After spending two years on the main avenues of New York, I decided to try to learn more and more about the small streets. The most beautiful treasures are often hidden. One rainy day in autumn of 2014, I had the chance to discover a magical library called Jumel Terrace Books in Harlem. The bookstore, which kept variable hours, was open by serendipity. I had been looking for a place like this for all of my life. The different shelves were filled with books, each one more interesting than the last. The books discussed everything from Africa to Afro-American history. After conversing with the store’s owner, I realized that he was a living memory of the second half of the 20th century. I was delighted to hear him talk about Afro-American history, Nigerian music artists and many other topics. He seemed to know so much in great detail, yet was very humble. When I decided to create this blog, I naturally thought that he would be the first person I should interview but I was not sure that he would agree. After a short telephone conversation with the owner, I was back in his library to do this interview. Unfortunately, the library has now closed. I am very sad about this fact, because I would have been happy to recommend this place to more and more people, as a place to visit and buy books. The library was amazing, but once again, treasures are often hidden, which explains why places like McDonald’s ain’t hard to find! Thank you to Mr. Thometz, for the 3 hours of your life that you shared with me. I could have easily stayed for 6 more hours, just listening to him and to tell the truth I would be happy to interview him every month! As you will see the interview is long but I did not want to cut out too much, since to me, everything said was so interesting. This is my blog after all !!!
Who is Kurt Thometz ? A scout, clerk & dealer in rare & out-of-print books since 1972, Kurt Thometz, d.b.a The Private Library, has provided bibliophilic services to some of the world’s most discerning readers since 1980. From 2005 to 2015 a portion of Mr. Thometz’s private library, Jumel Terrace Books, specialized in Local History: the Art, Myth, & Literature of Colonial & Revolutionary Uptown New York & the Black Atlantic. http://www.kurtthometz.com/
“Egalitarianism is not necessarily an ideal but a reality that has been made into a fake ideal.”
To start, can you tell us where do you come from?
I am from St. Cloud, Stearns County, midstate Minnesota; from farm country, rural, German and Slovanian Catholic family; farmers and iron miners. This part of Minnesota was a very conventional, conservative place. This is the part of the state Michele Bachmann represents and Sarah Palin comes from. I was taught to be racist and anti-Semitic even though there weren’t Jews or black people there. I was taught to be a misogynist, as much by women as by men. It’s also where Sinclair Lewis, the author of Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry, who won the Nobel Price of literature in 1930, came from. You know, sometimes you learn from a bad example.
What helped you to become so open minded coming from this kind of background?
You know, as I said, you learn as much from a bad example as you do from a good one.
But why this difference between you and some of the people that you grew up with?
These people didn’t read and I started to read. It changed my life. In the book Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe wrote about how literacy changed Nigeria. The immediate consequence was that it didn’t only change what people thought — but how they think. It changed their minds, their consciousness. That’s what happened to me.
Did you have the feeling, when you were young, that you had to leave Minnesota to feel more comfortable?
Yes, I had this feeling and I did it as soon as it was possible. My family moved from the country down to the city when I was still young. That was a big change. We moved to country that turned into suburbs as I was growing up. The farmland turned into freeways, malls, and housing developments. It created a chasm between my generation and my parents’ generation. Their generation was country: fundamentalist, superstitious, bigots and racists. My generation was suburban. Our reads were quite different. They might as well have been first generation literate.
In 1969 I left home for San Francisco to be urban. I was 16 years old and had hair down to my ass. Hippies were about the ecology, your diet, about egalitarianism, dope, and a lot of bad music. Their morals and ethics were at odds with what I’d been subjected to and I liked that. Free love was great. The first bookstore I worked in was a hippie bookstore wherein I was picked up and picked up, for the first time, a novel written by an African guy, Amos Tutuola, that was something of a cross between The Pilgrim’s Progress and Alice in Wonderland.
He was the first African writer that most people in the English-speaking world knew. He was a first generation literate Yoruba guy who wrote The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I can still reread those books and just eat them up. It took me years to understand, what I liked about them so. I really had to make a study. It made the enormous impression on me that resulted in forty-plus years collecting on the subject.
Talking about the hippie era, what is for you the main difference between the 60s, 70s and today ?
In the 60s and 70s, there were the assassinations, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, the Black Panthers. All those people, dissidents l identified with, were getting killed. It was a very violent time politically. There is a big difference. We were less complicit. We brought the war home.
When did you decide to come to New York?
I came to New York in 1973 and quit being a hippie. I was about 20 years old. When I came, I was downtown running with that fast Greenwich Village crowd: writers, artists, dancers, rock and rollers, Warhol hangers-on, pimps, pushers and debutants. Girls and boys were doing a lot of fun stuff that wasn’t happening back on the farm. I started to be around smarter people. I got a job at the Strand bookstore, the big bookstore down in the Village on 12th Street and Broadway, now the biggest bookstore in New York. There were great bookstores in the neighborhood that used to sell second hand books and rare books. I used to work with all those booksellers, old guys from the old country with those unfashionable numbers tattooed on their wrists, guys who escaped Europe where they had been academics. They came here and they started to sell books. Those were the people I wanted to be around.
