Black Metropolis: In Search of the Underclass

Give Me Your Poorest

On a recent Saturday afternoon I took a walk northeast from City Hall in search of fish in a barrel: a poor black family in a housing pre­dicament. In particular one crowded into an apartment with anoth­er family. The Times pegged the nomadic or the doubling-up the “couch people,” rightly citing their travails as an invisible and fluid homelessness. The stories of these women living on the Lower East Side suggests that these sojourns, housing compromises, are part of the everyday. Doubling-up has several faces, each as familiar as a next-door neighbor’s, or the one in the mirror.

There is that pioneer trap where you have a landmark in mind, head out for it, don’t find it, and are flung into being lost. After many blocks I look it. There’s a youngish black woman coming toward me on Henry Street with a child on a trike. Approaching her is like asking someone to dance — no matter how innocent the exchange there’s a subtext. I want her to be in dire straits yet be able to speak about it at length.

“Excuse me, do you know where the community centers are around here?”

“Not any that are open. What are you looking for?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”726854″ /]

It all comes out. The entreaty, the em­barrassed distancing words that sound like lying: Do you know any people that are doubling up — sharing apartments too small, in danger of being found out? My it’s-hard-to-get-people-in-that-kind-of-­situation-to-talk spiel. She looks up as she helps her son pull his trike up the curb. “Everyone’s doubled up … Me and him, we live with my mother.” And thus our time in the park begins.

Slowly — her son has decided to unlearn the peddling motion — we walk over to a small playground. On the way we chat about his mint trike, his new Nikes. “He wears out a pair every few weeks.”

Todd is two and a half and about that tall; his head’s pretty much shaven, with a filament part. He’s big-eyed and com­prehending. We sit down on a bench. He comes within inches of her. “Swings,” he says, squinting a little in the sun.

“I’m going to talk to this lady. We’ll play on the swings when I’m finished.” He goes off, but he does not get on the swings.

“There’s nearly nothing else you could do unless you move out of New York. I went to school. After I came back I moved in with my mom … for financial reasons. It’s hard to find an apartment, and even if you do, they tell you you make too much for Section 8 housing or it’s a co-op. The place I’m at now has a waiting list of 10 years.”

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

Even though she’s not the perfect sub­ject of abjection, she tells me a little of how her living situation works. Her mother pays the rent, and Michelle buys groceries, pays the phone. ”He [meaning Todd] costs a lot,” she says. “My mother, we get along well, but not everyone gets along with their mother.

“I went to Skidmore. I was in HEOP. So I didn’t have to put out any money. I got a degree in government.” The more efficiently she answers the clearer it is she’s not the person I’m looking for. All that self-reflective speech betrays what Michelle calls “her peace of mind,” her confidence — admittedly sometimes wa­vering — that at 26 she is waiting out a difficult period.

“I’d say 90 per cent of the people you see out here are living with their parents. If they’re 18 and have a child, the chances of getting out are nil.” She comes dangerously close to describing what sounds like her situation — young, black, with a child.

“Education is the bottom line where black people getting ahead is concerned.” She’s a legal assistant, working for the city, reading leases, telling landlords to correct code violations in day-care cen­ters. Before that she worked at Xerox.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724828″ /]

Occasionally she lapses into silence. She looks thoughtfully toward Todd, who is playing some 20 yards away, and then away toward Water Street. Pensively: “The neighborhood’s changing over. Buildings on Grand are becoming Section 8 housing, the people who live there now but don’t qualify, their rents are raised sky high.” She points down a walkway to a gutted building where plywood boards block out the windows. “That’s going to be a co-op, I think some Chinese people bought it. Now they double up, to save and buy.”

Michelle’s mother has lived in her building on Water Street for 22 years. She owns her two-bedroom apartment. She and her husband moved there from Har­lem. “My father’s a retired fireman. He studied with Countee … Countee Cullen. He studied French, he named me because he loved French. My grandmother owned a candy store in Harlem, but I think they sold it.”

Todd returns to the bench, fixes his eyes on his mother’s, puts a small hand on her knee, and says, “Swings?” Mi­chelle answers, “Not yet.” Much of Mi­chelle’s concern centers on Todd. “Day care is so expensive. I pay over $300 a month in day care for a private nursery. The reason I put him into that is because I’ve heard things about public nurseries and feel more comfortable in that situation, but it costs … Well now he says his ABCs instead of popping his head to the disco beat.” We laugh. “There’s plenty of time for that later.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721301″ /]

Todd runs off toward a white man in his thirties whose daughter may be a year older than Todd. This is 10 minutes after she talked about instilling suspicion of strangers in children only to be stuck convincing them that it is okay to get on a school bus. She looks to the playground swing set, eyes the man, then says, “Well, he looks like he can push a swing.” A smile supplants the concern, and by way of a seeming non sequitur she goes on, “I was thinking the other day I better start reading the Bible.”

Her free association is not without its undercurrent of concern. “A lot of people around here going off the deep end with all these epidemics going around, like the crack epidemic. Jesse Jackson was on the TV the other day, and said he’d been going to high schools telling kids that not doing drugs and alcohol should be the norm. He made a good point, talking about Martin Luther King. When Rosa Parks was about to sit in the front of the bus, she called King up, if he’d been spaced-out he wouldn’t have been able to answer that call. His point was if you’re spaced out you can’t help yourself or any­body.” She brings it on home: “That’s the hard thing about growing up around here, because you see people you grew up with going this way and that. On drugs going this way,” she gestures down and for the first time looks a little low.

And where is she going? “I think I’ll move out of the city. Well, a lot of people I know that are my age are relocating to the South. If I were 26 years old, 15 years ago I wouldn’t have the same problems.” As I walk by Todd he looks at me, then toward his mother, expectantly.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726861″ /]

The next day I retrace my path past the Pueblo Nuevo development, back behind the Hamilton Fish swimming pool. I head into the courtyard of Masaryk Towers, a light tan co-op development between Co­lumbia and Rivington.

The development is jimmied between two darker colored city housing projects, six 20-story buildings to the north of the Williamsburg Bridge. You can see the slats of the bridge frame momentarily the motion of cars traveling into Manhattan. I sit next to two large, smooth-skinned women on a brightly painted bench. My wait for an in is punctuated by the clack of plastic baseball bats against Wiffle balls, of bike gears shifting.

In the courtyard there is a great deal of Sunday afternoon activity. A Hispanic man has joined the two women. A security guard passes again. A little guy pops a fly then pulls decidedly at his shorts. A Monopoly $20 lies face up in the scrubs, blown from somewhere. At 5:30 the flag, the American flag, is lowered and folded by the security guards. I am not in the right place. The two women and man leave. I get up. On the corner of a bench is a black woman in her fifties, sitting alone.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726163″ /]

“This place is a mess. When I moved here in 1968 it was very nice and brand new, supposed to be middle-income hous­ing, and it was very middle-income be­cause they screened you and everything. Everything’s going to hell.” The ground rules are clear: she will not tell me her name. No not at all. “Etta” is wearing a green pantsuit with a print top, the print the reverse of her pants’. She is wearing sensible sneakers. Do people double up here? I ask her for the second time. The first time she stared the question down; now she hesitates. “If they are, they’re keeping it to themselves. If you got some­one staying in there with you, you better keep your mouth shut.” She paused. “Well, there was a lady on my floor and they were about to throw her out. So we signed a petition and wrote letters to keep her here. She’s here so far. But she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat not knowing if she’d be thrown out. That’s why you can’t lift a finger to help folks, as soon as they get mad they go tell on you.” She goes on to talk about other things she considers newsworthy: the death of friends, the death of both her babies, muggings, and a suicide in the complex. Occasionally she interrupts herself to point out each of her neighbors as they come in or head out. Though her reminiscences are sometimes painful she accents many of them with a laugh, head thrown back. “If I died in my apartment they would know. I keep an eye on my neighbors. They would notice.”

Etta is about the same age as Mi­chelle’s mother and has lived in the co-op nearly as long, moving here from “the projects,” with her husband, who’s since passed away. “It was multiracial, when we moved here. Sulzberger Rolfe man­aged it. They are the best landlords in the New York state. When this place started to go to pits was when they threw Sulz­berger Rolfe out.”

I fish for her opinions. “Well it seems that many people double up because rents are so high, or because they are trying to avoid becoming homeless.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”726827″ /]

“Yeah, but you can’t bring these home­less people into the house because they’ll have you out on the street. I read in the newspaper where this lady was trying to be kind and brought a homeless woman into the house and when she was sleeping stabbed her, she was only trying to be kind, that’s homeless for you. But the way they keep raising rents, that’s what throws a whole lot of people out. These rents aren’t stabilized. No, they’re fixing to go up. No, there are a whole lot of problems. When you want to come home in the evening and relax, not have no headaches — this place is a headache.” She quiets. “But you know what? When we did this we thought we were getting away from the stuff we had to face in the projects, but hell it looks like we jumped from the frying pan into the fire.” It’s getting dark and I turn off the tape re­corder to leave. “Yeah that woman took in roomers because her husband’s old and smokes a lot, so she can’t leave him alone. Well, I wrote letters.”

