ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
The blues singer in many ways is a hero
because he does articulate the struggle and the reality of humanity
Books by Larry Neal
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Larry Neal in Omowe
Interviewed by Cecelie Counts and E. Ethelbert Miller
October 1, 1977, Washington, D.C.
Omowe (Vol. 5, No. 1, 1981)
Neal: we are constantly in a state of struggle. being Afro-American in this country is to instantly fight to affirm something and I’m saying that struggle will take many turns and twists. There will be ebbs, there will be high points and low points, there will be stops, there will be reconsiderations. There will be retreats but there’s always progress towards consciousness. See what I’m getting at.
Neal: When art works as it should in terms of the “masses” it makes people stronger, it makes things clearer. Art is the spiritual component that is necessary to make life essential. This human situation is not going to ever be easy, in light of the context of racism or context of injustice. That’s one of the things you learn from literature, and if you study literature for thousands of years, if you go back to Job, what you find out is that everybody’s telling you the same thing. You know what the same message is? “It ain’t easy.” That’s what Richard Wright’s Native Son tells you. That’s what all literature tells you.
The writer’s job is to keep the essential dignity of the human experience and humankind alive to make life so important and so meaningful to people that nobody can take away their freedom. The role of the writer is to deepen the love of life to such an extent that one will always struggle and be aware of keeping in possession one’s humanity. And that’s what literature addresses itself to essentially.
Counts: But . . .
Neal: It’s a big “but” too, I bet. (laughter)
Counts: But I’m talking about people you see on the bus and stuff. I’m talking about people who might listen to AM radio, you know.
Neal: Right, and never turn on Pacifica (WPFW).
Counts: Right and that don’t read because . . . And I told Ethelbert about this incident. I was on the back seat of the bus with some brothers who were obviously workers, who had on work clothes, boots, the whole thing. I was reading one of your old articles, and the brother was looking over my shoulder reading and probably looking down my blouse, but still. And he got into the article. he was like saying “ooh that’s heavy stuff?” Who was saying this? I was saying like “why this was like ten years old.” And the brother was like, “wow, I’ve never heard that before.” Then he said, “well who wrote it.” and I said, “Well, Larry Neal.” And he said, “Who’s Larry Neal?” I said, “He’s D.C. Arts Commissioner.” He asked, “What’s a D.C. Arts Commissioner?” I just said “wow.” At this point I was kind of depressed.
Neal: Well, let me tell you, you should not be because . . . well let’s go at it from a lot of ways. American society. One thing left in struggle is the institutional area. One area where we’ve had a fantastic failure is in the element of the development of black educational institutions. OK? And that becomes bridged where ideas and humanities and culture crisscross. We have a society for example where learning, real genuine learning is not appreciated or dealt with as deeply as we would like it to be. This involves a political struggle to change the institutions and that struggle in America is ongoing. The struggle to make institutions really viable, to open up institutions to a range of information.
I hope that was what I was saying in that article . . . whatever you were reading, but let me just back up a minute. One of the great things to me about the Roots phenomenon was not necessarily the the things Alex Haley wrote in Roots and I think Roots is a very awkward book, a very hard book to read. But the greatest thing was the development of a literary hero. What happens is that we have a lot of heroes but very few literary heroes. I saw the Muhammad Ali fight the other night. I was all up inside that thing, man. I was up in it. You know what I’m saying? What I’m saying is that in Wales the heroes are poets. They have a fantastic rich tradition in poetry. In our tradition the heroes are . .
Counts: The blues musicians.
Neal: The blues singer in many ways is a hero because he does articulate the struggle and the reality of humanity. But what I’m trying to get at is in the educational sector. When writers become heroes people begin to see writing as heroic, as something valuable. When that becomes an endemic part of society, endemic part of Afro-American learning, and Afro-American life and family life and what Albert Murray talks about, the importance of biography. He spends a lot of time discussing that.
We have to a certain extent in our literature, in our culture an absence of strong biography. those things remain to be done. that’s work to be done. Nobody is where they’re supposed to be. there will never probably be a time when you or I will ever really be satisfied. I’ll be sixty years old and I’ll probably be telling you more of what I’m complaining about. Those of us who care for life are constantly confronted with the inequities of life. the struggle to be human is constant. That never endsthe struggle to be moral, to be honest. That never goes away.
Counts: But specifically. Even on music. Like you said music has been our strong point, especially with the “masses,” but our music, at least to me, has degenerated to the point where instead of hearing James Brown all the time you now hear disco which is a lot of times very mechanical. You don’t even hear grunts and groans. You hear electronic squeaks.
Neal: What you’re hearing, what you’re seeing . . . there is the influence. Jimmy Stewart has and let’s say he talks about this and at some point he’s going to put it out there where he talks about the relationship between exploitation and the growth of the electronic media. So you do have in America, because of the fact that, this is what I’m getting at . . . Let’s just backtrack for a minute.
