Friday, September 29, 2006

Last Holiday: When Is a "Magic Negro"...Not....?

Unfortunately, with all the traveling I've pretty much forgotten what films I saw in August, and now it's almost October. I hardly watched any films last month with the notable exception of Little Miss Sunshine, which really is a funny as they say. I had forgotten what it was like to laugh explosively in a movie theater. It's such a rare experience for me these days. OK admittedly didn't get to that many movie theaters in the ATL, as it was a 3 hour round trip commute to most of them unless I wanted to watch the Rocky Horror Picture show, and the expiry date for that experience has long since popped up for me.

Last Holiday (2006) Dir. Wayne Wang. One other film stood out because I became addicted to watching it, in part because of the use of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" while Queen Latifah's formerly choir mouse character luxuriates in first class after uttering the great lines "I am not flying to Prague with that man sitting in my lap" regarding a would-be big & tall shop customer who's complained because she won't let him lean his seat back (into her lap) and for emphasis "that's a big ol' boy!"(The referenced character/actor could be a stand-in for Brad Garrett of "Everybody Loves Raymond.") Before that there's the classic rendition of "Don't Wait Too Long" by Madeleine Peyroux which has the great line "if you think that time will change your ways, don't wait too long" the wordplay of which she interprets in such an understatedly knowing fashon it makes me smile everytime.

But when I first saw the movie I was disappointed(and despite being directed by Wayne Wang it's a "movie" not a film, but a higher class of "movie" than likely would have resulted if Wang hadn't been at the helm). After Queen Latifah's last cross-over mainstream live-action outing Bringing Down the House (2003) I was hoping she was done with the "Magic Negro" roles both in front of and behind the camera (word is despite all the oo's and ah's over the authenticity of Jason Filardi's screenplay, for a time making him the "go to" guy for hip urban comedy(his latest produced screenplay is Gangsta M.D.), it was actually the black actors on set, in particular Queen Latifah, who wrote the "realistic" black dialogue). Here Queen Latifah plays Georgia May Byrd, a meek but highly talented sales clerk working in the cookware department of a New Orleans store modeled as a downscale William Sonoma who finds out she only has three weeks to live. Here's a woman who has arranged with the boy next door to watch her car, which she never drives, in exchange for weekly gourmet meals for him and his grandmother. She doesn't partake of these meals either, instead sticking religiously to her Lean Cuisine and satisfying herself with digital photos of her great meals prepared while watching the Emeril Show. She can't even flirt with the guy she likes at work (LL Cool J), even though he's clearly attracted to her and gives her one of the ultimate compliments a southern man can bestow on a woman regarding her cooking, "that smell, it reminds of my mama's house." Of course as one might imagine, we've already been tipped off by the Peyroux song, Georgia gets mad at the safe life she's been living, get's mad at God, and then just gets mad and takes all her savings and flies to Prague to eat some of the best food in the world prepared by the legendary Chef Didier (Gerard Depardieu) I have no idea how they got Depardieu to be in this film, but he and Queen Latifah have great chemistry. Georgia gets honest with herself and others not having a lot of time to waste with indirect communication, but discovers a charm and bravery she didn't know she had and touches the lives of all those around her who in the main with the exception of the regularly underrated Giancarlo Esposito all happen to be white. Well, she is in Prague after all. But still I thought, damn another "magic negro" role! However, when I watched the DVD extras it turned out this was a remake of a 1950s Alec Guiness vehicle of the same name and the screenwriters adapted J.B. Priestly's originial screenplay, updating it to the present, well they did about twenty years ago, but they were so committed to the material that they kept shopping it around. Interestingly they were going for a more cynical edge that typified the British films of that time (Lavender Hill Mob, etc). But this became a hopeful, uplifting film with Georgia regularly dialoguing with God, and getting the happy ending she seems to deserve by the movie's close. Granted, when some British white male restrained agricultural machinery salesman discovers grand passion in the midst of a national change in class mores there are all sorts of wink-wink moments that can ensue. After all isn't the middle-class "nose to the grindstone" civil servant stoicism what is beginning to unravel? The few larger social commentaries Queen Latifah gets to play out in this remake are a sweet romance with an African American man (you only need part of one hand to count how often we get to see that), destroying her boss' cell phone with her shoe, and when a culturally and historically illiterate spa worker begins thrashing Georgia with a branch of Eucalyptus leaves as part of that day's treatment. What black person couldn't identify when Latifah snatched the branch out of her hand and began rhythmically giving as good as she had been given? Although there's little dialogue here, the mainly throat sounds and gestures nevertheless telegraph: "oh, hell no!" "you must be crazy!" "400 years of slavery and you think you're gonna beat me with some branch?!" "how do you like it, then?!" after which the worker retrieves the branch and coos "I do it with love" as she then lightly caresses Georgia with the leaves. That was one of the wildest things I've ever seen, only because of how much was said without any dialogue. It was all historical body memory, so strong that even the spa worker got that something larger than herself was at work to which she needed to be responsive.

