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Hilton Als

Thursday, February 8, 2018
7:30pm Pacific Time

This event appeared in the series
"On Arts" Benefiting 826 Valencia Scholarship Program

We've made a recording of this event free to all. Please support our institution and these productions by making a tax-deductible contribution.

Hilton Als began contributing to The New Yorker in 1989, writing pieces for ‘The Talk of the Town,’ he became a staff writer in 1994, theatre critic in 2002, and lead theater critic in 2012. Week after week, he brings to the magazine a rigorous, sharp, and lyrical perspective on acting, playwriting, and directing. With his deep knowledge of the history of performance—not only in theatre but in dance, music, and visual art—he shows us how to view a production and how to place its director, its author, and its performers in the ongoing continuum of dramatic art. His reviews are not simply reviews; they are provocative contributions to the discourse on theatre, race, class, sexuality, and identity in America.

Before coming to The New Yorker, Als was a staff writer for the Village Voice and an editor-at-large at Vibe. Als edited the catalogue for the 1994-95 Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.” His first book, The Women, was published in 1996. His most recent book, White Girls, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014 and winner of the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Non-fiction, discusses various narratives of race and gender. He also wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Early Stories of Truman CapoteAls is currently working on an exploration of the literary luminary that is James Baldwin–his influences, his aspirations, and his relationships to the literary world and to himself.

Stephen Michael Best is an associate professor of English at University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession, and is currently at work on a book about rumor, promiscuous speech, and slavery’s archive.

Photo Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Writers Referenced:

• Edwin Denby
• Kennedy Fraser
• James Agee
• James Baldwin (The Devils Finds Work; Alas, Poor Richard)
• Toni Morrison
• Dave Eggers
• Adrienne Kennedy (A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White)
• Joan Didion
• Truman Capote (La Côte Basque)
• Richard Wright
• LeRoi Jones
• Susan Sontag
• Durga Chew-Bose
• Tavi Gevinson
• Laia Garcia

Books Referenced:

The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
The Women, Hilton Als
White Girls, Hilton Als
The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin
Alas, Poor Richard, James Baldwin
La Côte Basque, Truman Capote
Nothing Personal, Richard Avedon & James Baldwin (re-release)
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Visual Artists Referenced:

• Alice Neel (Uptown exhibit)
• Diane Arbus (Untitled collection)
• Kahlil Joseph
• Arthur Jafa

Musicians Referenced:

• Laura Nero
• Joni Mitchell
• Kendrick Lamar
• Flying Lotus

Articles/Poems/Publications/Plays Referenced:

The New Yorker
• Talk of the Town – “Recovery” – The New Yorker, Hilton Als
• “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch” – Wallace Stevens
The Blacks, Jean Genet
A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, Adrienne Kennedy

Films Referenced:

Now, Voyager
Portrait of Jason, Shirley Clark

Other Figures & Movements Referenced:

• June and Jennifer Gibbons
• Black Arts Movement
• William Casby
• Tina Brown
• David Remnick
• The Wooster Group
• Bette Davis
• Shelley Winters
• Jean Peters
• Richard Pryor


City Arts & Lectures Hilton Als. February 8, 2018. / 415-392-4400. A black and white portrait of a polished black man wearing a crisp white shirt and a light grey blazer smiling at the camera.Stephen Michael Best: Hello. Hello.

I’m Stephen Best. I’m a professor of English at Berkeley, and it’s my great pleasure to share this iconic stage with Hilton Als tonight. Our conversation’s part of the City Arts & Lectures “On Arts” program and the proceeds for the event tonight benefit the 826 Valencia College Scholarships program.

The chief theater critic at The New Yorker, an essayist, a curator, a collaborator with filmmakers and performance artists, winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize in criticism, Hilton Als is a writer and a thinker of extraordinary achievement. Another critic and writer Henry James once described the novel as a house of fiction with not one window, but a million, each reader perched at the window receiving an impression distinct from every other. And at the center of this house, James placed what he called his precious object, Isabel Archer, the mere slim shade of an intelligent but presumptuous girl and the protagonist of his novel, The Portrait of a Lady.

This house seems an apt metaphor for Hilton Als’ ouevre, his survey of the human scene. Some of us may have taken our perch at the window of his theater criticism. Others may have seen one of the exhibitions he curated on Alice Neal, James Baldwin, Celia Paul, and still others may have caught a glimpse through the chapters in his books, The Women and White Girls.

But what is it, you may wonder, inside these walls that Hilton has built and is building for us to see. It is often the case that what we see is Hilton himself, whether struggling or playing with a current object of his fascination. That oscillation happening right now in the back of your mind, between Isabel Archer and Hilton Als, the rich white girl and the gay black man replacing one precious object with another? That’s why I described this metaphor as apt.

We may think that we want the critic to be a judge, plain and simple, that we want him to be like a judge, objective and detached, cool, innocent of his object. We may think that we simply want a criticism that tells us whether or not to take in that play or go see that film.

Hilton convinces us that we want the criticism of a different kind. A writing that is simultaneously perspicacious and elliptical. Nervally ambitious and emotionally nuanced, but perhaps unlike the writing of most first-person essayists, a criticism marked, as The New York Review of Books put it, by an “unembarrassed self-absorption.” Hilton has said of the essay form, “I think you have to let the mess come in.”

He’s certainly interested in the mess that is his subjects. How André Leon Talley might be living out his racial solitude at Vogue Magazine… all of the things in Denzel Washington’s facial expression when Casey Affleck swiped up that Oscar for Manchester By the Sea. But what I also take Hilton to mean when he says you have to let the mess come in, is that prudence and a certain self-regard pitched toward respectability are the enemies of good writing.

No insight without confession. No description without self-absorption. Every work of criticism, a work of memoir. I would like to hear more about this mess and to share as much time on this stage with Hilton as the occasion will permit. So please join me in welcoming Hilton Als to City Arts & Lectures.

Hilton Als: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

This is the mess. Let’s try to clean it up together. Thank you so much for having me in my favorite city.

Stephen Michael Best: Welcome, Hilton.

Hilton Als: Thank you.

Stephen Michael Best: So I thought we might begin by talking about The New Yorker and your assuming the role as theater critic at The New Yorker. What was The New Yorker like before you arrived? How did you change it?

Hilton Als: Ooh. I had a very great friend in high school, a great singer. And we read The New Yorker, and she pointed out that there were rarely people of color in the magazine, in the cartoons, let alone stories. The people that I cleaved to in The New Yorker were writers like Jamaica Kincaid and Jervis Sanderson, but the thing that was interesting to me about my friend’s observation was that I was so used to not seeing myself. It wasn’t something that I looked for — the metaphors that explained me to myself I could find through reading archival work and looking.

So the magazine had been run by an incredible editor named William Shawn for many years, and it just was not his experience. I think that starting with Robert Gottlieb, which is when I first wrote “Talk of the Town” pieces, and especially with Tina Brown, she wanted to let the century in, as opposed to keeping  the reality of the world out. And the reality of the world was the diverse, diverse world.

