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

Incomplete Octaves



If you vanish, Aurora yawns; I was startled to a pause.

“Well, go on. After all, your time is limited.”

Standing on the corner, a dark young man smiled in a way that made me frown.

I went on, but those words held me in check. What had he meant by that? Was it a threat? A prophecy?

It was too much of a delay. By the time I got to the bus station, she was gone. Aurora was really gone.

Her abandoned jacket lay jeering on my arm, and the afternoon approached gray, dull, sluggish; a pestilent congregation of vapors.

On my way back I ran into the same young man on the corner.

“You’re back,” he didn’t sound surprised.

“And with plenty of time.”

“After all, your time is limited.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?”

“Pretty much means whatever you take it for.”

“You go to the academy?”

“That’s right.”

“So, what. You a philosophy major or something?”

“Psychology. How about you?” He smiled.

I frowned.

“I bet I can guess.” He looked me up and down, a full appraisal. “Business.”

“What makes you say that?”

“You run from place to place like a businessman.”

“Well, you’re wrong. I’m a classics major.”

“So you are.”

“Well what’s your story? You just stand on street corners?”

“They call me Hector.”

“Nice to meet you, Hector.”

I didn’t volunteer my name.

“So why the classics, of all things?”

“Why not?”

“Yes, why not. Finally you’re asking the right questions.”

“Good as anything else. Why psychology?”

“Well that’s easy. It’s what I’m writing my thesis on. I study psychology because we all want to die, and I want to know why. Pascal says everything we do is distraction from death. I tend to think the opposite. Everything we do is to distract us from the horror of life, and really we’re just looking for the quickest way out.”

“Oh. Good for you.”


I thought about Hector and his gloomy thesis all weekend. It was just a distraction from Aurora. I called her as soon as I got back, I left a message. I sent her a text. The day just dragged on by. I put her jacket on my bed and lay down next to it, like she was still beside me. For a moment I was happy. The day glimmered dim against the ceiling, and the jacket and I lay draped arm in arm, and I thought about how everything we do comes out of our desire to die, and fell asleep until the sky went dark.

When I woke up, I stayed up; I thought about Aurora. I opened a bottle of wine, and listened to Thelonious and felt awkward about everything. She was harder to get a hold of than Monk’s linguistics; the moment you thought you connected with her, she was on a different wavelength. Why did she have to slip out like the sun shifts? Had she waited for me to leave before she vanished?

I’d just gone for tea; had brought back two.

Sometime late in the night, I wrote her an email, which I shouldn’t have done, because I’d already opened my third bottle of wine, and it was one of those witching hours where the night seems to stretch to no end on all sides, like a sailor lost in the rain, and no land in sight.


There was no way for her to avoid me forever. There was nothing from her Sunday, and she didn’t show up for class on Monday. I sat on the quad in the afternoon, pretending to translate Seneca, enjoying the mediocre sunshine. Before I finished Hippolytus’ first speech, a shadow came over me, and I looked up to see Hector.

“You mind if I join you?”

“I was working, but-,”

“Great.” Hector sat down and took the book from me. “Phaedra.” He shook his head. “I came here to get away from all that nonsense, but I see now how naïve I was.”

“Get away from all what?”

“Western brainwashing. I expected more from a black liberal arts college. A more nuanced view of things.”

“Where you coming from?”

“MIT, Emory, Mythology, Oxford, Reed, Yale. The stately gates of Dis. They’ve all rejected me. I don’t make friends easy.”

“You’re a real joker, huh? Maybe that’s your problem, though.”

Hector examined me for a moment. “You’re a wise one, aren’t you, Hippolytus.” He smiled. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“Theseus. Oedipus. Achilles. Hector. Agamemnon. Odysseus. Caesar.”

“See, I like you already, Hipp. You don’t mind that, if I call you Hipp? We’re never given the names we deserve, but we try to live up to them all the same. It’s a terrible distortion of our personalities.”

“So what did you expect from a black college?” I felt like I should get back to Seneca. I scanned the Quad, hoping for Aurora.

“I’m keeping you,” Hector said after a while. “But I do this, you know. I’m pretty good at it.”

That made me smile. “You’re good at keeping people?”

Hector returned the smile. “In my fashion. I’m good at talking to people, I mean. I hold sessions. Patients. That’s what keeps getting me in trouble.”

“You mean you practice on patients? Students?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Well, no wonder you keep getting in trouble.”

“It’s not so much that I practice that gets me into trouble. The problem is that people, and women in particular, take my teachings too much to heart.”

“So you say, Socrates.”

Hector just smiled.


The first suicide was a week later. I felt electric waves just looking at the phone buzz Aurora.


“I need someone to talk to. Are you free this afternoon? A girl I know just killed herself.”


“Sophie. Do you want to get a drink?”

“Of course. Where do you want to meet?”

We met at a sleepy bar on Orchard. Aurora looked sullen. She hadn’t really known Sophie; she didn’t know why it bothered her.

“I was probably translating Dante’s suicides when it happened.” She pouted. “Sophie was one of those girls, you know the type. Everything they do is golden. She comes from society. Her father worked with the Clinton Administration. She’s always had money. She’s pretty, even white boys like her because she’s light.” Her voice shook a little. Aurora was dark.

Something about what she said made me think of Hector, and for a moment, I wondered if he’d practiced on Sophie, and this is what he meant by practice. The idea was absurd. I laughed; Aurora scowled.

“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s funny – what’s funny, I mean, is maybe she just felt disconnected. I’ve been thinking about that lately. Aren’t we a little disconnected? It’s a problem of perspective probably.”

Aurora looked at me inscrutably. “What are you talking about?”

I shrugged and frowned. “Race. Class. Culture. Perspective. What are we doing here, studying Roman literature and Greek literature and philosophy and all that jazz, isn’t that just us buying into an oppressive culture? I’ve been wondering that lately.”

“People don’t kill themselves for ideas.” Aurora sounded exasperated.

“Sure they do.”

“So go join the Black Panthers, then.” She stood up. “I really needed to talk to someone today, but all you can do is go on about yourself. You really blew it.”

She got up and left, and I just watched her go.

I sat in that bar for another couple hours and thought about our conversation, why I’d blown it, why I brought up all that stuff to begin with. Somewhere in those couple hours my thoughts turned around to Hector and his theory of death. Had I blown it on purpose? I felt so low, I could throw myself in the river. That’s what I would do. I would jump in the river. The thought made me laugh.

“A man amused by his own company is a wise man indeed, Hipp.”

Hector appeared, and took a seat next to me.

I was happy to see him. My thoughts had been turning dark, and now I needed someone to talk to.

“You hear about that girl Sophie?”

“It’s all over campus,” he said. “You can’t get away from it. Big scandal.”

“Why do you think she did it?”

Hector smiled. “Who knows? Maybe she learned the music of the seasons.”

“And what is that?”

“Each season has its own music, the way I see it. We’re always hearing it, but we can’t pick up on the tune. It’s barred from us, but that’s all a mental block. You can walk out of a window, walk into a train. You can swallow pills or dive into the river. You can always do any of these things, if you manage to learn the wavelengths of the tune. But it takes a special enlightened state of mind to learn this music. Most people never get to that level.”

“Is this your practice?”

“Listen, Hipp. I like you. Why don’t you let me come by some time and talk to you?”

I laughed a dark laugh, and dove in the river over and over. “I don’t think I need your help, Hector. I’m halfway there already.”

“The tune is more elusive than you think. After all,” Hector shrugged a little. “I’m still learning it myself.”


When I got to campus, no one knew about the suicide. I frightened people. They wanted to know how I knew. I made a few girls cry. It’s a small school, and Sophie was popular.

I walked off campus slow. I didn’t have anywhere to be. I kept seeing things funny, like spring nocturnes. Every object I passed, or scene where I appeared, there appeared a receding scale. In everything alive and everything dead; everything organic and everything inorganic. This change didn’t frighten me; it made me curious. Why hadn’t I experienced everything like this before?

Supposing I walked to Aurora’s house? The liquor made the courage compelling. I was sure to self-sabotage, it was surely a glorious mistake, like that email I wrote, but that was the point.

It wasn’t far. She lived walking distance if you were in the mood to walk, and I was in a mood to walk. I wanted to study things rearranged. I wanted to notice the architecture of the buildings, the old regal stone columns of banks, sturdy as Samson giving a push. I wondered at the slipshod shingles of houses in blue and pink and yellow, slap gashes of windows silly in the spring, and I breathed deep this pestilent congregation.

I arrived at her house just as the sun was hitting the hard part of the horizon. All the windows were open and the lights were on. Aurora was with someone. She looked upset. She kept standing up, sitting down. She got up, paced the place, she sat back down. I walked through daggers of dying sunlight for a better view.

Yes, reader, I saw him.

He couldn’t have been someone from the academy. Young enough, but pale and wan; why so pale and wan? And now we have entered somewhere else.

I walked through the door. It was open; somehow I knew it would be. For a moment I hesitated on the threshold, uninvited after all, and in a private moment. I listened to them talk. I couldn’t make out the voices, and increasing curiosity led me in.

I didn’t close the door behind me. I didn’t want to make any noise. I floated down that hall like Sugar Ray Robinson, if you stop to think, you’re gone. Around the corner and into the bedroom, where they were.

Aurora looked at me with horror.

“What are you doing here?” She probably screamed it.

