Wednesday, July 25, 2012

From The Midwest To The Fast Lane

The Golden Boy by James Melson (Harrington Park Press, 212 pp.)

James Melson's autobiography, The Golden Boy, for the most part takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of gay life in the nineteen-seventies, when AIDS and safer sex precautions were unheard of.

The journey begins in Dubuque, Iowa, Melson's hometown, also  known as Sundown Town, "a redneck, rough-shootin' meat packing town on the Mississippi River," where any black man looking for work would be advised by the police to "be gone by sundown."

It is in this setting where Melson made a total transformation: from "a disgusting mass of fat" who everyone laughed at and picked on to a person who because he had gained "a new body, and stardom, all in one year" through swimming and skiing, develops into a "flaming narcissist." It is also the place in which Melson comes out to himself as a homosexual after years of accepting all the negative stereotypes about gay men. When a female classmate on a school bus trip to Canada tries to engage him in sex play under the blanket, he draws back his hand from her unbuttoned jeans. "I believe she knew at that moment that I was queer. No one had ever turned down Cindy's pussy." He discovers that "I wanted a man, at least to have sex with. Although with Cindy I felt a tinge of romance, a gleam of something special, this was just not 'it' for me."

The next two or three chapters (all the chapters start off with an epigram by a famous person that ties the events of each) follows Melson's college days at St. Olaf's in Minnesota and at Northwestern in Chicago.

The Golden Boy doesn't really get interesting until Melson lands in New York and becomes part of the fast-lane crowd. He gives the reader an insider's look at such famous hot spots now demised as Studio 54 and Xenon. While cruising hot bodies, snorting coke, and hobnobbing with the rich and the famous and the wannabes, it is easy to see how and why he became "addicted to the New York night life." But when  he enters the grueling 11-month corporate training program at a large bank, he realizes that his "all-night carousing" has come to an end--for a while, anyway.

Throughout The Golden Boy, Melson exhibits a campy sense of humor ("With his strawberry-blond hair and pale, freckled complexion, he was as convincing as Opie Taylor impersonating Cary Grant.") and a clever way with words ("We would actually own part of a ski resort. The redneck kids would turn green-necked with envy.")

We see before us a Midwestern-hick-turned-cosmopolite who develops a taste for antique folk art objects such as a "nearly four-foot, 1930s birdhouse, an exact replica of a New England church." And when Melson, who we've come to know and like, is diagnosed as having AIDS, we begin to feel the poignancy of the moment. Briefly--and mercifully for the reader--the book deals with the social, economic, and medical ramifications of Melson's Kaposi's sarcoma lesions.

The book ends with Melson heading for California to begin a new life and realizing with a note of sadness that he "would never have it all again."

In the forward Melson states that one of his wishes was for God to allow him to live long enough to finish The Golden Boy. I hope his life is spared too, so he can write more page-turners. It would be a shame for so gifted a literary voice to be silenced so soon.

This review was originally published in the Lambda Book Report (July/August 1992).

Friday, July 20, 2012

Fighting AIDS Via Music

Seventy-five or so marchers in the Harlem contingent of the July 14 [1992] United for AIDS Action march left their gathering site outside the State Office Building and headed down Seventh Avenue in the broiling morning sun toward the Times Square rally where they would join thousands of others to become, in the words of the reggae-beat song, "Feeding the Flame," "the ones who take to the streets" to demand a radical change in governmental policies toward the AIDS crisis. As they marched under police escort through Harlem, one of the people of color communities hardest hit  by the epidemic, they carried placards and chanted slogans like "We say fight back, they say get back!"

One of the marchers, playwright/director Reginald T. Jackson of the Rainbow Repertory Theatre in Manhattan, saw the march as something very personal, having three brothers in different stages of HIV/AIDS. His dream is to see a cure for the disease so "we can move on to another issue, like racism."

The dream of seeing a cure also belongs to Willie Sordillo, the executive producer of the recording Feeding the Flame: Songs by Men to End AIDS on Chicago's Flying Fish Records. (Flying Fish is the label responsible for bringing us the African-American female a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, one the groups that inspired the gay doo-wop quintet the Flirtations, who appear on the recording.)

