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Michael Gonzales
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written articles, essays and reviews for numerous publications including Paris Review, Wax Poetics, Mass Appeal, Complex and The Wire U.K. Currently he writes The Blacklist book column for Catapult.

Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes: On Novelist Nettie Jones and the Madness of ‘Fish Tales’

Illustration by Carla Fuentes Fuertes

Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | October 2019 | 23 minutes (5,959 words)

In the 1970s, Random House editor Toni Morrison was on a mission to change the face of African American literature. As one of the few Black editors at a major publishing house in the position to green-light writers, Morrison, as the New York Times noted in a 1977 profile, “sat behind a desk stacked stacked high with correspondence and typed loose leaf manuscripts” and signed a group of Black poets, biographers, and novelists who would lay a new literary foundation throughout the decade and into the early ’80s. The stirring, often haunting works of Toni Cade Bambara (The Salt Eaters), Henry Dumas (Jonoah and the Green Stone), Quincy Troupe (Giant Talk: An Anthology of Third World Writings), and Angela Davis (Angela Davis: An Autobiography) were met with academic acceptance and critical acclaim. Those authors became celebrated “new voices,” but one book Morrison edited during that era slipped through the literary cracks and virtually disappeared. 

Mostly forgotten and long out-of-print, Fish Tales by Nettie Jones is an often shocking, sexually charged novel that has retained the sharpness of its cutting edge in the 36 years since its release. Jones came to Morrison’s attention via another writer of her prose posse, Corregidora author Gayl Jones (no relation), whom Nettie cited as a friend and mentor during the three years it took to finish her book. Fish Tales was published in 1983, the same year Morrison, who had already written four novels including The Bluest Eye and Sula, quit her job to devote herself full-time to writing. Although Random House balked at buying Jones’s book, Morrison, already an empress in the literary world, persuaded the publisher that the work was worthy. “Toni was acquiring strong writers,” said literary agent Marie Dutton Brown, who, in the 1970s held a similar editorial position  at Doubleday. “There was no formulaic fiction on her roster. Toni saw something in Nettie that she thought was worthy of publication.”


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Fish Tales is a 175-page chronicle of Detroit native Lewis Jones, a spirited but troubled party girl who, at 32, is too old to be called a girl, but still behaves like one. After her unrequited lover’s new wife teaches her “to disconnect [her] brain from [her] pussy,” Lewis begins diving into situations without considering the often-chaotic consequences of her actions. She splits her high times between the Motor City and Manhattan during the scotch-on-the-rocks, sexually liberated, drug-saturated, disco-blasting 1970s. Lewis gets her freak on while looking for love from all the wrong people, including her flawed doctor husband Woody, who becomes her patron and funds her bi-state misadventures, a homosexual hustler friend Kitty-Kat, and the snide quadriplegic Brook, the sometimes-mean object of her fire and desire. 

* * *

In the few interviews Jones did in the 1980s, she always maintained that Fish Tales was a truthful interpretation of her own wild life in Detroit and New York. Born on January 1, 1941, in Arlington, Georgia, she relocated to Detroit when she was 5. She was the oldest child and had a younger sister; together, they took a train with their grandmother and arrived at the majestic Michigan Central Station. Her mother, who was already in the city, welcomed them at the terminal. 

“That station was so beautiful,” 78-year-old Nettie Jones told me in the spring from her Brooklyn apartment. “I came with the migrants to work in the factories. I never heard anyone say they came to Detroit to get their children a better education. They all say, ‘Did you hear how much money they paying at Ford?’” Living on Pulford Street, Jones’s family was working-class and her mother was biracial. She has fond memories of roller skating with her sister at the Arcadia Ballroom roller rink, visiting her grandmother’s grocery store, watching movies that included Carmen Jones and Imitation of Life, seeing Billie Holiday at the Paradise Theatre, and visiting Uncle Dix in the Black Bottom when her mama walked her to piano lessons. “He always had a plate of fried fish waiting for us,” she remembered. 

‘Fish Tales’ was published in 1983, the same year Morrison, who had already written four novels including The Bluest Eye and Sula, quit her job to devote herself full-time to writing.

In high school, she became friends with the bougie bunch who usually stayed away from kids who weren’t part of their prosperous posse. “I met up with some of those fancy Negroes and they thought I was one of them because I had light skin and blue eyes,” she said. “They were the children of doctors and businessmen, the old Detroiters. They were the Negroes that were doing very well. There was a separation between us and them, but I did get to see into their houses. In my dreams I was going to become a principal in Detroit and buy a big house and a Cadillac. As you know, Detroit is known for its big houses and Cadillacs.” 

Two stellar books, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class by Lawrence Otis Graham and Negroland by Margo Jefferson, tell the story of the Black bourgeoisie that she refers to. Jones was attracted to that lifestyle, but she still rejected the rules and protocols that went along with it. When Jones was 17, in 1958, she gave birth to her daughter Lynne and married the baby’s father, Frank Stafford; they divorced three or four years later. Still, she continued with her education and, after graduating from Central High, attended Wayne State where she got a degree in 1962. 

In 1963, she married Frank Harris and relocated to Montreal while he was in dental school. After Harris became an orthodontist, the family moved back to Detroit. Jones taught high school. “I’ve been a teacher in my mind since I was a child,” Jones said. “I taught reading, but I failed as a secondary school teacher in Detroit. The whole system was collapsing. Things were falling apart.” It was during this period that Jones began plotting her escape from Detroit, though she wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do.

* * *

Aside from keeping a journal, Jones did little writing during those years. As a lover of movies, she’d originally conceived Fish Tales as a screenplay, which might explain why it’s written, as literary critic William O’Rourke noted in 1989, in episodic chapters “comprising of short scenes, the hearts of vignettes.” Jones later described the book as a textual collage. “That was a word I picked up from [artist] Romare Bearden. He said, ‘Black artists are collages, because we certainly make something out of nothing.’ I heard him say that one Sunday during a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum, and it stayed with me,” she said. Much as it did for Bearden, the collage method became the medium through which Jones could depict her own fractured experience. 

Two stellar books, ‘Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class’ by Lawrence Otis Graham and ‘Negroland’ by Margo Jefferson, tell the story of the Black bourgeoisie that she refers to. Jones was attracted to that lifestyle, but she still rejected the rules and protocols that went along with it.

To open Fish Tales, Jones uses a Jean Toomer quote as an epigraph: “The human fish is intricate and hidden; the appearance of his fins are deceptive.” Yet fish in the context of this novel is a derogatory term some gay men used about women and the supposed smell of vaginas. This becomes clear when Lewis’s best friend, Kitty-Kat, talks about a drag queen who used sardine oil on herself to “smell like an authentic girl.” Lewis meets Kitty-Kat one lonely Christmas when she calls “Dial Your Desire” looking for companionship. Throughout the book, with Kitty keeping her company, Lewis is intoxicated, and her bad behavior, directed toward friends and strangers alike, often leads to “grand drunken scenes” that are decadent, thrilling, and sad. 

Things get worse in the second half when our human hurricane falls in love with Brook. Disabled during a prep school wrestling match, he’s tall and handsome with a number of women fighting over him. “Do you think that you are the first woman that ever did anything for me? Loved me? Wanted me?” he screams at Lewis during one of their many arguments. 

* * *

The poet Brittany Dennison learned about Fish Tales in 2018 when reading a list of books that Toni Morrison edited. Dennison, who has since read the book twice, said of the novel, “As soon as Lewis transitions from sex to love, that’s when things fall apart.” Dennison quickly became a fan of Nettie Jones, though others in her lit circle weren’t as generous. “They were kind of blindsided by the amount of fast living that is in the book, but none of that bothered me. The sex and drugs were a part of Lewis’ journey, but I never felt that the writer was trying to be raw just to shock the reader. Nettie’s writing is natural and honest.” 

When the recently released Toni Morrison documentary The Pieces I Am flashes covers of various books she edited on screen, Fish Tales isn’t shown. It’s as though even the woman who’d introduced Jones’s writing to the world had pushed it to the rear of her memory. Still, a small group of readers, both those from back in the day and recent recruits, are fans of the avant-garde Black erotica tale that takes them zooming down, as the jacket copy promises, “life in the fast lane.” 

