God Bless the Child…

“She closed her eyes, and she heard a small voice say
You don’t stop no, you belong to me.”

—-Laura Mvula, from album SING TO THE MOON

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I have only recently discovered the work of soul singer, LAURA MVULA and am helplessly obsessed with her lilting alto and poetic storytelling.  The song that immediately resonated with me was SHE.  This song honors the resilience of womanhood and the music video features a young girl bounding into a house to find a woman in labor, the birth appearing as the end of a story, but revealing itself as the beginning of the story. Cyclical.

And midwifing this new life is a sister-circle of aunties, sisters, friends and mother-figures who don’t ask what she needs. They do because they already know. I thought this story was powerful enough, but then I found the version of SHE filmed in South Africa.

In this version, our young heroine, in her school uniform, practically skips down a long empty road that stretches into the yellow morning or gold of evening. I can’t tell which because the distance seems impossible. The road is long and lonely, but her eyes sparkle and her gait is a dance. She strides enthusiastically, beautifully, toward a school that she and l hope will appear on the horizon at any moment. But it does not come before a church.

In the church her aunties, sisters and mother-figures flank Ms. Mvula in deep blue choir robes admonishing, echoing, that SHE–their daughter, their sister, their continuance—cannot stop.

She may pause for this uplift, catch her breath for the next leg of the journey and even visit her fore-mothers for a word of prayer, but she cannot stop. She comes equipped with a voice which says, “You don’t stop. No, you belong to me…” so even when the empty makes our heroine stop in the middle of the road, I know that she has the spiritual wherewithal to keep her.

"...she don't stop."

“…she don’t stop.”

Mvula creates pieces that celebrate and honor our young sisters without romanticizing what they might face in a fashion that reminds me of Nobel-prize winning author TONI MORRISON. She is a master at narrating just how the spirit marches toward its destiny: unsure, wounded or exhausted, but unflinching.

still cringe when Sula accidentally overhears her mother say that she doesn’t like her. I gasp as the jilted Violet attacks the casket of her husband’s 18 year-old mistress and I will always call on my own praying women when the malevolent spirit of Beloved brings her mother to the brink of death.

Morrison has allowed us a turn in the shoes of characters we couldn’t imagine empathizing with until we trace their steps back to the offense, the hurt that shaped their journey. And in April she will do it again.

Her novel, God Bless the Childwill be released this spring and I can hardly wait!  The press release offers the following plot description:

Spare and unsparing, God Help the Child is a searing tale about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult. At the center: a woman who calls herself Bride, whose stunning blue-black skin is only one element of her beauty, her boldness and confidence, her success in life; but which caused her light-skinned mother to deny her even the simplest forms of love until she told a lie that ruined the life of an innocent woman, a lie whose reverberations refuse to diminish … Booker, the man Bride loves and loses, whose core of anger was born in the wake of the childhood murder of his beloved brother … Rain, the mysterious white child, who finds in Bride the only person she can talk to about the abuse she’s suffered at the hands of her prostitute mother … and Sweetness, Bride’s mother, who takes a lifetime to understand that “what you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”

SHE is not marching down a sun-drenched road with our hopes in each step. I am already wincing at her betrayal of one sister to recoup what she did not receive from her mother. But I will watch her strut and stumble understanding that she knows nothing of the steadying hand or supportive prayer of a sister circle. She just knows she has somewhere she has to be. Broken or not, she cannot stop.

I Know Why…

Dr. Maya Angelou“When you learn, teach” — Dr. Maya Angelou

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I read voraciously in junior high school.

Not sure if it was to escape the sudden burst of mean plaguing my public school or the belief that the adult world was hiding secrets in Harlequin Romance novels or an innate search for how to script my thoughts into something I could share with the world.  Some and all of these reasons were true depending on the day, but the discovery of  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings answered all these questions and more to come. It became the inspiration for a new dream.

I immediately identified with this girl ushered from one physical and spiritual space to another and eventually into a self-imposed silence that made her seem unaware–or maybe overly aware–of the power of words. I was riveted by her story and followed the young Marguerite Johnson all the way to Ghana, Africa in her fifth autobiography All Children Need Traveling Shoes.

