Darius James is a poet, playwright, screenwriter, novelist, and all around bonhomme in the negritude fashion. He has been setting spoken word venues ablaze across the country with his volatile blend of taboo race-speak and mid-core pornography. His first novel, Negrophobia, will be published by Citadel Underground this July. Already the HooDoo storm clouds are preceding his literary arrival.
Darius James Yeah, I have about six hours worth of racist cartoons. I traded items that I had with collectors to get them. For example, I got the first four hours from this guy over on West 3rd Street who had an entire collection from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. Animation, like everything else, changes according to the time period. During the Harlem Renaissance, around the time when white people were flocking to the Cotton Club and bullshit like that, Black culture was actually celebrated as exoticism. You know, the predominant stereotypes of the time, but they weren’t necessarily racist in the malicious sense.
Christian Haye You can even find them in Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse cartoons.
DJ Yeah, exactly. That was the interesting thing about the Fleischer brothers, they incorporated Black figures into their cartoons, but in the cartoons, they weren’t necessarily Black. Like Koko the clown, for example, playing Cab Calloway singing St. James Infirmary Blues . That was a celebration of Black culture. In fact, it was how jazz was introduced into the mainstream via cartoons. How old are you?
CH How old am I?
CH I’m 22.
CH Where did you grow up?
DJ In Hamden, Connecticut. Norman Douglas, who introduced us, his parents were at Yale, lived nearby in the Westville projects and I lived in Hamden, but our paths didn’t cross until we got to New York. Speaking of which, another one whose path didn’t cross mine in Hamden, fortunately, was Trey Ellis. I read some silly article he wrote about the new Black aesthetic.
CH Oh, him too?
DJ He went to Hamden Hall. He just made a statement that pissed me off, talking about he had to go to school in Hamden and they had to bus in Black people and bullshit. That’s a fucking lie. Actually, it was true that they did bus in some Black students from New Haven to go to some of the schools in Hamden. But there was a large Black community in Hamden. I know, I lived in it. The cotton gin was invented in Hamden.
CH How old are you?
DJ 37. That’s a great shirt.
CH Thanks. So, your father was a painter.
DJ Yeah, he was an abstract-expressionist. The way I handle imagery and my relationship with the image is a result of coming from a painting background, being involved with painters and the like. The fact that I chose to reclaim racist imagery has to do with the fact that I find those images personally funny. As I was growing up, my friends and I would use those images to make fun of each other, to deflect the pain associated with that. It’s my belief that in order for racism not to have a real psychic effect, Black people who are victims of racism have to take back the imagery of racism and turn it on those who use it against them. It’s taking back the vocabulary of racism and redefining it. The way young hip-hop kids are wearing their hair like 19th and turn-of-the-century racist cartoons.
CH Do you think that’s positive?
DJ I think it’s quite positive. Our stereotypes actually have their roots in African mythology and art, but they were taken over and redefined by white people when they came to this culture. So it’s like we’re returning that imagery back to ourselves.
CH That’s what your book is all about.
DJ No it’s not. The book is a vanishing spell. The story, the actual narrative is absurd for a reason. I view it this way, again we come back to painting. Narrative is foreground, but it’s what’s going on in the background which is important to me. I distract the reader with foreground. Basically, what I’m doing is trying to subvert how one thinks about racist imagery. Every time a person has a racist thought they become physically ill. That’s my intent. How successful I am at doing that I won’t know until the book is out there and people are reading it. The book isn’t only directed towards—
CH White people are going to take this book one way and Black people another?
CH How do you think those two factions are going to react?
DJ How do I think?
CH Or don’t you think?
DJ Not especially, because I’m attacking racist thinking. And I think racist thinking goes on on all sides. That’s why I put Paulo Freire’s epigram from The Pedagogy of the Oppressed at the beginning of the book. I’m saying that it’s a mistake to take on the place of your enemy. If you recognize an evil, why become that?
CH Those are very Christian values.
DJ Christian? Why is that Christian?
CH You know, turn the other cheek …
DJ No, it’s not turn the other cheek. If someone is beating you on the head, yeah, I believe in self-defense. I think there are ways to approach the problem without having the same attitude. If you acknowledge that racism is wrong, why practice it yourself? It’s not like those qualities aren’t in here, you know. I have a lot of racist tendencies, which at least I acknowledge. I got mugged the day that I turned in my manuscript for the book. A bunch of kids beat the shit out of me. I’m bleeding and coming off the subway and this homeless guy, a pervert actually, at the 2nd Ave. station helps me up and gives me a tissue to wipe the blood and saliva rolling off my lip. Then he gives me these stale coconut cookies, which I wouldn’t dare eat, and he says, “You know why they kicked you ass don’cha?” I said, “No, why?” He said, “Because you light.” It made me think for a minute. It was ironic that I got my ass kicked the day I handed in Negrophobia and that this person said this to me.
