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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Please welcome back to the world … … Darius James Negrophobia: An Urban Parable (1992/2019)

 

‘Originally published in 1992 by Carol/Citadel Press, Negrophobia was a wild romp through a racially charged dreamscape that zipped from one absurd scene to another so quickly, you didn’t have time to question the illogical logic as stereotypes Uncle Remus, metal lawn jockeys, African cannibals, and Little Black Sambo plowed through the pages. “Growing-up in the ’60s, I watched all of those cartoons, but I didn’t associate those images with me or any other black people,” James said to me last year from his home in New Haven, Connecticut a few days before Christmas. “Though I was aware that that was how white people might think of black people.”

‘At sixty-three years old, James is a divorced former expat who lived in Berlin for over a decade before returning to the states in 2007. With a wicked sense of humor, he chuckles often. Having read and performed his often brilliantly off-color material for years, his speaking voice is clear, though it sometimes reminds me of our shared hero, Richard Pryor. Raised by a mother who was a psychiatric nurse and a painter father whose abstract expressionist canvases hung throughout the house, James’ first artistic inkling when he was a boy was to become a visual artist.

‘“I did some painting, but my father’s criticism was so harsh that I started writing instead, because he didn’t know anything about that.” Reading widely from the time he was in fourth grade, James devoured his mom’s Freud and Jung textbooks as well as underground comics drawn by S. Clay Wilson and Robert Williams, the novels and poems of Chester Himes and Ted Joans. “I also watched tons of television,” he said. “Children’s programs hosted by Sandy Becker and Soupy Sales were my favorites. It was like a pre-drug thing. Those shows prepared you for the reality of LSD.”

‘The avant-garde black power works of Amiri Baraka were also an inspiration, but years later the noted writer was far from impressed by the Negrophobia pages he read when teaching at Yale in the ’80s. “Baraka was running a writer’s workshop, but neither he nor any of the other students were very supportive. They basically told me not to publish it. To go away and don’t publish it.” In the final text of his debut, James got his revenge by referring to Baraka’s novel, The System of Dante’s Hell (1965), as “shit-stained pulp.”

‘In James’ black (face) comedy horror, written in the form of a screenplay, the anti-heroine protagonist was a racist white teenager named Bubbles Brazil, a spoiled little rich girl who was so badly behaved that she’d been kicked to the curb by every private academy in New York City and placed at Donald Goines Senior High School. “What’s a white girl to do in a school full of jigaboos?” Bubbles wondered.

‘Back home, after smart-mouthing her “kerchief-headed . . . meaty-arm” servant, a grits-cooking maid who resembled a 1950s tele-domestic, the woman put a serious mojo on the young girl that sends missy hurling into a hallucinogenic dark place, a voodoo so vexing that it is hard for her to get out. “The maid slithers into a convulsive snake dance, foams at the mouth, and tears off her clothes,” James wrote. “Fish-eyed pancakes are slung Frisbee-style across the kitchen. Bruce Lee’s kung-fu cat cries mingle with James Brown’s R&B funk shrieks.”

‘For the next hundred-fifty pages, Bubbles bounces like an ivory-hued pinball from one surreally racist scenario to another. In my mind, the words became pictures in the style of P-Funk cover artist Pedro Bell. In addition to the race issues, Negrophobia is sexually graphic and filled with enough free-flowing bodily fluids to gross out the strongest stomach.

‘The idea to write his wild styled book came to James when he was living in the West Village in the late ’70s. “It was just as simple as putting the words ‘Negro’ and ‘phobia’ together,” he said. “The Bubbles character was based on a few different women. There was this one white girl from West Virginia I knew who, after her parents split-up, was forced to go to Martin Luther King High School, because her father wouldn’t pay for private school anymore. She would tell me these crazy stories that I thought were so funny.” Originally written in traditional narrative form, after his friend and neighbor Michael O’Donoghue, the National Lampoon writer and Saturday Night Live original cast member, suggested he compose it as a screenplay, the ideas finally gelled.

‘“I knew it would be the best way to avoid a lot of psychological jabber about the characters,” James said. “I just wanted the reader to deal with the images and therefore confront those same images on their own terms.” Taking ten years to complete the manuscript, James worked as O’Donoghue’s researcher on various film projects, including Biker Heaven, the proposed sequel to Easy Rider that, according to Splitsider.com, “was set in 2068, a hundred years after the original, and saw the original movie’s main characters resurrected by ‘the Biker God’ to recover the original Gadsden flag in the wake of a nuclear war, as they encountered numerous biker gangs.”

Negrophobia has been championed and ridiculed by critics and readers alike, with a strange array of celebrity fans that includes actor Johnny Depp, members of Fishbone, and painter Kara Walker, whose use of slave imaginary in her famed silhouettes has been called “revolting and negative” by assemblage artist Betye Saar. “I read Negrophobia in 1994, when I was just about to graduate from the art school, and I’ve dealt with it intensively,” Walker said in db-art in 2004. “It was one of those rare soothing moments that I thought there could be another person in the world who understands what I do.”

‘The book’s biggest critic, however, was an employee of James’ publisher who believed the cover promoted the same stereotypes it purported to be combating and tried to have it squashed. Florence Washington, a black administrative assistant in Carol’s New Jersey offices, was offended by the image which showed, as The New York Times described in the June 17, 1992 Book Notes column, “a white girl, scantily dressed . . . over her shoulder is a shadow of an oversize Sambo-like caricature that resembles racist art from the 1930s and 40s.” Designed by art director Steve Brower, he and Darius, “saw the picture as a visual representation of the novel’s basic satirical line: What the teen-ager sees over her shoulder is not the shadow of a real man but of her deepest fears.”

