A veteran journalist and activist, Powell recently withdrew as a candidate in the 10th Congressional District of Brooklyn, N. Y. In his lead essay, "Looking For America," part of which annoyingly reads like a campaign speech, he describes himself as a lifelong Democrat. He broods over the defeat of John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election: "Many of us assumed, hoped, prayed that John Kerry, though a mediocre candidate at best, would somehow win this election and get America back on the course of figuring itself out, for the good of us all." Kerry's defeat is synonymous, in Powell's view, with the Democratic Party's lack of vision.
What should this vision be? In "Looking For America," Powell's religious evolution as a Christian (Baptist) deeply informs his current political thinking. After attending the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, he has this to say about the Republicans: "You could feel the focus, the vision, however myopic, and the battle plan. While the Dems barely spoke of faith, of religion, or spirituality, the Republicans spoke of it every chance they got. They monopolized the market on moral values." Translation: Future Democratic presidential candidates will have to move to the "religious" vital center if they hope to get elected.
What makes Powell believe that spiritual pronouncements are the key to the Democrats regaining the White House? He does not say whether or not he believes this is a political strategy that will induce some conservative white Southern voters to return to the Democratic Party. As for black Americans, they are a loyal and core constituency of the Democratic Party, and they tend to take religious practice very seriously. Yet they have not abandoned the Democrats for the Republicans' more overt spiritual pronouncements. Powell, who has written extensively about growing up in excruciating urban poverty, knows that in most poor urban neighborhoods there are churches nearly every two feet. There is an abundance of spiritual sentiment in these neighborhoods. Instead of saying more about religion, the Democrats need to articulate a bold vision, as public and social policy, that addresses the following issues: crime, the social collapse of family life, mental health, economic development, student financial aid, drug policy, foster care, taxation, immigration and career training. These concerns resonate with rank-and-file voters, and addressing them is the key to drawing votes from the Republicans.
Powell's essay "September 11th" begins with a riveting account of the terrorist destruction of the Twin Towers. He was on the phone with a friend, he writes, when she said, "Kevin, I think one of the World Trade Center buildings is on fire." The superb attention to emotional detail is distilled in these observations: "Anyhow, as April said this we shrugged it off because, I, we, thought it was just another fire in Gotham." Writing about New Yorkers, he observes, "many of us unwittingly have become immune to tragedy."
The subject of that essay, ironically, is violence as an intrinsic aspect of the human condition. This very thesis was candidly explored in Yambo Ouologuem's Bound To Violence, a controversial French novel first published in the United States in 1971. Powell, like Ouologuem, reminds us of the gory, bloody, ritualized and "vicious cycle of violence" as a matter of daily life throughout history.
For Powell, terrorism is the deployment of violence at every level of human existence. It perpetuates death, emotional trauma and fear. He provides a laundry list of examples: the transatlantic slave trade, opium wars, the holocaust, female genital mutilation, Timothy McVeigh, police brutality and domestic violence.
Is violence -- in this instance the American military response to terrorism -- justified? Powell does not believe that it is, nor that it will end terrorism. It will only contribute to cyclical violence. Powell correctly observes: "In the case of the United States of America, is it not time to reassess what we are doing in the Middle East, in the Arab world, and why so many of those sisters and brothers do not like us, do not want us there, view us not as liberators, as the Bush administration is quick to claim, but as 'occupiers.' "
"Psalm For New Orleans," the final essay, is an arresting social analysis of the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Powell traveled to the city to survey the wreckage firsthand. As he moves through the war-like destruction, he recalls that he had attended the Essence Music Festival held in New Orleans in July 2005. While at the festival, he was interviewed by a popular radio personality who gave him a copy of an underground documentary called "New Orleans Exposed."
At the beginning of the documentary, black males and rappers who lived in the poorest wards of New Orleans talked about "choppas" (AK-47s) as their firearm of choice. In 2004, New Orleans had the second-highest per capita murder rate (56 murders per 100,000 people) in the nation, according to the F.B.I. The men in the documentary also talked vividly about joblessness, poverty, police corruption and their aspiration to become successful rappers. For Powell, the conditions mentioned in "New Orleans Exposed" are raw and breathtaking proof of pre-Katrina poverty and symbolic of poverty in urban and rural areas across the country. "There have been slow forms of Katrina happening across America for some time," he writes.
The enlightening essays in Someday We'll All Be Free are an interpretive collage of tragic events in American life that are redefining our debates about civil liberties and the unspoken expendability of the poor. Powell argues that the key to the future of American democracy is the willingness of Americans to assess their history and to reject rabid nationalism as a form of patriotism. He makes the point that freedom is measured by an evolving recognition of our shared humanity. Through this realization, problems such as poverty, natural disaster and terrorism can be addressed effectively.
Reviewed by Hakim Hasan
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