PART ONE. In the Introduction to The Sun Whispers, Wait (Brown Turtle Press, 2009), I situate my beginnings as a writer of poetry on an October night in 1957. After I finished my own imitation of a bit of light verse that I had just read in “The Saturday Evening Post”, I showed it to my father, who said, “This is good. You should keep doing it.” The Introduction ends this way:
“It is a blessing that he gave me that advice and that the original poet in the family -- my mother -- kept a dictionary by her chair for the sixty- two years I knew her. Oh, I inherited words enough for the telling, even if the stories are most often whispered by and for the child within.”
As I live through yet another commemoration of yet another birthday, I have focused on both my father, Floyd, and mother, Arralean, as I have reflected on how they planted and nurtured my deep commitment to studying African American culture and how it has been the defining challenge of “American” and modern world culture. My father’s formal, intentional lessons in Black history and culture, are part of my formation – long before his approval of my first effort at writing poetry. For all of the best “right reasons” my father had me in the car on every length and purpose of trips. “Come on.” And I went. I do not ever remember talking to him, asking questions, seeking clarifications. He would begin talking.
And I would continue listening.
That one special evening when he drove me to the site of KKK cross-burning in East St. Louis is, without any argument, the beginning of my journey from innocence to experience. John Kirkpatrick, the publisher-editor of the “East St. Louis Crusader,” had obviously angered the shadowy anonymous vigilantes who protected the denial of America’s truth. They burned their threat in front of his home. My father explained that to me. I was no more than seven years old. Nearly three decades later as I was studying British and American literature (again), I was able to see that the Privilege of Whiteness was apparent in how novels were analyzed. The hero, we were told, began HIS journey into adulthood when he left his home and began his path from innocence to experience. (The girls and boys who skipped into the foreboding woods of the fairy tales we had all absorbed as tiny children did not factor into the theory of “innocence to experience”; how could they? Such tales were of little significance to the serious literary critics of those days.)
But when I read the Slave Narratives and other forms of Black literature in graduate school, it became apparent that Black children were tossed into the fiery furnace of abuse, oppression, danger and death, at the earliest age imaginable. From Frederick Douglass remembering his Aunt Hester, to Hurston’s Janie Crawford searching for her face in a group photograph and not realizing that she was the black girl in the crowd; to Du Bois experiencing the rejection by his white female classmate of his calling card, in an early grade – the shock of Blackness being defined by childhood trauma became all too clear to me.
But by then Hurston and Du Bois and Douglass and Harriet Jacobs were confirmation of my father’s voice. The multiple forms of print media in our house were the most basic form of “home schooling” for me. Ebony, Jet, the Chicago Defender, the Crusader; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Globe Democrat; the Saturday Evening Post – these magazines and newspapers were the motives for methodical, focused instruction into history, culture, art and politics. He made sure I watched political conventions. His “running commentary” on baseball games and boxing matches was matched by the way he provided context and perspective on every Black artist who ever appeared on a television show. In Ebony magazine, I looked at Du Bois and heard my father tell me of his meeting him at Wilberforce in 1915. Earl “Fatha” Hines wearing out a piano on the Ed Sullivan show sparked an anecdote about some less-than-reputable encounter my father had with him in a club in Chicago in the 1930’s. On and on flowed the river of stories and commentaries and footnotes to historical and contemporary issues.
When we moved from the culturally comfortable environment of East St. Louis, in 1956, to the bewildering and unsettling atmosphere of Beloit, Wisconsin, the education continued; perhaps with even more urgency. For me, at least (more so than for my younger-by-four-years sister), a twelve-year old black boy in an overwhelmingly white world, my father did much more than give me “the talk.” In that regard, he never had to warn me of the consequences of unfiltered social behaviors. I already knew. The KKK cross, the pictures of Emmett Till, and the by then ingrained habit of questioning everything I saw had made me sufficiently prepared to navigate the maze of our new home.
Once my father had said goodbye to me at the Beloit train station at 8:20 am, the morning of August 14, 1962, as I began my journey to the Jesuits, he had armored me as well as he could against the ever-deepening strangeness of a culture about which I had been a most attentive student. But as I have also mentioned in a previous entry, he brought other voices into my world, long-distance. Books by Claude Brown and James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. Music by Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson. The packages arrived and I did my best to make the connections – to the multiple worlds wherein I resided, and to the cultural assimilation to which I was subjected.
How could I be anything but supremely well-schooled and truly educated by the time the 60’s overwhelmed the known world? Transported back to St. Louis for studies in philosophy, I haunted the bookstores and libraries, picking up every newly published or reprinted power-text of the Black cultural awakening. And once again, similarly re-situated, my father gave me books. And reestablished his still pertinent and prophetic commentaries.
