FEBRUARY 29, 2016
Nobody Sings Anymore.
— Amiri Baraka
State of Mind
IT’S 2016. My 36th birthday will be a week from tonight. I’m lying on the couch giving social media one last halfhearted spin before heading to bed. I come across a video of young brown people holding hands in the middle of the Dan Ryan Expressway. I don’t believe what I’m seeing.
I know it’s the Dan Ryan because I spent three years in Chicago. You can’t stand in the middle of the Dan Ryan and live to tell about it. I’ve waded in bumper to bumper traffic on that expressway many afternoons. I was on the Dan Ryan when some dude crashed into the back of my car the first week I moved to Chicago. I remember being terrified when we exited our vehicles in the middle of rush hour, dodging traffic as we traded insurance information. And now, I’m seeing young people hold hands on the Dan Ryan and chant “two, four, six, eight, we want to graduate.” Behind them an endless caravan of traffic eases cautiously.
I assume the protest must be aligned with the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Downtown Chicago has been the site of recent protests. I google to see what additional information I can find, and realize this protest is its own beast. The headlines hit me in the mouth: “Chicago State University’s Future Uncertain Amid Budget Impasse.” I think I’m reading this wrong, and read it again. Chicago State University is under threat of closing within the next six weeks.
I realize that those young brown bodies holding hands across a freeway in the middle of winter are Chicago State students. I’m suddenly not surprised by their bravery.
It’s 2003. I’m 23 and riding an Oldsmobile down Cottage Grove. I removed the 18-inch rims two weeks ago. I’m new to Chicago but know the universal laws. Before leaving my Hyde Park apartment, I made a bowl of instant oatmeal. Here’s the thing about microwaving oatmeal: the water to oats ratio must be perfect. There’s no saving a ruined batch. And even though I know this, I still manage to produce flat mush. My stomach protests.
Cottage Grove is a weird trip. You have to keep your eyes on the road and the people around you. And I don’t mean in a watch-for-criminals kind of way. I mean in a bodies-playing-chicken-with-cars kind of way. The first time I made this trip, I misguidedly blew my horn at some young dude paused in the middle of the street. He gave me a look I understood, a look that dared me to run my car into him.
I’m passing liquor stores and greasy food joints. People mill about the avenue, this Southside dystopia. I want to play preacher in this narrative: to pull over and tell them about Baraka’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” and how our daughters pray for us at night, and why we stopped singing a long damn time ago.
You pay three dollars to park on campus. I hand the attendant my last five and wonder how I’ll park tomorrow. I’m thinking of Kanye and rap star dreams. I’m thinking of my own hip hop group, Black Elephant. One week ago, Kanye screamed the reasons he dropped college to a crowded gym. He was part of a panel of rappers and the PhD-toting mothers who raised them. Dr. Donda West, Kanye’s mother, recently chaired Chicago State’s English department and had a seat on that panel. I park and wonder how things might have been different had my mother been an educator. Would I still feel like an imposter? I try and remember the books in my house growing up. There were only a few: a dictionary, an encyclopedia, and a zodiac book. I didn’t grow up in a house full of books.
The truck next to me has big rims on it. I grab my backpack and exit the car. A dude is leaning on the big rimmed truck. He’s adjusting his backpack while pleading with someone on the phone. I can’t say I know for sure, but he’s making the “I’m on the phone pleading with my baby mama” face. I head toward the library and absorb the fraternity and sorority colors decorating this campus. I absorb the universe of fades and dreads and afros and perms and weaves and naturals. I think of Miss Gwendolyn Brooks, who taught here, and wonder if I’m literally walking in her footsteps. I remember reading “We Real Cool” in grammar school. It was the first poem by a Black writer that I’d read, a cautionary tale that spoke deeply to me. In fact, it was the first poem I fully understood and the first time I recognized a familiar vernacular in poetry. It was the first poem I wanted to emulate.
The door to the Douglas Library is heavy, and when I drag it open, spirits brush against me. Bodies occupy computer stations inside. They write emails and peruse BlackPlanet and other pre-Facebook/Twitter sites. I’m starting to think about the essay I wrote for today’s class. How my beat-down computer froze before I could finish my Baraka interpretation, how the couple who lives upstairs fought violently, and then made violent make-up love last night. I slump in my seat but not before giving dap to my classmates.
