When First Was Born in Time
Let's start this trip with a springy walk in 1998 from the Village apartment of Ellen Willis and Stanley Aronowitz to Expedi Printers in the Meatpacking district. I was carrying Ellen and Stanley's check covering the balance of what our writers' collective owed Expedi for printing the first issue of our tabloid, First of the Month. (Thanks again, by the way, to Collier Hands and Eric Lott who'd come up with the other half of the loot earlier.) I floated west that evening lost in pleasures of closure since First of the Month was for real for real (as they used to say on my uptown block) and I now knew we'd pay all our dues.
But there were higher highs during the making of the first First. I'll never forget my first reads of pieces that defined First's singularity. There was Charlie Keil's case for musicing as participatory democracy; a manifesto that had our whole hood drumming and dancing as we tried (and failed, though that's another story) to beat gentrification. There was Charlie O'Brien's marvelous takedown of George Steiner – a feat of street-legal impudence so far gone from snark that it mapped the distance between intellectual freedom and fashion. There was Hans Koning's amazingly un-tired treatment of a May-December romance that brought home why he was a writer's writer (even if he didn't believe in art for art's sake).
And it wasn't just their words that lifted me. Our original designer/layout man, Robert Egert, had an eye and I was blissed out when he made our tabloid as pretty as Koning's prose.
Its artful look helped reassure my comrades when we all came to pick up bundles of our tabloid from Expedi. But the buzz faded fast since there was a heavy problem. We'd had thousands of copies printed without thinking twice about how to distribute them.
Our solution wasn’t too tough and drudgery of distribution might have worn us down. (Especially me since most of the schlepping was on yours truly.) But on the eve of the first day we dropped bundles of freebies at locations in Harlem and on the Upper West Side, an Aussie journalist visiting NYC contacted us. She'd picked up a First in a bookstore, dug it, and wondered who/what/where etc. It was a hoot knowing our newspaper had already reached Down Under. A couple days later, we got another boost. This one came from Kurt Vonnegut who'd been wowed by O'Brien's piece. He sent $100 and punch-lines worth more than gold: "I was thoroughly demoralized by awareness that brilliant pro-bono writing was going on all over the fucking country. Now Claremont Avenue, for Christ's sake, checks in."
Down the line, I knew better than to try to pay Vonnegut when he'd grace us with short pieces and poems for First of the Month. (After Vonnegut died, his daughter's boyfriend recalled how he once offended Dad by trying to pick up a dinner check. "Son, I'm from the Midwest!" said a pissed-off Vonnegut.) But every now and again I'd mail our benefactor a classic jazz CD. Vonnegut played saxophone himself and he loved, in particular, jazz masters who transformed the sax from a circus instrument to a medium for Oneness and All. The last CD I sent him was Ben Webster: King of the Tenors. Vonnegut replied in a tone of wonder.
The thought of his awe then reminds me First's origins probably lie in a series of talks on Black Atlantic music – “Start Making Sense” – I helped organize (with Eric Lott) back in the mid-80s. Amiri Baraka was one of the speakers along with Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray and Robert Farris Thompson (who would become a First contributor along with Baraka). Back in that day the prospect of getting Baraka and Crouch to participate in a common project was dicey since they were at odds personally. But it all worked out and the experience amped up my faith democrats must let argument breathe. Thanks chiefly to my contrarian comrades in our writer's collective, that faith has suffused every version of First. (It's underscored in the Mission Statement below, which dates back a few years.)
I hope it doesn’t seem too indulgent to ask readers (mildly) interested in First to jump all the way back to the '80s. But it's not just the memory of Vonnegut's bow to Ben Webster that’s got me reminiscing in tempo. My jam in that moment when I first took a shot at cultivating good sense about black musics of two worlds (pace John Storm Roberts) was an R&B track called "Night Shift." 20 years or so after it was a hit in the mid-'80s, director Claire Denis used this beautiful song to soundtrack the last sequence in one of modern cinema’s most closely imagined scenes. That scene is on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7j9iSbz0qc
First shall be First as long as we stay attuned to sweet sounds coming down on the night shift. B.D.
Mission Statement [ca. 2007]
We took our name from a rap song by Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony about welfare paydays that spoke to people in the struggle for happiness all over the world. BT&H's song was politically unconscious but this piece of ghetto music gave body to a souldeep sense of solidarity. It resisted Denial. By echoing it we signaled our refusal to separate race from class analysis while affirming our responsiveness to "black and going on" emotions. We've further sharpened our conceptions of solidarity and duty in the post-9/11 era. Take this as one of our new First principles: The underdog is owed sympathy; the mad dog is owed a bullet.
