"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
For Randall Robinson, the Caribbean is not a tropical getaway. The region is his adopted home, his refuge since leaving the United States three weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The founder and former president of TransAfrica Forum, a humanitarian organization dedicated to promoting enlightened U.S. policies toward Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, Robinson left America for his wife’s native island of St. Kitts. In his new book “Quitting America: The Departure of a Black Man From His Native Land,” Robinson writes, “I had always felt spiritually countryless. I belonged to the black world and not necessarily to America.”
A lifelong political activist, Robinson is also the author of “The Debt,” which articulates the highly controversial argument that the United States should address the legacy of slavery by paying reparations to African-Americans. Although favorably reviewed by such mainstream-left publications as the Nation and the Christian Science Monitor, “The Debt” was attacked by some on the right as racially divisive and by some on the left for Robinson’s suggestion that slavery in America may have had a more devastating impact on African-Americans than colonialism and imperialism did on blacks living in Africa. His new book has also raised hackles. “Quitting America” opens with a look at the man Robinson considers the granddaddy of Western capitalists, Christopher Columbus. Robinson argues that Columbus’ ruthless exploitation of the Caribbean paved the way for like-minded Europeans to follow suit in the centuries to come.
Right-wing commentators, such as those at David Horowitz’s FrontPage magazine, have savaged the book. “By leaving America for the picturesque beaches of the Caribbean, the wealthy Robinson has demonstrated that he favors self-indulgent separatism above engagement and political debate,” wrote Anders G. Lewis, who termed Robinson a “smooth-talking racist.”
Some on the left may also scratch their heads at Robinson’s apparent choice of flight over fight. Indeed, there are plenty of politically disgruntled Americans who refuse to flee the country, who are committed to effecting change from within. Yet Robinson hasn’t abandoned the U.S. altogether; he continues to involve himself in efforts to shape American policy and writes that he intends to remain a U.S. citizen in “good standing.” But he says he could no longer abide living in a country he had found so inhospitable to African-Americans, and he wanted his daughter to grow up in a culture where he believed her race would not marginalize her.
“Quitting America” doubles as a chronicle of Robinson’s decision to leave the States and a scathing sociopolitical critique of the country he once called home. The book is also a valentine to St. Kitts and Nevis, a nation, Robinson writes, that disdains materialism, provides universal health care and has little crime.
As would be expected, Robinson has harsh words for President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and the other engineers of the Iraq invasion. But he also finds much to condemn in the policies of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Perhaps the most powerful section of “Quitting America” details the tortured history of Haiti. A longtime friend of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Robinson undertook a 28-day hunger strike in 1994 to protest the Clinton administration’s policy toward Haitian refugees. Robinson explores Haiti’s subjugation at the hands of the U.S. and Europe and also looks back to one of the few glorious episodes in Haiti’s history, the successful slave revolt of 1803.
Robinson’s writing on Haiti is particularly timely given the events of recent weeks. On Feb. 29, Aristide was exiled to the Central African Republic. The Bush administration said Aristide resigned voluntarily. Aristide himself claimed he had been kidnapped. Two weeks later, Robinson and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., a vocal critic of the administration’s Haiti policy, led a private delegation to the Central African Republic. The group flew Aristide to Jamaica, where he has been granted temporary asylum. While many observers, including some on the left, became critical of Aristide’s presidency, Robinson remains one of the deposed leader’s most fervent defenders.
The trip was very much on Robinson’s mind when Salon spoke to him two days after his return home from Africa.
At one point in your book you predict that “Quitting America” will draw a relatively small white audience. What made you feel this way?
The mail I’ve received suggests I was wrong. I’ve gotten more mail in response to this book than the three previous ones I’ve written combined, far and away. I would guess at least 40 percent of the mail is from white Americans who identify with the disillusionment I expressed about what has happened to the real character of American democracy. They’ve been important letters to me. One white writer said the racial experience I had described had accelerated my disillusionment but in no other way was it different from his.
The isolation of racial realities in America causes one to form assumptions about things we find little opportunity to test. It causes the black community to believe — and I think I’m speaking for the huge majority of blacks — that white Americans just don’t care about what happens to other people, that they’re not even intellectually curious about [people of color] who for them are opaque or faceless, that they have no interest in Native Americans as anything but a momentary curiosity. I felt that way. But then I came to discover, reassuringly, that there are at least enough white Americans with enough interest to write in response to this book and say that my experience has been their own.
