Tragic Magic (excerpt)

Editors' Note: Tragic Magic by Wesley Brown was originally championed by Toni Morrison and published to critical acclaim in 1978 by Random House, where Morrison was senior editor at the time. Brown's novel is being reissued in April 2021 by McSweeney's "Of the Diaspora" series which features "previously published works in Black literature whose themes, settings, characterizations, and conflicts evoke an experience, language, imagery and power born of the Middle Passage and the particular aesthetic which connects African-derived peoples to a shared artistic and ancestral past."   Preorder is available here.

A Few Words Before the Get Go

As an intern in the reed section of sound I have been bucking to win the critic’s poll as a talent deserving wider recognition. I know all the standards and am particularly adept at playing the immortal “To Get Along, You Go Along.” But there are times when in spite of myself I undermine the popular rendition by not playing it as it was written, and flirt with the tragic magic in If, Maybe, Suppose, and Perhaps. When this happens I flash on my namesake, Duke Ellington, and recall what one of his mentors, Dad Cook, once told him: Learn the rules, then forget them and do it your own way. More than once this advice has subverted my best intentions to go along with the program. So at auditions to enter the fold I get the urge to play against the melody, behind and ahead of the beat, to bend, diminish, and flatten notes, and slip in and out of any exact notation of what and how I should play. 

I studied up on my problem and discovered it was quite a common affliction. The legendary New Orleans cornet player Charles “Buddy” Bolden exhibited the same symptoms and was committed to a state hospital in 1907. After a routine examination, a doctor, S. B. Hays, gave his assessment of Bolden’s condition. 

         Accessible and answers fairly well. Paranoid delusions, also
         grandiosed. Auditory hallucinations and visual. Talks to self.
         Much reaction. Picks things off the wall. Tears his clothes....
         Looks deteriorated but memory is good.... Has a string of
         talk that is incoherent. Hears voices of people that bothered
         him before he came here.... Diagnosis: Dementia praecox,
         paranoid type. 

I went to a chili house in Harlem where it is said that ideas going through boot camp in Charlie Parker’s head resulted in his finding a metaphor inside old chord changes that no one had heard before. 

          I remember one night before Monroe’s I was jamming in
          a chili house on Seventh Avenue between 139th and 140th.
          It was December, 1939. Now, I’d been getting bored with
          stereotyped changes that were being used all the time...
          and I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else.
          I could hear it sometimes but I couldn’t play it. Well, that
          night, I was working over “Cherokee,” and, as I did, I found
          that by using higher intervals of a chord as a melody line
          and backing them with appropriately related changes,
          I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive. 

—Charlie Parker 

According to those present, Bird’s playing started everyone in the joint to jumping giddy and yapping in a strange tongue that emphasized the buzzing sound of the letter Z. It started when someone said— 

“Kiss my ass!” And the comeback was— 

“That don’t make me no nevermind cause eee-it-tiz neee-iz-zot the beee-iz-uuuteee, eee-it-tiz the bee-iz-zoooteee!” 

Bird wailed on at the top of the chords, and the Z string rap spread its healing and hurting potential all over Seventh Avenue. 

Over the years so-called “buzz talk” became the most popular street lingo and the most difficult for outsiders to decipher. 

Many dismissed Bird. They said he played jujitsu music and was not only out to lunch but should be fitted for the wraparound dinner jacket. Before Bird left the scene he produced many moments of improvisational bliss. It is rumored that one night at Birdland he played the standard You Go to My Head, and had everyone within the sound of his horn on their knees attempting to entertain other ways of going to someone’s head. 

Scatology is a branch of science dealing with the diagnosis of dung and other excremental matters of state. Talking shit is a renegade form of scatology developed by people who were fed up with do-do dialogues and created a kind of vocal doodling that suggested other possibilities within the human voice beyond the same old shit. 

Ella Fitzgerald has been one of the foremost practitioners of the form of talking shit known as scatting. With the air as her scratch pad, she has scribbled much syllabic salad into song. Once during a concert in Berlin Ella forgot the words to Mack the Knife, but bullskated her way through it with some bodacious makeshift palaver. After her performance she was declared the official voice of the Land of Oooh Blah Deee, traveling air mail special and postmarked “from now on.” 

I have an aunt and uncle who love to go at it. Their battles are reminiscent of the “carving contests” that went on between musicians during the early days of jazz in New Orleans. Once when they were on the outs, my uncle refused to engage my aunt in any verbal slugging. She was so angered by her unanswered challenges that she began badmouthing him in some strange talk she called “Tut.” Not knowing what she was saying about him roused my uncle back into combat. Their jam sessions were restored in the best New Orleans tradition, which trumpeter Mutt Carey described as a battle where “If you couldn’t blow a man down with your horn, at least you could use it to hit him alongside his head.”

