September 15, 1963: A Poem

Dear Readers:

I wrote the following poem over ten years ago, after listening to John Coltrane’s “Alabama,“ a song he wrote in response to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, an event which resulted in the deaths of four little girls.

At that time, I was living in Talladega, Alabama, only about fifty miles away; that ground carried spilled blood as well.  As I listened to Coltrane’s song, I was greatly moved, even though there were no words. I was struck by the wisdom of the ancestors, how they have prepared messages for us before we were born. Today, I just wanted to share the poem I wrote with you, written in a time when I did not understand those messages; today, I do.

Let us remember the names of those children, who are now our ancestors:

 

Addie Mae Collins

Denise McNair

Carole Robertson

Cynthia Wesley

 

Love,

Honorée

 

—–

 

The Book of Alabama: Chapter Coltrane

            for Michael S. Harper

            

I’ve been plagued by spirits     visitations

of death     fire feeding off sheeted

breath     Sometimes I see the bones

of God’s back turned to me

 

(Hands stroke the lynch knot

and bear the cup I beg to pass

         There is no good news        I was born

as wood       a thrown match cutting

open the five wounds       On this ground

I am a minor prophet)

 

And sometimes I see the loins of God giving

birth to Her son       surely there is

prayer in my horn’s throat      wine

in redemption       I stand on limbo’s

chasm       play       Each note shouts gospel

 

(Things ain’t always gone be

this way       This is how to get over

       Follow the hoot owl witness

There might be consolation on this trail

grace at the tree’s root       I’m bound for the other

side of water       My feet ain’t meant to dangle)

 

Lord       I know I’ve been changed

The only sound is morning       I call You

by the thousand names You have

whispered to me in song

       Speak Your red clay promise

that blood cries out       rises from ash

that You will not rest on the seventh day

 

 

[from Outlandish Blues by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, © 2003.]

 

          

An Affirmation for This Day: Meditate on Sonia Sanchez

Uploaded from http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/watch_trailer_for_poetic_documentary_sonia_sanchez_shake_loose_memories

A few hours ago, I saw a public service ad online about doing something meaningful for September 11th, which, of course, was a horrible day in American history. So on this day, I’ve decided to celebrate my friend and beloved mentor, the renowned African American poet, educator and activist, Dr. Sonia Sanchez.

She celebrated her seventy-ninth birthday two days ago (on September 9th) and continues to bless us with her astounding poems and her courageous, do-right presence in the world. She is one of the most cherished people in my life. I cannot tell you how much I love her.

And, just as a slight, shallow aside, doesn’t she look really beautiful to be seventy-nine years old?! The picture to the right was taken very recently. And I promise you, she’s just as cute in person and she did not buy that hair, okay? It’s all hers, in its thick, wonderful glory. That’s what living a good life and eating a healthy diet can do, y’all.

I met “Miss Sonia” on the page before I’d met her in person, as if the case with many of us “young”—black poets.  She knew my father, as he had been a member of the Black Arts Movement and I had read her germinal volume We a BaddDDD People, which had been published by Broadside Press, the same press (then) of my father.

Sidebar: I don’t know how “young” I am anymore, but I still feel like a girl around Miss Sonia. She can do that to you, and you must always remember your manners around her. At least, I do.

And so, when I finally met her in the flesh in my teens—I was sixteen or seventeen—at a small gathering at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, I was a bit surprised at how tiny Miss Sonia was. I was expecting a much, much bigger person to match the huge voice in her poetry, not the tiny-boned, petite woman I encountered. But she was commanding in an almost overwhelming way when she spoke to me. Her air was one both of graciousness and gravitas.

Thirteen or so years later, I saw her again at Cave Canem, the workshop retreat for African American poets. It was the summer of 1998 in upstate New York, and I believe that in a few years, scholars of black poetry will write about that summer, not because I was there—I’m not being modest, just honest—but because of the collection of black poets who were.

Cave Cavem had been founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, well-known poets. Elizabeth Alexander was there as faculty, as was Lucille Clifton—another woman who became beloved to me—and Michael S. Harper. The author and editor Eugenia Collier was there as special guest. And several of the fellows present that year are published poets now, including Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Shara McCallum, Kate Rushin, John Keene, Reginald Harris, Monica A. Hand, and R. Erica Doyle.

