Percival Everett’s abounding talent is in an inverse relationship to his popularity, as the novelist’s small cadre of fans and scholars have long known. Aspects of his writing that go a long way toward creating his appeal also probably forestall wider recognition: his irreverence toward race relations, his impiety toward the veritable civic religion of identity, his formal unpredictability and experimentation, his willingness to take risks (which sometimes do not pan out). Readers who love one of his books sometimes don’t care for the next, and so reputational momentum may get lost. Yet Everett, also a longtime professor at the University of Southern California, is sanguine about his critical reception. In a 2015 interview, he remarked: “I have pretty strict rules about interpreting my own mission or my own works. It’s not my place. I’m a writer. I make novels, and then I stand away and let the novel do the work.”
Everett’s new novel, So Much Blue, has dashes of his signature quirky comedy, but it’s not one of his roaring, monster-truck satires that soar through the air and crush their targets, as with Glyph (1999, on literary theory), Erasure (2001, on the cynical marketing of black pathology), or A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond (2004, an epistolary novel written with James Kincaid). Nor is it one of his hilarious formal experiments, such as I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009, about a ringer for Sidney Poitier named Not Sidney Poitier), or his fun—if somewhat manic—study of storytelling, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (2013). Nor is it much like his darker novels, such as The Water Cure (2007, about torture) or Assumption (2011, a fine detective yarn with a shocking twist).
So Much Blue is the story of a man—an average one, except for his talent as a painter—coming to terms with his past in the hopes of creating a better present for his wife and children. Kevin Pace is the narrator and protagonist, introduced in the midst of a crisis, in 2009, at the age of 56 (“if I died today everyone would comment on my youth and yet if I broke my leg trying to leap the back fence everyone would call me an old fool”). There are three strains on his psyche that are affecting his marriage: an incident that occurred in El Salvador in 1979, before he got married; an affair that he had in France in 1999, with a woman much younger than his wife; and his daughter’s choice to confide something personal to him rather than to his wife. A giant mystery canvas in Pace’s detached studio is the subject of speculation, in his family and in the art world at large (which is not subjected to as much satirical attack as might be expected from Everett). The questions raised by this painting—what it is, how it is, and what it does or does not mean—as well as their tentative answers are intertwined with Pace’s gradual transformation from a tormented enigma (in the eyes of his wife) to a better husband.
More than the story of a man and his family, though, So Much Blue is an extended meditation on seeing. Pace is an abstract painter who is also African-American, and in that way, the novel could not be timelier. In March, much controversy swirled around Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, a painting representing the murdered Emmett Till, which was displayed at the Whitney Biennial. In June, Sam Durant’s 2012 sculpture Scaffold, which sought to comment on the mass executions of Native Americans in 1862, was dismantled and burned, following an agreement between the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the local Native community, before the exhibit even opened. In 2015, the conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith, in a quest to extend his practice of “uncreative writing,” read aloud a poem titled “The Body of Michael Brown,” in which he used text from the Ferguson teenager’s autopsy report. Protesters against these works have argued that the use of black and Native tragedy as source material by white artists represents an appropriation of real trauma—manifestations of white supremacy, not attempts to confront it. Endeavoring to make art from another person’s pain isn’t the same as cultural appropriation, but such pursuits, as generally conceived today, share a relationship to notions of identity-based ownership—of certain histories, certain cultural expressions. But while a different culture’s history shouldn’t be declared categorically off-limits to an artist, there are meaningful questions of quality, context, understanding, power, and purpose to be considered—and, along those lines, each work of art must be evaluated on its own terms.
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Meet the new Black fire, not the same as the old Black fire.Gramma Press
Radical and rooted in Black cultural history, experimental yet never losing a responsibility to language, Anastacia-Reneé’s (v.) deserves every stage poetry can give it.
Accurately described in Rezina Habtemariam’s afterword as “a raw meditation on the politics brutally imposed on the bodies of Black girls and women,” the book both challenges poetic traditions in African-American literature and affirms the best humanistic and spiritual traditions that come from it. The dexterity of her pen—the way she fuses styles and brings experimental poetics together with fundamentals from the oral tradition—gives her poetic experiments a complex beauty and power. In short: she says things that direly need to be said, and she says them in the way that only great art can.
A hefty book in terms of forms and sheer mass, (v.) is packaged as a summation of a writer’s career and her introduction to a bigger audience. But as a Black woman living in America, she is denied the privilege of the hero journey formulas black men have used when using this kind of book. By flipping the patriarchal clichés they have used in this genre on their backside, however, she expands the language of those journeys and helps perfect the form.
There are no flat-dada nihilist victories here, no globetrotting-cad behaviors passed off personal growth. Instead, the collection’s power lies both in the speaker’s joy and in her thorough accounting of the price she and so many other black women pay for being human in America. Her style thus extends that rarest of poetic forms: radical honesty.
There is no “Anastacia-Reneé” poem in (v.). She employs prose, experimental lists, call-and-response pieces that use biblical language, and metaphorical African roots work initiated by the Black Arts Movement, just to name a few of the traditions she’s drawing on. Her startlingly original formats serve each piece well, and they all serve commendably in the good war against cliché. Take the beginning of “Curious,” a poem about the exhilaration and peril of developing an inquisitive mind.
do you feel a wormless bird is a better bird than a bird with a (worm) in it’s mouth you think that maybe having more heart is not a good thing you decide No no no it isn’t
there is a page with an elephant, pig & human fetus you wonder which of those is the most innocent and which has shed the most blood the human one is sealed
Here, Anastacia-Reneé organically switches from free verse to open field composition without losing a sense of the design with which she begins the poem.
