Sunday, November 29, 2015

"She Rocked Him in a Weary Land"


Dedicated to all the children of this world who will be lost to us. Most especially, as we grow soul-weary of the death of the innocents, to the memory of:
Tyshawn Lee – 9 years old. Chicago. Dead by gang assassination.  Laquan McDonald – 17 years old. Chicago. Dead by Police.

At the beginning of Advent, December of 1971, a young black boy, Charles Hale, disappeared in St. Louis, Missouri. Days went by as the search for this child continued.  After more than a week (as I recollect the timing), his body was found in the ruins of a deserted building on the Northside of the city.  And “Advent” was electric in my mind. How did “wise men” long ago go in search of a child who would be the deliverance from sin and bondage, for the world; and we here and now are searching for yet another young black child who was the promise of his family and became a light snuffed out in a time of cold and darkness?  No, it was not a case of “How can God permit the death of a child?” that pierced my mind. It was the pattern of death that had even then been beating a rhythm of death in this world where children are made into objects, where they suffer hunger, abuse, neglect, torture and violence. How much more before our very minds are choked by the death of children? How do we live, in a world where children, by the millions, seem born to be discarded while the adults around them either suffer the chaos of war and poverty or use that suffering to feed some self-justifying addiction to dominance and power?

It is not, nor has it ever been, God who permits the death of children. The true revelation of Christmas was that God was the Child who was born homeless; who became a refugee from state-sponsored holocaust; who grew to be labeled a criminal and a subversive, and was branded a terrorist, tortured in the fortress of an occupying army and publicly executed, in exchange for the life of a committed terrorist. And do we learn? Have we learned? Are we capable of learning?

Deliver Into Us
St. Louis, 1971.  The Search for Charles Hale

first in rain   then snow   through the fire-
chewed ruins of the northside deserted by
everything but cold rotting air
                                                   police and
city volunteers hunt for a missing child
us informed   to nothing definite   the news reports
feed our strained hope with some slight signs
each day
                 and each night   the ageless silence
that is always with us    scratches our minds
like a desert wind   and we   like forgotten
nomads scattered in some dark countryside   crawl
close and cling to whatever light we have
with this   the listening city stirs before it
sleeps  waiting restless     without peace
distracted   and caught in time
                                                          until this child
is found   declared seen    or delivered into us
(In, The Sun Whispers, Wait, Brown Turtle Press, p. 70)

Not only Herod’s soldiers seek out the infants to slaughter, performing the same purging of the innocent as that performed by Pharaoh’s army in the time of Moses.  Will we ever realize that all children are “the Hebrew children” today? The Sudanese, Somalian, Ecuadorian, Mexican, Lakota, Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan, Nigerian, Philippine, Puerto Rican children, and their sisters and brothers found in alleys and trash bins and boxes and basements and abandoned cars and ditches of the United States.  They and all the others whose cries will never be heard except by those who held them, are stronger than any host of angels singing, “Peace on Earth to those of good will…”

That is the chorus that must be attended to.

And it is not a song of peace. It is a song of warning.  “Visit war and death on us”, they are whispering into our dream-state, “and those who survive the slaughter will haunt your days and nights. Baptized in terror and suckled on the poisons of power and greed and disdain, those who survive our death will never be at peace – not until the world bows down in grief at the places where we children lay.”

The ritual of birth must be reversed, even as the poem about Charles Hale intuited: the spirits of these children must find shelter in the manger we prepare in our hearts.  Even – most especially – they must find a place where they can be reverenced and caressed and anointed with the tears of those who survive.

What gifts do we bring to the children who cry to us?

Only our hearts. Our minds. Our souls. Our strength. Our hearts. Our minds. Our determination to lift them up so that the world can look upon those they have pierced and see them for who they truly could have been. 

We are bound to (carry) them. 

Monday, October 19, 2015

"Anybody Ask You Who I Am..."