So I didn’t need a re-cap as Dr. Maya Angelou settled in to address the audience at the Ron Clark Academy graduation on June 14, 2013.

As a matter of fact, I had to keep myself from wagging a finger at the crowd behind me who gasped when she revealed that she was raped as a young girl. All I could think was: Read a book! That was her first autobiography!

But I had a legend in my presence—far more pressing. I knew she would weave relevant anecdotes and poetry to catch the audience up with her story. I was already where she needed me to be. Maya Angelou was on stage and I was at  her knee ready and waiting.

I hung on her every word—-

Her counsel to our students that they be courageous, that they “dare to care” and “be a rainbow in the clouds” were all incredibly moving. The stories told to punctuate the point were painted beautifully, but I was her student too and I was listening for my new lesson, the lesson for a me older than the one who met her in Ms. Flowers’ parlor. I waited as she made us laugh, sharing that she didn’t trust people who didn’t laugh—we laughed on cue. She spoke about the use of the ‘N’ word and paused to sing a few lines of a blues. I perked up because both of these topics were part of my language arts curriculum. Neither topic appearing on any standardized exam, but topics that would allow my students to understand and even converse with Maya Angelou — far more important than test scores.

But I knew she had more for me. Greedy, I know. After all I didn’t expect to be in the presence of one of my sheroes while celebrating Class 2013. But I was right there when she worked Momma’s store in Stamps, Arkansas and I watched as she hung on the back of a San Francisco street car that she would eventually break barriers to conduct. She had already taught me so much through her example, her charm and her sass, but I knew she had more to teach me and I was a ready-student marveling at the fact that she was right in front of me. I watched as she stopped and started searching a book of poems for a poem to read to us. It was then that I realized that she had started her speech with the words I needed most.

Having interrupted one of my student-poets who was going to introduce her (really he was) she introduced herself with an off-handed mention of her numerous honorary degrees and a quick reference to the litany of publications that we know to be treasures and then she paused. She paused as if she was recognizing it while the words left her mouth…

She stopped for emphasis, “I am a teacher who writes.” Above all she counted her students at Wake Forest University and her students around the globe as her greatest blessing.

And in that moment she helped me find answers, find language and reaffirm my soul’s calling.

I am a teacher who writes.

Garifuna Griot

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It starts as a slow warming. Pink and orange blush in the pit of the belly spreading like a quiet murmur rising from questioning eyes. It was in her shoulders, traveling toward her forearms in swift, unhalting motion, turning the deep hue of daybreak at its reddest. She was trembling…”

And so begins one of the unfinished stories yellowing in a bin of composition notebooks, journals and spiral notebooks that have moved with me through out the years. The main character is about to smash the windows of her boyfriend’s car. Yeah, this is before Jazmine Sullivan’s hit made smashing car windows melodic. I made it poetic first. 

My first stories captured the teen dramas that preoccupied kids growing up in 1980’s New York complete with cameos by favorite artists like LL Cool J, New Edition and my favorite Rakim. The characters wore gazelles and bubble gooses, dyed their flat tops and severe angular cuts with kool-aid and peroxide and a hip-hop swagger that was missing from the Harlequin romance novels that sparked my imagination.

I could not have known then that churning out two novels in a single summer was an incredible feat –and in an adulthood–an impossible one. Back then I ate, slept and breathed words, driven to obsession when I cracked the spine of a composition notebook. Even if a few pages were filled with science notes or blue-inked cursive, I cut those pages out and before me blank pages morphed into a world. A world that I would pen in my neat, tiny print.

I have always loved writing.

On the eve of a new year, I am close to completing a project I have been working on for years. I can trace the beginnings of the idea back to a conference I attended in Arizona in 2005 — a young girl grappling with family traditions that shaped her, but didn’t necessarily fit a new world sensibility. A scene flashed across my mind—an unexpected loss, but I didn’t have the luxury of lazy summer months to follow the images to a complete story. There were bills to pay, obligations to meet and life to navigate.

I hadn’t grown up to be a professional author. I was a teacher and I had work to do. It had been years since I attempted writing stories. My freshman year of college found me focused on writing poetry–a shorter medium that allowed me to express myself in an allotted amount of time and then get back to whatever obligation was scribbled in my planner.