When I tried to be a writer, it was really hard. I was high half the time and I was afraid of becoming an alcoholic because I come from drinking people, or a drug abuser, like so many of my buddies. But when I was reading, no problem, I didn’t think about getting high at all. I was high up in somebody else’s head, somebody very attractive, very smart. I was binding between the sheets with them and I was just fine with that.
My buddies had their dealers and I had mine, who kept me there with the books. For example, my man Bill French at University Place Books, across Broadway from the Strand and nine floors up. His bibliophilic specialty was Africa and African Americans. I knew jazz and R&B but he knew everything from the get go. Punk rock was a brand new music projecting this image of being very core, very street and very tough guy. But the guys from this “underground” movement worked in bookstores and when we got together at the bar after work we didn’t talk about what was on the radio but about William Blake and Yeats, Karl Marx, Alfred Jarry, Gandhi, Garcia Lorca, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, James Joyce, Hubert Selby, Raymond Chandler, and Ishmael Reed like we’d seen them at the club last night.
Did you feel comfortable selling books when you arrived in New York?
I loved to sell books in New York. We hand sold books, which means we talked our customers into buying them. For seventeen years, three days a week, I talked people into buying books from 10 to 6. I read a lot because to sell books you need to know what you are talking about.
I went from downtown to uptown to make money and incidentally to find out what the rich people read. And I read everything that rich read, as if to beat them at their own game. I was not about making a billion dollars but they knew something about making money I needed to know. When I was not out chasing girls, I was at home reading and trying to figure out The Game. And because I knew more, I was able to also chase smarter girls. It all worked out quite well and I enjoyed it.
Eventually, it dawned on me that I could be a B-list writer or an A-list reader. Bookselling, doing what I did best, gave me the opportunity to meet practically everybody that I ever wanted to meet. It would be obnoxious if I started dropping names of who I had an opportunity to meet and to know through books but several who you’d never have suspected to have read books did. Some in considerable depth. I appraise books. You cannot learn how to appraise books in school. You can only know their value by reading them and selling them.
People invited me to see their libraries to help them with their collections, to build libraries. Somebody comes into my shop and we start to talk and I say “Oh, you’re interested in that? You need to read this.” Very often it will be just the right book. I’m told that I know what people should read. It’s like being a doctor almost. You need to know something, here’s where you’ll find that information. This book will tell you. You’ll get it and you’ll be a better off for it. One book leads to another. Next thing you know, you have a library.
And through the decades, you also had the chance to see the readers’ evolution. What is your opinion about that?
Unfortunately I saw the dumbing down of readers and know that it was purposeful. Vested interests wanted people to not be very smart. I think that the way that the system has changed during the last 30 years is that everything costs more and is less fulfilling. Things fall apart and have. I don’t meet a graduate from college that I presume to have any degree of cultural literacy. If they are American it doesn’t mean they understand Thomas Jefferson and if they are from Ghana they haven’t necessarily grasped Nkrumah. I remember when it wasn’t like that. I didn’t go to college, so I learnt from my clientele. It’s hard to believe now but rich people used to have sufficiently exemplary educations to cross class lines without embarrassing themselves.
When did things really change in your opinion, in terms of culture?
1992, when the home computer started processing words, more so when it connected with the internet. It fractured the reading audience’s attention span, especially the youngest generation.
The new generations are less political. What do you think has led to this?
We are in a post-literate era. Now most of the people get most of their information from electronic rather than the printed word. We politely call that post literate. Some of us still get most of our information from books. We are bibliophiles. They appear to get most of their information from their phones. They are phonies.
One question regarding this last point. Why is the new generation of black poor kids, for example, so different in terms of political knowledge than the one that grew up in the 60’s and the 70s’? Why is it that now most of them just want to watch reality TV and have Nike shoes?
It is part of the cynicism they come by honestly. They don’t have adequate opportunities to join the culture that they are living in. They are marginalized. It’s like withholding food from somebody. They want what they see on their phones. To have an expensive pair of sneakers, it gives the impression that they’re doing well. You give the appearances of well being with the right sneakers, the right hat, the right pair of pants and you’re hoping the right significant other and respect come with it.
But you know it is just appearances, not real things. Is it realistic for a kid from the barrio, from the ghetto, to think that they can become president or be an executive at Google or General Electric? Pretty far-fetched. They can look like somebody, so they’ll dress like that.
“If you get your information on the internet or TV and it has all been chewed before, pre-digested, like baby food, how are you going to grow up?”
And whereas the access to information is pretty easy, it seems the people know less and less, especially the kids. What is your opinion about this contradiction?