Stephen Michael Best: Right.

Hilton Als: And we really have to sort of give her a lot of credit for — and she took a lot of flack for it–but we do owe her a great deal of attention and respect for having implemented that change. And then David Remnick really going for it.

And so from the time that I was there, I remember writing, when Mr. Gottlieb was there — I never met him then. But I wrote a piece about my best friend, who passed in ’91. I remember writing a piece called “Recovery,” and he had been fag bashed in New York. And I wrote a piece about it and about him coming to stay with me. And they just, they couldn’t cope. But now if you wrote that piece, it wouldn’t be a “Talk of a Town piece,” it would be 5,000 words. So I think that’s the big difference. Yeah.

Stephen Michael Best: So do you think theater itself has now changed in New York because of…

Hilton Als: Well, for sure. I mean, because you have to kind of… Theater, the value of it, and for theater-goers in San Francisco or in New York, it’s not a different story. What you’re really looking for is something that is, even if it’s a restoration comedy, the production, the director or the actors have to have some kind of resonance with today, with the audience.

And I think that one of the things that happens, when I started to write for The New Yorker about theater, I really loved being a kind of reporter. A cultural reporter, exposing readers to things that they had never read in the magazine. So, for instance, when I started, they had never covered the Wooster Group.

Stephen Michael Best: Oh, wow.

Hilton Als: They had never covered  people, you know, I think maybe once Susan Laurie Parks, never Adrienne Kennedy. So there were all of these sort of powerhouse playwrights, that had not been their audience. And so I felt enormously responsible on some level to bring these writers to light and these voices to light. And that was very exciting, to explain Annie Baker or Young Jean Lee or any number of people.

Stephen Michael Best: So, if I’m hearing you correctly, your project wasn’t simply to review the theater so people would go to the theater.

Hilton Als: No.

Stephen Michael Best: You had goals, maybe even for a San Francisco audience, to teach them something about what’s happening.

Hilton Als: I never felt that it was directly related to commerce in a certain way. It was selfishly related to my interests. So, I remember when I first started, I was just doing the job and going along and  there was a review of the classical theater of Harlem in The New York Times, and they were doing a production of “The Blacks,” Jean Genet’s “The Blacks.”

And I remember reading it and sending it to David Remnick saying, “This is what I want to do.” And he never complained. He never stopped. He just was very interested in the trajectory of this work. And so what I felt was very important was to really treat it as literature.

And it would be something that I wanted people to read, even if they weren’t interested in theater or had not gone to a particular production. One of the models or one of the heroes for me was an incredible artist that you guys should read: Edwin Denby, who wrote about  dance, and I would just read him for pleasure. Or a woman who wrote about fashion named Kennedy Fraser was incredible just about style, in terms of sentences and storytelling. And then there were also extraordinary people who had come before who weren’t at The New Yorker, like James Agee writing film criticism. Those were all my heroes, to make it literature, to make it alive.

Stephen Michael Best: Yeah. So, Adrienne Kennedy.

Hilton Als: Yes.

Stephen Michael Best: You just wrote about her recently.

Hilton Als: Yes.

Stephen Michael Best: What were you writing about?

Hilton Als: There’s a production…she’s 86 years old – I’m sending everybody home with a lot of homework.

Stephen Michael Best: That’s good. There are lots of students  in the audience so this is good.

Hilton Als: She’s an extraordinary playwright, a woman of color from Ohio, and similar in background to Toni Morrison who grew up in Lorraine, which is not too far from where Adrienne grew up.

They had grown up in mixed schools, and they were black immigrants from the South. And so there were Italians, Germans, and so on. And Toni actually is the one who said that race became an issue when things became sexual. Before that they were just going to school with other kids.

Similarly, Adrienne experienced racial prejudice when she went to Ohio State in… I think it was 1950-something. And black students weren’t encouraged to read English, and they had to live in these Quonset huts together. So her work is a kind of beautiful shattering of this dream of inclusion in European and English history, the things that she loved.

So recently I wrote this piece about her play that is in Brooklyn now and she’s 86 years old. And in writing about her, I wrote about the extraordinary beauty of her hysteria. She didn’t wait again to find herself in images. She imposed her sensibility on images. So this one play that I love, it’s called “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White.”

It’s from 1976. And it stars Bette Davis, Shelley Winters, and Jean Peters, and they all speak for her, so none of the men in the scene speak. It’s all three of these women. And I just wanted to read this monologue from that play, just to give you an idea of her, the sound.

Stephen Michael Best: That’d be lovely.

Hilton Als: Let’s see if this device will help me or, I for it.

Okay. So in the play, Clara is the black woman who comes in and out of the action, but the action is dominated by Bette Davis.  I can’t see anyone out there, so I don’t know how old you are, but there’s a movie called Now, Voyager, Bette Davis is a sort of frumpy Bostonian dominated by her mother who has a nervous breakdown and goes on a restorative sea  journey and becomes Bette Davis.

And, in the play, Bette Davis, who is now black, walks to the railing of the ship and says– I think it’s just one of the most extraordinary monologues of the 20th century–and it begins, Bette Davis speaking:

“When I have the baby, I wonder, will I turn into a river of blood and die? My mother almost died when I was born. I’ve always felt sad that I couldn’t have been an angel of mercy to my father and mother and save them from their torment. I used to hope when I was a little girl that one day I would rise above them, an angel, with glowing wings and cover them with peace, but I failed. When I came among them, it seems to me I did not bring them peace, but made them more disconsulate.

The crosses they bore always made me sad. The one reality I wanted never came true, to be their angel of mercy, to unite them. I keep remembering the time my mother threatened to kill my father with the shotgun. I keep remembering my father’s going away to marry a girl who taught to willow trees.”

That is the kind of sound that I’m looking for on stage, where these are words that you recognize as words, but put together in such a way that it changes the climate of the theater and the climate of your consciousness. But also what I loved about the play, which I read when I was very young, was how she wasn’t waiting for the world to validate her as herself. She was taking artifacts and extraordinary moments from the culture and making it herself.

Stephen Michael Best: Yeah, so it’s interesting just thinking about Adrienne Kennedy, 80-something years old, and your description of your not seeing yourself sort of reflected in the pages of The New Yorker

Hilton Als:  But that didn’t stop me.

Stephen Michael Best: That didn’t stop you, so that it didn’t stop you is reminding me of the way in The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin talks about his relationship to Hollywood cinema. And Bette Davis is a huge figure in that book. And I want to talk about Baldwin cause you’ve been writing about Baldwin for decades.

Hilton Als: Oh, you’re inching me off the stage.

Stephen Michael Best: I’m sorry. I meant…

Hilton Als: I’m leaving the theater immediately.

Stephen Michael Best: I meant in the sense that there’s this quote from Baldwin, Alas, Poor Richard, that you quote across a number of essays. So  I wanna hear you talk about it cause I think it’s a fascinating quote. So I’ll read it and then I just wanted you to sort of explain why it keeps popping up in your writing.

