Thursday, January 29, 2009

YouTube Clip of the Day

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New Oscar Grant Info

I'm cutting & pasting this email I just received from ColorOfChange. I hope you will follow the link and add your voice to the petition.

Dear Friends,

It wasn't just one cop attacking Oscar Grant on New Year's Eve. A new video shows that before Grant was killed, officer Tony Pirone punched him in the face without cause. Experts have called it criminal. So why has the District Attorney said he's not pursuing charges?

It took two weeks and thousands of people speaking out before the DA charged Oscar Grant's killer with murder. It's going to take continued public pressure to see that justice is served throughout this case.

I've joined ColorOfChange in publicly confronting the Alameda County DA and calling on California's Attorney General to keep a close watch on the case. Please join me--you can see the new video and add your voice by clicking here:

Local news reported on the video showing Pirone assaulting Oscar Grant last week,(1,2) but it has been on the Internet for weeks.(3) As with the shooting, the video doesn't leave a lot of room for explaining away Pirone's actions. It makes it clear that with no physical provocation, he punched Oscar Grant so hard that Grant immediately went down. This is assault, and it is a crime.

Unfortunately, it appears that Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff is once again falling asleep at the wheel. First, he took two long weeks to make the decision to file charges against Oscar Grant's murderer. Then he declared that he was "not actively pursuing"(4) charges against other officers, even though he had access to all the video we've seen, BART's internal investigative report, and the evidence collected under his own investigation.

Law professor Peter Keane from UC Hastings College of the Law, couldn't have said it any clearer: "If the district attorney is saying he's not going to charge any officer except Mehserle, in my opinion he's not doing his job."(5)

Orloff's inaction further calls into question his commitment to justice for Oscar Grant. Given Alameda County's terrible record of prosecuting police abuses, we can't simply trust that Orloff's office has the will to pursue justice wherever it leads.

That's why the California Attorney General needs to once again place an observer in the Alameda County District Attorney's office for the duration of any prosecutions related to Oscar Grant's murder. And Orloff needs to tell the public how not seeking charges against Pirone could possibly be in the interest of justice.

Please join me in demanding justice, and ask your friends and family to do the same. It only takes a minute:



5. See # 1

Medicine for Melancholy

Medicine for Melancholy, Both Political and Graceful
Not a coveted demo, the young African-American hipster gets his movie
By Ernest Hardy

"How do you define yourself?" It's not until its third act that Medicine for Melancholy's lead male character explicitly asks the question that's at this film's heart. Throughout its near-90-minute running time, writer-director Barry Jenkins's tender, smart, soulful movie gracefully places the emphasizing weight of inflection on each word in the query, then subtly shifts that weight so that the answer being sought (what black is; what black ain't) is itself a morphing, complicated thing. That's fitting for a film that is pointedly and poetically about race, gentrification, and the emotional temperature of the modern Afro-American—or at least one subset of that demographic. When Micah (The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac), said male lead, states that his definition of self is partly predicated on how the world sees and treats him, 'Jo (Tracey Heggins), the female lead and also black, fires back an exasperated, "Who gives a shit what society thinks?"

Micah, whose jeans neither hug his nuts nor sag off his ass, is a doe-eyed, seemingly laid-back San Francisco native who installs aquariums for a living (and looks like a lost member of Pharcyde). The soothing quality of those burbling tanks is reflected somehow in his core personality, but Micah also seethes about the fact that his hometown is rapidly and not incidentally being emptied of black folks. When he and 'Jo—initially aloof, charming when thawed—awaken in the same bed after a friend's party, neither knowing the other's name, she's determined to do her walk of shame. Micah's too smitten, though, to just let her get away. The rest of the film—gorgeously shot in black and white by James Laxton—follows as the duo spends the day (and another night) peeling back the layers in conversations that cover interracial relationships, striking the balance between what you do and how you pay the bills and the role of "urban planning" in pushing poor and black folk out of San Francisco. "Imagine the Lower Haight," says Micah, recalling his childhood, "filled with nothing but black folk and white artists." The lament will resonate from San Francisco to D.C., Los Angeles to Harlem, as enclaves that were once hubs of black American life are drained of their blackness.

