Video: Samuel Delany Chats with Sally Wiener Grotta About Why He Says “Black” with a Capital “B” is Racist

A few weeks ago, when Samuel Delany (“please call me ‘Chip'”) and I were at a gathering of friends at Michael Swanwick‘s and Marianne Porter“s home, he explained why he feels that spelling “black” with a capital “B” is racist. As is always true, Chip’s discourse was fascinating, keeping us spellbound. There and then, I knew I would want to record him on the subject.

So, here he is, helping me launch my new video interview series which shares its name with this blog: “What If? Why Not? How?” 

Of course, the conversation went much further that the original, delving into the history of how the word “black” replaced “Negro” and “colored.” Chip also wandered his memories, telling me stories about W.E.B DuBois, the Delany sisters (Chip’s renowned activist aunts), Ursula K. Leguin, and others. And he commented on the public censure and ostracization of Mercedes Lackey when she described Chip as “colored” while on a panel at a SFWA conference. As always, Chip’s perspective is illuminating and his anecdotes fascinating.

Prev 1 of 1 Next
Prev 1 of 1 Next

About Samuel Delany: Chip is an influential social critic and teacher, as well as an award-winning author, whose books, stories, and articles cover the gamut from science fiction to essays. His website is SamuelDelany.com and you can follow him on Facebook.

About “What If? Why Not? How? The Video Series”: In this new video interview series, Sally Wiener Grotta dives into topics that matter with people whose ideas are intriguing and whose style of inquiry includes seeking open-ended discussions. These will include authors, of course, but also philosophers, scientists, rabbis and ministers, teachers and librarians, and so forth.

 

The Stranger in a Wheelchair at the Intersection of Fairmont and Pennsylvania

What would you have done?

The other morning, Shayna and I went for our usual first walk of the day. The air was soft and light, with a slight breeze that was caressing rather than chill. A couple of neighbors said hello, with a smile for Shayna, as they passed us on their way to their day ahead. I was pleased that Shayna is learning to be much calmer around strangers, though sometimes her fears erupt, memories, I suppose, of having been an abused puppy.

Up until the moment that I turned the corner toward Pennsylvania Avenue, I was feeling wide open, ready to embrace the blue-sky day and all that it might offer. But as I reached the intersection of Fairmont and Pennsylvania Avenues, I saw on the opposite corner a person ensconced in a red hoodie, sitting motionless in a wheelchair. His (?) her (?) their (?) head had dropped to his chest. Her arms dangled on either side of the steel wheels.

That intersection is almost always alive with activity. It’s where Philadelphia’s beautifully landscaped Benjamin Franklin Parkway meets Fairmont Park. At the nexus between the parkway and the park is the Acropolis-like Philadelphia Museum of Art, with the Azalea Garden and Boat House Row stretching behind it. Joggers and bikers, busloads of tourists posing with the Rocky Balboa statue at the bottom of the museum steps, parents with baby carriages, children running and playing, lovers of all ages strolling hand-in-hand or arguing, and people like me walking their dogs were mixed in with the usual city morning commuters of adults rushing to work and kids headed for school.

All those people walked past the stranger in the wheelchair. I did too.

Like any city, we have our share of homeless people, and this area’s greenery, park benches, woods, and even a railroad tunnel that provides some shelter from the elements is a magnet for them. It’s wrong that we’ve become accustomed to seeing them in our lives, but I don’t know what I can do to help them that they would want from me. So, I walked past the stranger, hoping he was sleeping and not sick or overdosed or dead.

But when I looked back at her, he had slumped over, head hanging over knees. Read More

Judaic Incunabula: An Evening’s Encounter With Survivors From My Distant Past

Judy Guston with the Lisbon Pentateuch
Judy Guston with the Lisbon Pentateuch, a box-bound book from the 15th century

I recently spent an evening of wonder and reflection in the company of several Judaic incunabula (printed books in Hebrew from the 15th century) at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library. Each was a personality and story, bound by hand and laden with transmitted memory. My guide through their histories, typography and quirks was Judy Guston, the Rosenbach’s curator and senior director of collections, who also happens to be a fascinating storyteller. I was entranced, and the time went by far too quickly.

