I first saw LeRoi Jones in the flesh, at his vociferous best, at the student body funding debate. I was stone-ass surprised that he was even there. I thought of him as a Big Important Writer From The East Coast In A Tweed Coat With Books Under His Arm squirreled away from us except for class. I knew he was due to teach a class; I had even been assigned by the BSU prez to find him and his wife Sylvia an apartment, a task I failed after two weeks of walking up and down the hills of the Fillmore and the Haight with $250 cash in my purse. They ended up having to stay at the Travel-Lodge on Market St. until someone else, more on the ball, found them a pad. Some other soul got them from the airport. Forever after when I passed Travel-Lodge on the street leading to the Bay Bridge I felt mortification at failing the test. And here he was, not in his book-lined study, not surrounded by Balzac, Genet, Ionesco, or Brecht, not hunched over a Smith-Corona portable as inspiration poured from his fingertips, not on the phone long distance with some big bubba tubba negotiating another run of "Dutchman." Nope, he had left beat nihilism for black nationalism. He was with us, giving much lip to the punk-ass white boys who controlled the student body budget and wanted, for some perverse reason that I'm sure would have never occurred to them in their native Stanislaus or Siskiyou counties to pick a fight with the BSU over our altogether legitimate and defensible hiring of LeRoi. We packed the classroom for the meeting with students – black, white, Hispanic, Asian - and community people, all black and formidable. Academia's cherubs, goodbye. We drowned them, washed over them in a wave of derision. Everytime they tried business as usual, we up-against-the-wall-motherfuckered them. The white boys got tired real quick of beating their heads against a united front and they grudgingly agreed to give it up. Yea-us.
Yea-me. Financing LeRoi meant I got financed too. LeRoi immediately set the BSU to rehearsing and performing his play "Black Mass." We were the Black Arts and Culture Troupe, we got a van, we ran up costumes at the pad, we put on shows. Within a matter of days I was the warm-up act, reading poetry. Our prez wrote a play, "Night-time is the Right Time," and we were gone, black train down the black track. LeRoi was the engine. We had an array of talent in the BSU, actors, singers, modern dancers, to supply motive force, the cars, and I, as usual, the caboose. The prez, saying I was the quintessential naysayer, gave me a part in the play, the last line which I delivered and even changed if I chose, since the clapping and the right-ons started just before it and nobody could hear me say squat, We took the show to colleges, centers and anyplace they'd let us in-East Palo Alto, West Oakland, Western Addition, South Berkeley, Marin City, Seaside, Hunter's Point. I felt like a little star. Maybe not a Betelgeuse or a Procyon, but one of the white dwarfs like Sirius B.
The prez’ play was big fun to perform. No Romeo and Juliet here; no boy-gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets her back stuff. We improvised a riot, more like man gets mad, man gets Molotov, woman throws it. The play, as written, was a one-page set of instructions like this:
A single light shines on a man off to the side mad, making a Molotov cocktail. Across the stage, dancers rise from the flour, reaching upward. Lighting goes from shadowy to bright. A voice projects:
Night time is the right time
Fat mama and a sister carrying sorrow like a ball and chain beg their brother not to throw his Molotov cocktail.
A younger brother watches as he throws it, The police came looking for him, He hides, The mother deliberates on whether to turn her son in.
"Some people join church, I see you joined the world."
Sometimes I threw in my grandma’s old favorite, "Don't let no man drag you down," changing it, if people could hear me, to "Don't let the man drag you down," or the old standby, "You can do bad by yourself." But the point of the naysayer, as LeRoi explained it to us in class, was to show that quality of self-doubt in blacks that would always accompany liberating actions, but which would be drowned out by the exulting of the people at the moment of liberation.
Once, driving back from a show, I stood in the back of the van towering over LeRoi; I held onto the rail and observed him. He had a nice funny cackle of a laugh; he was a little guy who hunched. Even standing here in my head, he's hunched in his little finely embroidered daishiki. A compact man. A nice man. Even a gentle man. He bantered, for heavens' sake. I liked him and not at all in a sexual way. Thank goodness, he didn't give off that vibe. He was short, anyway. His vibe was Let's get going. Let's do business. Let's put on a really good show. Onstage, on podium, he became the ferocious, shrill, harsh, demanding killer-scary.