18 October. The Feast of St. Luke.
The birthday of Floyd Brown.

It began the night of my father’s funeral, in February, 1978, as I was sitting there on the altar listening to his voice in my head, pushing me to return to school. And then other voices intervened with an entirely different injunction: you will not apply to graduate schools. The priests in Milwaukee who moved to thwart my desire gave three reasons: first, I was not academically prepared to be successful in graduate school; second, my psychological state was not stable enough for me to continue in graduate studies, if by chance a school would accept me; and third, (and this will be a verbatim quotation), I “had not displayed sufficient discipline in the exercise of my ministry.” The first objection was quickly dismissed. My transcript from Johns Hopkins was as good as a plantation pass, in that matter.

A psychiatrist friend in Omaha challenged the second impediment. She said, quite forcefully and clearly, that most of my psychological difficulties seemed to stem from the treatment I had been subjected to, for over a decade, by those same priests or their predecessors.   And the third objection was explained as a response to my never having entered the process of becoming tenure-track while I was teaching at Creighton University. The irrefutable fact that the Academic Vice-President at Creighton had asked me to sign a contract as an instructor because he was campaigning to reduce the number of tenure-track contracts given to Jesuits seemed, somehow to render that last point forever moot.

Because I was bound to the promise of entering the academic contest, yet again, and at the age of 35, I knew very well that no obstacle would be insurmountable. The ancestors are never idle.

Moving on to refresh my spirit and expand my talents during a six-month sojourn in Spokane, Washington, under the guidance of one of the legendary Jesuit spiritual directors, Fr. Joseph Conwell, I cast my applications into the winds of change and put my mind to the renewal program in which I was engaged.  When the rejection letters arrived from Harvard and New York University, I was still calm and undisturbed. When the acceptance letter from Princeton arrived, I remained watchful and hopeful. My heart was really set on going to Yale because it had the library resources that excited me beyond all bounds.  So the letter from Yale stunned me, telling me that due to an oversight, my application had been misplaced and not found until after their deadlines had passed; and that I was therefore not eligible for any financial assistance and should apply for the next year’s entrance into the Afro-American Studies program.  I had originally applied to the Department of English, not knowing that there was a subtle tradition of segregation well-rooted at Yale:  African American literature was not part of the curriculum of the English department. A most solicitous member of the English faculty took it upon himself to forward my application to Afro-American Studies, where, he thought, I “would be happier.”

That initiated the letter that told me the bad news.  The poor, unsuspecting professor who mailed me the letter had no way of knowing that I was supposed to be at Yale in the fall of 1979.  The conversation I had with Professor Robert B. Stepto, as he waited for a technician to arrive at his house to repair his furnace, was without any doubt whatsoever the single most important act of mentoring he may have every performed.

He listened to me.

He reversed the decision. The priests of Milwaukee found the funds necessary to enable my first year of study in New Haven. And I drove East, seeking a few wise men. (In 1979, gender balance was not part of the alchemy at Yale…)

Robert Stepto never eased up in his belief in and support of me.  At our first meeting he asked me why I had turned down Columbia and Princeton. “Because you have the library and the faculty I have dreamed about, for years. And if things don’t work out for me, you will be the first to know.”  He smiled and said, “I don’t doubt that at all.”  And then he told me to sign up for the class that Robert Farris Thompson was teaching and the seminar that was being conducted by Charles T. Davis.  Outside of my family circle I have never been more at home than I was when he said, “Come in and be at peace.”

Within a few months, he learned me and I learned us.  His advice was unerring. “For your thesis, and your dissertation, write two pages a day. That way it will never seem too big a task.”  He and Charles Davis told me that funds would be found to keep me in school and that I would be enrolled in both the M. A. in Afro-American Studies and the Ph. D. in American Studies, as soon as I finished applying for the doctoral program. And then they said, “And we never want you to be treated badly again by the ‘priests in Milwaukee' [and by extension, in Omaha], so we will find you a job when you are finished,” It was then that Robert Stepto told me the heart-wounding secret that had been wrapped up in my file. Some of my priest-brothers had written letters suggesting that I would indeed not be successful in graduate school.  The pain he felt in telling me that was deep. And the love and appreciation I felt for him was even deeper.

He treated me like I was a Child of God.

