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Dealing with our history is difficult. Why us? Or, in the words of that hell of a difficult question that Pops posed to all of us: “What did  we do to be so Black and blue”?

What indeed. Understanding history requires more than most of us are capable of giving. Why is that? Why are we who we are? There is no simple answer.

No straight forward way to get to understanding ourselves and our condition. Much of our conundrum is detailed in Silencing The Past, an uber-important scholarly work by Haitian scholar Michel-Ralph Trouillot. His last post was at the University of Chicago, where he died of a brain aneurism on July 5, 2012.

As I plowed through Trouillot insightful work, I frequently found myself referring to a dictionary, but despite my difficulties I persevered because the ideas about grasping history were so provocative.

“The Three Faces of Sans Souci” is the second chapter in his challenging study. Each face taught me different aspects of my history that were heretofore unknown to me in their fullness.

First, there was the town at the base of the mountain where the monument was located and through which water flowed keeping the stone edifice cool even on the hottest day. Then there was the European Prussian palace named Sans Souci-Potsdam. Finally, there was the Haitian leader Sans Souci.

I had stood atop The Citadel, and was faintly familiar with the European/Germanic connection through reading a smattering of historical works, but all my travels and reading not withstanding, I had never before heard of the soldier named Sans Souci.

Perhaps because I had been there I found myself enchanted by both the complexity and beauty of Trouillot’s examination of the Haitian revolution through focusing on the long neglected gathering of stones at the base of the mountain atop which sits The Citadel, the supreme monument of Black history in the west, built by Haitian revolutionary freedom fighter Henri Christophe.

Many years ago, in the latter part of the previous 20th century, I had taken a long and twisting mule ride to the summit. When we started out at the bottom I saw a peasant woman with a tray perched atop her head. She was walking up the mountainside. We lost sight of each other when she shoved ahead in a direction that diverged from our mule path. Just before we reached the top over a half hour later, she reappeared. Ahead of us! At that moment, I viscerally understood the power of the Haitian revolution. Fully comprehended how our 19th century ancestors had whipped the French, outwitted the English, and successfully dodged brutal Spain. How the formerly enslaved became the progenitors of this world’s sole successful slave revolt. It was because of their physical persistence, the persistence of blackness.

Without saying a word, they climbed the mountain, pushing forward, trodding one foot in front the other. They refused to surrender to seemingly superior forces. Their stubborn Haitian hearts enabled them to succeed. That same stubbornness is necessary if we are to survive the crisis of the 21st century, i.e. the dominance of  U.S. modernity.

Going to the mountain top is a familiar trope of African American culture. While reveling in and rejoicing about our history of struggle, most of us do not realize that the bulk of our history was constructed by the so-called wretched of the earth, by illiterate and semiliterate peasants who kept on keeping on.

We may ride astride modern mules today, but we should always remember it will be the least of us who enable the totality of us to reach the pinnacles of whatever future mountains we face. Silencing The Past, in both its intellectually challenging complexity and its historically significant insights, offers us the opportunity to understand and answer the “why” question of our existence.

We are here. The mountain is here. The example of our ancestors teaches us, we are capable of reaching the top if we choose to climb. Because of the hearts of our ancestors, their persistence, their refusal to surrender, that is the answer. Our ancestors are why. Our answer to the question. “We can” because “they did”. We are because they were.

They were. And because of them, we can be.

 

 

 

 

Despite all the rites and wrongs that have been done to us (some of which, unfortunately, we did to ourselves), we march on. Some how, we keep pressing on.

In a similar sort of way, some subconscious kind of way, D. J. Rogers ran across my mind. Like many of us do now days, when I wanted to get more info beyond my years-old memory and the limited info available as liner notes on old recordings, I googled DeWayne Julius Rogers. Born May 9, 1948, in Los Angeles, he was roughly a little under one year younger than me.

For no particular reason, right then and there, I knew that something was happening that triggered my thinking about him. So, even though I’m not sure what that something was, I decided: why not listen to yourself and share some of his music? So here it be.

I don’t even know much about the man. Knew he was never a mega-star, never somebody that everybody listened to or talked about. Never cracked the Billboard Top 10. Nevertheless, his music was deep to me.

Not all of it, but, the parts of it I dug, well, I really dug those songs. Perhaps it was the sincerity of his singing. Maybe it was the joy inside the pain, I mean often he was singing as though this was his last go round (sort of remind me of that Bobby Womack interpretation of “Close To You” where Bobby be singing about trying to convince some record company people to sign him up, and he’s getting rejected–but that’s another story).

Far as I know the commercial availability of D. J. Rogers albums is limited. A life time of making music, most all of your seventy-some earth years spent pursuing a dream. And toward the end there are only a paltry seven or so albums. Moreover, on a national level, not many people know his music.

