John Farris, bohemian poet who chronicled life on Lower East Side

John Farris in a recent photo in the vestibule at Bullet Space, a former squat on E. Third St. Photo by Maggie Wrigley

BY SARAH FERGUSON | It’s hard to fathom a Lower East Side without John Farris. The beloved, if notoriously cantankerous, poet was found dead of a heart attack in his one-bedroom apartment at the Bullet Space artists’ homestead on E. Third St. on Jan. 22. He was 75.

With his sharp wit and abrasive personality, Farris was for decades an integral part of the Downtown literary and jazz scenes. He performed at a wide range of venues, reading wry, lyrical poems and densely crafted prose that both celebrated and satirized the people of the Lower East Side. He insisted that you listen to him — whether you wanted to or not.

Though he was constantly writing, Farris didn’t actually publish much — a single novel, “The Ass’s Tale,” put out in 2010 by the Unbearables collective, a slim volume of poetry, “It’s Not About Time” (Fly By Night Press, 1993) and some chapbooks — along with numerous poems, short stories and essays he contributed to magazines, art journals and anthologies. Yet his influence extends far beyond what ended up in print:

In 2008, the Howl! Festival named him poet laureate of the Lower East Side, and in 2013 he won an Acker Award for his novel, and in recognition of his life spent performing and mentoring other writers and artists — many of whom went on to achieve national prominence.

“His work was extraordinary. He plucked these gorgeous, surreal and very funny poems out of thin air,” said writer Darius James, who first encountered Farris in 1983 when Farris was living in the back room of Life Cafe on Avenue B and running a weekly reading series there.

James credits Farris with helping school him in his artistic roots.

“John was definitely part of the black bohemian scene that’s been in existence and largely undocumented since the 1840s,” said James, author of “Negrophobia” and “That’s Blaxploitation.”

“He knew all the black musicians, writers and artists who were prominent in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He knew them from hanging out in places like Slug’s,” James added, referring to the old jazz spot on E. Third St. “So you had a sense of continuity from John. He was part of the Lower East Side bohemian spirit.”

“He was a great poet. He owned the streets. He really was of the neighborhood. A fixture,” said Bob Holman, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club. “He was also a synesthete, someone who could see sounds and hear colors, for whom the senses mix. You can hear it in a lot of his jazz poems. They are filled with crazily imaginative language that is like synesthesia.”

Though fiercely political — he was at one time a bodyguard to Malcolm X — Farris eschewed any inkling of black nationalism, hewing instead to a more universal aesthetic.

“John was the first black poet I met who didn’t talk about the black experience in his poetry, and I was impressed with that,” said renowned conceptual artist David Hammons, who considered Farris a muse.

“He had a sense of humor and I really liked that,” Hammons continued. “Wherever he went he could seduce the bartenders to give him free drinks. I watched him go from place to place — Life Cafe, Vazac’s, 2A, NuBlu. Everywhere he went, he’d sit at the corner of the bar and hold court. He would, like, own the bartender because of his mouth.” (Of course, that same mouth got him 86’d from most places, too.)

John Farris on the roof of Bullet Space, circa 2000. Photo by Hisashi

He also was a ladies’ man and a “prolific father,” joked his daughter Sienna, who lives in Brooklyn. He was married four times and fathered six daughters “that we know of,” she said.

A high-school dropout, Farris was remarkably well-read and would have enjoyed wider acclaim were it not for his determinedly outsider status and obstinate personality.

Part of that owed to his difficult upbringing. He was born in Far Rockaway in 1940 and raised by a single mother who was part Seminole and from the South. They lived with his two sisters and brother in a small apartment with a shared bathroom down the hall.

“The library was my refuge,” Farris said in an interview. He left home when he was 17 and began hanging around the coffeehouse scene in Greenwich Village.


I was born in 1940

on Manhattan, “Island 

of Hills”, “Place of Inebriation.” 

placer of muskrat, beaver

and mink. My ancestors built a wall

for the Dutch

to keep them contained, out

like a line in the sand, being

thereby kept both in

and out, effectively dividing them-


against themselves for the patroons… 

— from “Heritage,” 1999 (for Ama-

dou Diallo)


“He was one of the original Beats in his way. He came of age among the Beats,” said Dalton Anthony Jones, an associate professor of cultural studies at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, who considers Farris his stepfather. “When I was kicked out of school at age 13, he took me under this wing and mentored me,” said Jones.

If Farris found freedom in the counterculture, he quickly ran up against its double standards. In 1959, he was smoking a joint with a couple of white Beatniks on Bleecker St. when he got busted for trafficking marijuana. Farris said his friend asked him to pass a paper bag of pot to some guys, who turned out to be undercover cops

“I didn’t know what was in the bag, it wasn’t even my reefer,” Farris later said. Yet, unlike his white counterparts whose families could afford lawyers, Farris was sentenced to three years. While in prison, his mother passed away on the day of his 21st birthday.

“It was a big turning point in his life. He talked about that a lot,” said Jones. Another setback was the heroin overdose of his older brother, Philip, an artist and jazz musician.

Released from jail in 1961, Farris moved to a friend’s apartment on Avenue A, where he met his first wife, Chinyelu, a dancer for Babatunde Olatunji. They moved to Harlem, where he fathered two daughters and helped raise Sai, Chinyelu’s son from a prior relationship with actor Morgan Freeman. According to Chinyelu, they lived off her dancing and Farris’s poetry.

“He’d go to jazz shows or stand on the streets of Greenwich Village and recite poems, and people would give him money for it,” she recalled.

Though never a Muslim, he was inspired by Malcolm X and served briefly as one of his bodyguards. On the night of the assassination, Farris was in the Audubon Ballroom, assigned to guard Malcolm X’s wife, Betty Shabazz. Farris’s wife, Chinyelu, then pregnant, was sitting in the front row with their first daughter and Sai.

“When Malcolm was shot, the gunshots were going and they were all running from the stage to the back of the ballroom, and John was running after the shooters,” recalled Chinyelu. “I know he later felt guilty that he hadn’t done more, though he shouldn’t have. They were shooting like crazy. It was total chaos.”

Phoebe Farris, his second wife, said John related the story differently:

“John saved his first wife and their two children, who were in the front row during the shooting,” she said. “His first instinct was to save his own family, and he felt guilty later.”

Disgusted by all the political infighting in the black militant scene in the wake of the assassination, Farris migrated to the Black Arts Movement, then under the orbit of Amiri Baraka — though again he found himself on the outskirts.

“During that period of black nationalism, he never succumbed to the easy answers of racial essentialism, even though that often put him at odds with some of the figures of that period,” said Dalton Jones. “He always maintained his own center of gravity.”

In the early ’70s, he taught poetry to kids at the Children’s Art Carnival in Harlem, where he worked with Phoebe.

“He invented a poetry board game for children and the kids loved it,” she recalled. “But he was not able to get funding to market it.”

They had a daughter, and Farris sought to make a name for himself on the poetry circuit, reading at jazz and dance performances and literary events alongside people like Quincy Troupe, Steve Cannon, Ntosake Shange,  David Murray and Don Cherry.

His family describes Farris as a loving father, but quintessentially narcissistic and difficult to live with.

“He wanted to have the luxury of just writing and have others deal with the real world of paying the rent, etc.,” said Phoebe, who went on to become a professor of art and women’s studies at Purdue University.

“He was a creative genius and artist, but he made it clear to me he was devoted to his poetry and art first,” added their daughter, Sienna. “For him, it was like he had to make that decision.”

Following the breakup of his second marriage, Farris returned Downtown and assumed the role of poet full time. He had a remarkable knack for living rent-free. He lived with jazz great Ornette Coleman for six months in the early 80s. (“I was the doorman,” he quipped. “I let the ladies in.”) He also lived in back of the after-hours bookstore Neither/Nor on E. Sixth St., where he held a weekly reading series that fans say was not to be missed — hosting cutting-edge writers like Baraka, Kathy Acker, Miguel Pinero, Joel Rose, Catherine Texier and Patrick McGrath.

John Farris in a heavy costume of bones in “Barkelot,” a feminist performance piece.


When Neither/Nor closed in 1986, he took up residence in a squat at 539 E. 13th St., where he held readings at the second-floor Alchemical Theatre. (Drunks, crackheads and other vagrants from this period turn up in writings, morphed into animals — including Farris himself.) He also lived in the basement of the Living Theatre on E. Third St., where he served as a caretaker, staged plays and ran a midnight poetry series.

Dancer Patricia Winter recalled performing with Farris in her feminist performance piece “Barkelot” — she on a leash and Farris in a costume made entirely of cow bones.

“John was such a trooper,” she said. “He was naked in this bone costume that weighed like 50 pounds, and he was already kind of crippled then, so he was limping, but he loved it. It was just such a bizarre piece. [Painter] Al Loving did the set design and Frank Lowe, the saxophonist, played with us.”

When the Living Theatre closed in 1993, the artists at Bullet Space took him in.

“Bullet Space was a godsend for John,” said Jones. “He really did a lot of writing and readings there.”

In the 1990s, Farris also helped out at poetry workshops at the East Village’s Tribes gallery, and was an editor for the literary journals “Peau Sensible” and “Sensitive Skin,” deeply influencing that close-knit circle of writers.

“He was our loa, our Papa Legba,” said writer Norman Douglas, referring to the Vodou spirit trickster and elocutioner.

Still, friends say his obstinate personality often got in the way of more worldly success.

“He was definitely an antagonist. He was a difficult man. He ended up burning a lot of bridges,” remarked Jones.

Darius James recalled the time he persuaded Bob Guccione, editor of Spin magazine, to allow Farris to interview Sun Ra, with whom Farris was tight.

“The interview was great,” James said. “It still gets quoted in academic circles. But John got mad when Spin didn’t pay him in a timely fashion. So he went up to the office and was like, ‘Mo’f–kas, give me my money!’ So Guccione had them cut him a check right there, but that was it,” James said, meaning Farris had blown up a good connection.

Similarly, Tribes impresario Steve Cannon said that shortly after he published Farris’s first book, “It’s Not About Time,” he arranged for Farris to guest lecture at Rutgers University, where Nuyorican poet Miguel Algarin was teaching.

“Rutgers was going to pay him like $1,500 and buy 60 copies of the book,” Cannon recalled. “But when we went back in the storage room, we found all the books were gone. Farris sold them all to buy drinks at [the bar] 2A.

“He was constantly getting in fights with people,” laughed Cannon, a close friend. “Not only was he mean, he would kick someone’s ass if he got into a disagreement with them. I used to have to throw him out of Tribes all the time because he would antagonize these young poets I had helping me here. He got thrown out of the Nuyorican [Poets Cafe] for berating the poets there.”

Farris made no apologies about such behavior. He reveled in the flaws of others, and himself.


Two years past fifty & I’ve got a pot 


My teeth, demolished bridges I can’t 


anymore; the abutments list in weak 


— from “Bridges,” 1993


Farris was also stubborn about not pushing to get his stuff in print

“It was a willful choice not to publish,” said Douglas. “Like Socrates, he felt it was more important to reach somebody through his voice in person, to imprint oneself via the oral, than through the written word.”

Some of the drawings that covered the walls of Farris’s apartment where he died. Photo by Sarah Ferguson

Drafts for Farris’s phantasmagorical novel, “The Ass’s Tale,” circulated around the Lower East Side for years before Ron Kolm of the Unbearables collective persuaded Farris to let them publish it. The book, which won a PEN Oakland Award in 2011, is a satirical play on the ancient Latin novel “The Golden Ass,” by Apuleius. It’s also a shaggy-dog tale about a down-and-out drifter who turns into a dog, suffused with punning references to jazz, mythology and pop culture.

“He mixes in all these pop references but the dude is actually a classicist,” noted Kolm, who said he was “in awe” of Farris’s writing.

Farris loved the Lower East Side; he said he found “everything” he needed there. His work captured the life and cadence of the neighborhood with meticulous detail. He found wonder in the most mundane, with funny puns that get inside your head and tug at you. “Sightings,” a chapbook he published in 2004 with Sisyphus Press, is made up of poems about sitting at his window watching a new building go up.

“He had a very photographic eye,” noted poet and publisher Steve Dalachinsky. “He told me he only wrote stoned. His drug of choice was weed. He smoked weed constantly, and he would smoke before he gave readings.”

You can google videos of him reading alongside jazz musicians that should be preserved on vinyl for future generations to venerate. “Flatting Third” — a film poem produced by Ed Montgomery in 2008 — features the voice of Farris juxtaposed against panoramic views of Loisaida, accompanied by the searing trumpet of Jumaani Smith.

A sculpture by John Farris made out of masking tape.


Partly on the suggestion of Hammons, who thought it would be a good way to earn money, Farris took up drawing in his latter years, producing scores of self-portraits and sketches that blanketed his walls, and sculpting heads out of plastic bags and masking tape. He had his first show in 2010 at Bullet, and sold several pieces to collectors.


I draw like a precocious ten-year old. I 

draw blacks and make vivid color

in black graphite, use self-portraits to 


blue, anger say, to suggest red. 

If I am brown, it is only in the context 

of the context, 

a wink to suggest the bright, the clever.

— from “Drawing,” 2015


But over the past decade, his health and his mobility declined markedly. Friends said he stopped drinking in 2000, after he suffered a minor stroke — or that’s what his family believes — it was never fully diagnosed.

“John always refused to go to the doctor. You could threaten to call 911, but he wouldn’t budge,” said Bullet Space co-founder Andrew Castrucci.

He had trouble walking and climbing the stairs to his fourth-floor apartment, so his fellow artists at Bullet helped care for him. Photographer/writer Maggie Wrigley frequently brought him meals.

“He was one of the most creative, challenging and inspiring people I have ever met,” she said.

“He was like our grandfather,” added Castrucci.

A drawing of a reader covered the screen of a Mac computer in his room. Photo by Sarah Ferguson


“I saw him the week before [he died] on Avenue C,” said Holman. “He was hobbling down the avenue on a double cane set, bent over like some kind of crazy happy beast. We joked about his getting back up on the bicycle. He loved to ride the bicycle. He would ride it even when he had trouble walking. I don’t know why he grew so old so fast.”

“He got more isolated in the last year,” Castrucci said, “especially after Tribes closed. He’d spend weeks up in his apartment without leaving.”


… All my musician friends are dying

Diz, Miles, Clifford Jordan, Philip Wil

son; Sun Ra is in Alabama

helpless with a stroke (O black world, I 

never imagined this 

life without Sun, without the stride 

piano, his sequined dance).

— from “Bridges,” 1993


Nevertheless, Castrucci believes he died happy.

“He didn’t die in the hospital. He drew every day. Right before he died, he was working on a new wave of poetry — some of his best stuff. It was all about drawing,” Castrucci said, sifting through the detritus of handwritten poems, sketches and loose tobacco mixed in with old bills and correspondence that littered the floors of his apartment.

“I’m finding unfinished novels in here.”

A memorial note to Farris on the front door of Bullet Space. Photo by Sarah Ferguson


Farris’s ashes will be scattered under the maple tree in the backyard of Bullet, in accordance with his wishes. A celebration of John’s life and work will be held on April 29 at Judson Memorial Church, in the Village, at 55 Washington Square South, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. There will be a retrospective show of his art and ephemera at Bullet Space in May.



At last

I am



I can

Get myself

Arrested for.

The bridge

of the nose

will finally take me

to Brooklyn.

I’m back on


Identification. It


The sneer

of the lips

The eyes

Look you straight

in the face


Pure arrogance. Yes, I confess

— again,

I did that

I’m bad.


I had tried being born again in 1940: no 

fanfare (flash photographs 

of the Child-Me-Asleep, Under the 

Madonna’s Adoring Gaze, Magi),


fancy (halo, my first shoes, bronzed, 

made into bookends)

— from “Born Again,” 1993

Randi Hoffman reviews: Frank Stella, A Retrospective


the whiteness of the whale -stella

Frank Stella, The Whiteness of the Whale (IRS-1, 2X), 1987. Paint on aluminum. 149 x 121 3/4 x 45 1/4 in. (378.5 x 309.2 x 114.9 cm). Private collection. © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Steven Sloman.


By Randi Hoffman

Frank Stella Retrospective Takes Flight 

                Frank Stella’s retrospective at the Whitney, which closes February 7, showcases the artist’s evolution over the decades in terms of spontaneity and dimensionality.  Ordered more or less chronologically, the exhibit begins with flat, ordered geometric shapes, often based on streetscapes he has witnessed, and becomes more and more three dimensional, until the paintings are sculptures of animals that seem ready to fly and walk by themselves.

Early in his career, Frank Stella had a studio on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side, and named many paintings of this period after the sidewalks he pounded daily. The paintings East Broadway, Great Jones Street, and Eldridge Street, from 1958, are sometimes monochromatic, and all comprised of squares and shapes. They capture the grim industrial atmosphere of Lower Manhattan of the 50s, before it was developed into the Houston street lined with glass towers that it is today.

These paintings are extremely organized, and Stella planned them in advance. East Broadway consists of fuzzy, mustard-colored and black horizontal stripes pierced by a black vertical rectangle, that looks like a door, at the bottom, slightly off center.  Stella said he used cheap masking tape, so that the colors would bleed into each other more.

His series of black rectangles within rectangles was exhibited at MOMA when Stella was only 22-years-old, awarding him early acclaim. Even as early as these “black paintings,” Stella’s work was beginning to exhibit layering and three-dimensional texture. Soon however, in additional to layering his paint, he began to build on his paintings, creating a more sculptural character.

With his protractor paintings of the sixties his paintings became cleaner and more precise, continuing with pre-planned, geometric techniques. Containing arcs within squares, he named them after cities with circular street plans he had visited in the Middle East.  In the center of the exhibit is the mural-sized Damascus Gate.

By 1987 Stella’s spontaneity had increased. His Moby Dick paintings are three-dimensional and built of painted aluminum, named after Herman Melville’ classic American novel. The Whitney exhibits three of the series. It is said that his sculpture of Moby Dick was inspired by his encounter with a Beluga Whale at an aquarium (most likely the Coney Island aquarium, which used to have huge tanks of Beluga Whales), which he described as “an unlikely combination of mass and grace.” The Whiteness of the Whale depicts waves, and perhaps fire and harpoons, as well as the kinetic white shape of the whale. It all feels like it is in motion. Another in the series is Fedullah, named after Captain Ahab’s loyal first mate, who helped him find the elusive whale.

Stella’s most recent work mostly completed after the year 2000, is a room of full-fledged sculptures, no longer anchored to the wall at all. La penna di hu, 1987-2009, is a cacophony of shapes made of aluminum and fiberglass, containing boxes of slatted wood resembling the home-made crab traps I used to see on the Chesapeake Bay.

Overall, this mostly chronological arrangement of Frank Stella’s work shows the early influence of the abstract expressionists, and his architectural influences, moves to a more minimalist representation of shapes, and then becomes looser, and more spontaneous and aerodynamic. It is a breath of fresh air, and fits well in the airy space of the new Whitney.


east broadway whitney

Frank Stella, East Broadway, 1958. Oil on canvas. 85 1/4 x 81 in. (216.5 x 205.7 cm). Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts; gift of the artist (PA 1954) 1980.14. © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Anger of Ta-Nehisi Coates

In Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again,” a poem published in 1936, a narrator speaks for those who struggle—the poor white, the Negro bearing slavery’s scars, the red man driven from the land, the immigrant clutching hope—and he offers the consolation, the defiance, of the young man, the farmer, the worker, united in demanding that America become “the dream the dreamers dreamed,” “the land that never has been yet.” Hughes addressed rallies of thousands in the Midwest and predicted that because the Depression had been so traumatic, mainstream America would go to the left politically. He got it wrong and spent the next two decades coping with the fallout, professionally, of having been sympathetic to communism.

Hughes was a panelist alongside Richard Wright at the National Negro Congress in Chicago in 1936, but two years later in “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” Wright dismissed the Harlem Renaissance writers as part of the black literary tradition of prim ambassadors who “entered the Court of American Public Opinion dressed in the knee-pants of servility.” Hughes was so identified with the Negro Awakening of the 1920s that he seemed to Wright to belong to an older generation, though there were only six years between them. Wright got his start publishing in leftist magazines and although he toed the Communist line of working-class solidarity that conquered race difference, and could envision in his early poetry black hands raised in fists together with those of white workers, the spirit of his revolt had very little of Hughes’s Popular Front uplift. His feelings were much more violent.

In “Between the World and Me,” a poem that appeared in Partisan Review in 1935, Wright’s narrator imagines the scene of a lynching:

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms.
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me….
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt finger accusingly at the sky.

Wright’s “I” recalls that the passive scene has woken up. “And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that my life be burned.” “They” had him; his wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as they bound him to the sapling and poured hot tar:

Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leapt to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs.

The poem’s last line shifts to the present tense. The speaker is now dry bones, his face “a stony skull staring in yellow surprise at the sun.”

Wright was not the first to treat the site of a lynching as a haunted place. Hughes himself wrote more than thirty poems about lynching, investigating the effects on families and communities. But “Between the World and Me” doesn’t draw a moral from having contemplated the grisly scene. There is no promise of either redemption or payback. The poem concentrates on the violence to the black man’s body, on trying to get us to step into the experience of his “icy fear.”

The black struggle in the US has a dualist tradition. It expresses opposing visions of the social destiny of black people. Up, down, all or nothing, in or out, acceptance or repudiation. Do we stay in the US or go someplace else, blacks in the abolitionist societies of the 1830s debated. We spilled our blood here, so we’re staying, most free blacks answered. Some people now say that maybe Booker T. Washington’s urging black people to accommodate segregation saved black lives as he raised money to build black educational institutions. Marcus Garvey recast segregated life as the Back to Africa movement, a voluntary separatism, a black nationalism. W.E.B. Du Bois battled Garvey as he had Washington, but by 1933 Du Bois gave up on his militant integrationist strategies, resigned from the NAACP and The Crisis magazine, embraced black nationalism, and in 1935 published his landmark history, Black Reconstruction in America. Which is better: to believe that blacks will achieve full equality in American society or to realize that white racism is so deep that meaningful integration can never happen, so make other plans?

Wright was condescending about Hughes’s gentle autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), as was Ralph Ellison, who, then in his Marxist phase, complained that the poet paid too much attention to the aesthetic side of experience. Ellison praised Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy (1945), but the spectacular success of Wright’s novel Native Son (1940) drove him to be as different from Wright as he could in Invisible Man (1952). They both broke with the Communist Party in the early 1940s but saw themselves as opposites. Wright moved to France in 1946 in the mood of an exile, the black intellectual alienated from US society, while Ellison remained at home, the artist sustained by what he saw as a black person’s cultural ability to keep on keeping on.

In later years, Ellison remembered Wright, six years his senior, as a father figure whom he had quickly outgrown. But Wright’s example inspired the young James Baldwin to move to Paris in 1948. Wright was hurt when Baldwin declared his independence from the protest tradition by denouncing Native Son. Baldwin later defended his criticisms, arguing in part that Wright’s concentration on defining his main character by the force of his circumstances sacrificed that character’s humanity. Baldwin’s turn would come in Leroi Jones’s essay collection Home (1965), in which he sneered at Baldwin for being popular on the white liberal cocktail circuit. Worse was in store for Baldwin, the understanding queer in a time of narrow macho militancy.

Jones, on the verge of reinventing himself as Amiri Baraka, fumed about the “agonizing mediocrity” of the black literary tradition. For him, the Harlem Renaissance had been too white, and never mind that Hughes in his manifesto, “The Negro and the Racial Mountain,” published in 1926, had proclaimed the determination of members of his generation of black writers to express their dark-skinned selves without apology. If black American history can be viewed as the troubled but irresistible progression of black people toward liberation, then it would appear that every generation of black writers redefines the black condition for itself, restates the matter in its own language. “There has always been open season on Negroes…. You don’t need a license to kill a Negro,” Malcolm X said.

The fatalism of 1960s black nationalism and the wisdom of not believing America’s promises form part of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s intellectual inheritance from his father. Not only is Coates’s memoir The Beautiful Struggle (2008) a moving father-and-son story, it is an intense portrait of those whom the black revolution left behind, but who never broke faith with its tenets nonetheless:

Even then, in his army days, Dad was more aware than most. Back in training he’d scuffled with a Native American soldier, who tried to better his social standing by airing out the unit’s only black. After they were pulled apart, Dad walked up to his room, calmed down, and then returned to the common area. On a small table, he saw a copy of Black Boy. He just knew someone was fucking with him. But he picked up the book….
In Richard Wright, Dad found a literature of himself. He’d read Manchild in the Promised Land and Another Country, but from Wright he learned that there was an entire shadow canon, a tradition of writers who grabbed the pen, not out of leisure but to break the chain….
Now he began to come to. When on leave, he stopped at book stands in search of anything referencing his own. He read Malcolm’s memoir, and again saw some of his own struggle, and now began to feel things he’d, like us all, long repressed—the subtle, prodding sense that he was seen as less. He went back to Baldwin, who posed the great paradox that would haunt him to the end: Who among us would integrate into a burning house?

James Baldwin
James Baldwin; drawing by David Levine
Coates’s father was discharged from the military in 1967 when he was twenty-one and went to work as a baggage handler and cabin cleaner at the Baltimore airport. The early civil rights movement had taken place on television, southern and religious, remote from him. But his “new Knowledge” was his line drawn in the sand and to him Gandhi was “absurd” because “America was not a victim of great rot but the rot itself.” Coates tells us that while reading newspapers left behind on planes from the West Coast, his father discovered the Black Panthers. “My father was overcome.” In 1969, he offered himself to the Baltimore chapter, eventually becoming its head after he lost his job because of his arrest for moving guns.

Three years later the Panthers were falling apart, an organization wrecked by the FBI, paranoia, arrests, purges, factional disputes, murder. His father, Coates writes, was not the insurrectionary/suicidal type and his chapter had been more like a commune. “When he woke in the morning he thought not of guns but of oil, electricity, water, rent, and groceries.” Local chapters had financed themselves through the sale of the Panther newspaper and after every Panther chapter except the one in Oakland had been shut, initiatives such as free breakfast for children or clothing distribution programs stopped. Foot soldiers were left to languish in prisons; damaged souls lost the refuge, the fantasy, of hanging out with the revolution. The remaining national leadership harassed Coates’s father when he quit, but he “left the Panthers with a basic belief system, a religion that he would pass on to his kids.”

Coates says that his father, a survivor, was more suited to the real world than he knew and he founded his own propaganda machine, including a bookstore, printer, and publisher, calling it the George Jackson Movement, after the Black Panther who was shot trying to escape from Soledad prison. His father’s storefront was the church that Coates, born in 1975, grew up in, forced to study works of black history known only on the black side of town.

But it was music that set him on the path to consciousness, knowledge. Coates was twelve when he heard Eric B. & Rakim’s “Lyrics of Fury.” From trying to write his own rap, his relationship with and curiosity about words extended to his father’s shelves. “That was how I found myself.” He learned that his “name was a nation, not a target.” “When I was done, I emerged taller, my voice was deeper, my arms were bigger, ancestors walked with me, and there in my hands, behold, Shango’s glowing ax.”

His father met his mother in what they saw as a revolution. They were the kind of parents who found summer programs to put the kids in, college prep classes to enroll them in, and decent high schools outside their school district, and they started practice sessions for the SAT. They not only showed up at PTA meetings, they sat in on Coates’s classes when they felt they had to. And it wasn’t just them. His coming-of-age story includes teachers who also had been changed by the revolution in black consciousness. The school facilities were inadequate, but the teachers pushed students who didn’t understand what they were talking about when they begged them not to waste their chances. All that mattered in Coates’s high school world were girls, clothes, the mall, territory, styling, fights, gangs, homies, reputation, staying alive in West Baltimore, and the music. Black male adolescence had its soundtrack.

When Coates put his hand in his English teacher’s face, Coates’s father came to school and knocked his son down:

My father swung with the power of an army of slaves in revolt. He swung like he was afraid, like the world was closing in and cornering him, like he was trying to save my life. I was upstairs crying myself to sleep, when they held a brief conference. The conference consisted of only one sentence that mattered—Cheryl, who would you rather do this: me or the police?

Coates says that it took him a while to realize how different his family was. They boycotted Thanksgiving, and fasted instead. Most of his friends were fatherless, around him the young were getting locked up, dying of gunshots, and crack brought the end of the world. His father’s Afrocentric publishing business succeeded somewhat, but he also did what he had to, including beekeeping. He held on to jobs as a janitor at Morgan State, a black college, and as a research librarian at Howard University, some ways away in Washington, D.C., just so his children could have free tuition. “What did I know, what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Robert Hayden asks himself in his poem about his father, “Those Winter Sundays.” But Coates dedicates The Beautiful Struggle to his mother. His father had a few children by other women. One year he became a father by two women at the same time.

In his writings, Baldwin stressed that the Negro Problem, like whiteness, existed mostly in white minds, and in Between the World and Me, Coates wants his son, to whom he addresses himself, to know this, that white people are a modern invention. “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” He admits that he is haunted by his father’s generation, by a sense if not of failure then of something left unfinished. He wants to go back. He named his son after Samori Touré, the nineteenth-century Islamic ruler who resisted French colonial rule in West Africa, writing, “The Struggle is in your name.”

The struggle is what he has to bequeath to his son and although he tells him that he hasn’t had to live with the fear that Coates himself did at age fifteen, he’s sure his son understands that there is no difference between him and Trayvon Martin as a youth at risk because he is black in America. His body is not his own; it is not secure. He can be destroyed by American society and no one will be held responsible.

In American history Coates finds the answer to why he believes the progress of those who think themselves white was built on violence and looting, on stolen black bodies. People were Jewish or Welsh before they were white. The Irish used to be black socially, meaning at the bottom. The gift of being white helped to subdue class antagonism. Coates wants his son to know that government of the people had not included his family before, that American democracy is self-congratulatory and white people forgive the torture, theft, and enslavement on which the country was founded.

The way Coates himself grew up was the result of policy, of centuries of rule by fear. Death could come out of the afternoon, in the form of a boy who idly pulled a gun on him. Fear and violence were the weaponry of his schools as well as his streets:

I think back on those boys now and all I see is fear, and all I see is them girding themselves against the ghosts of the bad old days when the Mississippi mob gathered ’round their grandfathers so that the branches of the black body might be torched, then cut away.

And maybe it is his understanding of this fear that lets Coates explain in an exculpatory fashion the severe beatings he regularly got from his father. Meanwhile, television sent him dispatches from another world of blueberry pies and immaculate bathrooms. He sensed that “the Dream out there,” the endless suburbia of “unworried boys,” was connected somehow to his fear.

Certain people will do anything to preserve the Dream. They want to believe that the past has little effect on the present. As Coates puts it:

“We would prefer to say such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,” writes Solzhenitsyn. “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.” This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works…. The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands.

Coates is glad that his son is black. “The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are.” The experience of being black gives a deeper understanding of life than that afforded to those stuck in the Dream. “They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people.” For Coates, black history is “our own Dream.”

Ralph Ellison, Harlem, New York, 1947; photograph by Gordon Parks
The Gordon Parks Foundation
Ralph Ellison, Harlem, New York, 1947; photograph by Gordon Parks
In The Fire Next Time (1963), Coates’s literary model for Between the World and Me, Baldwin addresses his nephew and tells him early on that “you can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.” Baldwin’s polemic is unforgiving of America. He then goes on to describe the frustration of black people through a visit to the Chicago headquarters of the separatist Nation of Islam. In The Fire This Time (2007), a memoir of being black and gay in the South, Randall Kenan addresses his nephew, telling him that there is much discussion about what it means to be black and that as bad as things still are, a new class of “black folk” has emerged, the “bourgeois bohemian,” “a black intelligentsia given new and larger wings by meritocracy.” Coates, however, is confessing to his son that he, his father, cannot ultimately protect him.

He is aware of the anger in him and recalls that when his son was five they were leaving a movie theater on the Upper West Side and he nearly went off on a white woman who shoved his son because he wasn’t moving fast enough. He got into a shouting match with the white parents around him and then agonized over his uncool behavior. “I have never believed it would be okay.” The future was in our hands, Baldwin warned.

Coates wants his son’s life to be different from his, for him to escape the fear. He is pained by his son’s disappointment when the announcement comes that no charges would be lodged against Michael Brown’s killer in Ferguson. Coates urges his son to struggle, but not for the American Dreamers, their whiteness being “the deathbed of us all.” Coates remembers how “out of sync” he felt with the city on September 11, 2001. Race may be a construct, but his resentment at its damage is deep. He also says that he has never felt comfortable with the rituals of grieving in the black community. His parents weren’t just nonreligious, they were anti-Christian.

Some critics of Between the World and Me have noted that Coates offers no hope, or doesn’t believe that black people can shape their future. “It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant—birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love,” Baldwin said. Maybe Coates’s lack of belief in “agency,” why he sees us at the mercy of historical forces, is explained by the case of a Howard classmate, Prince Jones, a Born Again Christian and the son of physicians, who in 1993 was killed by a police officer who had stopped his jeep in suburban Maryland. The policeman was the only witness to what happened, which was never fully explained. The Prince George’s County cop who shot Jones and the prosecutor who declined to prosecute him were both black. The population in that county is overwhelmingly black. To move to this black suburb represented a step up for blacks in Baltimore.

In the militant writing of the 1960s, on sale in his father’s bookstore and what Coates read in the library he loved at Howard, the aim was to get black and to stay black, to be on your guard against the corruption of assimilation. Rejection of the American dream—middle-class life—was implicit. As a cultural inheritance, authentic blackness became a form of ownership and intellectual capital for Coates’s hip-hop generation. You could get paid and still keep it real. Malcolm X was their hero. They didn’t believe in nonviolence. Telling it like it is, Malcolm X style, was the way to stay sane. Social hope was for clowns. You must not fall for it. Protect yourself. This is more than skepticism. To be resigned means you are not in danger of being anyone’s fool.

Coates writes in an intellectual landscape without the communism or Pan-Africanism that once figured in debate as alternatives to what white America seemed to offer. Hip-hop nationalism—of Coates’s time, say, KRS-One, Public Enemy, or the Wu-Tang Clan—has none of the provincialism of 1960s black nationalism. Coates says that he understands both Frederick Douglass, who advised blacks to remain in the US, and Martin Delany, who led a group of blacks to Liberia. What it means to be black still changes from place to place. “For a young man like me, the invention of the Internet was the invention of space travel.” Coates’s wife fell in love with Paris and the French language and then so did he, he says, and without thinking of Wright or Baldwin. Or Sartre or Camus, he adds. For Coates, writing is his alternative country.

Coates is in a very recognizable tradition, but that tradition is not static. Wright warned the white men of the West not to be too proud of their easy conquest of Africa and Asia. Baldwin invoked retribution of biblical magnitude if America did not end its racial nightmare. For Coates, it’s too late, given the larger picture. He speculates that now that the American Dreamers are plundering “not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself,” “something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas.”

He takes away America’s uniqueness. Human history is full of people who oppressed other people. To be white now has no meaning divorced from “the machinery of criminal power.” Is it a problem that Coates comes across as entirely reasonable in his refusal in this book to expect anything anymore, socially or politically? Harold Cruse’s anger against the betrayal of black nationalism in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) led him to tell off both the black activist and the white Communist in the strongest language possible. Coates is nearly as fed up as Cruse, but his disillusionment is a provocation: it’s all your fault, Whitey.

This is a rhetorical strategy of the tradition but to address an audience beyond black people is to be still attempting to communicate and enlighten. No author of a book on this subject can be filled with as much hopelessness as the black writer who no longer sees the point in anyone offering a polemic against racist America.

Du Bois never knew his father. He lived from the year the freedmen were enfranchised to the day before the March on Washington, and died a Communist in African exile. Hughes hated his father, an engineer who lived in Mexico in order to get away from Jim Crow. Wright’s sharecropper father abandoned the family. Ellison was two years old when his father died. Baldwin pitied the preacher who was really his stepfather. Baraka’s father was a postal supervisor, middle-class and in New Jersey.

Baraka gave a eulogy for Baldwin after his death, in part because he had become unpopular with whites late in his career. Baldwin turned out to have had Wright’s career, that of the engaged black writer. But he admired Ellison, who chose his art over being a spokesman, and never finished his second novel. Baldwin’s biographer, James Campbell, remembered that after he ran into Ellison at the Newport Jazz Festival, Baldwin said, “Ralph Ellison is so angry he can’t live.”

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