Sanford Biggers: Music, Afrofuturism, and Re-Envisioning History Interview by Jan Garden Castro

Sanford Biggers sees African-American cultures as part of a global continuum comprised of diverse cultures, symbols and belief systems.

                                                                                                                                                 DIG E, 2011


For example, the tree and the piano are two potent images, symbols and signs that have mythic, historic and environmental significance among several cultures and throughout time. Buddha found enlightenment under a tree, for instance, and this, in some ways, re-members and makes holy the loss of those who have been hanged from trees throughout history in the context of revolutions, wars and racism. Pianos are also made of wood. Trees grow, flower, bear fruits, age and are the subject of many myths – all this makes it an important symbol for the artist.

 Biggers wows audiences whether he exhibits solo, performs with his group Moon Medicine, or gets into conversation with celebrities like Marcus Samuelsson and Yassin Bey (formerly Mos Def) at the Brooklyn Museum. On the heels of his 2011 exhibitions, Sweet Funk: an Introspective (Brooklyn Museum) and Cosmic Voodoo Circus (Sculpture Center in Long Island City), Biggers opened 2012 with The Cartographer’s Conundrum at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts and Moon Medicine at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Other 2012 shows include Codex, a solo exhibition at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, featuring constellation quilts that reflect on sky signs Harriet Tubman used to guide escaped slaves north. The artist’s floor piece, Mandala of the B-Bodhisattva II, is in Emory University’s exhibition Contemporary Mandala: New Audiences, New Forms. His performance group Moon Medicine – which intermixes a video jockey, disc jockey, performance, and music – received a standing ovation from the full house at the Hammer Museum (University of California, Los Angeles) in February.

The Bridge is Over (biddybyebye), 2006

The Bridge Is Over, 2006

The American Academy recently awarded Sanford Biggers with the  Berlin Prize; he has received The Greenfield Prize (2010), the William H. Johnson Prize (2009) and many other awards. His international residencies include Akademie Schloss Solitute in Stuttgart, Germany; Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, Poland, and the ARCUS Project Foundation in Ibaraki, Japan. His installations, videos and performances have appeared at venues such as the Tate Britain and Tate Modern as well as institutions in China, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Russia. He presently teaches at Columbia University. His website is



 They wants to join you 3

 Jan Garden Castro (JGC): Sanford, would you briefly discuss living in Italy, teaching in Japan and how your interactions with other cultures and peoples affects your work?

Sanford Biggers (SB): I studied in Italy for a year as an undergrad before going to Japan. Aside from the beauty of Florence and the art and history and learning of the language, one thing that really stood out to me was the perspective I gained on the US from seeing it from the outside. It was fascinating how people perceived me on the streets of Italy. This was during the first Gulf War, 1991, and there was an anti-US sentiment in Italy at the time. I found that I could sometimes pass as African and would not get the same flack or scrutiny I would feel when I was with a bunch of recognizable –U.S. students or at an American bar. It made me see myself in a different way. I had the option to be part of a different community whereas I didn’t feel that  this was possible in the U.S. at that point. The most profound thing was that I found myself disliking some things more and also loving some things more.


That persisted in Japan as well, but the thing I found in Japan – and it was probably due to where I was mentally at the time – was meeting like-minded Japanese people. On the surface, it would seem, we had very little in common, but it turned out that I met some of my closest friends while I was there. We had deep, deep connections and long conversations about anything from food to music to politics, both Japanese and American, and we discussed ideas of inclusion and exclusion, which are very important in Japan.


I started studying Buddhism there and the thing that struck me first was the concept of the Middle Way. The Middle Way was a way of going through life without falling to either extreme – negative or positive. It’s basically about taking the good with the bad. Growing up in the U.S. as an African-American, I learned very early on to travel the Middle Way because that’s the way of survival and matriculation through American society.  Obviously, this not only applies to black people, but to anyone who’s not of the dominant culture.


JGC: Do you want to talk about your musical background? How did you teach yourself piano and become a composer?


SB: I was always exposed to a lot of music when I grew up. Everyone in my family seemed to be into music. My parents listened to a lot of jazz, gospel and popular blues like B. B. King and Ray Charles. My brother and sister were into the funk of their generation and, later, jazz fusion. My brother is still a musician; he plays bass. I went to an all-white school for the earlier years of my life, which is where I was exposed to the popular music that we all listened to in addition to rock, which was not happening in my black neighborhood. I was thus also listening to Zeppelin, Hendrix and Pink Floyd at a fairly early age and I identified with all those different types of music. I had a very open ear. There was nothing that I would not listen to. So that’s where the interest in music came from.


I took formal lessons for a year and a half, maybe two years. I didn’t want to study classical. When I stopped taking formal lessons, I didn’t stop playing the piano. I would sit at the piano for hours with the radio playing, trying to play every tune I heard. I tried to figure out what key the songs were in and what notes corresponded to whatever song it was. I spent hours listening to my brother practice with his garage band. By the time I was in junior high, I had a little band. During break time, my friends and I would go to the band room, pick up an instrument and start to play. I carpooled to school with one of my closest friends and we made an arrangement with our parents to take the money from our allowances and invest it into two turn tables and a mixer. If our grades were good, he would hold onto it for a week or two and then I would hold onto it. We shared this thing and we started spinning at high school parties. I was always very into music – playing it and listening to it.


This ultimately led to visual arts. I could play all of these popular songs, but when I started to listen to more jazz, I couldn’t play it. So I started to draw and paint images of the people I was listening to. In my parents’ home, you can see [my] portraits of Ray Charles and John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles, Aretha Franklin, and so on.


 Death Star (not fully operational) 2006

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JGC: Evidently you got busted at 15 for drawing graffiti in L.A.?


SB: Yeah. You know, when the hiphop, rap music culture emerged, I was basically about ten or eleven years old and a very limited amount was coming to L.A. from the East Coast. Well, we probably got more than most cities in the U.S., but it was still limited. There was one record store that would sell directly from New York and it was right down the street in South Central. It was called the D. J. Booth and we would go there every Saturday or Sunday to get twelve inches of the newest thing coming out of the East Coast.