But that, in a nutshell, is the story of most of us. We spend our earthly allotment toiling on the wine press, and at the conclusion, only close friends and widely scattered followers even know who who we were, what we did, our efforts, our dreams, our dedications. It’s rough to be us. 

Via videos and the internet people around the world be knowing America’s negroes. Our music, our athletes, the glamor of some of our stars, but on an quotidian level, like Jimmy Baldwin said: nobody knows our name(s). Paradoxical as it may be, given that one of us was recently president of the United States, and his wife, Michelle, is widely recognized as America’s most popular woman, all of that notwithstanding, on an individual personal level we are mostly unknown. Half the time not even our next of kin scattered across the countryside be fully aware of who we individually are. Damn.

So anyway, here are a handful of D. J. Rogers songs. they could serve as the soundtrack when you reminisce about your best friend from high school, the lover from your college years, a colleague or work-mate you toiled beside for most of your adult life, and that guy you call on the phone from time to time, you know, the last one left of your crew, a gathering of friends that used to bond so strongly. D. J.’s tunes have that same weight, ranging from his best known single “Say You Love Me” and the poignant track “Bula Jean“, to one of my favorites, “Haven’t You“, with its full out pleading insistence on being heard, recorded over strings and tender harp arpeggios. Then there is the galloping dance track “Trust Me” and D. J.’s deep-throated moaning and groaning–you can tell the man spent a bunch of Sundays in church. He even has some quiet storm evocations that are meditations on the deeper meanings of life. Consider “Love Brought Me Back” with it’s funky bass line and then contrast that with the angelic “He’ll Be Your All And All“. Rogers clearly is a deeply spiritual man.

Indeed, Hope Songs, his last commercially available recordings that I am aware of, featured gospel and gospel-influenced music. His style of singing makes it plain that he resides on both the secular and the sacred side of the street, or at least be situated right around the corner from each other. Indeed, he has even taken to recasting his earlier music in a gospel context, such as he does with his best known “Say You Love Me“.

D. J. Rogers, listen to his music, remember his name. As the ancients and the ancestors constantly remind us, as long as we are remembered, we will never be truly gone. Never. Always remember.

 

We toil too often in relative obscurity. All of us. But especially those of us conscious of who we are in this conundrum of a country we find ourselves birthed in. None of us asks to be borne here. Born here. Birthed amidst toil and trouble. But here we are.

To be aware of who we are. How we got here. And what we can and should do about our arrival here. Our birth rites. The gift of life. The paradox of consciousness. The curse (and the great gift) of being Black in a whirl of contradictions. Confusions. 

My friend Brenda Marie. Brenda Marie Osbey. Is. A poet. A historian of words. Often publicly somber but not without her humor. Our humor. If you know her. The many, many hours she has spent tracking down and finding precisely the right words to capture the history of us. Who we have been. What we did. Where we came from. In getting to who and what and where we now are.

She knows–and shares–the New Orleans she knows. The French of it. The English of it. The Black. And the other. The all of New Orleans in her poems that celebrate life and death in a sunken city that rises like mist out of a swamp on a summer morning, only too often to sink beneath the weight and reality of a moon that is unsentimental about the enslaved it shines its light upon. Offering enough illumination to escape if one chooses to run. Is courageous enough to dart and stealthy go about the business of making freedom on the bayou.

She speaks the voice of the enslaved who will not stay dead. The enslaved who will always, always, always sing of freedom. The ones who refuse to let circumstance define us. The ones who are our lodestones. Our hope. Our dreams. Our rocks flung into the face of the future. Announcing we were here but we we were also so much more than most of us know.

We were humans. Enslaved but not slaves. Call us what you will. Our words. Our songs. Our actions. The poems that are our lives. Define us for all times

 

 

There is no straight way to tell this story.

Music is a time machine. We hear a particular song and are immediately transported to a specific time and circumstance. Could be that any song, an ultra popular ditty or an obscure work of artistry, is the song that turns the key to our individual consciousness at particular moments in our life. We feel the feelings re-emerge. Literally. Even if no one else can observe the motions, our body actually trembles in a Pavlovian fashion responding to the aural stimulus.

I trust the music, believe in the music. I was randomly playing tracks when I heard Isaac Hayes singing “Fragile” and I couldn’t shake it. I played it again. And again. And one more once again.

The songs that ring your bell are particular to you, but if we came through the same time and circumstance, perhaps the seventies or the eighties, and we were young then, going through all the things that young people experience as we mature, then, although we have individual specifics, we also share responses to common triggers. Or we could come to the music at different times and under vastly different circumstance, nevertheless, a particular song plangently strikes us in a resoundingly similar way, leading to a knowing deja vu recognition or reminiscence. “Do you remember when we. . .”?

