Thursday, May 21, 2015

Brooklyn Museum's "Art off the Wall: 'Decoding Basquiat'" Reading Tonight

Tonight, I'll be reading poetry with some of my favorite writers, Erica Doyle, Christopher Stackhouse, and Harmony Holiday, along with the 10-piece band King Holiday, as part of the Brooklyn Museum's "Art off the Wall: 'Decoding Basquiat'" event. This reading and musical performance accompany the Brooklyn Museum's Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks exhibition, which runs until August 23, 2015. The events begin at 6:30 pm and run for three hours.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Congratulations to the 2015 Graduates

2015 Commencement at Rutgers University-Newark,
at the Prudential Center, Newark, NJ
(photo © Rutgers University-Newark Facebook)
When I switched back from teaching on the quarter to the semester system in 2012, I wasn't sure how long it would take me to readjust, but in truth it took no time to reacquaint myself with the fact that May, rather than June, would bring a swift conclusion to the academic year, with final exams and grading compressed into a rapid-fire period, and graduation following swiftly thereafter. (I confess that I do like semesters more--a lot more!--than quarters.)

This year, my sabbatical-sick leave has kept me away from campus for most of the last five months, so the spring academic calendar has remained fairly hazy, but when May rolled in, I knew graduation events would also arrive soon. This past Saturday evening I was able to drop by the celebration for our graduating Rutgers University-Newark MFA students, who received their hoods at a ceremony that afternoon. They, like the rest of the graduating students from all the university's constituent divisions walked at the university-wide Commencement ceremony, which was held at the Prudential Center in Newark on Monday.

Rutgers University-Newark's 2015
Commencement speaker, Earl Lewis,
President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
(photo © Rutgers University-Newark Facebook)
Because of the sabbatical I did not advise any MFA or undergraduate students this spring, but I was fortunate to have many of the graduating writers in classes that included last spring's Writers at Newark and last fall's fiction workshop, and I taught some of the departing undergraduates in courses ranging from Foundations of Literary Study to my courses on contemporary African Diasporic Fiction and the Black Arts Movement. Both groups were diverse in every way, and I feel fortunate to be able to say that I have learned as much from them as they from me.

To all of the 2015 Rutgers-Newark MFA graduates, as well as my many undergraduate students who have received their degrees this week, I offer my heartiest and warmest CONGRATULATIONS! I look forward to staying in touch in the years to come, and as I always say to the writers among you, please keep writing!


Over the decade that I taught at Northwestern, I supervised quite a few students: 13 MFA theses as first reader; 11 as second reader; 15 MFA student independent studies; 11 undergraduate creative writing honors theses; 4 undergraduate literature or African American Studies theses; 2 undergraduate internships; 1 MA independent study (which was curtailed when the student was injured in a car accident); and 7 undergraduate creative writing or literature independent studies. These superb students have gone on to do wonderful things in the literary and other worlds, and I treasure having had the opportunity to work with all of them, as I do with all my students, going back to NYU, Brown, and of course, now at Rutgers-Newark.

Yet it was not until a few weeks ago that I could offer congratulations to my last NU MFA thesis advisee, Whitney Youngs, who submitted as her thesis an excerpt of a novel she is writing. I was delighted to serve as her first reader, to read the manuscript through again, and to be able to sign off on her behalf. As a result, Whitney will receive her MFA degree in June! I have watched Whitney grow as a writer and person since she enrolled in an MA/MFA workshop I taught many years ago, and it has been a special pleasure to work with her in shaping and polishing her fiction, especially this novel, which I hope she completes and publishes.

To Whitney, congratulations many times over, and to all my students, including the Northwestern MA/MFA and undergraduate students with whom I worked and who are also receiving their degrees this June, CONGRATULATIONS AND THANK YOU!

Monday, May 18, 2015

On Vanessa Place, Gone With the Wind, and the Limit Point of Certain Conceptual Aesthetics

When it appeared in 1937, Margaret Mitchell's sole novel, Gone With the Wind, was a publishing sensation, selling one million copies in its first six months and winning its author that year's Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, as the fiction category was then known. The book would sell even more copies after the movie version, starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, appeared in 1939 and won its own spate of highest honors, among them Academy Awards for Leigh as Best Actress for her portrayal of Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara; for Victor Fleming as Best Director; and for Selznick International Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer as the Best Film of the Year. The Academy also broke new ground by nominating, for the first time, and awarding the Oscar to an African American, actress Hattie McDaniel, who reprised Mitchell's novel's "Mammy," who was not just a character in the novel and film but a social archetype and offensive stereotype, with deep roots in the white Southern and broader American racist imaginary. That stereotype, it cannot be emphasized enough, still resonates today.

The film remains an icon of American cinema, its characters, its quotations, and its portrayal of the Civil War and its aftermath seared into the national--and international--consciousness, much like its ideological predecessor, D. W. Griffith's 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, based on white supremacist and arch-segregationist Thomas Dixon's novels, had done with the Reconstruction period in the South. It is not going too far to say that Gone With the Wind's images, its themes, and its revisionist master narrative, like other forms of racist ideas, and visual and material culture, including Blackface minstrelsy, have suffused American popular culture, and exist just beneath the surface of a good portion of what we still see today onscreen and in books. Both Mitchell's novel and the film Gone With the Wind are racist and revisionist in ideological terms, infused with a "Lost Cause," anti-Unionist perspective that can be traced directly back to its author's and the larger Southern society's belief in and justifications for the Confederacy. As that seditionist state's former Vice President, Alexander Stephens, underlined in his Cornerstone Speech of May 1861 in Savannah, Georgia, "[the Confederacy's] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition." There you have it, white supremacy and anti-black racism in distilled form, from the viper's mouth itself.

Gone With the Wind, in its cinematic version, retains many aspects of the novel, down to direct quotations of the text, but it is one thing to watch Scarlett, Rhett, Melanie, Ashley, Mammy, and Prissy, among others, cavorting on screen, often beguiling, sometimes cringe-inducing as the entire spectacle, especially the latter characters' scripted, stereotypical and caricatured actions may be, and it is another to read Mitchell's written text, which brims over with her historical revisionism, grotesque depictions of the enslaved African Americans, and her flawed renditions of black speech, including liberal use of the n-word. In 1937, such characterizations and language would have provoked few to no negative responses from white or many black readers, as the book trafficked in white American literary and cultural conventions; today, in a novel or story collection, they would, I trust, spark criticism from critics of all races. That is, unless they were part of an ongoing "conceptual" project that mostly flies under the public radar, with some versions appearing in literary journals, and others in extended, durational form on social media platforms, in which case until someone noticed and paid attention to them, little if any criticism or critique might arise. Then all hell would break lose.


