Andy Warhol: Famous All Over Town

PITTSBURGH — The best souvenirs at last weekend’s opening of the Andy Warhol Museum might have been the T-shirts that said “ANDY VOLUNTEER.” Smacking of vintage superstar monickers, they also suggested some kind of military deployment. as though half the city of Pittsburgh had suddenly enlisted in the Warhol Reserves. And, if the A-list celebrity onslaught forecast for the three-day extravaganza never really materialized, what of it? The anonymous Warhol militia turned out in force.

For days in advance, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had rumored a glut of boldface people; crisis was even reported in the limousine sector, since the museum opening was scheduled for the same weekend as the Schenley High School prom. Would Diana Ross, said to be jetting in on her own plane, settle for a Pittsburgh Yellow Cab? What about Mick Jagger, Liza Minelli, and Madonna? How were they going to get around? Outside Rosa Villa Dinning (sic) Hall, a Family- (that family) style linguini palace across from the museum on the city’s north side, a couple of fans braced themselves for a Cindy Crawford sighting. “When Cindy comes, I’m going to run in and kneel and beg,” said Greg Bukowski. “She’ll probably just spit on you,” predicted Bukowski’s buddy John Handal. “Then you can take a picture of her spitting, and I’ll save the spit, Bukowski replied.

In the end Cindy Crawford joined most of the big star invitees in sitting out the Warhol party: loyalty in some circles is apparently billable by the hour. Still, the hundreds of folks who lined Sundusky and General Robinson streets to watch guests arrive for Friday’s $300-a-plate benefit dinner seemed ecstatic with even low-level celebrity astronomy.

“If a thousand people come, obviously 900 are not going to be brand names,” observed one paparazzo. In truth there were plenty of heavy hitters from society and the art world: Doris Ammann flew in from Zurich, Anthony d’Offay from London, and entire US Air flights were sardine-tight with dealers and curators from New York. Among the painters on hand for Friday’s black-tie dinner were Roy Lichtenstein, Francisco Clemente, Brice Marden, and Ross Bleckner, who dressed down in blue jeans and spent the evening jockeying to get cute boys moved to his table.

Although Pittsburgh is the nation’s 18th most populous city, its probably closer to the third or fourth in terms of wealth, and the city’s society ladies seemed to use the occasion as an opportunity to crack the vaults for high-wattage gems. “Normally, people would never wear jewelry to go to the North Side,” said an estate lawyer for a Forbes 400 family, as one saurian dowager staggers into the museum under the weight of a diamond-and-ruby parure. “The invitation said valet parking, though, so I guess they thought it was safe.” Better still, the society ladies may have felt it was fitting to honor Warhol by sporting their finest. It isn’t every painter, after all, who dies with 25 Cartier bracelet tucked in a drawer.

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The museum, housed in a renovated 1911 beaux arts building, opened on a cool, lovely evening in the former steel town, now known as a city of bridges and one of America’s most amenable places to live. Things were a bit different in Andy Warhol’s childhood, when the mills along the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers blacked the skies with soot, and furnaces along Second Avenue spewed tongues of fire. Over the course of the weekend, visitors would have a chance to take the Warhol Tour and visit the house-next-to-the-house on 73 Orr Street where Andy and his two brothers were born (asphalt shingles, two floors, single water closet in the basement, wretched poverties that probably looked good to Andrei and Julia Warhola at the time), the neighborhood where he was reared (set in a dreary valley know as “the Rut”), the church where his family worshipped (St. John Chrysostom, Byzantine rite Catholic), the high school where he was a star art student (Schenley High) and the department store (Joseph Horne Co.) where, as a window dresser, he launched himself into the world. What they wouldn’t get is any clear sense of how a talented Ruthenian-American kid with jug ears and a bulbous nose charted a trajectory that could carry him out of his class, out of Pittsburgh (he always claimed it was McKeesport), away from the ghetto of sexual stereotype (let’s do him the favor of remembering he was gay) and onto the face of pop (not Pop) culture, which was always Andy’s natural milieu.

They would see parts of a compendious collection that includes almost 900 paintings, 77 sculptures and collaborative works, 1500 drawings, 400 black-and-white photographs, Poloroids, photobooth strips, illustrations, 608 time capsules, the full run of Interview magazine, 2500 audiotapes and videotapes and scripts, as well as his diaries, datebooks, correspondence, and films. “It’s a relief to have so much of the work in one place so it can be properly preserved,” said Soho dealer Holly Solomon, as project architect David Mayner attempted to explain the difficulties of conserving a collection that includes fragile gold-leaf drawings, 3-D Xography, and Warhol’s nearly animate wigs.

Although many of Warhol’s early films haven’t been out of the vault in years, his Empire and Kiss played continuously throughout the weekend. “When are they going to play my films?” Warhol perennial Taylor Meade bleated, adding slyly that “twelve hours of the Empire State is a bore, my dear: I mean, one bird flies by every two hours.” Meade was one of the few Factory stalwarts to appear in Pittsburgh.

True, Ultra Violet was on hand, as was socialite Jane Holzer (she lopped the superstar prefix Baby from her name some 25 years ago). But some fans were disappointed not to see (and hear; it’s an audiovisual experience) Viva or Joe Dallesandro or Jane Forth or Donna Jordan or Brigid “Polk” Berlin or any of the surviving superstars whose infamous speed rants and pneumatic egos went a long way toward defining Warhol’s skewed worldview.

“They probably thought they’d be turned into puppets,” said Billy Name, the Factory denizen who legendarily spent two years in a closet at Warhol’s loft on Union Square. (Actually, it was a darkroom, Name’s a pho­tographer, and everyone knows how long it can take to develop pictures when you’re shooting methamphetamine.) Name and Ul­tra Violet were the weekend’s stars by de­fault, turning up incessantly on local television, compulsively presenting themselves for interviews. “Any museum is better than no museum,” declared UV, née Isabelle Du­fresne, on opening night. Taking no chances on anonymity, she’d pinned a half-­dozen rhinestone pins spelling ULTRA to her pleated purple dress. “Warhol is the imperialist artist of America,” said Ms. Vio­let. “As long as America will stand, Warhol will stand. If America will fall, Warhol will fall.”

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You could just as smartly invert the for­mulation; either way, both Warhol and the Warhol have the feel of permanence. “Recycling old buildings to show art is very im­portant,” Agnes Gund, chairwoman of the Museum of Modem Art, told the Times, in a near paraphrase of Jane Jacobs’s famous remark that “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings; new ideas must use old buildings.” The single-artist museum, com­mon enough in Europe, is still a novelty here. And any museum of the Warhol’s scope is rare. “Here we are with Andy in his tomb,” said Taylor Mead. “His temple, his heaven.” As a monument to social transformation, the Warhol Museum is an unexpectedly stirring place. For decades, Andy Warhol’s father was a laborer at the Jones & Loughlin steel mill, source of the wealth behind the great Philips Collection in Washington, D.C. Andrei Warhola was so poor that he resoled his children’s shoes with rubber tires during the Depression and left instructions at his death that his $1400 life savings were to buy Andy two years at art school. Now the “bohunk” millworker’s son from “the Rut” has his own museum in the city of Scaifes and Mellons.

“Can you believe all this?” asked George Warhola, a nephew of Andy’s who runs a North Side scrap yard. Warhola had just finished touring the building with Richard Gluckman, the architect charged with con­verting the old Frick & Lindsay building. “It puts chills in my body,” said Warhola. To a large extent the people of Pittsburgh seemed to share the feeling. By late Sunday evening, over 8000 visitors had stood in line for hours to enter the handsome terra­cotta museum. Some may have even stopped at the fourth floor vitrine in which a clipping from an ancient edition of Art Direction magazine presents Andy Warhola as a “young man on his way up.”

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“Rich folks coming through,” quipped a policeman on Friday night as Palm Beach multimillionairess Molly Wilmot teetered past on Betty Page spike heels and a Schia­parelli-pink Chanel. “I love it,” said Wil­mot, fluttering her three-inch nails. “It’s a real fest.”

Close behind Wilmot was Dennis Hop­per, whose arrival elicited almost as much excitement from the curbside crowd as that greeting Pennsylvania governor Robert Ca­sey. Hopper’s film ouevre may have reached a special plateau when he played Taylor Mead’s stand-in during the filming of the Warhol’s 1963 Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort Of (much of which was set in the “shark infested lagoon” of the Beverly Hills Hotel). In Pittsburgh, Hopper modestly edged his way through the crowd wearing an Armani dinner jacket that set off his mottled parchment complexion. “Isn’t that what’s his name, the guy from Easy Rider?” gasped Karen Huebner. “He looks pretty good,” said her date, “for someone who almost died.”

Hopper was followed into dinner by Pee­wee Herman, Debi Mazar, Ann-Bass, John Richardson, Michael Chow, and John Wa­ters, each receiving a commemorative Andy Warhol Museum watch from a volunteer who murmured, “Here’s your 15 minutes.” Rolling back a cuff to strap on her time­piece, Fran Lebowitz told one pesky report­er that she’d never really liked Warhol, the artist, and hadn’t much cared for Warhol, the man. Aside from professional sour­-pusses, the crowd seemed unusually giddy. “This is a room of 1000 egomaniacs,” shrilled the museum’s director Tom Arm­strong, surveying a huge rectangular tent illuminated by neon centerpieces of War­hol’s profile, each bearing a little card that read: ANDY FOR SALE ($400 plus tax). Sud­denly the Duquesne Club waitresses broke from the wings in flights carrying dessert plates laden with lemon mousse and choco­late cookies, Andy’s name written on each in fudge.

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“Timing, that’s the way to become a great artist,” said Taylor Mead. “Andy didn’t care what he did, as long as it was the right time.”

Chatting merrily, guests at Mead’s table speculated about Warhol’s notorious “Oxi­dation” pictures, painted with urine on treated canvas. “Some are Mick Jagger, I think,” one guest opined. “Some are Bianca. Some are Halston, too.”

“How can you tell whose piss is whose?” asked Barbara Allen de Kwiatkowski, the phenomenally wealthy socialite who started her career as the back-issues clerk at Interview.

“Get up close and sniff,” a tablemate replied.

Just then someone remarked that Mary McFadden had wandered into the men’s room, Fortuny-style tunic, Elizabethan hair­line and all. “She spent quite a bit of time in there,” the man said. “It was accidental, I think.”

At a service bar across the room sat a garish floral centerpiece featuring lilies, some bleary carnations, and a can of Camp­bell’s soup. Hardly anyone remembers that Cambell’s soup is owned by the Dorrance family of … Philadelphia, “Bitter rivals” as the Post-Gazette later put it, “who get the last laugh in the land of Heinz.” Such in­dustrial trivialities didn’t faze Teresa Heinz, the late senator’s wife, though. “Enjoy your evening,” Heinz, a Carnegie Institute trust­ee, instructed a crowd so boisterous that the mayor of Pittsburgh and the governor of the state both failed to silence them. “And remember that tonight we are all works of art.”

“Just don’t tell artists to suffer,” mut­tered Taylor Mead. “Don’t ever suffer for your art.” Suffering was transcended as Andy Warhol was apotheosized in Pitts­burgh to the sound of drunken laughter and the electronic chittering of a register haul­ing in cash. As party defectors drifted to­ward the Andyland exit, many stopped first at the gift shop to stock up on Warhol postcards, Warhol catalogues, Warhol post­ers, Warhol bios, Warhol notepads, and spe­cially boxed $24.95 Warhol T-shirts. While art collector Paul Walter wrote a check for his haul of Warholiana, I asked shop man­ager Jim Spitznagel what was the biggest seller so far. It was a T-shirt, he said, the one with an image of Marilyn Monroe’s lips repeated four times, in four colors, lips part­ed and full of desire. “Love Your Kiss For­ever Forever,” it’s called. ❖


Jack London’s Endless Journey

The Inevitable White Man

But remember, my reader, whom I hope to have travel far with me through time and space — remember, please, my reader, that I have thought much on these matters … I have been alone with my many selves to consult und contemplate my many selves. I have gone through the hells of all existences to bring you news … 

— The Star Rover (1915)

In his 40 years, Jack London never could stop traveling. Born in San Francisco in 1876, the product of a one-year common-­law marriage between Flora Wellman and the footloose no-account astrologer William Chaney, he was John Chaney for nine months until Wellman married John Lon­don, whose name was given to Jack. He grew up in Oakland and on nearby farms; at 15, he tapped the African American wet nurse who partly raised him, the former slave Virginia Prentiss, for $300 — ”my Mammy Jennie, my old nurse at whose black breast I had suckled. She was more prosperous than my folks. She was nursing sick people at a good weekly wage. Would she lend her ‘white child’ the money?” (John Barleycorn, 1913). She would. Jack London bought the Razzle Dazzle for use in pirating oysters from the beds on the Bay, and he would spend the rest of his short life sailing away.

“I wanted to be where the winds of ad­venture blew” (John Barleycorn), which in London’s adolescence meant the Bay, the scrappy tumbling life of the Oakland docks, the doubled universe of sober hard work and inebriated fancy, “life raw and naked, wild and free … And more than that, it carried a promise. It was the beginning. From the sandpit the way led out through the Golden Gate to the vastness of adventure of all the world … ” (John Barleycorn).

So it did. By the age of 19, London had sailed across the Pacific, via Hawaii, to Japan and the Bering Sea, an able seaman before the mast on the Sophia Sutherland; he tramped across the U.S., briefly with Coxey’s Industrial Army of the Unem­ployed then on his own until Buffalo, where he was arrested for vagrancy and served 30 days in jail, returning west across Canada on a coal car, south from Vancouver as a stoker; he sailed to Juneau for the Gold Rush, wintered on Split-Up Island 80 miles from Dawson City, then rafted down the Yukon and, penniless, sailed home.

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London would draw on his teenage ad­ventures for the rest of his life. But in 1898, back in Oakland, he realized that some travels are more difficult than others. Working at backbreaking manual jobs, sup­porting the family of his impecunious step­father, London decided that life as an in­dustrial worker would make him an animal. “I would be a laborer, and by that I mean I would be fitted for nothing else than labor” (1898). He had to escape: “[I]f I knew that my life would be such, that I was destined to live in Oakland, labor in Oakland at some steady occupation, and die in Oakland — ­then tomorrow I would cut my throat and call quits with the whole cursed business” (1898). He determined to travel out of his social class.

That’s never an easy trip; certainly not when you, as Jack London did, try to make it by becoming a writer. He never really explained why he chose writing over some more likely path; his earliest published let­ters are already full of ambition. In the event, he approached writing as an indus­trial laborer might. He faced down the ma­chine: a borrowed typewriter.

How my back used to ache with it! Prior to that experience, my back had been good for every violent strain put upon it in a none too gentle career. But that typewriter proved to me that I had a pipe-stem for a back … I had to hit the keys so hard that I strained my first fingers to the elbows, while the ends of my fingers were blisters burst and blistered again. Had it been my machine I’d have operated it with a carpenter’s hammer. (John Barleycorn)

His teenage life was a series of bouts, and he remembered it that way, in his letters, in his autobiographical novel, Martin Eden, and his boozer’s memoir, John Barleycorn: bouts of writing, labor, education (brief stints in high school and a cramming acade­my, a semester at the University of Califor­nia, and, above all, feverish periods of inde­pendent study). “If I die I shall die hard, fighting to the last, and hell shall receive no fitter inmate than myself” (1898). By the end of 1899, he had published 24 pieces — essays, stories, poems, jokes.

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Within a few years London was a well­-established writer; within a few more, he ranked among America’s best-paid, most widely read authors. Though remembered now chiefly for his dog novels (The Call of the Wild and White Fang), he was never just a writer of complicated adventure sto­ries any more than Mark Twain was a crackerbarrel tale-spinner. London pushed American literature in new and strange di­rections. He created his own unique land­scape, a combination of Yukon and open seas, utterly American yet utterly bizarre: at once American and bizarre because the emphatic Jack London landscape, with its heartbreaking solitude, its violence, its mo­mentous choices made according to terribly simple codes, its Darwinism, greed, and straightforward racism, was evidently rec­ognizable to white Americans, and yet hardly any of them had or ever would mush their dogs into Dawson or sail the high seas. Many would, like young Jack, be working in jute mills or laundries — in other words, live the life he said he would rather die than perpetuate. He brought his readers on a trip to a landscape that seemed not only made for them but made by them, a peculiarly visceral American place that practically none of them would ever really see. London, the harsh realist, was from the beginning a writer of fantasy.

London succeeded, in a way. He became rich and famous. His travels through social class provided him with The People of the Abyss (1903), a pioneering nonfiction book on conditions in London’s East End; The Road (1907), a fictionalized account of his tramping experiences; numerous stories, sometimes set among the upper classes; the two autobiographical books; and a number of essays, often given as lectures, that ar­gued for the certain demise of capitalism in favor of socialism and a just, rational, healthy society. His radicalism was of long standing — he ran as a Socialist Democrat for mayor of Oakland in 1901 — and had his characteristic intensity.

I saw the picture of the Social Pit as vividly as though it were a concrete thing, and at the bottom of the Pit I saw them, myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat … I ran back to California and opened the books. I do not remember which ones I opened first. It is an unimportant detail anyway. I was already It, whatever It was, and by aid of the books I discovered that It was a Socialist . … [N]o economic argument, no lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of Socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom. (“How I Became a Socialist,” 1903)

London did not like the ruling class. His story “The Minions of Midas” (1900), for example, is a remarkably sadistic fantasy of working-class vengeance. London described The Iron Heel (1908), a sci-fi novel in which we look backward on the 20th century and marvel at its capitalistic idiocy, as “some very excellent socialist propaganda” (1906) in which “I handle … the inevitable breakdown of capitalism under the structure of profits it has reared” (1906).

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Yet London’s socialism was of an espe­cially American kind. It foundered on indi­vidualism. The class struggle was too sharp, and its sharpness too romantically attrac­tive, for London to adopt the reformism through which individual effort is some­times rewarded. Moreover, socialism of­fered London no objective correlative, so to speak, in the world he knew, and thus no imaginative landscape comparable to his Yukon or ocean. The choices that mattered most to him were those made at the limits of real experience — individual choices.

London wrestled with the implications of individualism. He wrote in a 1905 letter of having “recently emerged” from the Nietz­sche “sickness.” The fight against individ­ualism became an article of faith for him. “I have been more stimulated by Nietzsche than by any other writer in the world. At the same time I have been an intellectual enemy to Nietzsche. Both Martin Eden and The Sea Wolf were indictments by me of the Nietzschean philosophy of the super­man” (1915).

But socialism, in the end, provided little more than a placebo for the Nietzsche sickness. London did agitate for socialism, emphasizing the cruelties of the existing sys­tem and the steady empowerment of the ground-down masses. However, he felt these masses would build their power less through organization than through one-by­-one conversion. As seen in “How I Became a Socialist,” London located the power of this conversion in a fear of the Social Pit. In other words, an individual would convert to socialism from terror of remaining in the lower class.

Hatred of one’s class position is probably not the best way to build class solidarity. London’s 1905 statement that he had trav­eled upward in society, then “went back to the working-class in which I had been born and where I belonged,” doesn’t hold up un­der biographical or artistic scrutiny. Lon­don managed to live with an unstated dis­tinction between individual superiority and socialist consciousness. He was not averse to terms such as “herd” for describing the mass of humanity. His heroes nearly always make their decisions alone.

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Socialism leaves little room for tragedy — ­that’s partly the point of it — and London was in love with the tragic. A socialist world, as he envisioned it, wouldn’t be much to write about. “The Strength of the Strong” (1911), which London wrote explicitly as a defense of socialism, features a group of trib­al types sitting around bemoaning their inability to band together. Thanks to this lack of solidarity, they are always being de­feated. But some day, Long Beard says at story’s end, ”all the fools will be dead and then all live men will go forward. The strength of the strong will be theirs, and they will add their strength together, so that, of all the men in the world, not one will fight with another.”

Some day. Meanwhile, the passions that kept London traveling wouldn’t let him an­chor in socialism. The tension between the individual and the collective — between London and the world — that propelled his journey would have to be resolved elsewhere.

London sought the elemental, and the elemental qualities he located in American life were not the inevitability of socialism but selfishness and death. In “The Minions of Midas,” an exceedingly elemental story, the titular minions are a cabal of workers who blackmail a capitalist. He must give them $20 million, or they will kill people. They are, they explain, tired of being drudges and need capital to win life’s battle. The capitalist stands firm; the minions murder innocents steadily and with impuni­ty; the capitalist kills himself. The minions declare their intention to continue killing until the last capitalist generation. And there the story ends.

Despite this tooth-and-claw view of real existing capitalism, or perhaps because of it, London searched for a bedrock collective beyond class. He found one in an imaginary region at least as American as pitiless in­dustrialism: race. (Even in 1900 he wrote, in a letter, that economics only “plays one of the strongest leading parts in the drama of the races.”) The Yukon stories, in particu­lar, present race as central to the human experience. London frequently makes his heroes’ whiteness, their understanding of it and its requirements, the animating fact of their destinies.

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What was this whiteness? Two things, mainly: an inexplicable tribal imperative and a historical force. London saw the white race — sometimes Anglo-Saxon, sometimes Western, often just white — as fulfilling a mission compelled by its special characteristics and taking advantage of his­torical conjuncture. In a famous essay on Kipling from 1901, he wrote: “The Anglo­-Saxon is a pirate, a land robber, and a sea robber … The Anglo-Saxon is strong of arm and heavy of hand, and he possesses a primitive brutality all his own … He loves freedom but is dictatorial to others, is self­ willed, has boundless energy, and does things for himself.”

