The Knowledge Dynasty

From the attic to the Smithsonian: black history museum is full of ‘found’ items

When the National Museum of African and African American History and Culture opens in September it will house more than 35,000 artifacts, many of which were donated from the public or found in attics, basements and closets.

One morning in 2009, Lonnie G Bunch III took a phone call from Philadelphia historian Charles Leroy Blockson. Blockson is a well-known collector of African American literature, his Afro-American collection at Temple University, set up in the 1980s, houses 500,000 books, texts and other artifacts items the 82-year-old has accumulated over decades. He had called Bunch to let him know he had rare items that belonged to Harriet Tubman that he wanted to donate to the new Smithsonian museum, the last to be built on the National Mall.

I was convinced that that just wasnt true, recalls Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonians National Museum of African and African American History and Culture. I had been to her house in Mount Auburn, New York, and there were two artifacts.

Bunch headed north thinking hed get only a Philly cheesesteak out of the trip. But when the two met at Temple University, Blockson reached into a small box, and pulled out photographs of Tubmans funeral that Bunch had never seen. That got his attention. Then came a homemade knife and fork Tubman used to eat her meals. Finally, Blockson removed two items that caused a lump to form in Bunchs throat and left tears in his eyes. First was the silk shawl that Queen Victoria gave to Tubman 1897 as an invitation to the Diamond Jubilee.The second was Tubmans hymnal, a powerful reminder that even though she couldnt read, she kept close to her heart the songs that not only moved her spirit, but also helped guide slaves toward the northern US and Canada toward freedom.

An exhibit on black feminism at the Smithsonian National Museum African American History and Culture in Washington. Photograph: Jason Hornick

We were both crying, says Bunch. Then he said: Your museum is a place where the public can remember and learn, so I want to give these to you. His generosity was emblematic of the kind of generosity that we hit over and over again in this country.

When the National Museum of African and African American History and Culture opens on 24 September, visitors will see thousands of artifacts organized across more than a dozen exhibits. But those items represent 10 years of work by museum curators scouring the US, searching attics, basements and boxes, receiving some donations from people like Blockson, while reassuring countless others that the items they have stored in closets for years will be preserved by the Smithsonian and, eventually, become parts of a public story about the history of black America.

We have to talk about how our closet is a different type of closet, and what it means moving something from a familys legacy to a nations legacy, says Michle Gates Moresi, curator of collections at the NMAAHC.

Bunch was no novice to the worlds of scholarship and museum administration when he became founding director of the NMAAHC in 2004. He had been president of the Chicago Historical Society, and before then he had already spent a decade as a curator and administrator in the Smithsonians National Museum of American History. When Bunch started, he had three staffers, including himself and Moresi, who came on as a junior curator in 2006. He had to raise $250m on his own, a sum that would be matched by congressional appropriations. There were no benefactors, no collections and no funds to buy anything. And he was now tasked with finding the artifacts to fill 380,000 square feet of space.

A growing museum staff of curators began contacting collectors, confident that some of them would have items that were a fit for the new museum. Other collectors reached out to museum staff themselves, which is how the NMAAHC ended up with its black fashion collection. The clothing was donated by Joyce A Bailey, whose mother, Lois Alexander-Lane, had founded the Black Fashion Museum in New York City.

The best place for the collection was the new museum, Bailey says. It needed to be some place where it would be cared for properly and where other people would be able to come and see portions of the collection and realize the centuries of contributions made by the women and men of the African diaspora.

Among the items donated from Bailey was the dress Rosa Parks was making when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Getting items like this made the overall task of filling out future museum exhibits easier. But Bunch knew that more of the artifacts for the NMAAHC would come from people who werent diehard collectors.

Rosa Parks riding on the Montgomery Area Transit System bus. Photograph: AP

Early in my career I remember doing collecting and people saying I dont have anything, Bunch says. Then you look in the trunk and theres great stuff. Our belief was there were a lot of people who were waiting to open those trunks.

So the museum put out a nationwide call in 2008 to let people know they were looking for contributions. Bunch and his curators hit the road, holding a series of treasures events in New York, Chicago, Detroit and about 10 other cities. Sometimes people came with donations, but it was more often the case that the connections made at an event would turn into a donation opportunity later on, and a chance for NMAAHC staff to explain what the Smithsonian could provide when it came to protecting items that, in some cases, werent only pieces of a collective black history, but also important articles of individual families histories.

I didnt realize it at the time, but my mom was a pioneer, says Donna Limerick, who had met Moresi and gotten her contact information at one of the early treasures events.

