27 February 2012

the black blooming

"Post-Black is talking about people who are rooted 
in Blackness but not constrained by it. They want to be Black. 
They want to deal with the Black tradition, 
and the Black community, and Black tropes. But they also 
want the freedom to do other things." 

Today I want to ask you, Nation, to allow me to repaint my Blackness. 
I would like to go at it with shades of green instead of the blues, 
to lace it with a trim of black licorice but also rice noodles 
and seaweed stuffed with raw fish. Permit me to put Ray Charles 
and Stevie and Aretha on hold and dance with my toes 
instead of my hips.  

I would like to twist my Blackness and smooth it down, 
cover it with a scarf or tuck it into a baseball cap and bite 
into a hot dog and cheer the loudest. I would like to open 
the windows of my Blackness to scale the roof like a mountain,
hug a harness and hug a tree and hug a garden of okra 
and spinach greens and asparagus 
greens and, and, and. 

Today I beseech you to let me be today a panther 
but tomorrow a pekingese or pug. My Blackness will wrap 
its arms around either in love. 
I would like to add rooms for my Blackness, to let it expand 
and breathe cinnamon and vanilla. I would like to bake my Blackness 
into something enormous, something flaky and warm and overstuffed. 

I would like to uproot my Blackness 
and resoil it in the Mediterranean, or at the peak of Everest, 
or free falling from an airplane into cloud soil. 
I would like to give my Blackness wings and risks, let it live 
a thousand years and die forty-thousand ways. 
I would like to open the door to Blackness luminous, 
to give it complications at breakfast and thrills 
when the night sends it spiraling back into my arms.

25 February 2012

i am not my hair (or am i)

I don't think I have ever been so torn about my hair as I am right now. I actually went to a stylist for the first time in years in early January and have had twists in since then; right at the end of the month I decided to leave them in and start working on locs.
Back in January, when everything was fresh.

But here's the thing. I love my fro. I love my big, wavy, wild afro. And today I started missing it. I miss it so much. I miss my twist out. I miss brushing my hair smooth and picking out a puff in the back. I miss pulling my twists apart and winding up with a wavy sonnet atop my head. I miss pulling scarves around my hair and pulling strands loose. I miss breezes styling my hair into something new and awe inspiring.

The glorious days of fro and flower...
I miss it. I miss it all.

I miss this...
... and this ...

... and definitely this.

But here's the other thing ... I am not--or at least, have not been, lately--a lazy styler, but I have been enjoying the ability to wake up and go. Or wet my hair for a little extra curl around the ends and go. Or wrap a scarf around the twists and watch some stick out every which way and smooth down the ones in the front and feel like a new person.
Twists with a little water.

I love it.

But here's the other thing. Sometimes my twists-transitioning-into-locs are just flat and sad, and I want something bigger.

But here's another thing. Sometimes I miss my teeny weeny fro.

But the other things is it's been years since my hair's been this long and healthy.

But the other thing is my twists are shrinking and nobody can see just how long it is, not unless I shake them loose and stretch myself out.

And that's where I am. Torn. And twisted.

At the tone

This morning I made the discovery that my mom's phone number is still in my cellphone's contact list.

At the tone
I had a picture of what this might look like
for anyone other than me.

Body curling like a baby
hen furled in the belly of an egg
waiting to be born--

birth would be a ringing,
the hum and click of connect, then death,
on the other end of the line that remind us
we have indeed reached
the end of the line. 

Soft breaths soaked into pillow fibers--
a whole world of feathers gathering air and expanding
for a moment before dormancy
settled back in.

A voice heavy as cream on the other end
answering, "I am only going to tell you this once.
Do not call this number again."
An endless dial tone.

As it turned out, the voice on the line
was not yours--the sound of a stranger
telling me to leave

my message for you at the tone left my mouth as dry
as a hollowed out egg when all the chicks are hens
and should be having hens of their own
but are afraid to feel their wombs first so full
and then so empty.

