Message from the Library, a series by BPL Presents, is made possible with the generous support of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). A biannual presentation, Message from the Library hosts leading cultural figures commissioned by the Brooklyn Public Library’s BPL Presents to reflect on today’s most critical issues in our local and global communities.
The series is part of BPL’s mission to convene diverse voices in the Library’s safe space to have meaningful dialogue about the cultural, economic, social, and political issues of the day.
Bill T. Jones delivered the following address on April 5th, 2020.
Some people say that the weary blues ain’t bad
But it’s the worst old feeling that I’ve ever had
Woke up this morning, with the jinx around my bed
I didn’t have no daddy to hold my aching head
Brown skin’s deceitful, but a yellow man is worse
I’m gonna get myself a black man and play safety first
I got a man in Atlanta, two in Alabama, three in Chattanooga
Four in Cincinnati, five in Mississippi, six in Memphis, Tennessee
If you don’t like my peaches, please let my orchard be
Some people say that the weary blues ain’t bad
–Bessie Smith, “Mama’s Got The Blues”
It’s an honor to be in this near-sacred space with you tonight. Why do I start with a song? It’s a way of speaking that’s not speaking! It’s a story that’s not a story! It’s a complaint that is not a complaint, but defiance! It’s about victimhood with no victim! And it feels so good to feel so bad…
I can’t say what tonight’s address means, but I shall say it is divided into several sections. I will interrupt the flow of the talk inserting stories and there may be singing…
Shall we start?
Every weekend I have a phone appointment with my nephew. His name is LTB.
My nephew is close to 50 years old now. He was a lovely child but, after a life of drugs, sex and excess, he has now, among other problems, lost the use of his legs. Everything happened way too fast and too early. Though we had always had affection between us, we had become estranged. We decided ten years ago to find a way back into each others’ lives. These weekly calls are part of a strategy.
He has no trust for other adults in the family except for the uneasy trust one has in a parent—in his long-suffering mother. I have cast myself in the role of caring elder, remedial reading/writing tutor and, more dubiously, life coach. Judging by my lack of patience and our often-fractious encounters, I am willing to say I am the life coach from hell!
As my nephew, born in 1970, was just crashing into puberty in the carnage left in the wake of the sexual revolution and drug use of the Counterculture, the term “at risk” was coming into use. It was introduced in a 1983 article, “A Nation at Risk,” published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.
I puzzle over the why and how of my relationship with LTB. I could chalk it up to a tribal sense of protecting the young of my clan, though why is there only one such relationship when I have easily 50 or more nieces and nephews? Is it because he is gay as I am gay, with an artist’s wildness such as I have?
Is it because letting this particular relative become an at-risk casualty gives in to a multifold defeat, gives in to the cruel prediction that as an at-risk youth he will most likely fail and end up as human detritus? Or because it gives in to a racist, homophobic stereotype that says self-destructive, undisciplined outlaws like my nephew are crippled, inferior and “will get what they deserve”?
No, I will not give in! He wants to live, create and thrive and I’ll be damned if I allow him to become a statistic!
Our weekly meetings are divided into four categories:
2) Independence and career
4) His own creative work
LTB, a former dancer, model, songwriter, choreographer and escort, is determined to write a show about his life that functions as a cautionary tale to young people—young LGBTQ people—as a means of warning them about what they should not do.
I am waiting to see what the show tells young people about what they should do. I trust this is coming…
After his several awkward attempts to write a libretto/screenplay, we were getting nowhere. To report an entire life with no experience doing so is unwieldly. He has now taken on the task of writing many different stories and anecdotes.
His reading and writing skills are poor, and I spend a good deal of time correcting the most basic punctuation and vocabulary use. I must resist critiquing him at times for the simple, blatant mistakes that he makes in trying to form a sentence or trying to read one. He tells me that he always was able to read but it was a chore. Reading was something he just had to get through.
I asked him what did he truly like to do. What things did he lose himself in? This is difficult for him to answer. Was it dance? Was it music, style, seduction? I found out later that sex and drugs for money became a major preoccupation at an early age. Today, that is all part of his narrative, his biography, and he is determined to make a show that will help the world.
Some years back when he was in a hospital bed, attempting to resist the sticky trap of TV watching, I tried with moderate success to get him to fix his focus on the true fabric—the now of his life. The horror show of fear, regret and anger he lives with and struggles to escape from is real. But are these thoughts and feelings the entirety of his existence?
“What goes through your mind lying there for hours on end?” I persisted. “Can you track the changing of the light in your sterile hospital room? What do you hear? Can you describe and track the many doctors, nurses, technicians, etc. that move through your space, that you interact with, each minute, hour or day?”