“What’s he doing here?” I feinted, adding, “You needed someone to talk to, and here I am.”

The fond lover arose. “I think you should leave.”

“Perhaps,” I scrutinized him distastefully, “you shouldn’t think.”

When he pushed me, I rolled strategically back into the wall. I came forward with my right. It was a good hit, but this wasn’t going well.

“Get out!” Yes, Aurora was definitely screaming.

I left them in my wake. Into another passage, the fond lover on the floor, will looking ill prevail?

I felt ill. The liquor was making the world a wash of hymns and passages and I was getting lost. The clouds had gained the day, or perhaps it was already evening. The same bar on Orchard returned like a recurring nightmare. Hector was still there.

“Hey there, Hipp,” he said, a full appraisal. “It looks about time you retired.”


On Thursday morning there was a second suicide.

Self-slaughter is contagious. A girl named Florence drowned herself, she jumped in the river, she jumped in the river, she jumped in the river. She learned the music of the seasons.

That wasn’t an easy afternoon. All people do is talk. They never take things for what they are, they just talk them to death until they don’t mean anything. There were connections made between Sophie and Florence. Predictions as to who would be next. Sudden sages appeared everywhere.

“It’ll be Katherine, and she’ll jump down the stairs.”

“It’ll be Whitney, and she’ll drown in her pills.”

“It’ll be Phaedra, and she’ll die by the sword.”

Maybe it would be me.

After all, Aurora wouldn’t speak to me anymore. I called her that Thursday. I called her all day. I must have sent her a tome of texts.

Evening wasn’t easy, either.

One day threaded into the next. I never caught her after class. Why did she avoid me? I sat on the Quad and stared at Seneca’s untranslatable play. The more I looked at that obscure Latin text, the more it looked to me like a series of incantations.

If you vanish, Aurora yawns.

No sun now she gone.

Had I translated her symbols right? Her kisses felt like prophecies. Had I translated her kisses right? I relived the night we spent together, relived it again and again. How translate classics when you can’t even read your contemporaries?


Where’s Hector when you need him?

Hector’s absence exaggerated Aurora’s.

I started skipping class; I was hanging out in the psychology hall.

When I finally saw him again, he didn’t look so hot.

“How are you Hipp? I haven’t been feeling too well, myself.”

“Why? What’s up?”

“Let’s take a walk. We should chat.”

We walked into an overcast afternoon, muggy in the misty day, and too warm.

“Those two girls, I guess they were both psychology majors.”


“Did you practice on them?”

“You get right to the heart of things, don’t you Hipp?”

“Are you responsible?”

Hector seemed to consider this. “I don’t know,” he decided. “But I don’t see the world the way others do.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Maybe you already know.”

We walked in silence for a while. We reached the river, and walked along it without saying a word.

“Why were you looking for me?” Hector asked after a while.

“How’d you know I was looking for you?”

Hector shrugged. A shadow came over me, and the clouds seemed to descend on the water.

“I know someone you should talk to,” I said.

“I don’t think you know him all that well.”

The words threw me. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“I haven’t been doing so well lately, Hipp,” Hector paused, stopped and turned to look at me. “I was more naïve than I thought.”


“We’re in an impossible situation. I guess I knew that all along. I just didn’t understand the horror of it. Others understand it better than I do.”


“Sophie. Florence.”

“Oh.” I hesitated. “So you did practice on them.”

“I talked to them. I just talked to them. I practice on others.”


We walked for another couple minutes without saying anything.

“I live inside someone who hates me.” This from Hector. “That’s what it is.”

Why did the words feel familiar? Suddenly I was in a hurry. “I have someone you need to speak to. Someone you really need to practice on.”

“Who should I practice on, Hipp?” Hector’s voice cracked like an incomplete octave.

“She’s not a psych major. She’s a classics major. Her name is Aurora, and I need you to talk to her for me.”


That Saturday Jennifer Language swallowed pills, slit her wrists, and wandered the classics droning a drowsy syncopated tune. Our most public suicide starlet yet, she proved all the sages loons.

Administration called assemblies. Professors talked about the follies of the young & rash. Counselors offered to speak privately to students in crisis. I considered the proposition. How do you know if you’re in crisis? Jennifer was a classics major. I knew her pretty well. Did she know she was in crisis?

Aurora still wouldn’t speak to me.

I thought tragedy might put things in perspective. When I was a child, I spoke as a child.

I chased her down after class one afternoon.

We stood regarding each other curiously on the Quad.

“Aurora, this is ridiculous. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t know how many times I have to say it.”

She glared. “More times than stars in the sky, and it still wouldn’t be enough.”

“I was drunk. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“The moving principle is in the man himself.”

I let her go. Why argue with Aristotle?

Zero-sum, Hector had practiced on the wrong classicist.


“I’ve been talking to Aurora.”

I looked up from Seneca to see Hector looking down at me.

“Take a seat.”

He took a seat and took Phaedra. He flipped through it listlessly. “It’s a play about finding a tune.”

“I think you missed the point, if that’s what you get from it.”

“You probably read it as tragedy, when really it’s a comedy.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. What could a psych major know about these things anyway?

“So when did you start with Aurora?”

“Last weekend. She’s a good listener.”

“You seem to be pretty persuasive.”

“It has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the student.”

“Well, how’s she coming along?” I hesitated. “Maybe this was a bad idea.”

“No, it’s not. I may learn a thing or two from her myself.”

Now what did that mean? I didn’t like my thoughts.

Days passed, and I lost Aurora in students bursting from classrooms into spring. I hung around in her cloud. Hector vanished from the Quad.

Where did he conduct these meetings of his anyway? I walked around downtown and looked at the buildings. One of them housed a lunatic. Talk to someone if you’re in crisis. Who would talk to Hector?

I could hear Hector and Aurora echo behind everything.

Who would talk to me?


I would follow her, of course.

I would have to watch for her. I couldn’t get left behind in the rush of the bell, so I didn’t go to class. I drank at the bar all morning, and drank down half the afternoon. A little before class let out I walked up to campus, and waited, hidden behind pillars, simple as Samson shrugging a push.

Aurora walked out gorgeous as the day. She descended the steps to the Quad. I slipped after her, shadow of a suicide. We hurried past circles of students splendid in the weather. Off campus, then, and passing by the bar where I’d just been. She turned the wrong corner, and so she wasn’t going home.

Did he hold court on street corners like Socrates?

No, Hector, coward, only held court on women, and maybe he broke hearts. He would have a room somewhere. There lay the secret science of his teachings. Try his technique on a man, and he’d end up with a broken jaw, or worse, dispatched; you want to learn the music of the seasons? I’ll teach you, and quick. ‘Til you spit blood with murder ballads!

It made me mad. I almost forgot myself, got caught. I was walking too fast, and getting careless. Aurora walked down Portland. We were headed toward the river. Cover was getting sparse. I had to hang back, Aurora now just a hint on the horizon.

An inclination arose in me to call out to her. The proper thing to do was to warn her.

Another figure wavered pale and dim in the distance. Surely it was Hector, and we will have our conclusion.

“Apparently you’re a man of little faith, Hipp.” This from behind me. I turned to see Hector stalking a saunter in the sun.

Dumbfounded, I stood and stared at him, then turned to see Aurora, persistent doom, hand in hand, vanishing beyond the horizon. I looked at Hector and tried to speak, but words collapsed. Hector’s eyes were light, was he possessed?

“You probably think I’m following you.” He smiled. I frowned.

“Of course you’re following me.” I looked back to scan the empty landscape of the river. “Who – who is she meeting?”

“I think you already know the answer to that, Hipp.”

Suddenly I was furious. “Who was he? How? How could I know the answer to that?” I moved to strike him, and just as I did the sun revealed itself from behind the clouds like a hidden God.

Hector’s cheeks were wet. Tears seemed to complement his smile. “I have a confession.” The sincerity of his tone was disarming. “You see, I’ve finally found the tune. It’s why I’m here.”

I looked from Hector to the river. Now I was smiling. “I’ll race you.”

For a while neither of us spoke. I listened for the shrill of laughter to slice the still afternoon.

“I love her, Hipp.” Hector frowned. “And it’s more elusive than your philosophy.”


There have been no more suicides since, except Phaedra’s. I finished my Seneca translation within the week.

Still, I’ve never been able to shake that sunny afternoon. It confronts me even in my dreams, where Hector and Aurora continue to make appearances.

I sometimes wonder where Aurora went, and if Hector is alive. I look out over the Quad, and it feels like no time ago, almost like they remain here, now that all my context is cuneiform.

As for Hector’s philosophy, I try not to see the world that way anymore; I focus on my studies. That’s not to say it doesn’t stay with me, because it does. It hums below my surface, like the sun rising in the east each morning, carrying in its swansong, a promise.



-Whit Frazier, 2013


“If you don’t like it, why did you order it?”

“Who said I didn’t like it?”

“You don’t like it. I’m looking right at you. I can tell.”

“Jesus, Jeremy.”

“If you don’t like, just say you don’t like it. Hell; I’ll eat it.”

“Listen, Jeremy. I ordered the Codfish, and I’ll eat the Codfish. They put some kind of sauce on it or something. Doesn’t taste like the way I’m used to.”

“What did you say?”

“I said their codfish doesn’t taste the way I expected. But it’s fine, baby. Jesus, I’m eating it.”

