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Teen Idol

Frankie Lymon’s

Tragic Rise and Fall

Tells the Truth About

1950s America

The mirage of the singer’s soaring success
echoes the mirage of post-war tranquility
at home

In December 1957, Lymon appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to sing “Goody Goody,” nearly two years after “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” was a hit debut single. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

That voice! Those apple cheeks! Arms wide, head back, he radiates joy, even in antique black and white. That beautiful soprano flying high, talent and presence and just enough ham to sell it all. And it was a great story, too: Up from nothing! A shooting star! So when they found Frankie Lymon dead at the age of 25 one February morning in 1968, in the same apartment building where he’d grown up, it was the end of something and the beginning of something, but no one was quite sure what.

Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers were five kids from Washington Heights, just north of Harlem. They sang doo-wop under the streetlight on the corner of 165th and Amsterdam. They were discovered by the Valentines’ lead singer Richie Barrett while the kids were rehearsing in an apartment house. A few months later their first record, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” made it to the top of the national charts. It was 1956. Overnight, Frankie Lymon was the hottest singer in America, off on a world tour. He was 13 years old.


That made him the first black teenage pop star, a gap-toothed, baby-faced, angel-voiced paragon of show business ambition, and a camera-ready avatar of America’s new postwar youth movement. He was a founding father of rock ’n’ roll even before his voice had changed. That voice and that style influenced two generations of rock, soul and R&B giants. You heard his echoes everywhere. The high, clear countertenor, like something out of Renaissance church music, found its way from the Temptations to the Beach Boys to Earth, Wind & Fire. Even Diana Ross charted a cover of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” 25 years after its release. Berry Gordy may not have modeled the Jackson 5 on Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, as is often said, but it sure sounded as if he had.

That’s the legend, anyway. Truth is, Frankie Lymon grew up too fast in every way imaginable. “I never was a child, although I was billed in every theater and auditorium where I appeared as a child star,” Lymon told Art Peters, a reporter for Ebony magazine, in 1967. “I was a man when I was 11 years old, doing everything that most men do. In the neighborhood where I lived, there was no time to be a child. There were five children in my family and my folks had to scuffle to make ends meet. My father was a truck driver and my mother worked as a domestic in white folks’ homes. While kids my age were playing stickball and marbles, I was working in the corner grocery store carrying orders to help pay the rent.”

A few days before Frankie and his friends from the corner recorded the song that made them famous, Rosa Parks was pulled off a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Less than two years later, Frankie danced with a white girl on a national television show, and the show was swiftly canceled. Another part of the legend.

Race integration in pop music was never going to be simple.


America in the 1950s: postwar economy roaring, a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage of the split-level house in Levittown, every cliché of union-made American middle-class prosperity held to be self-evident.

And music was a big part of that. Raucous and brawny, electrified, it felt like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis all fell from the sky at once. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, with their tight, upbeat harmony, were an important part of it, too. You can trace doo-wop back to the Psalms, hear it bubble up in the a cappella harmonies of Gregorian chant, or, by way of Africa and the Caribbean, from gospel quartets.

In America, beginning in the 1930s, the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots were the popularizers of those intricate harmonies we recognize today as proto-rock ’n’ roll. Doo-wop was among the inheritors, a thousand street-corner groups and a thousand one-hit wonders. The Spaniels and the Five Satins and the Vocaleers, the Drifters and the Fleetwoods and the Moonglows, the Coasters and the Platters and on to Frankie Valli and modernity. In the 1950s, every high school stairwell in this country was loud with four-part singing. Even today the “Pitch Perfect” movie franchise owes its popularity to an a cappella tradition stretching back into pre-electric history.

“We harmonized every night on the street corner until the neighbors would call the cops to run us away,” Lymon told Ebony. But Frankie wasn’t doo-wop, not really. Doo-wop was group music. “Frankie Lymon was always different than that,” Robert Christgau, great-granddaddy of American rock critics and historians, will tell you. “He was the star.”

Frankie and his record producers and managers soon agreed he’d be a more profitable solo act, so off he went, leaving behind the Teenagers, and with them friendship and loyalty. He had another, lesser, hit—a recording of “Goody Goody,” sung by Bob Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald before him—before things cooled.

Then came the long, slow slide.

Ask any junkie and they’ll tell what they’re chasing is the feeling they got the first time they got high. But that first-time rush can never be recaptured, whether you’re talking about heroin or cigarettes or hit records.

Why do fools fall in love
(Tom Schierlitz)


Frankie was a heroin addict at 15 years old. He tried to kick, tried again and again and got straight for a while. Then his mother died, and he fell hard.

He wasn’t alone. Heroin was everywhere in New York by then, and methadone clinics run by the city were springing up in neighborhoods all over town. The failure rate was heartbreaking.

“I looked twice my age,” Lymon told Ebony. “I was thin as a shadow and I didn’t give a damn. My only concern was in getting relief. You know, an addict is the most pathetic creature on earth. He knows that every time he sticks a needle in his arm, he’s gambling with death and, yet, he’s got to have it. It’s like playing Russian Roulette with a spike. There’s always the danger that some peddler will sell him a poisoned batch—some garbage.” Here young Frankie knocks on wood. “I was lucky. God must have been watching over me.”

Even now you want to believe him.


Frankie’s neighborhood, just up the bluffs from the long-gone Polo Grounds, feels mostly unchanged even 50 years later. It was poorer then, sure, like the rest of New York City, and in the age before earbuds and headphones it was surely louder. You heard music in the streets.

Outside Frankie’s old address, on West 165th, there’s a “Wet Paint” sign on the door this bright autumn morning, and one building over a crew is painting the ancient fire escapes. The whole block smells of solvent, sharp and clean. It’s a well-kept street of five- and six-story apartment houses in a tidy neighborhood of working-class folks who greet each other on the sidewalk, black and white and brown, Latin American and Caribbean immigrants and Great Migration African-Americans and, like the rest of New York, folks from all over.

Young as he was, Lymon had three wives. He married them in quick succession, and there was plenty of confusion about the paperwork. He may have been married to more than one at a time, or not entirely married to one of the three at all. One of them may have still been married to someone else. Depends whom you ask. (In the 1980s, they all met in court, to settle Lymon’s estate, such as it was, to find out who was entitled to songwriting royalties from best sellers like “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” None got much, but the third wife, Emira Eagle, received an undisclosed settlement from record producers.)

(Arthur E. Giron)


In 1966, there was a brief glimmer of hope. Fresh out of rehab at Manhattan General Hospital, Lymon appeared at a block party organized by a group of nuns at a Catholic settlement house in the Bronx. He told an audience of 2,000 teenagers, “I have been born again. I’m not ashamed to let the public know I took the cure. Maybe my story will keep some other kid from going wrong.”

On February 27, 1968, he was booked for a recording session to mark the start of a comeback. Instead, he was found dead that morning on his grandmother’s bathroom floor.


Frankie Lymon was buried in the Bronx, at St. Raymond’s Cemetery: Row 13, Grave 70. It’s 15 minutes by car from the old neighborhood. His headstone is over by the highway. The grass is green and the ground is hard and uneven and on the left his stone is packed tight with the others. On the right there’s a gap like a missing tooth. You can see the towers of two bridges from here, the Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck, and hear the traffic rush past on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Billie Holiday is buried here, and Typhoid Mary. This is where the Lindbergh ransom exchange happened. The wind comes hard off Eastchester Bay and shakes the pagoda trees.

For years Frankie’s grave was unmarked. In the mid-1980s, a New Jersey music store held a benefit to raise money for a memorial, but it never made it to the cemetery. The headstone gathered dust in the record shop, then moved at last to the backyard of a friend of the owner.

Emira Eagle had the current headstone installed sometime in the late 1990s.

In Loving Memory
Of My Husband
Frank J. Lymon
Sept. 30, 1942 – Feb. 27, 1968

Not much room to tell his story. And what could anyone say? That the 1950s were long over? That innocence was dead? That by 1968 one America had vanished entirely, and another had taken its place?