Limericks mother is 103-year-old Mae Reeves, a longtime Philadelphia milliner who owned two ladies hat shops. Reeves opened her first hat shop in 1944, and made choice hats of velvet, feathers, and ribbons for some of the most prominent female singers of the 20th century, including Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Marian Anderson. When she retired from hat-making in 2003, her last remaining store lay dormant until 2009, when the roof began leaking. Thats when Limerick finally gave Moresi a call.

Michle said: Donna, Ive been waiting to hear from you, Limerick says. Once the museum got involved I didnt think of it as my moms hats. What shes given to the museum is a lost art form.

Museum curators found artifacts in other ways as well.

As a college student, Joan Mulholland had attended sit-ins and Freedom Rides organized by fellow undergraduates during the civil rights movement. She was 22 when she and several friends drove to Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963, just days after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church that killed four young black girls. On the ground were shards from the churchs glass windows that had been blasted apart by the explosion. Mulholland picked up as many as she could carry, and kept them in a box of her own artifacts from the civil rights movement.

Shards of glass from the 16th street Baptist church bombing will be included in the collection. Photograph: AP

Then, six years ago at the 50th anniversary conference commemorating the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she met a pair of curators from the new Smithsonian museum. Mulholland invited them to her house in Virginia to not only see the glass shards, but also the other relics from the civil rights era she had kept, such as notices of student protest rallies and posters the Ku Klux Klan had posted around her college town of Tupelo, Mississippi. Then she donated virtually all of her items to the new museum.

I still have some shards, says Mulholland, who will be 75 when the NMAAHC opens. But I wanted to make sure the civil rights things were in a place where they were preserved. Most of my archival stuff went to the museum.

For collectors like Blockson, donating items seemed to be a higher calling. His personal history is interwoven with Tubmans. Tracing his genealogy, Blockson discovered that his great-grandfathers first wife was related to Ben Ross, Tubmans father. His own ancestors escaped slavery from southern Delaware via the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad gets the imagination of people from nine to 90, he says. It had everything: intrigue, murder, brotherhood and sisterhood, geography, hope.

This explains why Tubmans great-great-niece, Meriline Wilkins, gave Tubmans shawl and hymnal to Blockson before she died in 2008. It was divine providence that I received it, that I of all people would inherit it, says Blockson. I knew the perfect place would be the new national African American museum.

Bunch and his curators have collected roughly 37,000 artifacts since they began canvassing the US in 2008; more than 20,000 are photographs. About 3,000 items will be on display inside the NMAAHC when it opens, with another 4,000 to be rotated in over time. The rest will be available to researchers for scholarship, as well as on loan to other museums around the country.

With thousands of artifacts safely stored, Bunch has overcome his greatest fear of these past 10 years: that he would succeed in raising the money he needed to, but would never have enough artifacts to fill the new National Museum of African and African American History and Culture.

You as a leader, you have a dream, and you have ideas of how to get to that dream. But youre never really sure until you see how the public responds, says Bunch. To see people open their doors, open their trunks, open their attics was humbling, and in some ways made me very tearful.

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GOP mega-donor funds group calling pro-Palestine US students ‘Jew haters’

Sheldon Adelson-funded posters named students and professors at a college campus, saying they have allied themselves with Palestinian terrorists.

Sheldon Adelson, the Nevada casino mogul and conservative mega-donor, is leading a campaign against pro-Palestine groups on US college campuses and has funded posters that accuse individual students of supporting terrorism and promoting Jew Hatred.

The multimillion-dollar effort, which has launched at six campuses in California, is targeting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that has become increasingly popular among American university students protesting the Israeli government.

At the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), recent Adelson-funded posters named 16 students and professors, saying they have allied themselves with Palestinian terrorists to perpetuate BDS and Jew Hatred on this campus. It further claimed BDS was a Hamas-inspired genocidal campaign to destroy Israel.

Robert Gardner, a 25-year-old UCLA senior, saw his name on one of the posters outside a grocery market. I was really shocked and felt really disturbed, he said.

They are trying to cast us as antisemitic, that we are somehow a discriminatory group, said the political science student, who is a member of the colleges Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization. That is a completely spurious accusation. One of our core principles is anti-oppression and anti-racism.

Tensions surrounding Israel-Palestine campus activism have escalated in recent years, but SJP leaders said the posters identifying specific students were particularly aggressive and had led some of them to face online harassment and death threats.

The UCLA poster accusing students and professors of Jew Hatred. Photograph: Handout

Adelson who has poured money into Republican campaigns and last year purchased Nevadas largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal recently launched the so-called Maccabee Task Force to combat the BDS Movement through education and meaningful conversation about Israel truths.

The billionaire gambling magnate, who has reportedly supported Donald Trump, helped inject the conflict into the US presidential race.

