A Meditation on Rainbow Communities, Mosaics, and Flower Pots


* * *

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.

* * *




* * *

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 . . .

* * *


Beyond Multiculturalism


* * *

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.

Letter to a Young English Teacher

“In your light I learn how to love.

In your beauty, how to make poems.

You dance inside my chest, 

where no one sees you, 

but sometimes I do, 

and that sight becomes this art.”


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Dear Young English Teacher,

I have recently wondered about the stage on which you dance at times. When I suddenly have an urge to write, I can feel your listening presence, or your warm, enrapturing fold-your-arms eyes breathing encouragement behind my back.

Other times, when my page clings to silence and I know that words are far from me, I lean closer to your gentle lessons. Do you ever feel me?

Your lessons dance in my chest like felt pen strokes gliding across a gentle page, fluttering between my ears like secret whispers that transit the depths of Odysseus lost at sea or the peeks of Mother Sula bathed in the calm waters of literary fantasies. How magical will your words be tomorrow, particularly when they give life and meaning to the young long enough for the young to recognize the power within them?

Did I think I would ever hear from you again? I had doubts, but I also believed that I would, particularly because you always made sense of the world for me—and have helped to make me the man that I have become (a better man than I would have been without you).

Did you know that this meaning, this sense that you will make for your students, will become their yearning, their treasure? They will thank you for your charmed notes and pressing queries. You don’t know it yet, but for each student you touch, you will open a new world of possibility for us all. For we are linked, in some indisputable way powerfully interconnected.

Your students’ lives will be busy and weird and messy and lonely and sometimes difficult. However, you will charge their expectations for tomorrow with the power of transformative vision. With it, they will no longer simply read the word; they will read the world with fascinating curiosity and through critical lenses that you will help them shape. They’ll do so earnestly and delightfully and painfully all at the same time. And in reading the world, they will dare to transform it for the better.

As they reflect on this world—the world as text—with gumbo feelings that merge within them the shrill stories of tragedy and the more hopeful chapters of triumph, each page of their new world will stew together a hunger for remembrance, a taste of doubt blended with cravings for lasting images of progress.

Through literacy, you teach them that they can change the world. But will they ever know what becomes of the illiterate? Or will they persist in a state of forgetting, resident to the bondage of remembrances loss or impaired or, even worse, imposed? Because of you, they will treasure memories—“because this is what the literate do,” you will teach them.

The memories will be fond, as if everything in the world could be a utopian dream fastened to the mindscape of our various existences. All of the alternatives of the universe live here, inhabiting the forges of possibility long enough to kindle hope. They are beautiful and awful all the same—beautiful in that your students will know new suns arising, but awful in the same way that they will constantly see these same suns setting but ingloriously at a distance. This is literacy’s torture, which is the chronic ache of longing to rescue a read world from the nightmares of oppression, to hold onto those liberating passages that echo like dreams passing through the chambers of praxis.

I know now, for truth, that I fell in love with words and the world because of a teacher who resembled you. The evidence of my heart bears its lament as artifact of this love. I am not sure what tomorrow holds, but I know today that I am in love with words and the worlds that they have revealed.

For this love, I am grateful for you, young English teacher, for the purchased time with which you shall gift many others. This gift remains a lesson itself—a text to be read and reread with fervent intensity and for all time. The story it tells will remind countless young souls that they are worthy of love and, more, that they are capable of sharing the same. And share they will but through words customized to fit their heart’s good intentions, finally liberated to bring forth the tender song of their hands.

When I started my blog two days ago, I wish you could have seen the deep curve in the crescent of my smile. How lucky will your students be to learn that they can write themselves into existence? To learn about Alice Walker and her silhouetted stories of Black female aesthetics and identity? To hear the poetical voice of Arundhati Roy and her cherished narratives of small things that are delicately handled by God. O, what a privileged place you hold!

You will do more than teach stories, though. You will teach hope through stories—and the basics of beauty encased in all things—a rotten apple or jewel-crested crown, stone benches connected by bands of strangers or the deep humanity of girls and boys stumbling in dark places to make light of life.

Your students will wonder how the world looks through your eyes, the eyes of an artist. They will ask difficult questions deep inside themselves: Is your world the same as theirs? Or is it more involved, more colorful, more tempestuous? Do the colors carry an intensity that only God understands? How gifted, then, are you, young English teacher? I know that this refrain is on repeat, but how glad will your students be to have met you!

Whenever I think of you, I am reminded of the final line in Fanon’s classic book Black Skin, White Masks: “O my body, make me always a man who questions!” Sitting with my thoughts of you, I realize now how vital you are. You will raise important questions about the world, about power, about philosophy, about politics, about history, about supremacy, and about love. Because of your unique place in our world—a stage for dreams and the development of difference—you will dance to rhythms of genius curried and cultivated out of curiosity and the power of knowing. You will make a difference. And simply knowing that you exist, you’ve already made a difference to this one.

All of your lessons will have everything to do with how we as humans understand the world, how we might bear witness to the spectacle of a universe unshackled. This is your art, understood only through the artist’s eyes. It is the brilliant painting of development, which emancipates the bound soul through tiny—but profound—brushstrokes of revelation. Do you feel me?

Each writer has her gift. But more importantly, she has a teacher who helps her understand the magnificence and power of words. From you, she shall learn what she produces in knowledge is something that the world needs to hear in order to fully understand itself? Your students too will need this lesson in order to understand themselves and articulate a space of their own within its crowded limits.

But to me, your lessons will not only forge the smithies of our radical, rewrite-yourself-into-existence epistemologies. They will also be fundamentally rewriting Fanon’s call in Black Skin, White Masks, transforming existence into one continuous body to behold, embracing its liberation as well as its oppressions, its interpellations as well as its possibilities in requiems of a life that only a muted future knows.

The greater lesson that you will teach your students through your readings and waitings, yearnings and listenings is that redemption toward want, desire, even love is not found in the loose nostrums of economic enterprise or the day-to-day gallantry of excess. Not in conquest or purchasing, but in a deep and divine respect for patience. Here, you and your students will be revealed as both fragile and enduring, profoundly carved out of your circumstances, bound to those regimes of thought and delusions of fantasy that imprison us all.

Although we exist in the restrictive scenes of our experiences, we live more freely in the possibilities of imagination. It is here within the fertile planes of the mind that you and your students will race both as Atalanta and Hippomenes through the sheltered valleys of Arcadia, purging and picking golden apples as you sprint freely in this endless marathon of dreams. It is here that your stubborn wills will merge, offering—beyond the strains of such colossal escapades as flaw and perfection—humble strategies of hope, spinning the threads that will make escape from the bondage of reality more possible.

In the end, you will learn that prerequisite to all literacies, to all life, is a courage to play, a hunger to learn, and the fulsome amusement of curiosity.

Thank you for all that you will do. I know that you will do great!

Sincerely yours,


David E. Kirkland


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