Langston Hughes Rides a Blue Note

The burden of the past plays itself out rather differently in the white and black literary traditions. For the scholar of West­ern literature, the authority of canonized texts and interpretations can hobble cre­ativity. How many years would it take just to read all the commentaries on Shake­speare, let alone make the corpus one’s own — and then to transcend it through a novel interpretation? The scholar of main­stream Western culture quickly collides with an enshrined collective memory that can confine just as surely as it preserves continuity and enables the extension of tradition.

The curse that the scholar of African and African-American studies bears, by con­trast, is the absence of a printed, catalogued, collective cultural memory. Despite the interest in Black Studies since the late ’60s, we still have relatively few reference works — biographical dictionaries, annotat­ed bibliographies, disciplinary histories, and especially encyclopedias, concordances, and dictionaries of black language use. The absence of these tools almost always forces one to recreate from degree zero the histori­cal and critical contexts that mainstream scholars can take for granted (imagine a critic of Shakespeare having to do primary research just to identify the poet’s allusions and his historical contemporaries). The ter­rible excitement that scholars of Black Studies feel stems from the knowledge that virtually everything they see or write can be new — free of the burden of the canonical past, the prison house of tradition. To pub­lish criticism still feels like making a fresh inscription on a large tabula rasa. Too of­ten, African-Americanists must reinvent the wheel, their work forever trapped in the paradox of “repeating themselves for the first time.”

The stories of individual African-Ameri­can lives are not exempted from this dearth of basic information. As Arnold Rampersad demonstrated in the Yale Review a few years ago, very few blacks have written full-­length biographies of black subjects. This is particularly curious because remembering is one of the cardinal virtues of black cul­ture — from subtle narrative devices like repetition of line and rhythm (the sermon, black music, oral narration) to more public commemorations such as the observation of “black” holidays (“Juneteenth,” Black His­tory Month, Kwaanza) or eating “Hoppin’ John” on New Year’s Day or reinterpreting the Fourth of July to make it analogous to Good Friday rather than Easter … from Founder’s Day ceremonies and family re­unions to the naming of institutions and places — Wheatley, Carver, Dunbar, and Washington public schools, Martin Luther King boulevards — to repeated historical concepts or metaphors, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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Remembering characterizes African­-American culture because blacks have been systematically denied access to their histo­ry, both during and after slavery. Under slavery, of course, they were forbidden the tools of formal memory — reading and writ­ing. They were also denied their native lan­guages and even the drum itself (deemed subversive by many masters, and correctly so, as it was the “home” of repetition and contained a Pan-African language many blacks could understand). The intent was to deprive blacks of their memory, and their history — for without history, as Hegel said, there could be no memory, and without memory there could be no self. An aboli­tionist described in his memoirs this en­counter: he asked after one slave’s “self,” and the man responded, “I ain’t got no self.” Without hesitation the abolitionist asked, “Slave are you?” ”That’s what I is.”

This connection among language, memo­ry, and the self has been crucial to African-Americans, intent as they have had to be upon demonstrating both that they had common humanity with whites and that their own “selves” were as whole, “inte­gral,” educable, and noble as those of any other ethnic group (including, among the historical twists and turns, sundry “white ethnics”). Deprived of formal recognition of their subjectivity in Western arts and let­ters, in jurisprudence, and in all that signals full citizenship, African-Americans sought the permanence of the book to write their rhetorical selves into language. I write therefore I am. The perilous journey from object to subject is strewn with black auto­biographies; “Unscathed by Slavery” could very well be the subtitle of the hundreds of memoirs published by ex-slaves between 1760 and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery in 1901.

This passionate concern with the self makes Rampersad’s discovery — the lack of an individual biographical impulse in the black tradition — especially fascinating. Al­though over 300 collective black biographies were published between the late 18th centu­ry and the middle of the 20th, and despite the fact that ours is one of the very few traditions in which writers can establish themselves as authors and spokespersons by publishing their autobiographies as first books (autobiography remains the domi­nant genre in the African-American tradi­tion), only a handful of black writers have recreated the lives and times of other blacks.

It is as if the very vitality of autobiogra­phy produced a concomitant nonvitality of black biography; the energy necessary to proclaim “I am” could not be dissipated in making that claim for another. One’s public initiation was a most private act; one crossed, alone, the abyss between nothing­ness and being — positing humanity, self­hood, and citizenship with the stroke of one’s own pen. Only in biographical dictio­naries was this isolation overcome; biogra­phy was collective, a testament to the exis­tence of “the Negro” from A to Z, alpha­betically ordered parts amounting to an African-American whole. Nurses and churchmen, club women and members of fraternal orders, freemasons and free citi­zens of Cincinnati — each group had its own collective testimony.

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Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Lang­ston Hughes has ended this trend. For Rampersad, in elegant but understated prose, has rendered the world that Lang­ston Hughes made and the world that made him.

The recreation of detail is Rampersad’s most stunning achievement. He has ar­ranged volume two in 16 chapters, each of which addresses one, two, or three years between February 1, 1941, Hughes’s 39th birthday, and May 25, 1967, the day of his memorial service at Benta’s funeral home in Harlem. The book opens with a descrip­tion of Hughes’s gonorrhea and its painful cure, and ends with a meticulously recreat­ed account of his prostate surgery, brief recovery, then ultimate deterioration. Be­tween these rather intimate frames we learn who Hughes is, reading over his shoulder as he reveals his likes and dislikes, whom he admires and envies, when he is brave and when not so brave, when he is petty and jealous and when he is noble, when he writes for art and writes to eat, and his concerns and anxieties about his own im­mortality, the place of his icon in African­-American letters.

Of the several rhetorical techniques Rampersad employs, none is more effective than his use of “free indirect discourse.”

Emotionally more content, Langston also spoke now with a clearer voice on politics. Attending a Carnegie Hall memorial to W. E. B. Du Bois, undeterred by the fact that Du Bois had died a communist, he also published a tribute to him in the New York Post and in black newspapers through the Associated Negro Press. To interviewers from Italian televison and the Voice of America, and in an appearance for CORE at Barnard College, he spoke confidently, but in the interests of moderation, about the freedom movement. The present turmoil was a good thing, because it was making people think. Those who did not think, but wailed apocalyptically, were doing little good.

The “voice” in those last two lines reveals thoughts that are those of both Hughes and Rampersad, and, strictly speaking, of nei­ther. Rampersad merges, to great effect, the third-person narrative voice of the biogra­pher with the first-person voice of his sub­ject. He is able to tell us what Hughes thought and felt without resorting unduly to direct quotations from Hughes’s notes or letters The technique is effective preciselely because it is scarcely noticeable amid so much detail.

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I have to confess that in reading this book I fell in love with Hughes, the person, for tht first time. The more I learned of his complex emotions about his peers and ri­vals (Du Bois, Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, a mad Ezra Pound sending him fan letters from the asylum) the more I admired him. My respect and affection for Hughes grew so much that I found it difficult to finish the book because I knew he was going to die. I mention these feelings because I think they’re symptomat­ic of a literary-critical generation that rec­ognized Hughes as icon and little else­ — failing, among other things, to read his po­etry closely, a mistake that led to glib asser­tions about a body of work that was actually unfamiliar. Rampersad has removed Hughes’s cardboard cutout from the Black Hall of Fame, and replaced it with a three­ dimensional figure who created a specific vernacular idiom in African-American po­etry, one informed by the blues and jazz — ­by both the classic and the urban blues and early jazz in his two masterpieces, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), and by bebop, the cool, and even postmodern, poststructural, early/transitional Coltrane in Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz (1961). Ask Your Mama is to Hughes’s canon as Duke Elling­ton’s longer compositions are to his earlier, shorter, popular pieces — that is, either ma­ligned or ignored. Hughes’s experiments with vernacular music and speech, and their combination into a new idiom of American and African-American verse, in­sure for him a permanent place in both canons.

Just as important was Hughes’s role in mediating among African cultures in the old world and the new. Only Du Bois, as both convener of the Pan-African congress­es and epitome of African intellection, can possibly rival Hughes in being the conduit between black poets and their poetry in Spanish, French, and English. Aimé Cé­saire and Léopold Senghor read Hughes:­ Hughes translated them into English, just as he did Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew (with Mercer Cook). He also translat­ed Nicolás Guillén and García Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads from the Spanish. Hughes’s role in creating a Pan-African literary culture, where poems by black authors in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English directly inform the shape of other poems by other black authors, has no rival in our intellectu­al history. Hughes’s poetry and his transla­tions forged a direct line between the new Negroes in Harlem and the Pan-Africans in Paris, Havana, Rio, Lagos, Dakar, Kings­ton, and Port-au-Prince. He worked to cre­ate a Pan-African intellectual culture just as Latin and the Church forged a Pan-Eu­ropean culture in the Middle Ages, even when peasants in what is now Germany or France knew not one jot about a ”European” anything.

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Hughes preserved his letters and memo­rabilia as if he were his own historian or archivist, with one eye on his correspon­dent, and the other on the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale, where Carl Van Vechten had arranged for Hughes’s papers to be housed. Over almost a decade, Rampersad patiently pored over and sifted through the voluminous documentation, supplementing the testimony of the corre­spondence with thousands of hours of taped interviews. The result of such diligent labor, rendered in a highly readable narrative style, is a splendid thing to behold: Ram­persad has published the most sophisticat­ed biography of a black subject, and set the example by which all other biographies of black subjects will be judged. He has in other words, defined a standard of excellence and simultaneously created a field: the success of these books, as measured in sales, accolades, and well-deserved prizes, will certainly make biography a central field in African-American literary studies. Meet­ing the standard he has established, howev­er, will be extraordinarily difficult.

Rampersad’s two volumes have been reviewed extensively, from Greg Tate’s fasci­nating essay in these pages (VLS, July 1988) and Darryl Pinckney’s meditation in The New York Review (February 16, 1989), to two full-length reviews in the Times Book Review by two black women Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove — surely a coup of sorts in the history of black literary criticism. It is a tribute to Rampersad’s skill that each of these reviews has become a basis for dis­cussing the implications of Hughes’s life and art, as if the biographer’s own work could be taken for granted or was, somehow, transparent. Of course, one measure of successful biography as Rampersad practices it is just this “transparency,” this ab­sence of methodological discussion in favor of a full-scale engagement with Langston Hughes, or rather with ”Langston Hughes” as lovingly recreated by this subtle biographer.

Rampersad brings us into Hughes’s world, feeling as he feels, seeing as he sees. Not once do we feel the hand of the author on our shoulder, pushing us to interpret this way or that:

The day was cool, the sky above the Monterey Peninsula murky with rain and winter mists when Langston rode from the hospital to the grounds of his friend and patron Noel Sullivan’s estate, Hollow Hills Farm some five miles away in Carmel Valley. Since September, he had been living there as a guest of Sullivan’s in a one-room cottage built especially for him, where he could write and sleep free from most distractions. Now, however, he unpacked in an upstairs room in the main house where, over the next two weeks or so, he would nurse himself back to health. The room was comfortable, and soothingly decorated entirely in blue. On a side table was a gift sent form New York by his loyal friend Carl Van Vechten — a flowering plant, ”a kind of glowing little tree growing out of white pebbles in a white pot…”

Imagine how much research was necessary to recreate these scenes; the lines read like passages from a novel. Rampersad shows us what it was like to be Hughes as a human being, a human being who smells and breathes and hurts, who dreams and is am­bitious, who can be loving and peevish and jealous, who laughs rather too much when he is most anxious or full of dread, and who cares enormously about maintaining a love affair with the entire race.

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If ever a loving concern for “the race,” and a concomitant concern with its regard for him, defined what it means to be a “race man,” then Hughes was the example of it. Hughes cared passionately about regular Negroes, and about the importance of not appearing distant from them; as Ramper­sad says, “Langston psychologically needed the race in order to survive and flourish.” What’s more, he was “one of the few black writers of any consequence to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspira­tion for black artists.” Hughes earned the right to call himself the poet laureate of the Negro race. And Rampersad’s art as a biog­rapher lets us understand why.

Rampersad explains how the “depth of [Hughes’s] identification with the race” helped free him

not only to understand that the profession of writing was distinct from the “subject,” but also to see his race in a rounded humane way, rather than mainly as a deformed product of white racism. To Langston, Baldwin was tortured by a sense of an “all but irreconcilable” tension (in Baldwin’s words) between race and art because he lacked confidence in his own people and certainly did not love them, as Langston did. To Hughes, only a deep confidence in blacks and a love of them (two qualities that could not be divorced) would allow a black writer to reach the objectivity toward art that Hughes saw as indispensable. Baldwin was undoubtedly more troubled by race than he was, but Langston was far more what blacks regarded approvingly as a race man, far more involved with other blacks on a daily basis as a citizen and an artist, far less willing to estrange or exile himself from the culture, as Baldwin had done in going to live abroad.

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Rampersad treats Hughes’s attitudes to­ward Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, and other black peers at fascinating length. For exam­ple, in 1953 a young Ralph Ellison, whom Hughes had befriended early on, emerged almost overnight as the dominant black voice in American letters:

Ellison’s triumph with Invisible Man was crowned when he accepted the National Book Award in fiction. Present at the cere­mony but obviously alienated in spirit, Langston reported to Arna Bontemps [a black novelist and Hughes’s closest friend since the Renaissance] that the proceedings were “mildly interesting,” dull really, with all the speeches stuffily delivered from pre­pared texts. Not long afterwards, at a cock­tail party at the Algonquin Hotel in mid­Manhattan to welcome Ellison as a new member of PEN, he begged the new star of Afro-American writing not to read a long, dull paper when he visited Fisk University soon — long papers were so dull. As he had with Wright almost fifteen years before, Langston was feeling the chill of his own eclipse.