Ike’s sound means a lot to me. I was new to my life-long passion of writing as a professional. It was 1970, The Black Collegian Magazine. The first issue. Interviewing Isaac Hayes at the Soul Bowl on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Tulane University’s Sugar Bowl Stadium, which has subsequently been torn down and replaced.

The program started around noon with Pacific, Gas & Electric, and Ike & Tina Turner, and ended late that night with James Brown absolutely killing the event. Literally had over 25,000 souls clapping, rocking, and foot-patting on his one drop. However, as good as they and all the intervening artists were, it was Ike who really got to me.

He came on around five in the afternoon. Imagine. Had already been there for hours when Isaac’s orchestra with Dale Warren conducting climbed on the stage. They had hired a string section of New Orleans classical people to perform with their band, which was why they handed out sheet music and had baton wielding Warren overseeing the unprecedented aggregation. Ike was just cracking the airwaves and wasn’t yet the Academy and Oscar Award winning composer of Shaft songs but he and his musical cohorts were absolutely at the top of their game.

This was at the beginning of Ike’s “Black Moses” period and he was luxuriating in his innovative approach to making popular music. At that time most songs on the radio were three-or-so minutes long, and here came raconteur supremacist, Isaac Hayes, going on for a quarter hour or more, recording two long songs on each side of a disc.

And then there was the way he leisurely interpreted standards of the time. The unique musical direction was auspiciously announced by Ike’s original and heart-rending score of a 1969 recasting of Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, which featured the tale of a hard-working man who had had enough/too much of his wife’s gender-flipping, philandering ways.

We all knew such a situation; could be our friend Alfred from the countryside who recently moved in across the street, or a not so distant cousin Renaldo who was domiciled nearby, vainly trying to extricate himself from the quickly deminishing sweet throes of an amorous relationship gone irretrievably sour, until one day, with tears in his eyes and a tremor in his voice, he vows, he can’t take it no more, he is gone, gone for good, and drives away, forever and ever, a sad ending to a tragic tale (who had really been at fault? one of them? both of them? who knows, but old-boy has got to make his get-away). Ike was the master of drawling the weary rhythms of a timeless threnody, playing out in a tragic tableaux.

We all have been cut to the quick, to the bone, once or twice, maybe even thrice, before? Haven’t we? That’s why there are more songs about loss and leaving, than about sticking and staying. Like the once proud man moans, “it’s all in the game”.

Ike completely flipped what was happening on commercial radio with a sound-bed buffed and fluffed up by strings and things, layered under his trademark raps. In later years I found out that Isaac Hayes was interested in far more than rhythms, scales, lyrics and multipart harmonies. He was also heavy into Pan-Africanism and had a deep connection to Ghana.

Subsequent to that fate-filled day at the Soul Bowl, I would run into Ike three or four more times. Once, while interviewing him at Le Pavillon hotel, 833 Poydras Street in the downtown business district of New Orleans, we talked about his upcoming performance and he questioned me about some of the songs he was considering. I responded that he really needed to do “Ain’t No Sunshine” featuring his saxophone work.

Ike was truly a talented musician: singer, instrumentalist, composer, arranger, producer. Indeed Hayes had first made his mark with his late-sixties, soul era, song-writing partner, David Porter, composing hits for a stable of Stax artists, especially Sam and Dave.

Anyway, because I had a press pass, I was allowed onto the field and was so smitten by the sounds when Ike came on that I literally reclined on the ground soaking in Hayes’s enticing ballads that warm afternoon. I was deeply impressed by Ike’s musical conceptions, an entrancing combination of Stax funk and expertly crafted orchestral arrangements. Imagine strings on a football field floating behind a bald-headed baritone emoting about love gone wrong (or remaining sublimely right), as well as other worldly matters!

Many years later, Ike dropped the album Branded on us. That’s where “Fragile” comes from. But what got me to completely comprehend “Fragile” was the September 2019 situation in the Bahamas. I wanted to encourage people to donate to the repair and reconstruction of the island nation that had been devastated by hurricane Dorian.

I am aware that we all have problems, and most of us do not have a large cache of discretionary cash, but the people of the Bahamas can really, really use our help and I wanted to do something a bit more than just send fifty dollars or so when I could scare up the scratch. Go here to make recovery donations and receive information.

I’m from New Orleans. I know the suffering that tests one’s mettle during the challenging, long-lasting reality of recovering from a major hurricane. All of that is what led me to revere Isaac Hayes singing Sting’s song, “Fragile.” Here is both a live version and the original album version of brother man’s appreciation of the “Fragile” message.

Even if either the melody or the song’s meaning is new to you, hopefully these interpretations will spur you to support the recovery of the Bahamas.

In truth, when compared to the weight and immensity of the cosmos, our lives on this planet are but insignificantly brief, insubstantial interludes. At one time or another, most of us will need some assistance to survive. Help if you can and regardless, listen to the lyrics of this music. We (all of us) are so fragile; just ask the stars.

