This year, the annual “The Watering Hole” Writing Retreat of AFAM wrtiters took a special turn for me. This year, I came to the retreat with wounds of self reflection barely closed and humbled by a hard look at my past. I returned in touch, also, with a new sensitivity, after five years sober, that’s put me in touch with my own issues of race and gender that I’ve known all along on a superficial level, but never on this deep a level, this heartwood I’ve scraped to.
First, in my lifetime, what was known as “seduction” is now coercion. The way I was raised, the men (or lack thereof) in my life (and many women) taught me both directly and indirectly that silence equalled consent. A little over 4 years ago, newly sober, I sexually coerced a woman. That was a hard reality for me. It took everything I could muster to look into the mirror after that; to look at my daughters, my wife. What made it most difficult; the realization that this probably wasn’t the first time.
I couldn’t smile. I couldn’t enjoy any of the blessings in my life. All I kept thinking was “How the fuck could you not see what you were doing?” Most days, I still don’t have an answer. What I’m grateful for is seeing it. I’m grateful for the opportunity to change. I’m grateful for the new women in my life that have been willing to have this patient and tolerant conversation with me so that I may grow and understand where I got and how to get rid of it. Most importantly, how to teach other men through my experience to change the tomorrows gender definitions.
A Group of us, both men and women, took hard looks at where we stood on the issue of coercion and inappropriate conduct with sex, alcohol, and consent. There were tears, there were moments of agression, but always understanding and a lack of shaming. Men who behave sexually agressive need to be checked, especially by other men! This is my newfound realization. Like white privilege needs to get checked by fellow white people, toxic sexual behaviors acted on by men, recognizable to other men, need to get checked man-to-man. Men need examples. Men need to hear from other men “Bruh, tha’s not how we do shit” and allow the toxic man see the heads of still more men around him shaking their heads in dissaproval.
As far as race, this year, we were given a workshop, facilitated by Roger Bonair-Agard. He asked us to write about our first interaction with a police officer. I was quickly embarrassed. With a white mother and having fair skin and relaxed hair, most of my interractions were pleasant growing up. I was Asthmatic and was in constant need of rides out the projects and to the hospital. Housing police on the lower-east side of Manhattan new me on the first name basis. They regularly came running to our apartment, see the chessboard out on which my mother kept me distracted from my impossible wheezing and focused on the game until, sometimes almost an hour later, police would show up. Sometimes the officers kept us company until an ambulance arrived and sometimes they refused to wait. Once, since the elevator was broken, police carried my limp and nearly dead body down seven flights of stairs and threw me in the patrol car and rushed my mother an I to the hospital.
I was grateful. I used to go to the housing police station in the heart of the projects and sit there with officers. I would take naps in the empty holding cell. Police would bring me lunch and play games with me in the office. They would tell me jokes and sometimes even help me with my homework. Here’s the thing I’m realizing now; they probably thought I was white. By whiteness’ standards, I was fair-skinned, loose-curled hair, white mother and “well-spoken” and “well-read” for a child. That’s the only conclusion I can come to. Yes, the police were friendly to me. Until I was using, they always were, but nobody, usually, knows I’m Black until I tell them (except for old Black women, but that’s for another day). This is something I’ve come to terms with. I’m Black. I look white. I get treated differently sometimes. It doesn’t change the truth. This is the same conclusion all white people need to come to. They are Black. They are products of the diaspora; hence, what happens to Black Americans, Africans, and the rest of the diaspora, is also the responsibity of the white world to address!
