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Freaks of Color, Pt. 2
Memoirs and Traces
This is the second part of a post responding to a question submitted to “Ask Dr. D,” my monthly(ish) subscriber-only column, which asked me to bring some loving consideration to BIPOC voices in the countercultural, psychedelic, high-weirdness space of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Part One is here.
For a more pleasant reading experience, you can always read this at the Burning Shore.
In the first part of this article, I wrote largely about musical voices and not so much about spoken or written ones. Music is awesome, of course, but it is a shame there aren’t more classic texts written by OG freaks of color — or, given the likelihood that I am reflecting my ignorance here, that I haven’t discovered and read more.
So I’m thankful for the recent boom in boomer memoirs, which the old folks are now cranking out steadily, partly to remind themselves of their wild youth and partly, I suspect, because there is nothing better to do. Even when the prose is flat, these memoirs are a great way to hear the voices of people otherwise submerged in or erased by history, pursuing non-verbal arts or politics, or just living the uncorked life.
And these memoirs don’t stop coming. As I was writing about the legendary Puerto Rican performer, world traveler, and uber-hippie Fantuzzi, I discovered his memoir, Love At First Bite: Adventures of a 21st Century Troubadour. I’ve yet to read it, but according to the book’s promo copy, “Fantuzzi’s story is a unique melding of music, magical meetings, famous friends and mystical insights, not to mention some very steamy encounters with many beautiful goddesses along the way.” Boomers still getting busy!
Originally from Spanish Harlem, Fantuzzi hung around the East Village’s legendary Psychedelicatessen coffee shop before leaving New York at 16 and never looking back. A major Rainbow Family member and festival-goer, he has been tending the Global Vibe pretty much nonstop since Woodstock. I am hardly alone in having had a number of strange, almost synchronistic encounters with this cat. What comes to mind now is the twinkle in his eye when we spoke at one Rainbow Gathering and he told me, regarding good rules of thumb for the festival, to “Trust God, but tie your camel.”
Fantuzzi has performed with many a rock star, and also put out a handful of albums. A recent one is the aptly named Tribal Revival, which features some members of Santana’s old horn section. I prefer An Open Heart, an out-of-print psych-hippie gem on Akashic Records (ha!) from the late 1970s. The title of his memoir, Love At First Bite, refers to the two times rattlers have bitten him, imparting “snake medicine” that seems to have inspired his permanent pilgrimage. Whatever it is, the man is a live wire of earth wisdom.
I’m also hoping the boom in audio media draws more attention to memoirs like Fantuzzi’s. Hearing true-life stories actually voiced can make all the difference. Knowing that Doc Ellis pitched a no-hitter for the Pirates while he was blazing on LSD in 1970 is cool. But hearing the man himself tell the tale is a whole other level.
I don’t think of Ellis as a freak so much as a righteous Black ballplayer. Back in the day, he attacked the institutionalized racism of the sport and was outspoken in his support for the rights of Black players, championing free agency as one step towards equity. He also knew that drugs could tie you down — over time, Ellis was open about his substance abuse, particularly amphetamines, widely used in the game at the time. But sometimes drugs, or at least LSD, can turn you into a cosmically free agent. When Ellis found himself on that mound, high as a kite, his only way out was to get freaky.
Here is another Black trip tale drawn from audio interviews, one that a reader sent my way after reading Pt. 1 of this post. It’s another cartoon animation of a big fish psychedelic tale, this one involving Orange Sunshine, the bassist Bootsy Collins, and the Godfather of Funk himself. Do the Moon!
Despite these marvelous testaments to Black psychedelia, there seems to be a dearth of Black texts in the annals of freakery — poems, novels, testaments, screeds. Again, there are likely many writings I am unaware of, but I also think there are reasons for this relative absence, though I can only lightly gesture towards them here. The full story of Black psychedelia in America is a rich and complex story, and I hope that someone more knowledgeable and connected than I takes it on soon, because its a juicy plum and the boomers aren’t getting any younger.
