Saturday, June 30, 2012

Capitalism On Display

On June 12, I attended the 34th annual Museum Mile Festival. That evening, all the museums along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, from 82nd to 104th Streets are free of charge to the public for three hours (6-9 pm).

I would have enjoyed the event more if it hadn't rained. Part of the fun of attending the Museum Mile Festival is the street activity: jugglers, musicians, street vendors, etc.

The Museum of the City of New York had a fascinating exhibit called "Capital of Capital: New York's Banks and the Creation of a Global Economy." One exhibit that especially caught my attention was a letter to the editor of the New York Amsterdam News, written in 1958, regarding the difficulty of African-Americans to obtain bank loans. Hence the creation of Carver Bank, an African-American-owned financial institution.

Friday, June 29, 2012

An Interview With Bruce Nugent

The following is from a handwritten transcript of my interview with Richard Bruce Nugent (1906-1987) one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. The interview was the basis for the article I wrote about  Bruce Nugent for Joe Beam's anthology In the Life (Alyson, 1986).

Charles Michael Smith: Do you know where Philander Thomas [a gay matchmaker and playboy] came from?
Bruce Nugent: He was in Porgy and Bess [a play by Heyward DuBose]. I know very little about almost anybody's background. Apparently that's a failing of mine.
CMS: Did he live in Harlem?
BN: Oh yes.
CMS: He didn't work for a living. He more or less put people together.
BN: He put together homosexual people. He liked to do it and I suppose it was a time [1920s]when people made their money anyway they could.
CMS: He was an actor.
BN: Oh yes.
CMS: How did you meet him?
BN: I met him in Porgy. He was much more outgoing than I.
CMS: What did you do then to amuse yourself?
BN: Go to shows, go to parties.
CMS: How did gay men meet back then?
BN: I'm always kind of thrown by that question because it seemed to me people just meet people. Like it is now.
I understand that there were a number of gay bars, gay places. I never patronized [them] because I was not fond of the company of gay people. I still don't enjoy their company very much. They don't have anything to talk about.
CMS: Your short story, "Smoke, Lillies, and Jade" is considered the first black gay short story.
BN: People began to say "How could you write anything so gay in  1926?" I didn't know it was gay when I wrote it.
CMS: The protagonist seemed to be bisexual. He was not exclusively a gay man. At the time you wrote the story, a lot of people were scandalized by it.
BN: He called the man beautiful and you didn't call a man beautiful and I did it. I even named one Beauty.
CMS: You were rejected for a couple of days.
BN: I don't think they rejected me, I just think they were a little shocked and scandalized.
CMS: You did it deliberately to shock the middle class people.
BN: Wally [Thurman] and I  thought that the magazine [Fire!!] would get higher sales if it was banned in Boston. So we flipped a coin to see who wrote bannable material. And the only two things we could think of that were bannable were a story about streetwalkers or prostitution and about gay people, homosexuality.
CMS: Why did you use so many ellipses in "Smoke, Lillies, and Jade"?
BN: It was my device for having people [get the impression] that I was talking with them. When you talk, you have these periods, shorter and longer periods. It wasn't originally written with three dots between everything. Now three dots, now five dots, now two dots but the printer said, "We can't be bothered with doing that. We don't have that many dots." I would still like to do it some time with the proper dots.
