Sunday, February 7, 2021

Frances Goldin (1924 - 2020): Housing Activist, Radical, and Literary Agent

Frances Goldin (1924 - 2020): Housing Activist, Radical, and Literary Agent

Written by Mumia Abu-Jamal 

(May 19, 2020)

Who knows the name, "Frances Goldin?" The better question may be: "Who doesn't know her?". She had spent a long and colorful life on behalf of the poor and dispossessed, and almost began it as a politician, but luckily that was not to be. She ran for the New York State Senate in 1951 on the US Labor Party ticket.

And guess who led the slate? None other than W. E. B. DuBois. Labor didn't win, but that didn't stop her. Later in the 50s, she and several colleagues formed the Cooper Square Committee to fight on behalf of the residents of the Lower East Side. Fight against what? Perhaps New York's most famous city planner, Robert Moses, was trying to bulldoze the homes of some 2,400 poor tenants to make room for apartments for the middle class who could pay more money. 

Frances, and other members of the committee, Thelma Burdick and Walter Thabit, fought long battles against the city and almost 50 years later, over 50 in fact, homes were open on the Lower East Side. Which I might add, reopened, and they maintained rent controlled apartments over this period. And they were sold to the tenants for several hundred dollars. 

Several years ago, homes were opened there and the building was named after Frances Goldin. Frances, a radical, loved books. Especially radical books. In 1977, she took her love of books and operationalized it, founding and establishing the Francis Goldin Literary Agency: a home for radical books and their writers. For a woman who wanted to change the world, she opened up the door to books that could change people's minds: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, even children's books.

So book by book, author by author, she built the agency that continues to thrive to this very day. Her clients became her friends, which reminds me of this. Several years ago, CSPAN2, also known as Book TV, aired a book party for the launch of a novel by Barbara Kingsolver entitled the "Poisonwood Bible." The reception was filled to the brim with women who loved her work and loved her. When there was a question and answer session from the audience of her readers, I was struck by the tone. It could have been a church, for the vibe was reverential. I remember seeing Frances on the front row beaming like a cherub as her friend answered questions.

Another Frances memory. It was, I think , the middle to late first decade of the 2000s. I was on death row. When I heard a rap on the glass of the cell door, I looked up and there she was-- on the block of death row. I was flabbergasted. I was dumbfounded. I was stupefied. For such a thing never happened before. But Frances Goldin made things happen. Francis, being Francis, went around the block, talking to the men on death row, other guys.

Then she went out to the so-called yard. A few minutes later, she returned to my cell door, tears streaming from her eyes. Before I could ask a stupid question, she blurted out, "Those... those... cages, they're not fit for dogs." I wanted to hold her, console her, to stop her sobbing. But the door between us prevented it. I felt oddly embarrassed. Like a poor man when others see his shack, his poverty.

Those cages, about 60 square feet, of chain link fencing, never looked the same again. For before it was but a place to play handball, to do pushups, to run and recreate. Frances' tears stained the memory. 

Frances was more than a radical, or successful literary agent or even a ferocious housing activist. There are two daughters, Sally and Reeni. She was a mom, and her love and pride for that was something fierce. Born in 1924 to Russian Jewish refugees, she often bragged playfully of her Russian peasant genes. She grew up in Queens and New York's Harlem, and tasted antisemitism as stones and bricks thrown at her family's windows in Queens. She was both daughter and mother of the movement.

I dare say she was a woman of color, as only Frances could be. The color? Purple of course. Her eyes, a brilliant violet, reflected her spirit, intelligence, humor, her passions and her compassion. Those peasant genes carried her through 96 spring times. And the little woman taught generations the power of a big and mighty heart to transform the world around us.

From Imprisoned Nation, this is her friend and her client, Mumia Abu-Jamal.

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