FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Africentric Cinema of Julie Dash

Of Homegirl Goddesses and Geechee Women 

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust has been described as the first translation of the sensibility found in contemporary Black women’s literature to the screen. Logocentrists and literary scholars beware: Dash’s achievement is not simply a matter of grafting the thematic concerns of Hurston, Morrison, Walker, and Naylor to the screen. The filmmaking magic and craft of Dash and her cinema­tographer, Arthur Jafa, shows through most brilliantly in the film’s comprehensive Afrocentric visual aesthetic and richness of period detail. Daughters evokes the spirituality and emotional depths of those writer’s mytho­poeic prose styles. It is a film of visionary power conceived with a passion for pure research.

Ostensibly about a Gullah fam­ily whose younger generation are making plans to leave their ances­tral islands for mainland U.S.A. at the crest of the 20th century, Daughters is also an interrogation of Black America’s cleft soul, split between the quest for modernity and a hunger for the replenish­ment of roots. Zeroing in on the family’s women, it captures the shifting faces of dignity, denial, yearning, and elegance that give shape and meaning to Black fe­male subjectivity. Daughters is an unparalleled and unprecedented achievement in terms of both world cinema and African aesthet­ics. In this it extends ten thou­sand-fold the canon of Black film to have emerged from the UCLA-based Black filmmakers Dash joined in the late ’70s — Charles Burnell, Haile Gerima, Larry Clarke, Alile Sharon Larkin, Billy Woddberry, Zeinabu Davis. Pending a distribution deal this summer, the film should be in a theater near you this fall, making it the first feature-length film di­rected by an African-American woman to gain a national theatri­cal release. Anybody in need of more encouragement than this to give Julie Dash her props is just wasting my breath. — Greg Tate

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Greg Tate: Did you feel you were engaged in a heroic, historic act while you were making the movie?

Julie Dash: Absolutely. Everyone involved in Daughters was aware that these were the islands where the slaves were quarantined and fattened up after the Middle Pas­sage and before being sent to the ports of Charleston. Since we were working with available light, we’d go out and wait every morning for the sunrise. When the sun would rise everyone in the crew would stop unless we were actually shooting. Often people would weep. Then there were things like the sandstorm that hit us all of a sudden on a clear day in the mid­dle of a heavy dramatic scene. It was like [whistles Twilight Zone theme]. We slopped shooting and ran for cover in the woods behind the beach. One of the actresses, Verta Mae Grosvenor, came up and told me, “You stirring too much stuff up girl.”

Tate: What do you use as a guide­post for translating African mysti­cism and spiritual experiences to the screen? How do you know you’re on the right track?

Dash: You don’t. Every morning I’d get up and say, please ances­tors help me. All the rituals are based on extensive research. But sometimes you have to trust your gut to do or not do something. For instance, we found an ancient African graveyard, and the first thought was, this is great, these are slave graves, the old souls are buried here, we can construct our Ki-Kongo graveyard on top of this. We’ll be on sacred ground. We got our props there and our production designer Kerry Mar­shall looked at me, and said, “This is not right.” And I said, “You’re right, let’s go find ground where people aren’t buried.”

Tate: Why a story about the Gul­lah at the turn of the century?

Dash: The Sea Islands are sacred ground. All our ancestors came through these islands. I wanted to do a story set at the turn of the century about the first generation of free Blacks, and a story about a pivotal moment in the lives of the women of the family. Also, be­cause my father’s family came from that area, I’ve heard Gee­chee and Gullah dialect, and eat­en the food all my life. I don’t remember much from my visits during the summer when I was a kid, but I was influenced by the Geechees I knew on 165th and Amsterdam Ave. There was a bar called The Office and mostly Gul­lah and Geechee would go there. Whenever we wanted to call my father, we’d call The Office. My mother will die to hear me say that. For me hearing heavy Gullah dialect is not strange. My grand­mother speaks that way.

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Tate: You made a decision to not do the film in a thick dialect with subtitles.

Dash: My original intention was to have thick Gullah language with subtitles and then segue into Gullah dialect. Some people seem to have problems with it, but to tell the truth, I had problems with Miller’s Crossing. It made me re­alize that I’ve done that all my life, pushed through on accents until I understood them. Why is it with Daughters of the Dust that people almost seem offended by it? When they bring it up, I tell them, “Release on it, you’ll under­stand it in a minute.” You may not understand every sentence but you’ll surely get the general idea, the sensibility of the whole thing. We’ve grown up translating. We have no other choice.

Tate: Does the whole question of whether you’re pushing an audi­ence too hard ever come into it for you? When do you release on that?

Dash: I think it’s on a project-by­-project basis. On Daughters it was about breaking through, doing something different. I mean, all the main characters are grounded in West African cosmology. The narrative is not driven by the Greek gods but Oshun, Oya­-Yansa, Yemoja, Eshu-Elegba. Then there’s a lot of subliminal stuff happening. We have a mas­ter talking drummer playing mes­sages very subtly throughout the film, saying in Yoruba, “Remem­ber me, remember my name, take me with you, take me where you go.” I know people can’t under­stand it, but I want it working on people’s subconscious. All the mu­sic by John Barnes was composed in certain astrological keys. We had Santeria high priestesses came in and sang secret songs to Oshun. There’s so much working in this film that has never been done be­fore. All the principal actors had worked in films by other Black independent directors. We worked with fine artists like Da­vid Hammons, Tyrone Mitchell, Kerry Marshall, Michael Kelly Williams, Martha Jackson-Jarvis. All these people coming together make it an exciting grand experiment.

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Tate: In terms of Black female ico­nography and beauty, Daughters is a breakthrough.

Dash: We brought in Pamela Fer­rell of Cornrows Incorporated from D.C. This woman is a mas­ter cornrower and hairstylist who studied in Africa. We have hair­styles representing people from Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and Madagascar. We didn’t take any­thing lightly. I remember many years ago I was doing an intern­ship on Roots when I was al the AFI, and of course all the hair-dressers were white. Being my young naïve self I asked them what gave them the idea for giving these slave women pressed hair. One said to me, “Oh yes, we re­searched this, and they were try­ing to emulate their masters.” I thought, wait a minute. Would the people in Dachau, if they could, try to dress, or even act, like their German captors? It made no sense. It was ridiculous. Not to mention that you’ve never seen that hairstyle in any drawings or photographs from the period.

Tate: The film is praise-song to the beauty of dark-skinned Black women. But, I heard, that after the screening a few weeks back, one black woman critic reduced Daughters to being a film that was “about hair.”

Dash: I guess it’s all about what your nervous system can stand. As a Black woman you’re constantly being bombarded by all these oth­er images like the Revlon woman pulling out her blow dryer like a gunfighter. Those things affect your concept of what you have to do to be a “real woman.” There’s a lot of drama around Black hair. Teachers treating girls with soft straight hair nicer than those with short nappy hair. I could try and be a filmmaker who was myopic about it, like this really isn’t an issue, but it would be untrue. The other thing is, in all other types of films, you see women with all kinds of hairstyles and no one no­tices. You have Black women wearing something other than a doo-rag, and all of a sudden, you’re self-conscious in the follicle area. I wanted these women to look like nothing you’ve ever seen on the screen before, and I wanted them to have ancient hairstyles.

Tate: Body language is more im­portant than dialogue in Daugh­ters, and a lot of other Black wom­en’s films, as a way of communicating.

Dash: Body language was impor­tant in West Africa. Women standing arms akimbo, hands on hips — was first seen in this country through slave women doing that. The young child straddling the mother’s hip is another exam­ple. Averting the eyes, turning your face away from someone you respect, like a grandparent, is a West African sign of respect that still persists in the Black commu­nity. Those motor habits persist.

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Tate: In terms of world cinema, how do you see Daughters?

Dash: I think it’s a timeless piece, not something that’s trendy for right now. It’s a huge photograph that whoever sees it could take and put in their mind’s eye, and walk around to the end of their days and feel better about a whole lot of things. It’s like a balm. I think people will look at it 10, 20 years from now and discover new things and new emotions in it. You won’t be able to do that with a whole lot of other films.

Tate: You think there’s a popular audience out there for it?

Dash: I think the audience we get will suprise some people. It clearly frightens most white males and they are the ones who get to say what kind of audience is out there for a Daughters of the Dust. They don’t understand it for the most part and don’t want to say that they don’t, so they say it’s not good, or it’s not well crafted or the dramatic themes were spotty. Daughters should be promoted as a woman’s film, as an art film. It’s not a homeboy film, it’s not even a homegirl film. It’s interesting that most of the people doing the homeboy/homegirl films didn’t grow up in that section [of the city]. I grew up in the projects so I’m not doing those types of films.

Tate: Could you ever see yourself making a film about growing up in the projects?

Dash: Yes, I could, but it would be very different from what we have out there now. Those are coming-of-age films for males and I’m not gonna do that.

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Tate: How has Black women’s literature affected your work?

Dash: That’s the reason I’m doing it. I stopped making documenta­ries after discovering Toni Morri­son, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker in high school. I’d wondered, why can’t we see mov­ies like this? I realized I needed to learn how to make narrative mov­ies. I couldn’t believe it when I first read books like Toni Morri­son’s Sula and Toni Cade Bamba­ra’s Gorilla, My Love, I’d put the books down and say, I know these people. I’ll never forget reading about “the Deweys” in Sula, and thinking that the lady who took care of me would do this. Name all three of her kids Dewey, like it didn’t matter. Miz Edwards. As I think back on it, she had a pro­found effect on me, because she would comb my hair and burn it so no one could get hold of it. And talk about hiding your pictures so no one could put gopher dust on them and drive you crazy. All this kind of stuff became normal to me, not something you have to point out. So when I have stuff like that in my films, it’s not like, look, we’re about to pour on this ritual now. I see these things as a part of our everyday life. It’s our culture and tradition. ❖

FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

Julie Dash Films Gullah Country


Gullah country, more commonly known as the Georgia Sea Islands, starts off the coastline of Beaufort County, South Carolina, and stretches south into Georgia. The islands are connected to the mainland by bridges of recent vintage; locals refer to the whole region as the Low Country. To get there from here you must be driven 50 miles from the Savannah airport, perhaps by a retired gentleman from Buffalo who affably shares news of his upcom­ing trip to Minneapolis for cancer treatment. So much for smalltalk. Kick back, enjoy the ride and the countryside: winding blacktop flanked by high-rise forests, ranch houses, trailer homes, and the occasional dog or possum come out from under some semi’s wheels to lump up the road, organic sculpture from the Francis Bacon school. Peculiar to the region’s foliage are nifty, atmo­spheric ornaments: drooping spools of Spanish moss and spiky palmettos. Half­way to our destination, the Royal Frog­more Inn, my compañera asks me what I notice first when I visit a new place and I say the houses. Beulah Joe says she looks at the dirt and wonders what the differ­ence between us means. I tell her it means I’m a house Negro and she’s a field Negro and she laughs, well, we already knew that.

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The Royal Frogmore is a motel on the island of St. Helena. The black people who populate St. Helena and most of the other islands off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts are known as Gullah or Geechees. People who don’t know any better think Gullah people talk funny. Those in the know realize that Gullah is a bona fide dialect and are confident in the scholarly thesis that ‘Gullah’ is a contrac­tion of ‘Angola.’

But me and Beulah Joe aren’t here to gaze upon the Gullah. We’re here to see black independent filmmaker Julie Dash go into intensive labor on her feature-in­-utero, Daughters of the Dust, a turn-of­-the-century tale about a fictional Gullah family. Dash has three other films to her credit: Four Women, a choreopoem based on the Nina Simone song of the same name; Diary of an African Nun, from the Alice Walker short story; and Illusions, a 34-minute original starring Lonette McKee as a black woman exec passing for white at a Hollywood studio during the wartime ’40s. The latter has received standing ovations from Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, and the dean of black inde­pendent film crits, Clyde Taylor.

Daughters is Dash’s most ambitious project to date on several counts, not least for being shot on 35mm color stock, which costs $365 per two-minute reel. Dash’s financing for the two-week shoot comes from several grants — $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, $5000 from the Appleshop Southeast Re­gional Fellowship, $9000 from the Geor­gia Endowment for the Humanities, $16,000 from the Fulton County Arts Council. By the end of her Beaufort stay, Dash says, she’ll be worrying over how she and husband/cinematographer A. J. Fielder are going to pay their rent and phone bills. Dash’s plan after initial shooting is to edit a trailer on video then seek out investors and more grants. As independent film financing schemes go, it’s as sound as any.

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Dash’s personal demeanor suggests both dreamy-eyed fabulist and fo­cused professional. Her attitude on the set is casual but only be­cause her preproduction work is meticulous, worked out in fine detail on the Toshiba PC she’s installed in her Royal Frogmore office. Day charts detail­ing the entire two-week shoot drape the walls with information on costume changes, locations, camera angles, and special effects. She considers herself more a technical director than an actor’s director, and very little dialogue goes on between her and the actors on the set. Dialogue with the crew is also at a minimum. Once Dash sets up her shots and sound and camera get rolling, the action plays until the takes sync with her vision. Her mood on the shoot is chill maximus.

Dash’s eyes, spunky and alert eyes, per­petually gleam. They are set in a doeish face that maternal weight-gain has left somewhat stout. On location the director wears pearl-drop earrings and coral lip­stick, jeans, a fisherman’s cap decorated by a Palestinian Film Institute pin, and a Venezia sweatshirt. The island’s kamika­ze gnats and mosquitoes dive over her Reebok hightops, leaving her legs and ankles a spotted red.

The production’s budget crunch will have Dash pull triple-duty as wardrobe mistress, makeup artist, and director. In this she’s not alone: Her coproducer Ber­nard Nicolas functions as troubleshooter, fogmachine operator, and soundman. Art director Kerry Marshall will take time away from building a graveyard, Eli’s blacksmith shop, and an indigo process­ing plant to play a bit part as a Muslim bowing toward Mecca from the beach. First assistant cameraman Will Hudson will step from behind the camera to por­tray a slave in a flashback scene.

Set in 1902, Daughters focuses on a Gullah family whose young adults are preparing for a mass exodus north and a junking of their Gullah heritage in their diaspora to industrialized America. An acknowledged point of departure for Dash’s script is the work of Toni Morri­son, particularly evident in Dash’s han­dling of Gullah women’s communal infrastructure. The leading characters are, with one exception, female. There is the wizened, snuff-chomping matriarch Great Mother Palmer, an African born in captivity who fears the young people’s connection to the ancestors will be severed by urbanization and Christian con­version. Opposing her is Hagar — an edu­cated convert, brashly sarcastic toward Great Mother Palmer’s “hoodoo” reli­gion. Yella Mary has recently returned from a life of surrogate mothering and prostitution in Cuba. Eula is young, preg­nant, and victim of a rape by a white man. Her husband Eli, the community blacksmith, suspects the baby ain’t his. Dash’s personal favorite among her dra­matis personae is The Unborn Child, a spritely five-year-old vision of Eula and Eli’s progeny who romps unseen on the margins of key scenes.

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There are several dream sequences in the scenario. Ancestral spirits visit the living to chase away their inner de­mons — an Africanist switch on conven­tional film use of both phantasms and psychoanalysis. While the offscreen rape would play as melodramatic fodder in a David Wolper postbellum potboiler, Dash uses it symbolically to probe black wom­en’s wombs — investigating their powers of regeneration and the psychic scars left by forced miscegenation. Like Morrison’s novels, the script for Daughters is a testi­mony to the secret celebrations and packed-away sorrows of African-Ameri­can women.

Dash was raised in the Queensridge projects but her daddy was a Gee­chee. Dash’s mother used to tell her, if you think your father talks funny you should hear some of his backwoods cousins. Dash remembers her daddy as a fancy dan who loved ballroom dancing. One day he brought a bucket of crabs home and set them loose on the living room floor (the Gullah being re­nowned for their shrimp and crab fish­ing). Dash smiles at the memory of climbing over the furniture, screaming with delight.

Dash’s uncle Julien was a jazz saxo­phonist who wrote the swing hit “Tuxedo Junction” for Erskine Hawkins’s band and made Super-8 and 16mm films of his life on the road. Her uncle Roger, who resides in Los Angeles, has been an in­dustrial film producer for 15 years. Nei­ther of these relations, Dash says, played any role in her decision to become a film­maker 17 years ago. That she attributes to the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Dash went to meet a girlfriend and found herself seduced by the 16mm hardware floating around a cinematography class her homegirl was taking. The equipment had been donated after the riots, part of the era’s gliberal program to quell the rage of Harlem youth. A few years later the gear would be reclaimed by its do­-good donors. Dash recalls the teaching method as hands-on and the esthetic as verité.

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Dash remembers her childhood as one spent reading and daydreaming. Day­dreaming has always gotten her into trouble. In third grade she wrote a story about the sun and the moon which her teacher brandished before the class as an example of something called plagiarism. Dash’s mother straightened that teacher out, like she straightened out a meddle­some churchgoer who complained during a Bear Mountain voyage about Dash staring into the water on a cruise. Dash was daydreaming, a frequent pastime to spare herself from condescending adult conversation. The busybody advised psychiatric help for Dash. Dash’s mother told the woman who really needed help.

Mom could relate: she was a daydream­er too. She often told her daughters how as a child she believed she was a princess who’d been shanghaied to North Caroli­na. Dash recently had her astrologer do a reading for Mom. He divined she’d been a princess in a past life. Dash’s mother also used to drape shower curtains depicting a beach or Parisian cafe scene over a door and photograph herself and her daugh­ters playacting in bathing suits. Record­ing this material I glimmer the pleasures it might bring — for some Lacanian film theorist. Dash says she continues to day­dream and often returns to several that play in her mind like ongoing miniseries, some of which she hopes will one day become films.