“Codfish? Baby, that’s not codfish, it’s catfish. You ordered the catfish, not the codfish. Listen. It’s an easy mistake. You want me to eat it?”

“Jesus, Jeremy. I’m eating it already. Will you let me alone?”


“Anyway, look. Look! Right here, on the menu, it says clear as day, codfish in wine sauce.”

“You just have to be right, don’t you?”

Jeremy looked away from Lucy, and out through the large rectangular windows to his left. The snow was coming down a little harder, and blowing in wide circles. “Listen,” he said after a while. “This is a stupid argument. Let’s get out of here. Mine isn’t that good either.”

“If you don’t like it, why did you order it?”

“Jesus, Lucy, let’s not start this again, okay?”

Lucy didn’t say anything.


Lucy looked away from the table and frowned.

“Fine.” Jeremy stood up, and his napkin tumbled from his lap onto the red tablecloth. He put down a credit card. “I’m going. Go ahead and pay with that. I’ll catch up with you back at the apartment.”

“Where are you going?”

“For a walk.”

“Jesus, Jeremy, what do you mean you’re going for a walk? It’s twenty degrees out there, and look at it. It’s snowing like crazy.”

“I like the snow.”

“No you don’t. You’ve never liked the snow.”

“I do now.”


Outside, the snow came down in wet drifts, and stuck against Jeremy’s coat. He walked all the way down Park Avenue from 62nd street to where Park met Union Square. By the time he got downtown he was warm, if wet, and he even felt happy; the little bit of wine he’d had with dinner made the streetlights glow warm with the shoplights. The feeling made him want another drink, a brandy or cognac, so he ducked into a café off 12th Street.

It was quiet and empty in the café. There were several marble tables spread around, orange lights decorating the walls, and a Bach fugue playing low in the background. Jeremy sat down, and when the waitress came to the table he ordered a snifter of Remy-Martin along with the day’s paper. He looked outside at the snow, and thought about Lucy.

“Here’s your paper, sir. I hope the Times is okay.”

“The Times is just fine, thanks,” Jeremy said, turning from the window, and looking at the waitress. She was tall, dark haired. She had green eyes, a kind of exotic look. She looked like she might be Mediterranean. “Any articles you recommend? I haven’t had a chance to look at the paper today.”

“Well, I don’t know what your interests are…”

Jeremy smiled at her, a warm, sly smile. “The same as yours,” he said.

The waitress laughed, and took the paper back. She opened it. “Well,” she said, “if you’re into books and all that-,”

“I’m a writer.”

“You’re a writer? Really?”

“Pulp novels.”


“Well, when you say it like that, you make me feel self-conscious about it.”

“You don’t write great literature?”

Jeremy laughed. “Sure I do! And you?”

“Well, I like to read.” She handed the paper back to Jeremy, opened to the book section. “There’s a great review of Kimble’s new novel.”

Jeremy winced a little. Fucking Kimble. “No kidding? What’s the review say?”

“Well if I told you, I’d spoil the fun of you reading it for yourself. Have you heard of him?”

Yeah, Jeremy had heard of Martin Kimble all right. He’d even met him one night, at a book release party for another author. Jeremy had always been sort of ambivalent about Kimble’s writing. Great character writer, but his plots felt contrived. Wasn’t that the problem with lots of literary fiction? How to write great characters, a gripping plot, and keep your book literary, for whatever that meant. At the book release party Kimble was wildly drunk, and Jeremy caught up to him in a staircase. Kimble was smoking a joint. When he brought up his concerns with Kimble that night in the stairwell, Kimble frowned a bloated, ugly frown. Kimble was a big man, with a fat frame, and a fat face to match. Balding brown splotches of hair on his head, and clear indications in the lines of his face that all the years of hard drinking had taken their toll. His eyes were sharp, but dead. The guy looked jaded. And then he frowned that bloated, ugly frown and his face went into all sorts of contortions, like he was working something out in his head.

“Aren’t you Jeremy Cole?”

“You’ve heard of me? You even recognize me? Well, shit. Wonders never cease!” Jeremy had intended this to be a friendly way of beginning shop talk with Kimble, but Kimble’s frown just deepened, and he said:

“My plots feel contrived?”

“I didn’t mean it like that; I was just asking -,”

“And this from a writer of Pulp Mysteries or whatever the hell you write?”

“Jesus, Mr. Kimble, I was just saying –,”

“You’re a fucking hack. And you’re telling me how to write literary fiction? Hey, I don’t judge you for what you do. Whatever sells your writing, I guess. But don’t come to me, a fucking Pulp writer, and tell me I can’t write a decent fucking plot. The audacity of you fucking people.”

And that was that. Kimble had sauntered off, throwing down the roach of his joint, and walked back out into the ballroom, leaving Jeremy standing there a little embarrassed, ashamed, and angry. He slipped out into the ballroom, grabbed his coat from the coat check desk, and hailed a cab on West Houston. When he got home, he told Lucy about it, and she said, “Well, you can see why he’d be upset.”


“Yeah, I’ve heard of him,” Jeremy told the waitress. “A good writer. Writes exceptional characters.”

“I think so too,” she said.

“Good review?”

“Like I said, go on and read it.”

Jeremy looked down at the paper. He’d heard about Kimble’s new novel. He hadn’t read any reviews of it yet, and he certainly hadn’t read the book itself, or anything about it; he’d been ignoring the book. “Reaching the Ideal through the Vulgar” He looked up from the paper. The waitress was standing over him, bent slightly forward at the waist, eyes focused on the paper.

“You have read the article, haven’t you?” Jeremy asked her. “I don’t want to take your copy of the paper if you were reading it.”

“Oh, I’ve read it a bunch of times,” she said. “I think it’s fascinating.”

Jeremy looked back at the paper, and kept reading. He was skimming mostly. The first paragraph was a quick description of Kimble’s previous work, the second a three sentence summary of the book’s plot – just tell me if you think it’s good or not, Jeremy thought, impatient flying down the page. Nothing committal. The review seemed kind of mixed.

He’d read it a little later.

“Have you read the book?” he asked, looking back up at the waitress.

“Sure I have,” she said, and her voice changed perceptibly, like she was talking very low to someone very far away, and she lost focus of the paper and smiled. “I’ve read everything by Martin Kimble.”

“You must be quite a fan!”

“Well, naturally,” she said. “I’m his fiancé.”


When Jeremy returned to the apartment, slightly drunk, a little happy, a little melancholy, and with a definite lurch to his step, Lucy was still up. She was sitting in bed reading. He came into the bedroom, and she looked up with a weary displeased grimace. Jeremy said as jovially as he could, “What’cha reading?”

Lucy closed the book, and put it down. “Naturally, you’ve been out drinking.”

“Do you know,” said Jeremy, kicking off his shoes by the heels without untying them, “who I met tonight?”

“Jeremy, you haven’t been yourself lately. Do you even realize how rude it was to walk out on me at dinner tonight? How embarrassing in front of all those people. The waitress looked at me like I was breaking her heart. She gave me a ridiculous discount and everything, she felt so bad for me. And then that sympathetic look. Oh God, how humiliating, like the girl stuck in the bad relationship everyone has to feel sorry for. I can just hear her now to her friends! Oh this poor woman. She really needs to get some self-esteem and leave him. Ugh!”

“Who is ever themselves?” Jeremy mused, coming over and sitting next to Lucy on the bed. He brushed back her hair. “After all, I left you my American Express. It’s everywhere you want to be.”

Lucy smacked him with a pillow. “You’re lucky I didn’t just take that card and fly to the Bahamas or something.”

Jeremy laughed. “Besides, never mind waitresses. You can’t stay mad at me, can you? Listen, Lucy. You remember that night I met Martin Kimble.”

Lucy laughed a smack of a “Ha!” and said, “How can I forget? Your great humiliation!”

Jeremy frowned and straightened up. “Well, I met his fiancé tonight.”

“Oh, really?” said Lucy. “How does she look?”

“She’s pretty. Not much my type, but she’s pretty.”

“Prettier than me? He didn’t one up you there too, did he?”

Jeremy eyes went dark, and he muttered, “Apparently I’m not the only one who’s been drinking tonight.”

“What do you expect me to do when I’m sitting here all night wondering where you went? Where did you go?”

“I went to this café downtown. The waitress was all about Martin Kimble. In the end it turns out she’s his fiancé.”

“Small world.”

“It really is. She’s a lot more pleasant than he is, I can tell you that. And his new book…”

Lucy laughed. “You mean, CUNT?”

Jeremy smiled back at her. “Yeah, CUNT. Actually the review in the Times seemed sort of mixed. They did say it’s his best work in a while.”

“They always say that. Personally, I can’t stand the title alone. Makes me not want to read it.”

“Well, I’m glad we’re finally back on the same side.”

“Who said I was on your side? It’s a nasty little title. I don’t know why men write books at all. Men are too crude, stupid and insensitive to write books. If only women wrote books, there would be a lot more quality literature out there. I’ll tell you that much.”

“So why don’t you write a book?”

“What do I know about writing a book? I’d have to study it and all that. Besides, words are so… so imprecise. I work with numbers; I’ll stick to numbers thank you very much. They have their own music.”

