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We all have heard of Viet Nam, the war, the nation, the initially secret but eventual major involvement of the United States in a war against a small Asian country. But what about East Timor?

Who? Where?

East Timor is a small island country of black and brown people located below Indonesia and above Australia (which is itself also a historic country of color now majority populated by people of European descent, and within which the indigenous population is a disadvantaged minority). Most of us have never heard of East Timor, which was a former Portuguese colony whose history can be traced back over 40,000 years. In 2002 it became an independent country after being occupied by Indonesia from 1975 to 1999.

In 1975 five Australian journalists were killed. This 2009 film is their story–not just the journalists but also the people of East Timor and their independence struggle. One of the lead characters, portrays Jose Ramos-Horta, who eventually received the 1996 Noble Peace Prize and became the second president of his country (2007-2012).

Although this is mainly a war movie focusing on five young tv journalists, an initially reluctant veteran writer, and a charismatic East Timor activist, the soul of the movie is a woman: Juliana, portrayed by Vea Viegas. Her brave statement and shy observing frames the movie. She is first seen years after the event testifying at the Timor-Leste Commission For Reception, Truth And Reconciliation. Juliana is present throughout as a little girl witnessing the action.

As is generally the case with western movies concerning imperialism and economic conflict, a lot of the political and economic context is only fleetingly presented. To get a deeper understanding requires far more than spending an hour or two looking at a movie. Go here (https://www.etan.org/resource/books.htm) for a list of resources on East Timor. The abbreviated analysis not withstanding, this movie is an engaging introduction that will give you a lot to think about.

The Balibo Conspiracy is an important starting point to get up to speed on global struggles against exploitation–in this case, Indonesian oppression of East Timor.

I was in Nicaragua during the contra-war of the late-70s and 80s. The Balibo Conspiracy immediately transported me back to my experience as a journalist traveling through a war zone. Parts of this movie seemed to be a documentary rather than a dramatic re-enactment. People living at a subsidence level, guns everywhere, buildings blown up, and death’s constant funky stench fouling the atmosphere at battle sites–well, yes, while it’s true that you can’t see an odor, this movie will lead you to imagine what conflict smells like.

The Balibo Conspiracy is available on Amazon, please check it out. Please do not ignore or overlook what happened on the other side of the world from us. Whether we are aware or not, this is an other side to which we are connected. Indeed, this other side is really just another side of us.

 

Black Earth Rising (available on Netflix) focuses on the aftermath and consequences of the Rwandan Civil War (1990 – 1994). The conflict culminated in genocide against the Tutsi people in a 100-day period during which over half-million people were killed. The resulting individual psychological damage as well as the economic, political, and military machinations that followed are high-lighted in this moving and insightful, dramatic 8-episode tv series.

The two leads, Michaela Coel as Kate Ashby (who is an adopted genocide survivor), and John Goodman as Michael Ennis (a lawyer who has legal and personal interests and issues) are the only characters who appear in all eight episodes, and thus are the moral and emotional centers. Both Coel and Goodman present moving and nuanced performances that are complex and sometimes even contradictory between each other as well as within their individual public and private personalities.

Moreover, the African (and not just the American and European) characters are shown as multi-dimensional with both flaws and failures as well as with principles and passionate truth-seeking.

Given that violence is an essential sub-text of this story, there is very little onscreen violence, yet the resulting conflicts and confusions, indeed the overall emotional chaos, all of it is devastating. This is a challenging and sometimes confounding series. Don’t miss it. Indeed, you might find yourself engaged enough to endure/enjoy a second viewing.

–Kalamu ya Salaam

 

 

 

 

From the fall of 1997 to May of 2017, I worked with New Orleans high school students as a staff member and eventually the co-director of Students at the Center, an independent writing program. In the essay below I offer the theory and give examples of our classroom praxis. For us, education was not solely an intellectual activity. We did not rely on what Paulo Freire calls the banking concept, in which teachers instruct and students are required to regurgitate what they have been told is “the truth”.

 

SAC pedagogy included teachers, students AND community members working together — indeed, our students were also teachers, and our teachers learned from our students. Literally. Students taught their younger peers, as well as shared their life experiences in story circles within which teachers became students. We all learned from each other. We learned not simply in the intellectual sense of facts and figures, but also in the lived sense of valuing and honoring each other’s life experiences.

(This essay is included in the collection Be About Beauty / University of New Orleans Press 2018)

Kalamu ya Salaam (photo by Alex Lear)

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WE STAND BY OUR STUDENTS:

Students at the Center (SAC)

 

 

start with what you know

to learn what you don’t know

start with where you’re at

to get to where you want to go

   

 

Our Students at the Center (SAC) class stood around in small clumps outside the school building. The temperature an uncomfortable lower-50s, an annoying light rain falling, the weather was not welcoming. Tiesha stood unsmiling under a blue umbrella, I told her to hold that pose with her face booted-up; scurried over to my black leather briefcase to get the digital camera, I wanted to take her picture. “You really going to take my picture?”

 

After taking four or five shots, I moved under the sparse cover of a tree, but it offered scant protection. The rain still fell on us. Tiesha smiled as she inspected the small screen on the back of SAC’s digital camera.

 

Jim pulled out the heavy African-American literature book from his backpack and proceeded to continue the last discussion we had before the fire alarm went off. What did Alice Walker mean about fruit awakening taste buds in the poem about her sister Molly?

 

Greta, the coordinator of the Smaller Learning Communities educational program, called on my cell and wanted to know where we were? She was on the St. Claude and Alvar street corner by the front of the school, we were on the Pauline and N. Rampart street corner at the rear of the school. Shortly she joined us and jokingly admired Jim’s tenacity as chilly raindrops wet the book’s pages. “Yall, really going to try and hold class amidst all this?”

 

“Yeah, why not?” Jim casually replied, pushing back his long, dark hair that helps earn him the semi-sarcastic nickname of “Jesus.” Three out of the eight or so students in class that day gamely struggled to answer the questions.

 

We were outside because someone had set fire to the second floor bathroom. And eventually we were all called into the gym and dismissed for the day. This was, Ms. Holiday, the new principal’s second day in charge; a not-unusual, even if atypical, day at Frederick Douglass high school.

 

Everyday working in the public school system I battle the demons of despair; most times I eat that bear, but sometimes brother bear takes a deep bite out of my rear, and on such days, nursing my wounds, I retreat home to repair, often in the process questioning myself: why in the hell do I return to this day after day?

 

I love the youth, especially the students at Douglass and I know that I as an older Black male make a major difference, especially as I do not represent authority types, but rather, in many, many ways, am but an older version of them, or at least a version of who they can become once they achieve critical self-consciousness and commit themselves to life long learning.

 

Any of us who work in a major American metro-area, inner-city public school intimately knows Mr./Ms. Despair Bear, knows the challenge of maintaining in the face of a system whose normal state is either chaos unreined or else the even more sinister, terrifying silence of lock down. But here is where we go every day, somehow nourishing the dream of teaching youth.

 

Some people have developed theories about teaching inner-city youth, and most of those theories are predicated on preparing these youth to participate in the mainstream, while never questioning the sanity of joining in a system that has systematically oppressed and exploited the very youth we are teaching. If preparing them to be productive citizens is the bottom line of what we do, then we might as well be teaching courses in suicide.

 

I do not apologize for my stance: I advocate education for liberation, not education for mainstream socialization.

 

I am interested in coaching youth to engage reality in two ways: 1. Know themselves and 2. Decide for themselves what they wish to become. Those two simple objectives are the foundation for my praxis—the pedagogical theories I develop and/or adopt/adapt, and the day-to-day practice I use to engage the reality of public education.

 

Like many professional artists, I became involved because I was asked to participate in a specific program and not because I was seeking a way to work in the public school system, or even seeking a way to work with youth in the teacher/student dynamic. For most artists, teaching is simply a way to make the money we need to survive and enable us to do what we consider our real work, which is developing our art. In my case, although I have a long history of working with youth, it took over two years before I would consciously commit to teaching as a professional priority of my life work.

 

Contrary to what many non-teachers think, teaching in public schools is not easy money. Reaching our youth is hard, emotionally taxing, and intellectually challenging work, especially if the goal is education for liberation.

 

I teach at McDonogh #35 (a citywide school) and at Frederick Douglass (a district school). Citywide schools require students to meet specific academic requirements. District schools are based on residence in a specific geographic location. In New Orleans we have a three-layered school system: parochial (primarily catholic), private, and public. The public sector is where the overwhelming majority of Black students are herded, although a significant number are in the parochial system. The New Orleans public school system is the largest in the state with a $500-million budget that exceeds the budgets of every town and city in Louisiana.

 

Education is ground zero in the systemic exploitation of Black people in New Orleans—ground zero because public schools are the direct feeder for the necessary, albeit unskilled, labor needed for the tourist-oriented economy. For those not fortunate enough to work in a hotel, the public schools prepare them for the penitentiary. I will not recite the alarming statistics, it is enough to note that in New Orleans they are building more hotels everyday—where will the bellhops and maids come from? If you are reading this journal, I assume you are already aware of the statistical fact that more Black males are in prison than college.

 

Teachers who would educate Black youth but either shy away from making or else are incapable of making a political-economic critique of the school system, such teachers are themselves impediments, if not down-right opponents of education for liberation. If we are not prepared to at least intellectually confront the implicit racism of using test scores to fail students whom school systems have systematically miseducated, if we are unwilling to recognize the utter under-preparedness of system administrators and the lameness of their solutions, if we are afraid to address the difficulties of middle-aged Whites trying to educate Black working class youth, in other words, if we are unwilling to face what is really happening in public education, all of our “innovative” programs will fail because they are not addressing the real problems.

