“A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet”: Unearthing Grandma’s Black Feminism

I was an 18-year-old fresh(wo)man at Florida A&M University when Grandma Rose died. Cancer. I don’t remember if I had yet told my family I was lesbian—altho I had been planning my comingout story since I left my parents’ home. I planned to tell them I am “pansexual”—a term I read w/which Alice Walker identified over 20 years before Janelle Monáe popularized the word. Being “pansexual” felt humanistic in a way that my parents would find my sexual interest palpable. But my comingout story is for another blog post. This piece is about Grandma Rose, who died 22 years ago, but has been most alive in this #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #blackgirlmagic space in which I have been pensively engaged.

I think of Grandma Rose often, & I think of her beyond watching Star Search, The Golden Girls, & Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) w/my sister & me every Saturday night; beyond her insisting we use both a fork & spoon to coil our spaghetti; & beyond her decorating her home w/Asian influenced furniture, juxtaposed against African-American art & figurines—all of which were situated inside a Southern luxury accented by novelty tea kettles, vintage telephones, & a round bed. (Yep, Grandma Rose had a ROUND bed.) She also had a fertile rose garden, two Cockatiels (she let me name Miles & Mia), & a pungent tongue: I was in earshot of hearing Grandma Rose telling stories of a woman being “as nervous as a hooker in church” & of Irvin (the man w/whom Grandma eloped while in Las Vegas) sitting at home “w/the white mouth,” hungrily waiting for Grandma to come home to cook dinner—two phrases I have carried & used in my own storytelling, not realizing the implications of race, class, & gender to which each phrase points. It is in that space, in the intersectionality of race, class, & gender, that I am thinking of Grandma Rose & realizing the historical significance of her unconventional behaviors—realizing that Grandma Rose was a Black Feminist, for many reasons. The first, for changing her name—a practice in self-definition, says Patricia Hill Collins, that is essential to Black women’s survival.

grandma & cookie
Grandma Rose w/her youngest of four children. Circa 1960s

Grandma Rose was born Pilate May McKenney in 1926, & 20 years later, post high school graduation, she changed her name to Rose. I thought Grandma Rose, who was originally named after her father, changed her name because she didn’t want to be associated w/the Biblical Pontius Pilate who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion. I reckon such naming felt akin to one being named Hitler. However, my mother, Choling—who Grandma had two years after high school—says she remembers Grandma claiming only to not liking her name at all. I trust, therefore, that altho during my Grandmother’s era, many women were given male names—one of Grandma’s girlfriends is named Eddye—a woman given a traditionally male name is an unnecessary insult, despite his notoriety (or even his legacy). Whatever the reason, Grandma’s renaming herself is a move I always thought peculiarly non-traditional, especially since in 1946, circa the time Grandma legally changed her name, Black folks didn’t have time to be so self-serving, if you will: Richard Wright had recently published his Native Son; Margaret Walker, her For My People; & John H. Johnson, Ebony Magazine, while Tuskegee Airmen were organizing, Southerners were migrating, & Blacks were dying in Detroit Race Riots. Aaaaaand, Grandma was a single, teenage-ish parent. Oh, but so little did I know—about everything, especially about being a Black woman.

In What’s Love Got to Do with It? the 1993 film based on Tina Turner’s 1987 autobiography, I, Tina, Tina Turner, played by Angela Bassett, asked the judge presiding over her divorce from Ike for the rights to her name. She wanted nothing else. While Ike argued that Tina could not have his daddy’s name, Tina insisted on the right to that name, that, altho “belonged” to Ike’s daddy, belonged just as much to her, for it named the Tina Turner identity that centered & made visible a marginalized, if you will, Anna Mae Bullock. By taking ownership of her stage name, Tina Turner took ownership of herself. Tina wasn’t performing Tina; she was Tina. & so, once Tina could own her name, which allowed her to own herself, she was freed from a patriarchal naming that defines her as everything other than herself. Trudier Harris, in her 1982 From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature, explains it thusly:

“Called Matriarch, Emasculator and Hot Momma. Sometimes Sister, Pretty Baby, Auntie, Mammy and Girl. Called Unwed Mother, Welfare Recipient and Inner City Consumer. The Black American Woman has had to admit that while nobody knew the troubles she saw, everybody, his brother and his dog, felt qualified to explain her, even to herself.”

Mammy caricatureHarris’ quote serves as the epigraph to Patricia Hill Collins’ “Mammies, Matriarchs, and other Controlling Images,” in which Collins examines controlling images (mammy, matriarch, welfare mother, welfare queen, Black lady, jezebel, & hoochie) in relationship to race, class, & gender, then explains how social institutions (schools, government, popular culture, & Black organizations (church, HBCU, family)) maintain those images. Then, in her following chapter, “The Power of Self-Definition,” Collins provides her readers a resolve: Black women can redefine themselvewelfare queen images. Collins does not suggest Black women legally change their names like Grandma Rose did (& Ntozake Shange, & Maya Angelou, & Toni Morrison, & Alice Walker, who added her grandmother’s name to her own). But she does argue, by circumventing the controlled images white folks have placed on the Black woman’s body, she can realize herself. No. Black women are not mammies nor matriarchs, & she is not the world’s mule nor its jezebel. & altho she may take her husband’s last name, she is not Mr.’s so-&-so’s wife, either. She is herself, & says, Nikki Giovanni, only she can measure herself.

Grandma Rose had a high school education, but she embodied Black feminism w/out

Grandma Rose eating
Grandma Rose, circa 1980s

having to know the theory at all. She didn’t want to be called Pilate, so she changed her name. Grandma Rose changed her name, not because she felt controlled by traditional images that have served to denigrate, humiliate, & dehumanize Black women, but because she controlled herself—& there’s nothing selfish about that. As a matter of fact, by centering herself in a white supremacist patriarchy that would have her perform day labor before she became a lab technician, Grandma Rose was claiming her humanity: “Regardless of the actual content of Black women’s self-definitions,” says Collins, “the act of insisting on Black female self-definition validates Black women’s power as human subjects.” In that way, Grandma Rose was a pilot after all—navigating the world on her own terms, seeing herself a rose, & demanding others to call her by that name—to know her as such. For tho “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Grandma Rose understood the power in names & the significance of defining her Black woman self in a country “felt qualified to explain her, even to herself.”