In Darryl Pinckney’s essay “The Fast Lane,” published in the November 8, 1984, issue of the New York Review of Books, he critiqued Fish Tales alongside Jay McInerney’s influential Bright Lights, Big City. Pinckney, a noted literary critic and novelist of High Cotton (1992) and Black Deutschland (2016), wrote, “The city, as the theater of experience, the refuge, the hiding place, has in turn been replaced by an abstraction, the fast lane. In the fast lane the passive observer reduces everything — streets, people, rock lyrics, headlines — to landscape. Every night holds magical promises of renewal. But burnout is inevitable, like some law of physics. The hand — or drug — that raises the loser up will abandon him in mid-flight and he will crash.” As a survivor of that lifestyle, I can assure you the crashes can be deadly.

Bright Lights, Big City became the touchstone of ’80s fiction while Fish Tales, published by the same house, sank into obscurity. “McInerney’s second-person narrator loses everything, but the second chance is implied,”  Pinckney told me recently, 35 years after his review ran. “Nettie Jones’s book is much darker and it is a woman’s story, a Black woman’s story, as well. Her comedy is deadly, while his is charming. The books went together in my mind because of thinking about them as ‘fast lane’ novels, that aspect of city life, night time, clubs and drugs, as they were back then. You could say Jones’s scene was the scene McInerney’s scene came from. Hers is edgy and dangerous and his is cleaned up and expensive. Hers is closer in mood to certain gay novels of the late 1970s, a sort of victorious bohemianism, often ending in tragedy, because sin must be paid for by someone in American literature, at least in those days.”

Pinckney gave Fish Tales a mixed review. He was unhappy with its ending, which I thought kept in line with the unpredictability of the crazed characters. Upset, Jones contacted him, and the two went out for cocktails. “Nettie was grand, in a huge hat, just like the one Zora Neale Hurston is wearing in a famous photo,” Pinckey recalled via email. “She was grand, voluptuous, and beautiful. We went out, ran around, had a great time. I moved to Europe, but maybe that was only a part of why we lost touch. I heard from her again some years later. She was living with her daughter in New Jersey. I’m not sure, but I think she says she was writing something new.” Neither can remember if they ever discussed the review.

Jones’ second and last published book was Mischief Makers from 1989, but she has been working on a third novel for a number of years. “Nettie is like the female Ralph Ellison when it comes to finishing that book,” friend and fellow writer Dr. Glenda R. Taylor said. “I’ve read a lot of it over the years, but she’s been working on it for forever.” The book, which was originally titled Detroit: Beauty in This Beast, but is now called Puma, is one that Jones began in 1996. In the intervening years, she worked as a teacher, and little work was done on the manuscript. Recent illnesses have also hindered Jones’ writing.  

Taylor and Jones met in the winter of 2009, and Taylor interviewed the novelist for a series of YouTube videos the following year. “I think what made me what to talk to her was that Nettie is unfiltered. She’s not always politically correct and she doesn’t mind saying it from the top of a mountain.” She prefers Jones’s second book, a period novel about three biracial sisters (Native American and Black) coming of age in the “beautiful wilderness” of Leelanau County, Michigan, and Detroit. “Truthfully, Fish Tales was a little jarring for me. Nettie was writing about subjects that I’d never read about before. I just couldn’t relate to the people in that book.”

* * *

While “eroticism is as old as humankind itself,” as Charles L. Blockson states in his essay “African-American Erotica and Other Curiosities,” it was not always openly depicted in our literature. When Fish Tales came out in 1983, there were no mainstream Black erotica markets. The groundbreaking Erotique Noire/Black Erotica edited by Miriam Decosta-Willis dropped in 1992, and a decade later, into the new millennium, Zane’s nasty novels became standard subway reading. In 2001, Carol Taylor began publishing her Brown Sugar collections, including stories by Nelson George, asha bandele, Rebecca Carroll, Miles Marshall Lewis, and myself.

While I believe that Fish Tales fit perfectly into the erotica category, there are others who thought it was smut. “Some people have tried to label Fish Tales pornographic, but I don’t agree,” Brittany Dennison said. “Jones wasn’t writing about hard cocks and bouncing breasts, but a sexuality that was much more true and real. Yes, there are times when the reader becomes a voyeur and the book can be disquieting and uncomfortable, like peeking through a window and seeing an orgy, but we see the world through Lewis’s eyes, and it’s honest and scary.” 

‘As soon as Lewis transitions from sex to love, that’s when things fall apart.’

At the time of its release, some critics were dismayed by Lewis’s sexuality and so-called counterculture behavior as though Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and Clarence Major had never existed. One reviewer described Fish Tales as an “an excursion into perversion,” Jones recalled. “When I heard that I thought it was interesting. I suppose it was perversion, but it was also the truth.” 

Two years after it was published, Jones told the New York Times that Fish Tales, “dramatizes my reality blended with heavy shots of my fantasies and my fascinations.” While that could describe the writing process of many other novels, Jones’s honesty in conversation and on the page is blunt. To me, Lewis was written in the grand tradition of wild women in pop culture and real life artistic bohemia, ladies whose lights shine bright until the moment that darkness descends in the guise of liquor, sex, drugs, and mental illness. 

From the first time I read Lewis’s story, she reminded me of real and fictional “wild women,” including Zelda Fitzgerald, singer Betty Davis, Holly Golightly, Dorothy Parker, and blaxploitation princess Pam Grier as Coffy, code switching from lovestruck femme to blade-welding woman in a heartbeat. Certainly, both the writer and lead character shared a lust for life that could be as exhilarating and scary as a high-wire act on the sharp edge of a razor blade. Still, no matter how crazy Lewis was, there was an urbane complexity that made her, at least to me, attractive and interesting. 

Back in the ’80s, when I was a young man roaming free through the New York City nighttime landscape, those were the sort of Black women I was most attracted to. They were cool, chic, creative, and maybe a little crazy. These kinds of sisters — actresses, writers, bass players, nightclub doorwomen, or computer programmers — were never mentioned in the trendy texts of the times that included Bright Lights, Big City or Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York. But in real Big Apple life, they were always a part of the scene: at SoHo gallery openings; on Lower East Side and Greenwich Village subway platforms; on the dance floor of Danceteria, the Ritz, and the Garage; or throwing back shots at a Black Rock Coalition shows at CBGB’s and Wetlands.   

In 1985, a year after Bright Lights became my personal manifesto and author McInerney a literary hero, I fell in love and lived with a woman very much like Jones/Lewis for the next four years. She too was from Detroit and was smart, sarcastic, and sexy, but also overly critical and quite volatile. In 1989, after literally kicking me in the ass with her high-heeled shoes when I turned my back on her during an argument, we broke up. I flew solo for the next 24 months, until I met music publicist Lesley Pitts. A voracious reader, she introduced me to the short fiction of Flannery O’Connor, the essays of Fran Lebowitz, and Nettie Jones’s Fish Tales

Though I considered myself well-read, I’d never heard of Jones until Lesley mentioned her. She had lost her copy of Fish Tales by the time we met, and the book was then out of print. I went on a used bookstore treasure hunt and found it at the Strand. The book’s colorful cover, illustrated by George Corsillo, resembled a trendy clothing store ad for Trash & Vaudeville or Zoot in the East Village Eye. A dreamy pop art portrait showed a light-skinned Black woman floating through a glass of bubbly along with a fish, a pair of pink pumps, and a strand of pearls. The woman looked as though she was being waved into Area or the Michael Todd Room. That evening, I surprised Lesley with the book. “I can’t believe you found this,” she said. I felt like I’d passed a test. After rereading it, Lesley suggested that I check it out. 

* * *

Fish Tales was written, published, and marketed as “literary,” but a creepy, noir darkness floats through the text like a black cloud. During the writing process, Jones looked to friends such as Gayl Jones and Marie Brown for guidance. Decades later, Brown remembered, “I read through various drafts of Fish Tales, and it was a one-of-a-kind story. There are very few originals out here being published, but that’s not always a good thing in publishing, because people act like they don’t know how to market it or get it reviewed. From the beginning of reading Nettie’s work, I was aware that she wasn’t writing in the tradition, but she kept working. She was determined to get published.” 