Or maybe that Frankie Lymon’s America, doo-wop America, was never simple, never sweet, but was rather an America as complex and wracked by animus and desire as any in history. It was the same America that killed Emmett Till, after all, another angel-faced kid with apple cheeks and a wide, bright smile.

Seen across the gulf of years, what we now think of as the anodyne, antiseptic 1950s America is revealed as an illusion. June Cleaver vacuuming in an organdy cocktail dress and pearls is a television mirage, a national hallucination. We had the postwar world economy to ourselves because so many other industrial nations had been bombed flat. And for every Pat Boone there was a “Howl,” an Allen Ginsberg, a Kerouac, a Coltrane, a Krassner, a Ferlinghetti. There were underground explosions in painting and poetry and music and prose. It was a kind of invisible revolution.

A decade removed from fame and recently out of rehab, a 24-year-old Lymon shows off dance moves to a cheering crowd from his old New York neighborhood. (Courtesy Johnson Publishing Company Llc. All Rights Reserved)

A telling detail of that chaste 1950s mythology: to preserve his image as a clean-cut teenager, Frankie Lymon would pass off the women he dated in different cities as his mother. It gets told and told and told—in fact, he told it himself—that he once got caught by a reporter who went to shows in New York and Chicago and saw that his “mom” was two different women, each twice Frankie’s age. A story too good to fact-check.

It was in these 1950s that Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man, and James Baldwin published Notes of a Native Son. After Rosa Parks was pulled off that bus, Dr. King led the Montgomery bus boycott and changed the trajectory of civil rights in America. The Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, and then came Little Rock and the lunch counter sit-ins at Wichita and Oklahoma City. What you saw of the ’50s in America was all about where you stood. And with whom.

Was the short, blinding arc of Frankie Lymon’s career a morality play? A rock ’n’ roll cautionary tale? Or just another story of a young man gone too soon?

Maybe it was a reminder that America changes in every instant and never changes at all. Our streets have always been filled with music and temptation; addiction has always been with us, long before “us” was even America, from the Lotus Eaters of The Odyssey to the opium dens of the Wild West to the crack epidemic and on to our own new opioid crisis.

Looking at that headstone, you get to thinking maybe Frankie Lymon was the 1950s, man and myth, the junkie with an angel’s voice, and that the stone stands as a monument to the lies we tell ourselves about America in the time before Frankie flew away.

The very night Lymon died Walter Cronkite went on the air and said of Vietnam, “We are mired in a stalemate.” It was clear the center couldn’t hold, and if you felt like the 1950s were five polite young men in matching letter sweaters, the rest of 1968 came at you like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The world lurched and suddenly spun too fast. Tet. My Lai. Chicago. Washington. Baltimore. Riots everywhere. Vietnam the pulse and drumbeat behind and beneath everything.

So when Frankie Lymon died that February morning you’d have been forgiven for missing it. He was nearly forgotten by then, a five-paragraph item on page 50 of the New York Times, a casualty of the moment the future and the past came apart.

It was sad, but for a while, arms wide and head back, Frankie Lymon had bridged and bound all those opposing energies. That face! That voice!

Man, he could sing like an angel.







January 18, 2018


Songs We Love:

August Greene,


(Feat. Brandy)’



Robert Glasper, Common and Karriem Riggins will release their debut album as August Greene this March.
B+/Courtesy of the artist


Looking back on Common‘s gripping Tiny Desk performance at the White House in 2016, I recall a couple of prophetic moments. The first was that the rapper confessed his desire for an Emmy Award while fixated on Bob Boilen’s trophy on the desk in front of him. Months after that confession, he would win his first Emmy for his performance of the song “Letter To The Free.” The second moment was that pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Karriem Riggins, both of whom produced “Letter,”closed the performance by sneaking in a small J Dilla tribute. They locked eyes and laughed as if there was some sort of revelation. As I stood in the White House Library, I remember thinking to myself, They should form a group.’

This year, they’ve officially become an item by the name of August Greene.

“August Greene actually formed before we chose a name, before we even knew it was a band,” Common tells NPR. “Karriem, Rob and I go back many years. It was something natural.”

For their first offering, the trio recruited the vocal bible herself, Brandy, to revamp 1991’s “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness. It’s most certainly a heavy duty for one person to play the role of a 40-member choir, but if anyone is up for the task, it’s Brandy. Her voice has aged like the finest of wines, layering harmonies all over Glasper’s signature keys and Riggin’s rapid drums. This iteration of “Optimistic” hauls more live instrumentation while staying true to what Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis originally orchestrated. Common’s bars serve as the proverbial cherry on top while a choir lends a hand to close the jam out.

Glasper had previously teased that he was back in the studio with Brandy following their work on his 2013 album, Black Radio 2, but this was not what I expected. “Optimistic” will definitely come in handy to recharge our personal batteries in 2018.

August Greene’s self-titled debut album will be available March 9 as an Amazon Original.












photo by Alex Lear






Jean-Claude’s toilet seat

I’ve seen
A lot
Of shit in my day

Especially at night
When he thinks no one
Can see him take a dump

But the aroma
Fouls the atmosphere for weeks
Air freshener does not help

The candles work
To cleanse the air but
He can’t stand the light

Sometimes he squats on me
Just to pass gas, that is how
He contemplates his future moves

Most thrones are plastic
I am carved ivory tusks
From the Congo

I know the true him
He takes me everywhere
I have my own encasement

And always travel first class
I am better than a pet

More reliable than a gun

If it is true, you are what you eat
It is even truer, you have been
What you shit


my father is dead. again.
(for my father-friend tom dent)

i was thousands of miles away
when tom’s tree fell

the weight of missing him
answers the age-old question

his aftershock’s tremble

reverberates within
the chamber of my skull

at all
the oddest moments

like discovering a special person
within the skin of a child of mine

and discerning at the same time
a lady i used to love

a lady whose love
shaped me

there are periods
when our ability to perceive

presence and potential
is predicated

on having been groomed
by those who have gone before

on having been shown
how to see beyond

what is now
what is known, how

to appreciate the shape
of things to come

all this prescience a product
of learning the living wisdom

some come from a brusque old man
whose gruffness was so tender

so touching
in its honest intimacy

as he suggested that
there was something beyond

what ever was
and is, and yes, even will be

there is always
something more

something better
to be/come

english words were never meant
to adequately articulate
the anguish in our mouths, our hearts
when we lose the stretching part
of our selves – the stairs we climb
to see further, to descend deeper
as we look out and over
past the limits of horizon line

our vision is improved when we stand
on the shoulders of elders
whose height hoists us higher
than we could ever grow
if we remained flat-footed
married to the ground

the view from these human
balconies enables us to eye
not just near and far
but also back and down
into the wells
of our own personalities

if we are fortunate
we have fathers
who help us
clearly see
as well as distances

perhaps a moan
is the most profound
sound one can make
when a father is gone

when my first father died
i cried publicly
this death time my tears
for tom are silent
words on paper

the two times
a man is most
are when
he loses
a father and when he
loses his own
life – his
beginning his end

in the new orleans
that tom knew
old griots die singing
they do not go silently
into some lonely night

in his new orleans
we do not kill our fathers
to prove that we have arrived

but rather we learn
from them that we can
crack open the kernel
of our own becoming
only by completing
the final maneuver
of life’s ultimate passage rite

the step of accepting the torch
and making of ourselves a light

to lift the father spirit
to shoulder the responsibility
of becoming beacon
for those newly born
and those yet to come

in our new orleans we do not stop
at simply burying aged bodies
we also dance forward
from funeral line
and accept the awesome
task of filling father shoes

if i really come from
a house of the rising sun,
if i really believe
in resurrection
if i am really
my father’s son
then i must be reborn

be his life
after life

in earth ways
my father is dead. again.