The core of our crew first came to know each other when we were writing for an Afro-American paper based in Brooklyn, The City Sun. Our work there often challenged content-providers in the mainline press who promoted (what Entertainment Weekly once described as) "the kind of book or movie or band the smart kids liked in high school." Smart became the praise word of choice among those who provided consumer guidance to pop lifers in the '90s. Back in that day, we hadn't settled on a value word to sum up our resistance to the hegemania of those-who-would-be-knowing. But, even then, we sensed that a '60s word, soul, implied a more democratic politics of culture. When The City Sun folded in the mid-90s, we set out to create our own alternative to publications that represent (what W.E.B. Dubois once called) "the dusty desert of dollars and smartness."
We conceived our tabloid in opposition to the flagship papers of smart sets in bohemia - The Village Voice – and academia – The New York Review. Aiming for (Brecht's) "sports audience," we meant to reach beyond a humanism of comprehension toward a humanism in extension. Upon publication of our first issue in 1998, our tabloid was quickly recognized (by a Time Out columnist) as "the only leftist publication [one] could imagine being read at both Columbia University and Rikers." We've always wanted our readers to stay free from jailers and advertisers. We proudly published case statements by radical democratic educators like Bob Moses ("End Sharecropper Education!"), Charles Keil ("Dance Early. Dance Daily. Dance Now."), Kate Millett ("It's not healthy for a society to equate learning with poverty or treat the bulk of its younger intellectuals as suckers.") and Richard Hoggart ("The point of adult education is to get across without selling out.").
Early on, though, intelligent critics conflated our impulse to get to the base of this society - and its creative margins – with slumming. (Meanwhile, gangsta-centric frat boys responsible for the exploitative hip hop magazine XXL tried to steal our thunder by naming their letters page "The Real First of the Month.") It's certainly true that we report on local efforts to resist gentrification and buy out of all-consuming racial spectacles of "moving on up." But we've never had a problem with argufying that asks a certain height of readers. Our aim is to elegantly serve everyday people uptown and wherever streets are watching.
Armond White's contributions are key here. His film and music criticism exposes the superficiality of the "executive summary" approach to African American culture. But his blazing commentary isn't limited to race matters. His writing offers alternatives to "alternative" press popcrit on almost every cultural front. He helps define First's democratic double-consciousness.
Our tabloid and our site aim always for immediacy but we're not afraid of the word "better" and we make literary (and other) judgments. While there will always be First pieces that are easily accessible, we assume everyday people can be the sort on whom nothing is lost. We want to bring literature back to life. And that's one reason why so many world-class writers have joined our party of hope. (See their testimonies here.)
But First is more than a literary launching pad. We're here to change the culture. We mean to sublate the Liberal Arts ideal of "the self" (which Amiri Baraka once nailed - "no selves, except alone...no Us, no intimate whispering, no dancing, no communities of intelligence"). First's community of intelligence will get you open. We're not about purified identities, sectarianism or consensual wisdom. We believe in letting argument breathe. First provides one answer to a question posed by (one of our most important mentors and contributors) Lawrence Goodwyn: "Is there a graceful and constructive device by which we can come together and, in ways that enhance all parties, disagree?"
The open nature of our discourse has enabled us to enhance the national conversation in the wake of 9/11. As longtime New Yorkers, First's editors were fully alive to experiences of love and death in that moment. We cultivated a range of response to the attacks radically different from those who assumed "anti-Americanism is a necessity." While we're wary of seeming to Hiroshima Mon Amour after significance by associating our newspaper with a world historical event, the uniqueness of our politics of culture has been underscored since 9/11. No other American publication would have printed as we did (in the same issue) Iraqi humanist Kanan Makiya's now famous case for the invasion of Iraq and a detailed critique of Paul Wolfowitz's reactionary diplomatic record in Asia. Most readers welcome such variousness, but certain academic leftists find it threatening. They've been provoked, in particular, by Charles O'Brien's ongoing critique of (what he's memorably termed) America's "Vichy Left." Meanwhile, whatever-is-is-Rightists wonder at our readiness to roll with Amiri Baraka whose voice will remain crucial to our mix as long he's willing to wail!
First keeps the faith uptown and all around the world. We're committed to cultivating the power of the powerless. ("History should not turn out to be the story of a-list adrenalin" as George Trow argued in his prophetic First meditation on Dan Rather http://www.firstofthemonth.org/archives/1999/02/is_dan_mad.html.) Lately, though, we haven't felt much in common with what now passes for an American left. As Charles O'Brien has noted: "Immediately after September 11, there was extraordinary communal feeling here, at least in New York City. A left that opts out, that prefers its sense of its own superiority to fraternity, is not a left."
That false "left" is, in O'Brien's words, "a bourgeoisie that views 'conscience' as a thing to accessorize with. Some people are prepared to offer blood, sweat and tears. That left offers only snot." First's crew is looking to nurture a New Left in America (not fantasizing about secession like the imagined left). We'll continue to call and respond to movements for economic and cultural equity wherever they're happening. And we still believe what we said (as per the Clash) in our original 1998 First call to writers and donors: The Future Is Unwritten.
Benj DeMott on behalf of First of the Month Writers Collective
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