Friday, November 30, 2012

Psychoanalyzing Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide by Melissa Knox (Yale University Press, 185 pp., illustrated)

Melissa Knox's psychobiography, Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide, is refreshingly unlike many other scholarly books--it's not full of academic jargon, it's not overblown, and it's highly readable.

Knox, a professor of English at St.Peter's College in New Jersey, began her quest to explore the unconscious mind of the famed 19th-century Irish-born playwright/poet/wit (1854-1900) as a way to understand "his life, style, and literary work." It is the unconscious mind, writes Knox, that is "the source of creativity."

Psychobiography, unlike its more conventional counterpart, does not solely rely on the use of "the well-known life experiences of a person and on the conscious mind as revealed in letters, literary works, or public and family life." Those sources don't tell the whole story. By digging deeper through the psychoanalytic approach, the biographer "can identify the unconscious conflicts that determine the forms (the subject's) creative genius took, as well as choices of subject and approach--genre, theme, style, plot." She further states that "ideally, one sees not just the outside actions but whence they originate."

In Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide, Knox takes the pages of Wilde's plays, poems, and other works, and delves into his inner life thus confronting the reader with Wilde's "conflicts, ...weaknesses,...childishness, ...fears, and ...deep shames and secrets." The reader is also made aware of Wilde's contradictions and self-destructiveness. Among the most important aspects of his life are his fear of the debilitations of syphilis (which he ironically contracted from a female prostitute during his undergraduate days at Oxford) that makes itself evident in his 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, "a parable of an artist foreseeing his own physical and mental decay," his ambivalence about his homosexuality (embracing it one minute and calling  it "sexual madness" the next), and his desire to be accepted by the British upper class while at the same time writing unflatteringly about its members. Oscar Wilde was indeed a complex and troubled soul, whose mother  (a writer and Irish revolutionary) expected great things from him. And he tried to fulfill her wish. "I believe in you and your genius," she wrote him prior to the opening of one of his plays, A Woman of No Importance. (Mrs. Wilde wrote essays under the pseudonym, Speranza.)

After serving a two-year sentence in prison for committing "indecent acts," Wilde became a social pariah, "shunned in the streets even by old friends" and eventually died "in mental, physical, and economic decline" at the age of 46.

In Wilde's short, turmoil-filled life, he accomplished much. Besides writing plays and other literary works, he was an early feminist who edited a women's magazine, Lady's World (later renamed Woman's World). And because of his prison experience, he advocated prison reform in letters-to-the-editor that were published in the Daily Chronicle.

It is quite plain that Oscar Wilde was born 100 years too soon. Today he would be a TV talk show staple because of his skills as a conversationalist and wit.

All in all, Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide earns its place beside the collected works of Wilde. This is the book to consult to get a better understanding of the writer who was called "the foremost homosexual in the English mind."

This article was originally published in the Lambda Book Report (March 1997).

Monday, November 26, 2012

Franklin A. Thomas: The First Black President Of The Ford Foundation

Franklin A. Thomas's selection as the seventh president of the Ford Foundation, the largest and richest foundation in the world (its assets total $3.4 billion) becomes especially significant when you consider the fact that Thomas, a successful lawyer, is a black man and was chosen from among more than 300 applicants. On June 1, 1979, he replaced McGeorge Bundy, who stepped down to retire. (Bundy became president in 1966. He had previously been national security advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson).

"Frank Thomas's appointment," wrote Vernon Jordan in a 1979 syndicated column, "as head of a major bulwark of American institutional life heralds a new era of black inclusion, not only as soldiers in our society, but as generals commanding its heights."

Franklin Thomas, the youngest of six children, like many black Americans, began life in a working class neighborhood. In his particular case, the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. His father, who died when Thomas was 11, worked as "a watchman down at the piers," said Thomas. "My mother [a native of Barbados] was a housekeeper; [she] cleaned people's houses, did day work."

As a public school student, Thomas was fortunate enough "to have some teachers who really saw some potential" in him. He also gives credit to his home atmosphere, especially to his mother who fostered the notion that "no one can determine what you're going to be but you and the only time you're damaged is when you let other people's assessment of you start to control your assessment of self. If you're honest and you work hard and you're reasonably smart and [you] get along well with people, you're going to have a good life. That's really what all of this is about. A good life, a decent life. Not hurt other people."

"I never knew any sense of limitation," continued Thomas. "I always worked hard, worked after school, joined the Boy Scouts at the age of 11. You didn't think of yourself as [being] extraordinary. Some guys chose to be on a street corner, hanging out and knocking other people in the head; other guys were on the street corners but you didn't think about trying to rip anybody else off and you knew which blocks were safe to go down, which ones weren't. You built a capacity to survive in an environment that on the one hand is menacing and at the same time is supportive because there are others just like you."

Because of Thomas's athletic ability (he was the captain and star of his high school basketball team), he was offered numerous athletic scholarships. He turned them down and enrolled instead at Columbia University, becoming the first member of his family ever to go to college. "I had a coach and teachers in high school who said 'Don't accept an athletic scholarship. Your grades are good enough to get [you] into the college you want on academic grounds. Then if you want to play basketball, you can. But you're not obliged to play it.' So I got a scholarship based on need rather than an academic scholarship and had a great time. I ended up playing basketball for four years anyway." In 1956 he received his B. A. degree.