London felt pride in his own race, or rather in the race he imagined for himself. He hated half-breeds. As a correspondent, he blamed the Mexican-American war on that portion of Mexico’s population he found to be of mixed racial parentage. “Like the Eurasians, they possess all the vices of their various commingled bloods and none of the virtues.” His 1916 letters to a Greek ex-friend, Spiro Orfans, show Lon­don in full cry: “You … who are too heterogeneous through your bastard mixture of uncountable breeds, get up on your little dunghill and announce that all life is mongrel … Your logic is as rotten as your 2000-years degenerate race.”

London’s hatred of the mongrel had a corresponding virtue, namely racial or trib­al purity and the guarding of racial distinctiveness. For example, his most famous rac­ist activity in an American context came in his coverage of Jack Johnson’s heavyweight title fights: against Burns, in Australia, in 1908, then against Jeffries, the Great White Hope, at Reno in 1910. ”Personally, I was with Burns all the way. He is a white man, and so am I. Naturally I wanted to see the white man win.”

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What could be clearer? Many things: Jack Johnson won both fights, and London was delirious in his praise. He went on and on about Johnson’s intelligence, coolness, and grace, his ”pure fun, gentle wit,” this “amazing Negro from Texas, this black man with the unfailing smile, this king of fighters.” After Jeffries’s defeat, he wrote: “Once again has Johnson sent down to de­feat the chosen representative of the white race, and this time the greatest of them all. And as of old, it was play for Johnson.” London admired Johnson as a brilliant fighter; he doubly admired him because he was black. “And he played and fought a white man in a white man’s country, before a white man’s crowd.”

London’s racism may have been ahead of its time. It often sounds like a hard multi­-culturalism. He wanted the races to be true to themselves. This gave him the possibility of a worldview unlike that of socialism, one which accommodated both firm collective identities and human drama and tragedy on a global scale, without end. Life for London had to be a struggle; and racism, racial con­flict, was full of promise.

And yet, and yet: London also wrote, though not often, against racial prejudice. Furthermore, he doesn’t appear to have liked his own race much more than he liked his own class. “The Inevitable White Man” (1908) stands as a racial analogue to “The Minions of Midas.” A typical men-sit-­around-chatting yarn, it presents several white men in a New Hebrides bar debating the white man’s mission “to farm the world,” farming being understood as a met­aphor for conquest and control. One char­acter explains: “Tip it off to him that there’s diamonds on the red-hot ramparts of hell, and Mr. White Man will storm the ramparts and set old Satan himself to pick-­and-shovel work.”

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All the characters recognize this as in some way stupid. And the bulk of the story is devoted to Saxtorph, “the one inevitable white man,” as Captain Woodward de­scribes him to his boon companions: “He was certainly the most stupid man I ever saw, but he was as inevitable as death.” Saxtorph has the brain of a gnat, but he’s a great shot. The story’s central drama con­cerns a black slave revolt. Saxtorph kills the rebels, one by one, in an excruciating slaughter. This is the murdering imbecile whom London presents as the one truly inevitable white man.

And so race does not quite deliver the happy marriage of individual and collective destiny. Where, then, could the lonesome traveler head for next? London’s science-­fiction and fantasy are difficult to find. The Library of America does not include them. Yet here London’s conundrums assume rare and telling form. He allows himself to travel across time and space. He fragments himself, tears himself up, and the joy he feels in this process is palpable. For once he can travel with a coherent pleasure. At last he frees himself from the collective; or rather, he spreads the individual self over time, creating an imaginary collective of selves unhindered by geography, liberating himself for adventures of identity that nei­ther class nor racial solidarity could ever allow.

As far as book-length work goes, the process began with Before Adam (1907, an obscure work today though widely read at the time. He told an editor: “[I]t is the most primitive story ever written … It goes back before the cave-man … to a time when man was in the process of Becoming.” In it, the first-person narrator reveals his special ability to dream himself into an ear­lier existence. “Some of us have stronger and completer race memories than oth­ers … I am a freak of heredity, an atavistic nightmare.”

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Before Adam is a weak, nearly lifeless novel. Only a few passages stand out: the long description of the narrator’s simian father, whom he sees in infancy and never again; and the scenes involving Red-Eye, the youthful narrator’s unconquerable nem­esis, who takes a wife as it pleases him, beats her, then kills her and finds another. It’s hard not to read this novel in the shad­ow of London’s own paternity. All that lives on its pages are the body of the absent father and the inevitable Red-Eye — “Red-Eye, the atavism,” the book’s last words.

In Before Adam London found the dream-device, and he returned to it in his last completed novel, The Star Rover (1915). “All my life I have had an awareness of other times and places,” it begins. Lon­don’s narrator posits an idea of childhood (“You were plastic, a soul in flux”): Chil­dren can dream their previous existences. While still in flux a child will scream in fear — but the fear is not the child’s fear, it is the fear of the child’s “shadowy hosts of progenitors” whose voices scream through the child’s voice. The progenitors’ experi­ences are the child’s reality: “The stuff of our sheerest dreams is the stuff of our experiences.”

And at last the harsh realist London found the imaginary landscape he had been traveling toward, a vast non-place in which his individualism and his collectivism could play at will. In a 1907 letter to his editor he wrote: “[I]n all that I have said and written and done, I have been true. This is the character I have built up; it constitutes, I believe, my big asset.” An asset, but also a burden. In The Star Rover he shatters his character into pieces and scatters it over thousands of years. Where does the proud man choose to travel now that he’s free; now that the only collective is memory? He changes form at will. He is a Roman slave, a medieval European aristocrat. He is a beggar in Korea, and a king, and a frontier boy. He falls in love with nonwhite women, fervently in love, and displays a tenacious loyalty to them. He learns languages easily and merges with other cultures. The Star Rover is the only London novel in which the narrator has much fun. He manages, sometimes incongruously, to remain blue-eyed, male, smart, and physically fit.

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The Star Rover‘s narrator — Darrell Standing, a former professor — is also, how­ever, a prisoner on death row. “They are going to take me out and hang me pretty soon. In the meantime I say my say, and write in these pages of the other times and places.” Standing has learned the trick of time travel from a fellow prisoner. He trav­els under special conditions: when the war­den has him laced into a straitjacket. The warden is torturing him to get information Standing doesn’t have. Unable to move and soon to be dead, Standing tells us:

I am life. I have lived ten thousand genera­tions. I have lived millions of years. I have possessed many bodies … Cut out the heart, or, better, fling the flesh-remnant into a machine of a thousand blades and make mince meat of it — and I, I, don’t you understand, all the spirit and the mystery and the vital fire and life of me, am off and away. I have not perished. Only the body has perished, and the body is not I.

Apparently London, late in his brief life, found a country and a collective big enough that he could roam without feeling bound, without hating or fearing his companions and surroundings. The country was every­thing he could remember about history; the collective was all the people he could imag­ine, and all the people he could imagine himself being. That London was only able to reach this destination through a charac­ter straitjacketed on the floor of a cell, an­ticipating death, is the sort of paradox one comes to expect of him. ❖

THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES OF JACK LONDON. Stanford University Press, $149.96 (three volumes).
THE LETTERS OF JACK LONDON. Stanford University Press, $149.50 (three volumes).
JACK LONDON: The Novels and Stories. The Library of America, $27.50.
JACK LONDON: Novels and Social Writings. The Library of America, $27.50.
THE STAR ROVER. Westview, $12.95 paper.
BEFORE ADAM. Star Rover: $6.95 paper.

1994 Village Voice Literary Supplement article by Scott Malcomson about Jack London

1994 Village Voice Literary Supplement article by Scott Malcomson about Jack London

1994 Village Voice Literary Supplement article by Scott Malcomson about Jack London


Andy Warhol: A Museum of His Own

PITTSBURGH — It’s Friday the 13th, and the Andy Warhol Museum is opening with a three-day party this city is going to remember. Warhol was never exactly God in New York, but he just became a saint in his own hometown. Pittsburgh loves Warhol. I mean loves. Nobody cares if this wasn’t always the case. This weekend, the King of Pop is ascending to his rightful throne, and there will be fireworks, literally, over the Allegheny. Warhol, of course, is dead, which is what you must be to receive the highest recognition any artist can get in this country: a major contemporary museum of your own.

The buzz is audible even at LaGuardia, where every flight to Pittsburgh is over-booked. Dealers and gossip columnists are winking at one another on the plane: the art world’s going to Pittsburgh! You can tell the Warhol people from the “real” people right away. But is wasn’t so long ago that Warhol was one of the real people. In Pittsburgh, that’s the boy they remember. The one who is soon to become an idol for every young artist, and every young queer in town. The drag queens, we are told, are dressing for the occasion. This time, Warhol is reinventing Pittsburgh, rather than abandoning it. He’s back for the long haul.

The Andy Warhol Museum is exquisite, beyond expectations. Designed by New York architect Richard Gluckman, its a vast industrial warehouse that has been turned into a $12.3 million art palace. Inside, there are six expensive spaces; a film theater; an archive floor; an addition for offices; and storage space for the thousands of Warhols in the museum’s collection. As we gaze at Warhol’s soup cans, we can glance out large windows with views of the surrounding industry that once engulfed the artist. The place is perfect.

The important questions, difficult as they are to remember throughout three days of social climbing, tours of Andy’s Pittsburgh, and a family-oriented street fair, have to do with the creation of this museum. The art world is celebrating Wahrol’s ascendancy into the pantheon, but has the artist really been let through the pearly gates? Why does he need to be isolated in a museum of his own? Was Warhol a leper, or a genius?

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Having a museum designed just for your own work must be every artist’s dream — that is, after your estate gets rejected by the Museum of Modern Art. One-person institutions are generally considered to be tacky vanity showcases: Norman Rockwell in the Berkshires. The problem with the solo museum is that the work is removed from any art-historical context, and the artist is isolated from his or her peers. The danger for Warhol is that he’ll be become singular, a potential aberration.

At first, the museum seems to lift Warhol’s reputation sky high, but there’s something bittersweet about the flight. The art is smartly installed in more or less chronological order, with a little piece of everything; the museum owns about 3000 works, and only around 500 are on display. One begins to wonder if this is the best of the lot. One also has to wonder why all these Warhols were up for grabs.

The Andy Warhol Museum is brought to us by the three cultural organizations: the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, the Dia Center for the Arts, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. “No one is quite clear how this triumvirate is going to operate. It’s never been done before,” says Mark Francis, who four and a half ears ago began as the director of the project, until Tom Armstrong (ex-director of the Whitney) was given the title, brought in to raise the additional money. Francis was renamed curator. “It’s a better description or what I do,” the good sport says. Now’s he’s the resident Warhol expert.

I want to know who’s in control. “We’re one of the Carnegie’s constituent museums,” he explains, “but we’re administered independently.” In Pittsburgh, it would be impossible to create a major institution without the Carnegie’s blessing. (Warhol was shrewd enough to have painted the patriarch’s portrait.) “The people who had the collection needed the people who knew how to make a museum,” says the curator, as if it’s a ménage a trois made in heaven. “Having three boards is difficult,” he admits.

The art came from the Warhol estate (owned by the Foundation) and Dia, the only American institution that carefully and thoroughly collected Warhol in the ’70s. “There’s a low percentage of Warhol’s work in New York museums,” the curator asserts. “The Modern has the gold Marilyns, and private collectors own some major works, but the Europeans really collected him early on. Warhol’s been considered a serious artist in Europe for the past 25 years,” says Francis, who is English. Here, Warhol’s reputation remains shaky in an art world that currently thinks everything after Abstract Expressionism is controversial.

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Now that Clement Greenberg’s dead, certain critics and curators will try to reinvent formalism. (Talk about “boring,” to cite Andy.) One might easily argue that Warhol needs a museum of his own to secure his position in the history of art — not an easy task. The Pop movement has been largely disowned. “Pop’s a loaded term,” says Francis. “It’s reducible to something ephemeral, as if people can’t distinguish between a can and a painting,” he adds, with disgust. “Pop is about the transformation of these sources into art.”

One of the most fascinating parts of the museum’s collection is a trove of Warhol’s source material, on display in glass cases on every floor. (The archive also contains the artist’s “time capsules,” cardboard boxes of things he collected, which were dated and stored.) In proximity to the Mao paintings, one of which is a monumental 15 feet tall, we see a tiny photo of the chairman clipped form one of his books; it looks like a Warhol! Warhol’s graphic skills are lauded in his museum, not buried like a dirty secret. To understand the art, one must first appreciate Warhol’s facility to reproduce what he saw and then move further into the imagery. Mao wallpaper is a far cry form the chairman’s portrait on the cover of his little red book.

This retrospective offers a definitive look at Warhol, despite complaints from the crowd that some of his greatest hits are missing. It doesn’t matter. There’s more than enough to see and lots of years for the museum to keep collecting. (“The Norton Simon has 200 Brillo boxes in its base­ment,” says Francis with envy.) There are revelations in this show, especially on the sixth floor, which alone makes an unexpect­ed argument for the importance of the art­ist. We begin with a room full of early draw­ings, sketches, and illustrations, mostly from the ’50s, that I suspect few people have seen. We meet the private Warhol and the commercial Warhol, when his talent was just beginning to be put down on pa­per. If anyone has any doubt (not to men­tion qualms) that Warhol was gay, here’s the evidence. I’m not talking about a style or sensibility, I’m talking about erotic and romantic images of men: in one particularly tender drawing, he decorated an erect penis with flowers, wrapping the gift with a rib­bon around its middle.

Warhol wasn’t exactly in the closet (where many of his contemporaries still re­side), but he never made his personal sexuality public. “Drella,” as some called him, was never embraced as a homosexual artist. Gayness, at least when it’s upfront, can still be a disadvantage for male artists; for lesbi­ans it’s virtually fatal. Warhol seemed to play, quite happily, the role of the asexual. He was a man with no country and no sexuality. It was an act that obviously worked — while he was alive. But one won­ders, now that he’s gone, if it’s possible to speak openly about the artist’s sexuality. Mark Francis doesn’t want to. “I’m not into agendas,” he says.

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Let’s go back to the imagery on the sixth floor, where an early-’60s room of soup-can paintings, Coca-Cola canvases, telephones, and factory-box sculptures takes us right to the core of Warhol’s radical intervention into art history. There’s a story, one of countless, that goes like this: Warhol initial­ly painted two versions of his world famous Coke bottle. One was drippy and moody, while the other was flat and clear. He took them both to his friend, documentary film­maker Emile de Antonio (who credits himself with the discovery of artist Frank Stel­la) and asked him which he liked better. “D” went with the flat version, which is in the museum — and the rest is history (no one knows where the other one is). A few early soup-can paintings, however, are quite evocative; one shows a squeezed Camp­bell’s can spurting up a phallic stream of soup. A group of Warhol’s later “Oxida­tion” canvases, made with a combination of paint and urine, are oxidizing on the top floor of the museum.

We’re supposed to take the elevator to the seventh floor and walk down the stairs, just like Barneys or the Guggenheim. One of the museum’s coups is an installation of Shadows (on loan from Dia), which has been shown only once, in 1978, the year it was made. Fifty-five glossy canvases, from a series of 102, wrap around the room like painting-wallpaper, creating an arena for viewers in the middle. The image (a detail of a photograph taken in Warhol’s studio), repeated throughout in different color combinations, is entirely abstract, which is what makes the series an unusual event in War­hol’s career. Shadows is dramatic, but it’s one of the artist’s least moving and most schematic works.

The amazing discoveries to be made about Warhol are in the varieties of his serial “reproductions,” many of which, of course, were not mechanical reproductions at all. We can scrutinize the works, distin­guishing silkscreen images from hand-paint­ed stencils from paintings that look like silkscreens. The confusion is brilliant. It’s like any confusion between life and art, or between what is genuine and what is not. Warhol was the first painter to play with these issues. Today, we all assume that nothing’s real and everything is, potentially, art.

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Warhol’s particular genius lay in his abili­ty to select what is ordinary to everyone, everyone except the factory laborer who actually makes the item, and turn it into art. He had the Midas touch. Yes, as a person he was obsessed with the rich and famous (not unlike the rest of the world), but his aesthetic was entirely democratic. “A Coke is a Coke,” Warhol once said, “and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.” A small painting of a sheet of S&H green stamps looks, at first glance, as unremarkable as the real thing. But it’s a noteworthy, beautiful, painstakingly de­tailed homage.

What makes Warhol’s endeavor so com­plex is that any work can be read at least two ways. Is his well-known series of Elec­tric Chairs pro or con capital punishment? Should we celebrate the company that brings us Brillo, or the proles stuck using those brutal scrub pads? Warhol came from the latter group and spent his life trying to move up and away; the museum is trying to celebrate both ends of his life — in the War­hol tradition. At one dinner, each table has a bouquet of products from Heinz, Brillo, etc., as if this were a corporate convention.

It is Warhol’s range of works — not the fanfare — that fills the museum with electric­ity. Here’s an artist who didn’t do the same thing all his life, who allowed his obsessions to blossom. A room with silver helium-filled balloons takes us back instantly to the ’60s, when art could be just plain fun; you can enter this installation and have a pillow fight with perfect strangers. A complete col­lection of Interview — Warhol’s vehicle to the stars — is on display, and his movies, a critical part of his enterprise, are well-inte­grated into the retrospective. Many people first entered Andyland through his experi­mental movies. On the first floor, there’s a comfortable screening room (which showed films continually all weekend) and upstairs Kiss plays, endlessly, in a dark side room, as if it were a moving image — precisely what it is — hanging on a wall. It may be the most successful integration of film into a gallery experience, ever. Walking down, floor by floor, we meet Elvis, Jackie, Ethel, a room full of skulls that, much to my amazement, do not seem the least bit cliché. His collaborations with Basquiat, including a series of painted, ready-made punching bags, are his least in­teresting objects, but their existence feels poignant: there’s a connection between the artists that has less to do with their tragic deaths than how they each lived their art. The ground floor, which shows the late portraits and self-portraits, is the weakest section. Not that I wouldn’t take any one of these paintings home, it’s just that they don’t reveal much about the artist, or his subjects. (Picasso made a lot of bad work, too, and he’s got his own museum.)

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Warhol has never looked so good, or so significant, which is exactly what a retro­spective exhibition should demonstrate. When we see more, rather than less, the body of work must get richer, more compel­ling. Scholars will feast on this museum. Just the glass boxes holding innumerable things, such as party invitations, auto­graphs, rock ‘n’ roll albums, tape recorders, and a personal letter from president-elect Richard Nixon inviting Warhol to make rec­ommendations to his cabinet, offer a de­tailed picture of the artist and his milieu. Warhol not only looks original, but surpris­ingly contemporary, like the most influen­tial artist of the last few decades. He looks like he deserves his own museum. The im­pact of Warhol’s work on American culture was hard and fast, but this museum is going to slowly carry this work into the future, for posterity. The gatekeepers, in the end, have no choice. ❖


Bob Woodward, Inside Dope


ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA — Nobody in Washington — and certainly not in a White House by now incapable of telling wheat from chaff, crisis-wise — is saying the obvious thing about Bob Woodward’s The Agenda, which is that the book itself is inconsequential. It’s not as if the fecklessness and crossed purposes with which Clinton’s rookie team brought forth last year’s budget went unreported at the time. Having the story regurgitate in Woodward’s familiar, dreadful, see-Jack-govern style is bombshell stuff if only the reader following the author’s lead, considers what everybody had for lunch to be the key detail, scandalously withheld. (It seems they all ordered the smoking gun.)

Yet inside the capital, you’d waste you time bringing up The Agenda‘s debatable merits as a chronicle, because here the book is being appraised more sportingly — as a chess piece that’s just been brought into play. While Woodward, as usual, declaims taking sides, he hardly needs to take one to be on one: in his hometown, whoever denigrates his work is instantly rated a Clinton apologist, which naturally no one cares to be accused of.

And yikes, me neither, although I do admit that The Agenda did get me feeling a certain sympathy for old spume-haired Bill, on purely humane grounds. The tip-off to how few scoops Woodward got on the policy front is that he’d  been touting the book’s inside dope about Clinton’s character, chiefly that the chief executive often blows his top in private and that he says “fuck” a lot. (Hortense, fetch my drool-cup.) The revelation of Clinton’s awesome inability to make up his mind, however, is a good deal more devastating, and the embassies concerned have presumably wasted no time telexing Woodward’s hot flash to Pyongyang and Sarajevo.

In fact, there’s nothing in the book that deserves to seriously alter anyone’s opinion, pro or con, of either Clinton or his presidency. Yet the overall effect is insidious simply because Woodward has chosen to put every nattering tidbit he culled between hard covers, thereby giving the mundane a frequently unwarranted air of the fraught. While the narrative’s flat, remote tone conceivably meets some abstract standard of reportorial objectivity, it’s scarcely neutral. True, Woodward interviewed every White House wallah worth talking to, but when their recollected watercooler squabbles are given the same weight as important developments, the one safe bet is that they’re going to sound like boobs — boobs in crisis.

