On Meeting Edwidge Danticat

Me & Edwidge 2014Last night I heard Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat read from her most recent novel, Claire of the Sea Light. I had not heard Danticat read before, but I became acquainted with her through her first novel Breath, Eyes, Memory—an Oprah Book Club selection—that I read some years ago. I am not sure what or who pointed me in Danticat’s direction, but I am guessing one of my colleagues from the predominantly Haitian high school I taught at while in Miami dropped her name.  That was around 2004.

Danticat read two excerpts from her latest work, but what attracted me the most to her last night was her response to an audience member’s question: “What writer inspired you the most?” According to Danticat, various writers continue to inspire her quite often.  However, she recalled reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and claimed that Angelou’s barebones was an audacious endeavor that Danticat desired to achieve in her own work.  She said that she hoped her readers would relate to Breath, Eyes, Memory in a similar fashion that many readers have related to Angelou’s 1979 Caged Bird.  Danticat continued to discuss how her first reading of Angelou’s work required a young French/Creole speaking Danticat to use an English dictionary to decipher the content.  The second time she read Caged Bird, while a high school student, she said, she was amused by Angelou’s courage to display herself publicly.  Angelou wrote the truth about her experiences and she is still here, just fine, said Danticat.

And yes, she is.

Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird is the first autobiographical novel that I recall reading, and it inspired me just like it spirited Danticat and other writers and other women.  My 7th grade English teacher gave me Angelou after I witnessed her delivering her Inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton. Angelou’s stature mesmerized me—so much so that my mother carried me to Pompano Beach, Fl to hear Angelou lecture.  I went on to read all of Angelou’s five autobiographies and to read and collect her poetic works as well as her children’s stories and cookbook.  I am. A Fan.  So of course, when Danticat mentioned Maya Angelou’s well known works as one of her own inspirations, I immediately felt a spiritual connection with Danticat.  Real story.  I believe that every student should read Angelou’s Caged Bird—which is why I give copies to my college students, most of whom have not read it yet.  Every student should read Caged Bird because Angelou’s audacity to publicly lay herself out is a freedom that frees others.

While talking about her work last night, Danticat revealed that many of her readers lambasted her Breath, Eyes, Memory because some of the scenes were contrived. However, I think (and I am trying to remember ten years back) that Breath, Eyes, Memory—albeit fiction—did accomplish that freedom of self that Angelou’s Caged Bird achieves.  But because Danticat is not as widely read or anthologized as Angelou, critical discourse about Danticat’s work is minimal.  So, while I am not a literary critic, per se, I think I might re-read both texts and attempt to make some critical comparisons and analysis.  Perhaps my efforts will lead to an article that brings Danticat closer to the center of literary discussions.  “Give yourself permission to write anything,” said Danticat.  I will, and I will take that leap with her.

Remembering Amiri Baraka: Teaching “Somebody Blew Up America”

I was talking to @drrema when—in the middle of our conversation—she reported Amiri Baraka’s death.  My heart catapulted to my stomach floor.  Real story.  My heart catapulted to my stomach floor, & my mind immediately traveled back to about 2005 when I saw Amiri Baraka (for the second time—the first time I was a graduate student at Florida A&M University (FAMU), & our neighboring school, Florida State, invited him to lecture) at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival in Eatonville, Florida.  Baraka claimed to remember me.  & maybe he did reMe & Amiri Barakamember me, for the audience in FSU’s auditorium barely filled the room.  As a matter of fact, the audience was so small, that after his reading, Baraka stood at the stage’s edge & sold stapled copies of Somebody Blew Up America for under $5.  He signed each poem that he sold—right there, leaning over the stage’s edge.

I was so taken aback by the audacity of Baraka’s piece, as well as his apparent humility, that as the editor for the University of South Florida’s First Year Composition handbook (2010), I expressed my gratitude for his being by including “Somebody Blew Up America” in its anthology section.  I (& my co-editor JMcKee) felt not including Amiri Baraka & his courageous work in our anthology would be remiss.  I wanted the world to know Baraka, just as I had come to know him.

& I don’t know when or how I became acquainted with Amiri Baraka.  Perhaps another poet (of mine) mentioned him in their works.  Nikki Giovanni? Maya Angelou? Sonia Sanchez? Maybe I read him in some out-side-of-school anthology.  Or maybe I saw his name mentioned in some Black Nationalist literature I use to read while a high school student.  (Cause back in those days, I wanted to be that meaningful revolutionary that my daddy said I was not.  & though changing my name to something that sounded more African—like altering “Kendra” to “Kenya”—never appealed to my revolutionary desires, I wasn’t at all opposed to wearing my hair braided, borrowing my mother’s beaded necklaces, & pen-paling an imprisoned Black Panther.  & I sho nuff kept some Black author’s book clutched under my arms.)

