The Night I Heard the Walls Cry

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As a little boy, I grew up inhaling the sun-kissed, muggy air of an old gutted out flat. We called it a Pentecostal church. Back then my yearning ears would recline in the breaths, the heavy plumes of sound, cadence, and echo, that ushered laboriously beneath the Preacher’s raspy hum:

“If these walls  . . . uh . . . could talk . . . they would tell you . . . they would tell you, uh . . . there is nothing new . . . under the Sun.”

After the Preacher would labor through his burdened breaths, Grandma, sitting next to me, would shake her head, her round body mimicking its motion, affirming the Preacher’s statement up and down: “A-men Pastor!”

This interchange of calls and responses would play back beat to more burdens and breaths, punctuating the Preacher’s ecumenical statements with voiced exclamation points that rippled through air like floating ellipses.

Grandma, rocking back and forth, up and down, would sink into the timeworn divots of the long wooden pew and fan herself vigorously in wait of some ill-reserved breeze that might air-condition the perspiration casing her melting flesh. She would agree that there is nothing new under sun: “I done seen it all honey, but there is new life on the other side of the sun.”

Sister Cadwell, seated not too far away from us, would shout in a key of her own: “HA-LLEL-LU-AH, Thank you JE-SUS!” And while unexpected, her sudden burst of conviction would evoke no one’s response. It was part of the natural jazz of the space, part of its music of strength overcoming sorrow, part of the enduring song that stretched above the sun where new things are possible. It was the echo of life that grandma would speak of when talking about heaven, suns, and new things.

I would hear this same music years later when I returned to the church to bury my grandmother.

*

Sitting at the church today, I notice the hush of progress. Not much has changed. The long curtains flung against the buried windows still drag low just above the surface of the floor. Divoted wooden pews still line the surface of the sanctuary in receptive rows all pointed at the pulpit. There are still noises sequestered in the walls, whispers that hold onto the secrets of what’s not new under the sun.

Sitting there, I am taken by the blossoming of remembrances, of old small things hidden under the sun. There is the memory of Grandma’s heavy hands uplifted toward the ceiling of the church. Her face is folded into a less than subtle expression of her thousand agonies ascending from her orbed-shaped body to the four celestial winds of unseen things. This sculpture of pain gives art but decadence to her soul, its tragedies and weakening sorrows, the very essence of whom she had stubbornly resisted.

Seeing her in my mental periphery—eyes tightly pressed with fixed lids so closely milled as to deny even the shadows of light—I recall the reclusive tear, which struggled down her blazoned cheek. It looks a lot like the tears that drenched my face that day, and the tears of many others who have flooded the space to pay their respects to Mother Johnson, my grandmother.

I wipe my tears away. I don’t want her to see me cry. Instead, I want to see her more clearly.

*

Church was asylum for a blues people at a time when their sorrow songs were sang out of Eden, while they labored hungry in the wilderness passing time picking apples until they, like grandma had, reached the Promised Land. For cherished people like grandma, church was an orchard for naked souls to bathe drunk in the cider of God’s deferred graces until God granted them permission to pick up last (-ing) apples and leave the Forrest of forbidden fruits fulfilled.

When she left, new leaves petalled on grandma’s ripened apple tree. And somewhere, between shades of fallen apples and new petals blossoming, I could hear the Preacher hum:

“If these walls, uh, could talk . . . they would tell you . . . uh . . . there is nothing new under the Sun.”

The Preacher didn’t realize that the walls were much like my grandmother; they could talk. Like my grandmother, they were wise though reserved. They preferred to listen and sing to themselves whispers and songs of truth, of leaf-clothed apple trees withering un-freely beneath the naked sun.

*

Eddie Kirkland strolls into the church, singing my grandmother’s song. Her soul, in harmony with his guitar, jazzes into the  inner courts of carnal heaven much like the Spirit of the wind dancing secretly in the celestial meadows of deferred dreams.

Even the creases at the corners of the walls hear and begin to echo Eddie Kirkland’s song. And his blues revives her, if only for a moment. She lies in front of the room as still as the walls surrounding her doing what she and they often do: She listens.

“I am so tired,” Eddie Kirkland’s fifth daughter says just before the shades close their eyes. The moan of the blues man slumbers into the ancient aura of apple-fattened walls. And grandma looks dead again.

I am sitting, staring at the man with the dark coat standing over grandma’s frozen body. I ask momma, Eddie Kirkland’s fifth daughter, who is the man with the dark coat?  She isn’t quite sure, but she says, “Maybe one of grandma’s friends.” I think to myself, grandma’s friends never wore dark coats. It would ruin their wings.