The movies Dash remembers best from her youth are West Side Story and Gold­finger, but less as theatrical events than Hollywood product appropriated for neighborhood recreation. There were days when the basketball court would fill up with kids reenacting the Jets-Sharks opera. Dialogue from the Bond film became stock for oblique retorts to teachers and school administrators. “I want scenes like those in my films — the kind you never see in Hollywood movies about black urban youth.”

California dreaming brought Dash to Los Angeles upon her graduation from CCNY’s film program in 1974. One rea­son Dash headed West was to escape the tyranny of political documentary film­making then favored on the East Coast. The concept for her first film, Four Women, was rejected by the brothers at the Studio Museum for being irrelevant to the struggle. The project undertaken in its place would show righteous bloods providing victuals to the starving masses.

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In L.A., Dash became one of the youn­gest fellows in American Film Insti­tute history, a fact that provoked more trepidation than pride. “I was surrounded by all of these people who’d done features, had worked in the industry. I felt out of my depth.” In this period she was also introduced to black independents Larry Clarke and Charles Burnett, who’d been classmates at UCLA with Haile Gerima of Bush Mama fame. Clarke was working on his visionary jazz drama Passing Through; Dash helped with the sound. Burnett had by that time produced his short The Horse and the epochal Killer of Sheep — first-prize win­ner at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival­ — which filmmaker Reggie Hudlin rightly appraises as “black independent cinema’s Invisible Man.”

Dash’s first major project at UCLA was an adaptation of Alice Walker’s story “Diary of an African Nun,” a Bressonian exercise in angst and austerity with spooky black-and-white visuals. The au­thor’s response to the film still smarts for Dash. “I struck a print for her out of courtesy and she sent me a 10-page cri­tique. I wanted to tell her, lady don’t you know I’m only a student?”

Dash wound up making her AFI gradu­ate project, Illusions, at UCLA because the powers that be at Greystoke Mansion disapproved of a scene depicting film-recording technology not possible in the ’40s, when the film takes place. Once again Dash was daydreaming up against a brick wall. “They tell you film is a “fanta­sy medium where you can do anything you want and then say you can’t make a film because some technology wasn’t in­vented yet. They make films about black people that have nothing to do with reali­ty all the time.”

Illusions stirs up a racial identity quag­mire by way of Lanette Mckee’s wanna­bee character, Mignon. The film also frames interlocking takes on racism, sex­ism, patriarchal warmongering, and the exploitation of black musical artists by the white entertainment industry. Illu­sions is unique in black independent cine­ma for its period setting, specially con­structed sets, film-within-film action, white chorus line and mostly white cast. First reactions to the film were disheartening for Dash. At a black film festival in London the pan-ethnic screening board thought it had been sent to them by mis­take. Until she met the festival’s director a year later, Dash couldn’t figure why the film was the only one in the festival not reviewed.

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The scenes shot for this round of pro­duction involve four of the principal characters in Daughters of the Dust­ — Eula, Yella Mary, Eli, and The Unborn Child. Alva Rogers, who has the Eula role, is a friend of mine from New York. She’s got a supporting role in Spike Lee’s School Daze and works with the black women’s performance cartel, Rodeo Cal­donia. Rogers is also a “new music” vo­calist who’s done work with Butch Morris and Elliot Sharp. She performs her own music at downtown spaces — sung incantations on race and gender derived from texts by black women writers. Alva is black like Miles Davis, as beautiful and photogenic as the maestro was at 26. Her skin is black in the way that made Bud Powell say to Miles, I wish I was as black as you.

Barbara-O was the lead in black director Haile Gerima’s gritty, epochal Bush Mama, but has also done episodic television — Lou Grant, Laverne and Shirley, and even Wonder Woman, where she played “high-queen of the interplanetary council.” She left acting in 1980 to study filmmaking; Daughters is one of only two roles she’s taken in seven years. Though her fallen-woman character is called Yella Mary, she’s more orange than ochre, with Cherokee high cheekbones, deep-set suc­cubus eyes, and a posture more erect than a Trump tower. She gets into character by leaving her door open at night draped with yellow mosquito netting, awaiting, says she, her lovers.

For this round of shooting Alva and Barbara-O will play their dialogue scenes at a location called Ibo Landing in the script. Slaveships anchored there, and legend has it that a chained group of Ibos once walked down the planks, surveyed the situation, and turned around to walk across the water. There are many St. Helena sites that will serve as “Ibo Landings” during the filming. This scene will take place on the Black People’s Beach, passed which common can property never be of sold St. but Helena’s only blacks, down generation to generation.

This Ibo Landing is a meadow whose centerpiece is a monstrous tree that looks like a thrashing giant buried upside down to the chest. Behind it is a sunken bayou with junked kitchen appliances the crew will have to move — stove, sink, and cabi­nets — followed by yellow marshes and then the shell-strewn beach. As water­front properties go, the Black People’s Beach isn’t much to look at, more Tarzanland than sunbather’s paradise for lack of landclearing funds.

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In character, Barbara-O mounts the tree to lay back on a sturdy limb in full lady-of-leisure regalia: a white waist­length coat, white high-heeled boots with hooksnaps, a gold nose-ring, green con­tacts, and a floor-length lace-shouldered number dripping with petticoats. Her shoulder bag is big and embroidered, her hat is a bonnet on its way to becoming a fedora with veil. For hours on end Barba­ra-O manages to maintain a stallion’s carriage in a chaise-longue recline. I surmise yoga has given this bush mama a truss-rod spine. At one point she leans forward from the waist like a lever topped by a wig and jaw definition Iman would die for. The surprise of the shoot is the debut of Alva’s and Barbara-O’s vari­ations on Gullah dialect. Alva’s is mutant mimicry: a soft singsong, via the moun­tains of Norway and the hills of Jamaica. Imagine Liv Ullman coming out of the mouth like a Rasta jah-jah girl. There’s a mocking stridency to Barbara-O’s accent that makes it less about music than a bitchin’ screen femme fatale attitude. The haughty lilt of the Caribbean is there, sure, but hers is really more like some Lauren Bacall-goes-to-the-Low­-Country stuff. Fierce. At this point I real­ize Daughters of the Dust has the poten­tial to be something we’ve never really seen on the screen before: a black “wom­en’s picture” — not quite in the grand George Cukor tradition, but close enough to be kin. There’s certainly enough atti­tude on the prowl up in here to give the comparison anchorage.

True to the pattern of Dash’s other projects, Daughters has already gone up against two funding agen­cies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National En­dowment for the Humanities. At CPB the project ran afoul of a black woman exec who told Dash her script was too mystical and suggested she write some­thing geared toward white midwestern­ers. At NEH the project was rejected, says a letter from the powers that be, for not being written in the Gullah brogue on the one hand, and for being “an intellec­tual exercise” beyond primetime compre­hension on the other. Dash believes what’s really operating here is a fear of black people making political statements grounded in an autochthonous reading of black culture. “The image of the black revolutionary was neutralized through caricature during the blaxploitation era. He was made to seem weak and a phony. Now there exists a fear of black people using our culture to make statements in code. It’s the modern variation on the fear that led slaveholders to take our drums away.” Though the NEH letter applauds Dash’s research and the en­dorsements of her script by respected Gullah scholars, it tries to claim that the film’s symbolic elements are purely flights of her fancy. What Dash has come up against here is the arrogance of someone else’s ignorance — an arrogance forti­fied by what appears to be the common belief that blacks’ self-knowledge is like no knowledge at all.

Knowing that racism is behind the in­stitutions’ failure to support her does nothing to insure that Dash will have dollar one to complete Daughters this spring. But Dash, a veteran of black inde­pendent film’s long march, doesn’t know how to be despondent. “I just read Spike’s book on the making of She’s Gotta Have It, and after all he went through to finish his film, I know we’re going to finish this one.” ❖

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Black Independents’ Coming Attractions 

Yes, Virginia, there is a black in­dependent cinema beyond the genius of Spike Lee and the pound-wise, penny-ante-foolishness and ingenuity of Robert Townsend. You want more dap on it, you are required to read Thomas Cripps’s informative if problematic Slow Fade to Black, wait for Clyde Taylor’s poststructuralist tome on the subject, and by all means to join the Black Filmmaker Foundation. The BFF — 80 Eighth Avenue, suite 1704, NYC, 10011, 924-1198 — has a rental archive of work by nearly 100 black independents, and screens films every month by up-and-coming directors. Had you, for example, been a member two years ago you could have seen She’s Gotta Have It damn near right out the lab.

Five black independent filmmakers were working on Daughters of the Dust. A. J. Fielder has produced a short experimental work, Super 8 transferred to video, and has plans to begin shooting this summer a feature of Joycean intertextuality about his Howard years called Jahamas on Su­per 8, to be transferred to video. First assistant Will Hudson has completed two short video features, Rootman and Winter, that have a gutbucket phan­tasmagoric look. Drama adviser Leroy McDonald, a colleague of Dash’s at AFI, has done a short feature based on the infamous Tuskegee experiments and has another in the works about Olympic gold medalist Tommy Smith, who, with John Carlos, gave the black power salute at the ’68 games and wrecked his sports career as a result. Barbara-O is editing a documentary about black homeless men, and pro­ducer Bernard Nicolas has completed a documentary on his Haitian emigré family. Other names to watch out for are Reggie Hudlin, whose The Kold Waves is on the boards for production by New World this summer; Ellen Sumter, another Howard grad, with two 16mm short features to her credit; Brooklyn’s own Ayoka Chenzira; and Neema Barnette, whose work you may have peeped on two early Frank’s Place episodes. All coming to a theater near you in your lifetime we desper­ately hope. ■

From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Chuck D: All Over the Map

THE DAY BEFORE PUBLIC ENEMY’S monthlong tour with Anthrax began, we drove out to the nondescript Hempstead office building that Chuck D, Hank Shocklee, and their crew have occupied since they were running Long Island’s first hiphop sound system back in 1982. S1W’s PE merchandisers, Media Assassin Harry Allen, and other employees contributed to the general hubbub. On the walls of the front office were samples of PE fashion: Spike Lee-style baseball shirts and hats, tour jackets, T-shirts, the whole nine. Chuck corralled us into a cramped conference room whose dominant feature was a map of the United States complete with zip codes. As he lectured us on the vagaries of hiphop as a national phenomenon, Chuck often rose from his chair and pointed to regions on the map to make himself clearer. The conversation began with Chuck in­terrogating Christgau about how he became a writer and ended with him apologizing to Tate for once branding him a Village Voice porch nigger. It lasted close to three hours, and for the most part Chuck didn’t duck our questions, although he did forestall them with his ver­bosity — as John Leland has said, Chuck may be louder than a bomb, but he’s a lot less succinct. Needless to say, what follows is an edited version


CHRISTGAU: How much input did the old crew have into Apoca­lypse 91? Hank, Keith, Eric­—

CHUCK D: Hank is the master­mind of all.

CHRISTGAU: Was he on this re­cord now?

CHUCK D: Yeah, that was Hank.

TATE: Y’all work like Miles now, it’s just like, you come to the stu­dio, you do your part, and it’s al­ready there?

CHUCK D: No, it’s not like that. The Bomb Squad is still the Bomb Squad.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think here’s any musical evolution on the new record? Do you see it as being different musically as op­posed to lyrically?

CHUCK D: The difference lyrical­ly and difference musically is it’s more focused — it’s more hard. It’s sort of like Bum Rush the Show. Each album we do differently. I think I got real creative on the last one. Less creative on this one. You know, you venture off into different sounds and techniques and —

CHRISTGAU: The mix isn’t as dense, would you say?

CHUCK D: Of course. That was intentional. We hope to be trendsettters and not followers. The main difference on this is just tempo. We like to think of things as tempo first and not sound. Other people would probably say sonics before tempo. No. We’re in tune to tem­po — we was the first rap group to really tempo it up, on “Bring the Noise.” That was 109 beats per minute. These tempos basically give you a Midwest, middle-of-the-country feel, with a little bit of east-west hard edge.

CHRISTGAU: How do the BPMs range?

CHUCK D: A lot of them are in the 96 to 102 range, which people will say is slow for PE, but then again, these are people that — what’s danceable here [points at East Coast on map] don’t mean shit. I just come from Kansas City.

CHRISTGAU: So, the music is getting hard.

CHUCK D: On this album. I might just bug out on the next one. But when I bug out, it’s going to hit 85 to 90 per cent of the places. It might not hit here [points to New York] at all. But give me the rest, I’ll take it. Fear of a Black Planet was the most successful album we had — not because of all of the hype and hysteria. It was a world record. Because of the different feels and the different textures and the flow it had, I can do it — get the same feeling [more pointing] here, here, here, here, you know what I’m saying? Just in L.A., a kid is breaking down the rappers from different areas and he says, Public Enemy, man, ain’t even like y’all from New York, it’s like y’all from somefuckingwhere, like, you’re fucking everywhere. I say, well, we are from everywhere, and it reflects in our music, and it reflects in our lyrics, you know. I’m a person — I ride on Grey­hound through the middle. I ride Greyhound through Arkansas and Arizona. I’ll sit on Greyhound for hours just listening to my music, look out the window and write, you know. Yo, I just drove — went down to Disneyworld. I could drive like — see, there’s always a job in the business. Let’s say they say, Chuck, you out of the busi­ness, man, I’ll be a bus driver. I know the fucking roads, man.

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CHRISTGAU: What do you do with your spare time?

CHUCK D: Who has spare time?

CHRISTGAU: Everybody has some spare time, man.

CHUCK D: Well, my business and my thing I like to do is more fun than anybody else’s —

CHRISTGAU: I live the same way, but nevertheless, I got leisure, you’ve got —

CHUCK D: Well, sometimes I just like to go in my fucking basement and just fucking watch fucking TV or videotapes. I can’t really watch too many movies. I usually like watching sports. I watch sports, you know —

CHRISTGAU: Do you listen to music much?

CHUCK D: I listen to Motown, I listen to a lot of tapes — usually when I’m on the road, when I’m on the airplane. When I’m home, I don’t really listen to music as much as I like to watch videos.

TATE: Music videos, or just —

CHUCK D: Music videos and sports. Music and sports. I can’t watch movies, really, except for black movies. I just seen Livin’ Large yesterday and you know, to the average person it might be like a three­-cent movie, but I had a good time watching it. You know, me and a couple of the brothers’ families went out. I said, yeah, that’s some kind of dope.

CHRISTGAU: You listen to any jazz or blues?

CHUCK D: I wasn’t a jazz fanatic. My pops, like, was a jazz person — all that abstract shit. I was like, nah.

CHRISTGAU: Not for you?

CHUCK D: Not for me at all. I like blues more than jazz. ‘Cause blues deals with lyrics — more feeling, you know what I’m saying? And it has so much ironic twist in it — it’s usually about the slightest shit that black people talk about, you know, day by day. And I do a lot of hanging in places like down South, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Atlanta.

CHRISTGAU: Do you listen to any metal or white rock?

CHUCK D: Yeah, once in a while. I like watching the videos more than I like lis­tening to it.

TATE: When you hang out down South, do you hang out in music clubs, or do you just hang?

CHUCK D: Music clubs, Beale Street, the whole nine. I always liked the blues. But I’ve liked it more since I’ve been able to go to these places.

CHRISTGAU: It would be great to sample some of that shit. You hear very little in the way of blues samples.

CHUCK D: Well, you know, musically it moves me, but lyrically, man, I’ll be like saying, Goddamn. And that’s why I try to move a lot of rapping and rap music the same. At the end of the day, I don’t know what the fuck you write about, just make somebody just say, Damn, you know. That is a good point of view, you know what I’m saying? I mean, look at N.W.A — you might not agree with what the fuck they’re saying, but you at least know at the end of the song, like, yo, these motherfuckers meant this, that’s what they’re saying, you know?

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TATE: People talk about positive and neg­ative images of rap, and then there’s a whole other line of thought that says the music is important no matter what it’s talking about ’cause it’s creating a forum for discussion.

CHUCK D: It’s important to be positive because you got to understand, the only time that the structure wants to put any­body black up there in the spotlight is if we are athletes or entertainers. If all the athletes and the musicians are going to get projected like that, we’ve got to say, damn, we’ve got a little bit more responsi­bility than the average white musician that comes along and just wants to talk about his dick. ‘Cause we’ve got to say, all right, yeah, this is a story to tell, but at the same time, this is probably going to be the result of it. I mean, I talk about a drive­-by, I might start drive-bys in St. Louis. That’s a tight line, and we’ve got to deal with it, ’cause we’re going to be listened, watched, and followed a lot closer than a lot of white kids.

CHRISTGAU: But you just said N.W.A at least had their own point of view­ —

CHUCK D: They’ve got their own point of view, that’s coming from an artistic point of view, but socially —

CHRISTGAU: You’ve got your doubts about that sort of representation?

CHUCK D: ‘Cause I see the fucking re­sults of it. And you got to have a structure in the society, in the school system, that’s able to say well, this is the right, and this is the wrong. We could say that families are supposed to do it, but we ain’t got family the way it’s supposed to be. So I mean, we’ve got to go to a school or structure that can teach us family.

CHRISTGAU: You got kids yourself?

CHUCK D: I got a daughter.

CHRISTGAU: How old is she?

CHUCK D: She’s going to be three next week. And you know, that shit is a moth­erfucking task. [Laughter.]

CHRISTGAU: I know. I got a daughter, Greg’s got a daughter.

CHUCK D: I’m saying, you know, people have to be taught how to do certain things. And then, let’s go back to the music, the positive and the negative. A guy’s going to talk negative shit because that’s what he sees. Rappers only talk what they know. I mean, sometimes you’ve got people going off into the fantasy world, like the Geto Boys when they talk about mind playing tricks on me, Chuckie and stuff like that, and make analogies saying, well, you can’t talk about me because, hey, all these fucking crazy movies coming out and nobody’s getting any heat for that. But we have a double-edged sword hang­ing over our head, a guillotine, that’s say­ing, well, we do this, we’re going to be followed — you know, people going to do this shit in reality. And I believe that.

