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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mad for Madhouse

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Wax Poetics, the true music-lover’s music magazine, celebrates its tenth anniversary this month with a special issue devoted to Prince. Naturally I crashed the party, with a nearly 5,000-word feature on the late-1980s Paisley Park Records jazz band, Madhouse. Wax Poetics #50, freshly resized and redesigned, should start showing up in bookstores and magazine shops everyplace next week.

M’man Michael A. Gonzales rapped with Jesse Johnson, the former Time guitarist who needs no introduction. (This year Jesse joined The Testimony, D’Angelo’s new band. Watch for them at the Essence Music Festival this summer, rumor has it.) Dean Van Nguyn, editor of Dublin’s One More Robot, interviewed the inimitable Morris Day. ?uestlove ran through 33 reasons why Prince is hiphop. (A mag dedicated to Prince without ?uestlove woulda been as bogus as a mag dedicated to Prince without MML.) Wax Poetics highlights The Family, Larry Graham, Andre Cymone and more. Seriously? Get it before it completely disappears.

My Madhouse article came about because it may be another 15 years before I get a shot at a 10,000-word Vanity Fair story. Four years ago I decided to start work on my dream story, something personal that only a handful of people (the right handful, of course) would even get: an exposé on the cult group Madhouse. For those who don’t know, Prince plays every instrument except sax on their 1987 début album, 8, and nearly everything on the followup record, 16. There is no Madhouse. It’s Prince, with ex-Revolution saxophonist Eric Leeds.

Prince wrote, played and produced these tunes at the tail-end of the most monumental creative peak of his career (1982-1987). Don’t bother trolling iTunes for the music, it’s not there. If you’re interested in hearing Madhouse, then YouTube is probably your best bet. This year I promise to start bugging Rhino to produce a killer Paisley Park box set.

And but so, “Syncopated Strut” is the Madhouse story I would have written for Vanity Fair if Graydon Carter had any idea who I am. I interviewed Eric Leeds in Paris, and his brother Alan Leeds (tour manager to James Brown, Prince, D’Angelo and more). I spoke with ex-Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink; sexy Madhouse cover girl Maneca Lightner; and saxophonist James Carter.

Did I mention the entire story is uncut and online for free? Nearly twice as long as the magazine version? See WaxPoetics.com.

(P.S. Love the image above, a modern take on the flavor of photographer Richard Litt’s classic Madhouse albums for the ever elusive, never released 24. If you’ve never seen the originals, scroll through Facebook’s Mad 4 Madhouse fan page, administrated by you-know-who.)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Birth of the (Black) Cool

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Rebecca Walker’s Black White and Jewish was one of the few memoirs I read when preparing to put down the autobiographical parts of my own first book, Scars…, back in 2003. The first place I ever saw cultural critic Greg Tate do his music thang (was Women in Love his band at the time?) was at Fort Greene, Brooklyn’s Kokobar café, coöwned by Walker and closed in 1997. Back in college I’d read every novel her mom had ever written up to that point.

Sometime in 2009 it was nice, to say the absolute least, to hear from Rebecca about her idea for a new book dealing with the elements of black cool. She wanted a mix of personal essay, art history, cultural critique and editorial—“in other words, what you do best,” she said—on any aspect of black cool that tickled my fancy. She’d spent some time reading me, and really liked my Nina Simone tribute. (Blogging pays.)

After toying with a renaissance-man theme, we settled on a piece about my namesakes, Miles Davis and Jimi Marshall Hendrix: their constant evolution, being beyond categorization, a bit of a Miles on Miles story. At the time, two other writers asked me for essays to include in book proposals their agents would be shopping: a collection of marijuana stories, a sex anthology. I just didn’t have the time to write unpaid for books that might not work out. Theirs ultimately didn’t. Rebecca’s I knew would.

Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness is available as we speak, just in time for Black History Month 2012, featuring bell hooks, Veronica Chambers, dream hampton, Mat Johnson and many others; foreword by Skip Gates himself.

Rebecca Walker, the Pulitzer-winning author Margo Jefferson and MML will all be reading at Soho’s McNally Jackson bookstore on Wednesday, February 15, 7:00. Do come through.

(Brooklynites: I’ll also be reading on Monday, February 13, 8:00 at Frank’s Lounge—A Night of a Thousand Writers, with BK music scribes extraordinaire Michael A. Gonzales and Amy Linden, and novelist-poet Sharon Mesmer. 8:00.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Common Sensual: An Ebony Co-sign

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So the Kid has a new column, further- muckers. Starting last week over at the amaaazingly improved Ebony.com, “Common Sensual” has been detailing the ups and downs of romance in urban New York City from my personalized perspective like (dare I say) a black, male Sex and the City. It’s my second column, the first since PopMatters’ “Paris Noir” on life as a boho B-boy in 21st century France. I describe the love-sexy “Common Sensual” comme ça:

As a male writer in New York City, I’ve come across no shortage of women scribes who aspire to be the Carrie Bradshaw of urban media. The seductive lifestyle of record release parties, open-bar velvet rope events and celebrity sightings has drawn plenty of talented ladies into “The Industry.” Before marrying six years ago, I even fell in love with a few. My fellow Aidans and Mr. Bigs never seem to share our own stories of love, sex and city life; instead, our voices are typically relegated to the locker-room topics of politics, music and sports. “Common Sensual” breaks that silence.
I hadn’t gone around pitching a relationships column to anybody. The September issue of Essence published “Fighting Temptation,” an On His Mind essay of mine about the first real temptation of infidelity in my marriage. (That’s an exaggeration, but yeah, something like that.) In the same issue, legendary Honey magazine co-founder Kierna Mayo interviewed Tracee Ellis Ross for the cover, so she read my piece. Kierna reached out in December as editorial director of Ebony.com, adding me to her contributing writer lineup. “Common Sensual” was born out of our brainstorming.

Ebony, if you don’t know, completely transformed in 2010 from your grandma’s magazine by the peppermints on the coffee table to, like, the 40something version of heyday-era Vibe. (New Ebony writers have included dream hampton, Touré and Kevin Powell.) Thank hyper-talented editor-in-chief Amy DuBois Barnett of Honey and Teen People for the transformation; she’s certain to have an award this year for her complete overhaul. Now Ebony.com makes the reboot complete. (Ebony’s Tumblr of archive photos totally kills too.)

So enjoy my Sex and the City. Please, read “Common Sensual” and comment.

“The Space Between Two Lovers” is all about Zoë, a former urban media editor love of mine, and the need for space in healthy relationships.

“Beyond the Sheets” talks about Bangladesh (my ex, not the country), and separating love from lust.

Next week’s edition (spoiler alert!) is all about Epiphany, and how it’s hard to stay interested in a partner who has no ambition. Check the Facebook page for weekly alerts!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hiphop Mafia: The Tweet Edition

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Everyone on this list below is someone I consider part of the Hiphop Mafia, a significant writer with great shit to say about hiphop culture at some point or another over the past 30 years. If I had a rap mag (remember those?), I’d get every last one of ‘em in. Add yourself, nominate somebody, but if you tweet (and who doesn’t?), then follow ‘em all. Tout de suite, in no particular order:

Miles Marshall Lewis—@furthermucker
Michael A. Gonzales—@gonzomike
Selwyn Seyfu Hinds—@selwynhinds
kris ex—@fullmetallotus
dreamhampton—@dreamhampton
Carlito Rodriguez—@carlitomachete
Raquel Cepeda—@raquelcepeda
Nelson George—@nelsongeorge
Marcus Reeves—@somebodyscream
Dimitry Léger—@dimitry3000
Kim Osorio—@kimosorio1
Adario Strange—@adariostrange
Joseph Patel—@josephpatel
Smokey D. Fontaine—@smokeyfontaine
Scott Poulson-Bryant—@SPBVIP
Joan Morgan—@milfinainteasy
Danyel Smith—@danamo
Elliott Wilson—@elliottwilson
Tonya Pendleton—@amazonink
Kenji Jasper—@youngjasper
Datwon Thomas—@daydog
Kierna Mayo—@kiernamayo
Keith Murphy—@murphdogg29
Paula T. Renfroe—@paulatrenfroe
Kevin Powell—@kevin_powell
Bonsu Thompson—@dreamzrreal
Shani Saxon Parrish—@saxinnyc
Mimi Valdés—@mimivaldes
Ronda Racha Penrice—@rondaracha
Allen S. Gordon—@ASGebonycat
Jermaine Hall—@jermainehall
Kweli I. Wright—@thejuiceboxx
Noah Callahan Bever—@N_C_B
Mark Anthony Neal—@newblackman
Lola Ogunnaike—@lolaogunnaike
Alvin Blanco—@aqua174
Amy Linden—@notfornothin59
Ayana Byrd—@ayanabyrd
Ronin Ro—@therealroninro
Larry Hester—@theblackspot
The ego trip Posse—@egotripland
Raqiyah Mays—@raqiyahmays
Riggs Morales—@riggdup
Jayson Rodriguez—@jayhovawitness
Harry Allen—@harryallen
P. Frank Williams—@pfrankwilliams
Barry Michael Cooper—@barrymichaelc
Charlie Braxton—@charliebraxton
Minya Oh—@missinfo
Jon Caramanica—@joncaramanica
Jeff Chang—@zentronix
Chairman Mao—@chairmanmaonyc
Karen R. Good-Marable—@karenrgood
Erik Parker—@erikgparker

