(arrested July 20, 2015)
We say your name
because we know they want you to be erased
to be just a memory
to be just a fragment
to be just a fragrance caught in their wind.
We chant your name
because we could not stop your arrest.
We saw it but could not act
as throwing stones at our computers never changes anything.
We whisper your name, over and over again,
because we still strive to find the normal
to give voice to our pain
to reclaim what we love
to remember who we are.
We whisper it, over and over again,
because there is a sore—
festering raw infested real—called racism
that has always been there
covered up for years by enslavement by reconstruction
by the nadir
covered up for years by segregation by voting rights
uncovered finally by the stench that is post-racial.
We sing your name
because we have come to the place where we must be held accountable.
We didn’t want you to just be a hash tag, a name thrown around by politicians
who want our vote but not our voices but we let it happen, we couldn’t stop it.
We will stand on your name
because we have learned how to sit quietly and meditatively
at the feet of your memory
but we will not set up a tent and remain there
for there is no time for rest, not just yet.
© RaceBrave, Karsonya Wise Whitehead, 2016
And this I believe, “To be black in America is to always be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Karsonya Wise Whitehead, 2016
06.05.16 (my life in real time)
What to this Negro is the Fourth of July?
–Every July 4th, I celebrate the fact that I am the descendant of people who chose to survive. In 1776, my ancestors (on both sides of my family) were living and surviving as enslaved people on somebody’s plantation. They chose to go forward every single day instead of backward. On that day, when most white folks and some black folks, celebrated America’s independence, they got up and worked and dreamed of freedom –the kind that wouldn’t come until 1865, only to be replaced shortly thereafter with Jim Crow; the kind that their descendants would continue to fight and struggle to achieve…even 150 years later. I am the descendant of people who chose to survive. Today: I celebrate their tenacity; I celebrate their survival instinct; I celebrate their choices; I celebrate their prayers and their tears and their sense of community; and, I celebrate that independent spirit that even in the face of incredible odds could not be broken. Today, I celebrated them, again.
06.06.16 (black wife/mommy blues)
My husband states that he is going out for the run and I react –with fear with concern– like he is going to war.
2. My son puts on a red t-shirt and red Converse shoes to go to camp and me and my husband both stop him and say Not Today. No red. No blue. No hoodie. Not. Today.
The stinking Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, indeed. This is what it looks like Every Single Day when you are the wife and mother of a black man and teenage black boys.
06.07.16 (for Alton Sterling)
I must brace myself. I must steel myself. I must ready myself because the cycle has begun, again:
1. A black man has been shot and killed by the police.
2. We will cry and shout #BlackLivesMatter and march and hold press conferences and demand justice.
3. The cops will be placed on Paid leave as the “investigation” takes place.
4. The media will put the victim on trial searching out every parking ticket and bad grade.
5. Folks will question the victim’s motives (even though there is video) as if he wanted to be shot and killed.
6. No charges will be filed.
7. No indictment will be had.
8. The cops will be acquitted.
9. America will move on.
–This is what the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave looks like from my perspective.
07.07.16 (for Philando Castile)
Another black man dead at the hands of the police.
Another hashtag memorial.
Another day of me being angry and scared. Another day when I feel like I could Burn this country to the ground.
Another day when we are reminded that we may not be enslaved but we are definitely Not free.
Another day of me struggling to figure out how to mother and save and protect my two big black boys.
Another day to wake up and find Black Death hanging out at my door.
Another day when I understand that to “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” (James Baldwin)
A Writer With Writers: On Creating Black Superheroes, Shaping Culture, and (Re)Claiming Monsters Part II
As always, Part One of my blog, “A Writer With Writers: On Creating Black Superheroes, Shaping Culture, and (Re)Claiming Monsters” is available on the Maryland Humanities website.
