have not posted in a minute but i am well and pushing on. i have been occupied with care taking for my wife who suffered a third stroke. understandably, i have been staying home and rarely traveling. fortunately, projects that have been in the planning stages for months and, in a couple of cases, for years are beginning to blossom.
my latest book is ‘be about beauty’ featuring a long essay on care giving. gave a lecture at tulane university to announce ‘be about beauty’. below are the notes that are excerpts from each essay in the book. ‘be about beauty’ is available on amazon.
the new year is going to be smoking. two books on the way.
‘go to jail,’ which i edited with the significant assistance of george lipsitz at the university of santa barbara, california. ‘go to jail’ is a summation of the work around incarceration that students, inmates and activists did over the past decade with ‘students at the center,’ an independent writing program based in the public high schools of new orleans.
the second book is ‘cosmic deputy,’ a career long retrospective of my poetry including work from the my first book to new work in 2018. really looking forward to this one.
also, our small press runagate is partnering with the university of new orleans press to bring out a series of books, the first two of which are from marian moore and jarvis deberry.
hope all is well with everyone as we negotiate thru these turbulent times.
be well, stay strong and keep pushing,
‘BE ABOUT BEAUTY’
22 – 23 (INTRO)
I’ve been on the front lines of conscious political activity since I was sixteen years old. Sometimes our struggles were reformist, other times we were engaged in radical activities. I’ve been literally around the world, from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans all the way to China and a bunch of places in between: arming nuclear warheads in South Korea while in the U.S. Army at the age of nineteen; over hills, up rivers, down streets in Nica Libre (Nicaragua) in support of the Sandinista revolution; opposing the Klan in Tupelo, Mississippi and on the main avenue, Canal Street, in my home town of New Orleans face-to-face repulsing former self-avowed Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke; conferences in Africa and festivals all through the Caribbean island countries, sometimes as a producer, other times as a participant or reporter; plus posting field notes from exotic places such as Suriname and Zanzibar.
I’ve witnessed and been an operative in a distinctive and sometimes dizzying array of events, some of them hard, others of them heartening, all of them serious even when we were having fun; from dancing in the streets of Rio and the plazas in Havana, to avant-garde theatre in Munich and whistle-stopping in London and across the midlands of England, it’s all been a major learning experience. Now in 2017 I can honestly and confidently say I’ve seen a few and learned a thing or two.
Through it all the one thing I really knew, the one thing I was absolutely certain about, is that I wanted to write. Even when I didn’t know why I felt the way I did or how to effectively jot down my thoughts and feelings, I would write anyway. Broken lines. Half formed, half-baked literary disasters. Eventually a few gems. I’d write my life and vow to get better at expressing myself, better at addressing my peers and whomever else might read my work. Ultimately, long after I’m dead and gone, I want to leave behind literature that communicates with future audiences.
34 – 36 (I MET MYSELF)
It is obvious to me now, but I have not always recognized this truth: I cannot fully know myself if I don’t intimately know my past, intimately know the forces that shaped and influenced me, the people who gave birth to me, and especially the culture and era within which I lived. My head was spinning as my mental fingers tapped the codes of past experiences into the calculator of my consciousness. I was literally engrossed in my own world.
So, there I was coming around the corner thinking all these thoughts, totally unaware that I was about to really peep who I was; suddenly I see someone I grew up with. That person looks old as they hug me, greet me, and playfully say, heyyyy man, long time no see. They enfold me in a long, warm embrace, holding the me they remember. At the same time, underscoring my own self-absorption, I am struggling to remember their name.
In that moment, I see both their obvious joy and also see how much they have changed, how they have aged. I wonder what they are doing, what is their life like, what part of the city they live in, what kind of work they do, all the personal profile sort of information. That’s when I had this weird desire; I wanted to be able to fully embrace myself and know myself the way this old friend thinks they know me, and I was really curious to know myself from the perspective that my parents knew me.
I wanted to know all of me, and that’s the moment when I had a news flash: now that your life is almost over, who are you really?
Am I only who I think I am or am I really the complex summation of all that I have also been in relation to others and in response to the world within which I have lived.
As I walked to my car I had a funny thought: my mind is not me. My mind may in fact be the biggest impediment to me getting to know me. Maybe my mind is the least reliable map of who I have been, a distorting lens when it comes to recognizing the self.
All personal intentions aside, all individual desires sublimated, all intellectual self-reflections and second guesses ignored, is it possible for any of us to truly know ourselves without the help and input of others who know us? Is it possible to move beyond letting our minds judge who we are? Would it be too overwhelming to consider letting the world we live in judge who we are? Can we shed the shackles of our own mind and be both free and fortunate to see ourselves the way others see us? And if that portrait was actually presented to us, would we recognize ourselves?