They are in an electronic culture. In the electronic culture the people seem to have a much different relationship to history than print people. There is a much different understanding of history that you can achieve through reading books than through watching TV or movies or the scatterbrained internet. When you read you can enter into the imagination of the time, you get a much more tangible grasp of time in history. Now it’s all become this crisscross between entertainment and information. If you get your information on the internet or TV and it has all been chewed before, pre-digested, like baby food, how are you going to grow up?
“A book is the best vehicle known to man for information.”
It is funny that you’re saying that. I remember that about 10 years ago the CEO of the biggest private French channel said that his job is to sell available brain time to the private companies. Everybody criticized him but this is really his job. It is not about the quality of the program but selling some minutes of a captive audience to private companies.
You know watching television is not at all unlike being on heroin. Your time just evaporates; you know people actually pay attention for about the first 20 minutes. After that they don’t. A really good movie in the cinema can hold your attention for about two hours. A book, by comparison, can hold your attention as long that you want it to, for weeks, a month, and more. Marcel Proust takes a long time to read but you can read all of Proust and you become a part of it. If they make a movie out of Proust, they have to make a two hours movie so get the popcorn and you lose all the rest of it. Good books make bad movies. Did you see the film Swann’s Way? It’d make a good book. Have you seen The Bible?
A book is the best vehicle known to man for information. It doesn’t need improving. This is the most perfect invention that I can think of. I don’t know what in civilization changed the course of history so much as a book, ever. Look at the way that the way it changed Europe, for example. The common weal came out of the dark ages into the Renaissance. Suddenly they go from being religious, dogmatic, feudal, futile people living in a mystic and surreal world out of their control to practical people contemplating history and philosophy with reason. Print culture creates perspective, chiaroscuro, secular liberal humanism, history and literature – instruction books for life. Democracy becomes possible, never mind sex changes.
Where do you think that we are we going right now with all this technology?
In the 20th century literacy went up and up. Reading literature was important to the integrity, the veracity, of society. When people wrote books, they had an editor and a fact-checker. Nobody took word for fact without at least a second opinion. Like a lawyer in court, you needed to prove that fact. On computer or on TV, such nicities scurry past us. They’re full of wrong information that nobody checks as that’s time wasted and, since the publishers have diminished editorial responsibilities, new books ain’t as good as they were pre-word-processing by artificial intelligence. Nay-so.
We are now going backwards. When writers are writing about the end of history they might be right, we are devolving. Illiteracy and gullibility are on the rise in America.
It’s a huge difference. People rely on false information, are much more susceptible to propaganda, and they are scared.
It’s heartbreaking to me because I almost think that I got to see the last cross-cultural bohemia, NY in the 70s and early 80s, with the emergence of Soho, with neo-expessionism mixing it up with rap, hip-hop, and graffiti, a time when there was still hope that a change for the better was going to come. The town swung. AIDS changed all that, of course. Since, people just seem to want to get as much as they can before they die.
Can you tell me more about the birth of Hip Hop and this period in general?
It was Wild Style. Fab 5 Freddy was the rap impresario who brought this white girl from the East Village art scene, Patti Astor, who was a girlfriend until she married my best friend, up to the Bronx to hear and to see the culture. Hers was the first downtown art venue, The Fun Gallery, to show graffiti artists. At that time we were all kind of people right up in there and it was interesting for Greenwich Village types from the provinces like me meeting guys from the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn. We were all mixing it up. I had the chance to share the African writers that I was really fond of with Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring and all these non-academic style artists that went down in the Plague Years. They were interested in such things. They’d heard all those snooty white folks with college educations giving their big opinion on their work and didn’t know what the hell they were jargoning on about. But when we talked about the way that Africans thought of art, music, the creative process, we found commonalities. Laughs, even.
The book’s value is in the reading. It is in the voice in your head, the other person that you can become, the other time that you can live in.
At that time New York seemed to be quite an interesting place artistically, do you still recognize the New York that you discovered in 1973?
When I go downtown now, that old world has evaporated. I am like an urban archaeologist measuring the difference. Last year I was helping my niece get an apartment down there, so she could go to Cooper Union, and the kind of apartment that I had for many years that I paid about 800 dollars a month for was now 2800 dollars a month. That’s a huge difference, not just in price. The cultural difference is even greater. No boogaloo.
The art world has gone money mad. They use art to launder money now and nothing is what it once was. The value of art, much like literature, is immaterial. I’ve hung out with artists all my life and art is in the making. The painting that you put on the wall is the left over. The book’s value is in the reading. It is in the voice in your head, the other person that you can become, the other time that you can live in. How do you measure this in moolah? It is funny because I have to do that all the time, but I know it is a joke.
And what do you think about the evolution of race relations in the US?
There are an enormous number of people living in a great denial. Something like this book shop often forces them to confront this. I am a white guy selling black books. White people don’t like it. Black people don’t like it. It isn’t right, that’s not the way we do things at home.