After four years in the air force, he went to law school at Columbia, graduating in 1963 with an LL.B degree. A year later, Thomas was admitted to the New York state bar. "My first job was in the housing field [Federal Housing and Finance Agency], working in urban renewal."

Other jobs that followed were: Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York [Manhattan] (1964); deputy police commissioner for legal matters, New York Police Department (1965); and president and chief executive officer of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (1967). "After the [urban] riots [in 1964], Senator [Robert] Kennedy and others had the idea of a development effort in the second largest black community in the country, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and asked me if I would leave my job [at the police department] to help organize it and get it started. After a lot of back and forth, I agreed to do it for two years; I stayed ten years. Then I went back and practiced law for a little while" before accepting the $120,000-a- year top job at the Ford Foundation.

Thomas also sits on the board of directors of such corporate giants as CBS, the Aluminum Corporation of America (Alcoa), and the New York Life Insurance Company. He is the only black person sitting on Citigroup's 26-member board of directors and, according to Current Biography (October 1981), "was instrumental in persuading that company to end its loans to the white supremacist government of South Africa."

Thomas, who has been divorced since 1972, has four children. Since he, at the age of 49, can no longer play basketball, he has tried to learn tennis. Once or twice during the winter he skis but, he is quick to point out, "on intermediate slopes, not on too tough slopes."

Despite the enormous responsibilities as head of the foundation, he tries not to take himself too seriously. And he continues to work 12-hour days, just as he did at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation.

The following interview took place in Thomas's office at the Ford Foundation.

Charles Michael Smith: Has the Ford Foundation increased or decreased its funding for inner city programs?
Franklin Thomas: The foundation has increased its support for inner city poverty-related programs in each of the last four years and we look forward to an increase for the upcoming two-year period.

CMS: What programs are receiving financial assistance from Ford?
FT: The largest of the five major program areas the foundation supports is an area called urban poverty and that concentrates on the problems of housing and social and economic revitalization within the inner cities where large concentrations of poor people live and that effort involves supporting organizations that are trying to improve the living conditions in those areas. These organizations are usually called community development corporations.

CMS: Is volunteerism a viable solution to socio-economic problems?
FT: By itself, it is not a solution. It must be combined with commitments from each of the levels of government and a commitment through the private-for- profit sector. When combined with those commitments, volunteerism is a dynamic, critically important part of our strategy as a nation for dealing with some social problems.

CMS: What criteria do you use when you select an organization for a grant?
FT: We try to define problems on which we're going to work or support work in. We try to do that with sufficient clarity so that a prospective grantee can ask, 'Are you interested in these kinds of problems?' If the answer is yes, then we would encourage that person, group to submit a description of what it is they plan to do about an aspect of the problem. We then sit and go over that as a staff, decide if it seems to make sense, [see] if the apparent capability to carry it out is there, and if the answer to those questions is yes, then we would invite the prospective grantee in and have a discussion with them, and make a decision.

CMS: Do grantees come to you or do you come to them?
FT: We do both.

CMS: If I came to you as an individual with a program, I wouldn't necessarily have to be part of a group?
FT: You wouldn't have to, though the overwhelming share of our money goes to organizations that have a plan and a strategy. We do make some grants to individuals. Usually for study, research, what have you. But almost anything you want to carry out in an operational sense will require some institutional context within which to function. If you want to do something about housing beyond a study or a survey which you can do as an individual but you want to cause some change to happen there, then the odds are you're going to have to find some institutional way to bring that about.

CMS: Do Ford Foundation funds go to anti-poverty projects overseas?
FT: We spend roughly a third of our funds overseas in what we call developing countries. We have nine offices around the world.

CMS: Do you see inner city areas improving because of Ford Foundation money?
FT: That's the toughest question of all.  How do you measure impact? My personal answer is yes, I see improvement. It's slower and less pervasive than any of us would like but it's clearly better than it would have been were these resources not being employed in the way they are and have been employed. I think I can answer that with certainty. The tougher question is "Is it enough?" The answer there is no and if not, then what the hell do you do about it? That's the continuing struggle.

CMS: Do you feel you have a special responsibility to the black community in your present position?
FT: It's a continuation of a concern and an interest and a relationship that really has been a part of my life. So I don't think of them as special. I just think of them as natural. They are with me as a part of what I am.
I also recognize the obligation to the total problem of trying to reduce or eliminate poverty and injustice and worry about peace and security matters, worry about international economic matters, worry about refugees and migration matters, worry about higher education, each of which has an impact on minorities, if you will, worldwide. And perhaps, just based on the experience of living in and working in some minority communities in this country, you get a particular sensitivity on not only what is needed, but on the means of assisting that are most likely to be effective.

This condensed article was originally published in two parts in the Harlem Weekly newspaper in 1984.

Two Gay Plays In Brooklyn

The newly-founded Rainbow Repertory Theatre proudly bills itself as a company whose aim is to develop and promote the plays of gay and lesbian playwrights of color. However, its artistic director Reginald Jackson, himself a playwright, does not "want to just appeal to the gay community."

In fact, Rainbow Rep's first offerings--Kids and Enormous Insignificancies (both directed by Jackson)--have more straight characters in them than gay. "We [as gay people] really don't live in a vacuum," explained Jackson, "so I don't see any purpose in doing pieces in a vacuum."