‘Cause I mean, everywhere I go, I mean, I go to prisons and, you know, brothers — if they get no guidance from zero to 16, they’re going to follow something that can relate to them best. And if something can relate to them best that they really, really like, they’re going to follow it. They’re going to say, I got to kick this mother­fucker tonight. Boom, boom, boom. And later on, they’ll be like, damn, damn. Like that brother that got to go to the fucking joint now for killing that Jewish guy. And ain’t nobody fucking behind him now. He gotta go to the fucking joint. He gonna get fried. Somebody didn’t tell him to put his brain in gear. Now he’s gotta suffer the consequences. I feel sorry for him. Be­cause I’ve talked to a lot of brothers in jail, and usually brothers in jail are in for impulse. Boom!

That’s why I start talking about the 1 million bottle bags. Because I tell you a lot of shit be starting off because of distorted thinking like, damn, usually broth­ers that know each other, be like drinking. They be like, “What you say?” “I ain’t say shit, man.” “Your fucking mother.” And then somebody got a fucking nine or Uzi in the territory, and the shit escalate to even a higher pitch, couple of people in there going, “Yo, just, chill, chill, chill.” And sometimes you get, you know, “Fuck that, motherfucker.” And it all be starting because motherfuckers is fucked up.

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CHRISTGAU: Do you drink at all?

CHUCK D: I don’t drink. My crew don’t even touch meat. Me, I eat it, if my wife cooks it at the crib.

TATE: Did you talk with Ice Cube about the St. Ides thing?

CHUCK D: Yeah, I mean I briefed it on him. You know, he said, “Yo, man, just trying to get out of it.” Trying to stop it, but he’s contracted. I said, “Yo, Cube, hey, there ain’t nothing against you, I mean, it’s your thing, your guilt thing, but you should have had quality control.” The people at St. Ides said, “Well, we really respect you Chuck D, you know.” I told ’em I don’t respect y’all, fuck y’all. I see the results. I’m not just fucking read­ing stats. You’re in the black community, you can run, you can’t hide. There ain’t nowhere you can go and live and say, well, I’m going to be far away from it. Nowhere.

I’m seeing results whether it be Mem­phis, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, De­troit — it could be the smaller fucking cit­ies. I’ll take you right in the ‘Velt, Roosevelt — one square mile. Got 14 delis in there, and every single deli got Ice Cube’s poster. The people say, well, why do you give so much of a damn? Well, because I’ve got to live in this mother­fucker. And I’m grown. Once you’re over 18, fun and games got to be put to num­ber three. Responsibility and business got to be one and two and you can have fun and games and shit, but once you under­stand those number one and two things, you understand that fun and games are being played on your ass. I tell mother­fuckers in a minute, you can be hardcore and be positive. Thieves and pimps and murderers, man, motherfuckers got to pay a penalty. The problem is that some white boy coming in and trying to remedy the situation and we need to start doing it ourselves. The more grown people you have that understand they’re adults and take control of their community, the less bullshit you have coming in. And you used to have something like that until quote unquote so-called integration.

TATE: Desegregation.

CHUCK D: Yeah, right.

TATE: That’s what all the older folks used to talk about. If you were doing any kind of crime, you just knew not to do it in nobody’s face. If you were drinking, you didn’t drink in public, you didn’t fall down in the street.

CHUCK D: It was a time, right. It was hardcore. Hardcore will never die and need to come back. You can be positive in the hardcore. Hardcore got this connota­tion that other people put on it of saying that it’s negative and no, no — hardcore, it’s like you taking control. I tell brothers, you say you hard, but your life harder than you. How hard can you be? Your life kicking you in the ass. Fucking world is harder than any motherfucker.

This stuff should be coming to people when they’re three, four. Especially young black males, three, four, seven, eight. And it gotta come every day. That’s what the father does, is supposed to do. I mean, my pops had to work, but my pops was able to give it to me at the right time. And I think the key is in the black structure in society. We have to rebuild the black man, young black males got to be built to be men. And I think with that, then you will start seeing a clearer picture, you know. It’s — a lot more simple than it is complex.

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And I think that’s something that’s defi­nitely got to be taught through the school systems. I mean a lot of things have to be taught to us. Once again, I go back to slavery. Slavery has done a lot of fucking detriment, where it’s almost irreparable unless we’re going to fucking eight-hour-a­ day training sessions that satisfy our intel­lect but also satisfy our wants and needs, you know. I mean, mentally and physical­ly. School’s got to be school. And a school for black people, black kids, definitely it got to be different from white kids.

The remedies and how it can get done is all in the government’s hands. We talk about reparations, I’m not talking about, sending everybody a fucking $10,000 check. If you went outside and gave moth­erfuckers $10,000 each, those mother­fuckers wouldn’t know what the fuck to do with it. I’m saying, you got to have a fucking training programming medium so people will be able to say, well, damn, now I’m being taught how to think.

TATE: That kind of begs the question of whether the government wouldn’t just as soon black people stay where they are.

CHUCK D: I don’t think the government wants to see that happen. First of all, they’re saying we’re only 10 per cent, so we have to submit to whatever goes down. But we’re a growing quote unquote 10 per cent. And in order for them to satisfy black people in the year 2000 they better come up with some shit. They already came up with a result of genocide that got us fucking each other up. I’m saying, we need to come out of that dead zone. We come out of that dead zone then we can talk about plan two, three, or four. It’s either got to be this way or it’s going to be fucked up, it’s going to be crazy. That’s why I said, “Welcome to the Terror­dome.” I wrote that record at the end of ’89, to signify the Terrordome is the 1990s. It’s a make-it-or-break-it period for us. We do the right thing, we’ll be able to pull into the 21st century with some kind of program. We do the wrong thing, the 21st century is going to be gone, there’ll be no coming back.

CHRISTGAU: I buy that.

CHUCK D: Outta here. Over with.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that PE or rap in general is doing anything to stop this from happening from a practical point of view?

CHUCK D: I don’t know how much effect it has — I’m not here to judge effect or results. A lot of times, the weight that a lot of people put on Public Enemy is because they don’t see these other things. When I first did Public Enemy my role was bringing information, saying, well, bro, there’s a Karenga, there’s a Farrak­han, there’s people out there that have been studying in whatever field. There’s a Dr. Welsing. Check these people out. We need to get into it, ’cause these people have put in 40 or 50 years of unacknowl­edged time, for the benefit of where we should go.

But Public Enemy’s just one fucking thing. I’m only one motherfucking person. And I’m saying to each and every black person, you look in your family—it might not be your immediate family — you’re gonna find either murder, drugs, alcohol abuse, and disease, or jail, somebody get­ting jailed. I’m saying you can run but you can’t hide. Which means that everybody gotta be able to at least work forward or try to remedy the situation.

TATE: You’re really talking about person­al accountability. You’re not in this neces­sarily believing you’re going to change the world.

CHUCK D: No, no, of course not. There’s no one motherfucker that can change the world. I’m saying that my fucking job as an adult is just to make sure that my community is all right for me — or whoev­er, a child or adult— to live in.

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3. TCB

TATE: When I saw you down at the con­ference in D.C., on one of the panels you said, Yeah, a lot of people think I spend a lot of time reading this, that, and the other thing. The one thing that I really study is the music business. How did you become so fanatical about the business?

CHUCK D: I approached Hank back when he was a monster DJ out here — I used to be a fan of theirs [Spectrum City, Hank’s sound system]. I just saw that one of the gigs I went to there wasn’t enough people there, and I came up to Hank out of nowhere and tried to explain that it was presented wrong. I thought, you know, in order to catch people’s attention, you know, fliers should be done in the same way most black people buy things. And later on, I was just toying around on the mike at Adelphi. They had never really allowed MCs, and I guess I was the one. Hank liked me because of the way I sound. So we became partners in ’79, and we would wait for people to hire us. But that begun to be a dead end road because you always dealt with somebody that wanted to just rip you off. So that’s when you say, Yo, man, we rocking the house, but somebody’s always leaving out the back door with the money. So I say, Yo, man, look, we going to do this. I keep the people busy and you keep that person at that door.

TATE: The both of your families are businesspeople?

CHUCK D: My father had his own busi­ness at 40 after he went through the same bullshit in the white corporation, and he was working in the corporation for 20-some-odd years and all of a sudden they had a fucking attitude of, you know, well, maybe he could go somewhere else.

TATE: What kind of a corporation was it?

CHUCK D: The fabric business — 979 Third Avenue, the D&D building. He worked in a couple of companies in the fabric business. Jack-of-all-trades. But his official title was really shipping and receiving manager, you know, warehouse manager. He knew all about the business.

CHRISTGAU: And then what’d he start to do at 40?

CHUCK D: He just dropped it and what he did, all his contacts and all his friends, he started a trucking company that dealt with undercutting the other trucking com­panies. It was rocky for about two years and then it coasted. Still was a battle, because it was a lone one-man thing, bat­tling the structure. But I learned a lot from my father. He just said, you know, if I’m making less, fuck it. Eventually, you know, what it gives you in peace of mind is more important. My moms couldn’t understand it, you know, but then later on she did. But that move taught me a lot. It just showed me that business is the only way to go. I don’t care if I’m making $10 on my own, it’s better than getting $100 from somewhere and you don’t know when, it’s coming from.

CHRISTGAU: What were you doing be­tween ’79 and ’84?

CHUCK D: ’79 and ’84 we was what you’d call the hiphop movement in Long Island, Queens.

CHRISTGAU: And you were making money off of hiphop?

CHUCK D: Yeah, we was making money. Paying bills. Wasn’t making profit, but we was paying bills. And what drove us is, like, yo, you’ve got to pay these bills. Lighting and rent and shit like that.

CHRISTGAU: So you weren’t making a profit. How were you eating?

CHUCK D: I was in college just like you.

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TATE: One of the things that you read all the time about all the rappers that come from the suburbs — there’s this idea ’cause you’re in the suburbs, you don’t know any­thing about racism, discrimination.

CHUCK D: That’s bullshit. There’s apar­theid out here like a motherfucker. There’s a lot of black people out here but it’s in pockets. Roosevelt is one square mile but in Merrick it’s like no blacks there. You know, they ask for ID — how is that different from a pass?

TATE: I have a friend that grew up in Elmont. Right next to her neighborhood is this huge high school. And they rezoned her neighborhood out of that, so it’s still like a predominantly white high school.

CHUCK D: If you look into cities, cities are just places that say, come on up from down there so we can put y’all in one area, stack y’all on top of each other, we’ll make it easy for you to get you a job. And that’s why we’re catching so much hell in cities today. People are saying, what about the Crown Heights thing, the Brooklyn situation? I say, Brooklyn’s a fucked up place to be. The shit ain’t right for you. The place is getting packed and packed, more and more, they stacking people on top, and there’s no way to fuck­ing have a clear fucking type of thinking there, you know, when you’re all tight with everybody. And then when you’ve got two fucking communities just getting bigger and bigger, forcing into each other, shit’s going to break wild if everybody don’t get no explanations on how to take care of themselves. The city ain’t never been right for us, you know what I’m saying? I always look back, like in Africa, we were always nomadic people. You know, shit get crazy — go, move, you know what I’m saying? Get the fuck on out of town.

TATE: You were in a program that was run by the Panthers, right?

CHUCK D: It was two years, summer school. At their house. Panthers, Islamic brothers, just brothers in the neighborhood, students, you know. And it was the thing that turned me around, turned a lot of us around. It wasn’t like what it gave us then — we noticed it years later. You know, “Hey, remember African American Experience?” At this time in America around ’77 and ’78, motherfuckers was like laughing at dashikis, and we said, Damn, that shit was sort of fly back then. We’re not saying that we would wear them, but, you know, we had a respect for that, whereas a lot of kids in other areas was like, what? And it came up the roots that that supplementary education gave us. These guys and these sisters weren’t saying don’t go to school, which a lot of people were using as an excuse: Oh, man, school ain’t teaching me what I need to know. Yeah, but you got to know that because right now we have a lot of people in America, we have potential and talent for a lot of different things but we’re unskilled.

CHRISTGAU: So you’re in favor of an Afrocentric curriculum, obviously.

CHUCK D: It’s the only key to our surviv­al —

CHRISTGAU: Can you tell me what Afro­centric thinkers you especially relate to? Do you read a lot of this stuff?

CHUCK D: I read a lot of it. But you know, basically, it’s the same story interrelated.

CHRISTGAU: Wait — give me a couple of names. Asante, Williams.

CHUCK D: Ah, man, come on. Asante’s cool, you know, Karenga. I mean, every­body — I think a lot of brothers, I mean, going back to Marcus, got concrete plans. A lot of brothers had concrete plans for the time, but then again, we have to real­ize, times, they’ve really changed.

I think all the black philosophers have something in line. Like people talk about Stanley Crouch, how much of an asshole he is. I think, deep down, he wants to see something better for black people even though he might sound like an asshole. It’s just that a lot of brothers that fight for the struggle, they fight for the struggle so long that they get beat down by white supremacy and don’t realize it. So their views become so radical that every time you hear their mouth they sound like, “This nigger antiblack or what?”

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CHRISTGAU: Do you think the aspect of Afrocentric theory that’s about the great­ness of ancient black civilizations is as important as it’s made out to be? Or are you more interested in contemporary his­tory, all the aftereffects of the slave trade?

CHUCK D: Contemporary stuff. I think that’s important. But I’m really dealing with, you know, everything. And history is everything. White capitalism, white su­premacy, slave trade, movement of blacks, and black people catching hell all over. That takes studying. And a mother­fucker in the eighth grade should have that down. Those are the basics. You don’t understand that shit from fourth to eighth grade and it doesn’t get drilled into you and it doesn’t make you feel good. Learning should be feeling good like a motherfucker. Learning should be some­thing like, Damn, man, I’m learning a lot today.

You know, you walk into a fourth and fifth grade, in a black school — quote un­quote black school — today, I’m telling you, you’re finding chaos right now, ’cause rappers came in the game and threw that confusing element in it, and now kids is like, Yo, fuck this motherfuck, you know what I’m saying? School, I’m telling you, the educational system from here to here is at war, I’m telling you. In the ’90s, by 1995, it’s gone. I’ll tell you, I do speaking engagements, I went to fuck­ing Evansville. White high school. Eighty per cent white. And every one of the white kids is number one like this, What’s up man, uh, yo. [Laughs.] Yo, thanks a lot man, y’all teaching us a different perspec­tive, because I only can take so much of this Patrick Henry bullshit.

CHRISTGAU: Well, now that you’ve set up this expectation, and you’ve got this fucked up school system, do you think this school system is so fucked up that it’s just as well that they ain’t listening? Or don’t you think it might be a good idea for them to learn how to do their addition and read and write?

CHUCK D: It don’t take mothers long to take skills down. They spread it, they try to make it interesting, you know what I’m saying? Skills is skills. To get those basic skills down — they spread it so fucking far apart, 12 years, and you’re taking 12 years of skills. There’s some of them are unnec­essary skills, know what I’m saying? If you had kids saying, well, damn, I want to, like, put Nintendo computers together, it might be advantageous for you to — well, you better do good in calculus or trig or some shit like that.

So I don’t make some statement like, yeah, I hope to make some money to send my daughter to college. I hope to make some businesses that she can run. And that’s the fucking thing about capital­ism — we as black people keep looking for fucking jobs, we ain’t getting no jobs ’cause there’s a tight rope on white busi­ness, and they definitely ain’t giving a black face a fucking job because business is family.

CHRISTGAU: It’s Farrakhan’s orienta­tion to that kind of thing that you like best about his program.

CHUCK D: A lot of things I like best, you know what I’m saying? You can’t say it’s just that one thing, it’s a lot of things. But, yes, self-sufficiency is the best program.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think he’s actually achieved that?

CHUCK D: Farrakhan’s one man.

CHRISTGAU: I know that. I’m talking about the NOI [Nation of Islam]. Do you think the NOI is actually —

CHUCK D: NOI is full of individuals that treat it like an organization and many brothers in the NOI have small businesses. It’s not just some big fucking corpora­tion juggernaut. It’s not that. Basically, it’s an organization of united brothers and sisters around the country that say, Yo, now, we’re going to do for ourselves.

CHRISTGAU: Do you buy the notion that some sort of an African-centered religion might be very useful in making this hap­pen, in giving this sense of community? Not necessarily the NOI, but say the kind of thing Asante talks about.

CHUCK D: No. I just think that we could still have the various different philoso­phies and different viewpoints of life. Everybody ain’t made out of a cookie cutter. Everybody got different opinions — every­body got different tastes and different feelings on how they want to look at life. It’s only, there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way, you know what I’m saying? The wrong way is getting in somebody’s path and disrespecting nature, which is God’s plan — we only got one place we know we and other human beings can live. And the white structure and the Eu­ropean structure has proven contrary to both. It’s fucked up other human beings, and it’s fucked up the planet.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724143″ /]


CHRISTGAU: Visually, how do you pro­ject your own persona? Do you think about how you look?

CHUCK D: Do I look in the mirror and bust pimples?

CHRISTGAU: No, I’m just talking about how you present yourself visually, how you think about that.

CHUCK D: Well, out of strength. Back in the day, I was like the first to put on a black Raiders hat, because it was a black hat. One of the few black hats you could find. The Raiders had kind of silver and black, and I said, Well why not, kind of dope. They didn’t make Raiders hats, I would have been in trouble.

CHRISTGAU: So you do think about this. Now broaden it out a little bit. How was Chuck D different from Carlton Ridenhour?

CHUCK D: Because he is on the wall. Ain’t no different. Maybe it’s a little dif­ferent five years later, because I know that I’m older and I got more responsibility, but shit, it’s not that much different.

CHRISTGAU: You set yourself up as a teacher, right?