You can also see her radicalism in “Dragon,” interweaving African call-and-response, kinetic beats, and accent-driven experiments to breathe new life into the prose poem and the nature poem all at once:
one of them. anisozgotptera never use your six legs. never run when you should never hop anisozgotptera never jump ship. let yourself be all forward, backward & side to side time you use more dragon and less fly.
But the poems in (v.) that move me most are the ones where she uses “&” in such far out ways that you almost forget how church they are. Check out “As Told By a Child,” for instance. Nothing in the book, and few poems overall, hit my heart harder than the ending to that poem, wherein Anastacia-Reneé pulls off the high-wire act of describing the Dylan Roof shootings through a child’s eyes. The effect is devastating:
you decide you will trust—you will lay your little hands on your community & make change & that is the only thing that make sense when 9 people woke up & prayed & 9 people are now being prayed (for) God bless the child that has his own & you want your own answers you want to ask dylan roof if he ever sang in a church choir if he sang so loud god could see his heart
Reading (v.), my mind went back to the aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement and to the course corrective focus readers and artists have demonstrated in recent memory. With a documentary on Sonia Sanchez and several books commemorating Gwendolyn Brooks’s centennial birthday, there has been a turn away from the machismo-pop poetics that have characterized BAM’s brand to artists who have done deep roots work in experimenting with the language in order to make it healthier for black people and everyone else. Who knows if Anastacia-Reneé’s book will resonate with a large enough audience to effect that level of change, but dear god it deserves its chance.
Nate Jacobs fell in love with Broadway without seeing a single show.
It wasn’t a magical trip to New York City or the show-stopping voice of Jennifer Holliday commanding the radio that ignited the love affair. Jacobs, artistic director and founder of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, fell hard for Broadway by listening to his brother’s rave reviews of “Dreamgirls” and other shows he saw on the Great White Way.
“I didn’t know I had a theater company living inside me at the time,” Jacobs says. “Of course, now it’s really clear why those reports from my brother’s phone calls excited me the way they did.”
Now, more than three decades later, Jacobs is sharing his love for America’s most beloved theater district with his latest original WBTT production, “Broadway in Black.”
The show was inspired by a children’s theater piece of the same name that he created some 15 years ago. That show was a youth revue, but this time around, he wanted to create a full-fledged professional production that honored the award-winning shows and performers who opened the door for black artists on Broadway.
What resulted is a cast of 13 and a three-piece band that will work together to perform nearly 50 songs — some in their entirety, some in snippets, and others in medleys — that are considered legendary pieces performed by black Broadway stars.
Jacobs says this show carries a meaning that is deeply personal for him and his cast. He notes that black characters on Broadway were played by white performers in blackface until the early 1900s. It wasn’t until 1910 that the first black performer was considered an equal alongside his white counterparts. That’s when Bert Williams took the stage on Broadway in “The Ziegfeld Follies.”
He says because they’re paying homage to the artists who paved the way for black performers on Broadway and elsewhere, he expects excellence from his cast.
“All these artists studied and worked hard and prayed and cried and scratched and crawled to get up the ladder, so you step out and represent them well,” he tells his cast. “I’m not going to accept anything less than that. I want your best.”
Not only are cast members expected to represent their predecessors with honor and integrity, they’re expected to do so by performing some of the most difficult songs they’ve ever been assigned.
Jacobs says he could see many cast members “shaking their knees” when he handed them their music, but he’s proud of his cast for committing to the challenge of giving audiences a dynamic theater experience that he calls a “show within a show.”
“We go from deeply moving moments to high spirited, over-the-top moments to hot and sizzling moments, and it’s like watching the whole strip of Broadway in one evening,” Jacobs says.
Audience members can expect to hear some of their favorite songs from older classic musicals such as “Cabin in the Sky,” “Porgy and Bess” and “The Wiz” as well as more recent favorites from shows such as “Ragtime,” “Dreamgirls” and “Once on this Island.”
Cast member Michael Mendez has been with WBTT for six years, but he says this show has a different feel than the others he’s been in.
Usually the performers learn the music before they begin choreography, but for “Broadway in Black,” they’ve learned both simultaneously, which Mendez says has taken them to a “different level in the show process.”
He also feels a sense of responsibility to pay respects to the black performers who helped him get to where he is today.
“Being the only black theater in a large radius, we are stewards of black history in a sense, whether we want to be or not,” he says. “So we have to keep our history alive by not only paying homage to what was done but also what will be done for future playwrights.”
Jacobs says the goal is not only to honor these Broadway idols, but to honor the larger narrative of black people in the United States.
“The purpose of the theater, especially the black theater, is to keep history and stories alive,” Jacobs says. “If we don’t keep our history — our stories, our culture, our uniqueness — alive and propagate it throughout the generations, then it dies.”
For Jacobs, this purpose is particularly personal. Part of his heart will always be on Broadway.