A host of other people enters the church quietly like entering a library. (The unspoken soul is a curious thing. People say so much when they say nothing.) Interrupted. Ms. Ann, my grandmother’s other friend—the one without wings—screams into the quiet room, upsetting the ether, bending the silence, but not reviving the dead. I once heard the Preacher instruct, “For everything, there is a season.”  I think to myself: maybe this is the season for granny’s friends—even the ones without wings—to make loud, sudden noises.

“Don’t look so down,” momma says. She sounds a lot like grandma now.

“There go the Caldwells,” she notices.

The Caldwells notice her too. After visiting grandma’s frozen body, which is in the front of the room, the Caldwells make their way to where we are. They sit behind us.

“How you doing, Mul-lean?”

“As good as to be expected.”

“I understand honey. You remind me so much of Dixie. Your grandmother meant so much to us, dear. We have to get together sometime soon. I know that’s what Dixie would want.”

“Ok,” my mother says just before the walls squeal. Am I the only one in the room, besides my grandmother, who can hear them?

*

My mother and the Caldwells never got together. Despite the fact, I never will understand why the seasoned take so kindly to the young. Maybe we remind them of steps once taken—better yet of steps that should never be taken or steps that could still be taken. Whatever the case, I remembered at that moment while listening to the lament of walls my grandmother’s incredible love, particularly her love for me.

Gazing at my grandmother’s crestfallen face peeking out the open casket, I remembered how she loved me and told me that her love for me would endure forever. And if there is anything common beneath the sun, indeed it is this thing we call love, yet the ways of love seemed, to me then as they do now, to be quite unique, so utterly personal and new that when hearing the Preacher say, “There is nothing new under the Sun,” I instantly questioned his truth.

Love is erected like walls. On one side it contains intentions of the heart. On the other side it leaves open vast space for new intentions to emerge.

Love grows old like walls. Listens like walls. And is sturdy within its own walls. It eclipses the space between old and new. Though flesh decays and lives pass on, Love is eternal like the whispers of walls, which speak of the secrets of new things.

Love echoes the forgotten voices and sometimes sings the remembered blues. But under the sun, it’s eclipsing beyond its own walls. In this space—the space of the heart, the space of a grandmother’s love, Love inspires not only new music, but also new life.

For a while, long after she had left life’s orchard, I could still hear Eddie Kirkland out there, singing my grandmother’s song, telling her secrets. Unfortunately, we listeners are usually too clumsy, too casual, and too busy moaning to our own blues to hear to the song of walls or the passing truths that resound silently in their cries.

I heard the walls cry one night, and, listening, my ears faintly glimpsed the sound of new stars shining on the other side of the sun.

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A Meditation on Rainbow Communities, Mosaics, and Flower Pots

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Living in NYC spoiled me. I became use to the melodies of many voices singing in the Big City streets, the portrait of rainbow faces blended into a beautiful kaleidoscopic blur, and the witness of sundry hands clinched despite their difference. The range of diversities and inclusivities that NYC offered seemed not only innumerable, but natural. It seemed right that many faces would fit together, as if the scape of color, the magnificent prisms of difference were all by design, all resolutely divine and remarkable, all sublimely and indisputably the essence of who we are and are meant to be—many colorful flowers fitted to one magnificent flower pot.

Fast forward a few years: I am back in MI where colors don’t always dance together in the spectrum of space, where flowers sit alone in their own pots, segregated by color. We recognize them as separate, divided by boundaries that organize blacks from whites, greens from yellows, winters from springs—all sorts of divisions that make uniform but unnatural our common world.

Of course, NYC and MI are different places with vastly different histories. One is a city (which is as big as most American states); the other is a state, which suffers its own internal fractures, like the one that separates blues from reds. Don’t get me wrong. I love MI. It is my home, but I do miss NYC because it frees me from the limits of space to which MI relegates me, and quite unnecessarily to a particular color.

I had a book signing the other day, and the room filled with a sea of Black faces and hungry ears invested in what I might say. In the sea of Black faces sat four lonely islands of White—White faces easy to recognize because in MI such sprinkles of difference are easy to spot because they violate some unwritten color code. To this occurrence, I do admit to being a bit disappointed because I deeply believe in integration and understand that we, the human race, dance better together than we do apart, that the gardens of God are particolored and as fresh and as colorful as the Magnolia blossoms of spring.

Now integration implies a two-way transit of bodies borne of open invitations to explore freely the in-between spaces of our existence. It is an eventuality of willingness, where people choose to exist together for mutual and collective purposes, not through force but by will. In integrated spaces, different people exist together because they want to exist together.

In spite of dissimilarities (or because of them), people in integrated spaces ever feel the lived inspiration that the common space creates. The products of their sharing are uniquely scripted for them and by them. In such spaces, individuals and groups, in spite of their surface differences, see themselves as playing on the same team. They develop solidarity and, from this solidarity, a means to communicate and commune. They share values and temporalities, blend customs and cares in ways where individual qualities do not disappear, but appear amplified as an integral part of the integrated collectivity (or collective activity). Integration, as we would have it, is not the policy that we have long pursued in the States; it is not desegregation.

