Original artwork by Donte Neal is an illustration of William Greaves' head, with mouth slightly open, looking to the left. A bit of his clothing is also depicted, in blues and browns, and the head illustration is surrounded by black sguiggly lines on top of a light brown background.

Portrait by Donte Neal



SPEAKING OF RIVERS

Jon-Sesrie Goff


The shadows wane. The Dawn comes to New York. And I go darkly-rebel to my work.
– Claude McKay, “Dawn in New York”


As Claude McKay wrote about the few moments of calm in Harlem before the evening’s last revelers yield to the commerce of the day, the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library was bathed, as it still is today, in light by the dancing orange sun piercing around the sharp corners of Manhattan rooftops and sculpted trim of row houses on Strivers’ Row. The faint aroma of broken hooch bottles, sweat-warmed pomade, and polished trombones gave way to the early morning wash (laundry), the grinding wheels of the Interborough Rapid Transit steel subway cars against wooden rails, and freshly baked yeast breads. Seventh Avenue was appropriately nicknamed “heaven” during the Harlem Renaissance. This is the Harlem that sang lullabies to William “Bill” Greaves as a child. It was brimming with possibilities. He was born in 1926, one year after the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints––a predecessor to the Schomburg Center––opened in the 135th Street Library.


By the time Bill Greaves was a student at City College in the early 1940s, he probably saw a resilient Harlem from his vantage point on campus, up the hill on Convent Avenue. Harlem had endured the Clutch Plague of his coming-of-age, and the loud drum of the Second World War; the neighborhood swelled again with the second wave of the Great Migration of Black people, who came from the American South and the Caribbean to fill wartime factories and flee the domestic terrorism of Jim Crow.


The basement of the library on 135th Street between the old ‘heaven' and Lenox Avenue had been transformed into the American Negro Theater (ANT), operated by Abram Hill and Frederick O’Neal. Hill and O’Neal mentored a generation of artists and activists that would transform the American landscape of film, television, and theater, including Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Isabel Sanford, Alice Childress, Hilda Simms, and Greaves. They sought to produce plays that “honestly and with integrity interpreted, illuminated, and criticized contemporary Black life and the concerns of the Black people.” This training can be seen as the backbone of Greaves’s lifework as a filmmaker at a time when creative and political voices were softened by the threat of McCarthyism.


Bill Greaves’s experience at the ANT cannot be separated from his filmography, from his first appearance on camera as Archie in the feature film Lost Boundaries (1949) to his 1991 documentary about diplomat and 1950 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Ralph Bunche to a posthumous collaboration with Darius Clark Monroe, in which Monroe reassembled unreleased footage produced by Greaves in Black 14 (2018). In his work there is a throughline of integrity and honed perception of the Black experience in America that considers multiple gazes––an extension of the ethos practiced by his mentors and peers at the ANT.


William Greaves. Photo courtesy of Louise Greaves.




"In his work there is a throughline of integrity and honed perception of the Black experience in America that considers multiple gazes."


Greaves noted in an interview with Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr. for his series African American Legends that “narrative and documentary have the same objectives but different ways they achieve it. In the documentary you are required to be much more authenticated in what you present. The doc is part of African American filmmaking experience. . . . In order to get to the truth, you must use the documentary, because there are too many theatrical licenses that are applied to feature films that can distract and deflect you from the truth.”


The work of Bill Greaves has an undeniable out-flowering of the human spirit and an attempt to reflect the truth of a people. His first film, The First World Festival of Negro Arts (1966), opens on the shores of Dakar, Senegal, following the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, as Greaves recites Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (which adorns the floor of the Schomburg Center, the present-day 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library):


I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


The spring of 1966, when the film was shot, saw a crystallization of the ideas of Négritude planted thirty years prior by poet Léopold Senghor, the first president of Senegal, and other artists and thinkers responding to global political and economic challenges as Black people sought independence from colonial systems throughout the world. The scene that Langston and Greaves witnessed on the beach––decorated pirogues dragged to sea by kufi-donning fishermen, women gathering their boubous with one hand while balancing baskets atop their head with the other, children running between the intricate marketplace of vendors, and the stench of freshly scaled fish––was probably the same site that inspired novelist Ousmane Sembène to become a filmmaker. Greaves and Sembène stood on the precipice of change that would usher in generations of Black filmmakers who sought to present the challenging milieus of the complexities of the Black experience.


William Greaves at the 37th Flaherty Seminar in 1991. Photo courtesy of Flaherty




"A Black sensibility did not exist in the arena of documentary until William Greaves gave us a new way of seeing through the intentional selection of material that had been with us all the time."



Greaves may have chosen the documentary form because he was concerned with presenting an unfiltered truth. However, an early love of science made him aware of both the limits of perception and the impact that his presence as a filmmaker had on the events and people he sought to document. He elaborated on this understanding during a discussion about his masterpiece Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968), which was relatively unknown when it was presented at the 1991 Flaherty Film Seminar at Wells College in Aurora, New York, programmed by Stephen Gallagher and Coco Fusco:


I off and on followed various scientific theories, of one kind or another, and the Heisenberg principle of uncertainty began to fascinate me. I began to think of the camera as the electron microscope, because the Heisenberg theory asserts that we’ll never know what reality or the cosmos ultimately is made up of because the means of perception, which is the electron microscope . . . knocks the electrons out of the orbits, and so it destroys the thing that’s to be seen.

I began to think of, analogically speaking, of the camera as a microscope that looks at the human soul . . . and mind and psyche. As it proceeds to investigate that part of the cosmos, the individual begins to change and recoil and withdraw. The behavior becomes structured and determined in a way other than what it would’ve been had it been unperceived, so that what we did was we set up these cameras. And in this sense the film really in many ways wasn’t in my head a film. It was more of an environment in which these cameras were set up to catch this process of human response.


Greaves was aware of the scientific possibilities and limitations of cinema, especially as an African American filmmaker. His engagement with the tools of cinema automatically impacted how individuals, of every cultural background, performed or reacted to the presence of a Black director and producer. A Black sensibility did not exist in the arena of documentary until William Greaves gave us a new way of seeing through the intentional selection of material that had been with us all the time. He was challenging the viewer while examining our minds. People have a certain perception that allows them to witness minor interactions, which, magnified through modern technologies, explode macro-realities. Greaves did not retreat; he rallied troops and marched forward.


The First World Festival of Negro Arts, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, and Ali, the Fighter (1971) are the finest examples of Greaves’s unique sense of perception, awareness, and humor. He was able to see and juxtapose realities that offered sharp commentary on the subject matter at hand. His observations of the boxing promoters, who commissioned him to make Ali, the Fighter, mirror the images of white spectators in The First World Festival of Negro Arts and bring to the fore the racialized tensions evident in Black performance and white consumption.


What would Bill Greaves perceive in this moment? His most mystifying work, the unfinished and unreleased patchwork of verité dinner party footage at Duke Ellington’s Riverside Drive home and isolated interviews of Harlem Renaissance luminaries, is the bridge between his early development as an actor and the first films he made with the National Film Board of Canada and US Information Agency. These works rely on his sense of drama, of capitalizing on a single moment. A breath. A being. The same man who appeared on camera for the first episode of Black Journal would later helm the series as executive producer and shepherd a generation of filmmakers whose works expand the domain of how we get to the truth of Black life. His legacy continues to resound to this day through over two hundred documentaries he produced or directed. He stands, like the Schomburg, as a resource that we can continue to return to for a deeper understanding of Black experience.