I. The Beginning
One of my favorite childhood activities was reading (very slowly) the Sunday comics. Since I have always had a love affair with reading, my mother decided, early on, that I would be the last child to have the page. I have three siblings and they would always quickly read their favorite comic strip and then pass the paper on to the next person. As a pastor’s daughter, we went to church early every Sunday morning and I could barely sit through the morning prayer and the scripture reading and my father’s sermon because of how excited I was about reading the comics and entering into the lives of the characters once more. I get home and go and sit in my reading corner, coloring, until my mother bought me the page. When it was my turn to get the paper, my mother (who knew that this was an important moment) would walk over to me and quietly announce that the paper had arrived. I would take it and lay it out in front of me and spend the rest of the afternoon, reading and rereading every single strip. These characters were my friends and I was delighted to read about how much their lives had changed since we last talked. I loved the humor, the seriousness, and the playful way that the cartoonist would use the strip to talk about politics, life, childhood, teenage angst, friendship, and sorrow. When I did not understand a strip, I would take it to my father and he would read it and we would sit and talk about what we thought that the comics artist (or cartoonist, or writer) was trying to say. My father believed that the mark of a talented comics artist was that they had the ability to pull you into the strip, giving you just enough information where you can began to draw conclusions, to write the next frame, to finish the story for yourself. He would encourage me to write my own ending and then check the paper the following Sunday to see if the writer agreed. I would sometimes create my own strips but since I could not draw, I would simply write the words and imagine the pictures. This love of comic strips naturally developed into a love for comic books by the time I reached high school. It was a guilty pleasure and in between studying for chemistry or writing a history paper, I would read about Superman (though I challenged this idea of an alien being the most humane person on earth) or Spiderman (though I could not believe that a radioactivity spider could really change a person’s dna) or Batman (though I could not get over the fact that he was just a rich man with a bunch of really cool toys). There were many days when I was frustrated looking and hoping for a comic book character that looked like me. Where are the black heroes, I would often ask my father. He said that our heroes were real and I should look to the life of Dr. King or Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks or Malcolm X as an example of what sacrifice and goodness and humanity looked like when it was real rather than imagined.
I agreed with him until I arrived at The Lincoln University for undergraduate school and received a copy of Brotherman from my advisor, Guy A. Sims. This was an amazing moment for a bright-eyed girl who loved superheroes to finally receive a comic book with a black superhero. I remember how Dr. Sims would talk about how he and his brother, Dawud Anyabwile, had created Brotherman because they wanted to see black superheroes alive and active on the page. I believe that there are moments in your life when you encounter something or someone who has the ability to shift the direction in which your life is going. When I received that comic book and I began to read it (very slowly), I knew then that I wanted to dedicate my life (and at 18 years old, I did not know what that would look like) to making sure that the stories and the lives of people that looked like me were always included and shared with bright eyed boys and girls who loved the stories and want (and need) to see someone who look like them included on the page. This month, I was delighted to sit down with my former college advisor, Dr. Guy A. Sims, and talk about his work as a writer, a comics artist, and a graphic novelist and his latest project (with his brother) doing adapting Walter Dean Meyer’s book Monster into a graphic novelist.
II. #Comicbooks as a Tool of Cultural Commentary
Why did you decide to be involved in this project?
When the project was brought to my attention, I wasn’t sure of how to even begin to approach it. I knew there were some fundamental differences between writing a comic book and a graphic novel, so it required a little story structural research on my part. I read a couple of popular graphic novels and thought about how I would present the material. Secondly, I was not familiar with the book Monster. I read the book about four or five times, seeking to understand the story, the characters, but most importantly, what Walter Dean Myers was trying to convey. After developing my comfort level, I was excited to get started, even though I was still very nervous. After submitting my first couple of pages to Mr. Myers and the representatives at Harper-Collins and receiving very positive responses, I knew I had what it took to do this.
Which writers inspire you?
My all time favorite writer, the one who inspired me to want to attempt to be a writer, is Richard Wright. My father introduced him to me when I was in sixth grade. I started with Black Boy, moved to The Long Dream, and then Native Son. After that, I was introduced to many African American authors whose styles and themes continued to intrigue me. People like Baldwin, Hansberry, Cullen, McKay, and others. Like many young writers, I tried to emulate their styles until I felt comfortable with my way of storytelling. Today, I am still influenced by writers. Contemporary writers that I look to for inspiration are people like Bebe Moore Campbell, E. Lynn Harris, and Octavia Butler.
What does being a writer mean to you?
Being a writer means the ability to shape culture. This is not an egoistic statement but that to be able to take a statement, position, theme, or concept and deliver it into a format that’s intellectually digestible is pretty powerful. In fact, my father told me always to believe in what I wrote because people who read your writing will believe you. Being a writer is also liberating. It is an outlet for feelings. Whether I’m down or happy, confused, or angry, whatever, I can find a way to express it…and in that process, analyze what is going on inside. Then, if I share it with someone, they may find the same internal resolution needed.
What book do you wish you could have written?
I don’t think in terms of what book had I wished I had written, rather there are some stories I would love to re-tell from my experience and perspectives. The truth is, there are no new stories in the world. The human experience is so similar across the globe. That’s what makes stories great. You don’t have to be from the same culture or country to understand human conflict, pain, joy, etc. One day I’ll tell my version of the film, “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
You refer to yourself as a scholar/writer – can you explain what this means to you?
Being a scholar writer means my writing, the poems, prose, fiction, etc., are informed by my academic research. My writing focuses on intimate relations between groups of people. I read a lot of non-fiction and academic books on social interaction, conflict theory, and history, and group dynamics. They form the foundation for how I approach stories.
What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?
I have several pieces of advice. 1. Be your first cheerleader. That is, celebrate when you complete a project, write a passage, develop a concept. 2. A bad idea is an idea whose time may not be right or needs a tweak or just needs a whole makeover. Save them; it may not be right for you at the moment, but you never know…one day. 3. When it is ready for the world, give it to the world. Sometimes writers ask for lots of opinions and that’s what you’ll get…diverse opinions. When that happens, many writers never finish. Complete your work and then let it go. Someone’s gonna love it, and someone’s gonna hate it. 4. Read writers outside of your genre, listen to music you are not familiar with, go to art shows you don’t understand, and go to places unfamiliar. All of this and more will feed your creativity. 5. Most of all, write whenever you can. Think of all the time spent in front of the TV that could have been used for your creativity. 6. Last, carry a small notepad and pencil with you for when you’re hit with inspirations thunderbolt.
Tell us about the cover/s and how it/they came about?
When working with my brother Dawud Anyabwile (the best artist there is), I convey to him my ideas or a simple concept. I don’t go into a lot of detail, but if there is something specific I need, I will make sure he understands. Covers and other graphic art components are products of good communication. All collaborative projects require solid communication.
Fifty years from now, how would you like your work to be taught/explained and/or built upon?
I understand that my works, in the future, will not belong to me. My intentions and perspectives will fall away to be interpreted by the new readers…and that’s okay. I did that to William Shakespeare. I read his works and applied them to my life and understandings. That will happen to those who read my works. In fact, it happens now. I have had people write to me or contact me and tell me what they thought my writings were about and what meanings they held. Of course, it may not have been my intentions, but I’m happy to know they connected with it in their own way. That’s what writing and art are all about.
What would you like to add?
I want to encourage people to know that we all have a story to tell. I often hear people say they can’t make up stories (or poems or whatever). Truth is, we tell stories every day when relating our experiences. We tell stories when our significant others or children make us mad when we find money in the street when we fall in or out of love. Stories are in us…just don’t be afraid to set them free.
Why did you decide to write/release comic books? -What is your next project?
The comic books began as a marketing tool for my brother’s airbrush business and then it turned into the opportunity to step into the comic book world. While I had never written a comic book before that time, I knew it was something I could learn to do…and I did.
I have a number of projects on the horizon. I have the fifth installment of the Duke Denim detective series to complete this summer, my brother and I are working on the second edition of the Brotherman Graphic Novel, Revelation, and I am laying out the foundation for my next novel, which looks at the Virginia Tech shootings. There are also a couple of others that are in the works…I stay busy.
About the Writer: Guy A. Sims, Ed.D., is the Assistant to the President for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the Title IX Coordinator at Bluefield State College. He is the principle writer for the Brotherman series and is also the author of The Cold Hard Cases of Duke Denim and the critically acclaimed novel, Living Just A Little. Guy has recently written the adaptation for MONSTER: The Graphic Novel by Walter Dean Myers, which is published by Harper Collins Publishing.
Linkedin: Dr. Guy A.Sims
Blog: I is the Future
About the Interviewer: Karsonya “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, Ph.D. is Associate Professor, Department of Communication at Loyola University Maryland and the Founding Executive Director at The Emilie Frances Davis Center for Education, Research, and Culture. Her new anthology, RaceBrave, was published in March 2016.
On May 26, 2016 – “The Cultural Playbook” with Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead aired from 7:00-8:00p on WEAA 88.9FM, your source for cool jazz and more. The show discusses everything from politics to prose; race relations to the presidential race; parenting to peace studies; Taiwan to Trump; and #BlackLivesMatter to #BlueLivesMatter…if it is important, if it is interesting, if it is happening in your community or around the country; and, if it has your ear, then it has our attention. The script is below and the podcast is also available here–>http://weaa.org/post/cultural-playbook-dr-kaye-wise-whitehead
TOP OF THE FIRST ½ HOUR
This is Dr. Kaye on WEAA 88.9FM your source for cool jazz and more; the voice of the community -and its time for the Cultural Playbook – where we discuss everything from politics to prose; race relations to the presidential race; parenting to peace studies; Taiwan to Trump; and #BlackLivesMatter to #BlueLivesMatter…if it is important, if it is interesting, if it is happening in your community or around the country; and, if it has your ear, then it has our attention. Our topic for tonight is “The Politics of Music” and in our second segment, we step into the Time Capsule and discuss 90s style Hip Hop music and how it has changed. But first: last month Beyoncé released Lemonade –a 12-song 50 minute visual album that chronicles her affair-filled marriage to rapper J-Zay and the world – or at least those who live in Bey’s World stood still. Was this musical innovation at its best or an artist who knows how to shape shift to keep the people’s attention. It’s Thursday with Dr. Kaye and we are talking about Beyoncé, Lemonade, and the politics of music and we want to hear from you Call us at (410) 319-8888, tweet us @kayewhitehead or visit us on our Facebook Page. Let’s get going Baltimore its time for The Cultural Playbook.