But it was Baldwin with whom Hughes had the most difficult relations:

He shivered again early in February when an advance copy reached him of the latest sensation in black literature, James Bal­dwin’s dramatic first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, about a black boy’s troubled passage to manhood in the face of raw con­flicts with his domineering father and the terrifying pressures of black “storefront” religious fundamentalism. Worse yet, from Hughes’s point of view, the book was being published by Knopf, who for all practical purposes had dropped him (the reception of Montage of a Dream Deferred had gutted its interest in his volume of selected poems). Criticizing Baldwin’s sometimes unstable blending of gritty realism and refined rheto­ric in the novel, Hughes judged that if Zora Neale Hurston, “with her feeling for the folk idiom,” had been its author, “it would probably be a quite wonderful book.” Bal­dwin, however, “over-writes and over-poeti­cizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them,” in what finally was “an ‘art’ book about folks who aren’t ‘art’ folks.” Go Tell It on the Moun­tain, he concluded, was “a low-down story in a velvet bag — and a Knopf binding.”

In spite of this criticism, Langston duti­fully mailed a blurb for the novel to Knopf.

Nine years later Baldwin still troubled him.

To Langston, there was little that was truly creative, much less visionary, about Anoth­er Country. Privately to Arna Bontemps, he described Baldwin as aiming for a best-sell­er in “trying to out-Henry Henry Miller in the use of bad BAD bad words, or run [Har­old Robbins’s] The Carpetbaggers one bet­ter on sex in bed and out, left and right, plus a description of a latrine with all the little­boy words reproduced in the telling.” In the same letter, Langston linked what he saw as Baldwin’s excesses to the trend of integra­tion sapping the strength of black youth. Paying a stiff price for the modicum of inte­gration allowed them, young blacks were abandoning the old values and practices in the rush to be like whites. “Cullud is doing everthing white folks are doing these days!” Langston mocked … “Integration is going to RUIN Negro business,” he predicted — as it apparently threatened to ruin the finest young writer of fiction in the race.

Rarely have we been privy to the real feel­ings of black creative artists and intel­lectuals toward one other. The disagreement with Baldwin was, sure, one of many. Indeed, Hughes’s reactions to Melvin Tolson, Robert Hayden, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka — in addition to Wright, Bal­dwin, and Ellison — reveal how fraught with rivalry life “behind the veil” is, just as Jessie Fauset’s comments to him (“I’ve suffered a good deal from colored men writers from Locke down to Bontemps­ you know”) begin to suggest the degree of sexism that also has characterized African-­American literary relations.

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I had never realized that Hughes inter­acted with so many major figures in the artistic world between 1925 and his death in 1967. Hughes knew everybody, if almost no one knew him, or was able to penetrate the veils and masks that the truly vulnerable fabricate to present public personas to the world. Leafing through Rampersad’s index, one finds a veritable Who’s Who of 20th century art, from Stella Adler and Toshiko Akiyoshi, Thomas Mann and Dorothy Maynor, to Ezra Pound and Allen Tote, Mark Van Doren, Kurt Weill, Max Yergan, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In so many ways and to so many people, Hughes was “the Negro,” or at least “Negro literature,” its public face, its spoken voice and cock­tail-party embodiment as well as the source of its printed texts. Reading Rampersad’s volumes makes it clear how deeply in­grained American Negro literature was in the larger American tradition, even if schol­ars, until very, very recently, bracketed it into a ghetto apart, the Harlem of the American canon.

In rendering Hughes’s reactions to and interactions with his equally famous con­temporaries, Rampersad’s biography chron­icles almost half a century in the history of both American art and the life and times of one of its most important figures. Through him we see and feel exactly how the great events in black history — the Harlem Re­naissance, the Depression, World War II, McCarthyite repression, the civil rights movement, the emergence of Africa and the larger process of decolonization as the Age of Europe came to a close with the lifting of “the color curtain,” and the rebirth of black nationalism in the Black Power era — how all of these large forces simultaneously de­limit and open up individual choices in the daily events that, taken together, define a life. Never has an account of a black human being revealed more vividly the particular­ities of a life within the context of large, public forces and events. No life, no matter how great, can possibly escape its context, its historical moment. For all his political ambivalences, Hughes saw this clearly, say­ing in one unpublished reflection:

Politics in any country in the world is dangerous. For the poet, politics in any country in the world had better be disguised as poetry … Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection.

What is poetry? It is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop, into atomic words. The ethnic lan­guage does not matter. Ask Aimé Césaire. He knows … Perhaps not consciously — but in the soul of his writing, he knows … The Negritudinous Senghor, the Carib­beanesque Guillén, the American me, are regional poets of genuine realities and au­thentic values. Césaire … takes all that we have, Senghor, Guillén and Hughes, and flings it at the moon, to make of it a space­ship of the dreams of all the dreamers in the world.

As a footnote I must add that, concerning Césaire, all I have said I deeply feel is for me true. Concerning politics, nothing I have said is true. A poet is a human being. Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country. Therefore, how can a poet keep out of politics?

Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise, you are dead.

Rampersad deftly creates a sense of the social, the political, and the historical as these are locked in a dialectical relationship with individual choices, determining their range of response yet determined by such responses as well. Nowhere in black biogra­phy has this relation between “text” and context been rendered as sensitively and truly.

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For most of his professional life, Hughes lived hand to mouth, his choices circum­scribed perhaps even more by economics than by racism. He was supported by pa­trons like Noel Sullivan, a dependence necessitated by the insulting treatment he re­ceived from publishers and the pittance he earned for his writings and readings.

Hughes’s books were widely reviewed in mainstream journals by mainstream writ­ers, even if few understood his experiments with black vernacular forms. His newspaper character, Jesse B. Semple (a/k/a “Sim­ple”), who appeared in a regular column Hughes wrote for the Chicago Defender, was remarkably popular; he was the vox populi persona of Hughes the “race man.” Simple once spoke eloquently to an obtuse friend on the meaning of bebop music:

That is where Bop comes from, … out of them dark days we have seen. That is why Be-Bop is so mad, wild, frantic, crazy. And not to be dug unless you have seen dark days, too. That’s why folks who ain’t suf­fered much cannot play Bop, and do not understand it. They think it’s nonsense — ­like you. They think it’s just crazy crazy. They do not know it is also MAD crazy, SAD crazy, FRANTIC WILD CRAZY­ — beat right out of some bloody black head! That’s what Bop is. These young kids who play it best, they know.

Simple’s discussion of bebop shows how rich the Defender columns were, and how crucial jazz was to Hughes. Accordingly, we must learn to read him in new ways, “through” or “against” the African-Ameri­can vernacular.

As Rampersad puts it:

At varying, unpredictable times witty, sardonic, ironic, expository, whimsical, docu­mentary, and tragic, “Montage of a Dream Deferred” is an expansiue poetic statement on the fate of blacks in the modern, urban world. The manuscript was Hughes’s an­swer in 1948 to the overwhelming question of the day in Harlem and communities like it, and possibly, prophetically, of the Afro­-American future: “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a rai­sin in the sun?” “This poem on contempo­rary Harlem,” Langston wrote as a preface, “is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.” The poet’s love for the community is paramount, but his brooding intelligence is such that the wooden phrase “community in transition” is really portentous.

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In “Jazztet Muted,” for example, the 11th section of Ask Your Mama, Hughes introduced the poem with a musical cue that called for “bop blues into very modern jazz burning the air eerie like a neon swamp-fire cooled by dry ice”:



Rampersad’s assessments of Hughes’s poetry are always judicious; he never claims more for Hughes the poet than the poetry can deliver, yet his sensitive analyses of the poems should dispel forever the whisper among our critical generation that Hughes’s poetry does not withstand the rigors of for­mal analysis. Quite the contrary, Ramper­sad’s readings of Hughes’s best work — his vernacular poetry, cast in “the idiom of the black folk” and found especially in The Weary Blues, Fine Clothes to the Jew, and Ask Your Mama — should go a long way toward generating interest in rereading, closely, Hughes’s work, since as Hughes himself recognized, “only poetry can be [the poet’s] resurrection.” As Senghor wrote, Hughes excels in the creation of “images, analogical, melodious, and rhythmical, with assonance and alliteration. You will find this rhythm in French poetry; you will find it in Péguy, you will find it in Claudel, you will find this rhythm in St. John Perse … And it is this that Langston Hughes has left us with, this model of the perfect work of art.”

Hughes was wrong when he wrote that only his poetry could possibly resurrect him, for it is also true that a great biogra­pher resurrects the poet and the poetry, a life and a body of work — the latter “as frag­ile as pottery,” as Hughes put it. One of Arnold Rampersad’s great gifts to Hughes, and to all of us who love literature, is that never again shall the poetry or the poet be silenced.

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Rampersad’s other great gift is that he has made biography a glamorous pursuit within the new black criticism, which has been dominated recently by feminist and poststructural theorizing. This two-volume biography will go a long way toward generating other biographies and thereby build­ing up an African-American cultural memo­ry. We need good biographies of so many figures, from Phyllis Wheatley and Harriet Jacobs to Du Bois and Alain Locke, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry — virtual­ly everyone who was anyone in the tradition remains to be written about, honestly.

For far too long, each of us has been imprisoned by peer pressure, forced to rep­resent only certain images of the Negro in order to avoid inadvertent reinforcement of racist stereotypes. This sort of tortured logic has surfaced most glaringly in mis­guided protests against key black feminist texts: Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls … , Alice Walk­er’s The Color Purple. “What will white racists think of black men?” the protesters asked, barely managing to keep a straight face. (Since when does a racist read The Color Purple — or anything at all, for that matter?)

No, we no longer need to sanitize the black past as we set about the complex business of generating our own African­American icons of the near and distant past. For it is our generation of African­Americanists that, at last, has the where­withal to encode the cultural memory in print, in video, on compact disc and on-line, freed at last from forever reinventing the wheel.

Rampersad has made a breathtaking start in treating Langston Hughes, who suffered more than most from the cramped solitude of iconography. Hughes’s public face(s) — and although he sought and found refuge in his beloved Harlem, he was cer­tainly our most public poet, speaking in one week alone to some 10,000 people — were crafted such that his true human substance could not be seen among his carefully man­ufactured shadows. He was a lonely man, and he suffered this isolation in the most private ways, almost never voicing it. The irony did not escape him; he fondly quoted Dickinson’s famous lines — “How public­ — like a Frog —/ To tell your name — the live­long June —/ To an admiring Bog!”

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The ironies hardly end there. Hughes protected — censored — himself as a racial icon; Black Studies scholars have censored their treatment of many figures in the in­terest of positive images; and black artists today, indeed most any black public figure, must contend with the tradition of self-censorship. Consider the impact this had on Langston Hughes’s sexuality. As Ram­persad judges, with great sensitivity:

The truth about his sexuality will probably never be discovered. If Hughes indeed had homosexual lovers, what may be asserted incontrovertibly is that he did so with al most fanatical discretion. On this question, every person curious about him and also apparently in a position to know the truth was left finally in the dark. He laughed and joked and gossiped with apparent abandon but somehow contrived to remain a mystery on this score even to his intimates. His ability to appear to be at ease and defenseless, and at the same time to deny certain kinds of knowledge to those with him, was ex­traordinary. All his life he prized control far too highly for him to surrender it in his most mature years. Control above all meant to him the preservation of his position as the most admired and beloved poet of his race. That position, which he saw as a mor­al trust, and which intimately connected his deepest emotional needs to his function as an artist, may have meant too much for him to risk it for illicit sex.

Rampersad was unable to prove our as­sumption about Hughes’s homosexuality, despite his impressive research skills. Had it been provable, Rampersad would have done so. His bolder conclusion is that this most basic “fact” about Hughes remains elusive after two volumes precisely because of Hughes’s determination to be a racial icon, to be presentable as the public face of the race. “Don’t go to that swimming pool,” my mother used to say, “without that mois­turizing cream. I don’t want you to embarrass the race by turning ashy.” That’s one part of black history we need to bury, the urge to produce a public Negro somehow more palatable to white people than the real thing. In defining the standard by which literary biography in our tradition, and in every tradition, shall be measured, Ramper­sad has helped to do just that. As Hughes and his alter ego, Arna Bontemps, liked to say, Rampersad has “done himself brown.” ❖

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: I, TOO, SING AMERICA, Volume I: 1902-1941. By Arnold Rampersad. Oxford, $27.50; $9.95 paper.

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: I DREAM A WORLD, Volume II: 1941- 1967. By Arnold Rampersad. Oxford, $24.95.



Thinking About the ’60s: The Black Experience

In these times what black folk need most is a lot of patience and a sense of irony.
— Junebug J. Jones, “White Folk’s Ad­dress,” Jackson, Mississippi, 1964

IT IS A BEAUTIFUL, unseasonably warm fall day in 1967 in Washing­ton, D.C. The sunlight sparkles over acres of green lawn at the cen­ter of which is a government instal­lation ringed by troops of the 101st paratrooper division recently rotat­ed out of Vietnam. The troops are in full battle dress, carrying, as I recall, bayoneted rifles, and look both grim and nervous. They, in turn, are ringed by thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of demonstrators. The demon­strators are white and young, very young. All day in this mass of white America I have seen no more than 50 blacks — ex­cept for the troops. There is a curious air of unreality as the ring of demonstrators, laughing, almost dancing, their faces flushed with excitement, advance steadily toward the bayonets. Their total un­awareness of danger seems strange given the violence of their revolutionary slo­gans. When we are about 70 yards away I hear an order and the chilling, metallic rattle as the troops “load and lock.” The demonstrators do not even pause. I know it’s time to go and turn around. Two hundred yards down the line another sol­itary figure emerges, also heading back. Just a speck in the distance. We stand out dramatically from the vast crowd be­cause we are the only two figures moving away. I listen for the first shots, which I know to be inevitable and watch the other figure curiously as our paths gradually converge. Soon I can see that it is a man. Then that he is black. Then, as we come together at the entrance, that we know each other. We greet each other with loud, nervous shouts of recognition and eyes flooded with apprehension and horror.  

