First of the Month Writers' Collective maintains this site and produces "a newspaper of the radical imagination," First of the Month, where the bulk of the articles here have been or will be published.
We took our name from a rap song by Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony about welfare paydays that spoke to people in the struggle for happiness all over the world. BT&H's song was politically unconscious but this piece of ghetto music gave body to a souldeep sense of solidarity. It resisted Denial. By echoing it we signaled our refusal to separate race from class analysis while affirming our responsiveness to "black and going on" emotions. We've further sharpened our conceptions of solidarity and duty in the post-9/11 era. Take this as one of our new First principles: The underdog is owed sympathy; the mad dog is owed a bullet.
The core of our crew first came to know each other when we were writing for an Afro-American paper based in Brooklyn, The City Sun. Our work there often challenged content-providers in the mainline press who promoted (what Entertainment Weekly once described as) "the kind of book or movie or band the smart kids liked in high school." Smart became the praise word of choice among those who provided consumer guidance to pop lifers in the 90s. Back in that day, we hadn't settled on a value word to sum up our resistance to the hegemania of those-who-would-be-knowing. But, even then, we sensed that a 60's word, soul, implied a more democratic politics of culture. When The City Sun folded in the mid-90s, we set out to create our own alternative to publications that represent (what W.E.B. Dubois once called) "the dusty desert of dollars and smartness."
We conceived our tabloid in opposition to the flagship papers of smart sets in bohemia - The Village Voice - and academia - The New York Review. Aiming for (Brecht's) "sports audience," we meant to reach beyond a humanism of comprehension toward a humanism in extension. Upon publication of our first issue in 1998, our tabloid was immediately recognized (by a Time Out columnist) as "the only leftist publication [one] could imagine being read at both Columbia University and Rikers." We've always wanted our readers to stay free from jailers AND advertisers. We proudly published case statements by radical democratic educators like Bob Moses ("End Sharecropper Education!"), Charles Keil ("Dance Early. Dance Daily. Dance Now."), Kate Millett ("It's not healthy for a society to equate learning with poverty or treat the bulk of its younger intellectuals as suckers.") and Richard Hoggart ("The point of adult education is to get across without selling out.").
Early on, though, intelligent critics conflated our impulse to get to the base of this society - and its creative margins - with slumming. (Meanwhile, gangsta-centric frat boys responsible for the exploitative hip hop magazine XXL tried to steal our thunder by naming their letters page "The Real First of the Month.") It's certainly true that we report on local efforts to resist gentrification and buy out of all-consuming racial spectacles of "moving on up." But we've never had a problem with argufying that asks a certain height of readers. Our aim is to elegantly serve everyday people uptown and wherever streets are watching.
Armond White's contributions are key here. His film and music criticism exposes the superficiality of the "executive summary" approach to African American culture. But his blazing commentary isn't limited to race matters. His writing offers alternatives to "alternative" press popcrit on almost every cultural front. He helps define First's democratic double-consciousness.
Our tabloid and our site aim always for immediacy but we're not afraid of the word "better" and we make literary (and other) judgments. While there will always be First pieces that are easily accessible, we assume everyday people can be the sort on whom nothing is lost. We want to bring literature back to life. And that's one reason why so many world-class writers have joined our party of hope. (See their testimonies here.)
But First is more than a literary launching pad. We're here to change the culture. We mean to sublate the Liberal Arts ideal of "the self" (which Amiri Baraka once nailed - "no selves, except alone...no Us, no intimate whispering, no dancing, no communities of intelligence"). First's community of intelligence will get you open. We're NOT about purified identities, sectarianism or consensual wisdom. We believe in letting argument breathe. First provides one answer to a question posed by (one of our most important mentors and contributors) Lawrence Goodwyn: "Is there a graceful and constructive device by which we can come together and, in ways that enhance all parties, disagree?"
The open nature of our discourse has enabled us to enhance the national conversation in the wake of 9/11. As longtime New Yorkers, First's editors were fully alive to experiences of love and death in that moment. We cultivated a range of response to the attacks radically different from those who assumed "anti-Americanism is a necessity." While we're wary of seeming to Hiroshima Mon Amour after significance by associating our newspaper with a world historical event, the uniqueness of our politics of culture has been underscored since 9/11. No other American publication would have printed as we did (in the same issue) Iraqi humanist Kanan Makiya's now famous case for the invasion of Iraq and a detailed critique of Paul Wolfowitz's reactionary diplomatic record in Asia. Most readers welcome such variousness, but certain academic leftists find it threatening. They've been provoked, in particular, by Charles O'Brien's ongoing critique of (what he's memorably termed) America's "Vichy Left." Meanwhile, whatever-is-is-Rightists wonder at our readiness to roll with Amiri Baraka whose voice will remain crucial to our mix as long he's willing to wail!
First keeps the faith uptown and all around the world. We're committed to cultivating the power of the powerless. ("History should not turn out to be the story of a-list adrenalin" as George Trow argued in his prophetic First meditation on Dan Rather .) Lately, though, we haven't felt much in common with what now passes for an American left. As Charles O'Brien has noted: "Immediately after September 11, there was extraordinary communal feeling here, at least in New York City. A left that opts out, that prefers its sense of its own superiority to fraternity, is not a left."
That false "left" is, in O'Brien's words, "a bourgeoisie that views 'conscience' as a thing to accessorize with. Some people are prepared to offer blood, sweat and tears. That left offers only snot." First's crew is looking to nurture a New Left in America (not fantasizing about secession like the imagined left). We'll continue to call and respond to movements for economic and cultural equity wherever they're happening. And we still believe what we said (as per the Clash) in our original 1998 First call to writers and donors: The Future Is Unwritten.
Benj DeMott on behalf of First of the Month Writers Collective
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