While Adelson and his new task force have focused on building support for Israel through social media campaigns, partnerships with student groups and subsidized trips to Israel, the tactic of calling out students on public posters and linking them to terrorism has earned widespread condemnation.

This definitely felt like a more direct escalation, said Omar Zahzah, a 28-year-old graduate student at UCLA who was also named in the recent posters. It wasnt just slandering SJP anymore. It was attacking specific individuals.

Zahzah, a comparative literature student, who is Palestinian, added: Its easy to joke about and dismiss. But at the end of the day, its still pretty intimidating, which is the point.

The UCLA posters included the hashtag #StopTheJewHatredOnCampus and linked to the website of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative Los Angeles-based group that has repeatedly been accused of promoting Islamophobia.

David Brog, executive director of the Maccabee Task Force, said in a statement to the Guardian that the group had approved a modest grant to the Horowitz Freedom Center to focus on the true nature of pro-BDS organizations, but we did not ask for or approve the poster campaign that targeted student activists, and were not aware that our money had been used to support it. It should not have been.

The Maccabee Task Force does not believe that focusing on student activists who conduct themselves civilly is an appropriate or effective way to combat the BDS movement on campus, Brog added.

A spokesman declined to disclose the size of the grant but said the Maccabee Task Force plans to expand to 20 additional college campuses this fall.

The Horowitz center and representatives for Adelson did not respond to inquiries on Monday. Horowitz, however, defended the posters in an interview with the Los Angeles Times and said he planned to produce similar ones at other campuses.

SJP and BDS activists have repeatedly argued that their efforts are not antisemitic and that they are simply calling for Israel to be boycotted due to its continued occupation of Palestinian territories.

In recent months, some Black Lives Matter activists have aligned themselves with pro-Palestine groups, which has intensified the campaigns against the BDS movement.

Robin Kelley, a UCLA history professor who was named on the Horowitz poster, said there were many Jewish students who support SJP. He also noted this was not the first time critics had gone after SJP students in a harassing and threatening manner.

Still, he said, for some of them, it was devastating and traumatizing.

To try to destroy a young persons life because you disagree with their politics is reprehensible, said Kelley, who is a member of the advisory board for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. It can affect their job prospects, their future These kids dont have the capacity to destroy Sheldon Adelsons life.

  • An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of David Brog

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After the party: Rio wakes up to an Olympic hangover

When Brazil won the Olympics in 2009, its future looked bright. Seven years on, as the Games come to a close, Rio’s residents are counting the costs.

The Olympic Games arecoming to a close, having demonstrated once again that Rio de Janeiro knows how to organise and promote big events. But after theparty, and the billions spent to show the world that we deserve a place among the great democracies, comes the hangover; thebills begin to arrive, and we have noway to pay. As the festive air and thetourism subside, and with the Paralympics due to start in a matter ofweeks, the old problems remain.

It is now that the residents of Rio deJaneiro begin to wonder: what will the legacy be? As we present ourselves to the world, have we revealed our faults? Or has the power of our cultural creativity come to the fore? Therein lies the contradiction of Rio: the combination of beauty and poverty, hedonism and inequality, a carnival atmosphere and bloody violence.

Hosting the Olympics in Rio was the latest effort an extreme, titanic one to impose the ideal version of Rio over the complexities and contradictions of real Rio. In real Rio, the state government does not have enough money to keep police vehicles on the roads. Police stations are running out of paper. Hospitals are in a precarious situation. State universities are on strike: so far they have not received a penny towards the costs of the current academic year. Thestates 500,000 public servants havereceived their salaries late. Building work has been interrupted. Unemployment is increasing. Social andeconomic inequalities have become more pronounced. Just before the Olympics, Rio state declared a state ofemergency, shifting all these problems on to the shoulders of the federal government which handed it almost abillion dollars to prevent chaos duringthe Olympics. But Rios anxious population is already wondering not so much how the Gameshave gone as what will happen afterwards?

Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, has done everything to try to stop a parliamentary inquiry commission being opened in the municipal chamber to investigate spending on theOlympics. Of the original promises made by Paes for the Games legacy, mainly involving investment in urban mobility and the reduction of pollution, barely half have been met on time. The Games proposed budget of $13bn was exceeded along time ago but a lack oftransparency over the real costs has fuelled suspicions of corruption. And there is more: in the weeks leading up tothe Games, the mayor was still racing to complete the building programme. Other pledged projects will be left in the in-tray of his successor, to be elected in municipal elections in October. The newly laid asphalt on main roads has already started to fail; on 21 April, a section of cycle path on Avenida Niemyer, along Rios waterfront, collapsed weeks after it was opened, killing two people. Public confidence in City Hall, already low, plummeted further. Today, 57% of Rios population do not trust the mayor.