I am here for it.

 

 

 

 

 

Furious Flower + Nikki Giovanni: from the Black Arts Movement to Planet Mars

In the beginning was the Word. But I promise you, I have no words to express my week long adventure at Furious Flower’s The Living Truth: The Life and Work of Nikki Giovanni,FuriousFlowerNikkiGiovanni-FinalFlyer-Page a professional development seminar for college professors & high school teachers. Words just won’t do; they are inadequate. But I will try my best.

For six days, I–along w/circa 50 other professors, teachers, & student-teachers–sat in the company of Nikki Giovanni, Black poet, professor, & human rights activist, while reading, discussing, & studying her poetry dating back to her first self-published work, Black Feeling, Black Talk, up to her most recent, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter. Listen. According to the Word, it took God six days to create the heavens & the earth, the seas & everything in them, & after each day, God looked around at all s/he did & said, “It is good.” (Throws head back & shouts.)

My time at James Madison University‘s Furious Flower Center was nothing short of a new creation. Real life, as I immersed myself in Nikki’s (cause that’s what she insisted we call her) work, her life, & her “living truth,” I was gestating in her Black feeling, Black

The Cosmic Collective + Nikki Giovanni
Furious Flower’s Cosmic Collective poses w/Dr. Joanne Gabbin, founder, and Nikki Giovanni.

talk, & Black judge/ment–which, undoubtedly, is synonymous w/her attention to Black love, Black politics, & Black spirituality. By the seventh day of the seminar, which was the day my colleagues & I were scheduled to depart (but not before making final pedagogical presentations), altho I did not “rest,” I was absolutely born again–w/a deeper understanding of & appreciation for Nikki Giovanni, the whole human being, & in turn, of & for my whole self. It was like my favorite line from Nikki’s 1972 “Ego Tripping (there must be a reason why)”:

“I turned myself into myself and was Jesus.”

I have been reading Nikki’s work since I was a little girl & have prided myself in how many of her lectures I’ve attended, how many of her texts I own (& are signNikki + I drinking wineed), & how often I’ve taught her work in my composition classrooms. Light weight, I kinda felt like I could be a Nikki scholar w/all that I knew re: Nikki Giovanni. (Altho last week, Nikki said she was my big sister. Smiling.) Nonetheless, after being in her company–in her vulnerable, transparent, & authentic space–I have learned as Socrates claimed so long ago, “all I know is I know nothing at all”–about Nikki, the Black Arts Movement, & womanist practice. Selflessly, Nikki made herself available to me & my  colleagues for the whole six days we were scheduled to read, study, & apply her work to our classrooms. She interjected where there were gaps in scholar presentations; she signed books, worksheets, & posters–daily; & like Jesus, she broke bread w/us, saying to me the day vegetarian beans were being served, “Beans are supposed to be cooked w/ham hocks.”

*    *     *

There’s so much more I can say here, I don’t know what else to say. The week was a quilt of happenings. Shiiiiiiit. I don’t know if I can comprehend it, except by Giovanni’s permission. hA! Truthfully, I participated in such a sacred, amazing grace, I’m pretty sure only a hum or moan will suffice in further explicating my experience. Not to mention, much of what I experienced w/ Nikki Giovanni, the Furious Flower Center, & my 50 or so colleagues is so intimate, sharing it all here would feel like blaspheme. But, I will share these five edibles:

  1. Nikki Giovanni is the Spike Lee of film, the Dali of art, & the Aretha of rhythm & blues. She has been, undoubtedly, ahead of her time & out of this world. Getting her start in the male dominated Black Arts Movement, Giovanni–like Spike, Dali, & Aretha–neither conformed nor got stuck in a movement grounded in particular theories, practices, & expectations. Nope. Nikki kept her movement moving, doing the unprecedented w/her poetry, thus “threatening” male BAM participants. Like Zora Neale Hurston, who was blacksheeped for drumming to her own beat,Niiki BAM pic minimized for acknowledging a holistically Black, human experience, & rejected for decentering the white man from her attention, Nikki, too, was “out of line” for all those reasons, aaaaaaaaaaaand for: reciting her poetry behind a gospel choir, for self-publishing & peddling her photocopied chapbooks, for appearing on television broadcasts, newspapers & magazine covers, for throwing book release parties, for saying yes!, for– & the beat goes on. Simply, Nikki had the audacity to be her self, & from her whole self, she moved consciously thru the Black Arts Movement into a 21st century where bicycles are metaphors for love; chasing utopia informs generations; & a good cry maintains one’s humanity.
  2. Altho most little black girls recite Nikki’s “Ego Tripping” by memory, altho Giovanni is one of the most read poets–having been awarded seven NAACP Image Awards; a Grammy nomination; a National Book Award finalist; & is thrice a New York Times & Los Angeles Times best seller; & altho Giovanni is Virginia Tech‘s University Distinguished Professor, very little scholarly work has been produced of Nikki Giovanni’s work, which spans over 50 years. According to her partner (& biographer), Virginia Fowler, quiet as it’s kept, academics don’t love Nikki. #shade
  3. Throughout the week, Nikki stressed:
    1. “Black love is black wealth,” making a point that black lives matter, there is a place for Black History Month, & despite what white folk believed to be a poor, sad Black life, Nikki has always been quite happy.
    2. “Everyone needs a person,” claiming–in a non-gender conforming manner– everyone needs a person w/whom one can eat fried chicken, or who will, like her partner Ginny, check ur breast for cancer. Everyone, said Nikki, who argued Whitney Houston’s demise occurred after Robyn was forced out of her life, needs a person w/whom to intimately share everyday.
    3. “Love the people who love you, & forget the rest,” insisting, between expletives & laughter, we should give no shits re: the folk who don’t love us. As a matter of fact, according to one scholar, it was a young Nikki whose criticism of (& directly to) James Baldwin re: his literary attention to white folk & their capitalism inspirited his 1974 If Beale Street Could Talk, a story grounded in Black love that insists on being.
    4. “Look at yourself in the mirror everyday & smile, cause it may be the only smile you see that day.” In her celebrated & often anthologized poem, “Nikki-Rosa,” Giovanni writes: “and I really hope no white person has cause / to write about me / because they never understand / Black love is Black wealth and they’ll / probably talk about my hard childhood / and never uNikki smilingnderstand that / all the while I was quite happy.” Nikki’s smiling face–just look at her book covers and YouTube videos–is undoubtedly an indication of her happiness–a happiness that was grounded in her childhood experiences & is nurtured as she grows into her 76 year old self, surrounded by sister-friends, poetry, & nature. Nikki’s happy, & she told us so regularly. & she didn’t keep her practice to herself, either. Throughout the week, Nikki encouraged us to smile at ourselves daily, for it is an invitation towards happiness. “Wake up in the morning & smile at yourself,” she said, “& before going to bed, smile again.”
  4. Nikki Giovanni, who has “thug life” tattooed on her arm in homage to the slain Tu Pac Shakur (who Trump might’ve murdered, too, since, said Giovanni in her lecture, murdered Michael Jackson) is the ultimate hustler. Before securing her first job at Virginia Tech in 1987, Giovanni compiled her first poetry collection in less than a year, Black Feeling, Black Talk; self-published it at $100 for 100 copies, which she sold for $1 a piece; then, because she knew “one book does not a writer make,”
    Nikki + Liseli
    Liseli Fitzpatrick of Furious Flower’s Cosmic Collective poses w/a “thug life” tattooed Nikki Giovanni.

