Happy May Day

Mayday Here is a May Day story I told Amitava Kumar while he was reviewing Eqbal Ahmad’s Selected Writings for The Nation.

This past summer, Robin Varghese, a former student of Ahmad’s at Hampshire, recounted a story to me that he had heard his teacher tell in class. When Ahmad was in his 20s, he received a Rotary fellowship to come to the United States for further studies. He knew that he wanted to see four things when he left the subcontinent. Three of those four sites he visited en route to this country. He went to the Highgate Cemetery in London to pay homage to Karl Marx; he also visited 21B Baker Street, for its well-known literary landmark; and he wandered through the British Museum, where his reaction was “Return the loot!” The fourth place that Ahmad wanted to visit was in the United States, in Chicago, and it was the site of the Haymarket riot of 1886. Ahmad wanted to go there because, as a boy, he had been taken to May Day celebrations in India. He now wanted to lay flowers at the Haymarket monument to honor the striking workers who had marched in the first May Day parade.

But several years were to pass before he could visit Chicago. He had arrived in the United States in 1957 to study history at Occidental College; a year later he enrolled at Princeton as a graduate student in political science and Middle East history. His research then took him to Tunisia, an even further detour from Chicago. It was not until 1967, during his three-year stint as a teacher at Cornell, that Ahmad found himself giving a job talk in the city where in 1886 laboring men and women had fought to win the eight-hour workday. He left his hotel, picked up a bouquet of flowers and, when he arrived at Haymarket, asked where he could find the monument. No one seemed to know of it. Finally someone pointed it out to him. It was a statue of a policeman who had preserved law and order on that day long ago. Ahmad brought the flowers back with him and gave them to his girlfriend, Julie Diamond, who eventually became his wife.

In 1968, in a speech at an antiwar sit-in, Ahmad, who was now a fellow at the Adlai Stevenson Institute in Chicago, spoke of his search for the Haymarket monument. He told the audience how shocked he had been that the historical memory of workers’ resistance, recognized and celebrated throughout the world, had not been honored in its own place of origin. Not long after, two FBI agents showed up at Ahmad’s door. They wanted to know what he had said about Haymarket and who had been in the audience. It turned out that the Weathermen had just blown up the offending statue of the Chicago policeman.

“I am inclined to tell stories,” Eqbal Ahmad had once said, and, in one of his interviews, he offered a vignette about the visit from the two FBI agents:

They first asked me if I was a citizen of the United States. I said, “No.” They said, “Don’t you feel that as a guest in this country you should not be going about criticizing the host country’s government?” I said, “I hear your point, but I do want you to know that while I am not a citizen, I am a taxpayer. And I thought it was a fundamental principle of American democracy that there is no taxation without representation. I have not been represented about this war. And my people, Asian people, are being bombed right now.” Surprisingly, the FBI agents looked deeply moved and blushed at my throwing this argument at them. They were speechless. Then I understood something about the importance of having some congruence between American liberal traditions…and our rhetoric and tactics.”