1932’s The Legitime Defense, was a limited-run, red and black journal, put together by a twenty-something Martinique student in Paris, Etienne Lero, and his black and brown expatriate comrades. The group of free-thinkers and radicals had all rejected the “either/or” of burgeoning Marxist politics for the “both/and” of surrealism. For them, it was about poetry and politics, social and cultural revolution. Lero declares in his manifesto, “…it is only by horribly gritting our teeth that we are able to endure the abominable system of constraints and restrictions, the extermination of love and the limitation of dream, generally known by the name of western civilization.” The journal was banned in Martinique immediately.
From this small group of radical artists and theorists, and the first small book they produced eighty years ago, that Franklin Rosemont and Robin D.G. Kelley use as the platform for Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and Diaspora(University of Texas Press), the most comprehensive anthology of the afrosurreal to date.
The late Franklin Rosemont, co-founder (Along with his wife, Penelope) of the world-renowned Chicago Surrealist group and historian/theorist Robin D.G. Kelly show a profound sense of both surrealist scholarship and history, while showing how surrealism and afrosurreal are points of praxis and a way of life.
In Rosemont’s introduction, he says that unlike many of the established arts movements, the French surrealists embraced their black and brown counterparts from the start, “Rejecting all forms of domination and the dichotomous ideologies that go with them,” He says, – intolerance, exploitation, bigotry, exclusiveness, white supremacy, and all race prejudice – surrealists make the resolution of contradictions a high priority.”
Rosemont calls them “The Invisible Surrealists”, and invisibility, as a concept, is so prevalent within this anthology – and in afrosurreal practice – that it has become a tenet in the contemporary version of the movement.
“Surrealism,” Rosemont says, “ – an open realism – signifies more reality and an expanded awareness of reality, including aspects and elements of the real that are ordinarily overlooked, dismissed, excluded, hidden, shunned, suppressed, ignored, forgotten or otherwise neglected.” Though the journey is far from easy – the road as fraught with as many phantoms as a Toni Morrison novel, with maps and documents buried in oblivion – the book serves as skeletal remains resurrecting themselves upon each new discovery.
Beginning in Martinique (“One of the vital centers of the surrealist universe,” according to Rosemont.) with Lero and Aime Cesaire, the Invisible Surrealists move on to Jamaica with Claude McKay, to Cuba with long-forgotten provocateurs Juan Brea and Mary Low, and further still to Trinidad with C.L.R James, it becomes clear within the first fifty pages that Black surrealists have been a driving force in not only the works of Fanon and Damas, but Breton, Bataille, and Artaud as well.
As French surrealists like Breton exiled themselves in Martinique during the German occupation of WWII, Cuban surrealists like Wifredo Lam also converged, seeing the island as both a refuge and retreat for their art. The influence of black surrealism on the surrealist movement was so indelible that Rosemont says “As Tropiques became more surrealist, surrealism in effect became more black.”
Though much has been written and said about artist/activist/statesmen Aime Cesaire, much more needs to written about Suzanne, a brilliant surrealist thinker, and mother of the afrosurreal aesthetic. Her quest for “The Marvelous”, more than her partner, inspired the Tropiques surrealist group, and especially Rene Menil.
“The true task of mankind consists solely in the attempt to bring the marvelous into real life,” Menil says in “Introduction to the Marvelous”, “so that life can become more encompassing. So long as the mythic imagination is not able to overcome each and every boring mediocrity, human life will amount to nothing but useless, dull experiences, just killing time, as they say.”
When Black, Brown and Beige’s surrealist chronology reaches the United States, Rosemont notes that after Richard Wright attended an immense exhibition called “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” in 1937 that he “recognized surrealism as revolutionary method of learning, a means of resolving immobilizing contradictions, a way of seeing things whole and thereby changing the world.” While the mainstream American Arts and Letters community of the time (Decidedly pro-fascist, pro-capitalist and staunchly conservative.) rejected surrealism, it was the African American writers and artists who whole-heartedly embraced it, modified it, and made it their own.
Beginning with Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, and Ralph Ellison, the seed of American Surrealism is Black American Surrealism (The AfroSurreal).
