A Conversation with Nelson George
Urban Romance is more than the title of Nelson George’s 1995 debut novel; it’s his personal subgenre, a metatag for the bulk of his output over three decades as a music critic, author, film and television producer, pop-cult pundit and general Delphic oracle for the post-soul generation. The brother loves the city—referring specifically of course to his native New York but beyond that to the very concept of the cosmopolis in general—and its bustling energy animates his writing. From his eyewitness reportage of the budding NYC hip-hop scene in the early 1980s to his chronicle of the development of the Motown hit factory and the industrial Detroit landscape that spawned it to his exploration of the black music legacy of various US municipalities on the TV travelogue Soul Cities, the influence of the American urbis on contemporary African-American culture—and vice versa—remains a dominant motif in his oeuvre.
More specifically, George is fascinated by the symbiotic relationship between the city and black men; the ways I which the expressive style—the swagger, if you will—of the urban American negro has transformed popular culture at large in the areas of music, sports, film and fashion, and the extent to which the peculiar demands of life in the city contribute to the cultivation of this style. George’s latest book, City Kid: A Writer’s Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success functions as a secret origin of his interest in these themes, refracting them through the prism of his experience growing up in New York in the sixties through his emergence as a prolific writer during the “New Black Aesthetic” artistic renaissance of the 1980s that also produced Spike Lee, Branford Marsalis, The Hudlin Brothers, Carl Hancock Rux, Chris Rock, Lorna Simpson and Bill T. Jones.
About his use of the personal narrative, George jokes “I’ve written a couple of books; some have done pretty well and others have done not as well but they always seem to do better when I say ‘I’ a lot in them.” George’s choice of idiom places him in good company; the urban black male coming-of-age memoir is a time-honored genre, defined by literary classics such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land and Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall, cinematic highlights like Boyz N the Hood, and more 1990s gangsta rap morality plays than you could shake a chicken wing at.
Traditionally, the urban black male memoir has taken the form of the social problem novel… because traditionally, the very existence of the urban black male has been regarded as a social problem. Its standard arc focuses on the city’s tendency to stunt human potential, painting it as the belly of the beast that incubates all manner of black pathology (which is lovingly illustrated in fetishistic detail). George deviates from the script in his view of the city not as a place of pathos but of possibility, where people can become whatever and whoever they desire if only they want it hard it enough. But he doesn’t shy away from showing how these avenues of opportunity can be abused, leading to the kinds of social problems that have become associated with urban black America.
Like too many contemporary urban black men, Nelson George grew up in a home headed by a single mother and in his mind, his father was stolen away by the city. Just as George was motivated to become a writer by his desire to rise above his humble station in life, his father too was driven by the need to be someone other than who he was; as a player on the streets, George Sr. led a series of distinct lives in various New York neighborhoods, contriving new identities to be everything from a civil servant to a low-level drug dealer.
Initially bitter about his father’s dereliction, George recounts gaining perspective when an older black man explained to him the intense allure of the big city to men of his father’s generation who grew up under the strictures of small town life in the South:
“You gotta understand your father probably never felt free a day in his life until he got to New York. … When men started moving up North to the bigger cities, it was the first time they could actually be alone. You walk two blocks in New York and no one knows your name, or who your father or mother was, and no one gave a damn really either way unless you could do something for them.”
And here we find one of the enduring paradoxes of the city for black men: As a free zone that ‘s largely devoid of the judgments and responsibilities inherent to smaller communities, a man can swim against the current, define himself by his own terms and maybe make more of himself than he could aspire to anywhere else. But without those same judgments and responsibilities, too much freedom to be whatever he wants could make a man lose focus of what is supposed to be.
Finding the balance between the two extremes is perhaps what being a man is really all about.