Teresa Stanley, an original member of WBTT who Jacobs mentored from childhood, left the troupe in 2007 to perform in “The Color Purple” on Broadway. When Jacobs’ friend flew him to New York City to see her perform, he cried the entire show.
Stanley took him behind the curtain after the show and pulled him onstage. They looked out into the empty theater and she uttered three words so powerful, they’ve stayed with him.
“You’re on Broadway,” she said.
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“We are now providing bullet-proof evidence that we are breathing harmful air,” says Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who led the study. “Our air is contaminated.”
Dominici and her colleagues set out to do the most comprehensive study to date assessing the toll that air pollution takes on American lives.
The researchers used data from federal air monitoring stations as well as satellites to compile a detailed picture of air pollution down to individual zip codes. They then analyzed the impact of very low levels of air pollution on mortality, using data from 60 million Medicare patients every year for 12 years.
About 12,000 lives could be saved each year, their analysis concludes, by cutting the level of fine particulate matter nationwide by just 1 microgram per cubic meter of air below current standards.
“It’s very strong, compelling evidence that currently, the safety standards are not safe enough,” Dominici says.
Fine particulate matter — basically, tiny particles of dust and soot — appears to be especially dangerous for African-Americans, men and poor people, the researchers found.
Compared to the general population, African-Americans are about three times as likely to die from exposure to it, the researchers found.
The study did not examine why that would be the case, but Dominici has some theories.
“People of color tend to be sicker and more affected [by] disease,” she says, pointing out that they also tend to live in places with more pollution and have less access to health care.
Taken together, she says, the results indicate that more should be done to push air pollution levels as low as possible. “I think it is the responsibility of the government to make sure that our air is clean,” she says.
The EPA did not respond to NPR’s request for comment.
Scott Segal, a Washington lawyer who works for the energy industry and has advised the Trump administration, argues the study is flawed. And he says that cutting air pollution even further would come with big costs.
“When we have very expensive environmental rules, they in and of themselves can adversely affect public health” by increasing the cost of medical care, suppressing economic growth, and siphoning off resources from more serious health threats, Segal says.
But Jeffrey Drazen, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, defended the research in an editorial accompanying the study.
“What these data are telling us is that even with our current standards, if we cleaned up the air more, we could save lives,” Drazen says. “Anything that we did that pushed things in the opposite direction — that gave us dirtier air — not only would be unpleasant, it’s going to kill a lot of people.”
And Drazen says the Trump administration’s policies would make the air dirtier. He cited the administration’s efforts to cut the EPA, increase the use of coal, relax air pollution standards and withdraw from the fight against global warming.
“If you look at what’s happening in the Trump administration, the general direction is not to clean up the air,” Drazen says. “So this is a warning that if we don’t clean up the air, the people who are going to bear that burden are the poor and the disadvantaged, more than the rich and well-off.”
Natalie Merchant, a ‘90s radio mainstay and former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, is sort of “bookending,” as she puts it, her solo material with the release of a new box set.
Out July 14 (postponed from a planned June release), “The Natalie Merchant Collection” is a deluxe, 10-CD box set that features her eight solo albums, a new studio disc called “Butterfly” that features four new songs and six catalogue tracks re-recorded with a string quartet, as well as a full disc of rarities and outtakes.
Merchant brings her summer tour to Wolf Trap on Thursday, July 6. She spoke to the Blade by phone last week from her home in upstate New York.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Why did you feel now was the right time for such a lavish box set?
NATALIE MERCHANT: It was a combination of factors. I feel that we’re definitely in the twilight moments of recorded music in the physical realm. As much as people talk about the resurgence of an interest in vinyl, I think that’s a small cult. So I felt like if I didn’t do it soon, there might not be an audience for it. I’ve also been steadily making records since the late ‘90s that have been a bit under the radar and I thought this would be an opportunity to combine all the work in one place for people who might have been familiar with what I was doing 20 years ago to see what I’m doing today.
BLADE: Was it hard to find a deal for it?
MERCHANT: Actually the suggestion came from Nonesuch a couple years ago because Nonesuch is owned by the same parent company as (her former label home) Elektra, so this idea of consolidating the whole catalogue under one roof was suggested and I thought that was a great idea. Elektra kind of folded for several years and I did feel like a lot of the records had gone out of print. Even my independent release, “The House Carpenter’s Daughter,” copies of it sell for like $50 online, which seemed silly to me because it’s really not worth that (laughs). It just felt like there were so many different factors. And also, when I did “Paradise is Here,” (a 2015 re-recording of breakthrough album “Tigerlily”), I went through all my archives, all the music, all the video, all the photography, so I had all these assets and I’d recently sort of curated them all, so this gave me an opportunity to put the book together. I just got it in the mail today.
BLADE: Oh wow, how does it feel to have it in your hands?
MERCHANT: It’s heavy! It feels very substantial. That’s my first impression. And my second impression is that it’s really so different from looking at a group of virtual files on a computer screen to have this whole thing in your hand and this 100-page book. It feels like a substantial amount of work that I think can get really distorted when you’re looking at it digitally. … It feels great.
BLADE: Did you have all this stuff yourself or did you have to round it up from various sources?