Still what does it mean to insert a black actor into a "magic" role? How does the actor or director manage to bypass the "magic negro syndrome" while still making it into a cross-over (read cast enough white characters to compell white audiences to buy tickets) success? Certainly that casting issue is a stickler. The black actor becomes a "negro" with magic to despense when those around her/him are almost solely made up from the majoritarian culture and for that matter the ruling class, or at least a few steps above the economic and social rung on which the black character is situated. Some of that magic needs to be in service to other black folks, the character can't be individuated away from his/her community of origin for the comfort of white folks or characters. The character needs to be rooted in her/his community. This the case with Georgia Byrd, in early scenes we see her at choir practice where she's still mousey and shy, and then with her young neighbor who she corrects when his language verges on the raw (it takes a village). But that's just the first quarter or third of the film for the rest of the time she's in the very white and European Prague, among an international cast where she arguably becomes the "international magic negro" one notable intervention on this construction is a Smokey Robinson concert she attends with her new "friends" politicians and the mistress of a corporate meglomaniac who, unbeknownst to him, owns the store where Georgia worked. Keeping with the formula, these stuffed shirts like her because her frankness is refreshing and of course entertaining. During the concert Smokey Robinson gives a downtempo and melancholy reading of his hit "Tears of a Clown" during which the lines "people say I'm the life of the party 'cause I tell a joke or two .....but deep inside I'm blue....take a good look at my face, you'll see the smile looks out of place, if you look closer it's easy to trace the tracks of my tears" have obvious resonance for the lead character. This scene of Georgia nodding along with Smokey is intercut with that of the hotel valet snooping through her belongings and finding Georgia's notes to her family for her funeral arrangements, at which point the normally cynical German woman lets out a deeply sighing, "Oh, Mademoiselle". Later it is this pointedly Teutonic character who offers, "I will be with you until the end" but soon after queries of Georgia "Why are you here with these awful people? You should be with people who love you." Giving us a little flip on usual domestic corpus that gets to deliver those maternal sorts of lines. But I am still left with the question, if you substitute Queen Latifah for Alec Guiness, does the fact of the "magic" having formerly belonged to a white male with a dry British sense of humor immunize a black woman stepping into the role some 56 years later against transmogrification into a "magic negro"?

August Films I remember
Antoine Doinel cycle (Truffaut) - excellent, but Truffaut was correct with the last film in this cycle. He felt he had created a character who never grew up, and had little personal ambition. And truly Doinel is a character who was eternally lonesome for mother, sister, lover and not very good at relating to women past his own needs. Too bad. (cycle titles: Les Quatre cents coups/The 400 Blows(1959), L'Amour à vingt ans/Love at 20(1962), Baisers volés/Stolen Kisses (1968), Domicile conjugal/Bed and Board(1970), L'Amour en fuite/Love on the Run(1979).

Just One of the Guys (1985) Dir. Lisa Gottlieb. Another teen flick for research (ack!) this one is notable for having a female director (working from a male written script) and being completely absent African American characters, not surprising giving the production year--supposedly none of us lived out in the white suburbs back then...Nevertheless the trope of blackness or specifically, of the black male, is all over this movie about a girl who pretends to be a guy and attends another high school in order to get her paper submitted for a journalism competition as she feels she's experiencing gender bias from her own high school's journalism teacher. Turns out that teacher was on the money and even as a guy she's got some skills that need work. But her ability to convince strangers of her new gender's authenticy ends up turning on her ability to convincing deploy popular white culture notions of African American masculine gestures, vocal and externalized body movements as well. This is at the heart of the tutorial provided by her younger brother although it is never explicitly stated. It's a weird little picture that plays on gender and seems like the inspiration for the more recent, She's the Man (2006) which turns on a similar set of issue around gender-bias and also requires the gender-bending character (Amanda Bynes) to appropriate perceived gestural tropes of black masculinity to authenticate her performance.

