PR’s Afropalooza Novel Pick: DESSA ROSE by Sherley Anne Williams

Yesterday, I wrote that I was so excited about Black History Month that I’d decided to celebrate this year by nicknaming BHM “Afropalooza.”  (I’m still feeling pretty happy about the nickname, by the way.)

In addition, I thought it would be really great to read a novel in February. Now, I like brand new novels. Those of you who read the blog regularly or who follow me on Twitter or have “liked” my Facebook Fan Page know that I’m not only a writer, but also, a serious reader as well.

But during Black History Month, I like to return to some of the past books that really made an impression on me. That’s why I chose Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams as the official 2012 PhillisRemastered Afropalooza Novel Pick.

You can find this wonderful novel on Amazon.com in both print and Kindle versions. For those people who prefer another bookstore, you can order from Powells.com by clicking here. Or you can order from BarnesandNoble.com by clicking here, where the book is available in print  and Nook form.

Or, if you prefer to visit a fabulous independent bookstore like The Wild Fig  (in Lexington), co-owned by the fabulous, brilliant novelist (and my good friend) Crystal Wilkinson, and her equally fabulous partner, the arist and poet Ronald Davis, even better! You have nearly two weeks to get your independent bookseller to order Dessa Rose for you.

We will have THREE Twitter Chats on Dessa Rose during the month of February, all at 4:00pm EASTERN STANDARD TIME: February 12, 19, and 26.  We will be using the hashtag, “#Afropalooza.” 

On February 12, we will discuss the Prologue and the first section. February 19, we will discuss the second section, and finally, on February 26, we will discuss the third section and the Epilogue.

If you miss one of the Twitter Chats, don’t despair! Because you can always read the timeline later on and catch-up.

Poster of Dessa Rose, the musical

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So let me tell you about this beautiful book, Dessa Rose, by Sherley Anne Williams.

I first read the novel nearly twenty years ago when I was in graduate school. I picked it up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama at the Book Rack, a great used bookstore that was around the corner from my apartment. I only paid two dollars for it, and there was no picture on the cover. I know you’re wondering how I can recall all that. I can’t. I still have the book. (It’s sitting right by me as I type this blog post.)

Set in the 1800s before the Civil War, this novel is based on true stories, and it depicts the unfolding friendship between two women, one Black and unfree and one free and White. Ruth Elizabeth (Rufel) lives on farm and has been abandoned by her husband. Dessa Rose is a runaway slave.  Their friendship is the miracle that defies the racial and social constructs of their time. (Yes, those are my own words.)

As a young, aspiring writer enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, the novel really made an impression on me, because I’ve always been interested in realistically depicted friendships and/or love between Black and White people, and I’ve always admired writers who could successfully get in the heads of all of their characters with a light hand–and an authentic, non-stereotyped understanding.

In Dessa Rose, Sherley Anne Williams depicts her characters with so much grace, and I’ve returned to this novel so many times since. I recommend it to everyone, because Sherley Anne Williams did not get the attention she deserved, though she was a well-known poet.   And she was a respected literary critic as well.

AND there was an Off-Broadway musical based on the novel! It was featured at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

I just love Williams’s work so much, and she modeled to me on the page that I could write whatever the Spirit moved me to write, instead of being pigeon-holed into one literary genre.

So, I hope you will return with me or read the novel for the very first time. Either way, please join me on Twitter on February 12, 19, and 26 at 4pm EST to discuss Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams. And remember to use the hashtag, “#Afropalooza”! It’s going to be completely sassy all month long.

Afropalooza, Baby!–I just had to say it one more ‘gain.

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Afropalooza Starts in TWO Days! Are You Ready?!

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

On February 1, my favorite month in the whole, entire year starts. That’s right! It’s almost Black History Month! Or, as I have renamed it, it’s almost time for “Afropalooza”!

I had the “palooza” part, but I just couldn’t  figure out the rest. One of my brilliant Twitter followers helped me by going through a few suggestions, and then we came up with the perfect name.

But why “Afropalooza”?

Well, for me, Black History Month is not only a month of education, but celebration. It’s the time that I can reflect on those African Americans who have done great things for this country, and quite frankly, I can give thanks that none of them were wearing saggy pants and diamond encrusted, gold grill fronts—and thereby Embarrassing The Race—when they did all those great things.

Their fashion sense is enough to celebrate, because back in the day, Black folks who worked for the race usually dressed cute in their pictures.  So not only were those people doing good, they were looking good. (See how pretty and neat and dignified Mrs. Ida B. Wells-Barnett looks in her picture?)

But there’s even more extra-goodness.

There are those classic African American films in which the Black folks are front and center. Not any of that African American “sidekick” stuff where we only exist in the movie to stroke some White lady’s hair or listen to her boyfriend troubles because we have no men of our own. Or where we only exist to get killed around minute twelve in the movie while the White hero dodges a bullet. Unh-unh.  We live through the whole movie and our hair gets stroked and we’ve always got a man.