The script's politics sound didactic in the listing, and they're moving in the execution. Jenkins's dialogue is crisp and witty, sounding and flowing the way real people speak. But it's also shrewdly nuanced. When the duo banters on about why Black History Month is February, Micah takes the familiar position that it's because February is the shortest month of the year. 'Jo's rebuttal, parlayed in the coolest of tones, not only counters with hard facts but also suggests a class schism between the two that plays out in ways small (wine storage) and large (the neighborhoods they live in). Part of the film's powerful emotion, though, lies in the stretches of silence between characters, when there's just ambient noise—the trickling of a park waterfall, the sound of traffic floating up into an open apartment window—as Laxton's camera pulls in tight on a face or hangs tough as the couple walks down the sidewalk. Jenkins has joked in interviews that the film is black mumblecore, and it is, but with an intensity of purpose often lacking in that movement.

There are two other major characters in the film: the city of San Francisco and the film's indie rock soundtrack. Jenkins has cited the great French filmmaker Claire Denis as one of his influences, and it shows in the way he incorporates his intoxicating landscape into the narrative and into his characters' psyches, showing the connection between identity and geography. In contemporary pop culture, that connection is frequently drawn in rap. The music in Medicine, however, is indie rock, and that's not accidental. At one point, Micah delineates the isolation he feels by breaking down the 7 percent of black folks left in San Francisco into those who are into "punk, folk, or whatever you don't see on BET." In a drunken rant, he fumes that "Everything about being indie is tied to not being black." His love of indie music, however, is not a desire to escape or deny blackness: Immersion in a scene whose default setting is "white" is paradoxically rooted in his hunger to embody and live a more complex, dynamic blackness than that which pop barons market. The irony crushes him.


BONUS film:

Monday, January 26, 2009

If I Were President

We've already heard from Wyclef, Mos Def and Murs on what they would do if they were President. If I were president, my platform would ensure that I'd be kicked out of office within hours of being sworn in. But my cabinet would still be around to provide you with endless hours of merriment. Here they are. Some old faces and some new:

My Vice President

Secretary of State serving her negotiating skills: Here.

Secretary of Defense

Secretary of Health

Secretary of the Treasury

The President's Council on Fitness: Here.

My Sec. of Defense would immediately repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Dept. of Education at work

And yes, homos can marry, and full civil rights are extended:

Secretary of Joy:

Of course, the inauguration would be a big deal. There'd be:

The Opening Prayer

The Parade to the White House

Obama had his musical performers; here are mine:

The Children's Concert

Better Than Beyonce

The Ted Haggard Dancers

And the closing words from the philosopher I would proclaim America's Poet:

Monday, January 19, 2009

Late Pass: Angela Davis

I don't know how I missed this Angela Davis interview (in two parts) when it was first put online a few months ago, but I am glad I found it. I could listen to Angela Davis all day, everyday. Here, she boils decades of work, research, thoughts and activism into a succinct analysis of the prison industrial complex and how it functions not only as modern-day slave labor but as a means of population control, "managing" and keeping hidden society's undesirables. The role of education (or the lack of it) is underscored. I am most pulled by the fusion of poetry and politics as she speaks of the racialized memory of institutions, and how that memory thwarts forward social motion / evolution. Check it out.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Motown / Brandy / Peace

     This is another very long post. (Just keep reading till you hit the Mark Bradford entry.) I’ve sequenced it so that the light stuff comes first. I didn’t want to seem flippant or disrespectful to the more serious topics by following them with fluff. But it’s fluff I also wanted to talk about, so here goes… The Dorothy Dandridge photo above has no bearing on anything I talk about below. It’s just so fly.

     Seeing that this is the year of Motown’s 50th anniversary, it seems fitting to declare my un-ironic, deep love of pop music. I spend much time listening to indie-political-angry-left-of-center stuff. I’m fed & rejuvenated by it. But as a music-crazed kid I suckled at the teat of catchy hooks and choruses, and sometimes that’s what I crave. A well-crafted, unapologetic pop song can be a work of art, can be the very definition of brilliance... and not just those “classic” cuts you hear on oldies stations where they’ve been validated by the kiss of nostalgia. Often, the reflexive sniff of dismissal that many “serious” music fans give pop/ular fare doesn’t prove their discriminating taste so much as illustrate their own sad limitations, their inability to recognize that even confectionary grooves can be separated into wheat and chaff. What can be more annoying, though, are the dunderheaded ways some folks decide exactly what is wheat or chaff.
     Last year, upon the release of Philly International’s hefty, gem-laden, must-own-if-you-can-snag-it box-set, Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia, a lot of critics used their reviews of the Philly collection to (once again) take swipes at Motown. I love both labels and their respective sounds; apples and oranges. Besides, Philly Int’l has Motown bumping in its DNA. It’s interesting that even at this late date, even with the relatively recent veneration of the Funk Brothers outside music-geek circles, so many conversations about Motown invariably (if not always consciously) circle back to notions of authentic soul music and authentic blackness, and to the still quivering anxiety around the racial sell-out. Truth: Motown’s exquisitely crafted ‘60s and early ‘70s pop is also some of the most wonderful soul music this country’s produced. I won’t belabor that argument yet again because it has much to do with broadening the definitions of “soul” and “soulful” in the first place. (Hint: It ain’t about just grainy vocals and sweat-soaked niggery – though Motown could also supply that.) Here are a couple of clips of my favorite Motor City tunes:

Released in 1962. Writer and lead singer, Smokey Robinson, was only 22 at the time. That’s a staggering reminder of just how far we have devolved in terms of soul music, pop culture and their shared aspirations. Smokey’s balls had barely dropped and he was talking about grown-up shit in deceptively simple, insightful ways, aiming for a seat at the grown folks table even as he was courting the Top 40 “youth market.” Those are now two almost mutually exclusive goals. He’s been called Motown’s poet, which is too limiting. He’s one of America’s premiere singer-songwriters, period, though he rarely gets mentioned in those terms or alongside the usual suspects. Pure soul-pop poetry.

Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. Martha is so very Detroit. Tight, pulled together, polished – and emanating a vibe that let’s you know she’ll kick your ass if she has to. This is one of Motown’s funkiest ‘60s tracks, with snow chains legendarily used as percussion. Bless the Funk Brothers.

The Four Tops, with lead singer Levi Stubbs. R.I.P

My very favorite Supremes single; there are too many close runners-up. This clip is a live performance that shows the pros and cons of not lip-synching. Diana Ross fucks up the order of verses, here, and you see the momentary “oh, my damn!” in her eyes before she gracefully recovers. (Check Mary Wilson’s cool side-eye in the background.) Click here for a gorgeous live performance of the same song.

Temptations. Flawless.

Just because...

Sidenote: I wrote the liner notes for the recent Teddy Pendergrass and Jacksons Best of… compilations released by Philadelphia International Records/Epic/Legacy. From the notes for Teddy (available as a PDF file on the CD):

“Teddy Pendergrass was the last man. Adult. Grown-up. Before him, or walking alongside him as contemporaries, were the likes of Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Jackie Wilson, Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, and so many more. Soul men. Correction: Soul titans. All walking, talking, singing, being with a masculine gravitas that has been replaced by facile swagger and thuggery, by adolescent petulance and shrunken sexual politics. Some essential mystery, knowingness, complexity, playfulness, resilience, and unwavering male strength is absent in modern R&B and in mainstream pop culture. And they’ve been gone for a while.”


     “Only ‘bout a day left till the world falls apart…”
I especially like when “pop” gets its "joy to the world" anthems, its odes to brotherhood and a shared & evolved consciousness, just right – when something in the sing-along current taps genuine emotion within the plea for us to do better, be better. A current example is Brandy’s “Warm It Up,” off her latest CD, Human. It’s a simple ditty in terms of the theme and execution of its lyrics, nothing more radical than the call for brotherly love to be extended to all. Propulsive in production, head nodding in effect. I absolutely admit that it sounds like something you’d hear performed at a junior-high assembly... right after a rainbow coalition of kids bolt to the foot of the stage to proclaim one after another, “I am Obama! Yo soy Obama!” Shudder. Shrug. Tune works for me.
     Human looks like it’s going to take its place alongside Full Moon and Afrodisiac, the singer’s other weak-selling, under-appreciated (except by the hardcore faithful) cult darlings, which is unfortunate. Despite the leaving off of some of the buzzed-about tracks that leaked before its release, and despite its having a much more overall “pop” texture than her past few releases, I really like this CD. It’s well-produced (of course), really well sung (Brandy’s always been an underrated singer) and sustains over repeated listens. I don’t know if it’s her bratty/bitchy rep that has stalled her career ascension or what, but she’s been severely slept on; folks still sleeping. Below is a YouTube clip of “Warm It Up,” that flashes the (not quite accurately transcribed) lyrics.