Lucy was a statistician. It was the best way to describe her. Jeremy met her six years before at the Union Square Barnes & Noble. He’d been in the café doing research on a crime novel, and he ended up staying there the whole day, from morning ‘til night. Right up by the giant bay windows, with the sun coming in on a cold November morning, made warmer with his coffee, the café and the sun covering him in a lazy blanket. It was something he did often while doing research for a new novel; he’d spend all day at the café, come home, look over his notes, and then spend the evening at home writing. In the morning the place was pretty empty and quiet, and this was the best time of day to be there. By noon, the daytime crowds and NYU students began to fill up the place; by late afternoon, the entire Barnes & Noble was loud and crowded, and there was no way to be left alone at his prized bay window table. Once all the tables were filled up, people would sit across from other patrons at the same table. Sometimes people would sit at the bay window table with him even if there were other open available tables in the café, but there was too much good research material to do the work anywhere else.

On this particular November day, Jeremy was taking a break from his research to read through the paper. It was around one in the afternoon, and there were surprisingly, a couple tables still open. The sun was starting to brighten through the large bay windows; usually it hit full force around 2 or 2:30 this time of year. He was in the middle of an article about a kid who had been shot the night before in Brooklyn when a young, slightly plump woman in a purple shirt sat down across from him. She had a light copper complexion; he thought she might be Hispanic, maybe Arabic. He screwed up his face, annoyed, and then scanned the café, confirming to himself that she’d sat down at his table when there were other open tables available.

“I hope you don’t mind if I sit down for a minute,” she said. “It’s just for a minute. I’m on my break from lunch, and I wanted to sit and read this article. I come here sometimes to do that.”

Jeremy shrugged and looked back down at his paper. The girl moved her plate in front of her, and picked up what looked like a turkey sandwich. She took a bite, took a drink of juice, and darted her eyes quickly up and then quickly down. She repeated this a couple times. After a number of times, Jeremy looked up at the jerk of her chin, and their eyes met. A long, awkward, annoyed moment passed, and then she said:

“Are you reading about the boy who got shot last night in Brooklyn?”



There was another long silence, and now the awkwardness of it was a tangible presence at the table, almost like another person. He continued reading, but every word stuck to the page, and lost its life. He couldn’t concentrate.

He looked back up at her. Her eyes hadn’t left his forehead. “Why? Did you know him?”

“No,” she said. “But I heard about him.” Pause. “Did you know that last year there were six hundred sixty four murders in New York City?”

“I did not.”

“Six hundred sixty four. Can you imagine that? That’s fifty-five point three three three three three three murders every month.”


“But -!” she said triumphantly, “compare that number to ten years earlier: Two thousand two hundred and forty-five murders. All in the one year! Unthinkable. Do you know how many murders that is a month?”

“No, not off the top of-,”

“That’s one hundred and eighty-seven murders every month. It’s like genocide!”

“It sounds like a lot.”

“Well, that’s the record. For all time. It never got worse than that, but still.”

“But still. Indeed.” Pause. “Isn’t all this just a little but morbid?”

The girl shrugged. “I’m not the one reading an article about a kid that got shot in Brooklyn.”

Jeremy laughed. “Is that how you always begin your conversations?”

“It’s an icebreaker.” Pause. “Of sorts.” Pause. “Hi. My name is Lucy.” She stuck out her hand. Jeremy looked at her, with her hand outstretched, and her smooth pretty face, hickory eyes, and cool smile. He liked her.

“Jeremy,” he said, taking her hand. “Jeremy Cole.”

“That’s what I thought.” She blushed. “I mean, that’s partly why I sat here, I hope you don’t mind. I thought you looked like him, but then celebrities never look like they do in their photographs.”

“Celebrities?” Jeremy smiled, and did a wide glance around the café. “Where? Who?”

“Oh, don’t be modest. I love your books.”

“To be honest, I didn’t know I had any other readers than me and my mother.”

Lucy laughed so suddenly that she hiccoughed on her juice. “Don’t be silly.”

“If you saw my sales…”

“I’d like to,” she said. “I mean, it’s not that I’m crazy; statistics. That’s what I do.”

“No kidding.”

“Crime statistics for the Bureau of Justice.”

“Now that could be interesting.”

“It is. It really is.”

“How did you get into that?”

“It’s a long story. I’ve always been fascinated by this stuff. By books like you write, too. All of it.”

“You work near here?”


“No kidding. Why don’t you let me buy you a drink after you get off work? You can tell me all about it.”

“You’ll still be here?”

Jeremy smiled at her. “Yeah. I’ll still be here. Meet me right back here. I’ll save your spot.”


“Well, you used to like my books,” Jeremy said. “Anyway, I’m sorry about tonight. I’m sorry I stormed out.”

“Here’s your card,” she said. She leaned over to the night table, and gave him his American Express card. “You’re a bastard thinking leaving that with me made everything all right.”

“Well, I didn’t think that. But you needed to pay for dinner, and money to get home, and listen: can’t I just say I’m sorry.”

“Yes; apology accepted.”

Jeremy paused. He didn’t know how to word the next question without it coming off as crass:     “You didn’t make any extra purchases did you? Not that I care if you did, you know. Just to balance my books is all.”

“As a matter of fact, I did.” Pause. She smiled. “You don’t deserve one, but I bought you a gift.”

“Oh, Lucy. You shouldn’t have. After I behaved so badly. You didn’t need to do that.”

“Oh, yes I did.” She picked up the book she’d been reading from the other side of the bed. It was a brand new hardback copy of CUNT.


Cunt, indeed.

When Jeremy was thirty years old, he wrote a crime novel called Trumped. He’d written several long novels before that; literary novels, he supposed, but they felt stodgy to him. He let them sit. He spent the two years prior to writing Trumped depressed, unable to do much of anything. He flitted from one temp job to another. He wrote a couple short stories. He drank too much. On his thirtieth birthday, he decided to give up writing. It demanded too much of him, and besides, what was the point? Entertainment? His novels weren’t entertaining; not really; not like a good thriller. To enlighten and instruct? Why not just write essays? What was the point of writing fiction? A man who couldn’t talk straight wasn’t much of a man, anyway; if you had something to say, by God, say it. And then he’d find himself concocting plots to fit into ideas; it felt silly. There was no money to be made writing; it didn’t help him to meet people, oddly enough, it sort of had the opposite effect. Ultimately, the whole experience was a bloodletting. You spent time and energy writing, got giddy and lightheaded in the process, and when it was all over, you got nothing but a feeling of being tapped and drained of your physical and emotional resources.

But one night, coming home on the subway he overheard a couple kids on the train talking about the circumstances surrounding a murder. Each person was telling the story in a different kind of way – each of them jumping in over the other, and the story developed a kind of untellable layered mystery. So that when Jeremy got home that night, he sat down and started writing the story of a kid shot over a dice game in Brooklyn. It was told from multiple perspectives, but with a tight, fast, gripping pace. He finished the novel in three months easy, and at the end of those three months, he had Trumped. He sent it off to a publisher, and they accepted it right away.

Jeremy Cole had found his calling.

Cunt, indeed.


The next night Jeremy went back to the café where he’d met Kimble’s fiancé. It was cold, and yesterday’s heavy snow lay thick on the city in large black hills of ice and weeping white trees. He had his copy of CUNT with him. He tried to get out before Lucy came home from work, but she walked in just as he was throwing on his coat.

“Where are you going?”

Looking around, Jeremy grabbed Kimble’s book from the night table, and said, “I’m going to go start reading this thing. Figure I’ll duck in somewhere for a drink, and see if this guy’s all he thinks himself to be.”

“Will you be long?”

“That all depends on Kimble,” Jeremy said, smiling, and giving Lucy a light kiss. “I don’t know. You were reading it last night. What did you think?”

“You know my taste,” she said. “The guy bores me to death. I hate these pretentious literary authors.”

It was cold all right, but Jeremy found some warmth in those words of hers, as he walked the long way from the Upper East Side downtown through the slick slush of New York sidewalks. And the warmth and encouragement he got from those six simple words of hers – I hate these pretentious literary authors – made him feel guilty that he was going to see another girl.

Going to see another girl. Now that was an interesting way of thinking about it. Why, exactly was he going back to see this girl, whose name he didn’t even know, a girl engaged to a rival author who didn’t think of Jeremy Cole as anything but a hack pulp novelist, let alone a rival. What was it about her? Maybe that exotic, Mediterranean look. He’d always been attracted to dark exotic girls. It was the same thing with Lucy. There was something mysterious about an exotic looking girl, and smiling, there was nothing he liked more than a good mystery.

“You’re back,” said the waitress as he walked into the cozy little café.

Jeremy took off his coat and draped it over the chair. He flashed the book. “Figured I’d do a little reading.”

“Oh, no kidding!” she said. She took the book from him and turned it over in her hands a couple times. “You’re gonna love this thing, I promise.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

“You said you were a writer too, didn’t you?”

“Pulp novels.”

“That’s right.”

Jeremy forced a laugh. “Not great literature.”

“Well, have I heard of you?”

Jeremy hesitated. Had she? It was a good question. Kimble had heard of him. Certainly it was possible his fiancé had too. Especially since she was a reader. For the moment, he knew more about her than she knew about him, and that was an advantage. Giving away his name might change all that. Still…

“Jeremy Cole.”

The waitress paused, thought for a moment, then shook her head. “Doesn’t ring a bell.” She frowned. “I’m sorry. There are so many writers, and -,”

“Please, don’t apologize. Very few people have heard of me. I don’t take it personally at all.”