Brown has been a leading literary agent since 1984. She and Jones first met a few years before she began that career, when Brown was editing the short-lived Black women’s magazine Elan. They lived together briefly in Brown’s uptown Sugar Hill brownstone along with culinary writer Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. Over the years, many artists and musicians have lived under Brown’s roof. “Marie Brown has nurtured many artists and musicians as an editor-agent-friend among other titles,” Jones said. “She gave me knowledge of that new world of publishing that I was entering. Marie let me stay with her in Harlem when she first moved there. So many famous people passed through. She advised me. She was ‘the other editor.’ I owe Marie big time as do many others.”

‘Nettie was grand, in a huge hat, just like the one Zora Neale Hurston is wearing in a famous photo.’

Brown’s now-grown daughter recalled to her mother that Jones made her put away her dolls because the toy’s faces disturbed her. “Nettie was not part of the New York literary world,” Brown said. “There were a group of women that included Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and others who socialized, worked together, and supported one another, but Nettie was an independent. Besides me and Gayl Jones, she had no friendships in that world.” 

Certainly that would explain why Jones hasn’t been anthologized, studied, or talked about as much as the others. While I’m not sure that Nettie Jones’s readership is large enough to be considered a cult, there’s something about her work that touches those of us who have read her. “Nettie didn’t get a lot of reviews and profiles when the books came out, but she became a word-of-mouth writer, the kind of writer that people tell their friends to read,” Brown said.  

* * *

“Some people are born writers, but that’s not me,” Jones told me. While we were on the phone, I looked at her big eyes in a Fern Logan photograph taken many years before our conversation. Her stylish attire reminded me of my mom’s friends during that same era. Jones appeared seductive and smart, but her eyes seemed as though they could stare into your soul. “I’m no Brontë sister or Ralph Ellison,” she said. “I wrote Fish Tales the way I did because I allowed myself to be free and to listen and to take down what I needed. Some writers are afraid of freedom, because they’re concerned with what mama may think. The first agent I had worked with Rosa Guy and Louise Meriwether, but she read three pages of Fish Tales and quit. I guess I was a little rough, but when Gayl got the book to Toni, she warned her about the language.” 

The Detroit section has two chapters that describe the city before and after the 1967 riot that devastated it in ways still being felt today. Jones was living in a lush apartment house where she witnessed the burning city from her 12th-floor window. “It was heartbreaking, but the riot is often used to illustrate when the city began to change. Detroit had begun to change long before that. The truth is much more complex,” she said. Jones received a master’s of education in 1971, and later that year relocated to New York to take graduate courses at the New School for Social Research. She also took classes in copywriting at the Fashion Institute of Technology. 

“Going to school was just an excuse to get to the city,” Jones said. “I wasn’t in love with either of my husbands. The first one I married because of the baby and the second one, we made a deal if I put him through school then it would be my turn. He didn’t mind me going to New York. My daughter refused to come with me on my adventure. She said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘OK, bye.’ She was 13, so of course I was a disgrace in the eyes of the neighbors. Family life wasn’t a happy place for me.” 

At 30 years old, Jones began life anew in the big city of dreams among the gleaming skyscrapers, wondrous museums, great restaurants, and those artistic feelings that began vibrating through her body once she settled down in a grand apartment on 21 West 9th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, five flights up with a skylight. 

“Originally, I was staying on 21st Street, but the person I was renting from wasn’t paying, so the marshals came and kicked me out. My friend Jack Arnold Clark took me in as his roommate. He was the queen of queens, but I was in love with him. He was 6’5” and he made me throw away most of my clothes, because he says they were too Detroit,” Jones said. Although New York City was going through its rotten Big Apple phase of high crime, rampant decay, and near bankruptcy, Jones was living the damn near high life. “Jack was a master cook, and I would go to Jefferson Market for our food. Jack didn’t allow cans in the house or anything frozen. We had an interesting life, me and the charming queen.” 

In addition to the “gorgeous” life she was living with Jack. “I was just drinking scotch, but other people were smoking weed and sniffing coke,” she said. “That was when I began living the story that would become Fish Tales. I was living it, but I didn’t realize it at the time.” Her husband Frank came to visit often, but in 1976 the couple divorced, though they remained friends until his dying day. “I wanted a divorce, because I got tired of being an adulteress. He was probably being one too, because our sex life was not good. When you’re a couple, that’s vital.” 

Jones never finished her classes at the New School, and, with her newfound free time, began to write. “Since I was home, Jack suggested I needed a project and somehow I decided that project would be writing,” she said. Jones began writing regularly, but after an argument with Jack, the two friends had a falling out. “He was a psychiatrist, so he should have known that I was crazy. I had started writing a book that I dramatically threw into the flames of the fireplace when I left. Truthfully, I don’t think there was much.” 

After traveling back to Detroit, she met Todd Duncan, a professor at Wayne State University specializing in American literature who soon became her mentor, lover, and the inspiration for brilliant quadriplegic character Brook that Jones created for Fish Tales. In 1980, Duncan introduced Jones to Gayl Jones when the shy, complicated writer was teaching at the University of Michigan, five years after Morrison edited the manuscript that would become Corregidora. In an article Morrison penned for Mademoiselle, she wrote of Gayl’s work, “I shuddered before the awesome power of this young woman.” 

‘Some writers are afraid of freedom, because they’re concerned with what mama may think.’

Jones shared her work with Gayl, and the two began a long friendship that would see them through several dramas in their lives. “When I read Gayl’s work I was inspired, because her books were so different,” Jones said. “Gayl didn’t tell me how to write, but she did advise me.” Known to be shy, Gayl accepted Jones for who she was. “Gayl never had any fear with me. I seem to have a way of getting close to people that others can’t get close too. She advised me to simply write and not throw away any of the pages. When Fish Tales was finished, she gave me a list of editors to contact. I think Toni was third on the list, so I didn’t contact her until I was rejected by the first two.” 

Without an agent at the time, Jones sent Morrison the manuscript in the mail and it was accepted. Another writer would have been enormously thankful for the opportunity to collaborate with the premier Black editor, but Jones wasn’t impressed with their working relationship. “Toni was my editor, but I only met her once, and that was only because my agent, Julian Bach, who I acquired after the book was sold, insisted,” she said. In addition, Jones felt she should’ve been paid more than $3,000 fee she was paid. “That’s $1,500 before publication and $1,500 after. Things were very different back then, and none of us was going to get rich publishing novels.” 

Jones later realized that their relationship could have been better. “I was not what she was used to handling, because I didn’t know she was the queen. Toni was a literary lion and I didn’t act accordingly, but if I knew then what I know now, I’d be, ‘Yes, yes’m, Ms. Morrison.’” We both laughed. While the Jones women remained friends, Gayl hasn’t published a book since 1998. A week after her novel, The Healing, was released, she and her Black militant husband Bob Higgins were involved in a stand-off with police after a decade spent in hiding. Higgins committed suicide while Gayl watched from across the room as she was being held by police. “I had eaten dinner with both of them at that same table,” Jones said. “She hasn’t published anything since, but I know she is still writing, because that’s all she knows how to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was publishing under an alias.”

* * *

The jacket copy for Fish Tales compared the book to William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, which Jones described as “disgusting.” Though far-fetched, it was a sign that she had strayed into a different landscape than her contemporaries. “I was sick and tired of these books that told the same damn story over and over,” she said. “I kept wondering, when do we move ahead and push our stories forward.” Fish Tales was not protest fiction, and Jones seemed guided by Albert Murray’s influential essays in The Omni-Americans. He thought the fictions of James Baldwin and the Black Arts Movement scribes portrayed “Negro” life as one-dimensional and narrow. In his mean-spirited and funny critique of Claude Brown’s bestselling ghetto classic Manchild in the Promised Land, he wrote, “The background experience of U.S. Negroes is a rich source of many things. But many people insist that it is the only source of frustration and crime, degradation, emasculation, and self-hatred.”