 

Sometimes the deeptitude of a song comes from overcoming the hardships that gave rise to the sound of sorrow issuing from our mouths. Or, coming forth, at the very least, from the stinging betrayals that tore at our hearts even as we professed the profound appreciation of nevertheless being able to overcome all the terrible disappointments endemic to being here, being brought here, somehow surviving here. And, then, incredibly, partially, or more tragically, fully forgetting from whence we came, plus unsure about where we be going, but nonetheless aware that no matter all the negativities flooding one’s little time on this earth, despite all the downs one wishes were ups, despite the mounds of bitterness we are forced to consume, despite it all, there have been droplets of honey teasing our tongues, no matter how brief, no matter how small, in spite of it all, and, yes, maybe because of it all, there is still a song we can sing, a song that proclaims, despite whatever, whether frolicking in sunshine, or seeking shelter in shit-storm, no matter whatever, WE ARE!

Buika, neé Maria Concepción Balboa Buika (born 11 May 1972), aka Concha Buika, bka simply “Buika” is what Coltrane would sound like if he were woman and sung in Spanish. Yes, yes that is a tall order but who else sings the deep song the way this woman does, what them flamenco people call “duende”? She is a spirit sound inhabiting the heart home hurt of all of us, of each of us, the sufferers. Joyful one day, mournful the next. . . sometimes both on the same day, sometimes neither on any day.

True love is the most awful/awe-filled of all states of being precisely because love embraces all, tightly hugs both the quotidian beauty as well as gingerly touches the ugly wretchedness of daily existence. Or as one beloved lover said to the other: “loving all of me means putting up with a lot of shit.” And that’s so true, we all do; if we eat, we. . ., and if we love, we put up with. . .

Sometimes there are no words; Buika sings the wordless music with the same passion she performs the ecstatic love poems, and, yes, the same passion she emotes the dirge-dirty threnodies. After all, we all, sometimes laugh, sometimes cry. If we are lucky we experience love, if we are human we will definitely be touched by death. Buika be singing all that with every fiber of her being vibrating in her breath.

I literally do not know the words she is saying but I am sure that the song of life is pouring forth from her larynx. After an introduction like this, I usually simply say: enjoy, but in the case of Buika perhaps it is better to paraphrase the Mari Evans poem about Black women, which says “look on me and be renewed”. In Buika’s case, this Black woman sings: “Listen to me, and be fulfilled!”

 

 

Most of us do not intimately know the complexity of our historic American slavery.

Most of us do not realize that we Blacks were enslaved in the United States (246 years from 1619 – 1865), almost a century longer than we have been citizens of our country (154 years from 1865 – 2019).

Most of us think the problems of our past do not matter as much as do the potentials and possibilities of our present (shifting from chattel slavery to political freedom, as it were).

Most of us do not really know, nor do we care to know, not to mention undertake the task of extensively researching our history on these shores.

After all our departure from Africa was so long ago. The reality of the 21st century offers so many opportunities, why should we focus on the long ago and the forgotten? Why even acknowledge the ancient past, when we are now an integral part of the 21st century body politic?

Now that we can vote, and Jim Crow is dead, plus we have elected Obama, a Black president, isn’t it time to move on? 

Yes, it is time to move on. But. Moving on should never mean forgetting from whence we came. Rather than be oblivious of, or worst yet, ashamed of our past, we should study and celebrate our history of struggle and survival. Indeed, as our ancestors taught us: if we know the beginning well, the end will not trouble us.

Moreover, I admit my own amnesia. I never fully understood my individual social self because I did not fully know my collective history. Oh sure, I knew the mythology and the general outline, but the minute specifics, quotidian details, like most of us, I just didn’t accurately know who I was in the time and place continuum.

For example my father served in World War II and the Korean conflict. I spent a year in South Korea, high atop a mountain nuclear missile base. I never talked to him about his experiences. And for that matter never spoke with him about my experiences even though both father and son shared a similar stint in a far eastern setting.

Sometimes soldiers choose not to bring home the realities of their military service even though that service was pivotal in their manhood development. In other words the social shaping of our consciousness is more important than the varying shades of our color. In the final analysis, color alone does not trump consciousness, or an awareness of both our individual and collective reality–who “I” am and who “we” are. Too often we not only do not recognize that we precedes me, but more importantly the me is not only an integral part of we but that there can be no “me” without a “we”.

Just because I was Black did not mean that ipso facto I understood the deeptitude of Blackness. Experience is important, even critical in some cases, but experience is not sufficient to fully grasp who we are or what the potentials of our future are. “Being” does not equate to “understanding”.

