The first time I “met” Professor Mark Anthony Neal he emailed me to let me know he was going to be teaching my book HUNG in a class at Duke University. After I picked myself up off the floor, I wrote him back and thanked him, and I been on his jock ever since (only slightly kidding; this brotha’s bad!). I’d already been a fan of Mark (or MAN as he’s affectionately known by those who love and roll with him), having read all his work before meeting him. Starting with What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture (1998) and Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002) through Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003) and especially New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005), I hadn’t encountered a scholar who’s work blended the elegant prose stylings of a great cultural journalist with far-rangingly trenchant and revealing analysis of African American culture and the ways in which it asked some hard questions about gender, race, and sexuality while defining so many oft-problematic contours of the relationship between nation, community, identity, and masculinity. I’d read MAN’s work and secretly wished that I could do what he did—go deeper into my field without losing the presentational effects of good writing that was so important to me. It wasn’t until he and Joan Morgan invited me down to Duke back in 2006 to talk about hiphop, society and journalism that we met in person. And he did that thing that he does, that thing you see him do on his weekly webcast talk show “Left of Black”: he engaged me with his openness and curiosity; he seduced me with his smoothness; he cracked me up with his witty and subtle running commentary on the world around him. In MAN’s presence you feel truly engaged; he listens. One can only imagine how this quality must resonate with his students—experience has taught me that there aren’t many academics who listen as well as they lecture, participate as much as they preach. Recently, at a dinner while he was visiting Harvard for a lecture, our table was dynamic with conversation that ranged from Theories of Oprah to Old School Hip Hop to Life in the Academy to Race in Age of Obama, and never missed a beat because MAN, the frequent NPR commentator that he is, was leading the charge with his nuanced perceptions and witty asides. And you can catch these same qualities in his online presence, from Facebook to his blog to Twitter (you can follow him here, by the way): Whether he’s tweeting a link to one of his brilliant essays or providing academic info or recounting nuggets of family life, his Twitter game is always on. For a dude like me, coming to this academic game, Mark Anthony Neal provides a perfect model of the modern black intellectual: how to keep it real when the “real” can seem as surreal as a Dali painting, and how to be a good brotha when keeping it good sometimes feels like a losing proposition. MAN is the “public intellectual” that I look up to. Mostly because he doesn’t look down at anyone from his status as a great thinker, terrific writer, and supportive scholar. I’m looking forward to his new book Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (Spring 2012 from NYU Press) as well as the 2nd edition of That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader which Neal co-edited with Murray Forman, which will be published in July. (You can also check out some of his cool Black Music Month writing at his blog New Black Man.)
To get a taste of MAN’s public intellectualism, check out this talk he did at TED:
Hope you enjoy his SPB Q…I did, very much…
Name: Mark Anthony Neal
Hometown: The place we affectionately call the “Boogie-Down” Bronx
School/Year: State University Cat: BA/MA SUNY-Fredonia (’87, ’93); Ph.D. University of Buffalo ’96 in American Studies
Dissertation Title: Discursive Soul: Black Popular Music, Communal Critique, and The Black Public Sphere of the Urban North. It was directed by the influential Black Feminist/Lesbian Masani Alexis DeVeaux
Favorite book: Greg Tate’s Flyboy in the Buttermilk [editorial note: one of the best collections of essays I've ever read!]; everything changed after I read that. Recognized that literary style and intellectual substance were not mutually exclusive. Also Haki Madhubuti’s Enemies: The Clash of Races; my introduction to a Black thinker.
Favorite author: It’s not PC, but I love Ishmael Reed’s fiction (Paul Beatty’s a close second)—try to tell Ish that every time we spar. Favorite poet is Henry Dumas—want to write a critical study one day (shout to Eugene Redmond).
Favorite movie: Love baseball movies. The Natural, but especially For the Love of the Game, for linking the grace of the game with the grace needed to survive getting older. If my wife were to ask me, it’s The Five Heartbeats, which we’ve watched together about 63 times.
Favorite song: You’re joking right? Linda Jones’s “Hypnotized” takes my breathe every time. Have pulled to the side of the road many times with Donny Hathaway’s “Thank You Master for My Soul” in the car. Every time I hear Diana’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and Jr. Walker’s “What Does it Take?” they take back to times with my parents when I was really little—attach those songs to the sweetness of my childhood. Conjure my grind every day with Jay’s “Roc Boys”—“I wish for you a 100 years of success, but it’s my time!”
Academic text that most influences your work: Michael Eric Dyson’s Reflecting Black, bell hooks’ Yearning and Robin Kelley’s Race Rebels gave me tools that I couldn’t have imagined before I read them.
Academic who most influences your work: Every time I read William Jelani Cobb, I need to go back to the lab. Daphne Brooks’ attention to detail. Fred Moten. Damn, just no words there. Sharon Patricia Holland, who made me love theory again. Richard Iton, because he’s just a beast and one of the most generous of readers.
Academic High: Handed Dyson a copy of my diss back in ’96 when he visited Xavier in NOLA where I started teaching. He called me 5 hours later at 2am to tell me he dug the work. Needed that affirmation at that time. Robin Kelley responding to a letter I wrote a year earlier as a grad student. Tricia Rose taking time to talk with me for 2 hours at MLA back in ’92 before I got in a Ph.D. program. My parents being able to witness my hooding.
Life High: Still have vivid memories of the first times I held both of my daughters; Being able to record a 70th Birthday tribute for my dad for NPR. My oldest daughter reciting Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” at my Mother’s Going Home ceremony. Minutes later when I couldn’t remove myself from the front her casket, it was my then 10-year-old daughter who came and got me. Damn, just started tearing up thinking about it.
You’re on a desert island and can only have 5 CDs/books/ or DVDs shipped in to you. What are they?:
- Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On
- The 5 Season Box Set of The Wire
- The Collected Criticism of Amiri Baraka
- Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace
- The 9 Season Box Set of The Cosby Show
Your favorite quote: From my blog ““I am a man of my times, but the times don’t know it yet.” –Erik Todd Dellums as “Bayard Rustin” (in the film Boycott)
Guilty pleasure: Wii Baseball; Reruns of The King of Queens; Fig Newtons