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Threesomes: An Erotica Tale

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This is the classic casebook example of how a ménage à trois can leave behind a bad aftertaste with everybody involved, the story of how the big bang between my roommate Tracy, my old Tri-Cities High crush Léa and I scattered us far and wide from one another. The two thousand miles I put between all of us moving out to the Valley might account for our distance—at least as much as Léa’s new boyfriend or even the release of my book. Success doesn’t change you, it changes the people around you I’ve been told. Though I guess sucking and fucking each other in threesomes doesn’t help either. Estrangement with Léa has happened before, but all my excuses for drifting apart from Tracy seem weak, like suddenly realizing that you haven’t had a conversation with your own brother for more than ten minutes long all year.

Léa Decambre. We called her Princess Léa back in eleventh grade, of course. The teenaged Léa: bifocal granny glasses, wispy hazelnut Afro, perpetually braless, complexion of eggshell, thick French accent by way of Guadalupe. The late-twenties Léa: sleeker specs, unkempt dredlocks, svelte frame, cleavage forced forward push-up-Wonderbra style, her French lilt subtler and sexier, a clove constantly smoking between thin lips.

Every guy brave enough to run roughshod through the girls’ locker room is rewarded with at least one tits-and-ass image good for a lifetime of masturbation material. For me it’s Léa Decambre removing an aquamarine swimsuit around her ankles, her wet vanilla skin goose pimply, peach nipples grown stiff. Surprised at the sight of me Léa quickly covered a breast in each hand, overflowing fingers squeezing tight. This was the fantasy image that flashed clear in my mind the minute I saw her a decade later at the Eyedrum gallery.

That blazing summertime Saturday was significant to me, it was my first day consciously renewing my hustle as a photographer. The Renée Cox opening resembled any number of others, white wine, Brie, and fresh-vegetable finger food, Atlanta’s art elite sauntering around in casual interest. Gallery assistants in black, trays in hand, offered up chardonnay and sushi. I was accustomed by then to getting blasted on the free drinks but, unchallenged by steady work for fashion mags, I decided to order a crisp batch of business cards—reading MARSHAL, PHOTOGRAPHER—leave the wine on the trays for a change and attempt to take my career “to the next level.” Léa later told me her blasé manner that day was all about fatigue, on her feet for hours under the Southern heat serving folks. She stood out even before I recognized her, a potential model: tall, lean, and busty, tanned with Nordic features tinted African.

At Ruby Tuesdays later that week, Léa related the latest edition of the biography of her life, bringing me up to speed on the ten years since Tri-Cities. The only chapter that relates to this tale is about her beau at the time, who was on his way out, not making the grade in some way or another. My lips locked with his girlfriend over fudge brownies dessert, my heart doing hand-in-the-cookie-jar palpitations. She lit a clove soon after and admitted cloves weren’t all she smoked. We hatched plans for an herb session at my place, where Léa first met Tracy.

Tracy Culler. We’d lived a train stop away from each other our whole lives but never met till freshman year at Lincoln. I was known for stalking the campus with my Canon and taking shots of students for two bucks each while Tracy was recognized as the school’s number-one clubhead. Back home on different holiday breaks he taught me how to differentiate between DJs at the Phoenix, Diamonds, and other spots.

Tracy was tall, curly headed with a classic muscular dancer’s body, cushiony full lips, an attractive guy. We encouraged one another’s ambitions the same way we psyched each other up to get girls’ phone numbers. After choreographing some school coronations and homecoming pageants, dancing in a few music videos and award shows, Tracy dropped out of Lincoln to tour with Ailey II. Our weekly ritual of smoking dimes while plotting to take over the world actually paid off. Our breakthroughs always happened at the same time, like when he scored a J.Lo tour the same month I shot a spread for Italian GQ, or when his modern-dance teaching gig manifested as my book deal for a collection of nudes came through.

The most revealing story I could tell about our friendship deals with the winter night Tracy read my mind. We were halfway through a joint at our apartment and decided to try a little experiment. I put on a CD and pressed pause, mentally pushed the song title from my mind, and told Tracy to pluck the thought from the air with his brain.

“ ‘Liberation’?” he guessed.

We let the OutKast song play and never tried the telepathy game again.

Léa first met Tracy at our place, delivering the weed. He had all the connections. He dipped in, he dipped out, the two barely spoke. Léa loved his boyish grin. Tracy liked her chest, buoyed up by the bow of her twisted-and-tied shirttails. I wouldn’t find this out till years later; it was all lost on me at the time. Lying on my mattress, in the puff-pass of our second fat joint, talk turned sexual. Between spliffs I already sucked a telling mark onto her left breast, her dainty fingers finding their way down into my briefs, loose silver bangles jangling against my belt buckle. The summer sun had set and sex was on the table. Léa had good news and bad news.

The Bad News

“We can’t have sex,” Léa said. “I’m still with Federico. I’m not free like that.”

“Okay. Of course we don’t have—”

“It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just, it’s bad enough that I’m here with you now at all.”

“No, I know. But I am tempted to steal you away from your man. Just to let you—”

“Yeah, but even if I leave him, I can’t just jump into something new like that. Seriously. I don’t know if you can handle that. You might want to ask, like, an ex or somebody for sex. My body needs a rest. One boyfriend to the next like that? That’s not me.”

“I can wait, it’s not that serious.” Ask an ex for sex? An obvious test. What did she take me for? “I’d rather wait to be with you than to—”

“In fact…”

The Good News

“…in fact, I wouldn’t mind watching you fuck your ex-girlfriend.”

At this, Léa took a slow, deep pull. She’d interrupted me three times already. I waited for her high to keep speaking for itself.

“At Swarthmore I used to watch my roommate Sika and her boyfriend together,” Léa said. “He was so hairy! He’d come to Pennsylvania once a month and they’d fuck the entire weekend. The first time, we were getting drunk, up all night playing Uno, and god, they just started right there in front of me, on the couch. I sat up watching, and played with myself. He kept looking over at me, Sika screaming into the couch pillow. It was this unspoken thing after a while, letting me watch them fuck. I could tell when Sika faked her orgasm. The real ones would turn her face all red. I used to hear my twin have sex in high school—”

“I never knew you had a twin sister!”

“A twin brother. Lee. It’s not a big deal. Anyway, that’s sort of my thing. I’m such a voyeur, you don’t know. I can’t satisfy you anytime soon if we start dating, I’m telling you now. But I’d love to watch you.”

“And have you…” The roach singed my fingers as I sucked in smoke. “Have you ever been with a girl before?”

Léa laughed.

***

Frances Jerome. She was the only ex I could think of when Léa dropped her little bombshell. I met her through Tracy the night Tupac died, a Friday the thirteenth DJ Nabs spun his heart out over at Club 112. Frances danced. Not like Tracy, not professionally. She introduced him to gay clubs that don’t even open till two in the morning, where they shake out talcum powder on hardwood floors and don’t serve alcohol and people sweat hard and dance dance dance to house music till noon the next day, girls and guys knocked out on couches to catch a second wind. Frances was fine, the thickest, heaviest-set girl I’d ever dated: big smile, big curves, big ass, big tits. Navel ring in the center of her baby-fat belly. She took an African dance class or three and whipped out those moves at a moment’s notice for some “Din Da Da.” I loved to shoot Frances. She cut her pageboy for a natural while we were together, we must’ve taken a hundred photos then.

