Category Archives: Narrative

Body Cameras & the White Gaze

In a sense the problem is even worse: to the extent that there is a racist organization and disposition of the visible, it will work to circumscribe what qualifies as visual evidence, such that it is in some cases impossible to establish the ‘truth’ of racist brutality through recourse to visual evidence. (Butler 1993: 17).
Even before the latest episode of Serial was aired in which white reporter Sarah Koenig just can’t quite believe Adnan’s mother, Jay Caspian Kang had written about white reporter privilege:
“I am still disturbed by the thought of Koenig stomping around communities that she clearly does not understand, digging up small, generally inconsequential details about the people inside of them, and subjecting it all to that inimitable “This American Life” process of tirelessly, and sometimes gleefully, expressing her neuroses over what she has found.”
On techno-fetish and questions of racism and who can be believed in the context of the “war on terror,” see my pieces, here and here.
“We revolt simply because for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” -Frantz Fanon

The discussion about body cameras is taking off. Some liberals have responded to the criticism of techno-fetishism (see my prior post) by claiming that without the camera in Eric Garner’s case, we would be reduced to “unreliable” witness testimony and confusion — as in the Michael Brown case. Let’s unpack this a little.

The video footage made ZERO difference to getting legal justice for Eric Garner’s family. So, for Garner’s family, the footage meant nothing. For African-American communities too, the ruthlessness, racism and rank injustice of the police is not news. For segments of the Muslim community that have been subject to heavy surveillance, this is not news. In fact, I imagine this is not news to significant segments of communities of color who have had first-hand experiences with the police. So, really, when you talk about how “at least” this time Garner’s murder was videotaped so it can be proven, what you really mean is that it can be proven to the white subject, to those people for whom the racism of the police is largely a theoretical matter. That is the implicit subject towards whom you are oriented. And this subject, you say, can now judge for himself; he doesn’t need to rely on the “unreliable testimony” of witnesses. But, if you are a liberal, you know well enough that “unreliable testimony” here is code for testimony given by Black people. After all, the only testimony that actually mattered in both cases was that of the white cop. So, what you are really saying is let’s continue to invest in the racism that got Garner and Brown killed in the first place by continuing to legitimize the white gaze as the site of truth production.

I know this in the context of drone attacks. I have written about it a little here. It’s never enough for Iraqis or Afghans or Pakistanis to say that they are being killed, that their brother or sister or mother or father were killed by American bombs or American empire; it must always be supplemented by the voice/testimony/witnessing of the western journalist, or the voices of officials within the US government or western humanitarians. Those are the sites of production. It’s never the stories centered on people who have survived or families of the dead that make the front page; the big stories are the ones where officials, or some form of westerner leaks internal information. It’s as if we can see the boy with a glass eye and the prosthetic legs, but we refuse to believe his story until someone humanitarian lawyer or some official says, yes, we sometimes bomb young boys too. Journalists — white and otherwise — who are reasonably intelligent know this and discuss it. As one friend/reporter said to me last night expressing the dismal situation of magazine journalism in which the main character must always be white or western. “You have to ask yourself, if this story were a movie what role is Matt Damon going to play?” And that role, better be at the center of your story. Many of us have had stories killed for failing to abide by that rule. This is not a problem solely in the conservative media. This is a problem of the liberal media. This is even a problem of the most visible media on the liberal to left political spectrum.

So – I, for one, am absolutely sick of this shit.

It is not the duty of periled communities to make you the white/westerner believe. It’s not the duty of these communities to continue to be subjected to the white gaze so you can make your crap judgments at your own leisure. Wake the fuck up and confront your own racism. If you approach every testimony by people of color with suspicion, even as the pattern of racism is written in blood, you’re a racist. And, if you are juxtaposing the “clarity” of the Garner case due to the video as against the “confusion” of the Brown case due to the “unreliable testimony,” you’re a racist. Both of these cases are equally clear and are part of a pattern of racism. To sever the Garner case from Brown’s shooting or Travyon Martin’s or hundreds of other cases is to operate on racist assumptions that only things which can be witnessed by you — the white subject — are clear. You are making a highly racially charged argument that relies implicitly on a series of racist propositions in order to make it make sense.

