News & Politics

What Happened to Joe Wood?

On July 16th, the New York Times ran a brief article about the disappearance of celebrated black writer Joe Wood. Joe had been hiking on Mt. Rainier, got lost in the wilderness, and was presumed dead. Later that night, John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s plane went down off Martha's vineyard -- and that was when Joe Wood really disappeared. In the John-John media frenzy that ensued, reporters dropped Joe like a ton of bricks. Did Mr. Kennedy deserve to eclipse the Joe Wood story, or did the color of Joe's skin keep him in the media shadows?
On July 16th, the New York Times ran a brief article about the disappearance of Joe Wood. The thirty-four year old book editor was attending the Unity '99 conference of minority journalists in Seattle, Washington, when he decided to do a little bird-watching in the Longmire area of Mt. Rainier. The evidence suggests that he was traveling alone and unequipped for hiking, and at least one eye-witness reportedly saw Joe Wood on July 8th, the day he set out on his excursion. The witness remembers warning him of a particularly unstable snow bridge. Days later, his abandoned car was discovered in a parking lot at Longmire. Whatever the circumstances, by the time the article ran Joe Wood had been missing for eight days.Later that night, John F. Kennedy, Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and Lauren Bessette perished in a tragic plane crash, their young lives cut short in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Their disappearance, the search, and the awful realization that there would be no survivors spurred the entire nation into a state of mourning. Then Joe Wood really disappeared.Like many others, I felt deeply saddened by the deaths of these three young and talented people, and moved by the rich and detailed portraits of John, Carolyn, and Lauren painted in vivid technicolor by the television and print media. But I wanted to know what happened to Joe Wood, my friend. I spent the weekend channel surfing, web surfing, thumbing through the latest editions of local newspapers for anything about Joe, but there was no other news beyond the Kennedy tragedy. For many of us who know and love Joe, it turned out to be a particularly frustrating weekend. Where were the search parties for Joe? What did the Civil Air Patrol plan to do? Had they found any witnesses? Then late Tuesday night, five days after learning of Wood's disappearance, I ran across a short article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (July 19, 1999) posted on the web. It confirmed what I had heard by word-of-mouth from Wood's vast network of friends and acquaintances: he had not been found and the National Parks service decided to call off the search. Outraged, many of us called and faxed the National Park Service's office at Mt. Ranier asking that the search continue.Maybe Joe Wood was no John F. Kennedy, Jr., but does that mean he deserved to be jettisoned from the media, lost and forgotten? Is the life of this young and incredibly talented black man really so insignificant compared to Mr. Kennedy's? Like Kennedy, Wood was full of promise. Besides being one of the most dynamic editors at the New Press and a former senior editor at the Village Voice, Wood is regarded as one of the most talented writers of our generation. His essays are generally autobiographical, exploring issues such as race, color consciousness, sex, masculinity, and the problems of coming of age in a post-Civil Rights generation. His prose is pure poetry, metaphors rising from the page, a thousand pictures of meaning packed into short staccato phrases. His book reviews, like his brilliant meditation on critic Albert Murray's most recent works published in the Village Voice a couple years back, are always incisive and thoughtful. And his edited book Malcolm X: In Our Own Image (1992) has few peers in the burgeoning field of Malcolm studies. If there was a single theme in all of Joe's writings it is that black people are extremely complicated and diverse, and while our burdens are often collective and shared, what goes on in our families and communities is beautiful, four-dimensional, multicolored chaos.Like "John John," Joe also touched many lives as a writer, editor, and friend. Somewhat soft-spoken with an infectious smile and an affinity for baseball caps, Joe had a way of bringing laughter to a room in a quiet way. Every time I ran into him or engaged him on the phone, we would end up exchanging hilarious stories that ultimately revolve around the absurdity of being black in a world that cannot see you unless you conform to certain stereotypes. Joe was neither a BUPPY (Black Urban Professional) nor a gangsta nor an au naturel vegetarian dredlock-wearing guy. He is just ... Joe -- cosmopolitan, extremely well-read, kinda cool, and like me, about five percent nerd. And he possesses one of the most brilliant minds I have ever encountered. After graduating with honors from Yale University, he moved almost immediately into New York's hippest literary circles, writing for the Village Voice when it was cutting edge and exciting. Indeed, Joe once told me that the controversial critic Stanley Crouch helped him land a job there. As my editor on at least two different projects, Joe was a dream to work with: he listens patiently, reads with the care of a highly paid surgeon, makes every effort to understand your intentions, and he takes charge.So why did Joe disappear? Why did someone with so much talent and promise and popularity completely evaporate from the media? Why was his tragedy -- a tragedy that has rocked many people in the world of writing -- not worthy of even one-tenth the coverage given to the Kennedys? I'm not naive enough to expect equal time, but the abrupt manner in which Joe completely dropped out of the news compels us once again to ask: what is a black man's life worth? Given how few of us occupy the literary world, and how few truly brilliant minds there are in the world generally, the prospect of losing a Joe Wood is devastating. And the possibility of losing his legacy, his history and contribution, his very presence is equally devastating. Sadly, perhaps Joe's own words explain why the nation doesn't mourn the loss of Joe Wood, or why the nation doesn't know enough to mourn his loss. In what now seems like an eerie passage from his essay, "Malcolm X and the New Blackness," he discusses his dual life as a black kid in the Bronx and a student at the elite Riverdale High School located just inside the Bronx county line. Joe wrote, "My family and neighbors were not Kennedys -- we worked and we were too black." And as any celebrity photographer will tell you, when you're too black, you are more susceptible to being lost in the shadows.

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