Slave Labor at the White House: Clarence Lusane Responds

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One of the memorable things to happen so far at the 2016 Democratic National Convention was First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech mentioning slave labor at the White House in her speech. Here was the exact quote:

“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

Clarence Lusane, author of The Black History of the White House (City Lights, 2010) was recently interviewed by the The Washington Post and NPR’s Morning Edition on the subject of slave labor at the White House which is still – frustratingly – not a well-known fact to the general population. In the Washington Post interview, Lusane addressed Michelle Obama’s speech itself, which he called a “pivotal moment.”

“I’m glad that she mentioned the role of enslaved Americans at the White House, because she presented a larger audience with a history that most people are not being taught in our schools. I certainly wasn’t taught that not only were many of our presidents slave owners, but that the most renowned building in our nation was, in part, built by slave labor.”

He went on to address the factual history which he explores in his book:

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Rad Women read Rad American Women A-Z : Kelly Tunstall Reads “V Is for Virginia Apgar”

This week on Rad Women read Rad American Women A-Z: artist Kelly Tunstall came to our offices to read about Dr. Virginia Apgar, who created a way to assess the health of newborn children. Kelly talks about her experience with the Apgar score as a mom and how she discovered that they were created by a woman, as well as her advice to trust your “inside voice” in order to find your passion.

This is the next installment in the video series from City Lights where we ask women we admire to read their favorite entry of our New York Times-bestselling children’s book, Rad American Women A-Zand answer some questions about what it means to be a rad woman today. The book is authored by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahland published by City Lights/Sister Spit.

Kelly Tunstall received her BA from California College of Arts and Crafts in 2002. Working in acrylic, collage, spray paint, pencil, pen and ink, gold leaf and some secret sauce, the experimental, yet classically grounded works live somewhat comfortably in a space between graphic expression, stylized representation, surrealism, and sketch. The patina of age and calligraphic drawing methods lend further depth to her story-filled worlds. Tunstall has shown nationally and internationally, often in collaboration with her husband, Ferris Plock. Her work is on permanent view at the restaurants a16 and Bar Crudo, both in San Francisco and at Alcazar and Cheeky’s located in Palm Springs.

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5 Questions for Sean Carswell, Author of The Metaphysical Ukulele

metaphysical ukWednesday, June 29, 2016 is Indie Press Night at City Lights Bookstore. We are celebrating two new novels by Ig Publishing on this occasion: Missile Paradise by Ron Tanner and The Metaphysical Ukulele by Sean Carswell. Both authors will be at the bookstore discussing their new publications. Sean answered our 5 questions. More about him, and his answers, below.

Event: Wednesday, June 29 at 7PM. 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133.

About The Metaphysical Ukulele: Mixing the flair of literary invention with real events in the lives of some of our most well-known writers—Herman Melville living with a tribe of cannibals; Raymond Chandler holding The Blue Dahlia screenplay hostage from Paramount Studios; Flannery O’Connor falling in love; Chester Himes threatening to decapitate his landlord, a ukulele player who may or may not be Thomas Pynchon, among others—Sean Carswell takes the nonfiction of the literary life and turns it into exquisite fiction, with a ukulele thrown in to each story for good measure. At times heartbreaking, at times absurd, the stories in this truly one-of-a-kind collection delightfully blur the line between what is life, and what is literature.

About Missile Paradise: In the Marshall Islands, an island-nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that was once a testing ground for nuclear bombs, American engineers and programmers are making and testing missiles while their “hosts,” the indigenous Marshallese, sweep their streets and clean their houses. It’s 2004, the Iraq war is heating up, and 9/11 is fresh in everyone’s minds. Following four interconnected story lines—the meltdown of a burned-out cultural liaison who has “gone native” and bitterly resents his role in keeping the Marshallese down; a young programmer who has lost his leg in a reckless solo sailing journey; the struggles of a young widow with two children whose husband drowned in a mysterious diving accident; and the destructive spiral of a Marshallese teenager whose American girlfriend rejects him when she returns to the States—Missile Paradise is an extraordinary novel that deals with the major social and political issues of our time, including racism, represented by the relationship between the Americans who enjoy life on Kwajalein and the subservience of the native Marshallese, who live on the neglected and trash-strewn island of Ebeye; and climate change—the climax of the novel is a great storm and flood which forces the Marshallese on Ebeye to flee to Kwajalein.

sean carswell
Sean Carswell

About Sean Carswell: Sean Carswell is the author of the novels Drinks for the Little Guy, Train Wreck Girl, and Madhouse Fog, and the short story collections Barney’s Crew and Glue and Ink Rebellion. He co-founded the independent book publisher Gorsky Press and the music magazine Razorcake. He currently teaches writing and literature at California State University, Channel Islands.