Julius! Mike!

Shit man it’s gonna be awful.

I know it, man. Let’s get the hell outta here.

We were both veterans of the southern movement and remembered too many of our dead. Age set.   

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BECAUSE OF EXPLORATORIES from Voice editors, I was thinking about the “dreadful year” of 1968, which came hard on the heels of that Pentagon demonstration, and an institution of traditional African cul­tures known as “age set,” when my phone rang. I was thinking of how those white children had approached the waiting guns unhesitatingly. They were right, it turned out, and we were wrong. Not a shot was fired that day.

Today, as a consequence of an incident of racist violence on campus, the black students at the University of Massachus­setts have occupied the building where I teach, called, not insignificantly, the New Africa House. A mildly ironic déja vu. Automatically, I call a member of my “age set” — one of the few left close by­ — and the result is predictable and satisfy­ing. Our responses are almost identical­ — the same questions occur, the same concerns and hopes surface, the same refer­ences salt the conversation — in short, we assimilate the event and its meaning and resonances of meaning in much the same ways — “age set.”

In the traditional wisdom of our Afri­can forebears, this phenomenon is recog­nized, brought forward, and institutional­ized in profound and consequential ways. The young men and young women of the clan who undergo together the various initiations that mark rites of passage are an age set. They are given appropriate names, reflective both of the group’s col­lective personality and their history — ­that is to say, experience. Members of an age set have at different times — as they mature — clearly graduated responsibil­ities toward their community. They are also invested by tradition and ceremony with a binding collective obligation to each other.

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Chinua Achebe writes of a character — ­a venerable and tough elder — that in his fullness of years the only words that ap­peared capable of really entering his ear were those from the few surviving mem­bers of his age set. There is excellent reason for this: It is not merely that being of like age the members share historical experience — that’s the obvious part. What’s important is that in the context of the culture this reality is formally rec­ognized, and their assimilation of a given historical event is mediated not only by their level of experience, therefore of understanding and capability, but by an awareness of collective responsibility.

For example, a plague of crop-destroy­ing locusts creates the threat of famine. This catastrophe presents itself quite dif­ferently to the perceptions and memories of the 12- to 15-year-olds than it does to those of the 40- to 45-year-olds. The ado­lescents, as a formal entity, would also be expected to discuss and respond in a manner appropriate to their unique posi­tion, abilities, and awareness within the community. Thus, “We the age set called ‘Simbabwenna‘ believe that we can and must do the following … ” Or, “Can reach no decision and ask the elders to help us … ”

So what they share is not only going through life seeing events through eyes of similar age, but a formal responsibility to collectively address, assimilate, and re­spond to those events appropriately. Thus, after ancestral lineage, one’s next level of identity and loyalty resides in the age set. Nothing quite so anchoring, wise, and functional is to be found in the West. Old boy networks aren’t nearly the same thing.

Now, 1968 may not really have been so malevolent a year after all. It may simply have been unlucky, the hapless victim of bad timing (or, in the argot of the time, a year with bad karma, a burden of sins committed in previous incarnations in earlier centuries; surely by now some ma­gus will have checked 1768, 1868 or other of the year’s ancestors for indications of past moral failure). What is clear is that the seeds of all the villainy for which the poor wretch stands convicted were plant­ed without fanfare earlier in the decade, or even before. Had causes worked their effects out at a more leisurely pace, 1969 or, if history were neater, 1970, the year that formally ended the decade, would more appropriately have taken the rap.

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Seedings: A big one in Washington in 1960 when military “advisers” are dispatched by Camelot’s best and brightest to an obscure Southeast Asian country few Americans could identify. Another in 1963 in Dallas, Texas. In 1964 at two locations: first, Neshoba County, Missis­sippi, then Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1965 in the Audubon Ballroom in Har­lem. The list could go on. But the seeds germinated, quietly grew, and lurched into fruition in ’68, consecrating in that year a terrible, resounding, summarizing coda. A hostage-taking, score-settling, ass-kicking, head-whipping, dues-taking, hypocrisy-exposing, innocence-destroy­ing, delusion-ending coda of a year. In that year the seeds of the ’60s burst into grotesque and poisonous flower, then per­ished. only to be replaced by something else more toxic if less clearly exotic. A thing ended and something else definitely began, though, of course, neither was immediately clear. Different sides of the same coin, mirror images of something distorted in the pathology of the Ameri­can body politic, and a profound crisis of values and identity in white American culture.

What ended? The smug Western tech­nological arrogance represented by the Vietnam intervention ended. Small brown men in black pajamas demonstrat­ed to the greatest military force in history that in their own country, they could go where they wanted, when they wanted, and that no power on earth, not even death, could prevent them. So on the eve of Tet, at the break of day, they material­ized, as if by magic, in hundreds of loca­tions across the length and breadth of the country. Everywhere and anywhere — in­side the walls of the U.S. Embassy and within the perimeters of military bases, on airport tarmacs — in a sudden, dramat­ic, bloody, vicious firefight that took not an inch of territory, yet was the most final of statements.

It was literally impossible; the pains­taking, pinpoint coordination of planning, movement, timing, and conceal­ment. Yet, the massively deployed machinery of U.S. intelligence had not a ghost of an inkling. The surprise was utter and complete. The day before, com­pounding insult with injury, the North Korean navy had seized an American warship on the high seas, and would hold both ship and crew for months. Not a shot was fired in resistance. Psychologi­cally the war was over — all the rest was bombast, compensation, and saving face.

The nonviolent direct action move­ment had earlier stirred up the entire process within the country, and had qui­etly passed from the scene. The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. crudely punc­tuated that reality with the gratuitous and tragic excess for which the year is remembered. Another ending, another beginning. “We have to ask ourselves,” a visibly horrified Bobby Kennedy chal­lenged the nation, “just what kind of peo­ple we are?” Not three months later, apparently en route to his party’s nomination after a crucial victory in the California primary, and in the full glare of national television, he received an an­swer, final and unambiguous in its fatal and irrational brutality. Kennedy had be­come the American politician most changed by and responsive to the issues of the decade. With those shots some­thing else ended. Something else began. And still the bag of tricks of this improb­able year was not exhausted.

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That May, thousands of French stu­dents mobilized in Paris in demonstra­tions that would eventually topple a government. In Mexico, another government would call out the army on its students, killing scores. Across this nation, stu­dents incensed by the major escalation in reply to Tut would close universities and take buildings. The “youth movement” changed from the hippies — the gently bemused, peaceful flower-bearing love chil­dren of the “counterculture” to the fren­zied, confrontational yippies of the Youth International Party. A militant “van­guard” faction of SDS calling themselves “weathermen,” geared up for their an­nounced “Days of Rage” in response to the police riot at the Democratic Conven­tion in Chicago, and Mayor Daley’s police obliged them. The nomination Hubert Humphrey received there was of debased coinage, the election of Richard Milhous Nixon being assured. The mean-spirited age of Reagan and the lunatic right lurked in the wings, slouching toward Washington, stalking a chance to be born. Something had ended, another thing had begun.

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s

Americans want to believe many things about themselves that are not true. Ne­groes want to believe a great deal about themselves that isn’t true too. Part of the dilemma, I think, of being an American Negro is that the Negro has been forced for a long long time in many many ways to mantle himself on a society that is essentially incoherent … that is to say mantling himself on someone who doesn’t know who he himself is … and in this very strange confusion, … the writer is trying to find out where the truth is, and how this truth relates to the American myth, how it relates to the situation of young people — black and white — who are lost in despair, groping for values which do not seem to be present in the republic …

These prophetic words are James Bal­dwin’s. He was speaking very early in the decade to a group of us at Howard Uni­versity — mostly black but with some good white allies present. Most of the group were already in the “movement,” some would achieve great, if transitory, prominence therein. Mercifully, the long gray winter of the Eisenhower years had passed and was it not springtime in Cam­elot? “Ask not what your country can do for you …” (They promised the Peace Corps but gave us the Mekong Delta, where some 50,000 of the age set would learn what they indeed could do … ) We applauded Baldwin’s words but felt them perhaps unduly pessimistic — that we were not “lost in despair” but rather locked in struggle, and hoped that there were values in the republic, even within the White House itself, that could be evoked in changing the nation into a soci­ety more closely approximate to its lofty self-description.

For that was all we intended then. To take all the liberal pieties, the high-mind­ed platitudes and rhetoric of the Ameri­can Dream as articulated by whites­ — freedom and justice for all, popular de­mocracy, economic opportunity if not justice, racial tolerance and cultural re­spect, equal protection, and due pro­cess — and turn them into living reality.

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The motion begun with the black com­munity once more taking America at its word. But with a cautious optimism mixed with skepticism — a sense of iro­ny — our fingers, so to speak, crossed behind our backs.

Not so however, for Dick and Jane, those clear-eyed, apple-cheeked heirs and beneficiaries of the whole schmear. The baby-boomers had imbibed almost with their mother’s milk — or, more likely, Gerber formulas — the great myths of the mainstream. The cops were their friends; the Marines brave and decent soldiers of freedom, defenders of the world’s weak. America — the last great hope … So, ev­erything being exposed by the agitation­ — from domestic poverty, racial oppression, military adventurism, to economic impe­rialism — while shocking, had to be mere lapses, aberrations, accidental blemishes rather than lethal cancers on the body politic. They were, therefore, easily correctable.

So they came to the movement, Ameri­ca’s children — in ways we never pre­sumed to be — from the embalmment of suburban calm, convinced that with their involvement the nobility of the myth would be restored to social reality within months, a year at most. America, the beautiful once more. How could they have dreamt that when they confronted their elders with their own homilies and platitudes of American self-delusion, they would be received as though implying a totally new, threateriing, and revolution­ary conception of the universe?

The early years of the resurgent stu­dent movement were marked by a disci­plined idealism and pragmatic political activism within the framework of a radi­cal critique that was respectful of evidence and firmly rooted in the possible. I thought that the early SDS had some of the most realistically intelligent, morally responsible, articulate, and impressive young white Americans I had met. So it was with SNCC, but with one important difference — a much broader spectrum of race and class; and operating as we did, in the rural South, we had the immense benefit of the traditional black culture, which at once inspired, educated, in­structed, and civilized us in values no longer evident in the industrial/technolo­gical mass culture of the mainstream.

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After the Cuban missile crisis, Norman Mailer observed that American youth had no domestic heroes, and had to im­port them from the Third World. Hence Fidel, Che, Lumumba, Fanon, Chairman Mao, Uncle Ho. He might have added Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.

With its insatiable appetite for novelty and sensation, the media proceeded to identify and proclaim a bewildering suc­cession of “revolutions,” “cultures,” and “movements,” each more insubstantial and faddist than the last. We had drug, hippie, rock, youth, and counter “cultures,” sexual, youth, moral, green, and spiritual “revolutions,” and speech move­ments — both free and filthy — as well as the peace, ecology, and generic youth movements, and I’m sure I must have forgotten some. The truth of the matter is that none were revolutions nor could they have been, nor were they in any sense cultures, and only a few were move­ments. In the media’s projection they were instant and disposable, the stuff of packaging and consumerism, and the me­dia’s pernicious and promiscuous debase­ment of language. See Dick run. See Jane run. Run Jane, run Dick!

They ran because America’s children were disillusioned, and this disillusion­ment was profound: the noble illusions and comforting myths on which their en­tire identity was conditioned during the warm cocoon of avoidance of the Eisen­hower years were brutally demolished one by one. The social defects and moral ex­cesses being exposed were proving not aberrant at all but fundamental and intransigent. National leadership seemed arrogant, manipulative, and insensitive; institutions inflexible, bureaucratic, and exploitative. Their flamboyant rejection of the culture was an exact measure of the depth of their previous condition of innocence, idealism, and ignorance. Feel­ing themselves deceived by America, they now abandoned her. “Young people … in despair, groping for values which do not seem to be present …”

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Some retreated into spiritualism, but even this had to be foreign. Adorned with feathers, beads, flowers, and face paint; wearing saffron robes, shorn skulls, exot­ic vestments of prayer and meditation, they sought gurus, shamans, prophets, adepts, mystics, and patriarchs to help them form sects, cults, ashrams, com­munes, families, and tribes. In a curious way it recapitulated their elders’ preda­tory consumerism and casual arrogance toward non-Western cultures. The Third World was no more than a giant “spiritu­al” supermarket in which to shop for whatever brand of exotic mysticism afforded an instant new identity. A naïve arrogance, but harmless to few save themselves. The overwhelming irony was, of course, that the self-indulgence of “counterculture” spiritual withdrawal is quite impossible in the scarcity econo­mies of the cultures they aped. It was subsidized by the production surpluses of American affluence and a consumer soci­ety’s waste … a society essentially inco­herent, a very strange confusion, indeed.

The political element was different. The only revolutionary tradition they were truly heir to had been bestowed on them by the pronouncements of the me­dia. And perhaps by the nervous overreaction of the establishment, which in­vested modest demands for implementing their own social rhetoric with dangerous revolutionary implications. So, having been pronounced “revolutionaries,” they, like their mystic counterparts, also went shopping about the Third World, and im­ported revolutionary ideologies that had no roots in domestic social experience, and strategies without reference or rele­vance to concrete political conditions. But the rhetoric was militant, the postur­ing theatrical, and the implications negligible.

