Brooklyn has quickly become New York’s most beloved borough. It has it all: vibrant neighborhoods, historic landmarks, angry hipsters and an ever-expanding collective of the most prolific artists in the country. It’s a cultural powerhouse, constantly setting trends and backing it up with panache.
For these reasons and more, St. Joseph’s College academic dean Dr. Richard Greenwald set out to start a new visiting lecture series in fall 2011. He wanted to take advantage of what was the most obvious opportunity available — introducing the College to the intellectual celebrities who lived next door.
On November 30 of last year, Brooklyn Voices was born.
Breaking the champagne bottle over the bow was New York Times best-selling author Colson Whitehead, schooling SJC students and community members alike, making it known that even a Harvard grad/Cullman Fellow has obstacles to overcome in the County of Kings.
Fast forward to May 2, 2012, and a full house has gathered once again at SJC’s Brooklyn’s Tuohy Hall auditorium, for the second installment of the Brooklyn Voices series, “A Conversation With Touré and Nelson George.”
Fuelled by rapid-fire transitions — from hip-hop to Manhattan nightlife, Obama to Giuliani, from Nelson George’s favorite ’80s Brooklyn anthems and hot spots to the notable celebrities such as Spike Lee who made Fort Greene a sexy destination for young Touré in the early ’90s — the two guest speakers feed us Brooklyn tidbits to digest. And it’s this mutual infatuation with the borough that keeps the entire audience salivating for more … most of the audience.
We’re an hour into our night with Touré and Nelson when a voice from the crowd cuts through the onstage exchange.
“Excuse me?” Touré squints through the lights, looking for the audience member whose interruption has stalled the breakneck pace.
“Talk about literature,” a woman says, distinctly, now that she’s the only Brooklyn voice in the room.
We haven’t arrived at literature. Not yet. The event did not guarantee literature as one of its talking points, but with such accomplished authors present it had to be implied.
“OK, let’s talk about literature.” Touré says.
Before the disruption, Touré and Nelson were discussing the history of free agency in sports, dating back to St. Louis Cardinal Curt Flood, who hyperbolically was quoted as saying he “felt like a slave” when he was denied the option to leave the ballclub. We arrived at Curt Flood after discussing the current MVP of the NBA, LeBron James, and the popular misconception of greed in his decision to follow his own desires and not the Cleveland Cavaliers’.
LeBron James was brought to the forefront after the once-flourishing New York basketball culture was examined — how street ball courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan bred NBA all-star after all-star, “especially point guards,” Touré points out, before private schools and universities lured young players away from the city.
“I went to St. John’s,” Nelson says. “Basketball was one of the reasons I attended.”
The crowd, made up of SJC students, faculty and local community members, listens and applauds, eager to keep up with the tempo. It’s still Brooklyn though. If there’s something amiss, especially to an audience member, we’re going to find out.
So now its literature time.
Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and the inspirational novelists, poets and playwrights that led Touré and Nelson to the page, are touched upon. Nelson praises August Wilson, tells of his groupie-like following of Wilson’s productions, while Touré cites John Edgar Wideman, before offhandedly commenting that he (Touré) is retiring from fiction.
“I didn’t expect this to be, like, my announcement,” he says, when the crowd’s objections audibly turn up to talk-about-literature levels. Touré clarifies his decision, and his preference for nonfiction, with his own analogy based upon the clichéd vague book recommendation that all of us have heard at one point or another.
“My wife says I have to read this Jennifer Egan novel,” Touré says. “I ask her what it’s about. ‘It’s, it’s just … great!’ she says. And [with book recommendations] I feel like fiction is the equivalent of I call you up at 11:30 and say, ‘Yo, come to my house, we’re going to have a really weird party, and you’re going to like it.’ Nine out of 10 people are going to be like, ‘No, I’m in my pajamas, I have work in the morning.’ One out of 10 is going to be like, ‘Cool, I’ll roll with you on that weirdo party.’ … But with nonfiction, I call you at 8 o’clock, a reasonable time, and I’m going to come to your house and talk to you about something that you are interested in. And more people are like, ‘Sure, I love that conversation, let’s have that conversation.’ ”
Nelson George, as he’s done the whole night, laughs and runs with his own angle on the issue. The two are close friends — Nelson served as best man in Touré’s 2005 wedding — and take no issue in sharing the stage.
“That’s interesting,” Nelson says. “The reason I did the last novel, The Plot Against Hip Hop, is I saw that I’d written a lot of nonfiction around hip-hop and I wanted to give us some ideas about hip-hop culture in a different way that was more emotional. I wanted to put that in a character. Some of that turmoil. I really wanted to dramatize in a sense that sense of romance.”
After 15 more minutes of Nelson and Touré pass quickly, we’re almost two hours into the event. We’re quickly arriving at the conclusion. But first, a Q-and-A session which includes a rapping retired teacher; a call-to-arms for someone from the younger generation to seize the open throne of the first openly gay rapper, supplemented with an invitation for some audience member to write the next epic African-American novel; and a young man in a newly minted Brooklyn Nets track jacket discussing his enlightenment thanks to the genius of Sidney Poitier. And now the lights have kicked on and Nelson and Touré descend the stage, signing books between handshakes and laughs, and, inevitably, generations of Brooklyn collide in an exhilarated clash.
Created in collaboration with Greenlight Bookstore and the Brooklyn Rail, the aim of St. Joseph’s College’s Brooklyn Voices series is to promote and enhance the creative vitality of the neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill by providing local writers, artists, and intellectuals with a forum in which to discuss and present their works to our neighbors, patrons and students. The series’ next speaker, Sapphire, author of the best-selling novel Push, will visit the Brooklyn Campus on November 1, 2012. For more information, visit www.sjcny.edu.
A Conversation With Touré and Nelson George
On the allure of the Fort Greene, Brooklyn, neighborhood:
NG: I came here [in 1985]. There were already a lot of creatives around. Branford Marsalis lived a few blocks away. I knew Laurence Fishburne, then Larry Fishburne, lived around here. And I met Spike Lee — I not only lived around the corner from where he grew up, but also where he was living at the time. It was a time when a lot of talented young black artists were moving into the area — Terence Blanchard, a lot of those New Orleans guys moved up here. You’d actually get on the C train at night and see guys with their instruments going to the Vanguard because it was the perfect location to work in the Village and then come back on the subway. The neighborhood was under populated in a great sense, but was lively.
T: The Fort Greene that you [Nelson] grew up in became very romanticized. People were doing articles about how sexy Fort Greene is — this young Chris Rock, Spike Lee — and I was reading those articles thinking ‘Wow, this New York Brooklyn thing is really sexy!’ My father grew up near the Navy Yard, and my grandma actually had been a nurse in the Navy, so there were actually Naval families here. Fort Greene meant something in the military sense when they moved in … I remember coming here [in 1992] and Spike was the man, or one of the many men in black culture, and it was a pilgrimage to come to Spike’s joint. I definitely wanted to live here as soon as possible. There was an artistic, youthful vibrance about Fort Greene that Park Slope didn’t have, SoHo, at the time, didn’t have.
On how the area has changed:
NG: There is obviously a new street life because of the sidewalk cafes, and it’s different scenes. What’s going on at Walter’s has become a huge scene on DeKalb. Madiba’s always getting crazy. There’s a lot of that culture going on. There were a lot of house parties [in decades past] because there weren’t a lot of places to go within the area.
T: There has been a lot of turnover, which we’ve noticed. Going from a lot of mom and pops and vestigial traditional places to newer, fresher… but there’s still an extremely communal outdoors area. I feel a lot of people who may not know me but feel that they know me because they see me out with my kids.
NG: These [Brooklyn apartment] spaces, if you’re a young person in your twenties, if you can get the right spot, you got the exposed brick, you got the fireplace. Not one of your friends in Manhattan got that!
T: The artist community in this neighborhood has been maintained. Just in the last week I ran into Colson Whitehead walking around, Dennis O’Hare [True Blood], one of the guys from Flight of the Conchords, I ran into Adrian Grenier [Entourage] in the park …
NG: I think the difference is that the group that I came in with were not stars, they were on their way up. Now you have people here that are moving here because they made it. Wesley Snipes said, ‘We were people who were starting to do well who hadn’t made it yet, there was this kind of optimism.’ A lot of people were up and coming, then a lot of them became household names five years later. Now you have people moving in, a lot of them who are household names.
On the future of Brooklyn’s artist culture:
NG: I grew up in Brownsville, then I lived for four or five strange years in Queens, I’ve been very happy here. I am curious to see this time a year from now, now that the [Barclays Center] arena’s opening, and the [Richard B.] Fisher Building is opening next fall. There’s going to be two, three other new cultural establishments all within the area. I’m interested to see how that affects the quality of the Brooklyn experience.
T: We’re extremely fortunate to be here, to have Brooklyn Academy of Music, to have Roman’s, to have a lot of these themes. We have great restaurants, we have incredible parks, first-rate artistic structures, second-rate basketball …
NG: Bedford Avenue on a Friday or Saturday has become East Village, and there’s an opportunity for Fulton Street to become Bedford. I think we’re going to see profound change in the next year. We’re really living through suburban history.
T: You can go anywhere in the world and say you’re from Brooklyn, and people are like, ‘Whoa.’
NG: [Laughs] I don’t think that was as true in 1975 … It’s going to be interesting, we have all these artists that live in this area, I have yet to see, and I’m sure it’s going to come, the books and the movies that are about now. I think this is such a rich time in terms of storytelling. So much is going on in terms of the cultural interplay. The borough has changed so much.
Touré’s writing regularly appears in publications such as The New York Times, Ebony and The New Yorker. His three previous books are the short story collection The Portable Promised Land, the novel Soul City and a collection of his journalism, Never Drank the Kool-Aid. He is a regular contributor on culture for MSNBC and has hosted two programs on Fuse TV: The Hip Hop Shop and On the Record.
Nelson George, author of the novel The Plot Against Hip Hop, is one of the first writers to document hip-hop culture and is the author of several award-winning books on the subject, including Hip Hop America and The Death of Rhythm & Blues; he also co-authored Russell Simmons’ autobiography, Life and Def. George directed Queen Latifah in the HBO film Life Support, and is an executive producer of VH1’s Hip Hop Honors.