CMS: Thurman himself was a gay man who had a problem around that.
BN: Oh God. Everybody did.
CMS: He more so.
BN: Wally was a deeper thinker than I was. I didn't think very much. I wasn't a very cerebral person.
CMS: Was he fun to be around?
BN: We lived together. You don't think I'd live with somebody who wasn't fun to live with. Yes, Wally introduced me to so many, many, many facets, things. He was very widely read and that's all I can say about him. He was absolutely a fascinating person. And perhaps with the exception of maybe one person,[writer] George Schuyler, who was more brilliant than he.
CMS: What did you think of his novel, The Blacker the Berry?
BN: The Blacker the Berry is pretty bad. He wasn't a very good novelist. You have to be your characters when you write a novel. He tried to be a woman. [The protagonist of the novel is a black woman.]
CMS: He was writing about himself.
BN: He was ambivalent about his [dark] color. He grew up in Salt Lake City, that Mormon place.
I was from Washington, D.C.  and in Washington we didn't associate with people who were as dark as Wally. And Wally was pretty black. My description of him [in David Levering Lewis's book When Harlem Was in Vogue]: black with a sneering nose. He was very self-conscious about being black.
CMS: Was Thurman effeminate?
BN: He was not. As a matter of fact, when we were living together, people thought quote that he was the husband and I was the wife. I'm sure they thought that. I was the one who had the gay reputation. People put their own interpretation to anything.
CMS: Infants of the Spring was autobiographical.
BN: That was almost all autobiographical. I think he was more successful in that [novel].
CMS: When did you know you were gay? At age 12, 13?
BN: I discovered that I liked men long before that. Seven, eight, nine. Before I had any sexual experience at all of any kind.
CMS: Black Washington society at the time was very exclusive.
BN:There used to be a man, a Filipino. There's a strong prejudice as you probably know among American Negroes toward anything that's not American Negroes, be it African, Filipino, Puerto Rican, whatever. This boy's mother was not accepted into Washington Negro society.
At that time [his parents] were pillars of society in Washington which meant fair [skinned], quote good hair, all the other bullshit. As a matter of fact, it was because of all that crap that I left Washington.
I was very fortunate in my parents. The only word for them was that they were bohemians. My mother played piano, my father sang. Mother played by ear. She was invaluable when [composer Samuel] Coleridge-Taylor came to America. Coleridge-Taylor's music was too complicated and too much very sundry other things. I remember Taylor would come past the house and talk with Mother and he would hum [a tune] to Mother. Mother would play it. Later on she learned to read music but at the time she didn't. So when [John Philip]Sousa's band couldn't play the music, my mother accompanied them.
My mother studied to be a schoolteacher. She never taught. My father was a Pullman porter. It was [a] very respected [occupation]. One of the few ways [for a black person] to make money.
CMS: You dabbled in many things.
BN: I've never been as diverse in my abilities as people are now. I didn't know music. I was just familiar with it but I didn't know it. Popular music of the day, jazz, so-called classical music. Somebody asked me, "Do you like classical music?" I said, "What is classical music?" The first thing I said was "No. Sounds stuffy." And yet everything that was played at concerts I already knew because Mother and Father used to play it and sing it at home.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Sidewalk Debate In Harlem

