Jerry W. Ward, Jr., Professor of English at Dillard University, is the author of The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery (UNO Press, 2008). Professor Ward has been a faithful guest blogger for the HBW
A man’s death is an algorithm for inquiry. Is it an accident that James Cherry sent you his most recent book, Still A Man and Other Stories, from Jackson, TN? Gil Scott-Heron sang “I need to go home and slow down in Jackson, Tennessee” on the cut “New York Is Killing Me (I’m New Here: Gil Scott-Herron). Howard Rambsy, who is from Jackson, TN, wrote a blurb for Cherry’s second collection of poems, Honoring the Ancestors (2008) which includes “Homecoming (for Gil Scott-Heron) and a history-informed blog “Gil Scott’s Role in Untelevised Revolution” at SIUE Blog.
Scott-Heron honored his musical ancestor Robert Johnson with a dark remake of Johnson’s “Me and the Devil” just as Esther Phillip, out of the authority of her own tragedies, paid tribute to Scott-Heron with her cover of “Home is where the hatred is.” With the exception of Johnson, any of these people might have been influenced by Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961). Nanoseconds of death and life are not exactly accidents.
If it were the case that the only poem Scott-Heron could be known for was “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970), I would still claim he is one of the bridges the Black Arts Movement crossed over on as it went to hiphopland. There is great honor in being a bridge over troubled water. But Scott-Heron was most assuredly more than a bridge. He flowed to somewhere with the 1990 poetry collection So Far, So Good. He was a brilliant artist much attuned to layers of culture and emotion as he testified in the 2009 Reelblack interview “Definition of a Poet (R.I.P.)” as the deepest core of his humanity broke through the tragic record of his face. A man’s face is an enigma; his spirit, a truth. The power of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” overshadows Arrested Development’s “Revolution” as it was used in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), especially when one compares such cuts as “Tennessee” and “Mama’s Always on Stage” from the group’s album 3 Years, 5 months and 2 days in the Life of (1992) with Scott-Heron’s “Johannesburg” (1975). Film can murder the effectiveness of sounding by changing the context for reception. And one must note that Spike Lee virtually deconstructed how misused a word “revolution” is by cinematizing the televising of a revolting revolutionary act in the “Dance of Death” scene in Bamboozled (2000). We must weigh carefully the difference between Scott-Heron’s affirmative, tradition-rooted utterance of “revolution” for an audience in revolt in the 1970s and Lee’s effective and satiric unmasking of minstrelsy thirty years later for a post-soul audience romanced by the “gangsta” music industry. History matters. It also matters that we hear Arrested Development’s “Tennessee” as an ecological gloss on Scott-Heron’s life and Scott-Heron’s debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (Flying Dutchman Records 1970). He was a man of his times when he included both “Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul” and “The Subject Was Faggots” on the record.
An algorithm for cultural inquiry led you to post on Rodger Kamenetz’s Facebook wall —“Rodger, I never met Scott-Heron, but his art and ethos have influenced my creative efforts.” And Kamenetz replied: “Hi Jerry. Good to know. Can you or will you write an appreciation here or elsewhere? I only knew him as a ‘classmate’ and sometimes hung out a little when he was young and beautiful, tall and pretty aloof. It was 72=73. He was at Hopkins doing the MA at the Writing Seminars but pretty quickly he stopped coming to class. He was just getting on to the music thing then.” And you post back —“I may write a short piece soon.” Kamenetz has jogged your memory. Gil Scott-Heron published novels –The Vulture (1970) and The Nigger Factory (1972). They seem to have escaped literary historical commentary.
Facebook has displaced face-to-face inspiration for writing appreciations or criticisms or anything else. Dread stabs you. You worry that old rituals of humanity, old ways of communicating the respect of condolence, have vanished. Your options for making peace with acknowledging Gil Scott-Heron’s transition have dwindled.
You can’t swim against the tide. On your own Facebook wall you have posted the New York Times obituary with the remark: “Another winter/summer in America moment.” You posted “Winter in America” (1990 version) with the obscure political comment “And no one shall be happy ‘til we witness a flaming spring/fall in Saudi Arabia.” You listened to “Angel Dust” and posted it with the comment “Dreadful dust corked American in a bottle/threw it under the cosmic bus.” And you had to post “The Message” (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, just as you had to check your library shelves to be sure the lyrics for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” are followed by the lyrics for “The Message” (pages 61-65) in the first edition of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997).
Your hunger for old-fashioned respect, necessitated by your admiration for Gil Scott-Heron’s sacrifice for civil and human rights in Jackson, TN in 1962, is satisfied only by reading Tony Bolden’s excellent essay “Blue/Funk as Political Philosophy: The Poetry of Gil Scott-Heron” in The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspectives on Black Popular Culture (Palgrave 2008) and Bolden’s Chapter 22 “Cultural Resistance and Avant-Garde Aesthetics: African American Poetry from 1970 to the Present” in The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011). For dessert, you consume a sentence from Aldon Lynn Nielsen’s Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism (Cambridge University Press 1997): “For all his virtues as an eloquent, and even elegant communicator, however, Scott-Heron was not a proponent of revolutionary formal experimentation in verse…” (190). Well, if you could play Bob Kaufman’s cranial guitar as well as Gil Scott-Heron did, not promoting page-bound innovation is a cardinal virtue. Music and Scott-Heron’s mastery of sound was a far better way of awakening sleepers in the public space of the American mind. Amen.
A wonderful, lyrical tribute. Ja Jahannes