MERCHANT: It was interesting. One thing people might notice when they get the box set, is that it’s a different cover for (second solo album) “Ophelia” because the original photo was lost. Even Warner Bros. didn’t have it in their archives. I event went back to the original photographer, I went back to the original art director. I was the only person who had a lot of these assets. Also, I don’t want to sound morbid, but some day I’ll be dead and I wanted to make sure the material was presented in a way that I wanted it to be presented. I found it kind of shocking that they’d lost my art work but luckily I’m a bit of a pack rat, so I had many of the things that were necessary for this package in my basement including all the rarities which were in my own files at home.
BLADE: Do you feel a little more freedom to go deeper with your set list on your summer tour since you’re essentially touring this box set?
MERCHANT: If you include the 10,000 Maniacs songs, I’ve probably written about 250 songs. So yeah, it’s difficult to put together a set list of 26 or even 30 songs that are going to make everyone happy. But I think it’s going to be a really interesting set. I’m carrying a string quartet, piano, guitar, bass and drummer. It’s a big band and I think people will be pleasantly surprised by the arrangement of the material they know and to also hear some things they may not be familiar with.
BLADE: You sang at an anti-Trump rally earlier this year and have always been politically active. Why was that event important to you?
MERCHANT: It’s very disturbing what’s happening in our country right now. I believe that rally was on the even of the inauguration and I was in New York near Trump Tower. It was announced, I think, just two or three days before and we had 30,000 people there. That was encouraging and the next day was the women’s march and that was further confirmation that those of us who really sensed that the election of this man was extremely dangerous, you know, to have that many people show up in Washington the day after and protest was really encouraging. I’m hoping that we win back the House in 2018 at the very least. That would be a step forward. I don’t know about impeachment. I don’t know if that’s going to happen or how much things would improve if we have President Pence. So it’s frightening, really frightening, especially when he stepped away from the Paris accord. We don’t have time to mess around at this point. We have to transition from being a fossil fuel-based, energy-consuming country or we will not survive. It’s just really horrifying to think that we now have a president, whether he thinks global climate change exists or not, who would do that. That, to me, is the most important issue. But there’s women’s issues, there’s the health care issue, it’s overwhelming that there’s so many different fronts now and that we have to be fighting on. But I think without stabilizing the environment, or at least severely reducing the negative impact we’re having on the environment, we’re all fucked.
BLADE: Tell me more about the “Butterfly” disc. Of all the new material you might have recorded, why did you go with the string quartet approach?
MERCHANT: Since 2008 I’ve been doing orchestral shows and quartet shows almost exclusively so when it came time to make this record, I think there are about 40 songs now that I have string arrangements for. I had the entire “Paradise is There” album, celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Tigerlily,” so I’d used several of the arrangements on that record, so this was an opportunity to do that with some of those other songs in the new arrangements that had never been recorded.
BLADE: Sometimes long-time fans balk at these kinds of sets and say, “Oh, she’s making us buy all this stuff we already have just to get the new material.” Was that a concern?
MERCHANT: I think the fan that has every single thing I’ve ever released is rare. I think most people will be kind of grateful, at least I am when there’s an artist I’m interested in, I may not have everything they’ve ever released. I buy a lot of box sets because I’ve missed some of the pieces and I guess I’m kind of the personality who’s a completist. I like to have complete sets. And people will be able to digitally access the two new (discs) if they want. There’s also talk of a vinyl version (of the new material) coming out in the fall, so that’s another opportunity, but I don’t know. We’ll have to see. I also insisted it be very reasonably priced. I wanted it to be $50 or less.
BLADE: That’s certainly fair for a 10-disc set.
MERCHANT: And I think Amazon will be selling it for $40-something.
BLADE: Did you have any creative battles at Elektra or did they pretty much let you do your thing?
MERCHANT: Well, two interesting things happened. When I went solo, Bob Krasnow, who’d been the chairman of the company the entire time I’d been on Elektra, I can’t remember under what circumstances he departed, but he was gone and Sylvia Rhone came in and I think Sylvia was eager to prove herself and she really liked the song, “Carnival.” She’d been responsible for breaking a lot of African-American bands and artists but not a white artist and and I think that was her challenge and she loved that song so that was a stroke of luck. And I heard that Jon Landeau, who’d been executive managing Bruce Springsteen since the beginning of his career, Bruce was taking a hiatus so Jon started managing me, so I had this encouraging situation at the company and had great management, so I felt protected and respected. I didn’t feel it was an antagonistic relationship with Elektra at that point. I think I’d proven myself with three platinum records with 10,000 Maniacs.
BLADE: Did you choose the singles or the label on your first few albums?
MERCHANT: I think it was pretty obvious what the singles were on the first record. I don’t remember there being any discussion of that. I think with (third album) “Motherland” (2001), I wasn’t happy with a couple of the choices, but the first couple albums, it was fine. At that point, I was 30 years old, I’d been with the label since I was 19 and to be honest with you, I’d outlives just about everybody who worked at the label except the woman who ran the publicity department. I think we were the last two standing by the time it folded (laughs). … As people started doing more and more file sharing, the art department disappeared, the video department, it felt like departments were disappearing weekly until eventually the label just folded.
BLADE: Will you keep making records or is this set a sort of a bookend for you?