Drive Me Crazy (1999) Dir John Schultz Wr. Rob Thomas. Based on the novel How I created My Perfect Prom Date by Todd Strasser. Another teen flick for research. The film was apparently renamed with the prominently featured Britney Spears hit song of the title in mind. Like Get Over It (2001), (see the June list) this is surprisingly literate fare and Melissa Joan Hart exhibits greater emotional range than was possible on television's, "Sabrina the Teenage Witch". He face is rather flat, but in medium shot and close up she is capable of registering small flickers of emotional shift which is rewarding to watch. Without the current "leading lady look" she may have a hard time getting roles where she'll be allowed to really flex her nuances, and that's too bad. The writing here is quite solid giving actors Hart and co-lead Adrian Grenier some substance with which to work. Grenier is great here at leaving an impression like a wood stain on film; he seeps into the celluloid. I've wanted to see him do something interesting since his breakout role in The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (1998), that was almost ten years ago. I think his masculinity is a little too non-traditionally rangy, when not boxed into a more traditional character (which they can just get a more traditional actor to play), for directors to know how to utilize in an interesting manner. But speaking of the movie at hand, fortunately each of the main characters actually has a backstory--wow, what a novel idea!--which is slowly revealed over the course of their character development and explains much of their behavior and their particular emotional layers. Of course it reaches the classic conclusion: this is a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back formula. But this film proves a formula can work when you concentrate on the journey and not the destination (which if the former is done well, will usual emerge more or less in organic fashion). Also the supporting characters of color are not used to create or subvert projections of "cool" within the narrative, they are pretty much authentically their own characters--again, what a novel idea.

All I Wanna Do/Strike! (1998) Dir. Sarah Kernochan
An overlooked potential gem which was set in 1963 at Miss Goddard’s, an all-girl’s boarding school with a girl’s points of views at its center which pretty much doomed it from the start as a commercial vehicle. Kernochan alluded to this in a Salon article on women directors in the late 1990s in which she talks about the studio wanting her to change certain elements and when she balked they put less money into the marketing. Apparently her version is the one that made it to home video. Here are a few other plot elements that caused the guys at the studio some discomfort with being asked to identify: 1)the crucial conflict is the school's board of trustees has voted to make the impoverished girls school coed to grease palms for a development deal. 2) Period piece with intelligent and non-sexy career (politics, psychiatry, publishing, only one intended actress) ambitious girls in knee-length three-piece uniforms thinking for themselves, when one girl says she wants to be an ex-virgin, another trills, "your grand ambition is to lay on your back with your legs in the air like a bug?!” 3) All white except for one Asian girl who is paired with the sole African American male St. Ambrose boarding school student when the two schools have a social day--in other words Kernochan actually references the exclusive racism in these types of schools which is elided in a more commercial star vehicle film in this tradition like, Mona Lisa Smile (2003). 4) Has realistic depictions of a character struggling with eating disorders, and her friends' attempts to help her 5) The only sex scene is a terrifically/horrifically humorous one in which the abovementioned student who after considerable machinations has snuck her boyfriend onto campus finds he has opted to bring a vaginal foam instead of the promised condoms for contraceptive, as they futilely attempt to load the plunger with the foam, all because a guy would prefer not to wear a jimmy. So despite the presence of emerging teen stars Kirsten Dunst and Rachel Leigh Cook, Dawson Creek bad-girl Monica Keena, former child star Gaby Hoffman and cult favorite Heather Matazarro (Welcome to the Dollhouse), without a serious theatrical release marketing campaign this was destined for a better life on DVD, which I think it now has.