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Woodward recounts last year’s near debacle over the hudget as the story of an education — that is, of the newly arrived Clintonites’ “slow and torturous awakening” to how Washington does business. Step by dispiriting step, he traces president-elect Clinton’s early acceptance of the conventional wisdom that deficit cutting mattered more than the economic policies he’d campaigned on, leading to a futile  scramble to salvage at least some of the budget package’s rapidly dwindling reformist components (investments in infrastructure, an energy tax) from the contending demands of the Senate, the House, and rival camps of presidential advisors. He describes how it became a crucial test of of Clinton’s presidency to pass a bill so out of whack with his original intentions that he’d already all by disavowed it to his aides. After their squeaker victory, the White House team recognizd with chagrin that they’d turned into exactly the sort of makeshift managers of business-as-usual that they’d come to town hoping to dispossess for good.

If Woodward gave a rat’s keester about the Clintonites’ abandoned goals, The Agenda would make powerful reading. But as far as he’s concerned, the point of the story is it’s happy ending, which is this pack of newcomers’ bloody-nosed acquisition of (that is, acquiescence to) insider savvy. He isn’t hand-wringingly dismayed over what happened, or even attractively sardonic: he’s approving. The book’s complacent equations of change with amateurishness, and of shrewdness with business as usual, are a little breathtaking — it’s How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the District.

Woodward, of course, is himself an old hand in institutional Washington — which means that, at least in some circles, his standing is rather more assured than Clinton’s is. To the permanent political population, all outsiders are parvenus even if they happen to be living in the White House. That’s why the permanent popula­tion is unconfessedly nostalgic for Bush: sure he stank as a presi­dent, but he was one of their own.

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But Clinton annoys them. True, he frequently caves in to their pri­orities, with an alacrity that to us bystanders looks like unseemly haste. Yet the mere fact that he has to cave in, instead of having shared those priorities from the start, keeps him suspect. He’s also what people used to call goal-ori­ented, to the somewhat manic de­gree that, when unable to choose between conflicting goals, he pur­sues all of them at once with equal heartiness. (It never occurs to him to do nothing: quite often, he ends up with worse than nothing, be­cause he’s expended so much en­ergy to so little effect.) Yet among Washington’s permanent popula­tion, results aren’t ranked all that high — like presidents, they come and go. The imperative value is the process, which is, like them, permanent. Little offends them more than some freshly elected clown’s misperception that the process is a way they get things done, and not the thing they do.

To permanent Washington’s mind, Clinton’s presidency still doesn’t seem quite valid. In this, curiously enough, they’re at one with the Christian right, which has by now merrily embraced a conviction that the outcome of the ’92 election was fraudulent. (Not the vote, just the outcome; it’s all pretty mysterious.) The curiosity is that nothing rattles permanent Washington these days like the rise of fundamentalist populism­ — though it’s the populist part, not the ideology, that gets the insiders nervous. Yet between them, per­manent Washington’s contempt and the Christian right’s broad­sides have gone a long way toward fostering a widespread if vague public perception, of a fascinating­ly unprecedented sort, that Clin­ton is somehow less than legiti­mate — an impression Clinton himself doesn’t do much to dis­courage with his chronic tendency to act as if he thinks he’s won a game show called President for a Day.

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Unlike Rush Limbaugh or even Newt Gingrich, Woodward is hardly trying to cripple a presiden­cy. (He’s already done that, right?) But like his fellow perma­nent Washingtonians, he thinks it only fitting to put Clinton in his place. In The Agenda, with nig­gling exceptions, all of the people Clinton brought to the capital with him come off badly. Every­body who was already in Washing­ ton comes off well. The atrocious Lloyd Bentsen, whose status as America’s most overrated public figure gives a fair idea of perma­nent Washington’s taste in self-­regard, is portrayed as a distin­guished and sagacious old sort even when he’s undercutting his new colleagues by making public pronouncements at odds with their strategy, as Bentsen acciden­tally-on-purpose managed to do twice during the budget fracas. Al Gore gets both kinds of treatment: he’s depicted as a numbskull when he’s being pushy about the environment and such, but viewed with new respect when he’s skill­fully carving out a niche for him­self in the White House turf wars, the latter being the kind of en­deavor that permanent Washing­ton has no trouble understanding and endorsing.

Also handled with noticeable cordiality is David Gergen — who was hired, of course, as Clinton’s desperate signal to permanent Washington that he was giving up on bypassing them. At one point, we’re urged to empathize with Gergen’s melancholy when young Clintonites tactlessly make “parti­san” — i.e., anti-Reagan — com­ments in his presence. Woodward is silent on whether Gergen’s ecu­menical sensitivities were similarly agitated by the backroom banter during his tenures in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan White Houses­ — although it is nice to know that Gergen, who accepted Clinton’s job offer with a much-praised speech about his duty to answer his president’s call, dickered be­hind the scenes for some days to make sure he’d get a high-sound­ing title.

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Last week, the White House trundled Gergen out on Face the Nation to respond to The Agenda with some welcome news. Nowa­days, said Gergen, the president was getting much better at con­trolling his temper. This was duly reported. It was also appropriate, since the book’s most damaging characterizations of Clinton’s out­bursts are written from Gergen’s perspective — “It was truly awful, on the edge of controlled violence … He had never quite seen an adult, let alone a president, in such a rage.” Presidents on the edge of controlled violence used to fire aides for such indiscretions, but Gergen leads a charmed life. He could cook Socks on a spit at the next press barbecue and the Clintons would still have to keep him on, because he’s their perma­nent-Washington status symbol­ — sort of a cross between a hostage and a trophy wife. They can only hope that when he quits, it won’t be at a juncture that will actively embarrass them.

As for The Agenda‘s descrip­tions of an administration in per­petual disarray, I’ve got no doubt that they’re accurate so far as they go. But the impression that’s conveyed of floundering bumpkinism occupies a void, because we’re giv­en no comparisons to how previ­ous White Houses handled deci­sion making. More lopsidedly, the other players in the budget-crafting process — Congress, the Republican opposition, the lobbyists, and the mucky-mucks of high finance­ — aren’t held up to the same scruti­ny. (One noteworthy exception: Bob Kerrey, who must have failed to pay Woodward due homage at a dinner party or something, since he’s depicted as an arrogant, self­-deluded prick — though just why he should be singled out on that score escapes me.) Clearly, Woodward can’t imagine any reason to view these fellow insiders critically. They may be the people who wrecked the country, but at least, unlike the Clintonites, they know their jobs. ■


Media: On Bill Clinton and Paula Jones

“‘Tis a Pity He’s a Whore”

OKAY. SO WE DON’T HAVE NIXON to kick around any­more; fortunately we have Joe Klein. I feel as if I owe the guy royalties, given the mileage I’ve gotten out of his whine some 15 years ago in Mother Jones — an irresistibly quotable classic in the annals of male liberal ressentiment — that the left had shamefully turned its attention from the poor to defending the liberties of “women, homosexuals, and mari­juana smokers.” I hereby resolve to stop squeezing that one, on the grounds that Klein’s approach to cultural poli­tics has gotten a lot more subtle, as evidenced by his bizarre piece of free association in last week’s Newsweek, “The Politics of Promiscuity.”

Klein starts out declaring that Paula Jones’s accusations against Bill Clinton, like Anita Hill’s against Clarence Thomas, are unprovable and ought to be of no interest to the media. Clinton’s enemies are “despicable,” motivated by ideology or greed. Besides, “it can be persuasively ar­gued” that politicians’ private lives are irrelevant to their public performance; take John Kennedy (I forgo the obvious interjection). “Indeed,” says Klein, “those who have come to the presidency with a prior history of philandering have been more successful than those who haven’t, at least in the 20th century (as opposed to those who’ve come to the presidency with high IQs, who’ve mostly been fail­ures).” (This in itself is a riveting piece of social analysis, which I will generously leave to other commentators to pick over.)

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But. (You knew there was a “but.”) The issue won’t go away, because there have been so many previous “allega­tions of personal misbehavior” against the president and because “it seems increasingly, and sadly, apparent that the character flaw Bill Clinton’s enemies have fixed upon­ — promiscuity — is a defining characteristic of his public life as well.” That is, the dictionary definition of “promiscuous,” revolving around such concepts as “indiscriminate,” “casual,” and “irregular,” fits the style and substance of Clinton’s governing in both good ways — he is empathetic, skilled at bringing people together and finding common ground, able to disarm opponents and forge compromises­ — and bad — he lacks principle, wants to please everyone, has trouble saying no, fudges the truth, believes he can “seduce, and abandon, at will and without consequences.”

I can’t quarrel with Klein’s assessment of the moral vacuum at the center of Clinton’s operation, especially in foreign affairs. What bemuses me is the not-so-deep struc­ture of this polemic, which unfolds more or less as follows: Sexual harassment charges against public figures are in­herently nebulous and an intrusion of “private life” into public discourse. (Anita Hill, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flow­ers are all the same in the dark; sexual intimidation, marital infidelity, what’s the dif?) Since JFK displayed a suitable, manly decisiveness in public, “acting in a sober, measured — and inspired — manner during the Cuban mis­sile crisis,” we can assume that he was able to contain his sexual weakness, to confine it to the bedroom, where it belonged; his expenditure of bodily fluids did not corrupt. With Clinton, in contrast, the press can be forgiven for breaching the proper boundary between public and pri­vate, because his own libidinal boundaries appear to be alarmingly porous. He is charming and seductive, wont to “wheedle” and “cajole.” “He conveys an impression of complete accessibility, and yet nothing is ever revealed: ‘I’ve had blind dates with women I’ve known more about than I know about Clinton,’ James Carville once com­plained …” In short, Bill is not only too feminine; his femininity is of the unreliable, manipulative, whorish sort. He has let sex invade the core of his being, as we all know women do (this is why it’s so much worse for a woman to be “promiscuous”); and it is this erotic spillover, this gender betrayal, that explains (or at least symbolizes) his abandonment of Haiti and Bosnia.

In conclusion, Klein quotes Clinton’s definition of character as “a journey, not a destination with ringing disapproval: “There is an adolescent, unformed, half-­baked quality to it — as there is to the notion of promiscuity itself: an inability to settle, to stand, to commit … It’s not too much to ask that a leader be mature, fully formed and not flailing about in a narcissistic, existential quest for self-discovery.” Translation: not only has Clin­ton failed to develop a real masculine superego, he hasn’t sufficiently tran­scended his roots in the decade that dare not speak its name. To be worthy of power in this era of settling and commit­ting, it’s not enough simply to refrain from inhaling — one must actively spit out. Live by the ’60s, die by the ’60s: having embraced the twin idols of Nar­cissism and Androgyny, it’s only fitting that Clinton should be zapped by their incestuous offspring, Personal Politics. All clear?

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An emerging theme elsewhere on the Paula Jones beat has been the failure of her case to become Anita Hill II (“Paula stunned by feminists’ silence,” a Post headline observed, while in Sunday’s Times Maureen Dowd offered such tidbits as Bob Dornan, suddenly converted to the cause of fighting sexual harassment, sporting an “I Believe Paula” button). Do feminists have a double standard? Have conservatives promoted Jones’s case mainly to embarrass feminists by making them look like hypocrites? Etc., etc.

When Marx amended Hegel to specify that history re­peats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, he could have been talking about American popular culture. The outcry over Hill was not only, or even primarily, about sexual harassment per se, but about women’s concerns being ignored by a male-dominated society. It erupted as it did for a whole stew of reasons: the symbolism of the Supreme Court, in the midst of the right’s attempt to pack it with anti-abortion ideologues; the smug protectiveness of the old boys in the Senate; the decade-long, cumulative frustration of women in a political atmosphere that increas­ingly denied the legitimacy of their anger at men. The eruption transformed that atmosphere, putting gender con­flict back on the pop cultural map. It has also had a more problematic effect, namely the push to expand the defini­tion of sexual harassment to cover any kind of male sexual behavior or talk that offends a woman. Even with a relative­ly specific definition — mine is the deliberate use of sexual attention, or expressions of sexual hostility, as a weapon to punish a woman for presuming to take up public space as other than a sexual object-it’s not easy to draw the line between sexual harassment and plain, reflexive sexual pig­gishness. (I believed Hill’s account of what Thomas had said, yet listening to her rendition of his words — abstracted from their original context, his tone of voice, his body language — I never felt I could judge whether he was a harasser, or just a sexist jerk.) And to imagine we can change a piggish sexual culture simply by outlawing it (even if feminists agreed on what kind of sexual expres­sion is sexist, which of course they don’t) suggests a naive and frightening faith in the state. In the wake of all the emotion over Thomas-Hill, many feminists have ar­rived at a quiet recognition of how messy this issue can get. So I don’t think the “silent” women’s groups are merely standing by their man; I think they feel a farce coming on.

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The Making of Conventional Wisdom Department: in a recent column in Newsday, James P. Pinkerton of the con­servative Manhattan Institute opines, “More than a quarter of all American babies are born outside of marriage. The rate among some groups is much higher, leading, everyone by now agrees, to the chaos and crime of the urban under­class.” Everyone agrees? I don’t think so. There’s been a fair amount of com­mentary, some of which I’ve written my­self, disputing this latest attempt to blame the social and economic crisis of the (black) poor on women’s out-of-con­trol breeding. What “everyone” means is “everyone who counts,” which includes ultraconservatives like Charles Murray (whom Pinkerton refers to as a “gloomy social scientist,” diplomatically omitting mention of his right-wing politics) but excludes anyone to the cultural left of, say, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. ■


Specimen Days: A Personal Essay

Specimen Days: Scenes From the Epidemic
February 22, 1994

I DON’T KNOW where to go as I leave the doctor’s office. The shops and people seem two-dimensional. Sounds are muffled. I keep thinking: pay attention to what you feel. But all I feel is the wind.

I remember the museum is close by. The heavy woodwork, the leaded windows, the cavernous rooms remind me of elementary school. I head up the central staircase, following the path where the stone has been worn down by footsteps.

I’m impressed as always by the dinosaur bones. They are displayed in action — about to fight, about to feed.

A tour guide breaks my thoughts. She tells group of schoolchildren to ignore the signs in the glass cases; natural history is advancing so rapidly, she explains that the curator can’t keep up, and some of the information is out of date.

I’m disappointed to think that our science will some­day seem quaint and that I’ll never know what really happened to the dinosaurs.

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WE WALK INTO a glassed-in sidewalk café near Du­pont Circle. I make it a point to sit across from Daniel because I want to flirt without the others noticing. We talk about how the rest of the world seems so little aware of what we are going through and how much the neighborhood has changed. We order omelettes; I look around and realize it is lunchtime for the other customers.

Daniel has been traveling in the Midwest and says he’s impressed by how close knit gay people seem in small towns; he would trade some of the freedom we have in New York for that sense of community. We start to play the game, staring a bit too long, jerking our attention away. He apologizes for using Sweet ’n Low, and I confess I use too much salt. I look through the glass and say Washington might be a nice place live after all.

Then I knock my fork on the floor and bend down to pick it up, but I’m not watching and I slam my forehead on the next table. It’s quiet all around us. I look up to say, “I’m fine,” but before I get the words out I see two drops of my blood, bright red against the white linen.

I DRIVE TO the suburbs to visit my father in the hospital. My hometown seems too manicured, like those model towns we used to build for the train set. My father’s room is in a new wing of the hospital, with drop ceilings, sheetrock walls, and a small crucifix over every door.

My mother and brother are there. I tell them Dad looks good and my mother smiles. I begin to resent the attention he’s getting.

Later, I am alone with my father when he wakes up. We have small talk. Suddenly, he asks if people still get AIDS from transfusions. I’m startled just to hear him say the word. I want to tell him I understand how afraid and alone he feels, but I’m not ready for him to know about me. I tell him to not worry — they screen blood now. He doesn’t look convinced, but puts his head back and drifts off to sleep. I touch his hand and notice how much our fingers are alike.

A few weeks later he’s back home and I visit him again. He seems small and hunched over, but the quickness is back in his eyes. He gives me a key to a safe­ deposit box; his will and some savings bonds are inside. If anything happens to him, it’s up to me to take care of the arrangements. I’m the only one who would be calm enough to know what to do.

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I FOLLOW PETER out to the beach. Children from the village play off in the distance. The sun is already strong. Peter sits at the water’s edge and lowers his head. I sit a few feet away, wondering what to say. It was easier back in the city; here there is too much time to think. I look back at the guest house and notice again how shabby it’s gotten.

I touch his shoulder. He doesn’t want to die alone. He doesn’t want to die. I tell him I understand, I’m going through it too. That doesn’t calm him. He starts up again, telling me how his friend died. I turn away.

Further down the beach, someone has sculpted a life­ size person in the sand. The arms are crossed over the chest like a body in a casket. The face is peaceful. I start to tell Peter I heard these sculptures are part of an old folk religion still practiced on the island, but halfway through, I can’t remember if that’s true or I imagined it.

Suddenly, I envy his hysteria. I tell him that the frightened boy inside of him is the part I love most and that I would be there if he got sick. He calms down. We decide to go for a swim. The water’s too cool and the tide’s coming in, but we make it past where the waves are breaking and soak in the sun and the salt and the motion. When we return to land, the sand corpse has been washed away.

I’M MAKING every effort to keep up my friendship with Tom. He’s a connection to the days when everything was possible. Now that I’ve moved in with Peter, I worry that Tom may get lonely. And I know he’s attracted to Peter. He doesn’t hide his jealousy, and I don’t hide that I enjoy it.

But tonight he’s in one of his moods, smoking cigarettes between every course. He called to tell a friend about another friend and that friend told him about someone else. He’s thinking of taking antidepressants, but he’s afraid they’ll suppress his immune system.

Tom starts describing how he’s stopped going to memorials because they make him think about his own. I lean back, signal the waiter to bring the check and say, “Don’t worry, Tom. We’re not planning to give you a memorial.” I look into his face to see if he’s amused, but see only anger and surprise. It’s my turn, but he won’t let me pay for dinner.

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PETER COMPLAINS that I go to ACT UP demos just to cruise. I tell him I go for the sense of event. But today, in front of the Stock Exchange, the rain has muffled the protesters. I’m watching from under the canopy of the Federal Building across the street, listen­ing to a homeless man explain the scene to his companion.

Then I see Mark. I slip around the nearest column, hoping he hasn’t seen me. I remember reading in Alumni News that he’s a vice-president now. I’m embarrassed by my backpack and blue jeans. I tell myself he wouldn’t be surprised to run into me here. He must have suspected me back in college.

I feel a tap on my shoulder and I spin around and Mark’s smiling at me, extending his hand. As we’re talking, I notice his eyes darting over to the demonstra­tors. I ask about his wife. Beth had a miscarriage last summer, he says softly, but they’re trying again now. Then he leans toward me, whispers, “Be happy,” and disappears into the revolving door.

I’M STARING INTO a shop window when I see a familiar face in the glass. David. We smile. Six years? Seven? You’re looking good, he says, by which we both know he means healthy. What’s new?

I don’t know what to say. David and I had never gotten to know each other well. I throw out disjointed facts. New boyfriend, same job. And you?

David tested positive last week.

I reach over and put my arms around him. That’s not like me. In those weeks we slept together so long ago, we never touched in the street.

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AT LAST I would meet the extended family. Easter is a major Greek holiday, so there would be plenty of ritual to get us through the evening. Peter’s mother puts out a spread of lamb, spinach pie, and honey pastries. We crack open eggs dyed red in honor of Mary Magdalene and make wishes for the coming year. The older aunt never looks me in the eye, but sweet Aunt Kattina nods and smiles at me all through dinner. Later, the men laugh and argue over coffee while Peter and I help the women in the kitchen.

When we return home, Peter lights candles and we make love. Then he turns to the wall and we curl around each other. We will sleep with the window open because it’s almost spring. I lie still, waiting to hear him snore.

In the middle of the night, Peter cries out and I wake him and say it was just a dream, go back to sleep. We lie back. I look down at my body, thinking that all we are is inside our skin, but in this moment that thought doesn’t frighten me.

I’M TYING UP the newspapers. That’s become my job. Peter is mopping, singing along with the music. The apartment smells like lemons and ammonia. Then I spot Michael’s obit. I quickly shuffle it to the bottom of the pile, wondering if Peter knows. I decide to wait for the right moment to tell him.

But later, when I’m emptying the trash, I discover he’s already removed Michael’s card from the Rolodex.

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I NOTICE A SLIGHT awkwardness in my step. After a brain scan and biopsy, I’m told I have a brain infection, which the AIDS treatment handbook I pull down from my shelf describes as “largely untreatable, rapidly progressive, and fatal.”

Peter is scrubbing the turkey, twisting his face in disgust as he slaps the gizzards into the sink. Carol is rolling pie crusts, explaining the virtues of shortening over real butter. The cats hover wide-eyed in the doorway. Sage, rosemary, and lots of thyme, I remember my grandmother telling me as she violently shook the spice can over the bowl of stuffing. Peter’s mother bursts in, and they argue in Greek until he lets her peel the apples.

Later, my family comes. It’s the first time I’ve seen them since the news, and they sit across the table in their best clothes, huddled together, motionless and grim like the Romanovs waiting for their executioners. My niece crawls over and sits in my lap.

I SIT in the dark comer, wanting to get up to respond to the man who’s rubbing his crotch in my face, afraid to lose my seat. I rub saliva from my hand and reach up to touch a passing nipple. I’ve convinced myself the sex club is one of the places I feel safest. The corridors are too narrow and crowded for me to fall. It’s so dark, no one seems to notice the way I move, or maybe they think I’m just drunk. I’ve learned something about myself coming here: The fun was always in the chase.