When Gutenberg developed the printing press and introduced moveable type to Europe in the mid-15th century, he created the world we live in where the stories and knowledge that books preserve and impart were no longer available to only privileged scholars and the fabulously wealthy, but to all of us. Well, maybe not “all” – at least not immediately. Those first printed books were still pricey and far beyond the reach of the illiterate masses who wouldn’t have known what to do with them…

Please read this personal essay on the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent’s website.

My Five Minutes of Bloomsday Fame, or Meet My New Raucous Friend, James Joyce

James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in 1922, and for its 100th anniversary, Last week, on June 16th, Philadelphia’s Bloomsday celebration returned to 2000 block of Delancey Street after a two year pandemic hiatus. And I was thrilled and honored to be invited to read a portion of Joyce’s masterpiece as part of the celebration.

Why Delancey Street? Because the Rosenbach Museum & Library is there, and part of its incredible collection of rare books and related artifacts is the original Ulysses manuscript. So for more than 20 years, the Rosenbach has closed off the 2200 block of Delancey Street for a day of music, readings from the novel, plus a Beer Garden, free admission to the museum, and general Joycean merriment.

The portion I was asked to read was from Chapter 16, Eumaeus pages 540-541, lines 1770-1806. The program was that specific because aficionados bring their own copies of the book to follow along with the readings. Before my reading, I met a man sitting in front of me in the audience, who had dug out a copy from his college days (which had to have been a couple of decades ago). He said he had struggled with the book then, but never got rid of it. And now, listening to the readings, he was finally understanding its beauty and humor.

It had been quite a few years since I had read James Joyce’s Ulysses, too. But tackling just that one small piece, gave me insights I don’t remember having way back when. But then, it could also be attributed to the years I’ve lived between then and now. When I was a callow youth, I might have respected the exquisite craft of the book, and how innovative it was, but I’d also found it a dense book, that fought my attempts to love it as I had been told I should.

In the weeks leading up to my Bloomsday reading, I discovered not only insights into the characters and story, but also a sense of pure delight that had been missing all those years ago. Mostly, I realized that the rhythms and lilt of Joyce’s language, and especially his dialog, demands to be read aloud. It’s a book that’s more suited for an urban beer garden or an Irish pub than a hushed college library. It’s raucous and rich, like a June day in Dublin.

I plan to read the entire book again before next year’s Bloomsday, hopefully with friends over a series of good hearty meals and a few bottles of wine, definitely aloud.

The Recording below of last week’s Bloomsday celebrations of readings and music is bookmarked to start when I took the stage, but I recommend listening to other portions too.

 

 

Gawd, I’ve Missed Hugs!

Child and mother hugging

I haven’t had my furnace cleaned this year. Back in December, just as the Omicron surge hit, I called the man who had installed my new furnace a few years ago and made an appointment for a maintenance cleaning and safety check.  He arrived on time, which was a nice surprise. But when I answered the door, he was standing on my stoop, about two feet away from me, and wasn’t wearing a mask. (I was.)

I asked him if he had a mask in his truck. If not, I could give him one. (Back then, I kept a box of surgical masks on hand, in case. Now, I keep some extra KN95s.)

His answer “I don’t wear masks” was said with a good-ole-boy smile that I might have considered charming in other circumstances.

I was dumbfounded and just stared at him.

“Is that a problem?” he asked.

I said, “Yes.”

He left.

That brief interaction left me shaking and feeling violated. As the day progressed, I began to feel angry that someone would refuse to wear a mask in my home while a highly infectious virus was filling the hospitals yet again. Hell, this is my home! My anger eventually turned to righteous indignation.

Back then, the issues were clear. If you respected others and cared about public health, you wore a mask and socially distanced whenever you were outside your established bubble, and you got vaccinated as soon as possible. In contrast, those who refused to follow such basic protocols (which my grandmother would have called common decency) were the kind of people Read More

New Year’s Musings: What is the Measure of Time?

