Tag Archives: African-American

When all is said and done

when the last betrayal has taken flight —unnamed you stand alone with a catalog of memories and actions. And like the Actor, it is our actions ultimately that define who we are, how we choose to fight or retreat. We all feel like the Nowhere Man sometimes…but maybe it is not failure or malaise that consumes, but risks that genuinely tried. Not “nowhere plans” but actual attempts – stabs at the wall, great failures perhaps – but proof one has lived and had thoughts and some passion for SOMETHING. And, if anything, at least my words can do what I can’t: resist trembling in the face of Capitalism and the force of obedience.  The “bastard literature” which may have given birth to my own madness is one that I claim with glee.  Radical art, protest art, works and ideas that rejuvenates every sense of urgency from the eyebrow to the bowels.  There is no more time for games. This ends it all.  Walk into the valley, the great wash of the sun. turn your back on mediocrity. make art that can’t – but tries – to alter the world.  And when they say you’re hateful, you’re diseased, you’re un-romantic – just let your sigh do the talking.  

The film “As an Act of Protest” returns to NYC on August 9th, 7PM, at the People’s Forum. A special free screening, open to all: https://peoplesforum.org/event/as-an-act-of-protest/

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Coda for My Shadow

The world is becoming more acquainted with the names of dead Black Men as opposed to living ones

We’ve been tamed and perverted

into caring

when a Black Person gets murdered

uttering liberal platitudes and marching

instead of fighting for them – when they are alive. We’re all in collusion. Black men, in particular, like Christ or the Artist, are preferred dead. They’re easier to love and remember then. We prefer to mourn the dead rather than praise the living. While it is true most people on the planet — living or dead — don’t deserve an after-thought in the cosmos, there are still uniquely luminous individuals among us,

quite often they are loners or at the end of the line

or perhaps they startle when entering the café

or mesmerize when crossing the street,

sometimes it’s their words or voice we remember

or the scent of their clothes.

But it is safe to say that these people are never in positions of power. When they are — their murders sting, but they don’t surprise. Instead, we pretend we’re shocked when a harmless child or a struggling beaten down member of the Proletariat get killed. But all along we were just riding beside that Police Car, dispatching ourselves to the Fascists and believing in the sacrifice of our own

rather than the annihilation of a system

that seeks to destroy the Colored Man

with text, on screen, over radio, and in flesh.

Imagine a world where there will be no more funerals because there will be no more soil left to cover the bodies of the exterminated.

 

[The splendid painting “The Proud Father” above is by the South African painter, Gerard Sekoto, 1947. ]

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“Buddha said: ‘There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.’ The same could be said for Art. Cause it really doesn’t matter where you end up (although that is how you may be judged)…what matters is the journey. The process. Not if you win the battle, but how hard you fought. And what you learned from the fight. Some of us learn compassion, some of learn we weren’t as tough as we thought, some of us learn that all great thoughts and expression do not necessarily find an audience. But then we discover, we’ve been bamboozled! The aim is not for your work to find an audience…but for your audience to find you. No. It is not practical to think that way. But then again, if you were practical – would you be making art? Those who do are completely crazy and they are the last line of romantics on this earth. Cherish them. Because the music will dry up. And so will the thoughts. And then…what will you do on your way into the coffin? You will have no memories to call upon. Because contrary to what many believe – one does not see their life flash before their eyes in the instant of death. They see the poem that haunted them their entire life: a few lines of scribble that they could never understand until that final patch of dirt covered their shroud.”

                                                  – St. Claire Mulligan, Tremors

Because The Music Will End

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Gordon Parks: Reflecting, Connecting, Learning…

“I don’t make black exploitation films,” Parks stated to the The Village Voice, the very year I was born, in 1976.

Gordon Parks, Self Portrait

Gordon Parks, Self Portrait

After working at Vogue magazine, a 1948 photographic essay on a young Harlem gang leader won Parks a staff job as a photographer and writer with Life magazine.  For twenty years, Parks produced photographs on subjects including fashion, sports, Broadway,poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of activists, artists, and athletes. He became “one of the most provocative and celebrated photojournalists in the United States.” (Lee D. Baker, 1992, Transforming Anthropology) 

***

One of the most underrated and rarely mentioned filmmakers is Gordon Parks – whose genius as a visual artist and photographer often hijacks the attention away from his dramatic works and his cinematic expeditions. His powerful photo-essays,his dignified pictures of urban and rural working class life, his career as a Life magazine photographer (the very first African-American on their staff!) alone has left an indelible mark on the 20th century and modern culture alone (find his haunting “Crisis in Latin America”/Poverty/Flavio series, “American Gothic,” or some of the Harlem photographs he took, or his iconic depiction of Ingrid Bergman in Italy, peering back out of the corner of her eye as three villagers admonish the affair she was having with Roberto Rossellini)

 

Ingrid Berman on Stromboli (Gordon Parks)

Ingrid Berman on Stromboli (Gordon Parks)

He is on my mind today because I overheard some moron in the Time Life Building (which still hosts Parks’ haunting portrait of Ingrid Bergman) – ignorantly yelp that he was the “Father of Blaxploitation cinema”. In my younger, meaner “old days” I’d have started to yell and promptly given it to this kid straight between the eyes.  But I’ve learned to ease into these situations, finesse it, try to charm the actual situation before…setting it on fire.

I had to explain to this young man that black filmmakers did not create “Blaxploitation” cinema and if they did they certainly would have come up with a better term.

