The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Bill Ayers


For years I’ve joked with my family that I’m going to write a book called My In-Laws Are Outlaws—about my husband’s beloved parents, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Bill and Bernardine are activists and teachers and writers and often the subjects of other people’s accounts, from documentaries to rants and manifestos. The in-law out-law joke is funny in our house because it’s a book I would never write; I’m private and prefer to concoct fiction, and anyway, Bill and Bernardine do an excellent and thorough job telling their own stories—about race, history, political activism, justice and teaching—through their own books and works. Bill has a new memoir out this month, Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident, and it’s a book for everyone. Public Enemy is not just a funny and harrowing account of what it was like to be “Bill Ayers,” caricatured and demonized as an “unrepentant terrorist” in 2001 and then again during the 2008 election cycle, but also a thoughtful set of questions about teaching and parenting and grandparenting, an empathetic meditation on how we try to live meaningful lives in imperfect eras and worlds, and work toward a more just and sustainable society.

In his actual public life (remarkably distinct from the cartoon one created by the media), Bill is a recently-retired Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was a member of the executive committee of the Faculty Senate and founder of both the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society. He taught courses in interpretive and qualitative research, oral history, creative nonfiction, urban school change, and teaching and the modern predicament. A graduate of the University of Michigan, the Bank Street College of Education, Bennington College, and Teachers College, Columbia University, he has written extensively about social justice, democracy and education, the cultural contexts of schooling, and teaching as an essentially intellectual, ethical, and political enterprise. He is a past vice president of the curriculum studies division of the American Educational Research Association. His articles have appeared in many journals including the Harvard Educational Review, the Journal of Teacher Education, Teachers College RecordRethinking SchoolsThe NationEducational Leadership, The New York Times, and the Cambridge Journal of Education. Bill’s books include Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident, To Teach: The journey in comics (with Ryan Alexander Tanner), Race Course: Against White Supremacy (with Bernardine Dohrn), Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom (with Rick Ayers), Teaching toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom (Beacon Press, 2004), Teaching toward Democracy: Educators as Agents of Change (with Kevin Kumashiro, Erica Meiners, Therese Quinn, and David Stovall), A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile CourtFugitive Days: A MemoirOn the Side of the Child: Summerhill Revisited, Teaching the Personal and the Political: Essays on Hope and JusticeThe Good Preschool Teacher: Six Teachers Reflect on Their Lives, and To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher, which was named Book of the Year in 1993 by Kappa Delta Pi, and won the Witten Award for Distinguished Work in Biography and Autobiography in 1995.

I sat down this week with my energetic, generous dad-in-law at a coffee shop in Chicago after we dropped my daughters off at school together.


The Rumpus: What is the question you’ve been dying to be asked—or dreading—that nobody has dared ask you?

Bill Ayers: Damn. Geez, Rachel. Well, one of the things I don’t get asked enough is where do we go from here. I don’t think of myself as a particularly nostalgic person. The book isn’t so much an exercise in rearview mirror revisionism. It’s certainly not a manifesto or a history or an autobiography. It is kind of an attempt to understand where I’ve been and where I’m going. But the most important thing is: what is it a prelude to? What might be next? I live always in the present tense, and I’d like to talk more about what’s next than what happened.

Rumpus: What is next?

Ayers: A colossal effort to create a world in balance, to protect the planet from war and warming, and to learn to take care of one another fully and well. In just the past few years Bernardine and I have participated in movement-making in Chicago, from immigrant rights to exposing NATO, from fighting for great public schools to abolishing the death penalty and shutting down three prisons. We look at things like the ’60s, which we’re identified with, which have been transformed into an iconic myth. And whatever it was, it looms pretty large in the minds of young activists today, but actually in the long run it’s going to be seen as a prelude to the crises of today. And what are those crises? I look at your kids—

Rumpus: Those are your kids, too, by the way.

