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City Kid
Nelson George
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INTRODUCTION

scores of writers across the country know, journalism is one of the toughest professional fields to break into. It’s even more difficult to make a name for yourself, let alone become one of the most respected chroniclers of a burgeoning music and cultural movement in the United States – and yet Nelson George – son of a Brooklyn teacher and a Harlem hustler – became just that.

Growing up in the projects of Brooklyn during the seventies was often fraught with difficulty and sometimes with danger, but George’s innate sense of ambition and his mother’s constant support and enthusiasm propelled him out of poverty and into a successful career as a movie reviewer, a music critic, and a patron of the arts.

In City Kid, George examines his childhood, adolescence, and maturation as a writer during his twenties and thirties with the same objective eye he uses to craft his award-winning articles and nonfiction books. Yet his account of chasing a journalism career as a young black man in a rapidly changing post-civil rights NYC is not devoid of emotion, but instead infused with a steadfast sincerity and genuine enthusiasm for the people and places he encountered during his developing career.

George’s voice is at once humble, proud, sweet, funny, and always in awe of the city and the cultural movements that fostered his ambition and dreams. In the beautifully crafted, careful prose that he’s been honing since those days reading Hemingway and writing for the school paper, George’s City Kid is an exceptional record of New York City and its boroughs during the 70s and 80s. It’s also a testament to how desire, dedication, and devotion to one’s craft can lift a young man out of poverty, into prosperity, and more importantly – into a refined sense of self.

ABOUT NELSON GEORGE

Nelson George

Nelson George is an award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction. He has written for Playboy, Billboard, Esquire, the Village Voice, Essence, and many other national magazines, as well as writing and producing television programs and feature films.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. At the beginning of the book, Nelson George describes his ancestry as far back as his family has recorded it or passed it down over the years. How much do you know about your own family’s origins? How much does family genealogy play a part in determining who you are? How did it play a part in shaping who you came to be?
  2. At the end of the first chapter, George writes of his separated parents: “We were harbingers of the future, where the idea of black family would be in a constant flux and redefinition.” Apply then, this statement to the art of African Americans in the late 20th century – also in a state of “constant flux and redefinition”, and something George surrounded himself with. Consider particularly the black music and filmmaking of the 80s that he was immersed in.
  3. In the chapter titled “High Fidelity”, George describes the music his mother bought and listened to while he was a child – and to a certain extent, his father’s – and detailed its influence over him at an early age. How did the music of your own parents influence you? Describe the way it shaped the choices you make these days when it comes to listening to and purchasing music.
  4. George’s recollection of his urban neighborhood during his childhood and preadolescent years is significant not only for its personal significance to the author, but because it is a record of New York City life that has all but disappeared. Discuss the social significance of the projects as George described it, and its escalating poverty and violence as he – and the neighborhoods – grew older. Also discuss the significance of George’s memoir as a written record and a part of black history.
  5. In the chapter titled “My Hero,” George recalls his mother’s resilience and fortitude during those early years in the Brownsville projects. Her attempt to educate herself while working and raising two children had a huge impact on her children. Describe and discuss its negative and positive influences on Nelson and Andrea as they grew into adulthood.
  6. Consider George’s relationship with his sister – what about their urban upbringing had the biggest impact on their dynamic? If they had lived in the suburbs, or in a three-bedroom home, for all of their lives, might their sibling rivalry have been different? How and why? (Was it only their lack of privacy that caused their contentiousness?)
  7. George discusses Sidney Poitier’s influence over him as “a very useful role model”. Discuss the importance of such celebrity role models to black youth, particularly those growing up in the wake of the civil rights movement, as seen from George’s perspective. Compare actors like Poitier and athletes like Muhammad Ali to their contemporary counterparts – who today, if anyone, parallels their grace and accomplishments?
  8. George recalls a sense of betrayal when WBLS changes its playlist and airs more disco than soul. Have you ever felt a similar sense of betrayal and/or loss when something from your own childhood changed? Discuss the implications of changes like this on an adolescent’s sense of self.
  9. In the chapter “BK ’69”, George recalls a life-changing lesson assigned by the instructor of his summer enrichment program. Similarly, in the next chapter, he writes that sending $1 to the Literary Guild for books altered the direction of his life. Do you have any similar memories? When did you know what you wanted to do with your life? Can you recall the most important, shaping moment in your life? What was it?
  10. At various points in the book, George describes the act of writing as filling a spiritual and even romantic void in his life. Discuss this revelation and what it reveals about his character – do you think it is symptomatic of his sometimes estranged relationships with family members and girlfriends, or does it perhaps cause these strained relationships?
  11. George’s effort in the early eighties to make ends meet parallels the experiences of many college graduates in the early 21st century. What lessons can we learn from George’s tenacity during the periods of struggle in his life?
  12. In the latter half of his memoir, George gives personal accounts of his interactions and friendships with Russell Simmons, Spike Lee, and Chris Rock. Compare his accounts with what you knew previously about these three artists, and discuss how George’s memoir sheds new light on all three of these (now) well-known personalities.
  13. Discuss George’s passion for writing projects that give voice to the disenfranchised, or those on the fringe of society’s awareness, like the session musicians of Motown, or his sister at the beginning of the AIDs/HIV epidemic in the eighties. Consider in particular the threats he received (and that his competition received) when he researched the Motown book, or the way his entire relationship with his sister changed when he wrote and directed a movie about her. In what way is he as much an advocate for those on the perimeter of social awareness, as his sister is for AIDs/HIV awareness, and his mother was for education?
  14. In “Fort Greene Dreams”, George writes: “Many writers aspire to be Ralph Ellison, to write a starburst of a book that would light the literary sky forever. I was more interested in emulating Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, or Gordon Parks, all of whom had long, varied careers that produced many works and embraced many disciplines.” After reading his memoir, do you think he was successful in his aspirations? Which would you rather be? Compare, too, this burst of creativity in the eighties to that of the Harlem Renaissance – do you think it has, as George hopes, “the [same] historic resonance”?