This, I know, should not be the place for a last goodbye--
leaving well enough alone
was one of the gifts you gave me before you were gone,

a lesson I learn so well I can leave things broken
without weeping for what they were when they were whole,

but it still took ten whole minutes,
several sips of water, a wave of nausea,
an over the porcelain bowl uneasy lean,
and all this passing without an ounce of inner unstiching,

to accept that the day could not move on
until I dialed.

23 February 2012

Just a taste

Remember, too, when I am gone away,
me as Girl with Wild Hair and Tempered Breezes,
with varied seasons galloped in her wake
and the patience of a Saint

Bernard, pressing breath into the snow.
Remember me as She Who Slept In Late;
as Never Had a Date Before Her Thirties--
a girl best known for flirting

with disasters. Remember me in laughter
on my grave; wrap me in the breath before each sneeze,
each battle with disease, and each guitar
string snapping when you play my song.

22 February 2012

Giving up

Last night I had a dream about a friend coming to work and showing off his new girlfriend to everyone and I decided it was time to quit. Not the job--nothing sacrificed in or to the world of a dream this morning--but the things in life I try and hold in the palm of my hand that are too heavy to even touch.

Give up, and start breathing
better ...                                  
I gave up on my Black History series days ago, and to some extent it was okay because in the end I don't think too many people noticed and those who did aren't saying anything so I feel blessed in my decision. But also to a larger extent because it made me tired to be writing up a history only some people know and never focusing on my own. It was exhausting. It was like running a marathon and sometimes I would finish a post breathless and remember my days of fatty-asthma where I couldn't breathe not because of genes or environmental factors but because my lungs and the rest of my body were trying to send me a message that they, too, were quitting on me if I didn't start taking them more seriously. Those Black History posts were my asthmatic-time-to-call-it-quits moments. Even writing about them is taking my breath away a little bit. So I think I'll give up on that, too.

I don't think of giving up as a failure. Not a complete one, anyway. But look ... once you've tried so hard so much for so long you're allowed a break from trying. Or maybe, your universe will tell you it's time to take a break from trying. Or maybe it's God breathing in your ear, "Hey, honey, what I'm trying to tell you is just stop trying so hard." Or maybe that's your roommate. Or your family. Or if you're honest it's nobody but your body is starting to wear out on you and your bones ache in the mornings and your nose runs and your stomach turns and everything around and inside you is just saying, "Okay ... enough."

I went to bed last night around one and one of the last thoughts I can remember thinking was thinking, "Am I Black enough yet?" and in a dream I was checking my hands in the dark and when I couldn't see them it was enough.

I wrote in my journal that I can't tell if my students stay in my classes because they like what I'm doing or they're just stuck with me and no better alternatives and I closed my journal on the signing of my name thinking that's enough.

I started thinking about a song I used to love called "Small Enough" in which the singer sings, "Oh, great God, be small enough to hear me now" and now all I can think is that maybe God starts singing back, "Yes, you, too" and I wonder if I'm small enough yet but I don't think so.

Today I'm giving up on being big and giving little a little room to breathe.

15 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 15


Since yesterday was Valentine's Day, I took a day off. So today's post is a two-for-one post, looking at Colonel Allen Allensworth, and the town he helped found, Allensworth, California.

Colonel Allen Allensworth

Colonel Allen Allensworth (1842-1914)
Allen Allensworth was a former slave who escaped the bonds of slavery in exchange for service in the Civil War. Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1842, Allensworth would experience slavery in Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana, all the while struggling to educate himself despite the illegality of this aim.

When Allensworth met soldiers from the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a Union unit stationed near Louisville, KY, he told them of his desire for freedom. The troops helped Allensworth escape slavery when he marched with them from Louisville to join them in fighting the Civil War. Allensworth would go on to enlist in the U.S. Navy, in 1863, where he would earn his first pay as a free man. He would go on to serve as one of the first Black chaplains in the U.S. Army, a duty which he performed when he was assigned to the 24th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Buffalo Soldiers. By the time Allensworth retired from active military service, in 1906, he had achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, making him the first African American to reach such a high ranking in U.S. military history.

