Fire & Ink’s first convening in 2002 featured a wealth of priceless and beautiful moments. One we’d like to share with everyone is the brilliant Keynote Address presented by Lambda Literary Award-winning author Thomas Glave.
Fire & Ink: Toward a Quest for Language,
History, and a Moral Imagination
by Thomas Glave
I might stand here before you tonight at this historic conference and invoke, by way of paraphrase, the well-wrought words of our departed sister/mother Audre Lorde: that, like some of you, I am a black gay writer doing my very best to do my work, come to tell you that I know many of you are doing yours—that work, its urgency and necessity, that has at last brought us here, in each other’s company, together. I could tell you how, over these long yet short years since Audre’s passing—ten years this year—I have longed, viscerally, for the sheer force of her powerful voice speaking out loud, once more, among us; my longing the yearning one feels for a mother whom one can scarcely believe is physically gone, a sacred chord inexplicably absent. Longing for that voice that, each day, without fail, fearlessly impelled so many of us toward all the struggles and demands awaiting us, writing and the critical task of bearing conscientious witness among them. That voice, now slightly more distant yet echoing. Echoing without end, and within. I could tell you how I still long for Audre to admonish me again that my silence will never protect me, as, in this cyclops that we call “America,” I also dream of finally placing my ring on Essex Hemphill’s cock, where it belongs (Hemphill 184). Let Assotto Saint again regale me with his Spells of a Voodoo Doll, as June Jordan electrifies me into unflinching memory with her “Poem About My Rights.” Let Marlon Riggs untie my tongue once more and jolt me toward new, discovering language and feeling with his poetry, as Pat Parker demands to know where I will be when they come (Parker 74), as they have come before and, be assured, will again: come with their jingoism and nationalist flags, come with their freshly laundered sheets and smoldering crosses; come with their anti-affirmative action shouts, their forty-one (or fifty, or one hundred) bullets, and their assaults against people perceived to be from “the Middle East”—wherever that is—and against people who closely resemble all of us; who are and always have been, at the day’s end and the long night’s beginning, us. All of us, in continual quest of language that honors, testifies to, inscribes experiences dishonored and distorted, when they are mentioned at all, by official histories; experiences subverted and perverted by media circuses whose pundits, claiming knowledge and ownership of “the truth,” tenaciously dissemble as actual thinkers. I could share all these thoughts with you and more, but I already know, having watched closely your faces over these past days and tonight, that you have long pondered them; that, toward the shaping of our narratives, the growing body of which provides new meaning and amplitude to the term “modern art,” we have all long considered them. It is that common knowledge, of course, that affords us the grand privilege of easy comfort in each other’s company here. For if, as African-descended people and artists, we’ve achieved anything—and we have, make no mistake, scaled heights beyond reckoning in the 137 years since 1865—we have certainly, as this conference attests, achieved a superlative beginning toward the dream of a common language, to borrow Adrienne Rich’s encapsulating title.
It is entirely appropriate that this conference uses in its title the words “fire” and “ink.” For in casting even only a glance back at our history—a history which, countenanced or not, accepted within ourselves or not, deeply informs the languages we seek to construct in the narrative architectures we assay today—we remember how, throughout every epoch of that history, both fire and ink were used against us, often with horrifying consequences, but also on our behalf. Fire reduced untold numbers of us to ashes as we dangled from sturdy trees, even as the fire of spirits like Toussaint L’Ouverture and Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass and the maroons throughout our entire diaspora labored to deliver us. Ink dried on writs and bills of sale that ensured the cold press of iron about our legs and wrists, about our necks, even as, scrawled by other hands, ink shouted off the pages of The North Star, proclaiming to the world and ourselves yet again that, yes, we were and are human beings, possessed of hearts, minds. Dignity. Fire and ink never ceased their fierce alliances in our history, as, at this conference, at the start of a new century (though one still only briefly removed from that past), we begin once more that trenchant work handed down to us by all those hands still reaching; hands that themselves struggled to fashion stories to pass on, so that we, and the stories we craft today, might be, and are.
