Autumn in New York (and Paris)
“First of the Month is a journal of black intellect and anti-Islamist apologetics.” When the n+1 editor laid that line on First last month at a New School Conference on Little Magazines, I let it go though I’m wary of any attempts to nail down First’s content. Given the all-white surround at the Conference, “black intellect” seemed like a badge of honor.
There were more than a few folks at the Conference who seemed at-ease with the whiteness of the whale. T. Jackson Lears, editor of Raritan, insisted race talk in America always kept it irreal, deflecting attention toward superficial problems of “discrimination” and away from foundational, class-based “exploitation.” You can hear a back and forth on race/class between Lears and this editor near the top of a video of the Conference panel on “Left Politics and the Little Magazine.” Lears is, by his own account, ignorant of recent scholarship on race popularized by Ta-Nehisi Coates (whom Lears seems to regard as a sort of hustler out to cultivate “white guilt”). I’m referring, in particular, to Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: How the Struggle Over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America, which gets to the root of Chicago’s slums and the ruin of urban neighborhoods throughout the country. Satter explains that devastation was/is due not to “white flight” or a black “culture of poverty” but to a widespread system of legal and financial exploitation. Pace Lears whose failure to pick up on Satter’s book (which Coates has celebrated and has rightly been called “the most important work yet written on the black freedom struggle in the urban north”) hints at a certain aversion to surprises. Satter, who has been a colleague of Lears at Rutgers, was once his student, as he allowed in a colloquy between panels.
Of course we all miss too much. One of the most acute respondents at the New School gathering was novelist Russell Banks whom I’d never read. I’m sorry I didn’t get to his novel Continental Drift back in the 80s. This book remains a perfect answer to tight thinkers who assume anyone out to comprehend America must choose between race and class analysis. Continental Drift focuses on dual protagonists, Bob Dubois, a white working class New Englander who cons himself into chasing plenitude in Florida and Vanise Dorinsville, a young Haitian mother who seeks refuge from poverty in Haiti by fleeing to America. Banks is true to the “bright particularity” of these characters even as he dares to try on a condition-of-America novel.
When I finally got around to reading Continental Drift last month, I realized I would’ve been tempted to rip off Banks’ “envoi” when I wrote my first Call on behalf of First. But it’s never too late to steal from the good so…
Banks sets up his last words by conceding that reading about characters like Bob Dubois or Vanise Dorinsville won’t “set people like them free.” It “changes nothing in the world,” yet he still insists attentiveness to facts of their imagined lives (or death) isn’t frivolous:
Good cheer and mournfulness over lives other than our own, even wholly invented lives—no, especially wholly invented lives—deprive the world as it is of some of the greed it needs to continue to be itself. Sabotage and subversion, then, are this book’s objectives. Go, my book, and help destroy the world as it is.
Most First writers would put their queer shoulders to that wheel. Though, as I bet Banks would allow, any authorial impulse to “destroy the world” has a slightly different valence in a post-9/11 era than it did in the 80s. I’ll admit I don’t feel all good about the “radical” in First‘s tagline now that it’s a term widely associated with Islamism. OTOH, Thanks God (as my Muslim wife would say) First never had to face up to the wages of impact-mongering that confronted some mags. Per First’s anti-Islamist-in-Chief, Charles O’Brien: “To me, the classic case is still the cover of Bomb magazine, post-9/11. It showed a nun walking down the street near Ground Zero. Okay, nice picture. Why was the magazine called Bomb then?” O’Brien’s musing was sparked by n+1’s recent issue featuring posts responding to the terror attacks in Paris: “At n+1,” he noted, “the hands are clean, and the clothes are immaculate. If only I could get a visa to that world.” He went on:
I have a hazy memory of a scene in “Doktor Faustus.” One character, a numismatist, is on a bus when someone is shot dead. The numismatist then announces to everybody else that nothing within his area of expertise will be of any help in the present situation. And this, naturally, brings us to George Costanza. There is a whale in distress. People start calling out, “Is there a marine biologist in the house?” And George, to match his current lie, must step up. The joke here is, of course, the extreme unlikelihood that anyone, ever, would cry out for a marine biologist. But what desperate pass could one imagine where none but an n+1 contributor would be the savior? Look again at the picture that goes with the n+1 announcement, somebody reading n+1 by the East River.