AFTER “Beyoncé” Lemonade Music Push In
This is Dr. Kaye –Beyoncé is considered by some to be the biggest artist/performer out there at this moment. She has been called everything from a terrorist to a musical genius and everything that she touches seems to turn to gold and everything includes her albums, her streaming service – Tidal, and her ever expanding world tour. This marriage –or at least the infidelity—has been called a fan loop, a media loop, and a marketer’s dream loo Joining me to talk about it is:
Wendel Patrick: award-winning musician/artist/videographer and innovator With five solo albums to his credit, he is the alter ego of classical and jazz pianist Kevin Gift, and this fall he will be teaching the History of Hip Hop Music Production at The Peabody Conservatory of Music, the first such class in the conservatory’s history.
Dr. Jennifer Williams, is an assistant professor of English and Women and Gender Studies here at Morgan State University;
Nina Bradley is a Doctoral Candidate at Northwestern’s Screen Cultures program in the Radio/TV/Film department
You can join the discussion as well – call us at (410) 319-8888 and tell us what you think about Beyoncé? Are you a part of the Beygency?
Dr. Williams: let’s start with you – can you frame all of the debate around Lemonade?
Wendel: Rolling Stone said that this album reclaims the black female legacy of rock and roll – so what does that mean? And what can we use as a gauge?
Nina: Beyoncé chose to release this as a visual album – how is this different from a music video?
- There are many that consider Beyoncé to be the biggest superstar out there at this moment – do you agree with this? And who are we comparing her against?
- Marital problems or was this just another way to sell records –particularly given the fact that Beyoncé and Jay Z have always been very private about their relationship?
- Let’s talk about the visuals in Lemonade – it has been compared very favorably to Daughters of the Dust – Julie Dash’s 1991 film that is being re-released this year but that is known for its spellbinding visual beauty – how does Lemonade compare?
RESET: If you just joined us this is Dr. Kaye and we are talking about how this is Beyonce’s world and we are all just living in with Wendel Patrick award winning musician and videographer; Dr. Jennifer Williams, assistant professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies here at Morgan; and Nina Bradley, a Doctoral Candidate in Northwestern’s Radio/TV/Film department.
- Black Lives Matter resonates throughout the visual album with shots featuring the mothers of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin – it is black nationalist feminism –so is this simply a marketing scheme – given that this Beyoncé visual album is worlds away –in concept in tone in theme to “I’m a Single Lady”?
- Let’s talk about the use of the Malcolm X quote – where he says that black women are the disrespected people in America – how does this sentiment fit into Lemonade or is she trying to be all things to all people?
- Hilary Rodham Clinton has been known to name drop Beyoncé on the campaign trail –does that really have an effort on younger voters? Do people really care who Beyoncé supports?
Thank you –Dr. Jennifer Williams, and Nina Bradley – Wendel Patrick is going to stay with us. Up next, we take a look at Hip Hop Politics: Now vs. Then. Stay with us.
Welcome Back – It’s Dr. Kaye here on WEAA 88.9FM. In 1989, rap performer Chuck D of Public Enemy said that Rap is our invisible TV network. It is the CNN that black people never had.” Its been almost thirty years and we have seen everything from the east coast west coast feud to the rise of gansta rap from Vanilla Ice to President Obama recently dismissing a lot of the music for being “misogynistic and materialistic.”. Is hip hop still relevant as a cultural and social voice? It’s Thursday with Dr. Kaye and we are talking about the politics of Hip Hop and we want to hear from you Call us at (410) 319-8888, tweet us @kayewhitehead or visit us on our Facebook Page. Let’s get going Baltimore its time for part Two of the Cultural Playbook: Hip Hop Politics: Now and Then.
Joining us to talk about it is
Wendel Patrick: award-winning musician/artist/videographer and innovator This fall, he will be teaching the History of Hip Hop Music Production at The Peabody Conservatory of Music, the first such class in the conservatory’s history.
D. Watkins is a columnist for Salon. His work has been published in the New York Times, Guardian, Rolling Stone, and other publications. He is the author of “The Beastside,” an essay collection, and “Cook Up,” a memoir.
Phinesse Demps is President/CEO of LFP Media; a Free-lance Writer/Promoter and TV and Radio Producer.
Phinesse: I will start with you – why was hip hop so relevant in the 80s and 90s?
Wendel: The president called the lyrics (and for some of them I do not disagree) misogynistic and materialistic – has this always been a part of hip hop music or has something changed over the last 30 or so years?