My spring semester’s total mental spasm, during which I cried – for no apparent reason – for almost two days was an opportunity for him to drop healing oil into my spirit. “Well, you got it out of the way, early; good for you. It took some of us a lot longer to fall apart. So you won’t have to go through that again.”

Then I finally thanked him, for facilitating every promise; for leveling the path through the academic thicket; and for being as gentle and steady a support as I had ever received – joining the seraphim who had been at each oasis of my struggle to learn: Leonard Waters, SJ, in the early days of my Jesuit career; John Knoepfle, that wonderful summer of 1967 in St, Louis, who heard a surety of voice in my poems that I could not at that time discern; and Elliot Coleman, who transported me to Hopkins with a wave of a fountain pen.

“Oh, it is easy to ‘go to bat’ for someone when they hand you the bat,” he said. And smiled.

One very chilly day in New Haven as we were in his office, talking about my dissertation, he asked me what I knew about the University of Virginia. “Oh, they have a successful basketball team, I think…and didn’t Thomas Jefferson have something to do with it?”  By now it should be apparent that he never failed to find a reason to smile at me. It is easy, I guess, when someone displays himself a thorough fool.

He made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. He would arrive with a junior faculty associate and a senior graduate student. And then Yale made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. So he remained at Yale and I wound up in Charlottesville, awakened finally to see the dream that many people saw within me – me, who wanted to do nothing but be a high school English teacher for the rest of my life.

On the feast celebrating the man whose name I have taken for my poetry -- “a Gentile among the Jews”; the faithful companion of Paul on several of his dangerous journeys; the word artist who dwelt upon the gentle grace of the mother of Jesus and who brought to our hearts the stories of the poor, the outcast and the culturally and religiously “other” – on this Feast of St. Luke, I see the gift a mentor gives, no matter the situation, no matter the ages of those involved.

One afternoon as I was leaving Robert Stepto’s house, a teenage girl was drifting down the sidewalk. She stopped and boldly interrupted our conversation with, “Are y’all brothers?  You sure do favor each other.”  Is that not the point, finally, and primarily?

We should favor one another.  As often as we can, and for all the right reasons.  To accept the other. To give and receive trust, with no violations by anyone. To see a promise that has to be nurtured into strength and independence.  To know. To know who and what matters.

My father said, “Go.” Robert Stepto said, “Come, be with us.”

And the evening before the 1985 commencement at Yale, at a reception hosted by members of the Afro-American Studies extended family, my mother, upon meeting Robert Stepto, looked back and forth, from him to me, and said, “But Joseph, he looks younger than you,”

“He is, Mama, he is.” 

And that has made this friendship all the more precious.

Monday, September 7, 2015

""Wheel Within A Wheel..."

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.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

"Joshua Commanded the Children to Shout"

Continuing from the previous entry, we shall contemplate, once again, the reality of “Sankofa” as it describes one aspect of the performance of Africana culture.  Presented here are two very different images of the Sankofa Bird, which is always used to embody the principle of "return and get it" – the symbol of the importance of learning from the past, and bringing what has been learned into the present.

The first illustration, is a wood carving of the bird, reaching into its back to bring forth the nourishing egg of knowledge. The positioning of the carving replicates the Kongo Cosmogram, first mentioned in the Sankofa Muse entry, “Little David, Play on Your Harp” (May 16, 2014). That circle “describes” – simultaneously -- the movement of the sun from east to north to west to south; and the stages of life: birth, adulthood, elder status, and status of the “living dead” or ancestors.  What might not be considered of significance is that the movement of the cosmogram is counter-clockwise. The tension in that movement is found in many other performances of Africana culture.  Worth noting here is that this push, this resistant struggle, against our western cultural norm of linear progress is also found in one of the foundational repositories of African American religion: the ring shout.  The dancers move counter-clockwise; beginning slowly and, over time, dramatically increasing the tempo of the singing, dancing and percussive accompaniment.  Until they are possessed by spirits.