CHUCK D: I set myself up as not only a teacher, but an older brother. ‘Cause when I was working the hiphop, you know, people was saying, Why y’all fuck­ing with them kids? When me and Hank first got involved, we said, Yo, man, we into the music, we’re going to give our communities something, some kind of outlet — 15-, 16-, 17-year-old brothers. ‘Cause older brothers was what? Either being locked up, going off into the work­ing world, and saying, well, fuck it, I got my thing. Or, they were going in the fuck­ing army, especially the army. But what they would leave is a whole bunch of brothers, 16, 15, 14, 13, with no direction. And they wasn’t really listening to their parents. Once again, there’s a lot of single parents and then the parents that was there — there’s such a gap, you know what I’m saying? Brother come home, bring home his Run-D.M.C., and the father, he only into his fucking Anita, you know what I’m saying? And never the two would communicate.

Other people came and said, Damn, saying you’re older in rap is like taboo. I started making records when I was 26, know what I’m saying? So I just threw all that shit out the window. ‘Cause when I was growing up, I liked the Tempts. You didn’t look at them as being old mother­fucking men. O’Jays — bad as a mother­fucker. So I said, well, basically your older brother can communicate to younger brothers ’cause younger brothers want to get to where their older brothers are. I got a car, I ain’t got to go to school no more, and I’m working, I got a little bit of mon­ey with me. Somebody 14 saying, Hey, it ain’t bad, I can relate to some of that.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that your fans think you’re wiser, more knowledge­able than you actually are?

CHUCK D: I’m using age as a weapon. Me and Ice-T probably talk to more brothers than anyone. And Ice-T got a couple of years on me. I say, look man, I been through what you did and some. And they’re, “Bro, fuck it, man, you got this and you got that.” I say, “How you know? Still black in America. I know exactly where you heading to.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]


TATE: There was an article, long time ago, where you were quoted as saying, there’s no way a homosexual could be a black leader. And there’s also that whole charge that you’re homophobic —

CHUCK D: I’m not afraid of them. I’m just not one. I’m not on that side. I’m just not on their side.

TATE: Yeah, but what does that mean about how you feel about people who are on that side?

CHUCK D: That’s their thing. Do what they want to do. I can’t tell them who to sock it to. I mean, that’s their thing. Would I let a homosexual in my kitchen to eat dinner? Yeah, why not? Would I let him into my room while I’m sleeping­ —

CHRISTGAU: Well, but I’m sure no ho­mosexual is interested.

CHUCK D: How could I be afraid of a homosexual? Can’t be afraid of them.

TATE: A lot of people are afraid of them. Afraid of what they represent.

CHRISTGAU: Or they’re afraid of what might be inside themselves, too.

CHUCK D: I think they’re a little con­fused. That’s my personal viewpoint. Love got a distorted fucking viewpoint on it. Who gives anybody a badge to say what love is? Love — homosexuals can come from lack of love as well. From somebody not really knowing what true love is. Heterosexuality — a lot of people think it’s love is not love either, you know what I’m saying? Love can be a concern, it can even not be sexual.

CHRISTGAU: You’re not saying that ho­mosexuals who love other men don’t really love them?

CHUCK D: No. I’m not saying that at all. They can love them all they want. I won’t love them. Not in that way.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think there could be a —

CHUCK D: A homosexual leader?

CHRISTGAU: Black leader? Bayard Rus­tin, for instance?

CHUCK D: Leader — why would sexuality have something to do with it?

CHRISTGAU: Don’t ask me.

CHUCK D: I don’t come out and say, Yo, man, I’m a heterosexual, so why does your sexuality have to do with anything? What business is it —

CHRISTGAU: I’m glad to hear you say that, Chuck. That’s the way I feel about it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”729080″ /]

CHUCK D: But no, this is what I’m say­ing. A lot of homosexuals, they call it out of the closet. They use it as a badge. That ain’t no badge, It’s like somebody going and saying, Yeah, well I fucked nine bitches three weeks ago.

CHRISTGAU: It’s a badge because it’s a source of oppression, that’s why.

CHUCK D: They use it as a badge, I’m telling you. What the fuck does your sexu­ality got to do with anything?

CHRISTGAU: It can have a lot to do with whether you’re free to live your life the way you want to live it.

TATE: It wouldn’t be an issue if people weren’t kicking people’s asses.

CHUCK D: No, no, no. Number one, I think — this is number one — it’s like this. If sexuality becomes an issue, then the fucking society, twisted as it is, it’s going to come out like it’s going to come out. I’m like saying, what’s the fucking whole point of pushing it — all right, yeah, I’m fucking these motherfuckers, but accept me anyway. I don’t give a fuck who you’re fucking.

CHRISTGAU: A lot of people do, Chuck.

CHUCK D: It’s a waste of time.

CHRISTGAU: I’m glad to hear you say that but it worries me when homosexuals or perceived homosexuals get beaten up by straights, for whatever reason.

CHUCK D: But why would anybody wear sexuality as a badge?

CHRISTGAU: Because they’re oppressed as a result of it.

CHUCK D: You think they’re oppressed ’cause of them wearing it as a badge.

CHRISTGAU: I think they’re oppressed ’cause they’re gay.  

TATE: It’s like, historically what happens is somebody says, That motherfucker’s a faggot, I’m going to kick his ass. It’s not like this person’s going around wearing a placard, but it’s because of the prejudice that exists towards this person’s sexuality. They get oppressed.

CHUCK D: My whole point is like no­body — you know, this is an average thing in the neighborhoods, like, homeboy was just with a girl, right? And usually in the neighborhoods, it’s like, motherfucker’s got to tell a story. Like, all right, that you getting that pussy. I don’t want to hear that. You know, I’m bored with you, let’s talk about something that’s constructive, but you getting that ass, you know what I’m saying? That’s the same thing, it’s like, that’s bullshit talk.

TATE: It’s like if you espouse black nationalist philosophy you’re going to get your ass kicked in this society. But nine times out of 10, if you believe in it, you’re going to put that shit out there, ’cause that’s what you believe.

CHUCK D: That ain’t got nothing to do with my sexuality. Somebody come over and say — suppose my point of view is like this — I’m Chuck D, I ain’t fucking no white bitches. What’s the point of that? I say, Yo, I don’t like white women, black women is what I like. You know what I’m saying? That’s not even a point. That’s not even the issue. A lot of things is be­hind the closet. A lot of things should remain behind the closet, you know what I’m saying? A lot of things should remain behind closed doors. True or false?

CHRISTGAU: Not necessarily, Chuck.

TATE: It’s like, your sex life is probably behind closed doors. But somebody sees you in the street and decides they’re going to kick your ass ’cause —

CHRISTGAU: Or if you’re told you can’t teach elementary school because you’re gay, which happens, that’s bullshit. And gay people have to protect themselves against that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”594245″ /]

CHUCK D: This is what I’m saying. A motherfucker goes out, and he’s effemi­nate or whatever, and the mother going to beat him up, that’s a stupid motherfucker. But if that causes people to come out and say, Yeah, fuck it, I’m gay: I’m like say­ing, All right, OK.

TATE: But that’s usually why people do become militant — because somebody’s try­ing to destroy them because of their identity.

CHUCK D: But there’s still some things that — I don’t know — that’s just a personal point of view. I think more gays, you know — their business is their business. That’s my whole thing. Do the job. Why should the sexuality be a fucking post­card? This is who I like fucking, this who I’m in love with. If I came out and said, This is what I like fucking and this is my fucking agenda, I’m not really getting the job done.

CHRISTGAU: I just want to see if l can get a straight answer. Do you think that there’s prejudice against gay people in this society?

CHUCK D: Of course there’s prejudice, but at the same time I understand that a lot of it — I don’t want to say that it’s brought on themselves. I say a lot of it should remain behind closed doors.

CHRISTGAU: All right. Circle again.

CHUCK D: That’s my feeling. Because, if it comes out it really is —

CHRISTGAU: Do you think it’s right to contribute to that prejudice?


CHRISTGAU: When Flav says Cagney beat up a fag in the New York Post song­ —

CHUCK D: Flavor doesn’t like homos. And a lot of people say, Yo, man, fuck them. Look, you’re asking me, you’re talking to me —

CHRISTGAU: I mean, if we’re all human beings, and all the rest of that nice talk, so are homosexuals, and they ought to be treated like human beings.

CHUCK D: Well, treat them like human beings. I’m saying that’s cool. I mean, I ride a train with one, ride a bus with one. I’ll even do business with one. I do busi­ness with them all the time. I’ve been doing business since I was fucking 12 — in the D&D building — got nothing but ho­mosexuals in it. That was one of my first jobs. My father always said, those are the people, this is what they do. You do what you do, they do what they do and call it a day. My whole thing is — it doesn’t be­come an issue with me. It’s a waste of my fucking time. Talking about homosexual­ity is almost like talking about Jews, you know, it’s a waste of my fucking time. I don’t spend much of my day talking about either.

CHRISTGAU: Or thinking, I’m sure.

CHUCK D: Like, yo, their thing is their thing, you know what I’m saying? My whole thing is usually black people. And to anybody whoever might do whatever they want to do, it’s like, Yo, that’s your program, you know what I’m saying? And when people ask me questions about it, sometimes, it gets difficult, because I’m like, you know, I haven’t studied other people’s religions to tell them this and that. You know a lot of times when you talk about Jewish people, I would like to say, I don’t know. Here in America I look at things in black and white, I’m not breaking down nobody’s classification.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720871″ /]


CHRISTGAU: On the new record, there’s an anti-Quiet Storm song [“How To Kill A Radio Consultant”].

CHUCK D: I hate Quiet Storm. My wife loves that shit. I don’t understand it.

TATE: Boy-girl thing.

CHUCK D: All you fucking do is go to sleep to that shit.

CHRISTGAU: Well, no, there’s other things you can do. But that’s behind closed doors, Chuck. Many would say it’s good fucking music.

CHUCK D: I think a beat is better.

CHRISTGAU: But do you think romantic music is like escapist bullshit? Is that how you feel about it?

CHUCK D: To me personally, I think it was better r&b in the ’60s. It ain’t because I’m trying to sound like an old mother­fucker, but I just think that more heart and soul went into the concern over the lyrics and the lyrics led somewhere. The brothers back then and sisters back then sang a tune and the lyrics was kicking, and the music was felt. I mean, you know, today, I mean I love the fuck about of BBD [Bell Biv Devoe] and shit, ’cause it’s something I can relate to, I like Keith Sweat, and I like a lot of new guys. But I can’t go too much past them.

CHRISTGAU: Not even Luther?

CHUCK D: I respect Luther as a skilled artist. Whether he’s my skilled artist? I brought Power of Love to the crib, I have doubts I’ll be cracking it, though. Not my cup of tea.

CHRISTGAU: I know the feeling. But there’s a sense in which PE’s music is very much boys’ music.

CHUCK D: Right.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think that those hard beats express everything that you want to be, spiritually? I like hard beats a lot. But I also want to be compassionate, sensitive, as well as angry. PE’s music­ — it’s so militantly unromantic.

CHUCK D: But it romanticizes certain things that we tend to ignore. I mean — I wrote a love song, “98” [“You’re Gonna Get Yours”]. That was my love song, man. It wasn’t that that 98 was all there — ­barely had four wheels. man. But that was my motherfucking shit, you know.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think you can do a song like that about women, about love and women? ‘Cause you don’t do it at all.

CHUCK D: Why should I write that song? I’ll leave that up to Luther.

CHRISTGAU: Because if creating strong young black men is what your central thing is about, and you’re deep into the family, then it seems to be that there’s a place where hard beats stop, spiritually. It can get you so far.

CHUCK D: There’s a place where hard beats stop. And it stops at the end of my record. You want to listen to something that’s mellow, then you want to listen to somebody else. L.L. might give you that song; Bobby Brown might give it to you.

CHRISTGAU: And you hope somebody does.

CHUCK D: Somebody does, anyway. I tell you what I think, though, I just feel like cursing is kind of played. The Geto Boys took it as far as you could take it. When I went down South, the album that I could play that met the medium of everybody in the car — my sister-in-law, and my other sister-in-law, she’s 14, my daughter, my niece, they’re like three and four, my wife — so you know, I was surrounded by Apaches, I can’t be playing Boyz N the Hood soundtrack now. I got my tapes here — can’t play Robin Harris. You know who we ended up playing six times? L.L. Mama Said Knock You Out. It was hard enough for me, nice enough for the wife. It’s like the hardest pop record ever made. I had to give it to him. He made a fucking hard album without cursing.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722337″ /]


CHRISTGAU: You just toured with the Sisters of Mercy and you’re touring with Anthrax now too? Would you say you’re targeting the white audience, or it’s just what happened?

CHUCK D: It’s just what happened.

CHRISTGAU: You said that the 1990s were a crucial time for black people in this country. At your most optimistic, how would you envision race relations in this country shaking our, say, 25 years from now? At your most optimistic.

CHUCK D: That’s when it’ll start.

CHRISTGAU: What do you mean?

CHUCK D: It’s going to take 25 years of hard work amongst ourselves to even get to that point. For us having an under­standing of ourselves and our community, saying, well, we do well with you or without you. That’s the only time you respect somebody, when they say, I can do with you or without you. We got to get it going on. Usually, we’re just, Help me, can you help me, sympathize with me, ’cause we ain’t got it going on. I mean, be realistic. What we really need white people to do is just support us in our theories — just stay the fuck out of the way for a little while and if you’re going to do anything, just throw money and don’t ask for it back. It’s a hard thing to swallow, but, you know, you’ve got to understand. I’m in the middle of a tornado just as well as Greg. This is a mess that we didn’t start and we’re trying to find our way out of, you know what I’m saying?

CHRISTGAU: Do you think white people can help at all in this? Do you think that nothing we have to say —

CHUCK D: Throw some money.

CHRISTGAU: No ideas.

CHUCK D: No ideas, money talks.

CHRISTGAU: So you’ve got no interest in reaching white people? It’s just incidental?

CHUCK D: My interest is reaching black people and whites who are good enough to listen and they want to fucking listen, fine.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think you can do them any good that’ll end up doing you good?

CHUCK D: They’ll at least know our side and our perspective. Whether it’s the truth or not —

CHRISTGAU: It’s your perspective. And is that an important part of what you have to achieve here? ‘Cause after all, I mean — in your most optimistic projection, you see that it’ll take 25 years. And that’s assum­ing —

CHUCK D: Minimum.

CHRISTGAU: I understand. That seems realistic to me, at a minimum. But that’s assuming that the white people who still run this country and probably still will, certainly still will —

CHUCK D: Or their sons and daughters.

CHRISTGAU: Or their sons and daughters — will let you do it, won’t get in your way. And of course, they will get in your way, no question about that. The only question is how much.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724831″ /]

CHUCK D: They can only get in one per­son’s way. They can’t get into fucking millions of people’s way. I’m a realist. I’m saying, we don’t get our act together this decade, it’s over. I’m not going to wait for that 25: I’m not going to wait for race relations. What’s going to happen, it’s go­ing to be utter chaos 25 years from now. White people are going to be killed just like black people are getting killed. Sense­less. Without mercy. It’s going to be like — it’s going to run rampant. You’re going to see more white mass murderers, more motherfuckers that qualify to be in asylums on the streets. You’re just going to see more madness. You can’t pile mad­ness on top of madness, then it gets to a height where it gets totally crazy.

CHRISTGAU: Do you think there’s any way in which the success or failure of this project depends on what happens economi­cally in this country? I mean is it more likely to happen if some economic exploitation stops that doesn’t just apply to black people, it applies to white people as well? Do you have an economic vision that exists alongside the racial vision?

CHUCK D: I’m not an economist, so­ —

CHRISTGAU: You’re not a historian either.

CHUCK D: I’m not a historian and I’m not an expert on racial theory either. I think Dr. Welsing and the other people’ll tell you a lot better than myself about what my feelings … Of course it’s got to get better economically in order for this thing to come about. If it doesn’t get bet­ter economically, we have to figure out what we can do with what we got.

CHRISTGAU: Well, a certain portion of white racism comes out of economic resentment and fear.

CHUCK D: A great portion of it. But after everybody’s economically satisfied who knows what other racism —

CHRISTGAU: Damn right. No question.

CHUCK D: You’ll see shit coming out­ — motherfuckers want to be that way just ’cause, fuck it, I just want to be this way. You know, it’s like with a lawn, right? You can have crabgrass, right? Cutting it ain’t going to do a damn thing — going to just grow back. It’s got a fucking deep root, that motherfucker, you know what I’m saying?

CHRISTGAU: And how do you do that?

CHUCK D: I’m not an economist. I know I’ve given a lot of ideas but you gotta say but this whole interview has just been my ideas. I could be right, I could be wrong.

TATE: I know what you’re getting to in terms of — you’re moving towards the whole idea of some kind of alliance, I guess, between —

CHRISTGAU: Obviously it’s what I think. But I really wasn’t moving towards any­thing — I really wanted to know what he thought.

CHUCK D: Economically between blacks and whites the only alliance that will hap­pen will be black businesses and white businesses. That’s just like I do. I work with anybody, like the Mafia, man. Now, for — I’m not working for no one again. I tell companies right now, I’m in a busi­ness dispute with this particular company that I’m working, and I might say, no exclusivity on this end, I’m giving you exclusivity on this end — none. I know too much about slavery to be a slave again. I don’t care how much money you throw on the table. It’s just like — I’m not working for no one again.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713841″ /]

9. P.S.

CHRISTGAU: OK. Enough. As far as I’m concerned. Is there anything else you want to ask?

TATE: Nothing.

CHUCK D: [To Greg.] I want to just apol­ogize for that porch-nigger statement. I was mad. I can take criticism from any­body. But at that time, it was like I couldn’t see just getting criticized while I think I’m trying to do the right job, you know, in a white paper. I can get criti­cized all day long in the Sun, or Amster­dam News, or even on the block. I’m like, all right, I take my licks. But I felt like, damn, at least if I had talked face to face with homeboy, I could have explained it, being that he’s a brother.