Cartographer's Conundrum 22

Conundrum 22


Anyway, back to why I was busted. Because hiphop was so prevalent, we all practiced the hiphop arts – deejaying, doing graffiti, breakdancing and emceeing. I didn’t emcee so much, but I was breakdancing, doing graffiti and deejaying. Consequently, I got busted doing graffiti. Soon after, I ended up in A. P. [advanced placement] art classes, and that’s how I got started on a formal art education.


JGC: Let’s talk about The Cartographer’s Conundrum at Mass MoCA. First, could you briefly define Afrofuturism?


SB:  Afrofuturism is a way of re-contextualizing and assessing history and imagining the future of the peoples of the African Diaspora via science, science fiction, technology, sound, architecture, the visual and culinary arts and other more nimble and interpretive modes of research and understanding.


JGC: You turned your cousin John Biggers’ Afrofuturist mural into an installation that was your own reply. It filled a huge space; let’s talk about the upward rising of the musical instruments and translucent pews in that space. Did the floor pieces and mirror stars on the floor, casting shadows on the walls,  allude to particular periods in Afro-American history?

Ghettobird Tunic (full length), 2006

BIGGERS 12b (prnt)


SB:  Not so much. The floor was a formal gesture. Because the space is so gi-normous, I wanted to complicate it by creating this optical illusion so that when you’re on the steps above the floor, you can look down and have that perspectival illusion from the cut tiles. That was a way of acknowledging the vastness of the space and trying to create even more. The same with the stars; I was interested in how you can look down and see the stars, but at the same time their reflection is above. So, it’s an “as above, so below” type of thing. The mirrors reflecting the ceiling also create more depth through the floor. But the “church” moment – the pews and the exploding pipe organs – really, that was improvised with objects that I found at Mass MoCA. I found a few church pews in one of the back buildings and moved those into the space. Then I decided to construct Plexiglas pews in the same fashion.


I grew up in the church. John Biggers’ work references the church a lot and it seemed like a fitting motif to go with. I think I mentioned to you before that, on my own, I probably wouldn’t have gone into such a religious direction because I’m really not referring directly to a religion, but rather to the architecture of the Christian church. However, I do think that I was influenced by Biggers’ constant allusion to transcendence and the way he makes connections between the African-American church and worship practices and spirituality that he witnessed in Africa.


As a side-note, no one has discussed John Biggers in terms of Afrofuturism until now. I had the desire to look at his work through the lens of Afrofuturism. Because the term and the field of inquiry is so new, it hasn’t been applied to older visual artists so much.


When I started to learn about Afrofuturism and realized that I considered myself part of that dialog, it made a lot of sense that John Biggers was doing a lot of those things way before the term or that field of inquiry developed.


JGC: So as you go forward, you try to resolve or bring into consilience the larger state of African-American histories, world histories and other meanings and symbols, yes?


SB: Yes. That’s one thing that has been afforded to European history and American history but black history still only exists in February. Obviously it exists all the time. It’s American history. One of the charges of the work is to look at American history in a more collective way and to redefine and re-imagine history. Afrofuturism does this; reclaims history through these other avenues.


JGC: Are there other myths, images or symbols you’d like to explore, or is the field open?


SB: The field is totally open now. I sort of think of it as a gateway. I find myself sometimes clinging to some academic or theoretical proposition to create from, as a departure point, and Afrofuturism sort of opens everything up wide. I think it’s in tandem with the post-Black dialog, which is also a gateway.




My Take By Quincy Troupe

It’s late August, two and a half months from the 2012 presidential election. Make no mistake about it, this historic, potentially nation-changing decision is the most important political decision the people of the United States will have to make in quite some time, because whoever is chosen – whether incumbent Democratic President, Barack Obama or his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney – voters must understand how, on the one hand, this choice will divide the nation because of the two starkly different agendas of each candidate, and, on the other hand, the choice will mirror how the United States will be viewed in the rest of the world.

Today, whether many Americans realize it, the world outside our borders has changed dramatically over the past decades and is now filled with seismic divides – demographic, racial, ethnic, economic, political, social and religious – many in this country did not see coming, nor thoroughly understand. Further, it is still a fact too many Americans citizens never travel outside the country and don’t even have passports. Added to this, a majority of Americans speak only “American English” and see others in the world as inferior to what they deem as American greatness.

These shifts in the rest of the world are intricate and must be negotiated with a surgeon’s scalpel, a delicate, steady hand instead of the proverbial meat cleaver, if we are to survive intact as a world power amidst all these dramatic changes.

Many in the world – this writer included – view Americans today as a people who have lost their grip on what we, as a country, have long stood for: a nation that champions liberty, freedom of expression, religious choice, the right to cast our votes freely, to be free from oppression, racism and sexism. In truth, however, we have never been the nation that upheld these principles and practices, though it appeared we were moving toward some of these ideals when we elected a Black man President in 2008. That was an awe-inspiring, glorious moment, a singular act of political expression and courage celebrated with joy here and around the world. But that moment was short-lived in the United States and what that glorious moment promised lies in shambles today like a priceless crystal vase smashed onto concrete. Now the shards – sharp as honed razor blades – lie around our collective feet, threatening to cut us all so severely we risk bleeding to death

What has caused this? Deep-seated racism has caused it, nothing else, though many people fool themselves into believing something else other than racial animosity toward Barack Obama, our first African American president, is the cause.  But racism IS the real cause; everything else is just excuses, smoke and mirrors. Far too many people, especially Whites, cannot face the truth that widespread racism is deeply rooted in our troubled, conflicted country. Yet virulent racism divides this nation so deeply it has catapulted the homeland shockingly close to the edge of collapse, leaving many us bewildered how it all happened, and so quickly.