41 – 42 (ALABAMA)
Everybody, sooner or later, thinks about dying. For many African Americans there is even a morbid twist on this universal reflection on the inevitability of mortality. For us, it is not just a question of when we will die but also a more-thorny question, a question we seldom would admit publicly but one that at some occasion or another consumes us in private: would I be better off dead? If you had been reared black in pre-sixties white America, sooner or later, you probably looked that thought in the eye?
However, the universality of death thoughts notwithstanding, there is a big difference between abstract speculation about the eventuality of death and the far more difficult task of confronting the stale breath of death as it fouls the air in front your nose. Death is nothing to fuck with. Indeed, actually facing certain death can make you shit on yourself, particularly if death not only surprises you but also perversely gives you a moment to think about crossing the great divide. Like when a lover in the throes of getting it on, sincerity announces through clenched teeth that they are about to come, you respond as any sensible person would by doing harder, or faster, or stronger, or more tenderly, more intensely, more whatever, you increase the pressure and help usher that moment, well, when it’s death coming what do we do, do we rush to it, or do we withdraw from it? Don’t answer too soon. Think of all the people you have heard of who died as a result of being some place they really shouldn’t have been, being involved in some situation they should never have encountered, at the hands of someone whom they should never have been near. Think about how often we die other than a natural death—and then again, what death is not natural, because isn’t it part of human nature to die, and to kill?
56 – 57 (WHAT I SAW WHEN I SAW SELMA)
Coretta confronted King about his infidelities. Oh, how wonderfully and deeply done was that scene. King immediately did a St. Peter and depressedly went into denial. Coretta calmly replied I know what you sound like. I know. What you. Sound like. This was not reality television. No cursing, fussing and fighting. I know (and you know I know) what you sound like, who you really are. “Do you love me?” she jabbed, setting up her knock-out punch. And then as Martin struggled to find words of deliverance or extrication from this cul de sac, Coretta delivered the roundhouse KO: she asked did he love the others. The man of elegant words was clobbered mute and dumbfounded.
Time and time again at crucial moments director Ava DuVernay took a Miles Davis approach: she used silence and space to increase the tension rather than bombast and effusiveness. Silence. Empty space, eye shifts. Moments when we hold our breaths waiting for a response so we can exhale. Yes. No. Did you love them? Not, did you do it? Not, I believe you. Nor the accusation: you’re lying. No. Did you love them? Because certainly there were a number of them’s. I am not stupid.
In that moment Coretta quietly had the last word.
She spoke for so many women: I am not stupid.
96 – 97 (THE SELMA BACKSTORY)
January 1965 King/SCLC joined SNCC, the Dallas county Voters League, and local activists in the Selma voting rights campaign.
February 18, 1965 a night march in nearby Marion, Alabama was attacked by Alabama state troopers and Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot. He died eight days later in a Selma hospital. In response a march from Selma to Montgomery was called for on March 7, 1965. While crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge the marchers were viciously attacked by state troopers and Selma police. The event, which was televised and widely reported, nationally and internationally, became known as “Bloody Sunday.” That march was led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis. King was in Atlanta. A follow-up March was called for the following Tuesday, March 9, 1965. King led the march, while on the bridge, King led knelt and led the marchers in prayer, and then turned around. That night Unitarian minister and march participant James Reeb was attacked and died two days later.
March 17, 1965 LBJ addressed congress and proclaimed his support for voting rights, and urged congress and the entire nation to join in the voting rights struggle. LBJ ended his speech with the phrase “we shall overcome.” On March 17, LBJ submitted the voting rights legislation to congress.
March 21, a federally sanctioned and protected march began from Selma to Montgomery. Approx. 3,000 marchers leave Selma headed to Montgomery. During most of the march, the government limited the number of participants to 300 people.
March 25, 1965 the last day of the march into Montgomery and a rally at the capitol, march participation swelled to over 25,000 people. That night while driving march participants back to Selma, Viola Liuzzo, a Michigan housewife was shot and killed by KKK.
August 6, 1965 LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
August 11, 1965 Watts erupts, marking a new phase in the black freedom struggle.