     The Brandy tune, an attempt at uplift in the face of the darkest of human nature, is my segue… I’ve spent the past few weeks penning an essay whose narrative threads are the murder of Oscar Grant; the recent gang rape of the 28-year-old Latina lesbian in Richmond (who was selected for attack by her attackers precisely because she is a lesbian); a seemingly endless number of gay/bi/transgender black men and women who have died violent deaths in the last year or so; the mind-numbing massacre in Gaza… Bleak, depressing stuff. Because the essay is for another outlet, I can’t yet publish any of it here but the absence of commentary on any of these stories on this blog has been glaring – at least to me – and I’ve struggled with what to say that doesn’t crib from the other assignment and is yet still substantive. I finally realized that I was over-thinking it, trying too hard to be “insightful” or whatever. Because the reality is that all these cases boil down to the conditioned conditioning by which we dehumanize other humans and then brutalize / annihilate them with a justification filtered through racial / religious / cultural arrogance and prerogative. It’s a racist mental process by which a cop (of any race) sees a handcuffed, face-down black man and still perceives him as a threat (less than human), draws a loaded gun and aims it at his back. It’s a homophobic, misogynistic system of thinking that has four men (two adults, two minors) drag a lesbian woman out of her car, strip her, hold her hostage at gunpoint and take turns raping her while taunting her with homophobic comments. It is something so much deeper and disturbing than self-protection that has resulted in the deaths of (to date) over 1,000 Palestinians in Gaza. And it is all connected – racism, homophobia, cultural and religious superiority complexes. All connected. The luxury of compartmentalizing and making some sort of hierarchy of the loss, the anguish, the bigotries at play… it’s a luxury we don’t have. And it doesn’t take a 10,000 word essay to say that. But I have no idea what it takes to transform and deepen folks’ consciousnesses at this late date on the human calendar.

The two cops got off with no charges. Duanna Johnson was later slain execution-style on the street. No suspects have been arrested in her death.

     In the first few days following the murder of Oscar Grant (I refuse to call it accidental), and in the near two weeks it took for the cop who killed him to be arrested (after being allowed to travel out of state and decline comment on the matter), I found myself listening over and over to Sinead O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds,” itself based on a real-life case of racial profiling in England that ended in the death of two black boys. In the clip below, she performs it on the Henry Rollins Show and gives some background on it.

     Here’s another powerful clip of Sinead performing the song twenty years ago. The lyrics to “Black Boys” are amazing on a host of levels. The protagonist not only calls out sanctioned racism, but the dismissive tone with which she has been regarded when she’s spoken out on injustice. She warns those who are complacent about or collaborators with oppression to “Remember what I told you / if they hated me, they will hate you.” I think my favorite line (hard to pick) is, “These are dangerous days / to say what you feel is to dig your own grave.” It’s not just these days that are dangerous, of course. Telling the truth has been a dangerous endeavor since forever. But the line was true and prescient for Sinead, whose controversial protest against the abuses against children inflicted by the Catholic Church sabotaged her career. She was correct in all she said but her name remains synonymous with “crazed artist.”

     Here is an excerpt from Mark Twain’s essay “Privilege of the Grave” that I found online last week just as I was immersed in Sinead’s music and thinking about the trajectory of her career. It was written in 1902 but only published last month, for the first time, by New Yorker magazine:

Excerpt: “Its occupant has one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not really without this privilege - strictly speaking - but as he possess it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences. Murder is forbidden both in form and fact; free speech is granted in form but forbidden in fact. By the common estimate both are crimes, and are held in deep odium by all civilized peoples. Murder is sometimes punished, free speech always – _when_ committed. Which is seldom. There are not fewer than five thousand murders to one (unpopular) free utterance. There is justification for this reluctance to utter unpopular opinions: the cost of utterance is too heavy; it can ruin a man in his business, it can lose him his friends, it can subject him to public insult and abuse, it can ostracize his unoffending family, and make his house a despised and unvisited solitude.

A natural result of these conditions is that we consciously pay more attention to tuning our opinions to our neighbor's pitch and preserving his approval than we do to examining the opinions searchingly and seeing to it that they are right and sound. This custom naturally produces another result: public opinion being born and reared on this plan, it is not opinion at all, it is merely policy; there is no reflection back of it, no principle, and it is entitled to no respect.

In the beginning of the anti-slavery agitation three-quarters of a century ago, in the North, it found no sympathy there. Press, pulpit and nearly everybody blew cold upon it. This was from timidity, the fear of speaking out and becoming obnoxious, not from approval of slavery or lack of pity for the slave; for all nations like the State of Virginia and myself are not exceptions to this rule; we joined the Confederate cause not because we wanted to, for we did not, but we wanted to be in the swim. It is plainly a law of nature, and we obeyed it.

Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending. We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we do not revile them, as knowing they cannot now defend themselves. If they should speak, it would be found that in matters of opinion no departed person was exactly what he had passed for in life; that out of fear, or out of calculated wisdom, or out of reluctance to wound friends, he had long kept to himself certain views not suspected by his little world, and had carried them unuttered to the grave. The living would realize, deep down, that they, and whole nations along with them, are not really what they seem to be-and never can be.” end of excerpt

Click here for a great clip of Sinead discussing God, religion and her album Theology:

Click here for an article on Rev. Al Sharpton's powerful rebuke of Prop 8 and its supporters.