If we were honest, ALL Americans would recognize the sad, pitiful picture of what this once great country has become, and that we citizens must shoulder some of the blame for the impending catastrophe. Why? Because we voted for, and put into office the very people responsible for our current situation, that’s why! On the other hand American citizens suffer under a complacent corporate media that permits right wing wing-nuts like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and a host of others to run amok spreading lies and dangerous innuendo about President Obama that undermine the Office of the Presidency. President Obama’s challenger, Mitt Romney, has embraced the notion that the President has bowed down to world leaders, that he is an apologist for the actions of America, is merely a community organizer, that he hasn’t created jobs, has shown no leadership, has raised taxes and that he doesn’t understand how finances work.

Because of our votes and the indolence of corporate media, we face a looming financial disaster and this catastrophe is not limited just to politics; it’s happening on many levels of our essential institutions, including in the arts, education, religion and run away military spending: it is aided not only by deeply embedded racism but egregious greed.

On May 28th of this year, Mitt Romney, spoke to reporters on his “aircraft” about the support he was receiving from Donald Trump (“a bloviating ignoramus” according to Republican columnist George Will, who also commented on “the Donald’s” persistent denigration of President Obama regarding his birthplace and U.S. citizenship). Romney said, “I don’t agree with all the people who support me, and my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in. But I need to get 50.1 % or more, and I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.”  Translated, Mr. Romney’s statement means he will do ANYTHING to get 50.1 % of the popular vote, which doesn’t actually guarantee his election because the route to the presidency is through the Electoral College.  Mr. Romney’s statement blatantly encourages Whites to cast their votes according to race rather than on whether the sitting President deserves to be re-elected based on what he has accomplished in nearly four years in office. These accomplishments include rescuing the automobile industry, killing Osama Bin Laden, ending the Iraq War, ending discrimination against same sex couples in the military, regulating credit card companies, instituting a national health care program, leveling off government spending, and steady jobs growth through his $800 billion stimulus bill – read Michael Grunwald’s fabulous book, The New New Deal, to get the truth regarding the stimulus bill – and Mr. Obama’s Executive Order, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” that went into effect on August 16th of this year. This is quite a remarkable record, considering the unprecedented mess President George W. Bush left the country in. Mr. Romney is fully aware there is deeply rooted antipathy towards President Obama because of his race. And so he plays the race card against Obama, both implicitly and explicitly, every chance he gets.

In reality, Barack Obama represents precisely what the nation needs at this time and place in our history: he is young, brilliant, forward thinking, flexible, socially, economically and politically dexterous, and exceedingly tough in his handling of foreign policy. And for so many of us in the rest of this diverse, multicultural world, President Obama IS precisely the person who should be leading the United States – and in a recently released poll, a great majority of business leaders throughout the world picked President Obama over Mr. Romney as the person who would best lead the United States – during this politically charged, complex political time, his few missteps while in office, notwithstanding.

More troubling, states dominated by Republican have proposed enacting voter ID laws that, in reality, attempt to suppress, restrict or deny Democratic voters in the 2012 presidential election, primarily African-Americans, other so-called “minorities,” old and young people alike, the right to cast their ballots this November. Yet Mr. Romney refuses to denounce this blatant attempt to steal the upcoming election. There is no remorse, nor reflection, in this pernicious Republican political ploy. Should he win the election by these illicit means, what does Mr. Romney think people outside the United States will think of his election? While Republican hawks vow to uphold democracy around the world, how does voter suppression impact that sacred tenet in the eyes of those around the globe? Do these Republicans think other people all over the world won’t notice what they are doing here to prevent people from exercising the right to vote? Aren’t they aware that people all over the globe use the internet, twitter, facebook, and all kinds of social media at a rate that is possibly higher than in the United States? Believe me; this will harm our nation’s image immeasurably. How can a nation that has championed free elections all over the world as a path to a country’s sacred ideal of Democracy get away with voter suppression?

And what exactly does Mitt Romney offer the country as a would-be President of the United States? By what we know of him, Romney offers us a record of lies, deceit, denial, obfuscation, and personal ambition. He already owes the country a tremendous amount of explanations. Like for instance, like why he confiscated all computer hard drives holding his record as governor of Massachusetts? Have all the hard drives been erased? Also, at the time of writing this editorial, Mr. Romney still refuses to discuss his record at Bain Capital: why? Then there are the questions of his back tax returns, which as of this date he refuses to release; his tenure as head of the 2004 Olympics, and whose financial records he also confiscated; did he scrubbed them clean, too. What about the millions he’s allegedly secreted in off-shore bank accounts in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland; why can’t he come clean with voters if he wants to be President of the country? Fiurther, Mr. Romney has no foreign policy experience, which he proved in London at the Olympics and on his subsequent visits to Israel and Poland. Finally, we know Mr. Romney wants to cut taxes for rich people by trillions of dollars, that he would gut Social Security and attempt to abolish Medicare and President Obama’s health care act.

In spite of having run for the office of the presidency for twelve consecutive years, Mr. Romney is quite a backwards-looking man, rooted in the past. He appears arrogant, socially and politically inflexible, is a “flip-flopper” on many important issues that comes to mind, and seemingly incapable of telling the truth, especially when he talks about his and President Obama’s political records. He questions Mr. Obama “faith” while refusing to discuss how his Mormon religion informs his own world and political view. He calls President Obama an “appeaser” and an attacker of capitalism, but refuses to explain why the stock market continued to soar during Mr. Obama’s tenure in office. In spite of 4 million jobs having been created during the Obama administration, Mr. Romney claims that Mr. Obama hasn’t created any jobs and that he has raised taxes, even though Obama, in fact, has cut taxes. Another absolute lie is Mr. Romney’s assertion Mr. Obama is “weak” on foreign policy. Like many of Mr. Romney’s supporters, who are “tea party” members and so-called “birthers,” Mr. Romney readily casts aspersions as to whether Mr. Obama’s is a true “American,” He remains silent while his advocates call Mr. Obama “the food-stamp president” and simultaneously complains that the Obama campaign employs dirty politics when they attack his lies and his known record. (He’s such a whiner when he is attacked!)

