Tag Archives: Callaloo

Into Darkness: Remembering Poet, Musician, and Community Activist David Blair

Blair Performing Carl

I cried the first time I heard poet and slam artist, David Blair or Blair perform his persona poem “Carl” in the voice of the black character Carl Carlson from The Simpsons (ironically voiced by Hank Azaria). In the poem an employee at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant draws a black N on Carl’s locker.  It starts off, “I was drawn here” and ends “I was drawn here” and in between dissects what it’s like being black in a predominately white community using brave language. Brave is an appropriate word describing Blair’s poetry, also politically passionate, fiery, provocative, and necessary. Maybe it was Blair’s syrupy-rich voice, his to the point delivery, and bearlike stature that had an impact on me. Maybe it was that I knew he was gay and because he was a black gay writer I could see myself in that poem. Whatever it was he had the same effect on so many people.

The National Endowment for the Arts said “his stunningly evocative renderings of (Emily) Dickinson’s work are not to be missed.”

Jay Connell, author of Eat This City said “Blair is awful. Not in the way you’re probably thinking, though. When you see someone that talented it’s hard not to be reminded of how mediocre a lot of other things are. Every single time I’ve left a Blair show, I’ve made a comment about how I need to see that guy more often.”

Blair Performing Being Black in America

He performed throughout the world after winning against 54 four-member teams at the National Slam Competition with his team, Team Detroit (which included Ben Jones, Aurora Harris, Becky Austin, Michael Ellison, Judah, and Scott Klein) in 2002. At the competition Blair performed an Italian madrigal. I would have loved to have seen that performance or have seen Blair perform in Paris next year. Blair passed away on Saturday, July 23, 2011.

“Because I’m black and gay, the black gay community means a lot to me as a writer, artist, performer and as a listener,” Blair said.

He meant a lot to the black gay community, the slam community, the Detroit community, so many communities.

David Blair and the Wall of Prejudice

Image by Preston Rhea

He described himself as a black, queer writer, and musician. His poetry was heavily influenced by his music. A style called urban folk with an urgent rock feel. He performed with a band called The Boyfriends. Blair was on vocals and played the acoustic guitar along with Leah Woods (Vocals, Clarinet), Ken Comstock (Double Bass), Chris Winter (Drums), Markita Moore (Trumpet), Scott Stone (Drums), Dale Wilson (Electric Guitar), and Nicole Varga (Violin, Viola). Their most recent album, The Line, “was released in 2010 on Repeatable Silence Records. Blair, as a solo artist, and with The Urban Folk Collective, self-released more than seven records in the last ten years.” The Urban Folk Collective, Blair’s first band, a 5-piece band “blending many different styles from folk and blues to jazz, hip-hop and funk.” They performed shows with “Stevie Wonder, M. Doughty (Soul Coughing), Michael Moore, Tribe 8, Niagara, Reggie Gibson, and Harold McKinney.”

Blair and The Boyfriends Performing Freedom Calling

For six years Blair worked at The Chrysler Plant is Detroit where his work suffered. When he quit, he entered into a state of creativity overload, churning out poems, spoken word pieces, music, a one man show called Burying the Evidence performed in Detroit, and an experimental theater piece called The Walking Project, which had a two-week run in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. One of those poems written during that time is appropriately titled My Time At Chrysler which talks about how his work suffered.  My Time At Chrysler ends:

I traded in my Chrysler body
for the body that you now see before you
I know it’s not quite as sleek or as young as it once was
it still gets me to where I need to go
puts me on a new road
points me in a new direction
where the light beams
and the mind dreams
and life seems to go on forever

Blair’s life will go on forever in the minds of the people he inspired, that loved him, and on YouTube. Check out more of Blair’s performances below. Little Richard Penniman Tells It Like It T-I-IS is a favorite. Rest in peace Blair.

Recommended Reading and Listening:

The DVD World’s Greatest Poetry Slam 2002 featuring Blair, Shappy, Becky Austin, George McKibbens, Benjamin Jones, Celena Glenn, Michael Ellison, Sekou (Tha Misfit), and Shane Koyczan Taylor Mali from the 2002 National Poetry Slam in Minneapolis, MN showing both the team and the individual competitions.

The DVD Slam Safe II featuring Blair, Taylor Mali, Lizz Straight, Sonya Renee Taylor, and Simone Beubien from the National Poetry Slam in West Palm Beach FL.

Blair and Boyfriend’s The Line Album. All the songs were written and produced by Blair with Chris Pyle, Josh Antonuccio, and Dale Wilson.

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Essex Hemphill: Brother From Another Planet

The first time I heard Essex Hemphill‘s name was in the documentary Black Is… Black Ain’t by Marlon Riggs. His poetry was interwoven into the documentary beautifully. Hemphill began writing at age 14 and studied English at the University of the District of Columbia.

Not only was Hemphill a poet but also an activist for equality and gay rights. In 1980 Hemphill outed himself during “a poetry reading at the Founders Library at Howard University. From the mid-1980s until his death, Hemphill became perhaps the most well-known Black gay male writer in the United States since James Baldwin,” according to Dr. Wilfred D. Samuels, General Editor of A Gift of Story/Encyclopedia of African-American Literature.

Watch When My Brother Fell Performed by a D.C. Native

Hemphill “first gained national attention when his work appeared in the anthology In the Life (1986), a seminal collection of writings by black gay men. In 1989, his poems were featured in the award-winning documentaries Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston.” In 1990 Hemphill finished compiling Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, started by Joseph Beam. Beam died to AIDS-related complications in 1988. Brother to Brother won a Lambda Literary Award. Hemphill later published Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (Plume/New American Library), which was awarded the National Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award in 1993.

