Block Talk – Gil Scott-Heron, 62, dead May 27, 2011
No matter how far wrong you’ve gone You can always turn around By Gil Scott – Heron
There is MUCH TALK on the block of 125th and Lenox today for Harlem icon, Gil Scott-Heron died of an unspecified illness in a NYC hospital. I was surprised to hear of his sudden death. Although he struggled with substance abuse and drug related chronic illness, Gill had been relatively healthy since his parole in 2007.
I don’t deny that I was not a fan of his early work. I don’t recall such anger and bigotry on my block in Spanish Harlem. My parents were inspired by the Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys’ vision of a nation that not only accepted diversity but embraced it as strength. As a teen I listened to Scott-Heron’s music and read the works of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. I remember preferring Hurston’s scholarly approach to the subjects of segregation and the Black struggle to Gil’s. I wondered why, with Gil’s education, why would he settle down on one block rather than explore these subjects outside of Harlem? Dope.
Gil was an educated black man. I didn’t get it. How could he write with such authority when these issues went beyond his Harlem block? He spit words that fueled the anger of young black men who refused to accept a nation of integration yet –
They refused segregation – Who’ll Pay for Reparations on My Soul
My dad couldn’t stand hippies. Dad was a square and a patriot. To him the Hippie culture was not about free love and expression but the justification to act irresponsibly. I couldn’t stand hipsters. My English teacher made me read Kerouac and all of his whiny white-ster friends who, unlike me, were given the opportunity of a higher education. They bitched and whined in their coffee houses; rambling prose after prose, while my dad drove his Goya truck 15 hours every day to deliver the espresso that filled their cups.
Neither Dad nor I could stand the angry Harlem rhetoric. You were either of the tribe of Malcolm X, or of Martin Luther King. How could Dad safely raise his two blonde Puerto Rican girls in Spanish Harlem when the angry rhetoric from block 125th was making its way up to 144th? He got out us out of there.
They refused peaceful demonstrations – I don’t know if riots is wrong
Gil and I shared a love for Harlem and spoken word. His early works taught me that content matters. The message of a visual art piece can remain a mystery but with words – content and context matters. I decided early in my life that my mind and spirit were fragile. I may read such dark and violent works and appreciate their technique, but I would not adopt its content into my soul.
Yet, the block is never far away. I heard of Gil’s continued struggle with drugs and failed relationships, which resulted from drug-hazed domestic violence episodes. He suffered chronic illness from years of substance abuse. He was surrounded by people who tapped his genius for their artistic and financial gain. In 2006, I heard rumors that he was worse than he had ever been. He was set up by an ex-girlfriend who left Harlem for this area of North Carolina. In 2008, I read that since that he completed his recent sentence and parole, he had more to say. But I was cynical. I remembered the woman I met and wondered why she was so moved by his work and dysfunctional love.
Although I successfully assimilated into Southern white culture, I began to re-read and listen to Gil’s early Harlem works. They are part of the trail from which I came after all. I discovered that if the only view of your world is that very block where the buildings tower and block out the sun, street lights dim out the stars, and the constant noise prohibits stillness, then perhaps the only perspective Gil had was the reality in front of him. His reality at the time was dope, hookers, violence, and hatred. Unlike me, Gil didn’t have the gift of grabbing his journal and sitting by the Haw River all day just to be quiet and remember how far Harlem’s people have come.
But while imprisoned, Gil Scott–Heron received a gift that helped him gain new perspective – stillness. He gained important isolation and time to reflect on the things he experienced, said, and done. The younger GSH spoke of home being a place where hatred is, and the new one revisited the song with not only a remix but also an important memoir and tribute to the grandmother who raised him.
I loved her from the absolute marrow of my bones – On Coming from a Broken Home
Gil was a masterful architect of prose and flow. His most recent work, “I’m New Here” rekindled his fledgling music career. Although it had been sixteen years since his last collection of new poems / songs, I purchased this immediately to see where he was at. We both had grown older. I read The Alchemist for crying out loud; surely he’d grown up some, too.
Weren’t we both finding our rightful place in and out of Harlem?
And there it was pumping in my ears, songs of reflection, angst from a love he lost, sincere family struggles, and the Harlem we still see from different eyes.
I’m sad that he’s gone before the next project is finished. Yet I am grateful that he left us with a collection of works that chronicles the true struggles of a dysfunctional man, as only he could tell it.