I was walking down the hallway of the monastery (where the retreat was heldthat year) when I approached the open door of Miss Sonia’s room. Out of respect for the privacy of a famous person, I kept my head down and tried to pass, but her voice snagged me.

“Hello, my dear sister,” she called out.

My southern home training required a polite exchange but I didn’t want to act like a “groupie,” nor did I want to trade on her past acquaintance with my father—already, I’d caught some shade from my contemporaries for being a “second” generation black poet. I poked my head in, tentatively.

“Hello, Ms. Sanchez. How are you?”

“I’m well, my dear sister. And you?”

“I’m good, thank you.”

She asked my name. Now, I really was in a quandary, and sure enough, when she heard “Jeffers,” she said, “Ah, Lance’s daughter!” She even remembered our first meeting, over a decade before. I was trapped, sucked into the identity of my father, when I was trying to make a name for my own self.

But the next few days weren’t so bad. In fact, they were life-altering. Her poetry reading that week ties as one of the best I’ve ever experienced—it ties with the one Miss Lucille gave that same week. When Miss Sonia read, it was like being in church. No, it was like being in church during revival week, with a full gospel choir, and fried chicken and lemon pound cake afterward, in the fellowship hall.

Over the years, Miss Sonia has become my good friend and my mentor, and I call her about once a month. Mostly, I pretend I’m calling to “check on” her, but really, I’m just calling to hear that voice, that combination of stern, no-nonsense and tender nurturing.–I remember the first time she said she was proud of me, I burst into tears. Right there on the phone. Yes, I should have been ashamed at my display. But no, I was not. I’d been waiting a long time for her to say those words.

Sometimes, I must admit, I do still marvel that I am sharing conversations and laughter with—and receiving wisdom from—one of my literary heroes, and I do have “groupie” moments, like when she calls The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison simply “Toni”. My heart sort of stops a couple of seconds every time that happens and I have to suppress a little squeal. I can’t lie. I mean, Toni. Morrison. But mostly, I just love to hear Miss Sonia’s voice and the way she draws out “hey” like a Birmingham, Alabama lady when she knows it’s me on the phone. And how she calls me “my dear sister” and makes me feel, well, dear.

If you don’t know who Miss Sonia is, here are some links for you to “refresh yourself,” in the words of another dear black woman. (My mother.) I hope that Miss Sonia’s words will bless your day the way she blesses mine, whenever I call her and she answers the phone.

Sonia Sanchez’s official website 

Sonia Sanchez’s Wikipedia Page

Information about the Black Arts Movement

And finally, there is a documentary being made about Sonia Sanchez! It promises to be fantastic. Here is the link to the trailer of the film in progress. Enjoy!

Teachable Racial Moment ("Twerking" Late Edition): Forget Miley Cyrus. It’s ALL About Katherine Dunham.

For the last few days, I’ve been reading about Miley Cyrus’s VMA—ahem—performance,  which included her attempt at the African/American dance called “twerking,” and which apparently convinced a lot of people that it was okay for women (of any race) without rhythm to try anything that involved booty-shaking.

There were a lot of parents upset that their Disney-loving kids were exposed to Miley’s sexualized antics with a man dressed like Willy Wonka on Crack Having Misplaced His Bifocals, a Big Football Finger, and Several Giant Stuffed Animals, not necessarily in that order.

But my personal favorite discussion about “twerking” was an article giving a scientific explanation of how to “twerk,” by a physician who clearly didn’t know how to “twerk,” and who might be shepherding someone into a serious and permanent physical injury. I mean, dang.

However, what has been interesting is that, in the middle of all this ink (or whatever it is, now that we don’t use ink anymore) generated about Miley and the “phenomenon” of twerking nobody has gone on record saying what needs to be said: how come black folks think “twerking” is a dance that sisters made up in the strip clubs to earn money and don’t know that West African women have been dancing like this for hundreds, quite possibly thousands, of years, and not for “nasty” purposes, either?

So black folks, don’t blame Miley for getting it wrong, because you got it wrong first. Blame yourselves and your own lack of cultural and historical memory.

That’s right. We are responsible for that white girl getting up on TV disrespecting and bastardizing African American culture. This is one of those “yes, I said it” moments. And I’ll say it again until the wheels fall off.

Now, let’s continue to the educational breakdown.