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I’M STRAPPED to a table wearing a blue paper gown with a plastic cage around my head, being slid into the scanner. They shut the hatch, so I am completely enclosed, like an astronaut. The test lasts longer than I expect; I’m wonder­ing if that’s a good sign. They pipe in music to drown out the distant jackhammmer rumble of the scan. I had brought CDs — Bach and a pop song that reminds me of Peter — but when they ask what kind of music I prefer, I just want to get it over with and I say I don’t care. So they pipe in the radio. It’s rush hour, so I lie there listening to anxious traffic updates.

WE’RE IN A DAMP East Village basement, watching a play about nuclear holocaust. Strobe lights, screeching punk music, eager actors stumbling around with red Jello dripping from their cheeks. Later, in front of the theater, the lead walks by, without his makeup. He has a lesion on his face.

PETER YELLS “snap out of it,” complaining that my walk — dragging my left foot, my left arm curled up in front of me like a beggar — “looks like something out of Dickens.” He’s mad at my family today, after a message from my brother the priest informing us that I had upset my sister because I sounded “down” on the phone. I think back to the day two months ago, my birthday, that I told her, as she returned home from the butcher, watching while she slapped fistfuls of chopped meat into burgers, wrapping each with both Saran and foil to protect them. When I told my brother the night before, he described Pascal’s wager­ — that we might as well believe in God, because we’ll be better off if he exists and no worse off if he doesn’t. I told him I didn’t think God’s so easily fooled.

I NEVER WANTED to open gifts on Christmas, because when the boxes were all unwrapped, it was over. This year, I’m having trouble tearing the paper, so I just want to get through it quickly. We usually buy a tree that’s much too big for the room, but this year we buy a small one we can replant in the spring.

I LIE ON THE couch, thinking I should be reading Proust or sailing to Tahiti, strategizing whether to get up to go to the bathroom or hold it till Peter gets home. Suddenly, the roofers start to lift the skylight, two days ahead of schedule. A few flakes of snow fall into the room, sprinkling my blanket like sugar. I pretend to be asleep because I don’t want it to stop.

REMEMBERING ROBERT: Seven Writers Remember a Colleague and a Friend

May 17, 1994


November 18, 1993, 9 a.m.
A few weeks ago, I began to notice a slight awkwardness in my step. A few days later, I was stumbling over the keyboard, a few more errors per line each day. Though I’ve been basically healthy, knowing what I know as a journalist covering AIDS, I rushed off to the doctor, and after a brain scan and visits to a few specialists, got the diagnosis: Progressive Multifocal Leukoen­cephalopathy, or PML. The medical book I pulled down from my shelf describes it as a rare brain infection caused by a common childhood virus that can erupt in people with AIDS, largely untreatable, rapidly pro­gressive, and fatal.

My response is to be stoic. That’s be­cause I’ve always been stoic, and because I’ve perceived that staying calm is the best thing for my health, which is the measure of all things these days. That may change: some anger or hysteria might be useful, or necessary, later on, but not for now.

The hardest question right now is how aggressive to be with treatment. My own research tells me early treatment might at best help slow down the infection, but treatment itself is a drastic step, involving the risky insertion of a device into my brain to deliver the medication. At the moment, I’m still able to maintain the semblance of a nor­mal life. At this stage, the infection has eaten away at my ability to move the left side of my body, more each day. I can type with one hand, walk if I stay close to the wall, still climb stairs. My definition of normal keeps expanding.

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The most interesting part of all of this has been the reaction of everyone around me. Of course, everyone is being extremely helpful and, taking their cue from me, remaining calm, at least in my presence. I find that each person’s ability to help is a func­tion not only of our relationship, but of their own relationship with mortality.

The central person of my life, my lover, my doppelgänger, my pal, is Perry, dear Perry. I’m so sorry to see you go through this. One of the complications of AIDS is negotiating the relationship between the lover and the family, but so far my family has followed my instructions that after me, Perry is in charge. Mom and Dad had to learn of all this on my 36th birth­day.

My friend Carol had the presence of mind to ask me a key question right away: What am I doing with my time? My answer has been to do what I’ve always done. But, in fact, preparing to die, perhaps abruptly, while maintaining a positive attitude, whatever that means, is quite time-consuming.

Do I want to travel, win the Nobel Prize, finally read Proust? Of course, but I don’t see that focusing on the never-dids will be much help right now. And nothing would be enough, so anything is enough, to be savored. And as I keep having to remind everyone, I’m not dead yet.

But I am tired.

7 p.m. 
Today I became focused on a question that has been nagging me since the beginning: what physically is happening to me? What are the facts? A brain scan has shown one large and several small lesions. Two doc­tors, one considered the leading expert, have written “PML” under diagnosis on their bills. Blood tests show my immune system is weak enough for PML to appear. But what does that mean? It’s not like I have shrapnel sticking out of my gut. The mind can create symptoms, and a brain infection is particularly tricky. I’m a prime candidate for having invented this. I don’t have a history of hypochondria, but I do write about medicine, so I could be making this up.

Is this denial? The body has tools to fight almost anything short of shrapnel in the gut. For reasons beyond what we under­stand, the molecules in my body are not working together the way they should.

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December 1, 1993, 11 a.m.
Why have I been so unfaithful in writing this? Fear that it falls so short. Being miser­ly with my time. Difficulty of sitting at my desk, working the keyboard. Wanting mostly just to sleep.

The last few weeks have been taken up by visits to the hospital for tests, visits from friends. Monday I was hobbling around the hospital going to rooms to fill out forms so I could go to rooms to fill out more forms.

Tomorrow is the biopsy. They make it sound like a tooth extraction. Local anes­thetic, one stitch. Assuming there are no complications — they always add that.

I managed to drag myself over to work a few days last week, to help orient my re­placement. How do you begin to explain something as ineffable and intuitive as story assignment? I left one cardinal rule: Print nothing that might mislead people to un­wise choices about their care. But what is wisdom in such a catastrophe?

I felt at work, as in the hospital, like I was in a black hole. Worried about my privacy, those I’ve told haven’t told anyone else at the paper. So everyone acted as if I’d been on holiday, maybe sprained my ankle skiing. But that’s why I went back — for some sense of normality.

Too much caution can be dangerous. The hardest thing about walking in the street is that I almost get knocked over because I wait for the light to cross — almost unheard of in New York City. I learned it’s safest to walk with a little more limping than neces­sary, so people don’t come too close.

Our friend David died two days ago. Frank had a tumor removed from his spine yesterday, will need to have a kidney taken out too. Events that would have shattered my equilibrium just a few weeks ago now seem like faint, distant echoes.

Dear diary, I’ll tell you a secret. What is still on my mind, near the core, when work, reading, writing, and even friendship seem too difficult, is sex. Much of my time right now seems to be focused on ways to create the illusion at least that sex is still possible. Will they shave my head tomorrow?

Will there be complications?

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December 5, 1993, 6 p.m.
Much as I’d like to milk this brain operation for maximum sympathy, I must confess that it was not at all horrible. All of us surgery patients being summoned from the lounge en masse, torn from our loved ones, did, as Perry later remarked, have a holocaust vibe, but after they gave me the intravenous Vali­um, they could have chopped my head off and I wouldn’t have minded. I remember only fleeting moments: having part of my head shaved, hearing them say they still had one spot to get. I ate saltines and apple juice in the recovery room.

My goal was to get out of the hospital as quickly as possible, not to wallow, to be free of the regimentation (which was oddly se­lective: breakfast the next morning consist­ed of decaf, skim milk, no-cholesterol butter, a tablespoon of scrambled eggs, and five strips of bacon).

Back at home I’ve been fine — except last night, when the anesthetic finally wore off, was rough. I wasn’t in pain, just felt com­pletely wasted, discombobulated, as if I had an electric current running through me.

Perry the snoop read through this and said it wasn’t good, that people want to read about emotions, not symptoms. I agree — that’s what good writing is. But I can only write what’s there. Better to be boring than dishonest.

December 9, 1993, 6:30 p.m.
Mary, one of the phone receptionists at the Voice, whom I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to except to complain about misdirected calls, stopped me in the street today asking if I was OK, ’cause I was walking so slowly. When I told her I was OK, but I’ve been ill, she looked horrified and said she would pray for me. I guess only a virtual stranger can show naked sympathy. I’m aware of nearly everyone around me looking past the wound in my head, past my awkward move­ment, trying to make me feel normal. (I’m also aware that my oh-the-biopsy-wasn’t-so-bad routine is in part an attempt to milk it for what I can. To look brave, so they can say he fought it.)

The doctor told me last night that the biopsy was conclusive — PML — but that I wasn’t deteriorating that rapidly, so she wanted to continue the antivirals and hold off on the chemo implant for at least a few weeks. So I went back to earth.

They all are being very supportive — will­ing to make arrangements to enable me to do whatever work I want, promising to not cut me off, bending to accommodate me. Of course, they don’t have too much choice — I could be a PR liability. But I also like to think that they are basically decent folks. Do I want to work? I need to keep my feet on the ground. But I’m haunted by the idea that it’s not the best use of my time — I should be home writing the great American novel.

Hearing friends talk about other friends in hysteria over this or that amazes me. Even the news of the great events shaping the world outside seems beside the point. Stop fighting. Feed people. Our attention should be all on picking up the pieces from natural disasters, like AIDS. Everything else we invent.

Shortly after he wrote these passages, Rob­ert Massa became unable to write or type. By March, he was unable to use his facial muscles to speak. He died on April 9. 

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WHY AREN’T THERE telephones in the here­after? In the stillness of the wee hours, with the cursor flashing mockingly on a blank slate screen, I’d call Robert. Or at two in the morning, when writerly demons were haunting him, my phone would ring. We’d try out ideas, read passages to each other, get advice on structure. Somehow we’d slide into chitchat, then into more intimate conver­sation. After an hour or two, we’d joke about our codependent writing-avoidance behavior. We’d hang up — and crank out a story.

Those were the days before either of us had found — and moved in with — the loves of our lives. The days, that is, when the phone could ring at two in the morning without detonating a domestic disaster. When both of us were figuring out that we needed to write about more than theater, when we both needed to talk about what it meant that we felt so happy to be succumb­ing, at last, to the coziness of coupledom.

Robert, much more calm and self-assured than I in both pursuits, was not only a nurturing and demanding editor of my writ­ing, he helped me shape my life.

It’s hard to come up with a snappy anec­dote or image that captures him. Robert was more intricate than eventful. Though as a writer he was a master of pointed conci­sion, as a subject he seems, strangely, to demand sprawl, or at least lots of scene setting. For Robert, magnitude and meaning resided in details. That’s one reason he was the country’s best AIDS journalist. That and his passion, precision, and principle.

And he was scrappy. Gloriously so. Though deeply shy and unassuming, Robert could be incredibly forthright. He had no patience for bullshit. I’m sure that people in press offices cringed when he called, knowing he’d ask questions that would shove them off their script. When he got sick, he displayed the same no-nonsense clarity. Re­specting his disdain for sentimentality, I tried to repress my mushy tendencies in his presence — and perhaps didn’t say aloud what pounded in my heart. But then, Rob­ert didn’t seem to want histrionics; he wanted someone to read him the paper. And though, increasingly, he couldn’t speak, he managed to keep hurling barbs at the Times. I’d visit on Thursdays and he’d joke that I would have to come a different morning — Thursday meant having to hear Frank Rich’s op-eds read aloud.

Years ago, Robert and I collaborated on a story about men’s and women’s bars. Given our diametrically opposed approaches to work — him sculpting sentence by sentence, me wanting to blurt out a messy draft and then go back and tinker — it’s a miracle we didn’t come to blows. Our research was “dating” each other — Robert dragging me into gay watering holes (he was careful to pick bars he didn’t frequent, lest I cramp his style), me strutting him into lesbian spots. Not long ago, he told me he’d reread the story and thought it was really bad — slight ideas, clunky prose. And looking it over, I had to agree. Still, Robert, you were the best boy date I ever had. — Alisa Solomon

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Here is our last top 10:

1. A kiss in front of the Blue Willow so that all the world would know.

2. Exchanging wedding rings over pastrami.

3. An apartment with green carpeting and pink walls that we knew we could make our own.

4. Sex!

5. A tub full of kittens and William meowing to be noticed.

6. Our first anniversary, I-95, and a tree that continues to grow.

7. A cold February day in Berlin searching for art and dealing with snow and torn-up combat boots.

8. March 26, 1993: City Hall, domestic partnership, and a nervous bride.

9. The Statue of Liberty — a kiss — and salt and pepper shakers.

10. My birthday this year when you struggled to light a candle and carry the cake yourself.

And of course watching you as you slept for 2204 nights. Guess what? I still do.

“Always on my mind.”

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HOW COULD ROBERT DIE — and leave me to watch Nixon’s funeral alone? Well sup­plied with plenty of cigarettes, take-out eats, and gallons of caffeinated beverage, and sharing a mutual loathing for the suddenly sanctified former prez, Robert, his lover Perry, and I would have had a ball with his send-off. After all, with the possi­ble exceptions of the endless Menendez boys’ courtroom drama and the Tonya & Nancy variety show, this was the TV event of the season: Five-Presidents-and-First-La­dies-Five and Bob Hope, politicians galore and a bunch of cheap crooks (sometimes one and the same), and the incomparable Spiro Agnew. Oh, how the bile would have mingled with unbridled laughter as we re­acted to all that pathetic posturing and cant, not to mention Senator Dole’s Emmy­-worthy little breakdown at the end of his eulogy. And then we would have focused on the important stuff: Barbara Bush’s K­-Marché faux pearls, the Carters’ seeming dyspepsia, and whether Alexis Carrington Colby, oops, I mean Nancy Reagan has had another lift.

Not to dis Tricia’s and Julie’s grief, but — ­oh, please! — their pop had been planning his final farewell as a major TV comeback special ever since he split quick from the White House back in ’74, and that is exact­ly how Robert and Perry and I would have relished it — as yet another great TV event that added to the structure upon which we built and nurtured our friendship. For most­ly, over the past 15 years (and with Perry also working the remote since ’88), Robert and I watched television. At least once a week and, depending on what was on, sometimes much more often — I went over to Robert’s (and then Robert and Perry’s) apartment; I was home — you know, the place where you are always welcome. And while we chewed over everything from our own work to all the current issues and gossip, our primary activity was television, lots of it, all of it — the news, Mary Tyler Moore reruns, years of Dynasty, tennis, fig­ure skating, Murphy Brown, election re­turns, lousy dramas, awards shows, and, above all, beauty pageants. We took it all in, savoring the purest moments — Sue Sim­mons and Al Roker, anything from Delta Burke’s delirious Suzanne Sugarbaker, the self-referential brilliance of the final New­hart — and commenting upon, twisting, spitting back, and otherwise manipulating most of the rest for our own purpose: good con­versation. And maybe it was just an excuse to be together.

My favorite TV memory is of a beauty pageant a few years ago, in which a contestant was asked something like: In a hundred years, who do you think will be considered the most influential woman of the 20th century? That was exactly the type of thing we delighted in — and took dead seriously. After much hysterical laughter over the contestant’s response — Babs Bush (then First Lady) — we first had to deconstruct the question. What would be the best answer in order to win the contest? What would be the right answer? The most im­pressive? The most clever? Eleanor Roose­velt was the obvious answer — too obvious, we decided. Then Perry popped in with Madonna. We liked that, but nah. I thought hard and came up with Anne Frank. Ooh, they liked that. Impressive choice. And then, a couple of minutes later, Robert looked up, eyes twinkling, and said defini­tively, “Lucy Ricardo.” Ever the thoughtful, deliberate journalist, he had worked it through. And, of course, he was right.

But now, missing Robert, missing him ter­ribly, I find our choices somehow ironic. For while Perry and I have always carried on together in a manner that just might bring to mind Lucy and Ethel or, to switch to my medium of expertise — Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand carrying on in Enough Is Enough — Robert, well, Robert actually had more than a bit of Anne Frank in him. In both his work — as a theater critic and especially as a journalist documenting the horrors of AIDS and the fight for gay rights — and his personal life, he first looked for the good in others, for the positive and the possible. He could be cynical or angry (cf. Nixon), but he was essentially a kind, generous man who did his damnedest. And like too many of the best TV shows — say, I’ll Fly Away — Robert was canceled much too soon. Oh, Robert, we never got to say, “Hi, Roz!” — Jim Feldman 

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(For Robert)

I’m sorry, you said
in your E.T. voice,
the one you’d had
since your body companion
began its final campaign
for control of your body. 

It was the inconveniencing
that bothered you the most.
That, and having to express
your biggest fears by feeling
your way along a letter board. 

Months earlier, watching t.v.
(with the sound off, of course)
You observed that
essentially it all boils down to 
Tonya Harding and the weather.
After several hours, I
had to agree with you. 

Here’s what I remember:
The look on your face
when you first held Lucy.
Your need to talk about
love’s truths at 3 in the morning.
Your impatience with insincerity.
Your quiet ability to take care of

The last time I saw you
awake, you needed something
urgently. Water, I asked, Oxygen,
Juice, Raise the bed.
With a great deal of frustration
You finally spelled out
“New Yorker.”
I should’ve known. 

— Mala Hoffman

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OH ROBERT, goddamn it! — Eileen Blumenthal


IN THE LAST WEEKS of Robert’s life, it was difficult for him to speak. He would dive into himself and force out words, repeating them until I understood. When he could still see well enough and coordinate his hands, he typed into a computer. After that, he pointed to letters on an alphabet chart. He communicated with his eyes, too, which were attentive, comprehending, and filled with a new intensity, a look of horror and empathy, as if he were computing his emo­tions and mine at a speeded rate. He made me feel understood and accepted, and I spoke without reserve.

He did not use our time to complain and one day, when I asked what was on his mind, he spelled out “I don’t feel cheated.” I said he inspired love in many people, in his odd, distant way. His kiss was the faintest brush, but he let you know, through a sort of sneaking merriment — his mouth lift­ing in a Cheshire cat grin, a blush blooming over his cheeks — that he was glad you ex­isted. His generosity did not come with conditions.

It was easier now to touch him, to hold hands and rub his back. I read aloud or talked about the world and events at the Voice, but even more Robert wanted stories about my life, which he said distracted him from the discomfort of his body. I was roller-coasting on a problematic love affair. “What happened?” would be the first words he would cough up when I arrived, and when I told him it was over, he said, “Better sooner than later, if it had to end.” So there I was suffering about the loss of love and coming out of myself with him, and there he was escaping his trembling hands and numb left side. We talked of the frustration of our pow­erlessness over his illness. Robert said he wished he had written more; I responded there probably wasn’t a writer who didn’t feel that every day. Robert said that, apart from work, the only consolation now or at any time was human connection. He did not stop building it.
— Laurie Stone 


Beastie Boys: The Portable Lower East Side

Beastie Boys: The Portable Lower East Side
June 14, 1994

From the very beginning — goofing on Tom Carvel and rapping over AC/DC riffs like bedroom stoners who wished they were dirtbags — there was no difference between how they sounded and what they were, or at least what they projected. The voices, whiny and young, communicated in seconds a worldview it had taken a short lifetime of cathode-ray overexposure and pop-culture over-consumption to develop, a teenboy fantasy as fully formed, detailed, and endlessly explorable as any that Robert Plant’s witchy, hip-melting howl ever conjured. High and tight, their spiel spoke of the maturation of immaturity, of the years it took to go from sucking helium out of balloons at bar mitzvahs to sucking nitrous outside of whippets at dorm parties. They couldn’t stop talking, either — the restless energy, the legacy of boredom that knew no bottom, threatened to shred their throats. There was something like confidence in all that talk, but it was too eager, too unearned to be a real thing. This was the invincibility of pranksters who needed to hide behind the telephone, of practical jokers who knew they’d get their asses kicked if they got caught. Not, What are you rebelling against? What have you got? but, What are you making fun of? What have you got?

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Even at the beginning, though, there was more than beer spray and gun smoke, metal riffs and hiphop beats. There was love, too — the love of risk and difference, a vital attraction that drew them like a magnet away from the comforts of Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, and the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side, where like every generation of bohemians before them they set about reinventing themselves. It was the early ’80s, a moment when the original punks were consciously abandoning their own whiteness to dig deep into black rhythms — albeit the sounds of the past (James Brown) or the future (Grandmaster Flash) rather than the dance music of the present. It was a time when suburban new wavers could learn about reggae from Elvis Costello and about rap from the Clash, when punks and Studio 54 celebs and Bronx MCs and the rest of the world besides were all in orbit around the same music: the bassline and unbelievably springy guitar of Chic’s “Good Times.”

“When we were 13 and 14 and went to clubs and heard the DJ mix Big Youth and Treacherous Three with James White or Delta 5,” Mike D. recently told Simon Reynolds, “it wasn’t, ‘Hey, now we’re finding out about what people from another culture are about.’ It was just great music. All the kids at my school were into Led Zeppelin and the Eagles and that was what I defined myself against. So it was more a case of cool music versus uncool music.” This is wishful thinking, of course, the reductive cool-versus-uncool approach raised to the level of high theory by another set of B-boys, Beavis and Butt-head. More likely it was a little of both — great music and a way of finding out what people from another culture were about — but that wish counts for something. Because early on, the Beastie Boys made that wish come true.