What had been a coherent and very effective student movement was trans­formed into a parade of “instant” revolu­tionaries, projecting their fantasies in a kind of guerrilla theater aimed at the media. They appeared to have no stom­ach for hard, tedious, daily organizing, no respect for and little contact with the people in whose name they claimed to be acting. Therefore, they adopted a language proclaiming “vanguard parties” and espoused that contradiction in terms known as “revolutionary suicide.” Natu­rally, the people avoided them. Just in case they really meant it.

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AMERICA’S CHILDREN could indeed gambol merrily over the green to­ward the waiting guns, confident in the knowledge that the system has vastly different rules for Dick and Jane than for Leon and Leroy. Kent State was yet to come. The general com­manding the troops at the Pentagon said later, if memory serves, that no live am­munition had been issued to the troops.

All this presented itself to the black community quite differently than to the white community. We knew — except for the Panthers — that we were not afforded the luxury of that kind of acting out.

Exotic Eastern religions, fine! Roman­tic solidarity with distant revolution, cool! One could now even make a fashion­ably revolutionary statement, with clothes, designer accessories — fatigues, berets, jungle boots, bandolier belts. But still something closer, more immediate and satisfying, was needed.

The Panther leadership — if that is the right term — allowed the white New Left to declare them the revolutionary van­guard, and their followers predictably paid a terrible price. They had style, their black leather jackets — a variation of youth gang colors — black berets, and fire-arms either visible or implied. An expression of ghetto youth culture, their leader­ship had a well-developed sense of theater and an instinct for hustle. They were creatures of the media and the radi­cal chic of the sentimental left-but ex­actly who was hustling whom?

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The Panthers appeared, as if on cue, out of America’s Third World. Home­grown surrogates for the Viet Cong. The black, virile, menacing, hip guerrilla, a white American fantasy incarnate. Revo­lution no longer needed to be distant, alien, or remote; it could be brought home to the nearest ghetto in all the immediacy of full color. The revolution­ary of the mass culture: instant and dis­posable. Conjured up, it seemed, out of the voyeuristic mission of the media ca­tering to the vicarious impulses of the audience.

Would it had been only theater; then it would have mattered not a whit that they had neither precedent, roots, connection, base, nor support in the political tradi­tions of the black community. To dress the role and act the part would have sufficed.

Bul America has different rules for Leon and Leroy … The police were is­sued live ammunition. Curtain. Lights.

And some very good people got badly hurt, some lives even were changed, but what is odd is that so few were, despite the rantings about revolution.

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IT IS EARLY 1962, I think. It is one of the collegiate editor’s conferences that the Reader’s Digest used to have. The workshop is on national politics. I particularly remember the editor of the Michigan Daily and the managing editor of the Yale Daily News. The Mich­igan editor is very articulate, political, and informed; so am I. We lead the charge from the left, talk about poverty, racism, foreign policy, and support each other’s arguments. The Yalie is an engag­ing young man, clean-cut, clear-eyed, ear­nest, intelligent, and very preppie, from a politically prominent Republican back­ground. He is astounded at our criticism of America, seems genuinely upset. Tries to argue but we have the facts. After the session we talk for a long time. The Yale man keeps saying, “That can’t be … I can’t believe …”

“It really is, man, check it out!”

We shake hands and part; he walks away troubled, but promising to check it all out.

”I kinda like him. What do you think?” I ask Tom Hayden, the Michigan editor.

“He’s very decent,” Tom says, “but very innocent.”

It’s now 1964, SNCC office in Wash­ington. A group of volunteers for the Mis­sissippi Summer project from the Ohio orientation stop in on their way south. Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney have already disappeared. I recognize among the volunteers the tall, handsome Yalie. He seems no longer troubled. It is a very brief, unexpected, but emotional reunion, in especially emotional circumstances. We are genuinely glad to see each other there.

I have never seen Stephen Mitchell Bingham again, but was deeply saddened when his name surfaced as the radical lawyer being sought by the FBI in the George Jackson shoot-out. He came back from 13 years of exile in July 1984. I’m glad he beat the rap. Age set.

And extraordinary young people got hurt.

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Feather was a young black man from the inner city. He came one day early in 1974 to the SNCC Washington office and volunteered to help “in any way I can.” He was different from the other volun­teers — spirited, mouthy kids from the suburbs. A little older, he was a beginning high school teacher. Calm, serious, disci­plined, he showed up every afternoon after school, still dressed in a white shirt and tie. He had a lean, wiry frame that hinted of the explosive, yet controlled grace of the all-metropolitan point guard he had been in school, still a legend of the D.C. playgrounds. There was a quiet, un­derstated authority in his bearing.

Easygoing too, without ego or bombast, he had a gift for friendship, willingness to work, and a talent for organization. He was soon in charge of the volunteers. He led by example, and inspired confidence. That spring, Feather and his troops gath­ered, packaged, and moved an unbeliev­able quantity of food and clothes to Mis­sissippi. Not glamorous work or “revolutionary,” but whatever be did, he did well.

I’ll never forget the day that spring when he said, in his usual quiet way, “I want to go to Mississippi on the Summer Project.” The office was noisy so we sat outside on the pavement, looking across at the FBI agents wasting taxpayers’ money in the car that was always parked across the street, and talked. I painted as fearsome a picture as I could.

“I’ve thought it out, man,” he said so­berly. “I know we not all coming back. But it’s our people, our struggle. I’m not married, no responsibilities, so … I can afford to go, it’s as if it’s my duty.”

After the orientation he passed through the D.C. office on his way south. He was the most ebullient I’d ever seen him. His eyes shone with banked excite­ment and happiness. In less than a week of orientation, the Mississippi staff had recognized the same qualities we had. Bob Moses had named him assistant co­ordinator of the freedom schools.

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That summer, from time to time, folk passing through from Neshoba County talked about Feather with awe: The night he talked the pistol away from the drunk­en and homicidal cracker who busted into the Freedom House. The Freedomday at the courthouse when he faced down the murderous deputy Cecil Price in front of his Klan cronies. How Sheriff Rainey and Price could not conceal the grudging re­spect they developed for this young “Northern” nigger. “In every crisis it was ‘Where’s Feather? We don’t talk to no one but Feather.’ ”

The local folk — the church ladies and old men loved him. They called him their son. When I saw him at meetings it was clear that as his spirit and devotion en­hanced the movement, so had the move­ment brought him a deep inner fulfillment.

But things change. There are hidden costs.

In 1965, before I left the movement, I saw him. He’d moved back to D.C. and was living in a little spartan room, a monk’s cell. His frame was very spare and his gaunt face almost luminous. He exuded a quality of extreme asceticism. He was now talking about revolution, but in the same quiet voice.

Before I left he reached under the nar­row bed. “I wanna show you something,” he said with suppressed excitement. The “something,” he said, was an AK-47 at­tack rifle, ugly, ominous, lethal, cradled like a baby on his lap. I begged my broth­er to get rid of it. I don’t know if he did. Not long after he was blown to pieces by a car bomb in ambiguous circumstances, the truth of which has never been satis­factorily explained. Of the age set, Feath­er was certainly among the very finest, the best among us.

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MY PHONE RINGS, a very senior white administrator, a friend, an ally even. Age set? We talk about New Africa House. I ex­press certain reservations about organization and discipline. “Come on, Mike, they can be a little irrational. You were once. We all were.”

“No,” I snap. “Not all of us.” Some of us could afford it less than others …

But Amherst is a civilized enclave. I know nothing bad will happen. And I need not have worried; the young people pull the action together beautifully, show seriousness, determination, and an en­couragingly pragmatic political sophisti­cation. They compel the institution’s respect.

The phone rings again. This reporter seems disgruntled, puzzled but also vaguely aggrieved. He keeps saying, with an edge of complaint in his tone, “It’s just not like when I was in college.”

“How so? What’s like out there?” I ask.

“It’s so goddamned neat. I’ve never seen such nice young people. It’s like a parliament over there. They are discuss­ing issues. You know what they told me? ‘We’re not revolutionaries. We’re reasonable people, with reasonable demands who intend to be taken seriously!’ They actually said that!”

“Now ain’t that a bitch,” I sympathize, “It’s sure not like 1968, is it?” But like the medium he serves, this reporter has little sense of irony. ■

1988 Village Voice article by Richard Goldstein remembering the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s

1988 Village Voice article by Michael Thelwell about the tribulations of the 1960s


James Baldwin: The Rage of Race

By 1963, when he pub­lished The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin’s writing had become al­most exclusively polemi­cal, foreshadowing the narrowing of black com­mentary into strident prosecution or spiteful apology. Considered the intellectual component of the Civil Rights movement, Baldwin was a seminal influence on the subsequent era of regression in which Stokely Carmi­chael, Rap Brown, Leroi Jones, and El­dridge Cleaver transformed white Ameri­ca into Big Daddy and the Negro movement into an obnoxious, pouting ad­olescent demanding the car keys.

The increasing bile and cynicism of Baldwin’s generalized charges and his willingness to remove free will from the black lower-class through what he called the “doom” of color, helped foster a dis­position that put the Negro movement into the hands of those who had failed at taking it over before: the trickle-down Marxist revolutionaries and cultural na­tionalists whose flops and follies of imagination Harold Cruse documented so well in Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Those people led many up paths that resulted in imprisonment, spiritual col­lapse, and death for goals far less logical than acquiring political power through inclusion into the social contract. The alienation of abstract facelessness that Martin Luther King and the civil rights workers had won so many battles against was given greater strength when black political talk became progressively anti-­white, anticapitalist, and made threats of overthrowing the system itself.

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Before he was swept into the position of a media spokesman, Baldwin had been much more ambitious and much more willing to address the subtleties of being a serious writer. His first book of essays, Notes of a Native Son, contains “Every­body’s Protest Novel,” which was written in 1949 and observes that “…the avowed aim of the American protest nov­el is to bring greater freedom to the op­pressed. They are forgiven, on the strength of these good intentions, what­ever violence they do to language, what­ever excessive demands they make of credibility. It is, indeed, considered the sign of frivolity so intense as to approach decadence to suggest that these books are both badly written and wildly improba­ble. One is told to put first things first, the good of society coming before the niceties of style or characterization. Even if this were incontestable… it argues an insuperable confusion, since literature and sociology are not one and the same; it is impossible to discuss them as if they were.”

The turmoil that would so twist Bal­dwin’s intelligence and abuse the possibil­ities of his talent is also evident in that first book of essays, much of the trouble circulating around his sense of himself as “an interloper,” “a bastard of the West.” “Stranger in the Village” finds him reel­ing toward the emblematic as he writes of some Swiss hicks in an Alpine town, “These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modern world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as in­deed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few cen­turies and they are in their full glory — but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.”

Such thinking led to the problem we still face in which too many so-called nonwhite people look upon “the West” as some catchall in which every European or person of European descent is somehow part of a structure bent solely on exclud­ing or intimidating the Baldwins of the world. Were Roland Hayes, Marian An­derson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, or Kiri Te Kanawa to have taken such a position, they would have locked them­selves out of a world of music that origi­nated neither among Afro-Americans nor Maoris. Further, his ahistorical ignorance is remarkable, and perhaps willful.

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But breaking through the mask of collective whiteness — and collective guilt­ — that Baldwin imposes would demand recognition of the fact that, as history and national chauvinism prove, Europe is not a one-celled organism. Such simplifications are akin to the kind of reasoning that manipulated illiterate rednecks into violent attempts at keeping “their” uni­versities clean of Negro interlopers. Or convinced black nationalist automatons that they were the descendants of “kings and queens” brought to America in slave ships and should, therefore, uncritically identify with Africa. Rather than address the possibilities that come both of ethnic cultural identity and of accepting the in­ternational wonder of human heritage per se, people are expected to relate to the world only through race and the most stifling conceptions of group history. The root of that vision is perhaps what Shaw spoke of in Major Barbara, hatred as the coward’s revenge for ever having been intimidated. Baldwin would call it rage, and write, “Rage can only with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence and is therefore not susceptible to any argu­ments whatever.”

Though his second book of essays, No­body Knows My Name, is the work of a gritty and subtle intelligence, there are more than a few indications of the talent that would soon be lost to polemics. Per­haps the most illuminating is “Princes and Powers,” where he takes a remark­ably sober look at the Conference of Ne­gro-African Writers and Artists, held in Paris in 1956. Baldwin was faced with an international gathering of black people who were rejecting the justifications used to maintain the colonial structures they groaned under. Here Baldwin introduced themes he would later adapt to the Amer­ican context: the denial by Europeans of non-Western cultural complexity — or parity; the social function of the inferior­ity complex colonialism threw over the native like a net; the alignment of Christianity and cruelty under colonialism, and the idea that world views were at odds, European versus the “spirit of Bandung,” or the West in the ring with the Third World.

At the time, Baldwin understood quite well the difference between colonized and Afro-American people, whom he rightful­ly referred to as “the most real and cer­tainly the most shocking contributions to Western cultural life.” Though Afro-Americans also suffered under institu­tionalized prejudice, the nature of their experience was the manifestation of a very specific context. “This results in a psychology very different — at its best and at its worst — from the psychology that is produced by a sense of having been in­vaded and overrun, the sense of having no recourse whatever against oppression other than overthrowing the machinery of the oppressor. We had been dealing with, had been made and mangled by, another machinery altogether. It had nev­er been in our interest to overthrow it. It had been necessary to make the machin­ery work for our benefit and the possibili­ty of doing so had been, so to speak, built in.”