Hilton Als: All we need is a fireplace, we can read to each other…

Stephen Michael Best: I know it feels a little with this rug…

So here’s the quote from Alas, Poor Richard, 1961: “One of my dearest friends, a Negro writer now living in Spain, circled around me and I around him from months before we spoke. One Negro meeting another at an all white cocktail party cannot but wonder how the other got there. The question is, is he for real or is he kissing ass?

Negroes know about each other, what can here be called family secrets, and this means that one Negro, if he wishes, can knock the other’s hustle, can give his game away. Therefore, one exceptional Negro watches another exceptional Negro in order to find out if he knows how vastly successful and bitterly funny the hoax has been.

Alliances in the great cocktail party of the white man’s world are formed almost purely on this basis for, if both of you can laugh, you have a lot to laugh about. On the other hand, if only one of you can laugh, one of you inevitably is laughing at the other.”

Hilton Als: Yes.

Stephen Michael Best: I love that.

Hilton Als: I mean, he’s beyond.

Stephen Michael Best:  It’s beyond.

Hilton Als: It’s a lived paragraph, right? When you have language like that, or Adrienne’s monologue, it’s what we’re responding to viscerally. It’s something that the writer has lived, whether it’s true or not, doesn’t matter. What is true is the emotion of it.

And Baldwin, that essay in particular about Richard Wright is so complex because he doesn’t say what happened. He doesn’t say that Wright kind of encouraged them to come to France, but then kind of abandoned them. And so there’s this kind of…The essay grows out of a kind of wound, and like most wounds, is confusing. Why does someone I love not love me back? And in order to understand that, it’s sort of like Joan Didion reporting on her husband’s death, treating it like a piece of reporting.

Baldwin is taking his pain and the agony of wanting intimacy with an older black man and saying, well, it’s not forthcoming. I could sit here and be bewildered for the rest of my life, or I could treat it as a piece of… I can make art out of this. And so what I love about that passage in particular is, you know, it’s a read, but it’s deeper than a read.

It’s a finger snap on a read. And it’s also something that he’s…you can feel his tentativeness as a person not wanting to reveal this to the larger world, but knowing that there’s no other way to explain his isolation. Because it’s really about his isolation. It’s about him being the only Negro in that room for many years until he meets this other person. I believe it’s Chester Himes actually. So…

Stephen Michael Best: He calls it “family secret.”

Hilton Als: Yes. That there’s something that they’re able to share with each other about their ambition. It comes at a price, the price is that you’re not able to tell… You’re not able to fully speak who you are for threat of danger. So this goes back to your New Yorker question.

Sometimes when I go to a cocktail party in New York, and invariably someone will come up to me and say, “Oh my God, I’ve been reading you for years. I didn’t know you were black.” And I don’t say, “I didn’t know you were stupid, but…”

Stephen Michael Best: You were raised right.

Hilton Als: Just because I could go to jail, really. There’s more of them than there are of me. And so there’s a discipline. There’s a spiritual discipline that’s going on in what Baldwin is writing about, and the sadness for him is that the older, more established author does not take care of the family. So the children run off together.

It’s a heartbreaking essay and a heartbreaking paragraph, but it’s about that wound of being alone.

Stephen Michael Best: Abandonment.

Hilton Als: Yeah.

Stephen Michael Best: I wanted to read it as well because, I can’t remember where you say it, but there’s a moment where you describe Baldwin’s writing as, your words were “arias of feeling and thought.” And you said that he wrote in a kind of high faggoty style. And I just keep laughing every time I read that. So what’s a high faggoty style?

Hilton Als: He would have liked it.  I wish we had time… I would have brought it with me, but there’s an amazing film called Portrait of Jason by Shirley Clark. And it was done in, I believe, in ’60-something. Anyway, it’s a portrait of this black queen who renames himself Jason. And he is really kind of, if I have to describe it, I would show Jason talking and what it means for me… There’s a wonderful moment in Truman Capote’s story called “La Côte Basque” and the wealthy woman is talking to Princess Margaret, who says that she realizes that she doesn’t really like poufs. And the woman listening says, I arched my eyebrow, “très Jane Austen.” That’s a faggoty style.

Stephen Michael Best: That’s good.

Hilton Als: Yeah.

Stephen Michael Best:  That’s really good.

Hilton Als: Yeah. It’s the language of queens. He has, in Portrait of Jason, there’s a moment where Jason says… He’s standing with his friends, Louise Beavers– these are all queens that he’s known in prison — and they’re all, he said, you know… I can imitate it. Do you mind?

Stephen Michael Best: Go right ahead.

Hilton Als: And he says, so we’re standing around and saying, “Girl, girl,” you know, and, a policeman walks by and says, “I just have to ask you a question, why, why do you call each other girls?” And he said, Ms. Beaver snapped her fingers and said, “I’ll never tell.”

Stephen Michael Best: That’s high faggoty style.

Hilton Als: That’s my little primer.

Stephen Michael Best: So Baldwin and Richard Wright… I’ve said to you before that I find it very exciting to contemplate the ways in which in your own writing you  frequently frame the question of identity in terms of twinning. You know, having twins.

Hilton Als: It’s so clever, because my analyst brought this up recently and it had never occurred to me.

Stephen Michael Best:  What!?

Hilton Als:  It had never occurred to me, because you’re just making the work, so you don’t quite know who… You’re a different person when you step away from the desk.

Stephen Michael Best: Of course. Yeah.

Hilton Als: Once something’s been published. So would you like me to read something about that idea?

Stephen Michael Best: So I was actually going to sound a little bit like your therapist and say, I think this all goes back to your mother.

Hilton Als: Oh, listen, it goes back to everyone’s mother.

Stephen Michael Best: I know it does. So if you would like…

Hilton Als: She has the greatest role ever created.

Stephen Michael Best: ‘Cause you write about her in The Women. She’s the first, she’s the subject essentially of the first chapter.

Hilton Als: Yes. I’ve thought maybe, if you don’t mind… They were playing the music before we arrived out here. They were playing some music that was just extraordinarily personal to me: Laura Nero and then Joni Mitchell. And the reason that Laura Nero is so deeply embedded in my bones is because she’s the favorite singer of a sister of mine who passed away that I write about a lot in The Women. And then they play Joni Mitchell’s song, which made me very emotional because the song was very much about the woman I write about in White Girls. The woman named Valda who died. She was a great friend of mine, a Latvian woman, and she had no filters.

Stephen Michael Best: Is this Mrs. Vreeland?

Hilton Als: Mrs. Vreeland. She had no filters, and invariably if you took her to a party, she would talk to the worst person there. She just had a sixth sense to do the wrong thing. So I thought maybe in honor of the music and in honor of you, I would read this little section about Mrs. Freeland. Would that be helpful? And then we can talk about my mother.

This is from White Girls and I think we should also talk about Dave Eggers and how helpful he was with this book. It was published by McSweeney’s. But as an editor, he was completely brilliant about it, and I’ll explain it after.

Stephen Michael Best: That’d be great.

