by Dax-Devlon Ross
First Encounters: The Genius of Illmatic
The Black Man’s Burden?
A Review of August Wilson’s Radio Golf
Just five days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Bill of 1965 a riot exploded in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles that left 34 dead. When Dr. King found out about the riot he was en route to a vacation in Puerto Rico. While his staffers advised him to stay away, the news haunted him and he ultimately chose to cut short his trip and accept an invitation to Los Angeles. When he arrived he was devastated by what he saw and heard. The rage. The bitterness. The despair. Residents shouted him down when he spoke of nonviolence. Others, to his surprise, didn’t even know who he was. All of if caught him off-guard, left him bewildered and distraught. What had he been fighting for? What did it matter that these ghetto residents could vote now? How did that change their material conditions? As one of King’s biographers, James H. Cone, put it, “After Watts, Martin concluded that without economic justice, the right to a job or income, talk about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was nothing but a figment of one’s political imagination.”
Watts was a turning point in Dr. King’s career. He stepped out of the shadow of his own enormously popular image and became, by some accounts, a radical. His decision to move to a Chicago slum and begin the Poor People’s Campaign the following year, and to begin critiquing both the underpinnings of capitalism as well as the injustices of the Vietnam War cost him dearly in the way of white liberal and black moderate support. But for King it was the only road he could take. Once he knew, once the glaze of American optimism had been wiped dry by the blunt force of urban decay, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the fight that would eventually cost him his life.
Fast forward thirty years to the city of Pittsburgh and a similarly blighted black community called the Hill. It is there, inside a storefront office on the walls of which a portrait of Dr. King rests from the opening scene to the closing curtain, that the final installment of August Wilson’s plays on twentieth century black America takes place; there that the push-pull effects of integration, deindustrialization and gentrification work themselves out one last time before the century draws to a close. Radio Golf is billed as a play centering around an upwardly mobile black couple with political aspirations a la Michele and Barack Obama, but really their relationship only provides the art-imitates-life backdrop to a story that is ultimately about the perils of opportunity, the meaning of success, and, most importantly, the quality and character of man’s conscience.
Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix) is a quintessential native son. His father was the city’s most successful black realtor in his day. After graduating from Cornell, Harmond returned to Pittsburgh to run the family business. As the play opens he and his good friend Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams) are preparing to break ground on a multi-million dollar apartment/shopping complex with all of the typical yuppie amenities: Starbucks, Whole Foods, Barnes and Noble. In Harmond’s idealistic estimation the project will revitalize his old neighborhood, just as his run for the city’s top office will invigorate Pittsburgh with a renewed spirit of hope. Like the generation of new leaders Harmond Wilks bears striking resemblances to – Cory Booker, Adrian Fenty and Barack Obama, in particular – he wants to change the status quo by meaning what he says and saying what means. But wanting and doing are two separate things. In politics it is all too common for noble aspirations to get lost in the muck of ambition, especially when those around you are singing opportunity’s lullaby. You only get one shot, his wife and campaign manager, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), tells him when she insists he retract certain critical statements from a speech. The most important thing is to get your foot in the door however you can, his buddy Roosevelt maintains when he announces a side deal he’s cut with a white businessman to be the minority face on radio station deal. Even Harmond relies on the “rule of law” to satisfy his own guilty conscience once he discovers that the home his company is tearing down in order to erect the apartment complex belonged to the late Aunt Ester, a recurring symbol in Wilson’s plays who embodies African-American memory reaching back to the beginnings of slavery.
As the play deepens and Harmond befriends two of the community’s long-time inhabitants, Sterling (John Earl Jelks) and Elder Joseph (Anthony Chisholm), it becomes increasingly difficult for him to rely on an ends-justify-the-means rationale. His conscience begins to nag at him. He starts to question the purpose and meaning of his political aspirations. Both Sterling and Elder Joseph remind him of those left behind, those who did not have the access and opportunity to leave. The Hill might be Harmond’s pet project, but it is their home, and they won’t just be easily removed for the sake of gentrification.
For Dr. King, Watts and Chicago illuminated the chasm between the Haves and Have-Nots. Inner city squalor gave King the kind of education that Barack Obama says sparked his own religious conversion a quarter century later. The people they met, the streets they walked—those were the experiences that grounded them. And while Roosevelt Hicks ultimately sees the Hill and its residents as burdens, thorns in his side as he tries to climb the corporate ladder, and Mame Wilks sees the neighborhood as a place to be visited as infrequently as possible, Harmond starts to hear a different call. It is the compassionate cry of the forgotten, and he is challenged to respond, to go beyond himself and the plan that’s been laid out before him by everyone but him in order to discover what he is really about. It is significant, indeed symbolic, that the office wall once adorned by a poster of Tiger Woods and a Wilks for Mayor placard only preserves the portrait of Dr. King when the final curtain comes down. At the outset we are led to consider Dr. King solely as the dreamer who died so that his progeny could share in America’s milk and honey, but as the play unfolds and Harmond’s principles dare him to break with his path – as did King when he chose to devote himself to the poor and disenfranchised – we begin to see and understand that the portrait’s real and lasting meaning is far deeper than the mere “dream” of an integrated society where blacks have the opportunity to be capitalists on equal footing with whites.
An imperfect play that feels dated at certain moments and over written at others, and where the budding husband-wife discord is left unsettlingly unresolved, Radio Golf succeeds in synthesizing and distilling the contemporary dilemma the ambitious, upwardly mobile African-American is faced with. Being successful in mainstream America – having money and prestige – comes at a cost. It could mean betraying or at the very least snubbing the community that nurtured you. It could mean compromising your ideals to the point that you are unrecognizable to yourself. It could mean jeopardizing a happy marriage once husband and wife discover their aims in life aren’t as aligned as they once were. It could mean the end of friendships that you once thought were inviolable. These are the unuttered, unexamined pitfalls of the American dream, snares and snags particularly relevant to the black community where authenticity is so deeply entangled with solidarity, where, at one point we all had nothing but ourselves, and now, quite suddenly it seems, class conflict and intraracial strife, haunt our relationships.
Radio Golf is playing at the Cort Theater in New York
Denise sent me this blog today and I wanted to share it with others. While I don’t agree with everything the writer has to say, it is nonetheless really interesting and insightful. Below is a portion I found most compelling.
DuBois is widely thought of as an uncompromising adversary of white supremacy and its social pillar, the white slave owners, those former Masters and their offspring. They, having lost their human chattel in 1865 and had regained it in 1876 through the institution of Jim Crow and share cropping: White Supremacy.
“Don’t believe the hype. DuBois actually claimed that the slave owners of yore and their progeny were the one class of whites in the South that was benevolent towards black folk:
“Today even the attitude of the Southern whites toward the blacks is not, as so many assume, in all cases the same; the ignorant Southerner hates the Negro, the workingmen fear his competition, the money-makers wish to use him as a laborer, some of the educated see a menace in his upward development, while others–usually the sons of the masters–wish to help him to rise. National opinion has enabled this last class to maintain the Negro common schools, and to protect the Negro partially in property, life, and limb.” W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls Of Black Folk.
DuBois must’ve greatly enjoyed “Gone With the Wind”.”
To read the entire piece and comment on it click on the link below
When Dr. Acklyn Lynch published Nightmare Overhanging Darkly sixteen years ago he placed himself in rare company. Few authors would attempt to chronicle the contours of a culture’s tradition of resistance in a single volume; even fewer could plausibly pull such a feat off. In today’s soundbyte-driven marketplace many authors (and publishers) err on the side of specialty. Rather than engage in rigorous analysis that integrates multiple fields of inquiry, they carve out their little crevice of “knowledge” in hopes of perpetuating their careers as “public intellectuals” on the lecturing and talk-show circuits. The social-scientist doesn’t dare dip into the literary critic’s bag. The journalist steers clear of polemics. And he historian guards himself against literary stylistics. In Nightmare, Dr. Lynch resists those constraints, though not merely because they are artificial outgrowths of the marketplace. He resists them because in order to complete his task, in order to advance the study of and appreciation for Black culture, he must. The intellectual model placed at his disposal by Western Civilization is inadequate to deal with the issues facing African-Americans. It is, in fact, at odds with Black culture. Writes Lynch,
“The problem of educating African Americans has been the attempt to measure Black people against a standard outside of our cultural context. The Western powers during the twentieth century have intensified “specialization” in their educational and training activities. They have programmed people’s minds through isolated forms of language where there are few, if any, common bases for effective communication. This takes away a sense of solidarity or unity and produces cold, alienated people without human values.”
[Cory] Booker is turning his attention to enforcing quality-of-life crimes—something he’s passionate about. Driving with his police escort recently, the mayor watched as occupants of the car in front of them hurled trash out of their window. Ordering his escort to pull over the car, the mayor rolled down his window and berated the offenders. “I told them that what they did was an act of violence,” he recalls
From The City Journal
“In Chicago, sometimes when I talk to the black chambers of commerce, I say, ‘You know what would be a good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks weren’t throwing their garbage out of their cars,’ ” Obama told a group of black state legislators in a speech in South Carolina last month.
From The Washington Post
Newark Mayor and media darling Cory Booker has officially thrown his surging political weight behind the Barack Obama campaign. Not only is he pledging his political clout, he announced he will be heading up Obama’s presidential push in New Jersey as either chair or co-chair of the state’s campaign. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Their political careers have evidenced a similar concern with access to housing and healthcare, combating violence and resurrecting a crumbling educational system. With regard to education, Booker seems more amenable than Obama to vouchers, although that could merely be a function of being a local rather than national politician. Public education in its purest form is still too tightly woven into the fabric of American idealism for a national dialogue to begin about eliminating the public education system as we know it. As far as health care is concerned, Obama announced his pledge to universalize healthcare by the end of his term in office at the same Trenton gathering of AFL-CIO workers, where Booker threw what we must presume is his full and knowing support behind the Senator. “We can have universal health care by the end of the next president’s first term, by the end of my first term,” Obama said, bringing more than 600 union workers to their feet. Read the rest of this entry »
Can there be love without understanding? Must love be understood in order to be real? What is real, anyway? These are just a few of the weighty questions the unnamed protagonist in Passing Strange, a newly-opened play at New York’s Public Theater, crosses the Atlantic Ocean to answer for himself. His journey from a backward Baptist church and the insipid, iron-fisted middleclassdom of his Los Angeles community to the blasé cafés of Amsterdam – and onward to Berlin! – is supposedly one of self discovery. Following in the footsteps of aspiring black artists like James Baldwin who could find neither peace of mind nor a place in the sun in the United States, our nameless hero dreams of being born anew on foreign soil. He departs with the earnest, if not idealistic, ambitions of the prodigal son, certain that life is out there, awaiting him, and that it is his responsibility to track it down. He convinces himself that if he does not leave, he is doomed—doomed like his mother; like his friends; his neighbors; like his flamboyant, dope-smoking choir leader, whose epic European effusions remain tethered to his preacher-father’s wallet, and by his own self-effacing cowardice. No, our hero intends to strum his guitar, scribble his songs, fall in love and taste the unfiltered version of Life a la Baldwin’s Another Country and Giovanni’s Room. As a teenager he’d sought spiritual salvation and transcendence in eastern philosophy, the church, acid tabs, punk rock bands, and in the eyes of a first love. One by one, they all failed him, fell apart. Disintegrated. And yet, in their way, they gave him a glimpse into life’s possibilities—what was out there for anyone willing to expose themselves to the unforseeable elements.
From Angus Reid Global Monitor
A majority of people in the United States would grant voting powers to their capital’s delegate in Congress, according to a poll by TNS released by the Washington Post. 61 per cent of respondents want the Washington, D.C. delegate to be allowed to vote on laws in the House of Representatives.
When informed of a proposed law which would give the overwhelmingly Democratic D.C. a full voting member in the House, while also giving the heavily Republican state of Utah another congressional seat, 49 per cent of respondents agree, while 37 per cent disagree.
To read the rest of this article click here
Just two days after the House of Representatives green-lighted legislation that will allow D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty to takeover the school system, Fenty’s administration was forced to apologize for submitting verbatim copies of a North Carolina school district’s strategic plan. It was reported that all of the links within the document went straight to Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system’s online documents. How exactly this oversight managed to go overlooked (for several months in fact) remains to be seen, but the city’s deputy mayor for education, Vincent Reinoso, has taken responsibility. Imbedded within the Washington Post story, however, was an even more interesting developing story.
…Fenty’s bid to reduce the power of the Board of Education and take direct control of the troubled 55,000-student school system faced another hurdle when an anonymous U.S. senator placed a “hold” on the takeover legislation Tuesday. It is not clear why the senator blocked the bill or how long the hold will last. The council approved Fenty’s plan last month, and the House of Representatives ratified it this week.
I tried to find out more about this anonymous senator’s “hold” but didn’t find anything on the web. My immediate thoughts back-tracked to the protest on the Capitol two weeks ago. Congress has been notoriously high handed with Washington, D.C. for years, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise if a Bush sympathizer or Constitutional fascist was using the school takeover vote as a way to put Fenty in his place. One thing that is certain is that this latest imbroglio doesn’t help the District’s case. It makes the city look incompetent at a moment when it is trying to win the support of the nation in it quests for Congressional representation.