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Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz 

San
Francisco: City Lights, 2002 


Review
by
Elizabeth Martinez 

This
gem of a book sparkles with revelations about what the 1960s were
like for a working-class part-Indian woman from Oklahoma turned
feminist-Marxist revolutionary on her way underground. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
is also, and I rarely use the word, a unique activist/scholar/author.
Her contribution ranges from leadership in the women’s movement
to long-term solidarity work with Nicaraguans to scholarship that
has produced extensive works on native peoples struggles to 20 years
as an international human rights activist at the United Nations
representing a non-govern- mental organization. 

Hang
on to your hats, because this book is also a suspenseful, good read.
In a previous book Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie, the author
described her early years in an isolated, racist, rural area dominated
by anti-communism but with a tradition of Wobbly militancy in her
own family that set an example of working-class white radical politics
along with memories of the repression it encountered. By her first
year at Oklahoma University, she had already become anti-imperialist
and anti-racist, with a focus on the Middle East and South Africa.
Outlaw Woman, the new book in what will be a 3-volume memoir,
finds her in San Francisco in 1960 at age 21 with a husband who
wants a traditional wife and doesn’t find her in “Roxie.” 

Not
that the author sheds all convention immediately. For a time she
was “the little housewife” and wore her hair in the middle-class
“Jackie Kennedy bouffant” style of the era. Being assaulted
on a street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District by a drunken
woman who screamed “you think you’re something, don’t
you, fancy lady?” was key to her shaking off painful memories
of an abusive, alcoholic mother and at the same time coming to hate
the proper lady she, Roxanne, had become. From there the author
went to long straight hair and expert shoplifting, various lovers,
acquiring a daughter and losing a husband, and intense, constant
study in graduate school. We follow her rapid political growth,
especially the impact of hearing Malcolm X speak, and an emerging
feminism. 

Earlier,
the alienation she first experienced in her contact with San Francisco
activists carries a message that should never be forgotten today.
Coming from rural Oklahoma, it never occurred to her that she could
just join a protest; she thought one had to be invited. So when
she encountered a campus table where CORE was recruiting people
for the Freedom Rides through the South, “It seemed like an
exclusive club to which I could never belong.” Thinking perhaps
she could do volunteer office work, she worked up her nerve one
day to approach the table. Hesitantly, in her southern accent, she
asked: “Are you-all going to be talking to poor whites down
there?” It wasn’t the question she had intended but it
had crossed her mind. The response was a long stare, followed by
total rejection. 

The
“cliquenishness of the movement” is a danger that Dunbar-Ortiz
never forgets, without constantly hammering on it. When a man in
the audience at an anti-war event where she speaks asks her companion,
Homer, “You ain’t one of them peaceniks, are you?”
she describes the moment with friendly humor and none of the patronizing
or self-righteous tone he might have heard elsewhere. 

In
this and other ways, the author’s class perspective colors
her book. When she finally overcomes that initial self-effacement,
her first political effort is to organize a union—in this case,
of university faculty and graduate students like her (at the University
of California Los Angeles). She discontinues one major relationship
because the man’s upper-class lifestyle and worldview become
stifling. 

The
most vivid moment of her working-class consciousness comes after
the screening of a documentary about the SDS-led occupation of Columbia
University. Young men in bomber jackets and motorcycle boots strut
around the stage, haranguing the audience about how to become a
real revolutionary, you have to kill your parents. Dunbar-Ortiz
watches a middle-aged Latino janitor who came on the stage to set
up a lectern, ignored by the self-named Motherfuckers. She thinks
of her father, who worked at a school after he quit sharecropping
and how her older brother and sister, students at the same school,
were ashamed of their father being a janitor there. Now she sees
the Latino janitor stiffen at the words “kill your parents”
as he turns to face the audience with a terrified expression. 

In
this book the author’s personal development through local,
national, and international experiences parallels events with a
breathtaking speed that illuminates the inspiration as well as the
challenges of the era. We charge through the Cuban Revolution, assassinations
of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the anti-apartheid
movement, the Vietnam war protests, the 1967 uprising for land rights
in New Mexico, Che Guevara and his capture, SDS, the southern movement
and Anne Braden, the 1970 Chicano Moratorium against the war and
three Chicanos killed by police that day—all in all, a global
kaleidoscope of humanity in struggle. Two themes come to stand out
in Dunbar-Ortiz’s personal evolution. 

The
first is her feminism, launched when she read Simon de Beauvoir’s
The Second Sex and began to see the family as the root of
female oppression. Then she was catapulted into ferocious conviction
when she heard of Valeria Solanas shooting Andy Warhol and releasing
a proclamation known as the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) manifesto.
Reading this news in Mexico, she left immediately for Boston to
find Solanas instead of going on to Cuba as planned. 

Thus
began her leadership role in the women’s movement with the
formation of Cell 16 and its journal No More Fun and Games
along with its signatory practice of Tae Kwan Do self-defense for
women. In critiquing the sexism that characterized revolutionary
struggles around the world, including leaders Che Guevara and Fidel
Castro, she managed to find a balance that was rare in the women’s
movement. She identified the prevailing view of revolution then
as state-based and saw the nation-state as a fundamentally patriarchal
entity. 

The
book zeroes in on much debated issues of the time, like the claim
that the struggle for women’s liberation would prove divisive.
As the war went on and the violence at home also continued, her
worldview began to shift its focus from women’s liberation
as the crucial, central, key to any and all revolution to a reassessment
of her politics to a conviction of the need for underground, armed
struggle. 

The
book’s epilogue entitled “Un-Forgetting” (in Greek,
that is the word for truth) is a passionate affirmation of the war
years as “A truly revolutionary moment [not] confined to the
United States or to one generation. Something new happened then,
something deeper and more radical than ever before in history.” 

So
much for all the trashing or trivialization of “the Sixties”
that plagues us today. So much for defining those years only by
white student radicalism plus some black militancy. So much for
a romanticization that prevents young people today from learning
crucial lessons of the era. Just read this book and find out what
that “something new” was, in the eyes of an extraordinary
warrior woman. 

 


Elizabeth
(Betita) Martinez is a Chicana writer and professor. She has been
an anti-racist activist for 40 years.