There are certain things that the more committed elements of the Black Arts movement or the Black Power movement never did develop. They fought among themselves as to what should be the priorities. But they never developed, for example, a real foothold into film and into the recording industry, with the force of the community behind them. They left that to other people.
So, for example, the people who are very often running the discos and thisare the people who ain’t got no consciousness to begin with. They’re just them kind of folks. That’s what Archie was talking about. When Archie Shepp stated . . . Archie saidhey man, like everybody got into the thing and the music went weird.
Over here you got Albert Ayler, over here Coltrane and over here B.B. King. Over here some of them started saying we need one music. Why is the music so divided up? Why is it that so-called blues people, the folk people are not into Coltrane? Those are complex musics. But Archie said I want to do some music that’s swinging but has consciousness in it.
You see what I mean? But Archie Shepp don’t have a record company. Now what I’m saying is that, if I may be a little bit controversial for a moment, maybe they should have been fighting the Mafia. See where I’m coming from? I’ll put it out like that. So like I don’t know if it’s true, I hope it’s not true but they say the Mafia took Motown from Barry Gordy. That’s a constant thing I’ve heard for years.
Had Askia Mohammed Toure or Max Stanford or Baraka or any number of figures like that . . . and I was never a figure like that. I was always basically a writer and a theorist. I was an activist too. But what I’m simply saying is had we developed the record company and the Mafia came to us and said they were going to take our record company, some of them would have died. This is and impulse that I’m getting at. Du Bois understood and he started a record company. people don’t realize that he was involved in a record company. Du Bois was involved in so many things.
Miller: Take a person like Haki Madhubuti . . .
Neal: Haki has done a pretty good job. haki has done it. see i don’t let anybody criticize Haki. I don’t care how wrong Haki is. I’ll stand behind Haki. Haki has done well enough so he can be wrong. Haki espoused black institutions, black publishing houses, black distributors . . . Let’s take black studies which is a creation of the black arts movement. One trouble with black studies was thisblack studies needed its own ground to grow in. But to develop its own ground you need committed experts, technicians . . .
Counts: And black controlled institutions.
Neal: That’s right. And you need commitment on that and the irony of it is that where there should have been strong black studies or Afro-American studies, they were weak. You know I’m a graduate of Lincoln university, in Pennsylvania and they had the facilities to develop an Afro-American Studies program years ago. Howard University the same way, but ironically where are the manuscripts of the great writers, black writers? They’re at Yale, you know? You go down to Fisk and they had The Jean Toomer papers falling off the walls and stuff, not catalogued. Very often a people who are struggling for other things and struggling for just the basic human rights don’t see the importance of those things. It’s a stage, what I call the critical stagelike the first critics of our music were white men. Well how could we have been critics of our music when we were in slavery? Criticism and scholarship mean that you have to have a middle-class or a state of leisure or certainly something called freedom.
Miller: It also demands a literary tradition.
Neal: That’s right. The future is that we have done one mode of operation, we have completed what I call the rhythmic modality. We have done the rhythmic thing to death. What is needed now is a link between what I call the rhythmic and the technical, or the rhythmic and the scientific. We have to merge. See, our gift to human civilization is really what Eleanor Traylor calls a gift of joy. The joy of living, the joy of body movement, the joy of dance, the joy of that particular kind of expression . . . the aesthetics.
But what we need to do is link that up with the knowledge gained in the scientific and technical spheres to create another entity. The West needs very much what we got and we need what the West’s got. To me one of the major successes of the civil rights movement, black power movement, is that when you walk into television studios now, particularly in Washington, D.C. Washington is very far ahead in this regards, you see black technicians. Now that may not seem important to you but it’s important to me because usually they used to have . . . Like Baraka used to always say, we play the football, but they own the team, we play the basketball, but they own the team.
So very often we’re doing the singing and dancing, white boys running around with microphones and the cameras and plugging up all the wires. What I’m saying is that’s an imbalance. What we need to do is combine that. I think my father had his hands on it one time there and I understand it now, later in life. I told my father what I was studying in college and that I was an English major, “Boy what you gonna do with that? You ought to get a job as a plumber.”
But if I take it out metaphorically it means what I need to know is the technical operation of things. The thing is really to merge the soft core and the hard core culture, to really get that together. That’s the impulse of Western civilization. It’s a good impulse. That’s the impulse that leads to museums, libraries, and the card catalogues. The 20th century demands that you do that. So back to the library thing.
They had the Jean Toomer papers and nobody told the poor folks at Fisk that Jean Toomer was important. The poor librarian down there is overworked and she’s just trying to deal with her job and everything, all of a sudden somebody’s coming around saying Jean Toomer is important. And she’s saying we don’t have the staff to handle Jean Toomer. The Schomburg Collection was a good example. The Schomburg has really gotten itself together, in recent years.