 

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 simplistically 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 cannot stand before this student and just go through a rote exercise. What do you do?

 

We publish the work and encourage her to do more. Maria’s piece is included in a collection of Douglass writings called From the Heart. Just as our students learn from us, we as teachers, learn from our students. The experience of liberatory education is necessarily a reciprocal relationship. We learn to know our students as fellow human beings with whom we share our lives and experiences, rather than solely see students as blank slates upon whom we teachers are trying to inscribe particular lessons.

 

When we say start with where we are at, we are saying a mouth full. Our students have many, many problems. An upcoming publication is called “men we love / men we hate”—recently during a discussion of an excerpt on Black manhood from bell hooks’ new book, a quick, informal poll demonstrated that only one person of the 12 or so students lived in a two-parent family with a male as the head of the family.  We were discussing patriarchy, which is a bit tricky when there are no patriarchs present in their day-to-day lives; and that was at the city-wide school whose reputation is petite-bourgeois (we pronounce it boo-gie), many of them are literally the  children of first-generation professionals and lower-level managers.

 

Although functional enough to do their class work and to pass standardized tests, even these students, the so-called best and brightest, suffer social stress and trauma at sometimes unimaginable levels. Sexual molestation, dysfunctional families, suicide, drug (especially alcohol and tobacco) abuse, STD’s, and warped senses of self-esteem are endemic, indeed near pandemic across economic strata. Without falling into the trap of either pitying or being repulsed by their problems, our task is to encourage the students to articulate the realities of their day-to-day existence. Unless and until they can honest recognize and confront their own realities they will never be able to truly transform themselves and their communities.

 

In this McDonogh #35 class three seniors were working on projects. Angie Solomon was working on a two-character drama about a young woman trying to talk to her best friend about new feelings she is having that might be homo-erotic but which may not be, she just needs to… to talk about it and her friend is not wanting to listen. The brief piece illustrates the importance of being able to talk about life with a supportive friend. Asia Brumfield’s piece is about her uncle, a high school student, one year younger than Asia, who was murdered at a nearby school in a brazen hit in the school gym during the middle of the day. Rather than a simple cry of sorrow, Asia is intent on exploring the nexus of relationships in her family which include her father, who was imprisoned at the time and a grandfather who had survived a barroom shooting. Marnika Farria is exploring the subject of rape spurred by her own attempts to deal with her mother being raped when Marnika was 11 years old. As Marnika does her research and family investigation she finds out that her grandmother is also a rape survivor although Marnika previously had no knowledge of that history of rape in her own family.

 

These are not woe-is-me, feel-sorry-for-us-poor-downtrodden-negroes investigations, rather these are honest explorations of complex social situations. For Angie, Asia and Marnika, these investigations are a brave and ultimately inspirational example of self-transformation through confronting  social issues at the personal level. Neither Jim nor I try to weigh these projects with overt political views. Our tack is to ask questions, we encourage them to dig deep within themselves and be as truthful as possible.

 

Because we are not a core curriculum class and because we are a “creative writing” class we have more latitude with subject matter and lesson planning than do most of the regular classes. Although one might suppose this means that we are less rigorous in an academic sense, all of the students will tell you that, except for a handful of their other teachers, our SAC class requires them to work much harder than do their regular classes.

 

Even though they have to read more, write more, think more, they come back, some students taking our class two or three times during their high school matriculation. Last semester at Douglass we encountered the phenomenon of male students cutting their assigned classes to sit in on our writing class. One of them eventually persuaded his counselor to switch his class, another student, Bruce Lightell, got a note from his mother saying that it was ok to skip one class so he could be part of our SAC class.

 

Later in the semester when Bruce was selected as one of two students to represent Douglass at a statewide conference on “agenda for children” where our SAC duo recited poetry, one of the counselors wanted to know how in the world could that happen since Bruce was failing every other class. Bruce has severe problems with text. His spelling is on an elementary level and his grammar is almost non-existent, but he has a sharp mind and easily grasps concepts such as metaphorical consistency, which he calls “m-c”. When it is time to publish Bruce’s work, we patiently sit with him and correct each misspelled word. We question him about grammar. We do what editors have traditionally done for many, many highly rated writers whose manuscripts would be unpublishable without significant editorial help. One of my favorite images of Bruce is his head buried deep in a dictionary trying to find out the correct spelling of a word he wants to use. His academic shortcomings notwithstanding, Bruce has the fire and determination to improve himself and his family supports SAC partially because they know the value of our work—one of Bruce’s older cousins had previously been an editor of Our Voice newspaper.

 

We are not a one-shot project or a new approach trying to prove itself. We have made a long-term commitment to public education, long enough that we now have former SAC students who are college graduates returning to work with SAC. Also, a significant component of SAC work is now in the hands of SAC alumni who are currently college students, two of the more active of grads turned SAC staff are graduates of Frederick Douglass—our staff is not just drawn from the academically better prepared students at McDonogh #35.

 

Indeed, at Frederick Douglass the situation is paradoxically both easier and more hopeless—easier because the students are more forthcoming, more hopeless because these students generally have only a modicum of reading, writing and mathematical skills.

 

Steve Grant, a handsome, football player belies the stereotype of the jock who gets all the girls. In a moment of disarming honesty, Steve penned a short response to an Ishmael Reed poem. When he finished reciting his poem there was a moment of stunned silence—we never thought of Steve that way.

 

If I had a nickel …

 If I had a nickel for every time I had been rejected I would be poor because I’ve

Never really had the heart to approach a girl.

 

In one of his writings, Steve gave us the title “From The Heart.” in a similar vein I remember Darrow Reaux coming to class one day after being absent for two days. I asked him where he had been, why had he missed class. He dropped his arrest papers on the desk where I was sitting. I scanned the papers, gave them back to him, and simply said welcome back. Turns out he was arrested because he was standing on the block outside his home when the police came through doing a sweep because of a fight that had happened nearby. I don’t remember for sure, but it was probably after curfew. The next day, Darrow wrote a short piece which highlighted his arrest but from a totally unexpected perspective.

 

 

I Told My Mother I Love Her

This girl in my writing class name is Anastasia and it seems like we’re the same but we really don’t know whose the blame. We both stay with aunt and uncle thinking that they were our real parents. My real mother name is Irita and my real father name is Darrow, but I don’t called neither one of them mom and dad. I continue on calling my auntie Rose, mamma, and my uncle Junnie, papi.

The funny thing was I got arrested the other day and I haven’t seen Irita for about three months and I ran into her in jail. I really didn’t know how to feel when I saw her I didn’t even bother asking what she was doing here but she asked me, and I told her what I was in for. The police brought me in the back for booking she came to the window and told me bye. In jail it is really crazy. Some old man was getting beat while the guards was feeding us cold luncheon meat. I went to court and the judge release me on ROR.

I went home to my mother Rose and told her I was in jail. They let me go without paying bail. My mother said she didn’t know where I was because I left my cell phone. I left the radio on. The lights on and my writing everywhere. She told me don’t go outside at night so I wouldn’t have to fight with the police anymore. I told my mother I love her and good night.

 

 

The students at Douglass have no problem sharing their problems, whereas the better educated students at McDonogh #35 are also the more reticent and the least in touch with their true feelings. Often they have repressed their thoughts and feelings for so long that their ability to express what is happening inside has atrophied. They have the words, in the intellectual sense, but lack the psychological ability to express themselves.

 

The Douglass students are the inverse. They are not hampered by self-censorship, but rather limited in their language skills. By the measure of the leap tests (our state-mandated standardize tests), Douglass is the second worse high school in the state. On a scale that ranges up to approximately 150, I believe we scored 11 and were surpassed in a negative direction only by our uptown sibling, Booker T. Washington, who scored in the single digits, “9” out of the possible 150. Their educational limitations notwithstanding, our Douglass students produce creative writing that helps them cope with and begin to overcome the crippling effects of miseducation.

 

There is a misconception that under-educated students are not ready to grasp philosophy, political-economy, subtleties of high art, etc., however, just because the school system has failed to educate them, does not mean that our students are stupid and/or uneducable. That they score poorly does not mean they cannot think and do not have analytical skills. Indeed, their environment forces them to develop very sharp discrimination skills.

 

They are able to easily spot insincerity and incompetence. They know with the accuracy of a finely tuned Geiger counter, which teachers are simply collecting a paycheck or impersonally teaching from a textbook without being concerned about the student as a human being. Students learn early how to dodge the bullies and con artists who daily confront and try to hustle them both in and outside the classroom. They develop all sorts of evasive techniques to avoid physical harm and/or incarceration by police, guards and other authority figures whose sole responsibility is to maintain law and order, a law and order that demands mindless obedience and compliance with arbitrary rules and regulations. In many, many ways our students are far more realistic about their educational situation than are we who would teach them but who do not take the time to understand them or their world except as either an abstraction or with a pejorative view of their environment.

 

A sure sign that many of us do not understand our students is our refusal to understand that even if students can’t spell, they can reason, even if students can’t pronounce multi-syllabic words, they can express themselves. How well a person does on a standardized test is no indication of that person’s character or desire to learn. A test may measure what one knows, but cannot accurately predict whether a person wants to or is capable of learning.

 

Thus, we read and discuss Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” or excerpts from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, along side of Toni Morrison and excerpts from the writing of Frederick Douglass; we read Sandra Cisneros and Birago Diop as well as Alice Walker and Langston Hughes. We not only read these authors, we discuss the relationship of the text to their lives and follow-up with assignments that, for example, ask them to write about their own “cave” experiences. Here is high school sophomore Rodneka Shelbia’s cave essay written when she was 14 years old:

 

When I was 13 years old, I stumbled into a place with very little air and very little space.  I was uncomfortable.  I stumbled in this place not knowing what I was getting into, not knowing a way out. This place was a dark, confusing, messed up place.  Being in this place was terrifying and painful, full of decisions.  This place was a cave, a cave of many emotions.