“In contrast to the organizers of most surrealist groups in Europe and South America,” says Rosemont at the beginning of the chapter, “The 1950s Surrealist Underground in the United States”, “these U.S. guerrilla poets were of impeccable working class background. Both of them, moreover were black…Yes, the 1950’s surrealist underground in the United States was started by an informal committee of two.”
The 1950s can easily be categorized as the second most anti-surrealist period in American history (This writer believes we are living in the first.), and Ted Joans in New York and Bob Kaufman in San Francisco stand as the only American surrealists of the decade and slightly beyond it. Along with the emerging Beat Movement (Of which Joans and Leroy Jones (Amiri Baraka) were initial members), black radical imagination – always an inspiration to the surrealists – came to the forefront and began to write itself into the pantheon. To Joans, surrealism was more than a way to write a poem or paint a picture, but a way of life that not only demanded “complete freedom of the imagination and radical social change, but also a far-reaching moral revolution.”
Joans’ sentiments can be placed directly alongside Kaufman’s, “I acknowledge the demands of surrealist realization.” His 1959 Abomunist Manifesto, published by City Lights in 1959, still bears the wit and danger it held over fifty years ago. Celebrated as “The Black Rimbaud” in France, Kaufman was overlooked for both “The San Francisco Renaissance” issue of Evergreen Review and The New American Poets anthology of 1960. Rosemont says, “Such omissions cannot be considered innocent oversights. After all, what is most important about Kaufman is the fact that he was the author of some of the most beautiful, playful, and effective poetry of the last four hundred years.”
Self-defense (Legitime Defense, in French) was the key word of the Black Power movement, and afrosurreal writers emerged at the vanguard. Ted Joans points out that Richard Wright coined the term Black Power in 1954, and with the emergence of the Black Arts founder and revolutionary genius, Larry Neal, fire-spitter Jayne Cortez, and mystic-seer, Henry Dumas (for whose work Amiri Baraka coined the term “AfroSurreal Expressionism”) ; the surrealist-tinged black power and black arts movements found homes all over the globe.
In 1974, San Francisco’s City Lights published the seminal City Lights Anthology: Surrealism in the United States, featuring the writings of Ed Bullins, Huey Newton, and a tribute to Bob Kaufman, marking the beginning of new interest in the old form.
In the afterword, “Surrealism and the Creation of a Desirable Future,” Robin D.G. Kelley, looks toThe Zapatistas and Autonomista movements of Argentina, along with Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones as possibilities for an afrosurreal future, while all but rejecting the cold pragmatism of the modern age. “If we cannot articulate our dreams without being accused of being Utopian or unrealistic, then we might as well submit to the current order and open up more soup kitchens.”
Through an exhaustive compilation of poetry and prose spanning over continents and decades, Black, Brown and Beige does not so much re-write a history, as reclaim it.
Black, Brown, and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora Edited by Franklin Rosemont and Robin D.G. Kelley University of Texas Press
“You’re a king playing the role of vizier to sycophants and insignificants.”
These are the first words that Taggert, the protagonist of Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People (Small Beer Press, 2011), hears from Nordeen, leader of the death and drug-dealing African cartel known as the Razor Necks.
Taggert has a special power; he can heal people with his touch. Nordeen has even greater powers and is willing to take Taggert under his tutelage in exchange for his undying devotion. Soon after, Taggert is wearing their trademark razor on a chain around his neck and is in service to Nordeen as both muscle and healer from a pirate utopia on the coast of Morocco. When Yasmene, Taggart’s only love, reaches out to him from London to find her missing daughter Tamara, he begins a hectic quest – at break-neck speed – through the underground world of squats, raves, and curry-houses; falling into his past, stumbling into his future, and trying to gain his freedom from Nordeen; symbolized by the razor that digs into his flesh.
The Liminal People can be read in several ways. Told in a hardscrabble-gritty-noir style, Jama-Everett spins a surprisingly plausible tale of empaths, telepaths, telekinesis, and inter-dimensional travel through Tantric sex to scintillate and intrigue any skeptic to the genre.