Both one-act plays will be presented back to back March 6  and 13[1988], starting at 7 p.m., at the Alonzo Players Theatre, 317 Clermont Avenue, Brooklyn, under the umbrella title: "Kuumba: A Night of New Theatre." (Kuumba means "creativity" in Swahili.)

Kids, a play with music by Charles Pouncy, deals with self-identity and self-acceptance. The focus is on two adolescent brothers--Jacob, who is openly gay to the point of being effeminate and David, who, when confronted by his mother, denies his homosexuality. "This would be a wonderful piece for gay and lesbian youth of color to come to," said the 24-year-old director, a native of Queens, "because Kids is about them. It's about me, too. I've lived it. But they're living it now. They've got no sense of validation."

While Kids, with its musical soliloquies and humorous touches, can be quite entertaining, its companion piece, Enormous Insignificancies by Hector Lugo, about a Puerto Rican playwright dying of AIDS, can be very unsettling. "What do you want me to do," asks Gaston, the playwright (played by Lugo), as he lay on a psychiatric couch, "go up to this man, the only human being who has been kind to me, who I love, and say I've got--I'm going to die and maybe you've got it, too? I can't, I can't, I can't."

Enormous Insignificancies, recalled Jackson, "was originally done at City College for the one-act festival last year. I didn't see it, but I knew Hector. We were at the college together. [After reading the script], I told him if he was interested in rewriting it, I would consider doing it."

Although the playwrights involved with Rainbow Rep must be gay or lesbian, that rule does not apply when Jackson goes about the task of selecting the cast. "There are 11 people in the total production--five gays and six straights, at least that is their public image. I'm not going to pull people who are in the closet, out of the closet. My political stance is that I don't particularly condone being in the closet, but artistically it's irrelevant. As far as I'm concerned, the actors are asexual on stage. The audience shouldn't be trying to figure out who's gay and who's straight. That defeats the purpose."

A future project waiting in the wings is "a theatrical dialogue" between gay men and lesbians. "It'll be two different pieces," said Jackson,"running about 45 minutes each, comprised of poetry and prose exploring how we feel about each other, what are the myths, the stereotypes, the misconceptions, the questions, the fears that affect the whole relationship. I've got ideas on what I think will probably come up in it, but I have no idea what the overall gist or structure will be." That would be left up to the poets and playwrights "who would get together on a Saturday or a Sunday for three hours, four hours," continued Jackson, and "brainstorm" on how they would "create the written work into a theatre piece; linking the pieces and building a script."

This article was originally published in the Philadelphia Gay News (March 11, 1988).

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The AIDS Gravy Train

The Voice of the People
New York Daily News
450 West 33rd Street
New York, NY 10001
February 20, 1997

Dear Editor:

If a cure for AIDS is ever found, the result will be a lot of unemployed people. Since the onslaught of the disease in 1981, a cottage industry has mushroomed: organizations, periodicals, housing facilities, clinics, etc. And most, if not all, are recipients of public funds.

In every major American city there are probably more groups dealing with AIDS-related issues than there are for any other disease. These days everybody and his brother is hopping a ride on the AIDS gravy train.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

This letter was published on March 15, 1997.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Inside An Architect's Home

"As we look around today," said Percy Griffin, a Harlem-based African American architect, "we see a little of many different styles creeping into architecture: the Renaissance, the Gothic, Byzantine, and so on. We went to one period back in the '50s where we had steel and glass, the glass boxes." Many of these buildings can be found on Manhattan's Park Avenue, north of Grand Central Terminal. For example, the Lever Brothers Building. This style is called "modern" architecture. Now we're in the post-modern period in which architects borrow from other architectural styles. Said Griffin about post-modernism, or what he called "eclectic architecture": "It's like baking a cake. If you have the right ingredients, it will be tasty. So's architecture."

Griffin's home, in a four-story limestone building that he owns on West 144th Street in Harlem, is a mixture of different styles. (He lives there with his wife Sandra, an urban planner, and their seven-year-old daughter, Kammara.)

The Griffins occupy the basement, and the first two floors of the building. The upper two floors are rented out to three tenants.

The den, in the basement, where he and his wife spend most of their time, is described by Griffin as having a high-tech decor. It is furnished with a circular bar, a TV, a stereo, and a spinet piano.

The main floor containing the family area and the living room is eclectic. The walls are white. The living room has a built-in fireplace, a glass top coffee table, and paintings on the wall. (The paintings are his own work. They line the walls throughout the house.) The family area, adjacent to the kitchen, has a long wooden dining table, a couch, a bookshelf that he built, and a wall in which a rectangular opening has been cut inside of which are placed wooden ancient Roman columns on either side of the opening. A few feet away is another column,that is more modern, and painted blue to match a similar column in the living room.

The upstairs area is designed in Scandinavian light wood. The wall of his and his wife's bedroom which faces the stairs is made up of a series of small window panes to emit light when desired and is shielded from within by a Japanese shade. Down the hall is their daughter's bedroom furnished with a bed that is a few feet off the floor and is accessible by a ladder nearby. Underneath the bed is a row of shelves for various dolls, a birdcage with two parakeets, a dresser, and a TV set. Taped to that same wall are her drawings. Along the wall outside her bedroom are framed pictures of her.

