“The people are the true poets. The rest of us, with our advances and royalty checks, are just journeyman making a dishonest living.” ~ Julius Lester
H“The people are the true poets. The rest of us, with our advances and royalty checks, are just journeyman making a dishonest living.” ~ Julius Lester
History is not merely an amalgamation of previous events, first relevant then discarded, but the 12 hours encircling the watch dial ushering in the future while we deposit each action within the folded memory of the past. History is a subjective experience rather than a game we played as children until we gained the bearings required to escape into maturity. History is happening all about us at this very moment. As quickly as we enshroud it in the veil of nostalgia, we return and revise it for consumption by new generations as a vaccination of insight against those ailments which hindered our own success. We are rewriting history in order to shape the conclusion drawn by others from their reflection upon it. We don't want you to remember history as we knew it then, but wish you to perceive history as we feel it now. In "Search For The New Land", Julius Lester probes the philosophical framework underlying history, memory and experience in order to construct a memoir which obscures the lines between all three concepts weaving a simplified approach to history as people and their reaction to each changing circumstance.
"Our first-born was coming home. We brought her home, placed her in the crib and put a net over it. That was to keep the roaches off her. I sat up at night, all night for the first week, beside her so that the rats wouldn't come. But she got sick the first day she was home and stayed sick for nine months. The doctor said she was allergic to her mother's milk, which is like fish being allergic to water. What do doctors know? How can you tell what is wrong with somebody if you don't know where they live? The doctor said my ulcer came from tension and he told me I should relax." ~ Julius Lester
The text opens with a remembrance of the frenzied and explosive decade of 1960 juxtaposed against a notion of Hiroshima as a climactic destabilization in our theory of modern warfare. In this space, Lester lays the groundwork for his historical memoir by going beyond posing unwritten questions about his own life and answering them in the autobiographical style. Lester does not even appear as the main character in this casting which sees that role assigned to the collision of events and people which gave meaning to this era of social change. The 50's, the 60's, Freedom Riders, radicals, nationalists, HUAC, Cointelpro and all other manner of devil or deity are given space between these pages while Lester arrives haphazardly to navigate a roach infested slum on the westside of Chicago with his wife and newborn child. He is mostly divorced from telling us much in the way of his own story while using a surrealist technique of found poetry to subtly inject his commentary into each line of the larger narrative unfolding.
"Revolutionaries are not born. They are made by living on West 21st Street. The United States has made more revolutionaries than Che Guevara ever did...In a society where life had meaning beyond the beating of the heart, the ability to transplant organs would be an occasion for celebration. In a society where man had within his grasp the ability to be Man, a trip to the moon would be awesome. In the West, all of it is obscene." ~ Julius Lester
Found poetry involves appropriating a news article then adding, removing or reordering its words to uncover the poem beneath the layers of journalistic diplomacy. The technique forms a literary collage revealing a story within the story which is not at first apparent by reading the article alone. This reshaping of meaning hearkens back to traditional Black interpretive plays of code switching within blues and work songs lending rich metaphoric insight to seemingly thoughtless lyrics. "Search For The New Land" exhibits a similar folksy quality as Lester writes through the lens of an everyman activist who is not always enthralled by the work, but perseveres against personal apathy to engage in organizational building. Lester utilizes the timeline in the first few pages of each section in order to recount the major events in motion. The unique formulation of the memoir is further nuanced by dating some sections in the form of a journal while others are left for the reader to calculate. This combination of techniques creates a certain murkiness throughout the text which gives his pages the feeling of memory lapsing forward and backward unpredictably. Memories lacking full clarity and being consistently manipulated by our shifting beliefs about our identity, legacy and the world.
"Violence was defined as a bullet in the brain and unrecognized was the fact that this kind of violence was only a manifestation of the violence done to the soul which made the young talk incessantly of Love and carry flowers. The report of a rifle is all too obviously violent, while the violence done to the soul has no sound, but if one looks closely into the faces passing on the street, its effects are unmistakeable." ~ Julius Lester
"Search For The New Land" is not only a brilliantly written piece of prose, but an informative personal and social history. It is nothing short of a psychological primer on the artist and activist framing how he approaches the changes in life and uses language fiercely in order to attack and understand those changes. The activist artist has no way to halt change immediately, but he can sculpt a tool which aids others in engaging that change in a constructive manner while driving the collective reaction to such change over time. The text manages to be a serious reflection on a time of heightened social tension while understanding that human beings are an interesting sort who deserve to have their foolish doings played up for laughs at every opportunity. Julius Lester is a studious intellectual who knows how to throw a punchline that not even Lyndon Johnson could duck....more
"A Black aesthetic is based upon the conviction that Black people share a complex of perceptions that do not have the same meaning for other people. W"A Black aesthetic is based upon the conviction that Black people share a complex of perceptions that do not have the same meaning for other people. While it is true that all humans, have certain basic physiological and emotional traits, socio-historical experience divides us into ethnic groups whose members have more in common with each other than with members of other groups, even though there may be overlapping. We all belong to ethnic groups. Ethnicity is inescapable. There is no such thing as a "universal" person." ~ from "Some Thoughts on The Black Aesthetic" by Eugenia Collier
While a flourishing hippie subculture was feasting upon the remnants of the literary and social counterculture once cultivated by the pioneers of the Beat Generation, Black literature was experiencing yet another cultural quickening in the form of the Black Arts Movement. A broad contingent of artists, critics, authors and intellects who eschewed the duplicity of Black authorship past which found our most nimble writers contorting themselves and their uniquely Black experience into a form more palatable for a mainstream white aesthetic now carved out independent publications, art houses, theaters and workshops. The call for Black Power, rising political resentment and a renewed embrace of the ideals of social separatism saw the revival of a "do for self" ethic sweep through the Black community. The old Civil Rights era alliances of the previous decade had shriveled and died upon the vine. Black people were shifted once again to membership along the social fringe.
