The Strange Legacy of “Francisco,” a Novel of Black Bohemianism

The Strange Legacy of “Francisco,” a Novel of Black Bohemianism

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Alison Mills Newman’s novel of Black bohemianism.

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Alison Mills Newman’s 1974 novel Francisco begins and ends in a bed. In its opening scene, the unnamed narrator, a Black actress and poet, is with her eccentric lover Francisco, a filmmaker. They spend the morning “layin round, rollin round…huggin round,” acts they gleefully go on to repeat atop numerous mattresses and couches throughout the story. The narrator says that she and Francisco are just friends, but as the pair drift through parties, hangouts, movie screenings, and road trips in a state of romantic bliss, their relationship reveals itself to be intimate and devotional. By the time the novel ends, in a hotel room, the narrator has found another bed and another friend for “layin round, rollin round, tossin and turnin round,” but the callback is ambivalent. That “friend” turns out to be herself, a shift that troubles the innuendo of the repeated imagery and setting. Has the narrator discovered the joys of self-pleasure and solitude in a breakup? Or has she lost her identity and resigned herself to loneliness?

Self-possession and dispossession often blur in Mills Newman’s tale of romance. Written in a casual, digressive style that channels the rhythms and grammar of African American vernacular, Francisco turns 1970s California into an arch Black idyll that’s glamorous and grimy all at once. Mills Newman’s couple lack money and steady employment, but their precarity emboldens them to seek pleasure in their bodies and their art. They commit themselves to leisure rather than upward mobility, exploring forms of Black security and sanctum that are untethered from building and maintaining wealth. They don’t move on up to get their piece of the pie; they forage so that they may bake their own.

Now republished by New Directions, Francisco had fallen into obscurity after a small initial run in the 1970s. A television and stage actor at the time, Mills Newman wrote it during road trips with the real-life Francisco Toscano Newman, her eventual husband. She found an early supporter in Ishmael Reed, whose independent press Reed, Cannon & Johnson published the book. An earlier version was excerpted in the literary magazine Yardbird Reader (another Reed venture) as a slice-of-life story set in San Francisco and the margins of Hollywood, the full novel uses the settings to explore Black womanhood and Black love. Mills Newman’s playful and racy storytelling departs from the tradition of social-realist and protest novels that dominated much of Black literature at the time by foregrounding desire over politics. But even in romance, a genre of escapism and wish fulfillment, politics pokes through, as Mills Newman’s narrator experiences inequities within what appears to be a fulfilling and liberating relationship.

Francisco coincided with second-wave feminism and the Black Power and Black Arts movements, and the content and style of the book draw on those currents. The novel’s defining traits are its experimental structure and its vernacular syntax. Mills Newman writes in lilting first-person sentences that lurch and flow like a jazz vamp. She also makes frequent use of lowercase spellings, slang, and run-on sentences, attributes that give the book a conversational and spontaneous feel. In this way, Francisco is a novel that is very much of the Black Arts Movement, whose artists prioritized theater, spoken word poetry, and music because they were seen as more responsive to audience needs. “Theatre is potentially the most social of all of the arts,” wrote the poet Larry Neal, a key movement figure. “It is an integral part of the socializing process. It exists in direct relationship to the audience it claims to serve.” Mills Newman’s own aesthetic insists that the novel is also immediate and interactive.

The formal experimentation belies a straightforward plot. Francisco spends it filming, editing, screening, and soliciting distributors for his independent film about the Black Panther Party. As the film comes together, the narrator shadows Francisco and chronicles the racial and sexual dynamics of the many milieus they move through, tucking her own thoughts and feelings into the margins of the text.

Her favorite subject is Francisco, who is charismatic, wily, and often tender. Above all, however, he is intensely dedicated to his craft. He’s so focused on his film that the narrator exalts his ambition even when it comes at her expense. “i get highly frustrated,” she laments, “flyin back and forth from l.a. to s.f. and not gettin none from this fine black specimen ceptin now and then. but he works hard. i can feel it: when he gets into bed at night he’s dead almost before he closes his eyes and manages a few goodnight words.”

The narrator and Francisco first meet at a dinner party, which is detailed in a flashback. As the narrator is being scolded by the host for her idleness, Francisco swaggers in like a prince and leaves her astonished:

Here comes one nigga who thinks he can change the world. he was tall and dark brown with a conquistador moustache with some blue corduroy pants on, some kind of yellow and red striped sweater— and those shoes. he had on some blue shoes that had this yellow tongue stickin out of a red mouth with thick wooden heels, and i loved those shoes.

The slippage between awe and desire becomes a fixture of how the narrator depicts Francisco. Though they don’t immediately hit it off—and the narrator’s description of him is as mocking as it is smitten—she comes to idolize him as both an artist and a lover.

At times, their relationship sounds heavenly. The narrator and Francisco crack jokes about each other’s smells and outfits, dance to James Brown and Pharoah Sanders, fuck, collaborate on his film, and entertain a rotating cast of fellow oddballs. Crucially, the narrator casts them as partners in crime and friends in addition to being lovers. This wild and fun domestic life is worlds away from the harsh realism of Donald Goines’s Black Girl Lost and James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, two other novels from the early ’70s about Black women and their fraught search for security within love and sex.

The duo also depart from the refined middle-class cool advertised in Black magazines like Jet and Ebony at the time. They are emphatically anti-respectable, qualities manifest in their blue humor and the annoyed responses they receive from more buttoned-up Black folks. The narrator takes pride in her louche lifestyle, shunning popular culture’s commodification of Blackness: “the white man cannot give my life sudden acceptance, or glorification by puttin me or somebody like me on the cover of some magazine wearin some high fashion clothes, or african clothes,” she says. “i existed before the media pretended to discover me.” Though the narrator and Francisco exude the glow of a celebrity couple, they would never receive an NAACP Image Award.