From this bench the complex looks a little more worn. She’s looking out to­ward the security booth. “Oh yeah, this is a melting pot, always been, but it looks like the better class of people are leaving.

“Here comes my longtime neighbor. Hi.” She’s says confidingly, “I have to keep an eye on them because sometime they sneak away.”

Around the block from Etta’s co-op in Hamilton Fish Park Alice and her sister, Felicia, are just hanging with a man and his girlfriend. The girlfriend’s two sons are off to the side of the bench climbing up along the fence then dropping back down. It isn’t clear till much later that the two young boys are part of the group. In front of Felicia a dark blue stroller reclines, the baby quiet and sleeping.

“Do you live around here? I’m looking for people who are doubling up in apartments.”

“Ooh,” Alice looks up. “I could sure tell you about that.”

“Would you? I don’t have to use your names.”

During this time the man has been standing with his foot on the bench, ciga­rette in hand. “Doubling up,” he says, kind of mulling it over. “Yeah, I know about that.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”726891″ /]

Alice then says a little more evasively, “Maybe you could go ask other people in the park. I definitely want to talk to you, but could you go away for 10 minutes, just walk around? If nobody else talks to you then come back.” We compromise and I go sit on a bench near the Pitt Street entrance to the park and wait.

A few minutes later Felicia, who’s wear­ing sponge curlers and a bright yellow T­-shirt, comes over to me. “My sister wants to know if you have a number where she can reach you. She’s a little upset right now. She gave this woman some money for Pampers and milk — they don’t give them to you in hotels like they do in shelters — and the woman hasn’t come back. That was at one o’clock.” With my luck they think I’m a narc.

Felicia sits down and tells me that right now she’s at the Third Street shelter, but that she’s moving. A bird shits on my foot. “Shit.” “What happened?” She half laughs. “It’s supposed to be good luck.” Maybe it’s a sign that they will talk. It becomes evident that this is something of a family reunion, a touching base. “I only see my sister so often because we’re moved around. Sometimes I don’t see her for months and I don’t know where she is. It would be different if we had the same case, but we don’t. We’re split up. Tomorrow I’m moving to a hotel in Brooklyn.” She mentions her nine-­month-old baby son — who’s recently had pneumonia — and she talks about how she hates air-conditioning. She gets the phone number and takes a slow walk back to the bench down on the other end of the area, stopping for a drink at the fountain.

Alice never comes over to the bench, though she calls the next day for infor­mation on housing. ■

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"


Do the White Thing

Fear Eats the Soul

[Spike] Lee is cagey and talented, but he’s a classic art-school dilettante when it comes to politics … His film … is more trendoid than tragic, reflecting the latest rifts in hip black separatism rather than taking an intellectually honest look at the problems he’s nibbling around . … All these subtleties are likely to leave white ( especially white liberal) audiences debat­ing the meaning of Spike Lee’s message. Black teenagers won’t find it so hard, though. For them, the message is clear … The police are your enemy … Whites are your enemy.
— Joe Klein, New York Magazine

I’D LIKE TO SHARE A STORY with Joe Klein. Though perhaps in light of the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, its moral may have al­ready occurred to him.

One summer afternoon in New Haven, a white friend went walking with her white boyfriend through the green across from Yale’s old campus. Most students had cleared out, leaving this economically depressed and predominantly black and Italian city to its own devices. Viv and Ned passed three young black men who were hanging out on a bench, cranking a radio, blasting a song called “Drop a Bomb On the White Na­tion.” According to Viv, the homies said nothing, maybe didn’t even notice them; but she sure noticed them. All of a sud­den, she said later, she was convinced they wanted to kill her. Why? Because she was white.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725402″ /]

Now, I understand fear and feeling en­dangered — that, unfortunately, is femi­nine intuition — but when this story was related to me I just laughed. It all seemed so obvious: Here’s this nice white student continuing on the road to economic as­cendancy — a very complicated given predicated on a racist, classist system. (Forgive the revolutionary tone.) Here are these young black men — statistically, their stars are not rising. They were just listening to the radio. What was she thinking? Her racial anxiety didn’t just shift, it flipped: subconsciously, she con­cluded that if we black folks aren’t mad at white folks, we should be. Repressing this conclusion, she arrived at a blind sense of threat. Others go further: Some of the best white supremacist rhetoric is couched in the language of self-defense.

I’m not a fan of reading movies as ambiguous and nuanced as Do the Right Thing as agitprop, or even thinking that a director has the special handle on his film; Spike has said some iffy things. Even so, when Joe Klein wrote that the film might lead to riotous behavior on the level of the Central Park Horror, he turned reality on its head. Instead, why didn’t he envision this, more common scenario: in a city tense about race issues, a gang of white youths hunt down four black men and kill one of them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716036″ /]

Klein seems unable to accept that black moviegoers can become angry with­out rioting; he also ignores the possibility of backlash, of a reverse race riot. But while Klein is baffled by the complexities of what Lee put onscreen, the residents of Bensonhurst are unable to admit the simple reality of what happened on their streets. Witness the defensiveness of their responses: it wasn’t racism, it was a case of mistaken identity, or the age-old axe murder/rapist/molestor/batterer de­fense, “He couldn’t have done it, he was always a nice guy.” The fact is, you don’t know whether someone is racist until they come face to face with another race — or until they feel the need to justify the racist actions of a neighbor.

This past Sunday my brother, some friends, and I were having brunch. One person at the table was reading the cover of The Daily News, something about wa­termelons and a jeering crowd of young Bensonhurst residents out to rid the neighborhood of protestors. Watermelons and racist exhibitionists and another black death in New York City. Suddenly, it was all too cartoonish and hopeless. My brother just began to laugh his beau­tiful soft laugh, slightly hysterical. I joined in — our two friends, both white, just looked horrified. ■

Next: “This Land Is Your Land” by Joe Wood

1989 Village Voice article by Kathy Dobie about murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst

1989 Lisa Kennedy article for the Village Voice about the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst and also Joe Klein’s obtuse review of DO THE RIGHT THING

From The Archives From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

BLACK LIKE WHO? The Body In Question

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick was just a kick. After I studied the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is a punch, a kick is just a kick.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee, the Chapter on °Tools”

The masters tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.

— Audre Lorde

The collective body — that phantasm with which I share blood, history, and hips — ­goes for a stroll. Ambling, lumbering, hob­bling in a monstrous mass, more male than female, urban than rural, angry than forgiv­ing, the CB is reminiscent of some creature from a ’50s sci-fi flick, bigger than a house. Familiar and endearing to some, scary to others, the body in question shall remain surnameless, has to, which is no doubt one reason Malcolm took on the X. But let’s give it a handle anyway, call it the “black community” this time around, knowing full well, though forgetting all the time, that there is more than one collective body roaming the American landscape at any given moment.

Anyway, it’s a humid day in Brooklyn, so the collective body decides to take in a movie. Terminator 2 has just opened on the Fulton Street Mall. The collective body (working the affirmative-action tip by bringing along Julian and Jeff, who are white) digs deep into its pocket for $7, the price of the ticket for a flick with a decided­ly nonblack lead — though his name does seem to say “black,” two times.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721686″ /]

Without a doubt, the Metropolitan Cine­mas is one of the best places to see an action pic. The excellent “Awwh shit … Kill him!” call and response of the audi­ence makes it moviegoing like it oughta be. But still, who couldn’t be thrown by the sight of an African American scientist, played by Joe Morton, being chastised (“It’s you people who have destroyed the world!”) and not scream “Whoa!” (“Who, black men?!!”), and then wonder why the collective body continues to root and re­spond after that moment. Is there some more compelling (though perhaps uncon­scious) logic than the simple “that’s entertainment”?

Something in Leonard Jeffries’s deploy­ment of history suggests there is. And then somersaults to throw light on Jeffries’s own debacle. (And by debacle, I mean not only his delusions-of-personal-grandeur, pseudo­science, quasireligious filibuster, but the anxiety-driven, censorious paranoia with which its been met. Forget the Post and go directly to the more subtle Time piece by Lance Morrow and Thomas McCarroll, who use Jeffries to slip in a cursory critique of the “intellectually troubling” aspects of Afrocentrism, that new religion, which they intimate has no greater goal than to declare ancient Egypt as black and the rightful cra­dle of civilization.) Where Jeffries and T2 rebel John Connor meet is in their advoca­cy of history as something that “can be processed in a way to make it work for you.” And that is time travel, pure and simple.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716615″ /]

Well, not so simple. Terminator 2‘s back and forth between the past and the post­apocalyptic present is sexy but convoluted. Even so, the conceit of an adult hero repro­gramming a cybertool to save his boy-self (making him more his father than his own father could be) is easily the most groovy metaphor for the work of postmodern his­tory available. This is what history is like for the collective body, it is a tool to reengi­neer the past, get in there, fix it up, guaran­tee a future. (That some, like Jeffries, I venture, believe that the iterations have a natural stopping point, a “truth,” “our truth,” is a problem of a different stripe.)