Conceptual art, or more accurately, conceptual artistic practices, have a long provenance that one might date back to various antecedents; from the perspective of Euro-American art, one could point back to Plato's ideal forms, or Kantian formalism, or various experiments in music, the plastic arts, or Medieval and Early Modern forms of group and appropriative writing, or to performances by Modernist and post-Modernist figures on multiple shores of the Atlantic, with the various iterations of Yves Klein, Happenings, Fluxus, socially engaged projects in the US, South America, Europe, and elsewhere, and more formal dematerialization practices and performances of the late 1960s through the 1970s marking "conceptual art" as an established category. In its many guises, conceptual art underlines one of Plato's central aesthetic insights, which is that art gains its power in part because it can be a vehicle for ideas and practices, which is to say, that ideas themselves can be incredibly powerful, and, as Plato warned, dangerous. 

However you chart the genealogy, conceptual practice remains a valuable path in contemporary imaginative culture. Not every conceptual project or action succeeds, however, and none exists outside a given framework or frameworks that do not automatically endow and invest it with value and meaning. Content, form, style, and the project's originators and practitioners (if there are any) matter as much as the contextual frame of the conceptual piece. For example, a conceptual project that plays on the idea of unspeakable but publicly objectionable ideas has a different meaning in a society in which types of speech are banned or criminalized by possible imprisonment or death than it does in a society in which all types of speech are possible, though liable to social sanction. To put it another, self-evident way, no conceptual project is value-free, and all are political in some manner or fashion.

In the case of Kenneth Goldsmith's March 16, 2015 Brown University performance, in which he "remixed" and "read" Michael Brown's autopsy report, the very fact that he, as a wealthy, socially privileged cis-gender straight white male, chose to appropriate and perform the remixed report, within (and despite) the broader and longstanding social and political context of the crisis of police harassment, the prison-industrial context and the New Jim Crow, and the state-sanctioned murder of black people, especially black men, made it an overtly political act. That he remixed it, ending with a riff on the murdered black man's genitalia, to entertain a mostly white audience at one of the nation's most elite universities, underlined the political valence of the performance. The dismemberment and display of black bodies before white audiences has an ugly history in the US, such that one might view Goldsmith's performance as a form of symbolic lynching. Here the appropriate practice was neither "uncreative" nor apolitical; in its commodifying and reifying action-as-spectacle, it reinscribed the violence of Brown's (and other black people's) tragic death and its aftermath, and the erasure of his humanity, in an effort at ironic, clever entertainment. It was thus an act of oppression-as-art that fits well with the logic of white supremacy as it has long functioned in American society. It also broaches the question, beyond this specific conceptual act, of what is the formal manifestation of the sociopolitical philosophy and ethic/aesthetic modus operandi of anti-black racism and white supremacy, and aren't there many such manifestations? Don't we see them all the time?

To perform such an act is Kenneth Goldsmith's right, as an artist and person. He and anyone else should be able to and ought to do whatever they feels brave enough to do. I do not know him, but I would imagine that he even if he did not realize that his actions would brook harsh criticism, once the critiques began he recognized that they weren't going to end, especially if the videotaped version of his performance aired, which is perhaps why he asked that it not be. Perhaps he even has considered the implications of his performance, and asked himself why he did it, why he felt it was necessary, and what he believes it contributed, to the Brown community, to the larger body of art in the US and the world, to his own oeuvre. Meanwhile, since Michael Brown's murder last year and Goldsmith's performance, at least several dozen black people, including Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, Tony Robinson in Madison, Eric Harris in Tulsa, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, have been killed by police, and the system that makes such murders possible has not changed, though concerted protests all over the country strive to effect the changes--as opposed the sloganeered "Change"--we badly need and are literally dying for. Perhaps Kenneth Goldsmith has thought about this as well, as have his supporters, who defended this work or remained silent in the face of it, which is, of course, their right.

Every artist takes such risks if she or he dares to do something truly transgressive, but certain forms of transgression are easier and less fraught than others. Given the racist and white supremacist history of the United States, and the ongoing systemic and structural forms of racism that still exist in what some commentators have been pushing to label a post-racial--if not post-racist--society, especially since the first election of Barack Obama in 2008. So it is with attorney, author and artist Vanessa Place's apparently ongoing conceptual project--and I am characterizing it as such, though she may view it differently--involving variations on Margaret Mitchell's novel and the subsequent film version of Gone With the Wind. Although I have contributed reviews to and periodically read Drunken Boat, I had missed her 2006 (?) work of "fiction" in the journal, "Gone with the Wind,". A trip to Germany and encounters with the "multifarious reminders of Nazism" sparked this fiction. In her own words, 
This piece—the gleaning of all passages in Gone With the Wind in which “nigger” features prominently (omitted are other racial epithets or denigrating enactments), then set in a block of text, a slave block—aims to remind white folks of their goings-on and ongoings. Self included, for there is personal guilt there as well, given my family is not just Caucasian American, but Southern, Virginian, as they say, “by the grace of God.” And God’s grace carries with it a certain responsibility for the error of blind loyalty (see, Abraham & Isaac). Too, GWTW is still a very much beloved bit of Americana (Molly Haskell recently published a book on Scarlett O’Hara as feminist icon, and last year’s Best Actress Oscar was announced to the soaring strains of “Tara’s Theme”), with very little attention paid to its blackface, or that its blackface is blackface. Or that, in such texts, characters are to people as people may be to property. So I have stolen Margaret Mitchell’s “niggers” and claim them as my own. In a funny way, I am replicating Huck Finn's dilemma/conversion: to understand that keeping (not turning in runaway) Nigger Jim is stealing, for which one may well go to hell, and to do it anyway.    
There is so much to criticize here, from the idea that this text will remind "white folks of their goings-on and ongoings"--really? did this text have this effect on any of its white readers?--to the personal guilt which elides the larger social and historical guilt, violence and trauma not only of chattel slavery, but of Civil War and post-bellum violence, forms of debt peonage and forced imprisonment, Jim Crowism and de facto and de jure segregation, redlining, and on and on. The elision of the societal and social in favor of the personal is a common liberal gesture, and it fits with a perspective that can call out individual racist moments or events (which is a good thing), but maintains naieveté and innocence before the systems and structures of racism and white supremacy that make white (skin) privilege and power possible, and does not seek to dismantle them.

