Thank You to All Who Made FPP’s Fifth Season Wonderful!

IMG_9245As our fifth season ends we want to thank our 2016-2017 participants for giving us incredible readings to remember: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Grace Aneiza Ali, Hannah Lillith Assadi, Amy Benson, Terry Blackhawk, Alexander Chee, Sonya Chung, Desiree Cooper, Deborah Emin, Hajar Husseini, Hafizah Geter, Max S. Gordon, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Morgan Jerkins, Daniel Jose Older, Chris Prioleau, Camille Rankine, and Charles Taylor. As always, thank you to Team Shrine for hosting us, and to Yuri Lopez for designing our posters. Wishing a happy bon voyage to digital editor Melody Nixon as she begins her PhD program. We’ll see you in September!

FPP Interview: Alexander Chee

160201_BOOKS_Alexander-Chee.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2FPP spoke via email with author Alexander Chee whose recent novel The Queen of the Night is a national bestseller. We spoke of what fame meant for his maverick female protagonist, what kind of community can be created at literary readings and via social media, and life in his Sugar Hill sublet back in 1996. Read Chee’s interview then plan to hear him read on Tuesday, May 9th, with Terry BlackhawkSonya Chung, and Deborah Emin at Shrine World Music Venue (2271 Adam Clayton Powell between 133rd and 134th streets) in Harlem.

Your latest book, The Queen of the Night, is a historically rich novel that tells the story of an American orphan turned courtesan turned opera singer in 19th-century France. You’ve mentioned that feminism informs the book. Can you talk about your choice to write a female protagonist, and to show a kind of “survivor’s feminism” through Lilliet’s story? 

1453787257096The novel is the result of a kind of feeling I followed, first to this character and then to the life I thought Lilliet, my main character, would lead. I was drawn by the apparent freedoms women like her had then–as celebrities–freedoms that approximated those given to men, but which mostly vanished as their fame did. The result being that their fame was this atmosphere that they manufactured to live inside of, through intense work, self-sacrifice, self-defense, even crime, petty or deadly, and inside of which they survived “at any cost”–a phrase which glosses over what that means, I think, all too often. There’s something Katie Roiphe has called A Stylish Woman Adrift novel–Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Jean Rhys–that I meant to unpack. Those women are describing the problem of being a woman and expecting to be treated as human, and instead being treated as a woman. That all comes from somewhere and that was part of what I was after, the root of that.

So George Sand, for example, who influenced a generation of writers during her lifetime, was the first woman to divorce in France and she did so to be a writer. The decision to include things like Sand’s idea of the New Woman, then, was pretty natural to me, and followed out of my opera singer heroine being taught voice by Pauline Viardot-Garcia, Sand’s good friend–the first woman director of the Conservatoire in Paris and one of the first women opera composers. I set out to imagine being someone who didn’t even know they wanted to be like these women, and meeting them for the first time. I rooted Lilliet, and her adventures, here.

You write Lilliet’s story from the first person singular point of view. Even so, was there a sort of collective “we,” a collective feminist identity, that you felt you tapped into for this novel (for example, by reading the work of other female courtesans, such as Celeste Mogador)? If so, how did this “we” manifest in your thinking about the novel?

I wouldn’t say that exactly, because it’s hard to explain how alone these women were then. Lilliet, my narrator, passes through a series of women who act as her teachers in her pursuit of the freedom she feels sure she must be able to find and which is never offered. A freedom she decides to take for herself. I did read extensively into the lives of women of the period in pursuit of this story, though, and populated the novel with some of the real women I found. So there are these tiny biographies inside the novel as a result. My acknowledgements page has details for the interested.

You’re savvy online, and a particularly effective Twitter user. You once tweeted that a lot of writers are on Twitter because “–surprise– text-based communication is fun for writers… Writers have traditionally published their notes, diaries, letters, marginalia, juvenalia–social media is only different in format.” Do Twitter, and social media more generally, provide you with a sense of literary community? How do you manage the balance between the stimulation, outlet, and inspiration that social media can provide, and the over-saturation that can also occur when one spends a lot of time online?

I live in a rhythm with it that I think is like the one most people do, but with accommodations to being a writer.  Twitter to me feels like text messaging the world. Instagram is like my visual diary. Facebook is a wedding toast contest–I don’t like it much–or a bulletin board. But I’m always manufacturing a story that is the story of doing my work, a kind of live action literary autobiography/biography, even as I participate in what I see as a community, or communities, really, of supporting writers–friends and colleagues from all over the world. And these communities are really what I love about this most. Nerds who photograph a favorite quote, complain about their process, or just talk books. And I’m on it for the book recs, basically.

We don’t live so much in the world where writers struggle with whether to be on social media anymore. I think we live in the world now where people are on social media, and then they become writers. And if you don’t know how social media works, increasingly, I think you don’t know how people live, and I think you’d have a hard time writing about their lives.

On the other hand, you mentioned, in the 10 Minute Writer’s Workshop Podcast, that you can’t stand emails, because of their never-ending treadmill-like nature. How do you deal with this as a writer? For example, do you limit the amount of time each day you spend answering/writing emails?  

John Freeman has written about email as the task list you don’t choose and that’s just so true for me. Melissa Febos wrote a great column at Catapult about the importance of being a little unreliable on email and I think that’s healthy. The problem becomes when you’re like me and you have potentially hundreds of people relying on you professionally, former students and editors, and so you can’t flake out much. So I just try to schedule everything. Emails at this time and never this time, writing at this time, reading at this time, walks and exercise at this time, class at this time, conferences at this time, cocktails at this time, food at this time and sleep at this time, etc. And while a friend has used Google invites for setting dates for sex, I haven’t done that yet. But we’ll see.

You curated your own reading series: Dear Reader, at the Ace Hotel in New York. What can a reading series offer to the community—both the literary and the expanded/public community—that other forms of literary engagement, and online communication, cannot?

When I curate a series I am not picking writers, to my mind, as much as I am putting communities into conversation.  With the Ace Dear Reader series, each year I tried to paint a picture of New York. The first year was a way to honor the different literary communities of the city. The second was about Who Belongs, and featured a mix of writers of color, queer, immigrant, refugee and native New York writers. I also always want to show that you can have a kind of programming that went past token gestures toward diversity–too often diversity means white majority with one of each “other kind”. I want to have more than one of each, as it were. Ace was very supportive of this, and we had fun. Great work happened in those hotel rooms. Still does.

You’ve taught at Columbia University in Harlem, and lived many years in Manhattan. What are your experiences with, and what is your relationship to, Harlem? Can you describe your experiences, impressions, sights, of this neighborhood?