Today a number of psychedelic activists are drawing necessary attention to the racism of the psychedelic community, both within the mostly white underground and the new psychedelic science brigade. No doubt. But in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was also a great deal of resistance to both psychedelics and the psychedelic counterculture within Black communities. The Black nationalist press was down on drugs in general; one Black Panther pamphlet was memorably entitled CAPITALISM PLUS DOPE EQUALS SUICIDE. In that sense, LSD was simply another escapist drug — and one with the potential to undermine the masculine charisma of militancy. In a 1969 take-down of Ron Karenga, the cultural nationalist who invented the holiday Kwanzaa, the main Black Panther newspaper declared that Karenga used LSD and his organization was nothing but “sissies and acid heads in yellow sun glasses and African robes.”
Some Black writers were exposed to psychedelics and psychedelic users through their participation in the Beat scene. LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Ishmael Reed both hung out with drug-taking Beats and beatniks, and Leary himself insured that Jones had at least one proper mushroom trip. But their printed reactions to the psychedelic scene are pretty withering. In interviews, Reed bristled at the idea that the wild and Pynchonesque conspiracy romp Mumbo Jumbo (1972) had anything to do with LSD. In Blues People (1968), Jones critiques the minstrel show of rock, including those acts that are “in awe of the poetic-psychedelic and LSD, the chemical savior of grays.” He sees Leary’s call to turn on, tune in, and drop out as “a meditative eclipse of present reality.” In other words, whites may be able to drop out of it, but “what to do about what ain’t out of it. Like there are people dying, etc. Bullshit.”
But that is not the whole Beat tale, for there is also the enigmatic story of Bob Kaufman, probably the most important Beat poet most people haven’t heard of. (In France they praise him as the “Black American Rimbaud.”) Born in New Orleans, Kaufman was the son of an Orthodox German Jewish father and a Black mother from Martinique, where her mother had supposedly practiced Voodoo. Kaufman studied literature at the New School for Social Research, where he hung out with the principal Beats before moving to North Beach in 1958.
Kaufman was a meta-modernist performance poet, a jazz-saturated surrealist of oral verse and “vituperative visionary broadsides,” a man who melded work and life and actively erased traces of both. His poetic voice is at once gentle, bizarre, visionary, and comic. Here is the early poem “INQUIRY INTO A DECEMBER BECAUSE”
The descendants of dinosaurs are quicksand men, holy crime minds, dripping fake myths.
Those germinal wise men circumcised trees, demolished time, invented mushrooms, those rubber toes of God.
I am being followed by hot butterflies and pickpockets have lifted my navel. Stony crows have wakened me cawing at the moon.
My eye leaks, dripping sight all over my collar.
Fake mystics, who photograph
God, while ecstatic pygmies
Burped the Christ child,
Murmuring, smile, baby,
It’s your birthday.
Kaufman studied Zen and took a sorta Buddhist vow of silence following the assassination of JFK that lasted until the end of the Vietnam war. He was also apparently quite the drug user. Like many of the Beats, he liked amphetamines a lot, and may have gotten his hands on LSD as early as 1959. Later, staying at Allen Ginsberg’s place in New York, he took psilocybin with Jack Kerouac. Whether or not it was the drugs, his behavior could be deeply freaky. The cops relentlessly hassled him for spontaneous readings in North Beach, and he wound up in New York’s Bellevue a few times, and was once subjected to electroschock therapy. Sometimes he didn’t communicate at all. Who knows what was going on in his head?
In any case, Bob Kaufman walked the dada talk, slipping between the cracks in identity — slipping so far, in fact, that he is not often acknowledged as an important Black voice in American letters. In a 2004 issue of Callaloo, the poet and MacArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes addressed the spirit of Kaufman:
What a drag it must have been to think no Middle-Cash Baptist Afro American Dreamers would read your poems or believe your poems had anything to do with Blackness. It’s taken thirty years to hear a few of their children whisper your name. Enigma. Anomaly. How sad to have been a wanderer in the world before George Clinton’s records and Harryette Mullen. What advice have you for us new age black a-confessional psychedelic revolutionary wanna bees?