MERCHANT: It’s a little bit of a bookend because I’ll never be able to make records the way I did before. That leisurely two months in the studio, that’s just unheard of. “Leave Your Sleep” (2010) was the final project that I did on that scale and it took a full year to make that record. I employed, I think, 135 different musicians and it was folly in a way, but it was a beautiful folly. I still haven’t recouped and that was seven years ago (laughs). I felt like Orson Welles making “Citizen Kane” or David Lean making “Bridge on the River Kwai.” It felt like I had to make it even though it made absolutely no sense financially. But I learned so much from it and it still sold a quarter of a million copies which is still kind of unheard of in today’s market.
BLADE: You wouldn’t be happy doing something on a smaller scale? I saw Sheryl Crow last night and she has this great new album out that she made in her home studio while her kids were at school and it’s this really fun little album. You wouldn’t want to do something like that?
MERCHANT: I have two projects I’d like to do. One is to make an online database of folk music for children, performed by children. The other is a children’s theater company. I feel compulsive about creativity and there are so many different aspects to it. I’d love to do costume design, I would love to hire a choreographer and do some dance, or maybe research folk tales from other lands and other music. There are so many other things I want to do with music that don’t involve going into a studio, recording a pop record and going on tour. It used to be that years ago you’d get to a certain point in your career and then you’d start producing other artists. I think I would have done that more if the industry hadn’t collapsed.
BLADE: Did you have a lot of stuff to pull from for the rarities disc? Did you ever toy with the idea of doing a two- or three-disc set of all rarities?
MERCHANT: Well, for the rarities I wanted to put out music of high quality. I didn’t want it to just be all home demos and bad outtakes. It really is a combination of little-known tracks, like the collaboration I did with David Byrne for “Here Lies Love” or the track I did with the Chieftains, which I really loved going to Ireland and recording with them, that were really special moments in my career. And there was other unknown stuff that I’d been holding on to like “The Village Green” and “Too Long at the Fair” that were all recorded by great musicians in world-class studios under different circumstances. I did a session back in 2008 when I was looking for a label to put out “Leave Your Sleep” and I recorded a group of demos and we recorded some covers that were lovely covers, they just never belonged on a record. I wanted to put out only rare tracks that were of great quality.
Natalie Merchant says her self-described ‘pack rat’ tendencies came in handy when putting together her lavish new, 10-disc box set. (Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff; courtesy Nonesuch Records)
On Tuesday, Tallassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is also seeking to be the first African-American governor of Florida, proposed a constitutional amendment making affordable healthcare a fundamental right of all Floridians.
Gillum plans to place the amendment before Florida’s voters statewide, and direct the Florida Legislature to make securing Floridians’ right to healthcare a top priority. He said he decided to propose the amendment because access to affordable healthcare for 2 million Floridians is threatened by the healthcare bill proposed by Republicans in the US Congress. Moreover, 800,000 more Floridians are also negatively impacted by Governor Rick Scott’s failure to expand Medicaid.
Last week, Gillum also postponed a state law to protect women’s access to no-cost contraception. Previously, he outlined plans to pass and sign the nation’s strongest legislation to ensure coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, and to ban insurers from charging women more than men for coverage.
“It’s time for Florida to finally enshrine healthcare as a right for all. There is a public trust for the government to care for its citizens, and our state can no longer be ambiguous about that moral obligation. When healthcare is under attack in Washington, we’re going to lean into the challenge of healthcare in the Sunshine State and live our values,” Gillum said.
“Every day, I see patients who are terrified of losing their health coverage and their care, because of politics,” said Dr. Shrearest Crenshaw, a family medicine physician in Parkland, Broward County. “We guarantee the right to speak, to worship, and to the courts. As a physician, I believe it equally important that our Constitution guarantee the right to affordable healthcare that Floridians deserve.”
The draft text of the proposed constitutional amendment, reads:
The following language shall be added to Article I of the Florida Constitution:
Affordable health care is a fundamental right of all Floridians. In weighing priorities and allocating available resources, the Legislature shall afford the highest consideration to securing this right.
BALLOT SUMMARY: Adds a new section to Article I of the Florida Constitution. Declares that affordable health care is a fundamental right of all Floridians. Directs the Legislature, in weighing priorities and allocating available resources, to afford the highest consideration to securing the right.
The first thing Derek S. Hyra does when we meet at the corner of Seventh and O streets, in the heart of Shaw, is point to a Capital Bikeshare station across the street. Most people would see a row of bikes waiting to be rented. To Hyra, it’s something more sinister—an upscale amenity atop what used to be a gathering spot for older, working-class, black residents.
“It was a whole group of people congregating,” he says. “Now no one’s there. You can see the drastic change and inequality.”
Hyra, a professor at American University, is the author of Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, this year’s buzzy treatise on the economic and demographic shifts that have hit Washing-ton in recent years. His basic argument: The waves of younger, often white newcomers who have moved to DC in the 21st century are the frothy milk foam floating on what used to be “Chocolate City.” To chronicle the phenomenon, he immersed himself in Shaw, once the beating heart of the District’s black culture. On a recent morning, I asked him to give me a walking tour to show off the stories hidden behind today’s trendy bars and glittering apartments.
First stop: Compass Coffee, one of the new businesses that, according to Hyra, leave longtime residents feeling exiled in their own home. “You see the inequality across race and class right on the block, and you see it through just sitting in Compass,” he says. “I just feel that most of the people in the coffee shop seem to be middle-, upper-income and can afford a $2,000 computer. When you compare who’s inside the Kennedy Recreation Center, it’s night and day.”