And in many of the films, Black-on-Black love is a focus. Who can forget James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll in Claudine? Or, Abby Lincoln and Ivan Dixon in the great (admittedly, more than a little bit patriarchal) Nothing But a Man?

And ooh! Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross in Mahogany AND Lady Sings the Blues!

Sidebar: Ladies, If you’ve never watched Lady Sings the Blues, once you do, you will never get past that scene where Billy Dee—he doesn’t need a last name—is sitting in the audience listening to Diana Ross—but she does need a last name and I don’t know why—and his face is covered in shadow. But then, he lifts his face. And then, every woman in the theatre or living room or wherever you are watching the movie starts screaming. Because Billy Dee is just that fine, even with that perm of his.

Look, don’t  nobody care that Billy Dee was one of only ten Black men in America who wasn’t wearing an Afro in the early 1970s. I would have run my fingers through Billy Dee’s politically anachronistic hair in a minute. I’m trying to tell you what I know.

And then, there’s African American music.

During Black history month, I can listen to the many African American musicians who made music and didn’t once call women the h-word or the b-word in their songs,like Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday and Scott Joplin. (I’m just being random here. There are so many.)

Or, I can read the great intellectuals and activists like W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Anna Julia Cooper, on down to people like Malcolm X and Audre Lorde. Or I can look at the artwork of artists like Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringold or Kara Walker. Or I can be grateful for the contributions of inventors and scientists like Madame C.J. Walker (no relation), George Washington Carver, Daniel Hale Williams, and others.

And I can read (and recite) wonderful poems and stories and novels by Black writers. Let’s go all the way back to Phillis Wheatley, who published the first book of poetry by an African American, in 1773, and then come up to Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston–author of My Most Favorite Novel in the World, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Edward P. Jones, and Toni Morrison–and Audre Lorde again, because she was every woman.

Is it any wonder I call it Afropalooza?

Sidebar: this year, I decided that I would choose a “slept-on” African American novel for my blog followers to read. I’ve chosen Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams, which is an absolutely wonderful book. And we’re going to have some Twitter Lit Chats about it! So stay tuned for directions for the Afropalooza Book Pick Club.  You know you want to!

Now, I know some of my new readers (who may or may not decide to come back and read the blog, which is absolutely their choice) may be All Blacked Out right about now.

If so, I’m going to keep it real with you. This is a Black blog that keeps African Americans at the center of the discourse. I make no apologies. Why? Because I’m, like, Black, and it’s, like, my blog. And if you think I’m changing just to get hits for a blog I don’t even get paid for, well, you’re going to be disappointed.

I say the following with all the love and respect I have inside me.

Listen, if my own aunt who told me I’d never be happy if I didn’t get married and have kids couldn’t change me in thirty years–and by the way, I’m very happy– do you really think some complete stranger I’ve never met will cause me to change?

And feel free to go ahead and leave mean comments for me. As long as your comments don’t contain profanity and hate-speech, I’ll be more than happy to publish them!

In the words of the great African American comic Flip Wilson, “What you see is what you get” with this blog. If you loved my latest post, you’re probably going to keep on loving subsequent posts.  If you hated it, well, I can’t do much except say I’ll miss you when you’re gone.

And here’s another thing.

Please know that during Black History Month, you’re going to see me feature a bunch of real light-skinned folks mixed in with darker folks. Those light-skinned folks are not “biracial” or “half-White”—they’re Black. Why? because they identified as Black, and proudly.

So just because you might think that someone who is not one hundred percent African should identify as something else, guess what? You don’t get to choose how someone identifies what culture he or she feels comfortable in. That person gets to choose.

That’s right, I said it. It had to be said.

I don’t throw shade on any other “race” or culture. I just love myself. And in my opinion–which I have a right to have–being Black is completely fabulous. Which is why I have such a big ego right now. Yes, it has its hardships, but I’ve survived.

If Harriet Tubman can free a hundred folks from slavery, I think I can get over the saleslady following me all around the store because she thinks I’d risk going to jail for stealing a thirty-five dollar blouse.

And no,  I don’t want to be lighter or have straighter hair. And no, I don’t wish some Angel of Jesus would come down from heaven and free me from the so-called misery of being Black. What I wish is that mean, prejudiced people would get some [insert expletive adjective] home training and some more love inside themselves.

But let me be clear on something–crystal clear because in the past three days people have been misquoting me and taking me out of context left and right. It’s quite amazing (and annoying).

Under no circumstances am I dismissing or attempting to demean folks who choose to call themselves Biracial or Multiracial instead of Black. (And don’t you dare try to say I said that.) I give Biracial and Multiracial folks all the respect and glory of naming themselves, which is their right. The point is, it’s their choice, not mine. And it’s not your choice, either.

