Red air. Sulfurous.

We land on a sphere from Hieronymus Bosch.

But the air always tears asunder.

On icy days the wind around the skyscrapers is like something from a Shakespearean heath.

On other days the humidity sinks down to the billboards.

 

Earth.

The asphalt of Manhattan.

An island covered with asphalt.

The car bodies hit the asphalt in a frenzy.

Only once do my shoes get smeared with dirt: when I jump into the plantings in front of the Pan Am Building for a photo with Leonore.

 

Water.

An island surrounded by water.

By the sea.

But the water seems locked out, like something hostile.

Foreigners are allergic to the tap water.

Just as New Yorkers in London, Paris, or Hamburg are allergic to the foreign water.

Fluoride in the water.

Does the fluoridated water of New York staunch gum bleeding, does it eat away at bladder inflammation and mycosis?

Fluoride may cause cancer, it says in the newspaper.

Tea does not taste like tea.

 

Fire is sketched on buildings by fire escapes.

Every five minutes, the trumpets of the fire department.

Every day a child burns to death.

Sex killers set their victims on fire, landlords their property.

There are two books about fires in the bookstore.

The Fire Next Time, wrote James Baldwin.

Now: fires daily.

 

What should I call them, these descendants of twelve million Africans who were abducted by all the nations of Europe?

They are Afro-Americans.

But when I call a Puerto Rican that, he shuts off almost imperceptibly. All my assertions that Afro-American is the least racist name are in vain. A Puerto Rican calls himself and his comrades “brown.” “Black” sounds less stilted, but what about those who are browner or lighter? Mulattos? High yellow, as François Duvalier used to say?

“Negro”? No.

“Colored,” some Afro-Americans call themselves.

Of color.

Terminological labyrinths.

There are labyrinths of injuries centuries old.

Attacks, assaults, incursions, abductions.

When will I know enough?

[pp. 63–64]

 

 

In the streets of the New York slums a struggle is taking place, as violent as the mob and gang attacks–an aesthetic struggle.

Walls, apartment-building walls, asphalt, phone booths, playgrounds, autostradas are the battlefield.

On the one side, “graffiti” – from sgraffito, the wall scratching of the Renaissance– diagrams, blots, calligraphy, slogans, glass, semen, tar, all the way up to murder as fine art: Burn fags! On the other side, murals, wall paintings, social frescoes, at their best reminiscent of the frescoes of the Mexican Revolution, at their worst, the cramped contributions of frustrated art teachers.

The graffiti gangs might invoke the cave paintings of Africa, the Pyrenees, and the Dordogne, the magical signs used by hunters, the leather men of Les Trois Frères, an underground tradition of obsession and invocation, Leonardo da Vinci and every attempt at informal art, the building walls of the Mexican Revolution and the brick walls of Chilean socialism.

The oil painters of murals invoke the prehistoric caves, the palaces in Egypt, Crete, Pompeii, and the tombs of the Etruscans.

They invoke the compositions of the Romanesque, Saint Savin sur Gartempe, Leonardo–and everything in bathhouses and lending libraries, in savings banks and power stations, that looks down on us forcefully, unblinking and gigantic.

And the oil painters of murals invoke the walls of Chilean socialism.

 

This struggle in the slums of New York is over whether the individual, the group of outsiders, offenders, and criminals are allowed to make a frenzied attempt to denigrate the community’s achievements, whether the collective unconscious might be expressed or discussed through an irregular exertion, the squalor attaining self-consciousness – or whether we might attempt to bring together, and stylize, contradictions and inferiorities to create a happy medium wherein reality and utopia both shine brightly.

This struggle takes place every day against each of the hundreds of murals, between ideologies, groups, gangs, within families, brother against brother.

In New York, among Afro-Americans, a second dispute is taking place.

This one is more discreet, more intimate – unconscious to many.

An abundance of Afro-American institutes, scholarly societies have emerged since the uprisings of the sixties.

But the founders’ enthusiasm seems to have dissipated.

What does a throwaway society do with specialists in Afro-American studies?