I had to explain that because of the box-office success of Melvin Van Peebles powerful Sweet Sweetback’s Badasss Song and Gordon Parks own cop thriller Shaft, white Hollywood executives and producers took note of this, saw dollar signs, and instantly jumped on the “craze” that was emanating out of protest music and black consciousness in art, literature, and theater in the early 70’s – spilling over into film. It was only natural that film would be influenced.

Black Panther San Francisco Chapter Headquarters, 1969 (Gordon Parks)

Black Panther San Francisco Chapter Headquarters, 1969 (Gordon Parks)

But instead of truly honoring the intentions of such grave filmmakers and writers (Sam Greenlee, Ivan Dixon, Bill Gunn, etc) — many of these filmmakers were lucky if they made one personal film of their own that ever saw the light of day. And even when merely “hired,” they never resorted to exploitation or sided with the racism of the establishment by further peddling stereotypes and all kinds of bizarre images of African Americans that the seventies mainstream began to feverishly churn out (as if it were a return to the sickening images and propaganda published about blacks during the height of chattel slavery).

Not one black film writer or director or “artist” was involved in, promoted, or benefited from Hollywood’s exploitation of “black anger”, fashion, sexuality, or music. Instead white producers wrote garbage and “pimped” black men and women into portraying white fantasies and racist caricatures; often watering down the righteousness of the previous 1960’s visceral rage. And often – we allowed this to happen.

Some directors, like Michael Schultz, found ways to transcend Hollywood’s attempts at gross exploitation of the African American audience and community at large– check out his heartfelt, coming of age story Cooley High, and his hilarious Car Wash, — two films the bridge a universal satire/slapstick rooted with social commentary. Incidentally, Roger Ebert praised Car Wash comparing it to MASH. But despite the film having received a Golden Globe nomination and a nomination for Cannes 1977 Golden Palm — it was still considered a “bad” movie with mediocre reviews. What’s even stranger about the screenplay for Car Wash is that it is credited to Joel Schumacher (yes, the man who directed St. Elmo’s Fire and all the early 1990’s Michael Keaton-BATMAN movies. Don’t ask.) I have heard from at least four people that Schumacher’s simply plotted out the movie and all dialogue was improvised and rehearsed and honed by Schultz. (Schultz is a theater director and so this would not have been alarming for him to do as he came from a heavy ensemble and actor-oriented background. Look him up: he directed Waiting for Godot in 1966 at Princeton and directed for the Negro Ensemble Company. He is noted for having directed Lorraine Hansberry’s To be Young Gifted & Black, the most successful Off-Broadway play in 1968!)

Interesting to note – like one of our greatest playwrights – August Wilson – Schultz, too, was Black and German. I sometimes even wonder if this does not account for their conscientious and laborious way of working; taking two great work-ethic traditions and blending them into one to singularly express unique POV and varied experiences of the African American community. That’s what I expect from high-brow academic “cinema” magazines and essays to be writing. Not promoting salacious and atrocious lies depicting Gordon Parks as the “Father” of Blaxploitation Cinema, making him “easy” and “pat” for Movie academics and white kids in the suburbs. IMDB is so disrespectful and perverse – they attribute Parks’ Shaft to Blaxploitation while even acknowledging the quote that starts this very essay!

Women, Nation of Islam, Harlem 1963

Women, Nation of Islam, Harlem 1963

 

Getting back to Gordon: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once praised him as being a “black genius,” – he iterated Park’s race because the interviewer obviously had no clue who he was (can you imagine?)…For those of you who don’t know much about Parks either – treat yourself to one of his autobiographies “Fires in the Mirror”, “A Choice of Weapons”, borrow a book of his photos from the library, or at least watch the documentary on him Half Past Autumn (produced by Denzel Washington, in fact one of Denzel’s most sincere contributions to cinema).

“Gordon Parks was the first black director to make a major studio film, and his ‘The Learning Tree’ was a deeply felt, lyrically beautiful film that was, maybe, just too simple and honest to be commercial.”
– Roger Ebert

 

The Learning Tree poster (1969)

The Learning Tree poster (1969)

Parks’ films seem boring today to a lot of the film establishment and are unnoticed or shoved aside by the independents because they are not formally aggressive and – aside from the ‘sexy’ Shaft and his gun-cop-adventure movies – are rather slow moving. His personal movies are not loud or stylistically excessive – they capture moments, like his photographs.  You can feel his colors, his environments, etc. They are distinguished – as he was – and they reek of cigar smoke and well kept sweaters. And they build and have a slow, gentle impact. They are not provocative, but they resonate. They are not fast and extravagant, but they are deep and conscientious. The Learning Tree of course is a perfect example – powerful due to its lean and delicate nature and how it depicts more complicated aspects of racism and reveals that everything is not what it seems. And yet…regarded as a strange anomaly. At the height of the civil rights revolution, the movie seemed tame and in a certain sense was, understandably, disregarded by the more progressive African-American arts community that were re-establishing and re-assessing how best to move on and create in America.  Some believe it is because Parks was telling a story set in the 1920’s and the accepted racism of that area did not strike a chord with the revolutionaries and the activists of the time who, in 1969, wanted nothing to do with any memory of the 1920’s…they wanted to destroy all that had abused and humiliated the preceding generation and their very own.  The Learning Tree, although well done, seemed “conservative” and passe at the end of the tumultuous sixties.

The Learning Tree has supposedly had little impact upon later African American artists and is seldom discussed as a significant work of art, despite Congress’ inclusion of it in their national registry as an “American treasure.”