‘Washington claimed she was going to report the incident to civil rights activist Sonny Carson. “The worst part was, she hadn’t even bothered to read the book,” James said. The protest didn’t trigger any bans or burnings, but it did generate the NYT piece. James told reporter Esther B. Fein, “These stereotypes have not died; they’ve just been transformed and modernized. The whole point is that I believe black people should start taking back these images from our iconography that have been stolen and corrupted through the years by racists. I understand that these images were once oppressive. But I think we are at the stage where we can look at these images and not feel threatened. All kinds of black artists have started to take control of these images, whether they realize it or not.”

‘Los Angeles Times book critic Dany Laferrière wrote in December 1992. “I opened James’ book only to topple into hell . . . Negrophobia remains the courageous effort of a young writer to understand his time, and a mad attempt to renew the genre of the novel.”

‘Kathy Acker was the first professional to encourage James after she read the first forty pages of Negrophobia in the mid-eighties. Acker constructed books, including Kathy Goes to Haiti (1978) and Blood and Guts in High School (1984) that were genre-breaking texts that combined word collages, plagiarized text, violence, and erotic (bordering on pornographic) imaginings designed to expand the possibilities of what the novel could be. It was that uncompromising attitude that Darius James applied to his own art that would become associated with the then creatively striving community of writers, painters, filmmakers, performance artists, and musicians who congregated on the Lower East Side.

‘“The Lower East Side didn’t really start for me until I met Kathy,” James said. The two connected when James was thirty and, after living in the West Village for a few years, had returned to his native New Haven. Bored one afternoon, he looked up Acker’s phone number and cold-called her at home. “I just told her how much I enjoyed her writing and how she reminded me of a jazz musician in the way she handled language and story and identity.”

‘Instead of being creeped out, she invited him to come see her the next time he was in the city. The following week, he, Acker and writer Patrick McGrath had drinks in an East 5th Street bar downstairs from a police station. “I showed her those early pages and she read them right there. She told me she thought it was fantastic.” Although the recorded history of ’80s Lower East Side is often whitewashed, there was a thriving community of black artists as well, which essayist Jennifer Jazz described perfectly in her piece Black Like Basquiat: Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Black Kids in Downtown NYC.

‘James began hanging out at various spots on the Lower East Side including the performance space Neither/Nor where he befriended fellow black writers John Farris (The Asses Tale), Steve Cannon (Groove, Bang, and Jive Around), both who became mentors, and Norman Douglas. Junkie playwright/screenwriter Miguel Pinero also hung out there, shooting smack in the back with his Sing Sing buddies. A few blocks away, Jean-Michel Basquiat was painting, David Hammons was concepting, and Ornette Coleman was blowing his horn.

‘“Darius and I hit it off from when we first met,” Douglas said recently. “We read poetry at Life Café and drank at the Horseshoe Bar on 7th and Avenue B. Greg Tate was the big black culture writer at the time, but I thought Darius was always the more radical thinker and writer.” With Acker’s help, Darius first published in the scene’s infamous literary journal Between C & D, edited by former couple Joel Rose and Catherine Texier. Printed on dot-matrix paper and sold in ziplock plastic baggies, contributors included Acker, Bruce Benderson, Gary Indiana, Tama Janowitz, Patrick McGrath and Dennis Cooper.

*

‘While I imagined that James would’ve had a difficult time selling Negrophobia to an America publisher, the opposite was true. “I met a New Yorker writer at Michael’s house named George W. S. Trow, and we became friends,” James explained. “He introduced me to the editor at Carol, whose name I can’t remember, but I do recall he was a Deadhead.” In 1993, the book was published in paperback by St. Martin’s Press as part of a deal Darius worked out when selling his nonfiction That’s Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss ’Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury).

‘It would take me another twenty-five years to actually complete Negrophobia, and that was only after writer and Man Booker winner Paul Beatty (The Sellout) playfully shamed me after I confessed to only reading a quarter of the book when it was released. As we stood in the rain after John Farris’ memorial service in April 2016, Beatty shook his head as though disgusted. “Go back and read that book. You won’t regret it.” When I told James the story, he laughed. “It’s not an easy book to finish,” he told me. “Most people stop at the scene where Bubbles is puking up worms, so, I understand.”

‘Negrophobia has been out of print since the ’90s, but Beatty reprinted an excerpt in Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor in 2006. “I found the work of the novelist Darius James while passing through Cathy’s bookstore on Avenue B and at the Living Theater on Third Street, hearing him deliver voodoo shibboleths as unruly as his stringy dreadlocks,” Beatty wrote in the book’s introduction, which was reprinted in The New York Times in January 2006.

‘I finally dived knee-deep into the textual boogie of Negrophobia and was delighted that I did. As Richard Pryor once said, “The water’s cold . . . and it’s deep too.” Darius’ writing style was as vivid as it was precise as he piled crazed images on top of one another. After reading the first few chapters of Bubbles’ Adventures in Darkieland, I took a nap and had a multicolored nightmare of skyrockets blasting in the sky as Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto bounced upside down, dragging his long tongue along the glittery ground. Seriously, it was as though the words worked a spell on my imagination, and even in sleep they wouldn’t let go.

‘After the release of Negrophobia, James hoped to begin working on his second novel The Last American Nigger, but life had other plans. “I think we all just assumed that when Negrophobia carried his work beyond Manhattan, Darius was going to be a star,” writer Dennis Cooper wrote in 2007, “an avant-garde superhero writer a la Burroughs and Acker. But his raucous style and subversive mode of confronting racist attitudes by embracing racist stereotypes were frequently misunderstood at the time. Despite the hubbub and some great reviews, the novel was not a big success.”