As far as writing and craft, I’ve learned to take a new look at my standards of “good poetry”. Frank X Walker, former poet Laureate of Kentucky, facilitated a writing workshop on culture and the Black aesthetic. In an essay by Thomas Jefferson, the forefather writes “They [Black people] concern themselves more with the heart, not the head.” To say that Black literature was not “good” because it was emotionally driven and not necessarily academically sound. But in a time of strict “Black Codes” and Jim Crow, Black writers learned to write. Let’s face it; for Black America, emotions WERE HIGHER! Around every corner was a potential rope. In every thick of woods was a pack of dogs. In every house was a potential splite of a family, a rape. In every field, another possibly terminally exhausting workday. Given an opportunity to pen, to express what the writer has witnessed, endured, feared, I couldn’t imagine writing anything else. It’s any wonder how there was ever any Black literature with any light and life throughout the pages. But they did it, didn’t they? And God Bless us all that they did!
At a lecture by Roger Bonair-Agard, the recent National Book Award Nominee in poetry discussed the mistake we African Americans make in judging our aesthetics through the standards of white academics and Euro-centric tunnel vision of dealing with the head, and not the heart. He demanded we begin holding our beauty directly next to that of whiteness and exclaiming “Yes, ours is just as good and always will be in our own eyes from now on.” And it was the release I needed. I left the chain, linked around my neck, break and fall. I straightened up and smiled. I was filled with air, my eyes filled with tears, and I thought about every poem I ever tossed aside for not being “smart” or “witty” enough, for having “too much rhyme” or “too much slang”. I’m not going to do that to myself anymore. I deserve better from me. We all do.
Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, one of the most spiritually centered beings I’ve ever met, walked us through rewriting and exclaiming our aesthetic statements, taking them to heart and rededicating ourselves to them. This changed me. It was the final fig leaf hiding my shame. I’ve always felt silly that I write to touch others on a spiritual level; that I dreams of making people more empathetic through poetry and memoir. I’ve downplayed my intentions to propound the spread of love on a fierce level to save us all from each other. Especially after the realizations I’ve had about myself and relationships I’ve had with women. But Mariahadessa gave me permission to move on towards the road to forgiving myself my ignorances and shaming behavior. She helf my wrist at one point, and I felt so ashamed. How could I have ever hurt someone so kind and gentle. And how could anyone who has done something like that, actually have love to suggest sharing. Ekere reminded me of my love for my daughters and wife, of my love for other women in my family and even women I’ve built new friendships with at the retreat. She reminded me of how many years ago it was that this happened and I can only say I am truly grateful for the opportunities I’m being given to show people this new me. This new me is almost 5 years clean and sober (January 10th 2015), with some therapy sessions behind me and almost through my first year of college. My wife tells me she’s a better woman with me in her life. She says our children are better with me in their lives, and my heavy urges to sometimes end my life have, for the most part, dissapated. I feel a little more like living again. I’m over waiting to get permission to move on. It’s not fair to my family.
Nikky Finney gave a lecture this year. It was beautiful. I somehow developed pneumonia during the retreat, but I was NOT about to let something like failing lungs keep me from a talk orchestrated by the one and only Nikky Finney. I walked in to see Roger Bonair-Agard to the right. I sat near him. I was wheezing and I was late. I sat, turned on my laptop for potential notes and looked up to see Nikky Finney nodding my way and say “How you doin’ brother”? I smiled and welled up with tears. “Brother”… It was a moment I lived for. I’ve been corresponding with Professor Finney since she was awarded the National Book Award in 2011 for “Head Off & Split”. We’ve been discussing gender and race, literature and aesthetics, and especially history for years. I’d only met her one other time at ODU for a reading she did for their Literary Festival. I gave her some pencils from Arkansas’ Central High School a friend helped me secure. It was an honor to give them to her. I know what kind of pencil skilletting she’s doing with them.
