Review: Search For The New Land: History As Subjective Experience
“The people are the true poets. The rest of us, with our advances and royalty checks, are just journeyman making a dishonest living.” ~ Julius Lester
History is not merely an amalgamation of previous events, first relevant then discarded, but the 12 hours encircling the watch dial ushering in the future while we deposit each action within the folded memory of the past. History is a subjective experience rather than a game we played as children until we gained the bearings required to escape into maturity. History is happening all about us at this very moment. As quickly as we enshroud it in the veil of nostalgia, we return and revise it for consumption by new generations as a vaccination of insight against those ailments which hindered our own success. We are rewriting history in order to shape the conclusion drawn by others from their reflection upon it. We don’t want you to remember history as we knew it then, but wish you to perceive history as we feel it now. In “Search For The New Land”, Julius Lester probes the philosophical framework underlying history, memory and experience in order to construct a memoir which obscures the lines between all three concepts weaving a simplified approach to history as people and their reaction to each changing circumstance.
“Our first-born was coming home. We brought her home, placed her in the crib and put a net over it. That was to keep the roaches off her. I sat up at night, all night for the first week, beside her so that the rats wouldn’t come. But she got sick the first day she was home and stayed sick for nine months. The doctor said she was allergic to her mother’s milk, which is like fish being allergic to water. What do doctors know? How can you tell what is wrong with somebody if you don’t know where they live? The doctor said my ulcer came from tension and he told me I should relax.” ~ Julius Lester
The text opens with a remembrance of the frenzied and explosive decade of 1960 juxtaposed against a notion of Hiroshima as a climactic destabilization in our theory of modern warfare. In this space, Lester lays the groundwork for his historical memoir by going beyond posing unwritten questions about his own life and answering them in the autobiographical style. Lester does not even appear as the main character in this casting which sees that role assigned to the collision of events and people which gave meaning to this era of social change. The 50’s, the 60’s, Freedom Riders, radicals, nationalists, HUAC, Cointelpro and all other manner of devil or deity are given space between these pages while Lester arrives haphazardly to navigate a roach infested slum on the westside of Chicago with his wife and newborn child. He is mostly divorced from telling us much in the way of his own story while using a surrealist technique of found poetry to subtly inject his commentary into each line of the larger narrative unfolding.
“Revolutionaries are not born. They are made by living on West 21st Street. The United States has made more revolutionaries than Che Guevara ever did…In a society where life had meaning beyond the beating of the heart, the ability to transplant organs would be an occasion for celebration. In a society where man had within his grasp the ability to be Man, a trip to the moon would be awesome. In the West, all of it is obscene.” ~ Julius Lester
Found poetry involves appropriating a news article then adding, removing or reordering its words to uncover the poem beneath the layers of journalistic diplomacy. The technique forms a literary collage revealing a story within the story which is not at first apparent by reading the article alone. This reshaping of meaning hearkens back to traditional Black interpretive plays of code switching within blues and work songs lending rich metaphoric insight to seemingly thoughtless lyrics. “Search For The New Land” exhibits a similar folksy quality as Lester writes through the lens of an everyman activist who is not always enthralled by the work, but perseveres against personal apathy to engage in organizational building. Lester utilizes the timeline in the first few pages of each section in order to recount the major events in motion. The unique formulation of the memoir is further nuanced by dating some sections in the form of a journal while others are left for the reader to calculate. This combination of techniques creates a certain murkiness throughout the text which gives his pages the feeling of memory lapsing forward and backward unpredictably. Memories lacking full clarity and being consistently manipulated by our shifting beliefs about our identity, legacy and the world.
“Violence was defined as a bullet in the brain and unrecognized was the fact that this kind of violence was only a manifestation of the violence done to the soul which made the young talk incessantly of Love and carry flowers. The report of a rifle is all too obviously violent, while the violence done to the soul has no sound, but if one looks closely into the faces passing on the street, its effects are unmistakeable.” ~ Julius Lester
“Search For The New Land” is not only a brilliantly written piece of prose, but an informative personal and social history. It is nothing short of a psychological primer on the artist and activist framing how he approaches the changes in life and uses language fiercely in order to attack and understand those changes. The activist artist has no way to halt change immediately, but he can sculpt a tool which aids others in engaging that change in a constructive manner while driving the collective reaction to such change over time. The text manages to be a serious reflection on a time of heightened social tension while understanding that human beings are an interesting sort who deserve to have their foolish doings played up for laughs at every opportunity. Julius Lester is a studious intellectual who knows how to throw a punchline that not even Lyndon Johnson could duck.