but yet again
he lives

the older i become
the more people i contain

another of my fathers
is dead

long live
my father

long live my father
in me

long live
my many fathers

long live
long live

all the fathers
i am

and all the fathers
i will ever be


(meditations on integration)

escaping plantations is not
a matter of running
away / for
to getaway successfully

you must not only run
but establish yourself

the place
to which
you run


create a home
create community
some how

shape space
the alien air
of here & now
where ever
you are

into the welcoming
of home

now that the big house
is on fire
and none of the world
is offering water

the progeny
of our former masters
hang out welcome signs
and proclaim
we are all the same

we can even sleep
in their beds with them
if our amnesia is deep enough

the price of admission:
leave your soul at the door, preferably
outside, not even on the porch
but in the yard
the back

now pledge
to this system
your history does not

that the jails are full
of us
does not matter

that our illnesses
are at record levels
does not matter

that we own less
have less wealth
than ten years after
does not matter

if we forget
who we were
who we are
does not matter

when we think
the other
is our problem

we have become
our own problem

after all
aren’t we all
wayfaring pilgrims
just passing thru

a strange
land, all of us
in need
of a helping


of what those who own
to live
tell you

you can only really own
whatever you brought
into this world

whatever you brought with
you is all that you can
take when you leave

you can not escape
the plantation

if you are carrying
their architecture

in your head
in your heart

some of us


some of us


until we die
all of us


zig zag

reverse field
stutter step
skip, hop, & jump

zig zag

they’ll catch us
if we stand still

our people
are our hills
—amilcar cabral

I think we should live
up in the hills
—burning spear

no rest for the weary

I’ll run

on and see
what tomorrow brings



will there be music
will we sing
will a beat be kept
will rose petals droop & then fall
will fragrance fade
will be the last sound heard

a note
a noise
some song’s fragment
the terrible finality of sudden silence

the last breath
the expiring light
a memory
a familiar
the softness of starlight
the whisper of river wave washing ashore
or what
ever was the sonic disturbing us
in the milli-moment before we were born

will our out going be our fingerprints
distinctive in detail for each of us
a mark behind after the deed is done
the sign of our touch

or will farewell simply shudder
disintegrate slowly
eventually gone as if we never were
here or there, thinking and doing
upon departure
will there even be
enough time
to realize
we are gone

some of us need the comfort
of believing that there is something
else other than what we are
something before and beyond
what we are, something other
than what we are

why is not existence enough
the blessing is to be
the eventually is not to be

time is an efficient cosmic cleaner
removing our breath, our enterprise
our art, our everything, removing
us from everything

like when I stare into space
and realize the stars
do not need to be seen by me
they shine without
my eyes fascinated, fastened
upon them


FREEDOM—A Haitian Rant

After we ran our oppressors into the sea
You have since never tired trying to run us into the ground

After the earth opened its jaws to swallow us
Your assistance rushed in to bury us

You say we cannot govern, our government is corrupt
Who kidnapped Aristide, the president we elected, a priest
who made our world work and not simply prayed for miracles,
in fact, we elected him twice, and twice you took your guns and
made him leave and would not let us vote for anything he represented— our government is not corrupt, corrupt is the government you put in
our president’s place, our government is in exile

You swear we are not capable of caring for ourselves, perhaps
We are too busy servicing your sex tourists, making your mickey mouse
clothes, and sewing your balls you love to play with

You say everyone envies your freedom
Yet it was our soldiers who saved George Washington’s ass
in Savannah when you were fighting for your freedom but
you never give us credit for helping to create your freedom
and worse yet when you got your precious freedom you did not
give freedom to all your citizens—we in Haiti were the first truly
free country in all of the Americas, everyone was declared free
in our new republic, everyone red, black, white, yellow or brown—
no one was a slave in free Haiti, it took you almost a century
to free your enslaved people, yes not until 1865
did you even halfway declare all your male citizens as Haiti
was free on day one of our birth (tell me I am wrong
but I believe you did not let women vote until 1920)
no one who knows our history envies your 2/5 free history

You say we are poor but when will you give us back the money you sent
marines to steal from us in 1915 when you invaded us and took over our
banks, no matter how long a thief keeps what he stole, no matter how
many generations gone, he is still a thief, which is why

one of your presidents, the paedophile Jefferson who
took up with a thirteen-year-old, famously said:
when I think that god is just, I tremble
for the fate of my country

When we think that god is just, we just smile and pray the day of
reckoning will soon come, beautiful as a Jacmel sunrise

We are Haitian, we love freedom
who are you and what do you love?


—Kalamu ya Salaam





January 22, 2018







The Lost Giant of

American Literature

A major black novelist made a remarkable début.
How did he disappear?

William Melvin Kelley wrote about white people thinking about black people.
Photograph by Carl Van Vechten / Carl Van Vechten Trust / Beinecke Library, Yale


There were arrows, so we followed them. This was one afternoon last summer; my partner and I had spent the day at our local public library, working steadily through breakfast and lunch and what the British would call teatime, until suddenly hunger clobbered us both and we packed up and headed out to the car. Home was maybe four miles away. In my mind, I was already constructing enormous sandwiches. The arrows appeared two miles in, lining the side of the road where, that morning, there had been nothing but marsh grass. They were shin-high, wordless, red on a white background, pointing away from the sandwiches. My partner, who is usually more hungry than I am but always more curious, swung the car into the other lane and began to follow them.

The arrows led down a state highway, across an interchange, onto a smaller road, past a barn and some grain silos, then along one of the Chesapeake Bay’s countless tributaries. A sign warned us that we were in a flood zone. My partner, who grew up one county over, remembered the place from childhood—at seven or eight, she’d had a memorable encounter in the area with a trailer full of cockatiels—but she hadn’t been there since. The arrows ended at a large gray shed with a red roof. A spray-painted sign indicated that it was open twice a month, on Saturdays, in the summer only. We parked across the street, next to a boat, and headed for the door.

Inside: boxes of fishing tackle, cans of Rust-Oleum, a ceiling-high stack of interior/exterior paint. A half-dozen washboards, a cast-iron sewing machine, signs advertising fresh eggs and Guinness and speed limits in unknown locations. Doorframes, window frames, picture frames stripped of their pictures and stacked catawampus in a corner. A wall of old license plates, a box of old flashlights, Chock full o’Nuts cans chock-full of nails. Circular saws, gate weights, drill bits, jigging bait, oyster tongs, jumbles of other farming and fishing equipment that I, having grown up suburban and landlocked, could not identify. No cross-stitched pillows here; no clothes, unless you count waders; no discarded chinaware—not much, in short, of the usual junk-shop bric-a-brac. A few boxes of LPs. A few old sports pennants. And, near the cash register, a single bookshelf, with a handwritten sign taped to the top: “Paperbacks, 50¢. Hardbacks, $1.”

Books I can identify. I went to browse, and spotted, first thing, a slender volume that was shelved the wrong way round—binding in, pages out. I pulled it down, turned it over, and found myself holding a beautiful clothbound first edition of Langston Hughes’s “Ask Your Mama.” I flipped it open and there on the frontispiece it said:

Inscribed especially for William Kelley ~ on your first visit to my house ~ welcome!

Sincerely ~

Langston Hughes

New York

February 19, 1962

I gawped. Then I beckoned my partner over and we gawped together. After a short-lived and entirely silent moral crisis—resolved by remembering that half the point of visiting junk stores is the possibility of stumbling on unexpected treasures—I walked over to the cash register, handed the young man behind it a dollar, and bought the book. And then, because it, too, was an arrow, I followed it.

I didn’t know who William Kelley was when I found that book but, like millions of Americans, I knew a term he is credited with first committing to print. “If You’re Woke, You Dig It” read the headline of a 1962 Op-Ed that Kelley published in the New York Times, in which he pointed out that much of what passed for “beatnik” slang (“dig,” “chick,” “cool”) originated with African-Americans.A fiction writer and occasional essayist, Kelley was, himself, notably woke. A half century before the poet Claudia Rankine used her MacArthur “genius” grant to establish an institute partly dedicated to the study of whiteness, Kelley turned his considerable intellect and imagination to the question of what it is like to be white in this country, and what it is like, for all Americans, to live under the conditions of white supremacy—not just the dramatic cross-burning, neo-Nazi manifestations of it common to his time and our own but also the everyday forms endemic to our national culture.Kelley first addressed these issues at length in his début novel, “A Different Drummer.” Published three weeks after that Times Op-Ed, when he was twenty-four, it promptly earned him comparisons to an impressive range of literary greats, from William Faulkner to Isaac Bashevis Singer to James Baldwin. It also got him talked about, together with the likes of Alvin Ailey and James Earl Jones, as among the most talented African-American artists of his generation.When I read “A Different Drummer,” I understood why. Geographically, the novel is set in a small town called Sutton, outside the city of New Marsails, in an imaginary Southern state wedged between Mississippi and Alabama. Temporally, it is set in June, 1957, when a young African-American farmer named Tucker Caliban salts his fields, slaughters his horse and cow, burns down his house, and departs the state—whereupon its entire African-American population follows.