With history conveniently declared de­ceased — an untimely death to say the least — even the less conspiracy-minded of us can’t help feeling that it’s been murdered in order to prevent us, the collective body, from resuscitating it, exhuming it, perform­ing an autopsy, doing whatever it takes to get it to bear witness to the atrocities and triumphs to which it’s been privy. This is, of course, one of the aims not only of Afro­centrism, but of multiculturalism and feminism.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

The collective body wants to know.

But what? Nothing less than its past, present, and future. The time when uttering a historical gem meant announcing a “fact” has slipped by. Not because events them­selves are malleable, but because their “meaning” is, from here on out, painfully contestable. This is embedded in Jeffries’s rail as well (though his history is more divisive than a device). But there is some­thing truer than all the bogus “frameworks” about sun and ice evoked to show people of color (and whites) that we’ve had our hand in this world from the get-go, which is that there is certainty no more.

We need look no further than Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka’s brawl over Malcolm’s legacy or Jeffries’s spiel on the dastardly deeds of a Jewish Hollywood, or even the uproar about Clarence Thomas and African American Republicans, to see that the col­lective body, the black community, hasn’t a cohesive identity. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to know how difficult and painful questions of identity can be. If one lone subject spends a lifetime of language trying to represent herself in total, all the while slip-sliding over a world of communi­cation, it’s not difficult to imagine the hell (and high points) a nation of millions wades through to express itself in one voice.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724767″ /]

Was there ever a time when the collective body moved and spoke as one? Not likely. And is that one-hand, one-heart feeling de­sirable, or even possible? Racism and in­equality make it feel thus — make it seem necessary, but would it be so in a world of undifferentiated difference? A world where race is neither the “Master’s house,” nor a tool to dismantle it. There is a tremendous push (ours) and an opportunity (let’s not forget the pangs of a hungry marketplace) for more representation, more film, more images, more, more, more. With this lurch forward comes a flood of anxiety as well. Competition for one: If individual blacks can only speak for the collective body, then exactly how much of it is there to be carved up and sold off? But also a more visceral fear: Will we become slaves to the collec­tive body? Forced always to speak for it and to its needs? And scared to death that if we don’t, we won’t be allowed to say anything; or if we misrepresent it for the sake of ourselves we will be expelled, we will not exist? We will be “Toms,” or “house negroes,” or “not black,” when clearly we remain in our skins.

It’s not a surprise to find film in the midst of this growing discussion of the col­lective’s identity. Film because it feels extraordinarily powerful — all that money, and narrative, and pleasure — and because historically it is how America looks at itself. While Leonard Jeffries was not wrong to assail “Sambo images” of black folk in ear­ly Hollywood films (though black film his­torian Donald Bogle has done better work of it in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, locating the subversive in the submissive, finding the residue of the black actors’ resistance to demeaning roles), he couldn’t have chosen an odder time to do it, this being the year of black film and all. In the recent past Spike Lee’s films have been treated as something of a hand-held mirror by the collective body — many of us drawn to his images less like Narcissus than like people who have seldom seen them­selves — the cinema has now become a house of mirrors.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720527″ /]

New Jack City, Chameleon Street, Jungle Fever, Boyz N the Hood, True Identity all speak of, to, and/or for the collective body. With every viewing, the black community gets an inkling of its shape, its texture, even its age and gender (mostly young, mostly male these days). Indeed many of the Afri­can American films of the past year have done the work of retooling, demonstrating how that activity creates new, compelling difficulties for the collective body. In short: WHERE ARE THE WOMEN??!! From House Par­ty to To Sleep With Anger to Mo’ Better Blues to Boyz N the Hood, the sons are working overtime to secure the place of the father, and in doing so, themselves. If ever there were a symbolic effort to counteract a sociological assertion — that of paternal abandonment — it has been these films, which depict a world of fathers and sons. Need I add, this does not take care of all of us who partake of and make the collective body’s life 24-7. (Word to the brother: I will not have some 23-year-old man-child in LALA land telling me I must forego a ca­reer to be a good mother, that it’s my re­sponsibility to the embattled black family, just because he made a moving film.) If one were to seize the entrepreneurial moment, the T-shirt would read: IT’S AN OEDIPAL THING. YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND. This is less a complaint, more an observation about the failure inherent in casting the collective over the individual or mistaking the individual vision as the collective reali­ty. If we Americans weren’t going through such a xenophobic moment in relation to French thought, I would suggest that when discussing black film, we put a slash through the “black” just to make a distinc­tion between a tool with a handle and … us.

That an essay about the identity of the black community can teeter just this side of being a film piece is a testament to our living in a uniquely American moment, when political activism, liberation activity, is more often than not bound up with ques­tions of representation. When the real lives of people are substantiated by their reel lives. The U.S. is at once a semiotic semiot­ic semiotic semiotic world and a material one; a place where we become the actors, the acted upon, and no one in particular.

[related_posts post_id_1=”419403″ /]

No doubt, our bodies are shot through with meaning, riddled with definitions and qualities not of our own choosing. Some­times the most positive thing to do in that instance is to choose wholeheartedly the meanings, embrace them dramatically, turn the joint upside down. Hip-hop does this aggressively. Film bobs and weaves. Identi­ty politics … well, at its best, it’s like social work at its best, a strategy employed on the way to a different place.

The collective body is at a weird stage. The question is, Will it become the cyborg that we construct, tend, love and hate, breathe life into, and can’t bear to part with (though its existence may doom us ulti­mately)? Or will we let it pass when the time comes? The fights over who will speak, what will be said and recounted, the “real” blackness suggest that the moment of relinquishing will not be an easy one. But in avoiding it we confound ourselves, throt­tle our artists, repress our meaning as peo­ple who, unlike the collective body, have proper names and rich personal histories. What exactly is the purpose of a politics based on racial identity, any identity? To prove the other guy wrong? Make him yell uncle? Or to deliver the subject from the jaws of a limited/limiting discourse into a meaty narrative, however painful, joyous, and lousy, of her own?

Next: “Black Rage” by Cornel West

From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Keep Dope Alive: The Noise of One Mind Tripping

Ecstatically Ordinary: The Noise of One Mind Tripping
June 22, 1993

This is my prose. 

This is my prose on drugs.

The theory, mind you, was to make it immediate. The last time I did ecstasy was November. Being no habitué, I wanted to refresh the synapses, so for veracity’s sake, I paid the cash and a day.

Sitting in St. Luke’s Garden, M. turns and asks, “What are you thinking?” I’m thinking about drugs, which surprises her. It sur­prises me that it surprises her. Doesn’t every­body? What I don’t say is that I am hearing deeply murmurs and sounds and voices — the wind, the tires on asphalt, the friends talking. That noise is the best thing about this drug; it is the payback, the astounding feed­back. If people like to dance on it, it’s not just because it’s speedy but because sound is different, vying more aggressively with the visual for perceptual primacy. I am also won­dering whether I would like the look of the brick apartment house across the Hudson, if not for a change in my internal weather. 

In the beginning, there was the word. On the bookshelf of the the den was Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, with its marbled-orange cover jacket. Of course, I never read it, or saw the movie with Charlton Heston. Years later, there was Sir Kenneth Clark speaking, if you could call it that, about Bernini’s St. Theresa. There, badly projected on the screen of a Denver class­ room, was the face of ecstasy. I have always aspired for something akin to that paroxys­mal vision of the ecstatic — the religious piercing, the searing illumination.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723213″ /]

In Berlin, my friend S. kindly babysits me. I am day tripping and she is not. In a market underneath the train station, it takes. I stiffen some, the brainstem and stomach a little tight. The cacophony begins: muffled German melds with the squeak of a shopping cart and the clang clang clang of a register bell. I am convinced that Wim Wenders knows (in the biblical sense) this drug. After all, the first minutes of Wings of Desire are this sublime: it is the noise of the world heard and seen — all the suffered and achy whisperings in his town, our town. I am also convinced that what X has to offer can be achieved without it, and I try to prove this with S. by explaining how I am hearing the world: for much of the day she feels it. On the train from East Berlin a drunken man sits across from us and begins speaking. There is no fear. S. moves, leaving me alone with his raving and my dumb bliss.