Deeper still, Mr. Romney surrounds himself with mostly rich, greedy White men (the likes of Donald Trump, most notably) and former George W. Bush neo-conservatives and warmongers. I have yet to see (with the exception of the “White” Cuban, Marco Rubio) any people of color around him. Mitt Romney has been dubbed a “vulture capitalist,” one who destroys companies to make money for himself and his stockholders. Is this really the type of person needed in the Oval Office, running the country in such perilous times?

It’s a sick, toxic mess we are living in today. I shudder to think how bad it will be if Mitt Romney wins the presidency, with Paul Ryan, a right-wing, radical zealot who also lies about President Obama’s record with a smile (who also lacks foreign policy experience and is a proven hypocrite regarding much of his record in Congress) as his Vice President.  Look at the facts on the ground: a tiny, select group of giant corporations (maybe six or seven) and some extremely wealthy, extremely conservative old White men will have a tremendous impact on the next president of this country if it is Mitt Romney. Because it is THEIR money that is supporting Mr. Romney and much corporate media (who control at least 80 percent of the media, which in turn controls what we see, hear, how we see it and digest it) provide their tacit approval. And thanks to the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court these corporations are able to pour unlimited amounts of cash into political campaigns, overwhelmingly supporting right-winged Republican candidates. This is a critical issue that we as concerned American citizens need to keep in mind when we go to the polls.

Perhaps Politicians in Washington and all over this country – along with American citizens – should keep in mind the example that was on display at the Summer 2012 Olympics, where teamwork, pride of country over narrow partisanship and a sense of collective purpose were on display. Such important attributes are key to a bright, promising future for any nation. But don’t hold your breath waiting on an avaricious, stupid, short sighted, selfish Washington political elite – and the American electorate, which sadly seems to be more divided than ever – to move collectively to right the wrong-headed direction in which this nation is headed at breakneck speed. I truly hope we can apply the brakes to halt this catastrophic death plunge, though I doubt it. Still, always the optimist, I hope we can pull back from the edge of the cliff and come together as a country. It’s going to be difficult, but as Malcolm X once said: “only time will tell” and indeed it will.

Changing the subject, we are again very proud of this new issue of Black Renaissance Noire. We have in this issue wonderful interviews conducted by the French scholar, Francois Noudelmann, with the great Nobel American novelist, Toni Morrison and Jan Garden Castro’s conversation with the American artist, Sanford Biggers. In addition, there are probing, revealing and controversial non-fiction pieces by Ishmael Reed, Dr. Gerald Horne and Walter Gordon. We are proud to publish very fine fiction by William Melvin Kelley and Michael Datcher, poetry by Paul Celan, Will Alexander, Pierre Joris, Monica Hand, Sarah Scheig, K. Curtia Lyle, Greg Hewitt and Desiree Alvarez. Finally, there are marvelous visual portfolios of art and photographs by Will Calhoun, Willie Cole, Osaretin Ighile and Nandipha Mntambo.

As always let me hear your opinions of this new issue, whether positive or negative. And thank you for your continued support of our efforts in the past and we welcome it in the future.


Beijing: Is Americanization “Cool?” by Ishmael Reed


Though dismissed by “mainstream” American critics, afraid to wander from their Eurocentric intellectual bunker, the novel got the attention of scholars, students and intellectuals in Japan. I was invited to Japan, which I toured in 1996.As an example of the worldwide interest in African Literature, I was a guest of the Langston Hughes Society in Kyoto, ironic because, when Hughes visited Japan in the 1930s, he was detained as a result of controversial remarks that the Japanese regarded as subversive. He was also held under suspicion by the f.b.i.

A few years ago, a brilliant young Chinese scholar informed me that there was interest in the novel at Beijing Normal University. I was invited to attend a conference there and give a lecture. They also invited my co-worker of nearly fifty years, Carla Blank, who directed a play at the Kennedy Center in 2010 and in 2009 was dramaturge for a Robert Wilson Project, which I named “Kool.” After attending a dance workshop conducted by Carla at the university, a student said that it was the “most fun” class she’d had there. We were in Beijing from Nov.5 to the 13th. Even before boarding the plane to Beijing, I noticed some of the Americanization of China about which some Chinese poets and intellectuals complain. Unlike the drab outfits worn by actors in one of the silly Romney Super Pac films that harkened back to the Fu Ma-Chu movies (and when actress Loretta Young was made up to look like a Chinese woman, Toya San, in the 1932 movie, “The Hatchet Man”) this crowd boarding the plane carried shopping bags marked Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Target and even Nike. 

I sat next to a Chinese man who was engaged in a conversation with a white American man who was sitting across the aisle from him. Your typical loud mouthed know-it-all-nik American kept berating Chinese goods, “which only last a month’s use” and commenting on fake Calvin Klein merchandise that’s peddled in China. This may be true, but the merchandise available at Calvin Klein’s store in Beijing aren’t fake. China is the largest market for Calvin Klein’s merchandise outside of the United States. The store is located on the same street as an Armani store.

The wealthy, the consumers of these goods, do very well in this country and own a considerable amount of the country’s economy. It helps to be a member of the ruling party, as most of the million Chinese millionaires are. The new communist party chair XI Jinping belongs to a family that possesses three hundred million dollars in assets while the average Chinese earns about $250.00 per month. This shocked me more than anything I heard during my days in socialist China. Many of the wealthy and the Chinese intellectual elite, who were trained at Edinburgh, Cambridge, Yale and Harvard, have resettled in the United States.

Once landing at Beijing airport, we walked passed a video that showed a performance of a people’s opera, and at the Ullens Center For Contemporary Art, we saw the kind post modernist exhibits that one would find in any New York gallery, including a piece by sculptor Zhan Wang, who is popular in the United States. There was a show called “Dressing The Screen, The Rise Of Fashion Film” which featured seven or so video screens showing scenes from American and European fashion shows from different periods.