Ayers: By the way, ha! I get identified with this psychotic moment of the so-called ’60s, and then I look around at a street scene like this right in front of us. I see young people going to school, and their parents and their grandparents, and old people, and homeless people. And I think we’re really all of this generation. One hundred years from now, we’ll all be dead. It’s hard to believe. One hundred years from now, everyone we see every day will be gone.

Rumpus: Is that why we write memoirs?

Ayers: I think so. And it’s also something about getting older, about understanding the urgency of now. Like what are we doing together, what are we making together? Not in some fantasy future, but what are we doing so that we have some control over the actual future? I look at the crises we’re facing now: permanent war, mass incarceration (the latest expression of white supremacy), but mostly the ravaging and destruction of the earth. I know that’s an apocalyptic way of saying it, and every nut has said that throughout history, but I think we’ve reached the point of the end of capitalist expansion. If we don’t find a way to live differently, we’re going off the cliff together. So I see it as a very particular and urgent moment—a moment that requires us to open our eyes, release our radical imaginations, nourish a dangerously optimistic stance, and then act. And that is what we should be talking about and everything that came before it as prelude.

Rumpus: Do you think every generation feels some version of that?

Ayers: That’s my caveat. Every old person thinks this is the end, because in a way, it is the end! But you can look at things much more objectively as well as subjectively, and see that there’s a truth to it, and the truth is this: extraction capitalism, disaster capitalism—has reached its endpoint. If the logic of capitalism is “expand or die,” then either it has to die or the world has to die.

My generation, people who are now in our sixties or seventies, grew up at the peak of everything: peak oil, peak American confidence, peak prosperity (grossly unequally distributed). And that is dying right in front of us. So how can it be that things like pensions—we thought we’d won that argument—are gone! For our kids—the idea of pensions is a wildly radical one, and yet for us, it was just a common sense notion we grew up with. Health care? What is [capitalism] preying on now? Children. The poor. The 99%. Immigrants. The disabled.  Old people. The last bit of fossil fuel that can be jammed out of the earth? These things are real signals that we’re in a different phase of catastrophe, of crisis.

I’ve said for thirty years that capitalism is an exhausted system. But now you can see the handwriting everywhere. And one especially horrifying part is the fiscal crisis. Those of us who don’t understand finance get put right to sleep by it, but we shouldn’t. Because it’s an indication of the crisis as the people with privilege see it. And what are they doing? Stealing the fixtures, as they run for the door while the building is falling down. Why would they want to squeeze the last bit of cash out of pension plans, or poor people’s housing stock, or the precarious lives of poor kids? It’s astonishing.

Rumpus: In Public Enemy, it feels like you’re working out some of these questions: what happened, what’s next, how do we make it matter—as you go, live. It’s almost as if you’re at least three people: the narrator, the struggling protagonist…

Ayers: Who’s the third?

Rumpus: The critic. And not only of the world, but also of yourself—as narrator and protagonist.

Ayers: I should be. I hope I am. I think it’s a good way to think of it. In memoir, you have to be the person put down on a specific landscape making your way without benefit of hindsight. You also have to be a wiser narrator, but not such a wise narrator that you’re standing on the cliffs of old age throwing rocks at the kid running across the plain. That’s a tricky balance. But it’s the requirement of writing memoir, to try to be all of that. Try not to take it so seriously. So that you assume it’s not the last utterance in a life; it’s just another utterance, and there will be more.

Rumpus: What about the utterances of “I’m sorry,” or “I regret it,” which everyone is always trying to get you to say. And which we’re all always working on making our kids say when they beat each other or snatch toys. What do you say to those who call you “unrepentant”?

Ayers: I know this is a trope that’s put on to me, and I don’t think it’s true. Let’s start with young people. I was very taken with our kids’ fifth-grade teacher. He always said, there are three rules in this classroom: one is you can chew gum, two is you can wear a hat, and three is you have to respect everyone and everyone’s work. That’s a remarkable bar or standard, one that will never be resolved through a set of rules or punishments, but will only be resolved through constant negotiation and renegotiation. It’s a standard to seek, to aspire to, but not a linear place that can be reached once and for all.  That’s how we ought to deal with children. You take a two-year-old, little Jacai [Bill and Bernardine’s eighteen-month-old grandson, my nephew]. How can he possibly come to understand that he’s a person in a community, in a family, and then in a day care center, and then in kindergarten, and then in society? How can he understand himself there without making tons of mistakes? He will make endless mistakes.