The young Sinead in peak performance condition:

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mithra, Mark Bradford and Projects Update

      A few weeks ago I was approached by Robert Kahn of Fang Duff Kahn Publishing and asked if I’d consider contributing a piece to his new collection, Books: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide, edited by Mark Strand. It’s FDK’s second volume of their Arts & Letters series. As with all their books, it’ll be a compilation of short essays by a wide range of contributors – in this case, writing about their favorite lesser-known book. He sent me a copy of their Movies: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide so I’d see their work. That book is so dope in design and execution, and the caliber of folks that contributed so high (Wes Anderson, Alec Baldwin, Milos Forman, John Guare, Arthur Hiller, Anjelica Houston, Barbara Kopple, Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese) that I agreed to contribute to the new book even though I’d just sworn that I’d do no more non-paying writing gigs, which is what this is. But the chance to be in stellar company in a good book won me over. I wrote about Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. Look for Books: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide in September.

      As I’ve blogged in the past several months, my own next planned book will be titled 1 Cat Seen. It will center on Mark Bradford’s massive installation “Mithra” (formerly called “1 Cat Seen”), an ark he built in the Lower Ninth Ward as part of the Prospect1 Biennial, but will expand in scope to discuss the state of blackness in the era of Katrina; 21st century blackness in its myriad forms and manifestations as revealed through an examination of the artifacts of art, politics, business and culture (“high,” “low” and everything in between) created and lived within a specific bracket of time. These conversations are inherently about America and its future. I’ve logged several hours of interviews with Bradford and many other artists, and have been furiously compiling research lists and stock-piling research materials over the last several months, and I am still doing so. Send up some good energy for me that a few things click into place that will allow me to really do the hard work and research I need to pull this off. I am more excited about this project than I’ve been about anything for a minute. The first thing I will do in the book is break down the meaning of the two names (Mithra; 1 Cat Seen) and explain why the latter was dropped for the former. When first told that Mark was building an ark, I was a little… disappointed. What I like about his work in the first place is that it isn’t obvious; this seemed too on-the-nose. But as he explained the meanings behind everything from the ark’s name to the significance of the materials used to build it, I could only utter, “Oh, shit…” Below are nine photos of the project, from its trial-run mounting at Mark’s studio here in LA’s Leimert Park to its mounting in New Orleans. That lanky shadow-figure in the photo at the top of this post is Bradford himself. Photos are courtesy of Bradford’s insanely talented assistant Sean Boyle.

      As soon as I post this update I am back to fine-tuning the editor’s notes for War Diaries, the literary anthology that I am co-editing with my friend Tisa Bryant for APLA, and to which I am also contributing a poem and a short short-story. That anthology is scheduled to drop this summer.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Power of the P... Poetry, that is.

      Several years ago, I knew a brilliant woman. She was a musician, filmmaker, writer, shrewd businesswoman, weekend science buff, was deeply immersed in LA’s ‘90s art scene, and was well versed across a wide spectrum of subjects. Whatever the topic, it seemed she’d read up on it and could converse knowledgably. She was sometimes an insufferable show-off but she backed her intellectual flossing with substance. She had a grating quirk, however. Whenever she discussed anything personal, no matter how dark or painful (and there was a lot of truly dark, truly painful shit in her life) her manner of speaking would change dramatically. Her voice would rise in pitch; the velocity of her spoken words would become torrential and she’d become engulfed in rolling laughter. Soon, she’d be all but slurring her words as she guffawed loudly and hysterically, near impossible to understand. Whether discussing the violent stalker ex-boyfriend who drove her into hiding for over a year, the fatal violence that had ripped her family apart (a female relative having been murdered by her boyfriend), or the disease of mental illness that had claimed family members, she’d dissolve into gales of “laughter” that would render her indecipherable. Eventually, every conversation took this character (or I finally noticed that every conversation had this character) and I found myself dreading any interaction with her at all, even as I spent a lot of time in my own head dissecting possible causes for this conversational quirk.

