FREE BLACK TERRITORY
On Dingane Joe Goncalves
In an apartment on Masonic Avenue in San Francisco, the same year Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party across the bay in Oakland, poet and Black Power activist Dingane Joe Goncalves (b. 1937) started the Journal of Black Poetry (1966–1975), “the poetic Bible of the ’60s Black Liberation/Black Arts Movement.” A literary magazine of poetry, essays, art and news, ranging from the West Coast to Africa and the Caribbean, the journal encouraged a “political paradigm” for poetic aesthetics — “an unapologetically Black paradigm,” as Kalamu ya Salaam put it. Alongside the kindred West Coast productions Soulbook and Black Dialogue, Journal of Black Poetry was at the vanguard of a group of influential literary magazines that aimed “to reformulate a vision of black artistic reality” and “provid[ed] widespread exposure to both the writings and the activities of black poets.” Yet Goncalves might be the most neglected major figure of the Black Arts Movement. He was an accomplished poet and prose writer, and “the major literary editor of the revolutionary wing of BAM literary arts,” but his career is largely undocumented and unexplored. From the journal and its associated press to a bookstore and his own writing, Goncalves’s oeuvre constitutes a long-form, multimodal experiment in autonomous poetics. It’s a body of work that expands our sense of American poetics and aesthetics, a literary and material exploration of black separatism and self-determination. Indeed, Goncalves’s concern has always and in various ways been freedom. Or perhaps better, escape. This concern, and the forms it took, were and remain “extreme” in Malcolm X’s sense of the word; that is, acutely responsive to extreme conditions. In this case, Goncalves’s black-owned and -run, grassroots, activist, experimental magazine is still (a half-century later) out there at the outmost edge of possible.
“Capitalism, christianity, communism,” Goncalves once flatly stated, “are the alternatives we have been given, the roads we have been allowed to travel.” His is a search for new roads — for new narratives, expressions, rallying cries, analyses, for good and beautiful alternatives, to borrow Wahneema Lubiano’s definition of black nationalism. In examining Goncalves’s varied enactment of a kind of marronage, which he called in correspondence about the journal “FREE BLACK TERRITORY,” I hope to trace one of the new roads he set out on.
FREE BLACK TERRITORY, as Goncalves conceived it, requires the art of marronage: those forms of fugitive sociality innovated by runaway slaves, vagabonds, and natives in the West. The late Cedric Robinson, in Black Marxism, argued with formidable insight that “the first forms of struggle in the Black radical tradition [like marronage] were not structured by a critique of Western society but from a rejection of European slavery and a revulsion of racism in its totality.” And while it’s true such rejection required maroons to combat and entreaty empire — runaways and renegades fighting for and finagling space out of the colony — that was the outward conflict and negotiation necessary to preserve their inner refusal of the colonial world, of racism tout court. An “impulse toward separatism,” to use Robin D. G. Kelley’s phrase, was already woven into the practice of everyday life. Even when rebellion and marronage were only a dream, Robinson writes:
the people prepared themselves through obeah, voodoo, Islam, and Black Christianity. Through these they induced charismatic expectations, socializing and hardening themselves and their young with beliefs, myths, and messianic visions that would allow them, someday, to attempt the impossible.
In their quotidian cultivation of “the impossible,” the people nurtured a resistance to everything about this world while refusing to critique it, for critique already assumes the world’s terms. For Robinson, marronage represents an early stage of black radicalism in the West. Separatism would give way in time to confrontation as the primary modality of resistance. The end of this stage of radicalism came by way of the gradual — albeit never total — elimination of free territory in the New World settler empires.