I don’t sell very many books. It is more of an art project. I make money other ways. I do this almost to be seditious. When people come here they have to think about race and act in relation to what they think. I don’t have to say shit, though I do.
Do you have the feeling that for black people, you are not supposed to do this?
It has already happened that some black people came here and say that the collection is very good but it is too bad that they have to buy it from me and some don’t. I’m not naïve, I know that there are some people in the neighborhood talking about me saying “this white guy thinks he knows everything.” But you know I understand that. The white people, I don’t understand as well.
You said don’t sell a lot of books but is that something particular to your bookstore or is that true now of bookstores in general?
Most people just don’t buy books. It’s not like any other bookstore is doing really well. Here is where France is doing much better. Last I heard there were about 400 book sellers in Paris alone. New York had as many when I was a young guy. Now they say there are about 150 bookstores in New York City. I don’t know how they came up with this number, I know about maybe 40 bookstores in New York City and they are not conveniently located. For example, on the West Side of Manhattan from 22nd to 82nd Street there is no bookshop. In Harlem, there is no bookstore.
In the past there were great bookstores in Harlem, such as the House of Common Sense and the Home of Proper Propaganda on 125th St. Black Harlem grew up around 135 West 135, George Young’s “Mecca of Literature Pertaining to Colored People,” the first shop in the Americas, to my knowledge, to specialize in the subject. Barbadian Richard B. Moore’s Frederick Douglass Bookstore on 135th Street, where DuBois and Adam Clayton Powell used to buy their books, brought the colonialist equation to light uptown. People got their education there. People from West Africa came to Harlem to get their education in liberation. People like Kwame Nkrumah went there because certain things were not taught in school. We didn’t have black studies, African or African American studies in American universities until 1968. So people went to book sellers. What I wanted to know for example, the universities were not teaching it.
Where do you find your books?
Everywhere. There are five other libraries upstairs and they are on different subjects. Every time I sell a book, I get a better one – if it’s the same book it’s a better copy. It’s always one that I would want to read myself or very important to somebody who’s interested in Harlem, slavery, eighteenth-century, New York history, African literature, and African spirituality. It’s just keeps getting more intense. It’s what’s happened here over the past 10 years and for that reason it is so much the better.
Do you have other ways to get books?
Now, people don’t have a place to get rid of their books. One scenario can be that a relative who was a great scholar, or a writer, or was just a voracious reader with deep interests, passes away and you have to go close down the house or the apartment. People don’t know what do to with those books, so sometimes they call me up. I go over and if I can give them something I’m happy to but the economics of the business have become very strange since you know they won’t sell.
Let me give you an example, I go to New Orleans quite a bit, my wife is from down there. It is a good book town. One day an artist friend came to me and said that she did an art project in Haiti and was supposed to be paid for it. When the moment came to be paid, they told her they didn’t have any money but they said they would give her this book. She gave it to me and what I knew about it was the fact that it was the first account of the Haitian revolution by a Haitian but in the very rare 2nd edition, in English.
It’s a black Haitian history of the revolution. It came out initially in French. In French, this book is scarce but not rare. Scarce is just difficult to find. Rare is nearly impossible to find. In the 1820s after this book came out in France, Haiti had put the French behind them. Their relations were beyond tense. There were some people in Haiti who had things that they wanted to sell and they weren’t selling them to the French, they wanted to sell them to the British.
The British really wanted to buy them. But of course politics enter into everything and the British to impress the Haitians translated this book. As a diplomatic lubricant, they engaged the writer, the Baron De Vastay, in a revision and this is a real second edition with information not present in the French edition. Only a hundred copies were published at Exeter in 1823. This book has not been for sale for years. In fact, I couldn’t find a record of one at auction in the 20th century. So I had this book and I said to my friend, when I get back to New York I’ll get it to the African-American book auction. I thought it was worth $20,000. I didn’t know who would buy but I knew that there was a collection that should have this book. When I came back to New York, I called up my friend at Swan Gallery and he told me that last month Google copied the book.
They scanned the book. Now anybody who wants to read the book can read the book on a computer. The content of the book is available to anybody. The book is now a husk. My cohort advised that it is not worth it to put it up at auction. He said if you can find somebody who is still interested it might sell for $2,000 dollars … maybe. So the value of the book went from $20,000 down to $2,000 — if we find someone. These are appalling values. I have had this book for 3 years now and show it to everyone who comes in here with an interest in Haiti and he’s right. At least, I have not been able to find a buyer in this Brave New Market.
But in general, is it difficult to give a book a price?
Monetary value and the value of books have a strained relation. Putting monetary values on books is a game that we all play and it’s part of living in a capitalist society. The last time I heard, we are still living in one. Everything gets a commodity value. But when people come in here and take a book off the shelves and I say “this one is a really important book if you’re interested in this matter, that book is going to change your mind,” we are not really engaged in commerce. Price has nothing to do with it until it comes down to point-of-sale.
