I have always admired the culture critic Nelson George. I discovered him in the early '90s in the pages of the Village Voice. Then, as now, he mostly wrote about leading figures and developments in black popular culture with a warm, penetrating intelligence. Unlike the pugnacious prose of the jazz critic Stanley Crouch, the academic militancy of Michele Wallace, or the intellectual hipness of Greg Tate (all of whom wrote for the Voice in the '80s and '90s, and all of whom I, as a critic for this weekly, owe a deep debt), George was always direct, encyclopedic, and entertaining. His essays and reviews revealed the mind of a historian. He consistently provided a rich background to explain a trend in R&B, hiphop, funk, and soul. A pop tune, for him, was never an isolated thing but a part of a larger picture that included politics, economics, urban currents, and race relations. Most important of all, his understanding of American race relations was never facile but filled with surprises, with social phenomena that the average reader or cultural interpreter failed to appreciate or missed altogether. Blacks in George's work are like they often are in reality: not passive but engaged with and shaping the world around them.
George's talents were on full display in the basement of Elliott Bay Book Company last Saturday, when he read from and discussed the latest novel in his D Hunter mystery series, The Lost Treasures of R&B. (D is a professional bodyguard with a knack for solving mysteries—the character is inspired by a pair of big black bodyguards George once saw protecting the white superstar Britney Spears.)
The ghost of Chester Himes, the most famous and brilliant black American writer in the hard-boiled tradition, looms over the book, which has two main parts and a heart. The first part involves a crime (a gun deal) and a rapper, Asya Roc (yes, this is a thinly veiled ASAP Rocky: "Asya Roc was a new breed of New York rap star who rhymed like he was from ATL or Texas"). The other part is historical research in the mode of some serious crate digging—the search for the rarest soul record ever made. Diana Ross is involved. The book's heart, however, is concerned with the gentrification of Brooklyn's poor and hidden sections. D, recently returned to the borough in which he was raised, tries to make sense of the changes around him. "D was back in that same McDonald's where he'd been meeting with Ride. Once Brownsville got gentrified, he figured, he'd do these sitdowns at a Starbucks."
George can see that this urban transition is a complex matter. On the bad side, of course, the neighborhoods are becoming like all other neighborhoods that service middle-class American consumers. This is old news, and George knows it is old news. He also knows, as he explained during his reading, that it's happening in every city around the world. "When I visited Brixton [London's black neighborhood] last year, I was surprised. It used to be like the old Brooklyn, and now it is like the new Brooklyn. Cafes moved in, blacks are moving out." But there is also, surprisingly, a good side that is seldom registered: Poor and middle-class blacks in NYC are selling the old homes they bought for a song 30 years ago to developers for big profits and moving to the South. Bloggers and op-ed pieces rarely note that gentrification has been good for a lot of black folks. (In fact, it turned them into gentrifiers in cities like Atlanta and Charlotte.)
At one point during the reading, George put his novel down and spoke to the audience directly. "The gentrification thing is more complicated than it appears," he said. "I know here in Seattle, it is very white and involves internet capital. But in New York, it's different. Black people not only bought these brownstones on Franklin Avenue, but they couldn't improve them because of redlining. So they had no debts on their homes. They had not been improved. And when people started knocking on their doors and offering all kinds of money for their property, they took it and moved. If you sell a house in NYC for a million or $800,000, you can live like a king in Atlanta."
The crate-digging side of the novel is about a different sort of gentrification: the death of R&B. George understands that black people no longer make or listen to that kind of music. If you go to an R&B show, the dominant color you will find in the audience is white. As they did with jazz and the blues, blacks have abdicated R&B to whites in the United States and Europe.
D's client is Sir Michael Archer, a British collector and lover of black culture, who accuses his bodyguard of being "ignorant of your legacy." He goes on to label that ignorance a "sad disease often prevalent amongst Americans, but now so widespread it's like your people had nothing to do with all that great art."
Whether or not Archer's point is valid, D isn't having it.
"You need to stop that your people shit."
"But are you not one of the blacks of North America? Heirs to a great culture that you know little or nothing about?"
"I'm no historian but it is our culture."
D was getting hot.
George is a historian of his culture.