Can't Hardly Wait (1998) Dirs. Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan. Another teen flick for research. Oh my, this was part of a string of 90s teen sex/romance comedies that were eventually parodied (along with some of the classics from the 1980s) in Not Another Teen Movie aka "Ten Things I Hate About Clueless Road Trips When I Can't Hardly Wait to Be Kissed" (2001). I thought I was done with watching these until a friend told me about John Tucker Must Die(2006), yikes! OK so this is about how the good-hearted male and female freaks from high school really may inherit the earth, or at least become the true heroes of teen comedies about the last hurrah before college when it may become painfully apparent that the skills that put you on the top of the heap in high school are vulnerable to season-ending physical injuries, hair loss, and people realizing what a total druken idiot you actually are. The film is notable for the way it seriously skewers the suburban white boys who are desperately asserting their masculinity through the appropriating of their popular associations of black masculine vocal and other physical gestures. Sadly the filmmakers opt to have the boys get their final comeuppance through the physical retribution of a group of hostile African American teenage males who only appear in the film to play out that physical comedy--such as it is.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Charles Huntley Nelson on CNN

For those folks who have been following this blog for a while you've probably picked up on my interest in the work of Atlanta-based artist Charles Huntley Nelson. Sadly, I missed his artist talk at Romo Gallery before I left Atlanta. But now I get to see him at Romo talking about his work in a profile done by CNN, and so does everyone else. To see the video click here, then under the "Sci-Tech" heading click on "Old Media Meets New Media".

Nelson talks about his Invisible Man 2.0 series (see image at left, courtesy of Code Z), and his methodological and philosophical approach to working in both traditional and digital mediums, as well as previous work such as the internet based Charles Nelson Project which came about from exploring the images of all the other folks with a visual presence on the internet with whom he shares a name. The profile also gives us a peek at some of the large scale installation work from Nelson's Constructed Identities project.

Nelson has also been featured in Code Z, for upcoming shows particularly one in his hometown of Houston, and in a profile of four Atlanta-based visual artists who have each been making a name on the national scene.

Check it out!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

An Esoteric Night...

I had never heard of Tom Terrell until a few days ago, but then I ended up feeling like I had to be among the few who hadn't. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to stay for the full night of music: such is the lot of those near enough to get to NYC, but who don't actually live there.

Who is he? Well here's a little from the Giant Step website:

"A DC native and Ft. Greene veteran Tom Terrell has been in the music industry mix since the early 80s. Among many contributions, Tom has served Publicity Manager for Verve Records, NPR Commentator, liner note writer and contributor to Global Rhythms, Jazziz, Vibe, Trace and Essence, DJ at DC’s 9:30 Club and Alt Rock Champions WHFS-FM.

"This past summer Tom was diagnosed with cancer, and is without health insurance. As a result, artists whom Tom has influenced over the years and vice versa including, Meshell Ndegeocello, Angelique Kidjo, Joaquin “Joe” Claussell, Marc Anthony Thompson, Vernon Reid + many more with special unannounced guests, have gathered together to bring this worthy fundraiser to fruition. Encompassing the myriad of sounds that Tom Terrell embraces, this one-of-a-kind event is a loving shout-out to a creative catalyst, tireless fan and resident of Planet Rock."

On September 11, these New York folk were celebrating life, and one in particular; Terrell's friends who organized the evening sold out the show just by word of mouth and internet forwards. Terrell had a list of songs he wanted to hear, "his own personal ipod" hence the title "An Esoteric Night" and the artists he wanted to hear do them. In some cases he got a special treat as when a surprise appearance by singer/songwriter Toshi Reagon accompanied by Chocolate Genius aka Mark Anthony Thompson, resulted in a folk rendition of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town" with Reagon starting off by delivering the message to the folks who had mistakenly thought it was a glorified club show. Reagon, extolled these folks to consider the notion that they were "in church" not one that ascribed to any one particular religion, but one were they could create and hold the energy for a transformative experience. This after some folks hadn't really warmed to pianist Randy Weston's African Rhythms and the multitimbral, polyrhythmic otherworldly playing of the percussionist dueting with him, whose name I've forgotten. We were in the front, plenty warm and responsive and not paying mind to those who weren't.