As I was coming out of a supermarket on Lenox Avenue in Harlem one night recently, I overheard two panhandlers (one of them in a wheelchair) debating whether or not God made ugliness. "If God made pretty," insisted the one who was standing, "then He made ugly, too." The conversation brought to mind something Chester Himes wrote (facetiously) in one of his Coffin Ed Johnson/Grave Digger Jones Harlem detective novels: Harlem is the only place where you can get into an argument about whether Paris was in France or France was in Paris.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Tale Of Two Presidents

The following is a letter I wrote to Bayard Rustin on December 7, 1977.

Bayard Rustin, Executive Director
A. Philip Randolph Institute
260 Park Avenue South
New York, NY 10010

Dear Mr. Rustin:

Shortly after LBJ's death, you and A. Philip Randolph issued a joint statement to the press linking the late 36th president's name with that of the 16th president's.

I quote: "With the exception of Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves, no single President contributed as much to the cause of racial equality as Lyndon Johnson." Then both of you enumerated some of Johnson's contributions: "...the civil rights act of 1964, the voting rights act, open housing, and innumerable pieces of liberal legislation that were a part of the Great Society."

I agree that the emancipation of the slaves by Lincoln was a monumental and praiseworthy act, however, if we compare the overall contributions each made to the civil rights cause, Johnson's record glows like an incandescent light bulb. Lincoln freed the slaves, but he did not work diligently to see that they were provided with education, jobs, and housing. According to the noted historian John Hope Franklin, "Lincoln hoped that the Proclamation would provide the basis for a new attitude and policy for Negroes." In other words, Lincoln was relying on the state governments to be benevolent enough to take care of these newly-emancipated individuals, who had not been prepared for freedom. I think Lyndon Johnson said it best when he said, "You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying  'you are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe you have been completely fair."

John Hope Franklin points out in his essay on the Emancipation Proclamation that "...he had come to the conclusion that in order to save the Union he must emancipate some of the slaves." Also, "There was no emancipation in the border states, with which the abolitionists had so little patience. Parts of states under Union control were excepted...." But slaves in these areas refused to recognize the exceptions. The Emancipation Proclamation was not all that it appeared to be.

Can you imagine Lyndon Johnson, a champion of the underdog all his life, saying as did  Abraham Lincoln in 1858 (a short time before he became president): "I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races...." He added, "...and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race." To me, this is nothing more than racist demagoguery and tarnishes Lincoln's image as the Great Emancipator. To say Lincoln, by virtue of the fact that he freed the slaves, is the greatest civil rights president in American history is as wrong as a left shoe on a right foot. That title belongs to Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th president from the Lone Star State of Texas.

I would be very happy to hear what comments you and/or Mr. Randolph have regarding this letter.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

Note: No response was received from Bayard Rustin or A. Philip Randolph.

Friday, June 15, 2012

An Interview With Author Kevin Esser

The following interview is with Kevin Esser, the gay author of Streetboy Dreams and Mad to Be Saved. The interview was conducted via telephone in 1985 for the New York Native. Esser spoke with me from his home in Plainfield, Illinois.

