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Secrets of the Black Nationalist’s Library
My father doesn’t want to talk about the 60s.
My father doesn’t want to talk about the 60s.
I spent some time with Pops yesterday and dared for the first time ever in my adult life to peer into his notebook entitled ‘Nationhood’. I was appropriately astonished.
There is no secret about the fact that I grew up as a Black Nationalist. I think most of my blog readers were aware that I was present at the invention of Kwanzaa and participated in the very first celebrations, some of which were done at my family’s house in Los Angeles. For several years we didn’t celebrate Christmas. I have characterized my father as a scholarly flavor of cultural Nationalist. But I have always noted his unwillingness to talk about those days other than the broad descriptions of the fact that we were preparing to abandon the US back around 1968 and that the FBI had tapped our phone. My father, Robert T. Bowen, founded the Institute for Black Studies and the Redwood Theater Group here in Los Angeles. Both entities had offices on West Adams Boulevard for a time. I’ve spoken of this from time to time. As well I have mentioned that I spoke French and Swahili at home as a child and that my father was in touch with many Movement individuals.
The few pages I read in the Nationhood binder were full of names to whom my father sent letters. These were the names of men and women of significance in the US public affairs. It was a bit shocking. These were heavyweights. We spoke about this obliquely. I read the names listed on two pages of the binder out loud and listened to his grunting reactions. We children all know our father’s grunts, do we not? The correspondence between my father and these individuals was a striking revelation. I do not know the extent to which those letters exist or their original content but I do know you can find one at the King Center’s online archive. There are a few notable individuals with whom I am certain a lengthy correspondence did take place. One thing I can say for certain is that there can be little doubt of my father’s attitude towards the fate of black Americans in this country, and his saying out loud was certainly heard. He was a radical in no uncertain terms. If I ever doubted that the FBI had been following us, reading a few pages in Nationhood cleared that right up. I am now obligated to find out how much.
What is only mildly interesting is that my father never taught or expected any of us to hate or dislike whitefolks, so much as to take pride in our own accomplishments. But what is fascinating to me now is the relief into which it puts his life and its influence on my own. Here is a man who has the equivalent of Nazi war medals in his closet, and he must live life in the world which has defeated Nazism. There’s a reason people my father’s age were amazed to see Barack Obama elected President. They were convinced that America would always be the White Man’s Nation, and we would would have to make our marks elsewhere. Brazilia perhaps? Accra maybe? Every thinking man faces the exuberance of his own youth. My father had to mentally re-integrate himself into the society from which he had partially exiled himself, and us his family. Talk about dual consciousness. Talk about reversal of fortune. He is a man of bold sophistication who has had to turn it all into an appreciation for the simple pleasures of life. I can only see it in the parallels of the lives of the fathers of the nuclear age — men in their 70s genuinely interested in talking about everything but the past, whose details are the object of our fascination. Here is Edward Teller sipping tea in the garden speaking about what a lovely day it is. Here is my father sitting in his library of Black Nationalist secrets complaining about how fat his dog has become.
To know anything about Pops today is to know his absolute devotion to the operation of the woman’s shelter downtown where he never fails to volunteer, and to doting over us and his 10 grandchildren, his intriguing relationship with his Episcopalian faith, his dogs, his photography, his love for jazz (and disgust for Wynton Marsalis and Satchmo), the city’s architecture & cultural geography and his irredeemable puns and goofy alliterations. His inability to keep any public prayer short, his Obama trance (which the two of us have learned to keep out of our conversations). All of these which make him interesting in the present lie in sharp contrast to the man he used to be, even though local colleges love to have him lecture in Urban Studies. Ah, you know the metaphor. Pops is one of the Original Black Men, and everybody wants to be able to comprehend his grunts. We used to get up at the crack of dawn and run like Marines. We used to sing the Black National Anthem. Every day. Now, everything is well qualified and ‘diversified’.
Pops has, over the past 3 years, come into what is now clearly a very comfortable grasp on his mortality. He is slowing down ever so slightly and much more open to talking about his end times, his satisfaction with his time on the planet. Today however, it is clear that his intentions with the Library are to leave them with the family. I mentioned to him the fact that our old friend, the late Dr. Alfred Ligon was singly unable to place his collection anywhere. As far as I know, the proprietor of California’s first black bookstore, has a legacy in cardboard boxes that survived the LA Riots that burned down his place of business, but only just. Pops has insisted that the Getty have no parts of his photography and so I have taken the past 12 hours to transfer about 20% of his digital collection into my possession. What is to become of the rest of the Library? Well, we have a very solid connection to the African American Studies Department at Brown. So perhaps I may convince him at length to hand it over to them. Otherwise the secrets will remain in the family as is his current desire.
My father does not have any hunger, nor in fact is he properly constituted with the ego required for the spotlight his past might shine on him. And I cannot avoid the thought that I might exaggerate the importance of his writing and correspondence. He wasn’t an attorney, nor a politician. He wasn’t a big shot or a big mouth. He never aimed for power or glory in the vanguard of leading the Revolution, even though its prospects were always on his mind. He was in fact a genuine thoughtful man for others, a man of the people — a people whose best interests he believed lied only in their total independence from the United States. And when that possibility was foreclosed, he immediately turned to the cause of public health and became instrumental in the establishment of MLK Hospital in Watts, a legacy now more brilliant in intent than in realization.
My father’s love for his people, a people now free of most all of Black Nationalist orthodoxy and discipline did find its way into his photography. Somewhere in those piled boxes of prints, slides and negatives are shots of children and families at the Watts Summer Festivals, of the blackfolks in the Christmas Seals parades, of Tom Bradley with children and hundreds of other themes and scenes of the beautiful that Black became. I think he captured some of that spirit in Los Angeles very well. Perhaps my father’s legacy will be best illuminated through his photography. That’s my hope anyway. We’re a long way from 1968, but not too far.