Public Enemy

What do we say to Jacai when he goes up and snatches a toy from another eighteen-month-old? In his view, he wants the toy and it’s there and why can’t he have it? And yet, from the other kid’s point of view: he just took that from me and I had it. And that little person is right, but it seems to me that they’re both right. The tricky thing with children is to give them their feelings: I know you feel that that was unfair, but you can’t hit him. That sense of always negotiating the standard, of being kind to each other. That’s how I think of it for kids as a teacher.

In terms of my own behavior and activity, the funny thing about regrets and saying “I’m sorry,” is that there’s so much I would do differently and want to do differently moving forward. There’s something in our culture, in Catholic culture and Protestant culture and American culture. It may even be in our DNA, something that wants us to go into the confessional booth and say “I’m sorry” and then move on. I can’t quite see it that way. I don’t think saying “I was wrong here, I was wrong there” absolves you of anything particularly, nor does it get you into heaven. Nor should it be so easy to get away, nor should it be so simple as to say “I was wrong.”

I find the ritual confessions—whether it’s Bill Clinton or Tiger Woods or Martha Stewart, all the politicians and athletes—ridiculous. They’re letting themselves off the hook on some level. I’d rather have a deep conversation about the period of the American war in Vietnam. Or the period of the Black Freedom Movement. These things are still alive for us, not because I’m living in the past but because my good friend David Gilbert, my esteemed comrade Leonard Peltier, and many more, are still incarcerated for their activities during those years. I’d like to imagine that we could come together and say, well, here’s what was problematic, here’s what we did wrong. But it’s impossible to do if the whole framework is to say, now we’re living in a great world and it’s all fixed and you were an extremist. The massive anti-war movement, which I was a part of and which was a major part of my life, never stopped the war in Vietnam. The simplest goal we had was to stop the war in Vietnam. That was our easiest goal; it wasn’t our larger goal of making a revolution or transforming society or ending war permanently. We wanted to stop that criminal war and yet we didn’t do it—the Vietnamese did it after ten years of occupation, carpet bombing, and deforestation. So if we couldn’t do that then, and if the U.S. has been in a permanent state of war since, then all of the expressions of “You went too far…” I don’t agree with that.

I want to come to terms with my excesses and my extremism, my stupidity and short-sightedness, all of which are there—in light of the fact that the war went on and killed three million people. I don’t want to come to terms with those things as if, well, everything worked out fine except for you extremists and why don’t you just say you’re sorry. I can’t quite see it that way. And it’s the same with the Black Freedom Movement. The people who I care about, who are still in prison, who engaged in extreme and maybe even unwise activities during that particular phase of the fight for African American freedom and racial justice in the 1970s? The assumption has to be that we are living now in a racially resolved world, which we’re not. And since we’re not, how can you see David Gilbert’s activities as if he were just an idiot going off the cliff? Because couldn’t he see that it was all going to work out fine? It hasn’t worked out. It didn’t work out.

So now let’s get to our loftier objectives when I was a young activist. I wanted a racially just society. I wanted to end wars. I wanted to end white supremacy.  I wanted to create a world that was based on egalitarianism, sharing, racial justice. And we’re so far from that that it’s laughable. That’s what I mean about being sorry, about apologizing, having regrets. I have a lot of regrets, many of which I talk and write about. Tom Frank called Fugitive Days “One Long Regret.” That’s one way to read it.

My friend Debbie Meier, a school reform activist, wrote me one day at the height of people howling at me to apologize: Why don’t you just apologize? So I hit reply-all: I apologize. And then she wrote back: I don’t even know what I meant.