By the time Reagon and Mark Anthony Thompson were done the crowd was feeling it! One of my giddy moments was listening to the Peter Apfelbaum & the New York Hieroglyphics, horns, horns (saxophones, trombones, trumpets), bass drum and vocals belting out a bouncing celtic-reggae version of the Clash's "Straight to Hell." Vocalist Nora York with backing on a harmonium and Chocolate Genius once again sitting in on backing vocals provided a soaring ethereal read of Jimi Hendrix's "Angel." A hair-raising moment, hairs on my body at full attention: Angelique Kidjo singing Sade's "Pearls" in her Eartha Kitt-kissed intonations. By the time Kidjo let loose with the repetitions of "Hallelujah" from the song's break she didn't need the reverb the FOH sound person put on her vocal, that was just icing, her voice flooded the room and swallowed us, and we were glad to be afloat in her resonance. But I have to say the highlight for me was Harriet Tubman. I had never seen them perform, but recently read an interview with bassist Melvin Gibbs on sound recording in the excellent Tape Op: creative recording arts magazine. With their rich future-past-present sonic revelations, they literally blew my mind and had me waving my hand in the air and testifying like I was in church. I do not lie! I wanted to ask Melvin Gibbs to be my bass teacher, oh please, oh please!!

But then we had to leave before it got too late and things got too live on the train back to Jersey. I was tempted to stay to see Meshell NDegeocello, but I was supposed to be up early, it was already almost midnight, and I'd spent part of the day dragging furniture up three flights of stairs. Still I danced for hours and it was a transcendent night, amazing, dang, there really aren't words. And I must say that the most-most beautiful thing was the demonstrations of love for this man Tom Terrell, and all the black men hugging each other, there was so much unabashed love for this man it was a holy revolution of love. And we could all use more of that.

Appearances included: Angelique Kidjo, Alfredo "Catfish" Alias, Butch Morris, Coati Mundi, DJ Funmi Ononaiye, Greg Osby, Harriet Tubman, James Hurt, DJ Joaquin "Joe" Claussell, Craig Street (Musical Director), Kenny Barron, Liberty Ellman, Marc Anthony Thompson, Marc Cary, Meshell NDegeocello, Morley, Nora York, Oren Bloedow, Randy Weston's African Rhythms, Stephanie McKay, Vernon Reid, + more....

Yes, I know, no photos. Disappointing to me as well. Hopefully my camera situation will be resolved next month.

Tom Terrell's NPR commentary on Reggae Band Steel Pulse (he was once their road manager)
Essence Magazine articles by Tom Terrell

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Traveling through the south...

Note: this entry was originally penned on the road, but I had trouble accessing the photo so I'm posting it now.

I decided I would drive North to mark the transition into another era. The last time I moved from one region of the US to another I flew in and found it quite challenging to fully integrate the new ground under my feet, although I eventually grew to love the feeling of it beneath me.

This trip has been a "Moving Adventure.." to say the least. I've had three "roadside breakdowns" in U-Haul parlance, but I've also met some really nice folks, black and white, commiserated over the complexities of black hair care, tasted my first Honeydew Peach (oh so, yummy), and realized that over the past two years I have developed a complex affection for the U.S. South, or perhaps re-developed would be more accurate, but that's another story.

The above is a picture of my second U-Haul truck being towed away to another state for repairs...fittingly, with all its troubling nostalgic referents, by a company called the "Blue and Gray" as I remain in the South for another day...

Monday, September 04, 2006

R.I.P. James "Jim" Tenney + Willi Ninja

I don't imagine these two men ever shared a stage, but they were each originals and innovators in their own fields and will be sadly missed by those who knew and were inspired by them.

Willi Ninja - Dancer/choreographer/performer "Godfather of Vogue"

Like most folks I first saw Ninja in Jennie Livingston's documentary Paris Is Burning where I was stunned by the flexibility and precision of his movements, and the committed focus of his performance style. Since then I had seen him in various things, music videos, interviews, but never live, yet he always communicated such presence even through the contained box of the tv screen. I had read that Ninja was in the hospital, seriously ill from AIDS related causes, on Emanuel Xavier's website, but that he was doing considerably better. It was with great sadness that I read at jstheater of the passing of this legend who was beloved by many. Keith Boykin, LaTasha Natasha Diggs , Jasmyne Cannick, Xavier, and others have penned tributes and notices regarding Ninja. He was one of a kind.

More info (candlelight vigils in NYC, Chicago, and Miami, etc.) is available on Xavier's myspace page, and Willi Ninja's myspace page . You'll need to subscribe to myspace for access to these pages.