“Well, Mr. Jeremy Cole,” she said, holding out her hand. “My name is Maria.”

“Pleased to get to know you, Maria.”

“Likewise.” She handed the book back to Jeremy.

“Is this your favorite?”

“Of course. Everything new he does is my favorite. You know, they say a writer is only as good as his last book.”

“Is that what they say?”

“Are you working on anything now?” she asked.

This was a sore point for Jeremy. He hadn’t been at work on anything for a while. He’d hit a writers block that set in early the year before, and had lasted all the way through the year, dragged on through the holiday season, persisted through the new year, and left him here, in mid January, more than a year later, still with nothing to say. He’d tried everything he could think of to break the spell, but nothing worked: he read crime and pulp novels voraciously; he read the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Daily News, even the New York Press almost entirely, looking for ideas that might inspire him. Nothing. The problem was, as best he could assess it, the mystery had gone out of it. When he started writing Trumped, the act of writing had been as much a mystery as the story itself. Now everything seemed so easy, so technical, like a job you’re just by nature good at. He didn’t want to say formulaic. Forty-two years old, and he was finished! Dante started the Comedy at forty-two. What had he done, but write a handful of pulp novels, and find himself stuck dead in the Second Circle of Hell?

“Yes, actually I am.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Oh, well… you must know how writers are about works in progress.”

Maria smiled. “Yeah, yeah. Martin’s the same way. I never get to know anything about what he’s writing until he’s finished. Where do you write? At home?”

“Cafes, usually.”

“Do you have a favorite?”

“Barnes & Noble. Union Square.”

“Well, that’s nice.”

“Where does Martin go to write?”

“He writes in his study.”

“Ah; lucky enough to have a study in New York City!”

“Why don’t you do your writing here?” asked Maria.

“And abandon the old B&N?”

“Every writer needs a change from time to time. You know, keep the inspiration fresh. When you need a break you can talk to me.”

“Well, maybe you have something there.” Pause. “I kind of like this place. It’s quieter here too.”

“Well, then, there you go. Besides, I want to know what you think of Martin’s book. You can keep me updated.”


Jeremy found that spending his days at the café with Maria brightened his life considerably. For one thing he was finding it easier to write. For another, it gave him something to look forward to in the daytimes, with Lucy out at work. He would write a little, chat with Maria some, read a little, and continue writing. It was much nicer than writing at Barnes & Noble, where he would inevitably end up sharing a table with a stranger, and where he had the distraction of the growing crowds as the mornings became afternoons, and the afternoons evenings.

He was even enjoying Kimble’s novel. Sure, it was a little too literary, too many references, and asides into highfaluting ideas, but all in all it wasn’t such a bad read. Mostly, he tried to see what about Kimble as a writer impressed Maria so much.

After a week of going to the café every day, he came in one morning, sat down and Maria greeted him beaming.

“Hello, Mister Writer. Guess what?” she said.

“Oh, I don’t know. What?”

“I bought one of your books.”

“No kidding? Which one?”

“It’s called Trumped.”

“My virgin.” Jeremy smiled. “Have you started it?”

“I have,” she said, “and I don’t know why you said you don’t write great literature. I knew you were just being modest. That’s why I went out and bought it.”

Trumped? Great literature? You’d be the first person to say so.”

“Oh, I doubt that. When I’m finished with it, I’m going to have Martin read it. You’ll see.”

Jeremy coughed.

“I bet you he’ll like it.”

“Have you… have you mentioned to him that you met me? That I’ve been coming to the café every day for the past week?”

Something sad and strange flashed in Maria’s eyes. Then she smiled. “I don’t tell Martin everything, you know.” Pause. “Listen. I should get back to work. Talk to you in a bit.”

Jeremy tried to say something as she turned to go, but his mouth went dry. What exactly did she mean? He felt a sense of relief she hadn’t mentioned him to Martin, but at the same time, a sense of dread that she eventually would. His head felt light. It’s not like there was anything going on between him and Maria. They’d just met a week ago. What – a man can’t come to the same spot to read and write everyday? He can’t develop a harmless friendship with his waitress? So why did he feel guilty, and why did he feel this sense of dread? He picked up his copy of CUNT, and looked at Martin’s picture on the inside jacket. That smug fuck. There he sat, in a loose jacket, a striped button down shirt, top couple buttons opened, and that same fat face, smiling back at Jeremy, as if to say: You will never have my life.

What would Martin say, when Maria mentioned she’d picked up a copy of Trumped? He could hear Kimble now, “By Jeremy Cole? What – that hack? He couldn’t write his way out of a brown paper bag. Matter of fact, I met him once, and you know what he had the audacity to say to me…?”

He closed the cunt, and put him down. He took out his notebook, and read through the last few paragraphs he’d written. Then he opened Kimble’s book again, and read a couple paragraphs at random. Certainly different styles; but then, both paragraphs were out of context. He couldn’t compare them. He went back and read the first paragraph of his draft, and then the first paragraph of Kimble’s book. He reread them. Kimble’s prose felt lighter. He read over his own first paragraph again. Maybe he was just too used to his own style. He read Kimble’s first paragraph. Fuck Kimble. His was a draft – a first one at that. Kimble’s was a finished product.

“What are you up to now?” said Maria, swinging back by his table.

Jeremy looked up at her, and said: “just writing.”

“Well, don’t let me interrupt.”

“No – not at all. You’re not interrupting. As a matter of fact, I’m glad you’re here. I wanted to reread the first paragraph of Trumped. Do you mind?”

“What an odd thing to ask. Do you know that Martin memorizes the first paragraphs of all his stories? He even has entire short stories of his memorized.”

“No kidding.”

“No kidding. Anyway, hold on. I’ll be right back with it.”

Fuck Kimble. Entire short stories memorized. Well, what’s the point of that? He could memorize entire stories if he wanted, but who could bear to walk around with their own expired voice constantly in their head? It was enough to remember short passages, phrases, worse yet reading old material. Maybe he should have stuck with his literary writing. He gave up on it so young; too soon. He suddenly had a desperate desire to pull out one of his old literary manuscripts, and read it over.

Maria came back with Trumped.

“I love how you begin this book,” she said, as she handed it to him. “It’s a beautiful paragraph. Martin would say the same. I know what he likes.”

A feeble smile. “That means a lot coming from you.”

“Do you want me to leave you with it for a little?”

“Thanks, Maria. If you don’t mind too much, that would be great.”

Jeremy watched Maria as she turned and walked to the back. You will never have my life.

He turned Trumped over, read the blurb on the back, read a couple review blurbs, all pretty good. People really connected with this book. No one ever connected to one of his books again like they had Trumped. It really was an inspired work. He opened it up, and looked at the picture of him, ten years younger, smiling, idealistic, happy. He flipped past the opening pages to the first chapter. Reading the first paragraph again, he was impressed. It was pretty good. He put it down, and reread Kimble’s first paragraph. Sure, Kimble was a more mature writer, but Trumped was written by a thirty year old man. Kimble hadn’t even been published yet. Jeremy chuckled. He put Kimble’s book to the side, and moved Trumped to the side, and he opened his notebook. Maria was inspiration. After six years with Lucy, tired and bored of his life, tired and bored of his own writing, and battling age and a growing inferiority complex, along came Maria, and changed everything. He tested out a couple sentences. He could feel the clarity in his head again; the words were coming naturally. Sentences appeared like incantations. Paragraphs. There was magic to literature, and he’d recaptured it.


For the next several weeks Jeremy went to the café daily. He spent the evenings and weekends with Lucy, but every weekday he spent all his time with Maria. It was the only time he was happy. The rest of the time he felt like he wasn’t even living his life. Like he was living a past life, one that he needed to shake off completely. Things hadn’t been well between him and Lucy for a while, but now they were getting worse.

“Jeremy, are you having an affair?” she’d ask, again and again, usually after lovemaking.

“An affair? What an imagination you have. And I’m supposed to be the writer.”

Then he’d turn over and go to sleep, dreaming of morning, when he’d be able to walk down to the café in the cold February wind, and see Maria again.

“What are we going to do on Valentines Day?” Lucy asked him one night, as they were lying in bed.

Valentines Day! It had completely slipped his mind.

“What’s today?”

“Jesus, Jeremy. It’s the ninth. If you had a job, you’d know these kinds of things.”

“A job! I have a job, Lucy, I’m a writer.”

“How has that been coming anyway? Any better?”

“Actually it has.”


“In the last three weeks I think I’ve written almost thirty-five thousand words. It’s coming along incredibly well. I’ve been getting a lot of reading done too.”

“Oh yeah? What’re you reading?”

“I’m reading that book you gave me by that bore of an author.”

Lucy laughed. “Kimble’s book? You are still reading Martin Kimble’s latest novel?”

“Well, why not? You bought it for me.”

“Why not! Why not, indeed.” Pause. “So, what do you think?”

“It’s not bad, actually. I’d even go so far as to say it’s pretty good.”

“I never thought I’d live to see the day.”

“I might not much care for the man, but I’d like to think that as a reader, I’m pretty good about being objective.”

“Whatever you say. That’s not the Jeremy Cole I know.”

“Well maybe you don’t know Jeremy Cole.”