Allensworth, California

When Allensworth retired from military service in 1906, he and his family relocated to Los Angeles, California. Allensworth desired to develop an all-black community where Blacks could live without fear of racial discrimination, and where he and his people could live and creative "sentiment favorable to intellectual and industrial liberty." On June 30, 1908, he saw the fulfillment of this dream when he, along with four other men with a similar vision of an all-Black community, founded the California Colony Home Promotion Organization and developed a settlement in Tulare County. After buying first 20, then 80 more, acres of land, the settlement began to thrive, expanding to 900 acres and over 200 occupants by 1914. The colony, which quickly developed into a town, became known as the "Tuskegee of the West," well-established with homes, streets, a church, orchestra, glee club, and brass band. Allensworth would become the first, and only, California community to be founded, financed, and governed by African Americans.

Unfortunately, the town which had flourished in the dream of racial peace began to deteriorate in the wake of falling water levels, the tragic accidental death of Col. Allensworth in a 1914 pedestrian-motorcycle accident, and the Great Depression. From 1914 to the 1940s, the population began to decline, becoming a mix of migrant farm workers, Blacks, and Hispanics. By 1972, the population had dropped to 90; soon the town became almost a ghost town.

This decline, however, was met with a drive, in the 1970s, to save Allentown, and would lead to the town being preserved as a national historic monument and public park. When the town site became a California state historic park, in 1976, restorations began to preserve the town in the memory of Col. Allensworth and the African Americans who contributed to the history and development of Allensworth and California.

13 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 13

Camilla Williams

Camilla Williams (1919-2012) in Pagliacci
Camilla Williams was the first African American to receive a contract with a major American opera company. Throughout Black History Month celebrations in school, I can remember being presented with profiles of Marian Anderson, a contralto who made history when she performed an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 1939. Far less frequently told was the story of Williams, who broke her own racial boundaries when she signed a contract with the New York City Opera in 1946. Her husband, Charles T. Beavers, was one of the principal attorneys for Malcolm X. Williams sang with various opera companies throughout the United States and Europe, performing in classic operas like La boheme, Aida, Pagliacci, and Porgy and Bess. She continued to cross color lines when she became the first African American to sing a major role with the Vienna State Opera. In more ways than one, Williams followed in Marian Anderson's footsteps. In both 1943 and 1944, she won the Marian Anderson Award, an award bestowed upon outstanding young musicians. She is also known for singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" preceding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C. in 1963; it was an honor originally meant to fall upon Marian Anderson, who was stuck in traffic. Williams died on January 29, 2012, at the age of 92.

12 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 12

Whitney Houston

Whitney Elizabeth Houston
(August 9, 1963 - February 11, 2012)
It only seems natural that today, not even a full day after hearing the tragic news of Whitney Houston's passing, should be dedicated to this timeless songstress who helped to defined the musical ear of so many generations. But rather than trying to put into words what I still can't even wrap my head around, I'm going for the lesser (and hopefully not viewed as too self-promotional) route of quoting my tribute to The Voice currently appearing on Yahoo! News ... Not because there isn't more to say, but because it's hard enough to put into words already without trying to rephrase what was already impossible to put downL
"... Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted a Disney princess I could call my own. Sure, I loved Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid as much as anybody else, but I longed for a princess that looked like me, with braids and rich cocoa skin just like my own. At the beginning of 1997, I was a fifth grader still looking for a fairy tale to come true. By the fall of 1997, I had seen this dream become reality before my 11-year-old eyes. And it was all thanks to Whitney Houston.
When Houston produced the 1997 remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, it was everything I could have ever wished for. Here I had Brandy as a princess, Whoopi Goldberg as a queen, and Houston as the fairy godmother. Though The New York Times suggested the 'racial utopia' of the film's fairy tale world '[emphasized] its distance from reality,' in the eyes of a child, it made anything possible. And when Houston sang loud and clear, 'There is music in you,' I felt like I could be anything I wanted to be.
It's now nearly 15 years later, and the voice of the woman who assured me love would be a song I would sing my whole life through has been silenced. I will never forget the beauty she brought into the world, nor will I ever let the music she helped imprint on my heart stop playing..."