    Nikki compiled her second book, Black Judge/ment (despite her inability to spell, she twice explained, the slash is intentional), & launched it at a book release party in NYC’s Birdland. According to Giovanni & her scholars, Black folks wrapped the corner waiting in line to get into Birdland, & when asked what they were standing in line for, they exclaimed: “Black Judge/ment is coming!” The heat brought newspapers, making Giovanni damn near an overnight sensation. & she continued to hustle, & at 76–which she says is a good idea, cause “being young ain’t shit”–Nikki Giovanni continues to hustle, sharing her entire self w/a world who loves her.

  5.  & finally, Nikki Giovanni wants to go to Mars. Real life. She wants to go to Mars, & she said–half in jest–when the time comes for her to embark into space travel, because she’s missing some organs as a result of living w/cancer, & therefore, will not be physically able to re-enter space, once she’s done exploring outer space, her astronaut team can open the hatch & let her body float into the galaxy. Laughing, Nikki said, “Then young people can look up in the sky, & say, ‘Oh. There goes Nikki.'”

*    *     *

Nikki signs my bookThe first time I attended a Giovanni lecture, I don’t think I was even 21 yet. I was a student at Florida A&M University, & our neighboring school, Florida State University, invited her as part of its lecture series. While her profane language piqued my interest & assured me I could be profane, uncensored, & scholarly–all at the same time–what was most dynamic to my young, Black self was Nikki Giovanni’s interpretation of Black people’s genius & their resolute humanity. (I actually fell in love w/her that day.) Who, she rhetorically asked, are the best equipped to travel to Mars & return to earth w/their humanity in tack but a people who were stolen from their country, stripped of their culture, forced into enslavement, yet insisted on remaining humane? Who is better inspirited for such a life altering endeavor but Black people who survived the Middle Passage? Holy shit. Y’all better go read “Quilting the Black Eyed Pea (We’re Going to Mars).”

& while ur at it, if ur crazy in love & can’t think str8, read “I Wrote A Good Omelet,” & if the sun can’t warm ur face cause Trump’s head is blocking its rays, read “A Poem for Saundra,” & if you can’t find peace in religious doctrine, read “A Poem for Flora,” & if you feel like you need to be creating a movement, cause Black lives do matter, read “Rosa Parks,” & keep reading. Keep reading Nikki Giovanni, cause just like the poetry she writes, she is a good idea.

remembering daddy, remembering me: a 5-paragraph writing assignment for intermediate composition

Daddy told me I was a revolutionary w/no cause. I don’t know what I was doing at that very moment he made that comment. Maybe I was reciting a poem I wrote about crackers makin it on black folks’ bended backs. Or maybe I was organizing a showcase for Black History Month. I probably was just sittin at the dining room table wearing a dashiki–most likely his blue & black dashiki whose neck & chest plate were embroidered w/gold thread mimicking the intricate beaded necklaces that members of the Maasai Tribe wear. Whatever I was doing, my behaviors seemed, to him, unwarrantedly rebellious.

I grew up feeling like I was born into the wrong era, so maybe my behaviors reflected that feeling: I wrote poetry about civil rights movements I only read about. In them, I called white people “cracker,” spelled America w/a “k,” & discussed civil injustices I had never experienced. I was an active member of the NAACP’s Youth Council, where I met Kweisi Mfume, Myrlie Evers, & Rosa Parks; president of the Afro-American Heritage Club in both middle & high school, where I took tours of Martin Luther King Jr.’s home & competed in African American Brain Bowls; & I wore wooden necklaces & leather African medallions I bought from the Muslim man who stood on the corner of 27th Avenue & 183rd Street selling them, along w/bean pies & The Final Call. I was a revolutionary.

