I met Sahu when my New York mates Bill Schaap and Ellen Ray invited us, separately, for dinner at their Greenwich Village walk-up. Bill had been a lawyer for radicals since the ‘60s — the Black Panthers were among his clients and so was I. He and Ellen co-published a magazine called Covert Action, dedicated to exposing the crimes of the CIA, NSA and the US empire in general.
She introduced herself to me as Sahu —one of the names she invented for herself — and I learned she’d spent the first 30 years of her adult life chasing after justice and equality for all, and particularly for people who were like her, black and female.
I also learned she didn’t retreat or apologise on matters of principle. She and her people had been oppressed for hundreds of years and that had to stop now.
I understood that when the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989, the wide network of old-style commies around America drifted apart. She was a top organiser in the Workers’ World Party which inspired many African-American radicals who never really saw the Soviets as their saviours. This had been her community, and suddenly it ended.
When we met I had just left my marriage, and Sahu and I helped each other embark on building new lives. She took on art-directing the magazine I’d launched with Texas progressive populist Jim Hightower — and she told me what living severely tough is like, about violent prejudice, poverty, and about having her only child die before its first birthday.
I think it was just coincidence that she started her last lap of life with another Aussie, named Martin, a man who walks through forests and seeks to save them in Tasmania.
Just last year when Kate and I visited them in Hobart, she told me that she would die soon, but that the pain of her cancer was nothing compared with the pain of watching our species self-destruct. She wished she could give more years to that fight, and to being with the man who took her for who she was, and loved her unconditionally as no one had before, over her last decade.
For those who knew Sahu or Debra, in New Jersey, New York, Amsterdam, or Tasmania, you should know she died last week content at least that Martin was at her bedside.
She kept secrets because everything she knew, she felt, required her to.