‘In 1998, Darius relocated to Berlin, which, in his words, was much like the Lower East Side in the ’80s. While Negrophobia didn’t get Darius’ face in any Dewars scotch ads, his dangerous visions expanded the limits of speculative fiction, and it took me back to the days when I was a teenage geek discovering the alternative new world universes of Harlan Ellison, Ishmael Reed, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, and Samuel R. Delany while simultaneously blaring the sounds of Prince, David Bowie, Grandmaster Flash, and Donna Summer in the background. An obvious literary pioneer in what the kids today call Afrofuturism, his work has inspired others, including the Ego Trip crew, writer/editor Bill Campbell (Koontown Killing Kaper), Hype Williams videos, and graphic artist Tim Fielder, who once did a comic strip insert with him for Between C & D.

‘Negrophobia remains the most blackadelic funk novel of late twentieth century that has much in common with the various generations of avant-gardists, free jazz cats on stage at Slug’s and doo-rag Dadaists as it does with James Brown’s brand new bag, Ralph Bakshi’s cartoons (especially the apt titled Coonskin) and George Clinton’s aural acid adventures in Chocolate City. Currently, Darius James is working on various projects, including editing a book project with photographer Gerald Jenkins, discussing a graphic novel with Casanova Frankenstein, composing a spoken word project with Haitian electronic voodoo musician Val Jeanty, and working on a new novel tentatively called Acid Fairies.

‘“I wanted to write about black women doing acid,” James said. Knowing his work, something tells me there’s more to it than that. For now, I’ll turntable scratch the words of Dennis Cooper, who wrote in a 2007 blog, “Darius may be a slowpoke, but he’s one of the most gifted contemporary American fiction writers in my opinion, and Negrophobia is a singular mindblower of a novel that I think you should do yourself the favor of reading.”’ — Michael Gonzales, Catapult

 

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Etc.

* Buy ‘Negrophobia’
* Darius James reviews Saab Lofton’s Anarchist Democracy
* Oliver Hardt’s documentary BLACK DEUTSCHLAND is an intimate exploration of black life in Germany. It features Darius James, a.o. Read about it here.
* The Negrophobia Website
* Read about and buy Darius James’s nonfiction book That’s Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude (Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury) (St. Martins Press, 1995)
The Zombie Monologues, by Darius James
The Evil Eyes, by Darius James
The Dark Side of the North Pole, an excerpt from the novel, “Froggy Chocolates” by Darius James
Anarchist Democracy by Darius James
Free Brother Bobby!

 

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Media


Negrophobia by Darius James (rerelease book trailer) Negrophobia Reborn


Showreel


Darius James – Sensitive Skin Magazine live @ Bowery Poetry Club 8-15-2010


Darius James at the Sensitive Skin reading, Cafe Amsterdam, 10/29/10

 

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Quotes

“In this social-media era, when we are more intent than ever on isolating things that offend and outrage, Negrophobia revels in its own outrageousness, and thus is more of a tonic now than it was almost three decades ago. It neither blinks nor recoils at the stereotypes, insults, and presumptions that have been used to cage and subdue African American self-esteem, but compels its readers to confront rather than retreat from or smooth over the retro Jim Crow imagery….American literature has seen the ascent of talented young black writers who aren’t willing to settle for parochial or hidebound conceptions of who they are and what they should say…and it’s a fine time to be reminded that crazy, willful acts of hoodoo storytelling such as Negrophobia helped make this renaissance possible.” — Gene Seymour, Bookforum

“Luridly funny and unsparingly smart, Negrophobia is American arcana of the highest order. And like all truly cool books, destined to forever be ahead of its time.” — Paul Beatty

“Darius James is a great writer.” — Kathy Acker

“I opened James’s book only to topple into hell. In fact, Negrophobia is the black version of American Psycho.” — Dany Laferrière

“I read Negrophobia when I was still in grad school. . . . It was one of those good but rare occasions when I thought there might be one other person in the world that would get what I was doing.” — Kara Walker

“Comic, manic, and amazing, [Negrophobia] tells more about American race relations than all of the walking dead suburban experts, academics, and think tank whores who tell their fellow suburbanites about how it feels to be black.” — Ishmael Reed

“This is a novel of exposure, not solution. Those willing to take the ride will find language and imagery that provide an understanding of everything offensive and American. To see Bubbles dragged through the mire of racial and sexual taboos is to experience the reclamation of the icons and stereotypes that are the signposts of relations among Americans. It’s not an altogether pleasant experience. No one who reads Negrophobia is playing in the dark — just lost in it. The novel, however, is no more unpleasant an experience than, say, having a police baton swung at your body, or having a steel-tipped boot kick you a few hundred times after you’ve been dragged out of your tractor-trailer. With its feet firmly planted in the satiric tradition of Voltaire Ishmael Reed, John Kennedy Toole, and Okot p’Bitek, James’s book is both timely and necessary.” — Christian Haye, The Village Voice

“Darius James is one of the funniest writers in America, and one of the most serious. His subject is the big one: slavery; his questions are the big ones: who is slave to what?” — George Trow

“I wanted to set up a situation where a reader had to confront his own racist thinking. And I wanted to talk about this in the book: that this culture – that popular culture – is predicted on the fact that it finds black people funny.” — Darius James

” …these cartoons in and of themselves aren’t intended to perpetuate racism. Rather, they were designed to subvert it(…) One of the ideas for me was that the reader himself, who might have a racist thought after reading Negrophobia, would become ill and throw up. But magically, I would like the reader to step back and look at the absurdity of these images and laugh: laugh at the images, laugh at their own racism and not feel cowed by it. And also, black people should laugh at these images and realize that these images are not reflection of black people but rather a reflection of some diseased mind, which is a real distinction. Because some people – and not a lot of them – became critical of the book because they confuse what I’m writing about with actual lives of black people. My book has nothing to do with the real live of black people. It has to do with mapping out the terrain of a racist psychology and making fun of that.” — Darius James

 

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I Hate Being Lion Fodder
A Conversation Between Darius James and Kara Walker

 

Darius James: The first thing that struck me in your work was that your use of paper cutout and silhouette has the feel of folk art, grounding the work in black storytelling traditions. I like how the frozen moments of the images narrate an entire tale, sung with the wit and cunning of the blues trickster. I say “sung,” because the stylistic execution is lyrical. Thus, your work simultaneously encompasses the visual, the narrative, and the musical.