Charles Michael Smith: What is the origin of the title Mad to Be Saved?
Kevin Esser: It comes from a line from On the Road by [Jack] Kerouac. It had to do with sex. I can't remember the exact quote, but he's always chasing after people that are searching for salvation through religion, through drugs, through sex. That's a very strong theme in my novel. The predominant theme is the search for identity, the creation of images, and the attempt to live up to these self-images that people create for themselves, the self-destruction involved in the deception. The two main books I sort of  had in my head, that I patterned this novel after were On the Road and [Ernest Hemingway's] The Sun Also Rises, the quintessential novel of the Lost Generation 60 years ago. Sort of an '80s version Sun Also Rises.
CMS: Your novel takes place during the early '70s, right after the hippie movement of the '60s.
KE: Yeah, it was right at the tail-end of the whole psychedelic, anti-war, heavy drug use period.
He [Jake] had moved away after graduating from his college and traveled down to Texas to work in the post office which parallels my own experiences and after about a year returns to Illinois to live in Chicago and on his way back to Chicago stopped in his old college town to see old friends.
The name Jacob Smith, I got it from Jake Barnes from The Sun Also Rises and Greg Smith from On the Road. I combined those two names.
A lot of the book was written about 10 or 12 years ago, some of the longer passages. About two years ago, I sat down and typed those together and added about a hundred twenty or a hundred and fifty pages of new material to it. Some of it was written back at a time when I was much more heavier into Kerouac's stuff.
CMS: This book is also autobiographical.
KE: Almost entirely. Even more so than Streetboy Dreams. Mad to Be Saved is really practically a memoir fictionalized enough to make it into a novel. But there's really nothing made up in it. The third novel that I'm working on now is much more highly fictionalized.
Fury of Angels is more or less the sequel to Mad. The same characters with different names. It picks them up about 10 years later but it's set in Sandburg, Illinois again. I'm intending to write a third novel a couple of years down the line, put them all together as a Sandburg Trilogy eventually, hopefully through Sea Horse/Gay Presses of New York, they'll package it, promote it that way.
CMS: Any sequel to Streetboy?
KE: No, I, I don't have any intentions to [do] that.
CMS: The style of Mad is unconventional, it's full of imagery.
KE: That's intentional. In Streetboy, I used deliberately a very conventional, orthodox style because I wanted to tell a very, very simple story, there were really only three characters in the entire novel and in Mad, style was practically another character. The style was very important to the story, how it was told as much as what was being said. There was really no plot to it. It was basically a plotless, episodic narrative and the style reflected the lost and confused lunatic nature of the characters. They were all confused and directionless, not sure what they were going to do, searching for some meaning, some identity. The style reflected that.
CMS: They seemed to be apolitical, unlike many of the '60s generation. their whole lives revolved around drugs  and booze and sex.
KE: It was a very insular type of existence. It was apolitical at one point. There were flashbacks, but the period that it's dealing with in its present tense was right after the Vietnam War. That issue had been resolved. There really was no political focus pulling everybody together at that popint. Around '73, '74.
CMS: I had dificulty with the novel because the characters were totally without any redeeming value.
KE: It's a novel that so far anybody whose read it either is incredibly enthusiastic about it or just leaves them completely cold. They weren't interested in it at all. People either love or hate it.
CMS: There's very little sex in it.
KE: The major theme of it as it evolved over the years was just these images that people create for themselves. The old bohemian image, the beatnik image and the hippie image as you go up through the years. It's the false nonchalance, the hip, cool attitude towards everything, while you're destroying yourself. It's an attitude and a type of behavior there that I grew up with when i was in my teens and early 20s. A deliberately cynical attitude.
The thride novel goes in a mch more highly plotted--there are definite story lines tying together. It 's concerned more overtly with sexuality. The types of jealousy and betrayal, those types of themes. It will probably be more appealiong. It is more restrained, there aren't any long, long poetic passages as in Mad.
One friend of mine said in a complimentary way that the entire novel is like one big long hangover [he laughs]. It's supposed to be very confusing and hallucinatory, impressionistic. It's almost a 200-page poem as much as a novel. It was experimental.  I was concerned, before it was accepted for publication, whether or not it would be,
CMS: It's not a typical gay novel.
KE: Which is fine, which is good as far as I'm concerned. Mad is much bigger, more diffused than Streetboy [about a man/boy love relationship], much harder to pin down.
CMS: I wasn't sure whether the character Jesse was bisexual or flirting with gay men.
KE: I don't know how you would describe him. He's very real, very much alive. He's sort of an ambisexual. He's been involved with men and women and everybody else in between, all ages, whoever happens to appeal to him at the time.
CMS: Jake felt guilty about his treatment of Cody, who he dumped for Robin.
KE: Yeah, there was guilt about how badly he had behaved. There was the desire to experience as much sexually as posssible, too. Cody was just holding him back. He didn't want commitment to one other person. Robin was more into the same sorts of things at that point that Jake was, more compatible.
CMS: Jake is contemptuous of people in the theatre, calling them theatre fags.
KE: That's an example of a passage that was written 10, 12 years ago. If I had just sat down and written that novel a couple of years ago, I wouldn't have remembered that attitude that I had at the time towards the theatre department and all the people in it. But at the time, it was just something that was prevalent from the people who went to college there. Everybody was contemptuous of the theatre department.

Monday, June 11, 2012

When Povertunity Knocks

The New York Times Magazine has a weekly feature called  "That Should Be a Word." Many of the words will never catch on but one I like very much is "povertunity" (see "The One-Page Magazine" column, May 13, 2012). I don't like the definition that was given: "A job that comes with no salary but has the promise of advancement." A better definition: a job that provides a salary and training for the hard-core unemployed, e.g. welfare recipients.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Blackberri: Doing Politics Through Music

When Blackberri, the black gay singer from San Francisco, released his first solo LP, Finally, in 1981, he surprised a lot of people with the high quality of the production. "They were expecting something more amateurish. I don't think Finally's my best. It's the best thing I've done so far. As a first effort, it was exceptional."

The album was not the first time Blackberri has appeared on record. In 1978, he recorded two songs for Wall to Roses, an album put out on the Folkways label by a men's music collective.

The Finally LP has become a must in the record collection of a select group of black gay writers and artists who cherish the album because of its gay content and glowing affirmation of gay pride and liberation.