Funeral services are being held in St. Albans, Queens:
Friday, September 8, 2006 (7-9 pm)
Roy L. Gilmore's Funeral Home
19102 Linden Boulevard
Saint Albans, Queens, NY 11412

* * *

James "Jim" Tenney 1934-2006 - Composer/digital arts

An innovator's innovator (reportedly when John Cage was asked, in 1989, with whom he would study, were he a young student, he responded "James Tenney.") James Tenney succumbed on August 24th to a reoccurance of lung cancer after a remission of a number of years.

From Douglas Kuhn (author of Noise Water Meat):

"The first composer to work seriously with digitally synthesized sound died a few days ago. He was working at Bell Labs in the early 1960s with Max Mathews, John Pierce and others while, at the same time working in the experimental arts scene in Soho and married to Carolee Schneemann. A pencil protector by day, rolling around on the floor naked with plucked chickens and slabs of beef by night.

"He is known as a composer's composer to a couple/three generations that followed, presenting his wisdom in his works as well as profound history and theory, beginning with the classic Meta-Hodos.

"Because music composition was historically conducive to the reductions of code, his early computer pieces are still strong when heard today, in contrast with the early visual arts by computer, meaning that he was also has an important place in the history of the digital arts as a whole, the arts by computation so pervasive now...I interviewed him in 1999 for the Leonardo Electronic Almanac (it's a temperamental url). So sad to realize he won't be here to see once again."

For more information about Tenney:
CalArts faculty page where he was Roy E. Disney Family Chair in Musical Composition
Musicologist/music writer Kyle Gann's writing on Tenney's passing and numerous remembrances from colleagues and students.
Some of Tenney's work is available at CDeMUSIC

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Frequent Small Meals + Table of Elements Festival #4

Yikes! Even though I'm no longer in the ATL I like to support Andy Ditzler's FILM LOVE programs produced by Frequent Small Meals at the Eyedrum Gallery. This month he's doing work in collaboration with the Table of the Elements #4 experimental music festival. I just realized I was about to completely miss the dates on this one. This edition of FILM LOVE highlights film sound, and processed films. Unfortunately, the Friday (Jack Smith, Ira Cohen, and Tony Conrad) and Saturday (Charlemagne Palestine) programs are over, and they sounded not-to-be-missed. Still you can catch the Sunday program (Robbie Land, Tony Conrad & more, more...). For the details of all, see below:

Friday, September 1, 2006, 8:00 pm
CARNIVALS OF ECSTASY: Tony Conrad and the New York Underground

SEE Jack Smith's "Flaming Creatures" in 16mm and Ira Cohen's "Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda" in a new version!
SEE the premiere of a new work by Cohen!
HEAR soundtracks by the legendary Tony Conrad and Angus MacLise (original drummer for the Velvet Underground)!
SEE and HEAR Tony introduce the films!

Saturday, September 2, 2006

A program of film and video featuring soundtracks and performances by composer and musician Charlemagne Palestine. Pip Chodorov's "Charlemagne 2: Piltzer" is a tour de force of hand-processed film which documents a Palestine piano concert. Chodorov uses flicker, negative/positive imagery, different printing techniques and colored filters to produce a film that is a true merging of sound and vision.

Sunday, September 3, 2006, 7:00 pm
16mm Cine-Performance by ROBBIE LAND
New addition to the festival!

A solo performance consisting of Land's 16mm film projections, three 16mm magnetic audio tracks, contact microphones, reel-to-reel audio player, guitar amplifiers, video projection and other elements to create a visual and sonic environment. Time-lapse 16mm images of rural
locations are accompanied by multiple audio tracks from the rural setting.

Followed by a solo performance by Tony Conrad (8 pm), the world premiere of Rhys Chatham's Essentialist (9 pm), and the opening of Leif Inge's 24-hour Concert "9 Beet Stretch," based on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (10 pm)

Book Meme/Book Memories

I was reading Mendi Obadike's latest post on book memories or her "book meme" with interest (I liked the anecdotal timeline--put me in mind of cataloging a personal library autobiographically. A little High Fidelity moment but with greater maturity). I thought, 'hey, this is a cool exercise.'