I lived in Harlem, Sugar Hill, near 145th and Amsterdam, back in 1996, in a sublet that lasted three months. I was a steakhouse waiter working on my first novel and the rent was 200 a month for my room. It was a hot summer and we kept the windows open for the breeze as we didn’t have AC, and clothes at home were sometimes a burden. I remember the neighbors who never drew their shades, a kind of night theater of nonchalance in the heat. I also remember finding out not everyone was like this–and accidentally flashing a neighbor who kept her shade closed toward me after. I felt guilty about this until I left. Some windows are closer than others.

Back then I kept moving every month or three months, my things mostly in storage, as I worked to earn a deposit on a place of my own, and I lived up and down the island and in Brooklyn as I did so. That period of moves was my education in how the city works. A lot of my friends live in Harlem now, and I love going up to see them, and to see what’s new and what’s the same. Harlem is one of the neighborhoods where New York still feels like New York to me. So I’m grateful whenever I go–and I very much looking forward to the reading.

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FPP interview: Sonya Chung

SonyaChung_Headshot_12x300Sonya Chung is a writer and teacher living in Harlem. FPP caught up with her to discuss her relationship to Harlem, her favorite spots in our neighborhood, and where and why she writes. We also talked about the “we” POV as “a fundamental world view in Korean culture.” Catch Sonya Chung alongside Terry Blackhawk, Alexander Chee, and Deborah Emin this Tuesday, May 9th, 7pm, at Shrine World Music Venue (at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem).

 

You live in Harlem and teach in upstate New York. Where do you do most of your creative writing?

West Harlem / Morningside Heights is home—the first and only place I’ve ever felt truly at home. Like most New Yorkers, I think of my neighborhood as a micro-neighborhood that is essentially a 5-block radius; and I live at the cross-section of multiple neighborhoods, cultures, histories, racial groups, institutions, and social classes, which is exactly the sort of place where I always feel most comfortable and myself.  I watch the neighborhood change, for better and for worse, daily; and I also witness the diverse groups and forces colliding and converging in endlessly interesting ways.  All this to say that I get most of my real writing work done here, at my desk, which is in the kitchen of a small (studio) apartment I share with my partner and two doglets (here you can see a video of them, because you all need to watch this when you are feeling low or stressed and need a burst of endorphins).  Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 12.34.02 PMWhen I get itchy or need to breathe new air or my partner (who also works at home) needs to make a long work phone call, I walk—five blocks this way, 10 or 20 blocks that way—and I can be in a completely different world.  Just yesterday I found a café run by a Venezuelan opera singer in lower Washington Heights, and I got good work done there.  Sometimes I go to Joe Coffee at Columbia.  I have to mention that I often get good work done at Silvana (while enjoying the best uptown falafel hands-down), which I know is connected to Shrine, where FPP is hosted.

What are some of your favorite spots in Harlem?

Oh, so many.  I just mentioned Silvana.  Kuro Kuma on Tiemann Place is the best coffee in the city—and I’m a big coffee person—so please everyone go there and keep them in business forever.  Maison Harlem is our go-to for happy hour and special occasions.  The church ladies outside the Baptist Church on 125th and St. Nich sell homemade coconut cake slices that will change your life (and probably save your soul).  The best vegetable and fruit vendor (he’s from Bangladesh) is at the corner of St. Nich and 124th, and the Korean fish market on St. Nich/125 not only has good fish & chips but is one of the most interesting places, sociologically speaking, in the neighborhood. In Morningside Park we love the handball courts, where we smash tennis balls against the wall, racquetball-style, to de-stress. On long walks I love to stroll around City College and St. Nicholas Park, and up to the Trinity Church /Church of the Intercession Cemetery, which is amazing; and just a few blocks beyond that is Sister’s Uptown Bookstore, which has been there 17 years, and everyone should know about it.

What does the “we” point of view mean to you, and how does it enter your work?

I’ve never written in first person plural, strictly speaking; but I think about narrative POV constantly.  I am not exaggerating when I say I think it is the most important decision a writer makes when writing fiction (when teaching, it is always the first topic I introduce to students, via James Wood’s How Fiction Works).  There is not only the question of “which POV?”—first person (singular or plural), second person, third person (omniscient or limited)—but also narrative distance, reliability, consistency and/or shifts.  When settling on a narrative POV(s), you are essentially determining the work’s “aboutness.”  If you are writing from the “we” POV, or, say, the second person, this is especially evident. Or if your narrator is unreliable, this is not simply a “formal” decision but rather a driving force of content/meaning as well.  Finding the right POV for your fiction is often, necessarily, a trial-and-error process; it happens simultaneously as your story and characters find their own aboutness. Form and content shape each other.

The “we” POV is in fact a fundamental world view in Korean culture: in the Korean language, it is a grammatical rule that one must say “our” house, “our” mother/father/grandmother, etc., “our” church; there are other words for which this is the case (money?  I’m not sure, but that would make sense), but these are the ones that come to mind.  The communal-vs-individual tension is always, always pressing for me—in life and in art.  If there is a way in which I feel my soul-level Westernness, it is in this tension—my natural (while at the same time conflicted) leaning toward individual liberty/identity over communal obligation/conformity.  The characters in both my novels struggle with all this as well.  They are shaped by and beholden to their family cultures, while at the same time deeply, conspicuously at odds with them.  The I/We tension is endlessly difficult and interesting.  I seem to have thus far coped by writing ensemble casts. I have yet to be able to write a novel featuring a sole protagonist.  The novel I’m working on now does feature a single protagonist, and I am writing her in first person; and frankly I’m having a heck of a time with it!

At a recent reading Teju Cole, another New York-based writer, said he started writing because it was “a way to be intense about my life.” Is writing for you a way to be intense about your life, or is it a way to escape from your life, or something else? In sum, why do you write?

Writing is definitely a way to be intense about my life.  All throughout my adolescence I was told that I was “too serious,” and finally when I found my vocation as a writer, I was allowed to immerse in that seriousness. In life we live on the surfaces and interact via simplifications, and that can be enjoyable and entertaining and nourishing in various ways; but in books we plunge deep into complexity and the real.  Life has always felt unsatisfyingly fragmented to me; in novels we aim for something like wholeness.  If I didn’t have writing, I think I might have (more) serious mental health issues, because the gap between the call of reality and how we live day-to-day would trouble me a lot.  In that sense I suppose writing is both intensity and escape.

 

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FPP Interview: Terry Blackhawk

FPP spoke via email with Dr. Terry Blackhawk, who besides being an acclaimed poet is the founding director of Detroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts Project.  We spoke of birds, early influences, rejecting and embracing the “we”, and more. Read Dr. Blackhawk’s interview then plan to hear her read on Tuesday, May 9th with Alexander Chee, Sonya Chung, and Deborah Emin.

Protea performance

You are the author of four full-length poetry collections and three chapbooks. Would you tell us about your latest chapbook The Whisk and Whir of Wings (The Ridgeway Press)?

This book came together rather quickly, in response to an invitation from my friend Scott Boberg to give a birding-themed reading at the Toledo Museum of Art during their biennial Festival of Birding. Scott is Manager of Programs at the museum. Birding is a big deal in northwestern Ohio, and the annual spring migration draws thousands of visitors to the marshes around Toledo and the Lake Erie shore, so every other May TMA features a ‘bird artist’ to engage this audience. They featured Fred Tomaselli in 2016. Birds have often launched me into poetry, so I gathered bird poems from my four full-length collections, to have something ready for the reading and thought – well, what a nice chapbook these would make. I worked with Ian Tadashi Moore to design the book. M.L. Liebler brought it out with Ridgeway Press, and I was cover The Whisk and Whir of Wingsoverjoyed when Karen Klein let me use her fabulous print “Yellow Woods” (which is collected in the Detroit Institute of Arts) for the cover. I enjoyed pulling the poems together and finding how they range, within the birding theme, from meditative to humorous, erotic to political, free verse to form. Birding has long been one of the ways I lose myself in nature and refresh my spirit. Travel as a birder as well as my volunteer work banding birds or pitching in on the annual Christmas bird count found their way into a lot of poems, so it was nice to remember and collect those adventures and see how they connect.

Would you share your earliest memory of poetry – and how you began creating poetry yourself?

I was fortunate to grow up in a literate family, with many books and a father, a professor, who shared poetry with me. I “wrote some verses” (his words) when I was a little girl, and recall him sharing his enthusiasms with me. e.e. cummings’ “[Buffalo Bill’s]” and Frost’s “The Runaway” are vivid memories. A high school creative writing teacher who, for the times (1962) was pretty iconoclastic and challenging, made a lasting impression, and I was his editor for Manuscript, our school’s first literary magazine. I wrote some during my years as an English major at Antioch College, including a senior thesis heavily influenced by Gertrude Stein, but after college I put aside writing or thoughts of writing. Poetry didn’t find me again until I was teaching high school in Detroit, in a kind of sudden “muse attack” – a watershed life moment in the late 1980s that led me to seek out poetry for myself as well as my students.

As a reading series, we are curious about the first person plural voice, and what the collective means for our work and for our lives. Do you find notions of “we” influence – or infiltrate – your writing? 

I’m not sure that I think of myself in terms of a ‘we’. Pronouns are so critical, for example, to poems and I often tell my students to pay attention to the pronouns and their relationships when reading or writing a poem. I have not tried (yet) to write in the first person plural voice. It may be an aspect of white privilege not to need or see the collective as an alternative or as a source of one’s identity. There’s an atavistic quality to the “we” of Amurricanness that I resist, of course. I have never played on a team, for better or worse, and have in many ways been an outsider throughout my life, but as the political situation under Trump degenerates by the hour, I think we need a united voice of shared humanity more than ever. It occurs to me that the great African American poets, even when working in an individual, lyric mode, bring an awareness of a shared identity and, with that, a sense of belonging. Think of Lucille Clifton’s “jasper, texas” or Robert Hayden’s “The Whipping”. Our beloved Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett’s “City Nights” ends with these lovely first person plural lines:  But the front porch is cool and quiet./ The neighbors are dark and warm./The grandchildren are upstairs dreaming/and we are grateful for their presence. Her sense of family in this poem spills out into the community and neighborhood with a calm and a depth of connectedness that blows me away every time.

When you think of “community” what comes to mind? 

Detroit Portrait Series Poster 6I think of the Detroit cultural community, of which I am happy to be a part. So many poets and writers are writing and growing and sharing their work in Detroit. We benefit from a rich overlap and synergy among writers, musicians, artists of all kinds, and the major cultural institutions have grassroots connections that make the city feel very much like home. I’m fortunate, too, to be a Kresge Arts in Detroit fellow, and to have gotten to know so many fabulous creative people through the gatherings and trainings that the Kresge team has curated for almost ten years. In addition to the monetary award, the fellowship creates community and brings people together in ways that have enriched our lives as individuals and have added immeasurably to life in the city. Dozens of galleries, bookstores, art studios, outdoor spaces, museums, and festivals provide venues and I like to think that a map of the connections among all of these people and places would be eye-dazzling and universal – something rendered along the lines of Australian Aboriginal art. I’m especially honored to be featured, as part of this community, on Trumbull Ave as part of artist Nicole Macdonald’s “Detroit Portraits” project — for her “Poets and Publishers” installation along with fellow Kresge fellow Lolita Hernandez and Kresge Eminent Artists Naomi Long Madgett and Bill Harris, who was on the founding board of InsideOut.

You built a visionary literary arts nonprofit in Detroit, bringing poets and writers into local public schools. Could you tell us about the legacy of InsideOut – in Detroit and in the world?

This question brings me back to the matter of pronouns! Looking back on my years as leader of InsideOut–an organization that required a sense of common purpose and often felt very much like family–I realize that we functioned at our best when we were all pulling together (definitely as a “we”) and that my best memories come from those times. I retired from iO in 2015, after twenty years as its founding director, and am pleased to say that ‘my baby’ is even stronger than ever.  Just this week we hosted our sixth or seventh annual high school writers’ conference, which brought 150 high school students from across Detroit together for adult-style workshops and a luncheon with Pulitzer Prize winner and Detroit native Tyehimba Jess as guest speaker.  We have served over 60,000 young people over the years (conservatively estimated I am sure) and have thrived despite working in one of the most beleaguered urban school districts in the country. We have an amazingly stable and dedicated staff, team of writers, and a board who keep iO afloat – all of whom take great joy in the work. IO writers in public school classrooms from grades 2-12 inspire – and then help to publish — thousands of Detroit youth every year. Every spring iO publishes a literary anthology for each school we serve, over 400 separate, beautiful titles so far. This beauty energizes! Our mission – to encourage youth to “think broadly, create bravely, and share their voices with the wider world”  — informs iO’s in-school work as well as Citywide Poets, one of iO’s signature projects, which is a literary community for young people who address the issues of their city and their lives through poetry and performances.

The scope of ALL of iO is too wide for this interview, but I am happy to refer you to the iO website and Facebook page, as well as my last Detroit Huffington Post blog before my retirement. I was fortunate to be invited to blog for the Detroit HuffPo in late 2011, and my columns give insights into the way the work intersects with arts in the city and with students’ lives. InsideOut and Detroit itself, as this blog points out, are “Curiously Strong.” I like to think our legacy is the self-confidence of youth who learn that their voices matter, that their lives matter, and that they have important things to contribute to the world.

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FPP Interview: Deborah Emin

Deborah Emin-headshotFPP spoke via email with author, activist, and publisher Deborah Emin. She founded Sullivan Street Press and is the creator of the Scags series whose compelling female protagonist copes with family challenges, love, sexual identity, and resistance politics in America. Hear Deborah Emin read with Terry Blackhawk, Alexander Chee, and Sonya Chung at the FPP Season Finale at Shrine in Harlem on May 9th!

Tell us more about the Scags series – how did Scags at 7 come about? Did you know from the beginning that this would be a series?

The character Scags came to me on a ride on the LIRR. I watched her and Pops talking, enjoying being together. He sat with Scags in the middle of the day wearing a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, more casual than most “dads” that time of day. Scags was her irrepressible self, enjoying being with him. By the time I got home, I knew I had found the novel I needed to write. I slept on it. Got up and wrote the first draft in 2 weeks at night from 10 pm to 4 am with a list of vignette titles to guide my writing each night.

By the time I began revising the novel, I knew it was part of a series. I knew she would tell her story in a variety of first-person formats (diary, letters, memoir).

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Tell us about Sullivan Street Press.  What’s it like to go from writer to publisher – and to do both at the same time?

Everyone who writes should study publishing. I fortunately got to live in the publishing world from my first job in NYC. Sullivan Street Press was not my first priority when I became more serious as a writer. It evolved, as things tend to do in my life, out of a need and in this case a need to protect Scags. I had two ideas going in. The first to protect Scags. The second was to change the publishing paradigm. Things were going wrong, had been going wrong and will continue that way until writers, in particular, wake up to the situation.

Being a publisher has always been a form of activism as well as a way to continue to study a topic I love–books and the production of books and their effect on our environment.

I’ve never been good with balancing things. Publishing can take over my life just as writing can. I don’t recommend this joint occupation to anyone unless you have a partner like my wife who understands and forgives.

You have a strong history of advocacy and community-building. How did this become important to you? Can you share a bit about what works, and what you’ve learned?

As with so much of my life, it began in high school. (See below regarding my connection to Harlem.) I had an extraordinary English teacher in my junior year. She ran a tutoring program in Cabrini Green Housing on the South Side of Chicago. Every week, we went there by bus to work with kids who needed help with their schoolwork. Chicago is and was a very racially-divided city. Going from our rather easy life in Skokie to that project gave me a relationship with a young boy, James, whose love of music helped me to help him with his math homework.

This teacher took me with her to lots of things, including a march with Dr. King where I had to be protected, they thought, from the crowds. It was for me an adventure. I did not know what was happening. But when Dr. King was assassinated and Chicago’s South Side blew up, I was more radicalized than with the riots during the Democratic Convention.

I read a lot after that. Everything changes the more you know.

When do you feel most “we”? When do you feel most “I”?

I unfortunately feel too much an “I” in my life. But the “we” always appears in church, when marching with other activists and when I attend a concert, opera or any event whose intention is to join us together. Books do this as well. When they make me feel a part of a whole.

What has Harlem meant to you?

I have a funny story about Harlem. Growing up in Skokie I had one link at first to Harlem, James Baldwin. As I said, I read a great deal so it is no surprise that I’d discover his writings early on. I remember pulling his essay, “The Fire Next Time” and George Bernard Shaw’s story, “The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God” from the library shelves and walking home to read them both. (Sometimes I think Amazon’s algorithms should be modeled on adolescent minds.) I could not say precisely when I gobbled up more of his writings but they implanted a sense of Harlem in me that was not disappointed when I moved to NYC in the late 1970s. The same police racism in the midst of real neighborhoods, just as Baldwin described. Baldwin led me to Langston Hughes. Eventually, in the midst of such cultural barrenness even the voice of Lorca’s, the King of Harlem, gave me an entree that took several years to find its own physical presence in the city. But then one lives here, meaning in this large metropolis, and wanders everywhere, learning everything and filtering a Harlem borne out of Baldwin’s precision and Lorca’s fears. That is not the best way to know a place. But that was my way.

Which writers should we be reading now?

I don’t read much current fiction because I have stupidly downloaded all of Virginia Woolf’s work onto my devices. Given how much she wrote and how much her writing teaches me about writing (and that is why writers must read) I feel compelled to stick mostly with her. Though because I am branching out under Scags’s name to write political thrillers, I am reading those too, again, to study. But in general, I am bad at recommending because my reading habits focus on self-education.

What urgent advice would you give emerging writers?

This final question is important. I believe we need a new nation of storytellers who want to embrace what e-book technology can do. We need writers to both create these new forms and to teach them.

I’m a member of the old tribe. I have ideas and suggestions but have not figured out how to do it. But there is such a deadness, in fiction, as I see it, and I include my work as well, when it comes to exciting forms, engaging adventures. We have seen some examples of people trying to find this new way. Cloud Atlas comes to mind as does David Chowes’s book. But there is something that needs to happen, to explode us out of our stuck-in-a-rut way of telling stories to match both the possibilities of change on a dying planet and to mobilize more people to feel that sense of “we” when they read.

If we could find those writers and support their work, that would be the real test of our faith in books. And if a writer starting out can see that way forward, then please step up. We need you.

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Announcing the First Person Plural Season Finale: Tuesday, May 9th!

New York City is warming up: join the First Person Plural collective and Shrine bar in Harlem for the final reading in our 2016-2017 showcase, and let our literary heat carry you through to summer! Tuesday May 9th, 7:00pm, will feature readings by Terry Blackhawk, Alexander Chee, Sonya Chung and Deborah Emin.

Shrine is located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem.  By subway: 2/3 to 135th, or B/C to 135th.  As always, admission is free.

TerryBlackhawkA former Detroit high school teacher, Terry Blackhawk founded InsideOut Literary Arts Project in 1995 in order to encourage children and youth in Detroit classrooms to “think broadly, create bravely, and share their voices with the wider world.” She is the author of three chapbooks and four full-length collections of poetry including Escape Artist (BkMk Press), winner of the John Ciardi Prize, and The Light Between, from WSU Press. Her poems have been published in numerous journals and anthologies and on line at sites such a Verse Daily, Solstice and The Collagist. She was twice named Michigan Creative Writing Teacher of the Year through the Michigan Youth Arts Festival. Other awards include the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize from Nimrod International, a Michigan Governor’s Award for Arts Education, and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Michigan Council for the Arts. Blackhawk holds an honorary doctorate as well as a Ph.D. from Oakland University. She is a Kresge Arts in Detroit Literary Fellow and blogs for the Detroit Huffington Post.

Photo by M. SharkeyAlexander Chee is the bestselling author of the novels The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, an editor at large at VQR, and a critic at large at The Los Angeles Times. His work has appeared in Best American Essays 2016, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Guernica, and Tin House, among others. He is an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College. His first collection of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2018.

Photo credit: M. Sharkley

Sonya Chung is the author of the novels The Loved Ones (Relegation Books, 2016)—
SonyaChung_Headshot_12x300selected for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, Indie Next List, TNB Book Club, and Buzzfeed Books Recommends—and Long for This World (Scribner, 2010). She is a staff writer for The Millions and founding editor of Bloom—a community and literary site that highlights the work of authors who debut after the age of 40—and is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Residency, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a Key West Literary Seminars residency. Sonya’s stories, reviews, & essays have appeared in The Threepenny ReviewTin HouseThe Huffington PostBuzzfeedThe Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of BooksShort: An International Anthologyand forthcoming in the anthology Wherever I’m With You (Seal Press), among others. Sonya has taught fiction writing at Columbia University, NYU, Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and College of Mount St. Vincent. Currently she lives in New York City and teaches at Skidmore College. Sonya was born in Washington, DC, and has lived in Seattle and New England.  She loves wandering urban streets, growing vegetables, dogs, Paris, bourbon, good TV, cigars, audiobooks, three-minute poached eggs, baking, boots, motorcycles, and kindness.  She is passionately DIY, an introvert, and prefers small living spaces to large ones.

Photo credit: Robin Holland/robinholland.com

Deborah Emin-headshotDeborah Emin is the founder/publisher of Sullivan Street Press which she began in order to help bring the publishing industry into a more supportive relationship with our environment. She also began the company in order to protect her own intellectual property (that is, her first novel, Scags at 7, which had been pulped in the course of its first publisher going bankrupt). Deborah is completing the final volume of this Scags Series in 2018 with the publication of Scags at 45, which brings the number of novels in the series to four. Not able to let go of her character, Scags, Deborah is creating a brand new set of novels that are political thrillers, written by her character, Scags Morgenstern, with the first one, Born Loser, Born Lucky, due out in early 2018 as well. Besides working in the publishing field, she has also worked as a creative writing teacher, primarily for Gotham Writers Workshop, as a writer for Gay City News and Thrive, as a political blogger for Dennis Kucinich’s 2008 presidential campaign and has volunteered for City Harvest, the Bowery Rescue Committee, the Richmond Hill Library and has run a reading series in her neighborhood of Queens for a number of years. Deborah is married to Suzanne Pyrch and with her, she travels every summer all over the country. In addition to car camping, they run the Itinerant Book Show, a meet and greet with bookstores and libraries along the routes they follow.

The First Person Plural Season Finale takes place on Tuesday, May 9th 2017, 7:00pm, at Shrine World Music Venue, 2271 Adam Clayton Powell in Harlem, NYC.

Find us on Twitter here, @fppharlem, on Instagram here, @fppharlem, and on Facebook here, First Person Plural Reading Series—Harlem,

The Next First Person Plural Reading is Tuesday, March 7th – Join Us!

Tumultuous times call for talent and light – join us on Tuesday, March 7th for a stellar lineup featuring authors Hannah Lillith Assadi, Amy Benson, and Kaitlyn Greenidge The reading begins at 7pm and we’ll be at Harlem’s Shrine, located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem.  By subway: 2/3 to 135th, or B/C to 135th.  As always, admission is free. Cake will be served!

Hannah-Assadi_UlyssePayet-1Hannah Lillith Assadi received her MFA in fiction from the Columbia University School of the Arts. She also received her bachelor’s degree at Columbia and was awarded the Philolexian Prize for her short stories and poetry by the University’s English Department.  She was raised in Arizona and lives in Brooklyn. Her first novel Sonora, an Elle Magazine Most Anticipated Novel is forthcoming in March.

Amy Benson is the author of Seven Years to Zero (forthcoming, Dzanc Books May 2017),ACB_author(3)-2 winner of the Dzanc Books Nonfiction Prize, and The Sparkling-Eyed Boy (Houghton Mifflin 2004), winner of the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize in creative nonfiction, sponsored by Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference.  The Sparkling-Eyed Boy was selected as an Elle magazine “Must Read Book” and a USAToday Top Ten Summer Reading book 2004.   Recent work has appeared in journals such as Agni, BOMB, Boston Review, Denver QuarterlyGettysburg ReviewKenyon Review, New England Review, and Triquarterly.  She currently teaches creative writing at Rhodes College in Memphis, and taught previously in the writing programs at Columbia University and Fordham University.  She has been a fellow at Bread Loaf and a resident at Ledig House International, and was the co-founder (and co-curator until 2016) of the First Person Plural Reading Series.

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin Press). KG-Author-Photo-HR-7-390x390She’s a graduate of Hunter College’s MFA program and has received fellowships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Fortnight Journal. Her work has appeared in The BelieverAmerican Short FictionAt Length MagazineAcrobat JournalGreen Mountains Review and The Feminist Wire, and been reprinted in The Believer‘s collection Always Apprentices. She is originally from Boston.

 

What Just Happened? Writers Respond to the 2016 Presidential Election

fpp-poster-111516-finalOn Tuesday, November 15th, FPP will focus on the 2016 presidential election. As in: what just happened? We have a fantastic lineup of writers to help us make sense of  – or complicate further – what has been a wild and wrenching year: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin; Grace Aneiza Ali; Hafizah Geter; Max S. Gordon; Hajar Husseini; Morgan Jerkins; and Chris Prioleau. We want to hear from you, too. Audience participation will be part of this program.

7:00pm-9:00pm at Shrine World Music Venue, 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.Near the 2/3 135th stop, and the B/C 135th stop.Happy Hour until 8pm. Cake will be served. Admission is free. Come talk politics, resistance, and the way forward with us in Harlem!

ibrahim-abdul-matinIbrahim Abdul-Matin is the author of Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet and contributor to All-American: 45 American Men On Being Muslim. He is a former sustainability policy advisor to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and founder of the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment. In 2013, Ibrahim was honored by NBC’s TheGrio.com as one of 100 African Americans Making history today. He currently serves as the Director of Community Affairs at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. He has experience in the civic, public, and private sectors, and with government, public administration, and media. Ibrahim earned a BA in History and Political Science from University of Rhode Island and a master’s in public administration from Baruch College, City University of New York.

grace-ali-headshot-2014Grace Aneiza Ali is an independent curator, faculty member in the Department of Art & Public Policy, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University and Editorial Director of OF NOTE — an award-winning online magazine on art and activism. She has served as Editor & Digital Curator for several of the magazine’s art and social justice issues, including: The Water Issue, The Burqa Issue, The Imprisoned Issue, and The Immigrant Issue. Her essays on photography have been published in Harvard’s Transition Magazine, Nueva Luz Journal, Small Axe Journal, among others. In 2014, she received the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Curatorial Fellowship. In 2016, she served as curator for Un|Fixed Homeland at Aljira, a Center of Contemporary Art, an exhibition which brought together global Guyanese artists using photography to explore issues of migration and diaspora. Highlights of her curatorial work include Guest Curator for the 2014 Addis Ababa Foto Fest; Guest Curator of the Fall 2013 Nueva Luz Photographic Journal; and Co-Curator/Host of the Visually Speaking photojournalism public program series at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center. Ali is a World Economic Forum ‘Global Shaper’ and Fulbright Scholar. She holds an M.A. in Africana Studies from New York University and a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park, where she graduated magna cum laude. Ali was born in Guyana and lives in New York City.

hafizah-geterHafizah Geter is a 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship finalist. Her poems have appeared in RHINO, Drunken Boat, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Narrative Magazine, among others. She is on the board of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, a poetry editor for Phantom Books and co-curates the reading series EMPIRE with Ryann Stevenson.

 

max-s-gordonMax S. Gordon is a writer and performer. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), and Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996).  His work has also appeared at The New Civil Rights Movement, openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally.  His recent published essays include, “Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”; “The Cult of Whiteness: On Donald Trump, #OscarsSoWhite and the end of America” and “Be Glad That You are Free: On Nina, Miles Ahead, Lemonade, Lauryn Hill and Prince”.

hajar-husseiniHajar Husseini was born in 1991 in Iran to an Afghan immigrant family. After the collapse of the Taliban regime, her family came back to Afghanistan when she was thirteen. After graduation from high school, she worked for several non-profit organizations. She started writing for Afghan Women Writing Project in April 2015. Her involvement with AWWP lead her to collaborate on a song about domestic violence with Eleanor Dubinsky. Currently based in Troy, NY, she attends The Sage Colleges where she received a full undergraduate scholarship from the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women to study “Writing and Contemporary Thought.” She wants to become a writer, a journalist, and a literary translator.

morgan-jerkinsMorgan Jerkins is a writer living in Harlem. Besides being a Contributing Editor at Catapult, her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, ELLE, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and BuzzFeed, among many others. Her debut essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing, is forthcoming from Harper Perennial.  She received her Bachelor’s in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College.

chris-prioleau

Chris Prioleau earned his MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, where he taught creative writing and helped found Apogee Journal, a journal of art and literature featuring work that explores and challenges identity politics.  Chris writes fiction, essays, and sketch comedy. His work has been featured on The Awl and at sketch comedy events throughout the city. Chris is the Development & Communications Manager for NY Writers Coalition and lives in Brooklyn.

 

 

Thank You for a Fantastic Season Premiere!

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September 20th was a night to remember! We just want to thank Camille Rankine, Daniel José Older, Camille Rankine, and Charles Taylor for incredible kickoff of our new season.  Special thanks to Richard Louissant for these sweet snaps. See you on Tuesday, Nov. 15th – details TBA!

FPP Interview: Charles Taylor

FPP spoke with Harlemite, community activist, and writer Charles Taylor about his love for Harlem, growing up in New York City, the killing of his teenage friend James Powell by police and resulting riots, the gentrification of Harlem, and whether locals and gentrifiers can, and should, work together to change gentrification’s course. See Taylor read on Tuesday, September 20th at the FPP Season Premiere at Shrine in Harlem, 7pm.

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The title of your eBook-in-progress, Harlem 2 Harlem: Ghettopian Dreams, speaks of two Harlems. What are these two Harlems, and what do they each represent?

For me, the old Harlem represents a place where money was scarce and times were hard, but people came together to find ways to persevere. The Harlem of my youth provided my relatives and many of their neighbors with a life worth living. Of course theirs was poverty, crime and drugs—they were very much a part of the landscape.

Families of the present experience many of the same challenges faced by their counterparts from the past. There was always a socioeconomic divide in the Harlem community. There were the haves and have-nots. The modest-size middle class of my childhood enjoyed a plethora of advantages that made oppression more bearable. But the one thing that they had in common was their blackness—financial wherewithal notwithstanding, they were all still a part of the community and there was a level of begrudging acceptance that transcended class.

The new Harlem represents the ultimate in parallel universe living. As the middle class struggles to regain its economic footing, the poorest in our community suffer from the ravages of extreme poverty. We shouldn’t be fooled by stylish clothes, expensive sneakers and backpacks, and other external trappings valued by low income and working class residents. Many of them are working harder and longer for less and finding new ways to cutback to make ends meet. The real story is in the number of homeless people begging or living on our streets. There are tales to be told by the growing numbers of mentally ill people roaming aimlessly while engaged in lonely incomprehensible conversations. For this vulnerable population, it’s a live and let die existence.

Across the street, around the corner or sometimes next door, sits a gleaming new condo or a quaintly-appointed and refurbished brownstone occupied by newcomers to the community. These mostly white interlopers have grown in number like a chiapet over the last 20 years. Now, white Harlemites make up more than 10 percent of the population. Of course, there are a myriad of challenges when a group of comparatively affluent, culturally different people move into a minority community. There will always be things to work out such as noise levels—opposition to the noisy street life of Harlem as represented by the constant sounds of music and drumming across the blocks.

The most worrisome thing about the new Harlem is the stark and growing divide between the newly arrived residents and the longtime Harlemites. With gentrification comes a wave of amenities accompanied by cleaner streets, increased police presence, and lowered crime. Some of these benefits can be shared by all, but most of them are reserved exclusively for the privileged. Many people are worried about being pushed out of the community as more urban settlers lay claim to their homeland. I don’t know if that will ever happen. However, my wife and I have recently discussed the possibility of moving as a result of high rent and increased living expenses. We dread the idea, but must consider it as a real possibility. I can only imagine what it must feel like in a household with less income. At least we have options—we can probably find a more affordable place to live elsewhere in the city. If we’re lucky, we can find a way to generate more income and stay where we are. Most Harlemites don’t have these kinds of choices. The average income of a Harlem household is $37,000—barely enough to make ends met for a family with multiple children.

Of course, there is much to be said about the choices presented to various factions of the community—Whole Foods versus Food Town, upscale cafes and restaurants versus Popeye’s and McDonald’s. However, I believe that at the core of the quality of life is green power—what you can afford to buy or do.

In the new Harlem, newcomers hit the trains every weekday morning taking their kids to good schools on the Upper West Side, while most other local kids are stuck in low-performing Harlem schools. Some people have the luxury of living their lives straddling two worlds—home sweet Harlem for the comforts of daily life, and the rest of the city for everything else.

What strikes you most about the way the neighborhood has changed during your time here?

I appreciate many of the changes in Harlem over the years. I never imagined Harlem to be a place where I could enjoy cafes and some of the other upscale amenities. With few exceptions, I can’t buy the clothes I need in my community. I try to support the community by spending my money here—and I can do do that to a large degree. However, I find myself going downtown for many of the important items that I need.

I am concerned about the proliferation of taller buildings. I love the Harlem skyline and the unobstructed view of other parts of Manhattan. I am also bothered by what seems like the filling in of every available space. Now we have super thin buildings wedged between broad, beautiful structures. It’s an unsightly aberration of design.

One of the most unnerving changes is the disappearance of mom and pop shops. As comparative progress moves full steam ahead, the blazing bulldozers displace many of the shops that reliably served the community and offered tourists a taste of our culture. Rent gouging and exorbitant increases are to blame along with deals made with elected officials. On some level, streets and avenues are beginning to look like downtown locations. Along with the many churches and iconic buildings and landmark structures, mom and pop shops are at the core of the community—they are irreplaceable.

How can artists and writers respond to changes like the ones you describe, which can threaten the infrastructure and heart of communities of color?

Writers and artists can come together and engage all members of the community in understanding the vital needs of the community, and encourage them to make a difference. The sharing of artistic expression in all forms is one of the most potent ways to bring people together to share perceptions and opinions in a safe space to find common ground. Artists and writers have to find new opportunities for expressing their art and building a broader audience.

You’re the cofounder of Polarity, a Harlem-based social justice arts collective “focused on redirecting the trajectory of gentrification in communities of color.” What is your response to people who say that “gentrification is an inevitable force?” What work are you doing to redirect the trajectory of gentrification in Harlem?

In my opinion, gentrification is inevitable in that it’s here to stay. That doesn’t mean that the fight is over. We should identify flagrant abuses across the community and mobilize to shut them down or influence the outcome. For example, new housing without a reasonable number of truly affordable units should be vehemently opposed. The work that I’m doing is focused on the people who are living here now—all Harlemites. We seek to establish 1WorldTransition, a social change arts project that is designed to channel the trajectory of gentrification by challenging longtime residents and newcomers alike to collaboratively redirect the flow of sweeping community changes while building a more inclusive and equitable living environment. Through a mobile multimedia living-arts project, 1World will galvanize disparate community factions, examine the pros and cons of gentrification, and collectively determine strategies to reduce its harm and maximize its benefit. 1World will create a vibrant, interactive exhibit that will engage the community in confronting issues, finding common ground, and forging new alliances today for a better tomorrow.

What can gentrifiers do to be more aware of their impact on their new community? What changes would you like to see made to the way gentrifiers behave, shop, consume, and approach education—to name just a few factors—in their new community?

I understand that most of the newcomers can’t go to a hair salon or barbershop in Harlem. They may be hard-pressed to find clothing, furniture or other important items in local stores. However, they can commit to shopping locally whenever possible and attending local events, venues and activities to support cultural and business ventures. Most importantly, newcomers can ignite change in the miseducation of Harlem’s children. They can do this by enrolling their own children in our under-performing schools and then volunteering to make them better. Outspoken, educated parents can be influential in challenging the Department of Education while fundraising for increased school resources. This is a common occurrence at many schools citywide. It is a proven fact that all students benefit from a more diverse educational environment. A key component of creating a “good neighborhood” is the commitment residents have to educating their children. To sum it up, Harlem gentrifiers should start seeing Harlem as more than a convenient commute or an affordable living space—this can never be their home until they do.

Can and should locals and gentrifiers work together? If so, how?

Locals and gentrifiers can work together when gentrifiers decide to get their hands dirty and help address some of the ills that plague our community. Locals can acknowledge that they are short on answers to some of our most intractable challenges. The powers that be, local and city officials and major nonprofits, have not sufficiently met many of the community’s needs. It is time for the diverse residents of Harlem to come together to demand more from our elected officials while also taking matters into their own hands. We can’t be successful when significant swaths of our community are not engaged on either end of the socioeconomic continuum.

Can you tell me about your experiences growing up in, loving, and living in Harlem?

I’ve always loved Harlem. I drew my first breath at Sydenham Hospital on West 125th Street. Many of my mom’s relatives lived in various parts of Harlem. My paternal grandmother was my father’s only relative living up north. The hub of family activity was on 116th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. My great-grandmother owned a small laundry on the block. I spent lots of time there while my parents were at work. We lived close by on 119th Street between 8th and Morningside Avenues in a tenement. My mom’s family was from Long Branch New Jersey by way of Mississppi, and my father was from a mere dot on a South Carolina map—Blackville.

My little sister and I spent so much time on 116th with my aunt, uncle, grandma and cousins and visiting relatives – it kind of felt like we lived there. At one point, we had five generations alive. However, it was not always a bed of roses. We had great family meals and loads of fun, but we also had a subliminal color code that dictated how much attention and privilege each of the children received.

We left Harlem for Staten Island when I was five. I briefly returned to Harlem as a 19-year-old hiding out with my 16-year-old runaway girlfriend. We shacked up in a quasi-abandoned building. This clandestine stint was short-lived.

During my young adult life and beyond, I lived all across the city and for a while, in the southern states reluctantly serving as a soldier. I still had relatives in Harlem, but the numbers slowly dwindled as the years passed. I set off on my big adventure and saw less and less of my Harlem relatives. As my aunts and uncles died, and their children married and moved away, we entered into a benign estrangement. There was no malice intended—on the contrary, we just went our separate ways.

I returned to Harlem years later in 1996. I came back to interview for a job at the Harlem YMCA—blocks from the Savoy Ballroom where my mother and father had danced their hearts out alongside legends like Red Foxx. This was the place where I had created wonderful childhood memories – memories that outshone actual events.

Initially, I was hired as the youth and family director. I was charged with revitalizing the Jackie Robinson Youth Center—once the gem of the illustrious Harlem YMCA. The center was closed for almost 4 years due to financial constraints. The Harlem Y board, and Congressman Charles Rangel, got together and raised over three-and-a-half-million dollars to revive the long-suffering youth refuge. We were off to the races.

After a long separation, I fell in love with Harlem all over again. I worked indefatigably for 12 hard years to build and grow quality programs for youth and families across the community. At the pinnacle of our work, we had programs at 12 off-sites and the main Harlem Y building. I managed more than 125 staff and influenced the lives of countless young people, parents and grandparents. We served more than 10,000 kids and families every year – a monumental, challenging and rewarding undertaking. I eventually oversaw youth and family programs, fund development, public affairs and communications, drug prevention education and a new Americans center. I left it all on the field at the Y.

As the years went by, I began finding new ways to influence the Harlem community and beyond. After being retrenched at the Y due to a downturn in the economy in 2008, I began utilizing the broad network of people that I had developed over the years. I tried my hand at politics for a while—supporting a campaign for city comptroller and another for congress. I worked with numerous local nonprofits and artists to secure funds and resources. I struck out on my own as a development consultant with mixed results. I soon learned that working for oneself is much harder than it seems.

In 2000, I met and married my third, and final wife. My wife, KD, is Japanese. She is a journalist who writes about American culture with an emphasis on black culture. She writes for Japanese print media and also coordinates film shoots. KD also conducts tours of East Harlem, West Harlem, Central Harlem, Washington Heights, and the South Bronx. KD came to America as a young woman, learned the language and mastered her craft. She inspired me to be a better man. We adopted a fantastic son, Fernando, now 12 years old, and decided to stay in Harlem. Harlem is now an integral part of our lives – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

What past experiences have influenced and informed your work?

Several key childhood experiences helped me develop the kind of empathy and understanding I would draw on in later life. As a child, I was acutely aware how my dark skin impacted all those around me. My lighter skinned adult relatives always talked about my “keen features” and thin lips—another way of saying I was dark with redeeming qualities.

As a small boy living in a strange land, Staten Island, I quickly learned what some white kids saw when they looked at me—something distasteful—something their parents didn’t like. In my first Staten Island home, the Stapleton Houses, one of two little Italian boys about my age hit me in the chin with a well-aimed tomato soup can top. I took my tear-soaked, bloody face upstairs seeking solace. My mom was horrified. My father snatched me by the collar and dragged me down three flights of stairs. He threw me at the boys and told me to fight. I closed my eyes and swung wildly at the boys. He then went and spent money he couldn’t spare to buy a set of boxing gloves. He made arrangements to teach me and the only other black boy in school how to box. My father was a shipping clerk in a coat factory. He was also a very tough former amateur boxer—an unhappy man who only took crap at work. In his real life, he was like a quiet storm. Everyone knew not to mess with Charlie—a nice guy, but a fierce adversary.

When my father thought I was ready, he exhorted me to walk up to a group of white kids on our block and randomly punch one in the face. I received a royal beatdown for my trouble. I accosted the group again and again, until one day, they saw me coming and ran. For the first time, I was filled with confidence. I didn’t have to fight—the bullies went looking for someone who wouldn’t fight back. Most of my former tormentors stayed away from me, but others befriended me.

My beautiful Staten Island housing project, Markham Gardens—stoop, front yard and back yard, like a real home. It was a heavenly place to live. Unfortunately, no one would play with me. The kids in the complex were instructed by their parents to stay away from me—I was the only black kid around. It took almost a year to find my first friend, Richie Riposo, a bushy-haired Italian classmate. We would wave at one another, but could only talk in school. One day, after many tries, Richie succeeded in defying his mom’s order to stay away from me. That was all I needed—the boycott was over. Richie and I played in my yard every day after homework. Soon, other kids joined us and I had a new treasure – a social life. I was just becoming popular when we moved to the Bronx.

I was 10 when we moved to the Soundview Houses in Bronx. It was a racially and ethnically mixed project with equal numbers of black, white and Latino residents. For the most part, the kids in our complex got along pretty well. The community outside the project property consisted of white homeowners who resented our presence. We all shared a fragile peace in a polarized community. Despite the tension, and occasional incident, the road to adolescence was filed with wonderful adventures and extraordinary friendships. Jimmy Powell was one of those special friends.

Jimmy lived in the building behind mine. I used to visit his house often. His mom, Mrs. Powell was a doting parent who treated every child with great care. He was a wise-cracking little guy—skinny with a lot of bravado. I taught Jimmy to box, and he tried to teach me to skate. He was part of my crew. We all had one thing in common—a commitment to squeeze every drop of fun out of each day.

While going to summer school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Jimmy got into an altercation with the super of a building. The mostly black and Latino summer school students were from outside of the ritzy neighborhood in the ’70s. The residents resented having the noisy teens sitting on their stoops and horsing around on their blocks during lunch breaks.

Jimmy and the super exchanged words—the N-word was uttered and the unexpected happened. The super sprayed Jimmy with a water hose and all hell broke loose. Jimmy and some of his friends chased the super into his building, but they couldn’t catch him. An off-duty detective was leaving a TV repair shop on the corner. He saw the tail end of the incident, and began chasing Jimmy and his friends. Two of the cop’s three shots hit and killed Jimmy in front of his classmates and local residents.

Jimmy’s death set off six nights of rioting across Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. More than 4,000 people were involved in the riots which devastated the black community. Hundreds of people were injured and many more were arrested—one person died. It is believed that the Harlem riot ignited other riots in July and August in cities including Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Rochester, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Jersey City, New Jersey; and Elizabeth, New Jersey. I experienced the harlem riot with a group of friends. It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen.

It was hard to reconcile so much devastation being connected to the life of James Powell —my skinny little teen friend who should have readily survived the incident that wantonly took his life. Controversy swirled around the incident. The cop claimed that Jimmy had lunged at him with a knife. Par for the course, the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing by a grand jury, and charges were dropped.

The aftermath of the riot yielded some good things for the Harlem community. An experimental anti-poverty program, Project Uplift, provided thousands of jobs to young Harlemites. This reactionary triage was tantamount to putting a bandaid on a bullet wound, however, it calmed things down for a while. Unfortunately, Jimmy wasn’t around to get one of those jobs.

In my Bronx elementary school, a fifth grade teacher asked my mom why I insisted upon coloring every character that I drew brown. My mom, an accomplished artist, said that she had encouraged me to draw whatever I felt. The teacher said that she understood, but she seemed very uncomfortable with the idea. She had the temerity to suggest to my mom that people came in all colors. I never got an A in that teacher’s class again, even though I could draw better than most of the other students. I didn’t care – I kept making my characters brown. The teacher stopped asking me to share my work with the class.

These childhood experiences taught me volumes about how and why people accept or reject one another—the essence of all relationships. It exposed me to unbridled hatred, unrelenting loneliness, unconditional love, unbreakable friendship, and the power of one person to overcome obstacles and make good things happen.

What is your vision for the future of Harlem? 

My vision of the future of Harlem is a community that maintains its cultural identity while embracing newcomers without hesitating to challenge them to become full and active members of the community. I see a community where the focus is on the quality of life for all its members—from the most affluent residing in opulent mini-enclaves to the middle class fighting back against burgeoning rents and reduced services to those scrambling in pockets of poverty, looking for any way out.

The challenges faced by black and brown Harlemites and other people of color in similar communities lead to the same conclusion: We’re stuck between a liberal and a GOP place. We need new ears and hands that will listen to our issues and work with us to make real change.

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