17 April 2012

INTERVIEW / Jonah Raskin : Judy Gumbo Albert, Yippie Girl

Judy Gumbo Albert. Photo illustrations by James Retherford / The Rag Blog.

Yippie Girl:
A Rag Blog interview
with Judy Gumbo Albert

By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / April 17, 2012

After all these years, she still calls herself “Yippie Girl.” Long, long ago in a world far away, she really was a feisty Yippie and a fiery girl. In many ways, she still is the same young feisty, fiery Yippie Girl she once was, though she’s also older and in many ways wiser about girls and boys, and the revolution.

After all these years, and not losing faith in the Yippie myth, she has as much of a right to the moniker, Yippie Girl, as anyone else. She was there then big time, full-time, and never one of those weekend protesters. She’s here now big time, full time, and not wallowing in 1960s nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake.

Judy Gumbo Albert is a survivor. Many of the founding fathers and mothers -- Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Stew Albert -- have gone on to Yippie Heaven. Only a few, such as Paul Krassner and Nancy Kurshan, are still around.

Born Judith Clavir in Canada, Judy became “Gumbo” thanks to Eldridge Cleaver. That was in California in the 1960s, a time and a place that shaped her irrevocably. I must confess, I have always thought of her as a California Girl. I still do, though I didn’t meet her until she moved to New York.

By then everyone in the movement called her Gumbo, including her boy friend and husband-to-be, Stew Albert, a blond-haired Brooklyn-born Jewish intellectual and long-time sidekick of Jerry Rubin.

I met Gumbo soon after I met Stew. I have known her for 42 years, whether she’s lived in Manhattan, the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York State, in Portland, Oregon, or in Berkeley. For a brief time, I belonged with her, Stew, and a few other friends to a group called “The Catskill Mountain Liberation Front,” a back-to-the-land spin-off from the urban Yippies.

It still exists in the Catskill’s, along with Legends of Sleepy Hollow and that sleepy, subversive Dutchman, Rip Van Winkle who refuses to march in lockstep with his patriotic, hard-working, church-going neighbors.

Ever since I first met her 42 years ago, Judy Gumbo has been a Yippie Girl, a wife, a mother, a college teacher, fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, anti-war organizer, writer, activist, and more. Along with Stew, she edited The Sixties Papers (1984), an anthology that contains essential writings from the era that shaped her and Stew, and that they also played a part in shaping.

Not long ago, she went back to her memories of the Sixties and to the historical record, salvaging Yippie treasures for the book that she’s writing.

She also went back to Berkeley, where she spent some of the happiest and most engaged, enraged times of her life, in the city’s streets and parks, and in the offices of the Berkeley Barb, one of the earliest underground newspapers of the 1960s.

After Stew’s death, she married again, and with her husband, David Dobkin, settled into the unsettled life of newlyweds. Meanwhile, Gumbo’s and Stew’s daughter, Jessica, a real enfant terrible, had grown into an awesome, and awe-inspiring lawyer.

Judy Gumbo’s work has appeared in The Rag Blog and on her website, www.YippieGirl.com. Though I have been talking with her for more than four decades, this is the first formal interview I have ever done with her.

Jonah Raskin: What’s the story about your longtime nickname and moniker “Gumbo”?

Judy Gumbo Albert: One evening in 1968, Eldridge, Stew, and I were cruising San Francisco in Eldridge’s Pontiac. Eldridge kept calling me “Mrs. Stew” and I was pissed. I told him “I am not Mrs. Stew. I am not Mrs. Anybody. I’m me. I’m Judy. Judy Clavir.” I hated using my father’s last name, but I felt I had no choice. “Alright then,” Eldridge said, “I’ll call you Gumbo.” From that day on, in the world of 1960s activists, Stew and Gumbo were a couple.

You were born in Canada and came to the USA in the early 1960s. Are you still Canadian in some way?

I’m still a Canadian citizen. I have a green card. When people ask me to register to vote or sign a petition, I tell them, “I’m an alien.” Born Canadian and growing up as a subject of the British Empire made me hate colonialism. Plus I have a Canadian love of nature and commitment to universal healthcare.

If you had to pick one moment in the 1960s in which you became a new person with a new identity when and where would that be?

When I broke up with Stew as we were driving up the New Jersey Turnpike in September 1970 in my royal blue VW bug. We’d been together for two-and-a-half years. After our break-up I went from calling myself Gumbo to Judy Gumbo.

You lived with and were married to Stew Albert for many years, how did that relationship shape you?

Stew taught me to rebel theatrically, to think outside the box, and to reach for the impossible. He taught me not to look for approval from my parents and not act like a trained seal. Above all, Stew taught me not to tolerate passive aggressiveness in myself or in others but to dig down and be honest with myself.

How did you shape Stew?

I civilized him. That’s what women do to men.

Why did you become a Yippie?

I like to be where the action is. Still do. Stew was the White Rabbit who led me into Yippieland. Because of Stew I met and got involved with Abbie and Anita Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Nancy Kurshan and all the Yippies. Yippie gave me the freedom to be theatrical and political, fun-loving and non-serious, a revolutionary who refused to accept restrictions.

In what ways was Yippie sexist?

