1950 - 2005
It was the Sixties, a time of great struggle and turmoil that marked us all -- willing or no.
Michael was a child of relative privilege with a beautiful, bright, and charming mother and a father who was one of the first and rare African American members of the city police department. His life should have been predictable, easy. His father stood perhaps 6'4' but Michael was small for a man, standing barely 5'5" and barely more than 120 pounds, as I recall. He was tiny and wiry. His small body would not contain the giant soul and smoldering outrage that eventually erupted into the rage that would consume him.
In his senior year at the University of California at Berkeley his student activism (now deeply involved with a black nationalist movement) would scream out from the front page of the S.F. Chronicle, wildly kicking a helmeted Tactical Squad officer in a violent expression of youthful justifiable racial fury! He was a very young man of principle and ideals that would smother compromise and filter out caution.
We may never know what it was like to have been the son of a member of the SFPD at a time when the legendary Black Panthers were branding them "Pigs!" Black youngsters who were less than "black" had much to prove to their peers and many of the most ferocious nationalists whom I knew had the light skin and smooth hair of "the enemy." This surely fueled matters. It surely did for me as I moved ever more deeply into blackness during those years of unprecedented political change.
In a tragic incident that would separate him forever from those who loved him, Michael and friends found themselves involved in a fatal shootout, an airplane highjacking, and eventually landing in Cuba - where they found asylum and a new life among welcoming strangers. That was 33 years ago, I believe. He was not much more than a boy, the age of my middle son, Bobby.
For Joan, for me, for our very middleclass and largely politically moderate friends, the Revolution had come home. We were devastated! These were our children, and our passivity was creating chasms of differences that either radicalized us or increased the generational differences irrevokably.
I never saw Michael again.
Over the years since, he changed his name to a combination of two of his literary heroes, Langston Wright -- for Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, of course. He mastered the language easily and quickly and eventually evolved into one of Cuba's young intellectuals and worked for Radio Havana as a jazz disc jockey. He won great love and respect and continued to nurture his ideals in a new format, in a new language, and under a new political system. His family never lost the fear that -- on the day that relations were restored with the island, Michael would be seized and returned to the states and inevitable imprisonment. They both visited him as often as possible, and maintained a close relationship over all the years. He'd left a young wife and child here, but eventually created a new family -- with a new daughter on the island. His parents juggled their feelings and allegiances enough to embrace both families, and both were represented yesterday at the memorial service.
I'd been wondering over the past few days just how I'd handle my feelings about Michael. What could I say? I'd not seen him over all the years -- though it was certainly possible to have joined Joan in a visit at some point -- though there were my aging parents to tend and my mentally-retarded daughter -- and there was my deeply-troubled alcoholic son to agonize over... all excuses, I suppose, but quite real impediments.
Yesterday I stood to speak during the testimonies of friends and families:
"Let me place Michael in context," I said. "Visualize with me a piece of parchment upon which the names of a long list of unsung heroes are traced in milk. Invisible. Heroes one and all. Heroes because they were in most cases our best and brightest; "young, gifted, and black!" These were the idealists. The passionate. These were the children of the never-enfranchised; the hosed and beaten, with memories of lynchings and Klan raids. Their time had come -- as had ours. What they did not have were patience and restraint -- but they were young and uncompromising.
Make no mistake, these were the brave young souls who could not be harnessed; who would not bend, and who dared to hold out the spectre of the unspeakable -- the possibility of an armed Black rebellion before a nation stubbornly deaf to our pleas and in the throes of violent change. These were the Bobby Huttons, H. Rap Browns, the Stokely Carmichaels, Fred Hamptons, the Huey Newtons and Bobby Seales, the Malcolm Xs, and yes, the Michael Robert Finneys. It was these brave young souls who -- by their smoldering rage made peaceful change possible. They enabled the work of Dr. Martin Luther King. Without their unbridled youthful fury success may have been even more difficult to achieve. As the ever-present frightening alternative, they stood tall and fearless and threatening as they challenged white power.
One day, probably long after I'm gone, that parchment will be brought out of hiding -- lain carefully upon some grassy plot of ground under a warm sun where those invisible tracings will be burnished brown -- made clearly legible so that the moderates among us -- far removed from the pain and anguish of radical social change -- can finally embrace these heroes who gave their futures, their young lives, to the struggle for full equality that continues unabated to this day.
I find myself, an unrepentant elder without reservation, proudly eulogizing Michael this day, regretful of the years he spent out of the arms of his family -- but grateful to learn from those of you who remained close -- how gracefully -- how uncompromisingly he lived out the remainder of his short life. Amen."
And so he was laid to rest, though much of his work remains uncompleted -- and his successors in the struggle are now largely accounted for in the prison statistics of this nation. I strongly suspect that the pacification of the inner cities has been accomplished over the years through the proliferation of crack cocaine and heroin delivered by the same forces that tried to contain the Michaels of his day. Cynical? Maybe. But one would have to be unbelievably naive and/or blindly insensitive to not see a pattern designed to protect the majority from the rest of us. But I'm exposing more of my own anger than I wish to at this point, and should leave something for another time.
Meanwhile, today's young "heroes" in the uniforms of the nation, are away on foreign shores engaged in the legal killing of brown strangers and being made to justify this as an expression of patriotism or protection of our still seriously flawed democratic process, -- with many puzzled and frightened and increasingly cynical as they as often as not must fight for personal survival against young innocent people like themselves -- those who are fighting to free their country from occupation by outside forces; us. Their fast-fading ideals were borrowed temporarily from corrupt systems and leaders far far away in a Washington situation room -- from old men without the heart for the battlefield. And one of these new soldiers bears the name of my 18 year-old Jessica, the grand daughter who was lured into the military from her high school campus by persistent and aggressive recruiters -- and who cries today in boot camp in South Carolina where she is undergoing preparation for war against ...? It's hard to not see Jessica as more of a victim than was Michael, in many ways. At least that's the way it appears from here on this, the day of his eulogy. There's little fire in her belly. There is only that vague promise that four years from now she can come home again. She will kill her way into college, though the Armed Forces brochure expresses it quite differently, of course.
If you'll scroll back to song lyrics I wrote long ago, you may find Michael buried in "Little Boy Black," or someone very like him. It was a composite of Michael and a youngster I met in Chicago at that time, a member of the Blackstone Rangers.
Maybe I'll re-enter them here, but tomorrow ...