The multi-colored depiction of the Sankofa Bird, shown here, 
presents a shape that establishes a clockwise rhythm. This reversal of the traditional flow of energy has implications that deserve attention. One of the persistent worries nagging my soul at what I see happening in our communities, our country, our world is that those of us who have “moved around our circle of life” and have, chronologically at least, achieved the status of elder, all too often have earned the judgment that we have failed to hand on the vital lessons of our past to our young people who stand at the intersecting axis of the Cosmogram -- where they must make decisions about how they will act, for the benefit of the “beautyful [sic] ones yet unborn” and in keeping with the traditions that have guided the community for untold generations. What distresses my soul is the mounting evidence that some who should be teaching this have made, perhaps, too many concessions to the larger world in which we negotiate our survival; and have either not learned the lessons from our own elders and ancestors, or some of us have decided that much of our past can be worn as decorations and can be ignored as keys to unlock the power of our own history. Have we become existentialists in our intellect, believing that there is little in our past that needs to be protected? Coming into the field of Black Studies when I did, I learned that we who choose to study the struggle that marked the old ones -- and that marks us still – do indeed have a useable past and we have an obligation to be agents of Sankofa: bringing forth that which is necessary for today.

As must be evident to anyone who has spent any time reading these entries, or reading any other of my writings, or anyone who is even minimally familiar with my professional focus on Africana religion and culture, Black Sacred Songs (“The Negro Spirituals”) are, for me, sacramental texts. The songs carry within them “the power to make things happen” (as one of my great influences, Robert F. Thompson, defines the concept of √†she). The struggle against the power of enslavement, oppression, abuse and degradation that was waged by those who chose to survive the disruption and dislocation that was the Transatlantic Slave Trade – the lessons learned from that struggle are the foundations of what we should be teaching under any form of Black/African American/Africana Studies.  But in order to know that we have a past worth retrieving, we must first humble ourselves sufficiently to recommit ourselves to knowing that “the struggle continues.”  The lives we live must be praise-songs to our elders and ancestors.

The songs and stories of the ancestors carry messages that have been found useful, over and over. But what has happened in the last half-century, to turn these coded strategies of defining ourselves against the systemic effort to suffocate our souls, to turn these vessels of redemption and liberation into decorations.  Reversing the rhythm of the dance has far-reaching consequences.  No time will be spent on restating the challenge that can be found in another entry of the Sankofa Muse that deals with the embarrassing and demeaning misuse of one of the great claims of peoplehood and covenant – “Come By Here” (December 31, 2013).

What forces this meditation on Yoruba power and Catholic grace, are the murmurings of some of the culture’s elders who see nothing of our tradition in the Black Lives Matter movement that has been gaining in “wisdom and in grace” (as was said of the child Jesus when he had to teach the teachers in the Temple; Luke 2:46-50). A disquieting example of this phenomenon of chastising our young ones when we should be moving among them, bestowing blessings and nourishment for the tasks ahead of them is found in a column published by the Washington Post, on August 24, 2015 by Reverend Barbara Reynolds.   Rev. Reynolds sees little that is redemptive or culturally consistent in the actions of the Black Lives Matter participants.  Establishing her status as an elder in the “Civil Rights Movement,” she scolds the BLM generation as being ignorant of their past, contemptuous of those who would lead them and guide them, and unmindful of how they present themselves in public.

In only one quotation that will be used here, Reynolds says, “The baby boomers who drove the success of the civil rights movement want to get behind Black Lives Matter, but the group’s confrontational and divisive tactics make it difficul.  In the 1960s, activists confronted white mobs and police with dignity and decorum, sometimes dressing in church clothes and kneeling in prayer during protests to make a clear distinction between who was evil and who was good….But at protests today, it is difficult to distinguish legitimate activists from the mob actors who burn and loot.”

Just as Rev. Reynolds was publishing these reflections, we were commemorating the 10th anniversary of the destruction of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As far too many people have proved, it was not the hurricane that destroyed that city, but the aftermath, when the levees failed even the minimum requirements. And the levees failed in communities where time and again, political leaders confirmed the people’s understanding: Black lives don’t matter. We are commemorating the 60th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till (August 28, 1955).  Till, whose death galvanized the generation to which Reynolds and I both belong, was horrific proof that nothing the present generation faces is new. 