CHRISTGAU: Think the Voice is after your ass? Do you still think that?

CHUCK D: No. I break it down to people, just like the Voice. RJ Smith — I don’t like that motherfucker. I just don’t like him. Why? ‘Cause I just feel I don’t like him.

CHRISTGAU: You think he shouldn’t have reported that stuff that Griff said?

CHUCK D: Yeah. But as far — RJ Smith, it’s not so much that, it’s just, damn, we got a chance to get this nigger’s —

CHRISTGAU: That ain’t what happened.

CHUCK D: It’s a big story for me.

CHRISTGAU: That ain’t what happened.

TATE: I mean, if he didn’t, listen, some­body else at the paper —

CHRISTGAU: I would’ve. Damn right I would’ve. What Griff said to David Mills was intolerable. Intolerable. And you gotta deal with it.

CHUCK D: I know, I deal with it. That was a situation where, you know, you have a nice guy running the ship, and expects everybody to do their fucking job correctly, no mistakes. And when the shit happens — you know, for different rea­sons, you’re like, damn, can’t a mother­fucker do a job right? And that was that. I’m not going to do that ever again. I’m cutting the motherfucker off and watching the blood drip if they make a mistake. Look man, I built this house for every­body, the least thing you do is live in it and don’t fucking burn it down because you on some old tip, because you ain’t feeling love for a minute. That’s one thing I learned from that shit. Lead the ship and rule with a fucking firm grip. I told Flavor, man — they offered Flavor a St. Ides commercial. I said, Flavor, man, you take that shit, I’ll cut you off publicly so fucking bad.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713650″ /]

CHRISTGAU: What’d Flav say?

CHUCK D: Flav still considered it. Said, ­Come on, you know me. I got a check and balance before any of that shit goes out.

TATE: Speaking of your responsibility, what about the Dee Barnes situation?

CHUCK D: That shit was foul. So I went out there not too long after that and I know Dre’s crew and all, ’cause they worked with us on tour, and I was like, How the fuck can y’all let this happen? They was like, Yo, Chuck, you know, he was drunk. I said, y’all fucking dumb. That shit was foul, man. But my whole thing is like, I won’t get another brother in print, I won’t attack black people in print — unless they come out in the media, or in the same print, and attack me.

CHRISTGAU: All right. There’s one other question. Along with the Dee Barnes thing, seems to me I gotta also ask about the New York Post song and the incident with Flav. Do you think —

CHUCK D: They printed his address. That’s why I was mad. I tried to sue the Post. Tried to sue them. My lawyer told —

­CHRISTGAU: Do you think that the inci­dent itself wasn’t worthy of reporting?

CHUCK D: ‘Cause you don’t know the incident.

CHRISTGAU: Was he brought to jail?

CHUCK D: She kicked his ass. Look, his girl kicked his ass, he smacked her back, right? She didn’t call the police, she called the news station. From Channel 12 out here in Long Island, the Post took it.

CHRISTGAU: That’s your version of what happened with Flav?

CHUCK D: Yo, I wasn’t there.

CHRISTGAU: Flav’s version of what hap­pened with Flav?

CHUCK D: That’s people’s version that was there. He’s not big enough. She was beating his ass, you know what I’m say­ing? I mean, my whole thing is like this­ — there’s bigger and better news to be put­ting on there. Many of us rappers’ posi­tions are being closely watched. And there’s people out there that realize that our words are meaning a lot, no matter who we might be. If I do the slightest thing — that’s why I say, all right, I’m grown and responsible. And adults make mistakes. But when you’re spotlighted — ­especially if you’re black — they’ll take that mistake and they’ll fucking run with it. Just like, you know, a brother was telling me, it was this major-league sports team. This brother was a future perennial all-star, you know. They pinned drugs on him — and he never even took drugs in his life. But they pinned drugs on him so he couldn’t renegotiate his salary. They pinned drugs on him and then he was eventually just run right on out of the league. So it was like, OK, we’re spotlighting you, but the smallest amount of salt in the game will fuck you up. You know? They’re just waiting for Chuck D­ —

CHRISTGAU: I don’t deny that.

CHUCK D: Chuck D arrested for rape with a white woman, Public Enemy’s over with. It’s over with. It’s gone. ❖


Langston Hughes: A Genius Child Comes of Age

Warts and all, the Langston Hughes who emerges from the first volume of Arnold Rampersad’s exceptional biography doesn’t suffer badly in comparison with the var­nished Poet Laureate of Negro America that blacks have been raised on for generations. A staple of high-school curricula and home recitation, Hughes figures in African-Ameri­can life as significantly as in its letters, a literary hero the culture cozied up to like a warm hearth. Hughes was the first black American writer many of us ever read, and some of his verses hold the high honor of having been accepted into the canon of black mother wit — “Son, life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” is the most famous; “Nobody loves a genius child” runs a close second. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Nicolas Guillen, Amiri Baraka, and Gil Scott-Heron were all bene­ficiaries of Hughes’s lifelong encouragement of younger dark writers, and his career re­mains an inspiring model for black writers determined to make a living solely from their work.

Well, an inspiring model of sorts. As Rampersad details, Hughes spent the first two decades of an adventuresome life chas­ing fortune more doggedly than literary fame. He was fortunate in having fame thrust upon him early — publication in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Crisis in 1921 brought him the kindness of patrons black and white. Nevertheless, his youth reads like a 20th century guide to writing your way into history on $5 a day. Being a pauper didn’t keep him from covering the globe; much of Rampersad’s volume is spent tracking Hughes’s movements from the Midwest to Mexico, New York, Africa, Russia, and Spain.

Blessed with a facility for cheeriness, Hughes seems to have made it on little more than good vibes and curiosity. In the late ’30s, his veteran-bohemian advice to Man­hattan newcomer Ralph Ellison was “Be nice to people, and let them buy your meals” (according to Ellison, it paid off immediate­ly). Still, the specter of capital, or rather the lack and hungry pursuit thereof, viciously haunts Rampersad’s Hughes. In plying the writer’s trade to serve the race and feed himself, Hughes made considerable artistic, personal, and political sacrifices and com­promises. These form the core of the biogra­phy’s character revelations, though Rampersad appropriately notes how deeply Hughes’s upbringing conditioned his adult persona.

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True to the old saws that artists need unhappy childhoods and bad relationships with their fathers, Hughes spent at least half his life drawing upon the misery fate had doled out to him on both counts. His parents, James and Carrie Hughes, separat­ed not long after he was born, and young Langston thereafter saw little of his mother, who left him for long stretches in his grand­mother’s care. She was out seeking clerical work where she could find it in the poet-to­-be’s birth-state, Kansas. On his mother’s side, Hughes was descended from distin­guished free blacks, the abolitionists Charles and Mary Langston, who’d worked for the underground railroad. Mary lost her first husband, James Leary, in the Harpers Ferry raid. Hughes’s father, the self-educated son of slaves, was anything but a race man. “Detesting the poor, he especially disliked the black poor. He was unsentimental, even cold. ‘My father hated Negroes,’ Langston Hughes would judge. ‘I think he hated him­self for being a Negro. He disliked all of his family because they were Negroes.’ Where Carrie’s parents had instilled in her a sense of noblesse oblige, Jim Hughes seemed to look upon most blacks as undeserving cowards.”

Rebellion against his father, as certainly as the race history he got on grandma Lang­ston’s knee (she used to wrap him in her first husband’s blood-stained shawl), played a large part in Hughes’s decision to become a race-conscious bard. Growing up in all­-white neighborhoods throughout his school years, he developed a diplomatic approach to race relations and an intellectual and emotional rapprochement with black work­ing-class culture. Like many subsequent black middle-class writers, he entered into a professional relationship with that culture which derived in equal parts from a sense of mission and a need to work out his own obsessions. The desire to resolve the conflict between responsibility to the race and re­sponsibility to literary ideals informs much black American writing. Hughes’s resolution would both nourish and compromise his art.

In 1915, when Hughes was 13, he was taken to a revival meeting by his aunt and lied about having been saved by the Holy Ghost. While he wept over the lie, he also recognized its necessity in allowing him to keep faith with black culture. “At thirteen, Hughes probably already viewed the black world both as an insider, and far more im­portantly, as an outsider. The view from outside did not lead to clinical objectivity, much less alienation. Once outside, every intimate force in Hughes would drive him toward seeking the love and approval of the race, which would become the grand obses­sion of his life.”

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After high school, Hughes went to Mexico to live with his father, who responded to his wish to write for a living with the advice that he should learn a skill which would take him away from the United States, “where you have lived like a nigger with niggers.” Fueled by his father’s hate, Hughes wrote poems that fused his personal hurts with his desire for love from blacks — black maternal love in particular. Through these poems, he would eventually find a home in Crisis and an empathetic editor in Jessie Fauset, doy­enne of the Harlem Renaissance. After going to New York in the fall of 1920 to attend Columbia, Hughes upped the ante with ra­cial verse aimed as much at unnerving his father as at providing uplift for the masses. According to Rampersad,

At lectures and readings at the Harlem Branch Library on 135th Street, Hughes met the black intelligentsia; but his main interest was the people, of whom his vision was both intensely romantic and cold.. . Fastidious and yet bohemian, moral but determined never to judge his people, Hughes instead celebrated his kinship with these 

Dream singers,
Loud laughers in the hands of Fate­ —
My people … 

Dishwashers, elevator boys, maids, crap­shooters, cooks, waiters, hairdressers, and porters — he sang the ordinary and the low. In this way he met his father’s contempt for black folk and for the poor.

Hughes also wrote his pioneering jazz and blues poems in this period, works that forged the bond between the muse of black poets and 20th century black music:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway … 
He did a lazy sway …
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

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In June 1923, Hughes shipped out to Africa as a sailor. As Rampersad notes, he saw Africa before elder Africanists Marcus Gar­vey and W. E. B. Du Bois set foot on the continent. Significantly, his initial observations of Dakar were anything but romantic and bordered on racist. “Hughes’s first im­pression was of crudeness and absurdity. Wandering through the town in ninety de­gree heat, his head spinning from glasses of cheap white wine, Langston that day saw Africa as ridiculous — black men dressed in billowy white gowns, sweating market wom­en with bare breasts, children stark naked to the world. Giddy, he sat down to describe the scene to his mother. ‘You should see the clothes they wear here,’ he wrote Carrie, ‘everything from overcoats to nothing. I have laughed until I can’t. No two people dress alike. Some have on capes, some shawls, some pants, some wear blue cloths fastened around their necks and feet blowing out like sails behind. Some have on preachers’ coats, others knee pants like bloomers, with half-hose and garters. It’s a scream!’ ” But by the end of August, Hughes would see Africa less as a “blur of exotic images” than as a place held in underdevel­opment by colonialism’s grip. For Hughes, Africa had become “ten year old wharf rats offering nightly to take sailors to see ‘my sisters two shillings,’ ” elephantiasis and swollen bodies under palm trees, white men with guns at their belts, inns and taverns with signs up, EUROPEANS ONLY, missionary churches with Negroes in the back seats and the whites who teach Jesus in the front rows.”

“The white man dominates Africa,” Hughes would write. “He takes produce and lives, very much as he chooses … And the Africans are baffled and humble. They listen to the missionaries and bow down before the Lord, but they bow much lower below the traders, who carry whips and guns and are protected by white laws made in Europe for the black colonies.” Hughes had been writ­ing African-identified poetry but found that no African believed him, with his copper-­brown skin and straight Indian hair, to be black like them. In response, he began to write poetry inflected with the Pan-Afri­canist ideal.

The night is beautiful
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

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Hughes visited Europe before returning to Harlem in 1924, just as the well-engineered Harlem Renaissance was entering full swing. Yet his participation in the many fêtes aimed at securing white patronage and book contracts for black bohemian intellec­tuals would be stymied by a move to Wash­ington with his mother. Life in Washington, as an upstart black poet, brought him into conflict with the black middle class, toward whom he turned up his nose in a bohemian sniff. It’s nearly tragicomic that what Hughes thought about his upwardly mobile brethren and sistren of the day describes a fair portion of their ’80s successors to a tee. “The younger blacks were obsessed by money and position, fur coats and flashy cars: ‘their ideals seemed most Nordic and un-­Negro.’ Lightskinned women coolly snubbed their darker acquaintances. College men boasted of attending pink teas graced by only blue veined belles almost indistinguishable from whites … they had all the manners and airs of reactionary ill-bred nou­veaux riches except that they were not really rich. Just middle class.”

Washington was also responsible for Hughes’s sharpening his knowledge of blues and jazz culture and further developing his working-class consciousness. Hilariously, the anything but mellifluous Hughes once dared to unleash his brand of blues singing on the Rock Creek Bridge. It provoked a passerby to rush to his aid, mistaking his unsoulful moans for agony. Hughes had en­counters with notables black and white in D.C., including famed black historian Carter G. Woodson, and the poet Vachel Lindsay, to whom he slipped some poems while working as a busboy. In Baltimore, he met Bessie Smith. When Hughes asked for her “theory of the blues,” Smith dished how all she knew was that the blues had put her “in de mon­ey.” (Though Rampersad gives this seemingly trivial rejoinder short shrift, it would carry considerable weight with poststructur­alist blues scholars and folklorists.)

In 1926, Hughes’s first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published. Between 1926 and 1939, he would write and publish much of the best and most influential work of his prolific career — his second volume of poems, the controversially titled Fine Clothes to the Jew (“When hard luck over­takes you/ Nothin’ for you to do/ Gather up yo’ fine clothes/ An’ sell ’em to the Jew”), a short story collection, The Ways of White Folks, the novel Not Without Laughter, the first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea, several children’s books in collabora­tion with his lifelong friend Arna Bontemps, and the most financially successful of his plays, Mulatto. He also spent time gathering information and soaking up the scenery in Cuba and Haiti, did a foreign correspondent stint in Spain during the Civil War, and spent a year in Russia. The Russian sojourn came about in 1932, when Hughes and a host of young Harlemite writers and activ­ists were entreated by a German film com­pany to star in a fiasco production of a working-class musical.

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His flirtations with socialism were partly out of self-interest — when mainstream pub­lishers wouldn’t come through for him, New Masses would pick up the slack. But his leftist poetry compromised little of his plain-spoken lyricism and engaged some very radical views. While undertaking his Russian expedition, Hughes wrote the most radically strident poem of his life, “Good­bye, Christ,” — all the more blasphemous for its sermon-like cadences.

Listen, Christ,
You did alright in your day I reckon­ —
But that day’s gone now.

They ghosted you up a swell story, too.
Called it Bible —

But it’s dead now.
The popes and preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers­ —
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefeller’s church …
You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.
And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go,
And Saint Pope Pius,
And Saint Aimee McPherson.

Hughes never intended for this poem to leave Russia, but it was passed on to black American communist leader Harry Hey­wood, who published it. This was much to Hughes’s later regret when the rabid evan­gelist Aimee Semple McPherson mounted an attack that gathered black church forces behind her.

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There was a profound contradiction be­tween Hughes’s radicalism and his need to be accepted by the black masses. He was neither the first nor the last black intellectu­al to feel tugged apart by the ideological demands of a white-dominated left and his nationalist tendencies, as Harold Cruse’s ep­ochal work on that conundrum, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, makes clear. To his sometime patron of the ’30s, Noel Sulli­van, Hughes confessed that since poverty seemed to be his lot, “the only thing I can do is string along with the Left until maybe someday all of us poor folks will get enough to eat, including rent, gas, light and water.”

Hughes’s disavowal of politics in the late ’30s was influenced by dollar signs more than politics or feeling for the masses. “To a large extent, he gave up on radicalism not on ideological grounds, but as an impractical involvement that endangered his career as a writer. Radicalism paid very poorly in America; it also tended to estrange him from the black masses. Accordingly, he had been returning the needle of his conscience to its oldest and deepest groove, that of race. But instead of attempting to explain or jus­tify this realignment, Hughes had done ev­erything he could to conceal it … he could point to his renewed emphasis on race as proof of his distance from communism, and pass off as deep alienation what was in fact pragmatic withdrawal.”

In 1940, when Richard Wright’s Native Son became a Book of the Month club best-­seller and the best-selling black book ever, Hughes reacted with dismay and envy, not least because he had shelved a project simi­lar to Native Son, fearing it would have no market in New Deal America. Talk about your deferred dreams. Rampersad leaves Hughes still struggling (acclaim and notori­ety notwithstanding) to make ends meet for himself and his mother, whose welfare he assumed like a guilty burden rather than the duty of a loving son. In his need to become the most beloved genius child in black liter­ary history, he had sacrificed his writerly independence and forced himself to bedrock his maturity on filial responsibility. How Hughes’s recurrent conflict with mom, muse, money, and the masses is played out will surely add to the drama of Rampersad’s next chapters. ❖

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: Volume 1, 1902-1941 I, Too, Sing America By Amold Rampersad Oxford University Press, $22.95; $9.95 paper

[Editor’s note: Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that the photographer credit for the illustration at the top of this article is “Griff Davis / Black Star,” while on the original page back in 1988 (below) the credit is for “Greg Davis / Black Star.” We recently learned that this portrait of Langston Hughes was indeed taken by Griffith J. Davis, a storied photographer who was Ebony magazine’s first Roving Editor. Starting in 1949, he became an international photojournalist for the the Black Star Publishing Agency, and was later a U.S. Foreign Service Officer during the early U.S. civil rights movement and the Independence Movement of Africa. More information is available at]


Eric B. & Rakim: Titty Boom-A-Rooney

The levitation of our dreams confirms the gravity of our wakefulness.
Hollis Frampton, filmmaker and theorist

Demonic is the first word that the title track on Eric B. & Rakim’s Follow the Leader (Uni) brings to mind. Before the jam inspires dance, prance, or make-romance, it says call the exorcist. An appre­hension birthed of the fact that where most raps go off in your face, this mono­logue aims at your interior. The music on “Follow the Leader” is spooky, a science-­fiction score that sounds straight out of the Tangerine Dream songbook. Rakim’s on an elocutionary speed-trip, a black bullet train slitting through hyperspace. The rhymes are telemetric, tracking sucker-soft targets with a monomania more relentless than anybody’s Terminator. In rap’s ongoing war for poetic su­premacy, Rakim has metaphoric space he can call his own, though for others it’s a danger zone.

