The sidewalks of Harlem’s main thoroughfares are wide and inviting, and in the 1960s the kids playing “boxball” shared the asphalt squares with some of the greatest orators in creation. The most famous spot for speechifying was the “Speakers’ Corner” outside Lewis Michaux’s bookstore on 125th Street, where Malcolm X delivered his lectures on race and politics. On weekends or after work, fathers took their boys down to the corners in Harlem to watch any number of would-be firebrands engaged in emotional debate over Vietnam or the state of race relations or Bobby Kennedy’s political future.
Steve Gilliard was born into this Harlem and took it all in, but he wouldn’t find his voice on the corners. He was quiet, bookish, overweight. He won entrance to an elite high school, where he passed his time reading obscure military histories, then studied history and journalism at New York University. He found his true calling, though, on the Internet. In 1998, when he was 34, Gilliard joined a new site called NetSlaves.com, whose blogger-reporters chronicled the misadventures of the new high-tech work force, and there he discovered his own kind of incendiary oration. It was by the dim light of a computer screen, rather than on the sunlit corners of Harlem, that Gilliard took to expertly excoriating the moneyed establishment.
By 2003, Gilliard had become one of the first official “guest bloggers” on Daily Kos, then on its way to becoming the most influential of the new liberal political blogs, where he informed his indictments of the Iraq war with detailed references to the British occupation of Mesopotamia. Eventually he created his own site — “Steve was a big personality, and it was clear he needed his own stage,” Daily Kos’s creator, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, later wrote — and became one of a small group of early political bloggers with his own devoted following (and a self-sustaining, if modest, income from ads). On Gilliard’s “News Blog,” along with the partisan attacks on Republicans that made him a hated figure on the conservative blogs, he specialized in applying history to the present day, which made him an unusual and distinctive voice. In 2004, he banged out a remarkable 37-part series, the equivalent of about 200 typed pages, chronicling the foibles of European colonialism.
Though Gilliard, unlike many bloggers, always used his real name, few readers knew much about him. They didn’t know, for instance, that at age 39 he had open-heart surgery to repair an infected valve. They didn’t know he lived alone in a small apartment in East Harlem. And, although Gilliard often wrote about race and alluded to his own perspective, a lot of readers never realized he was black. In the incident that brought him the most infamy, Gilliard acidly attacked Michael Steele, the black Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Maryland in 2006, as a traitor to his race. Black conservatives like Steele infuriated Gilliard, who couldn’t understand how any African-American could support a party that exploited racial prejudice. “I’s Simple Sambo and I’s Running for the Big House,” read Gilliard’s caption, below a doctored photo of Steele as a minstrel. Only after the post earned him headlines in major newspapers and recriminations from politicians of both parties did a lot of readers come to understand that a white man hadn’t written it — although, for Gilliard’s critics, that hardly made it less offensive.
The paradox of Gilliard’s existence is a familiar story on the blogs, where people often adapt avatars that are more like the selves they imagine being. Online, he was vicious and uncompromising. In person, Gilly, as his close friends called him, was reserved and enigmatic. His writing at times betrayed a sense of loneliness and dislocation. In 2000, after seeing the movie “High Fidelity,” he posted on NetSlaves.com a melancholy reflection on life as a geek. “Geeks live in an eternal conflict between their love of topic and love of people,” he wrote. “I wonder if people substitute fascination with things they can control over things they can’t — other people. You start to wonder if you’ve created a world so limited that you can’t really reach beyond it.” He lamented that he didn’t know what it was to “wake up naked in a strange bed,” but, he wrote, “at 35, I’ve figured out that this is it, at least for now. Anything I do, any life I make, is going to revolve around words and computers and strange, bright people.”
It was a life both short and loud. What began with a bad cough just after Valentine’s Day became a spiraling infection that ravaged Gilliard’s vulnerable heart and kidneys, and he spent most of his last four months hospitalized. The identities he kept separate for most of his 42 years collided in the days after he died; the few dozen mostly white bloggers who came to Harlem for the funeral saw for the first time the stark urban setting of Gilliard’s childhood, while his parents and relatives groped to understand what kind of work he had been doing at that computer and why scores of people had come so far to see him off. They must have been confused when Gilly’s online pals, sickened by the way some right-wing bloggers were gloating over his death, advised them not to disclose where he was buried, out of fear that someone might deface the site. The grave, like Gilliard himself, is known only to a few.
By Matt Bai for the NY Times.com
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