Without being fully aware of it, I was clumsily nudging him towards what Hannah Arendt referred to as “The Life of the Mind” in her eponymously titled Gifford Lecture. “What are we ‘doing’ when we do nothing but think? Where are we when we, normally always surrounded by our fellow men, are together with no one but ourselves?”
Let me take a moment to say that my list, though long and ever forming, places the great political thinker Hannah Arendt near the top.
More pointedly, Hannah Arendt is quoted as saying, “It is more than likely that men, if they were ever to lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions, would lose … the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art…”
While I am much taken with the workings of Hannah Arendt’s mind and her command of language, LTB would not benefit from the idea that the mind has its own life in the way Arendt expresses it.
I am busy encouraging him to get his stories into the world. I must help him understand what means are available to him to do just that. Language is important and, while he is an eloquent and engaging performative speaker, he is unable to express his ideas in writing. He’s had little exposure to the world of ideas.
For a person whose body has been so profoundly compromised, the mind can be a tool, a companion, that promises a place in the world and contact with other minds sometimes long dead or potentially in the future. Showing humility here: I realize this is easy for me to say since I never had to question what was happening to me when I was learning to read and write as a child.
It’s fascinating to watch an adult return to that place of discovery. To return to that place wherein an idea or a feeling is tethered to a mark that becomes a symbol, a symbol that becomes a word, a word that becomes a phrase, a phrase that becomes a sentence and a sentence that becomes a paragraph.
All so basic and yet for many people, like my nephew, a huge obstacle.
We talk about words. What is there to say about words? What can I give him? Why does he have to read? He often misuses or mispronounces words. He has a limited vocabulary. Or should I say, it’s a vocabulary that is made more complex by a personalized black speech peppered with an often brutal, often humorous, gay street-speech?
I feel I am betraying him when I correct his use of words. After all, as e.e. cummings says, “Nothing is as easy as using words like somebody else!” I must be vigilant and humble so as not to rob his language of its uniqueness and authenticity.
It’s remarkable to hear him recount episodes from “The Life,” the shadow life, lived in pursuit of the next hit from a crack-pipe or the next john who, hopefully, would make that pipe possible.
With each telephone exchange, I discover with wonderment that this “tutoring” moves in two directions: when I attempt to come closer to a language he is comfortable with, he educates me! His language, like language in general, is the product of a world, and in his case, it is a world that I am not familiar with.
What does it mean to be a successful male escort? How does one buy crack cocaine on 125th St in Harlem in 1983? The stories are juicy, often terrifyingly humorous. I want so much for him to be able to transfer them from the land of memory to something that is durable, shareable. Transformed, captured in text.
Reading this or hearing this, some of you are already uncomfortable with its chauvinism, its privileged position, its sense of superiority. Let’s call it my colonized mentality. To understand this, let’s go back to a time when this writer was a young black boy, the child of migrant workers being tutored by an ancient white lady, Mrs. Shaw, who dressed impeccably, smelling of lilacs and dabbing at her nose with a lace handkerchief, would say, “You have to know the rules before you can break the rules.”
Is this still true? What would my kind educator have to say to Rap music? Text messaging shorthand? Emojis?
Yes, his stories are fascinating, and he wants the stories to become something: to be performed for an audience. I’m not quite sure if he has a sense of who his audience will be. He says this work is for young LGBTQ people, but I suspect he would like that audience to be as diverse as possible. When he speaks of the life of a successful male escort, I want him to be able to pull back and describe what the exchange is like when a young black hustler communicates with a white man who is judging him by his clothes, his speech and, yes, his physical allure.
In order for him to communicate the intricacies of such an exchange, he has to master what every writer, reporter and novelist must: to find the voice—the language—capable of capturing the minds and, hopefully, the hearts of their audience.
It’s moving to witness a man, a natural performer, a natural communicator, struggle with this basic idea. Whenever we invite others to witness our inner lives, we are establishing a sort of contract, an uneasy liaison with other human beings. I have attempted to explain or explore with him the notion that what you say, how you say it, when you say it, is all part of this contract.
When I was about to enter kindergarten, my mother and father decided that it was important I learn the ABCs. They bought me a little school desk and I quaked with the awareness that of so many of us kids, they would choose to give me this perfect new object—a smooth single unit, a small wooden chair and a desktop with block and script letters of the alphabet running across it. I could lift the desktop to find crayons, pencils and maybe even a little chalk board.
It was delicious to have my mother to myself, beside me, over me, sitting in her adult chair. A,B,C. It was easy. D,E,F. at was a little more di cult. But altogether, ABCDEFG, it could almost be sung. But then it became hard—H,I, J-Jones. K,J,K.
WHACK!Movement is 24 still frames-per-second! This basic revelation would influence my notions of movement for years to come.