I was “as-salaam-alaikum“-ing folks after watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. I wrote letters to Ruchell Cinque MaGee, my prison pen pal, whose address I discovered after reading Herb Boyd’s Black Panthers for Beginners. & after those white cops were acquitted of beating Rodney King, I, too, asked, “Can we all just get along?” & remembered his question when O.J. Simpson was acquitted, secretly believing Simpson’s liberation was reparations for Rodney King, Martin Luther King, & all the other kings made to be our martyrs. Daddy clearly saw the revolutionary in me; yet, he claimed my movements had no purpose.

*      *      *

I grew up in the 80s & 90s when The 2LiveCrew was being banned in the USA, Maya Angelou was reciting “On the Pulse of Morning,” & Hillman College depicted the HBCU experience all my Black friends & I wanted to encounter. The “Star Spangled Banner” signaled television’s cut-off, mainstream radio was void of profane language, & reality television was limited to MTV’s Road Rules. The era, as I experienced it, was quite innocuous. & although the Gulf War was happening, besides watching the Spaceship Challenger explode during take off, witnessing Baby Jessica’s rescue, & being amongst Hurricane Andrew’s destruction, my lived experiences were just as–if not more–innocuous than the late 20th century. Daddy was right. I was a revolutionary w/no cause.

I spent all of my middle & high school years embodying a Black persona that was foreign to me, wishing to have a Black experience–a narrative–that was interesting enuf to hang on museum walls, to publish in Norton anthologies, & to revise into rap lyrics. I was no different than Alice Walker’s Dee (or Wangero)–believing that consuming everything Black outside of me & my own experiences made me Blacker, like Malcolm X, pro-nationalist Black. & while I learned so much about my ancestors, I wasn’t as intentional about knowing myself, not just in relationship to my Black history, but to the stories & to the people that were unfolding in the era & area in which I was actively living. I was so busy being Black that I neglected being me. I reckon that‘s what Daddy meant when he claimed me a useless revolutionary: to be the change I want to see in the world, I must first have a clear vision of myself.  I am still looking.

 

 

 

#TBT “no es facil”: tryin to capture President Barack Obama

I spent two years trying to paint President Barack Obama. My first attempt was a lightweight disaster:

However, my Instagram responders were supportive:

instagram-comments

So, I tried again:

But I stopped. I was afraid to continue painting–afraid that if I kept going, I would lose him. ‘Cause this looks like Barack Obama, right? I left that painting unfinished, & I placed it–as well as the one I painted of “our next Black president”– against a wall behind my couch. They are still there.

Nonetheless, after about a year or so–when President Barack Obama began restorations w/Cuba–I was moved to paint Barack again. Obama’s humanitarian spirit moved me, & although I have witnessed it long before his Cuba relationship, I was–I am inspirited by his decision to rebuild relationship w/a country that America has so long denied. Obama appeared to me as a Black Panther who understood the problem w/capitalism & the possibilities in communism. At that moment, he remembered that Cuba provided Assata Shakur & Huey Newton refuge. It was as though he, too, saw Alice Walker in arms w/Fidel Castro. Of course I, who have long loved Alice, Assata, & Huey, fell in love (again) w/Barack Obama.

In his 2014 “Statement by the President on Cuba Policy Changes,” Obama says:

Cubans have a saying about daily life:  “No es facil” –- it’s not easy.  Today, the United States wants to be a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.

With “No es facil” in mind, I painted Barack Obama’s head in front of the Cuban flag. I imagine if Cuba ever reprinted its currency, it might look a little like this (or at least it should):

barack-obama-no-es-facil

Long live Obama!

“Up, you mighty race!”: from the African American Museum Inauguration to the Black Panther’s 50th Anniversary

Martin Luther King held fast to dreams, while Huey P. Newton gave all power to the people, & Jesse Jackson insisted we keep hope alive. Thru each of them, & many others, Barack Obama assured us we can—

Be young, gifted, & black.

Be unbought & unbossed.

Be revolutionary.

Be-long.

In light of the #icantbreathe #amInext #blacklivesmatter movement, the inauguration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, along w/the 50th Anniversary of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, affirm the genius & spirituality of black people who were taken from Africa & dehumanized in a New World, yet insisted on being. Words can’t express how magical black people are. It’s like trying to describe God. Words become meaningless in such an endeavor, & therefore, as Amiri Baraka argues in “The Myth of a Negro Literature,” only jazz & blues make Truth. (& to the gospel singer, a moaning hum.)

I attended the inauguration of the national African American museum & am both relieved & honored that Black history & culture is archived & freely available to anyone so interested in engaging black genius. Albeit, I struggle w/the notion that we be a spectacle, I understand that the NMAAHC is important to civil rights leaders & black folk who insist on not just being human, but on being American. According to John Lewis, the museum was a long time coming. It symbolizes our place in the American story, said Lonnie Bunch, NMAAHC director, who, by the way, referred to the museum as “home.”

Expanding four floors, the NMAAHC—whose architectural structure reflects Yoruban art, honors enslaved iron workers, & remembers the American South—carries visitors thru slavery & reconstruction, segregation & the civil rights movement, black culture & liberal arts, thus revealing to a nation that denies Black excellence the beautiful flamboyance & buoyancy of Black people. We are an esoteric folk—a people that can only be understood by our permission, said Nikki Giovanni in her 1972 “Ego Tripping” poem. & so it is.

I had time to visit only the museum’s top floor, which is a mecca for the Black artist, thinker, musician, comedian, actor, & (fill-in-the-blank). Yo! We in there! You name it, & the NMAAHC got it: Jet & Ebony magazines, Cosby Show re-runs, Moms Mabley recordings, The Funkadelics’ Mothership, a boombox & Ladies First album, pots & pans, hot irons, & dashikis, Aaron Douglas & Augusta Savage originals, Nikky Finney & Morrison speeches, Negro sermons, Alice Walker quotes, afro picks & civil rights buttons. Although I couldn’t see it all, I’m pretty sure the NMAAHC carries everything, thought, & practice specific to Black people—including hot sausages & pig’s feet in jars of red vinegar. We in there, & I am relieved & honored about it because our ancestors, grandparents, teachers, & heroes, are made more visible & permanent, & our African American ethos—as is expressed in our theories & practices—is acknowledged for its creative spirituality, which is how we reclaim/ed our humanity.