About Ron Tanner: Ron Tanner’s awards for writing include a Faulkner Society gold medal, a Pushcart Prize, a New Letters Award, a Best of the Web Award, a Maryland Arts Council grant, and many others. He is the author of A Bed of Nails (stories), Kiss Me Stranger (illustrated novel), and From Animal House to Our House (memoir). He teaches writing at Loyola University-Maryland and directs the Marshall Islands Story Project.

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Sean Carswell: I’ve been to City Lights several times. I go there almost every time I go to San Francisco. My most memorable visit had to be about ten years ago.

I’d designed a book cover for Bucky Sinister’s poetry collection Whiskey & Robots. I thought of the cover as an homage to the City Lights Pocket Poets series. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Nancy Peters saw the cover as borderline copyright infringement. They sent the nicest cease-and-desist letter to the publisher for whom I designed the cover. I talked to Nancy and we smoothed things out. A few months later, I was in City Lights and saw a half dozen copies of Whiskey & Robots in the poetry shelves, cover out.

That was such a classy move by City Lights.

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5 Questions with Stephanie Sauer, Author of The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force

royal chicanoWe are always very excited to host events such as the one happening on Thursday, June 23rd at City Lights Books. Stephanie Sauer is in town to present her book The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force, published by University of Texas Press.

She is joined by Ella Maria Diaz, who also wrote the introduction to the book. This event is co-presented by the San Francisco Art Institute and University of Texas Press. Stephanie answered our 5 questions. More about her, and her answers, below.

But first, to set the mood, check out the video Stephanie made for the event at City Lights.

Event: Thursday, June 23 at 7PM. 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133.

About The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force: Employing a creative mix of real and fictive events, objects, and people that subverts assumptions about the archiving and display of historical artifacts, this innovative book both documents and evokes an arts collective that played a significant role in the Chicano movement.

How do you write a history of a group that has been written out of history? In The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force, world-famous archaeologist La Stef and the clandestine Con Sapos Archaeological Collective track down the “facts” about the elusive RCAF, the Rebel Chicano Art Front that, through an understandable mix-up with the Royal Canadian Air Force, became the Royal Chicano Air Force.

La Stef and her fellow archaeologists document the plight and locura que cura of the RCAF, a group renowned for its fleet of adobe airplanes, ongoing subversive performance stance, and key role as poster makers for the United Farm Workers Union during the height of the Chicano civil rights movement. As the Con Sapos team uncovers tensions between fact and fiction in historical consciousness and public memory, they abandon didactic instruction and strive instead to offer a historiography in which various cultural paradigms already intersect seamlessly and on equal ground. That they often fail to navigate the blurred lines between “objective” Western archival sciences and Indigenous/Chicana/o cosmologies reflects the very human predicament of documenting the histories of complicated New Worlds everywhere. Uniquely blending art history, oral history, cultural studies, and anthropology, The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force suspends historical realities and leaps through epochs and between conversations with various historical figures, both dead and alive, to offer readers an intimate experience of RCAF history.

stephanie sAbout Stephanie Sauer: Stephanie Sauer is an interdisciplinary artist and the author of The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force. Her writing and artist books have appeared in Verse Daily, So to Speak, Alimentum, Alehouse Press, Boom: A Journal of California, Lady’s Comics, and Plastique Press. She is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, a So to Speak Hybrid Book Award, two Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission grants, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fellowship in Writing, judged by Elizabeth Alexander. Her visual works have been exhibited at the De Young Museum, New York City’s Center for Book Arts, and Fábrica Behring, and are held in the permanent collections of the National Library of Baghdad, Chicago Cultural Center, and various universities. She holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is the founding editor of Copilot Press and co-founding editor of A Bolha Editora, an in-translation press with headquarters in Rio de Janeiro. She teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Ella Diaz, assistant professor of English (ENGL) and Latino studies (LSP).About Ella Maria Diaz: Ella Maria Diaz is Assistant Professor of English and Latino Studies at Cornell University and the author of Flying Under the Radar with the Royal Chicano Air Force (University of Texas Press, forthcoming 2017). She earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, teaching several courses at William and Mary and developing the College’s first Chicana Literature course in spring 2005. Her research pertains to the interdependence of Chicano/a and U.S. Latino/a literary and visual cultures.  She was a Lecturer in The School of Interdisciplinary Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute between 2006 until 2012. Diaz has published through Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, U.C. Santa Barbara’s ImaginArte, and in Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social.