D Watkins: Let’s talk about the lyrics and about how Hip Hop (at one time) was considered to be the CNN of the ghetto – is it still a relevant cultural and social voice?
- Puff Daddy and the family recently launched their tour – I watched them on the Today Puffy, Mace, Ole’ Dirty Bastard, Lil’ Kim singing about Mo Money Mo Problems and I’ll Be Missing You it didn’t have the same effect –is it that rap has gotten edgier?
- Let’s talk about the homophobia – in the past the lyrics have thrown around the f-bombs but with the advocacy work of the LGBT community – is hip hop starting to catch up with the rest of the country?
RESET: If you just joined us this is Dr. Kaye and we are talking about Hip Hop Politics with Wendel Patrick, D. Watkins, and Phinesse Demps – and you call us at (410) 319-8888 and tell us what you think was the greatest Hip Hop album ever.
- In the early 90s NWA reappropriated the n-word and some of arguing that rappers like Nicki Minaj and Angel Haze reappropriating the b-word –do you think that the gender politics are finally moving in the right direction?
- The profanity – that is a major criticism of the music –In 2007, Rev Al Sharpton led the March for Decency and Jay Z responded:
“And if Al Sharpton is speaking for me,
Somebody get him the word and tell him I don’t approve.
Tell him I’ll remove the curses
If you tell me our schools gon’ be perfect.”
But if you remove the profanity aren’t you (in a sense) removing the edge?
- According to Forbes’ Cash Kings 2013 list, P. Diddy is the richest rapper, and he hardly even raps these days. He rakes in most of his dough off the success Ciroc vodka – does this speak to the fact that rappers (I am thinking of Jay Z, Macklemore, Wu-Tang) are able to cross over?
- Ok – so what are your top three Hip Hop albums that everyone should listen to:
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill with Zion 1998
Run DMC 1984 –with Sucker MCs
2Pac Shakur’s All Eyez On Me 1996 – one of the best of 90s rap music
Runner Up: The NOTORIOUS B.I.G. “Ready to Die” 1994 –revitalized NY hip hop
Thank you Wendel Patrick, D. Watkins, and Phinesse Demps – Hip Hop Politics!
OUTRO: This has been Dr. Kaye giving you The Cultural Playbook. remember if it is important, if it is interesting, if it is happening in your community or around the country; and, if it has your ear, then it has our attention.
This show is a production of WEAA and was co-produced by Iyore Royalty Odighizuwa and Karsonya Wise Whitehead with Andre Melton on the Board.
Last month in our discussion about the Baltimore Uprising, this column had two parts: we began our discussion on the Maryland Humanities Council website and we ended it here on my blog. We received so much positive feedback that we decided to use that format again. This month, I interviewed Dr. Janell Hobson and Dr. Jessica Marie Johnson about their latest project, #Lemonade: A Black Feminist Resource List, and the work that they did to compile and curate think pieces and essays that explored Beyoncé’s visual album as well as all of the discussion that was taking place within the black feminist community about it. Dr. Johnson’s interview is featured on the Maryland Humanities Council website and Dr. Hobson’s interview is featured here. As collaborators, artists, writers, scholars, and teachers, they offer unique insight into their own writing process; their reasons for working on this project; the writers and books that inspire them; and, how they want their work to be taught, remembered, and built upon by other scholars.
As is Beyoncé’s style, Lemonade is a dense work with layers upon layers that demand to be discussed and examined and explored. It is hard to take it all in at once and the careful viewer will find themselves watching it again and again, sometimes without the sound so that they can focus on the visual elements and other times with their eyes closed, to just feel the lyrics washing over them. Lemonade the album, much like the drink, should be sipped slowly and fully enjoyed. I should know, I grew up in South Carolina where drinking lemonade was an afternoon ritual. It provided a much needed break in the midst of a busy and hot day. It gave you a chance to take off your shoes, lean back, and fan yourself as you cooled off. It relaxed you and made you feel that you were at home, no matter whose front porch you were sitting on. I was reminded of all of these childhood memories when I experienced Lemonade for the first time and since then, every time I refill my glass (and view it again) I experience it anew. As a writer and a lover of dense works, I wanted to connect with other writers who “drank the lemonade” and then decided to create their own. Dr. Hobson and Dr. Johnson answered the call and so began our discussion of what it means to deconstruct, understand, and sip the Lemonade.
NOTE: Much like the album Lemonade, some of the resources in #Lemonade: A Black Feminist Resource List contain sexually explicit language. Please note that this resource list is intended for mature audiences only.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead (KWW): Why did you decide to work on this project?