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In assessing the performance of Rich­ard Wright, Baldwin understood the dan­ger of apologizing for brutal, Third World politics that the older writer was condon­ing. Baldwin didn’t miss the implications of Wright’s address: “…that the West, having created an African and Asian elite, should now ‘give them their heads’ and ‘refuse to be shocked’ at the ‘meth­ods they will be compelled to use’ in uni­fying their countries… Presumably, this left us in no position to throw stones at Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno, etc., should they decide as they almost surely would, to use dictatorial methods in order to hasten the ‘social evolution.’ In any case, Wright said, these men, the leaders of their coun­tries, once the new social order was established, would voluntarily surrender the ‘personal power.’ He did not say what would happen then, but I supposed it would be the second coming.”

Listening then to Aimee Cesaire, Bal­dwin wrote, “I felt stirred in a very strange and disagreeable way. For Ce­saire’s case against Europe, which was watertight, was also a very easy case to make… Cesaire’s speech left out of ac­count one of the great effects of the colo­nial experience: its creation, precisely, of men like himself.” Baldwin could see that Cesaire was a modern man, a writer whose bearing and confidence were proof that, “He had penetrated into the heart of the great wilderness which was Europe and stolen the sacred fire. And this, which was the promise of their freedom, was also the assurance of his power.”

Such good sense wouldn’t last long in Baldwin’s writing. Once he settled into astonishingly lyrical rants such as The Fire Next Time, Negro neighborhoods were described as relentlessly grim and so inevitably deforming that only the most naive could accept Baldwin’s having come from such a “ghetto.” Ignoring the epic intricacy of Afro-American life, Baldwin began to espouse the kinds of simplistic conceptions Malcolm X became famous for: “It is a fact that every American Negro bears a name that originally be­longed to the white man whose chattel he was. I am called Baldwin because I was either sold by my African tribe or kidnapped out of it into the hands of a white Christian named Baldwin, who forced me to kneel at the foot of the cross.”

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Actually, a good number of Negroes named themselves after freedom came and the issue of converting slaves to Christianity was a subject of major de­bate because it broached the idea of slaves having souls. But such facts were of no interest to Baldwin. Rather, he chose to combine the Nation of Islam’s venom toward Christianity and toward whites with an overview so committed to determinism that it paralleled the explan­atory recipes of the left. When mature thinking was most desperately needed, Baldwin was losing the ability to look at things the way they actually were.

In effect, Baldwin sold out to rage, de­spair, self-righteousness, and a will to scandalize. The mood he submitted to was one he had pinned down in “Princes and Powers.” Alioune Diop, editor of Presence Africaine, had delivered a talk and Baldwin perceptively noticed this: “His speech won a great deal of applause. Yet, I felt that among the dark people in the hall there was, perhaps, some disap­pointment that he had not been more specific, more bitter, in a word, more demagogical.” In America, there was a very similar attitude among those fat­-mouthing Negroes who chose to sneer at the heroic optimism of the Civil Rights Movement; they developed their own rad­ical chic and spoke of Malcolm X as being beyond compromise, of his unwill­ingness to cooperate with the white man, and of his ideas being too radical for assimilation. Baldwin was sucked into this world of intellectual airlessness. By The Fire Next Time, Baldwin is so happy to see white policemen made uncomfort­able by Muslim rallies, and so willing to embrace almost anything that disturbs whites in general, that he starts compet­ing with the apocalyptic tone of the Na­tion of Islam.

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Perhaps it is understandable that Bal­dwin could not resist the contemptuous pose of militance that gave focus to all of his anger for being the homely duckling who never became a swan, the writer who would perhaps never have been read by so many black people otherwise, and the homosexual who lived abroad most of his adult life in order to enjoy his prefer­ences. Baldwin’s increasing virulence had perhaps more than a bit to do with his homosexuality. As a small, even frail, man who wrote of being physically abused by his father, the police, and racists in the Greenwich Village; Baldwin was prone to admire and despise those who handled the world in a two-fisted manner (which comes out clearly in his essay on Norman Mailer, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”). He was also given to the outsider’s joy when in­timidation was possible: “black has be­come a beautiful color — not because it is loved but because it is feared.” This same attraction to fear permeated his ambiva­lent attitude toward Christianity. Con­demned to hell as an erotic pariah by Christian doctrine, he was understand­ably relentless in his counterattacks; at the same time, his alienation did not pre­vent him from being awed by the particular power and majesty Negroes had brought to the religion. Boldly, though unconvincingly, in Another Country and Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, he presented an alternative order in which homosexuals served as priests in a religion based on love.

Baldwin’s prose was sometimes coated with the effete sheen of the homosexual straining to present himself as part of an elite, or it could be pickled with the self­-defensive snits and bitchiness Lionel Mitchell called “our macho.” Beware ye who would condescend: Baldwin’s atti­tude wasn’t substantially different from the aggressive defensiveness of any out­siders, be they black nationalists who cel­ebrate Africa at Europe’s expense, those feminists who elevate women over men, or any other group at odds with or at a loss for social and political power.

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It is also true that Baldwin was the first of his kind, and perhaps the last we shall see for some time: the Negro writer made a celebrity and thrust into the na­tional political dialogue. He had no mod­els to learn from and settled for sassing the white folks when ideas of substance would have been much more valuable. His considerable gift for making some­thing of his own from the language of Henry James and the rhetoric of the black church was largely squandered on surface charges and protest fiction. The talent for writing fiction that Baldwin showed in his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, never achieved maturity. Though the rest of the novels are uni­formly bad, almost every one contains brilliant passages in which Baldwin’s long, long sentences were indicative of his intricate sense of consciousness, boasting finely orchestrated details, declarations, and nuances of feeling. But they are, with the exception of the all-white homosexual melodrama Giovanni’s Room, ruined by the writer’s contrived and sentimental conception of race. The purple trumpet in his soul played the same tune over and over, one which depicted Negro life as insufferable, saintly, and infinitely supe­rior to that of whites.

Though homosexuality loomed ever larger in his fiction as the years passed, by the last long essay, Evidence of Things Unseen, Baldwin streaks away from the issues surrounding the Atlanta child mur­ders, ignoring particularly the exploita­tion of so many impoverished Negro boys by the homosexual subculture of that city. His eloquence gone, Baldwin reads as though his mind had so eroded that he no longer knew how to build an argu­ment. Very little connects and any subject is an occasion for a forced harangue against the West, the profit motive, Christianity, and so on. It is a disturbing­ly dishonest book.

One cannot deny James Baldwin his powers, but it is tragic that he was never strong enough to defend and nurture his substantial talent and become the writer even such imposing gifts do not make inevitable. Finally, Baldwin’s description of his success as a boy preacher in The Fire Next Time says much about the de­cay of a writer who once seemed poised on greatness: “That was the most fright­ening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons — for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me…” ❖


James Baldwin: Fathers and Sons

In “Alas, Poor Richard,” his great essay on Richard Wright, James Baldwin wrote: “I was far from imagining, when I agreed to write this memoir, that it would prove to be such a painful and difficult task. What, after all, can I say about Richard…?” When every­thing remains to be said, often nothing comes. Wright had been, he wrote, “…my ally, and my witness, and alas! my father.”

Poised between pain and a grappling for speech is not an uncommon condition to find oneself in at the death of an artistic forefather. There is the sud­den, forced relinquishment of a shared and charged conversation. And now, so many of the arguments remain to be finished.

Which explains, in part, the fear I ex­perienced at Baldwin’s memorial service. For although I had never met him, the discourse Baldwin began in me — which included a deeper examination of sexual politics concerning both heterosexuals and homosexuals, men and women — lies, like a multifaceted prism in tall grass, at the heart of his work. And now, with his death, that conversation is forever interrupted.

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There had been silences between us before. While attempting to discover my “self,” I had embraced and denounced his work several times, with the passion one reserves for a lover or father, and for much the same reasons. The attraction, initially, had been because Baldwin’s work opened up the world for me; it was also precisely because it did do that that it could, if not closely watched, over­whelm any perception I might eventually develop about it and the way we live now.

“…Idols are meant to be destroyed,” Baldwin wrote elsewhere in his essay on Wright. That statement was prophetic. No sooner had I read and reread the majority of his essays and novels than I began to stick holes in them, unreason his reason, resent what I took to be a cowardly fear of dealing, in print, with his “nature.”

Giovanni’s Room was the novel that garnered the most consistent level of at­tack; it seemed to be a parody of all one looked forward to in reading Baldwin: the virtuoso style, the inner life of characters that live and breathe. If he wanted to create a novel that dealt, primarily, with sexual ambivalence (i.e., barely closeted homosexuality), why did he make his protagonist white? And why place him in a land that was far, far away from every­thing Baldwin had ever known? It seemed like a complex strategy of avoid­ance on the author’s part, an unnecessar­ily obscure way to finally “deal” with who he was: black and gay and in exile.

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Well, chronology plays as much of a part in a writer’s life as it does in anyone else’s, if not more so, because they con­duct their education in public. The marked difference between Giovanni’s Room, published in 1952, and most of the work since Another Country, published in 1961, has to do, I suspect, with Baldwin burying his literary father, Richard Wright. Prior to Wright’s death in 1960, Baldwin’s treatment of sexuality was more or less in accordance with his pre­decessor: the Negro as walking phallic symbol, horrific to the white male, who feared for his own masculinity at every turn. Giovanni’s Room and “The Male Prison,” his essay on Gide, should be read not for their success or failure as literature, but, rather, as records of a sublimi­nal resistance to what the father deems “appropriate.” Even so, Giovanni’s Room was a literary step up for a writer whose “real” father often said he “was the ugli­est boy he had ever seen.”

And if one took a further step back, couldn’t Baldwin’s continual discussion of his “pop-eyes” and “ugliness” be viewed as a metaphor for his early feel­ings about his sexual difference — and the disdain with which those desires were met? That was something I understood too. When a same-sex preference makes itself clear, almost inevitably it is viewed not only as a particularly nasty sin but a white or European one. Especially within the context of the church, it is seen not as a question of choice but influence. But as Baldwin has written: “That world was white but it is white no longer.”

What humbled me in the face of Bal­dwin’s work, ultimately, was that he had lived beyond that knowledge, that pain, just enough to create out of it. He had barely escaped. That was an enormous revelation for me, and has been, too, a source of guilt, for my resistance was not greater than the argument. What I had loved and hated was his speaking my mind before I knew it.

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James Baldwin first became known to me through Owen Dodson, poet, play­wright, novelist, and teacher. Owen was my champion, he wrested me from a most unmanly petulance by admitting, in no uncertain terms, that he loved me. It was the first occasion I had ever heard of in which men admitted such things, let alone to each another. Owen knew that, and gave me “Alas, Poor Richard” to read. Owen had said: “Chile, all hell broke loose when Jimmy published that essay. But he had to do it. Sometimes I wonder if you’ll ever say those things about me.”

Of course I did. Part of the legacy of teachers, fathers, like Baldwin or Dod­son, is the right to free oneself from their tutelage, their love. Reading Baldwin, one knows that he wouldn’t have it any other way. Without that, the argument wouldn’t continue. Meanwhile, the prayer Baldwin set down for Richard Wright should hold us in good stead: “Well, he worked up until the end… and his work is now an irreducible part of the history of our swift and terrible time. Whoever He may be, and wherever you may be, may God be with you … and may He help me not to fail that argument which you began in me.” ❖

From The Archives Uncategorized

Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke

Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke
December 1986

Somewhere along the road to probable madness or a meaningful life, I decided that what black culture needs is a popular poststructuralism — accessible writing bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture. Anybody who’s read Harold Cruse’s scathing dissection of black leadership, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, knows his argument that each generation of black leaders has failed from an inability to conceive black liberation totally and systemically. Meaning they failed to develop agendas that fused protest and reform politics with self-­help economics, sophisticated cultural critiques, and a Marxian take on the political economy of capitalism. Twenty years later, the void Cruse railed against remains. If you think I’m going to try to fill it, you got another think coming. I’m bold but I ain’t that bad. This whatchamajiggy here is about how black aestheticians need to develop a coherent criticism to communicate the com­plexities of our culture. There’s no periodical on black cultural phenomena equivalent to The Village Voice or Artforum, no publication that provides journalism on black visual art, philosophy, politics, economics, media, literature, linguistics, psychology, sexuality, spirituality, and pop culture. Though there are certainly black editors, journalists, and academics capable of producing such a journal, the disintegration of the black cultural nationalist movement and the braindrain of black intellectuals to white insti­tutions have destroyed the vociferous public dialogue that used to exist between them. Consider this my little shot at opening it up again.

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Given the lack of debate and discussion among educated blacks today, Harold Cruse’s remedies for the black intelligentsia’s failings seem more quixotic now than 20 years ago — particularly because back then the civil rights and black power movements were pro­ducing a generation of artists and activists who could be provoked into getting hot and bothered. (You ask a buppy mofo his stand on the race, he’ll tell you he favors Carl Lewis.) Cruse presaged the black cultural nationalist movement as conceived by Amiri Baraka and Ron Karenga. While the founding fathers have long taken deserved lumps for the jiver parts of their program (like the sexist, anti-Semitic, black supremacist, pseudo-African mumbo-­jumbo paramilitary adventurist parts), to their credit they took black liberation seriously enough to be theoretically ambitious about it. Perhaps their most grandiose scheme involved trying to transform a supremacist sense of black cultural difference into the basis for a racially bonding black American zeitgeist — one that would serve blacks as Judaism was believed to have solidified Jews. The plan was to convince 30 million people they constituted a nation, not only because they were an oppressed minority, but also because they were superior to the corny white man and his Western civilization. 