As I was wrestling with my disappointment with this scolding from Reynolds, demanding decorum and church attire, I flashed on something else from the 1960s “freedom movement” that I doubt Rev. Reynolds would claim as part of her standard of resistance.  On June 28, 1969, in Greenwich Village, New York City, after yet another demeaning and dehumanizing (and “legal”) raid on a social establishment catering to a gay and lesbian clientele, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn finally said, “Enough is enough. Our lives matter.”  And when (as the reports note) “three drag queens and a lesbian” were arrested, a crowd of over 600 people responded with frustration, fearlessness and focus. “The Stonewall Riots” are still celebrated every year as an example of how change actually takes place in our society.

Every so-called “riot” in the United States in the 1960’s was part of the “civil rights” movement --- and those eruptions of frustration and rage were anything but civil. But each and every one of them whirled, shouted, flung decorum to the winds and said, “Here, in this cesspool to which we are relegated, we know that our lives matter. And to prove it we are willing to lose our lives. But attention will be paid.” An aside (of sorts): did the Black Panthers dress for Sunday school?  Did the young contemporaries of Barbara Reynolds who walked all over the South dressed in jeans and boots and wrinkled shirts get lectured because they were not in business attire?

Reading and reflecting on how a cohort of Black Elders chastise our young, I could not help but also “read” the great song of liberation, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”  The originators and curators of that song radically revised the biblical account. The problematic thrust of the original narrative – the story of an invading crowd of migrants and refugees convinced that they had a God-given right to appropriate the land of others – becomes a holy remembering of how the history of an oppressed people – any oppressed people – can provide a strategy for confronting whatever oppression looms in our present circumstance.  The singers of this song choreograph resistance through thoroughly African rituals.  Moving counter-clockwise – the song is a Ring Shout – the singers become the historical Israelites. But they are not claiming the territory of others; they are unleashing the power to make their own sense of the godhead within manifest in the world.

Dangerously other, problematic in their silence – except for the horns sounded by the priests, the “children” circled the walled city of Jericho, day after day, for six days. And, then, Oh, Glory! On the seventh day, they marched around the city seven times, while the “lamb/ram/sheep horns” were sounded. And then following the injunction of the God they were discovering, “Joshua commanded the children to shout.  And the walls come tumbling down.”

Even if Black Lives Matter participants don’t claim the song – and since they most likely were never taught the power inherent in the performance of the song, why would they make it theirs? – they are nevertheless reaching far back into their past and disrupting the order maintained by the privileged. They are teaching their elders how to remember their own past with much more complexity. And they are restless to claim the crossroads.

The Sankofa bird, much like the dove that descended upon Jesus at the Jordan, brings the power to make things happen to the young ones.

We professors of Africana Studies far too often avoid dwelling on the uncomfortable legacy that is locked away in these songs and stories. It is not that we are “unchurched,” or that the songs are far too simple to withstand the intricacies and sophistication of our theoretical gaze. Rather, even more simply, do we only teach that which we understand; not that which makes us personally uncomfortable.  But at this time, more than any time of our recent history, we need to return and fetch the power to transform this desert. And we also need to see that the children may have learned it anyway, because our culture can never be hermetically sealed away. The more we talk to each other, the more we have a responsibility to find silence within ourselves and let the voices of history possess us.

We who think that we have now gained some measure of stability and respectability are charged to renew our mission to educate our children with the “true truth” and to give the greatest gift imaginable: our trust that they are exactly where they ought to be on the circle that defines our people.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"Hold on, Hold on"

“You can’t plow straight if you keep looking back.” What this Spiritual says in this line is true, and at the same time deceptively problematic. If we do not look back, we cannot know how we got our hands on the plow, in the first place. The path through this seeming dilemma is the oldest strategy of Africana culture. You carry the past within you. Don’t look back. Look within. This is also the meaning of the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Catholic traditions: “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death…until you come in Glory.”  It is also the essential ritual question of every Passover observance:  “Why is this night different from all other nights?” “This is the night when the Lord God brought us out of the land of bondage…”

Because we enact our defining moment, over and over and over. And we are renewed and made stronger for the next part of the wilderness wherein we find ourselves journeying. In a late-night conversation filled with anger and anguish and desperation, one of Faulkner’s heroes says, “It is not past…” The crumbling of that white hero’s sense of privilege led him to that anguished cry. But the bone-marrow deep understanding of how we carry our “infinite past” (to use Toni Morrison’s description) as a gift and not as burden is what makes those who accept our African-American roots capable of miracles of survival every day.

