Skinhead laureate: How Philly poets feel betrayed by former revered poet with white nationalist past

On the last day of January 2014, Frank Sherlock stood at a lectern at City Hall, read his poem celebrating the toughness of a black woman from Point Breeze, and shook the hand of then-Mayor Michael Nutter.

 

Sherlock was named Philadelphia’s second poet laureate that day, succeeding activist Sonia Sanchez. With a long, salt-and-pepper beard at age 44 and a trademark scarf, he looked the part of a bard. Decades before that Friday afternoon, though, Sherlock was a 19-year-old skinhead, expressing himself in vastly different ways as the vocalist for the band New Glory.

 

“We are white nationalists,” Sherlock, who went by “Fran” at the time, told a British zine in 1988. “Subsequently, we hold our beliefs of white power for white people. The Aryan people must forge their own destiny, free from the rule of an alien occupational government that serves no representation to the American white masses.”

On social media last month, the revelation that Sherlock, recipient of a Pew Fellowship in 2013, was once a skinhead tore through Philadelphia’s close-knit poetry community, then rippled out into wider circles, affecting nearly everyone who worked closely with him

 

Defenders have said Sherlock’s redemption, his work with young poets over the last two decades, is being unfairly canceled.

Others say Sherlock’s redemption story reeks of privilege.

“As a white person, you get to say it’s a youthful indiscretion,” Rasheedah Phillips, a lawyer, artist, and “AfroFuturist,” told The Inquirer. “As a black person, the consequence for youthful indiscretion is lifelong poverty and jail.”

Sherlock’s white nationalist past was revealed in a poem, posted to Twitter and later deleted, by poet Amy Saul-Zerby after the two had a contentious interaction at Tattooed Mom on South Street on March 21. Saul-Zerby said friends had told her of rumors about Sherlock’s days as “Fran,” and her quick Google search proved it to be true — including a photo of him in a flight jacket, head buzzed, on the back of the New Glory album.

Saul-Zerby placed the zine quote, republished in The White Nationalist Skinhead Movement: UK & USA, 1979-1993, at the top of the poem.

Sherlock, in turn, went to Facebook and posted a long admission, including how being raised in a “siege mentality” in Southwest Philadelphia, where “fortress-style racism was palpable and suffocating,” influenced his choices.

Many comments lauded Sherlock for being honest about his past and for the work he’s done in the poetry community. But others called him out for excusing his racism. In an interview with The Inquirer last week, Sherlock, now 50 and a freelance writer, reiterated that he wrote about his neighborhood as context, not an excuse.

“I had a limited worldview and got into punk rock,” he said.

 

He recalled Mayor Wilson Goode imposing a state of emergency in 1985 in Southwest Philadelphia, where youths, black and white, were killed in what the New York Times described as “racially motivated acts.”

Sherlock said he hung out with classmates from West Catholic and wasn’t involved in any violence. He said he didn’t consider himself a racist, and wasn’t taught racism.

“But it was around,” he said.

Frank Sherlock stands beside his portrait on the exterior wall of Dirty Frank's bar.
Charles Fox / File Photograph

Frank Sherlock stands beside his portrait on the exterior wall of Dirty Frank’s bar.

Sherlock told The Inquirer he worked on a loading dock at Sears after graduation. He listened to the Clash and Siouxsie and the Banshees and hung out on South Street. He was drawn to working-class punk, which led him to Oi!, a British sub-genre of punk with skinhead ties. Often, he attended shows at Club Pizzaz in Frankford and City Gardens in Trenton.

 

“I got into other bands that were a little more right wing,” he said. “Unity is the theme, and then it’s like pride, and the next step is like, you know, just wanting to have your own thing and blaming other people for your problems. It’s like the transition that we see today. All those dog whistles are the same.”

 

On iTunes, New Glory is listed as a rock band. Other websites describe the music as Oi! or “Rock Against Communism,” which the Anti-Defamation League says is a euphemism for “white power/hate music,” so that it can still be marketed and sold.

The German company that released Backlash did not return requests for comment. Two former members of New Glory declined, though one laughed when asked if he had ever made money from the group. Sherlock says he has never received any proceeds from the record or the lyrics he wrote.

New Glory's lone album, "Backlash," can still be purchased and downloaded online.
Screengrab

New Glory’s lone album, “Backlash,” can still be purchased and downloaded online.

Sherlock and one former member said the band never played live. New Glory was one of many bands on the bill for a “Nazi Woodstock” festival blocked by a Napa County judge in California, according to a 1989 New York Times article, which described the band’s lyrics as “extolling the supremacy of the white race.”

Song titles for New Glory’s Backlash album include “Sarge,” about a homeless veteran, and “Never Surrender.” On the title track, Sherlock sang: “Will we find strength or will we die? Will the New Glory banner fly? Hear the backstreet battle cry… U.S. skinheads will never die!”

“I haven’t listened to that, because it’s a point of great shame for me,” Sherlock said. “I’m mortified and not just that somebody found out, but that it happened at all.”

Sherlock said that as the skinhead world got narrower and the slope into hate more slippery, he chose to back out, to stop blaming others for his life. His mother, he says, wrote him a letter telling him he was “better than this.”

“There were miserable people entrenched in a worldview that was very limited and negative and nasty,” he said. “Saying this 30 years later seems like ‘duh.’ I think that’s pretty obvious to a lot of people. But when I was, like, 19, it wasn’t.”

When the band split in 1989, Sherlock enrolled at Temple University, studying English. He found meaning in the poems of Pablo Neruda and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, left-leaning, political poets, and his politics turned with them. He started going by “Frank,” he said, not to hide the past but make a change, mentally, into adulthood. For many years, Sherlock said he told new acquaintances about his past. But he said he became less conscious of it over the years while he pursued projects “antithetical” to white nationalism, working with the nonprofit writing program Mighty Writers and the Mural Arts program, and performing at fund-raisers for LGBTQ groups and Hurricane Maria relief.

 

“I guess in my own mind I made this transformation,” he said. “I wanted to transcend that sh—ty past. I felt like I’ve been doing the work that was going in that direction.”

Raquel Salas Rivera, Philadelphia’s current poet laureate, said Sherlock’s omission took away the choice to be his friend. Salas Rivera had “no idea” of Sherlock’s past before it was revealed online and believes he benefited from accolades and money that might have gone to others.

“Do I, as a person of color, have the choice to associate with a white supremacist? This is someone who was my friend,” Salas Rivera told The Inquirer. “The devastation of this is hard to quantify.”

Current Philadelphia poet laureate Raquel Salas Rivera in 2017.
Tim Tai / File Photograph

Current Philadelphia poet laureate Raquel Salas Rivera in 2017.

Saul-Zerby, the poet who outed Sherlock, said in a statement that she was “troubled by the fact that it had been hidden from his closest friends.” Sherlock, she said, had made references to violence in past poems that concerned her, and compelled her to include his past in a poem she wrote about him.

Saul-Zerby said she also believes she offended Sherlock at Tattooed Mom when she didn’t recall that he had read at an event a week earlier. She said she apologized, but he “stormed out” and made the Facebook post about her.

“Poets with attention spans make better poets because. . . attention,” she recalled the post saying.

Sanchez and Yolanda Wisher, the poet laureate who succeeded Sherlock, could not be reached for comment. Poet CAConrad, who wrote a book of poems with Sherlock in 2010, said in a Facebook post that the publisher was asked to pull all copies “in light of Frank Sherlock’s revelation that he was a former skinhead.”

The city’s poet laureate program was run by the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy from its inception in 2012 to 2017, when the Free Library of Philadelphia took over. A library spokesperson, in a statement, said no one involved in the selection committee “was aware of Frank’s hidden history as a member of a white nationalist band from 1988-1989” when he was chosen. Sherlock has since resigned from the committee.

Nutter did not return requests for comment.

The last couple of weeks, Sherlock said, have been among the worst of his life. He said he’s not reading publicly and is deferring to any publisher that decides to pull his work.

Some have come out to defend him.

“Not only is no one allowed to change for the better anymore, no one is even allowed to be understood, much less forgiven,” author Clint Margrave wrote in an essay about Sherlock on Quillette.com, an online literary magazine that promotes “free thought.”

Locally, Heather Phillips, an artist and friend of Sherlock’s from South Philly, said he’s proven himself for decades.

“As a woman of color, I totally understand that people are entitled to be angry and to take time to heal or to even cut ties with Frank if that’s what they need,” she said in an e-mail. “Some people may feel as if they’ve been hoodwinked, but to suggest that he still holds any of those beliefs is absurd.”

Rasheedah Phillips said she shouldn’t have to feel pressured to forgive him.

“He doesn’t get to set the terms for his forgiveness,” she said. “There should be consequences to what he did and that he chose to hide. He benefited from spaces and opportunities other people may have deserved.”

Sherlock said he’s not seeking forgiveness. He plans to “step back, listen, and process” — and hopes to continue to work with whomever will work with him.

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