A considerable amount of this philosophy was developed by Baba Baraka, formerly a prized black stepchild of Western mod­ernism. Baraka has acknowledged that he derived his black su­premacist gumption from African-American music, which definitely represents the one modernist arena blacks are the masters of. (It is our music, especially jazz, which confronts Western culture with its most intimidating and improbable Other: the sui generis black genius. But that’s a whole other dissertation.) The leap from per­ceiving the genius of jazz to envisioning an Afrocentric master race is quite a doozy. Generously, it could be understood as an extrem­ist’s reaction to blacks being classified for centuries as subhumans without culture and history. Given that context, let’s be generous. Two decades ago, Malcolm X implored blacks to cast aside their differences and unite against the common foe we all caught hell from, the white man. Yet that dream of black unity addressed racial oppression more meaningfully than it did the more crucial dilemma of cultural identity. (If being black meant nothing but being oppressed by white people, black liberation would have no meaning. Like if white people weren’t around to be mad at, people into being black would be out of a job.) 

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What the cult-nats made possible is a conception of black culture where anything black could be considered an aesthetic object of contemplation more beautiful than anything produced by the white man. In this sense the cult-nats were our dadaists. While the dadaists tried to raise anarchy to an artform and bring Western civilization down with style, the cult-nats figured a “black is beau­tiful” campaign would be enough to raze Babylon, or at least get a revolution going. The cult-nats’ black-übermensch campaign obviously didn’t do much toward liberating the masses, but it did produce a post-liberated black aesthetic, responsible for the degree to which contemporary black artists and intellectuals feel them­selves heirs to a culture every bit as def as classical Western civilization. 

This cultural confidence has freed up more black artists to do work as wonderfully absurdist as black life itself. The impulse toward enmeshing self-criticism and celebration present in the most provocative avant-garde black art of the ’70s and early ’80s (cf. Miles Davis, David Hammons, Senga Ngudi, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ishmael Reed, Charles Burnett, Pedro Bell, George Clin­ton, Samuel R. Delany, Richard Pryor, Charles Johnson, Octavia Butler, Jayne Cortez, Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison) owes a debt to the cult-nats for making so much noise about the mythic beauties of blackness that these artists could traffic in the ugly and mundane sides with just as much ardor. (Admittedly, most of these artists have at one time or another confused a passion for black exotica with detached representation. On the other hand, we all know there’s not a single freak in their work without a counterpart even more out-the-box somewhere in the kinky wilds of black America. Such is our mutant diversity.) What’s unfortunate is that while black artists have opened up the entire “text of blackness” for fun and games, not many black critics have produced writing as fecund, eclectic, and freaky-deke as the art, let alone the culture itself. (Some exceptions: Henry Louis Cates, David Levering Lewis, Lor­enzo Thomas, Nathaniel Mackey, Adrian Seaward, Clyde Taylor, Houston Baker.) For those who prefer exegesis with a polemical bent, just imagine how critics as fluent in black and Western culture as the post-liberated artists could strike terror into that bastion of white supremacist thinking, the Western art world. 

In Art After Modernism: Essays on Rethinking Representation, Brian Wallis laments that there’s never been a serious study of the relationship of black culture to institutionalized art. (Like don’t nobody know that since Cubism, black culture and Western mod­ernism have been confused for conceptual kissing cousins; that since bebop’s impact on Abstract Expressionism and the Beats, black modernism has been confused with white alienation and social deviance; that since Duke Ellington compared Picasso to Miles Davis, black genius has been confused with the formal ex­haustion of Western art; that since Norman Mailer wrote The White Negro, black cool has been mistaken for a figment of white heterosexual anxiety; that since Thomas Pynchon shabbily dis­guised Ornette Coleman as McClintic Sphere in V., black alienation has gotten confused with existential parody; that since Ornette Coleman called Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” the most beautiful since Toscanini’s, the power to impose cultural democracy has fallen into the hands of black people with strange ideas; that since I heard a snotty white DJ say he stopped thinking Parliament/Funkadelic was stupid disco when Brian Eno cited them as an influence, I’ve known George Clinton was right when he said that as soon as white folks figured out funk was intellectually acceptable they’d try to hop on board the Mothership.) To this post-liberated black aesthetician, Wallis’s whine sounded like an invite to bomb the white bastion rather than know my place relative to it. At first I thought I’d have to go it alone, but then I discovered a smart, empathetic white man I could cannibalize — one all ready to see MOMA collapse in the dust with an Air Jordan high-top at its throat. 

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A big round of applause, then, to my host culture-bearer, Hal Foster, senior editor at Art in America, editor of the post-mod col­lection The Anti-Aesthetic, and now author of Recodings: Art, Spec­tacle, Cultural Politics (Bay Press, $9.95 paper), a primer in poststructuralist discourse and debate with its sights on bringing about the end of Western civi­lization in theory. Taking aim, he blasts away at those involved in rationalizing capitalism through the culture industry. For people who look toward critical theory as a way to outthink the powers that be rather than to disguise fuzzy thinking behind hermetic verbiage, Foster makes a lot of sense. He doesn’t see theory as an end in itself, but as a “toolkit” to pry apart the hidden collusion between the corporate class and its artsy running dogs, like big bad MOMA and those messy Neo-Expressionist painters. Having arrived at the astounding conclusion that criticism is of marginal value to the art marketplace, Foster prizes his marginality as license to speak “out of place.” 

The margins from which Foster speaks are indeed extreme — so extreme that by book’s end he’s set himself up against not only pluralism, Neo-Expressionism, postmodern architecture, primitiv­ist-modernism, and The New Criterion crew, but Barthes, Baud­rillard, Hegelian dialectics, and the very idea of Western history. (The “enemy” identified throughout Recodings is “the white, pa­triarchal order of western culture and its pretenses of sovereignty, supremacy and self creation.”) In the early sections Foster goes about exposing those postmodern artists who profess autonomy from corporate power or pretend to be political by acting like social outlaws. To this end he is such a thorough deconstructionist that not even artists he admires escape his powers of dissection. Though his demolition of Neo-Expressionism (“The Expressive Fallacy”) comes as no surprise, it’s unexpected when an infatuated appre­ciation of Robert Longo’s work ends on the downbeat. “A utopian principle of hope may be evoked here but no actual community is engaged. This work has no social basis (other than the dominant class whose representations are collided). Its mix of archaic and futuristic forms attests to this absence — as does its apocalypticism, which is symptomatic of the failure of the dominant culture (and its ‘artist guardian’) to conceive social change in terms other than catastrophe. In the absence of such a social basis utopian desire may well become a will to power — or an identification with the powers that be.”

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Behind the facades of the postmoderns, Foster never fails to detect the presence of the corporate class. Echoing Baudrillard’s crucial revision of Marx, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Foster opines that the corporate class, having achieved mastery of accumulation, now desires mastery of “symbolic production,” meaning mass media and modern art. The “penetration of the sign by capital” is a major theme of Recodings, along with the problems that penetration represents for those committed to “cultural resistance,” Foster’s favorite form of theory-mongering. 

Where others find total freedom in the pluralistic postmodern marketplace, he finds no more than the franchised freedom of the commodity. Here artists suppress all desire for social change and are rewarded for producing consumable art, “safeguarding social inertia by participating in an illusion of democracy.” Equally sus­pect is the return (through Neo-Expressionism) of the myth of the modern artist as bourgeois transgressor and last refuge of “humanist values.” (This gets kinky when you consider how much transgressive shock value, and hence “humanism” in modern art, derived from the moderns’ primitivist ideas about Africa.) Though these myths once served early modernism by making the artist an adversary of the bourgeoisie, today they serve the corporate class by making artistic transgression “a posture available to everyman.” (Reading this brought to mind the Jean Michel Basquiat behind the bar in the Palladium’s Michael Todd room.) Attacking post­modern architects for elitism, Foster finds in their vernacular re­vivals not a populist modernism but a supercilious lowbrowism, not a regeneration of modernist ideals but a regression to classic architectural forms for the myths of authority they sing to the powerful. 

For Foster, the most provocative American art of today situates itself at a crossroads where representations of sexual identity and social life can freely intervene in critiques of institutional art, mass culture, and the corporate class. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Hans Haacke, Cindy Sherman are artists Foster finds significant because they don’t just make consumable objects but also manip­ulate signs, seeking to make “the viewer an active reader of mes­sages rather than a passive contemplator of the aesthetic or consumer of the spectacular.” The history of these artists’ practices begins in the adversarial site-specific work done in the ’70s by Hans Haacke and Daniel Buren. At that time their work centered on confronting the power of the museum to marginalize radical art, updating Duchamp’s antiaesthetic. Yet Buren believed that the real perfidy performed by galleries and museums was not aesthetic but economic: they protected the very idea of the art market by supplying exchange-value to art. Foster notes that this critique became particularly crucial once the bourgeoisie had abandoned its classical culture for a consumerist one, and reinvested in the museum as modernism’s warehouse. Barbara Kruger, Jenny Hol­zer, and other feminist manipulators of “sign-value” revise the work of these male artists by mocking the power invested in official language. In “For a Concept of the Political in Contemporary Art,” Foster draws on Baudrillard’s critique of a belief held clear by Marx, Walter Benjamin, and the Russian constructivists: that political art must be aligned with the production of the industrial worker. Baudrillard found that model faulty because it identified the white male worker as the sole force for social progress. This denied the significance of struggles by those outside or subordinate to production: students, blacks, gays, women. Because the site of their struggles is as much for representation, for significance and signification within academia and the media, their active resistance of patriarchal and racist practices must take place there. The intent is not to segregate the struggles of blacks, gays, and women from those of the white male worker under capitalism, but to equalize them. Rethinking political art today means recognizing that per Foucault, power derives its authority not only from social consent and economic determinism but from those “disciplinary institu­tions” which control behavior and the body through “social regi­mens” (at work, school, the corporation) and “structure our lives materially.” 

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It is the realization that disciplinary institutions produce “so­cially adjusted individuals” which has brought poststructuralist concerns with representation, sexuality, textuality, and totalization to the foreground of contemporary political art. Baudrillard rec­ognized that the commodification of culture has rendered obsolete the distinctions between art and commerce, culture and economy, and any reading of signs (art and media) as if they were impene­trable by capital. Since the corporate class dominates symbolic production, art has become a capitalist comprador, out to protect commodity values rather than those of classical bourgeois culture. “According to this position, the bourgeoisie no longer needs a traditional culture to impress its ideology or retain its rule; the commodity no longer requires the guise of a personal or social value for us to submit to it: it is its own excuse, its own ideology.”‘ 

Traditionally, modern art has sought to resist collusion with capital or shock the bourgeoisie through either primitive transgres­sion or formal elitism. But these strategies failed to be truly radical because they didn’t intend to better society and may, says Foster, even have prepared society to consent in the “social transgressions of capital.” He believes that the shock-of-the-new impulse of early modern art contributed to “subtly reconciling us to the chaos of the late-capitalist world.” Nostalgia for avant-garde transgression Foster finds not only nihilistic but of little value to political artists today. What he proposes is a practice which views culture as an arena where “active contestation is possible.” From this vantage point, capital would not be seen as a megalith to be shocked and liberated by, say, “primitivism,” but as a network of disciplinary institutions and sign systems to be constantly targeted for adver­sarial deconstruction. Resistance, then, doesn’t aim for transcen­dence of corporate culture’s limits into some mythical liberated zone, but for critical intervention in the process by which capitalism is rationalized through mass culture and modernism.

Foster believes these interventions could become more than merely theoretical if Western political artists were able to forge cultural revolution alongside subcultural Others — those whose col­lective practices not only create new languages of representation but signify a disbelief in mass culture, modernism, and the West. Among these subcultural practices he cites reggae, black gospel, and Latin American fiction. Where others such as Barthes, Baud­rillard, Deleuze, and Guattari have sought out subcultural codes to call the West’s supremacist ideas of history and difference into question, Foster closes Recodings by pronouncing that Western theorists should chill, and open the field for blacks, gays, and feminists to command the critical foreground of cultural resistance. 

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What Recodings has to say about cultural resistance, commo­dification, representation, and Western supremacy is fascinating to mull over from a black perspective, particularly since so much black aesthetic and political debate has for years been concerned with these issues. If I’m so gung-ho about integrating Foster’s poststructuralist toolkit into a discussion of black culture, it’s not because black culture lacks Foster’s mind but because it lacks his bent for knowing and dissecting his subject in total. In the past, the sectarian nature of black art and politics has worked against a “unified field theory” of black culture. The person who seems to be moving most determinedly in that direction is, ironically, a white man, Yale’s Robert Farris Thompson, whose books and lec­tures on African art and philosophy in the “Black Atlantic tradition” are milestones of comparative analysis on the continuum which runs between black culture in Africa and the New World, spiri­tually, aesthetically, and philosophically. 

Thompson’s work disproves and demolishes at every turn the myth that classical African culture doesn’t derive from as systematic and highly evolved a tradition of critical thought as Europe’s. (Yoruba sculpture, for example, is no less a product of conscious conceptualization than art in the Greco-Roman tradition. The dif­ference isn’t a matter of intellect but of intention.) Thompson ar­ticulates the critical infrastructure at work in classical African art, music, and dance, and its impact on the New World. Yet even that breadth of learning barely touches on what black culture has evolved to in 20th century America. I’m pushing for a popular black poststructuralism because we need theoretical and critical tools as exacting as those that produced a work like Recodings: writings which ask hard questions about where our culture stands in history, what total liberation means to black people living now, and how black art can continue to express that desire for freedom. Another reason, more self-involved in nature, is that I’m part of a generation of bohemian cult-nats who are mutating black culture into something the old interlocutors aren’t ready for yet. 