But the idea insisted on being written: In drips and drabs, essays and poems the idea began to take shape.

I couldn’t believe the amount of time it was taking to tell a story. Wasn’t I same the girl who sat at the dinner table with pen and page ride beside her, taking quick bites so I could get back to the conflict unfolding? Why was this taking so long? Years?

Impatient, I flirted with the idea of polishing one of the works finished in the 80’s. Sister Souljah, E. Lynn Harris and Zane write in the style and cover some of the subject matter that my seventeen-year-old-self tackled. Maybe I could just edit…But one look at the grammatical errors and the juvenile responses to real life issues and I knew that that would never do as a debut — my debut. I had written those stories with no idea that Real housewives and Hip-hop wives would make my 1980’s world of ghetto glitz and uncouth antics socially acceptable. Despite this fact, I couldn’t revert to a teenage perspective and knew that I had to tell a story that stirred my soul.

I came across Sandra Cisneros and her account of the Chicana experience in Chicago. I discovered Edwidge Danticat and admired the tales of Haitian history and Haitian promise she spun from her passion for her people and then came Junot Diaz. Junot Diaz spat the Dominican experience onto city streets in rough, deliberate Spanglish and I heard my own love for street vernacular, Latin flavor and African rhythm. These writers confirmed that my story had to be added to the cannon of cultural writing that captures the human experience in a color and rhythm that would be distinct to my Garifuna-American experience.

And so 2013 is but hours away and I am thrilled about the next leg of this journey with a story that made its first appearance in Sedona, Arizona and just last year gathered to punta drums during my grandfather’s memorial service in a muddy yard in Tulian, Honduras.

I thank both my heavenly and earthly father for the gift of word and the story of the Garinagu unfolding this very moment.

2013, here we come!

A way with words…

It has been a while since the luxury of devouring music from first note to liner notes to needle hitting label.

It started with copping the 12″ Slick Rick and Dougie Fresh hit “The Show” and ended with New Edition’s album Heartbreak with a Menudo and Anita Baker obsession in between: sessions in my parents’ wood paneled basement to examine, ingest and become the music.

I would slice that album cover open, slide out the sleeve, handle the vinyl gingerly and relish how the needle filled the room with the very soul of the artist we were spinning. The story, the voice, the rhythm, the music was on heavy rotation because I had to understand every nuance, figure out how they could tap into the place where I would swoon in affinity.

As a writer, a poet, a singer it is the goal to find just the right arrangement of words to confirm for the listener a reader seeking confirmation that they are just human. that this is part of life and love and beauty.

The other night I couldn’t get words to come.

The ideas were there just within reach, but I couldn’t get the lines to make images, tap into emotion—so I went in search of inspiration. My sister had mentioned the name of a new singer who had impressed her. She does a far better job of following new artists and listening to new music, so I went in search of the email where she had written the name — Gregory Porter.

Lightning flashed to announce rain, so I took the hint and decided it wasn’t a night for writing.

Surfing the web wasn’t as tactile as unwrapping an album, but I found him on youtube and clicked on a recording session. The black and white image, the head phones and the bare bones feel of it intrigued me — but then he began to sing and I was instantly enamored. I couldn’t decide what was most striking — the sophisticated smooth, the poetic phrasing, the brooding tenor, the boyish innocence—all of it was jazz: eclectic and human.

I didn’t realize how long it had been since the purity of jazz — my rummaging through Ella and Sarah and Billie and Ellington and Davis and Coltrane to master the sensuality of being human.

But on this rainy night, a new voice, reminiscent of Nat King Cole, paid homage to jazz traditions with soul all his own.  I nestled close to his sweet tenor and gave myself over, discovering beautiful gems just beneath the  melody:

The heart-wrenching metaphor for taming man in “Be Good/The Lion Song;”

The crowds abandoning Harlem when they  learned that “Langston doesn’t live [there] anymore” but Porter’s  insistence that “You can’t keep him from the place where he was born…” in “On My Way to Harlem;”

Recounting the admonishment to get over it  with the striking image of  “…water under bridges that have already been burned” to emphasize how futile his longing is in the song, “Water;”

And his “checking for the weather and the time” to get his bearings when she leaves and he finds himself floundering in “wind that blows from hurricanes that come just after gray clouds fill [his] eyes” in the melancholy farewell, “Illusion.”