A mural by Eduardo Kobra depicting an indigenous Brazilian. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

All this is without even factoring in the Zika epidemic, thankfully now less virulent during these cooler winter months. Although not Rio residents most immediate concern, it casts an ever-present shadow, especially given the risk of infected pregnant women passing the virus on to their children, with potentially devastating consequences. Zika started to spread through Brazil in April 2015. From the start of this year up to 28 May, 161,241 probable cases of the virus were registered; of these, 46,027 were in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

For anyone who has lived through Brazils progress over the last two decades, this is a shocking situation. When, on 2 October 2009, Brazil and Rio de Janeiro won the bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games, they did so in the glow of economic success. The enthusiasm of the then president, Luiz Incio Lula da Silva, was contagious: Now is our time! Its here! Of the worlds 10 largest economies, Brazil is the only country that has not hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This will be an unrivalled opportunity for us. It will boost the self-esteem of Brazilians; it will consolidate recent victories; it will stimulate new progress.

In Rio de Janeiro, tens of thousands of people partied on Copacabana beach in the wake of the decision. There seemed plenty of reasons to celebrate. In 2011, Brazil earned its best rating in the Gini inequality index since 1960, the year the index was introduced. Brazil had benefited greatly from a boom in the value of Brazilian exports soy, iron ore, sugar cane and more during this time, and economic growth during the governments of the Workers party president, known as Lula, was accompanied by successful social policies such as the Bolsa Famlia programme, which topped up the income of the poorest families so long as children andadolescents were in school. Other important initiatives included an increase in the minimum wage, and the introduction of policies against racism and the exclusionary effects of poverty.

In 1993, 23% of the Brazilian population lived in extreme poverty, meaning that their income was insufficient forthe minimum number of calories required for healthy survival. By 2009, this figure had fallen to 8.4% still unacceptable, of course, but a dramatic reduction nonetheless. The period from 2003 to 2011 saw 39.6 million Brazilians join the ranks of the so-called new middle class.

But during this time, Brazil also got lucky. In 2006, before the end of Lulas first term in office, the government-owned oil company Petrobras announced the discovery of an oil reserve off the Brazilian coast some 800km long and 200km wide, a substantial chunk of which lies alongside the state of Rio de Janeiro. In the 1990s, Petrobras had been an ailing institution; suddenly, its net profit soared, from $2bn in 2002, to $19bn in 2008. The news of this discovery of one of the worlds biggest reserves of black gold gave Brazilians further optimism: things seemed blessed and glorious. Brazil, and Rio inparticular, had not felt such self-confidence since the late 50s and early 60s. This, of course had been the era ofaccelerated industrialisation, the countrys first football World Cup victory and the construction of Braslia, the new capital and temple of modernist architecture; the age of bossa nova, of Tom Jobim and Joo Gilberto, of Cinema Novo and the great film director Glauber Rocha; of groundbreaking theatre and literature, of socialist dreams. A golden age, violently ruptured by the civil-military coup of 1964, which installed aregime that endured for two decades. Now, in the 2000s, it seemed to many as though that golden age might be reborn.

Children play on a podium erected in front of the Olympic rings. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Rios culture, after all, had never stopped bubbling with variety and vitality. Music continues to be a strong influence, from sophisticated rock shows to funk dance parties in the favelas. More than a million people went to see the Rolling Stones on the beach at Copacabana, and three million take samba to the streets during the four days of the annual carnival.

This organic connection between artand everyday life, the rhythm that pulses in the favelas and appears in more sophisticated visual art, does not occur by accident. It is the product of the most important cultural project ofBrazil, which started in Rio, where itfound fertile ground. Tropiclia began in 1967 with Hlio Oiticica and moved into the music of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. A 1967 exhibition of Oiticicas work at Rios museum of modern art, entitled Tropiclia, included the sound and movement ofmusicians and dancers from the favela of Mangueira. By then, though, Brazil was a military dictatorship, andthe idea of black and poor people dancing samba was not accepted by thedirectors of the museum. Oiticica resolved the question by moving into the street with the musicians and dancers. This performance made apermanent mark on the Brazilian imagination; it has served as touchstone and inspiration for generations of artists ever since. In Rio, cultural explosion has always been a form of democratic resistance to racism and inequality.

But the economic boom promised by the discovery of oil was not to materialise. Deep-water oil exploration requires heavy investment in technology and equipment investment that led to excessive debt. Then, in late 2014, the price of oil collapsed and, with the dollar rising to 3.50 reais, the cheap money dried up. In desperation, the government of Dilma Rousseff, Lulas successor, artificially controlled the price of oil to combat inflation, caused by weak fiscal policy and the extraordinary costs of subsidised loans to entrepreneurs selected by arbitrary criteria. The operation cost Petrobras $34bn dollars. Approximately the sameamount was lost by the company through the devaluation of the currency.