It’s all good.

However, Sonia Sanchez, Black Arts Movement poet, reminded inauguration attendees that a museum cannot make our history; we make history (& herstory), she said. When she took the podium on a platform called “The Fannie Lou Hamer Stage,” Sanchez professed, “Today is a baaaad day. It’s a bad day, a good day,” she said, “but it’s a baaaad day.” She proceeded to explain that a museum of Black history & culture is not a measurement of our freedom, for our freedom still relies on the act of grassroots organization. Her sentiments echo those of former Black Panther leader Elaine Brown, who, about two weeks after the NMAAHC inauguration, also insisted that we continue to organize ourselves toward freedom.

During the “Reflections on the Black Panther Party at 50: Elaine Brown with Beverly Guy-Sheftall” lecture that inaugurated the James Weldon Johnson Institute’s Public Dialogues in Race and Difference Series, the bodacious Elaine Brown vocalized her experiences as Minister of Information for the Black Panther Party Movement. With radically detailed stories about unlawful policing, COINTELPRO shenanigans, and Jim Crow laws, Brown explained how she & her Oakland, California comrades took ownership of the Black community by offering its members free breakfast, free clinics, & free legal aid. In the spirit of Marxism-Leninism, said Brown, the Black Panther Party—whose ten-point program began with “We Want Freedom” & ended with “We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice, & Peace”—aimed to liberate Black people from capitalism. According to Brown, the BPP were intellectually organized socialists whose quest for freedom ignited their movement. She, like Sonia Sanchez, insisted that we organize, & echoing Gil Scott Heron’s often quoted phrase, maintained, “The revolution won’t be televised.”

Translation: Twitter tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram &Tumblr posts (as well as museums) are not social movements that will fuel revolution.

*             *             *

During a class discussion last week about the probability of peace & freedom in an America that justifies war & boasts about its military strength, a white student referenced recent race matters to argue the impossibility of peace: “The Black Lives Matter Movement isn’t going to change anything,” she said. She went on to explain that Black people think BLM is making a difference, but police officers continue to murder Black people. In an effort to facilitate an objective classroom discussion, I kept my comments to myself; however, I wholeheartedly agree w/her (& Sanchez & Brown). Although that student’s comment was not a critique of the social media platform on which the Black Lives Matter Movement receives momentum, her attention to BLM absolutely responds to the failed tendency of activists to seemingly use social media as revolutionary movements.

Surely, social media (like newspapers, television, & radio) serves as a communications technology that disseminate propaganda to the masses. However, revolution requires real time action that transcends static museums & hashtags. We need to organize, said Elaine Brown & Sonia Sanchez.

In other words:

  1. We need invested leadership. Surely, each of us can independently stand in righteousness. However, collectively we need a leader who is solely committed to our freedom. How can we focus on, understand, believe & participate in a movement when so many of our “leaders” are more invested in guest appearing in reality/sitcom TV & Tyler Perry films than teaching, strategizing, and organizing?
  2. We need to boycott. In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. led the most successful boycott in the nation when he encouraged Black Montgomery to avoid riding segregated busses. In 2015, Greek sororities boycotted VH-1’s Sorority Sisters, causing brands to pull their advertisements, thus resulting in the show’s cancellation. Why aren’t we collectively boycotting white America?
  3. We need to know our enemy. Elaine Brown said that the BPP read literature, understood the art of war, & was familiar w/systems of oppression—all of which allowed them to make informed decisions about the movement. How are we going to fight a system that we know very little about?
  4. We need to vote. From Fannie Lou Hamer to Medgar Evers, Shirley Chisolm, & Barack Obama, Black politicians have stressed the importance of voting in all elections, particularly at the local & State levels. What good is a Black president if elected state & local officials are white sheets?
  5. We need to practice self-love. Be it a result of integration or mass media, too many of us promote & mimic whiteness, support white businesses, & choose white thought over Black experience. We have lost sight of our True selves, & therefore, have become subdued in our fight for freedom. The struggle really does continue. How can we lead successful movements when we are ashamed of our Blackness?
  6. We need to make mainstream music that raises self-consciousness & self-love. Overusing vulgar language (w/no substance) is tired. According to Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes, Black music is the only form of art authentic to Black people; it is the only art form, says Baraka, that White folks have not whitewashed—until now. What feels good about encouraged drug use & materialism? Why would Black people ever consume a song that compares a woman’s sexualized body parts to Emmett Till’s disfigured face? Why do we continue to support mainstream music that doesn’t inspirit & uplift Black people?
  7. We need to support Black. Integration seemed like a good idea, but because of it, we have abandoned black businesses, black colleges & universities, & (fill-in-the-blank). In turn, black businesses & black schools often abandon those who do support them. When are we going to do away w/this white is right, crab-in-a-barrel mentality?
  8. We need to read more fluently & actively. Nothing is new under the sun. Our activists have given us their stories & insights; we need to seriously engage them as well as other texts that enlighten us to ourselves. We can learn much thru Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro; The Autobiography of Assata Shakur; The Autobiography of Malcolm X, w/Alex Haley; Washington’s, The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King; Cornel West’s Race Matters; Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens; DuBois’s Souls of Black Folks; Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery; Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider; & so on & so on. Are we really going to be a group of ignorant people, especially in a 21st century that makes information more readily available?
  9. We need to bridge the gap between generations. During the Atlanta protests this past summer, 84 year-old former civil rights activist Rev. Andrew Young called Black Lives Matter protestors “unlovable little brats.” The disconnection between generations is wide. King was 26 when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 36 when he led the Selma to Montgomery Marches, & 37 when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Not only did King have a counsel of his elders guiding & encouraging him, but King turned to his elders for guidance. How can we ensure that the patience & wisdom of our experienced elders are seamlessly integrated w/the ready enthusiasm of our young leaders?
  10. We need to be present. Activism depends on an awareness of self & one’s relationship to others. It relies on a healthy mind, body, & soul. It requires a moment-to-moment existence that makes possible King’s agape love and the Panthers’ revolutionary love—both of which ensure beloved communities grounded in Truth & justice. How can we organize movements when we are not grounded in present awareness—an active state of being that allows us to acknowledge the first nine directives?