“There’s a real divide between what Nettie Jones and Gayl Jones were writing, compared to what Alice Walker and Toni Morrison were doing,” mystery writer and creator of the character Nanette Hayes, a jazz musician detective, Charlotte Carter said. “In Nettie’s work there is a dreamy quality to it that pulls you in as well as the feeling that there is nothing between you and Lewis’s voice.” While Jones’s writing was inspired by the minimalism of lost generation honcho Ernest Hemingway and the eroticism of D.H. Lawrence, Carter also saw a bit of Norman Mailer in the freaky-deaky prose. “Everything comes down to sex. It’s the thing that gives life to you, destroys you. It’s redemptive, it’s religion, it’s a yardstick to how liberal you are and how hip.” 

A few days later, when I was talking to Jones about the sex in her work, she laughed. “A lot of women writers were prudish,” she said. “Those writers were coming on like nuns. I knew I wasn’t the only one who had a baby at 17, not the only one who drank. They acted like they ain’t never spread their legs or turned their butts up.” 

 In the end, it was liquor that became Jones’ worst enemy.  “I think I would’ve been a lot more successful if I hadn’t been drunk all the time,” Jones said. Having had my own battles with the bottle, spending much of the ’90s “in my cups,” as the old folks used to say, I’m not here to pass judgment. No one aims to become an alcoholic, but with enough practice it can happen to anyone. “I cared for no one other than me and my God when I was intoxicated with Jack Barleycorn,” Jones said over email, referencing Jack London’s alcoholic memoirs. “God was going to love me anyway no matter what I did. Narcissism running rampant is a power for many successful human beings, but I have been sober for years after many years of striving to kick this monkey off my back.” 

In addition, she is being treated for manic depression, which she described as a  a chemical condition exacerbated by “memories of childhood molestation by a school teacher, statutory rape by my first husband and father of my child, rejection by my family, expulsion from school in the last semester of my secondary education, stress of always having to wipe out these head starts to madness by being extraordinary as a woman.”

Back in 1991, after I finished reading Fish Tales, I put it back on the shelf and didn’t think about it for two decades. Even in 2002, when I read Carter’s brilliant stand-alone noir Walking Bones (2002), a book that was influenced by Fish Tales and featured a protagonist named Nettie, I had, like so many others, forgotten. “I first read Fish Tales in the ’80s, and though it left a huge impression, I don’t remember thinking about it consciously when I was writing Walking Bones,” Carter said from her Lower East Side apartment. “Lewis was messed-up, articulate, bohemian, and free, and a part of that great artistic milieu that I was so caught-up in when I was younger. She was a Black woman in a world that most people don’t think of Black women in, and there isn’t much writing about us in that way. She was not the standard Black woman character.” 

The irony of Charlotte Carter’s last line — and a fact that I wasn’t aware of until recently — was that Jones, though Black herself, never set out to write an “African American book,” but instead was attempting to craft a “colorless” novel. “I wanted to present my characters as human beings, their character not determined by their color,” Jones said. In an effort to keep race out of the conversation, the fair-skinned, blue-eyed writer even opted to forgo her author’s photo. “I refused to have a photo of me, because I did not wish to have anyone not buy my book because of my race.” 

It was all for nothing because graphic designer George Corsillo hired a light-skinned woman to pose on the cover, and she became Lewis’s avatar. “I hated that cover and I actually went to Random House and asked it to be changed, but the production director literally begged me not to make this move. The book was in final production, so I gave in, but that picture defeated my desire to not include color on the cover or contents.” Most critics, with the exception of Darryl Pinckney, didn’t pick up on the “racial blurring” of Jones’s characters and, obviously judging the book by its cover, referred to Lewis as Black. 

“One of the remarkable aspects of this novel is that race doesn’t matter,” Pinckney wrote in 1984. “There is no sociology; even with descriptions of reddish hair on legs, curly heads, and broad noses it is hard to tell who has rhythm and who hasn’t.” Though Jones lived through the civil rights era in American politics and the Amiri Baraka–founded Black Arts Movement that included women writers Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Ntozake Shange, she refused to carry the banner for Blackness with the same zeal as her soul sistas. 

Jones is well aware of her own Blackness, but she’d prefer not to be referred to as African American. Old-school in that way that my own grandmother was, Jones still uses the words “Negro” and “colored” to describe herself. “Most people don’t say colored anymore. That has become an evil word,” she said. “I don’t use African American or Afro-American, because it’s too political and it’s too limiting. I’m not ashamed of any part of me, I just don’t want to give up the other parts. I’m not ashamed of my dark skin grandmother and I’m connected to all of those nice women in Congress. I’m from Detroit, which means I am of the world.”

After publishing Mischief Makers in 1989, Jones returned to the world of academia. She taught fiction at the University of Michigan and later at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She sometimes included fellow Detroit writer Donald Goines on the reading list. 

“I loved teaching, and the students loved me, because they were free. I didn’t ask them to do stupid things,” she said. Since retiring from academics in 2010, Jones has a had a few major medical setbacks, but “for me the research never ends,” she said. “That’s where we create our stories, our dances, our poetry, our journalism. Everything I look at, it’s like, how can I use that. At this point, I just do it automatically.” Meanwhile, she’s still writing, fighting, and observing the world through her piercing eyes. 

 

* * *

Essayist / short story writer Michael A. Gonzales has written about books for Catapult, Longreads, CrimeReads and The Paris Review. His fiction has appeared in The Root, Brown Sugar, Killens Review, Art Decades, Bronx Biannual, The Darker Mask and Black Pulp. In addition, Gonzales has written about music, visual art and film for The Village Voice, New York, Wax Poetics, HYCIDE, Pitchfork, Newark Bound and Vibe. Upcoming projects includes work in Sticking it to the Man: Revolution and Counter Culture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950-1980, edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre and Gimme the Loot, edited by Gabino Iglesias.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross

Fact checker: Steven Cohen

 

It’s Like That: The Makings of a Hip-Hop Writer

T-Neck Records, 4th & B'way, Jive, Profile Records, Ruffhouse Records

Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | June 2019 | 45 minutes (7,644 words)

 

Recently a friend told me, “When I was a newbie at Vibe magazine, I always thought, Mike looks like what I always imagined a real writer looked like, with your trenchcoat and briefcase and papers … and your hats. I can’t forget the hats.” Though he did forget the Mikli glasses and wingtips, I had to confess my style was one I’d visualized years before when I was a Harlem boy hanging out in the Hamilton Grange Library on 145th Street, looking at Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin book jacket pictures.

Read more…

Blackstars

Brook Stephenson / AP, Fryderyk Gabowicz / AP, Collage by Katie Kosma

Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | January 2018 | 13 minutes (3,186 words)

 

Something happened on the day he died

Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside

Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried

(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

— David Bowie, Blackstar

 

Last October, when it was announced that the SoHo bookstore McNally Jackson would moving in June, 2019 from its Prince Street location after 14 years (a decision that now seems to have been reversed), two people immediately came to mind: genius artist David Bowie, who in his lifetime was a frequent customer, and my late buddy Brook Stephenson, who worked at the shop for 11 years before his sudden passing on August 8, 2015. A few months before he died, over that year’s Memorial Day Weekend, I crashed at his Crown Heights crib while visiting from Philly. The neighborhood had changed a lot in the year since I’d moved, and Brook joked how one bar owner wasn’t very nice and welcoming to “the indigenous peoples” in the hood.

Only 41 when he died on a Saturday evening at a friend’s wedding reception, in my imagination he was taking pictures, one of his many passions sandwiched in between writing, traveling, cooking and drawing. Later I heard he had been dancing when he suddenly collapsed, foiled by an unknown heart problem. It was early Sunday morning when I heard the bad news from photographer Marcia Wilson. Although Marcia and I were friends, we rarely spoke on the phone, so my Spidey sense began tingling the moment I peeped her name on the caller ID.