Moreover, who must be elided or erased for GWTW to be a "much beloved bit of Americana"? Whose graves and bodies must be trampled on, without a second thought? And, as I need not say, not only is it deeply disturbing to hear a queer white woman talking about stealing Mitchell's "'niggers'" and claiming them as her own--in the process commodifying and reifying them--but placing herself in the affective space of the naïf Huck, with his partial "innocence" of the fact that, at one level, as Jane Smiley has pointed out, he was taking his "friend" into ever greater danger, made literal when Jim was re-re-enslaved in Arkansas. In other words, she was reproducing the very power relations she allegedly aimed to be critiquing.

Another version of this project appeared in the July/August issue of Poetry, in which "Miss Scarlett" appears. I will not quote the piece here, but I will reprint the note beneath the poem, which reads as follows:
NOTES: Taken from Prissy’s famous scene in the movie version of Gone with the Wind, Place phonetically transcribes the “unreliable” slave’s words, which are then set in Miltonic couplets. Through the simple act of transcription, Place inverts our relationship to Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling and beloved American epic by prioritizing the formal aspects of language over Mitchell’s famous narrative. With this deconstructive move, Place illuminates the many subtexts embedded in the text concerning plays of power, gender, race, and authorship. By ventriloquizing the slave’s voice as well as Mitchell’s, Place also sets into motion a nexus of questions regarding authorship, leading one to wonder: who is pulling whose strings?
Again, so many issues. A conceptual, which is to say formalist white-gaze gesture, involving the screenplay version (whose authors included the white screenwriters Sidney Howard, Oliver Garrett, Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, and John Van Druten) of racist author Margaret Mitchell's rendering of purported black speech, is supposed to represent a "deconstrutive move" that reveals subtexts in the text concerning power, gender, race, and authorship. As if those are not already legible in the very fact of who wrote the novel and the screenplay, and who directed the film, let alone the life experiences of any black American person living in the United States in the era in which the film was set, or was made! Quite a few people reading Mitchell's novel, or watching the film, or reading Place's poem, realize quite clearly "who is pulling whose strings." The question is, who doesn't? Or who isn't even being considered--who is being elided and effaced?--in the conceptualization Place's poem engages and enacts?

Which brings me to the most recent manifestation, in my viewing, of this project, Place's durational tweeting of Mitchell's novel's text. As part of this effort, Place replaced her Twitter avatar with an image of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, and featured an image of a minstrel "Mammy" featured on the cover of the sheet music for Martin Saxx's 1899 song "Jemima's Wedding Day," visible on Brown University's online library depository.

I do not follow Place on Twitter, so I had missed it until I noticed that the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo not only had rightly called attention to it (and has forcefully critiqued the entire Gringpo biz, as have others in academic and non-academic forums), but was seeking to get the Associated Writing Programs to rethink Place's role as an official arbiter of the panels at next year's annual AWP conference in Los Angeles. Many others joined in the effort, on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. (This effort, and a petition initiated by Tom Volpert, appears to have succeeded.)

As I noted on Twitter, I believe Place, like Goldsmith, has the right to post such things, and if she feels compelled to continue doing so, she should. Their supporters should continue to support them, and make arguments on their behalf as they see fit. I do not believe in censorship, and she or anyone else ought to say whatever she likes, however offensive to one or many groups, with an awareness of what the effects of such behavior are, as well as the potential consequences might be. In the case of the tweets and the petition, it struck me as valid to call AWP's attention to the fact in that someone engaging in repeatedly replicating racist speech, whether singly or in multiple forms, whatever the vehicle, might not be the right person to make judgements about the panel submissions of people targeted by or whose panel topics, ideas and themes were the targets of the racist speech, but that was a decision for AWP and any organization to make.

Most importantly, though, I think it is crucial to call racist speech what it is and not dance around it. and as I stated at the Thinking Its Presence conference at the University of Montana in Missoula, it is especially incumbent upon white people, especially progressive white people and allies in the anti-racist cause, to publicly call out not just personal instances of racism, but to actively critique white supremacy and its effects. Even at the cost of the privileges and power it conveys. While it might be theoretical or conceptual to some people, I and many millions of other people have to deal with the reality of racism and white supremacy as part of our daily life experiences. An onslaught or even single instance of racist speech--or homophobic, or sexist and misogynistic, or ableist speech, to give other examples--whether spewed by a human being standing before you or appearing daily in a Twitter feed, on a news website, on blogs, or wherever, is quite different for people who are the targets and objects of such invective.


What is the limit point of conceptual practice of this sort? Does such conceptual acts really and truly represent a counterstatement or argument to the implicit ideological violence and trauma of the source idea--and text, in the case of the projects--when it reinscribes and commodifies that violence and trauma? How does it undermine or deconstruct the social, political and economic relations that make such violence and trauma possible? Let me ask again: what is the formal manifestation of the sociopolitical philosophy and ethic/aesthetic modus operandi of anti-black racism and white supremacy? Are not the multiple forms of literary and cultural apartheid today, among other tangible artifacts, so frequently and casually deployed and allegedly unintentional, not part of the larger American ideological matrix whose corollary was the Nazism Place rightly noted to be still evident, in various ways, in Germany? What is the terminus in terms of extremity? These are not questions with easy answers, but if we are exploring the possibility of conceptual aesthetics, we should be asking them.

They come down once again, I would argue, to the factors I enumerated above, chief among them to the social, political and cultural contexts in which the concept act or project is enacted. Under what contexts would reading Michael Brown's autopsy report have been acceptable, or the reinscription been acceptable? And to whom? You could say that if a member of Michael Brown's family, or protesters speaking against his murder, made the decision to perform a verbal re-autopsy, you might have a case that would stand up. That is not what happened in the case of Goldsmith. What about retweeting Gone With the Wind? Place, in her book Tragodia 1: Statement of Facts, for example, presented horrifying accounts, drawn from real court transcripts, of sex crimes cases. Did this text go too far? Or did the justifications of Place's aims for this material and project suffice?