103 – 105 (JAZZ 101)
no matter how hard big easy bore down on us, urban exploitation was still a bunch better than constantly falling behind on the ledger at the general store, owing more and more every year, barely enough to get by. in the summertime chewing sugar cane for supper and maybe catching a catfish for sunday dinner. in the winter time making turtle soup to last the week if you could catch a turtle and always beans and beans, and more beans. somehow, even though we still had beans and beans and more beans and rice, it just seemed that red beans and rice was nice, nicer in new orleans than it ever was in the country and besides there was plenty fishing in new orleans too, in the canals, in the river, in the lake, in the bayou, in fact, more fishing here than in the country. so although the city never really rolled out a welcome mat, our people nevertheless still managed to make ourselves at home.
we found some work on the streets and in the quarter, but mostly made work cooking, carrying and constructing shit. some of us groomed horses, a healthy portion of us worked the docks. we eked out a living, gradually doing better and better. and it was us country-born, farm-come-to-city black folk who indelibly changed the sound of new orleans, who brought the blues a blowing: loud, hard, and without pretense, subtlety or any genuflecting to high society, these blues that were just happy to have a good time and were equally unashamed to show the tears of pain those country years contained, how the hard times hurted we simple, unassuming people who both prayed and cursed as hard as we worked, we who were not afraid of a good fight and never hesitant about enjoying a good time each and every opportunity we got to grab a feather or two out of the tail of that ever-elusive bird of paradise.
we were the fabled blues people who brought to the music a vision no one else was low enough to the ground to see. and no one should romanticize us. we were hungry, we were illiterate, disease-ridden, and totally unprepared for urban life, moreover often we were live-for-today-damn-tomorrow merciless in the matter-of-fact way we accepted and played the dirty, limited hands that life dealt us.
ours was a brutal beauty. a social order where no child remained innocent past the age of four. where the sweet bird of youth had flown, long gone well before twenty-five arrived. where somebody calling your mama a whore was just an accurate description of one of the major lines of work. where your daddy could have been any one of five men you saw for a couple of days through a keyhole when you were supposed to be sleep, but were up trying to peep what it was that grown folks did that kids were not supposed to do.
our people brought an unsophisticated, raw sound that cut through all pretensions and gutsily stripped time down to the naked function at the junction of hard-working folks careening into saturday nite let’s get it on. and of course by any standard of social decorum, we were uncouth and so was our blues, but it was this blues produced by we blues people that turned-out the music floating around new orleans, tricked it into something the world would soon (or eventually) celebrate first as jass (with two “s’s” as in “show your ass”) and then as jazz (with two “z’s” as in “razzle, dazzle” keep up with us if you can).
it was our don’t give a shuck about which way is up as long as we have a moment to get down.
our red is my favorite color morning, noon and night.
our play it loud motherfuckers let me know you deep up in there.
our this ain’t no job and you ain’t no boss so you can’t tell me shit about when to start, when to stop, or how nasty i get.
our if i drop dead in the morning ‘cause i done partied all nite then just go ahead and dance at my funeral pretty baby.
our i’d rather play it wrong my way than right the white way cause they way may be correct but it sure ain’t right.
it was this attitude, these blues, which turned new orleans music into something worth spreading all over the world. and it was we who were the roux in the nouveau gumbo now celebrated as crescent city culture.
it was our crude but oh so potent elixir that raised the ante on the making of music, it was our brazen red-hot, blue sound and the way the first creators acted when they screwed up their lips to produce the untutored slightly tortured host of notes which made the cascade of ragtime rhythms sound tame. we simple but complex characters who have been consistently overlooked, undervalued, and our social background scarcely mentioned in all the books (where do they think we uptown blacks came from and what do they think we brought with us?); we who were persecuted by the authorities worse than negroes singing john brown’s body lies a smoldering in the grave at intermission during a klan rally; it was us black heartbeats and our defiant music that made the difference.
and, yes, we had to be more than a little crazy to challenge the aural status quo the way we did, so, it is no surprise that buddy bolden, the preeminent horn player cut from this cloth, was an insane black man whose ascendency to the throne just made it easier for the odorous forces of the “status crow” (as caribbean scholar/poet kamau braithwaite calls it) to pluck bolden from the top of the heap and heave him into a mental institution and keep him there for almost thirty years, wasting away until he died.
they may have silenced our first king but they could never silence our sound. and regardless of what anyone says or does, nearly a hundred years later, no matter whether they admit it or not, know it or not, like it or not, it is the bold sound of black buddy conjuring some raw, funky blues in the night, layering his tone on whatever was a given song’s ultimate source. this neo-african gris-gris is the sonic tattoo marking the beginning and making up the essence of the music we now call jazz.
130 – 131 (GUARDING THE FLAME OF LIFE)
The funeral of Big Chief Donald Harrison raises two important questions. First, when does spectacle overtake ritual and, second, in light of the significance of the transition of this particular Big Chief, where do we go from here?
From the beginning in Congo Square on down to the jazz funeral of today, there have always been two kinds of audiences: those of the culture who came to make ritual, to affirm and renew; and those who came to witness (a few to gawk) and be entertained. Both audiences understood something powerful was going on, which is why they both were there/are here.