The Belgian baron Guy Ullens opened the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (ucca) in a former munitions factory, in November 2007. In 2011, he decided to divest. He said that he wanted to concentrate on Indian rather than Chinese artists. The not-for-profit gallery, which contains three exhibition halls, an auditorium, restaurant, library, and bookstore, was entirely funded by Ullens. But one doesn’t have to visit a gallery to sample the variety of fashion worn by Chinese. In the subways, one finds billboards featuring European women modeling clothes. While having lunch at a restaurant located across the street from the center called Venti Gallery and Café, our fellow patrons, young people, were wearing the kind of clothes indistinguishable from that worn by young New Yorkers who congregate near Houston and Broadway.

The restaurant’s speakers were playing Mariah Carey and Hip Hop, Hip Hop becoming a world music, which might even have had a hand in stimulating the Arab Spring. They were eating hamburgers and french fries. I was told that the middle class dines at McDonald’s while the upper classes patronize Starbucks where you can purchase a cup of coffee for 24 yuan, about $2.00. There was a Starbucks located near our hotel, which stood on the campus of Beijing Normal University. Starbucks has opened 570 stores in 48 Chinese cities.

On the night of our arrival, during a dinner held in our honor, some of the faculty mentioned that novelist Mo Yan, who earned a m.a. from this university, had received a Nobel Prize for Literature, though there were others who judged Gre Fei, described as a “arch experimentalist,” to be the superior writer. His work is yet to be translated into English.

Beijing Normal University, which is celebrating its one hundredth anniversary, has a radical reputation. Some of the students who participated in the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 attended this school and before that, students from Beijing Normal participated in the March 4 1919 movement during which thousands of students protested the invasion of the Japanese. Seven thousand took part in a demonstration in Tiananmen Square, March of 1989. They carried banners that read “Freedom,” and boycotted their classes. The communist party has forbidden any public discussion of this uprising, which showed the vulnerability of the regime. Censorship abounds. Emails of citizens are examined and though I could get The Washington Post online, The New York Times, Facebook and YouTube were unavailable. (A New York Times’ story about the accumulation of wealth by the prime minister and his family led to the government’s removal of the Times from online availability.)

On campus the undergraduates live six to eight in one room. I wondered how some of the valley girls who use to take my classes, would fare under such circumstances. Those who study to become teachers get free tuition, if they vow to teach in the rural areas upon graduation. If upon graduating the others don’t land a job within three months, they have to leave Beijing.

Government workers who have more than one child lose their jobs, which causes resentment because the rich are exempt from this rule. As I walked around the campus and the streets beyond, I noticed that not only was food, music and clothing part of the American invasion, but at 8:30 pm one night, I encountered some pick up games. On a field of cement, there were twelve basketball games taking place. Simultaneously! Linsanity has spread to China. Around the corner from the hotel, I even spotted a manikin on display in a shop. It was a Playboy bunny!

On a cold windy rainy day we traveled by subway to Tiananmen Square. The taxi driver wouldn’t take us all the way. He said that it was dangerous because of the extra security having to do the 18th Congress meeting there, which resulted in XI Jinping being appointed General Secretary. We had to take a subway and a bus in order to reach our destination. The closer we got to the square the more red flags we saw on display. Tiananmen Square was being patrolled by armed men and women.

The square was dominated by gigantic television screens of the sort that loom over Las Vegas. We did manage to tour the Forbidden City, which one enters through a door above which is a giant painting of Mao. The Forbidden City was the home of the Ming and Qing Dynasty until the Qings were overthrown by forces loyal to Sun Yat Sen in 1911, who wanted to install an American styled democracy in China. After the communist defeated the forces of Chang Kai Shek, he became dictator of Taiwan.

China is ruled by a twenty five member Politburo, which, according to some, is self-sustaining. I overheard one person say that the regime is as remote from ordinary people as the former Emperors were. Television screens installed in each subway car showed a live broadcast of the Congress’s proceedings. The passengers regarded the live broadcast with silent indifference. I was told that there are demonstrations taking place everywhere in China, demonstrations that don’t reach the western media like those in Estonia and Latvia that went unnoticed, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some Chinese want the United States to intervene. To install democracy. I said that the country doesn’t want to get involved in another war, a sentiment voiced by both factions on the American right and the left; of course, it would be different if the u.s. would win one from time to time.

On the day of the conference, I was accosted with the jargon revolving Mao’s little Red Book, or a dry examination of Marxist theory? No. It was jargon but it was the jargon of French theory of the sort that has burdened many a meeting of the Modern Language Association. The topic of most of the papers was American authors. From Nathanial Hawthorne to Toni Morrison. There was even a paper devoted to the work of Philip Frenau. Another paper mentioned the black writer, William Demby, whose book, “Love Story, Black” Steve Cannon and I published in 1978. Demby has a reputation among the American cognoscenti, but is largely ignored by Anglophiles who run our major book reviews and whose treatment of black writers is mostly ignorant and whimsical. Right now they embrace African writers, but as soon as they begin to criticize American society as much as they criticize their home countries, they will be sent packing. Demby, who use to reside in Italy, lived for many years in exile there has recently moved back to the United States and resides somewhere in New York City.

These signs of Americanization are annoying to some. They blame everything from the disintegration of the Chinese family, the high divorce rate and the coarsening of urban life onAmericanization or what the academics refer to as “Modernity.” One thinker complained that “women are no longer loyal.” American film and television are also to blame according to some. A show called “Gossip Girls” came in for special criticism for corrupting the values of teenage girls. Only in the rural areas, I was told, does one find the old values, but even there some said a younger generation is disrespecting their parents. I was told that the countryside contains the Chinese spirit, but is being discarded in favor of development and Modernity. Only the elderly reside there now as young people enter the cities looking for work. They lose connection with the rural areas and for example don’t return home for local festivals. Elders are not as respected as they once were.