11 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 11

Nikky Finney

Nikky Finney (photo from The Poetry
Center at Smith College)
Nikky Finney was born Lynn Carol Finney on August 26th, 1957. She is an award-winning poet, known for her distinct voice as a Black female writer. Her works include On wings made of gauze (1985), Rice (1995), and the National Book Award for Poetry winning Head Off & Split (2011). Finney is considered one of the founders of the Affrilachian Poets

In an interview with Oxford American, Finney stated that the "human-rights struggle" of Black people in the South has been "one of the backdrops of my entire life." Raised in a household with parents who were both active in the Civil Rights movement, Finney's childhood was very much shaped and influenced by social and racial turmoil in the 1960's and 1970's South. Her poetry continues to reflect her concern with race, personal narratives, and political activism. Finney's writing pays careful attention to the beauty of language. In speaking of her book Head Off & Split, she said she wanted to speak "with the most beautiful attention to language" in her poetry.

Earlier this month, Finney wrote a stirring NPR Editorial titled "The Bare Arms of Angry Black Women," in which she expounds upon the glorious history of the Black woman's bare arms-- arms that "[hold] our children tight inside of them," that are used to "wave to each other," that "boldly swing ... when we walk, because we know arms reach out, give regard." Finney writes: 
"I come from Black women who knew America could not be America without the presence of their arms, women who never hid their arms, who carried their arms brazenly, and sometimes because it was the only work we could get, lost an arm while working at the chicken or flashlight factory. Women who liked their arms, needed their arms, and shot out their arms to shield someone they loved. As a girl I saw Black women regularly pushing up their long sleeves or boldly sporting a sleeveless Sunday Easter dress because Black arms had to breathe, stay free, be quick to open and ready to fly ..."
 The rest of her essay can be read HERE IN ITS ENTIRETY .

Below is Nikky Finney discussing her poem "My Time Up With You" from the award-winning collection Head Off & Split:

10 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 10

Today's post celebrates the past and present of Black History. The Gospel tradition in the Black community has endured through slavery, sharecropping, Civil Rights, segregation, and more. From the time I was a small child until now, the Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church of York, Pennsylvania has been an enduring emblem of that tradition in my life. From listening to the full MMMBC choir--which included my grandmother--to the captivating sounds of Robyn Johnson, who often led the choir of the church founded by her father, to the harmonies of Voices of Distinction, a male a cappella group headed by the church's current pastor, Ryan Johnson, this church of voices has often been the place where I could recenter myself in "the heart of worship."

Thanks to the advent of YouTube, I am able to not only enjoy many of the songs from this church whenever I'd like ... I'm also free to share one of them with you now:

Robyn F. Johnson is a creative writer who shares both her passion for the word and her passion for The Word on her website, www.robynfjohnson.comhttp://www.robynfjohnson.com/.

You can learn more about the Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church at their website here.

09 February 2012

Black History Sound Bite: Nibble 9 (Food for Thought)

Yesterday, while browsing Facebook, my roommate and I came across this video by comedian Dave Ackerman. And before we get into some of the problems of it, I just want to let it "speak for itself" for a bit:
So now to business. The video, originally titled "What BYU students say about black history month," was retitled "What do you know about black people?" So I guess it's only fitting to title this response to Dave's video:

(The title was apparently changed to "What do you know about black history" ... oh well)
Let's just take this video one painful issue at a time.

08 February 2012

Black History Bites: Nibble 8

The Montford Point Marines

Between 1942 and 1949, approximately 20,000 African-American men enlisted in the Marines. Recruitment for the first Black Marines, known as the Montford Marines, began in June of 1942. Rather than being trained at the traditional Marine boot camps at Parris Island, South Carolina or San Diego, California, these troops were sent to and trained at the segregated Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Despite the both blatant and institutional racial prejudices that stood in their way, these men went on to serve the United States bravely, admirably, and historically, in battles from Iwo Jima and Okinawa to the Korean and Vietnam wars. Their legacy lives on today; their bravery changed the face of the Marines forever.