It’s a brilliant setup. Our culture has produced countless fantasies about what would have happened if the Civil War had ended differently—chiefly, if the Confederacy had won and slavery had endured. (See, e.g., “The Guns of the South,” “If the South Had Won the Civil War,” and “Underground Airlines.”) But we have a paucity of art that chooses to imagine a different outcome for the civil-rights movement, or alternate universes where African-Americans, from any era, wield not less power but more.

Appropriately, that seizure of power—the sudden refusal of African-Americans to continue living under conditions of subordination—flummoxes the white citizens of Sutton. When “A Different Drummer” opens, one of them, seeking to make sense of the recent events, recounts a harrowing story. Half slave narrative, half tall tale, it concerns a behemoth of a man, known simply as the African, who arrives one day on a slave ship, cradling a baby boy in the crook of his arm. Bound by chains held by at least twenty men, the African is led into town and sold—whereupon he whips around and, with the chains, knocks over his captors and decapitates the auctioneer: “Some folks swear . . . that the head sailed like a cannon ball through the air a quarter mile, bounced another quarter mile, and still had enough steam to cripple a horse some fellow was riding into New Marsails.” Gathering up his chains “like a woman grabs up her skirts,” the African then flees to a nearby swamp and starts conducting raids to free other slaves. Eventually, his nominal owner, led to the hideout by a traitor, kills the African and claims as his own the baby boy: Tucker Caliban’s great-grandfather.

The man who tells this tale maintains that Caliban acted as he did because “the African’s blood” resurged within him. Not all his listeners agree, but they’re hard pressed to offer a better explanation for the recent exodus, or imagine its likely consequences. Some wonder whether wages will be better or worse with a third of the population gone. Others, professing not to care about Caliban and his followers, echo the governor’s statement: “We never needed them, never wanted them, and we’ll get along fine without them.” Still others feel betrayed, in ways they can’t articulate, by the violation of a social compact whose terms they’d never previously bothered to study too closely.

Although the plot of “A Different Drummer” depends on the autonomous actions of African-Americans, the story is told exclusively through the eyes of these white townspeople. This, too, is a smart idea—a kind of fictional affirmation of the historian Lerone Bennett, Jr.,’s claim that “there is no Negro problem in America. The problem of race in America . . . is a white problem.” Moreover, it is wonderfully executed. At twenty-four, Kelley was already a strikingly confident writer, with a sense of humor reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor in stories like “Revelation”: caustic, original, efficacious. He was also a keen observer, and although his story has the emotional proportions of a myth, his sentences reliably feel like real life. Tucker Caliban’s doomed cow is “the color of freshly cut lumber”; to the men watching from outside, the fire he set first appeared climbing a pair of curtains in the center of his home, then “moved on slowly to the other windows like someone inspecting the house to buy it.”

“A Different Drummer” ends in pessimism, less about the fate of black Americans than about the moral potential of white ones. Yet, thanks to it, Kelley’s career began in tremendous optimism. His was the rare first novel that makes future ones seem both inevitable and exciting—and, indeed, he went on to publish four more books in under a decade. But I wasn’t alone in being unfamiliar with them. After his early and fiery start, Kelley largely faded into obscurity—not just before our era but in his own prime. Obscurity, of course, is a common enough fate for authors. But what’s curious about Kelley is that he is seldom read today not just because of the weaknesses in his books but also because of their peculiar, discomfitting strengths.

William Melvin Kelley was born on November 1, 1937, at Seaview Hospital, a tuberculosis sanatorium on Staten Island, where his mother, Narcissa Agatha Garcia Kelley, was a patient. His father, also named William Kelley, worked for many years as an editor at the Amsterdam News, one of the oldest and most influential African-American newspapers in the nation. The paper was based in Harlem, but the family lived in a working-class Italian-American community in the Bronx, together with Kelley’s maternal grandmother, a seamstress, who was the daughter of a slave and the granddaughter of a Confederate colonel.By his own account, Kelley grew up at a time when “striving Negroes wanted to transcend” race rather than politicize it. Typifying that impulse, his father “worked hard to eradicate all vestiges of Negroness from his voice,” and kept Countee Cullen and Paul Laurence Dunbar on the main shelves of his library while banishing Marcus Garvey to its highest reaches. Kelley, whose own voice never lost its Bronx accent, internalized this ethos young. At home, he won over the neighborhood kids with his excellent Sinatra imitation, and with his willingness, when playing Cowboys and Indians, to take on the role of Tonto. At the Fieldston School, the nearly all-white prep school he attended from first through twelfth grades, he practiced the time-honored strategy of overachieving: by his senior year, he was student-council president, captain of the track team, all-around “golden boy,” and bound for Harvard. Once there, Kelley discovered writing—which, he later recalled, “made me so happy I wasn’t going to do anything else.” He found mentors in the experimental novelist John Hawkes and the modernist poet Archibald MacLeish, and in 1960 he won the Dana Reed Prize, for the best writing by a Harvard undergraduate.It was a high honor, but more or less the only one Kelley earned in an otherwise troubled college career. His mother died during his sophomore year, his father when he was a senior. Kelley switched majors four times, failed almost every class but his fiction courses, and dropped out of school one semester shy of graduation. He went home to his grandmother and, with considerable trepidation, confessed that he’d abandoned all his illustrious career plans and wanted to be a writer instead. She heard him out, then told him that she could not have spent seventy years making dresses if she hadn’t loved it. Two years later, Kelley published “A Different Drummer.”Two more books followed in quick succession: a short-story collection, “Dancers on the Shore,” in 1964, and a novel, “A Drop of Patience,” in 1965. The stories are uneven, but the best of them—including “The Only Man on Liberty Street,” in which racism ruptures a complicated family, and “Not Exactly Lena Horne,” in which two retired widowers get into a small, upsetting fight—are exemplars of the form: taut and self-contained yet seemingly pulled midstream from life. The novel, meanwhile, concerns a blind jazz musician who rises to national prominence, has a doomed romance with a white woman, and subsequently suffers a nervous breakdown. It let Kelley explore not only the destructiveness of racial categories but one of his other long-standing interests as well: the primacy of sound. As a child, Kelley spent hours sitting with his grandmother while she worked, and the stories that she told him merged in his mind with the clatter of her sewing machine. In Europe, he befriended the avant-garde saxophonist Marion Brown and became part of an ongoing conversation about sound and meaning. “If things had gone another way,” he told Gordon Lish in a 1968 interview, “I would’ve been a musician.”

In retrospect, though, the most notable aspect of Kelley’s early work is its dramatis personae. Wallace Bedlow, whom we first encounter making his way toward Caliban’s farm in “A Different Drummer,” reappears in “Dancers on the Shore” as a blues singer destined for a short but brilliant career in New York, under the guidance of his brother, Carlyle. Carlyle himself then plays starring roles in Kelley’s last two novels, during the course of which he encounters Chig Dunford, a Harvard-educated aspiring writer who also débuts in the story collection. Dozens of other characters likewise reappear from tale to tale; in his old age, Kelley once said, he hoped to look up at his shelves “and see that all of my books are really one big book.” Like Balzac and Faulkner, he was in the business of world-building—in his literature, but also, by then, in his life.