Heading north, we pass a few older people milling around on Seventh Street. The blocks are a mix of old convenience stores and housing that stick out among the new residential buildings, pet-grooming stores, and bars such as Dacha, a beer garden popular with the happy-hour and day-drinking set.
Rather than stop at any of those places, Hyra wants to check in on a beauty salon called Wanda’s on 7th. “Is Wanda around?” Hyra asks the receptionist. Wanda Henderson and her salon play a large role in Hyra’s book. Opened in 1997, the business operated until 2010, when developer Roy “Chip” Ellis—who also revived the historic Howard Theatre around the corner—bought up most of the block and started transforming it into a glassy new project featuring apartments that start at nearly $1,800 a month. Henderson eventually moved her shop up Georgia Avenue.
While we wait for Henderson to emerge, Hyra rehashes how her salon wound up back in its original location, thanks to an agreement with ONE DC, a neighborhood activist group that promotes affordable housing. Hyra isn’t exactly a neutral party when it comes to the organization—he was a volunteer there around the time he started researching his book.
Henderson gives Hyra a big hug when she appears. “The book’s finally out,” he tells her. “Hey, can we get a picture? I’d love to do a reading here.”
Gentrification may be DC’s most fraught local subject, and Hyra has made it something of a professional specialty—he previously studied the phenomenon in Harlem and the South Side of Chicago. The author traces his interest to his days playing high-school basketball. Though he lived in leafy Westchester County, New York, he made a team in Harlem’s Rucker Park, the famed court that nurtured future stars such as Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Being the suburban white guy on a roster filled with players from Harlem and the Bronx made an impact. “My coach asked how many people had gotten over 700 [on the SATs], and I was the only one on the team who had,” Hyra recalls. “It undergirds my whole trajectory.”
His competitive-basketball days might have ended after he graduated from Colgate University. But Hyra, who’s blond, scruffy, and built like a former point guard, still leans on his game. A Falls Church resident, he made inroads with his DC subjects by sinking three-pointers at Kennedy Rec Center, just a block south of Compass Coffee.
Midway through our tour, As we round onto Florida Avenue, we see the gay nightclub Town, and the more cynical part of Hyra’s theory comes into focus. In his book, he recounts attending a fundraiser there in 2010 and overhearing people joking about carjackings, shootings, and robberies.
Hyra believes that one of the reasons so many millennials are moving to previously distressed neighborhoods is because they want to “live The Wire”—as in the acclaimed HBO drama about crime, addiction, poverty, and corruption in Baltimore.
“Except now it’s the gilded ghetto,” he says when we stop in front of the Shay, a hulking development at the corner of Florida and Eighth that features modern, high-rent apartments stacked above trendy retailers including Warby Parker.
Another bit of evidence for Hyra’s sweeping theory comes when we pass a nearby liquor store with bars on the door and, inside, glass separating customers from the clerk: an anecdote relayed to him by the owner of a now-closed Fifth Street liquor store, who told Hyra he once dismissed a young white customer who had come in looking for lottery tickets and 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor for a “hood party.”
I have to wonder—is that really a trend or just one episode of exceptionally poor taste? Couldn’t it be that wealthier newcomers started moving to Shaw because they couldn’t afford Dupont Circle, because a new Metro station made it convenient, and because a series of technocratic DC mayors had helped make the city friendlier to the kinds of businesses those people frequent?
Hyra gets defensive. “It is a real phenomenon,” he says. “It does not apply to all. But University of Virginia students have [those parties], and millennials who went to UVA are moving to DC. They think The Wire is the coolest, hippest show. When you think crime is cool, that is very problematic.”
Hyra is on a bit firmer ground when he talks about pricey developers selling Shaw and U Street by tapping into the neighborhood’s history as the so-called Black Broadway. Among the upscale new dwellings to mine that legacy for marketing are the Ellington apartment building and Langston Lofts condominium. “It’s one thing to name a high school in a predominantly black area after a figure in black history,” Hyra says, mentioning Dunbar High School, about a mile from the Shay. “But it’s another thing to market an upper-income luxury development that is being marketed to mainly white millennials.”
Again, it demands a question: How would people feel if developers refused to name things after African-American artists and instead erected buildings named for, say, Billy Joel and Jon Bon Jovi?
As Florida turns into U Street, Hyra starts pointing out the businesses he does like. Lee’s Flower and Card Shop, which opened in 1945. Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of the few places to survive the 1968 riots and easily the busiest scene on an otherwise sleepy early afternoon. Industrial Bank, Washington’s last black-owned financial institution.
We trundle along. Hyra explains that what he’d really like to see is more effort from the city to make its neighborhoods’ evolution less jarring for longtime residents.
“DC has really good affordable-housing policies,” he says. “If it didn’t, Shaw and U Street would be 90 percent white by now. But the city has not done a good job at helping small businesses that are minority-owned stay in the gentrified corridor. Some people say, ‘Hyra, you’re trying to do social engineering.’ I’m not. I’m just trying to alleviate some of the tensions we’ve had in this country.”