Listen to the juvenilia collected on Some Old Bullshit and you can hear that wish taking form. They dive into hardcore, the strain of punk that reasserted the whiteness of the wail, and come out the other side as the rappers whose wanton disregard for boundaries — social, racial, moral, and musical — would win them so much notoriety on Licensed To Ill. The wish was not just that it was as simple as good music versus bad music, but that the good music created a way of belonging, a “Beastie Revolution” (as Some Old Bullshit’s ragamuffin track puts it), a place where cultures could interact dynamically and unceasingly as in the Manhattan the Beastie Boys continue to claim as home years after going off to Cali. Specifically, it is an integrationist wish, one aptly summed up by the name of the tour the million-selling Beastie Boys of Licensed To Ill embarked on with the million-selling Run-D.M.C. of Raising Hellin 1987: Together Forever.

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Again, wishful thinking — as the ’80s became the ’90s, neither the music nor the group’s careers would earn the boast. Once hiphop entered the age of identity politics with another 1987 event, Public Enemy’s debut, performers who made a point of blurring the lines between audiences and cultures faded faster than suede Pumas left out in the rain. By 1989, the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique couldn’t have been more out of step. Abandoning Licensed To Ill’s gangsta cartoons in the year of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, they approached hiphop as pop art, or “B-boy Bouillabaisse,” as they named the suite that closed out the album. They sampled Johnny Cash five years before Rick Rubin got to him, a bong hit two years before Cypress Hill made dope a cause célèbre, and the Sweet and the Isley Brothers four years before Lenny Kravitz brokered the marriage. They were prescient, brilliant, matching bottomless wit with bottomless musical invention. All they lacked was an audience.

Or so it seemed. Much is made of the musical woodshedding that went into 1992’s Check Your Head — the album where they played their instruments! — but the three years between Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head were more notable for the quality of their demographic research. Having found an audience that no one knew existed and then lost it to “real niggas” and pop fakes, the third time out they satisfied true loyalists and new recruits by satisfying themselves. In the process they found the emerging archetype of ’90s stardom, as crystallized by antistars from Nirvana to Ice Cube: the refusal to compromise. “Be true to yourself and you will never fall,” Mike D. advised on Check Your Head’s first single, “Pass the Mic.” No one seemed to mind that the songs seemed longer on ideas than wit or musicianship, because the Beasties had found a way to flaunt the old together-forever wish without selling out. From the title — back-in-the-day phraseology for “think it over” that alluded to Dischord’s crucial DC hardcore compilation Flex Your Head — to the grooves, here were two musics, two cultures, one people. There was a Sly Stone song done up hardcore stylee, there were backing tracks that imagined Curtis Mayfield riding with the James Gang, there were skateboard on-ramps to stoned soul picnics, and cable channels that showed nothing but Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and Suburbia over and over again. But the Dischord reference hinted at a problem as well. Having made two of the greatest albums of the ’80s, the Beasties were in danger of turning into Fugazi — a band honored more for its principles and past accomplishments, a band loved most for what it represented, not how it sounded.

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Sure enough, at a surprise Artists for Tibet benefit at the Academy two Fridays ago, Mike D. lectured the crowd on the politics of moshing, just like Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye at Fugazi concerts. “You can watch MTV at home and do that shit,” he said, later dedicating “Tough Guy” — one of three hardcore slammers on the new Ill Communication (Capitol/Grand Royal) — to the bully boys stepping on other people’s heads: “Now you’re poking me in the eye/Bill Laimbeer motherfucker, it’s time for you to die.” Ill Communication is where the Beastie Boys try to grow the music up — the first track and single, “Sure Shot,” boasts proudly of gray hair (MCA), marriage (Mike D.), and hard work (Mike D.) before offering this shout-out from MCA: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” MCA — who got to California and kept going west until he discovered Tibetan Buddhism — is at the center of Ill Communication as surely as Ad Rock, the only unrepentant wiseass left in the bunch, was at the center of Licensed To Ill. Repudiating his fascination with firearms in the superb, full-service Beastie-zine Grand Royal, giving respect to hiphop’s African descent on “Alright Hear This,” or calling for eco-action with Rastalike intimations of apocalypse on “The Update,” he’s atoning for past sins. Just as he’s smart enough to know he’ll never swing like the funk and jazz journeymen the Beasties now idolize (“Playing the bass is my favorite shit/I might be a hack on the stand up but I’m working at it”), he’s smart enough not to sound like a prig (“I’m not preaching bullshit/Just speaking my mind”). He concludes “Sure Shot” with this album’s version of the old wish: “Send my rhymes out to all nations/Like Ma Bell, I’ve got the ill communications.”

You have to admire the Beasties for wanting to show they can have as much fun as responsible adults as they did as stoopid kids, but growing the music up is perilously close to maturing as artists, as big a rock cliché as calls to eco-action — bigger. It’s the superficial story of Ill Communication, the way learning to play their instruments was the superficial story of Check Your Head. A more complicated version of the story starts with the title — which seems to refer less to the feedback on Sonic Youth and Pavement records or the “Can I take your order, sir?” squawk boxes they’re now enamored of than to a way of balancing disruption and coherence, a way of illing and checking your head at the same time. Whether it’s guest star Q-Tip interrupting one cipher session with “Phone is ringing, oh my god,” Ad Rock getting silly with “I’ve got a Grandma Hazel and a Grandma Tilly” (the most Jewish rhyme these Jewish rappers ever popped), or Mike D. babbling about his golf game, Ill Communication freestyles till it very nearly combusts. It aims to take whatever’s on their minds and make it signify.

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The music, too, works an off-the-top-of-their-heads vibe, though much more carefully. A determinedly futuristic album designed to crackle like an old LP, Ill Communication uses technology to push forward and backward at the same time. As with Check Your Head, it offers vinyl-only thrift-store bargains on ’70s styles: blaxploitation percussion, skunk-rock fuzz bass, disco flute, punk loudhardfast, and general dub madness. The Beasties have found their own sound among their obsessions — elegantly fucked-up hiphop that brings a work ethic to indie-rock accidentalism — but still get by on their DIY cred. Often they’re after the metallic skank, accidental funk, and haphazard rhythmic inventions of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, and they may never have enough command over their instruments to capture its falling-apart-at-the-seams-but-in-the-pocket grooves (personal to drummer Mike D.: since knocking off Ben Davis designs worked so well in the shmatte trade, why not just sample beats?). But they’ve got more than enough rhyme skills — they can be loose and in control at the same time, moving with the physical power, championship drive, and awkward authority they could just as well have learned from their beloved Knicks. The endless flow of freestyle verbiage makes Ill Communication seem more like the result of partying than woodshedding.

And it goes deeper than that. For all their hard work and emergent craft, the Beasties are no longer about making records — today, they make culture. In the ’90s — when every new star climbs up on the cross to tell us about being afraid of, revolted by, or victim to the pop audience — no other major-label act works as hard to make their fans into a community. The magazine they started to answer write-in requests for the lyrics to Check Your Head offers both aesthetic and spiritual guidance, as do the hardcore and art-funk records they release on their label of the same name; Mike D.’s X-Large stores are only too happy to see to his audience’s clothing needs. Their records need only function as a portable Lower East Side, an East Village of the mind, a place where the 14-year-old kids who’ll flock to see them at Lollapalooza this summer — and who were in kindergarten when “Fight for Your Right” hit MTV — can go to hear good music and find out how people from another culture live. They’ve become the DJ, mixing Big Youth and the Treacherous Three with the SS Decontrol and Luscious Jackson. You might even think that was their plan from the very beginning.


To Be Young, Superpowered & Black

At Lorestone Comics in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, an African American boy all of eight is shuffling through a stack of plastic-­wrapped comics, his expression drained to rapt blankness. The money in his pocket needs to be spent like, fast, and whole worlds are appearing and disappearing un­der his gaze in quick succession, dollar­-twenty-five universes glanced at and then banished on the merits of glossy foil covers.

Once upon a time, little man’s options ran a narrow gamut of types: Superman, Batman, Captain America, Thor — white-­bread superheroes for white-bread children. The X-Men were as funky as his purchases got, those freaky mutants being the closest mainstream comics come to reflecting the lives of potentially marginal kids. Lately, though, his range of purchases and images has gotten considerably wider and darker. Away from this black-owned storefront, in the corporate offices where decisions about comic books are made, the heroic black figure in tights is the latest rage: DC Comics starts its own black-run imprint, Milestone; Marvel Comics brings back ’70s icon Luke Cage, Hero for Hire; independents publish four-color Afrocentric books (including a caped Spike Lee joint, written by Spike’s brother, Cinque), while small presses like Posro Komics do their own quirky thing in black and white. Even Hollywood has got­ten in the act: Robert Townsend was The Meteor Man, Wesley Snipes wants to be the Black Panther, Carl Lumbly’s TV movie Mantis will return to Fox as a series next fall, and Damon Wayans is set to star as Blankman.

But back to little man at Lorestone. He tells me that he’s not supposed to give his name out to strangers. OK, but what do you read?

X-Men and Spiderman,” he says, shrug­ging. His older brother, 13 and no longer a comic-book fan (“That’s kid stuff”), nudges him and tells him that he reads X-Force too.

“Yeah. X-Force.” How come? He shrugs again. “I like the covers.” Do you watch the X-Men cartoon show? He visibly brightens, no doubt thinking of sugared cereals. “Yeah, every week.” Do you read any black comic books? He looks at me for a second. “Storm’s black,” he suggests finally, a cau­tious reference to the X-Men’s token negress.

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The two of them have been browsing with a girl of about 13, who pipes up that she reads Milestone’s Icon. “It’s got good art, and it’s about this girl who’s a team­mate with a black alien and she has this special belt that gives her powers.”

Storm’s a girl,” the eight-year-old whis­pers. After that, the two teenagers are too busy laughing at him to answer any more questions.

Across town at Manhattan’s Forbidden Planet, there are more black kids stocking up on books: They move around the store just like everyone else, the visual tag of race their only distinguishing characteristic. A mother comes in, holding the purse strings to a nine-year-old who wants to buy her out of house and home. He wants everything, none of it black-themed. “He likes the ones with superheroes,” she explains while he builds a stack as thick as her forearm.

I spy a boy, 14, come in and buy whole rows of Marvels including Cage, and Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “I like the Mile­stone one,” he tells me, “ ’cause they’ve got good art and it’s all about this gang that gets contaminated… Cage has a lot of fights with other superheroes like the Hulk. He’s a good guy, but he still gets into fights.” Do you like the comics with the black characters better? “Yeah, I guess so.”

How come? He looks at me for about a minute, suddenly afraid of saying something wrong. “ ’Cause they’re black?”

Sitting out in Milestone Media’s reception area, I decide that I can tell immediately who does what here from their clothes — ­that the guy in the suit must work in fi­nance, that the long loping figure in the jeans has to be a pencil jock. It turns out I’m only half right.

Launched last year, Milestone is top dog in the black comic biz, with six titles and more than 5 million books sold. Founded by a core group composed of Derek Dingle, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Dwayne McDuffie — Dingle and Davis the money end, Cowan and McDuffie pictures and words — Milestone sits comfortably under the shade of a DC Comics distribution deal. They make the comics and DC distributes them, while DC’s parent conglomerate, Time Warner, watches from the penthouse. Everybody’s making money so far.

Cowan and McDuffie met at Marvel Com­ics while working on Deathlok, Cowan drawing, McDuffie writing. McDuffie, the suit I misidentified earlier, would cut a tall, solidly upwardly mobile figure behind his PowerBook if it weren’t for the trace of nerdy teenage energy that still hovers around his eyes. He’s outlining to me how he pretty much fell into comics by accident, but it’s the kid he used to be who’s really speaking, explaining how relieved he is to have lucked into such a cool job.

“I was at NYU for film school and ran out of money, so I took a job copy-editing tables: tables of numbers, many many tables of numbers. I was bitching about my job a whole bunch to a guy who was working at Marvel, and he said there’s an editing job opening here, you should apply for it. I got it and took a major pay cut, but it was definite­ly a lot better than the tables of numbers. I started writing comics to supplement my in­come and found I liked writing much better than editing. I was writing lots of kid stuff like Power Pack and Spiderman education­al books. I always wanted to do Spiderman, but the closest I got was Spiderman “You Can Be an Engineer” books, or “Spiderman Teaches Bicycle Safety,” things like that. Then I ended up doing Deathlok.”

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For 25 issues that ran between 1991 and 1993, McDuffie spun the tale of a brother named Michael Collins, an idealistic com­puter expert who stumbles across the secret Deathlok cyber-warrior project and has his personality downloaded and imprinted on the killing machine cyborg. Deathlok had a short run in the late ’70s as a white guy, but McDuffie brought him back black, rewriting the character as one long castration-anxiety mindfuck.

McDuffie capped off his time at Marvel with a special series in which Deathlok teamed up with Marvel’s old-school super­hero, the Black Panther, to save the African nation of Wakanda from an African Ameri­can supervillain who wanted to move black people back to the Motherland. “I don’t think most of the editorial staff at Marvel really understood what I was doing with the character, but it gets back to your question of how I got into comics. When I was a kid I only had a mild interest in comics. I liked the goofy Supermans where people would turn into giant turtles and stuff. I saw Spi­derman and I liked that because he was this nerdy science student who was secretly cool and that sure sounded like me to me. I really identified. But it was still a sort of casual interest.

“Then I saw ‘Panther’s Rage’ [Don McGregor’s well-regarded mid-’70s Black Panther storyline] when I was 11 or 12, and it absolutely riveted me. I really didn’t know why at the time. Looking back on it, it’s easy to see that there was something really spe­cial, really validating, about seeing yourself reflected in the media with dignity, with intelligence. Black Panther was all the things that black characters in comics never were. I never went to the store specifically for books until ‘Panther’s Rage,’ but once I saw it, I was in, I couldn’t get away from it.”

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The Panther transmuted into four initial titles at Milestone: Icon, Hardware, Blood Syndicate, and Static. Until things settled down at the new company, McDuffie held sole writing credit on Icon and Hardware, plus assists on the rest, as well as the over-­arching title of editor in chief. It’s virtually unprecedented for any comic-book writer, black or white, to oversee the production of an entire world — something akin to the role the legendary Stan Lee had in shaping Marvel.

“What we tried to take from Marvel — ­from the early Marvel, that is — what we just ripped was the sense that, OK, we’re doing superheroes, but they’re going to live in a world that looks more like our world,” McDuffie says. The key to making Mile­stone’s world look more like McDuffie’s is the city of Dakota, where most of the Mile­stone books are set. The “realness” of this urban setting (a midsize, down-on-its-luck, multiracial community) is what guarantees the realness of the characters. As proof of the work they’ve put into their universe, McDuffie shows me the Milestone Bible, a phone-book-sized compilation of people, places, and things that are found in Dakota. McDuffie and Cowan figure that if they get their nabes right, making their characters residents instead of visitors, then their sto­ries won’t go stale or silly. That was the early Marvel philosophy, which in the ’60s meant having Peter Parker go to Empire State University, while Doctor Strange hung out in the Village.

Nineteen nineties black people, needless to say, occupy very different urban spaces. Blood Syndicate, which tells the adventures of a posse who develop superpowers thanks to a government antigang program gone awry, is set in Paris Island, Dakota’s seamy underbelly. Taking out crack houses and rival crews, the Syndicate struggles to sur­vive and uncover the conspiracy that creat­ed them. Static, the story of Virgil Hawkins, superpowered high schooler with an over­active wit and a prickly crush on a white girl, is set in Sadler, a brownstone-lined community distinctly reminiscent of Fort Greene. So far, Virgil has tangled with drug dealers and the mob, defeated superpow­ered schoolyard bullies, and headed off a Crown Heights–like race riot — this between working in a fast-food joint and keeping his grades up.

Icon is Milestone’s flagship title. Dako­ta’s Superman, Icon is an alien who crash­landed as a baby in the Deep South of 1839. Taking the Milestone ethos about site specificity to an extreme, Icon experiences blackness as just an arbitrary state of mind, his African Americanness locked in by the accident of his initial discovery by a slave. Had he been found by Ma and Pa Kent, he’d look and think like them. For now, his distinguishing characteristic is a tendency toward moral and ethical pronouncements that would be unremarkable coming from Supes’s mouth, but uttered by a brother take on a decidedly neocon slant.

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The other McDuffie book is Hardware, the Deathlok-like story of an engineering wiz named Curtis Metcalf and his amazing suit of armor. Sticking close to Dakota’s upscale and predominantly white high-tech enclaves, Hardware wreaks murder and mayhem on the forces of corporate evil in what can only be a riff on McDuffie and Co.’s own experiences in the comics biz. Curtis’s big problem so far has been that he enjoys the vengeful superhero trip a bit too much — and can’t decide if his battles have any relevance to black people who don’t work in office penthouses.

In the past few months, Milestone has started branching out, adding some more shades to the company’s already multicol­ored palette. First, there was the Shadow War, a crossover saga that involved almost all the Milestone heroes and introduced two new titles: Xombi, an Asian American su­perhero (“No, he’s not a martial artist,” says a Milestone staffer) and The Shadow Cabinet, a racially mixed superteam. This month the company is taking up the separatist versus integrationist dilemma that un­derlies its own corporate existence in another crossover miniseries, Worlds Collide. When an interdimensional rift threatens Dakota and Metropolis, Icon and the rest of Milestone’s heroes come face-to-face with Superman and some other (white) folks from DC’s regular stable.

As if juggling all of those stories and spaces wasn’t enough, Milestone’s also set itself the task of doing so without creating any new positive role models. Which is to say, Dwayne McDuffie, the kid who was first turned on to comics by the greatest black comic-book role model of all time, Black Panther, would rather not write any of his own, thank you. “Role models are a trap,” he says, suddenly gone deadly seri­ous. “Role models are another stereotype, Sidney Poitier in early-’60s movies. We are a people, not an image, and it doesn’t really solve anything to replace a negative stereo­type with a positive stereotype. No human being is going to live up to that. I just want books that break the monolithic idea of what black people are. Being a positive role model is too much weight for anybody.”

Blacker-than-thou arguments give my light-skinned self the hives, but you just can’t avoid them whenever you venture onto the subject of black comic books.

When corporate-minded Milestone broke out as the instant black comic heavyweight, the only other group publishing more than one black-oriented title was ANIA, a small consortium of independents based in Oak­land. Neither party wants to say exactly who started the feud (although the word in the black comic scene points toward ANIA) but it wasn’t long before the companies’ respective PR people were faxing broad­sides to the press about whose books were the more culturally aware. Trying to posi­tion itself to capture the newly discovered black market, each company boasted that it knew the best way to render black people heroically in the comics.

ANIA president Eric Griffin said in the press that Milestone wasn’t “black enough,” that its deal with DC Comics con­stituted a sellout. Milestone’s McDuffie countered with “We didn’t want to sell our books out of the back of a truck: It takes away time from the creative work.” It seems like Milestone won the corporate battle of wills: Without a heavyweight distributor and backer like DC Comics, ANIA recently suspended publication.

Nonetheless, Griffin’s dig seemed to sting the fellas at Milestone in a way that re­hearsed references to growing market share couldn’t soothe; they recognized the irony of doing black superheroes in a medium that has traditionally cast black images as less than heroic. The funny thing is that there have always been heroic black bodies in comic-book formats, from a gun-toting yet petite Harriet Tubman to the original X-Man Malcolm to that early hypothetical superteam, The Talented Tenth. At Fulton Mall just a few blocks up from the Lorestone comics shop, one can spy all of these people rendered in and re­duced to four-color comic tones, sold by street vendors along with illustrated Great Black Kings of Africa calendars sponsored by beer companies and black-owned funeral homes.

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Things get a little hairy, though, when you get to ink-and-paper super-Negroes like Black Panther or Luke Cage or the X-Men’s perennial team player, Storm (see sidebars below). These were black superheroes created by mainstream companies for black and white consumption, and in hindsight they seem the very definition of problematic. The Panther’s nobility (African prince named T’Challa turned crime fighter), Cage’s rap sheet (ex-con-cum-professional super­hero), and Storm’s exotica (jungle rain god­dess) are in many ways racist stereotypes, but that hasn’t stopped black comic writers and fans from invoking them over and over. After all, there’s been room for little else in the market, and then there’s always the off chance that in this month’s issue the char­acter might just up and transcend it all, redeeming the tainted history of black representation in the comics.

The new school of black comic makers wants that redemption now. Taking advan­tage of their own years as fans and assis­tants, as well as of a cultural moment when “black-controlled” is a sure sales pitch, the creative types at these companies want to rewrite all those early characters. To do that, though, they’ll have to come up with a new language, create a new set of origins. This could be a problem, considering that everyone involved has spent the last 20 years dreaming that he was either Luke Cage setting things straight Uptown or Prince T’Challa of Wakanda waiting for the right moment to spring from the humid shadows of giant African palms.

Roger Barnes, writer and penciller for Heru: Son of Ausar, is sounding a bit confessional over the phone. “What did I read?” he asks, echoing my question, trying to decide whether to answer it. “Well, I read PowerMan — Luke Cage: Hero for Hire.”