Covid took a lot of excellent people from us, but one person I was particularly sad to hear about was Kilindi Iyi, a trailblazing psychedelic mushroom mentor who started dropping science on the international trip-talk circuit about a decade ago. He also cultivated a serious and methodical psychedelic scene in Detroit, which now hosts the increasingly popular Detroit Psychedelic Conference. If the memory of one conversation we had serves, Kilindi started exploring psilocybin mushrooms in the early ‘70s, around the same time that he started researching African martial arts traditions, something Kilindi mastered, shaped, and taught for the rest of his life. During trips to the motherland, he claimed to have been turned onto African psychoactives other than iboga, assertions that ethnobotanists I know never knew what to do with.
In his earlier talks, Kilindi would call unconditionally for mega-doses that far exceeded Terence McKenna’s “heroic” amount of five grams. On the one hand, I didn’t think that more-or-less prescribing thirty gram doses before large audiences of sometimes naive users was particularly responsible. On the other, Kilindi was standing up for exploratory courage at a time when the psychedelic scene was growing increasingly anodyne, and I was happy when he later added some qualifications to his discourse. Besides, it was clear that Kilindi himself was up to the challenge, and he modeled that personal power for audiences and for the many students he worked with intimately.
In manner, Kilindi was pretty unfreaky: earnest, sober, with the calm stoicism of a warrior or community elder. At the same time, his galactic and intercellular cosmovision was not only powerfully weird, but inspired directly by his devotion to the Marvel comic Dr. Strange, especially the acid-drenched Englehart/Brunner run in the early ‘70s. These comics (like Engelhart and Brunner themselves) were fully psychedelic. In their mixture of pulp entertainment, space-rock-opera imagery, and visionary esoterica, Dr. Strange was a quintessential freak text. Along with his other transmissions, Kilindi carried this one too.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, during the ‘70s, Kilindi also peeled an eye towards the works of Carlos Castaneda, since Castaneda’s visionary narratives also stressed a deeply seductive blend of impeccable warriorship, shamanic cosmology, and interdimensional magic. Indeed, Castaneda’s works were so popular that he almost certainly exerted more influence over the occultural imagination in the late ‘60s and ‘70s than any other person of color. That said, it wasn’t always easy to fill in the deets. His books encourage us to discard “personal history,” a practice their famously reclusive author excelled at. Sometimes he said that he was Argentinian, sometimes that he’d been born in Sao Paulo to a well-known family of Italian descent; immigration records suggest he was a child of Peru and lived there until emigrating to California under a different name in the early 1950s.
Castaneda was not a freak. While studying in the anthropology department at UCLA he wore Brooks Brothers suits, kept his hair short, and didn’t drink or smoke weed. But though Castaneda did not participate in the counterculture, his sometimes psychedelic “shamanovels” (Daniel C. Noel) helped structure and shape the ongoing (if splintering) freak dream of pushing against reality until the egg cracks and births another.
The star of Castaneda’s books was of course the Yaqui Indian sorcerer Don Juan, an unforgettable figure who I find more substantial than most people I meet, though most critics now believe he was a pure invention. Whatever the case, and whatever that fabulation says about Castaneda’s own visionary voice, Don Juan’s powerfully charismatic aura reminds us that the nonfictional Indigenous folks covered by the “I” in BIPOC played a fundamentally different role in the counterculture’s understanding of itself than Blacks or other people of color.
Take the case of María Sabina, the Mazatec curandera who inadvertently launched a million trips. It was Sabina’s vocalized language — her singing, chanting, and poetic, partly improvised healing prayers — that brought the psilocybe mushroom into the modern world. You can buy English translations of Sabina’s invocations today, and you can even listen to her voice, first issued on LP in 1957, the same year that Gordon Wasson’s famous Life magazine article revealed the existence of Sabina and Oaxaca’s “mushroom cult”.