I am also impressed by your satirical boldness. I don’t see much of that. And when it is attempted, it isn’t done well. It doesn’t go for the throat. It doesn’t smell blood. When “Negrophobia” was first published in hardback, the cover featured a white woman whose shadow was a thick-lipped, light bulb-headed coon. Some folks inside the publishing house were offended and threatened to sic the NAACP on me. Then, I kid you not, in some black bookstores, it was sold under counter in a plain brown wrapper. Now, the cover is hanging in the Smithsonian. Curiously, the people who seemed most offended by my work were middle to upper class blacks. Working class blacks, for the most part, see the humor and get the point. I tell you all this in order to ask how black people in the U.S. are reacting to your work.

Kara Walker: There have been letter-writing campaigns: once after being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1997, and once, at least so far, for the removal of one of my least offensive prints from a museum in Detroit. My work has also been lambasted in the International Review of African American Arts: 17 pages with no byline, mostly ribbing me for my hair, my white husband – nothing at all unique – too young, haven’t paid my dues, etc. It was quite embarrassing and strangely obtuse that two issues of a magazine supposedly devoted to unraveling the lure of stereotypical, racist imagery should rely so heavily on stereotypical racist imagery of the kind that blacks dole out among themselves. Harvard and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. also put on a kind of niggerati circus in 1998 that I failed to attend – probably to my detriment, but I hate being lion fodder.

I read “Negrophobia” when I was still in grad school (I graduated in 1994) working out these notions. It was one of those good but rare occasions when I thought there might be one other person in the world that would get what I was doing. The only thing I didn’t like were the pictures in between. Sorry. We’re talking about a proud fine arts grad student here. I remember thinking, No, this is wrong. Those postcard coon images aren’t ugly because they’re ugly, they’re hateful because they’re cute, loveable, desirable. They feed on scatological, pedophiliac, incestuous, murderous longings and, like Jlo’s children’s line or ads for Babyphat, they do it in a nostalgic, seductive way.

Darius James: In your letter, you wrote that Henry Louis Gates Jr. ringmastered a niggerati circus at Harvard in 1998. What was that exactly? And why would you have been “lion fodder?”

Kara Walker: I was having a show there of a large suite of silhouette pieces. And Gates organized a weekend-long series of lectures and films around the slippery slope of race and representation. It included a panel with Betye Saar, who started a censorship/hatemail campaign against my work and against my positive reception by the art market/MacArthur Award folks, Howardina Pindell, and Michael Ray Charles (also much-hated for his pickaninny art). And from the reports of my disappointed friends, dissed because I wasn’t there, Mr. Charles couldn’t hold up his end of the argument – and he has an advertising background, for shame! Now, if I hadn’t been on a much-anticipated trip to the German Oma and Opa, they anticipating their first and only grandchild, I would have simply sat on the stage and nursed my Quadroon baby and said nothing. I mean, you know when it comes to our sordid racist past and our sordid racist relationship with Race, there is going to be some shouting. Much of it was cross-generational.

Yeah, I was also taken aback by an ad supposedly against child sexual exploitation, which really struck me as needlessly sexy, exploiting the notion of the Beautiful Black Child wearing her poor ragged shift. She is central to the image, totally exposed in all her shame-faced beauty. Her face is in profile and cast downward, toward her white Barbie doll, which she’s about to abandon. The unseen force of the image, the one we passersby are meant to identify with, is the faceless white man pulling her by the arm in the opposite direction. She’s nearly spread-eagled across the image and he’s shrouded in mystery, setting up the classic tension between illicit desire and access. The tagline, something like “she’s a child, not a sex object,” could just as easily read, “she’s a child, and a sex object.” It might also apply to the doll.

Darius James: When I began researching “Negrophobia”, along with turn-of-the-century coon images on postcards, pancake-mix boxes and tin toys, I also came across some Civil War-era editorial cartoons, some of which were as sexually explicit as your own, though without the graceful lines, of course. You seem to draw inspiration from these images, as well. I have one image in my collection of a Northern abolitionist on his knees with his tongue inserted into the rectum of a nappy-haired jungle Negress.

Race is not divorced from sexuality in the American imagination. Racism is rooted in the hypocrisy of puritanical sexuality. America’s first sex shows were plantation owners overseeing that their property bred right. Did you know Joel Chandler Harris would write his fiancée love letters in Uncle Remus dialect? It was how he showed his sexual side.

Kara Walker: Mostly I am influenced by literature, particularly bad romance novels and porno, because it’s a given that the reader should experience titillation. My experience also includes a heavy dose of shame, not just because maybe I should have been doing close readings of Black Feminist Theory, etc., instead of pursuing “The Master’s Revenge,” but also because so much of that base-level literature is so raw. So much irritating fucking truth about us and our reliance on the old master/slave dialectic to define and redefine our selves and our history. I really started working this way because I was so sick of that dialectic being the guarantor of my colored gal experience. Also, I began working this way because, conversely, so much of that paradigm became my experience, when I really wasn’t looking for it to do so.

Still, it feels a little bit strange to be here in cyberspace, spinning the all-too-familiar yarns on plantation imagery for a German audience that may be inclined to take that stuff at face value. I say this in a vain attempt to invite controversy. I like to think I know these Germans well. That advertisement for West cigarettes would never fly in the States – the one with the crazy disco Afro woman and the average white guy offering her his little ciggy. She’s all teeth and hot red Amazonian sex. The catch phrase is “Test it.”