Then I got tagged. Good timing. When I began this I was cataloging all my books in preparation for boxing them up. It was something of an autobiographical experience; handling them I had a visceral sense of the time during which they were purchased/gifted/etc, why I was reading them, and what they meant to me (then and now). BTW I'm bad at limitations, so the whole "one book" requirement went out the window from the start, even so I left off Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider(! thanks Mendi for that memory jog) and a bunch of other works. Oh, the other thing is that a number of the books have been reprinted with different covers; the visual representations here are often some steps away from the referents of my aforementioned visceral memories.

So here 'tis.

1. One book that changed your life?
Oh forget it, I've needed more than just one life change thusfar.
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. I started reading this at a family friend's apartment in NYC when I was ten years old. We were visiting for just a few days and I didn't get to finish it. I would read it periodically as I found it, finishing it when I was twelve. I think it hooked me because of the repetition of "See Dick and Jane..." with typeface that accelerated and and ran it together like a scream, or a living modernist (industrial age) entity that a small colored child couldn't be expected to outrun. It was the first time I had read about the inner life of little black girls like me, a profoundly revelatory experience.

The Man Who Cried I Am, by John A. Williams. Also read in childhood. I think this was the first time I encounted someone articulating something I had been feeling about being African American in the U.S. It was in somewhat negative terms: the idea of the limits of blackness as it was then configured, but I realized I too wanted to be able to fully express who I was as a human being. Later, Julius Lester's first autobiography, All Is Well (out of print, Lester pictured left) would give me a more mystic sensibility of the same theme. Oddly, whenever I think of William's book Neil Diamond's operatic pop song, "I Am...I Said" trumpets in my head.

The Unbelonging, by Joan Riley. This was a harshly unforgiving tale, and what struck me about it was that Riley didn't tie it up in a pretty bow, and she wasn't repentant about not writing an uplifting tale about Hyacinth, a little black girl having emigrated to Britain, during the Windrush immigrations, the first generations if emigres from the West Indies. Colonization was an ongoing reality and some immigrants still thought Britain was the Motherland or the land of milk and honey. It is a racial and social nightmare for her, and she cleaves to memories of Kingston, Jamaica like salve, but Britain and time alters both her and her former island home and she can't find a place of peace in either geography.

This Bridge Called My Back, by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, Dangerous Music (out of print) by Jessica Hagedorn (pictured right), and Nappy Edges by Ntozake Shange, I was a teenager living away from home for the first time rehearsing a part in Shange's play, Spell 7: A Theater Piece in Two Acts, and I would read Nappy Edges (and Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo) at night to remind me of visions and the possibilities of my own voice. Dangerous Music was my first introduction to Pilipina American writer Hagedorn and this group of women of color (Hagedorn, Shange, and sometimes Thulani Davis) writing together and fashioning new creative languages in San Francisco. Dangerous Music (long out of print) was a mix of poetry, fantasy, memoir, and mythology and it captivated me.

A Question of Power, by Bessie Head. In college I learned about Bessie Head's challenged life as a mixed-heritage person in South Africa and Botswana and her writing; what she wrote about the abuses and uses of power was another revelation. There is a meditative and slow mythic quality to her short stories, but A Question of Power with its hallucinatory passages was a wrestling match to read, and I loved it. I was sorry never to have had the opportunity to hear her read or talk about her work.

I cannot omit Gorilla My Love, by Toni Cade Bambara and Guests in the Promised Land, by Kristin Hunter Lattany. I would guess that Bambara and Hunter Lattany (who was just Hunter when I was reading her) kept me company as a child. I felt rewarded and gifted everytime I could read their characters; they knew a secret language. I recently said to a black filmmaker that black girls, and boys for that matter, are rarely shown as innocents, they are mainly shown with that quality stripped away, as though they perhaps had it in infancy but lost it soon thereafter, falling away like the crust of belly button scabs. Bambara and Hunter's characters had to know more at a young age than "Dick and Jane," but they always retained a measure of innocence and wonder.

Po Man's Child, by Marci Blackman. I read this book and thought, who wrote this?! Who is this queer child of Morrison (maybe Morrison and Percival Everett?) who dared to take the symbol of the chokeberry tree and push the boundaries of African American physical memory? I am in awe of Blackman's abilities. Everybody needs to read this book and be troubled and moved.