Hilton Als: “But in 2007, someone did die. She was one of my first I’s, and integral to all the years I’ve described. I’ve waited until now to talk about her because that’s the way she would have wanted it. She was a great believer in traditional story structure and would say apropos her appearance here, what readers crave most, what fills them up is the story of love, and how it ends. As a spoken-word critic, one of the very best, she knew what was real when she read it because she trusted her gut. Indeed, she had a great interest in her gut. She was always thin, but she ate more food than any human I’ve ever known. Even after she got sick, she longed for me to describe a dinner party I’d attended. She licked her lips. ‘I’m always hungry,’ she said. She came to the first reading” — this is all true — “she came to the first reading I ever gave at my college, and while I read, she sat in the front row with her then boyfriend, eating a hoagie. After the reading, she said that I needed more stuff behind me while I read to lively things up. You know. Lights? A video? But I’m getting ahead of my story…”

And then I’m just going to jump around to tell you who she was.

“She was our first home, no, she was our tree, and we hung in her young branches, our bodies swinging like flags in a permanent sweet chill. Then a little sunshine through the branches, and some bird sounds and maybe Jesus floating beyond the birds. No, she was our ground, and we would die to be closer to her. No, she was a white girl, whatever that means. No, she was colored because she preferred colored men to most white people. No, she was words and they always came up short against her presence, and if you are a poet whose vocation it is to take the words out from in between other words and relish white space, then you would be more suited to the task of relaying who she was, as Wallace Stevens seemed to do when he wrote in 1947, twelve years before she was born, and sixty years before she died, in his poem, ‘So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch’: ‘She floats in the air on the level of / The eye, completely anonymous, / Born, as she was, at twenty-one, / Without lineage or language, only / The curving of her hip, as motionless gesture, / Eyes dripping blue, so much to learn.’… I loved her without telling her that because that’s how we talked — by not talking.”

I’m just gonna give you a little sense of who she is and then…

“She was a white girl who, while growing up in New Jersey, read Kurt Vonnegut and listened to punk music and jazz. In high school, she sported a beret à la Ricky Lee Jones. She was a newspaper freak, and as a young woman wrote letters in support of Rajneeshpuram despite the facts. She wanted to protect the faithful from the faithless. She regarded SL’s vegetarianism as a kind of faith, and she admired it, but how could she give up her belief in bacon? Her attraction to men who had language was profound. Sometimes she’d visit me at the weekly newspaper I worked at back in the day because she was also drawn to a pasty gay journalist who spread his body anywhere there was available space. She called him the Answer Grape, because he looked like a grape, and he had all the answers.”

And then there’s just one little … I think that’ll do.

So I’ve been very fortunate in my life to see the other person at that cocktail party. For me, it wasn’t contingent on race. Although that helps, right, to have a fraternity, someone who understands your particular journey and struggle. But what was attractive to me about people like her was that they, we couldn’t fit.

I think it was…It would have been different, of course, if I was in Europe like Baldwin, but in New York there was an array of people who didn’t fit. And the people that I was most attracted to were very truthful about their inability and also their lack of interest in fitting.

Stephen Michael Best: You  mentioned David Eggers.

Hilton Als: Oh, yes. This is a very great opportunity of public acknowledgement of how helpful he was with this book. I used to come here sometimes for a month in the summer, and I ran into Dave. And I went to teach one of his classes and he said, I’m sure you write fiction. And I said, no, no, no, I don’t write fiction. And he said, go in your trunk. I’m sure there are stories.

And when I started to think about Valda and white girls, I sent him something I’d written, which began with the story of the SL and her and then stopped and became part of… the next part of the story was about the silent twins in Great Britain. A story I had written for The New Yorker.

Stephen Michael Best: June and Jennifer Gibbons.

Hilton Als: June and Jennifer Gibbons. And when Dave got the manuscript, and it was one of the most genius editing things I’ve ever experienced, he said in an email: “When you’re writing about you and that guy and the girl, I want to wallpaper my house with those words. Then you get to the twins and they’re conjoined and I want to separate them.”

And it was sort of like this enormous light bulb went off in my head that my story was interesting, the story of my relationship to this woman and this man was interesting to someone. And it was the most extraordinary kind of permission to be myself on the page. And that’s really all it takes. It takes one person of insight and delicacy to say that it’s possible that your writing is possible.

So I owe him an enormous debt, and if you see him, please tell him. He’s always around, running around, but he’s, on top of everything else, an incredible editor.

Stephen Michael Best: Yeah. That’s great. Can we talk about your art and your curations? This a little bit goes back to Baldwin. ‘Cause I want to talk about Nothing Personal. You collaborated with Taschen to re-release Richard Avedon and James Baldwin’s ’63  collaboration Nothing Personal. Now the odd thing is that Nothing Personal, when it came out, it almost immediately went out of print. Like it was, kind of, in the press, savaged.

Hilton Als: It wasn’t admired.

Stephen Michael Best: It wasn’t admired, yeah. Because it was taken that they were celebrities who were slumming. So we’re sort of witnessing something of a kind of Renaissance of James Baldwin at the moment. And in some ways, this book is part of that. So I guess I want to ask you, sort of why republish Nothing Personal now?

Hilton Als: Well, I was approached by Taschen Press, because I think the Baldwin estate had been approached by Taschen to reprint the book. And I think every mother in the audience will be very proud and wish that their kid was like me. Because when I was a kid, I would cut school and go to the library.

Audience Member 1: [a singular strong laugh in the audience]

Stephen Michael Best: That’s a mom.

Hilton Als: There she is. And so in the Grand Army Plaza Branch of the New York Public Library, there was in those days called the special collections, and they were books that you couldn’t take out and records that you couldn’t take out. So one of the things that I love to do was go upstairs and listen to Marat/Sade and Glenda Jackson.

And I would listen to the language that was alive on a record, these monologues. And I would read this man named James Baldwin in a book called Nothing Personal. And I think I must’ve been 11 or 12. And the thing that was so extraordinary about the book was that it was like looking at a documentary film about a time that was before my time, but that presaged the ’70s in ways that I could recognize. I had grown up with this particular sister that I’ve told you about during the Black Arts Movement, which had been started by LeRoi Jones, i.e. Imamu Baraka, when Malcolm X was killed in ’68, I believe.

And so there were these theaters and art galleries and collectors that were sort of black artists for black stories and black people. And my sister and I would go, and I was always kind of confused as a kid and still, if white people didn’t matter so much, why were they talking about them so much? Right?

Why was it in their collective play or in the opera or whatever we were seeing? Why was the subject about oppression? Instead of about the collective family of blackness? That was what was more interesting to me and my sister would say shut up or whatever. But that was my question. If that didn’t matter, why was it the source of the play or the movie?

Baldwin, in Nothing Personal in particular, talks about the commodification of human beings in a way that is ideologically beautiful, but also politically very prescient and also true about a general feeling about being bought and sold – black people, women, et cetera.

It was a very broad canvas and photographs, for instance, like Marilyn Monroe where she’s kind of packaged, right? And she’s spiritually lost. The performances of Marilyn Monroe has been stopped. And now the question of who I am…

Stephen Michael Best: Who’s left…

Hilton Als:  Who is this ‘I’?