But it’s also not the choice of Biracial or Multiracial folks to go back through history, look at people who had White or Indian parents/ancestry, and then try to insist that “blood quantum” means that a person who identified as Black back then wouldn’t be Black now. Guess what? Most of these folks are dead. All we know is what they called themselves then. And they called themselves Negro–which means “black” in Spanish–Black, African American, or Afro-American. And they didn’t want to be anything else. Deal with it, pretty please.

So Happy Two Days Before Vanilla- and Buttermilk- and Caramel- and Chocolate- and Coffee-Colored Folks Who Decided They Had The Right And Privilege To Love Themselves Fiercely and Call Themselves Black History Month, y’all!

And let the fabulousness begin!

Below, I’ve included that iconic scene from Lady Sings the Blues. You really need to watch the whole thing to get the full effect, but if you are impatient for The Moment, it occurs around minute 2:25.

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Teachable Racial Moment: On Fingers Pointed in Black Faces

Usually, my blog posts deal with African American community or political issues, and I talk as one cultural insider to another cultural insider.

However, I’ve realized that sometimes, well-meaning, really nice White people (of which there are many, by the way) want Black folks to talk to them in non-angry, non-confrontational, and patient ways about Black cultural issues they don’t understand.

So I wondered if it might be useful for me to write blog posts that break racial things down for good White folks who mean no harm—and who either have Black friends or are in the midst of acquiring friendships with Black people– and are just trying to navigate these racial waters that ironically (and to me, bewilderingly) have become far more treacherous since the election of our first Black president.

Sidebar: I use “race” as a shorthand because that word usually means “Black” or “People of Color” to White people. But really, “race” is not a real, like, biological thing. It does not exist except in people’s minds. What I actually mean when I say “race” is “culture.”

I hadn’t even planned to post again this week, but I’ve noticed the online furor on Black social media concerning Governor Jan Brewer’s pointing her finger very close to President Barack Obama’s face. The response from White folks? Some are upset, but I get the impression they don’t really understand why we African Americans are so troubled. Some of us are even enraged.

So I thought that it might be time to write a Teachable Racial Moment post.

Ok, here goes: If you are wise, you will not ever put your finger–or your whole hand– in a Black person’s face, unless you know you want to immediately engage in a knock down, drag out, fight-to-the-concrete physical brawl. It’s actually a well-known signal for “let’s fight right this moment” in the Black community. When I say “ever” I mean not in this present lifetime, or even after death, if you encounter another Black angel in Heaven. Because that angel is still liable to get into it with you and risk being de-winged.

I don’t know when the finger point in the face became such a grave insult to Black folks, but it has been for at least fifty years. And what does the gesture mean anyway?  It means derision. It means disrespect. And above all, it means power to the pointer.

Sidebar: Have you ever seen a mother (of any cultural background) in the mall with her disobedient toddler? She finally gets exasperated and leans down and begins to scold the child—by pointing her finger in his or her face. And what happens? The toddler starts crying, and then gets it together and starts behaving better. Thus, the finger point in the face is not a gesture between equals. She who does the pointing is establishing herself as a superior to the person being pointed at.

Okay, and now, I’m about to reveal a Racial Secret. Are you ready? I’m going to put this in italics so you really get it.

Because the finger point gesture establishes superiority, the gesture is even worse if a White person does it to a Black person, due to the history in this country of White supremacist violence and cultural demeaning of Black folks.

Nice Non-Racist White folks, this may seem silly to y’all. And I get that. Right now, you may be saying, “Dang, Black folks got too many rules! It’s so hard to keep up with y’all!” That’s true. I won’t deny it. So many rules, even I have a hard time keeping up.

But consider that, individually, we all have rules that help create a space in which we are happy.

For example, I despise egg whites. (No racial pun intended here, I promise.) I will eat whole scrambled eggs willingly, or baked into cookies, cakes, etcetera, but if given a boiled egg, I will only eat the yolk. The thought of an egg white omelet is one that moves me almost to physical pain.  It’s so slimy and disgusting.

So one day, I was visiting my mama and she was making potato salad. And she was chopping up boiled egg whites to mix into the potato salad. Now I live to eat my mama’s potato salad. Nobody makes it better. So I was watching her chop up those egg whites and I felt tears come to my eyes, because I knew I wasn’t going to eat that potato salad with those egg whites in it. I was so disappointed and I felt really betrayed, too.

Mama looked up and saw my face and said quietly, “Honi, you know I already made your potato salad without the whites, darling. It’s sitting in the refrigerator right now.”

That’s what I mean.

Mama could have said, “Look, get over it. I’m not making two separate potato salads to please your rusty grown behind. What am I, your personal chef?” But she didn’t. And just like she knows I won’t eat egg whites, I know she despises the dark meat of chicken and I’d never try to serve a chicken thigh to her. It’s these little things that lead to understanding between two people.