Finally, you might want to ask yourself why it is that you are so hung up on body cameras, why it is that attempts to point out that body cameras won’t resolve structural racism, lead you to debate the issue of body cameras rather than think, discuss and organize against racism.

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Short documentary: Wounds of Waziristan

Wounds of Waziristan Trailer from AJ Russo on Vimeo.

I’m sharing a trailer for my short documentary project, Wounds of Waziristan, on drone attacks in Pakistan. You can find it on Indiegogo here. As some of you may know, this is the result of a lot of work and trips to Pakistan. Rather than focusing on the numbers game or questions of international law, this project tries to record the voices of those directly impacted by the American “war on terror.” In particular, –and perhaps, this is my academic side coming out– I am interested in the question of haunting. President Obama said he was “haunted” by the loss of life. But, what does that mean, materially, in concrete terms?

Since the drone attacks began in Pakistan in 2004, much of the focus has been on the technology. And, although the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan are endlessly debated and declared upon by journalists and pundits, the ordinary people who actually live there are rarely heard from. WOUNDS records the voices of those who have been either labeled “militants,” or summarily dismissed as “collateral damage.”

We’re actually almost done, but we need some help getting to the finish line. Every dollar helps: consider donating just $5 to this project. And, even if you can’t donate, please take a look and share it far and wide:

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Interview with a Vampire

These passages about the question of oral evidence, interview and narrative from historian Luise White’s Speaking with Vampires are, I think, pertinent also to journalists who deal with the interview as the primary form of evidence from which we build our stories. White’s book is an analysis of rumor and history in colonial Africa in which she smartly engages nearly 130 interviews to depict the structures of everyday experience for the colonized. White’s endeavor is remarkable in that she takes circulating rumor and stories about vampires and bloodsuckers at face value. She doesn’t try to explain them as true or false or even as misunderstanding by Africans of the foreign technologies and medicine that the colonizers brought with them. Instead, White takes these stories as part of a genre of narrative that domesticated the extraordinary–technology, medicine– into understandable, ordinary, familiar.

This is White on how people tell stories:

People do not speak with truth, with a concept of the accurate description of what they saw, to say what they mean, but they construct and repeat stories that carry the values and meanings that most forcibly get their points across (30).

She goes on to discuss the mediation of different accounts from the same informant:

I am not the first to notice that people often revise the answers they have given in a first interview when they are interviewed for a second time. Nor am I the first to find this unremarkable. Historians routinely mediate between different accounts of the same even; why should this mediation be methodlogically any different when the different accounrts are provided by one person? It is only when a voice is methodologically conceived of as a single, spoken, rendition of experience that condtradictions become extraordinary rather than ordinary. To argue that an informant is mistaken because he or she says different things at different times, or even to argue that one account is wrong, makes linear demands on speech and self: lives and experiences are not such simple, straightforward things that they lend themselves to easy representation; people do not give testimony that fits neatly into chronological or cosmological accounts. Instead, they talk about different things in personal terms; they talk about what happened to them and about what they did about it, but they also use themselves as a context in which to talk about other things as well.

The idea that a voice, however produced, would not change its mind or words serves historians [or journalists], not the speaker’s own complicated interests… (38-39).

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I. Notes on the Pakistan cables

These are my notes, thoughts, musings on the cables related to Afghanistan and Pakistan. These notes refer to these cables:

1. Govt abandoned Swat. “Kayani was candid that the government has essentially abandoned the Swat valley.” Biden’s meeting w. Kayani Secret, US Embassy, Islamabad, Feb 06, 2009. And that is exactly what those who opposed the Swat operation were saying from the start, and has been clear for a long time now.

