STORIES WE MIGHT AS WELL TELL. A CONVERSATION WITH LYNEL GARDNER

STREET LIT

REPRESENTING THE URBAN LANDSCAPE

Edited by Keenan Norris

FORWARD BY OMAR TYREE

Lynel Gardner is a performance artist, novelist, and playwright. His work with the Hittite Empire Performance Art Group started in 1989. They toured the country and the UK doing work based on black male silence. An all-male performance art group, they focused on issues of the day: the “wilding incident,” the Central Park rape case in New York, and the LA riots. He has written a play called Stories I Never Told My Father about growing up with a pimp for a father, how he survived, and how he found God in the process of trying to find his father before he died. He has written a book, BEAST: The Deconstruction of Charles “Sonny” Liston, based on the life of his grandfather, heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston, dispelling many of the popular misconceptions about Liston. He also has a company called Theater as Prevention where, depending on the demographic he’s working with and its needs, he develops a play around those needs and brings the play to the stage. I interviewed Lynel in November, 2012.

KN: So my first question is, how would you grade the amount of reading that young black people do, say ages fifteen to twenty-five, and then twenty-five to forty?

LG: Amount of reading, for ages fifteen to twenty-five, maybe a six or seven; for adults, maybe a seven. Because of technology, reading has gone down because we have the Internet now. I think technology and the push for reading and education has gone down a lot, too.

KN: Yeah, and I guess that leads into my next question, which is a little bit trickier: how would you rate the quality of the reading that we as black people are doing?

LG: I still think that youth are looking for something that they can identify with when it comes to reading. A lot of the youth are saying that they’re reading dead authors, and they’re looking for stories that they can identify with, and I think a lot of the enthusiasm of reading has gone down. Still, I think European and American authors and poets and a lot of those books that they get at school and in library don’t really tell their stories, and I think that is a major reason for why they don’t read. Their stories are either ghettoized or a lot of the novels are based on inner-city romance. I guess they’re trying to market the whole hip-hop, gangster music genre (as literature). I think this ghettoizes our story. The quality’s really bad because they’re just reading gangster love stories. It’s not really helping the youth.

KN: That segues perfectly into a discussion of street lit. Those are some of the big problems with street lit, but what might be the potential of street lit? And should we have a broader definition of what street lit is? Should we as writers be pushing for books to be included, for young black people, more books and a wider range to be included as “street lit” that’s relevant to their lives?

LG: I think it’s really important that we show the diversity of the black diaspora, that we don’t all think alike. That’s the whole problem with rap right now, it’s all one dimensional. They have the idea that we all think alike, we all like pimp juice. But my whole thing is that we really need to show our diversity and that, as a community, we have different ways of thinking. I just want to show the whole palette of who we are, and it is also important that we bring writers of other populations, European, Latino, Asian, because when I was a kid I lived in the inner city yet I could escape through Jules Verne. I could escape the hood through different authors that weren’t of my race or my population and then find ways to tell those stories in my own way as an African American. So I think it’s really important that we bridge those gaps and borders between other writers of different cultures and populations, because we are more than just African Americans, we have American Indian in our blood, we have Latin and we have European in our blood. We’re not just, you know, a homogenous population. So I think it’s really important that yes, we continue to expand the horizons of the literature, because we’re more than just African American people. We’ve share our cultures with every race on the planet so we definitely have to identify those parts of us that are part white, part Latino, American Indian, and bring those stories to the forefront.

KN: Thank you for that answer. I think that is very important to acknowledge. Are you frustrated when you go into a bookstore and you see the African American book section, first of all dominated by a certain type of literature, but secondly, just that it’s segmented off from everything else?

LG: Yeah, I’ve confronted Borders. I’ve confronted all these big book stores. They don’t really get it. They don’t understand what they’re doing, and I think that’s a problem when these big conglomerate bookstores don’t understand that they’re projecting segregation, that they’re segregating the races based on the fact of their ethnicity. The whole thing is we still haven’t dealt with the fact that it’s not about race; race is a human invention. We’re a population that happens to share a certain culture, and we call it the black experience, but we really have to be careful, like I said, that we don’t get caught up in race. And the fact that they’re continually segregating the races even when it comes to where they put us in a bookstore: again, it’s the same problem that the authors in the ’60s, having to be considered black authors and not authors, ghettoizing our work and being accepted until we reach a certain amount of acclaim. I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes we feel like we have to write like a white person speaks in order not to have our ghettoized. That’s still a major problem, and I’ve found that to be a problem with writing this book (about Sonny Liston). Do I have to justify, support my argument with the work of other white authors or sociologists who agree with my way of thinking? And yeah, I think I was forced to do that so that I could support my argument. I’m playing a game basically. Yes, I think it is a major problem that has yet to be addressed, and our voices are not being heard. When I went into Borders and told them about his problem, they just brushed me off like they didn’t even care. They don’t even identify that as an issue. So yes, it’s a major problem. I think that we as writers need to really make this an issue, a political issue.

KN: You talked a lot about a kind of social segregation. This reminds me of another social situation that is highly segregated and that’s within prison. You have Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians in there. You know, it may not be segregated on the outside, but you go in and by force and in order not to become a target, you are compelled to take a racial side. Part of the reason that I’m interested in street lit is that more than any other genre of literature, it’s dealing with one of the principle crises in America, mass incarceration. What could be the potential of an art form that seriously speaks to and markets itself to the incarcerated, the underserved, to those populations?