Yet some of the main currents in midcentury black nationalism look like nothing so much as a revival of the impulse toward separatism. Harold Cruse, the era’s leading thinker of black nationalism, may have pointedly rejected separatism in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), but his book-length polemic demonstrated (and with relish) that integrationism was not the better option. If anything, it was worse. An emphasis on self-determination at the very least came to resonate with the movers and shakers of the Black Arts Movement. Decades before Afro-Pessimism made the notion au courant, Larry Neal had said, “We’re clearly in the Middle Passage,” and the Black Arts Movement may in turn be characterized as a cultural revolution fomented to get out of the “hold.” GerShun Avilez describes this revolution as a simultaneous process of “closing ranks” and “revolutionizing the mind,” the affirmation of a black diasporic community and a decolonizing transvaluation of values. The way out (of no way) pointed in towards black communal life and consciousness. And while Black Arts participants held various, even conflicting views on the sources of black culture — some Afrocentric, others emphasizing the crucible of American experience — belief in autonomous black expression galvanized them all. The question was how to leave Amerikkka behind and determine what Goncalves called “FREE BLACK TERRITORY”? How to refuse the terms of this world and cultivate the impossible? Goncalves’s own practice of determination involved getting out by going in: escaping the colony and, in the process, discovering the refuge for new maroons that had always been there. His journal and his poetry are that escape, that refuge.
Goncalves’s savvy, sometimes caustic polemical essays and editorials now increasingly inform the best that is written on the Black Arts Movement, yet his poetry remains a desideratum. Ranging from quiet lyricism to what Amy Abugo Ongiri aptly terms “technopaegniac experiments,” Goncalves’s handful of poems represents an unsung achievement in American poetry/poetry of the Americas. Ironizing and empathizing by turns, crisp in phrasing and imagery. At the juncture of Objectivism and the New American and the New Black Poetry, Goncalves’s own brand of field poetics yields a kind of experimentalism with few analogues. Like too many Black Arts Movement writers, Goncalves went quiet after a time. To my knowledge, Goncalves’s last poem appeared in print in 1974. By 1979 he was telling an interviewer, the scholar Theodore R. Hudson, “I don’t even write letters.” For this reason and because he was “infrequently anthologized because of [his] ideological positions,” as Jerry Ward informs us, the links and possibilities of Goncalves’s poetry remain balefully unstudied. But if we want to say something about his poetry, we have to turn first to its most vital context: Journal of Black Poetry.
Poet-publisher Haki Madhubuti once compared the journal to Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, to which Goncalves responded: “The Journal, despite its name is not a ‘poetry’ magazine.” In a withering review of Madhubuti’s book Dynamite Voices, he went on to explain how gravely his friend and sometime colleague had misunderstood the nature of the endeavor. “Published for all black people everywhere,” as the tagline boldly stated, Journal of Black Poetry aimed to be “a means of communication,” a reminder that “poetry is one of the ways we communicate.” This meant that while the journal published many of the Black Arts Movement’s major figures, the intention was not to curate a canon but to get a conversation going. Some five hundred writers appeared in the pages of Journal of Black Poetry during its ten-year run, from kids and high schoolers whose names have not entered surveys of American literature to recognized poets like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, A. B. Spellman, Carolyn Rodgers, Audre Lorde, Kamau Brathwaite, Clarence Major, Jay Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Victor Hernández Cruz, and Sarah Webster Fabio. Journal of Black Poetry became a clearinghouse for the best of the Black Arts Movement, yet it never had more than six hundred subscribers. Guests editors including Madhubuti, Larry Neal, and Askia Touré put out special issues gathering writing from around the US and in the Americas. Reviews of Harold Cruse and Okot p’Biket were published alongside translations of Frantz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, David Diop, Aimé Césaire, and Nicolás Guillén. Each issue contained reports from cities across the US: notices of readings, forthcoming books and journals, profiles on community issues. And as the journal evolved, the range of the news section expanded, eventually drawing in reports from Guyana, Canada, Jamaica, Kenya, and more. According to James Smethurst, the journal really did get a conversation going, “facilitating grassroots communication and a sense of community among black artists across the country.” And besides the printing, pretty much the whole journal was put together in Goncalves’s apartment.
