Tuesday, March 21, 2023

A Love Story of the Black Arts Movement

Must read

This sensual and languorous autobiographical novel by Alison Mills Newman is a portrait of the artist as a young Black woman trying to find a way back to herself: she is searching for an opening through which her capacities might be unloosened and where her talents will be actualized in accordance with her own designs. When we encounter the unnamed narrator, she has turned her back on worldly metrics of success. She has fled Hollywood, with its saccharine integrationist television sitcoms and promises of ready stardom in Black exploitation cinema. As she soon realizes, the belated invitation to the mainstream — ​even if as a noble token or as the only Black friend or as a special guest appearance — ​demands assimilation as the price of the ticket. Her wanderings are devoted to unbecoming a successful Negro; her voyage directs her away from what she has been trained to want and toward other young artists in the Black Arts Movement, who want to be revolutionaries and not “Negro artists,” who want to destroy the racial mountain rather than ascend it.

On an errant path toward the artist she might be, she is disinclined to strive because trying is overrated. The novel might well be subtitled “In Praise of Idleness,” conjuring the spirit of tool-breakers, recalcitrant domestics, shirkers, and strikers. The narrative drifts from moment to moment. Idleness, a refusal of the conditions of work, a refusal to be purposeful or dutiful, to strive or protest, feels liberating, especially after several years of working so very hard. “i be wanderin off sometimes — ​and when i come back i cannot tell you where i have been, cause i do not even know i was gone.” The full elaboration of experience rather than a pedagogical impulse to explain the Black world or describe it for outsiders enhances the textual pleasure of “Francisco.” Love, communion, intellectual debate, and aesthetic drive are the currents that shape its recursive movement. The drift and propulsion of the story feels like a seventies score, something Curtis Mayfield might have composed.

In this fugue state, she meets Francisco. The novel reads like a series of journal entries about the narrator’s infatuation and love affair with Francisco. While Francisco lives and breathes his work, the protagonist tries to find hers. Others call her lazy and unmotivated, accuse her of wasting her time; her father implores her to go to college and do something with her life. She appoints herself as muse. Yet, if there is breathing room in this love story of the Black Arts Movement, it emerges out of the category confusion about who exactly is the muse. She waxes lyrically about his beauty, his high-heel shoes, the trousers they share. He inspires her, less to make her own work than to believe in his genius. Francisco is the kind of beautiful figure we find exalted on the canvas of a Barkley L. Hendricks painting.

It is here that the gender trouble of the novel arises in the unarticulated crisis of how she and Francisco might find a way to be together and love each other, outside of and liberated from the strictures of the imposed script of heterosexual romance, even in its bohemian variant. The ballad of Francisco and a young woman navigating aimlessness and actualization unfolds with the elusive uncertainty of a latent text not yet able to articulate directly its questions about Black women’s lives and radical aesthetics and what it would mean for her to claim or to nurture her capacities, except in the form of observations and journal entries, except as admonitions from others about her purposeless and otiose existence, except as a chronicle of romance, or Black love as an allegory of what might be (in the parlance of the day, revolution). She expresses doubt when reading an Essence magazine article about the great woman who stands behind the great man: “i don’t know i think it’s not so much behind every great man is a great woman, as much as a great man is a great man and a girl is a girl.”

If the narrator is a muse of sorts, she is a complex one. She wants to do more than stand behind her man, even as she accepts that she takes second place after his commitment to his art. She knows the devotion and the concentration required to make art. There are rare glimpses of her in this state of dedicated creation regarding her music. But mostly she pines for her lover, who doesn’t make love when he works, though “maybe after the film is out and everythin we’ll go away and make love all the time.” Luckily, she is the kind easily distracted: a woman who puts eggs in the freezer, accidentally sets the trash can on fire, paints the refrigerator red, and lounges in bed reading James Weldon Johnson’s “Black Manhattan.”

“Francisco” is an atlas of Black culture in the nineteen-seventies and traces an itinerary from Harlem to Newark, from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, with Frank Silvera, Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Pharoah Sanders, and Melvin Van Peebles as the cardinal points of the cultural map. David Henderson, Joe Overstreet, and Ishmael Reed appear as characters under pseudonyms. The novel is as much a chronicle of Black artists as it is a love story. Sexual exploration and free love define the environment of the novel, yet the narrator’s free-floating desire still seeks culmination in marriage. Her bohemianism has as its telos: husband and children and keeping house.

The vernacular language, the airy colloquial passages, and the fragmented structure defy any straight line of plot, derail the “girl meets great man and great man falls for girl” story, with numerous detours and pleasurable diversions. The text is episodic. Its meter languid and improvised. She and Francisco form one of those too beautiful couples like the dyads moving down the “Soul Train” line. They float on top of the rhythm rather than dance, they ride it like the waves, like the ocean of James Brown’s sound. The sheen of sweat on her skin makes her high brown even more beautiful, and it is hard to know who to look at. Her or him? Who is prettier? He wears high-waisted velvet pants and silver high-heel shoes and turns more heads than she does in her slinky dress. He is sweet, yet unburdened, not at all haunted by the fear or guilty shame of what Baraka derided and embraced as “Negro faggotry.” What is the playa if not a sweetback?

The story is dispersed across parties, film screenings, concerts, small gatherings, hanging with friends, and lots of lovemaking on sofas and in borrowed bedrooms. It is funny and irreverent: “we talked about revolutionists. i hate revolutionists . . . they all turn out to be movie stars in this country anyway”; “i couldn’t think of no black famous man i wanted to fuck. once i wanted to fuck huey newton when i was sixteen, but not no more.”

The wayward protagonist has found a muse in Francisco, or she might have if she allowed his genius to inspire her, or if she made him her second, or if she thought of him as a pleasurable indulgence, an extravagance, and not as essential for life. This brilliant, beautiful young man is at the center of her meditations and reflections about power and Blackness, art and revolution, love and liberation. Given the limits of the time and the world, and the femme self-effacement that is the bedrock of romance and the marriage plot, she casts herself as muse. For Francisco, the terms are otherwise. Women are a luxury, he tells her, and perhaps even an impediment to an aspiring young artist. When he is working on his film, he withholds, he sends her back home, he refuses to make love with her, underscoring the boundary between the first love — ​his film, his art — ​and his love for her. How she might be an artist and be with Francisco is the latent question of the novel, yet one too difficult to answer in the singular. It will require a collective response from a generation of Black radical women and artists, from Toni Cade Bambara to Ntozake Shange.

Francisco anticipates Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” and runs on a parallel track to Toni Morrison’s “Sula” and Bambara’s “The Black Woman: An Anthology.” Whereas Sula’s tragedy is that she is an artist without an art form and one who can only sublimate her yearning and want into an ardent desire for an ordinary man, Ajax, made mythic in her eyes, “Francisco” is neither a tragedy nor the blues (an autobiographical chronicle of catastrophe expressed lyrically), but rather a funky jam committed to pleasure and possibility.

- Advertisement -spot_img

More articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisement -spot_img

Latest article