I thought of Frances because

1. when we first met, she expected me to be sexually superadventurous for some reason and was always waiting (hoping) for my freak nature to come out,

2. I knew she’d had some female sex experiences, and

3. she was the rare ex I could still call and not get cursed out.

Nine ½ Weeks was a trite seduction pick, I know, but we were high by that point anyway and I was what, twenty-seven? By the time Kim Basinger sat on the slide-projection clicker masturbating Frances had her head in my lap while Léa sat watching at the top of the bed. Léa leaned against the headboard sparking a clove, Frances slowly deep-throating my gradually growing dick in her mouth. Fully, confidently erect, I stood to strip my jeans, boxers. Frances crawled up the mattress to Léa, took some shotgun smoke, and started kissing her. The clove got doused in a glass of Hennessey.

The rest would be a blur by now if not for the amount of times I’ve replayed the scene in my head.

Frances was the star of the show; it really felt like her threesome. I licked at Fran’s clit with Léa’s fingers inside tickling her G-spot; nuzzled my face in her pussy while Léa tasted her thick chocolate nipples. Léa sat up against my headboard again, this time with Frances on her hands and knees, her Afro bobbing between Léa’s legs, flitting her tongue inside. I crept up and grabbed Fran’s big backside in my hands, eating her pussy from behind, my thumbs fitting into the familiar slots of her curved waist, thrusting her fat ass into my face. The scenario was so crazy (and this is pre-Viagra): Léa sucking me off while Frances brought her to orgasm; driving into Frances, her butt high in the air, Léa looking on; finally fucking Léa—this longstanding teenage crush of mine—with Frances nibbling at the full breasts I fantasized so much about. The girls refused to allow any photos.

Daydreaming with them at sunrise, I could never have imagined the situation would repeat itself.

***

In Piedmont Park a huge sound system boomed out classics for hundreds of collected deep-house heads. My brother Omar was on break from Northwestern, hanging out with Tracy and I—he was the first to recognize Léa, from my portfolio. I hadn’t seen her in five years, since we consummated our mutual admiration curiosity and she fell back into the arms of her boyfriend.

“Stop looking at me like that,” she said, almost giggling. Was I leering? Visions of salivating cartoon coyotes popped in my head. Her dredlocks reached nearly all the way to her abs now; otherwise Léa looked the same in her early thirties as ever before.

The four of us piled into Tracy’s jeep and took off for the Underground mall. This was her first real taste of Tracy, who by this point was teaching at Spelman the upcoming fall. I noticed them both order strawberry lemonade smoothies by coincidence. The three of us were all clearly flirting with her, but Tracy and my brother soon made themselves scarce. Léa and I reunited for the second time at Hooters. (Yes, Hooters was tacky, but it was nearby.)

And? Léa was single, stuck in a gallery assistant job just as dead-end as the one she slaved at five years ago, looking to have kids. Her brother Lee had just married a French woman and fathered twins; she seemed competitively envious. She appeared to be trudging the exact same path to self-discovery she’d been on since the nineties. Maybe that’s just my latent high school rivalry point of view—Léa stuck in a rut while my own career soars—but there it is. She’d quit smoking, successful hypnotherapy. She swore my contract for the book of nudes was just game. I invited her to come over sometime and model for it.

***

Fast-forward to Léa and Tracy making suspiciously sensual noises behind his bathroom door, muffled by a pumping showerhead and The Headphone Masterpiece on his boombox. Léa and I had been lying on his unfolded futon waiting for his shower to end so we could all hightail it to Phipps Plaza for the latest Almodóvar. Theoretically Léa stepped inside to see what was taking him so long.

(To make a novella a short story, Léa just wasn’t interested in a round two together but we kept hanging out that summer anyway, me hoping against hope. Spending more time around Tracy piqued Léa’s curiosity and she asked my permission point-blank to start seeing him. I halfway felt I should refuse, that it could only get sticky and make me potentially jealous of my closest friend. Yet my other half reasoned that I’d already had a turn with Léa, and why shouldn’t I allow Tracy a sample if he could get some? They might actually be for each other, and we could live out some Jules and Jim foreign movie fantasy—naming their son Marshal, Léa walking around our place in her panties, pissing with the door open, etc. The potential was too titillating to selfishly refuse Léa her fun, though my reasons for allowing them to carry on were clearly just as selfish. After reassuring them both, together they caught some dance company, Evidence, one night, which weeks later led to…)

I walked into the cumulus cloud floating in Tracy’s bathroom. Somewhere in all that steam Léa and my roommate chose between an outrage that could forever have affected our relationship and an equally watershed tolerance that could likewise have made things just as uncomfortable. I sat on the commode. Léa’s striped tank and lift bra lay crumpled on tile by the radio. Tracy stood in his tub naked, holding and Frenching topless Léa five feet in front of me. The dense vapor wasn’t opaque enough to hide his erection, triggering my habitual locker-room visual evasion. I’d told Tracy about my threesome with Léa directly after it happened years ago; impossible this tableau hadn’t played out in their imaginations at some point—our implicit collective fantasy.

They spoke some whispers, then walked toward me. My plan, such as it was, had been to watch them and masturbate, but stroking myself right away would’ve eliminated the option of laughing off my intrusion. The showerhead sprayed its hot water, maintaining the mist. Soon they hovered overhead, kissing, Léa’s breasts in my face. She’d pierced her left nipple, a fresh development. Hugging her into me I licked at her navel, stood, and stripped my T-shirt, still uncertain of my place. Their lips separated and we were all close enough to look one another in the eyes. Léa leaned in with a kiss, then shimmied out of her jean skirt. Tracy read my mind once upon a time; he must have seen it all coming.

***

So I live in the San Fernando Valley now, California just as sunny as Georgia. Hitting thirty-three, something told me to transition out West, that my bohemian years were over and done. I’d been surviving but not thriving taking pictures over the past ten years, even with the book and its advance. (I have yet to see any royalties, authors say they’re like the Loch Ness monster.) I called in some favors to bunk around L.A. for a while till I found a place. Over two years later and I’m working on a Miramax movie, second unit director of photography. Hours are hell, pay is great.

Tracy never visits, never calls. So is the price of success really the envy of your friends? That can’t be it.

Léa and Tracy dated for a few more weeks and fizzled out. His transition to dance instructor consumed his time; a girlfriend didn’t fit his lifestyle. She met an investment banker that spring and they’re still together. In the end Léa craves the suits, creatives are just candy. She brought him to my book release party—the last time I’d ever see her—and he looked embarrassed seeing her portrait blown up in the club, life-sized and naked, strangers with cocktails asking for her page autographed.

I lived my twenties grouping life into compartments. Aside from my camera, I made social time for the Best Friend and the Girlfriend only, and Tracy was the Best Friend for many, many years, longer than any Girlfriend. I left Atlanta; life goes on and people aren’t your personal cast of supporting characters who put their lives on hold conforming to your flights of fancy, I guess. Did we grow up and I missed it? My three-way with Léa and Frances was one thing, but sharing sex with Tracy had its obvious homoerotic nuances. Maybe men with an honest platonic love for each other shouldn’t fill up the same woman at the same time. Maybe we’d still be as close if Léa hadn’t come between us. I’m still not absolutely sure she had.

Maybe I should ask him.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Furthermuckin Expat Q: Tannie Stovall

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My first and last Parisian night of hangin so hard that I had to worship at the porcelain alter afterwards was back in 2006, an evening at chez Tannie Stovall. Every Friday night for almost 15 years, Tannie hosts a BYOB (B for “bottle of wine,” not beer) affair strictly for black men—a rare occasion for male bonding that sisters have often tried in vain to crash. Politics, sex, sports: any topic is up for grabs while washing down our hors d’œuvres with pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, merlot and the like.

Tannie Stovall, born in Atlanta, graduated Morehouse at 19 years old, earned a physics Ph.D. by 25, and moved to Paris two years later working as a research assistant at the École Normale Supérieure. It was 1964; he was 27; he knew no French. Tannie helped organize the March on Washington that year before arriving in France, meeting Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Eldridge Cleaver, the widowed fam of Richard Wright and others during his decades in the French capital. Tannie even relocated to Nigeria briefly, bought a home in Spain, and has authored novels like Leroy Something That Rhymes.

