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It might have started when I shaped black construction paper into Amadou’s 41 bullets and created a timeline in the back of my classroom for my 8th graders to follow the case. They collected articles, watched the evening news and reported from the streets as we watched and waited for justice.
The result of that case and the one’s to follow and a teacher’s struggle to talk children–black and latino children–through their confusion about the justice system is a conversation for another day. Another blog post altogether.
This post is about my introducing young people to their ability to be socially conscious, socially active and forward-thinking young people without even realizing it.
Today is one of those full circle moments that makes you realize that without speaking it, your mission has manifested. Today I will host a HBCU Panel proposed and spearheaded by Howard University freshman and RCA alumna, Princess and my heart is full!
Since stepping into my first classroom in East New York, I have insisted that my students take a look at what is really going on around them so they can address it.
Wait. Maybe it started before that. Maybe it was while attending NYC public schools, before video footage could capture Friday afternoon beat downs, and wondering at the kind of pain and rage that drove young people to self-sabotage and self-destruction that planted the seed. It could have very well been the teachers who turned a blind eye, hopped in their cars and drove past and through the self-destruction that really sparked this need in me to make kids see, truly see, so they could fend fo’self and create the life they wanted.
I never thought about that as social activism. But it is.
And so it occurred to me that between changing trends, pedagogical debates and over testing, I have been about the work of raising revolutionaries.
And the blessing, I am proud to acknowledge, is that countless former students–always my babies–have reached back and shared their experiences and talents with the students sitting in my classroom at the time.
I already carried them in my spirit so it was natural to share their stories with current students, but back in 2010, I actually paired my former students with my then 8th grade students in a pen-pal, words-of-wisdom exchange.
I called them “Living Legends” and some of my former students shook their heads at the title. But I wanted to honor the lives they were creating for themselves, no matter their status. I wanted them to value the ups and downs they were navigating. Especially because the system was not, is not, set up for the faint of heart. They were already legendary because they were hustling to come up and were striving to bring friends and family with them. Social Activism on the block is as grassroots as it gets. Their insistence on social change is activism. Period.
And in preparing for today’s event I stopped short…
Guess who was part of that lesson in passing down wisdom? Yes. Miss Princess, who years later is giving back by reaching out to share her experience with the next generation so they know what she didn’t about the myths and misgivings about Historically Black Colleges and Universities that could have blocked her blessing.
I will remind her today about the “Living Legends” experience she had long ago in the 8th grade and proudly add her to the list of young social activists set to enact change on the block and beyond.
She had me at Hello.
That’s right I said it. The line from the film Jerry Maguire that in an instant became the ridiculed cliché that sent hopeless romantics underground to utter the phrase and wonder at the mere thought of following a man to the ends of the earth because he pushed past cynical girlfriends and machismo to say how he felt. To say it for all the world to hear.
Okay. It was a movie.
But lately my sister and I have noticed how difficult it is to agree on a movie or television show to watch with husbands who relish action that includes death-murder-kills. Even before bedtime.
I hiss my teeth. I read until the shoot out gets too loud. I question why we are watching this then I finally excuse myself. More dramatically than these lines suggest. Every now and again my protest allows me the romcom I then pretend just happens to be on. So I have to admit what I have always known, but haven’t always professed.
I am a romantic. Period.
I love electric glances and needing to hear his voice and the accidental touch that blooms into a first kiss. I love love! And why should I be ashamed? I still remember meeting Ras Baraka during my early poeting days and having him tell me that I needed to write about more serious topics. I didn’t get how he didn’t get that Love is life. It is the creation of new possibilities, a new home, and even the blessing of new life. And whether the haze lifts and you wonder what you were thinking or you grow silvery-gray over countless cups of morning coffee, love is life. It is the adventure that makes you jump out of your skin and follow your heart blindly just to feel and feel amazing. Amazing feeling loved, loving and lovely all at once.
And in Erykah’s Hello, I can’t help but recall the goodbye of “Green Eyes,” on her album Mama’s Gun. I loved Erykah and Andre 3000 together. Drank in their eccentric naturalism as they lived life and music for all of us to see, most poetically in the video for “The Other Side of the Game.” You couldn’t tell me I wasn’t a fly on the wall of their life together. That is how seamless their coupling appeared. Until it wasn’t.