Desegregation is a policy-driven attempt to force people (who may or may not want to be together) together. In its most disturbing of forms, it is about deficit models where “the poor” are given false “charity” by being forced to live among a population of “better resourced” people who loathes them, where Blacks are doomed to the captivity of White “salvation,” such as being bused to White schools that do not want them. The calculus of desegregation is exhausting because no matter how you apply the equation to real life the fiction of real solution remains a real farce.

This brings me back to my book signing. While I entered the room hoping for a more integrated audience, I left it wondering how this integrated audience might have materialized. In pondering this question, I wondered as well why my audience, whom I was very grateful for, was chiefly Black. After some deliberation, I later reasoned that it may have had something to do with my book, which is a deep meditation on the ontology of Black males and literacy. It may have had something to with my own race: I am Black. It may have had something to do with the history of race in the MI, particularly at a historically White institution such as Michigan State University. It may have had something to do with all or none or a combination of these plus other things. Who knows? I don’t. What I do know is that the room that day taught me an important lesson.

The theory of integration is a good idea, one worth pursuing and fighting for. However, we cannot force it, but we can encourage it by creating conditions where people feel safe and invited to live beyond the homogeneity of convenience. We can also challenge ourselves to extend our footsteps long enough that we flirt with unknown distances and walk in places that seem unlike us but in a sincere search for common elements that might connect us. The truth is, we are greater together than we are apart, that the world looks more beautiful when we are planted together in one pot big enough to embrace our many leaves.

Living together is its own reward, but we must labor for it because rewards that are truly meaningful, that are worthy of us, require that we work for them.

* * *

Katrina

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You lay me down in quiet waters . . .
Drown me with your tears,
Flood levees, lift eyelids,
Cover me in your cries . . .
In shallow sea ports of sleepless and restless nights,
Where waning moons moan in the depth of deep agonies,
Where weeping winds breathe defiantly against fatal levees,
Highlight my despair in inarticulate suspension.
But despite my wading and your waters . . .
Our lonely, flooded voices rarely get heard—

Why are you sad, Katrina?
Why breathe on me your perfidious breath?
Why knock down my already crumbling walls?
Flood my sorrows—deep where the Negro speaks of rivers.
“I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young,”
But you drowned me in the Mississippi
Turned all crimson in the sunset.
My soul has grown deep from your waters
With the anguish of open contempt.
Flush me down the wells of hell through the Mississippi high waters.
Engulf me in your perfect storm—

But beyond this hurricane season, Katrina,
I grab hold to my own breath
I cradle selflessly my inner strength.
Together, Katrina, we bear fruit through storms,
Rain apples from forbidden trees—
Carry with us the arc of Noah
Wash away the mysteries of Eden.
We’re lost and alone in need of love.
Fallen from heaven—dark angels
But, Katrina, you . . . you cannot love me.
Instead you chasten me under the daylight
Strike me in my bitter cold,
Obscure my soul to meagerness.
Yet there is a glare of meaning in a new day forthcoming.
There is hope in hopelessness,
Pride in new promises.
We shall ignite fires from waters,
Trade eagerness for doubt.
And it matters to she who says:
“Lost and lonely am I,” crying out …
“Let He who loves us lead the Way.”

Katrina, you tried to drown me,
But I did not die.
He choose your waters meant to drown me for my baptism,
And sinking in them, I learned to swim.
He told me quietly in a song my Grandmother once whispered:
“It won’t be water . . .
But FIRE NEXT TIME!”

* * *

(3.04.2008)

Beyond Multiculturalism

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No matter how it crackles off the tongue. No matter how deeply inclusive it might feel at first. No matter how determined the struggle it reflects might seem. The construct of multiculturalism as it has been operationalized in our many social and intellectual spaces is at best faulty or unhelpful, and should therefore be abandoned immediately. I mean today!

Don’t get me wrong. It is clear to me that multiculturalism was once a good-intentioned response aimed at redressing the historic exclusion of non-whites, women, and other underrepresented groups from the dominant mainstream. Without the struggle that the multiculturalists portended, we may never have had the moments of Morrison in vogue, the first Black president, or the set aside pass-through funds to support diversity at historically White educational institutions and beyond.

Without the struggle of multiculturalism, indeed, I would not be in a place to have this conversation, as my very words would be shackled to some listless margins, open and empty like the three dimples tragically displaced on the edge of hole-punched loose-leaf paper. Marginality—that space driven to the boundaries of nowhere—has been American history’s passion, a crucifixion of equity draped on a cross of elite interests and borne of the throne-crowned hubris of ideological conceit condemning its manufactured audience to the shades of some unfairly casted main stage.

My complaint isn’t against the worthwhile struggle that multiculturalists have waged, but about the way it has been waged and, more importantly, how the term multiculturalism like “achievement gap,” “people of color,” “the other,” “minority,” and so on props up the very things that it struggles against.

In theory multiculturalism wants to mean something close to “many cultures” recognized together as one. It wants to provide a container that defines or summarizes both our common and uncommon yields to humanity while celebrating human cultural variably as normal. However, in practice, multiculturalism never really achieves this, does it? Instead, it gives us a category to name the excluded, grouping and, therefore, erasing the many significant and meaningful differences that excluded groups bear.

The struggle of Blacks must be defined differently than the struggle of Latinos because their histories and oppressions, while similar in ways, are fundamentally distinct. They are not the same (both in terms of group and in terms of struggle), but by making them the same, we discount them equally—both the group and the struggle. We fail to remake the margins, or, worse, we choose not to center the concerns of specific people. The same can be argued for any other unique group herded under the multiculturalist banner—the struggle of women is not equivalent to the struggle for gay rights; the struggle against linguistic discrimination is not the same as the struggle for cultural inclusion.

While each of these struggles is important, we do them little service by categorizing them as the same. By conflating very specific, very nuanced items of sociology and history, culture and politics, we move with heavy hands, surgically operating for change with the clumsy crafts of a hatchet as opposed to the greater precision of a scalpel.

In this light, multiculturalism means nothing because it has attempted to mean everything and, worse, everything that’s not White or male or elite or historically “included.” The term, itself, has done little to describe the needs of people that history has ignored, the silenced literatures that our universities have neglected, the local (as opposed to the universal) scripts that oppressed people are made outside their consent and under the penalty of violence to perform.

I want to make two points very clear. Multiculturalism has given us a category to name the excluded, grouping and therefore erasing the many significant and meaningful differences that excluded groups have among them. By constructing them as the same, the multiculturalist discourse discounts excluded groups equally.

The other issue is the issue of the false dichotomies that multiculturalism sets up—the us versus the them binary. To be clear, most functional uses of the idea multiculturalism isn’t about a cultural kumbaya moment were everyone joins hands and sings a better harmony of togetherness. Rather, multiculturalism as it has existed in our institutions has been about the opposite of inclusion and togetherness. It has been about othering, about blacks against whites in places colored by complex shades of gray. In the literature, multiculturalism is about the classics against so-called ethnic texts. In education, it is about education for kids of color (labeled multicultural education) against, well, education for White kids (simply labeled education with no qualifier).

As opposed to tearing down hierarchies of domination, the discourse on multiculturalism reimagines them. It gives the emperor a new closet while the empire persists. With multiculturalism, the conversation moves narrowly from topics of exclusion from the mainstream to topics of oppression or suppression within it. It is not a matter of better or worse because with or without multiculturalism things are bad. The question is, how do we get to better?

Indeed, because of the multicultural movement we have gained women’s studies, Black studies, Latino studies, Indigenous studies, ethnic studies, queer studies, and so on. Yet, as these items are bound by their labels, these very labels, labels that name history’s exclusion of us, surrender “multicultural” studies as something exclusive (i.e., marginal) in the academy. That is, such labels indicate marginality de facto because labels by their very nature are placed, not in centers, but against margins.

There has never been a need to label White male studies because all studies not labeled in the academy is White male studies; hence, the non-labeling of White male studies suggests that White males are central to the enterprise of the academy. Moreover, the whole of the academy with the exception of those topics labeled differently are about White males. Hence, not only are White males liberated from pejorative of needing labels to declare their existence, White male studies (if I may use this label to refer to the whole of the academic universe not displaced in multiculturalist drag) gain a regal invisibility and seriousness, an appreciation in other words that further cloaks their hidden cultural cosmology, making them appear universal when in fact the premise of their unlabeled presence is hegemonic.

This is the issue: Inclusion does not mean a “for Blacks only” table while all the other tables in the room are reserved for Whites. It does not mean maintaining the status quo by passively, in some slick ass Orwellian way, offering discursive crumbs to the oppressed as a means of pacifying their deep hunger for change or appeasing their complaints. It does not mean purchasing cheap intellectual real estate, a kind of academic Guantanamo Bay, where non-dominant groups are forced together into institutional ghettos that blur lines that mark their distinct histories. What it does mean is that we are yet to attain the change for which we have so long struggled.

For change to come, we need new terminology. By this, I am suggesting that we need a new movement—a movement for true and transformative inclusion. In the past, the term human sufficed. It meant that we were all God’s creations, necessarily equal by virtue of this common endowment. Then instead of multicultural studies, how about human studies, where the subjects of investigation exist equally, but where the topics of our scrutiny gain their own measured appreciation, their own topical real estate and nomenclature in the vast space of our collective culture.

