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Archive for February, 2008

DEAR CHESTER, DEAR JOHN: Letters Between Chester Himes and John A. Williams

Friday, February 29th, 2008

African American Life Series

Dear Chester, Dear John

Letters Between Chester Himes and John A. Williams

Compiled and Edited by John A. Williams and Lori Williams
Published 2008
Price: $24.95 (Cloth)



Chester Himes and John A. Williams met in 1961, as Himes was on the cusp of transcontinental celebrity and Williams, sixteen years his junior, was just beginning his writing career. Both men would go on to receive international acclaim for their work, including Himes’s Harlem detective novels featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson and Williams’s major novels The Man Who Cried I Am, Captain Blackman, and Clifford’s Blues. Dear Chester, Dear John is a landmark collection of correspondence between these two friends, presenting nearly three decades worth of letters about their lives and loves, their professional and personal challenges, and their reflections on society in the United States and abroad.

Prepared by John A. Williams and his wife, Lori, this collection contains rare and personal glimpses into the lives of Williams and Himes between 1962 and 1987. As the writers find increasing professional success and recognition, they share candid assessments of each others’ work and also discuss the numerous pitfalls they faced as African American writers in the publishing world. The letters offer a window into Himes’s and Williams’s personalities, as the elder writer reveals his notoriously difficult and suspicious streak, and Williams betrays both immense affection and frustration in dealing with his old friend. Despite several rifts in their relationship, Williams’s concern for Himes’s failing health ensured that the two kept in touch until Himes’s death.

Dear Chester, Dear John is a heartfelt and informative collection that allows readers to step behind the scenes of a lifelong friendship between two important literary figures. Students and teachers of African American literature will enjoy this one-of-a-kind volume.

Published by Wayne State University Press


John A. Williams is the author of numerous books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His critically acclaimed novels include Sissie, The Man Who Cried I Am, and Captain Blackman. From 1979 to 1994, Williams was the Paul Robeson Professor of English at Rutgers University. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Lori.

Lori Williams is a graduate of Hunter College and was a production editor for many years in both magazine and book publishing. Following retirement, she became a freelance editor and proofreader.

Reading these letters, one is delighted to be in the company of two friends who truly like each other. One also feels the passionate excitement and richness of their intellect and creativity, their anger and joy. And by chance one learns a great deal about the publishing world. But most of all one learns what it is like in the 20th. century to be an African-American writer in America and Europe. The book is a treasure.
Clarence Major, Professor of English at the University of California–Davis and author of Dirty Bird Blues

Gentle and forgiving, John A. Williams endured trying as well as exhilarating moments in his long friendship with the tormented, often unpredictable Chester Himes. One rupture in their friendship, provoked by Himes, lasted several years. Both men, however, were prolific writers of lasting importance. They were also defiant observers, as proud black artists, of a publishing culture that often tried to thwart and mock their best efforts. Dramatically entertaining as well as educational, this book casts invaluable light on a crucial slice of American literary history in the twentieth century.
Arnold Rampersad, Sara Hart Kimball Professor in the Humanities and cognizant dean for the humanities at Stanford University


Thursday, February 28th, 2008


Al Young





O.O. Gabugah

Al Young: O.O., when you scan the headlines these days, what else jumps out at you?

O.O. Gabugah: Just the fact I’m reading anything at all instead of squinting at a screen — that in itself makes me nervous.

AY: Nervous? Is that because you think people are reading as much now as they used to when you were growing up in Harlem?

OO: Hard to say. I know the stereotypes. You and I hung out with — what was his name?

AY: Willie G.

OO: Oh, yes, Willie G. Once I warmed up to that brother, I got to like the dude. That’s right, we all hung out in them community colleges, where we had to study and write papers on all this social and political stuff.

AY: You remember that class we took about pop culture and advertising?

OO: Oh, yeah, hell yeah! Man, that was great class. I felt sorry for the woman was teaching it, though.

AY: You’re talking about Dr. Kellogg. How could you feel sorry for her. She was pretty sharp, plus she was fine, and she knew it, too.

OO: Would you say what you just said if she’d been a dude? Kellogg, she couldn’t let go of the subject. I mean, she believed so much in what she was teaching that she couldn’t let it float around in our brains enough to give her some feedback she might not like. I know that sounds odd, but you got to let stuff go out and be out there on its own.

AY: Riff on this for a minute if you would.

OO: Well, this is the main problem with 21st century communication. Ain’t no more co. It’s all one-way ‘munication. In Harlem, back in the 1940s, when I was a kid, people would sit across from one another, look directly at one another, and listen and say stuff. Then they’d think about it again and say some more stuff back. Nowdays you sit up and look at television, and all they doing is telling you what it is and how you suppose to feel about it and how it’s all gonna turn out. You really don’t get much say in the matter.

AY: So, in your opinion, what’s the scariest thing we’re facing now?

OO: We Americans, we black people, we human beings, or what?

AY: People all over the planet.

OO: The North Pole and the South Pole is melting, the tunafish people put the mercury warnings right there on the side of the can, and it’s all kindsa articles out on how if you keep a cell phone pressed up next to your head, you subject to brain damage.

AY: Do you really believe this?

