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By Michael Awkward | With thanks  to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Monday, December 16, 2013.

My wife and I will  see Let the Fire Burn this evening, the only time theaters in or near Ann Arbor are scheduled to show this acclaimed documentary about the disputatious back-to-Nature group, MOVE.  Oddly, although I am very interested in seeing the film, directed by George Washington University professor Jason Osder, because it occurred just prior to this film’s limited national release and because the reviewers mention it only parenthetically, I am just as curious about the September 20th death of one of the film’s central figures, Michael Moses Ward, a truck driver and part-time barber who survived of the massive fire of May 13, 1985 that ignited when a bomb was dropped by the Philadelphia police on the roof of MOVE’s row house.  While the autopsy performed on his body has not yet been released, I can’t shake the feeling that the 41 year old man’s death was another tragic result of the 40 year battle between MOVE and my native city.   At the very least, the unhappy irony that Ward, who was taught as a child that modern technology and life were physically and spiritually pernicious, died on vacation aboard the Carnival Dream, a cruise ship that is a floating signifier of lavish modern excess, is indisputable.

Christened “Birdie Africa” as a toddler soon after his mother joined MOVE, Ward was separated from the group permanently when the world he knew was destroyed.  After enduring hours of sustained terror as tear gas, 10,000 rounds of ammunition, a small pond’s quantity of water, bomb blasts, and the threatening pronouncements of a police commissioner claiming to represent America, the dazed, ravenous 13 year old Birdie was burned severely as he escaped the group’s blazing home.  He then nearly drowned in a large puddle of water that had been discharged from fire hoses whose emissions failed to dislodge either the group or its rooftop bunker.  (At dusk, the police and fire commissioners decided against using these hoses to extinguish the fire while it was eminently manageable, hoping it would destroy the bunker that afforded MOVE a tactical advantage over the heavily armed police force.  This horrendous mistake, along with the menacing presence of police whom the home’s residents had every reason to distrust, helped to cause the deaths of eleven MOVE members, including Birdie’s mother, and the destruction of sixty one houses owned by black working class neighbors whose rights the city was endeavoring to protest against MOVE’s escalating acts of verbal and physical harassment.)

After Birdie’s escape – and despite the terror he experienced during the siege as well as the deaths of his mother and other people whom he loved, he insisted he was grateful that the fire had freed him from MOVE’s tyranny – he pursued a mainstream American life as Michael Moses Ward, a life that included bicycles, television, video games, football, marriage, parenthood, divorce, military service, and, in his last days, a family vacation aboard the ornate technological marvel, the Carnival Dream.  Still, his traumatic past intervened with regularity: nightmares of being trapped in a house engulfed by flames; scars imprinted upon his flesh that no surgery could wholly erase; an abiding fear that he would be harmed by or forced to rejoin MOVE; memories of abuse so distressing that he refused to detail its precise nature except to his father, whose earlier efforts to liberate him ended when members of the group threatened to kill Birdie if he persisted; and, judging from widely distributed photographs of his somber visage, painfully uncomfortable interviews with local and national media that sought his input for stories marking major anniversaries of the bombing.

My distress at the news of his passing is heightened, perhaps, by my regret for deciding against discussing Ward in the brief examination of MOVE that appears in Philadelphia Freedoms, a new book that explores traumatic black American experiences in the post-civil rights era.  Curious to consider what I might have written, I reread newspaper articles and books on MOVE, along with digesting from the first time the Special Investigation Commission’s Report on the bombing.  Despite my thorough investigation, I’m still unsure that examining the child survivor would have proven a better choice than discussing, as I did, the still-traumatized city’s first black mayor, W. Wilson Goode, who, on the 25th anniversary of the bombing, assumes responsibility for the highly destructive raid while absolving himself of responsibility in the same breath.   

