There is a poem by Nikki Giovanni that sums up in about 25 lines everything I think about black consciousness. I could write about it for years, but the essential thing to say doesn't take more than 30 seconds. There are lyrics in a song by Lionel Ritchie that sums up my confidence that I would grow to be the man I expected to be despite all the odds. There's a song by the Isley Brothers that puts me immediately at peace every time I hear it. If I didn't know better I might say that everything I needed to know about black culture could be summed up that way.
Once upon a time I didn't know better, and in those days it was important for me to find a way to express every emotion and cultural concept in my shared black language. I called it, as I finished my last experiments in it The Well-Wrapped Universe. I would never have to use any metaphors besides those invented in the 'hood to communicate my humanity to all of humanity - and as Earth Wind & Fire said, "If you don't understand me, it's your fault."
I knew I was being selfish even as I over-exaggerated self-referentially in post-modern blackness as a 'Boohabian persistent black object'. But it was still charming and fun in the 90s. I felt the beginning of the end when I found myself, a bit to my surprise, across in Europe trying to make myself understood. I knew I couldn't be so persistent when I found things I was looking for in Borges' poetry and in the lamentations of Chinua Achebe and spiral tales of Carlos Fuentes. Yeah, I was that multicultural.
The problem with Gil Scott Heron is the same problem as with John Cheever. It's the same problem as with Issac Hayes and with Jesus Christ Superstar. He's too damned specific. It's like saying New Orleans and then humming When the Saints Go Marching In. You can't get away from the fact that Gil-Scott Heron wrote 'Angel Dust', 'Whitey on the Moon' and 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised'. You might want to think of Curtis Mayfield in some broader context than the Superfly Soundtrack. You might want to try to extend the cultural significance of The Wizard of Oz, but it's still always "I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog too". And Vince Geraldi will always be Linus and Lucy and Mikey will always be Life Cereal and Wil Wheaton will always be Ensign Crusher. Forever.
Issac Hayes is the big bald black man who made the ungh sounds of the 70s like a natural man was supposed to. And Jesus Christ Superstar made all pop culture Jesus freaks and hippies approachable for a moment. But what I didn't know when I was 13 years old was that those symbols wouldn't last forever and explain more about the world than just that moment. It was hard for me to accept that Kwai Chang Caine's grasshopper lessons wouldn't serve me long after the show was canceled - especially when I learned that role was supposed to be for Bruce Lee.
And I began to become resentful of all the things I knew to be true but only for my Well Wrapped Universe. I began to hate the fact that the world couldn't catch the flavor and it didn't want to study. That there is what Gerald Early calls lure and loathing. But I played in all sections of the orchestra, and mastered all the languages and idioms.
Still. I was prepared to hear that Marvin Gaye's 'Whats Going On' was not the greatest album ever recorded. I was prepared to hear that Alex Haley's Roots was not the greatest American story ever told. But it was hard to give up the arcane gems. It was hard to have to explain The Last Poets. It was difficult to remind people that LA had KDAY, KGFJ, KJLH and KACE, each a different flavor of black radio. And as time went by, it was disappointing to explain Yellow Back Radio, you know, and break it down. It was painful to read High Cotton alone. It was ridiculously hard to give up on explaining George C. Wolfe and so now I explain the real killer.
The real killer is when, above and beyond the Well Wrapped Universe you find superior examples. It's like dissing Michael Jackson in 1982 when John Landis was just discovering him.
So I look back on Gil Scott Heron and what can I say? He was deep to me as a teenager when I sat in the back of the bus and recited him and Richard Pryor like the perverse psuedo badass I was, or pretended to be. When the world was ruled by The Funk, and when Issac Hayes said ungh, you said ungh back. When you looked with admiration at the matron in the white uniform and 14 inch arms who stood in the back of the church and swung a mean tambourine; when the hardest working man in show business dropped to one knee and the sweat on his forehead let you know he was The Godfather; when all you had to do was say Aretha and everybody shutup. That was the day for Gil Scott Heron and all the ghetto poets of America. When Flip Wilson was preaching in The Church of What's Happenin' Now. When the New York Times used slang words to let the reader know that a Negro was speaking. That's when Gil Scott Heron's message to the masses was a thing to hold in reverence. When everybody had the expectation that some wino had more humanity in him than the President, when hippy dippy weathermen were funny, when you were excited to see Goldie Hawn pop out of a little door and say 'sock it to me'. That was then.
It's all so specific that unless you're over 40 years old, you probably have no idea of half the things I'm talking about. Just like I didn't get Bugs Bunny jokes about A ration cards or victory gardens or the aphrodesiac powers of nylon stockings until I went and studied.
You can go and study Gil-Scott Heron, but his world is over. It's just taking up space in a part of my brain I don't use much any longer. His voice is coming out over the transistors of my old leather covered Federal radio on 1230 AM, hot times soulin' on the weekend, KGFJ.
A rat done bit my sister Nell
and Whitey's on the moon.
Her arms and legs began to swell
And Whitey's on the moon.
There's some things you remember for which you'll never need Google. I'm prepared to accept those things only mean something to me, and only because it used to mean something to the me I used to be. That's what it means not to be televised.