Darius James: I’ve lived here for four years and, like yourself, I’m intimately involved with a German. I couldn’t say, however, “I know these Germans well.” But I also understand what you’re saying about taking your work at face value. I might walk into a record or comic book shop and the most ig’nint fool gangsta rap will be blasting out of the speakers. I’m not condemning gangsta rap, or rap in general, or sex and violence. I’m talking about some drunken and blunted fool spewing abusive and dysfunctional bullshit that’s not about anything at all, except being abusive and dysfunctional. And a lot of young Germans listen to this shit because it’s supposed to be hip, not really understanding what’s going on in the lyrics. If they knew, they would puke.

Going out for cigarettes this morning, I saw the specific West cigarette ad you were referring to in your letter. There are a few now. Around Christmas time, there was one featuring an Afro-haired woman in Santa’s helper suit complete with reindeer. This one you are concerned with I hadn’t seen until this morning. What I find interesting about the ad is this – the woman towers over the man offering her a cigarette, and she appears to be having a hearty laugh at the idea he is offering her such a small object. The image of the woman is clearly a projection of white male sexual fantasy, but white male sexual inadequacy is also implied by the image – desire and fear encompassed in a single image.

The image is not so much one of racism as it is one of exoticism. One of the things I find interesting about exoticism in the context of interracial sexual liaisons is that it is a kind of racism by mutual consent. Each party projects fantasies onto the other. If there is a solid basis to the attraction and a relationship is formed, the fantasy stage is transcended and one finds oneself dealing with the funky humanness of the other. Exotic differences are of no importance because one is dealing with the hard realities of another human being. Some people, of course, fetishize the idea of exoticism. I live in Europe. I have all manner of exotic masturbatory fantasies about women here, black, white, Middle Eastern, Asian, etc. Subverting gender/power sexual relations within a hetero context appeals to me.

Curiously, just like the stereotypes some like to believe about themselves attraction based on exoticism also occurs among exotics. For example, the fetishizing of black women as the Queen Mums of Africa within romantic black cultural nationalist thought. Or, like the East Indian and Bavarian German woman with whom I had an affair some years back, who complained about how she was being treated like an exotic by all the white boys she had been involved with. Yet, at the same time, as she had never been involved with a black man, she projected her particular fantasies onto me.

Kara Walker: I have a similar reading of the West ad, however, I was troubled by it just the same. One reason is because I’m a tall fancy-ass American black woman (“Are you a model?” or “Aren’t you that model in…?” have been asked of me more than I care to recall) who has always relished the idea that I could be an exoticized sexual predator. However, my internal reality is so altogether different, so 13-year old suburban sniperish. “She was always so quiet… I can’t believe she would do this.” I both relish and resent those crazy-sexy-cool attitudes that seamlessly conceal internal angst. In my premarital exploits I can safely say I had a few open wounds through which I let slip the unseemly, the ironic, and the paranoiac, which leads to another favorite stereotype, the crazy-ass nigra.

Personally, I found this situation Black Amazon meets sexually frustrated white agent, – face it, in the West ad he’s still doing all the offering, her laughter is passive, it’s a response – iconic for the immensity of the fabrications involved, and the impossibility of sustaining the illusion of race or gender roles.

You said: “If there is a solid basis to the attraction, and a relationship is formed, the fantasy stage is transcended and one finds oneself dealing with the funky humanness of the other. Exotic differences are of no importance because one is dealing with the hard realities of another human being.” But transcendence doesn’t always occur. I based many a notebook page on the idea of sustaining the tension that occurs when each party only partly reveals, does an elaborate striptease with their funky humanness. Seeking fetishized comfort in the fantasy version of one’s own body, in other words. Really, the ad for West cigarettes would be more to my liking if the funky chick had a revealing bulge in her pants.

 

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Book

Darius James Negrophobia: An Urban Parable
New York Review Books

‘Darius James’s scabrous, unapologetically raunchy, truly hilarious, and deeply scary Negrophobia is a wild-eyed reckoning with the mutating insanity of American racism. A screenplay for the mind, a performance on the page, a work of poetry, a mad mix of genres and styles, a novel in the tradition of William S. Burroughs and Ishmael Reed that is like no other novel, Negrophobia begins with the blonde bombshell Bubbles Brazil succumbing to a voodoo spell and entering the inner darkness of her own shiny being. Here crackheads parade in the guise of Muppets, Muslims beat conga drums, Negroes have numbers for names, and H. Rap Remus demands the total and instantaneous extermination of the white race through spontaneous combustion. By the end of it all, after going on a weird trip for the ages, Bubbles herself is strangely transformed.’ — NYRB

Negrophobia is written in the form of a screenplay, but no movie version of it exists so far. (There had been discussions about an animated movie version, and a live theatrical production has been long in the works.) The novel becomes a big screen on which Darius James projects reality and fiction, consciousness and sub-consciousness, dreams and fears of not just an American, but a whole western society where racism is in people’s conscience. The book is actually a journey inside this racism.

‘All the characters in this book are cartoon–like. James has created a pyramid of racist stereotypes with supernatural powers. Negrophobia describes the strange and hallucinating adventures of a white, drug-addled teenage girl called Bubbles Brazil, and she has all the typical racial stereotypes of African-American people in her head. She lives in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is a rich girl who hates going to school with “jigaboos” since they’ve turned the high school hallways into a mad spectacle of sex, drugs and violence.

‘Bubbles finds herself transported into a nightmare dreamscape, and she is taken there through the voodoo of a demonic Aunt Jemima called “the Maid”. This Voodoo spell throws Bubbles in a parallel world of grotesque visions of racism. She now experiences racism on her own, and suddenly every racial stereotype about black people comes to life.

