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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