Kelley was seventeen when he met his future wife, Karen Gibson; she was fourteen and, she told me, distinctly unimpressed. Almost a decade later, the two crossed paths again, at the Penn Relays, a weekend-long integrated track meet that drew thousands of African-American participants and spectators. By then, Kelley was finishing “A Different Drummer,” while Gibson, who had studied art at Sarah Lawrence, was planning to become a painter. She was drawn to creative types and, this time, she was dazzled by him. In 1962, they got married.The Kelleys’ early life together was peripatetic. Gibson, who later changed her name to Aiki Kelley, was, like her husband, a product of the black bourgeoisie and eager to escape it; also like him, she wanted to see more of the world before starting a family, so the couple soon decamped to Rome. A year later, they returned to the United States for the birth of their first child, Jessica, but it was a short-lived homecoming. Three days after she was born, Malcolm X was assassinated. Kelley, asked by The Saturday Evening Post to cover the subsequent murder trial, grew disgusted with the bias in the judicial system, and vowed to leave the country again: “I wouldn’t assign myself the task of announcing that our little rebellion had failed, that racism had won again for a while. Not with a young wife and a toddler depending on me and all this killing going on.”In short order, he and Aiki packed up and moved with Jesi to Paris, where their second daughter, Cira, was born, in 1968. Initially, they planned to learn the language, then relocate somewhere in Francophone Africa to explore their roots. After a few years, though, they decided that they wanted to be closer to their relatives, and moved instead to Jamaica, where they lived for nearly a decade—William writing, Aiki making art, and both of them raising and homeschooling their daughters.It was in Jamaica that Kelley and his family converted to Judaism. This came about because Kelley started smoking ganja with some locals behind a neighborhood chicken joint, and every day before they lit up they read aloud from the Bible. Kelley had been raised as a Christian, but his interest in Scripture surged in Jamaica, and he asked his wife to begin reading it with him. The two of them were searching for moral guidelines to help them raise their children, and they soon found what they wanted in the Pentateuch. One by one, they began shedding old traditions—bacon, Christmas, Sunday Sabbath—and adding new ones: Shabbat, Yom Kippur, a kosher kitchen.

It was always a self-directed faith; neither Kelley nor anyone in his family ever joined a synagogue, and they observed a religious calendar at odds with the conventional Jewish one. Kelley excelled at self-direction, in fact. He was meticulous in all his habits—the arrangement of his shoes, the order of his pens—and writing was no exception. He worked with punch-card regularity, in an office where his desk faced the wall, so that the only world he could see was the one he was creating. He set down his first drafts in pencil, made corrections in ink, then typed up the result on a manual typewriter, whose rhythm he loved. He did this every day, week after week, month after month, until he had published two more novels. Then he kept on doing it every day thereafter—even though, after the second of those novels came out, the world all but entirely ignored him.

The epigraph to Kelley’s third novel, “dem,” is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet—written, that is, to capture the way people actually speak, even though, in doing so, it thwarts the way people usually read. “Næʊ, ləmi təljə hæʊ dəm foks lıv”: those words mark a new willingness on Kelley’s part to make things difficult for his readers, linguistically and otherwise. Translated, they read, “Now, lemme tellya how dem folks live.”The “folks” in question are white people, and, like “A Different Drummer,” the novel focusses on a white character: Mitchell Pierce, a middling employee at an advertising agency, who grows increasingly estranged from, among other things, his job, his pregnant wife, his sense of self-worth, and reality. As such, Mitchell is a classic mid-century white antihero, the kind that can be found, in works ranging from “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to “Portnoy’s Complaint,” exuding professional mediocrity, evading responsibility, humiliating himself sexually, and cowering in the face of his supposed inferiors: women, children, household help, members of all kinds of the putative lower classes.Aptly, for a book about an antihero, “dem” winds its plot not through action but through passivity. Early on, Mitchell tears a hamstring and finds himself bed-bound for several weeks, during which time he develops an embarrassing addiction to a soap opera and a powerful crush on its heroine. Kelley is setting us up to think about melodrama, which “dem” is not made of but is very much about: the substitution of feelings for ethics, cheap thrills for costly experience, and simulacrum for reality. Indeed, when Mitchell happens to encounter the actress who plays his crush, he fails to grasp that she isn’t actually the TV character he worships, and then further fails, when the opportunity arises, to sleep with her.While Mitchell is conducting this ineffectual affair, his wife is having a considerably more successful one, with a black man. When the book opens, she is pregnant with twins; in an echo of the soap-opera plots Mitchell adores, one of these turns out to be fathered by her husband, the other by her lover. After the babies are born and the doctor breaks the news, Mitchell sets off to find his fellow-father and persuade him to take the dark-skinned baby.

Thus begins a kind of picaresque journey through black New York, and, in parallel, through the Bosch-like fantasy- and horror-scape of Mitchell’s racial imagination. Along the way, he encounters another desirable woman, this one black, whom he also fails to bed; an African-American maid he had unjustly fired some time before; her nephew, none other than Carlyle Bedlow, who pockets Mitchell’s money and serves as his poker-faced, Harlem-based guide; Carlyle’s militant younger brother Mance, who refers to Mitchell as “devil”; and, finally, Mitchell’s co-father, a man named Cooley, whom, it turns out, he has known all along.

The whole journey is a merciless satire on the themes of white fear, guilt, and hypocrisy, played out in the always charged language of miscegenation—only, this time, with the current of that charge reversed. One practical and emotional cornerstone of slavery was the inability of the enslaved to determine their own families. When Mitchell, cuckolded and left to raise a black man’s child as his own, realizes that his suffering is a kind of reprisal, his whiny “Why me?” is parried irrefutably by his fellow-father: Why Cooley’s great-granddaddy? Like the white characters in “A Different Drummer,” Mitchell experiences black retribution. Neither is violent—the first is a renunciation, the second a reckoning—but both are profoundly disconcerting, because they leave white characters and readers alike alone with past and present iniquities, and with the scales to measure them.

If “dem” is a strange book, it is strange in a familiar way. Part Roth, part Swift, part Twain, it is built of satire, farce, and hyperbole, all deployed in the name of moral seriousness. But Kelley’s next novel, “dunfords travels everywheres,” is strange in a strange way. When it opens, Chig Dunford is living in an imaginary European country that observes a bizarre sartorial segregation: every day, its citizens self-divide into those who wear blue clothes (Atzuoreursos) and those who wear yellow ones (Jualoreursos), groups that are strictly forbidden from mingling. While living there, Chig has a brief affair with an enigmatic fellow-expatriate named Wendy, then reunites with her on his way back to the United States, when the two find themselves sharing a steamer with a mysterious organization called The Family, and also with a cargo hold full of slaves. Meanwhile, Carlyle Bedlow is back from “dem” and up to a whole new set of tricks, including one involving a loan officer moonlighting as a limousine driver, who turns out to be—in a wonderful Bulgakov-like turn, by far the best in the book—the devil.All this is funny, dark, smart, and extremely entertaining—except that, fifty pages in, the reader suddenly slams up against this sentence: “Witches oneWay tspike Mr. Chigyle’s Languish, n curryng him back tRealty, recoremince wi hUnmisereaducation. Maya we now go on wi yReconstruction, Mr. Chuggle? Awick now?”Well, yes: we are now very Awick, although whether we will go on is a different question. Kelley conceived “dunfords travels everywheres” in conscious thrall to “Finnegans Wake,” and his own book is, for long stretches, similarly rough going. Kelley tells Chig’s and Carlyle’s separate stories mostly straight, but in between he grabs language by its edges and bends it as far as he can, in order to pull the bourgeois, Ivy-educated Chig and the impoverished, street-smart Carlyle into a single consciousness, made of their common national history.Kelley had long been fascinated by the way one language can accommodate many different speakers. “Early on,” he wrote, “blessed with an ear for variations of spoken English, I realized that I lived in four linguistic worlds”: the Standard English he spoke at home; the working-class Italian-American English he learned in the Bronx; the heavily Latinate, slightly Yiddish English he heard at Fieldston; and black English, which he regarded, like jazz, as one of the great creative contributions of African-Americans. At the same time, he was fascinated by the relationship between language and power. Tucker Caliban is taciturn almost to the point of mute. Even his wife can barely eke speech out of him, and he rejects oration and persuasion, refusing to explain, or even articulate, the beliefs behind his scorched-earth exit from the state. With one exception—a militant Northern preacher, who is voluble, dislikable, and doomed—the other black characters are likewise silent. In “dunfords,” by contrast, the black characters have plenty to say, but their voices intermittently wax incomprehensible.

