The Cuban trip was a turning point in my life. Langston, Jimmy Baldwin, and John Killens were supposed to go, but didn’t. I was in a group that included Sarah Wright, the novelist, and her husband. Ed Clark, the painter, whom I knew. Harold Cruse, the writer, whom I also knew. (I’d met Harold in my MacDougal Street days, often in the Caf, Figaro at Bleecker and McDougal. He lived then in a furnished room on West 23rd or West 14th and was always complaining about how Broadway producers were turning down musicals he was writing.) Julian Mayfield and his wife, Ana Codero, a doctor, born in Puerto Rico. Also with our party was a man I didn’t know until then, Robert Williams. It was Williams who had organized the most militant NAACP chapter in the States, a chapter composed of black workers and returning veterans, in Monroe, North Carolina. They’d had “wade-ins” to integrate the pool in Monroe, and Rob had summoned black militant attorney Conrad Lynn down to North Carolina to defend a ten-year-old boy who had been locked up for kissing an eight-year-old white girl. Rob had also organized a self-defense group in Monroe and when he made the statement in 1959, after a white rapist of a black woman had been freed by an all-white jury, that blacks should “meet violence with violence,” he was summarily ditched by Uncle Roy and the NAACP. Later, Rob led a group of armed blacks to surround a group of menacing Klansmen, disarm them, take off their hoods, and send them scurrying back into their rat holes.
He was wearing a big straw hat like a campesino (Cuban farmer) when I met him, with a wispy tip of beard. He was a big man, maybe six feet three inches and about 240 pounds, imposing, strong-looking. One never doubted that, aroused, Rob could be a mean mf.
Traveling with us, as well, were John Henrik Clarke, the historian, plus some other people — a black model, two strange-looking sisters who were members, along with Gibson, of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, and a journalist from a Philadelphia newspaper. (For a detailed account of this trip, see “Cuba Libre,” an essay in Home: Social Essays.)
But we went to Cuba (this was 1959), after a false start courtesy of the U.S. government, and we stayed a couple days in Havana talking to various people, meeting various Cuban and Latin intellectuals and officials. I met the great Afro-Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen, who asked me straight out where was Langston and did I think that Langston had gotten more conservative. I smiled, but I did not know then that Langston had testified, under duress, before HUAC, denouncing some of his own earlier work, to keep great patriots like the filthy cracker bastard James Eastland off his ass.
I met Pablo Armando Fernández, the poet, and people at La Casa de Cuba, an arts center. We also visited various ministries and got lectured to about what Cuba was trying to do. I talked to a young minister in the National Agrarian Reform Institute, António Nuñez Jiménez, and was very much impressed. And then we traveled, with thousands of other people, on a slow train to Oriente Province, on the eastern tip of the island, where the revolution was born. I met intellectuals from all over Latin America, including a young woman, Rubi Betancourt, from Yucatán and Jaime Shelly, a poet from Mexico. These young people assaulted my pronouncements about not being political. It was the first time I’d been taken on so thoroughly and forcefully and by people my own age, my contemporaries. I was not Eisenhower or Nixon or Faubus, I protested, I was a poet. And so you want to write your poetry and that alone, while most of the world is suffering, your own people included. It is bourgeois individualism, they screamed. That is all it is, bourgeois individualism. For twelve or fourteen hours on the train I was assailed for my bourgeois individualism. And I could see, had seen, people my own age involved in actual change, revolution. In my sinister American cynicism, my inherited world-weary arrogance of theoretical know-it-all-ism, I was little better than my friend who’d said, “I hate guys in uniforms.” In fact, I was the same.
I could fight back with what I knew of my own seeming disagreement with my U.S. peers, how I did have sensitivity to what was going on. But that seemed puny in the face of what I’d already seen in Cuba and in the faces of these young Latino activists and intellectuals, already politicized, for whom Cuba was the first payoff of a world they had already envisioned and were already working for. I was the oddball, the weary traveler/tourist from the U.S. of A. As much hot hatred as I could summon for the U.S., its white supremacy, its exploitation, its psychological torture of schizophrenic slaves like myself, I now had to bear the final indignity—which made my teeth grate violently, even in reflection — the indignity and humiliation of defending its ideology, which I was doing in the name of Art. Jesus Christ!
In Oriente, we went up into the Sierra Maestra for the celebration of the July 26 invasion of Moncada by Fidel Castro and his forces, who called themselves the July 26th Movement. There were hundreds of thousands of people up there. It could have been easily a million people. We trucked and walked and wound up and up. I rode partway with Françoise Sagan, the French novelist, who had attendants everywhere, befitting her great celebrity. I had known her from the covers of her books I read down in Puerto Rico in the error farce. All of us were thirsty, the hot sun whipped our ass, plus the long walk. But we made it up to where the celebration was held. And I heard Fidel Castro speak for perhaps two hours nonstop, relating the entire history of the revolution to the campesinos, soldiers, intellectuals, and foreign visitors. I even got to meet him and say a few words. It was a rare moment in one’s life and if the harangues of Rubi and Jaime and the others weren’t enough, this final stroke was, my head spinning with recognition, revelation, and the hot-ass sun.
We had a few more days in Havana. I hung out with Rob Williams one day, and everywhere he went people in the street cheered him. The Cubans had made his confrontations with the Klan and yanqui racismo known to people throughout the island, even though in the U.S. they tried to play it down.
Even when he was in Havana, Rob got word from the Cubans that the Klan was stirring again, trying to intimidate his family. Rob, with me trailing along with him, went to see the U.S. ambassador. Rob was wearing a shoulder holster and his language was so hot you could hear him through the door. “If the U.S. government don’t protect them, then I got people there who will.” (And he did!)
A year or so later the government framed Rob in the famous Monroe kidnap case, when Rob saved two whites who’d wandered into the black community, during a shootout with the racist state police, from being jacked up by a crowd of blacks incensed by the state police’s racist terror tactics. He went to Cuba, Algeria, and finally China, where he never ceased to be a thorn in the U.S. racists’ side with his militant publication The Crusader. When we got back to the U.S., the newspapers even pretended that the Cuban celebration had been rained out.
But I carried so much back with me that I was never the same again. The dynamic of the revolution had touched me. Talking to Fidel or Juan Almeida, the black commander of the revolutionary army, or to the young minister of agrarian reform, Nuñez Jiménez, or Jaime or Rubi or Pablo Fernández. Seeing youth not just turning on and dropping out, not just hiply cynical or cynically hip, but using their strength and energy to change the real world — that was too much. The growing kernel of social consciousness I had was mightily fertilized by the visit.
When I returned, I was shaken more deeply than even I realized. The arguments with my old poet comrades increased and intensified. It was not enough just to write, to feel, to think, one must act! One could act.
First, I wrote an essay about my Cuban experience, “Cuba Libre.” I remembered that the Cubans had changed the name of the Hilton Hotel in Havana to Havana Libre, and a U.S. telephone operator, in making the hookup of a call there, insisted the hotel was still the Havana Hilton. But the. Cuban operator would have none of it. “Havana Libre!” she shouted. “Get used to it!” That was the spirit I wanted to invest in the essay. It won an award after being published in the Evergreen Review. The award was $300 and was the most money I’d ever gotten for something I’d written.
At the same time I had begun a long prose work. It was as if I wanted to shake off the stylistic shackles of the gang I’d hung with and styled myself after. I consciously wrote as deeply into my psyche as I could go. I didn’t even want the words to “make sense.” I had the theme in my mind. My early life, in Newark, at Howard, in the air force, but the theme was just something against which I wanted to play endless variations. Each section had its own dynamic and pain. Going so deep into myself was like descending into hell. I called it The System of Dante’s Hell.
I would focus on my theme and then write whatever came into my mind as a result of that focus. I called them (later) “association complexes.” I was tearing away from the “ready-mades” that imitating Creeley or Olson provided. I’d found that when you imitate people’s form you take on their content as well. So I scrambled and roamed, sometimes blindly in my consciousness, to come up with something more essential, more rooted in my deepest experience. I thought of music, I thought of myself as an improvising soloist. I would go into almost a trancelike state, hacking deeper and deeper, my interior rhythms dancing me on. Only in the last section is there what I called “fast narrative,” something approaching a conventional narrative. It was almost like what Césaire had said about how he wrote Return to My Native Land. That he was trying to break away from the heavy influence that French Symbolist poetry had on him. So he decided to write prose to stop writing poetry. And what he came up with was a really profound new poetry, showing how even the French language could be transformed by the Afro-Caribbean rhythms and perception. (Though I did not find this out about Césaire until almost twenty years later!)
I wrote in jagged staccato fragments until at the end of the piece I had come to, found, my own voice, or something beginning to approximate it. We were also going through the process of moving. Another little girl child had been born, Lisa, so we had two little girl babies. We were moving to East 14th Street, between First and Second Avenues, into a terrible though huge barnlike apartment over a Gypsy storefront. It was not the sleek, quiet West Side apartment in Chelsea. We moved into the grimy East Side just before the still vague East Village changed abruptly into Chelsea East. Our lease had run out on West 20th Street. The rent had been high for us in the first place, but now I had also gotten fired from my job for having gone off to Cuba. I had to get back on unemployment, so there was no way we could support West 20th Street.
It was a weird time for me altogether, what with the political impulses the Cuba trip had set in motion. There was an unused metal sign over the Gypsies’ place on which in some critical moment in U.S.-Cuban relations I’d painted “Cuba Si-Yanqui No!”
When I finished Dante’s Hell, it was Lucia to whom I thought I should show it, and she thought it should be published immediately. I also showed it to a friend, John Fles, who was publishing a one-shot anthology of new work, along with Artaud, whom Fles dug. It was called The Trembling Lamb. I felt, then, that I was in motion, that my writing, which I’d been deadly serious about, was now not just a set of “licks” already laid down by Creeley, Olson, etc., but was moving to become genuinely mine. I felt that I could begin to stretch out, to innovate in ways I hadn’t thought of before. And in all my poetry which comes out of this period there is the ongoing and underlying contention and struggle between myself and “them” that poetry and politics, art and politics, were not mutually exclusive.
Lana wanted to be a “mistress.” She took that as a real identity, Brook Farm, I’d thought before, when I discovered the Nellie-Luke Sashimi hookup.
When I discovered that Luke and Nellie were still seeing each other, I just left, moved out, and Lana, a young dancer I’d met, wanted me to move in with her. Lucia didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but she was half hip to the Lana scam, so we were not as close as before. I’d picked up the phone one day and it was Luke, maybe drunk, trying to disguise his Asian accent, like an alligator “disguised” in a tuxedo.
Nellie had started work again at the Sectarian Review and we’d hired a West Indian woman to watch the kids all day, while Nellie worked and I wrote. But now I just split. I said a few words to Nellie, gathered my shit, and was gone. Luckily I had found a place to sublet that was just three blocks up the street on East 17th Street, in an elevator building, one of the old luxury-type apartments. A young white piano player who was working with Jackie McLean was splitting and he wanted to get rid of the place, so I leaped on it. It was a nice little three-room spot, between Second and Third Avenues, the only run-down-looking building in a block of extremely high-priced luxury apartments.
Lana started coming around to that apartment, spending the night (when she wasn’t hooked up to Butler). She was hinting that she wanted to move in with me, but I wasn’t hearing those hints. The solitude, being a young man with some knowledge of the town now, not thrown back and forth at the whim of whoever as guides, was sweet.
During this period, I’d tried to start a group known as the Organization of Young Men (OYM). It was one fledgling effort at building some political consciousness downtown. And not so strangely, it was all black. Not that I’d planned it that way, but that is who was in it. And not so strangely, almost all of those in it had white wives or lovers. Archie Shepp, Steve Cannon, Leroy McLucas, Walter Bowe, Harold Cruse, Calvin Hicks, A. B. Spellman, Bobb Hamilton, and a few other folks. We weren’t certain just what we wanted to do. It was more like a confirmation of rising consciousness. We issued at least one statement, but the sense of it was that we knew it was time to go on the offensive in the civil rights movement. We did not feel part of that movement. Most of us were isolated now from the mainstream of the black community and we did not reflect, in an undistorted
way, that consciousness. Our consciousness, in the main, was that of young black intellectuals “integrated” to within a hair’s breadth of our life.
We talked vaguely about going “uptown” to work. But what work we did not really understand. We had a few meetings, but then Calvin Hicks had already organized a stronger, somewhat more experienced group, the name of which came to be On Guard. It was the same kind of group, mainly black intellectuals living downtown, many of whom were married to or “going with” white women. And in that organization, it was an unwritten rule that our wives, lovers, etc., weren’t to go uptown with us. The exception to this was Hicks’ wife, who was explained as “an Egyptian,” though to the untrained or spontaneous eye, she looked extremely white.
Finally, after a few clandestine visits back to East 14th Street, I abruptly decided to go back. Why? I can’t really say. Perhaps a sense of family, a feeling of being somehow insecure living “by myself,” or whatever. But I came back, to much hand wringing and moaning from Lana and the old goodbye to some others.
The West Indian woman was still “minding” the children while I tried to write. One time she took them to the park that is part of the Stuyvesant Town apartments, and while sitting on a bench next to many black “governesses” with their lily-white charges, she was asked did those children live in the complex. These security guards knew they didn’t, because at the time Stuyvesant Town was lily white. So they asked Miss Brown to leave!
I had also become a part of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee under Richard Gibson’s urging. And this brought me further into the world of political commitment. It was as if I had two distinct lives, one a politically oriented life, with a distinct set of people I knew and talked to, the other the artsy bohemian life of the Village.