I spent weeks anticipating this gathering with one supremely pressing question: what, if anything, had I learned from that history, and from the departed elders, among others, whose names I invoked earlier? What new questions that, after all this time, finally might not be all that frustrating or unfathomable, and which, if I could just close my eyes and summon the (surely) just-there-and-waiting revelation’s whispered words, would make clear to me so much of what I’d grappled to know all these years? Grappled even while, through those years, I often had no idea of, was unable to recognize, the primordial site of that yearning?
Recurringly, in my questioning what I’d learned from all that had preceded and in pondering all that I still desired to know, I found myself returning to two words, simple ones, that have everything to do not only with the work we do, but also with the critical importance of our writerly beginnings first as readers, scrupulous readers; as thinkers, scrupulous thinkers. Two simple words: language and imagination. For we know that if the elders bequeathed us anything at all—anything in addition to passion, determination, and a capacity to survive—they left us language: a way to shape, make felt. Palpable. Imagination: a way to see, envision; even—especially—to risk a well-traveled word, to dream. This, our inheritance: prismatic language, assiduously polished out of struggle and rage, yes, frustration and horror, of course, but also out of desire: the desire to conjure oneself as one already was but also as one might be, could be; in the act of conjuring and the emblazoning step toward honing the imagined language of those conjurings into the textual forms of narrative—prose, drama, poetry, or other, newly fused inventions—creating oneself, the self, into being: the fragmented self, the lonely, keening self. The vulnerable self, the loving self, the thwarted or ecstatic or trammeled self. The self of all selves beset and sundered by life’s imprecations and turbulences, but above all its own precious entity; defiant to would-be silencing by virtue of its very existence, vulnerable to misreadings and dismissals occasioned by its insistence on its own voice, but ever profoundly aware, that new, raw, naked self, of all that magnificent open air previously denied it and all at once right there, all about it, for the taking. The selves of those labored dreams in most cases prevailed, to speak through decades—centuries—of enforced invisibilities, to the selves that we become, have become and will, as, through our stories, we create new selves for each other, and others, and all those who will come after.
But then, if only for a moment, we should look closer at these gauntlets laid down for us: gauntlets of language, imagination, and the triumphant possibilities of the self and its progeny made manifest, even miraculous, through metaphor and allegory, lyric and stanza. For there they are, and here, those departed voices told us and tell us still: the gifts of language and imagination, sublimely consonant with the self. Language and imagination that must be fed. Nurtured. Fed and nurtured not only (if at all) on ideas and books and writing that maintain our comfort, but also on those which impel us into new, difficult terrains. Language and imagination beyond intellectual smugness; beyond artistic mediocrity; beyond the cheap delights of self-deceiving self-congratulation and the embarrassments of dishonest, fraudulent writing mired in its pretensions to truth and actual substance. Make sure that you do well with the imaginative legacy, whatever you do, the voices urged. Make sure that you honor us, they emphasized, as you remember. Understand that you have little time to waste. Do not spend that time dishonoring us by indulgence in “diva” games, in Who’s-King- (or Queen-) of-the-Heap-Today games, or in “shade”—a despicable practice—or small-mindedness, an ultimate disgrace. No. Do well instead. But even if you don’t do well, whatever that means; even if you commit the enviable error of falling flat on your face because you dared to risk everything in the face of mockery, envy, and ever-lurking laughter, they told us, remain undaunted, unhampered by fear; and always, always strive to be noble in that act of imagining which is now utterly yours: the supreme gift, and its accountability to your fellow travelers, and to all of us, and to the soul.