*             *             *

When I was a child, my father accused me of being a revolutionary with no cause. I was a Black nationalist before knowing what a Black nationalist is. From pen-palling incarcerated Black Panthers to writing poems about Black power, to stealing his dashiki to wear in high school & tattooing a gun w/the phrase: “Power to the People” underneath my underarm, I have always loved being Black. & so it goes w/out saying: I love & am proud of the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Witnessing my Black experiences archived in it—as well as within social media hashtags—feels righteous. However, we must be careful not to stagnate our movements in such static compositions. We must organize so that we don’t become causeless revolutionaries.

June Jordan wrote, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” & so it is. Let’s get it, & “accomplish what we will.”

#TBT Poem 2: we be theorizin

I wrote “We Be Theorizin” after reading Barbara Christian’s 1987 “The Race for Theory” essay. I was sitting in Shirley Toland-Dix’s 20th century African American Literature course at The University of South Florida (circa 2009) when I read this work and finally received language for a Black genius I knew, but had yet to understand. “We Be Theorizin”  was first printed in Deboarh G. Plant’s “The Inside Light”: New Criticisms of Zora Neale Hurston (2010, Praeger Press).

We Be Theorizin

They thought we was over there

shuckin & jivin

when all the while we been theorizin

How else you think black folks survivin

They try to keep us down

but we keeps on thrivin

Can’t no oppression keep us from strivin

They try to break our souls

but we keeps on smilin

& through grins & lies

we master guisin

Gotta be a trickster for humanizin

But we’ll wear the mask

cause we be theorizin

 

So right on Zora Neale

Write on

Right on W. DuBois

Write on

Right on Booker T.

Write on

Cause we been watchin God

while they been in the dark

The souls of black folks

produce the purest heart

& our plantin seeds

is just a start

See / we sowin wisdom

with literary arts

& through performances

that’s how we impart

the theory they claim, rename, and bogart

So right on Langston Hughes

Write on

Right on Richard Wright

Write on

Right on James Baldwin

Write on

Cause the Negro speaks of rivers

& the weary blues

He’s the native son, the outsider

if she choose

& if Beale Street could talk

it would share some news

cause we’ve gone a piece of the way

in our travelin shoes

& tho our cuttin the rug might seem our muse

we be theorizin & maskin the clues

So right on Nella Larsen

Write on

Right on Countee Cullen

Write on

Right on Claude McKay

Write on

Cause just as quick as sand

we can change our tune

We speak in vernaculars

they call us a coon

But once they’re out of our way

& have left the room

out comes Harlem wine

& intellectuals bloom

& when the Harlem dancer makes her body croon

that’s our theory that esoterically looms

 

So talk that talk money

& walk that walk

Black feeling & judgment compels them to gawk

It’s our colorful brilliance

that makes them balk at the notion that we be a theory

 

Cause we be theorizin

in our baptizin

In churches & clubs

we signifyin

Gospel jazz / blues got us cryin

Oral traditions keep us from dyin

We flyin on tryin

We hypnotizin

& dance floors are our silver linin’s

Creatin the arts keep us glidin

So we paintin faith & buildin horizons

Keepin hope alive & eyes on prizes

& writin poetry makes us the wisest

We are the ones that we’ve been waitin for

 

We soar . . .

Like . . . birds . . . in . . . the sky . . .

 

So high five

Gwendolyn Brooks & James Weldon Johnson

Nina Simone & Alice Walker

Give me some skin

Malcolm X & Leopold Senghor

Toni Morrison & Martin Luther King

Tell me something good

Jamaica Kincaid & Audre Lorde

Houston Baker & Frantz Fanon

Throw me a shimmy

bell hooks & Lauryn Hill

Angela Davis & Assata Shakur

Pass me the mic

Marcus Garvey & Henry Louis Gates

Aime Cesaire & Cornel West

Bet that up

Mos Def & Wole Soyinka

Huey Newton & Amiri Baraka

All givin life to Barack Obama!

 

See our theorizin

be our salvation

thru the Middle Passage & their plantations

Thru Jim Crow laws & humiliation

cointelpro & subjugation

Our theorizin so bright it’s blazin

We are the light that gives them life

blacker than the blackest night

we’re the blues on the left tryin to be the funk on the right

magical & dynOmite—

we are the world’s good time. . . .

 

Cause we be theorizin

which is our uprisin

No reparations / but we’re enterprisin

Creatin life to keep us from dyin

Singin, dancin, paintin, & writin

We are the titans

& our hue gives the world humanity.

FAMU just tried it w/its Blue Lives Matter talk

Florida A&M University (who, by the way, Wendy Williams, graduated Wimbledon’s first Black woman’s single crown winner, Althea Gibson; acclaimeFullSizeRender(1)d cancer surgeon Dr. LaSalle Leffall; congresswoman Carrie Meek; singer/actress Anika Noni Rose; & screenwriter/director Dee Rees to name a few) is holding a university-wide conversation this afternoon that its organizers have titled: “Healing Voices: Black and Blue Lives Matter | A Conversation.”

What. thee. hell?

With the exception of a few poems I’ve written & paintings I’ve created, I have not publicly engaged conversations re: America’s current climate. While I have discussed, with a few friends, my concerns re: modern movements & offered my theories for proactivity–most of which are grounded in a Sankofa spirit–I have chosen to distance myself from what feels like disoriented ranting about racism, police brutality, & the human condition. However, as trivial as this may be, I could not keep quiet about FAMU’s contribution to minimizing the “Black Lives Matter” movement, its mantra, & its affirmation re: black people, black bodies, & black genius.