Cantankerous in the way of your average 73-year-old black man, Tannie and I met minds in his apartment sans spirits last Friday afternoon for a lively convo.

(Note: Tannie’s in no way related to Tyler Stovall, author of the seminal Paris Noir: African-Americans in the City of Light.)

Tell me about the origin of your Friday nights for black men.

It started at the time of the Million Man March. I learned about the Million Man March about a week before it happened. Here in Paris, I did not know that it was going to take place. If I would’ve known six weeks or maybe a couple of months [earlier], I would have seriously considered going. I was really disappointed that I didn’t. I thought that the cause that was being talked about at that time was very important, and I wanted to somehow or ’nother continue along that line.

So I started giving dinners once a month. These were actually dinners, from soup to nuts. I did this until my wife divorced me. Naturally, she kept the apartment. [laughter] The apartment was very conducive to receiving; I could feed 25, 30 people. Whereas here, I couldn’t do it, so I changed the format and started having sandwiches, but doing it once a week.

When did it begin as a weekly?

Around the year 2000, 2001.

I’d heard Melvin Van Peebles came by once.

No, Melvin Van Peebles, never. He was invited several times. But I can tell you this. A friend of mine that knows him very very well, she told me recently that she talked to him about me and he said he didn’t remember me at all. But actually, I didn’t see him after the 1960s. He left here, I think, before the 1970s. In the sense of the black community that you kind of had that hang out at the Quartier Latin at that time, he never came back there.

Give me a sense of the tight-knit black expat community from back then.

Well, they weren’t tight-knit. Tight-knit perhaps wasn’t the word. But there were many more, I think, African-Americans that were not home types, like I imagine you are, you’re home with your children. But I have to describe Paris a little bit in those days. It was much cheaper than it is now. Someone that received $100 a month from the States could live here, could survive off of it. In fact, one of the most popular travel books was written by somebody named Frommer, I think it was called Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. And really, you could do it in those days. You had lots of people—artists, musicians, writers, adventurers, hippies and whatnot—that came to Europe, and particularly to Paris. I think one of the things was that it was relatively inexpensive.

You always leave Paris for Saint-Tropez half the year. Diddy, Jay-Z and Beyoncé put Saint-Tropez on the map for the hiphop gen, but it’s been the place to be for ages.

Yeah, we usually spend about six months in Saint-Tropez and about six months here. That’s what we do, my partner, wife, girlfriend, whatever you want to call her, and myself. It’s on the ocean. There are some places on the southern coast of France that are very much appreciated by tourists and French people to live: Nice, Monaco, Cannes and Saint-Tropez. Saint-Tropez was very much in vogue maybe 30 years ago. It still is, of course. I think what brought it to the world’s attention was a film, And God Created Woman.

Brigitte Bardot.

With Brigitte Bardot. Brigittte Bardot, she lives right next to Saint-Tropez. You could almost say she lives in Saint-Tropez, but actually she lives in Ramatuelle, which is a town adjoining Saint-Tropez. And there are a lot of wealthy people who come there. It still has a kind of 19th century aura to it. It’s not something that’s built up where you have these tall buildings and balconies that look out over the ocean. It’s not that. It’s still kind of small. There’s long beaches and lots of beach clubs and places like that, some of them kind of exclusive, others less so.

I’ve had French people tell me there are no beaches, and there’s no point in going unless you can get invited to fashionista or celebrity yacht parties.

Anyplace is somewhat more agreeable if you have contacts, if you have somebody that you can meet there. Saint-Tropez is no different from this. I think that perhaps people who go to Saint-Tropez, I think that you have a significant proportion—and I’m not saying majority by any stretch of imagination—but still, a noticeable number who go there with the hope of making relations with prominent, important, wealthy people. I think this is true also for Monaco. People I think go to Monaco, the idea is there are lots of very wealthy people in Monaco and if you go there, who knows, you might be able to make your hand with some of ’em.

I think a lot of people go to Saint-Tropez with this notion, but, oh, I don’t think it’s very important. I think most of the people that actually visit Saint-Tropez don’t even stay a day. They don’t even spend the night there. They come in, they walk around the town, they go out to one of the beach clubs or something like that. Have lunch, spend the day there, and they don’t spend the night. It’s kind of expensive in Saint-Tropez.

I’ve heard. So you’ve met James Baldwin? I went to college with his nephew, Trevor.

Yeah, I knew James Baldwin. I received him also in my home. I saw James Baldwin over a period of years. He was here for a long period.

How’d you meet?

In the street basically, I don’t remember exactly how. But he was very often in the cafés and bars and stuff like that. He was often seen.

[Poet] Ted Joans was in and out of Paris for a very long time, and in fact, he was one of the very first people I met when I arrived. I suppose I’m honored to say that the last place he lived in Paris was here in this apartment. I wasn’t here, I was in Saint-Tropez. And then the time after that, he lived in an apartment that belonged to my wife in the 18th. I’m happy to be able to say that.

You’d met Martin Luther King, Jr.?

I never met MLK.

And Malcolm X?

Yes. And I knew his daughter, he had a daughter that lived here. I remember her very well: Kibby. I don’t know if that was her real name or not. She lived here more than five years, I’m sure.

And the daughters of Richard Wright, Julia and Rachel?

I met Julia when she was a little girl, yeah. She’s still here in Paris someplace. I haven’t seen her or her sister. The last time I actually saw Julia was when she and James Forman came here to speak, and that must’ve been in the 70s or something like that. I think she moved to England for a while. She married a Nigerian I believe, or something like that. I don’t really know the story. I knew her mother, Ellen Wright. Like I say, I knew them pretty much as children.

Richard Wright?

Richard Wright died in ’62, so he was dead when I got here. Chester Himes, one of my great regrets is that I never met him, and I really could have. Just laziness, I suppose. He lived in Spain, and I had a home in Valencia, which is only about 60 kilometers away. All I had to do was drive down and I’m sure he would’ve said, “Hey, how’s it goin’, bro?” I don’t think that was any problem. That’s something that I regret, though I’ve heard lots of things about Chester Himes, and I’m not sure that I would’ve been able to get along with him. [laughter] But I would love to have met him.

Baldwin and I didn’t hit it off particularly well. We were cordial, I think, but I can tell you an incident for example that maybe started it. Somebody that I did know here also, Eldridge Cleaver, he lived here for a while. He wrote a book called Soul on Ice, and in Soul on Ice, he made some very critical remarks about James Baldwin.

I remember. About homosexuality.

That wasn’t the crux of Cleaver’s objection. I think what he said in the book Soul on Ice was that, up until then, the books that he had read of Baldwin’s… In some point in the book, you had a black man who, the highlight of his life was being fucked in the ass by a white man. You remember that?

Yeah, that’s why I said homosexuality.

Yeah, well, but I think the racial part of that might be the most poignant. I asked him about that. And I think that that sort of put a damper on relations between he and I.

What was his response?

He didn’t respond. He said something, but he didn’t respond to that. He started talking about how devious and sneaky Cleaver was, and what a big liar he was, and this type of thing. And finally I told him, The things that you’ve been talking about is not what he accused you of. Plus also, I think there was something else. I was a bit different from, I think, most of the blacks that you had there in the Latin Quarter at that time. I had a regular, steady job, a prestigious job, you might say. And I suppose they considerd me a conservative.

Believe it or not, one of the things that many of them in that area, the blacks of that time, reproached me was that I was very much in favor of Martin Luther King, Jr. I very much approved of what he was trying to do and how he was trying to do it. I think most of the other blacks at that time were more inclined to Malcolm X, towards the Nation of Islam kind of an approach much more; black nationalistic approaches to the problem.

And so I was one of those that they were saying, basically, I’m trying to get solutions to our problems by praying. Which that wasn’t my case at all, I wasn’t particularly religious. But they thought that unless you talked bad… Even some of them were going around talking about the Underground and this sort of thing. And it’s an interesting note, and this is in one of my books, one of ’em, actually maybe two of ’em, one of ’em I didn’t know about at that time, were CIA informants.

I just watched Malcolm X this week again, and was reminded about how the FBI was infiltrating the Nation of Islam, agitating the situation between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

“Agitating the situation between Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X?” What are you talking about?

John Ali, national security of the Nation of Islam at the time, was identified later as FBI. Malcolm told a reporter Ali was instigating tensions between him and Elijah Muhammad, trying to convince him that Malcolm wasn’t about spreading his word, that he was only in it for himself.