CH Was the blond still in your dreadlocks then?
DJ Yeah, but they’ve grown out since then.
CH Why do you think you wrote the book?
DJ Because I wanted to do a certain kind of … I have grandiose ambitions for this book.
CH Like what?
DJ Like everyone will read it and throw up. Other than that I don’t suspect that people will actually go out and buy it, you know, and read it.
CH I don’t believe that.
DJ I don’t believe that either, personally. This is something that I had to do for myself. It’s something I started hundreds of years ago and, due to various circumstances in my life, I’ve only been able to finish in the last couple of months. One of the things that I try to point out in a more explicit fashion is the fact that white people don’t believe that they’re racist. And the reason white people don’t believe they’re racist is a result of being assimilated into a racist culture, there are cultural blind spots in various individuals. If you point out racist behavior, it won’t be acknowledged because there’s no vocabulary to express it. There’s nothing in their consciousness to relate it to. I had an interesting experience. I was walking in SoHo with this woman and she said to me, “Look at those people over there. They don’t see you.” She was talking about how white people are blind to the presence of Black people. I realized what she was saying was true, these people were literally walking all over me. I mean, pushing us out of the way. They did not realize we were there, did not excuse themselves. This is the level of invisibility that I’m talking about, and that’s why I’m going into this dream imagery. Because I think I’m opening the raw areas of personality to this kind of crazy stuff. The process of which has something to do with ritual, magical ritual. When you do a magical ritual you are awakening those blind areas of personality and consciousness. You do the ritual to evoke images that strengthen that weak area of personality. In terms of psychic attack, you hit people where they are weakest. I see this book as hitting that weak area to subvert those energies and change what racism means to the psyche. I don’t have any illusions about it being the last and final word on that, I’m merely setting up circumstance for further discussion and experimentation in that area.
CH What do you think the Nation of Islam is going to do with your characterizations of Farrakhan and the like?
DJ What do I think they are going to do? I have no idea. I’m going to be in Canada.
CH They’re going to be pretty upset, I think.
DJ What is there to be upset by?
CH They’ve never seemed to have a sense of humor.
DJ In Living Color makes fun of them all the time.
CH Not as directly, or as well as you do.
DJ Am I supposed to care about this? I’m not really concerned. It doesn’t bother me. I’m not gonna be here. As soon as Fate sells my foreign rights I’m leaving. They’ll like them up in Quebec. If I was so concerned about repercussions then I wouldn’t be doing my job as a satirist. Primarily, I consider myself a satirist. If a satirist doesn’t succeed in pissing off a lot of people, moving other people to question their ideologies and bullshit like that then I haven’t done my job. Anyway, the only Black American religion is VooDoo and I know my loa is protecting me.
CH Negrophobia is written in screenplay form. Don’t you have some other experience with that format?
DJ Well, I’ve written screenplays for a number of people and nothing’s come of it.
CH Nothing’s been produced?
DJ No. I did a screenplay for Merchant/Ivory. It was something I was particularly proud of … They never responded, they just gave me the money and then complained about my crack-head character, how vile and disgusting he was.
CH Well, ever since Savages, they’ve been into the pretty and all of that. Who else did you work with?
DJ Joie and Cinque Lee.
DJ Writing with them is like trying to fly with lead boots on. Their arrogance precedes their talent. What I did could have been saved, but they just decided they didn’t want to pay me anymore.
CH You were working for 40 Acres and A Mule?
DJ No. I was working for Child Hood productions. Apparently, Spike didn’t want much to do with it.
CH What are you working on now? I saw a bit of Mo’ Better Malcolm in a magazine.
DJ Originally, I had written “Mo’ Better Malcolm” for Details and they didn’t want to touch it. The reason I put that particular ending on it was to allay their fears about libel. Which is something I’m not concerned with, but I’m rewriting it with the hope of getting it into Joe Wood’s anthology of essays on Malcolm X. I was joking with you before, I do anticipate a lot of repercussions in various organs of the Black community, but I’m not worried about it. Really, I’m not really worried about which neighborhoods I can go to. And I’m not going to Toronto or Quebec. We all look like Arsenio Hall up there. They think Arsenio Hall is this big-time crack dealer. “Ah, there’s Arsenio Hall, let’s mug him!” They shoot negroes all the time. They fuck with anyone who is not white and doesn’t speak French. Nationalistic points of view are just incredibly myopic. But one thing I will say about Quebec, despite their stupidity, they did in fact wage the first successful guerilla war on the North American continent. They successfully reclaimed their territory. It’s just what happened afterwards. They even harass French speaking Africans and Haitians.
CH So when the Nation of Islam puts a $100,000 price tag on your head—they don’t have as much money as Iran—what do you think you’ll really do?
DJ If the Nation of Islam puts out a death threat on me, this is what you can say: Joy and I are living comfortably on a kibbutz in Israel. They are welcome to come and hunt us down there.