Monday, August 15, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "One thing I've always found interesting is that many African American authors don't really know one another. It's as if we are living in different time periods and not simply different time zones. If I was putting together a program (this fall) I would place you and John Wideman on the same stage and monitor the exchange about writing, race and family. Have you had any "long" conversations with Wideman?  We know about your relationship with August Wilson...What well known African American writers have you never met and would like to?"

 In order to attempt an answer for today's question, let me repeat something I said in an interview published in Callaloo (Vol 33, No.3, Summer 2010) that was conducted by Geffrey Davis at Pennsylvania State University.
         "Writing is a solitary, lonely activity. What August and I enjoyed were long evenings (seven to ten hours) of just relaxing and talking and letting our hair down. This is rare for so-called “successful” writers, and even more rare for black male writers in America. My friend, writer John McCluskey (We co-authored Black Men Speaking), told me that he and a few other faculty members at Indiana University invited film-maker Melvin van Pebbles to their campus. After van Pebbles’ presentation, they all went to dinner. At some point in their conversation, McCluskey told me, van Pebbles got tears in his eyes. The others at the table were surprised, and asked him if anything was wrong. No, he replied. He said he simply never has the chance to sit down with other black artists and writers---the experience brought tears to his eyes. August and I experienced this joy as often as we could----whenever we both were in town. We couldn’t have been farther apart in, say, our politics, but that didn’t matter one bit. In August, I saw a man with the true spirit of an artist, someone who loved the creative process as much as I did, who had devoted himself to it since the 1960s as I had done, and who shared my deep respect for the generation of our parents, the hard-working, moral men and women who raised us at the very end of the era of segregation. Here in Seattle we did many literary events together; we were, naturally, at the same literary events for the 15 years he lived in Seattle. 

         "While August and I enjoyed 15 years of good, long dinner conversations, I've had a long-term working relationship with my best buddy, Art Washington. He did the Showtime dramas on Jimi Hendrix and Adam Clayton Powell, and has spent more than thirty years in the Hollywood industry. He and I have been like brothers since we worked at KQED on the family drama "Up and Coming" in 1981. We talk or email each other almost every day. I'm godfather for his son. But notice the difference in our disciplines of choice. Wilson was a playwright; Washington is a film-maker. I'm primarily a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and comic artist. There is little overlap in terms of our primary creative focus, and therefore no professional competition. When you have two black male writers, or any two writers in general, regardless of race or gender---Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, say, or Wright and James Baldwin, who told Wright he was the "father," and therefore he, Baldwin, had to "kill" him---there is the possibility for a kind of Cain/Abel jealousy and professional competition to arise. I find it remarkable and refreshing that this did not seem to arise between Ellison and Albert Murray. With August and Art, I always deferred, graciously and gratefully, to their greater experience in theater and Hollywood, and they deferred to my greater experience as a literary and visual artist, and as a philosopher. Mutual respect was always present, and there was even the desire to collaborate on new projects. Art and I have worked on things together for decades, and pitched stories together to Barbara Streisand, Denzel Washington, and Wesley Snipes, and conference called together with Marvel's Stan Lee."

 In addition to friendships with Art and August, I maintain an email correspondence with many writers, black and white, male and female. Obviously, Ethelbert, you're one of them! As for John Edgar Wideman, we've met on a couple of occasions, once when he read at a conference for the Associated Writing Programs, and another time in Seattle when he and Terry McMillan were traveling around the country, reading their works together and doing on-stage conversations. I've long admired Wideman and, as you know, speak of him highly in Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (pages 74-75). In my opinion, he is one of our most serious literary artists, has been publishing I think since the 1960s, and I would enjoy an on-stage conversation with him at any time.

Others I would like to sit down and chat with? I would love to have a long dinner conversation with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. I would also love to have a long chat with philosopher George Yancy, and astronaut Charles F. Bolden, the 12th (and current) Administrator of NASA. And also with Buddhist nun Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Rebecca Walker, and Vajrayana teacher Choyin Rangdröl.

No comments:

Post a Comment