The ritual participants came, some literally looking like they wore whatever they had worn to work yesterday or maybe even whatever they had worn when they fell asleep slumped over a bar table at three o’clock this morning; or, then again, they came like that fierce sister who wore a circular feathered, multicolored hat about which to say it looked like a crown belittles the splendiferous figure she cut every time she bobbed her head, don’t mention when she would turn and smile.
The ritual participants were the beaters of wine bottles and the bearers of babies on their hips. They were those who raided deep into the hearts of their closets to come out with their hippest threads and they were those who just heard the commotion, threw open their front doors, rose up off stoops and porches, and ran to add to the assembly because in the marrow of their being they “feel to believe” they are “called” to join in. These often nameless and generally uncelebrated (outside of their turf communities), these indispensable spiritual emeralds are the standard bearers of street culture. They came.
These are the ones who would have been dancers and not just onlookers in Congo Square — the musicians, the singers, the hip swingers, hollering until hoarse, and then shouting some more. These are the people whose existence in and of itself affirms the dynamic of the African way of knowing and celebrating life.
140 – 141 (YOU CAN’T TOUCH THIS…)
Black cultural development was not simply a case of racial segregation. We were not doing the same thing as the mainstream just focused in our own racially defined communities. Black cultural production not only has its own standards as well as its own community, all of the expressions of Black cultural development that are considered significant within the Black community were alternatives to rather than variations of mainstream cultural activities, and in a number of cases were actually oppositional to mainstream cultural activity. If one had to choose between catching Tootie Montana on Mardi Gras Day versus going on St. Charles Avenue to see the Rex parade, that really was no contest. Or like we used to say, Rex didn’t sew his own suit, and old boy sure couldn’t sing and dance like our big chief with his golden crown.
A final contextual note. Black cultural organizations and formations had an oppositional core to them precisely because the social environment within which they were created had to at minimum include a level of militant self-defense against the Ku Klux Klan, police, and political terrorism that continues to this day to bedevil the Black community. We were not simply combating mainstream apathy and ignorance towards us. From day one, our culture had to fight the malevolence of the mainstream that actively exploited and oppressed us from slavery times to the present.
The over-priced materials we used for whatever was our cultural production were dearly purchased. Often our cultural activities were extra-legal, if not outright deemed illegal by the mainstream. In case one thinks this an exaggeration, consider the current so-called noise abatement ordinances and the costly parade permits that shut down impromptu second-lines and have even led to musicians arrested and jailed for parading in the streets without costly mainstream permits and sanctions.
Without even having to say it directly in lyrics, every note of some second-lines is a “fuck you” shouted to mainstream propriety, rules and regulations. That is the secret sauce in Black cultural production: it may seem like we’re doing it just for pleasure, but we’re serious as a heart attack. Pleasure and heart attacks are clichéd ways to describe our cultural production but there is a truth at the center of those oft-rendered cliches.
What would make a day laborer who earns less than $28,000 annually spend $7,848 and 56 cents to create a suit he is going to wear twice (Mardi Gras Day and St. Joseph’s Night — or maybe three times if he chooses to come out on Super Sunday)? Is he stupid to spend that much money on shoes and feathers when he doesn’t even own a car and is renting the house he lives in?
The answer is both simple and serious: our culture is a representation not just of the artistic best of us, our culture is a statement of our will and determination to artfully express our humanness. Regardless of what others think of us or try to do and not do to us, we will embrace and celebrate our own invaluable and essential human beauty and goodness. Our cultural existence is a positive statement or, as community members exclaim when they give a big thumbs-up to a particular expression: they was some pretty, yeah. To which, the only sensible reply is a note of agreement with the community assessment: “Yeah, you right.”
You right, they was pretty and you right, they was right to be pretty. In fact, it is essential that we produce our culture regardless of the cost, regardless of what others think, regardless of whether anybody else cares or witnesses.
Rain or shine, the imperative is to get out in the streets and do what we wanna. Our culture is a declaration of independence, of life, of humanity. An expression of our freedom to be we. Whoever we are, wherever we are, howsoever we choose to be “we.” Yeah, we right!
148 – 149 (MAN MASTERING METAL)
What we think is undoubtedly important, however what and how we do, how we actualize our thoughts, that is the critical process. All great artist as they mature make what they do seem easy, almost effortless. The reality is that they have spent literally decades wrestling with their chosen craft to arrive at the point where they no longer have to physically or mentally wage war with their materials or struggle mightily in order to articulate their ideas. Once one becomes expert than one can simply do without having to think about doing. Very often, over the decades, the resulting work becomes more condense, compact; less showy; sometimes even diminutive rather than immense or ostentatious. Masters are always pithy in their articulation even as they are profound in their meaning—the complex is elegantly boiled down to a simple, albeit not simplistic, profundity.