And so in the book, I was profoundly moved by Baldwin and Avedon’s synthesis, visual and verbal, in terms of how power works on all of us, in particular blacks, women, queer people. It was something that we all shared as opposed to one aspect of identity.

So when my sister and I went to discover blackness vis-à-vis these various artists, what I loved about those experiences is that it taught me to disagree and it gave me voice. I think you see in The Women when we would go to these rallies, I was always questioning the work or questioning because we were black, and because the speaker was black, didn’t mean that I should take it for granted intellectually.

And so Baldwin, no matter how painful it was to experience that, and he did from both blacks and whites, he did it. And that was this incredible achievement, and it really opened my mind to a vast array of stories and that I could find my story anywhere. I mean, he was 13 [when] he was a boy preacher, and he was 16 when he left [the church]. He said he began to leave when, fatally, he started reading Dostoevsky and that, in this world that was very far away on a continent far away, he found something of the pain and loss of his own experience.

And this is something that I teach students at Columbia. Because your story has happened to you doesn’t mean it’s a story. That what we have to go back to is an understanding of how literature connects us, photographs connect us, and in the connection, what is the history? What is the context? What are the archives? What has been left to us?

So for me, Nothing Personal was one of those life rafts that had been left to me and it was a book no one had taken out. And when I was… I’m dating myself, it’s not your fault, but… there was microfilm then. And you could go and look things up in the reader’s catalog there, and it was a great big green book.

And you could go to the author and look it up and then give the librarian and she gave you the rolls. And I started reading how savaged the book had been. But there was one extraordinary letter from Truman Capote to The New York Review of Bookswhere a very bad review had taken place. And, he said that “I know Mr. Avedon and Mr. Baldwin and they’re serious artists, and the idea that they would do this for money is ridiculous. I earned about a quarter for working with Avedon on observations. What they’re trying to understand is something about our times.” And it was such a great vote of confidence that another gay man had stuck up for them.

And so my intuition about their difference was not wrong. My intuition about what they were trying to do photographically and textually had grown out of their own isolation as a Jew and as a black man. And so these stories that were percolating all around me in the library became more vivid because of this book.

Stephen Michael Best: It’s interesting. You use the verb “presage” and how the 60s presaged your 70s. But that’s, for me, the question of pathos, which is that it’s being republished today. You know, that it presaged our moment, as well.

Hilton Als: When they approached me about it, I thought it was a very clever time to do it.

Stephen Michael Best: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, you’ve sort of talked about the commodification of persons, because the other image that I pulled was this image of William Casby who’d been born as a slave.

Hilton Als: Now there’s also that extraordinary thing about Black American life where, and I think Octavia Butler is the great genius of this, about time travel, you know. Baldwin lived in a Harlem apartment with his stepfather’s mother, who had been born a slave. And so all he knew, really, about where he came from was this body, who had a history he did not know, and anything before that he did not know. And I think one of the great achievements of this book, but also Baldwin’s work and Avedon’s work, is as children of immigrants, basically, who are we? The question is not only who are we, but what are we going to do about it?

And I think that’s the question, at least it’s the question that I like to put in my students’ hands, because it amounts to a kind of activism to question who you are and who you are in the context of society. So that’s what I see when I see these pictures.

Stephen Michael Best:  And to claim the identity of immigrant.

Hilton Als:  And also to say, I don’t know anything. That part of the mythos, the great American narrative, really, is forgetting. And keep going. And forget and keep going. It’s the arrival myth, basically.

Stephen Michael Best: Right. I was reading somewhere, I don’t know what the method was, but the reasoning was that cultures that had been produced through, sort of, conquest and empire, people arrive. Those tend to be more individualistic cultures cause you have to fight…

Hilton Als: ‘Cause you have to fight and you have to fight for your voice.

Stephen Michael Best: Yeah. Yeah. Could we talk about Alice Neel?

Hilton Als: Oh, sure. Anytime.

Stephen Michael Best: Yeah. I discovered Alice Neel through you. And saw the show that you curated. Would you mind reading the text that accompanies this?

Hilton Als: It’s fun. It’s like movies.

Stephen Michael Best: It’s, yeah, exactly. It’s like sort of live narration.

Hilton Als: Alice Neel was a white woman who was born at the start of the century and was from Pennsylvania where she had worked variously as a secretary to help support her family. She had a grandmother who said women can’t be artists.

She had been taking classes at the Pennsylvania School of the Arts, and she said that she was so repelled by the class system that most of the young girls were going just to learn the niceties of drawing or something to do. When she went into the school and she saw women scrubbing floors to make a lovely environment for these upper-class girls, she said she never got over it and she never forgot.

When she moved to New York, she did not like what she called the honkytonk atmosphere of the Village, and she moved uptown to Spanish Harlem at a time when white people simply did not move up there, so let’s say 1939. And she had been in lovers with a couple of men, Latin American men, and she lived there really for the most of the rest of her life from about 1936 to her death in 1980, 50 years later.

In that place, she raised two boys whom she put through school on scholarship. She lived on what they used to call relief, welfare. She would often get fired from the WPA because she could not write, make super heroic figures. She only could draw and paint from the psychological. And she was just this extraordinary figure.

And in this show that I put together, it was something that I had never seen before, which was no one had acknowledged that she had painted great many people of color. In fact, one of her great moments in life was when two Puerto Rican guys, kids, came to her door and said, “We hear you paint Spanish kids.”

And she sat down and she painted them. They had never been seen. And so most of these paintings had not been seen together. And that’s why the show is called “Alice Neel, Uptown.” And here’s a little thing, so I wrote these little essays and stories that went with the paintings.

Stephen Michael Best: It’s very not art historical.

Hilton Als: I mean, I adore art history, but, that wasn’t the point.

“Pregnant Maria, 1964 — How does energy show itself in stillness? For the painted portrait to be achieved, the subject must arrange himself or herself in stillness, usually while sitting in a chair or lying on a bed or sofa, all the while projecting a certain energy that could be viewed as antithetical to stillness, the energy of one’s eye.

The portraitist doesn’t so much harness this energy as use the canvas’s edges as a parameter or a benign line to frame the real world of the picture, while excluding that which does not belong. And yet the great portraitists make you wonder what else was in the room or behind the chair the subject of sitting in. Portraits are filled with ghosts–the people the subject loves or, out of emotional necessity, has forgotten. You can’t actually see any of those people, but they’re there in the subject’s eyes and the artist’s eyes since each is reflected in the other.