Savor it, too. And understand the one caption that would never suit it:
“The sea was angry that day, my friends.”
O’Brien may not be fully aware n+1 is upfront about its Georgey side—they’re more than ok with being needlers not saviors. That editor who zeroed in on First defined n+1’s intimate relations with the leisure class at the Conference: “I do think of n+1 as a kind of elitist magazine in the following sense, in that the goal is to poke the top—the people who understand themselves to be possessors of superior knowledge. And to mess with them. And to figure out what it is that gets you access.”
I think they’ve got that covered.
First’s a prioris seem more…democratic. My comrades and I have never been satisfied to reach elites. We’ve always wanted to speak to everyday people (without dumbing down). I’ll allow this editor is glad First has received plenty of nods from well-known cultural figures. When I need a quick way of saying what makes First different, one (cheap but human) solution has been to note our mag might be the only one hailed by Robert Silvers and Sonny Rollins. Praise that matters more, though, comes from readers without reps such as the young Midwesterner who explained in an email how he’d found First when searching for writing by our former contributor Armond White. He was taken with O’Brien’s essays and then moved on to try other First writers: “I like to skim your articles to find a topic that looks interesting, or just pick a random one and educate myself on something unknown.” When I asked him for more feedback on recent posts (and where that feedback was coming from) he cited O’Brien’s piece on the Charlie Hebdo murders and articles sparked by American Sniper, Mr. Turner and Selma, before getting personal:
I actually live in the middle of nowhere in Ohio (about an hour from Cincinnati). That should show you, though, how far your positive message can get out with the internet! The idea of people who normally would be apathetic about political stuff (being fed so much of suspect quality from the usual sources) accidentally finding your website is pretty exciting…What you do can change people’s lives, man!
That was the idea back in 1998 when First got started. Though we should probably dial it back a bit (per Russell Banks’ envoi). But—what the hey—First isn’t in this to poke some rich folks. We’ll keep trying to change the game. B.D.
Post-Publication Addendum: Jackson Lears has objected to having been “singled out for derision” in the opening graph above. I think he’s right it was unfair of me to make him over into a stand-in for the New School Conference’s insularity. I apologize for doing that. Lears wants First readers to know he believes: “Black Lives Matter is a timely, important, and altogether necessary challenge to race based murder by a militarized police (which threatens all of us.)” Glad to hear that. (Surprised too given what he said about contemporary “race talk” at the Conference.) At the risk of seeming to quibble, let me note Lears’ forthright statement seems shaped by an impulse to keep the Black Lives Matters folks within bounds. He could be more responsive to the ways those protesters have expanded their critique of white supremacy beyond clarity about dangers from “militarized police (which threatens all of us.)” On this score, I should cop (again) to my frustration at Lears’ failure to pick up on a major movement of mind—encompassing but not limited to scholarly work—made by a younger generation of Americans in recent years. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ contributions have been key here and Lears’ claim Coates is “ill-informed” still seems indefensible. Coates has surely steered me to revelatory material—Family Properties in particular—Lears has yet to get around to checking out. We’re all busy of course, but I’m guessing Lears’ backlog here isn’t entirely unrelated to a certain intellectual bias that moved him to make his blanket statement at the Conference: “Talking about race doesn’t have to be a way of not talking about class but it is.”
Final thought: After Lears and I had disagreed about the state of race talk in America at the Conference, moderator James Miller jumped in to redirect the conversation. He referred at that point to First‘s “narrow” focus. I did not let that characterization slide (though I don’t think Miller meant to disrespect First). First‘s will to connect with black readers isn’t a sign of narrowness. It’s an American imperative.
First’s Second Act
My comrades and I are thinking through how to expand First‘s presence online (and on the real side). That democratic imperative shapes the revised website you’re accessing now. Since content precedes platform in First‘s world, the process of prepping for our second act impelled me to write up a short statement on the future of our humanism. You will find previous communiques about First’s mission and history beneath this one. B.D.