City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Stephanie Sauer: The Poetry Room. All I remember is the Poetry Room, that it held all of my favorites. That I stayed there all afternoon. That I didn’t want to leave. That I didn’t have enough money, but bought a book of poems by Adrienne Rich on credit anyway. That I glued the receipt into my notebook.

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Rad Women Read Rad American Women A-Z : Cosmic Amanda Reads “Q Is for ‘Queen Bessie’ Coleman”

Next up on Rad Women read Rad American Women A-Z is amazing local DJ Cosmic Amanda! In this video, Amanda reads the entry for “Queen Bessie” Coleman–she explains how Bessie overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to become a pilot by hard work and ignoring the people who told her no.

This is the next installment in the video series from City Lights where we ask women we admire to read their favorite entry of our New York Times-bestselling children’s book, Rad American Women A-Zand answer some questions about what it means to be a rad woman today. The book is authored by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahland published by City Lights/Sister Spit.

Cosmic Amanda is a DJ and founder of, a San Francisco-based community radio station run by a volunteer staff of music nerds who love independent music and are hell-bent on delivering radio programming that doesn’t suck. Voted “Best Radio Station” in San Francisco three times in SF Weekly’s annual Reader’s Poll, their mission is to support emerging and underground artists and bring the Bay Area music scene to the world through the magic of Internet radio.

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Homage to Bill Berkson

By Garrett Caples

bill with expect
Bill Berkson, 2015

With much sadness I note the death of poet, critic, professor, lecturer, and friend to City Lights Bill Berkson (1939-2016), from a heart attack on June 16. Bill was perhaps best known for his association with the New York School of poets and painters, having published his first collection, Saturday Night (1961), in John Bernard Myers’ legendary Tibor de Nagy poetry series. He was particularly known for his friendship with Frank O’Hara, who dedicated two major poems to him, “For the Chinese New Year and for Bill Berkson,” published by City Lights in Lunch Poems (Pocket Poets No. 19, 1964), and the tour de force “Biotherm,” which Wayne Koestenbaum has called O’Hara’s “very greatest poem.” His friendship with O’Hara cast a long shadow that took him a while to outdistance, and I feel like only in the new millennium did Bill’s reputation finally catch up to his own industry and achievement.

bill berkson and frank
Bill Berkson (right) with Frank O’Hara, 1960.

At the same time, the past 15 years saw an extraordinary flowering of his poetry, accounting for more than half of his present output in terms of books and culminating in his most recent volume Expect Delays (Coffee House, 2014). During this period, he harvested the fruit of his labor as art critic and literary commentator with a trio of compilations, The Sweet Singer of Modernism & Other Art Writings 1985-2003 (Qua Books, 2004), Sudden Address: Selected Lectures 1981-2006 (Cuneiform Press, 2007), and For the Ordinary Artist: Short Reviews, Interviews, Occasional Pieces & More (BlazeVox, 2010). No doubt retirement from his longtime professorship at the San Francisco Art Institute had something to do with this newfound attention to his own affairs, for in addition to teaching art and writing, Bill had routinely been a generous promoter of other people’s work, and not solely through his little magazine and small press Big Sky.

(Below is a video of Bill reading from Expect Delays at the San Francisco Public Library in 2015 [footage by Evan Karp].)

I first met Bill, in passing, in the late ’90s but we didn’t connect. Later, in the mid-oughts, he nearly died from emphysema, but managed to bounce back from the precipice with a double-lung transplant, and only then did I get to know him. In 2009, I was editing a volume of poems by Cedar Sigo for the new City Lights Spotlight series. Back then Cedar lived in a tiny semi-detached cottage with a front-yard in SF’s Mission District and threw the greatest parties, and as I was entering the front gate, Bill was exiting the front door. We paused to compare notes. I was astonished at how this 70-year-old man was a sincere admirer of the under-35 Sigo, displaying a level of curiosity and understanding I’d already felt the difficulty of sustaining myself as I merely neared 40. Bill made it seem like a matter of course. At the time, I was also working out a cover for Kevin Killian’s Impossible Princess (City Lights, 2009) with Colter Jacobsen, and Bill’s remarks on Colter’s genius as an artist were so illuminating, so in line with what I felt but so much better thought-out, I was deeply impressed, even as Bill had taken me seriously, for my own appreciation of Colter and Cedar.