For example, I never knew that cotton grown in the south was different from the cotton grown in Asia, or that there was an international premium placed on crops that came from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Louisiana as opposed to cotton produced in India. Indeed, I had never even thought about the particulars of cotton fiber wherever it was grown. In this regard, reading the details researched and revealed in The American Slave Coast–A History Of The Slave Breeding Industry, by the husband and wife team of Ned and Constance Sublette, was critical to undoing my own self-ignorance.

Ned and Constance Sublette photographed in New York City on July 14,2015.

The Sublettes devote a whole chapter (The Cotton Club) to a discussion of the reality of cotton as the single most important cash crop export of early American agriculture. 

At well over 700 pages, The American Slave Coast is the gold standard of slavery tomes. Extensively and impressively researched, what is truly remarkable is how the authors weave together the diverse threads of facts, figures, and miscellaneous information. Particularly evocative is the way they expound on the subtitle denoting that American slavery indeed was a “slave-breeding industry”.

Most books on slavery avoid dealing with the cruel and deliberate feminization of how this industry worked in a young country that, until its expansion westward, was largely bereft of gold and other valuable minerals during its formative years. In addition to the physical conditions, the Sublette’s do not shy away from the infighting for dominance that went on between the planting and manufacturing classes, both of whom had a particular relationship to slavery. The peculiarities of the dialectic of slavery intertwining with material and social development in a new nation is a fascinating story generally untold in such subtlety and detail.

It is not enough to simply say we are a nation of immigrants. There were three contending groupings: 1. the native peoples, who had to face the onslaught of 2. a massive European invasion that callously employed 3. the inhuman introduction of Africans as slaves in the new nation. This is not an easy tale to truthfully tell, especially because the interaction of the three groupings is largely lied about and seldom taught in all its complexity and, yes, in all its savage betrayal of the founding principle of “all men are created equal”.

The harsh reality is that some people were exterminated and other people were enslaved, with both the Native peoples and the Africans being viewed as sub-human. While it is currently customary for us to talk about American values, we too often conveniently overlook that at the founding, those values were never meant to include the diversity of non-white peoples whose labor, and indeed, whose actual bodies were the foundation upon which America was erected.

Understand, we weren’t just labor, we were also capital, literally walking currency.

The native peoples had the 1838/39 Trail of Tears through the deep south. This was a force march instigated by Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy.

For the most part, our African ancestors also were forced marched from the interior to slave castles on the coast of West Africa, and then treated to one-way voyages across the Atlantic, followed by auction block, and then dispersal via slave coffles, i.e. long marches, to and through the interiors of dear ole Dixieland.

Our sojourn in the American wilderness was no accident nor coincidental byproduct of American exceptionalism. We were transported here for a specific purpose, a purpose that required not just our labor but also our dehumanization.  We had to defy the strictures of our specific history in order to realize our humanity.

To be fully human and American means that while we celebrate the values, we also must embrace, and where necessary, change the realities. The Sublettes are clear. In the introduction of their book they clearly state the task at hand: “This is a history of the slave-breeding industry, which we define as the complex of businesses and individuals in the United States who profited from the enslavement of African American children at birth.”

The American Slave Coast unflinchingly and patiently tells us exactly what it meant to be American. In order to fully be our contemporary selves, we must confront the breadth and depth of our historic selves. We must intimately investigate and consciously carry our recovered past with us as we move into our future.

In The American Slave Coast On The Rock Newman Show, a 56 minute long video, the Sublettes describe both their intentions and their findings. 

Too often the details get lost and the contradictions and complexities smoothed over, if not completely obliterated or ignored. For those not up to the task of reading our history, there is a short, factual overview of the history of the Atlantic slave trade available online: “Slavery’s explosive growth, in charts: How ’20 and odd’ became millions”.

USA Today illuminates in graphic fashion the growth of an enslaved population in the land of the free.

Take it in. The fullness of our being requires embracing the totality of our history.

 

 

 

Tayari and I gave birth to, and reared, five children. Three of them are daughters. Asante, Kiini, and Tiaji. The youngest lives in the wilderness surrounding D.C., where Tiaji works in the federal government. The middle child, Kiini, whom I sometimes half-jokingly/half-seriously refer to as the president of my fan club, is a professional writer domiciled in the ‘People’s Republic of Brooklyn’. And the eldest of the quintet, Asante, an arts administrator, lives but a few miles away from her obstinate father, on the west bank of our fabled city. However, there are a number of other young women whom I sometimes refer to as my daughters. And of whom I am exceedingly proud. Asali is one of them.

Hail Asali Devan Ecclesiastes. At the end of August 2019 she was announced the new director of Ashe Cultural Arts Center, a premiere arts institution in New Orleans. Asali was a long standing member of Nommo Literary Society, a writing workshop I co-founded with Kysha Brown Robinson (yes, another one of the clan of daughters of Salaam). Asali lived around the corner from my office in Treme. In fact we shot the movies ‘When Love Hurts’ on her front porch and ‘Baby Love’ in her kitchen. Asali is also a major spoken word artist among New Orleans writers, a pantheon of scribes that dates back to Les Cenelles in 1845.