Scott Fitzgerald claimed there are no second acts in America. The late poet—and former First contributor— Philip Levine quoted that line in his poem “The Two” as he pretended to fail at evoking a working class couple’s morning after a night shift. To get the joke it helps to know Levine’s verse had long given the lie to the notion such moments were unpoetic. Levine’s comic/epic failure to write up the quotidian second act of “The Two’s” couple was his way of saying F Scott Fitzgerald for not knowing anyone…
“…like them unless he stayed late at the office/to test his famous one liner, ‘We keep you clean Muscatine,’ /on the woman emptying/his waste basket.”
Levine’s people will play a large role in First’s second act. And not just when we’re tracking ups and downs in the labor movement. Class consciousness shapes the stance of our poets and essayists who refuse to divorce everyday struggles for happiness from “The Intellectual Situation.” To cite a fetish of the wannabe-NYRB journal N+1 whose take on Mind in America binds it (like “The Two’s” rep of smart sets) to branders who make ads our culture’s dominant art form. At First, contraN+1, it’s about potencies in common things not precious ironies of those who’ve got it too easy at home. The Russian novelist who once lamented literature’s move (in the 20th C.) from “the bakery to the jeweler’s shop” was cooking with gas.
A French savant’s antimony helps clarify First’s work—the job is to jump from humanism of comprehension to humanism in extension. Such uses of literacy have always been in the American grain. Per Hannah Arendt, who noted The Declaration of Independence “intends us to hear the phrase pursuit of happiness in its twofold meaning—private welfare as well as the right to public happiness, the pursuit of well-being as well as being a participator in public affairs.” Arendt noted American revolutionaries betrayed more feeling for pleasures of active citizenship than their French counterparts:
The Americans spoke of “public happiness,” where the French spoke of “public freedom,”…the point is that the Americans knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else.
That’s one reason why politics come first in First. Things will change—and America’s public life is likely to be less sparky—when hacks get back in the White House. But our first black president is still inspiring profound movements of mind. (Thus confirming projections made by the late historian—and First mentor—Lawrence Goodwyn: “America is just discovering itself…[P]eople took the election of Obama—was it a Republican stalwart who said it mockingly?: ‘Well, they’ll call it a post-racial society now.’ —…and thought maybe we’d made a huge step forward. Well, we did make a step forward, but we made a step sideways and a step backward and a step inward most of all.”)
Pluralism (& Red Lines)
First‘s next steps during these tender years will reflect our unforced ease with American diversity. We’ve always published more people of color than other journals of leftish protest. “Difference,” though, isn’t all that makes First different. When Greil Marcus, responding to our last annual volume, affirms: “I love the complete absence of a line. There would never be such a variety of voices in Dissent, New Republic, even American Prospect…” he’s endorsing a principle that’s been foundational for First. Though his phrase “complete absence” misses something about First‘s plenitudes. Back when I was still searching for logic to justify an inchoate sense First‘s writers’ collective must let argument breathe, Larry Goodwyn got a little closer to the nitty-gritty. In a short speech addressed to political organizers (not yours truly), he asked the question First is always aiming to answer: “Is there a graceful and constructive device by which we can come together and, in ways that enhance all parties, disagree?” First‘s method doesn’t leave you in a void, it provides (as a reviewer has noted): “perspective by incongruity.”
Of course you can’t open your mind to every conceivable point of view. There are limits to First‘s variousness. The case for capitalism with the brakes off won’t be made in our pages. Don’t expect us to roll with totalitarians. Putin-envy is forbidden. And when it comes to red lines in the time of ISIS, let me underscore First‘s tradition of taking down anti-anti-Islamism. I’m reminded just now—due in part to the publication of a posthumous collection of essays by Ellen Willis (The Essential Ellen Willis)—that Ellen made a point of asking me in the last year of her life to reprint her essay decrying the West’s weak response to Khomeini’s call for the execution of Salman Rushdie—”The Iranian head of state has declared war—quite literally—on Western secular, democratic institutions.” That piece (which didn’t make it into The Essential Ellen Willis) belonged in First, according to Ellen, because it “echoes themes” in essays we printed by (among others) Fredric Smoler and Charles O’Brien. This year, Smoler and O’Brien have once again spoken truth to educated fools on the left who trashed Charlie Hebdo. O’Brien zeroed in on Jacobin’s first response (by a Richard Seymour) to terror in Paris:
Here’s the opening sentence: “Many journalists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo have been murdered by bampots brandishing what appear to be machine guns at close range.”…That ‘at close range’ is intriguing. The point, you’d guess, is that these people were shot at close range, an evocative detail. If only he’d said that. Instead the operative verb is—what? Murdered? Too distant, and murdered at ‘close range’ is hardly idiomatic English.