‘Along the way she meets “a Negro cyborg”, Uncle H. Rap Remus (who rapes little children), Malcolm X, she gets beaten up by a group of Ninja-Queens in her schools bathroom, meets a bunch of cartoon savages with grass skirts, who dream of social welfare, crackhead homeboys fantasizing about Spike Lee, a zombie Elvis, and Walt Disney, who wants to take over America and establish a Gestapo state.’ — from the Negrophobia website

___________
Short excerpts

Bubbles (v.o.):

My high school was overridden with niggas. Not the slow-witted, slow-shufflin’, eyeball-rollin’ flapjack- flippin’ niggas in the brownstone off Central Park West. Or the upwardly mobile, paper-bag-colored Klingon niggas – the nightmarish kind!

Mindless angel-dusted darkies slobbering insane single syllables, flicking switchblades and flashing straightrazor. Hip-Hoppity jungle bunnies in bright colored clothes, carrying large, loud radios we white wits call “Spadios”, who drank bubbling purple carbonates and ate fried pork rinds and bag after bag of dehydrated potato slices caked with orange dust. Crotch-clawin’ niggas who talked Deputy Dawg and shot dope. Saucer-lipped ragoons who called me the “Ozark Mountyin She-Devil” and asked to feel my lunch money. Percussive porch monkeys who fart with their faces to a heavy-metal beat.

These were the kind of niggas my daddy warned me about. The kind of niggas my daddy said would whisk me off to the Isle of Unrestrained Negros far, far away, and turn me into a coalblack pickaninny with a nappy ribbon top and white button eyes if I wasn’t a good girl and didn’t do as daddy said.

 

*

INT. Donald Goines Senior High-Classroom-Day

Fade up on the punkadelic blond dreads of a black-skinned GIRL. Slowly pan left to right, overlap dissolve, and pan right to left across the faces of the other STUDENTS seated in the classroom, each face a frightening caricature of the grotesque.

BUBBLES
(voice over)
My high school was overridden with niggas. Not the slow-witted, slow-shufflin’, eyeball-rollin’, flapjack-flippin’ niggas in the brownstones off Central Park West. Or the upwardly mobile, paper-bag-colored Klingon niggas of the bougie boogahood. But nigger niggas- the nightmarish kind! …

One day her black maid, being sick of her attitude, prepares a voodoo concoction which throws Bubbles into the nightmarish and surreal realm of her own mind, where she has to face her worst stereotypes: the Cosmic Sambo- a Negro cyborg, the primitive Licorice Men who grin like Louie Armstrong, the rotting corpse of Malcolm X singing and dancing in the ‘Rocky-Horror Negro Show’, a fascistoid Walt Disney who proclaims to “hang the nigger and burn the Jew”, the Elvis-Zombie, crack kids and Talking Dreads.

BUBBLES
(v.o.)
And there I dangled, in the attic, quietly hallucinating amid vile odors and strange Negro figurines. On the floor below, the maid had gone mad – her blubbersome black bulk flopping and flailing about the floor, bellowing for a pink-skinned god who would never come.

 

 

*

p.s. Hey. At long, long last, Darius James’s great novel has just been republished, and, in honor of this auspicious occasion, I’ve revamped and extended an old ‘spotlight’ post about the novel into a welcome wagon type of thing. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. He didn’t actually leave his entire fortune to his cat, but he did leave the cat a lot. I went backstage via passes a fair amount when I was writing for Spin Magazine. As far as pay off, well, the only time I met my idol Robert Pollard was backstage at a GbV show. And many ages ago, a backstage pass led to me having sex with a member of a band (no names) who I really wanted to have sex with. So that one was worth it. Everyone, In case you missed it, here’s a question from David Ehrenstein to all and sundry: ‘Has anyone in here gone “backstage” with a pass? What happened when you did? Was it worth it?’ ** KeatonChung, Any relationship to Connie? Or Wang? Ouch: ears. Mm, I wouldn’t say they’re athletic, but cigarette jeans would have looked comedic on them. Roggenbuck seems to have disappeared due to a #MeToo thing. You’re lucky to have had that neighbour, obviously. I think it’s Fashion Week here next week or something, or some fashionable variant. Blog stuff! Everyone, There’s a whole bunch of new hot looking stuff on Keaton’s blog. Get addicted and deal with that here. ** Sypha, The Tosh tome is wonderful, no? Yes. ** Misanthrope, Hi. I answered his question up above. So, are you inferring that you’ve never been backstage? I’m feeling okay. Lag isn’t too, too horrible. But, long story short, Yury noticed our heater was making weird noises while I was away, and the technician showed up day before yesterday and told us the heater was extremely dangerous and could explode at any time. So it’s off, and now we have and will have no heat or hot water for at least a week (and it’s fucking February!) while our real estate agent and the apartment’s owner go through all the paperwork and try to find the cheapest new heater they possibly can. So I have to wear my winter coat indoors, etc., and that sucks quite majorly. Good, good about the meds. Ha ha, just this one time I feel no envy whatsoever about your snow, sleet, etc. I might literally die if Paris suddenly gets what I usually want. Oh, cool, the mighty Mark D! Enjoy! Say hey. Oh, my, that LPS is increasingly serious reality show fodder. I’m so sorry. Weirdo. ** Corey Heiferman, I was going to say why would anyone want to go back stage at Jay Leno, but then I realised, duh, he had guests and could have possibly had a tempting guest, so never mind. Interesting story there about you and the organist and Carnegie Hall. I dated someone (no names) ages ago who got really famous while we were together, but I never got to go into his back stages because he was super paranoid that anyone would suspect much less find out he was g*y. It’s probably kind of true that if you can’t sit close, or at least on the floor, Eurovision might be better on TV. Or I guess I mean that would color my decision. No surprise on the ticket cost but sucks. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. Wow, I do remember Backstage Pass now that you mention them, although they haven’t creased my memories in a very long time. As far as I know, their only released recording is a song on a Rhino Records punk era comp album whose name escapes me. Thanks re: that blog launch/link. Hm, yeah, hm, about that new channel. I mean, you know this already, but if the channel became a thing, it could be good, but, if not, you don’t want to lock your film into some relative nowhere. Hm. Have you found out any more about the project? ** Mark Stephens, Hey, Mark! Total ditto with jimmies and a cherry on top! We did talk about Clear Light. I even listened to their album again afterwards. Sad that Bob Seal died. That band deserved so much better than they got, but that’s how it so often goes. Bleah. Great that our tete-a-tete led to old friend regrouping. I love you too, man, and I’ll see you round Halloween and hopefully talk with you often in the meantime. ** Brendan, Hey, Brendan! Sucks I didn’t get to see you more. I got swallowed by my family and shit that I was obligated to do. Story of my LA visits aka life. Ha ha, no, I completely spaced on scoring Mac ‘n’ Cheese. There is a place I found here where you can buy it, but it’s way over in this weird spot near the Eiffel Tower. I did remember to buy NyQuil to bring back, but then it got confiscated at security, god damn it. Lots o’ love, me. ** _Black_Acrylic, Shed Seven! Whoa! I used to to do that too: hang around pathetically hoping to glimpse the gods offstage. Yes, it seems my Bret Easton Ellis podcast will be broadcast starting tomorrow. I’m nervous. I think you can guess what I think of the Eagles, but I won’t spoil the non-surprise, ha ha. ** Bill, Hi, B. Okay, no, I haven’t seen ‘Borders’, so I’ll seek that. Very glad to hear about the gig, and about the rain’s percussion add. Will there be online evidence anywhere? I’ll be checking the Paris listings for that show. Nice, hope. ** Kyler, Good to be back in my proper spot. Cool about Nureyev, and awwww about Mary Martin. My mom and grandmother took me to a taping of The Lucy Show, Lucille Ball’s later series, and my grandmother knew Lucy for some strange reason, so I met her. At the time I thought she was really weird, but I don’t think she actually was. ** Right. ‘Negrophobia’ is very super highly recommended by me if you haven’t read it. See you tomorrow.