This cave was a relationship between me, a boy named Tim, and a boy named Rodney.  Tim was my boyfriend.  Tim and I had a good relationship.  We were known as the star couple.  We had known each other for about three years, but we were together for about five months.  Tim had what I look for in a boyfriend.  He attracted me because he was himself.  He did not try to be anyone else, and he accepted me for me.  He was my 9-10, but we broke up.  We broke up over a few words that were passed around and the pressure of Rodney.

Rodney was someone I would call a best friend.  Tim, on the other hand, thought Rodney was not just a best friend.  He saw Rodney as someone trying to get with someone else’s girlfriend.  After Tim and I stopped talking, Rodney and I started talking.  Rodney was the type of nigga that would do anything to get what he wanted.  He was good at his game, cause he got me.  We were together for about two weeks, but after those two weeks he lost me.  I had to leave him alone.  I felt like I was cheating on him, cause I still had love for Tim, which meant Rodney wouldn’t get all I had to offer, maybe not even half.

Now I was hurting, stuck in the middle of a four-wall cave, just confused. On each of the walls there was an engraving that somewhat frightened me.  The first wall was engraved, “Rodney,” next “love,” then “Tim,” and last “Decisions.”  On the ceiling and base of the cave there were little riddles and clues telling me where the answer lay.  There was one in bold print that stood out like none other.  It stated, “The answer lies where you stand.”  I sat thinking, “What does this mean?”  What could I do to help myself, to strengthen myself, to free myself?  I soon noticed two rocks next to me.  Those rocks were nothing more than my feelings.

The first rock was soft and chalk-like.  With this rock in my hands I looked around and repeated three of the clues to myself. 1) The answer lies where you stand.  2) Freedom is the key.  3) “X” out that that won’t help. 1) The answer lies where you stand.  2) Freedom is the key.  3) “X” out.

I thought, “Freedom, freedom is the key.  It can open the cave.  The rock lies where I stand.  The rock can “x” out the words on the cave.  I can write freedom on the cave.  It just might open.”  I was hoping and praying as I got up to try my plan.  I got up to the wall, but the rock was so soft it crumbled up as I wrote. I found that the rock didn’t engrave nor write, because the rock was soft and contained no strength, no power, only mixed emotions.  It didn’t help me at all.

I sat hopelessly thinking.  “What am I going to do now?”  I looked at the second rock and thought to myself, “Ain’t no way in hell I’mma get that rock.”  So I just sat making excuses.  “It’s too far; I can’t walk.  It’s too heavy; I’m too weak.  It’s in a pile of man-eating creatures; they’ll eat me alive.  That junk is gonna hurt.  It’ll probably make me look ugly.”  Then I thought to myself, “It’s the only way out.”  So I walked over there to get the rock, but in the process I suffered.  I bled and lost a lot, but I got the rock.

This rock gave me confidence.  Every step I took with this rock felt like the hardest step in the world. When I got to the wall, I started to write freedom on it.  That was very hard, because my hands were bloody, and the rock was heavy.   I had to push the stone in the wall to make the engravings, but the good part about it was that as I engraved I grew stronger. I became more powerful, and my emotions came in line.

When I finished, the cave vanished.  I became free.  Rodney was gone.  Tim was gone. Love was gone.  And I was free, oh so free.

 

Although teaching writing is both a more complex and a far broader question than can be addressed in this short essay, one quick example, will illustrate the difficulty, if not impossibility, of finding a working solution that addresses all the needs. Three of the students in our small class at McDonogh #35 are transfers from Douglass. This is an example of the typical third world brain drain that is a common feature of under- and un-developed countries. While we struggle to meet the needs of all our students, including those who are intellectually gifted, a larger fact is undeniable: when the best students are relocated from the neighborhood schools to a citywide school, invariably the level of instruction goes down in the neighborhood school. The absence of “gifted” students in the classroom ensures that those who are left behind stay left behind.

 

We discuss these concepts with all of our students. Rodneka was considering leaving Douglass, and though there is no doubt that she would benefit from a better educational environment, there is also no doubt that were she to leave, Douglass would face a big loss. Our task as SAC teachers who recognize this dilemma is to provide ongoing educational stimulus and opportunities for all the Rodnekas we encounter even as we recognize that schools such as Douglass do not provide a quality learning environment or instruction.

 

That is one small example of the complexities we face. I want to make sure no one romanticizes SAC and the struggle we wage. Students such as Rodneka deserves far more than we are able to give them, even though we, they, and their families recognize that SAC has given them far more than they would have normally received in their matriculation through the jungles of public education.

 

I am an experienced writer, sort of a writer-in-residence, but only “sort of.” although i have published books, have had my writings used as part of the SAT tests, and am an award-winning journalist in both print and broadcast, most of the students do not know me as a published writer. They simply know me as their teacher, the one who helps them write and shows them how to make movies. Additionally, I have years and years of work as a community organizer at local, national and international levels. I do not have to rely on teaching in this program to make a living, nor am I using this program as a stepping stone to get to another level in my writing career. Ultimately, education for liberation demands a commitment far beyond career development.

 

Moreover, I am not an “artiste.” I am against an emphasis on the arts where the focus is on teaching technique and individualism. Our students need to focus first on their own realities rather than be seduced by the intellectual brilliance or the career bling-bling of some artist. In other words, it is not about me as the artist—the focus must remain on the students. Moreover, we have to model social commitment not by sloganizing or by using clever rhymes to fight oppression, but rather we must do the hard work of helping others without requiring students to look up to us on our teacherly pedestals of wisdom, truth, and beauty. We must be serious about keeping students at the center of our work.

 

In our SAC classes we encourage our students to critique the SAC education process, including how we teach them. We ask them for opinions about what we should study, which programs we should do and which we should pass up. Sometimes it is as simple as requesting they select a topic to write about for the week or select the theme for a story circle, other times we lay out particular situations we are dealing with and ask for their input in the decision-making process that ultimately Jim and I make. The students quickly realize that they can help shape their education. They can help determine what they will learn. This engenders a sense of ownership and identification with the learning process that will never happen if one simply uses predetermined lesson plans and state mandated educational objectives.

 

We realize that not every class can operate the way SAC does, however we are certain that public education can be significantly improved by specifically focusing on the needs of the students, which, for us, means including the views of students. We believe another world is possible. We believe students are a resource and not just an object of education. We encourage the students to become agents of their own education, and we struggle with other teachers and administrators to make these changes. Unavoidably this is sometimes a contentious and even bitter struggle. There are teachers and administrators who actively fight against what we are doing, but, as the British are wont to say, “at the end of the day” the work our students generate stands out and speaks for itself.

 

Still the attacks come. Some people say: SAC is successful because we work with only a handful of students. SAC is elitist because we pick only the best students.

 

At Douglass, there are racial antagonisms aimed at Jim Randels, a white teacher in a school that has only one or two white students and none in any of the SAC classes. In the second semester of the 2003/2004 school year an antagonistic counselor assigned us two special education students, plus one student who was a serious discipline problem, plus three students who needed upper level English to graduate and who also had to pass the leap test but whom had failed the English portions previously, all of this in addition to those who were assigned to us “just because,” even though we are supposed to be an elective course, and even though the counselor did not include some students who requested our class. Meanwhile we have a handful of students who want to learn how to write—two of whom are intent on becoming writers.

 

So we circle the chairs and soldier on. And though we have our problems, despite stumbles and setbacks, despite backbiting and resentments (the inevitable result of struggles to create change), despite having to deal with a wide range of student attitudes and capabilities, despite all of that, our students produce and their work is both our defense and our offense. Their work is answer to the question of can public education be improved. We proudly stand by the work that our students do.

 

Marcus Garvey said, what man has done, man can do. Terence said, there is nothing human that is foreign to me. SAC says: start with what we know, in order to learn what we don’t know. Start with where we’re at, to get to where we want to go.

 

———————-

Five SAC publications are free to view or download (sacnola.com). They are

 

  1. WHO AM I? – Reflections on Culture & Identity

A book of insights and reflections.

 

  1. The Long Ride

A collection of student writings based on the events that are part of the long struggle for civil rights and social justice in New Orleans.

 

  1. NEXT steps

Writings from Students at the Center Class of 2010

 

  1. MEN WE LOVE—MEN WE HATE

An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men.

 

  1. WAYS OF LAUGHING

An anthology of young, Black, female voices.

 

 

 

I have been working with west coast scholar/producer Scot Brown on a project we call “Catfish and Yellow Grits”. Here is the first single from that project. Enjoy.

https://scotronixx.bandcamp.com/releases?fbclid=IwAR2pRux0bht89Nn5gihf7TDy42C898axzrolpFwkWK3tf9WPMhP5oWtKCto

I Thought Of This As I Passed In The Hallway And You Looked Up

While Drying Off After Stepping Out Of Your Sunday Shower

 

in a lover’s eye one can see something, perhaps, a glint of the potent

beauty we all long to be when we giddily cast our fate to the whims

of desire, and even if we have never pranced high steeping at the front

of satisfaction’s parade most of us have nevertheless stood close

enough to the drumming to reflect the shudder of sensuality coiled

within the trembling of impatient flesh awaiting the release of touch

 

who needs to apologize for feeling good, for opening the soul

to the bliss experience, especially when we consider our hearts

observe neither stopwatch nor timetable upon tasting the sincerity

sweet of a tear or two when a special person voluntarily confesses

their resolve to attempt to be better than the frailty we all inevitably are

whenever carrying the ball of contradictions commonly called love

 

in this briefness we transubstantiate, visit the angelic state whose reaching

we humans are capable of grasping but oh so seldom achieve

For over a year, I have been engaged on a daily basis with care taking for my wife who suffered a debilitating stroke in October of 2018. Understandably, I do not travel much and have significantly cut back on much of my online activity. Nevertheless, I have continued to write. My latest book, Be About Beauty (University of New Orleans Press – 2018), a collection of personal and cultural essays, will shortly be followed by two books: 1. Go To Jail, an anthology of writings on incarceration, which were produced and which I edited (with the significant assistance of George Lipsitz of the University of California Santa Barbara), as part of my work with Students At The Center, an independent high school writing program in New Orleans; and, 2. Cosmic Deputy, a life-long retrospective of published and previously unpublished poetry. Also forthcoming this new year is a major spoken word & music project, Catfish And Yellow Grits, co-produced with West Coast scholar and musician, Scot Brown, featuring my niece, Aminisha Ferdinand.