In November of 2011, President Barack Obama signed legislation that finally honored these history-making, boundary-breaking Marines. The legislation awarded a Congressional Gold Medal to these first Black enlistees in the U.S. Marines, in recognition of "their personal sacrifice and service to this country."

07 February 2012

Black History Bites: Nibble 7

Song of Freedom
I stumbled upon this film while looking for something completely different. Today's "nibble" was going to be a recording of "Go Down, Death" by James Weldon Johnson ... But in the pursuit of a suitable clip, I ran across this, and had to switch gears. Song of Freedom stars Paul Robeson. The film captured, for Robeson, at least some small part of what he wanted to do in his work, to give "a true picture of many aspects of the life of the coloured man in the West."

"Hitherto on the screen," Robeson said, "[the coloured (sic) man] has been characterized or presented only as a comedy character. This film shows him as a real man."

06 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 6

Lena Horne
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne (June 1917 - May 2010)
Lena Horne made her film debut in a 1938 film titled The Duke Is Tops. In the film, Horne sings many songs that seem to foreshadow the greatness of her career, including lines like "You and I have made a small beginning"--which reflects her rise from a housewife with an occasional film role to one of the greatest Jazz vocal legends of all time--and "True love will guide us through stormy weather" ... and it was, a national "true love" with Horne, that "guided" us from her rousing recordings of the classic "Stormy Weather" through several decades of songs that made our hearts swell, stutter, and stop.

The Duke Is Tops was one of many "race films"--that is, low-budget films produced primarily for Black audiences--produced through the 1930's, and featured a predominantly black cast. Horne was only 20 years old when the film was produced, but youth didn't make her voice any less powerful or potent. She would go on to sign a contract with MGM studio, making her the first Black performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio. Despite this achievement, MGM could not offer Horne leading roles due to the prejudice of the day, and many of her film roles were cut out of films when they were shown in theaters due to theater restrictions in some states prohibiting the showing of Black performers. Despite these limitations, prejudices, and set-backs, Horne went on to have a stunning career, one that took her from Hollywood Boulevard to Sesame Street, from a neighborhood in Brooklyn to A Cabin in the Sky, and beyond.

05 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 5

... Enough said. Enjoy.

...(As a side note, was I the only one who
"judged" Mr. Cole a bit when he appeared?!)

04 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 4

Emancipation: Food for Thought

The Emancipation Proclamation (historylink.org)
What was the Emancipation Proclamation? What exactly did it achieve? Was the purpose an acknowledgement of the rights of enslaved blacks in America? Were slaves the "focus" in Lincoln's proclamation, or simply a means to an end, as Lincoln suggested when he called the emancipation of slaves in the rebelling states "the new means for ending the war"?

The Emancipation Proclamation has a long, complicated history rooted in the midst of a long and complicated war. It has been interpreted and reinterpreted, both favorably and unfavorably, looked at as a pillar of civil rights, and examined as a deceptively convoluted civil strategy. Paired with these shifting views of arguably one of the most important documents in American history are the equally flip-flopping views of the man who penned the document. Lincoln the liberator. Lincoln the strategist. Lincoln, who has historically been declared both a man deeply concerned with liberty for all men and a man marked by many of the same racist, or at least prejudiced, ideas and views common of his time. In the end, how are we to view this statement of emancipation?

In 2009, National Geographic addressed some of these questions in a segment of Lincoln: American Mastermind titled "The Emancipation Strategy":

The full text of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation can be viewed and read via the U.S. National Archives, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration: "Featured Document: The Emancipation Proclamation"

03 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 3

This morning I found myself listening to Michael McDonald, chiefly through the Doobie Brothers. To get back to talking about poetry for a minute, MM has a voice that's, in my mind anyway, pure poetry ... it absolutely crushes me. Unfortunately, I can't (yet) validate making him a BHSB--but trying to figure out how to make that work pulled my mind in the direction of another "nontraditional" sound bite that I think works. So here we go ...