That Dwayne McDuffie cites the regal Panther while Roger Barnes claims free­-wheeling funketeer Cage says something about the difference between Milestone and its independent challengers. Even though McDuffie wants to move away from creat­ing Panther-esque good guys, his Milestone is definitely the “official” black comic com­pany of the moment, he and Denys Cowan as close as black people get to being comic­-book royalty. In comparison, stillborn ANIA (a Swahili word for “protect” or “de­fend”) wasn’t even a single company when it went under. The idea was to strike at the DC Comics juggernaut through a small, agile distribution combine composed of mem­bers with diverse styles and interests. Ini­tially four signed up: Africa Rising (home of Ebony Warrior), Afrocentric Comic Books (Heru), U.P. Comics (Purge) and Dark Zulu Lies, (Zwanna, Son of Zulu.) Cage seems the appropriate patron saint for this would-be outsider crew.

When we spoke, ANIA was still in busi­ness and Barnes full of infectious enthusi­asm. He and Afrocentric Comic Books got their start in 1991 with a comic book called Horus: Son of Osiris. “Prior to 1990, no one was doing black comics,” he explains. “Now everybody and their mother is doing it. At the time the only thing out there was a book called Brotherman, then all of a sudden we had a flood of black comics, pretty much all black-and-white. The novel­ty ran out though, and soon things weren’t selling as well.

“I had known Eric and Nabile [Eric Grif­fin of Ebony Warrior and Nabile Hage of Zwanna] and ANIA pretty much started off with me and Eric talking on the phone. We wanted to come out with full-color black books, and Ebony Warrior and Heru were the first we did.” As the anti-Milestone, ANIA planned to focus on an Afrocentric perspective, “something along the lines of what Professor Jeffries teaches, the stuff you learn when you a get a degree in Afri­can Studies. Whether you agree or disagree with Afrocentrism, it is an alternate per­spective, something people need to be ex­posed to.” Then comes the only Milestone jab of the conversation, directed at Blood Syndicate: “We think doing those kinds of things is more worthwhile then having characters take out crack houses.”

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If that’s the case, then what about Luke Cage? Busting crack houses is precisely the kind of thing you might find a Hero for Hire doing. “Well, he got a lot of criticism, but I still liked him. Spidey was more popular, but Cage was a black character. There weren’t very many, so I only read Luke Cage. Since he appeared in a lot of other comics, that meant collecting everything. If he was in The Fantastic Four, I bought that issue of The Fantastic Four; if he appeared somewhere else, I bought that. I still have every issue from the original series as well as all the other stuff. I even wrote them a letter, which was printed, about keeping him when Marvel was planning to get rid of the book. It was kind of a pep talk: Let’s get serious here, we can do this or that to keep the book going.” Since Marvel didn’t listen to him, Barnes doesn’t follow the new Cage series. “They should have kept him un­-brought back.”

Luke Cage lives though, and not just in his new book at Marvel. In Heru, Barnes applies the habit of meticulousness he learned as a Cage researcher to a new ob­ject: Egyptian mythology. Backed up by Barnes’s advanced degree in African history (the comic even received a favorable notice in Smithsonian magazine), Heru tells of the miraculous appearance of Heru in Kemet (that’s ancient Egypt to you and me, the black upper kingdom from which all Egyptian power and philosophy flowed down the Nile) during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaton. The story finds a kindly Akhenaton sitting on his great throne as light-skinned Arab and Mediterranean barbarians from the north move into the lower kingdom in droves, warping and misunderstanding the values of his people. Heru arrives with amazing-magical powers just in the nick of time, at once affirming and confounding the beliefs of the Egyptians.

It’s hard not to take it as a comment on comic books in general when the royal advi­sor Hosef tells Akhenaton: “Our metaphor­ic mysteries are taken literally by these ig­norant outsiders. The uncivilized have not the brains to grasp our symbolism.” After all, comic fandom is a pretty arcane commu­nity — one whose obsessive attention to de­tail and continuity often makes it unintelli­gible to those who aren’t heavily into the books. Barnes’s pursuit of Cage across titles and years is the deep science of the comic-­book universe, a tendency toward alchemi­cal recombinations of story lines that links comic fans to JFK assassination buffs and UFO enthusiasts. This is why Barnes’s book can be so Afrocentric and deliriously pulp at the same time, its saturated browns, rusts, and golds borrowing from the funk of black-velvet painting as surely as its story relies on the voluminous research of Molefi Asante’s Kemet, Afrocentricity & Knowledge.

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Lacking a unifying theme, except for a marketing strategy and their appeal to a certain demographic, ANIA’s other books take place in Southern-seeming milieus, communities divided only by crime and racism into heroes, self-hating thugs, and plain folks. Eric Griffin’s Ebony Warrior tells the story of Komal Jackson, a black tech-wiz who, unlike Hardware, turns down the For­tune 500 companies to move back to his Southern hometown. By day Jackson teach­es, but by night he dons a high-tech suit of armor and takes out Yorktown’s pushers. Purge, written by Roosevelt Pitt and featur­ing art by Bill Hobbs that easily ranks with any of the majors’ books, reads like an Ebony Warrior that’s been boiled down to its purest essence. To date, its hero has no life or identity outside of beating dealers down. A black ronin, he just keeps doing his violent thing, zeroing in on his elusive quarry: the big-time (i.e., white) importers of drugs.

“The most important thing for us is that the company be black-controlled,” said Barnes before the day to day of running a business did ANIA in. “That’s what we are most concerned about.” Besides the nuts and bolts of putting out books, though, ANIA also had an image problem of its own to contend with. Zwanna, one of the origi­nal titles in the group, came under fire for racist depictions of whites. Barnes didn’t write or edit Zwanna, and the book was the first to drop out of ANIA’s fold, but he makes an able defense against the racism charge: “Zwanna: Son of Zulu was drawn by a white artist. A lot of people looking at that book might not think it. But if Zwanna has a white artist, how could we discrimi­nate against that segment of the population?”

Barnes is too nice a guy to undercut a friend, but the truth is that racism against whites is the least of Zwanna’s problems. Zwanna is a descendant of the great Chaka Zulu, living in the U.S. and enrolled at Black American State University. Whenever racism threatens, he “Zhaabs Out,” becom­ing a loin-clothed super-African. Lost on his way to an In Living Color sketch, Zwanna skewers racist skinheads on his spear be­tween one-liners. A mocking riff on the Panther, Zwanna regales his girlfriend with sweet nothings like “I got that jungle love for you, baby!”

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Then there’s the scene in which the lead­ers of the worldwide racist conspiracy have Zwanna chained spread-eagled while they croon, “Give us some bootie, cutie.” Por­trayed in the book as a lisping quartet of white male transvestites, they plan to break Africa’s will by raping Zwanna. Zwanna breaks free and dispatches them in turn, impaling them on his spear “missionary style.”

The book is rife with such patently offen­sive moments, moments a mainstream pub­lisher couldn’t get away with but that the book’s writer, Nabile Hage, boasts is proof of his independent comix credentials. Zwanna doesn’t reserve its hostility for skinheads and drag queens, though — it spits venom at black people too: foolish sellout Toms or the dippy African American women who want to bed Zwanna down in paroxysms of Mandingo stud fever. For a long stretch last summer and fall, Zwanna was the face of ANIA (in the press at least), and the ugliness of that image might have had something to do with the title’s mutually agreed upon departure from ANIA. Take it as an object lesson in marketing, then, that “black owned” and “black controlled” was enough of a pitch to give a loincloth-­wearing, spear-carrying Zulu named Zwanna his 15 minutes of authentic-black-superhero fame.

I ask Posro Komics’s head writer and artist (Roland Laird and Elihu Bey II) what their book would be if it were a record. It’s the only thing you can ask, really. Posro’s book, MC2, isn’t a superhero comic, it’s a hip-hop comic, the story of Earl Terrel, a regular-joe Harlem barber with a phat jeep and dreams of programming black-themed computer games. It doesn’t come with a soundtrack, but the suggestion of beats is everywhere in MC2, from the clubs that Earl frequents to the tapes he plays in his car.

“I used to think that if MC2 was a record it’d be Tribe Called Quest’s People’s In­stinctive Travels,” Laird says after a mo­ment’s thought as Bey nods. “That and the first De La Soul.”

“Yeah, definitely,” says Bey.

“There could be a little bit of PE in there too, but I keep coming back to Tribe and De La Soul ’cause they were just so differ­ent when they came out. Musically anyway.”

This makes a certain amount of sense. To ask the question, I’ve had to take a Tren­ton-bound train past Joi-zee highways, tree­-covered hills, burned-out factories, smoking refineries, and the back porches of rundown houses to Edison, the clean and suburban town where Laird lives and works. It’s the kind of ride you can make on the LIRR to De La Soul’s Long Island.

Laird used to live in Brooklyn, but he had to go to New Jersey to write his comic, had to “step outside to the quiet to get the work done,” as he tells me. After the heat and noise of the Milestone/ANIA wars, quiet seems like a fine place to be, and Laird and his comic have the turf well staked out. Milestone is part of the comics mainstream and ANIA, in its own Afrocentric way, wants to be, but Posro is a different kind of outsider company, doing comics in black and white, dreaming and working toward the big time but still finding satisfaction in the pleasures of smallness.

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Laird, of course, prefers the term specific to small. “It was important to do something that was relevant to hip-hop,” he says, “and portrayed hip-hop’s versatility as a medium, so MC2 isn’t a superhero comic. Comics fall under stereotypes just like black people do. You tell somebody you’re doing a comic book, and they’re expecting capes, cos­tumes, the whole nine. We wanted to do something that was totally different, in that MC2’s Earl is regular, it’s about a regular person.

“I’m down for positive images, but I like. showing a balanced view. MC2 isn’t a char­acter for people to hero worship, he’s more a character that you can kind of get behind. That’s his thing, his day in the sun, so to speak.”

And Earl’s day it is, all of it. In the first few issues, he cuts hair, kids around with his little sister, does some programming, goes to a club, hangs with his homeboy, and so on, the only “excitement” coming when somebody tries to steal his ride. The slow unfolding of time and scenes in the comic is unlike anything in “mainstream” black books, except perhaps Milestone’s Static, and even that book succumbs to the big company’s sharklike need to keep swim­ming in action-packed waters. Bey and Laird say they could do “mad action” if they wanted, but for now have other, more subtle fish to fry.

“When I was working on MC2 I was try­ing to show the beauty in things that are not that beautiful.” This is Bey speaking up, answering a question about what he wanted out of the comic. “I used to look at certain videos, like Pete Rock and CL Smooth videos, and it’d be set in an urban environment where in reality it was gray stone and cold, but in the video there would be all these earth tones in the surroundings, even in the buildings and everybody would be moving in slow motion. You actually saw the hidden beauty there, and I wanted to capture that in the book. I said to myself: I’m gonna make sure that I capture that.

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“Because when you live in the ghetto, when you live in a poor environment, every day is not bad. Every day is not bad. Some­times you wake up and it’s just like…” Bey searches for the words and then settles on a shrug.

The next few issues are going to touch on misogyny in hip-hop, Negro League base­ball, and a death in Earl’s family. The mix’ll be the thing in those books, as Earl drives his 4×4 down different streets and into new situations, which brings up the question of how Bey and Laird got to this point on their particular ride.

“I can’t remember when I wasn’t draw­ing,” says Bey, hands in his hair, shoulders shrugging. “Basically, I was caught up in Marvel like everybody else. Subconsciously, I wanted to see black images, so I would color Thor and different characters brown, draw them over, maybe give them a different costume, even though they’d still have long blond hair.”

Laird gives me the half shrug, too. “I’ve always been running around doing different things. I read comics but I’m not an artist. I’m really more of a cartoon person. I can probably name every cartoon, every episode. My favorite cartoon is the Flintstones. Believe it or not. I like Mighty Mouse too… and Heckle and Jeckle. I like their… vibrancy.”

All three of us laugh when he mentions Heckle and Jeckle. We all remember watch­ing those jet-black crows with a minor, un­explainable measure of guilt, laughing at them while unsure of just who the joke was on. Usually I’d think twice before admitting I had liked something like Heckle and Jeckle, but not today. Laird and Bey seem just too mellow to judge me for the detours I’ve taken on my way to hanging with them, here in the “quiet-outside” of Edison.

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Lorestone Comics’s Liz Black and David Santana are holding court in their Fort Greene shop, talking the history of black comics. Liz and David are business people but they’re also devoted fans. You have to listen very carefully to keep up with them. They speak in arrhythmic cadences, have little interest in backtracking, and they nev­er, ever, apologize for knowing more about comics than just about anyone they will ever meet in life. It’s not their fault you’re stupid.

Liz: “In the mid ’60s there was Black Panther appearing in The Avengers. Later in the ’60s you started getting a lot of other black characters like—”

“Luke Cage.” David calls out.

“Right.” says Liz. David’s off by a couple of years, but she lets it slide. “That was Marvel. And in DC you had—”

“Black Lightning.”

“Black Lightning. They were heavy into the word black.”

“Black Goliath?” David offers.

“Yeah. Black Goliath, Black Lightning, black this, black that…” From there, the two can and will go on for hours, assem­bling whole genealogies of the marginal one-issue guest stars and also-rans that comprise the bulk of the black superhero world — the Falcon, Moses Magnum, Broth­er Voodoo, the Teen Titans’ Cyborg — on and on through the still counting books and years.

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Lorestone is Liz and David’s home in many ways, a physical space whose door­ways open up onto thousands of fantasy rooms an issue at a time. And Liz and David are the surrogate parents of this home, leading their charges through the racks of books like they were some kind of wilderness. The kids know this, so as they grab at books, tossing them to and fro across the storefront, there inevitably comes a moment when the title gets held up to Liz and David for inspection and advice. “How’s this?” someone usually young and male will ask, and then David will smile or frown before ticking off the names of books he’s liked better. The attention makes the store a magnet for neighborhood kids who’ll roll through after school to browse and buy.

Liz and David like most of the new black comic books fine. A sure way for a comic to get on their bad side, though, is to duplicate or rip off characters and types they’ve seen before. That’s David’s problem with Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “New Jack City with powers,” he calls it.

Liz has a more sociological gripe, saying she worries about the values that the books might be teaching to impressionable kids. “It’s not enough to just say you’re posi­tive,” she figures, noting that many “posi­tive” comics are often more hype than sub­stance. She also has mixed emotions about the kind of black pride that some of the by­-for-and-about companies like ANIA are selling. “Being black, understanding black, being proud of black, doesn’t mean ‘I’m black and I’m proud and everybody else is lower,’ ” she says. “It means I understand who I am, what I am, and I am happy about it. Some people at ANIA don’t seem to understand that, they think black pride means hating white. So David and I decid­ed we wouldn’t sell that book, that Zwanna: Son of Zulu. Especially not to kids. We preferred to eat the price on it than sell it to kids.”

But its not the “kids” who buy the black books in the first place. As an afternoon spent at Lorestone will reveal, the store does most of its business in black books with young men in their twenties, each one of them with very articulate and political reasons for why they buy what they buy. The audience still young enough to be af­fected by black comics, as opposed to mere­ly gratified by them, buys endless streams of X-Men and Batman comics, with bang­zoom Milestone entries like Blood Syndi­cate thrown in here and there.

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It takes a while for Liz to admit how she and David get around the notoriously poor taste of their younger customers. When she does tell me, it’s in tones shaded conspira­torial: “You know,” she says, her voice gone a little low, “sometimes we just give the books away, just give ’em away. Really.”

Even though Liz is talking about a few samples here and there, David, who’s spent his whole adult life working around comics, wants to make sure I understand what she means. At various times he’s made quick, vague remarks about Lorestone “restructuring,” about how hard this business is, about the possibility that he might have to go back to just doing tabletop sales at trade shows, or find a location with lower rent. And in fact, a few weeks later, the shop will close down, the crates of heroes black and white disappearing into David’s apartment until they can find a permanent place to live. Whether or not David knows all this is in store for Lorestone now, he isn’t saying. What he does want to say, in slow, measured words, is why he and Liz might choose to give some of the stock away for free.

“We give them away,” he says, “just to put the book in someone’s hand. If we read a book and we like it and think it has something to offer, we say: here, take a look at this. Not because we couldn’t sell them or because we wanted to get rid of them, but because we want people to read them.”

“Reading is what they’re there for,” adds Liz.

David then tells me that at first they gave a lot of their black comic books away: Then they started selling just about all of them, to customers like the 15-year-old who’s just walked in to buy a Hardware comic. Neither very young nor very old as far as comic fans go, he doesn’t look around, chat, or browse. He just gets his book and his mon­ey together, and heads to the register. When I ask him why he bought that particular title, he seems annoyed by the question.

“Because he’s black,” he says, looking at me like I’m stupid. ■

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Roots, Part 1: The Black Panther

Initially introduced in the ’60s-era Fantastic Four as a hip reference to African liberation movements, Black Panther (ne T’Challa) was the noble prince of the fictional postcolonial nation Wakanda. After a few guest spots, the Panther found steady work with another superteam, the Avengers, where he fought smugglers, poachers, exploitative multinationals and the like — in between lending a brotherly hand to Afro-Americans. By the early ’70s, he had relocated to America, and gotten his own book. Helmed by a white writer, Don McGregor, Black Panther set the standard for a much emulated black comic type: the role-model superhero. A dream date for the big nation-building prom, T’Challa was noble, tortured by injustice, good-looking, selfless to a fault, in good health, community-minded, rich, unquestion­ably het, and not just African but royal. He was what you’d call a real positive brother — no wonder Wesley Snipes wants to play him.

Since fighting the minions of con­glomerates is what noble princes of Wakanda were thought to do as naturally as breathing, Black Panther’s cre­ators felt no need to gift him with any special powers. An expert in African fighting and mystical arts, he was who he was, a black panther — stealthy, fast, powerful and, uh, black. As far as spe­cial powers were concerned, why would the Panther need them? It wasn’t like he was fighting the planet-eating Galac­tus on a regular basis.

Roots, Part 2: Storm (Ororo)

Ororo lives in the shadow of both her Africanness and her status as a mem­ber of the X-Men. A shorthand psycho­logical type who rounds out the affir­mative-action figures at the world’s bestselling comic, Ororo puts in triple duty as the team’s plain talker, nurtur­er, and exotic. Drawn with t&a fore­most in mind, she’s forever flying off into the rain to clear her head or dress­ing one of the male X-Men down for not paying enough attention to someone’s — sniff — feelings.

Ororo’s own feelings are opaque by design, making her downright moody, liable to shift in the blink of an eye from wind-riding nature girl to diffi­cult-to-approach-ice-queen-with-a­-mysterious-past. A tragic mulatto from the heart of Africa, Ororo was the team’s nominal leader for a spell, but even in a leadership capacity she was melancholy and withdrawn as if by def­inition, immensely popular but never quite center stage. Until she gets her own book, her real glory seems des­tined to be the outside context of fandom, where among other things she lives on the Internet as a staple of X-Men/lesbian-themed porn.

Roots, Part 3: Luke Cage

A creature of the ’70s, Marvel’s Luke Cage isn’t the oldest of the major black heroes, but he had the longest run in his own title (though, in an effort to boost sagging sales, the title kept changing — from Luke Cage, Hero for Hire to PowerMan to PowerMan and Iron Fist). Given superhuman strength and steel-like skin by a jail­-house experiment, Cage was a walking cliché of black macho. When Marvel teamed him with mystic martial artist Iron Fist, a blaxploitation dream team was born. Heroes for hire, the pair mostly faced colorful hustler types, supergangsters, and drug dealers, as well as the occasional Roxxon or A.I.M. scientist seeking to reproduce the PowerMan Process.

Low on subtlety and heavy on ac­tion, the book’s mean-streets setting and mack-daddy bad guys hit high notes of unmitigated ’70s funk before getting canceled in 1986. Two years ago Marvel decided to revive the char­acter — in a book called, simply, Cage. So far, the new series is an ongoing oedipal drama, bringing Cage back to the site of his super origin. Writer Mar­cus McLaurin wants to dialogue with ’70s black macho — the historical space of Cage’s origin — hoping to critique the type while still relying on it to make the comic fun. It’s a neat enough trick when it works, but when it doesn’t, today’s Cage is a skipping record, hitting the same blustery note over and over.

Roots, Part 4: Brotherman

Produced by people who obviously grew up on Mad magazine, Brotherman, Dictator of Discipline was one of the first comics by, for, and about black folks. Done by three brothers (literally: Guy Sims writes, David Sims ­draws, and Jason Sims handles the business end) from Irving, Texas, Brotherman’s eponymous hero is hardly new take on the genre. Antonio Valor is just your average black district attorney who can’ts takes it no mo’ and turns crime fighter — blah, blah, blah. The real action in the book happens off to the side, where David Sims mixes looks borrowed from graffiti art and the smoothed-gray surfaces of Mort Drucker’s Mad movie parodies.

Similarly, writer Guy Sims’s fondness for crowd scenes in which each meticulously drawn bit player has a perfectly timed one-liner to offer sug­gests an infatuation with the work of early Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman. His auteur turn, though, has to be Brotherman’s elaboration of the love interest as comic book device. Not only does Antonio have a coworker and se­cret admirer named Melody, but entire issues are devoted to her pining for him — a narrative that’s all the more poignant for the fake Whitney-esque songs floating dirgelike through the di­alogue boxes above.

Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Escape From Blackness: Once Upon a Time in Creole America

Fade to Black: Once Upon a Time in Multi-Racial America
December 8, 1994

“Metté milate
enhaut choual,
li va dî négresse pas
so maman.” 