It was the wrong thing to say. This was the first real conversation they’d had together since he started going to the café, and as soon as he said the words, he regretted it. He watched the lines in her face harden, and her expression sink, and her dark eyes sink into her cheeks, and she was trying very hard not to cry.

“I’m only joking of course,” he said.

“Yes, of course.”


On Valentines Day, Jeremy arranged for a bouquet of roses to be sent to Lucy at her work, even though he’d never done so before, and had even had talks with her about how tacky a practice he thought it was. He remembered his days back when he was temping, and he remembered how unoriginal and uninspired it seemed when women received these silly bouquets at the office. He remembered all the pettiness, and flat congratulations from the single women in the office, and it just made him wince to think back to the life of office politics.But, he sent Lucy roses all the same.

Valentines Day was a bright, crisp, cold sunny day, and just like every other day, he walked his way down to the café. The whole way there his heart raced. He would be spending Valentines Day with Maria! You will never live my life. Yeah, Kimble, fuck you too.

When he got to the café, he took his usual seat, and looked around. Something was wrong: Maria was usually waiting for him; she’d greet him at his seat, with, “Hello Mister Writer.” But today he didn’t see Maria anywhere. After sitting for a couple minutes, a young man, probably in his mid twenties came up to the table, and said: “May I take your order, sir?”

Jeremy looked around, flustered.

“Is there a problem, sir?”

“I’m – I’m a regular here. You must be new. I’ve never seen you before.”

“No, I just usually work weekend shifts. Been here a little while actually. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Where’s Maria?”

“Excuse me?”

“Maria. The girl who works here on the weekdays?” Pause. And then it occurred to him: Of course, Valentines Day. Why would Maria spend Valentines Day anywhere but with Kimble? “Listen, I’m sorry. It’s nothing. I – I was just expecting Maria. That’s all.”

“Oh, her.” The waiter laughed. “What a flake!”


“Maria quit this morning.”

Maria quit this morning?

“What do you mean she quit?”

“She just up and quit. She didn’t come in or anything. The manager said she called here this morning in all sorts of hysterics. He could barely make out what the hell she was talking about; but that’s that. She said she quit and would never come back to the café again. Boyfriend trouble, maybe. Fucking Valentines Day, man.”

“Maria quit this morning?”

“So, can I get you anything?”

Jeremy felt dizzy. “A whisky. A whisky, and a copy of today’s paper.”

“Right away.”

What happened? Had Kimble broken things off with her? Another woman, maybe? These things always happened on Valentines Day… Should he try to get her phone number from the waiter? His thoughts were going faster than he could catch them. Slow down. Think this through. It had to be Kimble broke it off. Just like that scumbag. On Valentines Day, too, of all days. Maybe it was unavoidable; maybe the other woman showed up unexpectedly; maybe Maria showed up unexpectedly somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be. Whatever it was he’d find out. He’d get Maria’s number from the waiter, and he’d call her, and they’d go somewhere and have a drink, and he’d make sure she was taken care of, and he’d leave Lucy if he had to and be with Maria and they could spend afternoons at some other café together, where he could write and where she could read, and –

“You know what,” the waiter said, coming back to the table. “I’d bet my bottom dollar it has something to do with this.”

He threw down a copy of the New York Times, opened to the Entertainment section. The caption read, “AWARD WINNING AUTHOR MARTIN KIMBLE ANNOUNCES ENGAGEMENT TO ACTRESS.”

Jeremy looked back up at the waiter. “I didn’t know Maria was an actress.”

“Maria? An actress?” The waiter looked confused. “I don’t think Maria was an actress. What – you didn’t think -?” and then he started laughing.

“What? What in God’s name is so funny?”

“Oh, no no no no no. Maria was batty about this guy. Just adored him. In a creepy kind of way even. All she ever talked about was Martin Kimble this, Martin Kimble that. I’m sure she dreamt one day she’d marry him, but it’s not like she ever even met the guy. I’m sure this must’ve crushed her. Like I said, she was sort of flaky.” Pause. “You all set here? Can I get you anything else?”

“No. No. Just the check.”

As Jeremy collected his things, he thought about the long cold walk back uptown, and the long day ahead of him. He couldn’t write; he couldn’t think; he couldn’t do much of anything, but wait. He flipped the page, and saw a photograph of Kimble hand in hand with his fiancé. You’ll never have my life – and Jeremy realized that all along he’d been in love with a chimera; in fact, like Maria, he always had been, his whole life long. And there was nothing left now but to go home and wait for Lucy.


-Whit Frazier, 2007

Are Donald Trump Supporters Racist?

Everyone knows that you’re supposed to avoid the political talk during Thanksgiving. It’s that awkward holiday when the young people come back home from big, cosmopolitan cities to middle America, and as the stereotype goes, inevitably end up in loud arguments with the highly conservative uncle who still works a blue-collar job back home. It’s a helpful stereotype only for the reason that it helps us look at the way our country is divided between blue and red states, between urban and rural areas, and between wealthier and poorer communities. The unfortunate way that America relies on only two major political parties generally ends up splitting our country into two factions, even though everyone knows there is plenty of room for a much wider spectrum of political thought. Very few of us are 100% Democrat or 100% Republican. Obama, recognizing this in 2008, promised to be the president of change; the president who could bridge the gap between these two worlds, and find common ground for all Americans.

Unfortunately, Obama did not become the president of all Americans. Very much a product of the wealthy, elite blue-state mentality, he easily fell into the traditional center-left political thinking that is pretty much Bill Clinton’s legacy. Admittedly, he also had the additional problem that the Republicans in Washington vowed to say an emphatic “no” to everything that he proposed. Campaign promises that Obama made, such as a healthcare package with no obligatory mandate quickly turned into Hilary Clinton’s healthcare proposal, one with an obligatory mandate, an argument that had been of great contention between them in the primaries; although Obama did much to save the economy in the wake of the economic crash he inherited, the trade agreements put in place by the Clintons, like the 1994 NAFTA agreement, agreements which left many American communities behind, were left unchallenged by an Obama administration. On foreign policy, drone bombings and NSA wiretapping did little to make Obama seem more than anything other than another establishment president, one whose calls for change had been nothing more than a campaign swindle.

So much has been made about how many of Trump’s supporters were responding to these conditions when they cast their votes earlier this month. But there is still the racist rhetoric of Donald Trump’s campaign; there is the history of racism in Donald Trump’s behavior, from denying housing to African Americans to the racist birther attacks of 2008; there was the refusal to denounce David Duke during the campaign; there is the predictable spike in hate crimes since his election; there is his cabinet, which looks something like a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan. So can we say unequivocally that everyone who voted for Trump, given all this much documented information, is racist? Even though many of these people voted for Obama in 2008? Even though many of these people have friends who are minorities, and some of them are even minorities themselves? How do we understand this paradox?

I think the question has to be restructured. The essential thing is how much someone is willing to tolerate, even in the promotion of what they consider to be (erroneously, in this case) their own best interest. And a lot of Americans said at the polls, that they would be able to tolerate this kind of blatant racism from the White House, if there was hope that conditions in their lives might improve. It is not so much that they themselves are necessarily white nationalists (although we’ve seen that, predictably, a lot of white nationalists did vote for Trump), but that they simply are willing to accept a certain amount of racism from their government. Which is to say that racism is not an either/or phenomenon. One isn’t either racist or not racist, rather there are gradations of how much negativity against another group one will accept, and many of Trump’s supporters fall somewhere on the scale where they are perfectly willing to accept the racist rhetoric and racist actions of a Donald Trump. This makes them “indifferent honest.” We have seen this argument already from Hannah Arendt, when she argues for the banality of evil. As Arendt tells us, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” They simply react to what they believe to be in their best interest at the time, no matter how much evil their reaction creates.

This is a problem which I think liberals and progressives will have to address when mobilizing for the future, something we desperately need to do, and indeed have been doing, after the election of Donald Trump. Yes, Trump’s supporters supported racism with their votes, even if they many of them didn’t intend the act to be a racist act in itself; they never actually made up their minds about how they feel about the evils of racism; they haven’t investigated their own feelings about minorities deeply enough to know their own true feelings about racism. So, while they may give lip service that, in principle, they are against racism, they allow themselves to be asleep to its reality. And that makes them complicit in racism by default.


-Whit Frazier, November 25, 2016


These days I spend most of my life in books. Not novels or histories or biographies, but autobiographies, journals from the past. Maybe I’m just waiting to die, trying to relive my life as many times as possible before I can’t relive it anymore. Maybe this is what they mean when they talk about eternal recurrence; reliving life over and over. Because when life comes to a close, you relive it over and over one way or another, whether it’s in journals or memories or maybe even make believe.

The journals turn my life into fragments. I kept them sporadically; nostalgically. Times when I thought I would have experiences worth remembering. This one right here I’ve been reading and re-reading for the past few nights. It’s turned my present into the presence of a prescient past. It covers a period of three months, it’s the three months I spent studying Steiner in Stuttgart. It was supposed to be three years, but things didn’t quite work out the way they – what does Ray Bradbury say ? – life gets in the way. The notebook begins with impressions; I was an impressionistic writer in my youth, but these days I find I’m more contemplative, I write:

Spring, Stuttgart, small town, long rolling hills, stairs winding through the city, walking downtown and through the west part of town, walking north up the hill, lonely as a cloud through the park.

I don’t remember these things now, or if I remember them, I remember them narratively, or not so much impressionistically.