I also was wondering whether another artist's next step, after Place has exhausted the storehouse of Gone With the Wind, would be another text from the vast trove of racist Americana, with black Americans or black people in general, as its target, which would be in keeping, as I said above in relation to Goldsmith's text, with this society's white supremacist and anti-black racist social and political logic. Would it even be ironic in the face of the revealed phantasm--how many more black people have to be shot dead by cops? How many attempts at striking down voting laws need to be pushed and passed by state legislatures, and ratified by the US Supreme Court? how much resegregation, disinvestment and displacement through gentrification needs to occur?--of post-raciality (if not post-racism). Indeed, since Place sought to call attention to racism by enacting it in her Drunken Boat poem, if she or someone else wanted to continue along this trajectory, would not another anti-black racist text be appropriate? Why not go to one of the American fonts, like Thomas Dixon, or William Pierce themselves?

Or could the textual target be other racial or ethnic minorities in the US? Would it be mixed race people, who have long been a hobbyhorse of white supremacists? Would it be Asian Americans, or Arab Americans or Indigenous peoples, all of whose bodies have been historically subject to state violence, repression and oppression in the US? What about other socially or politically targeted or marginal people in the US, like LGBTIQs, or undocumented people, or differently abled people, especially people of color intersectionally embodying more than one of these categories? Would it be a text that parodied or singled out religious minorities, like Muslims? Would not any of these targets, if not as easy as going after black people, nevertheless be expected?

Would any of the conceptualists dare engage in the very anti-Semitism whose "formal manifestation" as sociopolitical philosophy and ethical/aesthetic modus operandi, as Place pointed out in her Drunken Boat "Artist's Statement," was Nazism? Why would anyone feel the compulsion to do this, and how would she explain it? Would a conceptualist dare tweet or make "fictions" or poems from Mein Kampf, or the extreme racist text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Would this represent a limit point, and how would not just the artist, but supporters and friend react to the certain criticism to follow? Would any mainstream national or international institution hesitate, even for a second, to respond to such a provocation? Would that close the book on this strain of conceptual practice temporarily, or for good? 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Remembering B. B. King

It felt momentarily like a light went out in the world when Riley B.--"B. B."--King (b. September 16, 1925, near Itta Bena, Mississippi) passed away last Thursday. One of the consummate and best known musicians of his generation, he excelled as a songwriter, singer, and guitarist in a range of musical genres, though he was without a doubt most renowned for his skills as a bluesman and as a pioneering instrumentalist who influenced several generations of blues, R&B and rock & roll guitarists, including Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. His skillful use of vibrato in his solos, and his style of singing, which matched restraint and deep emotion, are unforgettable once you have heard them. It is no surprise that he gained the nickname "The King of the Blues" and that he was considered one of the "Three Kings of the Blues," along with the late Albert King and the late Freddie King.

King grew up in Indianola and Kilmichael, Mississippi, the home of many of the greatest artists working in the blues, and sang in the church choir as a child, his immersion in church music evident to the very end. Self-taught on the guitar, he began performing as a traveling guitarist with the King John's Quartet while still a teenager, and eventually began to make a name for himself on the radio while playing in Memphis, Tennessee, another major home for the blues and black music. While DJing at WDIA radio station in Memphis, King gained the nickname "Beale Street Blues Boy," which became "Blues Boy" and then the lasting "B. B." by which he would be revered by music lovers across the globe. Although he began playing on an acoustic guitar, he would eventually shift to an electric guitar and develop the style that grew into his trademark.

By the 1950s King had formed his own bands, started composing, recording and touring the US, and garnering fame with the then burgeoning genre of rhythm and blues. Among his major hits from this era were "Woke Up This Morning," "Whole Lotta Love," "Every Day I Have the Blues," "Sweet Little Angel," and "Please Love Me," a number of which were later covered to great acclaim by other musicians. King founded his own record label in Memphis, Blues Boys Kingdom in 1956, allowing him to record and promote other important R&B and blues musicians. As his fame grew, he reached new audiences, appearing as the opening act for the Rolling Stones 1969 tour, recording with U2, Clapton and others, and charting on the R&B and pop charts, but he never lost his deep connection to blues or his distinctive performing style, as recordings and video clips up to the end of his life attest.

B. B. King received a Grammy Award in 1970, the National Medal of the Arts from President George H. W. Bush in 1990, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2006. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In its 2011 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time, Rolling Stone ranked him #6. On May 1 of this year, he announced that he was in hospice care, having battled complications caused by diabetes for several decades.

We have his music, though, so that light still burns. Below are a few clips of King performing, from the late 1960s through 2011. They take me back to my childhood and adolescence, when my father would put his records on, sharing his love of the King's music and pointing out one of the sources of the r&b and rock & roll I was listening to. RIP, B. B. King, and do watch and enjoy the YouTube lips.

B. B. King giving what he felt was one of his best recorded performances

Sounding Out (1972)

B. B. King, live in Africa

B. B. King on Ralph Gleason's Jazz Casual, in 1968

B. B. King performing "The Thrill Is Gone," in 1971

B. B. King and Buddy Guy, performing "I Can't Quit You Baby"

B. B. King, with Stevie Wonder and John Legend, performing "The Thrill Is Gone," in 2009

B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Jimmy Vaughan, performing "Rock Me Baby"

Friday, May 15, 2015

"Rivers" in VICE + "The Lions" (& Interview) in The Offing

Brazos (de) Santiago, Texas, where
the final battle of the US Civil War occurred
One of the stories in Counternarratives, "Rivers," is also one of the riskiest. Not because of its form or style, but because it takes up the thread of--and takes on, it's fair to say--one of the greatest writers and books in American literature, Mark Twain's 1885 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Or, more precisely, it revisits one of that novel's central characters, the enslaved man Jim, without whose presence the novel could not exist, but whose perspective throughout it remains mostly on the periphery, except in rare glimpses that are played for comedy.

My goal with the story was not so much to revise Twain's novel, whose main story stays mostly offstage in "Rivers," but rather to imagine Jim's life, particularly after freedom, his freedom, both the convenient legal version given by Twain and whatever subsequent freedom(s) Jim earned himself. Before the novel appears next week, thanks to VICE magazine and its editors, and New Directions, you can read "Rivers" in The VICE Reader and see where the character of Jim, as well as Huckleberry, led me, discover the significance of the story's title, and find out what it was like to participate in the final battle of the U.S. Civil War. Accompanying the story are photographer Alec Magnum's stunning, stirring photos from his series "Sleeping by the Mississippi."


In another fascinating coincidence, another story in Counternarratives, "The Lions," appeared this week in The Offing, the new literary publication of the Los Angeles Review of Books. About "The Lions" I'll say only that it is the last story in the collection and deeply disturbing. There are many inspirations for each of the characters, which is one reason neither is named, and you can take your pick about who seems to fit which role. (It is set in contemporary Africa, but could take place, with some adjustments, all over the globe.) Many thanks to the editors at The Offing and at New Directions.

