Greg Tate on Samuel R. Delany’s iconoclastic, intergalactic oeuvre, with Arthur Jafa
Greg Tate (1957 – 2021) was one of the most fearless critics of his generation, a verbal and intellectual tightrope walker who fundamentally changed the terms of writing about hip-hop, street art and Black cultural life in America in all its forms. His untimely passing leaves a void in the analytical landscape that won’t soon be filled. In remembrance, ‘Ursula’ magazine is revisiting a deeply personal essay Tate wrote last year—with a co-starring role by the artist Arthur Jafa, his longtime friend—about the debt both owed the science-fiction master Samuel R. Delany, an imaginer of worlds who has helped countless Black writers and artists shape their own.
‘You know what I do? I listen to other people, stumbling about with their half thoughts and half sentences and their clumsy feelings that they can’t express, and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels, so it doesn’t hurt any more: that’s my poem. I know what they want to say, and I say it for them.’—Samuel R. Delany, ‘Babel-17’
The one known as Samuel Ray ‘Chip’ Delany first entered my frame of reference in Dayton, Ohio, circa 1968. He arrived through the mail via something called the Science Fiction Writers of American book club. SFWA would send you three books a month, and in my first batch was Delany’s ‘Nova.’ Before even opening the book, I was struck by the author photo, which presented a wooly-headed young Black dude said to have been born in Harlem on April Fools’ Day, 1942. My 13-year-old self had been reading science fiction since second grade, but I’d never seen nor even imagined an Afro-American writing science-fiction novels at the height of the Black Power movement.
In his 1968 novel ‘Nova,’ Delany conceived the genre’s first starship captain of African descent, Lorq Von Ray (to be technical, Lorq was of Senegalese-Norwegian descent), and for that crime against unwritten genre racism, John Campbell’s ‘Analog’ magazine—then considered the genre’s high bar of literary sophistication and scientific plausibility—rescinded an offer to publish an excerpt. Campbell reasoned that his readership would find Lorq’s ethnic identity and Delany’s vivid descriptions of his Negroid features too alienating to embrace. (The book itself would go on to become a classic, and Delany’s ‘Dhalgren,’ published in 1974, would sell more than a million copies.)
This wouldn’t be the last time we would find out that the race politics of some mainstream sci-fi and fantasy fans skew neofascist. Or that this same clot could be outraged and horrified by the discovery that some brave new worlds contained big, angry Black men, large and in charge of everyday genre-defining conveniences like starships.
Race wars and slave insurrections are, ironically, an inherent feature of much classic science fiction, which, as I’ve written elsewhere, project anxiety over technologically superior aliens colonizing and enslaving white Earth men, just as those men had enslaved various people of color since the so-called Enlightenment.
In ‘Nova’ (set in the year 3172), Delany has the temerity to suggest that Jim Crow attitudes and actions will continue to prevail towards dark-skinned ethnic others even after vast technological advances like the advent of galaxy-hopping, faster-than-light transport. The Earth of the future he describes is a place still ethnocidally barbaric. Delany breaks further with convention in ‘Nova’ through an obsession with the future of class warfare. The book’s working stiffs are depicted as pawns in a galactic power game played between Lorq’s aristocratic family and that of his childhood friends, Prince and Ruby Red, an incestuous sibling pair of oligarch heirs committed to maintaining the class order of the day.
At one point back in the ’90s, some of us in the R&B wing of the Delany fan base thought the deceased artistic eminence known as Prince Rogers Nelson and his alter ego Vanity would have made spot-on casting as Prince and Ruby Red, and a thirtysomething Jeffrey Wright would have made for a spectacular Lorq.
Like Lorq, Delany was a child of Black privilege. His parents owned a funeral parlor in Harlem and were sufficiently well-heeled to send him to Dalton School. He has remarked that much of his fiction has been an attempt to re-create the transcultural experience of riding the bus from Harlem to the city’s wealth-ridden Upper East Side and back. The actual distance between Dalton and 125th Street is only 36 city blocks. But within that short run, you can still encounter as much concentrated multiethnic difference and wealth disparity as exists in the 20 miles separating Compton from Beverly Hills.