But Amiri Baraka was undoubtedly a revolutionary.  A revolutionary with a BIG cause, & his enormity—his valiance—is why Mos Def, Kanye West, & The Roots do what they do.  He’s why we know & remember Huey P. Newton & ‘em, Martin Luther King & ‘em, & them who suffered through the Civil Rights Movement & South African Apartheid &.  He’s why Richard Blanco performed at Barack Obama’s Inauguration & why Barack Obama is president of the United States of America.  So, I couldn’t let Amiri Baraka pass on without passing him on to the students I currently teach at FAMU. & so, I introduced my students to Amiri Baraka by way of “Somebody Blew Up America.”

As I assumed, with the exception of the one and two students who had heard of Amiri Baraka only through the influx of Facebook, Instagram, & Twitter updates of his passing, NONE of my students were familiar with Amiri Baraka.  As a matter of fact, when I asked students if they know who Amiri Baraka is, one student guessed that he is our newly elected University President.  (Yikes! FAMU’s new President is a woman named Elvira Mangum.  Sigh.  I think it’s ok to tell students that an “I-don’t-know” response— a Buddha response—is often much more attractive than guessing, even in the learning environment.)  Anyway, my students were not aware of Baraka, so forfeiting a day of grammar lessons was well worth the time we would spend with him.  It was a necessary endeavor—passing Baraka on with hopes that my students would pass him on & their friends would pass him on, so that his passing would give him more life than his living did.  You know?

My students & I followed along with Amiri Baraka as he read “Somebody Blew Up America” via youtube (see below).  In one of my classes, a student snapped at every other line Baraka read, it seemed.  Other students laughed at lines like, “Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for Who doo doo come out the Colon’s mouth Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza.”  & I’m not sure if my students were laughing at the word “skeeza” or if they were snapping at lines because the juxtapositions were clever, for when I walked around the room eavesdropping on their group discussions, very few students seemed to know much about the historical references Amiri Baraka made in his piece.

Nevertheless, I asked my students three questions that they were required to contemplate in their group sessions: “Is the repetitive questioning ‘who . . .’ rhetorical, & if so, then who does Amiri Baraka suggest blew up America?” “What is the significance of the Owl whose (w)hoot  is used as onomatopoeia?”  & “What line, word, or phrase resonated with you?”  Most of the students consented that the White patriarchy blew up America, although one of my classes acted almost afraid to utter their conclusion out loud.  Their hesitancy was reminiscent of the experiences I have had with White students who were afraid to read the word “Nigger” in a piece of literature.  My students’ hesitancy, along with their not knowing why particular lines pulsated within them—we didn’t dig into the Owl metaphor because of time restrains and mixed reviews—disappointed me.  I light-weight wanted my students to shake their Black fists in the air.

Instead, the energy in a couple of my classrooms felt careless.  It reminded me of the same energy that surrounded me in a first year writing class some semesters ago when students complained about my teaching them the art of rhetoric & composition by way of Martin Luther King.  “Yea, yea, yea.  We already know enuf about Martin Luther King,” said one student. “I know he led the Million Man March.”  Sigh & sad face.  Anyway, despite their energy, I urged my current students to pass on Amiri Baraka.  But I wonder if they will.  I wonder if they believe he is worth passing on.

Since I’ve been teaching at Florida A&M, I have encountered a dis-identification with Blackness amongst my Black students for which I wasn’t prepared.  Their disengagement with their Blackness makes me rethink my purpose in the classroom, particularly in the historically Black classroom.  While their knowing how to compose resumes & cover letters, memos & proposals are important to their careers, and while writing responses to literature, composing grammatically sound sentences, & complying with MLA style & documentation is vital to their scholarship, how significant is any of that to their personhood?  To their humanity?  To their creative genius?

In Home: Social Essays (1961), Amiri Baraka says, “Thought is more important than art. To revere art and have no understanding of the process that forces it into existence, is finally not even to understand what art is.”  I don’t know most of what my students think about, but I can bet—with the exception of the art & humanities students (which I do not teach)—that the majority of my students don’t contemplate their thoughts, & they surely don’t give much thought at all about art—about poetry or even the music that blazes from the headphones that distract them from everything present around them. & so, I wonder “who”se fault is that?  Who distracts Black students from knowing & understanding & loving their Black selves?

I try to keep Black in the center of my writing classrooms, while being careful to not promote ethnocentricity.  I think if students are given the space to think about themselves in relationship to other beings, human & non-human, then they may grow to appreciate & understand the magnitude of Amiri Baraka & others whose poems, essays, short stories, paintings, & lyrics revolutionize, archive, & humanize.  Cause I want my students to have that “Like an Owl exploding In your life in your brain in your self / Like an Owl who know the devil All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl Exploding / in fire” experience.  I want my students to awaken to a revelatory consciousness that transcends all understanding.  I want them to know themselves as they are known by Amiri Baraka & all of the ancestors who existed so that they may live.