Well, I am sure that Elijah Muhammad had people that were telling him that, whether they were FBI or not. I think that there were people inside the Nation of Islam that would’ve told him that. As I see it, and I did meet Malcolm X on occasion, I met Stokely Carmichael on occasion, I met James Forman on occasion. I helped organize the March on Washington in 1963, etc., so I knew some of these personalities that you’re talking about. I believe, as I understand it, Elijah Muhammad was very upset Malcolm X made his “chickens come home to roost” statement and told him to shut up. And that was the break right there. Malcolm refused, and left.

He was also disillusioned about the children Elijah Muhammad had with the secretaries, I suppose.

Let me say this: that’s a lot of bullshit. Everybody knew he had those children. Everybody knew. I mean, you ask any of those guys they used to have on the street selling the Muhammad Speaks, they all knew about this.

So in your opinion, Malcolm wasn’t disillusioned by him sleeping with the secretaries and it had nothing to do with that.

Yeah. If he didn’t know… Malcolm was a very knowledgable, intelligent man. He knew what was going on. Something like that, and he wouldn’t know about it? To me, it’s unbelievable. Have you ever read Haley’s book, The Autobiography? In the very last chapter of that book, he was very critical of Malcolm X. Have you read the book?

Have I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X? Every black man has read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Basically, he was a real black nationalist, and then suddenly he becomes an internationalist. He’s saying white men are the devil, he said it all the time: “White folks are the devil.” And then suddenly he changed his mind, they weren’t the devil anymore. And I did get the impression also that he was in fact trying to establish a movement of his own. I don’t think there’s any question about that.

How did you meet Malcolm X?

Oh, I think the first time was sorta just like that, in Washington. And I met him again in Paris a few times.

There’s a famous story about how he was turned away at the airport and barred entry into Paris. But he’d been here before.

He had been here before. At that point, he had come to make a speech and he was refused entry at Orly Airport. Charles de Gaulle [Airport] didn’t exist at that time. There’s a guy who’s a teacher at Stony Brook college in New York that was handling that at that time, he knows all about these.

I’ve written that Sean “Diddy” Combs should open a Justin’s restaurant here. All the different Parisian soul food restaurants over the years have disappeared. Like Percy’s Place—

I don’t think you would’ve called Percy’s Place a soul food place. I would say it was a little more classier than what you would call soul food. But you’ve had black entrepreneurs here, I mean, lots of ’em. You don’t have very many now. There was a fella named Bill Dawsey that had a restaurant-bar for a few years.

Haynes was there for a very long time, until he died. Then after that, his wife took care of it all. Everybody went to Haynes at one time or another. I saw lots of people in the movie industry there, for example, on occasions. Peter O’Toole and lots of others whose names I don’t remember. And then there was Conway’s, she must’ve been there for 10 years or so.

And way back now, when I first arrived, there was Buttercup’s. I don’t know if she called her restaurant Buttercup’s or not, but there was a long article in Ebony magazine by a fella named [Charles L.] Sanders about Buttercup’s. The title of the article was “Big-hearted Buttercup.” Buttercup was either the wife or the girlfriend or the mistress of Powell.

Adam Clayton Powell?

No, no. The musician.

Oh, Bud Powell.

Bud Powell. And there’s a lot in the article about their relationship. She had a restaurant in Montparnasse, near where the Tour Montparnasse is constructed now. Right there, that was where Buttercup had her restaurant. And there were others also.

Had you been to Bojangles?

Yeah, I went to Bojangles. I was at Bojangles and Buttercup’s and Bill’s place and Haynes.

Who had the best cornbread? Did you enjoy one restaurant over the others?

I’m not into that kind of thing. If it’s edible, it’s good enough for me. There’s Randy’s, of course. Randy [Garrett] had his place [The Rib Joint] for 10 years or so, maybe more than that, I’m not really sure.

There’s one other person who should be mentioned, and that’s Johnny Romero. There was a prize-winning play written about Johnny Romero, it’s called No Place to be Somebody. It ran off-Broadway for years, and in fact, I think it was sort of being renovated a couple of years ago. I don’t know what finally happened to that. But Johnny Romero had a place called Les Nuages. Les Nuages was a bar-nightclub, if you like. But he was one of the most important personalities in the black community in Paris. Google him, I think you’ll find a lot about him. But Les Nuages was very close to the Church of St.-Germain-des-Prés.

Why do you think there are less black American businesses here now?

I don’t think that the crowd of the people that they catered to exists now nearly as much now as it did then. I think that one thing very important was the United States Army. The United States Army was here until about 1968, they were stationed. The NATO headquarters was just down here in Brussels, right outside of Paris. And the fact that you had the US Army here, you had huge amounts of Americans here associated here with the Army. And when the Army left, many of these people trickled away.

Then you had also the business community. American companies at that time, a lot of ’em brought people from the United States to work in their companies in France. And as time went by, I think most of these companies came to think that it’s much cheaper to get somebody in France. You don’t have to pay for them to have a place to stay, you don’t have to pay for their children to go to school, on and on. So I think that quantity of people that were associated with American business enterprises that were stationed here has gone down dramatically.

At one time, you had about 15 African-Americans who worked for American banks here. And I don’t think that you have any now. But I don’t think that it’s just that the African-Americans no longer hold these positions; I think that these positions now are held by French people, because the companies find it cheaper. So that means that the population has gone down. By 1975 or so, the quantity of the black Americans that you saw hanging around in joints like Haynes and certain cafés in the Quartier Latin, they dried up like mad.

You’d never consider living in America again?

I would consider living anyplace. I could move to Spain, where I had a home for about 30 years. I could move back there. I like Spain.

Yeah, but America specifically.

America’s like any other place.

You were born in America. It’s not just like any other place.

The fact that I was born there, I don’t think that—

You have family there still, presumably.

I have lots of family there.

So, that makes it a bit different.

I talk to ’em two or three times a week practically, on the telephone. I don’t feel that I’m that distant. I just left America about a month ago. I was back three times last year to the United States. I don’t know. There’s nothing that attracts me, I’ll put it that way, that makes me want to, let’s say, go live there, no more so than any other place. There’s nothing that makes me want to go live in China, for example. [laughter]

I still consider myself an American, very much so. I’ve been very active in the Democratic Party for years. I gave a maximum amount of money to Obama that was allowed by law when he was running for president. I went to Morehouse College like yourself, I gave them a substantial amount of money also when I went back for my 50th anniversary. So I feel that I am American, put it that way. But where I want to live, that’s something else.

I personally feel that life is in a sense sweeter in France than in the United States. A lot of people do in the world, it’s not just… You know, in Germany, they say, “Happy as a Frenchman in France.” When I see people that I grew up with, and my family also, I think that, well, they work maybe harder than I would like to. That’s one thing. [laughter] I think that for most of ’em, life is more stressful than my life here in France. Maybe my life wouldn’t be stressful in the United States, I don’t know.

But I do know this: that if I went back to Atlanta, I would change a lot of my habits. For example, here, I don’t think about where I’m going. I can wander anyplace, basically. And I wouldn’t do that in Atlanta, especially at night. To me, it’s worse now, because the economic situation is very bad, especially in the black community. People are talking about 20% unemployment among black men, and even higher among young black men. This creates a situation where people become desperate.

My last time in Atlanta, I saw a fight break out at a gas station between some teenage black girls. One was handing her baby off to a friend so she could box.

Something that also turns me off a little bit when I’m there: going to fill the gas tank and there’s the guy behind this thing with the bars and the heavy glass.

To protect them against gunshots, yeah. It’s common.

I rather prefer the situation here. In fact, sometimes some of my relatives have come here; they see things like the open market and say, “I don’t understand. You could just pick up something and not pay! You could just walk out of here without paying!”

I have not gotten over my youth in the United States. You graduated 12 years ago, you say, from Morehouse College?

Almost 20, actually. Class of 1993, 18 years ago.

Eighteen years ago, okay. The situation in 1993 was much better at Morehouse in Atlanta for blacks than it was in ’57 when I graduated. In ’57 when I graduated, black people were oftentimes deliberately treated with disdain. Plus, the social etiquette, if you can call it that, demanded that blacks be obsequious to whites. Even things like yielding space on the sidewalk. Whites were served first if you go into a store. Little things like this which I found annoying. And also, being deprived of a great deal of the cultural life in Atlanta was not something that I appreciated. There were films that came to Atlanta that I never got a chance to see because they never came around to the black theaters. There were a few theaters that had black and white sections, but there were films that came to theaters that only had white sections. And they never came to the black theaters.