Their peers and the world around them respond to their happiness with skepticism. An Essence article that the narrator encounters early on and refers to throughout the novel slowly deflates the couple’s mirage of equality. The article, based on a real essay by M. Marie Simmons, argues that successful Black men depend on Black women and encourages Black women to strive for their own success and independence. The narrator reluctantly agrees with the article’s argument but then dismisses it: “that’s true i guess. but then i don’t know no man that got just one woman. i mean most of these men must have passed through lots of could-be successful women. so what does that mean?” Though her response is partly in jest, she clearly resents the suggestion that she should work harder on her own behalf when she’s already so content.

The article comes up again as the narrator and Francisco head to a screening of his film. “i don’t know i think it’s not so much behind every great man is a great woman. as much as a great man is a great man and a girl is a girl,” she says. This time her response is fatalistic rather than peeved. She doesn’t just reject ambition; she says she can’t be ambitious. It is not entirely clear whether the narrator is sincere or ironic here, whether she intends it as a critique or another joke, but in either case, her pragmatism is clear: In a man’s world, a woman who chases greatness will lose. So she chases a man destined for greatness.

Though bleak, the narrator’s resignation is understandable. Her family and friends scold her for her lack of ambition. But the advice she gets is often sexist. One friend asks the narrator what her plans are and tells her it looks like she’s “just trippin, wastin time,” dating Francisco. But his counteroffer isn’t to support her or help her get on a better track; he tells her he’s going to be a big shot in five years and will rescue her after she’s single. A family friend tells the narrator that her decision to not go to college is “breakin [her] father’s heart” and offers a “young black man, rich and all not your regular run of the mill man of these times,” who would be willing to marry her on the spot. In this context, her decision to lollygag with Francisco is a tiny exertion of independence, even if the equality they share is fleeting. If she must have a man, shouldn’t she get to choose the schmuck? Francisco is broke, but at least she likes his shoes and career, and he treats her right.

This line of thinking might be convincing if Francisco were a traditional romance in which the heroine consciously weighs her suitors, their pitches, and the risks and rewards of her choice. But Francisco has no competition, nor does he really court the narrator: He just overwhelms her with his charm, his outsize personality slowly obscuring the narrator’s own personal ambitions. She constantly cleans, cooks, and drives—labor that explicitly helps sustain their daily lives. Yet she declines to foreground her own work or creativity, mentioning her occasional acting gigs and her interest in singing and writing poetry only as asides. And she rarely speaks of these activities with the rapture with which she discusses Francisco’s film. She presents this self-erasure as her duty: “i guess he loves me…occasionally he’s very cold to me—distant. at first it upset me but i am learnin for it not to. i think of nothin but francisco’s success, our love.”

Unfortunately, this one-sided devotion and the narrator’s doubts about it are confined to the subtext. Though the narrator seems to finally recognize that her relationship with Francisco is unequal, Mills Newman doesn’t explore the source of that dynamic, a choice that limits the weight of her narrator’s revelations and percolating anxieties. Kept inside or mentioned in passing, her thoughts and feelings amass without having an impact on their relationship. She has a distinct voice and an engrossing inner life, yet no authority or agency. The disconnect registers abstractly as a critique of bohemian living, but in practice it undermines the storytelling. The narrator is so passive that she barely feels like a participant in her own life.

While Mills Newman’s style shares sensibilities with the radical poetry of Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde, the postmodern satire of Ishmael Reed and Fran Ross, and the gothic blues fiction of Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, and Toni Cade Bambara, her main interest turns out to be quite traditional: monogamy. The narrator’s love of Francisco is fiery and all-consuming, an inferno of fidelity. He is the mechanism through which she understands her autonomy and self-worth. The couple’s present and future are determined entirely by the fate of his film.

After the publication of Francisco, Mills Newman’s output stalled. One other book, Maggie 3, another autobiographical novel that follows an artist’s coming of age, was published in 2007, but Mills Newman became primarily a filmmaker and minister. Her films feature religious themes and are explicitly “devoted to spreading the gospel of the good news of Jesus Christ,” as her company’s website explains.

The new edition of Francisco acknowledges this pivot. In an afterword, Mills Newman—who has called homosexuality a “sin” and queer people “scum” in interviews and sermons—says she hesitated to allow the book’s rerelease because she no longer endorses its “lifestyle of fornication.” She relented because she now views Francisco as a convert’s testimony. “i tenderly let go,” she writes, “in the hope that the knowledge of my encounter with Christ…can somehow give Glory to Yahweh and encourage others in their search for truth.”

The addendum is conspicuous and technically noncanonical, but its call to submit to Christianity differs from the narrator’s supplicant yielding to Francisco only by degrees, a continuity worth considering. Beneath all the joys and subversions of Francisco lurks a more conventional story of a heterosexual woman’s identity dissolving into that of her man’s.

One can even hear these themes at the end of the novel. When the narrator and Francisco break up, the story sputters out of energy. The bohemian parties cease; sores and bumps inexplicably sprout across the narrator’s body. Her father kicks her out of his house. Without Francisco, her muse, the narrator’s drive and sense of self-worth wither. As she idles alone in a hotel bed, the freedom she’s enjoyed leading up to that moment is revealed to be conditional. All along, she seems to realize, she and Francisco were a party of one.

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