Zazen had come, finally, to an end. So Lucia and I began to put out a small newsletter, which would come out monthly or thereabouts, called The Fleeting Bear. It published poetry, reviews, snippets of essays, fiction, and was distributed to whoever wanted it for a contribution of one kind or another.
Working with the On Guard people, I would go uptown. We had opened a small office on 125th Street and got involved in a few struggles. The most important battle we took up was when the government tried to frame Rob Williams. We set up a committee, the Monroe Defense Committee, to raise money and put out propaganda about the case. We ran into trouble with the Socialist Workers Party, which wanted to have some grip on the group. I was very naive about sectarian left politics and didn’t really understand what was going on. All I knew is that the SWP wanted to put a woman named Berta Greene on the MDC and Richard Gibson was always complaining about the SWP and, particularly, Berta Greene as interfering obstructionists to the work he was trying to do with Fair Play. We met one day at my house on 14th Street. Calvin, Virginia Hamilton, Archie, and some others and SWP people gave us a check for a couple hundred dollars and wanted to talk about Berta’s being an officer on the committee. We went into secret caucus and subsequently told them we didn’t want Berta on the committee. So SWP took their check back. What was so wild was that some of us were talking about how we didn’t want white people on the committee but we were all hooked up to white women and the downtown Village society. Such were the contradictions of that period of political organization.
But Rob’s frame-up brought us into that struggle in a big way. We put out a little publication called In/Formation, which talked about the case and which we began to distribute mostly downtown. We had the uptown office, but most of us (all of us) still lived downtown.
The SWP started a rival defense committee, as they usually do when they cannot steer things their way. So the two defense committees struggled with each other and at the same time we were trying to get out information about Rob’s case. I became a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and eventually chairman of the New York chapter. I started also to speak at different places around the city about Cuba and also the Williams case. Both these issues had caught the imagination of a certain sector of young people of my generation — harbingers of things to come. I began meeting a lot of different kinds of people than the sequestered artistic types I’d been running with, but I was still very much a part of a downtown art scene, though the positions and opinions I was beginning to take were always opposed by most of my artsy world. “Cuba Libre” was reprinted by the Fair Play Committee right after it appeared in Evergreen Review late in 1960.
In some ways the East 14th Street apartment was the scene of even larger bashes than those on West 20th Street. The West 20th Street sets were, in the main, in-house kinds of things — close cutthroat friends. On East 14th Street we had one New Year’s Eve party that looked like it had half the Village there. And there was not only anything people wanted to drink or smoke (and whatever they wanted to snort somewhere in one of the rooms) but we had taken to buying these amyl nitrate capsules, which were normally used to revive heart attack victims. Cracking the glass tube inside a bright yellow net and whiffing that boy gave one of the oddest kinds of instant high. It made things hilarious (do people with heart attacks feel instantly sad?), but its effects were very short lived — perhaps a minute. For this reason people were always whipping out the yellow-clothed capsule, popping it, and falling all over cracking up. People who didn’t know what was happening thought we were nuts.
The Fleeting Bear was coming out regularly and became the talk of our various interconnected literary circles. It was meant to be “quick, fast, and in a hurry.” Something that could carry the zigs and zags of the literary scene as well as some word of the general New York creative ambience. Lucia and I were very serious about it, sending it to anyone who wanted it or who we thought should get it and asking for any contribution they wanted to give. Usually that meant people might drop a dollar on you when you couldn’t possibly have “charged” a dollar for that skimpy little thing. But the publication had real impact and influence and was greatly talked about. And though it had a regular circulation of about 300, those 300 were sufficiently wired for sound to project the Bear’spresence and “message” (of a new literature and a new criticism) in all directions.
Fleeting Bear 9, however, got another response. We were sending it to a couple of people in the slam and the authorities intercepted that issue, which contained Burroughs’ take-off on Roosevelt, called “Routine: Roosevelt after the Inauguration” (an excerpt from Naked Lunch), plus a dramatic section of my own Dante called “The Eighth Ditch,” about a homosexual rape in the army. In the middle of the night (about 3 A.M.) treasury agents, FBI, and police showed at East 14th Street. I was awakened with these nabs standing over my head. Nellie told them not to wake the children and they threatened to arrest her. One of them asked me, “Is that your wife?” Just to show that they did not like the interracial business.
I was being charged with sending obscene materials through the mail. So you can see that certainly was another day, just a little over thirty years ago. The words used in those two pieces can probably be found in most films released now. I was locked up but got a lawyer, and when Lucia turned herself in later, we were both released on our own recognizance.
I defended myself before the grand jury, however. I read all the good parts of Joyce’s Ulysses and Catullus aloud to the jury and then read Judge Woolsey’s decision on Ulysses, which described obscene literature as being arousing “to the normal person.” I went on, saying, “But I know none of you [grand jury] were aroused by any of these things.” They dismissed the case.
During those East 14th Street days, Timothy Leary showed up. He was teaching up at Harvard and doing research on hallucinogens; he and another guy (Alpert) who became a guru and changed his name to Baba Ram Dass. Leary was floating around the downtown artistic community handing out the drug psilocybin, also called “the magic mushroom,” to get the reaction of writers and painters and dancers and musicians to hallucinogenic drugs. LSD was a later development of this same stuff.
I had my reservations about taking that bullshit. My rationale was that while traditional drugs (bush, scag, cocaine) were OK with me, I didn’t know anything about this kind of shit Leary was pushing. But I went for it anyway and took some of it. I was high about eight hours! And then when I thought I was down I had a relapse. The shit made stuff seem like it was jumping around on my desk and in the house. Papers, pictures, furniture all would suddenly leap to another spot or jump up and down. After a while I began begging to come down (in my head). And then aloud: “I wish this shit would go away!” Finally, it was late at night and I thought I had shook the shit off. So I went for a walk up First Avenue, which was just a block away. When I got up in the 20s, suddenly I started hearing these wild screams and moans. “Goddammit, that shit is back again. Goddammit!” I was whining out loud, but then I looked up and I was walking right near Bellevue and it was the noise the nuts were making. I never used it again, Leary or not!
I had gotten together enough poems for a first book and was thinking of publishing it through Totem. But I hit on an idea of getting Ted Wilentz and his brother, Eli, who ran the Eighth Street Bookstore, to co-publish with us. They had started a publishing company, Corinth Books, to publish a book that Eli had done on New York City history. Ted was a good friend of Allen Ginsberg and generally a warm and fairly knowledgeable person about the new literary scene, since people were always coming into his place mashing new stuff on him to sell out of his store. We’d always got a good response with Zazen and the Totem books and he carried much of the new literature from all over the country. So in 1961 my first book of poetry, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, was published.
The Totem-Corinth collaboration published a number of significant books. Empty Mirror, early poems by A.G.; Myths and Texts, Gary Snyder; Like I Say, Philip Whalen; Second Ave., Frank O’Hara; Hands Up, Ed Dorn; Scripture of the Golden Eternity, Kerouac; Gilbert Sorrentino’s Black and White. Plus Totem, by itself, published Max Finstein’s Savonarola’s Tune and Charles Olson’s seminal work, Projective Verse, which was for many of us the manifesto of a new poetry.
But soon we had to move again. This time the landlords wanted to tear down the old building to make way for a new apartment complex. So the apartment-hunting routine had to begin again. I was still not doing anything but writing. Nellie still worked for the Sectarian Review, so that was the steady money; other than that, there was, for a time, my unemployment check. Then only some other very little bits and pieces. I was doing articles on music for Metronome in its new reemergence and that provided a few pennies here and there. I had even had a cover article, “Blues, Black and White America,” which tried to look at the music from a historical perspective. The editors wanted to come on more radical than the dreary Downbeat. One of the editors was a friend of Lenny Bruce’s. The cover of the issue in which I had the big article showed a white referee on a football field kicking a black baby over the goalposts!
But I was writing reviews consistently for Metronome, and another publication was initiated, first by Marc Schleifer and later by Lita Hornick, called Kulchur. The title was taken from Pound’s title A Guide to Kulchur. Schleifer was a young Jew who had come out of the University of Pennsylvania as an arch-conservative, then was transformed by the various Village forces and became more radical than most of my other colleagues. He was later to interview Rob Williams in Monroe and publish the introduction to the first edition of Rob’s important work Negroes with Guns, which was one of the first contemporary statements in support of black self-defense. Schleifer also went to Cuba later and, finally, during the intense period of estrangement between certain blacks who had been living downtown and their erstwhile white friends, Schleifer went to Algeria, then Egypt, changed his name to Abdullah, and became a Muslim!
Lita Hornick was the wife of Morton (“Mortie”) Hornick, who was, when I met him, the president of the Young Presidents Club, whose members had to be presidents of large corporations before they got to be thirty. He died a few years ago. They lived up on Park Avenue, but Lita had a literary interest (which she still maintains), and becoming familiar with the Beat scene and with people like Frank O’Hara and myself, she decided she wanted to buy Marc’s magazine. For a time, Schleifer continued as editor, then Mrs. Hornick took over. Sorrentino was poetry editor; O’Hara was arts editor; I was music editor. The magazine was more focused on commentary than poetry or fiction, though it did have a drama issue, which I edited. And while there was no money being made, it offered still another vehicle for expression of our broad common aesthetic. It allowed us to resume our attack on the academy, for instance, at an even higher level than Zazen provided. Plus, our editorial meetings at the Hornicks’ were always a treat for us downtown frayed-at-the-edges semi-bohemians passing into the Park Avenue pad to view some sho nuff wealth. Mortie Hornick and I always had a running banter going, he needling me because he knew I always talked against the rich, and me accepting the needling good-naturedly, but still adding a little doo doo in the contest.
I had hit upon another idea in our search for some dust, however. I made a copy of Nellie’s key to the Sectarian Review, and unbeknownst even to her, I began to make clandestine visits to the offices. My object was to cop the review copies of books they always had there, or I figured they’d have, and resell them to various bookstores. I figured they’d take the books they were going to review and send them out. But the other books, the big art books and coffee-table books, plus the various kinds of fiction and nonfiction in which I knew the Sectarians had no interest, I’d drop into my army gas mask bag and slide on out before the whole building closed. I used to make this move about once a week, more if there was a big crop. I never took too many, since I didn’t want to get anyone suspicious or Nellie fired. But I’d wait till I knew she was gone, and she was the last one in the office. The two famous editors rarely came in. Then I’d take the books to Strand or Phoenix or Briggs’ Books and Things and get something like 25 cents on the dollar. If a book sold for $20 or $25, I’d really be in clover.
I used to get review records normally as a reviewer for Metronome, Martin Williams’ Jazz magazine, and even Downbeat occasionally. I’d sell these as well, if I didn’t want them, and get the same price, 25 cents on the dollar.
A small crisis arose when the deadline to move out of the East 14th Street barn came up and we still didn’t have a place. Finally, we had to move one way or another. Fee Dawson, by now, had moved into a loft, down at the other end of West 20th Street, right near Fifth Avenue. He was leaving to visit, but the loft had nothing in it really. I’d found a small group of rooms, the strangest-looking little apartment I’d ever seen, down on Cooper Square, a few steps from the Five Spot. Though the Five Spot was moving now too, up a couple blocks away to the corner of Cooper Square and St. Marks Place. The apartment had concrete walls and little winding halls, and a room that would be the kitchen with windows that opened out onto a roof. It was a wild place, but it needed work badly. It could not be lived in by small children. It needed doors and pipes for bathroom and kitchen, for tubs, commode, and stoves. It also was filled with debris. I found a guy who would do the work of fixing up the joint if I agreed to help him so he didn’t have to pay a helper. Nellie would go to Newark to stay with my family, with the two babies. I would stay at Fee’s place while this was going on.
At this same time, an old girlfriend of Jack Kerouac’s, Joyce Glassman, now Joyce Johnson, had become an editor at William Morrow. She told me if I submitted an outline for a book, something like the article I had published in Metronome, “Blues, Black and White America,” she could get it published, since some folks up at Morrow liked the article. I did an outline, Morrow liked it, I got a small advance — enough to pay Jeff, the carpenter, give Nellie some money, and at the same time have a little to sustain me at Fee’s loft. And so I began work, at the same time as we were fixing up the loft-like apartment on Cooper Square, on the book Blues People.
The feeling that went with moving plaster and garbage all day and helping with the plumbing and carpentry and in the evenings working feverishly on Blues People was elating. After a week or so I didn’t have to do so much to help the carpenter, so I could spend the whole day doing the research, reading, and writing. I’d go by Cooper Square every day to check on the progress and call Nellie about what was happening. She’d come over a day or so every week.
In a month plus a few days, the apartment, such as it was, was finished. Coooper Square is really a continuation of the Bowery and the section between the Bowery and Third Ave., they are the same street. I had made great gains on the book, gotten my basic premise together, and was clear about how I wanted to flesh out the Metronome article. In the next few months I was to finish it. The Cooper Square apartment had an ambience, a sense of place, as Charles Olson would have called it, that was unlike either West 20th Street or East 14th Street. Perhaps, for one thing, it was my own deepening sense of myself that was at large within those rooms: what the Cuban trip had begun to urge onto the surface, something that had existed in me as seed, as idea, as perception still to be rationalized. The political work that I was doing more of meant also that I had to offer another face to the world; maybe I was becoming someone else. Fair Play, On Guard, Organization of Young Men. I began to feel, even though I was definitely still a member of the downtown set, somewhat alienated from my old buddies. Perhaps alienated is too strong a word, but I peeped some distance had sprung up between us. I was writing the poems that would come out in a couple years as the book The Dead Lecturer, and again and again they speak of this separation, this sense of being in contradiction with my friends and peers.