This article was part of a much longer article about architect Percy Griffin. It was originally published in the Harlem Weekly in 1984.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Assessing The Dance World

In assessing the current New York dance scene, the four dance experts I interviewed saw very little, if any, trendsetting going on in modern dance or ballet.

The leaning in modern dance toward what Celia Ipiotis, the host of Channel 31's Eye on Dance, described as the blending of "elements from the world of theatre, music, and visual arts" is, said dance historian Joe Nash, "nothing new. Everything now is merely a continuation of what was started in the sixties." Although there is this cyclical aspect to modern dance, Village Voice critic Deborah Jowitt pointed out that "whenever those things come out, they usually come back in a slightly different form."

Back in the sixties, recalled Jowitt, there was "a dance revolution" that took place. It was at this point, said Nash, "when modern dance entered a whole new phase." What the early pioneers such as Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham "established [was] a style, a technique, an approach to modern dance that was related to [a period] when people were trying to communicate about issues, about the human spirit." But, further explained Nash, who teaches dance history at the Alvin Ailey school, the choreographers who emerged from the Judson Movement in the sixties--named after the church performance space on the West Side of Manhattan--wanted to "establish their own principles of movement that ran counter to what was considered traditional. It gained in popularity as more people entered the field. Critics began to try to analyze and describe what they were seeing. They still don't know what they're seeing, but they describe it anyway."

In ballet, particularly with "the major companies," said New York Daily News critic Charles Jurrist, "it is really hard to spot trends." Jowitt attributed this to "the classical language staying the same." She detected, although, "a kind of aggression entering ballet. You can see a lot of aggressive, violent dance today in ballet and contemporary dance."

Said Jurrist, "The New York City Ballet has clearly still not decided where it's going after the death of [its founder and choreographer George] Balanchine. At ABT [American Ballet Theatre], they've mostly been involved in cleaning up the company which needed a lot of cleaning up--disciplining the corps de ballet and sort of weeding out the repertory, making it a more stylistically coherent company." Jurrist added that he "really couldn't say that I would spot a trend in either one of those two companies--as yet."

On the other hand, historian Nash saw the influence of modern dance, particularly the African American contribution to it, on contemporary ballet. "At the root of American dance is the black movement styles. What the African American brought to a whole field of dance was just total involvement of the body in dance. You now see twisting and contorting the body as you would do in jazz or ethnic dance. This is the contemporary trend. Contemporary ballets are really based upon the New Movement as opposed to classical tradition handed down from the 17th century--'Swan Lake', 'Giselle.' The choreographer takes those traditional five-position movements of the legs and arms and updates them and places them in a contemporary mold. More and more companies are using contemporary approaches to ballet production and that will continue."

Although Celia Ipiotis said that today the definition of dance is "fluid," the Daily News's Charles Jurrist thought that a lot of what passes for dance--such as "carrying a transistor radio onto the stage and turning it on"--should be labeled as performance art, which he himself admitted is a catchall phrase, much like the term "post-modern." In his mind, dance has "movement as its primary mode of expression. Otherwise, it's another form of theatre."  Opined Joe Nash, "You will always have people engaged in multimedia because when you're lost for something to say through movement, you can always revert to words or [photo] slides."

This article was originally published in the West Side Spirit (December 19, 1988).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Of Prima Donnas And Bisexual Men

Not a Day Goes By by E. Lynn Harris (Doubleday, 288 pp.)

Not a Day Goes By, whose chapters are mercifully short, tells the story of the ill-fated love affair of Basil Henderson, an ex-football star-turned-sports agent and Yancey Braxton, an extremely ambitious prima donna stage actress. Both characters, products of dysfunctional families, are planning to get married. But Basil has a lingering question: "[C]an a diva and a dude like me ever settle down?"

In the prologue Basil calls Yancey to inform her that their wedding is off for good. (This part of the story appears too early to create suspense.) Then it backtracks to the day of their love-at-first sight meeting at the skating rink in Rockefeller Center. From there subsequent events and revelations (one in particular--Basil's bisexuality--could hurt his chance of being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame) work to doom their marriage plans.

Although the macho, slightly homophobic Basil and the manipulative, self-centered Yancey are described in the dust jacket copy as "two very unforgettable characters," that label rightly belongs to Yancey's cold-blooded, man-grabbing femme fatale mother, Ava, herself an actress. Currently married to a wealthy computer whiz she met on a flight to Hawaii, Ava is ever on the prowl (she already snared the package delivery man) and will stop at nothing to get what, and who, she wants. And that includes acquiring a son-in-law so that Yancey can fleece him of his hard-earned wealth and then divorce him. If Harris had written, a noir novel, a la James M. Cain, Ava would be a standout. I wanted to hear more from her, and less from Basil and Yancey.

Harris's alternate use of first- and third-person narration is annoying and distracting. Basil's scenes are told in his voice, while Yancey's are told in the third person. It's as though Harris was not confident enough to write from a woman's point of view.

Also, the sex scenes always involve Basil and Yancey. But if Basil is a bisexual, there should be a scene or two showing him with a man rather than having him reminisce about an old flame who "could deep-throat the jimmie like a fire-eating circus performer." Does Harris believe that too much detail about two men in bed would turn off female readers?