LG: I got into the prison, and I do work in prison, juvenile hall, and such and I think what’s important is to realize that, again, they’re still connected to the outside world; they’re still running the gang from inside…. They prepare the prisoners to go to jail, and they prepare the prisoners to come out of jail. But what I told San Bruno Jail is that you guys don’t realize that this is ongoing and the relationship does not end with the family when a prisoner goes to jail; it doesn’t begin again when the prisoner comes out of jail. This relationship is ongoing. What I tended to do, what I’m trying to do, is to let the police agencies know that they also are participating in that relationship between the families, the inmates, going in, back and forth, in jail out of jail. Also parole, all these relationships, the family, the parole officers, the police officers, the wardens, all have an ongoing relationship with the inmates and their families, and the artist has to participate in that process, the artist has to, if he wants to make a difference, whether it be by performing or whether it be by bringing books that help prisoners relate the inside world with the outside world. That’s the only way; we have to make a sacrifice as artists to continually maintain a relationship between that population and those around that population, if we’re going to start turning the tide, getting them to turn and go in the other direction. Right now prevention is key, because locking people up is no longer cost effective. It’s proven they don’t have enough money to arrest everyone, and the tide is turning right now, and artists can really make a huge difference if that is important to them. So the thing is, we have to decide as artists and as citizens who wants to take responsibility for other citizens within the community. We have to draw the line between commercial success and the success of making a change in our community. There has to be priority on saving our youth and using art as a means to do that, and that is a decision that the artist has to make. Like I said with my play, I went in there and did the play about fathers and sons, and a bunch of inmates came up to me and said, “Well, I haven’t seen my son in twenty years.” “I haven’t seen my son in ten years.” “My son doesn’t care about me.” But I told them, I said, “Look I’m forty-eight years old, I’m forty-eight years old, and I still need to maintain a relationship with my father.” So I told them that the bond between father and son is something that can never be broken. You can wait for it your whole life. And just by doing my play, those guys after the show got on the phone and called their children for the first time in ten or even twenty years in some cases. So, those things would not have been possible if I had not made a commitment to my mission, which is to save my people, save people that are suffering, using my art as a vehicle to save as many people as possible. Unfortunately, African Americans are dying faster than most, so I’m going to put priority on them first, but at the same time, it’s all related across races.

KN: That’s powerful, and it speaks to where our intent ultimately lies. It struck me, and this is the last question I’ll ask, but it strikes me that you talked about the kind of conflict between, or the decision between, commercial success and then on the other end, this social concept of intervention, but it strikes me that there’s a whole ‘other issue that goes on. There’s the art for art’s sake crowd. This idea that your art is this pristine object up on a hill and the artists cannot afford to be too full immersed in immediate social problems or risk diluting their art. What do you think of that, to that criticism of socially conscious art?

LG: Now, diluting their art as in the commercial viability of their art?

KN: Not the commercial viability, more like the artistic viability.

LG. I mean, there is such a thing as bad art to me. There’s a lot of performance art that can be be considered really bad art and, but because it’s performance art, it’s kind of like, oh, it’s process art, so it’s excused as, oh, she’s going through that process, therefore it’s about the process, of her getting from A to B to C; she may not get to Z, but it’s the process of her getting there. So is art in the eye of the beholder? I don’t know. Maybe it is…. I think that’s a good question. Who defines what art is? Look, I was standing on the street corner one day, and I watched this kid who wasn’t old enough to drive a car. He made his bike into a car; he basically put house speakers on a trailer hitch and tuned his bike into a low-rider bike and bumped his music as if he was driving a low-rider. I said, “Damn, that’s fucking art right there. ” That’s fucking art, man. To take that and turn it into what he dreamed of it being. That’s art, so I don’t think that we can define what art is. Working here at my house, there’s Latino contractors who take scraps because they don’t have anything else to work with and they’ll make a wall out of it. You’ll see these guys who have been contracting now for many years, whoo’ve lived in America many years, using machines now, and they’ve lost the ability to create with just their hands, and just with scraps, so they sit around and look at these guys that come from Mexico with awe because they’re doing with scraps what they’ve been doing for years with machines now. So I don’t think anyone can define what art is. I think it’s up to the artist. The artist has to define it and has to ask him- or herself, “Am I doing the art that I fell is important? Am I expressing and manifesting art that is true to my purpose in life or true to what I envision as my mission?” I think it’s up to the artist and the artist has to decide if he’s living up to that or not. If I’m going to be a commercial artist, am I fulfilling that role? If I’m going to be a social justice artist, am I fulfilling that role? If I’m just going to be an artist that’s not going to accept money, am I fulfilling that role? It’s literally up to the artist to decide. I spent four years in LA. I didn’t get paid a dime for my art, and I finally said, “Why am I doing this?” I said, “Oh, I love it. I love performance. I’ve been doing it since I was five years old.” That’s why I’m starving myself to death, and then them money came later, but if would have only done it for the money, I would’ve been out of there in a year because I wouldn’t have made anything, so that’s how I define art for myself. I have to love it; I have to have a passion for it; I have to make a difference in the world or I’m not going to do it.

KN: Yeah, that’s a great answer to the question and a good place to conclude. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

LG: I wish that African American artists would stop competing with one another. They taught us to compete with one another, and I think it’s really important, especially when it comes to getting on that level where we’re so successful that they’re asking us, “Well, what does the black community think about…”We have to be careful that we don’t speak on behalf of the African American people. We have to make sure that we don’t allow the media to portray us a a monolith, making one person a spokesman and representing us as one dimensional. Unfortunately, we’ve now become elitist. I think it’s really important that we’re always bringing everyone with us along the way. I think it’s really important that in our striving for success we don’t push each other down.

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