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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Real or Blasphemy?

…no one in the New World whose one God is advertised as dead can believe in innumerable gods of another life. Those gods would have to be an anthropomorphic variety of his will. 
I am an insecure creative, which means to me that vulnerability is a necessary tool for good writing. My insecurity comes from abandonment, even as I lived among people who failed to see me. I am grateful though, because without my flaws and past feelings of powerlessness, I would not be able to self truth-tell, today. 

In the process of writing, doubt enters gladly in a questioning, re-questioning, digging, self-discovery garb, a literary flagellation of sorts. The good news is, it is our own insecurity that finally locates certainty, that marches in wielding the machete that quells doubt.

Insecurity also comes from believing deep inside that any artist can create anything. Back to doubt, this questioning and re-questioning, even though Spirit talks in many languages: poetry, prose, fiction, memoir, theater.

I'm interested in rules, and the possibilities hidden within the slips and slides of language, in spite of rules. I want to know the best writers and why, as well as the not so good writers and why.

Our poets and actors would have not only to describe possession, but to enact it, otherwise we would have not art but blasphemy, and blasphemy which has no fear is decoration.
One thing I continue to notice is that the language of African religions is still regarded as other, a kind of exotic rendering, African continental bits dusted on literature, worthy of clamor, but not penetration, value or esteem.

The most disturbing element is when intellectuals perpetuating this fraud are themselves African-American, Americans.

What does exotic mean, and should blasphemy enter the discussion?

Most black children from my day were raised with adages like, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, as in good God, or oh my Lord, and the quick phrased Jesus, if you pricked your finger or stumbled in the jump rope game. 

So now we are entering the “African” phase with our pathetic African carvings, poems and costumes, and our art objects are not sacred vessels placed on altars but goods placed on shelves for the tourist. The romantic darkness which they celebrate is thus another treachery, this time perpetuated by the intellectual.

Perhaps it’s different today. Perhaps sprinkling scripts and poems with catchy  Òṣun and Ẹlégbá phrases, for example, is 
Dancing for Òṣun
groovy because to the offending writer, Òṣun and Ẹlégbá are not quite holy. Maybe imitation holiness has inspired the rise in this kind of irreverence, excused and accepted because of a perceived ancestral privilege infused with schizophrenic-like voice-over schisms. What must writers do then, when the roots of inherited cultural languages are/were enemies? What of creative privilege as relates to sacrilege? What is the root cause, the intention behind a writer's appropriation, sprinkled with the verbose of overdosed cinnamon on French toast?

…for us Afro-Christians, the naming of [Ògún] estranged him. Ògún was an exotic for us, not a force. We could pretend to enter his power but he would never possess us, for our invocations were not prayer but devices. The actor’s approach could not be catatonic but rational; expository, not receptive. However, Ògún is not a contemplative, [He is] a vengeful force, a power to be purely obeyed. 
Cloth for Ògún (2009)
Cathleen Bailey, artist
Photo by Karen Gregory

Inspiration: What the Twilight Says, Derek Walcott

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Where Is The Urgency In This Abominable Now?

This post is about non-white Americans of African descent, and the police who terrorize them.

There are many examples of police misconduct with other Americans.

This post is about non-white Americans of African descent. That history. That urgent now.

America is at war with itself again, and no other nation will send troops to rescue nonwhite citizens of African descent from tyranny (absolute power, esp. when exercised unjustly or cruelly) perpetuated by local police forces and security guards.

Neither will foreign governments petition The United Nations demanding that the United States government discontinue this unfair and abominable behavior. Abominable meaning: unequivocally detestable; loathsome, as in the killing and crazed exploitation of power that is happening on any street, in any black community in America.

Community Oriented Policing
Writing this, I wondered about police departments and mission statements. What does policing rest upon?

In Pittsburgh, the Bureau of Police invites its citizens to attend The Pittsburgh Citizen’s Police Academy (CPA), a community oriented program that:

. . .brings the police and the community close together…[so that participants] experience…and are exposed to…the basics of criminal law, search and seizure, patrol tactics, firearms…the processing of a crime scene [and] how police canines are used….

It is entirely possible. Many people may not know how canines are used. 
Jordan Miles

Personal opinions are rampant on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and in comment sections at the ends of articles. One comment stands out because of the high incidence of its use, and that is, why are black people not up in arms about black-on-black crime? That question may seem relevant to some, or stupid to others. But it deserves discussion. In my opinion, the answer is the same reason white people are not up in arms about white-on-white crime. Edward Wyckof Williams writes that black-on-black crime is a "false media narrative," and that among other things, according to Department of Justice statistics, whites are "just as likely to be killed by other whites [and that] all races share similar ratios."