Once during a show at the Apollo the headliner tried to chump the audience off by playing bad imitations of the imitators of his own work. But a woman in the balcony wasn’t going for it and let him know about it: “All right, now! Let’s have some interpretation!” 

This type of ensemble playing rises from the streets of my life like a herd of elephants running off at the mouth. A space opens up where I can take my solo. I open up considering a fish ‘n chips joint across the street. Now, some folks hold to the notion that fish were made for the dish and let the chips fall where they may. But just maybe, as a side-order argument, fish were made to swim free and let the chips fall where they can best get a play. There I go again. More rowdy blank verse. Like all the rest before me I seem to be doomed to dissonance and thoughts like highwater pants that are too far from where they’re supposed to be. 

Chapter One

Some years ago I was on the subway with a woman I’d taken out. Her name was Tonya. We hadn’t known each other very long but with the rocking train nudging us into on another, I was beginning to get a contact high. At the far end of the car the door slid open and a dude came through, moving like a lean sapling in the wind. As luck would have it, he sat directly across from us, and immediately began giving Tonya the once-over. When he had scoped enough he got up and stepped over to where we were. After a short inspection of the subway map above us he leaned down and began whispering into Tonya’s ear. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but whatever it was she shook her head to all of it. After the dude whispered his piece and went back to his seat, I wondered what was going on in Tonya’s head. Had he insulted her? And if so, did she expect some act of chivalry on my part? The thought made my bones quiver. 

The dude started smiling at Tonya again, giving off a lot of sly action around the corners of his mouth. Maybe she felt it wasn’t her place to let on that anything was wrong. It was clear to me at that moment that I was neither knight nor noble, so there was no point in even thinking I could put a royal ass-whipping on anybody. Keeping all this in mind I leaned over to her, raising my voice above the roar of the train. 

“Let’s move to the front of the train. It’ll be closer to the exit.” 

She nodded and we got up, moving unsteadily toward the front car. I looked back and was relieved that the cat was not following us. 

“What did that dude on the train say to you?” I asked after we’d gotten off at our stop. 

“Oh, nothing. He asked me if I knew how to get to this street, and when I told him I didn’t he asked me if I’d give him directions to the street where I lived. I was a little warm at first but it wasn’t worth getting excited about.” 

“I guess I should have done something.” 

“What could you have done?” Sensing my feelings had been hurt, she said, “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. It’s just that because I’m with a man it goes without saying that he’s supposed to protect me from all men. I can appreciate that, but sometimes it slips my mind completely and I just go for myself.” She giggled, covering her mouth with her hand. “You know, I almost kicked that dude in his family jewels. I caught myself just in time. I guess that wouldn’t have made you look too good if I had. I probably would have been angry at you if you had tried to do something because you would’ve deprived me of the satisfaction. So don’t feel bad about not doing anything…Why are you looking at me like that?” 

Wasn’t that a blip? Here I was feeling I’d done too little on her behalf and she was holding back for fear she’d do too much. I got away from that woman in a hurry. About two years after the incident with Tonya I was called by the United States government to fulfill my military obligations by protecting it against all boogie men, both foreign and domestic. I didn’t realize it then, but I owe Tonya a debt of gratitude for hipping me to the fact that if one is going to put his ass on the line, he should be the one to pick the time and place. I said this to the military at the swearing-in ceremony and to the judge right before he sentenced me to three years for refusing induction. 


It’s now two years later and I’ve just been released on parole. When the judge sentenced me I immediately began sandbagging myself emotionally against feeling anything. Now that I’ve left prison I’m not sure how I feel. The fact of my release is still way out in front of its impact on me. An old dude in the joint once told me to keep good news at a distance. Don’t believe it till it happens. And even then, walk with suspicious feet. And that’s how I played it last week as I took that long walk out the front gate. My heart played Miles Davis doing Walkin with all his quick note shifts, double-clutching slurs, and staccato skips. But my head slowed the tempo of my heart, cautioning it to treat freedom as if it had a very short fuse that could blow up in my face at any moment. Standing in the sally port, I waited for my name to be called. 

“Ellington, Melvin—74641-158—paroled.” 

The barred gate slid open, uncaging the skyline. 