What is the first book that you would recommend from your library?
The first book that comes to hand is Stokely Carmichael’s Ready for Revolution, his autobiography and his story of the civil rights movement. It’s a wonderful book. When it came out it was only $24 for a first cover edition. For what I got out of this book, $24 is nothing. It is weird to put a price on knowing what Mr. Carmichael thought.
Have you ever received any support from the government?
I have never received any support save on those increasingly scarce occasions when somebody buys a book. The media has been good with me. The shop’s been featured in most the New York papers and many of the glossies. It’s been featured in videos by KahliI Joseph and Bruce Weber. I sometimes think I have had more attention in France than in America. Le Monde and different magazines have written about me. Arte has featured me in one of their shows about Harlem. French people like Harlem and I think Harlem likes French people too. There is some mutual respect. French people come here generally with a very good attitude, Americans come here generally with a very poor one.
For me it is funny to see that people in France give a lot of attention and respect to the black American culture and don’t give the same kind of respect to the black people born and raised in France.
Have you ever heard about my friend Manthia Diawara from Mali and educated in France? You would like his autobiography very much. He was the head of black studies at NYU and he is also a filmmaker. In Paris, he lived in the projects and had small jobs at the same time that he was going to school. His journey from being a poor kid in Mali to becoming a luminary in African studies is a trip. The Paris he showed me is the side that you don’t show to tourists and I got it.
Did it help you to see the difference between the Afro Americans and the Africans present in France?
African Americans are very different from the Africans. The relationship is great in theory but complicated in practice. In theory everybody loves this. In practice there is a big difference between African 116th and Afro-American 125th Streets. They are different, often opposing cultures. For instance, one of my first hosts in Harlem was bluesologist Albert Murray. Al was an important older generation writer, a huge influence who was a dear friend until I became interested in Africa. When I was interested in African American jazz and lit, no problem. We always had our differences, it was just rhetoric and fun. When I was interested in Africa, he was not really supportive at all. He was really dismissive. “What do I care what goes on on the Left Bank of Niger?”
Yes the relationship is strange. I also noticed that some African Americans dream about Africa, but when they go they are often disappointed.
After Malcolm’s assassination, and Martin Luther’s assassination, a lot of black people wanted to reject white American society and when they looked to Africa they made up an imaginary Africa. I made up an imaginary Africa. The history has not been taught in the school system so we didn’t really have a grasp. Most still can’t give the name of the countries when looking at a map.
How many know where their people came from? The history got broken by slavery, there was appreciable disconnect and when they wanted to reconnect there came with it a nostalgia for a time that they didn’t experience. You, either, have to study very hard to understand or make it up and most people just make it up because studying is too hard.
Was it easy at this period to find books to help the lack of knowledge on this matter?
The Brooklyn Museum has one of the 3 best Egyptology collections in the world. My Egyptian ex-wife was working in the Egyptology department and when I got to know the librarian, I told him that I had a suggestion. My suggestion was to build a collection of Afro-centric writings based on Egyptology by African Americans from the late 60’s. There were all these guys who took psychedelic drugs and imagined a black Ancient Egypt and wrote those quasi anthropological, archeological books based on psychedelic dreams.
Those guys were taking acid and wrote as if they were anthropologists and they wrote some truly hilarious stuff. It was all scarce because they would print maybe 50 books at the copy shop on the avenue, put plastic binding on it, and they would sell on the street to their friends: mind to hand to mouth. Not unlike the Onitsha Market Literature my book Life Turns Man Up and Down (NY: Pantheon Books, 2001) is about.
They were trying to find their African identity. Most of American history is written against black people and doesn’t include them. They don’t see themselves except as slaves. An American white author at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th, when he was writing about the 18th century, he was just excluding all the history of the blacks. You only had half a dozen black historians that were really telling the untaught story against incredible odds. Now, we’ve a rather incredible body of literature on the subject and nobody’s reading it.
That’s what I thought I could contribute to this community, Sugar Hill, so important historically, but with such a bad education. We have some of the lowest reading scores in the nation in this neighborhood. I cannot even tell you how many kids I met who live one block away or two blocks away born and raised here and don’t know what this house across the street was George Washington’s headquarters in the Revolution and the site of it’s first win against the Imperialists. It’s been a museum for over a hundred years and some of these kids think that white people live there.
We’re sitting in this neighborhood where it is all about anti-colonialism and revolution in the 18th century and the 20th century. In the 18th century, it was Washington, Jefferson, Burr, Hamilton and the infamous Madame Jumel. In the 20th century, it was Dubois starting the NAACP around the corner. It was Larry Neal, one of the founding fathers of the black art movements in the 1960’s. This has been a radicalized African American stronghold for a long time. A lot of black intellectuals from the old country came to Harlem. They went to university at Lincoln University and different black schools. Harlem was the black capital of the world.