We talk about hip hop, spouses, kids, public schools, Chicago. Some of us are old enough to be grandparents and others hood enough to catch a case. None of us have fellowships or TAships. That wasn’t part of the deal. We are simply starved for the writing of writers who look like us and we are willing to pay thousands for that writing. We need to carve our own stories into the universe, to be told they matter. And when Professor Kelly Norman Ellis enters the room, we are ravenous for today’s workshop.
And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.
— Amiri Baraka
It’s 2006. They’re all here. All the ones who we cut our teeth on: Kelly Norman Ellis, Haki Madhubuti, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Sterling Plumpp, the baddest MFA faculty in the world, is here. Chicago State’s MFA graduating class is reading creative works tonight. We’re all here. Our parents, spouses, and babies are here. My mother and younger sister are here. My mother recently completed her bachelor’s degree in business, said my being in graduate school motivated her. Today, I’m more proud of her than I am me. Ironically, she could be a member of my graduating class. Many of us, like her, work more than forty hours a week. Many of us, like her, returned to pursue an almost dead dream.
I’m performing my poems about alcohol enslaved aunts and uncles, whorehouses and dope deals, an imagined grandfather. I read these poems because I can; because Chicago State University’s MFA Faculty gave our stories a home, because this program was brave enough to champion a different kind of canon. I read these poems unapologetically. “Romance at the 23rd Street Whorehouse”:
Johnny walks into party with half a smoked roach in his pocket, a blade in his sock. Johnny forgot to bring the whiskey he’d promised, instead hopes to share the dime bag he’d been hanging on to. Inside they’re smoking, playing spades and damaged vinyl. Johnny throws bag of blow on card table, walks in kitchen, grabs a Schlitz, goes looking for Walt who owes him a twenty. Walt’s outside taking a leak. Too many drunks, not enough commodes. Outside is cold and wet. Walt watches steam boogie off the concrete. Can’t remember the last time he’d been laid. Thinks of beautiful Vietnamese women he’d made love to decades ago, blows them kisses before heading back inside to explain how erotic making love with a weapon strapped to your waist can be. Yeah, you can take everything off but your pistol, you never knew when one of them was a ambush. Tone’s heard this one but offers a gold-toothed grin. Tone is high and watching Donna who he hadn’t seen in three years. Last time they’d seen each other, he awoke naked beneath a mirrored ceiling. She looked even sweeter tonight. Tone winks at Donna, she doesn’t see. She’s talking to Kathy who says she’s been celibate for a month and a half. Men don’t respect loose women. Donna says they’re both too old to be thinking of celibacy, claims they’re going to hell anyway. The two women slap fives, laugh out smoke. The living room is an asylum’s dancehall. Damien grinds on a backside he’s never seen, doesn’t know its name, who it belongs to, if its ever seen a junkie stand on his head.
I don’t know what my mother will do with her degree, just as I don’t know what we’ll do with ours. The room is full of people I know I’ll never see again. These are my people and I owe them. You don’t have the privilege to hear their stories and not carry them in your throat. You can’t just leave Chicago and not take the hard mystique of the Southside with you. You can’t forget having class next to brown babies, because your cohort still shows up even when a sitter isn’t in the budget, because the faculty here invited them to do so.
No prom queens or kings at this coronation. We’re outcasts in leather playing our own numbers behind the school. And when your boring ass prom lets out, we’re the ones you approach timidly and ask for weed, grease, spirits, and funk.
I leave Chicago and start Milwaukee’s creative writing PhD program that fall.
Aye yo, two words, Chi town, Southside, worldwide
cause I, rep that, till I …
— Kanye West
I applied to Chicago State University’s MFA program in 2002 after my homeboy and hero Donte McFadden pulled me aside and said “I think I know where you need to be.” He’d just returned from attending Chicago State’s annual Gwendolyn Brooks Writers Conference. He told me about the love and energy there, their infant MFA program, how he believed that was where I could best hone my craft. We were both in school at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, except he was in graduate school; in fact, he was starting a PhD and became the first young Black dude I’d met to have a seat in a doctoral program. He was a unicorn, a Black unicorn.
When Donte advised something, I listened. So I applied to three graduate programs that fall and got into two. (I won’t mention the “top ten” program I didn’t get into.) I remember trying to make my mind up about where I wanted to be, where I should be, where I belonged. Although I’d never been a devout religious person, I’d always believed in things like purpose. In the spring of 2003 I received a call from Chicago State. Kelly Norman Ellis invited me for a campus visit. Her voice felt like my aunt’s and the love and sincerity distinctly un-professorial, it felt like family.
