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”