We sometimes lose sight of the fact that artwork actually requires hard work. One does not become a master artist without an outlay of time and effort. As our folk wisdom counsels: you can see a man’s fall but not know his struggles. If we only judge by what we perceive in front of us, we inevitably miss what is behind the reality. And, of course, masters are adept at masking the arduous work of apprenticeship.
In the African American tradition mastery was often a necessarily camouflaged survival skill to avoid detection and destruction by the larger society. But beyond mere survival we advocated an approach to life that emphasized being cool, which is a quality integral to the DNA of an African way of being. Particularly during the North American sojourn, Africans were prohibited from producing a lasting materiality. Our artwork was literally illegal. In conscious contradistinction to the prohibitions of ancestral slavery and 20th century segregation, new world Africans conjured a vibrant spiritual and material culture. It is a major mistake that the artists who carried on this tradition are sometimes thought of as naïve, unschooled folk artists as if they were not great thinkers—self-ware artisans.
172 – 173 (THE DIALECTICS OF MOTION)
I am a born again pagan. A pagan is someone who does not believe in any organized religion. When I was born I did not believe in any religion. My parents sent me to church. Roughly when I was fifteen, I left the church and became born again. I am also a materialist. I believe in starting from the specifics of my physical and social reality, and that ideas and emotions shape our consciousness but that we can use our consciousness to reshape ourselves, our societies, and ultimately our world.
I get up every morning because I refuse to lay down to capitalism; I refuse to lay down to racism; I refuse to lay down to sexism and all the other oppressive and exploitative isms of our society. I get up because I want to be a better person and I understand that I can not become better if I do not help you become better. I get up so that I can go out in the world and meet you and together we can create a better and more beautiful world. Behold comrades, working together we are our future. Indeed, unless we work together, the only future we will have is one of continues oppression and exploitation.
No one can any longer deny that we are oppressed, that we are exploited, that our planet is being destroyed by global capi9talism and unthinking physical and social explorations and dominations. The fundamental question we face is not what is wrong, but rather what are we going to do about it. Within SAC we believe in our own capacity to analyze our conditions and work to create better and more beautiful individuals, social organizations, and lifestyles.
Say it with me: I am me. And together with you. We can create a better world.
178 – 180 (WE STAND BY OUR STUDENTS)
We are at war for the future of our students. In New Orleans, tourism is the number one (two and three) industry. Our schools are the way they are because the economy continues to need drawers of water and hewers of wood, continues to require a labor force to clean, cook and serve. And though they can not articulate it in political language, our students know. The ones at the citywide schools, encased in a near zombie-like state of obedience, work to escape the neo-slavery of tourism via college and a “good job” somewhere else in America, those at the district schools rebel or else go through the day in an alienated state of non-engagement with the curricula, which they generally (and too often not incorrectly) perceive as a waste of time. This is the context within which Students at the Center works as a creative writing elective.
Everyone who visits our classes, or looks at “Our Voice” (a student run newspaper we publish), or reads the chapbooks and poetry collections we publish, or views one of our numerous videos, everyone marvels at the work and wants to know how we do it. I smile. Although we employ specific techniques, there is no secret ingredient. It’s the fruit of protracted struggle, the fruit of the hard work of encouraging the students to take their lives and their future seriously.
Three of our basic principles: 1. No class larger than 15 students. 2. Sit in a circle. 3. Require each student to participate in discussions. We also encourage students to engage in peer teaching with their fellow students who are not in a SAC class or with middle or elementary level students, including those in after school programs. We strongly urge students to get involved with social change organizations and agencies, a number of whom are active partners with SAC.
In addition to reading our work aloud and taking turns reading a wide variety of materials, we teach active listening skills by talking about how to ask questions and by our example of asking questions. Silence is death; no student is allowed to not participate. While we do not accept rote responses, at the same time we do not reject any honest response as “wrong” or “inappropriate.” we are not working on what Paulo Freire calls the “banking” concept wherein we as teachers have fed our students the right answer and are prodding them to give us back that specific “right” answer. Instead the SAC methodology is to begin at the beginning. We begin with the experiences and real thoughts and reactions of our students. We begin by affirming the importance of their existence, their personalities, howsoever and whatsoever they may be.
One particular tool in this affirmation process is the story circle—a technique developed by John O’Neal and others in the Free Southern Theatre. We sit in a circle and take turns telling a story about a selected topic.
To be successful, we must actively listen to our students. This process is one of building community. It is not reductively a one-way process of simplisticly asking our students to spill their guts to us while we silently sit in judgment. Indeed, in SAC we all participate as equals; we teachers tell our stories when our turn comes. We all tell stories and we all listen to each other.
Whether a person intends to or not, if they honestly participate, they end up doing two things. One, we all learn more about each other, and we thereby become closer to each other. Two, we learn to articulate ideas and emotions that previously had never been publicly expressed. For many students this is their first experience in an educational setting of being embraced for who they actually are rather than for how close they are able to come to some external standard that is set before them as a kind of holy grail.
