I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Few writers ever truly master more than one form, but Thulani Davis is, among other things, a poet, a librettist, a journalist and now a novelist. Over the years, her work as both reporter and critic for the Village Voice has stirred up more than the occasional controversy. Yet above all, she is a story teller, her language a powerful combination of musical vernacular woven with the sudden twists and twangs of the poetic. Music is in everything she writes. Her poems are full of Bebop, Scat, Spirituals, and Blues. Her libretto for X, an opera based on the life and times of Malcolm X, is eloquently, deceptively simple, yet so dense it’s electrifying. Her new novel, 1959, chronicles the impact of the first years of the Civil Rights movement on a black community in Virginia, largely from the point of view of a girl who turns 12 on the day Billie Holiday died, the summer it all began to happen.
The brownstone in Fort Greene that Davis shares with her husband, saxophonist Joseph Jarman, is a sanctuary on a rough street.
Stephanie Fleischmann Why did you choose to construct a novel around an actual historical event, as opposed to a fictional one?
Thulani Davis Uh-huh. But it is fiction.
SF Oh, it is?
TD (laughter) There probably hasn’t been a novel that uses that particular historical event before, but in the first chapter, the Sheriff makes a reference to a sit-in that happened a couple of weeks before in Greensboro, North Carolina, and that’s the famous incident. Four students went into a five-and-dime, sat down, and asked for a cup of coffee. It had actually happened before, in the ’30s, in Washington, and nothing came of it. But when these four students did it, they shocked the world. I wanted to get at what it was like when that happened for the first time, and people didn’t know what it was. It happened in my town, Hampton, Virginia, a couple of weeks after Greensboro. The idea [of the sit-in] spread up the East Coast from North Carolina, where it started, and into Virginia. People didn’t know quite what to make of it. I was interested in the fact that people organized without having any models: no leader, no organizers, and no established movement. That’s the crux of what goes on in my book—the people get together and they improvise.
SF What was it like growing up through that time?
TD Before I started my book, I figured out that the way I grew up made me a little bit of a Utopian, I thought things could be worked out and that society could be fixed (laughter). And in doing the book I realized we were taking it for granted that you could do things. That was the primary difference of my childhood and the childhoods of people my age, particularly black kids growing up in the South. Everybody participated, so you had the idea that your participation made a difference. In terms of society.
SFIn those days, changes seemed more possible?
TD Sure. We were very innocent about the lengths that the government would go to stop change. We learned as we went along the tremendous sacrifices that are entailed. People now are much more frightened about the kind of sacrifices it takes to exert control over your immediate environment, even your neighborhood. We were trained by church how to go about basic organizing, how to petition. That was something kids growing up in the South knew how to do. Young people now, even those who have a group grievance, don’t know how to start because that process stopped being a part of everyday life. We petitioned and boycotted all the way through school. The sit-ins started when I was in elementary school. When I was at Columbia University in 1968, we took over the school. Almost all the black kids who were there were from the South, and almost all of us had been involved with something before, so it wasn’t a peculiar activity to us. That’s what I think is strange about our generation—and this is one of the things that I hope comes through in the book—we thought those things came along with rock and roll, they came along with learning about your sexuality, they came along with learning in school. All of it happened at once, and you just took it in the way you took in music.
SF The way I see it, having missed that period by about ten years, is that the civil rights movements led to certain concrete changes, but now the impact has been forgotten, and although the changes do exist, they only went so far.