Overall, Not a Day Goes By is formulaic and is the literary equivalent of junk food. There is very little in it that is thought-provoking. And it certainly isn't stylistically innovative or challenging to the status quo.

This article was originally published in the New York Blade (August 11, 2000) and reprinted in the Washington Blade (September 1, 2000).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fighting Arson: An Interview With Dennis Smith, Author & Former Firefighter

Charles Michael Smith: What type of person becomes an arsonist?
Dennis Smith: I don't think you can make a generalization. There's been a great deal of research into children fire setters. They found out that the profile generally fits the profile of a young delinquent and that is generally from a broken home. People with serious education deficiencies, learning deficiencies, and severe personality problems. It's a couple of steps beyond juvenile delinquency in that it can become deadly.

CMS: When a fire is of suspicious origin what is the investigative procedure?
DS: It's a long procedure. There are certain ways that all firefighters are taught to proceed in the initial exposure to a fire. That is, if there are two different fires--one in one end of the building, one in the other--you know that it's arson. If you go in and see streamers anywhere--streamers meaning long strips of paper or other devices so that the fire will extend--you know that it's arson.

CMS: What is the role of the fire marshal?
DS: Fire marshals are called in some states fire investigators. In some states there are none and the police department is fully responsible for it. Their role is to determine the cause and the origin of all fires. It's only when the fire chief  at the scene says a fire is suspicious that a fire marshal gets really involved.

CMS: What are the attitudes of firemen to the arson problem that you've been able to find out?
DS: I don't think that the concept of arson in its consequences looms very large in the firefighter's mind. All they know is that the building's on fire or that they've got to go out into the streets, into the building to put the fire out.
But one fire to a firefighter is generally thought of in the same way as any other fire. It doesn't matter how it started really. The thing is once you're there how do you extinguish the fire. Do your job, save whatever lives need to be saved and do it as safely as possible without getting yourself killed or severely injured.

CMS: How many kinds of arson are there?
DS: There are three kinds of arson that are major problems in America? The first kind is the traditional maladjusted mental personality who is traditionally called a pyromaniac. The second kind of arson is arson as social protest and that was a huge problem during the late sixties and through the seventies. The third kind of arson is the most serious one facing us now. Although the amounts of arson incidents have declined in the last year it seems. We're not really sure but it does seem that way for the statistics gathering people. So while we have fewer arson fires, the costs are greater which means that the third biggest arson problem, which is arson for economic profit, is the one now that is in the long run the most dangerous to us as a society. That is, people are finding it in tough economic times as we've had in the last four or five years in business that it's an easy answer to recouping an unsound business investment as to burn it down.

CMS: What can a private citizen do to help alert firemen of arson?
DS: One has a great duty to report that. For this reason, when one goes about setting a fire one time in all likelihood they're going to set a fire another time and another time and develop a pattern of setting fires. And if it's a member of the family or friend then that person ought to be helped and also reported to the fire department. The fire department would almost certainly in the bigger cities have some program in place that would be helpful to such a person. Arson kills people. More than a thousand people we estimate at least in America last year.

CMS: What penalties would you like to see enacted in arson cases?
DS: It's interesting that the penalties vary depending on what time the arson takes place. I'm not a lawyer but there is a code of penalties that judges can go by for very specific crimes. If arson occurs during the nighttime hours from 11 o'clock until 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock in the morning, then the penalty ought to be much greater than an arson that occurs at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The rationale being that while somebody's sleeping, arson is a much more serious problem.

Part of this Q and A interview appeared on the Inquiry Page of USA Today (August 30, 1983).

Note: Dennis Smith is a former New York City firefighter. His books include Report from Engine Co. 82, Dennis Smith's History of Firefighting in America, and Report from Ground Zero. This interview took place in 1983 at Firehouse magazine in Manhattan where he was the publisher and editor-in-chief.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Black Gay Man's Personal Odyssey

The End of Innocence: A Journey Into the Life by Alaric Wendell Blair (South Bend, Indiana: Mirage Publishing Co., 249 pp, paperback)

While aboard a Greyhound bus enroute to his native city of Chicago, Fitzgerald Washington, the "scholarly, articulate, and light-skinned" black gay protagonist in Alaric Wendell Blair's debut novel The End of Innocence: A Journey Into the Life, pulls out a copy of his favorite book Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. "This would be my sixth time reading the book since I got it," he declares.

Unfortunately, I cannot say the same thing about The End of Innocence. One reading is enough for me.

Unlike Baldwin's classic novel which seriously deals with sexual identity and the ramifications of love, Blair's novel has a nineties TV sit-com approach to these subjects, with punchlines, catty remarks, and pop culture references (e.g. Joan Collins, Patti Labelle, Oprah, et cetera) to boot.

I'm disappointed that Blair, "an educator, journalist, and activist in the Indiana community where he resides" (according to the back jacket copy) hasn't produced a novel worthy of his background--something that is complex and intellectually stimulating, a la Baldwin or Toni Morrison.

The End of Innocence  is one of these tiresome coming-out novels. Following Fitzgerald from a summer camp "for bored ghetto children" to high school to predominantly white Harmon College to his enlistment in the navy, it reads more like an autobiography or memoir than it does a work of fiction.