For another thing, my writing on black music had increased in very large measure and, for certain, that was an answered promise that went back to my youth as a set of fresh ears trailing across Belmont Avenue listening to black blues and knowing that was the real language of the place! I even got something like a gig about this time. Esmond Edwards, the A&R man for Prestige records, gave me a gig writing liner notes. I got a disc about two or three times a month, and for each set of notes I wrote I got $50! I wrote liners for Gene Ammons, Shirley Scott, Arnett Cobb, Willis “Gatortail” Jackson, and many many others. The Blues People research also meant that I had to study not only the history of African American music but also the history of the people. It was like my loose-floating feelings, the subordinated brown that was hooked to the black and the blues, were now being reconstructed in the most basic of ways.
I was still drifting around the Village hooked up to any number of completely transitory, mainly white, female liaisons. But even that was somewhat altered. For one thing, I got involved with this beautiful black woman who was the mistress (on the real side) of this rich Village publisher. She was so out she’d go by there and get money from this dude and then we’d take off and go somewhere. In one sense, I guess I identified with her, because she seemed completely sealed off in an all-white world. He, the publisher, handled her like expensive merchandise. And one night, we look up, and we’re the only black people at this book party, and our eyes collided so heavily I swore someone could hear it. But she was even more confused than I. One day she comes to my house on East 14th Street, with some friend of hers, under this completely phony guise, and she says something to Nellie and wants me to leave the house and go with her at that moment. That was a little out even for me. She was still chippying around as an omnisexual or whatever, so our thing was short-lived. The wild thing is that one night, maybe six or seven years later, I see her at some function and she’s become a Muslim, a member of the Nation of Islam. We said nothing to each other, we even pretended not to recognize each other. But that really twisted me up.
Another kind of salon or circle began to form at Cooper Square. The tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp moved downstairs sometime after we did. At that time he was completely unknown, his first glimmer of recognition was playing in the jazz group that was part of the play by Jack Gelber, The Connection, which opened at the Living Theater, Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s avant-garde theater.
The altoist Marion Brown was also part of that circle. He had come up from Atlanta University to the big city and was still not certain he even wanted to play music. He was into writing, acting, whatever. William White lived right around the corner just off Cooper Square, in a basement apartment on East 4th Street, with his wife, Dorothy. He’d just come up from Howard University, where he went despite my telling him all those months in Puerto Rico not to. He was trying to make it painting in the big city. White had several friends whose main focus was scag, and that’s what they contributed to the circle.
The black painter Bob Thompson and I had gotten tight a year or so before. I’d seen him in the Cedar and at some parties. A big, husky, homely dude with hair standing up all over his head. I was always in and out of his loft. (The poet Quincy Troupe reminds me of Bob sometimes.)
A. B. Spellman was still around, now married to a French woman and living not far away down near Houston Street. C.D. was also around. And the painter Joe Overstreet, with his loud-ass self, was there.
Some of the people from the West 20th Street group were still coming by. Joel Oppenheimer and Gil Sorrentino perhaps more than anyone else, and “Cubby” Selby (he’d be looking for shit as well). But there was a distinct change in this circle, one I understood much later. Marion might come around in the morning and we’d bullshit and get high on whatever. We’d go around to bug White or maybe Marion’d come with White and we’d get high and listen to music and bullshit. Archie or Joe might be on the scene. Sonny Murray, the great drummer, lived not too far from us and he’d like as not come in with Marion or, later, by himself. He had just begun to work with the jazz innovator Cecil Taylor. Cecil wanted to rehearse in his loft most of the days. But that was part of it — the time necessary to be put in, to reach the level we all wanted, those of us who were really serious! You got to put in that time, as Max Roach would say.
Sonny was always looking for smoke or whatever and some conversation. He was always full of his chuckling humor and talking about the music. We would sit around and get blind or blind-blind, talking about whatever came into our heads. Whenever someone would show, we had no bell, they had to stand downstairs and holler up; it would be the end of my work day and bullshitting and getting high was the order of the day!
But these were mostly black men that I began to see in the daytime hanging out, where before at West 20th Street, any daytime hanging out was with the Black Mountain crowd and mostly on the weekends because I had the technical editor gig. I was not doing any day gig now, I was writing, actually pretty prolifically. But my daytime hang buddies were black.
White, Bob Thompson, and I (mainly at Bob’s urging) were always putting in “bag time” walking around looking for dope. We might go wandering up Eighth Avenue in Harlem, in and out of some greasy joints, chasing the bag. We were all “chippying,” using scag from time to time, but mainly anytime we could get it. I mostly snorted it, but I was shooting it, too. Bob and White were shooting much more than I was. But all of us up in that group snorted scag like we’d drunk booze at West 20th Street. Plus my old friend Tom Perry would come by and we’d really get it on. (Steve Korret had left the States in 1960, as a new decade came in, connected up perhaps to a previous generation that saw Europe as center. At one point, he’d stopped Joel Oppenheimer and me in the Five Spot and jokingly made reference to a Blues poem of Joel’s in the magazine. Korret was very ironic and curt with Joel but in his humorous albeit quasi-nasty way. He said something to the effect that he wanted to check Joel’s blues, which was also the name of the poem, to see if it was authentic. I’m going to study this aesthetic you’ve roped this boy in with, is what he was implying. Later, on West 20th Street, we’d had an argument. He’d said, “Why are you talking to me in this way?” He was telling me about something he’d been doing at the UN. He’d left the bookstore and gone to the UN to work, divorced Charlene, and he was living with another woman who worked at the UN. In a month he was gone, to Scandinavia, where he lived until 1992, when he died.)
I still went to the Cedar and bellied up to the bar with Basil King or Joel or Gil or A.B. or even Bob and White would come along, but now I was much more into the jazz clubs that were opening and some coffeehouses and lofts that were playing the “new thing” rather than the old stiff formal expensive nightclubs. The Five Spot was the center for us. When Thelonious Monk came in for his historic eighteen-week stay, with John Coltrane, I was there almost every night. I was there from the beginning listening to Trane try to get around on Monk’s weird charts, and gradually Trane got hold to those “heads” and began to get inside Monk’s music. Trane had just come from playing with the classic Miles Davis group that featured Cannonball, Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers, and Red Garland. The Club Bohemia was where I’d heard them “max out” and make their greatest music. And that was a slick nightclub, albeit in the Village. But the Five Spot was on the East Side, on the Bowery. C.T., Cecil Taylor, had really inaugurated the playing of the Music in the place. Before that it had been one of those typical grim Bowery bars, but some of the painters who had lofts on the Bowery and in the area began to come in and drink and they used to ask Joe and Iggy to bring in some music. So the completely unorthodox Cecil was one of the first to come in. By the time Monk and Trane got there, the Five Spot was the center of the jazz world!
In one sense our showing up on Cooper Square was right in tune with the whole movement of people east, away from the West Village with its high rents and older bohemians. Cooper Square was sort of the borderline; when you crossed it, you were really on the Lower East Side, no shit. The Music itself, rapid motion during this period. Trane’s leaving Miles and his graduate classes with T. Sphere Monk put him into a music so expressive and thrilling people all over tuned in to him. Miles’ group was classic because it summed up what went before it as well as indicated what was to come. Miles’ “perfection” was the interrelationship between the hard bop and the cool and in Miles, sassy and sly. So that on the one side the quiet little gurgles that we get as fusion also come out of Miles (all the leading fusionaires from “Cannonball” on are Miles’ alumni) as well as the new blast of life that Coltrane carried, thus giving us the Pharaoh Sanderses and Albert Aylers and the reaching searching cry for freedom and life that not only took the music in a certain direction, but that direction was a reflection of where people themselves, particularly the African American people, were going. It is no coincidence that people always assciate John Coltrane and Malcolm X, they are harbingers and reflectors of the same life development.
And so I, we, followed Trane. We watched him even as he stood staring from the Club Bohemia listening to Miles and going through some personal hells. We heard him blow then, long and strong, trying to find something, as Miles stood at the back of the stage and tugged at his ear, trying to figure out what the fuck Trane was doing. We could feel what he was doing. Amus Mor, the poet, in his long poem on Trane says Miles was cool, in the slick cocktail party of life, but Trane would come in “wrong,” snatchin’ the sammiches off the plate.
The Five Spot gig with Monk was Trane coming into his own. After Monk, he’d play sometimes chorus after chorus, taking the music apart before our ears, splintering the chords and sounding each note, resounding it, playing it backwards and upside down, trying to get to something else. And we heard our own search and travails, our own reaching for new definition. Trane was our flag.
Trane was leaping away from “the given,” and the troops of the mainstream were both shocked and sometimes scandalized, but Trane, because he had come up through the ranks, had paid all the dues, from slicksteppin’ on the bars of South Philly, honking rhythm and blues, through big Maybelle and Diz on up to Miles and then Monk, could not be waved aside by anybody. Though some tried and for this they were confirming their ignorance.
But there were some other, younger, forces coming in at the time and this added still other elements to the music and spoke of still other elements that existed among the African American people. Ornette Coleman had come in, countrified, yet newer than new. He showed at the Five Spot, first, with a yellow plastic alto saxophone, with his band dressed in red Eisenhower jackets, talking about “Free.” It was “a beboppier bebop,” an atomic age bebop, but cut loose from the prison house of regular chord changes. Rhythmically fresh, going past the church revivals and heavy African rhythm restoration that Sonny Rollins, Max Roach and the Messengers, Horace Silver had come out with attempting to get us past the deadly cool of ’50s “West Coast” jazz. Ornette went back to bop for his roots, his hip jagged rhythms, and said, “Hey, forget the popular song, let’s go for ourselves.” And you talking about being scandalized, some folks got downright violent. Cecil Taylor was on the scene first and his aerodynamic, million-fingered pianistics, which seemed connected to the European concert hall, made people gloss over the heavy line of blue syncopation that Cecil came with, and the percussiveness of his piano was as traditional for black “ticklers” as you could get. But that was new too and sassy, even arrogant (like Cecil himself), as if he had gone to the academy (he had) copped what they had, and still brought it back home.
Plus, all of Ornette’s band could play, they’d start and stop like it was in medias res, it seemed there was no beginning or formal ending, yet they were always “together” — Don Cherry, like a brass pointillist, with his funny little pocket trumpets; Charlie Haden, the white bass player who got down on his instrument, strumming and picking it like a guitar, showing that he had heard Monk’s great bassist, Wilbur Ware, and knew which way that ax was going, but at the same time original and singing. And Billy Higgins, of the perpetual smile, cooking like you spose to, carrying the finally funky business forward. They all could play, and the cry of “Freedom” was not only musical but reflected what was going on in the marches and confrontations, on the streets and in the restaurants and department stores of the South.
The ’60s had opened with the black movement stepping past the earlier civil rights phase in many ways. One key addition and change was that now the black students had come into the movement wholesale. So that from 1954 (when Brown v. Board of Ed. showed that the people had forced an “all deliberate speed” out of the rulers instead of the traditional “separate but equal”), through 1960, Martin Luther King and SCLC, mostly black, southern, big-city ministers, leading that struggle for democracy, were at center stage. But in 1960, the student sit-ins began, and, on February 1, black students at Greensboro began a movement that brought literally hundreds of thousands of black students, and soon students of all nationalities, into the struggle for democracy as well. So that soon we would hear the term SNCC, who, at first, were still hooked up with the middleclass ministers and their line of nonviolence, but that would change. But now, the cries of “Freedom” had been augmented with “Freedom Now!”
So it was in the air, it was in the minds of the people, masses of people going up against the apartheid South. It was also coming out of people’s horns, laid out in their music. People like Max Roach spoke eloquently for an older, hip generation. He said “Freedom Now,” and Sonny Rollins had his “Freedom Suite.” And nutty Charlie Mingus was hollering his hilarious “Fables of Faubus.” I even got into a hassle with a bald-headed German clerk in a record store on 8th Street. I’d come in and asked for Jackie McLean’s terrible side “Let Freedom Ring,” and the clerk wanted to give me a lecture about how “you people shouldn’t confuse your sociology with music.” (It was mostly a European concert music-selling store). I told him to kiss my ass, right now. Yeh, kiss my ass … that was also getting into it.
So there was a newness and a defiance, a demand for freedom, politically and creatively, it was all connected. I wrote an article that year, “The Jazz Avant-Garde,” mentioning people like Cecil, Ornette, and the others, plus Trane and the young wizard Eric Dolphy, the brilliant arranger and reed player, Oliver Nelson, Earl Griffith, onetime Cecil Taylor vibist, and my neighbor Archie Shepp, who had come on the scene, also shaking it up.
I also wrote a piece for Kulchur called “Milneburg Joys, or Against Hipness as Such,” taking on members of our various circles, the hippies (old usage) of the period who thought merely by initialing ideas which had currency in the circles, talking the prevailing talk, or walking the prevailing walk, that that was all there was to it. I was also reaching and searching, life had to be more than a mere camaraderie of smugness and elitist hedonism.
Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz,” the completely “free” improvisational record, with the cream of the new players, had set the tone. It was as if the music was leading us. And older players like Trane and Rollins took up that challenge. Trane played chordal music, but he got frantically chordal. The critics called it “sheets of sound,” many at a loss for words, like they’d been when Bird had first appeared. Downbeat and Metronome had to re-review all those old records, because they had put them all down as fakery and they were classics of African American music, so they tried to clean up.