“First of all, I don’t think ‘Ecstasy’ is a good name for MDMA,” said Andrew Weil not so very long ago in these pages, “because the state it produces is not ecstatic. It’s a state of great tranquility, relaxation, self-acceptance, and non-defensiveness.” Weil is the author of a book on the mind and drugs; it’s nice to have science support my research. Ecstasy is a great consumer-seducing name for a drug that reaps something quite different. But anything closer to the point would sound like Calvin Klein: Tranquility. Serenity. Calm. Or perhaps the name of a memorial garden.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723238″ /]

No raves, no outlaw parties on the corner between this and that, no midnight to mid­day marathons — if this is the drug’s profile, I don’t fit it. More solitary wanderer than group groper, I tend to do this and other drugs solo (though the sight of a pretty-committed-to-the-team queer girl smooch­ing her best boy buddies seems in keeping with X’s reputation as an orgy enhancer). I tend to take my drugs at exactly the times those PSA films from grade school warned not to: when alone, when depressed, anx­ious, etc. That one can do this with X and live to tell is one of its charms. There was the time I popped a leftover X tablet into my mouth as I began roasting a chicken for my parents, who were flying from out West to mark the first anniversary of Kevin’s death. That my brother’s passing coincides with a turning away, perhaps only tempo­rary, from the hardier, and less forgiving, hallucinogens to X is no coincidence.

On a beach miles south of Cancun, the sun is hot. Since this is precisely the kind of discomfort one might not notice on X, I am exceptionally tender and goofy with myself. Just so under this palm, just so in the water. Be naked. Be careful. Be steady. Don’t be afraid. Get cozy with the seaweed that freaks you out. Cool. Pretty. No one said drugs weren’t banal. Onto this beach I take my whole reason for being in Mexico: a stack of cards and letters Kevin sent when he lived in Paris. And on X, I read many. But I can’t make emotional sense of what I am reading. Instead I wind up looking, no, seeing, the cards, these tens of postcards he sent with gargoyles, with Paris, saturating them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”713510″ /]

Yesterday I did X, probably for the last time (though I could not have guessed this before I started). No anti-drug bug, just no­ticing the law of diminishing returns at work. X is a weird blocker of lows: you can take it and not miss the people you miss most desperately. But it muffles highs as well. As an epiphany junkie, I’m not sure I even yearn for a drug to deliver an acute awareness of the unbearable lightness of being. Still, I have a desire to work for rewards of the spirit, to like or live with the world, on my own. Like alcohol, X is not very labor-intensive. As drugs go, LSD is work, mushrooms are work; maybe not for everyone, but for me, Jacob and his angel come to mind. It’s a struggle, always; on hallucinogens, I am not necessarily a party.

Having the sense of bringing something to a drug — a lot of history, a lot of desire and confusion — something that it recom­bines with to make the adventure one’s own, that’s a weird escapism worth strain­ing for the escapism of being here. Of course your personal lab results may vary­ — this is my body, my very own chem set. On X, you may cry and feel less inhibited or, like my drug buddy, dance better, be beau­tiful all night long; and that’s more than enough to keep you buying. Different ambi­tions, different results. To make the quotid­ian adventurous, or deeply compelling, to make the obvious all that there is, and good enough — for awhile X suggested the way. Not so much these days. Still, one likes to remember that first time, that endearing moment when a gang of four X virgins made trips to the john, fascinated by nothing more than the act of pissing.


Hobo Ken

George Plimpton. Those two words, that pretentious name-drop, begin John Ridley’s The Drift. “George Plimpton was up, angry. Doing work. George was a badass. George was a head smasher.” George, of course, is nothing like his Paris Review namesake, and initially this photo negative seems too coy by half: a bad mofo named after such a patrician soul, gee. Quickly we find out that George Plimpton isn’t some irony-laced character but the handle that hobo-narrator Brain Nigger Charlie has given his stealthy weapon. It’s George Plimpton’s literal, not literary, force that persuades.

The down-and-out duo of Brain Nigger Charlie and his ace boon walking stick mark Ridley’s return to the underbelly proclivities and hard-bitten style he’s wielded in such novels as Everybody Smokes in Hell (1999) and Stray Dogs (1997). Nowhere in The Drift is there the winking fondness at the core of Undercover Brother (the underappreciated movie Ridley wrote and executive produced). And nowhere in Brain Nigger Charlie’s account of his life is there the whiff of self-pity that clings to A Conversation With the Mann (also published in 2002), a tale told by a black comedian whose lifelong goal had been to do a routine on The Ed Sullivan Show. After a summer of these intriguing detours, Ridley’s back to flexing his hard-boiled sensibility.

Before there was Brain Nigger Charlie, there was Charles Harmon, a black, middle-class tax lawyer living in Los Angeles with his “equally light-skinned, surpassingly upper-upper-middle-class [wife] Beverly.” A confluence of events ushers Charles over the threshold to where the lucid but not entirely sane Brain Nigger Charlie awaits. Harmon mismanages the misery his upwardly mobile aspirations bring, and falters. Then comes the promise, the gift, the absolute threat of a baby. Charlie recounts the demise of this former self with little tenderness—contempt is more like it. Not that imprecise version called racial self-hatred, but a personal, chilled disgust. “The very night Charles was told of his wife’s pregnancy he had a dream of the unborn child. He dreamed it was a happy, healthy caramel-colored kid. With a third eye in its cheek.” This eye “wasn’t deformed. It was a nice, normal third eye. But it was blue. . . . A baby with a cheek eye.” A black baby with a blue cheek eye. The dream visits him each night. So Charles adds ketamine and Ecstasy to his repertoire of bad coping mechanisms. Stay awake, don’t drift off, keep that three-eyed vision at bay. Pretty quick, Harmon—dumped by his firm and by his wife—is history. “Charles,” says his present incarnation, “was, in an incredibly short amount of time relative to the years of building himself up, penniless. . . . He learned something then: for those without money, money is nearly impossible to come by.” It is this broke and broken being that hits the rails.

The nation’s rail yards are an inhospitable and pungent place to insert the tale of a quest—a knights-of-the-roundhouse journey, so to speak. But that is exactly what Ridley does. At the annual National Hobo Convention (a real gathering that has been taking place in Britt, Iowa, since 1900), Brain Nigger Charlie runs into Chocolate Walt. Walt once saved Brain Nigger Charlie by teaching him how to hop a freight properly and by introducing him to the companionship of George Plimpton. After Chocolate Walt is crowned King of the Hobos, he asks a favor of Brain Nigger Charlie: Find his niece, Corina. The old hobo managed to impress upon his young kin the appeal of his impossible life. “After all the stories you’ve distributed to me over the years, after reading so many picture books of so many beautiful destinations,” she wrote her uncle, “I’m finally catching out and riding the rails.”

Ridley, like Brain Nigger Charlie, loves libraries. The gangs that prowl the rail yards and trains in The Drift are the real deal. The white supremacist FTRA, Freight Train Riders of America, and the NLR, the Nazi Low Riders, inspire maximum insecurity. This is a world in which the prison-industrial complex has been eviscerated and its innards strewn along the High Line, the central and southern routes. Here vulnerability gets the same brutal treatment it would at Oz. Uppity Nigger Charlie is raped a number of times before George Plimpton helps him become Brain Nigger Charlie. Midway through his journey, Brain Nigger Charlie makes the acquaintance of a white-boy naïf. He tags him Stupid Bitch Dumbass. It’s a name that underscores just how overdetermined the yang of this subculture is.

Should it be a surprise, then, that the female characters typical of noir-inflected fiction would transmogrify? In The Drift, femmes fatales become lethal butches who can kick ass as mercilessly as their skinhead, drug-slinging, sociopath brethren: “The other guy wasn’t a guy. The guy was a chick and she was some whole other thing,” Brain Nigger Charlie says of one such gal. “But different from the Shemale I’d tussled with in Williston, she didn’t come off at all dykish. She was just about pretty. . . . Except that she looked like she’d be plenty happy to carve me from my flesh and fuck what remained of me, she was a real hottie.” As for Corina, entangled with a very lethal meth dealer: Even she is more emotionally armored than we, or Brain Nigger Charlie, suspect.

In the end, Corina remains a cipher, despite the missives Brain Nigger Charlie has to go on. “It’s easy not to trust when a woman’s involved,” a railway investigator tells Charlie: old-school words from an old-style P.I. That The Drift‘s unholy grail turns out to be of less import than the journey to find it is not nothing new. Yet Ridley gives that idea the once-over with startling vigor and a brutal, callused poetry. With The Drift, Ridley unfetters a low-grade fury.


Whiteness Invisible

In “The Sad, Sweet Story of Sugar Lips Shinehot, the Man With the Portable Promised Land,” author Touré crowds the streets of New York with invisible folk. Unlike Ellison’s titanic invention, however, these invisible men and woman are white, and they happen to be invisible solely to Sugar Lips Shinehot. Sugar Lips is but one of the bemusing characters in The Portable Promised Land, a debut collection that limns with a fine confidence and cheeky humor the fabulous, the fantastical, the incantatory.

Before all of Manhattan began looking to him like Negro Heaven, Sugar Lips had been a legendary sax player in the making. Then he got his pleasure-giving puss remolded into “a mangled ol’ fist” by a couple of white sailors. Soon after this beat down, Sugar is approached by an associate of Reverend Doctor Bernard Z. LeBub. Touré delivers this meeting as deft comedy by way of chitlin’ circuit repartee and Zora Neale Hurston folktales.

“It was them crackers tore you up, right?” [asks the minion.]

“Yeah,” [says Sugar.]