Janell Hobson (JH): I contributed to [Candice Marie Benbow’s Lemonade Syllabus Project] and I decided to collaborate with another scholar, Jessica Marie Johnson, to put together our own online resource list for #Lemonade, available through the African American Intellectual History blog: http://www.aaihs.org/lemonade-a-black-feminist-resource-list/
KWW: Which writers inspire you?
JH: Toni Morrison is still a favorite of mine, and her influential novel Beloved was written while she was teaching at the University at Albany, where I am currently tenured. Indeed, I’m getting ready to move into a new office – the same space that she used! I truly hope to be inspired! Another writer who inspires me is bell hooks, who truly modeled for me how best to make critical theories and complex philosophical concepts accessible for a non-academic readership. Her straight-talk theorizing and abilities to take popular culture seriously have made an impact on me as well as other black feminist writers who author think pieces and various blog posts. We may not always agree with her arguments (her critical read of Beyoncé’s Lemonade is truly shallow, for example), but she is still an important contributor to black feminist thought.
KWW: What does being a writer mean to you?
JH: Being a writer means absorbing the world around you and communicating your worldview. In the clearest, most precise way that you can, even when you want to get esoteric about an idea. Being a writer in the digital age also means immediacy and intimacy with your readers. Sometimes, there’s a great connection, sometimes there’s just miscommunication, due to crossed signals and all sorts of emotional and intellectual baggage getting in the way. But, writing is about making that connection.
KWW: What book do you wish you could have written?
JH: I wish I could have written Michelle Cliff’s Free Enterprise. What an incredible work of fictional prose, its meditative qualities, its integration of history with the present, its postcolonial critique intersecting with African American feminist history, and the hybrid storytelling. Simply brilliant! I’m also grateful for her novel, which introduced me to a lost history concerning Mary Ellen Pleasant. I’m seriously considering a fictional retelling in which she and Harriet Tubman meet up while plotting with John Brown on the Harper’s Ferry raid. All the forgotten histories about which we could speculate! Both she and Morrison gave me that blueprint.
KWW: You refer to yourself as a scholar/writer – can you explain what this means to you?
JH: I’m a scholar who is continuously doing and engaging research and a writer who finds ways to communicate and speculate on that research. Please add to that title “educator.” I value my role as a teacher both in the classroom and in the public sphere.
KWW: What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?
JH: Establish a writing schedule and write often (that might mean writing daily or writing every other day). And read other writers’ works, especially those whose writing styles and ideas truly inspire you, whether that includes more established authors like Morrison, hooks, and Cliff, or contemporary and up-and-coming authors. Some of my favorite contemporary authors/scholars/journalists right now include Britney Cooper, Emily J. Lordi, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Darnell Moore, and Noah Berlatsky, who are modeling for me beautiful writing that makes cultural theories accessible to a broader audience.
KWW: What advice would you give to your younger self?
JH: I would tell my younger self to get a literary agent and learn how to negotiate contracts and market myself, once I figured out the kind of public persona I want to have concerning my writing projects.
KWW: Fifty years from now, how would you like your work to be taught/explained and/or built upon?
JH: I would like younger scholars to recognize my work in the larger context of writers who came of age before the Internet dominated the world but who nonetheless learned to master the digital revolution while also situating it within a larger context of print and other media cultures. I learned to write HTML code, which means I can be both immersed in digital culture and maintain my distance from it. Keep in mind I was writing my dissertation when The Matrix hit theaters before it became a cult classic. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the writer immersed in the digital world: “There is no spoon.”
Twitter: @JProfessor – https://twitter.com/JProfessor
About the Interviewees:
Janell Hobson, Ph.D. is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender (SUNY Press, 2012) and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (Routledge, 2005). She also writes and blogs for Ms. Magazine.
Jessica Marie Johnson, Ph.D. is currently an Assistant Professor of History at Michigan State University. Beginning in July 2016, Johnson will be an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and History at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of two blogs: Diaspora Hypertext and African Diaspora PhD.
*In a unique offering this month, Part 1 of this blog post about my experience watching my two sons protest during the Baltimore Uprising, will be offered on the Maryland Humanities Council http://www.mdhc.org/blog/?p=2073#.VxeN7zWvKoI website.
I started writing my new book, RaceBrave, on July 7, 2014, on the day when Eric Garner was murdered when my sons challenged me to write something everyday about what was happening around the country in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.
