Sunday, March 19, 2006

Why I Do It

When I was 19 years old I self-published a little chapbook of poetry titled "The Horrors of Humanity". Go ahead and try to find it. I dare ya. There were some really good pieces of poetry in it and, predictably, there were some that were complete and utter garbage. Later that year my friends Ted, Monica, and I put out a poetry chapbook together titled "Until It Breathes Again". This, I can honestly, say was a body of work I was immensely proud of and would still be proud of to this day. There were three stores on South Street that carried the books and another somewhere in the vicinity of Rittenhouse square. They all quickly sold out. I was shocked.

I had been haunting the poetry scene for a couple years by that point, reading my poetry, which had become surprisingly popular do as much to its controversial political standpoints as its graphic and erotic nature. So, I was not surprised when many from the poetry scene picked up the book. What surprised me was the number of people who didn't even know me and even people who knew me but whom I'd always assumed didn't like me and even people that I knew but didn't like, who bought the book. There was apparently something in what I had written that people could relate to.

One day I was standing at Penn's Landing, the harbor in Philadelphia, staring out at all the lights of the city and across into New Jersey and wondering if there was someone out there right then reading my thoughts as I had written them out on paper and knowing that it was entirely possible. That I could be right now communicating with someone I'd never met. I experienced such a sensation of connectedness, as if there was nothing separating all those people from me or me from them. I felt like I was suddenly a part of all of their lives. It was the most exhilarating feeling I'd had since the first time I fell in love. Now, I know that I was talking about maybe two hundred little cardboard chapbooks and not a national bestseller but still, there was the possibility that I had reached people. That they were now connected to me through my words. That people I didn't even know now knew me more intimately than some of my own family members. I have never forgotten that feeling.

Like a junkie chasing that first high I chased that feeling for the next ten years. I found it for a brief moment in '94 when I opened for the Last Poets at a concert in San Francisco and one of the founding members walked up to me during soundcheck, repeating the lyrics to one of my poems over and over again with a look of awe on his face, and told me how impressed he was by what he'd heard. The whole reason I was doing spoken word, the whole reason I ever thought to put poetry to music was because of what cats like The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron had done in the seventies. I was blown away. I had connected with a legend.

In 2000 I found it again when I sold my first short story to an anthology after not writing short stories for more than ten years. Then that same year I found it again when I was recognized at a convention by someone who had read one of my short stories online.

I found it the following year when I collaborated with Ed Lee to write something that I was sure transcended what most people usually envisioned when they thought of Extreme Horror. And again a year later when I repeated the success with Monica O'Rourke and our infamous novella Poisoning Eros.

This past year I found it when I saw The Book of A Thousand Sins published and read the first reviews. Again when Succulent Prey was released. And even again when I realized people were actually reading this damned blog. For a brief moment I was something larger than the poor kid from the streets of Philadelphia. I was something more than just the big black guy who can kick ass like no one you've ever seen or even the big black guy who can pull the finest women you've ever seen. I was greater than the Wrath James White who used to do naked performance art or even the shy kid from Philly who used to sit around reading Incredible Hulk comic books and reading Stephen King novels.

In another widely read blog written by an author that I respect and admire,he said that anyone who isn't writing for the money, who writes because he thinks he's creating art or changing the world, is a fool. Back when I was running wild on the streets of Philadelphia, chasing pussy, getting into fights, running from the cops, trying to think up the perfect get-rich-quick scheme, or just trying to keep from getting robbed, stabbed, conned, or shot, I would have probably agreed with him. Back then when I used to sit in the same sweltering little room, in the same house where three generations of my family had lived before me, wishing I had the money to afford designer clothes or name brand sneakers or had the money to go to the movies every weekend or eat at any of the restaurants I passed on my way to school, my only hope was that my ability to turn an interesting phrase might someday make me as wealthy as Stephen King or Dean Koontz or Clive Barker or any of the other authors I was likely reading at that time. But that was before the night I stood down at Penn's landing looking out at those millions of lights and realized that it was actually possible to reach all of those people. That it was possible that people I'd never met might actually be able to know and understand and empathize with me through my writing. That they might even pass my words on to other people who might come to know me as well. That generations from now, long after I am dead and everyone who had ever set eyes on me was dead as well, that people might still discover my writing and someone born long after I had left the earth might get to know and understand what I thought and felt and believed. That my art might allow me to connect with people across miles and across decades. And no, I am not blind to the fact that the more books I sell the more people I might potentially reach and the more successful I am as a writer while I am alive the more chance my work might live on after I am gone. Nor am I blind to the fact that monetary success would allow me more time to write and less time where I need to be bothered making a living doing some mindless job I have no passion for. But this is not the reason I write. I want the money but I don't write for the money. That connection with something beyond myself is why I write, that transcendence. I write because through my writing I become something more, something greater. I want success as much as any man on earth, but those fifty and sixty thousand dollar advances that everyone talks about but no one I know has ever seen are not enough to make me do what I do. I'm still just chasing that feeling.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Time To Represent

Back when I still lived in the Bay Area I had a friend who was in Law school. As part of a class assignment she had to attend a criminal trial. She just happened to wind up in Oakland at the trial of a young black drug dealer accused of shooting a man to death in 1989. Afterwards she remarked to me how surprised she was to see this young black kid sitting in front of an all white jury ranging in age from twenty-five to sixty. This was supposed to be a jury of his peers yet the gulf between the jury and the accused could not have been greater. They were not his peers in age, economics, race, or education yet they were there to sit in judgement upon him. I hadn't really thought much about it before that, still I was not surprised. Minorities in this country are used to being under represented or not represented at all in every phase of government. They are used to having their rights rationalized away. They are used to seeing rules bent and protocol rewritten and reinterpreted when it comes to how they are represented in this country. This caused me to think about that wonderful clause in the constituition that says "No Taxation without Representation" and what exactly that means.