Accompanying the story is a brief online interview, "No Whitewash," on The Offing's Tumblr that Bix Gabriel conducted with me, about the new collection and this collection, so please do check it out. (Thank you, Bix!)

A snippet:

Other stories or aspects of the book you’d like to readers to know about?
Spirituality and religion, in their multiple manifestations, flow throughout many of the stories, and some, like “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon,” turn in part on the clash between spiritual systems, which are also systems of knowledge. What does it mean to know, and can knowledge lead to freedom? Liberty and fugitivity are throughlines in the text. How might freedom be lived, embodied? Also, queerness in the many senses of that term is another current throughout all of these stories. Lastly, I hope it’s clear that I had a lot of fun creating and then following the stories of many of these characters.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Counternarratives News & Readings

With the new book,
at New Directions'
offices (selfie)
With the publication date just one week away, positive advance notice for Counternarratives thankfully continues to roll in. Last week, Vanity Fair (!) chose the collection for its "Springs Reads for Parks and Picnics" list. It is in excellent company, with new books by my former Northwestern colleague Aleksandar Hemon; the late authors of the novel that became Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky; the highly regard fiction writer Jim Shepard; and Nell Zink, whose debut novel The Wallcreeper, from small indie publisher Dorothy Project, has been a sensation; and the extraordinary Anne Carson, whose Antigonick, a retelling of the Sophokles' Antigone, is being reissued in paperback with new illustrations.

Like the most recent review in Harper's, this brief one was laudatory, saying that
the latest work by John Keene, the award-winning novelist, poet, translator, and professor, has been accruing buzz for months. A book of “stories and novellas” that spans from the 17th century to present day, Keene’s ambitious, confident storytelling is matched by his complex, evocative, and compelling voice: in one story, Jim, a free man, and Huckleberry Finn re-unite; in 1920s New York, Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia, the Mexican poet, have an intriguing meeting; a slave escapes his captors during the American revolution. Keene finds inspiration in newspaper clippings, memoirs, and history, and anchors them in the eternal, universal, and mystical. 
To that I say: Thank you, Vanity Fair!

Also, at Library Journal Barbara Hoffert chose Counternarratives for its Spring/Summer list of "12 New Collections from Writers to Watch." Thanks, Library Journal!

Recent Readings

Photo by Jeff Beck
On March 24, at the invitation of poet, critic and Dean Dr. Jeffrey Beck, I read at Kean University, in Union, just down the road from Rutgers-Newark. I'd never been to Kean before, so I appreciated the opportunity to share my work there.  The reading brought out a good crowd, and afterwards Jeff led a Q&A that focused on many aspects not only of the story I read, "Cold," from Counternarratives, but on the collection and my prior published work.

His questions were thoughtful and provocative, as were those of the audience members, and made me think about elements of the stories and my work in general I had not extensively considered. The event was taped, so I hope the transcript will be publicly available. Many thanks to Jeff and to Kean University and the program's sponsors!

Photo by IRADAC
Last month, on April 29, I was invited to delivered the annual Audre Lorde/Essex Hemphill Memorial Lecture at the City University of New York Graduate Center, under the auspices of the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC).

Previous Lorde/Hemphill Memorial Lectures include Hortense Spillers, Cheryl Clarke, and Thomas Glave. After some introductory remarks (and a little competition from a raucous Rent Stabilization meeting in the auditorium next door), I read the story "Blues," in Counternarratives, which felt especially appropriate for the event.

Reading under the auspices of Audre Lorde and Essex Hemphill, two of my heroes--and I noted in my remarks that I had the incredible fortune to meet and interview Essex at the Dark Room House a few years before he passed away--was an honor I will always cherish. Many thanks to all who came out, thanks for the great post-reading questions and commentary, and deep thanks especially to Robert F. Reid-Pharr, director of IRADAC, for the invitation and his hosting, and to Zee Dempster, for ensuring that everything ran smoothly and her patience and kindness.

Upcoming Readings

On June 2, I'll be reading and in conversation with Jeffrey Renard Allen, at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, at 7 pm, and on July 1, I'll be reading and in conversation with Christine Smallwood, New Books Editor at Harpers, at McNally Jackson Bookstore in SoHo.

On May 21, I'll be reading poetry with some of my favorite writers, Erica Doyle, Christopher Stackhouse, and Harmony Holiday, along with the 10-piece band King Holiday, as part of the Brooklyn Museum's "Art off the Wall: 'Decoding Basquiat'" event. This reading and musical performance accompany the Brooklyn Museum's Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks exhibition, which runs until August 23, 2015. The events begin at 6:30 pm and run for three hours.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Random Photos

Chigozie Obioma, talking
about his work at NYPL
Scaffolding art
Batman in Midtown!
After opening day at Yankee Stadium
34th St. station 
I <3 NY M&Ms (scattered
on the sidewalk, 46th St.) 
Our wacky NY-area news (a clip
about the Cookie Monster Furry molester) 
Making art, Midtown 
Cantilevered, mirrored awning,
near Times Square 
Students outside the new
academic building, New School 
Mobile Game of Thrones
photo booth, near 18th St.
Spring shoots
Fantasy (World) has gone
and moved from 7th Avenue

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Spring 2015 Awards & Prizes Season

Greg Pardlo reading at his
book party in November 2014
This afternoon I learned upon signing onto Facebook that the poet Greg Pardlo received the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, for his 2014 collection Digest, published by Four Way Books! This is a marvelous selection for an incredibly talented writer, and an excellent book of poems. CONGRATULATIONS TO GREG and to his publisher! I was fortunate to attend Greg's book launch last November at Dumbo Sky in Brooklyn, and after hearing him read and purchasing a copy I pored through the smart, inventive volume on the subway-and-PATH trip home. A graduate fellow of Cave Canem, Greg's first book of poetry, Totem, was selected by Brenda Hillman for the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, and published by Copper Canyon Press. That collection offered more than a few clear signals that he was on his distinctive, poetic way. In addition to writing poetry and criticism, Greg is a translator, and brought Pencil of Rays and Spike Mash by the Danish poet Niels Lyngsø into English. The other poetry finalists for this year's Pulitzer included the great poet Arthur Sze, for his collection Compass Rose (Copper Canyon Press), and Alan Shapiro, for his collection Reel to Reel (University of Chicago Press).