In so many ways, he taught me to be a teacher. I was trained in the formal and extended manner by a true Black Studies scholar. When, at his funeral in 1978, I heard his voice, over and over, saying to me, “I told you to get all the education you could,” I renewed my covenant with him. A year later I was in New Haven, having brought my eight boxes of books with me. My past and my future were shaped into the sacred circle at my father’s funeral. Nothing I would learn at Yale would be foreign to me – except the excesses of theory that buzzed in places where I was forced to sojourn from time to time. Just as I had promised, at my ordination, that I would never preach a sermon that my two grandmothers could not understand, so I added a pedagogical vow: I would never teach or lecture in a way that my father, my mother and my brother would find off-putting or confusing. Those vows, it can be safely said, have been kept without fail.
PART TWO. “My mother, the original poet in the family.” And nothing that I would ever learn in any course dealing with literature, be it classical Greek or Latin; early, modern or contemporary British; or from the entire spectrum of American literature – nothing would ever be daunting to me because my mother taught me how to maneuver among the knots and tangles of language, and never “break a sweat.” My mother mastered multivalent discourse at a very early age. She, too, participated in my home-lessons. But the verbal agility with which she controlled all conversations, serious or playful – and for her, conversations could be both, simultaneously – that verbal virtuosity is still a source of amazement and delight among her family, friends, neighbors, nearly a decade after her death.
Also mentioned in the quotation that begins this is the fact that I never knew my mother to be without a dictionary next to her chair. Never. Many occasions produced the briefest of comments, always perfectly timed and inflected. Her jokes, familiar to three generations of her “children”, focused mainly on choosing one level of meaning over another, with the simplest of words. In the style of the master dancers of west Africa, my mother could listen to four or five people talking, a room away, and make the best possible intervention – one that could stop all talk and then induce great laughter – when folks “got the joke.”
And then laughter would be aimed at those who did not hear the sly, hidden, doubled meaning of the pivotal word. Playing the dozens? Signifying? Not hardly; my mother was far to “genteel” for such crude performances – except that is what she did morning noon and night. And not always in a harmless way.
What else informs the best Black literature, except the high, giddy dazzling displays of linguistic acrobatics known from tales about rabbits; to boasting and toasting chants in bars and barbecues; to verbal jazz improvisations practiced in barbershops, beauty parlors -- and some of the sturdiest pulpits in the country?
How could I do otherwise but establish my credentials as a Black Studies practitioner with, “Who defines the terms by which we live?’ when I was raised by a woman who named herself several times before she was seventeen years old. I had always thought her mother’s relatives were less-than-well-tutored because they persisted in calling her “Arralee” instead of “Arralean,” It was only after her death in 2007, that I discovered that she had never liked “Arralee”, so she changed the name. I had known for years that she had always wanted a “pretty” middle name, so she gave herself one: “Lolita”. And as to her last name (the so-called “maiden” name), no one will ever know for sure how “Luster” was added to her signature. Except that it certainly does describe her presence in our world.
Sometimes I think I teach the books that I am sure that my mother would like to read – and about which she could give a laser-like critique. The summer after my father died, she finally had an obscenely large tumor removed from her left shoulder. Doctors had resisted operating, for fear that she could lose all mobility in that arm. Because of the thirty years she lived with that deformity, I learned much about cooking, since I was there to help her in the kitchen; stirring and lifting and managing the tasks she could not do easily. The afternoon she went to the hospital, I brought her a copy of Morrison’s Song of Solomon. I had fallen in love with the book, the characters, but especially the symphony of language that Morrison displayed.
The next morning, as she was recovering, she told me that she had finished the entire novel the night before. “What? How could you have done that?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “I didn’t know if I would survive the operation and I wanted to know how things turned out.” And then she started asking questions about the novel. About five years later, when I was organizing my sly and subversive themes (the description of someone on my committee; not my own description. Oh, no…), I knew that I was bound to Song of Solomon, if for no other reason to finally answer my mother’s sophisticated questions.
He taught me how to read. She taught me to delight in the words I read.
Everyone who engages in the struggle to continue the work of Black Studies must have similar authorities in their development. And if any would say that they do not, then they do not see that my mother and father did the same work, in my beginnings, that Du Bois, Hughes, Hurston, Gwendolyn Brooks and Sterling Brown and Ann Petry and Richard Wright and Paule Marshall and James Baldwin did for me and for all of us, later on.
Paraphrasing my dear friend, Thea Bowman, “we come to our [discipline] fully formed.” Even if we have never had the experience of a ring shout or felt the driver’s lash; even if we have never had a vision like Elijah or Moses or John or Mary, we know that there are wheels within wheels, moving in counter-clockwise tension. And we know how to find the secret, needful, meanings.
We knew before we ever began this journey that we could not afford not to be wise and allow others to float in a sea of denial. The Old Ones sang us here. And we carry the songs always.
I hope that from time to time, somebody will say, “he was raised right.” Yes, indeed. I tried to get all the education I could.