Why do “blue lives” have to be an integral part of this current discussion? Why do we–any of us, black, white, Latina/o folk–have to over explain the significance of affirming “black lives matter”? Why can’t “black lives matter” be an unapologetic proclamation that doesn’t require “all lives” “blue lives” or “white lives” in order to exist in the love & truth that grounds its definition? While I am the biggest advocate of King’s beloved community, enuf is enuf already! Got damnit! Love begins with the self. We need to unapologetically exist in the “‘Say it out loud! I’m black & I’m proud!’ ‘Black power!’ ‘Black is beautiful!’ ‘To be young, gifted, & black.’ ‘The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.’ ‘The blacker the college, the sweeter the knowledge'” language that affirms our being, for no such affirmation denies the other her or his humanity–& it definitely does not affect the humanity of black people.

Black people are the most huemane creatures to walk this earth. Our black grandmothers nursed white babies. Our black teachers built HBCUs that never denied any person a right to education. Our black civil rights activists–including Malcolm X–advocated justice for all human beings. Our black poets, painters, & philosophers imagined humanity in inhumane situations. & our researchers, inventors, scientists, & doctors promoted safety & well being for all people by way of gas masks, blood banks, traffic signals, & open heart surgeries. Aaaaaand, moreover, from Mamie Till to Cameron Sterling, the mothers, fathers, & children of our murdered brothers & sisters maintain (& publicly promote) peace & non-violence despite the violent nature of their losses. Hell, African-American people civilize the world. No one has to tell us that “all lives” matter.

So, stop it, FAMU! You are one of the top HBCUs in the nation whose mission claims to serve the “underrepresented and underprivileged.” Shame on you, first, for not having a university-wide conversation re: our current climate long before five Dallas policemen were murdered. While their deaths are an unfortunate result of one man’s understandable rage, their deaths should not have been the slingshot that hurled your call-to-action. & secondly, shame on you for terming a university-wide conversation that decenters black people & the “black lives matter” movement, “healing.” (& it doesn’t help that your flier includes an illustration of a white police officer.) “Excellence with caring” begins at home, with the self. So stop it. Get off of that media inspirited bandwagon that maintains black servility & second-class citizenship.

I ain’t going.

 

from “Women Sweet on Women” Atlanta to Riots in Baltimore, Maryland: Love Is All There Is

I’ve been struggling with how to begin this blog post. 

I want to gush about the magic I experienced last weekend at Atlanta’s ZAMI NOBLA & OLOC’s “Women Sweet on Women II.”  But, I also want to describe the war scene I’ve witnessed driving thru downtown Baltimore today. My mind is racing, & I am high & low.

HIGH: Just three days ago, I was surrounded by Black & White lesbian women 60 years old & up who were gathered together to honor the oldest living lesbian couple in Atlanta: 91 & 93 year old Christine & Althea.  What a blessing–& I’m not just talking about Christine & Althea–but I am referring to myself.  What a blessing to be situated in a room of seasoned lesbian women, who were celebrating their elders, & making room for me to revere them all. 

There I was, my 35 year-old-self, hugging on, listening to, & laughing with Black & White lesbian folk who thrived thru Jim Crow, who embody feminist & womanist theories, who led/are leading civil rights movements, who look like women on the loose, & who loosely use the term “dyke.” There I was, staring at their locked hair, eyeing their silver jewelry, & smiling at their smiles–daydreaming & imagining their histories, admiring their resilience.  

They are the kissing friends in Zora’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. They are Sula & Nell, Celie & Shug Avery.  They are Gloria Naylor’s women of Brewster Place. Correta & Rosa, Angela & Bessie. In each & every one of them, all there is is love–& I got to be inside of it!

LOW: Today I am in Baltimore, & I am witnessing–from the safety of my hotel room–rioting Black folks whose rage prohibit them from being the love that they are. I rode thru Baltimore today, & for the first time in my life, I saw policemen dressed in riot gear, holding billy clubs and plastic shields, standing side-by-side in a line meant to act as a wall. & I am wondering: Why can’t this generation embody the courage that engendered our ancestors’ nonviolent protests? Why aren’t more of us sweet on each other, sweet on ourselves? So sweet that we, like 36 year old Martin, could face billy clubbed policemen w/a love ethic so baffling that it creates a peace that surpasses all understanding? Why can’t we turn our rage into outrageous demonstrations that do not destroy our own neighborhoods, but cripples the American economy?  

I am watching Baltimore burn–including a newly constructed facility specifically for the elders–& I think: Shit! Our people were gassed, hosed, dog bitten, & clubbed during peaceful demonstrations, & they–in a most defiant manner–resisted violence, still! Their audacity, courage, & will to “turn the other cheek” absolutely humbles me. Our ancestors & current elders were/are so divine. So beautiful. So sweet. 

While I understand, as Fannie Lou Hamer best said it, folks are “sick an tired of being sick an tired,” & while I also understand that rioting & looting are expressions of tethered fury, I know that love is all there is.  The most effective civil rights movements were grounded in agape love & non-violent protests.

In other words, non-violent boycotts are an expression of love & protest. Strategic organizing–from churches, schools, & civil rights leaders–is an expression of love & protest.  Supporting black businesses is an expression of love & protest.  Planting gardens in black neighborhoods is an expression of love & protest. Honoring our elders is an expression of love & protest. & loving ourselves? That is it! That’s the ultimate act of rebellion, of protest, of overthrowing the system. 

Love is all there is.  BMore love.

Beyond an Abecedarian Knowledge of Martin Luther King (w/regards to dp)

No one could have prepared me for the lackluster attitude regarding Civil Rights and Black History that I have faced amongst students attending an HBCU.  Some (& way too many) of my students believe King is an overrated, trite icon whose non-violent Civil Rights Movement IMagephilosophy created a stagnant Movement.  Students have claimed (loudly & proudly) that they have neither read nor heard the “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety, that they did not know that King won the Nobel Peace Prize, helped to secure the Voting Rights Act, and led the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Oh, but they did know, Dr. Bryant, that King led the Million Man March (or was it Malcolm X?).