That is the same problem solved two different ways. Like many who are steeped in but structurally excluded from conventional English and its canon, Kelley had doubts about its capacity to adequately express African-American life. His epigraph for “dunfords,” borrowed from Joyce, is “My soul frets in the shadow of his language.” The language he creates in its place blends the black vernacular with puns, patois, and linguistic borrowings that most readers (this one included) will struggle to identify.

The result is best read out loud—and, in fact, is nearly impossible to read any other way. It’s sometimes rewarding, since Kelley is smart and funny no matter what language he uses, but it is never easy, and it slows down a book that, in its bones, wants to be headlong and exuberant—so much so that readers can be forgiven for wanting to skip the difficult bits to get back to the plot. (And also to sentences that offer more familiar pleasures. Here as everywhere, Kelley’s straightforward prose is both plain and shining, like sunlight catching the windows of an apartment building. When the devil drives away in his limousine, Carlyle watches it “designing the fresh snow with row after row of tiny interlaced hammers, its tail-end, finally, becoming part of the shadows.”)

But simply ignoring the tough parts won’t work, of course. Kelley’s private language is difficult to decode but essential to the book, and so a determined reader must soldier on, grateful that “dunfords” is, at least, short by comparison with “Finnegans Wake.” The result is like roaring down a roller coaster with the brakes on: thrilling, frustrating, dominated by sheer sound.

William Kelley was thirty-two when “dunfords travels everywheres” appeared. He wrote constantly for the next forty-seven years, never published another book, and died a year ago, at the age of seventy-nine.By then, Kelley had been back in his native New York for decades. He loved Jamaica, but eventually the family’s visas expired, and their relatives began hounding them to come home. In 1977, the Kelleys returned to the United States and rented a sixth-floor walkup at 125th Street and Fifth Avenue. The gentrification of Harlem had not yet begun, and their new home had an absentee slumlord, an alcoholic super, no heat, no electricity, no gas, no phone, and no lock on the door. The Kelleys bought winter clothes for the first time in a decade, together with candles, a Coleman stove, and a padlock for the door.It wasn’t ideal, but it was all they could afford. The book advances, the speaking gigs, the magazine requests, and the university appointments had dried up, and the family had hardly any money. This was fine by Kelley, who had long since read Thoreau (“A Different Drummer” takes its title from “Walden”) and embraced the idea of voluntary poverty. By day, he kept writing, at a desk crammed below a loft bed in their tiny apartment. After midnight, when the local stores put their unsold produce in the trash, he did the family grocery shopping. “Going through the garbage at the Korean grocers didn’t embarrass him,” his daughter Jesi said. “He was utterly unafraid to be poor.”He was also unafraid to keep writing in the absence of public encouragement. When he died, he left behind a considerable quantity of prose, including two unpublished novels. One of these, “Daddy Peaceful,” is loosely based on his own family, whom he never previously wrote about though unabashedly adored. The other, “Dis/integration,” is a meta-fiction that concerns the further adventures of Chig Dunford, and, like “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Pale Fire,” contains within it an entirely separate work: a complete novel by a white Hemingwayesque writer. That embedded novel, “Death Fall,” features no black characters at all, and describes the unravelling of a small Kansas town after a new and highly addictive drug is introduced there.

Kelley tried to publish both of these novels during his lifetime, to no avail. Eventually, in 1989, he began teaching fiction at Sarah Lawrence, and liked it enough to continue doing so for nearly three decades. But, even then, he never stopped writing. “There are artistic people who have that moment of ‘Ugh, I suck,’ ” Jesi said. “He wasn’t like that. He never got depressed. He never thought he was bad. He never doubted himself. He just didn’t understand what happened.”

What did happen? It’s difficult to say; both present-day fame and posthumous reputation are elusive, mercurial, and multifactorial. Some of the downturn in Kelley’s fortunes likely had to do with the changing political climate. “We always said, we made a revolution and we lost,” Aiki Kelley said, and she believes that her husband was one casualty of that defeat; as the momentum of the civil-rights movement ebbed, those with the power to make publishing decisions turned their attention elsewhere.

Still, Kelley was never a pat enough political writer to simply wash in and out with the ideological tides, and there were many other considerations, too. Chief among these was the strange chiasmus at the heart of his work: a black man writing about how white people think about black people. That perspective was smart and important—in effect, it transformed W. E. B. Du Bois’s double consciousness into a narrative device—but it radically diminished Kelley’s audience. Many white readers didn’t want a black writer telling them what they thought, especially when so much of it was withering, while many black readers, long starved for literary representation, didn’t want to read about more white characters. To make matters worse, very few people, white or black, wanted to subscribe to a vision of America that grew progressively more damning in the course of Kelley’s career. And, regardless of the topic of a book or the race of its author, almost no one wanted to contend with experimental prose.

Ultimately, though, Kelley may have suffered most from the relentless conveyor belt of life, which constantly carries new things into sight and propels older ones away. Time, too, is an arrow that all of us follow. Critics love the adjective “timeless,” but the truth is that most writers, even most exceptionally gifted ones, are of a time, even if not always of their own.

In 1962, when William Kelley met Langston Hughes, the two writers were at opposite ends of their careers. Hughes had dozens of books, plays, and poetry collections behind him, and only five years of life left ahead of him. But he loved championing up-and-coming writers of color, and he needed help packing away some material in his apartment for posterity. Kelley, meanwhile, admired Hughes, needed money, and agreed to do the job. The inscribed copy of “Ask Your Mama” was a kind of bonus pay, but, in those final months before “A Different Drummer” appeared, it must have also seemed like an affirmation. In its pages, Hughes, too, could be found imagining a counterfactual history:

dreaming that the negroes
of the south have taken over
voted all the dixiecrats
right out of power
comes the colored hour:
martin luther king is governor of georgia . . .

Six years later, King was dead, and Hughes, too, and although Kelley didn’t know it at the time, his copy of “Ask Your Mama” had gone missing. Each time he and his family left the country, they shed whatever possessions they didn’t need and stashed anything of value with family and friends. Those things of value included the gift from Hughes, but somewhere between 1963, when the Kelleys first left the country, and 1977, when they returned for good, it vanished from a relative’s apartment in Manhattan.

How it got from there to rural Maryland forty years later, and where else it went along the way, is anybody’s guess. The beauty of a true junk shop is that it is a kind of island in the stream of time. Things wash up there and are granted temporary clemency from the all-devouring future; people stop by there and mingle, like time travellers at a rest stop, with fragments of the past. Mostly, you can’t expect to leave with much of value. But every once in a while you find what I did in that Langston Hughes book, and in the man to whom it was given: in both senses, a real deal. ♦







Trevor Noah Speaks

With The Times About

Race and Identity

The New York Times Conferences

Published on Oct 16, 2017
Trevor Noah, comedian, writer and host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” speaks about race and identity in America with New York Times journalist John Eligon. This event was filmed live at Northwestern University and is supported by WeTransfer.







Jan 19, 2018



Obituary: Julius Lester


Facebook – Julius Lester.


Award-winning author, educator, activist, and musician Julius Lester, known for a body of work focused on African-American culture, history, and folklore, as well as for his fierce advocacy for books for black children by black creators, died on January 18 after a brief hospitalization. He was 78.

Lester was born January 27, 1939 in St. Louis, Mo., and grew up in Kansas City and then Nashville, where his family moved in 1954. In a 2002 article for School Library Journal, Lester noted that during his youth he was witness to racial segregation and discrimination and was well aware of the violence that they wrought. His father was a Methodist minister, and Lester has said that his father’s sermons and stories gave him a firm foundation in black traditions. He also cited the summers he spent in rural Arkansas on his grandmother’s farm as another source of stories and voices that helped cement his appreciation of his heritage and encouraged his development as a storyteller.

