Thursday, August 03, 2006

Other Bloggers Say + Frank Leon Roberts's Looking for Langston(s)

Folks are posting
Steven is saying goodbye to the blogosphere in his inimitable way. For a short time? Forever? I hope not. If and when he comes back, fiercer than before, I'll be reading. I'll particularly miss his interviews and musings, especially posts like this. Anyways, I think he's onto something....

Rod has information on the Palestinian media's racist rhetoric and depictions of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Audiologo has lots of hot stuff, including an entry on a Seattle-based brotha who unwittingly revisits a fascinating conceptual art piece from 2001 by Keith Obadike on eBay, a writeup of Cauleen's Smith's Dark Matter at the Bungalow Project in Santo Antonio, and very thoughtful pieces on Kalup Linzy and Charles Huntley Nelson.

Bernie talks about how hot it is. Or was. The rain(storms) cooled things off.

Mendi invokes "Miss Lou," Jamaican poet and folklorist Louise Bennett, who passed away late last week.

Nubian is now on wordpress ( I must update.

Marvin writes a very moving entry about the death of his friend, Ricky Williams.

Samiya lets folks know she'll reading Audre Lorde's work as part of the "Finally with Women" festival taking place at the Cornelia Street Café.

Andres has posts on the pre-premiere press praise for the new movie Quinceañera, and on the ongoing debate over the Iranian government's hangings of two gay teenagers.

Anthony asks if Castro is dying, and wonders about the effects of a real political transformation in Cuba and how it might affect tourism to DR. (I think Raúl and his cohort will hang on for a while before the true battle for governmental control begins. The US is already making its intentions known, in Vietnamesque fashion.)

And these are only a few of the many many-->

Frank Léon Roberts' "Looking for Langston(s)" and My Reply
C called my attention Frank Léon Roberts's very interesting blog post today. Entitled "Looking for Langston(s): Brief Notes towards a History of the Present," in it, Frank looks at his generation of young Black queer people in relation to prior ones, and in particular in relation to a loose constellation of cultural figures (including Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose two-sided painting construction Famous, currently at the Max Lang Gallery in Chelsea, is pictured at left) who came to public renown in the 1980s. Throughout, even as he somewhat romanticizes (understandably) the narrative of his predecessors, he poses important questions which I won't try to restate, but I am posting (I hope it's okay with Frank) his first paragraph, which sets the tone:

So much of what I know about the critical culture of black gay life in the 1980s is only through visits to the library and stories and memories passed down by older, "fictive" kin. But I do know that it’s not an exaggeration to say that the 1980s witnessed a "second renaissance" of black gay men's cultural production. We know this story well: it was the autoethnographic documentaries of Marlon Riggs, the photographs of Rotomi Fani-Kayode, the poetry of Assoto Saint, the wathershed anthologies of Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill, the performance art of PomoAfro Homos, the graffiti and love affairs of Jean Michel Basquiat, the Saturday nights at Paradise Garage with Larry Levan, the coded (queer) melodies of Luther Vandross and the experimental films of Issac Julien, to name only a few of the figures that created and united what Jose Esteban Munoz has called a "black queer diaspora" aesthetic.

I posted a reply, focusing primarily on the better known Black queer figures he cited, and here it is in slightly adapted form:

The prior respondents, Wiseyoungman and Allen Gallery, make excellent points. I think a key issue to point out in terms of Black queer cultural transmission and its absence is the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As Allen Gallery (C) points out, the loss of several generations—and I'm thinking for example of the one that preceded my own (men and women who'd be in their mid-40s to mid-50s), as well as many of my peers (early 40s to mid 30s), from HIV/AIDS especially, but also cancer and other illnesses, has left a void that will never be filled. When I was in my 20s, James Baldwin, Essex, Marlon, Joseph Beam, Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, and others were all still alive and writing; in fact, people in my peer group, as did I, met, read, and interacted directly with many of these figures. AIDS's deleterious effects, particularly for queer people and especially for Black queer people in the 15 years after 1980, were and must always be remembered as exceptional. I can remember Other Countries performing in Boston (Cambridge, actually, and this would have been before 1993), and both Marlon (and Essex?), who were still alive, being there. Only a couple years later, primarily because of aids later many of these folks were no longer with us. The situation is quite different today, since most of these folks are no longer alive and exist mainly as historical figures and cultural ancestors. Without any mechanisms to keep them in the forefront or even background of subsequent generations'--and I'd add contemporary--Black queer consciousness, they tend to be forgotten or overlooked.

There are are number of important Black queer artists who were creating and publicly active during the era you mention, and who're still alive and still creating: in addition to Isaac, of course, what about Samuel R. Delany, Randall Kenan, Cyrus Cassells, Cheryl Clarke, Jewelle Gomez, Jackie Woodson, Shari Frilot, Thomas Glave, Thomas Allen Harris, Lyle Harris? (And their scholarly peers could also be invoked.) They and others who represent direct artistic/aesthetic/critical links to many of the people and works you're citing. They may be less well known or not so easily positioned within certain highly publicized critical frameworks, but all are significant figures in Black queer/LGBT cultural production, and their work extends into the present day. Some of them are in conversation, as teachers, friends, mentors, and so on, with members of your generation, and this also may not be as well known.

Another issue is perspective. It may take the perspective of retrospection--and the right scribes, popular and scholarly--to capture and historicize the particular kinds of cultural products your generation is creating. I hear you and wiseyoungman when he critiques the current paradigms, which may be inimical to some of the creative forms from prior generations, but this is always the case. I would also add that the generation of the 1980s and early 1990s--the pre-HIV cocktail generation is one way of demarcating it—arose out of two important cultural moments, and functioned within two others (to simplify). First, the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, and the Black Power and Civil Rights movements of the same era created the contexts in which many of the works you cite are situated—the overt invocations and constructions of sexual and racial identity, and the critiques of homophobia, misogyny, and racism with the aim of liberation and the creation of new kinds and forms of community—liberation politics are key—come out of what had preceded these works just a few years before. At the same time, the fierceness of polemic in part resulted from the rise of a popular state conservatism (Thatcher in Britain, Reagan in the US, etc.) and the specter of HIV/AIDS, which literally raised the stakes for all of the people you mention (as well as everyone else).

As Allen Gallery says, you are part of a generation in which queerness has become ever more societally normalized and mainstreamed; it was very different in the 1980s and the 1990s (or before). So necessarily your perspective, and your forms of performance and production are going to differ, and while some of the central elements of that earlier work will not apply, others elements—the critiques of racism, ethnocentrism, homophobia and heternormativism, classism, serostatus (to some degree)--still do. The societal changes, in particular the mainstream of gay/queer culture and even the normalization of HIV/AIDS, that have occurred cannot be underestimated. Whereas once PWAs were literally treated as social pariahs, nowadays millions of people not only live with HIV/AIDS but do so openly; coming out as a PWA was a major political and social act not so long ago. As I need not tell you, many of the questions these figures and others have raised about community, race-gender-sexuality, identity, subjectivity, and the role and effects of private and public politics, among other things, persist. As Allen Gallery says, we're in a social moment, a zeitgeist, of profound anti-intellectualism, immediate gratification, continuous immediacy, and panoptic commercialism and commodification; this was true to some extent of earlier eras too, of the 1980s, but in differing ways. The idea of the public, to take one example, has changed dramatically. Yet conditions, the bases from which we proceed, have changed. This is one of the ironies of history, and I would suggest that it presents unique challenges that I know you're up to the task of tackling.

There is the additional point that artists today may be creating things and aren't receiving public notice for it. I can think of a handful of very talented 20-something and 30-something Black queer artists who're working outside the populist paradigms you mention. Maybe they'll come to wider public attention (I hope they will), but maybe not. The question is, who will write them into the historical record? Will they have to do so themselves? Perhaps it's already happening...and you or I don't know about it. But this is always the case when functioning within the frame of the present. You may not know until (much) later.

I'll add that while Melvin Dixon was in close contact with a number of Black queer writers, out and closeted, and queer-philic artists like Elizabeth Alexander, I can assure that there were (and are) many Black queer folks I knew in the 1980s who had no idea who he was, nor were they conversant with his creative works, let alone his scholarly ones. Not only did he write novels and poetry--and he actually better known and more acclaimed as a poet for much of his adulthood--, but he was also an important figure in African Diasporic transcultural exchange, translating Léopold Sedar Senghor (his translation is still the authorative one) and connecting an array of fellow scholars and writers. How do we keep the multifaceted history and stories of someone like Melvin alive? He is just one person.

And this returns us to one of wiseyoungman's points, which is relevance. How does one make relevant and appealing the kinds of knowledge and cultural production that may benefit the very people who are ignorant of it? Who exists to provide context about works that most people in your generation don't know about, contexts that may require explanation? How do we bring people to these works outside academe, which has its own (deforming?) effect? How do we resituate the idea of "privilege," at least in this context, as something not to be thrown out as an epithet, which in any case is reactionary and self-limiting? Perhaps some will create public venues and forums--magazines, websites, public events, private keekees, etc.,--that facilitate and foster these sorts of connections.

Peace, John

Random photo

Double self-portrait in the rain, 9th St. near Broadway


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. John, thank you so much for sharing your characteristically sharp and "keen" (smile) insights. Yes,sure my post was nostalgic and romantic—this was a conscious choice on my behalf. However, I really hope that my words and visions here are not being interpreted as sheer light-weight, bubble-gum dreams. When I wrote this post yesterday morning (after literally dreaming about Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston), I started to think and reflect a lot about the critical potential of nostalgia. Indeed, the language that I chose to use in my post as well as the wacky, dreamy connections I made between Luke & Leroys and Niggerati Manor, etc. was really as a way of trying to set forth a more self-conscious dialogic exchange between our "now" and "then." I think this is line with what South Asian feminist scholar Gayatri Gopinath has called an “enabling nostalgia”: a nostalgia that motivates, moves, and inspires. This is what I was going for.

    Surely I’m very familiar with the critical cadre of black gay voices (that you have mentioned) in the age of AIDS that received even less attention than what Riggs and his co-hort did. I also think im pretty familiar with this generation as well, including, and perhaps especially, all the folks that dont "get life". My references to the specific figures I mentioned was not meant to ignore or forget other voices from this generation, nor did it come from my lack of awareness of us them.

    I think what I really was trying to get at is that in terms of “popular” black gay print culture today (and here I am primary referring to the recent explosion or urban black SGL magazines rather than journals, zines, and chap-books, though we also need to think about them too), there is a lot missing in terms of their articulation a conscious vision of political mobilization and community building. Also, though so much of the most critically enabling moments of black queer cultural production have come—and continue to come—from the epistemological influences of women of color feminism (black feminism in particular), I see even less of these connections being made by black gay men nowadays then ever. And so here again, I’m calling for a “return” that isn’t simply a naïve, cliché, recovery of a loss past, but rather a search for a “usable past”, a critical reflection of current being through the lens of previous moments in our histories. That’s was trying to get at.

  3. Ugh, Heru, here we go again. Can you please not attempt to colonialize and appropriate EVERY blog post in the blogsophere? I cannot believe that you honestly just came onto J's blog, contributed absolutely nothing to the discussion above and put in a "plug" for your blog. You are a mess. Seeing that you have a penchant for doing likes this, if you're planning on responding to this message, send me an email DIRECTLY or post in on YOUR blog, instead of turning this thread into another "All about Heru" post.

    Jstheater, I think your and Frank Roberts posts are speaking back and forth to each other in really wonderful ways.

  4. Frank, I don't at all think your words are lightweight or bubblegum; your post on your blog was one of the most thought-provoking ones I've read in quite a while. I hear you on the issue of enabling nostalgia, and as I noted, I understand the romanticization completely. I also understand the desire--the need--to apply coherence to a narrative that is actually quite fragmentary and ruptured; it provides a starting point and basis for which to think through connections and associations that might not have been evident (Basquiat w/ Riggs, for example) at the time of original cultural work's occurrence. I'll post this on your blog as well, and I really appreciate your having raised this topic and your response.

    Andrés, thanks for checking out the photos. I'm never sure if anyone registers them, but I love posting them.

    Heru, my list wasn't meant to be exhaustive, but thanks for alerting me to your new blog post, which I hadn't read before you mentioned.

  5. In addition to, “I agree with everything John wrote,” there are a few things I want to say about your post, but first want to start with this quote from Wynton Marsallis' 'Letters to a Young Jazz Musician': “You have to carry the melodic meaning of your culture with you. Sometimes an artist is born into a golden age. Then he or she can state the ideas already transpiring with greater clarity. In other ages, he may have to counter state the trends, to bring things back, or to redirect them. We can't control what age we're born in. But responses and meaningful statements can be made in any age."

    To me, how this relates to your message is this: Back when Essex and Joe Beam et al were around, some of us could feel we were in the middle of a renaissance. We knew that what we were feeling was the same as what Langston and others felt in Harlem in the 1920s'. It was a thrilling and energizing time, and in many ways the artists of that time seemed to be reading our minds, they did indeed speak for us, 'stat(ing) the ideas already transpiring with greater clarity' than the rest of us could. We are in a different time now, and perhaps need different artists, different types of artistic expressions.

    One also cannot discount the importance of Death. So much gets transmitted in personal meetings between writers and other artists, between artists and their audiences, and from being around then, hearing them read or talk, or just hanging out with them. or even meeting them accidentally: some friends and I once ran into Essex Hemphill on the El train in Philly, for example. With so many people gone, a lot of younger people never had these important formal and informal opportunities for the transmission of knowledge and learning from them. And I'm not only talking about the 'famous' people, the ones who published books or made films and so on: so many people who were important support or inspiration for others, or people who wrote or shared work or information but never made the popular consciousness, are gone as well. There is an enormous, almost incalculable gap in our culture left by so many thousands gone.

    One final point I want to make is that for a number of the people you mention, there was a 'social' element to their work and lives as well. I first saw "Looking for Langston" in a basement dance club/reading space; first met Essex in a garage a black gay man had converted into a neighborhood coffee house. The writers were ‘around’, out in the community, and often presented their work in ‘non-traditional’ venues. They went to where the people were, which is also in the tradition not only of the Harlem Renaissance, but also of the Black Arts Movement as well, when Chicago poets including Gwendolyn Brooks and Haki Madhubuti would show up unannounced in bars and begin impromptu poetry readings.

    Not sure if this covers all the points in the post and response, but it’s a start. Just because it doesn’t appear that we are in a Golden Age, just as was true in the post Harlem Renaissance period of the 1930s and ‘40’s, I’m sure there are people all around us who are creating meaningful work even as we speak.