Remarks by Nancy Kurshan at Steve Whitman’s Memorial


Steve’s dear friend, John McKnight, wrote to me the other day and said: “Steve was the only person I know who everyone said of him, ‘He was my best friend.'” So let me begin by saying that Steve was my best friend and I was his. And so I speak to you today with the most broken of hearts.

Steve came into this world on May 19th, and was always proud that it was the same day as the birthday of Malcolm X, Ho Chi Minh, Lorraine Hansberry, and Augusto Sandino. And he died this past Sunday, July 20th which as his daughter Imani observed, is the birthday of Franz Fanon. All were people he admired deeply, especially Malcolm, who

was his hero and even his screensaver. Steve would never have let us honor him like this when he was alive; he would rather have us organize programs to honor the people he thought were real heroes and

heroines. People like Michael Yasutake, Yuri Kochiyama, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Morton Sobel, Oscar Lopez Rivera, Sundiata Acoli, Madame Binh.

Besides being at least one of Steve’s best friends, I speak today as family. And I realize that to be true to Steve, I need to explain what family meant to him. Because to Steve family was an expansive concept. He loved his family of origin– his parents and his sister Hollis who is here today from NY, and her family. And he took that love of family and went beyond. Steve had 3 very close children, none of them biological. His daughter Imani, the love of his life whom he

loved as much as any father could possibly love a daughter. And my children, Rosa and Michael, whom he raised as his very own. When he was in hospice, all of them were present, having traveled from afar to be with him in the last days. He had two grandchildren, Imani’s sons Diallo and Issa, whom he was crazy about. And in addition, his expansive way of loving extended to include our 11 year old neighbor Angel whom he loved deeply like a grandson.

And as the emails pour in expressing profound grief it becomes clear that many people saw Steve as a father figure or a mentor, because Steve was a wonderful father and by extension a wonderful mentor.

Steve’s desire to take care of people, to help them grow, to believe in their potential was at his core. And it extended to children, to people everywhere. He felt we should be as concerned about the children of Palestine as the children of America. As concerned about Black, Mexican and Puerto children as we are about white children. In fact, we

should concentrate our energies on those children who were least fortunate. Edy Rabinowitz, another friend, sent me a quote from a speech she heard Steve give about health disparities. I think it reflects his essence. He said “We have to regard these problems as if it’s a problem in our family, as if what we’re discussing are our mothers, and our daughters and fathers. . . And we have to fight like hell to change it.”

Then, Edy said, he promised the audience that if they bought copies of the report he had written, not only would they become taller, but they would also be able to eat as much chocolate as they wanted without gaining any weight.” Steve was very funny. He told great jokes that made all of us laugh.

Meenal Mamdani, another friend, wrote to me that “Steve wore his many achievements so lightly that one remembers him for his playfulness and not for the eminent personality he was.” And finally, before I leave the subject of family love, I want to say that Steve loved this entire Puerto Rican community here on Division Street. Yes he did. For Steve this

community was his family. Steve had other emotions besides love. He passionately hated Racism in all its many forms. He thought it needed to be called out over and over, never swept under the table.

Racism, Racism, Racism. There were rare moments when he tempered his remarks so people wouldn’t think he was completely crazy. He thought racism needed to be examined relentlessly, but that was not nearly enough. He embraced what Karl Marx said, that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world . . . . The point, however, is

to change it.” Steve was an activist, a fighter. He fought with all his being to eliminate health disparities, transform the racist prison system, end police brutality and torture, and free political prisoners such as Oscar Lopez Rivera. Just a month ago, when he was deeply feeling the effects of the cancer, he used his statistician’s skills to testify in court for hours in a case of rampant police brutality.

Steve saw the exquisite beauty in being Black, in being Puerto Rican, in being Mexican. And he wanted to help nurture, especially the youth of those communities so that they could let their lights shine not just for their own good, but for the good of us all. For several days this past week I lay next to Steve and tried to comfort him as he left

this world he enjoyed so much. He loved me and cared for me perfectly for 30 years. I tried to do the same. We had only one fight– the first month we were together he told me that the only other woman he would consider, were she to be interested, was Tina Turner. As a feminist I took it seriously. I made him promise me he was kidding and he did. He said we would grow old together and both put our teeth in glasses next to our bed. Well, neither of us lost our teeth. But now I have lost Steve and my heart is broken. Yet many of you are gifts that I received from him. Those are the real gifts that keep on giving. And how blessed am I to have had his precious, perfect love for 30 years.