While Public Enemy shakes the shit out of white people, Rakim is the rapper who makes my blood run cold. Listen to “Microphone Fiend” and you say, Gött­dam this is the dope jam (mainly because the lyrics seem to mock PE’s “Night of the Living Baseheads”).

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Like Boogie Down Productions’ rapper KRS One and PE’s Chuck D, Rakim brings his own worldview into rap, his own philosophy. These brothers are hip-­hop’s major thinkers. Somebody once ex­plained the difference between the minds of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk as Powell being more likely to drop a heavy insight on you about the state of the world and Monk being more likely to lay something deep on you about Monk. Chuck D’s forte is the overview, Rakim’s is the innerview. KRS One’s homilies are more down to earth, more streetwise, than either of them. He makes the most conversational records in the idiom. Think of him as hiphop’s Sonny Rollins to Chuck D’s insane Coltrane.

“If you’ve ever picked cotton,” says the Rev. Al Green, “you will appreciate a cool drink of water.” Rakim’s persona is that of a sagacious gangster, like Miles Da­vis’s. The rapper, too, works an aesthetic steeped in the sort of cool that can’t be bought off the rack, not even at Yoji Yamamoto prices. We’re talking about that school of self-confirmed bad-assed-ness, where you don’t need spectators to know you’re looking sugarshit sharp. Drop Miles or Rakim on the moon, they’d still be chilly-most. This is less about profiling cool than about putting that iconic presence to work (yes, in the diva sense of the word, chile.)

Rakim’s work on last year’s “I Know You Got Soul” comes closer than anything ever heard in rap for matching the incisiveness of a Miles statement. Seeing Miles at Pier 84 a few weeks back — best show I’ve heard since ’75 — made me real­ize once again where these hiphop/jazz comparisons fall to pieces: tonality. I’ve yet to hear a rapper with a sound like Miles, that sonorous simulation of sex when it’s too good, killer ecstasy slipping across pain’s Cambodian border.

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Still the Miles comparisons mount with Rakim. He’s the one rapper with a mystique as devastating as his rhymes. As with Miles again, what you hear in Rakim is black cultural difference exem­plified in ways so high-handed it makes negritude or nationalist countersupre­macy sound crude. “I Know You Got Soul” is race-championing by aristocratic example, not ideology. Rakim does his ennobling African ancestry proud through the finesse and poetry of his performance alone.

Picture a mike: the stage is empty
A beat like this might tempt me
To cold show my rings and my five gold chains
Grab the mike like I’m on Soul Train
But I wait, ’cause I master this
Let the others go first, so the brothers don’t miss
Eric B. break [brake?] the sticks

The LP those lines came from, Paid in Full, is a confirmed hiphop masterwork. Masterful because like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, and Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary, it shows how color­-struck the hiphop palette has become. I tend to be big on records, like Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, where each composi­tion is a microcosm, painted with signa­ture strokes even when the artist is work­ing in revived forms. Paid in Full is avante-garde and formally prodigious in that way. But it’s an avante-gardism whose rhythms and textures speak from an intimacy with the communalism black pop conveyed in the ’70s.

Eric B.’s rare groove choices take me back to the proletarian house parties my grandmother, a hip barber, dragged me to in Ohio. These were folk for whom party­ing hardy was synonymous to partying with family. Eric B. once told Harry Al­len that he and Rakim make records that their parents can listen to and under­stand. I can hear that, especially on the new LP’s “Put Your Hands Together.” The mix-construction on Follow the Leader is different from that on Paid in Full. It’s harsher, more jagged, jarring and less sensually inviting. On Paid in Full, Eric B.’s mixes match Rakim’s rhymes for contemplated restraint, in­vention, and lyricism. There Eric B. rocked us with more orchestral detail than anybody outside of PE in late ’80s hiphop. He also brought understatement to hiphop drum programming — almost as if he’d taken to heart Lester Young’s soft-­shell admonition to drummers, “No bombs, just titty-boom.”

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This is just a hunch, but I think Eric B. and Rakim have been taking lessons in the art of noise from Public Enemy, like PE has been going to Eric B. & Rakim’s work, among others, to study up on melo­dy. I’ve heard complaints that there are no classics on Follow The Leader like “I Know You Got Soul” or “Move the Crowd.” But those who been bitchin’ just need to listen. I said it, I meant it, and I even represent it.

On that note: Inquiring minds want to know what I think of Chuck D (the Living Messiah) branding yo’ reporter The Village Voice‘s porch nigger and a sell-out in the current Spin — os­tensibly behind doing the right thing and busting PE’s monkey-asses on charges of homophobia, sexism, and anti-Semitism. What I think is grits ain’t groceries, and the Mona Lisa was a man. ❖


Of Thangs Past

The Coolidge High Five (class of ’75) — Bayray, Romeo, Kidd Funkadelic, Tetragrammaton, and Homeboy — were cozied up around the back table at their fav­orite Japanese deli, winnowing down vessels of sake and brews­kis, and winding down the debate of the day. They’d spent this re­union haggling over future rela­tions with the hiphop nation. For these aging voyeurs of the move­ment their connection had been thrown into crisis by a recent and desultory gig at the Ritz featuring 3rd Bass, Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest.

All the fellas had agreed on one point from the jump. Hadn’t no­body been looking for a second childhood, but when hiphop came along they had no choice but to get down with the program, same as their contemporaries, those equally long-in-the-tooth and ata­vistic elocutionists from the Pub­lic Enemy posse.

“Yeah I regressed,” confessed Bayray. “Regressed like a muh­fuhkuh who had neither a law de­gree nor proper home training. And was ready to fight anybody tried to tell me grow up, stop grabbing my dick in public and yelling ‘Yo, yo, yo, wotup Bee?’ All the hos in the house say, ‘La­dies.’ Excuse me, I mean all the ladies in the house say, ‘Ho.’ ”

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Kidd Funkadelic went for his. “It was like this for me, man: when the US Funk Mob folded, shut down, went bankrupt, got lawsuited tighter than an outta­-mating-season mandrill’s ass, what choice did funkateers like us have but to hip, to hop, to up and jump on the boogie of the bang­bang boogie to be? If it wasn’t for hiphop, all the brothers that didn’t sound like Michael now would be sounding like Lionel Ri­chie. Or worse.”

Romeo took his cue. “Freddie Jackson. Fat Luther.”

“Yo man, why you got to dog Fat Luther out? If Fat Luther ain’t dope then the Mona Lisa was a man. You know he got soul.”

“Right. Courtesy of Kenneth Cole. But what does the big boy know about gittin’ busy?”

“Word, brother,” came the af­firmation from the Darth Vader-­pitched pipes of Tetragrammaton. “Yet do I detect a certain disen­chantment with hiphop as heir ap­parent to the funk?”

“From my perspective,” ranted Kidd Funkadelic, “I’m seeing Black rock on the comeback trail, and you know that’s more me than hiphop. So I’m kinda like, ‘Fuck hiphop.’ It served its pur­pose in my life and I’m outta here.”

This last statement struck Homeboy like a paper cut on the chin. “Damn if you ain’t about a mercenary muhfuhkuh. I mean hiphop is Black rock too. I still hear more freedom and rebellion, not to mention raw funk, coming straight outta Compton and Long Island than outta Living Colour. Even if Living Colour is more threatening to white boy hegemony by virtue of (a) de-ghettoizing the whole concept of black music, and (b) housin’ that travesty, the Elvis Awards! My beef is, okay, you got De La Soul, Jungle Broth­ers, A Tribe Called Quest, and that whole new Afrocentric, boho hiphop posse and they’re progres­sive, but the muhfuhkuhs put on the weakest shows in God’s creation.”

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“Yeeeah,” slid in Romeo, “like that wack overpacked-ass show at the Ritz last month where you had some main ingredients like the JBs, the Tribe-sters, and 3rd Bass. Every one of them said, Throw your hands in the air and wave ’em like you just don’t care.’ That line is older than they are. The new school needs some new lines. And some lessons in show­manship. They got to understand when they step out on that stage they ain’t stepping into the spot­light, they’re stepping into that long shadow cast by the likes of Bessie Smith and James Brown. Because right now it’s all the pimp mentality muhfuhkuhs who put on the most slammacious shows in hiphop, like Big Daddy Kane. If Monie Love hadn’t housed the gig sitting in with the Jungle Brothers, I would have left mad instead of just depressed. Monie Love is gonna be a cold craaazy star! She’s my hero, my idol, nu­mero uno. She’s not a Puerto Ri­can, but for free I’d chauffeur her limo.”

“I hear these wild-assed West Coast boys Digital Underground throw down live,” offered Kidd Funkadelic. “Their videos are wicked. That album on Tommy Boy, Sex Packets, is a motor-boo­ty affair and a half. It’s like a hiphop follow-up to Parliament’s Trombipulation, right down to that elephantine nose Shock G be wearing. The ‘Humpty Dance?’ That mug drops bass on me like I thought only Bernie Worrell could. And yo, check ‘The Way We Swing,’ how they not only sample Jimi’s riff from ‘Who Knows’ offa Band of Gypsies, but they scratch it up. So bold I for­give the blasphemy.”

Homeboy kicked it. “Yeah, them Digital boys are total fools. Remind me of my glory days as a fiendish Q-Dog frat brother. But now that I’m older, wiser, and damn near senile, I don’t know if I can be down. All they be rapping about is rapping, partying, and fiending for that fantasy drug they’re hyping, Sex Packets. I can relate to them trying to sell people on the pleasure principle over crack — very Clintonesque, right? And OK, they’re knee-deep into funk. I mean ‘The Humpty Dance’ does get your ass wriggling like the Blob was busting down a slob on you in the backseat of a bubble-tire jeep. But I want to know their position on class-as opposed to ass-struggle. They’re not N.W.A., ‘life ain’t nothing but bitches and money,’ but life ain’t nothing but a bowl of orgies nei­ther. Great food jokes, however. ‘I’m spunky, I like my oatmeal lumpy … I get ridiculous. I’ll eat up all your crackers and your lico­rice. Yo Jal girl, come here. Are you ticklish? … I’m a freak. I like the girls with lhe boom. I once g01 busy in a Burger King bathroom.’

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“Well, yo, even though I didn’t care for A Tribe Called Quest live, their Jive/RCA album People’s ln­stinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is upliftingly dope. It’s so sweet and lyrical, so user-friendly. You could play it in the back­ground when you’re reading Proust. Their sound is so mind­-caressingly mellow, like old Jazz Crusaders with those motivatingly melodic bass lines and chestnut-­roasting Fender Rhodes chords. And they rhyme on some truly sui generis themes, like veganism and treating your woman right. Like their song ‘Description of a Fool’ basically busts this muhfuhkuh out for beating on his squeeze. Who ever did that on a hiphop record before? And this other jammie, ‘Luck of Lucien’ is a tes­tament to friendship, especially as far as its being a means for mugs to keep each other on the straight and narrow. It’s about how the Tribe adopted this sorta ignorant lumpen proletariat immigrant muhfuhkuh over from France to keep his ass from falling in with the wrong crowd. ‘Ham ‘N’ Eggs’ is the one about being vegetarians and shit. ‘A tisket a tasket, what’s in mommy’s basket.’ Some veggie links and some fish that stinks.’

“How you feel about ‘I Left My Wallet in El Segundo?'” chimed Kidd Funkadelic. “It reminds me of some classic Frank Zappa, like moving to Montana soon, gonna be a mental toss fly-coon. What I can’t figure out, though, is why my man Q-Tip, ostensible leader of the Tribe, left his wallet behind in the first place. Now that was some nonsense. Like Dr. Seuss.”

“So what’s the consensus y’all? Are these new-blacks the answer? Is hiphop as we knew it on the way out, or what?”

Before anybody could answer. Tetragrammaton went for his, quoting very, very loosely from his latest reading, Egyptian Mys­teries, New Light on Ancient Knowledge, by Lucie Lamy (Thames & Hudson, 1981).

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“Brothers listen: there is no doubt that we are dealing here with the incarnation — the becom­ing flesh — of the divine principle of light. This principle travels in a skiff in which rides Khephri, the scarab beetle, the future rising sun, framed by two Osirises sym­bolizing cyclic rebirths. The scar­ab Khephri is the preeminent symbol of the Dwat, the world of metamorphoses. He is found again where the divine entities must make darkness descend — as conducive to the germination of grains as it is to the development of the scarab’s egg enveloped in its dungball.

“In this time we must remem­ber that there can be no metamor­phoses without the destruction of the old form. The male with the voice of thunder reminds us that on one level the theme of the Egyptian Mysteries is the regener­ation of the sun. This is also the time in which we are told to ex­pect the annunciations of Tait, an Egyptian divinity of weaving. He will declare that the moment for the making of the cocoon, or the mummy’s wrap, is drawing near. Yes, the mummy’s wrap, itself a larval symbol of the transubstantiation of the flesh.”

Surprisingly, it was Bayray who immediately grasped the esoteric significance of TTGT’s ramblings and deciphered for the rest of the posse.

“Yeah, yeah I dig what you’re saying TTGT. That like with the emergence of hiphop bands like De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers, 3rd Bass, who are on that positive path to enlighten­ment, that hiphop has finally tasted the maggots in the minds of its less-evolved members so it’s gonna rise above it all or drown in its own shit. But even though they’re moving to a higher level of consciousness they’re all still in that dungball larva stage.”

“Brother Black that is precisely what I am divining.” ❖

From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Bad Brains: Hardcore of Darkness

Hardcore? I can’t use it. Not even if we talking Sex Pistols. ‘Cause inner city blues make me wanna holler open up the window it’s too funky in here. And shit like that. Or rhythms to that effect. But listening to the Sex Pistols is like listening to a threat against your child, your wife, your whole way of life: You either take it very seriously or you don’t take it at all. Depends on whether or not you’re truly black or white I guess. Or so I thought. Because never mind the Sex Pistols, here come something for the ass. Namely, the Bad Brains. Baddest hardcore band in the land, living or dead. So bad bro that even if you ain’t got no use for hardcore on the blackhand side, you’ll admit the Brains kick too much ass to be denied for the form. Whether you dig it or you don’t. Besides which, sis, sooner or later you got to deal with this: The Brains are bloods. That’s right, I’m talking a black punk band, can y’all get to that? Because in the beginning, the kid couldn’t hang — I mean when I was coming up, you could get your ass kicked for calling an­other brother a punk. Besides which, very few black people I know mourned the fact that Sid Vicious fulfilled his early promise. But, then, being of black radical-profes­sional parentage, the kid has always had the luxury of cultural ambivalence coupled with black nationalist consciousness. That’s why my party affiliation reads: Greg Tate, Black Bohemian Nationalist. Give me art or give me blood. Preferably on the One, but everything I do ain’t got to be funky. So, a black punk band? Okay, I’m game.

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Dig: Formed in District Heights, Mary­land (a black low-moderate income D.C. suburb) around 1977, the Brains turned to hardcore from fusionoid-funk after getting sick of the AM/FM band and hearing a Dead Boys LP. Or so the story goes. Less apocryphally, virtually anybody who cares will tell you that Chocolate City’s hardcore scene begins with the Brains. Which means that to this day defunct punkateers like Minor Threat, Teen Idles, S.O.A., and the Untouchables still owe the Brains some play for being the first to say “Let’s take it to the stage, sucker!” Or however one punks out to that effect.

Now when spike-headed hordes of mild-mannered caucasoids came back from the Brains’ first gigs raving that these brothers were ferocious, I took the brouhaha for okey-doke. Easily in­timidated, easily titillated white primitivism is how I interpreted that mess. Just some freak-whiteys tripping behind seeing some wild youngbloods tear up white boy’s turf. No more, no less. But when my own damn brother — Tinman we call him — came back raving the same shit, I had to stop and say, well, goddamn, these furthermuckers must not be bullshitting. And now that the Brains got this 14-song cassette out on ROIR, it’s for the world to know they ain’t never been about no bull­shitting. Hardcore? They take it very seri­ously. You say you want hardcore? I say the Brains’ll give you hardcore coming straight up the ass, buddy. I’m talking about like lobotomy by jackhammer, like a whirlpool bath in a cement mixer, like orthodontic surgery by Black & Decker, like making love to a buzzsaw, baby. Mean­ing that coming from a black perspective, jazz it ain’t, funk it ain’t hardly, and they’ll probably never open for Dick Dames or Primps. Even though three white acts they did open for, Butch Tarantulas, Hang All Four, and the Cash, is all knee-deeper into black street ridims than the Brains ever been and ain’t that a bitch? Especially considering that sound unseen some y’all could easily mistake these brothers for soulless white devils. Because unlike Hen­drix or Funkadelic, the Brains don’t trans­mute their white rock shit into a ridimically sensuous black rock idiom: When I say they play hardcore, I mean they play it just like the white boy — only harder. Which is just what I’d expect some brothers to do, only maybe a little more soulfully. Complicating this process in the Brains’ case is that while 95 per cent of their audience is white, they’re also Jah-­praising Rastafari who perform hardcore and reggae (albeit discretely). Making them two steps removed from the Funk, say, and a half-step forward to Mother Africa by way of Jah thanx to the Dead Boys. Or more specifically the British Rasta/punk connexion.