Brandishing? If someone holds a gun a couple of inches—‘at close range’—from someone else, it’s a significant detail—until the trigger is pulled, at which point the ‘brandishing’ loses its significance. Do we even know that these weapons were brandished at ‘close range.’ The trouble in Paris was not that somebody displayed a weapon. Somebody used it. Appear? They are machine guns, and Richard Seymour, for one, has not seen them ‘at close range’…
Here’s the rest of the first paragraph: “It is too soon to have a complete, coherent political narrative of these killings. All one can have at this point are the correct but platitudinous points about there being no justification for this, that all attacks on journalists are abhorrent, that freedom of speech must be defended to the last drop of blood, and so on. If you really need that sermon, you’re in the wrong place.”
After 9/11, Noam Chomsky published a comment. He opened with a throat-clearing acknowledgement of the event, perfunctory to the point of comedy, before making clear that at Chomsky Inc, it’s business as usual. Some people claimed that Chomsky was—go figure!—wanting in sympathy, in fact, a little cold. Compared to Richard Seymour, though, Chomsky is Johnnie Ray.
Ellen Willis would’ve relished that dis.
Public wit, pop life and women’s rights are the sweetest antitheses to Islamists (and their fellow travelers). But Why-The-West-Is-Best boosterism won’t do (as Ellen W. knew). First will never conflate dollar-driven globalism with humanism.
Sometimes it seems all post-millennial culture is at the mercy of money-men. The art world, for example, is now proving Piketty’s thesis about this century’s mad rates of return on capital investment. Last year, according to the Times, “auction sales of postwar and contemporary art climbed to a historic peak of 4.9 billion euros, or $6.8 billion, a massive increase over the €1.42 billion in 2009.”
“This is well beyond the norms of inflation,” said [London Dealer] Ivor Braka. “The art market has become an excuse for banking in public. People are displaying wealth in the most ostentatious way possible. It’s luxury goods shopping gone wild.”
Maybe that explains the gigantic plastic douche bag in the window of a Chelsea gallery—along with a sofa-sized can ‘o spill. The rich are different. They can invest in what their cleaning women would throw out. But their cultural enablers are part of the problem, too: “I maintain that the art world reads only trash,” says one critic (in an interview published in First). “They read Eurotrash theoretical literature hastily and probably sloppily translated, middlebrow fiction, and probably no poetry and no serious philosophy, either. There are few exceptions to this loss of general culture and its concomitant, easy brassbound sense of history.”
Hierarchy hangs tough, though, even in the absence of connoisseurship. Take a glance at ArtRank.com, which rates “emerging artists using qualitatively-weighted metrics including web presence (verified social media counts, inbound links), studio capacity and output, market maker contracts and acquisitions, major collector and museum support, gallery representation and auction results.” Bless young artist Lex Brown for protesting ArtRank’s “gross, viral algorithm”:
not a “oh I’m so surprised this toxic thing exists” wtf
but a “we might have to barf forever” wtf
I feel like everything is starting to collapse. And I can’t believe only 4 out of 40 people on this dumb list are women.
OOOOOOHHHHMYGODDDDD YOU GUYS. THE WORLD. Culture is such a complete joke. We’re starting to run out of it because we’re using it up so fast. Remember when people had to paint because they couldn’t take photographs or watch Netflix??