Sabina’s voice was heard, in other words, but except for a handful of dedicated listeners, it was not heard properly, or kindly, or with the sensitivity it deserved. While the freaks honored the fact that some Indian tribal groups maintained ancient relationships with “psychedelic” plants, this recognition often fueled crude projections and even cruder appropriations — beaded headbands, moccasins, and festival tipis were de rigueur hippie kit in the ‘60s, and full headdresses still show up at EDM festivals today. But this excessive countercultural romance also opened up the space for some earnest and committed two-way relationships, a tangled nexus whose story is told with nuance and care in Sherry Smith’s study Hippies, Indians & the Fight for Red Power (Oxford, 2012).
In the mid ‘60s, a group of hippie freaks began attending peyote circles with Paiutes, Washoes, and Navajos in the Bay Area and Nevada. Later many moved to Santa Fe and incorporated as The American Church of God. The church was mostly made up of young whites, with a few Blacks and Chicanos, but also included many older Native American Church roadmen, including the Taos Pueblo’s legendary Little Joe Gomez. Gomez’s colleague, the Sioux roadman Leonard Crow Dog, succinctly expressed their liberal attitude to white participation: “If they can take it, they can take it.” As Smith shows in her book, some countercultural whites also learned to give back to Indians in concrete and substantial ways, contributing both to Red Power movements and Traditionalist efforts to resist assimilation, while also offering logistical support to the “Indians of All Tribes” who first occupied Alcatraz in 1969.
During the ‘60s (and today), the sincere interest of non-natives in the Peyote Way posed something of a problem to the Native American Church. Many NAC leaders were adamantly opposed to white participation, which irked the roadman Immanuel (or Emmanuel) Trujillo so much that he left the Church. The child of a white mother and an Apache father, Trujillo, a World War II vet who spent much of his time in New York City, later founded his own peyote group in Arizona. In time, his Church of Holy Light became the Peyote Way Truth of God, which still legally serves up their button tea to all comers regardless of race or religion.
Trujillo, who died in 2010, was also a serious bohemian — not just a canny artist, whose modernist peyote pottery was collected by the Smithsonian, but a hardcore subcultural weirdo. In the 1950s, he was a leather-clad biker and NYC fringe dweller who, while already a NAC member, fashioned tangled ties with both Communist and neo-Nazi organizations. He wrote a book about free love, hung out with Neal Cassady, trafficked peyote to East Village hipsters, and gave Leary his first button. Now there is a memoir we can only dream about . . .
As noted, memoirs rarely ascend to the level of literature. For a properly literary first-person account from a sometimes freak of color, we must turn to the Brown Buffalo. The man already looms large in the countercultural canon — and I mean this both literally and figuratively — as the 300 pound Samoan attorney (aka Dr. Gonzo) who accompanies Hunter S. Thompson to the city of sin in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In reality, Dr. Gonzo was Oscar Zeta Acosta, a Mexican-Indian-American lawyer, Chicano activist, and writer who had befriended Thompson in 1967. Though Acosta himself often scrambled his identity (not to mention his own mind) in public, and though Thompson claimed he was only trying to protect his friend’s legal career, the Brown Buffalo felt erased by Thompson’s portrayal, and threatened to sue if the publisher did not identify him by name and include his photograph on the jacket.
Like a lot of Thompson readers, I knew Dr. Gonzo was a real person, and that he might have written a book or something, but I never followed up the crumbs, obvious though they may have been. This is erasure in action, and it pains me that I not only succumbed to Thompson’s reality distortion field, but have only just gotten to read Acosta’s most excellent The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972). Though the authorial “I” of this autofiction — the first of two — should never be entirely identified with Acosta himself, that only confirms its authenticity in my eye. If you can tell the story straight, you weren’t really there.