There are, after all, a mass of aging ladies and gentlemen of different skin colors and nationalities who have recognized through their studies that the tropics are dreary, that in Vaudou there is trance and in Africa there is the influence of industrial nations – ladies and gentleman who, after an often sad or irresolute relationship with an African on a scholarship in New York has drifted to an end, or after a few weeks in Africa on a scholarship, do not publish the pioneering book on the doors of the Dogon or the Oedipus complex among the Chakosi.

But like Haley, or since Haley, every Afro-American thinks of his roots, and many blacks in New York are more familiar with the intellectual structures of the Gambia than those of the Bronx or Brooklyn.

And almost every Afro-American recoils from the question of Afro-American culture, Afro-American religions in the here and now, in Harlem, on the Lower East Side.

For the left-wing Haitian exile, the syncretism of Vaudou in New York is an expression and a means of the Duvalier dictatorship.

For the Puerto Rican in New York, black religions are atavistic remains that he seeks to conceal from his friends.

For the black intellectual in New York, all those black customs are an absurd blend of the “real” African culture that he studies or teaches, a blend he so fears.

 

We want to go to Brooklyn, to the Japanese Garden, where Afro-American bridal couples stroll and have their pictures taken.

We drive past the high-rises of the Lower East Side.

I discover a colorful playground amid the oppressive gray-brown:

Camels, motorcycles, lizards made out of painted concrete, and a small dog, flattened on the ground, almost hidden beneath the foliage.

The saddle of one camel – a refined mosaic.

Opposite, phone booths painted with black streaks, as though transitioning back to jungle underbrush.

Fenced-off sports fields.

Fences behind fences and behind them, out from behind a graffito, a rough amateur mural. Individual stenograms of the soul, enraged colors, a menacing image overall in which each detail could be extracted as part of a Pissarro, Seurat, Miró, Sam Francis, Pollock, Twombly, Tàpies, Frankenthaler, Lil Picard; more severe, more imaginative, more sensitive than Pollock or Frankenthaler.

But we still lack an aesthetic criterion for the totality of this wild concept.

Also here entire streets are completely burned out.

Occasionally an Afro-American peers out of a half-ruined house.

Children play among the ruins.

Smoke comes from a backyard.

The trumpets of the fire trucks.

The red old-fashioned fire truck drives past with the uniformed firefighters in shiny helmets, like in a historical film.

With a great spurt, the firefighters extinguish a smoldering fire.

Next to the empty black windows, the pink surfaces where the residents go out with their German shepherds, the pulsating messages of the graffiti, vermillion on blood red, and the giant oil paintings by trained artists.

Also awkward, semi-official – Love is Art, it reads.

A giant Mickey Mouse, and in the background the twin towers of the bankrupt World Trade Center.

We get to Brooklyn late.

The Japanese Garden is closed on account of cold weather.

No veiled black brides.

 

The man from the UN:

Thirteen thousand buildings burned down in New York last year.

Seven thousand of these were arson.

On television:

Four thousand two hundred apartments without heating.

 

There are black Brazilians in New York who celebrate Carnival in a hotel with costumes sewn over months.

But the Brazilian community in New York is small.

Brazilians rarely come looking for work – they come as moneyed tourists.

Of their religions, only the popular Macumba seems to have reached the US.

There are many immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Dominican devotional practices, African-spiritualist hours for edification.

The Cuban exiles constitute a special group.

A larger part of the comprehensive Afro-Cuban religious system can be found in New York.

But many Cubans in New York are moving back to Miami.

In New York there are Cuban devotional practices, Cuban spiritualisms, mostly performed by the wives of Santeria priests. There is the Yoruba religion of the santeros, the diviner priests, although what’s missing in New York is the most holy, the relic, the Olofi, without which a new diviner priest cannot be ordained.

There are diviner priests who have been wrongly ordained.

There are the Cuban “Congos” with their blood pots – a Congo priest wired his blood pot to the electrical grid, and when the faithful kneel down, the priest flips a switch and the blood pot starts to hiss and steam.