Parks’ Leadbelly is an excellent ‘biopic’ (and I hate biopics) and a film that meanders somewhat tracing the life of this blues legend in a confident and understated way. Parks was a director who used understatement and slow-pacing in his own way, sometimes his films feel like they are trying to find themselves as it were — but while Schultz was definitely a better craftsmen, Parks was a better artist.

Even his minor works reveal something about the painful side of life — his version of 12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup’s Odyssey is under-cooked, but better than the overrated Steve McQueen version. But of course no one will mention this. Parks made his version for American Playhouse in 1984 with Avery Brooks. His version has more gravity and heart than McQueen’s. And yet he doesn’t push for it…McQueen pushed heavily for emotion and yet – I felt nothing after watching his film. There was a disturbing laissez faire quality the movie had and all I was left with was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s beautifully weeping eyes – with nothing behind them. At all. Those eyes should have given Rene Falconetti’s (see Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc!) a run for her money and they didn’t. And that’s why ultimately I was angry at McQueen: he pushed and choreographed so much melodrama – that all we were left with were soap suds.

Did you know that it was the great original movie maverick himself, John Cassavetes, who demanded that Warner Brothers give Parks money to make an adaption of his own book, “The Learning Tree” into a movie? Parks recounts this in his autobiography. I’m always amazed when biographers of Cassavetes never bring it up: it took a lot of guts to go to bat for an “unknown” Black director in Hollywood in 1968! This warrants serious rumination. Who would do this today?

Mavericks: Cassavetes & Parks

Mavericks: Cassavetes & Parks

Filmmakers are a selfish bunch, a part of us has to be cause we’re always nervous about financing our work, we often get derailed trying to organize our projects, we’re very competitive with other filmmakers (a good thing), etc. – but we seldom go to bat for other filmmakers.  And understand that Cassavetes was no Richard Burton or Marlon Brando, mind you – he never had that Hollywood power. Ever. And so he had a lot to lose – but he also had a reputation for being argumentative, righteous, intense, and “artistic.” This was a filmmaker who wrote and direct his own dramas at home, using his closest friends, and shooting films like a jazz musician.  Pure, unfettered feelings and emotions and thoughts – barely with a “story.”  It takes genius to recognize genius and this example proves it.  If there were two mavericks in Hollywood or American cinema at that time, it would be Parks and Cassavetes. Parks did not have the flair or showmanship that Van Peebles had and Cassavetes did not conform to genre or give audiences what they wanted the way some of his smarter contemporaries might have (Altman, for example) but they both created a very personal body of work. And a very important one.

1963 (Gordon Parks)

1963 (Gordon Parks)

A final interesting fact: Did you know that the great Gordon Parks — the pipe smoking, distinguished man of letters, music, civil rights, film, photography…was also Candace Bushnell’s boyfriend when she had fled Texas to live in NYC. He was 58. She was 18. According to Bushnell, she was too young to be in a real serious relationship with a genius, but declared Parks was “great” and that her mother thought Parks was the most charming man she’d ever met. Bushnell would, of course, go on to write and create Sex and The City. The only thing that disturbs me about all this is that Carrie Bradshaw always seemed too awkward and self consciously nervous to be around a man like Gordon Parks. It bothers me that Bushnell never tried to truthfully render a relationship between her characters and an African American man liked Parks. That would have been edgy. But her experience with Parks and Studio 54 was in the 1970’s. Her Sex & The City is like the 1970’s without the radicalism, intellectualism, politics, or danger. The 1990’s in NYC was interesting, yes – but if you remembered the show Sex & The City than you probably weren’t living it. And if you were – it wasn’t necessarily devoid of radical politics. When those incongruous worlds meet, it certainly makes for great drama. I’m mystified why it scares so many people.

Anyway, there you have it. Don’t ever say I didn’t give you any interesting gossip!

Lastly, please remember: it is this charming, elegant man — this High School dropout — named Gordon Parks, who lived life on his own terms, and tried hard to create a rich and varied artwork that would resonate with people who took just a little time to care and who were craving aspects of their own reflections..or society’s illness.

His films warrant a closer reading and “remastered” viewing.

Gordon Parks on the set of his hit film "Shaft" (1970)

Gordon Parks on the set of his hit film “Shaft” (1970)

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The Fetishization of Lupita Nyongo & the Dilemma of Black Actresses in Hollywood…

The Fetishization of Lupita Nyongo & the Dilemma of Black Actresses in Hollywood…

This article helped to give credence to my decision to move forward with my film project, “Octavia” — which was conceived to return to my protest art roots and theatrical background.  Urged by other writers who were supportive of my work, I wanted to create a role for a black actress that was at least as complex and interesting as my first cinematic character Cairo in “As an Act of Protest.”

This article only proves we are in a stranger, deeper dilemma as People of Color who may be involved in the Establishment Entertainment Complex or simply creating the advent of images under our own tables, with our own spoons.  Either way, it doesn’t matter.  Even maniacal Mao knew it:  “All art is propaganda.  But not all propaganda is art.”

I tell you: the creepy, insidious, patronizing, misogynistic racism of Hollywood in 2014 should outrage us.  But how can it?  We’re all slaves at the end of the day — shackled in mental slavery — and resistant to defining who we are on our own terms.  I mean that for EVERYBODY.  Hollywood and traditional Broadway, first and foremost, take their cue from Nazi Germany & the African Holocaust in the sense that they “break things down” and create TYPES…Didn’t von Verschuer do the same thing? And remember this if you read the article:  There is something bittersweet when African-Americans win awards given by a racist industry. Even more bizarre: Hattie McDaniel, who won the Oscar for playing Mammy in “Gone With the Wind” – did more for black people in the sense of her willingness to acquiesce and suffer in Hollywood so that Halle Berry or any other flavor-of-the-month in the “rhinestone sharecropping” of Tinseltown wouldn’t have to.  The Hattie McDaniels existed so wouldn’t HAVE TO debase ourselves or be conflicted as “what role to accept,” or revert to the perfunctory sexually subservient creature on screen who fulfills old White Men fantasies (isn’t that what Halle did in “Monster’s Ball”? Be honest. If that film showed a Jewess fucking a Nazi guard, you think the B’nai B’rith would’ve allowed it? Worse: they’d have burnt the ashes of the print! And rightly so.) etc.

So is there any difference between the racial dynamics of 1939 and 2014 in Hollywood? We have not even come full circle.  We are simply walking backwards. And seemingly enjoying the long empty road of our demise.

Pathetic. 

Black dramatists and filmmakers and producers need to get their act together.

Instead of Denzel bemoaning the fact that he still doesn’t get scripts offered to him (can you imagine?) – he should seek out some poor struggling blind alley scribe who could write emotional majesties for him and allow him to move into a new phase of his professional acting, career. I like Denzel Washington as an actor (although I admit I prefer his hungry, lean days) and that’s why I must tough on him. I expect more. I’m glad he did “Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway recently.

But isn’t it ironic that Lorraine Hansberry’s philosophical artistic message is still not be heeded? “A classical people deserve a classical art form,” she said. Not insulting offers to play a role in “The Jungle Book.”

*

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There is no Memory, Just Malcom (and the Ghost of Meredith Hunter)

“I had a gun, yes 
Cause it drove me crazy 
To see white boys 
Making money – 
From my ancestors music; 
Was I planning on murd’rin? 
Not necessarily 
 
But when Brian Jones 
said he walked with Bob Johnson 
The teeth in my head cringed: 
“Man, you’re a charlatan” 
Cause I’m Robert Johnson, 
My cousin’s Fred Hampton, 
My son is Bob Marley, 
And my feet are Michael Jackson; 
 
I’m a stumbling playground in the dark 
a sobered addict who can’t get drunk – 
 
If you want to meet the Devil, 
I’ll show him you 
In a mirror that refracts, 
All you see, think, & do –”

Meredith Hunter before his murder at Rolling Stones 1969 Altamont Concert

Meredith Hunter before his murder at Rolling Stones 1969 Altamont Concert


This was all I remember blaring from my cousin’s speaker; a sonic assault of sophisticated 
beats; finessed bass drum, and threatening guitars – all in righteous synchronicity against 
the foolish belief that the Rolling Stones had devised blues music. 
 
I still did not understand Rap or Punk. But I knew if Malcolm X had been a punk poet 
perhaps he’d have been part of that crazy band; the way Pryor Electric’s guitar sounded 
it was as if the razor sharp acid humor of Malcolm had been tossing out the riffs. 
And those words…while I could not comprehend the literal or psychological implication of 
them– I had felt them deep down inside. 
I felt the same way about Chuck D many years later. 
 
The same place where music beyond my intellectual grasp made sense in my gut. In the 
viscera. 
 
The place I‘d visit repeatedly over the next decade and eventually reside… 
 
It was the place my grandfather often took me to, in those rare drunken boat nights when 
Rimbaud was just as strident in his un-schooled heart as Malcolm X. 
 
Grandpa fought during World War II, but the war he fought was an internal one and a far 
more domestic one.

Not many paupers become princes. 
But Ralph Latimoore, hailing from a den of thieves and pimps from Port of Spain Trinidad, 
became known as the Mayor of Harlem just as the 1950’s wheezed its way into the 
Technicolor revolution known as Civil Rights – his barbershop in Harlem, comfortably on 114 
and St. Nick – 
His red hands 
Cutting the red hair 
Of the man known as Malcolm X. 
 
There was something boldly beautiful about Grandpa; a vase of flowers, Sam the Man 
Taylor’s “Harlem Nocturne” fumigating the soul on a Sunday morning, his insistence on 
good manners and saying “sir” (like Malcolm) , his take no prisoners attitude when 
defending the weak or oppressed. 
 
Later in his life, he always said he was the weakest of them all – 
Because he hadn’t batted an eye the day he placed that fatal bet, 
The day he announced to his stewards in tow: 
 
“I bet you twenty to one that man don’t make it to 40.” 
“Who? The muslin boy?” 
“Muslin’s a fabric, you fool – Red’s a Muslim.” 
“Eh-eh. And he ain’t no boy, nah. He’s Malcolm X. He’s a man. And that’s why they’ll 
make sure he don’t live to see 40.” 
“Well we over 40…” 
“We not a threat. Well. Not yet.” 
 
They placed their bets. Two of the men thought Grandpa was paranoid. 
 
He never spoke about Malcolm’s death, only that a profound silence and emptiness 
pervaded Harlem like an echo chamber of the soul, butterflies of the aorta. 
 
He never placed a bet again and was absolutely convinced— 
that the system used his recklessness and apostate ways 
To kill one of America’s 
– And the world’s – 
Last shining prince: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz — Brother Malcolm X.  
*
(written for & originally published in “The Day After MLK” program/zine at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, April 2014) 

 

 

 

 

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Revisiting Summerhill Seven’s “Notes of a Neurotic…” book

The “poemedy” aesthetic as created by Summerhill Seven (Alim Akbar) is the art of seeing every moment in life as perfected. I remembered this when I recently re-read Summerhill’s book “Notes of a Neurotic..” by Summerhill Seven . Touched that he proclaimed me the “Poemedy Artist of 2013,” I began to reflect on my first impressions of his writing and I thought it would be wise to share the original review I wrote of this poet’s brazen and beautiful book. (visit http://www.poemedy.com to learn more about his work)

Poet Summerhill Seven: Still crazy after all these years...

