A National Portrait Gallery show of Allen Ginsberg's photography is noticeably monochromatic.
The National Gallery of Art unveiled Beat Memories earlier this month, a photo exhibit showcasing beat poet Allen Ginsberg's less-known work as a photographer, on display until September.
The narrative created by Beat Memories is benignly incomplete. For sure, the gallery curators were limited by the photos they were given. However, the fact that none of the women or blacks are included who played a significant role in the intellectual life of the beat scene that thrived in New York and San Francisco in the 1950s is disappointing--and ultimately dishonest. This is where culture watchdogs are necessary.
There are moments where those who believe in culture wish for a post-racial America--maybe for a split second--for art's sake. Since much of our historic narratives present limited, whitewashed versions of American life, the job of writing about culture is a challenge because most of the reference points are skewed. If there were no upsides to privileging one side of history over the other, the work that culture writers do could actually be about discovery and learning and expanding our vision of all that constitutes the American story.
Art has an amazing power to expand our humanity; however, when misappropriated, art can serve as a tool of the oppressor. The major intellectual contributions that black writers have made to movements outside of the Harlem Renaissance and the black arts movement are rarely discussed. But increasingly, we're finding that the world is smaller than we once thought. Albert Einstein knew Paul Robeson. Alice Walker was a student of Howard Zinn. The narrative of America is peopled with a diverse cast of people.
Arguably the most famous non-white beat poet is Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). His friends simply called him Roi. He was (and still is) the restless intellectual of the past 50-plus years. Before the Jones-Baraka transition from Greenwich Village to Harlem, Jones was known for his poetry, plays (Dutchman won an Obie in 1964), and his criticism (the seminal Blues People arrives in 1963). He and his first wife, Hettie Jones, founded Totem press, which published many of the stars of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg. He and Hettie Jones, feverishly engaged in the ideas and politics of the day, held salons in their Village flat. Hettie Jones writes in her memoir that Jack Kerouac coined the term ''the Beat Generation,'' explaining beats as being ''pushed up against the wall of oneself.''
The art that bloomed out of the Beat Generation was a response to the political climate of the 1950s. Sen. Joseph McCarthy was unleashing several programs that oppressed creative types like the Beats and artists of color who were thought to be subversive. (Think the Hollywood black list). In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education declared segregated schooling unconstitutional. In 1957, Ginsberg was on trial for his poem ''Howl,'' which a San Francisco prosecutor called ''filthy, vulgar, obscene and containing disgusting language.'' Probably most significant on the cultural front, in 1959, Miles Davis'sKind of Blue arrived alongside Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, which opened on Broadway and was a hit.
In multiple ways, the music, political fervor, and conversations of this era all merged and informed the creative production of the Beats and several other literary movements. In her pioneering memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, Jones puts forward the women writers who mostly exist on the periphery and get swallowed up in the larger narrative of the Beat Generation. In a recent radio interview, she spoke at length of her friendships with writers Diane Di Prima, Rochelle Owens and Joyce Johnson. Jones also mentioned her friendships with Denise Levertov and Audre Lorde.
In the spring 1958 issue of the influential Partisan Review, On the Road was ''elaborately trashed'' by Norman Podhoretz, Hettie Jones recounts, and the Beat Generation had officially been disparaged. At the time, she was employed by Partisan Review and vowed to get a rebuttal for this review. She asked none other than LeRoi Jones, her husband at the time, who rose to the occasion and put the movement into context, declaring that ''American literature needed new life.'' LeRoi and Hettie went on to found a seminal literary journal of the period called Yugen, a New Consciousness in Arts and Letters.
A.B. Spellman arrived on the scene in 1957, and he's been hailed by critics as ''the father of the jazz poem.'' He says, ''it was a broad scene where everyone knew each other and respected each other's work.''
To intelligently discuss the core members and peripheral members of the Beat scene, a panel or a graduate course would need assembling. But these names are a start to discovering a more diverse cast of Beat writers--LeRoi Jones, Hettie Jones, Ted Jones, A.B. Spellman and Bob Kaufman.
One would never know any of this by going to see this exhibit. This is why so many of my professors at Howard University would remind us that ''the job of the critic is to see and point out what's unseen.''
This exhibit is instructive on many levels. It reminds us that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done on the cultural front. In a today's America, perhaps a photo exhibit titled Beat Memories would represent a vivid memory of the Beat Generation, not an amnesic one. If the expression ''a picture is worth a thousand words'' is true, a missing picture is worth 10,000 words.
Abdul Ali is a contributing culture writer for The Root. He blogs at Words Matter.