[pp. 68–72]

 

 

On Forty-Second Street, between the porno shops and the dealers floating around who hawk their goods like the women selling vegetables in Proust or Dowland – Nyabinghi’s African Shop. The doorkeeper greets us with an astounding gesture:

He bows.

He does not touch my right hand, instead he pretends to sprinkle sand or salt into it.

Nyabinghi himself grips my right forearm, then our right hands glide against one another, and he ends the greeting with a snap of his thumb and middle finger.

He says he comes from Sudan.

I know that snap of the thumb and middle finger only from West Africa.

 

It’s mostly Nigerians who live in New York.

But also Ghanaians, Senegalese, and Guineans.

The statistics office, in a letter to me, omits Africa as place of origin.

Many Africans come as students and – cursing Western technocracy and lauding Africa – try to get one visa after the other.

African shops are fashionable.

The Merchants of Oyo.

Nyabinghi.

But even in deepest Brooklyn there is an African shop with Ghanaian woven goods and a picture of Haile Selassie.

In the Chelsea Hotel, where Thomas Wolfe and Dylan Thomas lived, and where Sid Vicious’s girlfriend died with her stomach sliced open, the Nigerian prince, painter, and musician Babalawo Oloruntoba lived for years. He cast signs with cowries and sacrificed chickens so that the blood might reveal the will of the gods.

Since 1968 the study of Yoruba has become common.

 

Between Amsterdam Avenue and Broadway, on the outskirts of Harlem, live the mentally ill. The state pays their rent.

They pick up their tranquilizers and their analeptics at the psychiatric hospitals and live out their dulled hours in by-the-hour hotels.

Sometimes they walk around carrying large knives, but they are easy to manage.

Here is also the best Viennese pastry shop in New York and the most shops for devotional objects and paraments, called botánicas because they sell herbs for initiations, but what still exists in Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil as an echo of African botanicals has completely withered away from consciousness in the city, and here love potions in aerosol cans, saints, and records, are mainly what is offered.

The shopwindows are perfect Surrealist exhibitions, Pop assemblages.

The old man in the Botánica San Antonio is one of the leading oracle priests in the US.

The old man in the Botánica Santa Fé secured the door with a padlock.

[pp. 74–77]

 

 

The Black Emergency Cultural Coalition was founded in 1968 as a protest against the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Today it offers thirty teaching programs in eleven states in the US.

Michael Chisolm, thirty-one, Afro-American from New York, painter, photographer, art educator, and gastrosophe, works as coordinator for the BECC.

Michael calls himself a Marxist, which it appears you can be in New York without being subject to backlash in your profession as a teacher.

– In 1968 there was an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum called “Harlem on My Mind.” The show was criticized by many black artists, and they came together to form the BECC.

The photos of the great black photographer James Van Der Zee were misused. The exhibition didn’t show every aspect of life in Harlem. What James Van Der Zee tells is a history from photos – in the Metropolitan Museum there was an atmosphere of a carnival sideshow.

They treated the photos like they were toothpaste ads.

When the exhibition closed the group of black artists stayed together. A little while later there was the prison uprising in Attica, in upstate New York. The BECC decided to start teaching art in the prisons.

This approach can be excused.

It means a lot to a prisoner when someone from the outside comes and listens to him. He gains his dignity. It gives him back his dignity.

– Was the Attica revolt black?

– Of course.

– Do you teach in Attica?

– No. Our programs are in the detention centers in Manhattan and Queens. We were never allowed to teach in Attica.

– Jean Genet claims that the criminal child craves severe punishment, death penalty, no leniency, because the punishment dignifies the crime.

– That’s probably true for Jean Genet. For a sadomasochist like Jean Genet criminality is practically an art form.

– And in the Bronx?

– Don’t you know the saying:

If you can’t do the time

Don’t do the crime!

But most of the crime there has its origin in desperation – rape, arson, armed robbery.

And then it becomes a kind of career.

I don’t know why my students are in prison. I don’t know what their crimes were. It’s hardly ever talked about. It’s an aspect of dignity that must be preserved. The prisoner has to hold on to something that belongs to him.