Their ending yielded the most heart-wrenching and authentic break up song to date.
And I felt it. Felt her. Knew the tragic swan song of, I don’t love you anymore. Yes, I do, I think… because I had loved and had hurt and had gambled on remember-when sex, remember-us sex only to add insult to my own injury. Whatever it had been, it was over. And I retreated, swearing off love, but somehow knowing that this moment was as much a part of love and life as the first time I saw him. Sigh. And Miss Badu was creative in her reenactment of lost love: a small voice on a crackling record to dramatize the pouty, “I ‘on’t care” stage of the break up, moody blues confessing her insecurity and finally a desperate crescendo of accusations blaring from the soul. Yes, I felt her!
And years later, having recovered from my share of heartaches, I certainly feel this. The song, Hello opens with Andre 3000’s spitfire flow revealing him as unsure about how much to invest in a relationship he tests with a phone lying within reach, the phone being the end-all, be-all, and his waiting to see how she handles it. The romantic in me wants this new duet to be another peek in. A peek at their–ahem–reconciliation.
But this ain’t no movie man.
What I’m really moved by is that, in real life, their reconciliation was to love. Evidenced by the son they are parenting. A young man now.
Love moved from eros to agape and I am really feeling that. The idea of allowing love to unfurl and become what it intends. In spite of us.
So she sings, “Hello. It’s me. It’s me, baby. I thought about us for a long, long time…” and I draw closer. Cross one leg over the other and lean in. Because the melody has me. It’s hypnotic. Sultry. Then their voices join and I tingle in their sexy confidence as they knowingly tease us romantics to the point of abandon. So we give ourselves over to the healing power of love.
JILL SCOTT couldn’t have stated it more simply and in the last days of 2015 her words resounded beautifully and on repeat.
“I just wanna be prepared…”
It was the opening line of the song that first caught my attention.
“I been reading my old journals…checking to see where my head has been.”
All I could think was How brave! I have been so many versions of myself over the years with written stories, prayers and journal entries capturing each flawed line of reasoning, trip, fall, adjustments and rise. Do I want to relive those aches and pains? But I have to admit she has me curious about what I thought then, how I moved then and how I arrived at this moment.
Even more importantly, I am curious about which ideas, hurts and wishes I am afraid to revisit because they are ingrained in my every day and have to be discarded. They have to be left to yellow and fade so I can truly prepare for what is coming for me.
Because it is coming.
I stall the progress at times like this when the sources are right in front of me and I refuse to look deeply into them. Into myself. Fear barring me from the freedom that will allow me to return to the little girl, the teenager that may not have always known how to keep still for small talk, but could wind one sentence into a story exposing the soul.
Everyone cannot manage that. So I know it’s coming because it is what I was designed for.
I am and always have been a storyteller with the ability to influence and inspire. My passion for history and making sure people are seen, feel seen is all I have ever known. But my insistence on my own truth, or my own lies, resulted in receiving and inflicting bumps and bruises that are scary to revisit. I know I didn’t get it right the first time or the third and reading the episode as it unfolds, or recognizing the moment it all went awry–well, I’m not sure how ready I am to face it, but something is drawing me besides Jill’s wisdom.
See. You invent a doctrine as you negotiate ups and downs. You decide what things mean for you so you can keep going, but secretly you know they are words to get you through. Not the answers that would free you. These words galvanize into ideas to help you shrug off the offense or the question or the pain. And without a real answer. And without real peace about the blank spaces, I simply adorn these wounds of unmet needs and haunting shoulda-woulda-couldas and sprinkle them over pages of prose and poetry to make them the silver lining to the ache.
And whatever this hurt is is soothed in the clever dialogue of characters or the measured cadence of free verse lines. The pain has no specific name in this realm. But it exists. Pinning me to this moment and keeping me from manifesting what I know is coming.
So I guess I’ll be reading my old journals. Checking to see where my head has been.
And I’ll be lettin’ some old ideas go. Making room for my life to grow…
I just wanna be prepared.