Because what is it exactly I’m apologizing for? Is it for being a jerk? For being excessive? For saying stupid things? Is it for the Weather Underground bombing of the Capitol or the Pentagon? For a street demonstration? For being unkind? A sexist? What is it? If I can nail it down, I’m happy to talk about it, and I do talk about it, which is I think why Debbie said, I don’t know what I meant.

I imagine it would be a valuable exercise for America to go through a truth and reconciliation process. Not to come to the truth. They haven’t come to the truth in South Africa after years of truth and reconciliation, because the truth is not an end point; the truth is a quest. And if you organize a process by which we can participate in that quest together, you’re healthier than if you don’t. We are a country in deep, deep denial and always have been.

Fugitive DaysIn Fugitive Days I use my mother as kind of the foil for this position of, “Can’t we talk about the good things? Why do you always have to talk about the bad things?” “You blame America first” is one of the accusations often thrown at people like me. Or, “America is exceptional—you have to assume and accept that in order to enter into the political conversation.” That’s nonsense. It’s utter denial. We can’t face the extermination of the Native Americans, which actually still is a living wound in us today. How do I know? Because U.S. soldiers who are off in distant battlefields, in places like Iraq, call their bases “Indian country.” What? How can they do that? Because the Indian wars aren’t over, either. They’re not over because we have not faced the truth about being a settler nation, about slavery. Because the truth is too painful. And it might lead us to some kinds of reconciliation that would be disadvantaging to the people who have all the advantages.

So these are complicated things. And if Debbie Meier says apologize, I will. I’m happy to. But I’m not happy to say this is the stance we have to take in the world without considering these other contexts. Social and cultural condition, historical flow, economic realities. Without those, it’s ridiculous to play it out on some superficial, psychological grounds.

Rumpus: What about your role—both your real one and the false one assigned you by the pundits and Palins—in the context of the last two election cycles? Every time we turned the TV on in 2008, some chorus of critics or comics was shouting your name. We found it difficult and surreal, sometimes almost unreal. How did you experience it?

Ayers: I had training, in a sense. Bernardine and I were well-situated to get run down by this process, because we’ve been put in the public spotlight before and not usually in a flattering way. So to come through those things and know that you are who you are, and it doesn’t get changed by what people say about you on TV or something. I’d often say to Bernardine, “What do I care about what CBS thinks of me?” Why should I get my affirmation in the media? Shouldn’t I more likely find out who I am by the people I care about and love and our politial colleagues and activists? Including people I don’t know, but care about. It’s not just the people who are close in, but the people I care about aren’t interested in the sensational or invented aspects of the story. They’re more interested in how to make a world that matters, how to make a world where we can all live in some sense of balance and harmony.

One thing that helped a lot was that Bernardine and our sons reminded me not to take it seriously, some saying, “Don’t watch it.” The only way I knew I was in the cultural world as a kind of caricature, was that Zayd or Malik or Chesa would send us clips. Other than that, I wouldn’t have known. And what Zayd was clearest about was this: if you try to answer this stuff you’ll drive yourself crazy; if you just ignore it, you’ll do much better.

So it was surreal, but I was lucky in that I have a close community of friends and comrades and fellow activists that I care about and who care about me. And I have a close family and that kept me sane. Without all that, I might have sat in a dark room smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and writing frantically response after response every time my name was mentioned. And I never did that, and was never drawn to do that, which was good, because it would have been a Kafka-esque nightmare.

Rumpus: If memoir is a kind of merging of the private you and the public you, how do you negotiate those boundaries?

Ayers: Writing anything is narcissistic. Writing a memoir has a particularly excited sense of narcissism. I resisted writing this [Public Enemy] for a long time. I published Fugitive Days in 2001, and my publisher from that moment on has wanted me to write this book, and I resisted. Until the 2008 campaign.

I scribble all the time and had written several other books between the two. But I felt like in the 2008 campaign, there was a lot to learn about this cartoon character—not just me, but also the cartoon characters of Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi. There was something to learn about the demonization of someone like Jeremiah Wright, who I think is a very important Chicagoan, someone who has done remarkably important things in Chicago and globally. To watch him made into some kind of caricature of himself was painful. But then, more important, the long, sick tradition in American politics of guilt by association kind of stirred me from inaction to wanting to write about that.