People are very naive when it comes to art. They wanted to paint their girlfriends as realistically as possible. From photographs, etc. Only a couple were interested in art as abstraction. So we split the class into three groups:

People interested in art, people who wanted to draw from a model, and people who wanted to draw from pictures or photos.

We had art presentations and even Chinese calligraphy.

– Were all the students black?

– Ninety-five percent. In our class of forty, I saw maybe two whites.

– How many prisoners were there in the Tombs?

– Thousands. One thousand.

– And out of that thousand you taught forty?

– Yes.

Murals are currently in fashion as therapy.

We’ve done murals with psychiatric patients. Our program in the Rhode Island prison focused almost exclusively on murals. The entire prison is covered with murals. The prisoners got together, planned how they wanted them to be, painted them lightning-fast, and then disbanded.

 

I ask Michael Chisolm about the sexual fantasies of prisoners.

– It was never discussed. The most extreme thing that happened was that the prisoners wanted female models – clothed female models.

Do we change the quality of life of the prisoners?

I don’t know.

We make their time in prison more pleasant.

That’s a weak statement.

– Where do blacks live in New York?

– They’re still in segregated areas. You’ll find very few blacks on Fifth Avenue. Some.

It’s primarily economic segregation. They mainly live in Harlem. Even today. A lot of middle-class blacks live on the Upper West Side. A lot of blacks, as soon as they’ve made some money, move to the suburbs. They don’t want to live in the city anymore, like the whites.

Unemployment has always been high among blacks. The statistics are based on the number of people receiving unemployment benefits. They stop after thirty-nine or thirty-six weeks. Welfare recipients are supposed to be counted.

Many don’t get any welfare support. Many turn to crime.

– How much do welfare recipients get?

– Not much. A family with two children, about two hundred dollars a month.

Many people from the Bronx have never been to Fifth Avenue or the Statue of Liberty. The Bronx is a ghetto, and they never escape their gangs and the groups that control every age bracket in the ghetto.

Television is the main force that sets values. Violence is constantly on television and in the movies that everyone sees in the South Bronx.

All these films with black bad guys. Hollywood decided to exploit black people in these awful films.

– What about the Afro-American immigrants?

– There’s always been an immigration problem in the US.

New York is a different life than the Caribbean – without the extended family. There’s a lot of mental illness among illegal immigrants.

– The three things the silent majority accuses black neighborhoods of: unrest, criminality, and squalor.

– Yes, poor people live in squalor. The buildings are in terrible condition. Garbage isn’t collected frequently. If they pick up the garbage every day on the East Side – as it should be – in Harlem it’s maybe two or three times a week, or only once a week.

 

Michael Chisolm also rejects graffiti, as do many art educators.

– I hate graffiti. All I see every day is junk: Burn fagsBurn niggers. Kill the Jews.

– In Harlem I haven’t read Burn niggers.

– No. That’s what middle-class white boys in Midtown write.

– Did you ever think that Afro-American religions depict an unprecedented artistic world?

– Yes. But when I was twelve I decided that God didn’t exist. That was a shock for me. And I was forced to keep going to church until I was fifteen. My main interest was always Western art, early Christian basilicas. Religious practices only interest me when they have to do with African art. I’ve never been to Africa. Maybe Afro-American religions are too close to home. I’ve never studied what’s in my own backyard. Everything I’ve studied has had to be a thousand miles away.

– You teach African art?

Do you teach how this art is transforming in New York?

– I know it.

– But you weren’t there?

– I don’t need to be.

– Did you know that there are Cuban ñañigos in Brooklyn holding processions? Do you know what ñañigos are?

– No. I refuse to show my students examples of their own culture as art. That is a different method.

– Are there courses on Afro-American art?

– Yes, they cover black painters and sculptors, they are more or less significant artists who just happen to be black. Artistically they have little in common.

– Study the folklore of Bahia, Cartagena, Grenada, and you’ll see: there is an Afro-American style.

– There’s never been anyone who wanted to teach it as an art form.