Though nobody’s sent out any announcements yet, the ’80s are witnessing the maturation of a postnationalist black arts movement, one more Afrocentric and cosmopolitan than anything that’s come before. The people in this movement find no contradiction in de­riving equal doses of inspiration from influences as diverse as Malcolm X and Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton and George Romero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lisette Model, Zora Neale Hurston and Akira Kurosawa, William Burroughs and Romare Bearden, Barnett Newman and Sun Ra, Jah Rastafari and Johnny Rotten, Toni Morrison and Laura Mulvey, George Jackson and Samuel Delany, Albert Ayler and Andrei Tarkovsky, Rudy Ray Moore and Nam June Paik, Black Elk and Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor and Joel Peter-­Witkin, Chester Himes and Jacques Tati, Ishmael Reed and Maya Deren, Anthony Braxton and Bruce Lee, Jean Rhys and Nona Hendryx, Antonin Artaud and Amiri Baraka, Robert Farris Thomp­son and Professor Longhair, Julia Kristeva and Chaka Khan, Kurt Schwitters and Coptic scrolls, Run-D.M.C. and Paolo Soleri, Fred­ric Jameson and Reverend James Cleveland, Katherine Dunham and Meredith Monk, Darryl Dawkins and Ndebele beadwork, Ra­mayana and Elegba-Eshu, Kathy Acker and Nina Simone, Audre Lorde and the Maasai, Duane Michals and John Coltrane, Skip James and Bill Viola. Cornucopia for a New Negro Bohemia? Hey, every generation’s got to have one. And that list of odd couples only represents those favored by the freaks I know about. (No telling what kind of black bizarro worldviews are being cooked up by members of the cadre still underground.) But even though quotation is the postmod thing to do, I’m not just namedropping here. The point is that the present generation of black artists is cross-breeding aesthetic references like nobody is even talking about yet. And while they may be marginal to the black experience as it’s expressed in rap, Jet, and on The Cosby Show, they’re not all mixed up over who they are and where they come from. 

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These are artists for whom black consciousness and artistic freedom are not mutually exclusive but complementary, for whom “black culture” signifies a multicultural tradition of expressive practices; they feel secure enough about black culture to claim art produced by nonblacks as part of their inheritance. No anxiety of influence here — these folks believe the cultural gene pool is for skinny-dipping. Yet though their work challenges both cult-nats and snotty whites, don’t expect to find them in Ebony or Artforum any time soon. Things ain’t hardly got that loose yet. 

Black culture as these artists know it is a debased commodity within black and white popular media, and even within the avant­-garde. Their targets for the kind of “cultural resistance” and “in­tervention in codes” Foster speaks of are complicated by the artists having to take on racist representations and black self-hate si­multaneously. For these reasons Spike Lee’s success, in both commercial and artistic terms, with She’s Gotta Have It, represents a coup of staggering proportions. It is in fact a populist black post­structuralist’s dream. 

Not only does Lee overload his “joint” with black in-jokes and semiotic codes (I’m thinking now of the references to Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, Eleanor Bumpurs, Edwin Perry, and Black Reconstruction that turn up, as well as things like using straight-­ahead jazz to underscore hiphop humor, and the conjugation of “drugs” and “jheri curls” to mark them as equally vile) but he pushed such an uncompromisingly black vision to blacks through mainstream distribution, exhibition, and media channels. Lee’s making a success out of a film shot for jackshit with a collectivist cast and crew demolishes Hollywood’s mega-budget mystique. Now, if all that’s not culturally resistant, I don’t know what is. And Lee’s staunch raceman interviews have been even more rad, breaking on Whoopi’s blue contacts, Michael’s nose, The Color Purple, as well as threatening letters from Quincy Jones’s office (not to mention the MPAA, which he says tried to give him an X because softcore black sexuality tweaked their uptight, racist nerves). The sweetest aspect of Lee’s success is that the only formula it offers for those who’d desire to emulate or exploit it is faith in the brilliance of black culture. What we need now is black criticism as balls to the wall as She’s Gotta Have It.

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Because black people don’t have institutions for serious, so­phisticated study and advancement of our culture, my dream of a populist black poststructuralism is actually kind of loony, but every man needs his own Moby Dick. What I envision is an Afrocentric cross between MIT, MOMA, MGM, Macmillan books, and Motown, a self-supporting facility equipped to bankroll a braintrust of B-boys, feminists, philosophers, visual artists, musicians, athletes, scientists, theologians, historians, political activists and economists, and produce their findings and artifacts for mass audiences. Since I can’t underwrite this black tower of Babel, I can at least target a few white whales for it to harpoon, a few black holes for it to get sucked up into. First off, if it were to take up the Brian Wallis project, a study of the relationship of black culture to institutionalized art, there’d be a need for an encyclopedic reference book on black visual culture. 

Given the kind of money the de Menils are sinking into their Eurocentric project, Images of the Black in Western Art, I’d hire a staff of editors, designers, and critics (Richard Powell, Judith Wil­son, Kellie Jones, and Rosalind Jeffries come to mind) to produce a multivolume bricolage of black images from every source con­ceivable: police mugshots, graffiti, Cubism, race riots, newspapers, hair product ads, comics, black independent cinema, advertising, music videos, lynchings, minstrelsy, break dancing, iconic jazz photography, Bauhaus furniture, images of blacks in Western art, modern art by black artists such as Twin Seven Seven, Leroy Clarke, Skunder Boghossian, Calvin Reid, Al Loving, Senga Nen­gudi, Daniel Dawson, Charles Abramson, Janet Henry, Houston Conwill, Ed Love, Rikki Smith, Nelson Stevens, Selim Abdul Mubdi, Edgar Sorrells-Adewale, Emilio Cruz, Martha Jackson­-Jarvis, Lorna Simpson, Jack Whitten, Randy Williams, Sandra Payne, Jules Allen, Pedro Bell, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Albert Chong, Romare Bearden, Wilfredo Lam, plus the art of every black ethnic group in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The text for these volumes would be drawn from as varied a collection of sources — all making for a veritable postmodern bible of black visual rep­resentation and critical difference. Publish that bad boy and all this bulljive we hear about the impoverishment of black visual culture would have to cease. Next on the agenda would be a series of symposiums on topics like Institutionalizing the Production of Black Musical Geniuses; the First Annual Conference on Black Mother Wit, Phylogeny, and Dub; Zen and the Art of Skip James; Harlem as Hyperreality: Reading Chester Himes; Rags, Hickeys, and Wops: The Etymology of Doo; Jazz and the Heat-Death of the Universe (A Comparative Analysis of the Death of the Author in Postmodern Painting and Jazz); Breakdancing as Telemetry; Genii in the Genome: George Clinton and Jeremy Rifkin’s Rhythm The­ories of Evolution; Race Mutation Theory and Quantum-Black Myth; The Mathematics of Graffiti: Ramm-El-Zee’s Ikonoklast Pan­zerism; The Political Economy of Scratch; and Beat the System to Death: Bootstrap Capitalism and Guerrilla Warfare. The possibil­ities are frightening. You fill in the blanks. 

Now I know some people are going to read all this and level charges ranging from silliness to rank sophistry to Bakuninism. Let them come on with it. My mission is clear. The future of black culture demands that this generation bring forth a worldly-wise and stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups who can get as ignant as James Brown with their Wangs and stay in the black. Give me such an army and we’ll be talking total cultural black rule by the time the eco-system collapses, SDI bottoms out Fort Knox, the Aryan Brotherhood is officially in the White House, and Wall Street is on the moon. 


This is the beginning. We’ll be inviting some of the people you’ve just read about to get together and tackle issue raised in this essay. The results will appear in future issue of VLS.




For Colored Girls When the Rainbow Flag Is Not Enough

In his 1985 essay exploring the meaning of being Black and queer, “Here Be Dragons,” James Baldwin wrote that “the American ideal of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American idea of masculinity.” Good guys and bad guys, tough guys and softies, cowboys and Indians, black and white — all are viewed through a lens of what it means to be male.

Baldwin’s observation explains to me, in part, how the majority of well-funded Pride celebrations can be near the half-century mark and remain, at least on the surface, so white and male. Pride month is purported each June to be a global assertion of the most inclusive celebration of love possible, symbolized by that beacon of hope that says it all, the rainbow flag. But beyond all the flag-waving, parades, and parties, one of the most deserving symbols of inclusivity — Black LGBTQ women — are still largely hidden figures.

Most media continue to cover Pride Month as they always have, focusing on parades, gay men (typically white), rainbows, and rainbow-themed products (like the Facebook stickers and augmented-reality filters that will now be available year-round, because inclusion), and the shocking fact that Trump will not recognize Pride Month for the second year in a row. A scroll through the Twitter moments curated by the company from June 1, for example, gives no indication that women of color were at the forefront of the infamous Stonewall uprising.

But because people of color remain the primary users of most social media, they also share stories traditional media continue to overlook. For instance, somehow these tweets weren’t included in the Twitter moments, but there were some reminders online that two Black women — Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman, and Stormé DeLarverie, a butch male impersonator (language she preferred over drag performer), were part of the vanguard of women of color who helped launch the June 28, 1969, uprising sparked by a police raid at the Stonewall Inn.

The omission of Johnson and DeLarverie from stories about Pride history is most ironic this year, as Black queer women are having an incredible moment in popular culture. “It is time we remind the world who we are,” Elektra proclaims in Ryan Murphy’s splendid new FX show, Pose, which explores both the joys and pains experienced by the transgender community in late 1980s New York City through the lens of the oft-imitated but hardly duplicated ball culture. (There are, it must be said, some white male characters in the show, including, unfortunately, a 1980s-era Trump, but they are ancillary characters. Thankfully.)

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In entertainment, at least, it feels like there’s been some long overdue celebration of Black women along a refreshingly broad spectrum of sexuality. Lena Waithe, who rose to prominence for writing a beautiful coming-out episode for Master of None, as well as creating and producing the Showtime series The Chi, not only rocked a rainbow-colored iconic cape at the Met Gala, she also graced the cover of Vanity Fair — the first Black lesbian in history to do so. Her cover story was written by the award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson — who lives with her partner, Juliet Widoff, in Brooklyn — in what is a particularly nuanced piece about Black female intimacy that one usually doesn’t find in glossy magazines.

Janelle Monáe, ahead of the release of her brilliant, Prince-inspired Dirty Computer, squashed speculation about her sexuality by declaring herself pansexual. “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker,” Monáe told Rolling Stone.

This August, queer activist Charlene Carruthers will release her book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, just after the five-year anniversary of the founding of Black Lives Matter by three women, including Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, both of whom identify as Black queer leaders. For Carruthers, Pride is “about more than rainbows,” as she told USA Today for its Faces of Pride project.

Yes, it is. Because as welcome as it is to see Black LGBTQ women gain visibility in some areas, it doesn’t mean the rest of their lives — their full humanity — don’t deserve attention, too.

In 2017, the National Coalition on Anti-Violence Programs reported “the highest number of anti-LGBTQ homicides in our twenty-year history of tracking this information,” especially for people of color; 37 killed in 2017, up from 22 in 2016. The combination of media silence around this trend and an administration considered hostile to the queer community seems likely only to make things worse. This week’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because it was at odds with his religious faith, suggests that a climate of continued homophobia from the highest echelons of government is likely to be tolerated in the foreseeable future. While decisions such as these may not lead directly to violence, they still send a message that the legal infrastructure meant to protect queer people and relationships is likely, instead, to rule against them.

Still, all hope is not lost. Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising that Johnson and DeLarverie and many others whose names are not yet synonymous with Stonewall history — in traditional media, anyway — sparked. Though Johnson died in 1992, at the age of 46, largely unknown outside of her community for her tireless advocacy and organizing, her community has continued her work. And in 2015, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute was established by Elle Hearns, a Black trans co-founder of the Black Lives Matter network. The institute is scheduled to open at the end of this summer.

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Back when Baldwin wrote “Here Be Dragons,” it was probably true that most people only thought of how to express one’s sexual and romantic desire in relation to American manhood. I certainly considered myself just a quirky heterosexual Catholic girl from the Bronx when I first encountered this essay in seventh grade. But then I read this part, and it changed the way I thought about how fluid sexuality is, how much possibility I felt that I had to express my love for whomever I wanted:

We are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.

When I first came out, in 2014, I understood exactly what Baldwin meant about this inconvenience, because I declared myself sexually fluid, along a questioning continuum, instead of according to an acronym, based largely on this necessarily complex definition of sexuality. It feels easier to put yourself in a box, compartmentalized away from the experiences of others. Every June, though, segregated Pride celebrations and histories remind us of how counterproductive this is when we’re still fighting, all these years later, very similar battles. It’s our shared experiences, after all, that makes Pride so valuable — that however we define our people, we find our resilience and belonging through celebrating those who see us and accept us for all of who we are, and we keep rising up.


Building a Book Scene in the Boogie Down Bronx

In 1939 at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, if you had happened to drop into an assembly, you might have come across any of the following students: the iconic author James Baldwin; comic book writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee; longtime New York Times executive editor A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal; or the Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. Richard Avedon would also have been there — before he took up photography while serving in the merchant marine during World War II, Avedon edited the high school’s prestigious literary magazine, The Magpie, with Baldwin. In fact, in 1941, Avedon was named “Poet Laureate of New York City High Schools.”

Though these men were wordsmiths in different ways, their presence at Clinton some eighty years ago is emblematic of the borough’s rich cultural history with respect to the written word. It also highlights how far things have fallen: By 2016 Clinton was in danger of closing. But if young Bronx students are not aware of this history, that, too, is emblematic of the Bronx literary renaissance. Perhaps the distant past feels so easy to forget because the future is finally looking up.

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In recent years, a book scene has been slowly but steadily evolving in the boogie down borough. The Bronx Book Fair, led by Poets Network & Exchange executive director Lorraine Currelley and backed by several nonprofit institutions, started in 2013; this year, it was held at the Bronx Library Center and featured writing workshops, panels, and a keynote from Noëlle Santos, a Bronx native and entrepreneur who is planning to open the Lit. Bar, a wine and bookstore, this summer. And Rebekah Shoaf, a former public school teacher, recently launched her start-up Boogie Down Books, “a bookstore-without-walls for Bronx kids, teens, families, and educators.” 

