Gaston T. Neal, 65, a community activist and influential performance poet who was best known for his work in the genre of the black power movement and social change, died of lymphatic cancer Oct. 21 at his home in Washington.
Mr. Neal was also a teacher, playwright and rehabilitated crusader against substance abuse. He emerged as a creative force in the turmoil of the 1960s, writing poetry on the human, political and economic rights of the urban poor. In Washington bistros and jazz coffeehouses, he recited stanzas with a gravelly voice that drew amens from the crowds.
His words reverberated with the chords of accompanying jazz music and lifted him among the ranks of other well-known poets of the time such as A.B. Spellman, Amiri Baraka and Quincy Troupe.
In the midst of the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, Mr. Neal captured in invigorating and direct language a feeling of oppression, anxiety and disappointment with American society and its institutions. His works were included in the anthologies "Black Fire," "Black Power Revolt" and "Voices of Struggle," as well as in many literary magazines. But they were never published into a single volume, leading some to speculate that Mr. Neal was the most important "unpublished" poet in America.
He was decribed as intense and voluble, once saying, "The only home I know is Africa. I don't love America; it's not my country."
Coupled with his controlled rage was a sense of solution, anchored in education and hard work, friends said.
"He was very much a poet of the people," said Sonia Sanchez, a noted poet and chair of women's studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. "There was potency in his words about social issues but also the possibilities for change."
Sanchez was one of dozens who gathered at Mr. Neal's home Saturday in honor of his receipt of the D.C. Mayor's Award for Excellence in Service to the Arts. The award was to be given next week but was rescheduled because of Mr. Neal's declining health.
Growing up in his native Pittsburgh, he got into fights with neighborhood children who taunted that his father, a fair-skinned African American, was a white man. After high school, he joined the Army and served as a medic at Walter Reed Army Medical Center during the Korean War.
He worked odd jobs after his military service and took college courses. One day, he showed his poems to a Howard University professor, who in turn read them to writer and poet Langston Hughes.
With encouragement from both, Mr. Neal pursued his writing in earnest. He also moved beyond his words to organize events and organizations in the Washington area to further his goal of black empowerment. He put together musical festivals in Washington's black working-class neighborhoods.
In 1966, he started the New School of Afro-American Thought to promote studies on contemporary Africa. There were free courses on drama, creative writing and math. He served as the school's chief administrator and taught seminars on poetry and the history of rock and roll.
About the time the school closed in 1971, Mr. Neal produced innovated jazz and poetry series for the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He also served as an artist-in-residence in the D.C. public school system and served as a public information officer for the United Black Fund charity organization.
His life work, as he saw it, was to get every black man strong enough to make self-determinating choices in life.
"A man can be oppressed and not know it, can walk down a street with a thousand dollars in his pocket and still be a victim," he once said in an interview. That theme is reflected in words from his poem "Personal Jihad":
. . .As the morning seed grows
The blue of the sky mingles
With the twisted black
Of Winter trees
And silence loses its clutches
On a beginning day
And I sit here aware of
The pain and urgency
Must attain discipline
For brotherhood and unity
Softly, say it now
Say it now--
Down in the soul . . . Discipline
Say it soul brothers
Say it soul brothers
Discipline . . .
In recent years, his poetry has served as an inspiration for a new breed of young poets. Kenneth Carroll, a Washington writer, said Mr. Neal "passed on techniques on craftsmanship and about the need to have our work mean something."
In the 1980s, Mr. Neal wrote the play "Neecey's Dilemma," a drama about the importance of safe sex. The message of the play tied into his other work with the D.C. Department of Public Health. After his own struggles to battle alcohol and drug addiction, he worked as an outreach coordinator for the D.C. Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services Administration from 1985 to 1992. For the last seven years, he did similar work for the D.C. Office of AIDS-HIV Activities.
His marriages to Elizabeth "Betty" Neal and Diane Neal ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife, Jewell Johnson of Washington; three children from his first marriage, Gaston T. Neal Jr. of Marlow Heights, Keith Neal of Crofton and Eric Neal of Pittsburgh; a daughter from his second marriage, Damali Neal of Washington; two children from his third marriage, Zola Neal and Zendzi Neal, both of Washington; a stepson, Jamaane Robinson of Washington; a sister; Beulah Butler of Washington; and seven grandchildren.