And so when the leaders at the 18th Congress mentioned “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” I was told that they were referring to a socialism that emphasized agricultural development. It is said that this crisis of spirituality is caused by Modernity, which places profit and material assets over things of the spirit. Some Chinese intellectuals and poets are pessimistic about this trend being reversed. Confucianism has fallen out of favor because of its advocating a Feudalistic model. They claim that Buddhism has become a religion based upon materialism, not spirituality. People pray to gods and goddesses in hopes of receiving material goods. I saw an example of this while visiting the Temple of Heaven, which was once the home of a prince before he became an Emperor. People were lighting incense and kneeling before gods and goddesses. Christianity, on the other hand, as a result of proselytizing by Koreans, is spreading in the rural areas even though Chinese worshipping along side foreigners is illegal.

There seems to be two points of view about the Americanization of China. One holds that it is only a stream, a minor influence which the Chinese river will absorb as they have other foreign influences. Others contend that Americanization is changing China in fundamental ways, and not for the good. After listening to a lot of lofty talk, I went to the Twelve Oaks coffee shop to get away from the hotel’s Nescafe. In the coffee shop, they were playing Charlie Parker’s version of “How High The Moon.” In another coffee shop there hung a movie poster advertising an American film called “Killers.”

Americans don’t realize how fascinated is the rest of the world with their culture both popular and “high.” The American election was followed closely here. (The girls on campus think that Obama is handsome! He is seen as being favorable to China. His half brother, Mark Obama Ndsandjo, lives in Guangdong province. A businessman, he is married to a Chinese woman). Instead of seeing this fascination as an opening, our politicians and media accost other countries frequently with a lot of goofy backwoods truculent talk. Leaders who are opposed to American policies are caricatured and dismissed as clowns and as crazy. Maybe the president should award hip-hop mogul Jay Z an ambassadorship.

Carla and I spent a week In Beijing in conversation with Beijing intellectuals. It was a moveable intellectual feast as we spent time talking touring and eating. (When the Chinese say that “food is first” they ain’t kiddin’. Both Carla and I gained five pounds each as we ate our way through some of the fanciest restaurants in Beijing as well as those located in alleys where local foods were available.) We exchanged information with Chinese intellectuals about films, books and music, sometimes hurriedly writing on any paper available. Even napkins. Some of my notes were covered with soy sauce. This kind of exchange is much more creative than an exchange of missiles. As Chinese young people who have adopted American words would say, “cool.”
Reprinted with permission of the author Dec.2012 Ishmael Reed’s latest book is “ Going Too Far.”

Poem and Farewell,” a tribute to Jayne Cortez By AMIRI BARAKA

The Swahili word
For Holocaust
is Maafaa!
So if you ask us
How has it been
For Blacks
in America?
We say
It’s been
A Maafaa!


That’s why great artists make us stronger, we use their penetrations of the world to strengthen and harden and make even more rational our own. At first it was Jayne’s striking domestication of the weapon of surreal re-encountering of the world, to stand it on its metaphorical head, or rip into its ontological guts: “I am New York City/here is my brain of hot sauce/my tobacco teeth my/mattress of bedbug tongue.” Then it was her swiftly radicalizing vision of place and who were her and our friends and enemies in that actual and philosophical place. For instance, Jayne loved the great musicians and poets of our world, and their descriptions and incantations of this place. Christopher Okigbo, Henry Dumas she raised in, “For The Poets,” for our deeper understanding. “I need kai kai ah/a glass of akpetesie ah/ from torn arm of Bessie Smith ah.” A deep internationalist, Jayne could tell us “I see Chano Pozo” “Is there anyone finer today ole okay/Oye I say/ I see Chano Pozo/Chano Pozo from Havana Cuba” so we can dig that Afro-Cuban connect joined at the Hip and take us “to the spirit house of Antonio Maceo.”


She presented the persons, their rituals, their image and their sound, their meaning. Their and our lives and deaths. As well as the flesh eating lives of our enemies. “I need …the broken ankles of a BJ Vorster (and she’d tell us why, straight out)…Because they’ll try to and shoot us/like they shot Henry Dumas… huh/ because we massacre each other/and Christopher Okigbo is dead uh-huh/ because I’m not a bystander uh huh/because mugging is not my profession uh huhn.” She raised and supported the great persons and spirits who were her and our muses and inspirations not only the artists but the warriors, the fighters specially the women. For Fannie Lou Hamer “Big Fine Woman From Ruleville” in the deeply moving tribute “I kiss the mud of this moment” to slam Fannie Lou’s life and work and Jayne’s celebration of it into us alive and pulsing. In “Rape” the poem about Inez Garcia and Joanne Little, Jayne says, “What was Inez supposed to do for/ the man who carved a combat zone between her /breasts…she stood with a rifle in her hand/doing what a defense department will do in time of/ war…she pumped lead into his three hundred pounds of / shaking flesh….then celebrated day of the dead rapist punk/and just what the fuck else was she supposed to do.” “And what was Joanne supposed to for/ the man who declared war on her life.” Jayne tells us , “Joanne came down with an ice pick in…yes in the fat neck of that racist policeman/Joanne did the dance of the icepicks and once again/ from coast to coast /house to house/we celebrated day of the dead rapist punk/ and just what the fuck else were we supposed to do.” In defense of our real lives against these actual madmen murderers of too many of us, she could chant “Bring back the life of Claude Reese Jr/the blackness called dangerous weapon…I want the life of the blackness of Claude Reese Jr/ I want the bullet from his head to /to make a protective staff for startled children.” Jayne’s poetry? Don’t get me started. I’ll give an entire reading, but the very old dude whom she married limited me to a few minutes, but it’s hard not to go on and on about her great work. Only suicidal folks don’t care if poets die. I agree I might be saying that because of my own gig. But further than that, when you lose poets it means you could be quickly surrounded by officially imbecilic citoyens without the required poetic disinfectant to cool they nonsense out. I mean how you live with a Russ Limbaugh without a Jayne telling you “ My friend/they don’t care/if you’re an individualist/a leftist a rightist/a shit head or a snake/ They will try to exploit you /absorb you disconnect you isolate you/or kill you.” How you live with a Tom Ass Clarence and his toxic mate and their democracy killing Citizens United without a Jayne around to say …”.And if we don’t fight/ if we don’t resist/if we don’t organize and unify and/get the power to control our own lives/then we will wear the exaggerate look of captivity.” I mean how can you exist in a small space like our cities without a Jayne somewhere saying: “To the memory of Larry Neal” that there are “No Simple Explanations” say if you are talking to some constipated under- punk who is the May whore, without Jayne (or it might be Sekou or Louis Reyes or Lucille… bless them forever) there in your mind’s ear , “There are no simple explanations/not for the excesses/not for the accumulations….not for the heart/ready to shoot off like a volcano.” Because for the poets there are no simple explanations, but there are simple truths which we must grasp if we are to survive otherwise, “suddenly it will be too soon/suddenly it will be too late/suddenly it will be too sudden.” Jayne’s fears like her courage to confront them was real. That we had to deal with those simple truths, which she relentlessly conveyed to us with a grand convoy of amazing music and armor piercing metaphor…that we are oppressed and exploited often hypnotized into not seeking equal rights and self-determination but we could buoyed up ,raised ,set afire, with the poets ecstasy of digging this clearly, of understanding, of being transformed by this explosive revelation , you know, you know , you know …and there it is. And we will miss her and them, like part of our brain has gone away. Hey, let’s give some giant readings of Jayne’s and these great gone poets’ works very soon.