Like many people who write about gentrification, Hyra frames it almost as a tragedy. In his case, he pegs it to the fall of officials such as Marion Barry and Frank Smith.
“There was this black political machine that came out of home rule,” he says, skipping over the fact that Barry and Smith became mediocre public servants. He also laments former Shaw advisory neighborhood commissioner Leroy Thorpe’s 2006 ouster by a recently arrived challenger. But Thorpe’s loss came after he gained a reputation for harassing the neighborhood’s gay population. He was toppled by a candidate recruited by Alexander Padro, a gay Latino who had moved to the neighborhood in 1997.
“Alex just wants development everywhere,” Hyra says.
“But he’s been here 20 years,” I say. “He’s not exactly a newcomer.”
“He’s still a newcomer to the longtime residents.”
Hyra’s tour ends at his favorite spot—Busboys and Poets, the restaurant/bookstore/performance space outfitted with colorful murals and paintings that either venerate U Street’s history as a hub for black artists or celebrate progressive activism. Hyra admires the six-location chain and its owner, Andy Shallal, for running an establishment that serves up socially conscious programming in addition to food, coffee, and cocktails. To Hyra, that’s a more “inclusive” business model than something like Compass, which is just selling coffee. “If you spend hours in Compass versus hours in Busboys,” he says, “you’re going to hear different people and different conversations that range the diverse backgrounds that live in Shaw and U Street.”
Hyra asks the host if Shallal is around. He’s not, and we proceed to a table in a room whose clientele—mostly millennial and white—wouldn’t look out of place at Compass Coffee, where we began our tour. Hyra orders a $14 chicken Caesar salad. My steak salad is $1 more. We talk on about the past and future of a neighborhood he’s come to love. Nearly everyone around us has a laptop out.
A circumcised penis with breasts and wings perches on a pencil above the words “2017 the year you decided to become a political artist.” Made to resemble an eagle, with skin the color of raw chicken, this strange, amusing creation figures in the square-foot drawing titled Reporting Live From the Trenches, by the artist David Leggett. The piece sums up Leggett’s output and attitude: keenly aware of the world and quick with a punch line. And his work is finally finding a wider audience—people hungry for a smart, fresh take on our trying times.
“I wouldn’t outright call myself a political artist, but there are some very political things that go on in my work,” Leggett says. “It’s just the climate—people are responding to that more now. I’ve seen other artists after Trump won, saying, ‘We need to get back to work.’ I’m like, ‘What were you doing before?’ ” He laughs. “Whatever you make, it’s still your duty to be involved in some sort of way.”
Leggett, 36, is a striking presence. He’s six-foot-four and solidly built, with an easygoing and affable demeanor. The sense of humor that comes across in his work is palpable in interactions with him—it’s not a put-on. The same is true of his pop culture references: he repeatedly uses the likeness of characters like black Bart Simpson or Fat Albert because they’re part of his personal history; he grew up with them. Leggett mines everything for inspiration, from art history books to racist Americana to social media. He readily embraces the lowbrow as well as the dark corners of the Internet, frequently taking screenshots or making notes in his phone of phrases that stick out to him. Beth Marrier, his partner of five and a half years, says he loves to read the comments section of articles. “He reads the trash that everyone says to avoid,” she says. “When it’s dark out, he’ll start reading just the scum of the Internet.”
Leggett has a knack for bringing to light that specific kind of murkiness, the things people say when they think no one’s listening. He was recently the subject of a solo exhibition, “Their Funeral, Our Dance Floor,” at Shane Campbell’s downtown gallery; a follow-up show, “David Leggett: Drawings,” is currently on display until July 15 at the same location. “He has his finger on all sorts of problematic relationships, without passing easy, direct judgment on anything,” says Eric Ruschman, Shane Campbell’s director. “He uses humor to draw you in, so you’re laughing, and then you’re sort of implicated.”
David Leggett, Reporting Live From the Trenches, 2017
Evan Jenkins/Shane Campbell Gallery
Leggett is from Springfield, Massachusetts, and attended Sacred Heart, a private Catholic school, but says he “lived in a really bad neighborhood.” That socioeconomic disparity left a deep impression. As a kid, the sunny side of life, such as Disney movies and Sesame Street, felt “kind of forced,” he says. “I had that contrast of this wholesome world that doesn’t exist anywhere where I live.”
His neighborhood, though much changed today, was affected by the crack epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s. Leggett remembers daily violence and drug dealing. His parents countered that by sending him to a comic book illustration class at the Art Institute of Boston; his high school, Springfield Central High, also had a decent arts curriculum. Leggett knows he’s lucky. “There’s so many people who I grew up with, or played Little League with, went to Sunday school with, who are dead or in jail,” he says.
After high school, Leggett pursued his early interest in art and earned his BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design. In college, he discovered and was inspired by the work of the Imagists and Kerry James Marshall. “The Internet was much different from what it is today,” Leggett says. The library had just one book on Jim Nutt, and a dated one at that. As an illustration major, Leggett found the surrealist, subversive work of the Imagists appealing. “It was stuff that I really related to because it was pop art, but clearly they were into popular culture,” Leggett says. “It wasn’t a cold read like Warhol. I was like, ‘I really want to go out here [to Chicago] and meet them.’ ” It was easier than he thought—shortly after graduating, in the summer of 2003, he moved to Chicago. “LA or New York artists, there’s no chance you’re going to meet them,” he says. “I think Ed Paschke still had his telephone number in the phone book.”