TD Well, it all has a part in the continuity. It’s not so real to you because it’s not taught in the schools, it’s not a part of American history, just like Vietnam is not actually a part of American history yet. What’s going to be happening in the ’90s is a continuation of what got started in the ’60s and got stalled in the ’70s. For all of us, the big changes were real visible and were dealt with visibly. In other words, segregation’s easy to visualize, integration is easy to visualize. Thereafter, everything happened on a much more sophisticated level. A lot of the problems that remain unresolved in the civil rights arena, for instance, are going to end up in the courts, and are going to require a certain amount of legal sophistication, in terms of redress. Racism is manifested in two different ways—one is on a very subtle, sophisticated level, because people do understand enough about the language of racism to try and avoid it in offices and places like that. On the other hand, there are young people, like yourself, who really did not connect with that time—either they weren’t born or weren’t around—who might be attracted to the skinhead movement instead, and who have no concept of what black people’s grievances were ever about. So crude racism survives in its most blatant manifestations. But I do think people over the past 20 years have begun to see that some of the problems we couldn’t address in the ’60s had to do with economic issues which are not purely local and are, in many cases, global. Some of the issues which black people in Alabama or Mississippi fight now are ecological. But ecology, too, is a racial issue in this case, because toxic dumps are put in black areas which haven’t had powerful, or even adequate, representation for a long time. People are beginning to see the interconnectedness of things. For my generation, the civil rights years affected many of us for out lifetimes, because it gave us a sense of empowerment that allows us, at 40, to think on a global level, and to think that things can happen if people get together. And they have children, so it goes on. For people who lived through it, some things are just weird. I went to the Martin Luther King Center once and they had plastic Martin Luther King placemats of his grave on sale. It’s not just a tasteless thing to do, it’s weird that somebody you ever saw alive ends up on a placemat (laughter), particularly somebody who made a big difference to you.
SF How has the South changed since you’ve grown up?
TD The South pretty much came to grips with the whole idea of integration in a way that the North never has. There’s a familiarity between people in the South that doesn’t exist in urban cities, where the population changes so much. Working people know each other on a day-to-day basis, maybe better than black and white people would in New York City. Because you can get a job in New York City and work in a completely segregated environment, or a nearly segregated environment. And socially, New York can be very segregated at certain income levels—on the bottom and at the top, in particular.
One of the things that comes up at the end of my book is that during this process of change, a lot of the black communities in the South were taken apart. Some of those communities, like the one I’m writing about, physically don’t exist anymore. Urban renewal was used to dismantle communities. There was a tremendous destruction of black businesses and community centers, so that distinct black communities in Southern towns aren’t there anymore. We were decentralized, and that has hurt over the long haul. At the time, people thought, “Well, we’re all going to be integrated,” but that didn’t quite happen either.
SFIn South Africa, changes are now happening at a tremendous rate, faster than ever before.
TD To me, that’s a part of the continuity we’ve been talking about, or “whatever happened with civil rights.” Somebody who is 23 told me he’d been reading the autobiography of Malcolm X. He said, “There just aren’t any people like that now, what ever happened to all of that?” I said, “First of all, it’s quite alive in all of us who were around then. We carry it around with us.” What’s going on in South Africa is not only a continuation of what people like Malcolm X did over here; there were, and are, plenty of those people in South Africa, you just don’t know their names. They have that same power to influence people, the same sense of heroic commitment that you don’t seem to see so much in America now. Nelson Mandela was there then, and he’s there now. He’s continuity in itself.
SF Here, supposedly, we have freedom of speech, but there, writers and journalists often risk their lives in the struggle to speak out. The power of the word in a struggle becomes the greatest power.
TD In this country, that’s really true. One of the reasons my book is in the first person is that the first person narrative is the foundation of the black literary tradition. In the stuff I read as a kid, it was the power of this individual’s voice, some individual who you never would have known, who may have died hundreds of years before, that caught you up and you would take it on as the story of our race in some way. People learned the Bible in slavery—through the oral transmission of preachers, the only people who knew how to read—the same way. Most activists in the ’60s worked almost on a one-to-one basis. A person learned from them by being in the vicinity of their voices, hearing them talk. It’s very similar in South Africa, because they’ve banned books, banned certain kinds of literature. A South African kid would probably understand my book quite well, more than an American kid who’s never experienced segregation, but that would also attest to the fact that someone who came through and spoke could make a difference. In our situation, hearing Martin Luther King was enlightenment for the first time; and then hearing Malcolm was an enlightenment the second time. It was the ability of someone who spoke aloud to make you think in a different way that made the difference. Clearly in South Africa, that’s what’s going on.