In the Report’s Foreword, its chair, William H. Brown III, insists that “the process of the work of the Commission and its involvement with the public was absolutely necessary if Philadelphians are to work through their collective pain of May 13th.  It is necessary if our community is to heal the scars that remain from the tragedy that occurred on Osage Avenue” (272).  Brown’s concern with communal healing is echoed in an addendum where, in the section entitled “The Blood of Children,” Commission member Charles Bowser argues that “at the heart of this tragedy is the indelible stain made by the blood of innocent children,” a stain that “also marks the lives of every person who accepted a role in their death from the highest office to the Osage asphalt street.”  The city officials whom Bowser criticizes include Goode, its police and fire commissioners, and its head of Health and Human Services (who was a third cousin of mine), all of whom displayed “a wanton and callous disregard for the lives and the safety of the children” affiliated with MOVE.  

Taken together, these acts of atonement implore us to recommit ourselves to fulfilling civil responsibilities by attempting to: 1), make sense of the MOVE bombing, an unparalleled example of the sometimes-destructive clash between our ideals and our sometimes-irrepressible human frailties; 2), attend to its traumatic effects on survivors such as Ward and millions of others; and 3), approach local and national tragedies in general in a manner that ultimately enhances our efforts – in the nation’s First City and elsewhere – to achieve the American ideal of e pluribus Unum.   The pain Ward suffered and the obstacles he sought to overcome obligate us to consider the entirety of his life along with the circumstances of his death.

By all accounts, Let the Fire Burn compels its viewers to look closely at the complex causes of the MOVE bombing.  Unfortunately, however, in his published comments about Ward’s death, Osder speaks only about his role as a survivor of the MOVE siege. “In a strange way,” Osder claims, this death “has reminded us of the nature of the event itself: it’s tragic that he died young, but it serves as a reminder of the other five children that didn’t even live to age 41.”  I feel strongly that we owe it to the young man who suffered through outrages not of his own making to assess his life in broader terms than the filmmaker does in assessing the possible meanings of Ward’s death.  But no matter how strong my compunction to do so, the best I can muster is a list of what are, for me, provocative questions for which I have no confirmable answers.

How difficult was it for the former Birdie, while in the midst of working to remake his life, to rehash aspects of his troubled life and to offer psychological progress reports on each occasion reporters deemed important?   Had he fully embraced all aspects of modernity, a condition that John Africa taught his followers was evil and wholly destructive?  How anguished might he have been as he vacationed on the Carnival Dream, knowing that, because of the acclaim earned by Osder’s documentary, upon his return to suburban Philadelphia, he would be asked to undergo yet another round of public scrutiny of the damage that had been done to him and of the current state of his wounds?   Could he have appeared, as his father describes, to have “put the past behind him,” to be “doing well” and “very joyful” as he swam “with the dolphins” during a family vacation on the Carnival Dream, a floating symbol of modern excess, yet remained inescapably within the throes of childhood trauma?  How disconcerting might it have been for him to know that the videotaped testimony of his former self and identity, the 13 year old Birdie Africa who, according to a film reviewer for The Nation, “seems more like a shy 6-year-old in the deposition, answering the gently coaxing interrogator so guilelessly that you adopt his viewpoint as the simple truth,” was used as a crucial narrative device in Let the Fire Burn?  How fearful might he have been if and when he learned that, in this documentary, “the people, places and things on-screen seem uncommonly immediate,” that no significant effort was made by the filmmaker “to distance the images, which come before you with the air of something irreducible, as if they were not representations of the past but solid pieces of it”?

Even as he admits to being baffled about how his “extremely fit” son, a “41-year old man with the body of a 17-year old” who “worked out every day and was very particular about what he put in his body,” had died on the final day of their vacation, Andino Ward expresses profound gratitude for having had the privilege of nurturing the son to whom MOVE had denied him access.  His equally grateful son spent the last 27 years of his life recreating himself as someone whose identity was no longer subsumed by MOVE, efforts which, like all attempts to overcome trauma, seemed daunting, halting, and likely not wholly successful.  (It is impossible to read of the fastidiousness of Ward’s diet and exercise regime without surmising that they were healthy responses to the perverse extremes of MOVE practices.)  As he insisted during the Commission hearings and in newspaper interviews, though he continued to have terrible nightmares about his past victimization and found it difficult to trust people, he was committed, with his father’s help, to overcoming both his life with MOVE and a day of unimaginable terror when Philadelphia used what its mayor acknowledged was “any means necessary” to evict the city’s most disruptive residents.  