Sordillo's dream is why the money generated by Feeding the Flame, whose title track is by Sordillo, will be donated to those organizations across the country that provide services to those with HIV/AIDS.

The 16 songs, by as many artists, who include folk singers Josh White, Jr. and Pete Seeger, the techno-pop duo Xotica, and guitarists peter Alsop and Ry Cooder, represent a variety of musical styles (reggae, doo-wop, folk, etc.) and themes, both serious and comic.

Among my favorites on the album are the hauntingly beautiful "All the Time in the World" by Fred Small and Alsop and Cooder's bouncy, down-home-flavored "Gotta Lotta Livin' to Do."

The only hard-rock tune is Xotica's "Forever Gay," which is not for those with sensitive ears. Co-written by the well-known Haitian-born poet Assotto Saint, "Forever Gay," if played at maximum volume, could conceivably crack windowpanes and knock lampshades askew. The song has a defiant, "here to dare" attitude.

Feeding the Flame is an important contribution to the effort toward educating and sensitizing the public about AIDS. A copy of it (in CD or cassette form) should be in everybody's music collection.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (September 5, 1992).

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Alex Haley Journalism Scholarship Created By Playboy Magazine

Thirty years after Alex Haley conducted an interview with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, which inaugurated the Playboy magazine interview series, the Chicago-based Playboy Foundation has created the Alex Haley Playboy Interview Scholarship in Magazine Journalism. The scholarship would provide financial assistance to minority students at the University of Tennessee who are either enrolled as full-time undergraduate upperclassmen or master's degree candidates at UT's journalism school.

One student each year will be selected to receive the $5,000 scholarship which will be awarded on the basis of three criteria: academic performance (the students must have a 3.0 grade point average as the minimum, equivalent to a B), professional promise, and financial need. Along with the scholarship is a paid summer internship in Playboy's New York office. However, says Cleo Wilson, the foundation's executive director, the student will be responsible for providing his or her own housing during the internship. Applications for the scholarship must be submitted to the university by January of each year. The recipient will start the internship in June and will be given the scholarship the following September.

Haley was the author of the famed Roots family saga, which later became a classic television miniseries. At the time of his death earlier this year, he was an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee's Knoxville campus. He is regarded by Christie Hefner, Playboy Enterprises chairwoman and CEO, as "the closest to the soul of the Playboy Interview."

Others interviewed by Haley for the magazine include American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, Malcolm X, and Quincy Jones.

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (October 31, 1992).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Second NYC Gay Paper Is Needed

Tom Allon, the publisher of the West Side Spirit and other publications, has recently announced his candidacy for mayor of New York City. This year he folded one of the publications he owned, the weekly New York Press.

Instead of shutting down the paper, a better idea would have been to transform it into a gay and lesbian paper. There hasn't been a second gay paper in New York since the Blade went belly up. The Gay City News could use the competition, if for no other reason than to keep its staff members on their toes and not take the gay community for granted.

With so many talented GLBT writers in this city, staffing a new Press would have been no problem. I hope Allon will reconsider the closing of the paper and resurrect the Press, if not every week, maybe every two weeks.

If he does bring the paper back, I would be among those with a resume in hand, eager to do the kind of journalism I once did in the 1980s for the now-defunct New York Native. That writing caught the attention of Joe Beam in Philadelphia and persuaded him to offer me an opportunity to contribute an article about Harlem Renaissance writer and artist Bruce Nugent for his groundbreaking anthology, In the Life.

Monday, July 9, 2012

N/UM Is The Word

Reginald Wilson is not just a choreographer/dancer. He is unapologetically a black choreographer/dancer, who, as an undergraduate at New York University, studied anthropology and sociology.

These multiple pursuits have culminated in the creation of "N/UM," a male solo, which he unveiled on March 3, 1991 at the 6th annual Morningside Dance Festival that was held at the Theatre of the Riverside Church in Manhattan. (The festival showcased more than 25 choreographers from New York and across the country during its February 25-March 7 run.)

The title of the solo, explained [the then 23-year-old ] Wilson, a Milwaukee native, in a telephone interview, came from one of the Khoi-san languages of South Africa and "means an internal healing force."