Further, not every community or group has experienced consistent (over time and centuries) murder. For example, the people who attend Pittsburgh's Citizen's Police Academy probably have never been chased by slobbering, snapping canines, or have their community invaded by police in riot gear, patrol tactics, neighbors unlawfully shot, maimed and killed, relentlessly.

What is American history as relates to non-white Americans of African descent? I looked for answers in governmental responses to mayhem in cases that most Americans might be familiar with. I wanted to know. Did our leaders exhibit negligence? mercy? reticence? integrity?

According to the Eisenhower Presidential Library, on September 2, 1955, The Chicago Defender forwarded a telegram to President Eisenhower stating in part:

A Chicago boy. Emmet Louis Till 14 was kidnapped and lynched in Mississippi this week, would you let us know if your office has plans to take any action with reference to this shocking act of lawlessness.

On September 29, 1955, W. Beverly Carter, publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote a letter to E. Frederick Morrow of the White House. Carter writes, Dear Fred:

…My concern is that from what I have been able to ascertain, not one denunciatory statement has been issued by anyone high in the Federal Government.…but it would be of untold political advantage, insofar as the Negro vote is concerned, if someone at the level of Mr. Brownell or Sherman Adams, or even the Vice President, made clear that the Federal Government looked with dismay on this incident. I need not point out to you that this has made us look like a veritable “jackass” in the eyes of the rest of the world, and we must use such public relations tools as are available to make sure that the pendulum of world opinion and of the opinion of many liberal and fair-thinking people in America does not swing back against the Federal Government in Washington because it remains silent on this score.…

President Eisenhower and E. Frederick Morrow

In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was known as “Bombingham.”

Center Street, located in the Smithfield neighborhood, was called “Dynamite Hill.” 

On Sunday, September 15, members of the Klu Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair, were killed.

According to the Kennedy Presidential Library, Reverend J. L. Ware of Trinity Baptist Church forwarded a telegram to President Kennedy, “God only knows what shameful holocaust may result,” if the President does not “act soon.”

President Kennedy expressed “deep outrage,” and later personally met with Dr. King and others, and on another occasion with Birmingham’s white leaders.

Fast forward 2014. The following is an excerpt from President Obama's statement concerning Michael Brown, Jr.:

I know the events of the past few days have prompted strong passions, but as details unfold, I urge everyone in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the country, to remember this young man through reflection and understanding. We should comfort each other and talk with one another in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds. Along with our prayers, that’s what Michael and his family, and our broader American community, deserve.

Vice President Biden, Dr. Gates, Officer Crowley, and President Obama

If I were granted an audience with President Obama, I would remind him of his swift response (the officer acted stupidly) and hands-on reconciliation moment with beer in the Rose Garden when his friend and Harvard professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, was arrested outside the home he lives in, owned by Harvard University. The Huffington Post reported: 
At the time of the incident, Gates had demanded an apology from [officer] Crowley and called him a "rogue policeman." After Obama's "acted stupidly" comment [in a press conference], Crowley said that, while he supported the president, Obama was "way off base wading into a local issue without knowing all the facts."
If granted an audience with the President, I would remind him of his passion and love for the murdered children of Sandy Hook and their families. At the Newtown prayer vigil, President Obama said:
. . .I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you're not alone in your grief; that our world too has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you, we've pulled our children tight. And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide; whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. Newtown — you are not alone.
Martin Luther King, in a speech addressing the debacle of Vietnam said:
[The Vietnamese people] question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence?
It is from this speech that President Obama quotes Dr. King who said, "We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now."

If I were given an audience with President Obama, I would say, prayer, yes, but reflection on what and understanding of who? Are we to muddle through current events like Dr. Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon credited with being the first to successfully separate conjoined twins at the head, who suggests an understanding of police because police have feelings too?

I would remind the President that our tomorrow is today, and I would ask, where is your fierce urgency in this abominable now?

Lastly, modern technology allows for a remarkable flooding of information and public listings of names and video of victims. The technology is an Ògún generated forging ahead energy demanding, through the hype of entertainment, that we must hold each murdered victim in the palms of our hands.

Other Sources

(This site includes profiles of the girls; e.g. Addie liked to play hopscotch, sing in the church choir, draw portraits, and …loved to pitch while playing ball, too. "I remember that underhand," said older sister Janie, now Janie Gaines.

(Includes information on J. Edgar Hoover’s involvement in blocking evidence.)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Grandassa Model - Thank You Elombe Brath, RIP

Recently my friend, Helen Phillips, posted an image to facebook. The image was of a New York street sign honoring The Young Lords. I was unaware of this part of our history and asked Helen to guest blog about the group and her memories of that time.


The Young Lords

On Saturday, July 26, 2014, a sign was added to the 111th Street and Lexington Avenue street sign proclaiming that corner Young Lords Way.