And this leads us back to Governor Jan Brewer. After she pointed her finger in President Obama’s face she followed up in a media interview by saying she “felt threatened” by him. But remember when I said above that the finger point in the face was both an aggressive act and one attempting to establish superiority?

If anyone felt threatened, it would be President Obama, threatened by Governor Brewer’s attempt to not only belittle him, but also because he probably suspected that later, she’d try to flip the racial script on him. Which she most certainly did.

Here’s that flipped script:  she, the Little Helpless White Lady, felt afraid of him, a Big Ole Scary Black Man. (Refer to the film, Birth of a Nation if you aren’t familiar with this tired script. It’s only a bit more tired–and dangerous–than the Big-Breasted Loving Black Mammy Who Lives To Take Care of White Folks Kids With No Pay script in Gone With The Wind.)

So, let me get this straight.

Governor Brewer felt afraid of President ObamaShe felt threatened by him. After she poked her finger in his face and attempted to humiliate him. And let’s not forget this was going on in front of cameras.

Yeah, okay. I completely believe her.

This flipped racial script of Governor Brewer is very old, and has several versions, but it has proven useful throughout the years for the shell game of White supremacy, as when a Black man was lynched whenever a White woman accused him of looking at her funny.

I’m not playing here mentioning the funny look. It was the unofficial law of “reckless eyeballing” created by White southerners, and many a southern Black man swung at the end of a rope for committing that supposed crime. The case of Emmitt Till was a variation of “reckless eyeballing,” because he whistled at a White woman and ended up murdered.

Just because President Obama doesn’t talk about that racial script doesn’t mean he isn’t well aware of our nation’s troubled history concerning White women and Black men, which is why he walked away from Governor Brewer. I’m pretty sure that, as a Black man, he was angered by her culturally transgressive act, but he had the presence of mind to get himself together before he broke all the way fool on the tarmac with that lady and not only ended up in jail, but went down in history as 1) the first Black president and 2) the first president who physically assaulted a woman in public.

But he saved himself, because President Obama is an Old School Brother. And it is never acceptable for an Old School Brother to hit a woman, whether or not she has committed an act of aggression. And let me tell you that you don’t really want to know what would have happened if Governor Brewer had pointed her finger in the face of another Black man—not an Old School Brother but one of these Young Knuckleheads With No Sense.

Eh, Lord, it would have been so ugly. And that’s all I’m going to say.

Polite, kind, respectful, self-controlled, and full of common sense: that’s how Old School Brothers get down. And by the way, that’s why I really adore them. And that’s why, despite the fact that President Obama hasn’t been a perfect leader (at least in my opinion), as a Sister, I feel extremely proud of him. And I bet Mrs. Obama does, too.

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Crying Foul On The Faux: Hip Hop Feminism

When I started this blog, I noticed the number of Black people who call themselves “cultural critics” or “public intellectuals.” I thought that was great. The more of us who are looking at the Black community’s issues and looking for kind, human ways to solve them, the better.

But then, I noticed there were a few people who espoused so-called radical politics, but who seem to be reinforcing the “okey-doke”: the same-old status quos in the Black community, just with a fresher, younger vocabulary. Some of these people called themselves “Hip Hop Feminists.” And in order to get along as a new and struggling Black Public Intellectual (BPI), I bit my tongue sometimes about glaring disconnects between what these folks said their politics were and what actual agendas they supported.

Despite my troublemaking stance, I keep quiet for my own good. I did that because in the Creative Writing community, I’m already known for having a hard time keeping my mouth shut, which is (probably) why I’m not a famous poet and paid in full.

I can get on folks’ nerves. And I can be abrasive as well. But I’ve noticed that I tend to be abrasive when someone I thought was supposed to stand for one thing all of a sudden does a complete turn. And the turn happens usually in the process of “branding” him- or herself in some way that’s supposed to further an academic career, either one already existing or one just beginning.

Kind of like I pretended to be all bold and “keeping it real” but actually, I kept quiet because I wanted to be known as a BPI. Get it?

Now, nobody ever said I was Black Girl Jesus. (I have my flaws and faults; I’m sure you’ve noticed some of them already, if you’ve been reading this blog.) But I can say, my blog doesn’t count as a real “hustle” for me and it doesn’t further my “real” career, either. First, a blog doesn’t count as publication at my university; I have to produce a book-in-print to be promoted to full professor or get a merit raise. Also, since most of the well-regarded BPIs out there hold doctorates and I don’t, I’m also excluded from that cohort as well. I hold a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and I don’t teach cultural studies or literature, etcetera , I teach kids how to write poems and short stories.

I started this blog by myself. It is completely homegrown, and it costs only a few dollars a year to maintain. As you can see, it’s not fancy in the least. And to date, I’ve never been asked to offer my “expert” opinion on some part of Black culture in the mainstream media; nobody ever asks me to speak for “Black people,” only for “Honorée.” As I’m fond of saying, this blog is for me, my mama, and people who need me to keep it real.