Reginald Wilson believes "there's a need for some energy, some source to bring us [black people] together. So many black people are in so many different levels of society now that it's hard to find common ground. That's what n/um acted as in the villages. It was a magical healing power, a common ground for everybody. Everybody had access to it."

Wilson made his professional New York debut in 1989 at the lower Manhattan dance loft called Eden's Expressway, prior to a month-long teaching/performance residency in Juneau, Alaska, with the Israeli-born choreographer Neta Pulvermacher.

During the Eden's Expressway engagement, Wilson performed in two ensemble pieces, one of which he choreographed himself, an energetic and percussive work (he clapped his hands and stamped his feet while five female dancers thrashed about the floor, doing various hand and arm gestures) called "Le Mignon Petit Noir Americain" (The Cute Little Black American). The title came from a French magazine reference to the late fashion designer Patrick Kelly. Like "N/UM," it drew on Reginald Wilson's African-American roots. "That piece, and more so the solo, is very much about being black in the nineties. The structure, some of the movement, is taken from black culture. The rhythms, to me, are taken from ideas of African drumming."

This previously unpublished article was written on February 19, 1991.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Triple Heritage

The Voice of the People
New York Daily News
220 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017

December 7, 1992

Dear Editor:

Voicer Nick Arroyo (December 5, 1991) believes blacks from the Caribbean islands, who now live in Crown Heights [Brooklyn], should not be called African-Americans, but Caribbean-Americans. What he forgets is that their ancestral home is Africa, too. They should be called instead, however unwieldy on the tongue, Afro-Caribbean-Americans. This would remind people of this group's triple heritage.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

This letter was published in the New York Daily News on December 26, 1992.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Georgia & A'Lelia: A Reminiscence

The following is from my interview in 1985 with Richard Bruce Nugent, one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. In this portion of the interview, Nugent discusses two major female figures of  the Harlem Renaissance: Georgia Douglas Johnson in Washington, D.C. and A'Lelia Walker in New York's Harlem.

Charles Michael Smith: How would you describe Georgia Douglas Johnson and her salon?
Bruce Nugent: I think that [Georgia Douglas Johnson] was the most unique one because it was almost like a throwback to ancient days when salon's were the property of women. Women always had salons. Everybody had passed through Georgia Douglas Johnson's hands at one time or another. It was at Georgia Douglas Johnson that I met Langston Hughes in Washington. Nobody went there to meet writers. You went there to meet people.
CMS: And A'Lelia Walker's salon?
BN:  The difference between A'Lelia and Georgia was as different as chalk and cheese. Georgia entertained in her home writers, artists. She was just a remarkable woman, terrifically remarkable. She was a poet herself. Her book is called Autumn Leaves. She encouraged more black people in her home.
A'Lelia Walker opened her Dark Tower, named after a column Countee Cullen wrote in [the magazine] Opportunity. She opened her Dark Tower so that the Negro artists had a place to congregate and eat, cheaply or inexpensively. It didn't turn out quite that way, first of all.
CMS: No cheap food then at A'Lelia's?
BN: At A'Lelia's? There was nothing [for] ten cents at A'Lelia's. We couldn't eat, drink at A'Lelia's. Who drank coffee anyhow? You drank coffee so you could sit around and talk and meet other people.
[Georgia] did not serve food. If she had, it would not have been for sale. There was, I suppose, some tea and coffee, like in your own home. She had a pleasant home. She was interested in art and artists. She was a poet herself. A'Lelia Walker was a striver and a striver in Washington [society] got short shrift. A'Lelia Walker had a lot to overcome. You see she had her [dark] color, her hair, and her antecedents to overcome socially. Her mother [the cosmetics tycoon Madame C. J. Walker] after all [had been] a washerwoman, my God.
[Georgia Douglas Johnson] was a nice brown, nice pale brown. She was from Atlanta, Georgia. She had the same kind of social setup [there] that Washington and Philadelphia and all the places had at the time. Family, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Her husband was acceptable because he was the first black recorder of deeds in Washington.
There was nothing scandalous about her. The ones whose names are talked about are those who were outrageous, like  [writer]Wally [Thurman] and me. The nonconformists. Georgia was very much a conformist. She was just a poet, a very good poet. She had an open house where people would come to talk. This was before the so-called Negro Renaissance.