SF Did you know before you started writing the novel that it would be in the first person?
TD No. I tried it in the third person and I didn’t like the way it sounded. I didn’t feel comfortable, I wanted it to have the quirks of somebody talking in your ear.
SF The first person is definitely the focal voice, but every now and then, it moves out …
TD To a third person. For a long time, I struggled with what my narrator could and couldn’t know. There’s a lot of adult stuff that I needed the reader to know that my 12-year-old wouldn’t know. I wanted to be able to have her do the setup and then get some distance in order to tell some of the stories in third person. There are many manifestations of storytelling in the book.
SF Did you start by writing poetry?
TD No, I started writing short stories when I was 18. When I turned in my first poems, Elizabeth Hardwick, one of my teachers at Barnard, said, “Well, this isn’t poetry, I don’t know what it is, but keep writing it.” The poems had a lot of dialogue in them and she told me I had a good ear for that, and that I should keep listening to dialogue and working with it. At the time, I went to poetry. I just kept at it and stopped writing fiction.
SF Did you write poetry to be performed out loud?
TD Yes, almost from the beginning. When I was at Barnard, Ntozake Shange and I decided to perform a piece and Gylan Kain, a poet with the Original Last Poets, tutored us on how to perform. From that time on, those two things went hand-in-hand. We performed and printed things simultaneously.
SF Printed things up and passed them around?
TD We made books. We were very serious. (laughter) We had a magazine our last year in college. I also worked with the literary magazine at Barnard, and then in California, I worked with a group called the Third World Collective, and we printed books: anthologies, broad-sides, posters, everything.
SF Combining poetry with art and music, did that also come with performing it?
TD Yeah, I almost always worked with drummers. That’s where I got into writing very rhythmic poetry. The bands I worked with got more elaborate as time went on. Ju Ju—the first band I worked with—had horns and drums and piano and bass and everything. Then I worked with a number of Conga drummers, a lot of poets did, and when I came here, I started working with Oliver Lake, Arthur Blythe, Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, Steve McCall, Cecil Taylor. In the mid ’70s, we did some shows at the Public where we would have a whole band. Jessica Ilagendorn, Ntozake Shange, and I did one called “Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon.” I did quite a few pieces with Anthony [Davis] on solo piano, that’s how I got working with him on the opera, X. We know rhythmically and tonally how things work together. I think words can work within any musical context.
SF Music is in everything that you write, whether it’s the rhythm or the references.
TD I’ve tried every arrangement possible, from a 50-piece orchestra and singers to one Conga drummer. In the past couple of years, Anthony’s taken my voice, processed it through a computer and then written music around it. And then Bernadette Speach has taken my voice, its pitches and rhythms, and set music around it. I have my preferences, but they all can work.
SF I went to see X on opening night. We sat up in the Paradiso. I was very close to the words because they come across at the top of the stage on a big screen. The words were so simple yet so powerful. There was this energy in the piece comparable to the power of the man. I was really struck by it. You chose the moments in Malcolm X’s life that told the story, the moments of change or growth.
TD That piece is very condensed so the moments are pretty intense. There’s no connective tissue, there’s not a lot of dawdling around, it goes boom boom and boom. I have been struggling for years to make the writing more and more simple, but that was to me the most straightforward thing I’ve ever written and the densest, even though it’s simple language. That’s what I liked about it. There’s a lot of stuff you can’t do when somebody’s going to sing it, all the nouns have to be real clear. You can’t have nouns on certain notes because then they get bent out of shape. It’s like doing a puzzle.
Doing this new opera, The E & 0 Line, I originally started rewriting somebody’s libretto and it’s the first time I ever wanted a rhyming dictionary, I just found it impossible to replace everything vowel sound for vowel sound. It takes a little of the juice away from your original ideas because you sometimes have to go far afield from where you started. I had words like “memory” and I couldn’t find another three-syllable word with two short vowels (laughter).
