodern discourse: self-protection. One never has to mean what one seems to be saying. There’s no irony in Casey Hayden’s brief Witness essay on the early civil rights movement. She talks about working in SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, of which John Lewis was the first chairman) in the South in 1963 and for a couple of years after that: white college students and “thousands and thousands of poor Southern blacks who were in fact the movement… they were there when we got there and they were there when we left. Many of them could not read or write and they could barely speak the English language. They will never see this writing.”

One could pause over the harshness (some would say the racism) of her statement that “they could barely speak the English language” (who’s to say, after the work academics have done to affirm “Black English,” what is English and what isn’t?), but that harshness is what Hayden is after: utter frankness. So she writes about what it meant for her, and others, to try to change a system of exclusion and mendacity that, in her time, was taken as an absolute. She speaks the language of a time cut off from time, as if superior to the present. “I think we were the only Americans who will ever experience integration,” she says, and while the outdated word integration is grating, her belief that American blacks and whites will never again meet each other without a consciousness of race superseding all contact is something no one who might buy a copy of a fringe journal like Witness will want to hear. She speaks the language of naiveté: “We were the beloved community… everyone was welcome inside this perfect place… we wanted to turn everything not only upside down but inside out. This is not mild stuff. We believed, pre-Beatles”—she is speaking of young whites and young blacks, before whites were excluded from SNCC—“that love was the answer. Love, not power, was the answer. All the debates about nonviolence and direct action and voter registration” (if you are Casey Hayden’s age now, in your forties, and if you have children, try to explain to them why civil rights workers, as they were beaten, maimed and killed, did not fight back; that in the time Hayden is writing about, blacks in the South were prohibited on pain of death from voting; try to explain the weight of the fact that, today, Republican Party operatives in the South, and in California, work to keep blacks from voting; try to explain what sort of future this present, like Hayden’s past, implies), “in my view, were really about whether love or power was the answer… the movement in its early days was a grandeur which feared no rebuke and assumed no false attitudes. It was a holy time. This is, of course, just my personal experience…”

“A holy time”—these are words that all the books that damn “the sixties” and all the books that worship them will have to demolish, or live up to. But a few of Hayden’s words are not “sixties” at all: “just my personal experience.” Perhaps that is the only irony Hayden will allow herself. “The personal is political,” went the feminist slogan that, better than any other slogan, caught the essence of the collage that on the surface was the 1960s—what was remarkable abut the time, what remains actually interesting, is that when, as Hayden says, “for a brief time in history, in our very own lives, art, religion, and politics were one,” nothing was merely personal.

In Witness, Casey Hayden speaks as a witness, recalling a moment that she herself witnessed: a moment that formed her, that ever since has measured only the poverty of her life and of her times, a moment she still has an obligation to pass on, because she was blessed to be part of it. “We were the beloved community”; today it sounds so foreign it is barely the English language. This is the sixties, without quotes: for all of its stupidities, mysticisms, solip­sisms, self-promotions and cons, all well-covered in Wit­ness, this is another world, which some of those who were there carry within themselves, and which those who were not there sometimes say they feel as an absence, like the itch of a limb amputated before they were born.


Equal Affections, by David Leavitt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
$17.95) W & N paid a fortune to get fiction phenom Leavitt away from Knopf, but they’re not going to get much of it back, not with this smoothly boring novel of family life. Mother with cancer, father with mistress, successful gay daughter (star on the women’s music circuit), successful gay son (lawyer, with successful lawyer lover)—as T-shirts say, SHIT HAPPENS.

California, April 1989

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