Peering (from A Search Past Silence)

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Sometimes when listening to the echoes of history, breezes from the past are fully felt in the present. Such winds of consistency weave together stories of people much like stitches gather the assorted patches of the calico quilt. Shawn was standing firm to his position, refusing to speak or to move. The first officer, much bigger than Shawn, choked Shawn around the arm, jerked him violently out of place, and forced him to the ground. At last, the final vestige of the once standing, now fallen cypha was extinguished.

As the brittle ground touched his face, Shawn attempted to bounce up from the cold cement. In the process, he heaved his arms into the air, hoping to free them from the officer’s stingy grip. The other officer, reacting to Shawn as if Shawn’s waving arms were machetes, threw his nightstick at the side of the young man’s head. Shawn fell to his knees, broken defiantly like the Dying Gaul. He would not remember much of what happened next.

Shawn lay there quiet, drowning in a pool of blood. The blood stained the side of his face. He heard nothing and could not speak. Silenced, he laid there reclined on asphalt sheeted by his own blood. The two officers, seeing him face down, continued to beat him with heavy sticks, grabbed him, and inverted his arms backward. One officer then forced the dazed and beaten young man even closer to the ground with a hungry knee that ate into his lower back. Shawn still lay there, smoldering in the crucible of his blood, which continued to spill freely from his face.

Shouts arose from the scene. Crying mothers. Upset babies. Rumors and rumors of rumors crowded the streets. The screams of more sirens approached, followed by more officers, followed by a new circle of observers who seemed already acquainted with what was happening. As one young man observed, “Police always beatin’ niggas asses around here.”

As the crowd around him grew, a new sort of cypher emerged—with Shawn occupying its center. This cypher was nothing like the cypha that he and his friends formed. Rather, it bore an uncanny resemblance to the lynching circles that formed around the dangling carcasses of Black men fettered to trees in a time when America was “reconstructing” in the days after the country’s only civil war. The first officer, the one with vice-grip commands, tugged Shawn upward. Shawn struggled to his feet before a wall of listening faces. The officer instructed, “You have the right to remain silent . . .”

The irony in the officers announcement was evident. Shawn had long stopped talking. His right to speak disappeared when his cypha rended, when the officers and their sirens disrupted his voice, when they threw him to the ground without charge—before they lifted him up and read him his Miranda rights. He did not have the right to remain silent; simply, he did not have the right to speak. Silence for him, unlike the “freedom” of speech, was not optional; it was mandated—a privilege unearned. The decree of silence was enforced in his life as part of a much larger politics of contested voices in which Shawn and his friends found themselves marginal to an unspoken law of the land.

In the chaos, in the frenzied noise that followed Shawn’s beating, Shawn hobbled to his feet, stood still, and remained quiet. Stories of what had happened that day emerged like fertile blades of grass draping the countryside. Everyone who approached the scene, save Shawn and his friends, had a version of the story. Others voiced scorn, stories of just another Black male thug “up to something no good.” Whether lie or edict, the stories propped up a master narrative so thoroughly reproduced in Americana—think the Scottsboro Boys . . .

Amadou Diallo

Malice Green

Rodney King

Shawn Bell

Jordan Miles

Oscar Grant

Danroy Henry

Reggie Doucet

Troy Davis

Ramarley Graham

Trayvon Martin

. . . and so on— that it would have been difficult to find fault in people’s interpreting Shawn as just another Black male troublemaker, goon, or degenerate who got what he deserved.

But the stories were not true. Shawn was far from a troublemaker or a goon or a degenerate. He didn’t deserve the beating he received. He was a young man having fun with friends, finding life in their company, living in their words. But none of the storytellers who recalled the events of that day asked Shawn to describe what happened. No one asked him to tell his version of the story. So it seemed, no one wanted to hear him speak, not even his grandmother, who quite literally shushed Shawn after he tried to tell her his “side of the story” when she picked him up from the police station.

Still, stories were being told. The officers submitted a report as sensational as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. A news reporter wrote a column as inaccurate as discredited New York Times reporter Jayson Blair’s account of Jessica Lynch. And Shawn’s school recorded the event as “an incident in which a student attacked a police officer behind the school.” The school later suspended Shawn for “trespassing on school grounds.”

Shawn was being talked about, but not being heard or even given a chance to speak. No one talked to him to get his side of the story. The silences were imposing—the silence of truth untold and the silence of voices unheard. No one talked to Shawn’s friends who had escaped the scene, but were part of the events leading to Shawn’s beating. Their stories remained shrouded in silence, collected in the enduring echoes of Black men socialized to shut up and of a society shaped not to hear them.

* * *
* This excerpt is from the chapter “Peering” in my new book A Search Past Silence. You can read the book in its entirety today by going here.

A Response to Warriors of Light

***

Good evening. Francine, Catherine, David, and Gabe, I thank you for your poetry and for your music. And to all of you, I thank you for this occasion. It is a great honor to speak to you tonight.

I begin my response to the poem “Warriors of Light” by asking: What is a warrior of light?

There is a lingering ring in the phrase that echoes the ecclesiastical cadences of our deepest beliefs—that on our sides and in our darkest moments that, if only faith would have it, we have someone or something invisible fighting on our behalf. Some call this God. Others call it angels. Tonight I will call it Creative Determination.

For these youth, youth such as Francine, Catherine, David, and Gabe, creative determination kicks in when the darkness of oppression does not allow us to see past “the bodies strewn across tall grass like puzzle pieces” scattered across an open table.

These youth have come to us tonight, asking: “Can anyone see it but us?” The it that they are referring to is the glow within us that pierces the gloom of dark nights. This too is creative determination, the sparkling shadow of the soul that refuse death for life, clings to hope though the weight of nihilism rest on heavily on our backs. Creative determination is like the uncle “crucified to his hospital bed,” who until his last breath we find fighting.

It is a message to youth mentored, who have “a mental ward for shelter,” but who also find home within the creative mind “when the world ploughs out” the distended ceremonies of promise that enrich the soil of our destinies’ gardens.

Let us listen to them, hear their instructions, and learn to be warriors of light. Their lessons are succinct and simple. To be a warrior of light, you must:

  1. March until every mind you meet erupts volcanic like Etna in Italy and Erebus in Antarctica.
  2. Make your heart a tank clothed in resilience like the lone student standing against the red army in Tiananmen Square and push forward against the gust of uncertainty and the violent shoves of inequity until we arrive to our desired destination.
  3. Load new words in the muzzle of our mouths and shoot them at targets of injustice until we assassinate the last soldiers of hopeless until they no longer slay our people pitilessly with their machetes of poverty and self-loathing.
  4. Hold hands in solidarity, as soldiers who have each other’s backs in the ever-urgent struggle for life, liberty, and collective joy.
  5. Die-cast souls into a canon that vaults beyond the emptiness of our current circumstances, and blaze in harmony with the northern lights—each color a magnificent representation of God, a lamp pointing the way to freedom.

This is how we become warriors of light. We listen. This is what preemptive education has been about from the beginning. Listening to the hushed voices of youth, not only to what they have to say, but to what their saying suggests in the company of our starved ears.

We listen for the solutions that wait impatiently beyond the heavy clouds of darkness that hover over our hopes and dreams. We listen for the spirit, which is “a war cry muted by maggots,” to take on our most formidable adversary which we find too often is ourselves.

In contemporary education and in urban educational reform, we’ve been asked to schedule new and bold standards to promote growth in learning. We have become too determined to test our failures, as if by testing, we would find the most effective method to motivate achievement by creating new ways to force our students to fail. Hence, we would make plump the pig by giving her a diet of scales.

We’ve been warned that the generation before is lost, that in cities from Detroit to Baltimore, our ability to educate all is disabled. However, we see beyond school open doors for learning through organizations like Urban Word NYC to the armada of out-of-school programs that surround schools such as El Puente (in NYC). The lesson that such organizations teach is that learning is not a habit of option, but a habit of humanity—that youth, when given the opportunity, rent dark veils with sabers of light.

In so doing, these youth give those of us like Yolanda Sealy Ruiz and Ernest Morrell—those of us who have worked tirelessly in the struggle with youth and who have taken youth voices seriously for years—a chance to shine our little lights on the hills of our hopes in a time when desperate darkness has left so many blinded.

The poem I heard tonight, “Warriors of Light,” is a clarion call for change, a letter to the listening, a note to you and me from youth who have always spoken to us, although at times we have been unwilling to listen. In their call, these youth are reminding us of the light that burns fervent in this room.

In this room tonight are many warriors of light like Sarah McAdams, who began teaching English this year in Detroit, MI. Ms. McAdams’s light is in her listening, which she uses to construct lessons in the images of her students—lessons filled with the voluble voices of youth like Francine, Cahterine, David, and Gabe.

A warrior of light is a principal like Scott Conti from New Design High School, who encourages his teachers to teach creatively by fostering school environments that reflect the play spaces that youth occupy beyond the classroom walls—spaces where youth play video games and learn together, spaces where scratching as an element of hip hop and learning is subject matter, where DJ-ing is considered alongside Dante, where tags and graffiti decorate the social scape of a building, and where the building belongs not to the oligarchs but uniquely to those of us who actually occupy it.

Who are the warriors of light?