When it was time to leave the retreat, I could barely breathe, but I wasn’t concerned. I was full. My spirit was overwhelmed. I was a new Black man. I call myself “African American” cause I believe Black people here in the US need the label to remind ourselves how attached we truly still are to Africa. It may sound stupid to many but I’m tire of worrying what other people think about that. This is the first time I feel ties to Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and all other reaches of the African DIaspora. Maybe it wouldn’t be so easy for this nation to neglect those still double-orphaned by AIDS and Ebola of we of dark complexion in the states felt familial ties across the middle passage. Perhaps, if we still felt the sting of Syphilis shots from the Tuskegee Experiment, or felt empathetic to the radiation experiments that were happening in Puerto Rico by the US Navy, or AIDS in Africa… Maybe if we actually accomplished what Roger Bonair-Agard suggested which was “Love in the face of Capitalism”, perhaps we could let down our guards with each other, be vulnerable to our kin and say “Your problems are my problems”. The idea of tribe as more than novelty to paste on a shirt to sell; that is the answer to it.
While driving with a fellow poet down south to meet my wife in New Orleans, we had to drive through the dark of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and finally Louisiana. During the trip, I stared out the window between passing out from a lack of air. I was coughing a great deal, wheezing even more, but relentless about getting to my wife and holding her as soon as possible. During the drive, I reflected a great deal. I peered out the the shadows through the woods alongside the highways. I thought about the term “heartwood” that I learned from a book of short stories by Professor Finney, how scraping the bark of a tree enables to hardest, strongest, smoothest wood to show through. And isn’t that what’s happened to me; recovery from addiction, struggles with raising teen daughters of color, facing and naming my demons, embracing my own insecurities about race and middleage. I am stronger stripped of my bark, who I once condemned myself to be forever. Through South Carolina and into Georgia, I thought about Ray Charles. I thought about a blind singer who saw more about what Professor Finney qualified as “stepping out of the line” and doing one’s own thing. Ray refused to play to Jim Crow crowds until it was equal. He angered many. He was set up to be busted for possession of heroin, and they didn’t realize that by setting him up, they were only being tools of the universe to enable Mr Charles to get clean and see a freer south. He was then able to live long enough to see his own song dedicated to Georgia to later become their state song.
Through Alabama, I thought about burning buses ridden by the Freedom Riders. I thought about slaves finding their ways north. I thought about police dogs. I thought about overseers and slave catchers. I thought about Martin. I thought about Selma, I thought about Montgomery. I thought about Rosa Parks being a seamstress and Professor FInney’s poem “Red Velvet” and the lines,
“By forty-two, your biases are flat, your seams are inter-
locked, your patience with fools, razor thin.
By forty-two, your heart is heavy with slavery, lynching,
and the lessons of being “good.””
By the time we reached Mississippi, I thought about Medgar; his wife screaming, his children sobbing, and the work of Frank X Walker. I thought about how Medgar stepped out of one incredible line to demand voting rights. I thought about how he must have known death around every corner in what was HIS “Post-racial America” and how, nevertheless his stepped out. I thought about all the Delabeckwiths there are in this world and all the guns still pointed out way. I thought about how ID is required to vote in Alabama now, and how we don’t write about this slick move backwards like one card slipped off the deck and still the deck is promised to be 52 cards. I thought about Malcolm’s metaphor of anesthetic used before our teeth are removed. I thought about Frank X Walker’s history lesson; how George Washington’s dentures were made with the living teeth of his slaves. I thought about how, like cattle, too many of us are herded to holding signs and marching down public streets with permits. And how patient the De La Beckwiths have become, tolerating our marches and killing us under the guises of badges and justice. And how we cry on each other’s shoulders when acquittals are handed out like paychecks to police officers. I thought about how agressive our writings need to become, how much more unapologetic our love for each other needs to grow. I thought about how much more we need to go underground to ressurrect conscious Hip Hop and put it in the face of every facebook page, twitter page, etc, until it’s all ont he radio regulary.
Through Mississippi, I thought about “Men We Reaped”, an autobiographical account by Jesmyn Ward to reveal young Black men dying down south and how; how we don’t look at our mental health, how, like hungry dogs, we bite off each others’ hands with steel barrels and lead teeth. I thought about Natasha Trethewey’s words about Thomas Jefferson and the rapes of Sallie Mae. I thought about her works in “Native Guard” and Black Civil War soldiers who journaled about the honor of facing death in hopes of freeing generations to come, our generation, us. Me.
After arriving in New Orleans, and allowing my wife to take me to the hospital (turns out I didn’t have a little cough or bronchitis. It was Pneumonia and I was seriously sick…oops), my wife and I headed out to see the French Quarter. This was also the week of the Sugarbowl and fans of Alabama’s “Crimson Tide” and the Ohio State “Buckeyes” were everywhere. Nevertheless, it was still morning. We went to Cafe DuMonde and had Beignets. We sat in Congo Square and had coffee. We walked grabbing souveniers for our children. It began to get late. People were drunk and sceaming for their favorite team. Mims and I walked a bit and giggled until It stopped being funny. We noticed the pushing past and the spilling drinks and the spilling people. We found some relief in art galleries. Then we saw an African American gift shop on Bourbon Street. Upon entering, Mims pointed out a large picture with the word “HISTORY” on top and a picture of three doors. One read “Men” another read “Women” and still a third read “Colored”. Underneath the photo were the words “because it is essential that we remember where we came from. I was suddenly more aware of how easily things could return should we continue to wear blinders in the face of so many evil acts. I considered Bonair’s philosophies of occupying whitenes with zeal and agression, unapologetically. We went to bed early on New Year’s Eve. I was actually grateful.
The next day, before our journey back to VA, Mims and I returned to the Quarter. This time we visited only the more peaceful places; art galleries and bookstores. In one bookstore I came across a book by Niyi Osundare called “The Katrina Poems”. I opened the book to a random page and read aloud to my wife,
How gingerly Katrina Re-
Arranged my needs
Cleared my cluttered wardrobe
Decongested my shelves
From my bank accounts
Told me a thing or two about
The Tyranny of things
Katrina showed me
The vanity of possessing
The horror of being possessed.”
And it was at this point I was ready to go home. I bought Osundare’s book and we left. Suddenly we passed an art gallery with the most beautiful Portraits of Lady Day and Nina Simone we’d ever seen. They were breathtaking. We wouldn’t be able to afford them without taking out a loan on our car, but we vowed to ourselves we would invest and purchase art this important. Because this is important. This is our aesthetic and it is just as beautiful as any picture of Queen Elizabeth or the White “Mary”. Nina Black face and piercing eyes are more beautiful than any Monet or DiVinci, and are worthy of our money, need to hanging in our living rooms to be seen from outside our homes by passersby.
It is now midnight. Mims and I are almost in Atlanta. We will sleep and begin again on our journey home. This journey home has been my journey since I got clean. Since I was born. I’m heading back to VA with a third eye for the first time in my life. I forgive my father for his predator behavoirs, the ones I picked up and thought to be the norm. I’ve since forgiven my mother for accepting said behavior as the norm. I forgive her her silence to be misconstrewed as consent. I forgive her for ever telling me silence equalled consent. I forgve all the dopefiends that taught me sex was something to pass the time and to be taken from the timid. I forgive my brothers and sisters who advocated violence after sharing a violent home with our parents.
I forgive myself my ignorance about the police. I’m grateful for my willingness to place my experiences next to the experiences of my brothers and sisters and see systematic racism for what it is. I’m grateful for my brothers and sisters of my new tribe who are willing to hear me out and see me to the other side of clouded vision. I’m ever so grateful to this year’s “The Watering Hole” writing retreat and its facilitators. I’m grateful for forgiveness and gratitude. I am willing to love in the face of Capitalism and willing to check misogyny around every corner. This must be a year of unapologetic love for Black beauty and aesthetics. This must be a year of agressive writing and brave encounters with my own ignorances. This, my sixth year sober, will be filled with risk and renewel. That is all there is. The alternative is all there ever has been, and I’m just not willing to go back wards. I’m not willing to swallow the compromises happening around us. I must continue reading and writing and hollering and practicing stepping out of the line. Over and over. And over.