Issue Date: February 9, 2003
The Next Chapter
In this week's issue, our annual Black History Month special, we take a forward-leaping approach to the African-American struggle. The idea is to try something ambitious, to go beyond the textbook icons and look at the impact the current generation has on our lives. We invite you to meet today's black history makers -- an innovative sociologist, a power-broking record exec, a risk-taking Broadway director -- all with one thing in common: a vision of where black culture is headed. Now, in a USA WEEKEND exclusive, they speak with the gifted young leaders of tomorrow.
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Henry Louis Gates Jr., 52
Brent Edwards, 35
Harvard luminary Henry Louis Gates, Jr., right, heads the nation's premier black studies department. Rutgers' Brent Edwards is an advocate for improving information access for the underclass.
Photo by Shawn Henry for USA WEEKEND
For 25 years, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has done more than build a massive black think tank at Harvard, where he is chair of Afro-American studies. He has taken black culture to the masses through PBS documentaries, a best seller ("The Bondwoman's Narrative"), "New Yorker" profiles and a vibrant Web site, Africana.com. "Skip," as he likes being called, is perhaps the best-known department head in academia, the Spielberg of black studies, and to hear him tell it, the lesson has just begun. Like his mentor, Brent Edwards is a scholar with mainstream ambitions. While teaching English at Rutgers University, he has been putting the finishing touches on his first book, "The Practice of Diaspora", about the interrelation between the Harlem Renaissance and black French authors. The two compared notes at Harvard's Barker Center.
Gates: One reason I was excited about this opportunity is the chance to get two completely different perspectives. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, we couldn't take anything for granted in the study of African-American culture, not even the availability of books. I wanted to be part of the generation that made it impossible for a secondary school English teacher in Idaho to say, "I would teach [black] literature, but I don't have the proper tools." Now that we've edited "The Norton Anthology of African American Literature", no one can say that.
Edwards: Black studies helped make space for a variety of interdisciplinary work, and the possibilities of that shift are just starting to pay off. It's changing the work that's being done and the way it's done. Young scholars put literary texts into historical contexts, or look at the relationships between jazz and politics, in increasingly sophisticated ways. A big part of our task is figuring out models for interdisciplinary work.
Gates: The hard truth is many of the original black studies chairs didn't really believe in it. A handful of students raised hell, and to pacify them in the months after King's death, colleges created these departments. What was it supposed to be? Nobody knew. It fell to someone like Charles Davis [one of the first tenured blacks in Yale's English department] to channel the student energy into a meaningful program.
Edwards: This issue isn't just about race. It's part of the reason the stakes of the affirmative action debate are so high. It's crucial that black scholars not only take a stand on this issue, but also make a principled argument for the necessity of diversity in educational communities as a value that must be fostered and preserved.
Gates: [Black and white] students have embraced Afro-American studies for two reasons: the quality of the professors and the inherent interest of the subject. It's just a good story: how black people came from Africa against their will, survived slavery and thrived to create a glorious culture. It's one of the great stories in the history of civilization.
Moderated by Veronica Chambers, whose book "Having It All" was released last month
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Walter Mosley, 51
Phyllis Perry, 41
Walter Mosley, the author of the "Easy Rawlins" stories, with Phyllis Perry, a journalist and the author of the novel "Stigmata."
Photo by Andrew Kist for USA WEEKEND
Walter Mosley and Phyllis Perry have a lot in common -- more than anything else, a love of the written word. Mosley began his career as a computer programmer and today has four best sellers, translated into 21 languages. His latest, "Six Easy Pieces", is a collection of short mysteries, part of his colorful Easy Rawlins franchise. Perry, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, earned comparisons to Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison for her 1999 debut novel, "Stigmata", the haunting tale of a prosperous Southern black woman grappling with psychic memories of slavery. Mosley and Perry set our plot in motion at an old meatpacking plant in Manhattan whose top floor is now Mosley's office.
