When I was eighteen years old I decided I wanted to die decadently. My girlfriend’s best friend had just moved out of her house, and her mother, a realtor, was still trying to sell it. I moved in in the meantime. It was the middle of January. My girlfriend gave me a hundred dollars. I decided I would write my memoirs as a series of elegies, and when the money ran out, I’d put my head in the oven like Sylvia Plath.

No one knew about my plan to kill myself. They thought I was a hero for running away from home and school and life to do nothing but sit in an empty house, write and smoke cigarettes. I thought I was a hero too, but for all sorts of different reasons.

I couldn’t use any electricity, because no utilities could show up on the meter of the empty house, or someone would come to check it out. Probably the cops. So I sat in that cold dark house day in day out, into the night where I wrote by candlelight, and woke up in the morning cold and distorted and hungry.

The first few nights were the hardest. I was too cold to sleep, and lots of times too cold to write. The sounds of the house settling in the January snow made the dark hallways shiver behind short gasps of candle flame. I lay out flat on the cold linoleum kitchen floor and watched the candle toss shadows from the sink and the freezer and the cabinet on my stacks of notebook paper.

The mornings were blessings. I could write all day and take long walks in the snow. One morning I realized I was no longer a part of society. I was free, and every moment of my life was felt, like I’d never thought about it before. I smoked cigarettes all afternoon, and wrote, putting the butts out in a glass filled with snow, so they would hiss. When my stomach retched from lack of food, I ran outside and watched it steam on the snow beneath where I threw my still smoking cigarette and felt closer to life and death and health and disease than I felt even to my own sense of ego.

By the end of the second week, I didn’t even feel the need to write anymore. It was wonderful. I was delirious, having conversations with shadows I called watchers who watched me while I watched back and they warned me that the dead are watchers, so watch how you live. I was warm and cold, delirious all the time, hazy, like the flame of the candle taking shadows of icicles in the kitchen window, and throwing them into my chest, all in alliance with the moon.

I was almost out of money, so I went Ice Skating one night, drunk drinking cheap red on a nearby lake and waited for the ice to crack. I walked back to the house, and grabbed the head of a snowman on the way. Back inside the house I put the head in a pan, opened the door of the oven, and told him: “You first.”

After he was finished, I drank his remains from the pan, and looked into the mouth of that oven. I got sick on the floor, and retched around for about half an hour before I fell asleep. When I woke my mother was there. I don’t know how she found me. I thought I was still hallucinating. She told me: “It’s your choice. You can stay here and write your memoirs and die, or you can come home with me and live out the rest of your life.”

I went with her, of course. The rest of my life was all I had.

-Whit Frazier, 2006

The Waterlilygardengirl


There was once a young girl who lived in a water lily garden. She would spend all day in her garden, away from the rest of the sad world, reposing in the charms of its beauty. She would bathe in the clear sapphire pool, sliding her long and slender fingers over the floating lilies, or lie amidst the soft and dreaming verdure, listening to the tender flutes of the birds. Her only companion in this strange and beautiful world was a swan named Chanticleer who would often amuse her with the most delightful conversation. They would sit and talk for hours about the joys of life, the wonder of their world and all the magic to be found in their water lily garden, so complicated and lovely, a lifetime would not be enough to talk about all its myriad nuances. They never discussed the world beyond them and they never thought about it.

But one day as they were sitting in their lovely garden talking about lovely things, a bored little cat made his way somehow into the scene. At first the Waterlilygardengirl and Chanticleer were alarmed, but when they realized that the cat was not dangerous, rather he was somewhat indolent, they welcomed him in.

“Where do you come from?” asked the Waterlilygardengirl.

“I am from the land of floating ice,” said the cat, “but I left in search of new places. I had nothing to do.”

“Did you have no one to talk with?” the Waterlilygardengirl asked.

“There was,” the cat replied,” a penguin who used to visit from time to time, but I don’t think he liked the place very much either.”

“Well you can stay here with us,” said the Waterlilygardengirl. “You will like it here.”