Now we stop for a moment in this “journey from can’t to can” (Mari Evans), and we shudder with exhaustion as we do look back, at an entire year (August 9, 2014) since Michael Brown was shot on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, by then-police officer Darren Wilson.  Exhaustion. Weariness. Undigested sorrow. Wonderment and worry. More and more young (and not as young) women and men have bled in streets and jail cells, on porches, in cars. And the death of some have been recorded; while the deaths of others have been subjected to the predictable, convoluted and twisted narrative of “inconclusive proof of wrong-doing” – on the part of the one wielding the instrument of death. The cry of the soul is “Why? And how long? And, where are you, Delivering God?”

Keep our hands on the plow? Why?
What do we plant? And what do we hope to harvest?
Will there be any following behind on this path, to be the harvesting promise of our dreams?

And then I hear the singing: “I know my wings are gonna fit me well/ I tried them on at the gates of Hell.”

So. We crawl and moan and mourn. And then we breathe the air sent to us by our ancestors. And the twisted limbs and wounded hearts and crippled hands push at the wall and we begin to lift up our eyes.

And what do we see?

The children marching, and chanting and clicking and typing and recording and becoming the flesh-and-blood drums and grapevine of this space and time. For them the prayer services and the “peaceful protests” and the marches were angry, focused and unrelenting. More than at almost any time in our American story of racial oppression and cultural domination, the collective power to define the terms shifted; plucked from the lips of the predictable purveyors of power, the words that mattered flew from the mouths of the children.

For as long as there have been photographs, there have been records of lynchings and riots and other acts of domestic terrorism. Justified by the laws that protected the inheritors of power, those who murderously rushed into the streets of East St. Louis and Springfield, and Atlanta and Detroit and Tulsa in the early days of the 20th century and who continue on today, cloaked and disguised in costumes of respectability, have now been confronted across the generations by the children who hold up their cameras and telephones and demand that the contemporary patrollers and vigilantes and ad hoc militia be seen for what they are and have always been.

Bob Moses, the quiet, determined, grace-filled sojourner for justice, once said that United States history was written by the children and young adults who were known as “runaways.” One of the enduring themes of the documents called “slave narratives” is that once the writer/subject learned to read and write, a strategy for self-liberation was quickly formed. These actual “liberation narratives” were published to speed the process of liberation of the thousands of others, left behind the veil.  Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Henry Bibb, and so many others could not rest until every effort and every possible resource was put into the freeing of this nation.  No one could be a better face for this than Harriet Tubman. Her return journeys to bring more and more from the wilderness to the oases of freedom were followed by her service as a true “soldier of the Cross” as she actively fought in the Civil War.


That “Moses of her people” and the Moses of Mississippi in the 1960’s put themselves into the middle of the host of those who began to wade in the very troubled water. What Robert Hayden said of Tubman, we hear in the full-throated cry of our young today:  “Rises from their anguish and their power….Mean mean mean to be free.” (Hayden, “Runagate Runagate”)

In the valley, where there is darkness, on the mountain top where there is fire and smoke; in the intersections of Ferguson, Cleveland, Cincinnati, or Baltimore, where there are all of those conditions – there are our children. So on the exact year-anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, the blessing and charge has to be invoked by all of us who have been in the storm so long:  we must do more than weep and worry. We must see in the young of this moment, the reincarnation of those who wrestled control of slave ships; of those who slipped through brambles and water and wilderness; of those who returned to be a Joshua of their moment. And we must see -- and tell them -- that they are the light shining in this darkness. Fighting every battle on their behalf we must demand that their lives be seen as the most precious “bread from heaven” ever given to a wandering, desert people. We fight to protect them. We struggle to understand them. We gift them with our protection if possible, and with our gratitude in every possible circumstance. They have been raised up as answers to our prayers.