Warriors of light are individuals like Michael Cirelli, Jamila Lyiscott, and Mikhal Lee, who crisscross the country, traveling yearly from NY to Wisconsin, from MI to CA, to preach the good news of youth culture and to exorcise deficit discourses with the holy water of a hope that maintains a profit perspective. Yes we can. This perspective no only says, “Yes kids can.” It also says, “Yes they do. “

A warrior of light is the army of interested and caring individuals—like each of you here tonight—who have so chosen to dedicate time to the worthy project of rearranging the failed destinies that a broken society has impassionedly promised to our most disadvantaged children.

A warrior of light is Jen Johnson, who through hip-hop debate, has insisted that young and otherly-affected urban student can participate in a debate culture on their own terms and benefit from the exercise of ideas in the company of structured dialogue performed in verse.

Across this country warriors of light are waging a new peace on the violence and weaponry of cynicism.  We are waging peace against the lifeless legislation that has too often and too boldly insisted on a single narrative of education—one of perdition in a place outlined for our prosperity.

Throughout this great city, warriors of light are convening in a sanctimonious brigade—allied to serve and support the dreams of tomorrow that play mighty in the minds of both youth who fill our classrooms and those who have been forced out. These light warriors are the safety nets for our future. They are the cushion, blocking the blows of inequity.

From Brooklyn to the Bronx, from Queens to the farthest reaches of Staten Island, every youth voice comes to us as light. In their echo, we too must become warriors of light, beating back the gloom of ignorance that says some kids can’t learn; that insists the journeys of our present hopes are obstacled by blockades of doubt. But in our waiting, we must too find refuge in their light, so as our lights dim we can stake tomorrow’s battles in the charisma of these light soldiers’ (re)births.

Thank you, Poets. Thank you, Urban Word. Thank you, Preemptive Ed.

* * *

*This speech was delivered on September 28th at the 2012 Preemptive Education Conference held at Teachers College Columbia University in New York City.

Nikki’s Roses

By David E. Kirkland

“. . . I was quite happy then”1

Grandma would fry hot-water bread

And cook collard greens over a cast-iron stove.

The memory of grandma’s kitchen brings with it the sweet scent of yesterday

Rushing suddenly in my nostalgic nostrils,

Bringing forth a hunger for memories  . . .

Like the time when granddaddy hugged me.

I had never seen granddaddies hug their grandsons before then.

But lost in my grandfather’s arms, I was the luckiest child in the neighborhood.

I was the richest kid on earth.

I am luckier now, rich with the fascination of memories

That breathe relief into the resemblance of poetry and the burning of leaves.

My momma gave me the uncut jewels of her quiet efforts

When her pressured tears were planted firmly in her soiled lap for me,

Cultivated religiously in a ceremony of her bended knees.

I find wealth in the tattered door, which flung wide-open onto the well-used porch

And hung defiantly from the beaten up frame of her bending, still-standing home.

It swung open, falling from the staircase,

Flung open to invite me back into a wealth of buried secrets,

Of memories mined in silence for me,

Silent memories . . .

Meaningful stories of when “my Addidas walked through concrete doors”

And trod black on the tire-beaten streets of tiring, not beaten Detroit.

Now I have my mother’s jewels to carry with me—

Tears that are still searching yet shining like the poetic prowess of diamonds

That twinkle, frozen, in the elusive starlight of my mother’s burning brown eyes.

I am rich like my grandmother’s crispy fried chicken, peach cobbler, and baked macaroni.

I have hidden treasures like my grandfather’s stolen hugs, planted deeply within the loam of life.

Though life has robbed me of lots of things, sometimes even my liberty,

I hold firmly to these assets lent to me that no one can ever steal.

 

nikki's roses

* * *

Detroit in the early 1990s simmered hot like the edge of a crack pipe, fumed with the smog of junkies strung together by a band of battered bodies that littered the city with the frosty heat of the living dead. You didn’t have to dig too far beneath the City to find hell. In the clutches of this Detroit, my mother spent more time with some new friends she met.

About four years prior, she had given birth to my younger sister. My older sister moved in with an aunt because she had gotten tired of coming home and being jumped on by mother whenever my mother was high or drunk. It was my mother’s new friends who brought this influence upon her.

It seemed as if she did not care for us the same way she had before. All she cared for now was being with her new friends, drinking and doing drugs.

It seemed like my mother gave up on life after the tragic deaths of her mother and sister.

The coarse city life was taking its toll on her. Like so many in 1990’s Detroit, my mother started using crack cocaine, which had become a popular commodity on Detroit’s drug-infested streets. She no longer bought us clothes or anything new. She had a habit to nurse, and this habit took precedence to kids.