After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science in 1960, Delany set about writing and seeing published his 1962 debut, ‘The Jewels of Aptor,’ and then in rapid succession seven more novels in the next five years. In ‘The Einstein Intersection,’ published in 1967, he weaves an Orphic fable of loving mutations egged on by the ghosts of mythologized human figures such as Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid on a depopulated, post-human Earth. He also equips the book with a flotilla of quotes from various sources, providing poignant clues to his deep thinking, pop-culture savvy and ecumenical wide-reading in fiction far beyond the crusty pulp pages of 1950s and ’60s science fiction. The presaging of Delany the critical theorist and textual tomb raider manifests in epigrams such as:
‘Experience reveals to him in every object, in every event, the presence of something else.’—Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Saint Genet, Actor and Martyr’ ‘A poem is a machine for making choices.’—John Ciardi, ‘How Does a Poem Mean’ ‘Jean Harlow? Christ, Orpheus, Billy the Kid—those three I can understand. But what’s a young spade writer like you doing all caught up with the Great White Bitch?! Of course, I guess it’s pretty obvious.’—Gregory Corso, in conversation
By the time of ‘Einstein’s’ publication, Delany had begun winning Nebula and Hugo awards, and his novella ‘The Star Pit’ was soon to appear in genre literary doyenne Judith Merril’s then-annual anthology of miracles, ‘SF 12,’ where I found it. In her afterword, Merril offers this striking and slightly starstruck description of the 26-year-old New Wave superstar: ‘Samuel R. Delany is where it’s at, multi-mediumed, trans-culture, interracial, call it multiplicity. He has never decided whether he is a mathematician, musician or writer—he has wandered through most of Europe, has a speaking acquaintance with at least five languages, and can look natural in a tux, but prefers one earring and a psychedelic red weskit.…He’s just ahead of where it is otherwise at: approximately where the kids you worry about today will be tomorrow.’
After 1968, Delany seemingly disappeared from the science-fiction circuit and was rumored to be working on a mysterious epic project. This turned out to be ‘Dhalgren,’ his least conventional work of science fiction, which rapidly became his most successful, despite its length, 879 pages, and its declaration from the first sentence that it was experimental fiction. It propelled Delany into the ranks of hyper-ambitious American writers of his generation—Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Ishmael Reed, John Barth and Delany’s buddy, Clarence Major—who were composing the big, challenging books that would later come under the heading of ‘encyclopedic novels’ and, less obliquely, ‘the literature of exhaustion.’ The rages and complexities of the historical moment seemed to demand novels willing to post up to the task as these did. The apocalyptic future shock of ’60s and early ’70s America had cracked wide open whatever myths of innocence remained to safeguard the nation’s white-picket-fence psyche from the upheavals within and without its borders. Whole categories of people previously considered marginal now commanded center stage—Black folk, gay folk, feminists, Mexicans, antiwar and leftist student activists. By the time of the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations in 1968, many had a come-to-Jesus flashback of Malcolm X’s 1963 statement that John F. Kennedy’s assassination had been a matter of America’s black-ops actions in Africa, Asia and Latin America ‘coming home to roost.’ ‘Dhalgren’ came out in January 1975, four months after Nixon was forced to resign and the same month the Church Committee was created to investigate the extent of the CIA’s long-running (and gunning) programs of assassination and destabilization of democratically elected leftist governments around the world. ‘Dhalgren’ was inspired directly by Delany’s experience of the aftermath of the King assassination—of American inner cities left charred by the dozens of reprisal insurrections that erupted in response to the killing of the ‘king of peace.’
‘I can’t think of somebody who catalyzed me as much as he did. Reading Delany triggered an alchemical change in terms of my relationship to the world, to expression.’—Arthur Jafa
I can still recall vividly my first encounter with the book, immediately after its publication. Taking possession of the black leather La-Z-Boy in the family den, I would spend the next four days devouring the novel in 200-page gulps. What I recall most is not what happened to the characters but what happened to me, the reader. The book created its own fog of memory, in which one seemed to be experiencing and re-experiencing events as if within the body of a character inside the mindscape, landscape and consensual hallucinatory dreamscape of Bellona, the novel’s setting. (Bellona is an imagined postapocalyptic city somewhere in the Midwest, but with two moons, a tip-off that the city may be a hallucination of its probably bipolar protagonist, variously known as Kid, the Kid and Kidd—an intentional echo of Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ and the troubled wanderings of its nameless first person narrator through a picaresque ’50s Harlem.)