Later I had the good fortune to work on a project with Bill for City Lights, his introduction to our 2013 relaunch of Poems Retrieved by Frank O’Hara, previously printed by New American Poetry editor Donald Allen’s Grey Fox Press. This was the beginning of our friendship, generally conducted over lunch, where we’d handle whatever business we had at hand and then I’d spend the rest of the time picking his brain for advice about editing and publishing. Still later, he proved to be a tremendous help, in an informal capacity, as I worked to piece together the biographical facts for the introduction to Incidents of Travel in Poetry: New and Selected Poems (City Lights, 2016) by Bill’s fellow second-generation New York School poet Frank Lima. I remember Bill taking the trouble to write to me from New York to introduce me to Tim Keane, whose uncle Bob Corless had been Lima’s roommate in his first apartment. I was struck by the fact that my own project was still on Bill’s mind in the midst of his own business—his expertise was considerate and thoughtful—and Tim proved to be a great source of information about a particularly obscure era of Lima’s life.

Bill's most recent book, Invisible Oligarchs.
Bill’s most recent book, Invisible Oligarchs.

I can’t say I knew Bill well, and I know I was by no means the only recipient of his generosity in poetic and artistic matters, so I look forward to hearing other reminiscences about this extraordinary man. I feel lucky to have known him at all. The last time we had lunch together, at the end of May, he was praising the poetry of a young woman named Lyric Hunter, whose chapbook Swallower (2014) was published by Ugly Duckling Presse, which also just published Bill last book, Invisible Oligarchs: Russia Notebook, January-June 2006 & After (2016). That was Bill through and through, still curious and receptive after a lifetime of glamorous soldiering through the fields of art and poetry.

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Live from Ralph Nader’s “Breaking Through Power” Event in D.C.

By Greg Ruggiero


Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending Ralph Nader’s 4-day gathering on the importance of mounting a civic insurgency to bring corporate power under greater public control.

Staged in Washington D.C.’s historic Constitution Hall, Nader brought together an impressive array of artists, intellectuals, activists, attorneys, whistleblowers, and progressive media makers.

As Nader named the event after our forthcoming book with him, Breaking Through Power, I couldn’t resist but accept the invitation to attend and present advance copies of the book to conference goers.

Among the highlights was Patti Smith talking about Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Paine and William Blake. She told us that long before Ralph ran for President of the United States, her Dad would write his name in on his election ballot. Here is some video I took of her reading Whitman’s homage to New York, “Mannahatta,” as well as more shots of Ralph at the conference.

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5 Questions with Ben Ehrenreich, Author of The Way to the Spring

the way to the springOn Thursday, June 16th at City Lights, we welcome City Lights author and award-winning journalist Ben Ehrenreich back to City Lights Bookstore. He’ll be discussing his brand new book, The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine (published by Penguin Press). He answered our 5 questions. More about him, and his answers, below.

This event is presented by the Jewish Voice for Peace Bay Area, Middle East Children’s Alliance, City Lights, and Penguin Press.

Event: Thursday, June 16, 2016 at 7PM. 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133.

About The Way to the Spring: Over the past three years, American writer Ben Ehrenreich has been traveling to and living in the West Bank, staying with Palestinian families in its largest cities and its smallest villages. Along the way he has written major stories for American outlets, including a remarkable New York Times Magazine cover story. Now comes the powerful new work that has always been his ultimate goal, The Way to the Spring.

We are familiar with brave journalists who travel to bleak or war-torn places on a mission to listen and understand, to gather the stories of people suffering from extremes of oppression and want: Katherine Boo, Ryszard Kapuściński, Ted Conover, and Philip Gourevitch among them. Palestine is, by any measure, whatever one’s politics, one such place. Ruled by the Israeli military, set upon and harassed constantly by Israeli settlers who admit unapologetically to wanting to drive them from the land, forced to negotiate an ever more elaborate and more suffocating series of fences, checkpoints, and barriers that have sundered home from field, home from home, this is a population whose living conditions are unique, and indeed hard to imagine. In a great act of bravery, empathy and understanding, Ben Ehrenreich, by placing us in the footsteps of ordinary Palestinians and telling their story with surpassing literary power and grace, makes it impossible for us to turn away.