OO: Al, c’mon, let’s get real. You know as well as I do that you got to be careful about plugging into everything they throw at us.

AY: You’re starting to sound like an old man, brother. Think about back when the telegraph and the railroad train and the camera were first introduced.

OO: No, you just get to the point where you wish people would start back to believing in something bigger than them.

AY: Was there ever such a time? If there was, then, tell me, when was it?

OO: You ever think about all the people that came before us, how so many of ’em decicated they lives and laid down they lives for something they believed in? Yeah, we know about the people that got written up in books: Crispus Attucks, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Sojourner Truth, Bessie Coleman, Jack Johnson, Rosa Parks, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr. But what about all the people we don’t know they names? Take my poor old grandfather and grandmother that scrimped and pinched pennies so they children would lead a better life than they did. The, turn around, and take my folks. They did the same thing. And I need to tell people I didn’t come from no single-parent thing. Sometime we might’ve been broken, but I didn’t grow up in no broken home. My daddy was right there, man, handling stuff and taking care of business.

AY: You heard any of what the veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan have to say?

OO: You talking about Winter Soldiers 2008, right? Oh yeah, bigtime. I been following all that. What’s slimey is how the regular press, the mass media, whatever you wanna call it, ain’t saying nothing.

AY: So I notice.

OO: What I heard the men and women saying gave me a stomach ache and even made me cry.

AY: Me, too. But I need to hear what you heard.

OO: Same as you.

AY: Maybe. We can listen to the same stories and hear them differently. Tell me what you heard.

OO: All right, I will ….

  • More forthcoming


Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Mark your calendar for
Thursday, March 13, 2008

Another Country: Poets, Place, Photography


Camille Dungy


Natasha Thretewey



Cecil Giscombe

Poets Natasha Thretewey, Camille Dungy, C.S. Giscombe read and speak

6:30 p.m. Phyllis Wattis Theater
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

Natasha Trethewey’s latest poetry collection, Native Guard — winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry — looks to her hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi, to reflect on personal and national histories. She animates a Union regiment of African American soldiers guarding Confederate prisoners in the Civil War, weaving this almost forgotten history with that of her parents’ interracial marriage in 1965, which was illegal in Mississippi at the time. Camille Dungy is the author of What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006). UC Berkeley’s C.S. Giscombe — author of Here, Giscombe Road, and Inland, among others — joins Trethewey and Dungy for a reading motivated by American places, pictures, and memories.

$10 general; $7 SFMOMA members, students, and seniors.

Please note: There is a maximum of 6 tickets per order. A $3 per-ticket processing fee will be applied to all general, student, and senior tickets purchased online. A $0.75 per-ticket processing fee will be applied to all SFMOMA member tickets purchased online. Tickets are also available at the Museum (with no surcharge).


Monday, February 25th, 2008



Frank Russell at home in his Tampa studio, 2004
Photo: Al Young

for Frank Russell
(a.k.a. Dr. Rocksteady,

and Betty Moss

In the Imax picture of your lives, directed
by Hal Hartley, you survive everything,
even doubt, your own especially, on the way
out of all this to be or not to be, a distinction
Buddhists never cop to – ahhh, exhale bigtime
in this whopping world of motherless mutts.

Inhale. It’s happy hour at the oxygen bar
you favor, a dive that packs more punch
and flavor to every breath and step
you take than all the whipped foam of talk.
“Walk right in,“ you say to all the stunning,
unnumbered dimensions. Time and mind
conspire. Combined yet again, all ends
and beginnings equal all the journeys you take.

Dear Frank: Like a medieval monk, you copy
and lobby knowledge, know-how, info, data,
dada and consciousness – these keys to our species’
doorways duplicate and multiply. But, you, Betty,
hardly Heloise to some Abelard, you nurture
culture and acculturate. What mates you make!

Wherever time and mind go gung-ho, you go,
Should it surprise you or you or you or you
that consciousness rising can’t always recognize
the you you think is you as you-for-real?
In this sung deal, heart is all and everything.

The picture triumphs; love trumps despair.
Box office, be gone! From here we plow the field.

As for parallel universes, Dr. Rocksteady
and Betty — the surest seem the ones you share.

Al Young
Copyright © 2008 by Al Young



Betty Moss, Tampa 2004 | Al Young




Skippy | Al Young



Sunday, February 24th, 2008


Go to the original

The New York Times
February 18, 2008
Correction Appended


Craig Conley:

It was nearly hidden on a New York City Transit public service placard
exhorting subway riders not to leave their newspaper behind when they
get off the train.

“Please put it in a trash can,” riders are reminded. After which Neil
Neches, an erudite writer in the transit agency’s marketing and service
information department, inserted a semicolon. The rest of the sentence
reads, “that’s good news for everyone.”

Semicolon sightings in the city are unusual, period, much less in
exhortations drafted by committees of civil servants. In literature and
journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been
largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism.

Americans, in particular, prefer shorter sentences without, as style
books advise, that distinct division between statements that are
closely related but require a separation more prolonged than a
conjunction and more emphatic than a comma.

“When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life,”
Kurt Vonnegut once said. “Old age is more like a semicolon.”