Race Course-Against White SupremacyAnd once I began to write about that, I realized that really, the story I wanted to tell went back to the end of Fugitive Days, went back to the end of the American war in Vietnam and tracked forward to how I got suddenly thrust into that moment. And the surprising thing for me, not so surprising in retrospect, was that the book is much more the story of a teacher, a parent, somebody trying to figure out parenting, which I think is one of the greatest challenges and accomplishments that anybody can engage in. For me, it was not only life-altering, but I only realized after the fact that being a father was what I was born to be.

My mentor, Maxine Greene, once said to me, when I was her doctoral student (I was probably forty years old): “You know of all the things you and Bernardine have done, the most lasting and important will be to have raised these three remarkable boys.” And I believe that. I believed it then and I believe it now. That’s another example of everything being prelude—here I am writing these memoirs and cranking out books and being an activist. But in the end, I’ll disappear like everyone else. And our legacy will be these three kids that Bernardine and I produced and raised!

Rumpus: For me to marry, thank you.

Ayers: Exactly. We had you in mind.

And you know this already, but there’s something so remarkable in the intensity of taking care of somebody who can’t take care of him or herself. And then watching that little person bloom into adolescence. The busyness and the dailyness of it can disguise the fact that the care abides and endures for your whole life. You will be raising these kids in your mind your whole life. And they will change you. Your little contribution to it—twenty years from now, they’ll be marching off into other things and that’s still the legacy you leave.

I often think of our children when they were infants. I probably walked the streets of SF, carrying our oldest son [Zayd] for about 2,000 miles over a couple of years. I remember thinking again and again, this is what it’s about. It’s about carrying a cranky baby. It’s about feeding a hungry baby, changing a baby. It’s not the grand gesture, it’s the dailyness of it, that becomes the precious gesture. The book is about that. The theme is: trying once again to live a life that’s consistent with your purposes and your values, but knowing that life is always in the dailyness. It’s not some remarkable moment when you hurl yourself at the barricade or save the village. It’s actually what you do when you get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other and off you go. So that’s what was fun about writing it, and hopefully is also the enduring quality of it.

Rumpus: I once wrote a memoir about being famous for something that embarrassed me. Partly because I wanted to shape the story for myself and for people who might find out about it. But one of the things I realized in writing memoir was that I was in no position to answer questions, even the ones I myself raised. So I settled for just trying to ask them in a variety of ways, to consider (and then often rule out) possible answers. I worry about this as a potential form of wishy-washy-ness, and I wonder how you think we can be activists, with enough certainty to commit to important positions, and also artists, capable of (and committed) to nuance and messiness and diverging points of view.

Ayers: You turned your story around and made a profound meditation on it. What’s great about Foreign Babes in Beijing is that you say, “I wanted to shape the story,” but actually what you did was—by asking questions and diving into the contradictions—make the story worthwhile. It’s not like, here’s the correct version and all you other people got it wrong.

This is one of the hard things you have to learn when you write memoir, because its default position is so narcissistic. You have to learn that it’s an art but not a martial art. Your temptation is to set the record straight, but there is no setting the record straight. And therefore, the best you can do is to wobble about in the contradictions, and you do that brilliantly and elegantly. I’ve tried to do that in my own bumbling way. I try not to say, this is what happened. I try to leave it open to a lot of interpretations.

Actually, you and Zayd taught me this years ago, after 2001: when somebody writes a scathing review of your book you can spend hours tearing your hair out and answering every critique, explaining why that’s wrong and that’s wrong and that’s wrong. Or you can simply say, “I guess she didn’t like the book.” Why try to put an autobiographical interpretation on it? She didn’t like it and that’s her reaction to it, and everyone can have one. That’s also the beautiful thing about putting a book out in the world. It’s not the last word; it’s just the next word. It’s like a blog post with all the commentary at the bottom. A book is just like that, in a different form. Everyone reads it differently. No one reads it the same way, and everyone brings their personal meanings to it. As they should.

