A Man of The Sixties - An Urban Journey
by David Rambeau
They were gathered there, on the sidewalk, not far from the theater entrance, looking like urban scarecrows with protest signs instead of rusty Pitchforks. A couple of them had on dashikis, but no straw hats like most scarecrows wear. Though a motley crew, their lives are not unimportant; they were not bagman candidates for statued inclusion in the Heidelberg Project.
I saw them from the Woodward bus, which slowly drove south, as I headed downtown to my regular point of transfer in front of the white marble bank. While turning my head to keep them in view, I couldn't help but think of them as forlorn figures, anachronisms from the 60s, militant activists with a lost cause and no mass following. Without energy or interest, passengers on the bus looked at them too, as if they were historical figures, something you see in history books a world removed from neo-millennial realities, a part of the "good ole days of The Movement" which then were not particularly good and now are certainly old.
Some of them sat conversing on a low concrete barricade near the sidewalk. When cars sped past an odd person or two in the group would wave a picket sign at the vehicles, shout some stereotypical revolutionary phrase, and stare longingly out into the street expecting a sympathetic response of support. Occasionally a driver would blow his horn to voice political solidarity, but not slow down. Any definitive measure of support was unthinkable.
Most of them ignored the traffic continuing their own personal social interplay. From their flagrantly intense exchanges and their gestures, I supposed they were reliving revolutionary history. Perhaps they were with Fidel and Che in the mountains of Oriente Province, with Mao on his Long March, with Mandela on Robbin Island. I smiled thoughtfully at the enjoyment they were experiencing.
I have witnessed these conversations before, as a child waiting my turn in the Service Barbershop on Brush and Canfield in the middle of the block just north of the alley not far from the Cellar Door Bar. This was long before our family's migration to the North End or urban renewal or, as Reverend Cleage called it, Negro Removal, which, as it turned out, didn't remove many Negroes after all.
In this tonsorial emporium amid the counterpoint of loud voices and whiskey-tinged laughter, of numbers running and bootleg liquor, the problems of the world; war, poverty, sex, money, and sports, were brought up on the agenda, dissected, solved and remanded to the shelf to be reviewed again at the next session. The amorphous gathering talked about philosophy, ethics, African popes, the Crusades, British colonialism and French women. I might have read about it all in books, but they had lived it, or so I thought, so I sopped up every word like dry bread in a mess of bar-b-que.
Jack, the master barber, held court while directing the flow of discourse with a long, thin barber's comb, reluctantly pausing to return to the business at hand which was cutting hair and making money.
Those Saturdays in my youth the elders replayed the homeruns of Josh Gibson, the knockouts of Joe Louis, the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen. W.E.B. Dubois debated Marcus Garvey. Paul Robeson sang; Josephine Baker danced. Every time I was sent to get a haircut, I got a lesson in black history, southern and northern, local, national and international. From my seat on the bus I was receiving another one.
Their signs spoke of police brutality, the need to organize to fight oppression, to seek justice. All laudable goals amateurishly printed on cardboard. Apparently the "struggle" couldn't afford a professional commercial artist. Nor an army.
We continued downtown and approached the new stadium growing on the horizon not far from Woodward with G.M.'s Renaissance Center, purchased for ten cents on the dollar, looming in the background by the river. Millions of dollar of public monies invested in a steel and concrete playpen for a bunch of chronic losers and their suburban zealots. I wondered if the protestors would ever make an issue of this waste of resources.
After my ghetto limo had chauffeured me along Woodward into and through the entertainment district, we crossed Adams Street at Grand Circus Park. My thoughts drifted a couple blocks away to what was once 401 East Adams, and I recalled another theater, the Concept East, that resurrected the haunts of yesteryear. We, too, had been ticketed by the police and closed by the power structure. Plus ša change, plus c'est la meme chose.
We, however, fought back in the courts and won our case, a scant likelihood in this current situation. I had appeared in Traffic Court with a smirk, a big Afro and a lawyer provided by the ACLU. All the other defendants knew something was going on because my white attorney looked like he was a member of a firm ensconced in the Penobscot Building. It would have been more fun if we had lost and appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Some victories taste better after you've suffered some defeats. But we won, and I had to go back to producing plays.
There must be something about theaters that power structures can't abide. Maybe it's the conflict of cultures and values, maybe it's the free voice of the people and their interests that burst across the footlights. We were doing what was prosecuted as an obscene production, "The Toilet", in the midst of the 60's shithouse called urban white America. Whatever the outcry, black voices have always had hard times whether in print or in performance, from Freedom's Journal and the Lafayette Theater, through Concept East and now the Fine Arts.
On my trip out East Jefferson after waiting an hour or so in front of the bank, we drove along a thoroughfare devoid of protest, devoid of history. Soon we passed Belle Isle and then I was home.