Anyway, a few days ago, I was in the middle of my regular, twice-weekly, online rant on Jay Z, the rapper I admittedly love to hate. I said that I looked skeptically at any feminist who supported Jay-Z’s work, and that it just wasn’t possible to lift up a misogynist and be a feminist at the same time. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was by the irate response from several Twitter folks, not the least of whom was Dream Hampton, Jay-Z’s ghostwriter for his book, Decoded, and his actual friend. (I didn’t even know Ms. Hampton followed me on Twitter. I must say I was very flattered, even though she got me told in front of God and everybody.)

Then there were other women, several of whom identified as feminists, who used the sad and ridiculous excuse that in “99 Problems,” Jay-Z wasn’t referring to women as b-words, but rather, men.

Oh, okay. Then that makes all the rest of the b-word and h-word references in his music absolutely acceptable. I’m completely nose-deep in The Jay-Z Fabulous Koolaid now.

Here’s what precipitated my rant (other than, of course, the fact that I don’t understand how a marginally talented and very rude and mean-spirited guy like Jay-Z is now King of Hip Hop, when there are much more talented MCs out there who even seem to have some home training): Supposedly there was a poem a few days ago in which Jay-Z had agreed to stop using the b-word, because of his love for his brand-new baby girl. Then, there erupted many thousand Facebook and Twitter beefs between those people who wanted to hold Jay-Z accountable for his past behavior, and those who were saddened or, indeed, enraged by the accountability crew’s refusal to forgive.

But then, in the middle of all that uproar, Jay-Z’s “poem” was discovered to be a forgery. His representatives issued a public statement to that effect. Which basically meant that Jay-Z reserved the right to call women—and let’s admit it, Black women—the b-word. The h-word was never even part of the discussion, by the way.

As I pondered what had happened, I ran through my memories of other “feminist” BPIs who had supported Jay-Z’s music in the past, talked about his brilliance in Decoded—a book that wasn’t even technically penned by him, but by Dream Hampton, a Black woman—and who most recently, made excuses for his grave and years-long misogynistic speech-acts.

And I wondered something: how many of these Faux Black Feminists find themselves caught in the middle of issues that require them to demonstrate, like, actual feminist principles instead of, say, hustler principles? For example, if you brand yourself as a male or female “Hip Hop Feminist” and then, it occurs to you that a “Hip Hop Feminist” might be, like, an oxymoron, then what? You have to start your career all over again, and you have to reestablish your brand, too. And who wants to do that?

But guess what? If  you’re sitting up on the TV or radio, representing Black people or Black women, saying that you are an activist in the service of Black woman’s empowerment but you are not demanding Black public cultural behaviors that promote Black woman’s empowerment, that’s not cool. And that’s not honest, either. Your career is how you make money. Helping Black women is supposed to be about your heart and soul.

I know what I’m saying is provocative. And I know that this post is going to lose me many BPI connections that I have built over the past year and a half. And that thought both saddens and scares me. But you know, as my granny used to say, “It just bees like that.”

As a poet who does not have a Phd and most importantly, who’s never made a dime as a cultural critic, I have not only the opportunity, but the responsibility to challenge what I believe are some very damaging BPI practices going on right now, by both Sisters and Brothers.

I have the responsibility to say, there are principles for a cultural critic who purports to help the Black woman. It’s one thing to write about the brilliance and artistry in Hip Hop music. It’s another to tether one’s feminist politics, career, and popularity to Hip Hop’s MCs (and their cults of personality), the overwhelming majority of whom damaged both Black women’s public image in the White “mainstream” as well as her self-esteem in her own Black community.

And it is very hypocritical to pretend that Hip Hop culture has been positive, when it has not only supported misogyny against Sisters, but also, created an ugly dynamic that attempts to dismiss as “classist,” “racist” or “generationally out of touch” any critics who want to hold both the MCs and the culture responsible for the normalization of misogyny within the Black community.

I’m not saying real Black Feminists don’t like to dance to Hip Hop music or don’t like the beats. We do. I’m not saying there aren’t some great non-commercial MCs. There are, indeed. But I am saying that Hip Hop culture is not about to save any Black woman. Real Black feminists don’t keep shaking our booties on the deck of the sinking ship, SS Hip Hop, just because after everyone has drowned, we hope we might find a lifeboat and then, some dollar bills floating on the top of the water.

And we don’t tether our feminist politics to a cultural institution that has degraded Black women out loud, in public, and gleefully for over fifteen years now and counting. Sure, we can invest in intellectual production on Hip Hop Music—articles, books, speaking engagements—but we can’t push a personal political agenda of Hip Hop Feminism when female empowerment is not at the top of the Hip Hop agenda, but rather apologizing for Hip Hop culture is at the top of that agenda.

To wit, “Yeah, okay, MCs talk real, real bad about Sisters, but the music is brilliant. And you know, sooner or later, Yeezy’s going to get him some therapy.”