We now have a Senate and a Supreme Court that is predominantly made up of old White Republican Men. There are no Asians, no Latinos, and I believe there is only one Black person and one woman. Does that mean that Asians, Latinos, Women, and Blacks should be tax exempt due to inadequate representation in the government? And what about Polynesians and Middle Easterners? What chance would a Fillipino man have standing before the Supreme Court trying to explain his actions if those actions were culturally motivated? About a snowball's chance in hell.

As I was thinking about this I began to wonder how this could all be corrected and a government could be put into place in which no one felt excluded or at least would have no justifiable right to. How simple it would be to have stricter more sensible definitions of what representation is and how we define a peer group. Because a system that defines a nineteen year old black kid from the ghetto as being in the same peer group as a sixty year old whiteman from the suburbs is seriously flawed.

A peer is someone from the same generation, same economic level, and same cultural group as you. Someone from another generation, another culture, who makes significantly more or less money than you is not your peer. That needs to be clearly defined in the constitution because the current interpretation is just ridiculous. That would be a start. Next, the Senate, Congress, and the Supreme Court, needs cultural diversity that is respresntative of the American population.

Yeah, I know I'm going to catch a lot of shit for this. I know I'm going to get all the usual shit about being a Black Nationalist or Black Militant and all the other titles people give Black people when they try to change anything. But for the record a Black Nationalist would be fighting for our own separate government not for greater representation within this one. A militant would be talking about overthrowing not amending. Those groups tend to be of the opinion that this governemnt and the ruling majority that mostly control it are hopelessly corrupt. I don't believe this. I think this government is salvagable. But to continue my point, I don't think Senators and Congressman should be picked by State anymore but by culture and ethnicity. We've tried the melting pot thing and it just ain't working. We need to acknowledge that each cultural group in America has different wants, needs, and opinions and that many of these are not being heard by the ruling majority. We are more a nation of races than we are a nation of states. If we went state by state asking people of varying ethnicities what they wanted out of thier government I think we would find more similarities between people of the same race than we would among people who live in the same state. I could be wrong, but I doubt it.

If twelve percent of the US population is Black than twelve percent of Congress should be Black as well. If twenty percent are Latino than twenty percent of Congress should be Latino, twenty percent of the Senate and the Supreme Court should be Latino. Any cultural group that amounts for more than ten percent of the American population should have a cultural respresentative in Senate and Congress. In a country of 240 million people ten percent is 24 million. That's 24 million people who's needs are potentially being ignored all because they did not have the foresight to all move to the same state so that they could pick a Senator and a Congressman and thereby have a voice in goverment policy. We've got a house of Representatives to address the needs of the State. We need cultural and ethnic representatives. This ain't seperatism folks. This is actually something that would help avoid it. Because right now it is almost neccessary for racial groups to segregate themselves in order to have majority votes and thereby have the power to elect government officials. Being five percent of the population of this city, seven percent of the population in that city, ten percent of the population here, twelve here, almost makes you invisible and very nearly powerless. Most groups have figured this out. If you're Asian you have a much better chance of enacting government change in San Francisco than you would in Utah. So why the hell would you live there?

As an African American I can pretty much asure you that these thoughts do cross every minority's mind when they are deciding where to live. If we knew that we would be represented fairly and adequately wherever we went it would certainly make diversity a lot easier. If I knew that if I took a legal matter all the way to the Supreme Court I would be facing a culturally diverse group of judges rather than a sea of old white men I might feel that I had a chance and might actually have a little faith in the justice system. If when we went to court we were faced with an actual jury of our cultural and economic peers perhaps an African American would no longer be six times more likely to recieve the death penalty than a white man who commits the exact same crime. Perhaps this would trickle down to the cops on the street and they'd spend as much time preparing a strong case and making sure they did in fact have the right man when the suspect is a minority as they do when the suspect is white. Perhaps they would be less likely to harrass and brutalize minorities if they knew that when they went to court they wouldn't neccessarily be facing a jury that was stacked in thier favor. Perhaps when a bill was proposed by some redneck senator from Georgia that severely impacted the lives of minorities every minority in America wouldn't go into a panic the way we do now. Perhaps when a bill hit the Senate floor that would have great economic impact in minority communities we'd have a little faith that our best interests would be looked after rather than stomped on in favor of the ruling majority.

Look, America has never been a true Democracy so why pretend that it is? True Democracy, as we all know, results in tyranny of the majority over the minority. What we have is a Socialist Democratic Republic. The only people pushing hard to eliminate the more Socialist elements from our government are the ruling majority and in fact, more specifically, the wealthy ruling majority, though that's a different discussion. The only people comfortable with the way government officials are currently appointed are the ruling majority. We need to be more of a Republic and a bit less of a Democracy in my opinion. Keep the democratic process intact but apply it to a more representative Republic. Otherwise the fear, distrust, and animosity most minorities have for this goverment will only get worse.