      It was obvious that the hysterical laughter was a complex defense mechanism. It was a buffer against the emotional pain caused by discussion of difficult issues but I also came to believe that for all the arrogance and swagger this woman had, something of the laughter was also rooted in the dark ages of gender roles: it was a way for her to soften the blow of her intellect, which could be intimidating, especially to men. (Her insane ex-boyfriend being one example.) It was very much an old-school female tactic, a way for her to be self-deprecating and non-threatening as she rolled forth her dazzling intelligence. I think it was also partly rooted in insecurities about her physicality. She was a loudly and proudly self-identified black woman of biracial – Black and Jewish – parentage who had gotten a lot of shit in her life over her looks. (I’d love to hear her response to the moronic mantra that Barack Obama “isn’t really black.” Based on her replies to folks who said the same thing about her, I know her response would be wonderfully, venomously biting.) She and I don’t hang out anymore because it just got to be too much. I’d sit down for dinner with Near-genius and by dessert be staring into the eyes of Damn-crazy; her untreated issues led her to cross some lines I couldn’t forgive.

      Back to the laughter defense: I’ve since noticed other women friends and quite a few gay males who have adopted the same or a similar “shield.” I hadn’t thought much about that particular defense tactic, though, until earlier this year when I finally met in-the-flesh someone I’d known about for a long while and with whom I began a correspondence about a year or two ago – another brilliant soul, a black man who happens to be gay, is hugely knowledgeable on a wealth of topics, and is something of a hero to me for his fusion of soulfulness and intellect, for his deeply considered Marxist politics and his love of good poetry. When we finally met face-to-face, though, I was taken aback at how thickly his insecurities wafted from him – and how he punctuated almost every utterance with a nervous, high-pitched laugh. Not long ago, I read an online posting from him; in it he declared he was “the real thing,” and posted this Gwendolyn Brooks poem as explanation:

The Life of Lincoln West
by Gwendolyn Brooks

Ugliest little boy
that everyone ever saw.
That is what everyone said.

Even to his mother it was apparent—
when the blue-aproned nurse came into the
northeast end of the maternity ward
bearing his squeals and plump bottom
looped up in a scant receiving blanket,
bending, to pass the bundle carefully
into the waiting mother-hands—that this
was no cute little ugliness, no sly baby waywardness
that was going to inch away
as would baby fat, baby curl, and
baby spot-rash. The pendulous lip, the
branching ears, the eyes so wide and wild,
the vague unvibrant brown of the skin,
and, most disturbing, the great head.
These components of That Look bespoke
the sure fibre. The deep grain.

His father could not bear the sight of him.
His mother high-piled her pretty dyed hair and
put him among her hairpins and sweethearts,
dance slippers, torn paper roses.
He was not less than these,
he was not more.

As the little Lincoln grew,
uglily upward and out, he began
to understand that something was
wrong. His little ways of trying
to please his father, the bringing
of matches, the jumping aside at
warning sound of oh-so-large and
rushing stride, the smile that gave
and gave and gave—Unsuccessful!

Even Christmases and Easters were spoiled.
He would be sitting at the
family feasting table, really
delighting in the displays of mashed potatoes
and the rich golden
fat-crust of the ham or the festive
fowl, when he would look up and find
somebody feeling indignant about him.

What a pity what a pity. No love
for one so loving. The little Lincoln
loved Everybody. Ants. The changing
caterpillar. His much-missing mother.
His kindergarten teacher.

His kindergarten teacher—whose
concern for him was composed of one
part sympathy and two parts repulsion.
The others ran up with their little drawings.
He ran up with his.
tried to be as pleasant with him as
with others, but it was difficult.
For she was all pretty! all daintiness,
all tiny vanilla, with blue eyes and fluffy
sun-hair. One afternoon she
saw him in the hall looking bleak against
the wall. It was strange because the
bell had long since rung and no other
child was in sight. Pity flooded her.
She buttoned her gloves and suggested
cheerfully that she walk him home. She
started out bravely, holding him by the
hand. But she had not walked far before
she regretted it. The little monkey.
Must everyone look? And clutching her
hand like that. . . . Literally pinching
it. . . .

At seven, the little Lincoln loved
the brother and sister who
moved next door. Handsome. Well-
dressed. Charitable, often, to him. They
enjoyed him because he was
resourceful, made up
games, told stories. But when
their More Acceptable friends came they turned
their handsome backs on him. He
hated himself for his feeling
of well-being when with them despite—

He spent much time looking at himself
in mirrors. What could be done?
But there was no
shrinking his head. There was no
binding his ears.

“Don’t touch me!” cried the little
fairy-like being in the playground.

Her name was Nerissa. The many
children were playing tag, but when
he caught her, she recoiled, jerked free
and ran. It was like all the
rainbow that ever was, going off
forever, all, all the sparklings in
the sunset west.

One day, while he was yet seven,
a thing happened. In the down-town movies
with his mother a white
man in the seat beside him whispered
loudly to a companion, and pointed at
the little Linc.
“THERE! That’s the kind I’ve been wanting
to show you! One of the best
examples of the specie. Not like
those diluted Negroes you see so much of on
the streets these days, but the
real thing.