“Just put a
mulatto on horseback,
and he’ll tell
you his mother wasn’t

—Creole proverb, as translated
by Lafcadio Hearn, 1885

NEW ORLEANS — It was late and the show was finished. We were hungry and drunk. Adolph said Mulé’s was probably closed by now but he knew a place to eat on the other side of town. “Maybe you’ll see some of them over there, too,” he said. Adolph is a scholar of African American history and politics, and he was raised in New Orleans and knew how they looked and where they ate. They liked Mulé’s, a seventh-ward diner that serves the best oyster rolls in the city. The other place, Adolph said, was also good for observations, but far below seventh-ward culinary standards. It turned out to be an all-night fast-food joint, lighted too brightly, with a listless crowd of party people waiting in broken lines for some uninspired fried fare.

For a moment I forgot entirely about them and they. I wanted to try an oyster roll but there were none left, so I ordered a chicken sandwich “dressed” with lettuce and tomato and mayonnaise. The woman at the cash register seemed bored by my enthusiasm, and sighed, and in response I noted her skin color. She was dark. I turned my head and checked out two sleepy-eyed girls in the next line. They looked tired in their frilly prom dresses; their skin was waxen, the sad pale finish of moonlight. I knew — oh, I hesitated a moment, because I could see how a hasty eye might have thought them white, but I knew. Turning to Adolph I whispered “creole” and made giant drunken nod in their direction. Adolph looked and confirmed it: they were, in fact, them.

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And they were us, black like us. I bet that virtually no one in the crowd had any trouble spotting the girls’ African blood, and not only because we happened to be standing in an establishment that catered to black people, and not only because the girls did not look scared or determined not to look scared, as white girls in such situations usually want to. We all knew because we all were in some elusive sense family, and family can — or imagines it can — recognize itself, detect itself, see its own self no matter the guise.

So there stood the girls, their tired moonish looks telling us everything. Now I really eyed them and discerned the secret layer of brown just underneath the surface of their faces and arms. With practiced accuracy my eyes took in the other hints: a certain weightiness of hair, a broadness of lip, a fullness of hip and nose. (When I was a child it was something of a sport to fish for evi­dence of our presence, to seek ourselves in the faces of “whites” such as Alexander Hamilton or Babe Ruth.) Each detail made plain the girls “blackness” as surely as a look in the mirror, and gave me the old sense of triumph, until a moment passed and I remembered why we could never really be the same: we were in New Orleans and these girls were creole and I am not.

Adolph, you hold the key to this story. The reason — you and I are family, but you are on the other side of the creole difference, a strange distinction made of nothing but stories and lies, lies and stories, the forces that conjure family. While you and I would both like to think of the creole tale as one more plot line in the black story, because that’s all it is, really, we both know that true believers say creole is a separate thing altogether; you and I know how they say Look at us. How they say Watch us go. How they enjoy being them, and not us.

Them and us. How strange. I realize now that we have never talked about the differences in our looks, your light and my dark. Nei­ther of us, I suspect, has consciously avoided this discussion. It simply hasn’t been an issue: there are so many things to talk about — why waste time on such foolishness? But there it was, during the trip down home to New Orleans; there was the difference stuck in our faces. It broke our silence, compels me to speak on the absurd — let me first describe our looks with as cold an eye as I would any character.

I have chocolate brown skin, gener­ous lips, the kind of ordinary kinky hair many black women still get mad at. I wear a goatee and sometimes glasses. I am 30 years old and I’m not in great shape because I don’t like working out. You’ve got a couple of decades on me, but you’re proba­bly in better con­dition. I don’t recall seeing too many gray hairs on your head last time I saw you, though your hair­line is ebbing. Your hair is straight and heavy like a South Asian’s; your skin is amber brown, your features are round but strong: You’ve even been mistaken for a countryman by several natives of India. But you are black, definitely, and creole.

We’ve been friends for several years now, and though there is no explaining friendship, there are a few reasons I want you to know I see. We both love to watch people do their hustles. We laugh at the same absurdities, and mostly get hurt by the same absurdities. We have similar poli­tics, and we aren’t sell-outs. (Which is not normal, which is why the sell-outs call us cynics). There is a lot more, of course. The stories of people’s affec­tions are oceanic in number and com­plexity. In this way we are very ordinary.

But the subject at hand is the black and the brown. Surely this is one of the stories that makes us up, as it makes up every other African American, and with any examination, every white or Asian or Latino or anybody else on these shores. Though we haven’t talked about our own colors, you and I have talked about how much social meaning is attached to shade difference, even today. You’ve lived it and tried to forget it because the debate is absurd. I don’t like tracking that stuff inside, either. I’ve cracked jokes about those confessional pieces describing the pain of being dark, or the pain of being light, or the pain of being mixed and in-between — seldom is anything real said. We’ve laughed about how white people eat up that stuff, but for the moment I will stop laughing because I’ve decided to put in mind that conflict, between the black and the brown, and to follow the story of creole.

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Before this trip to New Orleans I had never used the term creole to describe Adolph, and I am not certain I am comfortable with calling him one now. But his family would be considered creole, and I guess that makes Adolph them, even though he doesn’t call himself one, and even though he always refers to creoles in the third person, and nearly always with an edge of sarcasm.

After I told him I was coming to New Orleans, Adolph offered to show me some of the creole world. I know he wasn’t entirely comfortable in the role of native informant. He didn’t do very much talking about them; mostly he said cold ironic things, and observed me observing them. When I returned from the city I found a couple of the books Adolph had suggested: White by Definition, by Virginia Domínguez, and Creole New Orleans, a collection of essays edited by Arnold Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon. These and other books, articles, studies, interviews illuminated the social history of New Orleans, and pointed me to other sources that were also helpful. But as I read I began to sense a familiar silence, and I realized that nearly every piece I found danced around the issue of how and when precisely black creoles devel­oped their peculiar consciousness of shade. I was forced to read very close­ly, to fill in the holes myself. The bulk of the story, however, is thoroughly documented.

Creole begins as criollo, the name African peoples enslaved by New World Iberians in the 16th century gave to Africans born here. The term did not remain in black hands for very long; Spaniards and Portuguese in the colonies soon took to calling themselves criollo. Some of them even argued that the word exclusively indicated white nativeness, and that only natives of pure European ancestry could use the term.

The first appearance of creole proba­bly occurred in the late 16th century on the French island of St. Domingue, now called Haiti. Creole made its way to Louisiana soon after the territory’s founding in 1682. Here it signified nativeness, plain and simple. French colonial policy early on encouraged mix­ing with the Choctaw and other local peoples; inevitably there were plenty of interracial unions in the territory. The offspring were called creole; all locally born children shared the name: chil­dren of the Germans, Acadians from Canada (called Cajuns), Spanish occu­piers, immigrants from Cuba and St. Domingue and other French Caribbean islands as well as French children of French arrivals. Even African slaves, who commingled with Indians as frequently as whites did, and mixed with the whites as well, were permitted to identify their children with the term their forebears had invented.

None of this, of course, should encourage the reader to think of Louisiana as any sort of racial haven. Louisiana began as a white idea and remained one: Choctaw kindnesses were repaid with genocide, most Africans were shipped in as chattel slaves, and Europeans walked the land as rulers, just as they did everywhere else. What did make Louisiana, and especially its port city, New Orleans, different from the English colonies or the eastern seaboard was the way it understood race mixture. Though white Americans also had sex with Africans and Indians, they usually denied its result. Anyone with “one drop” of African blood was by the American schema defined as black, and everyone else was effectively white.

Things were marginally more flexible in New Orleans. Concubinage, facili­tated by regular “quadroon balls” where white men met and picked from a parade of mixed-race females, and interracial plaçage, a form of common law marriage, were tacitly permitted until the turn of the 20th century. Children of these arrangements were frequently manumitted; they and people of Native American or partial Native American ancestry composed the over­whelming majority of the class of peo­ple called gens de couleur, or “colored people,” and were by recommendation of Louisiana’s Black Codes formally considered neither black nor white, but a third race.

New Orleans’s tripartite racial order resembled that of many of the islands in the Caribbean. From Cuba to Haiti to Brazil to Jamaica, European settlers used the amount of white blood perceptible in black bodies as a measuring stick to distinguish among Africans, handing people with discernibly “mixed” ancestry more rights and priv­ileges. Historians suggest the appear­ance of this logic usually corresponded to the ratio of black people to white owners: the higher the number, the higher the frequency of miscegenation, the more reason to embrace the third category. Jamaican slavers, for example, borrowed the Spanish nomenclature for their mixed-race progeny: alone among the English colonies, Jamaicans recog­nized legal differences among sambos and mulattoes; quadroons and octoroons.

In New Orleans there were the gens de couleur, the colored people. Their semi-official thirdness began to wane, however, when Thomas Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Americans flooded into New Orleans, and old-­time creole residents initially reacted by reasserting their local heritage. Both colored and white creoles continued to speak their gombo French (patterned after the Creole spoken by Haitian blacks); pre­pare their gumbo dishes derived from French, African, Indian, and Spanish cui­sines; practice their Catholicism, and often its syncretic counterpart, hoodoo. Neither culture nor cultural nationalism would prove sufficient, however, to stave off the political and economic onslaught of the U.S. By the 1850s, white creoles had altered the way they used the name in order to fit the contours of American racial dualism: gens de couleur were pushed into the Negro category, and creole was said to refer only to white natives. The denials got louder as civil war approached, and even louder with the postwar enactment of the Jim Crow system.

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It may be impossible to pin down precisely when gens de couleur started to call themselves creole, but the shift was well on the way when the Supreme Court handed down its land­mark Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. Homer Adolph Plessy, the plaintiff, was a very light-complexioned “colored” res­ident of New Orleans. In 1892, a group of eminent citizens of color, the Comité des Citoyens, selected him to test the Separate Car Act passed two years earli­er. On the seventh of June Plessy tried sitting in a “whites only” coach and was denied entry. He was hauled to court, where he claimed his entitlement to “every right, privilege, and immunity secured to citizens of… the white race,” and he lost by a vote of 7–1.

The court’s ruling confirmed Ameri­ca’s commitment to “separate but equal” apartheid, and it implicitly leveled dis­tinctions between the traditionally free coloreds and the blacks they derisively called “Americans”; it penned all African descendants into the same caste, regard­less of class, color, or prior condition of servitude. Domínguez’s White by Definition notes that Louisiana lawmak­ers reinstituted old rules outlawing sex­ual unions between Negroes and whites a little more than a decade later; by 1910 legislators specifically classed together all “person[s] of the colored or black race.” In doing so, Louisiana either changed or noted the change in the meaning of “col­ored.” Now, “colored people” of Indi­an or partial Indian ancestry would legal­ly be “white”; one drop of African blood made any “colored” person black. There weren’t enough people of Asian back­ground around to foul up this tidy dual­ism, and so it was finished: New Orleans harbored no more semiofficial third races.

Suddenly the gens de couleur found themselves invisible to the law. Not only had New Orleans’s whites denied their claim to creole heritage; the state had officially robbed them of recognition of their relatively middle-class status as arti­sans and, in a few cases, as members of “polite” society. Homer Adolph, Plessy lived, I think, in their weird purgatory­ — this may be an injustice to him since he left almost no letters, notebooks, or any other record of his thinking. Nor does purgatory seem a likely residence for a man who legitimately can be thought of as the Rosa Parks of his day.

The in-between zone inhabited by the gens really had no name at all. Plessy is a Rosa Parks both for blacks and these suddenly nameless people, who began to call themselves creole for a new reason: to hold on to their difference from Negroes. While many of the freedmen spoke gombo and also called themselves creole, they were mostly of the country­side, and as such were not real com­petitors for the term. And the assumption of the term creole was not conducted in a particularly loud way; many people who qualified for the designation rejected it. Some simply crossed the color line; others embraced a Negro identity and were among the most progressive black Reconstruction leaders. Between these extremes, however, lay a mean — it is the reason that Plessy’s light complexion and his support among the colored Comité matter.

“The petition for the writ of prohibition averred that petitioneer was seven eighths Caucasian and one eighth African blood; that the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him, and that he was entitled to every right, privilege and immunity secured to citizens of the Unit­ed States of the white race…” (italics added)

How perfectly Plessy’s ambiguous aver­ment matches the phenotypal difference of the gens, how nearly indiscernible the averment is. Plessy quietly says his looks put him outside the Negro race and ren­der him ineligible for white privilege. Is it off base to imagine a jurist’s conclud­ing that the gens should be extended certain privileges based on this middleness? Perhaps this was the Comité’s secret hope. Yet all of the historians I read were careful not to go on about shade consciousness as a historical force. Maybe they are being too polite, or maybe they haven’t the documentation to speak with any precision. The historians stress that the light/dark distinction is a crude way of looking at New Orleans’s history; John Blassingame, for instance, almost reluctantly reports in Black New Orleans: 1860–1880 that “social classes grew up around color primarily because a mulat­to was generally a free man (77 percent of the free Negroes in 1860 were mulattoes) and a black man was almost always a slave (74 percent of the slaves in 1860 were black). In fact, color was closely correlated with status: 80 percent of all blacks were slaves and 70 percent of all mulattoes were freemen.” He goes on to assure readers that class is a hidden issue, and that color consciousness was more apparent than real — surely he is right on the first count, but what can he possibly mean by “real”? I do not mean to pick on Mr. Blassingame, but color was a real force in Reconstruction-era New Orleans. The evidence is in the attitude for which creoles have been known all century: their scientific adherence to skin color cultivation, their exclusive Mardi Gras balls, their “light as a paper bag” tests for marriage and parties, their Jelly Roll Morton crosstown condescension to Louis Armstrong — the theme of this culture can be heard in the bittersweet lilt of Homer Adolph Plessy’s plea.

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Adolph, after you hipped me to Plessy’s whispered basso notes, I read the case again. I italicized the key line because I know we would have been able to discern the us in Homer Adolph Plessy, as we did those girls with skin the color of moonlight — and then I was struck by the odd fact that poor Plessy shares a name with you. This coincidence can only be overdrawn, of course, but there it is, an obvious line of connection, conjured by the two syllables. A-dolph, a name. A-dolph, a story. The tale entices me; it draws my hand and drags the rest along, makes my brain note again the dif­ference in your skin, your nose, your hair — the creoleness they once were sup­posed to signify. How much of Plessy’s love song shapes you? Obviously I know a person does not have to be creole to understand his ambivalence, but I also suspect it helps, if only because creoles, by definition, have more claim to the tale.

My question — it noises up that silence you and I have been maintaining. But let me force your hand for a moment. One way to watch their attitude in action, you said, is to crack open a creole friend’s family photo album. The friend might show you the family photos from two generations ago and you’d spot a shot of an elderly woman with African features and brown skin and when you asked who she was, the friend would probably deny knowing her.

You did the dialogue.

“What d’you mean, ‘I don’t know who she is’? You know that’s your grandma.”

“No, it’s not.”

“So who’s this white man?”

“A friend.”

“A friend? You know that’s your grand-pa!” We laughed at that — many creoles would not admit it, you said, because the white man probably had not acknowledged the others in the photo, which means that the family was tech­nically illegitimate.

“Growing up in New Orleans,” you told me later, “it would be impossible to see race as anything but socially constructed. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.” For the better part of this century, creole blacks in New Orleans retooled the third race concept denied them by American tradition. They invented an eth­nic group, distinguishing themselves from other light-skinned middle classes in America by their intense devotion to the plan. The visible signals — Plessy’s mixture of colored blood “not discernible”­ — these were the basic ways to tell one’s people from people who were not. Family were the visible ones, the ones with whom you constructed your social networks, your family, your identity.

You are definitely visible to the cre­oles. I know that the details of your family’s history might at first glance seem to obscure you to them: your grandpa was Cuban and you and he used to speak Cuban Spanish, and you and he and the rest of the family are not really of New Orleans soil. I know, too, that your amber brown was considered too dark for at least one party, that at least one creole doorkeeper told you the paper bag said No. But I also know that no one fits any family template precisely; you and the rest of us are a mess of stories, and besides, the creole story is fading even as I write, getting less and less real, flutter­ing away, and the physical signals that kept you in the photos are shifting meaning. Still, you are the key to this story — not because of who you are, but because of how you are still perceived.

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—Creole proverb, 
as translated by Lafcadio
Hearn, 1885

ADOLPH WANTED, A LITTLE sentimentally, to make sure I visited the old haunt he’d been praising, Mulé’s. It is located on one of the seventh’s many quiet corners and has plain looks — some simple chairs and tables, three gambling machines, and a Sunday afternoon yellow light, the color of old newspapers. We chose not to sit at the long, old-fashioned counter because there were too many of us; instead, we put together several tables while Adolph told us how Fats Domino used to park outside, and how everything on the menu is good.

To believers, Mulé’s is one of the places where creoleness can be located, caught, taken like wild game. I entered as a skep­tic, but I couldn’t help wanting to taste the culture: I had the gumbo, I tried my friend Jeannine’s trout po’boy, I sampled some of Adolph’s oyster roll. The food slipped down with the simple gravity of blood, and Adolph drew family pictures on the cave wall — he told how his father used to take him to drink here years ago, he chatted about the color of Fats’s Cadil­lac, and then he said to Alison, a friend, “There’s your uncle,” pointing out a yellow guy sitting at the counter with hood­ed eyes and long silver hair. Alison is family: “Stop!” she said, laughing, her eyes coolly measuring the yellow man — “Stop!”

After the meal we took a tour of the neighborhood. It was the middle of a weekday, and most everybody who could be employed was away. Not too long ago an average working resident of the sev­enth was an artisan; the neighborhood remains working class, but these days many of the people who know the ward best are middle-class beneficiaries of affirmative action, like Alison. She worked with the municipal administration and grew up in a nearby subdivision, spending a lot of time in the area as a child: “I know you’re going to be sensitive when you write about us,” she told me without blinking. Then, “You understand I mean New Orleans when I say us?”

As we walked, Alison and Adolph rem­inisced; Jeannine and the rest of our group played audience. I left their private narratives to take in some dark green shade trees, and pastel-colored, squatting houses with big windows and small porches. Old women with pale skin sat in wire chairs looking light as dust, watch­ing things crumble — they seemed to say the crumbling wasn’t something white people had done. When the gens de couleur seized creole at the start of this century, descendants of “white” creoles all but stopped using the name, mostly because its hint of miscegenation would not go away. By then, use of French and gombo was on the wane too, since America had won the culture war.

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Alison was pointing out which of the houses we were passing are “creole cottages.” They look like the other homes except they have annexes out back. Ali­son said the family matriarch and patri­arch would live in the main house and maybe a daughter would get married and move into the annex. Family would be all around. Two blocks past Mulé’s, we stopped in front of Corpus Christi Church, once the largest black parish in the nation. The church also runs a gram­mar school; one of several in the area where many creole parents still send their children. Adolph started putting down St. Augustine’s, a favored high school, and talking up his own alma mater, Xavier Prep, another favored one. How small, I thought, the larger creole family is, and how plainly the Church is in its blood. Alison remembers how her grandmoth­er used to bless a loaf of bread, and now sometimes she finds herself making a cross in the air before she cuts a slice. She also tells a story about an elder she knows who was asked by a black ecclesiastical council to come meet the Pope. “I’m not black,” he’d said, and refused to go.

For most of this century, creole more or less effectively walled off the Negroes, but the civil rights movement changed everything. Africanness became beautiful. Negroes secured voting rights, and, subsequently, promises of affirmative action. When creole children took to calling themselves black, the wall cracked wide.

We turned a couple more corners, then found ourselves in front of the headquarters of former mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s Community Organization for Urban Politics (COUP). It is built of plain cinder block, with no frills, with a nondescript sign staring out above its single door. It has the look of a political clubhouse in the old and effective and regular sense. Adolph and Alison started talking about the election and about Marc Morial, the brand-new mayor. I’d seen his cipherous eyes gazing dimly from poles, newsstands, building walls all over the city, and I’d wondered how precisely his straight hair and his skin color had helped him win. All three nonwhite mayors New Orleans has elected would have been called creole 30 years ago. The first was Marc’s father, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, an aggressive proponent of pan-black coalescence. His successor Barthelemy was much more a traditional creole, and his COUP organization played a big role both times he won office.

Only close observers of New Orleans politics can say with much precision how being creole helped those men, but it’s pretty clear that young creoles were in the best position of any black people to take advantage of post-’60s affirmative blackness. To a great extent this was a matter of class, the vestigial advantage they had enjoyed since slavery. Creoles worked the right jobs, went to the right school, attended the right affairs. Creole politicos were also family to the people in COUP and it’s forerunners, the best organized nonwhite political machines in New Orleans, nearly always based in the seventh. Some of the more progressive public figures during the civil rights upheaval were, of course, men and women of creole background, such as Dutch Morial. But there was always an ambiguity in ­their activism. Like Plessy and his Redemption-era comrades, creole progressives in the ’60s ran the show. The leading black reform organization of the civil rights period, in fact, was self-consciously named the Citizens Committee, after Plessy’s Comité des Citoyens. The name was a nod to noncreole blacks and to their emerging political demands, but it also indicates who was in a position to reach out to whom.

