When Skateboards Will Be Free
A Memoir of a Political Childhood
By Said Sayrafiezadeh
Dial Press, $22, 287 pp.
It’s been commonly observed that socialists have great love for The People, but they can't abide actual people.
When Skateboards Will Be Free -- Said Sayrafiezadeh's unsparing but compassionate and wryly funny memoir of growing up in a household dominated by the Socialist Workers Party -- shows that truism applies to family as well.
Said’s father, Mahmood, was an Iranian-born "leading comrade" with the Socialist Workers Party. He had come to America as the winner of a scholarship given by the U.S. government to the winner of an essay contest on liberty — an irony lost on Mahmood.
His wife, Martha Harris, was an American Jew and sister of writer Mark Harris, whose best-known novel is Bang the Drum Slowly. When Mark changed his name from Finkelstein to Harris to appear "less ethnic" on book covers, Martha followed suit.
Martha, however, kept the name Sayrafiezadeh and stayed married to Mahmood for decades after he abandoned her, so he could use the freedom afforded by America to foment revolution against it. True-believer Martha willingly sacrificed her life — and her children’s — for the Cause.
Mahmood took his two oldest children and abandoned his wife to go on the road for the Party when Said was only 9 months old. Sayrafiezadeh writes:
"… (T)he logic behind my mother’s explanation was that the separation with my father was only temporary, and once this socialist revolution was achieved, he would return to us…
"And since there was something so immensely redemptive and exciting for me to imagine that my unknown father was not just a man who had abandoned me but a noble man of adventure who had no choice but to abandon me, I succumbed quite easily to my mother’s version of events."
Martha, left to raise a child on her own on a meager secretarial salary, devoted the rest of her life to political meetings and selling the Party news organ, The Militant. But the fact that life was hard was not his parents’ fault, Said was taught -- it was the burden of everyone born in under capitalism.
In fact, a misery existence was all but required, Sayrafiezadeh observes, writing: "To suffer and to suffer greatly was the point. There was nothing more ignominious than to succeed in a society that was as morally bankrupt as ours."
But even young Said began to realize that the suffering in his household was self-inflicted. When he and his mother moved to a squalid apartment in Pittsburgh to be near the Party's headquarters -- despite offers of help from Martha’s brother, who also lived in the city -- Said could not help but notice:
"The difference between us and the other poor people in the neighborhood was that our poverty was intentional and self-inflicted. A choice to be chased after, as opposed to a reality that could not be avoided. … It was all artifice. We were without money, yes, but not without options…
"Instead, my mother actively, consciously, chose not only for us to be poor, but for us to remain poor and the two of us suffered greatly for it. Because to suffer and to suffer greatly was the point. … Because there was nothing so ignominious as to succeed in a society that was as morally bankrupt as ours. It was no accident that nearly every comrade was from a middle-class background and had repudiated their upbringing and their college degrees to pursue a higher, more profound calling. If you flourished in this society, you flourished because you were deviant and unethical, an exploiter of the middle class."
Sayrafiezadeh mines the socialist hair shirt for both humor and pathos. Said’s single-minded desire for grapes while his mother enforces the Cesar Chavez farm workers' boycott leads to some laugh-out-loud moments.
The book’s title comes from an anecdote when Said finally lets his desire to have some of the accoutrements of a normal American childhood get the better of him. When he gets up the nerve to ask his mother to buy him an $11 skateboard, she replies, "Once the revolution comes, everyone will have a skateboard, because all skateboards will be free."
But the book’s most chilling moment also comes from the determination to suffer and sacrifice for the Cause. Since the Party did not recognize private property, it was expected that homes would be opened for traveling comrades.
While his mother is at a meeting, Said is molested by a visiting male Party member who has set up shop in their cramped apartment. When his Martha reports the assault, the Party apparatchik shrugs and says,
"Under capitalism, everyone has problems," then takes several more days to find new accommodations for the predator.
The SWP was a Trotskyite group, so no portraits of Mao and Stalin adorned the walls of Martha and Said's home as their deprivations were considered over the line. Still, murals, tributes and portraits saluting anti-imperialist thugs -- from Third Worlders like Castro, Che, the Iranian hostage takers and Ayatollah Khomeini to such home-grown radicals as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers -- were prominently displayed.
Just when Said was beginning to carve out a bit of pre-teen normal life in his school, the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 dealt him a double whammy. Living with his "peculiar rules" did not have nearly the social jeopardy as identifying with an enemy (Iran) that nearly all Americans were unified against.
Said admits he did not suffer from the hatred that the mainstream media insists Americans routinely exercise in such situations. He hid from his classmates that his father had moved back to Iran to join the revolution and run for president of the country and the fact that he and his mother watched Walter Cronkite every night to root for the other side.
But exclaiming "I SUPPORT THE STRUGGLE OF THE IRANIAN WORKERS AND PEASANTS AGAINST U.S. IMPERIALISM," in response to a routine "bomb Iran" comment was not exactly the way to become a big man on campus in 1980, and it cost him friends and the little popularity he had achieved.
When Skateboards Will Be Free at times sounds like the reminiscences of a ex-cult member. Sayrafiezadeh’s account of the SWP annual convention at Oberlin College in Ohio, with its tent revival-like atmosphere and kids shouting party slogans back to communist preachers, is a prime example.
As a freshman, Said even wins the "honor" of a trip to Cuba, in which the group tour runs around touring deplorable conditions and pretending the Workers' Paradise has arrived. All Said really wants on the trip is a clean bathroom — which he finally, blissfully encounters at the Miami airport.
Unlike David Horowitz’s classic Radical Son and other former Red Diaper Babies' memoirs, Said's story is not really about his political awakening or conversion. He more or less drifts away from the Party. He gets a job with Martha Stewart but doesn’t really see it as the rebellious act it obviously must be.
Like Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984, Said rebels by simply living his own life. And, like Smith, it is love that spurs his the final break with the Party.
As an adult in his 20s, while he no longer lives by the Party's standards, Said still accepts the "truths" he learned as a child until a serious girlfriend begins challenging his rote slogans by asking follow-up questions. Said suddenly realizes the rhetoric is empty.
Throughout the book, Sayrafiezadeh has a running bit about how his mother saves every issue of The Militant. Huge piles of the paper dominated their various apartments, Said recalls, but she never looked at them or organized the collection.
The magazine madness serves as a metaphor for the dominating dead weight the Party exerted on Said and his mother. Said eventually goes to the thick volumes of Lenin and Marx that fill the bookshelves of his mother’s apartment and discovers the bindings have never been cracked. The fanatics of the SWP didn’t need to know anything in particular when they know Everything and have the keys to the universe.
This is especially evident in his father, who periodically pops back into Said’s life without warning. Mahmood usually buys Said's dinner, mouths a few platitudes, then disappears again to spread the revolution. As he begins to question his own reflexive stands, Said begins to notice that even his father has no grasp of basic facts and cannot explain very much beyond Party dialectic.
When Skateboards Will Be Free is the best political family memoir since Ron Radosh’s Commies, with which it shares a deadpan sense of humor. Said Sayrafiezadeh also belongs in the same league as Tobias
Wolfe and Homer Hickam as telling a very American story about growing up in a particular — and, in this case, "peculiar"— culture and honestly but lovingly telling of his family’s role in it.