Black, ugly, and odd. You
can see the savagery. The blunt
blankness. That is the real

His mother—her hair had never looked so
red around the dark brown
velvet of her face—jumped up,
shrieked “Go to—” She did not finish.
She yanked to his feet the little
Lincoln, who was sitting there
staring in fascination at his assessor. At the author of his
new idea.

All the way home he was happy. Of course,
he had not liked the word
But, after all, should he not
be used to that by now? What had
struck him, among words and meanings
he could little understand, was the phrase
“the real thing.”
He didn’t know quite why,
but he liked that.
He liked that very much.

When he was hurt, too much
stared at—
too much
left alone—he
thought about that. He told himself
“After all, I’m
the real thing.”
It comforted him.

      Reading that poem and knowing that this particular newborn friend absolutely sees himself this way ("Black, ugly, and odd...") / because the world has seen and treated him this way… broke my heart. What do you even say behind that? But I suspect that when he reads that poem it’s more than a mirror/relief valve for pain. I suspect (hope) that it not only speaks for him but – in doing so – actually provides some measure of comfort. That’s what the great poems and poets do. Yes, they can broaden what we know of the world, inform us, educate us in terms of global politics and cultural nuances of others… but they also hold up mirrors that let us see ourselves, become microphones that let us speak our subjective truths and realities.

      A poet who does all of that for me is Pamela Sneed. I’ve posted in the past about how her first book of published poems, Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom Than Slavery (Owl Books, 1998), is one of my favorite contemporary tomes of poetry. Her new and long awaited collection Kong & Other Works (Vintage Entity Press) has been on my bedside table for over a month now and I’ve been nibbling it like it’s the richest chocolate. Like Imagine, Kong – without simply being derivative – reminds me a lot of my favorite poets Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, especially the former. I’m a big fan of poetry that is direct, blunt-spoken, drawn from the language of the way ordinary folk speak. Sneed’s language is deceptively simple. There’s a lot of thought in her “plots” and how they are worked, but undue attention is not called to the mechanics; there’s powerful but not strainingly obvious craftsmanship. But I think what I love most is simply the courage of her being her whole self – a sensitive, politically aware, smart, funny, intellectually curious, conscious and conscientious Negro who is also a lesbian, and who brings all of those identity components to the table in her work. That’s hugely important, now more than ever.
      In Kong, the poem “Elvis” begins:

As an avowed feminist, intellectual, writer and professor
in a privatized city college
One thing I don’t allow is bible thumping, proselytizing,
no Jesus or Judaism freaks…

      She goes on to talk about a student from Pakistan who looks like, “a Muslim Elvis Presley / with exquisitely arched Black eyebrows…” and her classroom frustration when he presents a paper on a topic he hasn’t cleared with her – which turns out to be about Islam as religion of peace. The paper itself, she tells the reader, is rambling and unfocused but leads her into a conversation with him in which he drops nugget after nugget that shatters preconceptions about the religion, its followers and how the faith manifests in everyday life. It’s incredibly moving to follow their conversation as he admits his fears and the prejudices he has encountered, even from some of his professors. Though Sneed doesn’t address her sexuality or her manner of physical bearing at all in this particular poem (nor does she do so explicitly in her real life classrooms, though she doesn’t hide either), for the reader there is a mounting tension of expectation – what, if anything, might this outspoken young man say about his professor’s presumed sexuality or the ways in which she presents herself as a woman? As it turns out, he says nothing. What we get instead, in an unforced way, is the sense of a genuine exchange of ideas and mutual respect, and the poem ends thusly:

our conversation carries from the classroom to the street
until parting we come to a traffic light-
I warn him against religious dogma
but confirm he must speak
and we must hear
walking away- he says in that potent kind of ESL way
language that cuts straight to the core
without mincing the way native speakers do
their juxtapositions are much more risky and metaphoric
which makes ESL students always my favorite as a poet
Thanks Miss
I happy.
You give courage

      I love that this outspoken, proud young Pakistani Muslim has fellowshipped with an outspoken, proud Black American dyke, taking courage and inspiration from her. One of the gifts Sneed gives is not just her talent as a writer and a teacher, but the example of being forthright in the totality of who she is. That is revolution. That is what pushes cultural and individual evolution forward. She gives courage.

