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.

II

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)

Countee Cullen and the Culture Wars (a ramble)

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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)

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

The following poem was basically an experiment. I wanted to write something for Emmett Till in the wake of the recent justifiable outrage over the vandalization of his memorial. Since so much of this outrage was expressed on social media, I wanted to see if I could use that medium to change the form/approach to my memorial poem. The medium I chose was twitter, because I wanted to make each line of the poem work alone as a tweet, with all the force of a well written tweet, and I also wanted each line to act like a traditional line of poetry, driving the momentum of the poem forward, step by step. Of course, any such experiment is on some level doomed to failure, but I wanted to see where it led me all the same.

I decided to choose the form of the Bop poem, recently invented by Afaa Michael Weaver, because I think it’s a wonderful form, with a lot of lyric opportunities, and also because it allowed me to post the poem over a couple of days on twitter, without over-posting. The Bop is generally comprised of three stanzas: the first stanza is six lines, and states a problem, followed by a refrain; the second stanza, eight lines, delves into the problem, followed by a refrain; and the last stanza, six lines, followed by the refrain, attempts to find a solution or come to terms with the inability to do so. As you can imagine, this leaves a poet a lot of possibilities to work with. I played with the form a little bit to increase the overall musicality of the poem, but generally, I more or less stuck to that original form.

Anyway, here’s what I came up with. Hope you enjoy it:

 

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

Just another one of them times the future leans back to politic with the past;
The present is something like a beacon between what we dream to what we’ve seen;
Bullet holes in a black boy’s grave, and folks like: all lives matter, I don’t know what you mean.
And no, the revolution will not be twitterized, and tho open caskets don’t convert criminals,
I still wake each morning to waves of wakes and the waves of the blue of the day,
And lately I find myself leaning back to listen for what the future’s leaning back to say.

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till
Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

The night was still and the moon was gold and the leaves came tumbling down;
I wrote this bop for you, Emmett, because I wonder with anger and wander with pain;
The dogs were howling and the wind was blowing and the moon was red and round;
A twitter Bop to keep me honest and true, with each line like a thought, each line like a shot;
Shouting and screaming, defiant proclaiming, to hell with you white devil bastards, a retort, and then no sound;
I wrote this bop for you Emmett to say what I know I’ll end up failing to say, when terror, fetid hot, yet clammy cold remains;
I wrote this bop for you Emmett cuz every time a cop hits a brother or sister his old club goes bop! Bop!
And it don’t stop y’all. And it just don’t stop.

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till
Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

I guess a twitter-bop is something like a New Orleans funeral with music, a jazz funeral.
At first the notes moan low and groan, bemoan the way a loss leaves us more alone.
The dirges and hymns intone the long slow walk from enwombed to entombed:
Hell, we’re all of us doomed.
But if the music swings down low, well by and by it swings high to merry memorials
Celebrating a life and a spirit that transcends racism, politics and even burials.

Twitter-Bop for Emmett Till

 

 

(Whit Frazier, October 25-27, 2016)