 

I ask Michael about the ideological orientation of the BECC:

– The BECC has no ideology.

– What is their goal?

– To combat discrimination in the art world and to get professionals to teach art, to teach people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.

– Where does the money come from?

– The National Endowment for the Arts.

 

At four o’clock in the afternoon the ceremony begins at Botánica La Fé.

They unhook the padlock for every believer and they hook it up again.

Fourteen women.

Eleven men.

Most from the Dominican Republic.

Up in a corner, a red Christ with his arms cut off – he refused to grant mercy and was dismembered by the suppliants.

Opposite, the Afro-American altar with pre-Christmas glitter and neon lights.

A table with a tablecloth, a glass vase filled with water, two maracas.

The dignitaries sit around the table.

The congregation sits facing the table.

A Bible reading.

“Our Father.”

Hymns.

The woman’s upper body starts convulsing while she mumbles prophecies, shaking her arms.

This is left over from the trance dances of Africa, the enthusiastic choreographies in forests, cemeteries, and rivers – a kind of sedentary Parkinson’s.

Inauthentic?

When the woman comes out of her trance, the black rings under her eyes have turned her face into a skull.

The others around the table are also stricken and utter prophecies:

– Do you ever feel a cold shiver when you get into your car?

– Watch out for falling boxes!

Then the believers concentrate. A “transfer” is conducted to help a sick boy in Santo Domingo.

The priest holds in his hand the serpent that is threatening the boy’s life; frothing in his possessed state, he puts it into the water glass, into the spiritual well.

The divinations in New York, compared to Miami or Santo Domingo, are more vicious, more relentless – they pursue the affected person until he is caught, confesses.

The people speak Spanish to each other, but the young priestess mixes up the words for plaster and ice during a prophecy – yeso and hielo. Her parents coach her.

We also get what’s coming to us.

The prophet sees an oversized other standing behind Leonore and her camera with a bigger camera and a more powerful flash, and he photographs her every time she takes a picture.

The old man who looks like Picasso is the showstopper of the evening. His trance comes last. The embodiment of the dirty old black man. The congregation finds it funny that I’m the first to laugh at the divine dirty stories he tells in Spanish.

To conclude, everyone raises their hands.

– When we raise our hands, God takes away all our suffering.

Then one last “Our Father.”

For this they only raise a single hand.

 

November 1978

After the black gods of the Africans, the white heroes of Afro-American studies came of age in the New World.

The legendary Pierre, who returned the sacred stones of the goddess Oxum from Brazil to Nigeria forty years ago.

He left his wealthy French family, lived as a photographer, was initiated in Africa.

He goes into trances, publishes the most significant reference works, and lives only on eggs.

Alfred Métraux, who, after naturalizing Haitian priests in Paris, fell from the Eiffel Tower.

Lydia Cabrera, from a wealthy family in Cuba, in Miami – Lydia, the perfect stenographer of Afro-Cuban culture, who wrote a work similar to James Joyce’s in its mystic variety and poetic density.

Lydia, venerated as a goddess from Princeton to Ibadan.

Lydia, who, like Proust, had to pay to have her work printed.

Maya Deren, who is long gone.

In the thirties, Maya Deren drove from New York to Haiti and lived with the Vaudou priest Isnard, whom I myself once knew, who is now dead.

Maya Deren discovered the painter André Pierre, who is still alive.

Teiji Ito is Japanese and takes lessons in Japanese sword fighting.

Teiji Ito spent years adapting Finnegans Wake and plays it every night off-Broadway.

When Lydia Cabrera received Alfred Métraux and Pierre Verger at her family estate, before the Cuban Revolution, she gave Maya Deren a drum of the Abakua secret society.

A drum made from a skull.

The skullcap sawed off and a wet goatskin stretched over it.

Three woodblocks as drum feet in the upper jawbone.

The priest does not beat the drum.

The novice hears its tone at the moment of initiation.

A wooden stick is placed on the drumhead and the priest rubs downward on the stick.

Cherel and Teiji want to return the skull drum to Lydia Cabrera.