Yippie was no different from any other movement group. Women were ignored. We did menial tasks; we were not groomed for leadership. Yippie men loved the media spotlight; women were given access to the media at the men’s discretion. I learned by observing Abbie, Jerry, and Stew not as an equal partner. Here’s something I wrote about Stew toward the end of the Chicago Conspiracy Trial in early 1970:
I felt like my formerly mild-mannered lover was taking on Abbie and Jerry’s mantle of self-centered celebrity arrogance that had spread in the trial environment like a pot plant on steroids. I felt invisible to Stew and his friends.
After a bomb was placed in the U.S. Capitol and the Weather Underground claimed credit you and Stew were suspects. You held a press conference and said, “We didn’t do it but we dug it.” How would you modify that comment now?

I still didn’t do it. And I won’t pass judgment on the 27-year-old Judy Gumbo who said she “dug” it. I made that statement 30 years, five months, and 15 days before 9/11. In 1970, the bombing felt to me like a necessary act of theatrical retaliation made legitimate by an impossible war.

Weather Underground bombs damaged property. Not people. I’m a widow. I know the searing pain you go through when your loved one dies. In my opinion, conflating destruction of property with loss of life disrespects the dead. My daughter, Jessica, has asked me the same question about the bombing. I have no good answer beyond: “I dig Occupy.”

If you had to name names -- as I’m asking you to do now -- who would you name as the all-time most brilliant, insightful individuals in the 1960s?

Of the people I knew personally, I’d say Abbie, Bill Kunstler, and, of course, Stew. Jerry had great insights but I found him more of an entrepreneurial propagandist. Some of Eldridge’s insights were terrific, though his advocacy of rape as a revolutionary act was horrific.

I’d start with Bob Dylan and move on to Aretha Franklin. I’d include Madame Binh and General Vo Nguyen Giap, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, Franz Fanon and C. Wright Mills. Among my personal faves for insightful feminists are Ti-Grace Atkinson and Shulamith Firestone. Margaret Atwood was and still is my number one favorite author. And that’s not just because we’re both Canadian. She’s a brilliant writer.

Who are your Sixties all-time villains?

Villains: J. Edgar Hoover and his successor Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Grey. Richard Nixon, although compared to George Bush, Nixon was a pussycat. John Mitchell, Nelson Rockefeller, Nguyen Cao Ky, Pol Pot. Henry Kissinger, Mayor Richard M. Daley, and the Chicago cops -- especially those who murdered Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

I used to consider the FBI agents who burglarized my house and put a homing device on my car to be villains but their villainy has faded. Same for Guy Goodwin, the federal prosecutor who subpoenaed me and Stew to a grand jury. If I compare how Goodwin harassed me, Stew, Leslie Bacon, and perhaps 400 others to how civil liberties have been decimated today, I feel more outrage now than I ever felt back then.

When did the Sixties begin and end for you?

They began in 1965 when I came home and found my first husband (not Stew) in bed with another woman. That trauma motivated me to move to Berkeley in late 1967. The rest is history. In some ways the 1960s have never ended for me. I’m an idealist (now tempered by life) and a romantic. I remain committed to the values of progressive activism, which led me to work for Planned Parenthood for close to 20 years. And, now I’m writing my memoir, I spend many hours each day in the 1960s.

You have been a college teacher, a fundraiser, a feminist, and more. How many identities or roles have you played and do you like all of them equally?

It would be difficult to quantify. Daughter, mother, wife, lover, widow are some of them. My roles have felt appropriate to each phase of my life: a Yippie in my 20s, a mother and college professor in my 30s, a fundraiser during my professional career and now a writer. All my roles are challenging and for the most part fun.

I loved being an activist. I loved raising money for Planned Parenthood. I enjoy being a writer. Being a mother is terrific. Being a widow sucks, but I’ve learned a lot.

You have a daughter, Jessica, who is a lawyer. Does she carry on your values and or rebel against them?

Both. Jessica retains the progressive values she grew up with. But she works for electoral candidates and inside the Democratic Party. Admittedly, she is more of a liberal Democrat than a leftist. She has formed her own political beliefs, and has chosen her values as a self-conscious and self-determining human being.

What do you think now about the slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over the age of 60”?

Is 60 the new 30? Every decade seems to add 10 years to the age beyond which you shouldn’t trust people. It has become a liquid and fluid mantra. I think every new generation should look on their elders with skepticism. How else will they learn to trust themselves and make their own decisions about their lives?

What is the most important contribution from the feminist agenda from say 1968 to 1978?

The capacity to control our reproductive lives, especially access to abortion, contraception, and women’s healthcare services.

If you could go back to the past and change one thing about yourself what might it be?

Back in the day, Stew would, on occasion, call me a facile optimist. He meant I assumed everything I did would have a positive outcome and I would jump into things too quickly without covering my ass. If I had a time machine, I’d like to give myself more wisdom and less superficiality. I’d also like to be able to bring my Judy Gumbo energy back to the present.

What do you have to say to the Occupy Movement now?

I love your passion. I admire your commitment to non-hierarchy, collectivity, decision making by consensus and insurrection as performance art. Keep on Truckin’ and Do It!

[Jonah Raskin is the author of For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.

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