The one time I saw him mix the two personas was his last night in town, our crowning performance at the Black House in the Fillmore district. The old Victorian that we all called the Black House was the portal to black fineness. LeRoi ranted, raved, screamed; he also talked soft and tender about his wife and the baby on the way. I got the shock of my life when he pointed her out. LeRoi Jones’ wife! She had foreboding eyes and was taller than I was! I had to force myself not to gape. He married up not down! But I couldn't help staring. She was pregnant, nearly due. Her belly bloomed out so perfectly pregnant you could see her enlarged belly button sticking out through the African cotton like a pacifier. I felt bad that I nearly caused her unborn child to stay in a motel. Her hair surrounded her proudness like so many twisted branches of a tree. Even with baby abloom, she retained a feminine slim curve to her dancer's figure. And she talked about California like it had a tail. She did not like California, San Francisco, the Bay Area, and by extension, us. California niggers are out to lunch, I heard her say loudly several times that night. She insisted on dancing and did a solo bit. My buddies and I gave each other the elbows. So supple she looked boneless, she rolled over on her bloomy stomach as if it were a bag of raked leaves. When she finished her dance, she got up and went upstairs. I heard her say, These San Francisco niggers are trifling-ass. Zora Neale says language is like money. Well, Sylvia Jones paid us niggardly wages that night. Grandma's old rose-jumping, hide and seek rhyme came to mind:
honey in the bee ball/I can't see y'all /all ain't hid/caint hide over
There was no hiding from her. The applause at the end of "Night Time's the Right Time" was prolonged. While they were making thunder, I mimicked Sylvia Jones:
don't wanna struggle, don't wanna work, don't wanna make real change
Of course, people saw my grumble-face but all they heard was the last few words.
Dillard was there, watching everything with a slit-eyed demeanor. I'd tried to get him to give a few hours at the Tutorial Center; he had laughed me down to the ground. I reminded him he could get credits toward his degree. It's all a get over Geniece. Don't you see that? Niggers getting-over. Tutorial, BSU, the movement. It's all Get Over City. He had upset me so that I had written something for him. I guess I wrote it at him. It wasn't a poem, like one by Mali. I had taken to reading it, like filler over the din of the stage crew. I read it right at him. I didn't even know I had it memorized until I started saying it and it popped out of me, a few kernels at a time:
brothers are original even when they're being unoriginal, charade in black, imitation men and women bending in the wind like trees or ridiculous parodies of trees bending in the wind. one of you brothers told me this great mass movement of people in the cities-what the man calls uprising, what we know is revolution-looks like a murph. rip-off. rip-off, get over, take the money and run. same brother said, college could never teach me what I learned in the game. I already got a Ph.D. in gaming. I hear you talking but you can't come in. I hear you talking but you won't come in. said brother has a beautiful con, you know, as in can't read but can outcon a bank. smooth. he could con fur off a bear if he had to. his name in card games, is 'big white' - there he's all con and B.S. and front and lie and whatever way he can to get a guy to go along. his specialty is conning Jewish guys. he dresses down sometimes, on a friday night, for the sucker trade. come across as an old country guy, big coveralls, big cigar, talk with a drawl, only his hands and eyes look like a con. he told me he looks at a man's hands and eyes for the tells, the signals that he has a hand or he's bluffing. if he bets one way, talking a lot and later bets another way and he's stopped talking, then his hand has changed. said brother says it's very hard for a man to keep from disclosing his hand one way or another. said brother said, if you're going to beat a game, you have to control a game. said brother sounds like he knows how to win. said brother sounds like he thinks, if he could feel as hard as he thinks, as hard as he probably bangs his ole ladeez, said brother could rule the world. said brother is the people. personified.
Dillard didn't bat an eyelash. Maybe he was high, ethereally out there; he looked that night like raw meat that I had eaten out of sheer hunger,. He seemed to be floating in his galaxy out of my sphere of need. We went outside to talk. I was hot and didn't want to cool. Those icy riffs in the San Francisco air ran up my nostrils and into my ears, carried on little knives.
"Did my poetry insult you tonight?"
"You call that poetry? Shit, Sound like somebody babbling on and on. Telling all their biz. Putting somebody else's in the streets." He was putting me down.
"I think you're an interesting sociological specimen, Dillard."
"I think you're full of shit. Naive, innocent shit, but shit just the same."
"At least, Dillard, I'm trying."
"Yeah, you're trying all right. My patience." Every time I had almost decided to stop seeing him altogether something changed my mind and we spent the night together, But now the thought of him, of his hard rubbery dick, turned me off as much as it had turned me on.
"I'm trying to help people," I said.
"My people, my people, as de monkey said." His ridicule brought up stuff I thought I left behind me. Innocence, naïveté.
"You must need something you can only get here, or else you would be someplace else." I had heard my aunt talking once about somebody's divorce. Her comment stuck in my brain: When a woman loses her taste for a man, it's gone. "If you're so cynical, then why are you even here?"
"I came to see you. To be insulted by you."
"It wasn't an insult. It was a kind of praise."
He shook his head. "No, you're trying to convert me. This is your church."
"It's not." I had lost my taste for him.
"Yes. And I'm the unrepentant sinner." It was gone.
"Dillard, we should stop seeing each other."
There. I had said it, and it silenced him, He looked at me like I had told him his house burnt down.
"I'm into this,” I said, tilting my head toward the house. He started coughing, the smoke from his burning house caught in his throat. "You're not."
He spoke. "Don't want to be."
"We can still be friends,” I said.
"That's what your girlfriends are for."
"It's not going to work out. We're different."
Why was he making this hard for me? He had never even said I love you, not even in the heat of passion. He didn't love me, didn't like the things I was doing, had just belittled me. Why?
"Why is this difficult?" I said.
"Ah, difficult. That's what the teachers called me in grade school, Difficult."