Poet Summerhill Seven: Still crazy after all these years…

Invisible Man: Thoughts on Summerhill Seven’s Notes of a Neurotic
Reviewed by Dennis Leroy Kangalee

Originally written March 5, 2005, Revised for publication July 29, 2005

Craziness on the Sleeve

“Sanity is not the goal. Since this book is by a self-proclaimed schizophrenic who inhabits a skitsofrantic life, then the lack of this state of being, often referred to as sanity, would have made these sololoquies impossible.”
– Summerhill Seven, “Trialogue”

I first met Summerhill Seven (Alim Akbar) in the summer of 2002 in New York City. I had been asked to direct a play about a group of local gamblers in a Harlem bar and had the arduous task of assisting the producer with the casting. I was not in the best of moods, was recovering from a nervous breakdown earlier that year, and was making a weak attempt at returning to directing plays which I had given up three years earlier in personal pursuit of filmmaking and writing. That summer, and well after that, I constantly had feelings of fragmentation, detachment, and rabid paranoia. I felt comfortable, however, upon meeting and eventually working with Summerhill Seven. You see, Summerhill is also a mad man.

I didn’t know much about Summerhill and still don’t. I know what I have to know and seldom ask or pry into his personal affairs and he seems to do the same. Our paths crossed, we ran in the same circles for a period, got high once or twice together, and even dated the same girl once. The girl was a writer from Chicago. She wasn’t crazy. This poor girl was psychotic and when I told Summerhill I would quit seeing her if he wanted to date her, he quipped: “Uh-uh, no, no you can have her.” I know he misses his mother, he was married once, he writes every day like a junkie looking for a fix, he adores Shakespeare, and shares my love for the Avant-garde. I always liked the fact that he was a lawyer. He seems to dig that I went to Juilliard – but didn’t graduate. We respect one another’s art and the demons that seem to rage within us. Summerhill was easily the most charismatic and fearless actor I had worked with in 2002 and certainly one of the most passionate and determined actors I have ever known.

We live in a moment in time that is crunched down-held up-sewn within the seams. We are hanging onto dear life in a punching bag that dangles on its last leg. No one is willing to risk it all to express the pain around us. No one is willing to free-fall as the majestic clowns and poets of the old were willing to do. In short: we are all afraid of the good fight. This is a problem far too great for me to go into right now, but one that keeps popping up in my head even as I try to gain distance on the “the scene” in America from Berlin, where I write this. Summerhill is easily ten years my senior, we are just barely contemporaries and commentators of the same generation. What I hold inherently sacred and vital to life – Summerhill does as well. This is what attracts me to his writings in his book. You see, at times, I feel like I have written it. (And no, to clarify he’s the schizo, I’m labeled the more fashionably – ahem – “Bi-polar”)

“I readily admit that the Americans have no poets; I cannot allow that they have no poetic ideas.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part II/Book One

Notes of a Neurotic is an eclectic mélange of poems, humorous interludes, observations, and dramatic fiction. It is designed to “heal the emotions of the reader, the speaker, and the writer” This book is clearly a work of art that is reflective of the chaos in this world; a journey of an unstable man trying to find his way in this world…It is in many ways the spiritual biography of Summerhill Seven. Part manifesto, part confession – it is the current analogy in literature to what I tried to accomplish with my 2002 film As an Act of Protest. And being one of the only artists in New York City to publicly and proudly support my film (he taught it and screened it to his students), Summerhill’s work shimmers with a similar fever that mine has been dipped in. That is the fever of the split atom, the “crazy” urban black intellectual, the scared revolutionary artist…the neurotic. What I tried to do formally and structurally within my own directorial work Summerhill Seven has done as a writer. The difference is that where I may or may not have succeeded (my opinion alters depending on the day and my mood), I believe he has. Dashes and flashes of brilliance flicker, for example, in his Schizophrenic Skitsofrantic Soliloquies section These come off as Haikus or proverbs or as they have been aptly described as “the fruit of the poet tree”. In “Observation,” he writes:

I find that my life is a lot happier when I avoid white men in robes, whether they are black or white…robes.

Writing as an Arab American, he poignantly writes:

George Bush declared war on somebody and I don’t know who and I am losing my mind because everyone I know doesn’t like me and everyone I know doesn’t trust me.

His wicked and cool sense of humor stands to attention in “Peace,” which easily could have been part of a Richard Pryor monologue in the 1970′s. Check it out:

I prayed for peace and got it!
I was so dam bored I saw a dog and shot it.
The dog came back to haunt me,
Smoking a blunt and drinking coffee.
Can you imagine a dog with caffeine high?
But cool cuz he has chronic burning in his mind’s eye?

Summerhill Seven is a theater artist and I say this to re-iterate his approach and style to writing and assembling the works collected in Notes. In many ways, I feel relieved that he has begun to accomplish what I was waiting for. A new black literary voice who had one foot in theater, one foot in poetry, and one foot – ‘er hand – in outer space, or somewhere…Cosmic Humor is what I suppose we can call it. Something I myself have been tempted to explore. The combinations and mixes and the rapid pace of the altering styles is one of the main features of the new wave of Black American fine artists that emerged in the late 20th-early 21st century. Most of us who were interested in expressing his or her own unique voice – particularly those of us in Northern urban areas – did it in whatever vein we saw fit, even when the moods and shapes changed drastically from one moment to the next. Some just don’t understand the jazz of our work. Charles Mingus said that for him Byrd was it – the greatest – simply because he was expressing how he felt. The greatest self-expression abounds in simplicity, and yet its meanings and emotions are so doubled and tripled and full of inborn contradictions and philosophies about life you can experience the work over and over and never get tired of it.

Form follows function in Summerhill’s Theater of Neurosis. And just when I feel he is going along with the flow of the stream and giving in to what the audience wants, he opts to swim his own way. This is his saving grace and what keeps him rooted as an artist. His interest in people, his pathologies, his political convictions, his sexual appetites, his impish desire at times to shock and annoy, most importantly – his sensitivity to the musical tones of life and the presence of death in our everyday existence. In his own unique way, Summerhill has created a post-modern metropolitan black Spoon River Anthology. Yes. This is another bizarre connection I have to him. The River Flows, the 1993 adaption, was the first off-Broadway play I ever did….I played Death himself and was like a character torn from Notes. These are not coincidences, for things don’t just happen -they happen justly.

In Notes, Summerhill liberally sprinkles his book with quotes from everyone from Saint Baldwin (James) to the prophetic rancor of early Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and the poetic wisdom of William Shakespeare. These quotes serve to remind the reader of either a theme or concept being explored or expressed and/or to give the actor reading it a cerebral inspiration on the page that may lead him down the correct path as he begins to dramatically interpret and perform a specific text. The book – a slim 148 pages – is packed with conceptual ideas, puns, clever plays on words and titles (i.e. poet tree, poemedies, essalogues, etc.,) but I am not interested in or willing to indulge us into the meanings behind those phrases or titles or explain how “clever” the author can be. Who cares? Real art is not about being clever. It is about expressing how much you know about life. And for all of Alim Akbar AKA Summerhill Seven’s broader appeal (when he performs, my wife refers to him as “the thinking man’s Will Smith” in the sense that he is good-looking and charming enough to be able to garner a willing and very harmless mixed crowd) and his ability to hold court with a potentially more varied audience than me, for example, his strength is not in the trappings and superficial aspects of his more liberal and accessible poetry. No. It is, I believe, in the heart and soul of his prose and monologues-proper. Or what he refers to as his Essalogues. This is where Summerhill excites me the most and where he is at his best.

Heads Up

The short story “Heads” is one of the most provocative and honest pieces in the entire collection. In its Raymond Carver-esque minimalism, tongue-in-cheek bravado, and muted satire, Summerhill recounts how he killed three white people (a racist punk, a lawyer, and a landlady) and is completely at wits end working and living with white people. They are simply too much to deal with and they do nothing but constantly aggravate and annoy. The entire idea – whether it is treated humorously or with straight up tragic insinuations – of killing white people or the “oppressor” is one that has infiltrated and consumed a great deal of modern Black American art work. It runs through the plays of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, the music of Public Enemy, and has been finessed and relayed masterfully by composers such as Bob Marley and is hinted at within the canvasses of the painter Aaron Douglas. Not literally, but in spirit. Even my own early work constantly wrestled with my own anger and frustration over what to do when living in a racist society. Summer’s treatment of the matter is less directly heavy handed, however, and not as tragic. It is much more absurd and has the maturity it takes to see the scenario through a simple and clean filter: it’s all a day’s work. The humor is venomous and already present in the opening paragraph:

I mean the idea of killing four white people in the twenty-first century
just for what, to redress some historical wrong? I just simply was not with it.
But now, that I have already killed three, I am starting to get into it.
I mean, I really am starting to get the hang of it.

Funny stuff. Very dry, very simple. What makes it funny is the element of truth behind it, what makes it creepy is that you know the narrator is tired and doesn’t have time for jokes. Or perhaps the former is the latter and the latter is the former? I don’t know, now I’ve confused myself. Anyway, it doesn’t matter – what the story reveals and how Summerhill seems to express it so effortlessly is what counts. Our narrator tells us he killed his first victim because he was called a “nigger,” he killed his second victim because he couldn’t stand working with, for, under this incredibly arrogant and prejudiced man who was one of the head lawyers in a law firm that had hired our brown-skinned narrator. Any black person who has ever worked in an office setting or corporate environment instantly recognizes the sort of white male that Terry Apath is. This is where you know that the bond and anticipated audience of this story is black because of the casualness and simplicity unto which the story is relayed. As with the tradition of African American literature – the story is very oral and has a great deal of “signifying,” and radicalizing simply within the speech/text. I point this out because I do find it important that black writers still approach their work in such a cool and naturally stated way. In an era of “Who is your audience?” and “No one will understand your references, people are not smart as they used to be,” it is refreshing that Summerhill invites the reader into his world, into his neurosis and doesn’t comment on what they may or may not understand. Instantly you are a confidante and this is what made some of the white listeners uncomfortable at the Book Party in February 2005, when portions of the book were read in public. Not that ayone objected, no. White people will never object to anything considered “artistic,” within a black or mixed milieu for fear of being labeled racist or a “phony liberal.” They will just roll their eyes, squirm, or smirk – as if to say “That is sooo hateful, I could never…! I’m more developed than you, gosh you people with your Superfly-Shaft-Badass-anger. I’ve seen it all before! I’m Jewish and I don’t write stories or fantasize about killing Germans or Arabs!”

First of all that would be a lame excuse and a ridiculous comparison. But of course they don’t have to write about anything similar – white people take out all their aggression directly. They don’t have to write stories, they can blow up countries. They don’t believe in art or therapy and when they they do – they site only musical artists. As if to imply that music is “free” from any political-social relevance…I am obviously generalizing here to make a very serious point.

Most Americans (particularly the young white American) miss the point when evaluating or simply even reading real African American fiction. It would be misleading, however, to imply that Summerhill is writing for white people. He isn’t. And when he does he makes it clear that he is. But this problem infiltrates black readers’ minds as well as whites. There shouldn’t be a need to specify or diffuse either way but we all know history and the way this world works.
My point: if White Americans aren’t going to read their masters or really dig into their own problems – the way Bob Dylan and Paul Simon did thirty-five years ago, then they had better read and taste the folk art of the Black American if they want to begin to understand their country, their world, their history…their neurosis. Summerhill doesn’t write about Pimps in the street and spray “hip” derogatory terms throughout his work. He’s beyond that, even though it is what is expected from Black writers and filmmakers. He doesn’t exploit “blackness,” women, or the so-called “urban jungle.” His grievances are real. He reveals the scowl behind the grin, the anger that is just below the surface. But for all his authenticity, no one seems to pay attention to Summerhill or several other artists working within the same mix. Folks will say: “Well, he’s got no audience, yet cause he hasn’t been on TV or featured on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section of the NY Times, or he hasn’t debut with some rising Pop Star-Gangster-Wanna-be-Hip Hop buffoon. Lies and excuses, my friends. But the reason this cuts deep is because being a theater artist almost lends itself to invisibility. Besides the Lincoln Center effete crowd and a few organizations, and a handful of WASPS in New England or Boston or even in good old “progressive” San Francisco – the theater means very little to people. Artists or otherwise. I often wonder if maybe that’s not the way it has always been….

For those who believe playwright Suzan Lori-Parks or David Mamet still have any true power or progressive instincts on stage – they are holding worthless promissory notes. Mamet imitates himself, Parks cashes in on what the mainstream audiences will expect her to turn in or evaluate – particularly as an African American woman. Neither are of the current state of consciousness emanating within the arts (whatever is left of it, that is) and both are very comfortable. Those looking for the real news, the truthful insights, and the still untamed social and political observations should read Summerhill Seven’s work and go underground…wherever that is. I guarantee the monologues and theatrical texts that Summerhill offers are a thousand times purer, personal, and poetic than anything in the mainstream theater or poetry houses. Because, similarly, if Russell Simmons destroyed comedy with Def Jam Comedy (as Bernie Mac claims he did) then he absolutely murdered poetry with his Def Jam Poetry. Nowadays, it is typical and passé’ to hear some Black or Latino or East Asian or Middle Eastern poet or some gay white chick with piercings get on stage and whine (these people don’t even know how to scream) about racism, sexism, the War in Iraq – all in familiar and rhetorical cadences, with a wink, nod, and bow to the word(s) “my nigga,” “George Bush-shit,” and/or something to do with “pussy-bush-the ghetto-the street-Gucci-Donna Karan-Park Ave-USA-” Blah, blah, blah, blah…Empty. It’s all empty. Such is the nature of pop. Particularly when it is popular to assume a stance of righteous anger. Summerhill himself is not innocent of any of these popular and accepted streams of current poetry, but Summerhill is not a poseur. He’s been to the gutter and back. He’s lived and as much as he loves poetry, even he has admitted that – similar to the state of hip hop and Pop music – the poetry in NYC scene is dead. It is dead because it has been co-opted.

Poetry, like the theater, is dead because it still sells itself out to pimps who want to rape it. Poets continue to bend over (like their cousins – the independent filmmakers) and completely ignore their pride, talent, and soul. Why should poets perform on main stage theaters, why should filmmakers want their films to be seen in malls? Is that the most we can achieve and hope for? Wouldn’t we rather gather in someone’s intimate apartment and create our own studio? Are artists that contemptuous of each other that we really can’t work together because we all just want to be richer than each other and get revenge on our un-supportive families or patronizing bosses or apathetic teachers? The poets of the night are dead – because they want to be. They drop their pants, grab their ankles and give up any virtue or innocence left. They are like victims who beg to be raped and then cry when someone tells them “Are you nuts? You need to do something about this! You need to call the police!”

Keeping that in mind, read the following and imagine it is the last scene of a play. Imagine you saw every meticulous slice of nonsense on Broadway, then got a headache from the imposters Off-Broadway. You went home, vomited, felt a lot better and swore to yourself over that toilet-bowl that you would never go “drinking” again. A friend begs you (or if you have no friends imagine a little angel flies into your face) to go and read/see Summerhill’s work and “taste” something new… You go, taste it, and realize maybe even half-way through – that what you are drinking ain’t new, it’s just what most of us under 40 are constantly denied: truth within the arts.
So, imagine: you are seated somewhere and it is dark. There is a slight chill that runs up your spine. There are maybe twenty people in this audience. Under the moon, the stage lights flash up from below – they are dim and but we see our Narrator clearly – because we experience something almost foreign in its brightness. The lights slowly dim as our Narrator admits: (perhaps in a choked up whisper)

Terry was fun to kill; killing the landlord was out of anger and I just did it because.
It was kind of funny, technically speaking I am not sure if it was on the same day
because the Arabs start their day in the dark at 12 am. But, as you already know the
landlord was Jewish, and for the life of me I don’t know when they start their day.
But since her Jewishness was incidental to the cause of her death, I guess it didn’t really matter.
I just strangled her for no more than a minute a two.
I had on the same blue-green Isotoner gloves that I strangled Terry with
.

