“A capitalist does not think that just your existence in-the-world is a contribution.”
This week I spoke with author and artist, John Sibley. A Chicago native, Sibley has written two books. His most recent release is a revised version of the title, Being and Homelessness: Notes from an Underground Artist. We discussed his work and how it relates to contemporary political developments, with a special focus on the theme of homelessness.
DH: First, could you give a brief overview of who you are and the genesis of your political development?
JS: I am, first and foremost, an artist and an author. I was raised in a blue-collar household where my father was a factory foreman and my mother was a classic 1950s housewife. We lived on the Westside of Chicago and then moved to Robbins, one of the most impoverished suburbs in Illinois. The poverty of Robbins certainly shaped and molded my political and creatives lens. I started to look at it as a third world colony. And I started to look at myself, as Richard Wright would call it, as a product of environmental determinism.
As a Vietnam-era USAF vet, traveling to Southeast Asia and especially Korea radically changed my socio/politico/cultural views. I embraced the philosophy of cultural relativism along with a strong mixture of Pan-African-Socialism—in the same context that Malcom X’s political transformation happened after he visited Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims. A cultural relativist believes human behavior transcends political and cultural paradigms. The fact that Asians and especially Koreans used cow dung and human feces to fertilize their rice paddies was mind boggling to me. In an abstract way, it reminded me how my slave ancestors in the South picked cotton from sunrise to sunset, with bloody hands from the sharp cotton thorns. The difference between Koreans and American Blacks is that Koreans still have their language, culture and land. In America, feces is a form of garbage, a valueless waste regularly flushed away. Yet in Asia, it’s a valuable commodity. I used to wonder if the feces-covered rice paddies were any different than working in a US slaughterhouse, butchering squirming hogs in blood-soaked work clothes. Or working on the line at Westinghouse ingesting Inerteen, a chemical so toxic that people who have been exposed to it can’t donate blood or be buried in a regular cemetery. It makes working in shit in a rice paddy seem quite nice.
“A cultural relativist believes human behavior transcends political and cultural paradigms.”
After my discharge from the Air Force, I started to write for the local paper, The Robbins Eagle. James Boggs, an auto worker and author who died in 1993, and his wife Grace Lee Boggs, were both activists who had a profound influence on my essays. Both Boggs and my father, foremen in a plastic factory, knew the moods of working-class blacks. In his books, Boggs modeled an American revolution pitting blacks against blacks and whites against whites, a multicultural struggle to create a classless society that he believed had already begun. I looked at Robbins with fresh eyes after reading Malcom X, Boggs, Fanon, George Jackson, and John A. Williams’ “The Man Who Cried I Am, a book about a government plan to destroy America’s black population. I started to look at Robbins as a colony like Angola: the control of one nation by transplanted people from another with a different culture and dominant racial group. I was so outraged over Robbins not having any economic structure that I wrote Amiri Baraka about starting a Congress of African People ‘cell’ in Robbins. I was a big fan of Baraka, despite his misguided Marxist ideology. (I disagreed with his notion that the proletariat is totally useless in terms of revolutionary potential.) Both of us served in the Air Force, but once he got his discharge, he went to New York. I went to an impoverished small town in Illinois.
DH: You recently published a book titled Being and Homelessness: Notes from an Underground Artist. The text goes into some in depth analysis about your experience with homelessness and your thoughts about questions such as the state of Black Art in Chicago and the Black economic condition in Chicago generally. Why was it important for you to write this book?
JS: I wrote the book hoping it would be read as a grand narrative philosophy to shed light on how human life is fragile and full of unforeseen forces that ultimately shape and mold what we become. And I wanted to show how ‘homelessness’ is a product of the globalization of unregulated capitalism. Modern cities are becoming dumping grounds for the homeless. Right around the corner from “The Forum” in Los Angeles, on any given night there are 58,000 homeless people living in tent encampments, under freeway overpasses, sprawled out on sidewalks and bus benches, huddled in doorways—some defecating openly in the streets. In Chicago 40% of the homeless are Black in a country where Blacks represent 9% of the total population.
The Emancipation politics of the ‘60s have failed Black people and become a metanarrative delusion. It’s not a great leap of the imagination to compare homeless encampments to the extermination camps used to house the Jews, which were unspeakably crammed, just like homeless encampments, with residents dying of malnutrition, typhus, hepatitis, and AIDS. The homeless are treated like social outcasts, foreigners…valueless stuff. Only picked up and shoveled into the ovens (missions) after their stench is unbearable. The only thing missing is the Zyklon-B gas. The ultimate issue in the book is, “Can any country resist global homogenization and the human carnage it drags with it?”
As Derrida protests, “never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the Earth and humanity. . . no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the Earth.”
DH: This series has mainly focused on the imperialist attack on independent, left-wing media, specifically though the channels of the so-called "Russia" investigation. The problem of homelessness inside the belly of US imperialism is rarely covered in the media. In your opinion, why is homelessness so ignored by the mainstream US media?
I think homelessness is ignored by corporate media out of the fear that the structural issues that orbit it will open up an unspeakable truth: Why do blacks represent 40% of the homeless nationwide? Nearly 25% of Black families nationwide live in poverty. Does this generational poverty issue raise the taboo question of "reparations”—a question that President Obama weakly viewed as “unrealistic”? Blacks in the US, no matter what their achievements, never escape the judgment of inferiority. Despite being the most powerful man on the planet and our most literate president, President Obama was still considered an undesirable, a foreigner who could never transcend his blackness.
Corporate media does not want to address the intersectionality of race and homelessness because these topics would expose the need for more housing, justice system reform, employment and the impact of gentrification on the urban poor. In fact, in Chicago we are concerned that Obama’s new library on the Southside will cause gentrification and price residents out.