“You can’t play your horn?”


“You can’t kiss your women?”

“No, sir.”

“Make you mad?”


“Make you mad at all crackers?”

“Uh, sometimes.”

“So mad you hate them?”

“I don’t know about all that.”

“Wish you could wipe them honkeys off the earth as you know it?”

“What Negro hasn’t once or twice?”

“Well then . . . This here’s your lucky day.”

The bamboozling is a familiar one: another clueless soul suckered into an eternal swap. Much like the wishes granted by genies, the pact immediately demands revision. White people don’t really disappear from Sugar’s world. He just can’t see them. For Sugar this not-seeing is believing the world a haven. It’s a faith he enjoys even after he’s hammered by some invisible cops. They, after all, can see him. But Sugar relishes his newfound role as non-seer. So much so, he feels compelled to offer the folk of Harlem a new miracle: a Negro flying. This is when the story of Sugar Lips Shinehot gets sadder, sweeter, and lethally fanciful.

Sugar’s not the only one of Touré’s characters to take wing in these vivid urban folktales. During a Sunday sermon at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls, the Right Revren Daddy Love gets to floating above his pulpit, which unhappily turns out to have been built atop a rancid pool of extra-strength frying oil. Then there’s Negritude College’s hoop star Falcon Malone in “Falcon Malone Can Fly No Mo.” He of the hoodoo-blessed Nikes loses his mojo to a similarly gifted player in a Soul City playground shootout.

Quite a few of The Portable Promised Land‘s citizens reside in Soul City, a sister city to Italo Calvino’s invisible metropolis. In Soul City, the sublime and the ridiculous knock boots. There, Huggy Bear Jackson routinely takes a slow ride in his “pristine money-green 1983 Cadillac Cutlass Supreme custom convertible with gold rims, neon-green lights underneath, and a post-state-of-the-art Harmon Kardon system with sixteen speakers, wireless remote, thirty-disc changer, and the clearest sound imaginable.” So what if this ride clocks a molasses 15 mph. In “The Steviewondermobile,” the soundtrack is more important than making tracks. When his car stalls, does Huggy rethink his priorities? “Did he know,” wonders the narrator, “that if the backup battery was connected to the electrical system instead of the sound system that he could’ve kept on driving? Sure he did.”

The stories here—with their flip-o’-the-script comeuppances and Technicolor folly—could be called morality tales. Except judgment and superiority get tossed on their butts by the vibrant, the messy, the absurd. Not that the author’s wry fondness for his characters stops him from wrestling with their contradictions. And nowhere is this more affecting than in his story-cycle about the Black Widow, a revolutionary MC straight outta . . .

When first we meet the Black Widow, née Isis Jackson, her 32-track debut album, You Are Who You Kill, is set to break out. She totes a pink Uzi she calls Lil’ Sis. She’s buffered by gal pals who’d dethrone a queen bee in a nanosecond. She drops this bit of wisdom on the magazine scribe profiling her: “There is only one antidote for white supremacy. It is a bullet, delivered swiftly to the cranium. The higher the caliber, the more effective the treatment.” Is she for show or for real? A Black revolution incarnate or a brilliant and deadly strutting of bad faith? The interviewer may not be skeptical enough, but for his inventor this is a familiar quandary. Touré, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, likely knows a thing or two about the tussle between performance and authenticity when profiling a celebrity.

Still, in the darker tales of the Black Widow as in the brighter vignettes, Touré is in no rush to resolve the existential tangles of his characters. Grasping identity—Isis Jackson’s, or for that matter, hip-hop’s—is a layered operation. If there’s a moral to be had, it would go a little something like this: You could peel this onion just enough to think the sis’s message reeks. You could carve it a bit more to know it stings. Or, as Touré does: You could keep working it until it makes you cry for the pain that the contradictions of race can cause for the tender among us.


Love and Bullets

At the heart of Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination is a call. It is not a call to arms (even metaphorically), nor is this onetime Communist Party worker calling for a return to the elevation of class above all the other complexities that ail us. The author of Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America—a work that took to task lefties who have shown a reckless disregard for “identity movements”—would hardly take that great leap backward. No, it is a call to the Marvelous.

The Marvelous is a way of seeing Kelley learned early. “My mother taught us that the Marvelous was free,” he writes of his childhood spent on the border of Washington Heights and Harlem, “in the patterns of a stray bird feather, in a Hudson River sunset, in the view from our fire escape, in the stories she told us, in the way she sang Gershwin’s ‘Summertime,’ in a curbside rainbow created by the alchemy of motor oil and water from an open hydrant.”

This parental gift, this poetic ethics, has since provided Kelley with a key to understanding the wild current of freedom running through the myriad efforts of black cultural prophets and community visionaries, poetic renegades and musical rebels. Whether it was W.E.B. DuBois or Thelonious Monk, Audre Lorde or Wifredo Lam, the African Blood Brotherhood or the Maoist-influenced Revolutionary Action Movement—blacks, Kelley argues, have kept their eyes on the prize of the possible: an African homeland; a black nation staked out in the belly of this beast; or an anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, anti-racist elsewhere.

“I have come to realize,” writes the professor of Africana studies at New York University, “that once we strip radical social movements down to their bare essence and understand the collective desires of people in motion, freedom and love lay at the very heart of the matter.”

This getting to the core is at once a humble and grand enterprise. It is also tricky to maneuver. Early in Freedom Dreams, Kelley cautions, “I don’t pretend to have written anything approaching a movement history or an intellectual history, and I am not interested in explaining why these dreams of revolution have not succeeded (yet!).” It’s fair warning for fans of Kelley’s previous books, in particular his deft and rigorous histories Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (1990) and Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (1994). But the caveat is also a bit of methodological aikido.

What this feint leaves unanswered is no small matter. Is it really possible, for instance, to separate the spirit of an organization from its destructive acts? Or does the messy end point indict the generative hopes of groups that so clearly failed their glorious visions? These “why these dreams have not succeeded” quandaries become insistent in the chapter ” ‘Roaring From the East’: Third World Dreaming,” which traces the influences of global revolutionary movements on black radical organizations in the ’60s. Kelley makes it clear that the Cuban Revolution, and even more potently, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, aroused the dreams of nascent radical organizations like the Black Panther Party and the little-known Revolutionary Action Movement. Kelley, who wields his sharp insights with a touching regard, does admit the trouble with these ideological progenitors: “We know with hindsight that millions of people were jailed, beaten and killed in the name of the Cultural Revolution; inside China itself, it hardly constituted a bright moment in socialist history.” These particulars often require Kelley’s strenuous effort to keep the beat of his compassionate theme: Beyond egos, sectarian squabbles, misguided or thwarted affinities, and masculinist miscalculations, imagination remains as strategically necessary as it is transforming.

In the book’s exemplary chapter, “Keeping It (Sur)real: Dreams of the Marvelous,” Kelley proposes a strategic surrealism inspired by poet-politician Aimé Césaire and wife Suzanne. Their engaged art, their promotion of negritude, and their critiques of colonialism energized the surrealists after World War II. And surrealism’s fondness for revolt confirmed the Césaires’ belief in the power of the unfettered imagination. Surrealism, for Suzanne Césaire, “was not an ideology but a state of mind,” writes Kelley. It required, she believed, a “permanent readiness for the Marvelous.”

Kelley, it turns out, is right. Freedom Dreams is a history neither of movements nor intellectual trends. For all its marshaling of compelling evidence, the book might be thought of as notes toward the philosophy of an idea. In this regard, it’s a shame that Kelley doesn’t fully interrogate his beneficent view of dreams and imagination, if only to protect his own incandescent aspirations better. After all, dreams, even those of liberation, can be incendiary visions of retribution, of mayhem, of rage.

Perhaps Kelley believes he addresses that question by evoking one of the 20th century’s beautiful dreamers, Martin Luther King Jr. “We Negroes have long dreamed of freedom,” wrote King in 1963, “but still we are confined in an oppressive prison of segregation and discrimination. Must we respond with bitterness and cynicism? Certainly not, for this will destroy and poison our personalities. . . . To guard ourselves from bitterness, we need the vision to see in this generation’s ordeals the opportunity to transfigure both ourselves and American society.” Are the visions King demanded really kin to the fantasies of brutal revolution that were espoused in the late ’60s? More than a few times, Kelley leaves his readers questioning some of the dreamers and their dreams, asking, where’s the love?


Melodrama Queen

“Like many people who watched the October 3, 1995, verdict in the trial of O.J. Simpson, I felt deeply implicated in its drama. . . . [It was] a verdict that sparked unprecedented white resentment,” Linda Williams writes with enticing candor in the preface to Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White From Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson, her exploration of the persistent power of melodrama. “I realized that a book I had been writing on the American melodramatic imagination . . . would have to become a book about black and white racial melodrama.”