The masters of horn, string, skin and keys that take the stage with him complete the seduction, drawing you through each storyline with steady hand and enviable expertise and before you know it, you are on the other side of a stormy night renewed; inspired and not quite sure how you got there…

Except for the snatches of a timeless voice blessed with a supernatural way with words.

Stay Tuned

Photo by J. Amezqua

It has been said of me, “Why is she hiding in there?”

Not within earshot, but in the lobby of the building where I give every inkling of my being to inspiring students to love words and share innovative lessons with colleagues from around the world.

And that, I suppose, is the problem.

Every waking moment during the school year is dedicated to planning and teaching and grading and pushing and nurturing and watching and then summer arrives and time is my own.

It is then when I take stock and get frustrated trying to locate the paintbrushes I packed away or realize I never sent in the logo I had started copyrighting last summer or that this is year three of writing the manuscript for my first novel. I chastise myself for giving no attention to my own passions and toss and turn each night until morning forces me to choose at least one place to begin piecing back the artistry that is my driving force.

And this is the dance I have done most of my life. The dance I am learning is just seen as hiding.

In actuality I am of two minds and it is that duality that apparently leaves people shaking their heads…

In the third grade, Ms. Green, who lived in my same Bronx projects, invited me skating. I had never been skating, much less with a teacher, and was so excited that I strapped on those insufferable metal, adjustable skates and practiced up and down the projects’ parks and paths a whole week before our outing just to make sure I wouldn’t spend the whole time on the skating rink floor.

In the seventh grade I remember leaning in as Mr. Turk bent down beside my desk in social studies class hoping to convince me that I was more brilliant than my silence suggested. That I needed to speak up more and show off my spark. I only nodded in response. He was confirming what I felt about myself, but was afraid to reveal.  I didn’t say it then, but I was grateful for the acknowledgment.

And the old adage is not true because everyone cannot teach. And I don’t mean lecture, assign page numbers and load their car up before the last kid is even dismissed. I mean creating indelible moments that inspire young people to their calling.

I haven’t figured out how to do that between 7a.m. – 3p.m.: hence my problem with time management.

But the teacher who literally drove me to understand that I had a gift inspires my passion for teaching and my love of the arts — Mr. Barkan.

Tenth grade creative writing class was my breakthrough, my a-ha moment and Mr. Barkan went as far as driving me to poetry contests and stood in the back of rooms cupping his ears to remind me of what he had said before I got to the mic. “…the pockets of their ears, Miss Arauz.”

My tireless effort to introduce young people to their calling is a thank you to Mr. Barkan for scrawling in red ink across my first assignment: …to the next Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks…

But it would appear that I have not honored his prediction if my efforts have been reduced to my simply hiding.

I am the product of one of the most dynamic and talented families on the planet! Whether up in the Bronx; Tulian, Honduras or Far Rockaway, Queens, my family members spin tales, tell jokes, sing songs and break into impromptu dance numbers to an orchestra of ordinary living room furniture -– all at the drop of a hat. I am the daughter of artists who worked day jobs diligently with snatches of their genius charming co-workers and bosses alike, but you could only catch the full brilliance on weekends when they were truly free.

I have celebrated this legacy in my own way: my mother traditionally reads my sixth grade students a vignette from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros in Spanish. She then makes her signature arroz con pollo and ends the visit with merengue and soca music driving her to the dance floor where my students laugh over spontaneous dance lessons and experience first-hand one of my greatest joys — growing up with a mom who loves to dance!

This past school year, I shared a note my father had written me with parents in order to demonstrate how important their own turn of phrase is in coloring how their children interact with words. My sister and I used to stare at my dad when he used big words in response to one of our six-year/three-year-old questions. We stood there blinking until he said, “Go look it up.” I hadn’t realized just how his love of words; his mastery of syntax influenced me as a writer and reader and was excited to share this revelation with the families I partner with to teach language as art. As part of the tenth year anniversary of 9/11 my dad even skyped with my students to share what he had experienced that day as he made his way from apocalyptic-Manhattan back home to Queens.