As a straight-up espionage thriller, complete with diplomats, assassinations, safe-houses, and conspiracies, Jama-Everett could give Ian Fleming some fierce competition. It can also be read as an extension of the “mutant-strain’ of science-fiction, found first in comic books like Marvel’s X-men, where genetically mutated humans are endowed with many of the powers Jama-Everett utilizes in his main characters. Taggert’s self-healing ability, for instance, is reminiscent of the X-men’s tough-guy, Wolverine. Of course, there are twists. He can also crush your heart like a fig with his mind, make you allergic to your own skin. I suspect that most will enter and exit Everett’s world through this portal.
But as with the X-men comics of the early 80s, The Liminal People can also be interpreted as a grand allegory to contemporary issues around identity and personal power. This “close reading’ is often overlooked in literature coming from what Samuel Delany calls “The Golden Ghetto” of graphic novels, science and speculative fiction. This seems particularly true with marginalized authors within this marginalized genre.
Without telling too much, Jama-Everett intentionally begins the story in Africa with an encounter with the Dogon, a people who had knowledge of planets on the other side of the sun several centuries before they were discovered by modern science. Due to his healing abilities he is turned away. They tell him, “Healers are death of the warrior’s spirit.”
It is atmospheric asides like this that call the reader to dig deeper than traditional supernatural fantasy for wonder, and to reach further than science for the limits of human potential. Each manifestation of a power from a character is surprising, and a big part of the thrill is the jack-in-box reveal of a power triggered by cliff-hanging danger.
Unlike many books of this kind, the characters and settings are deeply rooted in the post-apocalyptic present of gun-running, famines, and child-prostitution, navigating a fully inclusive world of the darker peoples of the earth, and brimming with edicts for those coping with gifts in an ever-increasing world of mono-cultural mediocrity. Lines like, “Tamara is either a cool-girl or a freak. All of our kind are. We either lead the pseudo-outsiders or we truly live the outsider experience,” speaks to the weird, youngster in us all.
When Nordeen recruits Taggert with the opening line of this review, itself a metaphor, Taggert acquiesces saying, “If you don’t have powers, then you probably wouldn’t understand why I stayed. The best analogy is, imagine you’re a gorilla living amongst chimps. They’re kind of like you, but lighter, smaller, less substantial. They run around afraid all the time, screaming and barking at the slightest sound. You can throw your weight around and get whatever you want. So when you finally come across another gorilla, not only another gorilla, but an older, stronger gorilla that has a crew of chimps doing his bidding without doing much weight throwing, you want to figure out how it all goes down.”
Reading the story this way puts a compelling spin on what might have been an amusing, but easily forgettable yarn in the wrong hands. As exhilarating the story of Taggert’s quest to find Tamara is, much the exterior and interior dialogue that reveals the author as not only a disciple of Octavia Butler, but Nietzsche as well, is where the book truly shines.
“The norms don’t know, can’t perceive the world around the way I can,” Taggert laments while having a drink at a trendy single’s bar. “They don’t see the old powers of darkness, the one that make such grand machinations and movements seem predestined. I look around and I see the bloated ignorance of the lumpen proletariat; roly-poly, sausage-fingered, ginger-topped fathers of at least two illegitimate children trying to massage the asses of waif-like, peroxide-scarred students who are themselves trying to navigate adulthood with their new-found freedom from outdated parenting…In truth, all permutations of this life bore me.” Underneath all of the tricks of the tongue and mind that the book conjures, dwells a black radical, shape-shifting for change.
The Afrosurreal are border-crossers, edge-dwellers who work from within the margins with a serious intent, “Kings playing the role of viziers,” as they travel with a list of aliases, being paid in bundled envelopes, and actively resisting classification.
From within “The Golden Ghetto” Jama-Everett has created a book that resists classification, joining the Afrosurreal Pantheon of writers exploring this new-found freedom. He calls the gifted ones Liminal People, people “Always on the borderland, the threshold, the in-between.” He has Taggert explain. “I learned what I know by walking the liminal lands.” I trust that many people will relate, or will want to.
The Liminal People Ayize Jama-Everett Small Beer Press (2012)