What was being generated by the new blacker circle I mostly hung with was quite different in effect than the earlier circles. Our overall large circle was, of course, well integrated. But now, I’d be sitting and talking to Marion or White or both, or three, add Bob Thompson. Or we’d be at Bob’s loft, checking his wild paintings, all kinds of different-colored women with scenes taken from the Italian renaissance classic painters and reinterpreted through Bob’s way-out mind. White was painting wry symbolic abstractions, where instead of the pure motion-paint of the “action paintings,” White relied on more or less “organic”-looking shapes swirling and dancing on his canvases. I still wonder what White’s work would have been like today had he lived. Or Bob’s, had he lived. Overstreet, at the time, was doing brilliant but highly sexy drawings. And usually we’d be getting high, about to get high, or talking about getting high.
We had some bigger, wilder parties at Cooper Square, in Archie’s loft, with some of the hippest music of the time. And Archie and I used to do some mean tipping around those streets, or when he played we’d go cheer him on. Sometimes with Bob and White and Marion and me, Tom might be walking with us, or hanging with us, and sometimes Elvin Jones or Hank Mobley. Dudes be sitting around heads about to wear they chest out and Elvin would look like he wasn’t even high, smiling his lit-up smile like a neon sign. But Hank eventually got into bad times.
One time I was sitting with Marion and White and somebody else up in my study at Cooper Square and we were shooting cocaine. Somebody also had given us a vial of liquid procaine, which was like fake cocaine. I get the bright idea to melt the real cocaine in the liquid procaine and shoot it up. I had got the needle out of my arm and I feel the rise coming but this time it’s sweeping up through my body to my head like it won’t stop. I was sitting in the big overstuffed desk chair for my rolltop and this hot surge seems to sweep up past my eyes shooting out the top of my skull. I rose up, almost paralleling, I guess, the rise of the drug. I said, “Whooo-ooo,” and then wheeled around in the middle of the room and fell over backwards like I’d been shot. And then, on the floor, semiconscious, it seems to me like some big blue thing is trying to hit me between the eyes. They say I was thrashing around on the floor, turning my head frantically from one side to the other. I thought I was trying to keep the blue thing from hitting me between the eyes. I didn’t know nobody could OD off “coke,” but that felt mighty close to something bad, and it scared the shit out of me. But it didn’t stop me or our drug activities.
We were in the old Half Note on Hudson Street watching Trane slay all pests. Between sets, Bob (who was a great friend of Elvin’s), White and I go up the street, fetch a bag of whatnot, then Bob wants us to stop by this painter’s house he knew, a pretty hip white dude who lived down there. We all high, but Bob wants to go up and talk to the dude. His wife comes to the door in her gown and lets us in. It was a very sheer gown and you could just about see through it. there’s some music playing so after Elvin is introduced, he starts dancing with this dude’s wife, grinding like he’s trying to start a fire. I’d always thought the shit made you unsexual, but it didn’t affect Elvin that way at all. We’d be nodding and he’d go back and play the drums like mad.
There were now a few lofts scattered around where you could hear the music as well as European avant-garde music. I especially liked Morton Feldman’s music, Cage’s audacity and some of the other things. But we were mostly into the new black music. Coffee shops like Take 2, the White Whale, also had the young musicians in when they couldn’t work in the larger clubs. In one of those coffee shops one night a really wild episode went down. It told me something about downtown and myself and some of my friends. Archie Shepp had been playing in this place on 10th Street, the White Whale, the decor even had a big anchor on the wall with huge chains hanging down. It was early and people were sitting around talking and, at a couple of tables, playing chess. There’s one guy sitting there, they called him Big Brown. He was big, about six feet three inches, and much darker than brown. He was slender like he was in shape. Plus, he had this slow, bent-knee hop he walked with that was more peculiar than hip. Brown made his mark downtown by first standing around various places like Washington Square Village profiling. He had muscles, so he liked to preen and twist, stand like a body builder in a show. He was a proto Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Brown’s whole demeanor used to turn me off. But even worse was the fact that not only would he always be in his exaggerated strut, but during the summer months he’d walk the streets in a loincloth, like an Indian fakir or something. And sometimes he’d come into the Cedar when we’d be sitting there and he would come walking down the aisle rubbing his crotch, like he was showing off his wares to the various females. One night he even came up to a booth where one couple was sitting and stood rubbing his crotch just a few inches from this woman’s face! Her companion said something and Brown talked in rhymes putting the dude down. Brown loved to recite singsong versions of Shakespeare or the Rubaiyat or his own rhyming doggerel. A couple of times, I saw him get in some woman’s face who was sitting with some man and I vowed inside my head that that motherfucker better not ever do that to any woman I was with. In fact, when he’d walk down the aisle I’d loudly ridicule him, and one time he cut his eyes over my way, scowled, made some remark, and kept swaggering on up.
But as he was playing chess, the dude he was playing checkmated him, calling “Check!” I laughed, as it happened just as I was passing close to the table where he was sitting.
I said, “Wrong again!” and broke up. Some of my friends, notably A.B., Marion, and Joe, were in there and this cracked them up and some others nearby. Brown always pulled his shit off in the spirit and demeanor of “Bogarting” people. He would run his silent or rhymed gorilla act on people and they were supposed to be intimidated. But I didn’t dig him.
So Brown says something, maybe “Fuck you” or “What you got to do with it?” or something, but the catalyst was me saying, “Big Brown, the African Queen!” So he leaps to his feet and goes into his menace/gorilla stance. But I kept talking, kept putting him down. Not only “African Queen” but all kinds of other things my instinctive sense of danger now has blanked out. Not only that, I start taunting him: “You supposed to be bad. You ain’t bad, dressed up like some fuckin’ genie or something. You just silly. A silly-ass nigger! Shit, I bet you can’t even fight.” Yeh, it really got out. And I can see with some kind of split vision my various buddies flung about the room, frozen stiff as respective Statues of Liberty or Colossi of Rhodes or whatever. (A.B. told me later he kept thinking, “Shut up, little nigger, shut up.”)
I can’t even say what made me go so far. Except I felt Brown’s whole thing was an act, some second-rate vaudeville. Actually, he looked like the dude who used to run with Mandrake, because he wore a turban sometimes. But in some fit of absolute frustration, most likely, Brown reaches and grabs the chains from the wall decor and holds them like he’s going to bash my head in. So I started laughing and taunting him even more. “Yow, a six-foot-three two-hundred-pound bad dude got to get a chain to bash me!” I cracked up. “Hey, man, you must be pretty bad, you gotta get a chain. God damn!” And that broke it open. It was absurd. And in the end, the room was bathed in laughter and Brown stood there with the chain in his hand, then slowly let it fall to the floor. He turned and grimly stalked into the night. My nerves shot more laughter up and out after him, then we got some wine, threw it down telling various bullshit versions of the same event, and trailed out of the joint, with people still pointing and cackling. We looked both ways when we got outside though we still were animated by a frivolity that both masked and carried our deep sighs of relief.
Hey, it wasn’t even the real world. I guess that was my reasoning. In the real world, of Newark’s steel-gray streets, all that mouth would’ve got me killed or at least forced me to set a new indoor and outdoor Olympic hat-up record. But down there, wow, even the bad dudes was cardboard Lothars afraid of their own shadow.
The work with On Guard on Rob Williams’ defense and the Fair Play Committee had given me another and, I think, deeper perspective. I could reflect on revolution and struggle as concrete phenomena. It made the posturing and fakery of much of the downtown residents even more absurd. Though I was still involved in quite a bit of it myself. Lucia DiBella had gotten pregnant. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t mine. And Lucia had one dancer friend of ours living with her from time to time. I thought maybe it was his. But he was a homosexual, a beautiful but tragic dancer who was always slightly fantasizing about himself as a young Nijinsky. One night at a cocktail party, probably high on acid, he stepped through the open window, claiming he could fly, and killed himself. Plus one of the dancer’s men friends, piqued by something he, Neddie, had done, or both of them mutually pissed off at each other, had ended their relationship and the friend, a tall blonde fashion model, Chris Bartlett, and Lucia were rapidly becoming fast friends. However, such “might be’s” and “maybe’s” didn’t change the reality. No matter how many of the endless one-night stands I might get involved with, I’d always show up at Lucia’s.
Actually, the magazine I ran with Nellie, Zazen, had continued to issue No. 8, coming out the same time as The Fleeting Bear, the sheet that Lucia and I put out. Lucia’s pregnancy alerted Nellie, however, and she asked me what I knew about it. I didn’t know anything about that, just because I went over there to put out the Bear didn’t mean anything. But it did. I had asked the poet Harry Schulman, who was a friend of Lucia’s, over the phone, “What does the baby look like?” And he said, “White.” I felt relieved. But in a few days, Nellie came home with our babies from hanging out in Tompkins Square Park near Avenue A where the Lower East Side mothers congregated, as the West Side mothers did in Washington Square Park. She said to me only that she had seen Lucia’s baby and it was “one of those black-and-white kind.” Then she cried some, asking me from time to time, “How could you?” And that was a very good question. I wondered myself.
To make bad things worse, in a few months the house next to ours was vacant and Lucia moved there, baby, model friend, and all. I had said before, it was like Brook Farm. Eventually, the model assumed fathership of the baby, and Lucia and he even had a baby of their own. Lucia called the child she’d had by me Dominique, in honor of the Frenchified LeRoi.
I was now taking published potshots at the nonviolence movement. “Tokenism: 300 Years for Five Cents” was one article, “What Does Non-violence Mean?” another. Kulchur had published the first, and the conservative Jewish publication Midstream the other. I was becoming much more openly involved with movement questions. The mood downtown was changing, there were many more signs of some people getting involved with various struggles, especiallly the Cuban struggle and the student struggle. Plus, there were now a great many more blacks downtown than when I had first arrived half a decade before. I had been on the scene now from the period when there were relatively few blacks and when the sets had gotten fiercely integrated, but now there seemed to be further change. More and more I found myself sitting and talking or walking and making parties with black dudes. We began to feel a certain kind of community, perhaps a kind of solidarity as blacks that was unspoken in the old MacDougal Street days, but was now an openly acknowledged emotional binder. And the various sets we’d go to would always take on a distinctly different tone once we’d enter. Especially with Bob Thompson laughing at the top of his voice and “snatching bitches,” as the saying goes. And White and Marion and I would be blind as the night.
But we knew what was in our hearts, something open and bright. We wanted what was new and hip, though we were connected in a lot of ways with some stuff that was old and square. We knew the music was hip and new and out beyond anything anyone downtown was doing, in music, painting, poetry, dance, or whatever the fuck. And we felt, I know I did, that we were linked to that music that Trane and Ornette and C.T., Shepp and Dolphy and the others, were making, so the old white arrogance and elitism of Europe as Center Art was stupid on its face. We could saunter into a joint and be openly critical of whatever kind of show or program or party, because we knew, number one, it wasn’t as hip as the music, and, number two, it wasn’t as out as we were out, because now we began to realize or rationalize that we were on the fringe of the fringe. If the down-town Village/East Village society was a fringe of big-time America, then we were a fringe of that fringe, which put us way out indeed.
Patrice Lumumba was assassinated by the CIA in 1961 to stop the newly freed Congolese people from nationalizing Union Minière and other Rockefeller properties. I found myself marching outside the UN in demonstrations, while others, mostly blacks, took off their shoes and threw them down in the gallery as the gallery guards were called in to toss the demonstrating blacks out. Sisters were bashing the guards in the head with their shoes and throwing the shoes down out the gallery. Ralph Bunche said he was ashamed and scandalized by such niggerism, while we were scandalized and ashamed of his negro-ass tom antics.
Outside, in front of the U.S. mission to the UN, the police also attacked us. One sister, Mae Mallory, Calvin Hicks, and I were marching and we looked up at the top of the stairs just in time to see James Lawson, the so-called nationalist, pointing us out to the police, and then they attacked us, clubs flying. Mae put up a terrific battle and the police were sorry they ever put their hands on her. It took several of them to subdue her. She was one of the people in On Guard and she remained very active in the Black Liberation Movement.
As the police put us into the paddy wagon, a couple of them would catch us by the elbows and hoist us through the back door, banging the top of our heads on the metal doorframe at the same time. You felt like you’d been whacked yet another time with a nightstick. Dazed in the back of the paddy wagon, I reached into my pockets and found some Benzedrine or Dexedrine pills that I took every once in a while to stay awake if I was writing all night. I threw them all in my mouth, figuring the nabs would charge me with possession of drugs. But I had taken so many I was jittery as a flea. The police must’ve thought it was nerves.
I began to meet some young black intellectuals connected with the Black Liberation Movement and strike up friendships. One I met in this way was Askia Touré (then Rolland Snellings), the poet. We were on those picket lines and I didn’t even know he was a writer. We became friends as part of the movement.
Sometime later I began to get some word of Umbra, a magazine that began to come out from the Lower East Side that featured black writers. Lorenzo Thomas, who published as a very young person in some of the places that the New York school writers published, I think I was aware of first. His work appeared about the same time that Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett and Joe Brainard, the Oklahoma free association semi-surrealists began to appear. I was especially impressed by Thomas and Berrigan, and very curious about Thomas because he was black.
One later afternoon, as was my wont, I wandered into the Five Spot, the one on the corner of St. Marks and Third Avenue. I’m sitting there sipping and probably glancing at a paper or something when two bloods come up to me. Blues People had come out recently and I was elated and surprised in a way because it was my first book from a mainstream publishing house and I was impressed because of the hardcover. The publisher had even had a party for me at the New School, where I was teaching a course in poetry. Ornette Coleman came, and there is a photograph with the two of us grinning. My mother and father came as well, but one of the biggest disappointments was that my grandmother had died before I had a chance to show that book to her. She probably would’ve cried and told me, “Practice makes perfect.”