The damage done by the halting of construction work on new refineries came to almost $46bn. Another $2bn isestimated to have been leached away in corruption involving members of the federal government, state and municipal governors, and almost 200federal members of congress and senators from across almost all parties. This, the greatest scandal in the history of the Brazilian republic, is still being investigated by the Public Prosecutors Office and the federal police. Its repercussions have been unprecedented. Along with the economic crisis and the governments consequent deep unpopularity, the scandal created the conditions for the impeachment of President Rousseff, still ongoing in the federal senate. Today, Petrobrass debt stands at around $100bn. It is now predicted that production in 2020 will be no more than 2.8m barrels per day.

The optimism of the mid-2000s is now a distant memory particularly in the state of Rio de Janeiro, whose economic expectations are so heavily dependent on oil. Rio has ended up avictim of the so-called oil curse, the paradox of those countries which, despite an abundance of oil reserves, end up with less economic stability, less democracy and worse development than countries without oil. In the wake of the fiscal crisis, the economic depression and the collapse of the state came the social effects: the decrease in the already precarious quality of public services dramatically impacting on healthcare, as the Zika epidemic has sohorrifyingly shown mirrored by increases in unemployment and violence. In February this year, unemployment in Rio had reached 8.2%: serious, although not yet a catastrophe. But after the Olympics and Paralympics, the situation is expected to deteriorate.

There are other worrying trends. In2015, there were 1,202 homicides in thecity and 310 deaths resulting from police action. The first three months of 2016 saw a further 328 homicides and 76 deaths resulting from police action. The two state police forces in the city of Rio, the military (responsible for patrols) and the civil (which carries out investigations), are among the most violent in the world; they also cause the most fatalities. Between 2003 and 2015, 11,343 people were killed by police in the state of Rio, mainly by military police. The overwhelming majority ofvictims are young, black and poor. Investigations, when they do take place, are generally inconclusive. In other words, extrajudicial executions are indirectly authorised bygovernments, institutions and the population itself, with people widely believing that the killings will reduce crime. Yet in the first seven months of 2016, 60 police officers were also killed. Despite the declaration in 1988 of Brazils first truly democratic constitution, committed to human rights and the rejection ofracism, Brazils authoritarian tradition is alive and kicking especially as far as concerns worker exploitation, the selective administration of justice, and the lack of public services and support for the most vulnerable slums and theirperipheries.

A teenager flies a kite past more murals depicting the rings. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

Rio de Janeiro is a traditionally progressive and iconoclastic city, sceptical of establishment interests and critical of power. Now it is more divided than ever, lacking direction and leadership. The masses find consolation in Pentecostal religious fever, now vying with Catholicism for hegemony. This marvellous picture-postcard city, celebrated in poetry and prose as the paradise of tropical hedonism, of beauty, of sensuality, is beginning to button up itscollar and dress demurely. For many people, Sunday is no longer a day for partying and the beach; its new missionary mood, chaste and abstemious, is taking over squares, Bibles under arms and proselytism in hearts and voices.

Paes greatest error in planning the Olympics was arguably to privilege business and, in doing so, turn a deaf ear to society. Instead of introducing public policies for housing, hospitals, transport and schools in the poorer areas, the mayor has invested in the citys more prosperous western zone, providing further incentives for people to move from the already underpopulated central and northern areas.

Territorial expansion, when there is a lack of resources to provide adequate infrastructure, ends up creating pockets of misery. There have been violent forced displacements, in order to build sports arenas whose maintenance cannot be guaranteed by the public administration and which private interests will have no desire to take on.

Despite all this, the Rio Olympics have been a success. What worries me and many residents is what happensthe day after they finish. In ashort while the Olympic Games will be memory, but they will last for us, who live in Rio, as a major object of political dispute and a challenge for thefuture. Rio de Janeiro is good incredible at the spectacular. Our problem is the everyday.

Translation Lucy Greaves and David Linger. Rio de Janeiro: Extreme City by Luiz Eduardo Soares is published by Penguin.

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Greg Tate: the flyboy goes back to the future

From Michael Jacksons nose to the righteousness of Jan-Michel Basquiat, Tate has been analysing culture for over 30 mind-expanding years. He talks philosophy, Afrofuturism, and how black artists defy boundaries.