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While only three tunes on the Brains’ cassette are Ital — if mediocre — roots mu­sics, Rasta permeates their hardcore via a catch-phrase they use liberally: P.M.A., or Positive Mental Attitude. In practice, this means that unlike many of their hardcore contemporaries the Brains don’t shit on their audience — which last time they played D.C. was two or three dreads, a whole lotta skinheads, lunatic funkateers, heavy-metal rejects, and some black fash­ion models — but instead reason with them in hardcore dialect, a messianic message of youthful unity, rebellion, and optimistic nihilism. Which is somewhere not even a “progressive” punk anarchist like Bellow Appalachia of the Daft Kindergarteners has gotten to yet. In The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige says that the critical dif­ference between Rasta and punk re­bellion — one life-embracing, the other death-defying — derives from Rastas hold­ing to the dream of an African utopia and punks seeing themselves as locked into a culture without a future. The Brains’ ex­traordinary synthesis of the two is of course made possible by the fact that they’re black. Nobody seems to know how or why they arrived at this synthesis — ­apparently not even them. But the contradictions such as fusion reconciles are not only profound but very handy: How to be black (not Oreo) punks and how to be punks and look forward to waking up every morning.

And while that may just sound like some seriously schizzy shit to you, sis, I don’t think the Brains’ mutation into tri­ple-identity Afro-American/Rasta/punk was brought on solely by an identity crisis. It was also encouraged by their convic­tions. Because when the Brains adopted British punk’s formal conventions and “classic” thematic antipathies — toward mindless consumerism, fascistic authority, moral hypocrisy, social rejection — they took to them as if they were religious sacra­ments. And when the Brains play hardcore it is with a sense of mission and possession more intense than that of any of the sadomasochistic Anglo poseurs who were their models. And yet, though locked into the form by faith and rebellion, the Brains inject it with as much virtuosic ingenuity as manic devotion. Their hardcore jux­taposes ergs of sonic violence against a surprisingly inventive slew of fusion-fast sledge hammer riffs, hysterical stop-time breaks, shrieking declensions, and comic asides (like the surf harmonies and soul arpeggios in “Sailing On” or bassman Dar­ryl’s gonzo Segovian intro to “Banned in DC”). And onstage, the band’s Scot­-screeching frontman H.R. throws down like James Brown gone berserk, with a hyperkinetic repertoire of spins, dives, backflips, splits, and skanks.

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Ironically, the Brains’ genuine feeling for this music isn’t unlike what British rock’s first generation felt for the blues. Ironic because the Brains are black; hard­core is white (and no matter how much Hendrix and Berry they ripped, it still ain’t nothing but some whiteboy sounding shit now) and who would’ve ever thought that one day some bloods would go to the white boy looking for the spirit? Not to mention the revolution! I mean, if the Brains wasn’t so serious I’d think they were trying to revive minstrelsy. Because while they play hardcore as good as any white man ha ha, like it was in fact second nature, their reggae ain’t shit. Not only does it have less bottom than their punk, it also sounds half-assed and forced; more an outgrowth, like Dylan’s nascent gospel, of sanctimonious intent than of innate reli­gious fervor. Signifying, if nothing else, how far down river the Brains’ missionary work has taken them from the wellspring of most black music’s spirituality — ­namely, the black community. Because where punk’s obnoxious energy is an at­tack on the parent-community, Rasta-in­fluenced reggae draws strength from the ideal of a black community working in harmony. An ethic which isn’t foreign to black music not from Yard either: the Funk Mob identified it as one nation under a groove, James Brown called it soul power, and I call it doowop tribalism. The need for which makes even such outre individualists as Jarman-Moye-Favors­-Mitchell-Bowie bind into “Great Black Music” ensembles; makes Cecil Taylor work himself into a “Black Code Method­ology/Unit Structure”; makes Ornette Coleman improvise a funk-based, demo­cratic system of notation. The need, in other words, for a unified black community respectful of both holy tradition and indi­vidual expression. An ideal which leaves me respecting the Brains for their principled punk evangelism and worried for their souls. ❖


Black Metropolis: Upholding Sugar Hill’s Radical Tradition

The BUP Nationalists

Before moving to New York in late 1982 I re­ceived two prescient pieces of advice on hooking up a crib, a squat, a hovel if you lucky, here in the Scrap­ple. The first was that venerable Manhattan riff “It helps to know somebody.” The second pearl was more arcane and requires an anec­dote: an environmental-artist friend up from Atlanta says he landed on Central Park West proper (just so you know we ain’t talking about those buppy projects across 96th Street) by vibing on CPW as the only neighborhood that could house him and his wife in the manner they were accustomed to. In effect my man had mojoed his way onto CPW, and I took his lore to heart when I could finally afford to discriminate between boroughs and pull-out beds, between rent-stabilized buildings and sleeping bags on floors where friends had set out the welcome mat. But while my friend sought door­men and oft-swept streets, I put my mojo to work on squatting me down in Wash­ington Heights.

My reasoning was simple: That was where I’d found my kind of party people. We’re talking about that 25-to-35-year-­old posse of race-conscious black profes­sionals and community organizers whose politics are Pan-Afrikanist (if not just pro-black) and whose idea of culture with a capital K is Fela, Funkadelic, and later for all the black conservative bullshit. They all went to Howard, Columbia, or City College together and came up ho­meys in Harlem, the Bronx, or do-or-die Bed-Stuy. These folk work in black youth programs or the music or information economies. They sculpt their dreads according to that peculiar interface of fashion, religion, and dogma, the new black aesthetic. They learned to Latin before they learned to reggae and are au courant enough to know the difference between the Wop, the Snake, and the Pee-wee Herman.

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Washington Heights is also a Domini­can colony, with the bulk of small-busi­ness ownership split between that coun­try’s immigrants and Asians. The sound of merengue from bodegas and record shops on Broadway between 135th and 165th reduces even L.L. Cool J to a whimper along certain stretches of the Heights. My Washington Heights, though, is the 500th-block of Edgecombe Avenue, formerly known as Sugar Hill. It’s populated by a melange of race-con­scious bohemians and buppies, black working-class and middle-income fam­ilies, brownstone owners, by Americans, Jamaicans, and Dominicans. The tourist books recommend the Morris-Jumel mansion and the Sylvan Terrace compound. I recommend Town Foods, Wilson’s salmon cakes and grits, and the Amazonian overgrowth and outback rock formations that we on Edgecombe have in place of your nosy neighbors across the street.

The mojo that got me my apartment was my embrace of the milieu. The who­-ya-know was Flip. Flip and I go back to the yard at Howard, where he first dug me blowing John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders on a ghetto blaster and I dug him carting a trumpet case to the School of Communications. Flip favored black berets like Diz was still bebop’s most styl­ish response to the Left Bank. Our post­graduation dream was to waltz up to Miles’s former 77th Street asylum with the Moorish architecture and become court biographers to the Prince of Darkness. Flip graduated the year after I got there and I wouldn’t see him again for seven years, but the bond had been made. Our shared passion for black music had made us cutbuddies for life.

Flip has integrated more of black cul­ture’s oppositional modes into his being than most folk can even intellectualize. We’re talking a regular churchgoer who embraces Rasta consciousness, a serious trumpet student who revels in what Har­ry Allen would call hip-hop dopidity, a Greek letter man (Alpha) with Pan-Afri­kanist politics, a career buppy with no desire to own a Mercedes-Benz, a former atomic dog who counts black lesbians among his best friends, a Black Rock Coalition cofounder and Washington Heights Area Policy Board member, a devoted family man who’d still like to be a full-time musician. Where does one Flip begin and another end? Don’t even try it: The man is a continuous loop. The only way to describe the flip side of Flip is as a Mobius strip. The Flip who empathizes with why Rastas no check fe politicians is at one with the brother who’ll tell you he feels it’s his responsibility to vote in ev­ery election because “cats like Medgar Evers got blown away so we could pull those levers, man. I’d vote on a new ordi­nance for dog catcher if they mailed me a notice. Guess it’s my southern upbringing.”

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Flip is the nouveau black culture’s ver­sion of a model citizen, a radical-bup par­agon if you will. Flip is a sales rep for a major black monthly and lives with his Jamaican wife, Patricia, a registered nurse, and her five-year-old son, Alex, from a previous marriage at 555 Edge­combe Avenue, that stately white brick plum of Sugar Hill architecture. Among former tenants the building can boast Paul Robeson, Joe Louis, and any num­ber of Cotton Club chorines. Among its present distinguished residents are Andy Kirk Sr., the swing bandleader whose orchestra launched the careers of Mary Lou Williams and Fats Navarro, and Flip’s next-door neighbor, Clarence Holte, a black pioneer on Madison Avenue who in 1952 began a 20-year career as a market­ing executive with Batten, Barton, Dur­stine & Osborn. Holte is also owner of one of the largest private collections of books about blacks in the world — a portion of which is now the Clarence L. Holte Collection of Africana housed at Kashim Ibrahim Library, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria — and an au­thor of scholarly articles on such unlikely topics as “The Black Presence in Pre­-Revolutionary Russia.”

As 555 has long been home to such race-conscious and culturally hip black professional family men, Flip is obviously about upholding the tradition. His per­sonal history begins in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was born an only child into a two-parent situation. The nuclear unit moved to Harlem when baby was one and the South Bronx when he was four before settling into the Bridge Apartments in Washington Heights, a predominantly Irish and Jewish neighborhoods fast on its way to becoming black and Latino. They lived there until Flip’s parents divorced in 1969. He reminisces about his old neighborhood as a place where mom and dad were on a first-name basis with the winos who “looked out for you until your parents came home from work.” Flip was raised in what black folk call a Southern household, meaning “our house was more disciplined than others in the neighbor­hood and rudeness to older people was not tolerated.”

Flip’s mother worked as a receptionist for Zebra, one of the first black ad agen­cies; his father was a security guard in a juvenile home before becoming a U.S. marshal. Shortly before the divorce he moved the family back to Virginia, where he was one of the first black marshals in the state’s history. After the split Flip’s mother moved to Virginia Beach, where busing provided him his first exposure to American racism’s classic vernacular­ — “Virginia Beach was lily-white except for this one little black neighborhood where my grandparents lived. Blacks bought their own property, built their own houses, and weren’t thinking about integrating with white folks.

“There was a chain separating the black neighborhood from the white and the iro­ny was the houses on the black side were better. We were shipped off to these pre­viously all-white schools and the white cats would jack us up the wall talking about what they were going to do to coons, niggers, and jungle bunnies and the only time I’d ever seen that was in In the Heat of the Night. All I could think of was how I wished some of my boys from the Black Spades were with me.”

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Midterm Flip’s mother trekked cross­-country to the San Diego area, where he became the only black student in a La Mesa junior high school. There he experi­enced more alienation than racism, ex­cept for epithets hurled his way by surf­ers and a dark-skinned Mexican student who “taught me something about the dif­ferences between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans when he got mad once and called me a nigger.”

Flip doesn’t recall his parents talking much about race issues except when they had trouble finding housing. Flip’s moth­er moved back to Virginia Beach after a year in San Diego and married an Annap­olis realtor. This unit became, in the lit­any of Flip’s first-black-to episodes, the first black family in a formerly all-white ward, but they experienced no hostility. Things were different at Annapolis High, where forced integration and the black consciousness movement had even politi­cized Flip’s varsity basketball team, the first all-black team at the 75 per cent white school, and probably the last to paint “red, black, and green liberation flags on our white Converse sneakers.”

Flip chose Howard after visiting the campus and being overwhelmed by its progressive black cultural environment and “all these beautiful black women who were friendly and didn’t seem to have attitudes.” While he regrets not pressing himself more academically he feels he got a decent education there and, more im­portant, “stopped thinking of blackness only in terms of being a black American. I came to understand that being of Afri­can descent meant that you were part of a worldwide black community.”

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After graduation Flip found that his media arts degree didn’t mean diddly-­squat to local broadcasters. Frustrated, he took his first job in sales at Balti­more’s black newspaper, the Afro-Ameri­can. When an uncle told him IBM in New York was hiring, he landed a job on Wall Street selling office equipment. Flip de­scribes his introduction into white corpo­rate America as an awakening in terms of both assimilation and alienation. “You had to act ‘white,’ dress conservatively, and shave. I didn’t even know how to dress for the corporate setting. My uncle had to say look, this is what it is: no more pink and green shirts and wearing your handkerchief all fly out the pocket. You’re not dressing for the disco, you’re dressing for this job.” Flip lasted two years with the multinational, “and when I quit my father thought I had lost my mind giving up all that security.” Flip went to work for the aforementioned uncle, who had his own sales firm and repped a black monthly newspaper insert. For Flip the decision was partly ideological, as he felt black families should work in business together as whites always had — though another virtue of sales and advertising was that “it wasn’t monotonous, and it meant I got paid to do something I could always do well, which is talk.”

In 1984, Flip’s uncle turned the busi­ness over to him to pursue a new venture in the northwest. Shortly thereafter the company’s major client tried to replace Flip with one of its own executives, and he resigned. Soon he went to work for the monthly that employs him now. He sees his work as having political content at least to the extent that he’s “always having to justify the existence of a unique black marketplace and legitimize the buy­ing power of the black consumer.” Flip says some marketers play a numbers game to prove blacks couldn’t possibly afford their products or try to pretend their products aren’t big sellers among blacks even when research proves other­wise. This he attributes to the racist atti­tude that since blacks already buy the product why go out of your way to appeal to them? “We’re the invisible people to corporate America and they only think of us when it’s useful to them.” Flip doesn’t get into politics too deeply on the job, but every now and then does manage to get a broadside in edgewise. “I was having a tough time with this guy at one of the multinationals who kept saying he didn’t think blacks were familiar with his company. Finally I said, sure blacks know about your company and how you offed that cat down in Chile. Man, you should have seen his face turn red.”

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At 555, Flip is active in his tenants group, which prodded him to join the Washington Heights Area Policy Board “because people felt we needed English-­speaking representation on the board. It’s primarily Dominican and that communi­ty has its agenda and problems, particularly around the issue of undocumented residents.” Flip thinks of Washington Heights and Harlem as the last frontier for white developers and a kind of last stand for black/Latino New Yorkers who want to build a beneficent community and future. The owner of 555 is a black who’d like to keep the building predomi­nantly black. Flip hopes this inspires the other tenants of 555 to have greater con­cern for the upkeep and upgrading of the building.

Flip and Pat met three years ago at a mutual friend’s birthday party. She spent her first 14 years in Kingston, oldest fe­male in a family of six children. Her father was a tailor in Jamaica who did farm work in Florida for several seasons before migrating to New York for piecework at a Dupont textile factory. When that plant moved, be became a cab driver. Her mother was a housewife in Jamaica, became a nurses’s aide in the States and now works as a medical secretary. Pat spent her adolescence in the Bronx, where her parents now own a home near the Westchester border, attended City College, and works at the Bronx’s Ein­stein Hospital, in the Cardiac care unit. Patricia beams levelheadedness, speaks in a lilting Jamaican lisp, and carries herself with a radiantly self-possessed el­egance that would come off haughty in a lesser Nightingale. Although she dreams of returning to the stage-acting and Afri­can dancing she had to abandon after high school, careerwise her goal is to su­pervise a public health clinic. Like Flip, she’s less interested in the corporate lad­der (hospital-administration version) than in using her job to create financial independence for her family. Her field is no less racist than any other and she laments for qualified friends who’ve pur­sued positions and suffered rejection time and again.

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Flip and Pat’s home is decorated with her antique furniture and modern Turk­ish rugs, his jazz, reggae, and Brazilian record collection, coon art ads, and (by way of the Studio Museum and the Schomburg) Romare Bearden posters and Jacob Lawrence paintings. Unlike Flip, Pat is not partial to Washington Heights or 555 as the ideal place to raise a family and looks forward to seeing changes in the neighborhood. She prefers Riverside below 125th, Convent Avenue or Hamilton Terrace. The population over in the crack district, the 150s be­tween Amsterdam and Broadway, she sees as “dangerous and devastated people with no culture and no respect for any­body else’s.” Sometimes she wishes they could be “dissected” from the area and “placed in an intensive rehabilitation center.” Her son now attends a private preschool in the Bronx. She’s investigat­ing the multiracial Barbara Taylor School on 160th Street for first grade because it stresses putting children in touch with their culture. At one point her son came home from school believing that Flip and Pat were white, that because he was darker than them he was black and there­fore bad. They realized they’d better start reinforcing his blackness. “Now if you ask him what be is, he’ll tell you he’s an African or an African-American. At his preschool he’s not taught about black he­roes, he gets his ideas about himself from cartoons and the toys he plays with and other kids at school. The school he goes to will be important in shaping his ideas about himself because he’s going to spend more of his life there than with us.”

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

Not long ago Flip introduced me to a neighbor of his named Playthel Benjamin who had read my writ­ing on black music and was inter­ested in my reading his. I had seen him around the neighborhood, a bearish, bullheaded brother in a Stetson hat toss­ing a foam football in front of 555 with his son or taking son and daughter to the playground. In our brief first meeting Playthel delivered an abridged version of an essay about Charlie Parker, Albert Einstein, the nature of genius, and the fraudulence of abstract expressionism as an extension of “the great tradition of Western painting.” As it turns out, this is the kind of thing Playthel has spent his adult life doing for pleasure. Filling the gaps in between is one of the more varied and remarkable lives you’ll ever encoun­ter. In the course of 46 years Playthel’s been a merchant marine, a top-security combat defense officer guarding the Stra­tegic Air Command’s Arctic Circle nucle­ar bomber base, developer of the Minor­ity History Motivation Program for Opportunity Industrial Centers, a profes­sor of history at U. Mass., bandleader and percussionist for Jean Carn, publicist for Michael Spinks, and almost-promoter for the Leonard-Hagler bout derailed by Sugar’s detached retina in 1982. Present­ly Playthel is a working member of the Master Painters and Plasterers, a partner in a Brooklyn real estate management and development company, and director of education for Harlem Fightback, the action-oriented coalition of black and Latin blue collar workers known for shut­ting down construction sites where con­tractors refuse to meet affirmative action requirements. Playthel is a longtime stu­dent if not scholar of both African and Marxist-Leninist history who admits to having once been a Stalinist and a Maoist and who now describes himself as a “worker-intellectual, cosmopolite, and democratic socialist.”