David Leggett, Their Funeral, Our Dance Floor, 2017
Evan Jenkins/Shane Campbell Gallery
Leggett began taking classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and eventually enrolled in a master’s program there in painting and drawing. At the time, he was mostly drawing; for years he was skeptical of painting, never feeling successful when working on canvas. “Every time I tried to paint it just seemed like . . . failure,” he says. He finished the program in 2007, and about a year after that his practice started to change. He was invited to participate in a group show at the Hyde Park Art Center, “Disinhibition: Black Art and Blue Humor,” and impulsively decided to make paintings for it. The positive response to these pieces encouraged him to concentrate more seriously on the medium.
These days some of Leggett’s most poignant works are paintings. In “Their Funeral, Our Dance Floor” the vast main gallery was filled with them, mostly done on squares or circles, some as wide as seven feet. In Get in the House Once the Streetlights Come On, one of the pieces on display, three disembodied faces take up most of the orange and green canvas. A white man who distinctly resembles Darren Wilson, the cop who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, floats on the right side; next to him is a black man’s face made of felt; and above them both is a cartoonish black man whose mouth is open, as if in shock. Felt letters spell out good cop bad cop at the top in red, green, and black, the colors of the pan-
David Leggett, Get in the House Once the Streetlights Come On, 2017
Evan Jenkins/Shane Campbell Gallery
This past January, Leggett quit a part-time gig teaching classes for the Art Institute online and began working as an artist full-time. His success has helped his parents, whom he describes as very religious, understand his decision to be an artist. “The fact that I went off to college, I got a master’s degree, that alone is impressive to them,” he says. Leggett still seems impressed by this, calling the work “a luxury.” “I almost want to click my heels together,” he says. “It’s very exciting. I don’t think it will ever not be exciting to do this stuff.”
Marrier says that although Leggett’s only recently been able to work on his art full-time, it’s been a priority for him as long as she’s known him. “Art is like taking your vitamins or brushing your teeth,” she says of his practice. “It happens every single day in some capacity.” In fact, it was this devotion to his craft that initially sparked her interest. The couple met online, and though they were both eager to meet in person for the first time, he scheduled the date a few weeks away, she says, because he’d already planned to be in the studio. “David won’t compromise his art practice for anyone,” Marrier says. “That was really attractive.”
Always pushing himself to try new things, Leggett’s practice has expanded to include more craft materials, and he sometimes works with ceramics. In “Black Drawls,” a solo exhibition that opened in November at Gallery 400, he and gallery director Lorelei Stewart decided to include an assortment of materials that inspired him, including cultural ephemera and works by other artists, like Kara Walker and Jim Nutt. An original 90s-era black Bart Simpson T-shirt, purchased from eBay, hung on one wall. Also included were selections from Leggett’s personal collection of pop culture memorabilia, like a McDonald’s Hamburglar figurine, and racist Americana, such as a set of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Moses salt-and-pepper shakers. He frequently scours flea markets and thrift stores for such items. Leggett’s interested in their lineage. “Things never really go away,” he says. “They’ll just get cleaned up and made more polished.”
On a recent trip to Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Flea Market, he picked up a COLORED ONLY placard and a few other artifacts for his collection. “When you go to flea markets, there’s going to be the racist booth full of stuff,” he says, laughing. At one booth, he saw something he’d never before encountered at a flea market: shackles. “With the Americana stuff, you can see how, through history, it’s been changed,” he continues. “But you see something that was bondage and torture . . . ” He trails off. By and large, white people in America get to choose whether or not they want to confront our country’s racist past and present. Black people don’t get such a choice. “For me, I don’t want to forget that this happened,” he says of his Americana collection. By expertly weaving this history into his work, he makes sure his viewers won’t forget it either.
David Leggett, You’ll Be Alright, 2015
Evan Jenkins/Shane Campbell Gallery
“Niggas get shot everyday, B.” Leggett wrote these words with spray paint and an oil bar, in alternating colors of the rainbow, on a shiny gold canvas. Circular smudges at the bottom of the painting resemble sloppily covered-up graffiti. The words in the piece and the title, You’ll Be Alright (Elementary), echo each other, like two friends undercutting news of yet another shooting. The bright colors of the letters, the cheap gold finish, and the simple presentation could all be thought of as contradictory to the content, but for Leggett everything is calculated.
“If you’re going to make something that’s politically charged or has maybe a deeper message—having color, having humor, also craft materials, having these things is like sugar helping the medicine go down,” he says. “It makes people come closer. And sometimes people are laughing at something they probably shouldn’t have laughed at because it’s almost like camouflage.”
The importance of humor is apparent in Leggett’s work and life. He often tries to find the joke in any given situation. He told me that criticisms barely register for him. “Keep it moving,” he tells himself. Leggett frequently cites his appreciation of classic stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, whom he’ll often listen to in the studio. Pryor notably never shied away from politics, or the horrors of his own life, including being sexually molested as a child and becoming addicted to crack cocaine. Nothing was off-limits; and yet he always had his audience laughing. “That’s what I basically hope I can do with my work,” Leggett says. “I’m not sure if I always accomplish that, but I hope.” v