But the cat just yawned, looking around himself distastefully. “No thank you,” he said. “This place is the most boring place I have seen yet. Maybe I should just go back to the land of floating ice.”

With that much said, the cat turned and walked out of the water lily garden.

“Well what do you make of that!” demanded Chanticleer, who was unusually sensitive, and had taken the cat’s boredom to heart.

But the Waterlilygardengirl didn’t say anything. She had been affected by what the cat had said in a different way, and she was wondering what lay beyond her world.

“Perhaps,” she said to Chanticleer the next day, “if I try to reason it out I can figure out what’s out there without having to leave at all.”

“Leave!” cried Chanticleer in dismay, “certainly you wouldn’t just leave.”

“But if I must,” the Waterlilygardengirl said. “Because I want to know what is out there.”

“But you have never been concerned about that before,” argued Chanticleer, “and you have always been happy just staying here.”

But the Waterlilygardengirl could not be convinced. All day long she tried to discover what was in the world that lurked beyond hers and what it was like, how big it was, what other types of creatures there were; but what intrigued her most of all was the mysterious land of floating ice where the bored cat lived. At night she couldn’t sleep, and the little sleep she did get was filled up with strange dreams of the outside world and the way that it must look, although all these images just appeared to be bizarre adaptations of the water lily garden. At last, finding her reason completely helpless in the effort, she determined to leave the water lily garden and go in search of the land of floating ice.

Chanticleer was not happy to hear it. “Well I’m certainly not going,” he insisted, “and if you ask me it is a waste of time. What will I do here all by myself? Why I might end up like that troublesome cat!”

“But Chanticleer,” the Waterlilygardengirl replied, somewhat hurt, “don’t you have any desire to see what it is like out there. What if it is even more beautiful than it is here? Think of all we could talk about and delight in!”

But Chanticleer wouldn’t hear a word of it. “I think that the whole thing is silly and that’s final!”

So at last they parted ways, and many a tear was shed, although Chanticleer will insist that only the Waterlilygardengirl cried. And thus, the Waterlilygardengirl left the water lily garden.


The first thing that she saw upon leaving the garden was a landscape of trees stretching all around as far as the eye could see. There were no ponds and there were no swans and the ground was rough with sticks and stones and large plants. The Waterlilygardengirl began to walk very slowly, not quite sure which direction she should take. She was overwhelmed by the vastness of everything and she even felt somewhat dizzy. Oh, how was she to find her way back in this most cruel of labyrinths.

And yet everything was still terribly pretty! The large oak trees that anchored themselves to sky, rising in majesty on all sides of her, the blanket of leaves, a green filter of light over a sheet of serene blue sky made her tremble with ecstasy, for there was nothing that she loved more than beauty. The song of the birds was a thousand times greater than anything she had ever heard, the intertwining melodies like slow heavy drops of rain plashing in a pond. Beguiled into this lush world of prettiness, the Waterlilygardengirl wandered through the forest in a dreaming daze, one of those rare trances of imagination in which we seem to have an experience with setting. There were so many things she had never seen before and so many places to explore. Did it ever end? she wondered.

But soon night fell and it grew dark. The Waterlilygardengirl became very frightened. The moon and stars, which had always been her solace and delight at night, were obscured behind the dark and prating shadows of the leaves overhead. Heavy with terror the Waterlilygardengirl resolved to lay down and sleep away the horrible night. But nightmarish thoughts haunted her the moment she lay still enough to hear her heart beating, and so at last she was forced to keep walking, slowly through the hated night. But every sound was a fresh terror and finally, with so much fear built up within her, she began to run frantically through the chasing night. When dawn broke she was exhausted and she fell asleep.

It wasn’t until late afternoon that the Waterlilygardengirl woke up again. She looked around herself, and found that she was still lost amidst the forest, and now she had no idea how to return to her beloved water lily garden. Perhaps Chanticleer had been right after all! She tried to appreciate the beauty of the forest, but she was so distracted by all of her fears that she couldn’t enjoy anything at all. On top of that it would be night again in several hours! The Waterlilygardengirl felt very helpless. The forest seemed to her like a coffin. She pulled herself up against a great big weeping willow and started to cry. Whatever was she to do?

It just so happened that about this time the cat had been wandering the forest reflecting on how bored he was. He turned the thoughts over in his head: should I go back home? But it’s so boring there! Yes, but it’s boring here too. Well for now I guess I will just walk around a little bit more. As he contemplated these probing questions he heard someone weeping a little way off.

“Well that’s very unusual,” the cat said to himself. “Perhaps this will provide me with something to do!” And so he trotted off in the direction of the voice. It was not long before he came upon the Waterlilygardengirl, who was sitting against a weeping willow tree with her face in her palms and her hair falling all about her face and hands and shaking shoulders.

“Why if it’s not the happy Waterlilygardengirl!” the cat exclaimed with surprise.

“I’m not so happy these days as you can see,” the poor girl wept, “for I’ve lost my way in these large and scary trees.”

“Not to worry,” the cat responded brilliantly, “for I know the way back to your water lily garden- I’m quite good with direction as I have nothing better to do than wander about all the time.”

The Waterlilygardengirl’s eyes lit up. “Oh, but will you take me there?”

“Certainly. Follow me.”

“But wait one little minute mister cat,” the girl said suddenly, seizing upon an idea. “Won’t you show me the land of floating ice first?”

“I can’t imagine why you would want to go there,” the cat said, turning the idea over in his head. His friend the penguin was sure not to visit for a good long while, and some conversation might not be bad, it might even take the edge off the boredom, and so he replied after some deliberation: “but seeing how dull the water lily garden must get, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.”

And so the two of them went on their way to the land of floating ice.


The land of floating ice was much more bizarre than anything that the Waterlilygardengirl could have imagined on her own. The foliage was sparse and pale, jutting out of tiny crags of rocks that loomed up morosely through the water. The water itself was unlike any water the Waterlilygardengirl had known. It was a cold scintillating blue that reflected the gray indifferent sky. Large chunks of floating ice drifted through the water, and these were the only pieces of solid ground on which to stand- the larger ones were anyway. Pale and barren trees reached up like skeletons from the frigid waters and the sun, dim in the gray clouds cast a loveless and chilly glow over everything.

“This is my home,” the cat said pleasantly, “what do you think of it?” The cat was eagerly awaiting her horrified response.

“But it’s so strange,” said the Waterlilygardengirl. “Everything is dead.”

“Yes,” the cat replied.

“And yet it is very pretty.”

“Pretty!” cried the cat. “You’ve gone mad!”

“Why no,” said the Waterlilygardengirl, dazzled by the setting’s gentle death. “It mesmerizes me.” And indeed it did, for she was once again in a dreaming daze, one of those rare trances of imagination in which we seem to have an experience with setting.

“And shall we be going back to the water lily garden now?” asked the cat.

“But I think I’d like to stay here from now on,” said the Waterlilygardengirl, and her voice was just a little murmur.

The cat wouldn’t hear of it. “This is no place for someone like you. What will you do for company? I certainly don’t plan to stay here – and there’s the penguin, but he can be very disagreeable.”

Figuring he’d settled the matter, the cat turned back toward the Waterlillygardengirl and repeated: “And shall we be going back to the water lily garden now?” But the Waterlilygardengirl didn’t respond, for she was beautifully dead: pale, jagged and frozen like the trees.

-Whit Frazier, 1998


The Parable of the Plague

There was once a land where greed had gained the upper hand. Everyone knew this. Everyone acknowledged it. Everyone accepted it. Folks simply considered it a natural quality of the land, and most of them secretly hoped to find themselves rich enough one day to exert their own greedy influence over the others who hadn’t managed their way to such an elevated position. Things might have carried on this way indefinitely, but perhaps inevitably, a terrible and excruciatingly painful plague was visited upon the people of the land, and many of them became deathly ill. The contagion spread, and only those who had enough money to keep themselves distanced from the general populace were able to remain healthy.