Pregnant Maria is a study of growth and stillness. Maria is growing a life, a life neither she nor the artist yet knows. And yet they know it–it fills Maria and makes her vibrant and still with expectation. One could write a dissertation on the dissertations that have been written about the history of pregnant women in Western and non-Western art–Mary and all those annunciations, and so on. But little has been written about the reality of transformation–Maria’s body growing slowly, day after day. In Alice Neel’s picture, Maria is herself and not herself. Her baby is not a self either. All of this weighs on the mind like a solid, a solid wrapped in conjecture. Neel gives us the heft of Maria’s pregnancy, it’s awkwardness. She can’t right herself because nothing feels right to her former self, the body she knew from another lifetime. The painting is not about maternal contentment, but unease; there’s an aura of jittery indecision. Pregnancy is a state that requires waiting–incubation–and what can a body do as it waits, think about itself. Neel’s portraits of women reveal an affinity, the shared understanding that she and our female subject know how to wait. But for what? The option of not being women? What do these women want? Maria’s baby is pulling her into an unknown sphere. Just a sitting for one’s portrait is an unknown. What will the artist make of me?”

Just a little bit of it. Thank you.

Stephen Michael Best: I love that piece. You’ve said that there was really–you know, you’ve already described this in a way–that there’s just like something singular about the way Alice Neel went about her career in New York.

Hilton Als: I really fall in love with people who, who are not breaking the rules, but they don’t know what the rules are.

I just absolutely, I mean, I’m just drawn to people who are not status quo, really, is what it comes down to. There’s another artist that you would like to show who does that similar sort of thing.

Stephen Michael Best: These women in New York doing a similar sort of thing. Diane Arbus, who you’ve written about a number of times.

Hilton Als: Yes. I love her.

Stephen Michael Best:  Clearly. In the last, let’s see, was it in The New York Review of Books? There was a piece on Diane Arbus, and you describe, I’m looking at it here, that, in particular as it relates to this photo of a naked man being a woman in 1968 that you said Arbus… “the manufactured perdendum, the powdered face and penciled eyebrows and rouge lips do not obscure his, the subject’s real self, his wide shaped chest, his long male feet, but add to the reality of his dream of a self, being as a wish.” And you continue that Arbus wanted in on that deeply private exchange with the self.

I think that like I got something about her photographs there. She says, “‘I have learned to get past the door from the outside to the inside,’ she wrote in a fellowship application in 1964, ‘I want to be able to follow.'” So reading the essays on Arbus…

Hilton Als: But also don’t really forget the great humor in her work. Because I think in that piece, I described this as a kind of joke on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Do you know that painting? Where she’s standing and her hair’s flowing and she’s demurely protecting her private parts, as my mother would say. I think that Arbus, who had a great understanding of art history and the image world that we come from, for sure, was involved in that kind of dialogue.

Stephen Michael Best: What you also talk about in that piece though is Arbus’ life and both the incest with her brother and her death in 71 at her own hand. And, you know, reading the pieces and looking at the images, I just started to feel more and more that it’s really hard for me to talk about Arbus’s pictures without thinking about that life.

Hilton Als:  I think it’s difficult for any artist who lives in a state of ecstasy about their art for them not to be their art, too. Because what they’re giving in ecstasis is this illumination. The illumination really is about perception and their perception illuminates consciousness, not just for themselves, but for the people that they’re involved with photographically and personally. I think that her vision is an ecstatic vision that we can’t lose sight of because, like the Baldwin and Avedon books, she’s still teaching us about ourselves. She was very prescient in her interest in and fascination with and love of and distance from difference. It was being part of that person’s self, going past the door and not, at the same time. And I think in terms of testing the limits of how much we’re allowed into another person’s consciousness, you can hardly beat her for that.

Stephen Michael Best: You were in the Netflix Joan Didion [documentary]… right? You were a talking head in it. I’ve watched that documentary like four times. I think it’s fantastic.

Hilton Als: I’ve only actually fast-forwarded ’cause I didn’t want to hear my voice.

Stephen Michael Best: You didn’t want to hear your voice? I understand that. I won’t be listening.

Hilton Als:  It’s okay. Garbo did the same thing.

Stephen Michael Best: Who would do the same thing?

Hilton Als: Garbo.

Stephen Michael Best: Exactly. So last semester I taught this class with a colleague on the film essay and a lot of the class was spent reading Susan Sontag and I was reading Diane Arbus. And one of my colleagues sort of caught me reading Diane Arbus and she’s like, you’re really into the white girls. I was like, well…

Hilton Als: She’s fired as far as I’m considered.

Stephen Michael Best: No, no.  I think she meant that in the way that of a book. There’s this line though– from reading all  that Sonta– there’s this moment where Sontag says, “the exemplary modern artist is a broker in madness,” and she’s talking about pornography, but she sort of says that the task of art is to sort of “make forays into the frontiers of consciousness and then report back what’s there.”

Hilton Als: I think that proves just how straight she was.

Stephen Michael Best: Why do you say that?

Hilton Als:  Because if you’re really going to do that kind of work, you’re not saying that it’s brokering and madness, it’s just the work.

Stephen Michael Best: Mmm. Hmm.

Hilton Als: So she’s rather enviously looking at those people who go out there and do the work and then passing judgment.She was a fine woman, but sometimes those things sound really stupid to me.

Stephen Michael Best: Yeah. Interesting. I thought about her.

Hilton Als: Oh, I’m so-

Stephen Michael Best: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Hilton Als: Because it’s a sort of careful point of view. It’s not the point of view of a person, again, that lives in a kind of ecstasy about the new and finding themselves and taking those risks. It’s someone who’s commenting on those people and passing judgment, and it’s just such a drag to read or to even really sort of hear words that are dipped in a kind of prohibitive moralism. The words that I really want to hear are Adrienne Kennedy words or Baldwin words. Because they’re not pre-packaged and they’re not passing judgment. They just are.

Stephen Michael Best: Right. But the thing is, the way I look at Arbus is I look at her exploration of what she called freaks as a way of losing herself, not finding herself.

Hilton Als: No, I think, I don’t agree with that. I think that one of the things that she was doing that was so profound was trying to find a way to get past the words of difference. And even if she used the word tangentially, I think that she was trying to get past the word, which is a judgment. I think Sontag wasn’t getting past the word, she was interested in the judgment. And that makes for one superior artist and one person who got things wrong.

Is there another slide?

Stephen Michael Best: Oh, yeah, there’s another slide. It’s just the Arbus from…

Hilton Als: Oh, beautiful.

Stephen Michael Best: Yeah. From Untitled, which I think in the first essay you wrote on Arbus, you were reviewing this collection. Here, so the masquerade is, I mean… it’s so interesting the relationship between this photo and the previous one where his revealing of his nakedness isn’t able to hide these essential aspects of his identity. And she’s interested in that conversation he’s having with himself. And in this collection, it seems like masquerade is the way that she’s having…

Hilton Als: Well, she was visiting–by this point, toward the end of her life–she was visiting mental institutions. And this series was taken at Halloween celebrations. And they’re heartbreaking in what she found, which is a kind of stripping away of the self-presentation to just be. She had gone from recording people who wanted her to be part of their narrative and to talk about their narrative to people who didn’t have that kind of consciousness, so therefore didn’t have that kind of self-consciousness. And it was a whole new terrain for her. I believe she wrote beautifully about it, saying, I think I’ve found it. I mean, I’m just paraphrasing, but finding it, meaning. I found the being as being.