13 Comments

  1. I love this book – an dit was you who led me into reading in the first place, Dennis. Cool to see it again. I like the Kara Walker conversation.

    Just listened to your interview on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast – loved it! I’m a big fan of BEE and his podcast, and it was just bliss to have my morning coffee(s) with you on there – it was a dream episode for me; got me geared up for a day of novel writing.

  2. This book’s re-release couldn’t come at a better time what with Trump’s racism — and the media’s refusal to call him out on it. And that’s not to mention Jussie Smollet . Is that a story in France?
    Anti-Semitism has reached a real crisis point over there, with Jewish businesses having swastikas painted on them. Macron has decared it a crisis. And unlike Trump he’s not at all delusional in doing so.

    Nice to see James’ passing mention of George W.S. Trow — one of my heroes.

  3. Hi Dennis!

    Hey man, a book recommendation I can actually afford because it’s not OOP and doesn’t cost something like Karl Lagerfeld’s late fortune on abebooks or ebay or something, so yes! I’m going to order it directly from nyrb as soon as I’ve sent my little hello to you off into the cyber-ether.

    I’m really, really sorry to hear about your apartment’s heater woes, Dennis. Jesus, that’s very dangerous. Please be careful. And no hot water to boot, my god. My heart goes out to you. Our heater went out last winter (which was nowhere near as cold as this winter, where it snowed in Seattle for a record number of days a few weeks ago — where’s this ‘global warming’ that everyone keeps blabbing about?) AND my ancient landlady offered to put me and Angelo up in a hotel until the heater was replaced…. is there any chance of the apartment owner doing that for you and Yury? For a few days, at least? Jesus man, I feel for you.

    Thank you for asking how my novel is coming along. I think you know it’s in the editing stage right now. I’m self-editing it before I send it to the real editor. My goal is to have it to her by April 20th at the latest, which is also the publication date for my new book of short stories. I’ll mail you a copy of the book of short stories if you give me your snail mail address there in Paris. I’ll email you later about it. It’s being published by Expat Press. The young man who runs Expat is very encouraging, we are quite simpatico and his love of literature and books is infectious, so yes, good match for me. Also he’s well-read, so that’s awesome. The kids are alright, man!

    I don’t have a publisher for the ‘big book’ yet… I’ve spent so much of my life on this new novel, the last two years, waking at 5am every morning to work on it before ‘work’, that I’d like it to be published by a press that has a budget larger than $27 to promote it… I don’t want it to die on the vine! So maybe I’ll get an agent, I’m not sure… unless I luck out with one of the biggies… When I was searching for a publisher for Valencia I was at wits end, and sent quite a few drunken late night query letters to Condom House, Puking Punkguin, HarborCollenz, Ferrari Stressed Guru, and Soft Skoal, and that didn’t pan out so well, so this time my mantra for selling the new novel is ‘be kind, be gentle, don’t be an asshole, don’t be an asshole, don’t be an asshole…’ We’ll see how that goes!

    Are you working on a new ‘books I read recently and loved’ post, Dennis? I always look forward to those posts like a diabetic in a bakery!

    I’m excited to hear your podcast with BEE — it goes up sometime this week, right?

    I hope you get a new heater for your apartment much sooner rather than later, my friend!

    My love to you,
    James

  4. Speak of the devil, I got this book in the mail just yesterday. I’ll probably read it when I’ve finished reading Tosh’s book.