For a decade, this tireless, largely “one man operation” held it together in San Francisco — “the End of the World, the place where things fall off,” he wrote. Born in the Cabo Verdean community of Boston, Goncalves had been in the Bay Area off and on since 1947, when his family moved there. He would live in San Francisco from around the 1960s until the 1980s, for much of this time in the square half-mile north of the Mission known as the Fillmore District. One of many thriving black neighborhoods that owed its population to the Great Migration, the late 1960s saw the tail end of the Fillmore’s heyday. Here Goncalves worked at Julian and Raye Richardson’s Marcus Books, before opening his own New Day Book Store. Journal of Black Poetry and titles from Journal of Black Poetry Press were printed either at the Richardsons’ printshop or Jamie Jamerson’s Printing Company on Laguna Street. He would sometimes write to friends — in tones ranging from bemusement to annoyance — about what the Black Panthers across the way were up to. He liked to keep abreast of what Ed Bullins and Marvin X had going on in their Black Arts West theater. And even in the 1970s you could catch major acts at the Both/And Jazz Club. But by the time the journal got off the ground, “urban renewal” and general disfranchisement were taking their toll. “If you go to Fillmore and McAllister Streets,” Goncalves wrote, “you will see enough drama to maybe last you a lifetime. Heavy stuff. People dying before your eyes from wine and dope, bullets and knives. … The ‘city fathers’ just let Fillmore and McAllister sit there.” At the end of the day, the Fillmore District was a black enclave soon to be developed out of existence. Journal of Black Poetry allowed Goncalves to take what was around him and dream the embattled dream of FREE BLACK TERRITORY in another form. And this too seems the promise of his poetry, which is a kind of extension of the journal. Or maybe it’s better to say: the journal in another form.
One of Goncalves’s most surprisingly overlooked poems, “Flight or a Warrant Is Issued for Malcolm X,” concerns what I’m calling (after Fred Moten) the out poetics of police shootings. “Flight” appeared in the second edition of Margaret Burroughs and Dudley Randall’s seminal For Malcolm anthology. It ends in a genre, so to speak, of the black outdoors, where no running is without the sense of flight. A genre that’s been around since precolonial times.
From the start, state-sanctioned violence seems fated (“I was about to be hanged …”). And yet this violence is forestalled by escape: “I did not want to die, so I feinted, / Burst the door wide, ran down the hallway, / Down the stairs and up an alley.” The poem briefly narrates a getaway (involving tennis courts, art historian Bernard Berenson, and a gas station) that ends as the police arrive:
I was confronted by police with 38s. On my left,
The streets. On my right, a lawney hill
Which I run for, telling myself,
If they hit, they will feel like the first splash of
Sea water across your face — after that
Everything will be all right.
This might be a nightmare, but it’s all too real. As Christina Sharpe would say, the scene is a sign of the weather, for at stake “is not the specifics of any one event or set of events that are endlessly repeatable and repeated, but the totality of the environments in which we struggle.” Left, right. Walking, running. Face forward, back turned. These choices aren’t choices at all, the specifics unspecific, in the context of police violence. Everything — we fear, and know — won’t be all right.
This “repeatable and repeated” narrative, however, appears somehow unfamiliar in Goncalves’s rendering, moving from streets, through tennis courts, to lawney hills and sea. Each of these settings bears its own history of antiblackness, of course. But brought together, it’s as if the poem is cycling through scenes of possible escape. On one hand, police violence in the streets habitually proves the de facto whiteness of public space. On the other hand, there is a longstanding vision of the city as “the black man’s land,” exemplified in the work of James and Grace Lee Boggs. And the lawney hill recalls at one and the same time the outdoor spaces slaves on the lam made for and the out-of-reach maroon encampments they would then establish. Even Bernard Berenson might intimate a scene of escape, maybe a modest one: losing yourself in a book like The Drawings of the Florentine Painters.
“Flight’s” out poetics of police shootings holds in tension the sense of flight as escape and as coercion. Its settings and allusions disclose the lowering danger of state-sanctioned violence while giving hints of ways out of and around this danger. But hints here are no more than that. Goncalves’s refusal to definitively inscribe a death in the poem, leaving it suspended in the conditional (“If they hit …”), doesn’t relieve flight’s foreclosure. We have to turn to a pair of poems published in 1966 for another, more open-ended perspective on getting out (and also in).