In his 1987 Village Voice essay I’m White! What’s Wrong with Michael Jackson, Greg Tate wrote there was proof that God dont like ugly since the title of Michaels new LP, Bad accurately describes the contents in standard English. The searing critique was not just about the music, but about Jacksons new appearance, unveiled on the albums cover and in the Martin Scorsese-directed video. There was Jackson with a narrow pointy nose and pale skin, a look Tate unforgettably described as decolorized flesh a buppy version of Dorian Gray, a blaxploitation nightmare that offers this moral: stop, the face you save may be your own.

Still, as much as he disliked Bad for being as songless as Thriller is songful, Tates essay is also a backhanded love letter to what is still the bestselling album of all time. No amount of disgust for Jacksons even newer face (cleft in the chin) takes anything away from Thriller, Tate wrote. Thriller is a record that doesnt even know how to stop giving pleasure.

Tate and Jackson were the same age, and in 1987 the critic as adept at exploring the black experience in America in an essay as Jackson was at exploring it in a song had recently been hired as a staff writer for the Voice by legendary rock critic Robert Christgau after contributing for a few years. Digging into our black nationalist bag, as he put it, Tate wrote angrily about Jackson, but not without the sympathy of context: Jackson emerges a casualty of Americas ongoing race war another Negro gone mad because his mirror reports that his face does not conform to the Nordic ideal.

Michael Jackson in his Bad years: A buppy version of Dorian Gray. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

Two decades later, a few years after leaving the Voice as a staff writer, Tate returned to write The Man in Our Mirror, the definitive Michael Jackson obituary. The absolute irony of all the jokes and speculation about Michael trying to turn into a European woman is that after James Brown, his music (and his dancing) represent the epitome one of the mightiest peaks of what we call black music, Tate declared. Anyone whose racial-litmus-test challenge to Michael came with a rhythm-and-blues battle royale event would have gotten their ass royally waxed.

This masterful essay is anthologized in Tates new book Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader, a collection of Tates writings on black artists from John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix to Spike Lee and Kara Walker. In it, Tate reflects not just the breadth and depth of his range, but also the richness of his dialogue with fellow black writers. During his tenure at the Voice, the likes of Thulani Davis, Stanley Crouch, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hilton Als, Joan Morgan and Nelson George passed through, and he writes in the introduction that the Voice meant I could be me, be free and not what somebodys style manual said I had to be.

The title of Tates first book, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America, is a playful ode to Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose ability to foreground black people in a world which wants to erase them made his work not just ingenious, but righteous and profound. Tate briefly met Basquiat just one time in person, when legendary graffiti artist and hip-hop prime mover Fab Five Freddy invited me to a party over at his house in the mid-80s.

Jean-Michel Basquiat painting in 1983. Photograph: Lee Jaffe/Getty Images

Tate meets me in a coffee shop in New Yorks West Village, colorfully dressed a straw hat, salmon shirt and shorts, and bright yellow shoes. Carrying a guitar and equipment for a gig later that day with his band Burnt Sugar Archestra, his broad smile and warm eyes make him seem like a youngin who just first fell in love with the Village, as he did in the 1980s after going to Howard.

Tates first story for the Voice as a freelancer was about jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. His first cover was about Nigerian singer King Sunny Ad. Right from the start his prose was entirely free of cliches. Even now, Tate is constantly forming new idiomatic expressions which are perplexing in their ability to be simultaneously original and yet feel as familiar as something your auntie might have told you as a child.

For instance, Tate writes of Outkast that hip-hop is now the Kmart of the American id, where our dark and unconscious shit turns into shinola [and] we need its democratic ideals to be messy. He described Andre 3000 as latest link in a lengthy chain of supersoulful African American eccentrics stretching from Charley Patton and Jelly Roll Morton to Andres guiding light in eclectic negritude, Prince. All folk who wielded weirdness like a scalpel, albeit one that carves order out of the cosmic slop of their free-associative funky imaginations.

Andre 3000 in 2004: Eclectic negritude. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/AP

Our talk turns to philosophy and the book Nomadology: the War Machine by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari comes up, which Tate admired for its sense of cultural solidarity expressed without necessarily being dependent upon property or a standing army, of understanding that ones sense of power is being able to improvise existence with whatever is at hand. But Tates real philosophical influences were jazz musicians, black female literary writers (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Thulani Davis, Ai and Ntozake Shange) and a number of black male writers who were working in experimental fiction and poetry (Ishmael Reed, Clarence Major, Charles Wright, Calvin Hernton).

There were all these artists working in interdisciplinary ways, Tate tells me, making a link between an experimental black literature and experimental black music [like] Miles Davis and Art Ensemble of Chicago. These figures, Tate says, helped to foster the whole notion of being a black artist as being a person without boundaries, being a person who was making these connections between politics and metaphysics.