Part of this talk’s title centers on the idea of what I’ve come to name, and ardently believe in as, a “moral” imagination. The idea and aims of a so-called moral imagination have always fascinated me; even, I know now, long before I articulated to myself what exactly the parameters of such a state of mind and being, ever-expanding though at its best precisely configured, might be. While, fairly early in my life as a reader, I detected some of this imagination’s elements in the writers I most admired and still admire, as I observed its traces in the people of everyday life whom I wished most to emulate, it was only fairly recently—some years before the publication of my short-story collection, and after much additional questioning deepened by the joys and demands of increased reading and countless re-walkings through fire and ink—that I arrived at a more satisfactory, more meaningful, more useful understanding, for the human work I knew I wanted my work to do, of a moral imagination’s foundation; its foundational tenets and principles, if you will. I knew that for me, as illustrated in the works of the writers I truly loved, my own moral imagination would perforce need to be intellectually vigilant, never slipshod; politically agile and astute, never complacent; vulnerable and receptive to, aware of, the wider world at large: that world, out there and in here, beyond the smallness of my personal geography yet intrinsically part of it, attached to it; and always, without exception, compassionate. While sharpening reflections on these concerns, I soon understood that a moral imagination, by its very nature and mandate, would need also to maintain staunch guard against the slippery slopes of distracting, even destructive language—the mediums of trivialization, banality, and dehumanization which daily surround us.
The very word “moral,” of course, especially when linked with the word “imagination,” suggests the presence of the political: in a morally centered universe—one external or internal, focused on the well-being of all humanity and all living creatures with which we share the world—virtually every action that one takes, each decision that one considers, bears political, moral, and often, if not always, ethical import. Yet even (or especially) with an awareness of the political dangling just there in the uneven balance that is both circumstance and the inevitable reality of human error, I sought, while exploring the possibilities of a moral imagination’s reach, a particular type of freedom: the largesse to feel and think and write and dream whatever I wanted to feel or write or think about, in the way I wanted to—experimentally, iconoclastically against yet within whichever tradition—without the proscriptions of what I or anyone else deemed I should, for whatever reasons, think, or write, or dream, in whichever proscribed or permitted way. This sort of freedom—intoxicating in its most secret moments, when the self most permits itself the simplest, rarest luxury of merely being—is, we know, highly elusive, to say the least, among our kind: that is, among human beings who are also social animals; in our case, animals who are also artists who, whatever else we do, are compelled to live and participate in societies contained and delimited by the mores and rules of social controls. Yet this freedom had to exist, I knew. Other writers and other artists (most notably painters, some dancers, and especially jazz musicians) had achieved it. Slowly, as I became more aware of the artistic explosions taking place in contemporary black queer literature—work produced particularly in the last twenty-five years, including the vanguard work of early black lesbian feminists—I realized. Realized that being a black gay writer meant that I could—of course!—write about anything I chose, in whichever way I liked, no matter what anyone else—friends, other writers, or agenda-driven publishers, agents, and critics—had to say. It meant that we all could. Could write first and foremost about ourselves, whom many had not previously deemed a worthy topic in literature, if they’d considered it at all. We could write about ourselves across gender and class; across history, geography, nationality, and certainly sexuality; all the while taking supreme pleasure in those acrobatic imaginative acts. The great significance—really triumph—of these latter points cannot and should never be overlooked, given the world in which we live: a world which continually seeks to write us out of existence, literally or otherwise; one which seeks to truncate us, caricaturize and demonize us, when it isn’t ruthlessly busy simply ignoring us. It does try to demolish us, that world, and tries again. Yet how miserably it fails in so many of its attempts, as this conference proves.