SF You wrote the opera while you were working on the novel?
TD Yes, I wrote it in the middle of doing the novel.
SF When you move between the different forms, do you feel a need for reorientation or reacquaintance? You work on the novel and then you write a poem. It seems easy for you to move between the two.
TD Well, one is usually a relief from the other. Sometimes when I’m writing the novel I have what I call my out-takes, some of which are poems. When I was doing the opera, I wrote a lot of doggerel on the side.
TD I was writing in rhyme, which I don’t normally do, and once you turn that faucet on, it’s hard to turnoff. One thing that wasn’t in that opera was romance and sex so that started to come out all of a sudden. I was writing all this doggerel about fast food, hot dogs, french fries: sexual innuendo, just junk and occasional love poems. I wrote some nice ones during that time (laughter). But I don’t like working on more than one thing at once. The older I get the harder it is, because I have much more power of concentration than I used to have, I can’t pull out so easily.
SF You’ve worked in so many different forms—poetry, radio, theater, opera, journalism—most of them more compact than that of the novel. Did you find it difficult to sustain the world of the novel?
TD I was glad to have the room in the beginning, and then it became really frightening. It’s like an abyss, once you get in there. It takes everything you have. Everything you know goes in there. I’ve had days when I didn’t think I knew enough to finish it.
SF How does your work as a journalist inform your fiction?
TD I’m a pure case of “everything in your life helps you do what you have to do.” Every place I go might be useful. When I went to the Bahamas a couple of years ago, I let somebody talk me into getting into a parachute (laughter). I am fairly scared of heights, but I found this terrifying, the worst thing I’ve ever done. There’s this guy in my book who jumps out of planes, and I do have an idea of what it’s like. You use everything. It’s all there.
SF Tell me about the Gullah country, the place you wrote about in your Voice article, “Where’s Frogmore? Travels with a Geechee Girl.”
TD I went down to the Sea Islands in South Carolina. I had actually been asked to write about places where people used to stay during segregation if they traveled in the South. I knew pretty much that they wouldn’t be there anymore. I really went around to interview old people and get some stories about life during segregation. I didn’t get to talk to quite as many Gullah people as I wanted to because they distrust outsiders of any kind. I drove up to trailer park communities where people just ran into their trailers and shut the doors as soon as I got out of the car. Somebody has to take you and you have to—like Africa—sit under the tree for a while and have some tea. They have a fascinating folk tradition that has stayed alive, more so than in other places, because they were isolated since in the Civil War from the rest of us. They were the first and only people in the country who got the deliveries on the 40 acres and a mule the Union promised. They basically started parceling out land to black people in South Carolina, land that belonged to plantations that the Union army had taken over. These black people still live on that land and still build in the way that the family in my book builds—in compounds, in a circle around each other, the sons, and then their sons. They don’t bother with property lines at all. In the early days, white people fled, so the black people lived in places like Hilton Head and game ran freely and they lived communally as far as food and hunting were concerned. So, the world of hotels has been a great shock to their way of life. The black people who stay there end up working in hotels at very low-level jobs—cutting grass, cleaning toilets, stuff like that. They are tremendous people.
SF There’s a line from your poem “C.T.’s Variation” that really strikes me: “… visionary women letting pigeons loose / on unsettled skies.”
TD The image is from a painting by Romare Bearden of a woman who kept pigeons. There’s a part of a book by Zora Neale Hurston called Their Eyes Were Watching Godin which a huge storm is coming and the fate of the people rises or falls by how they relate to the animals fleeing the area at the time. First, the animals flee, then the Indians leave. They follow the animals and read the signs, so to speak. There’s something about keeping pigeons cooped up in a storm. The woman letting them go seemed right. In this book, the black people debate whether to believe the white people who say there’s no storm coming or to follow the Indians. Some of the black people follow the Indians, and those who stay meet with a horrible disaster.