The institute was in the north part of the city, in a large building on a hill overlooking the town. From the top of the building you could see those rolling hills of the city roll down into the valley where the city stills, and then rolls back up again into vineyards surrounded by sun. The sun comes pale through the clouds and then sifts through the fog hanging over the city, and I spent a lot of time in that room talking to S. about Steiner’s ideas, about ideas of eternal recurrence, about ideas of spiritual enlightenment, waking up, and waking up in order not to die.

“I’ve died many times,” S. would say, “and I’ve been back again many times, and it took me a long time to learn that the way not to die was to close my eyes.”

“What do you mean close your eyes?”

“When you’re ready.”

When you’re ready. This was what S. would always say. I didn’t know what that meant, and I loved the feeling of not knowing what it meant, wondering when I would be ready. I would walk down the hill into the city. I didn’t speak any German, but it didn’t matter; everyone spoke English. Whenever I tried my German on the people in the city, they would switch to English, and then my ego would get in the way, and it made it very hard to make close friendships. Nothing isolates like language. Or maybe nothing brings people together like a common language, and so language and thinking must have some sort of relationship like lovers.

The notebooks have some of my early clumsy attempts at writing in German. It makes me wince to read them now. Not that my German is any better, if anything it’s worse, because I haven’t been back since, but I continued to study it over the years, and if I’m not able anymore to converse with any fluency, I can spot mistakes much more easily; living through books has its advantages and disadvantages; it’s knowledge; it’s life even; but it’s also illusion.

When you’re ready. I studied Steiner nightly. I tried to read him in the original. I think I liked reading him in the original because it felt like decoding a text, and made the text feel more sacred in that sense. I also think I liked not really knowing what he was saying, because some of the things he says are pretty awful, and maybe that’s what S. meant when he said — when you’re ready. Because sometimes being ready means being gullible enough not to be ready to set your defenses, and defenses are those sleepy senses that keep you from being ready to be duped.

There was an African film director I met there; although he grew up in Lyons, and was born in Nigeria. He’d been in Germany for 20 years, had come with his parents and had never left again. Was just as much German as French as African I guess; he had gone through all those stages, and he would talk about France And Nigeria in this wistful far away kind of way like he was conjuring past lives. His film were always impressionistic. Films about migrancy, displacement, estrangement, always evoked through setting:

Spring, Stuttgart, small town, long rolling hills, stairs winding through the city, walking downtown and through the west part of town, walking north up the hill, lonely as a cloud through the park.

When you’re ready.

One morning S. and I sat looking over Stuttgart in that top floor room on that building on that hill, and he looked over at me, and he said, “I think you’re ready.”

Defenses are those sleepy senses that keep you from being ready to be duped. I sat there in that room looking over the city of Stuttgart, listening to S. explicate Steiner’s ideas of eternal recurrence, talking about his previous lives, about his life as an African, his life as an Asian, his life as a German, his life now, beyond all those stages, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and I think I understood something pretty awful about what he meant about being ready, and suddenly I realized I would never be ready, because I was not yet ready to be duped.

I stood up slow, waked over to the window. Nothing isolates like language, or maybe nothing brings people together like a shared language. The fog over the city settled, the sun sifting through the thick, I wandered lonely as a cloud. I closed my eyes, and I realized it was time for me to go home. I had only been there three months, and it was already time to go home. I thought about New York; the — what do we say? — the hustle the bustle – the hustle the hustle — and I thought about how long and lonely life is, even around those that share your language; especially around those that share your language, and I reminisced about a time when I would be old, when I would be old and ready and could reminisce back on my life in the quiet cadences of death’s unlonely, lovely language. As always. As now.

-Whit Frazier, September 2016


Countee Cullen and the Culture Wars (a ramble)


In his famous Countee Cullen smackdown in the Nation magazine, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain“, (which was cleverly disguised as a George Schuyler smackdown), Langston Hughes slyly signifies on his friend, confidante and fellow Harlem Renaissance luminary by opening with the following condemnation:

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself.

It just goes to show how much Cullen suffered for his peculiar vision: Cullen, the “Black Keats” wrote traditional sonnets loaded with Greek and Roman allusions, never aspiring to the newer modernist models that attracted his peers. Indeed, the other young black poets Cullen associated with were more aligned with the downtown Modernists – Hart Crane, Waldo Frank, Jean Toomer – than with Cullen’s Victorian verse, and they thought Cullen’s traditional verse showed too much deference to older European forms. Hughes, Hurston and others were unapologetic Modernists: they rejected the bourgeois ideals of the older generation, and were interested in erecting something new and uniquely American in its place.

On the other hand, the older guard of activists and artists loved Cullen. Cullen even married (disastrously, as it turns out) W.E.B. DuBois‘ daughter Yolande. Cullen, more than just proving that black poets could write verse as strong as white poets, showed that he could write verse that surpassed most of the poetry published by white authors. After all, the only traditional lyric poet writing at that time at the level of Cullen was Edna St. Vincent Millay. (It’s curious that the two most adept traditional poets would be a black poet and a bisexual female poet; which just goes to show that sometimes those most disenfranchised are also those most fluent in the system which disenfranchises them.)

But Cullen’s understated, distanced and sly way of writing about race seems to me to be a result of his bifurcated place among the old guard and the new writers. Being a few months younger than Langston, and part of the Bohemian group of writers who published the subversive magazine FIre!!, he really did belong to the their clique; but as something of a literary relic, and only a halfway rebel, he was never an easy fit. And in his personal life, he also had an uneasy bifurcated relationship with his own identity.


Cullen’s birth is a mystery. No one knows the exact day of his birth, no one knows the exact spot; no one knows his exact parents or his original birth name; no one knows much of anything about his early life. He was both an orphan and (once adopted) the son of a successful Harlem preacher. As such, Cullen felt like a pagan – a motherless child, a mystery man, and a trickster, as well as a child of God. Stories he told about his early life were as likely to be true as they were to be false, and almost through no fault of his own. The concept of identity for Cullen was particularly complicated. So while most of the Harlem Renaissance authors were looking to history, to Africa, to ancient culture and myth to rediscover their literary identities, Cullen couldn’t even place his literary identity in his native American soil, let alone in African culture. In his poem Heritage, he writes:

“What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?”

Africa, for Cullen, is a fiction. An unreal, imagined land of exotic sights and peoples. He ends the poem by concluding:

“Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.”

Cullen is Western through and through, even if he tries to deny it. What use trying to fit classical African models onto his art, when classical European models were a more comfortable fit? Or this seems to be his argument, at least.

What’s missing is why Cullen seems to have been passed over by modernism, while all his peers were compelled by it. In my opinion, Cullen’s appreciation of traditional verse results from his father’s preaching, and his schooling. His father’s preaching would have attuned his ear to Biblical language. His teachers were all enthusiasts of the Romantics. Cullen sounds tame to us now, and he could even sound tame (sometimes) in his day, but for Cullen, the Romantics would have been subversive, extremely so, as Cullen’s relationship to poetry prior to his exposure to them would have been almost strictly Biblical. Keats, Byron, Shelley must have come like a revelation.


More importantly, I think he felt a special affinity with the Romantics, one that he felt even more deeply than he felt the strictures of modern society. Countee Cullen is in many ways Byron’s wandering Childe Harold: a wandering poet, fallen from grace. So when Hughes writes, “no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself,” the question of self was a more complicated one for Cullen than for Hughes. Langston Hughes’ concept of self was developed through his interaction with lower middle class black life in Kansas and Cleveland, and later, when Hughes visited his father in Mexico, a renunciation of his father’s racism and self-hate. Cullen came to an understanding of himself through the church, and through school. His self is a problematic mix of church, culture, and the impossible position of being a very dark, gay black man in America in the early 20th Century. “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: /To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” Radicalism in poetry for Cullen was the use of older (white) literary forms to create a black poetic aesthetic. When Claude McKay wrote sonnets, he wrote them as weapons: they were angry, socialistic and black nationalistic, as in the famous “If We Must Die

“If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”

When Cullen wrote sonnets, his temperament was not that of the angry black man. He wanted to be a poet first, black man second; and as such, if he were to write as a black poet, he would write as a satirist – trickster – Eiron, the black poet who could whip the white poets at their own game, and in the process demonstrate the absurdity of racialist thinking.

It’s fair to say that many of the younger Harlem Renaissance writers(with the powerful exceptions of Hughes, Hurston, McKay and Sterling Brown) were striving to be post-racial writers in a way the writers of the 60’s Black Art Movements (and older writers like WEB DuBois) were decidedly not . The tensions arose from how the writers thought best to achieve this. George Schuyler and Countee Cullen considered blacks “lamp-blacked Anglo-Saxons” – with no other differences whatsoever. Fair enough. This went right along with the new anthropological work being done by Franz Boas and other leaders of the field, which was rapidly proving there were indeed no biological differences between the races, and that the concept of race was a social construction. Nevertheless, the history and culture of an oppressed people was not a fiction, and writers like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay saw no way of engaging literature honestly without writing as outspoken members of this community. Jean Toomer thought of the American as a new race altogether – if a term as outmoded as race was to be used at all. What all the writers seemed to agree on, though (at least for a time, Toomer’s a more complicated case), was the necessity of a black cultural arts and letters movement.


