According to Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage.” Never has that been truer than when going to the movies with a Black audience. That’s because as soon as the lights dim, it’s not quite clear who is actually on stage – the actors on the big screen, or the wise-cracking audience in the seats.
Sadly, Black moviegoing has gone the way of house parties because of the pandemic. “The theaters being closed has saddened me,” says poet Tommye Blount, my friend who knows everything about movies. “I miss the people chattering around me and annoying me. I miss the largeness of it. I miss being in the dark with strangers.”
Blount is a Detroiter who is like an on-screen superhero himself. By day, he’s a 41-year-old affable account manager for a graphics company, locked down in his Novi apartment because of the coronavirus. But by night, he’s an intrepid poet, wielding searing observations about race, sex, queerness, violence – and the conflation of all four.
This fall, his first full-length book of poetry, Fantasia for the Man in Blue, was chosen as a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award. A feat that poets struggle a lifetime to achieve; Blount has done it in a single bound.
Detroit life features prominently in Fantasia, like the theater in the poem “Late Show at the Americana.” Remember that citadel in Southfield where Detroiters flocked to see first-run features because there were no theaters in the city? We fondly called it “the Africana.”
The going was good at the Americana until one winter when I took out-of-town guests there to see a holiday blockbuster. We were greeted by metal detectors, as if we were leaving the country, not just escaping reality for a few hours.
“Is this how you watch movies in Detroit?” one guest asked, much to my humiliation. I never returned to the Americana after that, and eventually, it closed. But Blount took me back there in his powerful poem. In reciting the process of being searched in order to see a movie, he slides easily into the bigger picture of Blacks being the subject of all manner of intrusive searches, from strip searches, to cavity searches, to searches of cars and homes.
In his hands, the Americana is a metaphor for America itself, as Blacks have been forced to follow the most humiliating protocols to do the most ordinary things. He concludes: “The movie house/ was a country of star-gazers – all in the dark/ looking up into all of that light./ And everyone knowing their places.”
The cover of Blount’s book is a painting by Peter Williams entitled Portrait of Christopher D. Fisher, Fourth Reich Skinhead. The original work, which hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts, is a depiction of the 20-year-old who tried to assassinate Rodney King.
Blount said that he’s always been drawn to the soul-shuddering canvas, which looks like a mottled, skinned head. Dark and foreboding, it also conjures blackface, as if when you skin a racist, you might find a Blackness underneath.
The painting inspired Blount’s poem “My God, Lick Him Clean,” where the horrors of the slave trade haunt a present-day sexual encounter between the Black narrator and a “white boy.” Time and time again, his work forces us to wonder if interracial love can easily separate desire from historical revenge.
Blount describes parts of his book as “ghost mapping” the city. That is, revisiting places and memories that shaped him growing up queer in the conservative Black community, then layering them with a new grid. “I’m building my own Black, queer world with its own rules,” he says. One of those “places” is his father’s death, where Blount uses the language of the autopsy to eulogize him.
In “Of His Daughter’s Hair,” he recalls watching his nephew braid his daughter’s hair. “I wish I were his daughter,/ held in his lap’s hull as he/ braids a world for me/ right in the crown of my little head,” he laments.
Blount, who is used to working in isolation and quiet anonymity, is struggling to cope with the public attention to his work. “I’m so grateful for it,” he says. “But it’s hard to process. How do you process the unimaginable?” You do what your writing has required of you. You take off your costume, go to centerstage and take a bow.
Fantasia for the Man in Blue is available from Four Way Books. Desiree Cooper is the author of Know the Mother.