By the time I read ‘Dhalgren,’ I’d already become acquainted with other literature by modernist African, Afro-American, Asian and Latin American writers who likewise treated the village experiences of their peoples as mythological, phantasmagorical, mystical, circular, ‘viciously modernist’ (to paraphrase Amiri Baraka’s famous description of ’60s Harlem), absurdly existential, and full of routinely postapocalyptic ready-mades. So the novel was not my first encounter with a book that radiated a haunting meta-force even as an object, upright and uncracked on the shelf. But Delany’s was the first from the science-fiction genre to join the ranks of Borges’ ‘Ficciones,’ ‘Burroughs’ ‘Naked Lunch,’ Márquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch,’ Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ Ishmael Reed’s ‘Mumbo Jumbo,’ Clarence Major’s ‘Reflex and Bone Structure’ and Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye,’ ‘Sula’ and ‘Song of Solomon’ in deploying the alphabet to drag readers down to the crossroads. The alchemy of eros and anarchy that he conjured up to supercharge the urban-guerrilla ruins of Bellona drew on the revolutionary romanticism of the times and rubbed readers’ noses in its no-exit endgame.
Like several other Delany books—notably ‘Babel-17,’ ‘The Einstein Intersection’ and ‘Nova’—‘Dhalgren’ is a meditation on the power of coded language, writing about the act of writing. Kid, in an eerily prescient forecasting of Jean-Michel Basquiat and hip-hop culture, is a poet who becomes a class-mobile celebrity because of his cryptic writings and later a pariah for his associations with a vicious gang that projects monstrous images onto neighborhood walls as it rolls through Bellona’s ruins. If a mixtape for ‘Dhalgren’ were to be DJ’ed into being, it would surely include the band War’s ‘The World Is a Ghetto’—arguably R&B’s first Afro-pessimist anthem and chart-topping hit.
‘Dhalgren’ somehow also manages to be a novel-length exploration of white flight and possibly even the ensuing phenomenon of hipster-phase gentrification. Among its myriad characters are white middle-class traitor/counterculture archetypes who run towards rather than away from Bellona’s still-smoking danger zones. Here Delany places himself in prophetic dialogue with the renowned poet and dramatist Ntozake Shange, who scant years after Dhalgren’s publication would declare Black folk the subconscious of the white imagination. In this light, Bellona demands to be read through the ever-anxious white gaze—a gaze horrified by the thought of millions of unshackled and insurgent Black bodies freely roaming the land, fomenting miscegenation and anarchy, the stuff of American white-nationalist nightmares since before the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
In one quietly sardonic conceit of the book, Bellona’s majority Black population has chosen to remain in town despite the loss of all municipal services—water, electricity, gas, police—à la late 20th century Detroit. In other words, the postapocalyptic reality of one strata of the citizenry is revealed to be just a day in the life of the folk who were trapped on the social bottom in Bellona’s imagined best of times.
As if all the foregoing weren’t groundbreaking enough, ‘Dhalgren’ also marked an epic coming-out in queer sensibility by its author, now frequently given to rendering gay and bisexual and multiracial erotic encounters in graphic imagistic prose. (The 11th story in Delany’s 1979–87 ‘Return to Nevèrÿon’ fantasy series cycle, ‘Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,’ has been acknowledged as the first science-fiction work to explicitly focus on the AIDS crisis, shifting between the author’s contemporary reportage of the virus’s ravages among friends and associates in 1980s New York and the toll of an invented version on gay men in his fantasy realm.)
With ‘Dhalgren,’ Delany’s authorial identity and readership definitively slipped the confines of the sci-fi ghetto—this, ironically, via a book set in an American ghetto that still reads as stranger and more perilous than any terraformed planet in the genre’s canon. The book’s world is a nightmare from which its elusive antihero cannot awaken.
When the artist Arthur Jafa and this writer began to nerd out over various fanboy obsessions at Howard University in the late ’70s, the works of Delany quickly arose as shared talismans of estranged and alienated Blackness, not least because we were the only other Black people we knew for years who’d completed ‘Dhalgren’ (many are called, few are chosen). We’d also both devoured the rapturous and rhapsodic opening chapter of Delany’s ‘Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,’ 30 pages of which first appeared in a literary journal in 1980. (The full novel appeared four years later.) Jafa’s longstanding ardor for ‘Stars’ moved him a couple years ago to initiate a collaboration with Delany and Fred Moten to transform the novel into an opera—one which they hope to premier next year.