Here is “Taking Care,” the major essay from Be About Beauty.

Beaula “Nia” McCoy

 

====================================

Humanity is not a solitary state; to be human means to be social.

 

In one sense or another, all of us are like babies: Dependent on others to take care of us but at the same time near totally self-absorbed with our own individuality. But the importance of, and even the psychological dominance of the individual personality notwithstanding, essentially our identity as a human being is initially created, continually shaped, and ultimately fulfilled by our relationships with others. In that regard, taking care of others is the highest expression of our humanity that any of us can achieve precisely because in caring for others we ultimately define who we are as a living organism interacting with our physical and social environment.

 

The beauty of being human is that, regardless of our condition, we are not alone. Or, as a number of African philosophies correctly assert: I am because we are.

 

Take care.

 

* * *

 

TAKING CARE

 

 

1.

There are literally millions of us. We are generally unacknowledged by our communities, our neighbors, fellow workers, social associates. We exist at each level of society. Everyone knows at least one of us; knows us intimately but paradoxically does not know us fully.

 

While many of those close to us are aware of some of what we go through, on a day-to-day level, the whole of who we are is seldom grasped, not to mention, rarely embraced.

 

In this nation of over 320 million people, literally millions of us are the primary care givers of family or very close friends.

 

We function at an intimate level of responsibility for the wellbeing of family members, friends, clients, and the indigent. Dealing with the “wellbeing” of others generally means that we are assisting someone who is sick or disabled; someone who cannot fully care for themselves; someone who needs support.

 

That much is easy to understand. However, I believe that our caregiving responsibilities extend beyond loved ones and clients, and, yes, beyond individuals who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to fully care for themselves. Caregiving concerns the wellbeing of our society as a whole and also includes the environmental wellbeing of the planet.

 

But getting to the larger general issues often begins with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a caregiver in a one-on-one case. In that regard, I am using my personal experiences to link the individual to the collective, the specific to the general.

 

 

2.

Early in my adult life, I had three major encounters with caregiving. The first time, I was totally unaware.

 

I was newly married to Tayari kwa Salaam, nee Cecily St. Julien; we both were born and reared in New Orleans, albeit from distinctly different sections of the city, Tayari from the Seventh Ward and me from the Ninth Ward. We were living with my elderly, maternal grandmother below the Industrial Canal in the Lower Ninth Ward.

 

I don’t remember the specifics of how we came to be domiciled with my grandmother but I do remember that leaving the Parkchester Apartment complex in the Gentilly area where I had moved to upon returning home from the army and, subsequently, moving back CTC (cross the canal) to Lizardi Street in the Lower Ninth Ward was not my idea. Family members must have thought I was in a position to assist in taking care of Grandma Copelin and asked me to go live with her.

 

I didn’t fully understand the importance of my being there. My widowed grandmother, even in her elder years, was an independent woman. I can vividly recall, she had a lovely rose garden beside the house she was no longer spry enough to dote over by the time Tayari and I moved in; it didn’t occur to me tend to it. I had grown up cutting the grass in the side yard and clipping the hedges out front adjacent to the sidewalk, but beyond that I was never much good at domestic landscaping.

 

Moving as an adult into the house where I spent my early pre-teen years while my father was in the army was unavoidably crowded with formative childhood associations, such as playing under the wooden shotgun house that was raised almost three feet off the ground.

 

The front room of that home was where I first conducted writing workshops. I never asked my grandmother what she thought about those gatherings. I was oblivious to some of the opinions and feelings of an elder with whom I shared living quarters—me and Tayari mostly in the front half of the seven-room home and my grandmother mostly in one bedroom and the kitchen. None of us spent much time in the back room which had been my grandfather’s study when he was alive and active, preparing his Sunday sermons.

 

Our first child, Asante Salaam (asante = “thank you” and salaam = “peace”), was newly born when we moved. Theresa Copelin loved her great-granddaughter. Although sometimes when I reminisce about my formative childhood years, I remember Grandma holding Asante on her lap, yet I was unaware of the deep joy that babies and children bring to elders and how, in many ways not only physical but more importantly psychological, being around babies and young children gives elders something to hold onto and live for.

 

After a couple of years living with Grandma, I moved on, although not very far away—literally just around the corner from 1311 Lizardi Street to the 1300 block of Egania Street.

 

In the sixties and early seventies, a number of us were militantly intent on making fundamental social change. We went far beyond merely thinking about making change, far beyond the normal rebellion of breaking away from parents and living on our own. After moving out, Tayari and I engaged in a short-lived experiment of sharing a house with another couple. The living arrangement didn’t work out but we soldiered on in our serious pursuit of actualizing our belief in self-respect, self-defense, and self-determination, i.e. Black Power.

 

I was in Nicaragua when my grandmother died and was totally incommunicado. I didn’t know about her death until I returned home a couple of weeks after the funeral. I never had the opportunity to say goodbye nor did I find out the specifics. I just assumed she died of old age. Would she have lived longer if I had been there?

 

I was in my twenties. Fired up about participating in revolutionary struggle. My grandfather, Reverend Noah Copelin, had died a handful of years earlier in the spring of 1969. He was addressing a meeting called by the administration of Southern University in New Orleans who were attempting to quell our student uprising. Grandpa Copelin literally had a stroke while speaking about supporting his hot-headed grandson who was one of the leaders in the school takeover.

 

The last time I ever wore a coat and tie was to his funeral. My grandmother asked me to. I felt a responsibility to her. Yet, even then, I did not fully comprehend the extent of my human responsibility to care for others.

 

My own culpability for my grandfather’s death is an issue I never extensively focus on, probably because my grandmother never, in any way, ever made me feel that I was responsible for the death of her husband, Rev. Copelin. She easily could have resented me for causing his death but she never treated me and my family with anything other than love and devotion. I took her love for granted while never completely realizing that in her own way, she cared for my psychological wellbeing as much as, if not more than my meagre contributions to her homestead. In fact, by cheerfully accepting my limited assistance in our living arrangement, rather than resenting me, Theresa Copelin encouraged me to continue the struggle that her husband died supporting.

 

 

3.

The second time I was deeply involved in caregiving was when my younger brother Kenneth suffered a serious asthma attack. At the time, he was newly married. He had followed me in  living at my grandmother’s house. One night, desperately seeking my help, his wife Willetta frantically called, saying that Kenneth had fallen out. When I got there, Kenneth was on the floor, wheezing heavily and convulsing. He suffered these attacks as a child so I was not shocked; plus, I had been in the military and was trained to respond to emergencies. Within two or three minutes I had used a spoon to keep Kenneth from swallowing his tongue and then found his medication.

 

For me, while it was a serious situation, taking care of my brother was almost routine. However, the next time I tangled with death, the experience emotionally jolted me.

 

 

4.

 

This third occasion of caretaking occurred well over a decade after living on Egania Street. By then I had literally quit my first marriage. This was one of the three pivotal movements of my early adult life. Relocating from Parkchester back into the Lower Ninth Ward on Lizardi Street with my grandmother was the first move. Then around the corner on Egania Sreet with Kwesi and Femi, and concluding with the move less than a mile away to Tennessee Street, where ultimately five children were reared. And when Tayari and I broke up, I briefly moved in with my father on St. Maurice Avenue, in a far corner of Lower Nine.

 

Big Val welcomed me home. From birth until after my father died, except for the brief 15 or 16-month period in Parkchester, I lived in the Lower Ninth Ward. Both my brothers also lived cross the canal in the Lower Nine as they were starting their families. The younger of my two brothers is a cardiologist. Some period after I’d moved back to St. Maurice, Keith had to go out of town, I believe it was to San Francisco, and had left me with specific instructions of what to do if my father had any health problems. Early Friday morning, Daddy complained that he had not slept well the night before. I took him to the doctor as Keith had recommended.

 

Dr. Wooten did not find anything seriously wrong but admitted Daddy to a hospital as a precaution. I visited later that afternoon accompanied by Debra Campbell, a woman I was dating at the time. Daddy said he was feeling ok but would like to get a good long sleep, so tell anybody who wanted to come see him, to do so on Saturday. I recall that while Daddy and I were talking, Debra spontaneously reached out and rubbed his feet. She was meeting him for the first time. I never would have done that.

 

Daddy fell into a coma later that night and died two days later on a Sunday morning. He had held on until Keith could get back in town. As the doctor took daddy off life support, Keith, Kenneth, and I were standing beside my father while he expired. No one could explain what had happened, what was the cause of his demise.

 

I had never known my father to be sick, in fact never even saw him, as the popular saying goes, “under the weather.” Big Val was robust, active and full of energy. His fatal illness was a mystery. One day he’s ok, the next he’s in a coma, and less than 48 hours later he’s dead. What the hell happened? We’ve never received any answers, not even plausible guesses.