I remember one such film, Christopher Columbus. This was about 1955, ’56. It played at the Realto Theater. There’s nothing there but blacks now, but in those days, it was an all-white movie house. And that film never came to the black community theaters. I finally saw that film maybe 30 years later, on Spanish television in Spain. [laughter]

Saturday, January 15, 2011

MML Paris Weekly

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EVENTS

  • We love Sofia Coppola. We love midnight movies. It’s a killer combo late Friday night at Le Champo theater, where the films of Sofia and père Francis Ford Coppola screen from 12:00 to the wee hours of Saturday morning. Expect Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Youth Without Youth, The Virgin Suicides, Tetro and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (Bring NoDoz to stay up past Virgin Suicides.) 51 rue des Ecoles; midnight-12.
  • Over at the Cinémathèque Française, the Alfred Hitchcock retrospective has been in full swing since January 5. They’re showing Hitch till February 28, but don’t miss your favorites. Check the sked at the Cinemathèque site. 51 rue de Bercy

Friday, January 7, 2011

Give It Away Now

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“If you want something, give it away.”—unknown

I kicked off the Furthermuckin Expat Q two months ago, talking to seven different Americans (so far) living here in Paris. I got at least seven more on tap. But since November, something else started happening.

After making a conscious effort to look up from my navel and spotlight others and what they get up to in France, people started asking me for interviews. Richard Nahem’s Eye Prefer Paris blog featured me as Parisian of the Month (!); I had a great talk with Felicia Pride at BackList about my début novel, Irrésistible; the kind folks at Parisien Salon republished the Nahem interview outta nowhere; and days ago, Monique Y. Wells of Entrée to Black Paris went live with her patented Black Paris Profile on MML.

Please, check ‘em out if you haven’t already.

Heart & Soul magazine just hit me up, too. But the moral of the story is, what you give away to others rockets right back to you. Whatever you want, that is what you give.

Happy new you.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Raina Lampkins-Fielder: The Furthermuckin Expat Q

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When my coworker showed up to work in leather pants and a Rolling Stones T-shirt, I knew she wouldn’t stick around long, and indeed she didn’t. (Neither did I, for that matter.) Working together last year at a “leisure newswire” that shall remain nameless, Marie-Noelle was an energetic light in the office with bigger fish to fry… thus pretty instantly familiar. She had a friend I just had to meet, she kept saying, who she knew I’d hit it off with. Which is where Raina came in.

On a two-hour lunch break at Fuxia, an Italian spot near the Canal Saint-Martin, Raina Lampkins-Fielder and I broke bread last summer, sipping wine and rapping all about art, Brooklyn and parenthood. A former associate director at the Whitney Museum’s education department—with stints at both the Andy Warhol Museum and the Brooklyn Museum of Art—Raina had just given birth to twins, and devoured our adult conversation time like a crispy baguette doused in extra-virgin olive oil.

Hope you do too.

We recently connected in the pouring rain at Odette et Aimé café to discuss more about her editorial spot at the new Paris-based, English-language some/things (pronounced “some slash things”) magazine, and other furthermuckin topics of choice.

No one I speak to for the Expat Q has moved here for “political reasons,” like Americans used to once upon a time. Care to speak on that?

We certainly didn’t leave for political reasons at all. It’s not as if I didn’t kind of think about that. But then when you really think about what you do for political reasons, no, you stay and you fight the good fight. That’s what you do. You don’t flee: you stay. Also, if I would’ve left the US for political reasons…France? Is this the place to choose? [laughter] I don’t necessarily think so. Not for some remarkable French, all-embracing, democratic whatever. I mean, this isn’t that place. It’s not the place to go to.

It did have that kind of veneer, but now that is, like, gone. Fully gone. It’s gone so much that you have those parts where you’re like, “Hmm, I’m raising my little kids here?” I’m kinda glad London is close, so they can see some black folks in suits. Black people on television outside of the month of August. In commercials, maybe with, like, natural hair. [laughter] Those forced bangs, very straightened, it’s not working on little black girls’ hair, man. [laughter] Hopefully there’ll be some sort of change, but you don’t even see many black folks here with dredlocks who are not American.

What are your thoughts on blackness in Paris?

It’s really complicated, because my blackness in Paris is not a black French person’s blackness in Paris. I’ve traveled places where it would be physically impossible for me to kind of assimilate in a certain way. But you try to assimilate in some ways. You try to take on the posture of a country. And I realized, maybe because of living here, and also raising children here, that it is important to me to not take on the posture and attributes of this country. Because it is beneficial to me, being of African origin, to be American.

What I feel, and maybe I’m wrong, but this principle of, “Regardless what color you are, what your religion is, you’re French” is really such a fictional thing. It doesn’t manifest itself in a way that is actually egalitarian. What it does is, it excuses them from having a conversation about difference. And the differences that are here should be this amazing intellectual and cultural currency; they completely deny to take advantage of [it].

I realized that the kind of horrible legacy of saying “everyone is French” is that it makes it difficult for someone who is French but doesn’t look like what a French person imagines themselves to look like to have even developed the language through which to express it. Because they have been raised French.

I tend to know many more black folks in Paris who have come from somewhere else. And it’s not like everyone is going towards this black expatriate community. Those things happen, but it’s not like it’s a black American expatriate community. It’s friends from all parts of the world, they’re pan-African, who kind of find themselves together. We realized that we didn’t really have the type of really close relationships with black French women, and it was curious.

There’s another divide even within that kind of “being black in Paris.” I’ve had people say, “Well, it’s obvious you’re American before you open your mouth.” Well, what is that? “It’s the way that you move.” And so that’s going to define you in a certain way to both white people and black people. You know, I don’t choose to necessarily believe everything that somebody tells me. [laughter] Those are some of the thoughts that are out there. I think it is hard to be black in France.

How do you feel about raising your kids here, in terms of their identity?

What’s interesting is not only teaching them about blackness, but also kind of the definition of what that is, and whose blackness it is. Because my context would be kind of an African-American idea of blackness. Part of what is imbedded in that is insuring a kind of Americanness about them as well. And so it makes it a little bit complicated. Plus, my husband’s British. So there’s kind of that Britishy stuff to bring in. And we’re a multicultural family who have children who look like the spectrum of the races.

At the supermarket, an old woman was trying to get some change and she couldn’t find it, so I started to get her some change. She pointed out my babies, and I’m sure she assumed I was the nanny. I could be nothing but the nanny. [laughter] Which I certainly get a lot, particularly when they were much younger, ’cause some people [tend to] not think I’m their mother because of the way that they look. This woman, I could barely understand all that she was saying, but what she had said that I did get was that she was not into my one child because she was darker, and said something to the effect of, not knowing that they were mine anyway, she could kind of accept that the white child was okay.

I know that I’m probably considered American first to a French person than a black person. So that’s quite a difference. There is something about that that’s quite liberating. Not that I ever felt a burden in the States. I’ve never not wanted to be black or to be different. Sometimes I have felt like I needed to be more of something, but I’m okay with who I am, and have been for quite a while. The American thing here trumps everything. You’re just like any other American.

White children in France can play with black dolls. It’s just a doll. It’s a doll first. It’s not a statement that a person is making. Whereas in the States, if it’s a white family and they gave their child a black doll, they’ve had conversations. [laughter] Whereas here, people just do it.

What’s so amazing is that they’re not necessarily helpful to their own folks, who don’t have the flexibility to straddle the lines of being a French person here and being part of a viable international community. A Senegalese community is considered an immigrant. I can’t really speak to certain things, because I know I’ve been given a very different entrée to things.

How did some/things magazine come about?

I’d never done a magazine before at all. And funnily enough, I was at a party and met someone who was doing another magazine called UOVO. She said, “Oh, would you like to do something for this magazine?” What I discovered now that I’ve worked on two magazines is that I work on magazines that call themselves magazines but are in fact books. You know, they function as sort of curated books. So I did a couple of things for UOVO, which is super, and then they disbanded because of this crisis.

But at a launch party for UOVO, I met this woman, Monika Bielskyte, the creative director who actually founded some/things. This is before that was anything. She just started talking to me, and I liked her. She said, “Let’s stay in touch.” I knew she was a photographer, and I liked her spirit. She was unusual. Finding that person in Paris who a) comes up to you—

Is she French?