Interviewed in the 1992 essay Black to the Future in which Mark Dery coins the term Afrofuturism (a way of thinking about race as a technology in relation to culture, science and metaphysics), Tate is seen as a godfather of that school of black thought. But while he is deeply interested in how Afrofuturism and its converse, Afropessimism, reveal the precarious position of blackness within western society and the recurring sense of danger mediated by a will to progress, he finds the term Afrofuturism a little corny.

The choreographer Bill T Jones, another artist Tate examines. Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian

My comrade in arms, [cinematographer] Arthur Jafa, we always thought of black science fiction, he explains. The thing was, when we said it, it didnt just reference literature or films. It was just life. We would just be walking around the streets in Washington, and wed see things and say: Now, thats black science fiction right there.

The fact that Flyboy 2 is published by the academic Duke University Press reflects how black popular culture studies are being taken seriously in the academy, and how blackademic professors such as Brittany Cooper and Marc Lamont Hill can write about Prince, presidential politics or prisons alike. Black writers who flow between these subjects owe a debt to oldhead Tate, who has been making black prose philosophically portable between different spheres long before black Twitter did.

Indeed, from his early music reviews in the 80s to his essay Top 10 Reasons Why So Few Black Folk Were Down to Occupy Wall Street Plus Four More, Tate has helped foster a shift in how blackness is seen in the world. Hes also been asserting for decades that Our Black lives, creative acts, political plots, and trans-African legacies been mattering here for a good long while in every domain.

Kara Walker: a universe of black magic. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

While philosophy is explored in essays on visual artists (Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker), choreographers (Bill T Jones), comics (Richard Pryor) and musical artists (Bjrk, Azealia, Miles, Gil and Michael), Tates existential exploration really lies in the deployment of his language and vernacular. His linguistic phrasing is relentlessly his own, delightfully challenging readers to think in new ways. And his language choices are inclined, as he puts it, to incite a riot among those copydesks and style-book fetishists who pretend that lowercasing Black is sensible and not white-power jockeying taken to the grammatical level.

But though he is associated with jazz, soul and all things Black, there is nothing remotely limited in the scope of his new book. Race, generally equated with politics, is really in the American context a branch of metaphysics, aesthetics, and anthropology, he writes in his introduction, representing a far broader body of concerns where you can readily leapfrog between sex, death, religion, criminality, linguistics, music, genetics, athletics, fashion, medicine, you name it, in the name of African liberation and self- determination. Whether you are new to his work or a longtime reader, the universe of Black magic lovingly curated in Flyboy 2 will do your soul good.

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No Man’s Sky is Elite for the 21st century. Pointless? Maybe but also sublime

Critics of No Man’s Sky tend to see games as entertainment products, while fans of this eccentric space exploration sim view it as an experience.

When I was 13 I took the game Elite very seriously. The seminal space exploration and trading simulation, which presented the player with a ship and a vast galaxy and then left everything else up to them, was an utterly crucial piece of escapism for me. I had a cardboard overlay that I put on my Commodore 64 keyboard, which showed all the functions of the various buttons in the game; I saved up and bought a Quickshot II joystick because it looked a bit like something you might see on a flight deck in Star Wars. I cleared my desk of action figures, toys and comics so that it felt like a serious space ship. I turned the lights off in the little dining area where we kept our computer, so that I wasnt distracted by all the domestic detritus of the kitchen. I pretended the hum of the fridge freezer was my life support system.

Then I played.

I grew up in Cheadle Hulme, near Stockport in Greater Manchester. This was 1984, and it was proper grim. I lived in a very respectable middle-class area, but the national news was all Cold War nuclear paranoia, while the local media agenda was dominated by the mass closures of local heavy industries. There was unemployment and unrest; the world was unfathomable. So I spent great chunks of my time in space, in Elites second galaxy (the game had eight), trading between three planet systems. In the games financial mechanic, there were multiple items to buy and sell when you landed on space stations, and prices would differ depending on the economic conditions of the neighbouring planet. Agricultural goods sold strongly on densely populated industrialised planets, while you could get excellent returns on luxury goods in systems where there was cash but little urbanisation.

I took lengthy notes about planets and their economies. I plotted my own maps when I took forays into unclassified areas. In Elite, you could be attacked by pirates at any time, or you might be drawn out of hyperspace by a Thargoid invasion fleet which would trap you until you defeated them in space battle. I lived in fear of this random encroachment on my habits and routines.