I asked Jafa recently about why he chose ‘Stars,’ out of all of the novels and stories, for operatic treatment, then I asked him to speak more broadly about Delany—who Jafa’s been reading since early adolescence in Mississippi—as a primal influence on his own thinking and art work.—Greg Tate
Delany as a figure, as an entity, is where a lot of things I was interested in first coalesced for me. I mean 2001: A Space Odyssey had a huge impact [in 1999, Jafa worked with Kubrick as second-unit director of photography on the movie Eyes Wide Shut], but there were literally no Black people in it. So to be introduced to an artist who was also Black and had a rock-star thing going on—a writer with an earring was a really big thing to see in 1971 in Mississippi, when I first stumbled on a picture of him.
I read the short stories first. I remember ‘Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,’ which was some pretty dark shit and has been touted as the first cyberpunk story. I tried to read Dhalgren in the eighth grade and couldn’t, but I kept coming back to it until I was finally able to finish it in 10th grade. There were things in it that made a huge impression, like the Kid and the character Tak having sex on the top of a building. I was like ‘Whoa!’ But narratively it was too much for me at the time, too much going on. Like all of my great artistic experiences, it was initially disorienting, the way 2001 was disorienting. James Brown, for me, is the Olympian Black figure of the 20th century, but I can remember my parents taking me to see him in Memphis when I was four or five years old, and everything from that experience still seems more like a fever dream than like something that actually happened. And in that sense, reading Dhalgren was similar, the most disorienting and phantasmagorical thing I’d ever read.
At some point I also bought my first copy of The Tides of Lust, which was also disorienting, not just for the sex—though there’s the scene where somebody has somebody lick the shit off his feet. It was definitely beyond anything I’d read at the time. That was my second or third year at Howard University, so I’d already read things like de Sade and had seen Pasolini’s Salò, but there was something so visceral about that book. I didn’t know language could do that.
I can’t think of another artist who catalyzed me as much as he did. Reading Delany triggered an alchemical change in terms of my relationship to the world, to expression. Kubrick and 2001 also changed my life, but I can’t think of another film of Kubrick’s that had that effect on me. It was like a one-and-done. But there are at least five instances, maybe more, with Delany in which my exposure to his critical thinking, to his fictional imagination, to his articulations of himself as a gay Black man in science fiction—his intersectionality, as we’d call it now—changed me profoundly. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Delany was my first exposure to the whole notion of the performativity of identity, which, of course, is underlined in all his books.
I’d wanted to do something with him, to make a piece based on something he’d written for a long time. I started thinking about Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, and I was trying to develop a film or a graphic novel, but what’s particularly at stake in that book seemed ideal for an opera—boiled down to its essence, it’s literally a tale of star-crossed lovers. It’s also almost an anomalous book in his whole oeuvre in having a main character who is unambiguously Black—there’s a line early on where someone says, ‘Of course, you will be a slave.’ Delany obviously has characters who are Black in so many books, but locating their racial identity is always complicated in some way because the language is so abstract. I also like the way the book explodes the heteronormative family—character who aren’t just multiracial but multispecies. It allows for an excavation of a lot of longstanding interests of mine. It also makes sense for an opera to have the kind of very singular figure at its core the way that book does: a narrative about a messianic figure whose very presence—his charisma more than anything—can disrupt empires.
I remember that early on at Howard, my roommates were gay. One was closeted, the other was more out. And I realized that those cats were experiencing the universe Delany was talking about in his books; they were actually doing it. He just opened up all these alterior worlds that were out here for Black people. Washington D.C. poets like Essex Hemphill were breaking that down, too. But to me, because of Delany, I could see it as science fucking fiction, man.—Arthur Jafa
Greg Tate, critic, musician and cultural provocateur, was a staff writer at The Village Voice from 1987 to 2003. His books include Flyboy in the Buttermilk; Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader; Everything but the Burden—What White People Are Taking From Black Culture; and Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience. He is a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition. Since 1999, he has led the Conducted Improv ensemble Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber and produced 16 albums for the group’s Avant Groidd imprint.