For me this sense of disillusionment is an old phenomenon; for these readers it’s a relatively new one. Some of it comes up in discussions of the press. A prominent journalist recently confided in me his feeling that the American press has failed its democracy. The term “embedded” that became popular during the Iraq war is more than just a description of a practical and physical relationship. It describes what has happened more generally to the American press, to what has caused it to miscarry its responsibility.
The story of what has happened to American democracy has never been written. I’m not talking about the whole ritual of elections but what democracy is supposed to mean for all of us and how we’re supposed to treat each other with relative compassion. These are not just Republicans we’re dealing with these days; this is something extraordinary, where there’s no regard for law. What we did to Iraq is one thing; what we have done to Haiti is absolutely criminal and the press has been involved in it.
I have been known to irritate those who have wanted to support me, to criticize people on the left, black people, any kind of people, when what they are doing is unresponsive to people’s fundamental human rights. Because of what I have seen — and I’ve berated everybody I can put my hands on, Wolf Blitzer and everybody — because of what I know about Haiti and have seen in the press coverage, I don’t believe anything I read or see anymore. I can’t trust any information that is part of a news package. Journalists have behaved so badly and in virtual knee-jerk favor of whatever the Bush administration has done.
In an interview with [National Public Radio host] Tavis Smiley in January you expressed the hope that “Quitting America” would enable its readers to understand what has made so many people feel displaced in the United States. Is it possible that your book implicitly encourages people to leave the U.S. and to quit fighting for change here?
I’ve left America physically but I’m still very much involved in its policies. I think you’re better Americans when you live somewhere else at some time in your life. You don’t learn anything about the world living in America; you need to talk to people who are affected by what the U.S. does. I think it’s a good thing for young people, people early in their careers, to live somewhere else for a while. If you participate in the American political process when you return you will do so much more sensitively than you would have otherwise.
Going back to Haiti and Aristide, you talk at length in your book about Aristide’s virtues, describing him as one of the few true Christians you have encountered. He has been widely criticized, in the press and elsewhere, as a one-time populist who ended up using the same corrupt and authoritarian tactics he once decried. I take it you don’t agree.
It’s quite clearly untrue. In America you wouldn’t just write in a newspaper or say on television that President Bush is authoritarian. You would have to particularize the charge and then a reader would draw from that a conclusion that the president is or is not corrupt. With Aristide the American press has started with a verdict, that he is corrupt. The particulars are never described.
In a democracy you are elected and vested with certain powers and you exercise those powers for the period of your term. But in fact Aristide never had any power to begin with because of those who made war against his efforts to make the country right. And the coup began in 1994 when the Republicans took over the United States Congress a month after Aristide was restored to power. Because of this enormous unrelenting enmity toward Aristide in Republican circles, they began to deconstruct his government almost from the very beginning.
I was on the plane with Aristide when he went back to Haiti [in 1994], and there was nothing there, no institutions of government, no bureaus, no departments. It had all been destroyed by thugs, the Macoutes, and by the [paramilitary group] FRAPH, whom we had armed and trained, who had been part of the Duvalier machine. Aristide was facing an army he couldn’t trust, so he dismantled the army. But they were never disarmed, so they just went over the border into the Dominican Republic. They just fled across the border and were never held accountable. One of these killers, Emmanuel Constant, “Toto,” went across the border, got on a plane, and has been in New York ever since. He was the head of FRAPH and the United States has protected him. If he’s not already back in Haiti he’s coming soon.
Under Bush we removed all bilateral assistance for the Aristide administration. Then we blocked a $500 million loan package from the Inter-American Development Bank, money that had been earmarked for literacy education, for safe drinking water, for road development and medical care. The Republicans blocked it all. And then we started to give about $3 million a year to form an opposition to Aristide comprised of unelected businesspeople.
Why were these people so opposed to Aristide? Because he had the temerity to suggest several things. One, that the wealthy business community begin to pay taxes. Two, that the minimum wage be raised from the current rate of $1.60 a day. Three, that the practice involving the indentureship of girls working as domestics in the homes of the wealthy for room and board alone be ended. That enraged the wealthy community.
There was a recent piece on Haiti in the Boston Globe in which you described Colin Powell as the “most powerful and damaging black to rise to influence in the world” in your lifetime.
Even before the [Haitian] coup the secretary of state had indicated a callousness toward the black world. We had appealed to him years ago to use his influence to get the Clinton administration to desist in the work they were doing to wreck the Caribbean banana-dependent countries, the exporting countries of the Caribbean. There was a special regime of the European Union to create a market for the Caribbean countries to sell their bananas. Most of these countries are so small that diversification is just not a practicable kind of objective to pursue. In the Dominican Republic, 85 percent of their foreign exchange earnings came from banana exports.
But Chiquita wanted that market all to itself and gave huge amounts of money both to the Republicans and the Democrats. The head of Chiquita came to Washington and slept in the Lincoln Bedroom and Clinton went to work at the WTO [World Trade Organization] to destroy the Caribbean trade understanding with Europe. And so now Dominica is in a shambles, farmers have been committing suicide in St. Vincent, but these are places that Americans don’t know anything about and don’t care anything about. Clinton knew this wouldn’t cost him politically, not even with the black community, because they didn’t know anything more about this situation than anyone else. And the black community just adored Clinton — for what reason I have no idea, but it was certainly largely undeserved.
So we had gone to Colin Powell, assuming that because he was a son of Jamaica that in his breast would stir some sympathy. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Of course if a black rises to high places under the wing of Ronald Reagan that ought to tell you something about what you might reasonably get. But I think African-Americans, including myself, wanted to believe in Powell. We wanted to be proud that this charming man who had become the first black secretary of state would do well and would make a difference, not just for the world but for our community. What distinguished him from Condoleezza Rice was that she was never known to anybody. She’s an academic and relatively mirthless. Powell is an engaging man — I met him at the White House with Aristide — but his policies have been godawful and devastating to black countries around the world.
You recently got back from the Central African Republic, where you retrieved Aristide and brought him to Jamaica. How did that happen?
[Rep.] Maxine Waters and I had been talking to the Aristides on the phone five to 10 times a day in the month leading up to the coup. We were arranging for Tavis Smiley to come down on Sunday. Tavis was going to do an interview in the palace and then ABC News was going to do an interview as well.
On Saturday night [the night before Aristide's removal] I called the palace and a woman whose voice was unfamiliar to me answered the phone. I said, “Can I speak to the president?” and she said, “He’s busy.” I was calling to warn the president because I had been told that Colin Powell had sent a message that [Aristide] was going to be killed on Sunday morning and that the United States would do nothing to help him. I became alarmed when I couldn’t get through. Then I didn’t hear anything except that the coup had occurred.
It was on Monday that President Aristide called and said he was in the Central African Republic. He said over and over again, “It’s a coup, it’s a coup.” Mrs. Aristide said they had been taken from their residence in Haiti and put aboard this white aircraft with U.S. markings. She said there were some 20 American Marines in full battle gear, helmets and all. They took their helmets off and put on baseball caps once they were onboard. And all the shades on the plane were drawn and then they took off and flew not a terribly long distance and landed and sat on a tarmac for two hours. Friends of ours in Antigua described to us this same plane. Our friends said all the shades were drawn and there were supposedly no passengers onboard.
They took off again. Mrs. Aristide raised the shade and was told to put it down, and then they flew for six hours and were on ground somewhere for three hours — they don’t know where. Then they took off again. Only when the plane was approaching the Central African Republic were the Aristides told where they were going.
[Assistant Secretary of State] Roger Noriega said on “Nightline” that Aristide had chosen to go to the Central African Republic, which if you know anything about the Central African Republic is just ludicrous. Then Noriega said later in a congressional hearing that the Aristides didn’t know where they were going until just before they landed, proving that he had lied before.
We talked to the Aristides several times a day after they got to Africa. While the people in the Central African Republic were hospitable, it was clear to the Aristides that they were being held there against their will. They were escorted outside their room only twice in the week or so they were there. It became clear to them that these officials were not in fact their keepers, that they had been asked to hold the Aristides there and were doing someone else’s bidding.
I think this is very illustrative of the character of the United States. On the one hand we did nothing about the ruthless killers who fled from Haiti across the border to the Dominican Republic. On the other hand we overturned the government of a democratically elected president and flew its leader 17 hours to a landlocked country in Africa that has no relations with the other African countries, that has been ostracized because its government came to power by virtue of a military coup.
Your ultimate hope is that Aristide will be restored to power in Haiti. What was the immediate goal of your trip to Africa?
Our immediate goal was to bring President Aristide to Jamaica. We had Sharon Hay-Webster representing [Jamaican] Prime Minister P.J. Patterson with a letter saying that Jamaica was offering temporary asylum. Maxine Waters and Sharon and I arrived in the Central African Republic at about 6:30 in the evening. The military government there planned to celebrate the first anniversary of its coup the following morning. When we landed there were no passengers in the airport, only soldiers with guns, and we told them that President Aristide needed to be released so he could leave with us as soon as possible.
Their interest was in persuading us to stay over and participate in the festivities celebrating the coup. Obviously we did not want to be associated with the celebration of a military coup and we said, “We want Aristide to come with us, we have a letter, and if he is not a prisoner then he should be free to leave.” Then we were taken down to the presidential palace complex. We saw the Aristides and a night of negotiations began.
Since the Central African Republic doesn’t have much contact with the outside world, the government wanted to use President Aristide’s presence, which had brought them more attention than they had seen in ages, as a kind of bargaining chip. We said, “No, we’ve got to leave tonight.” They said, “We can’t make this decision right away,” and we said, “Why? If he’s not a prisoner he should be free to leave.” And they said, “No, he can’t leave” — and this was critical — “He can’t leave until we speak to Gabon.” Gabon had been instrumental in paving this whole placement of Aristide there with the United States. Then they told us Aristide couldn’t leave until they also spoke to the French, whose air force facility is right beside the airport. Then they said, “We can’t let him go until we speak to the Americans.”
And then it became clear who was really holding us. It wasn’t the president of the Central African Republic but the United States. We said we weren’t going to leave until Aristide was released, and I think having a member of the U.S. Congress there raised the stakes for Powell and the U.S. government and they allowed the Central African Republic to let Aristide go.
Amy Goodman from [the radio news program] “Democracy Now!” accompanied us on this trip, and she pointed out the novelty of the whole venture, that no one had ever done what we had done before. The U.S. government absconds with somebody and takes him into exile in some remote, distant place and a private group of people charter a plane and go there and get him. There were moments where we really understood the risk. Not only were the president and Mrs. Aristide prisoners, but for the time we were in that country, we ourselves had very little power.
At this point in history, you write, the U.S. conducts itself as though the rules apply to everyone but us. What do you see as the long-term outcome of this position, vis-à-vis our position in the international community?
We don’t ask questions. We haven’t counted the Iraqi bodies because from Vietnam on we haven’t cared. That’s suicide. I’m not talking about America against other people; this is certain Americans against other countries, and certain Americans against other Americans. And patriotism is just a disguise for the greed that drives this.
The most undemocratic and mercenary thing that we have done is to use an all-volunteer army to do our bidding. This is a poor army or else they wouldn’t be volunteers. I would be willing to bet everything I have, everything I will have, that if we had had a draft this war would never have happened. I ask a question in the book that is so important, that if the life that is to be lost in pursuit of this policy were yours, would it be worth it? Before you send somebody else’s children — poor, black, white, Hispanic — to fight a war and die, ask yourself this: Would you be prepared to die for the same cause? If the president can’t answer that question, if Powell can’t answer that question, if Rice and Rumsfeld can’t answer that question, then they are loathsome.
You write that great leaders anguish over the decision to go to war, but that you think Bush and Rumsfeld felt no such anguish. Why not?
Oh, God. It’s a subject for serious study. I really can’t understand it. It was what I thought compelled them to send Aristide where they sent him, and to threaten him and destroy as they have, and to hate him as they do. I don’t understand it. It is trite to say that these are mean, unfeeling people but indeed they are.
I’m always rather wary of people who want power. One has to wonder about the mental health of anybody who wants to be president. That ought to be the first sign that something is wrong. If you want no privacy, if you are inflated by the realization of power, that means something is wrong with you. When you get decency in the presidency it’s rather an accident.
I thought Clinton was brilliant, perhaps the most gifted president. I mean, he swamps Bush hands down. There are two kinds of things to worry about: That a brilliant guy like Clinton, who believes in absolutely nothing, who’s a moral void, can become president of the United States, and the other, that an abjectly stupid person like Bush can become president. What does that say about democracy? I don’t know.
I felt it when I was working in Washington, more over the last 10 to 15 years than earlier in my career, that good people, decent people, are disinclined to run for office anymore. The people who want all parts of it are invariably the people who should have no part of it. The United States is now the most powerful nation ever in the history of nations and it’s almost drunk with its sense of power, this feeling that it can do anything to anybody anywhere. And it is frightening.
Amy Kroin writes about books, film and popular culture.More Amy Kroin.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)