2. Does he or doesn’t he? “Biden asked if Kayani made a distinction between the Pashtuns and the Taliban. Kayani replied that the Taliban were a reality, but the Afghan government dominated by the Taliban had had a negative effect on Pakistan.” Biden’s meeting w. Kayani Secret, US Embassy, Islamabad, Feb 06, 2009. Important to know particularly as it concerns what happened in Fata and Swat.

3. Military funding. Senator Biden said the system of reimbursement through Coalition Support Funds would be reexamined. Kayani said that the military had only received about $300 million of the $1 billion ostensibly reimbursed for military expenses. He was not implying that the money had been stolen, but had been used for general budget support.”Biden’s meeting w. Kayani Secret, US Embassy, Islamabad, Feb 06, 2009.

4. American knowledge of murders by the Pakistani Army. “A growing body of evidence is lending credence to allegations of human rights abuses by Pakistan security forces…The crux of the problem appears to center on the treatment of terrorists detained in battlefield operations and have focused on the extra-judicial killing of some detainees. The detainees involved were in the custody of Frontier Corps or Pakistan Army units.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009. Why presume that the ones being detained and killed are, in fact, terrorists? As with drones, there is a presumption that if you have been killed, you must have been a terrorist. Witch hunt anyone?

5. The ‘guilt’ of the forcibly disappeared. “The allegations of extra-judicial killings generally do not/not extend to what are locally referred to as “the disappeared” — high-value terrorist suspects and domestic insurgents who are being held incommunicado by Pakistani intelligence agencies…” Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009. Again, the presumption that those missing are guilty.

6. Orientalist logic as explanation for Army murders. “Revenge for terrorist attacks on Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps personnel is believed to be one of the primary motivating factors for the extra-judicial killings. Cultural traditions place a strong importance on such revenge killings, which are seen as key to maintaining a unit’s honor.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009.

7. They have to kill because the courts don’t work. “Senior military commanders have equally and repeatedly stressed their concerns that the court’s are incapable of dealing with many of those detained on the battlefield and their fears that if detainees are handed over to the courts and formally charged, they will be released,…This fear is well-founded as both Anti-Terrorism Courts and the appellate judiciary have a poor track record of dealing with suspects detained in combat operations such as the Red Mosque operation in Islamabad…Post assesses that the lack of viable prosecution and punishment options available to the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps is a contributing factor in allowing extra-judicial killings and other human rights abuses of detained terrorist combatants to proceed.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009.

8. Number of detainees. “There may be as many as 5000 such terrorist detainees currently in the custody of the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps from operations in Malakand, Bajaur, and Mohmand.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009.

9. The solution to PK Army murders? Legalise the state of exception. “To the Defense Minister propose assistance in drafting a new Presidential Order that would create a parallel administrative track for charging and sentencing terrorists detained by the military in combat operations.” Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009. But, it’s very interesting to see that legal regimes matter, however oddly. I would shy away from viewing this simply as a legal “cover”; it is that, but why does the US feel the need to create a legal cover in the first place?

10. Verbiage. Why does Anne Patterson use the antiquated “Pakhtoon” rather than the more common “Pashtun” in her cables? Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

11. What the PK Army may do in case of US withdrawal from Afghanistan. “General Kayani has been utterly frank about Pakistan’s position on this. In such a scenario, the Pakistan establishment will dramatically increase support for Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which they see either as ultimately likely to take over the Afghan government or at least an important counter-weight to an Indian-controlled Northern Alliance.” Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

12. Follow the money? The Pakistani establishment, as we saw in 1998 with the nuclear test, does not view assistance — even sizable assistance to their own entities — as a trade-off for national security vis-a-vis India.” Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

13. Afghanistan: Does the Army want it stable or unstable? “Afghan instability by definition leads the Pakistani establishment to increase support for the Taliban and thereby, unintentionally, create space for al-Qaeda. No amount of money will sever that link.”Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

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Pakistani time or why the revolution is late

So, I’ve been trying to get a hold of a video camera for a week now. First, I contacted a documentary house here, a rental shop for video equipment. AZ, the owner said “Sure.” I called the next day to set up a time for pickup. No response. I called again. I texted. Then I called. It went on like that for 3 days. Then on a fine Monday evening, I received a text from him “Sorry, when do u want to pick up the camera?” I responded immediately, “Today if possible,” and then since it was already evening, I added, “or tomorrow.” And then to make sure, I called him. I told him I needed a camera with a working firewire port. I didn’t actually need to film. I needed to capture tape. That means using the camera to take footage from the tape to the computer where I would edit it. We decided on a time. 1pm Tues.