She told me how excited they were to have me as part of the incoming cohort. We talked about the uniqueness of the program, the reasons why Chicago State was the best place for me. I wanted to write blues and soul poems, poems that curled up in alleys, poems that no one wanted. I wanted to find the poems that I had abandoned after the workshop had grown tired of my shit. When you’re the Black writer in a white workshop, you know when the workshop gets tired of your shit. I needed a Black space.
Chicago State’s MFA program was created in 2001 by Haki Madhubuti, Donda West, and Kelly Norman Ellis. Its mission, says Norman Ellis, “was to offer student writers a program that moved Black literature from the margin to the center. In other words, we wanted to give emerging writers the opportunity to study the Black literary traditions in English. African, Afro-Caribbean and African American were the focus of our study.” This mission was apparent from the outset. The reality that all our Blackness would be embraced, for better or worse, was too apparent. During my first registered workshop, I marveled at all the photos of distinguished, Black, literary heroes decorating the walls of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, many of whom I didn’t know. I saw my own picture there someday next to Langston Hughes’s or Etheridge Knight’s. This was the Black Writers Hall of Fame.
In workshop, I was astounded when craft discussions could be offered with the same colloquial swagger, heart, and heat of a barbershop basketball debate. The students knew who they were and felt loved enough to be just that. Never has a technical term like “enjambment” sounded so poetic and familiar than when uttered from the mouth of a Southside Chicago native: “You might want to double-check your enjambment too. It needs work.”
I’d previously been accustomed to classroom code-switching. I hadn’t embraced the value and depth of my own dimensions: I can both know what I know, and talk how I talk. I discovered too, that I could no longer hide behind the walls of cultural distance. I couldn’t get away with soft moves declared hard because my white classmates and professors didn’t understand where I was coming from. I would be called out immediately. “You can’t use alliteration just because you like how it sounds?” “What do you mean you’ve never read Toni Cade Bambara?” “Stop biting Saul Williams.” It was in this moment that some awkward triple-consciousness started to stir internally. I had spent so much of my undergraduate years catching up on old dead white writers and proving I belonged that I’d forgotten the writers on whose shoulders I stood.
Suddenly my one-night stand poems seemed hollow, especially when read against real-life, high-stake, commentary. I confronted worlds where teenage mothers searched for life as labor and desperation weighed down severely:
somebody’s arms put me in a wheelchair
warm nastiness becomes a lake around my thighs
somebody’s arms stand me up and the lake
oozes down dirty maternity jeans
the hospital people will not let me shut my thighs
the nurse’s hand occupies the space between
she will not take her hand out my pushing place
something is wrong
yes, miss, something is wrong
her hand holding the cord
so he won’t die
so my body won’t kill him
he is a boy
a boy seems right
being second of three daughters
who came before sons
I know boys should come first
but I don’t want any more things
to grow inside me
I didn’t even want this one
this boy who will only grow to be a man
her hand still stuck into me
there will be no pushing
the room is ready now
this will be an unnatural birth
they will cut him from my belly
they will give me scars
they will cut and stab into me
I secretly hope they stab me wrong
so he will die
I want to scream to them
give this baby to back to god
I don’t know what to do with life!
I lied I lost I surrender
please, just give him back to god!
but the words stay trapped
in my belly with the boy
god gives him to me
Working through poems like this one, (April Gibson’s haunting “Reservoir”) awakened me as a student. Any and every aspect of my experience had a home. Gibson says about her time in the program,
If not for the confidence I gained from the nurturing environment, the safe space to exist and not be rendered invisible, the community of faculty and writers who did not just workshop my poems or essays, but who supported me in ‘real life’ too, along with the pragmatic aspects of the program like affordability, nontraditional student demographics, and inner-city location, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.
This was survival work. This was healing work. This was the work that a “top ten” program wasn’t designed to do.
Despite my tenure track job and doctoral degree, Chicago State instilled a culture of reverence for those who’d come before me, even if only by a decade. We were constantly made aware of those who sacrificed for us to workshop, and live, and walk around freely, those who fought to be heard so that we might be heard too. In addition to this, our responsibility to young brown people was emphasized. We should be a gift to them, a reminder that their bodies and stories matter.