Hemphill’s poetry is in the new anthology, Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDSPoetry Anthologies), edited David Groff and Philip Clark (Alyson Books). Their have been readings from the anthology in San Francisco, D.C., and New York. Other poets anthologized in Persistent Voices are: Melvin Dixon, Chasen Gaver, Jim Everhard, Tim Dlugos, Reinaldo Arenas, Tory Dent, James Merrill, Paul Monette, and Joe Brainard.

“Persistent Voices is more than a catalogue of strong poetry by poets who were equally strong (in many ways),” Bryan Borland, an Amazon reviewer wrote. “Persistent Voices reminds us of the importance of poetry, of its place in society and of how it creates a degree of immortality. It teaches us, again, of how, with pen and paper, the truly persistent voices of these men and woman continue to be heard, to change lives, and to touch souls.”

Hemphill’s poetry is immortal. His poems have appeared in Essence, Black Scholar, Callaloo, Obsidian, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Advocate, and numerous other journals. His poems Dear Muthafuckin Dreams, Where Seed Falls, and American Wedding are in the anthology. In American Wedding Hemphill says:

They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.

A powerful statement.

Watch Justin Vivian Bond Performing American Wedding

At an event titled Take Care of Your Blessings curated by Black Gay & Lesbian Archive Project, rare and unpublished manuscripts of Hemphill’s were featured. “Hemphill left three projects uncompleted: Standing in the Gap, a novel in which a mother challenges a preacher’s condemnation of her gay son who is suffering from AIDS; Bedside Companions, a collection of short stories by black gay men; and The Evidence of Being, narratives of older black gay men, which he had been working on since the early 90s in order to satisfy his curiosity about cultural and social history before the term “gay” entered popular usage.” Hemphill died in 1995 to AIDS-related complications.

One of my favorite Hemphill poems is The Father, Son and Unholy Ghosts. Read The Father, Son and Unholy Ghosts below and watch two YouTube performances of Hemphill’s work.

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black lgbt artsy event: atlanta: 6/23 – 6/25: atlanta queer literary festival @ mulitple locations in atlanta and decatur

The premiere LGBT literary Festival in Atlanta, The Atlanta Queer Literary Festival (AQLF), showcasing LGBT authors, novelists, playwrights, and poets will take place June 23-25 in Atlanta and Decatur. Keynote speakers are Sibling Rivalry Press founder Bryan Borland and Women of the World Poetry Slam champion Theresa Davis. There will be readings, poetry slams, workshops, signings, and theater events.

Blogger and AQLF board member Cleo Creech stated the board is “returning AQLF back to it’s Stonewall roots.”

Go to their website for a schedule of events.

Last year Antron Reshaud, black gay poet and author of Bohemian Rebel: Naked and Exposed. Vol 1 and The Rising Vol 2., performed last year during AQLF’s opening night event at Charis Books with Karen Head, Alice Teeter, Timothy Wright, Bailey Lynn, Maudelle Driskell and Mose Hardin. Antron premiered his One Man Show: SIXLIVESINFORTYPOEMS.

Linton Kwesi Johnson on stage reading from a book

Image via Wikipedia

Other black LGBT authors included Charles Stephens, Reginald T. Jackson, Ifa Bumi, and Blair (D. Blair). “Charles Stephens has been an advocate and enthusiast of black queer literature and culture since he read James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head when he was a precocious 12-year old. He also co-organized “Phyre” a celebration of black queer history and culture. His writing has appeared in the Gay and Lesbian Review, the monographs Think Again and If We Have to Take Tomorrow and Alternet.”

Reginald T. Jackson‘s new book of poetry, This Morning I Woke Black: The Barack Obama Poems, on Outskirts Press, “was named a National Shakespeare Pioneer for his adaptation of King Lear as a Black Drag Queen dying of AIDS: House of Lear. He also received a NYC Mayor’s Citation and an Arts and Cultural Foundation Award for his work in Arts-In-Education. His literary works have appeared in the anthology Brother To Brother, the anthology Flesh and The Word 2, BlackOut Magazine, the anthology Sojourner, BGM Magazine, OUTWEEK Magazine, American Writing Magazine, The Pyramid Poetry Periodical,He has completed two novels entitled: Love Sickness and My Homeboy Love.” Check out Reginald’s interview with DJ Baker on the Da Doo Dirty Show discussing the inspiration for “This Morning I Woke Black” and living with HIV.

Ifa Bumi is a poet, spoken word artist, and songwriter. Her spoken word album, Musoetry, was released in 2009 and received critical acclaim.

Blair (D. Blair), 2010 Callaloo Fellow, is an “award winning Detroit-based poet and singer-songwriter, a 2010 Callaloo Poetry Fellow and a National Poetry Slam Champion. He is the author of Moonwalking, published by Penmanship Books. The recipient of Seattle WA’s Bent Mentor Award, he is also a Def Poetry Jam Poet who’s performed on bills with Stevie Wonder, Wilco, Oscar Winner Michael Moore, Bitch and Animal and others. He teaches poetry and music classes in Detroit Public Schools, Hannan House Senior Center, the YMCA and lectures at universities, colleges and high schools across the country.” Blair is performing in Chicago on 4/23 at Scarab Club with Jamaal May and in New York on 5/7-5/8 at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe.

Cary Alan Johnson, Executive Director of International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission gave the first keynote address at the Auburn Avenue Research Library. Cary previously had been IGLHRC’s Senior Africa Specialist, a position he held for four years, and managed the organization’s office in Cape Town, South Africa. Lambda Award finalist Ana Bozicevic gave the second keynote address.

Last year’s panels included: journalism, African-American writers and social media. This year should be even better.

I hope to make this a stop on my book tour. Fingers crossed.

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