As far as young Fitzgerald is concerned, despite his sassy snap diva demeanor, he is very insecure and naive (particularly about gay life). I found it hard to believe that a young gay man living in the 1980s, in Chicago, would not know about the rainbow flag and the pink triangle. (A black lesbian student at the college educates him about the symbols.) If the story had been set in the 1940s or 1950s, and the main character was from the sticks, it would be more believable. but at a time when gay life is visible on TV, in the movies, on national magazine covers, I don't think so. I don't even think straight people are that uniformed about American gay culture.

Also, all or most of the gay male characters (black and white), Fitzgerald included, are depicted as very effeminate, or as Fitzgerald would put it, act "more than a woman," saying things like "[y]ou young girls tickle me." Even in the mid-80s black gay men were caught up in what Michelangelo Signorile, the gay writer, would call the cult of masculinity and would frown at and avoid socializing with effeminate men. Fitzgerald conversely suffers very little negativity as a result of his admittedly "flamboyant behavior" in an increasingly macho gay environment.

Moreover, aside from his naivete ("I wonder if Rockwell or Kevin is gay. Mel could be, but I don't think so because he's fat"), his attitude about what is "real sex" have a Clintonian ring. For example, early in the book, after a sexual encounter (his first ever) with Denise, a promiscuous neighbor two years his senior, he still thinks of himself as "still a virgin because I hadn't achieved an orgasm with her." A later gay tryst doesn't rate as real sex either because it involved oral, not anal, sex.

The most interesting, and most promising, part of The End of Innocence are the last seven chapters. In these chapters, Fitzgerald joins the navy, goes through the naval equivalent of boot camp, and gets kicked out for being gay just as his naval career is beginning. Here is a missed opportunity. Blair could have expanded this section into a book-length indictment against the mistreatment of gay men in the military. It certainly is a topical and controversial issue that Blair could have used to give voice to those very rarely heard from in the media--black gay men in uniform.

This article was originally published in the Lambda Book Report (March 1999).

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Celebrating "The Roots Of Jazz" In Harlem

Right on the heels of Spike Lee's film paen to jazz music, Mo' Better Blues, came Harlem Week 1990's "Roots of Jazz" festival.

The August 17 concert and awards show at City College's Aaron Davis Hall was not only a celebration of four now-departed African American legends--singer Sarah Vaughan, saxophonist Dexter Gordon, all-around entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., and dancer-choreographer LaRocque Bey--but an acknowledgment of young up-and-coming talent who may each become, to quote one award presenter about Davis, "a world treasure, a national treasure, and a Harlem treasure."

The festival, sponsored by Remy Martin Cognac, will become an annual Harlem Week event and will, undoubtedly, like Mo' Better Blues, contribute toward making jazz better appreciated  in the country of its origin.

During the three-and-a-half-hour show, the four deceased performers were awarded plaques for lifetime achievement in the arts (Sammy Davis, Jr.'s mother, Baby Sanchez Davis, and his sister, Ramona, were present to accept his award).

Out of the 43 scholarships (totalling $75,000) awarded this year, only six were awarded onstage. Among the onstage awardees were Dionne Boissiere (whose parents are from Trinidad and Tobago), who won a five-hundred-dollar scholarship and first place in the jazz and popular music competition (she later sang a medley of Gershwin tunes) and two members of the LaRocque Bey School of Dance, Aisha Hawkins and Takima Lewis. Both are teaching apprentices at the school. "Each and every year," announced Lloyd Richards, president and CEO of Harlen Week's sponsor, the Uptown Chamber of Commerce, "we shall present two scholarships to students of the LaRocque Bey School of Dance in honor of Mr. LaRocque Bey."

A Corporate Responsibility Award was given to Gerri Warren, vice president of corporate communications at Paragon Cable Manhattan, in recognition of her "contributions to the youth of New York by initiating and continuing her Harlem Week scholarship program."

Interspersed among the award presentations were the entertainment segments featuring the "Harlem Prince of Soul," saxophonist Lonnie Youngblood; singer Gloria Lynne, who later accepted Sarah Vaughan's award ("She was my friend. I credit her for my style."); veteran tap dancer "Sandman" Sims, the LaRocque Bey Dance Company; and singer Dakota Staton.

Midway through the program, it was announced that Pearl Bailey had just died. The audience, in a state of shock, rose and held hands as Lloyd Richards said a few words of praise for her talent.

The mistress of ceremonies for the evening was the sultry-voiced Maria Von Dickersohn of radio station WQCD (CD 101.9).

This article was originally published in The Black American newspaper (August 23, 1990).

Monday, November 5, 2012

Comic Books That Are Aimed At Adults

Do you still think of comic books as kid stuff? Well, the people at Marvel Comics, the home of such superheroes as The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man, want to change your mind.

In an effort to reach a more mature audience, Marvel Comics has initiated, under its Epic imprint, the Tales From the Heart of Africa series. The first book, The Temporary Natives, focuses on Cathy Grant, a young white Peace Corps volunteer assigned to a village in the Central African Republic. The story is loosely based on the real-life experiences of Peace Corps retiree Cindy Goff (who co-authored with Rafael Nieves.