Though more drunken than tripping, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo is a freak-Beat classic — a vulnerable, funny, and, yes, gonzo wanderlust tale that begins with the Brown Buffalo abandoning boozy San Francisco bohemia and his job as a public defender to hit the road in a green ‘65 Plymouth. It’s the Summer of Love. Between picking up hippie chicks and gobbling speed and Stelazine, Oscar flashes back to his impoverished upbringing in the San Joaquin Valley, where his indio father picked peaches for a living while Oscar learned to assimilate, even as he suffered grievously from persistent racism.
Reaching Colorado, Oscar meets and befriends Hunter S. Thompson (“King”). He also turns on to mescaline and LSD, the latter unintentionally, which results in an absurdist trip sequence that once again telegraphs that crucial acid protocol: never look at yourself in a mirror.
When I looked at the hair growing from out of my eyes in the rear view mirror, I knew I was done for. I actually pinched myself, felt my skin and looked at the beast again. This time his entire face was a motherfucking gorilla. Fangs and grizzly hair. It was all over for me…
This isn’t merely an LSD freakout. (Later, he sees “dried bats with silver needles in their white guts up against the wall,” but those might have just been some of Hunter’s objets d’art). As the ranks of literary critics who have sunk their teeth into Acosta’s writings will remind you, the Autobiography is a fantastic exploration of the shame and anxieties that bubble up from the author’s fractured, protean, and frequently confused identity. “I've been mistaken for American Indian, Spanish, Filipino, Hawaiian, Samoan and Arabian. No one has ever asked me if I'm a spic or a greaser. Am I Samoan?” he asks wryly, with Fear and Loathing in mind. In the Autobiography, Oscar variously feels Mexican, Indian, American, mixed, and none-of-the-above; he also cycles through cultural identities, at various times a Holy Roller, a Great Society liberal, an aspiring writer, and a “deformed freak.” Mostly he feels like a Brown Buffalo, because that was the animal that everybody slaughtered, both the cowboys and the Indians.
The novel ends with Oscar seemingly resolving his existential drift by moving to East LA and embracing the emerging radical identity of Chicano. And indeed, by the time the real Acosta met up with Hunter for their Vegas road trip, Acosta was working as a firebrand lawyer who took only Chicano cases. He wore loud ties, worked the media, and ran for Sheriff on a disband-the-police platform. In one of his most audacious moves, he subpoenaed and cross-examined every single Superior Court judge in LA County in order to prove that Chicanos could not be indicted by “a jury of their peers” because those same judges refused to elect Chicanos to be Grand Jurors. According to Phillip Rodriguez’s wonderful PBS documentary The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo (2018), Acosta got the idea when he was high on acid.
Acosta memorialized his LA experiences in his second autofiction, The Revolt of the Cockroach People (1973). But even as he stands up for La Raza, the kaleidoscopic conundrum of identity that characterizes the Autobiography doesn’t disappear; as some read it, his text may actually undermine a politics based on ethnic solidarity alone. At one point, Oscar, who elsewhere refers to himself as a “flower vato,” tells a judge that “A hippie is like a cockroach. So are the beatniks. So are the Chicanos. We are all around Judge. And Judges do not pick us to serve on Grand Juries.” As far as identity goes, freaky is inherently leaky. Indeed, for some Chicano (or Xicanx) critics and activists today, Acosta is too stained with white counterculture — as well as misogyny and all manner of slur-slinging — to be of much use.
Acosta’s career as a lawyer unraveled after he was busted with amphetamine in his briefcase. He vanished while in Mazatlán a few years later, and is presumed dead. We could say he disappeared “without a trace,” but like everyone and everything in the past, he did leave traces, traces that persist until they are erased, by time if not by the ignorance of people, or by censure, or by active obliteration. These traces are like embers in the ashes of the archive; all you have to do is pucker up your attention, lean in, and blow.
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