During this time, there were three people who saw the spread of the disease, and thought they might be able to do something about it. The first was a doctor from a prestigious institution; the second was a petty thuggish drug peddler; the third was an enigmatic conjurer. All three began treating patients with varying degrees of success. The doctor had an expensive prescription for the disease which he would only give to those who were able to afford his exorbitant fees. His prescription did not cure the disease at all, however. It simply quieted the symptoms long enough for the patient to purchase another dose of the prescription. The drug-peddler offered his patients a cheap drug which alleviated the painful symptoms of the disease, but which actually made the patients sicker, and ever more dependent on the drug he was giving them. The conjurer, on the other hand, searched long and wide, and found the source of the disease itself, which had arisen from the peculiar imbalance that occurs in the human animal when greed becomes his sole reason for being. He then set about curing his patients for free, simply by curing them of their desire for material wealth.

The doctor was so threatened by this conjurer, that he went to his important institution and asked them to do something about him. He figured he could take care of the drug peddler himself by simply showing that his product did not make his patients sicker; since he and the drug peddler were both offering more or less the same solution, he figured it would be an easy appeal to the reason of his customers that his product was the superior one; but the conjurer presented a real problem. The institution obliged his request, and immediately banned conjurers from treating patients. Conjuring was fraud, they argued; only physical drugs could cure physical ailments. Just to be sure, they locked the conjurer up for fraud, and thus eliminated him from the competition.

This left just the doctor and the drug dealer. The doctor’s remedies appeared at first to be good, but unfortunately for his patients, the dosage had to be constantly increased, and the price continued to increase as well. For those who could afford it, this was a satisfactory remedy, but everyone else had to rely on the wares of the drug peddler. As more and more people bought their drugs from the drug peddler instead of the doctor, the doctor became more and more incensed. He went to his institution and demanded that they do something. The institution obliged, and issued a statement saying that the drug peddler was dangerous, that his drugs were killing his patients, as indeed they were. When this public statement had no effect, the doctor grew so incensed that his greed overcame his own senses, and he too fell ill. Unable to procure the expensive ingredients for his own treatment, he too began to use the drugs of the drug peddler, and before long, the doctor passed away.

Such was the way of things. Needless to say, the land could not survive long under these conditions. Eventually all the citizens perished of their cardinal sin, and to this day, they remain unmissed and unmourned.


–  Whit Frazier, November 10, 2016

The Reinvention of the Rebirth of Cool (Obama & Jay-Z) – A Ramble

Obama says in his excellent memoir, Dreams From my Father that after going through the works of the great black writers from the first half of the twentieth century, he found that art lacked the redemptive power he had been looking for in it:

“In every page of every book, in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even Du Bois’ learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem, but all of them in the same weary flight, all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels. Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.”

It’s an understandable position (even if it only shows the most basic knowledge of the biographies of DuBois, Baldwin and Hughes) – and it’s finally the one which both Obama, as politician, and Jay-Z, as artist, embraced. After all, Malcolm does manage to overcome that one obstacle neither of the other three men mentioned ever does- he becomes a different kind of public figure toward the end of his life than he had been at the beginning: DuBois, despite his flirtation with Communism, eventually became discouraged by the entire American experiment, and left the country for Ghana; Baldwin certainly believed in self-reinvention (he even posits a myth of self-reinvention he imagined writing, but never did, in an essay in Nobody Knows My Name), but never got past being the “Negro writer”, and Langston Hughes, Jazz Poet and former Communist, never lived down his position as an agitator, even after he was forced to renounce his Communist ties in the McCarthy hearings. I was discussing something like this with people the other day. We make choices, people make decisions about who we are, and from there they paint us into these roles, and we find ourselves increasingly unable to escape from them. If life is a journey, and art is the vehicle, it’s a vehicle that doesn’t allow us to move beyond who we used to be in the eyes and judgement of others; and that hinders our own spiritual progress. Only “through sheer force of will” can we hope to reinvent ourselves in the eyes of others, and escape the self doubt and self-contempt that come with being locked in a role.