Rumpus: What about being both deeply idealistic, or dedicated to a cause and also being able to make a mess of it? Are art and activism symbiotic? Complementary? Contradictory? Mutually exclusive?

Ayers: Art and activism can be symbiotic. They don’t have to be, of course; they can also be contradictory. To me, activism requires you to try very hard to open your eyes to the world as it is. See as much as you can, knowing that whatever you see is going to be partial. That you possess a partial consciousness in an infinite and expanding universe. But you open your eyes as best you can. You allow yourself to be astonished at both the unnecessary suffering that we visit upon each other and also at the ecstasy that is part of life. The beauty, the amazing possibilities. And then you have to act. And you act, knowing—and this is the hard part—you have to pull yourself together with some sense of certainty that public schools should stay open and be fully financed, that the wars should end. You have to act with some manufactured sense of absolute certainty. But then you have to know that that may be false, that you’re likely wrong at least in part. And that’s possibly what the artist brings to the table, the ability to say yes but no. But if you don’t say yes at all, then you’re paralyzed, then you’re just saying “well, everything’s everything,” and then you become cynical. Or you become passive and refuse to act in the world. And I think that’s an ethical mistake and a terrible loss.

to teachThe passions and commitments that ignited my activity as a student are the same passions and commitments that I have today. I think I’m a little clearer about the weaknesses or the doubts or the partialness of what I’m feeling and believing. But at the same time, what agitates and saddens me are those activists who were committed to an egalitarian and more just society, who then, when they see the weaknesses of those who advocate that position or are seduced by money and power, flip 180 degrees and now they’re committed to extraction capitalism with the same fervor they once had for egalitarianism.

One way of saying it is that when I was young, communism, which had a certain allure to me, was clearly a failed experiment in the Soviet Union and in China. And yet, anti-communism was as bad. And that was the problem. And that contradiction birthed the “new left” and the Third World project and the Civil Rights Movement. So how do you dive into the possibility of a fairer, more just, more balanced, more sustainable world? And when you see the limits of the people involved in that advocacy, not then say, well, since that was wrong, now I’m committed to its opposite?

If you read the literature of Soviet Communism, you see a dogma that’s chilling. On the other hand, if you read the literature of anti-communism, it’s every bit as dogmatic. It may have insights about the failures of Soviet Communism, but it doesn’t begin to offer you a map of where to go except to unchecked capitalism. And that’s why being an activist and an artist—those two things should go together. You should allow the artistic sensibility to control some of your activism, but never should it be allowed to paralyze you.

Rumpus: In a way, Public Enemy is a book about your interaction with the world. What has the book’s interaction with the world been like?

Ayers: One of the things that’s complicated about writing anything is that it’s an act of narcissism, and then of course once it sails out into the world, you have to let go of it. Like you have to let go of so many things. What’s been interesting is that Public Enemy hasn’t gotten the reviews I imagined. But then I’ve gotten the nicest notes ever from people I wouldn’t have expected—they’re certainly not camp followers or groupies. And those have made me feel both humble and pleased. People like Junot Díaz and Aleksandar Hemon read it—just the fact that they read it killed me. And the fact that they wrote something nice about was awesome.

I’m going back in my mind to the first book I wrote, an adaptation of my dissertation called The Good Preschool Teacher. Then I wrote a book called To Teach, and I remember getting notes on both books from former students and folks I’d never even met. One note I remember came from a young African American student from Texas, who called me out on something she thought I’d gotten wrong. We got into a correspondence about it, and that was very exciting to me. I was so moved; I felt like I’d thrown a rock in the pond and it had rippled out and touched someone and changed me.

I’m on book tour right now, going to independent bookstores in thirty-five cities, and one of the things I love most is that Bernardine, recently retired, is with me every step of the way. The only people who have never had a problem with me speaking in their venues are independent bookstores and libraries. Universities and humanities councils have canceled me, but never an independent bookstore. And part of the fun of writing, touring, teaching, is engaging with real people about all of it: what to do now, how to build a movement, of approaches to teaching, of parenting—it’s exciting to be in that dialogue. And expanding the public dialogue, expanding the public space and creating the public square—those are revolutionary acts in a period when the public is being eclipsed.