Ashe Cultural Arts Center, of which Asali has become the second director, was birthed by Carol Bebelle and Douglas Redd. Carol, the retiring leader, is a longtime family friend and Doug, well, Doug was my artistic alter ego. He and I literally spent years together in sickness and in health, before his passing on July 18, 2007.

As is apparent from this brief description, I am close to and love a coterie of New Orleans people who are significant members of the New Orleans diaspora, a collection of men and women who give style and substance to our city’s future both locally and on a national basis.

Again, all hail, Asali Devan Ecclesiastes, an embodiment of Sankofa women–one who never forgets her past as she confidently strides into our future.

 

Bill Withers. If you over forty, you probably got a Withers favorite lyric, or at least a saying or phrase from his catalogue that makes perfect melodic sense on the merry-go-round of your own life. If you younger than forty and don’t have a Withers diddy that touches you, by and by, once you hear his music after going through some personal life experiences, you will have a phrase, or even a whole song, that sticks with you as you get on with your getting on.

I remember Amiri Baraka telling a story to a group of us. He said when he was younger, a mentor told him he would dig so and so when he got older. According to Amiri, there are some things you can’t fully appreciate until you have some years on you. A bunch of Bill’s music is like that, requires experience to be fully appreciated.

Indeed, a healthy portion of us are likely to get misty-eyed when we listen to a song like “Hello Like Before“–as we quietly remember a certain touching someone who had caressed us over a decade before. Or when we reflect on a friend or acquaintance  we know who perfectly fits a song like “But She’s Lonely”. 

Bill Withers. He a special somebody. Unlike ninety-nine percent of us, he be the only man that I know of who has literally walked away from fame and fortune, turned his back on the narcotic of an audience of thousands applauding. Regularly resisted and refused lucrative offers to make a comeback recording. Bill Withers the performer has left the building. 

Fortunately, six or seven albums from his fifteen-year period of public performance are available, along with a couple or three videos of him in a television studio. Here is a set I dig from 1972 featuring Melvin Dunlap on bass, James Gadson on drums, Benorce Blackmon on guitar, and Ray Jackson on keyboard.

Bill Withers is an example of a gifted man who has not allowed his gift to push him to keep going long after he should have stopped. Bill was at the top of his game when he gave up being a star.

Maybe it was because he was in his thirties when he started recording. Maybe it is because he is an ornery old man what don’t give a damn about being rich or famous. He made enough to live on and so he only does what he wants to do and later for the rest of the okey-doke.

Still Bill is a magnificent documentary that captures a good bit of both the personality and the mystique of Bill Withers. And here is Stevie Wonder and John Legend inducting Bill Withers into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

So there it is. Bill Withers, one of the best song writers who ever lived, who had the good sense and intestinal fortitude to retire when he was on top. We should all be so blessed as to be able to  be satisfied with whomsoever we actually are without striving to be somebody we are not. We should all be  blessed not to need outside validation to make ourselves feel a complete human being.

Bill Withers–a man who stopped–is a perfect example of success. Enjoy his music, learn from his example of playing the game and not letting the game play him.

 

Most of us are aware that American slavery formally started in 1619 and, thus, in 2019 we are observing both the beginning of slavery in our country and, more importantly, intently interrogating the social structure of this country. Moreover, while some of us are aware that the presence of people of African descent in what is now the U.S.  began well before Jamestown, we also recognize that the dominant story proffers the American tradition as one of freedom from day one.

In the “America is the home of the free” viewpoint, slavery is viewed as an anachronism that does not represent the fundamental truth of who we are, or, at the very least, the best of who we are. On the other hand, some of us, argue that on the deepest level, America was founded as a divided country along racial, class and gender demarcations and continues to be divided.

Perhaps the truth is a mix: to varying degrees, all of us value and aspire to the freedom view, while we simultaneously struggle for and declare that our freedom must be fought for. Regardless of our viewpoint, there is no easy road to social wellbeing.

I believe knowing our history as well as assessing our current condition are both critical. This is especially the case because we in America tend to be less concerned with history than we are fixated on celebrating and enjoying the pleasures and prerogatives of the present. Thus, as a corrective contribution, I join with forward thinking people who study our past.

In particular, I consider the recent work of the New York Times and some of the responses to their 1619 Project.

Sixteen nineteen is not our beginning, nor will the upcoming 2020 presidential election be our ending. We sometimes forget that black lives in the western hemisphere existed centuries preceding the founding of America and our presence will, in all probability, continue long after America is an afterthought in some future time frame. 