No, she’s Lithuanian.

There you go.

[laughter] But somebody who comes up to you and says, “You look kind of interesting to me. What’s your story?” That’s her approach. I didn’t really follow up. I had her card, she had my card, she would send me things like, “Look at my work.” I never followed up. And then finally, like two years ago, I looked at her work on her site, and I really liked it. I liked her aesthetic, I like her eye, what she focused on. So I said, “Let’s talk, I’d love to do something.” “I’ve started this magazine, don’t you want to do something, da da da da?” And I’m like, “Well, I have no time.” I just had the twins.

But then she’s like, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.” So then we started doing this magazine.

The launch party was great; I liked the space too. What’s the point of some/things?

There are three of us who do the content. I oversee all of the contemporary art. And now that we have a creative agency that’s come from the book, I’m the deputy art director. And at the gallery, I’m the deputy art director for the art budget of the gallery.

The whole point of some/things is, we really wanted to create something that was unique, that tells some sort of story—whether we’re dealing with an artist or a fashion designer or politics or what have you—that we’re kind of taking on something that’s, it’s a different view to it. We want to spend the time in interviews, we want to create portraits of people, portraits of ideas. In some ways, the book itself becomes a portrait of who we are, who the team is, as people. Because we don’t say, “a third of it has to be fashion, a third has to be art, a third has to be politics.” Every book starts from something that’s just random, that excites us.

Everything has a primal theme and a title. The last one was called Farewell My Concubine. That was based on the film. Not that we wanted to reënvision that story, or not as if it would be even overtly communicated to the audience. But we liked some of the color palette that came out of the film, a certain type of red. Ideas of transformation. Certain ideas of sexuality, of a changeability. That’s what drove the artists, the personalities, the musicians, all the people that we selected. And it certainly provided the direction for how we would interact with them.

The types of interviews that we had were exhaustive interviews. Some of the people in that issue, they could start their memoirs from the interview that we had with them. [laughter] But it was really getting into the person, portraits of that person. There are many more shots of people’s faces; we really wanted to have the actual portrait of the artist.

I think of it as this tone poem: this idea that you can go from the beginning to the end of this book and that it is literally about a journey. We don’t have any ads, because that would sort of interrupt the flow. It also places it in a time, it assumes something. We’ll draw from anywhere. If there’s someone who did something in 1920 that we think visually works, whatever. It’s quite a personal thing that we hope has sort of visual and intellectual resonance for others.

The issue that we’re working on now, it’s called The Wings of a Locust, dealing with ideas of architecture, ghostly presence, loss, memory, transparency. A color palette that came out of just looking at images of oil spills [laughter] and the way that an oil spill—just a certain type of shimmer, a certain palette that came out of that—wanting to find ways of replicating it.

These are the things that drive the sensibility of it. And the sensibility of the magazine also is a little bit dark. It’s not like this happy dance through these images. It’s a little dark. But we also want it to be revelatory in a way. It’s a little bit vague. But when you see the book, it’s actually quite concrete for the reader.

That’s what some/things is about.

And what’s going on at the some/things secret space?

Well, we had our first exhibition in November. And I’ll let you know: it is hard to do a magazine when our staff is this small. That’s over 320 pages of just pure content, no filler, no ads, while also opening a space that needs to be completely gutted and remade. While also then deciding that we were going to have an exhibition. It’s a bit crazy. We’re also having another exhibition, January 23.

The first exhibition was kind of an extension of the work in issue 3. I think we’ll continue to do that. But then we also want to have other activities that this space can accommodate, whether it’s people who want to do readings, or something that makes sense within what we do.

Our next show in January is going to be looking at fashion, but in the way that we look at fashion. ’Cause I don’t think art is fashion, and I don’t think fashion is necessarily art. I think both of them can be in some ways. But there’s an aspect of me that is a purist for art. I don’t want to put everything into a commercial market. But we do look at fashion in a very particular way.

Even when we did the piece on Yohji Yamamoto, the works that we chose from the archives to show, we wanted it to be something that for me looking at it as somebody coming from the art world, it would work for me. And it can be such a subtle thing. Like the part of the back that is shown that is clothed in some Yohji Yamamoto piece, a slight kind of turn in image can function as a photograph itself, as opposed to something that is a photograph of [the clothes]. We want to have an exhibition that expresses that kind of sensibility.

Let’s talk about your apperances on Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service radio show on BBC 6.

He’s a great friend. Our children are extremely good friends. We met through our kids, and we became kind of fast friends ourselves.

I only know Jarvis from bum-rushing Michael Jackson at the ’96 Brit Awards. I don’t know any Pulp songs. Did you know him from the English rock band, Pulp?

Yeah, but you know, I didn’t really recognize him. He and I just totally clicked. It was at a time when I was really new in Paris, and he’d been here a few years. We needed to talk to someone. We would have coffee every single morning, kind of without fail, for a couple of years. We’d talk about life, stupid stuff, we would do the crossword together. He’s the godfather of my girls, so we’re really good friends. That’s the real reason why I’m on the show, if the truth be told. [laughter]

It’s an awesome show. It’s something that’s coming from his mind, the various types of music, the various types of references; politicians or artists or whomever that he’s got coming to interview. I mean, it’s just really fun. It’s almost old-fashioned, where you can go to a radio show and listen to it for two hours and you’re gonna hear music that you never heard before and you’re gonna hear [director] Ken Loach talking about something or… it’s fun.

He often would have readings, and so he asked me to read some stories for the show, which is good fun. It’s something that I enjoy doing. When I put on my more performative voice, it’s something that I can do pretty well.

Will you be on again soon?

The show is on every Sunday. If everyone writes in, I will be a regular. [laughter] He curates each of the shows, so it sort of depends. The last story that I read was for his holiday special, kind of about Christmas and the holidays. The story worked for that show. And the song that came after worked with that story, so it really depends on that.

Was your grad work at the University of Cambridge your only experience living abroad?

I spent a semester abroad in London before, when I was in undergrad. I got into it, and got a lot of friends. It was through the Yale program, and we studied at the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art. I just really loved being on my own.

And then Derek, my husband, when I was in London—he’s British, so his family lives there—he had gotten a job with Reuters. Well, eventually with Reuters, but he first got a job being editor-in-chief of a Russian business magazine called Kak Dela. It was actually in Russian and English, in St. Petersburg, in Russia. So we went to Russia and I was in England.

You visited?

Often. Then he moved to Moscow to be a producer with Reuters, which was amazing. So I was back and forth between England and Russia. I’d have eight weeks in England and then I’d spend like a month or six weeks in Russia over those two years. He was there full-time, for three years totally.

We moved back to the States, we were in New York… Pittsburgh first, and then New York. He’d lived abroad. He grew up in Hong Kong. When we were in New York, I became this sort of New Yorker. I never thought at all about leaving New York.

Where are you from?

Pennsylvania and Indiana.

You were born in…?

Ohio. I’m totally midwestern. It’s, like, not cool. [laughter] But I think it’s super cool. Who’s from Indiana in Paris now? So it’s kind of interesting. [laughter]

Monday, December 13, 2010

Monique Y. Wells: The Furthermuckin Expat Q

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Chester Himes wrote his first detective novel, The Five-Cornered Square, at the Hôtel Rachou (the so-called Beat Hotel where Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs also took up residence); Richard Wright used to live at 14 rue Monsieur-le-Prince and lounge at the nearby Café Tournon, Moleskine journal in hand; James Baldwin scammed Marlon Brando out of enough bread to return to the States once up in the Hôtel des Beaux-Arts, right near the café where me and writer Karen R. Good had drinks a few months back. I don’t just know all this shit. I read it all years ago in Paris Reflections: Walks Through African-American Paris.

I’ve owed author Monique Y. Wells a solid for quite a while now then. It was my pleasure to introduce her to my beloved Queen Ann café and their heavenly soupy hot chocolate last Friday. I’d never before written an Expat Q on someone I hadn’t met personally before, but her Entrée to Black Paris gave me an edge into her aesthetic via Facebook. I won’t be here trampin through Paris forever—I’ve got a foot back in NYC already—but Monique’s been here since 1992, and she’ll likely be here long after I’m gone. Please, get to know her. She’s wise beyond my years.