But Lydia tells me on the phone that she no longer needs the Abakua drum.

– I am as old as the century!

Teiji Ito is a Vaudou priest.

He inherited the sacred painted gourds of the painter André Pierre from Maya Deren.

He sits among the farmers and sings their songs in antiphony.

He drums out the rhythms of the gods.

He observes that the rhythm of the drum opens one’s mind.

Then there’s a break, and another rhythm starts up. The god descends into one’s head. The person goes into a trance.

Teiji Ito tells me about his trip to Japan.

In the plane, the Japanese had already started changing back and submitting to their old systems.

He tells of his sword-fighting instructor, who challenged him to a duel that he waited for in vain – and just as well, otherwise the walls of his apartment would have been covered in blood, and neither would have been left alive.

His brother fell in love with a friend’s girlfriend.

The friend broke down the door, came into the apartment without taking off his shoes.

– That’s unheard of. That means he came to kill!

And since he didn’t find the brother, he attacked Teiji.

Teiji defended himself with the walking stick of the old samurai.

In the end, they fell sobbing into each other’s arms.

– Yukio Mishima’s suicide, Teiji Ito says, was very superficial. True, the farewell poem was correctly written, his clothes were appropriate and the handhold exact. But the hara-kiri was not carried out on the instruction of the emperor, as it is meant to be.

Teiji Ito tells of a double suicide in Japan:

The most famous rock singer and the Japanese representative for Yves Saint Laurent.

The maids ran out into the street in horror:

– Something awful happened. They pulled razors out from under their pillows.

But no one intervened.

They committed suicide in the prescribed manner:

In a white shirt and red trousers.

The woman wearing red Yves Saint Laurent slacks.

Teiji Ito wears jeans and a thickly padded red jacket.

He has a small beard and a long braid.

The hat on his head – half Tyrolean, half bowler.

Teiji Ito plays the skull drum of the Cuban secret society of the Abakua.

He rubs both thumbs and index fingers down it.

The head begins to moan, stammer, lament.

It is the primordial tone.

The secret, creative sound of initiation.

Teiji Ito puts the Abakua skull drum back behind the Buddha and the sacred bowls from Haiti.

 

The Japanese taxi driver does not want to drive to the Lower East Side at night.

He repeats!

– Where is that? FDR Drive, Delancey Street?

He seeks help from a colleague.

But the man is adamant in giving him directions.

The taxi driver turns to a policeman, but he is not willing to arrest me for my destination or my long hair.

A taxi driver can be sued if he refuses a fare.

The Japanese taxi driver fears for his life or his license.

I can’t help him either.

I’ve got to get there.

Eddie Alicea, waiting for us in front of his building, explains:

– A taxi driver was killed here a few days ago, a policemen on the corner a few weeks back. New York is a big city. It can happen anywhere. If you want to know, Forty-Fourth Street, where you’re staying, is just as dangerous. Only there it all happens behind closed doors.

Eddie shows me his latest picture:

Almost a Mathieu from afar.

Close up it resolves itself into an interstellar airplane.

Fantastic photo-realism – but composed following the laws of abstraction.

Eddie’s twelve-year-old brother is called Spookie.

He’s pale, as pale as one can only be at twelve.

He takes a swipe at his brother:

– I want to paint murals too. Graffiti. Giant ones. In oil.

Spookie takes me into the stairwell.

He shows me his gang’s tags.

He tells me how they climb into the subway depots at night and paint the trains.

– We’re not afraid of the guards, just the dogs.

Spookie tells me what is and what isn’t graffiti on the walls.

Simple block letters don’t count.

There has to be some calligraphy, some flair, to make it graffiti.

It says “faggots.”

– What’s a faggot, Spookie.

Quick as a shot, the twelve-year-old Spookie strikes a pose:

Right hand splayed out. Foot pointed forward. Head cocked to one side.

– A faggot is a homosexual, I mean, a bisexual.

Spookie knows his friends’ tags.

Occasionally someone will paint the tag of someone else.

He shows me his tag, his friend did it for him:

Spookie the Depth!

[pp. 78–87]