On the bus from Pennsylvania to New York I thought about all the people I’ve ever known who were on the case when it came to dipping what was considered up to snuff. But most of them were smothered by the aroma of what they sniffed. Somehow I’ve survived, passed over perhaps for the sake of the census. So here I am, ready or not: a token black survivor who has never been able to say, like so many of my fellow bronze buckaroos, “I’m a man and a half,” and keep a straight face. But maybe that’s because for me manhood ain’t got nothing to do with fractions.

No sooner did I get off the bus at the Port of Authority than New York began pushing me around. Body traffic from all the arrivals and departures swirled about me. I stood to the side of a newsstand trying to get reoriented to the flow of rapid transit. 

“Can I help you?” the man behind the counter asked. “No, thank you.” 

“Well, if I can’t help you just make sure you don’t try to help yourself.” 

“What are you talking about?” 

“Just what I said. And if you can’t figure it out that’s too bad cause I don’t intend to chew my cabbage twice.” 

I walked away without a word, determined not to let him mess with the good feeling I had about being back in the city so nice they named it twice. “What’s happening, home?” I said, waiting for New York to give me five. But the Big Apple rounded on me and didn’t give up any skin. “Well, later for you, too, then, chump-ass city,” I said to myself and made my way to the E train to Queens. The morning rush hour was over and I got a seat. My eyes settled on tightly drawn faces reminding me of expressions I’d left only a few hours before. Everybody in the car was doing hard time. They seemed to sense that I had just raised from a fall, but their blank faces did not welcome me back. And why should they have? On the streets you do every day of your time. There is no parole, time off for good behavior, or clemency. 

I took a bus from the subway station, and as it moved closer to my neighborhood it was evident that very little had changed. The houses were all Xerox copies of double-decker brick pentagons with attics as poop decks topping everything off. Trees and telephone poles were lined up on both sides of the street as in a showdown, and hedges and shrubbery were barbered into stiff bystanders. The most significant change had been the discreet way whites broke camp as the tide brought in waves of black, yellow, brown, and beige people. I must have been about ten when it started. One night I took out the garbage and saw a moving van in front of a friend’s house. On my way to school the next morning I realized that Angelo was gone. Whether we shared an ice-cream cone, argued over the rules of a game, or tried to beat the shit out of each other, everything between us was always personal. What bothered me, even then, about his leaving was that our friendship had been taken out of our hands. If we weren’t going to see each other anymore, I couldn’t see how anyone else could make that decision for us. 

And then one day the color scheme of the neighborhood had only one streak of white left: the Cassioni family. 

“Daddy, why didn’t the Cassionis move like everybody else?” I asked. 

“I guess cause they didn’t want to.”

“Did the other white people move cause we colored?”

“It looks that way.”

“Then why don’t the Cassionis move, too, then?”

“I guess our bein here don’t matter to them.”

“Does that mean they like us?”

“It don’t have nuthin to do with whether they like us or not. It’s just that they don’t mind havin colored people live next to them.” 

“Why not?” 

“It just don’t bother them, that’s all.” 

This was my initiation into a world where the way people felt about each other didn’t necessarily come from personal involvement. Up to this time, my attitudes toward people were formed entirely as a result of having contact with them. The change occurred as I acquired a more sophisticated understanding of the pronouns we, us, they, and them. I learned that pronouns not only broke up the monotony of continually referring to people by name as proper nouns, but were also convenient in broadening the base of people you could talk knowledgeably about, especially if you didn’t know much about them. It was brought to my attention that black and white people had long ago found the use of we, us, they, and them invaluable in simplifying their attitudes toward one another. 

Surprisingly enough, when most of the whites had moved and we were left to ourselves I often heard many of my elders, who were the first of our kind in the neighborhood, speaking against them, who had come afterward. For some reason, they were not as good as us. And it was because of them that the whites had moved. Although as the whites had said before: it was nothing personal. 

As I got older my facility in using we, us, they, and them, as well as ours and theirs, improved to the point where if there was a person or an idea that I didn’t want to deal with, I could dispel it with a pronoun. The effect was similar to tear gas in that any disturbances mobbing my mind were quickly dispersed. 

I still like to speculate about why most of the whites moved out of the neighborhood. The way they hatted up, you’d have thought we were the second coming of the Moors. Maybe it was the Long Island Sound beckoning them toward Nassau County. It could be that the restless spirit of Columbus, in order to redeem his pitiful sense of direction, was urging whites to complete his journey to the East in search of spices and fabric. Quiet as it’s kept, that could be the reason why so many blacks follow whites wherever they move. It’s a well-known fact that we have a heavy jones for highly seasoned foods and fine threads. 