It takes roughly 6 weeks for toxicology reports to be completed, so we still do not know the general condition of Ward’s internal organs and the precise cause of his death.  However, the other survivor of the Philadelphia fire, the still-active spokesperson, Ramona Africa, is sure that he died because he’d been separated from MOVE and was immersed in the corrupt modern world against which the group’s leader had warned his followers: “if he was still with MOVE and hadn't been snatched from MOVE, he would not have drowned on no cruise ship. We don't go on cruise ships. It just shows you how protective MOVE's belief is. John Africa taught us that it is dangerous to be out in a body of water like that."

Unlike Ramona Africa, I cannot pretend to know why the young man she knew as Birdie died. (Given what I’ve learned of MOVE’s violent treatment of members who rejected or expressed serious doubts about its teachings, however, I am skeptical of her claim that MOVE would have been “protective” of Ward had he been left alone with its embittered members either as a child “snatched” away by Philadelphia authorities or as a thoroughly modern adult.)  I suspect, however, that on the eve of his return to Philadelphia, his presence on the Carnival Dream felt disharmonious with “MOVE belief” he imbibed until he was on the eve of adolescence that, like the benefits of careful diet and strenuous daily exercise, continued to shape aspects of his being.  Unlike Osder, I feel strongly that, in his death, we must honor his efforts to transcend his MOVE origins and his status as a (perhaps guilt-filled) child survivor.  I want – and, in a not fully rational way, need – Ward’s post-MOVE life, his hard-fought battles for normalcy and psychic peace, his triumphs, large and small, and his painfully inevitable setbacks, to matter.

Saved from drowning by a white policeman who refused to see the malnourished boy as a terroristic combatant, nurtured back to health by a father who encouraged him to rename himself, Ward made choices as an adult – to join the military to defend values that John Africa et al despised; to drive products along the East Coast, perhaps as a curative to a claustrophobic childhood existence; to cut others’ hair to keep it from forming into dreadlocks that MOVE members believed properly symbolized their antagonistically natural lifestyle; and to exalt publicly in the fact, because of the otherwise lethal fire, he “got out” that fly boldly in the face of the precepts of the group that, long before the siege, he wanted desperately to escape.  I doubt, however, that he ever completely threw off the effects of his childhood existence in that long-incinerated MOVE home in which he had been trapped both by his putative family and, finally, by representatives of the city of Philadelphia.

Our sporadic attempts to revisit moments of collective trauma that might otherwise be misunderstood or unremembered kept pulling Ward figuratively back into a burning house of horrors.  We need newspaper articles, Action News reports, and widescreen spectacles to link our present circumstances to the nightmarish pain that Ward recalled too clearly.  But, unlike the rest of us, Ward desperately needed to block those fiery images, to silence blood-curdling screams we could only imagine – to overcome that fateful day – in order to live a productive life.  The edification, morality, and civil responsibility of the rest of us require that we have access in perpetuity to images of him escaping the Osage Avenue inferno.  No matter what the autopsy concludes, because our collective needs and Ward’s needs diverged so dramatically, I suspect that, aboard the Carnival Dream, his return to Philadelphia, to his starring role as Birdie Africa, might have seemed unbearable.


Michael Awkward, Gayl A. Jones Professor of Afro-American Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan, is the author, most recently, of Burying Don Imus: Anatomy of a Scapegoat and Soul Covers: Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Identity. Professor Awkward’s latest book, Philadelphia Freedoms: Black American Trauma, Memory, and Culture after King, was published by Temple University Press in October.

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