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Reprinted from:  MultiCultural Review, Summer, 2005 

Congressman Major R. Owens:
Literature from Shakespeare to Rap

Congressman Major OwensI was excited to learn from Lyn Miller-Lachman, Editor-in-Chief of MultiCultural Review, that Representative Major R. Owens is the only member of Congress who is a librarian. He has served New York’s 11th Congressional District (Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) in the House of Representatives since 1982, is an outspoken critic of budget cuts for entitlements, and works passionately in behalf of children and public education. A member of the Education and the Workforce Committee, as well as Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Education Task Force, he sees education as “the great civil rights battle of today." I was taken by the fact that a voice so active in the community should belong to someone with a background in literature.

With the hope of interviewing him, I sent him articles which have my journalistic approach, based on my study of Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy founded by the great American poet and critic Eli Siegel. He stated this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

The Congressman kindly agreed to an interview, which took place in his Brooklyn office some months before the November elections. I was affected to see that a powerful fighter in behalf of economic, racial, and social justice was not only deeply thoughtful but soft-spoken and modest.
                                          Memphis, Atlanta, New York
I asked the Congressman what books he cared for as a child, and learned that growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, he had very little access to books.

MAJOR R. OWENS: In the house we had old magazines that were given to my father. I was a good student and read textbooks. I liked the Call of the Wild by Jack London—I was inspired by that. But I didn’t have a whole lot of exposure to books until I got to college. Our libraries were very poor, and non-existent in elementary school.

As I looked at Mr. Owens’s career in public office, I saw a man who believes that people now shouldn’t be deprived as he was, so I asked: Could you mention who or what most influenced your wanting to be a librarian?

MRO: It was a very practical decision, because I really wanted to be a writer, and still want to be a writer. I have a novel in the attic and a couple of plays, too. My family wanted me to be a doctor, and I looked at that possibility but decided to be an engineer. I went to Morehouse College and majored in math. By the end of my sophomore year I started taking courses in creative writing and my interest in writing got inflamed again. I got my degree in 1956 as a major in math and minor in education.

In the meantime, right next to Morehouse, Atlanta University was offering fellowships in its School of Library Science. They stressed the fact that at that time you could get a job anywhere in the country, and I always wanted to get to New York. I became a librarian in order to be able to eat while working on my creative endeavors. It was an ideal match.

AB: I understand you were a librarian from 1958-66 and worked at Grand Army Plaza. I was probably one of the people you assisted—I’m a Brooklyn girl and loved going to the main library.

MRO: Yes, I was a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library for eight years, two of them at Grand Army Plaza. I worked in Language and Literature, and at one point I was in charge of the Pay Collection.

AB: Who are some of your favorite authors now?

MRO: I am very impressed by political writers and political nonfiction in the last few years. Al Franken’s books, for instance, are humorous and very sharp in terms of politics. Then there’s the Columbine story and John Dean’s book, Worse than Watergate. It’s fascinating, and so is the Wesley Clark book on the best seller list. So I end up reading ancillary stuff to politics.

In college, of course, I read classics, including the Iliad and the Odyssey. And I fell in love with Shakespeare. My son is an actor, and he further generates my interest in Shakespeare. I managed to write plays as well as writing a novel.

                                      Books Bring Feelings to a Person
I was stirred by how our conversation was not only about books he had read, but by the Congressman’s own writing of books and plays. He was illustrating in a powerful, personal way what Eli Siegel writes about the beauty and importance of books in Children’s Guide to Parents and Other Matters, and I read this passage aloud:

“Every time you read a book, someone else’s feelings meet yours, and mix with yours. You are always being affected by other people’s feelings; but books are the big way of bringing to a person the feelings he might never have otherwise.”

AB: This has everything to do with our conversation. Would you like to say what your plays are about?

MRO: The first one I wrote is in the mode of Shakespeare, except it has a “Slave Chorus,” in Rap poetry. Otherwise it’s very much Shakespearean, with Thomas Jefferson being the tragic hero. Thomas and Sally, it’s called. It’s a story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. It’s a great love story. A lot of my colleagues say it’s outrageous, how could it be a love story if she was a slave and he had command over her? But it was a forty year relationship and it is not a master-slave relationship.

As Major Owens was speaking in this surprising and stirring way, I thought about opposites all people are trying to put together in love: affecting and yielding, knowing and feeling, sameness and difference. And I thought too, of this powerful statement by Eli Siegel which has within it the solution to racism. He said, “It will be found that black and white man have the same goodnesses, the same temptations and can be criticized in the same way. The skin may be different, but the aorta is quite the same.” Our discussion continued.

