Gaston Neal wins arts “Oscar”
by Askia Muhammad
 WASHINGTON--After a near-three-year-battle with lymphatic cancer, internationally renowned poet Gaston Neal died peacefully in his bed at home Oct. 21. 

Dubbed “the most important unpublished poet in America,” by well known writer Amiri Baraka, Mr. Neal’s last official accolade came less than a week before his demise when Dr. Anthony Gittens, Executive Director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts presented the ailing writer the Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Literary Arts.

 “The Mayor’s Arts Award is the highest acknowledgment our city can bestow upon members of its cultural community,” said Mayor Anthony Williams in a statement. “Those honored have made significant contributions to our quality of life and made Washington a better place for us all,” he said.

“This year, one of the most credible awards nominations that we’ve ever received at the Arts commission, was in the name of Gaston Neal,” Dr. Gittens said to Mr. Neal and dozens of poets, writers, painters, dancers, musicians and Mr. Neal’s friends and family in his home. There were also more nominations received this year for the Mayor’s Arts Awards--the city’s “Oscar for the arts”--than ever before, he said.

 “The committee deliberated quite a few hours trying to figure out who to give (the various) awards to, but it wasn’t very hard when it came to Gaston,” Dr. Gittens continued, recalling Mr. Neal’s 35 years of literary contributions in Washington, dating back to the world-famous New School for Afro-American Thought, which he co-founded; his thousands of poetry readings and performances; and his contributions to more than 20 literary magazines.

Two years ago, Mr. Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, The Last Poets, and dozens of other musicians, friends, supporters and arts patrons helped Mr. Neal in his fight against cancer, donating their time, talent, and even paying their own way to Washington to perform at a benefit concert in July 1997 at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium. More than 2,000 fans attended.

Though the popular cultural leader and co-founder of Washington's New School for Afro-American Thought, and the Drum and Spear Bookstore was an apprentice to Langston Hughes and Professor Sterling Brown, and his work appears in dozens of the most important Black literature anthologies, he has never published a volume of his own work. At the time of his death he was editing a soon-to-be-published collection of poems and essays.

Dubbed “A Cultural Reunion,” the 1997 event was a benefit to establish an education fund for the artist's daughters Zola, 12 and Zendzi, 11. Also featured were world-renowned jazz musicians, Keter Betts, Buck Hill, Brother Ah, Nasar Abadey, Craig Harris, and 10-year cancer survivor Malachi Thompson.

 “When you’ve got an eye, you’ve got to use it,” said Mr. Neal said, accepting the Mayor’s Art Award Oct. 16--the Fourth Anniversary of the Million Man March and Day of Atonement. He recalled being advised back in the 1960s to make himself an “uninvited guest” at a meeting of all-white art patrons who made up an unofficial panel to recommend which artists,programs and institutions Washington’s major donors would support. That group, he said, evolved into what is now the official Arts Commission.

 “They had this little group, and nobody knew anything about it. I went in there to make sure we got an equal distribution of the money. I got over there and turned the tables over. It was no longer ever the same again, that that money would stay hidden like that.”

Mr. Neal established a reputation as an energetic fighter for causes in which he believed, and in all facets of his life. Growing up in Pittsburgh's Hill District during the Depression and World War II, Mr. Neal learned to fight when he was a young child, when other children taunted him for his own very fair complexion and curly hair, because they said his father, even lighter-skinned, was a white man.

“I had to fight all the time,” Mr. Neal once told a reporter. “Kids was always telling me, ‘Your daddy's white,’ and he wasn’t. It hurt me so bad that one time I just ran into the house screaming and crying to my mother. I was about 8 years old.” His mother, he said, told him to fight back, and finally the teasing stopped because Mr. Neal gained a reputation as being, “so crazy, he's gonna fight you even if you can beat him.”

 Mr. Neal was one of the first, if not the very first Artist-in-Residence in the D.C. Public Schools, teaching poetry at Eastern High School in the 1970s. He was one of the first artists in D.C. to put poetry and musical performers onto a flat-bed truck. By some estimations, he has performed,not just in every ward of the city, but in practically every single voting precinct.

As a special assistant to Washington literary icon Larry Neal (no relation), Gaston Neal created and took a writer’s program to the D.C. Jail.  In the 1980s he wrote “Neecey’s Dilemma,” a socio-drama about drugs and safe-sex. It was presented in a day-long performance of words and music on WPFW-89.3FM, earning a coveted “Golden Reel” Award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

After his struggles as an outspoken militant during the civil rights era, Mr. Neal fell victim to street life and substance abuse. In the 1970s he fought back again, eventually winning a position as a drug counselor, helping others overcome their own addictions with the D.C. Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services Administration (ADASA).

In modern times Mr. Neal has performed and recorded with jazzmen Hamiet Bluiett and Fred Foss; and with Blues singer Bobby Parker.