The domain of the dastardly villain and distressed damsel, the haunt of Peyton Place histrionics and Douglas Sirk arias, the home to Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce, melodrama has often been snubbed by high-culture types even as it’s been taken up into the tender, if constricting, embrace of genre enthusiasts (in particular feminist film critics). For all its sentimental gestures, its saccharine moments, melodrama has always entertained the big questions: virtue and vice, good and evil. “If emotional and moral registers are sounded,” writes Williams on the form’s greedy ambitions, “if a work invites us to feel sympathy for the virtues of the beset victims, if the narrative trajectory is ultimately concerned with a retrieval and staging of virtue through adversity and suffering, then the operative mode is melodrama.”

From the moment Harriet Beecher Stowe combined the facts of slavery with the devices of 19th-century melodrama to make apparent the virtue of a beaten, God-loving slave, to make real the heartache and desperate flight of a fugitive slave mother, melodrama found its soul mate. And the traumas of black-white relations—the abuses, the conflicts, the enmity—found a reconciling (or, in the case of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, rending) advocate in melodrama.

Melodrama American-style is not “an aberration, archaism, or excess,” Williams argues, “but the fundamental mode by which American mass culture has ‘talked to itself’ about the enduring moral dilemma of race.” Melodrama moves the story of black and white relations. And, in a kind of pulsing circuit, race relations imbue melodrama with a startling potency and relevancy. An awkward but telling testament to the rightness of Williams’s project comes when the author uses D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East and James Cameron’s Titanic to illustrate the changing yet enduring spectacle of the virtuous victim. It is a convincing comparison, yet it pales alongside her race-inflected genealogy of morality plays: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, Showboat, Gone With the Wind, Roots, and finally, the criminal trials of O.J. Simpson and the cops that beat Rodney King.

Once Williams engages these texts, her writing decompresses. It even impresses. Like her 1988 book Hard Core, which began a boomlet in porn studies, Playing the Race Card displays Williams’s desire to speak to a broader audience. But the real elegance is in her thinking. Williams enlists a rich metaphor from Henry James to capture the fluid nature of American melodrama. James coined it while pondering the changeling life of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as it leaped from page to stage to the road in hundreds of antebellum traveling Tom shows. The work, he said, was like “a wonderful ‘leaping’ fish.” Racialized melodrama, too, leaps, often transforming the new mediums as it lands. The Birth of a Nation‘s Klan rescue is one of the earliest and best examples of the kind of frenzy film editing could create. The Jazz Singer and Show Boat “represent that moment in American popular culture when . . . American racial melodrama dramatically forged a new musical form in which ‘singing black, feeling black’ became a testament of white virtue.” Wherever melodrama lands, it brings the same set of concerns, and Playing the Race Card is at its protean best when it is tracing these from medium to medium. For instance, melodrama’s bedrock notion of home as a space of innocence—already a source of the form’s conservatism, its tendency toward nostalgic hankerings—becomes an utter conundrum in a nation built on slavery. The very question of this idealized space, especially in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and Roots, points to the limitations of melodramatic resolutions. “Melodrama does not always move, then, toward a new future,” Williams reminds us. “Very often it moves to restore some semblance of a lost past.” But where does that leave the ex-slave? What is a space of innocence for the ex-slave owner?

As incandescent as Playing the Race Card can be, it leaves some nagging questions. Why, for instance, is it so easy to become inured to melodrama’s moralizing calls for action? Why does the form behave as much like an opiate as a stimulant? More vexing still: How did the historically documented vision of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (with its clear portrait of the abuse of slaves) get so easily trumped by the paranoid lie at the heart of The Birth of a Nation (the rape of white women by black men)? In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin wrote bitterly of Stowe’s book that “sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart, and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.” Baldwin wrote those words for Partisan Review in 1949. He was in a unique position to witness the fact that melodramatic catharsis—even “feelings” of racial empathy—seldom led to appropriate action.

Throughout Playing the Race Card, Williams never discounts the hypocrisy, the brutality, often at work in the melodramatic mode, especially in matters of race. Indeed, her parting thoughts offer a melancholy caveat to what has come before. “I seriously doubt that it will be possible for popular culture to break with melodrama’s obsession with past injury as a way of establishing moral legitimacy,” she writes. We have only to look at the past months’ headlines—the ongoing debates around the Confederate flag, the court battle over the Gone With the Wind parody, the burgeoning reparations movement, the retrying of Ku Klux Klan terrorists—to know we won’t be weaning ourselves from this brand of storytelling any time soon.


Quentin Tarantino, Natural Born Filmmaker

Natural Born Filmmaker: Quentin Tarantino vs. the Film Geeks
October 24, 1994

The blood-red invitation should have read: THE OFFICERS AND DIREC­TORS OF THE FILM SOCIETY OF LINCOLN CENTER, MIRAMAX FILMS, VOLVO, AND ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY CORDIALLY INVITE YOU TO THE CORONATION OF QUENTIN TARANTINO AND THE OPENING OF THE 32ND NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL. After all, from the perfumed pages of profile factories to the more judicious cinephilic organs of indie cinema, there have been as many as 20 pieces heralding the 31-year-­old director and his second film. That he snagged the Palme d’Or in Cannes this past May didn’t hurt. And if further proof was needed that no filmmaker in recent memory has produced so strong a desire to proclaim him so early in his game as the genius he very well might be, the morning of the ascension the paper of record carried Janet Maslin’s treatise on a canonization: “It must be hard to believe that Mr. Tarantino, a mostly self-taught, mostly untested talent who spent his formative years in a video store, has come up with a work of such depth, wit and blazing originality that it places him in the front ranks of American film makers.”

Raised by his mom on movies — those edgy confound­ing ones from the ’70s — a junior high truant who spent his time working and playing in theaters, an aspiring actor who decided he’d rather direct, a writer who paid the bills slinging videos in Manhattan Beach, California, Taran­tino’s journey is, well, out of the movies. His debut, Reservoir Dogs, smacked the screen hard at its 1992 Sun­dance Film Festival premiere, then got caught in the crossfire of anxious debates about film violence. With its slowly forming pool of blood and seductively terrifying dance of sadism at its core, it was easy to forget, or repress, the other reasons why it worked a nerve: Dogs was a talkfest with bald, off-color language, it presented a self­-conscious actors’ lair with a spare beau­ty. Even with its intelligently realized picture of the violence that career crim­inals do, this was a movie’s movie.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715048″ /]

Pulp Fiction, with its hood’s winks and nudges, is even more so. Its three stories about one story structure and scrambled time frame move its boxer and lover, hit man and boss’s wife, lowest-rent Bonnie and Clyde through a world that isn’t so much underworld as Faulknerian with a .38. The L.A. that Tarantino’s thieves and killers inhabit is hermetically sealed: is it possible that Pulp Fiction‘s winning and murderous Vincent Vega (John Travolta) is related to Dogs‘s cruel and murderous Vic Vega (Michael Madsen)? Characters mentioned in passing in Dogs appear in Pulp Fiction as well as in the films made from his screenplays for True Romance, directed by Tony Scott, and Natural Born Killers (which is now in industry lingo a film “based on a story by Quentin Tarantino”). Pulp isn’t the second Tarantino film, it’s the third and a half (with the collid­ing of approaches and egos in Natural Born Killers factored in). Tarantino doesn’t simply give us a vision, he gives us a world; his touch is auteurist even when he’s not behind the camera.

The French semiotechnicians of the ’80s who wanted to explain American culture to itself have gone down for the count in the bungle de jungle, but Tarantino could have sprung from their eggheads full-grown: the pleasures of cinema’s texts come home to roost. And yet his appeal must also be that though he belongs to the generation that forces universities to curb hate speech and regulate dating practices, he is not of it. If those gestures are puritanical, Tarantino is about the marvelously visceral. (Does anyone really care to imagine how homonyms come into being: reel and real? When Pulp Fiction opened the New York Film Festival three weeks ago, one audience member was sent into insulin shock by a bit of onscreen junkie slapstick. When the announcement came 20 minutes later that “the victim was just fine,” there was no doubt who the perp was.) Tarantino arrives at a moment when the will toward cool is much less suspect than the will toward justice. His brash monologues, complete with racial and sexual epithets, make it easy for Movieline to promote him as the anti–politically correct director, though he’d be unhappy to be so easily used. In some strange way, Tarantino the videodidact is the embodiment of American self-reliance with a hint of transatlantic jouissance. He is a natural born filmmaker.