I prepare to travel to the land where Ernest Hemingway wrote war and bullfighting; love and bravado at street side cafes. I am beside myself with excitement!
My cafe is Starbucks. Born in 1971. Like me. I have become addicted to the peppermint mocha, but more so the open netbooks and voices encircling enterprise, dreaming and movement. In the swirl of voices and multi-syllabic coffee orders, I have completed my first novel. The first of what I pray will be many because I have done it before. I have authored countless mead composition novels. I loved how the characters would speak to me and take on a life of their own—the goal always getting them to a place of love and friendship whether they lived in the projects or were the first in their family to get to college. Love and friendship had to live somewhere and so this story, the first one in my serious move toward living as an author, is about love of family and culture and the search for that man that will shoulder life struggles at your side.
My aunt has just done my first official reading. All 350 pages. I can’t thank her enough. I can only make it my business to take her notes and take this story across the finish line. I admired her as a little girl. She was the cool teenage aunt with posters of Sugar Ray Leonard on her wall and perfect English. We have checked in over the years, from time to time, but now when I needed her balance of American experience, Garifuna roots and Honduran birth, she came and told me that she didn’t want to stop reading. Finish reading. The highest praise. She missed the characters when she was done. She almost forgot that I had asked her for notes on how well the culture was represented; how easy the story was to follow and where the language got in the way of the intent. She remembered though and delivered notes organized by page. A lot of notes. So I have work to do, but I have had my first reader! And she edits for her company and said the needed notes were minimal. They never kept her from seeing every scene vividly and finding the ending brilliant.
I am humbled.
And I prepare to travel Europe seeking inspiration of the writers and artists who have told stories so rich and so vivid that the places where they worked and lived are hallowed ground. I can hardly wait to experience the cafes Hemingway frequented, the waters that influenced Dali’s backgrounds, the cobble streets where Dickens set stories or redemption and the Parisian sights that left Picasso enamored. Ah, artists. Talk to me.
Because there is a character trying to reach me. She is surrounded by music in a small, dark club owned by a fan of Miles Davis and she wants to tell me something. She has selflessly dedicated herself to her loved ones, but has stumbled on a talent that is bringing new clientele to this club that wants to single-handedly save music.
I know that much.
Muses be with me. I won’t have a peppermint mocha within reach and honestly, I need to lay off the stuff for a minute, but I am looking forward to being inspired and sneaking a word or two in in the land where some of the most poignant stories originated.
I am an artist, muses. Pass the torch.
The opening credits of Spike Lee’s SCHOOL DAZE rolled images of brown college students across time while powerful voices echoed the spirituals of yesteryear with the thunderous “I’m Building me a Home.”
Now living in Atlanta, a short drive from the Atlanta University Center where the legendary Morehouse and Spelman stand, I know that the Morehouse College glee club were singing in the style of their forefathers, but I was transfixed with the sound, the feel and the idea that every decision we make creates a space for our souls to reside and flourish.
I am house hunting.
I have been told that I haven’t been looking long. To be patient. But I am eager to know what my life will look like and that requires knowing where I will lay my head. Will I be closer in-town with access to the artistic haunts I am determined to frequent? Will I find myself in a suburban cul-de-sac tending perennials? Will I live in the inconvenience of a renovation or luck up on a property that is move-in-ready…already sleek and pretty? Where I land will shape my days so I am eager to know where that will be.
Because this is a season of transition.
My partner-in-art is relocating. The irony of my writing a thank you, a tribute in her honor and then learning shortly after that she was leaving is not lost on me. There I was talking about how proud I was of her growth as an artist without knowing that I would be made to dedicate myself to my own art. I will no longer have her as a life line to the jam sessions, creative minds and striving artists in the city that I only see through a teacher’s eyes. She inspired me. Now I need to follow her example and get to living as an artist.
It is part of the transition that is already in motion.
And I wish us both the best on the next leg of this journey.
November 22, 2014
I was catapulted through the stages of grief to arrive in time for celebration.
I woke thinking, feeling, knowing —- this is soul music. Soul music.
Watched an older brother wax poetic clutching the corner of a page and laughed as the uncle teased that his larger paper promised briefer comments
— Each of their words poetry worthy of wisdom books.
And the Garifuna traditions I grew up in served me well.
In the place of the Punta drums was a choir whose sopranos trumpeted and tenor section thundered. In the place of Punta dancers were snapshots and images, the most vivid–a motorcycle ride with a glance back over the shoulder. In the place of ocean and palm leaves, navy and green. In the place of the praying women, lamenting novenas like wailing, was my sister Daphne calling down healing.
And when the Isibindi babies–both big and small–framed the path that would take him to his final rest, the sun gleamed and the green seemed to glitter and I smiled at the place of honor given to the next generation, the charge of an ancestor to his descendants: Do more.
And I move toward what awaits thinking, feeling and knowing that that was Spirit Day.
Where have I been.
Where have I been?
Navigating short comings and pondering plans of action that don’t quite seem to take, but I always return to the page. So here I am. Contemplating the ache of losing a friend and colleague and when the dust settled, a student, scratch that– a son.
In the meantime, I lost the direction that I hatched out of Bible verses and old poems scribbled under lesson plan notes and shopping lists. I had just eked out a direction on the couch of my sister-friend-artist when life decided there were other lessons to learn.
So I came back here because I remember the day, the night, we confessed the restlessness in our bones; the ache to create that threatened day jobs and sanity because time was no longer on our side. And we couldn’t pinpoint where the time went. Besides the sudden arrival at middle age, there was the challenge of navigating the daily grind, and taking care of the spirits entrusted to us. What would we do in the new year to remain inspired and creative and artistic? What could we do?
Music underscored the conversation.
There was talk of studying mindfulness to get us to concentrate on one thing at a time. Mindfulness to help steer us back on track when our imaginations or artistic leanings pulled us from the task at hand.
There were resumes to update–ahem, CV’s to create–to truly reflect the experiences that we almost forgot to credit with our growth as artists and educators. There was talk of taking on studies to round out what we know or think we know. There were dates secured for practicing the craft that would open doors to fulfillment.
We did make it as far as debuting a new educator workshop inspired by our past venture hosting an open mic venue called the launch pad. This experience we called, “Your Inner Artist Unplugged” to remind fellow educators of what called them to teaching. Because this is a calling. We all marveled at the original poems and musings that brought the room to tears.
But after that moving Saturday afternoon filled with music, poetry and teacher confessions, my girl moved on without me. She had to. Opportunities opened before her, her prayers for direction answered. She is now fully engaged in the first year of her PhD program and is being exposed to people, places, literature and ideas that leave her riled up about impacting education through social justice.
I have nothing to report: a stalled search for a literary agent, partial poems snatched out of the air, Death and dying and a refusal to cry.
I almost didn’t call.
Breaks are when teachers return to themselves and I hesitated to call her because I had no progress to report. Nothing on the list has been completed. Some items barely touched, but I thought if I could just sit in her enthusiasm. If just a spark of her excitement rubbed off on me then I could dust myself off and…
So we re-grouped over new hip hop and old rancheros, her fingers plucking India.Arie’s “Beautiful” on her new guitar like a theme to our friendship, our dreaming and the art of just living. Because I cry in spurts and follow the tears with jokes and she laughs and cries at once, hysterically, until the room is alive with emotion turned musings turned creativity and we move on to the next venture.
Up next a celebration of art for young artists that we call The Writers’ Block Party. This year’s theme is spitfire for the anger, the passion, the pain and ultimately the verve it takes to stand the heat and emerge renewed.
So it feels like old times–securing performers, making song choices and crafting an inspirational line up. But what’s new is that she has added the guitar to her repertoire. She marveled at the performance where a fellow-musician recognized her as a guitarist. Add that to her playing the trombone and the bass and she’s well on her way to reclaiming her Prince aspirations. Then I surprised us both with a memorial piece to my colleague and mid-life musings that were pointing to a new collection of poems. The first in years.
And I’m glad I called and realized that though it doesn’t look the way I intended, I am right beside her giving our dreams the care and attention we promised because it is ultimately who we are.