We must take an honest look at our Black Public Intellectual brands. And if those brands are not consistent with what—and who—we say we stand for politically, then we have to change accordingly. Or, we should stop pretending. Because despite what Hip Hop has told us, the hustle is not the ultimate goal. The mental and emotional health of the Black community is.

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Guthrie Ramsey’s New Single from THE COLORED WAITING ROOM (Available Today!)

Today, I’m so excited because I’ve been waiting for weeks for the release of the first single from Dr. Guthrie Ramsey’s musical project, The Colored Waiting Room and it’s finally here!  Much of Black Social Media has been buzzing about this project for weeks. I know I have.

Before I get to the sassy part, let me give you the fussy, academic stuff. Please be patient, now.

Hailing from the “Up South” Mecca of South Side Chicago, Dr. Guthrie Ramsey is a former elementary and high school music teacher who earned his Ph.D. in musicology at the University of Michigan. He’s the author of Race Music: Black Cultures From Be-Bop to Hip Hop (University of California Press, 2003), which was named outstanding book of the year by the International Association for the Study of Popular Music. Dr. Ramsey also has the distinction of being recognized as a Thurgood Marshall Dissertation Fellow at Dartmouth, a DuBois Institute Fellow at Harvard, and a recipient of the Lowens Award, from the Society for American Music for best article on an American music topic. Currently, he’s the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA.

Now here’s the good part.

What I like about Guthrie Ramsey is that he’s a “regular brother” who just happens to also be a seriously brilliant musician with his own Philadelphia band, Dr. Guy’s Musiqology. And you’ll see his brilliance and the beauty of his music when you download (for FREE) and listen to “Stolen Moments,” the first single off his new CD, The Colored Waiting Room, sung by the inimitable Denise King.

But you now why I’m even more excited? Because “Bruh Guthrie” (as I call him) asked me to contribute a “meditation” for the first single!  Here are a few lines from what I wrote:

….now when can you come over? Maybe around midnight, later? It’s been a while. (If you like, I’ll say please.) I miss you. You miss me. Of course, I know you do. You miss how we…

Sidebar: Y’all didn’t know that side of me, did you?  Please don’t tell nobody that sometimes, though I am always ladylike, I’m not always well-behaved.

To read the rest of my “Stolen Moments” meditation inspired by the beautiful single sung by Denise King, and also to see a fabulous short film about the entire project known as The Colored Waiting Room, click here and scroll down.  (It’s a different site from the download site.)

And have a great weekend! I know whenever I listen to new music, it always makes me feel good.

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Reginald Dwayne Betts: Black Poetry, the Night, and Notes on Forgetting

Hey Y’all:

I’m so excited to introduce Reginald Dwayne Betts, who has joined PhillisRemastered as a regular guest blogger!

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. His memoir, A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009), won the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), was awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.

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“Black Poetry, the Night, and Notes on Forgetting”

I.

The fourth of July weekend, 1997, found me bracing myself for cuffs once again. Already in prison I was headed for a cell all my own, a little spot in C Building to celebrate my lack of freedom. The reason I was going to the hole isn’t as important now as it was then, the invented assault on an officer charge then a way to demonstrate how little control I had over my own life and now a point of humor.

The only relevant part is that I ended up in that single cell on the bottom floor, in the summer time when the heat was so oppressive that men would strip naked and lay on the small plastic covered mattress with a cup or two of water poured over them. A makeshift cold bath. Nothing of the situation had me expecting my life would change, nothing of the situation expected me to find the one thing I’d get from prison and hold on to forever, as if it were some life line.

This was my second time in the hole, and I’d already learned that with a book I could deal with my cell door never opening. Quickly I learned that despite the library cart not coming to the hole there were hundreds of books back there. Books that were read and passed on, having either been brought back there by people who had time to think before they were hauled off to solitary, or snuck back there by guards and the housemen who worked those hallways, passing out our meals, cleaning showers and sweeping the hallways under the not so careful watch of the C/Os.

One day I stood at the steel grill of my cell door, and shouted down the hallway for a book, any book, to read. Moments later Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets” was tossed under my cell. Up until this point I’d never heard of Robert Hayden, of Lucille Clifton, of Sonia Sanchez. I’d never heard of Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight and so many others. You were expected to read the books and pass them on–so I began copying poems long hand in a little blue folder. And this is how I became a poet.

This is also why when I think about poetry, when I hear people saying that poetry saved their lives, I imagine it to be true. What I learned when I came home is writing can exist in a superficial way in the lives of those who claim to love it, that it could be reduced to arguments that did little to advance the art, little to interrogate the art, but much to lift the intellectual status of the arguer. I found myself in those same conversations, sometimes leading them.