Thrift Shop Culture
I began reading Ms. Brown’s blog around the time I started listening to alt-rapper Macklemore’s The Heist. His massive hit “Thrift Shop” seemed to soundtrack one of Brown’s posts on her history of hunting for clothes that made her “features pop.” (More anon.) Macklemore’s skepticism of (what he terms on his own blog) “retail-fueled desire” runs high. His song “Wing$,” by his own account, “dissects…the pursuit of identity through consumerism…” (There’s a reason he used to call himself Professor Macklemore!) But this track recalling the lift he got from Air Jordans when he was kid is saved from no logo shtick by lineaments of frozen desire: “The air bubble, that mesh/The box, the smell, the stuffing, the tread.” Those details define what’s in the way of this post-mod Pilgrim’s progress: “Will I stand for change/or stay in a box/These Nikes define me/But I’m trying to take em/Off –”
Change your clothes/life is Ms. Brown’s credo too in her post on clothes shopping:
People of America: your pattern-smashing clothes are doing TOO MUCH. The florals, the generic tribal prints, the neon, the ombre, the geometric business…the stripes, the crosses, the skulls, the studs, the wtf-are-pearls-and-lace-shorts… all these terrible things! All these terrible things on one person! All these terrible things in one closet: mine!
Her social crit sticks since she comes on like an intimate of the New Age still in touch with American verities (“better than nobody, nobody better”). Her analysis of commodity relations in a globalized city where (as she puts it) “a towering, multi-million dollar billboard of [Beyonce] in Times Square…advertise[s] an H&M swimsuit that costs $4.98” is more telling than her teacherly peer Macklemore’s:
Trends of today are so eye-demanding, and many of them so thoughtlessly designed, that it is impossible to ignore not only the cheapness, but the underlying poverty: poverty in how these clothes are made, who they are made by, the ideas that produce them, and the society that consumes them.
Brown has something to teach her brother shopper about his desire for what’s “fucking awesome”:
I feel like it’s both popular and increasingly the norm for all genders to be really LOUD. Whereas I have previously associated low-priced loudness and flair with people of urban communities (I don’t mean that in a side-steppy way of saying black, I actually mean urban communities) now we’re seeing a kind of loudness that might warrant a repurposing of the phrase ghetto fabulous. And the ghetto is young America.
The fabulousness of ghetto fab trades on boldness of personality as well. And that’s where most of the people wearing these clothes fall short in the comparison. I’m not suggesting that quiet mousy types be stopped from wearing sheer, weed-leaf turtlenecks, I’m just saying that the rampant boldness is dislocated, many times, from any sort of personal identification. And isn’t that what style is about?
Ms. Brown is now a contributor to First. (She may become a vector of communication with mindful rappers like Macklemore or Kendrick Lamar—today’s equivalents of those “poetic hustlers on the graveyard shift” invoked in “1st of tha Month,” Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s hip hop track that gave First its hook back in the day.) Ms. B. is one of the young humanists in our camp who ensure First‘s second act won’t suffer from a failure of verve.
Another one of First‘s young hopes, David Golding, lives in Chile now. Lex Brown would recognize the neo-liberal landscape there which takes in (per Golding) “a truly astonishing cornucopia of shit: ‘the global wrap, the global muffin, the global high-rise, the global Irish Pub, global sushi, global malls, global brands, global coffee shops and global ATM.'” Golding knows this territory but he’s more at home with poets in Santiago’s best bookstore. Golding has mapped Chile’s creative margins for First. He’s down with those who resist beamish globalism and refuse to absolve Pinochet’s apologists. In solidarity with his favorite writers, he’s journeyed into the Chilean night, imagining their subjects from within.
Travels with Golding make a better case for Humanities Now than the Russian trip recalled by David Brooks in a well-regarded Times paean to “the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing.” Brooks’ “Love Story” tries to get romantic about the Humanities by invoking the “numinous magic of the night” in 1945 when a young Isaiah Berlin (back in Leningrad for a visit after his family had emigrated from Russia to England) met, talked all night, and fell in love with Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. She shared the passion of the bookish Brit whom she’d dub “the visitor from the future.” The conversation between Berlin and the poet (who’d been crucified by the Soviets and would suffer more as a result of her link to the “spy” Berlin) stands for Brooks as a model of “communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.”