MRO: What interested me most was the conflict within Thomas Jefferson. He said different things at different times about slavery, some of which were outrageous, but at other times he talked about how horrible it was. I think there was an ongoing conflict which was intensified by his relationship with Sally Hemings. The minds and emotions of the slaves are woven into this drama, primarily through the “Slave Chorus.” I depict Jefferson as a tragic hero, a man very much torn apart by conflicts. The play is about the survival and triumph of two great spirits, one slave and one master, over man’s most devastating crime. It is a love story that overwhelmingly confirms the common bonds between whites and blacks, and heralds an inevitable freedom for the American slaves and their masters.

At the time I started the play, I had a big fascination with Jefferson which began with my reading the book Jefferson, an Intimate History. I started collecting books on Jefferson and getting the chronology. Writing this play is really something I’m quite proud of. But a couple of people who’ve looked at it, including my son, said it’s too ambitious, so I’m revising it.

                                          The Fight in Every Person
Congressman Owens’s view is courageous, and I pause to bring some perspective to this controversial matter. Aesthetic Realism explains that every person has a fight between the desire to respect reality and the desire to have contempt for what is different from ourselves. Slavery is the false victory in a person of the desire to have contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” My writings about this are in Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism (Orange Angle Press).

This fight between contempt and respect is in people today and in everyone who ever lived, including Thomas Jefferson. I quote from what I see as the definitive commentary on this subject by Ellen Reiss in the international periodical, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (January 1999), titled “The Aesthetics of Equality.” Commenting on the furor caused by revelations about Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and the denigration of Jefferson by the media, she writes:

I think it necessary to comment on how Americans should use the fact that the principal author of the Declaration of Independence was unclear about how to see black persons; that he spoke against slavery yet owned slaves; that there is DNA evidence for his being the father of [children] by his slave Sally Hemings.

Let us be critics of Jefferson, certainly: to own slaves, even in a time and place when to do so was the order of the day, is completely execrable. But instead of various media commentators—who are a thousand times more selfish than Jefferson and lack his courage, intelligence, and kindness—using recent findings to act superior to him, Americans should ask: “If a person as deep, brave, and respectful of humanity as Thomas Jefferson, could also have such contempt, where might I have a way of seeing that is awful which I am trying to justify?” Instead of cowardly, narrow people preening themselves as they find something ugly in Jefferson, they and everyone should ask: “If Jefferson could do this—what am I doing, what am I for that is ugly, and will look ugly to people 200 years from now?”
                                      Education, Legislation, and Rap
As our interview continued, I asked Congressman Owens about the relation of being a librarian and a Congressman. “As a librarian,” he said, “you’ve got to know a little bit about a whole lot and be able to assemble disparate facts. Being an elected official—I was in the State Senate before Congress—it’s the same challenge: you’ve got to know a little bit about a whole lot and weave it all together.”

AB: What are some of the things you’re most proud of doing as a Congressman?

MRO: The proudest thing I would cite is my steadfast interest in education and remaining on the committee. What I found is that the Education Committee of Congress is very unpopular.

AB: Why is that?

MRO: It’s unpopular because it’s not a money committee. You don’t make contacts with people who have money. Children don’t have money; teachers don’t. If you’re going to raise money for your campaigns you go into Commerce or Ways and Means. That’s unfortunate. In New York State we have only two people on the Education Committee, but if you’re going to be a watchdog on the problems that matter most to children, then that’s the place you need to be.

I’ve been fortunate for the brief period that I served as chairman of the subcommittee on selected education, I was able to get a number of bills passed. I played a major role in the Americans With Disabilities Act which was a landmark piece of legislation and I’m proud of the fact that I had to do with that.

AB: So there were no benefits to the families of the survivors?

MRO: The Office of Education, OER for education improvement is a research arm of the Department of Education. I also conducted a reorganization study, and most of the items in the study we got passed. I’m very proud of that. Subsequent administrations, like the present one, wiped it out. But the law still exists.

AB: You showed vividly that reading about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings—who lived 200 years ago—made for big feelings that, as Mr. Siegel stated, you couldn’t have had any other way. What would you like to say to encourage children to love reading?

MRO: I would say: enjoy reading, have it become a habit, even a sport. Everything else you do is going to be impacted by being able to read and what you decide to read. I have three very young grandchildren who love the dinosaur books and the leap frog books—and I love reading to them.

AB: The deviousness in seeming to give something and then not giving anywhere near what is deserved, is a study in itself. What does it mean to give full justice to something or someone? That is a question Aesthetic Realism is mighty interested in, and which I want to take seriously. I hope through the questions I ask and the comments I make, to be just to you.
In Major Owens’s answer to my next question, he was describing the opposites at the heart of all multicultural education: oneness and manyness, concentration and expansion.