 

As it sometimes does, death came both swiftly and without warning. Caught me totally unprepared. My mother had died several years earlier after a long bout with cancer. We had been prepped to deal with her home-going, indeed, she involved each of her sons in coping with her transition by talking with us when we drove her across town for medical treatments. I had more or less calmly dealt with the loss of my mother but was blind-sided by my father’s untimely departure.

 

We never knew my Daddy’s mother who had died when he was a child residing down around Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Even though he briefly lived next door to us, I never really knew my daddy’s father who was my namesake. Vallery Ferdinand, Sr. was my daddy’s father, and I was born Vallery Ferdinand III. Grandpa Ferdinand died when Hurricane Betsy flooded our neighborhood in September of 1965 while I was in the army.

 

Well before reaching forty, I found myself as the oldest living member of my immediate family, most of them had died during my physical absence, and none of them had required any major care on my part. I really had no clue concerning what it took to be a day-to-day caregiver.

 

 

5.

The loss of family and friends reminds us that mortality, paradoxically, is a major part of life. Many years later when I was in my sixties, while helping to care for close friends, death once again caught up with me in a major way. Of course, there were other occasions when I had to confront death in the intervening years but none of those ordinary instances really shook me as did two particular close friends leaving me behind—Doug Redd and Harold Battiste.

 

Born in New Orleans but reared in Baton Rouge, Douglas Redd was a visual artist who returned to New Orleans for college and became a fixture on the cultural scene. He and I connected and over time became like brothers. Right after Katrina hit, I had made a major video documentary of the two of us opining about New Orleans culture.

 

When cancer struck him, I responded. For over a year, I devoted nearly every night, from around seven or eight in the evening until after midnight, to sitting with Doug. We’d talk, watch television. During the last year of his life, illness rendered Doug virtually incapacitated; nevertheless, I mostly remember him jovially laughing and smiling as we bantered about the TV series “24” or whatever else happened to be on that night.

 

Mostly that was the way each night went, except the time Doug suddenly convulsed and I held him, first shaking him gently and then lowering him to a prone position. Carol Bebelle, who was Doug’s business partner with whom he shared an apartment at Ashé Cultural Center, the organization the two of them founded, called 911. I ran downstairs to the parking lot to make sure the EMTs would be able to arrive without any delay or confusion about how to access Doug, who was on the third floor at the back of the building next to the rear parking lot. The front of the building facing the street offered no way upstairs and no access to the elevator.

 

Fortunately, help arrived quickly and Doug was stabilized. As significant as that occasion was, another night was more memorable. It was a cliché: a dark and stormy night. Carol was away at a meeting. I asked Doug if he wanted to go outside. He looked at me wide-eyed. I assured him I was not joking.

 

“But don’t tell Carol,” I conspiratorially whispered.

 

Downstairs there was an overhang by the rear entrance facing away from the side parking lot. Lightning and heavy rain. I pushed Doug’s wheelchair as far out under the overhang as I could without the rain plummeting down on us. And we silently enjoyed the exhilarating ambience of the New Orleans night shower. There was an electric charge in the air, plus a definite atmospheric odor, as well as a perceptible drop in the temperature. The sights and sounds of the thunderstorm were simultaneously dangerous and energizing. At such times, most people seek shelter, but we were two fools reveling in the experience of exposing ourselves to the elements.

 

Sometime later, I told Carol about being out in the storm with Doug. Although he and I spent numerous nights together, I was not present when Doug passed away early, early one morning in July 2007, one month shy of the second anniversary of Katrina.

 

 

6.

Both Doug and I were born in 1947, he in December and I in March. Doug was my peer. Harold Battiste, conversely, was more of a father figure.

 

I was working as the executive director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the parent organization of the popular, internationally-renowned New Orleans Jazzfest. I knew of Harold Battiste but had never met him. When he came in town for one of the annual Jazzfest activities, I invited him over for dinner. By then I was living in the Midcity area of New Orleans. Harold had produced New Orleans Jazz Heritage, a multiple LP set of fifties and sixties era jazz music that greatly inspired me. Following up on Harold’s example, I would go on to produce The New New Orleans Music, a three-volume set of recordings featuring six different groups, one on each side of the collection.

 

As music producers and cultural activists Harold and I were two amigos and stayed in touch. Within a year of our dinner, Harold decided to return home to New Orleans after living in Los Angeles for many years that included working with Sam Cooke and serving as the musical director for Sonny and Cher. We started hanging out, usually around dinner at Picadilly’s but also at other eateries.

 

One place we sometimes chose was a Thai restaurant located in the River Bend area of New Orleans. A scary incident happened there: Harold fell while negotiating the narrow spaces between tables. Although he insisted he was ok afterwards, I was alarmed. His fall had been hard. His health was failing. Within a year or so, Harold was homebound. What he resented most was not being able to drive. Although dealing with Harold’s physical condition did not bother me, nor fellow musician/guardian angel Jesse McBride, nor Sophia, a distant cousin who became Harold’s primary caretaker, Harold was deeply resentful of the deterioration of his strength and mobility.

 

What he resented most was not being able to drive. Our trio of caregivers was there for him, but eventually we started arguing with Harold about us denying him the chance to drive himself. One time the disagreement was so sharp, I challenged Harold, telling him I would give him the keys to his car if he could come and get them. I went outside his apartment, walked toward the end of the long hallway and, holding up the car keys, I patiently waited for him to come to me. It was a cruel gesture; I knew he was unable to walk over sixty feet unassisted.

 

I knew driving had become to dangerous. In the year prior to that confrontation, Harold had had both a minor and a more serious automobile accident. I was afraid the next collision would be fatal. Emotionally, tough love is sometimes harder on the person giving it than on the person receiving it.

 

Eventually, our hanging out was curtailed altogether as Harold grew more sick and old age prevented him from doing anything alone. Sometimes, when I would visit, I would find Harold sitting by himself on his bed, looking out over the back-parking lot of his building, which ironically abutted a cemetery. Usually we could talk for hours, but now he would silently sit; the only sounds was our deep breathing, as he was mostly unresponsive to me prodding him to engage in conversation.

 

Sophia had moved in to care for him 24-7. Harold died at 83 in June of 2015. I had known him for over thirty years and when he left us, I was deeply affected. Just as had happened earlier when Doug passed, another part of me was now, irretrievably missing.

 

When you lose decades-long, close friendships, whether or not you verbally acknowledge your hurt, you do not live the rest of your life unchanged—especially as you grow old into what our people euphemistically call “the sunset” years.

 

 

 

7.

I am not alone in dealing with the existential challenges of caregiving. I decided to reach out to a friend from back in the day, Sylvia Hill. The phone rang and rang, until eventually the answering machine picked up: Once. Twice. Thrice. I called a couple of people I knew who lived in D.C., where Sylvia was, and whom I thought might know her. Still was unable to reach her. A few weeks after giving up, I tried again on a whim, a hope.

 

She answered and informed me she had been out of town. I told her why I called in the first place: I was in the throes of dealing with caregiving with my wife and Sylvia’s example years before had profoundly affected me.

 

Long story, short: after a marriage and a separation, Sylvia had taken her former husband back in over a decade later when he went blind. When we finally talked, Sylvia told me James had died over a year earlier on January 8, 2017.

 

We conversed as though we had seen each other last week. Actually, it had been years since we talked but ever since we first spoke on the phone back in 1974 about participating in the Sixth Pan African Conference, popularly known as 6PAC, for which Sylvia was a major coordinator, she and I were close even though we never even lived in the same city.

 

In the Howard University emergency room, sickle cell wracking his body and sapping his strength, James Hill had remained resolute. Sylvia recalls his last lucid words: “Power to the people. Power to Black people. Keep hope alive.” A janitor who happened to be nearby said, “Did I really hear him say that?”

 

Our friendship grew out of political work. I had first come to know Sylvia when she was working as staff for 6-PAC in Tanzania, following that with ongoing Anti-Apartheid work in the eighties, and eventually assisting with Nelson Mandela’s tour of the United States following his 1990 release from prison.

 

Nearly twenty years before Mandela’s world tour, I had been one of the national organizers for FESTAC 1977, the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, held in Lagos, Nigeria, and underwritten by Nigeria’s oil riches. Coming up out of New Orleans, I was representing the deep south region of the United States. FESTAC held monthly board meetings in D.C. and I would make an effort to call and, if possible, visit with Sylvia whenever I was in town.

 

Sylvia and I knew a number of people in common including Ed Brown, who was Rap Brown’s older brother and who was a former organizer with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), working as a field secretary in Mississippi. In 2002 Jamil Abdullah al-Amin (bka H. Rap Brown) was convicted of and incarcerated for the death of a policeman. Rap had converted to Islam, as would Ed during the last years of his life. I had gotten to personally know both Jamil and Ed, when they lived in Atlanta.

 

Ed Brown and I would journey back and forth visiting with each other. In later years when Ed became terminally ill, my friend Lionel McIntyre and I set off on the six-and-a-half-hour journey ‘fore day in the morning to sit with Ed. We spent about four hours reminiscing with Ed and his wife Valinda. Afterwards, we jumped into our vehicle and drove back to New Orleans.

 

Some weeks later as a pain in my right leg worsened, a doctor asked me had I recently taken a long trip. I said yes. He advised me that long back and forth drive probably contributed to a serious blot clot condition for which I was hospitalized for a couple of days. If I had not received treatment, the blood clot could have been fatal.

 

Years later, when Sylvia told me about James’ death, I thought about my own illness.

 

Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Sylvia had been working with the Institute of African Education, a program supported by Macalister College. The program was based in the small but vibrant Black community of St. Paul, Minnesota. I had spent two trimesters at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, about 50 miles from St. Paul. I didn’t know many Black folk who were familiar with that part of the country.