And so here, if we choose to accept it, is that freedom that, to me, had long seemed so elusive: the freedom to step fully into an imagination that, at its best, is expansive, completely unafraid; one which does not shy away from but embraces risk; what moves itself, finally, toward a truly moral imagination that by its very nature and outlook is imbued with a profound respect for other people’s lives. A developed consciousness outraged by cruelty and ever-skeptical of the glib rationale or trite response. Viewed in this light, such an imaginative realm demands that we assume the challenge—and challenge it is—of envisioning, as compassionately and with as much depth and breadth as possible, others beyond ourselves—others who, in our truly seeing and feeling them through a creative act that is itself, in the greatest sense of the word, holy, will no longer be, to us, the “other.” A marriage of the moral/ethical and creative will require, in the broad human drama known more casually as life, that we bear witness to the great and small joys and sorrows of those many lives and deaths; lives and deaths which, in the abiding drama, are also and always will be, make no mistake, our own. This task—the assumption of high-risk, plain old deep feeling—is formidable, of course. But not impossible. Consider it (to borrow Vaclav Havel’s phrase) an art of the impossible. An art which, at its most essential core, insists only that we listen deeply to ourselves; that we attend ourselves first, with such bravery and self-regard (self-regard not to be mistaken for self-aggrandizement or the unfortunate joys of a corpulent ego) that we’re able, after sustained wrestling with the art—ourselves—to move with equipoise and gallantry through the selves of others in these enormous adventures we refer to as life, literature, invention; spirit, feeling, and vision. And while it might be true that we occasionally stumble in the act of reaching to imagine and transform the complexities of our selves and others, we also know—should know by now—that such stumbling is, yes, permissible—indeed, necessary. For it is only through stumbling, attuned to our own humanity and its inevitable flaws from which the generous imagination is never excepted, that we arrive at the richest possible experience and understanding of what, for every artist and human being, is the pre-eminent place for our continued growth and sojourn toward wisdom: humility, embodied in the simple grace and courage that allow us to admit that we have, yes, failed. But then, taking into account these truths and others, we’re also obliged to remember that failure—what we as artist, scholars, and sometime critics call with trepidation or self-protecting contempt “failure”—is a luxury we all, taking our rightful place in the human drama, not only can, but must afford. For it is only through what we mistakenly call “failure” that we learn, graced by the humility that itself is a form of freedom, that failure is nowhere near the terrifying damnation we’ve so long been schooled into believing it to be. In acts of imagining and daily living, we do often fail, it’s true. But in the renewed imaginings and breaths that each next moment brings us, we often succeed, also true. A moral imagination in search of language and history knows and understands these truths. The steadfast gazes of our elders and ancestors long ago made it all clear for us. Didn’t Toni Morrison tell us only nine years ago, in Stockholm, that “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives” (22). Didn’t James Baldwin tell us more than three decades ago, at the end of his visionary fiction “Sonny’s Blues,” that “…the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph, is never new, [but] always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness”(139). Didn’t Joseph Beam, fast on the very heels of his brother-forebear, tell us how he dreamt of “…Black men loving and supporting other Black men, and relieving Black women from the role of primary nurturers in our community… For too long have we expected from Black women that which we could only obtain from other men… These days the nights are cold-blooded and the silence echoes with complicity” (239, 242). And didn’t Audre finally leave us with the charge that “This is why the work is so important. Its power… [lies] in…the muscle behind the desire that is sparked by the word—hope as a living state that propels us, open-eyed and fearful, into all the battles of our lives. And some of those battles we do not win. But some of them we do” (80).
Yes, they did. And yes, we do.
We do, holding fast to memory, desire, language; history, imagining, and hope. Living and writing in hope and history, the words of our elders and others beside and within us, as we remember that, since our unexpected arrival in this region of the globe, we have been (and will be for some time) a people of in-between: between Africa and the Americas, literally hyphenated, as if one hyphen between two words could even begin to recall or suggest four hundred years of violence and the nearly unimaginable secrets of an amnesiac ocean; between “queer”-ness and “gay”-ness, “lesbian”-ness and “bisexual”-ness; between home and nation (but whose “home,” and whose “nation”?); between narrow definitions of gender and gender roles; between too black to be of any use and not black enough; between tradition and innovation, conformity and rebellion; between north and south, or “here” and “there,” diasporically speaking; between languages and restrictions, condemnations, imposed upon languages; between colony and empire, illegal alien and postcolonial; between poetry and prose, scholarship and drama; between “the academy” and “community”—and which community, by the way? Black, queer, black queer, women’s, black women’s, black queer women’s, zamis’, black gay or lesbian but not queer, or same-gender-loving, thank you, but not gay? A community of the world? A global one encompassing all societies and civilizations? Another art of the (im)possible? Which one? Between, between, but always, in our most centered moments, at the precise and enduring square root of ourselves.