“I was wondering if you had heard about Brook?” she began. Though I rarely cry, even in the presence of death’s stupid face, for the rest of the day and most of the week I was in a fog, shocked that yet another really good friend was gone. Brook and I had been buddies since meeting over a delicious chicken wing platter at our mutual friend’s baby shower in 2005. Since then more than a few friends have died, including writers Jerry Rodriguez, Tom Terrell, and Robert Morales, and former Rawkus Records publicist Devin Roberson, the woman I was with the same day I’d met Brook. However, his unanticipated death 10 years after our meeting at a joyful event made me feel as though I’d accidentally stepped off a cliff. Almost four years later, I’m still falling.
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Partners in Crime: The Life, Loves & Nuyorican Noir of Jerry Rodriguez

Photo courtesy the author / Kensington Publishing / Collage by Katie Kosma

Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | November 2018 | 19 minutes (5,320 words)

It was the third week in August 2004 when my best friend of 23 years, the screenwriter, playwright, and noir author Jerry Rodriguez, called me to blow off steam. Although he never told me the reasons, he and his girlfriend were breaking up. She was an attractive light-skinned woman from the West Coast, a respected editor, music critic, and novelist with hair that belonged in a shampoo commercial and a Colgate smile. A moody Cancerian who proudly represented “The Bay,” she’d known Tupac personally and could recite the lyrics to Too Short songs. Jerry was sick with cancer off and on throughout their three-year relationship and was still ill when his girlfriend decided it was over.

Diagnosed on Good Friday 2001, a few weeks after noticing a swelling on the top of his right foot, the disease steadily progressed. “She said I have to be gone by Labor Day,” Jerry sighed. “I’ve already started packing.” I sucked my teeth. “Well, that still gives you a few weeks to figure it out,” I answered, trying to sound reassuring. “It’ll be cool, man, don’t worry about it. I’ll come by and help you tomorrow.”

“Thanks, man.” Jerry’s voice was deep and serious. A lover of Sinatra, he sometimes carried himself in that stoic Frankie way. He’d watched a lot of tough guy movies with Bogart, Cagney, Lancaster, Widmark, and Mitchum as a kid. In the living room sitting next to his dad, he became a lover of film dialogue that he could recite verbatim.

That phone call came a week after Jerry turned 42. Born under the sign of Leo, he was a natural leader who usually had a big roar, but not that evening. I came over the next day while his now ex-girlfriend was at the gym. There were white moving boxes scattered throughout the beautifully decorated apartment. Outside, it was Hades hot, but the space was comfortably chilled by an air conditioner. Theirs was a dwelling I knew well, having been over for dinner parties, Sunday nights watching The Sopranos, Monday evenings viewing 24, and dog-sitting when they were out of town. Next to the front door was a long, wide cage containing Jerry’s furry white ferret Bandit. I could smell the Café Bustelo brewing.

Brooklyn Hospital was across the street, and the sounds of sirens were constant. Jerry would usually be talking about some new project or telling me about the folks from his day job at a Bronx drug clinic, but that day he was church-mouse quiet. Glancing at him, I sipped the strong coffee and placed familiar books in a box. I knew exactly what was coming next. After a few false starts, he blurted, “Look, if I can’t find a place right away, can I come stay with you for a little while?” I looked at him and smiled, knowing that in New York City, apartment-hunting-time “a little while” could mean anything from six months to six years.

For the previous few years, since my girlfriend Lesley passed away suddenly, I’d lived alone in Crown Heights. The last thing I wanted to do was share space with anyone. Still, how could I say no? He’d always been there for me, especially after Lesley’s brain aneurysm. The afternoon of her funeral, after everyone was gone, Jerry and I stood together in the empty New Jersey graveyard as my mind tried to process my plight. I was afraid to go home and face the empty Chelsea apartment Lesley and I shared, and Jerry understood my dilemma. “Let’s go to the movies and see The Iron Giant,” he said casually after we’d slipped into the limo back to Manhattan. I smiled for the first time since claiming her body at St. Vincent’s Hospital. For the next two weeks, he visited me every day after work.

All of that came back to me as I contemplated his question about moving in. “Of course, you can stay with me,” I answered, “but is the ferret coming too?” Then it was Jerry’s turn to smile.
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Lyrical Ladies, Writing Women, and the Legend of Lauryn Hill

Paul Warner / AP

 Michael Gonzales | Longreads | August 2018 | 21 minutes (5,551 words)

Back in the early 1980s, rap was primarily a boys club, but a few girls still managed to sneak in and do their thing. Although uptown girls Sha-Rock from the Funky Four + 1 and the Mercedes Ladies were pioneers of the genre, it was a teenager from Queens named Roxanne Shante who gets credit for laying down a verbal foundation for other fem rhyme slayers to follow for decades. As seen in the gritty Netflix biopic Roxanne Roxanne, which details the rapper’s humble beginnings and hard knock life, Shante was just another around-the-way girl with an attitude living in Queensbridge Projects when she was discovered by record producer Marley Marl, who lived and worked in the same public housing sprawl. Marley’s rap posse the Juice Crew featuring Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie and MC Shan were some of the best rappers in the city and being down with them meant something special.

Going by her government name Lolita Shanté Gooden, she began rapping at ten years old and was known within those brick buildings to be the best at freestyling and battling alongside the boys. Unlike a decade later when the scantily clad Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim became the most popular female rappers, in the ‘80s it wasn’t about sex appeal (often “lady rappers,” with the exception of The Sequence, dressed like the boys), but simply skills. “Shante was a gem,” Marley told me in 2008. “All her songs were made up on the the spot. All you had to do was give her a subject and she would run with it.”

Recruited to bring her dis-heavy rhymes to a record designed to answer back to U.T.F.O.’s popular 1984 jam “Roxanne Roxanne,” a somewhat sexist song featuring Brooklyn rappers Kangol Kid, Educated Rapper and Doctor Ice (Mix Master Ice was their DJ) that steadily insults a “stuck up” young woman who was new to their block, Shante adopted a new first name and brought the pain. “Roxanne Roxanne” might’ve been a sensation and a best-seller for U.T.F.O., but when Shante’s squeaky yet powerful response “Roxanne’s Revenge” was released a few months later, U.T.F.O., as well as the rest of the world, were caught off-guard. Rox called them out individually, verbally taking down the entire crew as she delivered the goods and changed hip-hop history.

The rap sisterhood soon included Sparky D, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, LA Star, Monie Love, Lauryn Hill, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Nicki Minaj and countless others. For many of the women rappers who’ve succeeded throughout the years, as former Def Jam artist Nikki D says in the 2010 documentary My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women And Hip Hop directed by Ava DuVernay, “They were doing double of what a dude could do.”

While Roxanne was an obvious inspiration to her fellow female MCs for decades to come, her voice and lyrics also inspired many young women who never touched a mic to pursue their path regardless of any barriers the boys might put in their way.

‘She Begat This’ is a celebration of the Bad Boy boom bap Wu Tang neo-soul Missy Elliott roaring 1990s, an end-of-the-century era that was an important period in black popular culture.

Like hip-hop itself, writing about rap music was mostly the beat of male (the main quartet being Nelson George, Greg Tate, Barry Michael Cooper and Harry Allen) music journalists in the the early years, but by the mid-’80s, that too would change. There were the Village Voice scribes Carol Cooper and Lisa Jones, though neither wrote that much about the genre. Additionally, there were also the often overlooked women from the glossy teen zines: Cynthia Horner (Right On!), Gerrie Summers (Word Up), Kate Ferguson, Yvette Noel-Schure (who today is Beyonce’s publicist), Marcia Cole and Belinda Trotter. However, progressing into the ‘90s, the textual landscape began to change as women who came of age within the culture — whether hanging at park jams, clubbing with the b-boys or simply enthralled by the booming beat underground sounds that were slowly becoming mainstream — decided that they too had something to say about the scene. The shortlist of then young scribes includes future powerhouse writers/editors Kierna Mayo, dream hampton, Mimi Valdes, who produced the movie Roxanne Roxanne, and Danyel Smith, but it was the writings of Joan Morgan, author of the recently released She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, that I remember reading first.

For me, Joan was the hip-hop writer version of Roxanne Shante. Certainly, she wasn’t the first woman hip-hop writer on the scene, but from jump she was one of the best. While She Begat This, which includes a forward by Mayo, is a tribute to Hill’s masterful album that was released 20 years ago this past weekend, on August 25th, 1998, it’s also a celebration of the Bad Boy boom bap Wu Tang neo-soul Missy Elliott roaring 1990s, an end-of-the-century era that was an important period in black popular culture as well as in the professional and personal lives of those who were there as participants and witnesses, writing from the frontlines with Afro abandon. Back then, besides our personal stereos and radios, The Miseducation could be heard blaring from house parties, spoken word readings, cool clothing stores, restaurants, cars parked on the street and bubbling brown sugar bars everywhere.

These days Joan Morgan, between raising her son as a single mother, teaching at various universities and working on her Ph.D. dissertation, hardly ever writes about hip-hop culture, but when the publisher 37 INK offered her the project to riff on Hill’s landmark disc she felt it was her responsibility to do the right thing. Still, anyone anticipating a 33 1/3-type book filled with nerdy details describing recording sessions, Hill’s writing process, a close reading analysis of the lyrics or an interview with the featured artist, or at least with some of the musicians and collaborators, will be sorely disappointed. Morgan, whose book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down (1999) is as influential a text amongst a certain sector of the literary hip-hop audience as Hill’s music, chose instead to write “a cultural history of the album.”

In addition to her personal observations and opinions of Lauryn as seen (heard) through a womanist lens, Morgan also interviews her girlfriends, fellow writers and thinkers who were also a part of the New York City (and Brooklyn) scene when Miseducation was first released. Serving as an intellectual Greek chorus throughout the book, they share their thoughts on Hill in relation to colorism, mental health, style, relationships and black genius.

However, considering all the interviews Hill did when the album was released, it’s striking that not one was quoted in She Begat This. Morgan talks about the beauty of the Harper’s Bazaar cover Lauryn appeared on, as well as the “lily-whiteness” of that magazine, which usually kept black faces regulated to the interior pages, but never once mentions what Hill said inside that issue . The only person Morgan spoke with who was actually connected to The Miseducation was Lauryn’s former personal manager Jayson Jackson, who gave the writer some juicy tidbits, including the fact that the record company was unhappy with the project when it was first presented to them.

“Truthfully, when I thought about it I knew that no one would be able to write the book the way I would,” says Morgan via cellphone from an Amtrak train leaving Martha’s Vineyard back to New York City. “But, I only had four months to complete the book and I didn’t have time to chase Lauryn down for an interview, so I interviewed other people (including dream hampton, Michaela Angela Davis, Dr. Yaba Blay, Karen Goode Marable, Akiba Solomon and former Honey magazine editor Joicelyn Dingle) to get their take on what made the project iconic.”

*

Twenty years later The Miseducation is still relevant and winning honors; most recently it was voted #2 on NPR’s list of The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women, sandwiched between #1 Joni Mitchell (Blue) and Lauryn’s spiritual godmother Nina Simone (I Put a Spell On You) at #3. As writer Paula Mejia stated in her essay on The Miseducation, “The album, rife with Hill’s biting rhymes and sharp turns of phrase, is a wonder from start to finish.” With lyrics that were as piercing and probing as an Alice Walker novel (“…blessed with a broad literary arsenal that… reflected her dexterity as a wordsmith,” Morgan writes) and as musically lush as a seventies Ann Peebles song produced by Willie Mitchell, the album was obviously brilliant, but for Lauryn Hill it would be both a gift and a curse.

The curse came later that year when the production team New-Ark, who helped Hill with producing and songwriting but never signed any contracts, sued for more money (they were originally paid $100,000) and for writing credits. Hill eventually settled with the musicians, and it’s hard for observers not to speculate that the suit embarrassed Lauryn or even scarred her emotionally — a narrative passively reinforced not least by her inability to create a follow-up studio album.

Morgan’s writings helped many rap-loving women navigate through the gray areas of the music that they might’ve loved dearly, but didn’t always love them back.

Hill’s strange behavior both onstage and off has been documented heavily, including in a recent interview with respected jazz pianist Robert Glasper detailing his bad experiences working with her in 2008. Appearing on Houston, Texas, radio station 97.9 The Box, Glasper told tales: from being instructed to address her as Ms. Hill (something that everyone is supposed to do) to never looking her in the eye to her habit of firing her touring bands no matter how good they might be. Addressing Hill directly on the show, Glasper said, “You haven’t done enough to be the way you are…the one thing you did that was great, you didn’t do…” In a recent Medium essay, “Addressing Robert Glasper and other common misconceptions about me (in no particular order)” Ms. Hill responded to the criticism.

Film producer/director Lisa Cortes (Precious), who is currently directing the documentary The Remix: Hip Hop x. Fashion, says, “I don’t think that [sharing credits with New-Ark] should’ve made people look at her negatively.” As a former record executive, Cortes worked closely with R&B and hip-hop producers in the late ’80s/early ’90s. “Plenty of music men have used ghostwriters or other producers to help them finish tracks, but they’ve never been dragged the way Lauryn was. The writing and producing she has done with others (Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, Whitney Houston) speaks for her talents and The Miseducation remains a remarkable achievement.”

The controversy of creation never deterred me from listening to The Miseducation and continually embracing its brilliance, but I’ve always been upset that Hill never released another full-length project. With the exception of the much maligned MTV Unplugged project (Village Voice critic Miles Marshall Lewis was the only writer I know who liked that album, calling the 2002 project “the most powerful artistic document to emerge from hip-hop America post-9/11”) and a single with the Fugees (“Take It Easy”), there has been nothing. “From what I understand, Lauryn never stopped recording,” says Morgan, “she just hasn’t put anything out. Who knows, maybe she’ll put out some new music in time for the anniversary.”

Though Lauryn still tours, often showing up hours late and performing her songs in a variety of different arrangements that sometimes angers the audience, The Miseducation remains Hill’s only solo album. After announcing an anniversary tour in April, by July most of the dates were postponed or canceled. “This album chronicled an intimate piece of my young existence,” Hill said in a statement released when the tour was announced. “It was the summation of most, if not all, of my most hopeful and positive emotions experienced to that date.”

*

Interviewing Morgan on her book’s publication date, we reminisce about those early days when she was a young writer at the Village Voice, hanging out in the lounge where she befriended writers and editors including Joe Levy, who suggested she cover the Mike Tyson rap trial in 1992. “I was completely untrained,” she says. “People were telling me that they liked my voice (in print), but I really didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t breaking the rules, I just didn’t know what they were.” My introduction to Morgan’s work was her 1990 review of former N.W.A. member Ice Cube’s solo debut AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (Priority), which was also published in the Village Voice.

Living in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn with my buddy Havelock Nelson while we worked on our book Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture, I sat in the CD-cluttered kitchen and read the piece twice, loving every word of it. Morgan’s writing was powerful, poetic and bold, with the review itself written in the style of a short story involving her girlfriends in Martha’s Vineyard and the Cube cassette. Balancing Cube’s angry Black man stance (his post-Panther arguments with the government and the police) and his sexism, Morgan was split between loving the album and throwing the record into a bonfire. “I think of that review as the first in hip-hop feminism,” she says.

Filmmaker Syreeta Gates, who is currently working on Write On! The Legend of Hip-Hop’s Ink Slingers, a documentary about hip-hop writers from the ‘90s, says, “Straight out the gate her Ice Cube piece had us reimagine our relationships not only with the culture but with the artists in relation to their lyrics…For me, she gave space to play in the grays that I never thought was possible in the realm of hip-hop culture. Her ideology around hip-hop feminism gave a generation of young women a [language for] something that I think for the most part we made a distinct choice to participate in.”

A self-proclaimed “cultural chameleon,” Morgan was a Bronx-bred homegirl who was part prep school (she’d attended the prestigious Fieldston School), part Phillies blunt; an Ivy League graduate who was reared by strict Jamaican parents, but still managed to get her party on. “I can still remember lying to my mother about what block I was on, so I could go with my friends to the park jams,” Morgan laughs. “I listened to what my peers listened to with curiosity and fascination, but I never thought of it as a career.” Still, just because she could recite the raunchiest rap stanzas didn’t mean she wasn’t going to challenge sexism, classism and stereotypes. Her writings helped many rap-loving women navigate through the gray areas of the music that they might’ve loved dearly, but didn’t always love them back.