January 2022 Newsletter

Please click this image to view the full newsletter

 

New Year’s Eve has come and gone once more. For a few hours, the entire world paused to acknowledge the passing of another year. By dawn on January 2nd, nearly all echoes of Happy New Year and Good Riddance to 2021 had faded away, and we resumed our lives. What intrigues me is that pause, or more specifically the nature of a year, which is nothing more than a human construct.

Time is woven into the fabric of the universe, but calendars are something else entirely. Though we imbue calendars with all sorts of metaphysical and poetic meaning, they are merely our attempt to control nature, hoping to impose our will onto the ongoing circling of planets and stars. But where is the beginning and end in a circle?

Calendars were invented to measure and compartmentalize time into hours, days, months and years. They organize society, mark agricultural seasons, and track our responsibilities to the government, to our religion(s), and to each other. In other words, their primary purpose is bureaucratic.

So what is New Year’s Eve? What is January 1st? For that matter, what is June 12th or 5:18 PM? Why do these abstract concepts define our lives? Read More

The Measure of Time (a poem)

Every year, I become intrigued by the concept of a “new” year, of a calendar that we as humans have imposed on nature, on the ongoing circling of planets and stars. Where is the beginning and end in a circle?

Questions are the source of just about all my writing. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that that it has become a tradition for me to write a new year’s poem. Here’s this year’s:
A minute, an hour, a day.
What is the measure of time?
A child dances with sunlight
A pas de deux that seems to last forever.
An old woman reaches back to first love, Read More

A New Year’s Meditation on the Proper Use of a Rearview Mirror

Janus by Sally Wiener Grotta
Daniel Grota & Sally Wiener Grotta as Janus

When I created this image of Daniel and me as Janus (the Roman god of beginnings) for our 2013 New Year’s newsletter, it had been a toss-up whose face I would set to look back on the previous year and who would be looking forward to the future. But now that Daniel has been gone six years, I see an unintended symbolism in having him nestled in the back of my mind, forming an essential part of who I am.

In many ways, the past defines and shapes us, helping to prepare us for whatever awaits us beyond today. I wonder what that means vis-à-vis our future as we move forward into the year 2022, given that the unrelenting rollercoaster of crises that was 2020 and 2021 is at our backs?

That question filled my mind today, when Shayna and I embarked on our afternoon walk along the dirt road on the other side of our stream. It’s a stroll that Daniel and I had shared innumerable times, inevitably with a dog leading the way. At one of the many bends in the road, the image of a rearview mirror came rushing at me, and I couldn’t shake it. Soon it was joined in my mind’s eye by the picture of Daniel and me as Janus. Read More

Perhaps the Most Meaningful Contract I’ve Ever Signed

Honor, a novella by Daniel GrottaI’m thrilled to announce that I recently signed a contract with the playwright David Zarko, giving him the rights to produce a play based on Honor, a novella by Daniel Grotta. I can’t imagine any other contract feeling so right to me, helping to firm up Daniel’s legacy.

Honor is a story about the fragility and power of the human heart. It explores the terrible toll paid when patriotism, personal ethics and the deep bond of friendship collide.

Next step on the road to production: a staged reading in New York City, hopefully later this year.

Discovering Myself in Arcane Talmudic Arguments

Bookcase of Jewish books

I subscribe to a number of email lists whose content challenge my mind and set me thinking in directions I might never have traveled without their stimulation. For instance, I enjoy receiving twice weekly emails of Maria Popova’s The Marginalian (formerly called BrainPickings) essays for their poetic and insightful curation of the writings of great thinkers, writers and artists.

I initially subscribed to MyJewishLearning‘s daily Talmudic interpretations as part of my research for a current work-in-progress, a new novel (Women of a New Moon). As a secular Jew, I’ve never really studied Torah or Talmud or any of the sacred texts beyond the cursory attention I gave to lessons at Sunday school. (Nor do I remember much Hebrew from then.) But I find myself intrigued by these emails, not necessarily for the Talmudic interpretations (which I often find irrelevant and boring). but more for the thought processes behind them. Those processes — the instinct to question and probe rather than just accept whatever is stated — is key to what I cherish about my Jewish heritage, and what has defined my life of intellectual and creative restlessness.Read More