“Now the Time Is Ripe to Be” and “Sister Brother” invite a revolutionary practice of reading, revolutionary only in part because they’re written in a spiral, which requires the reader to follow the revolutions of a continuous line as it circles outward. The concrete form reminds us that the space of reading is always material, and that the poem must make something happen, if only an act of apprehension. Consider the opening line of “Now the Time,” found at the center of the poem: “Our Kingdom Was Not Of This World But It Has Come Now.” We hear the citation of John 18:36 (“My kingdom is not of this world”) and a declaration that the petition of the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come” has been realized — it is come, the time is now. The poem makes a place here for the hereafter. Reading it, revolving in it, kairotic time is made manifest. But whose kingdom is come? What time is upon us? Reaching the end, at the poem’s outmost edge, one practically exhales: “The Time Is Now And We Are The Universe Out Of Their Time Free At Last” — the words of the spiritual ringing the last note, as they had three years before when King delivered “I Have a Dream” at the March on Washington. Here at poem’s end and edge the words go tumbling out of the spiral, out of the enclosure of mundane time, out of a white world that has no room for black life. “Now the Time” claims and declaims a moment and a space outside the world. It is and announces the advent of FREE BLACK TERRITORY, even if it’s just here, and just for now. But free territory isn’t free; it’s escape-work. “Help Us Brother To Turn This Wheel Out Of The Pain That Holds Us In … Help Us Sister To Find The Way That Is Our Own,” we read in “Sister Brother.” These poems are available to the people who cultivate the impossible, who live and strive for black liberation: working it out, finding a way. This Wheel, this spiral, points the way out. And it demands beginning in it, being held inside the design. “Ah! Your Hand Is Here + I Know We Are On Our Way.” With these, the poem’s last words, “Sister Brother” does not close but literally and literally, as Moten would say, opens. Goncalves is on his way with the people, ready to find and make a new interior — out there.
“To reconstitute the community, Black radicals took to the bush, to the mountains, to the interior,” wrote Cedric Robinson in 1983. Already by the 1960s neither the mountains nor the bush nor the interior were available for retreat. Neither were the cities, where bureaucratic neglect and capital (and white) flight were punctuated by gentrifying redevelopment projects. Neither was the Black Belt Republic, an unrealized autonomous territory, dreamed and proposed by Communists and separatists, in the majority black regions of the American South. It may have been widely understood that there existed “a nation within a nation” in the US, but this insight had yet to yield the means for true self-determination according to black nationalists. Like the maroons of an earlier era, midcentury black radicals faced enclosure and displacement. In the sprawling conversation Journal of Black Poetry created between contributors and readers, in the depiction of ways out in “Flight,” “Now the Time,” and “Sister Brother,” in the brick-and-mortar New Day Book Store, and in a half-dozen and more unmentioned projects, Dingane Joe Goncalves sought to determine unrealized territory. And this territory wasn’t just conceptual, or artistic, if you take either to mean immaterial. For Goncalves, FREE BLACK TERRITORY meant good paper and a place to print; it meant people donating and purchasing subscriptions; it meant storefronts and streets and window displays; it meant reaching out to other booksellers, filling orders; it meant part-time union gigs to get by on; it meant letters and circulars and, of course, it meant books. In short, it meant every big and little thing that made the journal possible. It was a collective dream, and it was real. It was a territory, and a road struck out on. It was an interior, and it’s still out there.
Acknowledgments: I’m indebted to Marvin X for speaking with me about his longtime friend and colleague. I couldn’t have written this without the knowledge he imparted. Nor could I have written it without the support of the staff and the resources at the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan Library. All errors, of course, are mine alone.
3. Eugene Redmond, “Stridency and the Sword: Literary and Cultural Emphasis in Afro-American Magazines,” The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, ed. Elliott Anderson and Mary Kinzie (Yonkers, NY: Pushcart, 1978), 558; Howard Rambsy II, The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 18.