Playthel’s generation of bebop-loving black activist-intellectuals (typified by people such as Paul Carter Harrison, A. B. Spellman, Larry Neal, Michael Thelwell) are the ones who brought their civil rights and black power backgrounds to the Ivy League 15 or 20 years ago. Boasting a dual interest in activism and theory, they brought scholarship to the black consciousness movement and grap­pled mightily with the conundrum of making an American socialist revolution from a black nationalist base. In contrast with Flip’s (and my) generation, they had a clear sense of continuity with the black leftists of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. They didn’t limit questions of culture, identity, and politics to a close circle of friends, always considering their relationship to the black working class and later the so­-called underclass. In reflecting upon that generation’s accomplishments I always realize how much homework my contem­poraries must do to progress beyond be­ing bups with a hip sense of community and self. As admirable as it might be for the times, it’s not much of a moral or radical platform to stand on — or to fight and organize from. Playthel is a man of ideas, a family man, and a man of the people.

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This is after all someone who left the university to take up a trade because he felt himself “in danger of becoming one of these comfortably bourgeois black in­tellectuals.” So instead he’s become a comfortably bourgeois worker-cosmopo­lite. The walls of his airy five-room apartment have gold trim, but he did the painstaking work of putting it there. There is an extremely modest library dominated by black historical tomes. Af­rican masks adorn the living room and a Benin bronze sits on a Greek pedestal by the front window. On a glass coffee table there is a jade plant and a sepia portrait of Stetsoned and stogie-smoking Playthel set in an ancient braided bamboo frame. As I enter the radio is tuned to a classical station, another of Playthel’s lifelong pas­sions — “there is no Slav who loves Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto more than I or no German who derives more pleasure in Beethoven’s Appassionata.”

Out of his broad social experience, Playthel offers reminiscences about ev­erything from hanging out with Harold Cruse while he was writing The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual to the business savvy of prostitutes in Saskatchewan. An eclectic freethinker who doesn’t play fa­vorites, Playthel is as likely to proclaim his ace boon Stanley Crouch “a gifted writer and critic but a novice when it comes to political discussion” as take on leftist slavery-historian Eugene Geno­vese’s praise for the ethics of the antebellum Southern gentleman. Not long ago, Playthel had a train-station debate with Harvard’s touted black neo-con, Glenn Loury. There he harangued the rotund “pootbutt professor for his uninformed and sophomoric notions about affirma­tive action for women and blacks in the building trades. I cited three affirmative-­action cases now in court and the man hadn’t heard of any of them. Finally he said, ‘Enough, enough, how can you ex­pect me to have this information at this time of night.’ I said, ‘Sir, it’s late for me as well, and I’ve probably had a much harder day than you. Do you think I’ve been standing here preparing for this en­counter’? He turned then and literally ran, trotting, away from me.”

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Interestingly enough, Playthel’s spa­cious apartment in 555 — where he lives with his wife, June, and his twin children, Makeda and Samori — once housed Paul Robeson, a fact Playthel didn’t discover until after he’d moved in. That sort of coincidence, extraordinary to you or me, is routine for Playthel, as you realize once he begins reciting the tall tale of his life. Playthel is a natural storyteller whose primary yarns digress into secondary tales where autobiography, family histo­ry, and major historical figures and events converge. A typical Playthel anec­dote, like the story of why he dropped out of Florida A&M in 1959, begins with him getting arrested in one of the first South­ern sit-ins, dovetails into disillusionment with black academia in the face of white power, details how he joined the air force a patriotic American, became “a SAC-­trained killer,” and left a pacifist, nucle­ar-age nihilist, and black nationalist.

Following these yarns Playthel an­nounced plans to use his Arctic background to apply for a North Pole expedi­tion led by a former Playthel student who now teaches at Harvard. Case you’re shal­low in basic black history, Matthew Hen­son was the African-American member of Admiral Peary’s expedition who many believe was robbed of recognition as the true discoverer of the North Pole. Point­ing to a magazine article debunking Pea­ry, Playthel says the expedition will use dog sleds and honor Henson by planting an African-American flag on the Pole, “reclaiming the legacy stolen by this motherfucker here Peary.”

Playthel looks upon himself as “the consequence of the two major cultural traditions among black Americans, those E. Franklin Frazier [author of Black Bourgeoisie, among other milestones in black sociology] defined as the ‘colored genteel’ tradition and the ‘black peasant’ tradition.” Playthel was born in Philadel­phia, but grew up in St. Augustine, Flori­da. His father was a descendant of slaves who worked as a welder by day and a barber by night while attending Temple University, and “had two children and his own house before he was 25.” His mother was the descendant of free blacks and mulattoes. One of his maternal grandmother’s brothers owned a fleet of limousines in Harlem in the ’30s chauf­feuring rich whites, another was a pimp who “threw a cracker off a bridge in Florida, had to get out of town, came up here, dressed himself like an Indian ma­haraja with a turban and a beard, started hanging out in places like the Stork Club, and ended up pulling this millionaire white woman. He spent all her money and used to drive Duesenbergs.” Playthel is a self-educated man, a process begun with fervor while he was in the air force. There a race-conscious black officer gave him a copy of J. A. Rogers’s One Hun­dred Facts about the Negro — with Com­plete Proof. Rogers’s frequent citing of the Schomburg led Playthel to that insti­tution. In this period he also came under mentorship of Revolutionary Action Movement founder Max Stanford, Queen Mother Moore, and an entire coterie of older black Marxists who’d left the CPUSA because it abandoned its Black Belt Nation program, during ’50s re­forms. To them he owes his theoretical undergirding.

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“Here’s a pedagogy I believe a black person who is interested in becoming a critical thinker should study. They should study the regular humanities cur­riculum simultaneously with an Afrocen­tric perspective on our position in history and the world, read that simultaneously with John Hope Franklin, Benjamin Quarles, Ivan Van Sertima, Lerone Ben­nett, Walter Rodney, Franklin Snowden’s Blacks in Antiquity about blacks in Gre­co-Roman civilization, and of course W.E.B. Du Bois is an absolute must. They should read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and the major thinkers of those revolu­tions that grew out of those traditions in the Third World — Nkrumah, Fanon, Ca­bral. But then we also need to read George Padmore’s Pan-Afrikanism or Communism, and various of his other 12 works, Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, and the works of C. L. James, the most orginal radical thinker of the 20th century in my opinion. And they should read the work of black American radical thinkers, like Manning Marable’s How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, and James Boggs’s The Ameri­can Revolution, Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook, Racism & the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook, and Revolution & Evolution in the Twentieth Century, written with his wife, Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs is one of the most original American economic thinkers out here and that rarity among leftist thinkers, an actual worker. He was an assembly-floor worker in the automobile industry who went through the party experience. He’s writ­ing about capitalism from the perspective of a worker in one of the major modern capitalist industries. He was the first that I know among American radical thinkers to talk about the role of technology in changing the relationship between class­es, the first to talk about the conse­quences of the cybernation of the American economy, the first to talk about structural unemployment, about a class rendered obsolete by technology. He was the first to see that contrary to the classic Marxist model that saw conflict emerging between the working class and the ruling class that the major conflict was going to emerge between the employed and the unemployed.”

From his own position as a worker­-intellectual in New York’s building trades, Playthel has seen first-hand the necessity for affirmative action programs — and, he emphasizes, activist-advocacy groups like Harlem Fightback — to insure that work­ing-class blacks, Latins, and women are given equal employment opportunities. “You have these black neo-cons running around now talking this bullshit about how teenage pregnancy is the cause of our economic condition. Our economic position in this country is the result of our being denied full participation in the economic system. For you to be black and employed you have to be either an intel­lectual, a professional, or in the public sector. The black working class is up against a world of exclusion in the build­ing trades. The American worker is a highly skilled individual and that ac­counts for why so many buildings can go up in New York with so few disasters. But this doesn’t require genius. Any ordinary person, any of these young brothers out here could learn these trades. I’ve talked to Irish and Greek immigrants who came here and didn’t know any trades and got in the union. I’ve had foremen who were so illiterate they could barely fill out their paysheets who are making $40,000 a year, own stocks and bonds, and are putting children through college. Even with affir­mative action you need a Harlem Fight­back to get blacks on construction sites and people want to talk about how our young people don’t want to work.”

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Playthel told me all his adult life he’d been consumed by three questions: Where did we come from, how did we get in the mess we’re in now, and how do we get out of it? The latter is the question he expects to be grappling with, along with the rest of us, for the rest of his life. And if you got to grapple with that mutha, 555 ain’t a bad ebony tower to be holding court from. The building lost its doorman and awning a few years ago and, no, Washington Heights isn’t what it used to be — but with people like Flip, Patricia, and Playthel up here now, no one can say the modern black condition suffers in silence up on Sugar Hill. ■

Research assistance by: Crystal Weston  

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"


Black Metropolis: A Special Section

THE JOURNALESE OF THE media con­tains a place known as “the black communi­ty.” This invention of the riot years usually reads as a ready-made repository of depress­ing statistics and demanding social critics, and rarely as a genuine social realm capable of sustaining as complex an equivalent of human relations as its white counterpart. You’ll seldom find this fictive black cultural monolith described as a place where the hub and bub of life goes on.

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What makes many black New Yorkers wince whenever the term appears in print is the knowledge that our New York is a me­tropolis of diversity created in part by New York-style apartheid, and in part by the dif­ferences in language, education, style, reli­gion, and class among black New Yorkers. The black metropolis can safely be described as a place where disparate groups of people of African descent share the experience of living in a city and a nation ruled by white suprema­cists. After that, any attempt to lump all of us under the rubric of “the black community” becomes absurd.

The five stories contained in this issue, the arrogance of its heading notwithstanding, do not presume to represent the New York black experience in total. What they do presume to capture are the encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York’s black communities.

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Common to them all are the portrayals of what work, sacrifice, and struggle, both in the spiritual and material sense, mean to the vari­ous people and communities depicted. In the charged space between the writer’s voices, some passionately polemic, some coolly modernist, and their subjects’ perceptions of themselves and the world, a host of black survival strategies emerges coded as repor­torial fact. In rendering the resistance of these black New Yorkers to sociological ste­reotyping, by means of everything from anomalous personal history to strident cultur­al affirmation, these black writers show once again the power of dialogue among blacks to disrupt and challenge the racial mythography of the powers that be.

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* Black Metropolis was edited by Robort Christgau, Kit Rachlis, and Thulani Davis

1987 Village Voice package, BLACK METROPOLIS, looks at "encounters five black writers had with people in several of New York's black communities"

From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

BLACK LIKE WHO? Love and the Enemy

The question: Black Identity. The problem: Who names it, claims it, and decides who profanes it. Here at the crossroads, whose Black Consciousness movement is it any­way? Like the man said, Van Glorius’s. In other words, it’s every man for himself on that one, G. When I was younger and very much the aesthetician, I believed that Black cultural difference was gonna set us free­ — that our salvation and liberation would come in realizing how great Black art set us apart from the illin’ white boy and his cre­ations. If we could make Black political parties function like Parliament-Funkade­lic, we’d be kicking much ass. Having wit­nessed participatory democracy at work in our Black Power renascence of the past five years, that delusion has gone the way of P­Funk’s fabled mothership. (Park it in the dustbin of history, boys, and don’t stop for fading spotlights.) The resurgence of Goth­am’s Black Power movement has been both a welcome and a woeful affair. Welcome because of the bridge it has formed between today’s young rebels and the long-­toothed tigers of yon; woeful because fatuous male posturing, demagoguery, and gen­erational envy have also made a sorry comeback.

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Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka at each oth­er’s throats over who owns the legacy of Malcolm X is one more pathetic episode in our movement farce. For the record, I think Baraka has about as much business telling Spike how to make a politically correct movie about Malcolm X as Spike would trying to instruct Baraka on verse structure. I’ll be stunned if Spike overcomes his immaturity as a storyteller and makes a film with anything approaching the complexity of Malcolm’s world and worldview, but c’est la vie. Ain’t nothing but a movie y’all, and after those two hours in the dark are over we’ll all still have to get up the next morning and deal with being Black men and women in America. Which at the end of the day is about what? Learning to love and struggle with one another, end of story.

Three weeks ago, at the funeral services for a flame of a life named E. Tamu Elling­ton Bess, I realized that the meaning of being Black is summed up in who comes to bury you, who gathers together in your name after you’ve gone, what they have to say about how you loved, and how you were loved in return. Offering such testimo­ny at Tamu’s services was a cross section of our community’s Afristocracy, politicos, artists, activists, bereaved friends, and fam­ily. People presented songs, dances, poems, and soliloquies in her honor. By the end, without knowing any more than the sketchy details of Tamu’s life, you knew she’d made everyone she’d touched more aware of the sacrifice, service, and devotion Black Con­sciousness demands.

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Though I didn’t know her that well, Tamu was revealed to me as one of those exceptional Black folk who are at home wherever African people are, regardless of geography, class, custom, cuisine, or crea­ture comforts. If there’s any legacy of ’60s Black Nationalism I find ennobling and empowering, it’s that movement’s Pan­-Afrikanist embrace of Black folk every­where as brother and sister. Recognizing a loss to our community like Tamu Bess’s, you realize that any liberation or empower­ment strategy that doesn’t grow out of love, in its most constructive, critical, and com­passionate senses, is useless.

What makes the oratory of Malcolm en­dure as a source of enlightenment isn’t just his clarity about how white supremacy works, but also his desire to see us love our African selves more than we love the world of the oppressor. We still listen to Malcolm because we hear the voice of a lover, some­times asking what Bob Marley asked­ — could we be loved — other times asking us why do we love white America, or at least its status symbols, more than we love our­selves. I find the essence of Malcolm’s criti­cal ardor for Black people lacking in most of our grandstanding spokespersons of the present. The Black love you find manifest­ed today is mostly a love for Black Male Posturing. Now, BMP is truly a marvelous thing. Yet do I marvel at it everyday. Where would hip-hop or jazz be without it? Basketball is defined by it, and the streets of downtown New York would be looking mighty shabby for its absence. But the im­potence of current Black nationalist politics comes from its being phallocentric to the core, so caught up in stroking its own hard­-on that it makes no space for the balance offered by feminine wisdom. We have nev­er in our history had a movement that wasn’t well-populated with female leader­ship. These days, part of the reason issues of daily violence and oppression never get discussed is because the people on the frontlines, women and the children in their care, have no voice where legal-eagle activ­ists prevail. So even when the victimization of a Black woman is at the heart of our rallying, it becomes reduced to what dream hampton refers to as a “nut-grabbing contest.”

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The tragedy of this isn’t the gesture itself, but how misguided the movement is in terms of targets and objectives. When I look up to see hundreds rally behind Pro­ fessor Leonard Jeffries when he’s predict­ably attacked for Jew-baiting, I got to won­der what’s the goal beyond reactive rage. (And on the “Jew-baiting” charge, let’s be real. When you put the bait on your line, expect fish to bite, especially if the bait is live and in living color. Jews may be disin­genuous about holding economic, cultural, and political power and privilege and abus­ing it, but some Black folks can be just as disingenuous about admitting they despise Jews more than they despise the average cracker who isn’t a cop.)

Large numbers of Black folk in this town get more upset over being disrespected than they do over being disempowered. Why look for respect from a power structure so greedy it would destroy the planet on which its grandchildren will have to live? I expect neither justice nor respect from white pow­er and certainly not love. What I expect from Black folks is for us to organize in such a way that we make the white power structure understand that it would be in its own best interest not to fuck with us. But no. We’re more concerned with scoring intellectual brownie points than we are with that kind of unifying. (Or, for that matter, with raising the level of reading and writing skills of Black kids in this city or even with improving the rude physical plant of their learning environment. Far as I know, there are currently no plans afoot for mass, fire-breathing demonstrations to protest toilet­-bowl classrooms.)

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Favoring issues of disrespect over strate­gies of empowerment will keep us chasing after love from a muhfuh that don’t love nobody. Such folly leaves us with a politics of reactive rage and race-baiting that my friend Melvin Gibbs astutely defines as “just another form of Tomming and min­strelsy because the audience is always the white man.” My suggestion is we give up the white man as the problem per se and start thinking of him as a natural disaster, a catastrophe we may be unable to prevent but whose destructive effects can be over­come and reversed. I also think we need to let go of the idea that some real natural disaster like the dissolving of the ozone layer is going to wipe the white plague off the face of the earth. You know by the time that day comes, these muhfuhs will be liv­ing in bubble cities and have your ass in the cold paying for air sandwiches faster than you can say Jackie Robinson. Later for Black to the futurism. Your mind may be in Khmet, bro but, yo …

When reactive rage is the dominant form of our politics, when it takes police or mob violence to galvanize us into reaction, it means that there is an acceptable level of suffering and misery. When quality of life issues are not given the same attention as our antilynching activities, it means we have a low level of life expectations. It also means, as Dr. Frances Welsing has pointed out, that there is a general state of depres­sion operative in the Black community that provokes other problems, such as drug abuse. The warriors we need to step forward now aren’t the confrontational kind, but healers. Folk who know how to reach into where we really hurt, to the wounds we can’t see and that nobody likes to talk about. Outside of Joan Morgan, no one has spoken on the traumatic impact John Sin­gleton’s Boyz N the Hood had on many young Black ghetto escapees for whom it screened more as a nightmarish flashback than as escapist entertainment. If Black male leadership doesn’t move in the direc­tion of recognizing the pain and trauma beneath the rage, as the work of Toni Mor­rison, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, bell hooks and other women writers have done, if we don’t exercise our capacity to love and heal eachother by digging deep into our mutual woundedness, then what we’re struggling for is merely the end of white supremacy — and not the salvaging of its victims.

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Next: “Beyond Assimilation” by Michele Wallace