Regina R. Robertson, west coast editor of Essence and editor of the essay collection He Never Come Home says, “I recently pulled When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost from my bookshelf and started flipping through it again. That book had such an impact on me. I was struck by Joan’s honesty. That book also made me take a step back and reexamine the roles that we all play. Although it’s almost twenty years since it came out, it has stood the test of time.”

Joan Morgan never planned on becoming a music critic, let alone a “hip-hop writer.” In 2006 she explained to interviewer Faedra Chatard Carpenter, “When I started writing, there was no such thing as ‘hip-hop journalism.’ I am part of that generation of writers that, for better or worse, created that as a genre and it really was a term that other people applied to our writings.” Within months of the Cube review, I began seeing her name regularly in the Voice and Spin, and began looking forward to her take on a culture that she obviously cherished.

This was another golden era of black writing, and Morgan’s work at ‘Vibe’ was at the forefront of a literary movement that would inspire a generation.

During that early ‘90s period, Joan was a teacher at the Fieldston School, but that was simply a stopover until the universe expanded and so-called “urban” magazines (most noticeably The Source, Vibe and RapPages) exploded on the scene. “Funny enough, I had very little respect for music journalism,” Morgan tells me, “because I didn’t really understand it. My thinking was, ‘Who needs a review to figure out what they wanted to hear.’ My real dream was to become an actor.”

In 1993, although The Source was already a heavy newsstand presence in the hip-hop mag department, the Time Inc./Quincy Jones-owned Vibe was promoted as bigger and deffer, as though it was the Esquire of urban magazines. With its larger size, better graphics, more experienced editorial direction and a writing staff that included Kevin Powell, Scott Poulson-Bryant and Joan Morgan, the magazine was an instant success. Coming at a time when most mainstream music/lifestyle publications, namely Rolling Stone, had no “writers of color” composing funky fresh features or reviews, The Source and Vibe was where more than a few African-American writers honed their craft, sharpened their skills and were allowed to have their words read by thousands of readers across the world.

This was, as writer Dean Van Nguyen recently documented in the Pitchfork piece “How a Group of Journalists Turned Hip-Hop Into a Literary Movement,” another golden era of black (Harlem Renaissance, Black Arts Movement) writing, and Morgan’s work at Vibe was at the forefront of a literary movement that would inspire a generation. Teenagers read the rap mags on the subway and buses, college students studied them in their dorms, with some hanging favorite articles pin-up style on the wall, and the mostly white world of New York City magazine journalism was forced to pay attention to the new kids in town. Morgan would go on to write several wonderful stories for Vibe including a controversial one on alleged homophobic Jamaican singer Buju Banton and, in 1994, a memorable cover story on TLC (The Fire This Time) that centered on the group’s rebellious rapper Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, who had, several months before, accidentally burned down her professional football player boyfriend’s Atlanta mansion after setting his sneakers on fire.

West coast entertainment journalist Ronke Reeves was an editorial assistant at Vibe during those formative years, and remembers well Morgan’s contributions. “In that male dominated world, Joan had a bold, prominent voice that broke new ground and inspired a generation of young writers. Even after she left Vibe and went to work at Essence and ultimately finish her book, I still followed her work, because, from a female perspective, there was nobody writing like that.”


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A few months before the house burning in Atlanta, writers from the hip-hop magazines were introduced to a new rap trio calling themselves the Fugees. The music on their debut Blunted on Reality was a fusion of streetwise rap and soul mixed with swaggering dancehall riddims. Assigned by RapPages editor-in-chief Sheena Lester, the first woman editor of a national hip-hop publication, I went to the midtown Manhattan offices of their label Sony Music and was introduced to the group, which consisted of Wyclef Jean, a rapper and multi-instrumentalist, his cousin and group founder Pras Michel, and Lauryn Hill, a singer and rapper who was as beautiful as she was talented.

With the exception of a rapper/singer named Smooth, whose album You’ve Been Played was released the year before, no other artists were displaying those dual talents on disc. Lauryn, then all of 19 years old, was an English major at Columbia University who, the year before, had appeared alongside Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2. It wasn’t uncommon for Hill to be seen doing homework in the conference room between interviews or in the dressing room when the group did shows. Tonya Pendleton, a former editor at the BET-owned YSB magazine, remembers being impressed. “Lauryn was so incredibly talented as an equally dope singer and rapper,” she says. “Although she had an incredible singing voice, Lauryn is, in my view, the greatest female rap artist of our time, if only because she’s a beast lyrically. The only thing making that arguable is that there are less albums to debate with.”

Hailing from Northern New Jersey, the guys lived in the Newark area while Hill came from South Orange. In author Brian Coleman’s essential text Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies (2007), Pras explained, “Our strength was in being three individuals who blended together perfectly. Clef brought the musicality, Lauryn brought the soulfulness and I brought the roughness and flash.” From the first time I’d listened to an advance cassette, hearing Hill’s dope lyrics on “Some Seek Stardom,” a track she recorded alone, I remember I could tell there was something special about her. Lauryn was a teenager who could hold her own as a rapper, but she also threw in a little jazzy soul singing to keep us on our toes. In a New York Times piece penned by Amy Linden, Hill described the Fugees’ sound as “a little rice and peas mixed with a little collard greens, a little mango with watermelon.”

While Blunted on Reality had followers, the sales were low and The Fugees were almost dropped from the label because of it. According to Jayson Jackson, a former Sony Music Group product manager who later became Hill’s manager, it would have happened if it wasn’t for him conning the publicity department for a few grand to get Caribbean-American producer Salaam Remi to do a remix of their singles “Nappy Heads” and “Vocabs.” In She Begat This, the producer tells Morgan, “They sent me the Fugees because they were Haitian, and they needed that bridge to get them to the mainstream. They had talent. They just haven’t figured out how to channel it.”

The Fugees’ careers were up in the air for awhile until they were given another chance by Sony that led to their critically acclaimed sophomore album The Score in 1996. “It (Blunted on Reality) wasn’t successful,” Pras told writer Brian Coleman, “but it was part of us feeling our way, figuring ourselves out as artists. It had to be what it was in order for us to evolve into The Score.” With their advance money, the group bought equipment and instruments, and constructed their own studio which they dubbed the Booga Basement. Alongside bassist Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis, another of Clef’s cousins, the Fugees recorded their follow-up in a mere six months.

With Clef and Lauryn also contributing to the production, the trio tightened up their style and raised the bar for themselves and rap records in general. The Score’s first single “Fu-Gee-La” was cool, but it was their second joint, a hip-hop remake of Roberta Flack’s classic “Killing Me Softly” sung by Lauryn, that became an unexpected hit and helped them cross over. The third single “Ready or Not” became known as the first time Hill revealed her love for singer Nina Simone and, by merely mentioning the legend’s name, introduced a generation of rap listeners to the activist blues singer. “As far as I know, no one in hip-hop had ever tossed out a Nina Simone reference before, so that was a big deal,” poet LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs says. “Nina represented so much to Lauryn, but later she seemed to also adapt Simone’s radicalness, rage and unpredictability.”

Years later, in light of the shift that Lauryn’s life took, I’d think back to that afternoon we spent together and Lauryn’s pre-release giddiness. Truthfully, after the release of ‘The Miseducation’ and shame of the lawsuit, her public persona would never be so joyful again.

At the 2018 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, when Simone was posthumously inducted, Hill performed “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” and “Feeling Good” as part of a tribute to the late artist. In her lifetime, Nina with her smooth dark skin represented blackness, as in Black is beautiful, which was also a message that Lauryn was communicating. Indeed, in She Begat This there is much conversation (with Yaba Blay and Tarana Burke) about Lauryn’s “deep chocolate brown skin” inspiring other dark girls who felt rejected by both hip-hop culture and their own communities.