Our man tries to smile, but can’t. He looks at his gloves , lights a cigarette, and looks out into the audience. Blackout.

Read Hang Time — Summerhill Seven’s poetic memoir, back in print and available now!

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My Final Scream: Punk & Poetry

“EVEN MORE POWERFUL LIVE THAN IT WAS ON THE PAGE! BRILLIANTLY STAGED BY NINA FLECK -A STRONG MIX OF WORDS & MUSIC THAT CREATES A DIFFERENT THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE…KANGALEE WILL BE FOUGHT EVERY STEP OF THE WAY, BUT HE ALREADY KNOWS THIS.”
– Reg E. Gaines, NYC Downtown Urban Theater Festival Director, 2011
Tony-Award Nominated author of Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk

Dennis Leroy Kangalee as The Nomad Junkie fronts his theatrical punk band in "Gentrified Minds" (2011)  [photo by J.Lehrman]

Dennis Leroy Kangalee as The Nomad Junkie fronts his theatrical punk band in “Gentrified Minds” (2011) [photo by J.Lehrman]

Every now and then it is healthy to remember your personal war stories. From time to time, I will share bits and pieces of past works that might fit such a definition. Below are lyrics to the title song of my 2011 performance piece, “Gentrified Minds: The NY Horror Vol.2,” a musical spoken-word piece about gentrification. I was coming out of a long deep-seated emotional stir regarding the virulently corporate-friendly gentrified nature of NYC. It was stifling, sad, and arresting to feel like an alien in my hometown. My wife and muse Nina Fleck, pushed me to express my views about it all in a theatrical piece that combined our love for poetry, protest, and punk in one. It was meant to be a dagger in the side of the suburbanization/homogenization of New York City. To this day I don’t know a single soul who has gained anything as a result of the gross over-development of NYC. And if they did gain, it was just more money…and they were probably already rich to begin with. The project came to a swift halt in 2012 but it was one of the most thrilling and freeing experiences I ever had. It was the tail end of a long phase that gave birth to a number of poems in the guise of my “Nomad Junkie” persona and it was my last sigh in a tense chain of ‘holy rants’ and aggressive works that I construed to be viewed as poetic grenades. In the end, I was reminded that protest art doesn’t really do much to the status quo, but it does affirm the tremors of each choir member you may choose to preach to. And that’s all right, because that says a lot. It solidified my belief that the nature of true rebellion can never be popular. For when it becomes tamed — so does one’s passions.


Gentrified minds
Speak in gentrified times
Of gentrified ways
In gentrified days
With tongues that they stole
From mouths that they sold
In order to live “that way.”

“That way” is the day
That you knew you would pay
For the sins of a hustler
Who gave birth decay
My gait ain’t my own
Nor the shoes that I own
Barely’s the air that I suck
Or the sounds that I groan —

We are
Gentrified Minds.

I have no culture
Only a vulture
That breeds on my dying days.

Click here to see video excerpt of the performance.

or visit this earlier post

*

Visit this link for a glimpse into an earlier phase of my NY Horror series.

(c) 2011 by Dennis Leroy Kangalee; Words by DL Kangalee, music by Bob Kuch.

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Double Standards

(OR: To the Woman Who Cannot Come To Terms With Her Past –A Response to A. Lichtenberg Who Tried to Write About Her Great Grandfather Being a Blackface Performer)

At first my knee-jerk reaction — laden with a slew of significance — if not, perhaps, just another symbol of my “over-sensitivity” (don’t you love when the oppressors or at least those with a fistful of dollars label your insight as “over-sensitive”? Only one cut from the cloth of the great Dutch Masters–I’m not talking about Rembrandt here–could say such a thing…could you imagine: hundreds of bodies beneath you cramped together in stinking shit shame and profound trauma while above a couple have a cup of tea on the upper decks?)

but here is no such thing as: Emotion Vs Rationale.
One who can’t think can’t feel.
You can’t feel, then you can’t think.

There is no enigma here.

But I digress as I often do, trembling just a little on the
in-side
of logic
cause I don’t see
how the
out-side
is getting
any better.

And as if to excuse this she explains he was a “Jew.”

Oy-vey.

Because the Jews, as we all know, were not forced into ovens — they were forced…to debilitate and make money off of the Blacks. Yes, guns were held to their heads and they had to make a choice.
?
(Sophie’s Choice: could you see old Meryl being forced to choose between “blackening” up and make fun of the Negroes or burning to death if she refused? Neither could I)

Well, I wanted to ask you, gentle writer:
“What would the difference be between Nazi ‘Shylock’ noses humiliating a Jewish Man and the surreal Jewish Immigrant in the good old USA who blackened his face to dehumanize and contort
the North American African Man?”

Well, I could not have another argument and implore her to see some Spike Lee film or try to prove my point. Even Scientists know: you don’t convert your opponents. You simply wait for them to die.

As the night wore on we spoke of many things, but my table kept coming back to your profound resistance,
your conscientious
un-willing-ness
to accept
who your great grandfather was:

a man who made his living denigrating the existence of my grandfather.

I believe in forgiveness, but I don’t believe in praying for an amnesia.
So your great grandfather was just another
Al Jolson
stopping the clock
mopping the docks
getting paid to mock

a people
you maligned in ghettos
even before
you fled Hitler’s.

____________

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