2. One book you have read more than once?
I loathe admitting this, but I don't tend to read a book more than once, except the media and cultural studies texts I teach, although handling all my books has filled me with a longing to revisit many of them. Some exceptions that have been re-read are Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon, Bessie Head's A Question of Power, Maru and Collector of Treasures some of the Harry Potter books (now I'm really showing my drawers--but I had to re-read them before the movies came out...!). Book I feel greatly compelled to re-read: Beetlecreek by William Demby.

3. One book you would want on a desert island?
Well If I'm trying to survive, probably an assortment of the Where There Is No Doctor books, but I'd still need to have some pleasure and spiritual nourishment after doing my own dentistry, so whether it's pure survival or having fun in a non-global warming sun then Walter Kirn's Thumbsucker, all of the Michael Nava mysteries with gay Chicano lawyer Henry Rios, and Zadie Smith's White Teeth which appropriately ends on an island and has elements of Henry James and P.G. Wodehouse (see below). Each of these writers has a way with language that would hopefully keep my mind sharp without driving me completely insane, as I waited to be rescued or set sail on a rubber tree raft. On the more direct spiritual tip, for when the way is long and the road is rocky I'd include poetry by Li-Young Lee and Stanley Kunitz who both have a profound and humbling respect for life.

4. One book that made you laugh?
Zadie Smith's White Teeth; some P.G. Wodehouse when I read him as a kid, parts of Drown by Junot Díaz, but ruefully, particularly the story "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie."

5. One book that made you cry?
Winter Birds, by Jim Grimsley. This is a writer who knows how to write silently, that is to say he knows how to use silence--he knows when to shut up and trust his story and his readers, and it is truly devastating. As I read this short novel I had to keep reminding myself to breathe. I want to read it again, but am not sure if I could physically undertake it another time.

6. One book you wish had been written?
It's sitting in fragments on one of my external hard drives, and I'm unsure if it's really meant to be a book, or a screenplay, or a graphic novel, except I don't draw all that well. Let's move on shall we, before deep remorse begins.

7. One book you wish had never had been written?
Hmm, I do believe in free speech, but if I had to make a choice, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's The Negro Family: The Case for National Action aka The Moynihan Report which is not exactly a book but in the US it has carried, and arguably still does, a damaging weight and imprimatur as a "great book of truth" about African American men and women and a decidely fixed category known as "the African American family".

8. One book you are currently reading?
Books are my M&Ms or is that Lay's potato chips?: I can't just read one...
I'm reading Mark Anthony Neal's Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic, this is somewhat dated--Neal has an extended section on R. Kelly and why he likes what he's doing in soul music that cannot take into consideration the subsequent reveal of Kelly as a child molester. Even so he treats lightly the questionable relationship between Kelly and the then 15 year-old late soulstress Aaliyah. Nevertheless a worthwhile read. Tricia Rose's Longing to Tell: Black Women's Stories of Sexuality and Intimacy I am struck by the depth of the stories Rose presents here, she must have enviable interviewer skills, and she's quite respectful of each story, Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture, eds. Harry J. Elam Jr. and Kennell Jackson thusfar a truly compelling contribution to the post-black discourse emergent in the past five years; just finished Hair Stories: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps. Quite informative in parts, paricularly business history, but this could have been tighter. It is repetitive in areas, and often avoids a specific political and/or strucural read of black hair. Sometimes this works, as when they let the facts of suits filed by black women over workplace hairstyles speak for themselves. Still reading Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn, I like his sometimes quirky yet direct use of language. Armor and Flesh: Poems by Mendi Lewis Obadike I read a few poems outloud a day: they're calming, focusing, and intriguing--hmm, how many things in life can make that claim? Last and not at all least, Annotations by John Keene. I wrote about my great enjoyment of these last two writers' individual use of language back in July. I've been trying to get to Fran Ross' Oreo, but haven't quite made it yet.

9. One book you have been meaning to read?
The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

10. Now tag five people:
Hmm, hardly any of my writer friends/colleagues have websites, much less blogs (what's up wit dat? uh...I guess they', writing...?), wait, OK a bold mix of poets, writers and visual artists: emchy, Cinqué Hicks, Stacey Nykole, Rachel's Spot, ah, and my late entry: the inimitable Kelly Gabron, as a hopeful prompt to witnessing further presence on that blog.