Cedar Sigos


What did I miss
while in Paris?
(the big game)
Rod Roland wrote that
before I did
I wish
to be more like him
(crystal gazing lights
are in perfect darkness)
what can I make with
what I have?
happy anger,
a plywood press primer,
“I gotta
keep going soon”
off Crete
like tomorrow
I would knock
seeking sanctuary
in the city of
Poseidon, I grow older
type the faintest lights and
the sleepers awake
key doors shining forth
the guard so thin
and fleet
and wending its way
through what channel
damn fast
splintered glass
bottom boat, blood
brought to ghosts

…   for John Coletti

(Vampires dreaming elephants are good lottery luck)
Moroccan Things:
Boy hustlers
Brion Gysin
Argan Oil
Digging up the city of Poseidon
who are old money
and quick to correct me
if you don’t want
you lose the flow though
several words
Serious is the dog star (man)
The sun just had a tornado
(sable on blonde)
I think it was you
a parasite got control of the speech
intricate landscapes,
jewelery, all that…


An Emotional Memoir,

I walked along the mouth of a black river in Zurich. I nearly froze, remembered please and thank you. I
sometimes had to point and could not look down. It may have been a bed laid for a railway track. I had
traveled sleeplessly, still excited to get away in final observation of my emotions (would everything
just come to a head already?) A friend I hadn’t seen since childhood had asked me here. We had been
facing the same two way mirror for years without knowing it. He had written to me about my poetry so
I hammered back the emerald tablet in return. We were both helpless to showing the edge of two
opposites drawn together, romancing the edge of assyrian robes, reentering the embassy. We came on
with almost embarrassed affection, so easy to talk. His wife resembled Sharon Tate. They had three
children (you would never guess) How kind to be lost among lopsided spinning leaves. It was a passage
with the usual skull change, some morning glory seeds I had figured into a brick to block my windpipe.
I found its rightful fit and it dissolved. It only reinforced the deep Atlantic green that later fell from
gold in Sacre Coeur, fighting off the torrents of green blood in my poems, my eyes. It was no fair. In
grey square cut button up coat. I don’t have ideas. I get to work, no talent, no genius but divination,
painted dusk.



I can disappear before your eyes killing you
I slay you with my eyes you disappear
That’s how I would remember that line and How To Write
Actually, certainly, stupidly, only the ladies strumming language
They are not women, they are nights
Wrestling these lines off the back of a knife
They have a second life spent in stone and so attended
Bomb the bridge to heat my hands
Work their handlers in order
Go to the movies all day, only to collapse and focus
To finally hand off my faded flower
Caring and pointed, she brought me up and loosened my mind
Toward the checks and imbalances
And cameos in lucifers grotto.
I remember a full on scottish plaid suit
The gravitron, SEXODROME growing out of apollinaires grave
Empty balcony seats, operatic little fills
The poems of a Multi-billionaire, a vow of silence
Fine and Mellow, all the things you are


Plains Pictograph

I have been described as private, that’s other people
(you never really know) One year I sent everyone
A slice of the rose for Christmas. It was meant the way
It sounded, withdrawn. Two fires on the high road whistling
The phone only echoes back my voice
Entrenched mirror, high rise, intense pathways,
Pistol unit, sword, english glossing, streetlights
Sniping back. Mothers lock up your daughters
Cut the light, shut the shade, hollow thy mountain.
I think I still am stirred mind heard words,
Some of those nightmares, some of these days
Just a gigolo, solo, sears, free land, blow your gold leaf
Sweetheart deals and money to my love letters, rivulets, tons,
Minutes to go, blinding ices, jesus pieces, high praise


at a funeral back home i saw an old
college roommate, suburban dude, psych
phd. we called him mister posh perrier
in our waning undergraduate days
as he moved away from communal
artist poverty back to his origins before
the rest of us had decent credit scores.
we have lived in the same city limits
for over a decade. dopplegangers in private
practice dotting the near counties. tried
to uncover him years ago. here he is,
in a mourner’s backyard, talking
millions selling houses and condos
blocks from my oldest sons’ school. we
are locked door, nightly news, ebonic sound
bite. drunk, i take his card, divulge plan
to drop him on west madison after dark.
tour chicago with no banks and scarce
fresh produce. rattle his republic, survey
millions who might benefit from pedigree.
city of bones
after August Wilson
in this town where no one wants to die
the crime rate is low everyone
clothed fed to belly full medicine
bountiful young people all
challenged to limit of potential a system
to support aptitude fresh air
& produce in our town women & girls
revered cherished protected men
gracious sensitive fitness prayer in multiple
tongue prison is those who do not
believe streets safe & clean a brotha
can get a cab free shuttle for the too high
in our town where no one wants
to die news always polite the world played
nice today…details at 10 no sickness starvation
lonely avoid walking on neighbors
lawn taxes paid on time haiti japan
spared all of us superheroes all of us
ordinary this town
not cairo madison tehran
no fly zone no gangs we assemble peace
gather in tiny or public space say excuse me
we are post race no history beyond right
now maybe yesterday we can’t remember

