tv Book Discussion on Harlem Nocturne CSPAN October 27, 2013 7:30am-8:51am EDT
>> good evening, everyone and thank you for being here. thanks so much to transport and for inviting me to speak with you tonight to i told the storey private but wanted to share publicly. when i was an undergraduate at harvard, i was 18 and i was taking a survey course in african-american literature. it was taught by henry louis gates and he was absent for one session and replacement for the session was farah griffin it was a fellow resident that year. this was incredibly wonderful because that year, transform was at the institute. so was doctor brooks, stephanie ramsey. and as an 18 year-old who was just over the moon about studying, i was so thrilled and
inspired all the time either work of these young scholars. a day that farah came to speak to our class, the work we're studying was pain, which is already one of my favorite books. it was so moving because i realized while she was giving us this wonderful guidance, the first time i'd been taught literature by a black person, besides my mother who was of course my first instruction in reading and writing but it's one of those moments that if you like should be marked and i want to extend my gratitude for that, and you continue to inspire me. >> thank you so much. >> that's the great joys of teaching, you don't know who is sitting out there in terms of this extraordinarily talented young writer who i would read it many years later without knowing that she was one of the students in the class. so it's really lovely to think
it also for being here tonight. i wanted to ask farah to share with us the introduction of "harlem nocturne." is really a beautiful way she brings these women onto the page pics i would just read, find my way around, the prologue. new york back in and they came. one came as a child brought by immigrant parents, the other two came as the women seeking freedom to themselves and are. they were shaped by the city. the movement of their bodies, their style. they walk, they looked and listened they gave to the city but they danced, wrote, set to music. they came. new york told that anything was possible, golden there was no boundaries. there were. of the city welcome them, students, teachers and
entertainers as residents they were not always received with enthusiasm. so at some point they all lived in harlem, the black mecca on a migration of black people from the caribbean and the american south from the anti-black violence that erupted among other parts of the city, and the entrepreneur energies of african-american risked develop. harlem, raise capital but eventually the immigrant stock move to another historic black neighborhood, in brooklyn. harlem who wanted to live anywhere else if given a choice if i would have chosen harlem that they would've liked having the choice. each in her own way protected limitations based on the life and her people. meanwhile, helping to build a city within a city, a playful black and brown faces, speaking a multitude of languages, living icon living love, making love,
making new people. it was a city of three rhythms and bebop changes, a city of weary brown faced children and adults some enraged, others resigned, a city that danced the lindy hop, and african isolationism. [applause] >> so i would love to know what was your first introduction to these women and their art? >> the book is about three women. pearl primus, mary lou williams, composer, and ann petry, the writer. i was introduced to each of them at various stages. i take my first introduction to ann petry was as a student, as an undergraduate at harvard many years before sharifa got there. i started reading ann petry
been. her books are being reprinted for the first time. largely due to the efforts of a generation of black women scholars. so i encounter first as a college student and not really in a classroom on my own, then as a graduate student laid on. she was the one who i think whose work i had the most sustained and lungs relationship with. and i actually had the opportunity to meet her and get to know her before the end of her life. the dancer choreographer i think i first encountered through the works of books by people like langston hughes and sort of picture books that would tell me about these wonderful women who are getting photographs of them before i knew who they were. a book like brown sugar was a way of getting to know her as a figure before actually knew her as a dancer and choreographer. and mary lou williams, i didn't
know although i grew up in a household where i first encountered many of the jazz greats as a child. i did not encounter mary lou williams until i was an adult. and it was during the time when i started study more about women's contributions to jazz music, aside from people like billie holiday. and so i sort of discovered mary lou williams, the latest of the three women and but also fell in love with the i'm biased. is not women plan critical -- i'm sort of in love with all of them. >> and what was the moment when you realized you wanted to tell their stories? >> fascinating question. i actually discovered, thought about telling their stories here at the center. i was a fellow web of the book but these ideas were sort of born when i first moved to new
york around 2000, 2001. there were a couple of small projects that i was engaged in and they did a researcher at the schaumburg. one of those projects was i've been commissioned to write some notes for the reissue of a lena horne cd, and being an academic i completely over researched notes and thought oh, this is a really interesting error, and all three of these women are very important in this period. and so i had a whole cast of characters, and they were the three who survived the brings out the cast of characters. >> and can you talk a little bit about the time period? i think it is an interesting moment that gets lost in a lot of our popular imaginations of harlem and black political moments. because it comes after the harlem renaissance. it comes after when we'r we arey
engaged with the art of the great depression. it comes before the rise of prominent voices before the civil rights movement it's launched in a powerful way to spend your right. i think it's one of those -- sharifa and i were talking about this, harlem is kind of counseling always exciting so you can open in the struggle to get and put your finger there and you'll find something worth our attention. and certainly you did that with your work in terms of a contemporary moment. but the '40s were fascinating, you're right, everything is overshadowed by those harlem renaissance people. they are so glamorous and talented and so beautiful, eloquent that they tend to overshadow everything. but the '40s were really vibrant period. you interest coming out of the
depression, there's a lived of prosperity. the wa board is raining, and its also appeared of the second great migration. so there's this influx of new people coming and i found that it was very exciting. it's the savoy, the lindy hop, the birth of bebop to its victory at malcolm x is writing about when he first comes to harlem in the autobiography of malcolm x, so it's before they become the icons they are walking the streets of harlem. and so the '40s is a fascinating -- for me, a fasting period and unlike any other periods that have come before and sort of paving the way for what would come later. i thought it was worthy of pag pages. >> just the work of these women, how does it follow on what i'm
thinking of the support was given to her work follows the model and patronage in a way, or the institutions that ann petry was working with. could you talk about that lineage that made their work possible, with its many artists and writers, political? >> absolutely. i think they were, not just my women, i think they are of a generation -- when we think of the '20s you can think of relationship of patronage with black artists and often think of individuals who are individual patrons or who are making access to certain publishing houses and things like that available. i think in the '40s what you get our people who are much more self-consciously politicized,
not that the earlier moments aren't, but these are people, artists who are coming of age in a period where there is, there's a kind of activist momentum, and they see themselves a part of that momentum. so that the institution is not so much individuals were offering patronage to them but there are institutions that are providing venues and places for them to publish and places for them to perform. many of those institutions actually, out of sort of more radical sensibilities in the 1930s. there are artistic organizations or publications but the census as having a kind of social action mission. >> what about the political consciousness of these women? they unfold in different ways. you talk about that in the book, someone like mary lou williams,
she does consider herself an activist. and ann petry put some distance between the more traditional, the signing of her work as political. >> absolutely. i wanted to show, one of the reasons why while i was never in debt and to decide on three is i wanted to arrange an engagement in different art forms, but also i wanted to show a kind of continuum of political engagement and involvement. so someone like a young dancer was a student at hunter college who joined various kind of political organizations while she's a student, and is probably the most what we think of as conventionally radical of the three actually joins the commons party for a while, and so that helped to shape her analysis of the world. so that would be -- summerlike ann petry is a writer who is surrounded by people who are
radical political activists and respects and admires and defends them when they come under assault, but also keeps her distance and doesn't join -- she doesn't join organizations. she won't call herself a marxist or economies. she has sort of a left leaning sensibility that she doesn't like to be labeled or boxed in in a particularly big and she is very active. she's engaged in various forms of activism, and then someone like a mary lou williams i think this is, you know, her interest is always how can she be of assistance to people who are in need? and sometimes that might be people or in need because of the poverty, and it might be to individual acts of philanthropy or supporting activities, or mib fellow musicians were having issues with drug addiction and she becomes kind of a one woman rehab center or something.
so they all have, they fall along a continuum and that brought to a sort of what we think of as a political consciousness two very different means. >> and how has that been expressed in the work? i was looking -- is a hard thing to find but i did find something. i have a dance background actually and all it ever felt was relief, talk about fantastic leap. but i'm thinking about something where you talk about different kinds of movement. pearl primus physically as a mover. the movement in music, a piece of music, a movement through letter a work and then action movement that people found themselves engaged in, or living
alongside, if not directly. how does the work itself express that, or shy away from? if they keep them separate? >> that's a good question and a difficult one. one of the things i've tried to stress is that even though they are political agents and they are involved and see themselves as above a certain kind of political work, all of them are first and foremost artists. and their art forms and they defined differently, but that they really are trying to find ways for the expression of their creative ideas. and so it finds its way into work, and for someone like pearl primus, she starts taking dance lessons at a place called the new dance group, which was
founded to use dance as a way to cultivating a search and -- certain have social activism. so she's already engaged in that process. she is creating dances, both that sort of narrow the stories and struggles, the difficulty of like people but also celebrates the joy of black people. she tries to create a movement vocabulary that's informed by whether it's a dance the people in trinidad during carnaval, or sharecroppers in south. she is really creating a kind of dance vocabulary that tells the stories. and she, dance is a way of educating people about the expense of african descent. ann petry, i think it really does come it comes about in the forms that she chooses but in some achieve writing with intent to social realism, you know, mode, but she also i think most
importantly, people whose stories she chooses to go. she doesn't come from an elite -- she comes from a fairly unique background but she chooses to tell stories about working class and working poor people. and to try to give a fully fleshed portrait of them and their struggles. so in that way that shades apart. and with mary lou, it's a little more complicated but i think that she tries, you know, she is free much invested in making sure that there is a certain history of black music in particular, that black music carries with it a kind of archive, and that she tries to make sure that that history is in the sort of contemporary popular music that she's playing and it's also kind of informing its moment as well.
it tries to shape its moment. so in this way i think their social engagement, you know, you can see it or feel it in their art, but they aren't sacrificing sort of their creative expression for the sake of the politics or the social consciousness. >> what i ask you a question about ann petry that i think, in your book it really gave me relief because you describe the world in harlem and it's some of the world will be on one-sixteenth street including the art center. it's just that moment of giving address of whatever it is, one-sixteenth to. i felt like this and that in the existence of the committee arts center in the street? >> that's one of the big questions about the choices that she made. i have a theory but it's only a theory. ann petry writes the novel from
people don't know, the street is published in 19 free sex, it's about a female character named rudi johnson urges separate from her husband. she has a little boy. she's struggling to make ends meet. is a very kind of commune, -- desolate view of what her possibles are. and ann petry herself is a much engaged in a much more vibrant and diverse harlem than the one that she represents in the novel. so this arts center, for instance, which were just talking about produces and is a place where children can come and learn various forms of visual arts and various harlem artists are involved in a. ann petry -- excuse me, ruby anderson have access to that end never had access to any of the churches. so in some ways i think it could be a critique that ann petry is
insisted on telling a certain kind of story that she plans out certain possibilities, wasn't there with the people who live in harlem. on the other hand, i think, and this is where, i think she is fully aware that there's so many people in harlem during her time that even though the sources -- resource are able to don't necessarily know the art able, that they don't have access to them, that they aren't able to take advantage of them and that we can't take our eyes off of those people who are sort of an activism. sometime would assume anything she wants to shed the light. i think the real paradox in her work. >> in terms of what you choose represent and what you don't, something someone told me when my book came out was people of a certain class in harlem feel
like it didn't represent them. i won't going into any details of that, but you can read between my lines. >> i understand and i think that was can you probably can identify with ann petry. was a criticism she got also. we think about, you talked about the difference between a harlem renaissance and this period, when we think about the harlem renaissance, the books that were most champions were books that represented the better class of negroes, literally what they were called. and so ann petry in a generation of writers were not representing that version of harlem life of black life, and a consistent criticism at the time of, particularly from the african-american press, that she is not representing the best of the race, so to speak. i'm sorry to hear that you had to deal with the same thing, but there's a long history of that kind of critique.
>> and what about the other women speak with one other thing i was was fascinated by what i did the research was that i, sometimes you these assumptions you bring to a project. and so i assumed, oh, this is interesting, all of them were working during this period, and because they are black women they probably are not getting any attention for their work. and that's why so many of us don't know about them today. and what i discovered here at the schaumburg reading through microfilms, not everything was online yet. was that i was wrong. and that all of them actually got a tremendous amount of attention for their work. ann petry was widely published, i mean widely reviewed in books, the black press and the mainstream press and the -- pearl primus was the darling of the nude times dance critic. a very powerful man at the time, mary lou williams had a radio
show, had her long work premiered at townhall. so they actually had a great reception, reception that i really, i could have imagined that they had. and then they sort of fall off of the radar later on. within the recession there's a variety of responses to them. so some people were celebrating ann petry's work. some people in the black press are saying, oh, it's too downtrodden to some people in the left press would say it's not revolutionary enough. because she doesn't provide a political without. so there's a variety of responses, but at least the work is being attended to service in which we all want to so they get the recognition at the time. >> one thread that goes through the book is big event, the victory at home and abroad for civil rights at home and the
victory against fascism abroad. it's something that all three women encountered and reflect upon and it made me think about the different levels of their political system. there's a superb local community based concerns and the of them, the about the situation in america generally and then global. i wanted to talk more about their work, contemporary movement, and then also the global, local movements. >> i think of the three, at that particular time, of the three pearl primus is probably most articulate about a kind of understanding about global issues, particularly as they relate to people of african descent. most vocal about seeing the war
against segregation, you know, or the fight against segregation, and this is kind of the height of jim crow so they're fighting against jim crow. but she absently sees that not only as a fight, that is a fight that is necessary for democracy in the united states, and a fight that is necessary for democracy, you know, kind of against fascism abroad, but with her she also always is cognizant of what's going on in the caribbean and was going on in africa before she even visits africa. she comes out of a household that is -- her family, they aren't card-carrying and, they are aware of "the guardian" movement. shelby has this kind of international global sensibili sensibility. and is most apparent in what she says in her work, and it is less
apparent in what's going on with ann petry and with mary lou williams, although all of them recognize the local struggles that they are involved in testing struggles better about the question from larger questions of democracy. and they are all linking issues of race with issues of poverty and class. not of them are separating those two things. and that they see the struggle with jim crow not only, not only as a way of freeing african-americans but as a way of freeing this nation at the same time that world war ii is claiming to free the world some day. >> i was thinking about their moment and some recent discussions that are talking about artists being politically engaged.
could you talk a little bit about that, the context that gives rise to a generation of engaged artists versus the lack of -- really, tracing a line where it got dropped? >> it's a complex set of issues. it's funny that you mentioned harry belafonte because the actor is someone who knew all three women in different ways. actually an ann petry was part f the american negro theater right here in this building, and so she knew harry belafonte and all of them. we think of ruby and ozzy,
that's part of the generation. you think of them as very kind of socially, socially active politicized artists. one of the things i think that was clear was none of them, and i say this with the women, none of them were kind of sitting back saying we are going to strategize and build a movement, as artists, that we're going to sit back and we're going to strategize and build a movement. i think that they came along at a time when the long, what we think of as the long black freedom movement, you know, had a new breath and it was happening. this is also a time when ella baker is living in harlem. there's a lot of ongoing political activity. and so there's already a movement in place them whether it be through with adam clayton powell was doing, there's
already a movement in place and that the artists find their place in that movement. is the movement that embraces them that they didn't acquire a certain sensibility and analysis. did you hear harry belafonte talk today you are struck by his level of analysis. and so i think instead of being so hyper critical of contemporary artists are what they do what they don't do, i also think that they aren't in a moment where there's a kind of heightened political a duty on the part of any of us. that it's not a moment of that kind of political movement. and i think if it were, it might produce a different context and it might produce a given set of responses from the artists themselves. >> i want to shift gears a little bit. [inaudible] listened to some in your book, can you talk about writing her
>> i wanted to choose a woman who was engaged in the production of music who wasn't a singer, because we know some of the singers. and that's usually our way of, our way of thinking about women in jazz. and i wanted to try something else, like what does it mean to think of yourself as a composer and an arranger at this period in such a male-dominated way. and i also, you know, she -- all three of these women, i think, their sense of themselves was just so incredible to me. and especially mary lou williams. there were so few examples for her of what it was she was trying to become, and most of those examples were male. and yet she pursued it, she had absolute confidence in her talent and her ability and her importance. and so i think that i just, i
sort of learned to welcome the opportunity to try and learn how to write about her. and how to write about the music. and then it just was a process of listening and listening and listening and trying to really write down what it was that i heard. and it was such a moving encounter. i mean, if you don't know her music, i strongly recommend -- i hope this book will make people listen to her. it was such a moving end counter and so powerful -- encounter and so powerful to me that i just decided to write about that element of it, that, you know, that there's something very soulful about her music and very ambitious. she's an incredibly ambitious writer and arranger. and she -- i loved her because she thought, ah, duke elington is writing these long forms, and he gets a concert at carnegie
hall, why not me? and so she does it. yeah, i'll just say that. she was the biggest challenge and the one from whom i think i learned the most, yeah. >> i loved reading about her coming uptown and stopping at menton's. can you talk, for the people who haven't read the book yet, just talk about that moment that she's a mentor to the bee boppers. >> so she's, she's the oldest of the three women at the time of the book. she, by the time she moves to new york, she's already very well known. she's been called the lady who swings the band with the andy kirk orchestra, she's arranged for duke elington. she's a star, she's a celebrity by the time she moves to harlem, so much so that newspapers like the amsterdam news and the courier say mary lou williams moves to harlem. and all the new musicians who are struggling, wow, mary lou
williams is here. and they want her to hear their music; to critique it, to tutor them, and she does. she welcomes them. and unlike many musicians of her generation, she doesn't dismiss them, right? she's sort of the way that a max roach would have been with the hip-hop people, older musicians might have been like, oh, hip-hop is horrible, max roach was like, no, we have to embrace this. so she's a star, and she's performing every night downtown at café society, but before she ends up at home in her apartment in hamilton terrace, she stops off at menton's because she's really excited by what's going on there. and it feeds her, and she actually hears some of what she's already been doing there as well, and she just thinks that it's this whole new set of possibilities. and so menton's becomes one -- it's a very important site for her and a very important kind of
site in the chapter about her. yeah. >> and what about some of those other sites of convergence? like you speak about the people's voice newspaper which was founded by -- [inaudible] or the new dance group where -- [inaudible] it just struck me that they each had these rotations, these bases bases -- these locations, these base withs which seemed really important to the possibility of this kind of work and something i think is lacking today in harlem. >> well, it's absolutely central. i don't think they would have been able to do what they did without those locations. ann petri is writing, she sells ad space for the amsterdam news, but when adam clayton powell starts the voice, she comes on there. and it's the way she gets to know harlem. she's a reporter, and she
literally walks all of harlem, and, you know, she writes from the high to the low. she writes about everything. it informs her next, the stories that she covers sometimes inspire stories in her fiction. it's a, you know, i think now we think of certain spaces as being intellectual, and they're very narrow. we think of the academy or the classroom, something like that. all of these spaces had such incredible intellectual and political energy. so for her, for ann ann try it would be the people's voice. for clemons it would be the new dance group where she was taking these dance lessons and learning from martha graham and any number of people, and for pearl and for mary lou williams it's a place like café society, the nightclub where at any given night langston hughes and paul robison and eleanor roosevelt might be in the audience. but i think it's also important to note where these women create
their own spaces. so mary lou williams also creates a space in her apartment which becomes one of the most important salons for the development of bee pop music. so she -- bee bop music. she opens up her home for that kind of activity. what happens to them, i mean, i think one of the lessons of this period again is that these sites come under assault. i mean, they don't just disappear or grow out of fashion with as the decade gets more conservative and we get the kind of anti-communist fervor that comes at the end of the '40s and the early '50s, there is an assault on places like the people's voice and on places like café society. and so those venues fold, and when they fold, you know, you no longer have those kinds of spaces to nurture the voices in the way that they would have in the earlier part of the decade. >> thinking about today's
finish. [inaudible] and i'm always vexed with the celebration of restaurants as sites of possibility, like a restaurant is not a site of -- i mean, i like going out occasionally, but i always feel like we are really dedashed from that kind of -- dedashed from that kind of space -- detached from that kind of space making and what it's for. even the private time is also something i think we need to initiate. >> i think i would like to ask you -- i have a question for you, too, about, you know, given that you documented this moment of kind of harlem in transition and change. and one of those, that might be one of those changes, you know? the celebration of a certain kind of opening of a restaurant as a space. i think that those spaces can become that, right? but they aren't necessarily meant to be that. like what's fascinating about several of the spaces in the book are that it's the actual work and the activity of the artests themselves -- artists themselves that turn these spaces into something else,
right? >> sure. >> but you right, i mean, one of the things that also happens at the end of the narrative is something like the urban renewal act which really destroys a sense of continuity and community and gets rid of local establishments, local bars, local businesses where people can develop community and replaces them with something else. and, you know, that again is one of those moments of transition. and then it's sort of like out of those ruins what does a new generation create. >> yeah. >> and so one of the things that i, you know, in reading your work, i was with reading sharifa's book just as i finished the first draft -- well, that's a lie. there were many drafts. one draft. almost the enultimate draft of "harlem nocturne," i read teresa's book, and the first thing -- sharifa's book, and i said, wow, they're going to be
studying sharifa rhodes-pitts, her book will be one they study. from your perspective, from your vantage point, what are the sort of similarities and differences that you see between -- because you clearly know all of these periods. you've kind of worked your way through all of them to get to what you're writing. what's the major continuity or major difference that you see? >> gosh, i don't even know where to begin. i mean, the first thing that pops into my head is, um, the research that i -- well, it didn't start out as research, but the experience that i had of being involved with the 125th street rezoning campaign which was purely one of me just going to meeting, following signs to meetings and going there with a pen just my friend, michael adams, said go there, you know? i wasn't very self-motivated. but i went. and it was a moment when i'd been away from new york, from
harlem for about a year. and i came back, and i was just really aware of all of this change happening. it seemed it had hit a critical moment. and so i became involved in that campaign. and after it was finished and after the campaign was lost and 125th street was rezoned even though you don't see the typical, you don't see high-rise condominiums yet, but it's legal to build them there now, i was doing research again, and i found narratives of meetings that had happened in, like, 1955 that were almost the same meeting where there was a plan in place to redesign 125th street. so just, i became aware of this cycle of questions that have been posed to this community and a consistent response from the
community. so that's just one similarity where actually the same activity was happening 50 years later. >> right. >> and the way this community has been, um, the subject of a reimagination or a plan. >> right. >> okay, i'm being asked to wrap it up. [laughter] now, the differences, i mean, i think what you've raised about the spaces and the way that the work of individuals created those spaces, it's something for us to really consider deeply. as much as i can say flippantly that these restaurants are just places to go have a drink or, you know, they're also amazing institutions which exist like harlem stage which is nurturing incredible work and funding new work. another institution, of course, the possibility of the schomburg
i mean, just the continuity that exists in this building is an incredible thing. you know, you talk about some of the work ann petri did was at the 135th street branch working with a theater group. so i'm always looking around and seeing, you know, on 138th street you can go and see the sign of where marcus garvey had his first meeting in harlem. it's a meeting room of a church. or other spaces. i'm always thinking what happened there. i'm really interested in reinhabitatting those spaces, and there's projects that i have done or want to do, and i just am energized by the possibilities of those collaborations. you know? so that's, i guess, where my eye is. i've also spent time away. i lived in new orleans for two years which is a really amazing school for community and art and politics existing all at the same time, as the same thing.
and so i felt like i came through that place and returned to harlem with a new perspective of what was needed and what was possible. >> what's possible. i mean, that's -- i think that's a great place to end, because even though the, you know, the narrative of the harlem nocturne ends into the '40s and beginning the 50s where we get a kind of repression that comes onboard, i try to end it by showing that there are always a new generation that sees a new set of possibilities. my women -- i call them my women. they're not my women, but they leave harlem, they leave new york. but a whole new generation comes. lorraine hasn't bury and maya angelou comes. and so there is always kind of generating this sense of possibility. and then sharifa rhodes-pitts comes. it's all good. so, okay. [laughter] pleasure.
[applause] pleasure. [applause] >> so questions? i think -- do we have time for questions? to or are we done? i think there are time for questions. i think there's a mic here, so if you want a question, go to the mic. >> when you talk about the notion of place in harlem, you know, in this new restaurant, the cecil and menton's are just opening up. ask and it seems almost sort of prophetic to me that in preparation for the opening of these museums -- excuse me, for these restaurants the original neon signs for menton's was
taken off and given to the yet-to-open african-american museum in washington at the smithsonian. and i would just like to ask both of you if you really seriously think that harlem can avoid becoming a place where the schomburg is sort of like a synagogue in chinatown? [laughter] >> that's very real. >> michael, i've heard you express that before, and i think it's absolutely something anyone who cares kneads to have their -- needs to have their eye trained on. i also think as long as there are black people in the streets of harlem -- and i'm just, like, even as i say that, all these encounters that i overhear and pass through and cross through
and hear people put out in amazing, poetic ways, like that is its own space making. and i have my own inner debate about, you know, i had a conversation with a friend about the -- we were looking at the renaissance ballroom, and you know really well the story of what's happening and what's happened there. i don't even know the up-to-date story what's happening. but the renaissance ballroom being a space that was deliberately created by with black people brick by brick to have a place to socialize and celebrate and have a business being blocked from landmark status, which is something michael fought against, in order that the -- [inaudible] corporation could make a condominium there. so i was talking to a friend about this, and, you know, here -- the very deliberate nature of that building and what
it meant and that people subscribed brick by brick to build it seemed to be a really dark story about our persistence here. and by friend said to me, you know -- my friend said to me, you know, that as black people we've always had to be fugitives in the way we inhabit space and the way our culture inhabits space. so i think there are different ways to live with that problem and to live with that question. it is dominated by capital, and the capital's not something that we control. and the black people who control capital are breasted in more capital. -- are interested in more capital. so it's not the first thing that people are trying to do. and the idea that you go to a museum and that's a triumphant
thing to be celebrated, um, unfortunately we've all settled for our culture being -- or history, and not just black people's history, all people's history. we are quite used to that being the way things go. what were alternative possibilities for the cecil? what kind of space might it have been? i think as long as -- i feel like that story was written, you know? >> i mean, i think that, well, for the audience michael henry adams is one of the, you know, very important figures for both of us in terms of also just knowledge of harlem history and harlem architectural history and activism. and i think, you know, that question is very real, and it's not just real about harlem, it's real about all of these historic black places all over the country where we go whether they
be in washington, d.c. or atlanta or, you know, any place where you -- central avenue in los angeles. and in some places harlem is one of the last strongholds because of what it's been to kind of hold on to a sense of historic identity. and it's a, i think what's interesting, you know, what's interesting about this moment and for some of us frightening and angering about this moment is that what you're talking about is a prophesy that, you know, sharifa cites james held done johnson who, you know, when harlem is really the race capital saying that black people will not be able to hold on to harlem, right? he says that at the end of black manhattan. and so it's a prophesy with which we've been living, but i think none of us felt that we would witness it in our
lifetime. and i think what was so frightening and compelling about the question that you raise is that now some of us can actually imagine, oh, this could, you know, this might happen in our lifetime. this might happen on our watch. so, i mean, i think that's both the richness and the fear of the question that you raise. >> and i also think importantly it's you have to keep in mind that it's not just a question about black harlem being black harlem, but, you know, the way i try to think about it and try to remind -- force myself to express it is, you know, people who survived and built this neighborhood being able to stay where their families have been. and a value being put on that kind of continuity. and it's not a value that is alive in places around the world. so i think that's, i mean, that
is the -- i think that's the thing that we must keep at the front of that conversation, that it's not so much that we want a sign to be there or we want people of a certain complexion to be here, but doesn't it mean something if you're able to stay where your people have been? and the infuriating discussion that you see if you spend time on new york real estate blogs say things like, well, if you can't afford -- [inaudible] there's a monster that sees its destiny to consume places and land. and we know that monster well. i don't know, like, how to face it. i just know that isn't it about, like, people being able to live, people being able to enhance the possibilities for their life?
be and, yeah, i guess i'm just always struggling with myself about how to frame the question in a way that's meaningful, you know? and in so doing, hopefully have conversations and be able to make actions that are -- >> the change that matters. >> hey. my question is about technology. interestingly enough, towards the end of this constitution you raised the question of how today's generation or the conscious artists for lack of a better world in today's world differs or is similar to those in the past in the '40s and such? what are your guys' thoughts on how technology affects that equation? does it help? does it hinder? people feel like technology brings us closer and helps, some people feel like it draws us further away from issues and what have you, so just your ideas on that would be cool. >> yeah. you know, i think it does both. there's always the kind of
paradoxical nature of any technological change, and as black people we have a vexed relationship to it. [laughter] but i think at this moment it actually in some ways does both. i mean, technology, if you think about things like social media, create community, create possibilities, create a kind of way of mobilizing that is unprecedented. and we see it, you know, we see it whether it's tahrir square or occupy or people mobilizing around stand your ground and trayvon. i mean, you know, that technology enables that in some ways. particularly social media enables that in some ways. and yet in other ways technology reinforces certain divides. i mean, who has access to it, you know, what -- it both creates community, but it also creates, you know, less contact between people.
so i think the answer to your question is that it does both of those things at the same time. and i know, sharifa, your thoughts. >> yeah. i'm justifieding around in my -- justifieding around in my head about the way with people gatter and the ways these women gathered and the energy that they gained from their community. and i know that people gape -- gain a certain similar kind of energy from following someone on facebook or twitter or instagram and you feel like you're there and everything. and i'm also interested in the ways that how we define what kind of groups we belong to have changed so that the defining -- the most important thing about you may not be that you're a black woman living in harlem in 1943. it might be that you're a person that owns these shoes and that app and buys these cool
sunglasses, i'm sorry, just glasses. you're a part of that community that that's who you are. so i think that is maybe where some of the shift is happening, and it's something for a person like me who i just feel like a straddle something where just because of the year i was born i can kind of -- i remember pre-mtv and also have some access, but it's quickly disappearing, to a younger, a younger generation. but i think or my sense is that be -- if we're just speaking about african people, that is not the most important thing about a person today. >> right. >> that they're not -- and i don't understand it completely, but i'm just beginning to have that question, to question my own assumptions that someone who is born in harlem today who has creative impulses who, you know, they may not define themselves according to these standards.
so maybe that's the question. and how that is changing. is it just the, is it that we have achieved our country -- [inaudible] or have, like, so many things just been thrown into our path more enticing than that, you know? so i guess that's my -- the question i'm constantly grappling with. i had a chance to visit with some university students earlier this month, and i really was just putting it out there, like does history even matter to you, you know? and i'm not -- and i think it does, but i think it's in a different way than i take for granted. >> hello. >> hi. >> first, i'd like to thank you for this book. it's a great read. >> thank you. >> so informative, and there's so many just different things i'm going to, you know, pursue further because you have such great detailed notes in here.
also thank you both for your contributions to literature and culture and what you're doing. it's very important. many questions, but i want to go back into the book. and i was very curious on carol pri miss and her life. the work that she was doing, i feel like -- or my question was how dangerous was it for her, like, during this time? because i feel like that wasn't -- i didn't want hear that story of her, you know, criticizing white america and jim crow, you know? like what kind of resistance did she face? like how harsh was it? >> well, first of all, thank you for already reading the book. appreciate that. [laughter] one of the things that's interesting, and i think this is because she's here in new york and she's ensconced in a certain kind of community that she doesn't feel the sense of danger in the same way, right? that she's part of a kind of progressive political community
of artists. she is very -- in fact, one of the, what she does before she leaves new york because she says new york is segregated, but it's not segregated with the signs, right? and she doesn't have, doesn't quite feel the limitations on her mobility in new york. so when she's about to go south, she's really nervous because she's thinking aye never been -- i've never been south, i've never been to jim crow south. so she writes various people through various networks including a group of young activists that the historian robin kelly writes about in his first book in alabama, young black activists with affiliations to the communist party, who take her in and take her up, right? and she takes advantage of these various networks. but the language that she uses, and it really stands out to us, is not language that a she's the only one using at the time. and so what's interesting to me is that the danger we expect her
to be experiencing in the 1940s she doesn't experience it so much in the 1940s. her use of that language and her engagement of those networks come back to haunt her later on with the rise of mccarthy. and it becomes dangerous -- you know, what becomes dangerous is what you said, what you, with whom you affiliated yourself in the past more so than a kind of actual danger in her moment. it's a sort of political danger that then looks back and says who did you know and when did you know them and how did you know them, and we're going to stop your mobility now because you said those things and did those things in the past. but that doesn't take away from the courage that she displayed during that period. so, yeah. >> hi, good evening. i had a question. well, i was just very startled when you spoke about how these women were actually very celebrated in their time, and it was kind of a tragic appointment
to think we've lost them, so to speak. do you think that's a function of the time in which they fall, or is there something about these women and their art that caused them to kind of fall into historical absence? and to also follow up with that, do you think that we still are in that moment? do you think that we still have the danger of letting artists that we celebrate die in the same way? do you think that's still possible today? >> um, i think that's always possible, you know? it's always possible. and the work of who gets remembered is rarely about the, you know, people will tell you that these are classics because they're great works and they're universal, and there's some truth to that. but they're classic because generations that come later decide they're worthy of keeping alive, and they el us something that we want to know about who we want to become. or because history is important to them and this version of
history is important. what happened with these women, i think, is, you know, they fall out of style aesthetically. there's a rise of new voices like baldwin and ellison, the early baldwin that have a different perspective on america and what black people are in america that become -- there's more room for that a perspective. you know, the fact that they're women has something to do with it. and they all -- what i do the like about their stories is unlike the sort of story where she's, you know, dies in obscurity and in poverty and then later on alice walker and other people rediscover her, that's not the case with these three women. they do fall sort of out of fashion, but a newer generation, the generation of the 1960s, the generation formed by black power, civil rights, the feminist movement really do kind of look back and say, oh, these are some foundational people. these are foundational techs.
so that at the end of their lives before they all die, each one of them is celebrated for the work that she does, and is recognized as a kind of foremother because the younger generation does have a sense of history and what's important. so, i mean, i think that -- it's the work, not only the work of what you do in your moment, but it's the work of the generations who follow to insure a kind of life and a longevity and immortality m. >> thank both of you for a wonderful conversation. one of the things i was very curious about was the history of the period that shaped these women in terms of their political ideology, their activism and in the broader context, something that michael talked about and what sharifa talked about is the space that we once occupied. >> right. >> and that citing james wheldon
johnson, we can't hold on to harlem. well, i don't know whether or not that's true if there is a resistance. so my question is given the political context of the time, that historical period contrast to today when people, in fact, are being pushed out and there are few alternatives for people who are being pushed out, why do you think that there is absent in this period a radical resistance as existed during world war ii where there was radical politics and it's very ideologically entrenched which is not true today, and there is
this acquiescence to the inevitable. we can't hold on. and you give some political context for that in terms of contrasting the two periods? >> right. >> and what we have today that i think has had an artistic impact up like anything that we have seen as this community, this historic black community is slowly dying. thank you. >> no. i mean, i think -- thank you for many things, but for that question in particular. i think that there was a sense with generation, with group of women that there was no such thing as kind of inevitability or except the inevitability was that they were engaged in strug and that they would always be engaged in struggle. that they were, you know, there budget a sense of act -- there
wasn't a sense of acquiescence. you might lose a battle, but it wasn't because you didn't fight it or because you accepted the inevitability of it. i think that all of them inherit, they come to this space during a time when it's come out of depression where there are a certain set of radical possibilities and organizing possibilities and that harlem is not only, you know, they aren't looking at harlem as a kind of space of cultural nostalgia. it's very much a vie brant, cultural space where one is engaged in both a cultural, social and a political life, and that's shaping who they are. and i also think that what we see, i mean, what we're still dealing with is that we have inherited what was a conscious assault on those movements that they were a part of. that then sort of resurrects themselves again later on, and then there's a conscious violent
sort of repressive assault on those, you know, similar kinds of ideological sensibilities. that we see, you know, kind of rearing their heads in the '30s and '40s and hen the mccarthy era and the conservativism of the mccarthy era closes those possibilities off. they come up again in the 1960s in things like coin tell pro shut them off or other repressive acts. one of the things that i hope is that resurrecting this history will be a reminder of that legacy, you know, that that is a legacy, that that is a is set of possibilities that is available to all of us, and it is a birthright to all of us. so i think that's -- it's not that, you know, generations just fell asleep. i think there's an aggressive assault to foreclose those possibilities and foreclose people seeing them, seeing the possibility of fighting the inevitable. i hope that answers your question. >> it does. prison. [applause]
it really does. i hope that one of you ladies will get around to giving us a biography on claudia jones who was deported -- >> yeah. >> she settled in england, but she is of that period. >> absolutely. >> a truly epic woman. >> no, i mean -- >> in terms of her confronting the government and what was taking place. and one so rarely hears about her or any reference to her during that black history month, that one month that captures our -- >> everything. [laughter] >> our minds. but i hope that someone someday gives this dear lady some justice. >> well -- >> thank you. >> i'd recommend, there's a book by a woman named carol boys davies which is about claudia jones, and it's the first biography of claudia jones. you know, there were essays,
angela davis wrote a series of essays, but carol boyce davies actually does have a book, and for anybody looking for a project, you know, i actually think that there's -- i have a trip tick of women artists, but there's also kind of a similar book, canyon book that could be of the women activists that would include claudia jones or ella baker, all of whom were kind of in harlem at this period. >> yeah. barbara -- [inaudible] has done a great job of ella baker. >> and -- [inaudible] robison recently. >> thank you. >> right. >> good evening, ladies. >> good evening. >> thank you for your conversation this evening. my question kind of ties in with the first question and the lady that just left but more based on
cultural appropriation, you know? you know, we started some art forms, we enhanced some art forms. i'm talking about black artists. and what i've been seeing, i mean, i don't mind if other cultures share our music, appreciate our music and, you know, to some extent i know it's always been going on especially with music, pat boone being one example. he would take hits from black artists and cross over, 1950s. and what are your thoughts on fighting it, or what can -- or should we just accept the slide? you know, what are your thoughts on or your ideas, you know, other than teaching to our children what we can do to stop the not appreciation, but
appropriation, you know? and i just want -- a recent example that just comes to mind is this i didn't see it, but, you know, the mtv music awards or rid owe awards? -- video awards? you know, where it's like there was some kind of theme, black theme for lack of a better example, you know? r&b but not one artist, not one black artist won any awards either for hip-hop, rap or r&b. and then it was the infamous twerking incident. so it was like we were represented at the mtv awards by white artists who are using our artistry, you know, to enhance their careers. and what's scary to me is i see a lot of our young people, you know, picking it up 12, 13, you
know, that think justin bieber and justin timberlake and robin thicke are r&b artists. they don't see black artists, you know? and that's scary. and you have to explain to them, you know, that r&b is, you know, started by black artists, rhythm and blues, them them about the his -- tell them about the history, what little i know. but just your thoughts, if anything. thank you. >> i didn't see mtv either. [laughter] so i can't really speak to it. but the first thing that comes to mind is that those kids that you talk to are hopefully, and i'm probably definitely creating something new right now -- >> yeah, exactly. >> and i just know i've been astonished watching, you know, people show me videos of like these kids in l.a. dancing or these kids in paris dancing or
whatever, and, like, it's always on the move. >> right. >> and i think the part that is disturbing and has always been disturbing as long as it's been happening is the money that follows the appropriation. and that the -- but at the same time, those kids in l.a. are, like, trying to make money. >> right. >> we need to teach them how to make money off of what they're doing, perhaps, as well as teaching them the history of these forms. um, so it's, i guess there's a kind of a critical consciousness about, about media, about the industry, about the way industry makes money from art and always has. but the main thing is i just think that it's always on the move, and i don't know how much energy to spend on being offended by miley cyrus thinking she's being black, you know?
like i don't know. >> right. i absolutely agree. one of the things that drove me crazy -- i didn't watch it, i don't care. i was sick of hearing about miley cyrus, and i thought let's stop wasting our energy. we have so much to do, stop wasting our energy on girl what can doing. i think the cultural appropriation question is one that bothers us, absolutely. that cultures are, you know, they're borderless. i mean, we live right next to each other. there are always cultures informing and influencing each other, and i she sharifa is absolutely right. there's so much new that's being produced that one of the things that black culture does is that it is constantly avant-garde. it's constantly creating and recreating something new. you know, you mentioned justin bieber and robin thicke, that song that was ubiquitous everywhere, is that, you know, and this is what you can tell young people, it's tired, you know? we listen to it, and we think
that sounds like marvin gay e, it sounds like r&b 30 years ago. so it's, you know, right. there's a constant mobility and moving and the sort of creativity of what's probably being created right outside is more interesting and exciting than what happened during that m involve stage. i don't watch it. it doesn't feed me anyway. >> at the same time, i wouldn't -- i would hazard a guess that that creativity is underdeveloped by the, like, hack of real culture that's being beamed into their heads all the time. so it is something to think about, and i think what you say about what you in your own efforts do to share your knowledge and experience and love of the culture is an important thing. >> yeah. >> and, um, i think creating those moments of transmission across generations is super important even if it's just your little cousins or, you know,
like play them marvin gaye because they may not have heard it. at the same time, those kids have youtube, and there's an incredible archive of everything that's ever been created, and that's also amazing. >> right. and i find so many of them know -- find stuff that i didn't even know about. so i think the work that you do one-on-one is -- and what we all have to do -- is very important. and young, creative minds are absorbing it all like sponges. and unlike the kind of commercial sort of regurgitation of something that has already happened, they're going to process it if they have access to it and really interesting -- in really interesting and exciting ways. so thank you so much. [applause] >> please join me in thanking farrah griffin and sharifa rhodes pitts for this terrific corporation. their books are on sale at the gift shop, and they will be around for the next half an hour to sign. thank you so much for coming. [applause]
joyce carol oates. here is her most recent book, "the accursed," it's called. joyce carol oates is the author. ms. oates, we don't often have novelists on booktv on c-span, but this is historical fiction in a sense, isn't it? >> guest: oh, yes. >> host: how so? >> guest: well, i did a tremendous amount of research, and that was the most pleasant part of the writing intore princeton and vicinity in the years 1905 and '6 when woodrowix wilson was president of princeton university. >> host: what was princeton like at that time? >> guest: at that time, it's a kind offal gore callf a representation of affluent, white christian america generally, and princeton is sort of an exemplary -- and woodrow wilson has a cameo in your booki doesn't he? >> guest: well, a principal character. he's in much of the novel. in a sense it's about woodrow wilson.
he's confronted by a demon. he's tempted -- i shouldn't say what happens, but he behaves quite nobly in the novel. but he does represent many of the shortcomings of people of m his time such as he was af th racist, and he was a sexist and other -- probably his most principal problem was that he really thought he was anointed by god. >> host: to what?y >> guest: to be a leader. he was anointed by god. i don't think this is that uncommon for some people toe feel, politicians and statesmen and leaders. some of them are, obviously, pathological and some less obviously so. >> host: without giving away the plot, can you tell us about the curse? >> guest: well, the curse in the novel really means the white upper class christian people who looked, literally looked the other way when the ku klux klan was operating in new jersey andx elsewhere. black people were being lynched
and harassed and tortured and murdered, and the whiteured leaders -- like woodrow wilson and many others -- just would not say anything about it.t they wouldn't come outag courageously to criticize it. they wouldn't do anything. it was, basically, that they, you know, see no evil, hear noee evil and say no evil. that sort of thing. of so i thought there was a curse on the white race, basically. >> host: and upton sinclair's in your book.ost: >> guest: upton sinclair was 26t years old. he represents a younger generation. he sort of rises in the rise in interest and equality among the races and sexes. the novel's also about women's rights and women acquiring the vote. >> host: and jack london and grover cleveland are also in "the accursed." >> guest: yes. jack london is a friend of upton sinclair, and they're both socialis.