This cultural inferiority complex was not limited to Black America. As late as 1920, the cultural critic HL Mencken writes, “America has not produced any writer worthy of the name of second-rater.” Americans looked to Europe for examples of truly exceptional art and culture. Countee Cullen was no exception, and so his decision to base his poetry on European models is understandable. It was simply an American response. In many cases, (as in that of Edgar Allen Poe) it would take a European artist to give the thumbs up on an artist before Americans even had the confidence to accept the artist as important. Here we have the beginnings of what we call today The Culture Wars. Was there a purely American art – and if so what was it, beyond the crass, superficiality of America’s money driven, more and more pop-culture driven economy – or had Europe already set the standard for high art? Similarly, Black Americans asked themselves, was there a Black American art – and if so what was it – and what was its place within the context of a larger American art – if such a thing even existed?

Furthermore, American art has always distrusted its own popular culture because American culture is so heavily inflected with African American culture, and America was built on the idea that African Americans were not even human. But American culture cannot be separated from Black culture. No other country has such a troubled relationship with its own folk culture.

As we are all well aware, the Culture Wars are still with us today. The Great Depression put a choke hold on the activities of many of the Harlem Renaissance writers (as well as white writers) and in the wake of the Renaissance, came social realism. Social Realism gave way to the sixties, Black arts, and Black power, and the idea of a black writer trying to be post-racial at that point was not really feasible. This in part hurt the career of a writer as illustrious as Ralph Ellison, who was not sure how to respond in fiction to the 1960’s. The Black Arts Movement ravaged the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. Critics like Houston Baker, Harold Cruse and Irving Huggins blamed the failure of the Harlem Renaissance on white patronage.

While white (and black) patronage, did hurt (and help) some of the Renaissance writers, the conclusion of the sixties critics is too reactionary, although many of the questions the Black Arts and Black Power Movements asked were never satisfactorily answered. For example, how does a minority community assimilate comfortably into a culture built off of systemic racism?

I’ve been using the term “post-racial,” but as far as I know, that term was never once used by any of the Harlem Renaissance writers. I’ve been using it because I want this post to have a resonance for our own times, where, after Obama’s election, we often heard talk about a post-racial America; a fantasy obviously dismissed in the wake of this bleak election of Donald Trump. So much for the myth of progress.

Now that is not to dismiss the importance of the first black president, or even to say that there has been no great progress since the 1960’s; that would be an absurd claim. I do think, however, that we’ll be stuck with the Culture Wars for a while – basically a cultural civil war – that began with the end of Reconstruction and hasn’t left us since; the very real concerns of the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement were never fully addressed; and they must be forcefully addressed if we are to survive as a country. Nothing makes this more obvious than Trump’s election.

Countee Cullen was onto something with his uneasiness about taking on the folk modernism of Hughes, Hurston and Brown. After all, DuBois’ idea was that a Talented Tenth of Black Americans were meant to speak for the entirety of black people. This kind of elitism was not an easy fit with the poetry Hughes was writing, or with his elevated place in society – and even though Hughes always tried to remain a champion of the everyman, the institutional place he increasingly occupied in the culture elevated him well beyond the position of the common man. Cullen on the other hand wrote poetry that would be more in line with a so-called Talented Tenth. The populism of Hughes and Brown (and to a less extent Hurston) was an illusion which had the deadly possibility of turning into opportunism.

Similarly, the populism we see today is a reaction against the elitism that the Democratic and Republican parties have created – a system where money determines elections, and where large corporations have more rights than individual citizens. On the other hand, the real successes of black artists and politicians threaten those white Americans who feel pushed out by the elitist establishment. The Culture Wars today are like the embodiment of Cullen’s poetry: Americans are fueled by the desire to sing and soar, with an attachment to the high culture values of the past; and yet we know that we are essentially other – that we are multicultural, multiracial, that we were not born into the elite, and that is the reason for much of our bifurcated schizophrenia; that is the reason a large number of people could vote for Barack Obama in 2008, and then vote for a virulent racist like Donald Trump in 2016.

The Culture Wars are political wars and the political wars are cultural wars. Countee Cullen was a black man who could not come to terms with his blackness; he never learned fully to appreciate, understand or investigate it. Similarly the United States is a black country that has not yet come to terms with its blackness. With a setback like Donald Trump, it will not be an easy journey; but America must not be afraid to be its(black)self.

-Whit Frazier, 2010 (Updated November 20, 2016)

Negative Time


When Samuel Wentworth heard that Arnold Rump was nominated, along with himself, for the Academy Award, he put down his morning coffee, looked out the window at the long stretch of buildings beneath his Manhattan penthouse, and wondered if his whole life had been a series of mistakes.

Wentworth was a well-respected documentarian. For the last 15 years he’d been arguably the best living documentarian alive. He’d already won three Academy Awards for his work, revolutionized the art with his neoclassical decadence, and worked from the same basic premise for the last thirty three years: documentary was simply a high art form of propaganda. And the further he’d taken this premise toward its logical extremes, the more successful his work had become. But this morning, over coffee, a newspaper, and a fine cigar all of that was about to be challenged by Arnold Rump.


Arnold Rump was born on June 16th, 1971, son of Gordon and Samantha Rump. They were a modest family living just North of Boston, in the suburbs of Malden, Massachusetts. Arnold’s father was carpenter, and Arnold’s mother was a nurse. Arnold was an only child. They weren’t wealthy, but they were happy, spending cozy evenings together in their cramped little apartment. Arnold’s father was always building new furniture around the house, and Arnold’s mother was always reading to him as a child. Later, growing up, Arnold’s mother would sit with him in the evenings in front of the television, and they would discuss the programs they watched. From an early age Arnold was fascinated with television. More than anything though, he was fascinated by documentaries. His mother would find him up all hours of the night watching PBS, documentary after documentary.


Samuel Wentworth was born on August 23rd, 1941 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The son of two New York socialites, Wentworth grew up among well-known artists and celebrities. From an early age, Wentworth showed a talent for reading and writing. It was only when he reached his college years, however, that he began to pursue a career in film. His then college sweetheart, later to become his lifelong companion, Sheila Maxim, a talented young photographer convinced him he should try his hand at making documentaries. Wentworth, who believed in doing everything to the full, dived into the art with fervor. He studied the history of the documentary, spending days and nights watching film after film, taking notes, and in the meantime, writing a dissertation on the theory of the documentary. His dissertation,“Documentary and Propaganda: A study of the History of Filmmaking”, was published in 1965. It was greeted with much critical acclaim, and a few years later, Wentworth produced his first full-length documentary on the 60’s youth culture.


By the time he was in high school, Arnold was filming his own documentaries. All his teachers said he had a wonderful eye, and a wonderful gift for telling a story. His journalism teacher said he was a natural. His photography teacher said he was the real deal. Arnold just said he was pursuing his passion.

Arnold would go on to receive a full scholarship to the New School in New York City, where he continued to follow his passion. Two years into his college career, he shot a documentary on the history of the East Village. This documentary premiered at a small film festival in the city, and caught the attention of documentarian giant Samuel Wentworth. After seeing the film, Wentworth arranged for a meeting with Rump, saying: “this kid Rump may very well be the future of the documentary.”


By the mid Seventies Wentworth was already a household name. His neoclassical, black & white documentaries were meant to strike an emotional chord with his viewers. He almost always hit the mark, winning him his first Academy Award for best documentary in 1978. When accepting the award, the host smiled, shook his hand, and said: “Wentworth, you know, you may very well be the future of the documentary.”


One afternoon Wentworth took a car out to meet his agent. His agent confirmed the rumor. “They say this kid Rump really is onto something. He’s challenging everything you built. Call me paranoid, but I say this kid is gunning for you. He’s not just after your spot; he’s after your vision.”

His agent pulled out a copy of the Daily News. “You see what he says right there? -‘The documentarian who views documentary as propaganda is not an artist. He’s a dishonest journalist. If he’s any kind of artist at all, it’s nothing more than a con artist.’”

“Well…” said Wentworth

“Oh, it goes on. Look: – ‘Any true artist is dedicated to the truth. The documentarian bears the burden of relating history to the generations. A propagandist is a liar after the public’s reality. Such a man is no artist at all.’”

Wentworth’s agent looked up. “There’s more, too. See:”

“I’ve heard enough.”


From the very beginning Wentworth and Rump had differences, but Rump was learning a lot from his mentor. He was the most talented person Wentworth had ever had the pleasure of tutoring. Rump caught onto the nuances of the craft like he was born knowing them. “Like he just had to recollect them,” Wentworth said of his protégé.


The first time Rump shot a documentary in color, Wentworth was upset. “Color upsets the balance. It lets the viewer see things that you as the director might not see. Documentary, more than any other film is about holding your viewer hostage. You have a perspective you’re coming from, and you cannot leave anything up to the viewer. It is a dictatorship, a documentary.”


In 1999, Wentworth and Rump had a public falling out. Wentworth called Rump, “an arrogant young upstart.” Rump said Wentworth was, “a dinosaur in the industry. One that needed to die off so younger artists could breathe.” Each announced they were at work on a documentary of the other.


When Arnold Rump heard that Samuel Wentworth was nominated, along with himself, for the Academy Award, he put down his morning coffee, looked out the window at the long stretch of buildings beneath his Manhattan penthouse, and wondered if his whole life had been a series of mistakes.


-Whit Frazier, 2005