9. See Wahneema Lubiano, “Black Nationalism and Black Common Sense: Policing Ourselves and Others,” in The House That Race Built: Black Americans, US Terrain, ed. Wahneema Lubiano (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), 233.
10. Joe Goncalves to Larry Neal, July 27, 1967, box 3, folder 11, Larry Neal papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library; and Joe Goncalves to Clarence Major, ca. 1967, box 13, Clarence Major Archives, Archie Givens Sr. Collection of African American Literature, University of Minnesota Library. I retain the majuscules of the expression “FREE BLACK TERRITORY” just as Goncalves wrote it. To my mind, these majuscules inscribe the massiveness and irrepressibility of the dream the expression conjures. As I discuss it, FREE BLACK TERRITORY isn’t one concept or idea among others but rather (like a kind of Möbius strip) both black liberation itself and the necessary disposition and condition for the dreaming, thinking, and movement that would enact it.
17. In a late-sixties poem Nikki Giovanni writes about wanting to read “a joe goncalves poem about a hardworking brother.” In 1980, Amiri Baraka names Goncalves in a list of poets from whom new writing is needed. And many years later Wanda Coleman will recollect: “I had learned to aptly mimic the strident Afro-American voices that had emerged during the Black Arts Movement, those of Ted Joans, Shirley Steele, and my favorite, Joe Goncalves.” Dispersed across a number of decades, these are some of the few references to his poetry in print. As a poet Goncalves appears to have been under-recognized even during the BAM, let alone after. In my conversation with him, Marvin X confessed that he remembered Goncalves as a publisher rather than a poet. An exception to this general under-recognition is the poem “Sister Brother,” which first appeared in the second issue of Journal of Black Poetry and was then reprinted in Baraka and Larry Neal’s Black Fire anthology. In 2014, “Sister Brother” was reprinted again in SOS — Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader. And while Goncalves’s poetry hasn’t been the subject of any extended analysis, Eugene Redmond references “Sister Brother” in his foundational study Drumvoices, noting that Goncalves is “unique in his intellectual-typographical approach to ideas.” In the equally foundational Understanding the New Black Poetry, Stephen Henderson places “Sister Brother” in a visual-poetic tradition stemming from the Greek poet Simmias of Rhodes and George Herbert. Stanley Crouch alludes to the poem in a review of Black Fire printed in Journal of Black Poetry. Nikki Giovanni, “For a Poet I Know,” The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni, 1968–1998 (New York: William Morrow, 2003), 82; Amiri Baraka, “Afro-American Literature and Class Struggle,” Black American Literature Forum 14, no.1 (Spring 1980): 13; Wanda Coleman, “Dancer on a Blade: Deep Talk, Revisions, and Reconsiderations,” in The Riot Inside Me: More Trials and Tremors (Boston: Godine, 2005), 181; Marvin X, phone conversation with author, December 29, 2017; Joe Goncalves, “Sister Brother,” Journal of Black Poetry 1, no. 2 (Summer 1966): 16; Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, ed. Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal (New York: Morrow, 1968), 266; SOS — Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader, ed. John H. Bracey Jr., Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethurst (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 276; Eugene B. Redmond, Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1976), 408; Stephen Henderson, Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References (New York: William Morrow, 1973), 29; Stanley Crouch, review of Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, Journal of Black Poetry 1, no.11 (Spring 1969): 67.
19. One of Goncalves’s teachers at San Francisco State University (then College) was poet Mark Linenthal. Linenthal counted George Oppen as a close friend and his own poetry reflects Oppen’s influence. We know Goncalves thought well enough of Linenthal to list him as a reference on his application to a Congress of Racial Equality task force. The wonderful spareness of Goncalves’s verse, I think, should be connected to Oppen through Linenthal. In drawing such a connection, I don’t mean to identify Goncalves’s style with one line of influence, but to my mind, this Objectivist connection hints at an aspect of the BAM that has yet to be investigated. For instance, Linenthal advised Sarah Webster Fabio’s MA thesis in creative writing in 1965, and her own very different version of spareness raises questions about Objectivist influence as well. Goncalves, “Application for Field Worker in CORE Task Force,” Task Force, applications, National Office Projects, Organization Department, July 22, 1963–September 2, 1964, Congress of Racial Equality Papers, 1941–1967, Wisconsin Historical Society, Library-Archives Division; and Michael J. New, “Panther Teacher: Sarah Webster Fabio’s Black Power,” Meridians 17, no. 1 (September 2018): 76n15.