    Dennis, I don’t do this very often but I have a writer’s question for you. Have you ever had a book where you went in already knowing what the structure would be, how it would end, the character ideas, pretty much everything really, but you weren’t sure emotionally why you were writing it? Because that’s kind of the issue I have with the 90’s novel that I’ve been gestating for what seems like well over a year now. It’s like I can see the structure, know most of the story beats and major scenes, even have a working title and a vague idea how it ends (which is unusual for me), the one thing I really haven’t answered is, “What are the emotional stakes for me in writing this?” I don’t know, maybe I should just start the damn thing and trust my instincts to figure it out as I go along.

    Prior to today the only BEE podcast I heard was his one for A STAR IS BORN, mainly because it was a freebie. But I finally became a patron for Ellis’ podcast today, so I’ll have to check out that interview he did with you later. The only other Patreon I give money to on a monthly basis is the writer Mark Samuels, but I figured the time was right to finally make the splurge for Ellis as well.

  5. Somehow Negrophobia (spell-checked to necrophobia, argh) has not been a part of my reading list. That will change ASAP.

    Sorry to hear about being heat-less in Feb, Dennis. In Paris, yikes. Hope that’s taken care of soon. Umm, why was your NyQuil confiscated? Because it’s a liquid and you can’t take it on the flight? So annoying.

    I thought I saw a video camera at the gig last week, but nothing’s up at the venue’s Facebook page yet. I’ll keep an eye on it. I have a photo or two, but that’s not so helpful.

    Bill

  6. You can’t get NyQuil in Paris? Do the French have some sort of problem with that too?

    Hope your family stuff is okay.

    Totally unrelated: Do you know the band Naomi Punk? From Olympia, Wash. I’ve been obsessed. Their second record, Television Man, is a noisey, druggy, grimy, lo-fi masterpiece. They are totally up your alley. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQeOUXriURY

    Let me know what you think.

    Love, B

  7. Been meaning to score a copy of Negrophobia since forever so this luscious new edition makes it look essential.

    I think the BEE vs DC podcast showdown was a whole lot of fun and would work as a good intro for any DC’s neophytes.

  8. Hey D.,

    I’ve heard of this book for sure, not certain where though. Who republished it? I’ll definitely try and get my hands on a copy once I find the cash. I just bought a book of Francis Ponge, because we read him for Ann’s class and it blew my mind a little bit, and I suspect a whole book of his would blow my mind entirely. Have you read his stuff?

    Oh wow, that way of creating dialogue for “Closer” is an incredible idea, thank you for sharing that. I’m thinking of doing something similar for this film class, but it’s different. More like reappropriating gestures and language for vampires… the idea is still super nascent, I have two weeks for this one so I’ll have time to actually work through it. Yeah, I’m definitely gonna try imitating writers I admire. I think it’ll help me a lot, and get me acquainted with certain models I can apply to my own writing. And, honestly, I think my fear of sounding too much like other writers has stifled my creativity more than helped it. So, yeah, I’ll definitely try it out. For whatever reason I really wanna try imitating Bernhard, so I’ll tell you how that goes. By the way, did you ever get a chance to check out the story I sent?

    Wonderful, you liked the LA trip! What are you up to now that you’re back?

  9. I hope James can get another novel published. If NYRB is willing to reprint NEGROPHOBIA, will someone publish his next book?

    I haven’t had any more discussions with the guy who’s starting that channel. I’m gonna wait and see if he gets back to me. It’s possible this is all a big dream that’ll never get off the ground. I would be a lot more willing to work with him if it had been streaming for a year and I had some sense of its ability to reach people.

    The Kamran Heidari series will be called WIND FROM IRAN. It’s a reference to his film DINGOMARO, which won’t make literal sense to anyone who hasn’t seen it, but people will get the Godard reference. I’ve been reaching out to writers to try and get press for it, with no luck so far.

    Such tantalizing stories about rock stars you’ve slept with, and even dated! I remember your hints about one metal musician years ago.

    The office manager at Anthology and his girlfriend spent New Year’s Eve 2017 at a Guided By Voices concert and then partied with Bob Pollard afterwards. I’ve seen the photos on his phone.

  10. Dennis, Great about the republish. I think I’ll add it to my upcoming big Amazon order. Of course, I’ll have to hide it when I take it to work to read on break eventually. I’m reading a book by Ronald Firbank now, it’s three of his novellas. Of course, one is his Prancing Nigger. I just turn it over on my desk when I’m at work. People wouldn’t understand. What’s odd to me -and I want to follow up on it- is that that wasn’t his original title for the novel. It was originally Sorrow in Sunlight. He later published it himself under the original title. I’m like, who the fuck came up with the alternative and why?

    Names. We wants NAMES. I’m kidding. I’m glad you didn’t give names. It’s better that way.

    Fuck about the heater. I don’t know if you remember, but a few years ago, our heater went out on the coldest night of the year. It was 6 degrees. Luckily, our neighbor up the street had a space heater that worked just well enough until the emergency heater people came. Cost $1,800, but it’s worked fine since.

    IOW, get that shit fixed and stay warm until you do. Maybe, too, look for an inexpensive space heater -you can get ’em cheap here- or see if someone has one you can borrow. I hope it doesn’t take too long. Of course, good thing it didn’t blow up on poor Yury. Yikes!

    Yeah, the Mark D. thing will be a good time.

    And yes, LPS is a bit batshit crazy at times. The other 99% of the time, he’s pleasant as can be. Lil Fucker. And yes, weirdo is right. I’ve used that term myself in reference to him, hahaha.

  11. I will for sure check out Negrophobia. Thanks for the rec.

  12. Might be close to the wire here on time but thanks a lot for this post. Whenever I finally do get around to ordering some books in English this is a definite yes. It seems like it could be a big inspiration for how I’d like to be able to play with the Hebrew language someday.

    Stay warm! Hope you get everything fixed ASAP and a February thaw to boot.

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