Not Oprah’s Book Club: Flying Close To the Sun

flying.JPGI like to imagine Ms. Wilkerson—turtleneck, cardigan, unremarkable haircut—writing the Pythagorean Theorem on the chalkboard as her students text message, fall asleep, and take notes. They probably think Ms. Wilkerson is “cool� or “okay,� but assume she has no life outside of the four walls of their underfunded classroom. Little do they know she was once a violent, anti-establishment radical who survived an explosion in her own family’s Manhattan town house.
Cathy Wilkerson, the author of the exhaustively detailed and fascinating memoir, Flying Close to the Sun, has been a math teacher for the last 20 years in New York City schools, but prior to that she was a member of the Weathermen, SDS, and a civil rights and anti-war protester.
The memoir is amazing if you’re the kind of person who is obsessed with the nitty gritty of social change and the ins and outs of shifting consciousness. Wilkerson takes the reader through her childhood, marking the moments when she first became aware of injustice and reflected on violence, into her college experience at Swarthmore during the increasingly radical mid 60s, and into her really intense days of career protest and SDS leadership. The most interesting questions for me, as I was plodding through, were: (1) How did a girl from a conservative Quaker background become convinced that violence was the only answer? (2) How did the activists of the 60s logistically build a movement? And (3) How did they handle the intersection between all the different hot issues of the time: race, gender, war, poverty etc.?

Ultimately, Wilkerson sees that she resorted to violence because she started thinking about political impact instead of individual human lives. She writes:

Presented with both national and world events that were emotionally overwhelming, and ill-prepared to make the choices that lay in front of me, I made a series of decisions, from a standpoint of rage, hopelessness, and fear, in which I accepted the same desanctification of human life practice by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and William Westmoreland. I accepted their supposition that, in the end, violence is the only effective strategy for social change; that might makes right, despite the fact that treasuring humanity—and each life within it—was one of the values that I had fought for. I abandon myself to the sanctimoniousness of hating my enemies.

Wilkerson has so much to teach those of us still struggling for change…way, way beyond the Pythagorean Theorem.
Next week: Singled Out by Bella DePaulo and then, for V-day, a review of a bunch of crazy sex books.
And some bonus reading on this subject…an interview with Weatherman Mark Rudd at Campus Progress.

Join the Conversation

  • EverythingisImage

    ahhh you make these books sound so awesome! Every week I add ‘em to my amazon wish list. Can’t wait to read.

  • DallasSuz

    I’m currently working on my own book regarding that era.
    As Bill Ayers said in his book”Memory is a m****rf**ker.”
    “Flying too Close to the Sun” is a terrific book but it has some clankers in there that a close check of things remembered could have/should have caught.
    Some it comes down to the George Carlin adage regarding the 60s, “If you remember them you weren’t there.”
    Cathy remembers with the same flaws many of us have.
    Many of us still think in terms of before and after Townhouse.
    Good companion books are:
    “Sing a Battlesong” edited by Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers
    “Fugitive Days” Bill Ayers
    “Years of Hope, Days of Rage” Tod Gitlin
    “Radical Line” Thai Jones
    “Growing up Underground” Jane Alpert
    “The Way the Wind Blew” Ron Jacob
    There has been a lot of revisionist history that was taught during the Reagan years onward about the 1960s.
    I took a class in 1960s history about 7 years ago and wound up having to say things like “Hey I was at this or that event and it didn’t happen that way.”
    Cathy’s book is good but fact checking with a fine toothed comb would have picked up the mistakes.

  • nascardaughter

    How did a girl from a conservative Quaker background become convinced that violence was the only answer?
    As far as I can tell, Wilkerson’s Quaker experience was your garden variety liberal one.
    As a group, Quakers are overwhelmingly liberal politically, even radical, and tend to be very active in liberal causes. (It’s no accident that many of this country’s first wave feminists came from Quaker backgrounds.)
    Quakers also tend to be committed pacifists — so I guess in that sense, her belief in violence as a solution contradicts her Quaker experience.
    But “conservative Quaker background”? Nah. Not in the sense that we usually use “conservative” on political web sites anyway.

  • Bobbo

    Hello: I worked with Cathy when she was SDS Regional Organizer in Washington D.C. It was a wonderful experience and her decision to join Weatherman came as a great shock to me.
    But it was life during wartime and many of us were desperate to stop the terrible war in SE Asia where more bombs were dropped than in all of WWII.
    We feared that if we couldn’t stop the slaughter we would be forever condemned like the “Good Germans” who watched the trains pull into Dachau and then went about their business.
    I think Cathy was one of those people driven beyond desperation by the effects of the war. Her choice was terribly wrong. Three people paid with their lives. Cathy came to realize this and learned to build a new life based on painful reflection.
    I saw Cathy again after nearly 40 years when she was in Chicago and it was a deeply personal emotional moment for me because she had changed my life during her work as the DC SDS Regional Organizer.
    I wish she had stuck to the student and community organizing that she was so skillful that.
    I’m glad that she has returned to that role as an educational reformer in NYC.
    I have a reaction to her book on my blog at the BobboSphere if you’d like to read it.
    Bob Simpson

  • CourtneyEMartin

    Thanks for pushing for clarification nascardaughter. I definitely meant socially conservative, NOT politically.

  • sunzheng