I really want to give white folks the benefit of the doubt on the reasons for their vanishing act because it would be a drag if they split just to get away from, as the song goes, we people who are darker than blue. It’s too bad about them, if that’s why they moved. And shame on black folks, too, if all the migrating we’ve done in this world was just to break into the ranks of somebody else’s parade. If this is true, we have all become words used in place of ourselves. But I keep forgetting. If in each other’s eyes we are simply pronouns, it’s nothing personal, since we can never know them. 

The streets were pretty much deserted. I walked past the houses of people I knew and wondered how they were doing. I was particu- larly interested in what the women were doing. Since I wasn’t going with anyone when I was sentenced, my fantasies were impartial as I considered what it would be like to fuck all the women I knew. By the time I reached my block my cock collar had grown to the size of a turtleneck sweater. I hadn’t told my folks what time I’d be getting into New York. I didn’t want them taking off from work to meet me when I arrived. I needed some time to be by myself, so I wrote telling them to leave the key with a neighbor. 

“What is it?” Mrs. Cotton asked through a partially cracked door. 

“Mrs. Cotton, it’s me—Melvin Ellington. My folks said I could pick up my keys from you.” 

“Oh, it’s you, Melvin. Can’t see too good without my glasses. Come on in here and let me have a look at you…You look about the same to me, Melvin. Only difference is you grown now.” 

“That’s what everybody tells me.” 

“Well, tell me what you been doing with yourself. I haven’t seen you in ages.” 

“I’ve been away for a while, but I guess I’m back to stay now.” “Thought about what you gonna do?”

“No, not yet.”

“Well, Melvin, just remember to do something even if you only spit!”

“I will, Mrs. Cotton.”

I wondered if Mrs. Cotton knew where I’d been. Even if she did she would never have mentioned it. She was not a person who visited the business of others unless invited. And she never judged. Instead, Mrs. Cotton had an unassuming way of forcing you to judge yourself. Leaving the house, I saw that she still had her vegetable garden. It reminded me of growing up watching her in her Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap squatting over tomatoes, green beans, and cabbage. I respected that patch of earth she took such pains with, but once I allowed myself to be meekly led into temptation by some of my friends who dared me to do the Bristol stomp on it. And from behind the bushes we waited for Mrs. Cotton to come home. When she finally turned the corner carrying two shopping bags, we marked time to see how long it would take her to acknowledge the desecration. She stopped and a deep breath welled up within her. But she held it, and then very slowly forced it back to a proper distribution throughout her body. It was as if she realized that the release of all that energy through her nostrils was too much to give up for something as common as a senseless act of destruction. Instead Mrs. Cotton saved herself for the task of replanting her vegetables. 

But guilt whipped me to a fare-thee-well. It was a battle between the fear of the thumbs-down bad finger from the crowd, and the counter-punching shock from within when, as Ray Charles says, I saw what playing to the grandstand did to my song. 

“You need any help, Miz Cotton?” 

She turned from her work and looked up at me with eyes that knew what brought me to her and the price I’d paid on the way. So Mrs. Cotton did not levy any further duties but allowed me to make restitution in peace. 

Recollections such as these are part of the valuables I buried deep within me while I was away. In prison such things could not be left exposed because thieves would definitely break in and steal. But now, for the first time in two years, I was allowing my feelings a ground hog day. Curious but tentative, part of my inner stash peeked the lay of the land. So far so good. 


  • Wesley Brown is an acclaimed novelist, playwright, and teacher. He worked with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1965 and became a member of the Black Panther Party in 1968. In 1972, he was sentenced to three years in prison for refusing induction into the armed services and spent 18 months in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. For 27 years, Brown was a much-revered Professor at Rutgers University, where he inspired hundreds of students, including novelist Junot Diaz. He currently teaches literature at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and lives in Chatham, New York.

  • Originally published in 1719, with a second edition in 1754, Poissons, Ecrevisses et Crabes can lay claim to being the earliest known publication in colour on fish — in this case, celebrating those hailing from the waters of the East Indies. This wonderful book is the creation of Louis Renard — a publisher, bookseller, and spy for the British Crown (employed by Queen Anne, George I and George II). All in all, across the two volumes, the book contains 100 plates bearing 460 hand-coloured engravings — a total of 415 fishes, 41 crustaceans, two stick insects, a dugong and, in a final foldout, a solitary mermaid. The engravings were supposedly based on drawings from life by the artist Samuel Fallours (active 1703–20). There is no main text as such, only that found in and amongst the images, which tends to be anecdotal, mainly focusing on recipes as opposed to science. From Public Domain Review.