We then encourage our students to write. Again, we do not require any one-to-one write-the-story-you-told process. Rather we ask them to write about a variety of topics, and even encourage them to write on a topic of their own choosing if it is a topic they strongly want to express. When we combine the story circle technique with the prompts and inspiration that comes from the reading assignments, invariably students produce a richer body of literature than if they were simply asked to respond to abstract writing assignments. Here is an example from Maria Hernandez, a sophomore at Frederick Douglass who presents a brilliant social-critique of the effects of violence that is also an unsparing and startling self-critique.
Just Like Him
They say when you’re around someone for a long time, you start looking and acting like that person. The problem is that I didn’t want to be like him in any way, but what can I say? I have his eyes, his hair, and recently I’ve acquired his personality. Lately I go crazy and snap. I bitch slap my little brother and on more than one occasion I’ve drawn blood from my little sister’s lips. I didn’t want to be like him, but I did it anyway. And something inside me is telling me that I let him win.
When you review student writing at this level, the work forces you to confront yourself. You can not stand before this student and just go through a rote exercise. What do you do?
218 – 219 (HARD TIMES IN BIG EASY)
I will fight for my right to be respected as a human being. I may be censored but I will not shut up. I may get taken out but I will not bow down.
There is a fierce oppositional stance at the core of black New Orleans culture. A colleague once told me, man, if you would move up here to New York, you could make a lot of money and get a lot of your work published. I knew my friend was right about the opportunities available in New York or elsewhere but I’m stubborn. I don’t do what I do simply to survive or to thrive within the status quo. I’d rather struggle in New Orleans than kick back in New York.
There may not be much of a future in being a die-hard black New Orleanian but to me the essence of life requires a level beyond mere survival or creature comforts. In a nation that is increasingly being culturally homogenized, New Orleans is a distinct and different flavor.
Because I’m addicted not only to freedom and self-expression but also to red beans and dancing in the streets; because I’m totally hooked on celebrating a culturally oppositional way of life, and also because of the massive emotional inertia that personally anchors me in this rough and limited environment, I choose to stay. Although I seriously considered leaving and indeed, immediately after Katrina, had one foot out the door, I’ve weathered the leaving home storm. I ain’t going nowhere else within the United States. I elect to continue to make New Orleans my home.
I know that gentrification is radically altering the face of New Orleans but I also know that gentrification is a worldwide phenomenon. Wherever in the world I or anyone else might choose to go, the reality and repercussions of the wealth gap and the limitations of poverty (regardless of race or ethnicity) will have to be dealt with. Housing and business developments in formerly low income inner city areas resulting in the expulsion of low income residences who are no longer able to afford the cost of living is the new norm in urban lifestyles. Back in the seventies we said that urban renewal means negro removal. Gentrification is urban renewal on economic steroids. Although my home town may never become what some of us dared dream it could be, I nonetheless believe the fight is worth the effort, whether we win, lose or draw.
I know that New Orleans is changing and that my personal resistance in the long run will be futile, nevertheless being a proud, black New Orleanian is my birthright. Regardless of what others may decide, for me living in New Orleans is a voluntary social commitment. Or like we used to say back in the day: I’m born, bred, and hope to die right here in Big Easy no matter how hard it gets.
224 – 225 (WHAT TO DO WITH THE NEGROES)
Although poor blacks controlled none of the city’s major resources, we were blamed for everything that was wrong—from a failing school system to rising crime; from ineffective and corrupt political leadership to an “immoral” street culture of drugs, sagging pants and loud music; from a rise in sexually transmitted diseases to deteriorating neighborhoods. When responsible citizens wrote to the Times Picayune daily newspaper suggesting what ought be done do address these concerns, high on the list of panaceas was our incarceration, as if so many—indeed, far, far too many of us—were not already in prison.
How convenient to ignore the glaring statistic: the largest concentration of black women in New Orleans is located at Xavier University and the largest concentration of their age-compatible, male counterparts exists across the expressway in the city jail—dorms for the women, cells for the men. The truth is disorienting to most: what has been tried thus far, whether education or jail, has not worked.
The people who complain the most about crime in the city, or should I say the voices that we most often hear in the media complaining about crime are from the people who are the least affected.
However, worse than the name-calling is the fact that New Orleans is now a city that forgot to care. In the aftermath of the greatest flood trauma ever suffered by a major American city—yes, the damage of 2005 Katrina surpasses the massive destruction of 2017 Houston in terms of death and overall metro-area destruction, not to mention that New Orleans was impoverished compared to the relative wealth of Houston, America’s fourth largest city. On a comparative basis, for the majority of the city’s poor people, New Orleans is devoid of public health in general and mental health care in particular.