They’re amazing pictures.

Stephen Michael Best: So interesting. Yeah. In masquerade she found, right, the lack of self-consciousness. Yeah. Should we take questions?

Hilton Als: Oh, I’m sorry. Oh, yeah. We’ve been mattering way.

Stephen Michael Best: We’ve been at it for an hour. Thank you.

Hilton Als: No , really. Thank you. We won’t keep you because I know it’s California and everyone wants white wine now.

City Arts & Lectures: This question will be to your left.

Hilton Als: Thank you.

Audience Member 1: Hi. It’s been, I guess, over 20 years since you wrote The Women. In the program, it said…

Hilton Als: All right. Rub it in, rub it in. Go ahead.

Audience Member 1: No, no. I meant so much has changed, and I wanted to hear your perspective on negressitude and what it is today.

Hilton Als: That’s a really… I have to unpack the question for the audience, but do you want, do you want to do it?

Audience Member 1: Maybe if I can elaborate…

Hilton Als: Please do.

Audience Member 1: Baldwin and the individual, and you know how maybe you’re deformed almost by rage. And I think about, when you talk about your mother and the anonymous…

Hilton Als: Right, that there was this kind of… that what I was saying, as I remember it, cause I haven’t read it in that many years, but what I was saying was that there was this sort of blanket idea of a black woman, alone, raising children, that she was a Negress in this style and way of long-suffering, black women in films who had accommodated the emotional lives of other people before themselves. It’s very interesting and it goes straight to my heart to think that I was brave enough to say that then. I feel like such a different person, so I wouldn’t… The sort of scientific aura around that word or the ecology of that word, it’s not something that I would use now. But that means that I’ve changed and so then that means that it’s different.

City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the back and center.

Audience Member 2: Hi.

Hilton Als:  I’m sorry, I just want to see you. Can you stand up a little bit? Hi, what’s your name?

Audience Member 2: I’m Harry.

Hilton Als:  Hi, Harry.

Audience Member 2: Hi. I love you. I just want to say right off the bat. But I also love your Instagram and… it’s true. But I like that you interact so often and so well with people that are of my general age group, my generation.

Hilton Als: Rub it in, rub it in.

Audience Member 2: No, no. I mean, I just think they’re so fantastic, and I was wondering what it is about someone Durga Chew-Bose or Tavi Gevinson, those kind of women. Is it that they can’t fit in? Is that that they’ve taken the plunge and they’re…

Hilton Als: Well, they’re just really smart. One of the great…Are you referring to the Instagram pictures at Christmas?

Audience Member 2: No, just generally.

Hilton Als: Oh. A great friend of mine is a great gallerist in New York, and he often goes to Brazil for Christmas. And so he will give me the keys to his beautiful apartment. And one Christmas, Tavi’s first Christmas in– Tavi’s first Christmas–in New York, she put on her pajamas and we stayed there for three days. And Durga came over and Laia Garcia, who is a fashion editor, came over and basically there was just lots of candy because they’re in their twenties. And a lot of discussion really about the ways to make this new woman, i.e. themselves, visible. And it was just one of the most extraordinary holidays I’ve ever had because I realized that they were the sisters that I had longed for, that if my sisters had access to their own power, they would have been these girls.

So to make pumpkin ravioli for Tavi was no skin off my ass while she’s talking about ruling the universe. Right on. I love them. Yeah.

She’s young. She’s spry.

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s in the back.

Audience Member 3: Hi. I was interested in your kind of indictment of Susan Sontag. I’m not gonna go toe-to-toe with you, but I’ve always really appreciated critical writing about art because I think that it has artistic ambitions itself, like maybe poetic ambitions. But you sounded like you indicted that in general if it always came attached to a judgment. And is that, is that right? Because it sounded less of an indictment of Sontag’s words and more of an indictment of judgment of art in general.

Hilton Als: I think that that’s completely brilliant. Are you a student at the University of California at Berkeley?

Audience Member 3: Yeah, but I’m not in Professor Best’s class, and I know they’re here.

Hilton Als: But that’s a brilliant and a subtle perception of what I was trying to say. Of course, she’s done great things. And to go into an analysis of what is interesting about Susan Sontag is her relationship to European men, right?

The things that mattered to her are maleness. And the things that mattered to me are femaleness. So I think my perception of what she was saying is not free of my own prejudice against her European male interests. That’s just one thing. But the second thing is to live in judgment of art that is so clearly trying to push past its own limitations, whether it be a photograph or writing, and to say it’s madness is a judgment. And it feels so… It feels like a frightened heart. It feels like someone who is frightened of going there. And the cost of going there generally is yourself. To give yourself up to that means that you cannot sit in that high chair of judgment at the high tight table with the European guys saying what’s right and wrong in the Canon.

You have to get off that fucking chair. You have to put your sneakers on and fucking hit the streets and do the damn work. You can’t take that away from her. You can not like Arbus. You can disagree with her methods. You can disagree with her life, but you can’t take the work away from her. And that’s what I resent about Sontag’s judgment, not only of photographers, which she kind of refuted at the end of her life, but generally artists who were not in the European Canon. And generally, and if you go through her work, the heaviest criticism is reserved for women, almost always. Because she saw herself and what she couldn’t do herself.

City Arts & Lectures: This question is to your right.

Hilton Als: Listen, her book sales are not gonna suffer because of me…

Audience Member 4: I was really moved by the James Baldwin passage that you made. And I just, for me, it’s a question of being visible and invisible at the same time and how that relates to being a contemporary black male living in San Francisco or anywhere in this country. And you reporting back to how when you went to The New Yorker, how you felt different but the same. So how do you think that relates to people like artists like Kendrick Lamar, or other contemporary black men who are trying to be their own art and live in this world at the same time.

Hilton Als: I have enormous respect for artists who… again, this goes back to pushing the limitations of anything. So someone like Kendrick Lamar is extraordinary, not just because of his writing, but what he’s willing to do with his body. He is, to me, an extraordinary artist because he’s not, like so many of his generation, he’s not a studio rat. So when you watch these guys, and god bless him, but Frank Ocean is the most boring person to watch. Because, compared to that, Kendrick Lamar is giving you something of himself.

It’s not about retaining mystique. It’s about trying to understand what his story is vis-a-vis contemporary society. So I think, to answer your question, those guys are so incredible to me. Flying Lotus, all of these people who are in their twenties and thirties, black–Shabazz Palaces–all of these guys are really writing in a different way.

You know, there’s that wonderful thing Toni Morrison said about the title Invisible Man. She said she didn’t know who he was invisible to. Not to her. That she loved her father and she had grown up with men of color that she saw. And so she never took it for granted in her work that they weren’t powerful people.

And I feel the same when I look at you with your question or Kendrick Lamar or any number of people. The energy and the truth of what you’re looking for is really the story. That’s great. I’m all for it. I’m all for the black male.

City Arts & Lectures: This question is from thefront to your right.