I really like what you are saying about that because some African Americans fantasize about Africa. But for example, in my case, the people with who I feel more connected to are the Latinos because we have a lot of similarities. I regularly have the impression that we have more in common with Latinos than black Americans. We have this double identity.
I am a big music historian of black and jazz music in America and have spent a lot of time with African people and I realized that American jazz didn’t get really popular in Africa but Latin music was and is.
Exactly, my mom at home (I am African) has a lot of salsa discs but she never had American jazz. What you said is very important for me too, because black Americans are mixed. Sometimes they are even more white than black according to their DNA, but with the one drop rule, people were categorized as black. From a foreigner’s point of view it doesn’t make any sense.
In Louisiana, back in the Jim Crow days, governor Huey Long said people are just kidding themselves, everybody in Louisiana has black blood. You know here I have a series of fictional books that started with Mandingo in 1958. Those books were in reality soft core porn where everybody f##### everybody. The masters have black mistresses and the wife was always running off with the studly black guy working in the breeding stable. Oddly enough those soft core porn series are in a many ways more realistic that the story told by the academics. School people leave sex out. It is not polite to talk about. And sex is a pretty strong motivation in the way the people act.
Yes and I really think that this rule was to make sure that the black people wouldn’t be considered part of the white family. I think it would have been subversive for black people to say that we are part of the family and your discrimination makes no sense and you know it. We’ve been in the US together for centuries and we have each other’s blood.
But the thing is also that the people make a big mistake to wrap their identity up in anything other than who they are as an individual. Same thing with color because those differences are at their absolute heart absurd. There is no difference between white and black people, save for what’s concocted, and the truth is that we are all related, we are not different species. Whites don’t get this even if this is the simplest thing in the world to understand. Egalitarianism is not necessarily an ideal but a reality that has been made into a fake ideal. It is the real deal, people are really equal but not black and white but men and women. Men and women are equal. The start is right there but it is not in anybody’s vested interest. “Man no speak lie, man no make money.” All the profit is in the lie. The truth doesn’t make a lot of money. “The Lord looks after his children, the devil after the money.” Solomon Burke said that. Very few have it in their interest.
It has been a preoccupation of mine forever, my departure from the embrace of all of this absurdity. When I started to read about black history as a little kid all those lies started to call out for me the hypocrisy, the untruth, the lies perpetuated for the profit of very few. Martin Luther King did a great job of showing that the emperor had no clothes. He called out institutionalized racism and he called out an absurd war (Vietnam War). He was that guy. Malcolm X was on point to be that guy that exposed the lie and they killed him too.
I was really influenced by James Baldwin, he spoke the truth and clearly. I thought Obama had the potential to do that too but have you heard him comment about the most recent killing? No? Not a word too true to be heard? For example on the Ferguson issue, he sent Mr. Holder to muddy the waters and inevitably ended up letting the defendant off. Do you call that a buddy?
Some people would say that I have unreasonable expectations. What did you think? You realize that this agenda is decided by the money, the huge corporations, Wall Street and not the president and that it doesn’t matter if it is the republicans or democrats because they are both owned by the same people and it is not a hysterical conspiracy theory so much on my part as theirs?
Here in New York we saw the Bronx burn and it was a political decision, an economic decision. They wanted to get black and Latino people out of New York City. There’s a wonderful book (A Plague On Our Houses) on how the F.I.R.E. that burnt the Bronx was Finance, Insurance and Real Estate. It looks at the consequences of the borought’s fire houses being shut down in the 70s and 80s being political decisions grounded in racist ideals and the profits behind that.
Money realized that the industrial revolution was over and it needed to get rid of the poor to make way for the rich. New York had a big shipping industry, this whole island was surrounded with piers and boats on it. All those people came from the South after slavery for factory jobs. It built Harlem, it gave the opportunity for people who didn’t receive a good education to have a job in New York, Detroit, Chicago. It helped them to give to their kids an education and they came close to achieving middle class life. And suddenly they couldn’t use those people anymore.
That’s why there’s more and more incarceration. Because if there is no work, by jailing working men you can make money off of them. Jail is the best that we can do apparently. The New Jim Crow, this book by Michelle Alexander, gives excruciating details that nobody wants to talk about. Obama has not done one thing to address the criminal justice system. De Blasio has probably done more and he is on the forefront of making more actual change on the ground than any other politician that I can think of at present.
How did we reach this point?
When they revamped the public library right here (New York Public Library) on my corner, they took out the books. If a neighborhood school child wants to know about Malcolm’s assassination, which took place 5 blocks away from here (the Audubon Ballroom,165th and Broadway), the library attendant (not librarian) will tell them they can look it up on the internet or order the book because it’s not here. They are not telling the history, they are not bringing it to hand or mind. They don’t want people to know. Access to the history makes people aware of the circumstances that they’re in. You know, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, they know it. It is an interesting story how the NYPL got to be THEY instead of US.