 

Sylvia was adept at patiently talking with people in a non-threatening but forceful way. Her goal was to get people active in education, oppositional politics, and community-based health pursuits, all three of which were a necessary foundation for ongoing political work. Just as legendary Chinese revolutionary Mao Tse Tung advised: “a dull-witted army cannot defeat the enemy.” Sylvia knew we had to both study and struggle. Of course, the popular culture of the sixties and seventies actively encouraged us to be, in the famous words of James Brown, “Black and Proud,” and to “get up and get involved.”

 

Ninety percent of movement work happens away from the spotlight and microphones, takes place in the workplaces, churches and temples, and home spaces of working class people. While the churches were important organizing focal points, during the seventies, activists at community and cultural centers offered a more radical interpretation of what was to be done. Additionally, in these spaces one could meet and interact with regional, national and international figures who were culturally and politically active. Overall, independent organizing was hard, inching along work, that required daily commitments sustained over extensive periods of time, often for only incremental gains.

 

On the one hand, during this period, as a result of social ferment throughout our city, this nation, and the world, there was a rise in the number of Black elected and appointed officials; but on the other hand, there was an overwhelming and profound need for economic and health care programs.

 

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.

 

 

 

8.

The details may change but the essential challenges remain the same. In 1997 I re-married. In the fall of 2017 when my wife, Nia (Beaula R. McCoy, who was also married for a second time), suffered a stroke, I found myself again in a spousal caregiving role. I had forgotten about the first time. Back in 1985 Tayari had the first of three brain operations over a roughly thirty-some-year period. There was a slow recovery following the first operation.

 

Although extremely serious, I don’t recall Tayari’s recuperation being as strenuous as the daily struggles to care for Nia, who is barely mobile with a walker and spends most of her time in a wheelchair.

 

Nia and I are now in our seventies; in the 1980s both Tayari and I were in our thirties. We were overall, much more-healthy, much stronger, and had much more energy, all of which greatly contributed to the relative ease that Tayari had in responding to the first brain surgery compared to Nia coping with the after effects of her stroke.

 

While Tayari’s recovery was, as the saying goes, no “walk in the park”; afterwards, Tayari could take care of herself. Even though she had to be careful about what otherwise would be an ordinary bump to the head, she was not physically impaired. Nia completely lost her peripheral vision on her left side and also suffered an increasing, although minor, deterioration of her sight in general.

 

Nia had to give up driving, which required a major psychological adjustment for someone who was used to being independently mobile. Thinking back to Harold’s anger at not being able to drive, I could easily empathize with how hobbled Nia feels. It’s almost like being permanently grounded. Of course, when faced with ongoing major health issues, not being able to drive doesn’t initially register as a great challenge, but it doesn’t take long before one feels like a newly caged bird.

 

Tayari could walk, talk, and, over time, carry on as usual. Although she was not physically restricted there were disconcerting attitudinal changes. At that time, the women in our organization wore either lapas (long, wrap-around skirts) or trousers. Not long after the operation, Tayari announced that she wanted to wear shorts and walk around the block.

 

Although I didn’t particularly like the idea, if I truly believed in self-determination, I knew that I had no right or prerogative to control what Tayari did with her body, even if I thought her decision was a negative result of her operation.

 

Tayari and I didn’t argue about her choice. She went for her walk and returned home shortly.  

 

Tayari’s personal decisions were never an issue for me. There is a critical saying from the women’s movement of the late sixties, which, incidentally, I think may have grown out of the civil rights movement. That saying is an essential credo of self-determination: “the personal is political”. Moreover, I believe that slogan really took off as an outgrowth of the Black Power movement. Indeed, wasn’t it obvious, if the lowest strata of society could insist on its rights to self-determination, to power, then why not women, whom patriarchy oppressed and exploited across the board at every level and in as many ways as possible? For example, what is a beauty contest but an appeal to what men consider beautiful? And, yes, President Trump and the beauty contests that he “owned” are a prime example!

 

The reason that the women’s movement was so hated is precisely because empowering women is a direct challenge to patriarchy, a system that implicitly and explicitly is based on the male control of the female: body, mind and soul.

 

People who knew me in the seventies, on some rare occasions ask: why did you and Tayari break up? Why did I end our marriage? And, it clearly had been my decision. For a long time, I could never really articulate why, however, as I write this essay, a pivotal event from over thirty years ago strikes me in ways I never fully understood at the time. The breakup happened in conjunction with what I thought of at the time as the total destruction of a world I had worked hard to construct.

 

In reflecting on the situation, I’ve come to realize that ending our marriage happened in conjunction with me leaving our organization, Ahidiana. To be more precise, I made a decision to leave the organization because I believed that we were no longer primarily about making social change.

 

Of course, our organizational issues were far more complex than my personal opinion. For over a decade all but one or two of Ahidiana members were either reared in or moved into the Lower Ninth Ward near our school building, which we owned collectively. But over time, neighborhood safety deteriorated. My youngest brother Keith and his wife Daphne had a burglary and they decided to move their family away from the area, as it was becoming more and more dangerous. Tayari’s brother, Mtumishi, and his wife Shawishi also decided to move out to New Orleans East. Keith was a doctor, Mtumishi was a lawyer. As they were progressing in their professions, they were also moving into a different social strata.

 

I could sense changing attitudes resulting from changing social circumstances. And just as when Tayari decided to wear shorts, I did not believe I had the right to over-rule the decisions of others. My thinking in regard to our organization was that it would be best to officially disband rather than to slowly wither away as members moved far from the Lower Nine and further from anti-establishment activism.

 

On the other hand, I had a major blind spot in terms of child-rearing. I did not fully understand how important it was to maintain our school whose students ranged from pre-K to fourth grade.

 

Part of my blind spot was that I didn’t teach in our school. I drove the van doing pickups in the morning or drop offs in the afternoon. I pulled my clean-up shifts at the school and at our small, one-room bookstore. I participated in the lesson planning and the preparation of booklets we used for instruction but I was not a hands-on care taker for the watoto (children).

 

At Ahidiana the children referred to the adults as mama (mother) and baba (father). Regardless of what I thought, the reality was that I was ready to abandon my parental duties for the children who did not live under the Salaam roof. Of course, any of the organization children who was visiting with us was cared for. They often slept over and didn’t even have to ask permission. The Ahidiana children grew up collectively.

 

The breakup of Ahidiana was a major struggle for me but I was prepared to let it go. I didn’t fully understand that care givers shouldn’t just walk away. The politics of struggle are far deeper than most of us realize as we make individual life choices; certainly, far deeper than I understood at that time.

 

I was convinced that rather than gradually disintegrate, Ahidiana should come to a planned halt, but I was not thinking about what that meant for all the children at our school, partially because, except for our youngest, all my biological children were already moving on to public school.

 

Moreover, there was a deeper truth: Ahidiana had been founded as a result of a painful split. Initially, we were Dokpwe Work/Study Center, founded by my brother Kenneth and Tayari. Roughly half of us broke off from Dokpwe to start Ahidiana because we were pushing for a political organization that also operated a school rather than a staff that functioned solely as a school.

 

Even though it meant splitting with my brother, I was adamant that the fissure had reached a non-negotiable political position. Dokpwe kept the stove, Ahidiana took the refrigerator. It was a classic separation, emblematic of many, many splits happening in Black America of that period. Although both camps considered themselves Black nationalists, the severity of the separation was akin to the nationalist/Marxist breakdowns that were rife among anti-establishment, political forces in the eighties.

 

 

9.

Those of us of the Ahidiana persuasion were particularly militant about participating in community organizing and confronting civil authority. For example, we were actively engaged in addressing the issue of police brutality and were especially motivated after three people were gunned down during police raids in the Algiers area of New Orleans on the west bank side of the Mississippi River in November 1980.

 

A police officer, Gregory Neupert, was shot and killed in Algiers by an unknown assailant. In attempts to hunt down the killer, the cops enacted repressive, Draconian measures (that included torture, which was later documented in court trials). The word on the street was that Nuepert was a dirty copy involved in drug dealing. In one particularly horrific case, three people were killed by police following the death of Neupert. One of the victims was a 26-year-old woman, Sherry Singleton, whom one neighbor reported hearing beg for her life. Two young men, James Billy and Reginald Miles, who was Singleton’s boyfriend, were also killed in gun fights with the police that night. A few days earlier Raymond Ferdinand had been shot by police.

 

Some of us felt we had to do something, take some action. Mayor Dutch Morial was the city’s first Black mayor. We decided to sit-in the mayor’s office under the slogan of “Blow The Whistle On Dutch,” whom we held ultimately responsible. The take-over was very controversial—and, as the cliché goes, “that’s putting it mildly”.

 

Dutch was not only a “first negro”, he was a proud man. What we did was a major embarrassment not just for the Morial administration but for him personally. Many years earlier, when I was in high school and an active member of the NAACP Youth Council, Dutch headed the adult NAACP chapter. Back then we had clashed over a boycott of Canal Street, which was the main business district. After over a year of the Youth Council picketing and organizing the boycott, the merchants decided to negotiate but only if the pickets were removed. The adult chapter, which, except for two or three members, had not regularly walked the picket line, were ready to meet the merchant’s terms. They gave us an ultimatum: either agree to the terms or be expelled from the NAACP.

 

Nobody had to tell me twice. I resigned. Years later, following the Algiers murders, Dutch and I were again at loggerheads.  Although I did not view the situation in personal terms, there was no denying we had history.

 

This classic conflict was not actually between two forces contending for the same objective. No. On the one had there was the view that we should push for full participation in the established society. On the other hand, there was the view that we should struggle for an independent alternative, a struggle that included forceful opposition to establishment authority. What to do when the former rebels, i.e. people such as Dutch who had a long history of participating in efforts to improve the conditions of our community, were in conflict with the emerging youth, i.e. those whom we represented and who were staunch opposition elements.

