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Gaston Neal had a story to tell—or, rather, many, many stories to tell. There was the one about seeing Miles Davis trying to score some heroin, the one about how the owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl ripped off the secret recipe for chili from a jaded ex-lover, the one about how Mumbo sauce was invented. Then there were more personal tales: the story about being placed in the same rubber room at St. Elizabeths that Ezra Pound had once occupied, the yarn about getting drunk with Allen Ginsberg down at the Washington Monument, the story about blocking off U street so that Muhammad Ali could give a speech.
Every time you saw Neal, it seemed, he had a new one for you. But last Sunday, in front of a massive crowd at Rankin Chapel at Howard University, Neal was silent. This time it was the assembled friends, family, and admirers who reeled off the yarns. My favorite was the one about how in 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Neal exhorted the crowd to burn down the city. The next day he recounted the event to a friend and noted, “I didn’t know they were gonna burn down my house, too.”
Neal, who died of lymphoma at his home Oct. 21, was a bit of a renaissance man, and the parade of mourners who descended on his service reflected his broad taste in causes. To put a point on his work as a ’60s radical, there was his colleague in struggle, Baba Lumumba. For the words he crafted as a writer, there were poets Amiri Baraka and A.B. Spellman. There were musicians and singers like drummer Nasar Abadey and singer Nap Turner. And there were other folks from his other struggles. Ward 1 Councilmember and former Whitman-Walker Clinic Director Jim Graham talked with some intimacy about Neal’s work in the public health war against AIDS. There were a host of young poets, like Brian Gilmore and Toni Blackmon, whom Neal had mentored. And there were the other politicians. Some, like Marion Barry, seemed very familiar with Neal and what made him such a big deal. Others, like Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, simply knew that somebody really deep had passed away.
There was no preacher rattling off about the splendors of heaven. (Neal was, as one person recalled, “a militant atheist.”) There was no elegantly adorned coffin—there was only Neal resting in a plain pine box, just like he requested. At the end of the service, the pallbearers loaded Neal’s coffin into a hearse (full disclosure: I was one of the people doing the lifting), and one of the most epic voices to ever grace the District skipped town and proceeded off into a wind-whipped Sunday night. —Ta-Nehisi Coates