I was blessed to have witnessed history in the streets. The date was December 28, 1969. It was an exciting time. It was the ending of a decade that had seen much social and political change. James Brown was singing Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud. It was a time of Afro, dashiki, buba and lapa wearing brothers and sisters, and an era of cultural awareness developed because of the heightened struggle for civil rights.

The decade saw the fiasco in Vietnam, the formation of the Black Panther party, and our leaders becoming more vocal in their criticism of non-violent tactics to secure our fundamental rights as human beings used by Dr. King and others.

We saw and heard the oratory and ideas of Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammed, Stokley Carmicheal, H Rap Brown, Leroi Jones and The Last Poets. In the East River Houses or the Projects where I grew up, some of us were undergoing our own cultural/political evolution.

The East River Houses are situated between 102nd Street and 105th Street between the East River and First Avenue. I was 21 with a two year old daughter. My afrocentrism was growing. Ralph McBurney, on age with my older brother, was wearing African clothes, talking about the need for us to have our own religion and God, and us needing to protect ourselves from the man. He was a Yemonja priest who attended the Yoruba Temple on 116 Street. Everyone in the projects thought he was crazy, but by that time, I had Ìlèkè, was in an African dance group and dressed in African inspired clothing (thought I was a Grandassa model..thank you Elombe Brath, RIP, but that's a whole notha history).

1963 Grandassa Models:  Clara Lewis, Nomsa Brath,
Brenda Deaver  and Jean Egyptia Gumbs.

Three days after a snowy Christmas in 1969, the news hit that a church had been taken over by a group of militants. My Mom agreed to watch my daughter while several friends and I walked the ten blocks to the church. We stood outside in support of this group of Puerto Rican activists, known as the Young Lords, who were brazen enough to commandeer The First Spanish United Methodist Church located on 111th Street and Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, aka Spanish Harlem, aka El Barrio. During those days El Barrio was the area from 96th Street to 130th Street between the East River and 5th Avenue. Today, the area starts at 110th Street, rezoned due to gentrification.

The Young Lords

The Young Lords began as a group of Puerto Rican young men from Chicago, who over time re-formed into a political activism party. A branch of the Young Lords began in New York City under the leadership of Felipe Luciano, who was also one of the original Last Poets. They held that church for 11 days. During the takeover, free breakfast, clothing, liberation school, and day care center programs were formed.

On January 8, 1970 the police arrested 106 Young Lords and supporters. Even though the Lords were active in Chicago where the group originated, the church takeover was a defining moment for the group and catapulted the Young Lords into national attention. 

News Conference, January 1970

After the takeover, the Lords continued as community activists in Latino areas of New York as well as Chicago and the West Coast. The party disbanded in the 1970s. With the installation of the new street sign on 111th Street and Lexington Avenue, the Young Lords are ensured a spot in the history and hearts of the residents of Spanish Harlem and beyond.

I am grateful that I grew up on the streets of East Harlem. The experiences shaped me, and many others, into wise adults.


Helen Phillips was born and raised in New York and is now living in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. 

She attended Hospital for Special Surgery School of Practical Nursing, received an AS degree and RN diploma at Bronx Community College, a BS in nursing from Medgar Evers College of CUNY and in 1988 received an MS in nursing with a clinical specialty in midwifery from Columbia University.

She has worked as a Certified Nurse Midwife since 1988.
Follow Helen on Facebook

Elombe Brath

Grandassa models

Last Poets (patience, large gaps in recording)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

To Lift As We Climb

Economics is a relationship of value, worth and choices-
let’s do our best to choose the options that support
more of what we care about. . .
--LaKeisha Wolf
Executive Director, Ujamaa Collective


Poet, Claude McKay, defined Pittsburgh's Hill District as the "Crossroads of the World."

Originally owned by Pennsylvania founder, William Penn's grandson, The Hill District became an important stop on the Underground Railroad; is home to musicians, George Benson and Stanley Turrentine; writer August Wilson; entrepreneur, Gus Greenlee, who in answer to black ball players not being allowed to use Forbes Field dressing rooms, built Greenlee Field with 7,500 seats and outdoor lighting; The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most influential newspapers in the country at that time; photographer, Teeni Harris; and of course the clubs that included The Hurricane, The Loendi, The Aurora and the Crawford Grill.

Greenlee Field
Gus Greenlee

Initially a neighborhood of mixed cultures, The Hill eventually became known as an all black community. The Hill has experienced, and continues to endure, the insistence of change. Some of these changes are culture erasures, others like The Ujamaa Collective, are culture keepers, preserving The Hill District's distinct cultural disposition and ambiance.