This is the type of public figure Obama was hoping to be.

With the rise of pop culture, especially in music, self-reinvention became part of the act. From David Bowie to Lady Gaga, our popular music artists have been able, “through sheer force of will” to go from being one type of artist to the next, and then the next, and then on to the next one. So when Jay-Z debuted in 1990s with “Reasonable Doubt” he was definitely coming on the scene as an outsider artist. All his friends were getting deals – Biggie had just dropped an album, and then came Nas’ debut – two of his good friends. But no one would sign Jay. So he took his album, made copies, and sold them out of the back of his trunk. It was mid-90’s and everyone loved an underground rapper. Jay-Z made it clear on his first album that although he was underground, he had no intention of staying there: “Nine to five is how to survive – I ain’t trying to survive / I’m trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot.”

So we have Obama and Jay-Z, two ambitious young men struggling to make a name and a place for themselves in the world, while at the same time trying to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors. It’s admirable, and really what we all do. But it goes beyond that. The two men really seem to be spiritual soul-mates in their beliefs. Jay-Z never intended to use art as a means to transform and uplift the community. He never thought that was possible. He believed in transforming and uplifting the community, but he believed it was done through personal responsibility and community building:

“Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute
Ace, turn that music down
I smell some reefer, now you see?
That’s why, our people don’t have anything
Because we don’t know how to go in places and act properly
(“Hey shut the fuck up!”)
Wait a minute wait a minute who told me shut the eff up?
Who told me to shut the eff up? Get him out of here
I’m not gonna continue this show, until you throw him out
Get him out right now, then I’ma continue my speech
Thank you, he’s out of here now, now like I was sayin
We gotta build our own business, we gotta get our own
record companies goin like Roc-A-Fella Records…”

The same holds true for Obama. Obama, abandoning the idea that literature alone could be redemptive, moved to Chicago and decided, instead of making a lot of money with his Harvard degree, to be a community activist in an unfamiliar town; and he started right in the black communities – the churches and the community meetings, where he hoped to expand and build on his vision. And just like Jay-Z, his ambition was as great as ever. Could he have imagined he’d be president of the United States someday? I think that’s where he was hoping to end up – a long shot sure – just like Jay-Z, (whose Roc-A-Fella Records um… Corporation, was just the trunk of truck) hoped that someday his company would be a huge capitalist player. As we know, both men saw their dreams to fruition.

I’m a fan of both men, with reservations. For one thing, I still can’t side with Obama when he says art lacks the redemptive power he was looking for. Wallace Thurman, the enfant terrible of the Harlem Renaissance, died in the very hospital one of his novels set out to condemn, declaring the Harlem Renaissance a failure; and DuBois and Alain Locke, the older, educated statesmen of the Renaissance (because if we’re going to talk about black literature, we almost have to start with the Renaissance) later agreed the experiment had been a failure. Well, it was in some extraordinary ways. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance were many and varied, and it was a self-conscious movement to create a redemptive black arts with a lot of artists of widely ranging talents, most of ranging pretty low. But then again, it was also a stellar success.


My criticism of Obama and Jay-Z comes with their inability to see how redemptive the arts really are. The redemptive power of the arts is one that begins with the self, and finally ends with others. So, while Hughes and Baldwin may have been, to some extent, locked in roles they were assigned by the public, these were powerful roles, and really had little to do with the artists’ ultimate individual freedom. As early as 1927, Zora Hurston could travel around towns in the south that were widely illiterate, and report back that when she read from Langston Hughes’ Fine Clothes for the Jew, “the listeners loved it. In fact, they loved it so much, the referred to it as, de party book.” It was a book that made them laugh at themselves, and learn about themselves by listening to themselves refracted through Langston Hughes’ play of voice and blues. In short it did what art is supposed to do – it touched, moved and challenged them.