The scary thing is that this lack of knowledge is universal and it doesn’t seem to bother people much. This is something very disturbing.
You know, you see that a lot when you go to the South. They’ve just lately started to talk about slavery from the black prospective. You know when you go there, the people giving you the tours are so uncomfortable. If they are white, and they are almost always white, they don’t like to talk about this part of the history. Only if they have to answer a question does it come up. Very often they don’t know the history and they do not really want to know. History is perverse. It can be enlightening. It can be liberating to know the worst or the contrary because you have to confront the devil.
I have a question regarding what you said earlier about the public library here that has been revamped. Do you think that some people meet to purposely make sure that certain people will not be politically aware?
It is much different than that because it is neo-liberalism. They never say anything like that. They talk about the money. They say things like “the future is electronic books”, how efficient it all is, and they get rid of the books in a way that creates new opportunities in real estate. They act like it is progress.
We’ve already found out that any kind of education they give on a computer is worthless, nobody succeeded using that. The failure rate is enormous. Now some studies tell us don’t let the little kids use computers until they are 7 or 8 because it will pervert the way they think. It is like you’re getting them on drugs.
This has been the strategy, the government’s strategy, the way they renovated libraries and pushed forward the electronics and taking away the books quite quietly at the same time isn’t dissimilar to the benign neglect that goes into the drug epidemics that ravaged our communities. Is this a conspiracy to control people? Every word that is electronic can be changed in a nano-second. A subtle change of text changes the meaning. Good editing is very hard to detect. It is like a paranoid dream come true. It is like those sci-fi futuristic novels as Brave New World. We are there. It is making a mockery of us.
It seems to me that if there is a breaking point, one has already been reached. The electronic book is a failure and I am glad if this one is behind us. I never thought that books would go away, they are too good at what they do. The breaking point will be the day we go down the river and throw our cell phones in because they will just cross the line. The invasiveness, that knowing where we are, what you think all the time, one day we will say that’s it, I no longer can trust them with my information.
I can’t even think of a politician that has the courage to point out the Emperor’s New Clothes. There is nobody in the game doing that. How many more of these police murders before people get the clear picture. The one in Staten Island, with Eric Gardner, this is New York City in Mayor De Blasio’s time, not Giuliani’s or Bloomberg’s, who you’d expect to let the cop off. So how am I supposed to process this?
What did you think when Barack Obama won his first election and what do you think now?
I was skeptical about the man and positive about the symbol. The night that Obama got elected was very interesting. I made wonderful friends in the neighborhood that night. People here have been in the civil rights movements all their lives. In this neighborhood, they were literally dancing in the streets. From here at 160th, you could hear all the people that had gathered on 125th street. Neighbors that previously wouldn’t say hello came up and told me, “Now we can be friends.”
I felt a lot of it was symbolic. But you know appearances are nothing but deceiving. As the Bible has it, We see the world through glass darkly. I didn’t think that a community organizer from Chicago did it on his own. I knew that the money was behind him. After George Bush, they couldn’t put another white guy associated with big corporations. They needed somebody that looked like he was not a part of that world. Someone to take the fall and let the perpetrators off. Mr. Obama served the purpose very well.
We knew that he was backed by Wall Street. Every historian and detective story writer knows that you have to follow the money if you really want to know what is really going on. I read his books, there are eloquent and convincing but I really wondered what was going on when they gave him the Nobel Prize before he had done anything to earn it. Knowing that these kind of things get purchased, I was skeptical. I am much further to the left in my politics than most people I know. A liberal is almost as bad as a conservative to me.
Honestly, I don’t see a big difference between a republican and a democrat.
I know, one has both legs the same. In every political system the population, it seems, is half conservative, half progressive. About half of the people want things to change for the better and half of the people don’t want any change, just large bills. The people that don’t want anything to change say that the people who want change are crazy optimists, with their heads in the clouds. And they’re right, unfortunately.
The republicans used to stand out for the opposite of what they stand for now. Everybody turns into their opposite. People become their parents. So many leftists writers become right wing fanatics in the end because there is a point where right and left meet on the same page. It is like when the black Muslims were supported by the KKK. They both wanted segregation. So it was the Nation of Islam who decided to kill Malcolm X in cahoots with the NOI, CIA, FBI and NYC police when he came out for integration.
Now everything has been pushed so far to the right, that Hilary Clinton can be considered a liberal democrat. She has the same bad foreign policy George W. Bush had. Now, I unfortunately think, we are going to look back and go, Wow! Remember when it was Barack Obama instead of this shit, you know? He’ll seem tepid, kinder and gentler. He was a guy who you weren’t revolted by when he spoke. Remember when you could at least stand watching politicians, even when they were bullshitting you?
I think it is pretty scary what you’re saying right now.
I think the Clintons are very scary people.
It is funny that you are saying that, because I recently found out that the decade where the most black people have been incarcerated was during the Clinton era.
Yes that’s funny because people were saying that Clinton was the first black president. He wasn’t, however, he was the first president that should have been incarcerated.
We read to reach the moment where we say “OMG, that is what I think but I have never been able to articulate.” Sometimes somebody says something obvious but so obvious that nobody was able to say it before.
What is the importance of black literature, in 2015 American literature?
It is as important as ever.
Unfortunately I’m seeing few new writers with strong voices. James Baldwin, as I mentioned before, had a very extraordinary influence on me. I always have sort of secretly prayed that my son’s generation and other generations can have somebody with such great clarity, writing fiction, writing essays that speak the truth. And there aren’t that many venues that will publish that. But I think someone will come along. It is a drag having to hope for heroes, it is kind of a silly waste of time to ask how come there are no new Malcolms, Martin Luther Kings, James Baldwins for our time? Those guys were teachers, they were enlightening. They helped a lot of people to realize the absurdity of race discrimination. They were influential.
I think that a lot of people are waiting for somebody to say The Word. That’s why we read, we read to reach the moment where we say “OMG, that is what I think but I have never been able to articulate.” Sometimes somebody says something obvious but so obvious that nobody was able to say it before. People are waiting for someone who is able to say the words they can articulate their finer selves through.
I don’t see that power in film. Music is very powerful but it is not that articulate. You can get the feeling but you cannot get that thing that you have in literature. With literature it suddenly becomes part of your DNA. Sometimes you find it in Malcolm, in Fanon, in Senghor, in Thomas Merton, inTutuola, and weird places one seems to have dreamed. For example, L-F Celine didn’t have politics I agreed with but he was able to change the way I understand someplace I’ve never lived in a way that visiting never could. Therein’s the grace that they talk about in the church.
Do you think that we are living in an era not able to produce great characters?
I think that there is always potential. I think that someone will come out of it, one of these days, and say what needs saying so it will change the world. I also think that a lot had wished that it was Obama. He might have. He could still.
But, do you think that this person, who will help to bring change, has to play the game first, before disclosing the real project or that this person has to showing their real intentions right away?
You know, when I talked to my friends from the neighborhood about that, their reactions are to say that Barack is a politician. He cannot show favoritism towards black people or suddenly address race in America. To think the contrary is being naïve, they told me. But he could have, he could have certainly addressed the criminal justice aspects. This is the place to start.
It is very difficult to be published when you have a contrary opinion, to find a place to get up. A writer with a pen and a piece of paper doesn’t have financial support that you can see on TV for example. You write a blog, I write a blog, how many blogs of other people do I read? Not a lot, there are too many of them. If the internet has taught us anything it’s that quantity effects quality. I don’t know where to find out what’s happening any better than when I read the Daily News and Post. Today on the social media, everybody copies and pastes articles from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post. Here when people choose a radical source, it seems to be the Guardian. Our alternative press is now in England. You and I can write blogs and our voices just get lost in the electronic wilderness. Does anybody’s blog have the importance of a printed piece? Not yet, not that I know of. The internet is very good at small ideas; particularly cat videos I’ve noticed.
The printed word is the only one that I think can really articulate well enough with the substance to carry big ideas. You know, the great American seditious voice in the 1920’s, HL Mencken summed so much up when he remarked that nobody had ever lost any money underestimating the intelligence of the American people. If you really want to address the masses you have to bring it down to the lowest common denominator. You can never make the things dumb enough to succeed on the internet, where stupid rules. This is essentially what is going to motivate publishing companies, every newspaper, every magazine. You aim high and you will not make any money. You aim low and you will see that it is where the money is. Today’s insubstantial educations and info-systems condescend to people, too uneducated, too conditioned, too lied to, too deceived to know the difference and that’s where the money is.
Last question, how do you think Harlem will look in the future?
I can see the demographics changing. Black people didn’t buy Harlem, they rented it. In the past few years, we have seen the demographic change very quickly. I imagine in the near future black Harlem reduced to what it was during the Renaissance, when it started at 136st and went up 163rd. This neighborhood integrated in 1938. It is called Sugar Hill and it was once the Beverly Hills of black America. Fortunately we are still relatively intact. We haven’t any hipsters and we haven’t any rich people. We have not been gentrified but lower Harlem, beneath 125th in particular, is evaporating. In Sugar Hill, there were more white people in the 70’s than now.
Beneath 110th street everything costs more by a third. White people pay a lot to live around white people. They pay a lot, seemingly, to not live around colored people who pay a lot not to live around white people. The suburbanization and the Americanization of New York City has been profound in the last 15 years and it’s former status as the Art Capital of the World disappeared with the best bookstores the world may ever know.
Thanks a lot for your time, it was very kind of you.
You’re welcome, put that on internet, create a good blog. I have to go now and cook for my family.