Other Pulitzer Prize winners this year include fiction writer Anthony Doerr for his novel All the Light We Cannot See (published by Scribner); playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis for his play Between Riverside and Crazy (Suzan-Lori Parks was a finalist in this category for her play Father Comes Home from the War (Parts 1, 2, 3)); David I. Kertzer for his biography The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (Random House); reporter Elizabeth Kolbert in the general nonfiction category for her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt); and composer Julia Wolfe in the music category for her oratorio for chorus and sextet Anthracite Fields (Red Poppy Music/G. Schirmer, Inc.). In the news category, no paper received an award for print coverage of the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri or of Eric Garner in Staten Island, or any other similar state-sanctioned murders that occurred last year, nor for reportage or commentary on the subsequent protests, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, once part of the Pulitzer family of newspapers, did receive a Pulitzer in the Breaking News Photography category for its photojournalist coverage of the aftermath of Brown's death. Congratulations to all the finals and winners!


I don't think I posted congratulations for Claudia Rankine, who was awarded both this year's National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, and just the other day the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, for her timely invaluable book Citizen (Graywolf Press). This collection of innovative prose and verse texts had earned an unprecedented nomination in the criticism. Other recipients of the NBCC awards included Marilynne Robinson in fiction for Lila (FSG); David Brion Davis in history for The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (Knopf); Roz Chast in autobiography for her graphic novel Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury); John Lahr in biography for Tennessee Williams: Pilgrimage of the Flesh (W. W. Norton & Co.); and the late Ellen Willis in criticism for The Essential Ellen Willis (University of Minnesota Press). There were three other awards presented: Military veteran Phil Klay, who had won the National Book Award for fiction last fall, received the John Leonard Prize for his collection of short stories Redeployment (Penguin Press); Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award; and Alexandra Schwartz received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

At the Los Angeles Festival of Books, which took place last week, other winners of book prizes included actor LeVar Burton, who was honored with the Innovator's Award for his successful, ongoing efforts to increase reading among children; Andrew Roberts in the biography for Napoleon: A Life (Viking); Jeff Hobbs in current interest for The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League (Scribner); Siri Hustvedt in fiction for The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster); Valeria Luiselli, with the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, for her book Faces in the Crowd (Coffee House Press); Jaime Hernandez in the Graphic Novel/Comics category for The Love Bunglers (Fantagraphics Books); Adam Tooze in history for The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931 (Viking); Tom Bouman in the mystery/thriller category for Dry Bones in the Valley (W. W. Norton & Company); Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Kolbert in the science/technology category for The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt & Co.); and Candace Fleming in the young adult category for The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia (Schwartz & Wade/Random House Children’s). Congratulations to all the finalists and winners!


This month also brought the announcement of the 2015 John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellows. The list is always a compendium of major and emerging figures in the broad areas the foundation supports, which include creative arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Among this year's cohort in creative arts and humanities are a number of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, including Jeffrey Renard Allen, Brent Hayes Edwards, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Percival Everett, Cathy Park Hong, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Christina Pugh, Beryl Satter, and Akhil Sharma. Other literary figures receiving awards include Dan Beachy-Quick, Maud Casey, Vikram Chandra, Megan Daum, Matthew Dickman, Kristoffer Diaz, Rivka Galchen, Anthony Marra, Cate Marvin, Bernadette Mayer, Joshua Mehigan, Kevin Powers, Alex Ross, and Kenneth Warren. Also, visual artists such as Mel Chin, filmmakers like Akosua Adoma Owusu, philosophers like the aesthetician Dominic McIver Lopes, critics like G. Gabrielle Starr, composers like AACM member and chronicler George Lewis, and social scientists such as my former colleague the eminent psychologist Jennifer Richeson all received fellowships. Congrats to all the recipients!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Hilst Translation Makes Longlist + New Counternarratives Review in Harper's

Hilda Hilst
Last February Nightboat Books published my translation of Hilda Hilst's Letters from a Seducer (Nightboat Books), and despite its formal daring and thematic outrageousness (it contains an insatiable character named "Little Butthole," which should give you a clue about how wild it is), I have worried from time to time that it might fall into the literary publishing rabbit hole. So many books, and not so many translations, but without a champion a book can and may disappear. Any positive news about it, therefore, is welcome. It was extremely positively and welcome news to learn, then, that the book had made the Longlist for the 2015 Best Translated Book in Fiction Award, which is sponsored by the Center for translation at the University of Rochester. Many thanks to the Center, and especially to editor, curator and critic Daniel Medin, a member of the judges' panel, who has written and spoken favorably about the translation in the past and again for this award.

As part of the process of selection for the next stages, including the finalist list, which will be named on May 5, and the award, to be given out on May 25, judges present arguments, in a variety of formats, for why certain books deserve to advance and win. Daniel interviewed me about Letters, and you can read the entire exchange here. It isn't very long, and gives a brief overview of Hilst's work, including my favorite passage in Portuguese. (NB: A stray apostrophe crept into the word "wont," though I meant the older adjectival form, meaning "likely," not the contracted future verb form.) A snippet:
DM: Letters from a Seducer is a part of Hilst’s famous “pornographic tetralogy.” How are these works different from what she was had been doing before? What distinguishes Letters from the others? 
 JK: Let me begin by saying that all of Hilst’s prose fiction is experimental, from her initial fiction text, Fluxo-Floema (1970), on, and is informed by her prior primary focus as a poet and a playwright. (She continued writing poetry throughout her life, I should note.) Her earliest poetry, published in the 1950s, is fairly conventional, but by the 1960s you can detect subversive notes, experiments with earlier Lusophone (and Iberian) forms, etc., so that when she began writing prose, it was hardly surprising that she would not follow the standard route. Yet I think it’s fair to say that her fiction is distinctive even from parallel experiments that were happening in Brazilian literature at the time, as a comparison between her texts of the 1970s and those of her close friend, Lygia Fagundes Telles, one of the major fiction writers of Brazil and in the Portuguese language, will suggest. While a book like The Obscene Madame D (1982) does overtly treat sexual themes, in the “porno-chic” works, as she called them, she more openly and directly uses and plays with pornographic language and discourse, and the works themselves turn in part on themes that might be considered pornographic, except that Hilst’s artistry, irony and wit transform them into something quite different. Letters (1991) is the second novel and masterpiece of the four texts; one of them, Contos d’Escarnio: Textos Grotescos (1990) is a collection of stories; Bufólicas (1992) comprises poems; and O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, or Lory Licky’s Pink Notebook (1990), as I think the brilliant translator Adam Morris dubbed it, is an extremely ludic, graphic precursor to Letters written in the voice of a child. (And possibly not publishable in the US, despite its relentless humor.) With Letters, Hilst reaches the pinnacle of the tetralogy and, I think, her art, fusing all the strands that have come before into a profound text about writing, living, sex, human mortality, and so on. It is also quite funny; she never sheds her humor, even at some of the most outrageous moments in the text, which is one of the things I really appreciate about her work.
Getting to the finalist stage and winning are both tremendous long shots, and the other long-list books represent exalted company, many by some of the best translators out there, of major living and deceased writers, but I am very happy that the book is getting some recognition, and if this brings more readers not just to this translation, but to the others, by Rachel Gontijo Araújo and Nathanaël, and to the one by Adam Morris, that will be a very good thing! Que fique mais da Hilst em inglês!