“Blacks in the US, no matter what their achievements, never escape the judgment of inferiority.”
Focusing on homelessness would also force the media to consider how epigenetic genes we inherit from our parents are controlled and how they interact with our environment to instill ‘fear’ in an unborn child. Epigenetic modifiers range from the harmful—nicotine, benzene, arsenic, viral infection—to more benign molecules like folic acid and vitamin C. I believe slavery has left indelible epigenetic molecular scars on generations of Black Americans. In Atlanta, for example, a study pointed out that the majority of “uncontrolled toxic waste sites” existed in areas where the black population exceeded 50 percent; in Chicago, Los Angeles. St. Louis, Memphis and other large metropolitan areas, the higher the percentage of nonwhite people, the greater the likelihood that a hazardous waste facility existed.
The way we think about homelessness is pre-established by superstructural ideologies. What the late poet/revolutionary Amiri Baraka understood is that Marxian formula is great for understanding the traditional and productive spheres of society. What he didn’t understand is how the idea of liberal democracy, pluralist-free-market ideas, and the global addiction to prosperity on which global American capitalism is based has trapped, blinded, hoodwinked, and handicapped us to the creation of a monstrous single cultural hegemonic world order that will increase poverty and homelessness without global resistance and awakening from our social amnesia.
DH: Your book mixes together personal narrative and political analysis. You discuss the role racism played in your descent into homelessness and analyze economic trends in the US that have led to immense poverty, especially for Black Americans. Could you tell readers about the process for researching and formatting the book?
JS: I wrote the book as a stream of consciousness, hoping I could make the reader feel like being-homeless-in-an-existential-world. The formal research and formatting was relatively easy, since I’m naturally attracted to reading and philosophy. The harder part was being a living research subject.
I was a homeless artist in Chicago in the late 70s for 6 months. I think my main message in the book is that you can work, raise a family and still pursue your creative goal. Too many people romanticize an artist life style. In reality, it is a corporate capitalist business. The Pacific Garden Mission, where I slept on lice infested mattresses, is no longer on State Street. Once I got a job, I made a vow I would never let my creative impulse stop me from working. I wrote the book almost thirty years later, and tragically things have gotten worse. I am still haunted by that wretched experience to this day. Homelessness taught me how fragile, fleeting, and impermanent life can be. It taught me how to cope with being stripped bare of all material possessions: job, house, car, clean clothes and the natural necessities of modern life. It is a humbling and petrifying experience.
Yet, it is a perverse enrichment. The loss of material trinkets cleanses one’s consciousness in terms of the value you place on perishable objects and enriches the sense of being-alive-in-the-world. I advocate that all of you should, once a year, walk out the house with just enough fare to get to your metropolis, survive eight hours on the street, and get back home without money.
DH: You wrote the book in 2017. Since it was published, is there anything you would add to it given recent political developments?
JS: I wrote the book in 2012. The 2017 publication is a revised edition. What would I like to add to it in 2018?
I would add that with the election of Donald Trump as president and the rising xenophobic right-wing groups in the US, Europe, and across the globe, the homeless, the disenfranchised, immigrants, and minorities will increasingly be portrayed by the media and the world governments as parasites.
The reality of capitalist production is that it feeds on a cycle of ‘new’ productions to survive: cars, CDs, cyberspace, quantum computers, IMAX, Niki, rap music. Capitalism must expand or die. Thousands of business men that don’t care about unleashing a continent size “blob”---a patch of garbage composed mainly of plastic waste floating in the Pacific Ocean. That should be a wakeup call: In our modern consumptive society the elites don’t pause to consider sea turtles, fish, seabirds, or the homeless. Plastic bags have been implicated in clogging sewer drains in a number of countries around the world, contributing to flood risk. In warm climates, as has been documented in several African countries, they act as a breeding ground for malaria.
Since Roe v. Wade, twenty million black babies have been murdered. Eliminating lives deemed too complicated or costly permeates our cultural conversations about how we value not only pre-born life but the homeless. A capitalist does not think that just your existence in-the-world is a contribution.
Americans live in a world where advertisers use “social consciousness,” an artificially constructed reality that projects an image of empathy and care for corporate charity agencies for dogs, animal rights, and poor children in Africa and the Third world. Especially the poor skeletal images we see of African children, because the subliminal message is the leaders of the continent are incapable of embracing civilization. The image of the malnourished dying African child will never include the picture of the global chain of events which led to their wretched impoverishment. Don’t be bamboozled into thinking it is only because of government corruption—the problem is infinitely more complex than that.
DH: I was a case manager for homeless individuals for over two years. Often, social service agencies I worked for possessed little ability to empower the poor and sometimes reinforced the stigma associated with homelessness. What, in your opinion, needs to happen for homelessness to make its way onto the agenda not necessarily of the ruling elites that have caused it, but to the people at large?
JS: Homelessness is a very complex problem. To be rootless in a society that emphasizes the importance of stability and order against a chaotic existence is mindboggling. On a federal level we need more voices like Senator Murphy, who believes it is one of our nation’s most critical problems because the opioid epidemic in Connecticut is tripling the homeless population. I talk about my suggestions in the book, but the biggest issue is that we, as a nation, have to have some difficult conversations, and we need to elect people who are willing to have them, too. We can’t solve the problem unless we are willing to see it.
DH: Is this your first writing project? Do you have others on the way?
No, this is actually my second book. Bodyslick, an urban sci-fi tale, was published in 2008 by Kensington and Vibe books. To see my artwork, bio and books, go to www.amazon.com/author/johnsibley and https://www.artworkarchive.com/artwork/john-sibley.
Danny Haiphong is an activist and journalist in the New York City area. He can be reached at [email protected]