The Pittsburgh Courier advertising a Ma Rainey Performance

The Collective began in 2008, when founding member, Celeta Hickman "put forth a call to action." Women responded and The Collective agreed on the mission to "create spaces, opportunities, networks, education and support for women of African descent to grow as entrepreneurs, artisans, and servant-leaders so that we may lift as we climb."

Ujamaa Collective Members

Projects include The Ujamaa Retail Boutique, Entrepreneurship Preparation Program (EPP), Open-Air Marketplace, Start-up Business Incubation, and Agricultural Initiatives.

I am drawn to the Collective because of their commitment to entrepreneurship, and most prominent in the Collective’s list of objectives is the understanding of self-worth, cultural authenticity and the endorsement of "economic development and entrepreneurial activity through cooperative means in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, thereby combating community deterioration."

Recently, I read an article about the writer, James Patterson, donating one million dollars of his money to independent book stores. Patterson says, "The government has stepped in to help banks, automobiles, anything where money is concerned, but nobody seems to care about books…"

Ujamaa Boutique

Patterson's personal endorsement of literature prompted me to think about what I could do. The Collective -- mothers, sisters, grannies, daughters, aunties, friends – are serious about and manifest through community commitments, the "lift as we climb" concept. What better match? Executive Director, LaKeisha Wolf, and I spoke about how my work might benefit the Collective, and we decided on a poetry reading with all proceeds of my books donated to The Collective.

I am excited about this venture, and hope you will join me and poets Bekezela Mguni and Joy Kmt for this night of poetry.

The Ujamaa Collective
1901 Centre Avenue, Suite 100
Pittsburgh, PA 15219


(412) 228-5160

Ujamaa Boutique Hours:
Monday-Friday from 10 am to 6 pm
Saturdays from 10 am to 4 pm

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When You Have Not Wailed Enough

When I was a little girl growing up in Pittsburgh, parades were huge. There were downtown and neighborhood parades. The usual suspects: 4th of July, Memorial Day, Community Day, Veterans Day, Christmas, St. Patrick's Day and yes, even Columbus Day. I do. I love a good parade.

One thing that always bothered me was the placing of African American drill teams and neighborhood bands at the end of the parade. We had to wait while the other bands marched and played to their versions of precision. Nice bands. Nice. Until finally our steppers and drill teams appeared. We always closed the parades because the parades slowed to its own being as the community paraded as well, from the sidelines. We hooped and hollered. We knew the steps and did the damn thing with them on either side of the street. It was grand partying, but at the end, for me, there was this annoying reference to being different, at the end, bringing up the rear. We were considered uncouth, ignorant, uninformed as to how to attend a parade, especially downtown among tall building, suits, money and law.

Lately, I am finding that I need more connections, and turned to New Orleans. In this video, notice the sideline becoming part of the parade. Notice sideline steppers. Notice young men, dressed as they dress, embracing the culture (and the culture embracing them) with instruments, knowledge, love, spectacle, passion and grace. Notice how marchers stop and start, as the feeling of the thing leads them. It reminds me of when my girls were cheerleaders for our neighborhood ball teams and at the beginning of the season, there was a parade through the neighborhood. Of course we knew the steps, and following the parade through the neighborhood became the ritual of the event.

Lorenzo Maurice Wise
(1994 - 2014)

Lately, I am finding that I need more connections and turned to New Orleans, because I don't think I shouted enough at the passing of my grandson, Lorenzo Maurice Wise (August 17, 1994 - May 25, 2014).

I don't think I wailed enough, moaned enough, jumped enough, screamed enough. Certainly, there are more tears. That empty feeling is becoming permanent. I have experienced death of loved ones before, so I know in time the empty permanence will become a badge of courage, you know, after this, I can do anything. But do you know that feeling, of not having shouted enough?

He was 19 years old. What, I thought, is the proper way to bury a child. He was groovy, sweet, kind and generous. One of his friends needed help purchasing college books, and turned to Renzo. A homeless lady attended the funeral. We didn't know her, obviously Renzo did. He ate breakfast up the street from me at Margie's. We always thought her food not very good, but we don't know what Margie was cooking for Renzo, probably something special because every woman who ever cooked for him was the best cook in the whole wide world.

I call his name each morning during prayers at the ancestor table, Lorenzo Maurice Wise, ibaye.

I punch the wall, shout his name LORENZO MAURICE WISE!

But. . .do you know that feeling of not having wailed, danced or shouted enough?

Here, again is New Orleans, and I thank the family and friends of Jaran Julio Green for allowing me to share the party. I give thanks to Julio's life and insert Renzo's name in the chant. This is what I needed. We call it homegoing, and how do you define celebration. We are not ignorant or uncouth, uninformed as to how to mourn. We are Africans. And this is the way of Africa. I call Renzo's name every morning. When I need to, I party with Julio, his family and friends. I have stopped asking why. It is true, there are mysteries.