In the entire Gulf South area that was directly affected by Katrina, only in New Orleans were 7,000 educators fired. The Federal Government guaranteed the salaries of teachers in all other areas and guaranteed the same for New Orleans teachers but the state of Louisiana made a decision to decimate the largest block of college educated blacks, the largest block of regular voters, the largest block of black home owners.
The denouement was that the entire middle class black strata was disenfranchised. Black professionals, the majority of whom lived in flooded areas in New Orleans East, whether government employees or independent professionals (doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants and the like), black professionals no longer had a client base. Most professionals could not re-establish themselves in New Orleans. What was left of the black New Orleans social infrastructure was nothing nice.
236 – 237 (THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC)
Capitalism materially rewards commercial success and, in the process, emphasizes the entertainment values and minimalizes the political values of the work. Art becomes a spectacle and/or product for distribution and sale, rather than a process and/or ritual for community upliftment. Indeed, there are those who argue that that an emphasis on political relevance is an artistic straight jacket. My response is that the diminution, if not total negation, of relevance is a hallmark of commercialism, a philosophy that is best summed up in the adage: everything is for sale. I am not arguing against entertainment. I am arguing for relevance and for the elevation of people before profits, community before commercialism. Or to borrow a phrase from Jamaica’s Michael Manley: “We are not for sale.”
When the Bible asserts, What profits it a man to win the world and loose his soul?, a fundamental truth is raised. Do we understand that soul is a social concept, that our existence as individuals is directly dependent on social interactions? The writer who is alienated from self, invariably argues for the supremacy of the individual, the right to write and do whatever he or she wants to do without reference to one person’s effect on or relationship with others. Whether pushed as good old American, rugged individualism or post-modern self-referentialism, the outcome remains the same: alienation from community and schizophrenia of the personal self.
Unless we consciously deal with the question of alienation, we as writers will find ourselves unconsciously and subconsciously at odds not only within our individual psyches but with our native (i.e. childhood) and ethnic community howsoever that community may be defined. This fundamental fact is not a problem peculiar or exclusive to Black writers, it is a problem for all writers in America.
252 – 253 (LET’S HAVE SOME FUN)
In our communities, aesthetic (a sense of beauty and goodness) awareness is generally an unconscious awareness, nevertheless, such self awareness is absolutely necessary to life, for we can not go on if we do not believe that there is some good, some beauty within us. That screaming and hollering that the singers do, those songs that move us so, all of that informs us that within each of our lives there has been some good, some beauty, even if only momentary and fleeting, even if we are crying and moaning because that good thing is now gone, even if we believe the exquisite moment shall never return, we are still emboldened by the fact that we can stand and proudly proclaim, “I have had my fun / if I don’t get well no more.”
Finally, fun is subversive, especially when one is the object of oppression and exploitation. For when the sufferers find a way to have fun, we not only momentarily transcend our suffering, we affirm that there is a part of us, an enjoyment within us which we share with our fellow sufferers that is beyond the reach of the overseer, the master, the banker, our creditors, the boss, the hoss, and any damn other person or thing that is intent on making our lives miserable. This subversive factor is the ultimate meaning of R&B/Rap, and is also the source of why the music is always damned by the psychological gatekeepers, i.e. ministers, politicians, educators & status quo intellectuals. When social pundits argue that R&B, or Rap, or any other contemporary popular music is a morally corrupting force, or that those forms “are not music,” that our music needs to be censored if not actually prohibited, then what they are saying is that we have no right to decide what to do with our own bodies for good or for ill.
R&B asserts that “I’m three times seven / and that makes 21 / ain’t nobody’s bizness / what I do.” The ultimate determination of self is the right of self expression, and those who would limit, circumscribe, prohibit, or otherwise legislate our self expression are the very same people who have no problem with capitalism (and if they were alive during slavery time, ditto, they would have no problem with slavery). In fact, during slavery time there were those who tried to stop enslaved Africans from singing and dancing. The power of popular music is that it asserts our existence centered in a pleasurable self-determined celebration. When we holler, “let the good times roll / laissez les bon temps roullez,” we are actually uttering a war cry against psychological oppression. And when we produce our own popular music and dance outside of the purview of the status quo, then we are (re)creating the/our “living self.”
There is more, of course, just as surely as Sunday morning follows Saturday night, but that more is for another time. Right now, I just wanted to share with you the “psychological significance” and “aesthetically-African origins” of popular American music; in other words, I just wanted to tell you why it is so important for us to have some fun!