Bronx Book Festival, Volunteers manning swag-grab table

In 2016, when the last general interest bookstore in the Bronx — a Barnes & Noble in Co-Op City — shut its doors, Saraciea Fennell’s response was to fill in the gap. Fennell, 29, is a book publicist for MacMillan, and she has worked with young adult and children’s authors for several years. She also grew up in the Bronx and knows what it’s like to live in a literary desert, a place where authors never come to your classroom to visit. A former foster care kid like me, Fennell read books to escape the kind of circumstances that force a girl to become mature before her time. In the stacks of the New York Public Library, she cultivated a love for the works of authors such as Octavia Butler, Judy Blume, and Roald Dahl.

When the Barnes & Noble closed, Fennell accelerated her long-held dream of launching a literacy program. That ambition came to fruition this month when her new program, The Bronx is Reading, brought New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X) to select Title 1 schools in the borough on May 18. She simultaneously organized the inaugural Bronx Book Festival, which brought 36 authors and illustrators to Fordham Plaza on May 19.

Frequent statistics about the borough note that there are 1.5 million Bronx residents and more than a quarter-million public school students; the majority of these students have difficulty reading, so they often do not. Students who don’t read well by third grade are at the highest risk of dropping out of high school. This is particularly true for Black and Latinx students from low-income households, whose average reading scores have consistently ranked far below their white peers in New York State. At Clinton the four-year graduation rate was less than 50 percent in 2016.

Emma-Otheguy at the Bronx Book Festival

A former eighth-grade teacher in Maryland, Acevedo said at the start of the festival that a book should be “a mirror and a window,” especially for struggling or resistant readers. The majority of her students were Latinx. “They would ask, ‘Where are books about us? Isn’t this the work of artists?’ This is my work. I write what I know,” said Acevedo, the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants who was born and raised in New York City. “I write my people.”

Daniel José Older, author of Shadowhouse Fall, warned festivalgoers not to create a hierarchy of literature that makes some books better than others. That means not shaming kids for reading graphic novels instead of literary ones, or engaging with audiobooks instead of physical ones. “There should be no politics of respectability in literature,” he said. Older, who is working on a novel about the Civil War due in the fall, says the cultural moment we’re in now is one we’ll look back on. “We’ll say, ‘This is when kids started to see themselves as the heroes of their own stories and then say, ‘Now I’ll go on to write my own story.’ ”

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Panels included exploration of the immigrant experience featuring authors Ibi Zoboi and Rakesh Satyal, as well as Bronx stories featuring Just Kids From the Bronx author Arlene Alda and Chulito author Charles Rice-Gonzalez. Zoboi, author of last year’s critically acclaimed American Street, had a ready answer for wary young readers. “I ask them if they like gossip,” she said. “It’s the original form of storytelling.”

Between panels, I stopped Taina Coleman to hear why other Bronx residents were motivated to come to the festival, even on a rainy Saturday. Coleman, a literacy specialist, grew up in Harlem and East Tremont. She’d been looking forward to the festival because she’s pursuing a career in writing and wants to tell the stories of people of color.

“I’m impressed by the authors who are here; they’re the writers I admire and so generous with their time and resources,” Coleman said. “I knew it would rain, but I had to come because it’s something I’ve been longing to see. I feel like we’re building a community for kids that need to see themselves reflected in literature.”

Saraciea Fennell, Daniel Jose Older, and Elizabeth Acevedo

It was the energy of intentional community building that set the Bronx Book Festival apart from some of its larger, more established counterparts, such as the Texas Book Festival or the Brooklyn Book Festival. The message, in each reading, panel, presentation, and giveaway, was that Black and brown people’s stories matter as much as their lives. Because their lives matter, we gathered to celebrate the stories we tell that reflect them as they are.

Patrice Caldwell, founder of People of Color in Publishing, moderated a panel composed exclusively of queer authors of color, including Adam Silvera, author of More Happy Than Not, which explores his experience of toxic masculinity in the Bronx as a gay Puerto Rican youth.

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One festivalgoer who works in the publishing industry noted that buying books by authors of color is a political act, because it sends a message to the publishing industry that the myths about the lack of audiences for works that center on diverse voices won’t sell well. Particularly in young adult fiction, Women of Color are dominating the New York Times bestseller list in a way that doesn’t show any signs of stopping; this began with Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give and now extends to Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone.

The Bronx has a rich cultural past, but Fennell and Santos, along with the rest of us in the literary community here, are invested in cultivating an even richer cultural future. As the Lit. Bar is poised to open its doors, and Fennell pursues nonprofit status to keep the Bronx Book Festival and the Bronx is Reading program sustainable for years to come, it feels like a renaissance for literature in the Bronx is underway.  

James Baldwin, for one, knew well the power reading has to open up one’s world: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”


The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.



Now in his third year at the helm of the former Dance Theater Workshop, Bill T. Jones adds intellectual heft to the operation with a project called Live Ideas. In 2013, he and curator Lawrence Weschler celebrated Oliver Sacks. This week, a diverse consortium of academics and artists gather for James Baldwin, This Time!, five days of attention to the pioneering black, gay writer’s life and prose, on the eve of what would have been Baldwin’s 90th birthday. Carrie Mae Weems and Jamaica Kincaid talk with Jones on opening night (Wednesday), Stew previews his new work, Notes of a Native Song, on Friday, and Charles O. Anderson and Dianne McIntyre offer new dances inspired by Baldwin’s work. Plus, appearances by poets, scholars, activists, and actors.

Thursdays-Sundays, noon. Starts: April 24. Continues through April 27, 2014


Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters Reveal the Playwright’s Private Struggle

In her unbearably short life, Lorraine Hansberry, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1965 at age 34, forever transformed Broadway with A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered in 1959. For this staggering chronicle of the struggles of an African-American family on Chicago’s South Side, Hansberry would, at age 29, become the youngest American and the first black playwright to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Her friend James Baldwin exalted, “Never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage”; the play was only one of Hansberry’s numerous contributions to advancing the discussion about civil rights in this country. Yet two years earlier, around the time that Hansberry was completing her landmark work, she was engaged in another, far more private endeavor, writing excitedly — but anonymously — in a letter to the editors of a semi-clandestine publication, “I feel I am learning how to think all over again.”

That periodical was The Ladder, the first subscription-based lesbian magazine in the U.S., which ran from 1956 to 1972. What Hansberry — a closeted lesbian married to Robert Nemiroff, a writer and publisher who produced many of his spouse’s posthumous works — was reflecting on in that missive, published in the August 1957 issue and signed simply “L.N. [Lorraine Nemiroff], New York, N.Y.,” was her own identity as a “heterosexually married lesbian”; after declaring herself as such, Hansberry’s letter then dilates into a piercing feminist disquisition on homophobia and the institution of marriage itself. This dispatch is one of two published in the San Francisco–based magazine and part of a trove of the writer’s papers gathered for “Twice Militant: Lorraine Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder,” on view in the Herstory Gallery of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Offering the pleasure of discovering Hansberry’s cogent, often prescient thoughts about gay rights and sexism, this terrific exhibition provides an immediate, unfiltered look into a quick, agile mind.

The show takes its title from a roughly 45-minute radio interview, included in full here, Hansberry did with Studs Terkel on May 12, 1959, two months after the premiere of A Raisin in the Sun. (The upcoming revival of Hansberry’s play at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, scheduled to begin previews March 8, occasions an exhibition of material relating to the original production, on view at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street through March 7.) In a steady, eloquent voice, Hansberry points out that “the most oppressed group of any oppressed group will be its women, obviously,” concluding that those who are “twice oppressed” can become “twice militant.”

Though she concealed her sexuality, as the times demanded, Hansberry was essentially thrice militant, addressing the “homosexual question” in an undated, handwritten essay on three pieces of yellow legal paper. The second paragraph of this treatise stuns with its radical dismantling of the unsophisticated argument — still promulgated in today’s pro-LGBT pop anthems and Grammy winners — that gays are “born this way”: “Since it does not follow that all which proceeds from nature is in any way automatically desirable for human good, it is silly and baseless to posit the rights of homosexuality on the remote (+ in some sense irrelevant) possibility of its possible congenital character.”

Hansberry’s two letters to The Ladder — more than two dozen issues of which are on display — evince the thrill of a writer having an outlet to discuss at length observations, about herself and lesbians in general, that could not otherwise be voiced publicly. The tone of her first epistle to the magazine, from May 1957, is particularly irrepressible: “I’m glad as heck that you exist,” she writes, before commending the editors as “obviously serious people.” Though “I” buoyantly appears throughout, this first missive, like the second, also concludes with identity-masking initials: “L.H.N.,” for Lorraine Hansberry Nemiroff. (As the concise wall text notes, by 1957, the year Hansberry wrote her Ladder missives, she was living alone in Greenwich Village, “having quietly separated from” Nemiroff, whom she married in 1953. They divorced in 1964 but remained close and continued to collaborate until her death.)

This act of self-effacement, though mandated by the era, is all the more crushing in that it terminates such vibrant letters, brimming with personal details and trenchant analyses of marginalized groups. “As one raised in a cultural experience (I am a Negro) where those within were and are forever lecturing to their fellows about how to appear acceptable to the dominant social group, I know something about the shallowness of such a view as an end to itself,” she wrote in her May ’57 letter, referring to The Ladder‘s commitment to “advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society” — don’t be too butch, ladies — that would facilitate lesbians’ integration.

For as much as these documents — which also include a poem, a short story Hansberry published pseudonymously in The Ladder, a self-portrait, and a 1961 essay entitled “On Homophobia, the ‘Intellectual Impoverishment of Women’ and a Homosexual ‘Bill of Rights'” — expose crucial if little-known aspects of Hansberry’s affective and intellectual life, the most intimate glimpses of the writer can be found in the pages she called “Myself in Notes.” Yearly inventories that Hansberry began when she was 23, these fascinating jottings record her likes, loves, hates, and regrets.

Among the many things Hansberry liked at age 28 were “slacks” and “Eartha Kitt’s eyes, voice, legs, music”; she was bored with “A Raisin in the Sun,” “loneliness,” “most sexual experiences,” “myself.” Sometimes the lists are contradictory: When she was 29, Hansberry included “my homosexuality” under both “I like” and “I hate.” Others are delightfully bawdy; at 32, Hansberry liked “69 when it really works” and “the inside of a lovely woman’s mouth.” Near the end of this catalog, she notes under “I am proud,” a rarely used category, “that I struggle to work hard against many, many things.” The invaluable “Twice Militant” shows just how brilliantly, how passionately Hansberry grappled with herself and the world at large.


Nas’s Untitled

Controversy is clearly Nas’s best friend. The lively debate stirred up by 2006’s Hip Hop Is Dead was trumped many times over by his year-long proclamation that his next offering would be named Nigger. Wal-Mart, unsurprisingly, didn’t love that idea. So what hits shelves this week is simply Untitled, and there isn’t a typical banger to be found anywhere: The delicate piano intro to “Queens Get the Money” sounds like straight-up Alicia Keys until Nas launches his signature poetry-as-rap flow, half-Queensbridge reminiscin’, half braggadocios, and only a sprinkling of politico.

It’s not until the next track, “You Can’t Stop Me Now,” that his agenda starts to take shape, giving us a brief history lesson on racism over bluesy guitar and a Shaft-deep voice that booms, “As James Baldwin says/You can only be destroyed by believing/That you really are what the white world considers/A nigger.” Heavy stuff. “Breathe” continues in that vein, with watered-down, ’90s-style synths providing the backdrop to both a call to action and a lament: “In America, you’ll never be free/Middle fingers up, fuck the police/Damn, can a nigga just breathe?” After a brief non-political detour (assisted by not-so-engaging Polow Da Don and Cool & Dre tracks), Nas picks up the heavy baton again in a string of tracks that tackle the right-wing media (“Sly Fox”), challenge the support of his suburban fans (the heartfelt “Testify”), and muddle the meaning of a polarizing word (“Ya’ll My Niggas”).

By this point, unfortunately, it’s clear that he’s merely airing his racial frustrations rather than offering any solutions. Which is more than most rappers are doing, but it’d all go over much better if the beats were of the hard-hitting “Made You Look” or “One Mic” caliber. They’re not. (One misstep, the UFO tale “We’re Not Alone,” is actually fueled by a rainstick.) But then again, it’s lyrics, not beats, that drive Nas, and he reminds us of that with the Mark Ronson–produced “Fried Chicken,” wherein he joins Busta Rhymes in setting up a sex-as-soul-food metaphor, waxing poetic on ‘hood nutrition: “Don’t know a part of you that I love best/Your legs or your breast/Mrs. Fried Chicken, you gon’ be a nigga death.” Equal praise goes to the creativity in “Project Roach” (rapped from the perspective of an insect) and arguably the strongest track, “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master),” which sums up the complexity of his subject over dramatic violins: “They say we N-I-double-G-E-Rs/We are much more/Still we choose to ignore/The obvious/We are the slave and the master/What you looking for?/You the question and the answer.”

From another perspective, though, the album boils down to a “Vote Obama” PSA; on “Black President,” Barack is mentioned for the second time and officially endorsed over marching-band drums and Tupac’s iconic lines: “And though it seems heaven-sent/We ain’t ready to see a black president.” Controversy aside, without any truly addictive tracks, you can’t consider Nas’s latest among his greatest. But it’s hard not to appreciate the effort.

Nas plays the Jones Beach Amphitheatre August 3.