 

Without any warning, we launched a frontal assault on City Hall. We occupied the mayor’s office from Thursday until Saturday afternoon when we decamped, striding out of the building with our fists proudly upraised.

 

Being an activist is among the higher levels of caring because it moves beyond individual benefit and instead is focused on collective issues. At a philosophical level, I cannot separate caring for individuals from social activism. Living a good and relevant life required principled activity on both a personal and a social plane. Not surprisingly, I often publicly focused on the larger social issues even as I privately paid attention to personal issues.

 

I believed that there are three levels of power: the political, the economic, and the military. Police brutality made shockingly clear to us not only that we had no military power but also that although the police were nominally controlled by the mayor, de facto, the truth was the police still viewed some of us as runaway slaves. In fact, worse than runaways, a number of us were actually viewed as slaves in revolt. We had to be put down.

 

Some of us had to be shot as examples in order to keep the bulk of us in compliance with the powers that be. Although his power as the titular head of the city was not negligible, Dutch Morial was not essentially in charge of the city, and certainly was not in charge of the economy of the city.

 

New Orleans is one of the major port cities of the United States; always in the top ten, sometimes as high as one of the top five. But there was a change in both the national and international shipping of goods that happened a number of years ago: cargo was placed in containers that could be mechanically loaded directly from the ship onto rail or trucks. A large gang of longshoremen was no longer needed for manual labor.

 

The Black longshoremen had earned significant income (enough to support businesses and pay for college education). They, along with public school teachers, had been the major economic force in the Black community. Longshoremen and public school teachers were both unionized. Technology wiped out the longshoremen and charters attacked the teacher’s union, thereby effectively limiting if not totally neutering major economic levers that were under Black control in New Orleans. Although this development took over thirty years to come to full fruition, nevertheless, the destruction of these two forces was a major blow.

 

Longshoremen and teachers were integral to our collective wellbeing, especially when you consider issues around health care. Caregiving costs money. Adequate health insurance was a major benefit of both professions (and yes being a longshoreman was a profession). Buying medications and paying for direct and indirect medical services can be expensive: from clinic visits to obtaining sturdy wheelchairs and regular purchases of medication. In most cases, while we are young and relatively healthy, we don’t consider these issues; but, oh, as we age.

 

Regardless, as significant as providing compassionate caregiving is, far too many of us never get to be elders in wheelchairs and on long term medication. Why? Well, because we instead become early victims of poor health care, and also tragic victims of police brutality. One of my brothers is a physician. Another of my two brothers is a businessman. I was the militant.

 

By taking a public and militant position on police brutality I knew that I was placing a target on myself. We began receiving threatening phone calls at home and after a drive-by with people shouting racial epithets one night, I began sleeping with a loaded thirty-caliber, semi-automatic carbine rifle next to the futon.

 

Some older friends and associates counseled that it might be prudent if we slowed down a bit; after all, who would take care of my wife and five children if something might happen to me. Although I never surrendered to the social pressure to stop anti-police brutality organizing, I was sincerely concerned about my personal responsibility as the prime care taker for my family versus my commitment to a leading role in caring about our larger community by militantly confronting police brutality and organizing around other issues germane to our collective wellbeing.

 

 

 

10.

During the eighties and early nineties, I was doing a lot of travel internationally, mainly to the Caribbean, but also to England, France, and Germany in Europe; Brazil and Surinam in South America, and of course to Africa. I helped organize the first Pan Jazz Festival in Trinidad, and before that took jazz combos and brass bands to a number of the islands. I was also a participant in the 1994 PANAFEST in Ghana, West Africa.

 

At home I was a fixture on radio station WWOZ, the New Orleans music station. One of my most popular programs was the Thursday night Kitchen Sink, whose eclectic playlist was just what the name implied. I once garnered a month-long ban for a show I did featuring Malcolm X speeches mixed with music from Archie Shepp. On another occasion, I offended some listeners with my “MJ Special”. We played Mahalia Jackson the first hour and Michael Jackson the second hour. I was far from programming just historic New Orleans R&B, popular funk, progressive jazz, show tune standards, and romantic ballads.

 

The transfer of the broadcast license from the Nora Blatch Educational Foundation to the Friends of WWOZ Inc., supported by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, was my major achievement during my tenure as the Jazz & Heritage executive director. ‘OZ was founded by brothers Walter and Jerry Brock, who had been active in community radio in Texas. It literally took them over four years of organizing and gathering support from the wild and diverse New Orleans music community to secure the last broadcasting license available in the greater New Orleans area. The station began broadcasting on December 4, 1980.

 

I knew that financial stability was going to be a major issue. The technical side of broadcasting was covered by engineer Ken Devine with whom I struck up a long-term alliance. Walter and Jerry raised early funding selling memberships while at the same time coordinating the programming talent. Initially, the programs were pre-recorded for broadcast. After shifting to a mix of pre-recorded and live shows, the station subsequently went predominantly live, 24-hours a day. The focus on the music with volunteer DJs and minimally paid staff notwithstanding, I knew that the funding required for daily operation and for equipment purchases and upkeep was the critical issue.

 

During my tenure as executive director, I had managed the considerable funds of the Foundation and became adept at identifying six-month CDs (certificate of deposit) at various financial institutions to make money off of earned interest. Once I even drove twenty-some miles across the lake to Slidell, Louisiana to garner a high interest 100,000 dollar CD. I knew that if I could persuade the Foundation board to actively support WWOZ that would solidify the financial status of the station. Orchestrating the transfer was far from easy and fraught with numerous obstacles, misunderstandings, and conflicts.

 

The first WWOZ studio was a small room above the famous Tipitina’s nightclub. The second location was the Kitchen Building in Armstrong Park. The current home is an upstairs location on St. Peter Street in the historic French Quarter. At one point in the early years following the move to Armstrong Park, the entire staff and many of the programmers went out on strike because of management issues. I joined the strike. Eventually those issues were ironed out and today the station thrives in its French Quarter offices overlooking the Mississippi River.

 

Coordinating the diverse partners who were needed to get the title transferred and to establish the sound financial footing necessary to keep the station afloat was a tricky proposition, but eventually it was accomplished. Via the internet, WWOZ is now heard worldwide. Very few of the thousands of members and listeners know any of the details about the founding and early struggles of WWOZ. Ultimately, just as I had assumed, despite inevitable ups and downs, as well as internal conflicts, the Jazz and Heritage Foundation proved to be a reliable caretaker for community radio.

 

Although some may not see or understand the nexus of community work to individually caring for a spouse, a family member, a close friend, or other individual in need; to me, whether for the collective or the individual, my caretaking in either case is philosophically an essential aspect of what I believe is my responsibility to kin and kind. While not denying the differences, I believe community/individual are two sides of the same coin of my essential humanity expressed in terms of how I live with and relate to others.

 

 

 

11.

To accomplish my tasks as a caretaker with Nia, I take on many of the responsibilities usually assigned to the “housewife”. Beyond culinary duties and cleanup afterwards, there is the daily clothing that has to be washed, plus the significant toileting assistance and waste disposal that requires constant maintenance.

 

One day Nia told me that she didn’t want our home to smell of “urine and feces” as did the houses of some others who were infirmed. She didn’t have to tell me twice. Although emotionally taxing, none of the necessary hygiene chores are physically strenuous. The biggest requirement is that you have to deal with the issues quickly and efficiently, especially putting out the trash.

 

Red Plastic Bag (Stedson Wilshire) is an entertainer from Barbados who combines reggae and soca, and has won national contests in his home country. What a name, I thought, when I first heard the light-brown-skinned performer at Barbados’ annual “Crop Over” festivities. Today, taking care of my wife, I use beaucoup plastic bags on a daily basis mainly to line trashcans and to contain waste but, also, to dispose of the plastic-lined padding that is used daily on easy chairs and bedding.

 

Although the inexpensive plastic bags that the grocery stores and supermarkets now offer, in place of the heavy paper bags formerly used, are inexpensive and convenient, I also know that plastic is non-biodegradable. Plastic bags and plastic packaging are a major pollutant in oceans worldwide, which are too often where hundreds of thousands of these cheap containers end up. Some countries are beginning to actively curtail the routine use of plastic bags, especially for daily use at home. Nevertheless, plastic bags are incredibly convenient even though for the long-term, disposal of medical and human waste, incineration is ultimately required for that. Ultimately, the environmental cost of the proliferation of plastic bags is high. Plastic bags are both a major convenience and at the same time a major environmental hazard.

 

There is a critical upside and critical downside to much of our modern 21stcentury lifestyles. The widely-accepted general use of plastic bags embodies both the positive and negative.

 

Plastic bags offer us immediate short-term solutions but create expensive, long-term problems. Once again, our society is faced with a major question given the conditions that have to be dealt with and the options available to us: “what is to be done?” Dealing with Nia’s condition directly presents all kinds of questions for me that I had not previously considered, not to mention, for which I have not yet found suitable answers. I believe stewardship of self, others and the environment is one of our most critical human responsibilities.

 

 

12.

Because my wife is only partially mobile, frequent clinic appointments, doctor checkups, and therapy sessions that happen three or more times a week require hours to prepare for and to complete. As a friend told me in serious jest: growing old is not for wimps!

 

Imagine: it takes us three or four minutes to negotiate the series of four steps up and down our front porch. There is a whole technique to climbing up, and to climbing down—lead with the good foot, which is Nia’s left foot because although her left peripheral vision was gone, the right side of her body was weakened. So, she faces the railing and, standing sideways, painfully steps down or up leading with her left foot. Of course, I am there supporting her but there is also a major issue of encouraging her to do as much on her own as she can.