So what I’m saying is that what we’re encountering now to a certain extent is the burden of freedom or the burden of consciousness which means that we can think of, before we get finished talking, we could think of a thousand things that we haven’t done yet, we gotta do. We know we got to try. We know we need strong film companies committed to an exploration of our experiences. Nobody has to tell us that. But we know that to do that, the capital and organization that’s required is just the distance between reality and the consciousness that we have. It’s a big gap between those two. It always is. But that’s the struggle. That’s what makes life worthwhile to a certain extent.
Miller: OK, a final question. Tell us about your new play.
Neal: Well, the play is set in 1945. It’s called The Glorious Monster in the Bell of the Horn. It’s a play that I’ve worked on for four years, it’s a poetic play, and it utilizes live music. I’m hoping that it’ll be the music of Stanley Crouch and David Murray. But it’s set on the day the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. That’s the conceptual time frame of the play and it’s about war on the home front . . . Afro-Americans on the home front and the perception of their lives and the mystery of their lives in a particular time.
The play really means in a lot of ways the glory and the ambiguity of the glory that’s implicit in human creation. And as you know, 1945 was the ascendancy of Charlie Parker, and Be Bop and Joe Louis and all that, so I got all these images merged. And what I have is a juxtaposition of images set in a time that is both real and not real. And what I’ve done is try to merge history and myth in this particular piece of work. And it concerns a musician whose father died in a car crash. Anyway it’s a love story. It’s not a realistic play.
I wrote this play for four to five years. I’m very serious. I wrote so many versions back and forth till I found the language for it. It was a joy, man. Writing this play . . . It was a joy and it was hard, it was a struggle. My life changed, man, my personal life went through chaos, everything happened. The play concerns itself with chaos to a certain extent in many ways. I feel pretty good about The Glorious Monster in the Bell of the Horn. I want to see it. I don’t want to get rich on it. I don’t expect to get rich or anything like that. I just want to see my play mounted.
posted 28 October 2006
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By Gil Scott Heron
Shortly after we republished The Vulture and The Nigger Factory, Gil started to tell me about The Last Holiday, an account he was writing of a multi-city tour that he ended up doing with Stevie Wonder in late 1980 and early 1981. Originally Bob Marley was meant to be playing the tour that Stevie Wonder had conceived as a way of trying to force legislation to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. At the time, Marley was dying of cancer, so Gil was asked to do the first six dates. He ended up doing all 41. And Dr King’s birthday ended up becoming a national holiday (“The Last Holiday because America can’t afford to have another national holiday”), but Gil always felt that Stevie never got the recognition he deserved and that his story needed to be told. The first chapters of this book were given to me in New York when Gil was living in the Chelsea Hotel. Among the pages was a chapter called Deadline that recounts the night they played Oakland, California, 8 December; it was also the night that John Lennon was murdered. Jamie Byng, Guardian
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The Black Arts MovementLiterary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s
By James Edward Smethurst
Emerging from a matrix of Old Left, black nationalist, and bohemian ideologies and institutions, African American artists and intellectuals in the 1960s coalesced to form the Black Arts Movement, the cultural wing of the Black Power Movement. In this comprehensive analysis, James Smethurst examines the formation of the Black Arts Movement and demonstrates how it deeply influenced the production and reception of literature and art in the United States through its negotiations of the ideological climate of the Cold War, decolonization, and the civil rights movement.
Taking a regional approach, Smethurst examines local expressions of the nascent Black Arts Movement, a movement distinctive in its geographical reach and diversity, while always keeping the frame of the larger movement in view. The Black Arts Movement, he argues, fundamentally changed American attitudes about the relationship between popular culture and “high” art and dramatically transformed the landscape of public funding for the arts.Publisher, University of North Carolina Press
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By Larry Neal
“What we have been trying to arrive at is some kind of synthesis of the writer’s function as an oppressed individual and a creative artist,” states Neal (1937-1981), a writer, editor, educator and activist prominent in the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Articulate, highly charged essays about the black experience examine the views of his predecessors–musicians and political theorists as well as writers–continually weighing artistic achievement against political efficacy. While the essays do not exclude any readers, Neal’s drama, poetry and fiction are more limited in their form of address, more explicitly directed to the oppressed. The poems are particularly intense in their protest: “How many of them / . . . have been made to /prostitute their blood / to the merchants of war.” Rhythmic and adopting the repetitive structure of music, they capture the “blues in our mothers’ voices / which warned us / blues people bursting out.” Commentaries by Neal’s peers, Amiri Baraka, Stanley Crouch, Charles Fuller and Jayne Cortez, introduce the various sections.Publishers Weekly
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By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review stated, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to acceptor at least endurethe universe’s mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the books first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant.” Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans. The Bodys Question (2003) was her first published collection.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 5 July 2012