It has all been a manner of forgetting what it was like when the stakes were so high that the frivolities of my own criticism were lost in my pursuit of the poem that didn’t need me to criticize it. Back then I knew two poets, and didn’t talk about poetry much to anyone, and it was enough. Now I know scores of poets, and talk about poetry often, and it is often not nearly the bread it was before.

II.

A few days ago, maybe a little longer, a friend of mine told me that I was a poet in the MFA generation. I had no real idea what “the MFA generation” was, but in retrospect understood some of what he was saying. We, a generation of writers who became writers under the academia sponsored tutelage of other writers, our readings directed and in some ways predicated on the institutions we went to, are susceptible to having gaps in our hearings. Which is to say gaps in the writers who we have been encouraged to take as literary mentors.

The argument is that for the black writer, this is more troubling, because if one is to accept the authority of the institutions that degree us, one must, almost, also accept that barring any reclamation projects (i.e. Zora Neale Hurston) that the writers of color who were not acknowledged as writers by this hugely generalized beast called academia are not writers of quality.

He misses the point though, because even where he is correct, it isn’t the fault of the institution that we forget writers. Writers have and always will be forgotten. Alan Dugan won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his first collection of poems and I can’t recall any poet ever mentioning him to me. I went through undergrad at a fine institution without once reading Steinbeck or Faulkner, while majoring in English. I also didn’t read many writers of color outside of classes that fell under the rubric of African American studies. But this is besides the point. My friend, fine writer that he is, has chosen (in this brief conversation) to advocate agitation over the work.

I am not a poet of the “MFA generation,” if there is any such thing. I understand that it is a clever way of framing a conversation about all that literature in America lacks, but in the end it fails to discuss what is vibrant, or even what one can do about the missing pieces, or why the missing pieces are important.

Regardless, I am a poet of prison, which is to say that if you have been to prison you might understand fully how almost every conversation for me appears a sort of circling the wagon, of returning to some point where the nights were bleak and what I saw out of my window was barbed wire. I blame those nights for making me a poet, and blame those nights for introducing to Neruda and Knight, to Brooks, Alexander, Baraka and Hemingway.

All of which is to say that I was introduced to authors by my own whim, and am a bit disappointed in what I’ve forgotten, disappointed in how some of what drove me to want to write has been dismissed by writers and writing programs I have been a part of without me acknowledging that those poems carried something that drove me. We should be disappointed in what we forget and what others fail to acknowledge, but the idea that it is not totally our duty to do the remembering (in ways that move beyond critique and complaint) strikes me as naive.

In 1997, the second collection of poems I purchased was Michael Harper’s anthology Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep. I remember reading a poet in there, Sherley Anne Williams. She first gave me the idea to write poem as epistle. Just a few days ago I was searching for her name, and couldn’t find a trace of those poems anywhere on line. I did find a Sherley Anne Williams who wrote “The Peacock Poems,” but wasn’t sure if that was her. A friend pointed me to the journal Callaloo, where her series of poems (the series I remembered) “Letters From A New England Negro” were published.

Williams’s first collection The Peacock Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published. Yet, her name too, I have not heard mentioned, have not mentioned myself. So now, as a free man, with a wealth of friends who are writers, I find it harder to discover and rediscover poetry that I should love than I did when I was in prison. And I ask myself why, and I’m convinced that the problem, if there is a problem, is that black poets have been tricked into believing that there is this homogenous thing called the “black community.”

And so we imagine that we get what we need, we must get what we need, because we are in this community. But we lack—and we bicker, and we complain. And while those these are great, and are indeed vital, we (this fictitious, homogenous whole) seem not to remember with the same ferociousness that we bemoan the forgetting. And then we fail to discover why we do this. Or to remember.

None of this is to argue I’m innocent in any of this. I think it’s to say that in prison I hoped to find a community where I could raise my children, and they would say with pride that, “Such and such used to come by my dad’s house, it would be him, him, her and her and they would be talking about poems and drinking and cursing and laughing.”

That my children would say this and be amazed each time that they thought about it how vibrant the arts community I was apart of was/is—and my biggest failure as a poet is that I have not worked to create that kind of community around myself, being far too concerned with the trappings of national recognition than the happiness of true community.

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Dr. King Died So You Could Call Me Names (And Other Truths)

I attended a Historically Black College, and King Day was a super big deal. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, so that meant that the Alphas on the campus of Talladega College, my alma mater, used to go crazy on the holiday, which was both a day of pride and sadness, considering the way that Dr. King died.

The question would be asked, what did Dr. King make his sacrifice for? In The Untelling by Tayari Jones, one of her characters is fond of saying, “Is this why Dr. King died?”

Back then, the responsibility hung heavy on my shoulders and those of my peers, and though that burden was ponderous on King Day, it rested there throughout the year.  If we failed, we failed the same community King shed his blood for. The question of why he died—the ultimate message of his sacrifice—was  broached by African American community as a way of reminding us of great responsibility.