The Temporary Natives, in an often cinematically-inspired art style (by black Chicago artist Seitu Hayden), traces Cathy's odyssey from her graduation day at the University of Minnesota to her first year in the Peace Corps. We witness her day-to-day interactions with the local people and their customs. We also witness Carthy's role as a mediator when the local people become alienated by the condescension of Jack Glaser, a Corps colleague, during the building of a schoolhouse.

"This book," said 26-year-old Marcus McLaurin , Marvel Comic's only black editor, "can be more broadly interpreted as the Peace Corps in a lot of the underdeveloped countries, and the kind of culture shock that some of the volunteers run into and in general the feeling of hopelessness which tend to pervade a lot of the work. They've come to devote two years of their lives to do something good and yet they come away with questions of whether they did more harm than good."

The next book, continued McLaurin, himself an illustrator (he drew a comic book aimed at teens for the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force), "will be more about the country at the time [the mid-'80s] and the politics of the region, such as a massacre of local college students which really didn't get a lot of press coverage. It was a relatively minor protest which was met with excessive force."

McLautin believes The Temporary Natives's bookshelf format--quality paper between book-size softcovers--is the appropriate way to present this form of comic book storytelling because "you can tell longer stories, you can do interesting things with color, and a lot of people can afford it, adults as well as younger people."

Although the series is primarily  "seeking a mature audience," observed McLaurin, it is "applicable to any age group. Too often comics talk down to kids. If you present something to them in a mature manner and with thoughtfulness, it [the subject matter] becomes accessible to them."

With The Temporary Natives, McLaurin went on, "[w]e really show how powerful and versatile the comic medium is."

This article was originally published in the New York Amsterdam News (August 25, 1990).

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Boxing: Artistry Or Savagery?

Village Voice
842 Broadway
New York, NY 10003
November 26, 1982

Dear Editor:

The corruption that Jack Newfield writes about in his piece on boxing ("The Men Who Are Killing a Noble Sport," November 30 [1982]) is not the only disturbing thing about this so-called "sport." It's also the gladiator mentality that keeps it in existence. I have long advocated for the abolition of boxing and the recent death of the Korean lightweight Duk-Koo Kim underscores that belief. When I heard on the radio that Kim had suffered irreparable brain damage and that he was close to death, it brought to mind Willie Classen who died under similar circumstances about three years ago.To Newfield I ask: Must more lives be lost? Must more families be left behind to grieve before a decision is made to put boxing--which Newfield calls a "noble sport" and I call legalized savagery--to rest?

What baffles me is how Newfield can justify boxing by calling it "artistry." Where is the artistry in two men knocking each other's brains out? Can't Newfield see that boxing is brutal and that it caters not only to the greed of those who promote it but also to the blood lust of those who watch it? Can't he see the hypocrisy of those who decry violence in the street but glorify it in the ring?

I hope ghetto kids who aspire to boxing careers will instead aspire to something far better and far nobler than fame, fortune, and possible brain damage and death in the ring. There are other options, Mr. Newfield, than the gym.

Sincerely yours,
Charles Michael Smith

This letter was sent to the Village Voice but was not published.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Percy Griffin, Architect And Teacher, Designs Mostly For Black Clients

When Percy Charles Griffin was growing up in Mississippi, he was always painting pictures. As a result, his mother told him that she felt he was a born architect. She knew, said Griffin, 39, that "I couldn't make any money at painting, so the next thing to that was to be an architect." At the time, Griffin "didn't know what the word 'architecture' meant. When I came up here [New York], I wanted to be an engineer." But math--a subject he was good in during his high school days--became a stumbling block  when he got to City College. He had lost interest in the subject. "I went to one of my professors," recalled Griffin while perched on a desk in his office above 125th Street and 7th Avenue, "and told him I had no interest. He said, 'Why don't you try architecture?' So sure enough, I did.There too I was very pathetic. The first semester I was very, very sad. Awful. Some of the professors didn't have any hope [for me], didn't have any faith. They felt that I was completely wasting my time trying to study architecture. But inside of me I knew that's what I wanted to do and that's what I would do. The next semester," he continued, "I went from sympathy to admiration. I led my class in the third semester [a year and a half after entering college]. I was at the top of my class." Griffin went on to an architectural award at City College for his thesis design. (The cardboard model was that of a four-story, block-long multi-service cultural center that included a 300-seat theatre, art gallery, restaurant, outdoor fountain and garden, et cetera. If the project had not had funding problems, it would have been constructed on the block located at 8th Avenue and 121st Street. The site is presently a community garden.)

Griffin, the third of four children, is the only one in his family to have gone to college. His parents, despite their lack of formal education (his mother, a housewife, went only as far as the 6th grade; his father, a longshoreman, could not read or write), understood the value of an education. His father would not allow any of his children to work during the summer because he was afraid it would discourage them from going to school.

Griffin's decision to go to college came after he had attended a technical school in Brooklyn and landed a job in the office of Philip Johnson, the famous architect who later designed the AT&T Building in midtown Manhattan. "I went to school because everyone [in Johnson's office] were college graduates. Princeton, Harvard, all over. I really wanted to complete my education. So he [Johnson] told me, 'Fine. We will make this office fit your school program.' I went to City College for five years, taking off one, two, three days every week and they didn't deduct any money from my salary. I was doing regular architectural development, drafting, design development. Same as anyone else. At that time, I had gotten very, very good at it. Very talented." (Griffin gives Johnson credit for helping him in his school projects by evaluating them.) After graduation in 1972, Griffin took the architecture licensing exam; he passed it.