In other words, we should be aware of but not consumed by our past. We should understand, but not be limited by our history. Be the Sankofa bird, looking backward as it moves forward. Both awareness of our history and struggling for our future is important.

But, as our African heritage teaches: if we know the beginning well, the end will not trouble us. Whatever we do in the here and now and whatever our future dreams are, we can not and should not ever forget from whence we came. An appreciation of our history is a necessary element in identifying who we are and where we want to go.

 

 

I try to write in such a way that the words explain themselves, clearly state what I mean to say, and give a flavor of my personality. However, more and more often, people are asking me to share my background, my thoughts and feelings. Who were my parents, what was it like growing up in New Orleans participating in the civil rights movement, so forth and so on.

Here are two pieces. First is an interview conducted by Thomas Chisholm that focuses on my participation in the Octavia Butler project, the book titled Octavia’s Brood. Second is a short essay I’ve posted some decades ago, which explicitly states my position: I do not protest, I resist.

Hopefully there is something of value in both these selections. Use what you can, leave the rest alone.

Ashe.

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I Do Not Protest, I Resist

 

 

Like most writers, figuring out how to economically support myself is a major problem. I have worked as an editor, as an arts administrator, and as the co-owner of a public relations, marketing and advertising firm. I have freelanced on projects ranging from $10 record reviews to commissions from publishers. Economy necessity is a major influence on what I write.

 

I have written commercials whose messages I personally reject like a radio jingle for a Cajun meat-lovers pizza when I don’t eat red meat. Of course, like many others, while I try to steer clear of major contradictions, I have done my share of hack work.

 

Doing what one must in order to survive is one major way in which the status quo effectively shapes us. As a writer, money making options are surprisingly limited. We all know and face the wolf of survival. There is no news in that story.

 

But wolves run in packs, and survival is not the only predator. There is also our own desire to succeed—I remember reading about “the fickle bitch of success” and wondering why was success described as a “bitch.” I have my own ideas, but that’s a different discussion.

 

Success is a very complicated question. We can easily dismiss “selling out” our ideals for a dollar, but what we can’t easily dismiss either in principle or in fact, is that we all want our work to reach the widest possible audience. On the contemporary literary scene, reaching a wide audience almost requires going through major publishers. Participation in the status quo makes strenuous demands of our art to conform to prevailing standards, one of which is that the only overtly political art worthy of the title art is “protest art”.

 

Capitalism loves “protest art” because protest is the safety valve that dissipates opposition and can even be used to prove how liberal the system is. You know the line: “aren’t you lucky to be living in a system where you have the right to protest?” Without denying the obvious and hard won political freedoms that exist in the USA, my position is that we must move from protest to resistance if we are to be effective in changing the status quo.

 

The real question is do we simply want “in” or do we want structural change? Most of us start off wanting in. It is natural to desire both acceptance by as well as success within the society into which one is born. But, in the immortal words of P-funk President George Clinton: “mind your wants because someone wants your mind.” Those of us who by circumstance of birth are located on the outside of the status quo (whether based on ethnicity, gender or class), face an existential question which cuts to the heart: how will I define success and is acceptance by the status quo part of what I want in life?

 

While it is simple enough to answer in the abstract, in truth, i.e. the day to day living that we do, it’s awfully lonely on the outside, psychologically taxing, and ultimately a very difficult position to maintain. Who wants to be marginalized as an artist and known to only a handful of people? Given the choice between having a book published by a mainstream publisher and not having one published by a mainstream publisher, most writers (regardless of identity) would choose to be published, especially when it seems that one is writing whatever it is one wants to write.

 

Without ever having to censor you formally—after a few years of rejection slips most writers will censor and change themselves—mainstream publishers shape contemporary literature by applying two criteria: 1. is it commercial, or 2. is it artistically important. Either will get you published at least once, although only the former will get you published twice, thrice and so forth.

 

Unless one is very, very clear about one’s commitment to socially relevant writing, even the most revolutionary writer can become embittered after thirty or forty years of toiling in obscurity. As a forty-seven-year-old (this essay was written in 1994) African American writer, I know that if you do not publish with establishment publishers, be they commercial, academic or small independents, then you will have very little chance of achieving “success” as a writer.

 

I sat on an NEA panel considering audience develop applications. One grant listed Haki Madhubuti as one of the poets they wanted to present. I was the only person there who knew Madhubuti’s work. I was expected to be conversant with the work of contemporary writers across the board. But how is it that a contemporary African American poet with over three million books in print who is also the head of Third World Press, one of this country’s oldest Black publishing companies, was unknown to my colleagues? The answer is simple: Madhubuti is not published by the status quo. He started off self publishing, came of age in the 60s/70s Black Arts Movement and is one of the most widely read poets among African Americans but all of his books have been published by small, independent Black publishers.