But one guy says to me, “You LeRoi Jones?” I probably just nodded or grunted. One of these dudes is sort of big-headed and bulky, the other taller, with midnight-dark glasses and a rough complexion of skin stretched tight in what I’d have to call an ambiguous smile. The big-headed one says, “I like your prose. I don’t like your poetry.” The other guy just continues smiling like he knows a secret.
“Oh?” I left it pointed up like someone had let a pigeon shit on my shoe, but said no more. But the big-headed one wanted to go on and he did, saying some other things. But then he introduced himself and his companion.
“My name is Ishmael Reed. This is Calvin Hernton.” And so I’d met Ishmael Reed and Calvin Hernton, but I didn’t know them from Adam’s house cat. Though it did seem that Hernton’s name rang some kind of bell, someone had mentioned it or I had seen it. But the introduction seemed to me like some challenge, I didn’t know, casual or not. But I took it as such, the way you had to deal with these various ersatz artsy gunfighters roaming around the Village who thought that confrontation in the name of art was the highest form of hanging out.
But I didn’t take the bait. After that intro, I kept sipping my drink. And in a few minutes, Sonny Murray or Marion or White or somebody came in and we got into our serious drinking in peace, probably conjuring up our next bag chase. Reed and Hernton sat awhile and then eased into the early evening. I remember questioning my buddies about them and was told something about Umbra, the folks in it and what it was about. It sounded interesting but I still didn’t know why Reed had wanted to come on like Skippy Homeier looking for Gregory Peck.
We used to hang in the Five Spot in the late afternoon/early evening too, drinking and bullshitting. There’d be a mixture of the artists in the area — musicians, writers, painters. It was a good easterly drinking spot in the daytime. One time Sonny Murray came in and told me he had got into a hassle with Charlie Mingus and had to break a chair over Mingus’ back. Charlie was always in the habit of cursing musicians who were his side men right up on the stage, in front of the public. It was really humiliating. I heard him one night cuss out Lonnie Hillyer, Charlie McPherson, and Jaki Byard, using all kinds of wild language. I wondered how they had gone for that.
A few evenings later, after Sonny related his confrontation with Mingus, allegedly about Mingus calling Sonny “jive” for his free style of drumming, I meet Mingus outside of The Five Spot. I say something to Mingus, like “What’s happening?” or whatever, just a typical greeting. Mingus starts talking some off-the-wall stuff, most of which I didn’t even get with. But then he pushes me, and I’m laughing like it was a joke, which I figured it ought to be. But then he advances, as rapidly as he can with all that weight — Charlie was about a hundred pounds overweight — and he slapped me! It was light, partially because he was off balance and partially because as I saw it coming I tried to pull my head back.
I said, “Hey, man, what’s going on? What’s happening?”
And Mingus starts this spew of profanity, saying something like “You goddam punk,” and I could hear that it had something to do with something I’d written, that I was sympathetic with the avant-garde musicians, or something like that. But this time when he came forward, I went into my Newark Sugar Ray stick and run, jab and duck, and started popping him side his fat head. After a round-and-round of a few minutes Mingus stops and people all around us are telling us we oughta stop and stop acting crazy. I didn’t think I was acting crazy, I was defending myself as best I could against some two- or three-hundred-pound nut.
Mingus stops, then he puts out his hand to shake. He says, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I was wrong.” I guess he meant because he thought he could just slap me and walk away, having chastised some jive intellectual. But I’d ducked and dodged around some much-meaner-with-they-hands mf’s than Charlie Mingus. Like I said, in many ways, the downtown scene was completely cardboard.
People like Pharaoh Sanders also began to show up on the scene. When he first arrived, everybody called him “Little Rock” cause that’s where he was from. Pharaoh had the wildest walk, like he was stepping over them rows in the fields. It actually made you break up to watch him bobbing up and down as he walked toward you, horn in hand. But from the first time I heard him play, it was obvious that he was something very much else.
The power and beauty of that music was something again. And now there was so much of it coming out and everybody was talking about Freedom.
I had also got an offer from the Communist Party to edit their literary magazine. I had got some modest name, I guess, as a black intellectual, with an obvious left bent. One day I get a message from a photographer I knew who tells me that someone will be calling me from the magazine. I go over to the building the CP had the magazine’s offices in. The building is dusty, the office is dusty. The whole impact on me was of dust and oldness. I thought maybe these people had been sitting there with cobwebs twisted around their heads since the ’30s. But what was wild is that this guy makes me an offer to become editor of their literary magazine. I wasn’t in the CP, I knew very little about them, except the clichés that we tossed around about the “failure of the ’30s,” not even really knowing what that meant. Though the CP, since its 1957 Congress, had become even formally revisionist, saying that socialism could be brought in the U.S. through elections. I guess they were offering me this job to bring in some new blood, but the whole operation looked too dead to me. I was really flattered, but refused. Later, they started a “black magazine” called Dialog and made the photographer the editor.
I’d also started contributing articles, mostly on music, to a magazine called African Revolution, corning out of Algeria. The progressive Ben Bella government was putting the magazine out and it featured writings from people all over the world. Richard Gibson later became associated with that magazine when he had to leave the U.S. when the government tried to frame him by implicating Fair Play for Cuba in the Kennedy assassination. But before that, Fair Play had been having harder and harder times, based on the fact that as U.S. policy toward Cuba stiffened, many of the liberal types that had supported Fair Play cut out. Also, there was a great deal of internal struggle caused by the SWP and the CPUSA slugging it out in their sectarian battles within the organization and creating chaos and havoc.
But a year or so after Gibson got over to Algeria, the Boumedienne coup came and the left-leaning Ben Bella was overthrown and Gibson and his staff had to run for their lives, barely getting out of Algeria with their skins.
It was a bizarre time, in so many ways. Attempts at new ways of life were clashing with the old. India and China had gotten their formal independence before the coming of the ’50s, and by the time the ’50s had ended, there were many independent African nations (though with varying degrees of neocolonialism). Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah had hoisted the black star over the statehouse in Accra, and Nkrumah’s pronouncements and word of his deeds were glowing encouragement to colored people all over the world. When the Chinese exploded their first A-bomb I wrote a poem saying, in effect, that time for the colored peoples had rebegun. Frantz Fanon’s books were popular, Grove Press had brought out The Wretched of the Earth. My own reading was broad and wilder than I knew. I was reading people like the right-wing Sorel’s Reflections on Violence as well as the Italian Marxist Gramsci. But it was all mixed up and unsorted. However, I was plodding “forward” at the quickstep.
New ideas were clashing with old ones too. For one thing, with all of our attempted forward thrust, we were still chippying, and for some it was even more serious. White was now bordering on being strung out. He seemed at times to come back, but then for long stretches every time you saw him he’d be nodding. One night a group of sick white boys bashed me in the head on St. Marks Place and left me on my back wondering what hit me. I’d run up and down the streets trying to locate them and when I saw them eating in a Second Avenue Romanian restaurant, I’d gone into a phone booth across the street and called White trying to get some help. There were four or five of them. When I got him on the phone he sounded wasted. A few minutes later he responded and came walking around the corner. I could see him from where I was, hanging, high as planets. I told him to go home, shit, it was better just to be out there by myself. White would get killed trying to pug blind as he was.
The white boys spotted me. When I wheeled around from dealing with White they were not in the restaurant, but as I was walking toward the corner they suddenly leaped out from behind a car on a side street just off Second Avenue. I whipped out me trusty blade as the four of them spread out, one of them with an old burned Christmas tree. But the myth(?) of the crazed Nigra with a knife worked. I screamed that one of them would have to die and they couldn’t decide which, so they threw the tree, which cut my hand pretty badly somehow, but split, up the street and back to their caves.
Bob Thompson had also gotten much the worse for wear, from his constant use of scag. Whereas some of us were merely chippying, Bob and White had been serious. Perhaps because the frustration in the painting world was more intense. Though Bob was beginning to get some recognition and shows. He had even finally gotten hooked up with the Martha Jackson Gallery, which was one of the more prestigious of the galleries dealing with the downtown folk.
Bob had married one of the white bohemian women and her sister was also hooked up with a black dude I knew. Bob’s sister-in-law went with a dude from the South who had been one of White’s best friends, and both this dude, Earl, and Bob were hooked on shit! Earl’s nodding was notorious around us; a once handsome dude, he’d gotten progressively more like Dr. Hyde with each bag he shot up. It got so bad with Bob that he could no longer shoot shit into the veins of his arms, but now stuck needles in his legs and hands, even the tips of his fingers, looking for uncollapsed veins. He started wearing woolen gloves, even in the summer, to hide his ubiquitously punctured hands. One of the musicians we hung around with had developed a huge black knot of a vein on one of his arms, where he shot up all the time, and it seemed all he had to do was jam the spike anywhere in that huge black knot and blood would creep up in the dropper indicating he’d hit. This brother was and is a famous musician, but the last time I saw him, he was so blasted and pitiful he couldn’t even recognize me.
A major point of change for us came with John Kennedy’s assassination. Kennedy, for many of us, even unconsciously, represented something positive. The Kennedys were liberals. (The liberal wing of the bourgeoisie, at least.) JFK’s pronouncements were meant to be progressive-sounding. And his and Jackie’s style, their youth — “They bought paintings from” was one repeated line you could hear at the Cedar. But many of us did have some emotional investment in the so-called Camelot and the New Frontier.
The day Kennedy was assassinated, Bob Thompson and I were walking down Cooper Square and radios and televisions everywhere carried the grim scenes. Bob walked out in the gutter, near my house, and wept openly. That shook me up, because though I was disturbed, curious, about the assassination, I hadn’t realized it until I saw Bob sitting now on the curb, weeping uncontrollably about Kennedy’s death. I wrote a poem which had to be tipped into the winter issue of Kulchur called “Exnaugural Poem,” with a subtitle, “for Jackie Kennedy who has had to eat too much shit.” I was trying to move to a revolutionary position, but I was still ready to weep for Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy!
Malcolm X had begun to reach us. I’d heard of the Nation of Islam and had even heard Malcolm speak on television and he charged me in a way no one else had ever done. He reached me. His media appearances made my head tingle with anticipation and new ideas. He made me feel even more articulate and forceful, myself, just having seen him. But I was not clear about the Nation of Islam and not being in a black community am sure I did not receive the full impact of Elijah Muhammad’s teaching and image, but Malcolm had begun to get some media coverage.
When Malcolm was silenced by the Nation for commenting on Kennedy’s death — that it was “chickens coming home to roost” — I was very deeply puzzled and disturbed because I didn’t understand why Elijah Muhammad would do that. Malcolm was his sword, his chief, the most articulate man in the world, as far as I was concerned. Why had this happened? When he had said that the March on Washington was a black bourgeois status symbol, I’d roared.
Also, I’d read about how Malcolm had led a small army of Black Muslims to a Harlem police station to stand in silent protest against police brutality and how the precinct finally had yielded to Malcolm’s cold dignity. They knew they were not playing with some schizophrenic Negro but a strong black man, a black leader.
To me, the March on Washington, which happened the same year that JFK was assassinated, marks the end of the second phase of the civil rights movement, in which SNCC and the students had come to center stage, even though King was still seen as the maximum leader. Malcolm’s cold class analysis at Selma, talking about the House Slaves and the Field Slaves and how the House Slave identified with his white Master so completely that when the Master got sick, the House Nigger did too, and when the Master’s house caught on fire the House Nigger would scream, “Boss, our house on fire!” But the Field Slave would fan the flames. That bit of class analysis dug into me, cutting both ways.
And then, the little girls in the Birmingham church were murdered by a bomb planted by a white racist and King wanted to kneel in the streets and pray, but Malcolm talked bad about nonviolence, saying that those people who had done such a thing and indeed all the white racist crackers in the world could only be reached if one spoke the same language that they spoke. That language was not peace and love, said Malcolm.
One night I saw Malcolm lay waste completely to Kenneth Clark, Constance Baker Motley, and some other assorted house Negroes, just as he had wasted David Susskind and Mike Wallace. (The Wallace program, “The Hate That Hate Produced,” had shot Malcolm X and the Nation into the public eye.) This kind of thing would thrill me so completely because what Malcolm said were things that had gone through my mind but he was giving voice to. Or he’d say things and instantly it’d make sense or confirm something I’d not even thought but felt.
At one point, Kenneth Clark was saying, “Come, come, Mr. X, I don’t believe Negroes will act the way you say.” Malcolm had told him that blacks would not continue to turn the other cheek, that the young people would not stand still for the kind of white supremacy bullshit, of water hoses, police dogs, homegrown Nazis like George Wallace and Bull Connors. No, black people would not stand for it, especially not the young ones. But Kenneth Clark wanted to go on talking his house-slaveryism. This was early in 1964.
I felt that way. Malcolm X spoke for me and my friends; Kenneth Clark did not. C.D. used to walk around during this period and ask us, “Suppose all the Negroes did leave America to be in their own nation, would you go or stay?” C.D. also had married a white woman, with a charming French accent and a bit of continental spice. That’s the way some of us saw the contradiction. Would you go or stay?
For me, Malcolm’s words had me turning tricks whether I knew it or not. What it meant to my life immediately was words in my head coming out of my mouth. (I thought about Tim Poston, wandering down Third Avenue, completely off his rocker. He was mumbling, “The Jews are talking through my mouth. The Jews are talking through my mouth.” And he tried to clasp his hand across his mouth, spitting these words out as if in terror. The society and the wine had done him in.)
How did we act in the face of the world now, with all its steady wave of new meanings coming in? What did we do? How did we act?