As a result, I often hustled at pool halls to earn money to buy my younger sister and me food to eat. To this day, I reason that it was not my mother’s fault for her negligence towards us. All odds had been set against her early in her life. She has little help raising us, and with the recent deaths of her sister and mother, she simply went over the edge.

The City pushed many unsuspecting victims, especially single mothers, to this point. It pushed people like my mother into desperate situations where their backs would be so pressed against the proverbial wall that, given the weight of the situation and the heaviness of the burdens it carries, the wall would collapse. And anyone pressed against it would be left to stumble and fall with little help. This was, at least, true for my mother.

One evening, I would try to reason with my mother. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I would ask if she loved us.

“Yeah,” she said, not suspecting what I would ask next.

“Why do you choose your friends over me and my sisters, momma?  Why don’t you cook no mo?  Or by us stuff like you use to?”

She said, “Boy, you know it’s hard. I don’t have a job, and I am trying to make the best of our situation. It ain’t easy out here, but momma love y’all. Y’all all I got.”

I responded, “So momma, when your friends come over, y’all ain’t gonna go into that room and close the door again.  Y’all ain’t gonna do that stuff no mo, momma; are you?  Please momma, say no. Please.”

There was a slight pause. Silence. Interruption. Bump, bump, bump, bump. Someone was knocking on her door. It was her new friends, who immediately caught her attention.

“Hey girl, how you doin’?”

“I ain’t hittin on too much. Did y’all bring the stuff?”

“Uhm uh.”

My mother led them to her the room and shut the door. I went to her door and tried to plead with her to stop what she was about to do. She don’t think she heard me, or maybe she just ignored me for those heathens she called friends.

I became furious. The flame of my anger singed my feeling for my mother. I packed my little sister’s things and grabbed that infant by the waist. I positioned her in an awkward angle so that I could carry both her and her belongings to a safe place. I took her to my grandmother who lived very close by, and I begged my grandmother to keep my younger sister.

As much as I wanted to stay, there was no place for me at my grandmother’s house at the time. She didn’t like me much, complained that I looked too much like my mother, whom she loathed. Still, my grandmother loved my younger sister and agreed to keep her. I left my sister there and went my separate way.

First, I went back to my mother’s house. I did not want to give up on her so easily. When I returned home, there was a gloomy silence that stilled the fog of smoke that filled the air.  After cutting through the fog of smoke, I saw my mother standing by her bedroom door petrified. Her friends were gone. I could not tell if she missed them or anyone for that matter. I knew that she didn’t miss her children because she hadn’t even realized that my sister and I had left. To break the quiet and upset the smoke, I told my mother where I had taken my sister, and then I ran away from that miserable place.

That day, the streets of Detroit were my home. Here, I was again running. I could not take the bondage of pain any longer. Despite my running from home, pain’s throb still followed me. I had no destination. There was no place for me to go. I made my bed that night on a cheap bench by the side of a bus stop. I slept the whole of five minutes. It was the longest night of my growing experience. Time didn’t pass as fast. On this night, it lingered. Thus, I lived in the paranoia of being alone in the darkness of night. I had to deal with the fear of someone doing me harm, perhaps killing me, or even worse, letting me survive. More importantly, I had to deal with the fear of what was happening to my mother.

The next morning, while lying in the grass at a community park, my grandmother pulled up to me with my grandfather in their 1981 Buick station wagon. Since she was a very big woman at the time, about three hundred pounds, my grandmother lifted me up and threw me in the bed of the station wagon.

I will never forget how drained I felt. I, too—like my mother—felt like giving up on life. But this big, Black woman took me from that barren park to her home, hoisted me past her front door, and began to free me of my odor-soaked clothes. I knew I smelled bad, but I didn’t have the mind to care. She put me in a bed of massagingly warm water and began to wash my back. I could not respond to her love, for my weary little body was in shock. Still the tenderness of her old, time-woven hands comforted me.

That night, I slept knowing that both of my sisters and I were safe. Having some consolation in this, I was a somewhat relieved. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother. Before I had left her, I had seen in her eyes a new, emptier person. She had become someone else, something less than alive. It was as if a dark presence had stolen my mother’s body and invaded her soul. Suddenly I began to miss her as if she was no longer with me. I had never dealt with death so personally until then. My heart was stomped, my head pounding in the agony of contemplation delivered an awful blow.

That night, I cried an awful tear from the pain of this loss. It inspired within me a moan that echoed with a caustic roar. My cry was like that of the roll of thunder riding the gorging belly of hell. I wanted my mother because in times like this I ran to her. She would provide me with the mildest shades of security. When she would soothe me, I knew that things would be all right. I wanted my mother but didn’t know where to find her.

***

1. This quotation is taken from the last line of Nikki Giovanni’s Poem “Nikki Rosa.”

2. This excerpt is from a chapter in my unpublished autobiography Echoes of a Song.