An hour before I got there on Tuesday, I texted him again, “I’ll be there around 1pm to pick up camera, ok?”


He didn’t show up. I waited outside the doc house for half an hour before he picked up my phone calls and told me he was “on his way.” I was now late for another appointment, and he said he could have the camera sent somewhere if I couldn’t wait. Finally, he told me he was near the place of my appointment and we decided on a spot where he would just hand me the camera, outside a well known KFC on a main road. He said he was 10 minutes from there. I got there and after another half hour of waiting I knew that he was not “10 minutes from there.” My cabbie, whom I trust, offered to drop me at my next appointment and to come back and wait for the camera. So, that’s what we did.

I finally received the camera. I was exhausted. It’s Karachi heat after all, but I had one shift with it. I connected all the wires quickly, the ports, the hard drive, the computer, and finally the camera, a taped up, grizzly miked thing that looked ready to fall apart. The tape turned on in the camera monitor. Exciting. But, it wouldn’t show up on the computer.

The firewire port didn’t work.


After a week wasted on that effort, I asked a friend to put me in touch with another fellow. It took a week for my friend’s contact to get back to him. I called the guy, FZ. He didn’t want to rent me the camera to capture tape because it can be hard on the camera. That’s true. But, he was willing to rent me a VTR, the device I need to capture tape. It’s very expensive so I don’t own one. And he doesn’t rent it usually, but he was –I think on my friend’s good graces– willing to make an exception. He said “Just come on over. I’m in the office during the day.” We settled on meeting the next day at noon. I texted a confirmation with the time after we got off the phone.

The next day, as my cabbie and I neared the area of FZ’s doc house at the appointed hour, I called him to get directions. No response. We finally pulled up alongside a road. After some texts and another phone call, he picked up. It was noon. He’d been asleep. He was still at home. When I expressed surprise, he responded by informing me that “It’s jummah” (Friday, prayer day), as though he couldn’t have foreseen that the day after Thursday would be Friday. He said he’d be in the office “after prayers”. That can literally mean anything. “Or maybe stop by in the evening,” he said. I live over half an hour away. Every trip requires calling my cabbie and coordinating.

“Why don’t you just call me when you’re in the office?”

“Accha, haan yeh kar sakhtay hain” Oh yeah, that can be done.

“Yeah, we could.”

And I hung up. I’m waiting. In total, it’s been two goddamn weeks.


This is neither my first frustration in Pakistan nor will it be my last. After he set about building barracks for his soldiers in Gizri and Clifton (Karachi locales), Charles Napier who conquered and ruled Sindh for the British said of the locals, “Public works go slowly in this country. The people are idle and the climate ennervating.” It’s a refrain oft-repeated still (though we are at the same time somehow very busy producing Taliban and suicide bombers according to the media), and in my rank frustration and sheer annoyance, it’s not difficult to believe that.

Clearly, there is a communication gap, though I’m aware of ‘Pakistani Standard Time’ (PST). When a wedding is held, all the guests know to come about 2 hours after the stated time in the invitation. I once made the mistake –in Ohio– of showing up at a Sikh friend’s wedding at the correct time only to see that the hall was still being set-up. There are probably social cues I’m missing, or more simply, this is how everyone expects things to be done, so I’m supposed to build it into my timeline.

