Before the year 2015 closes out, we remember Ramon Durem, known as Ray, who was born on January 30, 1915, in Seattle, Wash. Although of mixed heritage, he identified as African American. After short stints in the Navy and as a laborer along the West Coast, Durem attended the University of California, Berkeley for two years, where he joined the Communist Party in 1931. Active in radical causes on campus, Durem was arrested for picketing against silk imports from imperial Japan.
Durem arrived in Spain on April 29, 1937, to serve with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting for the Spanish Loyalists. He was wounded in action at Brunete. After recovery he returned to action through the Ebro Offensive. He married nurse Rebecca Schulman in Spain. They named their first child Dolores for the iconic defender of the Loyalists, Dolores Ibarruri, “La Pasionaria.” Durem was among the Americans who participated in the farewell parade in Barcelona, and returned to the U.S. in December 1938.
Durem and his wife moved to Los Angeles. He continued to be an active union organizer and was arrested on a number of occasions. During the 1940s Durem divorced and remarried and moved his new family to Guadalajara, Mexico, in order to escape government harassment. He left the CPUSA during the Browder period, disagreeing with its approach to the “Negro Question.” In 1962 Durem and his wife returned to Los Angeles, where he died in 1963, at 48, of cancer.
Writing as Ray Durem, his poems were first published in the Crusader, a journal edited by Robert Williams, the North Carolina-based Black Nationalist leader who in the 1960s was forced into exile in Cuba and later China, returning to the U.S. in 1969. Other poems were published in literary journals and newspapers. His work attracted the interest of Langston Hughes, who included one of Durem’s poems in the anthology “New Negro Poets: USA.” A volume of Durem’s poetry entitled “Take No Prisoners” was published posthumously in 1971. Ray Durem’s work impacted the Black Power movement, serving as a both a political compass and cultural inspiration.
“Award (A Gold Watch to the FBI Man Who has Followed Me for 25 Years)” (1964), dryly acknowledged the poet’s many days of intimate FBI surveillance, also captured in a 312-page file maintained between 1940 and 1967.
[A Gold Watch to the FBI Man who has followed me for 25 years.]
Well, old spy
looks like I
led you down some pretty blind alleys,
took you on several trips to Mexico,
fishing in the high Sierras,
jazz at the Philharmonic.
You’ve watched me all your life,
I’ve clothed your wife,
put your two sons through college.
what good has it done?
sun keeps rising every morning.
Ever see me buy an Assistant President?
or close a school?
or lend money to Somoza?
I bought some after-hours whiskey in L.A.
but the Chief got his pay.
I ain’t killed no Koreans,
or fourteen-year-old boys in Mississippi
neither did I bomb Guatemala,
or lend guns to shoot Algerians.
I admit I took a Negro child
to a white rest room in Texas,
but she was my daughter, only three,
and she had to pee,
and I just didn’t know what to do,
see, I’m so light, it don’t seem right
to go to the colored rest room;
my daughter’s brown, and folks frown on that in Texas,
I just don’t know how to go to the bathroom in the free world!
Now, old FBI man,
you’ve done the best you can,
you lost me a few jobs,
scared a couple landlords,
You got me struggling for that bread,
but I ain’t dead.
and before it’s all through,
I may be following you!
Photo: Ray Durem, public domain.