SF In your book, Willie’s father, a science teacher, has an affinity for storms, and a curiosity about other kinds of knowledge, the black fisherman’s knowledge, in particular.
TD Right, right. If you live in a fishing community, everybody’s weather obsessed, and one of the things I related to in Their Eyes Were Watching God was that people still paid attention to what was going on with the weather and they had their own system for knowing what was going on. The way I grew up, you knew when a storm was coming. You could smell it before you could see it, and that sense of connectedness seems really important to me.
SF You said that in your book the first person narrative speaks to the black literary tradition of oral storytelling. For me, it’s hard to deal with the idea of being a woman playwright as opposed to being a playwright. How do you see yourself?
TDWell, it’s harder to relate to the tradition, if you look at yourself as a woman playwright and you look at the tradition and you say, “I don’t know what I get from it.” But, of course, you know you got something from what you read, whether men wrote it or women wrote it. When you’re younger you tend to think you’re going to do something new. I now see myself having really gotten concrete things from the tradition, yet wanting to expand it because there are lots of things I know aren’t in the tradition, at least as it’s been printed thus far. When I was growing up, novels by black women were pretty rare and those older novels that they’ve since found may have been around, but nobody knew about them. I didn’t read Zora Neale Hurston until I was almost out of college. I knew about Lorraine Hansbury who I mention in my book. There are people I mention because I really feel obligated to nod to their existence because they already did a lot of the things that I think are important to do and I’ve come to realize that I’m not going to do something that Lorraine never thought to do. I will be different because of my time period, but I wanted to acknowledge the fact that when I was young her very existence meant something to me. When she came on the scene, she presented the possibilities of a woman playwright for me. That was enough. She also wrote a play which is really very important. The tradition fed me in a way that I wanted to acknowledge. For the most part, the tradition has a political element to it, it deals with the society at large. Books in the recent two decades, the ’70s and ’80s, don’t so much. I could name maybe three books that deal with the Civil Rights era, but maybe only one that’s been written in fiction. I wanted to do a book that had that sense of context, not just a personal story. I got that from all the stuff I read as a child. I read black literature in the classroom in the segregated South and outside of the classroom in the integrated North. Those things were very close to me, in other words; they came through teachers in the segregated school system who were not given the materials to work with, but who mimeographed books at home in order to give us some sense that that literature existed. I got much more of it than people my age who went to Northern schools at the same time. It was in my house, so I had a sense of it being very close, very personal, and speaking for me. But the woman’s voice in that literature was minimal at the time. The women who’ve been writing since I’ve been an adult have filled so much of that gap. I feel glad for people who are younger than me because they can grow up with Toni Morrison, and that’s a tremendous gift. So, yeah, somewhere I come out of all of the traditions I’ve come into contact with and also lots of other literature that made an impact on me. X, for instance, was much more influenced by an admiration for Brecht than by anything else, other than Malcolm X’s life. Literary forms in there include some stuff I wrote in the first act to acknowledge the work of black poets, like Sterling Brown, for being dominant voices of the ’30s. That stuff is in there for that reason, but as a whole piece it’s much more indebted to Brecht’s idea of distancing the audience and the presentation of the concept than it is to black theater, which is generally very emotional and very naturalistic. Those are things that people generally don’t ask about. They don’t ask black writers what white-European and American literature made an impact on you? You end up having to volunteer those because there are some assumptions that black literature was taught to us at some point, and, outside of the segregated South, it wasn’t taught to us much more than it was to you. If you found those things you generally treasured them. James Baldwin made an enormous impression on me when I was 14, but I found his book in a bookstore somewhere in Vermont. It didn’t come to me in school, and I treasured every one of his works that I found. It was stuff that was being written at that time, that had a sense of immediacy. It’s not just a “black” thing about his work, but the power and the immediacy of it was something I thought my work should have, whether it was journalism, poetry, or this novel Baldwin taught me language could grab you and get very close to your person.
Stephanie Fleishchmann writes plays and fiction and lives in New York.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee