from Ellen Bass, The Human Line (2007)
Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.
Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.
Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.
To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.
Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.
Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.
If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.
When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls. And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.
And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, writing on a blackboard
with yellow chalk, twirling pizzas–
With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.
Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.
Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.
“…we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people everyday. So…we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.” — Jesse Williams
My curiosity made me do it. My head rested on the small of Jermar’s back while I read and circled and scribbled in the margins of a friend’s manuscript, I only half listened to whatever video Jermar watched on social media. But, in the next moments, I fully heard his sigh, felt his body heave and recognized the sorrow in his voice when he said damn, another black man shot by the police…this time is really bad.
I had to ask him three times, each instance more urgent, before he reluctantly handed me his phone while quietly advising me against watching the video.
I watched the first 30 seconds, un-phased by the imagery as I’d seen it before on the video with the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island concrete; I’d seen it before when Officer Casebolt wrangled baby girl’s bikini-clad body to the ground and sat atop her like she was a rabid Rottweiler; I’d seen it this summer in St. Louis as I slowed my car to watch black boys with tank tops and shoulder length dreadlocks being roughly mishandled for whatever latest sin in addition to their skin they’d committed against society.
In those first 30 seconds I was numb because of Black Lives Matter protests, because of election year rhetoric, because of biased media, because of community violence, rank ass gun laws, local news, family matters, wedding planning, checkbook balancing, what to pack for lunch tomorrow morning…
But somewhere between 31 seconds and the end of the video, Alton Sterling is shot while on the ground beneath two police officers.
A woman in the background– I imagined her initially defiantly videotaping the scene, talking shit as she filmed it– is now grief stricken, horrified, crying and screaming in angst and disbelief as she has just watched in real time what she’d perhaps previously only seen on tv.
I had to catch my breath along with her. I got out of bed and paced the floor. I felt the water well up in my eyes. I told Jermar he was right. I went to the living room and sat on the couch. I opened my computer and searched online. I saw Alton’s big brown face, his gold teeth, his wife and kids. I read about his criminal history, the testimonies of his friends, an account of the scene from a witness.
I thought about the black men I know, some who peddle goods for a living, others who are coming or have already returned home from prison, their gold teeth and round brown faces. I felt the sadness and frustration rise up within me once again.
Don’t talk to me about justice or peace. Don’t tell me to be “this mad” about the violence that is perpetrated in our community—I am already angry about that. Don’t point your finger at this man, Alton Sterling, and tell me that he didn’t deserve the same chance to live and love and work and care for his children that a gun toting, shit talking, big, ole white man would have had.
White privilege is knowing that for all of the inappropriate, disgusting and downright unlawful shit a man with blonde hair and blue eyes could do without punishment, a black man would get killed for doing half of it.
And this is domestic abuse: to be terrorized, mishandled and murdered in America by the people who are supposed to protect us. There are no other resources, no place to take shelter, no safety plans to put in place for Black people against the police. There is nowhere for us to go. All we can do is stand up and fight.
“The call for forgiveness is a painfully familiar refrain when black people suffer. White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place…Black people forgive because we need to survive. We have to forgive time and time again while racism or white silence in the face of racism continues to thrive.” —“Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof,” –Roxane Gay
Today I considered forgiveness and love and hopefulness. I figured that the rest of America was already over our grief—ready for us to bury the Charleston nine and all of the emotional baggage that came along with it. The rest of America is probably hoping that this last racial showdown will finally shut us up, shove us back into submission and help us shelve our discontentment with living our subpar lives.
Since Sunday’s post about why I need the black church more than ever, I’ve considered finding ways to make myself comfortable again– maybe figure out how to return to posting fun, lighthearted stuff on social media these days; perhaps explore new ways to quiet my spirit in spite of the unrest I have been feeling. After all, I had already decided to stop watching the news, limit my internet intake and listen to only gospel tunes about love, mercy, grace and forgiveness so I can, hopefully, feel some of what the Jackson, Lance, Pinckney, Sanders, Hurd, Coleman-Singleton, Doctor, Simmons and Thompson families felt when they, what seemed like, so easily went to forgive the killer of their loved ones only two days after they were murdered. I had been trying, really hard, to wedge myself back into the “American way” of dealing with a national tragedy that wreaks of racism and deeply affects the Black community.
But then I read the piece, “Black churches taught us to forgive white people. We learned to shame ourselves,” by Creative Nonfiction author, Kiese Laymon, which was published online yesterday by The Guardian. Laymon shares a conversation that he had with his grandmother after the Charleston nine’s family members’ apologies were publicly made and praised. Laymon carefully transcribes the stories of his grandmother, an apparent God-fearing woman who loves a good curse word every now and then, living in the state where my grandmother was born and raised.
My grandma, today an 87-year-old elder from Jonestown, Mississippi. When I visited my grandma’s hometown as a child there were barely-paved streets and shanty-roof homes in neighborhoods full of working-poor black folks who hadn’t moved North during our country’s Great Migration from the South. My grandma, who moved to St. Louis before my mom was born and some years after she finished school after third grade, came and worked from the 1950’s to the late 1990’s doing one of the only few trades Black women learned down south—she cleaned homes for white people.
My grandmother, an 87-year-old Christian woman, who painstakingly gets dressed for church on Sunday mornings– and any other time if she could get a ride to a service— was probably not too much unlike Mother Susie Jackson who, also at 87 years old, likely went through the same strains to get to a sparsely attended Wednesday night Bible study in an old A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Thoughts of Mother Susie Jackson’s death among the other eight who were slain now paired with these stories from Kiese Laymon’s grandmother keep setting me back on my attempts to embrace the love and kindness and extensions of sympathy from white people across the country who would like us to grieve as quietly and as peacefully as possible. The white Christians who sang hymns and lit candles and knit shawls and wrote condolences in exchange for no riots, no uncomfortable conversations about race and a prompt return to business-as-usual in the U.S. by this Thursday, a full-week after the domestic terrorist attack.
But, in spite of myself and my heartbreak for my people, my community; regardless of my disenchantment with ideals around the words “equality” and “reconciliation;” despite this ball of pessimism towards phrases like “Love Wins” or “Love Conquers All,” I intend to find the strength to conjure up some warm fuzzies for the white people who befriend me on Facebook and are looking for me to return to my jolly-ole, social media self. I’m going to get some willpower to applaud Christians, both Black and white, who earnestly believe that their familiar fear and damning discomfort, respectively, could be dispelled if we only seek God for guidance and resort to prayer as the sole action against injustice. I am about to work on stretching myself even thinner, pushing my pride aside a little further, and opening my mind a little broader and see if that will do me some good. In the meantime, I hope the world will be patient with me.
Justice requires those who suffer the least to speak up the most. –Steve L. Robbins
In mere hours, people across the country will be sitting in pews. I’ve been debating if I will also attend church today– wake up as the sun warms my room, find a nice Sunday dress and go to a service to hear something that will comfort my soul.
If I had to go, I’d likely go out and find a church full of folks who look like me to worship with. Because it is at another A.M.E. church, or among some COGIC congregants or maybe some Southern Black Baptist folk that I would find some healing for my heartache after this week’s tragic events. I don’t think there will be a Black clergyperson in America who won’t enter her/his church without pangs in their chests, lumps in their throats and a weight on their shoulders. I believe that, this morning, all sermons that will be preached from pastors of those aforementioned pulpits will be anguish-laden battle-cries in sanctuaries full of folks who are already just as weary and fed up with fighting as they are. And, in the end, the solution will be—as it always is—to watch and to pray.
And as much as I believe that racial reconciliation should begin among the righteous first; that the integration of our churches would be a real testament to moving towards a post-racial society; that conversations about racism, inequity and injustice should start with people of faith—I, frankly, don’t believe that there will be enough non-Black church leaders who will properly address what happened at a Bible study in an A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C. on Wednesday night. Sure, there will be moments of silence. Of course folks are going to offer up some prayers for the families of the nine innocent lives that were slain. Yes, they will utter petitions for God to heal our land and our hearts.
But not enough non-Black church leaders will apologize for not promptly talking about why Ferguson, New York and Baltimore went up in smoke after the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. Not enough non-Black church leaders will be sorry about not inviting open dialogue about why, for months now, African-Americans have been angrily protesting for all Americans to acknowledge that #BlackLivesMatter. Not enough non-Black church leaders will stand in front of their congregation with their heads hanging low, a crackle in their voices and admit that, they too, struggle with racism, white supremacist values or, perhaps, more simply, just understanding the plight of their darker-skinned brothers and sisters. Not enough non-Black church leaders will admit that they have a hard time grappling with the idea of “Solidarity” with communities of color around issues that negatively affect our ways of life and/or obstruct our paths to achieving the American dream. Not enough non-Black church leaders will admit that they are in need of God’s love to soften their hearts towards us, their browner counterparts, in order to move past our darkness and into the Light.
In the June 19th Gleanings Section of Christianity Today, the magazine shared some words from Austin Channing Brown’s, “The Only Logical Conclusion” that were especially moving and resonated deeply for me. Here, I have shared what I’ve gleaned from CT’s snippets:
“…The level of terror that black people feel in America at this moment cannot be underestimated…Because when the driving force of such a massacre [sits] in the pews unchallenged every Sunday morning in white churches- there is no reason why black Americans should feel safe.
The sin of white supremacy is thriving in this country because white Christians refuse to name it and uproot it, refuse to confess it and dismantle it, refuse to acknowledge it and repent of it, refuse to say the words, ‘It’s in my family,’ ‘It’s in my church,’ ‘It’s in my soul.’ ”
What will you preach about today? How will you challenge/inspire/encourage your church leaders and fellow congregants to really talk about racism in America and the church’s responsibility to address it? How can we seek to reach across the thresholds of our racially homogenous churches and create dialogue and form real relationships with other Christians who look and live differently from us?
Because it is time.
“It may be that the satisfaction I need depends on my going away, so that when I’ve gone and come back, I’ll find it at home.” –Rumi
During the holiday season, I decided that I would make a move back home to St. Louis. By early March, the project I had been working on concluded and I was packing up the life I had made in Philadelphia for nearly thirteen years and getting ready to start all the way over in the Midwest. It took little more than a week to organize my things, fill up boxes and, when that was all done, say a few goodbyes and quietly exit the state of Pennsylvania for Missouri.
But not without its thickets and snares: along the trek, Jaxon (my 100lb pet) and I got a flat tire on the expressway after leaving the PA Turnpike. At close to midnight and on a poorly lit part of the road, it was a pretty scary 45-minute wait for the tow truck that arrived to load us up and drive us to a safe spot to change the damaged tire to a spare. With a handicapped car and very few options for lodging (especially with a dog), Jaxon and I found a parking lot to rest in overnight until Walmart opened the next morning. At 6:30am, we started our Sunday looking to get the tire changed and rotated so we could continue our trip. However, it wasn’t until after three Walmarts and two auto stores that we finally found a PepBoys thirty miles off-route that had the tire I needed and was able to change it out so we could get back on the road.
By 6am on Monday, I arrived at my mom’s house where she was waiting to hug my weary, 2-day un-showered body and help me unload my car. When we finally settled in, Jaxon nestled himself on a couch my mom gave him when he spent some weeks with her last year and I curled up in the bed of my sister-turned-nephew-turned-my-temporary-room for some sleep.
That was almost a month ago. Since then I’ve gained 10 pounds from eating with my mom and grandma, had a million false starts with working out and dieting; I’m being Auntie to the little squad of my pregnant-with-triplets best friend; I’ve been on five interviews and scheduled to start two new part-time positions this month and grad school this fall; I’ve stopped watching the news and started looking into organizations I’d like to get involved with to help mentor youth and/or ramp up voter education. I have unpacked a few things, hung up my dresses and jackets and tucked away my winter items in a couple of plastic bins to make way for a warm and balmy Midwestern spring.
Although writing has been slow, sleep has been erratic, and a feeding and exercise schedule has been all over the place for Jaxon, it has, overall, been pretty good thus far and I have yet to miss my makeshift life in Philly (although I am missing my partner and friends tremendously). While trying to get comfortable in my old city once again, I have been intentional about taking my time to reach out to friends, both here and back East, as I find it hard to say late goodbyes and long-lost hellos when life still feels a bit unsettled.
So, here it is: a little blog post to share with you via a small window of my life to let you know that times for me are a’changin’. I’m changing… evolving… turning into a butterfly in this cocoon called “home.”
“Yeah, we’re gonna tear it up/ We gonna trash it up/ Gonna round it up/
Gonna shake it up/ Oh no no no, I will not lie down/
Turn this thing around/ I will not go quietly…” –Don Henley
When, Black America, did we go hoarse? When did we become so consumed with Being Mary Jane and rocking 2 Chainz that we could allow our community to be subject to this country’s greatest Scandal? When did we become so afraid of discomfort that we would allow ourselves to be comfortable with injustices that plague our daily lives and our well-being?
And this isn’t just about Michael Brown’s cold blooded murder and Darren Wilson’s exoneration. This isn’t just about Tamir Rice and our boys’ inability to play cops and robbers with toy guns in a neighborhood park. This isn’t just about the acquittal of George Zimmerman, or the choke hold that killed Eric Garner, or the conviction of Marissa Alexander for telling her abuser to back off with a warning shot.
Oh, it is much bigger than this.
This is about voter ID laws in Southern states– laws that serve to reenact a new Jim Crow era by disproportionately disenfranchising black folks, immigrants and formerly incarcerated men and women from using their voices at the polls. This is about Republican governors’ refusal to expand Medicaid in half of the states across this country, once again disproportionately affecting the accessibility to affordable healthcare in impoverished and underserved communities full of people who are dark like me or who speak languages too foreign for the GOP to care about. This is about crack carrying heavier charges than cocaine and about what kind of trouble weed in the hood could get you versus pot in the suburbs. This is about HIV growing fastest among people of color than any other group. This is about an entire nation blatantly disrespecting our President on all fronts because he is a Black man.
And yet, there has never been a time when our people have acted as cowardly as they do today. Are we so distracted by raunchy rap music and ratchet reality TV that we have forgotten ourselves? Are we so busy filling the pews of mega-churches that we can no longer preach about our rightful place in this world? Are we so enamored by Facebook posts, Instagram images and Twitter tweets that we do not read in black and white the words of Garvey, Washington, X, Davis, King?—Because they still ring true today. Oh, yes—their words still ring true today.
And they would not have gone quietly, lying down and allowing the powers that be to walk all over us so we can feel a false sense of peace. They would not have sat in front of their televisions, lit up with scenes from protests and peace rallies, and pray for it all to blow over soon. Because it will not blow over soon.
Today, we are more powerful than we have ever been. With social media, cell phones and greater solidarity across color lines than ever before, we have the potential to mobilize, organize and create a force to be reckoned with. This is not the time to be quiet, to be cowardly, to be fearful. We must be strong, vigilant, active and brave if we are to pursue fight for justice. It is time for us to stop living off of yesterday’s legacy and start building up our own.
“We must organize for the absolute purpose of bettering our condition, industrially, commercially, socially, religiously and politically. We must organize, not to hate other men and women, but to lift ourselves, and to demand respect of all humanity. Our goal is not to create offense on the part of other races, but to be heard and to be given the rights to which we are entitled. We must determine among ourselves that all barriers placed in the way of our progress must be removed, must be cleared away for we desire to see the light of a brighter day.” —Marcus Garvey, an excerpt from “The Future as I See It.” (I took liberties and heavily edited, revised and modernized this excerpt– and I take full responsibility for it.)
How to Make Noise? Contact and get involved with these organizations:
For the past couple of weeks, I have been deeply affected by the slaying of Michael Brown which happened right in the backyard of my hometown. I have followed and watched the turn of events with my stomach in knots, hoping that the fervor for justice continues in Ferguson, St. Louis and across the nation. Desirous of speaking out about this tragedy and the way Ferguson’s police force, the media and people in the community have responded, I wanted to publish a blog post about what I was feeling.
But then, one day last week, I was granted an opportunity to, once again, lead a creative writing workshop at Philadelphia FIGHT’s Institute for Community Justice. For our writing exercise, I asked participants, a group of about thirty people, most of them black men, to respond to the questions raised against police brutality and the argument that we, as a community, should first focus on “black on black” aggression. I gave the writers an option to choose from which angle to write an open letter to the community at large.
The ICJ writing group had plenty to say and I had to encourage them to put all of that excitement on paper.
They did. And then they gave me permission to edit and publish it here on LLFW. I am very excited to share this work and provide a platform for the writers of ICJ.
**Please note that while these pieces are the views of each individual writer of Philadelphia FIGHT’s Institute for Community Justice it does not necessarily represent the views of Philadelphia FIGHT, The Institute for Community Justice or the keeper of LLFW.
A Letter to My People by Sheewo
My fellow brothers and sisters, we need to wake up and realize that we are under attack. Slavery may be over by law, but it is still alive in the mind and hearts of a lot of those in power around us. Look around you. They don’t want us to succeed; they don’t want us to make it; they don’t want us to grow. They lock us away or outright kill us. They keep their foot on us and we attack each other out of anger and frustration instead of attacking the actual enemy at hand.
My black brothers and sisters, this has to stop!
We have to learn to stick together and keep each other alive. We have to take a stand and let it be known that we are worthy, that we are strong, that we possess the ability to excel past the negative stereotypes that have been stamped on us from birth. It’s time for us to raise up and fight back or they will make sure that we are exterminated. Together we are a superpower and that is why they try to destroy us.
My black brothers and sisters, it may be time for war. Our lives and freedom are still at stake.
“Gun control means using both hands in my land. We as African Americans are being hunted. We are the targets and there has never been justice on these stolen lands.” –DINK
THIS IS WAKE UP PEOPLE! –by Pattie P.
What is happening in our world today as a people?
Marvin Gaye would say, “What’s Goin’ On?!”
The police are killing our black people
Our kids for no reason.
Please WAKE UP PEOPLE
If we as a people do not do something soon
Our next generation
Will be extinct.
So What He Was Unarmed –by Khalil Nurdeen Al’mu’min
I am so, so, so tired of hearing, reading or seeing that another man has been slayed by the city’s biggest and most powerful gang—the police. The crime fighters and community servants have declared an open season on us young black men, Trayvon Martin and now, Michael Brown.
Not to take away from all the other tragedies that have manifested where the genesis of the situation where young black men who engage in conflict end up sparking bullets and putting holes in our young men— black men who are fathers, sons, brothers, future leaders, freedom fighters, writers, artists.
Personally, I believe that we need to police the police and crime in our own neighborhoods. We need to take personal responsibility for our own welfare and community. Violence begets violence, and surely that is not the only alternative. I favor a healthy balance of physical might and verbal might.
Still, how does an unarmed young man get slayed by a trained crime-fighting public servant? I thought that the first order of these trained and armed professionals is to protect the public, not rob them, rape them or slay them.
By ANY and ALL Means Necessary –by C. Casey
Why not start telling women who are raped that it’s their fucking faults for wearing such sexy skirts? Why not tell the poor four-year-olds who are being molested that it’s their fucking faults for being so cute? Saying it was Michael Brown’s fault that the police killed him is the equivalent of just that.
Saying that black on black crime is something to look at is a way to divert us as a people from seeing the truth: We are now being exterminated by any means necessary– jail, plain out murder or some sort of biological warfare.
God bless Martin Luther King and what he has done, but I think Malcolm X’s spirit needs to rise again because our children and their children are in danger and we must stop this—by ANY and ALL means necessary!!!
I Don’t Trust the Cops –by Mister Man
Cops have been killing blacks for years. This young man, Mr. Brown, had his hands up in the air. Now this young man can’t go to college, can’t raise a family, he can’t wish “happy birthday” to his mom, dad, sister and brother.
We all get looks from cops all the time. They can’t be trusted. I don’t feel safe around cops and there are a lot of people who feel the same way—they don’t trust the cops.
I can’t believe they shot this young man in cold blood with no answers. Did they even apologize? Did they say they were sorry, please forgive me? Did they say, please forgive me God?
Me, myself—I don’t trust cops.
Aren’t We Bigger than “Black on Black?” –by Maurice 18
What I think about black on black crime is that it is ridiculous.
I mean everybody coming at the police for killing us—not to say that they are right—but we are killing ourselves. Every day, a black person is killing another black person.
Not to defend the police, but everyone is always coming at the cops, but we are not coming at each other. Black on black crime is the biggest stock in America and it is only going to continue to grow unless we as a people wake up. That is what we must do, “Wake Up!”
We can come together to smoke crack or weed, but we can’t come together as a people and get along with each other. Just a group of us—black people—sitting together, sharing good times without a fight or someone getting shot or stabbed.
I believe we could make that happen if we stop thinking we are better than each other.
Wake up, black people. Wake up.
W.A.R. –by Joel Batchelor
This is a declaration of war.
We are no longer able to function as a society within a society without a life-giving, cathartic battle. Frantz Fanon said that armed rebellion would do more than just free us—it would be the salve that heals the psychological scars that plague us. In other words, to go to war would be “cathartic.”
We—and I mean “Black folks”—are the only animals on this planet that will not fight an enemy that we have clearly identified. No other animal does what we do. No other animal has a known enemy that kills its members’ children and does not retaliate.
We are at war. It is high intensity, brutal and genocidal. What other examples do you need besides America’s own history? What more do you need than manifest destiny?
We are already at war.
I just left a crowded trolley platform at City Hall. Everyone waiting for everything: the #34 for University City; the #11 going towards Upper Darby; the #36 to Eastwick. I was waiting for the #10 to take me to West Philly.
When I came up from the subway, I immediately noticed other waiting passengers watching some sort of spectacle. When I got around the bend to see what had mesmerized the people, there were two men with two young boys and a toddler around a large square piece of cardboard on the ground– all of them, in turns, breakdancing to a barely audible radio playing hip-hop (the good shit) from a nearby bench.
All five of them as dirty and gray and brown as the floor of the platform, but as energetic and lively as a preacher in a pulpit on Sunday morning. They were jumping around, dancing in-sync, passing hats for head spins and hi-fiving each other in between body moves. The performance was priceless– it’s the stuff you stay in big cities for– and I wanted to dump the contents of my purse in their hands.
The boys, between the ages of 3-6 years old, moved with ease, mimicked the men, mouthed the lyrics of the 80’s rap songs and took the dollars from the old ladies who refused to drop the greenbacks in the bucket for fear that the performers would miss acknowledging their generosity.
I smiled too much over a span of ten minutes and groaned when the #10 trolley showed up. I thought about taking pictures, but I didn’t want to embarrass the pack, working in their grunge, making dollars to maybe make a meal later or to buy tokens to get around or pay bills to keep lights on. Instead, I took snapshots in my mind, dropped my dollars in the orange bucket and waved at them as I stepped on the trolley and headed West.
“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.” —Rumi
There were black men yelling on the Market Frankford El today. We all got on the train at the same time, but separately, at 69th Street, the end/beginning of the line. The first guy, who sat across the aisle from me, was on his cell phone.
“Did you hear about the Sixers?… They tradin’ Hawes!… That’s a bad move, man!”
Other guys pile into the car, in uniforms and work boots, bundled in puffer coats or in hoodies covering their heads. They take empty seats or stand near the poles at the double doors, some of them with their friends and in their own conversations. But the man on the phone is loud and the other passengers are forced to eavesdrop. A murmur begins among the strangers.
“Naw, that’s good!”
“That’s a good move for the Sixers, dawg!”
“That’s what they need!”
The man on the phone hangs up with the caller as the train begins to leave the station. Before hitting the button to close the call, he is responding to the other passengers. The men all become passionate about the subject. There are hand gestures and scrunched up faces, “naw dawg’s” and “C’mon man’s.” The oldhead tucked in the corner of the car offers up a comment and they all pause to hear him before they all chime in at once again.
The train stops at Millbourne, 63rd and 60th Streets, gaining and losing passengers, both pushing traffic through the loud, good-natured discussion. It’s all gibberish to me. I know nothing about the 76er’s and could care less about basketball. But I enjoyed being caught up in that moment with them—black men yelling, unafraid for those moments, interacting with each other, passionate about a thing.
I am used to black men yelling: my father is a Pentecostal preacher, my grandfather was a bit of a pimp, my brothers get pretty riled up when telling stories, my Uncle Joe sits on my grandmother’s couch quoting Farrakhan from behind an open Final Call. I am not intimidated. I am not shaken. I am not moved. As a matter of fact, I feel right at home when it gets loud and rowdy—whether it’s on a Septa train, in a family room back home, or when walking past a neighborhood basketball court.
More importantly, though, I am used to black men.
I am reminded of this when I enter the classroom of Philadelphia FIGHT each week to teach my writing workshop, “Making Each Word Matter.” When collaborating with FIGHT’s Institute for Community Justice and their weekly creative writing class, I am in a classroom with black men, 20-30 of them, ages ranging from early 20’s to late 60’s, all of them armed with pens and paper, spilling ink and creativity. And I tell you, it is only here, in this room full of black men, first loud with their ideas, then quietly writing their words, then patiently waiting to share what they’ve written while patiently listening to others… it is here in this room, full of stagnant stale air, yet vibrant with fresh art, that I become afraid.
I am afraid that no one will hear their stories or know their worth. No one will hear the rhyme, the rhythm, the cadence of their poetry. No one will hear the questions, the answers, and the brilliance of their tales.
I am afraid that whether black men are yelling on the El or yelling on the page, the only ones who will listen are those of us who are not intimidated, shaken, or moved—those of us who are used to black men yelling. Or more importantly, used to black men.
The others, too busy blinded by the darkness and deafened by the noise, will continue to keep black men silenced and make up their own stories.
And I am afraid that that will not be enough.
It’s raining sunshine
I am soaked down to the bone
My skin is my proof
—- John Tolbert, haiku from “Making Each Word Matter”