      Here is another poem from Kong:


I probably should have thrown her out
one of my students, a young black girl who blurted out
in one of the first few classes, "I hate Gay people."
I questioned myself later, if I would have accepted
the same statement said about Blacks or Jews
Years ago, I refused to help a young white girl with a swastika
carved in her arm
But instead of shutting this new student down or
issuing a verbal reprimand,
I gently steered the conversation away from her.
She was hard I think-
not rich or middle class, wore du-rags
clothes always riding up or down
But one day I told her she was smart
and I could tell she barely heard it before
I could see a light in her start to glow
with just a little attention
she started showing up to classes on time
or before, when she never had-
Over the semester, many lessons and conversations
I saw stone melt
innocence emerge
bright and shiny
So, what do you think of the class, I asked
Truthfully, I never thought of some of this stuff before, she said.
Then something forced me to look at her and say, I saw you grow
and we held onto that moment
briefly between us, as if something very deep
was exchanged or understood
then we turned away.

I posted Ms. Sneed's poem "Final Solution" on this blog over two years ago, and it has been blazing in my head in light of the gang rape of a Richmond lesbian a few weeks ago. Click here for a news article on the incident. Click here Final Solution.

Advance copies of Kong will be available in two weeks. For more information, contact Steven G. Fullwood at


The text following the two clips just below is cut & pasted from a post on the Okayplayer site from a few days ago. Someone who is on the email list for the poet Suheir Hamad posted this and I am re-posting it here. It is an email from Hamad, filled with links:

i wish for you health love family music light dance heart poetry justice love all year.

below links i’ve been reading and researching. i’ve received emails from folks wanting to understand gaza, hamas, this current time. i’m at a loss, deep. i keep thinking this is all my family has ever known.

i tried to find articles esp written by women. i’ve done mad research to find alternative jewish voices for peace and justice. when possible, i’ve also tried to include background info on the writers themselves. there is no order to the articles, they are all related somehow. i did try for some kind of order out of the chaos. but please feel free to make your own.

don’t get overwhelmed. because of my own weak stomach these days, and out of respect for the dead and the living, i have not posted any of the images of the murdered. but i have promised myself i will look. we must. when you can, watch the rest of the world’s media, and look at what has happened. we must.

***found this while researching picasso’s painting, guernica.. the link below tells the story of how the writer arrived to gaza. originally published in italain, vittorio arrigoni is the writer

*** ilan pappe, israeli scholar now head of the history dept at exeter, published this on electronic intifada. it offers a sense of how zionism, the ideology and the facts on the ground of it, is at the heart of all political and military action taken by the state of israel. his home site is linked below.

*** the honorable cynthia mckinney has joined the free gaza movement. she was on the boat dignity, to deliver emergency aid to gaza within days of the first air attacks. the site offers images and eyewitness accounts from the previous 4 trips the boat made (they got in!) and this last journey, which was stopped when the israeli navy rammed the boat over and again until water leaked into it.

***marcy newman is an educator, scholar, an activist and a witness. i’m always moved by her commitment to the right of return and social justice. she has posted my own work in the past, and recently put up one of the breaking poems. her site is full of links to other writers (palestinian!) and more information than one woman should be able to warehouse. brava m.

*** another person committed to truth, justice and peace is naji ali. each week his podcast, introduced by mumia abu jamal, invites different people to talk about all things related to palestine. i recorded an interview with him in december about breaking poems, i’ve posted it below the link to the home page. do check out his archive.

***watching the tv, reading the papers, i don’t understand the sound of war. the din of it. below a link to a muslim tv page airing eyewitness video in gaza just after an air attacke. the image is blurry and shaking. if you can’t take the scene, just listen to the noise.

***jennifer loewenstein’s article last week on counter punch. an analysis of the latest incursion, within a framework of what life is like for the people in gaza.

***sarah roy’s piece in the london review of books was written before these attacks even began. a commendable job of explaining the state of emergency gaza has been under since the siege on it’s ports and freedom of movement. most of the people have been hungry, sick, without water or electricity for months. for years. also an article from the christian science monitor.

***info in english:

***info on boycotts and divestments

***it’s so much, i know.
i want to leave you with images of life, hope. below the sites and art of a few palestinian artists. those who create through the destruction.

***thanks for following this all the way to the end. it’s just the beginning.
pls fwd any of the links you think would help your own friends and family. more questions than answers.

this eblast list is actually to keep you up to date on the books, film and work i do. i’ll send anther email soon with info on future dates. if you’d rather not get this kind of info, please do let me know. i’d never want to abuse your email addy, or your expectation of what you signed up for.
this was the best i could do right now…as always, if you know folks who’d want to be on this list, let me know and i’ll invite them.

at last. a gift. john coltrane playing my favorite things.

and one