For one thing, unconsciously at first, but then very openly, dramatic dialogue began to appear in my poetry. Suddenly there were people, characters, talking in them. The tiny play The Eighth Ditch, which I put into the Dante book and had gotten me busted, some of the people connected with Lucia asked to produce — probably because they were gay and the play was about a homosexual rape. It opened on St. Marks Place in a place called the Poet’s Theater, but the police closed it after a few performances.
I began to be interested more directly in drama. I’d written a play called The Baptism and one called The Toilet. The Toilet was published in the drama issue of Kulchur. (As editor, one of the plays I had turned down was Douglas Turner Ward’s take-off of Ray Bradbury’s “Way in the Middle of the Air,” in The Martian Chronicles; Ward called it “Day of Absence.”)
I can see now that the dramatic form began to interest me because I wanted to go “beyond” poetry. I wanted some kind of action literature, and the most pretentious of all literary forms is drama, because there one has to imitate life, to put characters upon a stage and pretend to actual life. I read a few years ago in some analysis of poetry that drama is a form that proliferates during periods of social upsurge, for those very same reasons. It is an action form, plus it is a much more popular form than poetry. It reaches more people and its most mass form today is of course television and, secondarily, film.
I got involved with a drama/playwright’s workshop initiated by Edward Albee and his producers at the Cherry Lane Theater, Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder. The workshops were held down at the Vandam Theater, a tiny but attractive theater on Vandam Street, a few blocks below Houston Street. One night I sat up all night and wrote a play I called Dutchman. I had gotten the title from The Flying Dutchman, but abstracted it, because Flying Dutchman had been used and it didn’t quite serve my purposes, whatever they were. It took place in a subway and was essentially a confrontation between a slightly nutty (and wholly dangerous) white female bohemian and a young naive black intellectual. The director, Ed Parone, read it and liked it and so there was talk about doing a workshop performance.
We did the workshop performance and it was very successful. I even got Marion Brown a job as an extra and quite a few people I respected dug the play. So it was decided to do a commercial production. In February 1964, James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie opened on Broadway, directed by Burgess Meredith, and, while it had mixed reviews, it was one of the great theater experiences of my life. A deeply touching “dangerous” play for Jimmy, it not only questioned nonviolence but had a gutsy (but doomed) black hero and his father go at each other’s values, echoing the class struggle that raged between Dr. King and Malcolm X. Al Freeman played Richard, the Malcolm type, though Jimmy couched his rebellion in sexual symbolism (including, as far as I’m concerned, the character’s name). Diana Sands, as Juanita, gave a marvelous performance, showering us with Jimmy’s questioning even of “God in his heaven” for his part in the conspiracy that leaves us powerless and our young men killed. It was an extremely powerful work, so powerful I believe that the bourgeois (mainly white) critics at that point read Jimmy out of the big-time U.S. literary scene. He had gone too far. And as critical as I had been before of Jimmy and what I perceived as his stance of avoiding reality and confrontation, now I was elated and almost raised up off the ground by this powerful play.
Dutchman opened the next month, downtown, at the Cherry Lane, with Robert Hooks and Jennifer West in the leads. I went out late that night after the opening, up to the corner of St. Marks and Second Avenue, and read the reviews. They were mixed too, but there seemed to me a kind of overwhelming sense from them that something explosive had gone down. I had a strange sensation, standing there like that. I could tell from the reviews that now my life would change again. I wasn’t sure how, but I could perceive that and it sent a chill through me. I walked back home slowly, looking at my name in the newspapers, and I felt very weird indeed.
When the magazines and electronic media coverage of the play and local word got out, I could see that not only was the play an artistic success, despite my being called “foul-mouthed,” “full of hatred,” “furious, angry,” I could tell that the play had made its mark, that it would not quietly fade away.
Suddenly I got offers to write for the Herald Tribune and the New York Times. One magazine wanted me to go down South and be a civil rights reporter. I got offers to rewrite Broadway plays in tryout, including Golden Boy, with the producer flying me down from Buffalo, where I’d gone as visiting lecturer in American poetry, to eat breakfast in his well-appointed brownstone on the Upper East Side. There was all kinds of interest and requests and offers and propositions. It was as if the door to the American Dream had just swung open, and despite accounts that I was wild and crazy, I could look directly inside and there were money bags stacked up high as the eye could fly!
It was clear, I could get it. An article came out in the Herald Tribune’s Sunday magazine, “King of the Lower East Side.” The phone leaped with people calling for interviews, my name began to pop up all over the place, coming out of the mouths of people I didn’t even know. It was a swirl of attention, pregnant promise was being popped for my pleasure. Oh? I could feel myself being raised, lifted by some strictly finite presence, but it was like some wind, full of names, some historic presence that I could casually identify as anything. Anything I understood. But that was the ripper, señor, the contradictory motions of my life must make it obvious, how confused I was. I had to read the play Dutchman again, just to understand it. And those words led in all directions, away from the page and into my life and memory. And what was it really saying, after all? I was asked that again and again. A confrontation between two people, between two symbols? I improvised from my deepest feelings. “It is about how difficult it is to become a man in the U.S.” That, I knew, was true and honest. But a naive black youth, a soi-disant intellectual murdered by a mad white woman he had hoped to seduce? Shit, and it was only that crazy Dolly I’d dressed up and set in motion and some symbols from out of my own life.
I was at Barbara Teer’s house when she was married to Godfrey Cambridge. It was Barbara Ann’s party, they were mostly her friends. Godfrey sat in the kitchen fiddling with a camera. Barbara Ann and Bobby Hooks were close. Later, they even started an actors’ group that evolved into the Negro Ensemble Company, somehow without Barbara Ann. There was an actor-model who also wrote plays, and he was alarmed that my play had gotten some attention. All of us know that there is no black person but ourselves that deserves to be that noble savage in the buttermilk, but ourself, dammit, ourself, goddammit, and double, ourself!! So he says to someone else, really as a gibe flying in my direction, “That’s why the guy gets killed, hahahahaha.”
My normal reaction would be to say something really low as to this dude’s gender or sexual orientation or maybe just about the sexual orientation of his father or mother or both. But I just looked in his direction and smiled really as pleasantly as sulphuric acid could. And that was because I could tell, even though I hadn’t heard the entire remark, that there was some element to it that was, indeed, legitimate.
But in the barrage of attention and unbalanced huzzas, I went inside. When I got an assignment to write an article in the Tribune’s magazine section, I took it as the main question being asked and I wanted my main answer. I can see now, it was just my confusion that allowed so much of the Great White Way to flow in my direction. It was the contradictions in my life and thinking, the unresolved zigzags of my being that permitted them to hoist me up the flagpole to wave, for them.
So as I wrote that article, “LeRoi Jones Speaking,” there came over me this most terrific sense of purpose and focus. It rose up within me like my grandfather’s ghost. Yeh, I was some colored bohemian liberal living on the Lower East Side in hedonism heaven, yet I could not sound like that. What “fame” Dutchman brought me and raised up in me was this absolutely authentic and heartfelt desire to speak what should be spoken for all of us. I knew the bullshit of my own life, its twists and flip-outs, yet I felt, now, some heavy responsibility. If these bastards were going to raise me up, for any reason, then they would pay for it! I would pay these motherfuckers back in kind, because even if I wasn’t strong enough to act, I would become strong enough to SPEAK what had to be said, for all of us, for black people, yes, particularly for black people, because they were the root and origin of my conviction, but for anyone anywhere who wanted Justice!
The article was really, then, a commitment to struggle. I said, “Let them know this is a fight without quarter, and I am very fast.” Brash, arrogant, sophomoric, but it was smoke from a moving vehicle! There now began in my downtown environs and elsewhere a dervish of forums, speakouts, intellectual shootouts, not just in reflection of my own mind’s motion but as reflection of what the whole society had become and was still to become.
One forum at Carnegie Hall with Lorraine Hansberry, I remember as the kind of document of this event, which was packed to the rafters, me jumping up and furiously putting down liberals and liberalism with such vehemence that it made not a few people’s teeth rattle. The Village Voice and several of the other liberal journals carried sympathetic disclaimers of the event for the liberals.
There was also another kind of motion downtown. Added to the initial coming together of blacks in the Village there was now a distinctly militant kind of black emerging as well. I began to come in contact more and more with them.
One night at a party at Marzette Watts’ loft, who lived on the first floor of the Cooper Square place, there was some kind of battle, a fight it turned out and finally Sonny Murray had it out with this bone-slim wiry dude with a permanent bitter smirking smile on his face. What wigged me is that this dude, Tong he was called because of his Asian-looking eyes, had popped Sonny in the nose and broke it. I couldn’t conceive of anyone beating Sonny. But then, as it turned out, I didn’t even know this dude. And he is posturing over in the corner talking to a friend of his and his brother and when I come up he says, “Yeh, I did just what I thought I could do, broke this motherfucker’s nose.”
The blood rushed into my head and I got into the dude’s face, “So what you spose to be, bad? You can get killed, too, my man. You know, you can get laid out right here in the street.” It was not even with a desire to fight, or maybe it was, but it was anger and shock at seeing Sonny disabled. Tong said nothing to me, he just put on his coat and hat with the jerky, manic motion I was to become familiar with and with his running buddy, Jimmy Lesser, split. His brother, Shammy (real name Chase Hackensack), didn’t go with his brother Tony (real name Bobby Hackensack). I guess to show there was some distance between him and his brother, he laid. But though I’d seen him before, I didn’t really know him. But now I would.
There was another forum down at the Village Vanguard, probably on a Monday night. It was Archie Shepp, Larry Rivers, somebody else, and myself. We were discussing racial problems in the U.S., and Larry, I guess, because we had been friends and had had a lot of laughs together, did not feel particularly threatened by me or Archie, both of whom he had sopped up much alcohol with. Larry was even an old scag man from way back when he was an uptight young Jew looking to play the alto like Charlie Parker.
But Archie made some distance, and when the question of struggle and change and, yes, revolution came up, Larry backed off. But I cut into him perhaps too cruelly, for that context. I said, “Hey, you’re all over in these galleries, turning out work for these rich faggots, you part of the dying shit just like them!” That shocked a lot of our friends who were there, not so much what was said, I suppose, but the viciousness of it, the absolute distance raised, not only between Larry and ourselves but whole bunches of folks tied to him, who likewise had thought there was some intellectual and emotional connection between us. But now it seemed there was fire in me that could rush up and out even directly into the faces of some of my old friends.
For Nellie, this period was also a contradictory thing. Obviously, the attention and celebrity of Dutchman pleased her. I guess it was, in one very nasty sense, some justification, even legitimization, of our marriage to all her old familial connections. The inner-circle hauteur that only the cognoscenti who read Zazen or Evergreen Review could appreciate had now been replaced by a wider spread of public talk. It was not just some colored guy, she was married to somebody. (Apologies to Jesse Jackson.) The rounds of cocktail parties and receptions we got invited to, the “sudden” literary presence that even her old employers at Sectarian Review must have appreciated, obviously warmed her. In the same year the book Dutchman was published (although with another play she distinctly did not like, The Slave). Dutchman won the Obie Award as Best American Play, and since I was out of town during the awards dinner, she had to accept the award on my behalf. I know these are the kinds of things she had unconsciously prepared for, though in another context, a great part of her life.
The trouble was that now there was some kind of slow drift by me away from her. For the past period the liaisons I had with other women had grown less frequent, but now, from no open or conscious plan I put forward, the women I began to see were black. Though they were hooked up or on the fringes of the same shit. Plump brown Rose and I staggered out of the Five Spot together late one night, down to her place in Brooklyn, which looked like a hurricane had hit it. Or yellow Joanie, trying to make it in advertising, from one of those schools, saying goodbye in the subway station and roaring off rather than be used by some white woman’s man after business hours.
I was invited to a writer’s conference at Asilomar, Monterey, “The Negro in American Literature.” My recent celebrity made me the bull’s-eye of the joint. Not only to be shot at but hit on. I found myself inundated with lovely black women. I mean, just to sit and talk and remember what they were like. What it meant when I put my hand out and they put their hands out to shake, innocently enough, to see how our hands matched so and to hear their voices lilting, full of questions about my work, or Baldwin’s or Wright’s, was kind of thrilling. Not to mention the heavier stuff that went on later in the evening, in this small cabana-like apartment with a glass door opening down to the beach.
The last sister I was with and I roared up the coast in her MG after the conference was over and we stayed at her place in Oakland for a couple of days, walking around Berkeley, going into San Francisco. I even got into a fight with this white writer, later a famous novelist, who was then a lousy poet (I’ve never read his novels). It was really, I think, about the same kind of thing as the Village Vanguard shootout. He wouldn’t fight but the woman he was with, a poet of deservedly small reputation, tried to jump me for roaring at her man. I mean, she wanted to scratch me or jump on me with her hands and I swatted her while the young sister, Gwendolyn Buck, full of southern petty bourgeois gentility, watched in a state of half alarm, half amusement. And we discussed the episode over drinks into the wee hours.
While I was in Oakland, a local dude and his friends heard I was there from this sister, Gwen’s running buddy, who’d been at the conference, and he came over to get his copy of Blues People autographed. He was working as a standup comedian in a local nightclub, his name was Bobby Seale. A couple of years later, he and Huey Newton were to put together the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense!
When I talked to Nellie on the phone, she could only say, “Why are you still there? Come back. You should come back, now.” It was like she could sense something was very much awry. There was a note of desperation in her voice.
At home, a collecting up of this heavier black circle went on, still casually, but fueled by reality. I could sense some distance now between Nellie and me that had never existed before: a darkness into which words disappeared. I saw Shammy again, he began hanging around this little gym where we played basketball, where my kids were in nursery school. He’d be on the sidelines cheering, though I could sense he could play, too. But he could see that I was no stranger to the court, and if I made some hook or jump shot it seemed to connect him to me more closely. I guess he could see I was a real person.