I hadn’t even seen the strap, but it was there. AB- CDEFGH…whack! ABCDE….F….whack! ABCD…. ABCDE…whack! “How you gonna amount to anythin’ in the world if I don’t beat it into you? You gonna need an education and it’s my place to see that you get one.” Whack!
ABCDEFGHIJ-Jones. That’s me. ABCDEFGHI. It was endless, this lesson. Somehow we made it through all 26 letters, and then, Estella, obviously exhausted, left the room. I sat there stunned, staring at the perfect desk, and I tried to do the ABCs on my own. I don’t think I got much further than F or G. We never picked up with this lesson again.
One of the organizing ideas in tonight’s address is my advice to the inevitable, worried audience member asking in genuine concern, “What is the story here?” “What have I missed?” “What’s going on?” or “What is the message?” These queries would often be followed with “What should I do in the face of this work?”
“Watch yourself watching,” I answer. Where did this idea come from?
I suspect it was in the cinema department at the State University of New York at Binghamton in the early 1970s. Though matriculated as a theater/dance student, I would avidly sit in on cinema classes. I relished the regular screenings of avant-garde films. ere were brilliant filmmaker-teachers such as Ken Jacobs, Larry Gottheim and visiting artist such as Stan Brakhage, Paul Sharits and Michael Snow, as well as choreographer-turned-filmmaker Yvonne Rainer.
A standout artist on the roster of cinema experimentalists was the Austrian Peter Kubelka. A lightbulb went on in my head when I saw Kubelka’s 1960 seminal experimental work Arnulf Rainer, a “Flicker Film”.
This “Flicker Film” was a simple demonstration of the fact of cinema. That fact is that the moving cinema image is created simply by 24 still images on celluloid moving in front of a light source each second. Movement is 24 still frames-per-second! This basic revelation would influence my notions of movement for years to come.
This was revolutionary for a person born into a household that got all of its information from television, magazines, film, evening news and folk tales.
Gus Jones, my father, never went for the easy tag or the scary “Boo.” No, his stories unfolded with our being taken into his confidence. “Let me tell you something,” or “I remember a night…” And there was the one that began, “You know that place where the two roads come together near that bridge?”
He’d mention a place in Georgia where the trees had grown so thick as to make the night black as pitch:
No, you probably don’t remember,” he’d continue. “Well, this one night, my brother Slim and me been to a dance over in Valdosta, but we left too late to catch the truck back home, so we had to walk. And boy, we saw this thing! I don’t know what it was. But, I ain’t gonna lie to you.
At first, we thought it was just a puddle, something black on the ground. Then I thought it looked like a big old ‘coon lying there, then it looked like a dog, then I thought it looked like a man. I thought it was maybe he was drunk or maybe somebody had knocked him over the head, and he was dead. Anyway, it was black. As we got closer to it, I saw it had a long tail. Now you know, we thought about going all the way back where we’d come from, but we weren’t supposed to be out that late in the first place and Ike, my daddy, was surely goin’ to whip our tails if we didn’t get home.
So, we had to get past that thing. Boy, talk about scared…! And, just as we was about to get past it, this thing reared up on its hind legs. It was moving like a man and then it was moving like a dog or something, making sounds like I ain’t never heard. I was as close as I is to you and I seen it had yellow eyes. We started runnin’, my brother and me. Slim was taller, but I was faster.
I loved my brother, but at that moment I was so scared I didn’t care what happened to him. I ran so fast I thought my lungs was gonna bust. Y ’all see them picture shows about them wolf men and stuff? Now you might think there ain’t nothin’ to them, but I know they real! I seen one with my own eyes. I done seen one.
But if some of my father’s tales were haunting, others were mythical and redeeming, and one of them seemed especially so:
“They had this real mermaid at this circus show down in Charleston,” my father would begin.
You wouldn’t have believed it, but your mama and I was there. This mermaid was a little bitty thing. She was not much bigger than,” and he’d point at one of the smaller kids, “but she looked like a tiny woman. She had long beautiful golden hair and the bottom half of her didn’t look like no fish, but she didn’t look like no normal woman neither.
They had fished her out of the ocean somewhere and she was crying. She was crying and crying, and it began to rain like no one had ever seen. Finally, somebody realized that until she was set free and put back in the water, it was gonna keep on raining. And it began to flood. It would have broke your hearts to see that little thing sitting up there in front of everyone just weepin’. At last, they decided to let her go, and as soon as she was put back into the water, it stopped raining. Just like that!
My grandmother, Big Mama, told this one:
There was a woman married to an angry man. They was raggedly and poor. The woman was scared of her husband. When he left for work one morning, he said, “When I come back, you better have somethin’ for me to eat or I’m gonna beat you.” When he came home, there was no food, so he beat her.
This went on for many days. The poor woman was so scared she didn’t know what to do. All day long she was alone in the house with her poor little chile. All she could do was wring her hands, look up at the ceiling and pray for the Lord to give her an answer.