From an early age, Lester loved music and books, and discovered that reading provided him an escape from the reality around him. As he grew, he worked his way through many of the books in his father’s library, and, as he wrote in the SLJ piece, was greatly inspired by a biography of civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois. In that article, he described a defining moment in his life, when he had asked his father about their family’s history. His father replied, “Our family tree ends in a bill of sale. Lester is the name of the family that owned us.”

Lester stayed in Nashville to attend Fisk University and graduated in 1960 with a B.A. in English. Shortly after he finished college, Lester moved to New York City and in the mid-1960s became active in the civil rights movement and other activist causes, including the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which largely focused on fighting racism.

Some of his earliest professional work in New York was performing as a folksinger and teaching guitar lessons. His first published book, which came out of that experience, was an instructional manual co-authored with folk legend Pete Seeger, called The Twelve-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly (Oak, 1965). At the same time, he began to focus on other writing, publishing numerous magazine articles about his activism. Among his major efforts in those years was participation in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. His experiences during “Freedom Summer” were documented in a 2014 documentary, “The Folk Singer,” airing as part of the American Experience series on PBS. Lester also traveled to North Vietnam with SNCC to photograph and write about the damage caused by U.S. bombing missions there.

Back at home in New York, Lester hosted a radio talk show from 1966 –1973 called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and from 1969–1971 he also hosted a TV talk show, Free Time. As his reputation grew, Lester wrote his first book, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! (Dial, 1968), which he characterized as the “first book about the black power movement by someone inside the black power movement,” during an interview with Publishers Weekly.

It was the editor of Look Out, Whitey!, Joyce Johnson, who suggested that Lester try his hand at children’s books and offered to introduce him to the children’s editor at Dial, Phyllis Fogelman, then editor-in-chief of Dial Books for Young Readers. Once that door was opened, according to an interview with Something About the Author, Lester said he “told the children’s book editor about my idea of using the words from former slaves to tell the story of slavery.” That idea became To Be a Slave(Dial, 1969), which received a 1970 Newbery Honor and launched a longtime editorial relationship.

Many of Lester’s picture books were inspired by his passion for and expertise in folklore. He received wide critical acclaim for retellings described as accessible, entertaining, and respectful to African-American culture. He produced four volumes of Uncle Remus tales starring wily Brer Rabbit, and Sam and the Tigers: A New Retelling of Little Black Sambo, all published by Dial and illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney. Pinkney and Lester also collaborated on several other titles, including the tall tale John Henry (Dial, 1994; a 1995 Caldecott Honor Book) and Black Cowboy, Wild Horse (Dial, 1998), an introduction to real-life cowboy Bob Lemmons, who had been born into slavery.

Pinkney shared some remembrances of his friend and collaborator, reflecting on their relationship. “He had this way of moving from one chapter in his life to the next, and each chapter had its own unique power,” Pinkney said. “What existed for him was the work at hand. He was not distracted by looking back at all, and he was completely living in the present. That was a powerful thing that we can all learn from.”

When asked if any of their joint projects stood out to him, Pinkney said, “I think The Old African[Dial, 2004] was by far one of the most special books, and a project that couldn’t have happened with anybody other than the two of us.” He went on to describe the rhythm of their creative process. “There was a chemistry and a kinship there that was pretty powerful,” he said. “The energy drew, first of all, on the respect for each other, but also on a sort of tension that we both understood. He needed it himself, and I needed him to challenge me. For me, it was to figure out how to work with a wordsmith and such a gifted writer as Julius and bring something else to the table.”

Pinkney noted that he often saw texts before an editor and served as a sounding board for Lester in the early stages of a book, and that he eventually sent Lester his sketches for comment. “That takes a tremendous amount of respect,” Pinkney said. “Most of our work was created on having the same passions and concerns but looking at those passions and concerns through a different lens,” he continued. “Part of it was that he was from the south and I was from the north, so we looked at, especially African-American history and culture, through different lenses. And both views added something, so the mix, the stew, was richer for it.”

A versatile and prolific writer, Lester also wrote several young adult novels and books for adults, which later in his career often focused on his religious beliefs as a convert to Judaism. In all, he has more than 40 published titles to his credit. And, outside of his books, Lester contributed reviews, articles, and essays to a variety of publications, including The New York Times, the Nation, the New Republic and the Village Voice.

As an educator, Lester was a lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York from 1968–70, before joining the faculty of the University of Massachusetts in 1971 and holding several positions, including professor of Afro-American Studies and professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies before his retirement in 2003.

Recalling one of the things he’ll miss most about Lester, Pinkney said, “Julius was a very direct person and spoke his mind. But what I loved about our relationship, with that in mind, was that I could always make him laugh—and he had a great laugh.”













Hugh Masekela,

South African

Jazz Master And



Dies At 78


South African musician Hugh Masekela, performs in New Delhi in 2004.
Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images



Hugh Masekela, the legendary South African jazz musician who scored an unlikely No. 1 hit on the Billboard chart with his song “Grazing in the Grass” and who collaborated with artists ranging from Harry Belafonte to Paul Simon, has died at 78 after a protracted battle with prostate cancer, his family announced Tuesday.

“[Our] hearts beat with profound loss,” the Masekela family said in a statement. “Hugh’s global and activist contribution to and participation in the areas of music, theatre, and the arts in general is contained in the minds and memory of millions across 6 continents.”

Over his career, Masekela collaborated with an astonishing array of musicians, including Harry Belafonte, Herb Alpert, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Paul Simon — and his ex-wife, Miriam Makeba. For almost 30 years, “Bra Hugh,” as he was fondly known, was exiled from his native country. And almost despite himself — as he struggled for decades with copious drug and alcohol abuse — Masekela became a leading international voice against apartheid.

The trumpeter, composer, flugelhorn player, bandleader, singer and political activist was born in the mining town of Witbank, South Africa, on April 4, 1939. Growing up, he lived largely with his grandmother, who ran a shebeen — an illicit bar for black and colored South Africans — in her house. (Until 1961, it was illegal for nonwhites in South Africa to consume alcohol.)

Masekela heard township bands and the music of the migrant laborers who would gather to dance and sing in the shebeen on weekends. One of his uncles shared 78s of jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller. Those two forces, the music and the booze, did much to shape Masekela’s life. He began drinking at age 13.

He was given his first trumpet at age 14 by an anti-apartheid crusader, the Rev. Trevor Huddleston, who was also the superintendent of a boarding school that Masekela attended.

“I was always in trouble with the authorities in school,” Masekela told NPR in 2004.

He had been inspired by the Kirk Douglas film Young Man with a Horn. Huddleston, hoping to steer him away from delinquency, asked what it was that would make Masekela happy. “I said, ‘Father, if you can get me a trumpet I won’t bother anybody anymore.’ “

Masekela soon became part of the Huddleston Jazz Band. And the priest managed to get one of the world’s most famous musicians to send young Hugh a new instrument, as Masekela told NPR in 2004.

“Three years later,” Masekela recalled, “[Huddleston] was deported and came through the United States on his way to England and met Louis Armstrong and told him about the band. And Louis Armstrong sent us a trumpet.”

By the mid-1950s, he had joined Alfred Herbert’s African Jazz Revue in Johannesburg; within just a few years, Masekela was good enough to co-found a landmark South African band, The Jazz Epistles, which also featured another landmark South African artist, the pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim. They recorded the first modern jazz record in South Africa featuring an all-black band.

Within months of The Jazz Epistles’ creation, South African police opened fire on thousands of protesters and 69 people were killed in the infamous Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. The apartheid government declared a state of emergency, and The Jazz Epistles couldn’t play together. Meanwhile, Masekela had learned that he was being targeted for his anti-apartheid activities, and he had made friends with a talented singer named Miriam Makeba, who had already fled the country for New York.

Masekela, now 21 years old, was scrambling to secure a passport and papers to study music abroad. And his friendship with Makeba proved crucial, as he told NPR’s Tell Me More in 2013. She and the singer and activist Harry Belafonte became his patrons and mentors.

Masekela had originally planned to head to England to study at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. But once he was there, Makeba encouraged him to head to New York.