Audience Member 5: Hi, my name is Ryan Austin Dennis. Nice to meet you. I had a question about… You said something about the collective family of blackness and not taking for granted those particular voices. For me, I know you had said you had wrote something about like Kahlil Joseph or… And I kind of want to know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of a black aesthetic that isn’t in response to whiteness. And so people like Kahlil Joseph or like Arthur Jafa and like “Love is the Message, the Message is Death.” And I kind of wanted to hear your take on that and what you think about that work. And also the 1975 film Coonskin.

Hilton Als:  I’ve never seen it.

Audience Member 5: Okay. I really wanted to see what you thought.

Hilton Als: Can you send me a link, as they say?

Audience Member 5:  I could. Okay, I’ll DM you on Instagram.

Hilton Als: This young man is referring to two artists who are doing extraordinary work in video: Kahlil Joseph, who…you can go to YouTube and find some of his things. Flying Lotus is actually one of the first videos he ever made.

This goes back to finding what you need. He was a young person assisting in Sofia Coppola’s company when he would get chances to shoot behind-the-scenes footage for Terrence Malick and all of these directors that he admired. And he started to make his own work influenced by a really great woman that you should know named Melodie McDaniel.

But anyway, he started to make these videos and the subject, it was so profound because it was not done in opposition to a relation to whiteness. It was a black male world where the central figure was the black male. And that his story was his story. No oppositional political force was shaping him.

So he’s a great young artist who’s coming up and please check out his work. There was just a great show in New York. And Arthur Jafa is someone I’ve known for 30 years, and I’m just going to out him now and say he has been the most helpful artist I know to women of color. His support has been so extraordinary, not only to his former wife Julie Dash, but to painters like Ellen Gallagher, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, the writer. He has been a profound feminist. And recently we’ve been texting about an idea for a film. He had read and liked something I wrote about Dionne Warwick, whom I adored as a kid. And the ways in which to go through those subjects with AJ is a learning experience in terms of the profundity and the activism that can happen in making something new. They’re great people and adorable, too.

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the front to your far left.

Audience Member 6: Hi. So earlier you said that you mentioned the question, who are we and what are we going to do about it? And I thought that question was really interesting. And then you mentioned the question, what is — it kind of referenced the question — what is the status quo? And based on the different kind of stories, such as Diane Arbus photographs, and the different stories, even so much in Baldwin’s stories, what is the status quo in your eyes?

Hilton Als: Everything that I’m not. And I don’t mean that in terms of appearance. I mean that in terms of sensitivity of exchange. That every one of us deserves a certain amount of respect because we’re here. And so the status quo I watch often has no sense of who else is in the room. And all that they can really sort of talk about and act upon is that ‘I.’ It’s sort of like watching… I was just in Los Angeles — don’t laugh, Northern Californians– and there would often be business guys at eight in the morning on their phones in an open space that was meant for breakfast and for getting your day together.

And the poor maitre d’ was this woman. And I would say, can you just please put me not near the phones? And it wasn’t that I was, well it was that I was objecting to that they were on the phone. But what was clear was that they had no idea that it was this shared space that when they walked in there, and we know someone in office who has this problem, right? That when you walk into the space claiming it as your own is such a horrifying thing to see that I realized that the status quo sees themselves as that. That they have no awareness of who’s around them, no sensitivity to what a sound is, or what the morning is for another person. They have no template for anyone else’s interiority because, in fact, they have no interiority. They fill it with this noise and this activity. So to me, that would be the status quo. And also their children, who are very badly behaved.

You know, you’ve all sat through that brunch with your friend and you love him and his girlfriend or wife, and the kid is on the floor and throwing French toast. And there are no… there’s no code of behavior to tell people don’t do that. You don’t walk into a room and claim space. There are other people. Look at them, say hello, how are you? And mean it.

It’s just a shocking reversal from what I grew up with anywhere. My mother would’ve thrown these kids in the pool immediately. There was this great…Oh, can I tell you a great story about my mother? So my sister, my eldest sister, who was a hippie and grew up in the ’70s, she had three badly behaved kids in the back of the car, and she was driving. And my mother was in the front seat next to my sister, and my mother said, “Sandra, you have to tell these kids to behave. You have to tell them.” And my sister burst into tears and said, “I’m not going to do that to my children. My children are free. They’re not going to be raised the way I was raised.” And my mother, who was a woman of very few words and great silences, was silent for a moment. And then she said, “Are you in jail? Are you unhappy? Are you hungry?” And she just kind of these basic questions about this woman’s freedom and said, “I did not challenge your freedom. What I did was say, tell those kids to shut the fuck up and behave because I’m in the car with them. I’m with you. We are a part of this community. They have to behave.”

Anyway, she was great for that stuff. You could, you could tell when she was getting irritated cause she had these bangles like West India girls… West Indian girls wear bangles and she would just start playing with them and I was like, uh oh.

Stephen Michael Best: Perhaps we can take one more question.

City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the center.

Audience Member 7: Hi. This is sort of, this is sort of a lowbrow question, but I just have…

Hilton Als: Yes, I love Netflix.

Audience Member 7: Okay, good. I just happened to read in the paper today and the headline said Richard Pryor’s… confirms he was gay.

Hilton Als: No.

Audience Member 7: Okay. Okay. Sorry, wasn’t the language. Confirms he had an affair with Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando, and then Quincy Jones commented and said, yeah, Marlon was so charming. He was such a great dancer and he slept with a radiator, a mailbox, anything, you know.

Hilton Als:  I believe that Richard Pryor’s widow Jennifer said — she’s very funny– she said the drugs were so good in the 70s that Quaaludes were so amazing you’d sleep with a mailbox.

Audience Member 7:  No, Quincy Jones said he’d sleep with a mailbox, but Richard Pryor’s wife said in the 70s the drugs were so good you could sleep with a radiator and send it flowers the next morning.

Hilton Als: That’s it, that’s it.

Audience Member 7: But anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, he said Marlon Brando had affairs with Marvin Gaye, with Richard Pryor, James Baldwin, and I just wondered if you have any comments about all these, you know, black male figures in that day who actually were bisexual?

Hilton Als: I know for a fact that [with] Baldwin, it wasn’t true. It might’ve been something that Baldwin longed for, but friends of his have told me that he’s said, I wish we had, but we hadn’t. Pryor, I have no doubt at all. He had a very longterm relationship with a transsexual person who then had the operation. And when she came back to Pryor, he wasn’t interested.He was… Remember those days when people were really artists and free in every way and open to experience? And that’s what I loved about this quote was that Marlon Brando, Richard Pryor, Marvin Gaye. These are great artists. And that means that there’s great sexual energy and exploration and openness to exploring. I don’t think it made Richard gay. I don’t think it may Brando gay. I think it made them lovers.

Stephen Michael Best: Yeah. I think we should thank…

Hilton Als: Thank you. Thank you all and thanks City Arts. What a great time. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. And Stephen! Thank you very much.

Stephen Michael Best: Hilton has been kind enough to agree to sign books in the lobby. So I think there’s a table in the lobby.

Hilton Als: Thank you.

Stephen Michael Best: Great.