When Herbert X. Blyden was diagnosed three years ago with prostate cancer that had metastasized to his spine and joints, the doctors told him he had 18 months to live, probably less. When he went into Hospice a year ago, the doctors gave him a week, two at most. He hung on, because, he said, he didn't want the Attica prison case to end without him here to see it.
Brother Herb, who for years argued eloquently on behalf of the prisoners brutalized in the 1971 retaking of Attica prison, was a very tough man. But he wasn't tough enough to out-wait the State of New York. He died in Hospice at 9:05 p.m. last Sunday at the age of 61.
We met in December 1971 in the Bronx House of Detention, where he was awaiting trial for his participation in a prisoner uprising in the Tombs, Manhattan's holding center for men. I remember him saying to the other reporter at the table, "That's not the question you should be asking me. The question you should be asking me is . . ." And he told her what question she should ask. They were both silent: she was waiting for him to answer the question, Herbert was waiting for her to ask it. She asked, he answered, the interviews continued.
I never had cause to change the impression of him in those first few minutes: A man who was immensely intelligent, polite, determined, thoughtful and controlling.
The last time I saw him, he spoke with great pleasure about how, six years earlier, he'd talked U.S. District Judge John Elfvin into letting him represent himself in the Attica case, and how he had an attorney appointed to assist him. "Thats how come I got to sit at the attorney's table," he said. "And that's how come everybody got Friday off. You remember that, don't you?" I said I didn't. "You should. You were in court that day. I said to the judge, 'The Christians get their Sunday day of rest and the Jews get their Saturday day of rest. So what about us Muslims? We need rest too. We ought to have our Friday day of rest.' " Elfvin agreed and said witnesses would be heard only Monday through Thursday. "And," Herbert said, "not one of those lawyers on either side objected. That's maybe the only motion in that entire trial none of them objected to."
"It's only fair that the Muslims should have their day," I said. "How could they object?"
"Fairness has nothing to do with it," Herbert said. "When did you ever see a lawyer say no to a three-day weekend?"
One lawyer in the case was angry because Herbert was able to represent himself at the trial. "You know what the problem is? Blyden's acting like he's an individual, and this is a class-action suit."
Indeed he did; indeed he was. Brother Herb insisted all along that he was an individual, that it was to individuals that these things happened. Classes were a legal category but not a human category, and till the end he refused to accept the idea that it was more efficient for him to be pocketed in a class.
He was always organizing things. A visitor would bring a plant or some fruit to his room at Hospice and he'd give instructions specifying exactly where the gift was to be placed and what was to be done with whatever had occupied that space a moment ago. He'd toss orders at nurses like he was a member of the staff. He'd also, as soon as a guest left, divide up the grapes and bananas and candy with the staff. Never the papayas, which he loved more than anything, and which he did not share.
Whenever I arrived he was ready with an article in the paper that needed discussion or action. One time he was agitated at letters in The News opposing Frank "Big Black" Smith's $4 million jury award for the torture he'd endured at Attica. One writer said that it was the guards who should be getting money for what they went through, not the former prisoners. Another said it was the families of the guards who had been shot to death by State Police during the retaking of the prison who should get the money.
"They don't understand," Herbert said, waving the paper at me. "We're not saying they shouldn't get it. We're saying everyone who was brutalized that day should get compensation. The state shouldn't do that -- not to convicts, not to guards, not to anybody."
He disliked "Against the Wall," the HBO docu-drama about the Attica uprising. "They went to all that trouble and spent all that money, why couldn't they try and get it right? It's not that much harder to get it right."
We watched a program about the 26th anniversary of the Attica uprising on TV. He was in pain, and he was having a difficult time getting comfortable. If he took enough drugs to get to the pain, it made his mind dull and he hated that more. After the program was over he said, "They keep calling me one of the leaders of the Attica uprising. How come they keep saying that?"
"Because you were," I said.
"I guess I was," he said, grinning.
Akil al-Jundi, the lead plaintiff in the Attica civil rights case, died in August. Herbert was sad that Akil couldn't live to see the end of it. We both knew that Herbert wouldn't see the end of it either, and we talked about that for a while. He was worried about his two sons, whether they would get a share of whatever settlement was eventually made over the Attica claims. "I know the state is hoping more and more of us die so they won't have to pay as much. I'm hoping the lawyers won't let them get away with that. It's not fair."
He read parts of Akil's New York Times obituary aloud. "That guy got that right," he said. Further on he said, "That's not the right word but he's trying, you can see that he's trying." Then he said, "You're going to write my obituary, right?"
"No," I said, "I'm not. Newspapers have people on the staff who do that."
He made a noise high in his nose, like he was clearing his nasal passages, but he wasn't. "Obituaries should be written by people who knew you," he said. What keeps coming into my mind now, as I think about Herbert, and the man he was, is the ending of Ralph Ellison's masterpiece, "Invisible Man." The unnamed hero is in a room deep beneath Manhattan, ablaze with thousands of watts of brilliant light. His last sentence is, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you."
As Brother Herb did for us.
BRUCE JACKSON is a distinguished professor of English at the University at Buffalo.