Rumpus: What if you had written this book during the period of peak chaos? You were (uncharacteristically) quiet for a long time then. Why? What was the impact of that silence on this book?

Ayers: I was publically quiet for eight months. But I hadn’t been completely quiet: I was teaching my classes; I was writing my comic book. I was doing all the things I do; I just wasn’t talking to the media. Every time they put a microphone in my face, I turned away.

To Teach-The Journey of A TeacherBut then David Remnick showed up on our doorstep on election day 2008 and I remember going through this kind of mental crisis—am I allowed to talk to him? Am I off the leash? And I thought, Hell yes, I’m off the leash, and it’s David Remnick, and we chatted on. And two days later, Bernardine and I were on Democracy Now! I was on Good Morning America and two days after that I had an op-ed in The New York Times and then, as is the case with the media, they were on to other things. And this is why I don’t take  the media as either the affirming or condemning force it thinks it is. It passed, and then I was back to being Bill Ayers, not just the cartoon character. I talk about that in Public Enemy, how we were still harassed—and still are—by organized right-wingers, that makes it difficult for me to show up on any college campus without some kind of protest. But invariably what happens is like what happened in Wyoming. Which is that after the controversy, after a huge audience turns out where there would have been a small audience, there’s a palpable disappointment. Where’s the terrorist? Where’s the fire coming out of his nose? Who’s that old professor hobbling across the stage with his prosthetic knee?

What was interesting about putting this book together is that I never know what I’m writing until I get it down on the page. I overwrite. I write way more than I publish. Partly I now have the sense to edit a lot of it out, but I also have the benefit of a good editor who tells me what to take out, and I say, “Well, okay, I’ll take it out, but I’m going to put that part in the ‘better book.'” So now we have a common reference to a thing we call the “better book,” which is hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Rumpus: I want to read it. What’s in there?

Ayers: The same themes as my other books, probably… Trying to be an activist, living the daily part well. Writing so that it’s also an act of political engagement. I’ve argued to young people over the last eight years, that in a period like this, a period when there’s not a single social movement that’s defining and driving political life but lots and lots of social justice organizing and activism, just learning to talk to each other and to listen to each other can itself be a revolutionary act. I’ve seen it historically prove to be true. If we could learn to listen, to find our common edges, to act in concert against injustice, then we’d be in a better place when the inevitable mountain times come upon us. We’ll be called upon to do things on behalf of humanity, so we need to be exercising how to listen and talk to each other. And I think writing is part of that.

One thing I’m often asked to apologize for is the fact that we were young. How do I apologize for that? We were noisier than other people and noisy in a group, riding the tide of a social movement in the wake of the Black Freedom Movement. But it’s the task of young people to say—everything is new, everything is an experiment, everything is on trial, nothing is accepted. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Which is why, in the natural flow of things, you will have conflict with your daughters. Especially in six or ten years.

Rumpus: Especially when they’ve been hanging out at your house. Anarchy!

Ayers: Exactly! The young say to the old: “You didn’t get it right. Don’t tell me about how to live, how to have sex, how to have relationships. I’m inventing it and you know nothing about it.” It’s a hard pill to swallow, because you were there once, too, as old people, you’re like, “Wait, I invented that!”

Sex is a great example. We have sex education—I’m for it, I’m not against it. But any curriculum should recognize that it’s young people’s job to invent it themselves. You’re not going to teach them; they’re going to reinvent it.  

Every relationship is an experiment and what one learns from it is so fascinating. Do it this way, not that way, that hurts your feelings or my feelings. The crushing-ness of it. It’s true for social relationships among children who are nine or six or four. Trying to be in the world and the world is teaching us as we go. You get this perfectly in Big Girl Small.