I met many of my literary heroes in graduate school during CSU’s annual Gwendolyn Brooks Writing Conference. For three straight years, during conference week, I had the privilege to play liaison to some of the world’s most celebrated writers. Norman Ellis recalls the scene: “We had one of the largest and oldest Black writer’s conferences in the nation: The Gwendolyn Brooks Conference on Black Literature and Writing featured Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Sonia Sanchez, August Wilson, Nikki Giovanni, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, and Edward P. Jones just to name a few.” I’m often astounded by the giants who’s rolled shotgun in my Oldsmobile. I miss that car. I’m more astounded by their collective warmth and generosity: some suggested my writing was an extension of a larger tradition. These writers’ mere being provided an infectious sense of responsibility.
Randall Horton describes this responsibility in the following poem: “My Class at Chicago State University’s Program for High School Kids” (after Patricia Smith).
In a summer enrichment program on the Southside
I have a class of bubbly thirteen year old girls.
Two weeks we have argued whether poetry is hip hop
until finally I exorcise this misunderstood concept,
and today I have placed metaphor on their fingertips,
presented lyrical landscapes of urban experiences
that mirror their own, and not one believed poetry
could do this. We thought poetry was a bunch of bull,
you know, like making people fall asleep and what not.
This pronouncement comes with stringent poker faces,
the concept foreign as to how a poet can capture
emotion inside the black oil glow of a Gaston Glock,
or the way a girl jumps double-dutch while her barrettes
dance like fireflies under a streetlamp—today is a breakthrough,
except there are no young boys in the classroom to share
in accepting how literature is a reflection of ourselves.
I concede this footnote for now and use my felonious past
as an entranceway into their world of street gangs,
shootings, teenage pregnancy, absentee fathers, mothers
strung out on drugs, and it is only because I walk and talk
like I’ve seen their world through a magnifying glass
am I privileged to confessionals about their lives.
They have picked a poem in an anthology by a friend of mine,
about child abuse, yo we gotta rap about this one Mr. Horton—
soon the conversation switches direction in mid-sentence
and the girls tell me they know someone who shares this burden,
as if an image can come out their gut about being fondled
or violated by an uncle or step-brother, I challenge each one
to drape themselves in this person who cries a puddle of confusion.
Pick up your pens, use them as a voice to say something, to cut
to the truth of things, to discover your own demons,
I tell them this. What comes from this purging is between us—
but let’s just say a weaker man would run from their truth.
The room becomes quiet. A miracle takes place in our circle,
a language shapes itself: their language. Voices emerge
from silence—I open my journal and join the cleansing.
This poem is both an homage and a gift. It appears in Horton’s second collection, The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street and acknowledges Patricia Smith’s poem “Building Nicole’s Mama” as a source of inspiration. The students in the poem share emotional and psychological obstacles. And while the poem is about gifting and catharsis, the idea that reading and writing can be a cleansing act is met with resistance.
I, too, have preached literature to youth who had no interest. I’ve preached the importance of reading and writing to a boy who’d just lost a brother to gun violence. How do you tell a child to love your narratives when you don’t seem to love theirs, and when they haven’t seen themselves in the narratives you sling? The cleansing that occurs at the end of Horton’s poem is the gift we owe all young minds. This was the gift Chicago State’s program gave us.
“I got a chance to study in the only MFA program in the United States that placed an emphasis on African American Literature, which has helped tremendously when I present myself as a writer, a Black writer who stands on a literary Black tradition,” says Horton. “I wouldn’t have given up my experience to attend any of the so-called ‘top ten’ programs. Not one.”
These are the stories told by Stony and Cottage Grove
The world is cold the block is hot as a stove
It’s 2015. I’m 35 and driving a 4Runner down Jackson Avenue pretending that it’s Cottage Grove. Except this 70-degree winter weather and those Confederate flag truck decorations remind me exactly where I am. How did I get here, in Oxford, Mississippi? Just a month ago the University of Mississippi student government voted to take down the Confederate flag. This process and ensuing resistance made for a tense environment on campus and the surrounding community. This wasn’t the first ordeal during my three-and-a-half year stint that incited racial tensions here and I imagine it won’t be the last. Mississippi has established a long narrative of racial injustices. And even though I meet beautiful people every day who are doing important cleanup work, the mess won’t surrender.
Right before I moved to Mississippi in 2012, I received countless phone calls from concerned loved ones. Many saw my moving here as a death sentence and couldn’t understand the thinking. Others prayed for my wellbeing and lent their support. Everyone reminded me to never forget who I am and where I come from. How could I? I remember driving with Baraka down MLK in Milwaukee in 2003. He was talking about a certain thing that happens behind the eye when you know who you are. He said something like (I don’t remember if it was exactly this, but something like), “when you get that thing behind your eye saying you know who you are, they can’t mess with you.” For years I wondered about that “thing,” this Black enlightenment.