Miss La La at the Cirque
Edgar Degas, 1879
(National Gallery, London,
Oil on canvas.)
Reviews continue to come in for Counternarratives, and the most recent is the best by far. In the May 2015 Harper's Magazine, Christine Smallwood pens a thoroughgoing, engagingly thoughtful review of the book. (Her review unfortunately is only available for subscribers to Harper's, but it's in the newsstands now.) Framing the review with images of the Mississippi near Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Edgar Degas's famous 1879 painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando (the subject of my story "Acrobatique"), Smallwood begins with a discussion of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the homoerotics and racial dynamics of that text, noting its contemporary survival in the form of "bromances" (and, I'd add, the curdled buddy films that once starred Eddie Murphy and Danny Glover, and now feature Kevin Hart), as a way of shifting into a discussion of how my approach to Twain's text (and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), "Rivers," like the rest of the collection, represents and embodies the concept of a counternarrative.

Smallwood writes, "John Keene takes aim at this sacred cow and shoots it straight in the hip," describing the story's plot and noting that this could have come off as "corny," but its execution transforms it into something else. (And I should note that I was a little nervous about taking on the Jim and Huckleberry story, and was surprised that almost no other black writers had done so--because it is so iconic? Because Twain's fame and reputation looms so large? Because it wasn't worth the time of doing so?--but also felt that imagining some aspects of Jim's life after that novel, a few glimpses, would be worth the risk.) She goes on offer the following beautiful assessment of the entire collection, for which I will forever be grateful: "Counternarratives is an extraordinary work of literature. Keene is a dense, intricate, magnificent writer," before going on to discuss my background a bit (though Christopher Stackhouse accidentally becomes "Charles") and more of the stories, even quoting several of them.

One quote:

In "The Aeronauts," for example, a Philadelphia freedman with an uncanny memory joins the Union Army Balloon Corps. The story ends with him in the balloon, feeling "something not quite fear and not quite elation, I can't put a name to it, I try to utter it but cannot." Naming it, Keene suggests, would only contain the moment, and make it less than what it is. His characters refuse to accept freedom that is given by others--they either take it by force or resist it altogether. In this way they are the avengers of Twain's Jim, who wasn't aware of his freedom until he had gone to great trouble to gain it a second time.

Again, many thanks to Harper's both for reviewing the book and for the superlative review, and I urge J's Theater readers to preorder a copy! The corrected galleys have been submitted, will be out now on May 21, 2015!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

My AWP 2015

Posing with the Mary Tyler
Moore statue (downtown
(Photo by John Domini)
I've just returned from the year's biggest annual American--and perhaps global?--creative writing gathering, the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) conference, which concluded yesterday after four days in Minneapolis. Over 10,000 (or was it 11,000?) writers, readers and publishers packed the rooms and auditoriums of the Minneapolis Convention Center, nearby hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, libraries, and a variety of offsite venues, to deliver papers, talks and presentations, and to read their work, buy books, talk about writing, and just hang out with other literary folks.

Inside the Convention Center
As an officially academic conference AWP primarily convenes people in academe or who want to be in it, focuses a sizable portion of its panels on educational issues, and represents one of the major networking opportunities for those seeking jobs within educational institutions. Yet despite this it is above all a writers' and writing conference. To me AWP's real emphasis, unlike that the Modern Language Association's annual conference or the Book Expo America, remains on conversations on and around writing and literary practices and production, and the presentation of literary works; the opportunities to participate in and attend the onsite and offsite readings and book-signings, and the immense book fair are chief among the reasons many writers scare up the funding to attend. Another key benefit is running into new and old friends and acquaintances, and meeting new ones, with the added possibility of hearing them read and talk about their work.

One of the skyways leading
to the Convention Center
A post-snowy morning
outside my hotel

Giving and attending readings and seeing people I otherwise would not get a chance to were mu reasons for attending this year, and my visit didn't disappoint. I should note that during the worst days of my knee troubles earlier this year, I was not sure at first that I would be able to attend, but hope springs eternal and physical therapy works, and since the trip to Missoula, I have grown increasingly more mobile, so I was able to make my daily way from my hotel, the Marriott City Center, to the convention center mostly on foot, and most outdoors, even during one of the sleet/snowfalls that occurred during the conference's run, and I even spent a good several hours every day I was there in the immense hall hosting the book fair, walking as much as 6 miles on Friday alone. I did feel all the walking while there and once I go back, but I was resolute in not wearing any knee braces and in not carrying around a backpack or bookbags full of books, so I avoided straining my knees and utilized UPS's services several times, and now my campus office has heavy, stuff troves waiting for me.

Inside the AWP Book Fair
At the Book Fair
The perambulations around the book fair afforded many serendipities, including running into countless writers I seldom get the opportunity to see and hang out with, as well as happening upon books I had been intending to buy, with the writers nearby to sign them, as well as ones I had no idea about but am incredibly I happened upon. I saw and chatted two of the publishers I have worked with (New Directions and Nightboat Books), and learned that at the former a steady stream people were asking for my book, which will be out on May 21, 2015 (a few weeks later than originally). I took that as a very positive sign. Other highlights were the lunches and dinners with friends and colleagues, including former students, and one amazing book party I attended where I had the opportunity to meet yet more writers. While I prefer the scale of smaller conferences like Thinking Its Presence, AWP definitely has its charms, and rather than feeling overwhelmed as I sometimes have at  the sheer size of the crowds, the surfeit of texts on display, and the undertow of competitiveness, this year felt more manageable and enjoyable. (Was it the 10,000 or 12,000 fewer people than a year or two ago?)