So on a comfortable September evening, as the high school gym acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall gulped down Pulp Fiction‘s surf and soul soundtrack, me and the Girl Pup awaited, along with the usual suspects, the arrival of the Prince of Pulp. Tarantino, wearing a Dogs couture suit, took the mike to introduce his stars, John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and Harvey Keitel (“the father I never had”), to name a pack of them; he wryly thanked Janet Maslin and then laughed his utterly gleeful laugh. Pinch him — Quentin Tarantino must be living his dream. One day his trajectory from junior high dropout to Video Archives clerk to cinema wunderkind may eclipse L.A.’s longstanding specimen tale of Lana Turner at Schwab’s. In the meantime, the film-geek-makes-good angle has its own tremendous power.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716024″ /]

A funny thing happened on the way to the coronation, however. A couple of hours before Tarantino thanked Maslin, introduced Lazarus One and Two (Travolta and Willis), and laughed his laugh, Don Murphy called. One of the producers of Natural Born Killers, Murphy was phoning at the suggestion of Chris Gore, editor of L.A.’s Film Threat. It appears, as a film geek rises so might he fall. And while journalist a, b, c, and d spent their spring and summer buzzing around Tarantino’s startling originality, a paper trail of letters to the editor generated by the Film Threat posse, plus a few articles in Film Threat and the British mag Empire, were vehemently accusing him of the crassest kind of theft: plagiarism. Murphy wasn’t phoning to answer Tarantino’s snipes at NBK director Oliver Stone; he wanted to voice his support for Gore et al.’s contention that Tarantino lifted the premise and even shot by shot sequences of Reservoir Dogs from a Hong Kong shoot-’em-up, City on Fire. He was also calling to say: “I would openly celebrate Quentin’s death. I never had a falling out per se, but his actions since become Quentin Tarantino have been diabolical.” Ironically, one of the more stunning indictments of Tarantino came in the form of a video called Who Do You Think You’re Fooling (the story of a robbery) by Mike White. (Gore was only too happy to FedEx me a copy marked “Evidence.”) This completely witty, if self-serious, 20-minute video makes the case for Tarantino’s theft of Ringo Lam’s 1987 City on Fire much in the same way NBC set up GM, but in a style so sleek as to be Tarantino-esque.

Where intimations of originality arise can anxiety of influences be very far behind? What fresh compulsion is this that Tarantino has stirred up in so many, to either locate grand visions in what is so brilliantly second-hand or make great accusations about just how second-hand it all is? Could it be that the very concept of originality is, in this later age of mechanical reproduction, very much at stake? As if it isn’t always. One can quote Harold Bloom — “Strong poets make [poetic] history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves.” Or one can quote Ice-T, Ice Cube, or Cypress Hill. In other words, some acts of theft are highly original. Certainly for a generation of folks present to the quirks of the ‘geist — the radical sampling and unabashed scouring of pop things past that the decade’s most original art form, hip hop, has wrought — Tarantino’s “homages” (his word) or “stealing” (his and Gore and Murphy’s word) seem beside the point. Or to quote my editor: “He stole, so what?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717766″ /]

It would be easy to write off this creeping film geek bitterness as just so much hand jockey envy. After all, whether or not he is for real, Tarantino is getting some. Secret handshakes aside, however, and in honor of his detractors’ obsessively inspired work, I’ll share with you this particular tale.

“Is this going to be another kiss-ass piece about Quentin Tarantino?” Chris Gore did not sound happy to be given the opportunity to argue his case. Or in his words, “What? The opportunity to get fucked again!” Forget that he mixed his metaphors when he attacked the same mainstream publications that fucked him — L.A. Times, Esquire, Vanity Fair — as “all these pussy news organizations.” And forget that much of his blustery crankiness and humor felt scripted, just the way I hoped it would be (“Mr. Gore, will you please read from page 20 of Film Geek’s Revenge?”). His conviction was fascinating. “Oh, Quentin says he steals from everyone. That’s like Clinton saying he hits on everyone… I’d like to see him suffer for this, it’s reprehensible.” Before the conversation was done, more mention would be made of Clinton, as well as Watergate, Oliver Stone, Clinton, Zapruder, Clinton, Bush, and, yes, O.J., as in; “I have more confidence in the guilt of Quentin Tarantino than I do O.J.… Did you get that?” If it wasn’t clear after the soliloquy whether, as Gore and his band of outsiders contend, Tarantino “remade without credit” City on Fire, about an undercover cop, a den of thieves, and jewelry heist gone awry, it was clear that somehow Tarantino had betrayed this cadre of film buffs and video clerks, the ones who, Gore reminded me, “know what’s going on this country more than the fucking journalists — enter­tainment-wise.”

More than one person, including Tarantino, has said that stealing from the Hong Kong gunslinging genre is a little like making a bootleg of a bootleg of, perhaps, another bootleg. So what exact­ly is City on Fire? A three-gun standoff, a cop tenderly confessing his identity to a hood, two-fisted gunplay, a Wild Bunch amble down a city street. Sure, there’s shameless sampling. Sure, I think Quentin Tarantino has no shame. When asked about Ringogate, he hops up. “I’ve got the poster right here.” He holds it up and points: “That’s Danny Lee. Ringo Lam is probably like my second, after Jackie Chan, third favorite, of the Hong Kong directors.” What’s not in City on Fire? Tarantino’s hyperfetishization of cinema, good or bad; the wonderful equation of undercover work with the actor’s craft; the shit talking; the pared-­down aesthetics; The Taking of the Pelham One, Two, Three; The Killing. Taran­tino takes the last 15 minutes of City on Fire and stretches them into an entire film, remakes them in his own images. Now does that make him a rip-off artist, or does it make Reservoir Dogs a response to the call of narrative cinema?

[related_posts post_id_1=”138814″ /]

All along La Brea, Melanie Griffith sips from a straw and eyes a miniaturized Ed Harris. In the neighborhood where my parents met 40 years ago, Woody Harrelson glares out from behind red glasses, shotgun slung. An uncharacteristic heat wave has just broken in Los Angeles and the sky is a sharp blue without blazing. The bright speckled carp in the garden pond at Tarantino’s place, which was at one time John Travolta’s place, are chipper. When Quentin’s assistant, Vicky, lets me in the corner apartment, the man himself is doing the interview thing on the phone in the next room. Pacing, he keeps a precise metronomic beat with his sped-up chat­ter. He waves. When standing, Quentin’s head tilts slightly forward in the way I’ve noticed tall guys who love their women friends tend to do, like they’re embar­rassed to be just those few extra inches above, like they’re constantly leaning down to listen. And though he listens and laughs appreciatively, Quentin is a talker.

“Yeah, I like to make tapes for friends,” he says in a cadence that is part stoked whisper, part enthusiast patter. His very directed soundtrack for Pulp Fiction is the topic. Like the Dogs soundtrack it comes with snatches of trademark dialogue: the Pumpkin and Honey Bunny bit, the preamble to a hit, Ezekiel 25:17. Quentin is praising Urge Overkill’s cover of Neil Diamond’s “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”; he is pacing and chat­tering, pacing and chattering. In his movies the rhythm is the same but the insistence becomes vaguely nasty. The wonderfully unpleasant “Like a Virgin” riff in Res Dogs, or the wicked “dead nig­ger storage” business in Pulp, or his Top Gun exigeewhiz cameo in Sleep With Me — each has an intentional scene-steal­ing rudeness.

When he finally sits, I’ve been eyeing the living room, the same room that’s been part of the media hajj for the last few months. There’s the outsized Pana­sonic, the one where journalist a, b, c, and d have watched various flicks and moments of flicks. On one wall there’s a huge True Romance poster from Japan. Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater peer out, some scrawl tattooing Slater’s broad forehead. A couple of stuffed ani­mals rest on the back of the couch, the Tasmanian devil will fall at least twice while we do the interview thing. In the middle of a floor, a foot-high brown bear, looking for all the world like the state flag’s mascot, stands. There are stacks of books, stacks of videos — a fair amount of organized chaos reigns, though the kitsch effect is fully under control.

Quentin looks good and a little scruffy. Homier than the smooth or lean or dark or made-over-for-the-glossies guy. But not so very different than the guy I met at the Toronto Film Festival two years ago. That night, he, his producer Lawrence Bender, producer Terrance Chang, number-one-director-with-a-bul­let John Woo, and a squad of William Morris flacks convened in a little restau­rant to announce a future collaboration. Tarantino was there with Reservoir Dogs, Woo with Hard Boiled, not the gun mae­stro’s best but no less over-the-top. Think heartthrob Chow Yun-Fat with a baby in one hand, a magnum in the other, and a hailstorm of glass and bullets and you get the picture. That night, the endearingly, if exhaustingly, talkative Tarantino played superfan to Woo’s supergentleman.

[related_posts post_id_1=”417087″ /]

This afternoon Quentin is reconsider­ing his superfan persona. So no Pana­sonic film fest, no tour of the col­lectibles — the lunchboxes and board games. “There’s been such a concentra­tion on this film geek guy makes good, what a big kid he is, and how he just loves movies, how they are his morning, his noon, and his night.” I look around his apartment and the evidence that they are is everywhere in sight. I think of Dogs and Pulp Fiction, True Romance, and Natural Born Killers. They too confirm affection in extremis. “Oh, he’s just a lit­tle encyclopedia,” he mocks. “It makes me wonder if, when I’m with journal­ists, I’m playing a routine. A character. I think I’m being real. But am I creat­ing a persona I didn’t think I was cre­ating?”