Brooks’ nod to that “storehouse” may be appealing, but this Romney voter’s contempt for “data” has a reactionary tinge given G.O.P. Know-Nothingism. His faith in the hero of his love story also seems unfounded. Berlin’s private meanness makes him a dicey choice for exemplary humanist. (See Isaac and Isaiah, which details lowdown behavior by Isaiah Berlin toward Marxist scholar Isaac Deutscher.) And then, along with those secrets and lies, there’s Berlin’s record of benign neglect toward social movements in the West. (That other exile Kolakowski’s nice definition of democracy—”the obstinate will to do better”—was lost on Berlin.) David Brooks’ ideal of a public intellectual isn’t ours. First is here to stretch liberal imaginations, not roll with whatever is is right quietism (or racist revanchism).
Promesse de Bonne Heure
Brooks’ presentation of his “beau ideal” of humanist bonding flashed me back to a scene in (First contributor) Aram Saroyan’s “autobiographical novel” of the ’60s, The Street. It takes place when Saroyan’s hero meets a mentoring LeRoi Jones at a bookstore before a reading:
I saw Jones approaching me from the corner of the store, wondering if it was me he was actually approaching. Then he was standing beside me and he put a book forward, opened, which I took and began to read.
“Isn’t that beautiful, man.” he said to me, but in a voice that seemed completely different than the one I knew him from up to then. There was nothing in it but naked feeling.
I read a paragraph or so and then handed it back to him, saying wow, it sure is, and meaning more than I could quite fathom. The book was The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe.
Naked Baraka or lovesome Berlin? I know who I’d take. And not just because the late artist/activist did so much for First. (See our tribute to him here.) Fact is, Baraka’s humanism was bigger than Berlin’s. Baraka may have taken private joy in artful sorrows, but “the self”—even when paired up—wasn’t the apple core for him. Stomping urban blues required more social forms of soulful communion. Then, as now, to quote Mr. B.’s line in a dashed off letter: “…there’s still that basically human act, the drunken party.” Dig his account of this memorable one in another bit of correspondence:
…a wild extraordinary concert last week, with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Wilber Ware. It was really beautiful. No Shit. Cherry played a long slow gorgeous You Don’t Know What Love Is that floored everyone. He has gotten to be too much. Higgins, is about the finest yng drummer on the scene. And you know Wilbur, high as he was, he came on like big time gang busters. Thing went on in a big dirty loft, and we were carrying our own jugs, and the musicians just went as far out as they could, realizing the extreme empathy, &c. of the audience.
If that ‘60s bash sounds good but too far gone to you, don’t despair. The music Baraka dug for decades isn’t dead. When I mentioned to him last fall I wanted live music at a book party for First, he sent me to Charles Tolliver’s gigs. The young pianist in Tolliver’s band, Theo Hill, knocked me out. I told Baraka I was going to ask Hill if he’d play a song or two for us since there was a piano at our party venue. When I got up my nerve to approach Hill after a set, it turned out Baraka had already hooked us up. Hill was down for whatever since Baraka had put in a good word for First.
Hill added his touch of class to our party by playing a Billy Strayhorn medley. When he finished “Lush Life” I mentioned once hearing John Hicks play it, so Hill finished our night with Hicks’ “After the Morning.” That was a fave of Baraka’s and it was a kick telling him later about Hill’s grace notes. Baraka’s response was spot on: “That brother’s already amazing!” (Come to think of it now, his phrase echoed the title of his jubilant response to the election of Barack Obama: “We’re Already In The Future.”) It’s going to be a privilege listening to Hill grow into his talent over the next generation. He’s one of the visitors from the future who will inspire us to realize the promise of First‘s second act.
1 Pace Carmelita Estrellita.
2 I should note that my comrade O’Brien disagrees, insisting Obama is an echt hack.
3 Brooks’ favorite liberal kept Deutscher from getting a job at a British University and then lied hard about what he’d done. Berlin’s stab in the back may have been informed by a just assessment of his victim’s Trotskyist apologies for Soviet tyranny. But Isaac and Isaiah suggests Berlin’s animus was more about petty slights than political principle. (Deutscher had written a cutting review of Berlin’s first book.)
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:
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.) 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
Look out for the annual collection, First of the Year, published by Transaction.
If you like what you find on this site, buy that book! And, if you’re feeling angelic, please send a tax-deductible contribution to:
First of the Month
160 Claremont Avenue, #3E
New York NY 10027
Design: Robert Egert / Motikon