(The following words are dedicated to Elena Alexander whose ideas and feedback inform them immensely. Thank you again, EA!)
Last Monday, I gave a talk to the Braintree Historical Society about my edited version of Bartolomeo Vanzetti's EVENTS AND VICTIMS. Earlier in the day, Cheryl Edgar and Bob Harris gave my father and I a private tour of several BHS sites. They were kind, generous, and comprehensive in sharing vast local historical knowledge and lore. Like the best historical minds, they revealed the wise paradox of human history: how we go back so far and how that distance is not all that great at all. Any map of the United States should bear the silhouette of a baby diaper; we are so still young ('United'? Not often contiguous in sentiment as in land mass).
The Annual Dinner Meeting I addressed was, despite relentless, wild rain, well attended and all I met, including Braintree Mayor Joe Sullivan, were congenial and curious spirits. The dinner was luxuriant, the sixty or so patrons spanning ages and affinities. I understand that last year's speaker was a Professor discussing the 1967 miracle known as the Boston Red Sox. I would love to have attended.
My talk, "Life and Death in New England and New Liberia: Bartolomeo Vanzetti's Events and Victims," first addressed my editorial and ethical decisions concerning the two existing manuscripts of the work. Then I discussed the past and present perception and representation of-- in no particular order-- immigrants, capital punishment, mass incarceration, prison education, prison reform, xenophobia, political radicalism, and fictional and personal narratives as vehicles to enshrine
empathetic identification with Others (Who you be?). I kept the focus on both 1920s
persecution/demonization of immigrants and our current edition of that diabolical undertaking, whether by government, law enforcement, media, or you and me.
The Q & A mostly consisted of attendees approaching me afterwards and asking
if Vanzetti really wrote the work, really learned competent English, or how I really felt about someone who espoused anarchism and violent means to achieve an anarchist type of just society. All those queries are legitimate, no doubt; however, one would have almost been led, were it not for such friendly interlocutors, to assume that a politicized reading of past and present should not be on this occasion's agenda. That any presentation should swerve far from polemic and modulate any fierce assessment of current or past state practices when encountering immigrants and radicals on a polite Monday night in Braintree. Alas, the many pieces of textual, political, social, and civic evidence-- local, national, and international-- compel me to believe that a certain narrative must be observed and that--silly Utopian I am-- a better world is possible. Or in the words of Terry Eagleton: "The true image of the future is the failure of the present." To paraphrase and extend: "The recollection of the past becomes an indictment of the present in the qualified, intransigent hope of a blessed future." Amen, Vanzetti!