 

Too often success is measured by acceptance within the status quo rather than by the quality of one’s literary work. That is why we witness authors proclaimed as “major Black writers” when they have only published one or two books (albeit with major publishers) within a five year period. There is no surprise here. My assumption is that as long as the big house stands, “success” will continue to be measured by whether one gets to sleep in big house beds.

 

This brings me to the subject of protest art. The reason I do not believe in protest art is because I have no desire to bed down with the status quo nor do I have a desire to be legitimized by the status quo. Instead, my struggle is to change the status quo. For me protest art is not an option precisely because in reality protest art is simply a knock on the door of the big house.

 

There is a long tradition of African American protest art, especially in literature. As a genre, the slave narrative emerged as an integral part of the white led 19th century abolitionist movement. One major purpose of the slave narratives was to address Christian senses of charity and guilt—charity toward the less fortunate and guilt for the “sin” of supporting slavery.

 

But even at that time there was a major distinction to be made between abolitionist sentiments and charity work on the one hand, and, on the other hand, active participation in the armed struggle against slavery, which included participation in the illegal activity of the underground railroad and support of clandestine armed opposition. This meant fighting with the John Browns of that era or joining the throng of insurgents storming court rooms to “liberate” detained African Americans who had escaped from the south and were then ensnared in the web of the Northern criminal justice system which continued to recognize the “property rights” of Southern slave owners.

 

While the issues of today are no longer revolve around slavery, the distinction between protest and resistance, between charity and solidarity, remains the heart of the matter at hand. To protest is implicitly to accept the authority of the existing system and to appeal for a change of mind on the part of those in power and those who make up the body politic. To resist on the other hand is to fight against the system of authority while seeking to win over those who make up the body politic. “Winning over” is more than simply asking someone to change their mind, it is also convincing someone to change their way of living.

 

In the 50s and 60s a debate raged among Black intellectuals about “protest art”. Ironically, one of the chief opponents of protest art was James Baldwin—”ironically” because over the years the bulk of Baldwin’s essays, fiction and drama can be read as a “protest” against bigotry and inhumanity, as a plea to his fellow human beings to change their hearts, minds and lives.

 

When Baldwin started out he wanted to be “free” and to be accepted as the equal of any other human being. He did not want to be saddled with the “albatross” of racial (or sexual) themes as the defining factor of his work. Yet, as he lived, he changed and began to voluntarily take up these issues. I believe life changed him.

 

The reality is that we can not continue to live in America with the social deterioration, mean spiritedness, and crass materialism which is polluting our individual and collective lives. We are literally a nation of drug addicts (alcohol and tobacco chief among our drugs of choice, with over-the-counter pain killers and headache remedies running a close third). We are suffering horrendous rates of violence and disease. There is a widening economic gap at a time when many of our major urban centers teeter on the brink of implosion: aging physical infrastructures such as bridges, sewer systems, housing; corrupt political administration; and increasing ethnic conflict. Something has got to give.

 

My position is simple, we live in a period of transition. We can protest the current conditions and/or we can struggle to envision and create alternatives. We can plead for relief or we can work to inspire and incite our fellow citizens to resist. As artists, we have a choice to make. Indeed, there is always a choice to make.

 

Protest art always ends up being trendy precisely because the art necessarily struggles to be accepted by the very people the art should oppose. Ultimately, protest artists are, by definition, more interested in relating to the enemy than relating to the potential insurgents. This is why we have protest artists whose cutting edge work is rejected by neighborhood people.

 

Yes, neighborhood people have tastes which have been shaped by the consumer society. Yes, neighborhood people are parochial and not very deep intellectually. Yes, neighborhood people are unsophisticated when it comes to the arts. But the very purpose of resistance art is to confront and change every negative yes of submission into a powerful and positive no of resistance! Our job as committed artists is to raise consciousness by starting where our neighborhoods are and moving up from there.

 

Resistance art requires internalizing by an audience of the sufferers in order to be successful. The horrible truth is that every successful social struggle requires immense sacrifices, and the committed artist must also sacrifice—not simply suffer temporary poverty until one is discovered by the status quo, but sacrifice the potential wealth associated with a status quo career to work in solidarity with those who too often are born, live, struggle and die in anonymous poverty.

 

We think nothing of the millions of people in this society who live and die without ever achieving even one tenth of the material wealth that many of us take for granted. We think nothing of those who are literally maimed and deformed as a result of the military and economic war waged against peoples in far away lands in order to insure profit for American based billionaires. Somehow, while the vast majority of our fellow citizens are never recognized by name, we artists think it ignoble to live and die without being lauded in the New York Times.

 

But if we remember nothing else, we should remember this. Ultimately, the true “nobility of our humanity” will be judged not by the status quo but by the people of the future—the people who will look back on our age and wonder what in the world could we have had on our minds. Protest is not enough, we must resist.

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