A Review of Michael Simanga's "No One Can Be at Peace Unless They Have Freedom"

Michael Simanga, No One Can Be at Peace Unless They Have Freedom: Essays, Poems, Thoughts, Lessons (Chicago: Third World Press Foundation), 126 pp.

In the spirit of Marvin Gaye, one of several artists honored in No One Can Be at Peace Unless They Have Freedom, this volume is Michael Simanga’s What’s Going On book. It is an urgent and majestic mix of inner-city-blues-what’s-going-on-save-the-children--mercy-mercy-me-right-on-wholy-holy sensibilities remastered for our times. Simanga is an artist and writer passionately concerned with human freedom and with the struggle for social justice that accompanies the quest for freedom and ultimately, in his view, peace. Obviously, the author realizes how arduous the battle is amid the latest right-wing resurgence in the United States. But his words are important equipment for engaging in that battle. Simanga writes with more than hope. As a veteran of African-African and broader activism, and of the Black Arts Movement in particular, he expresses certainty, as did Martin Luther King, that the moral arc is long and that the justice it bends toward will be reached by people who possess the necessary clarity, will, inspiration, and perseverance.

Because of his faith in the power of poetry, Simanga includes verse, “Remembrance: A Promise to Our Ancestors,” in the introduction. It is a brilliant choice. What begins as a persona’s standard reflection on the coast of Senegal evolves into a vivid reenactment of the Middle Passage and a reflection on the challenges faced by the descendants of Africa on the other side of the ocean. One appreciates the message to listen, witness, testify, remember, and live. But one also wonders, after absorbing the poem, if Simanga just pulled alongside Robert Hayden (a fellow native of Detroit, by the way). Hayden’s “Middle Passage” has long been perhaps the signal poetic achievement concerning the “Voyage through death/to life upon these shores.” On this theme, Simanga may be just as accomplished.     

The other eight poems are also crafted well. There are a second Haydenesque entry, ”1619 The Good Ship;” celebrations of everyday black life, “Black Community Dance” and “From the Cracks in the Sidewalk;” the philosophical “Haiku for Peace” and “The Death of War;” and tributes to visual artist Radcliff Bailey and poet Sonia Sanchez.

As part of his offering, Simanga provides incisive political journalism. If his poetry suggests Hayden, much of his prose resembles the editorials of the Du Bois who edited the Crisis for twenty-five years. For example, in “The Enduring Resistance, The Constant Affirmation,” he succinctly presents a lesson on the historical betrayal of African Americans by ruling interests in this nation, a betrayal that includes continued state violence, voter suppression, and the defunding of public schools. He concludes that we all should pass along a legacy of resistance and that, while alliances are important, the responsibility for Black Liberation lies with Black people. In “The Intractable Relationship,” he speaks of the “unholy compromises with racism” made by the Republican and Democratic parties (7). Along with their tolerance of state violence, voter suppression, and the hollowing out of public education, they are complicit, Simanga notes, in unfair housing policies, mandatory sentencing, suppression of labor rights, discrimination against farmers, and support for exploitative banking practices. He embraces the “radical redistribution” rhetoric of King and considers King’s proposal to be a solution for some of America’s ills. 

In “Notes on Standing Rock and Standing Together,” he revisits the idea of alliances. He sees not defeat in the Trump administration’s decision to sanction the Dakota Access Pipeline construction. He sees instead lessons about the need to support Native Americans in their struggles for dignity and the protection of resources as well as the need for groups to join in solidarity in the fight for justice. He strikes similar chords in “Notes on Human Rights” and “Notes on Black Lives Matter.” He argues that children fleeing from Honduras and other countries where their lives are impoverished and imperiled should be welcomed as refugees and not “subjected to the hatred of American patriots” (46). Black Lives Matter is, for Simanga, a vital formation in that it has given “form and leadership to an emerging mass resistance movement heavily populated with African American youth” (51). But also, given the founding of BLM by Black women, some of whom are queer, and the fact that Black women remain the engine that drives the movement, Simanga views BLM as an advent that has forced activists to acknowledge within Black political movements the “untenable patriarchal barriers” along with the marginalization of LGBTQ people (51). 

Among the most absorbing pieces in this volume are the memoir fragments, which reveal much about Simanga’s educational, political, and artistic development. We learn about his indomitable mother, Mama Imani Humphrey, who managed to graduate from the University of Detroit when Simanga was nine years old. He and his brother sometimes accompanied her to campus. Humphrey subsequently worked as an activist-educator for fifty years and was an unflagging supporter of Simanga’s own mid-life educational ambitions. His father, Richard Humphrey Jr., was a community organizer, who occasionally took his son with him as he made his rounds. One day in 1969, he checked Simanga out of high school to attend a press conference and meet Robert Williams, the Black Powerist who was returning from exile abroad. It was also through his father that Simanga met Muhammad Ali, and Simanga was in Richard’s company in a Detroit lounge when he witnessed an impromptu performance by Marvin Gaye.           

The influential playwright Ron Milner was perhaps the author’s main artistic mentor, “Detroit’s standard for Black revolutionary creative writing,” Simanga surmises (100). In a sensitive portrait titled “Visiting Ron Milner,” he recounts how, as a teenager, he took a poetry manuscript to Milner only to be told, “It’s not good enough” (101). The playwright recognized his potential, however, and pushed him to hold to the discipline required to advance his talents. Milner remained an important reader and editor for Simanga until the playwright passed away in 2004.   

Simanga rounds out his collection with tributes to other political figures and artists such as Reverend Gerard Jean-Juste, Chokwe Lumumba, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, and Prince. Like Gaye, Simanga embraces the humanity of us all and wishes us all, as indicated, freedom and peace. As a valuable gift to us during our journeys, he renders his feelings exquisitely on the page.