I hated them for their ignorance, but I hated them more for not wanting to know.  “I’m so tired of hearing about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.  How do they relate to me?” one of my students asked.  Another one, while giving a presentation on the images regarding the Vietnam War, the American Civil Rights Movement, and African Apartheid (which one student admitted he thought meant “apartment”), said–at the start of her presentation to the entire class–“I’m so tired of talking about civil rights.”  & then another “student,” who wanted to talk to me about Martin Luther King for anKing image argumentative essay she was writing, claimed Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” approach to civil rights were more realistic than King’s non-violent approach.  But she hadn’t read anything about King or any of King’s work.  So, I gave her a book.  & most recently, I required each of my four writing classes to attend Ava Duvernay’s #SELMA movie–& without fail, in each class, at least 2-3 students moaned & groaned about it.  Even one student asked for an alternative assignment.

Why don’t Black students (& yes, I am overgeneralizing) want to know Martin Luther King? & why am I so adamant that they do?

But first, some background:

While I was teaching high school in 2004, I came across that one high school student who claimed to have never heard of Martin Luther King, Jr. before.  I was absolutely flabbergasted.  I felt embarrassed for this student, sad, & disappointed in the public school system, in mass media, and in her.  In that moment, while listening to her classmates laugh and poke fun at her, I knew I needed to do more with King in my English classrooms.  After all, most of those jokers who teased her didn’t know King beyond the King Holiday.  & so, for the 13 years that I’ve been teaching English, Martin Luther King, Jr. has been part of my curriculum.  He is as mandatory as Shakespeare & as necessary as the eight parts of speech.

Therefore, in between FCAT drills, I drilled students on King’s contributions to America.  Required bell ringers included journal entries on various King quotes.  & practice AP writing tasks required students to compare the rhetorical devices in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with Aaron McGruder’s “Return of the King Speech.”  While George Bush was concerned with leaving no child behind via uniformed assessments, I was concerned with ensuring that no student left my high school English class without having a tighter grip on King than they had before.  That was my small contribution to social activism, if you will–my nod to American patriotism and Black genius.

However, when I left the high school classroom and began a teaching career in post secondary education, I learned–surprisingly–that many of my university students didn’t give a shit about social activism, didn’t believe that Black people were genius, and didn’t view Martin Luther King an American patriot.  Some of my white university students appreciated insights I offered them on King, while others viewed me a Black nationalist and an ethnocentric teacher. I hadn’t realized that requiring my White students to analyze the rhetorical language in King’s “I Have a Dream” or “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” would make me a “racist” teacher.

While I was aware that more often than not, White students will define their Black teacher racist should she teach anything from her Black perspective, I had not considered my teaching King a threat to anyone’s identity.  I didn’t realize that I was challenging my White students’ preconceived knowledge about King.  They understood him to be the Negro preacher who marched for human rights, particularly those of Black people.  Yet, here I was, barely 30 years old, situating King in an academic space that required students to acknowledge his intellectual capacity–to understand his writing prowess and know him as a genius.  Shoulder shrug.  Nevertheless, despite student discomfort and occasional complaints to my supervisor, I continued to teach King, & the more I taught him, the more personal I began to feel about students’ ignorance and resistance to my King curriculum.  But the resistance from my White students didn’t bother me as much as the push back I receive from the Black students I currently teach.

Every time I show King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in class, I well up with tears.  When I play Nina Simone’s “Why? The King of Love Is Dead,” a knot enters my throat.  & when I explicate King’s “The Power of Nonviolence,” “An Experiment in Love,” and “Where Do We Go from Here?”–speeches that define King’s agape love concept and non-violent approach–I feel, as I imagine the preacher does when he explicates the “Sermon on the Mount,” the Holy Ghost rising in me.  So, one can imagine how angry I am when a Black student sleeps through the “Dream,” is texting through Simone’s queries, & has failed to read any of the assigned speeches.  Why don’t Black students, especially these ones who are currently taking classes at a historically Black college & university, witnessing Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, & Eric Garner cases, & participating in #blacklivesmatter, #Icantbreathe, #dontshoot campaigns resisting academic discussions and tasks regarding Martin Luther King, & why do I care?  & I mean, I be bout to lose my mind care.

This morning, my mentor friend freed my mind.  She helped me to understand what I knew but had not known.

For about 13 years I thought I was frustrated with students’ lack of abecedarian knowledge regarding Martin Luther King, Jr.  With all of this free access to information via the Internet, how in the world can any (Black) student not be familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr.–at least with his “Dream” speech?  How does anyone in this 21st century America whose citizens actively engage in racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and the like, not be familiar with the Civil Rights Movement?  I thought that that negligent behavior annoyed me.  However, my mentor friend explained to me that those tidbits of information are all abecedarian; it’s a rudimentary understanding of things, which really, are not that important.

What is most important about King are not the marches, the speeches, and the awards, but it’s the spirit–the creative genius–that moved through him that you want your students to know so that they, too, can carry the King inside of them, she said.  & she is absolutely right.  My teaching King is primarily an effort at reminding students of their humanity & of their responsibility to ensuring peace & love.  She is right.  Many people will not know King, or Gandhi, or Leo Tolstoy, but if we each can be acquainted with their spirits, the Movement will keep moving; for, Spirit never dies.

& so, I will continue to use King as a primary source for instruction regarding rhetoric & composition practice, ’cause I believe King is a rhetorical genius.  However, I am okay with my students–Black or White–not being able to recall any of his contributions to America and the Civil Rights Movement.  No, King didn’t lead the Million Man March, but the spirit with which the Million Man March was organized is definitely a reflection of Martin Luther King.