 

Indeed, she can grow stronger by pushing herself to do as much as possible on her own. Haltingly moving with a walker is painfully slow but I patiently wait, often next to and slightly behind her just in case she needs support.

 

Ordinary tasks we do without much thinking about it, such as unscrewing the cap on a bottle of water, is extremely difficult for someone who has suffered a stroke. Picking up the Chapstick that fell on the floor—oh, the floor is so far away.

 

Your worldview is different when you are mostly confined to a wheelchair. You can’t just go out on the porch and check the mailbox. Indeed, you can’t reach the mailbox. Of course, you could push the walker out on the porch, maneuver the wheelchair onto the porch, brace the walker against the side of the house, pull yourself up, and hobble over to the mailbox. Nothing there but ad brochures and solicitations from insurance companies.

 

You get tired of watching network television and cable.

 

The biggest thrill of the day isn’t eating, it’s bathing. Sitting on the shower bench that fits into the tub with a set of legs inside the tub and a set of legs outside the tub. The bench is designed with holes in the seat so the water flows through rather than splashes on the floor. To just sit there and take a long hot—but not too hot—shower is totally refreshing. And then being helped into freshly washed, clean clothing is a wonderful feeling.

 

Yes, you wear the pull-ups that are a combination of drawers and diaper. Thankfully, your caretaker is on the case whenever you say you need to go to the bathroom—oh, why be coy, you need to use the toilet, and you need assistance once you are finished emptying your bowels. You change your disposable underwear, get dressed again, and push yourself to navigate with the walker. The long hallway takes time and you’re breathing hard when you finally get to the den, but you know walking is therapeutic.

 

Finally, you sit in the wheelchair and ask for a bottle of chilled water.

 

And then there is a mischievous moment. Nia requests her favorite cookie: “Do we have any Lorna Doones?”

 

Being the sole caretaker for what the old folks commonly called “the sick and shut-in” is not a lightweight job. You get no days off and it requires rigorous and sustained follow through on all necessary tasks. Who knew there was so much involved in caregiving? Until we are thrust into caregiving jobs, most of us are totally clueless.

 

For me, the hardest aspect of caregiving is the emotional impact on both Nia and myself. Yes, I’m sometimes annoyed when I am working at the computer and Nia calls out to me. And I know that Nia would much prefer not to have to ask me to heat up some chicken noodle soup for her. Occasionally the sixth trip of the week to a clinic ten or so miles away taxes my patience. Despite how pleasant and concerned the physician is, I’m sure Nia can’t enjoy visits with Dr. Robinson as she goes over the various medications and the regimens required for Nia’s prescriptions to be effective. Walking back and forth from the washing machine and dryer in the back room to the hall bathroom on the other side of the house as part of the non-ending daily routine invites me to think about so many other things I would prefer to be doing. I know Nia does not enjoy being confined to a wheelchair day after day, not able to freely move throughout the house because there are rooms she physically can’t access. Some days I get up earlier than I want to, or stay up later than I choose to, because Nia is not sleepy at that moment.

 

Yes, I sometimes wish that this particular phase was ended. But then, I soldier on. I know, not only is no cavalry going to appear to save me, I also know a deeper truth—I don’t need mythical or magical saving. I have been gifted with the example of family and friends who carry on. As my brother, Kenneth, is wont to say: it’s in the genes. I come from people who have made a way out of no way.

 

Moreover, there is no moral nor ethical failure that links or causes anyone to suffer a stroke. God is not punishing people. The illness is not karma coming back on someone who has done wrong. Especially, considering that the patient was seventy-years-old when the first in the series of three strokes struck, this illness is actually part of the general arc of life. Our bodies wear down or wear out as we age. While it is true that in the long term, healthy, active lifestyles are far better than the average American sedentary lifestyle, that still does not mean we can live illness-free forever. We are in fact mortal and subject to our heath deteriorating. We all, to one degree or another, encounter a major struggle to stay fit as we age.  

 

Although there is obviously a love for the patient, ultimately, the act of caregiving is unsentimental. Regardless of how we might feel about the task at hand, whatever is required to address the recovery is our responsibility, which we volunteer to undertake regardless of how trying our duties may be. Indeed, too often it is not the impossible that confronts us but rather our reluctance to face up to the difficult, or to the repulsive, the distasteful, the disturbing. Sometimes it’s simply the inconvenient. Whatever. When faced with the job of caretaking, it’s simply will you or won’t you do what is required.

 

People sometimes ask what they can do to help? Perhaps the easiest and maybe even the most helpful thing family and friends can do is come by and sit for two hours or so to give the primary care taker a break. Not only is that easily doable, also, visitations can actually be emotionally supportive to people who often feel forgotten and depressed about their situation.

 

Dealing with those who are ill is very different from being ill. I believe it is important that we get over the embarrassment inherent in much of the physical tasks that the caretaker must undertake. Also, and perhaps even more important, is letting the patient know that they are not a burden or a failure, especially when they are struggling to overcome a disability or limitation. One of the most difficult things in the world is to accept our weaknesses, especially in areas where we formerly were strong.

 

Are we strong enough to acknowledge our weaknesses and are we ready to make whatever necessary adjustments to carry on?

 

You know what Jerry Butler said: only the strong survive. I believe, for sure, we are strong enough to survive, particularly if we acknowledge and celebrate that just as there are many ways to survive, there are many ways both the care taker and the cared for can be and ought to be strong.

 

After all, survival is our calling card. Not just the survival of our family and loved ones. Not just survival of our race in this terrible, color-struck society. No. Our individual survival is but a small part of human survival. As a care taker, as well as the person being cared for, we don’t have to wish for release. We just need to carry on. We can do this. And we do.

 

Survival on a global level is what enables the human species to grow and develop. It is human to face whatever music might be sounding. It is human to dance and carry on.

 

As the primary caregiver, regardless of how I might feel on any particular day, I know: I can do this. I will do this.

 

 

13.

At the deepest level of existence, we really do need each other. We humans are social creatures. While there is no new news in that truism, most of us generally do not think on what it means to be human. We go through our days without contemplating that to be human necessarily requires us to be connected to other humans. Even for those of us who are hermits, or misanthropes, or monks living in silence atop mountains of our own making. No matter. We don’t become whomsoever we are without contact with others: first as babies, dependent on parents or surrogates for survival; second as adolescents growing up and maturing together; third as adult workers and parents, propagating both society and our species; fourth and finally as elders, who generally require physical and emotional support even as we impart wisdom and understanding to our society.

 

Humanity is not a solitary state; to be human means to be social.

 

In one sense or another, all of us are like babies: Dependent on others to take care of us but at the same time near totally self-absorbed with our own individuality. But the importance of, and even the psychological dominance of the individual personality notwithstanding, essentially our identity as a human being is initially created, continually shaped, and ultimately fulfilled by our relationships with others. In that regard, taking care of others is the highest expression of our humanity that any of us can achieve precisely because in caring for others we ultimately define who we are as a living organism interacting with our physical and social environment.

 

The beauty of being human is that, regardless of our condition, we are not alone. Or, as a number of African philosophies correctly assert: I am because we are.

 

Take care.

 

# # #

 

 

 

 

 

 

photo by Alex Lear

 

That’s Christmas

 

We sat silently at the table. Keith, the youngest of us, was maybe five, six at the most, I probably was around eight, sneaking up on nine. My daddy had said go by the table in the front room and dutifully we waited quietly.

 

There was no tree in the living room, no lights around the windows, no radio on playing Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song—a song that unfailing marks time for me ever since I was driving back from a holiday party my senior year in high school and the song came filling the car with a strange sentiment, which in years ahead I would easily identify as a combination of desire and satisfaction. Nat’s voice had a very reassuring quality, and at the same time the music made you want to have someone near to share that moment, someone you could touch in an intimate albeit unembarrassing way, like her hand between your legs or vice versa, and catching green lights all the way on the slow drive home.

 

When my daddy walked in the room we all looked up, certain that this was an important moment. My daddy was a man of few words, he didn’t joke around and when he told you to do something, well, as young as we were we understood. 

 

It was maybe a week before Christmas. In future years by then we would have already strung lights around the grillwork on the front porch and on the edge of the roof fronting the sidewalk, and during the holiday seasons when we went all out, we would put color-coordinated blinking bulbs in all the windows facing the street, but at that moment there was only the lonely dining room ceiling light illuminating the bare table and the close-cropped heads of my father’s three sons as our giant of a man stood in front of us.

 

I don’t know where my mother was. She wasn’t in the room. Was she even home? I don’t remember.

 

Maybe I looked up at the fixture, a sort of frosted glass plate that muted the harsh illumination, the same kind of covering I broke one day while bouncing a rubber ball in the room. Boom, it shattered and a falling shard cut my top lip—the scar is still there, you just don’t notice it because of my heavy mustache.  

 

Then my father pushed his hand into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, opened the leather, extracted three five-dollar bills, gave one to each of us, said “that’s Christmas,” turned and walked out the room.

 

Nothing further was said. No lecture. No sugar-coating the naked truth. We continued celebrating Christmas for years after that but inside each of the three Ferdinand boys there was a calculator that added up each sentiment, every desire, all our feelings as part of the emotional audit we routinely did at key moments for the rest of our lives. 

 

Thanks to my father, my brothers and I viewed Christmas and everything else in life with cold, clear, unsentimental eyes. We could and often did go through social feel-good motions but the mask of mythology had been ripped off our eyes early in our lives when our father taught us the true meaning of Christmas: give what you can and move on.

 

—kalamu ya salaam

 

folks,

 

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,

 

kalamu


‘BE ABOUT BEAUTY’

LECTURE NOTES

 

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.