Now, noncreole demands would seem to have won out: public claims to a racial thirdness would ruin the chances of any candidate in the eyes of black or even white voters, scant few of whom still try to retain the rights to creole — not even homeboy Barthelemy would dare shout out his creoleness. We walked on as Adolph and Alison continued talking, and laughing, and Jeannine and the group continued playing audience. I privately finished the thoughts the pale women had inspired a few minutes ago: creole has become a set of meals and prayers and words, feebly pushed through the lips like an old password.

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The Census Bureau presently puts American residents into four racial boxes: White, Black or Negro, Asian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian and Alaskan Native. There is a box for people in these categories who want to identify themselves as Hispanic, e.g. Black Hispanic or White Hispanic. (There is also a box labeled Other.) None of these labels can possibly account for the vast ethnic variety within each category — Arabs share White with people from Argentina and Norway; natives of India share “Asian” with Japan’s Ainu and Jamaica’s Chinese — and as a result each category is being contested from within by subgroups who feel misplaced. Today, one of the loudest of these subgroups proposes a new category, multiracial, for people of racially “mixed” ancestry.

Multiracial has the potential to explode the black and white dichotomy that underwrites American thinking on race. This thinking, of course, depends on a potent fallacy — namely, that “race” is a biological reality more or less reflected in appearance. One is given a race by one’s biological parents; one’s race can also be determined by close examination of hair, nose, etc. It is no secret that most African and Native Americans are, by application of such race logic, mixed-­race; it’s also true that many white Amer­icans have some African or Indian ances­try. Most Latinos are mestizo, of Native American, European, African, and often Asian heritage; many Asians, the fastest growing ethnic group of new Americans, marry outside their race (38 per cent of Japanese American women do, for example). A large and rising portion of Amer­ica could, on the basis of these facts, legitimately claim ancestry from two or more racial groups, and soon choose to identify as biracial or multiracial.

“Mulatto” was used as a Census category until 1920, but it functioned pri­marily as a biological description, and to some extent an indication of class, not as the radical marker of difference sug­gested by black and white. With several isolated exceptions, most notably south­ern Louisiana, no third racial category with comparable political significance has ever existed on these shores; both “Native American” and “Asian” describe peoples who have been considered — with some ambivalence — outside white American civilization (as precursors in the former case, and as strangers in the latter). Africans, while also outsiders, have long been considered of the society, a result of their status as slaves. The record of this dialectic is embedded in the com­mon tongue: racial or race have come to signify, for most Americans, black. This is especially true in today’s neo-Redemp­tive climate — read The New York Times or Social Text, tune into WABC or WBAI, watch the reports on CNN or ABC or CBS, and listen closely when the nation’s leaders discuss race. The concept remains one of several stigmata peculiar to black­ness despite the rapid growth of various non-African, colored populations (espe­cially out West), and despite today’s fash­ionable nostalgia for late-’60s black pride; despite these trends, most people who think they have a choice avoid the stig­ma at all costs.

Advocates of the multiracial category contend that mixed people simply have the right, and even responsibility, to acknowledge their parents. The senti­ment has the attrac­tive glow of a returned prodigal. Such acknowledg­ment, however, rests uneasily on the very claim of bio­logical race differ­ence multiracialists disdain most; the claim to “multi” depends on the reality of “race.” This is almost never said plainly. Usually multiracial-identified people fog up their hardest assertions with existential sighs about culture and home: I feel both… why shouldn’t I choose both? The sighs may be heartfelt, but they also are an evasion, most clearly exem­plified by the wigglings of African-derived multiracialists. Since too many Negroes these days quote Du Bois on feeling a cultural twoness, these multiracialists can only assert that their doubleness means possession of a black parent and a white one. Which in fact is very slippery, because their doubleness is not meant to exclude all people whose parents’ parents or parents’ grandparents are black and white. Their claim ultimately rests on the rather suspicious bedrock of apparent biology: either they feel black and look too white, or more commonly — though this is almost never explicitly said — they feel white but look too black.

Whatever its ultimate revolutionary potential, multiracial as currently theo­rized depends on what the eye sees, or rather, what the brain and the eye see, not what the brain thinks. For this rea­son, at least in the short term, mul­tiracial threatens to depoliticize blackness, and to further politicize lightness. If the term catches on, black will seem even more than now to be a natural description of the darkest members of the race, rather than a broad political formulation for all descendants of African American slaves. Of course, there has long been the loose association between light and high status, and dark and low status. But tomorrow those members crudely called yalla or redbone or mariny or fair — they would not remain shades of black.

What’s really at issue, then, is not whether someone in a café calls himself biracial or multiracial; it’s the con­cept’s institutionalization. In the cur­rent formulation, the lightest of black people would become less racebound, and less burdened, and higher, as sanctioned by the golden hands of natural law. (There is more than a passing resemblance to the neoeugenicist the­ories of people like Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein.) We have seen this in South Africa, and America, in the early decades of this century — it is the sad and familiar logic in Plessy’s song about discernible blood.

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“They say we can tell each other,” whispered Alison, a little myste­riously, when I asked about the code. “There’s briquet,” she said, explaining the word they once used for black people whose hair and skin are red as a brick. Briquet is a little more deroga­tory than American terms such as red­bone, but it is used to describe creoles and noncreoles alike. She also defined passant blancs, the word for people who pass as white.

Alison didn’t mention passant noirs, another term. I asked about griffon. Adolph had joked about the word that afternoon. It is what they call certain non­creoles, and it alludes to the griffin, the mythical animal with a terrible face.

“Adolph,” said Alison, smiling. “That’s fam-ly business,” It was a joke. I got the feeling Alison didn’t want to offend me, because her measuring eyes darted away. Later she confessed she only learned the term a couple of years before, because the language really is going away. I couldn’t hear what Adolph mumbled, but I told Alison what I understood grif­fon to mean: someone who’s light­-skinned and black, with African features.

I wanted to know the code because I wanted to learn how to spot a creole­ face. I was a little skeptical that anyone could actually distinguish a creole from a light-skinned noncreole without the aid of context, but now I was as prepared as an outsider could be. Adolph and everyone I talked to agreed that the Jazz Fest would be another fine place to observe them. For four days in a row my friend Jeannine and I wandered about the festival grounds. It was much too big an event for our liking. There were bands from Mali and Haiti and Missis­sippi, and jazz bands and blues bands and reggae bands and rock bands and funk bands, spread over 33 balding acres near the city’s center. But we didn’t like herding with the crowds of aging white hippies, summery-looking tourists from Latin America, college kids who listen to blues, and, on Saturday and Sunday, black working people. I preferred to focus on the dim scent of filé and other cooking spices, and the watery taste of coast in the air. The smells kept us hungry, so we would line up in the queues for paper bins of crawfish étouffée, or shrimp remoulade, or barbecued chick­en. Then we’d retire to the ground to watch the crowds we eschewed perform, checking out the way they talked and ate and dropped their mess like babies.

Once or twice I ventured, stupidly, to ask people whether they were creole they said No or Partly or Huh, so I soon con­ducted my observations on the sly, trad­ing messes with Jeannine, whose mom is black and pop is white. She grew up among whites, but usually she calls herself “black,” though she’s a decidedly perfect candidate for the “multiracial” category.

Jeannine didn’t think the creoles Adolph had identified looked like her, and I agreed, though neither of us could pinpoint the difference. At first we weren’t sure we could distinguish them from any of the other light brown peo­ple on the festival grounds — style was lit­tle help. Olive-toned Italians resembled well-tanned Latins and light-skinned black people. They all dressed basically the same; it was difficult to identify any ethnic subgroups because no one dressed in a particularly ethnic way, and everyone was eating the same food, and every­one was mingling.

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But by the second or third day Jean­nine and I had several theories about the creoles of New Orleans. We speculated that there was something distinct in cre­ole genes — Choctaw blood, for exam­ple — that marked them somehow. Then we remembered that Native America was a source of many Americans’ ancestry, especially Latinos. And some of the cre­oles did resemble Jeannine. The next day we decided that there was an ingrown flavor to creole faces, and then we were not sure about that, and on the third day we decided that our theories were no good.

That night we all went to a concert downtown in a ballroom at the municipal convention center. Tito Puente was the main attraction. It took some time for him to arrive, so we drank and spied the other colored people. The crowd was composed of mestizos from all over the Caribbean basin — their faces, their hair, their body shapes a match with New Orleans creoles’. I took in the white and ­yellow and tan and red faces, the colors of birth and vomit, fertility and death, the grunted beginnings and ends of human biology: these people seemed as racially various as the secret face of God.

It was the multiracial category, with a Spanish accent — there was plainly no way to discern a New Orleans creole in this crowd. The irony is that most these people wouldn’t have called them­selves creole. They were Cuban American and Guatemalan American and El Salvadoran American and Panamanian American; they were middle-class and frequently, according to the Census Bureau, they thought of themselves as white. To my satisfaction, they proved creole’s irreality beyond a shadow of a doubt. But I began to wonder why I was so certain that these people com­prised the multiracial category. I looked again and my secret god vanished. Now I could see in the faces their sweaty African and Native American and Asian progenitors, and the white people who’d worked those people hard: I recognized the muddied face of the traveling Euro­pean. His colored children — they are what is summoned when multiracial is used: his children look the way the end of racial history is supposed to look. (Too bad this history is much bigger than European travelogues admit; too bad race is a mere illusion, biologically; too bad various “races” have traveled and blended and even made the European.) They are America’s fetishes for mixture, for creolization. The better part of me embraced the idea that the people in this room really weren’t any more multiracial than any of the other light brown people on the fairgrounds today, or any of the lighter blacks and the dark Ital­ians I’d seen, or any of the most white or most Native American or most Asian or the darkest of black people, including me.

For good measure, I asked Adolph if he could pick out the creoles, just as I had when I’d asked about those girls with the moon in their skin. He couldn’t. Soon Puente arrived and the real music commenced. Jeannine was sitting to my left, and the guy to my right was named Preston: He had light skin and fairly thick lips and a fairly wide nose and so forth. I asked Alison — is he griffon? She squint­ed. “Ummm,” she said, with some exaggeration, figuring. “Yes. But only if he was acting like he wanted to be creole.”

The next morning I woke up at nine and checked out the fourth day of the festival; Jeannine and I wandered around and around and listened to the noise. Eventually, I let the race questions slip to points unminded. In the afternoon we ran into Alison again. She had discov­ered something important — Preston had a creole parent or grandparent from Baton Rouge. When Alison laughed, I laughed. She said she thought she’d known.

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Adolph, I didn’t forget about my family that night. My sister is light with broad features. You two have met, but you don’t know how much she favors my mother. They are both light — my mother says her father had a ‘lot’ of Indian in him. In the photograph she keeps in the basement he looks creole.

Mom told me that several of his broth­ers and sisters were so light they lost the mossy accent and turned Jewish or Italian or WASP, and vanished into the white world. Mom’s mom was as dark as navy blue, and she couldn’t hide her slave history. We don’t name the rest of the races that made her, but you can bet she had some other tribes inside. My mother, and my sister, and me we are black and mixed. And Mom is light with broad features. That night I wanted to ask whether she and my sister would be griffon.

I remember looking to my left at Jeannine. It is true that race did slip to points unminded the next day, but at the table I saw the black mother and the white father in Jeannine’s skin and features; her face held my attention like a dead body does, and I felt a certain guilt and the stealthy approach of nausea, the result of trying to name her, place her, pin it down — was she griffon? Was she black? Was she multiracial? Where was the evi­dence of us?

I thought of a brotha I know whose skin is very dark, and then I could see him at the table. I could hear him, too, accusing me — I felt for a second like a Negro banker hunting for a suitable wife. Of course this was an easy comparison. Everyone knows that the powerboys who choose “suitable wives” are sick about this sort of thing, and everyone knows that the young Negroes in the theater on 125th Street who laughed when Alva Rogers was on the screen in Spike Lee’s School Daze are sick, too. You and I know that the equation between femininity and light skin is ubiquitous in the culture, as is the equation between light skin and intelligence, and light skin and beauty. Negroland’s self-described iconoclasts, especially, the boys, are no less sick this way.You’ve seen brotha writer and brotha artist and brotha filmmaker walk more proudly holding the hand of the Mulat­to Ideal. And why not? In the movies, or on television brotha man’s semen always produces a mulatto child, no matter the skin of the mother. At bottom, light skin and white features and multiracial make males in Hollywood happy, and most employers in America happy, and many social planners and other futurists, too; I had to wonder whether the same story fashioned my desire.

I took refuge in the way the story failed to determine my sense of my own body. Each day this “I” of mine faces the mir­ror; I blindly see me, and fail to wonder enough what the brownness means to others. Usually I even forget that old refrain: “the darker the berry the sweet­er the juice,” its equation between dark skin and blackness, the way it insists that one’s fidelity to the race rises directly with an increase of melanin. I suppose my being dark makes it relatively easy to see through that old affirmation; I know it is not as easy for lighter sisters and brothers, who are often made to feel as if they should pay us in blood for their skins. But I think a more fundamental reason is that I, like most everyone else, don’t really like to live racially. No one I know takes much pleasure in trying to measure how racism shapes his or her life; no matter how much folks celebrate or hate being black, they ordinarily for­get about it. Who has the time when thanking God that the newborn is not deaf, when worrying about why the tax man is phoning you at work, when marveling at the way the sun lights up the metal on the scaly top of the Chrysler Building? Of course, there are those moments when you and I are forced to shoo away unimaginative opinions about who we are: the veteran cop, the prospective landlord, the Afrocentric professor often make judgments that follow tired and expected patterns. But most of the time I, like you, dispose of such takes the moment they enter the skull, because I live here.

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Which is not to deny that I know how the templates others try to fit me into look — when I am lazy or tired or feel­ing especially proud I use them, after all, on other people. I only have to think about dancing and sweating with a room full of us to concede that I know why masked balls are so exhilarating; I know how seductive is the convenience of those templates. Like when I was watching those multiracial people at the concert that night. Or when I conjured that brotha, who only is, after all, a part of my self. The differences among what that face’s brown skin and Jeannine’s golden skin and your amber skin mean do not escape me, or you; templates of race and shade shape our perceptions to a greater or lesser extent, for better or worse.

It is a fact of life not entirely native to the States. Adolph, you and I always groan when we hear the testimonies, but check out this one: I recently met a brilliant brown woman with blue flames in her eyes. She and her family are from South Asia — she is very brown, “the brownest,” she testified, “in her family.” Then she added, “And the ugliest.” Of course she was quite beautiful, but that is beside the point. What matters is that her dark appearance somehow separated her from the rest of her family. This is easy to overstate because she loves her family and they love her. But it must be pointed out that neither class nor culture, but shade, made the difference between being us and being them.

Back to the table, to Jeannine. I stopped wondering; as I gazed at Jean­nine’s face, I stopped letting the difference matter — I simply put the template for shade, its terrible story, in another corner of the vast unminded place. I turned to consider your face, Adolph, and I also succeeded in putting creole away to see you as I ordinarily see you, the way I see myself when I look at the mirror: as a self. As one of that us.

What of this us? Black and white fail to describe the apparent biology of the women with moonlight in their skin, or you. Black and white also fail brown South Asians, and other Asians — that’s why it is said that other racial categories with the weight of white and black are inevitable. One of my friends, a brother named Hsiao, insists those categories already exist. He adduces serious evi­dence. Out West, Native Americans have long been a third or first race, depending on your point of view. So are Asians and Latinos — more than 40 per cent of Latinos choose Other on their Census forms, rather than Black or White.

Yet that hasn’t shaken my belief that no racial categories in America have the metaphorical weight of white and black, and that multiracial’s bid for acceptance depends on its being a synthesis of the two, a real third. “My friend,” answers Hsiao, “Native Americans and the rest have their own multiracial conundrums. Black and white doesn’t necessarily enter the picture.” He chides me: “You shouldn’t measure the rest of us with a black racial yardstick.” I remind him that the American conversation about race largely elides Native Americans and peo­ple of Asian descent, and Latinos. Does anyone really believe that yellow and red and brown suggest “race” to Americans with the sad power of the dialectic of black and white?

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Adolph, you know that historically the American contract has tried to assign the majority of its people a relative blackness or a relative whiteness — the legacy, once again, of slavery. Italians and Jews, for instance, were not considered white at the beginning of the century. Of course, American ideas about white citizens and ­black slaves do not address the citizens Hsiao has in mind, but that doesn’t pre­vent the nation from attempting to fit them, in a fumbling way, into the para­digm. Watch the difference between the way Filipinos and Japanese are regarded, or the way Indian Mexicans and Euro­pean Mexicans are treated, or the way Southern Italians and Northern Italians still think of themselves — watch closely, and you will see the difference between the have-nots and haves, and you will see the difference between Slave and Citizen, and you will see the difference between black and white.

You are the key, Adolph, because the category you will be asked to consider joining, multiracial, really could be a revolutionary “third.” It could help individuals bring much of their private selves into a less racialized, less confining place in the public world. This is true, of course, only if anybody could call themselves `, sort of as a way to sit out the other categories. The first target should be the dialectic of black and white.

Multiracial’s adoption would probably have some terrible effects on the affirmative activity neocons like to harp on — fair voting and fair employment and fair housing laws would need recalculation if a sizable number of people abandoned Black. If, however, the term applied only to visibly “mulatto” people, the result­ing “light flight” could be worse. The reason is class. Whether one assumes that the black middle class looks like the creoles do — that working-class and poor people are the dark ones or that the present generation of self-identified “biracial” adolescents is, mostly middle class, a light flight represents loss of middle-class people. (The first assumption is not as true as it once was, the second is probably accurate.) The poorest African-Americans would be left to weep in the mud.

But a less naive version of multiracial­ism could, in the long run, ease their pain. Think of it as an “Other” box with a name, a better way to protest the strange and muscular American instruments called race and class and culture. If half-Ainu, half-Dominicans could share a cat­egory with half-Finnish, half-Sicilians and plain ole ordinary South Carolinian Negroes as dark as my grandmother’s blue — this would trip up calculations that place whole ethnic and cultural groups in either of the dialectical castes, or the Others. A smart multiracialism would dis­rupt the facile and naturalized notions of class that American racialism encourages and focus attention on class as a mater­ial phenomenon, and, ironically, on the individual herself.

Such a category might help change the stories you and I resist, and use, in cal­culating the worth of other people. And ourselves. You are the key, Adolph, because they will want people who look like you, people acceptable in most cre­ole photo albums, to be the representa­tive face of the slot; its poster child. But that would simply keep the same old racialism, black and white with edges softened to a purr, intact.

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One of the last nights I was in New Orleans, Adolph took a bunch of friends to a bar in the seventh called Pampy’s. It was the kind of speakeasy you find in black neighborhoods all over the country. There was a jukebox against the wall playing r&b songs; the walls were seasoned with posters for local concerts and handwrit­ten signs about “house rules”; the drinks were poor. A gang of dressed-up people in their forties sat on stools at the bar, hungry, bathed in an encouraging red light. Even so, I could guess everyone’s complexion, including the guy sitting at the other end of our table.

Gary was just a little bit darker than the light-skinned girls at the beginning of my journey, and I was already pretty certain he would call himself creole — no, by now I knew he’d say he was. Still I asked Gary and the woman sitting next to him both said Yes. It turned out that they were lovers. She was darker than he, the syrupy brown of coffee with extra sugar mixed in, brown like me, so her claim surprised me a little. But I didn’t say anything out loud. Maybe, I rea­soned, she’s a genetic specter; even the best cultivation fails sometime.

I could tell that Gary was a nice guy, though his looks made it hard to take him seriously. His face was almost per­fectly flat; its most active feature was his mouth, a messy thing. He wore his dental bridge a little too high on the upper gum, which would have been alright if his incisors didn’t hang down the way they did. Each time he opened his trap he looked like a clownish Dracula, and even though he spoke with considerable honesty and earnestness, it was hard not to laugh.

Gary had grown up nearby in a pro­ject where poor creoles lived along with noncreoles. That equation of higher class and lighter skin — not necessarily. Class status didn’t, however, seem to cause Gary much anxiety. Now in his late twenties, he was a waiter at a downtown hotel, and from the looks of it, doing fine. His girl­friend didn’t really talk much, except to say again that she was creole. I asked one more time about the differences between creoles and other blacks. “Sometimes they like to blame us for looking good. We look good,” he said, in a sincere drawl. I noticed that Gary’s eyes were a little too high on his face and his hair was a little too low; I considered how the difference between looking inbred and not is a question of millimeters.

“Like my hair. I got good hair,” he continued, smiling in the generous red light. He pulled a comb smoothly across his scalp. “Not like yours.” I recalled something Adolph once told me about them: the first questions people ask when a baby is born is what kind of hair, then what color is it, then does it have two heads or whatever. Gary was a nice guy, and he didn’t especially mean anything by “good hair” or “like yours”; he was just repeating the things he’d heard: he was saying Look at me — can’t you see?

I could only laugh. A few minutes later Gary and his girlfriend left. I recounted the scene to Adolph, and he just dou­bled over laughing about how the nigga was so low class he didn’t even know enough not to say that absurd shit. So that’s why you’re laughing? I thought as I laughed, too — it was very, very funny. I stopped when I remembered that Gary had been very kind to utter his family’s open secret, its story of itself, and I realized the smugness of my own laughter. Then, I sensed with horror the oldest future, its familiar story: Our family is better than yours. 

Research assistance: Elizabeth Morse, Valerie Burgher, and Anna Flattau