Perhaps this new awareness is in response to the not-so-nice quotes in Vanity Fair, by former pal, coworker, and collaborator Roger Avary (whose debut Killing Zoe taps a similar edgy vein but to less effect): “He knows everything about pop culture. But his greatest strength is his greatest weakness. He is only interested in pop culture… The one problem people have with Quentin’s work is that it speaks of other movies, instead of life. The big trick is to live a life and then make movies about that life.” Or maybe it’s just the cumulative effect of becoming unrecognizable to oneself, that shocking moment when the subject sees that his press doesn’t cap­ture the person he feels himself to be.

“The fucked-up thing about reading your own interviews is that they make you self-conscious about things that you do unconsciously. So after I read three or four things like that I think maybe I shouldn’t mention other people’s movies. Like, I think if that’s what they’re draw­ing from me, I don’t think that’s all there is.”

Above Quentin, high on a wall direct­ly across from the sofa amid the movie memorabilia, is a small, dark oil painting of a woman asleep on a couch. It turns out that for all the journalists he’s enter­tained, none has asked him about the painting. It’s the purloined painting. “You know who did ask, and it actually created a big bond between me and him? Eric Stoltz,” Quentin the storyteller takes over. “Eric came over and we were just talking about Pulp and he’s sitting on the couch, he was sitting almost exactly where you are, and I was telling him about my apartment. I was like, ‘Let me tell you a story about my apartment,’ and he said, ‘Wait, tell me a story about this painting. What’s the deal with that?’ I end up telling him the story of my lost love, the one that got away, and I explain the whole thing, and he says, ‘Yeah, I had one of those definitely, but I don’t have a painting to remember her by.’ ” I recount this exchange about the paint­ing of Grace because it is a moment of emotional forthrightness that has noth­ing to do with movies, except that Eric Stoltz is in Pulp Fiction and that Grace was painted when she’d fallen asleep at a friend’s house — they’d been watching a video.

[related_posts post_id_1=”649527″ /]

The truth is that no one is reducible to the confines of a 3000-to-5000-word article, but Quentin eats movies for breakfast and metabolizes them before he’s slugged his first cup of gourmet cof­fee. So cut him some slack if, in the midst of articulating a fuller human being, he riffs on Jim McBride’s Breathless (“Yes, yes, I thought, that’s what I want to do, that’s in my head. That’s it, they’re talk­ing about comic books, they’re talking about rockabilly music. They’re not talk­ing about movies but they might as well be.”). Or Abbott and Costello (“If you’ve seen Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, when he picks up that nurse and throws her through the window, he’s dead, she dies. I remember think­ing, these are the greatest movies in the world. They’re really funny, and when they’re not, they’re really scary. Two great tastes that taste great together.”) Or when he brings out the red vinyl scrapbook he kept of Brian De Palma clips “To me, Brian De Palma is one of the greatest satirists in American movies, the ‘Be Black Baby’ stuff in Hi Mom! Pauline Kael said De Palma didn’t need to make Bonfire because he’s already done it in the ‘Be Black, Baby’ section.”). Or Howard Hawks, whose Rio Bravo is in every carnation of his 10 favorite films. “Howard Hawks is the supreme story­teller and entertainer. He’s just too damn enjoyable.”) Or Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (“The scene after Tom Hanks gets turned down by Denzel and there’s the close-up and he’s so alone, that shot says what five movies couldn’t. He should have gotten the Academy Award just for that shot. And that last scene is so romantic. The last thing Hanks sees is this man who loves him smiling.”) Or melodrama (“I actually had an epiphany about why people think Reser­voir Dogs is so violent watching John Stahl’s Back Street… You’re watching it, and even when humorous scenes are going on the threat of tragedy, of melodrama, is hovering over the movie. This is going to end horribly. She’s gonna get brokenhearted. She’s gonna throw her life away. It’s just not gonna work out.”)

Or Natural Born Killers and Oliver Stone (“Did you ever see the Ben Stiller take off on Oliver Stone Land? Oh, it’s like the Doors arrive and this cheap animatronic Jim Morrison is going, ‘Break on through, break on through,’ and then there’s this animatronic Indian going, ‘I’m an Indian, I represent death.’ There’s a ride, and the kid isn’t tall enough.

And the guard says, I’m sorry you have to be as tall as this sign, but here at Oliver Stone Land we learn to question authority.”) But then Oliver Stone and Natural Born Killers are a different matter. And it seems whenever Quentin has been asked about the movie, which he hasn’t seen, his generosity fails him. “I want to wait till it’s on hotel TV, that’s what I want to do,” he tells me. “I’ve been told by friends who’ve seen it that all the funniest stuff is mine,” he later says at a press conference. Whether Quentin’s plunge into the role of disgruntled screenwriter is another of the causes of Don Murphy’s desire to report the “Tarantino scandal de jour,” I can only guess. Yet, have two sensibilities ever been more different? Stone’s will to meaning, with a capital M, versus Tarantino’s will to cool?

[related_posts post_id_1=”717780″ /]

A few weeks before Quentin dons an orange Hawaiian print shirt to match my blue pineapple job and we head out into the world, I am in a theater on Second Avenue with the Girl Pup, who says, with no particular rancor in her and flat as a pancake, “What he wants is a big black man to fuck him up the ass!” Well, she’s frank if nothing else, and for her a guy wanting it up the ass by a brother is not necessarily a bad thing. “No, think about it…” We are surrounded by fanboys who have probably seen Reservoir Dogs no less than three times and she is reading Quentin Tarantino. The Girl Pup continues somewhat emphatically, “Really, listen what’s his character’s name? Right? Mr. Brown. Brown, shit, ass. And what’s all this anal sex stuff, and remember that Waspafarian Drexyl in True Romance? What was that about? And all this nigger this, nigger that stuff. Hello?”

When I relate this to Quentin, over Pad Thai, stir fry, and the eggplant pumpkin tofu reg (not fried) special, he kind of idles. Then he sort of laughs, at least I think it’s a laugh. For a motored mouth, this is more than a speed bump. And while her riff is not as beautifully rendered as any of his fan-driven monologues, it’s in the spirit of them. And though it takes liberties he’s probably scripted out — too much back-and-forth from the real person to the role he plays — it’s a much better beginning to a conversation about race than any I could think up. Indeed, when I ask Quentin more directly about race in his films, he replies slightly askew to the spirit of my thoughts. “No word should have so much power.” He is talking about the word nigger. I then tell him that Sam Jackson has already answered the question about his free use of racial epithets: “Oh Quentin, he’s above that shit,” Jackson had told a friend. This makes him happy, and he repeats it soon after. And since, being black, baby, I never quite feel above it, I tell him I am wondering if he knows what makes him above all that. A crush on Pam Grier, a deep knowledge of blaxploitation, and an inte­grated junior high, do these make one above it?

“I kind of refuse to deal with it as this white guy talking about black guys or a black wannabe guy or a white wannabe black guy thing. In my heart of hearts I know where I’m coming from.” But Quentin’s heart of hearts is not easily revealed, so instead the conversation turns to race in some broad sense.

“Some comedian really hit the nail on the fucking head when he said America’s like this ridiculously dysfunctional family and blacks are our stepchildren. ‘You never wanted me, you never liked me, why didn’t you love me?’ the blacks say, and there’s a little bit of white America as the parents looking back and going, ‘Okay we never really did but shut the fuck up about it. Move on.’ ” He laughs and laughs. Quentin loves comedians. Carlin, Pryor, Murphy, even Dice Clay, provide answers to the freedom he feels to, if not to offend, make uncomfortable.

“That same comedian said it totally cracks him up when other black guys say to him that the only reason they’re fuck­ing with O.J. is ’cause he’s a brother. And he says, ‘The reason they’re fuck­ing with O.J. is he might have killed someone.’ ” I tell him the first vision I saw coming in from the airport was a sister selling oversize white T-shirts with STOP SQUEEZING O.J. emblazoned across them. We laugh.

“Someone said to me at Sundance when Reservoir Dogs was there, ‘You know what you’ve done, you’ve given white boys the kind of movies black kids get.’ You know like Juice, and Boyz N the Hood, not Boyz N the Hood so much, but Men­ace II Society. Blacks have always had those movies.” At least since the ’70s, I think, but don’t argue. “Being bad, looking cool being bad, with a fuck-you attitude. The only time white guys could ever duke it out with black culture when it comes to being big and the coolness of being big is in the ’50s, in the rockabilly days, when guys would walk around with big ole houndstooth coats and big ole hair. That was as big as black culture in the ’70s, and it’s all based on looking cool, look­ing like a badass.”

Back in New York, when someone asks him in earnest does he hang out with gangsters, I realize the error of my ways. The key to Quentin’s easy familiarity with race, violence, and pretty much anything else resides in the freedom cinema has given him to be, well, a director. As we leave Toi Thai, Quentin pulls out his wal­let. It’s a prop from Pulp Fiction, the same wallet that Sam L. Jackson’s hit­man as spiritual seeker carries, the same one Tim Roth’s petty holdup man must fish out of a trash bag. It’s the one that says Bad Mother Fucker on it. ❖