On the Assembly Line: Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Last Holiday”

February 16, 2013   •   By Emery Petchauer

THE POSTHUMOUSLY PUBLISHED MEMOIR of poet, musician, and activist Gil Scott-Heron is a body of bright stars that makes up a beautiful constellation — if one sees it in the right way. The individual stars are the disconnected observations and more or less extended anecdotes and episodes that comprise The Last Holiday. We learn of family members such as Aunt Sissy, who would trace her fingers along Gil’s spine as a boy while hugging him, stealthily checking for the scoliosis that afflicted some family members. We learn for the first time of his son, Rumal, of whom he never spoke publically or privately for 12 years, at the request of Rumal’s mother (whose identity the author does not reveal). And we learn a great deal about Gil’s friendship with Stevie Wonder in the early 1980s, particularly as Stevie made it his objective to establish a national holiday — the “last” holiday, to which the title refers — honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We learn all this and more through engaging the often disordered fragments of prose and poetry, including passages written years, even decades, before the author’s death in 2011. 

Scott-Heron’s friend and publisher Jamie Byng, in an afterword to the memoir and in interviews, has explained the origin and odd trajectory of The Last Holiday and why it reads like a tribute to Wonder in some parts and a collection of sweet and hilarious anecdotes in others. Gil began the work in the early 1990s as a third-person account centering on Stevie Wonder and the ultimately successful campaign to create the King holiday. Revised multiple times and left untouched for over a decade, the final product still bears marks of Gil’s original intent but also supplies valuable information about his childhood in Jackson, Tennessee and his artistic and musical career. Readers familiar with the deep cadence and caustic wit of Gil’s lyrics will hear them on nearly every page. As other reviewers have noted, he says little about the dark addictions that weathered him during the last decades of his life; ultimately, much of the book’s complexity stems from what the storyteller would not or could not say. 

The stories he does tell illuminate what is perhaps the most underexplored dimension of Gil’s life: his schooling experiences. In sequential chapters and through offhand details, we learn a great deal about the education of Gil Scott-Heron. He attended 10 different institutions — public and private, all-male and coeducational, Northern and Southern — from grade school to graduate school. In 1961, Gil was one of 40 students who volunteered to attend all-white Tigrett Junior High School in South Jackson, Mississippi — if NAACP lawyers could win the right to desegregate. When they did, there were only four names left on the list, including Gil Scott-Heron’s. After moving from Tennessee to New York City with his mother, he attended an all-black public high school in the Bronx before being accepted to Fieldston, a private and progressive “ethical culture” school, as a scholarship student. And by the tumultuous late 1960s, he would be a proverbial Big Man on Campus at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, the first historically Black institution in the nation to grant college degrees. While the diversity of these experiences went far beyond racial demographics, he pointedly calls them “checkered” in The Last Holiday, alluding to his frequent oscillations between all-black schools and nominally integrated (but mostly white) ones. Gil’s time at Fieldston School was particularly important to his development as a musician; it was there that he had free access to three pianos, including one Steinway grand. But “free access” might be an exaggeration. Navigating what seemed to be a “no Gil” rule, he schemed against his curmudgeonly music teacher for time at the piano in order to practice the songs he heard in his head. In hindsight, he calls that “a melodic form of guerilla warfare” that included knowing when and what to play so as to not get caught by the teacher or exposed by the ruckus of fellow students. Gil’s opportunities to play at Fieldston, even secretively, highlight the fact that such resources are central to mastery and eventual success — and that opportunities of this kind are often a matter of happenstance. How many other young people in the Bronx in the 1960s had daily access to a Steinway on which to play the melodies circling between their ears?

Gil devotes seven chapters to the period from 1967 to 1971, during which he was an undergraduate at Lincoln University, founded in 1854. Among the 105 historically Black institutions of higher learning in the United States today, Lincoln is one of the few that was founded before the abolition of slavery; most were founded not long afterwards through the Freedman’s Bureau as a means of educating formerly-enslaved people who had, against the law of the land, sought to read, write, and learn on their own prior to abolition. With their collective mission of racial uplift and self-determination, these institutions have historically produced a higher proportion of Black doctors, scientists, teachers, and lawyers than predominantly white institutions. Even today, they typically provide a more supportive environment for Black college students than other institutions, and the Black middle class would not exist as it does today without them. It is possible that Gil’s mother, a graduate of Lane College, another historically Black institution, played a role in steering her son toward Lincoln. So did the lineage of Black artists and leaders educated at Lincoln. This included Kwame Nkrumah, the Pan-Africanist freedom fighter and first elected Prime Minister of Ghana; Melvin Tolson, the modernist poet played by Denzel Washington in the 2007 film The Great Debaters; and civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall. The most influential factor in Gil’s decision was that Langston Hughes graduated from Lincoln. Gil followed this lineage by publishing his first novel The Vulture and his first poetry collection, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, during his collegiate years — prolific accomplishments for a young adult. At Lincoln, Gil also began his musical associations with fellow Lincoln students such as Brian Jackson, Charlie Saunders, Eddie Knowles, and others members of what would eventually become the Midnight Band. Their collaborations, which began in a campus music room, would soon result in some of the most important American music of the post–civil rights era.

Although Gil’s time “at” Lincoln spanned the traditional four years, he never graduated, and his status as a student was often in flux. He withdrew more than once to finish his novel; at other times, he simply lived in the area without taking classes while working at a laundromat in nearby Oxford, Pennsylvania. Despite this, he was still a popular campus figure, often known by his nickname of “Spiderman.” In 1970, a student journalist for the campus newspaper wrote that one must have “really been out of it” not to know who Gil was or be familiar with his activities on campus.

While Lincoln’s history of nurturing Black creativity, and the musical relationships Gil formed there, give the impression that his success was because of Lincoln, other details suggest that his success was in spite of Lincoln. The institution that Gil attended had begun a significant transition away from the one that Langston Hughes and others had known. For over 100 years since its founding, the institution had enjoyed private status, its mission unencumbered by state interests. In the late 1960s, the institution considered joining the Pennsylvania Commonwealth System of Higher Education because of the financial support that it would receive as a member, and Lincoln officially became part of the Pennsylvania system in 1972. This dilemma was not unique to Lincoln; many private Black institutions also faced this dilemma and continue to face it today (see the financial saga of Fisk University as a prime example). For Lincoln, this funding and oversight from the state came at a cost. With all decisions under this purview, the affiliation slowly diluted the campus culture that was, at least in part, one agent in the radical development of past students such as Nkrumah and Hughes. Even today, Lincoln does not have a Black or African American studies major or minor, let alone a department. In The Last Holiday, Gil provocatively suggests that this move also entailed ties to the federal counterintelligence programs that illegally spied on and infiltrated civil rights and black liberation organizations in the 1960s and into the 1970s. A poem that ends one chapter contains these lines:

But something else was happening and students weren’t supposed to know
Lincoln’s state relationship included “COIN-TEL-PRO.”

Like many parts of the memoir, this passing suggestion begs for more attention and context. Is it simply a reference to Lincoln’s state-related status or an indication of the author’s knowledge of government surveillance at Lincoln? Or, is it simply his own conspiracy theory: a stimulating bit of poetic license not intended to be read as historically authoritative? During my own time in the Lincoln archives as a faculty member, there was no clear confirmation of this accusation (which does not necessarily rule out the possibility that it is true). The unfinished status of the manuscript upon Gil’s death leaves readers unsure about how to interpret his intriguing suggestions.

What is clear, however, is that protest was a theme throughout Gil’s time at and around Lincoln, as it was at many campuses during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Students at Lincoln protested the increasingly Eurocentric curriculum, policies surrounding the hiring of faculty members, dormitory social rules, and the inadequate health services that contributed to the death of Gil’s friend and fellow student musician Ron Colburn. These protests mirrored those at other institutions (Black and otherwise) across the United States, especially in the wake of the social unrest created by the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and Fred Hampton in 1969. The Last Holiday recounts Gil’s role in a protest that shut down classes on campus for eight days after Colburn’s death. Minutes from faculty meetings in the Lincoln archives corroborate the memoir’s account of Gil’s role as the protest’s de facto leader. “Gilbert S. Heron” is listed as the spokesperson for the ad hoc student committee that organized the boycott of classes across the university; he also spoke for this body during emergency executive faculty meetings during the boycott, which the university administration urgently wished to end. In the last of these meetings, on November 17, 1969, the university president stated that he would “accept no motion to adjourn until the proposed business was completed.” The protest ended only after the student committee’s seven demands were met. These events, and the attention they are given in The Last Holiday, explain some of the inspiration behind The Nigger Factory, Gil’s second novel, which chronicles a very similar student uprising at a fictitious Black institution in Virginia. The topography of “Sutton University” is borrowed from Lincoln’s, from the stone arch that one passes through to enter campus to the old chapel that was the central meeting place for student activists, real and fictitious. The demands of Sutton’s protestors encompassed those that Gil and others won in 1969 at Lincoln. Most explicitly, on the dedication page to the novel, Gil lists the names of fellow students and Midnight Band members, some of whom were also active in the boycott. Gil dedicates the work to those “[w]hom I met on the assembly line.”

The focus on Gil’s experiences at Lincoln, particularly in light of the fictionalized account of some of them in The Nigger Factory, shed light on some of the paradoxes that still exist at similar institutions today. Although there is much diversity among historically Black institutions, some maintain the most antiquated and socially conservative settings in all of higher education. In their paper “Consequences of Conservatism: Black Male Undergraduates and the Politics of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” published in the Journal of Negro Education in 2008, Shaun Harper and Marybeth Gasman detail policies at some institutions that deter consensual sex between adults and classify “homosexual acts” as a violation against the student code of conduct. Other rules seek to limit self-presentation and expression, as in the case of dress codes barring baggy pants, headwear, and tank tops. The decade-long ban against dreadlocks, cornrows, and other hairstyles at the business school at Hampton University is one clear example. There are two interconnected explanations for the existence of such policies. The first is the cultural conflict and misunderstanding that still exists between the hip-hop and civil rights generations. The simplistic association of baggy pants with “prison culture” is perhaps the chief example of this misunderstanding. The second reason is that some of these policies (like the ones about hairstyles at Hampton) are intended to shape Black students into behaviors and appearances that will make them less vulnerable to unfair treatment in the larger society and workplace. While this is certainly understandable, the paradox is clear: policies that seem to devalue the expression of racial pride are perpetuated at many institutions that have been crucial sites of education and empowerment for Black college students.

Criticizing Black educational institutions as they once existed and exist today may not have been Gil Scott-Heron’s primary motivation in telling his own story. Still, as with other lessons one might draw from The Last Holiday, this critique is there for those willing to connect the historical dots and conduct further explorations of their own. The isolated details and observations that make up the memoir, while at times disjointed, are also important in their own light; for the informed reader who sees them through the correct lens, they become more powerful and illuminating.