Baby didn’t eat all day. Baby began to cry, “Mama, I need something to eat.” And you know there ain’t nothin’ so pitiful in the world as to hear your chile hungry when you can’t feed it. The little thing was crying out louder and louder, “Mama, I’m hungry.”
Poor woman was about to start screamin’ and pullin’ her hair out. The little chile was holding on to her crying, “Mama, why don’t you give me somethin’ to eat?”
All of a sudden the woman noticed a big ol’ steamer trunk in the corner and she got real calm. She went over, opened it up and said, “Honey come over here, you want something to eat?” The little thing started walkin’ across the room and stopped. Mama seemed so strange, so quiet. She said, “Come on, Sweetheart, come over here to Mama.”
The little thing said, “What? What you want, Mama?”
Mama said, “I want you to look in this here trunk. There’s cornbread in there for you.”
The little thing ran over to the trunk, looked in, and said, “Where? Where, Mama?”
The woman stood there with one hand on the lid. “Stretch, Honey. Ya got to look way in there.” Little thing was so hungry, it was up on its toes with its bare neck stretched way over in that trunk. Little thing said, “Mama, I don’t see nothin’.”
“Ya gotta to stretch a little bit more, Baby. Just a little bit more.”
And then, WHAM!!!!
We would all jump because Big Mama had stomped on the floor or slapped the top of the table—loud—before continuing the story:
She slammed that trunk and cut off that chile’s head. She stripped it, skinned it, cooked it up real nice, just like you would a possum or a ’coon. She put gravy on it. That night when her husband came home, she served him a big plate of it. She saw him laughing for the first time in a long while. “Mmmm…,” he said. “This is good.” He ate a big bellyful and said, “Where the Baby at?”
“Never you mind,” she said, “I sent it over to Mama.”
They went to bed. He pulled her real close. Later that night when they was fast asleep, the house got filled up with light. The husband shot straight up in bed. He heard a voice. He jumped out of the bed. The voice was coming out of the steamer trunk. A little chile’s voice. It was crying and singing.
At this point Big Mama would pause, pull closer to us, and in a childlike voice sing: “Mama killed me, Daddy ate me, who’s gonna hang me in the Christmas Tree?”
But back to the cinema department. Yes, cinema movement was an illusion, but there was more:
I remember one day Larry Gottheim showed us a work by Joyce Wieland called Sailboat that was just that—a colorful moving image of a sailboat bobbing up and down in deep blue water. There was an inscrutable sound score, bearing little relationship to the image. During the discussion that followed Larry patiently implored us to “stop looking for a story but instead watch yourself watching and listen by listening to yourself thinking as you’re watching and listening.”
My young mind took this to mean that art, at its highest, was an exercise in perception.
One of the most significant teachers in my life was my big brother Azel. Stocky build, great athlete, avid reader, interested in history, art and science, he was already an aspiring fiction writer in high school. When he was away, I would rifle through his manuscripts and girlie magazines hungry to learn what I was convinced he knew and was even daring to express in words.
He loved our big family. He loved our story. He was generous, overbearing, a helpless romantic and an idealist. His meaning in my life was, “Don’t be afraid! The world is a grand adventure we must run out to meet.” He was my hero!
However, as I grew to understand, he was a bit of a con man, with a lot of fear and secrets. Watch yourself watching? People, art, life… My hero, this energetic, lively person whom I love, ended his life in a small dirty trailer parked among other small trailers in a godforsaken outskirt of Las Vegas.
Azel was dying of cancer. And something more insidious—disappointment? The last time I saw my brother, he was lying in bed in a hospice facility. He was quiet and subdued, almost as if he were waiting for the end. Was life still a great adventure we must run out to meet? Be brave?
Wasn’t a nimble, curious, courageous mind supposed to save our lives? Wasn’t art supposed to save his life? Watch myself watching? My honest response as he lay there was heartbreak, love and also anger. Had I been lied to? Who had done this lying? My brother? Mrs. Shaw? The cinema department at State University at Binghamton?
I am embarrassed to say it and yet I’m brazen enough to confess that I was angry realizing that this was not an artwork. No one is responsible for it. No one knows what it means.
Azel’s life was not supposed to end in this way. Our love for each other was not supposed to end like this… The lovely child LTB was, was not supposed to become the man he is. The man he is, is not supposed to become a statistic.
Watch myself watching? Even now tonight? Even here? Forgive me! I am whining. This is the sort of complaint I would never accept from LTB. I’ll let you finish this in your groups now, or at some other time.
I would like to conclude with a moving and curious quote that my friend, Salman Rushdie, borrowed from Albert Einstein in his novel Quichotte:
Mankind tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it…
[He] makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and serenity which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience… e supreme task… is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. ere is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.