Since our struggle with the SWP in On Guard, a couple of the black SWP cadres had come around and I’d talked to them. The one I got closest to was Cornelius Suares, called Corny. He was a black worker, working almost all his adult life (except for the time he was in jail) in the garment district, pushing, as he called them, “them Jewish airplanes.” He pushed the garment racks up and down the streets. Corny was the loudest person on record, check the Guinness Book of Records. He had a hard and willfully rough exterior but he was a very sweet and gentle dude in many ways. If he felt really put upon or pissed off, he’d break down and cry.
His running buddy, whom I also got to like a lot, was Clarence Franklin, another worker, doing New York City messenger work. He was once SWP’s candidate for mayor and is a sensitive poet, though Clarence talks only as a last resort. Plus, Clarence’s brothers Doll and Robert, who are the talkingest dudes, next to Cornelius, you’re ever likely to meet. All of these brought another air into my life, a wind of further reality, of actual concrete life.
I went to Buffalo for a month that summer, with my family, as a lecturer in poetry, in some program put together to get Charles Olson, Creeley, and some of the other new poets up there lecturing. I still had a great admiration for Olson. I had gone up to his house a couple of times, up in Gloucester. Once in the late fifties with McClure and Wieners, later with Don Allen and Irving Rosenthal who had just quit as editor of the Chicago Review, to write a novel, Sheeper. Olson had taken us one night to this castle in Gloucester that this rich dude had imported stone for stone from Europe. And now it sat in Gloucester, overlooking the bay. The guy’s father had invented the electronically controlled boat. And he used to steer these boats by remote control up and down in that harbor.
We had some interesting evening. Olson, center stage as usual, was telling these stories and the son or grandson of the inventor, who was now master of the house, had a few friends over, all, I think, gay. I think the only non-gay persons in the crib were Olson and I. The castle was full of statues and hanging tapestries. At one point, the owner excused himself and then we heard organ music. We figured it was him, but then he returned and the organ was playing, we were told, by remote control. He then started to make weird effects — slurs, eerie moans, and ghostly sounds — on the thing. Olson and I were catching each other’s eye, but Olson kept talking.
When we go to bed that night, I got a room that’s right off this patio in the middle of the castle. After midnight sometime, I hear this noise like splashing and men’s voices high and tittering. I go to the door and prop it open and this guy’s friends are diving from a second-story balcony down into this pool in the middle of the patio. They’re butt naked. It was like being woven into a tapestry of exotic otherness, but the next day when we get back to Olson’s place he is roaring with laughter at the whole business.
What fascinated me about Olson was his sense of having dropped out of the U.S., the “pejoracracy.” He said in his poems we should “Go Against” it. That we should oppose “those who would advertise you out.” It was a similar spirit that informed the most meaningful of the Beats, and Olson was a heavy scholar. His “Projective Verse” had been a bible for me because it seemed to give voice to feelings I had about poetry and about society. When Charles came down to Cooper Square, there was another sense that what we were doing he could use, that it was something he thought useful and correct, the Zazens and Totem Press and the rest of it. I had even seen remarks he made at Berkeley letting me know that he thought Dutchman was an estimable work. It was Olson, because of his intellectual example, and Ginsberg, because of his artistic model and graciousness as a teacher, whom I thought most about in terms of the road I was moving along. Where would they be in all this? Also, my friend Ed Dorn, the poet, who was living out in Pocatello, Idaho, in a place so American it didn’t understand itself. How would he relate? We wrote many letters back and forth. And the book The Dead Lecturer, which came out that year (1964), is dedicated to Ed. It included the comic-book hero Green Lantern’s code: “In Blackest Day/In Blackest Night/No Evil Shall Escape My Sight/Let Those Who Worship Evil’s Might/Beware My Power/Green Lantern’s Light!”
Ed and his family and Nellie and I and our children lived together briefly up in Buffalo that summer. It was like the last touching of the old places, though I didn’t know it. I liked Ed so much because he had (and has) an intellectual toughness that perceives the worst in the U.S., but he has the energy needed to survive that worst. His Idaho and New Mexico sojourns, I think, were meant to keep him from the sickness of big-time America. Yet the leaks of that sickness are themselves communities, even on the geographic outskirts of the various big apples and pears and plums of gimmegotcha melican society.
These white men saw that I was moving away from them in so many ways and there was some concern, because it wasn’t that I didn’t like them any longer, it was just a feeling that where I was going they couldn’t come. Where that was, I couldn’t even articulate. Those who were physically close to me, the old New York crowd, I was less concerned about, because we had our day-to-day confrontations. There was no room for decent concern or sentimental concern either, we were too concretely close and for that reason getting away from them was a physical and intellectual syllogism.
While I was in Buffalo, the Harlem Rebellion broke out. There had been a couple rebellions in other cities just before Harlem went up, in Jacksonville and then in a suburb of Chicago. But Harlem had the media coverage. It was like the proof that the ticking inside our heads had a real source and was not subjective. It bore out what Malcolm had said at the beginning of the year. It made Blues for Mr. Charlie and Dutchman seem dangerously prophetic.
I left Buffalo, to get closer to what was happening. The events rang in me like the first shots of a war, which I not only knew would break out but one that I had to get into because I felt I had helped start it. I remember getting a .45 automatic from where I had stashed it. Lana Solon looked surprised, I hadn’t seen her in months. But I had left a piece there back behind some suitcases. She said, “I knew you’d come. I felt it.” I got the piece from where I’d hidden it, put it in my gas mask bag, and split. I never saw her again.
After the Harlem Rebellion it was a rush of events, confrontations, tempers, even histories that I witnessed and was part of. For one thing, the sense of being more and more estranged from Nellie was reaching an openly rising quantitative peak. We were seldom together now, the way we had been. I was hanging out and meeting with mostly young black dudes, both my brothers from the earlier Cooper Square circle and the later crowd of people. Shammy, his brother Tong, who I still did not feel comfortable around; he gave me a cold and clammy feeling. Jimmy Lesser came by now, usually with Shammy. He dressed like a classic Black Muslim and I accepted him as that. One of White’s old junkie friends also began to dress up like a Muslim and he seemed to have cleaned up as well. But that didn’t bother White, Jim; he was still getting higher and higher. Corny, usually with Clarence, would show. Plus, Overstreet might breeze by and we’d drink a bottle of vodka. One time White, Overstreet, and I go to a party around the corner and Overstreet and I get into a fight, or I should say a “fight.” I don’t know what happened and he claim he don’t know either, but when we woke up the bottle of vodka was empty, most of my clothes were ripped off, and Overstreet was laid out drunk. We didn’t know where White had gone.
Marion and Archie were around and Bob when he wasn’t drilled flat by the scag. A young dude named Dave, light-skinned, heavy glasses, interested like all of us in the music and also poetry. Both of the Hackensack Brothers were part of Umbra and I began to get more word on what that was or had been. I found out later that they had had some intense struggle over a poem that was to be published that was critical of JFK. One group wanted to can the poem because Kennedy had got iced, the other, more militant group thought the poem still needed to be printed. And there were all kinds of recriminations. I still saw C.D., but not in the same way as before. He was very much married and the French lady had, it seemed, a rather abbreviated tether.
I’d see Tom Perry, and if Tom and White and I got together with maybe Marion or even Bob when he could see, we still got wasted. And walked around, in and out of parties, being even more removed by the shit, and our sense of removal from that whole scene. But even that enlarged circle had its sectors, and it would, at a later time, split in half as well.
The public verbal shootout that remains most clearly etched in my memory is one that was held at the Village Gate. In this there were questions from the audience and I had now grown into a stance of actually putting down white people. I had long done this in my writing, from a concrete point of origin. These torturous years the African and African American have spent as slaves and chumps for this white supremacist society obviously provided enough factual resources to support a tirade against whites. The Muslim example, particularly and most inspirationally the role of Malcolm X, supported my attack. But still I was married to a white woman; I still had many white friends. I still thought very highly of innumerable white intellectuals and artists. But I felt justified in talking about the horrible bullshit that white people had put on the world, bullshit they are still putting on the world (though now my view is tempered by the science of class analysis — but then so many whites go for the ghost of white racism, and whether they actually benefit from it or not, still do go for it and actively support it — and the poison of white chauvinism warps some of the otherwise hippest white minds in extant).
A woman asked me in all earnestness, couldn’t any whites help? I said, “You can help by dying. You are a cancer. You can help the world’s people with your death.” She seemed flabbergasted. Another mentioned Goodman and Schwerner, they had been slaughtered along with black James Chaney in Philadelphia, Mississippi, by Klansmen in police uniforms. And certainly their sacrifice is to be upheld and the willingness of young whites to put their lives on the line for the struggle for democracy is a noble thing, an important thing, and any people sincerely interested in making revolution must have allies. Only people not really serious about making revolution can dismiss sincere allies. But in my fury, which had no scientific framework, I could only thrash out at any white person. The fact that Chaney was never mentioned, and Goodman and Schwerner were, pissed the hell out of me. I told the woman, “I have my own history of death and submission. We have our own dead to mourn. Those white boys were only seeking to assuage their own leaking consciences.”
And in this last outrageous diatribe I was confusing Schwerner and Goodman with the young white poseur-liberals who sashayed safely through the streets of Greenwich Village, the behind-the-lines bleeding hearts. When, on the real side, if I could have stood some hard truth, Schwerner and Goodman were out there on the front lines doing more than I was! But Chaney had been beaten beyond recognition; he had so received the fury of those maniacs but all these people wanted to talk about was the white youths’ deaths.
I guess, during this period, I got the reputation of being a snarling, white-hating madman. There was some truth to it, because I was struggling to be born, to break out from the shell I could instinctively sense surrounded my own dash for freedom. I guess I was in a frenzy, trying to get my feet solidly on the ground of reality. And during this period, whether publicly or not, there was a lot of snarling, and cussing out of white folks, and punchin’ people in the mouths to justify our growing sense of ourselves.
Albert Ayler had come on the scene around this point. He appeared at my house one afternoon with a dude named Black Norman. I had heard of Albert and think I’d even heard him on some record where he was still playing with a group that was sounding the standard bebop changes, My Name Is Albert Ayler. But Albert had already moved beyond that. Albert had this white shock of beard that shot out of his chin, though he was a little short stocky dude, that made him look extra weird. Plus the intensity in his eyes and voice. Norman was his sidekick mystic, chuckling always about something the rest of us was just a little too square to dig.
Albert had asked me about the music and about my writing on the music. I think he wanted to challenge me because I didn’t really know who he was. He asked me did I think it was about me? He said, “You think it’s about you?” I did and didn’t know what he meant. In some ways, I guess, I did think it was about me. Albert meant it was really about Spirit and Energy. This is what it, life, everything, was really about. Not personalities and their yes-and-nos. Albert was always jumping on folks by saying of corny people, “He thinks it’s about him,” with the “him” said so disdainfully, as only Albert could say it, so you really could dig that was some stupid shit. “It ain’t about you!” Albert would say. “He thinks its about Him! And it ain’t about Him.” And he’d stretch his eyes wide and maybe spit out a jagged hunk of laugh.
Plus, Albert, we found out quickly, could play his ass off. He had a sound, alone, unlike anyone else’s. It tore through you, broad, jagged like something out of nature. Some critics said his sound was “primitive.” Shit, it was before that! It was a big massive sound and wail. The crying, shouting moan of black spirituals and God music. Pharaoh was so beautiful and he had a wildness to him too, a heavy force like the world could be reopened, but Albert was mad. His playing was like some primordial frenzy that the world secretly used for energy. Yeh, the music. Feeling all that, it touching us and us touching it, gave us that strength, that kind of irrevocability we felt. Like the thunder or the lightning or the ocean storming and mounting, crushing whatever was in its path.
At Lincoln Center one night, Trane’s group with Eric Dolphy and Pharaoh too, plus Cecil Taylor, was on the same bill and Art Blakey and the Messengers. It was a beautiful night of music, but the high point was when Albert, whom I had come up to the hall with, came out on the stage, at Trane’s invitation. He came out in the middle of one tune, horn held high up in the air, blowing like the world was on fire. His monster sound cut through all the music, he was blowing so loud, the timbre was so big. People in the audience and the musicians on the stage were electrified. After the performance, backstage, Trane asked Albert, “Hey, man, what kind of reed you using?” I could dig that!
Marion and some other people were playing in D.C. Marion and I were very close in those days, he’d come by and tell me all his plans and projections and co-sign some of mine. Marion sometimes seemed very bohemian and disconnected. He was heavily introspective, I guess like many of us. But he also had a practical, opportunity-seeking side of him. He wanted to meet people and when he finally did decide he wanted to go back to the Music, being in and around Cooper Square got him quickly connected up with Archie Shepp. And just as Shepp’s first major side was “4 for Trane,” so Marion’s first side was “3 for Shepp.” So Marion was quietly but efficiently building his own career while watching close up on mine.
So I wanted to go down to D.C. to hear him play in what amounted to his first big gig with his own group. A group of us were going down, but as we were getting ready a feeling of dread descended on me. Like nothing that I had ever felt before. I found myself dreading taking Nellie down to D.C. with me. I was perspiring and agitated as the time approached. I was pacing around in the house, trying to get high and drunk at the same time, but doing neither. I was cold sober. It was the feeling that Nellie was outside of my concerns, that we did not connect up. I think now I resented her. It was the black-white thing, the agitation, the frenzy, always so deeply felt and outer directed. It had settled in me directed at my wife. I had begun to see her as white! Before, even when I thought she was white, I had never felt anything negative. Even to the point of our beginning debates in the Village and the rising political consciousness I was developing. I had never felt anything abstractly negative about Nellie.