There was no point to most of Elite. But it wasnt about that – it was about the experience. Photograph: Firebird

There was no point to any of this. If you got rich you could upgrade your ship with better weapons and defence systems, and as you did that, you became more formidable in battle, increasing your rank. But it wasnt really about that, it was about the experience. Id drift in space for hours, scooping fuel from suns, mining asteroids, watching the vector-based planets withdraw into the distant nothingness behind my craft. Id pretend to be in Alien, world-weary and skittish, terrified of passing too close to LV-426. When I bought a docking computer, Id listen to the games simple but beautiful rendition of the Blue Danube as my craft spiralled delicately toward the space station entrance. Id imagine myself leaving the ship, wandering the white, brightly lit corridors of the station, finding trading partners, discussing deals. In the game, you never left your ship, and the space station interior was depicted as a series of trading lists. You never saw anything. You had to create it all. The game was the backdrop, the words on the page.

I have of course been reminded of all this playing No Mans Sky, which is in effect Elite for the 21st century (yes, I know there is an actual Elite for the 21st century Elite: Dangerous but it is much more of a serious simulation, and is constructed in a very different way). Theres little point to it, beside the promise of some narrative event at the centre of the universe. You drift from planet to planet, mining, selling and buying; there are little compulsion systems that prod you toward increasing your inventory size and following astral paths through the glittering cosmos, but you dont have to. I like floating just above the surface of a planet, watching the details bubble into life below me; the ships engine makes this dull clunking sound, which seems brilliantly anachronistic in a craft capable of faster than light travel, but it adds a sort of workmanlike feel to travel. It brings back that sense that Elite provided that youre a lonely and vulnerable traveller, in a puny rust bucket only ever one dramatic incident away from destruction. The universe wont care when youre gone. The universe barely knows youre there.

Some people have reacted badly to this. Used to being told they’re the centre of the galaxy, gamers are furious about the lack of direction in the game, the lack of point, the lack of meaning, the lack of recognition. It has occurred to me while watching the controversy unfold that many of the angry comments about the game are expressing existential angst. Theres no point and no direction. You hear this a lot about life in general when you spend time in online forums. I think the internet and the vast cynical, largely anonymised community it has engendered, has allowed a kind of nihilism to form and propagate. The people dismissing the No Mans Sky creators as liars and thieves because some of the potential features they talked about haven’t yet materialised in the game, are having trouble coming to terms with the vagaries of the creative act and of life itself. They think everything has to work and operate like a product; whether thats a game, a movie franchise or other human beings. When things dont work like that they feel cheated.

Some gamers have been furious about the lack of direction in No Mans Sky. Photograph: The Guardian

I mean, I dont know whats changed in the 30 years since Elite. Is it simply about technology? Is it that we require more detail and direction from our games now? That makes sense I suppose. Or is it a wider sociocultural phenomenon that we have been taught to expect some sort of cogent journey, some carefully scripted satisfaction, from every single thing we engage with? We are certainly very impatient when the decisions we make dont generate the rewards we expect. And now social media has allowed us to revel in and communicate our fury.

I just know that I didnt expect Elite to provide me with much. My life in that game was 90% cruising through space with a full cargo hold, hoping not to attract attention from either the police or the authorities. The other 10% was terrifying and desperate space battles that would often see me jettisoning in an escape pod and starting my empire from scratch once again. The game had missions, but they were randomly allocated and dangerous. I rarely bothered with them.

Video games are still very tricky to define. They are not technological objects in the same way as printers or smart watches or Bluetooth speakers. But they are not art in quite the same way as cinema or literature. Instead, they are works of complex creative endeavour, they are imaginative machines, but the players themselves must complete the circuitry; you have to bring something with you and with some games that requirement is greater. The clash over No Mans Sky is a clash between people who see games as an entertainment product and the people who see them as an experience. As a product the game falls short in many practically understood ways. As an experience it can be utterly transcendental.

Do we expect more from our games now? Photograph: Publicity image

The problem we face now, in a consumer marketplace utterly saturated with choice, is that value is both a defining and an ambiguous factor. In order to commit to something, be it a TV series, YouTube channel or video game, we apply all sorts of criteria in the fear that were committing to the wrong thing. But those criteria can be misleading especially when money is involved. Can No Mans Sky be worth 45 when it has no point to it; when you may get bored after 12 hours? This seems like a sensible question, but when were talking about experience, it really isnt. A gorgeous meal, a trip on the London Eye, a night at the theatre, a Champions League play-off ticket these are all hugely expensive propositions, that may only yield seconds of truly memorable entertainment. But those seconds may live with you forever. How do you place value on those things?

I still remember the hours I sat at that desk, the Blue Danube softly playing, clicking between the different views from my space ship, watching the stars dart by, watching the empty circle planets rotate. I paid 15 for Elite and another 15 for the joystick. It was so much money to me back then. But while there were other games that looked better and were more exciting, I dont remember many of them now. I guess Im old, thats the thing: Ive learned how much moments matter, and how, when the context fades, the joy often remains, like a pinprick of light in the blackest sky.

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