my dreams sleep in beds they have outgrown
nightmares leave room enough for any soul
i am the size of my own hollow promise
flush with life despite the darkening night
the preacher prays for me her vacant psalms
church fan perfect with a cutting smile
message unholy, steam rises from lips
why can’t we speak the grace we all avoid?
might we choose a path the prophet walked?
mama knew the way to seek pure light
now i find me in her waning breath
wandering toward them with baby steps
i am anew, born in the pain of death
god forbid i lose all i have learned


Ho‘i Hou i ka Iwi Kuamo‘o
I bring you coral,
bleached empty of color,
a calcified kukui husk,
palm-sized red
and purple pōhaku
rounded by
the broken bones
of fish and reef,
the coarse sand still
resembling shells
to remind you
we have always been
part ocean, part land,
that the moon
will teach us again
the right words
just beneath the water,
to know each kind
by shape and color
from the pali’s vantage—
to call out for the others
to net, to return.

Star-Spangled Banner
A betrayal
to stand
with your hand
over your heart
and sing
the song
of the country
your country
to read every star
on the flag
your country’s flag
and see the last one
there: small, white
and pointed
stitched into the blue
with a thin thread
as if
it has always
been that way
as if
it can never
be undone.

Postcards from Waikīkī
for the poet Wayne Kaumualii Westlake
Wish you were here in
Paradise, sipping mai tais
or something like that.
It’s only gotten
worse—even more pigs and less
slop to go around.
You probably knew
the old pipes couldn’t contain
the shit of empire.
Two died—a tourist
and a military man—
who else goes to Waiks?—
after falling in
the Ala Wai, pulsing of
(E Waikīkī ‘ē,
Spouting water spouts again—
The swamp thing’s revenge!)
Not one janitor
could be found in all the land
except the ocean.
They still pay extra
for Diamond Head Ocean Views,
waves now barely brown.
I imagine you
with your kahuna
on the beach watching
pig oil make rainbows
on the water, imported
sand crusting your hand.
A dollar blows by,
then another, and no one
sees, or even cares.

Too little to be
worth chasing where there is too much
to regret, forget.
Wayne—Can I call you
Wayne? No disrespect. You’re more
a friend than uncle—
Maybe it’s better
to wish you weren’t here to see
how it’s even worse
than you remember:
more shit than the State can hide
in its folds of fat.
Make yourself reborn
in the voice of leaves, raindrops,
sweep through these sidewalks.
Not even a light,
falling rain, warm to the spine,
can make us clean now.

He Mele Aloha no ka Niu
I’m so tired of pretending
each gesture is meaningless,
that the clattering of niu leaves
and the guttural call of birds
overhead say nothing.
There are reasons why
the lichen and moss kākau
the niu’s bark, why
this tree has worn
an ahu of ua and lā
since birth. Scars were carved
into its trunk to record
the mo‘olelo of its being
by the passage of insects
becoming one to move
the earth speck by speck.
Try and tell them to let go
of the niu rings marking
each passing year, to abandon
their only home and move on.
I can’t pretend there is
no memory held
in the dried coconut hat,
the star ornament, the midribs
bent and dangling away
from their roots, no thought
behind the kāwelewele
that continues to hold us
steady. There was a time
before they were bent
under their need to make
an honest living, when
each frond was bound
by its life to another
like a long, erect fin
skimming the surface
of a sea of grass and sand.
Eventually, it knew it would rise
higher, its flower would emerge
gold, then darken in the sun,
that its fruit would fall, only
to ripen before its brown fronds
bent naturally under the weight
of such memory, back toward
the trunk to drop to the soil,
back to its beginnings, again.
Let this be enough to feed us,
to remember: ka wailewa
i loko, that our own bodies
are buoyant when they bend
and fall, and that the ocean
shall carry us and weave us
back into the sand’s fabric,
that the mo‘opuna taste our sweet.

King Kamehameha on Google Maps (Map View)
The King Kamehameha statue
is smaller than you think.
To his left,
an unmarked street
named Mililani.
To his right,
moves makai.
He faces King Street
heading Diamond Head,
extending his arm
toward an unmarked
gray box
in an open
beige field
named ‘Iolani Palace
just out of reach.

University on Google Maps (Satellite View)
University meets Dole
at Bachman Lawn
while Metcalf runs
from Wilder to Dole
and intersects
University by Sinclair
Up further
connects University
to McKinley,
which you can take
to Beckwith
Go up even farther,
and University
and passes
which can only
be accessed via
the Cooke House
named Kūali‘i.
Tours run for $7
by appointment only.
Heading mauka
from O‘ahu, take
a left on Cooper
to get to Mānoa
to get to Kūali‘i
to get to Kūka‘ō‘ō
in the piko
of trees and multi-million
dollar homes.
Returning home
after classes, you pass it always
without knowing.

Lili‘uokalani and Ka‘iulani on Google Maps (Satellite View)
Lili‘uokalani is just
a few blocks
and runs mauka
from Kalākaua
to the Ala Wai
Kūhio intersects with her
amidst vacation condos,
hotels, fenced empty lots
with tarped shopping carts,
overpriced apartments
and ABC stores
as does Koa,
Prince Edward,
and Mountain View.
Ka‘iulani parallels Lili‘uokalani,
running mauka
but is even shorter.
From Lili‘uokalani,
take Cleghorn,
or Prince Edward
to Ka‘iulani.
When you get
to the King’s Village
you must run
mauka with them
(but only as far as the Ala Wai)
and search
for any part of us
that is still ours,
whatever remains
after our names.