And so I began to write poetry, every single day, and along the way, Tamir Rice was killed, Freddie Gray was killed, the Baltimore Uprising happened, and I watched the birth of a spirit of activism in my sons. The poem, “the birth of your activism” was written in pieces every evening when we arrived back to our car after marching from his neighborhood to City Hall. It has taken me almost 25 years but I have finally returned to the poet that I used to be…
“the birth of your activism” 04.20.15 – 04.28.15
Day #1: We were unprepared. We saw the video, we knew who he was, and we knew that he had died. So, we went over to Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, got out of the car, and when they started to march, we joined them. We did not know where we were going. We just knew that it had to be a place that was better than here and anyway, I figured, freedom is something that you have to go and get. I told you that Coretta Scott King said that each generation has to fight for and win their freedom and that we had to be prepared to fight until the end. (You wanted to Google the exact phrase but we had no time.) An older black gentleman in a “BlackLivesMatter” t-shirt and long flowing dreads said that Malcolm X said that if you were not willing to die for freedom, you should take it out of your vocabulary. He then asked, “Are you two willing to die for your freedom?” You looked at me but I could not speak. Day #1, we were not ready.
Day #2: We did not know if we should go back to Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. You told me that you spent the day trying to get your classmates interested but nobody wanted to talk about him, at least not yet. So we talked about it and decided to go anyway, even if it was just to bear witness. We found a few more people, standing in solidarity, talking about freedom, and wondering what else we needed to do to demand that the city sees us and hears us. We decided that tomorrow we needed to bring our own signs and we needed to pack snacks.
Day #3: We packed our bags this morning because yesterday it took us a long time to march down to City Hall and then to walk back to our car. You complained that you were tired and that justice was taking a long time to get here. We talked about Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker who in 1853 said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. “Yes,” you said, “but justice is taking a long time to get here.” We tried to but could not quite agree on what type of justice we were waiting for: Justice for Freddie Gray or for Eric Garner or for Tamir Rice or Tanisha Anderson or for those who have been wrongfully convicted or for those who have been failed by the public school system. As we marched, you wondered again, if justice would ever come.
Day #4: Tired and exhausted, we decided to go straight to City Hall instead of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood. You had homework and wanted to sit in the car and finish it while we waited for everyone else to come down. You said your friends laughed at you in school when you tried to talk about Freddie Gray. They said it was not a big deal and wanted to know if I was making you go. You said that it is sometimes really hard being the only black boy in your class. “They don’t care about Freddie Gray,” you said, and then you wondered if they cared about you.
Day #5: It’s Friday and you wanted to do something else. You wanted to go somewhere else and then you said you just wanted to be someone else. You said you did not want to have to care about Freddie Gray or fight for justice. “Why can’t I be like the kids in my school? They are not thinking about justice for Freddie Gray or marching or praying to stay alive.” I realized then that that this is what racism has done to our kids, it has robbed them of their childhood. Black boys and girls are not allowed to be children, to not have a care in the world, to only think of themselves. They are born into a society where they have to fight to stay alive, fight to stay present, fight to get a good education, fight for the right to grow up and when they become parents, the fight starts all over again.
Day #6 8a: We woke up early this morning. We wanted to be in Freddie Gray’s neighborhood as early as possible. Today was going to be long and we were expecting to see thousands of people. I signed up to document what happened, video taping, taking pictures, and posting them in real time. You and your brother started writing your information on a white t-shirt because someone had told you earlier in the week that if they needed to identify your body, you should have name and address written on your t-shirt. I wrote the number to the legal aid office on your arms just in case we got separated and you got arrested. We packed snacks and then we started to talk about the what-if scenarios. We knew what happened in Ferguson, we knew that Baltimore was on the edge, and we knew that today it was going to be crowded, tense, and emotional. We packed milk in case they used tear gas. During the Ferguson Uprising, Palestinians students had tweeted out that milk was the best thing to use when you have been exposed to tear gas. We packed bandanas and snacks, extra chargers for our phones and cash. You said, “Take a picture of me so if something happens you know what I’m wearing.” You laughed and said that this week, more than ever before in your life, you had gained such a deep level of respect and admiration for the foot soldiers from the Civil Rights Movement. “Just think mommy,” you said, “they did this every day.”
Day #6 11a: We stood for over an hour waiting for the March to start. We walked through the crowd, greeting other protestors like they were our family members and in some ways they were. We had been out here all week and though we did not know their names, we knew that we were on the same side. Two older brothers from the Bloods walked over and told me that if something happened, they would watch out for you and your brother. He then told you that if you were afraid and you thought something was going down, then you should come and stand behind them because they had your back. He said, “Mom, don’t worry, we got them.” We decided to fall in line behind them because there were so many people and it was not clear who was in charge. We were told that we were heading downtown and we were going to shut the City down on our way to City Hall. A young sister standing next to me grabbed my hand and told me to be brave and to pass it on. We must have looked confused. She smiled and said, “Yes, be brave. Pass it on.” So we did and then we started to march and chant, completely convinced that justice was going to meet us on the other side.