267 – 269 (TAKING CARE)
From 1973 to 1977, I was the director of the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Health Center. At that time, I did not fully grasp the revolutionary potential of such programs that fulfilled fundamental concerns of our underserved communities. Indeed, although I had been selected to head the newly opened health center precisely because I had a history of community activism stretching back years doing door-to-door civil rights work, my career choices were elsewhere. I was an able administrator but was far more interested in developing myself as an activist and writer.
When I shared with Sylvia my current struggles with caregiving for my wife, Sylvia gave me an insight I can never forget. Yes, caregiving was hard but caregiving also was a means of finding and expressing the deepest part of our humanity.
With neither embarrassment nor restraint she and I are able to talk as only long-time friends can, particularly friends who have shared both political and caregiving struggles.
Politics, especially at the oppositional level, is not only emotionally consuming, the struggle is also both a barrier and a bond. People outside activist circles seldom grasp the depth of experiences held among those who confront dangers, make sharp personal sacrifices, and, most of all, share all the ups and downs, all the twists and turns, and, yes, all the inevitable reverses and contradictions that are inherent to protracted struggle. From arrests by the state and confrontations with both the police as well as with para-military civilian forces, to international adventures and connections with people and places far from home, the politics of struggle more often than not sets one apart from those family, friends and associates who are not active on the front lines.
This voluntary grappling with the powers that be informs and shapes one’s individuality in ways that outsiders not only generally don’t and can’t understand. More importantly, because being in opposition to the powers that be is dangerous and all too often illegal, the details and results of resistance usually remain hidden from others, no matter how close the others may be or, over time, may become. To engage in anti-establishment struggles inevitably means keeping secrets, and keeping secrets alienates you from others.
Paradoxically, caregiving has the opposite effect of pushing the giver and receiver closer together even if they have not otherwise shared activities or viewpoints, which is often the case when one person has been politically active and the other has not.
Moreover, caregiving brings us males closer to another person than does any romance, social/political activity, or even any kinship relationship. Caregiving makes clear that living is no easy task and requires constant vigilance and work. Ultimately caregiving is a nurturing process that is too often preconceived as outside of the realm of manly responsibilities.
Caregiving inevitably humanizes men far, far beyond what is normally expected or actualized by males. In a sense, caregiving enables me as a male to emotionally, as well as intellectually, identify with a whole world of experiences—a world that, in this society, women know intimately, and which we men too often discount or ignore. We men assume some woman—be she family member or paid professional—will do the job.
Most of us not only think of caregiving as “women’s work,” worse than feminizing a task that more of us men ought to willfully undertake, caregiving in many, if not most, cases is unpaid labor. This is significant. How significant? Try paying for round the clock, 24/7 professional (meaning it is a job) caregiving. Such professional care is far from cheap, indeed, professional care givers are expensive.
The political economy of caregiving is massive. But beyond the labor, the monetary costs, and the time, looms the larger issue: compassion and love for one another. Not only is it true that men don’t want to talk about caregiving, and really don’t want to be burdened with the constant effort required of care givers, the deeper truth is that because of our socialization we are too often unable to do so even when we want to.
There is a reason that I could call Sylvia after us not seeing each other for over a decade, and we could intimately speak about our separate lives. We didn’t have to share day-to-day mundanities; we have shared pivotal and essential struggles: we both were spousal care givers. I had now entered a realm of responsibility that previously I knew of but, for which, I did not have primary and full responsibility.
Just Nia and I live in our home. I had been inducted by unforeseen circumstances into the golden circle of caregiving. I know there are many other men in a similar situation but I have never before at length and in-depth talked about or written about caregiving.
289 – 290 (WHERE ARE YOU GOING?)
Where Are You Going?
I always admired him. The graced of his slow walk, his endless supply of endless stories to simple questions. I once asked him why he couldn’t just give me a simple answer, he asked me why couldn’t I just ask simple questions. I didn’t know I wasn’t being simple, I retorted. He just snorted softly before quietly replying in his captivating gruff voice: it’s hard to be truly simple.
I used to like to see him dance, entranced by how light he made his heftiness move, vibrating with the music. And he was always singing to himself. Or trumpeting in the afternoon air.
There was the toughness of his thick skin, bullet scarred, and knife scarred, old and wrinkled but nonetheless attractive. His eyesight was dim but there was always a twinkle gleaming forth. I guess you could say I really like him.
When we set off, I wanted to walk near him but at the crossroads I became confused as all of us kept going and he turned off. I stood transfixed for a moment and then rushed to catch him, to call him, to tell him he was going off. But my mother called me back.
Where is he going, I asked her. She simply said, he is going where he needs to go. Come, we must stay together.
But why didn’t she tell that to him. He was the one going off somewhere. And where is that, I asked her. Oh, she sighed, you’ll know when it’s your time to go. But how would my time answer a question for where he was going in his time.
And then she said, after a while we all have to go. And with that, she fell quiet, and we moved on.