He tells an interesting story of how he came to get the job in Philip Johnson's office. After two years in one architectural firm, Griffin went "looking around for another job in architecture. One of the agencies sent me to Philip Johnson. I didn't want to work in that office because it was too prestigious for me. They offered me a job the very same day. Three weeks later I was standing at the newsstand on Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street when one of the bosses from Johnson came by. He said to me, 'I thought you wanted a job.' I said, 'A job?' He said, 'Yes, you came up to the office looking for a job three weeks ago.'" When the man announced he was from Johnson's office, Griffin replied, "I couldn't pay for the job. They wanted too much money." It was 12 noon. The man told Griffin to call him at 3 p.m. When Griffin called, the man told him, "We gave the agency the money. What's your excuse now?" The following Money morning was the beginning of a five-year association with the firm.

The office he is presently in was once the workspace of the renowned black architect John Louis Wilson, now retired. (Wilson was the first black to graduate from the School of Architecture at Columbia University.) Griffin worked out of Wilson's officer as an independent architect. Today he is in partnership with Stuart Furman, his former teacher at the Brooklyn technical school. (Furman, who is white, teaches at the New York Institute of Technology's Manhattan campus, near Columbus Circle, where Griffin also teaches.)

To Griffin architecture is the best of two world: aesthetics and technology, "It's very artistic. You have to have a concept. You have to have imagination and then you turn right around with this imagination, understanding the technical part of [architecture], which is the engineering, the structure, the mechanical, the electrical, and energy conservation. It's a mixture of many different fields. Not only the design or the technical  but sociology, philosophy, history. I feel that history is a major part of understanding architecture. Where it came from, the different periods it went through. You need to know the history of architecture and the history of the world. I feel that without the history, you would not have much depth as an architect.

"As we look around today, we see a little of many different styles creeping into architecture: the Renaissance, the Gothic, Byzantine, and so on. We went to one period back in the '50s where we had steel and glass, the glass boxes." Many of these buildings can be found on Park Avenue, north of Grand Central Terminal. For example, the Lever Brothers Building. This style  is called "modern" architecture. Now we're the post-modern period in which architects borrow from other architectural styles. Said Griffin about post-modernism, or what he calls "eclectic architecture": "It's like baking a cake. If you have the right ingredients, it will be tasty. So's architecture."

A majority of Griffin's clients--75 percent to be exact--are black individuals who hire him to do home renovations He also does design work for churches (such as the cultural and community center of the Thessalonian Baptist Church in the Bronx) and day care centers (two or three centers a year). His many clients include Sylvia's Restaurant on Lenox Avenue, actor Irving Lee (of the soap opera The Edge of Night), and Dr. Billy Jones, a psychiatrist at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, who lives in Griffin's neighborhood [in Harlem].

Griffin, who said he works very hard but enjoys his work, looks at 1983 as his best year professionally. However, he does have a gripe. He feels that the black community as a whole does not "want to use the professionals that are available to them. How many projects that I see going up in Harlem, the Bronx, Chicago, all over, and no black architect [is involved]. They wouldn't have a black architect. We could survive pretty well if we could get our 10 percent or 15 percent of the money for construction. A black preacher will go to a white architect," Griffin continued, noting the number of buildings going up or being remodeled because of church involvement. "How can he be a leader and not know where black architects are and not realize it's a hard struggle for black architects?"

At the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, he is on the committee that is helping to build "a connection between the church building and the office building." No doubt his church realizes the full value of his  experience and expertise.

At the New York Institute of Technology, Griffin teaches design. He has been there for eight years. He holds several positions at the school. Among them is the position of assistant director of the architecture department. NYIT, he said, "is 10 to 15 percent minority. Maybe. I noticed lately my classes have been all white. If I have a class of 14, 15, maybe I'm lucky to have two blacks. They may be from Africa, the West Indies, or some other place." Very few of his students are black Americans.

In his offices in Harlem, Griffin employs four young draftsmen: two Spanish-speaking females, an African, and a black American graduate of Hampton Institute in Virginia.

For relaxation, Griffin studies painting at the Art Students League. His specialty is abstract oil painting. Doing them gives him peace of mind. When he is painting, there is no need to respond to the wishes of clients or to construction budgets; he has complete freedom of expression. The paintings in his home are so good that people upon seeing them for the first time offer to buy them. Initially he declined these offers because he felt he would not have any paintings for himself. But now, with more than enough to share, he is willing to sell some of them.

When I asked him what advice he would give to students interested in pursuing a career in architecture, he told me that they should not go into the profession with the thought of making a lot of money. "Learn all you can. Work hard. you won't get rich." (It should be noted that architecture is not one of the highest paid fields. The amount of construction work available depends on the ups and downs of the economy.)

Griffin has never dreamt of designing skyscrapers. He couldn't explain why. But he, in a moment of prophecy, sees the day when skyscrapers will be on the drawing boards of black architects. He doesn't believe it will happen in his lifetime, even if he lived to be 150. "It's too far in the future for me to have a dream of being a part of it. Society," he continued, "is not ready for a black man to get involved with that kind of money transaction."

This condensed article was originally published in the Harlem Weekly newspaper in 1984.