Mosley: Black writers being published have always been some of the best. You had to be. It's like white people saying, "I wouldn't mind living next door to somebody black -- Martin Luther King would be fine." [Perry laughs.] I can't be a bricklayer? But we're going through a period that is wonderful, because black writers, from great to mediocre, are getting published. Hundreds.
Perry: There's a desire to fill niches. I read romances when I was a teenager, but the characters weren't black.
Mosley: Some of these black romances are done by people who know nothing much about writing. Someone might talk to me about a book, and I might say, "That book is really bad. I couldn't read one page." But to someone else, it's great; that book is talking about their life. And that's wonderful.
Perry: A lot of people start out with these books that speak to them in some way, then graduate to something they may not have been interested in.
Mosley: Like mystery. It's a truly American genre. Anytime you write in a genre -- and black men, I think it's very important for us to do -- you cross boundaries. You can talk to an Irish guy, or some redneck from Texas if you're writing a western.
Perry: Why black men?
Mosley: Because black women crossed those lines long ago. Partly by being women, and being interested in fiction, interested in stories. Black men still walk up to me and say, "You sound serious! I never read you because you write fiction, and I don't read that."
Perry: I like a good, rich story. And when I started writing "Stigmata", I found stories within stories. It became very layered, which was scary at first. Most of my inspiration comes from the community I grew up in: rural, small-town Alabama. The strong narrative voice comes from my experiences with people in those settings. My mother is going to a funeral tomorrow for a distant cousin. She was telling me about this person, and she says, "Cora-Lee used to make moonshine in the back of her house and sold it at fish fries for the church." So she sold moonshine to raise money for the church, and the church just looked the other way.
Mosley: Your stories are so alive because you've been hearing them your whole life. I never write about current events in my fiction. In "What Next" [a new book of non-fiction], I do. Because black America, in some way or other, failed to respond with their hearts to what's happened in the world, or at least our leaders have. The issue is this: When someone says there's never been terrorism before in America, they never heard of Tulsa [where hundreds of blacks were massacred in 1921].
Perry: I love history. And I need a history that's more than just "Who's the first black to do this?" I'm interested in Jim Crow -- how people survived that.
Mosley: And how they didn't. Those are the stories you want to tell.
Moderated by Danyel Smith, whose debut novel, "More Like Wrestling", was published last month
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Thelma Golden, 37
Laurie Cumbo, 27
Thelma Golden made her name pioneering shows that increased the visibility of emergent black conceptual artists at the Whitney Museum, where she was the first black curator in the institution's history. "The Black Male," her 1994 exhibit, fostered heated debates about identity, race and sexuality. Laurie Cumbo founded Brooklyn's Museum of Contemporary African Diasporian Arts (MoCADA) in 1999; upcoming shows include a collection of 52 charcoal drawings depicting the Middle Passage. At the Studio Museum in Harlem, where Golden is now deputy director, the two framed a discussion around the social responsibility of showcasing black art.
Golden: Founding a cultural institution is a [difficult] task. It's not like a business, where you find a market and figure it out. They require a commitment to defining an ideology and understanding one's audience.
Cumbo: Whether you're founding an institution or [leading] an established one, you have to have tough skin. Everything falls on your shoulders.
Golden: It comes down to being confident in what you're doing. It's about taking risks. I tell our staff here every day: We are trying to have impact. Whatever work we're doing has an effect in the world, in our field, in our community, and that has to be our role. It'll be great when, one day, there will be Studio Museums and MoCADAs all over the country.
Cumbo: We're pushing people in terms of how they view art. We focus on issues affecting the community, so we've done exhibits on abortion, on AIDS.
Golden: Seeing yourself as an intermediary between the artist and the community is a great responsibility. We're in a room with abstract paintings by Hale Woodruff. There's nothing controversial about these, but they're not the masses' idea of art. It's our responsibility to keep Woodruff. This is a [modernist] painter from the '50s who looked at Europe and understood those works and brought a sensibility taken from his understanding of African art and what it meant to be an artist and a black man in America. There's a responsibility to offer artists the place to have that dialogue.
Moderated by Joan Morgan
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William Julius Wilson, 67
Celeste Watkins, 28
Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson is widely recognized as a scion of W.E.B. Du Bois. Wilson's illuminating books on black urban life have been both controversial (among colleagues) and influential (in Washington). His 1987 study "The Truly Disadvantaged" made Bill Clinton see "race and poverty ... in a different light." Celeste Watkins is part of a new generation benefiting from Wilson's scholarship. A postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, she has made navigating welfare reform her emphasis. One has advised the president. The other wants to enlist the hip-hop generation. Each is determined to find solutions to the perplexing social conditions devastating the black community.
Wilson: The first thing people think about when they think about policy relating to African Americans is welfare reform.
Watkins: Absolutely. Blacks have had a difficult history with the welfare infrastructure, and this reform requires workers and clients to cooperate and to share the kind of information that can lead to mothers finding employment so they can leave the [welfare] rolls and stay off the rolls. We're assuming a level of cooperation takes place in an institution that hasn't always fostered it. You talk to many welfare recipients entitled to particular services, like child care and employment training, who aren't getting that support because their workers have massive caseloads. We're starting to see a darkening of the welfare rolls. Researchers are trying to ferret out explanations. Is it that employers interested in hiring former welfare recipients are more likely to hire white [ones]?
Wilson: And [the rolls are] going to get darker as the economy continues to slow, because the people who suffer most tend to be women of color, with less education, with poor health, with younger children, who've been on welfare for fairly long periods. These women had a difficult time even in a booming economy.
Watkins: Now we're beginning to hear more from the Bush administration about funding programs that will provide counseling services that encourage two-parent families. But part of a healthy marriage is economic stability and addressing the lack of employment and mobility opportunities for black men. Unless we respond to this gender gap, we're going to see more black women choosing to stay single and raising children independently. Now, the feminist in me thinks this is exciting. In fact, I'm overjoyed that women have so many choices. But when we talk about raising children, two incomes are certainly better than one.
Wilson: I've been concerned that so little attention has been devoted to [this problem]. There are more black women in college than black men, and that gap is widening. Women are definitely going to play -- out of necessity -- a greater leadership role in the African-American community down the road.
Watkins: The typical conversation among my girlfriends is finding a partner with similar interests and a similar trajectory in life choices and opportunity. I can do badly all by myself.
Wilson: Although discrimination exacerbates labor-market problems, we must [realize] that many current problems are driven by fundamental changes in the economy. Ever since Reagan, there's been the fear of reduction in federal support for cities. These cuts hurt the most disadvantaged groups, and blacks are disproportionately concentrated in cities. They would benefit from an effort to restore cities. Blacks need to join with groups calling for greater infrastructure investment. It's one way to create jobs.
Watkins: Get me in a room with someone like Mos Def. He's someone who clearly gets it. If you listen to his CD and then read my work, you'll see striking similarities. It supports the argument that for the industries to be so polarized -- academia, the non-profit community, the professional-financial community, the legal community, the hip-hop community -- is really problematic. I'm not quite sure how to do that yet, but I'll figure it out.
Moderated by Lisa Kennedy
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Russell Simmons, 45
Black Ice, 31
Guided by his philosophy of hustling uncut hip-hop not just to ethnic 'hoods but to America's heartland, Russell Simmons has become a force in youth culture. Since co-founding Def Jam Records in 1984, he has propelled the careers of Run-DMC, Public Enemy and Jay-Z. In the '90s, Simmons created HBO's hit "Def Comedy Jam", breaking Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac. His latest effort, "Def Poetry Jam on Broadway", is bringing the spoken-word phenom to the Great White Way. Philly-bred poet Black Ice contributes an incisive, sobering presence to the lively show. The two rapped in Manhattan.
Simmons: Hip-hop is the most important tool for race relations in the last 50 years. It's brought poor people together, connecting projects and trailer parks in a way that's never happened.
Ice: It gave us an outlet that allowed us to be us. It didn't just speak to me; I spoke to it, too, and added my two cents.
Simmons: The poetry movement didn't become clear to me until I saw you, Ice. I thought it was alternative stuff with head wraps and incense. But I felt you because you looked like the present; you're bald like DMX. More than that, you're saying what young hip-hop kids are feeling at the moment.
Ice: My words come from a black male inner-city perspective. But the more I speak to people from different backgrounds, I realize how universal the message is.
Simmons: [I like that] poetry focuses on what's inside the person. It's introspective. You don't just hear about the suffering. There is an attempt to resolve things.
Moderated by Greg Tate, editor of the book "Everything but the Burden"
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George C. Wolfe, 48
Tracey Wilson, 34
Before George C. Wolfe arrived on Broadway in 1991, who woulda thunk a musical in which an actor embodies a lynching through tap could win the Tony (Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk)? Or that a tale of belligerent brothers named Lincoln and Booth, one of whom is killed in the end, could nab the Pulitzer (Topdog/Underdog, by Wolfe's discovery Suzan-Lori Parks)? Writer-director Wolfe has topped the theater world by mounting plays that are often as audacious as they are entertaining. Newcomer Tracey Wilson shares Wolfe's knack for drama. After her satiric novel, I Don't Know Why That Caged Bird Won't Shut Up, was shot down by 28 publishers, she turned to theater, reading 100 plays and then viewing them on tape at the Lincoln Center library. This fall, the curtain goes up on Wolfe's production of Wilson's latest show, The Story, an inventive drama about a brutal, racially charged shooting. We open in Wolfe's corner office inside the Joseph Papp Public Theater, which he runs.
Wolfe: Many plays that are about something are dull, structurally. The weight of what they're about [drags them down]. What was particularly liberating about The Story is that I was not only witnessing incredibly compelling, complicated characters, but an incisive, playful, dangerous mind in a writer. And that's just thrilling, when you find these contradictory qualities, which ultimately aren't contradictory -- they're human.
Wilson: That was actually my attempt at writing a realistic play, and it just came out all different.
Wolfe: It depends on how your brain works, your sensibilities. I remember showing black producers [his controversial early play] The Colored Museum. They weren't interested. Nothing had been like it before, in terms of theater. [But that was the point.] I wrote it so I could write any play. It was a way to do whatever I want. It was saying, "I'm not bound by anybody else's rules."
Wilson: Black theater today is not tied to one model. I'm a fan of satire, and I'm learning there are many ways to approach it.
Wolfe: Certain plays give people permission to trust their own instincts. Angels in America [which won Wolfe a Tony and made him the first black director of a Broadway show that wasn't about African Americans] gave people permission to say, "OK, I can have poetic and realistic and outrageous all in one play."
Wilson: When I was having a hard time writing my last play, I realized it was because I was trying to please too many people. I had to go away and think about what I wanted to say.
Wolfe: Black theater has to exist on all levels. What's interesting, complicated and ultimately revealing is A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959, and Topdog/Underdog in 2002. Between those two plays, there was For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide and Twilight: Los Angeles. So there have been maybe four plays [in fact, seven] by black women writers in the history of Broadway. That's a startling fact.
Wilson: When my first show [Exhibit #9] opened, reviewers walked out. I was hurt, but you get over it.
Wolfe: And become stronger. The wonderful power about art is that if you do your job and circumstances conspire, you get the chance to share that work with the world, and that work then continues. That's what matters. Not the initial response, because the moment is so transitory. The power of art is that it goes beyond you. It's not even about you, once you put it out there.
Moderated by Craigh Barboza
Click on links
A conversation with Manning Marable, founder of the Africana Criminal Justice Project, and Van Jones, a youth organizer who is the force behind the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Photographs of Gates and Edwards, by SHAWN HENRY for USA WEEKEND