Decades ago in the twentieth century, there was a genius black choreographer named Katherine Dunham. She has been called the “matriarch of black dance,” and she introduced West African dance to North America.  Honestly, she is as important to American dance history as Twyla Tharp.

Dunham influenced generations of black and white choreographers.  Most importantly, Dunham helped to create respect for the field of dance influenced by the African Diaspora and its spiritual and cultural practices. Dunham pioneered the Western dance concept of “isolation”—keeping one part of the body still while moving another—and incorporating fluid pelvic moves into mainstream dance.

Pelvic moves. Sound familiar?

But those moves were ancient and Dunham just made them modern. They were West African dance moves. Moves that had been expressed for hundreds of years. Moves that were brought over on the Middle Passage, the journey of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  For example, while in Senegal, I saw “twerking” at a wedding being set up outdoors. No one treated it as “naughty” at all, either—or “American.”

Many of us blacks who have seen Dunham’s version of West African dance here on the stages of college auditoriums, community centers, gymnasiums—or in a Hip Hop video—have no idea that what we are witnessing are Diasporic expressions that she worked for nearly seventy years to bring to us and thus, reconnect us with our culture from across the water.

You know what white people do with their profound, European cultural expressions from across the Atlantic?

Well, if it’s a dance performance, they have other white people who carefully guard the particulars of the choreography, write articles about the history of the choreographer, give money to organizations so the dance can be performed, and then, dress up in expensive outfits to go see that dance performed. Like, on the stage at Lincoln Center in New York City.  

Here’s a little list of those beloved European ballets: Giselle, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. We’ve all heard of those. But how many of us have heard of Dunham’s Treemonisha or Fantasie Négre?

And forget about Lincoln Center. You know what black folks do in gratitude for Dunham’s tireless work that eventually landed her in a wheelchair (because of dance-related injuries)? We take all that hard work and her African and Caribbean anthropological research, not to mention her deep spirituality—check out this little clip of her choreographed  dance “Shango,” based on a spiritual ritual for a West African Orisha—we put some twists into it, and we take it to the strip club.

The. Strip. Club. I’m just going to let that marinate with y’all for a few seconds.

And for those without a “Magic City” nearby so brothers can make it rain on women they have no kindness or respect for, there is Youtube, where collectives like The Twerk Team use variations of their ancestors’ movements to dance to a trashy Negro’s rapping, “[Insert expletive noun for female dog] sit on my [insert expletive noun for male genitalia.]”

And no, I’m not going to link to The Twerk Team. Don’t even ask me to. Don’t even.

Certainly, Miley Cyrus looked “besides like a fool” on the VMAs, to borrow one of my grandmother’s expressions. She needed to go put some clothes on and consult her therapist, her mama, or both the next time she decided to jump up on stage. And what she was doing was about as close to “twerking” as an elephant on stilts trying to execute a plie. (Actually, I’m surprised there wasn’t an elephant on stage, since she had everything and everybody else up there.)

But Miley Cyrus believed she had the right to steal our dance moves because African Americans have not documented, archived, funded—making it rain don’t count—respected or protected our centuries-old African dance expressions the same way Americans of European descent have done for their culture from “the old country.”

Even if you have no money, you can read.  And you can voice opposition to the constant sexualization and degradation of black cultural practices, which never ends well for us.

We black folks discard our cultural power, then get mad at white people for “cultural theft.” Certainly, in the past it may have been “theft.” But these days, it’s not.  These days, it’s laziness on our part, and it’s our allowing the worst, trashiest elements to take over our cultural expressions because we don’t want to be “classist.” But it does not take a so-called “high socio-economic status” person to cherish our culture. It simply takes black self-respect and self-preservation.

Miley Cyrus has no respect for the profundity of black cultural expression—but why should she? What investment does she have in our culture? And didn’t she used to be a country singer? How many times have you seen a white country musician lift up his banjo and say, “did y’all know this is an African instrument?” 

Miley recognizes power when she sees it, and she knows enough to exploit it.  We black folks cannot throw a five-dollar bill on the ground and then get mad because someone else picks it up and puts it in the bank.  And in this case, with “twerking”—or, more accurately, “traditional West African dance,”—it’s not a five-dollar bill we’ve discarded. It’s a piece of gold. And if Miley sells enough records, quite possibly, it could be a piece of platinum.