July 14, 2007

Annette Rubinstein, ¡Presente!

On Wednesday morning, June 20, we lost an amazing woman--an organizer, a scholar and a mentor to three generations of activists: Dr. Annette T. Rubinstein, who died at age 97.

Many New York City leftists, from the 1960s onward, encountered Annette as a teacher of literature and politics at the New York Marxist School, or a supporter of struggles for community control and prisoners’ rights in the Black and Puerto Rican communities. A previous generation knew her as a teacher at the Communist Party-led Jefferson School, a leader of the vital American Labor Party during the 1940s, a top aide to the radical East Harlem Congressman Vito Marcantonio, and a forger of united left electoral efforts through the 1950s. Throughout Eastern Europe and China, where she frequent taught, Annette was known as the author of two important Marxist literary studies: The Great Tradition in English Literature: From Shakespeare to Shaw, and American Literature: Root and Flower.

Annette was a model of someone who kept her commitment to the working class and to socialism through history's twists and turns--from the mass upsurges (like the 1930s unemployed councils which inspired her as a young woman) through the times of reaction (like the McCarthyite red scares that devastated the American Labor Party and ended her work in state-licensed schools). And she always emerged ready to reach out to a new generation of radical youth.

If I had to pick three things I most admire about Annette, I would say: she had great political line; she was a mensch; and she believed that working class people have a right to beauty and to a rich intellectual life.

Annette had an independent spirit and political compass that enabled her to struggle with an organization when she thought its line was wrong, leave if necessary (as when the CPUSA abandoned the ALP and other mass groups), and find new comrades and projects. Over the years, her political practice recognized the interconnection of class and racial oppression, never falling in to the race-blind populism so common in U.S. politics. She organized and authored eloquent pamphlets—models of great political writing-- on behalf of the young Black men imprisoned after the Harlem Riots, the Panther 21 and the Attica Brothers.

Annette had a rich emotional life as a single woman and never stopped making friends. She lent younger activists her time, her name and her home, embracing their projects without second-guessing or controlling but offering constructive criticism when you were ready to hear it. Without sentimentality or the psycho-babble of the boomer generation, she was always there for friends who were going through hard times.

As a teacher of literature, Annette brought people of all backgrounds into her classes to appreciate so-called high-art as well as popular literature, never dumbing down but always rejecting elitism and obscurantism. She always had the perfect poem for any political or personal occasion—called up from memory, of course.

She was cool. I’ll miss her a lot. R.I.P. Annette.

No comments: