Gil Scott-Heron–Iconography

Objects

This semester, I participated in a gallery show organized by Dr. Marin Sullivan entitled “Objects and Objecthood: Material Encounters Across Campus,” featuring submissions from Keene State faculty that represented a dimension of our pedagogical aims and research interests. For my part, I displayed some 12″ record covers–all by Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson, whose work I have taught this semester in my course on Hip Hop Lit.

Tracing the inheritance of the Black Arts Movement in contemporary multiethnic American poetry necessitates a consideration of literary institutions and publication history. Especially with respect to music, the aesthetic impact of albums as a widely available, popular artistic commodity is often underestimated. My thinking about material culture and the Black Arts Movement–aspects of that literary movement like collective spaces, publishing houses, and collaborations with musicians and visual artists–is deeply indebted to Dr. Howard Rambsy’s book The Black Arts Enterprise, which is a key text in the current reassessment of the Black Arts era.

The following is the wall text I contributed to the exhibit:

  • Gil Scott-Heron. Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970). Flying Dutchman.
  • —. The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron: A Collection of Poetry and Music (1978). Arista.
  • Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson. Winter in America (1974). Strata-East.
  • —. Midnight Band: The First Minute of a New Day (1975). Arista.
  • —. From South Africa to South Carolina (1975). Arista.

“words are important for the mind / the / notes are for the soul.”

—Gil Scott-Heron, from “plastic pattern people”

Now more than forty-five years and fifteen studio albums since he originally recorded the poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil Scott-Heron’s influence has registered more with fans of hip-hop than with literary critics. However, understanding Scott-Heron within a tradition of black writers affords a fuller appreciation of his distinctive blend of humor, music, and politics, too often dismissed as street-poetry or proto-rap.

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Gil Scott-Heron’s fluency in residual oral forms—the root of African American literature—exemplifies the ethos of the Black Arts Movement, which was part of the Black Power struggle in the mid-1960s. As poet and critic Larry Neal famously urged: “the poet must become a performer, the way James Brown is a performer—loud, gaudy and racy. … He must learn to embellish the context in which the work is executed … [f]or the context of the work is as important as the work itself.”

While Scott-Heron’s recorded performances prove his mastery of vernacular traditions, his albums also reveal a fiercely experimental literary undercurrent. I use Scott-Heron’s books (a memoir, two novels, and three volumes of poetry), film (Black Wax), and recordings to underscore how multimedia forms broaden the literary audience by blurring the lines between art and entertainment—between poetry and popular music.

Considered as artifacts, these records epitomize the reciprocity of words, images, and sound. On the cover of his earliest album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970), Scott-Heron prominently wears the badge “A New Black Poet.” The classic, independently produced Winter in America (1974) features original artwork by Eugene Coles and Peggy Harris. The First Minute of a New Day (1975) and From South Africa to South Carolina (1975) use illustrations of a gorilla (guerrilla?) to build thematic and symbolic continuity.

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Significantly, his album, The Mind of Gil Scott-Heron: A Collection of Poetry and Music (1978), features a twenty-four-page book of writings and photographs taken by John Ford. In the introductory note, Scott-Heron reflects on his uneasy relationship with generic boundaries:

I am frequently asked which is my preference—music or poetry and prose writing. Different ideas call for different vehicles and the artist who limits himself or herself to one medium has lost a valuable opportunity for further growth. I generally use as my response and reference point to these questions the examples of Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes, men who used a range of artistic media—song, poetry, acting and oration—to convey in a variety of ways, contemporary social ideas and political circumstance. These ideas may have been common to most people on an individual level, but when placed in a creative context by the artist they dramatize, politicize and promote a group level of conscience and awareness.

Expanding traditional ideas about what poetry is and where it exists enriches the study of language and literature. Scott-Heron’s invocation of Hughes and Robeson, for instance, demonstrates that placing words and music on a single continuum has profound political implications. The work of Black Arts writers like Scott-Heron demands that our analyses take more than syntax and symbolism into consideration. We must also attend to the visual and aural dimensions of prosody and poetics, the political context of performance. From the page to the stage, Scott-Heron’s virtuoso style  exemplify Larry Neal’s concept of the black artist as “a kind of priest, a black magician, working juju with the word on the world.”

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Pieces of a Man

Eugene Coles Winter in America

During the final week of classes this past spring, I hosted my first guest-DJ on Instrumental Voices Radio at WKNH (91.3 FM in Keene). The illustrious, inimitable Dr. Don Geesling earned his PhD from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where his dissertation project, and now book manuscript focuses on the poet, novelist, singer, song-writer, teacher, activist, and master-griot Gil Scott-Heron.

Tony Bolden’s essential article, “Blue/Funk as Political Philosophy: The Poetry of Gil Scott-Heron,” notwithstanding, there has been shockingly little attention paid to Scott-Heron’s work in the fields of literary criticism and cultural studies. Marcus Baram’s Pieces of Man (St. Martin’s, 2014) is a worthy contribution, though not without it’s issues. Which is to say that Dr. Don’s book will be a welcome, urgently needed scholarly treatment of the life and art of Gil Scott-Heron in the context of the Black Arts Movement and beyond.

What’s more, Dr. Don leads the New Africa House Ensemble, the house band for the Department of Afro-American Studies. I first saw the New Africa House Ensemble accompany Abiodun Oyewole (of the Last Poets) in October, and caught their next performance with Sonia Sanchez in March. The following month, they returned to the Augusta Savage Gallery to perform their tribute for Gil Scott-Heron and Terry Callier.

New Africa House Ensemble1

When Dr. Don visited the WKNH studio later that same week, we attempted the impossible: to honor the fullness of Scott-Heron’s work and vision–the politics, humor, poignancy, spirituality, and the poetry. In doing so, I sought to remain attentive to a crucial statement from his posthumous autobiography, The Last Holiday (Grove, 2012). Scott-Heron writes, “When people picked ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ to decide what kind of artists we were, they overlooked what the hell the whole album said. We didn’t just do one tune and let it stand, we did albums and ideas …” (159-60).

Although I led with the classic second version of “The Revolution…,” it was perhaps appropriate that my recording didn’t start until mid-way into the next tune. When Dr. Don joined me in the second hour, he led an insightful discussion of the profound depth and breadth of this major practitioner and theorist of the Black Aesthetic.


Thanks to Dr. Don for his knowledge and commitment to teaching us all about the legacy of Gil Scott-Heron, especially as a writer, intellectual, and activist. Be sure to check out his important interview with the man himself, published in the Brooklyn Rail, and to keep a lookout for his forthcoming book.

Writing Diaspora at Keene State

Keene State College hosted a diverse, ambitious, and accomplished group of scholars and artists on campus this semester. Their innovative, visionary work provoked extended discussions about home and belonging—but also ancestral memory and lost homeland. Our intellectual community coalesced around issues of historical disruption, geographic dispersion, and diasporic kinship.

Through poetry, music, dance, film, memoir, and fiction, we examined how art and imagination influence strategies of resistance and deepen our understandings of social justice. We considered how new technologies connect us instantly to distant points in space and time, propelling the fragmentation of everyday life. Such a constellation of ideas brought into focus new insights about the displacement and recovery of memory, of voice.

The first few weeks of 2015 set the tone for the semester. The American Studies department sponsored a film series for Black History Month, including Baraka’s Dutchman, the documentary Take this Hammer (featuring James Baldwin), and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. An encore screening of Paris is Burning was shown by popular demand. On the radio, I played four single-artist shows—J Dilla, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday—tracing a vanguard lineage from hip-hop to the blues.




This year, we celebrated one hundred years of Lady Day and fifty years of Black Power. We marked the golden anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and King’s march from Selma to Montgomery. Keene State’s office diversity and multiculturalism, led by Dottie Morris, hosted events each week recognizing our radical history and reflecting on current crises of systemic injustice and state violence.

Many programs were offered in memory of the Civil Rights activist and seminary student Jonathan Daniels, born here in Keene, who participated in the Selma march. Daniels was murdered by a deputy sheriff (another unpaid volunteer, it’s worth noting) in the summer of 1965 while protesting segregation and black disenfranchisement in Alabama. The local historical society currently features an exhibit of religious art by Pamela Chatterton-Purdy praising the heroes, and especially the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

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In March, I journeyed with a colleague to Amherst, MA, where Sister Sonia Sanchez, herself a veteran activist and prophetic poet, performed with the New Africa House Ensemble (look for video, hopefully, coming soon). After their set, Sanchez, John H. Bracy, and James Smethurst gave talks drawn from their recent co-edited Black Arts anthology. The book is an instant classic. Sister Sanchez, as ever, brought fire to the mic. The seven-piece band, in a tight pocket, laid down standards like “Naima” and “Maiden Voyage” as a point of departure. Stunning artwork by Brenda Jones hung in the Augusta Savage gallery, contributing a visual dynamic to the inter-arts collaboration.

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The following week, Keene State hosted the Jamaican critic, novelist, poet, and filmmaker Imani Tafari-Ama, who spoke on Rastafari theology, race and slavery, gender identity, reggae music, and the postcolonial evolution of Jamaican culture and politics. Her recent novel, Up for Air, deals with the 2010 Tivoli Incursion—in which at least 73 civilians died during a police manhunt for Christopher Dudus Coke. Her emphasis on historical trauma and gendered violence makes her work an essential counterpart to Marlon James’ celebrated novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which deals with masculinity, gang violence, and geopolitics in a similar fictional/historical mode–in his case revolving around the assassination attempt on Bob Marley. Tafari-Ama give riveting lectures and also performed her work alongside students who rapped poems penned in her honor.

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Around the same time, the Keene is Reading program held a lecture by our resident jazz impresario and musicologist, Julian Gerstein, an expert on diasporic percussion—especially that of Martinique. He gave an incisive reading of the thematic role of music in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah (the Keene is Reading text for the year) and spoke about Fela Kuti’s radical politics and postcolonial philosophy, forged in part through his family’s leftist affiliations and emboldened by his experiences with the Black Panthers in California. For additional context, we watched and discussed the film adaptation of Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, about the Nigerian Civil War. That conflict remains divisive; the film’s release in Nigeria was delayed by the government.

Following a short recess for spring break, our campus rallied with several more standout performances. Choreographer Robert Moses and his Kin troupe presented the New England premiere of Nevabawarldapece (Neva-B-A-Warld-A-Pece) at the Redfern, our vibrant performing arts center. Moses’ work, composed in collaboration with Carl Hancock Rux and Laura Love, explores collective action and social movements across the twentieth century. Leading a discussion with students and faculty, the choreographer explained that he was particularly inspired by the difficult moments—the low points—in these struggles. He pinpointed the frustration that drew student activists to the Black Power Movement.

It was only two days later that poet Afaa Michael Weaver visited the English Department to lead classes and read from his profoundly transforming work. Recently published, City of Eternal Spring fulfills a trilogy that includes The Government of Nature and The Plum Flower Dance. Weaver also read from A Hard Summation, a suite of thirteen poems that covers African American history from the Middle Passage to the present. He spoke about discovering his genetic heritage and the conscious impact of his working-class roots in Baltimore. He emphasized rootedness in place, but also travel and worldliness. Weaver talked about his spiritual practice and the importance of cultivating mindfulness, but cautioned, too, that the pursuit of peace necessitates painful confrontation.

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The same week, the poet Peter Balakian spoke and read from his memoir, Black Dog of Fate, which tells of his coming to awareness of his family’s escape from the Armenian Genocide. The book reckons with historical trauma and explores what it means to create and inhabit diasporic identity. This month marks the centennial of the beginning of that atrocity, reminding us of the political stakes of memory.

The weekend presented an essential opportunity to unwind at the Vermont Jazz Center. Chilean tenor player Melissa Aldana and the Crash Trio (bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Francisco Mela) lit up Brattleboro’s best music venue. The group’s intense beauty was fueled by their fierce improvisational chops and cohesion, complemented by more meditative grooves and freer tangents.

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April brought us to the culminating event for the Keene Is Reading program, which featured two major Nigerian fiction writers: E.C. Osondu and Helon Habila. I first read Habila’s work during graduate school; we met just after I returned from Nigeria and discussed literature, music, and Lagos. His latest novel, Oil on Water, is an environmental thriller about the devastating ecological, cultural, and political impacts of oil extraction in the Niger delta. The novel achieves a remarkable balance between narrative momentum, aesthetic innovation, and political imperative.

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Osondu’s book of short stories, Voice of America, navigates Nigerian and American consciousness and culture in the context of transatlantic migrations. His characters cross and re-cross borders, face cultural alienation and systemic oppression, and yet remain true to their personalities, humor, and ambition. The British edition of his recent novel, This House is Not For Sale, features an original painting by Lemi Gheriokwu, who designed album covers for Fela Kuti.

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Many thanks to Keene State’s English and American Studies departments and the entire Arts and Humanities faculty, especially Mike Antonucci, Emily Robins Sharpe, and Bill Stroup. Dottie Morris and Sharon Fantl deserve vast credit for their programming and community outreach. I am thankful for students’ serious engagement with these pressing issues of cultural difference, creative expression, and political change. And I write with profound gratitude to the many artists and scholars who contributed to the intellectual life of Keene State College this semester.