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An Interview with Nelson George

As a non-fiction writer Nelson George�s goal has been to write books that he�d want to read.

�When I was younger I�d read any book I could find on the history of Black culture,� he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Brooklyn. �I read books about famous black people from the generation before me, but I could never find anything about my generation and what it was like to grow up black after the civil rights struggles of the fifties and sixties.�

His career began while attending St. John�s University in Queens during the late 1970�s when he began contributing to both the black newspaper Amsterdam News, and the music trade, Billboard, where he worked from 1982 to 1989.

�In the late �80�s I began writing a column for The Village Voice,� he said, �which gave me the freedom to observe and draw conclusions about what it was like to be a black man at that time.�

It was during those years that George began to publish his influential books about African-American pop culture such as �The Death of Rhythm and Blues,� (1988), �Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball,� (1992), �Blackface: Reflections on African-Americans and the Movies,� (1994), and �Hip-Hop America,� (1998).

His most recent book which came out only a few weeks ago is �Post-Soul Nation� (242 pages, $23.95, Viking), which is a fast-paced account of the African-American experience during the decade of the 1980�s.

On Tuesday he will read from the book when he visits the University at Albany�s uptown campus in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center as part of the New York State Writers Institute lecture series. The reading will begin at 8 p.m., and earlier in the day he will present an informal seminar at 4:15 p.m. at the Assembly Hall in the university�s Campus Center.

�This new book was fun to write and challenging at the same time,� said George. �I wanted the book to be user friendly, and I wanted it to feel fragmented, because that�s what the eighties felt like, with the USA Today newspaper starting up and MTV. The challenging part was that I couldn�t include everything from that time.�

The idea for the book came from an article he wrote back in 1992 for The Village Voice. �In that article I tried to capture the extreme contrasts for African-Americans during that decade,� he said. �Those years brought about some unprecedented acceptance for people like Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey, but all that progress didn�t help most blacks who still struggled with poverty, poor education and discrimination.�

�Post-Soul Nation� begins with the year 1979 and it moves chronologically through the decade detailing significant events for African-Americans and in turn American culture as a whole. �I followed seven or eight main themes,� said George, �such as the rise of black women�s literature, the epidemics of crack and AIDS, and the neo-conservative movement which tried to turn back most of the civil rights advancements of the sixties and seventies.�

George said it was fun doing the research because it was like re-living the time period. �The eighties were the first decade of my adulthood,� he said, �so these events were very significant to me, and I also rediscovered many events I had forgotten such as the Atlanta child murders of 1979 through 1981.�

He�s proud of the book and feels it will be an important account of America during the 1980�s, but unlike most historical books, this one is told from an African-American point of view. �Some people during that time period who may be viewed as heroes, such as President Reagan, aren�t so heroic to African-Americans,� said George.

George will continue writing more non-fiction books in the future, but his books of fiction give him his greatest joy. �I write non-fiction with my head and fiction with my heart,� he said. His books of fiction all deal with the post-civil rights era, a time of increased opportunity and lingering racial barriers, where relations between men and women are troubled and where family obligations weigh heavily. He has currently published five novels and has a sixth �The Accidental Hunter� coming out later this year. �In my novels I try to capture the psyche of contemporary African-American males,� he said.

He has also begun working as an independent filmmaker and producer. �Back in the mid-eighties I invested in Spike Lee�s film �She�s Gotta Have It,� and I�ve also co-written two screenplays, one that starred Halle Berry and another with Chris Rock,� he said.

His latest production �Everyday People� was shown at the Sundance Film Festival a few weeks ago, and it will be shown later this year on HBO.

�I�m also going to be making some anti-Bush television commercials for Move On,� said George. �I think this is going to be one of the most important presidential elections, especially for African-Americans, and I�m excited to see so much voter enthusiasm in the first few primaries. I think President Bush has gotten the Democrats very energized about this election which is something that Democrats haven�t felt in the last few presidential elections.�

His advice for beginning writers is to find an area of specialization and become an expert on that topic. �When I was a teenager and in my early twenties I read everything I could find on the music industry especially rhythm and blues,� said George. �I became sort of an expert on that type of music which led to my writing about it, and once I began to publish I began to write about other things. There are so many topics out there to write about. Find an area you�re interested in and become an expert.�

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Nelson George