“Witnessing Lauryn and her dark skin and natural hair shine brightly on magazine covers was affirming for Black girls to see,” says Newark-based arts writer fayemi shakur. “But, there was something deeper underneath her beauty to celebrate. She embodied a unique blend of style, Black cultural and political consciousness, with serious divine feminine energy. Any Black girl beginning to loc their hair back then could smile with pride in the mirror because Lauryn’s beauty reflected our own. It wasn’t always a popular thing to have natural hair.”

By the end of ‘96, The Score had sold six million units and won two Grammys including one (Best R&B Performance) for “Killing Him Softly.” Writer/filmmaker (Fresh Dressed) Sacha Jenkins, who in 1996 wrote a cover story on the group for Vibe, says, “As someone with Haitian blood dancing through his veins, that Fugees record meant a lot. They made Haitians cool — or rather, they helped a broad range of folks to better appreciate our talents, and recognize the uniqueness of our identity… That record also helped to expand what was acceptable in hip hop, as in, you don’t always have to spit the bars that you ripped out of your Rikers Island prison cell. You can sing, play guitar — scat even. Hip-hop had a lot of rules and the Fugees pissed on all of them. Hip-hop finally had a leading lady. Lauryn isn’t Haitian but, on that album, she’s honorary for sure.”

Of course, Hill too was a cultural chameleon, adopting a bit of Haitian music, jazzy vibes, southern soul and Jamaican yardie in her music. In 1996, the new and improved Lauryn was full of confidence and moxy, but, unknown to the general public, she and Wyclef had become lovers although he was already married. Their relationship became quite messy a year later when Lauryn had a baby, her pop-song-celebrated son Zion, with Rohan Marley, himself the son of reggae legend Bob Marley. Wyclef, whose own solo album The Carnival was a critical and sales success , kept telling the press that he would be producing and writing Lauryn’s album. “You would think after co-producing an album that sold millions that I’d be able to produce and write my own project, but it was a battle,” Lauryn told me the day I spent with her in June of 1998, two months before the albums release. And then she laughed.

On that afternoon I had set out to South Orange, New Jersey to interview Hill for a Source magazine cover story. Forty-five minutes away from Manhattan, the Lincoln Town Car pulled in front of the house where Hill was raised. Having moved a few years before to a different dwelling a few miles away, the old home had since been transformed into a recording studio, one of the many where The Miseducation was made. Earlier in the day, I’d met her mom and young son Zion and learned that she was also pregnant with her second child Selah Louise Marley, who would be born in November. Even at her then young age, motherhood was important to Lauryn.

“What bugs me is the fact that men never have to defend having children,” she’d tell me later. “Women are the ones who are asked, ‘How is this going to affect your career?’ If anything, having a growing family will make me even more motivated to create good music. My grandmother had 13 children and 32 grandchildren. Looking at her life has made me realize what a blessing it is to have family around.” Today Lauryn has six children.

We’d hung out together most of the day and I had gone with her into New York to meet with director Joel Schumacher about starring in the film version of Dreamgirls that he was supposed to make. After lunch at the Tribeca Grill, we returned to Jersey so Lauryn could play the complete album for me. An hour later, I made no secret to her that I was blown away, but also surprised by how much soul music, including wondrous collaborations with D’Angelo (“Nothing Even Matters”) and Mary J. Blige (“I Used to Love Him”), was the bedrock of the project. “What does it say about hip-hop when one of the better hip-hop records of the year contains little actual rapping?” Amy Linden wrote in a review.

Of course there were brilliant rap tracks including the opening song “Lost Ones” and the awesome “Doo Wop (That Thing),” whose split screen/time travel video was one of the most innovative of 1998, but the majority of the album had more in common with the then new neo-soul (D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell) than it did with hardrock hip-hop. “When I was six-years-old, I found boxes of old school 45s in the basement,” Lauryn told me, explaining the origins of her soul music love. “The first record I discovered was ‘If I Should Lose You’ by the Dream Ups. Next, I found a bunch of boxes and there were about 500 to 600 records from ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ to Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Super Fly.’ The boxes were overflowing with Motown, Stax, Philadelphia International and a bunch of others. While other kids in the neighborhood were rapping about New Edition, I was trying to school them on Roberta Flack and Marvin Gaye. Those old records had become a significant part of my life.”

In She Begat This writer/filmmaker dream hampton argues that The Miseducation, which she hated, sounded under-produced, but for me the music took me back to coming of age in the days of Soul Train on television, slow grindin’ at basement parties and live bands with real instruments jamming in smoke-filled venues. As Lester Bangs once said of Patti Smith, “her sound is (was) new-old.” Songs like “Ex-Factor” and “When It Hurts So Bad” were reminiscent of Willie Mitchell’s golden touch on Ann Pebble’s tracks, especially “Trouble Heartaches & Sadness,” or channeling Etta James at her most heartbroken. “I feel like the blueprint of this record has been in my head for years,” Hill said. “Although I rarely discussed my ideas with anyone before I started working, it was all in my mind.”

At the time I didn’t know that the label had originally rejected her masterwork, but perhaps I should’ve picked up on that when she said, “When Marvin Gaye created What’s Going On, even Berry Gordy thought he was crazy and trying to ruin his own career. It’s that kind of risk-taking that is sorely missing in music, be it rap or rhythm & blues.” Of course, the label turned out to be wrong; The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill sold millions, topped year-end best-of charts and propelled the then 23-year-old to superstar status. No one could’ve predicted that the album would’ve been as successful as it was.

Years later, in light of the shift that Lauryn’s life took, I’d think back to that afternoon we spent together and Lauryn’s pre-release giddiness. Truthfully, after the release of The Miseducation and shame of the lawsuit, her public persona would never be so joyful again.

“That album is a tour de force from a Black woman’s specific view with lyrics that speak to personal heartbreak as well as public, cultural issues,” Tonya Pendleton explains. “Whether she’s wondering why a lover can’t give more or why an artist can’t say more, she’s using her distinct voice and point of view to serve the music. There is so much richness to this album that’s it’s hard to believe it’s as old as it is. It seems as though she presciently covered all of the hot-button issues to come, from fuckbois to cold corporate rap to both the fear and anticipatory joy of becoming a working mother captured so beautifully on ‘Zion.’ It would difficult for me to chose a favorite song, but the opening track ‘Lost Ones’ may be one of the most lyrically potent fuck-you songs ever created.”

Within months of its release, Lauryn had become an even bigger star than she was during the Fugees reign, appearing on numerous magazine covers, including the beautiful Jonty Davis pic that graced the September, 1998 issue of The Source where my interview appeared. “That same year, a few months after The Miseducation came out, I saw her perform at my school at the University of Virginia,” journalist Tomika Anderson remembers. “Afterward, a few of us met her and shook her hand. She was so accessible and classy and beautiful, we were just blown away by her. She was just such a wonderful role model.”

Twenty years later, we’re still talking and writing about The Miseducation, but, as Hill would discover, with great genius often comes great consequences. Her post-millennium breakdown (or crack-up, in the Fitzgeraldian sense of the word) hasn’t always been easy to watch, especially for those who believed that she was a goddess hovering over us mere mortals. “[Hill] became a figurehead and touchstone and it was easy to forget how young she was,” Amy Linden says. “Being the Voice of a Generation has to be difficult, especially when you are dealing with personal drama that her fans and label might not have been privy to.”

Although She Begat This isn’t the music geek examination of that classic album that I was expecting, Joan Morgan succeeds at revealing other layers of our Lauryn love, while also humanizing a woman who many tried to transform into a deity two decades ago. As Roxanne Shante, never one to dish out compliments, said in 2010, “Lauryn Hill is in a category of her own.”

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Harlem native Michael A. Gonzales writes The Blacklist book column for Catapult. He has written for The Paris Review, The Village Voice, Pitchfork, New York magazine and the upcoming Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop edited by Vikki Tobak. A former hip-hop journalist, his articles, essays and reviews have appeared in The Source, RapPages, Vibe, Ego Trip, XXL, Complex and Mass Appeal. In addition, he is the co-author of Bring The Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (1991). Currently he is working on a hip-hop novel.

Editor: Dana Snitzky