King did not die so we could become criminals. King did not die so a Black man could beat his wife or rape a woman. King did not die so we could drop out of high school before graduation.  And so on and so forth, etcetera. And those were the big things.

But not calling another Black man or woman out of his or her name, well, that was the absolute minimum.

Okay, so now, you’re thinking I’m the millionth Negro who’s writing an essay to say, Dr. King did not die so we could call each other n—-r or  b—h or h-. But guess what? That’s not this blog post. This blog post is about difficulty.

See, dying is a hard thing. In fact, it’s the hardest thing there is. There’s no coming back from death, and despite my Christian faith, I’m not sure there’s anything beyond death. It could be nothing, a nothing that goes on forever and ever and ever.

And if dying’s the hardest thing there is, and Dr. King did that, why are we living, breathing Black intellectuals so afraid that we won’t be liked anymore by other Black people that we won’t tell Black people the truth?

So, in celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, I’ve decided to be that rare Black intellectual who’s not afraid of risking my Black Passport by telling other Black people things they don’t want to hear. I’m going to tell the truth.

First things first.

If you are African American and you call another Black man (or woman) the n-word even if it’s not in real life but on a record, you’re not creating art.

Art is hard. Art is difficult. Calling someone a mean name is easy. You are not smart if the n-word is the first word you reach for. What you are is lacking in imagination. And you’re embarrassing me, The Race, and your mama.

Yes, using the n-word falls under your freedom of speech. And it’s also my freedom of speech to tell you that growing up in the ghetto and then making a lot of money does not mean you’re a genius. It means, your setting such a low bar makes it easier for me to make a living as an academic because anybody with a vocabulary above fifty words who went to graduate school will really look like a genius compared to you.

I guess I should thank you profusely, but again, you’re embarrassing me. And since you might not know what “profusely” means, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

Want to call a Black woman a b—h or h-? Okay. Go on ahead. But again, that means you have a lack of creativity. It also means, while you might be telling the truth when you say you love your mother, wife or baby daughter, you might consider that it is truly possible to treat your family right while treating others badly so you can still be a bad person. Just ask CEOs of Fortune Five Hundred companies or read about slave masters in a history book. An actual book, not one on tape.

Here’s some more truth: I walk into a classroom and look in the faces of my White students and wonder, how many of them think it’s okay to consider my Black female skin and think I’m nothing but a receptacle for sex, if my brothers already have talked about me that way and nobody has ever made a real effort to stop it—even the people who are supposed to know better, like Black public intellectuals and Sisters who call themselves feminists.

Let me keep going with this whole truth thing.

It’s the truth that sometimes, I want to pack my belongings in a rag on a stick and take the next Underground Railroad Train out of this Black community and start A New Race.

And that’s just when I get embarrassed about the name-calling.

Don’t even get me started on the despair I feel about Black-on-Black crime, the Black men who rape or kill Black women or each other, the Black men who won’t stay and be fathers to their children, the drug dealers (sometimes who are Black women) in our community. All those things we can help, and those things we can’t really blame on White people—but there is liable to be some Black intellectual with a Phd who will find a loophole for us to act like fools, probably concerning something White folks did to us before the telephone was invented.

I know a lot of Black people are just like me. I suspect those intellectual Blacks who talk about “Post-Race” aren’t really trying to move this society forward. They’re just sick and tired of The Present Black Race they have to belong to, people embarrassing upstanding Black folks with their bad behavior, and then, in order to own A Black Passport, we upstanding African Americans have to get in line and pretend—or be called sellouts.

Some of those Post-Race folks feel the same way I do: As much as I want to help Black people, loving this community sometimes feels like I’m in love with somebody who beats me, and who will eventually be the death of me. And then, who will marry a younger version of me, only to beat her to death, too.

We’re getting to a place where those of us Black folks who are surviving and thriving are being faced with a terrible choice: should the small number of us forget “linked fate,” turn our backs on centuries of shared history to save ourselves, or should we sacrifice our lives for the community, as King did?

I’ll tell you the final truth—a truth I’ve never admitted in print: sometimes I just can’t stand the Black community. Sometimes, I shake in anger when I see how we will justify any crime, large or small. Sometimes while I love my own Black self, I hate certain kinds of Black folks. Certain kinds. The ones who embarrass me and fill me with despair, I mean.

I wonder if that’s how Dr. King felt, in the years before his death. Not all the time, maybe not even sometimes, but every once in a while. When he thought about the negative aspects of this community, was he embarrassed? Angry? Contemptuous? Or even, hateful?

After all, Dr. King wasn’t Jesus Christ. He was just a man. So maybe Dr. King did experience those feelings, but still, somehow he had enough love for all Black folk–even the tacky ones– to stay with us. Enough love to lay down his life for us. That’s really something.

And I think about his profound love, not just on his birthday, but many other days throughout the year, when I remain with my Black community, despite everything, and I try so hard to keep reaching for love myself.

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