“Ben Ehrenreich’s rendition of the Palestinian experience is powerful, deep and heartbreaking, so much closer to the ground than the Middle East reporting we usually see. I wish there were more writers as brave.”—Adam Hochschild

ben eAbout Ben Ehrenreich: Ben Ehrenreich is the author of two novels, Ether (published by City Lights) and The Suitors. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books, among other publications. A recipient of the National Magazine Award, Ehrenreich lives in Los Angeles.


City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

Ben Ehrenreich: I am happy to say I’ve been to City Lights many times. Long before I ever dreamed of reading there, or of publishing a book with City Lights, I used to make sure to visit whenever I was in San Francisco. I would invariably leave loaded down with novels—some that I’d come looking for, most of them happy accidents. I can’t think of too many places that I’d rather be.

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City Lights at the Bay Area Book Festival

bay book fest lacuna

The 2nd annual Bay Area Book Festival (or as we call it, BABF) is on June 4 & 5, Saturday and Sunday in downtown Berkeley. Last year was a pretty spectacular event and this year seems even better. City Lights Publishers will have a booth on “Radical Row” (on Allston between Milvia & Shattuck) alongside our friends at AK Press, Counterpoint/Soft Skull, Last Gasp, Moe’s Books, Small Press Distribution, PM Press, ZYZZYVA, and many others. Come and hang out with us.

We’ll have all of our new publications on sale for 30% off, as well as tote bags, bookmarks, and bumper stickers. Go here for the list of great authors participating, here for the festival map, and keep your eye on the BABF Twitter account for updates.

There are also a handful of City Lights authors taking part in panel discussions and performances at the book fair. Here are the ones you’ll need to check out.


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1. Thursday, June 2 at 7:30PM – SOLD OUT

Location: San Francisco Chronicle Stage at the Freight & Salvage

Event: “An Evening with Saul Williams”

Who: Saul Williams, Chinaka Hodge, Black Spirituals

Details: Feature presenter Saul Williams has shared his music and spoken word performances in over 30 countries, with invitations from world-class venues such as the White House, the Sydney Opera House, Lincoln Center, The Louvre, The Getty Center, and Queen Elizabeth Hall. At Berkeley’s own San Francisco Chronicle Stage at the Freight & Salvage, hack into Williams’ mind as he navigates “poetry as design,” performing selections from two dynamic new works: US(a.) and Martyr Loser King. Also featured in performance are avant-garde explorative jazz musicians, Black Spirituals, and Oakland based poet, screenwriter, curator, and educator, Chinaka Hodge.

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Rad Women Read Rad American Women A-Z : Destiny Muhammad Reads “H Is for Hazel Scott”

After a brief hiatus, we’re back with another episode of Rad Women Read Rad American Women A-Z’! This week, we welcomed Oakland-based jazz harpist Destiny Muhammad to our offices to read about Hazel Scott, an icon of jazz that also stood for justice. Destiny shares why it’s important to stand up for what you believe in early in life and to be “unapologetically rad” even if that means losing some friends in the process.

This is the next installment in the video series from City Lights where we ask women we admire to read their favorite entry of our New York Times-bestselling children’s book, Rad American Women A-Zand answer some questions about what it means to be a rad woman today. The book is authored by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahland published by City Lights/Sister Spit.

Destiny Muhammad is a performing artist/singer-songwriter on harp. Her genre ‘Celtic to Coltrane’ is cool and eclectic with a feel of Jazz & storytelling to round out the sonic experience. Destiny has opened for The Oakland East Bay Symphony, shared the stage with Jazz Masters Azar Lawrence, Marcus Shelby, Omar Sosa, John Santos and co-starred in Def Jam Poetry Winner Ise Lyfe’s Hip Hop Play Pistols & Prayers to name a few. She has also headlined for the “Women in Jazz” Concert series in San Francisco. Destiny is expanding her musical ideals with her project(s) S.O.N.G/ Strings of a Nubian Groove Nubian string ensemble, The Destiny Muhammad Project, & The Richard Howell Quintet (RHQ). Destiny is Governor Emeritus and Educational Chair Emeritus of the Recording Academy, San Francisco Chapter, Jazz Heritage Center of San Francisco Jazz Ambassador and an ASCAP Songwriter Awardee.


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