A workshop with Haki Madhubuti and one other student was the most memorable I’d had at Chicago State. Dr. Madhubuti was a hero who only lived in books and VHS cassette tapes. All he’d done for Black people and literature had created an unfathomable image in my mind. I was nervous. No, I was afraid of this class. What if I didn’t know everything I needed to know? What if I hadn’t read all I’d needed to read? For 15 weeks the three of us talked poetry and professional development. He was the first person to disrupt my dreamy starving artist glorification. He talked to us about wellbeing and professionalism, told us working for free and sleeping on couches were for the birds. Each class he showed up promptly and dressed impressively. He was an institution. And not simply because of his Third World Press imprint or the K-12 Betty Shabazz Charter School he founded on Chicago’s Southside. He was an institution because he cared and acted for the betterment of our world.
Before graduating Chicago State’s MFA program, and thanks to Quraysh Ali Lansana, I’d go on to work as assistant poetry editor at Third World Press. I had many more conversations with Dr. Madhubuti. He once asked what I planned to do after the program. I told him stay in Chicago or move to New York and write. He asked why I wanted to stay there or move to another big city. “Isn’t that what all writers do,” I asked. We went on to have a conversation about “all writers” and the idea’s relationship to me. Why go reside in a place with no vacancies? Might I have a more valuable impact someplace else? How could I carve out my own lane? I thought about an imaginary place where I could apply all the gifts Chicago State had afforded me; an abandoned place that someday might name a road, or school, or scholarship, or building after me.
State of Mind
It’s 2016. I’m 36 and parking in the driveway of my home. Across the street some construction workers are building a porch. The front tag on one of the workers’ trucks sports a Confederate flag. I make eye contact with one of the men, we hold it, he looks away. I think about Baraka’s conversation. I know who I am, where I’ve been.
I’m thinking about a poem workshopped 10 years ago at Chicago State. My homegirl Delicia Daniels wrote about Sam Cooke’s daughter Linda Cooke-Womack. The poem takes us from Chicago to Mississippi’s dark past. Three CORE workers are dead in this poem, they are dead in real life. I remember the poem asking us to breathe. I breathe in Mississippi air, grab my melting ice cream, and head inside for lunch. “Losing Daddy” (for Linda Cooke-Womack):
A heart the temperature
a child drifting
in search of the sentimental
no symphony in her smile
how will she survive?
his air no longer arms to hold
sixteen sounds strange
Mississippi’s finest climbs the charts:
Mickey Schwerner James Chaney Andrew Goodman
Meridian, 1964 – Rita Schwerner:
It’s tragic, as far as I’m concerned that white northerners
have to be caught up in the machinery of injustice and
indifference in the South before the American people
I personally suspect that if Mr. Chaney
who is a native Mississippian Negro had been alone at the
time of the disappearance that this case like so many others
that have come before would have gone completely unnoticed.
seventeen keeps movin’
down Barbara’s drenched face
through daddy’s secret choice
Last week I celebrated my 36th birthday. Two of my closest cousins traveled down to Mississippi to be with me. We breathed all throughout the small town of Oxford. We breathed freely and lovingly. We breathed and danced and celebrated our outlasting a low life expectancy. When we were young, we were told that making it past 35 was an accomplishment. And here we were.
I remember these same cousins helping move my couch, table, and futon into a small Hyde Park apartment 13 years ago. But we didn’t talk about that. We didn’t talk about degrees or MFA programs or poetry books. We didn’t talk about Cottage Grove or budget cuts or coronations. We didn’t talk about Confederate flags or privilege or social media. We didn’t talk about much. We cried and dedicated rap songs to dead people we grew up with. Survivor’s guilt is a real and unexpected guest.
While Young Jeezy blared through the speakers, I found myself thinking about those young brown bodies holding hands on the Dan Ryan. I thought about all the ways they were much braver than me. I wondered what my cohort would’ve become had Chicago State closed its doors. I imagine a desolate campus. It’s dark. I’m lugging a backpack full of Black literary collections. The lights inside the Douglas Library are not on. There are no lights anywhere. I’m excited about today’s workshop. I have new parts of me that needs sharing. I’m surrounded by silence. There is nothing. I have new parts of me that need to be reckoned with, and I finally reach the doors of the Douglas Library, home to the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, the place our work is done. There is nothing. The doors of the library are locked. There is nothing. And everywhere I turn is nothing, and drab, and empty, and songless.