The most wonderful of poets, Gwendolyn Brooks said this:

“In the precincts of a nightmare all contrary
wild thick scenery subdue.” (To Disembark, “Another Preachment to Blacks", p. 60)

And she also said this, and we all bear witness:

"It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.

Nevertheless, live

Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.“ (“The Second Sermon on the Warpland”)

So, precious gifts, one and all, hold on.

Monday, July 6, 2015

"Choose Your Seat and Sit Down..."

A Triptych for New Priests
For forty-five years, with a few years quiet, there has been an ordination poem written by me and gifted to some friend and brother of mine, in the Society of Jesus. In addition, for even more years, I have been writing poems for other “in-house” occasions,” usually when a fellow Jesuit pronounces vows within our community. After two years of living in the community a man will pronounce vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – and then spend many years subsequently wondering at that mysterious impulse of commitment.  Ordination follows for those who choose to elaborate their identity in the exercise of that service to the people of God and to the Church.  After some more years of discovering mysterious sources of strength and power and humility and grace within one’s self, all the men who are already “vowed religious” then spend an intense period of reflection on all they have seen, heard and done; and then recommit themselves to service as members of “the least Society.” That renewal of promises is called “final vows.”

At each of those stages of growth and renewal I have written a poem, now and then. My reasons will always remain my own. It is a prompting of the soul that tells me, “I think you ought to do a poem.”  If one appears, then all is well. If one does not appear, then all is still well; but my impulse to gift remains simmering within me.

This year, 2015, is unusual in that three of the eight men who were ordained, in the Midwest, in June, to the priesthood of the Church as members of the Society of Jesus are men with whom I have grown close. Each of them has been a cause of great joy for me as they have been transparent in sharing with me their dreams, hopes, concerns and faith. As each of them has grown “in wisdom and in grace,” from the time we first met “in the Temple,” I have felt my own hope in this community restored and nourished. Oh, within their generation there are others, many others, in fact, who open up a circle of welcome for me when I return to community gatherings. With them all I feel no need to pay an exorbitant “price of the ticket (in the words of James Baldwin)” in order to be of value, to be of service, to be taken seriously. And to be blessed with the energy of the young men who are restless to bring their fire and passion and to the kingdom journey that I have been walking for more than fifty years.  

So I saw these poems as three moments of discovery for three of the disciples of Jesus as they tumbled into the unknown, each time He called them to do impossible things.  I saw those discovery moments as focused of loaves and fishes. A blessed meal. I heard a story, a prayer, a hunger from each of the men who asked for a poem -- even when they did not know they were asking.

And that is the gift. Always.
                                 *     *     *     *     *     *
The Always Time
For Christopher, Adam and Lukas

Now I know how
                               it was
                             and silence

And him waiting for us to see

I knew that in that desolate place
the thorns and thickets would be mild
the crowd grown restive and suspicious


                              Feed them

And the hours and hours and hours
we worked ashamed
                                 and I was frightened
to hold loaf after loaf
                                    and the crumbs
of my certainty grew less and less

And silence
                     which was always
his blessing and his call

                                         Feed them

Now I know how


Meant to overhear
                                 the sword
stuck into my brother’s heart   we waited
at the fire
                   Do you love me?

Then why do you sleep
                                        grow anxious
pull the shadows over you
and weep
                     Where have I run
from you    how have I grown
           did not the widow’s howl
shatter your doubt
                                 a son
for the mother   watching death  is
little enough gift
                              But for the world
that will eat you like this bread
must hear it again  and again  and speak
when you are altogether choked with fear

Do you (and I knew he claimed
us all)
             love (and I knew he claimed
us all)
                    (and he knew us all to be
hungry to be claimed)

Feed them


I will
           breathe again

When and if ever the fire dancing
shadows steady themselves
                                              or my
eyes are shocked dry
                                     at last

to see beyond the wall we have
made of each other’s bodies
                                               no shame
in that
             clinging  embracing  holding warmth
against the clamor of swords and knives

He asked for bread
                                 and fish
                                                 and kissed us
each of us
all of us
                and finally
                                               It is enough
to feed upon the fire
                                     And finally
let my breath sing
                               away the darkness

At last
               I do not need the hunger

It is time
                 It is now
                                  the always time    

27 May 2015/13 June 2015

Saturday, June 20, 2015

"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child..."