In some ways Jay-Z taps into this same wellspring, but he doesn’t do it with the same love that Langston brings to it, and for that reason, like most rappers, he’s not meeting his audience where they are, but speaking to them from where they hope someday to be – “big pimpin’, spending cheese.”

That’s cool; only it’s a disconnect with everyday life, and really Jay-Z only loves his audience so long as they love him back. Power, as power always does, becomes its own reward, and the search for power in the hopes of redeeming yourself and your people, be it black folk or the American people at large, gets lost in power’s greedy demands; power only needs people inasmuch as it needs more and more power for the wielder of it.

Nas recognized this, and in his classic “Ether” calls Jay-Z on it:

“Y’all niggas deal with emotions like bitches
What’s sad is I love you ’cause you’re my brother
You traded your soul for riches
My child, I’ve watched you grow up to be famous
And now I smile like a proud dad, watching his only son that made it
You seem to be only concerned with dissing women
Were you abused as a child, scared to smile, they called you ugly?
Well life is hard, hug me, don’t reject me
Or make records to disrespect me, blatent or indirectly
In ’88 you was getting chased through your building
Calling my crib and I ain’t even give you my numbers
All I did was gave you a style for you to run with
Smiling in my face, glad to break bread with the god
Wearing Jaz chains, no tecs, no cash, no cars
No jail bars Jigga, no pies, no case
Just Hawaiian shirts, hanging with little Chase
You a fan, a phony, a fake, a pussy, a Stan
I still whip your ass, you thirty-six in a karate class
You Tae-bo hoe, tryna’ work it out, you tryna’ get brolic?
Ask me if I’m tryna’ kick knowledge-
Nah, I’m tryna’ kick the shit you need to learn though
That ether, that shit that make your soul burn slow”

Art’s redemptive power, then, isn’t always something you expect to come quickly, or even in your lifetime – or even in the lifetime of the next generation of readers necessarily. It becomes something that’s part of the cultural history, and must be done for personal redemption, so that others who come later can see how that manifests itself through the work. There are many layers of self-invention if you follow the works of Langston Hughes. The same is true for James Baldwin, and especially true for WEB DuBois. For all their mistakes and missteps and backsteps and frustration with the public, they were always true to the process of self-reinvention. They didn’t have to do it through “sheer force of will.” Redemption and self-reinvention is part of art’s process.

The politician or corporate mogul, on the other hand, only reinvents for the public. Just as redemption and reinvention are part of art’s process, moral compromise is part and parcel of politics and big business. So every reinvention for the politician or mogul, is in essence, a compromise, and a selling out of those who placed their faith in you. I may not know why Obama makes the decisions he makes; maybe strategically, he’s right about the things he does I disagree with. But it gets harder and harder to look for and spiritual guidance in a man whose job is to tell you only a portion of the truth. It’s the same reason Jay-Z’s so charming. It’s easy to be charming with so few blemishes. His vulnerabilities all look so cool: “I can’t see ’em coming down my eyes, so I gotta make the song cry.”

It may not be cool to struggle through “the same anguish, the same doubt” that Hughes and Baldwin struggled with; but it’s part of life and art, and life redeems itself on the other side of suffering.

-Whit Frazier (January 2010)

The Red Nova

Beneath the BQE, trapped in
The subway tracks elevated above
Broadway, J Train, a car yard
Of accidents already happened.

Within the car yard, survived by
No one, a Nova, crushed in,
Frowns like a bulldog’s nose, while
Stars on the Expressway fly.

– Whit Frazier, 2007

Music Lessons

Amanda makes music with her hands;
I watch her from the back of the room:
She stretches, coughs and yawns,
While her fingers fire like rubberbands.

Chloe makes music with her nose,
I watch her next to me, playing tunes:
She whistles, hums, and chirps,
And her nostrils bloom like a musical rose.

Maya makes music with her eyes,
I watch her watch like wandering blues:
She hums through pauses, gazing, glows,
And greets my song with sly surprise.

-Whit Frazier, 2004