But grown-ups who pretend they can intervene and teach you? This has been a big theme for me and Bernardine with our age cohort; we feel like we have to say to your generation: you’re inventing parenting. Because you are. You’re reading about it, and remembering your own experience, maybe occasionally asking your moms, but mainly you’re making it up as you go. Because if you weren’t, then how could you do a good job? We did it our way and we gave it our imperfect best, and now you guys will do it your way. The arrogance of adulthood is to think that you know. I’m trying to push the opposite, which is that kids know more than you think they do about what it means to be them. It’s part of our job to watch and learn, as well as to guide and teach.

Rumpus: One of the book’s most fabulous moments is when you and your students are watching election coverage, and your name comes up and a student turns to you and says, “That guy’s name is also William Ayers.” And another student has to tell her that they are talking about you. And of course, it both is and isn’t you. I mean, they were talking about you, and using your photo and some wild version of your bio, but Zayd and I didn’t recognize that caricature. Did you? Who are you, actually?

Ayers: The interesting thing about that moment is that, while I tried to write it in a way that made it funny, it was also quite natural. Why should this young student know anything about this cartoon character that’s being invented in a political campaign, a character who is sixty-five years old? She’s thirty years old. She doesn’t know anything about that context, so for her, it’s “that guy has the same name as you.”

The question of who you are is something that’s always negotiated. Identity gets pushed around in a variety of ways, some internal, some external. One of the surprising things as I look at the book is asking myself, What have I done for the last thirty years?

BillAyers_2People get shaped by how the world encounters them; it’s not simply a matter of inventing yourself. You and I are both lucky people—and the girls are lucky—because in our encounters with the world, we have had people who have loved us into being. We have a sense of safety, of being cared about, of being seen. Even that little scene with Dalin this morning on the playground was so touching. [Zayd’s and my nine-year-old had a moment of social bewilderment, which made her eyes fill up with tears.] Because Dalin feels a little hurt and who does she turn to? You and Zayd. You’re right there, and you lean in and try to contextualize it for her. Well, that’s how your identity gets formed, in those little moments you won’t even remember.

I was formed externally by a big, loving family. And losing [my brother] Tim [who passed away this month at seventy]—part of what’s made that astonishing for me, is that I was born a year and a half after Tim so I’ve never been in the world without him. Even when we weren’t in touch on a daily basis, he was always a presence, someone who guided me through life’s crucial moments. And now he’s gone. And when someone who’s always been in your life is gone, it’s a stunning adjustment of your own identity.

And then there’s public identity, which is a seduction that has to be fought against. It can’t be given too much weight or seriousness. Because it’s fickle and mindless. It’s always flowing in and out. I’m doing these book readings now. And invariably somebody in an audience that chooses to come out and hear me read this kind of book will say how important I am to them. And I want to be tentative and also generous. As much as I would take the e-mail from the guy who sends an e-mail that same morning saying I’m going to rot in hell and he personally wants to dispatch me. I want to take them both with a grain of salt. Find your way into your own identity through both how you act in the world, how you react to the things that are given to you, and also how you shape yourself based on the people you care about and are committed to.

Rumpus: I love you. Don’t even try to pay for these coffees.

Rachel DeWoskin’s novel, Big Girl Small, (FSG 2011) is the recipient of the 2012 American Library Association’s Alex Award and was named one of the top 3 books of 2011 by Newsday. DeWoskin’s memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing (WW Norton 2005) about the years she spent in China as the unlikely star of a Chinese soap opera, has been published in six countries and is being developed as a television series by HBO. Her debut novel, Repeat After Me (Overlook Press, 2009), won a Foreward Magazine Book of the Year award. Rachel has written essays and articles for Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times Magazine of London, Teachers and Writers, and Conde Nast Traveler, and has published poems in journals including Ploughshares, Seneca Review, New Delta Review, Nerve Magazine and The New Orleans Review. She teaches memoir and fiction at the University of Chicago, and divides her time between Chicago and Beijing with her husband, playwright Zayd Dohrn, and their two little girls. Her most recent novel, Blind, will be released in August 2014. More from this author →