Still, protests, at least the ones organized by “civil society”, that loose network of westernized elites, start on time. So do events at T2F, a hip cafe attended by the same class (and which I also frequent). Pakistanis are thus multiply conditioned (white people time and desi time), but we’re not all on the same page about when to code switch. It’s all very well when there’s a gora waiting, but otherwise it’s apparently not clear who’s following what time code. I am tempted to speculate that this is all class inflected too: our sense of when to arrive, when to leave, when we have taken up too much time is connected in some way to the ideas we hold about individualism, sense of obligation, community. On birthdays, your friends pay for you in America. Here, you pay for them. It’s partly a class and westernization issue. That caused some confusion on my birthday when some offered to pay while others assumed they were being taken out.

Upper middle class Americans live by compartmentalizing their time. On schedules. Capitalism requires it. Work 9-5. Meet for coffee 5-6, etc. They do a lot, mix a lot, but the mixture of modes of privacy and compartmentalization seem to leave them with a sense of alienation. I’m not very good at it, something I never learned properly. My parents always did a lot: my father was holding down at least two jobs, usually three; my mother also worked full-time. Then they shared the household responsibilities. I too held down multiple jobs as have my siblings. But, we were always pushed along by forces greater than us, by some sense that if we fell off the wheel, it would grind us under. I have now for the first time in my life, managed to gain some time, to have time. I’m only just now learning to compartmentalize it. I suppose that’s part of my becoming American, a particular kind of American anyway, a particular class.

When I go to interview my Pashtun interlocutors, they find it rude that I don’t stay all day. My skin tone or that I speak Urdu is misleading. Some people say it’s great that I can be in this world and that world, but the thing is, I don’t get to choose whether I’m in or out. Others decide; I play along or try to tweak it. But, it’s just a matter of time.

All well enough, except if we’re all looking at different watches as we appear to be and that indicates a different sense of experience and orientation as I suspect it does, how do we ever expect to organize any revolution? Some sense of “homogeneous empty time”may be necessary, not just for nationalism, but for a sustainable modern revolution. Doesn’t a revolution, after all–even if it is anti-state–require the same sense of solidarity with people you have never met and may never meet, just as nationalism does? Revolutions, like nationalisms, are imagined constructs too and they may also depend on some shared sense of time. The spine of the lawyers movement was a set of lawyers associations, groupings and cliques with shared practises. That’s why it worked.

For many upwardly mobile Pakistanis in America, there is a sense of urgency, of not enough being done in Pakistan, but I think abroad, it becomes easy to forget the sheer problem of logistics or to deal with issues of time. Travel from one part of the city to another in Karachi is difficult; people don’t arrive to meetings or conferences at the scheduled hour; there are other cultural barriers: can I really blame a Pashtun in Landhi or Macchar Colony if she presumes that I’m not invested in the struggle because I come to her area only for an hour or half a day? She is poor; I am not. She lives in a targeted area; I do not. She takes my compartmentalization for shallow engagement. Perhaps it is. Compartmentalized activism is a luxury. As Pakistani-inflected in America, the force of that country’s barbaric politics hounds me. Withdrawal is not an option. As an American-inflected Pakistani in Pakistan, I belong to a different class here. I’m not targeted in the same way. I have respite.

The complications multiply. I don’t have answers, but I’m hoping they will come in time.


I got a call back from FZ.  Work had come up. He needed to use the VTR today.

So can I get it tomorrow?

Yeah…I’ll let you know.



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II. War in a New York minute

Was it the drones or the mortgage? Certainly, Faisal Shahzad has made no claims; all we have to go by is the infuriatingly racist coverage. Faisal Shahzad is a Pakistani-American, but according to the media, he’s a PAKISTANI american, who the media emphasizes, had been a citizen for just one year. Good liberal Pakistanis have gotten into the act throwing a pity party about all that’s wrong with Pakistanis and urging Pakistani-Americans to cooperate. In the rush to assign nationality to acts of terror, they forget that Shahzad was living in the US for over a decade. So was Nidal Hassan, the Fort Hood bomber gunman. And Anwar al-Awlaki is a US citizen who was partially raised there. These people are obviously pissed and it’s possible that they’re pissed about the Iraq war, about Afghanistan, about Pakistan, about the attack on Muslims both in their home countries and their marginalization and demonization within the west. But if that is true, then one could almost say that all paths of terror lead through the US, or at least some toxic transnational mix.

