Be Thou a Man

Be Thou a Man by Olivia Diamond


Be Thou a Man:
a tribute to Saul Alinsky

Olivia Diamond

This biography written in formal verse tells the story of Saul Alinsky’s life and work as a criminologist, social activist, and community organizer – a legacy that Barack Obama drew from in his own work in Chicago.

In Diamond’s long narrative poem, she corrects the misconceptions surrounding Alinsky’s name, which some political figures like Newt Gingrich have tried to associate with the far left, socialists, and communists.

The truth is Alinsky was none of these, and more accurately espoused a grass-roots, democratic process to problem-solving. In the foreword, Diamond explains how she came to write her poetic biography after she was associated negatively with Alinsky because of her own views, the insinuation being that because she has roots in Chicago, that somehow she was contaminated by Alinsky’s radicalism. Consequently, she read everything she could about the man and learned he was no more a radical than the Founding Fathers.

In Alinsky’s vocabulary “radical” is not a derogatory term, but one he proudly adopted. Alinsky did not belong to any political party, but rather he fell into the conservative camp in his opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which he termed a “prize piece of political pornography.”

The work is divided into the seven decades of the twentieth century in which Alinsky lived. In the final section, “Missive from the Underworld,” Saul Alinsky speaks from hell to the people living today and comments on current American conditions. The long narrative poem concludes with this stanza delivered in his voice:

From out hell’s friendly flames I can spy
the middle class contract, reduced to fears
of foreclosure, not able to get by:
I strike the match to rears of financiers.
From torrid lips I fire furious blast
of liberty’s bugle rousing the caste
whose reservoir of patience has run dry,
their fair share the super-rich have siphoned
off—in protest they march, all toughened,
on Wall Street, the middle in gear at last.
To hell with humdrum chain gang plaints
or Can’t-Win-For-Losing blues anymore
for We’re The People the document paints
paramount, those the Union was made for.
I once said on earth the angels abound;
hear me frolic with angels under ground.

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