I believe finally that, as people dedicated to intimate and ongoing involvement with the word, it is also our task—must be our task— to exercise severe, exacting scrutiny over the many enforced and enforcing languages which daily and nightly so insidiously seek to permeate and corrupt our very dreams: the prevaricating languages of “official” histories, which never possessed any right to officialness in the first place, nor have in any way ever been sympathetic to the actual truths of most people’s lives; the tyrannical languages of state systems and pseudo-democratic regimes, all of which have functioned and continue to serve not as languages of true communication and knowledge, but rather as engines of human misery and degradation—the end results of dire unions between despotism and plutocracy; and the consumerist-driven, mind-deadening splutterings of the media, which, in their wild incoherence, debase as brilliantly as they trivialize, as fiendishly as they instigate. As we shape language of our own against, if not in direct reaction to, these continued assaults, we must remain ever aware of actual words themselves—what they mean to us, have meant, and will mean in and to our (literary and other) futures. At the same time, we’re compelled to guard against our own vulnerability: our capacity to be lulled by these pretend-languages and the thin prizes their systems and ideologies offer for capitulation, accommodation, utter surrender. We would do well to heed the writer Arundhati Roy, still risking her own life as a dissenting voice in her native India, when she tells us that:
We have free speech. Maybe. But do we have Really Free Speech? If what we have to say doesn’t “sell,” will we still say it? Can we? Or is everybody looking for Things That Sell to say? Could writers end up playing the role of palace entertainers? Or the subtle twenty-first-century version of court eunuchs attending to the pleasures of our incumbent CEOs? You know—naughty, but nice. Risqué perhaps, but not risky. (9)
Roy cautions us, eloquently, that the risks of seduction in the capricious marketplace of commodification and two-bit attractions are pernicious, ever present. Yet at this conference, if only by virtue of its existence and our presence and participation in it, we are taking risks, hopefully of the most ennobling, emboldening kind. Let us continue, then, and, in closing, at last ask ourselves: where does all this leave us?
It leaves us where we began, of course, which is here. Right here, in this room on a state university’s campus in a midwestern city, at the breathing nexus of power and force that is this entire weekend’s event—but that is also, more urgently and critically, ourselves. It leaves us where we began, but far beyond that place; assembled here among the sacred blessings of ourselves, but not always blessed, nor guaranteed to be when we depart here. It leaves us basking in the afterglow of this conference’s safety and pleasure even as we know that we will almost never be safe, nor always caressed by pleasure. It leaves us in this cataclysm we call “America,” with uncertain hands bent toward placing, at last, the ring on Essex’s cock, where it belongs. It leaves us Zami-fied by Audre and shot through to the marrow by Pat and June—still mourning our loss of their physical selves, but charged to pick up their words and run, “open-eyed and fearful,” into whatever new, far-stretching work awaits us. It leaves us, hopefully, with tongues untied, edging toward (even if not yet ready for) paying or resisting the price of the ticket, as we step forth to meet the man, or woman, or corporation, or whatever new chicanery the reigning merchant princes of our time will have dreamt up by the time we’ve exchanged our good-byes. It leaves us, ultimately, poised at the edge of a precipice both fearsome and arresting; one from which we will not, like so many mindless lemmings, plunge headlong into a killing sea, but rather one from which, as one of our teachers told us, “[our] imaginations gaze.” A precipice upon which, as that voice intoned, we all are “mining, sifting and polishing languages for illuminations none of us has dreamed of.” A promontory from which, so standing, we truly never will “blink or turn away.”
It leaves us there, which is suddenly, but was always, here. Now, yes, and again, as, recalling the history that left us unspeakable thoughts finally speakable, we nudge into life the words that will ensure that we, like those who preceded us and perished between brutal infamies of fire and ink, will become, like our languages and our dreams, stories that will be passed on, and passed.
See Nadine Gordimer’s Living in Hope and History: Notes From Our Century (1999).
This quote and the two following are taken from Toni Morrison’s Nobel address (33).