The songs range from blues to country & western, so it's hard to pigeonhole Blackberri as an artist. The use of multiple musical styles was to show listeners that he "can do any kind of style comfortably."

Since the release of the album four years ago, Blackberri has not done any recording for one simple reason--no money. He was able to do Finally because "I was fortunate enough to get a donation from a man who told me later on he didn't really want the money back. Then we borrowed some money to distribute it and other stuff."

He would like to produce other artists on his Bea B. Queen label but the " finances have to get much stronger" before that can happen. "I made the mistake of not being one record ahead. What people do is make an album, then it comes in, they make another album. The money that comes in from the second album, they start paying their first album bills with. Then the third album , they pay the second album. That way they've always got money to do another project."

Blackberri to put it simply is Bea B. Queen Records. "I'm basically a one-man company. I have to do the bookings and my own bookkeeping. For a while, I was doing the shipping and my own distribution, plus being the artist. It's a lot of work for one person."

I asked Blackberri where the name Bea B. Queen came from. "Somebody called me Bea B. Queen once and I thought it was really funny. It's a takeoff on B.B. King."

Before moving to San Francisco, and recording songs, Blackberri lived in Tucson,Arizona. While he was there, he vocalized with a band called Gunther Quint. "We played hard rock and blues. We were basically a trio with a singer. We were one of the best bands in Arizona at the time. Got a lot of reviews written about us. Got mentioned in Rolling Stone."

Blackberri's reason for leaving Tucson after six years was because there weren't many clubs where he could play original songs. "Most of the clubs there like bands [that play] the Top 40." So Blackberri packed his bags and guitar and headed for San Francisco, where he's lived for the last 11 years.

Blackberri, a native of Buffalo, New York, knew of his same-sex attraction since he was about six years old. At that time, on Saturday afternoons, he, who was big for his age, along with other kids, went to the neighborhood movie theatre  that was a block from his house. The theatre showed adventure serials like Buck Rogers, the space ranger. Inside the theatre "I spent s lot of time cruising the bathrooms. I would always try to sit beside some older boy. I was looking for it. I knew exactly what to do. I was already having sex with my next door neighbors on both sides of me, and sex with the boy up the street from me."

At age 12 or 13, Blackberri sang a lot. His desire, however was not to become a professional singer. He wanted to be a marine biologist. "I was into science. Then I went through a religious conversion and that kind of took me out of everything for a while. I went into the navy and that spun me off into a different direction. I was in the service from '65 to '66. I was discharged for being queer. I was placed under investigation because one of my shipmates turned  me in. They put a tail on me, and when they thought they had enough evidence, they arrested me, went through my personal belongings and found incriminating letters and other things."

Being an artist, the circumstances of his departure from the service has not had a negative affect on his career. And although he can afford to take chances, like speaking out for gay rights, his political activity has been slight.

"I was more politically active at one time than I am now. Part of the reason [for that] is that I have a career; I'm not always in one place long enough to take on any commitments. I've been working with different groups, taking on small tasks, little things I can do. I do my politics through my music."

This article was originally published in a slightly different form in the New York Amsterdam News in 1991 and the New York Native in the mid-80s.

Note: Blackberri can be heard on the soundtrack of Marlon Riggs's AIDS documentary Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret) (1992, 40 minutes).

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Rainbow Flag's Colors

In Steve Vezeris's brief entry in Out in All Directions: The Almanac of Gay and Lesbian America (Warner Books, 1995), he pointed out that "[t]he first rainbow [flag] design had eight horizontal stripes, from top to bottom: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sun, green for serenity with nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit." He continued: "For  the 1979 [San Francisco Gay Freedom Day] parade, due to production constraints, hot pink and turquoise stripes were dropped and royal blue replaced the indigo stripe." According to Rainbow Pride, the documentary about the rainbow flag and its creator Gilbert Baker, hot pink and turquoise was dropped because those colors were not on the palette of flag makers.