“We’d always dreamt of coming to the States, but she came a year earlier and blew the States away,” he told NPR.

“So she said, ‘Hey, you got to come, forget about London, this is the place to be.’ And she was on a first-name basis with everybody. Then she and Harry Belafonte gave me a scholarship to Manhattan School of Music. I also had to work part time in Harry Belafonte’s music publishing, because they ain’t going to give you no money,” Masekela said.

In short time, Masekela and Makeba became romantically involved; he also recorded with her and appeared on her album The Many Voices of Miriam Makeba. They married in 1964, despite the fact that their relationship was already tempestuous. Their marriage — one of four for Masekela — ended after barely two years.

At night, Masekela would go to the city’s great jazz clubs to catch the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Max Roach. He wanted to be a jazz player in the same bebop style as his heroes, and that’s what he sounded like. But several of those giants gave him some solid advice. One of them was Miles Davis, as Masekela told NPR’s Morning Edition in 2004.

“I have a lot of great musical encounters with Miles, and he said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. You’re trying to play like me,’ ” Masekela said. “Miles was a funny guy. He said, ‘Listen, I’m going to tell you something. You’re going to be artistic because there’s thousands of us playing jazz but nobody knows the s*** that you know, you know, and if you can put that s*** in your s***, then we’re going to be listening.’ “

Masekela decided to put Davis’ advice to work. He put that bleep in his bleep, and began to develop his own, distinctive style — a blend of jazz, soul and one of the South African dance styles he had grown up with: mbaqanga.

It took him a while to get the blend just right. His first solo album was 1963’s Trumpet Africaine. In his 2004 autobiography, inevitably called Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela, the artist called that project a “disaster” and an “unlistenable mixture of elevator and shopping mall music.”

By the end of the decade, however, Masekela had pulled it all together and was living in Los Angeles. In 1967, the year his song “Up, Up and Away” was released, he performed alongside Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, The Who and his friend Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival.

A year later, his single “Grazing in the Grass” became a No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts. It was an astounding success — and all the more so as a tossed-off track that the trumpeter recorded with his band as album filler in just half an hour.

In 1977, Masekela’s Soweto Blues, about the anti-apartheid Soweto uprising, was recorded by Makeba, and it reached an international audience. After the stupefying success of “Grazing in the Grass,” however, Masekela largely spent decades living in a haze of drugs, alcohol, bad financial decisions and a string of failed marriages and countless other relationships. He occasionally made music, but he was dumped by label after label; by his own reckoning, he hadn’t played sober since he was 16 years old.

In his autobiography, Masekela estimated that he wasted $50 million, all told. It wasn’t until 1997 that he reportedly got clean; he went on to found the Musicians and Artists Assistance Program of South Africa, to help fellow performers struggling with substance abuse.

He spent stints living in Liberia, Guinea, Ghana and Botswana, where he worked and recorded with a diverse array of African musicians, including leading the Ghanian band Hedzoleh Soundz. He also recorded the anti-apartheid anthem Bring Home Nelson Mandela in 1986.

In 1987, he appeared with Paul Simon on his Graceland album tour alongside South African musicians Ladysmith Black Mambazo and again in 2012 on the 25th anniversary of the Grammy Award-winning album’s release.

Masekela finally returned to South Africa in 1990, following Nelson Mandela’s release. In the meantime, some of his friends and family members were on the frontlines of the new South Africa; his sister Barbara, for example, became her country’s ambassador to the U.S. Upon his return, Bra Hugh was hailed as an elder statesman of South African music, and he subsequently recorded a string of international albums.

Masekela performed at the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup and tournament in Soweto’s Soccer City in 2010. That year, Masekela was also given the Order of Ikhamanga in gold, his home nation’s highest medal of honor.

He had been scheduled to tour the U.S. this spring with his former bandmate Abdullah Ibrahim. But last October, he announced that the cancer that he had been battling off and on for nearly a decade had returned.

Among those marking his death is South African President Jacob Zuma, who released a statement on Tuesday: “Mr Masekela was one of the pioneers of jazz music in South Africa whose talent was recognized and honored internationally over many years. He kept the torch of freedom alive globally fighting apartheid through his music and mobilizing international support for the struggle for liberation and raising awareness of the evils of apartheid. … It is an immeasurable loss to the music industry and to the country at large. His contribution to the struggle for liberation will never be forgotten.”








Up To $250 Up For Grabs

At The Africa Book Club

Short story competition

Are you an African writer? Do you have a story that is set in or about Africa? Africa Book Club is seeking submissions for the Africa Book Club Short Reads Competition. Entries from writers across the continent and the Diaspora are welcome. Stories from non-African nationals are also welcome provided the stories are contextually set in Africa. Short stories that have not appeared in another print or electronic publication will be considered. This competition is a platform for writers to showcase their work, experiment, and be discovered. The purpose of this competition is to promote African literature, increase knowledge of Africa through supporting creative writing.

The Africa Book Club Short Reads Competition accepts unpublished fiction and creative non-fiction submissions, not exceeding 3,500 words. As stated earlier, the setting and context are to be set primarily in Africa or written by African authors.

Winners will receive a cash prize, as follows: –

1st Prize – $250
2nd Prize – $150
3rd Prize – $100
Other accepted entries, which will be included in their annual anthology – $25 per entry
Additionally, the top 30 stories from all submissions received in the submission period (January 1 – June 30) will be considered for their annual short story anthology, to be published in the fall. The winning stories will also be featured on the Africa Book Club website under a special “Short Reads” section.


Submission Guidelines

  • Submissions will be received throughout the year and can be made at any time through our online submission page – Click Here to Submit Your Entry.
  • Entries must not exceed 3,500 words (suggested minimum length is 1,000 words).
  • Entries must be written in English.
  • There are no theme or style restrictions. We are interested in works of fiction and creative non-fiction. All genres will be considered. What we are looking for are good stories that our readers will enjoy.
  • Writers can enter as many stories as they like. However, each entry can only have one story.
  • Submitted stories must not have been published previously in any form. If you enter your story in another competition and you win, please notify us and withdraw your submission.








Rising Writer Contest

The Rising Writer Contest is for a first full-length book of poetry by an author 33 years old or younger. Autumn House believes in supporting the work of younger, less-established writers who will become the voices of an emerging generation.

The judge for the 2018 contest is poet Richard Siken

Guidelines for the 2018 AHP Rising Writer Contest:
  • Must be author’s first full-length collection (previous publications of chapbooks or self-published books are fine).
  • Authors must be 33 years old or younger in this calendar year
  • The winner will receive book publication, $500 advance against royalties, and a $500 travel/publicity grant to promote their book 
  • All finalists will be considered for publication
  • Poetry submissions should be approximately 50-70 pages
  • Contest results will be announced on our website
  • Please don’t include your name anywhere on the actual MS. Include your name and contact info in the “cover letter” section of Submittable as well as a brief bio. Feel free to include a TOC.
  • We only accept electronic submissions through our submission manager
  • $25 reading fee to enter









Afreada’s Valentine’s Day

Writing Contest

– Apply To Win £100!

Are you a writer who has what it takes to win £100 in a writing contest?!  Prove it this Valentine season. This year, Afreada is marking Valentine’s Day with a short story collection themed around Love. In this vein, writers are being challenged get their creative juices flowing and create a delicious tale of love worth the prize money.

You can pick whatever character you choose, set it in whatever era you prefer, your character can be blind or in love with someone from the future and so on. You can do almost anything you like with your characters but the story must be set on valentine’s day.

Winners will be announced on Valentine’s day of course and the shortlisted stories will feature in a free eBook that will be available for download on Valentine’s day.


Submission Guidelines

•All entries must be emailed to as Microsoft Word attachments.
•Subject line should include – “AFREADA Valentine’s Day Competition – Your Full Name”.
•Entries must be no more than 1000 words.
•In the body of the email, include your contact details, country of origin, social media handles and a short bio of a maximum of 100 words max.
•Deadline: Wednesday, 31st January 2018. 23.59 GMT.
•Further inquiries should be sent to