Blackbird (1968)

"I wanted my freedom ... like everybody else did."~D Bryant
"Blackbird" is a song any Beatles fan is familiar with ... it's a song that probably most non-Beatles-fans are familiar with. Beyond the original recording by the Beatles in the summer of 1968 (it was released on The White Album in November of that year), the song has been recorded by everyone from Sarah McLachlan to Bobby McFerrin.

The story behind the song crosses water to fly from the heart of Scotland to the depths of the American South in response to the Civil Rights Movement. In an interview with Dallas, Texas's KCRW Radio, Paul McCartney stated that the song was inspired by "the black people's struggle in the southern states."He would go on to state at another time that "bird" is slang for "girl," making the title "Blackbird" symbolic of the image of a "Black woman" "waiting for [her] moment to arise" in the face of racial prejudice in America.

Enjoy the Beatle's simple yet powerful recording:
And just for good measure, here's Bobby McFerrin's version, which ... well, just listen, you'll see:


02 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 2

Oscar Micheaux is widely regarded as the first major African-American feature filmmaker. According to the Producers Guild of America, he is also "the most prolific black--if not most prolific independent--filmmaker in American cinema." His life can--and perhaps should--serve as something of an inspiration to any aspiring independent filmmakers.

Within Our Gates (1920)

Oscar Micheaux wrote a total of seven novels and produced over forty films. His first feature, The Homesteader (1919), received much critical acclaim and helped to establish him as a writer and filmmaker.Despite his exceptional success, Micheaux was also subject to the hardships of being a black filmmaker in a widely prejudiced time, and making films was far from easy; Micheaux often had to rent equipment by the day, skimp on editing, hire friends and neighbors (and strangers) as actors to save on funding, and shoot footage whenever he could, saving scenes and clips of film for future use. Yet despite these difficulties, he managed to maintain more control over his films than even the more popular white filmmakers; he acted as writer, producer, supervisor, financier, and so forth. According to J. Ronald Green, the struggles to produce his films and the flaws apparent throughout them because of his struggle only served to reinforce his "constant purpose," which was "to show, through art and through business, the capacity of African Americans to overcome American adversity."

The following film, Micheaux's second silent film, Within Our Gates, was produced between 1919 and 1920.Originally rejected and censured by the Chicago Board of Censors (because of graphic rape/incest and lynching scenes they viewed would shock viewers and provoke race riots),  the film was also banned by several white managers of both black and white theaters throughout the South. (The lynching scene Micheaux was forced to cut was eventually restored in a later film, The Gunsaulus Mystery.) It is one of the few of Micheaux's films to have been preserved in its entirety.


Within Our Gates is also available via the Internet Archive here.
More info on Micheaux's films, and his role as a filmmaker, can be read in the book Literary Adaptations in Black American Cinema: from Micheaux to Toni Morrison (Lupak, 2002).

01 February 2012

Black History Sound Bites: Nibble 1

In honor of Black History Month this year, I'm trying to pick a unique (or somewhat unique) "soundbite" each day. By unique, I mean I'll be trying to avoid the "staples" we always get-- aka, the "I Have a Dream Speech," however magnificent, will likely not be making an appearance. 

And since my dad gave me my first smile of the morning (via a text in which he claimed to have found me "a date" on Youtube ... referencing, of course, this guy), this one is all for him.

We all know Jackie Robinson. We've all seen him, in video archives played in elementary school classrooms or from memories of our younger years, stand silently in the face and roar of racial prejudice and segregation. We know the stance. We remember the slide home. We name him Legend. And he was.

Robinson died of a heart attack at the age of 53 on October 24, 1972. Over 2,000 people attended the memorial--friends, family, and fans, who called him their own. The funeral service was highlighted by a short, simple, yet poignantly stirring eulogy delivered by the Reverend Jesse Jackson. The eulogy, for all its bittersweet simplicity, puts perfectly into words that to which we could all strive--to be rocks in the water, and to have lived life with beauty and courage, before finally stealing home:

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