Charleston, South Carolina.

Too many people have said almost all there is to be said.  Any meditation on the spirituality of Black people in the United States of America must contemplate the scene (as St. Ignatius would advise in the Spiritual Exercises). And what do we see? Mothers and sons; sisters and brothers; preachers and teachers and community elders gather in a circle, making where they sit truly sacred space.  The intuition vibrated in the circle when the grotesquely twisted soul imprisoned in the young white man announced itself to them.

They made room for him. And they composed themselves and shared their faith. This was not a preternaturally wise young boy losing himself in the Temple long ago. This was not a sojourner returned from the wilderness to share the vision that would benefit the people. This was the fire that came to destroy the earth.

Never sent by God.

But the light shone in the darkness. We can see it.  The dead eyes that stare at us in every picture he took of himself was a true “black hole” of the universe sucking in all matter, all light. But this darkness could not quench that light.

It was as much an eternal flame as any ever lit upon this soil.

Starting with the men satiated with and sick from the poison of slavery who gathered, began their song and their march across the Stono river in 1739, a long time ago; to the whispering men who sat in a similar dark circle in 1822 with Denmark, an elder of the church, and decided to yank their lives out of the dehumanizing machine of oppression, knowing the consequences, and just as surely knowing the death that attended them if they did not act; to those who bent the trees and met in secret, always singing, “Come by here…hear the cry, the song, the groaning…Come by here.” 

They built, they forged, they plowed and planted and plotted. Always for the freedom defined from the beginning – the freedom that was the first great assault on the darkness and the void, when the first word was uttered: “Let there be light.”

They knew.

And in song and word and gesture and lives integrally lived, they never doubted that death would push itself into whatever refuges they could construct, no matter how brief or long.

For more years than I can feel, I have returned to the book my father sent me for my birthday. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin makes a statement that has caused me to tremble mightily, trying to make sense with his prophetic certainty while holding on to what Resurrection must mean in my life of struggling faith.  In “Down at the Cross,” he says:  

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.  It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.  One is responsible to life:  It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us."

But there is something beyond that darkness. If there was not, then I would not be reading and talking to and thanking James Baldwin from my first encounter with his words in 1963, with the evening of conversation we shared in 1983, to this day when I am seeking some rock in a very weary land.  Baldwin is light, for me. All of my ancestors; all of the singing and speaking and thinking voices that I collect on paper and in every other medium; all of the children who tell me, clearly and confidently, just how they intend to own this world when it becomes their inheritance: they are light.

And so are the 9 Slaughtered in Charleston, South Carolina, June 17, 2015. Mr. Tywanza Sanders.  Ms. Cynthia Hurd. Ms. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton.  Ms. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. Ms. Myra Thompson.  Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr. Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney.  Ms. Ethel Lee Lance.  Ms. Susie Jackson.

When they said, “Young man, come and sit with us,” they knew – and on this point no argument is possible – that they were responsible for life. They knew, as surely as any of us can know anything on the level of intuition, that from the beginning of our existence in this place we have earned our death by the lives we have lived.  So their children, and daughters and siblings, and mothers and fathers stood up in the assembly and said, “Young man, you have ruptured our hearts, severed our bonds. You have taken away our loved ones, our heroes. And we forgive you.”

That is the act of complex love that has been just as much a part of our lives and our history as has been the rage that seeks to obliterate whatever is decent, hopeful and redemptive.

And yet the light endures.  Let us, in this struggle to find rest in the storm that seems to be raging over and over and over, let us pray. As our sisters and brothers in Charleston are teaching us to pray. For ourselves; for strength. For those who are sought out by the wolves of chaos and claimed as “sons and daughters of darkness.” For those who teach hate and violence.

For those who show us how to be more than we could ever dream of being. Light. And as such, inheriting that unfathomable strength, we must say it: This madness, this death must stop. This death must stop. Why else do we pray for strength, except to join together to say: “Death you shall not have dominion. We are children of light.”