At New Directions table; Tynan Kogane
is seated at table; to the right is Archipelago
Books, where I learned a former student,
Eric Wilson, is now working
Lorenzo Herrera, poet and publisher
of Kórima Press, which shared a table
with Lisa Moore's RedBone Press
For the first time ever I was a featured reader, on a panel sponsored by the Cave Canem Writers Foundation that featured four poets who received the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation's annual writing awards: Thylias Moss, Tyehimba Jess, Atsuro Riley, and I. Before the conference I learned from a colleague that there was tremendous concern over the paucity of openly gay featured readers and LGBTQ-focused panels, and another friend told me that I was the only out featured reader, though I learned that another fellow member of my reading slate, the poet Atsuro, is openly gay, so that doubled the total, and also meant that two men of color were intersectionally representing for LGBTQ communities at AWP. Instead of poetry I read the lyrical opening to my story "Blues," in which Langston Hughes and Xavier Villaurrutia meet up in Depression-era New York. The story is a tribute to both poets, but especially Hughes, as well as Richard-Bruce Nugent, author of "Smoke, Lilies and Jade," whose style and themes provided the template for mine. Supposedly we were visible on a Jumbotron monitor, which I thankfully could not see or I'd never have been able to take the podium! Many thanks to CC, the Whiting Foundation, and to AWP for the event!

Lisa Moore and I
A panel on creative writing as a second career,
headed by Tayari Jones (at right), with Evie
Shockley seated at the table at center
The following evening I read at an offsite event to promote the new Volta Book of Poets, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson and published by Sidebrow Books, between whose covers I have a few poems. The 3-hour reading was at Harriet Brewery in St. Paul, and many of the poets in the anthology were present, including Eric Baus, Susan Briante, Julie Carr, Don Mee Choi, Arda Collins, C. S. Giscombe, Fred Moten, Yona Harvey, Dawn Lundy Martin, J. Michael Martinez, Andrea Rexilius, Evie Shockley (my cab and Uber mate), Matthias Svalina, TC Tolbert, and Lynn Xu. (I probably have left someone off, so my apologies.) The beer hall was loud and packed, and some patrons seemed more eager to hear poetry than others, but the readers in general were on their game and I aimed to have fun and read an Internet-app based poem that elicited a good deal of laughter, in keeping with the venue's tone. I had to head out to another event, so I missed the evening's final readers.
At the Harriet Brewery reading,
Fred Moten seated at center
The Obsidian panel, with (1-r) Kwame Dawes,
Duriel Harris (editor), and Sheila Smith McKoy
I also got to attend several panels, including one devoted to the literary journal Obsidian, which I have read for years and now serve as one of its fiction and hybrid forms editors, and the invigorating words and atmosphere of fellowship in that room underpinned for me, as so many other experiences did, of why I attend AWP.  Next year's conference will take place in Los Angeles, and I'm already looking forward to it. Below, a few more photos!

The Convention Center
Lynn Xu at the Volta reading
Fred Moten at the Volta reading
Don Mee Choi, translating, and Valerie
Mejer, reading in Spanish,
at the Volta reading
Susan Briante at the Volta reading
Yona Harvey at the Volta reading
Cecil Giscombe at the Volta reading

An arrest Tyehimba Jess and I witnessed
one night walking back from dinner

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Murder of Walter Scott

Here we go again.

In this April 4, 2015, frame from video provided by Attorney L. Chris Stewart representing the family of Walter Lamer Scott, Scott appears to be running away from City Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager, right, in North Charleston, S.C. Slager was charged with murder Tuesday, hours after law enforcement officials viewed the dramatic video that appears to show Slager shooting a fleeing Scott several times in the back. (AP Photo/Courtesy of L. Chris Stewart)

Walter Lamar Scott was murdered in North Charleston, South Carolina, by white cop Michael T. Slager. Slager had pulled Scott over for a traffic violation, a broken tail-light, and when Scott fled, Slager initially tried to Taser him.

When that failed, Slager shot Scott dead, in cold blood, in the back, eight times. 

For a traffic stop. A traffic stop. A traffic stop.

Scott was not armed. Scott was not armed. Walter Scott. Was. Not. Armed.

Slager then apparently handcuffed the corpse of the man he had just killed and attempted to plant his Taser on him, with the apparent assistance of a fellow cop, a black man. Despite his attempted cover-up, a now-surfaced video belies it.

Unlike many cops in his position, he has been fired, and is being charged--though whether he will be prosecuted and convicted remains to be seen--with murder.

Again and again and again this keeps happening, because even though we repeat that "Black Lives Matter," in reality in this country, in this society, on this globe, what we see is that they do not.

As Jason Parham notes on Gawker, last month alone, 36 black people were killed by police, or roughly one every 21 hours. This approximates a slow and almost shameless form of genocide.

More Black Americans were killed by cops in 2014 than the total number of black people who died in the 9/11 attacks.

Like Parham I want to write something more thoughtful, more insightful, something illuminating, but I am exhausted. I really am. I have lived this reality all of my life, now approach 50 years. The foreground changes but the backdrop of racism, white supremacy, black disposability and social death, and state violence allied to elite social and economic interests are the same. Yes, things have improved, always as a result of sustained struggle, since I was a child, and they continue to improve, but we still have a long way to go.

These state murders are occurring as this country warehouses vast numbers of black and brown people in prisons, many of them privatized and providing cheap labor for corporations and earning dividends for investors. Countless black and brown people--children, adolescents, women, men--cycle through the failed penal system and its prison industrial complex annex, sometimes as a prelude to be murdered, at some point in their lives and usually with impunity, by the state, which does everything to protect elite interests, global corporations, and the billionaires who are destroying this country piece by piece.

It has to end. It MUST END.

No amount of telling black people how to behave, whether around officers or otherwise, no amount of "diversity training," no amount of explaining away the disparate ways that black americans (and brown americans who are treated like black americans by this system) are treated by the law and its officers, no amount of appeals to "black on black violence," divorced from the larger social context or not, no rationalizing away or ignoring all the ways in which black people in this society pay extensive social, political and economic taxes just for being black, is going to do it.

What has to happen is that cops have to stop killing unarmed black americans, and when they do they have to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Cops have to stop serving as the shock troops of white supremacy, neo-colonialism, the plutonomy and global capitalism. THEY MUST STOP KILLING US. What has to happen is that the entire foundation and edifice upon which this society has been built and developed has to be addressed, rethought, and remade. This is not an interpersonal issue. It is a systemic and structural problem. And it has to be addressed and redressed.