Day #6 5p: You have asked me twice if we should leave. We were told that a beer bottle was thrown at us and the cops are up ahead, dressed in riot gear and standing in formation. It was not clear whether we were going to make it to City Hall. We were near the Harbor and I felt like we were being herded. You wondered out loud about what was going to happen next. You said that you could feel that something had changed. Your father kept calling strongly suggesting that we should leave because it is obvious that people on both sides have decided that the Harbor was where they were going to make their stand. Another beer bottle was thrown and someone yelled, “They calling us niggers.” The brother from the Bloods looked at me and said, “Uhm yea, I’m not going to be too many more niggers. Not today.” We were standing still and I was trying to figure out how to get us out of here. You were scared and even though we talked about what we do if we got separated, if they used tear gas, if things got out of hand, you did not think any of those things would actually happen. For the first time, in a very long time, you grabbed my hand and your brother’s hand. “We have to stay together.” I lost my sense of direction and needed a moment to figure out exactly where we were so we could move to a location where your father could pick us up. “The cops are not responding,” someone yelled, “they just standing there.” Someone laughed and said, maybe they’re planning to drop a bomb on us. You said, “like Move?” “Move” someone said, “Move and go where?” I caught your eye and shook my head and said no, not like Move. I kept telling myself that surely they wouldn’t drop a bomb here, not down here.” We started walking and someone yelled, “They up there jumping on cars.” And then, “They are not going to stop us.” And then, “Justice for Freddie Gray.” And then, “Niggers, go home.” And then, we heard the sounds of glass breaking and sirens and people yelling and people running. I thought I heard a baby crying. We ran and we got out. We made it home and when we did, you said justice is never going to get here, is it?
Day #7: Freddie Gray’s Wake. There was a sign that said no pictures and no videos. I walked in by myself; you and your brother did not want to go. It was very quiet in the funeral home, people were sitting and crying and praying. I think that that is his mother and I smiled at her but I don’t go over. I stepped up and looked down at him. “You could have been my son,” I say very quietly, “in death your life has now found meaning.” And then I left. I did not sign the book or shake anyone’s hand. This should be a time for his family and his friends. I am a stranger and I do not belong here. I did not know Freddie Gray, wouldn’t recognize him on the street. I am only here because I want the days of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray—those type of days—to end.
Day #8: Freddie Gray’s funeral. Too many celebrities, too many talking heads, too many people talking to us and not with us. I left because it sounded like they were telling us to calm down and wait for them to work out justice for us. I left and did not look back because mega funerals do not work for me and mouthpieces who talk about justice but are not willing to fight for it make me tired.
Day #9: You climbed into the car talking about a purge. You heard that the students at Douglass High School were planning to walk out and that they wanted all students to join them. They were planning, according to you, to take over the city and like in the movie, they were going to exercise their right to purge. “Mommy,” you said, “we should go. We should make our stand.” Traffic is blocked off and backed up so we decided to go home instead. I thought that we could come back out once traffic settled down, we realized much later that we could not. The city had finally reached a tipping point and from what we could gather the cops were no longer standing in formation. We sat up all night, reading social media, and listening to the news. You wanted to be out there. You said that you had been marching all week and now that real change was coming, you were at home. You thought that we should just drive around until we saw something and then get out and join them. Join them doing what, I wanted to know. Everything, maybe we need to burn this city down for Freddie Gray. So I turned off everything so we could talk about justice, about Freddie Gray, about the 1968 Riots, about what happens when the tipping point has been reached, and about what is going to happen once the smoke clears.
Day #10: Overnight, the city changed. I told you not to worry because Dr. King once said that the universe is on the side of justice. As we rode through Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, past the CVS, cops in riot gear, preachers on bull horns, the Bloods and the Crips holding signs for #BlackLivesMatter, you quietly wonder if we are all on the same side of the universe.
Photo #1: I was in my mid-20s with two degrees; Unmarried; Living life as a poet, writer, activist, filmmaker; Dreaming of one day publishing a book and winning a book award; Planning to make films that folks would want to watch; Trying to do the activist work that my father began during the Civil Rights Movement; Reading Malcolm X, Alice Walker, Frantz Fanon,& The Little Red Book; Traveling back and forth to Africa trying desperately to find myself; Loving and defining myself as a beat poet; Making plans to change the entire world all by myself…
Photo #2: I am now in my mid-40s with three degrees and a bunch of advanced certificates; Married with Two Teenage Boys(!); Living life as an academic, poet, writer, activist, film teacher; Published Four Books and Won Two Major Writing Awards; Made films that folks watched and Got Three NY Emmy-Nominations; Helping to do the work my boys began after the birth of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement; Reading Alice Walker, bell hooks, Michelle Aexander, & my own stuff; Traveling back and forth between baseball and basketball practice desperately trying to center myself; Loving as defining myself as a “blackmommyactivist”; Making plans to change the world with my boys…