Joshua Keating has a good list of contradictory reportage about Faisal Shahzad to highlight what we don’t know. Here’s my addition:

Rachel Maddow says it:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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I. War in a New York minute

While some early reports claimed that it was NYC (attempted) car bomber Faisal Shahzad’s wife and parents or his relatives who were picked up from Karachi where they had been residing, other news now suggests that anywhere between five to eight men were arrested in connection with the Times Square car bomb attempt. One of the men detained in Karachi may be his father-in-law; Shahzad’s parents meanwhile left their Peshawar home once they learned of their son’s arrest. The family was seen leaving their well-to-do home in Hayatabad. Two of the men have reportedly been identified as Tauhid Ahmed and Muhammad Rehan who says he travelled with Shahzad to Peshawar where they stayed for about two weeks in July.Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik claims that no arrests have been made in connection with this case, but some people are being detained for questioning. Rehman also said that no official request has been made by the US, but Pakistan intends to cooperate fully.

Shahzad is the son of  retired air vice-marshal and deputy director general of the civil aviation authority, Baharul Haq. Shahzad’s cousin, Kifayat Ali expressed disbelief about the former’s arrest, according to al-Jazeera

“This is a conspiracy so the [Americans] can bomb more Pashtuns,” Ali said, referring to a major ethnic group in Peshawar and the nearby tribal areas of Pakistan and southwest Afghanistan.

Family members in the family’s village of Mohib Banda, near Pabbi in Nowshera district echoed Ali’s denial about their relative. Another cousin, Sameerul Haq also charged conspiracy and reportedly said Shahzad had gone to the US for the sole purpose of studying. A villager who claimed to be Shahzad’s childhood friend told the News, “I don’t think Faisal had links with any militant group.” Interviews conducted with relatives and those familiar with Shahzad by the AP had similar findings.

Earlier this morning, when I visited North Nazimabad, a relatively quiet, upper middle class neighborhood of Karachi, neighbors were tight-lipped. Sources claim that the detentions of people from Nazimabad were made by military intelligence, not the local police. I was told that officials dressed in civilian clothing came looking for people connected with Faisal Shahzad and enquired about Shahzad in the neighborhood. If true, the involvement of military intelligence in these detentions poses some serious problems: the establishment is well-known for disappearing people. Jeremy Schahill raises concerns on the American side where American intelligence planes may have been used to locate Shahzad. The trouble with this, explains Scahill is that:

If true, that could mean that secretive programs such as “Power Geyser” or “Granite Shadow,” remain in effect. These were the unclassified names for reportedly classified, compartmentalized programs under the Bush administration that allegedly gave US military special forces sweeping authority to operate on US soil in cases involving WMD incidents or terror attacks.

See Scahill’s full post here.

[Post in progress…]

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The Fire this Time

Perhaps because I feel there are lessons to be learned from the African-American experience for immigrant Muslims in America today, or simply because I find James Baldwin’s essays brilliant, I’ve been looking him up. Here’s Baldwin reviewing Langston Hughes for the NYT (1959):

Every time I read Langston Hughes I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts–and depressed that he has done so little with them. A real discussion of his work demands more space than I have here, but this book contains a great deal which a more disciplined poet would have thrown into the waste-basket (almost all of the last section, for example).

If only, among Pakistanis, we had similar critics now with the intellectual courage and honesty to take on the second-rate writing that passes for Pakistani English language literary production these days. Hasn’t anyone noticed how god-awful much of it is?

Some other notes:

  • Baldwin’s frank discussions of homosexuality–he was bisexual–earned the ire of various Black critics like Eldridge Cleaver and Amiri Baraka.
  • And this is Langston Hughes reviewing Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. 22_James Baldwin#1#
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