MRO: Young people need a grasp of what the world is all about. It’s very important that we fought for multicultural programs in the schools; to start from their own heritage. We just haven’t been able to make that point strongly enough in the public schools. When a child starts from his own heritage, his sense of self-worth is bolstered and that helps with everything else. And so it’s very important that we create opportunities for them to learn more about their own heritage, regardless of who they are—and beyond that, the heritage of the world. It’s important that they not stop, if they are African-American, with just African history or concerns. Greece and Rome played a major role in our lives, too. One of my favorite books was Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way. That’s a magnificent book. And don’t dismiss Shakespeare as being antiquated; there’s a tremendous combination of philosophy and emotion that you get out of Shakespeare that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s revered and it’s a powerful experience wrapped up in a drama that makes you remember the lessons of history.

(Note: In the past three years the Congressman has secured $800,000 in Federal funds for the Brooklyn Public Library’s programs, including one which will help teens in 20 branches by providing internship opportunities and mentoring in public service agencies.)

AB: What would you most like people to know about you?

MRO: They I think I’m an introvert. I have no apologies for being an introvert, a dreamer, fascinated by challenging literary projects, but also fascinated by political and community action projects. I have been able to expand my own personality, habits, and talents in the political arena, so that I can be as much of an extrovert as anybody else when it’s necessary.

I’m proud of the fact that I’ve mastered those techniques. And I don’t apologize for being introspective. In fact, one of the things that delights me most is writing rap poems which have become extensions of my remarks from the floor of the House. A rap poem is a style I like—a mischievous way of doing my public duty and at the same time enjoying it from the point of view of a writer.

                                         Rhythmic Expression to His Views

Congressman Owens has given rhythmic expression to his views on many issues before the legislature, including the upheaval in Haiti, his passionate opposition to war, reducing drug prices for senior citizens, and more, for which the Americans for Democratic Action rated his 2003 voting record a perfect 100.

For example, in opposition to proposed cuts in Head Start and other health and education programs, he wrote “The Nation Needs Your Lunch” which begins:
Kids of America
There is a fiscal crunch.
This great nation
Now needs your lunch
To set the budget right.
In “Make Culture Not War,” he writes:
The greatest generation
Still waits to take the stage;
Against pain and greed
Wage a new breed of rage….
Be loud about your love,
Put passion in your dove;
The greatest general
Takes orders only from above.
Make Culture Not War!

        Congressman Major Owens and Alice Bernstein
 
                                         The Congressman Asks a Question

Since Congressman Owens was so generous in answering my questions, I asked if there was anything he would like to ask me. “How long have you been studying Aesthetic Realism?” he asked. I told him I was born in Crown Heights Hospital—one of his earliest constituents. I came to know of this education early through my parents. As a student at Brooklyn College, I also began attending lectures given by Eli Siegel on poetry and all arts and sciences, and came to see Aesthetic Realism as the most beautiful, scientific education one could ever have.
           
My husband, photographer  David Bernstein, had accompanied me on this interview, and I mentioned that we both study now in professional classes taught by Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss at the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. “I’ve been married to this gentleman for 42 years,” I said. “We’ve been through many things, as most people have—including life and death matters. What we’ve learned is a means of our being deeper about the world, other people, and each other.” I can give an example.
           
MRO: Please do.
           
AB: I’ll say something about anger. We learned from Aesthetic Realism that you either use your anger in behalf of justice to the world and other people or in behalf of selfishness.
           
Meantime, you went on to dedicate your life in many ways to fighting injustice in behalf of all people. That’s very important. So I’d like to know what made you feel that you wanted to oppose injustice?
            
MRO: I like that.
           
AB: It’s a beautiful, new idea. Along with reading about “Books,” in Children’s Guide to Parents, we’ve read from Eli Siegel’s essay “Being Angry" to youngsters in various cities. Children are excited to hear that there are two kinds of anger and are eager to talk about it. To show the difference, David talked about Martin Luther King having an anger against poverty, cruelty and injustice. That was a beautiful anger because it made people’s lives stronger. It’s completely different from an anger where we hurt people just to have our way. In speaking with African American children in Maryland, I was affected that when I mentioned Nelson Mandela, they didn’t know who he was. So I told them how he bravely fought against apartheid and brutality in South Africa and inspired people all over the world. I told the children that I’m grateful to Mr. Siegel for teaching how prejudice can really change, including in me, and that I regret that people whose skin looked like mine were so cruelly unjust to people whose skin looked like theirs. It did my life good to say it, and the children liked hearing it.

“Wow, that’s something!” said Congressman Owens. “Congratulations. I’m glad you asked me questions, and I’m glad I asked you the questions I did.”

Alice Bernstein is a journalist and Aesthetic Realism Associate whose articles and regular column “Alice Bernstein & Friends” appear nationwide; many are in the new book Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism (www.OrangeAnglePress.com). To learn more, visit the website of the not-for-profit educational foundation: www.AestheticRealism.org.


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email: Ajoybern@gmail.com