20. Joe Goncalves, Interview by Theodore R. Hudson, July 11, 1979, “… A Necessary Kind of Self-Expression …”: Interviews: A Study of the Bay Area of California as a Center of Literary Activities During the Black Arts Movement (Washington, DC: T. R. Hudson, 1980), 20.
23. Dingane (Goncalves), review of Dynamite Voices, 87. “We are going to have to control our means of communication,” Goncalves writes in a 1972 editorial, “from the source of finance right down to the printer.” Joe Goncalves, “Some Notes: An Editorial,” Journal of Black Poetry 1, no. 16 (Summer 1972): 3.
26. I learned from Marvin X that Goncalves would sometimes print the journal himself with Richardson’s equipment, a story corroborated by letters detailing his work to Larry Neal and Clarence Major. Marvin X discusses Richardson in his autobiography from which I quote at length: “The printer of Black Dialogue was Julian Richardson, also owner of Marcus Books. Julian gave us many cost breaks on the printing, since he knew we were starving students, after all, he was a starving printer! After innumerable printing delays, we’d do the collating and the magazine would finally appear. Richardson was a classic printer, he always had a good lie about why the magazine wasn’t ready. When we could no longer take his delays, we’d go ‘twist his arm’ by listening to his marathon raps on myriad subjects, usually beginning with Garveyism. His wife, Raye, ran the bookstore in front of the shop, and she could also rap as extensively as her husband. The Richardsons served the Black revolution with their press and should be recognized and honored as our elders!” Marvin X, Somethin’ Proper: The Life and Times of a North American African Poet (Castro Valley, CA: Black Bird Press, 1998), 99.
28. In In the Break, Fred Moten analyzes what he calls the “out sensuality” of the photograph of Emmett Till’s open casket. This “out sensuality” refers to an aesthetics that resides in, though it cannot abide, “the legacy of lynchings.” Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 197.
29. One reason the poem has been overlooked becomes immediately apparent when you turn to the second edition’s table of contents: “Flight” isn’t listed. Nor is Goncalves included in the list of contributors. The explanation for this can be found in Goncalves’s correspondence with Dudley Randall. When Randall sent off the proofs for the first edition of For Malcolm they were printed without his knowledge at a cost higher than he had been quoted. As a result, the book, which had largely been financed through subscriptions, ended up selling at a net loss. The second edition, now properly price-marked, was brought out in part to recoup the losses incurred by the first. As a way to drum up interest in the new edition, Randall solicited new material which, in an effort at frugality, would be printed only on pages that were blank in the original edition, thus allowing essentially the same page proofs to be used. Neither the table of contents nor the contributors list were updated to reflect Goncalves’s inclusion. Box 10, folder “Goncalves, Joe 1969,” Dudley Randall papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.
30. Joe Goncalves, “Flight or a Warrant Is Issued for Malcolm X,” For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X, 2nd ed., ed. Dudley Randall and Margaret Burroughs (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1969), 40.
32. Although it does not appear with “Sister Brother” in SOS — Calling All Black People, “Now the Time Is Ripe to Be” is clearly a companion piece, published alongside “Sister Brother” in Journal of Black Poetry and reprinted with it in Black Fire. It was reprinted on its own, in Ann C. Colley and Judith K. Moore’s Starting with Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), 129, in a section on “shape poetry.” Henderson refers to the poem alongside “Sister Brother” in Understanding the New Black Poetry, while Crouch, in his review of Black Fire, quotes disparagingly from “Now the Time.” Ezekiel Mphahlele describes “Now the Time” in “Notes from the Black American World: III,” Okike: An African Journal of New Writing 8 (July 1975): 79.