Those arising during the Black Arts period began to wield this exclusion as an incentive for the development of an insular artistry deeply rooted in the language, style and existence of Black people which came to be defined as the "Black aesthetic". A diminished appreciation for historical nuance often finds a more comprehensive story about the movement left untold. Much like the locational specificity of the Harlem Renaissance overshadows discussion about Black authorship outside of Harlem or Negritude in the Black Francophone diaspora, it is most often the case that the Black Arts Movement as a mystical literary milestone eclipses deeper scrutiny of any cluster of regional activity which contributed to its occurrence. The burden of fault rests with both poor scholarship and a lack of prominent documentation on how the movement transformed the creative landscape for Black artists throughout the country. Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago is a history which serves to both amend and extend that record.
Nommo documents the creative and critical literary content generated by members of the Chicago axis of the Black Arts Movement operating through the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) over the course of 20 years at the time the book was published. Throughout their 30 year tenure, OBAC organized three artist workshops consisting of Visual Arts, Theater and Writing which provided spaces for peer review and mentoring. The Visual Arts Workshop was able to complete a longstanding mural known as the Wall of Respect at 43rd and Langley. The Theater Workshop found itself in a prodigious era as Chicago's urban magnetism assembled the creative synergy which culminated in the Kuumba Theater, Southside Community Art Center and Afro-Arts Theater. The Writer's Workshop saw a diversity of authors from varying levels of professional notoriety move through the nourishing space to bolster one another towards more keen insights and greater acclaim.
Nommo captures the essence of this extraordinary collective through writings which appeared in both the individual works of featured artists along with the OBAC writing journal also titled Nommo. The writing frequently manages to be both profound and overwhelming when one attempts to read the text without pause. Occasionally it veers off in directions which appear to be ideologically enigmatic such as Carolyn M. Rodgers' "Black Poetry-Where It's At" which found me pondering to myself if these were not merely a group of reckless young adults who had become fascinated with the sound of their own voice. She uses the space of her commentary to elaborate on the various forms and directions being created, evolved and engaged by Black poets in her generation. It is not until you reach the section entitled "Remembering Hoyt W. Fuller" that you can reflect deeply upon the measure and meaning of advancing the Black aesthetic. Rodgers' determination to characterize the nuances of Black poetry as they existed then was rooted in a desire to stretch the boundaries of acceptable literary discourse where Black people were taught to circumscribe portions of their language and being in order to fit into the classical (read: white) construct being studied in academia. She refused.
While it is left to one's imagination to consider how the plays were interpreted on stage, the works of members from the Theater Workshop are exhibited including "Masque Etude" with its rich symbolism and spartan, poetic dialogue or the reflective examination of an interracial relationship of convenience from "Mr. Gooden's House". The poetry, prose and essay material assembled here searches out these tiny kernels of the Black experience and seeks to magnify their importance that we might appreciate, acknowledge and analyze them as art. The Black aesthetic as understood by Hoyt W. Fuller was not simply amplifying the widely touted sentiment that "Black is beautiful", but building upon that notion further for if we value things of beauty then let the elements of Blackness be appraised the highest amongst Black people.
In closing with their reflections upon the life and legacy of Hoyt W. Fuller, the daring stance taken by OBAC is shown to be helmed by a fearless defender of Blackness. Fuller towers above this anthology existing still as the guiding light behind its formation. Throughout the tiny vignettes of his life, I found myself hungering to know and understand even more than these selections were able to express in the space of such brevity. Nommo is a text worthy of continuous examination. While no organization finds themselves advancing the Black aesthetic with such a rigorous and thorough program as OBAC did in their time, it remains important to our children that we link together the body of material already extant in order that they might learn early in life what is beautiful, valuable, worthy and artful about the Blackness they inherit. It ain't just a pigment. It is a legacy....more