Tell me the origin story of Discover Paris.

My husband and I created Discover Paris. It was his idea. His name is Tom Reeves. He actually came to Paris with me; we were not married at the time, we got married here. He was unable to find work in his field. He was a civilian, but he worked for the Navy. He was a cost-control analyst. When we moved here, unemployment was like 13%, and he didn’t have the right to work. So he was already way behind the eight-ball. If you’re over 35 here and you need a job, you’re in bad shape. That’s even if you’re French. Looked for work a long time, then decided, “Okay, let’s forget trying to get back into the corporate anything—do something entrepreneurial.”

We took a trip to Italy with a service called Insiders Italy. I don’t know if it exists anymore. But it was the first time we had ever heard of the self-guided itinerary. And we went on this trip, it was fabulous. Eleven days, we did Venice, Florence and Rome. We did nothing that we did not want to do. It was not any of this, “You’re in Florence, go to the Duomo” or whatever.

Later, the woman who put the trip together invited us to her place and we had dinner. She was living in London at that time. We were having a conversation and she said, “You know, I think you guys would be good to do an Insiders France.” And my husband said, “Well, you know, I’ve been thinking about this a long time”—this is new to me. [laughter] “I think we should do an Insiders Paris. France is too big, we don’t know it. And Paris is infinite anyway.” That’s really how it started.

It really was to discover Paris from any and all aspects people wanted to discover it from. My husband is white American, so it wasn’t conceived to do black Paris. That only came a couple of years later. We started out just wanting to do what we had done in Italy: ask people, “What is it that you want to discover in Paris? What do you like? Are you into photography? Are you into food and wine? Are you into history? Are you into architecture?” And we’ll write up an itinerary based on those interests. This was in 1999.

When I moved here, I didn’t even realize there was a black Paris or anything like that. With the exception of Josephine Baker, I didn’t know anything about this. So I learned about it. Eventually, I said, “We’re doing this Discover Paris. Obviously, it will be interesting to include an African-American component in what we’re offering.” So that’s how what we used to call Discover African-American History in Paris Tours began. That was the emphasis for writing Paris Reflections. It was partly a way to promote the fact that we also had expertise—

So the tour came first then?

Yes.

And Discover Paris morphed into Entrée to Black Paris?

Entrée to Black Paris is sort of a rechristening of our Discover African-American History in Paris Tours. We’re rechristening because, one, we want to let people know that there is a contemporary African-American Paris and there is a contemporary black Paris that encompasses so much more than our little part of it. And also, well, I guess those are the two components. One, that it’s more than African-American. And two, it is contemporary as well as historic. So we just thought, in order to promote the fact that we’ve expanded our scope, we wanna give it a new name.

How did you come to collaborate with Paris Reflections co-author, Christiann Anderson?

If I remember correctly, we met through Sisters. [Sisters is] an organization—it actually still exists, but is not functioning anymore—the official name is Sisters: An Association of African-American Women in France. It started a couple of years after I got here. I met a woman named Pamela Grant; she was married to a French man, she had a small child. She was starving for company. She was suffering from culture shock and she needed some Americans, you know, some reinforcements. She would go around and any woman who she saw on the street who she thought might be African-American, she would just walk up to them. She was starved for it. And she eventually founded this organization, and I was on the first board of directors. That’s how I met Christiann.

Christiann’s an artist, a writer and an editor. She was doing all that kind of stuff freelance when I met her. We hit it off and decided to work on this project. Actually, she was the illustrator of my cookbook, which is called Food for the Soul. That was our first book project together, and it was at that time that we were talking about doing something about black Paris. We toyed with the idea of doing a calendar and this and that. I said, “I’ve already done all of these walks. I can just do some abridged versions of them and we can put together a book.” And she would do the illustrations. It was her idea actually to do the book. But the walks are abridged versions of walks that Discover Paris supplies to clients, and the illustrations in the book are hers.

Expat Ricki Stevenson invited me to take her Black Paris Tour this year, and Julia Browne launched her Walking the Spirit Tours in Paris long ago. I know there are a million tours of “white Paris,” so so what? But tell me how you three differ.

Julia had the first tours. Julia was part of Sisters, she did her first two Walking the Spirit tours for Sisters. And that was my sort of eye-opening… “Oh! I’ve been walking by all of these places!” and, “Oh, that’s what happened there.” So Julia is sort of the grandmother if you will, or the pioneer or whatever you want to call it. Ricki came, and Discover Paris was not doing black Paris tours or anything. Discover Paris didn’t exist when Ricki came. She put together her tour. And we actually took her first, we were one of her guinea pigs and went out with her. This was many, many years ago, like 10, 11 years ago. My husband and I went with her. She put together something entirely different than what Julia was doing. Then when we decided to start our tours, we weren’t doing any guided tours at all. Ours were self-guided, so we were not really in competition. Same subject matter perhaps, but the format was different.

So nowadays, Julia isn’t living here anymore. She has someone here doing tours for her. Ricki, of course, is here on the ground doing her stuff. And we—I can’t remember if it was after 9/11 or after the second Gulf War—we stopped getting so many inquiries for self-guided stuff and started getting more for guided walks. So we started our own guided walks. Now all three companies do guided walks.

Still, I think the approach is fairly different. Our walks are always private, as compared to the Black Paris Tours, which are public—you can go on any day of the week. We work a lot more with universities and groups that are coming over. That’s not to say that the other two don’t, but for example, we’ve been working with Syracuse University’s Paris Noir since the inception of that summer program: 2001. My approach has always been with regard to all of Discover Paris’s offerings, tours, activities: we’re very rigorous and almost academic. I don’t want to scare people away with that. Our approach is very personal and personable. But we are not just skimming the surface. We are researching in depth everything that we do. So the information that you get is going to be… profound sounds almost pompous. [laughter] But we’ve dug, really. We’ve spent a lot of time in French libraries as well as ordering books. We’ve got so many stacks of books we could start our own library at this point. So we’re very rigorous.

Tell me about Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, the organization that raised funds for painter Beauford Delaney’s tombstone in France.

I had never met Beauford Delaney, I’ve never met any of his family. I became involved with his story because last summer, I was doing an article on African-American gravesites in and around Paris, and I knew that he was buried somewhere near. I knew he wasn’t in Paris, he was somewhere outside. I contacted a personal friend of his who also couldn’t remember exactly. He contacted some other people who he had visited the tomb with. And he came back with the information, the exact location in the cemetary, etc. And the question, Is Beauford still buried?

The question “Is Beauford still buried?” is relevant because in France, you only have your grave for a limited amount of time. You have to renew your space or else you’re dug up. It depends on the cemetary and it depends on the era. When Beauford was first buired, his grave was for six years. Nobody paid at the six-year mark. Americans don’t know this, and I knew this would be a shocker for people. And so it is very rare to see a grave that will say “in perpetuity.” That’s extremely rare.

Beauford died in 1979. In 2009, that would have been 30 years, nobody had ever paid his renewal. And these friends of his were really afraid that he was gonna be exhumed. So they asked me to go to the cemetary and find out how much it would cost to keep him in the ground. They raised the money and I went out there and I paid it.

Bless you.

They were just so overwhelmed. Because they had wanted to move Beauford back to the United States, but none of them was family, so none of them had the right to touch the body. And I don’t know, all kinds of conniptions, I really don’t know the whole story. They were so relieved that I paid this. They said, “Okay, he’s there. We wanna place a marker on his grave.” By then, this is no longer just a story. Now I’m talking to these people. And so I said, well, I can at least go out there and find out how much it would cost to get a tombstone. I don’t want anything expensive. Beauford was a simple man. He doesn’t need anything expensive, but something that’s gonna last. ’Cause I had seen Henry Ossawa Tanner’s grave and it’s in deplorable shape. And he died in 1937. His grave is in deplorable shape, and he has family here.

I went to a place, one of these funeral parlors, and got an estimate. It was gonna cost several thousand dollars. I said, “Money has to be raised to do this. And in order to raise money, we need an organization.” Because these people had just given me the money to pay for the renewal of the concession. But no one’s gonna be giving me—and I didn’t want the responsibility of collecting thousands of dollars or euros. So I started Les Amis de Beauford Delaney. I started it last November. And we commemorated the tombstone on October 14th of this year. It was fantastic. He’s in Thiais Cemetary, which is south of Paris. He’s in Division 86, and it’s the only new tombstone in there.

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