My cousin Freddy judged a “Cielito Lindo” singing contest for kids who had never studied Spanish, but were challenged to learn the Mexican folk song; my niece Delilah practiced presenting to students by sharing her aspirations to teach and this past spring my sister joined me on stage to open up the Writers’ Block Party I organized with renowned local poets and the team from VerbalEyze.

But the moment that garnered the most reaction was my farewell to my beloved Class of 2012 at this year’s graduation.

I was a nervous wreck knowing that this was my final moment to impart whatever wisdom; inspiration I could and I had to get this right. They were the class that reminded me most of myself. How I stood out for weird things like constantly —No, really. Constantly —writing in a mead composition notebook, hiding my drawings in blue graffitied binders and never singing above a whisper – all so I could be left alone. I didn’t know how else to protect my artist’s spirit from the scrutiny and deliberate cruelty of middle school.

My teachers had spoken to me, but if they had come across these words, this sentiment, it would have changed everything:

It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous,
talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of
God that is within us.

The significance of these words by Marianne Williamson speaks to the survival tactic I adopted way back when, a tactic that impedes my progress as artist. I did hide: my talents, my dreams, my aspirations because laid bare they threatened the disillusioned and I could not afford to join them in the urban-cynicism that sometimes robs inner-city kids of dreaming.  I didn’t have these words then, but marveled at how I needed to hear them now and if I needed them then they  had to passed down. I gifted Class 2012 these words, then sang my heart out — a re-mix of Jill Scott’s, “So Blessed” because the final lesson to impart is one that I am learning myself:  My peccadilloes and experiences are part of my artistry. I am blessed.

And after this tribute, people came up to me and marveled at the gifts that I displayed. People who know me have seen glimpses along the years and simply sat back and enjoyed, while others questioned, “What is she doing here?” Actually, those who know me just don’t say it out loud anymore, but have long had the same thought.

I think I have answered that: I am here to inspire young people as I was once inspired, but I get it. I have been called out. And we all know what excuses are… I have only done part of the job thus far. The other part of teaching is leading by example, so consider this an artist’s coming out.

Stay tuned.

An artist is coming to a page, a stage and a spotlight near you.

Move when the man say move…

Yesterday the man with smooth humor, congenial sex appeal and exuberant warmth

passed.

Heavy D died at 44.

And please don’t let the moniker fool you.

He was light on his feet as he rode cool percussion and thumping bass with back up dancers who punctuated his poetry and matched his energy.

His movement was almost as deft as the tongue that carried Caribbean rhythm into nineties hip-hop with his signature diddle-diddle-dee  which I can’t even do justice on a keyboard.

He represented the reggae roots that grew hip-hop and glided seamlessly between both music genres to create music that lifted the spirit and got you moving immediately.

He put unadulterated, no holds-barred joy into hip-hop.

And I will certainly miss him.

It is a shock to lose a brother  that I watched proudly as he moved from the music world into the world of acting with the swagger that was just him. I watched him as a regular on Boston Public and smiled proudly any time he crossed the silver screen. Growing up in the nineties hip-hop era I took it as a sign that I could do anything when I saw my stars stretching into new arenas to prove that their talent, work ethic and appeal was not reserved for colored kids glued to their boom box. They were stars.

And Dwight Arrington Myers was a star!

This morning I listened to the speculation about the cause of death. I was seething when the radio host  on a station, who would know Heavy D only in passing, eluded to the cause of death being linked to his being “Heavy.” I answered back, “He lost weight. What are you talking about?” I felt like my brother was being talked about by someone who didn’t even know him. Now I will say the host came back a few minutes later and corrected himself, informing his listeners that Heavy D had lost over one hundred pounds years ago, so I settled down. Continued on my commute and down memory lane.

But it was that deep. That’s my boy and I mourn him alongside true fans of hip-hop who bounced in over-sized nineties wear or wound their hips to that reggae-tinged tongue and moved when the man said move.