There had even been a magazine satire about me as the great white-hating militant finishing one of my diatribes and then going back to the dutiful white wife. But that had not bothered me, it had not affected my sense of myself or my regard, in whatever way that was carried, for Nellie. But now it was different. There was within that shadow I described before not only a deep vacuum where words could disappear, there was now a coldness, a sharp disaffection that existed.
“Nellie, we can’t go down to D.C. together. I don’t want to go with you.”
She looked puzzled and tensed, somehow expectant. “What do you mean?”
“I’m black, Nellie. I’m black and you’re” I trailed off. “White. I can’t do this, Nellie. I’m black.”
That look in her eye then was of such deep hurt and confused amazement that I almost covered my face so I did not have to look at her face. “Oh, Roi,” she said. “That’s silly. You’re Roi and I’m Nellie. What are you talking about?”
What was the correlative or parallel scene being played all over the world which meant the same thing in all the different sectors and levels of human experience? That open call for that splitting up. As if the tragic world around our “free zone” had finally swept in and frozen us to the spot.
The play The Slave, which shows a black would-be revolutionary who splits from his white wife on the eve of a race war, was what Nellie called “Roi’s nightmare.” It was so close to our real lives, so full of that living image.
We talked awhile, saying really little else. Actually, we repeated the things we had already said, in other ways. But finally, I was gone, down to D.C., where Marion was playing. But when I got down there I had a kind of relapse. I thought I had done wrong to leave Nellie that way, though I was coming back. The serious business of what was to happen to us and with our marriage was still to be done. The set was in a hotel and I paced back and forth and called home, but no one answered. Nellie was wherever she had to go to deal with such conflict. I called again and again, pacing, now feeling somehow I was trapped in this high building, unable to get back and cut off from this woman I had lived with for almost seven years. I was nervous and confused and though there was a party after Marion’s set, I went to my room and laid up brooding about what the fuck I’d said and done. I called again; no answer.
Finally the drink I was nursing ran out, so I went down the hall to where the party was. When I stuck my head in looking around for the alcohol, there was a very slender red-brown black girl with the kind of “Mariney” red-brown haircut, very short and worn natural. She looked at me and smiled and not only did she not avert her eyes in some false modesty, she winked at me mischievously. I stood my ground, still looking for the big drink. But smiling, trying to be cheerful. So she comes over, drink in hand. She says, “You look hip, what’s your name?” Her name was Vashti.
We breezed out of that joint in a few, and wound up in my room, talking eight thousand miles an hour about everything we could think of. She was a young woman, still college age, but she had dropped out, she said, cause she wanted to be a painter. Vashti was skinny and had a tendency to be knock-kneed, but I thought she was one of the most gorgeous women I’d ever seen. It was like her quirky red looks turned me on, and the little knock-kneed walk and slightly protruding teeth. Plus, Vashti was dressed up, she was styled like she thought she was in some play where the woman painter goes to a cocktail party and meets the famous writer. Slouch hat pulled down over one eye, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other. Full of wisecracks and laughing at her own ironic humor or mine. We wound up in bed much much later in the morning with Vashti saying, “You better not give me a baby. I’m not playing.”
I told her she reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. She said, “Yeh, and you’re the Mad Hatter.” And so I referred to her as Alice for a while. I was going back to New York and she was staying in D.C. But I knew even then that I would see her again. I knew that she would come to New York.
The crowd of dudes I was hanging with had swollen, it seemed that that place on Cooper Square became a meeting place for a certain kind of black intellectual during this period. But it was not just a casual circle anymore, there was clearly something forming, something about to come into being. We sat around trying to talk it and coax it into being. I met Max Stanford, from Philly, who’d recently moved to New York. I didn’t know it at first, but Max was with the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), which had just formed. Larry Neal became a part of that group. Larry, clean as blue wind, would sit in and contribute to those discussions of what was going on in the world, who were we in it, what was the role of the black artist? What should our art be? Larry was a poet, and he too had come up out of Philly and was also, unbeknownst to me, with RAM.
One night, after talking to Max, who had communications with the exiled Rob Williams, and who was actually distributing his newsletter, The Crusader, I felt particularly whipped and beaten. Why? Because, to me, the young tireless revolutionary I saw in Max was what I felt I could never be. I had said outright that the black and white thing was over, but I did not think I could act. For one thing, the little girls, now, were walking around and there was certainly both a deep love and a sense of pressing responsibility there. It seemed to me I was caught, frozen between two worlds. I told this to Nellie, almost weeping, but dragged off to get high and tried to push it out of my mind.
One evening when a large group of us were together in my study talking earnestly about black revolution and what should be done, I got the idea that we should form an organization. On Guard had been long gone, because of its obvious contradictions. We needed a group of black revolutionaries who were artists to raise up the level of struggle from the arts sector. There was Dave Knight, White, Marion, C.D., Leroy McLucas, the Hackensack brothers (Shammy and Tong), Jimmy Lesser, Larry, Max, plus Corny and Clarence. We would form a secret organization. Tong asked me what would it be called, it came into my head in a flash, the Black Arts.
But all those people who’d hung around were not the serious core I felt would cohere with such an idea. I also thought it should be a paramilitary organization. At the next meeting I announced this, and if there were any doubts that some folks would stay and others breeze, that put an end to it. Max and Larry hung back because they were in another organization. Askia, too, who was around there, was not in that core because he too was with RAM and apparently they had been “assigned” to work with us.
White, though he worked with us contributing his art, could never make that core, which was probably a little too fanatical anyway, because of his scag habit. There were other people who came in once we got uptown and who worked with us as strongly and as closely as possible. But while we were downtown the core became McLucas, the Hackensacks, Jimmy Lesser, Dave, Corny, and Clarence. We gave ourselves military ranks, at which Larry smiled, it seemed knowledgeably, saying only, “You’all think you’re ready for that?”
Marion spaced on that, being a little too sophisticated for such playacting, I guess. Bob Thompson was off battling the white powder. Overstreet came up to work at the arts but avoided some of the nuts in that core. So it got down to McLucas, Dave, the Hackensacks, Lesser, Corny, Clarence, and I, with C.D. straddling the fence.
We talked black black, being downtown, amidst the white world, even more frustrated and bitter in contrast to our surroundings, and less realistic than we needed to be. We formed a cadre, but looking at it now, my oldest black friends downtown did not go for the science fiction blackness our downtown core presented. All those people, with the exception of C.D. and McLucas, I had met only relatively recently.
What we did, concretely, was polarize the people downtown. We talked a black militance and took the stance that most of the shit happening downtown was white bullshit and most of the people were too. The fact that we, ourselves, were down there was a contradiction we were not quite ready to act upon, though we discussed it endlessly. With all militant black groups that form downtown, the point of demarcation is always: they are downtown and the masses of black people are elsewhere. For us it was Harlem, that was the proper capital of our world and we were not there.
So we settled for jumping on people, mostly verbally, and preaching the need to be black and ultimately to get out of this downtown white hell.
Because of this “blacker than thou” stance, several relationships were disrupted. We were sincere, most of us. But we carried the fanaticism of the petty bourgeoisie. White through, yesterday; Black as heaven, today!
For one thing, we kept talking and talking about “going uptown.” The On Guards and OYMs came up, partially dissected. Umbra’s struggles were partially discussed. I learned that Ishmael Reed, Hernton, Lorenzo Thomas, Askia, Tom Dent, David Henderson, Steve Cannon, the Hackensacks were grouped among its ranks. Theirs was a positive self-conscious black effort that had existed for some time down on the Lower East Side. But with the twists and turns of U.S. reality and new contradictions, one was splitting into two, they were about to come apart.
Rival sectors of different arts groups, particularly poets and writers, were polarized. The Black Arts group still moved downtown, still my house the unofficial HQ. Some of us had guns and we talked endlessly about black liberation. So that we might go to a poetry reading of Ish’s and Calvin’s and be there both to dig them and also to measure how black they were.
Our deepest feelings were correct, but we had no knowledge of the realities of revolution, not even the realities of the Black Liberation Movement. But still, helter-skelter, twisting and turning, we were putting out the seeds for a Black Arts Movement and the bit of that which we perceived astonished us.
Vashti came up to New York to live. She had a girlfriend she stayed with up on the West Side (who became part of a group of middle-class black women who came to the aid of Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s widow). But soon we had arranged something. I’d meet her different places, occasionally she even stayed at the Old Albert Hotel on University Place. She began to meet the various people in the Black Arts and go in and out of the watering holes of our downtown world. Sometimes we would go to a friend’s loft and she would talk bad about me getting high, but mostly we talked and laughed and made love. Vashti became part of our crowd, speeding with me through those nights of uncertainty. I came to feel more and more for her. It was like we were at the outset of a great adventure, the deepest part of which we picked up just by watching each other laugh. There was so much love in our eyes. Plus, we felt we were snatching that love from out of some dying white shit. Vashti never talked bad about Nellie, but she would look at me, sometimes, with her hands on her hips, not quite smirking, when the subject came up. There was nothing left for me at Cooper Square now but memories and the little girls. But I felt backed up against the wall.
When the “going uptown” talk started to surface and be talked about, with whatever bias, naturally still more relationships got disrupted. Some of the white women who were with black men (and I guess those white men with black women — though I knew far fewer) got visibly uptight. C.D.’s wife, Françoise, stopped talking to me, and when I started to cross St. Marks Place to talk to him one afternoon, he crossed quickly to say a few words and she stayed on the other side of the street glaring.
I didn’t know most of those who formed this downtown Black Arts “core” very well. But I’m sure some stuff passed publicly that took everything that might be said around me even further out. After all, I had obvious limitations, as leader, hooked up with the white woman. There was some antagonism now between some old friends.
Both of the Hackensacks always made me nervous because I couldn’t understand them. I hadn’t known them long enough or seen them in action and, apparently, they and Askia formed part of the militant wing of Umbra. I found out later, someone had threatened someone else’s life.
But Shammy showed at my house and seemed to want to be my friend-student. Tong was distant and had a bitter cast about him, dipped in a kind of acid silence, that made him seem edgy and challenging. Both were writers, Tong a poet, Shammy a playwright. At a number of places, Shammy, Vashti, and I became a trio.
I got appointed as guest lecturer in drama at Columbia, for one semester, as a result of Dutchman. There was an article I’d written in the Voice, probably it was an interview. Vashti, Shammy, and I were sitting in the West End Bar and Grill after class. I went to the bar to get a beer and these two white guys approached. One a smallish eyeglass-wearing person, the other, a half step behind him, large and bulky. The little one said, “You’re LeRoi Jones?”
“I saw that statement you made in the Voice about whites. You’re sick.”
I stood, flat-footed, a mug of beer in my hand, and eyed them carefully.
“Why don’t you stop spouting sick things about whites in the paper? It’s blacks that cause the problems.”
“Yeh,” I said. The big guy was grinning.
“I wanted to talk to you.” It was the little guy. “I brought my football-playing friend so you’d agree.”
My forehead heated up quickly at the idea of a henchman intimidator.
“You gonna talk to us?”
“Fuck you.” I was turning to go to my table. The big dude moved forward hesitatingly. I hit him full in the forehead with the beer mug and, with no break in the motion, bopped the other one headside as well. They screamed, the small one fell, others stood and shouted. Vashti and Shammy were at my side. We backed out of the West End like gunfighters.
“Very good, Mr. Jones,” was Shammy’s comment. Vashti laughed and pulled on my arm.
One other event to show how far the thing had gone. I was sitting with Shammy, who had begun to accompany me different places, in line with our paramilitary pretensions. We were in the restaurant of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, where I’d met with my editor about some book. As we ate, unknown to us, C.D. entered the sleek restaurant. He came up to our table and said to me and Shammy, “Leave me alone. Leave my family alone. I’m not going uptown.” He touched his belt. “I have a gun here. If anyone bothers me or my family, I’ll shoot them!” He turned and left.
Shammy and I laughed, but for me, it was a deadly portent somehow. C.D. had been one of my oldest friends in New York. But the two of us at the table made light of it. He was hooked on white women, etc. I could talk.
February 21, 1965, a Sunday. Nellie and I and the two girls were at the Eighth Street Bookstore, at a book party. I had a cap, hunting jacket, and round dark glasses, the dress of our little core. I was being personable and knowledgeable. Both Vashti and Shammy and some others were in the bookstore, discreetly separate from my party.
Suddenly, Leroy McLucas came in. He was weeping. “Malcolm is dead! Malcolm is dead! Malcolm’s been killed!” He wept, repeating it over and over. I was stunned, shot myself. I felt stupid, ugly, useless. Downtown in my mix-matched family and my maximum leader/teacher shot dead while we bullshitted and pretended.
The black core of us huddled there, my wife and family outside that circle. We were feverish and stupefied. McLucas wept uncontrollably. I called a couple fellows in the corner over, but they were dazed and couldn’t hear immediately. Joel Oppenheimer said, “That’s the trouble with the black revolution. Roi’s giving directions and nobody listens!”
But who and what was I to give anything, or he to make such a statement? “It’s all bullshit!” went through me. “All!”
In a few days I had gotten my stuff out and gone uptown. We had seen a brownstone on West 130th Street and this was to be the home of the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School.
My little girl, the older one, Kellie, picked up instinctively a sense of my departure. She said to me, “You can’t go anywhere. You’re one of the funny things.”
But in a minute or so, I was gone. A bunch of us, really, had gone, up to Harlem. Seeking revolution!